Friday, October 30, 2015

A Player Program for the Republican Nomination Race

On Special Report last night Charles Krauthammer spoke of “two lanes” that define the Republican race. It seems odd to be continually disagreeing with him, but again I think this far too reductive analytic scheme and thereby misses too much. From my perspective, the Republican field can be placed into the following five lanes:

Establishment/Old-Guard Republicans – Bush, Kasich, Pataki

Young Guns/Reformers – Christie, Fiorina, Jindal, Perry, Rubio, Walker

Social Conservative/Populists – Huckabee, Santorum

Purists/Reform Radicals – Cruz, Paul

Outsiders-Outsiders – Carson, Trump

Doubtless there is room for disagreement as to the lines drawn and the placement but I think this is reasonably accurate looking at the candidates as a whole rather than one particular issue.

I would define the Establishment/Old Guard as the line of the party that can be most easily and comfortably traced to the Rockefeller-Ford wing and in its more recent aspect is the Bush-Bush-McCain-Romney succession. The other lanes are defined in a large sense in relation to their distinctiveness from the Establishment/Old Guard. Something of a continuum can be drawn from that starting point to Young Guns/Reformers > Purists/Reform Radicals > Outsiders with the Social Conservatives being out of place both in my schematic and to a large extent this election cycle. The weakness of the Young Guns is that they can be perceived as being part of the Establishment, while the weakness of the Purists and Outsiders is the possible/probable(?) reluctance on the part of the voters to completely throw caution aside.
Now if I’ve got this mostly right, then it is telling that of the consensus currently viable—Christie, Fiorina, Rubio, Cruz, Carson, and Trump--half occupy a position far from the Establishment/Old Guard. And the others are viable in large part because their time served isn't so extensive as to confirm that they've crossed the shadow-line. And this is why I think the emphasis on Bush’s campaign foibles, real as they are, miss the much larger point that there is almost no voter interest in picking someone from this lane except as a last resort in this election cycle.

Finally, I should note that of the above candidates Fiorina is the most difficult to place. She could be considered an outsider, but I think her running for office in California and evident policy chops exclude her. But there is probably no one in the field who has more positional flexibility in terms of which lane to conduct her campaign from than Fiorina, and that's an advantage in this race. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

More a Tribe Than a Political Party; reaction to Hillary's Benghazi testimony

I don’t normally pay attention to campaign slogans, but the Obama-Biden slogan “Forward” was so lame that it couldn’t be ignored. Coupled with the complete lack of inventiveness was the unaware conceit. For the dirty little secret of Progressivism, at least in its current form, is that it is anything but a forward looking ideology. At its core, I would argue, that Progressivism is a rejection of the modern and a pining for the unity of the pre-modern and for those invested in politics, the Democratic Party is more of a tribe than a political party.

This conceptual framework was brought to mind yet again, by Jonah Goldberg’s last G-File where he comments on Hillary’s Benghazi testimony and in particular the reaction to it. From it, and much before, Jonah makes two observations:

“When the truth is inconvenient to the villains of the tale, the pursuit of truth is celebrated as the ne plus ultra of their vocation. But when the truth is inconvenient to people they like — or beneficial to people they don’t like — it really isn’t all that interesting or important.”


“But whenever there’s an unavoidable choice to be on one side of the cultural divide or the other, the MSM will stand with the Democrats because, at the end of the day, they are Democrats and they think Democrats are normal people.”

This is spot on and follows from the party as tribe. Hillary is the all but certain new leader of the tribe. The first principle is that no harm shall come to her, because the interests of the tribe are paramount.

The political party as tribe aspect is evident in the complete disdain for the give and take of politics evinced by the President, and by the frequent calls to get beyond politics. For as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott points out:

Politics, from one important point of view, may be said to be the activity in which a society deals with its diversities…This is why we are apt to think that a genuine tribal society, which certainly has rules and customs, is not one in which politics is likely to appear. Such a society may have the necessary unity but it rarely has the necessary diversity.”

