Political Lupus

It’s not all madness in the Republican struggle to find someone to run against Obama. There is Jon Huntsman:

When we take a position that isn’t willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 of 100 climate scientists have said, what the National Academy of Science – Sciences – has said about what is causing climate change and man’s contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science, and, therefore, in a losing position… I can’t remember a time in our history where we actually were willing to shun science and become a – a party that – that was antithetical to science. I’m not sure that’s good for our future and it’s not a winning formula.

And he’s not a fan of economic brinkmanship:

Well, I wouldn’t necessarily trust any of my opponents right now, who were on a recent debate stage with me, when every single one of them would have allowed this country to default. You can imagine, even given the uncertainty of the marketplace the last several days and even the last couple of weeks, if we had defaulted the first time in the history of the greatest country that ever was, being 25 percent of the world’s GDP and having the largest financial services sector in this world by a long shot, if we had defaulted, Jake, this marketplace would be in absolute turmoil. And people who are already losing enough as it is on their 401(k)’s and retirement programs and home valuations, it would have been catastrophic.

Of course Huntsman was Obama’s ambassador to China – he can never live that down – and like Romney he’s a Mormon, so the evangelical right will never really accept him. And now with this pro-science anti-brinkmanship stuff, maybe some ayatollah on the right – Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck – will issue a Huntsman fatwa now, or Rick Perry will, as he did with Ben Bernanke, suggesting should Bernanke ever set foot in Texas, Bernanke would get the Kennedy-in-Dallas treatment. You do not use monetary policy to improve the economy – saving Obama’s butt – and you do not insult the faith. Ask Sir Salman Rushdie about that. Huntsman, in a way, just wrote the Satanic Verses here. After Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued that famous fatwa on February 14, 1989, Rushdie had to go into hiding for many years.

But it’s not like that. There is only the dreaded metaphoric fatwa on the right – Roger Ailes will not allow you on Fox News. Maybe Steve Doocy will make fun of you. There are worse fates.

Yes, now and then someone set off by something Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck said will load up his car with guns and shoot a few cops – like in Pittsburgh – or work out a way to shoot up some organization perhaps tangentially aligned with George Soros, or not – like in San Francisco – but that’s rare. It’s just that Huntsman’s chances here are well beyond slim – he will not be the Republican nominee – and that in itself is liberating. He can say the rest of the Republican field is kind of nuts, with impunity. What does he have to lose?

And this may be a way to set things up for 2016 – when the madness will have passed, if it does. Huntsman can run as the guy that all long thought science is pretty nifty and quite useful, and had held that working hard to crash the economy in one final apocalyptic wave of worldwide misery that ruins everything is no way to get everyone to agree with you and be just as reasonable as you are. So Huntsman is really not running this time. He’s engaged in branding, as the marketing folks say.

But what if he has miscalculated? Kurt Andersen in a guest column in the New York Times now argues that there’s an “epidemic in mainstream politics” – explicitly using the metaphor of disease. And the etiology of the disease is clear. This is driven by those who “inhabit their own Manichaean make-believe worlds” – people like Rick Perry and Michele Bachman who “totally believe their vivid fictions.”

But he does not carry this forward as a sort of mental illness. What he has in mind is something like lupus – an autoimmune disorder where your body decides various parts of you are quite foreign and goes about destroying those parts. And that gets ugly. When your immune system attacks your own nervous system your coordination goes fast, and then your ability to think clearly, and so on. Lupus is not often fatal any longer, but it can be. There’s no cure. It can only be “managed.”

But that’s where Andersen sees us now, as “the American body politic suffers from autoimmune disorders.”

At some point, our bodies’ own immune systems went nuts, mistaking healthy pieces of our anatomies – a pancreas, a thyroid, a joint – for foreign tissue, dangerous enemies within, and proceeded to attack and try to destroy them. It’s as close to tragedy as biology gets.

Which is pretty much exactly what’s been happening the last decade in our politics. The Truthers decided the U.S. government was behind 9/11. Others decided our black president is definitely foreign-born and Muslim. Tea Party Republicans are convinced his administration is crypto-socialist and/or proto-fascist. The anti-Sharia people are terrified of the nonexistent threat of Islamic law infecting American jurisprudence. It’s now considered reasonable to regard organs and limbs of the federal government – the EPA, the education department, the Federal Reserve – as tumors that must be removed. Taxation itself is now considered a parasitic pathogen rather than a crucial part of our social organism.

And he offers this etiology:

Many autoimmune diseases of the literal kind, such as Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis, are apparently triggered by stress. For the sociopolitical autoimmune epidemic, there are plenty of plausibly precipitating mega-stresses: the 9/11 attacks and the resulting wars, a decade of stagnant incomes, chronic job insecurity, hyper-connected digitalism, real estate wipeout, teetering financial system. Take your pick.

And at his Washington Monthly blog, Steve Benen finds this entirely compelling:

There is a deep strain of madness that’s come to dominate much of our discourse and the political world, and the way in which facts, reason, and evidence are constantly under attack does look quite a bit like an autoimmune disorder.

