Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Now is the summer (and fall) of our discontent

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Cedar Rapids

As a political scientist based in the first-in-the-nation caucus state of Iowa, I have a front row seat at the races for the Republican and Democratic presidential nominations. This should be exciting, particularly since both the putative front runners, former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are notably under-performing, such that the eventual outcome is more in doubt than ever. Many people are excited, and expect me to be excited. In fact, I am finding the campaigns to be rather painful.



Ben Carson campaigns in Washington, Iowa



I want you to know that I feel guilty about this. For one thing, there are plenty of political scientists across this great land of ours who would love to be in Iowa during caucus season, and could take great advantage of it, although they would mostly be eating the dust of Iowa State's renowned Dr. Politics. I realize I am taking up valuable space, while my sensitive nature would be better off in a more electorally quiet place, such as Guam.
Note the bench in the shade. Swiped from guam-online.com

I am wary of seeming disrespectful of my friends and students who are working on campaigns. I also am wary of showing a "too cool for school" attitude about politics. I am not too cool for school. I understand the necessity of politics for our common life, and certainly campaigns and elections are essential parts of that. I will participate in the caucus and in the general election, and I will care deeply about the outcome.

Martin O'Malley campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Still, the process is far from edifying. There is, to start with, a numbing sameness to the candidates' appeals. They begin with a more-or-less accurate synopsis of current problems, including stagnant wages, the immigration issue, educational outcomes, various international threats and (depending on the party) structural budget deficits or the environment. Then there's the calling out of the enemy: unions for Chris Christie and Mike Huckabee, the superrich for Bernie Sanders, or anyone else who doesn't understand "our" values. That makes us angry! and we have anecdotes that will make you angry, too! (Bobby Jindal's didn't even sound true.) Time out for some biography to establish solidarity between the candidate and us, for which a lot of candidates make jokes about raising children. Finally, what this country needs is a candidate who can overcome the nefarious efforts of the enemy and restore America to what it once was. Getting down to policy specifics, this means "the usual suspects" and talking points the parties have been respectively advocating for decades. I will give some credit to Rand Paul for articulating a libertarian ideology that differs in some respects from Republican orthodoxy, and to Bernie Sanders for putting unusual stress on labor issues (albeit that's a traditional Democratic constituency).

And everybody's angry. The candidates are angry, the audiences are angry. This is understandable. We do live in uncertain times, and real workable solutions to our problems are not readily available, particularly given the ideological stalemates in Congress. There's a story about the preacher's note to himself in the margin of his sermon: "Weak point--pound pulpit." And the partisan audiences at these events seem happiest when they're fed the soul-stirring reassurance of red meat. Lindsay Graham took a question at his event: "Defunding Planned Parenthood." That was not the subject of the question; that was the question. Here are my buttons--please push them. (Graham obliged by answering "yes," of course; the wise candidate notes that Planned Parenthood makes a lot of people angry.)
Lindsay Graham campaigns in Mt. Pleasant

Moreover, there's an unreality about the campaign rhetoric that I find off-putting. The candidates are not talking about the things that matter, or when they do their oversimplification verges on grotesque. Case in point: One of the best things about my year has been the emergence of a monthly chat in Cedar Rapids devoted to urban issues. We talk about transportation, housing developments, and locally-owned businesses. We don't talk about presidential politics, although not because we've intentionally forsworn it. My best answer to the question, "Based solely on the issues we discuss at the New Urbanism Working Group, who is the best candidate to support in 2016?" would be "Not applicable." Another highlight of 2015 were the presentations by Chuck Marohn in Iowa City and Ely. So let's ask: "Which candidate comes closest to the Strong Towns vision of 'an America where our cities, towns and neighborhoods are financially strong and resilient?'" My answer: "Not applicable."

Mike Huckabee campaigns in Iowa City

When a campaign's goals are merely to repeal the gains of the enemy and to restore what used to be back in the allegedly good old days, the candidates overlook ways in which the world has fundamentally changed: the nature of work and international trade, for instance, or our understandings of public health and the environment. Democrats are comfortable with government action but not with articulating trade-offs such as impacts on the budget or small businesses. Republicans are uncomfortable with government action on domestic problems, which requires them to deny the very existence of problems like climate change and unfair labor conditions. Four years ago The Economist observed:
As the Republican base has become ever more detached from the mainstream, its list of unconditional demands has become ever more stringent. Nowadays, a candidate must believe not just some but all of the following things: that abortion should be illegal in all cases; that gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it; that the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home; that the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame; that global warming is a conspiracy; that any form of gun control is unconstitutional; that any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk; that Israel can do no wrong and the “so-called Palestinians,” to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right; that the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished. ("The Right Republican," Economist, 31 December 2011, p. 7)
It certainly doesn't help this year's batch of candidates to have to pretend we live in an alternative universe, exacerbated by Donald Trump serving as the role model for candidates saying outlandish things in hopes of media attention.The Republicans' friends-or-enemies approach to foreign policy is if anything even loopier.
Bobby Jindal campaigns in Cedar Rapids

Finally none of the candidates I've seen have articulated a plausible vision for our common life. Three decades on, the campaigns are stuck in Ronald Reagan's America. Republicans rehash Reagan's homely vision of a better life for all based on people who are different from us behaving more like us. Bobby Jindal's harangue against "hyphenated Americans" is an extreme example of addressing diversity by denying its existence. [I wondered how that played at the Swedish American Museum in Swedesburg, Iowa, but then realized there is no hyphen in its name.] Democrats as well as some Republicans follow Reagan's tactic of promising benefits for us paid for by someone else (if not the magic of supply-side tax cuts, then it's higher taxes on the rich and/or cuts in someone else's benefits). Non-discrimination and access to economic opportunity are undeniably prerequisites to common life, but if we stop there we're still talking about Mary Ann Glendon's "lone rights-bearer." Who is articulating the idea that the good life requires other people, that the benefits of common life also require that we contribute to it, and authentic common life accommodates rather than denies diversity because, if nothing else, we've learned it's healthier than monoculture?
Rand Paul campaigns in Cedar Rapids

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