Allow Me To Translate..And Pontificate

In a recent column in the New York Times, Thomas Edsall once again returned to the subject of political polarization, and–as is his typical approach–quoted scholars on the subject. As a former member of that tribe, I will admit that the problem with quoting academics is the occasional impenetrability of the language. (It’s not a problem limited to academia–not long after becoming Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, I was counseled by a member of the national staff to stop sounding like an “ACLU lawyer.” Every career has its jargon…)

At any rate, allow me to quote–and then translate–one of the scholars who responded to Edsall:

Interventions to reduce affective polarization will be ineffective if they operate only at the individual, emotional level. Ignoring the role of polarizing politicians and political incentives to instrumentalize affective polarization for political gain will fail to generate change while enhancing cynicism when polite conversations among willing participants do not generate prodemocratic change.

In other words, polarization isn’t just a matter of individual hostility for those on the other “team.” Political leadership bears considerable responsibility for MAGA resistance to democratic norms. The polarization reflected in our everyday conversations is cultivated by political “culture warriors” like Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Green and her Indiana clone, Jim Banks. As a different scholar (one evidently more comfortable with normal English usage) put it:

I don’t think any bottom-up intervention is going to solve a problem that is structural. You could reduce misperceptions for a day or two, or put diverse groups together for an hour, but these people will be polarized again as soon as they are exposed once more to campaign rhetoric.

A recent study evidently found that widespread popular opposition to anti-democratic policies is insufficient to prevent their adoption. That research found that what the scholars called “backsliding behavior by elites” occurred irrespective of a lack of public approval or support; and that much of the problem is rooted in the fact that “Americans, despite their distaste for norm violations, continue to elect representatives whose policies and actions threaten democracy.”

In other words–and this will most definitely not come as a shock to any citizen who’s been paying even the slightest attention–virtually all of the current dysfunctions of governance are caused by the various doofuses we’re electing. (I cannot restrain myself from reminding you, dear readers, that it is frequently thanks to gerrymandering that we are electing these performative, anti-democratic culture warriors.)

As another scholar opined,

Whatever techniques might exist to reduce citizen animosity must be accompanied by efforts to reduce hostility among elected officials. It doesn’t matter if we can make someone more positive toward the other party if that effect is quickly undone by watching cable news, reading social media, or otherwise listening to divisive political elites.

In other words–as several of the researchers contacted by Edsall confirmed– positive effects of efforts to intervene and ameliorate polarization “are almost immediately nullified by the hostile rhetoric in contemporary politics.”

A professor of psychological science at the University of California-Irvine attributed the persistence of polarization to what he dubbed a “moralized political environment,” and that phrase resonated with me. I am hardly the only person to see today’s political disputes as evidence that contemporary political combat takes place between partisans who hold significantly different values. 

As Edsall noted,

The issues dividing the parties have changed. When the two parties fought over size of government, taxes, social welfare programs, it was possible for partisans to imagine a compromise that is more or less acceptable even if not ideal. Compromise on issues like abortion, gender roles, L.G.B.T.Q.+ rights, the role of religion is much more difficult. So losing feels like more of a threat to people’s values.

From my vantage point, we have moved from good faith arguments about the proper approach to various issues–the “how”–to arguments about “whether.” Rather than debating, say, the best way to feed poor children, we confront self-identified “pro life” politicians who simply oppose spending any tax dollars on food for poor children. Rather than debates about America’s global role and the least dangerous way to approach Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, political figures like Braun and Banks vote–as conservative George Will wrote–“to assure Vladimir Putin’s attempt to erase a European nation.” Etcetera.

We aren’t having “political” arguments. We are having deeply moral ones.

Survey research confirms that a majority of the American public is on the right side of those moral debates–but that obsolete political structures allow MAGA Republicans–a statistical minority– to ignore We the People.

Political structures empowering ideological minorities are the reason we can’t just “make nice” and “all get along.”


Never Thought I’d Live To See This…

One of the dubious benefits of living a long time is that you live through really striking cultural and institutional changes. During my lifetime, I’ve seen changes I consider very positive–the expansion of women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, an internet connection to virtually all of human information, ease of global travel…I could go on and on.

But I’m also around to see the backlash to all of that. And even weirder, I’ve lived to see a Republican Party that once rabidly opposed Communism and “the evil empire” embrace authoritarianism and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

A while back, I shared a folk song from the Sixties  that made fun of the John Birch Society and its habit of seeing “commies”  under every bush. (“If mommy is a commie then you’ve got to turn her in.”) Back then, the political Right was focused–frequently far too focused–on the dangers of totalitarianism and authoritarianism and government control of the economy.

If you had told me back then that the GOP would “evolve” into a party of pro-Russian apologists, I’d have asked you what you were smoking. But here we are.

