Fresh Eyes

“If there are no stupid questions, then what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Do they get smart just in time to ask questions?” ~ Scott Adams

“Ignorant men raise questions that wise men answered a thousand years ago.” ~ Goethe

Question authority – that’s what they said back in the sixties, so we did. We asked a lot of what we thought were really basic questions that we assumed no one had asked before, perhaps because they didn’t dare be honest, or perhaps because they were quite stupid people. The counterculture in the sixties was insufferably smug – but some of the questions weren’t bad. Why the hell were we in Vietnam? If, by law, black people, who were called Negros back then, are full citizens of the United States, why didn’t they have the same rights as the rest of us? Those were good questions.

Others weren’t. Why can’t all men, everywhere, live in peace and harmony? That question ignores everything everyone knows about human nature – we are a competitive and contentious species and John Lennon was shot dead in front of his luxury condo at the Dakota on the Upper West Side. Imagine that. But why can’t we all live on communes and raise goats and live on granola? There aren’t enough goats. As for abolishing money and private property, how was that supposed to work, really? Wouldn’t everything collapse into chaos? We hadn’t thought things out. And as for making love, not war, the Soviet Union was out there at the time. They might have different ideas. Perhaps we shouldn’t have gone looking for a war, in Vietnam or anywhere else, but sometimes war comes looking for you. We asked questions with fresh eyes. On closer inspection, most of those deep questions were pretty dumb questions. The inspection didn’t even have to be that close. It wasn’t that others didn’t dare be honest, or because they were quite stupid. The questions were stupid, although the music generated by those questions was quite fine. It made you feel all warm and fuzzy inside – but warm and fuzzy don’t pay the bills.

Those days are over. Jerry Rubin ended up working on Wall Street. The outsiders questioning the establishment ended up in the establishment, or teaching poetry to bored high school kids in Vermont, and they’re retired now, with the world much as it was in the first place. They questioned authority. They forced some minor adjustments, but after Vietnam we still went into Iraq and Afghanistan and stayed there, and after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states controlled by Republicans are now finding new ways to make sure black folks can’t vote, and a few times a week another white cop shoots and kills another unarmed black kid and has to explain nothing, and Fox News makes him the hero for the day. The outsiders had asked really basic questions that they assumed no one had asked before. So what?

That might be a sad story, but it’s an American story. Americans seem to love outsiders who ask really basic questions that they say no one has asked before. That’s why Donald Trump is so popular. He questions what everyone thinks is so – John McCain was not a hero, the Mexican government is sending us rapists and murderers and drug dealers, and “those people” are like that anyway – and the world is laughing at us, because all of our leaders, every one of them, is a loser and a fool. Trump is also an outsider – he built a twenty billion dollar real estate empire from his multimillionaire father’s smaller real estate empire – giant condo towers in Manhattan for the ridiculously wealthy, resorts, gold courses, casinos – and he spent years as a reality show host, humiliating contestants for making boneheaded business decisions. He knows nothing about government, but then he does have fresh eyes. Like the kid in the sixties he’ll point out what everyone else is too timid or too stupid to point out. Things are just wrong.

It’s the same with Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon. In Iowa, at the moment, he polls even better than Trump, and he says what no one else will – Obama is clearly a psychopath and not only is Obamacare the same thing as slavery, women who seek abortions are just like the murderous slaveholders and the pro-life movement is just like the noble abolitionists – and there’s the interview where he clearly had no idea what the debt limit even was – but he has fresh eyes.

Josh Marshall wonders about that:

Establishment Republicans are positively terrified by a Trump nomination for two distinct reasons. First, because they assume he’d eventually go down in flames and take other party standard-bearers down with him. Second, he’s really pretty heterodox from a GOP perspective. In the terrifying hypothetical that Trump were actually elected 45th President they don’t really have any sense of what he’d do in office. (For myself, I could easily imagine a President Trump ending up like second term Arnold Schwarzenegger.) So if Trump’s the worst case scenario, what about Carson? It seems to me that even from a partisan perspective, Carson is at least as catastrophic as Trump.

First, you clearly don’t have the same heterodoxy concerns with Carson – because while he’s far right, he’s fairly conventional in those terms. But have you listened to Carson? Set aside that he routinely says things that a lot of voters would find either deeply weird or threatening, have you listened to the guy talk?

I’ve been a little mystified that no one seems to bring this up. But in the debates he frequently strikes me as half-lost or sedated. Gut check me here, am I really the only one who has this impression? Is it just me? Again, like Trump, I think he’s judged by a different standard because people don’t think he’ll ever be the nominee. But he seems like he’s not quite all there or thinking out loud in a way that is vaguely endearing but not at all what people look for in a head of state.

