Cars, “Yellow Vests,” and the Crisis of Democracy

 

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Yellow Vest racism in the Savoy

In both his blog and his book, The Long Depressionthe British Marxist economist Michael Roberts has driven the point home again and again that the 2008 financial crisis can only be understood as a crisis of profitability, i.e. as a reflection of capitalism’s fatal tendency to over-invest in capital goods and thus drive labor productivity to ever greater heights while at the same time producing a growing mountain of goods that it is unable to sell.  Over-investment leads to over-production, which leads to financial crisis when it becomes clear that such investments must be written off.  Liquidation leads to slump as workers are dismissed and consumption plummets.  But then, once the dust settles and the crisis bottoms out, capitalist accumulation resumes on a new and higher level.  The “long depression” of 1873 to 1896 thus gave way to a surge of inventions such as long-distance railroads, electric trolleys and subways, the Model T, and the airplane.  The Crash of 1929 gave way to Les Trente Glorieuses, the postwar golden age in which French wages rose 170 percent between 1950 and 1974 while private consumption rose 174.  But now we’re seeing the great unwinding as growth slows, pay stagnates, and, thanks to “quantitative easing,” the profits of an infinitesimal few soar to unprecedented heights.

But if the financial results are clear enough, what about the political consequences?  The answer since 2008 has been a series of populist revolts beginning with the Arab Spring and continuing on through Occupy Wall Street, the Automaidan uprising in Kiev, Brexit, and Trump, all reflective of a growing sense that ordinary people are suffering while certain elites – dictators, oligarchs, Wall Street shysters, Hollywood liberals, etc. – grow richer, more grasping, and more arrogant.

The latest such revolt is France’s Gilets Jaunes, or “Yellow Vests,” so called for the reflective garments that French motorists are supposed to have on hand in case of a breakdown, which thousands of protesters have adopted as their emblem.  What makes the Yellow Vests especially interesting is that they’re the clearest example yet of how the profitability crisis manifests itself in everyday life.

It does so via the automobile, the mass-produced commodity that defines modern life.  Mass motorization is so all-pervasive that its effects are almost beyond measure.  Under its impact, corner grocery stores have given way to hangar-sized supermarkets and shopping malls, crowded slums have given way to suburban sprawl, while sidewalks have all but disappeared from much of the US for the simple reason that people no longer walk and instead drive wherever they want to go.  From Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 study, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, to Riesman, Glazer, and Denny’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), about growing isolation out in the ’burbs, bourgeois society effectively turned itself inside out over the course of little more than half a century, and, more than any other commodity, the automobile is what made it possible.

But the curious thing about the car is that while it seemed to encourage a new spirit of individualism, it in fact depended on vast public inputs.  Nineteenth-century railroad barons not only owned the locomotives and passenger cars, but also built the tracks on which they traveled.  But auto manufacturers like Henry Ford did not build the paved highways that their vehicles required.  Instead, they demanded that government build them instead.  To be sure, gasoline taxes helped offset construction costs.  But the shortfall has been enormous, as environmental economists discovered when they began tallying up the full range of “externalities,” or uncovered costs, in the 1980s.  Turning a gimlet eye not only on highway infrastructure but other auto-related expenditures and expenses in the form of low-cost urban parking, highway services (e.g. cops and ambulances), pollution, and traffic delays, they came up with deficits in year-2000 terms of anywhere from $3.75 to $10 a gallon.

Where prices appear to hover around the $3 mark, in other words, the real cost of a gallon of gas, counting inflation, is some five or six times higher.  Moreover, the picture has gotten a lot worse since Y2K.  Traffic delays in major urban areas have risen by better than thirty percent according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute while average traffic speeds in midtown Manhattan have slowed to just 4.7 miles per hour, little better than a fast walk.  Climate change, in which auto emissions play a growing role, is accelerating while military costs are exploding.  In 2010, a Princeton University economist calculated that the Pentagon was spending roughly $600 billion a year in current dollars to firm up US control of the Persian Gulf, home to nearly half of the world’s proven oil supply, while the invasion of Iraq, as Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes remind us, will likely add $3 trillion more to the tab.  If you divide those costs among the 140 billion or so gallons that US citizens consume each year, then the per-gallon deficit rises to $20 or even more.  Americans are racking up astronomical costs for the privilege of sitting in traffic.

This is over-production at its most tangible.  The more cars roll off the assembly line, the more unprofitable each one becomes.  But with half of all companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average tied up in one way or another with auto manufacturing, capitalism can’t afford to say no.  Instead, it must ramp up production while shunting the cost onto larger society.  Damage mounts in the form of Middle East wars, climate change, terrorism, and political breakdown.  The more it piles up, the less society seems to work.

