This interview with Bret Easton Ellis–a writer I’ve never been able to stand, for non-political reasons–has, I believe, surpassed Cenk Uygur vs. Jonah Goldberg as the most inane political discussion ever.

People on Twitter have been praising the interviewer. I don’t see why. Too many of his questions are combative and uninformative. He repeatedly asks questions about what Ellis believes Trump’s motivations are, rather than asking Ellis about whatever it is Ellis believes.

Ellis is just as bad, if not worse, at being interviewed. He seems not to have read his own book, and when questioned. seemed not to care about the subject.

The result is the political equivalent of Joaquin Phoenix’s infamous David Letterman interview, except not as funny. But I do think these things are worth studying as examples of what not to do when talking politics.

The number one problem in our political system is the inability to communicate–so I try to study the most extreme examples of bad communication, so as to avoid making the same mistakes that we see here.

I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?”  Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”

Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.

McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.

And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment.  In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.

For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.

It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.

The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.

No, the real problem is that the serious stories in politics are slow-moving and gradual phenomena, and are imperceptible over the course of a week or even a year.  You have to be able to see the big picture, not just which party is winning or losing on a given day, in order to understand them.

goofus-and-gallant

I’m a big believer in the “charisma theory” of Presidential elections.  To summarize, the idea is that the more charismatic candidate always wins. It has held in every election since 1992, and examples can be found going back to 1960.  In fact, the only instance I know of in which the more charismatic candidate lost was in 1896, before TV or radio existed.

One curious thing about charismatic candidates is that seemingly they always go up against non-charismatic opponents–people who may be good, studious, diligent policy wonks, but who are also stiff and boring.  Or, to use the words of Paul Graham, the creator of the theory, “people who are earnest, but dull.”

Think about it: the big knock on Hillary Clinton was that she “couldn’t connect with people”–versus Trump, who could at least connect with angry white men.

Same deal in 2012: Obama was one of the most charismatic politicians in history, and Romney was famously stiff and awkward.

Again, 2008: Charismatic Obama against boring, tired John McCain.

It goes on. In 2004, folksy “just a regular guy” George W. Bush vs. famously boring speaker John Kerry.

2000: Folksy Bush beats dull, awkward Al Gore.

1996: Legendarily charismatic Bill Clinton beats old, tired Bob Dole.

It goes on and on. Now and then you get elections where neither candidate was charismatic (Bush vs. Dukakis, Nixon vs. McGovern and Humphrey) but you seemingly never get two charismatic candidates running against each other. (Imagine what Trump vs. Obama would have been like!)

That seems highly improbable when you consider that there are lots of charismatic politicians, and that charismatic politicians have an innate advantage over non-charismatic ones. They should be running against each other all the time. What’s going on?

One possibility is that charisma is a winner-take-all sort of thing, in that whichever candidate is more charismatic automatically makes the opponent seem stiff and boring by comparison.  So if A is more charismatic than B, B looks boring, but B might be more charismatic than C, and make C look boring.

But it doesn’t seem to work this way.  Nixon lost to Kennedy on charisma, but he beat Humphrey and McGovern without getting any more charismatic.  Charisma simply wasn’t a factor in those elections.

Another possible explanation is that when one party has been out of power for a while, they become more likely to nominate a charismatic candidate. (Charismatic candidates usually start as long-shot outsiders, e.g. Obama and Trump) Similarly, when a party has been in power for a while, they are more likely to nominate a careerist politician who has paid their dues in the party. (e.g. McCain, H. Clinton)

If that’s the case, it apparently runs in an eight year cycle, conveniently matching up with Presidential term limits, and thus preventing possible “high-charisma showdowns”, as would have happened with Clinton vs. Bush, or Obama vs. Trump.

This could be the case, although it seems like an awfully big coincidence that it takes almost exactly eight years for one party to get a charismatic candidate, and that the other party seemingly forgets this lesson every eight years.

What are your thoughts on this pattern?

