Interesting Politicians

Following on K.’s most recent post (“Musical Offering: Introducing France’s Future First Lady,” 13 January 2008), I have been stewing over Matthew Yglesias’s dinging of the prudery and narrow-mindedness of U.S. politics (“A Different World,” TheAtlantic.com, 9 January 2008):

French President Nicholas Sarkozy got divorced early in his term, is dating a supermodel and his son’s writing songs for radical French rappers. Not only does American politics seem remarkably focused on relatively unimportant personal trivia, but our politicians don’t even have interesting trivia.

Democrats Always Looking Over Their Partner’s Shoulder

Matthey Yglesias laments the absence of a second Al Gore candidacy (“The Case for Gore,” TheAtlantic.com, 14 December 2007):

Gore hits the sweet spot of experience and vision in a way that nobody else can. What’s more, a person who’s in a position to be a viable presidential candidate and who believes the things Gore says he believes almost has a duty to run, a duty that I’m sad he hasn’t seen fit to take up.

In 2000 I think a lot of Democrats settled for Gore. He was, for me, the ideal candidate. A bland technocrat is exactly what I want in a president. A book that nags at me constantly is Mismanaging America: The Rise of the Anti-Analytic Presidency by Walter Williams. One blurb of the book reads,

An American president must be a master of two arts: politics and management. According to Willians, no president since Dwight Eisenhower has been a top manager.

I think this is pretty close. I’m not so pessimistic as Mr. Williams. I think there is a line of managerial presidents that includes Eisenhower, arguably Gerald Ford, and George Bush, Sr. A President Gore would have been a part of this lineage: technocratic, competent, hands on, detail oriented, dedicated to getting the small things right, steadfast to the facts of the matter, not necessarily good at the P.R. thing, eschewing the elaborate ideological pronouncement, ultimately a politician, but willing to alienate a key constituency when faced with a tough decision.

I tend to see George Bush, Sr. as a paragon here because he never made things politically difficult for Gorbachev when reveling in Cold War triumphalism might have been domestically expedient and because he went back on his “read my lips” promise when balancing the budget was at stake. In this regard I almost see his professed lack of the “vision thing” as charming; and ultimately all these things cost him the election. He did the right thing even when it conflicted with personal ambition.

For probably the last ten years now I have pretty much figured that my ideal president would expend a significant portion of their political capital on the bland and unrewarding task of rationalizing the budget. After Bill Clinton, I too am an Eisenhower Republican.

When Al Gore was denied the presidency by the Supreme Court in 2000, I think a lot of people imagined him coming back after a period to claim his rightful position, but history doesn’t always work out that way.

Law and Order and the Southern Strategy

Matthew Yglesias produces a graph of homicide rate and political party and makes, I think, two killing points about the relation between the Republican “law and order” rhetoric in the 1960s through 1980s and the Southern strategy (“The Crime Issue,” The Atlantic.com, 20 November 2007):

  1. … if a move to the right was really the consequence of rising crime rates, one would expect the most conservative groups in the electorate to be those most afflicted by violent crime — low-income African-Americans. But of course that’s not how it works at all.
  2. … if the appeal of “crime” messaging was really about crime, its effectiveness should have diminished in years 1972, 1988, and to some extent 1984 when GOP leadership failed to address the issue …

This is a pretty tough indictment that the law and order issues was in fact a ruse for something else.

Point two seems especially damning in light of subsequent cultural wars and the whole “what’s the matter with Kansas” critique. Economically insecure white men could have blamed globalization-catalyzing modern day robber barons for their newfound economic peril, but instead had their anger trained by an effective political rhetoric on blacks and women. Today all that would-be class warfare is being poured instead into a culture war mold. And on neither occasion — in the 1970s and 80s on crime and today on the culture war — are Republicans at all effective. They just turn around the white flight and culture war votes into increased lower middle class white economic insecurity.

Foreign Policy Micro-Initiatives

Matthew Yglesias comments (“Resilience,” The Atlantic.com, 30 October 2007) on Robert Kagan’s Sunday editorial (“Free Elections Come First,” The Washington Post, 28 October 2007, p. B7):

The unfortunate reality for those like Kagan who’d like to believe that an incredibly aggressive, violent, coercion-oriented US foreign policy is the height of moral probity is that living conditions around the world are, in general, improving for the better without us. There are major exceptions in Sub-Saharan Africa and North Korea but there’s nothing about a glance at those places — Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories — that have benefited from American “democracy promotion” policy that would make any sane person think we need to Kaganize our approach to Russia or China.

This should not be to say that the U.S. should sit passive, but rather than blowing the entire budgetary and soldierly load on one or two high risk foreign policy extravaganzas, what the U.S. should pursue is multifaceted, low-grade, low risk diplomatic pressure and programs across a wide range of countries and issues. It has a higher probability of success, failures have less consequence and unlike massive military interventions, history is on our side here.

