A Game Democrats Can’t Play

Democrats are at a disadvantage in a game where the other side casually, nonchalantly breaks the rules and doesn’t get punished. Such selective impunity is emblematic of how lopsided our current political discourse is. A Democrat gets punished for an unfortunate slip of tongue, a minor, inconsequential protocol violation where a Republican, no matter how badly compromised, can always count either on a loud, wide-eyed support or a quiet shrug of the shoulder. Democrats, true to their small-d democratic creed, with their commitment to equal representation, are obliged to feel and display compassion even to those who openly hate them. Hillary was forced to display contrition to those who chanted ‘Lock Her Up’, because she understood democratic norms all too well. Democrats, in their attempts to be and be seen as fair arbiters, are thus forced to be adults in the room. But by being adults they thus close many doors – tactical and strategic – that Republicans punch open with their foot without a second thought. As much as I would like them to, Democrats can’t be like McConnell if they ever find themselves in a position of a vacant SCOTUS seat and a majority. The paths that are open for Republicans are all but closed to the Democrats due to our different temperaments and understanding of the stakes involved. For the GOP that stakes are quick tactical victories; for Democrats the stakes are less tangible but more consequential: the democratic processes, the civic discourse, the health and survival of the Republic.

This is the reason why I don’t want to blame misogyny on Hillary’s loss. Republicans don’t have problems with women in power as long as those women are Republican. Hillary lost because she was a Democrat not because she was a woman. The only way where her being a woman came into play is that she respected the rules of the game. It’s a woman’s trait. Many women have tales where they ostensibly, religiously follow the rules in their own personal and professional lives, only to be outdone on the finish line by a freewheeling, smirking brat. But then the same is true of any democratic politician – the respect for norms, the adherence to the rules, appropriate consequences for transgressions. As a Democrat Hillary played by the established norms, by the old rules while the other side dispensed with civility while demanding civility from her. Hillary had no choice but to oblige. She had to cross the abyss on the thinnest of ropes, while her opponent was drunk driving a Camaro on the empty parking lot.

The first impulse would be to advise Democrats to start breaking the rules and norms the way GOP has been doing for decades. This is not a good idea if only because Democrats can never be as good at this game as the Republicans. We would get disgusted and get the foot off the gas pedal just at the time when the right-wing loud mouths are only getting into the groove. We police ourselves too well, given the swift outrage coming from our own ranks if one of us gets out of line.

I think what Democrats can do for now is to learn to mind the context. Bill Maher slip of tongue happen not because he’s a white supremacist who’s hiding under a civil mask, but because he wanted to make a point, however clumsy, in the service of a progressive cause. We have to learn to forgive our sinners the way Paul Ryan forgives Trump. Bill Maher, or any careless leftie’s words won’t deprive millions of people of their health care. Standing up for our own are just baby steps that must be taken before we can even come close to pulling the McConnellesque legislative coups.

However tempting it is to want to jump into the mud ring, I think we have to slug it out as the adults in the room. If we decide to finally employ to the same dirty tricks as the GOP has, we will end up like the eager party goers who were finally let into the nightclub at 4am only to find all the liquor has been drunk, all the fashionable crowd gone and DJ wrapping up the equipment. We can’t outclown the clowns. And by the time we decide to play dirty that game will become so old and tired that Republicans will decide to put their ‘sober statesman’ suits on and play a different game. We should not let them. We’re the fucking sober statesmen. That’s our turf.

Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.

 

Cruz’s Chutzpah And Trump’s Inadequacy

Between Christie and Cruz I always thought it was Christie who had the balls, Cruz being more of a Machiavellian calculating weasel. It’s amazing what a few days of GOP convention can do to my perceptions. I was totally wrong. Christie proved to have neither the balls nor the winning vision, selling his soul to Trump but getting nothing for it. Cruz, in addition to playing a smart, long game has also demonstrated an impressive chutzpah yesterday at the convention, in front of increasingly hostile crowd, when he refused to endorse Trump. He clearly positions himself for 2020 and I can’t say that he won’t have an advantage during the inevitable finger-pointing after Trump’s spectacular crash and burn.

