Sunday, December 11, 2016

Trump's Triumph Over the Professional Middle Class

I'm going to tote up a few things that are sometimes too obvious to say, but that should be in circulation.  The end point is that Donald J. Trump's post-fact ethos is the visible piece of a submerged crusade to make the United States a post-middle class society.

The first visible thing is the national knowledge crisis.  People now talk about a post-fact era, and  even the summit of the Washington establishment is feeling distress about Trump's power to dismiss any analysis that "conflicts with his a priori assumptions."    A more banal but pervasive problem is that it is impossible to understand any public issue through television, our dominant news medium.  This is also true of most print outlets, where coverage is superficial and fragmented. That is slightly better than superficial and chaotic, or simply propagandistic, which is the range on TV.  (Social media varies from deep, authoritative expertise to fake news propaganda to dark marketing psy-ops, but I leave that aside here.)  The U.S. has no public framework of political understanding today.  Crisis is too weak a word for the state of national knowledge.

The second clear thing is that Trump's success rested on a classic plutocratic appeal to white racial resentment.  There are two parts to this. Part one, the resentment, takes the form, "my white stuff has been given to minorities by the government."  We often talk as though this just another way of saying "white racism," but that begs the question, what is white racism today? My own sense is that it is tied to a white feeling of superiority and to a white feeling of failure--to the economic and cultural failure to be successful, central to the society, recognized as such. The complicated result is racial resentment, which is fused with resentment of government. Our knowledge crisis then helps many whites trace their sense of failure to the great government giveaway to racial minorities.*

Part two: Plutocracy is Trump running as the American businessman-king, who has a sovereign power to make everything work.  This figure is embodied in the corporate CEO, who has two core features. He [sic] maximizes private/corporate self-interest. He [sic] has a proven capacity to dominate others in pursuing this private self-interest. A plutocracy admits no public interest that is separate from the private interests of the dominant figures. It has no need for democratic processes that are separate from the executive's power to dominate ("to get things done").  Hence Trump's failure to admit the need to separate his business interests from the state or to grant the importance of the emoluments clause that opposes this use of the state to advance private interests.  He of course understands that there are frequent conflicts of interests (Carrier management and Carrier employees, perhaps Putin the oil baron vs. Putin the Middle East strategist). He does not grant that conflicts must be adjudicated by a non-dominating public-interest procedure that differs from the behavior of the strong private executive, and is ruined by the executive.

So far we have a knowledge crisis sustaining a plutocracy crisis that hinges on racial scapegoating. This gets us to a third thing: Trump's voters supported plutocratic racial capitalism because they hate the supposed alternative, the professional-managerial class's knowledge economy, championed by the Democratic party.  The professional-managerial class** seems to oppress them more directly--as managers and know-it-alls--than moguls do. Moguls like Trump act like Machiavelli's Prince, existing above all laws and rules, possessed of a magical ability to get things done.  A quarter-century of Clintonian know it alls--including Robert "symbolic analyst" Reich and Richard "creative class" Florida--have abandoned the American working class and let their towns and cities go to hell.

On top of that, Clintonist professional-managerial types demanded that workers convert themselves into people like them if they wanted jobs.  This meant not just demanding university degrees of 45 year olds but a change in their culture and values and relationships.  On the other hand, Republicans offered the preservation of some manufacuturing and extractive industry jobs for which blue-collar folk were already trained--as well as the continuity of conservative cultural values.  Republicans have been the political champions of blue-collar work, even as their tax giveaways to the wealthy undermine it.  Blue-collar workers can legitimately wonder how much worse Trump could be for them than Clinton and Obama.

Fourth, the professional-managerial class displays a conceptual failure that rests on this practical failure to keep the working class (only 1/3rd white male in the mid-1990s, and less so today) fully inside the U.S. economy  The conceptual failure is to have abandoned a sharp distinction between the public and the private good.  As Clintonist centrist Democrats practically abandoned the industrial working class and racial equality of outcome, they also gutted public good conceptions of social cohesion and majority prosperity.

Fifth, in abandoning the blue-collar economy and a strong public-good ethos, Clinonist professional managerial folk mooted the difference between expert authority and executive authority.  The PMC is supposed to earn its (limited) authority on the basis of knowledge, which is then to generate equity and effectiveness.  Expert authority is supposed to be an alternative to domination, while executive authority is domination. A good large chunk of the population, including the nonprofessional middle-class, now seems to think we may as well have domination via Trump, and this Trump strength exists because the supposed non-domination of expert authority has done nothing economically for Trump voters in the past 35 years.

The two great government programs even Tea Partiers like, Social Security and Medicare, were New Deal and Great Society programs that were in place a generation before the Clinton-Obama quarter century of Democracy Lite.  The yuppie army of knowledge economy advocates added nothing to them. They never built an employment base to match that of dirty industry--steel, auto, coal, et al. To top it off, the Clintons personally squandered the PMC claim to equity and effectiveness--to the absence of partiality and corruption--with their steady stream of minor but revealing scandals over these 25 years.  They also got rich through government service--a common right-wing talking point--further eroding the public vs. private good distinction on which professionals' superior virtue depends.

