The world’s democracies, perhaps especially our own, face a peculiar set of contradictions that are undermining faith in public endeavor and unraveling old loyalties.
There is a decline of trust in traditional political parties but also a rise in partisanship. A broad desire for governments to reduce the levels of economic insecurity and expand opportunity is constrained by a loss of confidence in the capacity of government to succeed. Intense demands for change are accompanied by fears that much of the change that is occurring will make life worse for individuals and families.
These crosscurrents are undercutting political leaders and decimating political parties with long histories. In Europe, movements on the far right and left (along with new regional parties) gain traction with disaffected citizens. Concerns about immigration reflect uneasiness among some over the social and cultural tremors in their nations. At the same time, discontent about the economic decline that afflicts regions not sharing in the global economy’s bounty calls forth protest against the privileged and the well-connected. In both cases, anger is the dominant emotion.
The convergence of these forces is especially powerful in Britain, which holds a national election on May 7 and where neither of the long-dominant Conservative and Labour Parties is likely to win a parliamentary majority. In 1951, the two parties together secured 96.8 percent of all the votes cast. This year, they are struggling to reach a combined 70 percent.
In Scotland, long a Labour stronghold, the pro-independence Scottish National Party could take as many as 50 of the region’s 59 seats, which would block British Labour leader Ed Miliband from securing a majority. But Miliband, who has run a better campaign than his foes expected, could still end up in power, partly because Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives are hemorrhaging votes to the UK Independence Party, which is critical of both immigration and the European Union.
In Greece, the traditional social democratic Pasok party was nearly destroyed after the country’s economic collapse. The left-wing Syriza party took power this year because of deep frustration with economic austerity and anger over the terms being set by the European Union for a financial rescue. Far-right parties have gained ground in France and even in usually moderate Scandinavia.
In the United States, partisan splits have rarely been so deep and acrimony across party lines so intense. But these feelings don’t come from wildly positive views about the parties voters embrace. In a widely discussed paper released earlier this month, Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster, Emory University political scientists, noted that “one of the most important trends in American politics over the past several decades has been the rise of negative partisanship in the electorate.”
It occurs, they write, when “supporters of each party perceive supporters of the opposing party as very different from themselves in terms of their social characteristics and fundamental values.” Yes, our current form of partisanship leads us to dislike not only the other side’s politicians but even each other.
And the frustrations voters feel provide each camp with ideological rocks to throw at their adversaries. In a PRRI/Brookings survey I was involved with in 2013, two findings locked horns: 63 percent of Americans said government should be doing more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor, but 59 percent also believed government had grown bigger because it had become involved in things people should do for themselves. We want government to do more about injustice, but we also seem to want it smaller.
Stanley Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, argues in the current issue of The American Prospect that this tension is partly explained by a widespread view that “special interests” have too much of a hold on government. He argues that voters “are ready for government to help — if the stables are cleaned.”
This makes good sense, but in the United States, as elsewhere, little of what’s happening in politics is reweaving frayed social bonds. The title of Princeton University historian Daniel T. Rodgers’ revelatory 2011 book, Age of Fracture, captured what’s happening to us. In our era, he wrote, “Identities become fluid and elective,” and if the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were a time of political and social “consolidation,” the dominant tendency now is toward “disaggregation.”
This is a big problem for self-government, since aggregating sustainable majorities is the first task of politicians in democratic countries. They are not doing a very good job, and the unfolding 2016 campaign doesn’t inspire much confidence that they’ll do better.
By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 26, 2015
“Who Threatens Our Privacy?”: The Onslaught On Our Privacy Rights — Surreally, In The Name Of Transparency
The whole Snowden affair has receded into the background by now. But recently Michael Cohen made an important point that seemed to get totally lost in the discussion about privacy.
This week, the group Wikileaks posted on its website the entire archive of data and information stolen from Sony Pictures last fall — and it seems every day there’s a new, earth-shattering scoop…
I needed only 20 minutes on the Wikileaks site to find a credit card number, medical information, private e-mail addresses, salary data, and plenty else that most people wouldn’t want available on a searchable database.
