Thursday, March 31, 2016

Liberal Emphasis on Breadth, Its Limits, and Its Failings

All right, I have posted on Donald Trump followers as authoritarians.  And I have relied heavily on Jonathan Haidt, who warns against simply identifying authoritarianism with conservatism, i.e., a high value on social cohesion. Instead, he defines authoritarians as people who place a high value on social cohesion and a low value on compassion.  I would like to give some thought to the meaning of what it is to be liberal, conservative, or authoritarian, even apart from Donald Trump and his followers.  And I would like to give some thought to how conservatism differs from authoritarianism -- and the ways in which they are alike.

So let me try my own ideas here once again.  There is a trade-off between depth and breadth of social commitment.  And I would roughly define liberals as people who prefer breadth and conservatives as people who favor depth.  And, it should be noted, social depth and social breadth are both good  things.  Unfortunately there is a trade-off between them. And I am inclined to think that conservatives understand this trade-off better than liberals do.  That is (presumably) why conservatives are so inclined to resist any broadening of social commitments, because they see it as a threat to depth.

Liberals, by contrast, are either blind to the importance of depth, or vaguely regret the lost of depth in today's society, without recognizing that it is tied to the increase in breadth.  This blindness to depth is a serious failing among liberals.  It is, in large part, what Haidt is talking about when he talks about the "binding foundations."  These foundations, of group loyalty, respect for authority, and reverence for the sacred can more broadly be described as social cohesion, and more broadly still as social depth.  And really, if you don't understand the value of social depth, you are missing something very important.  Consider this Vox article, in which the author wearily tries to explain to liberals why, really, social depth is important and valuable:
Everyone knows their purpose, knows their neighbors, and has a common understanding of what America means. Consequently there is an ease and harmony to life. Because people know where they stand and feel secure, small acts of generosity and social solidarity are common. 
Someone offers to help when your car breaks down on the side of the road. You buy a kid a soda. Police help people across the street. Everyone knows each other, knows that we are an Us, so there's a background level of trust and support.
Another example is from Sara Robinson at Orcinus, on why people may be attracted to fundamentalist churches and how to encourage them to leave.  Obviously many people are brought up in such churches.  Leaving can often mean a painful loss of social depth:
Former fundamentalists often mourn the hothouse intensity of their family and church ties -- even when they're simultaneously grateful not to be under the constant watchful eyes of all those intrusively "caring" people, and free of the manipulations used to keep them in line. On our side of the wall, that level of intimacy is harder to come by. What feels like an appropriate respect for other people's boundaries to us may feel fairly cold and uncaring to them, and it may take a while before they become accustomed to the more temperate social climate that prevails on our side of the wall. . . . They may respond to our misfortunes with a generosity that we find a bit unsettling; or, conversely, they may expect us to become involved with theirs to an extent that's frustrating to us and disappointing to them. It's best to remember that what's really happening here is a bit of cross-cultural miscommunication, and deal with it in that same multiculti spirit. It's something we're supposed to be good at.
She also comments that people are most attracted to such churches in times of stress or crisis because of the support they offer.  It does not seem to occur to her that the failure of broader-committed liberal society to offer similar support is a serious failing.

Or consider liberal Episcopalian Bruce Bawer in his book Stealing Jesus (page 229), who can barely restrain his contempt for Evangelical mega-church Willow Creek:
[T]he culture of a place like Willow Creek suggests that the name of Jesus Christ has been attached to something that is less about the gospel than it is about people's desire to achieve for their families a safe, controlled environment -- the ecclesiastic equivalent of a gated community.  Observers have noted that Willow Creek members can spend a whole weekend at the church's campus, eating at the food court and enjoying various other services and diversions; members who need, say, emergency car repair or tooth extraction can call day or night on fellow members who do those things for a living.
Well, it shouldn't have to be said, but it is good to belong to a close-knit community and know you can call on members for emergency car repairs or tooth extraction whenever needed.  It is also a fine example of Christian charity to offer those services on a personal rather than commercial basis.  On page 224 he recounts an exchange with a conservative Episcopalian who said that Christianity is about looking after one's own, while he said that it is about the opposite.

This is an ongoing dispute I see in blog comments sections that really allow opposing viewpoints and are not mere echo chambers or shouting matches.  Conservative Christians say that Christianity is about social depth.  Liberal Christians say that it is about social breadth.  In fact, it is about both. Christianity makes unrealistic, impossible demands on its adherents.  As a church it is free to do so. In setting social policy, however, we have to take human nature as it is, not as it should be.  And the simple fact is that there is a trade-off between social breadth and social depth that must be taken into account in setting public policy.  To focus exclusively on breadth and ignore the value of depth is to build a remarkably cold, impersonal society, an ultimate fraying of the social bond.  And to dismiss the desire for depth and mere bigotry is to invite a backlash from the likes of Donald Trump or Marine LePen.

This is not to suggest that conservatives are right and liberals are wrong, or that we should always resolve the trade-off between depth and breadth in favor of depth.  But that trade-off does exist, social depth is a thing of value, and the trade-off needs to be openly acknowledged and debated, not simply and automatically resolved in favor of breadth.

NOTE:  Updated to link and quote the Vox article that I was not able to find before.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Maddening Vagueness of the Republican Establishment

Conservative commentators all seem to agree that Donald Trump shows that the Republican rank-and-file are fed up with the establishment and its failures.  They want something different.  But invariably such columns fail to say what it was the Republican Establishment did that the rank-and-file are so upset about and what they should do differently.

So tell, us, conservative columnists, what is it about the Republican Establishment that has the rank-and-file so upset?

  • Its failure to impeach Obama?
  • Its failure to pass its program over Obama's veto?
  • And, if so, what is that program it should have passed?
    • Repeal of Obamacare?
    • Massive spending cuts?
    • The end of the New Deal?
    • A birther investigation?
  • Or is the rank-and-file angry over the establishment's friendliness to foreign trade and immigration?
  • Its obsessive focus on cutting taxes at the top and gutting regulations?
  • Its eagerness to start wars?
  • Its acquiescence to same sex marriage and trans-gender bathrooms?
  • Its failure to confront "political correctness?"  And, if so, what exactly is this political correctness and how should Republican leaders be confronting it?
  • Or is it just angry that Republican leadership is too polite and not really angry and vulgar, like Trump?
Somehow the answers to these questions are never more than faintly hinted at.  If I were part of the Republican Establishment, I would be taking surveys, figuring out answers, and looking for some concrete suggestions on what to change.

