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Fighting the Last War


It’s been said many times that generals always prepare to fight the last war.

This makes sense when you think about it. “Last war” is a real, tangible thing with knowable problems and knowable achievements. “Next war” is uncertain, filled with unforeseen problems and unassessable risks. 

Notably, the “preparing to fight the last war” phenomenon is particularly pronounced on the winning side. After all, “we” won doing things a certain way … why change? All one has to be is “better” at “last war” and you will win “next war” even more easily.

Losers, by contrast, often think creatively about “next war.” They, after all, did not fare well in “last war,” and so need to change the terms of engagement if they have much chance of winning “next war.”

The classic example of this phenomenon can be found in the lead up to the German invasion of France in 1940. Between 1920 and 1940 French military leaders constructed elaborate, complex and powerful defenses against what they perceived would be “next war” against Germany. However, those leaders decided that “next war” (WWII), would be a carbon copy of “last war” (WWI). The Germans, however, had a different idea, and crushed France fairly easily despite France’s profoundly powerful military. 

Put another way, France prepared to fight a war its enemy decided not to fight, but failed to prepare for a war its enemy actually chose to fight.

It seems clear that the contemporary Republican Party, like the French between WWI and WWII, has gotten itself stuck in “last war.”

The party has been remarkably successful for the last 30 years in articulating a message grounded on two core principles: lower taxes (as a proxy for smaller government/self-reliance), and the culture war (moralistic claims that some ways of life were wrong or lesser, and that “good” Americans could only live in some ways). However, the tax claim is falling under its own weight: it’s one thing to lower taxes when they’re high, but quite another to lower them when they’re low and when government is out of money. Likewise, the culture war is failing: people are less worried about religiosity and gay marriage and marijuana smoking, to name a few examples, than they used to be.

But what was the very first bill introduced into the House of Representatives this session? Michelle Bachmann’s bill to repeal Obamacare—a version of a bill that passed the House 33 times in the last session of Congress before going precisely nowhere. Which is where this bill is going. 

Talk about fighting “last war.” I imagine the birthers and the socialisters and the fascist state worriers about gun control leading to the loss of all human freedom are just waiting their turn to ply their craft on the political stage. (Oops: believers in the gun control equals the end of freedom are already on stage, I see.) Meanwhile, in two presidential elections in a row the electorate has been younger and more diverse than the Republican election model can cope with.

The question is: where is the Republican Party going? Having lost “last war” will they rethink what it takes to win and change the grounds of engagement? Or will they stand at their Maginot Line (look it up!) and keep insisting that the war has to be fought on their terms, even as their opponents sweep to victory after victory?

The future of the Republican Party hangs in the balance of the answer to that question.

The Right Wing Crazy Train


So for some reason or another I got to thinking about the chain of wackadoo claims conservatives/radicals have made about Democrats/Progressives over the last 20+ years. Some highlights:

  • Bill Clinton had his aide Vince Foster killed to cover up the Whitewater Real Estate “scandal” from his Arkansas days.
  • Bill Clinton had the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City destroyed to cover up the Whitewater “scandal” — some of the FBI agents killed in OK City were alleged to have been knowledgable about the “scandal.” Alternatively, the bombing was alleged to have been done to cover up the Clinton administration’s mistakes in Waco, TX, dealing with the Branch Davidians. (There were real mistakes in this confrontation, by the way, which is not an endorsement of this claim.)
  • The Clinton administration had purchased “black helicopters” they were using to surveil Westerners in preparation for placing them in UN-run internment camps. (Google the name “Helen Chenoweth.” She was a Congresswoman from Idaho who made Michele Bachmann look like a voice of reason and consideration.)
  • During the Clinton Administration, NRA leader Wayne LaPierre described federal agents as “jack booted thugs” (a reference to Nazi SS storm troopers) for enforcing the Brady Bill. Talk show host and former Nixon attorney G. Gordon Liddy, who went to prison for his part in the Watergate scandal, urged his listeners to “aim high” if they were raided by federal agents since—and I am not making this up—federal agents wore body armor, and shots to the body wouldn’t be effective. All of this, of, course, was in the midst of the rise of the militia movement, an incipient armed rebellion against the US government centered in Montana and Idaho and built off the dregs of the survivalist and white supremacist movements.