This kind of cyberattack is a greater threat to people’s privacy than anything revealed in the Snowden/NSA leaks, which became a cause celebre for some of the same people chortling over the Sony leaks…
Today, it is harder and harder to stay outside the omnipresent eye of social media, surveillance cameras, and smartphone videos. Wikileaks is only adding to the onslaught on our privacy rights — surreally, in the name of transparency.
I always found it interesting that many of those who were most closely involved with the Snowden leaks (including Wikileaks) have pretty deep ties to the hacker community – people whose raison d’etre is to invade privacy. From their reaction to this inquiry from Cohen, it appears that only certain people’s privacy is important to them.
It’s true that the concerns raised by the leaks about NSA are worrisome in regards to the possibility that the government might have access to private information. But the prospects of everyone else having access is equally (if not more) concerning.
By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, April 26, 2015
Ideas have consequences — and bad ideas have bad consequences.
Just how bad the consequences turn out to be depends to a large extent on the precise character of the bad idea. A bad idea that influences no one isn’t really that bad. It’s just stupid, and instantly forgettable. But a bad idea that lodges in people’s minds, fires their imaginations, inspires them to persuade others of its wisdom, and motivates them to make bad decisions in the world — that idea is truly bad.
Some bad ideas inspire world-historical acts of evil. “The Jews are subhuman parasites that deserve to be exterminated” may be the worst idea ever conceived. Compared with such a grotesquely awful idea, other bad ideas may appear trivial. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore them and their pernicious consequences.
Into this category I would place the extraordinarily influential libertarian idea of “spontaneous order.”
Now, regular readers will know that I believe we’re living through something of a “libertarian moment,” culturally speaking, and that I don’t think this is all bad. On most of the conflicts wrapped up with the sexual revolution and its aftermath, for example, I’m on the libertarian side of the argument — though I also think libertarians too often ignore or skirt over the moral dilemmas that arise in a culture of sexual autonomy.
On economic issues, I have far less sympathy for libertarian arguments, but I’m happy that someone is making them. Libertarians can be obnoxiously fixated on one moral-political principle to the exclusion of all others. But their single-minded focus on the liberation of the individual from all forms of coercion makes them very useful to have around. Whether we’re arguing about taxes and government regulations or the soft social coercion associated with received norms, practices, and traditions, it’s a good thing overall for those in positions of political and cultural authority to have to justify themselves before the bar of individual liberty.
But that doesn’t mean libertarians are always right — or even that they always avoid staking out manifestly silly and occasionally harmful positions.
The idea of spontaneous order might be the silliest and most harmful of all.
Simply stated, the idea holds that when groups of individuals are left alone, without government oversight or regulation, they will spontaneously form a social and economic order that is superior in organization, efficiency, and the conveyance of information than an order arranged from the top down through centralized planning.
Popularized by Friedrich Hayek and his fellow Austrian economists in the mid-20th century, the idea actually has its roots in the classical liberal writings of John Locke and Adam Smith.
Locke famously argued that government originates from a prepolitical state of nature in which groups of farmers establish a night-watchman state to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. In this archetypal statement of classical liberal mythology, civilizational order (including the formation of stable families and the institution of private property) emerges spontaneously, prior to the formation of government, which is instituted for the sole purpose of protecting and preserving it.
Adam Smith expanded on this idea, applying it to the market economy, which he famously described as working its wonders as if it were governed by an “invisible hand.” Set millions of people free to pursue their economic self-interest, Smith claimed, and they will spontaneously generate an economic order marked by wealth and growth that benefits nearly everyone lucky enough to reside within it.
Careful readers of Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government and Smith’s The Wealth of Nations will find much subtler views than the positions I’ve presented here. But it is the bowdlerized versions of their thought that have captured the American — and libertarian — imagination.
Populated by generations of immigrants from foreign lands who came to the New World in search of new lives with fresh starts, the United States quickly developed a civil religion predicated on the presumption that it’s possible to “begin the world over again.” Raised to recite that civic catechism, Americans have found it all too easy to believe that the achievements of American civilization flow from the spontaneous efforts of scrappy individuals toiling away in a state of natural freedom, with government either doing nothing significant to help or else standing obstinately in the way of even greater accomplishments.
