It’s Out in the Open Now

Leading Republicans are holding a conference in Budapest because, as history professor Andrew Gawthorpe explains, Hungary’s authoritarian regime, “unconstrained by an independent media, democratic institutions or racial diversity – isn’t a cautionary tale, but an aspiration”. From The Guardian:

Long a safe space where conservatives [no, the neo-fascists of the radical right] could say what they really thought, this year the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is hosting an event in Budapest, its first ever on the European continent. Attendees will be treated to panels about “western civilization under attack” and be addressed by American [right-wing] luminaries including the former T____ chief of staff Mark Meadows and media figures like Tucker Carlson and Candace Owens. That Hungary has become an authoritarian state whose leader, Viktor Orbán, has deconstructed Hungarian democracy and become a close ally of Vladimir Putin doesn’t seem to faze anyone involved. In fact, it’s the whole point.

The embrace of Orbán as a role model by many on the right seems at first glance puzzling. . . .  But . . .  for years, Orbán has been playing out the fantasies of CPAC’s attendees, unconstrained by the independent institutions, impartial media and racial diversity which American conservatives see as their foils at home. Where Orbán has gone, American [reactionaries] want to follow. And increasingly, they are doing so.

Central to Orbán’s appeal is that he is a fighter who has turned his country into, according to the organizers of CPAC, “one of the engines of Conservative resistance to the woke revolution”. In some ways Orbán resembles T____, but in the eyes of many [neo-fascists] he’s better understood as the man they wished T____ would be. Where T____ was a thrice-married playboy who boasted of sleeping with porn stars and managed to lose the 2020 election, Orbán seems both genuinely committed to upholding [reactionary] cultural values and has grimly consolidated control over his country, excluding the left from power indefinitely.

Among the terrifying implications of the American right’s embrace of Orbán is that it shows that the right would be willing to dismantle American democracy in exchange for cultural and racial hegemony. Many of Orbán’s admirers . . . see “traditional American culture” as so far degenerated that it may be necessary to wrest power away from a corrupted people in order to make America great again. They count among Orbán’s victories his clampdown on gay and transgender rights and his refusal to allow Muslim refugees to enter Hungary. Upholding a particular set of “Christian” (actually nationalistic and bigoted) values is seen as worth the damage to democracy – the latter might even be necessary for the former.

Things get even more sinister when we consider that America is a vast continent-sized country of enormous cultural and racial diversity. Imposing a conservative monoculture on such a country could only be achieved through one means – governmental coercion. The desirability of doing just that is now openly discussed on the right. Over the past several years, many have been advocating “common-good constitutionalism” – an idea put forward by the [Republican] legal thinker Adrian Vermeule which holds that America should embrace a new interpretation of the constitution focused on, among other things, a “respect for hierarchy” and a willingness to “legislate morality”. As surely as such ideas underpinned the Jim Crow south, such ideas mesh easily with, indeed are required by, any attempt to bring Orbánism to the United States as a whole.

Far from being limited to the trolls at CPAC or obscure writers, such an approach to governing is already being implemented by [Republicans] up and down the country. State laws which ban teaching about race or gender issues in schools have passed in many states, and Republicans have continued their assault on businesses which speak out on these issues. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has moved to use the power of the state to punish Disney for its stance on gay rights. In the face of cultural change which [reactionaries] dislike, the principle of free speech has gone out of the window, and the heavy hand of the state is knocking at the door.

The recently leaked US Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade is perhaps the clearest indication of the danger that this trend poses. By removing a fundamental individual right and once again enabling [the radical right] to impose their own moral views on women’s bodies, the decision – if passed as written – will be seen on the right as a landmark in how the power of the state can be used to discipline a degenerated culture and regulate morality. Further crackdowns are sure to follow. Locked out of power on the Supreme Court and facing steep challenges to winning power in America’s unbalanced electoral system, defenders of liberalism will struggle to fight back.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Orbánism, with its rejection of democracy and its willingness to use coercion to enforce a narrow cultural and religious agenda, defines the danger posed by modern American conservatism. The danger is greatest when the two elements come together. Unable to win the approval of the people on whom they wish to force their values, [Republicans] will be tempted to proceed further and further down an undemocratic path. That path has already taken them all the way to Budapest. The fear now is that they will ultimately bring Budapest back to America.

Unquote.

A headline from The Guardian: “Viktor Orbán tells CPAC the path to power is to ‘have your own media’” and that right-wing propaganda like Tucker Carlson’s program should be broadcast ‘24/7’.

