The Ruling-Class Circus

The absurdity of this election has shown how badly we need a working-class politics of justice and solidarity.

Darron Birgenheier / Flickr

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As we head into the final days of the election, some thoughts, observations, rants, speculations, and provocations — by turns, cantankerous, narrow, and crabby, and, I hope, generous, capacious, and open to the future.


1.

One of the things we’ve been seeing more and more of this past decade, and now in this election, is that state institutions that many thought (wrongly) were above politics — the Supreme Court, the security establishment, the Senate filibuster — are in fact the crassest instruments of partisan politics, sites of circus antics of the sort the framers (and their hagiographers) traditionally associated with the lower house of a legislative body.

This, I’ve argued before, has been increasingly the case since the end of the Cold War.

Think of the Clarence Thomas hearings, impeachment over a blow job, Bush v. Gore, the manipulation of the security establishment and intelligence (and the sullying of national icon Colin Powell) going into the Iraq War, the rise of the filibuster-proof majority, the comments of Ginsburg on Trump that she had to retract, and now, today, the revelation of possible FBI interference in the election.

Let’s set aside the question of how new any of this is (I’ve argued that most of it is not). What is new, maybe, is an increasing brazenness and openness about it all, as if it simply doesn’t matter to the fate of the republic if our elites reveal themselves to be the most self-serving tools of whatever cause they proclaim as their own.

And here I think there may be something worth thinking about.

Prior to the Bolshevik Revolution, the American state was, relatively speaking, a young thing, still a fledgling (compared to those elder civilizations in Europe or Asia) that had undergone a catastrophic civil war and had — again, relative to Europe — only the most recently acquired sense of international standing. And suddenly it found itself catapulted, in the late 1910s, onto a truly global stage (not just across the Pacific but across the globe) with a commanding international presence. A republic fated (and feted) to fend off tyranny.

And for seventy years, thanks to Communism, the US managed to keep its shit together, to maintain its sorry-ass, jerry-rigged state apparatus, legitimated as it all was by the fear of the Soviet alternative.

And then that all ended in 1989.

Suddenly those institutions no longer felt the need to be quite as disciplined by an external threat as they once perhaps were. Suddenly, Supreme Court justices, Wise Men and Women of the national security establishment, and wielders of the counter-majoritarian veto were freed of their historic constraints. Suddenly, people were freed to talk about domestic fascism, to name the leader of one of the two major political parties as a Hitler, and his millions of followers as Nazis, in a way that they would have been terrified to do when Communism was still an alternative and such rhetorical moves could have devastating international consequences.

The United States has certainly seen major and fundamental challenges to the legitimacy of its institutions before. So much so that Samuel Huntington would speak, in recent memory, of a crisis of governability here (though he cleverly called it a “crisis of democracy,” when he clearly thought democracy itself was the problem).

But where Huntington thought the threat lay in the citizenry, and the crisis acute and immediate, I’m seeing, maybe, something else: a slow-motion erosion, over decades, of legitimacy, brought about not by a cynical or radicalized citizenry but by a ruling class that seems to have lost all sense of responsibility. As if there simply were no country left for it to govern.

The US: Is she come undone?

2.

As the polls tighten, there’s a lot of left-blaming and left-fretting among Clinton supporters. That fits with a long-standing psycho-political syndrome among liberals of attacking the Left — a syndrome in which the Left often plays its own not so healthy part.

But there’s little basis for that syndrome in reality, at least in this election. Not that this particular reality has much impact on the self-styled reality-based community. But it’s important to register that reality nonetheless:

“The problems Hillary Clinton is having do not have to do with the Left,” says Matt Grossmann, a political scientist at Michigan State, in an interview . . . “There is not much of any evidence of a drop-off in support for her from the left wing of the ideological spectrum.” . . . Like Jill Stein or not, the drag she has been on Clinton basically amounts to a rounding error.

3.

A story Jacob Levy reported today leaves me with this embittered thought.

Liberals in the media, academia, political circles, and on social media who support Clinton act as if your one vote — out of the more than one hundred million cast — determines the fate of the republic. If you vote for Stein (whether in a safe state or not), you are personally responsible for Trump’s inauguration.

These voices are often the very same people who, when challenged about Clinton’s voting record in the Senate or Obama’s policies, will say: Clinton was only one voice in a Senate, out of a hundred voices. Obama was one lonely man arrayed against three veto points.

Somewhere in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith has a passage about how we identify with the trials and travails of a king, giving him all of our sympathy and understanding, yet are so repelled by the tribulations of the lowly that we can scarce understand what they’re going through.

The difficulties and challenges of the most elite sectors of the political class are acutely felt by liberal journalists and commentators. And the calculations and concerns of the lowly citizen? Fuhgettaboutit.

4.

Someone, please, please, write a parody soon of the latest fashion of white men tweeting and posting about those intuitively sensible women and black people voting for Hillary — without any need to be organized because “they just get it” — and thereby “saving our democracy one more time.” The whole genre, with its pandering assumptions about the unschooled, hardheaded good sense of these authentic, sturdy souls who are uncorrupted by fancy ideas of social change because they studied at the school of hard knocks, makes me want to puke. It’s pure Nixonism for liberals.

5.

