Entropy is something physicists talk about, and it’s kind of a matching concept to what Newton was saying regarding thermodynamics and how a body in motion tends to remain in motion and a body at rest tends to remain at rest. Entropy tries to account for something else – how all systems tend to move to their most random state and lowest energy level. You can get all technical about it – but entropy is no more than an expression of disorder or randomness. Things wear out or at least wind down, they always do, and people also wear out and die too – things fall apart, the center will not hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. That’s how William Butler Yeats put it – but he was no physicist. Yeats imagined an old world order collapsing – reverting to the random and meaningless and ending in some sort of wholly arbitrary and silent stasis – to be replaced by something that was probably terrible and terrifying and unimaginable. Yeats wasn’t a cheery person. He was Irish.
Any physicist, however, will tell you that the way to counter the universe’s tendency to get all random on you, and then just run down and stop, is to add energy to the system in question, which will work to maintain the orderliness intended for whatever the damned thing was supposed to be doing. Physicists have formulae for that sort of thing, even if what is posited is quite depressing in its implications, that the universe, as we know it, will run down and stop cold one day, probably at absolute zero. Then nothing will mean anything. Various theologies will argue otherwise, but there’s the observable behavior of all systems. Add energy and you can keep any system humming along, doing what it’s supposed to be doing, but even then the various parts will wear out, and you can replace them one by one, over and over, but that’s a rear-guard action. Sooner or later disorder and randomness will overwhelm all your efforts.
All this applies in politics too, as it’s now clear that the Republican Party is in entropic decline, so to speak. The eight years of the younger Bush in the White House didn’t go well. Karl Rove, the man characterized as Bush’s Brain, did get him elected, twice, and talked about a coming permanent Republican majority and all that, but then came the unexpected and events of a random September 11 in his first term, followed by Bush’s wars, with their seemingly random rationales, at least for the one in Iraq, which was followed by unexpected chaos on the ground there for years, where the more energy we poured into that systemic effort didn’t stabilize things much at all, only enough for us to finally leave. Of course the war in Afghanistan was handled with an odd casualness. Then there came another random event out of the blue – Hurricane Katrina, destroying New Orleans. Add energy and you can keep any system humming right along, but there not much energy was put in at all. Any physicist will tell you things don’t right themselves on their own – you have to do at least something to fight the old demon of disorder or randomness. The head of FEMA at the time, Michael Brown, had been a casual and random choice to head the agency to get things back to something like normal when such events happen – he was the former attorney for the American Arabian Horse Association. You don’t fight the random with the random. Finally, in the last of those Bush years, the economy collapsed, catastrophically. Investment banks, commercial banks, hedge fund operations and insurance giants, and traders and sharks of all sorts, had been allowed, for years, to operate with little or no regulation and even less oversight. The financial system was allowed to be as random and disordered as never before, on the assumption that such freedom to operate in any old way would generate massive growth and widespread prosperity like we’d never seen before. It did for awhile, and then it collapsed in chaos. Any physicist could have told you that this was going to happen, and to save the system, to get it back to functioning as intended, you had to add energy back in – and in this case that was liquidity in terms of the seven hundred billion in TARP funds and the other bailouts and backstop guarantees. Unfortunately no worn out and broken parts were replaced. All the bankers and financial wizards kept their jobs, and then gave themselves giant bonuses too – and then Bush was gone. His presidency, and the Republican Party, had been overwhelmed by the inevitable random. There would be no permanent Republican majority. Sorry, Karl.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, so the Republican Party, in the last election, decided it was time to replace all worn out and broken parts – no one mentioned George Bush, or his father, and Dick Cheney said little. Fox News did hire Karl Rove, but he ended up providing hours of shallow and empty and wrongheaded analysis, along with absurd predictions. Rove actually worked mainly behind the scenes anyway, heading his Crossroads SuperPAC that raised three hundred fifty million dollars from about two dozen billionaires, to get key Republicans elected. Not one of them won, and now even Fox News has decided to keep Karl Rove off-air – at least for now, or maybe for a very long time. No one knows how long they’ll keep him on retainer.
Of course the real worn out and broken part in the Republican system was the younger Bush. It’s just that the replacement parts offered were a random collection of oddballs – first Donald Trump then Michele Bachmann then Rick Perry then Herman Cain then Newt Gingrich, then Rick Santorum and then Gingrich again, and then Santorum again. The base was momentarily enthralled, again and again, while the pundits wondered what the hell was up with the Republican Party. Fox News tried to salvage what they could from this mess, excusing this and that as well-meaning enthusiasm and not that crazy if you really thought about it – or maybe the liberal media had it out for conservatives and were reporting what was said far too much, making a big deal out of little eccentricities. But after twenty or so primary debates it was obvious these random folks weren’t ready for primetime politics. Only Mitt Romney survived, never winning big in any of the state primaries or caucuses, but never getting blown out anywhere – winning the nomination by just being crazy enough when a specific setting demanded that and then being general and inoffensive the rest of the time. He became the master of the conventionally daring, even if no one ever knew what the hell he really believed. He would have to do, and he too failed. Again, you don’t fight the random with the random. Entropic decline is a real bitch.