Last year, there was an online service that was in very high-demand.  It was hyped, but its rollout was very rocky. When it was released to the public, it tended to crash a lot.  It couldn’t handle the number of users it was getting.

People criticized the organization that created it for being unprepared for the number of users, and for designing the system poorly.  It was quite embarrassing, especially since the organization behind it has always been a lightning rod for controversy.

You probably think I’m talking about the Health Care website.  But I’m not. I’m talking about the video game SimCity 4. It’s not the only game that had this kind of problem, though.  Same thing happened with Diablo III in 2012.

The game companies got flak for it, too–gamers hate Electronic Arts about as much as Republicans hate President Obama, but with the additional problem that they aren’t allowed to filibuster EA’s products and demand they come back with new ones.  It’s the equivalent of if Republicans had to pass and endorse all Obama’s pet projects or else leave politics entirely.

But at what point does this sort of thing start to constitute a pattern?  When the U.S. Government and two separate large electronics companies cannot roll out a satisfactory online service, you have to wonder if anyone knows what they are doing as far as building online services.

One argument might be that in all cases, the people making the service thought so many would have to use it–because of the law in the one case, and because of the gaming industry hype machine in the others–that they felt no reason to do a good job on the service in question.

But I don’t buy that for the Health Care case, because it’s one of the major political issues of the time, and even if you are so cynical as to believe the architects don’t care about the people, many of them will find their careers riding on the success or failure of the program.  So they had good reason to make sure the product worked from the get-go.

I don’t have any real explanations for this myself.  I just think it is interesting that wealthy organizations, who ought to have enough resources to understand what they can and can’t make, keep failing at debuting web products like this.

Here we observe one of the dangers of academic tenure…

The short version, if you don’t have time to watch the video, is like this: evidently having nothing better to do, Roberto Unger, a former professor of President Obama’s, has concluded that same President Obama must be defeated. This defeat will, so he says, “allow the voice of democratic prophecy to speak once again in American life.”

Obviously, the good professor knows this will not happen under President Romney.  But the defeat of Obama is necessary to allow for true progressivism to return, he believes.

Let us look at history, shall we?  From 1968 until 1992, the Republicans won every Presidential election but one.  The Democrats finally got Clinton in ’92, but this was largely through the “New Democrat” strategy of adopting many laissez-faire Republican economic policies.  In other words, the Democrats accomplished their victory only by becoming much more like the Republicans on economic issues.  Not exactly what Prof. Unger is looking for.

Cast back a bit further, and we find the shoe on the other foot: From 1932 until 1952, the Republicans did not win a Presidential election. When they finally did win, it was with Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero and a man so friendly to the New Deal that Republican extremists suspected him of communism.  Clearly, the Republicans had to capitulate a good deal to the Democrats on economic policy.

In recent times, there are two instances where a party lost an election and four years later returned with a more extreme candidate: 1964 and 1980.  Goldwater was more extreme than Nixon, and he was crushed.  Reagan was more extreme than Ford, and he won handily.  So, it’s kind of a mixed bag.  (Not, of course, if you factor in charisma; then it is all quite explicable.)

The record is pretty clear: parties rarely favor their more radical economic policies in the wake of sound defeats.  They do just the opposite, trying to emulate and subsume elements of the winning party’s policies.  This is especially true for Democrats.  I therefore judge Prof. Unger’s plan a bad one.

(Video via Huffington Post.  Also check out this post about Prof. Unger at The Reaction.)

The Republican Party

Cut tax and spend less.

And Heed the Word of the Lord.

But mostly, cut tax.

The Democratic Party

We must tax the rich.

Unless they’re in Hollywood.

Then we’re conflicted.

Libertarianism

Cut Government Waste!

Like useless departments that

Monitor spending.

The Tea Party

We hate government

Unless it does what we want.

So… basically… yeah.

Moderate Democrats

We can disagree

On Reagan’s policies, but

His hair was perfect!*

Neo-liberalism

Globalism good.

