Worthy Opponents

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Jay Rosen has written a summary of the reasons that the traditional model of campaign reporting has broken down. The old approach envisioned the political process as involving “two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage” — in other words, a struggle between two worthy opponents who recognized each other as such. Now that symmetry has broken down as Republicans increasingly view Democrats, along with the entire traditional field of battle (Constitutional constraints, journalistic balance), as fraudulent and illegitimate. To use Schmittian terminology that Rosen does not, the Republicans shifted from viewing the Democrats as enemies to viewing them as foes. Unfortunately, in Rosen’s view, journalists were too complacent about this process and wound up getting blindsided by Trump, who is the logical outgrowth of this asymmetrical dynamic.

I agree with Rosen’s overall analysis, and I would add that the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in specific, also seem to be in denial about this dynamic. The Democrats have become the party, not of some specific ideological agenda, but of the traditional system as such. One of Obama’s major goals has been to rehabilitate the Republicans and force them to act as a worthy opponent rather than an implacable foe. This approach was naive and in many ways dangerous, as shown most vividly when Obama tried to “leverage” the Republicans’ unprecedented brinksmanship on the debt ceiling to engineer a “grand bargain” on the deficit, but it fits with the view that the system only works if there are two worthy opponents locked in an eternal struggle with no final victories. We can see something similar in Clinton’s controversial decision to treat Trump as an outlier rather than letting him tar the Republican brand as such. It works to her political disadvantage — showing that her centrist opportunism is weirdly principled in its own way — but from within her worldview, the most important thing is to restore the traditional balance of forces.

The situation we are in shows the intrinsic instability of party democracy. An eternal struggle between worthy opponents is not possible in practice. Eventually, one of the two teams is going to decide that they want to win in the strong sense, to defeat the opponent once and for all. And if that desire cannot be achieved immediately, it will inevitably lead to a long period where the old enemy is treated as a foe — as intrinsically evil and illegitimate. Within the American system, with its baroque structure of constraints and veto points, that will lead to a period where government is barely functional, because the natural tendency will be for the radicalized party to refuse to go along with the system until they have full control over it.

One possible outcome would be for the Democrats to recognize the Republicans as a foe and seek their final defeat, a crushing victory that delegitimizes the party entirely. Given the Republicans’ strangle-hold in many regions of the country, though, such a final defeat is not likely in the near term. Without something like the Republican party to channel these groups’ demands through the political system, the only alternative is an impotent frustration that can easily issue in violence, particularly in a gun-saturated culture like our own. From this perspective, we could see police shootings and mass shootings as the first signs of a fragmentary but intensifying push toward civil war.

What Hillary Clinton is offering us is one more chance to put a lid on it, kick the can on the road, and hope that the Republicans somehow get it out of their system and go back to being a “normal” party. Trump, by contrast, is pushing for a solution that we might characterize as more — final. The latter agenda is sure to be hugely destructive, not least because it is delusional. A final victory in the political sphere is impossible because the eternal struggle between worthy opponents is an attempt to intermediate and render survivable the implacable conflict at the heart of American society — a conflict that already resulted in one of the most destructive civil wars in world history.

The fundamental problems of America are not fixable via the traditional political system, which has only served to deny and yet paradoxically maintain the conflict that provides the subterranean energy necessary to keep the eternal struggle between worthy opponents going. Short of a total revolution and refounding of American society (or some number of societies to replace what we currently know as America), somehow rebooting the eternal struggle is probably the only option to prevent the outbreak of civil war and total collapse. Rarely have we been confronted so starkly with the choice between the katechon and the man of lawlessness in the voting booth.

And rarely has it been so uncertain whether the election of another would-be katechon will lead to the collapse or the intensification of the forces of chaos. In retrospect, it may have taken a once-in-a-generation political talent like Obama simply to manage to kick the can down the road. An uninspiring technocrat who has been the subject of a generation-long demonization campaign — who virtually embodies the image of the Democrats as foe for a critical mass of Republicans — may prove to be too fragile a reed to master the forces that have always been tearing America apart.

