Creating Outcomes No One Wants

I’ve written about this dynamic before – as a nation we are collectively creating outcomes no one wants.  The rise of Donald Trump has filled me with genuine horror. As political dysfunction deepens, the more “outsider” candidates like Trump attract support from a segment of population.

In a lengthy article at The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch calls it the “Chaos Syndrome.” Rauch’s thesis is an extended metaphor about the immune system; he argues that the traditional political structures of American government and politics were an immune response to irresponsible politicians.  In recent decades, those structures have been eroded to the point that they no longer function to protect the body politic.  A key weakness in our system is a lack of a means by which politicians can be held accountable by one another for unacceptable behavior – in the British parliamentary system, an MP who behaves badly can be removed from office by their party. Our system provides no such remedies so a politician who can win a majority in their state or district can hold office even if every word and action embarrasses the party itself.

The US developed a host of traditions which governed our politics. The House of Representatives, as for example, had a rigid seniority system which allowed longer term members to accrue power and influence and kept newer members in line through a combination of reward and punishment; committee chairs had almost unquestioned power over their committees. Local and state parties functioned as a vetting process but also as a means of managing campaign resources candidates who ran afoul of them could find themselves without resources and support to campaign.  Local and start parties also served to recruit, train and support talent. Someone who strayed from party standards could be tossed out by the party.

Rauch makes an interesting point – the intermediaries who ran the parties, who were working their way up the ranks in Congress were careerists who had an investment in keeping the system working because they depended on it for their livelihood. In other words, they were good institutionalists because they benefited from it.

The various governmental reforms of the past half century (or more) have had the effect of weakening this political immune system and has created an environment for political opportunists and free-lancers who benefit from the chaos in the system.

I believe Rauch’s analysis goes awry is in his discussion of the reforms around political fundraising. He doesn’t discuss the Supreme Court’s misguided decisions that have repeatedly asserted that money equal free speech. The outcome of those decisions has created the fertile ground in which the independent groups he decries have flourished – and distorted the political process.

Rauch gets back on point when he discusses the Tea Partiers and their baleful influence on our politics – having created a nihilistic cohort of congressmembers who refuse to compromise, the Tea Party has vastly undermined the ability of the political system to function. Politics require compromise and negotiation and the tea party lunatics have rejected both of these things and have punished Republicans who tried to act like adults.

This has been a long summary of his argument but he got into something that has long bothered me, but which I’ve had a hard time wrapping my hands around – “politiphobes”:

Using polls and focus groups, Hibbing and Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

These politiphobes have cropped up on the right – they are the teabaggers. The result of politiphobes taking over the Republican party has been to vastly exacerbate the chaos syndrome.

At the end of his article, Rauch proposes a series of reforms which would have the effect of restoring influence and power to a class of knowledgeable and invested politicians. He concludes by saying:

You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.

I’ve written in the past about the impact of institutional breakdown.  Rauch’s thesis suggests that the institutional breakdown is cumulative result of decades of decisions – any one of which was okay but which collectively have resulted in almost total paralysis of the political system. However, Rauch bends over backwards to say “both sides do it” even going so far as to argue that Bernie Sanders’ support is comparable to Trump’s.

In response to his essay, Jonathan Chait wrote:

The more serious problem with Rauch’s argument is this: Virtually every breakdown in governing he identifies is occurring primarily or exclusively within the Republican Party. Democrats have not been shutting down the government, holding the debt ceiling hostage, overthrowing their leaders in Congress, revolting against normal deal-making, or (for the most part) living in terror of primary challenges. Rauch is right that Sanders has encouraged unrealistic ideas about a revolution that would make compromise unnecessary, but the signal fact is that Sanders lost. And Sanders’s notion of a purifying revolution, while thrilling to a handful of left-wing activists, has no influence over Democrats in Congress — arguably not even with Sanders himself, who votes more pragmatically than his stump rhetoric would indicate. The disconnect implies a fatal flaw in Rauch’s analysis. Since he identifies causes of illness that afflict both parties equally, while the symptoms have manifested in only one of them, what reason is there to trust his diagnosis?

Trump (and his proto-fascist campaign) is entirely a product of the right. Despite Rauch’s attempt at balance, Bernie Sanders is not the left’s corollary to Trump.  A Sanders presidency would be constrained by normal political processes because Sanders has been an elected official for many years; his voting record is pragmatic and in line with most Democratic congresspersons. Trump, however, demonstrates the same political ignorance as the politiphobes (and the same blunt, uninformed understanding of how American government works).

