Same as it ever was

30 05 2015

There are three issues for which American presidents will always—despite campaign promises, previous votes, and party positions—go their own way:

Trade, energy, and security.

Presidents will always seek expanded trade agreements, greater access to energy resources, and whatever is necessary to secure what we now, alas, call the Homeland.

Democrats and Republicans will vary in how they go about this business—Dems may talk more about renewables and Republicans may project a greater hawkishness—but in the end, each of them, as president, will sign the trade deals, drill for oil and gas, and sop up every last bit of information flowing through the leaky pipes of cyberspace, all to “strengthen America”.

This cuts across interests in both parties. Environmentalists and labor activists will get screwed by Dems on energy and trade, perhaps placated with a few wilderness set-asides or anodyne words in trade deals; hawks and nativists will be unsatisfied by Republicans daunted by popular opposition to extended wars and willingness to open borders to both people and products, respectively; and (civil) libertarians will be screwed by presidents of both parties when it comes to the ever-expanding national security state.

Thus, the more ideologically-minded partisans on either side of the divide will be forsaken again and again, the everlasting Charlie to President Lucy.

~~~

As one of those ideologically-minded partisans, I have some sympathy for those who want to believe that this time, this time things will be different, and who disillusioned when they are not.

But as a fan of Machiavelli, I think it is better for us not to have illusions about power.

The promises are nice–necessary, even, to move us to canvass and call and get out the vote—but they go only so far as politics will allow them.

And on trade, energy, and security, that ain’t very far.





‘Cause I told you once, you son of a bitch

1 05 2013

The Dems need some sons-of-bitches.

I’ve been mulling this ever since the presidents-are-assholes post (which, honestly, was the wrong word to use. I was thinking arrogant asshole when I wrote asshole, but since asshole is now more associated with thoughtlessness and jerkish behavior than an annoying overflow of self-confidence, I should have pulled another term out of the ol’ noggin. Prick, perhaps: presidents-are-pricks. Yes, that works, doesn’t it? And it has a minor alliterative bit going for it as well.). . .  and, um, yeah.

Okay, sons-of-bitches. Since US presidents have to appeal to citizens, there are limits as to how ruthless they may appear to be. I’m of the opinion that to become president you have to be one of the most ruthless people on the planet, but while you can—must—offer flashes of ruthlessness, you cannot be only ruthless.

Hence the need for sons-of-bitches.

Machiavelli is, unsurprisingly, my touchstone for this. Not everything he advises for would-be princes holds up in a democratic system, but even back in the day he recognized the value of a good hatchet man:

When he [Cesare Borgia] took Romagna, . . . the province was a prey to robbery, assaults, and every kind of disorder. He, therefore, judged it necessary to give them a good government in order to make them peaceful and obedient to his rule. For this purpose he appointed Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and able man, to whom he gave the fullest authority. This man, in a short time, was highly successful in rendering the country orderly and united, whereupon the duke, not deeming such excessive authority expedient, lest it should become hateful, appoint a civil court of justice in the centre of the province. . . .

Of course, Borgia was himself a son-of-a-bitch:

And as he knew the harshness of the past had engendered some amount of hatred, in order to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely, he resolved to show that if any cruelty had taken place it was not by his orders, but through the harsh disposition of his minister [de Orco]. And having found the opportunity he had him cut in half and placed one morning in the public square at Cesena with a piece of wood and blood-stained knife by his side. The ferocity of this spectacle caused the people both satisfaction and amazement.

(My favorite part of this anecdote? He ends by saying “But to return where we left off.”)

No, I don’t recommend public body-choppings, but Machiavelli’s basic admonition holds:

a prudent ruler ought not to keep faith when by so doing it would be against his interest, and when the reasons which make him bind himself no longer exist. If men were all good, this precept would not be a good one; but as they are bad, and would not observe their faith with you, so you are not bound to keep faith with them.