If there’s more to it than that,

We don’t want to know.

Liberal Progressivism

We’re disappointed.

We won’t vote for Obama.

Kucinich ’16!

Moderate Republicans

We’re not Democrats.

No, really, we promise you!

Not the same at all!

The Alt-Right/”Manosphere”

We strongly believe

We’re slaves to biology.

Go build some robots.

Objectivism

We are all selfish.

It worked great in the novel.

Check your premises.

Anarchism

Why do we have to adhere to this stupid form? We will use however many freakin’ syllables we damn well please!

*Apologies to the late, great Warren Zevon for stealing this line.

Michael Tomasky has a pretty amazing article in The Daily Beast, and not in a good way:

What this country needs… is a large and well-funded and well-run organization to advance moderate Republicanism and elect moderate Republicans… Republicans behave the way they behave because every incentive they have rewards it. They are loony-right obstructionists because it pays to be that in terms of contributions and votes….

The presence of more truly moderate Republicans would, completely by itself, fix most of our government’s problems. Imagine, for example, that there were 12 or 15 actual Republican moderates in the Senate, instead of the three who are in fact there..

You know, you almost never hear the same concept uttered by Republicans, even though they believe almost all Democrats to be crazed radicals.  They don’t say “we need more moderate Democrats”, they say “we must defeat the Democrats in the election.”   This is probably how they got to hold the power they currently do.

Tomasky is over-thinking things.  If you want to make the Republicans change, you don’t need more moderate Republicans, you need more Democrats of almost any kind.  Imagine if there were three more Democrats instead of three moderate Republicans.  Imagine that, since it’s far more likely to happen than nine moderate Republicans showing up from somewhere.

And this hypothetical “large and well-funded and well-run organization to advance moderate Republicanism” Tomasky proposes?  Where is it supposed to come from?  And who would be fool enough to go along with it?  It’s a needless uphill battle.  If you were a young politician starting out, why would you squander your career trying to fit a square peg into a round hole?  Tomasky wants an organization to put together a band of mavericks to go on a mission that will almost certainly fail. That’s not a political strategy; it’s a “B” action-movie plot.

If the Republican party consistently lost to the Democratic party, they might feel a need to change strategies.  Right now, as Tomasky correctly notes, there is no reason to do that, because they have been maintaining a respectable enough winning percentage.

Also, do you know what would happen if there were such a “moderate Republican” advocating-organization?  Why, the Republicans would immediately denounce it as a Liberal or R.I.N.O. espionage plot. They’d laugh them off the stage.

In summary: don’t make life harder than it has to be.  The way to get the Republicans to change is to vote for Democrats.  I can see why we can’t have a third party in this country; apparently, even two are too many for some people to deal with.

Say this for Thomas Friedman: he was right that Michael Bloomberg could unite moderate Republicans and Democrats. I think that they, along with all the libertarians, agree that his soft drink ban is rather absurd.

The sale of any cup or bottle of sweetened drink larger than 16 fluid ounces — about the size of a medium coffee, and smaller than a common soda bottle — would be prohibited…“–The New York Times.

I know Republicans–particularly those in the “Tea Party” faction–will say otherwise, but in my experience there are precious few Democrats who will draw a line in the sand and fight to the bitter end to prevent the sale of medium-sized soft drinks. Yes, liberals want to regulate big business, but it’s Kochs, not Cokes, that they are concerned with.

No matter how hard Friedman wishes upon stars, (specifically, these stars)* Bloomberg isn’t going to be President, because banning soft drinks is not the sort of thing that the average voter takes kindly to. It is saying not merely “I know what is best for you,” but “I cannot permit you to even have the chance to act otherwise.”

Is there anyone who doesn’t already know that drinking carbonated corn syrup is worse for you than drinking a bottle of water? I very much doubt it. It can be inferred from the scientific principle that everything that tastes good is bad for you.

