Brooks and Krugman

In “The Anxieties of Impotence” Bobo tells us that the sense of powerlessness that is sweeping our nation and the world can only be addressed by rebuilding our institutions.  In the comments “gemli” from Boston had this to say:  “Nice try, Mr. Brooks, but our political dysfunction is not the result of some diffuse or indefinable failure of our institutions. It’s the result of a herd of musty conservative ideologues that went on a rampage, bent on destruction, and taking no prisoners. … The feeling of powerlessness that we experienced was the goal. Republicans knew that voters in pain would vote for change, so they sought to make government as painful as possible. This strategy delivered a midterm Republican majority in the House and Senate, and gave them the power they wanted. But instead of using it to build, they tried to destroy affordable health care, filibustered endlessly and impotently, and generally wasted time and resources on tearing down the government they wanted so badly to run.”  I do so hope that Bobo is tied to a chair and has the comments read to him.  Prof. Krugman considers “How Change Happens” and says idealism is nice, but it’s not a virtue without tough minded realism.  Here’s Bobo:

In 1936 George Orwell wrote a magnificent essay called “Shooting an Elephant.” Orwell had been working as a British police officer in Burma, enforcing colonial rule. An elephant had gone “must,” broken its chains, trampled some homes and killed a man.

As Orwell walked, gun in hand, toward the elephant, a crowd of over 2,000 Burmese gathered behind him. They hated him, but it would be a diverting spectacle to see an elephant shot and they could use the meat. Orwell didn’t want to shoot the poor creature, whose “must,” or frenzied state, had passed and who was peacefully eating grass. But he felt the pressure of the crowd behind him. They’d laugh at him if he didn’t kill the thing.

“I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind,” Orwell wrote. And so he subjected the animal to a long and agonizing death.

In his essay nobody feels like they have any power. The locals, the imperial victims, sure didn’t. Orwell, the guy with the gun, didn’t feel like he had any. The imperialists back in London were too far away.

That’s sort of the way much of the world is today. As Anand Giridharadas writes in The International New York Times, “If anything unites America in this fractious moment it is a widespread sentiment that power is somewhere other than where you are.”

The Republican establishment thinks the grass roots have the power but the grass roots think the reverse. The unions think the corporations have the power but the corporations think the start-ups do. Regulators think Wall Street has the power but Wall Street thinks the regulators do. The Pew Research Center asked Americans, “Would you say your side has been winning or losing more?” Sixty-four percent of Americans, with majorities of both parties, believe their side has been losing more.

These days people seem to underestimate their own power or suffer from what Giridharadas calls the “anxiety of impotence.”

Sometimes when groups feel oppressed, they organize by coming up with concrete reform proposals to empower themselves. The Black Lives Matter movement is doing this.

But in other cases the feeling of absolute powerlessness can corrupt absolutely. As psychological research has shown, many people who feel powerless come to feel unworthy, and become complicit in their own oppression. Some exaggerate the weight and size of the obstacles in front of them. Some feel dehumanized, forsaken, doomed and guilty.

Today we live in a world of isolation and atomization, where people distrust their own institutions. In such circumstances many people respond to powerlessness with pointless acts of self-destruction.

In the Palestinian territories, for example, young people don’t organize or work with their government to improve their prospects. They wander into Israel, try to stab a soldier or a pregnant woman and get shot or arrested — every single time. They throw away their lives for a pointless and usually botched moment of terrorism.

In a different way, the American election has been perverted by feelings of powerlessness.

Americans are beset by complex, intractable problems that don’t have a clear villain: technological change displaces workers; globalization and the rapid movement of people destabilize communities; family structure dissolves; the political order in the Middle East teeters, the Chinese economy craters, inequality rises, the global order frays, etc.

To address these problems we need big, responsible institutions (power centers) that can mobilize people, cobble together governing majorities and enact plans of actions. In the U.S. context that means functioning political parties and a functioning Congress.

Those institutions have been weakened of late. Parties have been rendered weak by both campaign finance laws and the Citizens United decision, which have cut off their funding streams and given power to polarized super-donors who work outside the party system. Congress has been weakened by polarization and disruptive members who don’t believe in legislating.

Instead of shoring up these institutions, many voters are inclined to make everything worse. Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain. Donald Trump says stupid elites are the problem. Ted Cruz says it’s the Washington cartel. Bernie Sanders says it’s Wall Street.