Now we know something else was going on – Bob Woodward reports that Fox News approached General David Petraeus in the spring of 2011 with an offer. They told him if he didn’t get the Joint Chief of Staff gig he should resign and run for president against Obama – Rupert Murdoch would bankroll him, spending whatever it took, and Roger Ailes would resign from being the president of Fox News and run Petraeus’ campaign for him, taking care of everything, and Fox News itself would be his in-house, as they say, hammering home why he should be president, every hour, every day. Woodward has the actual audiotape of the entire Fox pitch to Petraeus, word for word, clear as a bell. Petraeus politely declines and seems a tad amused, but the woman from Fox, Kathleen T. McFarland, their national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations, as Woodward notes, sounds dead serious. Roger Ailes has since laughed this off, saying he was just kidding and his national security analyst didn’t realize it. It was just a joke – he had asked her to drop by Afghanistan and pass on his thoughts to the general, but not that. She made a mistake. This was no big deal.
There will be many comments on this in the press and on the other networks – about the propriety of a news organization that claims to be fair and balanced playing king-maker behind the scenes and then actually campaigning for their one guy, all the time claiming they’re just reporting the news – but everyone knows about Fox News. It is a wing of the Republican Party, the wing that doesn’t have to report campaign spending. There’s no need to point that out again. The only interesting thing is how Fox would have been overcome by that utterly random event that no one could have predicted – Petraeus’ torrid affair with that Paula Broadwell woman, the affair that forced him to resign as head of the CIA. Try as you may, everything always goes all random on you. Ask any physicist.
It seems like you cannot win. A new Pew-Washington Post poll puts the Republican’s fiscal cliff problem in rather stark terms:
Most Americans appear poised to blame Republicans, not President Obama, if negotiators fail to act in time to avert a “fiscal cliff” of automatic tax increases and spending cuts slated for January, according to a new Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll.
The poll finds little confidence that leaders in Washington will reach a deal before the Dec. 31 deadline, and the level of pessimism remains largely unchanged since a similar poll three weeks ago. By nearly 2 to 1, more respondents said Republicans in Congress would be to blame if there is no deal, a lopsided assessment little changed from the earlier poll.
Kevin Drum looks into this:
The Post site has a tool that lets you look at various demographic subgroups, and it turns out that everyone would blame Republicans. I figured maybe old people would blame Obama instead. Nope. Southerners? Nope. White people? Nope? High-income people? Nope. Literally the only group that didn’t blame Republicans was Republicans.
Politically speaking, President Obama’s main job is to keep things this way. Republicans pay a price for their anti-tax jihad only if the public blames them for the ensuing catastrophe. But if Obama sticks to reasonable “asks” – modest tax increases, modest spending cuts, and a debt ceiling increase – and pounds away at Republican intransigence, these numbers aren’t likely to shift much.
Napoleon once said that you should never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake. The same applies here. When a system is running down and getting too random you add more energy and swap out the now-defective parts. You don’t keep everything in place and hope things work just fine, like they once seem to have worked. Account for change and chaos in the world, or listen to a few of Andrew Sullivan’s younger readers:
I was born in 1983, sent off to college and putative adulthood in September 2001. Republicans’ retrograde social views clearly have a depressing effect on their performance among younger voters, but the issue is far simpler than that: Republicans ran the show for the first eight years of our adult lives and what happened? 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, and the financial meltdown happened. If this is your only experience of Republican control in Washington, you have to have serious ideological differences with the Democratic Party to convince yourself that it’s a good idea to put those people in charge again.
There’s also this:
Here is what I learned about politics in my formative years: Under a moderate Democrat president, the economy was doing well and we had budget surpluses, while the Republicans threw fits, shut down the government, and impeached him over bullshit. A Republican won a close election after which he might have been expected to try for a bipartisan approach in the face of a weak mandate, but instead pushed a strident conservative platform that, even before two wars, erased the budget surplus. Republicans got us into a quagmire in Iraq that (no disrespect to you) was obviously a bad idea from the beginning. When another moderate Democrat won election, Republicans engaged in an epic tantrum and behaved like babies for four years, culminating in a disgraceful Presidential field in 2012.
For the record, I am not a liberal. I would describe myself as a moderate libertarian, and my political idols are Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. What has the Republican party done since 1995 to convince me that it has any positive vision for responsible governance, or any solutions to the problems facing the country and the world? What have they done that measures-up to the legacy of our country’s historical leaders? With the sheer audacity of the volte-faces they have made in the last couple decades on every issue, how can they be trusted with any power?
