Month: June 2016

  • Rebuttal to Jonathan Rauch's article in the Atlantic

    Another Jonathan to be heard from.  Chait rebuts Rauch.  Chait's article (reprinted below) is from New York Magazine.

    In other news, I just discovered that there's a "Visibility" menu that offers me the option to "stick this post to the front page."  Let's see if it works.

    June 22, 2016
    9:31 a.m.
    Why American Politics Really Went Insane
    By Jonathan Chait Follow @jonathanchait
    It’s plain to many people that American politics has gone badly off the rails if we have reached the point where a bigoted and hyperbolically unqualified reality-television star can win a major-party nomination. But what, exactly, has gone wrong? One answer is that the presidential system is inherently unstable, because it pits the legislature against the executive. During the 20th century, the system worked because the ideology of the two parties overlapped heavily, but polarization has turned the mechanism designed by the Founders into a doomsday machine. Another answer specifically blames the extremism of the Republican Party, which, by the nature of its uniquely extreme ideas about the role of government, is unable to share power in a rational way. (These explanations are not mutually exclusive, and I find each somewhat persuasive: The design of American government is vulnerable to collapse under the weight of a radical faction like the modern GOP.)

    Jonathan Rauch’s Atlantic cover story, headlined “How American Politics Went Insane,” offers up a third answer. Rather than the presidential system, or the Republicans, Rauch instead blames the demise of what he calls the “informal constitution.” American politics used to have practices like political machines, pork-barrel spending, powerful committees in Congress, and centralized fundraising, which drained the confrontation from the system and, even though it was ugly and sometimes corrupt, made things work. Reforming those practices has led to a more open form of politics that people hate, resulting in “reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics.” Rauch cites not only Trump but also the two major-party runners-up, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders, both of whom ran as purists in opposition to the corruption and inefficiency of normal politics.
    Rauch has some things right. Large numbers of Americans fail to understand the source of partisan conflict, find gridlock inexplicable, and retreat to a simplistic populism to make sense of the mess. But Rauch also fails to adequately or correctly explain the causes of political dysfunction. The trouble with his theory becomes clear if you run through his examples of government dysfunction. “House Republicans barely managed to elect a speaker last year,” and then hard-liners revolted against the Speaker’s budget deal; members of Congress are worried about “being the next Eric Cantor,” the House leader who lost his primary to an upstart tea-partier; it’s “hard to raise the debt limit or pass a budget”; the Senate has refused to consider any nominee at all for the Supreme Court vacancy; annual appropriations bills often fail to pass; the government has shut down, and Congress has threatened not to lift the debt ceiling; a grand bargain on the long-term deficit failed in 2011; plus, of course, Trump, whose nomination is the most important factual premise of Rauch’s essay.

    The links between these failures and the causes that Rauch identifies for them are tenuous at best. More pork-barrel spending would not mollify the angry activists who drove Congress to shut down the government and oppose various deals; Congress banished pork-barrel spending because it enraged the activists. Nor is it easy to see how giving committees more power, or reverting to older forms of fundraising, would tamp down the populist uprisings that have scared members of Congress away from deal-making. Grassroots demonstrators have effectively scared away members of Congress from compromises that were struck in the open, behind closed doors, in committees, between the leaders of Congress, or anywhere else.

    The link between the design failures of the presidential system itself and these failures is clear enough. The worse things go for the president, the better the chances for the opposition party to regain power. Cooperating would merely give the president bipartisan cover, making him more popular and benefiting his party as well. Republican leaders have openly acknowledged these incentives. In the Obama era, this has forced the Republican leadership to mount a scorched-earth opposition, demonizing the president as an alien socialist who threatens America’s way of life. That opposition has raged beyond their control, resulting in displays of anger like the shutdown, or birtherism, or the nomination of Trump that hamper rather than enable the party’s political interests. It is hard to see how Rauch’s list of small-bore process changes would have much impact one way or another on the basic incentive for the opposition to oppose.

    The more serious problem with Rauch’s argument is this: Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party. Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal deal-making, or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges. Rauch is right that Sanders has encouraged unrealistic ideas about a revolution that would make compromise unnecessary, but the signal fact is that Sanders lost. And Sanders’s notion of a purifying revolution, while thrilling to a handful of left-wing activists, has no influence over Democrats in Congress — arguably not even with Sanders himself, who votes more pragmatically than his stump rhetoric would indicate. The disconnect implies a fatal flaw in Rauch’s analysis. Since he identifies causes of illness that afflict both parties equally, while the symptoms have manifested in only one of them, what reason is there to trust his diagnosis?

