Vote!! November 6

“Voting never makes any difference.”

“If voting changed anything, they‘d have made it illegal.”

I generally respond by pointing out that it usually only takes up no more than an hour of your time, often less, and what do you expect from such a small investment of time? Quite frankly, I’ve spent days on picket lines to less effect. With early voting and vote by mail you have really no excuse. This is your last chance.

And for those who complain of not being able to “vote my values”, why do you assume this is all about you?

Your vote does make a difference, in some contests more than in others and in some elections more than in others. Which side you’re on is beside the point: if you value some degree of nonviolence in how we settle disputes, get to the polls on Tuesday, November 6, and vote.

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Happy Birthday, Debs!

On this day in 1855, Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana. He is notable as having been a leader in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, an Indiana state legislator, a founder and President of the American Railway Union, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a founder and five time Presidential candidate of the Socialist Party of America.

The Eugene V. Debs Foundation maintains his home in Terre Haute, Indiana, as a museum.

Debs saw himself, and the Socialist Party, more as a catalyst than as a vehicle. My currently favorite quote from Debs illustrates this nicely:

“I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition; as it is now, the capitalists use your heads and your hands.”

Broken Politics?

In this video, Vox teams up with the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution to cast shade on the Republican Party:

“Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved towards the extreme much more quickly — a trend that political scientists call “asymmetrical polarization.” That asymmetry poses a major obstacle in American politics. As Republicans have become more ideological, they’ve also become less willing to work with Democrats: filibustering Democratic legislation, refusing to consider Democratic appointees, and even shutting down the government in order to force Democrats to give in to their demands.”

It might surprise you that I have some misgivings about this argument.

Part of it is that I challenge the very existence of a “Republican” or a “Democratic” party. As political parties are understood in most parts of the world, parties here in the States simply do not exist. Fragments of parties exist. The opposing caucuses in legislative bodies exist and they have important consequences — committee assignments, work priorities and the like. There’s something of a party bureaucracy that mostly serves as a conduit for money and as a vendor of political services (polling, data processing, etc.) all of which is available elsewhere. If you are a candidate, you have no obligation to use your party’s services. And there are party clubs. But none of these entities have any organic connections among them. And the parties do exist in the electorate: People self identify as Democrats and Republicans. If there is anything real and vitally consequential about American political parties, it is mostly to be found in the electorate’s self identification. But beyond that, what we see as political parties are entities that have been partially taken over by the government and have, at best, vestigial independence apart from the government. State laws, mostly, govern party structure, party officials, party candidates, even what constitutes “membership” in a political party. Oh yes: finances, too.

This varies from state to state and among the various U.S. territories. We don’t have a two party system but rather over 50 different party systems in this country. A few have multiple party brands, others but two. When you drill down to the local level, you often find a more various political landscape.

The “asymmetrical polarization” that this video documents is a phenomenon that is primarily manifest in the parties’ constituencies. It’s reflected by and amplified by professional politicians and activists for their own ends, but it would not exist in government if it did not exist in the electorate.

The polarization is a result of something that has been in the works since at least the Great Depression, when New Deal Democrats, bothered by Dixiecrat sabotage and obstruction, dreamed of realigning the “parties” in ideological terms. The “Democrats” would be the liberals; “Republicans” would be the conservatives.

Fast forward to the 1960s and both sides were working on this project, including Norm Ornstein and the American Enterprise Institute (out of the wreckage of the Barry Goldwater campaign) on the conservative side. On the left in the 1970s, you had organizations like the New Democratic Coalition (not to be confused with the “third way” folks of later decades) and the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. The so-called Reagan Revolution and the increased use of primary elections over conventions pretty much accomplished the project. By the 1990s, at latest, the Republican brand had become the brand of conservatives. The Republican brand is not “more” ideological today, it’s just more confident and less willing to compromise than it was in the 1980s.

If one of the our two political brands becomes clearly and dogmatically defined (in this case, the Republicans), the other brand will opportunistically begin to incorporate everyone alienated from the first. It’s also easy to see how “asymmetry” in early stages would feed upon itself unless somehow interrupted. It also seems likely that the social democratic / progressive wing of the Democratic brand will have difficulty dominating its vehicle in the near term at least: too many political refugees with money.

So what is Ornstein complaining about? Given the racism underlying the current Republican brand (it wasn’t always so, at least in this geezer’s life span) and the shifting demographics that promise it less than a majority, it is easy to see how Ornstein and Mann sense disaster on conservatism’s present course. And they’re not alone.