There’s also this:
When people talk about the GOP as the fiscally responsible party I have to stifle a laugh. At least since I was born… Republican administrations have led the way into economic downturns and Democratic ones led the way back out. Now maybe Republicans are terrible at running the economy or maybe the Democrats are just lucky, but either way that trend is not a good sign.
Then there is the federal debt. With a little bit of research I find that since Nixon, Republican administrations have always grown the federal debt as percentage of GDP with the worst offenders being Bush II, Reagan, and Bush I. Democrats, on the other hand, seem to have done rather well with Carter and Clinton, reducing the federal debt as percentage of GDP. Obama’s first term is going to be the first time a Democrat president since Nixon has grown the federal debt as percentage of GDP. It seems that the best way to fight the federal debt is to elect a Democrat president.
The full collection of these letters to Sullivan is here – the world changed in ways that must have seemed random and meaningless to the old white men in the Republican Party. Young people actually vote, and they have no problems with gays, or with raising the taxes of the smug but so terribly insecure rich, for the good of everyone. For the Republican Party – a complex and aging system in and of itself – to survive, well, new energy must be pumped in and broken old parts need to be swapped out.
That’s the problem. See Tom Jensen at Public Policy Polling with Republicans not handling election results well:
PPP’s first post-election national poll finds that Republicans are taking the results pretty hard… and also declining in numbers.
49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. We found that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn’t exist anymore.
Some GOP voters are so unhappy with the outcome that they no longer care to be a part of the United States. 25% of Republicans say they would like their state to secede from the union compared to 56% who want to stay and 19% who aren’t sure.
One reason that such a high percentage of Republicans are holding what could be seen as extreme views is that their numbers are declining. Our final poll before the election, which hit the final outcome almost on the head, found 39% of voters identifying themselves as Democrats and 37% as Republicans. Since the election we’ve seen a 5 point increase in Democratic identification to 44%, and a 5 point decrease in Republican identification to 32%.
All that’s interesting, and Kevin Drum, noting that ACORN doesn’t exist anymore, adds this:
I’d call this a dry British sense of humor if PPP were British. In other news, they found that 39 percent of Americans claim to have an opinion about the Simpson-Bowles deficit plan, while 25 percent claim to have an opinion about the Panetta-Burns plan, which they just made up. Fun times!
Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog also points out that Fox News keeps telling its viewers that ACORN still does exist, at least in altered form:
FoxNews.com, October 26, 2011: “EXCLUSIVE: ACORN Playing Behind Scenes Role in ‘Occupy’ Movement” – “The former director of New York ACORN, Jon Kest, and his top aides are now busy working at protest events for New York Communities for Change (NYCC)…
FoxNews.com, February 13, 2012: “ACORN-linked group raising funds for California ‘Occupy’ protest” – “A re-branded ACORN branch in California is raising money to help fund an upcoming “Occupy” protest in Sacramento, FoxNews.com has learned. The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment sent out letters this month pleading for contributions of up to $20,000…”
He offers four or five others, but his favorite is this:
Fox Nation, five days ago: “ACORN Messing with Your Big Mac” – “The New York Times reports that union organizers are trying to convince fast food workers to unionize. The effort is being led by New York Communities for Change which is the name of the reorganized and rebranded former ACORN office in Brooklyn.
As it turns out, every person who ever worked for ACORN hasn’t been summarily executed or sent to a gulag for life – because, presumably, the vast majority of them haven’t done anything illegal or immoral. Thus, Fox and the rest of the wingnut press are determined to expose every single ex-ACORNer and make the case that massive subversion of the American way of life is still taking place, and it’s still ACORN’s fault.
For the record, ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, went out of business in March 2010 – it’s all gone. The world does change. It’s a quite random place and you do have to deal with that, and David Atkin says that’s going to be hard for these folks:
We’re supposed to believe that a chastened Republican Party will tack to the center to solve its demographic problem and become competitive in 2016? Hardly. Their base is filled with voters who still believe that it’s 1976 and they have a “silent majority” that is only being disenfranchised because of millions of fraudulent inner city votes. A great many of these older white exurban and rural voters haven’t even seen the inside of a big city in years, and have no idea what 18-35 year olds really think except for their wayward liberal grandchildren and that weird hippie with purple hair who works at the neighborhood grocery store.
Their leaders will bank on total gridlock and dysfunction leading to electoral apathy in 2014 to keep their House majority and pick up Senate seats, becoming even more extreme in their gerrymandered pockets of the country. Then they’ll nominate one of the more radical conservatives they can find, or force one of their more “acceptable” candidates to tack so far right to win the primary that like Mitt Romney they’ll be hard pressed to win the general election.
This GOP isn’t coming back to reality-land anytime soon.
They should have known better. Everything runs down and wears out – things do tend to revert to their most random state and lowest energy level – and you cannot fix that by asserting the system in question is just fine and perpetually self-sustaining. And the last thing you want to do is add more randomness to the thing. Entropic decline can be slowed. There’s no point in making it worse. What are they thinking?