Which brings us back to the Yellow Vests, an immense protest movement growing out of mounting social dysfunction.  The movement started when President Emmanuel Macron dared to raise fuel taxes in an effort to rein in highway demand.  When he dug in his heels and vowed not to back down, crowds responded by rampaging through Paris and blockading roundabouts out in the hinterlands.  Again and again, protesters gave voice to the same complaints.  Taxes are rising while income falls.  Green reforms make no sense when ordinary people are up against the wall.  One protester said he had no choice but to drive because he lives 35 minutes from the nearest train station.  Another sneered that officials are increasingly out of touch.  “The citizens have asked for lower taxes, and they’re saying, ‘ecology,’” he snorted.  Léon Crémieux, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party, a spinoff of Alain Krivine’s rudderless Revolutionary Communist League, reports that of 17 million French commuters, eighty percent have no choice but to drive: “even in the Paris region, only one in two employees uses public transportation to go to work.”

French workers can’t afford to pay for what has become a daily necessity, just as workers can’t in America, Britain, and virtually everywhere else in the industrialized world.  But there’s a problem.  If fuel costs are lowered, then sprawl will accelerate, which means that workers will wind all the more dependent on the private car.   Instead of living 35 minutes from the nearest station, they’ll live 45, 50, or even an hour – not because they want to, but because growing subsidization pushes them out to the periphery by driving costs up in urban centers and lowering them in the distant ’burbs.  The more they stew in traffic, the more they’ll curse the government for not lowering gas prices even more.

Although people like Crémieux try to put the best face on things, the rightwing nature of such mindless road rage is impossible to ignore.  Donald Trump has tweeted his approval while Marine Le Pen, Steve Bannon, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s immigrant-bashing deputy PM, have all spoken out in support.  A number of ultra-rightists have emerged in the leadership, among them a charming guy from the southern Vaucluse region named Christophe Chalençon, who is openly anti-Muslim and has called for a military-led government “because a true commander, a general, a strong hand is what we need.”  “Retourne dans son pays” (“Go back to where you came from”) shouted Yellow Vests at a black motorist in the Savoy.  “Macron pute à juif!” (“Macron is a Jewish whore!”) cried a protester in Paris.  (Go to 4:57 for the quote.)  Not surprisingly, an unofficial list of Yellow Vest demands (English translation here) calls for deporting migrants who fail to gain asylum, strengthening French language laws, lengthening presidential terms from five years to seven, and instituting a hare-brained scheme for a system of popular referenda that moneyed interests will find all too easy to manipulate.

A rightwing drift is inevitable because rather than challenging the vast giveaways that keep auto manufacturers and oil companies afloat, the movement can only call for more.  Comparisons have been made, appropriately enough, to the 2013 bus fare protests in Brazil, which undermined Dilma Rousseff and paved the way for Jair Bolsonaro; to the Automaidan in early 2014 Kiev, in which ultra-rightists played a growing role; and to the Five Star Movement in Italy, which also started out as amorphously anti-establishment but has since veered off in a more and more xenophobic direction.  Instead of leftwing solutions, populist eruptions like these are part of a growing political dynamic that is pushing bourgeois society ever farther to the right.

The process is even more advanced in America where an ultra-conservative occupies the Oval Office and the only way Russophobic Democrats know how to challenge him is from the right.  Rather than steering government back to the center, separation of powers, checks and balances, and the rest are driving it in an ever more authoritarian direction.  The “solution” to Trump has become part of the problem, which is why the process seems to be accelerating.

 

 

Nancy, Chuck, and Donald

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Pelosi, Pence, Trump, and Schumer: Meeting of the minds

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times, the newspaper that virtually invented the #MeToo movement, has declared Nancy Pelosi’s confrontation with Donald Trump yesterday a victory for feminism.  “We rarely get to see a woman in that level of leadership confronted in that way,” it quotes Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, as saying.  “I think this was an example that really speaks to women’s capacity to lead, and to do it civilly, to do it with grace and to be strong and clear.”

This is nonsense.  Rather than a woman’s capacity to lead, all the exchange demonstrated was the Democratic leadership’s deep fear of publicly disagreeing with the president.  “I don’t think we should have a debate in front of the press on this,” Pelosi pleaded at one point.  “Let’s debate in private,” added Chuck Schumer.  “This is the most unfortunate thing,” Pelosi continued.  “We came in here in good faith, and we are entering into this kind of a discussion in the public view.”

To which Trump could only retort: “But it’s not bad, Nancy….  It’s called transparency.”  All that Pelosi accomplished in the end was to make the Great Orange-Haired One look good.

This was sad, certainly.  But it wasn’t Pelosi’s fault, at least not entirely.  To the contrary, the horror of debate arises from deep within the American political structure. After all, the 55 delegates who attended the Philadelphia convention in 1787 were so terrified of what people might think if they openly disagreed with one another that they opted to keep their proceedings secret.  Indeed, Madison kept his notes about the proceedings under wraps for a full half century because he wanted the illusion of consensus to go undisturbed.  While Congress certainly saw plenty of disagreement in the years that followed, the system of divided powers that the founders bequeathed insured that politics would move increasingly off-stage as congressional leaders and the president negotiated their differences quietly among themselves.  The public thus found itself increasingly in the dark.  More recently, “sidebar politics” have reached baroque proportions as the legislative and executive branches ballooned and committees and subcommittees multiplied.  What takes place on the House or Senate floor is now all for show while the real action takes place offstage in corridors and committee rooms, far from the prying eyes of the public.