Skipping forward a few years, we get …

  • Claims during the 2008 campaign that Obama was the literal Biblical antichrist.
  • The 2008 election was stolen by ACORN.
  • Claims that having schoolchildren watch an Obama speech about the importance of education was political indoctrination into the Obama cult of personality.
  • Birtherism. ‘Nuff said.
  • Muslimism. ‘Nuff said.
  • The bailout of the auto industry meant the socialization of the American economy. Which is already a lot socialized. And the auto industry is basically on its own again.
  • Obamacare = socialism, despite the fact that it’s based on private insurance and was mostly a windfall for private, for-profit health insurance providers.
  • Signing the UN Treaty on the rights of disabled persons would let the UN set rules for American parents in raising their children.
  • The 2012 election was stolen by ACORN … which hasn’t existed for several years.
  • Any form of gun control is the first step in creating a fascist state under the communist fascist Kenyan Muslim antichrist Obama.

And before anyone starts with the “the Democrats demonized Bush II” too nonsense, let me concede that lots of Democrats accused/implied that Bush had become president through illegitimate means (e.g., a crony Supreme Court). Lots thought he was a terrible president for lots of reasons (Politicalprof among them).  But you can show me nothing like this list from Democrats aimed at Republicans, particularly from elected, actual government officials or party leaders. And please note that in my list I cheated in the REPUBLICANS’ favor: I didn’t post anything from the assbags Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage and their ilk. Nothing, despite the millions of people they have in their daily radio audiences (especially Limbaugh).

So forgive me when I roundly mock the next right wing wackadoo who screams the sky is falling. Really: reason, truth, facts, evidence, science … none of these work. Outright mockery is about all we have left to address these loons.

It’s only reasonable.

Of Rights and Guns


Alas, too much of our discussion of gun rights these days starts and ends from a primitive understanding of the relationship between the Constitution’s statements about our rights and the real-world applications of those rights.

Put simply, the Constitution is almost always direct and simple. Amendment 1, for example, says  ”Congress shall make no law” limiting speech, or imposing religion, or interfering with your practice of religion, or limiting the press. What could be clearer? “No law” means “NO LAW,” right?

But practice is always murkier. Thus, while I have freedom of speech, we all know I can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater (when no fire is present). Likewise, if I oppose scientific medicine on religious grounds, I have the religious freedom to refuse to go to the doctor. However, the law says I have to take my son to the doctor regardless of my beliefs. And of course I have the right to assemble peaceably to petition government for redress of grievances, but I can’t block traffic just because I want to. No right is absolute and inviolable regardless of circumstance or context.

But not, according to the gun nuts, the second amendment. The gun wackos quote the second amendment—which has a limiting amendatory preface that the first amendment lacks—as if it is gospel. No limitation of any kind can be accepted … because the Constitution says so! The Second Amendment, then, is special, different: the one that is not subject to any kind of real world analysis or compromise.

It’s analytically primitive twaddle, but it drives our discourse about guns in America. We are the worse for it.

Pulling Up the Ladder Behind You


So there is a phenomenon in American political and social life that seems to me to need to at least be acknowledged: our relentless urge to pull the ladder up after ourselves.

The ladder, of course, is the ladder of opportunity.

See, the thing is that while we often refuse to acknowledge this, all of us stand on others’ shoulders as we make progress in life. The accomplishments of medicine, the arts, and science, for example, all frame the context in which we live our lives and make our way. I, for one,  am utterly blessed to have been born in an era where science can make good and complex eyeglasses: my eyes are lousy, and whatever successes I have had have been in part derived from the fact that I have had good glasses since I was six years old. Had I been born a century ago, my life would be lousy. But I wasn’t, and it isn’t.

