IF ONLY IT WERE THAT SIMPLE, (PART II)

After finishing this thought, it’s on to something other than politics, I swear…

The upshot of the circumstances mentioned in the last post (a disincentive to discuss policy in campaigns, a lack of serious planning on the part of candidates and their campaigns, etc.) is rather simple, and one that will surprise no one who has observed a national campaign.  Campaigning politicians exaggerate, twist the words and positions of their rivals, and most of all, advance specious “solutions” to what their audiences may see as problems.  Such problems may seem blown far out of proportion or even nonexistent to the portion of the electorate not committed to  a particular candidate, but that really doesn’t matter: the speechifying candidate has no real intention of carrying out most of the things he/she advocates, anyway, and perversely enough, his/her followers are fully aware of that fact, but often appear to be swayed by the idea of someone’s putting it into words.

I’ll just take a couple of examples to illustrate this paradox.  Once again, Donald Trump serves as the prime example, if only because of the sizeable outrageousness of a couple of his pronouncements, for example, his recent statements on illegal immigration.  On different occasions, he stated that the “…Mexican government sends…” these people to the United States, as if some official in Mexico toured that country to draft people to decamp for the United States.  (And never mind, by the way, that many are not Mexicans anyway.) This is so absurd as to need no rebuttal, but then he expanded on the proposition, stating that the number of such persons present in the US without benefit of legal immigration status was probably more like 30,000,000 than the commonly estimated 11,000,000.  Where did that number come from?  Never mind, it’s just to make a point that he could simultaneously get rid of all these people and stop more from coming by…wait for it…building a wall all along our southern border with a “wide doorway” to welcome in those we wish to welcome.

Huh?

A wall more than 2,000 miles long?  How high?  Built of what?  By whom? At what cost?  In what time period?  Don’t worry, there will be a detailed plan later.  Right after we announce how we will push out 30,000,000 people against their will.  (And, in the case of a good number, against the will of US employers, as well.)  You see?  It’s really simple.  Our leaders are just stupid.  And many “man in the street” interviews featured people who lauded Trump for his “plain speaking” or “saying what is on his mind.”  Non-serious talk is met by non-critical acceptance, because those who cheer Trump on know full well he is not serious…but are sure he’ll do something.

Let’s look at another campaign theme.  Climate change is an issue this time around; in brief, the specifics are hard to nail down.  Burning fossil fuels causes a concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that increased carbon dioxide absorbs more heat than said atmosphere used to; ergo, the earth is gradually heating up, but climate science is complex, and the numerous variables present in a layer of air large enough to cover the entire earth mean that atmosphere may react in quirky ways at times.  Though the general trend is toward a warmer and warmer climate, it is not possible to quantify it in neat tables leading toward a date specific when, for example, polar bears will definitely be extinct.

Rather than accept the scientific consensus, though, the fossil fuel industries point to that impossibility to interpret the whole issue as indicating that climate change is “not settled science.”  Dollars continue to flow into Exxon-Mobil, Shell, and Consolidate Coal’s coffers (among many others) while the issue is “debated.”  This is not politics, in reality.  It may eventually be survival, but deep-pocketed industries are endangered by any effort to curtail current practices, and those industries will want to stall, at least until they can find somewhere else to make more millions.  So campaign contributions flow to oil state senators like James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) who uses a snowball made in Washington, DC, on a winter day to “prove” climate change is not real.  Does this show up in the current campaign?

Texas Republican Senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz has been quoted to the effect that there has been no significant evidence of a global warming trend for the last 17 years.  Former Pennsylvania (coal state) Republican Senator Rick Santorum also has spoken disparagingly of scientific studies that came down on the side of massive climate change, declaring that various predictions have not come true.  Others find different ways of putting off any genuine action.  While this topic is not exactly parallel to Trump’s outlandish posturing about immigration, he again takes any unknown quantity to the extreme, claiming climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by people who want to intrude into, and regulate to a greater degree, the lives of the American public.  Many voters, fearful for their livelihoods if any change in energy generation and use is in the cards, react in the usual way.  If our candidate says it, it must be true.  Sort of.  Well, at least he won’t let “them” intrude and regulate any more than they already do…right?