Let me dwell a bit longer on the topic. Over the course of the last decades, that perhaps started with Bush II theatrical landing on an aircraft carrier in 2003, the displays of power, mostly on the right, have devolved into displays of unearned and misplaced masculinity. The less time a person has spent in or near the military or a physically dangerous situation, the more he will want to prove to a given audience his macho credentials. Thus modern day American understanding of toughness has two key elements, neither of which has anything to do with actual courage: it’s belligerence rooted in insecurity. To even further degrade the actual meaning of courage, that belligerence is not directed at someone who can respond in kind, but to a mere female political opponent, delivered to an already agreeable, and frenzy-whipped crowd. “Guilty or not guilty?” chanted Christie from RNC stage, in a mock (but in reality, real) witch trial of Hillary. “Guilty!” the crowd roared back, stroking Christie’s fantasy of being a righteous, brave warrior.

Indeed, even Trump, whose life quest seem to be about squashing people’s doubts about his fortune, victories – business or personal, his virility and his toughness, generally avoids situations, whether strategically or out of fear, where he can face an unfriendly audience. He wants to be friends with all the tough guys around the world and he veils it in the rhetoric of ‘making deals.’ The business world, and specifically the dog eat dog New York commercial real estate world, where Trump claims to have domineered, is a metaphorical war zone, littered with corpses of developers and builders. Trump has been killed there a long time ago and the only franchise that has kept his name in lights is, well, his name that he lent to new construction – a nice racket that, due to recent events, might soon come to an end. Trump is neither courageous, nor good at making deals, unless filing for a strategic bankruptcy or stiffing his contractors counts, in his world, as a ‘good deal.’ I imagine him negotiating the status of the Baltic States with Putin – itself an unimaginable scenario just a few months ago, before the American politics has been so distorted by his candidacy. The fact that, in his mind, this is even up to a negotiation, speaks of his inability to perceive of a situation that has no ground for deal-making, like, for example, when your daughter is harassed by a bully. In that scenario, that is becoming less and less hypothetical, the poor Baltic States will be a mere token for Trump’s thoughtless personal brand posturing. Trump’s tactic has never been to put himself on the spot, to risk his own money; it is Trump’s partners, the others, that traditionally have the exposure. Should he, God forbid, become President, his bag of tricks that worked so well for him in reality TV – a squint in the eye, a catch phrase, a limited roster of over-recycled adjectives (Amazing! Unbelievable! Tremendous!) – will fail to impress the more serious, less gullible counterparties. And the way out of the mess will be paid, like always, by someone else, a third party.

If Republicans Insist on Negotiations, This Time They Have to Pay.

There’s an interesting line of thought being tested in the blogosphere that alleges that Democrats actually have to negotiate with Republicans, but not in order to give them any sort of concessions, but on the contrary, to get something out of it, as Republicans are seeking for a face-saving way out. Peter Beinart thinks that it would be beneficial for Democrats to provide them with such a way out.

I couldn’t help but recall a great American short story by O. Henry, The Ransom of Red Chief, that deliciously describes exactly this sort of predicament. Two swindlers, short of $2000 for a business venture, devise a plan to kidnap a 10-yeat old son of a wealthy citizen. The kid thinks he’s an Indian Chief on a warpath and only welcomes this sort of development. The two hapless kidnappers didn’t account for such a turn of events, as the kid terrorizes them with violent games. As the boy’s father, the prominent Ebenezer Dorset, responds to kidnappers in a note, he’s fully aware of the predicament those guys got themselves into, and shrewdly demands a payment of $250 just to take the boy back.

The end of the story needs to be quoted in full:

It was just twelve o’clock when we knocked at Ebenezer’s front door. Just at the moment when I should have been abstracting the fifteen hundred dollars from the box under the tree, according to the original proposition, Bill was counting out two hundred and fifty dollars into Dorset’s hand.

When the kid found out we were going to leave him at home he started up a howl like a calliope and fastened himself as tight as a leech to Bill’s leg. His father peeled him away gradually, like a porous plaster.

     “How long can you hold him?” asks Bill.

“I’m not as strong as I used to be,” says old Dorset, “but I think I can promise you ten minutes.”

“Enough,” says Bill. “In ten minutes I shall cross the Central, Southern and Middle Western States, and be legging it trippingly for the Canadian border.”

And, as dark as it was, and as fat as Bill was, and as good a runner as I am, he was a good mile and a half out of Summit before I could catch up with him.

If Republicans want to get out of the hole they dug themselves into they have to pay something for it.

