In the blog the day before yesterday, I wrote about George Jonas’ column in the Saturday National Post, “Awaiting Clio’s Caprice” and his discussion of Obama as a pinko-socialist who covered up his colours in his first term as the public was distracted by discussions over his black skin. Jonas’ second theme was about change and the role of history in that change. I wrote about Clio in that blog. Today I return to Obama and the war between the neo-conservatives and Obama’s defenders. I want to do so by first responding to a very articulate and well thought-out response sent by Richard Longworth in Chicago. A friend had forwarded him my blog. Last night I received permission to reprint it in full in my blog. Richard Longworth is a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs and author of Caught in the Middle of America’s Heartland in an Age of Globalism as well as numerous other writings. He publishes The Midwestern Blog.
My reply to his response follows. My analysis of the War Over the Economy will appear as a separate blog.
Dear Peter and Corrie,
Thanks for sending me the blog pieces by Howard Adelman, which are interesting attempts to make some sense out of the manic US political scene these days. His conclusions are erudite and insightful but, in the end, aimed in the wrong direction, I think. I’ll try to explain what I mean.
There’s no question that politics and governance in the US right now are broken, chaotic, paralyzed, dysfunctional, a right bloody mess. There are a number of reasons for this, most of them lodged, as he says, in the Republican Party. But the one thing that isn’t wrong or doesn’t need fixing is the one thing he cites, which is the “frequent, articulate and very numerous criticism by conservative economic voices among the chattering classes.” Conservatives and Republicans are in the opposition now, and the opposition is supposed to oppose. Granted, a lot of this opposition is wrong-headed (as those of us who aren’t conservatives or Republicans would agree), intemperate at best and outrageous at worse, some of it (like the Birther movement) literally insane, too much of it (from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and others) beyond the bound of accepted political discourse. But that’s politics and, as we say in Chicago, politics ain’t beanbag. Politics is a contact sport and, if some Republicans are showing signs of too many hits to the head, they’re doing what the opposition in a democracy is supposed to do, which is to criticize a president from the other party, on his economic policies and otherwise, to weaken his political capital, to “harp on Obama as a failed president, particularly in economic matters.” As Adelman says, Obama’s opponents are “repeating negative colorings based on selected writings, to blacken Obama’s image,” and this is “outrageously unfair.” Yes, but it’s also fair game. It’s tiresome and tedious, to be sure, but we’ve lived in countries (like the old Soviet Union) where a little outrageously unfair harping on economic matters might have prevented a later calamity, so I’m easy with this criticism.
Also, it’s legitimate. We all know that George Bush caused the recession and started the Iraq and Afghani wars. But after four years, the recession and Afghanistan belong to Obama now. He was elected to solve these problems and he’s fairly judged on whether he’s achieved this end. I’d say he’s handled the recession about as well as he could, given Congressional opposition, but the economy is still bad, unemployment (especially long-term unemployment) is still high, growth is sluggish, etc. So he can say he’s kept it from being worse and the Republicans can say he should have made it better, and both have their points. Yes, the conservatives accuse him of ushering in a European-style socialism (which we could probably use more of), but that’s a regular wheeze in American politics – ever since the Bolshevik revolution, every Democratic president and a few Republicans ones, too, have been accused of the same. Adelman is right about the debt balance, the bailout of the auto companies, etc. But it’s too much to expect that the Republicans would stand up and cheer anything a Democratic president did, especially with the election so recent.
The problem here is not the criticism, which the Democrats would return if a Republican was in office. The problem is the fact that governance has seized up, that we have an opposition that goes beyond the obligation to criticize and instead is bent on stopping all government action. A good recent book by Mann and Ornstein (one liberal, one conservative) called “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks,” says the problem is that the Republican party, which used to be a fairly broad center-right alliance of conservatives/moderates/semi-liberals, has become a totally ideological party dominated by far-right conservatives, holding extreme beliefs and willing to use the most destructive methods to implant these beliefs. “These tendencies,” they say, “have led to disdain for negotiations and compromise………and rejection of the legitimacy of its partisan opposition.” In other words, partisan opposition has a place in democratic politics, but at the end of the day must give way to a willingness to compromise, to enable the people’s business to be done. This the Republicans refuse to do. It’s their way or the highway. If the president or the Democrats don’t bow to their most extreme demands, then they’ll bring the government to a halt, which is pretty much what’s going on.