More on Trump (since I can't drop the subject)

Look, I really shouldn't be wasting time on this fluff. A reporter approached Donald Trump as he was walking away after a press conference and his campaign manager grabbed her arm too hard and roughly pulled her away.  I do not regard this as part of a serious culture of violence around Donald Trump or a generalized attempt to intimidate the press, or anything but a brief exercise of bad judgment on the campaign manager's part.

But, as the saying goes, it isn't the crime, it's the cover up.  And I highly recommend this article on why the cover up has been disturbing.  He appears to have denied the incident, even as he had video footage confirming it, and demanded to know if she was assaulted, why the reporter didn't file charges.  Then, when she felt that she had no choice but to do so, Trump complained how unfairly his campaign manager was being treated, with criminal charges being filed over such a (genuinely) minor matter.  Instead, Trump has fiercely stood by his campaign manager, to the point of threatening criminal charges against the reporter, and saying the incident is too trivial to ruin his campaign manager's life over.  Fair enough, except that if he had simply admitted the mistake in the first place, the damage would have been minimal. The article remarks that such an escalation is harmless enough if it is simply a kerfuffle over a campaign manager grabbing a reporter by the arm.  Now imagine if it had been an international incident between nuclear powers.  It goes on to comment that Trump is simply not capable of de-escalating:

One of the most important skills for a negotiator to have — maybe even the most important — is the willingness to actually make concessions: to realize when you're losing more by fighting for a particular provision than you would by losing the thing itself, and let those things go accordingly. 
Trump can't do that. To him, fighting for things makes those things all the more important. That leaves him, time and again, a victim of the sunk cost fallacy. It makes it essentially inevitable that he'll lose the forest for the trees. And it makes it extremely easy for someone else to control Trump's priorities, simply by picking a fight. 
I'm not spelling all this out simply to show that the central qualification Donald Trump offers for the presidency is an exaggeration at best (though that is also true). The point is that someone with these qualities would make a terrible president.
 Followed by a picture of Richard Nixon, and an account of just how much Nixon let personal grudges run his presidency, to the point of destroying it.

I know my mother once said that Nixon's best trait was his loyalty to his friends, but that he turned this virtue into a vice by making terrible choices of friends.  Trump is doing the same.

Back when George W. Bush was President someone on a blog comments thread said that he combined all the worst traits of our recent Presidents.  He was
More egotistical than Johnson
More vindictive than Nixon
Stupider than Ford
Less competent than Carter
Lazier than Reagan
Less honest than Clinton.  
It was unfair to poor Gerald Ford, who wasn't stupid at all, but otherwise my response was to applaud.  Well, I hereby apologize to George W. Bush.  He made a disastrous mistake invading Iraq and refusing to admit that he had made a mistake.  But it is only now that we are beginning to get a look at what a President who is truly
More egotistical than Johnson
More vindictive than Nixon
Stupider than Ford
Less competent than Carter
Lazier than Reagan
Less honest than Clinton.  
And, I should add, less qualified than Sarah Palin.

 Or, to compare him to other CEO candidates, he is less qualified than Herman Caine, and just as authoritarian as Ross Perot.  Admittedly, Trump has not shown any of Perot's symptoms of outright clinical insanity, merely megalomania.  But I think megalomania can be just as dangerous if carried far enough.  I won't even insult Mitt Romney or Herbert Hoover by comparing them.

God help us all if he wins!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Trump and Authoritarianism: An Attempt at a Rigorous Definition

There has been a lot of talk about Donald Trump's followers being "authoritarians."  Well before you start throwing words around too loosely, you had better start defining what authoritarianism means. And a lot of these definitions are not very satisfactory.  This one, for instance, defines authoritarians as people who "value conformity and order, protect social norms, and are wary of outsiders."  But that simply means people who value Jonathan Haidt's moral foundations of group loyalty, authority, and purity/sanctity.  In other words, conservatives.  And I am one who believes that it shows a serious tunnel vision to pathologize conservatism.

Yet Haidt himself is also calling Trump followers authoritarians.  And if Haidt, who has led the charge against equating conservatism with authoritarianism, is calling Trump's followers authoritarian maybe we should be listening.  And maybe he can offer some useful insight into a better working definition of authoritarian than simply a synonym for conservative.

Haidt wrote an interesting column on the primaries on February 5 -- an eternity ago the world of primary politics.  Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio were still running, though not doing very well.  He applies the moral foundations test (naturally) to the followers of the candidates, rather than to the candidates themselves.  Supporters of each candidate were ranked by how their emphasis on each value compared with the views of the general American public.  A positive score meant that followers of that candidate valued that particular foundation more than the general public; a negative score did not mean that followers of a candidate opposed that foundation, but simply that they valued it less than did the general public.

For the sake of the article, he lumps the conservative values, or as he also calls them, the binding values, of group loyalty, authority, and purity/sanctity into one cluster -- call it social cohesion.  That left the values of harm/care, justice, and liberty.  Furthermore, it is pointless asking people how much they value justice.  Everyone sets a high value on justice.  The difference is not that some people value it more and some value it less, but that people with different political values define it differently.  Liberals define justice in egalitarian or at least utilitarian terms -- harm avoidance and the greatest good for the greatest number.  Conservatives are more likely to define it a proportionality, or just deserts -- letting the undeserving fail.  In simple English, conservatives are more likely than liberals to define justice in punitive terms, although Haidt does not refer to it that way.  His results were interesting and sometimes surprising.

Unsurprisingly, there was a marked negative correlation between care/empathy and the tendency to view justice as proportionality, or in punitive terms.  Wanting people to suffer the consequences of their bad decisions and lack of empathy are traits one would expect to go together, and they do.  One might call the combination the very definition of economic conservatism.  It should also not be surprising that there was a negative correlation between the value place on individual liberty versus social cohesion, since there is, indeed, a tradeoff between these things.  Preferring social cohesion to individual liberty could be called the very definition of social conservatism. If anything is surprising, it is that the negative correlation was not stronger.