Pelosi was expecting a similar sort of private exchange when she and Schumer arrived at the White House, which is why she was so visibly put out when Trump dared to challenge her before the press.  He broke the rules, you see, by openly disagreeing.  Everyone knows that the two sides can’t stand one another.  But constitutional faith requires that they pretend to get along so that government can continue.

Ironically, this deep-seated aversion does nothing to limit debate.  To the contrary, tamping it down in Congress merely scatters it and drives it into the shadows.  When it does emerge, it’s all the more poisonous by virtue of being disorganized and repressed.  Instead of allowing one side to triumph over the other, the resultant muddle insures that all sides will sit and stew in a puddle of anger and incoherence.  The result is a country riven by deep disagreements that no one has any idea how to resolve.

Notice how Pelosi remained silent while Trump denounced thousands of desperate refugees huddled in Tijuana as nothing more than disease-ridden terrorists?  Too polite to spring to their defense, all she could do was emphasize how fervently she and Chuck agree on the need for stepped-up “border security.”  So what if Trump kicks the huddled masses when they’re down?  The last thing Democrats want to do is violate constitutional propriety by saying that he’s wrong.

The Midterms: Trump Emerges Bloodied but Unbowed

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The Orange One: Legitimacy Enhanced

Democrats went into midterms hoping for a clear-cut repudiation of Donald Trump and all he stands for, but what they’ve wound up with instead is a muddle.  They captured the House, but gained less than half as many seats as Republicans did in 2010.  They lost ground in the Senate, showed distinct weakness in the crucial battleground states of Florida and Ohio, and were no more than spottily successful outside of the affluent suburbs.  New Deal progressives are increasingly a party of Brahmin liberals cut off from the “deplorable” masses below.

Trump thus emerged from the ordeal bloodied but unbowed.  To be sure, one-party rule is kaput, which means that he can say goodbye to his more extreme legislative proposals.  But it’s unclear how much Trump really wanted to build that wall along the Mexican border in the first place as opposed to using it as a slogan to pump up anti-Latino racism and xenophobia.  He’ll still have a free hand in foreign policy and in environmental and business de-regulation and will be able to use his enhanced majority in the Senate to intensify the GOP’s march of destruction through the judiciary.  Once Ruth Ginzburg steps down, now all but certain thanks to her failing health, he’ll be able to cap it off by nominating yet another Federalist Society pick for the Supreme Court.  The legal structure as a whole will lurch even farther to the right, forcing Democrats to wage a battle that is ever more uphill.

Not a pretty picture, is it?  All this occurs amid a political structure that is growing increasingly undemocratic and illiberal.  State population projections issued by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service indicate that US population as a whole will grow some 17.6 percent by the year 2040 and that the demographic gap between individual states will continue to widen.  Where the ratio between the most and least populous state, i.e. California and Wyoming, now stands at 68 to one, it will reach a whopping 79 to one over the same period.  Where a majority of Americans now live in ten states, better than 52 percent will live in just nine, i.e. California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, and Ohio.  Where California currently has more people than the 21 smallest states combined, in a little over two decades it will have more than 22.

The implications are ominous.  Where the Senate now allows the minority to outvote the majority by four to one, by 2040 it will allow it to do so by an even greater margin – 4.55 to one to be exact.  Where today a Senate majority can be gleaned from states representing just 18.7% of the population, by 2040 it will be obtainable from states representing just 17.4.  Given the disproportionate clout enjoyed by white rural states such as Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, the upper chamber can only grow more racist, rightwing, and anti-urban, which means that the judiciary will as well.  Since rightwing judges are rarely troubled by gerrymandering, voter suppression, and the like, we can expect such trends to proceed apace, rendering the House more unrepresentative as well.  The same goes for the Electoral College.  Currently, Wyoming residents have 3.72 times more clout in presidential elections that Californians.  But by 2040, the smallest state – by this point Vermont – will have roughly 4.25 times as much.  Stolen elections à la 2000 and 2016 will grow more likely rather than less.

