In the months since my last post, lots of things have happened. We’ve had a national election, for one thing, which by most accounts has assured us two more years of political gridlock and confirmed the deep polarization of public opinion. At the same time, the drive for marriage equality has gone from one success to the next, with only an occasional glitch. (One – only one – circuit of the Court of Appeals has taken a stand against the trend, increasing the chances of the Supreme Court taking a case soon and deciding once and for all whether the Equal Protection clause requires equal marriage laws.)

And as usual I’ve been reading lots of stuff.

The polarization thing has drawn me back to my interest in the roots of representative democracy as we know it, in 17th and 18th century England. This is something I may be able to cook down into a series of blog posts. The latest soundbites from the conflict of Whigs and Tories. Actually, most recently I’ve been looking at the earlier history of Scotland, because it was Scots Calvinist resistance to royal imposition of Episcopacy and its trappings that triggered the English Revolution of the 1640’s. Which wouldn’t have happened if the crowns of the two countries hadn’t been united since 1603. That’s one of the things I’m getting from my study of history – a sense of how things could have turned out very differently if some heir to a throne had lived longer, or died sooner, or been born a different gender.

So let’s see if I can get myself to write up some of this stuff, and whatever else comes up.

Wish me luck!

I’m back

December 12, 2012

Previously, whenever I let time go by without posting on this blog, visits would drop off to a daily average of 0 until I resumed; this time, though, I have been surprised to note a steady trickle of visitors throughout. One day recently I actually hit double digits. So in spite of too much else on my plate, I have decided to start writing again. Let’s see how long I can keep it up this time.

Let’s see, what has been going on since my last post… Oh yes, there was an election, wasn’t there. More or less as I expected – or at least as I remember expecting, I haven’t checked to see whether what I actually wrote here confirms this – the Romney campaign focused on economic conservatism at the expense of other flavors, but failed to come up with anything  to make such a platform more attractive to the general public than it has been since 1929. Romney seems to have taken it for granted that the widespread and understandable disappointment in the rate of the recovery since 2008 would translate automatically into an eagerness to embrace the Republican alternative; whereas in fact lots of us still blame Republican policies for the collapse itself and believe that returning to them can only make the situation worse. In fact the GOP has done as well as it has in presidential elections since World War II by focusing on things other than its classical economic program: patriotism, fear of street crime, concerns about increasing cultural diversity and the decline of sexual morality, all that sort of thing. The one time I can remember when a Republican won on largely economic grounds was 1980, when neither candidate actually embraced his own party’s traditional position: Carter did not run as much of a New Dealer, and Reagan claimed to be offering something radically new (which his running mate had actually called “voodoo” when running against him in the primaries). If the parties that year had nominated Bush Sr and Ted Kennedy instead, then maybe the election would have been a clear referendum on the New Deal. But we didn’t have one, most GOP candidates have done their best to avoid one, and Romney’s going all out for one seems to show an unprecedentedly naive trust in his own talking points. Now I’m not saying he couldn’t have won such a referendum, that an argument couldn’t have been found to win his case for him; I do tend to think it couldn’t, but my point here is that it didn’t seem to occur to Romney that some new or more vigorous argument was needed.

Nevertheless the election was a rather close one, nationally, though individual states and counties seem to be turning more solidly “red” or “blue” than ever before. So polarization is still very much in the  news. A couple of weeks ago I finally read The Big Sort, the 2008 book on how liberals and conservatives seem to be crystallizing into two separate cultures with ever less contact and communication between them. I’ve also been going back to the origins of two-party politics in Restoration England. Maybe I’ll manage to post something on these subjects in the days to come.

Wish me luck!



August 13, 2012


I’ve said before that Romney wanted to make this election a referendum on the New Deal, and now he seems to have done exactly that. I really don’t believe he picked Ryan under pressure from the Tea Party; if it looked like he could coast to victory he might have gone with a more boring choice, but Ryan is just the kind of hard-core conservative who is most compatible with what we can plausibly assume to be Romney’s own beliefs. (Although I am not the first to note the irony, given his touting of his business experience as essential to the ability to lead the country, that his running mate’s entire career has been in Congress.)

As I’ve also said, the whole primary contest wasn’t about Mitt’s degree of conservatism but his particular flavor of conservatism. If he’d picked someone better known for religious-right culture-war credentials, or for race- or immigrant-baiting, that would look more like panic.

So now it’s Romney-Ryan, and everyone in both parties is professing to be delighted with the fact. Actually I think Ezra Klein hit the nail on the head when he wrote:

Both Democrats and conservatives are going to get the exact debate they wanted. I’m not so sure about Republicans.

Because there is a very real possibility that senior citizens and other beneficiaries of government programs will totally freak out over the Ryan budget, making the election another 1964. Maybe not, but at least there’s a clearer choice than we’ve had in a while. No side issues like patriotism or sexual morality to induce people who don’t really buy conservative economic theory to vote Republican anyway; nor even a chance that people will vote Republican because they like the sound of the anti-“big government” slogans, without thinking through what they mean in practice. The Obama campaign will have and will take every opportunity to spell it out in gory detail. For the first time, if the Republicans do win, no one can deny that they have a clear mandate to roll up the safety net and run the country like the Depression never happened. And if they lose, it will be equally clear that all their victories over the past few decades were due to those side issues they managed to wrap themselves in. We shall see.

Another commentator, Amy Walter of ABC news, argues that the average swing voter doesn’t want an ideological battle:

They aren’t spending their evenings debating the benefits of Hayek or Keynesian economic models. They are just trying to figure out which candidate is capable of getting something done. They will reward the politician who succeeds in getting things moving again. But that shouldn’t be taken as proof that voters are endorsing the philosophical underpinnings of that success.

In other words, voters are looking less at ideology and more at competency.

Tell that to Mike Dukakis. I mean, Walter may be right that a significant number of voters do feel that way, but it is still unrealistic. There’s no point in discussing competence if we disagree radically about what we want done in the first place. Clearly President Obama, whatever one thinks of his personal abilities, could have carried out at least somewhat more of his agenda if he hadn’t been obstructed by the Republicans in Congress;  where we disagree is on whether this would have been a good thing or a bad thing. There’s been a lot of handwringing in the pundit class for decades over “failed Presidencies,” but the fact is most of us can think of some things we are glad that one or another President has failed at; we’re just split down the middle over which things. If either side wins a decisive victory this November, maybe it will put the question behind us for a while…