Another good book, “Rule or Ruin,” is a history of the Republican party, and demonstrates that, while it always had its conservative outliers, basically it was a big tent, like the Democrats, pushing its own beliefs but putting the national interest first, recognizing that (as the saying goes) a good political deal is one in which you get less than you hoped but more than you expected. That’s no longer true, at least with the Republicans. Instead – and this is key – we now have parliamentary parties operating in a presidential system, and it doesn’t work. Parliamentary parties are supposed to be more ideological, and can push opposition to greater extremes, because the majority party (or coalition) always controls both the executive and the legislative and so can be sure of enacting its policies. The goal of the opposition is to weaken this majority hold, in hopes that it can lose a no-confidence vote and cede power to the opp0osition, which then will be able to institute its policies. This works in a parliamentary democracy. In the US, with its divided system of government and its separation of powers, compromise is needed to make things work, especially if one party controls the executive and the other one or both houses of Congress, which is the case now. If that compromise is absent, everything collapses.
So it’s not the criticism that’s the problem. It’s the extreme beliefs, the denial of political legitimacy to one’s opponents and the willingness to destroy the country to be true to one’s beliefs, that are causing our problems now.
A couple of other points:
Adelman cites the discrepancy between the 53 (not 51) percent of the vote Obama won in the election and his slightly lower (52%) approval rating, surprisingly low for a president who’s just won a big victory. Actually, Obama’s rating has gone up in the last couple of weeks, to about 60%. But the relatively low approval rating isn’t that odd. We are, after all, in a recession. A lot of people, including us, have been somewhat disappointed in Obama, especially his naivete in dealing with Republicans and his relatively mild economic measures: I suspect some of the people who voted for him might give him a negative approval rating. Why did we all vote for him then? Well, Romney was a terrible candidate and many people (us included) were terrified of what would happen if a Republican party dominated by far-right conservatives (see above) got back into power. Also, Obama’s final vote total may have been artificially high because (apart from that first debate) he ran a good campaign and was backed by a digitally hip campaign apparatus that ran circles around Romney’s outfit.
Adelman is wrong to say that the bailouts of the financial sector and auto industry added appreciably to the debt. Actually, both were loans to banks, which have since been repair, or purchases of companies, which have since been sold back, sometimes with profits to the government. It was the stimulus, largely to public works, that added to the debt. Republicans complain that this was money wasted. Democrats say (and most economists agree) that the recession would have been much worse without the stimulus, which hence paid for itself many times over.
Incidentally, Paul Krugman was here last Thursday to speak to the Chicago Council on these issues. I did a write-up of his speech for our Council website,www.thechicagocouncil.org, which you might find interesting.
Adelman gets our varieties of conservatives a little mixed up, which is easy to do, since none of them yield much to rational analysis. Cultural and economic conservatives are indeed different, but find common ground. More accurately, as Tom Frank wrote in “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” economic conservatives win elections by promising the cultural conservatives that they’ll support their pet projects, like anti-abortion, anti-Darwin, anti-gay marriage, anti-climate change regulation, and all the other antis. The cultural conservatives fall for this every time. When the election is over, the economic conservatives make sure their taxes get cut and forget about all their promises to the cultural conservatives. This has got the cultural conservatives all riled up, which is partially where the Tea Party came from. The upshot is (1) some Tea Party types have won election but (2) other Tea Party types are so ridiculous that they’ve lost elections the Republicans should have won (e.g, Senatorial races in Indiana and Missouri). Now the economic conservatives are getting worried, for fear that the Tea Party will turn off so many voters that they won’t be able to get their tax cuts any more. But back to the varieties – some economic conservatives are social conservatives too, but many others are libertarians, Ayn Rand followers, who think the government should keep its hands off everything, including the economy and the bedroom.
Adelman sees links between religious nationalists in the US and those in Quebec or Israel. I can’t comment on this. But my observation is that a lot of the religious nationalism here stems from the Scots-irish belt, running from West Virginia down through the Border States and into Oklahoma and Texas, hiving off into parts of the South and the Midwest, with an emphasis on fundamentalist religion and the military, a suspicion of the government, an extreme independence and a love of guns. In other words, they’re very much like the Protestants of Northern Ireland, from which many are descended. You could swap Pat Robertson for Ian Paisley and not notice much difference.
