Monday, September 14, 2015

A Tough 100 Years for Conservatives - post II

I read The Strange Death of Liberal England 1910-1914 (see earlier post for a brief review) in large part because I like English history, even when it doesn’t include dragons. But for political conservatives the period covered should be of interest because at or around that time in numerous locales it seems a political transformation occurred. The liberalism that died in England is what Americans would consider conservatism. In 1913 with the election of Woodrow Wilson America had its first progressive administration.

Real or imagined an inadequacy was discovered in what may be roughly defined as american conservatism-classical liberalism.  In America and in Europe those political principles have been in a secondary role ever since. In America, as one would expect, it was a pretty fair fight in the beginning with Wilson giving way to Harding and Coolidge. But it has been a rout ever since, rising to the surface again here and there (Reagan/Thatcher) only to give way again.

Put differently, it seems a fair question to ask who has had a worse 100 or so years, conservatives or Cub fans and I think the answer is conservatives. To be sure, it isn’t a fair question. For one you get top draft picks for failing in major league baseball and there is more turnover in player personnel than in people’s minds. But it is interesting that the Cubs have recently taken a slightly different path by accepting bad years and focusing on developing a strong farm system. The future for Cubs fans looks pretty bright at the moment. I wish I could discern a similar change in approach in the conservative movement.

Friday, September 11, 2015

[Some] Sympathy for the Devils-post I

Of the myriad opinions offered up on the success so far of Donald Trump in the Republican nominee race, the only consensus is that it is the result of the failure of Republican leadership. Now, I’m far from a fan of either Boehner or McConnell, think both have been too cautious, especially since 2014, but I think this explanation for Trump is true only up to a point. Moreover, it is a point which adheres to a rather comforting but delusional trope that the fault is always with the politicians. Somehow in a democracy the voters never get what they want.

Now to be sure the relationship between constituent and politician in a democracy is a complex one. I’m not na├»ve enough to think that politicians can’t have and pursue their own ambitions contrary to the voters, but by and large I take politicians to have one real skill, getting elected. And getting elected means being able to gauge votes. In making a point about ISIL Charles Krauthammer observed that the cold war was won because it was pursued by the leadership of both the Democrat and Republican Party. True enough, but he left out that the faction in the Democratic Party that opposed that war didn’t dominate the party like it does now. The point? It wasn’t the leadership that has changed so much as the voters selecting the leaders.

If memory serves, it is in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding by way of explaining the social unrest of the late 60’s that Pat Moynihan observes that frustration is the difference between expectations and results. Moynihan’s point was that the War on Poverty and other social initiatives of the Johnson administration greatly raised expectations, when actual conditions on the ground didn’t change very much the result was unrest, riots.

Alas, I think the Republican leadership explanation for conservative ills is another example of Moynihan’s frustration equation. Conservatives invested in conservative causes think the movement is far stronger than it actually is. During the Bush years I regularly encountered the notion that the US was a center-right country. I didn’t buy it then and I certainly don’t buy it now. In Obama’s first term I regularly read conservative opinion that seemed to think that if only the Republican leadership were stout enough the Obama agenda could be thwarted never mind that the Republicans held the House as against the Senate, the Executive, the media, and the culture. In the aftermath of the 2014 election there was column after column on how the Republican Party had never been stronger because of the gains made at the state level. Great, Republicans are now in a better position to decide whether to institute or not institute a health care exchange, to expand or not expand Medicare. Not nothing, but not exactly a formidable position of strength either.

Yes, Republican leadership is part of the reason for Trump. But I think more telling is that Trump wasn’t a conservative until yesterday, regularly makes political statements that are anything but conservative. Theatrics and frustration only covers all of this if you want it to, if you want the MacGuffin to be of no account. But looked at more soberly I think it suggests that even within the Republican Party conservative principles are only surface deep. Trump, and just about anywhere else you should care to look, should tell you that conservatism isn’t as strong as conservatives think it is. The first step in recovery is to admit you have a problem.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Is a Coup Unimaginable?