Inequities like these were no big deal at the time the US Constitution was created.  The Republic of Geneva limited voting to just 1,500 male residents, the Dutch Republic was ruled by a governing council in which seven provinces were equally represented despite immense population differences, while the Venetian Republic was a baroque masterpiece consisting of a citizen assembly, a grand council, a minor council, a “council of ten,” a senate, a doge, and a cabinet-like collegio.  All supposedly served as checks and balances on one another, although the arrangement didn’t stop a few hundred nobles from effectively running the show.  The US Constitution represented a significant improvement in its day.  But it has since served as a kind of historical conveyor belt for the transport of eighteenth-century political values to the twenty-first

And now it’s all going into reverse as the imbalances mount.  The Polyannas at Jacobin Magazine may think that that “things are slowly – but surely – moving our way,” but in fact they’re doing the opposite.  The result is not only “a growing crisis of legitimacy for the US political system,” to quote Paul Krugman in the Times, but one that is effectively unfixable for the simple reason that the founders neglected to include a toolkit that is up to the job.  To be sure, Article V establishes a mechanism for changing the Constitution.  But by requiring amendments to be approved by two-thirds of each house plus three-fourths of the states, it allows thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population to veto any reform sought by the remainder.  A structural overhaul is thus out of the question even though common sense tells us that it is long overdue.  Indeed, by 2040 when the same number falls to just 4.2 percent according to the UVA projections, it will be even more impossible.  Instead of a more perfect union, Americans will be saddled with one that’s more corrupt, more undemocratic, and more dysfunctional. Rather than “secur[ing] the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,” the constitutional machinery will destroy them.

Conceivably, Democrats could respond by telling Americans the plain unvarnished truth about what needs to be done.  But for a thousand and one reasons they won’t.  As creatures of the constitutional system, they’re no more capable of altering its essential parameters than a guppy is capable of changing the fishbowl he lives in.  Rather than challenging the larger system, they’ll now doubt accept it as a fait accompli and internalize its increasingly rightwing logic.  In fact, this is what they’ve already done with their reactionary a campaign against Moscow.  Their only answer to the bad xenophobia of Trump, apparently, is a “good” xenophobia that targets Russia instead of brown people from the south.  This is what the two-party system amounts to in the age of Trumpism, i.e. a neck-and-neck race to authoritarinism.  Not good, as the Orange One would say.

Hold the Presses: The Senate Is Undemocratic!

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Young fogey Ezra Klein: unable to look the problem full in the face.

In the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh affair, a number of news outlets have discovered that the body that confirmed him, i.e.  the US Senate, is less than a model of democracy.  Due to growing state population discrepancies, declared Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC, “the votes of New Yorkers and Californians [are] worth less everyday in the United States compared to the votes of people in the Dakotas.”  At the New York Times, David Leonhardt described the Senate as “affirmative action for white people” and calculated that it gives whites 35 percent more political clout than blacks and 85 percent more than Hispanics.  Over at the Atlantic, Parker Richards noted that the fifty senators who voted for Kavanaugh represent just 44 percent of the US population, adding: “those who want abolition and those who want more modest, but nonetheless significant, changes agree: The Senate is increasingly unrepresentative of the American populace.”

How incendiary.  Then there is Ezra Klein, whose essay at Vox.com, “The Rigging of American Politics,” is even more sweeping.  “Since 2000,” he writes, “fully 40 percent of presidential elections have been won by the loser of the popular vote.  Republicans control the US Senate despite winning fewer votes than Democrats, and it’s understood that House Democrats need to beat Republicans by as much as 7 or 8 points in the popular vote to hold a majority in the chamber.  Next year, it’s possible that Republicans will control the presidency and both chambers of Congress despite having received fewer votes for the White House in 2016 and for the House and Senate in 2018.”

Yes, it really is a horror show.  “Kavanaugh now serves on a Supreme Court,” Klein goes on, “where four of the nine justices were nominated by a president who lost the popular vote in his initial run for office.”  Having gained control of the executive branch, the House, and the Senate, the minority dictatorship has thus moved on to the judiciary, which it will now use to deepen and extend its rule.  The result, Klein writes, is a growing crisis of legitimacy in which “we the people” no longer believe that the system is right, fair, and representative.  “This is the feeling that is draining out of the American political system,” he says, “and as bad as it is now, it can, and likely will, get much, much worse.”

Quite right: the longer this farce goes on, the more demoralized Americans will become.  But what’s notable about Klein’s 3,200-word article is the way it can barely bring itself to mention the real problem, which, of course, is the dysfunctional amending clause in Article V.  All Klein can say is that the “Constitution is devilishly difficult to amend” and that “the pace of amendments is slowing as we move further from the date of ratification” – hardly adequate given that the Article V effectively rules out meaningful constitutional reform by allowing just thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population to veto any and all change.  This is why frustration is mounting to such dangerous levels: because the Constitution is essentially unfixable under anything like present circumstances and “we the people” are therefore destined to writhe ever more hopelessly in its grip.