Powerful Pretending To Be Powerless.

It’s becoming a recurring theme: men of power pretending or even believing to be the little guy, sort of “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”-type, speaking truth to power. Here’s a Republican congressman from TX, who supported the shutdown, telling park ranger “How do you look at them and deny them access?”, referring to a group of WWII veterans trying to enter the memorial. Unbelievably, he blames the poor park ranger (who probably doesn’t even get paid because of the shutdown) for the shutdown!

This kind of behavior is common among the “trickle-down” and Ayn Rand crowd: they blame the hoi polloi, the Joe Schmos for their troubles. But in order to not look like complete assholes, they have to turn everything around and pretend that it is them who are the little guy, the salt of the earth, and it is those food stamp recipients, the unions and the unemployed who are the real threat.

I think that for some, and Krugman made a good point about it recently, it’s not enough to just be rich and powerful. One has to be adored and admired. It’s like the next step after you have amassed fortunes and made powerful friends and opened your own charity. Your next step is to become a hero, but since opportunities for heroism are limited, you enter the make-belief world, a parallel realm, where you are the persecuted minority and everyone else is out to get you. You find someone who can’t really fight back and make a grand stand.

What fucks!

Why Walter White is like GOP.

It’s hard to ignore the metaphors so abundantly offered to us, to use at our discretion, by the writers of Breaking Bad.

BreakingBadFinale225

When I first started watching Breaking Bad this past August – a one week crash course of watching the entire 5 seasons, holding my breath and with my jaw on the floor – I found myself celebrating Walter White’s liberation, even though it came via abominable means. The meek and scared school teacher making $43K a year, stepped upon and humiliated by his students and his car wash boss, with terminal diagnosis, a few thousands to his name in the bank, in those ridiculous tighty-whities, those “sensible” Clarks shoes, driving that pathetic Pontiac Aztec – how could one not feel sorry for the guy and not cheer his finding his mojo? How could an average middle-class working man not relate to this character?

But it would be naïve to expect that line of story – Walter White, the kind and powerful drug kingpin who only seeks to provide for his family – to keep us on the edge of our seats for 5 years. Turning him into a Hulk-like character would be, no pun intended, a death sentence.

“Provide for his family” – a guiding mantra that we hear from Walt White throughout the entire series, while being an initial justification for his new occupation, at this point is just an illusion in Walt’s mind. The damage that his actions brought to those dear to him is beyond repair.

Walter White has created a monster. And then lost control of it. GOP, the moderate, mainstream, Rockefeller-type that dominated US political arena for decades has been devoured by Uncle Jacks that, when GOP called on them, came and collected. Without them the GOP is impotent, with them the GOP is doomed.

The parallel is too obvious to ignore:

“You don’t get to just clap your hands and say “I’m out” after building a drug empire, killing people and ordering people killed, and putting your friends and family in jeopardy: “’I built you,’ Walt is yelling. “’I created you,‘” Dr. Frankenstein insists at his creation as it tears him apart.”

Now Walt is in a corner, just like the GOP, from which it’s hard to get out without either admitting the wrongdoing, the entire premise of your existence for the last few years (or decades) and inability to do the right thing. Surrendering would negate his life’s work – leaving his family in a worse shape than when he started on this path. Digging his heels seems to be the only option to his entrenched mind.

“America, you stupid bitch!” We almost hear GOP screaming. “We’re only doing it for YOU, because we love you! You’re a family!”

But the truth is, neither Walt nor GOP demonstrate the love for those they supposedly go into such trouble to protect. It was perfectly captured in this review by Maureen Ryan:

“Walt did and does care about his family, but here’s the big lie: They were never his top priority. Not really. They were a priority, but they were not the leading priority. Control and self-aggrandizement were always his top goals, and as “Granite State” came to a close, control and self-aggrandizement were still the things that came first. Walt’s greatest crime is not just lying to everyone around him, but lying to himself, especially about that.”

Control and self-aggrandizement. Yeah, like this guy – the Uncle Jack of modern Republican caucus, only with more piety and a Harvard Law degree. Do you think he would hesitate to pull the trigger on things America needs now if it served his own interests and ambitions? Hell, he’s already pulling it. GOP has created him but now they’re having second thoughts. Walt White having second thoughts on the Uncle Jacks Nazi crew is an understatement of the year. We’ll probably see a great finale. In both cases.