It would be different if the ban was on selling the stuff to kids. That would be something people could understand. But if a consenting adult wants to drink a gallon of sugar water, who can say that person hasn’t the right to do so?

Are there any other instances in history of unhealthy beverages being prohibited? Any famous ones that didn’t work at all? Someone should investigate that.  In the meantime, you have to wonder just how much this can possibly change obesity in New York City. Maybe Bloomberg should eliminate all forms of public transportation in the city instead, thus forcing people to exercise. (True, they could try driving. But this is New York City we’re talking about.)

Of course, this isn’t in any way a massive infringement on New Yorkers’ rights. They’re not even banning all sodas; just certain sizes. What could be wrong with that? The mayor himself commented upon the sheer banality of his plan:

“Your argument, I guess, could be that it’s a little less convenient to have to carry two 16-ounce drinks to your seat in the movie theater rather than one 32 ounce,” Mr. Bloomberg said in a sarcastic tone. “I don’t think you can make the case that we’re taking things away.”

He’s right, you know. It doesn’t even make a difference! A trifle, nothing more!

Hey, wait, why do it then? And why tell the portly partakers of Pepsi the loophole that they just have to buy more drinks? I mean, is he serious about matters of public health or not? This is where trying to be a centrist gets you into trouble: you end up doing just enough to annoy the Republicans without solving the problem the Democrats want solved.

I rag on the libertarians a lot on this blog, mostly because I used to be one and I can see so many of their errors. We need government regulation to protect the public health. We need it for big things that private industry might cut corners on, such as making sure that the sewer system and the drinking water system are two distinct things.

But not this sort of thing. This stuff makes the libertarians feel justified. I realize that the government feels like it ought to do something, just to make sure it still can, but in this case it really would be better to just put up some posters telling people to eat and drink healthy stuff, silly as that may seem.

*This is what I am alluding to regarding Mr. Friedman

Newt Gingrich has written an article in NewsMax about what he calls “NOT Obama Democrats”. (I am not sure why the “not” is capitalized.):

The first big signal was the 41 percent of the vote Keith Judd won in the West Virginia Democratic primary. Here was a convicted felon sitting in a Texas federal prison with a 17 1/2-year sentence for extortion. When West Virginia Democrats prefer a convicted felon to the president, they are showing they are “NOT Obama Democrats.”

This week the depth of the NOT Obama Democrats was further revealed when John Wolfe got 41 percent of the vote in the Arkansas primary. Wolfe, an attorney whose platform includes repealing Obamacare, actually won 36 counties against Obama’s 39 counties.

The same day, “uncommitted” got 42 percent in Kentucky and actually carried a majority of the counties (66 counties to 54 Obama counties).

This 42 percent is the same percentage Eugene McCarthy got against President Lyndon Johnson in New Hampshire in 1968, and at that time it was considered an earthquake to have that many Democrats repudiate their own president.

Putting that History degree to use, eh? It might be worth mentioning that McCarthy was an actual guy, and therefore somewhat more capable of sustaining his support than “uncommitted”. Obama presumably intends to continue to argue for himself, and no other Democrat is going to argue for him or her self.

I mock Gingrich, but the truth is he’s on to something here; it is an interesting development. He writes: “If the campaign continues in this direction, we may discover that the NOT Obama Democrats will evolve into Romney Democrats by Election Day.”

Doubtful. Romney is unlikely to appeal to these rural voters much more than Obama does. Yes, yes, I know my fellow Liberals are thinking it’s all motivated by “racism!”, but the fact of the matter is that Romney seems like a rich corporate elitist to these voters.I don’t think they’ll like him any more than they do Obama.

Jennifer Rubin looked at these same facts and concluded: “The reason for this, as you might imagine, is that in burnishing his credentials with the left, Obama has hurt himself in the center, even within the Democratic Party.” Yes, of course, the legendary “center”! How could I forget? She next quotes Josh Kraushaar, who gets it even more wrong:

Moderate Democratic groups and officials, meanwhile, privately fret about the party’s leftward drift and the Obama campaign’s embrace of an aggressively populist message. They’re disappointed that the administration didn’t take the lead advancing the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction proposal, they wish the administration’s focus was on growth over fairness, and they are frustrated with the persistent congressional gridlock. Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, has been generating analyses underscoring the need for Democrats to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters, to no avail. . . .