The ethics of voting

In the field of theology, one sometimes finds a job listing that requires the successful applicant to sign a statement of faith. I am most likely past the point of applying for such jobs, so it is safe for me to reveal that I have always maintained that, if confronted with such a statement of faith, I would sign it, literally no matter what it says.

There are several reasons for this. One is that if I were in that situation, it would not be a question of choosing between a job demanding a statement of faith and one without — I would only consider the former if it were my only option for continuing my academic career. Signing would increase my personal survivability and enable me to reach students who might desperately need an alternative perspective. As for the dishonesty involved, I regard the entire system of demanding a statement of faith from faculty members as deeply fraudulent. Signing it dishonestly shows the appropriate level of respect for their ham-handed attempt at uniformity of thought. Refusing to do so out of protest would actually grant the whole thing too much legitimacy.

It occurs to me that we could view voting under a bourgeois democracy similarly. We all know that the system is fraudulent at many levels. The most important and destructive policies are a bipartisan consensus, meaning there is no way to vote against them. All candidates are fake in the sense of being media phenomena, and they all represent a front for the power of moneyed interests. Yet there is a difference between the candidates, and in a big powerful system, a small difference can make a big difference. One choice really is more survivable than the other.

Refusing to vote out of principle or voting for a third-party candidate who supposedly reflects your “real” views grants the system too much legitimacy. It gives the impression that the system could and should give us a positively good option, when we know that it cannot and never wanted to. Holding your nose to vote for the less destructive class enemy is in a way as dishonest as signing the statement of faith, but as a gesture, voting cynically shows the appropriate level of respect for a corrupt system.

What I hate about online debate

Everyone is so sure. Everyone has the formula. We already know, apparently, how to overcome racism. There is already a fully articulated, correct way to talk about transgender people and their experience. Solutions to complex problems like dealing with students’ experience of trauma in the classroom not only exist, but they are totally common sense. If you do not already know and subscribe to these well-known correct answers, you are must either not understand said solutions, in which case you get an exposition, or else, in a time-saving approach, are told that your view is obviously wrong without any guidance or detail — or, if you persist in your objections, you are probably a bad guy, or at least indifferent to providing aid and comfort to the bad guys. Because we already know what is to be done! All we need to do is present our answers in their crystaline perfection, in their uncanny combination of radicality and total obviousness, and everything will fall into place.

I don’t think this is a question of “political correctness,” but reflects a confluence of urgency (which is justified), good intentions (which are genuinely good), and heavy internet use. All of these obvious answers trace their origin to real-life experience of concrete communities, but they are propagated as memes. Whatever else they are, the “trigger warning” and “privilege checking,” for example, are memes. And that means that, in addition to the practical recommendations the terms encapsulate, they function to generate an in-group. The term itself is a shibboleth.

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“Out of love — who could credit it? — out of love for the entrepreneur!”

Hillary Clinton’s ridiculous proposal to forgive student loans for certain entrepreneurs is ridiculous. It is also deeply revealing of the mainstream Democratic approach to policy — not just because it’s a classic Clinton-style micropolicy, but because it’s so individualistic. In the centrist worldview, the problem isn’t that entrepreneurs get outsize rewards. The problem is that potentially talented individuals don’t have the chance to compete for them on a level playing field. Student loans are both something that hold people back from entrepreneurship and something controlled by the federal government, so it’s “low-hanging fruit” for an innovation agenda.

If the Republicans are the party of inherited privilege — as shown by their most recent presidential candidates, all of whom have some combination of family money and political pedigree — the Democrats are the party of meritocratic privilege. They are the party of talented but disadvantaged people who gained access to opportunity and ran with it (cf. Bill Clinton, Barack Obama). Why do Democrats have such an affinity with Wall Street and Silicon Valley? Because they are, at least according to popular lore, the hotbed of meritocracy. Why do they place such emphasis on education as the sole possible lever of social justice? Because school is where merit rises to the top.