IF ONLY IT WERE THAT SIMPLE (PART I)

One of these days, I’m going to write about something other than the contemporary political scene.  Honest.  But there is so much more to say…

It is hardly necessary to point out that the general public has neither the time nor the inclination to analyze in depth the political speech and assorted spectacle, posturing, and outright misrepresentation that the political class orchestrates each campaign.  The higher the stakes, the less the claims and promises made in the campaign resemble what happens on planet earth.  And when the dust clears after each election, there is rarely if ever any penalty paid by any candidate; an atmosphere of “winning is the only important thing” pervades the scene.

What often results is a sad breakdown of one of the foundations of democracy: an informed electorate.  It can be argued that it is the job of a political candidate to inform the electorate, and equally, the job of the electorate to take full advantage of competing claims offered to educate itself on the issues of the day, and then make a truly informed choice.  This is not what is happening; while one can make a case that the informed electorate has always been more of an ideal than reality, the trend is toward less honest debate and fewer informed voters.

The tendency to treat political campaigns less as a clash of ideas and philosophies and more as just another game becomes more evident with each passing cycle; whole presidential elections come and go featuring claims that Candidate X is a “proven winner” or the “most electable” without any reference at all to any ideas, policies, or accomplishments attributable to that candidate (not to mention whether those ideas or policies might be beneficial to the republic or any section thereof).  Primary campaigns are, if anything, worse, since it seems to be assumed that all candidates are playing to some “base” or other, and that, in the end, the survivor will “tack to the center'” or move to expand his/her base of support–i.e., become more inclusive.

So there are really two campaigns in presidential cycles: first, a candidate must excite a narrow base in an intraparty series of primaries and hang on while the press of finance and fickle voter bases and donors winnow lesser-known and/or less well-financed candidates from the field.  If Candidate X survives this gauntlet, donors and endorsers typically fall in line behind him/her and a much more brutal one-on-one slugfest ensues, party machine vs. party machine in a winner-take-all general election.

So the world’s best-known democracy undertakes the election of its next leader, usually without any in-depth discussion or serious debate until both major parties have chosen standard bearers.  Both have, at this point, usually made outlandish claims that they will do wonderful things, that anyone who opposes these plans does so out of some nefarious plan, and that a glorious new era is just around the corner after the election if only voters are enlightened enough to choose correctly.

In this tedious (and I apologize for that) summary, there is no mention of detailed plans or of serious studies designed to gauge the possibility that this plan or that course of action will lead to a particular positive result (e.g., a reduction in American military commitments overseas, a long-term economic upturn for the populace at large, etc.)  Why is this?  Because to offer specifics in detail invites scrutiny by opposing campaigns or by front groups for those campaigns.  On the face of things, there is nothing wrong with that, and it should not, in theory, discourage a serious candidate from offering such detail.  However, the operant theory is that an opposition candidate or his campaign will offer only sneering rebuttals in an attempt to reduce the public stature of the candidate who rolls out ideas, so why bother?

So how does a candidate differentiate himself from other seekers of the same office?  By smearing the character, morals or associates of  any opponent, by attempting to make his audience see themselves in his self-descriptions, and most importantly, by insisting that nothing is really complex about governing; all that’s necessary is a little “common sense” (or business sense, or old-fashioned American something or other.) This is and always has been of dubious veracity, and at times, dangerously naïve.  But it has worked before, and probably will again.  In Part II, a few pertinent examples will help illuminate why and how.   

In 2015, do you know any conservatives? I mean, with principles…

Is a conservative just a liberal who’s been mugged?

