We cannot even choose a side

10 08 2017

After the election of the current occupant of the White House, I considered pitching The Atlantic on a story about the unpreparedness of Americanist political scientists for the new regime.

Like with so (too) many things, I never got around to it, but, today, reading Anthony McElligott’s Rethinking the Weimar Republic, I circled back around to this idea.

Political science, as taught in the US, is often divided into 4 fields: American politics, comparative politics, international relations, and political theory. Sometimes comp & IR are combined, and in some of the larger departments, there may be slots given over to methods/quantitative analysis; theory (my field) is almost always the smallest portion of a pol sci dept.

Anyway, one of the big issues in analyzing the rise and fall of the early German republic is the role of institutions: the attempt of the republic to create new, representative ones, and the role of reactionary institutions (namely, the judiciary and the army) in either not supporting or weakening the republic.

And that’s what brought me back to a consideration of Americanists, and their general lack of consideration of institutions qua institutions.

Let me explain. Here’s [my sense of] how the different fields break down, in terms of what’s studied:

  • American
    • Institutions (govt-specif)
    • Policy (general and specif)
    • Parties
    • State politics
    • Interest groups (oft in conjunction with policy and/or institutions)
    • Political psychology (attitudes & behavior, incl voting behavior)
    • Elections (oft crossed with pol psych, parties, state politics, interest groups)
  • Comparative
    • Institutions (qua institutions)
    • Specific countries/regions
    • Human rights
    • Political culture
    • International law/institutions
    • Political economy
    • Non-governmental organizations
  • IR
    • Diplomacy
    • War
    • Militaries
    • International law/institutions
    • NGOs
    • Political economy
  • Theory
    • History of pol thought
    • Ideologies
    • Specific theorists
    • Specific traditions (e.g., critical theory)

(Again, this is simply my impressionistic take; were I writing a paid piece, I’d test this against something more solid.)

As a general matter, all fields except theory rely on quantitative methods, Americanists probably most of all; Americanists and comparativists may also use qualitative methods. IR, comparative, and theory are variously broadly and narrowly historical, while Americanists are usually only narrowly historical.

What do I mean by “narrowly historical”? They might consider the history of the use of executive power, say, or of the evolution of various House or Senate procedures—that is, they’ll look at the history of a policy or institution in terms of that policy or institution, not any wider trends.

And by “institutions, specific”, I mean, the institutions of government and the various procedures therein; they are generally not considered within a larger context of the institutionalization (“qua institutions”) of the American federal republic or American political culture. A while back I asked someone (Daniel Nexon?) on Twitter—or maybe it was Nexon at Lawyers, Guns & Money—whether there were Americanists who studied institutions in terms of institutionalization, and Stephen Skowronek was the only name he could come up with.

And American political culture? There’s plenty of stuff out there, but little of it done by Americanist; for that, you need to hit up the historians.

Think I’m kidding? Type “American political culture” into Google Scholar and see what pops up: historians and comparativists, some sociologists, and yes, a few political scientists (however narrowly focused).

But not a lot.

This is not a criticism of any particular Americanist. I follow Sarah Binder and Amy Fried, both grad school colleagues, on Twitter, and Sarah’s my go-to scholar for Congressional procedure. And it’s not as if Americanists won’t talk perceptively about what the hell is going on in our country on a conversational level. But bringing scholarly weight to bear on these matters? Not so much.

Okay, it’s getting late, so I won’t stretch my speculations any further. Let’s just say I think Americanists need to—perhaps they already have or are doing so!—broaden their focus and deepen their (historical) analysis if there considerable knowledge is to be of any use in making sense of our current, disintegrating, era.

And theorists? Have I mentioned it’s late. . . ?

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Break down, it’s all right

1 08 2017

When I was 22 I gave up hope.

It was necessary, a way to keep myself alive, but I don’t know that it was a conscious decision so much as a fait accompli.

Almost 30 years late, and I’m still snagged on that word, hope: hope you’re feeling better; hope it goes well; etc. I didn’t use it at all, for years, but sometimes there’s no good way to avoid the word without drawing attention to its avoidance. So, I use it, sparingly, and always with a mental reservation.

I gave it up because I was broken, as a person. I may or may not still be broken, and perhaps I won’t ever get past those breaks without at least a handshake with hope, but I have managed to put together a life without it.

It’s hard, and I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to anyone, but if you have to abandon hope, you can, and live.