And here we are reminded of Efraim Podoksik’s contention “that what is claimed is that Oakeshott’s central concern is the idea of modernity understood as inescapable fragmentation and irreducible plurality.” It is intermittent and situational, like the times when these characteristics of the modern work against those who embrace modernity, but at its core the progressive, the Democratic Party enthusiast, is in opposition to the fragmentation and plurality of the modern. And much of the heat and contentiousness of our current affairs stems from the attempt to bring the wayward individualists and current modern world of a past time dominated by the ordered unity of the tribe.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Republican Race to Date

On this week’s Candidate Casino Charles Krauthammer put fewer chips on Jeb Bush and fingered a woeful campaign as the problem. In prior weeks, Jeb has either been picked as the Republican favorite or near favorite. This tells me the pros are looking at this election through the wrong prism.

The key to understanding the current race is 2012 in combination with 2008. By the end of his term conservatives were ambivalent about George W. They liked him in many ways, defending him against Democratic attacks but they were not at all happy with the increase in spending (pretty much across the board) and ambitious use of the military (the sizable isolationist win) that had occurred under his leadership. They wanted a ‘real’ conservative, but accepted McCain as the only viable choice in the ’08 field.
By the 2012 cycle it was clear to conservatives, that Obama was a terrible president. Pick someone decent and they’d win. The ‘establishment’ choice was clearly Romney. The primaries consisted of the base frantically searching for an alternative. Not finding one, they reluctantly listened to the party elders and accepted Romney. They didn’t trust him as far as actually being a conservative, but they were persuaded that he would win. And then Romney ran a tepid, squishy general election campaign and lost.
Twice the base set aside its reservations, ignored its instincts, and followed the party establishment and twice the resulting nominee had lost. The last, in what conservatives perceived—correctly or incorrectly doesn’t matter here—as a crucial and very winnable election. In November of 2012 it was clear that the race in 2015 – 16 was going to be a very bumpy ride indeed.
Thus, Jeb is carrying a duel legacy. He’s third in the Bush line and third in the McCain-Romney-Establishment Choice line. If you’re wondering why Bush has struggled, and you’re looking to how he’s conducted his campaign, pause, put on the Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again at top volume and consider what happened in 2012.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Quick Take on the New Foreword to What Is Conservatism?

For the thoughts of random taxi drivers there’s Thomas Friedman, but otherwise the best columnist going is Jonah Goldberg. If you don’t get his NR after dark G-File, sign up here . His new foreword to the re-released What Is Conservatism is typically interesting. However, I think he slightly misses the mark in his conclusion when he writes “Fusionism is a failure if one looks to it as a source for what to think. But it is a shining success if one sees it as a guide for how to think.”

Now in what follows there lurks a rather glaring contradiction. In arguing that a book of this kind which doesn’t tell you what to think is not really a failure I am inevitably telling you what to think. And since I have no idea how to resolve this contradiction, I’m just going to pretend that it doesn’t exist.

But in what I take to be a work of political philosophy I’d argue that how to think is the correct criteria. One thing I’ve taken from reading Oakeshott is that the conclusions of a philosopher are less important and of less interest than how the philosopher arrives at those conclusions. Like math lessons, there’s no credit if you don’t show your work. And I am reminded of the many Firing Line answers given by William F. Buckley in the form of “for the conservative there is a presumption in favor of…………”

To be sure, we don’t start from zero, and it is safe to say we can eliminate communism, fascism and their like from consideration. But for 99% of our political discussions it strikes me that truth statements are of the asymptotic [still borrowing from WFB here] variety. In that range, how to think is more conservative, as I understand it, than what to think.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review-The Edwardian Crisis; Britain 1901 - 10

"By the early 1900s the two major parties were in danger of fragmenting under the weight of internal and external pressures."
It could be argued that a proper political education is at least as much a historical as a doctrinal one. The distance of time affords a more dispassionate, no dog in the hunt, perspective. For modern conservatives the beginning of the twentieth century is of interest because a) it seems to be the period in which the realized ideal of a limited state came to an end, and b) it was an unusually tumultuous period politically. In short, from the perspective of 2015, the question of what happened naturally arises.

David Powell's The Edwardian Crisis is framed as a reconsideration of George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (a book recently cited by the columnist Michael Barone) but it stands easily on its own. Whereas Dangerfield's account of the period reads like a flamboyant prosecutor's brief, Powell's has the feel of a judge's summary. The Edwardian Crisis also covers more ground in a 173 pages than Dangerfield does in 363.