Did I get your attention?  Get you on your guard?  The boldface sentence above is one that has been quoted for years as a flippant way of “explaining” how one group becomes converts to the other.  Young, carefree people, with their implicit disregard for their own mortality, are liberals.  They believe that people are usually good at heart, and that most want to share in the bounty of the world with those less fortunate.  A mugging (or some equally unpleasant intrusion by “reality”) snaps them out of it.  They henceforth recognize that they are in a dangerous, unequal, Darwinian world, and that no paradise of equality and brotherhood is imminent.  They therefore come to their senses and become conservatives, the better to preserve their wealth and their place in society.  so, it becomes a natural thing for people to become more conservative as they age or become more prosperous.

Alternatively, as many of us were taught in school during the 1950’s and 60’s, the difference between the two groups was one of interpretation.  Faced with the task of maintaining government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” and following the Constitution, in every decision, every dilemma, and every draft of every new law or government program, each group, followed a sort of paradigm.  In each case the individual asked him/herself one of two questions.

1.  Does the Constitution say I can do this?

Or, alternatively…

2.  Does the Constitution prohibit my doing this?

Those who preferred to govern by question 1 were conservatives.  Those who governed by question 2 were liberals.  Isn’t that simple?  Well…actually, no, it was never quite that simple, but it served to delineate Franklin Roosevelt as a liberal, vowing to use every power explicit or implicit in his oath and description of office to confront the horrors of the Depression and World War II, while Herbert Hoover and his unshakeable belief in the invisible hand of the free market and a cautious hand on the tiller, as a conservative.

Fast forward a few decades, to the era of Richard Nixon (whose influence seems destined to outlast not only him but everyone who was alive when he flourished), who saw an opportunity for branding, even before that term was widely used.  His domestic opponents, the primarily anti-war crowd but also others who came down on the wrong (from his viewpoint) side of just about any issue were liberals, people who upset the equilibrium of large segments of American society by forcing racial integration onto the society at large, or questioning the morality, or indeed, the utility of the Vietnam War.  (Don’t raise your hand, I know the original escalation of US involvement in Vietnam came under Democratic administrations.  Nixon’s painted opposition to it as disreputable at best…thus fudging loyalty to the President with loyalty to the country, and protest with something nearly treasonous.)  So, when the President called you a liberal, you were demeaned.

So, by extension and repetition in the intervening decades, “liberal” became nearly a curse word, and by contrast, those who thought of themselves as “conservatives” were the self-appointed guardians of the American way.  Modern political campaigns are based largely on the theme of not letting anyone else define your candidate; the conservatives did a much better job of seeing the advantage in self-definition.  You almost never hear one candidate sneeringly defining his opponent as a conservative, while calling an opponent a liberal is meant to get the villagers and their pitchforks marching.

In 2015, “conservatives” largely are people who deny science to claim climate change is an elaborate hoax; clamor for more domestic surveillance in the name of national security; endlessly predict the imminent end of Social Security; claim that “free trade” will cure all that ails the economy; and damn any effort to raise the minimum wage because it will “kill jobs.”  There are many more examples.  So, liberals, with the exception of Bernie Sanders, cringe for fear of being labeled, the more progressive of the two major parties seems bent on nominating for president a centrist with way too many Wall Street ties, and “conservatives” work tirelessly for the goals of people like Grover Norquist (taxophobia); the Koch brothers (drill, baby, drill); unhinged, harsh evangelicals like Mike Huckabee (who proudly supported that poor stage prop of a county clerk in Kentucky to insinuate he would stop America’s slide into depravity);  the “fortress America” crowd who think we can kill for peace; and others.  Herbert Hoover, I think, would be embarrassed.  Though he died unrepentant about the Great Depression, since in his mind, the Constitution left him powerless to do much about it, and he did not cause it directly, he believed strongly that it would end without government intervention.  Being unrealistic is not a sin, and advising people that they are always in danger from a political party is not a very honorable tactic.  These are not virtues, either.

