Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Martin Longman writes a somewhat ambivalent critique of American elites and the TPP.  He accurately notes that Americans have grown weary of elite opinion after the twin disasters of Iraq and the 2008 Depression.  This reflexive anti-elitism helps explain Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and the overall wariness and weariness surrounding Hillary Clinton's candidacy.  The reflexive "throw the bums out" is viscerally appealing, if ultimately short sighted.

I had a mild debate with a friend over Colin Kaepernick on Facebook, and his rejoinder was that I was trying to inject rationality into an emotional debate.  Which...yeah.  I was.  We should.

The ultimately problem with populism is that it is fundamentally irrational and emotive.  It is entirely focused on what "feels" right rather than what might be discovered from objective inquiry, skepticism and evidence.  Thus populism can incorporate both the idea that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists and also a scheme for oil companies to get rich off the misery of others.  Populism can include those who think the 2008 depression was the fault of Washington or Wall Street, often both together.

The debate over TPP has somewhat mystified me - and my elitist ways, I guess.  While I have hardly dug down into the weeds of the agreement, it's a generally positive trade agreement that brings many Pacific rim economies into greater compliance with US standards.  Yes, there are some un-democratic elements, because there are always some un-democratic elements.  The TPP is also a really important foreign policy statement by the United States as to its intentions in East Asia.  It is the central hinge of the "pivot" that Obama wanted to execute.

And it will likely die for all the wrong reasons.

Republicans will likely kill it, because it allows them to pander to Trump voters and snub Obama.  Democrats will kill it to pander to Sanders voters.  Very few Senators, I would guess, actually oppose the agreement.  But our reflexive antipathy to trade deals means that we are no longer going to "do what's right" but rather do what's expedient.

The foundations of American government were based on allowing elite representatives the distance between themselves and the voters in order to make difficult but important decisions.  I'm thinking of the Bank of the United States, Jay's Treaty and the like.  Andrew Jackson, like Trump, promised himself as the tribune of the people to personally destroy elitism.  The result was a remarkably poor presidency and a powerful political legacy.  Jackson, the first populist, showed that you can be powerful without being right, a sentiment that would have appalled Washington, who strove for proper conduct in everything he did.

Longman proposes that the elites have brought all this on themselves because of Iraq and 2008.  I suppose.  But calls to "end the Fed" predate 2008.  There has always been a strong strain of isolationism in American politics.  Elites tended to gravitate towards foreign policy not only because they tended to be more cosmopolitan, but also because they had more latitude to act internationally.  The role of the Internet in creating this populist moment is hard to define, but it is no doubt important.

In certain areas, we need elite leadership.  Jackson famously instituted the Spoils System that opened up government jobs on the basis of political loyalty rather than competency.  The horrific governance of much of the 19th century can be tied to the idea that "anyone is as good as anyone else, perhaps even more so."  I don't want Joe the Plumber managing the Social Security Administration. I don't want Sarah Palin conducting foreign policy in the South China Sea.

Expertise and competency matter.  That is Clinton's basic sales pitch at a time when anger towards experts and doubts about competency dominate the country and the world.  In addition to a certain lack of charisma (similar, when I think about it, to George HW Bush) this explains her headwinds.

At some point, we are going to have to learn to trust elites, while always holding them accountable.  And perhaps it is that last point that is critical.  The Iraq planners and the torturers walked free.  No one went to jail for 2008.  

The first step in restoring confidence in elite decision makers is holding them to the standards that they hold us.

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