But while one would expect a tradeoff between empathy and proportionality (economic liberalism/ conservatism) and between individual liberty and social cohesion (social conservatism/liberalism) there is no reason whatever for there to be any correlation between where people stand on the economic spectrum and where they stand on the social spectrum.  And, indeed, there was not.  While supporters of both Democratic candidates scored high on empathy and low on proportionality, only Sanders supporters scored high on individual liberty and (very) low on social cohesion.  Hilary Clinton supporters scored a bit low on both.  In other words, both Democrats draw economic liberals, but Sanders supporters are the more socially liberal.  On the Republican side, followers of Christian candidates Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson scored average to above average on empathy and fairly close to the mean on proportionality.  In other words, Carson followers were only slightly economically conservative and Huckabee followers were slightly economically liberal.  But both placed a markedly low value on individual liberty and a high value on social cohesion.  In other words, they were socially conservative.  Rand Paul followers, by contrast, had the exact opposite profile.  They scored lower than any others on empathy and high on proportionality.  By contrast, they scored higher than anyone else on individual liberty and lower than anyone but Sanders supporters on social cohesion.  Rubio and Cruz supporters stand out as low on empathy (Cruz supporters were second lowest after Rand, and Rubio's were third), and much, much higher on proportionality, i.e., punitive justice than anyone else, with Cruz supporters especially high.  Haidt adds that this marks them as the Tea Party candidates -- proportional/punitive justice is the Tea Party's leading issue. Followers of both men rate somewhat above average on social cohesion, with Cruz followers more so, while Cruz followers are slightly above average on individual freedom and Rubio followers neutral.

And now for the most surprising findings.  The candidates whose followers hewed closest to the mean were Jeb Bush -- and Donald Trump.  Bush followers were either at the mean or minimally above or below it on all categories.  So why couldn't the candidate who attracts supporters closest to ordinary American values gain more traction?  Haidt suggests that he is just too vanilla bland to generate much passion.  As for Trump supporters -- well, they are somewhat below average on empathy, but not spectacularly so.  They are also somewhat above average on proportionality and social cohesion, but nothing impressive.  And they are very minimally above average on individual freedom.  In short, they seem pretty vanilla bland, too.  On a left-to-right spectrum, Haidt places them smack-dab in the middle, as number five out of nine candidates.

Haidt then goes on to compare the candidates in other ways.  For instance, he compares each primary candidate with only members of their own party.  Here are the results for comparing Clinton and Sanders to your average Democrat:

They are both at the Democratic average on care/ empathy.  From a Democratic perspective, Clinton looks pretty bland, valuing liberty a little below average and authority a little above, but nothing remarkable.  Sanders, by contrast, ranks below average on proportionality and all measures of social cohesion, and above average on individual liberty.  Which is to say, he is a social liberal.  But you knew that.

Among Republicans, what stand out most is (1) Carson followers are high on care and low on proportionality (i.e., they are not economically conservative) and low on liberty.  The really outstanding supporters are Rubio and Cruz on proportionality.  They are exceptionally punitive, even among Republicans.  (Rubio supporters also seem to disvalue loyalty and sanctity, while Cruz and Carson supporters value it).  And here Trump supporters seem the most vanilla bland of all the Republican candidates -- their values differ only minimally from the average Republican.  Comments Haidt:
One of the biggest surprises in our dataset was that Donald Trump’s supporters did not appear particularly unusual. Part of this is due to the fact that his higher vote share means his supporters are closer to average.
But Haidt has one last trick up his sleeve.  He compares each candidate's supporters to other members of the same demographic.   In other words, they took the "age, sex, education level, income, race, and self-reported ideology" makeup of supporters of each candidate and compared their moral foundations to general members of the same "age, sex, education level, income, race, and self-reported ideology."  For instance, if Bernie Sanders followers were younger, whiter and more liberal than Clinton followers, he took a cross-section of the population of that was equally young, white and liberal and compared their moral foundations to specific foundations of Sanders supporters.*  His results were as follows:

  Thus Sanders followers did not score any higher on individual liberty than others of their demographic, but did score lower on proportionality and social cohesion.  Rand Paul followers, by contrast, scored overwhelmingly high on liberty (and low on social cohesion).  Cruz and Rubio followers scored high on proportionality, but while Cruz followers scored highest in absolute terms, Rubio followers scored even higher relative to their demographic.  Bush followers, though very close to the national average on proportionality, were much below it compared to their demographic.

And what of Trump followers?  The predictive effect is weaker than any of the other candidates, but compared to others of their demographic, Trump supporters tend to score higher on social cohesion and lower on empathy. Says Haidt, "These are the true authoritarians — they value obedience while scoring low on compassion."

It is significant what Haidt does not define as authoritarianism.  He does not define placing a high value on authority as authoritarianism.  He does not define it as value placing a low value on personal liberty.  Nor does he define it as the combination of putting a high value on authority (and social cohesion in general) and a low value on personal liberty.  These things do, indeed, tend to correlate and might seem an intuitively obvious definition of authoritarianism.  Haidt disagrees.  He sees these things together as simply a definition of social conservatism and equating the combination with authoritarianism is simply an attempt to pathologize social conservatism.

Similarly, Haidt does not define low compassion as authoritarianism.  He does not define a punitive (proportional) definition of justice as authoritarianism.**  Nor does he define the combination of low compassion, high punitive justice as authoritarianism.  These things, too, tend to correlated, but Haidt would presumably say that they are just economic conservatism and equating them with authoritarianism is simply an attempt to pathologize economic conservatism.

Instead, Haidt equates authoritarianism with two traits that do not normally correlate -- a high value on social cohesion and a low value on compassion.  Haidt has elsewhere said that he has nothing against libertarians who place a low value on compassion but a high value on personal liberty.  Here he indicates that he has nothing against social conservatives who place a high value on social cohesion but also on care.  Indeed, it is probably true that many social conservatives like Mike Huckabee value social cohesion in part as promoting care.  It is the high cohesion/low care outliers who Haidt sees as dangerous.

