Sunday, July 30, 2017

Plus ça Change...

I was looking through a number of old blog posts from 2008, and I was amazed by something. While my predictions about Obama proved wrong, it is interesting to read what I wrote, as, though I was describing the 2008 primary and election, I could have been writing about 2016. At the time I thought Obama was sui generis, a one-off one-trick candidate, who hoped to ride to victory on a platform-free campaign -- a strategy I expected to fail -- yet I now think I may have been simply spotting the coming trend, the new wave in politics, as it appears not only did Obama manage to succeed despite all the pitfalls I predicted, the strategy he used is almost the same strategy with which Trump would win in 2016.

For example, in "The Obama Hangover", I wrote the following:
As I have said before, Obama has managed to build up a strong base among left-leaning Demcorats on the basis of being a non-entity upon which they can project their hopes. In large part, this is fueled by their absolute loathing of the current administration. Just as bad situations can drive  people to seek any possible savior, I think the Democrats' almost pathological hatred of Bush and Cheney has left them open to embrace any slick salesman who seems to promise them a win
It was true of Obama, certainly, but is it not equally true, if not more so, of Trump? Trump was, if nothing else, the reaction of the right to eight years of Obama, the embodiment of the frustrations of those who kept predicting Obama declaring martial law, flooding the polls with immigrants and the like. (cf "Look Out It's the End Times!") Frustrated not only by what Obama did, but also that his actions were not a catalyst for the armed revolt they kept predicting, many cast about for a savior, a "fighter" who spoke the right words and would be the most unlike Obama possible.

Of course, the problem is Trump is not the opposite of Obama, but rather his mirror image, or, to be more accurate, his doppelganger with some policies reversed. Trump is hardly a paragon of small government or individual liberties, not is he a tremendous opponent of government overreach. And he certainly is not opposite Obama in terms of adopting a strong and clear policy. No, he is almost identical to Obama in his adoption of a content-free platform, and running on an image devoid of content. (cf "The Candidate as Inkblot", "And He Stands For?", "So, What is 'Change'?", "What is Obama's Foreign Policy?") Where he does differ it is purely superficial, such as his crude and "politically incorrect" manner, or his use of Republican (and often Reform Party) talking points rather than Democratic ones. What differences he has are driven mainly by the fact he is playing to a different audience.

The only significant difference is the manner in which Trump ran his content-free campaign, as opposed to Obama's. Obama, as I said in "The Candidate as Inkblot", ran on vague platitudes. Only rarely did he adopt a concrete position, and only in one case -- gun control -- did he try to speak out of both sides of his mouth. (cf "The Obama Hangover") Trump, on the other hand, ran almost entirely on taking every position on every issue. Depending on the audience, the reception of past trial balloons and the current political feelings in general, he would shift from one position to another without breaking stride, ignoring any claims of inconsistency or contradiction*. And, just as with Obama's cult like following, Trump's followers had no problem with it.

And that is what is even more troubling about Trump than Obama. I said of Obama that his followers read into his vague words their own beliefs, so each could imagine he agreed with everything they held true. That at least is understandable, a bit foolish, but still comprehensible human behavior. Trump followers went farther. They imagined they each had some sort of special understanding of Trump, and assumed he only "really" meant the words with which they agreed, the rest were forced upon him by his staff, or were just Trump "playing politics" or even dismissed as jokes. Thus, no matter what Trump said, no matter how much his statements conflicted with what each supporter believed, no matter how contradictory his positions, they could still support him with unwavering loyalty.

Admittedly, Trump deviated from the Obama formula in some other ways. Dipping into his past experience with populism as a Reform Party candidate, he spiced up his campaign with scapegoating and the finding of enemies, using whatever opponents he could find -- from the media to Mexican judges to fire marshals to taco trucks -- to provide an excuse for any missteps he made, as well as giving his followers the all important "Them" upon whom to blame their own present misfortunes. But that sort of addition does not change the underlying fact that, objectively, there is very little difference between the presidential campaign as run by Obama and that run by Trump. They are  two sides of the same coin.

Which is precisely what worries me. In the last 3 presidential election, we have had a victor who won, not on policy, not by presenting a better platform, but by being the best at avoiding anything resembling a platform.

At one time, I worried that both parties were drifting together**, that each side differed little in their core positions, and, because each wanted to run a "moderate" to get the maximum number of independent votes, as well as maintain the "big tent" upon which each party relied, the elections would soon become a lot of "me too" or, at best, "me too, but less" or "me too, but more".

I also feared a drift in the opposite direction, though it is a more recent worry. Given the frequency with which it seems those on each side assume anyone not in total agreement is not just mistaken, but hostile, an outright enemy, or believe anyone on the opposite side of the aisle is motivated not by incorrect beliefs but actual malice, the intent to "destroy America", I worried the two parties would devolve into the Blues and Greens of Byzantium, factions irreconcilably hostile to one another, unwilling to see any compromise, unable to work together, and becoming ever more prone to not only verbal abuse of one another, but outright physical conflict.

Both of these worries come together in this phenomenon.