Finally, Adelman asks, “why do the cultural conservatives hate Obama even more than the economic conservatives.” One reason is that a lot of them come from the South and may still have their daddy’s old KuKluxKlan gear hidden in a closet somewhere. But a lot of it stems from that ideological extremism that insists that Democrats are not only wrong but illegitimate, with no right to even be in government, let alone run one. If you think they’re hard on Obama, just wait until Hilary Clinton becomes president.
Sorry to go on so long, but this is interesting stuff and fun to discuss. Anxious to hear what you all think of this.
Best wishes to all…………..
Opposition and the Governing Structure A Response to a Response 05.02.13
Let me take up two issues raised in Richard Longworth’s response that I hope will help clarify and deepen our understanding of the war both between the right and the left in America and the separate civil war within the Republican Party. Those two issues are the role of an opposition in a democracy and the related political structural problem; and the issue of a marriage of convenience between two wings of the Republican Party to explain its behaviour.
I appreciate Richard’s factual corrections, acknowledge the preference for less of Conrad Black (that has a longer term purpose), and accept that the varieties of Conservatives can be characterized as more complex. Some conservatives are, paradoxically or not, both economic and social conservatives. And some are neither but are libertarians. Characterizing the party as two warriors locked in a Yin/Yang forced marriage may indeed be a simplification but the explanation in terms of the need to get elected is misleading. In a future blog, I will try to explain why the convenience argument does not work since it is so dysfunctional, but also try to offer an explanation of the marriage at a whole other level. I will leave a discussion of Paul Krugman to the separate blog on the war over the economy.
One other preliminary point. Richard links the cultural right in the USA with the Scots-Irish axis of settlement in the USA, with Ulster in Ireland, its fundamentalist religion, love of the military, suspicion of government, extreme independence and love of guns. (Please read his book for an elaboration.) Since the Scots-Irish were so important in the settlement of Canada and in creating our government, since Toronto itself was a Protestant Orange bastion when I was a youngster, why are the Scots-Irish the backbone of liberalism and the left in Canada and of the right in the United States? This is a tease to be answered at a much later date. I would only note the direct powerful influence in Canada of the Scottish enlightenment in its full form where Adam Smith is not only the author of The Wealth of Nations but of The Theory of Moral Sentiments as well.
1. The Role of Opposition in a Democracy and the Related Political Structural Problem
First, let me clarify. I did not say that the rhetorical excesses of criticisms within the Republican Party need to be fixed let alone suppressed. At this stage my focus is analysis, not prescription.
Richard defends criticism even when its outlandish and wild. It is always legitimate, even when its goal is to delegitimate the existence of the Other. I have been brought up in the tradition of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition with an emphasis on Loyal. Opposition is indeed intended to reveal weaknesses in government and, in a parliamentary democracy, to bring down the government, or, in a democratic monarchy (the USA) to displace the government at the next turn of the timetable. The opposition’s job is indeed to hold government to account and to provide a government in waiting.
One question that can be raised is how is that opposition to be held accountable to follow the rules of civil discourse, to follow the principles of reasoning and to follow the expectation that assertions will be checked and verified to the best extent possible. Is it only to be left to the electorate at the periodic elections to punish or reward the party? My question is a different one: why has the Republican Party embarked on such a self-destructive course of action, both to itself and to the American political system? I fully agree that, “The problem here is not the criticism, which the Democrats would return if a Republican was in office. The problem is the fact that governance has seized up, that we have an opposition that goes beyond the obligation to criticize and instead is bent on stopping all government action.” But why?
On the first question of holding the Republican Party accountable which I have not previously tried to answer, is that the electorate will hold the party accountable. Shenanigans that cross those norms tell the public that the opposition is really not a government in waiting. This is much more difficult in a bicameral democratic monarchy where members of Congress from the opposition are intimately involved in governance. But the boundaries and norms of civil political discourse are cultural norms and are determined by a vision of politics. If indeed American politics is a national contact sport like the American passion with football, then one can expect more bruising and more attempts at illegal moves. But there are still norms and mores governing the conduct of an opposition. My series of blogs is not intended to explore and analyze these norms that are currently being ignored and subverted, and to determine how they might work better but to ask why the subversion is taking place. And I promise that the answer will not simply reference the revolutionary past of the Americans and their foundational efforts to ignore both international and domestic law to expand into Indian lands and undercut international treaties in the guise of insisting on no taxation without representation.
