In the Dismal Swamp

In Nathaniel West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts – yes, a bit obscure – in the chapter “Miss Lonelyhearts in the Dismal Swamp” – that’s meant somewhat ironically – there’s this passage:

He sat in the window thinking. Man has a tropism for order. Keys in one pocket, change in another. Mandolins are tuned G D A E. The physical world has a tropism for disorder, entropy. Man against Nature… the battle of the centuries. Keys yearn to mix with change. Mandolins strive to get out of tune. Every order has within it the germ of destruction. All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile.

We find out later that Miss Lonelyhearts, a big-city male reporter who somehow got stuck writing the “personal advice” column, the “agony” column, was wrong about that – the battle is absurd. He dies, absurdly, shot by a somewhat dimwitted enraged husband for something that never happened. Oh well. Nathaniel West then moved out here to Hollywood, from New York, and in a small apartment over on Ivar, wrote that famous novel Day of the Locust – all alienation and desperation, the tale of a disparate group of people whose dreams of success have, in fact, failed – Faye the starlet, Claude Estee the big-time producer, Homer Simpson, the hopelessly clumsy “everyman” – yes, that’s where Matt Groening got the name – Abe Kusich, the tiny, vicious gangster, Earle Shoop the cowboy and Miguel the Mexican, his sidekick, Adore Loomis, the spoiled child star, and her doting stage-mother. The novel ends with a giant riot and massive fires that destroy Hollywood and then all of Los Angeles. It’s a metaphor for America. Things fall apart. Every order has within it the germ of destruction.

It’s the same in politics. Something went wrong a long time ago, if a long time ago is 2007, when John Dean was talking about broken government:

In almost four decades of involvement in national politics, much of them as a card-carrying Republican, I was never concerned that the GOP posed a threat to the well-being of our nation. Indeed, the idea would never have occurred to me, for in my experience the system took care of excesses, as it certainly did in the case of the president for whom I worked. But in recent years the system has changed, and is no longer self-correcting. Most of that change has come from Republicans, and much of it is based on their remarkably confrontational attitude, an attitude that has clearly worked for them. For example, I cannot imagine any Democratic president keeping cabinet officers as Bush has done with his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, men whom both Democrats and Republicans judged to be incompetent. Evidence that the system has changed is also apparent when a president can deliberately and openly violate the law – as, for example, simply brushing aside serious statutory prohibitions against torture and electronic surveillance – without any serious consequences. Similarly, but on a lesser scale, Alberto Gonzales faced no consequences when he politicized the Department of Justice as never before, allowing his aides to violate the prohibitions regarding hiring career civil servants based on their party affiliation, and then gave false public statements and testimony about the matter. When the Senate sought to pass a resolution expressing “no confidence” in the attorney general, the Republicans blocked it with a filibuster.

Dean had already written a book about that and in 2012, Thomas E. Mann of the Brookings Institution, and Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute – one from the center right, one from the center left – gave us It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism:

Two sources of the problem are given. The first is the serious mismatch between the two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, in their view. They state that the groups “have become as vehemently adversarial as parliamentary parties and in a governing system that, unlike a parliamentary democracy, makes it extremely difficult for majorities to act”.

Mann and Ornstein specifically criticize the right-ward move of the Republican Party, especially the use of administrative and parliamentary tricks to keep from having clear votes on some issues. The authors describe the party as “an insurgent outlier- ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

They remark, “Acrimony and hyperpartisanship have seeped into every part of the political process. Congress is deadlocked and its approval ratings are at record lows. America’s two main political parties have given up their traditions of compromise, endangering our very system of constitutional democracy.”

Mann and Ornstein also write, “Both sides in politics are no more necessarily equally responsible than a hit-and-run driver and a victim; reporters don’t treat them as equivalent, and neither should they reflexively treat the parties that way.”