Disliking professional authority helps explain why Trump's vote correlates with medium and low levels of education more than with higher or lower levels of income: the population that respects the moral and political claims of expertise has shrunk to other experts or near experts like holders of B.A. degrees.  Trump's people never penalized him for his contempt for the governing claims of professional people--quite the opposite. He needs functional skill, but this is a commodity that he can buy, and the Trumps of the world can buy any expertise at some price.  As a commodity, knowledge expertise lacks political rights or moral authority.  The Clinton period has witnessed the commodification of increasingly complex skill, with the irony that professional skill is going the way of blue-collar skill--a point I discuss at length in The Great Mistake.

At this point, a card-carrying professional like myself can rush into discourse critique: In contrast to people like doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, accountants, nurses, college professors, city planners, and so on, Trump has spent his life in a world where a sales pitch plus money and influence creates its own reality, which is good at fleecing people but not at building a society.  More fundamentally, his personality structure disables the sort of verbal analysis, debate, and synthesis that is second nature to knowledge workers. His move is to throw the disputant out of the language game, which, in Jean-François Lyotard's classic definition, is terrorism.  Lyotard's definition of "postmodernism" in his famous book on the topic was not the end of "master narratives," but the rise of economic determinism, embodied in the U.S. by the businessman-king, who has the power to expel any irritating opponent from the language game before it starts.   Right-wing media plays its major partnering role.  The point is not to debate democratic socialists, for example, but to define them as bad people who want to destroy America, which means you don't need to debate them at all.  In this discursive sense, Trump is the Terror King.

All true enough. But the structural point is that Trump is also the triumphant enemy of the professions and professionals that make up the PMC.  Professionals, living in their traditional world of self-regulated standards and widespread social respect, do not understand this fact: the American right in general, and Trump in particular, have built a post-knowledge economy in which expertise is a commodity they buy for pennies on the global market.

The convenient effect of this hatred for the professions is that Trump can create the kind of cabinet he has:  foxes will guard every henhouse.  He picked an enemy of the minimum wage and the 40 hour week to head the Department of Labor, an enemy of public education to run the Department of Education, an unhinged opponent of everything public to run Housing, an extractor of treasury funds to run the Department of Treasury, a fan of war to run Defense, an enemy of environmental protection to run the Environmental Protection Agency, the head of the World Wrestling Federation to run the Small Business Administration, and now, reportedly, the leading advocate of private petro-interests to run the Department of State. From from Trump's point of view, why not?  Professional expertise and democratic deliberation either don't really exist or are obviously inferior to executive command.  And the public interest isn't different from private self-interest (an American neo-Smithian truism not limited to Trump).  This frame lends logic to Trump's kleptocapitalist cabinet, running energy policy for the petro sector, banking for hedge funds, labor for fast food chains, and education for charter school chains.

The wider political spectacle will be executive power crushing self-proclaimed independent professional expertise.  Every member of the cabinet of predators represents the use of autocratic authority against collective forces--cultural change, social movements, labor unions--whose political claims have been embodied in the disinterested languages of ethics, the law, and bureaucratic rationality.   Most professionals still think they are sheltered from direct executive power, and the high end perhaps believes their high salaries will protect them.  Protect them from poverty perhaps, but not from humiliation or political marginalization--or from being made historically obsolete as they had made the nonprofessional working and middle classes.

In short, the key achievement of Trump's business wing of the Republican party is have contained the knowledge economy.  It has done this by overcoming the class opposition between the working class and the bourgoisie that Eric Olin Wright could still identify twenty years ago. He has forged a working-class/bourgoisie alliance by rendering the professional middle classes their common enemy.

One big effect is to turn high-end professionals into servants, as I already mentioned.  Another is to have flattened the democratic potential of the tech economy that advocates like John Seely Brown had long predicted. Brown's co-authored Shift Happens is a good window into the promise of 2009 (and 1999). The shifts this book describes are:
  1. Value is moving from stocks to flows
  2. Power is shifting from organizations to individuals
  3. Performance is falling for organizations.
(3) is entirely true: corporations are failing, measured as Return on Assets and other ways.  Large, top-down organizations in general are a mess, and are burdening society in many ways I can't go into here.  In addition, (1) and (2) are true in principle. But the point of resurgent, extractive, financialized Trumpian organizations ruled by businessman-kings is to make (1) and (2) false. Trump's capitalism locks up value in stocks that companies control and meter, and traps individual insight and energy within organizations, where they commodify that insight.  In our era after the knowledge economy, management is more powerful than ever, audit culture rules professional organizations more than during the Bush years, and executives are more entitled autocrats than in any other period.

