Monday, December 19, 2016

Mockingjay Madness

“It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us. We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.”
—Historian/critic Neal Gabler, in a piece titled “Farewell, America” on, November 10
Let us take a moment to savor the complete lack of self-awareness in the above quote. Even as he is tarring millions of his fellow citizens with epithets like racism, misogyny, xenophobia and nativism, Neal Gabler styles himself as the last vestige of civility and politesse. He cannot logically have it both ways. Either he can elect to be the spokesman of all the throbbing anger in blue state America directing itself venomously at its red state cousins or he can choose to be polite and civil. Neither he nor anyone else (myself included) can be both things at the same time.

People generally fall into this paradox because they see themselves as being above partisan disputes—even while they are in the throes of them. This is because they know The Truth and are thus entitled to condemn others righteously. It is not particularly attractive or useful when religious fundamentalists do it and even less so when modern liberals do it.

We are seeing a lot of this sort of hyperbole in the wake of the November election. People who, only weeks ago, were arguing for respect of other countries, no matter what their political values, are now ready to declare war on Russia. It is like some sort of mass hysteria.

One of the most jaw-dropping examples I have seen of absent self-awareness was in the December 19 issue of The New Yorker. In the “Shouts & Murmurs” humor section, there was a piece by Cora Frazier entitled “Katniss Everdeen, White House Intern Application.” First, let me go on record as having long been a fan of The New Yorker’s cartoons and arts coverage. Its humor in prose, though, usually goes right past me. I found this particular item, however, very funny but not for any reason the writer must have intended. Her clear intent in invoking the protagonist of The Hunger Games was to portray President-elect Trump as the books’ evil President Snow. What people at The New Yorker do not seem to understand is that, for many people outside New York and other urban areas, New Yorker writers are the very epitome of the over-privileged, fatuous Capitol dwellers living it up while folks in the rural hinterland scrape by to survive, as portrayed in Suzanne Collins’s books.

Would Katniss Everdeen be a Trump supporter? Well, as portrayed in the movies (full disclosure: I know only the movies and not the novels) she certainly is a disrupter. I doubt, however, that it was author Collins’s intention to write a coded book series about the Tea Party or the Alt Right. Yet that is nearly how it plays. The urban/rural divide laid bare by the U.S. election results looks like nothing so much as the economic/cultural tensions in the fictional country of Panem. Yet Cora Frazier, whose stock and trade as a New Yorker humor writer should be nothing if not irony, apparently saw none in aligning Ms. Everdeen with the Wall Street fatcats and capital dwellers who uniformly supported Hillary Clinton. Or maybe we were meant to see her version of Katniss as a die-hard Sanders supporter?

Therein lies the challenge for Democrats. They have to stop believing their own propaganda that they are the party of the working class and actually again become the party of the working class. That is, if they want to. If they do not—after all, I hear the American working class is full of racists and xenophobes—then they should decide what they really do want to stand for. Once they have done that, then they must say so clearly and act accordingly.

Perhaps they could become the party of the new Cold War. After all, these days they really seem to be itching for a fight with the Russians.

Here is some more unsolicited advice for Democrats (and Republicans, for that matter). Do not demonize people because they do not see things the same way you do—especially if you are hoping to get some of them to vote for you. Not every policy dispute is an apocalyptic struggle of good and evil. Most importantly, though, try to keep a sense of humor. Otherwise it is going to be a long four or eight years for New Yorker readers.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Silver Linings Playbook

“I got an email from a guy who works for some sort of defense contractor, some lower-level job, served in the military. And he said, look, I served in the military with black and Latino soldiers. My supervisor is a young black woman who’s smart as a whip, and I admire her, and we get along great. I belong to a bowling team with black and Latino coworkers. And when we get together and we talk about politics—I’m almost quoting him—he said, we don’t talk about Black Lives Matters. We talk about what matters to our families. We talk about jobs, and we talk about the fate of the country.”
—Columbia professor Mark Lilla, in a November 25 National Public Radio interview about how “identity liberalism” has been a disaster for Democrats
“As far as we were concerned, the problem was more with our communication than it was with our policy.”
—House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, on Democratic losses in the 2016 general election
In my previous post, shortly after the U.S. election, I attempted to find a silver lining for people who were disappointed in the result. After years of hearing that the problem with U.S. politics was the amounts of money raised and spent, we had a presidential election where the winning candidate actually raised and spent far less—and is consequently far less beholden to donors—than the losing candidate. As it happens, I have yet to hear anyone complain about the amount of money in politics since November 8 or, actually, since Donald Trump clinched the Republican nomination.