From journalist David Roberts on Twitter:

CPAC [is] in Hungary, openly celebrating Orban’s defeat of democracy, openly planning to do the same in the US … it’s just all out in the open now. And still the media can’t seem to convey it clearly to the public. [Unlike the left], the right [with Rupert Murdoch’s money] built a propaganda machine that now effectively immunizes it from consequences no matter what it does. . . . 

It’s important for Americans to understand that Orbán did not defeat democracy with any dramatic police action or coup. There were no troops in the streets. In most ways, the formal *appearance* of democracy is still in place. There are still campaigns; people still vote.

Orbán just gradually exerted more and more control over media, until they are all beholden to him. He ensured that private companies loyal to his regime profited and that those that didn’t suffered. . . .

You might say Hungary still has the body of a democracy, but the soul of democracy is gone. The free flow of information, the level playing field, the fair competition among candidates, it’s all gone, but if you’re not LGBTQ or otherwise marginalized, it can still FEEL normal.

This is the new blueprint for the right: not some dramatic overthrow, but steady erosion of the mechanisms of democracy until only a hollow shell is left and one-party control is, if not inscribed in law, ensured in practice.

In many ways this is *more* dangerous than an explicit bid for autocracy. It deprives opponents of singular, dramatic events around which to rally. It’s incremental, each step a little further than the last, nothing that trips alarms or sparks organized resistance.

Unquote.

Finally, from Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post:

Turnout in midterm elections is traditionally much lower than in presidential years. Voters who are appalled at what the [Republican Party] has become [it’s no longer a normal political party] can send a powerful and definitive message by abandoning their traditional nonchalance this November and voting in huge numbers. We can reject T____ism, both for its cultishness and for its proto-fascism. We can take a stand. It’s up to us what kind of country we want to live in.

What Was Putin Thinking?

Why did he miscalculate so badly? Greg Sargent of The Washington Post asked that question of historian Timothy Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century:

Sargent: What is it about Putin’s way of seeing the world, and his understanding of his own mythologies, that made it inevitable that he’d underestimate the Western response?

Snyder: For me the most revealing text here is the victory declaration, which the Russian press agency accidentally published on Feb. 26. What they say is that the West just basically needed one more push to fall into total disarray.

If you watch Jan. 6 clips over and over again, you can get that impression. The Russians really have been fixated on Jan. 6.

They thought a successful military operation in Ukraine would be that nudge: We’d feel helpless, we’d fall into conflict, it would help D____ T____ in the U.S., it would help populists around the world.

Sargent: When you say Russia has been making a lot of Jan. 6 — what do they read into it?

Snyder: . . . T____’s attempt to overthrow the election on Jan. 6 made the American system look fragile. They think, “One more T____ and the Americans are done.” In invading Ukraine, they think they’re putting huge pressure on the Biden administration. They’re going to make Biden look weak.

That probably was their deep fantasy about the West: Successful military occupation in Ukraine; the Biden administration is totally impotent; we humiliate them; T____ comes back; this is a big strategic victory for us.

Sargent: There’s an essential through line from Jan. 6 to what we’re seeing now: Accountability for Jan. 6 becomes more important in this geopolitical context, where we’re reentering a conflict with Russia over whether liberal democracy is durable.

Snyder: . . . Putin’s idea about Ukraine is something like, “Ukrainian democracy is just a joke, I can overturn it easily. Everybody knows democracy and the rule of law are just a joke. What really matters are the capricious ideas of a tyrant. My capricious ideas happen to be that there are no Ukrainians. I’m going to send my army to make that true”.

That is much closer to the way T____ talks about politics than the way the average American talks about politics. I’m not saying T____ and Putin are exactly the same. But T____’s way of looking at the world — “there are no rules, nothing binds me” — that’s much closer to Putin. So there’s a very clear through line.

Sargent: . . . on some fundamental level, [Republicans aren’t] willing to forthrightly disavow Trump’s alignment with Putin and against Ukraine and the West.

Snyder: I have this faint hope that Ukraine allows some folks to look at domestic politics from a new angle.

When we were in the Cold War, one reason the civil rights movement had the success it did, and one reason we kept up a welfare state, was that we were concerned about the Soviet rival.

Russia is a radically anti-democratic country now. Not only has it done frightful things to its own society; it has invaded another country that happens to be an imperfect democracy. We’re also an imperfect democracy.