This is the work of Trump's circle of allies, waging war on dissent, focusing Prince-like entirely on their own rule, and making knowledge creators into subordinates.   It is also the work of Silicon Valley culture, which has been stupid about and contemptuous of human processes and so can't protect them.  It is also the work of Clintonism, which has blamed people and their (non)skills rather than management/moguls for every economic thing. The Valley and Clintonism broke whatever alternative to Trumpism was in the minds of the Google bus dissidents as they were shipped in their rolling crates to work.

The current default is that Trump autocracy will rule American capitalism, keeping it extractive and oppressive to white- and blue-collar labor alike, opposing even minimal reforms, accelerating the aging of the U.S. economic apparatus and its productive decline.  The result is to be a U.S. that is no longer middle class in economic entitlement, political rights, or multi-racial equality.

Such is what the executive-plutocracy-working class alliance foretells.  When the musician Beck, in the top photo, released "Loser" a few weeks after Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993, he called it "forces of evil in a bozo nightmare."  We were warned, and now we have to do something about it.

Addendum: I started this blog as a kind of diary ten years ago this month. In the first post I pointed out that "when the gloves come off, the Creative Class goes down like a bag of cement." Still so true!  Happy anniversary to "Middle Class Death Trips."


*I realize someone like George Lakoff would say facts won't change the framing, and that analysts going back to Du Bois would say facts won't change the social structure.  I agree: a national knowledge system rests on frames or paradigms and not just facts, and the frames are rebuilt every day, week after week.  Thus a functional national knowledge system would fail to support, and therefore erode, this white sense that, to paraphrase Zizek, "the government has stolen my enjoyment.  And given it to racial minorities." We don't have one.

**I generally use Erik Olin Wright's 12-class model from Class Counts (1997), in which the middle-class is a set of "contradictory positions within class relations" that reflect variations of authority and expertise.  This class ranges from expert to skilled to unskilled, and has a range of authority positions as well.  I'll use professional managerial class for the expert/skilled white-collar people, and gloss over a bunch of details, particularly the current civil war between professional and managers in medicine, academia, and elsewhere.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Depressing Hillary

The reality is that I don't know a Democrat who is actually enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton becoming the next president. Many Democrats think she's earned her shot and is very qualified. Everyone sees the value of having a woman president.  And yet my twenty-something feminist friends and students have said, "yes I want a woman president.  Just not that woman."  Reports this morning are that in spite of the Trump terror factor, African American early voting is down.

Clinton has not broken with her dynasty's 1990s New Democrat vision of business as the great progressive force, and made no case in the debates that the public mission would be back in charge.  She already ran for president in 2008, when she was defeated by the then more populist candidate Barack Obama.   She didn't have a good record in her last big job as Secretary of State--her acceptance of the removal of the democratically elected Manuel Zelaya as president of Honduras helped disintegrate that society, which in turn led to some of the immigration that Donald J. Trump has successfully stigmatized.  And she isn't clearly willing the integrity race with the demagogic salesman, scapegoater, tax avoider, and OPM artist Trump.   On policy, she will be Obama Minus: about the same centrist ineffectuality on banking reform and economic redevelopment, and worse on the Middle East on other areas of foreign policy.  On personal integrity, she isn't in Obama's league--she's more like Trump Plus.

The root problem is her neoliberal self.  This has been nicely defined by the political theorist Wendy Brown as devoting one's working life to increasing the value of oneself as human capital.  The Clintons are profoundly unoriginal thinkers who have stayed inside of the influential orthodoxies of the particular time, for example, favoring stereotype-driven"super predator" mass incarceration in the 1990s rather than confronting the deindustrialization that drove the crime spikes; then opposing mass incarceration thanks to Black Lives Matter et al. in 2016.  This reflects the fact that they always take positions that will maximize their own position and influence. People who have watched them over the years understand this, and it is at the root of the feeling that they are unreliable allies.  The single worst example early on was Bill Clinton's abandoning of Lani Guinier, his nominees for the civil rights head of the Department of Justice, when a Wall Street Journal labeled her a quota queen.  But everyone can imagine the Clinton's abandoning a position at any time, which gives them a queasy feeling.

Another aspect of the neoliberal self is not being able to tell the difference between public goods and self-advancement.  This seems like something anyone could and should be able to do, but this has become less true in practice.  One of the FBI investigations of the Clintons involved "pay to play" use of their foundation in which foreign leaders that Hillary Clinton treated as the Secretary of State could get enhanced access through donations to the Clinton foundation.  Reporters have found a statistical correlation between donations and meetings with Hillary Clinton. The causal connection would never be direct, but what matters is the general ability to imagine that Bill would certainly do this and that Hillary would go along.  They spent the 2000s using their political prominence to get rich.  Though they pay full taxes on their multi-million dollars of annual income, they are the kind of people that can't imagine their wealth impairing their public vision.  That's neoliberalism.

This week CNN announced the firing of former DNC head Donna Brazile because they found that she was feeding questions to the Clinton campaign ahead of interviews.   This is cheating.  The same goes for former head of the party Debbie Wasserman, who was forced to resign in the wake of WikiLeakes information of her skewing party resources away from Bernie Sanders. Hillary's response to that was not to apologize for taking advantage of unfair advantage, but to give Wasserman a job.