 

What a waste?

Gubment (sic) is not the solution.  Gubment (sic) is the problem–Ronald Reagan.

There are no quotes around that statement only because I can not be 100% sure that’s exactly what the Gipper said at any one time, though he certainly said those words or some variation on that theme on multiple occasions.

Ah, the 80’s.  You know, Morning in America, when we celebrated the return to the primacy in the world of the United States of America, and when soundbites ruled public discourse in something resembling the degree they still do–but it was all novel at the time.  Reagan’s famous disdain for government and his near-worship of “the market” still echo in campaigns and political discussions today.

That was and is the macro end of things, but the phenomenon would not have a macro aspect had Reagan and his party not succeeded in getting large numbers of people with no obvious large stake in either government or business to buy into their thinking–or at least their representation of their thinking.

In Orwell’s classic novel 1984, a good deal of exposition went to describing how that fictional dystopia had come about.  Periodic social upheaval involved the upper (economic) classes attempting to retain their position in the socio-economic strata of society.  The middle class aspired to upset the established order and replace the current upper class.  Lower classes wanted a sort of commonwealth which would improve their lot in life, a fact that the middle class used to enlist the energy and sympathy of the downtrodden, at least until the social “flip” was accomplished.  The lower classes always settled to the bottom.

The 80’s can be seen as the Reaganauts convincing large numbers of blue-collar people that the Reagan revolution represented putting things back in their natural order: that Reagan and his followers would right the ship of state and allow these blue-collar Americans to succeed  by first acquiescing in large-scale revisions of the economy (and the government’s involvement in it) so that some day, the blue-collars would enjoy enviable lives.  Of course, for that to happen, taxes had to be cut on the “job creating” (read: wealthy)  crowd, so that, later, the increased wealth could “trickle down” to the masses.  Any dollars that flowed into Federal coffers were tainted, as the thinking went, because the Federal government was bloated and wasteful in all its works, and those who worked in that government were little better than parasites on the noble public.

Recently, as I accompanied my wife through a transportation hub (let’s not be more specific), we were treated to a lecture by an employee of a transportation company.  When this pundit heard the destination (Denver), he immediately lauded the recent legalization of marijuana in Colorado, saying that the tax revenues from that legalization would abet and replace other sources.  Of course, he added, “they” (government, no doubt) will waste that revenue. Things went along in this vein for a few more minutes until he felt the need to give a local example to prove his point.  The city and county governments were asking in a ballot initiative for a sales tax increase of one-half percent in order to raise funds for needed repairs to road and bridge infrastructure following a very rainy season that caused severe flooding and attendant damage to that infrastructure.  Current funding levels did not permit these repairs.  Our interpreter of the local political scene opined that money for such projects had been wasted in the past, and he was not inclined to support more tax money, despite the need, since it would just be wasted, too.

By “wasted” I can only assume he meant “spent.”  Of course, money spent by government on roads goes largely to contractors, suppliers, and workers, all of whom in turn spend that money on “wasteful” things like, oh, food, clothes, etc.  While it’s not possible to assert (with a straight face) that there is no waste in government spending, neither is it logically defensible to dismiss it all as waste.  The Tennessee Valley Authority, the Interstate Highway System, and dozens of other projects were the results of government spending that has paid for itself over and over.  Our loquacious expert who sees waste everywhere may someday not be able to get from point A to point B because the accursed government had no money to waste on road and bridge repairs.  But he will rejoice that he didn’t have to pay an extra half percent on his purchases, at least until the enterprises that  he patronizes move to another locale which had the foresight to commit common funds to the common good.

Government is not an independent, malevolent entity.  It is the representation of  the citizenry.  In the end, people really do get the government they deserve.

To Hilary Clinton, thanks for the memories, and are there any more?

