I said in my last post that I was distressed by Obama's inability to vanquish McCain more handily, despite the historic efficiency of the Democrat's campaign and the historic incompetence of the Republican's. Several people I respect read this, worried about my indifference to the cold logic of US electoral politics, and told me so. So let me explain. The best response I got puts it this way:
The country's just too divided for any Presidential candidate to get a large margin. The GOP could run a dead fish (well, wait a minute...) and it would get 40% of the vote. Remember, there are still 30% of Americans who think Bush is doing a good job. For an example, I give you the 1996 election race, between Clinton, who was a popular incumbent and Bob Dole, who was [essentially] a dead fish.... Despite that, Clinton only managed 379 electoral votes and less than 50% of the popular vote. Clinton won MO, ARK, and LA, but couldn't get CO, IND, VA, and NC.I'm sure this is the right analysis, not least because the person who wrote this knows infinitely more about such things than I do. My remark was meant not to dispute this iron law of US electoral politics, but to express despair over it. Our political lives are so ossified, so calcified, so locked into disastrous routines, that not even two wars, an historic economic crisis, the sinking fortunes of the US brand around the world, and a colossally bad Republican candidate can shake loose some of that hard-core opposition? We might consider other iron laws. Think, for example, of the political scientist's 'voter paradoxes,' which mean to disabuse us of the illusion that elections are expressions of some rationally evaluable majority will. Perhaps I'm looking for reason in all the wrong places - not because people are stupid, but because large-scale voting just doesn't issue in rational outcomes. My response, in brief: democracy is, or ought to be, about more than voting. It is also about the aspirations and the critical sensibilities that shape our orientations to the vote - and, if we're vigilant, that help frame the options we have when we vote. The iron-clad, dead-fish 40% is in part an artifact of a political apparatus that allows only certain options, and only certain ways of registering our preferences in regard to them. This, all of this, is what I find distressing. Or: Is it too late to embrace Palin-style secessionism, and let the dead fish party have its own country? I said also in my last post that the Obama presidency may be subject to a kind of cultural white flight. The idea was that a black person's ascension to the office might strike some as the last, best sign that the federal government is in fact the enemy of goodness and light. Soon afterwards I ran across some clarifying words from the inimitable James Baldwin. This is his description of the more prosaic forms of white flight: '[T]he border which has divided the ghetto from the rest of the world falls in the hands of the ghetto. The white people fall back bitterly before the black horde, the landlords make a tidy profit by raising the rent, chopping up the rooms, and all but dispensing with the upkeep, and what has once been a neighborhood turns into a 'turf.'' Is it just me, or does the behavior of Baldwin's landlord sound like what the Bush-Cheney administration has done to the federal government?
I haven't adjusted to the 21st century yet, so I still approach blog posts like Ralph Ellison working on novel #2. Which is to say: it takes me forever to write them. I thought the Biden-Palin face-off tonight would be an opportunity to get in touch with my inner Joyce Carol Oates and start writing faster. But I couldn't bring myself to watch the bloody thing, much less to do so in the spirit needed to write about it. So instead I thought I'd live-blog about why I didn't watch the debate. Here goes.... 1. I couldn't bear the anxiety. Someone, I forget who, recently wrote that watching Palin lately has been like watching a drunk relative give a toast at a wedding reception - you're pretty sure it's going to go badly, but you don't know when, or just how embarrassing it will be. This is nerve-wracking, even if you don't care for the woman or her politics. 2. I couldn't bear the anxiety, part 2: Joe Biden's foot hasn't hung out with his mouth in a while, and they're due for a reunion. 3. I wouldn't be able to concentrate, as one question would trump all others in my mind: is it me, or has Biden's forehead undergone a Kerry-like transformation, and become as tight as the head of a snare drum? Or was I just not paying attention before? 4. I can't get over the fact that the polls are still close. I mean, it sometimes seems that the GOP isn't even trying this time (and with W's messes to clean up, why would they?). But public opinion is still pretty evenly split. Which makes me alternately irritated, annoyed, and depressed. None of these emotional states, it turns out, is particularly conducive to registering and reflecting on a live debate. Having appealed to the polls, though... 5. ...I resent being seduced into thinking about serious politics in horse race terms. Or into thinking about horse races instead of serious politics and policy. As I've said here before, polls have their place, and if they work for you then God bless. But the media conversations around the debates tend to focus obsessively on how the candidates
Shortly before the 2006 midterm elections, I heard a prominent political scientist argue, in public, that the Dems had no shot at taking back Congress. He was led to this view by his reading of the relevant statistical and historical patterns. In the manner of many political scientists these days, he sought in these patterns the real logic of electoral politics, the driving force beneath all the superficialities of public debate and deliberation (such as they both are). The political scientist was wrong, of course, though you
Campaigns for the US presidency have many casualties. The candidates
First David Brooks writes a muddled column complaining about people who complain about economic inequality. (Eric Alterman provides links to the column and to several critical responses, including his own, here: http://mediamatters.org/altercation/200707300003). Now Nick Kristof gets in on the act. If the Times wants to shill for conservative economic views, it could at least get actual economists to do it. Kristof devoted half his column yesterday (http://select.nytimes.com/2007/07/30/opinion/30kristof.html?) to 'the best political book this year': Bryan Caplan's 'The Myth of the Rational Voter.' Caplan is an economist at George Mason, and, according to Kristof, thinks that American voters are not just ignorant but irrational, in that they, we, systematically vote in error and undermine our own interests. Again on Kristof's rendering, those errors come in four flavors: a suspicion of markets, a 'neo-Luddite' bias against the benefits of such things as corporate downsizing, an 'anti-foreign bias' against such things as free trade, and a pessimistic tendency to exaggerate economic problems. I hope