I have a bad feeling about what is to come.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Trump's Noir Power

This piece blames the Democrats for the persistence of Trump. My reason is that Trump wields what I'll call the power of noir, and the mainstream Democrats are unable to fight it.  Noir is a vision of terrible trouble and of violent recovery that in this election mixes authoritarianism, economic pessimism and racial fear (of white weakness, rather than certainty of white supremacism).  In the U.S., noir always beats nothing.  And that, at the moment, is what the Dems are offering--the status quo, no change, nothing, nothing that we don't already have with Obama, and that is clearly not enough.

This was Clinton's weakness in the debate she won.  The first question noted that half of all Americans live paycheck to paycheck and asked how the candidates would create good jobs.  Clinton answered that this is an opportunity to think about the country we want, mentioned her two-year-old granddaughter, said "I want us to invest in you," called for more profit-sharing, and said she supported better work-life balance.  All very nice.  None of them offer a direct means of restoring middle-class jobs.

Here's Trump.
Our jobs are fleeing the country. They're going to Mexico. They're going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product. They're devaluing their currency, and there's nobody in our government to fight them. And we have a very good fight. And we have a winning fight. Because they're using our country as a piggy bank to rebuild China, and many other countries are doing the same thing.
So we're losing our good jobs, so many of them. When you look at what's happening in Mexico, a friend of mine who builds plants said it's the eighth wonder of the world. They're building some of the biggest plants anywhere in the world, some of the most sophisticated, some of the best plants. With the United States, as he said, not so much.
So Ford is leaving. You see that, their small car division leaving. Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. They're all leaving. And we can't allow it to happen anymore. As far as child care is concerned and so many other things, I think Hillary and I agree on that. We probably disagree a little bit as to numbers and amounts and what we're going to do, but perhaps we'll be talking about that later.
But we have to stop our jobs from being stolen from us
Trump said, of course we need child care.  But we're talking about other countries stealing our jobs. He offered a direct cause for job loss: other countries are getting our jobs.  He then turned to two direct solutions:
All you have to do is take a look at Carrier air conditioning in Indianapolis. They left -- fired 1,400 people. They're going to Mexico. So many hundreds and hundreds of companies are doing this.
We cannot let it happen. Under my plan, I'll be reducing taxes tremendously, from 35 percent to 15 percent for companies, small and big businesses. That's going to be a job creator like we haven't seen since Ronald Reagan. It's going to be a beautiful thing to watch.

 Trump's first direct solution helped caused the problem he laments: Reaganite deregulation allowed companies to offshore production with no financial penalties. It's a terrible solution, and will in fact make the problem worse. But he did offer a direct response to the problem, and scores points for that.  He then offered a better, second response:
The first thing you do is don't let the jobs leave. The companies are leaving. I could name, I mean, there are thousands of them. . . . And what you do is you say, fine, you want to go to Mexico or some other country, good luck. We wish you a lot of luck. But if you think you're going to make your air conditioners or your cars or your cookies or whatever you make and bring them into our country without a tax, you're wrong. 
And once you say you're going to have to tax them coming in, and our politicians never do this, because they have special interests and the special interests want those companies to leave, because in many cases, they own the companies. So what I'm saying is, we can stop them from leaving. We have to stop them from leaving. And that's a big, big factor.
This is Trump's best line, and it's straight noir.  "Big people are screwing you.  They have to be made to stop. I will stop them.  I will charge them to leave, and that will make them stop."

How did Clinton respond? By recalling the financial crisis eight years ago, and saying this:
That was in large part because of tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy, failed to invest in the middle class, took their eyes off of Wall Street, and created a perfect storm.
In fact, Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis. He said, back in 2006, "Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money." Well, it did collapse.
TRUMP: That's called business, by the way.
CLINTON: Nine million people -- nine million people lost their jobs. Five million people lost their homes. And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out.
Now, we have come back from that abyss. And it has not been easy. So we're now on the precipice of having a potentially much better economy, but the last thing we need to do is to go back to the policies that failed us in the first place.
Independent experts have looked at what I've proposed and looked at what Donald's proposed, and basically they've said this, that if his tax plan, which would blow up the debt by over $5 trillion and would in some instances disadvantage middle-class families compared to the wealthy, were to go into effect, we would lose 3.5 million jobs and maybe have another recession.
Clinton is basically right, but it doesn't matter.  There is no noir agent in her crisis. "Tax policies that slashed taxes on the wealthy" isn't an agent: it is an effect of some unnamed parties. How do we know she knows who they are?

Clinton needed to say this: "Donald has supported tax cuts his whole life, and is a champion tax avoider.  I mean he's the king of the legal tax dodge--at least I assume they're legal, Donald.  The congresspeople he gave money all through the 1970s and 1980s when jobs were leaving--they paid him back.  They cut his taxes and deregulated real estate and Wall Street.  When Wall Street blew up the economy with exactly the know-it-all arrogance we see Donald show, Donald and his friends make more money than ever, while his banker friends evicted you or your neighbor or your family member from your house.

