Politics, Religion

The Arlington Road Election (One Year Later)

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In September 2016, a pseudonymous writer attempted to offer an intellectual justification for the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. He titled his article “The Flight 93 Election,” and argued that the consequences of a Hillary Clinton presidency were guaranteed to be so dire, it was reasonable for America to take its chances with Trump. Just as it made sense for the passengers of the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93 to risk their lives charging the cockpit rather than face certain death by doing nothing, the author suggested that it made sense for America to gamble on Trump rather than face certain annihilation by electing Hillary Clinton.

The author of the piece, Michael Anton, is now a national security staffer in the Trump administration. I won’t bother engaging here with the substance of the article, including its fascistic sympathies, anti-Islamic bigotry and failure to take seriously the risks to America and the world of electing a mentally and emotionally unwell, demonstrably incompetent, unapologetically corrupt, serial sexually abusing, racist and nativist demagogue with a loyalty to Vladimir Putin and no respect for the U.S. Constitution or the rule of law.

My purpose here is, instead, to suggest an alternative metaphor for the 2016 presidential election, and for the decision of most conservative Republicans, with a few brave and principled exceptions, ultimately to support Trump.

One year after November 8, 2016, it is clearer than ever that the Trump-Clinton contest was not the Flight 93 Election. It was the Arlington Road Election.

In the 1999 film Arlington Road, Jeff Bridges plays a widower and college professor who suspects that his neighbors, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, are secretly plotting an act of terrorism against the United States. Bridges’ wife died in the line of duty while working for the FBI, and he brings his concerns about his neighbors to the Bureau. But the FBI dismisses him as paranoid. Meanwhile, Bridges continues to accumulate evidence of his neighbors’ sinister plot to attack the federal government.

In the movie’s climactic sequence — SPOILER ALERT! — Bridges follows a delivery van that he believes contains his neighbors’ bomb. The van enters the basement of FBI headquarters. In an attempt to prevent what he believes to be an imminent attack, Bridges forces his vehicle past a security checkpoint and alerts the authorities. Too late, he discovers that the delivery van is empty. He returns to his own vehicle and finds that the terrorists have placed the bomb in his trunk. It detonates.

It was only because of his desperate attempt to prevent the attack that the attack took place.

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Economics, Politics, Science

Mapping Politics: Corey Robin and Mary Douglas

Free Photo: Harbors in Barcelona, Spain

In earlier posts, some of them a few years old now, before our current president’s rise demonstrated the continuing power of partisan tribalism and white grievance politics in the United States, I tried to explore the idea that tribalistic political thinking and the struggle for group recognition might be, under some circumstances, more politically powerful than economic self-interest.

Starting from this perspective, I enjoyed finally reading Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind (2011), a popular collection of revised magazine-pieces on the history of right-wing thought from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, as the subtitle puts it. (A new 2017 edition brings the story, and the title, up to Trump. Let’s hope this is the last edition.) The central thesis of Robin’s history of ideas is that there is an essence to conservatism: “the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back” (4). Conservatism is identified with the Right, and both are defined as reactions against the Left’s “politics of emancipation” (9).

Against the modern American conservative’s sense of himself as a principled defender of liberty and limited government, and as free from the blood-and-soil chauvinism of the European Right, Robin argues that the political thought of the Right in Europe and America, in the eighteenth century and today, is in fact usefully approached as “a unity” (34). The unity is defined by “backlash politics” (34):

Conservatism … is not a commitment to limited government and liberty — or a wariness of change, a belief in evolutionary reform, or a politics of virtue. These may be the byproducts of conservatism, one or more of its historically specific and everchanging modes of expression. But they are not its animating purpose. Neither is conservatism a makeshift fusion of capitalists, Christians, and warriors, for that fusion is impelled by a more elemental force — the opposition to the liberation of men and women from the fetters of their superiors, particularly in the private sphere. (16)

In other words, rather than defining the Left and the Right in terms of economic policy positions, as has been the norm in discussions of American politics, Robin defines his two political poles in terms of us-versus-them group power dynamics. Based on my earlier thinking about the potential importance of political tribalism in explaining the contemporary American political landscape, Robin’s approach is appealing.

At the same time, I found myself wondering how to relate Robin’s claims about the essence of the Right to other scholarship I’ve encountered that attempts to provide a map of political space — especially the social science scholarship descended from the anthropologist Mary Douglas‘s “group-grid” typology of political orientations (sometimes labelled “Cultural Theory“), and the mainstream political science scholarship surrounding Poole and Rosenthal’s spatial model of congressional ideology (such as the DW-NOMINATE method for locating legislators in issue space).

Of course, Robin doesn’t present his project as an exercise in mapping or categorizing political ideologies. He makes no reference to either Douglas or Poole and Rosenthal. Robin’s book presents itself primarily as a contribution to the history of ideas, with a focus on the underlying, sometimes largely unstated or even obscured impulses motivating the history of conservative ideas.

Still, it seems to me that Robin’s history implicitly rests on something like a model of political space. It is a one-dimensional model that sorts political ideas and political actors by their proximity to two ideal types: the Left or the Right, where the former is defined by its commitment to emancipating the subordinated from their superiors, and the latter is defined by its reaction against the former.

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Politics

Adolph Reed Jr. on the Current State of American Liberalism

Adolph Reed Jr., a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a piece in Harper’s on the decline of American liberalism. For those of us without a key to the Harper’s paywall, Reed has been making similar arguments in other venues.

Many of Reed’s arguments echo this blog’s recent posts on the background of our current moment in American politics. In particular, Reed critiques “the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal”:

Most telling … is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

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