What Is the Democratic Story?

Choosing between a focus on race or class is the wrong choice to begin with.

.. There’s a lot of discussion about how far left the Democratic Party should go these days. Is it destroying its electoral chances when its members call for a single-payer health plan or abolishing ICE?

That’s an important question, but the most important question is what story is the Democratic Party telling?

.. As Alasdair MacIntyre argued many years ago, you can’t know what to do unless you know what story you are a part of. Story is more important than policies.

.. The story Donald Trump tells is that we good-hearted, decent people of Middle America have been betrayed by stupid elites who screw us and been threatened by foreigners who are out to get us.

.. Back in the 1980s, the Democrats told two different stories. One was the compassion story associated with Mario Cuomo and Ted Kennedy: Too many Americans are poor, marginalized and left behind. We must care for our brothers and sisters because we are all one family.

.. The other was the brainpower/meritocracy story associated with Gary Hart and later the New Democrats: Americans are masters at innovation. We must use our best minds to come up with innovative plans to solve our problems and head into a new technological century.

I don’t hear those two stories much anymore. The Democrats are emphasizing fighting grit these days, not compassion or technocratic expertise.

Today’s Democrats tell two other stories.

  1. The first is the traditional socialist story associated with Bernie Sanders: America is rived by the class conflict. The bankers and the oligarchs are exploiting the middles. We need a fighter who will go out and battle concentrated economic power.
  2. The second is the multicultural story: American history has been marked by systems of oppression. Those who have been oppressed — women, African-Americans, Latinos — need to stand together and fight for justice.

.. Racial justice socialism seems to be the story of the contemporary left. This story effectively paints Trump as the villain on all fronts, and Democrats do face the distinct problem of how to run against a bully like Trump. But is it good politics for the entire Democratic Party to embrace it?

.. no national Democrat has ever fully embraced this story successfully. In fact, Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went to great lengths to assure people they were not embracing this story.

  • .. They did because Americans trust business more than the state, so socialism has never played well.
  • They did it because if you throw race into your economic arguments you end up turning off potential allies in swing states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
  • They did it because if you throw economics into your race arguments you end up dividing your coalitions on those issues.

In brief, Democrats have stayed away from this narrative because the long hoped-for alliance between oppressed racial minorities and the oppressed white working class has never materialized, and it looks very far from materializing now.

.. for 100 years, Democrats have tended to win with youthful optimism and not anger and indignation.

.. The Democrats who have won nationally almost all ran on generational change — on tired old America versus the possibilities of new America:

  • F.D.R.’s New Deal,
  • J.F.K.’s New Frontier,
  • Bill Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century and
  • Obama’s hope and change.

If I had to advise on a Democratic narrative I’d start with three premises:

  1. First, by 2020 everybody will be exhausted by the climate of negativism and hostility.
  2. Second, the core long-term fear is American decline; are we losing our mojo?
  3. Third, communities and nations don’t come together when they talk about their problems; they come together when they do something on behalf of their children.

Maybe the right narrative could be rebuilding social mobility for the young: America is failing its future. We need to rally around each other to build the families, communities, schools, training systems and other structures to make sure the next generation surpasses this one. People are doing this at the local level, and we need a series of unifying projects to make national progress.

.. This story pushes people toward reconciliation. It is future-oriented.

Steve Bannon Isn’t a Genius

He believes that Western civilization is locked in an existential battle with the barbarians at the gates, that nationalists must wrest control from the aloof and corrupt globalist elite, and that America is a once great nation shackled by welfare for both the poor and the wealthy.

.. The travel ban was Mr. Bannon’s first high-profile defeat.

.. Mr. Bannon’s most recent defeat is his removal from the National Security Council.

.. The media has cultivated the reputation of Steve Bannon as chessmaster and puppeteer

.. But there was never much reason to believe Mr. Bannon has the political genius necessary to actually bring his ideas to life. It’s true that much of the ideological underpinning of Mr. Trump’s agenda comes from Mr. Bannon, and it’s also true that he has outsize influence with the president. But as accomplishments go, fomenting xenophobia and manipulating a famously mercurial political neophyte are thin evidence of genius.

.. to believe in Mr. Bannon’s genius is to adopt the president’s belief in a sort of vulgar technocracy — the belief that the “best people” can solve any problem put in front of them, whether they have expertise in that field or not. A newspaper publisher can broker peace in the Middle East and revolutionize the government. A neurosurgeon can run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A life as a real estate mogul and celebrity businessman is adequate preparation for the presidency.

Steve Bannon’s Book Club

If a novelist were imagining the Trump presidency, this book, a case study in what can go wrong from the outset of an administration ushered in by a change election in uncertain times, is precisely what Mr. Bannon would be reading.

.. But the implied irony was not that the advisers weren’t impressive men (always men, usually men who had attended Harvard). They were. Rather, Mr. Halberstam’s caustic title and the nearly 700 pages that follow indict the notion that society’s smartest are necessarily the ones best equipped to tackle society’s biggest problems.

.. President Kennedy chose his men based on general wits, rather than on specific knowledge. Perhaps the most famous example was Robert McNamara, an ingenious scientist of managerialism, a president of Ford Motor Company, who as secretary of defense, said Mr. Halberstam, “knew nothing about Asia, about poverty, about people, about American domestic politics.”

