Against Obstruction

Against Obstruction

Just a few days after the election, the Left is already splitting into two camps: those who call for total obstruction of GOP congress, a-la Mitch McConnell in 2009, and those who find such tactic counterproductive. I’m in the latter camp. There are several reasons.

First, Democrats right now have a very weak electoral standing: we lost the control of government on all levels: local, state and national. Such power vacuum will deprive us of levers we need to execute a sound resistance strategy.

Second, the dynamic of modern-day US politics is such that the public treatment of left obstruction is different than the treatment of right obstruction. Right obstruction is viewed by the public as more legitimate and worthy of sympathy than similar attempts coming from the left. There are many reasons for that, fair and unfair, and we can complain about them, but that is the reality.

Third, Democratic weakness is out there in the open and everyone knows it. So any attempt at flexing muscle is laughable at this point. It’s like trying to bluff your opponent off a hand with nothing, when everyone at the table knows you don’t have a hand. However righteous your impulses might be right now, it’s not a noble fight of David vs Goliath. David, in our case, is weak, disoriented and without a weapon. And Goliath knows it.

Fourth, Chuck Schumer, who would technically lead the rebellion, would no doubt be a subject of anti-Semitic attacks, subtle or not-so-subtle, if not from Trump, then from his base. Those attacks will likely succeed at reaffirming Trump’s base suspicion that there’s some sort of international cabal that prevents him from bringing jobs back to Ohio, given the current Zeitgeist. Trump knows how to play this game of innuendos perfectly.

Fifth, if and when Trump encounters problems with his agenda, he won’t be able to blame it on Democratic minority. We should not let him have a ready scapegoat. He won, he should show us all what he’s got. It’s his party now. We should not give him reasons to point fingers. If he wants to point fingers it should be at his own Congress and Paul Ryan, not the Democrats.

You have to know when to fold’em, folks, and now is the time. There will be a better time to push forward, but it’s not today.

The Annihilation

It is painful. We didn’t just lose. We got annihilated. In a matter of hours the whole political map of the US got upended in an unprecedented manner. No chattering classes saw it coming. I was nervous about Hillary’s chances, but even I tried to mask my uncertainty with optimism that was now proved unfounded. I saw more Trump signs in PA and dismissed this as unscientific because polls said otherwise. Polls showed Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin as solidly blue states. Because now we know that they are not, Democrats don’t have a safe starting point to the White House anymore. Those white folks in the rust belt won’t change their opinion in time for 2020 election. Now they’re in Trump camp. Aside from that, Hispanics didn’t carry over FL and NC and AZ for Dems, as we hoped.

This data from the Rust belt and Sunbelt states is significant in another way. It shows a wave of white voters voting with an intensity of a minority group, because this is how they see themselves now – a disenfranchised minority. If this pattern holds, then the emerging Democratic majority that everyone was talking about is not about to happen anytime soon. There simply won’t be enough Hispanics and Blacks to counterweigh the strength in the white turnout. GOP, in their 2012 autopsy wanted to reach out to Hispanics. This election showed that they don’t really have to do it just yet, if they energize the whites. And they will milk it for years to come.

And the women vote, that was the most painful. 53 percent of women voted for Trump, vs 43 percent for Clinton. Rage at the establishment exceeded concerns about his character. People knew who he is and still voted for him. It’s a one big middle finger to the elites.

It’s over, folks. It’s not the country we thought it was. The gravitational center of the country is, whether we like it or not, is white nationalism. The US liberals are in a wilderness for some time. Protests at this stage are pointless – what are you objecting, the will of the people? Trump hasn’t done anything yet. Protesting now is counterproductive. Today, we sit tight, and let him go ahead with his agenda (yes, I know, SCOTUS and ACA are gone.) It’s sad but true. But in the meantime, we can work quietly to improve our standings down-ballot: redistricting, local elections, governorships. I wonder if those protesting today are prepared for that kind of unglamorous grind.

Final Push in PA

Canvassed in PA again this weekend. A lot of Trump/Pence signs, but a lot of quiet Hillary voters too, who prefer not to display their allegiances in their yards. If there is a quiet majority out there, as Trump hopes, there’s one and it’s not going to vote for him. Tomorrow I’m going to PA for the final push to Get Out the Vote.