No wonder so many Americans in the postwar period gravitated to the writings of Friedrich Hayek, the Austrian economist who warned that central government planning was bound to put us on “the road to serfdom.” Rather than looking to the state to guide us — a goal that inevitably ends with it trying to enslave us — we would be better to recognize that the market economy and even civil society as a whole formed spontaneously, as the outcome of countless unregulated acts and decisions by millions of individuals over time. Going forward, Hayek concluded, individual liberty and prosperity depends upon allowing the spontaneous ordering of our collective lives to continue uninterrupted and uncontrolled by the state.
From Locke to Smith to Hayek, the lesson seems clear: Leave people alone, and a coherent civil order will spontaneously emerge and perpetuate itself.
This is utter fiction. A fairy tale. A just-so story that has as much historical veracity as Locke’s happy talk about a prepolitical state of nature filled with spontaneously formed families and settled plots of legitimately gotten farmland.
The fact is that aside from certain very rare cases (see below), it’s impossible to find human beings acting with perfect freedom outside of an already existing political order that shapes their decisions and determines to a considerable extent their behavior and range of possible choices.
President Obama got a lot of flack during his 2012 campaign for re-election for saying that wealthy business owners “didn’t build that” all by themselves, but his point was indisputable. The president mentioned the internet, roads and bridges, firefighting, and other public works that make it possible for the market economy to function and thrive. He could have said far more. How about the culture of general law-abidingness that we call the rule of law? The Federal Reserve’s regulation of the money supply? An independent judiciary for the settlement of civil disputes? Law enforcement at local, state, and federal levels that fights violent crime, fraud, corruption, monopolistic business practices, and a host of other behaviors that would otherwise scuttle the working of markets? And on and on and on.
The order we see at work in the United States and in other advanced democracies is anything but spontaneous.
But there is one situation where it’s possible to see genuine spontaneity in action: when an established political order is overthrown. Now it just so happens that within the past decade or so the United States has, in effect, run two experiments — one in Iraq, the other in Libya — to test whether the theory of spontaneous order works out as the libertarian tradition would predict.
In both cases, spontaneity brought the opposite of order. It produced anarchy and civil war, mass death and human suffering.
In response, some libertarian-minded critics have claimed that this just goes to show the damage that tyranny does to individuals, robbing them of the capacity to govern themselves once they’ve finally been granted their freedom.
Quite so. But then that would seem to imply that postwar Iraq and Libya could have spontaneously produced a liberal democratic order only if its citizens had acted as if they’d already been enjoying life in a liberal democratic order.
That sounds awful unspontaneous.
Order doesn’t just happen, and it isn’t the product of individual freedom. It needs to be established, and it needs to be established first (sometimes by force), before individuals can be granted civic, economic, and social freedom.
The libertarian prophets of “spontaneous order” get things exactly backward, sometimes with catastrophic real-world consequences. Which is why it’s a particularly bad idea.
By: Damon Linker, The Week, September 26, 2014
“David Vitter, God Bless The Koch Brothers”: The Most Patriotic Americans In The History Of The Earth
It stands to reason that Republican politicians are going to celebrate Charles and David Koch. After all, the billionaires’ generosity is critically important in conservative politics right now and may ultimately be the deciding factor in which party has power in Congress.
But Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) is willing to take his appreciation for the Koch brothers to a pretty extraordinary level, as evidenced by a town-hall event in Shreveport this week. American Bridge posted the above video (http://youtu.be/-7mStFMk6og), and for those who can’t watch clips online, the conservative senator told constituents:
“I think the Koch brothers are two of the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth. […]
“God bless the Koch brothers. They’re fighting for our freedoms.”
Sure, Republicans are bound to be grateful to the billionaires for saturating the airwaves with anti-Democratic attack ads, but Vitter’s effusive praise seemed a little over the top.
Burgess Everett saw an even longer version of the clip and reported that Vitter, as part of the same discussion, said he’s “not defending big money in politics.”
No, of course not. He’s just grateful that the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth are fighting for our freedoms.