Before delving into the specifics of the four 'crises' Powell considers the Victorian legacy and the issue of poverty. The economic success of the former "generated rising expectations about the level of future comfort" which were later thwarted when price inflation outstripped wage increases. The awareness of poverty increased at the same time via reports and sociological studies resulting in tentative reform measures which in turn generated a "administrative tradition of reform...with civil servants and Whitehall experts working behind-the-scenes." Poverty, for Powell, is the focal point for the subsequent 'crises'.

The crisis events for Dangerfield and Powell are 1) a constitutional crisis over the boundaries between Parliament and the House of Lords, 2) suffragism, 3) labor unrest, and 4) Irish Home Rule. The first was arguably the most consequential, affecting the others, while the last was probably the most dangerous.

The constitutional dispute came about when the Lords, in contradistinction to the tradition of not touching finance bills, struck down the 1909 "Peoples" budget. While Dangerfield presents this as the Unionist/Conservative dominated Lords outrageously thwarting the Liberal Party's budget, Powell is typically more measured. Powell notes that "the 1909 budget was the hinge upon which the social reform programme of the New Liberalism turned. It established the principle of using the budget as a means of raising finance for new areas of state spending, and of redistributing wealth". And he observes that by the later, agreed to, understanding the 1909 budget would not have been considered a finance measure.

The resolution of the constitutional crisis after two elections and an agreement that the House of Lords could delay, but not stop parliamentary measures passed unchanged three times, opened the way for the suffragism and Home Rule disputes, by eliminating the Lords as a blocking agent, and in the latter case making the Liberal Party dependent on the Irish Nationalists. It is in regard to the labor crisis that Dangerfield's account is superior in that he focuses on strikes, labor unrest, and the rise of national unions across occupations in the form of the Triple Alliance, whereas Powell spends roughly half his pages on the Labour Party. Surely it is the potential of a consolidated, general strike that presented the greater legal and societal challenge. But this is to quibble, and Powell in each chapter's summation is masterful in bringing up the multi-dimensions and cross-currents at play in each of the disputes for all those involved.

So why read a book about events 100 years ago in a different country who's findings the author admits are "necessarily equivocal". First, it's just a good read, which ought to be enough. Second, there is scarcely a page which is absent something that will be strikingly familiar to the current observer of American politics, foremost the sense of political actors being forced to resolve issues without any good options available. And finally, there is perhaps the cautionary idea of how vulnerable a political system is when the participants play the game without any restraint. Who was it that observed that "history may not repeat, but it rhymes"?

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Democrats 'Debate'

There was playoff baseball on so I only watched snippets of the Democratic debate. My impression and the seeming consensus from my twitter feed, from a distinct conservative bias, was that it was generally a logical and policy train wreck. But to me the defining moment was when Hillary gave her the Benghazi Committee is nothing but a vehicle to persecute me, the people don’t care about my emails answer, and Bernie Sanders responded by echoing the sentiment followed by the debate crowd standing in applause.

First debate, FIRST DEBATE!!! and the Democrats are already circling the wagons. It was a demonstration of tribal solidarity that would’ve made the Mongols proud, if the Mongols were a notably tight knit tribe. It brought to mind the, highly critical, observation made by the late Herbert Stein who noted in regard to our public discourse that “things people say are not meant to be measured on the scale of truth. They are only signs by which one indicates which team one belongs to like the “identification-friend-or-foe’ warnings warplanes emit.”

Too true Herbert, too true. If you’re a conservative and took comfort in the ramshackle quality of last night’s debate, you haven’t been paying attention.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Thoughts/reaction to an interesting J. Goldberg - T. Burrus discussion

A very intelligent conversation/interview with a conservative-libertarian focus between Jonah Goldberg and Trevor Burrus can be found here: . There is enough to chew on here for multiple posts, but I wish to consider at least a few of the points discussed.