And why do they always suggest the most farcically small tweaks to the existing system? Because they believe in the system. The system is what allowed them to get ahead, and they know they deserve to get ahead. Maybe not everyone who deserves it gets ahead, and maybe — though this is a less urgent priority — not everyone who gets ahead deserves it, but broadly speaking, it’s a good system that promotes good people. When you’ve climbed the social ladder, the last thing you’re going to do is question the legitimacy of the ladder. The only thing you need to change is making sure more of those good individual people aren’t artificially held back from the first couple rungs.

One thing that definitely holds back individual striving is any form of collectivity. Union organization, systematic racial uplift, pulling entire communities out of poverty — that’s not on the agenda. If you are mired down in a poor urban neighborhood, the solution isn’t to make your neighborhood less poor, it’s to rig the education system so that the handful of talented people can figure out a way to get into the “best” school. This is why, for example, the current state of affairs could produce the first black president and still be such a rolling disaster for the black community. It’s not about building communities, it’s about giving people a chance to escape communities. It’s brain-drain as social justice.

Bregrets, I’ve had a few

Often, The Girlfriend and I are deadlocked on a decision where neither of us expresses a strong preference — for instance, which restaurant to go to. In those situations, we each pick a side and play rock-paper-scissors. Then, once the decision is “real,” we gauge how we actually feel about it and have the option to revise it.

The basic insight behind this method is that there is an unbridgable gap between the hypothetical and the real. We can’t really judge how we will feel about a choice, for instance, until we’ve actually made it and feel locked in. Merely entertaining the possibility does not predict our real reaction — in a weird way, in order to make an informed decision, we have to have already made it and know how it feels.

Hence I support the Brexit do-over referendum, on purely psychological grounds. The British public was clearly short-sighted in their decision because they were too focused on the — completely legitimate and justified — pleasure of defying the establishment and weren’t thinking about the longer-term consequences. In the cold light of day, they realize that the frisson of defiance is not worth it.

In short, now that UK voters know what the morning after actually feels like, they are finally in a position to make the decision for real. A second referendum would therefore be more legitimate than the original. Or to save time, Parliament could simply implement the policy that the public’s gut reaction to the Brexit vote clearly indicates.

Against racism as side-effect

For several popular styles of political analysis, racism is always, by definition, a red herring. For doctrinaire class-first, class-only Marxism, racism can only ever be an epiphenomenon or an ideological distraction, and in more mainstream liberal discourse, something similar happens, though for different reasons: since it’s rude to accuse anyone of direct racism, politeness dictates that we go with more rational and respectable “economic anxieties.”

One corrolary of the latter theory is that racism should correlate closely with economic turmoil. Hence, for instance, Trump’s siren song only works because white America is being left behind, etc. I don’t think that makes sense of the data. If you’ll recall, there was a financial crisis of world-historical proportions in 2008, and later that year, a black man (who, for good measure, had the middle name of Hussein) was elected president. How could that happen if racial scapegoating correlates with white pain?

Things have gotten progressively worse on the race front even as the economy got better. No, it hasn’t gotten better as fast as anyone would like, and there are huge structural inequities built into the system. But again, the pain was worse during the actual world-historical financial crisis, and that was a relative low ebb of overt racism. It’s only now that unemployment has reached what counts as “normal” levels and economic growth is moving at a decent clip that we are seeing overt public racial scapegoating emerge as a successful political strategy among the relatively affluent.

It might just be the case that in a deeply racist country, racism has its own autonomous causality that can be decoupled from economics. Indeed, if anything the correlation over the course of the Obama years has been the reverse of the “economic pain causes racism” theory. It’s as though the crisis caused the country to largely put racism aside for a while — and now that white America is finding its feet, it can afford to indulge in the luxury of racial backlash again.

What if the worst has already happened?

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A lot of people are rightly panicking about the prospect of a Trump presidency. I am one of them, more often than not. In this discourse, Trump is an absolute evil that must be stopped no matter what the cost, even if that means holding your nose and voting for Hillary Clinton — or, at the most extreme, even doing the unthinkable and supporting Rubio. Anything to stave off the very worst.

What if the very worst already happened, though? What if the very worst was George W. Bush? Read the rest of this entry »