I intend to play with the subject (not necessarily in the context of Donald Trump) in my next few posts.

*I am rather skeptical of this approach myself.  It seems to me that if a certain demographic gravitates toward a certain ideology and a certain candidate, that is itself more useful than trying to see how supporters of that particular candidate differ from their general demographic.  But still, to the extent that it distinguishes Trump supporters from the general population, it is interesting.
**Although he has warned against the danger of assuming that karmic justice is not just an ideal, but an actual reality.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Belated Comments on the Shut-Down Rally in Chicago

I am a little late to the game to comment on the Trump rally that was shut down in Chicago when supporters and protesters clashed.  But still I did have a strong initial reaction and have a few comments.

First off, calm down and don't have a cow.  We saw something like this before with the controversy over Obamacare.  Any time there demonstrators and counter-demonstrators, there is danger of a clash.  The police are much better than they used to be at keeping them apart without taking sides, but they are not perfect.  Occasional clashes will happen.  A few clashes happened over Obamacare. Both sides magnified them into systematic Brown Shirt campaigns of terror.  But there was no systematic terror, just a few spot outbreaks.  And yes, there have been some unfortunate events at Trump rallies.  And Trump appears to encourage them.  But these are no more than spot events.  They are certainly  nothing like the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention.  So, yes, Trumps excuses for violent acts by supporters should be condemned.  But the scale should not be exaggerated, any more than we should exaggerate the threat of ISIS.

Second, and I speak here with one with a deep visceral loathing of Trump, my immediate reaction was still to fault mostly the protesters.  I wholly agree with this column:
If you want to go to a Trump rally as a Trump hater, you are free to do so. If you want to stand up and unfurl a Bernie Sanders banner at a Trump rally, you are free to do so. You are not free to yell, to interrupt the proceedings, or to incite or create violence. If you are escorted out, you must do so peacefully. Outside the rally, you have to obey the laws, too.
Exactly so.  Trump and his supporters have the complete right to hold rallies.  His opponents have the complete right to protest.  They do not have the right to shout him down, or disrupt his rallies.  And shutting down a candidate altogether because you don't like his views completely violates the most basic rules of democratic fair play.  Many of the protesters were apparently Bernie Sanders supporters, although there is no evidence whatever that the Sanders campaign had anything to do with it.  Perhaps many were young, over-exuberant, and unfamiliar with those rules.  In that case, Sanders has an obligation to give his more rowdy supporters a good talking-to.  He needs to explain the proper limits of protest and why shutting down a rival's rallies is a serious threat to our entire democratic system.  I would call on the more responsible leaders of immigration activists and Black Lives Matter to do the same, but they are further from the mainstream than Sanders and more difficult to control.  What about it Bernie?

And finally, Trump followed up with a tweet that his followers might start shutting down Sanders rallies.  Fortunately, this has been strictly empty talk so far.  Trump, perhaps sensing that he went too far, has not followed up on it.  Because thus far, violence by Trump supporters has been aimed at intruders interfering with his rallies.  It does not meet any legal standards of self-defense, but it remains politically defensive, resistance to party-crashers.  If Trump ever does encourage his supporters to start breaking up and shutting down rival candidates' rallies, then we will be dealing with an altogether different, and more serious phenomenon.  And in that case, talk of fascism will not be so crazy.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why a Brokered Convention Makes No Sense From a Republican Perspective

The other reason I do not expect the Republicans to hold a brokered convention is that I do not see what they could possibly hope to achieve.  If they actually manage to deny the nomination to Trump, the main result will be to violate accepted political norms on a massive scale and do their party more harm than a mere party split could ever do.  I suppose the Republicans could be willing to destroy their party for the good of their country, but that is a level of statesmanship that is rarely seen, let alone in the Republican Party in recent years.

Another way of looking at it is, what do Republicans fear if Trump wins.  Presumably they are attempting to achieve the opposite of what they fear.  And then what the effect of a brokered convention would be.

Republicans fear a landslide defeat in the Presidential election.  In that case, what the Republican establishment would want would be to win the general election for President, and they see Trump as an obstacle.  And it is true, current polls show Hillary ahead by roughly ten percentage points.  But then again, most of those polls show Hillary with only around 50% of the vote, and a large number of undecides.  Presumably some of those will break for Trump.  The polls are from March.  The election is in November.  A lot can change in that time.

But assuming the results head steady and Trump meets a crushing defeat, does the Republican establishment think they are more likely to win if they hold a brokered convention and deny Trump the nomination?  Consider who they will be dealing with.  There are hardcore Democratic voters who would never vote for a Republican anyhow.  Those will not be swayed.  There are hardcore Republican voters who will vote for the Republican candidate, no matter what.  There are hardcore anti-Trump Republicans who will vote for a normal Republican, but would rather stay home or even vote for Hillary than vote for Trump.  These actually will be persuaded.  But how many of them do the Republicans think there are?  Certainly not all Republican voters, since many voted for Trump.  And from the Republican voters who voted for someone other than Trump, you have to subtract the hardcore Republicans who will vote for their party's candidate regardless.  So this is a voting bloc, but we can seriously question how large.  Against these are Trump supporters.  All Trump supporters will be furious at the party establishment for its betrayal in denying them the nominee of their choice. Yes, some are partisan Republicans who will vote for their party regardless, but a whole lot will react with fury against the party that cheated them of their choice.  Some may simply stay home, but a whole lot are apt to support Trump in a third-party bid or as a write-in.  The number of Trump supporters enraged enough to refuse to vote for the brokered convention nominee will certainly be significantly greater than the number of anti-Trump Republicans who would otherwise sit out.  And then there are the undecided voters.  But as discussed before, the sight of a party committing ceremonial self-disembowelment usually convinces undecided voters that they do not want to entrust their country to the circular firing squad.

On the other hand, suppose the Republicans do lose the presidential election?  So what?  They have lost presidential elections before.  Indeed, losing an election is a routine matter.  It is not any party's preferred outcome, obviously, but hardly an unprecedented catastrophe.  Go down, brush the dust off, then get up and fight the next election.  It happens all the time.

