Forces of Chaos and Anarchy

We Should Have Seen it Coming: From Reagan to Trump–A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution
Gerald Seib

I have gone missing but I have not stopped reading.

That, I suppose, is a statement always at risk of being true. If so, then it’s more true than ever lately as I find my free time diminished and my workday lengthened by an untimely staff death. Once again, the universe has unveiled a nasty streak of larceny aimed at my time.

That theft has not yet driven me to oxymoronic forms (i.e., audiobooks) but it has driven me to more than one “book” stored on my phone. As my dear departed colleague, herself an avid reader, liked to say,  “You spend so much time waiting you ought to at least have a book with you.” That notion, and a bargain-basement price, explain the present volume.

More than once I’ve referenced the role The Wall Street Journal played in my development as a young professional. Gerald Seib, the author of this book, is presently the Executive Washington Editor for the paper and for a long time penned a weekly column on doings in the capital city. He’s precisely the sort of person you meet riding the Acela corridor, where I literally once bumped into him.

Gerald Seib in the iconic WSJ dot illustration style.

Here Seib provides his version of our recent politics. Political journalists are always tossing off lengthier versions of the first draft of history and the longer form doesn’t necessarily improve things. How can I say this kindly? Journalists are concerned with a coherent storyline. The tale’s the thing. They often ask important questions. But the analysis is typically less satisfying than I like.

You could rightfully argue that they’re doing their job and if they find an expert willing to lend their interpretation then there’s no issue. I’m willing to accept that. It just strikes me as thin gruel. Maybe it’s why newspapers seem less vital to me now.

In any case, Seib essentially uses his own career as a frame for the transformation of Republican politics over the last 4 decades. That’s basically from the “Reagan revolution” to the age of “Make America Great Again.” I don’t want to pick fights, but anyone who sees these poles as two sides of the same coin, or as a story of mutation-free evolution, isn’t thinking clearly. They do, though, begin with a common impulse: throw the rascals out.

You could start a discussion of opposition and rage at the Contract With America.

The story Seib tells is, by now,  familiar. Mid-century Eisenhower/Country Club Republicans find themselves suddenly eclipsed by a group that so spectacularly lost the 1964 Presidential election that any sort of resurrection seemed beyond fanciful.  If you’d told anyone in 1964 that Republicans would be in control in less than 20 years you’d have been thought bonkers. Yet you might question that achievement when you consider what came next.

First, there was the rise of Newt Gingrich.  A would-be professor turned politician representing suburban Atlanta, Gingrich engineered a stunning Republican takeover of the House. That was just a prelude to turning himself into a legislative Icarus. But before immolating his political career Gingrich spurred real changes in legislation and in how the House operated.

Adding fuel to the fire. Homes lost. Dreams shattered. And bailouts for Wall Street.

Absent charismatic leadership those changes didn’t really stick in any meaningful way. One thing that fascinates me is cultural persistence. I’ve worked in at least two organizations that, in the name of self-preservation, decreed wholesale revolutions and overturned the majority of the staff. And yet years later self-defeating behaviors and policies remained in place. Why should the United States Congress be any different?

Yet the underlying anger kept simmering and exploded again in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis. There are many ways to understand that mess. I’m particularly fond of David Harvey‘s Marxist interpretation which manages to cram in every trope I learned from the red diaper baby brigade I studied with into 11 entertaining minutes. No matter the explanation, what’s indisputable was the outcome. The malefactors–the financial elites–got bailed out, collectively, by the little people.

As a business acquaintance from the southeast always says, “Tain’t right.” And so the Tea Party movement emerged. In Seib’s telling the electoral success of the TPM in the 2010 midterms should have awakened everyone. Here was a group that could be,  and has been,  defined in many ways. Yet I haven’t seen a lot of use of the word i believe best describes their outlook: nihilism.

The great professor.
Whatever it is, he’s against it. Click the image for the musical version.

Like Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, whatever it is, they’re against it.

It strikes me that this, too, is a persistent undercurrent in the United States. However well-intentioned the present-day punditry may be in describing what they’re observing, their framing is very often too limited to “It started with _________” fill in the blank. Sometimes you get a half-hearted nod towards wanting to return to some mythic golden age, maybe the 1920s, more often the 1880s.

Such attitudes are neither recent nor novel.

Long before the Silent Majority, the Regan Revolution,  the Gingrich years and the Tea Party there was the 80th Congress, in the infamous formulation of Harry Truman the “do nothing 80th Congress.”  Which is not entirely fair. What they spent an awful lot of time doing was passing laws and Constitutional amendments related to the Presidency. They actually did pass a lot of important national security acts, too. But domestically. Robert A. Taft and his colleagues would have executed a U-turn if they could have. And they certainly were going to change some rules after a 4-term Presidency.

All that is old is new again, right down to defacing the flag they profess to revere.
Photo Courtesy RSD Museum

None of what we’ve seen since 2010 (or 2016)  is new. Nativism? See the history of the 1840s, in particular the “Native American Party,” known more familiarly as the “Know-Nothings.” Isolationism? See Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s. Urban-rural conflict? See the 1890s. It’s not just the companies I’ve worked in and Congress: ideas and attitudes stick around and bad ideas appear particularly sticky, never completely disappearing. It’s more like they go dormant waiting to be discovered anew, Gresham’s law applied to intellectual matters.

