Playing Dirty

playing dirty

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Why Republicans Play Dirty: They fear that if they stick to the rules, they will lose everything. Their behavior is a threat to democratic stability.

You can always tell a Harvard man, it is said, but you can’t tell him much. Messrs. Levitsky and Ziblatt are both full professors at Harvard’s Department of Government, and the coauthors of a compelling comparative study, How Democracies Die. In yesterday’s New York Times, they wrote,

Why is the Republican Party playing dirty? Republican leaders are not driven by an intrinsic or ideological contempt for democracy. They are driven by fear.

Democracy requires that parties know how to lose. Politicians who fail to win elections must be willing to accept defeat, go home, and get ready to play again the next day. This norm of gracious losing is essential to a healthy democracy.

But for parties to accept losing, two conditions must hold. First, they must feel secure that losing today will not bring ruinous consequences; and second, they must believe they have a reasonable chance of winning again in the future. When party leaders fear that they cannot win future elections, or that defeat poses an existential threat to themselves or their constituents, the stakes rise. Their time horizons shorten. They throw tomorrow to the wind and seek to win at any cost today. In short, desperation leads politicians to play dirty.

Take German conservatives before World War I. …

Republicans appear to be in the grip of a similar panic today. Their medium-term electoral prospects are dim. For one, they remain an overwhelmingly white Christian party in an increasingly diverse society. ,,,

The problem runs deeper than electoral math, however. Much of the Republican base views defeat as catastrophic. White Christians are losing more than an electoral majority; their once-dominant status in American society is eroding. Half a century ago, white Protestant men occupied nearly all our country’s high-status positions: They made up nearly all the elected officials, business leaders and media figures. Those days are over, but the loss of a group’s social status can feel deeply threatening. Many rank-and-file Republicans believe that the country they grew up in is being taken away from them. Slogans like “take our country back” and “make America great again” reflect this sense of peril. …

American democracy faces a Catch-22: Republicans won’t abandon their white identity bunker strategy until they lose, but at the same time that strategy has made them so averse to losing they are willing to bend the rules to avoid this fate. There is no easy exit. Republican leaders must either stand up to their base and broaden their appeal or they must suffer an electoral thrashing so severe that they are compelled to do so.

Liberal democracy has historically required at least two competing parties committed to playing the democratic game, including one that typically represents conservative interests. But the commitment of America’s conservative party to this system is wavering, threatening our political system as a whole. Until Republicans learn to compete fairly in a diverse society, our democratic institutions will be imperiled.

Aardvark’s Animadversions

It is with great trepidation that I comment on the work of two distinguished Harvard scholars, but I will do it, nonetheless.

First off, I think their analysis is right, as far as it goes.

Second, I think it’s very fortunate—given the circumstances they describe—that the Leader of the Pack, Donald J. Trump, does not give two hoots in hell about establishing a dictatorship of white Protestant men. What Donald J. Trump is all about is conning those who aspire to such a dictatorship, in order to line his pockets and satisfy his endless narcissistic delusions.

Third, the good professors seem to assume that it’s up to the “leaders” of the present Republican Party to discover a way out of this mess. But I think there’s good reason to suppose that is beyond their power.

And here’s the fourth and last point. Over at the Harvard Business School they teach that one goal of sophisticated corporate strategy is to shape what your competition does and how they do it. If the two professors are right that a right-of-center party that plays by the rules is essential to democracy, then folks on the center left need to give some thought as to how they might help to bring that about.

That implies, I think, that we need to evolve from a two party system into a three party system: one to represent the folks who are now the hard core Trump supporters, one to represent the progressives, and a third to represent the traditionally conservative upper middle and upper classes.

A Three Party System, with Two Parties in One

party of no

Yesterday, E.J. Dione published A bigger challenge to Democrats than socialists: Their liberal Republicans. Perhaps, like me, you found the phrase “their liberal Republicans,” read out of context, to be confusing. But if you actually read the article, you’ll see that he’s referring to the same phenomenon I have described, using other language—namely, our divide into a right wing Party of No, a progressive party, and a business oriented party of social moderates and fiscal conservatives.

You could call this third group “centrists”—and I am sure they would revel in the term—but I, for one, think it’s misleading. Instead, let’s just call them the business oriented, fiscally conservative, socially moderate party. But whatever name you use, pretty much every elected official in this group has a D after her or his name.

Dione has two main points, and I think they hit the nail on the head. One is that the Party of No has simply taken itself out of any rational political dialog. It’s like that time when you were a little kid, and the boys from your neighborhood wanted to play a friendly game of touch football with the team from the other side of the tracks. But, whatever they may have said about wanting to plan football,  the roughnecks from the tough neighborhood didn’t want to play football. They wanted to play a game of beat-up-the-nice-kids.

Before I get to Dione’s second point, let me make an additional observation from 30,000 feet. The business oriented, social moderates are the smallest of the three effective parties, but they are large enough to decide which of the other two parties wins on any given issue.

Dione’s final point, then, is that the Democrats—especially in the House of Representatives—face a situation where they are compelled to work out, on an intra-party basis, answers to the burning issues of the day, like health care and climate change.  With the Party of No having taken itself out of the game, any real answers must come out of a dialog between the progressives and the fiscally conservative social moderates, all calling themselves Democrats.

This is proving to be awkward.

But they had damn well better learn how to do it.

And once they do learn intra-party compromise, they will be well equipped to tell the folks from the Party of No to go take a long walk off a short pier.