A recent discussion at Persuasion was titled “When Hatred of the Left Becomes Love for Putin,” and contains the following observations:

According to Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump will quickly end the war in Ukraine if he is elected, by refusing “a single penny” of aid and effectively forcing the country’s capitulation to Russia. The statement, which followed Orbán’s meeting with Trump last month, is a stark reminder of the extent to which the Trumpified GOP is becoming the anti-Ukraine party, a far cry from early bipartisan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russian aggression. And while opposition to aid to Ukraine doesn’t necessarily entail support for Vladimir Putin—common rationales include that the United States must focus on domestic problems or on the more dangerous threat from China, or that Ukraine can’t win and prolonging the war only means more death and suffering—Putin-friendly themes have been increasingly prominent on the right. At this point, pro-Putinism is no longer an undercurrent in right-wing rhetoric: it’s on the surface.

Granted, not all Putin-lovers are similarly motivated.

For some, their hatred of the American left overrides any feelings they have about Putin. Others are more ideological: they oppose the Western liberal project itself. Untangling these different strains is key to explaining why so many on today’s right embrace views that, until recently, would have gotten them branded Kremlin stooges by other conservatives.

The article references Tucker Carlson– his recent, adoring trip to Moscow and his fawning interview of Putin.

The interview was a two-hour lovefest in which Putin and his lies went unchallenged except for some polite pushback on Evan Gershkovich, the American journalist held in Russia on phony spying charges. Then, Carlson topped this with gushy videos extolling the wonders of the Soviet-built Moscow subway and of Russian supermarkets.

And it cited an article from the Federalist published the day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:

Author Christopher Bedford, former head of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a prolific contributor to right-of-center media, not only bluntly stated that “a lot of us hate our elites far more than we hate some foreign dictator” but admitted finding a lot to admire in said dictator—for instance, Putin’s unapologetic defense of Russia’s “religion, culture and history,” while Western elites denigrate and apologize for theirs.

Today’s GOP has abandoned even the remnants of genuine conservatism; today, the party is hysterically “anti-woke”–a cult focused on culture war efforts to return straight White Christian males to social dominance.

It’s hardly news by now that many American right-wingers see Putin’s Russia as the antithesis of Western “wokeness.” This is especially true with regard to sexual and gender norms: I noted the beginnings of this trend in 2013, when several right-wing groups and conservative pundits praised a Russian law censoring “propaganda” of homosexuality. Discussing the phenomenon recently in the context of the GOP’s anti-Ukraine turn, David French pointed to such examples as far-right strategist Steve Bannon’s praise for Putin’s “anti-woke” persona and Russia’s conservative gender politics, or psychologist Jordan Peterson’s suggestion that Russia’s war in Ukraine was partly self-defense against the decadence of “the pathological West.”…

The article notes that, for some Republicans, pro-Putin rhetoric indicates a radical rejection of liberalism, even the classical  liberalism of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It quotes the “near-panegyric” to Putin in a 2017 speech by Claremont Institute’s Christopher Caldwell at Hillsdale College, and notes that both Claremont and Hillsdale are “intellectual hubs of Trumpist national conservatism.”

Read the entire essay. This isn’t remotely the GOP of my youth…..and it’s scary.


On The Brink

What a time for Congress to be impotent.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine will have enormous consequences for global democracy, and requires unflagging support that MAGA Republicans oppose. The war just launched by Hamas against Israel threatens to strengthen Netanyahu, a corrupt, anti-democratic autocrat embraced by Trump who has caused immense damage to Israel’s reputation, both at home and abroad, and to further destabilize one of the world’s most dangerous areas. Climate change is accelerating, while MAGA Republicans continue to deny its reality. The gap between the rich and the rest is accurately characterized as a new and massively unfair Gilded Age. American lifespans are declining…The list goes on.

And the Republicans in Congress are clowns, utterly unable to rise to any occasion, or to make even the most feeble efforts to do their jobs. The GOP has picked a very unfortunate time to disintegrate ala the Whigs.

As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has observed, McCarthy’s downfall is another symptom of the same underlying pathologies: a cultish GOP in thrall to a would-be autocrat, anti-majoritarian structural impediments, a surge in right-wing extremism, and White resentments and grievances channeled into a burn-it-all-down fever.

 Unfortunately, McCarthy’s ouster.doesn’t change those underlying systemic problems. Republicans in the House are deeply divided between an outdated and unrealistic Right wing and a full-blown lunatic Right. The two candidates who’ve emerged as frontrunners in the contest to succeed McCarthy would be unacceptable in any rational legislative body. (Jim Jordan is so unhinged that one Democratic strategist has been quoted for the observation that elevating him would give Democrats 14 additional House seats. Steve Scalise is best known for his claim to be “David Duke without the baggage.”)