She should have continued: "Donald will say, 'that's called business.'  Donald means, 'I win when you lose.'   Now he wants to take another $5 trillion away from you by depriving the government of $5 trillion more after he and his friends lost $13 trillion in family wealth.  He wants to take another $5 trillion from schools, clinics, roads, bridges, colleges, parks, police, firefighters, everything you need for a decent life, and give it to the same wealthy people who made all the money from the crash. Made money from the crash just like Donald did.   I won't allow that.  As president, we'll put the money Donald and his rich friends took from you back into your communities and the economy."

Clinton can only fight Trump noir by writing her own noir plot and making Trump the predator.  As many a Bernie voter knows, she is probably prevented from doing this by her own alliances with Wall Street and her own distance from the working class Democrat base that, starting with the Carter and ending with the Clinton presidencies,

The Clinton-Trump exchanges I mentioned all occur in the first six pages of a forty-page debate transcript.  Clinton goes on to invoke solar energy, inviting Trump to defend another of his terrible claims, which is more oil and coal because global warming is a hoax.  Trump instead turns Clinton-Obama back into the noir villain:
TRUMP: She talks about solar panels. We invested in a solar company, our country. That was a disaster. They lost plenty of money on that one. 
Now, look, I'm a great believer in all forms of energy, but we're putting a lot of people out of work. Our energy policies are a disaster. Our country is losing so much in terms of energy, in terms of paying off our debt. You can't do what you're looking to do with $20 trillion in debt. 
The Obama administration, from the time they've come in, is over 230 years' worth of debt, and he's topped it. He's doubled it in a course of almost eight years, seven-and-a-half years, to be semi- exact. 
So I will tell you this. We have to do a much better job at keeping our jobs. And we have to do a much better job at giving companies incentives to build new companies or to expand, because they're not doing it. 
And all you have to do is look at Michigan and look at Ohio and look at all of these places where so many of their jobs and their companies are just leaving, they're gone. 
And, Hillary, I'd just ask you this. You've been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions right now? For 30 years, you've been doing it, and now you're just starting to think of solutions. 
CLINTON: Well, actually... 
TRUMP: I will bring -- excuse me. I will bring back jobs. You can't bring back jobs. 
CLINTON: Well, actually, I have thought about this quite a bit. 
TRUMP: Yeah, for 30 years. 
CLINTON: And I have -- well, not quite that long. I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again... 
TRUMP: Well, he approved NAFTA.. (CROSSTALK) 
CLINTON: ... million new jobs, a balanced budget... 
TRUMP: He approved NAFTA, which is the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country.
Trump gets Clinton to defend NAFTA, which destroys her image as tough on Wall Street. She doesn't ever say what the great new ideas are that have come from 30 years of thought.  He goes on to point out that her own party's president is pushing a new trade deal that's like NAFTA, and she doesn't repudiate Obama.  She says, "there are different views about what's good for our country," which proves Trump's point that she can't be trusted to know who the enemy is or to do anything to that person.

When they get to the next segment on taxes, her big line is that she "would not add a penny to the debt." This puts her entirely in the camp of the conventional Republicans that Trump torpedoed in the primaries.  So it doesn't matter that Trump says "the wealthy are going to create tremendous jobs" when the wealthy have been doing the opposite for thirty years, because he is talking directly about overcoming an enemy--people who send American jobs abroad.  She is not.

In the final two-thirds of the debate, Trump lost focus and became defensive, so most pundits have declared her the victor. She was not. She didn't become a noir hero battling an identified evil with a direct intervention.  Trump remained one.

The same problem dogs today's New York Times revelation that Trump may not have paid income taxes for twenty years. Previous NYT reports have showed that Trump built much of his empire on political connections that generated $885 million in tax breaks in postindustrial New York, made his money on a labyrinth of debt, on bankruptcy, and on shorting investors he'd attracted while stiffing working-class contractors.   As U.S. manufacturing and its blue-collar workers declined, real estate deals and Trump's extractions soared.  So you'd think Clinton could make Trump the poster child of American decline, caused by its greedy extractive financiers.

Not so far.  In response, Trump said the Times is an arm of the Democratic party,  that they broke laws to get the tax documents, that Hillary Clinton is even more criminal than Trump is, that Trump is a supremely skilled businessman who was obliged to minimize his tax burden which is what he did. The crucial statement appeared in a Trump tweet: "I know our complex tax laws better than anyone who has ever run for president and am the only one who can fix them."

Translating the noir code: "I know the system, I used the system, I broke the system. If you want to fix the system, hire the person who was big enough to break it.  And if you don't, I will keep breaking it."

