“Populism”?

Here is a definition of populism:

  • S: (n) populism (the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with the privileged elite). [From wordnet via Princeton U.]

Given this definition, I can see why more than a few people might find the word almost useless with regard to the victory of Trump’s campaign.

First, Trump is of the privileged elite, obviously, and second, he wallows in this status in front of his followers.  Why the working-class sector of his followers celebrate his elitism has answers in studies of psychology, racism, misogyny, White Supremacy, mass media, and American history.   Second, perhaps they also truly believe he will represent and support their “struggle with the privileged elite; if so, then Pseudocracy did indeed triumph in this election.  Online, I’ve seen the term “drain the swamp” used by his supporters.  It is of course mostly an empty signifier, ready to be deployed in the service of blind rage and cultivated ignorance.  But even if we agree that it can refer to replacing elite insiders in government with commoners, it remains preposterous.  Most of Trump’s announced appointees seem to have spent a lot of time in the swamp.

I wonder if it’s also likely that Trumpster populism is actually anti-populism, a reaction against the demographic shifts in “the populace” that are making it less White, less Christian.  Trump’s loss of the popular vote may support this conjecture, and at any rate, the loss is certainly ironically counter-populists.  Trump’s obvious taste for authoritarianism and bullying help the irony to spike.

At the moment, I don’t see any effective means for opposing Trump’s anti-populist scheme to pimp the rage that springs from angry ignorance and ignorant anger. For one thing, his anti-populism relies on a disdain for facts, hallucinations induced by slogans (“Lock her up!”), and a depraved indifference to sensible solutions.  A cult-leader, Trump will probably not have to face any serious consequences for failing miserably to address material conditions unfavorable to those not wealthy, those not elite, and he will continue to benefit from expressed, livid opposition to parts of the populace that struggle mightily: many immigrants, many African Americans, many LGBTQ persons, many Muslims, and many women.

All Politics Are (Not) Local

Herein the blog asserts that Governor Chris Christie’s journey from New Jersey (where he is caught in the consequences of using the other kind of bully-pulpit to bully politicians who didn’t support him) to Las Vegas, where he must kiss the ring of a GOP Mega-Funder, is emblematic of the pseudocracy.

Such is the pseudocracy that ancient adages may be threatened.  Probably the adage, “You can’t beat something with nothing,” remains reliable, although didn’t John Ashcroft lose to a dead person in Missouri? Oh, well: the exception that tests the rule.

The blog believes (here I imitate Bill O’Reilly: “The Factor believes . . .”) that the adage “all politics is [are] local” is endangered. True, Chris Christie has his eye on the White House, so it is expected that he would suck up to a national Mega-Funder. That said, Mega-Funders such as the Koch Brothers pour money into House elections, flooding Congressional districts, and those elections frequently feature state officials wishing to climb, but they don’t climb based on how they brought farm-money home; they run on how well they conform to a nationalized Tea Party formula.

Moreover, the “issues” seem increasingly national. That is, if you associate with or want to please the Tea Party, you must be rabid about the budget in a Tea Party sort of way, viciously anti-Obama (not merely anti-Democratic), nativist, Randian, and NRA-friendly. You must, essentially, run on the implied promise of getting nothing done. “I will do nothing about immigration. I will do nothing about health-care, except oppose ways to deliver it. I will not work on the budget. I will work against it. I will not soil my hands with policy. I will vote regularly on symbolic ‘legislation.’ I will make government not work.”

And the idea of a New Jersey Governor flying to Vegas–Vegas: how perfect is that?–to perform for cash somehow captures what the Citizens United decision not so much did to politics in the U.S. but what it completed. The coup de grace.

Of course, candidates in both Parties must suck up to Big Funders, although it must be said that one way Obama and Democrats fought back against oligarchical money was to raise money online from “small” donors–three bucks a pop, even. Nonetheless, the Dems have their bundlers and Mega-Donors. In this sense, it is a one-Party system.

And even the online appeals to small donors have a national character, so that (for example) if a citizen gave money to Obama’s campaign, he or she will be asked every day to contribute to election-campaigns in a wide variety of states and Congressional districts, however far-flung.

There may come a time when Democratic candidates must fit themselves to a constrictive mold. For the moment, it seems as if only the GOP is functioning that way, so that experienced politicians (like Dick Lugar) get undercut by primary-challengers who have agreed to shape themselves according to assembly-line specifications. Model Tea Party.