But Benen has a problem with what he sees as the usual he-said she-said false equivalency Andersen sets up here – the usual both-sides-do-this balance that seems to be required in the media. Those Truthers – on the far left – are just not the same as the the “racists, Tea Partiers, and the anti-Sharia crowd” with what they all believe. All nut-cases are driven by nonsense, but “they’re not relative equals in size, scope, power, or influence.”

On the contrary, on the left, there is a liberal fringe, but it’s ignored and kept at arm’s length by the progressive mainstream and the Democratic Party. On the right, radical conspiracy theorists don’t just have a prominent voice; they wield enormous influence in the Republican Party and occasionally get elected to powerful public offices. Indeed, in the case of the Republican presidential field, Perry and Bachmann routinely spout surreal gibberish, and they’re two-thirds of the GOP’s top tier.

The left just doesn’t take the far-left seriously but on the right, the far-right has been embraced, with gusto:

To my mind, one of the fundamental problems with American politics isn’t the existence of a right-wing fringe – it’s the fact that the line between the fringe and the GOP mainstream has been blurred. Both sides have nutjobs; only one side thinks their nutjobs are sane.

To use Andersen’s metaphor, it’s the difference between an autoimmune disorder that’s temporary and inconsequential, and one that’s life-threatening. It’s a difference worth appreciating.

And you can see that in operation considering that now famous Warren Buffett column – the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, the Sage of Omaha, one of the world’s richest men, made his case in support of raising taxes on people like him – on anyone who enjoys enormous wealth. He has a lower tax burden, as a percentage of his income, than anyone in his office. Millionaires and billionaires “have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”

Yes, under House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan, endorsed by Republicans everywhere, the idea is that what the rich really need is another tax break, and a big one. Buffet says that’s nonsense. And President Obama agreed – while Fox News called Buffett a “socialist.” No one ever called him that before. We live in strange times.

But there are billionaires and then there are billionaires. The National Review asked the financier behind the Tea Party and so much else on the right, Charles G. Koch, for a reaction to that other billionaire’s suggestion. The Koch Industries CEO said this:

Much of what the government spends money on does more harm than good; this is particularly true over the past several years with the massive uncontrolled increase in government spending.

And here Steven Benen suggests that’s an odd answer:

There are two parts to this, and let’s take them one at a time. The first is the notion that there’s been a “massive uncontrolled increase in government spending.” On this, Koch has no idea what he’s talking about. This has been debunked before, here and elsewhere, but… ignorance is resilient…

And Benen suggests this recent item from Paul Krugman:

The peddlers of this myth point to the fact – which is true – that federal spending as a share of GDP has risen, from 19.6 percent in fiscal 2007 to 23.6 percent in fiscal 2010. (I use 2007 here as the last pre-Great Recession year). But what’s behind that rise?

A large part of it is a slowdown in GDP rather than an accelerated rise in government spending. Nominal GDP rose at an annual rate of 5.1 percent from 2000 to 2007; it only rose at a 1.7 percent rate from 2007 to 2010.

That’s pretty simple. Spending is about the same, or even lower, but GDP has shrunk to something quite pitiful, so the ratio of spending to GDP shot up – even if spending held steady. Krugman posted charts on this, and the one from Matthew Yglesias is even prettier. But this is simple stuff. Spending rose as a percentage of GDP, not because of a spending binge, but because the GDP went down so sharply during the Great Recession. Sigh. As Yglesias says, the Obama-era surge in government spending is largely a figment of the conservative imagination. Or maybe it’s that autoimmune disease.

And as for the rest, Benen has this:

There are safety-net programs – unemployment insurance, food stamps, SSI, refundable tax credits – that respond to help families in need during down times. When the economy gets worse, these programs spend more automatically because there are more people qualifying for the benefits.

Krugman puts it this way – “What we’re seeing isn’t some drastic expansion of Big Government; we’re seeing the government we already had, responding to a terrible economic slump.” And of course unemployment insurance, food stamps, SSI, refundable tax credits – all of that – are automatic stabilizers, meant to keep everything from falling apart and spiraling out of control. Koch Industries would not benefit from chaos and collapse. Charles Koch hasn’t thought this through. There was no massive uncontrolled increase in government spending – it really didn’t happen – and chaos is not his friend.

But Benen isn’t finished:

And then there’s that other part of Koch’s claim: much of the money spent by the government “does more harm than good.” Here’s the follow-up: name some.

I can appreciate the notion that some spending proves more effective than other investment in achieving policy goals, but I’m fascinated by the notion that “much of what the government spends money on does more harm than good.” Such as?

Or more to the point, more harm than good for whom?

Well, lots of people totally believe their vivid fictions. And that’s where Andersen began his diagnosis. It is Political Lupus. And like the physical disease, there seems to be no cure. It can only be managed. But that is what elections are for. This can be treated.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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