Yeah, I’m sure the farmers and rural folks in West Virginia and Arkansas are really torqued off that he didn’t do the Simpson-Bowles plan. Rural people hate populism, isn’t that so?

But, to her credit, Rubin does also make one useful observation in that same post. That is that “Romney is the least conservative candidate the GOP had to choose from.”

Is this true? Well, it’s hard to say, what with the flip-flopping and all. But he is certainly not as bombastic and bellicose as Newt Gingrich. And he was Governor of Massachusetts, a very liberal state, which demonstrates he possesses some ability to compromise; something Gingrich would never do.

Was he more liberal than Ron Paul? Difficult question. Ron Paul is extremely liberal on some issues–drugs, for example–but in step with the most reactionary of conservatives on others. It is almost an “apples to oranges” comparison, but I think on the whole, it is fair to say Romney is at least more “mainstream” and “safer” than Paul, whose supporters are often of a more radical bent, whatever their political leanings.

Romney was more liberal than Bachmann, but more conservative than Huntsman. But Huntsman barely even counts, because everyone, including him, knew he didn’t have a chance. So, that leaves only one other candidate for Romney’s “liberal Republican” credentials to be compared with: Santorum. This should be easy enough to prove. We all know Santorum was the conservative wing’s alternative to Romney. Surely, this fact alone proves Romney to be the most liberal of the possible nominees?

As a Congressman, Santorum, economically speaking, could pass for a caricature Democrat. He was for all sorts of government spending programs. As conservatives and liberals alike will attest, he may have been very conservative socially, but his fiscal behavior was entirely that of a Big-Government man.

I have often thought that Santorum would have been quite happy as a Democrat in the 1930s, ’40s or ’50s. He would have had massive government spending programs going, and social issues being more or less unacknowledged. He is, in other words, a Conservative Democrat from the pre-sexual revolution era.

So, Mitt Romney is more liberal on social issues than Santorum–not a difficult task–but more conservative on economic issues. Romney is far more likely to cut spending than Santorum was. So, which guy is more liberal? Well, that’s hard to say, isn’t it?

And we come round to where we started: what is the deal with all these Democrats not voting for the President from their own party? I suspect a lot of them are like Santorum; they want government spending programs, but don’t like Democratic policies on social issues.

eviljwinter at Edged in Blue has a good post about how the two-party system is bad for political discourse in this country. I can’t argue with that, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve posted much the same thing.

Where I have some disagreement with him is his support for the multi-party system. The problem is that eventually the two-party system will effectively be reborn through “coalition building”. eviljwinter is right to say that it’s odd that libertarians and social conservatives should find themselves in the same party, but he neglects to consider how this came about. The libertarians and the social conservatives both consciously chose to join the Republican party, after all. Nobody forced them.

Suppose that all the libertarians went and formed a real, honest-to-God Libertarian party, and not just the shade of one that exists now. Suppose also that the social conservatives went and formed their own party, as well. This sounds very well, but eventually some of the parties would begin to chat with each other. And then they would soon begin to make alliances against other parties. Eventually, it is quite likely that the Social Conservatives and Libertarians would rebuild the old Republican  voting coalition under a new name, and then we would be back where we started.

I’m no expert, but I think “coalition government” of this sort is how politics works in Europe. Actually, it’s the way almost all Democracies end up working out of necessity. It is only a curious anomaly that in the United States, these coalitions are but rarely granted the status of “party”, and are instead known as the “right-wing” or “the Reagan Democrats” or whatever.

Still, while I feel that the multi-party system would be of limited help to our political system, it’s still a very good post; and I’m wholeheartedly supportive of attempts to consider such alternatives.