Monday, January 28, 2019

Joan Dideon: Worth Reading

Joan Dideon: Worth Reading
Peter Schultz

Here are some quotes and reflections of Joan Dideon’s book, Political Fictions.

“Washington, as rendered by Woodward, is basically solid, a diorama of decent intentions in which wise if misunderstood and occasionally misled stewards will reliably prevail. It’s military chiefs [are] pictured as Colin Powell was in The Commanders, thinking on the eve of battle exclusively of their troops, the ‘kids,’ the ‘teenagers’, a human story....Its opposing leaders will be pictured, as President Clinton and Senator Dole are in The Choice, finding common ground on the importance of mothers: the ultimate human story.” Joan Dideon, Political Fictions, p. 213.

And of course the reaction to the recent death of “Poppy Bush” and all the accolades bestowed upon him confirm that it isn’t only Woodward who takes this view of Washington. “the ultimate human story”: Just like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

Very interesting. I am re-reading Joan Didion’s “Political Fictions” about, among other things, the impeachment of Bill Clinton and was surprised how much of it could be said about Trump. Then it was taken for granted by the Washington establishment that what was needed was a “moral and spiritual regeneration” of the nation. And this was to be accomplished by bringing down a president, viz., Bill Clinton, who allegedly represented the worst traits of the Sixties. In Didion’s words: “What we now know occurred was . . . a covert effort to advance a particular agenda by bringing down a president. We know this covert effort culminated in a kind of sting operation that reliably creates a crime where a crime may or may not have existed otherwise.” This involved “first of all, a sense of a ‘movement,’ an uncharted sodality that was dedicated to ‘remoralization,’ (William Kristol’s word) of the nation....” [p. 274] And there was also “the shared conviction of urgency, of mission, of an end so critical to the fate of the republic, as to sweep away possible reservations about means.” [p. 275] “‘For the model of cultural collapse to,work,’ Andrew Sullivan observed . . . “‘Clinton must represent its nadir.’” [p. 278] As David Broder, a Washington insider, said: “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.” [p. 287] And of course, if this campaign to get Clinton was the forerunner of a project that has been launched against Trump, it is little wonder that Bill Kristol,, is so comfortably in the anti-Trump camp. Now Trump and not Clinton represents the degradation of the American republic and points to the necessity for a “moral and spiritual regeneration” in the United States. But this regeneration need not touch much of our “politics as usual,” with a few exceptions but none of which come close to touching the current arrangement of forces within American society. Doing away with Trump has nothing to do with resetting our socio-economic arrangements. And, perhaps, the longed for moral and spiritual regeneration of the nation has nothing to do with realigning those socio-economic forces. In fact, that regeneration will solidify, not undermine, those forces. And, unlike the case with Clinton, the American people are more malleable with regard to Trump’s failings than they were with regard to Clinton’s, which were viewed by the American people as having little to do with his capacity to govern. Trump’s dalliances are no more important to the people than were Clinton’s. But if it can be shown that his dalliances were with Russia and not just with women, then the people will not let him slide as they did Clinton. And then the “moral and spiritual regeneration“ of the United States can begin once Trump has been deposed. This is perhaps, however, not a prospect we should look forward to insofar as it will mean less individual freedom along with a fortified politics of the status quo, e.g., a fortified imperialism. Is it possible then to hope that the establishment’s campaign against Trump fails, not for Trump’s sake but for ours? Seems almost surreal, doesn’t it?

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Rage Against the Broken Machine

Rage Against the Broken Machine
Peter Schultz

            At times when I ponder why I feel such anger toward our politics, really strange thoughts emerge, so strange that they are probably untrue. They might even be delusions. What follows is one such “delusion.”

            In reading Jane Mayer’s excellent book, Dark Money, every so often there is a passage about President Obama and how he dealt with the Republicans, many of whom were the recipients of Koch or other right wing money and, hence, part of the “radical right” that that money helped to create. In one instance, “President Obama reluctantly consented to many of the Republicans’ demands, including the enlarged exemptions from the estate tax. He campaigned against the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250,000 a year, but in December 2010 . . . he tried to convince his disappointed followers that this was the best deal they were likely to get. . . .” [291]

            And then again: After Paul Ryan had proposed a budget that would gut the government’s commitment to those in need while offering the wealthy tax cuts worth $2.4 trillion, “President Obama now proposed $4 trillion in spending cuts over twelve years, not all that far from the $4.4 trillion that Ryan had proposed.” [295]

            Now in my delusionary state, it occurred to me that Obama did not mind, in fact, he wanted to lose these battles over taxes and spending cuts to the Republicans. I’ll repeat that: Obama wanted to lose his battles with the Republicans over tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts to the tune of $6.2 trillion.

