Politics Feed

Packer on Political Language

A perceptive essay by George Packer in the Atlantic examines political language, particularly that of Trump and contrasts it with the language currently used by progressives.  Some insights:

The strength of Trump’s populist language lies in its openness. It requires no expert knowledge and has no code of hidden meanings. It’s attuned to some of the strongest currents in American pop culture, and it gives rise almost spontaneously to memorable slogans—“Build the wall,” “Lock her up,” “Witch hunt,” “No collusion,” “Make America great again.” It’s the way people talk when the inhibitors are off. It’s available to anyone who’s willing to join the mob. 

***

By contrast, the language of the contemporary left is anti-populist. Its vocabulary, much of it taken from academia, is the opposite of accessible—it has to be decoded and learned. Terms such as centered, marginalized, intersectional, non-binary, and Eurocentric gender discipline separate outsiders from insiders—that’s part of their intent, as is the insistence on declaring one’s personal pronouns and showing an ability to use them accordingly. Even common words like ally and privilege acquire a resonance that takes them out of the realm of ordinary usage, because the point of this discourse is to create a sense of special virtue. Many of these changes happen by ambush—suddenly and irrevocably, with no visible trail of discussion and decision, and with quick condemnation of holdouts—which gives them a powerful mystique.

The language of the left creates a hierarchy of those who get it and those who don’t. Mastering the vocabulary is a way of signaling entry into a select world of the knowing and the just. The system is closed—there’s an internal logic that can be accepted or rejected but isn’t open to argument or question. In this sense, though much of the language of the left has academic origins, its use in the public square is almost religious. The abandonment of language that brings people in rather than shutting them out is one of the left’s many structural disadvantages in American politics today.


What's going on with the Right?

An excellent, and I think helpful, column in the Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf on what's going on with the Right.  Even deeper than the racism currently being exhibited is a psychological temperament that seeks order and fears difference and change.  He criticizes the Left for how they respond to the Right and provides insights on the best way to build coalitions to advance the nation.


Primary Update

I haven't posted anything really about the Democratic primary, so I thought I'd write my thoughts to date.  I've mostly been following the campaign by reading profiles and articles and what I've heard on NPR.  I pretty much gave up TV news after the election.  I was camping during the first debates and this week's debates I saw snippets of each night, as household chores and child's bedtime routines were more important (and without cable tv I couldn't have it on in the background, since they were on CNN).  Nor have I seen any of the candidates, though they come nearby all the time and many of my local friends have.  So, I haven't been too engaged in the process yet.

Back at the turn of the year, as announcements began, my favorite candidates were Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Gov. Jay Inslee.  I like her work as a Senator and felt her Midwest pragmatism was a good direction for the party to take in this election.  I like him because of his record in Washington state and his focus on climate change.  But neither of them has gained much traction in the effort so far.

When Mayor Pete first announced, I was pleased that an openly gay candidate was in the race, but didn't think a 37-year-old mid-sized city mayor was qualified or ready.  I went ahead and gave him money, as I had the other two just mentioned, because I felt some obligation to support the gay candidate.  Then, of course, he did take off, and I began to wonder if there is a possibility there.  I'm confident he'll be the nominee one day and may still be the VP candidate this time, but as yet I'm still not convinced he's the top choice.  Though if I don't have a particular favorite come time for me to vote, I may just vote for him anyway.

I wish Biden weren't running.  I was a good VP and should have retired with a secure legacy and functioned as a good elder statesman.  I've never really cared for him and have never understood those who thought he would have fared better than Hillary in 2016, because all empirical evidence, based upon his previous runs for president, was to the contrary.  

I also wish Bernie had declared victory, as he changed the national political discourse and many of his policies are now mainstream.  I wish he weren't running either.  I think he could be more effective working on legislation in the Senate.

After the first debate and based upon things I'd been reading, I was drawn to Sen. Kamala Harris as my top choice.  One analysis I read said that she has the chance to build the broadest coalition, as she is acceptable to folk in both the moderate and leftist wings, often as a second or third choice.  And I thought based upon her debate performance (which I also had some critical thoughts about) she could compete well with Trump.  Last night she did not convey the same confidence, so I'm on the hunt again.

I've liked Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Senate but haven't been sure I want her as President.  But she's been running a very good campaign, and I'm more open to her as the candidate than I was a few months ago.

So, that's where I currently stand.


A Thousand Small Sanities

A Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of LiberalismA Thousand Small Sanities: The Moral Adventure of Liberalism by Adam Gopnik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Gopnik offers a robust defense of the liberal worldview as the great human moral adventure. He writes, "Whenever we look at how the big problems got solved, it was rarely a big idea that solved them. It was the intercession of a thousand small sanities. A thousand small sanities are usually wiser than one big idea."

Liberalism he defines as "an evolving political practice that makes the case for the necessity and possibility of (imperfectly) egalitarian social reform and ever greater (if not absolute) tolerance of human difference through reasoned and (mostly) unimpeded conversation, demonstration, and debate." He admits this is an unwiedly description, but that's how liberalism works. It cannot be easily contained within slogans and catchphrases.

Liberalism emerges out of humanism, and Gopnik argues that humanism continues to come before liberalism. The movement begins with Montaigne's critical self-examination and willing to try out new ideas. It develops through modern efforts to eliminate cruelty.