Whatever happens tomorrow, I’ll know I did my part.

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The Difference Between GOP and Dem Ground Game Philosophy

canvassing-for-hillaryThere’s a psychological difference in how Republicans and Democrats approach grassroots organizing. You can sense a near disgust in Republican circles when a word ‘community’ or ‘organizing’ is even mentioned. Yet, this is what wins elections these days.

Koch brothers had a rude awakening the last time around, in 2012, when they spend many millions on air campaigns for Romney and got nothing to show for it.

I think a big reason for the inadequacy of GOP ground game infrastructure can be found in a scam-like nature of the entire GOP voter interaction. It started back in the 1980s with Lee Atwater and his mailing lists that were used less for political purposes and more for scamming those voters, mostly old and scared, out of a few bucks. I mean who else would buy Ann Coulter books and gold coins if not a retiree who’s been told, for years, to be afraid. He’s been conditioned and groomed to become a perfect customer, not a perfect voter.

But there’s a deeper damage to the GOP electoral efforts that has the same origins as the direct mail scams. Yes, they will buy the books and herbal cures, yes they will go and vote, but they will not be engaged with the civic, communal life on a deeper level, because such involvement implies volunteering, doing things for free – a notion that short-circuits the business-oriented mind of an average GOP voter. The side effect of this meritocratic, ‘no free lunch’ mindset is that civic life – an activity that you’re not compensated for – is considered a waste of time. Thus Republican volunteers expect to get paid for knocking on doors and expect to get paid for the number of calls they make while phone banking. They’re incentivized the same way as the hapless low-level Wells Fargo employees were incentivized to open phantom bank accounts: the result looks good on paper, but the end-goal – having real customers with real accounts, or in this case, bringing people out to vote – is not achieved. But, hey, everybody got paid in the process! The suits got their millions of consulting fees and the rank-and-file got their $50 for a hundred phone calls. With such a mindset, that treats the civic life as a business, the final result – winning elections – becomes secondary to fattening your bottom line.

Democrats – and I witnessed it firsthand many times – don’t think like this. There are armies of unpaid volunteers who will not miss a door and will call the same number again and again until they get an answer simply because they are not doing it for money. They are doing it for the end result – winning.

Thoughts on Trump and the Elections.

If Trump wasn’t for real, this whole electoral charade would be a magnificent, devastating, masterclass artistic performance. Lose or win, on November 8th, he could’ve given a speech for the ages along the lines of: “Behold how close an unscrupulous buffoon like me can come to running this country. There! Scary? You’re welcome,” and recede from public view never to be seen again. This simple move would secure him the kind of recognition, in the annals of history, that he so desperately seeks – a statesman of the troubled Republic, a bloodletting nurse to the feverish GOP.

It’s unfortunate that he won’t. While a performer by inclination and trade he lacks the artistic message. With Trump there’s no purpose to the show, just the show itself. Even if he wins, he acknowledged that his VP Pence will be running the country. So it’s not like he even wants to do the job; it’s not like he wants to tell us something with this performance. He simply wants to be known as someone who was able to get the job, who ‘won.’ Like in WWE, he doesn’t want to land a devastating punch, he wants to be seen landing a devastating punch.

Which, perhaps, is all there is to him. So with Trump’s presidency we’ll essentially be getting Mike Pence’s presidency, as Trump views his task as solely to #MAGA. That is the scary part. Trump’s various policy ‘whisperers’ who have to tip-toe around his ego to sell him standard GOP policies, can never be sure whether he ‘got’ their drift or not. With Pence there will be no such doubt. We’ll get the Ryan budget, the Scalia-like SCOTUS nominee, we’ll have Larry Kudlow as Treasury secretary and perma-giggling Stephen Moore of The Heritage foundation (I never saw him NOT smiling while discussing his right-wing economics on TV. Wonder why) as his chief economist.