            There, I said it. And I know this sounds delusional and cuts against all we are taught about Democrats and Republicans fighting battles over policy that each party wants to win. It’s just like what we are taught and take for granted about our two parties and elections or about our government and the wars it chooses to fight. The goal, the only goal, is winning, winning policy battles, winning elections, and winning wars. To suggest anything else is sheer madness, sheer delusion. And so when Mayer tells us that Obama “reluctantly” agreed to Republican demands, we believe her even though she offers no evidence for this characterization. It just seems like common sense to us, as it no doubt did to Mayer herself. Obama wanted to win because all politicians want to win all the time. That is just common sense.

            But what if…? That is, what if Mayer isn’t right? And what if politicians don’t always want to win? What if at times they want to lose, lose policy battles, lose elections, even want to lose wars? Why would they want to lose? This makes no sense to us at all. I must be delusional.

            Consider this though: President Obama lost those policy battles with the Republicans but he still got re-elected in 2012. He and the Democrats lost the 2010 congressional elections big time but Obama still won the presidency again in 2012. Could it be that those losses actually helped Obama and the Democrats win the presidency in 2012? That is, could it be that Obama and the Democrats were well-served by losing those policy battles to the Republicans, that he and they knew they would be well-served, and thus he and they wanted to lose – and this even though he and they knew that the country would not be well-served by those Republican successes?

            And here is the nub of my “mad-ness”: That our politicians don’t act, as we assume they do, for the well being of the country. This is, it seems to me, the greatest myth of all, that our politicians are always well intentioned, always intend first and foremost to do what is best for the country, even though they might make mistakes at times or misconceive what’s best for the nation.

            Put this assumption aside and it is easy to entertain the idea that politicians don’t always want to win policy battles, elections, or even wars. Like most other human beings, politicians want success and its trappings, money, fame, and power. And if being successful requires losing at times, they will lose and lose quite contentedly.

            With regard to Obama and his losses, those losses, by emphasizing the Republican threats, would make Obama more appealing to much of his base insofar as he could – and did – present his decisions as “necessary losses.” “That’s the best deal available” he could and did claim. Plus, Obama himself then appears as the best possible option in the 2012 election. In fact, he could and did present himself as indispensable to the cause of holding off the Republicans – even while he was giving in to them. Obama lost the battles but he deserves praise. In losing, Obama stature was enhanced. And few bother to wonder about what happens to well being of the nation when the Democrats capitulate to the Republicans, insofar as such behavior implies that the Republican agenda is legitimate and so need not be defeated. Accommodation is the key. But to what? Success or the well-being of the nation? To success.

            So, in reality, both parties win, enhance their stature, while the nation loses. And this is an arrangement that neither party wants to or has any interest in changing. The Democrats go on capitulating to the Republicans, can go on losing even while protecting or even enhancing their status, their legitimacy, their authority. And the Republicans advance their agenda, thereby enhancing their legitimacy and their authority. Both parties are successful while the nation suffers, while political dissatisfaction grows, while our government is seen increasingly as incompetent, even as corrupt. This explains both why “Washington is broken,” as is said so frequently, and why very few in Washington actually want to “fix it.” Neither party has any interest in fixing what is broken so no fix is forthcoming.

            This may all be delusional, but it is certainly plausible. And if you doubt its plausibility, just ask yourself why our “broken” system isn’t ever fixed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Policy Making: Madness Disguised

Policy Making: Madness Disguised
Peter Schultz

            In an excellent biography of Robert Strange McNamara entitled Promise and Power there occurs the following assessment of McNamara by one of his contemporaries at a time when McNamara seemed to some to be on the verge of mental breakdown as the Vietnam War was degenerating into mindless and ineffective killing and McNamara knew it.

            “Everything he believed in was being knocked on its ass in Vietnam. Here was a guy who really believed that the truth is what you got out of the machine when you asked for it. You know, what would we do about x? – here comes the answer, the organizational truth.” [p. 426]

            Now this is an excellent characterization of Robert McNamara and how he thought, both in and out of the political arena. But it seems fair to say that it is also a pretty good description of how a good many, even most Americans have come to think politically. We ask: What are our problems? Then we ask: What are the solutions to those problems? The implication being that solving political problems is a lot like or exactly like solving math problems. All we need do is to find the right formula and we will be able to solve our problems.

            Hence, in Vietnam, those in charge looked for the formula, the right mixture of, say, search and destroy missions, Vietnamization, pacification, assassinations, and bombing that would lead to victory. And of course people like Robert McNamara looked like the most likely source of what would be the successful solution to the problem of Vietnam. After all, he had worked apparent wonders at the Ford Motor Company before he became the secretary of defense for Kennedy. But it didn’t work out that way and the longer McNamara dealt with Vietnam, the worse the situation seemed to become. That is, more and more civilians were killed, more and more American and Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and yet the war went on and on and on until, finally, the United States pulled out after having obtained, as the official line had it, “peace with honor.” Of course, it got neither peace nor honor. All it got was the return of is prisoners of war, while the Vietnamese once again united their country against the wishes of a powerful enemy seeking to subjugate them.