Is there no hope? In the faith tradition of my forebears, hopelessness is a grave sin.  So I won’t go there. But I fret that my children will face as fraught a time as any this nation has faced.

And like the song says, that ain’t good.

It’s Just a Theory

The Deficit Myth: Modern Monetary Theory and
the Birth of the People’s Economy

Stephanie Kelton

The only social science that sees its contributions recognized with a Nobel Prize, is economics. So you can forgive the practitioners for mistaking their field of study with chemistry and physics.

If you pause for a moment, though, and consider that the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, is not, in fact, one of the prizes established by the inventor of TNT despite all the energy Continue reading

I Meant to Close the Polls

The Day After Election Day 2020

I’ve as much business as anyone mouthing off about an election in which votes are still being counted. Which is to say I really have no business doing so at all.

That isn’t going to stop me, although I’m going to limit myself to a few observations and implications:

• In a binary situation, there are some things we should be able to agree about.
First and foremost I’d put the absence of open violence and armed voter intimidation in the success column. I’m not talking about the ongoing efforts of one shrinking political party to limit the franchise. I’m talking about what in my darkest moments I feared was possible: ‘citizen militias’ showing up at polling places in multiple states. Maybe our civil disagreements can remain heated, but civil.

There will be plenty of time for autopsies but we need a body first.
I stayed up well past my Benjamin Franklin bedtime and arose before dawn. At each end of my shortened slumbers, talkers and writers were hard at work, explaining away the world as they saw it at that moment. Sure, there are questions. Aren’t there always?  Is polling broken? Was the existence of Silent Trump Supporters proven? Whose strategic missteps mattered more?  I’m as interested as anyone, but really, don’t we all deserve a break? I kind of feel wrung out.

As an idea, civic religion may have been oversold.
For months, I’ve listened to pundits talk about the sacredness of American elections and always thought, what malarkey. Religion belongs in your favorite house of worship on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday. Politics is transactional and that’s not a bad thing. It means the folks voting against your candidate (who may be friends, neighbors or relatives) don’t think the offered policies will much benefit them, nothing more or less. That’s not a failure, it’s a raging success.

• Whatever the ultimate outcome, this year’s electorate has sent a message.
Bear with me as I dust off an old grad school truism:  response–whether aggregated or individual–contains information. Understanding that information is where the value lies.  Here’s the number one fact: at least 60 million Americans (9:22 AM, 11/5/2020, Washington Post) agreed with enough of President Trump’s message and past actions to say he deserves four more years. They just can’t be ignored or disparaged.

Emotions about politics have never been higher. I think we’d all benefit from turning the temperature down.

But I’ve also been told I think too much.

Judge Not

Thoughts on the Passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Justice, United States Supreme Court
1933-2020

A few years back, catching up with an old friend,  I heard a statement that caught me by surprise. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” said the voice from Red State America, “has got to go. She’s the biggest threat to America as a country. ”

It’s still a shocking statement, even if my old buddy now has reason to sleep easier.

How did we get to such a place? Continue reading

We Live in a Political World

Twitter, Impeachment. and Primaries 

When I went missing, I didn’t exactly go dormant. Instead, I found myself in that most time-consuming sector of the “internets, Twitter.

I’m fascinated by Twitter. The ‘culture’ of the Internet continues to strike me as a hotbed of Golden State-utopianism. There’s a reason one of the web’s earliest and most consistent proponents also appears at the Continue reading

Doctor, Doctor Give Me the News

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
Timothy Snyder

Had I not misread an email notice you’d be reading something else right now.

Leave aside the preconceptions buried in that sentence, though, and turn your attention to this latest instance of what I’m thinking of calling instant publishing.

If that brings to mind the freeze-dried crystals that a college friend ate by the tablespoonful to ward off the Continue reading

Rock the Vote

On the cusp of the 2018 election

I’m very good at miscalculating. So it’s not surprising that with a reawakened client, an assignment to grade, a midterm to draft and too many long books in progress that I’m short a post.

So this week I’ll keep it brief. In the United States we will vote in a new Congress. Whatever your policy views, it’s important to be part of the process and, if you are registered or can still register, vote.

It’s too easy to be cynical. My own politics are too complicated for bumper Continue reading

Help Me Find My Mind

How the Right Lost It’s Mind
Charles J. Sykes

Stories are powerful. So indulge me in a story.

Once upon a time, I didn’t have a smart phone. I carried a BlackBerry for work, and my trusty flip phone, but I left the iPhones and Androids to others. When asked why, I Continue reading

(For God’s Sake) Give More Power to the People

Ruminations in the wake of Kavanaugh

Photo by Gratisography on Pexels.com

It is done.

Now we must pick up the pieces and move on.  Why, I wonder, add more words at a time when so many seem so set in their beliefs that persuasion has become chimerical?

When faced with despair–and, given the Continue reading

We Can Be Heroes

John S. McCain
1936-2018

John S. McCain III 1936-2018
Senator, aviator, POW

“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”
Donald J. Trump, Presidential Candidate, speaking in Ames, Iowa, July 2015

When I Google “John McCain war hero” two types of listings appear. The first type is his obituary. The second are  blogs intent on validating the Continue reading