The Republicans are afraid of losing in down-ballot elections.  In that case, they would be writing off the presidency as hopeless, but trying to save as many other offices as possible.  Assuming Trump loses by a landslide, would he have negative coattails?  Would he induce others who would have voted Republican in down-ballot races to either stay home or vote Democratic?  At least some have suggested so.  I do not pretend to have investigated the issue enough to have a reasonable opinion.  But even if Trump does endanger Republicans in down-ballot elections, the same basic calculus applies as to the presidency.  If Trump causes the Republicans to lose many down-ballot elections they would otherwise have won, then the results will be anomalous and short-lived.  It will be rather like the 2008 election.  The combination of a failed war and an economic crisis caused Republicans to lose a large number of down-ballot elections in jurisdictions they normally would have won.  They reclaimed those offices in the next off-election of 2010, and added spectacularly in 2014.  Any normally Republican Congressional district, governorships, state legislatures, etc. that may be lost as a result of revulsion against Trump will be short-term losses easily regained next time around.  By contrast. if the Republican establishment violates all accepted political norms to deny the nomination to Trump after he wins a plurality of delegates, they face the real danger, not just of a third party challenge by Trump this year, but of Trump followers permanently bolting the party and forming a third party.  A true third party could not possibly form between the nominating convention and the general election, but two years would be sufficient time for large portions of the Republican rank-and-file, feeling utterly betrayed by their leaders (and with some justification) to establish a real third party, perhaps drawing off disaffected Democrats as well, and troubling the Republicans (and perhaps the Democrats) for some time to come.

Republicans are afraid of what the Democrats might do with the triple crown.  This at least begins to make some degree of sense.  If there is anything the last twenty-odd years have proven, it is that electoral losses are fleeting, and that disaster in one election tells a party nothing about what will happen next time around.  But policy changes are not so easily gotten rid of.  George Bush's war in Iraq may be generally seen as a mistake, but the basic elite consensus that we should respond to any foreign policy crisis with military intervention remains.  Bush's increased surveillance have actually grown under his successor.  And much as Republicans hate Obamacare, they have no realistic plan for getting rid of it.  Republican may fear that Hillary Clinton, with a sufficient Democratic majority in Congress for even two years, may be able to pass measures they consider disastrous but would be unable to undo upon electoral recovery.  Obamacare would be an obvious example of what they fear and wish to avoid.  In that case, their goal would be to hold onto the House and/or the ability to filibuster in the Senate in order to block any measures Hillary might have in mind.

To this I can only say that I see no evidence that Hillary has any sort of very ambitious agenda, certainly nothing like the improbable promises that Bernie Sanders is making.  But let us grant that Republicans seriously over-estimate the radicalism of Democrats and have exaggerated, unrealistic fears of what they will do once in power.  Even then, splitting the openly splitting the party risks being just as bad for Republicans' chances in Congress as having Trump as nominee.  (See above). And it carries a much greater risk of leading to a third party, which would cripple their chances of stopping the Democrats for a long time to come.  If Republicans fear what the Democrats might do with power, they would be much wiser to accept Trump, write off the Presidency (i.e., passively allow him to be defeated by not expending too many resources on his behalf), and focus on protecting vulnerable down-ballot seats.

Republicans want to preserve the ideological purity of their brand.  Okay, this at least makes some degree of sense.  Libertarians want to preserve their party as the party of minimal government and see Trump as an authoritarian ready to use government for his ends whenever he pleases.  Neocons are sincere in their dedication to preserving democracy and home and promoting it (at gunpoint) abroad and see Trump as a bull in a china shop, indifferent to any law or institutions.  But there are several problems here.  One is that neither libertarians nor neocons are exactly spotless in this regard.

The libertarian wing of the Republican party has fully signed on the government to the extent it means waging war, expanding domestic surveillance, indefinite detention, "coercive interrogation," and any other measure meant to advance the War on Terror.  Their claim to be opposed to all "government" is therefore highly questionable.  To explain that these are "essential core functions" that they favor, and that they only oppose the New Deal functions of government puts libertarians in an awkward spot indeed, given that there is next to no support for rolling back the New Deal.  As for necons, they, too, are tainted with these measures, which calls their support for "freedom" and "democracy" and opposition to "authoritarianism" very much into doubt.

A second objection is (as hinted at), the basic program of the libertarians, to roll back the New Deal, to end Obamacare, turn Medicaid into a block grant as a preliminary to squeezing it to death, to turn Medicare into a voucher system (i.e., Obamacare) with an ultimate goal of phasing it out, to turn Social Security into a 401-k, and to devote the saving to huge income tax cuts, particularly at the top, is wildly unpopular.  Nor the the neocon program of starting a war at every possible opportunity have a lot of support with the general public.  If this is the ideological purity that Republicans want so much to preserve, then they are truly bent on destroying their party in the name of virtue.  If Trump supporters were to start a third party and the Republican elite to openly commit to such a program, then Trump's party would end up transforming from the third party to the second and leave the Republican donors out in the cold.

A third objection is that the ideological difference between Trump and the Republican establishment in practice (if not in theory), is much less than it appears.  The two have reached a sort of compromise.  Whether or not to roll back the New Deal remains a matter for debate in think tanks that no one seriously dares broach with the general electorate.  In the meantime, Trump has adopted the Republican program on wars and starve-the-beast tax cuts, while the Republican establishment is moving toward Trump on immigration and foreign trade.  In the words of Jonathan Chait:
The policy content of the primary fight has receded almost entirely. Trump may be more effective than other Republicans at harnessing certain conservative impulses — xenophobia, nationalism — but he barely differs from Ted Cruz in the specific proposals in which he expresses them. Trump has attracted the support of the majority of Republican voters who favor higher taxes on the rich, but Trump himself would reduce them. Trump and Cruz oppose comprehensive immigration reform and have postured as tougher than each other without settling any specific disagreement. Trump attacks free trade more viscerally than other Republicans, but both he and Cruz have the same stance (oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, promise to implement some unspecified better deal). Trump is promising to appoint conventional right-wing jurists to the bench. There is no longer any substantive wedge between the GOP and its front-runner. 
Instead, Republican-elite loathing for Trump has three sources. First, they recognize that his deep unpopularity among the general public makes him a historically awful nominee. Second, his egomania, lack of interest in policy, and history of off-the-reservation statements and behavior give them justifiable reasons to doubt he will stay committed to their agenda even if somehow elected. And third, they find his persona repellant.
It's personal.  Maybe Republicans are not afraid of Trump so much as repulsed by him, to the extent of preferring damage to their brand to being associated with such a man.  Republicans may not want their party tainted with Trump's ugly brand of xenophobia and demagoguery.  In that case, they might be willing to see a third party form, so long as it siphoned off the really ugly elements.  The would trust such a party would dwindle away and not cause any long-term damage.