In some sense, then, my basically successful life has been utterly dependent on other people’s work—the work that created the glasses that I have used to see my path to some kind of success.

Viewed this way, the plain truth is that all of us benefit from others’ accomplishments. Like antibiotics? Safe drinking water? Electric light (and batteries)? Whatever uses you make of these things, someone else had to make them before you could benefit from them. And those people, in turn, built off others’ accomplishments. it’s just how the world works.

Unfortunately, it is all too easy to forget the socially-connected nature of our lives. It is all too easy to think only of our own — very real — accomplishments, and to imagine our successes are entirely of our own making.

It is likewise easy to imagine that others’ failures are entirely the result of their own flaws and fumbles. 

We can see these attitudes in lots of parts of political and social life. To wit:

  • Recent immigrants are often the brunt of jokes and disrespect from more established immigrant groups.
  • People with jobs often perceive that any form of welfare is little more than coddling the poor—even when, in many cases, the employed have enjoyed government support in the past (like public education, tax breaks for home ownership and, in Mitt Romney’s father’s case, actual welfare when George Romney’s family moved back from Mexico when George was a child).
  • There are retirement towns in Arizona that have been exempted from paying that portion of local property taxes that goes to support local schools—an exemption granted on the theory that the retirees’ children didn’t go to school in Arizona, so they shouldn’t have to pay for the educations of current Arizona children.

All of this—and much more—is akin to pulling up the ladder behind you as you climb into a tree house: you got yours, so screw everyone else. Such selfishness is perhaps inevitable given that people seem to imagine our successes as totally ours and thus attribute others’ failings to their personal flaws, but in the end this kind of selfishness is self-defeating: the only way any of us can hope to succeed is to make sure that lots of people have lots of opportunities to succeed, even as we recognize that not everyone will. 

An America with strong ladders that can hold a lot of people, even those who sometimes fall off, will be a better America than one where the ladders are reserved to the people with tree houses.

Seriously, Bill O’Reilly?


So Bill O’Reilly has decided that the “lesson” of Hurricane Sandy is that people should learn to be self-reliant

His reason? Well, he had a generator in his home. When the hurricane hit Long Island, where he lives, he had a plan. And when the generator didn’t work, well, he had relationships with repairmen who came to fix his generator. He plans to pay them for their work.

Meanwhile, those silly government-dependent people suffered in NYC. And guess what? The government didn’t save them the exact moment their lives got messed up. So be self-reliant like Bill, and all will be well.

Alas, I am not making this twaddle up. Bill O believes himself to be “independent” and “prepared” because HE CALLED OTHER PEOPLE TO FIX HIS GENERATOR. People, I presume, who were not overwhelmed with work since the hurricane didn’t knock out other peoples’ generators … or people O’Reilly bribed to come to his house first by paying them a bonus from his millions and millions and dollars. Bill’s “plan” was to use his wealth to be first in line with the generator fixer people. So he is “self-reliant.”

Even if this is a reasonable definition of self-reliance (and it isn’t), let me ask you this, Bill: do you think those apartments and condos in NYC, even those of the uber-wealthy, are going to be allowed to have individual generators in their units? Much less the middle class and the poor? The notion that millions of people living in NYC can live the way you live on your baronial Long Island estate is simply absurd—even if they had your money. And if you don’t have a car or a way to get to a friend’s house when a storm approached, you’re pretty well stuck—even when flooding destroys the backup generator in your building’s basement.

It’s not about self-reliance. It’s about infrastructure. 

So yes, everyone needs a disaster plan. (My own is unfortunately woeful, but I at least know where to go in a tornado should one hit.) But the experience of a rich guy who lives on an estate on Long Island might not be the best model for teaching others how to deal with a natural disaster.

Next time, think about what you’re saying before you write it down.

