What It Means To Recognize Complexity

I could have written the introduction to a recent New York Times column by Frank Bruni. In fact, I’ve written some posts that sound eerily familiar! Those of you who’ve read this blog for a while will recognize the similarity; here’s his lede:

I warn my students. At the start of every semester, on the first day of every course, I confess to certain passions and quirks and tell them to be ready: I’m a stickler for correct grammar, spelling and the like, so if they don’t have it in them to care about and patrol for such errors, they probably won’t end up with the grade they’re after. I want to hear everyone’s voice — I tell them that, too — but I don’t want to hear anybody’s voice so often and so loudly that the other voices don’t have a chance.

And I’m going to repeat one phrase more often than any other: “It’s complicated.” They’ll become familiar with that. They may even become bored with it. I’ll sometimes say it when we’re discussing the roots and branches of a social ill, the motivations of public (and private) actors and a whole lot else, and that’s because I’m standing before them not as an ambassador of certainty or a font of unassailable verities but as an emissary of doubt. I want to give them intelligent questions, not final answers. I want to teach them how much they have to learn — and how much they will always have to learn.

When I was still teaching, I echoed every bit of that message–adding to the repeated admonition about complexity a lawyer’s reminder that issues are inevitably fact-sensitive. In other words, “it depends.”

Bruni’s essay goes on to address something my previous posts did not–why the recognition of complexity matters. It’s about humility. As Bruni says, recognizing that “it’s complicated” is a bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity and zeal.

As eminent jurist Learned Hand famously put it, “The spirit of liberty is the spirit that is not so sure it’s right.”

Arrogance, absolutism, purity and zeal…could there be a more succinct, more accurate description of the crazies in the Senate and especially the zealots in the House of Representatives who are currently preventing thoughtful governance? (We should have a t-shirt with those words printed on it sent to Indiana’s own version of Marjorie Taylor Green, Jim Banks…)

Bruni asserts–I think properly–that humility is the antidote to grievance, and that grievance is the overwhelming political motivator these days.

We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance — by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire. This anger reflects a pessimism that previous generations didn’t feel. The ascent of identity politics and the influence of social media, it turned out, were better at inflaming us than uniting us. They promote a self-obsession at odds with community, civility, comity and compromise. It’s a problem of humility.

 The Jan. 6 insurrectionists were delusional, frenzied, savage. But above all, they were unhumble. They decided that they held the truth, no matter all the evidence to the contrary. They couldn’t accept that their preference for one presidential candidate over another could possibly put them in the minority — or perhaps a few of them just reasoned that if it did, then everybody else was too misguided to matter. They elevated how they viewed the world and what they wanted over tradition, institutional stability, law, order.

Bruni reminds readers that successful government requires teamwork, and that any significant progress requires consensus. “Governing, as opposed to demagoguery, is about earning others’ trust and cooperation. Exhibiting a willingness to listen to and to hear them goes a long way toward that.”

The entire linked essay is worth reading. Its message is especially pertinent to Hoosiers as Indiana winds down to the May 7th primary election. The vicious, nasty, dishonest ads being aired ad nauseam by Republicans running for Governor and for Congress are reminiscent more of monkeys throwing poo than messages from serious individuals willing to act upon their understanding of the common good. These contending political accusations display no hint of humility, no recognition of complexity, not even a nod toward civility. (Research suggests that voters’ response to such negative campaigning isn’t a vote for the particular monkey throwing the poo, but rather a decision to stay home on election day. That’s an unfortunate, but understandable, reaction.)

America faces complicated, pressing issues. We really need to stop electing purists and zealots who are ill-equipped to understand the complexity of those issues and too arrogant and absolutist to engage in the democratic negotiation and compromise necessary to solve them.


Thank You, Nikki Kelly!

I have vented several times about the political advertisements being run by candidates vying for their parties’ nominations in Indiana’s upcoming primaries. (Actually “parties’ nomination” is inaccurate: all of the ads I’ve seen have been for Republicans –Democrats have fewer primary battles and are presumably saving their dollars for the general election.)

It’s bad enough that the GOP combatants have engaged in out-and-out racism and claimed ridiculous “outsider” status; virtually all of the candidates for Governor have ignored the issues that a governor actually faces in favor of culture-war appeals. A governor has zero authority over America’s southern border, for example, but these Republicans clearly believe that an appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment (those people are brown!) coupled with wild accusations that immigration is the source of illicit drugs (it isn’t), will win the cold hearts of their primary voters.

The ads are offensive to anyone who has the slightest understanding of the difference between federal and state jurisdiction. I can only assume they are evidence of one of two things: either the candidates themselves are ignorant of basic legal and constitutional boundaries, or–more probably–they believe their likely voters are uneducated and unaware of how government works.

