Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chaos Everywhere-- And One Conservative Intellectual Blames A Century Of Reform


Jonathan Rauch's portrait of a dystopian America four years from now, includes complete government gridlock, multiple government shutdowns, 3 unfilled Supreme Court seats, a third Speaker after Ryan's resignation, a default, market collapse and economic downtown, utter governmental chaos and a President Hillary relieved to be ending her single term. The presidential field is shaping up to be Kanye West vs the especially repulsive Duck Dynasty guy, recently elected governor of Louisiana by refusing to ever trim his beard.

The lesson from 2016 was that Trump, Cruz and Bernie all demonstrated that "political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays... The very term party leaders has become an anachronism. Although Capitol Hill and the campaign trail are miles apart, the breakdown in order in both places reflects the underlying reality that there no longer is any such thing as a party leader. There are only individual actors, pursuing their own political interests and ideological missions willy-nilly, like excited gas molecules in an overheated balloon."
Chaos syndrome is a chronic decline in the political system’s capacity for self-organization. It begins with the weakening of the institutions and brokers-- political parties, career politicians, and congressional leaders and committees-- that have historically held politicians accountable to one another and prevented everyone in the system from pursuing naked self-interest all the time. As these intermediaries’ influence fades, politicians, activists, and voters all become more individualistic and unaccountable. The system atomizes. Chaos becomes the new normal-- both in campaigns and in the government itself.

Our intricate, informal system of political intermediation, which took many decades to build, did not commit suicide or die of old age; we reformed it to death. For decades, well-meaning political reformers have attacked intermediaries as corrupt, undemocratic, unnecessary, or (usually) all of the above. Americans have been busy demonizing and disempowering political professionals and parties... [C]haos syndrome is self-reinforcing. It causes governmental dysfunction, which fuels public anger, which incites political disruption, which causes yet more governmental dysfunction. Reversing the spiral will require understanding it.
Rauch is a twisted elitist who worships at the alter of Edmund Burke and his idea of reversing the spiral is to rescind all the pro-democracy reforms of the 19th and 20th century, although he doesn't advocate for the reinstitution of slavery for some reason. He pines for the iron first of party leaders, an independent electoral college that could do pretty much whatever it wanted, and for senators elected not by citizens but by (easily dominated) state legislatures. He seems to think things were be better if we could just get back to patronage machines, boss-controlled parties and congressional hierarchies that used rewards and the occasional punishment to encourage politicians to work together. These political middlemen, he seems to admire so, "could be undemocratic, high-handed, devious, secretive. But they had one great virtue: They brought order from chaos." He drools at the thought of lots and lots of "loyal, time-serving members of Congress," being bossed around by party bosses as an antidote to the "chaos" or anarchy he fears and loathes. He gets excited at the prospect of troublemakers (like Bernie and Cruz) facing "ostracism, marginalization, and difficulties with fund-raising." Oh, for the days of Tammany Hall!

"[O]verreacting to the threat of corruption," he asserted, "by stamping out influence-peddling (as distinct from bribery and extortion) is just as harmful." Who defines bribery and extortion? He may not have noticed that when politicians write the laws they define those practices to leave out their own behavior. "Political contributions," for example, look unseemly, but they play a vital role as political bonding agents," he insists. He admires the idea that "When a party raised a soft-money donation from a millionaire and used it to support a candidate’s campaign (a common practice until the 2002 McCain-Feingold law banned it in federal elections), the exchange of favors tied a knot of mutual accountability that linked candidate, party, and donor together and forced each to think about the interests of the others. Such transactions may not have comported with the Platonic ideal of democracy, but in the real world they did much to stabilize the system and discourage selfish behavior."

His heroes are the Establishment. The villains in his scenario are, of course, reformers and the public that turned against every aspect of insider politics: "professional politicians, closed-door negotiations, personal favors, party bosses, financial ties, all of it. Progressives accused middlemen of subverting the public interest; populists accused them of obstructing the people’s will; conservatives accused them of protecting and expanding big government." Picking candidates in primaries, rather than bosses chosing candidates, are just wrong for Rauch. He uses the example of Prescott Bush, a Nazi sympathizer, and progenitor of the wretched Bush political dynasty as an example of the fabulousness of the good old days.

In Rauch's universe the Working Families Party is the same evil as the Tea Party; Yale education of not, he doesn't seem capable of seeing the difference. They are both threats to his cherished establishment. Holding politicians accountable is a sin. The failure of the Grand Bargain-- cutting Social Security and Medicare-- was a tragedy.

Rauch contributed to Hillary's campaign and he wrote that "Trump, Sanders, and Ted Cruz have in common that they are political sociopaths-- meaning not that they are crazy, but that they don’t care what other politicians think about their behavior and they don’t need to care. That three of the four final presidential contenders in 2016 were political sociopaths is a sign of how far chaos syndrome has gone. The old, mediated system selected such people out. The new, disintermediated system seems to be selecting them in."

It's never bad leaders in Rauch's world-- just bad followers and bad voters. It doesn't seem like its dawned on him that many "leaders" have no "right" to be leaders but were just vomited up from the corrupt system he believes needs to be more-- not less-- corrupt. John Boehner and Paul Ryan may seem like grand statesmen to Rauch, but they are extremely mediocre hacks lacking fundamental leadership capacities. He chastises technology for allowing Trump to reach millions through Twitter without needing to pass network‑TV gatekeepers or spend a dime and Bernie for his ability to use the Internet to reach millions of donors without recourse to traditional fund-raising sources. He seems to rue the "atomization and cacophony" technology brings to a sclerotic-- to use of his his own favorite phrases-- political establishment. Awwww. "Finding no precedent," he whined, "for what he called Trump’s hijacking of an entire political party, Jon Meacham went so far as to tell Joe Scarborough in the Washington Post that George W. Bush might prove to be the last Republican president." Awwww again.

Instead of recognizing the inherent incapacity and mediocrity of the Ryans and Boehners and McCains and Romneys, he blames reform for the rise of Trump: "Nearly everyone panned party regulars for not stopping Trump much earlier, but no one explained just how the party regulars were supposed to have done that. Stopping an insurgency requires organizing a coalition against it, but an incapacity to organize is the whole problem. The reality is that the levers and buttons parties and political professionals might once have pulled and pushed had long since been disconnected."

Rauch wants to see corrupt and autocratic political bosses like Reid, Schumer, Emanuel, Hoyer and Wasserman Schultz strengthened, the opposite of what any democrat (or even Democrat) should be striving for. "Restrictions inhibiting the parties from coordinating with their own candidates serve to encourage political wildcatting, so repeal them. Limits on donations to the parties drive money to unaccountable outsiders, so lift them. Restoring the earmarks that help grease legislative success requires nothing more than a change in congressional rules. And there are all kinds of ways the parties could move insiders back to the center of the nomination process. If they wanted to, they could require would-be candidates to get petition signatures from elected officials and county party chairs, or they could send unbound delegates to their conventions (as several state parties are doing this year), or they could enhance the role of middlemen in a host of other ways... The biggest obstacle, I think, is the general public’s reflexive, unreasoning hostility to politicians and the process of politics. Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry. Because that problem is mental, not mechanical, it really is hard to remedy." Thank God!

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