Aside from Chris Christie — who terrified me at a visceral level, in the same way Trump scares a lot of other folks; I think it was the way Christie went after schoolteachers — the GOP candidate I was made most nervous by was Marco Rubio. Not because Rubio was an especially good candidate — he wasn’t — but because it always has seemed that the only way the GOP could ever reverse its downward fall would be to appeal to Latino voters.

But there was a reason that’s never really frightened me much either. Because I’ve been hearing this line of bullshit for years: once the Republicans start appealing to Latinos, all will be well. People forget the ballyhoo around the fact that George W. Bush could say “hello” in Spanish. That was going to change everything forever. (Though it’s true, as Joe Lowndes reminded me last night, that Bush did get a bit more than 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004.) Or remember Mitt Romney’s son Craig, who was fluent in Spanish? That was going to win him Nevada.

There are two reasons Latinos haven’t become a reliable part of the Republican coalition.

The first, of course, is the racism and revanchism of a considerable part of the GOP base. Just look how they took to Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

(Little tangent: In 2000, Irving Kristol said to me, in disgust: look at those idiots, arguing on the convention floor about the prescription drug benefit; it’s not Athens, it’s not Rome; give them the goddamn benefit and be done with it. Well, they did, and it nearly destroyed the party.)

The second reason, though, is this: what GOP fantasists imagine creating is a multicultural, identity-friendly party of capital. The problem is we already have such a party. Who needs two?

6.

Untimely meditations:

. . . to present Hitler as particularly incompetent, as an aberration, a perversion, humbug, a peculiar pathological case, while setting up other bourgeois politicians as models, models of something he has failed to attain, seems to me no way to combat Hitler.

— Brecht, Journals, February 28, 1942

7.

Two nights ago, I had a terrible anxiety dream that Trump won the election (defying all my claims in my waking life that Clinton will win handily.)

There I was, the day after the election, in the streets, watching some kind of militia or band of street fucks marching by and declaring, Pinochet-style, that from now on women had to wear skirts. (I think I got this from a scene in the movie Missing.)

While watching this thuggish display of misogynistic power, my heart pounding with fear, I found myself wondering, in the dream, what part of the Constitution the Trumpists would find most amenable to their purposes, and how they’d get around Article I, which in my dream, seemed like a major constraint on Congress.

I kept saying, in my dream, “enumerated powers, enumerated powers,” with that ghostly mantra “big boys don’t cry” from this classic seventies tune echoing throughout my head.

8.

I once asked Steve Skowronek — who’s probably one of the four or five most fertile minds of the last quarter-century’s political science — what kind of role opposition parties play in toppling partisan/presidential regimes. What role did the 1932 Democrats play in overthrowing the Gilded Age regime? What role did the 1980 Republicans playing in overthrowing the New Deal regime?

Not much, he said, rather bleakly.

Regimes tend to collapse of their own weight, driven to destruction by the long-term consequences of the actions of their own elites and activists. While they ultimately need an opposition to topple them, the only reason the opposition can do that is that these regimes are already tipping over on their own. I think Skowronek ultimately got this from Skocpol’s (early Skocpol) theory of states and revolutions.

In any event, that’s how I see the GOP and conservatism today. When it goes, it won’t be because of the Left; it’ll be, ultimately, because of George W. Bush, who more than anyone sowed the long-term seeds of the GOP’s decline, and whatever unlucky bastard — like Jimmy Carter or Herbert Hoover — happens to be the last guy or gal on the watch.

9.

To paraphrase Hans Gruber: You asked for down-ballot evidence of the coming realignment. Theo, I give you the Silver State.

Donald Trump will be in Reno on Saturday, but the Republicans almost certainly lost Nevada on Friday. Trump’s path was nearly impossible, as I have been telling you, before what happened in Clark County on Friday. But now he needs a miracle in Vegas on Election Day — and a Buffalo Bills Super Bowl championship is more likely — to turn this around. The ripple effect down the ticket probably will cost the Republicans Harry Reid’s Senate seat, two GOP house seats and control of the legislature.

10.

Not only is Trump about to do on a national scale what Pete Wilson did in California — that is, drive up the Latino vote, consigning the GOP to a long-term decline — but Latinos, who in many states gave Sanders the margin, or close to the margin, of victory, are set to play a similar role in the liberal/left coalition that southern and eastern European immigrants played during the New Deal years, reconstituting our sense of the working class, the middle class, and national identity.

11.

One day, the story of the Culinary Union in Nevada will be told.

How a union whose membership is now 56 percent Latino was built from the bottom up, in Las Vegas, in a right-to-work state, and how that union is now poised to politically and economically transform this state in fundamental ways that go far beyond the election.

How this union was seeded back in the 1980s by organizers from New Haven, fresh from their victory in organizing women and people of color at Yale, organizers who had cut their teeth on the antiwar and civil rights struggles of the 1960s, organizers who had come to an understanding that the progressive future of this country lay in a reconstitution of organized labor as a multiracial and intersectional movement of men and women, rather than in the abandonment of organized labor as the alleged and archaic bastion of white working-class men, which is what the neoliberal forces of the Democratic Party were coming to believe.

After Election Day, this will be the real question for liberals and the Left: Will we settle for a corporate identity politics of symbols and circuses or will we create what the culinary workers in Nevada have created, a genuinely multiracial working-class politics of justice and solidarity?

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