Frayed Affiliations

Americans have always held that all men are created equal, with a qualifier. Talent and good looks and intelligence are certainly not distributed equally at birth. Some people are born into money. Some are born in Altoona. The idea we posited, jumping on the Enlightenment bandwagon, was that all men are born with certain inalienable rights – to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Everyone has those rights. That’s the way all men are equal, the only way. There are natural-born fools – but in terms of the law, and all the ways society agrees to operate, everyone has the same rights – sort of. We’re still working out the details. Check back later on gays and unarmed young black men.

This was a fine idea, and had nothing to do with human nature. We become who we are by differentiating ourselves from all others. Equality was death or at least meaningless existence – so what you did with your life was who you were. If you weren’t a great writer or a captain of industry, you could be the best father anyone could imagine, and so on. Equality in terms of basic rights was one thing. Real life was another. You weren’t like “those others” at all.

This was hard work, so most people settled for affiliations that differentiated them from all others – clubs, associations, religious denominations, political parties and all the rest. That was a shortcut to being unique and wonderful. You were one with those who were unique and wonderful – but postwar consumerism offered an even better differentiation. By the late fifties you were what you drove. General Motors had you covered, with four different lines that were actually the same car – the same chassis and mechanics, but with different bodies bolted on top. If you drove a Chevrolet, you were a working-class guy doing just fine. If you drove an Oldsmobile you were a manager of some sort, but not the boss – you were different – you’d moved up. If you drove a Buick you were the boss, or a doctor or lawyer. If you drove a Cadillac, you were the owner and you bought yourself the very best, out of pocket change. It was the same car. The socioeconomic affiliations were different. General Motors made a lot of money.

Those days are over. The sixties counterculture crowd shrugged. Those folks drove beat-up old VW vans or anything ironic, and now, with the rise of Uber, and Google developing self-driving cars, which will probably be owned and operated by municipalities, who will need or even want their own a car? There will have to be other socioeconomic affiliations that work against the notion of soul-crushing equality, and there were for a time. In the late seventies and early eighties you weren’t what you were, you were who you wore. There were big designer labels on everything, which publicly proclaimed your socioeconomic affiliation – “Gucci” was infinitely cool, “Nike” was brain-dead defiant – but the most ironic of these was the wildly popular Members Only jacket – “When you put it on, something happens.”

Yeah, you become a jerk. Anyone could buy one. Millions did. An entire generation had lost its sense of irony – but by 1985 things were changing. That year there was that glorious scene in Back to the Future – Marty wakes up back in 1955 in bed, with a big lump on his head, and sitting next to him is the sweet young thing (his mother, actually, as this is a time-travel story) who keeps calling him Calvin, Calvin Klein. It’s the purple underwear. That trend was over. Folks would just have to find another way to publicly proclaim their socioeconomic affiliation – their unique level of cool.

Luckily, there’s always that one fallback that always works – political affiliation, by party – and that’s where things have been odd for Republicans. They know they’ve not been cool in quite a while. After Romney lost in 2012, there was the Reince Priebus autopsy – offered after Romney lost almost all the Hispanic and black vote, and lost the women’s vote and the vote of the young, and the vote of anyone with even a year or two of college, by wide margins, and after the Republicans didn’t win back the Senate when two or three of their Tea Party candidates imploded. It was time for outreach to minorities, and women, and the young and maybe even gays.

It sounded so hopeful – the Republicans were going to reach out and become inclusive and we’d have two evenly-matched political parties again, espousing their competing philosophies without demonizing anyone at all. There’d be no more angry old white men sneering at anyone unlike them, and sneering at science too. There’d be no more rich white guys sneering at anyone who wasn’t a millionaire just like them – or they’d tone it down, trying to be a bit more sympathetic to the total losers out there. And there’d be no more old men talking about “legitimate rape” and how women’s bodies really work. In fact, the National Republican Congressional Committee had already been training incumbents on how best to interact with women voters – there’s a nice way to tell them they can’t be trusted with moral choices like abortion, or any choices about their own body, and how their accepting less pay than a man for the same work is really good for the economy, so they ought to do their part.