0a50c6a10d09a4b7f2990bde9c3bf9b2 In this season of political madness and one-upmanship on the part of the fringe of the Republican Part that has lately become its core, it is sadly proper to observe that not all of the distracting noise comes from that side of the aisle.  Democrats, too, have a problem.  Hilary Clinton is not necessarily crumbling before our eyes as a potential president, but she may be slowly dissolving with the steady drip of revelations concerning her private server for e-mail communication while she served as Secretary of State.

Disclaimer: I was an employee of the Department during Secretary Clinton’s entire tenure at State.  Certain things about State I know firsthand, others at some remove, and still others only from the old “heard from a friend who heard from a friend” channel.  I do not know the former Secretary personally.  Everything I knew about her from the other two channels, though, suggests that she was a solid Cabinet member, involved and knowledgeable, concerned with those who reported to her as well as those to whom she reported.  I liked her direct style, for instance, under hectoring in a Congressional hearing on Benghazi, when she simply said she was ultimately “responsible.” Like a military commanding officer, she recognized that she ultimately would always carry this: the acts of political theater repeatedly orchestrated today add nothing to that burden.

It is utterly a mystery to me, then, why the “government e-mail on a private server” matter was ever permitted to take root, grow, and flourish to the point where, just today, after we heard that Secretary Clinton stated for the consumption of all that she had started the use of that infamous private server in March, 2009, but later today, accounts surfaced to the effect that there is an e-mail from that account to General David Petraeus dated in January of that year.  Her poll numbers in categories in such qualities as “trustworthy” continue to drop.

I am not going to say that the matter can now be effectively explained away or otherwise made a non-factor.  In fact, it seems the media will continue to offer up nuggets on this same theme until Election Day, 2016, and gleeful Republicans will continue to tut-tut and speculate at nefarious reasons for the existence and use of the server.  Neither am I going to offer a spirited defense for, or even an attempt to account for, its use over a four-year tenure.

In January, 2009, when HRC took over at State, the scene when Secretary Colin Powell took over and was aghast at the lack of a computer in his office at State was a matter of legend, having taken place eight years before.  Secretary Powell also went to great pains to ensure that State employees, both domestically and posted abroad, had access to both internal State communications (intranet) and the common variety (internet) that high school students all over the country had.  E-mail through both the classified and unclassified systems was a well-established fact of life.  There had to be a concrete decision on the part of the Secretary herself that she would use an alternative system; whether that was instead of, or in addition to the official channel, I just don’t know.

The new Secretary was no novice in the ways of Washington.  As First Lady from 1993 to 2001 and a U. S. Senator from New York after that, she had been a lightning rod for every criticism, every niggling negative comment, every sling, every arrow and broadside that every Republican operative and every media personality of the right-wing echo chamber could fire in her direction.  One would suppose that she would have been reflexively so careful to walk the straight and narrow so as not to give these sources anything to complain about.  Obviously, this is not what came to pass.

I don’t know why this all happened.  Indeed, it may be nothing but an administrative misstep, the kind that gets government employees mild rebukes from time to time, and comes off more careless than evil, but I wish Secretary Clinton would come out and say two things.  WHY would you do this (an “It was allowed, ” is beyond weak), and WHY, once it was plainly not going to be dismissed by the general public (that is, voters, rather than haters or apologists) did you not realize that the longer it took to have a “tell-all” with Anderson Cooper or just about any prominent media figure, the more it would look as if there was something hidden?  Harry Truman once spoke of heat and getting out of the kitchen if you couldn’t take that heat.  Madame Secretary, don’t try to wait for the heat to go down.  We can’t afford an overdone presidential candidate.

“Errors of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” –Thomas Jefferson

US political campaigns in general, and more specifically, US presidential campaigns, are now nearly a permanent, rolling feature of public life.  They may begin for potential candidates soon after the inauguration of the current incumbent in a given term, with the dream of what can be in four short years.  For the newly-installed incumbent at the beginning of his (or her) term in office, political advisers will advise him/her of the potential political consequences of every public utterance, every gesture, and every public appearance–and the most prominent of such consequences is election to a second term.  Potential candidates of the “out” party will scream with manufactured outrage at every supposed slight, question the integrity or intelligence (or both) of the incumbent while subtly insinuating that the screamer/questioner would never do such a thing, even in a case where the screamer/questioner is fully aware that the incumbent either acted in good faith or had little alternative.