I don’t think there is anyone in the political establishment who actually wants Donald Trump to become President (even Chris Christie!).  Certainly no one wanted him to the Republican party nominee but through a combination of baffling inaction and misguided action, the Republican establishment almost facilitated it. Certainly, Democrats are taking Trump far more seriously than his Republican rivals (and Democrats are not restrained by agreeing with Trump in kind if not degree).

The Chaos Syndrome explains Trump – but on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is not analogous to Trump. He’s a long time public official, his voting record was almost identical to Hillary Clinton’s, and he has long caucused with the Democrats. In other words, Sanders served the role as any insurgent candidate – he moved the debate to issues it would have otherwise ignored; while his proposals may have been further left than Hillary’s, he is well within the mainstream of progressive thought in the US.


As I was writing the above, Democrats in the House began their sit in.

I agree with David Nir at DKos that the sit-in has been effective.

Republicans clearly did not see it coming and reacted with flat footed gracelessness.

It has fixed the nation’s attention on gun control and shown a stark contrast between the parties.

And, perhaps most importantly, it has given Democrats the opportunity to repeatedly say “Enough moments of silence . . . it’s time to take action about gun violence.” It has forced Republicans into a corner on the issue – they’ll vote down any gun control measures. But with an increasingly angry American public wanting something done about gun violence, they don’t really want to do that. It also has the advantage of demonstrating that the Republicans cannot govern.

I’m guessing, just guessing, that the Republicans are twitching as they dread coming back from the July 4th holiday, wondering what the Dems are going to do next.

  1. #1 by Richard Warnick on June 23, 2016 - 3:00 pm

    Blah, blah, Bernie lost let’s rally around the establishment or else Trump, blah blah blah.

    If anybody is interested, there are still 2 million uncounted primary ballots in California, including the provisional ballots that independent voters were forced to cast. Hillary hasn’t won the nomination, and Bernie hasn’t lost. This goes to the convention, where the super-delegates will choose the Dem nominee.

    The headline “creating outcomes no one wants” might well apply to a Trump vs. Hillary “lesser evil” contest where ordinary non-rich Americans are SOL no matter the outcome. We are still trying to avoid that.

    Ted Rall:

    The base of the Democratic Party is moving inexorably left. Whether or not she beats Trump, handing the nomination to a right-winger like Hillary Clinton over an undeniably more viable leftie like Bernie Sanders could alienate so many liberals and progressives that it could destroy the Democrats’ future as a national political party. And if she loses — which now seems likely — we get Trump.

    That was written before Donald Trump made a series of unforced errors that caused him to lose 5 points in national polls. But a lot can happen between now and Election Day, and Hillary Clinton remains a very weak candidate. Even if she wins, moreover, we lose.

    • #2 by Glenden Brown on June 24, 2016 - 3:32 pm

      One more thought – Bernie Sanders did not become a Senator by being a revolutionary. He is, despite is rhetoric, an effective and pragmatic politician. He is popular in Vermont because he serves the people. He has years of experience in formulating and implementing practical policies. In the 1960s and 70s, he would be right at home. In our post Reagan context, he seems much further to the left than he actually is.

  2. #3 by Larry Bergan on June 23, 2016 - 6:23 pm

    Jonathan Chait needs to get in the pundit unemployment line. Only opiners who don’t twist our reality need apply.

    Sanders only appears to have ideas that can’t work due to decades of people like Chait and a plethora of other well paid think-tankers pushing pragmatic and honest thought off the cliff.

  3. #4 by Larry Bergan on June 23, 2016 - 6:31 pm

    Since we aren’t allowed to see how our votes are being counted anymore unless they’re hand counted in public, (as Sanders’s 78% win in Utah was), I tend to go with what I can see with my own eyes:

    I guess that’s what Chait meant by “a handful of left-wing activists”.

    Don’t Clinton’s eyes seem to say, “do you have permission to take that picture”?

    That’s, literally, one of the only pictures of her campaign stops I can find. Even Salt Lake City got three times the crowd numbers that Hillary got in New York, at her announcement.

  4. #5 by Larry Bergan on June 23, 2016 - 6:42 pm

    If the Associated Press announcement that Clinton had won the nomination, the night BEFORE the largest primary in the country even started, doesn’t tell you to NEVER trust another “main stream” news source, I don’t know what to say.

  5. #6 by Glenden Brown on June 24, 2016 - 3:22 pm

    Hillary won fair and square – she played by the rules established at the outset, the same set of rules Bernie Sanders agreed to. If you want to argue the rules are flawed, I respect that. But, Hillary received millions more votes than Sanders.

    I caucused for Sanders in Utah. I agree with his policy positions – but so does Hillary 93% of the time. She’s hardly right wing.