Obviously, I’m not the only one who has come to that conclusion. Nikki Kelly, of the Capital Chronicle has addressed the issue. 

Up until now, the GOP gubernatorial candidates have mostly fallen back on national talking points. But that does a disservice to Hoosier voters who want their next governor to be focused on Indiana issues.

And despite what many of their ads say, that’s not China or the southern border or even online safety — which are largely federal issues.

Kelly has a surprising ally in her quest for a discussion of legitimately local issues: Indiana’s incumbent Republican Governor, Eric Holcomb. Holcomb has thus far withheld an endorsement of any of the candidates.

It appears that even Gov. Eric Holcomb is getting impatient. Though he has declined to endorse any candidates, he recently had some interesting comments about the race.

“My thought process is: there are a lot of folks who approach me that are undecided because they’re uninformed about where (the candidates) stand on issues that a governor has to address on a day in day out basis.

“We can repeat words. And (in) most of those words I see broad agreement within the candidates,” he said. “But there are items that come across the governor’s desk and what the Legislature grapples with that aren’t being discussed that I think should be more in detail.”

The Governor mentioned several of the issues where voters deserve to know the candidate’s positions: economic development strategies, infrastructure financing, the state’s mental health challenges, the extension of broadband, and a sustainable Medicaid program. Those are, after all, issues with which the next administration will have to contend.

Kelly adds to that list. How will the next governor approach taxation–especially given the GOP’s fixation on reducing the “tax burden”? If taxes are cut, where will the state get the funds to maintain–let alone repair and/or expand–infrastructure and essential services?

What about support for Indiana’s death penalty? The state can no longer get the drugs used in executions. “Do candidates support eliminating the death penalty and saving money on court battles? Or, would they move to other execution methods? And how does their position square with their anti-abortion rhetoric?”

Where do these culture warriors stand on education? As Kelly notes, Republicans have controlled Hoosier education for over 20 years, yet we have seen no improvement. Test scores and graduation rates have stagnated while the state continues to rob public schools of critically-needed resources in order to fund vouchers for private–overwhelmingly religious–schools.

And what about abortion, and the numerous other issues involved in health care? As Kelly says,

When a candidate can answer these questions with depth and specifics they will earn my vote. And I don’t necessarily have to agree with them philosophically on every matter — they just have to be willing to speak beyond slogans and political dog whistles.

Well, these candidates are certainly going beyond dog whistles, but not in a direction either Kelly or I would endorse.

Nothing I’ve seen in these ugly political spots gives me any confidence that any of them are interested in tackling the real work of governing. I used to mentally divide political candidates into two groups: those who want to do something–improve governance–and those who want to be someone. Someone important.

I’d put all the candidates running these deplorable ads in the latter category.


Political Diversity

In a recent essay for the New York Times, Jamelle Bouie traced the arc of GOP radicalization.

He noted an undeniable fact: while the Democratic Party overall is more liberal than it has previously been,  it is not nearly as ideologically uniform as the GOP. Neither does it employ a doctrinaire liberalism as a litmus test in most Democratic Party primaries. As he points out,

Joe Biden, for example, is the paradigmatic moderate Democrat and, currently, the president of the United States and leader of the Democratic Party, with ample support across the party establishment. And in Congress, there’s no liberal equivalent to the House Freedom Caucus: no group of nihilistic, obstruction-minded left-wing lawmakers. When Democrats were in the majority, the Congressional Progressive Caucus was a reliable partner of President Biden’s and a constructive force in the making of legislation. If the issue is polarization, then it seems to be driving only one of our two parties toward the abyss.

What accounts for the fact that the Democratic Party still operates as a normal American political party while the Republican Party so clearly doesn’t? Why do Democratic moderates continue to hold the levers of power within the national party, while –as we’ve just seen– extremists completely control the GOP?

One important reason for this fact is the heterogeneity of the Democratic coalition. To piece together a majority in the Electoral College, or to gain control of the House or Senate, Democrats have to win or make inroads with a cross-section of the American public: young people, affluent suburbanites, Black, Hispanic and Asian American voters, as well as a sizable percentage of the white working class. To lose ground with any one of these groups is to risk defeat, whether it’s in the race for president or an off-year election for governor.

Political pundits often note the problems posed by the Democrats’ diversity : phrases like “circular firing squad” and “it’s like herding cats” come to mind. But Bouie reminds readers that the elements that make consensus difficult are also small-d democratic positives:

A broad coalition also means a broad set of interests and demands, some of which are in tension with one another. This has at least two major implications for the internal workings of the Democratic Party. First, it makes for a kind of brokerage politics in which the most powerful Democratic politicians are often those who can best appeal to and manage the various groups and interests that make up the Democratic coalition. And second, it gives the Democratic Party a certain amount of self-regulation. Move too far in the direction of one group or one interest, and you may lose support among the others.