The Three Party System


Last night on the PBS Newshour, smarmy jackass Matt Schlapp explained why the Alabama election went the way it did. The good folks in Alabama are really pissed off at Mitch McConnell, he allowed. And why, pray tell, are they so angry? They are angry because they are deeply disappointed that the Republican Establishment has not yet taken their health care away. And they are absolutely furious that Steve Mnuchin pays too much in taxes. They yearn for that deeply satisfying trickle down feeling that is sure to come when Steve rakes in yet more millions and, in consequence, they, the real Mericans, find a few extra kopeks trickling down into their wallets.

That trickle down feeling will be as welcome as a long hot shower after a hard day a-pickin’ cotton—a long, hot shower followed by a vigorous tryst with your inamorata, and a big shot of moonshine to cap off the day.

No, Mr. Schlapp, the Very Angry White People in Alabama are not Very Angry because Mitch McConnell couldn’t enact the legislative agenda of the National Chamber of Commerce and the Koch Brothers.

They are angry because of economic, cultural, and racial resentment. They are angry because the minions of the National Chamber of Commerce have been playing them like an accordion since the 1960s—and they are finally figuring out that they have been conned.

Steve Bannon has told them that they are the victims of McConnell’s economic hate crimes. See Fox News, Bannon rails against GOP ‘elites’ working against Trump in ‘Hannity’ interview.

As Erick Erickson—not a typical source of Aardvarkian wisdom—puts it so well, It’s time for Mitch McConnell to go.

Steve Kornacki provides valuable historical context in The Next Republican Uprising Is Underway. And, rising to the analytical heights to which he sometimes attains, Josh Marshall tells us what is really, really going on:

 Last spring I said the Trump phenomenon was a product of what I termed ‘nonsense debt‘. Republicans had spent years pumping their voters up on increasingly extreme and nonsensical claims and promises. This worked very well for winning elections. But it had also built up a debt that eventually had to be repaid. Concretely, they were making claims and promises that were either factually ridiculous, politically unviable or unacceptable to a broad swath of the voting public. Eventually, you get elected and need to produce. By definition that’s never really possible: both because the claims and promises are nonsensical and unviable but also because a politics based on reclamation, revenge, and impulse is almost impossible to satisfy through normal legislative politics. …

The essential dynamic of early 21st century conservatism [is] an infinite loop of inflammatory and engaging promises, claims and demands which are mostly entirely unrealizable, creating a permanent cycle of establishmentism and grassroots’ betrayal which continues spinning forward even as the players in each category change.

Some idiots  describe these events as a contest for the soul of the Republican Party. This is not right. It is not right because the Republican Party has no soul. The “Republican Party” is a brand and an institution. And what is going on is, among other things, a struggle for control of the brand and of the institution.

It is a fight to the death, and we know which side is going to win. It’s kind of like a fight between a cobra and a mongoose.

The Very Angry White People will win control of the Republican brand and the institution of the Republican Party, first of all, because they comprise the vast majority of people who vote Republican.

Jennifer Rubin, writing with typical restraint in Americans as a whole haven’t lost their minds, but the GOP has, lays it out for us:

There is only abysmal news for President Trump and Republicans in the latest Quinnipiac poll. Voters say Trump is not “fit to serve as president,” by a  56 to 42 percent margin. Voters disapprove (57 to 36 percent) of his performance (so 6 percent think he is fit, just not doing a good job). …

Americans are neither brain-dead nor moral vagrants. In voting for [Trump] many probably hated Hillary Clinton more, engaged in wishful thinking about Trump and/or figured incorrectly a rich guy and his friends must know how to do things. But they do not like him now, and that speaks very well of the American people.

The bad news is Republicans overwhelmingly like him, his policies, his distractions, his character, his racial appeals, etc. Among Republicans 79 percent approve of his performance, 79 percent think he is honest (!), 85 percent think he cares about ordinary Americans, 62 percent think he is level-headed (!!) and perhaps worst of all, 78 percent think he shares their values.

So, to boil it all down, about four fifths of Republican voters are Very Angry White People and one fifth embrace the aspirations of the National Chamber of Commerce.

The second reason why the Very Angry White People will inherit the husk of the Republican Party is that you can no longer buy elections in this country, if you ever could. Social media. Small contributions raised over the internet.

God knows the Republican Establishment tried to buy the election in Alabama by hurling vast sums of money, money in such abundance as to exceed the dreams of avarice. Didn’t work. Not going to work elsewhere.

The third reason is that the plutocrats and giant corporations that have been funding the Republican Party are going to realize that the jig is up and the long con is over.

Aardvark is not a plutocrats, but Aardvark knows plutocrats. Aardvark has walked among them. And here is what I know.

Some plutocrats are foolish, and some are ideologically fixated. But, for the most part they did not get to be plutocrats by throwing good money after bad. By digging deeper when they found themselves in a hole. By embracing bad ideas to the bitter end.

No, gentle reader, plutocrats are folks who, generally, know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, know when to run.

Last, and most surely least, some of the plutocrats will walk away from the rotting shell of the Republican Party because they cannot stand the moral stench. But I wouldn’t count on that being a major factor. Most of them would be happy to embrace the racists and the know-nothings as long as the strategy keeps working. But most of them are smart enough to know when the game is over.

So what is going to happen? The Chamber of Commerce folks, finding themselves expelled from the Republican Party, are going to have to form a new party. It will have a really nice name. Rest assured, they will focus group that sucker to death. And it will be loudly trumpeted as “centrist.”

And the Chamber of Commerce folks will try to buy some politicians who currently have a D after their names. And some of the Ds will take the bait.

And that’s where we will be: an Angry White People’s Party labeled the Republican Party, a new “centrist” business party, and a Progressive Party still calling itself the Democratic Party.

Each will be a minority party. Each will have to find a coalition partner, if it wishes to advance its agenda.