Christie is in trouble because of painfully provincial, local, and stupid politics. Shutting down a bridge? Really? But he hopes to escape by doing a pole-dance (block that image) in our real national capital, Vegas. Viva, Chris Christie!

Meanwhile, the blog sentimentally longs for the old days of moderately corrupt pork-barreling, when at least we could count on incumbents to bring home money for roads, bridges, and buildings, and thereby (wait for it) put people to work. What a quaint idea. Horse-and-buggy thinking. Dear Blog: Grow up! Way too local and pragmatic for the pseudocracy, which, like our data, lives in a Cloud and cannot, must not, concern itself with what might be productive for a state, a district, a county, a city, or some people.

All politics are vaporously national. Does the assertion hold up? The Blog must ask some political scientists.

The GOP Adjustment as Rhetorical Problem

Adapt or wither: that seems to be one major piece of advice the GOP is receiving. However, I did hear at least one “progressive” radio-host advise, “Please don’t adapt!”

Adapt to what? Allegedly, changing demographics, contrary attitudes toward some social issues, and the perception that the GOP chiefly represents “wealthy interests.”

If the problem(s) were seen in rhetorical, not strictly political terms, I might advise the following:

1. Define the “immigration problem” as “an immigration problem”–not as a problem of race and not as a threat to “culture.” If you think immigration-processes should be more orderly and consistent, then work with Democrats to make them so. Or don’t adapt and keep making the issue more about race and culture, and keep intimating that Latinos are “taking our jobs.”

2. Don’t swallow this business about “a changing America” whole. African Americans have made up 10-12 % of the population for a very long time. This isn’t a change. They vote largely Democratic because you, GOP, have basically pushed them to do so and because you have treated the first Black president like dirt. You can still play traditional rough politics and treat him with respect.

And if I were you, I’d have somebody confess that the Southern Strategy has always been about race, and I’d have the official confessor apologize.

3. When it comes to politics and governing, stop defining “gay marriage” as a religious issue. Treat it as a religious issue in your respective religions. If your church doesn’t want to host gay marriages, then it need not do so, obviously. But otherwise marriage is a civil matter, even if some couples–gay and straight–behave uncivilly after they get married. The U.S. isn’t a theocracy. I’ve met Tea Party people who agree with me on this, by the way.

4. Stop running the trickle-down con. People are catching on that’s it complete economic bullshit. More than that, there’s concrete evidence from Clinton’s 8 years that modestly raising taxes on the wealthiest helped the economy without hurting (as if!) the wealthy. Romney tried to run the Reagan con again, and enough people didn’t go for it (apparently) for you/him to win. It’s a pathos-move that’s quit working, and it never made logos-sense.

5. Look, we all know all politicians have to be data-deniers sometimes. Politicians lie. They deceive. But when it comes to data about evolution, global warming, dirty water, dirty air, and running out of fossil fuels, you all need to grow up.

6. When both you and the Democrats discuss budgetary issues and government-intrusion issues, you have to stop pretending the military is beyond enormous. It’s a data-thing. Empiricism.

7. If the question of abortion were as simple as you want to make it, a lot more people would agree with you now. If the question weren’t in large measure about women and their right to control what happens to their bodies, a lot more people would agree with you know. If you really want fewer abortions, support education and contraception. Or: don’t adapt.

Or–don’t adapt, as your progressive “friend” suggested.

David Brooks’ Faulty Reasoning About Why the GOP Lost

I give David Brooks credit. In looking for reasons why the GOP had a bad night, he’s not being as shameless as Karl Rove. I know that’s faint praise. The long-con-artist Rove is blaming a storm for his failure to deliver what billionaires paid him for. Here is Brooks’ take:

Growing beyond proper limits, government saps initiative, sucks resources, breeds a sense of entitlement and imposes a stifling uniformity on the diverse webs of local activity.

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government.

These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience.

But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising.

More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government = less vitality.

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

* * *

As it happens, I’m an expert on part of what he says. I grew up “on the frontier”–in a High Sierra town of 200, once a Gold Rush town. And, culturally, part of me came from Sweden but that part was atheist, not Protestant. Also, I saw what the GI bill did for one of my uncles, who flew mission in a Flying Fortress. It allowed him to go to a state college and get a teaching degree. He taught and coached for the next 30+ years but never gave up on the “frontier” stuff like hunting, fishing, building your own cabin, and panning for gold.

My uncle’s values were not, in fact, different from those described in the Pew poll concerning these alleged “people from elsewhere.”

