Thursday, October 15, 2015

US Politics - Views of Republicans and Democrats

[Two articles. One, a critique of the Republican party by an annoyed or disillusioned Republican... and one an editorial on the Democratic Presidential Candidate debate.]

The Republicans’ Incompetence Caucus

OCT. 13, 2015

David Brooks

The House Republican caucus is close to ungovernable these days. How did this situation come about?

This was not just the work of the Freedom Caucus or Ted Cruz or one month’s activity. The Republican Party’s capacity for effective self-governance degraded slowly, over the course of a long chain of rhetorical excesses, mental corruptions and philosophical betrayals. Basically, the party abandoned traditional conservatism for right-wing radicalism. Republicans came to see themselves as insurgents and revolutionaries, and every revolution tends toward anarchy and ends up devouring its own.

By traditional definitions, conservatism stands for intellectual humility, a belief in steady, incremental change, a preference for reform rather than revolution, a respect for hierarchy, precedence, balance and order, and a tone of voice that is prudent, measured and responsible. Conservatives of this disposition can be dull, but they know how to nurture and run institutions. They also see the nation as one organic whole. Citizens may fall into different classes and political factions, but they are still joined by chains of affection that command ultimate loyalty and love.

All of this has been overturned in dangerous parts of the Republican Party. Over the past 30 years, or at least since Rush Limbaugh came on the scene, the Republican rhetorical tone has grown ever more bombastic, hyperbolic and imbalanced. Public figures are prisoners of their own prose styles, and Republicans from Newt Gingrich through Ben Carson have become addicted to a crisis mentality. Civilization was always on the brink of collapse. Every setback, like the passage of Obamacare, became the ruination of the republic. Comparisons to Nazi Germany became a staple.

This produced a radical mind-set. Conservatives started talking about the Reagan “revolution,” the Gingrich “revolution.” Among people too ill educated to understand the different spheres, political practitioners adopted the mental habits of the entrepreneur. Everything had to be transformational and disruptive. Hierarchy and authority were equated with injustice. Self-expression became more valued than self-restraint and coalition building. A contempt for politics infested the Republican mind.

Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests.

But this new Republican faction regards the messy business of politics as soiled and impure. Compromise is corruption. Inconvenient facts are ignored. Countrymen with different views are regarded as aliens. Political identity became a sort of ethnic identity, and any compromise was regarded as a blood betrayal.

A weird contradictory mentality replaced traditional conservatism. Republican radicals have contempt for politics, but they still believe that transformational political change can rescue the nation. Republicans developed a contempt for Washington and government, but they elected leaders who made the most lavish promises imaginable. Government would be reduced by a quarter! Shutdowns would happen! The nation would be saved by transformational change! As Steven Bilakovics writes in his book “Democracy Without Politics,” “even as we expect ever less of democracy we apparently expect ever more from democracy.

This anti-political political ethos produced elected leaders of jaw-dropping incompetence. Running a government is a craft, like carpentry. But the new Republican officials did not believe in government and so did not respect its traditions, its disciplines and its craftsmanship. They do not accept the hierarchical structures of authority inherent in political activity.

In his masterwork, “Politics as a Vocation,” Max Weber argues that the pre-eminent qualities for a politician are passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. A politician needs warm passion to impel action but a cool sense of responsibility and proportion to make careful decisions in a complex landscape.

If a politician lacks the quality of detachment — the ability to let the difficult facts of reality work their way into the mind — then, Weber argues, the politician ends up striving for the “boastful but entirely empty gesture.” His work “leads nowhere and is senseless.”

Welcome to Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and the Freedom Caucus.

Really, have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so na├»ve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good? These insurgents can’t even acknowledge democracy’s legitimacy — if you can’t persuade a majority of your colleagues, maybe you should accept their position. You might be wrong!

People who don’t accept democracy will be bad at conversation. They won’t respect tradition, institutions or precedent. These figures are masters at destruction but incompetent at construction.

These insurgents are incompetent at governing and unwilling to be governed. But they are not a spontaneous growth. It took a thousand small betrayals of conservatism to get to the dysfunction we see all around.

The Grown-Ups Take the Stage at the Democratic Debate

OCT. 14, 2015

It was impossible not to feel a sense of relief watching the Democratic debate after months dominated by the Republican circus of haters, ranters and that very special group of king killers in Congress. For those despairing about the future of American politics, here was proof that it doesn’t have to revolve around candidates who pride themselves on knowing nothing or believe that governing is all about destroying government.

Civility was a big winner on Tuesday night, and the discussion of real issues was refreshing. But what stood out most was the Democratic Party’s big tent, capable of containing a spectrum of reality-based views. All five candidates — including two refugees from what had been the Republican Party, Lincoln Chafee, a former Republican senator, and Jim Webb, secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration — have real records. They also have real differences on important issues — national security, foreign policy, gun safety, financial reforms. Those differences illuminate the choices that have to be made in governing, some likely to be successful, some ineffective.

The debate probably won’t change much in the polling. Hillary Rodham Clinton reminded us why she’s the front-runner, with her experience, command of the issues and strength in communicating ideas. She seemed both at ease and fearless. It helped that the candidates actually valued time to discuss issues. One of the biggest applause lines was Senator Bernie Sanders’s quip to Mrs. Clinton, “the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.” Supporters of Mr. Sanders embraced his passionate critiques, but his performance may not convert those skeptical of his ability to broaden his appeal.

The biggest point of agreement was on income inequality, the central theme of the Sanders campaign and one that was been put on the top of the agenda by the other candidates as well. The question, of course, is how to reduce it in an economic system that has been moving toward ever greater inequality. Mr. Sanders said he would change the tax code to have the wealthiest pay a lot more, with new revenues going to education, free college tuition and health care for all. Mrs. Clinton would also raise taxes, and said she supported reining in “the excesses of capitalism so that it doesn’t run amok,” though it’s not clear what that would take, given the trajectory we’re on.

There was agreement on the need to raise the minimum wage (Senator Sanders proposes $15 an hour; Mrs. Clinton gave no firm number) and specific views on how to improve financial reform efforts — break up the big banks or improve the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill. Regarding unauthorized immigrants, there was agreement that they should be allowed to purchase coverage on the health exchanges, but Mrs. Clinton, unlike the others, did not support giving them government subsidies.

On guns laws, there was great divergence. Mr. Webb has earned an A rating from the National Rifle Association; Mr. Chafee and Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, have F’s; Mr. Sanders said he had received a D-minus, but had a tough time explaining his vote against the Brady Bill. He seemed so determined to continue pandering to his gun rights constituency in Vermont that he got lost in the odd idea that he is more in touch with rural voters than the governor of Maryland and ended up undermining his image as the righteous truth teller.

On foreign affairs, there was disagreement over the American role in the war in Syria and against the Islamic State. Mrs. Clinton supports a no-fly zone in Syria, an idea opposed by Mr. Sanders and Mr. O’Malley. Likewise on surveillance and security issues, Mrs. Clinton defended her support for the Patriot Act, which allowed the National Security Agency to create a vast secret surveillance program, while Mr. Sanders opposed the act and said he would shut down the program.

These are healthy and necessary disagreements on difficult challenges that America faces. There is no one way to achieve a more economically equitable and just society, but these Democrats have that common aim. Their discussion showed a capacity to absorb facts and adjust plans to consequences. The Republican candidates may have a lot of fun campaigning for office, but they haven’t a prayer of knowing what to do if they ever enter the White House.

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