In general, where even a casual observer would brand such behavior as indicative of a deep cynicism, in political life, it has come to be known as “positioning,” or “drawing a distinction.”  Compare this to advertising, where a contracted firm may put together a protracted campaign to convince consumers that Brand X detergent is the best ever, gets out stains better than any other detergent in history, and offers the best value for the consumer’s hard-earned cash, then contracts to convince the public of the same virtues for Brand Y.  Every member of the public audience is aware that these competing claims can not all be true; at the same time, every member of that same public takes in all these claims without counting any of them as false–an exception is carved out in the public mind with the rubric that “it’s just advertising.”

For decades, the differences between advertising and political campaigns have been narrowing.  Indeed, strategists now hire many of the same people or firms to bring a candidate’s image to the people as corporations hire to sell detergent.  There is simply too much money in politics today for it not to fall into the hands of sales experts, and a candidate’s messaging comes more and more to resemble what is said in favor of Brand X than anything like concrete policy nuance or outright difference of opinion.

For objectivity’s sake, we can quote two rather old examples, one from each party.  On the Republican side, there was the Nixon campaign of 1968 which featured numerous ads insinuating or saying outright that a vote for the Democrat (Hubert Humphrey) was a vote for coddling criminals, with carefully cherry-picked cases cited to reinforce the idea that generally, a Democratic administration would enforce laws less vigorously than would Nixon.  Democrat Lyndon Johnson, in 1964, running against the hawkish Barry Goldwater, ran ads that showed a little girl picking daisies for a few seconds, then a superimposed mushroom cloud over the first image.  Subtle? Hardly.  It was meant to paint Goldwater as a reckless hawk who might well plunge us into all-out war.  Increasingly, the parties came to see these simple strikes as effective–there was no large outpouring of revulsion, and in each of the two cases mentioned, the campaign which used the tactic mentioned won at the polls. Campaigning or advertising?

50-odd years later, we appear to have reached an “only in the movies” moment with the Donald Trump phenomenon.  Trump is a real estate mogul from the New York market turned TV personality, known to millions for telling people they’re fired.  He has no experience in governance at any level unless we count trying to  influence public officials in favor of one or another of his land/building deals.  He now leads the Republican field of declared candidates for the presidency for the 2016 cycle on the strength of nothing but branding.  His credibility, to many, is bolstered by his money.  The public reasons that he must be smarter and better than everyone else in the field; after all, he says he is a billionaire, and everyone knows you have to be really smart and skilled to make that kind of money.

Trump also has given almost no details of any policies he would back, preferring to call anyone now serving in government “stupid.”  In the fact-free zone of modern campaigns, this in fact only enhances his appeal to a substantial part of his party’s electorate, wo believe his bullying language and superficial grasp of political, military and sociological realities only give credence to the claim he is “plain-spoken.”  He is going to make the country great again, this line of reasoning goes, because he will “stand up to” the likes of Putin or others.

Much has been said and written about the impossibility of Trump’s quest for his party’s nomination.  Even if he gets that, the reasoning goes, there is always the general election, where he is sure to fail.  I am not so confident.  I remember 1980, when a “B” movie star who had spent WWII in Burbank making propaganda films and seemed hopelessly out of his depth on the national stage, went after an incumbent Democrat, no less.  The actor had been governor of California, but still.  There was no chance.  Dismiss this candidate of big talk and no substance at your peril.  All kinds of people are registered to vote, and many of them are angry at what they see as unnecessary changes in the country.  Trump promises to “make America great again” and it must be genuine.  After all, he’s a billionaire.