Everybody in the U.S. is from elsewhere, and why begin history with Protestant colonialists? Why not start it with the slaves who were brought here in 1619? Or the Spaniards out on that frontier? Or the French in the bayous? And so on? And why not mention that many of the early members of the federal and state governments owned slaved? That’s the ultimate “government intrusion” and extreme “attitude toward authority.”

So I assert that Brooks’ argument is based on a false, White-centered, nostalgic view of history. I also assert that the GOP had a bad night (but only narrowly, let us remember) because it has been begging for one. Look who speaks for them mostly loudly, hear how much hate is in the speech, and see how weird the stances are: abortion banned even in cases of rape; denying global warming; claiming “trickle down” economics is anything more than a long-con (70%+ of economic growth is driven by consumer–middle class spending, not by how much dough rich people get to keep); wanting government to intrude on two adults’ decision to spend their lives together (what’s more “American” than that?); and treating the first Black president like a you-know-what.

I also assert Brooks’ argument hinges on a false dichotomy: either government helps the economy or private enterprise does. They both do, and they both must. If these “new people from elsewhere” don’t work with the same fallacy as Brooks does, it may simply mean they are reasonable. Government can raise the taxes or sell the bonds necessary to build schools, bridges, sea-wall, an electric grid, and so on. Who does the work? Private contractors. So enough of that dodge, please.

If government has grown beyond proper limits, then why not question the proper limits of the defense budget, which is the most out of whack part of our budget when compared to all other countries?

Is a national health insurance program–operated by private insurance companies–and improper intrusion of government, or just something my practical uncle would see as necessary?

Barack Obama as Big Government Lefty is one of the larger straw men the GOP has built. On what issues is President Obama to the Left of Eisenhower or Truman?

I think the GOP decided to see how far right it could go on a range of issues, and so it went too far. I think it decided long ago to be a White party. Lindsay Graham has admitted as much, and we all know about the Southern Strategy, which is race-based. That’s the short version. There’s more to it than that, but it isn’t the more that Brooks cites.

Romney and Rhetoric

By now we all know about Mr. Romney’s latest gaff (offering a scathing critique of 47% of Americans for being lazy and indulging in victimhood, etc.)

Rhetorically, R was doing what rhetors are invited to do: tailor his remarks to his audience (in this case, very rich people–being served by waiters who may be among the 47%?) Alas, our audiences are always multiple now, and so: oops.

An ethical question for all writers and speakers is . . . at what point does the tailoring violate one’s own sense of right and wrong, true and false? That is, Aristotle did not propose that speakers and writers just lie, baby. I don’t mean the following unkindly, but I find with Romney, it is more difficult to ascertain what he really believes about right, wrong, true, and false. To some degree, the same could be said of almost all politicians, but I think Romney is a special case. Often he seems to me to be like a salesperson who is willing to say anything to get the sale.

I have no idea whether President Obama and former president Clinton are better people than Romney. How could I? I do know that they are much more nuanced and deft in their negotiation of multiple audiences than he is. If he loses the election, much will be said about he causes and correlatives. Perhaps it will be the case that inflexible, awkward rhetoric will be among these.

Werbung über Alles

I don’t have too much to add to Wild Bill’s analysis of recent statements summarizing the business of a college’s board of trustees. Before I add my not-much, I will acknowledge that it is probably to the credit of academic freedom that Wild Bill and I may critically analyze such statements without being fired–yet. Also, as I was in on the ground floor of this blog, I know neither of us thought that the university’s use of language would be a primary (or secondary or tertiary) object of analysis.

But, as Wild Bill implies, when a university is this unabashed about “branding”–and when there are consultants out there who help universities and colleges “brand” shows that “branding” is a (the?) trend–it stands to reason that a blog about politics and language and Orwellian concerns would be tempted to weigh in, especially when the bloggers work at the institution.

The not-much I have to add is mostly an echo: when what seems like the main business of a trustees’ meeting is to discuss advertising, and when the statements about advertising (“branding”) mention the university’s “values,” the irony really is too rich. Similarly, when a college builds new dorms (residence halls)–as many have these days–and then creates programs to induce students to keep living on campus and then attempts to link this strategy to “values,” without admitting that the dorms pay for themselves and that more students on campus means more dollars in the coffers, then the stuff about values, once again, becomes suspect.