In a guilt-driven nation like ours, he who shows no guilt will be considered innocent, and receive a hero's welcome.  This is how we have gotten to Trump, the conquering hero.  Some analysts feel that Trump is such an obviously unqualified and corrupt candidate that it's a miracle that Hillary Clinton isn't 20 points ahead. I feel that Hillary Clinton is such a weak candidate on working-class and middle-class economics that Trump still can win. 

UPDATE: Trump's "bitchy sewing circle of overweight men" performed exactly this spin control about the NYT story today (h/t Meranze)--Trump the conquering tax hero.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Children of the Reagan Generation

Thanks to my friend Ricki I wound up at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. yesterday to see Jon Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities.  It deals with the same issues that people like Mad Men for addressing, but without leaving the impression that anything cool is actually happening.

Reviews (LA Times and LA Weekly's) have focused on the frame of a political couple, Polly and Lyman Wyeth (center and right in the photo), who were big in the national Republican party during the Reagan years, and who have, in 2004, been retired for a while in Palm Springs. Their children do not share their conservative politics, and their daughter, Brooke (at left), a liberal and a writer, has arrived to spend her first holiday with them for a while.  The youngest son, an L.A. TV producer, is also there. The oldest son, who committed suicide in the 1970s, is there in the form of a book manuscript that Brooke, has recently completed. It is a tell-all book about her famous family and how they cruelly drove their oldest son to suicide out of hatred for and embarrassment about his anti-war politics and revolutionary drug-taking friends.  Brooke wants her family to read the manuscript and bless her decision to use a published book to air the truth about their lives.  We learn (SPOILERS scattered from this point on) that she has been helped by her aunt and Polly's sister, Silda, a recovering alcoholic who has her own scores to settle with her sister and with Republican politics, not necessarily in that order.

The "liberal" position is upheld in the play by the two women--Brooke and Silda--who have  been damaged by their lives under the reign of the self-righteous, authoritarian power in the family, the mother Polly (played wonderfully by JoBeth Williams).  But they don't really espouse their own positions and instead continuously criticize Polly's.  Polly is a dominating figure who was friends with Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and at one critical juncture had forced their fictional versions to back Lyman when they want to dump him.   The ongoing power of the parents is the real subject of the play, and runs deeper than Brooke's dislike for Polly's support for George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for Lyman's faith in Colin Powell, or for Polly's very frank hatred for the protest politics of the 1960s, which have clearly for her never ended.

Polly's position is clear from beginning to end: she hates weakness and admires strength.  "Families get terrorized by their weakest member," she says, referring to her sister Silda as someone she's had to take care of from start to finish--which financially at least is true. In one of the most quoted lines, she says, "I just think— The only way to get someone to not be an invalid is to refuse to treat them as such." (The audience loved Silda's response: "And there it is, folks: the entire GOP platform in a nutshell.")  When it becomes clear that Brooke's book is about her dead brother, Polly says two kinds of things.  One is "political" -- a standard conservative attack on the liberal / radical 60s:
The story of your brother. It’s drugs. Your whole generation, awash in drugs. The provocations, the absurd beard, the refusal to shower, to bathe, to adhere to the basic civilities of family life. He was stoned from the age of fifteen on, it made him dumb and it triggered his depression. Three generations, three generations of escapism. Lost. Drugs. Drugs actually destroyed the American century. Up the hill there, up the hill in Indio, the meth addicts, and you see them coming into town, wrecks.
There isn't much analysis, just a visceral antipathy for what she reads as a generation's break with the authority and more deeply the civilization of its parents.  The Reagan-era parents, embodied by Polly, once rejected by their children, were wounded, insulted, outrageous, furious, and unforgiving.  Baitz's Polly is a luminous portrait of a Reagan generation that condensed every social movement or progressive political idea into this rupture with, implied repudiation of, the goodness of their way of life.

The second kind of thing Polly says is parental. Referring to Brooke's view that publishing her version of the family's history is her right and of great benefit, Polly says,
Why is it that children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life, you know, and we’re expected to be the parents of children forever? This is a new phenomenon; once I was an adult, all of my parents’ indulgence ceased. You all want to stay children forever, doing whatever mischief you can think of. All you entitled children of the “me” generation. 
Polly is wrong about her children's politics and leftist motives, as in the first passage. She is right, as in the second passage, that her adult children remain childish.  Brooke replies with submissive wit, "By free-passes you mean 'free-will' of course?"  Her entire visit, in fact her book itself, is an effort to get not only attention but approval from her parents.  The effort is delusional and self-destructive: her parents couldn't possibly approve a project that claws open old wounds and embarrasses them all over again for something that had happened thirty years before, and for her to imagine that it could is infantile, a form of aggression that presents itself as victimized, which is of course exactly what her Republican parents see in everyone not of their political circle -- Romney's 47% etc etc.