That may be so, but that may be what people are looking for, someone who knows nothing but is kind of mellow and will figure all of it out one day, or figure out some of it, or not. At least he’s not sullied by knowledge and experience, but Marshall adds this:

Carson not only has no experience in elected office. He also has no administrative or organizational experience, which is where businessmen like Trump stake their claim to relevant experience, rightly or not. … Now, again, maybe this is all beside the point because we all know Ben Carson is not going to be the Republican nominee. Basically I think that’s true. But it’s not just Trump who is keeping up robust support. Carson’s support isn’t that much less than Trump’s and is starting to look no less robust. Have Republicans considered the possibility that Carson could end up nominee?

They may not be thinking that far ahead, but as for Trump, someone is worried:

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) criticized GOP rival Donald Trump Sunday and said the real estate mogul was talking about things he didn’t understand.

Rubio and Trump have had significant back and forth in their campaigns. Rubio called Trump “very touchy” and “insecure.” Trump has said Rubio is “overly ambitious” and “too young.”

Rubio made additional critiques of Trump in an interview aired Sunday with CNN “State of the Union.”

“I don’t believe that up to this point in the campaign he’s clearly outlined a deep understanding of the issues before this country in a serious way,” Rubio said. “And obviously he has time to change that. We have more debates coming up.”

Rubio said he would support the Republican nominee, but that he felt “comfortable” that it wouldn’t be Trump.

“To this point in the campaign he’s not proven an understanding of these issues or the preparation necessary to be the commander in chief of the most powerful military force in the world,” Rubio said.

Rubio is behind the times. Three months earlier David Atkins explained the situation:

The blue-collar white males who make up the GOP base are struggling more and more as business-friendly trickle-down economic policies continue to rob them of their economic security – but their inherent racism, sexism and distrust of government leads them to inherently reject reasonable liberal solutions in the fear that someone they don’t like might get a “handout” with their tax dollars. Hardcore political Republican partisans are slowly realizing that they no longer hold a silent majority in the country if they ever did, that every passing year demographic change makes their electoral prospects increasingly difficult, and that only a combination of gerrymandering, small-state-favoritism and accidental geographic political self-selection allows them to hold onto the House and Senate for now. And conservatives of all stripes can feel the ground shift underneath them irrevocably as liberals continue to win battles on social issues even as unfiltered left-leaning economic populism becomes increasingly mainstream.

Unwilling and unable to moderate their positions, the Republican base has assumed a pose of irredentist defiance, an insurgent war against perceived liberal orthodoxy in which the loudest, most aggressive warrior becomes their favorite son. It is this insurgent stance that informs their hardline views on guns: many of them see a day coming when their nativist, secessionist political insurgency may become an active military insurgency, and they intend to be armed to the teeth in the event that they deem it necessary. The GOP electorate isn’t choosing a potential president: they’re choosing a rebel leader. The Republican base doesn’t intend to go down compromising. They intend to go down fighting.

That’s why Donald Trump is so popular. That’s why the Republican Party’s brand is weak even among conservatives – because it’s too extreme for everyone else, but not extreme enough for them.

Trump is that rebel leader from the sixties – screw the establishment – power to the people. Now they have guns of course, but at the time, Jeffrey Tucker in Newsweek saw this:

I just heard Trump speak live. The speech lasted an hour, and my jaw was on the floor most of the time. I’ve never before witnessed such a brazen display of nativist jingoism, along with a complete disregard for economic reality. It was an awesome experience, a perfect repudiation of all good sense and intellectual sobriety.

Yes, he is against the establishment, against existing conventions. It also serves as an important reminder: As bad as the status quo is, things could be worse. Trump is dedicated to taking us there.

His speech was like an interwar séance of once-powerful dictators who inspired multitudes, drove countries into the ground and died grim deaths.

That was a reference to Mussolini of course, and now, three months later there’s this:

A protestor attending a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was dragged out of the event Friday and kicked by a man described by the Trump campaign as a rally attendee, reported an NBC affiliate.

The campaign rally, held at the Trump National Miami Doral Resort, was interrupted by three groups who were “chanting pro-immigration messages,” according to the TV station.

The protestor, identified by the NBC affiliate as Ariel Rojas, can be seen in a video being dragged by a man who also kicks him while he’s on the ground before police removed Rojas from the room.

All the while, the crowd chants “USA.”

In the accompanying video, the guy kicking Rojas is wearing a red shirt, not a brown shirt. We’re not talking fascism. We’re talking populism, and Michael Gerson has already discussed that:

The most fateful unanswered question of the 2016 campaign: Is this a populist moment in America?

