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Category: Government and Elections

The Nigel Tufnel of American Presidential Politics

I finally figured out what Vivek Ramaswamy reminds me of:

Lick My Love Pump

Anyone who is a fan of This is Spinal Tap will understand.  To those who aren’t — it’s too hard to explain.  You just have to watch it.

Vivek is like Nigel Tufnel…

He has these brief lucid intervals where he seems genuinely smart, thoughtful, and insightful, speaking intelligently and clearly about some complex issue.  You nod your head at his sagacity.  You find yourself listening, despite your doubts.  You want to believe in someone with that kind of honesty, directness, clarity, and courage…

And then, suddenly and without warning, he’s…   not!  He has reverted to type, to someone else entirely: an emotionally and morally stunted, intellectually challenged, self-aggrandizing metal-head (or tech bro) spouting simplistic and dangerous adolescent nonsense…

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First, Do No Harm

What is it that makes someone “worth” voting for?  Or not?

My primary answer — where I place the essential boundary — comes from the formal ethics developed for the practice of medicine — another discipline that, like democratic government, is supposed to be all about improving things for people subject to its practice:

First, do no harm!

A huge number of people — essentially everyone on the left, but also all the “never Trumpers” (count me among them) and, now, many “used-to-be Trumpers” — see Trump as immutably harmful.  Their common argument is, “You must vote against Trump (and against his Trump-lite Republican acolytes) because he is actively dangerous.  Anything is better than that!

And, there is a lot of truth in that position — but, only a lot of truth, not complete truth.  It may be conditionally true, but it is not fundamentally true. It does not represent The Truth.

For, many people — not only ‘conservatives’ but, also, those on the ‘center right’ (like me) and on much of the ‘center’ left — would say that there are plenty of Democrats who could and would, in their own fashions, also actively cause a ruinous harm if we were to hand them the reins of power.

I want a candidate to vote for that won’t actually actively harm me!

Alas, all too often, I’m merely offered a choice of which harm seems less immediate and/or less painful.

Faced with that choice, I really would rather abstain…

And, faced with that choice, I refuse to accept the notion that I have an obligation — nay, a moral duty — to affirmatively participate in my own destruction by validating one form of harm or the other with my vote.  To the contrary: I stubbornly reserve the right to reject both as intolerable.

Upon reflection, I realize — in the context of the heart attack vs. cancer metaphor — that the fundamental question is this: What if treating the heart attack makes the cancer more virulent?  What if the actions required to save myself from the heart attack today cause the cancer to kill me tomorrow, instead of next week or next year?

The populist Progressive left treated Biden’s victory as if it were a mandate to go for broke, in the same way that, four years earlier, the populist Fascist right treated Trump’s victory as if it were a mandate to go for broke. No doubt, they will treat another Biden victory the same way. Although the Democrats (unlike the Republicans) are, at least for now, still occasionally grounded by some members who call out desperately from the reasonable middle, both parties are, in large measure, allowing their agendas, and especially their rhetoric, to be set and controlled from the extremes.

Alas, no matter how narrow the victory nor how broad the defeat in any given election, the lesson both parties insist on learning from it is not, “We seem to be out of step with the electorate,” but rather, “The problem was we were not extreme enough!“.

It occurs to me that what I really long for in the upcoming election is a way to definitively reject Trump and Trumpism — which will, it appears in practice, mean accepting Biden/Harris — while simultaneously definitively rejecting the most extreme variants of the “progressive” (and “socialist”, democratic or otherwise) program for American transformation.

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Expertise and Ego

I sincerely hope that ‘experts’ of all stripes — and not merely economists — take note of your admonition toward humility.

The kind of humility you advocate, however, is something one rarely sees among the ‘experts’ — within government and think-tanks and academia — who routinely proclaim to us all that they know “the truth” and that the proper role and responsibility for the rest of us is simply to shut up and do as they say.

That may not be completely fair: it may be that the apparent hubris of expertise is exaggerated by reporters and a news media that is besotted with the idea of ‘expertise’ and, therefore, amplifies the voices of the most self-certain while muting the voices of the humble.  It may be that many or most experts are, indeed, well  aware of their self-limitations but that their voices are not the ones that the media chooses to tell us about; or, it may be that the various caveats and disclaimers with which they accompany their assertions never make it through the filter of the reporters’ perceptions into the news stories and analyses written about them.

And, it may also be that those, in particular, who choose to go into government are self-selected from among the most hubristic precisely because their very self-confidence leads them to the belief that they should also have the power to impose their chosen “solutions” upon others.

Regardless of the reason, however, what is presented as ‘expertise’ for public consumption is, all too often, the farthest thing from your humble ideal:  it is, rather, most often arrogant; and it is, far too frequently, also condescending.

And that arrogance and condescension is exacerbated by the fact that such experts frequently extend their claims to ‘expertise’ beyond what is justified by their training and experience.  A medical researcher will discover some (perhaps tentative) connection between a chemical or a food and some health state, like heart disease.  They will then not only exaggerate their certainty, proclaiming that the evidence of such connection is irrefutable and unequivocal (Eat this and you will die!), rather than provisional and subject to chance, but will also proclaim, with equal certainty, that a particular policy prescription — Ban that chemical! — is, by extension, mandatory; and they will claim that their policy prescription is simply a matter of “following the science” and, therefore, also wholly within their ‘expertise’, as if such policies have no other economic or practical or emotional or moral dimensions beyond the narrow realm of “science” that might require consideration.