Mann and Ornstein, like Dean, blamed the Republicans, and they also blamed the cowardly media for that both-sides-are-at-fault nonsense, but unlike Dean, Mann and Ornstein also identified a structural problem. We don’t have a parliamentary democracy, where, when things aren’t working, a no-confidence vote ends the current government, new elections are called, and everyone with an axe to grind, the hyper-partisans, has to find a way to win enough seats to form a new government, which always seems to mean cutting deals with those who don’t agree with you on much but can give you the majority you need, at a price.

That sort of system buffers extremism, as new governments are formed again and again, on no particular schedule. Gridlock is relieved immediately. Gridlock cannot go on forever – no one will stand for it – but we have a system where we’re stuck with a president for four or eight years, and senators for six years, and representatives forever, as they serve an endless series of two-year terms because our political parties, at the state level, have drawn district lines that have created totally “safe” seats. No one from the other party should even bother to run against the incumbents in those districts, and then add this – both the party that controls the executive and the party that controls the legislature have equal claims to democratic legitimacy. Both were elected by “the people” of course. Who has the mandate?

Those are the seeds of destruction, and Matthew Yglesias has argued that this means the end of our democracy:

America’s constitutional democracy is going to collapse.

Someday – not tomorrow, not next year, but probably sometime before runaway climate change forces us to seek a new life in outer-space colonies – there is going to be a collapse of the legal and political order and its replacement by something else. If we’re lucky, it won’t be violent. If we’re very lucky, it will lead us to tackle the underlying problems and result in a better, more robust, political system. If we’re less lucky, well, then, something worse will happen.

It’s happening. The odd structure of our government – few nations have our sort of presidential democracy – was bound to seize up sooner or later. Now it has, as Slate’s Josh Keating notes:

Without any prior knowledge of the 2016 election, a viewer of this week’s two primary debates might reasonably be under the impression that the Democrats and Republicans aren’t running against each other, but rather for the leadership of two different countries.

He sees Democrats and Republicans addressing entirely different problems:

Sunday’s Democratic debate included an extended conversation on the connection between opioid abuse and rising rates of heroin addiction, as well as Wall Street regulation and climate change. These issues didn’t come up at all at Thursday’s GOP debate. The Republicans did discuss drugs back in September, but mostly focused on the question of legalizing marijuana. When climate change has come up in the Republican debates, it’s been mostly to ridicule the Obama administration’s focus on the issue, whereas Bernie Sanders stands by his argument that it’s America’s most pressing national security threat.

Topics that get heavy play in the Republican debate but are largely absent by the Democrats include economic competition from China, immigration, Benghazi, military spending, and “radical Islam” – both the phrase and the actual ideology. China and Benghazi did get some play in the very first Democratic debate back in October but mostly because Jim Webb was around to bring them up.

Yes, some of the selection of topics is in the hands of the debate moderators, but the moderators have tended to focus on the topics that have been most salient in the respective primaries. And when candidates have had opportunity to raise issues on their own, they’ve tended to choose ones of little interest to the other party. Hillary Clinton devoted her closing remarks tonight to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. Martin O’Malley brought up Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.

Republicans, by contrast, tend to pivot whenever possible to terrorism and national security. Thursday night’s GOP debate began with a question to Ted Cruz about the Obama administration’s economic record, which he began by invoking “the sight of 10 American sailors on their knees, with their hands on their heads.”

This is beyond arguing who has the mandate to fix the problems at hand. What one side sees as the problem at hand the other side doesn’t see as a pressing problem:

The Republicans are making the case that the world is, as Chris Christie puts it, “literally on fire.” For Democrats, the problem that needs addressed now is power – the concentration of wealth and privilege in the hands of the few. There’s not a whole lot of common ground between these two conversations and it will be fascinating to see which one dominates when these parties are finally forced to talk to each other later this year.

Perhaps each side will have nothing to say to the other side. They’ll have to first argue about what they should be arguing about, and there seems no way to resolve this. Each of our political parties will go on its merry way, one of them will win the presidency, and the losing party will feel that the “real” problems will now never be addressed.