Towards the beginning of the interview Jonah talks about why attempts at a conservative slanted Jon Stewart type program have failed. His answer is a nice example of modes. Comedy fits within the poetic mode, that is something done for the thing itself. In contrast, the practical mode is all about transforming a current condition, to do x in order to bring about some improved change in circumstance. The failure that Jonah notes is the practical mode being applied to what should be a poetic mode activity; it is an ignoratio elenchi or a category error. And another example of the same error can be found in Lenny Bruce, when his standup routine became a vehicle for his re-litigating his legal difficulties.

At one point Jonah says that “fusionism is philosophically flawed” and it would be interesting to know what he means by the term philosophical flaw. In On Human Conduct—and elsewhere—Michael Oakeshott posits two ideal poles of government, civil association and enterprise association and makes clear that he considers that one without the other is untenable. Goldberg states that he’d accept (right word?) libertarianism if it weren’t for foreign policy and children. Oakeshott’s civil association is akin to a libertarian government and it is clearly his preference, but he notes it is incapable of defending itself and I believe he also thinks the poor are a problem for civil association (my guess is that he would consider children in regard to politics to come under the umbrella of their parents/guardians). So would Mr. Goldberg regard this indeterminancy, that political activity takes place between two ideal poles, as a “philosophical flaw?”

Towards the end of the interview, the host brings up a George Lakoff statement that “the problem with liberals [read progressives] is that we’re too rational” and in large part dismisses it by saying “no one thinks we’re irrational.” I think Mr. Burress has missed the mark here in thinking that the contrast with “rational” is irrational. If Lakoff is using rational in the sense of rationalist than the oppositions are pragmatism, idealism, existentialism, etc and I think he’s pointing to a real and important flaw. For example, the progressive doesn’t acknowledge Chesterton’s fence, because guided by rationalism it is of no account.

Finally, Jonah Goldberg talks about the palpable, current discontent and brings up the almost across the globe protests in 1968. He suggests that the current situation is rooted in technology getting out ahead of where we are. It’s an interesting take and in many respects I probably agree. But perhaps influenced by Jacques Barzun, I think it indicates an era coming to a close. The understandings and beliefs which supported the modern world have been picked over so thoroughly that there is nothing left; the parasitical activity of thought has killed the host.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Obama's Misunderstood Foreign Policy

Has a president’s foreign policy ever been more misunderstood than Obama’s? He came into office with the goal of restoring America’s reputation in the world.  Why did that reputation need to be restored? Because the U.S. was an ignorant hyper-power as anyone in Davos or other parts of Europe could tell you.

So now with things heating up in Asia and Syria looking like a modern replay of Spain in the thirties—heh, let’s get in a little preseason warfare before the big one—people are saying Obama either doesn’t have a strategy [false] or that it’s failing [really, really false].

Look Obama knew that America couldn’t cease to be a hyper-power any more than John Kerry could stop chasing after a Nobel Prize. The task was to make the world see the value in America being a hyper-power and for that Obama turned to history:

“A government of this sort doesn’t have to be regarded as the agent of a benign providence, as the custodian of moral law, or as the emblem of a divine order. What it provides is something that its subjects (if they are such people as we are) can easily recognize to be valuable…They scarcely need to be reminded of its indispensability, as Sextus Empiricus tells us the ancient Persians were accustomed periodically to remind themselves by setting aside all laws for five hair-raising days on the death of a king.”

See? The only failure here is that Obama assumed you knew more history than you do. Sure we might lose Israel in the hair-raising phase, and some U.S. cities might be no go zones for a while, but you know, eggs omelettes.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Foreign Policy and a Pure Theory of Obama

“The market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” - investing adage

“His answer was that his style was a system, or upon system, or some such cant; and when a man talks of system his case is hopeless.” - Lord Byron, Letters

One of the jokes in the TV series The Big Bang Theory, is genius theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper believing he's taught himself how to swim in his apartment via the internet. Sheldon, who works in string theory, thinks actually jumping into a pool is unnecessary for knowing how to swim. Last week a Russian general gave the US an hour to get out of the way in Syria, an event which closely followed the concluding of what many consider to be a disastrous nuclear deal with Iran. The criticism has consistently focused on weakness and inexperience. While I don’t think this is wrong, I think it is missing something which makes it more not less disconcerting. That is the extent to which Obama’s foreign policy is abstract, a normative theory arrived at through pure reason. Sheldon as leader of the free world (minus the extraordinary intelligence).

