The Coming Aftermath

25 September 2012


Excursus on US Electoral Futurism

For the most part I avoid writing about US domestic politics, but I did write a series of posts about the beleaguered Republican Party after its defeat in the previous election cycle. These posts included the following:

The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown

More on Republican Disarray

Of Weeds and Flowers

The Republican’s Existential Crisis

Republican Evolution

Another Nail in the Republican Coffin

Why do I usually avoid writing about US electoral politics? Several reasons. Among these reasons are the saturation media coverage of the event, the fact that I find it all deadly dull, and the likelihood that whatever I write will be misconstrued. Since I am a US citizen and a resident of the US, my objectivity is likely to be questioned, and it would be assumed that I write with a partisan agenda. This last is probably decisive.

While the idea (much less the ideal) of objectivity is not highly valued today, and many would say that the denial of the very possibility of objectivity is one of the central features of postmodernism, I take a great pride in my objectivity, and I would not want to be thought to be just another voice repeating one party line or another. What is objectivity? At least part of objectivity is the continual struggle against anything that might prejudice, distort, or alter that which is demonstrably the case. At least one form of the failure of objectivity, then, is the underdetermination of an account of things. Thus we see that a political perspective is a theory about the world that is underdetermined by the evidence.

Domestic US politics is especially vulnerable to those who are passionately committed to one side or the other thinking themselves into a frame of mind in which they really believe to be true that which they want to be true. The passionate state of mind distorts everything by interpreting it in accordance with an underdetermined political theory. Once a person thinks themselves into such a frame of mind it is extraordinarily difficult to reason with them. It is probably better not to try, so instead we must simply set aside the passionately committed.

If we set such persons aside, there remains a core of commentators who don’t allow themselves to be swayed by partisan rants. Among this core, you would be hard-pressed to find any who thought that Romney would win the election. Now that Romney’s fate has been sealed by the release of the secretly recorded video from Mother Jones magazine, it is worthwhile considering the ramifications of Romney’s coming defeat.

The press must of course pretend that there is still a contest, but it isn’t much of a contest. While recent events have driven home the unlikelihood of a Romney victory in the general election, as I noted above, almost no one really thought he would win. Objective Republicans can read polls just as well as objective Democrats, and they all knew that it would be difficult if not impossible to defeat President Obama in the present election. It is for exactly this reason that several prominent Republican candidates chose not to run. If the president had been viewed as highly vulnerable, stronger candidates who did not want an embarrassing defeat on their record would have joined the contest.

There will be those who say that US presidential elections are always predicated upon domestic economics, and that the softness of the US economy made Obama vulnerable. Yes, that is true, but vulnerability is not always the same as defeatability. It is likely that the domestic economy will take several points off Obama’s margin of victory, but these points won’t be enough to make a difference. A sufficiently large margin of victory can absorb a certain amount of vulnerability.

So my first prediction, apart from the now-obvious prediction that President Obama will win the general election, is that the commentators will wear themselves out telling the public how usual and unprecedented it is for a president to be reelected with the domestic economy in such poor condition. This spin will in turn be further spun to make the claim that President Obama’s reelection represents a truly profound shift in US electoral politics. (It does, by the way, but it will not be the shift that the commentators will identify; I have already identified the actual shift in Appearance and Reality in Demographics.)

Probably many of the commentators who will appear on television on election night have already written their scripts, so that they can appear to have had penetrating insights into the nature of the result spontaneously as the numbers begin to come in. Like I said above, none of this is a surprise to anyone. In fact, the biggest surprise will be to see how exactly the coming aftermath plays out. Here there remain several unknowns.

A careful observer of US electoral history will have noticed that so many statistics are kept on US elections that it is nearly inevitable that every time a US presidential election is held, some statistical trend that has always perfectly predicted the election in the past is upended, therefore demonstrating the “unprecedented” nature of the election. While it is true that some statistical correlations are more robust and significant than others, there is nothing surprising in and of itself that each and every election should involve a statistically unprecedented result. In fact, I would even say that it is statistically inevitable that there will always be statistically unprecedented results. If not, we wouldn’t bother to hold elections, because the outcome would always be determined on the basis of precedent.