The presumption was that America was basically a conservative country, and everyone actually agreed with them on all the big issues of the day. There was that natural socioeconomic affiliation. They just had to explain themselves better, but that wasn’t going to be easy. It’s hard to show respect when you explain your views, that minorities and women and gays are lesser people, and that wealth is the only reliable indicator of moral worth, and that all science is bunk and you’re a fool if you believe any of it. Sure, respectfully say the new Pope is a Marxist who hates everything America stands for, because he seems to think vast wealth is a moral trap, and respectfully call him a fool for being willing to accept the idea that gays and atheists and even true Marxists are good people, good people with what he considers the wrong views, but good people nonetheless. Be respectful of him when you explain that this guy just doesn’t understand Christianity at all.

Needless to say, this didn’t go well. After a few months no one mentioned this autopsy ever again. The effort shifted to making sure certain people found it very difficult to vote. The Republicans retook the Senate and increased their already massive majority in the House. The presidency was something for later. Now it’s time to see if, after eight years in the wilderness, they can retake the White House, and that’s where the difficulties begin, given the new Pew poll:

The Republican Party’s image has grown more negative over the first half of this year. Currently, 32% have a favorable impression of the Republican Party, while 60% have an unfavorable view. Favorable views of the GOP have fallen nine percentage points since January. The Democratic Party continues to have mixed ratings (48% favorable, 47% unfavorable).

The Democratic Party has often held an edge over the GOP in favorability in recent years, but its advantage had narrowed following the Republicans’ midterm victory last fall. Today, the gap is as wide as it has been in more than two years.

They’re just not cool:

Neither party has an edge in perceptions about which could better manage the federal government: 40% say the Republican Party, while an identical percentage prefers the Democrats. … On issues, the Democratic Party holds double-digit advantages as better able to handle the environment (by a margin of 53% to 27%), abortion and contraception policies (50% to 31%), education (46% to 34%) and health care (46% to 36%). The Republican Party has wide leads for better reflecting people’s views on gun control (48% to 36%) and dealing with the terrorist threat at home (44% to 34%).

And there’s this:

Recent Pew Research Center surveys have found signs of dissatisfaction with the GOP among Republicans. In May, just 41% of Republicans said they approved of the job performance of the leaders of the GOP-led Congress. In 2011, after Republicans had won control of the House, 60% of Republicans approved of the job being done by their party’s leaders in Congress. The current survey finds that positive views of the GOP among Republicans have declined 18 percentage points since January, from 86% to 68%. Independents also view the Republican Party less favorably; 29% today, compared with 37% six months ago.

The brand is damaged and the affiliations have frayed, and there’s this:

Five months ago Republicans were seen by more Americans as the party better able to handle foreign policy (48% said Republicans, 35% Democrats); today, the public is equally likely to say Republicans (38%) as Democrats (41%) could better handle foreign policy. And while the GOP maintains a 10-point advantage as the party better able to address the terrorist threat at home (44% vs. 34%), that edge has narrowed since earlier this year.

Daniel Larison at the American Conservative can explain this:

The party’s numbers on foreign policy have started slumping during the same period in which Republican candidates for president have been going out of their way to emphasize their foreign policy views. My guess is that the party benefited in 2014 and early 2015 from the continuing spate of bad news stories from overseas that reflected badly on administration policies, but more recently as the many Republican candidates have been holding forth on the kind of foreign policy they would conduct those gains have evaporated. This suggests that Republicans really shouldn’t want 2016 to be an election with a heavy emphasis on foreign policy issues, and if these issues do play a large role in the election it is going to work against them.

In short, things got better, not worse, so just shut up:

Despite substantial and in some cases well-deserved dissatisfaction with Obama’s foreign policy record, most Americans are still understandably wary of trusting the GOP on foreign policy given the previous administration’s record and the aggressive hawkishness of its presidential candidates. There may be many Americans that perceive Obama as being insufficiently “tough” in his foreign policy, but that doesn’t mean that there is much enthusiasm for a party pushing a hardline agenda, either. The more that the Republican candidates advertise their hardline views on Iran, Cuba, or anything else, the harder it will be to win over the public to their side.

And there are other things that don’t help either. Jeb Bush appeared at a New Hampshire event sponsored by the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, and managed to say this:

The left needs to join the conversation, but they haven’t. I mean, when [Rep. Paul Ryan] came up with, one of his proposals as it relates to Medicare, the first thing I saw was a TV ad of a guy that looked just like Paul Ryan … that was pushing an elderly person off the cliff in a wheelchair. That’s their response.