Catherine Rampell @crampell
what?? 29% of Americans overall, 43% of Republicans could imagine a situation in which they support a military coup?

There was a fair amount of attention paid to the above tweet yesterday. First to mind is to echo William Buckley and ask of the other 71% "what accounts for your lack of imagination?" Or to put it another way I’ve been able to imagine all sorts of exploits in my own life which have had a low probability of actually occurring. But it does touch on something I’ve been pondering for awhile.

As the Annales points out the outward structure of government can remain while the political system is being fundamentally altered. Something like that is, I think, occurring in the U.S. where a system predicated on the main governmental bodies, House, Senate, Executive, Supreme Court jealously guarding their own power has given way to party.

While the match isn't exact, it seems to me that the U.S. system is evolving, particularly on the Democratic side, to something like a parliamentary system. The House, Senate, and Executive have merged into the House of Commons with the President as Prime Minister. What is being lost in this change is the checks and balances that the Constitution assumes without the addition of break points, like votes of no confidence, that exist in the English system.

How does all of that relate to the tweet at the beginning? Well, I think that in by far the most likely House and Senate election result outcomes the removal of a president via the impeachment process is a dead letter. If the party of the president holds together, the president won't be removed. That makes other scenarios and actions easier to imagine.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910 - 1914

George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) is a strange history book. Entertainingly written it is also impossible to take at face value, in part I suspect for reasons that make it entertaining. The liberality of England is based on principles of free trade, property, liberty, and respectability. In the period covered (1910 – 1914), the Liberal Party holds political power with Herbert Asquith as PM and David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in Cabinet roles.

The actual Liberal Party’ run ends during WWI when George broke with Asquith to form a coalition government, but Dangerfield’s thesis is that the actual break or failure occurred earlier with the outbreak of WWI bringing about a temporary reprieve.

What brings about this ‘death’ is the failure to deal with four main political issues, a constitutional crisis brought about by the House of Lords rejecting the government’s budget, unprecedented labor unrest with labor moving in the direction of a single union and a tactic of general strikes, Home Rule for Ireland, and voting rights for women. Dangerfield’s take on all of these issues is that liberal England and the Liberal Party failed on all of these challenges and there is a note of good riddance in the telling. But even within the offered narrative one senses this isn’t at all fair. Asquith is described throughout as passive, but it is apparent that he doesn’t have any good options. When every politician is viewed with disdain, every action sneered at, one gets the sense that something important is being left out.

What comes across is that the pillar of England that falls away--through claims too long delayed, anxiety, or boredom—is respectability. The agitators here are all playing without any restraint. Not surprisingly the political system isn’t able to cope. Sort of like America these days.

Trump, Carson, and the Art of Campaigning

There are two reasons for doubting what is to follow; 1) it hasn’t been brought up by anyone else, 2) my interest in the process of politics is almost non-existent, and 3) I’m not a political pro of any kind. That’s already three reasons, and doubtless there are many more.
That said, I think an overlooked aspect of what has happened in the nomination races to date is that it is telling us something about campaigning. I take it that campaigning is akin to an art form, and that all art forms by their very familiarity eventually wear themselves out. The conventions of the political campaign haven’t really changed over my adult life, if not longer, and the familiarity of this process has resulted in a certain disdain on the part of voters.

When I look at political campaigns I’m reminded of the James Bond film franchise which began at roughly the same time as the modern campaign (???).  The political form is now somewhere in the For Your Eyes Only to Pierce Brosnan stage. Trump and Ben Carson are succeeding for many reasons, but one part of their success is that they aren’t slavishly following the typical political script. In their very different ways each is presenting a more authentic—such as it is in Trump’s case—politician. There is a Daniel Craigish refashioning of the political campaign in this.  The opportunity to do much more along these lines, to use the web and other non-traditional media more is still out there. At some point, a politician like Rick Perry, who isn’t well served by the current form, will figure this out.