The Divide


While running for President in 1980, Ronald Reagan famously quipped, “I’ve always felt the nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’”

As funny — and as effective — as these lines were in 1980, they have come to define the profound divide the exists in American politics today. Lots of people — call them conservatives, or tea partiers, or even skeptical pragmatists — think Reagan got it absolutely right. It isn’t hard, after all, to come up with a long list of government abuses and failures ranging from Iraq to Solyndra to No Child Left Behind to pepper-spraying students at the University of California-Davis … and many, many more.

For such people, the prospect of Obamacare is a sincere nightmare: now, the same people who brought you the debacle in Vietnam and the poverty barns of mega-housing projects like Chicago’s (now destroyed) Cabrini Green, want to “help you stay healthy” — and all for just a few dollars, too.

Others — call them liberals, or progressives, or hopeful pragmatists — find Reagan’s comments absurd. After all, it’s not like other institutions of social and political life have covered themselves in glory when it comes to matters of human freedom: corporations regularly cheat, steal and lie, often with deadly effects for the people who use their products; likewise, many private businesses reflected and reinforced the racial, gender, sexual orientation and other biases of their times. Such bias was buttressed by state governments that were particularly vicious towards the civil rights of many of their (minority) residents.

Those people who see the failures of the private sector and/or state governments to defend or expand freedom and liberty look to the federal government to do what no other agency of social and political life can: counter the power of the corporate, local and state-level actors who promote and practice discrimination, exclusion and the manipulation of power against the dignity of the individual.

Which story one tells defines one’s politics. Obamacare, economic stimulus, regulation of Wall Street, whatever: do you think the federal government helps or hurts? The answer to that question matters.

Welcome to the divide that cleaves contemporary American politics.

Hoping For Third


So a few days ago jasencomstock asked me a question to the effect of, “why do so many people like third parties so much”?

The context of his question derived from a series of queries I answered about the prospects of a third party emerging in the United States any time soon. In each case I noted I did not think a credible third party was going to arise in the near future, and explained why. But people kept asking.

So I kept thinking. Not about third parties—I stand by my analysis of why third parties aren’t on the way in. You can see those posts herehere and here. Rather, I kept thinking about the question of why so many people — NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman is perhaps the most famous of them all — want a third party so badly.

Two reasons pop out. First is simple political fantasy. People wish to believe that in a profoundly divided electorate, where large percentages of the population disagree about both WHAT is wrong and HOW to fix it, that someone somewhere has a magic formula that can bridge all the complexity and just make American politics work. The problem with American political life, then, isn’t structural, the result of people pursuing what they understand is their self interest at all costs. Instead, it’s technical: if only “they” would stop dividing us, we would all come together and do the right thing for America.

The second is laziness. What I mean by this is that hoping for a third party is in some ways the political equivalent of punting on third down: rather than get down and fight, one declares one’s prospects hopeless and waits for a new chance to play. Notably, almost no one calling for a new team actually wants to go to the trouble of creating it … they just want it to appear so they can join it. Or at least like its Facebook page. 

The hard truth is that politics in democracies almost always reflect the social and political character of the nation being governed. We are a divided nation. We have political institutions that were designed from their inception to be inefficient and mostly ineffective. We have lost a willingness to compromise and to imagine a tomorrow that is worth shared sacrifice today. The combination is brutal. And no third party is going to make it all go away.

Republicans and “Smaller” Government


One constantly hears that Republicans are the party of small government while Democrats are the party of big government. And, of course, the person making this claim usually makes it clear that small government is good and big government is bad. 

Except, of course, this characterization of the two parties’ positions on government is factual twaddle. 

Think about it this way: some parts of government can be termed the “helping people” parts of government (at least in intent). This part of government includes things like education, welfare, healthcare, food and drug inspections, parks, and even roads and bridges and other infrastructure. The goal—not always achieved—is to give people the tools they need to achieve their ambitions in life.