Until we get to the major revelation, Polly and to some extent Lyman are much more impressive and even sympathetic than their twerpy children and the perceptive but completely unreliable Silda. Here's a core exchange between mother and daughter, regarding the publication of the book:

Polly (cont.) Whatever it is, whatever you do, you’re our daughter, and I will love you. I can’t stop you from doing what you will, I can’t prevent it. But you must know that whatever you do, there are consequences to your actions.  
Brooke What does that mean?  
Polly How could I trust you? How could I ever be in your presence, my dear? If you betrayed the trust of the family? A family that has so valued discretion and our good name in the past three decades. You would still be my daughter, but the meaning of it would change. You needed us. We came to the East Coast. A year of our lives, I thought of nothing but your well-being, your recovery. I could never in quite the same way avail myself— I know who I am. That is who I am. You would lose us. So you understand.
Polly does know who she is, while Brooke does not.  Polly's claim about the primacy of trust is entirely open and consistent with everything else she believes. She is a far more appealing character than is the passive-aggressive and dependent Brooke.

But Brooke is Polly's creation.  We don't know how she has produced Brooke exactly until the climax of the play--MAJOR SPOILER HERE.  In order to derail Brooke's book once and for all, Polly and Lyman finally tell the rest of the family the truth about their dead son: he never killed himself, but was ferried in secret by Polly and Lyman across the border to Canada, where he presumably still lives under an assumed identity.  Brooke has never gotten over her brother's death, and is shattered by this news. By the end of the play, we realize she really is victimized by her parents after all, whose genteel, sociopathic politics, Lyman says quite directly, flow from the capacity he discovers in himself, through this coverup, to lead a life of secrets and lies.

The revelation scene ends too abruptly. There's an epilogue six years later in which Brooke seems to have changed her book into celebrity pablum to cash in on the death of her parents.  The point is not to make Brooke an emblem of feeble-minded Democratic politics, though she is that, but an emblem of the capacity of the Reagan-era parents to destroy the independence of their children.  This is of course ironically what their childrens' generation was supposed to be about.

At one point Silda, pressing Brooke not to back down, says of Polly and Lyman and their Republican circle, "These people, driven by fear, have taken ownership of an entire country. And fear— fear led to punishment."  This is true of the parents, but it is equally true of the Reagan era's children.  What exactly are we still afraid of?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Building the Ryan Backlash

Mitt Romney has just confirmed the main- streaming of a far-right ideologue, Rep. Paul Ryan, by anointing him the Republicans' vice- presidential candidate.  What would constitute an effective response? It's clear from the early reviews that there's a confidence gap on the left in the vacuum created by Barack Obama's non-leadership on the relevant issues.

It's worth pointing out at the start that while some early commentary saw Ryan's extremism as a problem for a party that needs to reach out to the center in November, the Republicans' winning strategy since 1980 has been not to move the ideologue to the center but to move the center to the ideologue.  Romney's "bold" move is "Politics 101"  according to Reagan-Atwater-Rove: make fringe ideas common sense through saturation media exposure both pro and con from the pundit legion of America--even critique helps make the bad or silly claims weighty and important.  Hugely unpopular ideas can in this way become hard truths whose acceptance proves the adherent's toughmindedness, rather than, as in their first appearance, his obvious lunacy.

Exhibit A is Paul Ryan's obsessive desire to convert the country's existing public health insurance system--known as Medicare, limited to senior citizens--into a voucher system for purchasing private insurance.  This is an obviously absurd idea, since it takes a popular, administratively efficient, and humane program and gives it to a hated, inefficient, and inhumane private insurance system that delivers the world's most expensive health care at a mediocre level of quality.  But the whole country must take this bad idea seriously because the top of the Republican ticket advocates it.   

Progressives generally have two reactions to the way the two-party system and the monopolized MSM legitimate one awful, regressive right-wing talking point after another.  They split between anger and depression, which leads, respectively, to denunciation of the right and denunciation of progressives themselves.  For the first, here's Joan Walsh's blast at Salon right after the announcement- "Paul Ryan: Randian poseur":
Paul Ryan was born into a well-to-do Janesville, Wisc. family, part of the so-called “Irish mafia” that’s run the city’s construction industry since the 19th century. When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. He went to Miami University of Ohio, paying twice as much tuition as an Ohio resident would have; the in-state University of Wisconsin system (which I attended) apparently wasn’t good enough for Ryan. After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government, where he’s spent his entire career, first serving Republican legislators and then in his own Congressional seat, with occasional stints at his family-owned construction business when he needed a job (reportedly he also drove an Oscar Mayer Wiener Mobile for a while).
Ironically, Ryan came to national attention trying to dismantle the very program that helped him go to the college of his choice, pushing an even more radical version of President Bush’s Social Security privatization plan, which failed. He has since become the scourge of the welfare state, a man wholly supported by government who preaches against the evils of government support. He could be the poster boy for President Obama’s supposedly controversial oration about how we all owe our success to some combination of our own hard work, family backing and government support. Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.
Glenn Greenwald offered a parallel exposé of Ryan's hypocrisy and generalizes it to the Republican party:
the American Right seems to have a particular need to inflate their leaders into beacons of courage, self-sufficiency and virtue, even when their lives are completely devoid of those traits. Paul Ryan is a perfect symbol of America’s political class. He is directly responsible for the large deficits and debt which America has compiled, and now seeks to exploit what he himself helped create in order to deny to others the very benefits that were responsible for almost every opportunity and success he has had in his life, with the burden falling most harshly on those who need those benefits the most to have any remnant of fair opportunity. That’s the crux of the American elite: making massive mistakes and engaging in destructive behavior and then demanding that everyone — except them — bear the brunt of the consequences.
Greenwald and Walsh are excellent critics and writers, but their material inspires and deflates other progressives who can't imagine it having an impact on the American voter. This gets us to progressive option #2, which appears in the also excellent commentator James Kwak at The Baseline Scenario. The Right, Kwak wrote in a recent post, has a great rhetorical claim: "Government infringes on individual liberty. Cut down the government and we will have (a) more liberty, (b) more economic growth, and (c) lower taxes."  To respond to that the Left has, he says, well, nothing.  Democrats need to have "some kind of understanding of what the federal government actually is and does," which they apparently don't. Kwak ended the post in muffled despair: "President Obama needs to come up with a vision of what the government is for—one that he hasn’t already compromised away. Isn’t he supposed to be good at that sort of thing?"

