Propagandists for Power

This note is occasioned by John McWhorter’s piece in the NY Times, basically praising Clarence Thomas as a thinker who has been too easily dismissed.

While I agree with Mr. McWhorter on some subjects, I think he is very wrong on this one.  And his mistake is the same one made by other people about other public figures.

First about Clarence Thomas:

  • He is someone who has received help every step of his career, but who has nonetheless declared himself self-made.  His autobiography is emphatic to the point of absurdity on the subject. 
  • His general philosophy is heavily influenced by that mythology.  Like many other pseudo-self-made people (there are admittedly more rich than poor of them), he asserts “I did it, so can anyone else who has what it takes.”  No one should be asking government for help.  That he sincerely believes this does not make it either true or admirable.
  • Despite his self-delusions, he has not achieved his success as a thinker.  He has achieved success as a propagandist for power.  His ideas, however well or badly thought-out, are irrelevant to his current position.  He is a tool in the Koch organization’s (and Republican party’s) battle plan.  The position being propagated is simple and convenient:  we just don’t have to care.
  • Contrary to what you sometimes read in the papers, he has not driven the Supreme Court to its current position on the extreme right.  That is a Koch-managed and funded enterprise that has put a succession of Federalist Society judges on the Court.

We should now talk more generally.  There were places and times in the past when people seemed at least worried about selling out.  That is, whether they were putting personal advantage above some notion of morality.

We are no longer at that place or time.  In the United States (and elsewhere) today, there is no morality stronger than financial success.  People don’t need to agonize anymore, because riches are proof of morality.  That’s the Clarence Thomas problem, and he is far from the only example.

I’d even put Milton Friedman in that category (along with a good chunk of the Federalist Society).  Milton Friedman was certainly capable of understanding the logical flaw in his argument:  it’s okay to declare that corporations serve their stockholders—but only if someone else is minding the store.  If those same corporations are also running government, then no one is minding the store.  Instead he made himself a wealthy and respected genius, again as a propagandist for power.

No one should be venerating propagandists for power, no matter how sincere such people believe themselves to be.

Democracy’s Enemies are No One’s Friends

Today about half the United States electorate seems to think that the end of democracy would be great—they could just keep on winning.  It’s not said enough: that’s a fallacy regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.  The end of democracy means the end of leverage.

As history has proved over and over again, the winners when democracy dies are the real elites who hold power.  In this case were talking about the Kochs, the Thiels, the Mercers, the Murdochs.  In the absence of democracy, no functioning elections means no power for anyone else.  All other leverage is gone.

Those people have been very clear about what that means.  What they want is what’s good for them.  No taxes on rich people and corporations.  No regulation.  No government services they don’t need—that is no social security, no Medicare, two-tier education, nothing for climate, no safety net.   Back to the glory days of the nineteenth century, when businesses could get away with anything.

For now a section of the population finds common cause with those people on guns and abortion, but those were never the main issues.   The only reason we’re talking about those issues today is that we do have a democracy today and voting matters.  Guns and abortion are a path to power, but not a commitment to support anyone in any way.

Once democracy goes, we’ll have nothing to say.  And nothing is what everyone—both their supporters and their opponents—is going to get.

We’re Doing Climate—Next the Court

Schumer and Manchin seem finally to have reached agreement on meaningful climate action. If we can do that, the next step has got to be reforming the Supreme Court.

This Court is responsible for even more than it gets blamed for.  Roe v Wade is the tip of the iceberg.  This court is dedicated to the project of overturning democracy by enforcing and maintaining minority rule.

That starts with the defense of gerrymandering.  This is the single most important factor in the polarization of the political environment—a political minority is given vastly exaggerated and untouchable power.  Punting to Congress is a joke, since that asks the beneficiaries to give up power. To that gets added Citizens United and the provocatively-announced ruling on “replacement electors.”

As both Alito and Thomas have made clear, this court has decided to use its unchallenged power to rule—and the proper response of the population should be obedience. Democracy has no place is this vision.

Changing the Court’s size is a matter that requires majorities in both houses of Congress and the President.  Democrats have that.  Taking that action is not radical.   What is radical is a rogue Supreme Court that is using it’s unchallengable powers to rule—certainly not the intention of the founding fathers.  It should of course be noted who is actually rulling—the Koch organization that created and managed the  Federlist Society, to which all conservative justices have dedicated their careers.

This is a chance to save democracy in this country.  Second only to saving the planet.

The Mid-Terms are It

There’s nothing particularly novel about this conclusion, but it still needs to be said over and over again. There is only one objective now: the midterm elections. With the current activist Supreme Court there’s no telling how much damage will be done in two years or what elections will look like in 2024.