Trump and Obama both played to the divisive tendencies, though in quite different ways. Obama tried a mostly upbeat message (though not always, as shown by his comments on Iraq in 2008).  Still, despite his message being "hope and change", the implication was "we are going to fix what those evil Republicans ruined", and thus there was an undercurrent of extreme partisanship that was red meat to his base. Trump was less circumspect -- a necessity to win over his particular audience -- and he said outright what his followers all thought, that Democrats were intentionally demolishing America, that they were criminals deserving to be "locked up". Both won, in part, by giving voice to the hyper-partisan hatred that has become part of modern politics.

Oddly, they also won because, despite that hatred, the two parties have grown closer together. Despite appearances, Trump's platform and that of the Democrats are not all that different. Yes, they differ on nationalism versus internationalism, the GOP sometimes panders to social conservatives and the Democrats to left wing activists, and they still retain a handful of hot button issues they cannot abandon, but on big issues -- say whether government should be intimately involved in health care, or whether government stimulus spending is good -- there is little difference***.

Yet that lack of a real difference works in favor of the strategy described. If there were a real ideological platform on either side, it would prevent the candidate from running solely on platitudes, or adopting multiple positions. A real political philosophy would involve campaigning not just on a fixed platform, but on a set of ideas which could be evaluated by the voter. However, once those pesky ideologies and principles are eliminated, the candidates can simply repeat the words most appealing to their followers, untroubled by fears they might have to argue against a set of beliefs, or explain the virtues of their own positions. Since the parties are now just letters, R versus D, as the Byzantines had Greens versus Blues, they can now fight it out in terms of team identity and little else.

Ironically, the less and less difference there is between the parties, the more the loyalists cling to those identities, and, stranger still, the more acrimonious becomes the struggle. And this style of idea-free campaigning is an aspect of that reality, an aspect which, unfortunately, I think we will see more and more in the years to come.


* The first example that comes to mind is health care, where Trump was for the free market, yet would cover everyone, wanted the government out of medicine, but thought single payer was a good idea, wanted to reduce spending, yet increase coverage, and would do it all through a big government program which would reduce the size of government. Sadly, I think I may have missed a few positions in that summary.

** I have said recently that we are left with nothing but a choice between national socialism and international socialism. This may be a bit of an overstatement, but the parties currently do seem to have few true differences. Even such usually divisive issues as abortion and defense seem to have vanished, with Republicans continuing their rhetorical opposition to Planned Parenthood while quietly continuing to fund it, and Trump joining the Democrats in the "blood for oil", "no WMDs" and "Bush created ISIS" claims. (See "Food for Thought", "Musings on the Failures in Iraq" and  "Perceptions of Iraq" for some older thoughts I had on the war in Iraq. "What About the Crusades?" is interesting as well, and, I hope, presents an alternate argument o the "Islam is inherently barbarous" position so many take at present, though recent events in Turkey show my optimism may have been somewhat premature in that case.)

*** This can be best seen in the fact that, while both parties were busy debating which sort of government run medicine to implement, and Trump was talking of a trillion dollar stimulus, the issue most covered for a time, which seemed to both parties to be the most crucial matter with which to concern themselves, was whether laws should restrict bathroom use by the sex of one's birth.



Since I did make such a hash of my predictions about Obama, I feel I should explain why. I tried to explain in notes I appended to a number of Obama posts, but I feel I never got it quite right, and after writing this I now know why. The fact is, Obama won on "binary choice" before that term existed. I saw polls predicting supporters of one or the other Democratic primary candidate would cross over rather than vote for the other candidate, and took them seriously. Some may have done so, but I have a feeling, thanks to the gulf separating D from R at that time, most democrats simply bit the bullet and voted for Obama, as they could not bring themselves to go over to "the other team". Thus, despite the hostility once existing between the Clinton and Obama camps, the Democrats largely closed ranks and voted in Obama. (It does not hurt the GOP ran McCain, who does not have a tremendous amount of charisma, and yet is also not terribly adept at explaining the principles behind a conservative position, and thus was, if not the worst of both worlds, at least disappointing in every aspect.)


For those who are curious, my comments on Obama's 2008 campaign (and notes explaining my current thoughts on my old arguments) can be found at the following locations: "And He Stands For?", "So, What is 'Change'?", "What is Obama's Foreign Policy?", "I Almost Feel Sorry for Them", "Sycophantic Media and Lost Elections", "No 'Hussein' Allowed", "Meaningless Polls", "Why Rezko Matters", "How to Lose the Independents", "Are the Democrats Worried About Obama?", "The Obama Hangover", "Obama Begins to Collapse" and "The Candidate as Inkblot".


Relevant, but slightly off topic, while finding all the links for this essay, I found an essay from 2014 on why there will never be a true "outsider" candidate. Given Trump's claims to be an outsider, despite a history of using politicians to advance his own ambitions, as well as associating with the Clintons and others, I thought it might be of interest. So I present "The Problem of Professional Politicians, or, The Impossibility of a True 'Outsider' Candidate".  It may also be interesting to compare with my more recent "Trump and the Myth of the Outsider".

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