This inability to look the problem full in the face explains why Klein’s rhetoric grows murkier and murkier the longer he goes on.  “America is not, and never has been, a democracy,” he says before complaining that it falls short of democratic norms.  “We do not judge our constitution, we venerate it,” he adds.  He worries that “there’s little clarity on the principles we believe should undergird America’s political system” and wonders whether “our true belief is not that our system of governance is performing so well that it should be immune to change, but that we are performing so poorly that we do not trust ourselves to change it.”  Then comes the following peroration:

The problem right now is we don’t all agree the rules are fair, but the depth of that disagreement has made it impossible to imagine agreeing to other rules, either.  And since we haven’t even tried to agree to the principles that are meant to guide our rules, every question, in every case, comes down to the raw exercise of power.  Perhaps the only way out of this mess is for the stakes to be raised, for Democrats to respond to Republican provocations and an increasingly tilted playing field by striking back and pushing the system to a breaking point.  Perhaps then a compromise will come clear to both sides.  But that’s a treacherous path to walk in a country that already feels near fracture.

All of which is quite misleading.  If Americans venerate the Constitution, it’s not because they’re worshipful or religious but because Article V places it so far beyond their reach that they have no choice other than to acquiesce.  If the system lacks clarity, it’s because they don’t know how to fix it and thus dispel the constitutional fog.  It’s not that they don’t trust themselves to make long-overdue reforms.  It’s that they lack the power and therefore don’t know how to begin.

As for “the depth of that disagreement [that] has made it impossible to imagine agreeing to other rules,” in fact it’s not at all impossible – it’s just seems that way.  For the moment, an obsolete political system cripples effective decision-making.  But it’s not impossible to imagine a different system in which all it would take is a 51-percent majority to cast aside old rules and superstitions so that “we the people” can address their problems in something like the clear light of day.  Agreement under such conditions might actually prove quite easy.

The problem is really simple — so simple, in fact, that people like Klein tend to look away.  The issue is that Article V and the Preamble are mutually contradictory.  One says that “we the people” are all-powerful and hence fully capable of tossing out old constitutions and instituting new ones in their place in order to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and do all the other things that popular sovereignty requires.  The other says the opposite, i.e. that the Constitution is not an instrument of democratic self-government, but a totem before which the people must bow and scrape.  Just as a house divided itself cannot stand, a people that can’t figure out whether they’re over the Constitution or under it is one that will grow increasingly paralyzed the more sclerotic the system grows and the more problems pile up.

The structure is collapsing, yet Americans don’t know what to do because the founders neglected to include a repair kit along with a user’s manual.  But what they don’t realize is that the founders didn’t include a repair kit because they couldn’t: being mere mortals, they had no way of anticipating the problems that would arise.  Hence, what they fail to realize is that they must come up with their own repair kit to deal with such difficulties and that casting off the dead weight of eighteenth-century constitutionalism is the first step to doing so.

This doesn’t means operating within the Constitution according to its various rules and precepts, but stepping outside it, which is nothing less than a revolutionary act.  But this is why bourgeois liberals like Klein are unable to grasp the problem in full – because doing so would mean opening the door to more change than they’re willing to admit.  “Be practical, demand the impossible” – so radicals declared in Paris in 1968.  But present circumstances have turned that dictum on its head.  Because change is impossible, people feel they have no choice but to stick with the status quo no matter how impractical it grows.

The Great Kavanaugh Freakout

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Christine Blasey Ford: Gaps and contradictions

Democrats have spent the last two years blaming Russia for Hillary Clinton’s defeat.  Now they’re blaming Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine for the Kavanaugh debacle.  But it’s not going to work.  Once again, the only people Democrats have to blame are themselves.

Admittedly, they faced an uphill battle thanks to a confirmation process heavily weighted in favor of the executive branch.   Citing Alexander Hamilton in her epic speech last Friday, Collins laid out the conventional thinking concerning the constitutional phrase “advice and consent”: since “the president has broad discretion to consider a nominee’s philosophy … my duty as a senator is to focus on the nominee’s qualifications as long as that nominee’s philosophy is within the mainstream of judicial though.”  Assuming that his or her politics are not too outré, the only question is whether the nominee is morally and professionally fit.

This left Democrats with precious little to hold on to.  They tried to prove that Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy was indeed beyond the mainstream by arguing that he’d strike down Obamacare and Roe v. Wade if given the chance.  But how could they be sure when, like every Supreme Court nominee before him, he refused to say how he’d vote one way or the other for fear of being “Borked”?  What evidence could they come up with to the contrary?  How could they respond to all those legal eminences arguing that he was the best candidate in years?  In a Times op-ed that he’ll no doubt regret for the rest of his life, a very liberal and very smart Yale law professor named Akhil Reed Amar described the nominee as nothing less than stellar:

The nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to be the next Supreme Court justice is President Trump’s finest hour, his classiest move.  Last week the president promised to select “someone with impeccable credentials, great intellect, unbiased judgment, and deep reverence for the laws and Constitution of the United States.”  In picking Judge Kavanaugh, he has done just that.

Conceivably, Democrats could have held Kavanaugh’s feet to the fire by exploring his role in approving the use of torture as a member of George W. Bush’s White House staff.  But since they’ve never shown the moral courage on that score before, how could they do so now?