This approach has its problems, though.  One is that Republicans have been playing footsie with the xenophobes and demagogues for long enough that siphoning them off might do their brand a lot more long-term damage than they expect.  But then again, that is the Democrat in me speaking. Republicans might not agree.  The other problem is that even if can successfully purge themselves of Trump's style, they will have to decide what to do with his substance.  Do they want to be the party of interventionism or disengagement, of international trade or protectionism, of immigration or anti-immigration?  To say nothing of whether they want to continue trying to roll back the New Deal or to make peace with it.  Maybe Republicans believe that if they run Trump and lose it will be hard to argue that their secret to success is an ideological alignment in his direction, while dumping Trump and losing will make it easier to adopt a Trumpism without Trump.  The problem with this calculation, once again, is that Trumpers may respond to being illegitimately denied the nomination by bolting and forming a third party, a thing that will make ideological realignment by Republicans more difficult rather than less.

Or maybe Republicans just can't stand Trump's vulgar style and obvious status as a liar and conman. That is certainly Chait's opinion.  But plenty of Trump supporters have already said that they know he is a liar and a con man, they just think the Republican leadership is equally deceitful, so they prefer a liar and con man who they know shares their values.

Republicans are afraid of what a Trump victory would do to their brand.  Maybe Republicans' real fear is not the Trump would lose, but that he would win and make such an utter hash of things that the Republican brand would suffer for another generation.  In that case, the Republicans might be willing to write off this one election to keep Trump from damaging their brand any further.  The problem with this approach is that it is exchanging a hypothetical future harm for a real present one.  Yes, it is certainly true that Trump might win the presidency and make such a hash of things as to damage the Republican brand for a long time.  Or he might lose and spare Republicans the headache. Or he might win and have fairly conventional advisers who are able to reign him in.  So any harm Trump might do his party in victory remains remote and hypothetical.  On the other hand, the harm the Republican establishment would do their party by denying the party faithful their choice of nominee would be immediate and real.  See above for what it might be.  Ultimately I fully agree with  Daniel Larison in explaining why Paul Ryan does not openly come out against Trump:
Ryan is at the height of his career in the House now that he is Speaker, and he presumably has a long career ahead of him in Congress or Wisconsin state politics if he wants it, so gratuitously antagonizing up to half of the Republican primary electorate across the country may not seem like a terribly smart move. . . . He might also reasonably conclude that working to destroy the Republican coalition by openly joining an anti-Trump effort would do more harm to the party in the long term than having Trump as the nominee for a few months. Anti-Trump Republicans want to scuttle the Republican ship to prevent Trump from taking it, and they wonder why Ryan doesn’t share their desire to sink it. I submit that it’s because he is in a leadership position, and he has judged that it is better for the party to suffer Trump briefly and recover than it is to destroy itself to keep it out of Trump’s hands.
Which leads to the final possibility.

Republicans are so afraid of a Trump presidency that they are prepared to destroy their party in order to prevent it.  In this version, Republicans are not afraid of losing this election, or even of the long-term damage a Trump candidacy may do them.  They are afraid of what Trump might do to the country if he wins, so afraid that they are willing to wreck their party to prevent such an outcome. If so, then Republicans are to be commended for their statesmanship.  However, such statesmanship is extremely rare, so I think it is most unlikely in this case.  Besides, if they really are afraid of what Trump might do in office, there would be more obvious ways of opposing him that would do less long-term damage to their party than a brokered convention, such as openly speaking out about their fears of what a Trump presidency would mean.

In short, no matter what the motives of the Republican establishment, I do not see how their holding a brokered convention can advance them.  My conclusion, therefore, is that they will end up holding their noses an acceding to a Trump candidacy.  Certainly if I were a Republican consultant, that is what I would recommend.

And finally, a word of advice I would give as a Democratic consultant.  Democrats, needless to say, would love to see the Republican Party destroy itself.  Apparently one reason Trump was able to rise to the top of the Republican field with such ease was that none of his rivals bothered to do any serious opposition research on him.  Democrats, while enjoying the popcorn, have apparently had more advance notice and done some such research.  By one estimate, only 20% has surfaced so far.  Presumably Democrats are holding their ammunition in reserve until after Trump becomes the nominee.  But if the Democrats really want to persuade the Republican Party to start destroying itself, they would be well-advised to start unleashing their material right now.  Make his polling numbers sink right now, both the reduce the chances of his getting an absolute majority of delegates and to make him look like a really bad general election candidate.  These things will make it more likely that the Republican establishment might try something really stupid to stop him, rather than just write off this election and move on to the next. It couldn't happen to a nicer party.

Why I Do Not Expect a Brokered Convention: A History of Convention Splits

Journalists are now panting and drooling over the prospect of a Republican brokered convention.  Partisanship has nothing to do with it.  Nominating conventions these days are so boring and staged that journalists are naturally eager to see them actually mean something and have some real drama.  Given just how wrong I was about Donald Trump's staying power, maybe I should shut up about this one, but it is my settled opinion that it would be sheer madness for the Republicans to attempt to deny the nomination to Trump, and that (from their perspective, at least) letting him run is the lesser evil.  Nor do I believe that the Republican Party has the statesmanship to destroy itself for the public good, which means I think in the end they will end up rallying behind Trump, maybe with their fingers crossed, and maybe not even that.

Parties have deadlocked at nominating conventions before. 