The loss of hope is, or can be, less a tossing-away than an uncovering: you’ll see things, in this hope-less life, that you wouldn’t otherwise. I can’t say if this new sight is worth it, relatively speaking, but, again, there is a kind of clarity, here.

This is how I’m coming to see my response to the 2016 elections. Something broke inside of me, and I couldn’t get a handle on it. Now, I’m thinking that I had a kind of hope in American politics, a hope I never really considered, never really recognized, and that now that’s gone.

Again, a hard thing, but not the worst thing. Again, I gain a sight, a sense of the meanness of this country, which, however maddening, is useful to have.

The differences between the personal and the political hope-loss are that I didn’t know I had any left to lose, and that I thought I already knew how the US could be; that’s what made election night so unbelievably painful.

A more significant difference is that I ended up in a place where there are already a hell of a lot of people—mostly, people of color—who had discarded hope long ago. They haven’t given up; they just don’t expect that everything will somehow turn out right. No, there is work to be done.

This work would be easier, I’d think, if there were hope; or maybe it would just be easier to avoid the work. (I have evidence from my personal life to support both possibilities.) Regardless, there is work to be done.





The chains are locked and tied across the door

21 07 2017

How does helplessness become resentment?

I’m in the midst of reading Robert Gellately’s edited transcripts of psychiatrist Leon Goldensohn’s interviews with Nazis at Nuremberg, Nuremberg Interviews; what is striking are the protestations that they could have done nothing other than what they did.

They were helpless.

They were helpless before Hitler’s charisma, helpless before his charm, helpless to do anything other than their sworn duty—to the military, to Germany, to their own high moral principles. And those who weren’t personally helpless emphasized Germany’s helplessness following WWI and the victors and their unjust Treaty of Versailles.

And as for the Jews, well, while these Nazis disclaimed any personal anti-Semitism, they did point to Jewish dominance of German cultural life and that so many Communists were Jews—so really, was it so wrong to want to free Germans from the yoke of such an alien people? Goldensohn paraphrased Alfred Rosenberg:

The cause of the Jewish question was, of course, the Jews themselves. The Jews are a nation, and like every nation, have a nationalist spirit. That’s all every well, but they should be in their own homeland. … Why couldn’t the Jews be allowed to remain where they were , in other lands? They would have been all right if they didn’t do bad things, but they did. What did the Jews do? They spat at German culture. How? They controlled the theater, publishing, the stores, and so on.

Similar sentiments were expressed by others: Jews provoked anti-Semitism by their involvement in German life. What else could Germans do? Of course they had to defend themselves.

There has been a great deal of discussion of the role of resentment in politics, but isn’t behind resentment some notion of victimhood, helplessness? How does despair over the inability to control one’s own life become politically virulent?

Propaganda, inarguably, but that can’t be the sole catalyst, can it? What makes it work?

And while it is supremely easy to dismiss the rationalizations of Nazi defendants, what cannot be dismissed is that some peoples have been victimized, are being victimized, and may justifiably feel helpless amidst the conditions of their oppression. Is it not just that they be freed?

Political mobilization draws in part on moving people from a sense of apathy or despair and toward action; when is this mobilization just, and when is it malignant?

One quick response might be that any mobilization which relies on or stokes resentment tends toward malignancy, but, honestly, that seems too quick: what, for example, distinguishes “righteous indignation” from “resentment”?

It could be that this distinction is too caught up in ideology to be of any analytical use, that is, that my good views will always be based in righteousness, while your bad views are riddled with resentment.

Again, there’s a ton of work, both scholarly and journalistic, on resentment in politics, so likely nothing I’m saying here is at all original—for originality, I recommend Nietzsche.

Still, Nietzsche disdained the ressentiment of the weak toward the strong; the resentment of the strong toward the weak, well, that would not even have occurred to them: to be strong was to be above it all.





He’s a real nowhere man

10 07 2017

Donald J. Trump is a man without qualities.

He has no character, no public virtues, no apparent principles. He demonstrates no consideration for this country, for the Republican party, or for his followers; they matter not in and of themselves, but only insofar as they are of use to him.

He focuses on transactions, not relationships. He cares for others only to the extent they reflect him back to himself; if he doesn’t like what he sees, he blames the mirror.

In business and politics, yes, he wants to win, but even more important is that you lose; he is the exemplar of the sore winner.

Donald J. Trump cares not one whit for governance, and in that, is the perfect complement of the contemporary Republican Party, which has made a virtue of being sore losers. This is the party which has ejected all concern for constructive policy in its transformation into an election dreadnought, with the result that all its (admittedly many) victories are hollow. Their priorities are cutting spending, cutting taxes, and punishing those who get out of line; they are interested in building nothing.