And I think we need to be vigilant about this and persuade people that our, when your volunteers go door to door, and they talk to people, people understand this. They know, and I think a lot of people recognize that we need to make sure we fulfill the commitment to people that have already received the benefits, that are receiving the benefits. But that we need to figure out a way to phase out this program for others and move to a new system that allows them to have something – because they’re not going to have anything.

Yes, he went there. He wants to “phase out” Medicare, and Steve Benen suggests he’s wrong on both politics and policy:

The Florida Republican is convinced that “people understand” the need to get rid of Medicare. He’s mistaken. Given the polling from the last several years, what people understand is that Medicare is a popular and successful program, and a pillar of modern American life.

Previous attempts to “phase out” the program have met with widespread public scorn and if Jeb Bush believes he can “persuade people” to get rid of Medicare, he’s likely to be disappointed.

As for the policy, there’s no point in denying that the Medicare system faces long-term fiscal challenges, but to argue, as Jeb Bush does, that Democrats have ignored the conversation is plainly incorrect. On the contrary, while Republicans fight to eliminate the Medicare program, Democrats have had great success in strengthening Medicare finances and extending its fiscal health for many years to come.

The secret, apparently, was passing the Affordable Care Act.

Before “Obamacare” was passed, Medicare was projected to face a serious fiscal shortfall in 2017. As of yesterday, Medicare trustees now believe the system is fiscally secure through 2030.

Kevin Drum explains that trustee’s report:

Ten years ago, Medicare was a runaway freight train. Spending was projected to increase indefinitely, rising to 13 percent of GDP by 2080. This year, spending is projected to slow down around 2040, and reaches only 6 percent of GDP by 2090.

Six percent! That’s half what we thought a mere decade ago. If that isn’t spectacular, I don’t know what is.


Obviously, all of these projections come with caveats because no one can say with certainty what will happen in the future, but the projections are encouraging – and far more heartening than they were before the ACA passed. But Jeb Bush is under the impression that Medicare is, without a doubt, doomed, so we might as well get rid of the program now and see what Paul Ryan has in store for seniors in his far-right bag of tricks.

Kevin Drum also speaks to this:

Republicans have been talking for years about “reforming” Social Security. Usually this involves privatizing it in some way, which they insist that people will love. In fact, they’ll love it so much that, um, Republicans don’t dare suggest that their reforms should apply to current recipients – or to people who are within even a decade of retiring. Why exempt these folks? There’s a lot of blah-blah-blah when you ask, but the real reason is that these people vote, and they actually pay attention to Social Security. They know perfectly well that the current system is a better deal for them. It’s only younger workers, who don’t pay as much attention and have been brainwashed – by conservatives – into believing that Social Security will never pay them a dime anyway, who give this nonsense the time of day. Even if the GOP’s reformed version of Social Security is a lousy deal, anything is better than nothing. Right? But I’ve never really heard this argument about Medicare. Until now.

But the argument is nonsense:

Boom! If we don’t gut Medicare, they’ll have nothing. When they turn 65 they’ll be out on the street dying, with no one to help them. Why? Because Democrats let the system go bankrupt. Wouldn’t it be much better to offer them some crappy, rationed system instead? At least it’s something, after all.

Jesus. You’d think we were Greece. Oh wait – these guys do think that Democrats are turning us into Greece. So I guess it makes a kind of sense.

In any case, Jeb sure picked the wrong time to make this pitch. Just yesterday we got the latest projections for Social Security and Medicare. If they’re correct, the cost of both programs will top out at a combined 12 percent of GDP by the middle of the century and then flatten out. That’s about 3 percent of GDP more than we’re spending now.

So this is what Jeb is saying: Right now the federal government spends about 20 percent of GDP. We can’t afford to increase that to 23 percent of GDP over the next 30 years. That would – what? I don’t even know what the story is here. Turn us into Greece? Require us to tax millionaires so highly they all give up and go Galt? Deprive Wall Street of lots of pension income they can use to blow up the world again?

Drum is not impressed:

This whole thing is ridiculous. Over the next 30 years, we need to increase spending by 1 percent of GDP per decade. That’s it. That will keep Social Security and Medicare in good shape. Why is it so hard for people to get that?

It’s so hard for people to get this, or for these people to get this, because this is about affiliation, about being special. They are Republicans – fiscally responsible, no matter who gets hurt, even if what they’re proposing isn’t even necessary. And they don’t make deals with bad guys over in the Middle East – they humiliate them until they give in, or they wipe them out. And they stand around, smug, in their Members Only jackets. But no one wears those anymore.

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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