The Democratic National Convention of 1860 easily gave Stephen Douglas a majority, but party rules required a 2/3 vote for the nomination.  The vote went on to 57 ballots, always with Douglas holding a comfortable majority but the southern runner-up serving as a spoiler.  At this point the convention broke up into separate Northern and Southern conventions, nominating Douglas and John Breckinridge, respectively.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The Democratic National Convention of 1924 split between the Protestant and Prohibitionist William McAdoo, who had the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and refused to repudiate it, and the Catholic, anti-Prohibition, anti-Klan Al Smith.  The convention split over the issue of whether to condemn the Klan and went to a whopping 103 ballots, with neither McAdoo nor Smith able to garner a majority.  The party, exhausted, eventually settled for a compromise candidate and, unsurprisingly, were thoroughly trounced at the polls by Calvin Coolidge. 

The Democratic National Convention of 1968 was divided between pro- and anti-war factions.  Party leaders arranged the nomination of the pro-war Hubert Humphrey, who had not even run in the primaries at all.  This time, instead of an extended ballot deadlock, there were riots in the street.  No doubt the sight of a party unable to maintain order at its own convention played a part in Nixon's victory (albeit narrow).  The last seriously contested Democratic Convention took place in 1972 and was followed by a devastating defeat.  The last convention in which anything of any significance happened was the Republican National Convention of 1976, in which Ronald Reagan mounted a serious challenge to Gerald Ford and was defeated.  Ford went on to lose in the general.

Do you see a pattern here?  First of all, split conventions are mostly a Democratic disease, although I suppose there is no real reason Republicans should be immune.  Second, they are almost always followed by defeat in the general election.  Apparently the sight of a political party committing ceremonial self-disembowelment on the national stage, though entertaining in a sick sort of way, does not inspire most people to want to entrust the country to them. 

That said, messy conventions are a symptom, not the disease itself.  The underlying disease in all cases is a split in the party, which is never much good for its prospects.  This can mean not just its immediate prospects in the upcoming election, but its long-term prospects in its current condition.  It can signal a serious electoral realignment.

In 1860 the Democrats were hopelessly split between their northern wing, which was as opposed as its southern wing to using the federal government to keep slavery out of the territories, but dead set against using federal power to impose slavery on a territory against the wishes of the inhabitants, and their southern wing, which was demanding a federal slave code in all territories, regardless of the wishes of the inhabitants.  The difference proved irreconcilable and led (as we all know) to Civil War and a long period of Republican domination.

The 1924 Presidential election
In 1924, the Democratic Party was once again hopelessly split between a northern and southern wing. Racial equality was not at issue; the only party to favor such a radical concept was the Communist Party.  But the nation was caught in a deep culture war, with one side strongly nativist, Protestant, and prohibitionist and the other side immigrant and Catholic or pro-immigrant and pro-Catholic, and anti-prohibition.  In the North, Republicans were that nativist, Protestant, prohibitionist party while Democrats were the pro-immigrant, pro-Catholic, anti-prohibition party.  The South, though the most nativist, most Protestant, most prohibitionist part of the country, remained solidly Democratic as an outdated legacy of the Civil War.  Despite the Democrats' brush with the Catholic, anti-prohibitionist Al Smith, the South nonetheless rallied to the eventual nominee, while the rest of the country supported Coolidge.

1928 Presidential election
The split became even more obvious and damaging in 1928, when the Democrats actually did nominate Al Smith.  The prospect of a Catholic, anti-prohibition President was enough to make much of the Old Confederacy vote Republican.  Smith won only in the deepest of the Deep South -- and in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, two states with large immigrant Catholic populations. The country may very well have been ready to make the great electoral shift that it finally reached in the 1960's, if the Great Depression had not intervened and persuaded the country in general and the South in particular that the Republicans were not to be trusted with the economy.

The later two examples were less damaging.  In 1968, the immediate underlying issue was the Vietnam War, with the Democratic Party split between pro- and anti-war factions.  This split could be relieved (at least in part) by ending the war.  But there were other issues seething below the surface -- racial equality, crime, and culture war issues.  The Democrats narrowly lost to Nixon in 1968.  In 1972 they fully embraced the counter-culture and got an even worse drubbing than in 1924 and 1928. Richard Nixon then inexplicably assisted the Democrats by resorting to dirty tricks when he was so far ahead that he could easily have taken the high road and coasted to victory nonetheless, and they proceeded to win the mid-terms and the next election.

As for the 1976 convention, it signaled a split between the moderate and conservative wings of the Republican Party.  Though defeated in 1976, the conservatives easily won in 1980 and have completely dominated the Republican Party ever since, to the extent that many of the things Reagan did would now be seen as apostasy.

The Republicans are once again experiencing a split that has been a long time in the making, this one not so much between moderates and conservatives as between the donor class and the activist class. These two factions stand united on some issues.  Both are enraged at the thought of a Democrat (any Democrat) in the White House.  Both hate Obamacare and any other government spending perceived to favor the poor, the young, or minorities.  Both are opposed to diplomacy and compromise in foreign policy and dead set against any agreement with a hostile power short of unconditional surrender.  But donors see the assault on Obamacare as simply a prelude to assault on Medicaid and Medicare; activists see the assault on Obamacare as a way of shoring up healthcare to seniors and veterans.  Donors want to respond to every foreign policy crisis with war; activists prefer disengagement.  Donors are moderately pro-immigration; activists are strongly anti-immigration. Donors want to roll back the New Deal; activists are its leading beneficiaries.  Donors oppose all government spending except on the military; activist say they oppose government spending but make exceptions for most of the budget.  Donors' top priority is to cut taxes and gut regulations; activists don't care all that much about either issue.*  At the same time, activists have been dead set against any sort of negotiation or compromise in domestic politics, while donors have seen them as necessary evils.  Or so it seemed, until Trump suddenly started talking about what great deals he would negotiate.  Under these circumstances, it is hard to see how some sort of split could be avoided.  It is equally hard to see how the split would play out.  Joining the Democrats is not option for either faction.** Forming a third party is rarely more than a vehicle for handing power over to the other party.

