Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Political Way Forward

Okab drives a limo that acts like a taxi without a meter, seems to me. I met Okab at the Oakland airport when I needed a ride home and he accommodated. Back then I was on three different committees for the American Academy of Pediatrics and traveled to Chicago for meetings – now I've been termed out and won't be driving with him so much. But back then, I was looking for a regular carrier since my Yellow Cab company, run by Punjabi brothers, whom I enjoyed talking to, stood us up for an early morning ride for the second time. What is it about taxis that attracts the immigrants, easy entry, no need to obey a boss, entrepreneurism? I don't really know; I do know that if you want to meet an Ethiopian, try taking a taxi in DC. Anyway, when I met Okab, he became our new default ride to the airport.

Okab is in his 60's, I'd say, and is a long time immigrant from Syria – southern Syria, he says, in the mountains, where it is relatively safer. He still has a strong accent, and listens to the news stations while driving. I learned that he is divorced, or at least doesn't live with his wife, and that she is a general pain to him, although he still retains responsibility. I've heard the outrageous stories, although since my memory stores things under categories rather than details, I forget them. Although I do remember his telling me how back in Syria, what they do is visit each other in their houses, the women clear out while the men sit around and talk, which he kind of misses. His brother stayed behind in Syria and bought up some adjacent land and the war hasn't touched him, at least not much. I'm not sure where Okab's sympathies lie; he's a Druze. Maybe with the government. I guess I knew more in detail, but I've forgotten. I think he's pretty happy to be here, although like most Arab men in exile, he misses the old country. I have to apologize to you, Dear Reader, that I'm such an execrable reporter. Good thing I didn't go that route.

In my latest trip to the airport with Okab I asked him how he liked it now that his man Trump was in power. Not so good, said Okab. Okab wished that his first man, Bernie, were there instead. But there was no way he was going to vote for Hillary. What could I say? At first I thought she was a flawed candidate, now I realize it was more than that. Always calculating, in a way that you could virtually see it happening, unable to put her heart and soul and her feeling into making a case for herself. She was internally compromised and not a good enough actress to disguise the calculations. And worst of all, in this her chosen profession of electoral politics, she was electorally incompetent. She committed serial electoral malpractice, and has now lost her license to practice. She ascended to her Peter Principle level of incompetence. Never again (I'm still furious at the governmental deformity her malpractice has left us with.)

So, my friend Okab is one of those incomprehensible Bernie-Trump voters. “Incomprehensible” if you think of policy, which only a small minority of voters do. Very comprehensible if you think in terms of image. Strong person speaking his or her mind forthrightly and with feeling that is communicated to others with the same feeling. We vote for whom we want to vote and make up the reasons afterwards.

My friend Bob is tired of my berating Hillary and has essentially told me to get over it and look to the future. But I'm an historian, and I insist on understanding based on the past. What was it that has to be corrected? George Lakoff tells us one story: conservatives look to replicate a hierarchical family where obedience to authority is paramount, whereas liberals look to a family for nurturance. That makes a lot of sense to me. Makes me think we need a strong and authoritative nurturer. (Lakoff appears to be quite self-admirative, but if you want to read what he said: I think Okab would go for that. That might be a description of Bernie.

We are at the stage now, it appears, where reasonable explanations of the election are appearing. For one thing, the age old problem of the sliding scale and boundaries of support seems still to be pervasive. If you're poor you get help; but if you're just above the line, you get very little and become resentful of those who are getting the help, because they are like the favored child. In other words: white working class resentment. As Eduardo Porter observes:

'In “White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America,” due out in May from Harvard Business Review Press, Joan C. Williams argues that white workers’ resentment of the safety net should not be surprising: They get next to no benefit from it' (

The Democratic strategy of banking on a generational and demographic cumulative advantage also seems to be flawed, according to Thomas Edsall: “In political terms, class, education and culture outweigh every other determinant, including age. … In “Ideological Heterogeneity and the Rise of Donald Trump,” Carmines, Ensley and Wagner make the case that in addition to the classic division of the electorate into three categories — liberal, moderate and conservative — at least two more are needed, populist and libertarian, and perhaps a sixth, nationalist: 'Trump’s support among Republican primary voters, and probably in the broader electorate, only makes sense once we recognize that the political choices offered by a conservative Republican Party and a liberal Democratic Party do not reflect the full extent of the ideological heterogeneity found in the American public.'”

Putting Lakoff together with these more issues-oriented articles, it's pretty clear that new leadership is necessary in the party. We see daily on MSNBC younger pretenders to the throne, as the House leadership remains in the hands of those who long ago earned their Senior's discount. There are some good ones, good on policy, and unsullied by the canny calculations of the pros who lost. Bernie's too old, and he's too monotonic, although he's got the feeling. Policies need to be adjusted – how to confront a world of robotics, how to accept a mechanized world that the Utopian Socialists (Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon) envisioned, but instead of concentrating the resultant wealth, how to “spread it around,” an unfortunate phrase of the 2008 Obama campaign as he mistakenly told the truth. How to combine the reassuring comfort of a welfare state with the dynamism of capitalism, and how to protect the environment in the process. There's lots for the technocratic elite to do; all they need is a couple of charismatic leaders.
The Republicans have some contenders, but they have a fatal flaw, in that they are Republicans. The old time conservatives could do it – Bismarck, for instance. From John Cassidy in the New Yorker:
...the relationship between the Republican Party and Trump is based on a quid pro quo, at least tacitly: in return for dismissing concerns about his authoritarianism, self-dealing, and Russophilia, the Party gets to enact some of the soak-the-poor policies it has long been promoting. ...
Going back to late-nineteenth-century Germany, many of the most successful authoritarian populists have expanded the social safety net. Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor, introduced health insurance, accident insurance, and old-age pensions. 'The actual complaint of the worker is the insecurity of his existence,' he said in 1884. 'He is unsure if he will always have work, he is unsure if he will always be healthy, and he can predict that he will reach old age and be unable to work.'
During the twentieth century, Argentina’s Juan PerĂ³n, Malaysia’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew were among the authoritarian leaders who followed Bismarck’s example. Today, if you look at the election platform of Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front, you see something similar. Like Trump, Le Pen is a nativist, a protectionist, and an Islamophobe. But she is not proposing to dismantle any of the many social benefits that the French state provides. Rather, she says she will expand child-support payments and reduce the retirement age to sixty.
Trump, on the other hand, has little to offer ordinary Americans except protectionist rhetoric and anti-immigrant measures.”

So, there it is. The immediate problem, of course, is resistance, and a would-be leader needs to be strong in this movement without being shrill, practical and reassuring without being passive. But at the same time, keeping the passion in reserve for the positive platform to be enunciated later, with dignified aggressiveness.

I'll be checking with Okab to see who he likes.

Budd Shenkin

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