That left the question of moral competence.  This is where liberals took a bad situation and made it worse.  In bringing in Christine Blasey Ford, they didn’t understand that it would not be enough for her to be good witness.  Since it was bound to be a matter of “he said, she said,” rather, she’d have to be a great one whose story would be so convincing as to reduce Kavanaugh to a mass of Queeg-like twitches and tics.

She didn’t.  Kavanaugh’s rebuttal turned out to be unexpectedly strong, while, as one would expect with a 36-year-old account, Ford’s version turned out to be riddled with gaps and contradictions.  How could she be “a hundred percent certain” that Kavanaugh had attacked her when she was just fifteen but uncertain about so much else: where the attack occurred, how she had gotten there, who had driven her the half-dozen miles home, and so on?  Why didn’t a good friend who was also at the party telephone to ask why she had left so suddenly?  Why didn’t any of the four people who were allegedly present corroborate her account?  A sworn statement by an ex-boyfriend with whom she lived for a half-dozen years was especially damaging.  Ford said she had taken a polygraph to substantiate her charges.  But where she testified that she had never advised anyone else on how to take such a test, her ex said that she had coached a roommate who was applying for jobs with the FBI and the US Attorney’s office.  “Dr. Ford explained in detail what to expect, how polygraphs worked and helped [her] become familiar and less nervous about the exam,” he said.  “Dr. Ford was able to help because of her background in psychology.”

Where Ford said she suffers from claustrophobia and a fear of flying, the boyfriend also said she lived in a 500-square-foot home in California and that the two of them had flown around Hawaii, “including one time in a propeller plane.”  As University of California psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who got her start exploring “recovered memory” in child-abuse cases, explains in an excellent TED talk:

If I’ve learned anything from these decades of working on these problems, it’s this: just because somebody tells you something and they say it with confidence, just because they say it with lots of detail, just because they express emotion when they say it, it doesn’t mean that it really happened.  We can’t reliably distinguish true memories from false memories – we need independent corroboration.

But then something strange happened.  The Democratic Party’s #MeToo wing stepped in and announced that such evidence was irrelevant because an accusation of sexual assault was enough in and of itself.  Protesters invaded Capitol Hill with signs reading, “We believe all survivors.”  They wrote “Believe Women” on their hands and chanted, “We believe women,” while pumping their fists.  “If their stories are credible, as Dr. Ford’s story is,” said Democratic Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, “they need to be believed.”  According to Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, sexual assault victims were shocked that anyone would question Ford at all.  Watching her testify, Gillibrand said, “they saw men in power who were believing other men in power over women who suffered gravely.  They saw that disbelief and dismissiveness of women and they felt disbelieved and dismissed themselves.”  To doubt was to be part of the patriarchy.

This is not just nonsense, but undemocratic nonsense.  Democracy is not some faith-based doctrine, but one resting on reason and evidence.  As anyone who has taken part in a union-organizing drive can attest, you can’t just ask a worker to sign up and then call him fascist if he balks. To the contrary, you’ve got to argue and explain why a union is important, listen very carefully to his counter-arguments, and then respond accordingly.  Not only doesn’t emotional blackmail work in such instances, it’s invariably counterproductive.  Ford supporters who stamped their feet, crying believe, believe, believe, were thus counterproductive as well.  By implying that corroboration is irrelevant and that questioning is immoral, they insulted the intelligence of those wavering in between and fairly pushed them into the arms of the GOP.

“I have been alarmed and disturbed … by some who have suggested that unless Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination is rejected, the senate is somehow condoning sexual assault,” Collins declared on Oct. 5.  Democrats hate and despise her for saying this, but she was right: that’s just what Hirono and Gillibrand implied.

The desperation of the Democrats is understandable.  They’ve won the popular vote in six out of the last presidential elections and hence can argue that they’re more popular, or at least less despised, than the GOP.  Yet they’re victims of a super-antiquated Constitution that locks them into a minoritarian ghetto.  With an Electoral College that triples the clout of rural white states like Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, a senate that allows the 54 percent of the country that lives in just ten states to be outvoted four to one by the remainder, and an increasingly unrepresentative House due to rampant gerrymandering, they’re victims of a political structure that more and more favors the GOP.  They were therefore frantic to prevent the sole remaining semi-liberal institution in Washington to come under the Republican dictatorship.  But as members of an outrageously undemocratic senate, they couldn’t help stoking a liberal-feminist #MeToo movement that is just as authoritarian as anything produced by the GOP.

They made fools of themselves in the process while doing nothing to stop the general rush to the right.  If anything, they added to it.  The Kavanaugh debacle proves yet again that the  crisis of American democracy is nothing if not bipartisan.

The #MeToo-ing of Brett Kavanaugh: Why Americans Find It Easier to Talk about Sex than Politics

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Brett Kavanaugh

Until Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward with her story of near-rape at the hands of a couple of drunken preppies, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation saga seemed to be shaping up as a classic Washington farce in which Democrats go through the motions of opposing a rightwing Supreme Court pick while doing as little as possible to actually stop it.

