Friday, November 30, 2007

Rotting from the Head Down

Joe Klein reports on the responses of a Republican focus group gathered by Frank Luntz during the Republican U-Tube debate:

In the next segment--the debate between Romney and Mike Huckabee over Huckabee's college scholarships for the deserving children of illegal immigrants--I noticed something really distressing: When Huckabee said, "After all, these are children of God," the dials plummeted. And that happened time and again through the evening: Any time any candidate proposed doing anything nice for anyone poor, the dials plummeted (30s). These Republicans were hard.

But there was worse to come: When John McCain started talking about torture--specifically, about waterboarding--the dials plummeted again. Lower even than for the illegal Children of God. Down to the low 20s, which, given the natural averaging of a focus group, is about as low as you can go. Afterwards, Luntz asked the group why they seemed to be in favor of torture. "I don't have any problem pouring water on the face of a man who killed 3000 Americans on 9/11," said John Shevlin, a retired federal law enforcement officer. The group applauded, appallingly.

Andrew Sullivan labels this display of sadism The Foul Core of the GOP. But what if we're witnessing the corruption of the American electorate as whole? That's what inevitably happens when leaders violate the norms and taboos of civilized governance. I think back to those experiments by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s in which participants proved willing to administer excruciatingly painful shocks (which were faked) to those they believed to be the experiment's subjects, and Milgram's claim that you could find a full staff for Auschwitz in any typical American town. That is probably always true of people everywhere -- and that's precisely why when the leaders start pushing the torture-is-too-good-for- our-enemies buttons, we're on the road to ruin if other leaders don't stand up in opposition.

On the largest issues of governance -- respect for minority rights, human rights, international law -- the leaders have to be better than the people. Bush's crime lies in violating norm after norm, taboo after taboo of U.S. governance -- politicizing the CIA, Justice Dept, EPA and just about every other federal department; nullifying legislation via signing statements; harassing nonsupporters at campaign rallies; suspending habeas; and institutionalizing torture.

For years I've believed that the electorate as a whole is smarter than any of us; I've had faith in the wisdom of crowds as a key to democracy's success. But lately I've been thinking that leaders in power can corrupt this process; they can corrupt the people.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Huckabee Caesar

Re Huckabee's defense of his support of the death penalty as Governor in last night's debate: Andrew Sullivan has posted the Asp comment below as half of the Dissent of the Day at The Daily Dish:

While I despise the "what would Jesus do?" mindset ("original intent" to the nth) and regard Christianism as a major threat to our democracy, I thought Huckabee's "Jesus was too smart to run for public office" response to the death penalty question was kind of brilliant. You found it a "cheapening of Jesus' radical injunction to forswear worldly power and wealth" -- I thought it was a dead-on voiceover of "render under Caesar what is Caesar's."

The thing is, Huckabee has been Caesar, i.e. has had to make the life-and-death decisions, which he spoke of rather movingly (not glibly, though I can't gauge his sincerity). What he said, in effect, was that Jesus offered no direct guidance to worldly rulers about what to do when the apparent demands of public welfare (or security) clash w/ the dictates of the Sermon on the Mount. In a way he was also saying he would have been 'smarter' to stay a minister rather than enter politics - there's that humility reflex, real or faked, which is part of his appeal. More to the point,, "Jesus couldn't (wouldn't) tell me outright what to do as governor." There's an unBushlike shunning of certainty there that's also part of his appeal.

The second half of the dissent, by another reader, highlighted the decency in Huckabee's discussion of immigration and defense of his refusal as governor to exclude the children of illegal aliens from a state merit scholarship program. In their different ways, Huckabee, McCain and Paul shed a few rays of decency on the dung heap of immigrant bashing, bloodlust for torture and contempt for civil liberties fertilizing the Republican frontrunners' campaigns.
If Huckabee or McCain win the nomination, I will not fear for the future of American democracy as intensely as I will if Double Guantanamo Romney or Depends-on-Who-Does-it Rudy win.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Voodoo Video?

Today's Times (Nov. 11) ran This is your brain on politics , an interpretation by neuroscientists of swing voters' brain activity while they watched presidential candidates in action. The report raises more questions than it answers --

1. In the selection of the still and video shots of each candidate, was there a method for screening out researcher bias?