Politics 101 does say that the angry denunciation, whether it's Walsh and Greenwald's columns or Henry Rollins singing Liar, shocks, alienates, and offends the fence-sitters one needs to win over.  On the other hand, Politics 101 also says arguments don't change voters minds.  Kwak's best line is a denunciation of the dimwit middle--"this election will be just like every other one: it will turn on a handful of independent voters’ inchoate, irrational perceptions of which candidate better fits their inchoate, irrational notion of what the president should look like."  Depression is anger turned against the self--the progressive self in Kwak's case--and within progressive psychological dynamics both responses are doomed: attacking is wrong, arguing is wrong, so the Right wins again.

Kwak's low esteem for the American decider in fact supports the Greenwald-Walsh style of denunciation, and is confirmed by three generations of successful Republican anger politics.  It's true, as Kwak says, that most people don't pick the candidate on the basis of "a considered reflection on the proper size of government." The obvious alternative is drama, story, passion, feeling, critique, and anger in a package that enlightens people while firing them up against a clearly-defined opposition.  Greenwald and Walsh are already masters of the genre of linking a threat to a face and name attached to it, which is sadly one of the few things that galvanizes humans in general and Americans in particular.  The goal with Ryan should be to show that he personally adds a new level of delusion about people's lives starting with the voters in his district, that he is a calloused ideologue, that he is a Simple Simon and therefore dishonest, and that his ideas about privatizing Medicare or whatever, because they are his ideas, cannot be trusted. This would include the kind of analysis at which Kwak excels, like showing that lower taxes don't produce higher growth or that falling government employment is hurting the recovery.  Getting there doesn't mean a smear campaign. It requires impassioned and relentless critique, escalating throughout the campaign.  In Ryan's case this started happening years ago (e.g Krugman's "Ludicrous and Cruel" in 2011)--there's plenty to work with here.

On to Kwak's other point, which is that progressives don't have a message about government.  This isn't true, and Greenwald and Walsh, to stick with our two examples, demonstrate two of them.  First, for Greenwald, government needs to be honest.  It needs to be honest in the specific sense of treating everyone via the same rules, equally and fairly. In health care, the obvious contrast is between private insurance companies that deny coverage to clients that are likely to be more expensive, and Medicare or Medicaid, which pays for everyone regardless of cost. Ryan fully intends to ration Medicare, and he worships the private sector model of cutting costs via denying coverage and this damages the welfare of millions of people in ways Ryan refuses to admit. Government rejects hypocrisy in the sense of double standards of the kind that, via private insurance, have divided Americans into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd class citizens in the realm of health care.

Walsh's progressive value is that individual success depends in part on the quality of the public sector.  For some reason Kwak wrote, progressives could say, "people need government services to succeed. (Doesn’t that sound offensive as soon as you say it, even if it’s true?)"  Why is that offensive to say? It is very true, and obvious in all wealthy countries other from the United States-- in fact the entire "rise" of the "West' out of the depths of quite violent, authoritarian cultures riven with religious fanaticism and planted on top of mediocre physical resources--like Britain, Germany, Sweden, etc.--hinged on their fairly early discovery that large-scale "improvements" in public infrastructure, coordinated by government but largely built from the bottom-up, made all the difference in a society's success or failure, and hence in the success or failure of all but a privileged few of its citizens.   Americans have not been taught this, but need to be via politics among other ways if they are to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.

Kwak is right that the Dem arguments for government are underdeveloped. But these arguments are correct, and the compelling drama is this: government-funded social development is the difference between plutocracy and democracy.  Crap public services, small middle class.  Most voters, judging from the popularity of say social security, know this. Progressives need to cement the convictions so we can go on to address our actual problems rather than the demons Romney and Ryan conjure up to get elected.