I would also add that if the university–any university or college–really wanted to play this corporate-advertising game, it would get more hard-headed about competing in “the market.” The problem is that most small liberal arts colleges say the same things about themselves, more or less. While they’re saying the same things, more or less, they will also claim how distinctive they are. I’ve said and written as much to people at the university, and I even had a business professor tell me I was on the right track. (I was astonished.) Basically, he said that if you’ve been in business for a long time, to continue to thrive you have to buy up some competitors (not an option with colleges) or differentiate what you offer from what “they” offer.

So that even if elements of the rhetoric Wild Bill analyzed weren’t preposterous and even if the contrast between “values” and “branding” weren’t so embarrassing, the strategy itself would look bad. I think the university has fallen for another scam. Before it advertises (or brands) it should come up with some real stuff that makes it different from the hundreds of other small colleges and their “values” and claims to distinctiveness. To echo Al Davis, the late owner of the Oakland Raiders (who, by the way, have the most distinctive “brand” in the NFL), “Just be distinctive, baby.”

How? Well, it’s not up to me, but since you asked, if I were a liberal arts college, I’d stop pretending that getting a job isn’t important to graduating seniors and their families. Sure, sure, every college has an employment and career office, and they all do good work. But I’m talking about making employment something departments have to think about as they plan their curricula and something students have to start thinking about more seriously at least two years before they graduate. And I’d craft an argument for why “liberal arts” and gainful employment go hand in hand, rather than recycling old arguments about the liberal arts making you flexible. I’d dare to be practical, in other words.

I’d also hit the race-thing head on. Most liberal arts colleges are still lily-white. They makes some noise about diversity, but they don’t follow through very well–for a variety of reasons, including “branding,” I fear. Again, I’d go contrarian and make “my” college more diverse more quickly and be known for that, instead of hanging back with the white pack.

But my main point is that when you get into the “branding” game, the game of liberal arts may already be over, but if it isn’t over, you’d better have something to advertise that’s different from every other liberal arts college, or you’re going to get taken by another consultant.

New branding-strategies aren’t going to address the several crises threatening higher education in general and expensive, insular, and insulated liberal arts colleges in particular.

“Dinosauria, we,” as poet Charles Bukowski phrased a similar problem.

Thanks to Wild Bill for wading in first–and much more effectively.

Metaphors Matter: “Safety Net”

Today Mitt Romney is having to answer easy questions about the following quotation, taken from an interview he did with CNN:

“I’m in this race because I care about Americans. I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it.”

Facebook and other social (as opposed to anti-social) media are active with the quotation and comments about it.

Quickly, a few points on the matter:

1. It would be easy to ignore the statement before the quotation, but let’s not: “I’m in this race because I care about Americans.” I think journalists should now be authorized to say, in response to such statements, “Knock it off.” Why must we endure such empty statements from politicians? Romney’s is one of those non-statements that’s at once true (one assumes he cares about more than one American) and false (that’s not why he’s running for president, and even if it were, the statement would be as true of any other candidate as it would be of him–that is, Newt Gingrich probably cares about three Americans, at least.).

2. I maintain we should all thank candidates, not punish them, when they tell the truth, partly because it is the truth and thus a rarity and partly because we can be sure about who the person really is. So when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond in an obviously racist way, he was forced to resign his leadership, as if we didn’t already know he was racist? Everyone should have said “thanks for telling the truth” and then gotten to the business of asking why the GOP is, in important ways, still the party of Dixiecrats. That is the problem, not Lott’s truth-telling. Of course Romeny doesn’t care about the poor.

3. The matter of the “safety net.” It’s an absurd metaphor, and yet candidates still get away with saying it. A safety net is used in the circus for acrobats and in construction for workers who toil at heights. It’s there “in case.” Programs like unemployment benefits and food-stamp distribution are in place because of deeper structural reasons; it’s not as if most people stumble accidentally into poverty. Education, ethnicity, gender, the “global” economy, the famous “business cycle,” and other structural issues have enormous bearing. By referring to the in-apt “safety net,” candidates are allowed not to talk about the deeper issues. I recall that “safety net” was a favorite metaphor of Reagan’s, as was “trickle down,” about which this blog has opined. The short version is that getting trickled upon, especially (but not exclusively) in matters of economics cannot be a good thing.

OF COURSE Romney doesn’t care about the poor. How many politicians do? How many presidents got elected by emphasizing how much they care about the poor?

Coda: If he believes the very wealthy are just fine, then why is he opposed to taxing them a bit more so as to remedy the deficit and to be able to inject cash into highway-projects and the like? Oh, journalists, please ask such questions.

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