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What picture of America do we carry in our heads…?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, in an article about the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, Peggy Noonan asked this question:

Why did the White House think the 20th anniversary of 9/11 was the right date for a pullout? What picture of America do they carry in their heads that told them that would be symbolically satisfying? It is as if they are governed by symbols with no understanding of what the symbols mean.

It occurs to me that the question — “What picture of America do they carry in their heads…?” — is much broader than the context of our policy in Afghanistan. It is, in fact, the question at the heart of nearly all the cultural and political divisions rending America these days.

The right asks that question of the left.  The left asks that question of the right.  And both left and right — and the vast middle that both left and right disdain and ignore — fear and despise the answer that they think and feel — or, all too often, imagine — the other side would offer if it was ever to be explicitly articulated.

That is, perhaps, the most important conversation of our generation: What picture of America do we carry in our heads? And can we come to some, if not consensus, then at least forbearance on what that picture looks like?

If not, we are truly lost…

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Should Washington, DC be a State?

Is it either accurate or fair to say that there is not, and cannot be, any reason to object to statehood for the nation’s capital that doesn’t drag in racial antipathy and civil rights recidivism?

No.  Statehood for Washington, DC, is a troubling prospect.  And, it is troubling for reasons that have nothing to do with race.

The most compelling reason, however, to oppose statehood for DC is not that a city isn’t really a state, though that is true.  And it is not that DC statehood has the real potential to interfere with the autonomy of the Federal government, though that is also true.  And it is not that there are simple and practical remedies to the disenfranchisement of DC’s citizens that fall short of outright statehood and that would not, therefore, threaten Federal autonomy — though that, too, is true.

No.  The most compelling reason to oppose statehood for DC is that DC is a company town.

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The Sledge Hammer

In your article, you predict 3 things that are likely to happen “…when people feel they cannot talk openly about a subject…”.

Here is another prediction: The Sledge Hammer.

That is the name I have given to a phenomenon I have observed many times in the last 40 or 50 years — prototypical examples are the passage in CA of proposition 209, outlawing affirmative action, and propositions 13 (CA)  and 2-1/2 (MA) limiting the rate of property tax increases.  But it might also, perhaps, be used as well to describe Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, not to mention “Defund the Police”….

The people who can see that there is, indeed, a problem but are told to shut up about it get impatient.  Then they get frustrated.  Then they get angry.  Then they get furious.

And then they swing the populist Sledge Hammer:  “Screw all of you condescending bastards!  If we can’t fix the system, we’ll destroy it!”

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A Declaration and a reminder: Many (if not most) Republicans are no longer conservative…

…and thoughtful, honest conservatives should no longer be Republican.

It’s been building to that point over the last 20 or 30 years.  That was the broad subject of my book.

But now, it is no longer building.  It is built.

To be clear (and in the interest of full disclosure): I’ve always been a conservative but I’ve never been a Republican.  Since my political awakening, that tent has always been big enough to embrace, alongside those I agreed with, a variety of people and agendas that I couldn’t, in good conscience, support.

Nonetheless, I have voted for Republican candidates more often than not.  Not for Trump, certainly, but for others.  Because the tent was, indeed, big and it included good guys along with bad guys, and always more of the former than of the latter.

I think, at this point, that is no longer true.  Unless something changes, they have lost my vote for good.

Because anyone who associates themselves with the current mob of self-absorbed, unprincipled, power-mad thugs, and with their ignorant and deluded supporters, is dragging too much baggage along with them.  It is no longer possible to distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys: as long as the good guys insist on swimming in sewage, they will look and smell like sewage and will contaminate and corrupt everything they touch — including the idea and the practice of conservatism.

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Risk, Part 2: Fear and Control

Part 2 of a 2-part sequence on different aspects of how American society deals with risk:

It seems that government policy – and social convention, and cultural aspiration, and the tyranny of public opinion expressed through social media mobs – is now all too often fashioned by a destructively self-reinforcing partnership between those, on the one hand, who have lost all trust in their fellow citizens and who want so badly to be protected from risk, and even from discomfort, that they will trade away almost any freedom for a promise of a bit more security; and those, on the other hand, whose innate and fervent proclivity is to tell everyone else, with great piety and self-assurance, how to organize and operate their lives.

The more we have come to – and the more we have been taught to – rely on government to regulate the behavior of others, the less we have come to rely on – and the less we have been taught or practiced – the virtue of regulating ourselves. The more success the solipsistic fringe – economic more than cultural on the “right”, cultural more than economic on the “left” – has had in attacking and emasculating the economic and religious and social and cultural mores that historically disciplined such self-control, the less able we are to count on self-regulation and the more pressure there is to empower government to impose yet more external regulation upon us.

We can no longer negotiate and compromise – we can no longer embrace a shared process for governance rather than seeking a raw power over others – because we no longer trust each other either to have empathy or, more importantly, to act in good faith.  Why are we intolerant of risk?  Because we feel a lack of control.  Why do we feel a lack of control?  Because we don’t trust each other to do the right thing, either as individuals or as a polity.  In the absence of trust, even small risks loom large.

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Executive Agencies Independent of the Executive

Here’s a proposal: If you want agencies that set policy and priority to be independent of the Executive, don’t make them part of the executive branch!

The issue with such agencies is really that their missions are split: they are as much legislative as they are executive.  Congress, in its wisdom (or recklessness) has delegated some large measure of its legislative authority, the authority to create the rules by which we live, to such agencies; but they have also tasked those same agencies with enforcing the rules that they, themselves, concoct.

Does that not violate the spirit, if not the actual text, of the Constitutional separation of powers?

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