Unfortunately foreign policy thinking under the tutelage of George W. Bush, et. al. and the right more generally has taught the country to love the spectacle. The slow, meandering work of diplomacy is no longer enough to capture and hold the imagination of a people who have come to expect “shock and awe,” explosions, daisy-cutter bombs, multi-million dollar airplanes and soldiers looking like a bunch of badasses. No besuited pencil-necks touting human rights reports will suffice for this appetite.

In this regard the President and Congress are no longer really strategists who take as their primary object the international situation, so much as senior public relations people involved in the creation of images for mass public consumption. The images then become the raw material of a primal American dialog about manliness, virility, strength, fear, safety, children, et cetera that takes place in an almost entirely solipsistic fantasy world. So the terms of our foreign policy debate have become whether or not a scrawny Greek guy looks convincing driving a tank, how manly George Bush looks in a flight suite and who would be better received serving Thanksgiving dinner at a surprise visit to a FOB.

The problem with foreign policy micro-initiatives is that they don’t enter into the symbol system of U.S. political dialogue.

Amping Up The Coercion

Matthew Yglesias has a nice real world example (“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” The Atlantic.com, 21 October 2007) that illustrates one of the points from my Thursday theoretical post (“Bandwagoning, Network Benefits and the Stability of U.S. Unipolarity,” 18 October 2007). He refers to this passage from Vice President Cheney’s recent address to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (“Vice Presidents Remarks,” Lansdowne, Virginia, 21 October 2007):

Dr. Bernard Lewis explained the terrorists’ reasoning this way: “During the Cold War,” Dr. Lewis wrote, “two things came to be known and generally recognized in the Middle East concerning the two rival superpowers. If you did anything to annoy the Russians, punishment would be swift and dire. If you said or did anything against the Americans, not only would there be no punishment; there might even be some possibility of reward, as the usual anxious procession of diplomats and politicians, journalists and scholars and miscellaneous others came with their usual pleading inquiries: ‘What have we done to offend you? What can we do to put it right?'” End quote.

This is amazing. In the White House you have a bunch of people who reject the Cold War theory of containment. The issue is slightly muddled when you think that they reject it in favor of some third theory of how to prosecute the war on terrorism, but in fact they reject containment, the strategy pursued by the winning side in the Cold War, in favor of that theory of international relations held by the losing side. I see that the present issue of The Weekly Standard castigates liberals as the stupid faction of U.S. politics (Ceaser, James, “The Stupid Party,” vol. 13, no. 6, 22 October 2007, pp. 22-26), but with such historical geniuses as the present crop of Republicans running the show, where can we go wrong?

But to link this up with Thursday’s point:

  1. U.S. foreign policy is in fact becoming much more nasty. To the extent that it is not, it is presently run by people whose objective is to make it more so — people who find at least something to admire in the Soviet conduct of foreign affairs.
  2. As a strategy for achieving its objectives, a state can always just amp up the consequences for non-compliance. The success of this strategy will depend on where a state sits on the spectrum of profitability as a power with which to bandwagon. And I say again that this is not an absolute consideration, but one made in a competitive environment. It is something of which a state can get away with more when the alternatives are slim, but not at all when they are many. Whatever the case, there is a point beyond which even bad alternatives start to look acceptable and states pursuing this option should be mindful of the international environment.
  3. A state can switch to a policy of no positive inducement, but instead solely of making defiance so costly as to be ruled out by all potential dissenters. Such a policy is one of pure coercion. As a basis for alliance, pure coercion seems a pretty bad one. Hence the rapid dissolution of the Warsaw Pact after the revelation of the hollowness of Soviet power. Pure coercion can only work so long as a state is absolutely feared. A few displays of anything less than omnipotence invite further probes. Now a state faces the dilemma of George Orwell in “Shooting and Elephant”: the logic of the spectacle. Under a system of all cost, no benefit, the search for an alternative will be pretty desperate on the part of the subordinated. The gamble of a state pursuing pure coercion is that it can always and for all time prevent the emergence of alternative security arrangements.

As Machiavelli wrote, it is best to be both feared and loved, but if both together are not possible it is best to be feared. The United States in the Twenty-First Century doesn’t necessarily have to choose between being loved and feared, but our foreign policy is dominated by people who have chosen to be feared where no necessity for such a choice was presented. Admiration should be automatic in the right wing mindset, or is a sort of byproduct or side benefit to being feared. Admiration is discounted as a specific objective and consigned to the fates (kind of like conservation: merely a personal virtue). Fear is all.

Jacksonians and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

My last two posts have been about the ways that the right seeks to undo the international system built up over the last 65 years. Robert Farley of Lawyers, Guns and Money assesses that they have also succeeded in ruining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as well (“The NPT is Dead,” 13 October 2007):

The strike [by the Israeli air force on a possible Syrian nuclear reactor], and especially the apparent acquiescence of the United States in its planning and execution, means that the NPT is pretty much a dead letter… and has been replaced by a de facto arrangement in which states that the US approves of are allowed to have nuclear power, while states we dislike get airstrikes. … Combine this with the recent nuclear deal with India, and I’d have to say that the Bush administration’s effort to kill a legal cornerstone of international stability have been remarkably successful.