Note that such faithlessness has less to do with the people than with other rulers and political actors.

Not that he has much respect for the people:

to possess [virtue] and always observe them is dangerous, but to appear to possess them is useful. Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities. . . .

The people want to be well-ruled and to think well of those who rule them, so if you have to be faithless to maintain good order and lie about such faithlessness to maintain your reputation, well, that’s what effective leadership requires.

Given my antipathy toward moral consequentialism—the ends justify the means—you’d think I’d be appalled by Machiavelli, who is a consequentialist par excellence. And yet I am not, because the morality (if you will) of politics is not that of ethics; what is required for good governance of a state is distinct from that of good governance of a soul.

Anyway, the president-as-son-of-a-bitch wouldn’t work in contemporary American politics, not just because we want—Odin forbid—a “likable” president, but because he almost certainly couldn’t conceal his bad acts. No fingerprints, and all that.

Consider Nixon, a son-of-a-bitch if there ever was one, who was nonetheless dwarfed in his SOB-ness by his advisers. He could have survived Watergate had he been able to offload the responsibility on the execrable pack of hounds around him, but he couldn’t keep his beetle-brow out of it.

Compare that to Reagan. Does anyone truly believe that he knew nothing about the arms-for-hostages Iran-Contra clusterfuck? Sure, he was nodding off by the end of his term, but he wasn’t completely out of it when his henchmen were sending cakes to the ayatollah and offloading weapons to a scrum of fascists and opportunists camped in the hills of Nicaragua. His SOBs were colossally delusional, but they at least kept their duke out of it.

This is all getting away from me, isn’t it? “But to return where we left off.”

The Democrats need some sons-of-bitches because they are dealing with an opposition which leadership is itself too cowed to beat back the howling horde of feral paranoiacs which have overrun their party. The Dems—the Democratic president—needs their/his own pack of hounds (execrable or not) who are not only willing but positively gleeful at the thought of handcuffing the Republican party to the dead weight of the nutters and conspiracists, the young-Earthers and old birthers, the contraceptive-grabbers and ammo-clingers, and dragging the whole lot of them into the metaphorical sea. Only then will those Republicans who retain some faint memory of the necessity of good governance be scared into gnawing off their arms to preserve themselves and prevent their entire party from drowning in a roiling mass of incoherence and stupidity.

There’s another reason besides likability and  deniability to cultivate some SOBs: punishing the GOP will take time and real effort, and the president has his own shit to do. I always thought Rahm Emmanuel was overrated as an SOB—swearing a lot is no substitute for a well-cultivated ruthlessness—and while Anthony Weiner was a fine SOB in his own right, he had his own liabilities (besides the obvious ones) within his own caucus, and, in any case, couldn’t do it all by himself.

There are dangers to SOBs, of course, chief among them running off their leashes—which is why the president must himself retain his own ruthless streak and be willing either to yank them back into line or put ’em (metaphorically) down.

But he must appear sincerely humane in doing so.





The way is dark, the light is dim

15 01 2011

So I was going to write something about civility in politics.

Three times, I was going to write something about civility in politics—even had a header for one of ’em—but then I remembered: Been there, done that.

I think civility is a fine thing, and as mentioned in a very early post, I very much like the idea of going at it hammer and tongs with someone—and then eating pie.

Argument and pie: What could be better?

I still believe that. But I also believe that, in the face of incivility, tut-tutting about the rudeness of the other fellow is of no use; no, the correct response is tit-tatting: if he broke a metaphorical bottle over your head, and if you don’t like having metaphorical bottles broken over your head, then you smash one over his. If he comes back with a verbal fist to the face, then a lexical plank upside the head is appropriate.

Do not let the adversary get away with anything. Make him pay. And when he gets tired of being bloodied—and acts accordingly—then so should you.

The rules of politics are set and enforced by the participants, so if you want civility, you not only have to practice that civility, you have to enforce it—which means you have to punish incivility.

There is no other way.