When you have to look straight at the reality that a big powerful country is aimed at taking imperfect democracies and wiping them out, that gives you pause. I’m hopeful the realization that democracy rises and falls internationally might change the conversation at some deeper level about how we carry out our own voting.

Sargent: Rising populism made Putin think Western liberal democracy was on the losing end of a grand struggle. But Biden and the Western allies may have seen that populism as a reason to get more galvanized and unified in response to the invasion.

Snyder: In Putin’s mind, there’s a kind of confusion of pluralism with weakness. He’s misjudged both Zelensky and Biden, who are both pluralists: They’re both willing to look at things from various points of view. That can look like a form of weakness.

But history also shows that you can be a resolute pluralist. . . . Zelensky and Biden both embody that: At the end of the day, this whole idea that we listen to each other is something that we’re going to defend.

People in Ukraine are used to being able to exchange views and listen or not listen to their own government. That’s the thing which makes them different from Russia right now. That’s not something Putin can see from a distance.

Sargent: You put your finger on something that’s been an anti-liberal trope for at least a century: That pluralism is in some sense crippling to the possibilities of resolute national action. Putin is steeped in that type of anti-liberal philosophy, isn’t he?

Snyder: Authoritarian regimes look efficient and attractive because they can make rapid decisions. But they often make rapid bad decisions — like the rapid bad decision to invade Ukraine. Putin made it with just a handful of people, so he could make that decision rapidly.

That’s the reason you want institutions, the rule of law and pluralism and public discussion: To avoid idiotic decisions like that.

He’s been working from a certain far-right Russian tradition — that the state and the leader are the same person, and there should be no institutional barriers to what the leader wants to do.

It’s important for us to see that this is the realization of a different model, which has its own logic.

Sargent: Paradoxically, we’re seeing that model’s decadence display itself.

Snyder: Of course the situation is dangerous right now. But a lot of the sparks that are flying out of Russian media are a result precisely of their own fear and their own sense of crisis.

Your word “decadence” is helpful here: When you’re decadent, what you say starts to depart more and more from the way the world actually is. Some Russian politicians are talking about how Poland needs to be taught a lesson. That’s alarming but it’s also unrealistic.

Sargent: I want to explore something you said to Ezra Klein: That in many ways, the response from the Western allies has been realistic and grounded, in that they aren’t trying to do too much. . . . 

Snyder: The thing that I’ve liked about the Biden administration is that they don’t have this metaphysical language that previous administrations have had about American power. They’ve stuck much closer to the ground.

They say, “We can’t do everything. But we can be creative and do a lot of things.”

By the way, that includes some stuff that we and others could go further on. We have to keep pouring arms into Ukraine, and the Europeans — now is the time to move forward on not buying oil and gas from Russia.

Sargent: What’s your sense of where this is all going?

Snyder: This war is happening because of the worldview and decisions of essentially one person. And I think it comes to an end when something shakes the worldview of that one person.

If the Ukrainians can get the upper hand and keep it for a few weeks, I think the worldview we have been talking about may start to shudder.

The right side has to be winning. That’s when we might have a settlement that ends this horrible war.

Who’s On Your Side: A Simple Dichotomy?

The White House website has a new page devoted to last year’s very big infrastructure bill.

Untitled

It got Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post thinking about the Democratic Party’s “message”, a phrase that ideally would fit on a bumper sticker:

While Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine and a highly impressive Supreme Court nominee afford Biden his first chance in months to break the bad news cycle and to project strength, he still lacks a big picture that ties it all together.

Biden faces several challenges: 1) He can’t do much about the biggest economic concern (inflation) which fairly or not voters blame on him; 2) Voters seem to have taken job growth and a return to post-covid normal for granted; 3) The GOP noise machine of constant conspiracies and baseless accusations effectively manipulates the mainstream media, which regurgitates GOP talking points; and 4) Voters forget how positively nutty the GOP has become and the degree to which its worst elements will predominate if it returns to the majority in one or both houses.

So what can Biden do? At its most basic, Democrats must convince voters they are on the side of regular Americans — making progress and solving real problems (e.g., jobs, covid). They need to remind voters that Democrats are on the right side of the middle class, democracy and law and order. Democrats must leave no doubt as to which party did a lot to clean up the mess left behind by the previous administration and which party understands the real problems left to work on (e.g., inflation, green energy, defending against international bullies).