One of the most obvious consequences of the Republicans losing two presidential elections sequentially will be a strong call from within the Republican Party to do something — to do anything — to make sure that they don’t lose again. For one party to be permanently shut out of a duopoly on power is for the duopoly to cease to function and for the party out of power to become restive. Such crises often result in highly pragmatic electioneering that focuses on finding a candidate for the next election who can win. All standards other than electability tend to go by the board. Whether this pressure for pragmatism overcomes the the pressure for ideological conformity is an unknown. It is not impossible that “country club Republicans” could re-take control of the party, expel the evangelicals (who would likely go on to form their own minor but ineradicable party), and return to a classic (i.e., pre-Reagan) Republican agenda, but it is not likely either.

Another obvious consequence is that the Democrats, after two sequential presidential victories, may indulge in triumphalism and consequently engage in ideological overreach that will cost them in local elections two years hence. There will be some democrats who understand the underlying demographic realities resulting in their victories, but many if not most will view the victory as an ideological victory and will claim, and perhaps also attempt to live by the idea, that the US electorate is permanently re-aligning itself with a Democratically-defined political ideology. Depending upon how much Democrats attempt to live by this delusion, the Republicans may be able to count upon a reaction that will return them to power — at least temporarily.

One of the medium- to long-term consequences of President Obama’s reelection to a second term and the consequent heightened soul-searching within the Republican party that is sure to follow, will be whether the Republicans choose to change their orientation so that they do not face extinction as a political party. Ideologically motivated Republicans felt that the last election was lost due to a failure of ideological purity. If this faction should triumph within the Republican Party, the party is doomed is irrelevance and eventual extinction. This in itself presents a fascinating problem.

Many commentators over recent years have made a point of reporting the “gridlock” in the US political system. The really interesting question if Republicans fail to reform themselves and if political gridlock persists is this: how can an another party emerge to take the place of the Republican party in the duopoly of the US two-party system in the midst of political gridlock? And if political gridlock has made the US political system too sclerotic even to change, how can the status quo be maintained when the Republicans are experiencing a gradual dissolution as a viable political party?

Whether the coming aftermath is a bloodbath or a re-alignment, it will be perhaps more interesting to watch than the usual US domestic melodrama.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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More on Republican Disarray

19 November 2008

Recently in my The Strategic Consequences of Republican Meltdown I characterized the Republican Party as being on the verge of collapse as a result of its electoral defeat. Also in my The Difference Four Years Can Make I made the claim that, “If the Democrats can retain the discipline they are showing at present … they can look forward to many years as the party in power.”

Both of these discussions were inadequate. The problem of the contemporary Republican Party is, like everything else in the world, quite complex once you get into the details. And there are details for every taste. There are always countless ways to break down the vote, and many are the statisticians who obsess over the details of electoral postmortem.I do not want to deny the value of such inquiries, but such are not germane to our present train of thought.

In my Today’s Thought on Civilization I formulated this general principle concerning the historical viability of a civilization: a civilization fails when it fails to change when the world changes. Now, to speak of civilizations is to speak at a level of profound historical generality and abstractness. To say something meaningful about the contemporary Republican Party requires a great deal more detail (hence complexity) and a great deal less generality and abstraction. However, one need not lose sight of principles in delving into detail. On the contrary, and in a Kantian spirit, one can say that “principles with applications are empty, while applications without principles are blind.”

And indeed the general principle enunciated above has clear implications for historical entities less comprehensive than civilizations. We can both achieve a greater generality for the principle, as well as to make it applicable to particular circumstances, by turning it into the following schema: “an x fails when it fails to change when the world changes” where the schematic letter “x” is a variable for which we can substitute different historical entities ceteris paribus (as the philosophers say). So we can say, “A city fails when it fails to change… ” or “A union fails when it fails to change… ” or (more to the point at present), “A political party fails when it fails to change when the world changes.”

How has the world changed, and how has the Republican Party failed to change, thus rendering doubtful its long-term viability? If anyone is to take seriously the claim that the Republican Party is threatened with dissolution due to a true “sea change”, and not merely that it has suffered an electoral defeat from which it will recover in time, the case must be made as to why the change, both in the world and in the Republican Party, represents a genuine novelty and not more of the same.