            So what are we to make of this? If policy making does not work, if it leads more often to failure than success, what are we to replace it with? And that framework has so consumed our thinking about politics that it is difficult to think of alternatives. But let me try anyway.

            Once upon a time, it was thought that there were certain fundamental political questions such as what is justice? What is the most appropriate end of politics? Is it liberty, prosperity, security, or national greatness? Or more recently, have we created a military-industrial complex, as President Eisenhower argued? How should ambition and the ambitious be dealt with? How can we prevent an oligarchy from forming and controlling our politics and society? What is a just war?

            The fact that we don’t spend much time considering such questions does not mean that they aren’t important or relevant. One cannot help but suspect that it was the pursuit of national greatness that led to the fiasco in Vietnam, the one in Iraq, and the continuing one in Afghanistan. Perhaps if we questioned whether we should pursue national greatness, our politics would not be as messed up as it is. Has the pursuit of national greatness led to the creation of that military-industrial complex Ike warned us about? Did the failure to ask, seriously ask whether the Vietnam War was a just war contribute to its outcome? For if it weren’t just, then eventually that fact would make itself known, thereby contributing to the opposition that arose the longer the war went on and that many say caused US defeat in that war. Humans have a difficult time participating in injustice, especially when the injustice involves large scale killing, torture, and oppression.

            In other words, we ignore some political questions at our own peril. Ambition and the ambitious must be dealt with by any political order, as should be crystal clear these days with Donald Trump as president, if it wasn’t already clear when LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush was president. Ambition may be, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, “the ruling passion of the noblest minds” – or not! And the cost of ignoring certain political questions should be clear as we stumble from one failed military engagement, one fruitless war to another. To treat war-making as McNamara did in Vietnam and as our politicians have done in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as a problem to be solved by the correct formula, without considering the status of war-making as a political activity or phenomenon, is to invite failure after failure. And all the glorification of our military will do nothing to avoid these failures. If not one soldier fighting in Vietnam had been dishonored – as some surely were – that war would still have been unjust and, hence, unsustainable. For that was what led to that war’s loss of legitimacy, that it was unjust, that it was inhumane, that it was a fool’s errand.

            Robert McNamara’s biography is a good one to study because he was so eminently American. That he finished his stint in the Defense Department near a mental breakdown should be taken as a sign that how he did politics, which is largely how most Americans think of doing politics, is a form of or leads to madness.

Going to the Dark Side and Other Lies

Going to the Dark Side and Other Lies
Peter Schultz

            I am currently rereading Jane Mayer’s excellent book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, the title of which is a reference to Dick Cheney’s assertion after 9/11 that it would now be necessary for the United States to go to the dark side in combatting our terrorist enemies.

            But this idea of “going to the dark side” is a lie because it suggests that Cheney/Bush, et. al., are going to a place, out of necessity, that is part of the traditional American political order. That is, the implication is that this “side,” although rarely visited, is a part of the traditional governmental arrangements in the United States. But this is a lie. Cheney/Bush, et. al., are not going to a part of our traditional governmental arrangements but are building what they hope will be an entirely new and very different set of governmental arrangements. And this is supported by Mayer’s observation that Dick Cheney has been working on this agenda for some years, even decades now, as evidenced by the minority report he wrote for the Iran-Contra investigation, as well as Cheney’s long-standing concern with what is called “Continuation of Government” or “COG.”

            The same lie is being told when Cheney/Bush, et. al., imply that their actions instituting what Mayer calls the “New Paradigm” are being undertaken out of necessity. Rather, these actions are for these people desirable rather than necessary. And the difference is important for understanding what is going on. For clarity’s sake, think of our traditional governmental arrangements as a garment. The argument from necessity suggests that what is going on is that something additional is being added to the existing garment, that something being made necessary by events like 9/11. But the argument from desirability suggests that what is going on is the creation of a wholly new garment. The latter of course raises or should raise all kinds of questions, such as whether the new garment is a republican or a royalist/monarchical one. But, as Mayer points out, these are the kind of questions that never got raised in the aftermath of 9/11 and that the Cheney/Bush regime did not want raised. And because they did not want them raised, they pretended that they were concerned with the constitutional bona fides of their proposals. But their constitutional arguments are merely meant to disguise what is in fact a radically different kind of government than the one created in 1787.

            Mayer is correct then to argue that the war on terror constitutes “a war on American ideals.” But care should be taken here as well because that war, the one on terror, is just the convenient excuse that is being used to try to create a new political order, one that is quite unlike the order created by the constitution of 1787. So, if the war on terror were to end, it would be naïve to think that the attempts to sabotage our traditional governmental arrangements would also end. They would not.