Republicans? They are bullies and chaos creators (be it attacking the Capitol, letting the country default on the debt, setting up a litigation machine to sue teachers, undermining elections, threatening to take away kids whose parents give them medical care and inviting a truck blockade). Do voters really want to give power back to the crowd that defends violence (“legitimate political discourse”), lets their cult leader extort Ukraine, and goes to bat for big corporations (e.g., allowing them to escape paying taxes, protecting Big Pharma’s price gouging)?

Democrats need to get back to a fundamental message: When in power, they make government work for ordinary people and defend American values (democracy, opportunity, fairness, playing by the rules). They solve real problems. When Republicans are in power, they create division, conflict and chaos. They are not on your side. That’s it. A simple dichotomy.

Unquote.

The problem is that if there are voters out there who don’t already understand the difference between the two parties, they’re probably unreachable. If they bother to vote, they’ll make their choice one of two ways. If they see themselves as a Democrat or Republican, they’ll stick with the party that makes them feel comfortable. If they don’t have a particular political identity, they’ll vote for or against “change” (i.e. for or against the incumbent) depending on their mood that day. The irony is that if voters want meaningful change, they should elect more Democrats. In particular, more Democrats in the Senate would make roadblocks like Manchin and Sinema irrelevant. But since Democrats “control” both houses of Congress, many voters will mistakenly think electing more Republicans will bring about the kind of change they want.

Why People Vote the Way They Do

I finished a book recently and thought I might write about it here, but was too lazy. Then I read a comment after an article at Three Quarks Daily:

A crucial question: how does the party of oppression and social inequality get away with parading its commitment to liberty, and capture power with the votes of those whose interests it totally neglects?

That was the motivation I needed to write something in response:

Two political scientists, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels, cited a lot of surprising evidence in their book “Democracy for Realists” (2016) that “voters mostly choose parties and candidates on the basis of social identities and partisan loyalties, not political issues” and that “voters adjust their policy views and even their perceptions of basic matters of fact to match those loyalties”. They concluded that most voters are remarkably ignorant about politics, but that even well-informed and engaged voters usually choose parties and candidates this way (in fact, more often than voters less interested in politics).

They admit that people do change their political identities sometimes, but say that, for the most part, the issues take a back seat to identity and partisanship. Once you see yourself as, e.g. a Democrat in the US or a Conservative in the UK, you will tend to vote and think a certain way. The subtitle of their book is “Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government”. It was both informative and depressing to read.

It’s depressing because one of our political parties makes a serious effort (sometimes successful, often not) to address issues and enact policies that will help average people’s lives, while the other mostly ignores real problems and policy, but gets their supporters (the non-wealthy ones anyway) riled up about things that didn’t happen or don’t matter (see, for example, how they got millions of people upset a “stolen” election). One might conclude that the party that tries to make our antiquated government work is at a permanent disadvantage. It’s so much easier to invent a “controversy” about Critical Race Theory in elementary schools than to replace all of their old lead pipes.

So when we hear that it’s the Democrats who are all about identity politics, we should keep in mind how important identity is to politics, even to coal miners in West Virginia, farmers in Nebraska and cops in New York City.

Some Conservatives Want to Avoid a Coup in 2024

One such conservative is J. Michael Luttig. You know he’s a conservative, because he clerked for Antonin Scalia, worked for Ronald Reagan and was made a federal judge by the first President Bush. After 15 years as a judge, he was Boeing’s general counsel for 13 years (2008 income = $2.8 million). He’s apparently consulting with “a number of senior Republican senators” regarding changes to the Electoral Count Act. He warned America in a piece for the NY Times today: 

The clear and present danger to our democracy now is that former President D____ T____ and his political allies appear prepared to exploit the Electoral Count Act of 1887, the law governing the counting of votes for president and vice president, to seize the presidency in 2024 if Mr. T____ or his anointed candidate is not elected by the American people.

The convoluted language in the law gives Congress the power to determine the presidency if it concludes that Electoral College slates representing the winning candidate were not “lawfully certified” or “regularly given” — vague and undefined terms — regardless of whether there is proof of illegal vote tampering. After the 2020 election, Republican senators like Ted Cruz of Texas and Josh Hawley of Missouri tried to capitalize on those ambiguities in the law to do Mr. T____’s bidding, mounting a case for overturning the results in some Biden-won states on little more than a wish. Looking ahead to the next presidential election, Mr. T____ is once again counting on a sympathetic and malleable Congress and willing states to use the Electoral Count Act to his advantage.