It certainly sounds like one. The “establishment” is so universally despised that one wonders who is left to compose it. A putsch might find only empty offices. Outsiders with no political experience dominate the Republican field. Hillary Clinton has rapidly lost ground to an endearing but unelectable ideologue. A revolution seems to stir.

But it may not be a populist revolution:

The term itself is famously difficult to define. In one way, historian Michael Kazin told me, populism is a “language, a way of talking about the people and the elites.” It doesn’t really matter if the elites being savaged inhabit Wall Street or the Education Department. By this measure, we are near the triumph of rhetorical populism. But it is more loud and annoying than revolutionary.

Yet populism also has a meaning rooted in American history. At its best, populism is the movement of common people whose interests are ignored in times of economic stress and transformation. In the 19th century, this group was (initially) farmers in the South and West who, in the aftermath of a serious recession, carried large amounts of debt and faced rising prices for transportation and supplies because of monopolies. Activists created economic cooperatives, formed third parties (including the People’s Party) and ran slates of candidates. The movement gained support among laborers and small-business owners. Its demands were serious and structural: freer money, direct election of senators, federal insuring of banks and regulations on the stock market.

This form of populism, nurtured in third parties, took over the Democratic Party at a specific moment: when William Jennings Bryan rose to speak at the Chicago Coliseum in 1896. “Burn down your cities and leave your farms,” Bryan told the Democratic convention, “and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” Bryan demanded a release from the gold standard – “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” – and stood silent, arms outstretched, in a cruciform pose. The New York World described the response: “Everybody seemed to go mad at once… the whole face of the convention was broken by the tumult – hills and valleys of shrieking men and women.”

Bryan ended up winning the Democratic nomination three times.

And then he disappeared, because Democrats aren’t like that:

Democrats remain dominated by a belief in technocratic planning and a faith in experts that may be called progressive but can’t be called populist. The party’s ethos is determined by government managers and the academy. Bryan, if referenced at all, remains a figure of fun, representing all that is backward about small-town America. Bernie Sanders is more of a social democrat than a populist in this sense. He wants the United States, in essence, to be more like Denmark, which is hardly a populist goal.

And then there’s the other guy:

Trump is the utter negation of this form of populism. He is more like Huey Long in his swaggering imitation of a strongman. He is more like the Know-Nothings in his conspiratorial nativism. This is populism gone to moral seed.

The economic stresses of our time are different. But a rising tide does not lift all boats. Many have lost homes and savings. Our political system is closed and polarized. There is a populist longing. There may be a populist opening. But who will be the populist candidate?

Maybe we don’t need one. That’s what David Masciotra contends at Salon, opening with this:

One of the imperishable clichés of American political discourse is the idea that a populist uprising could cure all the ills currently afflicting the nation’s government, economy, and culture.

But that’s always been an issue:

The debate and dichotomy between populism and elitism has its origins in the foundation of the United States. Alexander Hamilton believed that an educated-elite should legislate and lead with the consent of the governed, while Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “nation of farmers” in which the power of ordinary people surges through the halls of capitol buildings everywhere.

It is indisputable that Jefferson has won the hearts of minds of the American people. The Tea Party right and the hard left form an odd consensus of popular revolt. The typical Trump voter and the average Sanders supporter might disagree on most policy questions, but they will agree that the masses must wrestle control of the country from the hands of the greedy, self-serving, and unprincipled elite. Should anyone question the populist assumption, as Mitt Romney did from the far right during his infamous “47 percent” speech, his political career is likely to meet a cruel and painful end.

The informed observer, even if shamed into silence, has to occasionally examine the cultural landscape, the political dialogue, and the average American mind, and wonder: Who the hell are these people that right-wing and left-wing organizers expect to manage the institutions of the country, craft public policy, and offer leadership to an increasingly fragmented and ignorant public?

Masciotra answers his own question:

What the current moment of American politics and culture demands is not the banishment of the elites, as so many with the microphone advocate, but a defense of elitism. The elites are the only people keeping America on balance as a livable and navigable society. The cheapest pop in politics is derision of the “elite,” but who are these elites?

They are the nine percent of Americans with Master’s Degrees, and the three percent of Americans with PhD’s. They are the even smaller percentages of Americans with JDs and MDs. At best, one could make the argument that the elites are those with Bachelor’s Degrees – 19 percent of Americans.

It is certainly true that educational pedigree does not guarantee intelligence, and by no means does it indicate wisdom. Some of the smartest and most talented people I have met never graduated college, but degreed Americans are the ones maintaining the nation’s infrastructure against the odds of inadequate funding. Degreed Americans are the ones making sure that direct deposit money transfers are going into the right accounts, and that schools, even while they decline, are at least teaching something to children and young adults. Degreed Americans are managing the laboratories, and running the hospitals. They are making sure that the buses are arriving at the corner, and the trains are pulling into the stations, on time. They are the ones keeping the books on profitable businesses and solvent city governments. They are the doctors operating on sick people, and they are the social workers making sure that the poor and disabled receive some semblance of assistance in a country committed to cutting out its safety net.