Oh, boo hoo.

Aside from the blatant expressions of bigotry, there’s really not a huge gap in policy between the Trump Republicans of 2018 and the Reagan Republicans of 1980. The most obvious differences are based in personality more than anything else: the audacity of ignorance is remarkable in 2018. Reagan may have about as factually challenged as Trump, but Reagan was an amiable fellow to his friends and was willing (with some exceptions) to be steered. Trump is a stubborn old coot. Today’s open bigotry does count for something, also. I expect without it we might have at least some movement on immigration policy because population growth is the easiest way to grow an economy… among other less benign rationales. But beyond that, what’s new? This is Goldwater / Reagan conservatism rampant.

But how does ideological polarization work when the structure of our governments (both on the Federal level and on the level of the States) demands some degree of consensus? (Think of the “checks and balances” that you learned about in high school civics class.)

The answer, obviously, is not very well.

And that’s a problem for us lefites, too.

Don’t neglect to vote!

Which Side Are You On?

a review by Bob Roman

Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance, HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages, $27.99

This memoir is about coming of age in the Appalachian parts Ohio and Kentucky. The book has been out for a while now, and there have been a considerable number of reviews: Understandably, as J. D. Vance self-identifies as a conservative and this book promises a reasonable insight into the cultural revolt that delivered some crucial working class votes to Donald Trump. Most of the reviews, rightwing and leftwing, were written with an ideological and political argument in mind and most of them present something of a caricature of what you will actually find in the book. It’s mostly been “Hooray for our side!”, “Boo for their side!”, “Who appointed Vance spokesman for the hillbillies?” In my humble opinion, the best of the reviews, but still not great, is Joshua Rothman’s The Lives of Poor White People in The New Yorker.

Vance actually gives the reader two things with his book. One is a personal story of resilience, growth and discovery that is well-written and engaging. It very much reminds me of Nathan McCall’s rather more violent 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, but it could easily be any number of other escape from poverty biographies.

The other thing is a discussion of poverty as a social and political issue. Vance steps into the middle of a very old conversation, best represented by an exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. As I recall the conversation, F. Scott Fitzgerald opined, “The rich are very different than you or me.” To which Ernest Hemingway replied, “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

It is here that Vance and most of his reviewers lose their way. Vance’s journey is more than just an escape from penury. He grew up in unstable, traumatic, violent, self-destructive circumstances that, despite the best efforts of his grandparents and Middletown, Ohio, schools, left him unprepared to navigate the adult world. This was not only the lack of knowledge and confidence to negotiate bureaucracies or to accumulate and use “social capital” — in other words all the expected aspects of what some call the “culture of poverty.” It was also how to negotiate emotional and social intimacy. A happy family was a stunning discovery. It’s understandable that Vance would stand before this broad new vista and consider: “The rich are very different than you or me.”

Or are they? As I said, it’s an old conversation, and I remember earlier an iteration of the debate where, in reply, an author stripped a family biography of all class and ethnic identifiers. On the face of it, the stripped biography could have fit quite nicely among the worst of Vance’s home town of Middletown. The family? An American political dynasty: the Kennedys. If that’s not enough, just consider how dysfunctional celebrity gossip is sold to us as entertainment. Or consider Donald Trump. “Yeah, they’ve got more money.”

So J. D. Vance has picked a side, and given his experience, his choice is entirely understandable. I think this is the point most reviewers miss. What Vance misses is the degree to which the dysfunction of hillbilly culture is really a reasonable attempt by individuals to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt. As individuals, the odds are stacked highly against them. As Trump might put it, the game is fixed. As individuals, they are essentially powerless and of no consequence and they live lives of no consequence — no consequence for themselves and maybe not even for their children as why should anyone expect circumstances to improve? Under these circumstances, being lazy is not unreasonable, though being poor comes with more of an overhead of work than the better off might imagine.

Capitalism may have failed them, but so has everything else, including the left. You can find exceptions like occasional desert oases. Families, extended or otherwise, sometimes provide the needed support; Vance may be an example of this. Church communities can also serve, not just as a source of values and norms but as a venue for mutual aid. But when industry died, unions went away as well. There’s no political organization that has a presence outside the middle and ruling classes. I suspect a survey of Middletown would find a disorganized community: few clubs and civic organizations, few businesses, churches with mediocre market penetration among the faithful, and on…. Not much different than many urban poor neighborhoods.