But with an egomaniac like Trump, I doubt we’ll get the repeat of a Bush/Cheney presidential dynamic. While Pence and Co. will want to quietly do their thing, Trump will keep fucking things up that will inadvertently sabotage the smooth running of the GOP fleece machine. With such a short fuse and thin skin he will overstep his executive authority in a matter of months of not days; the matter will end up in the Supreme Court which will rule against him; he will refuse to comply, triggering the constitutional crisis. And at that point, seriously, who the fuck will care about ‘growth’ and tax cuts?

While I’m growing concerned with the tight race I still think it won’t come to this, barring a late-October force-majeur. I canvassed for Hillary in Easter PA with a couple of comrades last Saturday and found this rust-belt area surprisingly anti-Trump. Without PA Trump can’t win. But still what a sad commentary on the state of the republic that has no defense mechanism in place to prevent another dangerous demagogue from winning, if not now then a few years down the road. I guess we’re gonna have to get used to holding our collective breath every four years.

Thoughts on Hillary, Bernie and Trump

It’s been awhile since I wrote about US politics. The thing is I was torn between Bernie and Hillary, and I wanted to analyze this juxtaposition of Bernie’s idealism vs. Hillary’s practicality. I don’t think it’s an either/or proposition.

Many on the left see the problem with Hillary is that she oozes Establishment. We are usually presented with a list of ‘crimes’ that her husband and, by association, she have committed in the 1990s. Bill Clinton passed a series of bills that made an emphasis on personal responsibility while at the same time weakened the call of duty to the larger, more socially and economically influential entities, like business and government. But the thing is we were all neoliberals in the 1990s. We all thought that we have arrived at the ‘end of history’ where liberal democracy and the invisible hand of free markets will guide the humanity till the end of times. This is what we were taught in the universities and business schools. I haven’t heard of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn until I was about two years into my financial industry career. (I don’t remember how I came across those.) And even then I thought that things couldn’t be as bad as they describe it. How the hell was I supposed to discern that what I was taught was an economic fairy-tale concocted by Reagan voodoo whisperers with a self-serving ends? If the world’s leading intellectuals are wrong, what’s to expect from the little guy? I, too, like Clinton and Fukuyama and a horde of neoliberal intellectuals, from Larry Summers to Art Laffer, thought that this is it. This is where we end up. I, too, thought that all you have to do to succeed in life is work hard and then expect everything else to magically fall into place, like they said. I was sincere in my belief. The reason I’m describing my neoliberal background is to demonstrate that it is possible to acknowledge your past mistakes when you are presented with the new evidence. I’ve done it, therefore it would be disingenuous of me to deny the same benefit of the doubt to the Clintons. I think today Bill regrets signing the Crime Bill and Welfare Reform and the loosening of financial regulations. But let’s remember that back in the 1990s all those laws seemed like a good policy in line with the prevailing economic dogma. I think Hillary understands all of that, which is why she shifted left on many issues. But she can’t do a full Bernie without being accused of being an opportunist. Is there even a room, in our current political process, to allow a politician to change his or her mind?

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Our Cult of the Underdog.

In a modern-day America, a good modest origins story is as necessary an attribute of a public figure’s self-identity as a Birkin bag is a necessary attribute of an Upper East Side trophy wife. As political season heats up and the candidates elbow each other to ingratiate themselves with the little guy, we should ready ourselves for the bi-annual onslaught of personal hardship stories. But come to think of it, the underdog story is a permanent American staple, election season or not.

Election year, however, offers a great insight into the power of such narrative, where political candidates, most of whom were born to uninspiring circumstances ranging from middle-class families to political dynasties, compete for ‘the shittiest childhood’ spot. There’s a problem there, as the candidates, raised in the postwar, economically prosperous America weren’t exactly subjects to a Great Depression or a WWII level upheaval. Here, lacking a true personal hardship story, they pivot to the story of their immigrant parents and grandparents, as if the suffering of ancestors is somehow a proof of one’s own hard life. How was it hard? Was he a barefoot 12-year old forced to work in a coalmine to feed his family? On genetic level? Damn, if only one could buy a crappy childhood!

To admit privilege, to admit the possession of power or influence, is to put oneself into a weaker argumentative position and to invite criticism. The privileged know this even if on merely subconscious level – they never miss a chance to tell a self-deprecating story. This strategy kills many birds with one stone, it deflects the critics and endears the narrator to an economically struggling audience.