These people don’t look at the world with fresh eyes and ask those deep questions everyone else is afraid to ask. They keep the country running, so there’s a danger here:

In a country of 300 hundred million people, a small slice of elite workers, administrators, managers, and technocrats – 10-20 percent of the public – can keep the wheels turning for a long time. A populist revolt threatens to knock the wagon off the wheel, and consign the country to the ditch. Consider how governmental experience in many Republican and Democratic quarters is now considered a liability to gain insight into the suicidal direction populism is set to take America. Public administration and political legislation are not tasks one can simply learn on the fly. Like any other complicated job, they require knowledge gained through the experience of trial and error. Populism is the last thing a country suffering from institutional decline needs. America needs more elitism, and it needs it fast.

And we’re going in the other direction, or the Republicans are. They’re the ones shouting POWER TO THE PEOPLE – just like old times, except the people in this case are angry old white people, in their sixties and seventies. They refused to shout those words fifty years ago. They’re making up for lost time, but they forget how insufferably smug and stupid those words sounded, and how nothing really changed anyway.

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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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One Response to Fresh Eyes

  1. Rick says:

    It’s a no-brainer that being president is not brain surgery. And this is exactly why Dr. Ben Carson, the brain surgeon, is not qualified to be president, any more than Barack Obama, the president, is qualified to be a brain surgeon.

    That all may be obvious to you and me, but it probably isn’t to the populists who support Carson. Among all the things that populists believe is, you don’t need to be particularly smart to know how to do big things, and it certainly doesn’t take an experienced politician to run a nation of 320 million Americans, with the largest economy and military budget in the world. Anyone with good old common horse sense can probably pick that up after a week or so on the job.

    And right there is one of the many reasons I’m not a big fan of populism. I think it’s better to be smart than be popular. Case in point: Both Donald Trump and Ben Carson are very popular right now. I rest my case.

    Yes, I realize leading in the polls is not really what is meant by “populism”, but in fact, since “populism” has so often crossed party lines down through history, it’s hard to know exactly what is meant by the word. I do think David Masciotra gets history slightly wrong in Salon:

    The debate and dichotomy between populism and elitism has its origins in the foundation of the United States. Alexander Hamilton believed that an educated-elite should legislate and lead with the consent of the governed, while Thomas Jefferson envisioned a “nation of farmers” in which the power of ordinary people surges through the halls of capitol buildings everywhere.

    Yes, Jefferson thought farmers like him and his fellow Virginians to be morally superior to the money-shuffling New Yorkers like Hamilton, but education is not where the two men differed; both of them were big believers in education, which means neither one of them was a populist. It should be remembered, after all, that near the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson founded a university, for godsake!

    When you think of American populism, you think of William Jennings Bryan, who probably learned it at his father’s knee. Bryan’s father was Silas Bryan, a politician of Scots-Irish and English ancestry, and a fervent “Jacksonian” (as opposed to “Jeffersonian”) Democrat:

    Jackson’s equal political policy became known as “Jacksonian Democracy”, subsequent to ending what he termed a “monopoly” of government by elites. Jeffersonians opposed inherited elites but favored educated men while the Jacksonians gave little weight to education. The Whigs were the inheritors of Jeffersonian Democracy in terms of promoting schools and colleges.

    With Jacksonian populism came some good, but also some not-so-good:

    Even before the Jacksonian era began, suffrage had been extended to (nearly) all white male adult citizens, a result the Jacksonians celebrated. … [but] Jackson’s expansion of democracy was largely limited to Americans of European descent, and voting rights were extended to adult white males only. There was little or no progress for African-Americans and Native Americans (in some cases regress).

    Forgetting political parties per se, traditional populism seems more at home among conservatives rather than liberals. Populist movements in this country tend to be crowds of peasants with pitchforks, from the rural farm areas, who don’t like cities and don’t care about your goddam education that makes you doubt God created us all in his image, and who don’t like you elites just out to destroy capitalism with all your global warming talk.

    For example, the bible-thumping anti-education crusader against teaching evolution,William Jennings Bryan, was a famous populist. Another was George Wallace. No, Bernie Sanders isn’t really a populist; before you can be an American populist, you have to be a conservative. Populists are those people who don’t know much about anything but know what they don’t like.

    There are no liberal populists in America, or at least that’s the way it seems. And that’s why I got no truck with populists.

    Rick

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