Some of that is happening already:

During the Sunday Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) bashed Republican politicians who do not take climate change seriously, calling out Donald Trump for his theory that the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese.

“It is amazing to me, and I think we’ll have agreement on this up here, that we have a major party called the Republican Party that is so owned by the fossil fuel industry, and their campaign contributions, that they don’t even have the courage, the decency to listen to the scientists,” Sanders said. “It is beyond my comprehension how we can elect a president of the United States, somebody like Trump who believes that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese.”

Trump did say that in 2012 and may still be saying that. He says lots of things, but the Atlantic’s Molly Ball sees the Republican Party itself on the verge of coming apart:

Charleston, South Carolina – For a certain type of Republican, the fantasy world where Donald Trump is not winning the GOP primary is a very nice place to live.

Beth Hansen, the campaign manager for John Kasich, is this type of Republican. Hansen is speaking to a crowd that’s gathered in a smokehouse bar in this city’s elegant, cobblestoned downtown, describing vividly a world where Kasich, the unvarnished, moderate governor of Ohio, is actually poised to win. This is not, to put it mildly, a world most political observers can currently envision.

“Our surge in New Hampshire is less than four weeks away!” Hansen says, to scattered applause from the group of several dozen clean-cut people in bow ties and long wool coats. “I feel really good about our ground game,” she adds. “We don’t rely on the public polls.”

Anecdote after anecdote follows that. There are two different worlds here:

Pragmatic and impeccably credentialed, Kasich sits on the opposite end of the GOP spectrum from Trump and Cruz. He is the ultimate avatar of the party’s governing class – and his utter failure to gain traction represents that faction’s rejection by the party base.

The people gathered to see Kasich want to believe what Hansen is saying, but some admit to being worried. “I’m here because it’s time for me to do something – I can’t just sit on the sidelines,” a wide-eyed 56-year-old woman in a yellow scarf tells me. “I’m a Republican, but I am definitely not a Trump or Cruz fan. That is not who the party is, in my judgment.” If one of them wins the nomination, she says, “I don’t know where I’ll go.”

There is nowhere to go:

The day before Kasich’s appearance here, the president gave his last state of the union address, devoting the final section to decrying the “voices urging us to fall back into tribes, to scapegoat fellow citizens” – the sort of dark demagoguery that is the basis of Trump’s flamboyant appeal. In the official Republican response, the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, gave a speech in which she, too, decried Trumpism: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.” Taken together, the two speeches amounted to a collective cri de coeur from the professional political class, under attack from a powerful and seemingly unstoppable insurgency.

Perhaps the GOP’s chaos is just normal pre-primary tension, when an active contest naturally creates an air of conflict, and candidates have an incentive to warn against their rivals in urgent terms. But for many Republicans – the ones not living in fantasyland – the current battle for the party, between the nihilistic forces of Trump and Cruz on the one hand and the uninspiring conventional politicians on the other, feels like something deeper. It feels like a duel from which only one participant will walk away. It feels like the party is on the brink of breaking apart.

It is:

If Trump or Cruz does win, he will have laid bare the vacuum where once sat the Republican establishment. Yes, there are the donors, people who give the party a lot of money and think this ought to get them something in return; Trump is running against them. (No less a GOP bigwig than Charles Koch recently lamented his lack of influence on the party.) There are the lobbyists and consultants, but Trump doesn’t listen to them either. There are the elected officials, but they are held hostage by their constituents. There is no smoke-filled room where the poo-bahs could go to work out a deal and end this. In an age of radical disintermediation, parties can’t tell the people what to do. (The Democrats, it should be noted, are struggling with their own version of this same problem.)

They are? Not like this:

As much as the mainline GOP loathes Trump, it may detest Ted Cruz even more. Cruz led the pointless and counterproductive shutdown, hurting the bottom line of the party’s business wing, and then got the last laugh when Republicans, despite dire warnings to the contrary, still won the next election going away. He has called Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, a liar on the floor of the Senate. Big-business lobbies like the Chamber of Commerce find him “totally unacceptable,” and he wears their revulsion as a badge of honor – a credential that proves he may be in Washington, but he is not of it.