Vance portrays this as a crisis. It is a crisis but it’s not exactly a new crisis. Poverty in Appalachia gets discovered periodically every few decades then forgotten except for when it is convenient for discrediting whatever had been previously proposed as a solution. Vance seems to imply this is a new crisis: a half truth. Just as Blacks had the Great Migration, hillbillies had their own exodus north (Readin’ Rightin’ Route 23)for some of the same reasons. (Arguably Black migrants were as much political refugees as economic migrants, hillbillies not so much.) What is new for southeast Ohio is that the jobs, the greener fields that the hillbillies fled to, left the country or were automated, leaving these economic migrants stranded.

Vance is not really very helpful with explaining the Trump phenomenon, partly because the book was published prior to the election. His account does kinda help make sense of it to me at least. The best way of thinking about Trump with respect to working class voters is as a wooden shoe: as an act of sabotage, in other words. For many voters, Trump was not elected in support of any particular agenda (promises! promises! politicians promise then go away) so much as an intent to disrupt things as they are. Loki, Coyote, Disrupter-in-Chief: Trump need not do anything more than make the world scream to be a success. Whether they’ll put up with success for four years is another matter.

So read this book. It’s not likely to change your mind in any major way. But Vance’s experience is worth sharing even if his diagnosis is inadequate. He’s also far closer to what might pass as the political center than any of the reviewers would let on. But I don’t think Vance is any longer a hillbilly. These days he’s one of them.

Brett Kavanaugh

by Bob Roman

Brett Kavanaugh has absolutely no business being a justice of the Supreme Court.

It’s not that he’s a political hack with an ideological agenda. Quite frankly, despite all the smiley faced homages to impartiality and The Constitution, most of the justices who have inhabited the Supreme Court bench have had agendas and biases. Sometimes the biases and agendas of a justice change over their career, sometimes for the better. And while Kavanaugh is a hack with an agenda that I oppose, that by itself is not an absolute disqualifier. Elections have consequences, after all. Nor is the Republican caucus’ rush to approve him a disqualifier. It’s odious, but much in politics (and life in general) stinks. These are grounds for opposing Kavanaugh’s appointment and for remembering, for vengeance, those who enabled it but, in my humble opinion, they are not grounds for saying Kavanaugh has absolutely no business being on the Supreme Court.

Kavanaugh is a liar, to us and to himself: that is what disqualifies him.

You do not have to assume Kavanaugh is lying when he denies Christine Blasey Ford’s story to see his habitual untruthfulness. There is ample evidence that Kavanaugh has lied to Congress while under oath about numerous matters. This is not a crime, apparently. At Vox, long before Blasey Ford surfaced, Dylan Matthews outlined several instances of untruthfulness then asked a handful of law professors if these would constitute perjury. Errrr… not exactly… no… were most of the responses. But Ciara Torres-Spelliscy from Stetson University was perhaps the most forthright:

If federal prosecutors are really going after lying to Congress, that could open up an entirely new front of liability for lots of less than truthful witnesses. I doubt anyone at DOJ would have the moxie to go after Judge Kavanaugh for these statements. Whether as a circuit judge or if he gets elevated to the Supreme Court, the remedy to remove him is through the impeachment process, and I don’t see Congress having the stomach for that either.

Kavanaugh is not unique in this level of sleaze with regard to the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist and Clarence Thomas come to mind as comparable examples. No, what slams the scale firmly and absolutely to the NO side is Kavanaugh’s inability to be honest about himself. He did not even have the courage to listen to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before presenting his statement in reply. It’s clear that revisiting his high school years and confronting Christine Blasey Ford do more than threaten the prospect of an appointment to the Supreme Court. They threaten Kavanaugh’s own story about himself to himself and to his family. They threaten who he thinks he is. This is perfectly human, but it means Brett Kavanaugh will never be more than a toady to the Establishment: deadwood nailed to dogma and narrow class interests with little capacity for empathy, insight or enlightened compromise.

Others may argue that it is Kavanaugh’s loathsome behavior as a high school student that should not be in any way rewarded by an appointment to the Supreme Court, even decades later, especially when it comes to sexual assault — attempted rape, to be blunt. After all, this is the impulse behind the move to extend or repeal statute of limitation dates for such offenses. I won’t disagree, even though experience has shown and continues to show that lust makes people, men and women, stupid. Add youth and testosterone and alcohol and class privilege for an ever more toxic mix. That is not an excuse, but it does raise the question: What would restorative justice look like in this instance?

You tell me for I don’t know.