And the Republicans in Congress will do nothing to stop Trump, because he is too useful to them. Because he cares about nothing beyond himself, they can sell him anything with his name on it. The Grifter-in-Chief is himself an easy mark.

Things will get worse. Trump will lose interest or lash out or retreat ever further into the Mar-A-Lago of his mind, and nothing will matter, because this is a man utterly without qualities, and he would destroy us all to save himself.





You better watch what you say

9 05 2017

Oh, are we fucked.

Eight ways to Sunday fucked.

Fuckity-fucked-fucked fucked.

Really fucking fucked.

I shed no tears for James Comey, a self-righteous shit who was more concerned about his own reputation than with the basic norms of electoral politics, a man made “mildly nauseous” at the thought he threw the election but would do it again, a man who, just a few days ago, delivered wildly incorrect testimony to Congress regarding Huma Abedin’s emails.

No, I don’t feel at all bad for him, including for the way he found out he was out.

I am, however, alarmed at the firing of this self-righteous shit by a president whose incompetence is outweighed only by his corruption. A man with no regard whatsoever for any norms at all. A man who seeks only his own advantage, who will never stop himself, who can only be stopped.

It’s not just Trump which worries me. If we had a functional Republican party, the damage could be limited—but, then again, if we had a functional Republican party, we wouldn’t have gotten Trump in the first place.

No, the Republicans as a whole are as craven as Trump. They might be troubled or concerned or disappointed, but as long as he tosses them Obamacare repeal and tax cuts and right-wing judges, they’ll do nothing to stop him. And hell, some think this is all just fine.

I don’t know if Trump fired him to hinder the investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia or if he did so out of pique—was this tactical or narcissistic?—but by the hounds of Christ, a president under investigation who fires the investigator shows nothing but contempt for the citizens of the country he runs.