Now that the Ford saga has busted it wide open, it’s still a farce, but a rollicking high-octane farce that is impossible to resist whether we like it or not.

Given Kavanaugh’s strongly-worded denial, it remains a question of her word against his.  But all sides are now piling on.  Mark Judge, a conservative writer and journalist who took part in the alleged assault, did his old pal no favor by declaring, “It’s just absolutely nuts.  I never saw Brett act that way.”  He added in an email a day later: “I have no recollection of any of the events described in today’s Post article or attributed to her letter.”  The trouble is that Judge is the author of a 1997 memoir entitled, “Wasted: Tales of a Gen-X Drunk,” in which he brags about how many times in high school he wound up unconscious on the floor.  Once “I had the first beer,” he says, “I found it impossible to stop until I was completely annihilated.”  The fact that he has no recollection of an assault is meaningless since there’s much about his school days that he doesn’t recall.

There’s also the fact that Judge seems to be a rightwing creep who thinks that “women should be struck regularly, like gongs” (as he put it in his high-school yearbook, quoting Noel Coward); who writes that Barack Obama is a wimp who lives in “abject terror” of his wife; who equivocates about the morality of rape, and who is given to wayward thoughts about black people and gays.  (Check out Shane Ryan’s article in Paste Magazine for all the sordid details.)  The fact that Kavanaugh would hang out with someone like this does not bode well for the GOP.  The other side has meanwhile trumpeted the news that students describe Ford, a research psychologist at Palo Alto University, in ratemyprofessors.com as scary and unprofessional – until, that is, it turned out the comments were about a different professor at a different university.  Now conservatives have taken it back while desperately searching for other ways to poke holes in her story.

Exciting, isn’t it?  Can’t you feel the adrenaline rushing through your veins the way it did back in the days of Anita Hill?  For the next few weeks, it looks like we’ll be condemned to spend our free time arguing about sexual violence and how to combat it, about the relationship between teenage misdeeds and adult behavior, and so on.  Resistance will be futile.  We’ll be drawn in whether we like it or not.

But as important as such topics are, consider what we won’t be discussing, e.g. how an unelected Supreme Court has come to loom so large in American political life or why such a powerful body should be exempt from democratic oversight.  Other things we won’t talk about include:

  • The fact that Kavanaugh, currently in his early fifties, could remain on the bench well into the 2050s or even longer thanks to medical advances. Society will be transformed, yet Kavanaugh will go on mumbling about the eternal wisdom of the Founders as if everything had remained the same.
  • The question of whether judicial interpretation can’t help but weaken as the decades wear on.  The more the Framers retreat into a mythic past, the more irrelevant they become in terms of modern society.  Rather than asking what the Constitution means, the question Americans should be asking themselves is whether such an exhausted tradition still retains any meaning at all.
  • The issue, finally, of whether excluding the masses from decision making strengthens democracy or undermines it.  If Americans are really concerned about the decline of democracy, the question is to consider is whether the answer is not to narrow it,  but to broaden it all the more.

But not only will such topics go undiscussed, they’ll wind up ever more sidelined as more “pressing” matters intrude.  It’s a fascinating example of how the political structure steers the “national conversation” away from the political and towards the sexual and personal by making it easier to talk about one than the other.

Take Dianne Feinstein, the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  In addition to bringing up Ford, she could conceivably raise questions about the wisdom of lifetime judicial appointments.  If representatives only serve two years and senators six, why on earth should Supreme Court justices serve for decades on end?  But if she complains that the Supreme Court is undemocratic, then someone will complain that a monstrously unrepresentative Senate is undemocratic as well, and her authority will vanish.  She doesn’t dare mention the absurdity of giving California the same clout as Wyoming even though its population is nearly seventy times greater because that would suggest that the Constitution is also absurd, words she cannot begin to utter about a document that, in accordance with Article VI, she has sworn to obey and uphold.  She can’t call for reform of the principle of equal state representation because she knows that Article V makes it impossible.

So she finds it more profitable to keep quiet.  One could accuse her of participating in a great conspiracy to bury such questions forever and ever except that, as she sees it, she agreed to play by certain rules when she entered politics, and thus can’t imagine changing them at this late date without going back on her word.

Similarly, she can’t encourage debate about the difficulties of constitutional interpretation for fear of opening a Pandora’s box that could lead to the undoing of decisions like Roe v. Wade.  Her only recourse, she figures, is to preserve America’s pre-modern political structure in the hope that Democrats will one day claw their way back on top and make the ancient machinery do their bidding instead.

The important questions are thus put off while everyone talks about sex instead.  “I am stunned that this is happening again,” Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California and a veteran of the Anita Hill wars, told the Times.  “But it is not surprising because our culture has not completely dealt with inequality between men and women.”