Richard cites the radical difference between a parliamentary and a presidential system based on checks and balances. In the latter, two parties have to cooperate to make government work. In fact, the same is true in a parliamentary democracy. Parliament only works when the governing party and the opposition cooperate even when the government has a clear majority of seats. The latter only makes it easier, but the governing party still has to work with the opposition to get its work done. So the observation is correct that the government is not working and this is mostly the fault of the Republican Party. But why is the RP being so self-destructive to its own future prospects as a governing party as well as to the functioning of an American where they are full citizens. It has to do partly with winners becoming losers, but that discussion will have to wait another day.
2) Explaining the behaviour of the Republican Party.
We seem to fully agree on the characterization of the Republican Party. Citing Mann and Ornstein, “the Republican party, which used to be a fairly broad center-right alliance of conservatives/moderates/semi-liberals, has become a totally ideological party dominated by far-right conservatives, holding extreme beliefs and willing to use the most destructive methods to implant these beliefs. ‘These tendencies,” they say, “have led to disdain for negotiations and compromise………and rejection of the legitimacy of its partisan opposition.’” They have adopted a stance of Its my way or the highway. I suggest that at one level the explanation resides in the conjunction of two incompatible ideologies – economic and cultural conservativism.
Is the explanation for that marriage convenience? Something is convenient when it fits in with achieving one’s goals, suits one’s situation, circumstances and beliefs, and holds out a reasonable possibility of achieving the anticipated results if the so-called option said to be convenient is adopted. Does the marriage between the cultural/religious conservatives and the economic right help achieve the goal of becoming the government? On the surface it does, because it has worked in the past and there is no other way for either group alone to achieve power. But what if there is a great deal of evidence to show how dysfunctional the marriage is. Whatever Romney’s real character, the zigs and zags from one pole to another certainly made him appear as unprincipled, opportunistic and without backbone and, therefore, in the minds of a majority of the voters, unfit to run the government.
I want to offer another explanation. A good part of the responsibility rests on people like yourself who essentially say that Obama is OK but he has had his own performance problems as well. “A lot of people, including us, have been somewhat disappointed in Obama, especially his naivete in dealing with Republicans and his relatively mild economic measures: I suspect some of the people who voted for him might give him a negative approval rating.” You offer explanations for his victory. Romney was worse – hence you agree with Conrad Black’s explanation even if you resent the use of his name. Second, Obama ran a technically superb campaign and got an extra million pro-Democracy voters to the polls. The Republican Party attempts to block access backfired.
I think the responsibility rests partly on the OK faction of Democratic Party supporters, not because they have under assessed Obama’s achievement – which they may or ay not have – but because they have acceded to the explanation of the members of the chattering class on the right that Obama succeeded in spite of a relatively inadequate or even poor performance because we, the Republicans, had an even worse candidate, and because we had even better technical tricks to get out the voters – which at least were fully legitimate and supportive of democracy as opposed to thee semi-dirty tricks of the Republics who tied to limit access to the ballot box.
I hate to say it this way because it obviously gets in your craw, but in terms of an explanation, you are in bed with Conrad Black. Unless you get out of that bed and go deeper beyond the descriptions you have offered and try to understand why the Republicans have become so destructive and why the Democratic OKers have become so namby-pamby in dealing with them and in failing to understand the real danger they pose and the reasons for it, then the outlook is very pessimistic, not only for America but for the world. We do not have a vote. But everything, and I mean everything, America does has an enormous effect on us and the rest of the world. So all we can offer is our detached but concerned analysis.
I have received a some responses advising me to shorten my blog to one page each. I can’t and I won’t. I want to offer analysis and not opinion or impressions. I suggest that the reasons for the situation are quite deep. And I want to take the space each day to probe deeper and develop the argument over a period of time.
I thank you for taking the Blog so seriously and for offering an extended comment and permitting me to make it available. I will add you and your brother’s name to the list of direct recipients, but if you already have too much email and want to be delisted, just get back to me. Your response has been very helpful in clarification of core differences in spite of the broad sweep of agreement on the overall picture.