Monday, February 11, 2008

What Impressed Me This Week: Prosperity and Peace

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts as are only injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. -- Thomas Jefferson

I'm back from my old hometown, Quincy Illinois, where I preached this non-political sermon at the Unitarian Church. It's great fun to go back to the town where you grew up and be the center of attention for a morning. It'd be even greater fun if I'd grown up Unitarian, but I'm not holding my breath for an invitation to preach at my old Lutheran church.

Mitt in 2012
If I had just shut up about my hunch that Romney would win Florida and make a race of it from there, my record of predicting the Republican campaign would have been perfect. I foresaw the rise and fall of Huckabee and was one of the first people to use the phrase "last man standing" about McCain. What can I say? I underestimated the stickiness of Huckabee's evangelical support and I overestimated the influence of right-wing talk radio.

So Romney is out. The thing to note about his early exit -- he still had a lot of support and could have hoped for a miracle -- is that he seems to be anticipating a McCain loss in November and his own re-emergence in 2012. Mythology plays a big role on the Right, and the story Romney is setting up to tell goes like this: He could have beaten McCain one-on-one, but Huckabee and the evangelicals refused to join his coalition. The result was that a false conservative (McCain) won the nomination and the party went down to defeat. The American people did not reject conservatism, just a false presentation of conservatism.

Romney backers are already making the parallel to Reagan's loss to Gerald Ford in 1976. The Washington Times reports a meeting between Mitt and 50 conservative leaders who want him to be "the face of conservatism, as Ronald Reagan became en route to his 1980 election win." So the people who are predicting that the Republicans will unite in the fall are missing an important piece of the story: They'll unite if they think McCain is going to win in November. But if he's going to lose anyway, conservatives would rather not tarnish the conservative brand name. They're already telling themselves that losing this year might be the best thing in the long run.

PolySci 101: Conventions and Delegates
On the Democratic side, my attempts to see the future have been so bad that I should just stop. My predictions about Clinton and Obama have not made anybody wiser or more insightful.

A better use of my effort might be to clarify some of the confusing points of the nominating process. The Democratic Convention will happen in Denver August 25-28. There will be (according to Wikipedia) 4049 delegates. Of those, 3253 are being selected in primaries and caucuses and will be pledged to vote for a particular candidate. The remaining 796 are "superdelegates" -- people who get to vote because they have some position in the party, i.e., senators and representatives, members of the state Democratic committees, and so on. The superdelegates can vote for whomever they want, and can change their minds right up until the last minute. Whoever gets a majority of the delegate votes -- at least 2025 -- will be the nominee.

In addition to the superdelegates, the Michigan and Florida delegations are up for grabs -- 384 delegates between them. The Democratic Party tried to stop the rush of states to have earlier and earlier primaries, but Michigan and Florida defied those rules and were punished by having their primary results discounted. So at the moment there are no plans to seat Michigan or Florida delegates at the convention. This was all announced ahead of time and the candidates had an informal agreement not to campaign in those primaries. But Clinton did not remove her name from the Florida ballot, so she won that primary by default. She also won the Michigan primary, where there was no campaign and it was basically about name recognition.

At this point nobody has a good idea what to do. Seating the Michigan and Florida delegates that were chosen in the primaries gives an undeserved boost to Clinton. Not seating any Michigan or Florida delegates is a good way to piss off two swing states. A do-over primary seems too difficult to pull off at this point. Choosing delegates by some method less open than a primary (say a caucus or a state convention) seems weird after a primary was actually held. Nobody expected a race so close that these delegates would matter, but that's seems to be where we're headed.

In talking to people here and there, I realize that there are a lot of misconceptions about parties and conventions. First, the Constitution says nothing about parties; the Founders knew about the Whigs and Tories in England and hoped we wouldn't have anything like that. Originally, the parties were just clubs of like-minded politicians; they'd get together in their conventions and do whatever they wanted. Because the parties have no constitutional status, the courts still refuse to get involved in any but the most egregious intra-party disputes. So once the convention gets going, for all practical purposes the convention delegates are the party. They can change their own rules and do whatever they want.

The idea that you as a voter should have a say in the party's nomination process is fairly new. As recently as 1960, the primaries were mostly just beauty contests; most states didn't have them and few delegates were at stake. In 1960, John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey ran in the primaries because they were the new guys and had to prove they had appeal beyond their home states. But Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson could ignore the primaries because they were already well known. Johnson finished second to Kennedy in delegates, and Stevenson was hoping to be chosen if Kennedy couldn't manage a first-ballot majority and the convention deadlocked. Theodore White's The Making of the President 1960 is a good reference.