To which Matthew Yglesias adds (“The End of the Non-Proliferation Treaty,” The Atlantic.com, 14 October 2007),

Iraq was the neocons’ big chance to show that the approach to WMD policy they prefer — basically an ad hoc regime enforced by American military power and undergirded by nothing more principled than American whim — was workable. To make it work, they needed to show that we could successful topple a regime we didn’t like and replace it with one we liked better cheaply and easily enough to make it credible that we’d go and do it again. But it failed. The low-cost airstrike approach isn’t going to succeed against any kind of determined adversary, and the more we act like a rogue superpower the harder it will be to get our way.

This is another masterstroke for the Bush administration. They rip to shreds the one bulwark we do have against nuclear proliferation — one that has been fairly successful over the last 40 years — and have ready in its place absolutely nothing. In this case not even the credible threat of U.S. force.

More Liberals Who Love Guns

22 September 2007, Matthew Yglesias as The Punisher

John isn’t the only liberal who likes guns. Here’s Matthew Yglesias and Ezra Klein. And Yglesias is doing it with style!

I imagine John a lot more Eddie Bauer, whether it’s out fly fishing or carrying his concealed piece. With a cable-knit sweater and mock turtleneck you can’t very effectively wear one of those cool strappy holsters that situate your gun high under the arm (there’s probably a lesser-known leather-man fetish around these holsters), but the ankle holster is pretty cool too. It results in some awesome crouched action poses. Or maybe John has two sawed-off shotguns rigged up his sleeves a lá John Conner in the first Terminator film.

Transformation of Media

Dan Savage strikes a forward-looking tone in discussing some organizational changes at The Stranger (“The More Things Change,” SLOG, 19 September 2007):

You’re reading this online, so you’re probably aware that The Stranger isn’t just a newspaper anymore: In addition to our weekly print edition, we’ve got blogs, podcasts, video, tons of expanded web content, and the occasional amateur porn contest. In order to manage the growth of our editorial content — in order to keep putting out Seattle’s only newspaper while at the same time running the best alt-weekly website in the country — we’ve had to change our editorial department’s structure.

Media is changing, as inevitably it will under the pressure of technology. One can be matter-of-fact about it, or try to get out ahead of it and shape the coming new world or one can endure the slow extinction of a species whose ecological niche is dwindling. “The Stranger isn’t just a newspaper anymore.” What a breath of fresh air. And this from a man who just two years ago wrote as a guest blogger (“Who Am I? Why Am I Here?, Daily Dish, 8 August 2005),

“Savage Love” readers have been asking me to start a blog of my own for, oh, six or seven years now and I’ve resisted. I’m a Luddite, I confess, one of the ways in which my deeply conservative soul expresses itself. It was only a few years ago that I started accepting email at “Savage Love” …

This reminds me that Matthew Yglesias had a subdued blog-triumphalism mini-kick back in July-August that unlike most blog-triumphalism was really pretty interesting.

Now With Charts,” The Atlantic.com, 24 July 2007

This is a reminder, I think, of why we should look forward to the day when the op-ed column is a dead format and everyone just blogs. Brooks’ original column would, obviously, have been better if it — like Nyhan’s reply — had come with links to data and charts. What’s more, it’d be good if we could expect Brooks to reply to the sort of criticisms he’s getting from Nyhan, Dean Baker, and others. Maybe he has something fascinating to say on his own behalf. But the way the columnizing world works, there’s almost no chance he’ll address his next column to trying to rebut the critics of this one. But a back-and-forth debate on this subject with links and charts and data would be much more interesting than what we’re going to get instead where liberals decide Brooks is a liar and Brooks remains convinced that liberals are crazy.

Better Get a New Job,” The Atlantic.com, 19 August 2007

As Kevin Drum says there was no crowding out here where what Marty Lederman or Duncan Black or Andrew or I were doing somehow made it more difficult for newspapers to do investigative reporting. If anything, the reverse is true. The widespread availability of a vast sea of armchair analysis and commentary on the internet will, over time, force large, professionalized news organizations to focus on their core, hard-to-duplicate competencies — and spend less time on the sort of fact-averse punditry Skube’s doing right here.

It was easier to see the harrumphing of the recording industry as what it was: the slothful groan of the vested interest in the face of a new upstart. There was too much crass money lying around for us to not see through all their protestations about art. Journalists and writers have a more subtly wrought tale to spin.

I particularly like Mr. Yglesias’s second point. The bloggosphere and the mainstream media are like countries in the economist’s parable of comparative advantage. And like the citizenry of those countries, bloggers and journalists can’t help but see the shifts and specialization from which the advantage arises as anything but threatening. “They took our jobs.”

It’s worth noting that in the theory of comparative advantage both countries benefit from specialization even when one country is superior at all activities in question. Perhaps it won’t matter so much that bloggers are just a bunch of guys in their pajamas and that politicians have learned how to game the press.