In real life we’ve all met manifestations of such underdog mindset when we heard a successful person boast about how hard he worked to get where he is (usually a soapy immigrant story), and then, without missing a beat, complain about how it’s tough to live in a world where his tax dollars support all kinds of riff-raff. You see the trick here? While he’s eager to convey his success story he’s careful to mask it in a certain degree of martyrdom.

Positioning oneself as an underdog is a low-risk, high-reward strategy. Kim Davis, a Kentucky public official who refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples knows this. Her ostensible underdog bona fides, validated by the stint in jail, were cemented at the moment of her release, in a surreal but too delicious to watch spectacle. The visuals of the event – the Eye of the Tiger soundtrack, the politicians jockeying to insert themselves into a photo-op with a bunch of country bumpkins, the crosses, the main character’s triumphant posture, arms in the air, akin to a pastor about to deliver a sermon to her flock, her husband in denim overalls and the scarecrow hat – were just too awesome. A fiction writer would kill to conceive and write a scene like this. But the scene was real and unscripted and thus powerful – there was no hint of irony in the entire show. Clearly, Kim Davis fancies herself to be a scrappy Rocky Balboa defeating, in an uneven and bloody fight, an all-powerful Ivan Drago. And that gives her power. She would not have that power if she merely performed her governmental duties, because a government official cannot be an underdog. What’s also interesting here is that one doesn’t even have to put up any sort of a real fight to achieve the accolades. These days one can achieve the glory of David fighting Goliath, without doing all the work. You don’t have to defeat the Goliath, you just have to bait him, make yourself into an underdog and take a stand, and next thing you know there are TV cameras and politicians and a cult following. Whether you’re in her camp or not you watched that scene in awe. The genius of that scene is undeniable. It could not have been conceived and executed as preplanned. It was a sporadic, organic display delivered in the most dramatic fashion to the hungry, rapturous audience. Somewhere, Karl Rove is biting his nails in envy.

As much as this Kim Davis’s kind of underdoggery is entertaining and attention-drawing, it can’t do much harm. 6 months from now we won’t even remember who Kim Davis was, like we don’t remember the outrage surrounding Rachel Dolezal a few months back.

It is the low-profile underdogs that worry me. It is the true elites with power, pretending to have none, that can do real harm. The greatest cache of low-profile underdogs can be found on Wall Street or among the billionaire ranks. I would argue that, among these elites, a quest for a personal narrative is as strong a motivator as monetary rewards. A smart billionaire with politics and a gospel to spread knows that denial of power is a power in itself. Acknowledgment of being in privileged position, of possessing power, would then require some kind of stewardship, a responsibility. But denial of power frees one from responsibilities. What kind of stewardship and responsibility can we expect from the majority of Wall Street players and hedgies who, with multi-million dollar paychecks, with an army of lobbyists, with a direct line to and an ear of lawmakers, still insist on describing themselves as ‘scrappy kids from Brooklyn’ – a tired metaphor, sure, but still a dominant sentiment among the finance crowd, doggedly resistant to self-reflection?

Such resistance – to the acknowledgement of one’s membership in a power elite – reveals a deep desire to be free from responsibility, to remain a child in essence, to be an immanent, passive participant, who merely reacts to events unfolding before him. Again and again, in the aftermath of the crisis, we heard one bigwig after another, defend themselves with “I didn’t know nothing” and “beyond my control” fables. They knew that to be in charge is to be accountable. To be perceived as a winner, to be transcendent, is to invite all kinds of unwelcome scrutiny. But when you’re an underdog you can use it as a shield from critics and a niche from which to attack others. Folksiness and bootstraps stories are immune from attacks by nosy journalists and Vox.com eggheads. It’s a smart positioning. One has to be a Trump to revel in the spotlight and the “winning.” But Trump has a rare quality of not giving a fuck, unlike many self-conscious “winners” on Wall Street, who feign modesty and shroud themselves in ‘poor me’ stories. Is it any wonder then, that the public, correctly, perceives them as the biggest douchebags?