Some Republicans, who have moved through the stages of grief from denial to bargaining, if not yet acceptance, have begun to suggest that Trump might be preferable to Cruz. Trump is, if you squint, a sort of moderate Republican; he’s a dealmaker; and surely he’s craven enough to reverse his most alienating positions and say what people want to hear if he gets to the general election. Cruz, on the other hand, is an ideologue. The scariest prospect of all is that he really means what he says…

Things fall apart. Yes, as many have said, the party brought this on itself, but, to use West’s metaphor, even well-tuned mandolins strive to get out of tune. Each string seems to have a mind of its own, and in this case, who is tuning the instrument? There’s no one. Entropy wins, every damned time.

As for the Democrats, Ball may be wrong about them. Josh Marshall, after the last debate, sees something different:

My first response to this debate is just how wildly different the Democratic debates are from the Republican debates. Some small part of that is tied to just how many Republican candidates there are. Some of it turns on the especially incendiary personalities of some of those candidates. But most of it turns on relative primacy of factual discussion in the Democratic debates and the lack of the bellicose often verging on apocalyptic rhetoric that has become the baseline of the Republican conversation.

Put simply, the Republican debates are great in publishing terms. I’ll grant that they are high drama. They’re toxic in civic terms.

This wasn’t that:

One of my big questions going into tonight was whether Clinton would really bring her recent kind of hard-charging, aggressive, almost cartoonish attacks on Sanders into the debate hall. Mostly she didn’t. She hit hard at a few points at the beginning. But her critiques, especially on health care were more subtle and refined and sounded less desperate than recent headlines generated by her campaign.

On the other side of the equation, I think she’s somewhat defused by Sanders himself. He simply doesn’t have that kind of brass knuckle politics in him. Even when he gets his hackles up a bit, every response from him is inherently defusing. There’s less charge in the air, less animus after he speaks than before. And I mean all this in both the good and bad senses in which you might understand what I’m saying. At a very basic level, just temperamentally, he doesn’t seem to have time for this stuff.

That created an odd sort of equilibrium:

I thought Hillary Clinton did very well in this debate. She was quick on her feet, deeply knowledgeable. She shows herself as unflappable. Several times I heard her answering questions in ways that were subtle, knowledgeable and showed a tendency not to go for the political answer but to highlight complexities in highly politicized questions which are often ignored. I was impressed.

But Sanders did well too. His words and his very manner communicate a fundamental decency and impatience with bullshit which is deeply appealing. If you believe the country needs deep and even radical reform, particularly on economic policy, he is your guy. One of the things that make him such a good messenger for this message is that while his message is radical and he speaks about “revolutionary” change there’s little in the man that seems impulsive, hasty or trigger happy. There’s a certain temperamental caution which balances that deep-seated belief that only thorough-going change can address the nation problems.

The instrument stayed in tune. Clinton and Sanders each have different ideas about how to solve the agreed-upon pressing problems of the day, even if most Republicans have never heard of those problems – but Donald Trump says he will get Apple to “start building their damn computers and things” here in the United States – which might solve some imaginary problem – but then the Democrats want to solve the problem of global warming, which the Republicans see as wholly imaginary. What are these people going to talk about after each party chooses its nominee? And after one or the other wins the presidency, how can they govern when the government is structured so that they really have no mandate, not to mention that if the Republican wins, half of the Republican Party will be outraged and sit on their hands? That’s where we find ourselves.

What did Nathaniel West say? All order is doomed, yet the battle is worthwhile? Sure, and then, in the first novel, Miss Lonelyhearts dies a meaningless death, and in the second novel a despairing Homer Simpson sets the world on fire and everything burns to the ground. There are dark days ahead. Every order has within it the germ of destruction.


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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