But a brokered convention remains a disastrous option, worse than any convention split before, not merely a symptom of a party split, but a certain cause of disaster as well.  The reason for this that the prior conventions, messy and ruinous as they were, were at least not violating basic political norms.  It was fully accepted and, indeed, expected practice at the time that party conventions would choose the party's nominee for President.  That the candidate should be chosen in the primaries was not even a concept in 1860 or 1924.  Things had changed by 1968, so at least part of the anger was over the pro-war Humphrey becoming party nominee despite not even running in a single primary.  But the basic norm that the nominee should be chosen entirely through election of the delegates and the nominating convention a mere formality was not established at the time.  Today it is.

It has long been remarked that our political system is governed not only by laws, but also by unwritten (and often unspoken) norms.  As polarization grows, politicians are increasingly doing thing that do not break any laws, but do violate accepted norms.  Up till now, this has mostly been in the parties' contests with each other.  A brokered convention would mean a party violating its own norms in its dealings with itself.  If Trump wins a plurality but not a majority of delegates and the convention seeks to deny him the nomination, they would not be breaking any laws.  Indeed, the convention could deny Trump the nomination even if he wins a majority of delegates and still not technically break any laws.  That is because there are no laws on how presidential candidates are nominated.  Yes, there are state laws on how to conduct primaries and choose delegates to the convention.  But first, there is no obligation for parties to actually follow these laws.  A party can opt out of the primaries and hold a party caucus instead if it so chooses.  Caucuses can take any form the party wishes; a caucus is simply any system of nomination run by the party instead of the state.  (That is why some parties have one party hold primaries and the other party holding caucuses).  And once delegates are chosen for the party convention, there are no laws governing what the convention is required to do.

If the delegates to the Republican Convention change to rules to deny Trump the nomination even if he wins a majority of delegates, they will not be breaking any laws, so there will be no legal recourse to stop them.  But they will be breaking well-established political norms, and the party faithful will quite justifiably respond with outrage.  And the nation will, once again, be treated to the sight of a political party committing ceremonial self-disembowelment on the national stage.  Only this time such things will be contrary to political norms in a way that they never were before, and the party's prospects for recovery will be -- well, no one can say what the party's prospects for recovery will be because there is no precedent for such a thing happening since the norm of nomination by primary was established.

All of which leads me to believe that Republicans will not be so insane as to make such an attempt.

*Donors and activists also differ on abortion and same sex marriage, but these do not appear to be the issues driving the split or the Trump coalition.  Trans-gender issues do not really appear to have appeared on either group's radar screen, although the more trans-gender activists keep insisting on access to the bathrooms of their choice or (worse yet, an end to separate bathrooms altogether), the more attention the issue is going to get.
**Bernie Sanders is trying to bring back the white non-southern working class vote (exactly where Trump is strongest) by focusing on bread-and-butter issues, but immigration will probably be a fatal stumbling block there. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Wow!  It's been a while.  And for no really good reason.  So, first order of business, Donald Trump.  Barring some sort of miracle, he seems well on his way toward becoming the Republican nominee.  It would appear that I was way too dismissive of him.  And so, a trip down memory lane, for my past comments about Trump.

From the 2012 election:

November 27, 2011:
I will say this much for the parade of Republican front runners. I prefer Gingrich to Cain. I prefer Cain to Bachman. I prefer even Bachman to Donald Trump. So I guess the Republicans are trending in the right direction.

After a couple of hundred more that way, they might come up with a decent candidate.
 December 5, 2011, commenting on a Paul Krugman column that to believe the Republican party line one has to be either completely clueless or completely cynical, and deciding which candidate was which:
Krugman, like most people, has dropped Donald Trump's short-lived front runner status down memory hole. Trump, I have no doubt, was cynical, even more cynical than Romney. (He may also be pulling a two-fer by being clueless too). He played the birther card because he thought it would be a winning one with the base. However, it quickly transpired that Trump was seeking to play the base for suckers and really didn't understand them at all. The base abandoned him as soon as that became apparent.
October 27, 2012:

I understand the unanimous, trans-partisan and trans-ideological desire to forget that Donald Trump ever sought to be President.  The mere thought of such a thing is enough to make me want to wash out my brain with bleach.  Fortunately, there was no actual danger of such a thing ever coming to pass.  I will make one comment on Donald Trump's brief candidacy.  To many of the Republican base, obnoxiousness is the most important quality in a leader.  They equate obnoxiousness with firm and unyielding principle.  So I guess is that if you regard obnoxiousness as the prime qualification in a leader, then Trump is perfect.  Otherwise, I can't think of a single good thing to say about him.
 . . . . . . . .
[Ranking my preference of CEO's for President] 
Distantly trailing Romney and Hoover is Herman Cain who, although unqualified and prone to disastrous policies, is sane and appears to respect democratic norms.  Distantly behind him is mad autocrat Perot.  And bringing up the rear is Donald Trump, who we will all pretend is not there.
And, finally, in a most supremely arrogant miscalculation, July 31, 2015:
A quick note to everyone panicking over the prospect of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. Chill!  You seem to forget that Trump was Republican front runner at this stage in the last election as well.  And yes, I understand why everyone has managed to drop that down memory hole, but it remains the case.  Trump surged ahead by being the only Republican contender to seriously entertain the birthers.  The Tea Party embraced him.  However, he was not a member and did not speak their language, and it soon became apparent that he was merely pandering to them.  So the Republicans moved on to semi-serious candidates like Michelle Bachman, Herman Caine, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum.  They were an appalling bunch, but at least they had one thing going for them -- none of them were Donald Trump.

This time instead of birtherism, the issue is illegal immigration, which has the advantage of being at least a real issue.  Still, there is every reason to believe that sooner or later Trump will commit some faux pas that makes clear to Tea Partiers that is is not one of them and is just pandering (again).  The Iowa caucus is still over five months away, for Pete's sake!  That will give plenty of time for the novelty to wear off and Trump to self-destruct over something.

I try to make it my rule not to comment on the election until the actual primaries begin.  This counts as a failure but occasionally a bit of madness has to be tamped down.  Panic over Trump is one such occasion.  
Instead, Trump has proven an unstoppable juggernaut in the primaries who has never faltered and is well on his way to the nomination.  We even have to take seriously the possibility that he may win the general! 

To my credit, I did eventually start taking Trump seriously.  But obviously I seriously underestimated him at the start.  As did many others.