.. “The book speaks to a concern about having a government run by technocrats,”

.. He has also advocated “a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,

.. If “The Best and the Brightest” is a brief against the East Coast meritocracy, though, its proposed alternative is not pure ideology. It is expertise.

.. Time and again, in Mr. Halberstam’s telling, lower-level government officials who understood Vietnamese politics, sentiments and even geography assessed reality accurately and offered correct policy

.. “You’ve got these guys that are so brilliant, but they’re generalists,”

.. “There’s a distinction to be drawn, he concludes, between this abstract quickness, this verbal facility, and true wisdom, which he says was missing.”

.. an order that, according to reports, was written by Mr. Bannon and the Trump adviser Stephen Miller, neither of whom are counterterrorism experts (or lawyers).

The Information Revolution’s Dark Turn

A Scottish philosopher visited Silicon Valley, and he didn’t like what he saw.

But I think there is a dark side there, so it did confirm some of my theorizing about the information age. There is massive inequality, which is unacceptable. Inequality should not be so great that it crystallizes into class distinctions—master-servant relations—and I think you have that in Silicon Valley, to some extent.

.. there’s also an abuse of information technology, and the threat of what I call “technocracy.” It’s a term we don’t often use now, and I mean by technocracy not the rule of experts, but the rule of information technology, the domination of information technology over human beings, and the subordination of people to a technological imperative. That is a real threat, and I think it is almost out of control.

.. For example, recent research showed that truckers were now leaving their trade because they are monitored so closely by controllers. And it’s traditionally part of  the dream of truckers everywhere to have a bit more liberty, a bit more autonomy, a bit of freedom. And that’s being taken away by information technology.

.. There is a very strong anti-statism in America generally, and in particular, California, and in particular-particular, Silicon Valley. And I think it’s a mistaken philosophy.

.. I have read [Robert] Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and Murray Rothbard’sEthics of Liberty, and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom—I’ve read it all, and it’s a flawed philosophy. The ultimate value is not liberty: It is justice. Liberty has to fit within the context of social justice. And where it violates justice, I’m afraid justice trumps liberty.

.. I’m a follower of John Rawls, the great Harvard political philosopher, and in his Theory of Justice, he makes clear that justice is the paramount virtue in political life.

.. We also need to buy into some ancient ideals of human community and what used to be called brotherhood, but you could maybe now call fellowship or connectivity

.. As one of my informants put it, a sort of “Harvard mentality” has started to take over [fro the “Stanford mentality”]. The psychology of the playground rather than the commune is prevailing. I think there’s a mercenary element that’s stronger than used to be the case.

.. And you can see that in the way that they work their staff to death. I think that is, itself, a betrayal of human ideals. They should not be expecting people to be working 24/7/365.

.. A study came out that only 2 percent of Google’s, Yahoo’s, and a couple of other top companies’ workforces were black. Twelve percent of the U.S. population is black, so that is not good, is it?

.. the libertarian, winner-takes-all model pioneered in Silicon Valley

.. The state should be involved in helping people start companies and educating people.

The Euro Crisis: The democratic deficit

Central banks acted quickly to try and deal with the liquidity crisis of 2008; the EU set up the EFSF and the ESM as a way of dealing with the fiscal crises of its weaker members; the IMF was brought in as a body with experience of “enforcing” conditional loan programmes. None of these bodies have direct democratic legitimacy; indeed it is their lack of democratic accountability that gives them freedom of action.

Writing in the FT today, Glenn Hutchins argued that

When our economy was most fragile, in the aftermath of the crisis, elected politicians wrangled year after year.

Fortunately, the central bank was independent of politics, which enabled it to act.

This argument is rather worrying for those of us who believe in democracy; in a crisis, it needs to be

circumvented. We have double delegation these days, in which our elected representatives delegate decisions to technocrats, who cannot be removed by voters. These technocrats have the freedom to take unpopular decisions.

 

.. The technocratic solution to the euro crisis is the creation of fiscal and political union, in which the wishes of local voters (such as Greeks) will be over-ridden even further and decision-making will be seen as even more remote than now. The near-success of Scottish independence and the enthusiam for a Catalonian version is a sign that voters are increasingly enthused by the idea of local control. But the solution to so many problems requires international co-ordination, which in turn is dependent on pooled sovereignty and the kind of last-minute backroom deals that we have seen throughout the Greek crisis. Your blogger may be gloomy by nature but its very hard to see how this circle can be squared.

Why do Chinese political leaders have engineering degrees whereas their American counterparts have law degrees?

The authors looked at mayors and Party secretaries of cities of over a million (of which there are today some 165); governors and provincial Party secretaries of China’s provinces, autonomous regions, and province-level municipalities; and Central Committee members, and found that by the time of writing there were already more than 80% technocrats (that is, putative or actual office holders with four-year degrees or more in the natural sciences or engineering). Just look at recent politburo Standing Committee membership: In the last two Standing Committees, I believe all but 1 were all engineers.

.. An avid  supporter of technocracy, Qian even said that he believed governments  should be run essentially like an engineering department. The notion that economic, social, and even fundamentally political problems could be approached with an engineer’s problem-solving mentality seemed somehow to resonate in China, and was largely unchallenged.