Yes, but what about the inequality between Californians and Wyoming residents?  This is something that American culture has unable to deal with at all.

 

Obama versus the New York Times

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Obama at Urbana-Champaign

Barack Obama’s September 7 speech at Urbana-Champaign has gotten a lot of attention due to its anti-Trump rhetoric.   But one comment has gone largely ignored:

And, by the way, the claim that everything will turn out OK because there are people inside the White House who secretly aren’t following the president’s orders, that is not a check.  I’m being serious here.  That’s not how our democracy’s supposed to work.  These people aren’t elected.  They’re not accountable.  They’re not doing us a service by actively promoting ninety percent of the crazy stuff that’s coming out of this White House and then saying, don’t worry, we’re preventing the other ten percent.  That’s not how things are supposed to work.  This is not normal.  These are extraordinary times.  And they’re dangerous times.

These people aren’t elected.  They’re not accountable.  They’re not doing us a service….  What is this but an attack on the New York Times for publishing an anonymous op-ed by “a senior official in the Trump administration” claiming that Trump appointees are working behind the scenes to block his “more misguided impulses”?

“Although he was elected as a Republican,” the op-ed declares, “the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets and free people.”  Instead of confronting Russia, it complains that the president has balked at expelling alleged Russian spies and has opposed sanctions designed to counter to Moscow’s “malign behavior.”  But never fear, “his national security team knew better – such actions had to be taken, to hold Moscow accountable.”  So top officials have rammed them through regardless.  “This isn’t the work of the so-called deep state,” the piece went on. “It’s the work of the steady state.”

This was all quite extraordinary.  Last year, the Times said the notion of a deep state was a lie that Trump made up “to deflect perceived criticism by attacking the legitimacy of the critic.” Now it turns out that a deep-seated anti-administration conspiracy does exist and the Times couldn’t be happier.  In a follow-up editorial, the paper accused Trump of acting unconstitutionally by daring to get upset.  “Finger-pointing, name-calling, wild accusations, cries of treason – it was an unsettling display, not simply of Mr. Trump’s emotional fragility and poor impulse control, but also of his failure to understand the nature of the office he holds, the government he leads and the democracy he has sworn to serve.”

But what’s wrong with letting loose at those trying to do his administration in?  Wouldn’t Obama do the same if self-appointed guardians of the status quo blocked his most important initiatives?  How about Bernie Sanders — wouldn’t he do the same?  Steve Bannon may have exaggerated when he accused the Times of encouraging a coup d’état, but only slightly.  Tanks may not be ringing the White House.  But what the anonymous op-ed describes is essentially a slow-motion putsch in which the permanent national-security apparatus jams up the machinery from within.  These are indeed dangerous times, just as Obama says.

What’s ironic, of course, is that while no one elected such people, it’s not clear who elected Donald Trump.  Certainly, the people didn’t; rather, he slipped into office by virtue of an obscure body known as the Electoral College, the American equivalent of the Vatican’s College of Cardinals, which overrode the popular vote for the second time in less than two decades.  This is a frankly undemocratic body that triples the clout of depopulated rural states like Wyoming and the Dakotas in presidential elections at the expense of the teeming giants like California and New York.  The Times could have called for repeal on the grounds that it violates the principle of one person-one vote.  But it can’t for the simple reason that it’s impossible.  Thanks to the three-fourths provision in Article V – which says that any amendment must be approved not only by two-thirds of each house of Congress but three-fourths of the states – thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population can veto any constitutional reform in perpetuity.  Since rural states can be counted on to use every constitutional trick in the book to protect their special advantage, reform is out of the question from the start.

Conceivably, the Times could admit that America’s decrepit constitutional structure is beyond repair.  But since this would pitch it into terra incognita, it has opted instead for a kind of double denial.  On one hand, it ignores the problem posed by the Electoral College, thereby misleading its readers as to the true nature of America’s constitutional crisis.  On the other, it has placed the blame solely on Trump, who is supposedly wrecking American democracy single-handedly.  It’s not the fault of the Constitution, you see, but of a single aberrant individual who somehow snuck into the Oval Office and is now laying the country waste.

It’s convenient since the effect is to get the Constitution off the hook along with establishment pillars like the Times itself.  The upshot is a nonstop campaign to demonize Trump as the be-all and end-all of America’s sorrows plus an even stranger attempt to portray Vladimir Putin, the man who supposedly put him in office, as an all-powerful puppeteer straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  It’s an interesting example of how a bourgeois institution, unable to deal constructively with the problems pressing down upon, responds by retreating ever more deeply into the occult.

In constitutional terms, the effect is to intensify the crisis by promoting plots and conspiracies at home while encouraging military confrontation with a nuclear power abroad.  Republicans and Democrats are both constitutional in the sense that both are products of America’s hyper-attenuated pre-modern structure.  Hence, as this column has repeatedly argued, both are equally complicit in its collapse.