Caplan's argument is more nuanced than this. It certainly can be, as it touches on issues that (as Kristof notes) have been plausibly studied in other fields. I would simply assume that it is more subtle, as any book glossed by an 800 word column should be, were it not for the fact that 'political books' often manage to sustain the superficiality of an op-ed column for hundreds of pages. So I'll withhold judgment on the book. But two points are sufficient to let some of the air out of Kristof's inflationary hype. First: overtures to free trade and free markets tend to be misleading. Very few of the people who call for these things actually mean the 'free' part. They mean 'freer, in certain respects,' and the relevant respects tend to benefit the entrenched interests that shape markets and trade in the real world (as opposed to the vacuum-sealed, abstract world in which markets and trade operate in economic models). The people who actually mean 'free' are worth taking seriously, and maybe Caplan is one of them. But the rest still face the question of when and how regulation should come into play. Which means that 'suspicion' in these areas is not irrational but essential. And second: the benefits of corporate downsizing, like the benefits of 'free' trade, are, for all but a few people, highly speculative, and perhaps merely notional. Think of the mid-career worker who gets downsized and told to 'reinvent' herself for the knowledge economy, or, more likely, told nothing but 'you're not needed here.' Is she irrational for failing to see a spike in her former employer's stock price as a benefit to her? Grant the best case scenario: the forces of creative destruction in the economy do increase productivity in a way that contributes to overall growth. There is plenty of reason to doubt that broad measures of economic well-being - like productivity and growth - tell us much about how normal people are faring. And even if the rising tide does lift all the boats, it will take the tide a while to rise. What does our downsized worker do in the meantime? Work cheerfully for minimum wage somewhere, content in the knowledge that her fate is so bound up with that of corporate elites that their gain really is her gain? All of that to say: the 'bias' against creative destruction is not in the least irrational, not least because it declines to conflate corporate interests with the interests of average, individual citizens. What Kristof and perhaps Caplan call a bias is a way of registering the pain that destruction causes. The political question, in a democracy, anyway, is not how to convince people to accept their fate as collateral damage, but how to soften the blows that economic forces operating on a national scale will inevitably land on normal people.
Have we just seen the NBA finals an eroded democracy deserves? Apparently, hardly anyone watched this year's finals. The usual explanation for this is that two small market teams were involved (San Antonio and Cleveland), one of these teams (San Antonio) is thought by many, justly or not, to be boring, and the other is just plain bad, apart from the frequently transcendent play of its lone superstar, LeBron James. I wonder if something else is at work, too, something that (I promise) relates to the condition of democracy in the US. San Antonio got to the finals in part by beating one of the NBA's best regular season teams, the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have over the last few regular seasons built a powerhouse around their remarkable point guard, Steve Nash, and his ability to facilitate a style of play that is faster, more fluid, and more dynamic than the NBA's usual fare. Every year, though, the Suns face the question of whether they can win in the playoffs, when things called 'hard-nosed defense' and 'toughness' come to the fore. And every year, it turns out that toughness principally involves the ability to deliver and bear up equably under hacks, blows, and assaults that would have been illegal during the regular season. As Michael Wilbon of ESPN and the Washington Post put it, The Spurs treated the Suns like punching bags during their games, aided and abetted by the NBA brass in ways that we've no room to consider here. And as Toronto superstar Chris Bosh put it after his first (brief) trip to the playoffs, the refs just aren't going to call fouls, and you have to get used to it. Let's think about what this means. The NBA is an enterprise that runs the bulk of its activities under one set of rules, and then, when things matter most, suddenly changes to another set. Contenders for the ultimate reward in this enterprise may find that the traits that got them in contention are no longer useful, and that behavior that under different conditions counts as rule-breaking is now the favored path to success. The argument for this practice is that 'we don't want officials deciding games.' But if officials are meant to apply the rules, and thereby safeguard the integrity of the enterprise, then we are in effect saying that we don't want the rules deciding games. You can probably see where this is headed. US citizens and residents live under a presidential administration that routinely demonstrates its contempt for rules. And we, in various ways, large and small, endorse and cultivate something like this contempt throughout the culture. A version of this contempt drives our fascination with fictional outlaws and gangsters, who often seem to provide, in their own way, an alternative to the corrupt, ignoble bureaucracies that seem to define politics and governance. Don't get me wrong. I am of course not saying that we should frown on gangster movies, or that professional sports leagues should be prevented from conducting their business as they see fit, or that either of these things, sports or movies, leads directly to the idea that the Geneva Conventions are 'quaint' and dispensable. What I am saying is that we need to understand what it means to have different sets of rules for different phases of an undertaking, and to position ourselves to ask whether having these different rulebooks is a problem. I find the 'toughness' premium in playoff basketball a profound turnoff. If enough people feel this way, the NBA will need to rethink its commitment to 'manly' playoff basketball, for fear of eroding its ability to deliver eyes to advertiser-hungry television networks. Similarly, and more importantly, anyone committed to a robust vision of democracy must find the contempt for political rules supremely off-putting, and dangerous. This is, after all, why we have a constitution, and why, W's approach notwithstanding, that document gives us a president and not a monarch. Sporting events are meant to give us a vision of fair play, a glimpse of a domain that is truly a meritocracy rather than a respecter of persons. Professional sports routinely fall short of this ideal, in all sorts of ways. It would be fit compensation for this failure if the NBA lost viewers because it too closely emulated the official rule breaking that has soured so many of us on politics.