Another part of government might be termed the “hurting people” part of government. This part of government would include the military, the criminal justice system, fines and taxes and the like. It also includes punishing what some people see as immoral behavior. Note that I don’t think all of this is “bad.” Wars happen, after all, so we do need some kind of a military, and I am quite happy a lot of people who are in prison are there. It’s just that these parts of government are engaged in negative actions to shape or change behavior, rather than attempting to equip people as they build their lives.

So think about the difference in the parties this way: in general, Democrats want the “helping parts” of government to be bigger, and the “hurting people” parts of government to be smaller. (Unless, of course, they want BOTH to be bigger.) Republicans want the “helping people” parts of government to be smaller, and the “hurting people” parts of government to be bigger. 

Note that each has elaborate ideological justifications for these stands. But both are happy with substantial governments. They just differ on how big each part should be.

Libertarians, of course, think both should be as small as possible. Which is why Ron Paul won’t win the Republican Party nomination for President.

On Natural and Unnatural Politicians


Imagine two groups of politicians. Group A contains Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. Group B contains George H.W. Bush, John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney.

I want to suggest that these seemingly incongruous groupings make sense, at least on one variable.

Group A contains what we can term “natural” politicians. They are comfortable, easy, seemingly authentic. They amaze with their ability to interact with people they don’t know; they seem endlessly capable of asking strangers for votes and for money, all while seeming “real.” They like being on camera and can connect to both TV and local audiences in a wink.

Group B, in contrast, holds the “unnatural” politicians. They are smart, talented, capable and dedicated to public service. They are also stiff and awkward among groups of strangers. The rhythms of campaigning for office are forced on them. Television cameras are enemies. They are, somehow, inauthentic.

This thought comes to mind in light of Mitt Romney’s “I don’t care about the poor who have a safety net” comment, although it was forming during the critique of his “I like to fire people” statement a few weeks ago.

Don’t get me wrong: Romney’s statement was clearly stupid. Anyone who thinks the US safety net is very strong has a far too rosy understanding of the ability of the safety “net” to help people. We don’t have a “net” so much as a wet paper towel that purports to be able to stop a dropped bowling ball from hitting the ground. 

However, I don’t think Romney’s latest comment, any more than his comment about firing people, was cruel. He, like most Americans, lives with the honest sense that the American safety net is real and meaningful. Similarly, he, like most Americans (including, I should add, Politicalprof) likes to have choices in vendors to provide various goods and services. (There are stores I refuse to patronize, for example, because I thought I was treated badly there—and because I have a choice of other stores to go to.) While he’s wrong on the safety net (as are most Americans) and he’s foolish for believing that you’ll get any more choice in insurance companies than you get in cable companies, the sentiments he expressed are common and popular in the United States. 

But god did he express his point badly. In both cases—or, for that matter, with his $10,000 bet offer with Rick Perry during a debate—he came across as forced, insensitive, thoughtless … in a word, unnatural. 

The bad news for Mitt Romney is that there is no magic pill one can take, no amount of consulting one can endure that can remake an unnatural politician into a natural one. (To the degree Politicalprof does politics on his own campus he is definitely in the “unnatural” camp, so he knows of what he speaks.) The good news is that the US does hire unnatural politicians as President. The key is to be seen to have answers that the so-called “natural” politicians don’t.

So stop trying to be casual and fun, Mitt. Be your inner nerd. Really: it’s only natural.

A Republic, if you can keep it.

Benjamin Franklin, to a questioner after being asked what kind of government had been created in Independence Hall in the summer of 1787.

Pretty much everything I think about politics derives from that last clause: “if you can keep it.” Politicians can be demagogic, thoughtless and stupid. Media can be money-chasing sensationalists only truly worried about the second-to-second ratings their stories get online. Corporations can be self-interested and fantasize that the aggregation of endless self-interested pursuits will magically emerge as the community’s interest.

But citizens have to be smart. Citizens have to recognize what forces are trying to strip their power away for selfish ends. Citizens have to care.

There is no “them” who has to protect democracy for the citizenry. We have to do it for ourselves.

(via politicalprof)

(via kileyrae)