This Supreme Court has asserted it’s right to impose a belligerent, unpopular theocracy. And that’s just the beginning. The conservative justices all come from the Koch organization’s Federalist Society, whose end goal is business control of government and elimination of all regulation and social services. That may sound far-fetched, but so did the complete elimination of Roe v Wade.

The Court has pointedly said it would review state plans for “alternative electors.” That would potentially allow gerrymandered legislatures to override electoral results. Such proposals are crafted to give all electoral power to those gerrymandered legislatures–even governors (some are Democrats) have no say. This Court is controlled by Republicans in the mold of Mitch McConnell. They have no qualms about doing what’s best for them, and they can hide (as usual) behind calling it states’ rights. With enough states tied up in this way, it may well become impossible to elect anyone but a Koch-approved President.

The Supreme Court has to be reformed before it completes its takeover of the country. That requires workable majorities in both the House and Senate, which sounds like a heroic task. However the point is not that it’s easy; the point is that there is an actual path to saving the country from the Koch coup. There are enough seats up for grabs in the Senate. Retaining the House will be harder.

For the House people have just got to realize what’s at stake. Roe v Wade is bad enough as it is, but it’s also a sign of what’s coming. No labor protections, no help for the environment, no government role for healthcare or Social Security. The USA as Brazil, with all but a few of us living in the slums of Rio and ready to be undone by climate change.

We have an opportunity to preserve our country before it’s turned into something unrecognizeable. And that’s not just for Democrats. This is a new bout of Prohibition with religious vigilantes telling everyone how to live their lives. And the powers pushing hardest for gun rights really want those guns in the hands of private Pinkerton militias, just like in the good old days of the nineteenth century. The Koch people are nobody’s friends.

This year is it. Forget everything else. It’s amazing we have a chance.

We’re Wrong About Divisions

The most important division in American society is not between Republicans and Democrats.  It’s within the Democratic Party itself.

As an indication of what I’m talking about, I think about an episode of the program Peaky Blinders.  In that episode the hero Thomas Shelby’s sister’s boyfriend is a communist, and the hero has to figure out how to keep him alive.  When the subject comes up with the police, the answer is “Normally we don’t have to worry about those people.  They’re so busy killing each other that they’re just not a problem.”

The Republicans can say amen to that for our tamer version of the left:

  • We’re still living down “defund the police”
  • We’ve had an endless supply of articles about how privileged, racist whites just have to get used to taking a well-deserved hit, including for education.
  • Virtually any statement made about “neo-liberals” is a whitewashing of Republican failures so that chosen Democrats can be blamed instead. One hopes George W. Bush is duly grateful.
  • We had a chance to pass a Biden agenda, but the Democratic Party spent so much time posturing and pretending that Manchin and Sinema didn’t exist that when they finally got around to voting it was too late–inflation was THE issue and it was easy for Manchin to hide. The left wing of the party is gleefully blaming Biden, without any alternative policy or blame for Republicans.
  • Democrats are actually fighting over whether Biden will be the nominee in 2024—when the real issue is the 2022 midterm election.  The only result of this fight is weaking the remaining days of the Biden administration and undermining the Democrats’ message for 2022.

With friends like this who needs enemies.  As in the Peaky Blinders quote, they hate each other so much that it trumps any desire to do anything good for anybody. It’s hard even to count the self-inflicted wounds.

Just think about it.  That Democrats can do anything good at all—given this nonsense—means that they could perhaps do something really big if they could get organized and stop the knife stabbing. If they stopped providing amunition to Republicans, they might just be able bridge the other divisions we hear so much about.

RIP USA

Clarence and Ginni Thomas are running the country now.

This was a genuine coup engineered by the Koch organization–creator and manager of the Federalist Society, the source for all our conservative Supreme Court justices. Read Dark Money. Check Wikipedia for recent Federalist manager Leonard Leo. This takeover was always the target.

There are a few others to call out for their contributions. Anthony Kennedy who knowingly capitulated to exactly this. Mitch McConnell of course. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg who couldn’t put aside her ego for the good of the country when Obama asked.

Finally and most fundamentally the founding fathers who made a disastrous mistake: the undemocratic organization charged with enforcing the Constitution has the unchallengeable power to make of the Constitution anything that it wants. That’s what this rogue Court is doing.

As Thomas indicated, they’re just getting started. The Koch project is to return the US to a nineteenth century level of government subservience to business: minimal taxes on corporations and rich people, no services, no personal rights, no regulation, no unions, no checks on business behavior - paradise. If we haven’t lost Medicare and Social Security yet it’s because that’s inconvenient for the next election. After a few more years of voting restritions they won’t have to care. We’ll have a country where the welfare of the population is simply out of the equation.

Unless Biden can do something about the Court–hardly a likely prospect–the United States of America as we knew it is no more.