2. Was there a method for determining whether the stump speech video represents a candidate's average performance?

3. Are emotions and mental activities as firmly associated with discrete areas of the brain as the article implies? For example, would neuroscientists generally agree that the anterior cingulate cortex "is aroused when a person feels compelled to act in two different ways but must choose one"? Might that same region be stimulated by other kinds of mental/emotional activity?

Experiments on this frontier are fascinating. Sometimes, though, the reported results read a bit like a video version of phrenology, the nineteenth century pseudo-science that purported to determine personality by examining head shape.

On the other hand, research showing that people's political reactions grow more hard-line and punitive when they have just been made aware of death or the possibility of disaster seems to me truly compelling. The "before and after" comparison in that case is clean.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Dreams of Obama: Sullivan Seeks Transcendence

Much as I enjoy Andrew Sullivan's blog and honor his opposition to torture, his Atlantic cover about Obama's transcendent potential strikes me as complete fantasy, with facts shaped to suit naive longings for renewal.

Sullivan claims that "our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable" while alleging that there are few substantive policy differences between the parties. How can Sullivan, who has been so relentlessly clearheaded about the constitutional dangers posed by Bush's normalization of torture and assertions of absolute executive power, pretend to believe that the parties' policies are substantively the same? One party's candidates are vying to prove that they'll out-torture each other, outdo each other in the destruction of civil liberties, and extend Bush's preemptive unilateralism any country perceived as a threat, while the other party's candidates universally promise to end Guantanamo, reject torture and negotiate with adversaries -- and Sullivan finds no difference? Similarly, his claim that the parties are not that far apart on health care because Hillary's national plan looks like Romney's Massachusetts plan is disingenuous. Romney has effectively repudiated his Massachusetts plan. None of the Republicans have put forward any serious plan for covering the uninsured nationally, while the major Democrats all have done so.

After years of eloquently detailing the disastrous effects of Bush's policies -- in international affairs, in civil liberties, in government spending, in grossly distorted and ineffective programs like the prescription drug benefit -- in this article Sullivan downplays real differences between the parties in favor of airy generalizations about the zeitgeist. It's not about a party entirely in the pocket of lobbyists and drunk on American military power and the fears they've inspired in the populace -- it's about Vietnam. Nonsense, Andrew. The Republicans have relentlessly hammered the Democrats on Vietnam because painting Democrats as soft on defense syncs up with painting them as the party of blacks and the lazy poor (commie sympathizers, socialists at home). Republican aggression on the world stage meshes nicely with their "toughness" with regard to the disadvantaged and their eternal bankrolling by big business whose interest they serve.

Not that the Democrats are not also corrupted by lobbying interests. Less so than the Republicans, but our whole political system has been poisoned by the escalating floods of cash, the legalized bribery. Robert Reich, in Supercapitalism, has gone many fathoms deeper than Sullivan in explaining the 'malaise' in American politics. Without blaming big business, which lobbies because each company must compete as relentlessly for political advantage (against rivals within its own industry, and against industries with rival interests) as they do in every other arena, he demonstrates repeatedly how arguments ostensibly about the public interest are often simply a smokescreen for competing economic interests. That may not always be true -- it's not, on civil liberties -- but the parties' positions have hardened into caricatures that suit their main supporters.

Finally, although Sullivan keeps his anti-Hillary hysteria somewhat under wraps in this article, his allegations of her core insincerity remain as unsupported as ever. He simply magnifies her perceived flaws of character and campaigning, while explaining away Obama's as part of a uniquely compelling package. Most unfairly, he compares HIllary's undoubted lifetime faith unfavorably with Obama's supposedly rational conversion in early adulthood. I read Dreams of My Father and had a very different take on that conversion. I don't think Obama is dishonest, but I suspect that as a young activist in inner city Chicago he did a number on himself -- because he wanted to belong to the black community in which he had immersed himself, he wanted to 'go all the way.' I find it simply incredible that a rational, skeptical thinker like Obama could convince himself in adulthood that Jesus died for his sins and offers him personal salvation. Rather I think he took a route to social salvation, to connection with the black community. In his sublimating way, I think Obama has been as concerned lifelong about his "political viability" as Bill Clinton. I find it sad that both Obama and Hillary have to wear their faith, and whatever combination of sincerity and self deception composes it, on their sleeves. As does anyone who wants to be President.