    Indeed, the more closely we look at the composition of the two parties, the more obvious it is that only one of them truly exhibits the tendencies he describes. Over the last decade, writers like me, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, and Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein have written about the growing asymmetry between the two parties. The GOP, but not the Democratic Party, is fully identified with an ideological movement. The almost-all-white Republican Party is far more ethnically monolithic than the polyglot Democratic Party, and more ideologically monolithic, too — more than two-thirds of Republicans identify themselves as conservative, while fewer than half of Democrats call themselves “liberal.” (Self-identified moderates and conservatives comprise a majority of the party’s supporters, albeit a shrinking one.) Democratic voters rely on news sources that, whatever their unconscious bias, strive to follow principles of objectivity and nonpartisanship. Republican voters mostly trust Fox News and other party organs that merely amplify the party’s message.

    The political scientists Matt Grossmann and Dave Hopkins have found that Democrats tend to conceive of their policies in concrete terms, while Republicans present theirs in ideologically abstract terms. The pragmatic deal-making Rauch venerates is simply far more compatible with the style of the modern Democrats than the Republicans. (This is why the two-year period of Democratic control of Congress and the presidency from 2009 to 2010 produced several important reforms that brought together a diverse array of stakeholders, from business to labor, environmentalists and consumer advocates.)

    A series of polls have all found that Democratic-leaning voters want their leaders to compromise, while Republican-leaning voters do not. Many Democrats feel frustrated with the system, but they want to make it work. Republicans do not feel this way at all. Rauch believes that restoring the kludgy legislative structures of the postwar era would bring back the same results those systems produced. But the 20th-century party system worked because the parties of that era were qualitatively different. Rauch’s proposal is merely one more in the latest of a series of well-intentioned but doomed plans to bring back a world that can never be restored.

  • How American Politics Went Insane

    Go here:


    to read one of the best-written, most cogent, most inspiring articles I've ever read in a long time.

    No pun intended, but it will make you sick.  Read it anyway, if you dare.

  • Obama's June 14 speech

    I'm kind of cheap when it comes to paying for on-line readership, but who can afford to pay for very many of the newspapers and magazines one wants to look at on the web?  So anyway, the New Yorker magazine lets me see a few articles for free each month, and I was delighted to read John Cassidy's analysis of President Obama's remarks on Tuesday.  I'm reprinting it below, with huge apologies to The New Yorker for sharing its content with my readers.  First, a few of my thoughts.  Barbara and I were sitting at the dining room table, focused on other matters but listening to the President as sort of background noise.  I was afraid that Obama would be in for (unfair) criticism for what sounded like a self-congratulatory recitation of the fight against ISIS in view of the escalation of terrorizing events on U.S. soil.  But when Obama came to the rousing and angry finish, my ears perked up and then even more of me perked up.  I stood at attention in front of the TV and soaked it all in.  One final remark:  although he didn't mention specifically the internment camps for citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, I'm sure he was thinking especially of them when he got to the part about how we've historically mistreated some of our citizens.

    And now, here is Mr. Cassidy's report:

    This morning, I took a mental-health break from coverage of the attack that took place in Orlando over the weekend. But, at lunchtime, when I turned on NY1 to check the local news, there was President Obama, looking as ticked off and impassioned as we’ve ever seen him. Gone were the lofty detachment and professorial tone that sometimes characterize his oration. In their place were flashing eyes, hand gestures, and a tone that varied from urgency to anger. Speaking for about twenty-five minutes, Obama delivered a ringing defense of his approach to terrorism and a stinging denouncement of Donald Trump and all that he stands for.

    Whether Obama intended to deliver such a consequential address, I’m not entirely sure. At times, he appeared to be ad-libbing. But his remarks, which were delivered from a podium in the Treasury Department, where he had met with his national-security staff, turned into perhaps the most important address he has given this year. Indeed, historians may look back on it as one of the defining speeches of his Presidency.

    Obama didn’t utter Trump’s name. He didn’t need to. Instead, he began by saluting the Orlando victims and their families. He described the shooter, whom he also didn’t name, as “an angry, disturbed, unstable young man who became radicalized.” By their nature, lone-wolf attacks are hard to stop, Obama pointed out, and he praised the law-enforcement and intelligence efforts that go into preventing them. But, he added, “We are all sobered by the fact that, despite the extraordinary hard work, something like Orlando can occur.”