The fact is, for all the problems we may have with Wall Street or Washington, our biggest problems are systemic — the disruptions caused by technological progress and globalization, mass migration, family breakdown and so on. There’s no all-controlling Wizard of Oz to slay.

If we’re to have any hope of addressing big systemic problems we’ll have to repair big institutions and have functioning parties and a functioning Congress. We have to discard the anti-political, anti-institutional mood that is prevalent and rebuild effective democratic power centers.

This requires less atomization and more collective action, fewer strongmen but greater citizenship. It requires the craft of political architecture, not the demagogy of destruction.

Bobo, here’s a large plate of salted rat dicks for you.  Eat up.  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

There are still quite a few pundits determined to pretend that America’s two great parties are symmetric — equally unwilling to face reality, equally pushed into extreme positions by special interests and rabid partisans. It’s nonsense, of course. Planned Parenthood isn’t the same thing as the Koch brothers, nor is Bernie Sanders the moral equivalent of Ted Cruz. And there’s no Democratic counterpart whatsoever to Donald Trump.

Moreover, when self-proclaimed centrist pundits get concrete about the policies they want, they have to tie themselves in knots to avoid admitting that what they’re describing are basically the positions of a guy named Barack Obama.

Still, there are some currents in our political life that do run through both parties. And one of them is the persistent delusion that a hidden majority of American voters either supports or can be persuaded to support radical policies, if only the right person were to make the case with sufficient fervor.

You see this on the right among hard-line conservatives, who insist that only the cowardice of Republican leaders has prevented the rollback of every progressive program instituted in the past couple of generations. Actually, you also see a version of this tendency among genteel, country-club-type Republicans, who continue to imagine that they represent the party’s mainstream even as polls show that almost two-thirds of likely primary voters support Mr. Trump, Mr. Cruz or Ben Carson.

Meanwhile, on the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions. In 2008 that contingent rallied behind Mr. Obama; now they’re backing Mr. Sanders, who has adopted such a purist stance that the other day he dismissed Planned Parenthood (which has endorsed Hillary Clinton) as part of the “establishment.”

But as Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure. On the contrary, he’s been an extremely consequential president, doing more to advance the progressive agenda than anyone since L.B.J.

Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none: health reform that leaves the system largely private, financial reform that seriously restricts Wall Street’s abuses without fully breaking its power, higher taxes on the rich but no full-scale assault on inequality.

There’s a sort of mini-dispute among Democrats over who can claim to be Mr. Obama’s true heir — Mr. Sanders or Mrs. Clinton? But the answer is obvious: Mr. Sanders is the heir to candidate Obama, but Mrs. Clinton is the heir to President Obama. (In fact, the health reform we got was basically her proposal, not his.)

Could Mr. Obama have been more transformational? Maybe he could have done more at the margins. But the truth is that he was elected under the most favorable circumstances possible, a financial crisis that utterly discredited his predecessor — and still faced scorched-earth opposition from Day 1.

And the question Sanders supporters should ask is, When has their theory of change ever worked? Even F.D.R., who rode the depths of the Great Depression to a huge majority, had to be politically pragmatic, working not just with special interest groups but also with Southern racists.

Remember, too, that the institutions F.D.R. created were add-ons, not replacements: Social Security didn’t replace private pensions, unlike the Sanders proposal to replace private health insurance with single-payer. Oh, and Social Security originally covered only half the work force, and as a result largely excluded African-Americans.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that someone like Mr. Sanders is unelectable, although Republican operatives would evidently rather face him than Mrs. Clinton — they know that his current polling is meaningless, because he has never yet faced their attack machine. But even if he was to become president, he would end up facing the same harsh realities that constrained Mr. Obama.

The point is that while idealism is fine and essential — you have to dream of a better world — it’s not a virtue unless it goes along with hardheaded realism about the means that might achieve your ends. That’s true even when, like F.D.R., you ride a political tidal wave into office. It’s even more true for a modern Democrat, who will be lucky if his or her party controls even one house of Congress at any point this decade.

Sorry, but there’s nothing noble about seeing your values defeated because you preferred happy dreams to hard thinking about means and ends. Don’t let idealism veer into destructive self-indulgence.

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