~~~

It should be obvious that what works in politics does not necessarily work in, say, intimate or even collegial relationships, nor, for that matter, in the practice of science or in the arts or religion. (The truly interesting question is whether these gladiatorial tactics are appropriate to war—but I leave that to the military strategists among you.) My understanding of politics is predicated on conflict; my understanding of friendship is not.

~~~

I don’t think the Tea Partiers are fascists anymore than I thought GW Bush was Hitler, and any such comparisons are as sloppy and mendacious as those linking Obama to Stalin or Osama bin Laden.

“Sloppy and mendacious”: But what if people really are afraid that Obama is a Secret Musselman in thrall to an anti-colonialist anti-American communist conspiracy?

Grow up.

The evidence is lacking, just as evidence that Bush planned the hijackings on Sept 11 is lacking. The sincerity of beliefs matters not one whit if those beliefs are, to quote a couple of automotive philosophers, “unencumbered by the thought process”.

The proper response to such charges is either mockery or a swift linguistic kick in the shins.

~~~

Well, okay, the fists-up response is not always appropriate. One can engage in a kind of political discourse which seeks understanding, and to which nonsense might best be met with questions as to why the interlocutor believes that, or even a polite I disagree.

And, ff course, if one is outnumbered and such verbal disagreement could lead to a physical beatdown, keeping one’s trap shut is also a fine tactic.

~~~

I hate eliminationist talk, and find it stupid and counterproductive, if not potentially dangerous. I don’t  engage in such talk, don’t laugh at jokes about assassination, don’t as a general matter invite the spectre of real violence into the arena of politics.

It’s not because I’m good, but because I’m an Arendtian, and I think politics has a purpose which can be shattered by violence.

(Yes, I have invited public figures to engage in anatomically impossible acts on themselves, and will likely do so again the future. These aren’t my best moments, but I think a not-unreasonable response to the denigration and dehumanization of an entire category of human beings.)

Aristotle and Arendt both thought politics ennobling; a part of me agrees that yes, it offers the possibility of us inhabiting one of the highest kinds of human being.

But, as Machiavelli pointed out, one rarely reaches that pinnacle unscathed.

h/t, and for a completely different set of views, see James Fallows here, here, here, and here





Wipeout!

3 11 2010

I am not a pundit.

And yet, as a political scientist (however mediocre), I am nonetheless required to say something about the first Tuesday in November in an even-numbered year.

Ahem.

[[[[[[[Loooooooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngggggggggggggggggggggg pause]]]]]]]]]]

Aw, shit, you want punditisms, you know better than to check here. So how about some real political science?

There’s a rationality problem in voting. No, not in terms of does-my-vote-count sense—there are reasons beyond that of affecting in an absolute manner the outcome of an election—but in terms of the intransitivity of the vote.

To wit: Voters may prefer A to B and B to C. So far, so good. But it is often the case that voters may also prefer C to A.

Transitivity would lead one to expect that A > B > C, but the possibility (and in many cases, actuality) of A > B > C > A renders voter preferences irrational. There are any number of variations on intransitivity, but this is the basic set-up.*

This is hardly always the case, of course. A > B > C  (w/A > C) happens often enough; that we live in a (largely) two-party polity and that those parties hold primaries arguably erases the third option, such that one must choose either A or B.

But the argument could also go the other way: If your preferred candidate loses the primary, you might decide to vote for the opposition party’s candidate rather than your own. So you support Mike Castle in Delaware  who loses to Christine O’Donnell  in the Republican primary, and are so unhappy with O’Donnell that you end up voting for Chris Coons.

On the naked-individual level, this isn’t necessarily irrational: Castle > Coons > O’Donnell, such that the loss of Castle’s candidacy simply moves you to the next step.

But on the party-member level—and this is how the primary system can work against transitivity—it makes no sense. You vote in a primary because you support that party, but in the end vote against your party.

And as you move up levels, the transitivity problems increase, not least because you’re aggregating not only within districts, but aggregating across districts. Add in winner-take-all seats, and the interpretation of results is a muddle.

Oh, and add in people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing—don’t understand even the basics of policy and legislating—and good night, Irene.

Now, this is not just sour grapes. I’m not happy about yesterday’s results, but the muddle holds in almost every damned election.

Does this mean elections are useless? Nope. They do provide a kind of check on those in power, and marked preferences clearly do emerge at some levels. Whatever the problems with electoral representation, it is better than having no say in one’s representation.

Elections > no elections. Full stop.

Still, elections are simply the ticket to the show—terrifically important, insofar as one needs to get into the arena before one can play—but the play is the thing.

And here I think of George W. Bush’s first term. Here’s a man who clearly lost the popular vote and only won the electoral college after a lengthy (and still disputed) legal process, but who nonetheless sought to govern as if he had won overwhelmingly. (Which, come to think of it, he arguably did win ‘overwhelmingly’: he didn’t have to share the Oval Office.)

I like almost nothing about GWB’s administration, but I give him credit for the boldness of his moves in the years 2002-2006. He was the president and he governed as president—disastrously, from my perspective—but he was very effective in rolling past and over any opposition.

Was this because Bush was so strong or because the opposition so weak? Both, likely.

But both Bush’s presidency (the strong and the weak parts) and Obama’s first two years demonstrate that if you want to get something done—war in Iraq, health care reform—you have to keep moving, keep rolling past and over any opposition.