    At this stage, Obama was his usual self: calm and meticulous. Referring to some written notes, he delivered an update on the military campaign against isis (isil, in the President’s parlance), saying, “This continues to be a difficult fight, but we are making significant progress.” The group, he said, was “under more pressure than ever before,” and had lost more than a hundred and twenty of its military commanders and nearly half of the populated territory that it once held in Iraq. “And it will lose more,” he added.

    Turning to the home front, Obama issued another call for “common-sense” gun-control measures, which he rightly insisted were consistent with the Second Amendment. “We have to make it harder for people who want to kill Americans to get their hands on weapons of war that let them kill dozens of innocents,” he said. “People with possible ties to terrorism, who are not allowed on a plane, should not be allowed to buy a gun.” About now, the first glints of irritation, or anger, appeared in the President’s eyes. “Enough talking about being tough on terrorism,” he snapped. “Actually be tough on terrorism and stop making it as easy as possible for terrorists to buy assault weapons.”

    With that, Obama paused for a few seconds, as if gathering himself for what he was about to do. “And let me make a final point,” he said. “For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle in the fight against isil has been to criticize this Administration, and me, for not using the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ That’s the key, they tell us. We can’t beat isil unless we call them radical Islamists.”

    For a moment, Obama looked down. “What exactly would using this label accomplish?” he said, raising his eyes, looking around the room, and gesticulating with his left hand. “What exactly would it change? Would it make isil less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.”

    Obama’s tone had changed: it was harder and more than a little scornful. “Since before I was President, I’ve been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism,” he said. “There’s not been a moment in my seven and a half years as President when we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label ‘radical Islam.’ Not once has an adviser of mine said, ‘Man, if we really use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.’ Not once.”

    Trump, of course, is one of the Republicans who has castigated Obama for not using the term “radical Islam.” He did it as recently as Monday. Obama didn’t overtly link his riposte to Trump, but it was clear where he was heading. He said that U.S. Special Forces fighting on the ground in Iraq and Syria know full well who the enemy is, as do the intelligence and law-enforcement officials who spend “countless hours disrupting plots and protecting all Americans, including politicians who tweet”—here, he paused for effect—“and appear on cable-news shows.” There was, he added, “no magic to the phrase ‘radical Islam.’ It’s a political talking point; it’s not a strategy.”

    To be sure, it isn’t just Trump and other Republicans who use the term “radical Islam” and its variants. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has criticized “Islamist extremism.” The French President, François Hollande, has used the phrase “Islamist terrorism.” (Hillary Clinton also said, on Monday, that she was willing to use the term “radical Islamism.”*) Obama insisted that for him to resort to this sort of language would validate claims by groups like isis and Al Qaeda that America is at war with Islam. “That’s their propaganda; that’s how they recruit,” he said. “And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.”

    By this point, Obama was gesticulating emphatically with his hands, first one and then the other, for emphasis. “We’re starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we’re fighting, where this can lead us,” he said. Then he alluded directly to Trump: “We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America. We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop?”

    The shooters in the attacks in Orlando and Fort Hood, and one of the killers in San Bernardino, were all U.S. citizens, Obama noted. “Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith? We’ve heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign. Do Republican officials actually agree with this?”

    “That’s not the America we want,” he went on. “It doesn’t reflect our democratic ideals. It won’t make us more safe; it will make us less safe, fuelling isil’s notion that the West hates Muslims, making young Muslims in this country and around the world feel like, no matter what they do, they’re going to be under suspicion and under attack. It makes Muslim Americans feel like their government is betraying them. It betrays the very values America stands for.” Again, Obama paused. “We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear, and we came to regret it. We’ve seen our government mistreat our fellow-citizens, and it is has been a shameful part of our history.”

    In the wake of the Orlando massacre, the White House, out of respect for the victims and their families, had cancelled an appearance that the President was scheduled to make with Hillary Clinton on Wednesday. But this was a much more consequential political intervention than a campaign speech. It was a Commander-in-Chief—flanked by a four-star general, Joseph Dunford, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and by James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence—making the case that Trump, and Trump’s approach to fighting terrorism, represent every bit as big a threat to the United States as the terrorists themselves do.

    “This is a country founded on basic freedoms, including freedom of religion,” Obama continued. “We don’t have religious tests here. Our founders, our Constitution, our Bill of Rights are clear about that. And, if we ever abandon those values, we would not only make it a lot easier to radicalize people here and around the world but we would have betrayed the very things we were trying to protect: the pluralism and the openness, our rule of law, our civil liberties. The very things that make this country great. The very things that make us exceptional. And then the terrorists would have won. And we cannot let that happen. I will not let that happen.”