    FWIW, this is a woman who has spent the last 24 years as one of the right’s favorite targets – they have thrown every last insult at her, they investigated her left right and center and haven’t found any actual wrongdoing. In conspiracy world, that’s interpreted to mean she’s so dishonest she can’t get caught. In the real world, it should be taken as evidence she’s honest. When fact checkers examine her speeches, they keep coming up with “she’s honest.”

    I have not been shy in my criticisms of the Obama administration and I don’t expect to be shy in my criticism of any future Democratic administration but I believe Hillary Clinton has the skills and disposition to be an effective president – with a supportive Democratic congress I believe we could see significant positive policy changes.

    As far as Trump? Winston Churchill once said, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” There is no issue about which any of us cares that would fare better under Trump than Clinton. A President Trump would make George W. Bush look like a great statesman.

    • #7 by Richard Warnick on June 25, 2016 - 3:00 pm

      Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have been the targets of unfair (OK, crazy) accusations from the Tea-GOP. That is not as significant as you might think.

      Same goes for Hillary Clinton, who by the way has been endorsed by right-wingers Robert Kagan, Brent Scowcroft, and Hank Paulson. How long before her good friend Henry Kissinger announces his endorsement? Hillary’s own PAC “Correct the Record” brags about how much Republicans love her.

      I know the right always claims Dems are too far left, but since that is objectively false I think the real problem for them is that policies they invented were hijacked by neoliberal Dems. For example: welfare “reform,” the ACA (now “Obamacare,” formerly “Romneycare”), and cap and trade.

      We’re living in fear that a Dem president will destroy Social Security. Bill Clinton wanted to, but Monica Lewinsky got in the way (she deserves a medal). President Obama tried so hard for the “grand bargain,” but the Party of NO stopped him for no other reason than being against everything Obama is for (except TPP of course).

  6. #8 by Larry Bergan on June 24, 2016 - 5:00 pm

    Glenden, I’m going to vote for Hillary, but I have big problems with the Clinton’s moving my party to the right, to the point it’s literally hard to differentiate the two in some areas. She is obviously beholden to money from the oligarchy, and Sanders was our best chance to get away from that. Perhaps our only chance. If she wants to pick Elizabeth Warren for VP and thumb her nose at the banks, that would be a big deal, but the bankers have strongly warned her against that in public, so I don’t think there’s any chance of it happening.

    Despite what you think, we have no way of knowing how many votes Hillary actually got on the voting machines, and there have been serious problems that don’t even involve the machines. Arizona and California are cases in point. Voter suppression is right out in the open now.

    I’m not saying Hillary is participating in the irregularities, but they are there. The exit polls are showing the kind of theft that usually shows up in R vs D contests, with all of them favoring Hillary. A 2% discrepancy in the exit polls means fraud, and it’s been much higher then that in many states.

    The corporations, who have access to the machines, clearly wouldn’t want Sanders in the white house. There us a RICO lawsuit with national reach which means to expose whoever is fooling around with our elections. The media will also be sued for participating. Hopefully, that will put a stop to this nonsense and give us some trust in our voting system for the first time in decades.

  7. #9 by Larry Bergan on June 24, 2016 - 5:19 pm

    A Trump presidency would be the end of us.

  8. #10 by John Talcott on June 24, 2016 - 9:47 pm

    We need to ask ourselves which of the two democratic candidates would have the best chance of getting things done if the congress stays in republican hands? Remember that we will be voting for not just Hillary, but Bill as well.

    Everything about Bernie that fires up young progressives will certainly have the opposite effect upon a Republican obstructionist congress.

    • #11 by Richard Warnick on June 25, 2016 - 5:09 pm

      The Tea-GOP could not be more obstructionist than it already is, unless they starting opposing so-called “free trade” deals. If Bernie Sanders is the president, he won’t sign any such deals anyway.

      Anything could happen in this election year, but the Dems are on track to re-take control of the Senate. If they nominate Bernie, there is a chance to get the House of Representatives too because of voter turnout. If not in 2016, then 2018. If Hillary is the nominee, she will depress turnout.

  9. #12 by Larry Bergan on June 25, 2016 - 9:05 am

    Exactly John Talcott:

    I was getting ready to see the Republicans lose their minds, and I still hope to. Working with the guys on the other side of the aisle is getting way old. The reason Sanders has people fired up is because he’s acting like a Democrat. Also, it’s wrong to insinuate that all of Sanders’s supporters were in their teens. Younger, yes, but plenty of people in their thirty’s and forty’s as well; you know, future voters. You’d better hope the democratic party didn’t turn them off by shoving Hillary down their throats.

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