In the statements in which the administration suggests that it knows Iran and Russia's interests better than they do, and references to the arc of history we are dealing with a kind of homo-politicos (latin?), an abstract and necessarily uniform conception of the nation state. And while the result is nowhere near as well developed as the crudest investment theory, it does remind me of Long-Term Capital an investment firm founded by Nobel winners which put into practice the Black-Scholes option pricing theory. Unlike Obama's foreign policy Long-Term Capital had a period of great success before going bust when (nice coincidence this) the Russian market misbehaved.

And this is why I think Obama's foreign policy being predicated in theory makes it especially dangerous. Chamberlain at Munich, Carter in the 70's is weakness, a misreading of the situation. But when events brought to light their mistake, they corrected. But the theorist is likely to respond by holding only more tightly to his/her theory as indeed LTCM went in search of more capital because their positions were right it was the market that was wrong [I'm somewhat unfairly simplifying here, it's actually more complicated than this].

In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Alien Powers; The Pure Theory of Ideology, Ken Minogue remarks:

"Ideology was deadly in the twentieth century because it spread the illusion that those in posession of ideological wisdom had found the secret of understanding society as a whole. Such wisdom transcended the limited points of view we had inherited from the past. The remarkable illusion shared by communists, feminists, many nationalists, and lots of other advanced thinkers was created by imagining that the contingent world we actually inhabit, with all its unpredictabilities, was actually a system. Systems are sets of mechanisms that work in scientifically explicable ways."
For allies and adversaries, the operative idea in America's current foreign policy IS weakness. But it is rooted in something else. Particularly in the Middle East and in our dealings with Russia we are seeing Obama's Pure Theory.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Jonah Goldberg interviewed; Fusionism & Federalism - post III

Over at Steven Hayward has posted two segments to date of his interview with Jonah Goldberg covering the topic of becoming Goldberg. The first segment is here and the second segment is here . At the end of the second segment [spoiler alert] Goldberg brings up the topic/idea of Fusionism and Federalism.

Fusionism for the uninitiated is the attempt, primarily identified with Frank Meyer, to reconcile conservatism and libertarianism within the larger American conservative movement. I take it that Goldberg is amenable to the fusionist idea and he provides the foreword to a recently re-released edition of Meyer’s book on the subject

And one thing that surprises me, at least a little, is that no one with fusionist inclinations has realized that this site’s house philosopher is very much a fusionist. There are multiple reasons for why the political philosopher Michael Oakeshott hasn’t caught on in America, but one of them is that he is difficult to categorize and this difficulty is attributable to his not fitting comfortably in either the libertarian or the conservative camp. Indeed, both of the recently published companion books that explore Oakeshott’s work contain essays on the question of whether he should be considered a liberal [classical/libertarian], or a conservative, and the debate over whether there is one Oakeshott or an early and late Oakeshott has within it something of the same dispute. In short, someone interested in the idea of fusionism could do worse than look to Michael Oakeshott [I would suggest something other than Rationalism in Politics].

As to Federalism, this goes back to my roots. It was a James Buckley speech titled A Plea for a Return to Federalism that prompted me to look into conservative thought. And yet despite my own conversion, I’ve come to the conclusion that the conservative emphasis on Federalism is largely a mistake. Not the idea itself, although I have some reservations, but as a way to grow the conservative flock. My objection is that the Federalism argument confuses cause and effect and thus it is a discussion that exists entirely within the conservative tent.

In Rationalism in Politics, Oakeshott identifies two general characteristics of the type:

“They are the politics of perfection, and they are the politics of uniformity…there is no place in his [the rationalist] scheme for a ‘best in the circumstance’, only a place for the ‘best’; because the function of reason is precisely to surmount circumstances….Political activity is recognized as the imposition of a uniform condition of perfection upon human conduct.”
Now I take it that Progressivism is thoroughly rationalist. The replacement of federalism with centralization is therefore form following function. A plea for Federalism is to focus on the result rather than its cause and as such is likely to fail.