All this would be bad enough in a saner, more peaceful world. Now, it’s terrifying–sort of like being stuck in place with a broken leg while watching an avalanche descending on you . 

Jennifer Rubin recently summed up where we are, and she echoed my own feelings: 

After Hamas is defeated, there will be a reckoning in Israel to match anything we have ever seen. Evidence of warnings to the Israeli government about insufficient deterrence, recriminations about putting a racist ideologue in the Defense Ministry post and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s misguided assault on democracy will all be reviewed. Careers will end. History will convict many of grotesque negligence.

Here in the United States, I have less patience than usual (which is often none) for inane right-wing rhetoric in the United States. No, there were no humanitarian funds released to Iran that might have put money in the mullahs’ pockets to be spent on Hamas. No, the Biden administration did not invite any of this. Republicans used to denounce the urge to “blame America first” for monstrous evil perpetrated by others. No more.

This should, but likely will not, inject some sobriety into the Republican Party, which has held up U.S. military promotions and confirmations and State Department postings; brought the House to a state of collapse under the weight of MAGA hysteria; carried water for Russia (an ally of Iran); and generally reminded us that adults are needed in government.

Voters need to wise up: We cannot tolerate the return to power of the egregiously unfit four-times indicted former president (who gleefully spread around intelligence information) nor allow MAGA nihilists to hold the country hostage. The stakes here and around the world are far too grave.

And those stakes are “around the world.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began the largest war in Europe since World War II. Meanwhile, China has become more bellicose toward Taiwan, India is experiencing an eruption of virulent nationalism, and Israel has formed the most extreme government in its history. Populism is growing in otherwise democratic countries like France and Spain.

If the chaos caused in large measure by the “stop the world, I want to get off” Republcans in Congress ends up adding fuel to a meltdown of civilization and stability across the globe, if the wars that keep breaking out engulf us in another worldwide conflict, a significant cause will be the fact that far too many Americans have reverted to an unthinking and reflexive tribalism while they wallow in an utter lack of interest in –or desire for–adult governance.

The only bright spot in any of this is the fact that we have a seasoned, wise and statesmanlike President at the helm, and not the preceding ignoramus.


Elon Musk And The Public/Private Dilemma

Alexandra Petri recently had a gloriously snarky opinion piece in the Washington Post,comparing Elon Musk to her toddler. Titled “Things both my toddler and Elon Musk do that are signs of genius, apparently” it included things like “Constantly yelling at people to change things that cannot be changed” and “When presented with slow, patient explanations of why things are not possible, just screams louder;” and “Likes to seize nice things and ruin them because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what they are for.”

And of course, “Wants to be center of attention at all times.”

It’s disturbing enough when a man-child (“man-toddler?”) has enough money to buy and control what had been a significant mode of communication, but its terrifying to discover that this petulant child has the power to interfere in matters of global war and peace. As multiple media outlets have reported, Musk’s SpaceX refused to allow Ukraine to use its Starlink internet services to launch an attack on Russia last September–a decision that undoubtedly prolonged the conflict and benefitted Russia.

Musk has defended his decision as an effort to prevent possible nuclear war. Whatever your opinion of that excuse, or his action, the episode raises a profound question: should a single private citizen–even one less mercurial and self-aggrandizing than Musk– have the power to decide such questions? 

We live in a very weird time. Government evidently gets to decide what I do with my uterus, but not how the U.S. will assist in the defense of its allies….

I know this will come as a shock to several self-satisfied “captains of industry,” but having a lot of money does not necessarily translate into superior knowledge or nuanced understanding. Musk is actually a poster boy for that disconnect–as David French (who spent years as a First Amendment lawyer) recently wrote in the New York Times,

Despite his loud and frequent protestations, Elon Musk may be the worst ambassador for free speech in America. To understand why, it’s necessary to look at X, the website formerly known as Twitter, which he owns and rules over like the generalissimo of a banana republic….

Instead of creating a platform for free speech, Musk created a platform for Musk’s speech — or, more precisely, Musk’s power. First, he has demonstrated that he’s perfectly willing to take action against people or entities that challenge him or challenge X. As my friends at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (where I used to serve as president) have detailed, he has used his authority to suspend accounts, to throttle (or limit the traffic of) competitors and reportedly to boost his own voice.

As French quite accurately notes, rather than making Twitter (now X) into a free speech paradise, Musk has turned it into the generalissimo’s playpen, where the generalissimo’s values shape everything about the place.

X is Musk’s company, and he can set whatever speech rules he wishes. But do not be fooled. When Musk defends his decisions by shouting “free speech,” I’m reminded of the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in the movie “The Princess Bride”: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Musk isn’t promoting liberty; he’s using his power to privilege many of the worst voices in American life.