In the recent past the Republicans controlled the presidency and both houses of congress. Noises were made about a permanent Republican majority. Now the tables have turned, and the Democrats have (or will soon have) the presidency and both houses of congress. Why should we not expect the pendulum to swing, in good time? Why should we not expect the tide to turn again? The case could be made on obvious demographics, but ours is not a demographic inquiry. Our contention is that the world has changed, and that the Republicans have either not changed in order to keep up with the world, or that they have changed in the wrong way, so that they fall out of sync with the Zeitgeist. To be more specific, I make both claims: 1) in some ways the Republicans have failed to change, and 2) the Republicans have changed in ways that will work against their broad (hence national) electoral appeal.

With Karl Rove’s strategy of pumping up the base and essentially abandoning the swing vote, the Republicans took two presidential election cycles. How was it different in the most recent election cycle? The difference lies in the distinction between a necessary condition and a sufficient condition. The votes of religious conservatives alone, or even their votes along with those of their fellow travelers in the Republican Party, are no longer sufficient to elect a president. Everyone knew during the last election cycle that getting the votes of religious conservatives was a necessary condition for the Republican candidate to be elected president. However, though it was a necessary condition, it was not yet a sufficient condition.

During a previous election cycle I heard religious conservatives begin to refer to themselves as “people of faith”. Now, you must understand that “people of faith” was a code word introduced for the express purpose of grouping politically conservative fundamentalist Christians together. What is the significance of this? This term, eo ipso, marks a turn. It makes of the conservative Christian vote simply another interest group. And in American politics, being just another interest group, albeit a powerful one, is a world away from representing Nixon’s “silent majority”. An interest group is, by definition, a self-defined minority, that is to say, a minority that defines itself by excluding others. No one wins elections by exclusivity. Elections are won by inclusivity.

People of faith” is precisely analogous to “people of color”, but whereas the evolution of the world is on the side of the increased influence of so-called “people of color”, self-identifying “people of faith” do not represent the direction that the world is moving, nor the direction that the US is going. Yes, I am well aware that the vast majority of Americans self-identify as being religious, thus, in a sense, as being “people of faith”. But a recent poll revealed interesting complexity behind the apparent monolithic facade of organized religion. Because in the US social disapproval is mobilized against the tiny fraction of the population that does not self-identify with any religious tradition, very few people bother to take this stand. Few people care enough to pay the price for such non-conformity. However, since any kind of religious affiliation is judged better than no religious affiliation at all, that is exactly what we have: people by and large self-identify with some “faith tradition”, indeed with any faith tradition, but these traditions are many and various, and they are not well represented by those who self-identify as “people of faith”. As the Pew Forum put the matter, “…religious affiliation in the U.S. is both very diverse and extremely fluid.”

It was one of the lasting insights of Marx that certain kinds of societies produce certain kinds of people. Institutions (economic and otherwise) shape individuals. Or we could say that individuals recapitulate institutions. We need not follow the details of Marxist theory in order to see the validity of this idea (and if you are uncomfortable in presence of a Marxist idea, just think of it as one of the fundamental insights of structuralism, of which Marx was an early representative). We cannot escape our institutions, and our institutions are democratic. The free market of ideas has also yielded a free market in faiths, and since religious toleration is taken seriously in the US, competing denominations find themselves in free-for-all competition for souls. This may sound unseemly, but it is a fact of American life. This is the direction that the world, especially US society, is heading, and this is not the direction that the Republican Party is heading, and that is why the Republican Party is heading toward marginalization even in the face of regional strength.

The change that the world is experiencing in the large, and which US society is experiencing at a slightly smaller scale, is toward the diversity and fluidity of the Zeitgeist. That is to say, today’s change is toward change itself. Thus to return to our principles enunciated above, the change that the Republicans have made that is contrary to the direction in which other change is moving, is to increasingly identify themselves with an exclusive interest group of self-identified “people of faith” that excludes the diversity and fluidity identified by recent Pew Forum research. The change that the Republicans have failed to make is to develop an inclusive mechanism for accommodating diversity and fluidity. This can still be done, but there is no sign yet that it is being done or will be done The question is not, “Can the Republicans reinvent themselves?” but rather, “Are the Republicans willing to reinvent themselves?”

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Grand Strategy Annex

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