Governing a diverse polity requires an ability to compromise, to operate and negotiate among diverse needs and interests. Whatever terms describe today’s GOP, “diverse” is not one of them.

Consider the demographics of the Republican coalition. A majority of voters in both parties are white Americans. But whereas the Democratic Party electorate was 61 percent white in the 2020 presidential election, the Republican one was 86 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. Similarly, there is much less religious diversity among Republicans — more than a third of Republican voters in 2020 were white evangelical Protestants — than there is among Democrats. And while we tend to think of Democrats as entirely urban and suburban, the proportion of rural voters in the Democratic Party as a whole is actually greater than the proportion of urban voters in the Republican Party. There is, in other words, less geographic diversity among Republicans as well.

The GOP is also ideologically monolithic– almost uniformly conservative. There are plenty of moderate Democrats; as Bouie notes, however, moderate Republican politicians are virtually extinct. “The Republican Party exists almost entirely for the promotion of a distinct and doctrinaire ideology of hierarchy and antigovernment retrenchment.”

The key issue for conservative voters and conservative media isn’t whether a Republican politician can pass legislation or manage a government or bridge political divides; the key question is whether a Republican politician is sufficiently committed to the ideology, whatever that means in the moment…

Outdated electoral systems incentivize even further radicalization.

The Republican Party is practically engineered to produce politicians like Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene. And there’s no brake — no emergency off switch — that might slow or stop the car. The one thing that might get the Republican Party back on the rails is a major and unanticipated shift in the structure of American politics that forces it to adapt to new voters, new constituencies and new conditions.

Only if massive losses force the GOP to diversify will the party be capable of participating in democratic governance. Today, it’s just a monolithic tribe.


Exceeding My Expectations

I recently ran across a cartoon showing a couple of shipwreck survivors heading toward two small islands– one with palm trees, the other with an erupting volcano. One of the castaways asked the other “which one should we choose?”

The 2024 Presidential election in a nutshell. Even someone who found that first island  unappealing would have to be nuts to choose the one spewing volcanic ash. (I still can’t get my head around the millions of presumably uninformed or deranged Americans who cast ballots for volcanic ash in 2020…)

But here’s the thing: lots of people plan to vote Biden because they recognize that a vote for Trump is a vote for certain disaster. That reasoning–while sound–simply ignores the fact that Biden has been a transformative, progressive President. I loved Barack Obama, but fair is fair: Biden has accomplished far more.

I’ve previously shared  my middle son’s observation that Biden is the first person he’s voted for who vastly exceeded his expectations.

I’d attribute the mismatch between performance and public perception to lackluster oratory, except that people voted for Trump, whose pronouncements are word salads showcasing his third-grade vocabulary.

A few pundits have begun to address the persistent lack of recognition of Biden’s considerable governing skills. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was one. As he began,

The tragedy of Joe Biden is that people see his age, his frailty and his ailing poll numbers and they miss the bigger story. Which is that his has been a truly consequential presidency, even a transformational one. In less than three years, he has built a record that should unify US progressives, including those on the radical left, and devised an economic model to inspire social democratic parties the world over, including here in Britain.

As Freedland writes, making the case for “Bidenism” isn’t hard.

Top of the list is, characteristically, something that sounds boring but is of enormous significance: the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year. That seemingly technocratic piece of legislation actually achieves two epochal goals. First, it hastens the day the US makes the break from fossil fuels – by making clean energy not only the morally superior option for both industry and consumers, but the financially superior one too.

It does that through a massive raft of tax breaks, subsidies and incentives all designed to encourage the production of wind turbines, solar panels, ever improving battery technology, geothermal plants and the like, along with tax credits aimed at making electric cars irresistible even to those middle-American consumers more concerned about their wallets than the burning planet.

Those who understand the threat posed by climate change–everyone from environmental activists to Goldman Sachs–has hailed the act as a “gamechanger.”

But the second goal of the legislation is almost as significant. Biden insisted that this surge in green manufacturing would happen inside the US, thereby reviving industrial towns and cities in decline since the 1980s. It is US factories that are getting the subsidies to build all this clean tech – alongside an earlier, huge package of infrastructure spending – restoring jobs to workers who had long been written off.

Bidenomics resurrects Democratic principles discarded by Bill Clinton: an activist state making serious public investments in manufacturing;”muscular regulation” of corporations; and encouragement of unionized labour.

Freedland reminds us that securing passage of this transformative legislation was remarkable, given a Senate then split 50-50 between the parties.