And yeah, it’s worth pointing out that even Nixon, architect of the Saturday night massacre, even Nixon didn’t fire the FBI director.

~~~

Shortly after Trump’s election, Dan Savage spearheaded a campaign to “impeach the motherfucker already,” with all proceeds split amongst Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and the International Refugee Assistance Project.

I thought, Oh, huh, okay. I mean, I wasn’t opposed to it—he’s already raised over 100 grand and cut a series of checks—but I also don’t think you should impeach someone just because you hate them. It’s not enough to accept electoral outcomes when you win; you also have to accept them when you lost. Democratic norms matter.

It is precisely because I believe democratic norms matter, however, that tonight I bought some ITMFA swag. I believe Donald Trump and his minions are undermining our democracy, and threaten us not just politically, but institutionally, constitutionally.

Before, I was troubled, concerned, disappointed; now, I am alarmed.

Donald J. Trump is a menace to society.





Not ready to make nice

4 05 2017

So this is floating around Twitter as an example of Dem perfidy:

Interpretation? Pelosi could have stopped it, but instead she chose to let Trumpcare sail on through just so she’d be able to increase the chances for a Dem takeover of the House in 2018.

That House Dems, following the vote, taunted their Republican colleagues (in the same way GOPpers taunted them in 1993, after they voted in favor of tax increases) with a round of na-na hey-hey goodbye seems to confirm this view: they’re singing over people losing health care because they think it’ll benefit them!

Such horseshit.

One, there’s nothing Pelosi or the House Democrats could have done to have prevented the vote. Unlike those of the Senate, the procedural rules of the House give the minority no power to stop the majority. It might have been possible to delay matters for a bit (which Pelosi, thinking this would give the Republican leadership a better chance to round up those last few votes, declined to pursue), but if the leadership wanted the vote, they were going to get it.

So: stop bitching about Pelosi’s unwillingness to stop a vote she was in fact unable to prevent.

Two, talk of punishing Republicans for this vote is exactly what Pelosi and other House Dems should be doing.

Corey Robin, for his part, seems to think the idea of looking to punish Republicans for bad policy  is the exact same thing as encouraging bad policy, that seeking an advantage after a shitstorm is the same thing as whipping up that shitstorm.

No.

In fact, the Dems should be absolutely fucking ruthless about all of this. I and many others—including Robin—bitch about their tendency to collapse in a heap whenever they’re accused of not being nice; well, Pelosi don’t care about nice.

She stood on the floor of the House and warned Republicans against this vote, telling them “you have every provision of this bill tattooed on your forehead. You will glow in the dark on this one. So don’t walk the plank unnecessarily.”

And when that failed, she came back and reiterated

Well, let me just say that they have this vote tattooed on them.  This is a scar they will carry.  It’s their vote.  It’s not the Senate vote.  It’s their vote they are taking.

So that is really a poor choice, cowardly choice, I might add.  Why would they vote for it if they don’t think it’s worthy of support, but because the Senate will change it?  From what I hear the Republican Senators saying, they don’t have any interest in passing this bill as is.

And by the way, whatever happens down the road, the Members of the House Republican Caucus will be forever identified with the worst aspects of the bill they passed.

She didn’t encourage a vote in favor in order to heighten the contradictions, she didn’t say “vote for this terrible bill to help Democrats”; she said “Don’t do this, because if you do we will make you pay.”

And yes, make them pay with their House seats. Elect Democrats in place of Republicans.

How is this anything other than common sense?

But no, the puritans among us would have us believe that looking to unseat Republicans is evidence of a sell-out, and Pelosi’s unwillingness to commit seppuku, bad faith.

The only knives we on the left are allowed, apparently, are those we are willing to wield against each other.





Rollin’, rollin’ rollin’

18 04 2017

Grading, grading, grading. . . .

Okay, that’s not the only reason for my silence. I’ve been thinking about a particular post and what I wanted to say and it all just got bigger and more complicated and more. . . ugh.

I don’t really need to write it—others are writing on the same topic—and, honestly, I’m probably not in the best frame of mind to write it.

It’s about the election, Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders.

(You get the “ugh” now, don’t you?)

I mean, I might at some point look particularly at the Trump campaign and what it did to burn through the Republican field and then to beat Clinton, but a big “Here’s the thing. . .” piece? Nope.

Why aren’t I in the best frame of mind to write it? Because I get really fucking angry even thinking about it, and anger and clarity do not mix well in my noggin.

It’s not even a reasonable ire at, say, the FBI and James Comey, or at the media—well, okay, a little bit at the media—but at the Berniesta dead-enders.

These folks are in no way the majority of Sanders supporters and, frankly, deserve no more attention that Jill Stein stans. But, goddammit, I keep running into them on Twitter and, yes, this means I should lay off Twitter but I kinda dig Twitter even though it drives me crazy so I won’t, and I keep getting pissed off.

God, even thinking about why these people piss me off is pissing me off.

Okay, lemme at this sideways. The particularities of the pissiness comes down to two, interrelated phenomena: the sanctification of the senator, and the bullshit illogic that the the only reason he lost to Clinton is that she cheated and the proof of this cheating is that Bernie lost.

That latter bit is bad sportsmanship, and I fuckin’ hate bad sportsmanship.

Yes, matches may be fixed and there is cheating in politics, but you have to bring, y’know, EVIDENCE of such cheating beyond an unhappy outcome.

And no, a party saying “you have to join the party in order to influence the party” is not evidence of cheating, nor is it unfair that long-standing Democratic politicians and activists would prefer, y’know, the long-standing Democratic candidate to the temporary-Democratic candidate.

Anyway, the bigger problem might be the former one: that Sanders is perfect and deserves no criticism, ever. Again, I don’t see this among most Sanders fans, but treating Sanders, or any politician, like some kind of savior is truly, madly, deeply wrong.

He’s a good and decent man, a good and decent senator who continues to pound on an issue which requires constant pounding: economic inequality. Good. Go Bernie!

But there are other issues, including ones related to that inequality, about which he doesn’t have much to say. That’s fine, really: no one can cover everything, and there are others who can air out those things. To mention this to Sanders-zombies, however, is to imply that He is Not Perfect, which is quite literally unbelievable. If Sanders must be right at all times and in all things, then any who disagrees or criticizes must be a heretic.

This is just shit politics. Like your politician. Love your politician. Volunteer for your politician—by all means. I really liked Obama, greatly admire him, and don’t think I will see a president as good as him in my lifetime. I think he is an exceptional man who failed well at an impossible job.

But there were things I didn’t like about his policies and questions I have about some of his decisions, and I am grateful for those good critics of his immigration, national security, and transparency policies in particular. And I think that some of the criticism he received regarding our carceral state helped to move him—alas, perhaps too late—toward some reform of our prison-industrial complex.

He was my president, and I was glad he was president. He wasn’t perfect, and didn’t expect to be treated as such, either.

I’m guessing that Bernie Sanders knows he’s not perfect and accepts that even those who quite like him might nonetheless wag a finger or two at him. Now, if only his worshipers could accept this as well.