    He could have ended there. Instead, he recounted a recent appearance at the Air Force Academy’s commencement ceremony, where he was struck by “the incredible diversity of these cadets.” Some cadets were American-born, and some were immigrants. Some were gay, some were female, some were “proud, patriotic Muslim Americans, serving their country in uniform, ready to lay their lives on the line to protect you and to protect me,” he said. “That’s the American military. That’s America. One team. One nation.”

    “Those are the values that isil is trying to destroy,” he continued. “We shouldn’t help them do it.”

    By this stage, Obama was perhaps belaboring the point. But he was clearly intent on insuring that these values weren’t forgotten amid the political back-and-forth—and indeed that they helped to define the coming Presidential campaign. He again cited the country’s diversity, its ability to draw on the talents of all of its citizens, and its principle of not judging people on the basis of faith, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. “That’s what makes this country great,” he said. “That’s the spirit we see in Orlando. That’s the unity and resolve that will allow us to defeat isil. That’s what will preserve our values and our ideals that define us as Americans.” At this, the President was almost done. “That’s how we are going to defend this nation, and that’s how we’re going to defend our way of life,” he concluded. “Thank you very much.”

  • Orlando

    Hate is self-poisoning.  If you find yourself in a hateful mood, it's more than likely that you need help.  Because you're poisoning yourself.

    The last thing a person needs, if he's feeling hate, is a gun.  The last thing the world needs, is for that person to have his hands on a gun.  The world needs for that person to get help.

    De-stigmatize mental illness.  We all need help, on occasion.  How do we will ourselves to get the help we need if it feels disgraceful to be mentally ill?

    There are so many useful and easy things to do here.

    1.  If a politician is endorsed by the National Rifle Association(NRA), then vote against that person.  That's useful and easy to do.

    2.  Ban assault rifles.  What good are they?  That's useful and easy to do, if you're a congressman who's not bought and paid for by the NRA.  Do your job, congressman.

    3.  Put away the hate.  Do you really think you feel better when you're busy hating?  Read the story of the two wolves.  Then put away the hate.  I promise you'll feel better.

    4.  Read Edwin Markham's poem, "Outwitted."  You think that's hard to do?  It's easy to do.  And useful.  Here, I'll make it even easier for you to find it.  Here it is:

    "He drew a circle to shut me out, 
    heretic rebel, a thing to flout. 
    But love and I had the wit to win, 
    we drew a circle that took him in."

    5.  Pay attention to what the churchgoers in Charleston did, after Dylan Roof did his nastiness.  That's easy to do.  And useful.

  • Oops!

    In a comment that I posted just yesterday (on the "Roots" post) I wrote this: 

    I want to post a poem by William Ellery Channing called "I Call That Mind Free." If you wanna read something great, feel free to look it up, because I don't see any free time coming up for me in the foreseeable future!

    Well, I just tried to look it up, and every version I saw was:

    A.  Different.
    B.  In awkward, stilted, 19th-century prose
    C.  Not only was each rendering different from each other, but none matched what we read in church Sunday.

    What we read in church was understandable, moving, inspiring, and reminded me so much of Muhammed Ali's significance that I wanted to post the poem as an "In Memoriam" sort of offering.

    Oh well.  I tried.  I'm still trying.

  • The 2016 "Roots"

    I well remember the "Roots" miniseries of four decades ago.  It was an unsettling, but entertaining, cultural event that told the story of slavery through the eyes of Alex Haley, and I found the time to record and watch the 2016 remake.

    It was painful, but rewarding in the last 40 minutes of the 8-hour remake, to bear witness to what happened to Africans as a result of being transported to America into lives of slavery.

    I said to Barbara just today, "I neither encourage you to or discourage you from watching the four episodes."  I don't know if she'll have the patience to endure the many hours of depiction of the horrors that African-Americans endured as slaves.  The catharsis that I experienced during the satisfying final 40 minutes were just barely worth the torture of watching unremitting cruelty.

    I've just read about what the critics think, and predictably, the reactions correspond to the political leanings of the reviewers.  My take, and I'm trying not to be influenced by my biases, is that the remake is more realistic, which is why it was so painful for me to watch.

    We're still in terrible shape in this country.  But progress is being made.

    Barack Obama is the president.

    Donald Trump is about to become the Republican nominee for president.

    Hmm.  Progress will still be the defining noun, as long as the voters reject Trump in November.