He confirmed as much in a twisted admission of both his past and future intent earlier this month, claiming that congressional efforts to reform the Electoral Count Act actually prove that Mike Pence had the power to overturn the 2020 presidential election because of the alleged “irregularities.” The former vice president pushed back forcefully . . . 

The back-and-forth repudiations by Mr. T____ and Mr. P____ lay bare two very different visions for the Republican Party. Mr. T____ and his allies insist that the 2020 election was “stolen,” a product of fraudulent voting and certifications of electors who were not properly selected. Over a year after the election, they continue to cling to these disproved allegations, claiming that these “irregularities” were all the evidence Mr. Pence needed to overturn the results, and demanding that the rest of the G.O.P. embrace their lies. The balance of the Republican Party, mystifyingly stymied by Mr. T____, rejects these lies, but, as if they have fallen through the rabbit hole into Alice’s Wonderland, they are confused as to exactly how to move on from the 2020 election when their putative leader remains bewilderingly intent on driving the wedge between the believers in his lies and the disbelievers.

This political fissure in the Republican Party was bound to intensify sooner or later, and now it has, presenting an existential threat to the party in 2024. If these festering divisions cost the Republicans in the midterm elections and jeopardize their chances of reclaiming the presidency in 2024, which they well could, the believers and disbelievers alike will suffer.

While the Republicans are transfixed by their own political predicaments, and the Democrats by theirs, the right course is for both parties to set aside their partisan interests and reform the Electoral Count Act, which ought not be a partisan undertaking.

Democrats, for their part, should regard reform of the Electoral Count Act as a victory — essential to shore up our faltering democracy and to prevent another attack like the one at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. These are actually the worthiest of objectives.

Republicans should want to reform the law for these same reasons, and more. Of course, some may never support reform of the Electoral Count Act simply because the former president has voiced his opposition to the efforts to revise it. But there are consequential reasons of constitutional and political principle for the large remainder of Republicans to favor reform in spite of the former president’s opposition.

Republicans are proponents of limited federal government. They oppose aggregation of power in Washington and want it dispersed to the states. It should be anathema to them that Congress has the power to overturn the will of the American people in an election that, by constitutional prescription, is administered by the states, not Washington . . . [although he doesn’t mention that the Constitution (Article I, Section 4, Clause 1) gives Congress the authority to change the rules for elections].

Constitutional conservatives, especially, should want Electoral Count Act reform, because they should be the first to understand that the law is plainly unconstitutional. Nothing in the Constitution empowers Congress to decide the validity of the electoral slates submitted by the states. In fact, the Constitution gives Congress no role whatsoever in choosing the president, save in the circumstance where no presidential candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes cast.

T____ acolytes like Mr. Cruz and Mr. Hawley should appreciate the need to reform this unconstitutional law. . . . No Republican should want to be an accessory to any successful attempt to overturn the next election — including an effort by Democrats to exploit the law.

If the Republicans want to prevent the Electoral Count Act from being exploited in 2024, several fundamental reforms are needed. First, Congress should formally give the federal courts, up to and including the Supreme Court, the power to resolve disputes over state electors and to ensure compliance with the established procedures for selecting presidential electors — and require the judiciary’s expeditious resolution of these disputes. Congress should then require itself to count the votes of electors that the federal courts have determined to be properly certified under state law.

Congress should also increase the number of members required both to voice an objection and to sustain one to as high a number as politically palatable. At the moment, only one member of each chamber is necessary to send an objection to the Senate and House for debate and resolution — an exceedingly low threshold that proved a deadly disservice to the country and the American people during the last election.

Currently, Congress has the power under Article II and the Necessary and Proper Clause to prevent states from changing the manner by which their electors are appointed after the election, but it has not clearly exercised that authority to prevent such postelection changes. It should do so.

Finally, the vice president’s important, but largely ministerial, role in the joint session where the electoral votes are counted should once and for all be clarified.

It is hardly overstatement to say that the future of our democracy depends on reform of the Electoral Count Act. Republicans and Democrats need to . . . fix this law before it enables the political equivalent of a civil war three years hence. The law is offensive to Republicans in constitutional and political principle, officiously aggrandizing unto Congress the constitutional prerogatives of the states. It is offensive to Democrats because it legislatively epitomizes a profound threat in waiting to America’s democracy. The needed changes, which would meet the political objections of both parties, should command broad bipartisan support in any responsible Congress. . . . 

Come to think of it, the only members in Congress who might not want to reform this menacing law are those planning its imminent exploitation to overturn the next presidential election.