In the days before television, conventions were real political battlegrounds, not the packaged media events of recent years. Delegates could change their minds and deals were brokered in "smoke-filled rooms." The 1920 Republican convention had to vote ten times before settling on Warren Harding, who had not been considered a serious candidate before the convention started. The last convention not to result in a first-ballot nomination was the Democratic convention of 1952: Adlai Stevenson was the second-place candidate on the first and second ballots, but came out with a majority on the third.

The best way to get a handle on what a "brokered convention" might be like is to go back and read the political novels of the 1960s, which I loved as a teen-ager: Convention by Fletcher Knebel is one. Capable of Honor -- the third novel in the Advise and Consent series by Allen Drury -- is another. I thought Convention was also made into a movie, but actually I was remembering The Best Man, with Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as rival candidates.

The War Over a Word
One very interesting battle in the ongoing culture war is the struggle to control the word fascism. In an era of torture, secret prisons, warrantless wiretapping, and wars based on propaganda, you might expect it to be pretty clear who the fascists are. But in fact there's a fairly serious attempt on the right to co-opt the word for their own purposes.

The most visible new usage, of course, is Islamofascism, which basically means that you're Muslim and Dick Cheney doesn't like you. So, bin Laden wasn't an Islamofascist when he fought to throw the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but he is now that he wants the U.S. out of Afghanistan. The mullahs who run Iran are Islamofascists, but the members of the House of Saud aren't, even though Saudi society is more religiously strict and less westernized than Iranian society. Other than perhaps Syria, the Middle Eastern regimes closest to the classical fascism of Hitler and Mussolini are the military-dominated governments of Pakistan and Egypt, but they're U.S. allies, so they can't possibly be Islamofascists.

And then there's Liberal Fascism, a new book by the National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg. (Reviews here, here, and here. Interview with Goldberg here.) In the interview Goldberg defines fascism as:
a religious impulse that resides in all of us -- left, right, black, white, tall, short -- to seek unity in all things, to believe that we need to all work together to go past any of our disagreements and that the state needs to be, almost simply as a pragmatic matter, the pace-setter, the enforcer of this cult of unity. That is what I believe fascism is.
So when the government bans smoking in bars, that's fascism because it imposes uniform behavior on us. I don't think Goldberg comments on speed limits, but he does go on to equate the word holistic with totalitarian. I shouldn't trash a book I haven't read, but I doubt you'll be shocked to hear that this sounds like nonsense to me. I suspect the book is an intentional effort to make the word fascist meaningless and unusable, at precisely the time when we should be thinking seriously about it.

I was much more impressed with American Fascists: the Christian Right and the War on America by Chris Hedges. He's talking about the Dominionists, an apocalyptic core of the religious right that believes it has a mission to take over the United States government and from there the world. I'll have more to say about that thesis in some future post. (The main point of that future post: Because Dominionists are a small group embedded seamlessly in a much larger Christian community, we need to apply counter-insurgency principles in opposing them. An over-reaction against them creates collateral damage that builds their cause. That's what's so misguided about anti-religious screeds like Sam Harris' The End of Faith.)

One of the most insightful parts of Hedges' book is a reprinting of Umberto Eco's attempt to define fascism from 1995. For Eco, one of the key elements of fascism is a "cult of tradition." Mussolini worshiped Italy's Roman heritage -- the name fascism comes from the fasces, a ceremonial weapon carried by the attendants of the Roman consuls. Hitler wasn't fascinated by the consuls or the Caesars, but idealized the spirit of the German Volk. The cult of tradition gives fascism a local element that makes it look different everywhere it appears. (By contrast, Communism has an international identity that makes it easier to spot and oppose. As the Beatles sang, "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.") An American fascism, then, wouldn't wave swastikas and quote Hitler, it would look back to some idealized American past.

Another Eco point (there are 14 of them) is that in fascism "the enemy" plays a symbolic role that is full of contradictions. Mostly notably, the enemy is both weak and strong. (For the religious right, liberals are wimpy and yet the liberal establishment is somehow all-powerful.) In view of how things are going in Iraq and Afghanistan, this observation looks prescient: "Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy."

What a Signing Statement Looks Like
When President Bush doesn't like something in a bill that Congress passes, he usually doesn't veto it. Instead, he attaches a signing statement saying that he reserves the right to do as he pleases. After all, he's the Decider -- how dare Congress pass "laws" that try to tell him what he can and can't do?