Stop moving—see Bush and Social Security reform—and you lose.

Of course, it’s all so much more complicated than all of this, and many more dimensions than can be captured in any regression or mathematical model; even Machiavelli recognized that boldness was not always enough to overcome Fortuna. Or a determined opposition.

So, Mr President, how determined will you and your party be?

(*See William Riker’s Liberalism Against Populism and his discussion of ‘the paradox of voting’ for a more elegant discussion of in/transitivity. And for real wonky quantitative pol sci discussions, check out The Monkey Cage.)

 





Wait, what was that?

5 07 2009

Re: the soon-to-be-former governor of Alaska. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Some Freepers are peddling the line that she’s too good for politics, and her decision to ditch is evidence of her superior character—as opposed to, say, an inability either to govern or to develop the skills necessary for political leadership.

And as to complaints about Everybody Being So Mean To Her: If she can’t handle Katie Couric and David Letterman, how the hell could she handle Netanyahu, Putin, Mubarak—or Pelosi or Reid, for that matter?

Fair, unfair: Neither of these matters in political campaigns. Read some Machiavelli, fer cryin’ out loud—and if that’s too much to ask, remember Vince Lombardi.

Shees.

————————-

I know I have issues with community. It’s less that I’m enthusiastic about CAPITAL-I! individualism than I am suspicious of the group—especially a group which claims special status based on its group-ness.

Yeah, I have a past with cliques, the push-pull of wanting to belong and wanting to tell others to fuck off, but I don’t want to reduce this to psychology.

No, I want to reduce this to principle: Don’t tell me [who’s not a member of your group] that I’m less worthy [because I’m not a member of your group]. As a political matter, don’t claim rights based on your group which are denied those not members of the group.

In practice, of course, groups are often religious communities, and the rights claimed are based on the freedom of religion, not on the rights of the group.

All kinds of ways to take off from here, but, after my friend E. called me out on my bias yesterday, I think I need to stay right here, and consider what is principle and what is, simply, prejudice.

Background: I’ve mentioned previously encounters with religious folk which I’ve considered insulting. In one case, two women wouldn’t take an item from my hand, but asked that I set it down before they would touch it. In the second case, a man responded to my outstretched hand with a mumbled request that I withdraw it, out of respect for him and his religious beliefs.

In both cases, I took their reactions to me to be based on their religious beliefs, and further inferred that they thought I was lesser or would somehow taint them with my touch. In both cases, I (behaviorally) respected their expressed wishes, but I was also offended.

E. was puzzled by my response, especially to the situation with the two young women (religion unknown; from their dress, either Christian or Muslim was a possibility). Why do you think that has anything to do with you, she asked?

Because I was there!

Yeah, but they weren’t asking you to do anything offensive.

Huh.

As to the second case, with the no-handshake man, she focused on his explanation for why I should respect him. Why would he assume you’d know about his religious beliefs?

Another good question. I assumed he was Hasidic, although he wasn’t wearing a fedora and it was so dark that I couldn’t tell if he had peyos, but, as E. pointed out, Orthodox men will wear the shawl—and Orthodox men will shake a woman’s hand.

Yes, I agreed, I’ve shaken hands with Orthodox men, and, come to think of it, I don’t know for sure if he was hasidim.

Given my skepticism toward groups and my disdain for patriarchy, I bundled together a few pieces of information about this guy into an unmerited heap of a conclusion. I thought it was about the group and the group’s beliefs about women and his expectation that I alter my behavior to suit him—and I was offended.

But maybe it wasn’t really about me. Maybe, as E. pointed out, his English just wasn’t that great, that he didn’t know a more polite way to make his request.

Well, dammit, E., what are ya doin’, making me rethink these things? I was so comfortable in my anti-fundamentalist stance and here you go redirecting my attention. What the hell kind of friend are you, anyway?

Hmpf.

I’m fine with my skepticisms and criticisms, but I’d rather not be reactionary. So I’ll follow this redirection, see where it takes me—and try to keep my biases out of my way.

Thanks, E.

————————-

Inspired by a segment I heard on WNYC about members of They Might Be Giants banning certain phrases, I humble ask for the retirement of the following (I direct this to myself, as well):

  • Meh
  • Wow. Just wow.
  • Batshit crazy (I do like this one, but, Enough.)
  • Just sayin’
  • teh gay/s
  • ZOMG! WTF?! ROTFL, et. al.
  • Meme (I have always hated this term. Always. Goddamned genetic reductionists.)

I probably should ban ‘heh’, as well, but no need to get all Puritan, here.

———————-

Jasper update: He is on,

or off.

No in-between.

A little less smelly (gave him a washcloth rinse yesterday), but still in need of a dunking. With soap.

Very friendly, and eager for a lap. Good purr.

Ten week-old kittens have really tiny heads. Tiny teeth, too, but sharp.

Still working on the biting. No biting.

Working on the staying off of computer keyboard, too. He’s logged me out of Firefox a couple of times, opened about fifteen help windows, and at one point sent my computer into hibernation. Fancy feet on that boy.

Not so much in the litter box, however. Jasper has no litter skills. Yes, he uses his wee box (a cereal box with the back cut out, lined with a plastic bag), but he’s a bit fuzzy on the whole covering-one’s-leaving concept: He’ll scratch at the air, at the floor outside of the box, on the wall next to the box, but actually in the box? Not so much. [I know, I should retire this one, too, but it’s too good to lose!]

I hope his skills improve when he moves to the big box.

He has gotten within a foot of Bean, who has responded with hisses and yowling. At one point she swiped at him, but, as he was a good foot-and-a-half away, nothing happened.

Still, at some point there will be contact, and he will learn that Bean is Queen.