Here are a couple more possible silver linings for those troubled by the dark clouds of the electoral result.

A Healthier Government/Media Relationship? We are now back to the normal state of things as far as the media are concerned. The natural and healthy role for the press has always been as an adversary to those who wield the reins of power. If journalists are not skeptical about those who govern us, then they risk being mere government stenographers and political enablers. While the press rightly covered the presidency of Barack Obama as a historical milestone, its coverage of his administration was too often lacking in curiosity and critical analysis. I am speaking here mainly of the news organs that reach most ordinary people, i.e. the major television network news organizations and agenda-setting national newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. Of course, news consumers looking for more detailed coverage had lots of choices for getting their information, with editorial stances covering the entire political spectrum. (Conservatives looking for negative coverage of the administration, for example, certainly had their own organs.) The major corporate media, however, have a responsibility to report aggressively and not be government cheerleaders. If they were too eager to give the current administration a pass, that at least is definitely not going to be a problem for the incoming administration. That is a good thing.

Some think, though, that the corporate media are going too far in covering the president-elect negatively and that their reporting is not so much objective than just pro-Democrat. That may well be but, even if that is true, the result is that news consumers are much better served than they were during the previous eight years when coporate reporters showed little interest in the unintended consequences of government policies.

One thing that so far shows no signs of changing, unfortunately, is the major media’s lack of interest in life outside its urban strongholds and the unexpected hordes of Americans who confounded journalists by turning out for Trump. There is little evidence that they are breaking out of their Washington bubble. The Sunday morning TV panel discussions I have seen so far display mostly the same sort of insight from mostly the same journalists who spent months telling us that Donald Trump could never become president. Now they are just “explaining” why everything Trump does is wrong.

The danger in the press not becoming more diverse in its coverage and understanding of the country as a whole is that more people will continue to seek out alternative media, thereby exacerbating the political and cultural schism in the country. Certainly, having lots of media voices is healthy and desirable but not if it gets to the point where different parts of the country have their own completely separate realities.

An End to Political Dynasties? Even if you are disappointed in the election result, is there not at least a small part of you that is happy that during the recent election season Americans firmly and resoundingly rejected political dynasties? Republican voters were certainly emphatic that they had had enough of Bushes. In the general election an Electoral College majority was pretty clear that they had also had it with Clintons. Let us look back at the past three presidential elections. In each case someone with relatively little (in the case of Obama) or no (in the case of Trump) experience as an office-holder was preferred. More specifically, the elections of 2008 and 2016 were explicit rejections of the Clintons. Obama got nominated because so many Democrats did not want to go back to the Clinton days, and Trump got elected because so many voters—including former Democratics—still felt the same way. This is surprising since the economy during Bill Clinton’s presidency was about the best in recent memory. Hillary Clinton probably did herself no favors, at least in the general election, by following the lead of her party’s left wing in rejecting her husband’s sensible centrist policies. But maybe that did not even matter and her surname and long record in government were going to do her in anyway.

The irony is that the Democratic establishment put in the fix for Clinton precisely because it did not think a disruptive outsider like Bernie Sanders could win in the general election. People laughed, in turn, at the notion of Donald Trump getting the GOP nomination and then of him winning the presidency. The very idea that people in Pennsylvania who had voted for Sanders in the primary election would then turn around and vote for Trump in the general election was considered ludicrous.

Given what we know now, who knows what might have happened if Sanders had gotten a fair shot at the Democratic nomination? Could Sanders have actually won if he had been the Democratic nominee?

My guess is probably not. It is difficult to see Sanders running against the Democratic establishment the way Trump ran against the Republican establishment, and that was probably crucial to his victory. Trump made himself the best option for those who wanted to say, “A pox on both your houses!”

Maybe the ultimate silver lining for Democrats is that Republicans are now so unexpectedly and completely dominant in so much of the country that they have nowhere to go but down. Worryingly, though, that sounds a bit like the fellow who fell off a skyscraper and was heard on the way down by people on each of the various floors to be telling himself, “So far, so good.”