Inflation of Labor

Republicans now are rediscovering the “middle class”. Rubio made sure to make “middle class” the focus of his SOTU reply. It’s a welcome about face in a party that just a few months ago was celebrating business owners (as opposed to people who work for them) on Labor Day. It wasn’t surprising: the current Republican dogma coalesced around the idea that only business owners work hard; everyone else is either lazy or not entrepreneurial enough. In Republican mind, whoever didn’t become business owner or “made payroll” is implicitly a lesser member of society, a leech and a moocher.

Republicans love to keep their focus on inflation: there was no shortage of dire warnings coming from the right quarters about inflation that was just around the corner. The inflation that they had in mind never materialized, but in the meantime the other type of inflation – labor inflation has been devastating the communities for decades but received little attention of the doomsayers.

Back in the day, the time that many conservatives are nostalgic about, the 1950-60s, it was possible for a man with a high-school diploma to work at a factory and get paid enough to provide a middle-class lifestyle for his entire family. For a man with a college degree the career paths were wide-open and his chances of successful employment were even more robust. To achieve and maintain a middle-class lifestyle one didn’t need a double-income family and didn’t need to leave home and 6am and get home at 12am and be available on weekends. Since then “success” has been redefined. To be considered successful these days you have to negate your own self and turn into a machine.

Toiling away from paycheck to paycheck and working harder and longer hours is required nowadays just to keep one’s head above water. The world where business owners work 24/7/365 and everyone else works from 9 to 5 with an hour break for lunch is a fantasy. Let’s examine a minimum wage worker working shifts at Walmart. If he or she works 8 hours a day they would make roughly $15K a year. I would argue that if this person is presented with an opportunity to work longer hours or find another part-time job, say, at nearby Taco Bell, he would take it. Many do. We’ve all heard stories about people working 2-3 jobs. Or let’s even take an average Wall Street employee: no matter how entrepreneurial they might feel about themselves – they are still just glorified salary workers (with bonus). They are expected to be on-call 24/7 checking their blackberries at night and on weekends and they have acquiesced to this way of life as a default and some, in some masochistic way, even consider it a badge of honor. Working hard and especially reveling in your hard work is as American as apple pie. Our entire way of life now is treating the best-case scenario as a base-case scenario. In other words, there were times when working 8-hour days meant to be average and working 12-hour days and weekends meant to be successful. Now, for many, to work 12-hour days plus weekends is a given, a base-case scenario.

Humans have a great adaptive mechanism – we can get used to many things and we can accomplish remarkable feats especially if we’re in a survival mode. But we can only stretch our productivity so much, and after a certain point more workload becomes detrimental to an individual, counterproductive for companies, and eventually damaging to society. We physically can’t work more than 24 hours, we can’t be at 2 places at the same time, we can’t win on every trade. At some point there will be no room left to push harder. The benefits of longer hours and constant availability are becoming marginal. To take success onto the next level from what is considered successful career today is to become superhuman, develop magical powers or to rig the game. And if you have no way of doing it – you’re just an average, talentless, lazy schmuck. But don’t dare to complain about it – to complain is un-American.

There’s clearly an inflation of labor for those holding a wage job. Over the years the normalcy of 8-hour work days turned into 10-hour work days and then into 12-hour work days, but the benefits are failing to keep up with the contributing effort. The jobs for which a high-school diploma was sufficient, now require a college degree; and where before a college degree would provide job security for life, a graduate degree is required and yet it is no longer a guarantee of lifelong employment. It’s hard to say which came first: inflation of college degrees or inflation of labor. Surely, today this labor inflation can be attributed to high unemployment rate, but this phenomenon was prevalent even during the roaring years prior to the 2008 collapse.

The “moochers” that Republicans keep talking about are stretched too thin. They are one accident, one blown tire, one missed paycheck away from not being able to keep afloat. It is only in the imaginary world of self-declared “makers” everyone else lives off of the fruits of their labor. In the real world, “makers” expect everyone to be on call at all times for pennies and then have the chutzpah to accuse them of being lazy. Well, at least some in the GOP, who actually have to win elections rather than exercise their wits at the expense of an average Joe, are rediscovering that such attitude is damaging the brand. I’m following their transformation with great interest.