Power and privilege. Those two words are–or should be– at the heart of the public/private distinction. Once again, we come back to that fundamental question: what is government for? What functions are properly left to the private sector–to the individual, to the marketplace, or to the wide variety of nonprofit and voluntary organizations–and which must be exercised by a democratically-elected government? 

Right now, that essential inquiry is mired in a host of very serious concerns about the declining health of democratic decision-making, and the increasingly obvious effort of MAGA Republicans to turn America into an autocratic, White Christian Nationalist state. If they are successful, American government will no longer be legitimate under any definition of that term, and the allocation of power between those privileged by the regime and the rest of us will be moot.

If we do manage to salvage democratic governance–if voters come out in 2024 and deal a sufficiently robust defeat to the MAGA Confederates still fighting the Civil War–we will need to turn our attention to the necessary divisions between public and private power.

Governments can and do make grievous mistakes, but that is no reason to allow individuals–even individuals considerably more mature and informed than Elon Musk–to usurp decision-making in realms that must be subject to public accountability.


Not The Start Of A Science-Fiction Story…

One of the comforts I had growing up as a bookish nerd was the steady stream of science fiction available –the books and short stories that explored what if? What if in the future X or Y happened? What if there were threats to the continued existence of humans? What if the Earth became uninhabitable? What if there really are aliens “out there”? What if they’re not friendly? What if they are?

These scenarios triggered all sorts of speculation–especially about what an “evolved” future might look like.  (There was a reason that, when the Star Trek franchise came on the scene modeling such a future, so many of us enthusiastically embraced it.)

Unfortunately, when a recent speech by the chief of the UN described not-theoretical existential threats faced by humans on planet Earth, I looked in vain for a Jean-Luc Picard-like figure able  to lead a bunch of not-so evolved humans from chaos into a satisfactory future.

In an alarming assessment, the head of the United Nations warned world leaders Tuesday that nations are “gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction” and aren’t ready or willing to tackle the challenges that threaten humanity’s future — and the planet’s. “Our world is in peril — and paralyzed,” he said.

Speaking at the opening of the General Assembly’s annual high-level meeting, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made sure to emphasize that hope remained. But his remarks reflected a tense and worried world. He cited the war in Ukraine and multiplying conflicts around the world, the climate emergency, the dire financial situation of developing countries and setbacks in U.N. goals for 2030 including an end to extreme poverty and quality education for all children.

He also warned of what he called “a forest of red flags” around new technologies despite promising advances to heal diseases and connect people. Guterres said social media platforms are based on a model “that monetizes outrage, anger and negativity” and buys and sells data “to influence our behavior.” Artificial intelligence he said, “is compromising the integrity of information systems, the media, and indeed democracy itself.”

The world lacks even the beginning of “a global architecture” to deal with the ripples caused by these new technologies because of “geopolitical tensions,” Guterres said.

It’s hard to dispute his analysis.

As Guterres accurately pointed out, geopolitical divisions are steadily undermining the efforts of the U.N. Security Council–not to mention international law, trust in democratic institutions and most forms of international cooperation.

“The divergence between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous by the day,” the secretary-general said. “It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine not only unleashed a global food crisis–it has worsened divisions among major powers in a way not seen since the Cold War and raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe, either due to accidental mishaps at nuclear plants or (as Putin becomes cornered) via weaponry. Inflation is worldwide. Diseases and pandemics are proliferating.

And looming above every other threat is climate change, and the almost daily reports of  extreme weather it is triggering.

In those long-ago stories I read, this confluence of emergencies would either be countered with scientific innovations, or human ingenuity would allow some portion of humanity to escape our doomed planet and find a new (class M) home.

I hate to be negative, but at least in the short term, I don’t see either of those things happening.

I should hasten to say that I do see evidence that the threat of environmental disaster has incentivized some truly impressive science. Whether those breakthroughs will ameliorate some of the worst of the crisis or are “too little, too late” remains to be seen.

It’s also too early to tell just how much the fat cats who have been massively profiting from fossil fuels (and the legal advantages they’ve managed to buy for themselves) will slow adoption of those breakthroughs….

Science also is producing enormous progress in automation, which–at least in the short term–will displace millions of people from the tasks they are currently performing; that displacement will only add to the existing grievances that are increasingly being expressed through violence, as people unable to cope productively with enormous social, technological and climate change look for someone or some group to blame.

And while we face these and multiple other challenges, our governing institutions are gridlocked by obsolete mechanisms that  empower corrupt and wildly incompetent lawmakers.

The term “a world of hurt” has never been more apt.

Unfortunately, there’s no Federation to come to our rescue….we will have to rescue ourselves.