It’s worth noting that Louisiana will host two major elections in the next two years: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is running for re-election this year, and she’s already facing attack ads from the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, and Vitter is running for governor next year, and likely hopes the Kochs’ operation will support his candidacy.
But there’s an even larger context to this: what is it, exactly, the most patriotic Americans in the history of the Earth hope to receive in exchange for their political investments?
The New York Times reports today on the bigger picture.
As [Americans for Prosperity] emerges as a dominant force in the 2014 midterm elections, spending up to 10 times as much as any major outside Democratic group so far, officials of the organization say their effort is not confined to hammering away at President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. They are also trying to present the law as a case study in government ineptitude to change the way voters think about the role of government for years to come.
“We have a broader cautionary tale,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “The president’s out there touting billions of dollars on climate change. We want Americans to think about what they promised with the last social welfare boondoggle and look at what the actual result is.”
Leaders of the effort say it has great appeal to the businessmen and businesswomen who finance the operation and who believe that excess regulation and taxation are harming their enterprises and threatening the future of the country. The Kochs, with billions in holdings in energy, transportation and manufacturing, have a significant interest in seeing that future government regulation is limited.
Indeed, Wonkblog reported just yesterday that a Koch Industries subsidiary is the biggest lease owner in Canada’s tar sands, covering an area of 1.1 million acres. The piece added, “Separately, industry sources familiar with oil sands leases said Koch’s lease holdings could be closer to 2 million acres.”
This helps bring into sharper focus why the Democratic fight with the Koch brothers has become so important. The dispute isn’t about some misleading AFP attack ads about health care reform; this is about a broader agenda.
As Greg Sargent explained this morning, “The real purpose of the Dem strategy is to create a framework for a broader argument about the true goals and priorities of the actual GOP policy agenda. It’s about tapping into a sense that the economy is rigged against ordinary Americans, and in favor of the one percent, and dramatizing that the GOP’s economic agenda would preserve that status quo, blocking any government policies designed to address stagnant mobility and soaring inequality. Or that, as Jonathan Chait puts it, the GOP has ‘built a policy agenda around plutocracy,’ and its primary ‘organizing purpose is to safeguard the economic interests of the very rich.’”
And it’s against this backdrop that David Vitter proclaims, “God bless the Koch brothers. They’re fighting for our freedoms.”
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 20, 2014
“Inequality And Self-Righteousness”: President Obama Challenges The Emotional Heart Of Conservative Politics
Here’s a passage from the president’s speech at CAP yesterday, which was a bit of a watershed, consolidating his varying perspectives on inequality and government’s role in the economy:
[W]e need to set aside the belief that government cannot do anything about reducing inequality. It’s true that government cannot prevent all the downsides of the technological change and global competition that are out there right now — and some of those forces are also some of the things that are helping us grow. And it’s also true that some programs in the past, like welfare before it was reformed, were sometimes poorly designed, created disincentives to work, but we’ve also seen how government action time and again can make an enormous difference in increasing opportunity and bolstering ladders into the middle class. Investments in education, laws establishing collective bargaining and a minimum wage — (applause) — these all contributed to rising standards of living for massive numbers of Americans.
Likewise, when previous generations declared that every citizen of this country deserved a basic measure of security, a floor through which they could not fall, we helped millions of Americans live in dignity and gave millions more the confidence to aspire to something better by taking a risk on a great idea. Without Social Security nearly half of seniors would be living in poverty — half. Today fewer than 1 in 10 do. Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance. Today virtually all do. And because we’ve strengthened that safety net and expanded pro-work and pro- family tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit, a recent study found that the poverty rate has fallen by 40 percent since the 1960s.
What he’s doing here is challenging the idea that you can defend the “good” government interventions in the economy that are now part of the national landscape while opposing contemporary efforts to expand opportunity and reduce inequality. This strikes directly at the politics of selfishness and self-righteousness that is at the emotional heart of conservative politics at present.
The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race. And that gap is growing. So if we’re going to take on growing inequality and try to improve upward mobility for all people, we’ve got to move beyond the false notion that this is an issue exclusively of minority concern. And we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.
This can’t be said too often.
By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, December 5, 2013