A new book by Franklin Foer, The Last Politician, describes how Biden, whose hands were already full with the Covid pandemic and the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, was not content simply to be a caretaker manager, troubleshooting crises. Instead, “he set out to transform the country.”

The result is that Biden has “redirected the paradigm” of US economic life in a way that will affect Americans “for a generation”. While Obama and Clinton were “deferential to markets”, says Foer, Biden has reversed “the neoliberal consensus” in place since the Ronald Reagan era.

Biden insists–correctly–that “capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” and as a result, his administration is resurrecting anti-trust enforcement.  Foer writes that, “As a matter of substance, he is the most transformational president since Reagan.”

Internationally, Biden is credited with bringing stability after the chaos and dictator-coddling of the Trump years and, especially, for building and maintaining a western alliance in support of Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian imperialism. Others admire his handling of China: robust, without crossing the line where a cold war turns hot.

Freedland says Biden campaigned in “reassuring prose,”  but has governed in “radical poetry.”

Age isn’t all negative. Coupled with intellect and experience, it allows time for the development of skills. It allows people like Joe Biden to exceed our expectations.


The Administrative State

One basic question is at the foundation of political philosophy: what should government do? Or perhaps a different formulation is clearer: what is government for?

People who engage with that question begin with the basics: governments were created to prevent some citizens from harming others. (In that pesky “state of nature,” the strong can take advantage of the weak.) That seemingly simple formulation, it turns out, is not really so simple, because it raises a very thorny question: what’s the nature and extent of harm that government should be empowered to prevent or ameliorate? 

Even harms that most of us consider obvious turn out to be less than simple. Government should certainly enforce laws against murder, for example, but how do we define “murder”? Must it be intentional? What about self-defense? Warfare? 

When we get to other kinds of harm, the arguments mount. Local ordinances against smoking in restaurants and bars are relatively recent reactions to newly recognized harms from passive smoke–and those rules have encountered considerable resistance. What about seat belts? Does a refusal to “buckle up” harm anyone other than the unbuckled person who gets into an accident? Can the government that insists you buckle up also make you eat your vegetables?

When does legitimate authority become the nanny state?

Political philosophers have debated these issues at least since the Enlightenment, and most of us recognize that modern life has made them much more difficult. People living on widely scattered farms where they grow their own food require fewer rules than people who live in cities and depend upon government agencies to ensure the safety of the foods on their grocery shelves.

One of America’s many, many ideological divisions grows out of the debate about government’s role in protecting us from a wide variety of previously non-existent harms: airplanes colliding in mid-air, contaminated foods on those grocery shelves, pollutants discharged into our rivers and streams, internet scams. What is generally called “the administrative state” has grown out of the need for government to monitor and prevent such harms.

Which brings me to the current attacks on that administrative state. As participants in one recent podcast argued,

Since the Reagan administration, conservatives and their allies in the business community have had regulatory agencies in their crosshairs. Institutions like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA; the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA; and the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA—all aim to protect the health and safety of the citizenry. But the agencies, and the dedicated civil servants who work at them, are seen in some quarters as examples of unnecessary executive authority. Steve Bannon even called “the deconstruction of the administrative state” a main goal of the Trump administration.

The obvious question is: what would the United States look like without the administrative state?  On How to Save a Country, the hosts asked that question of K. Sabeel Rahman. Rahman was associate administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Biden administration until earlier this year and  is the co-founder and co-chair of the Law and Political Economy Project, former president of the think tank Demos, and the author of several books on democracy.

The older argument was between progressives who believe that poverty and inequality are harms that government should address through mechanisms like Social Security and Medicare, and the (usually privileged) folks who disagree. 

The podcast focused on how that argument has changed, and why today’s Right is so focused on dismantling the “administrative state.” What do they really mean when they say “drain the swamp?”‘Rahman addressed that question.

Our new dangers always have their seeds in the old, but I do think there’s something different and maybe especially dangerous about the moment we’re in now. There’s absolutely a good faith understandable set of debates that we have been having forever and we’ll continue to have about the appropriate reach and scope of government from liberal versus libertarian standpoints. And that’s fine. What I think is not fine is the legal guerrilla warfare that I think we’re starting to see … I don’t think it’s just libertarianism of the familiar kind. This is really a white supremacist ideology wearing a different set of clothes. It’s about dismantling the parts of government that are trying to create a more inclusive, egalitarian society and leaving unchecked and unshackled the parts of government that terrorize communities of color. The Bannonites are not at all troubled by ICE and CBP and the way the Trump administration treated migrants at the border. 

There is much more in the podcast–much of it about the fact that the complexity of modern harms and the acknowledged deficits in administrative processes require officials with expertise.

It’s worth a listen.