What Gopnik does is not present simply the ideas of major thinkers, but he describes the lives of various figures, with John Stuart and Harriet Taylor Mill as his paradigm examples. For he believes that liberalism is a way of life more than a set of ideas and that we learn about it by learning about the lives shaped by it.

I found the ideas he advances to be Mill as filtered through Karl Popper and updated by Richard Rorty. This despite Popper rarely appearing explicitly in the book (though his defenses of the open society and scientific thinking do) and Rorty is only mentioned once in the bibliography (though his spirit and themes are throughout the book).

Gopnik refines his presentation of liberalism by contrasting it with both the Right and the Left. In each case, he looks for the best examples of each (Charles DeGaulle and Emma Goldman) instead of arguing against straw persons. And he shows how liberalism has learned from both movements and also contributed to them.

I very much appreciated the chapter contrasting liberalism with the Left, as it helps to clarify tensions I have felt professionally and personally in recent years as different approaches to Trumpism and other issues have emerged. In this chapter he tackles many current topics including free speech, religious tolerance, pronouns, etc.

Note: Gopnik argues that Liberalism is NOT centrism, which is its own movement. A chapter contrasting the two would have been helpful. It is interesting to note that David Brooks's column from last week mentioned this book and is why I ordered and read it.

Overall, I recommend it. Now, what I'd like is for Amy Kittelstrom to moderate a discussion over liberalism with Gopnik and Marilynne Robinson (her recent article in the NY Review of Books sets up an alternative view of liberalism's origins) and then for the responder to be Wendell Berry.

View all my reviews

Robinson on Puritanism & Liberalism

Speaking of Liberalism, a fine essay by Marilynne Robinson defending the liberal history of Puritanism, along the way pointing out the illiberalism of the Lockian tradition.  

In a fun aside, she mentions that interpretation of Walt Whitman should begin with an understanding of Puritan theology.

The closing paragraph is fine; here are the final two:

Our heavily redacted history has meant the loss of many options. The idea of a good community, one whose members are happy in the fact of a general well-being, is not native to us, natural to us, possible for us—or so we are to believe. It is too far left. It is downright socialist. Hugh Peter [a Puritan divine] speaks in terms of practical enhancements, crowned roads to help prevent flooding, for example. He proposes that all advocates and attorneys should be paid by the public, that no one should be above the law. He proposes that artists and craftsmen of modest income should not be taxed. There is nothing sectarian in his list of reforms, assuming that most of us would be pleased to have improved infrastructure, equal justice before the law, a creative environment that acknowledges the social value of art.

We know our penal system is unfair and inhumane, that our treatment of immigrants threatens the ideal of a just nation. Why are we paralyzed in the face of these issues of freedom and humanity? Why are we alienated from a history that could help us find a deep root in liberality and shared and mutual happiness? Those who control the word “American” control the sense of the possible. Our public is far more liberal than our politics. Our politics must change if there is to be any future for representative democracy.

 


Brooks on the current kerfluffle and Liberalism

In a smart column that one wishes was a longer essay, David Brooks writes about the current debate in the Democratic party and how this is a debate over the future of liberalism.  An excerpt:

Liberalism loves sympathy, suspects rage and detests cruelty. Politics is inevitably a dialogue between partial truths. Compromise is a virtue, not a sign of cowardice. Moreover, means determine ends. If you win power through rhetorical violence, and by hating those who disagree, your regime will be angry and destructive. Liberalism arose out of the fact that political revolutions, while exciting at the outset, usually end up in brutality, dictatorship and blood. Working within the system is best.


River of No Return

A powerful essay by Ted Genoways (whose book This Blessed Earth I just finished reading) on the flooding in Nebraska this spring and how this demonstrates two failures--a failure to maintain our infrastructure and a failure to cope with climate change.  He lays the blame on the far right ideology of the GOP and Democrats ignoring the realities of rural life.  The essay is a moving portrayal of the damage done to Nebraska farmers.  


The Investigation

The other day the World-Herald had three good pieces of commentary on the Mueller investigation and the fallout.

There was a piece by Marc Thiessen called "The Trump-Russia Collusion Hall of Shame."   It quite rightly (though with charged language) asked about all those politicians and former intelligence officials who promised us that there was evidence of collusion that was yet to be made public.

Another piece was by Mona Charen, a conservative who has not yet jumped on the Trump bandwagon.  Her column was entitled "Mueller did the Right Thing." Her criticisms were leveled against the President and his cohort for their attacks on the investigation all along and how they ended up being wrong.  Her conclusion, "Honorable people did the right thing. Politics did not taint a criminal investigation. But that reality is buried under an avalanche of bad faith."

The final piece wasn't a national columnist but a local piece by former Senator Bob Kerrey in which he asked "How did Department of Justice get the Trump-Russia investigation so wrong?" It was interesting and refreshing to read a Democratic leader so critical.  He wants a non-partisan commission to investigate this whole sordid episode, "Our democracy will survive the hostility of Vladimir Putin. What it may not survive is distrust of our system of justice. At the moment that distrust is deep and wide. We need a nonpartisan national commission to tell us what has just happened and to advise us on what we need to do to keep it from happening again."