If you've ever wondered what a signing statement looks like, here's the one he attached to the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill. The whole statement is just two paragraphs, and the content is here:

Provisions of the Act, including sections 841, 846, 1079, and 1222, purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the President's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as Commander in Chief. The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President.

Notice that the four sections in question just "purport" to impose requirements, and that the word "including" implies that President Bush may choose not to be bound by other sections of the bill that he doesn't bother to name.

So what's in those four sections? Fortunately the law itself is a matter of public record -- we haven't gone quite that far down the rabbit hole yet. But we're left to speculate just how those sections "inhibit" the President or in what circumstances he might "construe" them. Marty Lederman on Balkinization does this kind of speculation better than I can. The easiest one to understand is Section 1222, which forbids using any of the funds appropriated in the bill to build permanent bases in Iraq. So I guess that's the plan, whether Congress likes it or not.

Muslim, Not Islamic
Juan Cole has written a really excellent article explaining what is wrong with a lot of the right-wing rhetoric about Islam, and why it's going to cause resentment for years to come. One quick point he makes: Islamic and Muslim are not synonyms. Something is Islamic if it belongs to the religion of Islam, but Muslim if it has to do with the human beings who practice Islam. For example, Islamic art would be art considered sacred within Islam, while Muslim art is just art by Muslims. If some guy named Omar paints a Coke can, that's Muslim art -- not Islamic art.

Now consider how offensive the phrase Islamic terrorist is. Muslim terrorist is just descriptive: this guy is a terrorist and he's a Muslim. Islamic terrorist, on the other hand, contains an implication that Islam itself is a terrorist religion. Islamofascism implies that Islam is a fascist religion.

I've been trying to come up with a parallel. Here's the best I can do: Guy Fawkes was a Catholic terrorist in Protestant England during the reign of King James I. Catholics at the time were sometimes called "papists," which was derogatory but also descriptive. So "papist terrorist" would have been a hostile but basically accurate description of Fawkes. On the other hand, calling him a "papal terrorist" would have implied that he had the blessing of the Pope, and that the Pope himself was a terrorist. Catholics who had nothing to do with Fawkes might well have been offended.

Neoconservative rhetoric has long tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, shortly after 9/11 President Bush tried to be reassuring: "The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace." In other words, we're just fighting a small band of terrorists, we're not in a clash of civilizations with the world's one billion Muslims. But over time administration rhetoric has shifted from terms like "war on terror" to target "Islamic extremists" and "Islamic fascists." The implication -- made explicit by allies outside the administration -- is that we are at war with one billion Muslims. I guarantee you that's how they hear it.

The reader-comments attached to Cole's article are illustrative. This one collects a bunch of context-free Koran quotes to "prove" that Islam is a terrorist religion -- as if you couldn't collect a similar list out of Bible. And Cole responds.

Short Notes
The mainstream media seems not to have noticed, but casualties in Iraq are creeping up again. The monthly low was 23 American deaths in December, down from 126 in May. But we had 40 American troops die in January and we're on pace for more than that in February. The "victory" that Bush and McCain talk about seems as far away as ever.

The new FISA bill is about to pass in the Senate. Telecom immunity is still in it. The House could take it out, but that hope seems dim. Here's the latest from Glenn Greenwald. Former terrorism czar Richard Clarke comments: "it is no surprise that in one of Bush's last acts of relevance, he once again played the fear card. While he has failed in spreading democracy, stemming global terrorism, and leaving the country better off than when he took power, he did achieve one thing: successfully perpetuating fear for political gain."

Our political system is not the only one where money is eroding trust. The Daily Mail estimates that Tony Blair has made ten million pounds (around $20 million) since leaving office, including an annual salary of more than two million pounds each for advising two financial firms: J.P. Morgan and Zurich. That must be some fabulous advice he's giving.

In one of his more outrageous moments, President Bush concluded his remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday by saying "Listen, the stakes in November are high. This is an important election. Prosperity and peace are in the balance." Yep, that's what the Bush years will be remembered for: prosperity and peace. It turns out I was not the only one to be reminded of the great Onion satire of Bush's inaugural address in 2001: "Our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is over." And so it was.


OpenID Lance Brown said...

Hey Doug,

Excellent post, as usual. Got one issue. You have the same link for both the prooftexting letter in response to Cole's article, and Cole's response to the prooftexting letter.


2:28 PM  
Blogger Doug Muder said...

Thanks, Lance. Fixed it.

4:10 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home