Guns are Money

After the latest outrage of gun violence in Texas, the newspapers are full of articles about guns. However when people talk about Republicans and the gun lobby they tend to get things backwards. The gun lobby sounds like a rather limited thing, maybe financed by the manufacturers. It’s sort of odd the power they exercise over the Republican Party.

Not so odd. The reason guns are untouchable in this country is that guns are a potent identity issue used by the Kochs and the Mercers and the Thiels and the mainline Republicans to put money in their pockets. It’s core Republican money driving the gun lobby, not the other way around. That’s why there’s so much of it. The only legislative achievement of the Trump years was the monumental tax cut for the rich. Bought by guns.

Thirty years ago we didn’t have this problem with hysteria around gun ownership. It was recognized that there was a need for gun control, and there was no notion of evil liberals just looking for a chance to take away all your guns. The sense of grievance around guns was deliberately created as a means to a financial end with the active assistance Murdoch and Fox News. Why is the Supreme Court also supporting this stuff? Well all of the so-called conservatives on the Court come from the Federalist Society—which was created and managed by the Koch Organization (an indisputable fact).

Guns are money. That’s the only real story. It will continue as long as we let them get away with it. (As for what to do about it, there’s an old piece here that’s still relevant.)

The Hijacking of Race

The Democratic Party owes black people a debt of gratitude for their organized commitment in the last election.   Even if that weren’t true, the United States owes black people what it has never delivered—real, functional equality of opportunity.  It’s worth restating what never made it into any textbook I ever had—slavery in this country didn’t end in 1863.  With Black Laws and then Jim Crow, the substance of slavery in this country persisted well into the twentieth century.  It’s no surprise that we live with a pervasive legacy of slavery.

What is owed here is progress—on everything that makes for personal and family prosperity and life satisfaction.  A recent NY Times piece does a good job of getting at what that means. However it’s worth recognizing that this objective gets hijacked every day in favor of other more exciting agendas, as examples:

– Anticapitalism.  This is a kind of knee-jerk on the left that gets applied to all issues (climate change is another one).  Get rid of capitalism, let me and my morally-certified friends run everything, and racism will vanish in an instant.  Otherwise there’s not a chance. Somehow the dictatorship of the proletariat (like trickle-down economics) survives in the face of all evidence.

– Violence.  It’s amazing how attractive violence is for people who spend their lives far from it.  That’s not just for the classic case of British Nazi intellectuals prior to World War II.  Two very good books The Good Lord Bird and The Underground Railway end with ringing endorsements of violence as a necessary way to get things done.  In context that’s not really a call to action, but it indicates a willingness to forgive violence as a tactic—a significant mistake supported only by rewriting history. 

There’s not going to be a revolution on the left in this country, so we’ve got to work with the flawed political process we’ve got.  Violence hardens opposition—end of story.  If you want to get things done, there’s no greater mistake than believing you have powers you don’t have.

– Cultural superiority.  This has many manifestations.  The good guys are immune from racism, create better artistic productions, are more moral and humane to each other, etc.

If you get past all of that, objectives here are not so different from what we owe to everyone else—a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net.  What it takes to get there must be adapted to the history of anti-black racism, but adaptation is the rule for every other group also.  Our task as a society is to get the job done for everyone.

It is hijacking the race issue to

– Use it as a justification for anti-democratic behavior.

– Use it as a reason to justify any departure from the rule of law.  We are not doing anyone a favor by asking for an understanding of mob violence.

– Engage in ridiculous exercises of cultural superiority. That includes, in particular, anti-racism competitions.  I’d even say everybody is racist; the important question is who is doing damage and how to stop it. Anti-racism crusades may feel good, but they are not progress. And if they lose elections they are nothing more than destructive vanity.

Even if you think this is an oversimplification, you have to admit that the objectives here–a fair chance to succeed and a viable safety net–are worth pursuing.  You’d think they would be universally popular.  After all, as many have pointed out, essentially any social program has more white than black beneficiaries.  So why aren’t they universally popular?  The reason goes all the way back to What’s The Matter with Kansas.  Republicans have been convincing people for decades that all those measures are not for them.  It’s just giving the country away to the shiftless blacks.  People in Hillbilly Elegy and Strangers in their own Land are astonished that any of their own would waste time applying for such benefits.

Why are Republicans so successful?  BECAUSE WE KEEP HELPING THEM.  With all the discussion of white racists who just have to get used to giving up the advantages of white privilege (and deservedly take the hit), what else would you expect them to believe?  We’re not spending our time saying we’re committed to what it takes to achieve equality of opportunity for everyone—with all the benefits that entails.  Too often we’re playing the Republicans’ game.

You don’t have to agree with everything here, but one thing is indubitably true.  Fighting racism is about results, not morality contests.  It is about jobs, safety, and education for your kids.  It is a pragmatic issue.  Anything that doesn’t produce results is hijacking, regardless of how good it feels.