You’re going along in life, a typical, liberaltarian American millennial, enjoying a materially comfortable life with your friends, who are of every gender, religion, race, sexual orientation and ethnic background. It all seems quite nice.

And then you come to find out that, all of sudden, the Presidency has fallen into the hands of a nasty, misogynistic liar who despises you and all your friends, and who means to ruin the culture you grew up in, all on the pretext of “bringing back the coal jobs”.

“Well, now, that’s quite the caterpillar in my buttermilk,” you say. “What manner of devilry hath wrought this state of affairs?”

For a detailed explanation, see here.  But the short answer is, it’s a thing called the Electoral College.

“That’s about the meanest trick I ever heard of,” you cry. “Can’t the Congress do something about this horrible chicanery?”

No, they can’t.  Because the problem with the Electoral College is directly tied to the problem with Congress: apportionment of seats has caused both to favor one party.  They have systematically designed the system to work for very specific voting blocs.

“Well, none of this sounds like it would stand up in a court of law,” you reply (rather exasperatedly).  “I believe I’m going to fight this all the way!”

Good luck with that.  Because the outfit running Congress has also stacked the Court in their favor, even violating the spirit of the Constitution to do so.  So, even if you somehow get your case to the Supreme Court, don’t count on winning it.

“Has the world gone mad?” you ask in frustration. “I was raised to believe that liberal values had won out all across the developed world, and that racism, misogyny and robber barons were all relics of a bygone era.”

Yes–we were all told that.  But as it turns out, liberalism only really controlled one branch of government–the so-called “fourth estate”.  And that doesn’t get you as much you might think.

“It all sounds hopeless when you put it like that! They control all the levers of power; and all we have are our social media accounts and some safety pins.  What can we do to dig ourselves out of this?”

Well, some people have said we should re-draw the Congressional districts to be more fair

“Yes,” you exclaim, filled at once with gallant liberal élan. “Let’s go for that!”

–but the problem with that is that to redraw the districts, you need to have political power, and to gain political power…

“…you need to redraw the districts,” you finish, in a defeated monotone, realizing the depth of our plight. “Then it really is impossible, isn’t it?”

No.  It’s not impossible.

“Really?” Your ears perk up at this. “I thought you were just now trying to convince me that it was.”

No, no–we just need to think outside the box, that’s all.  After all, what are Congressional districts?  Are they, once drawn by a given party, henceforth and forevermore ordained to be in favor of that party even unto eternity?

“That’s a pretty highfalutin way of putting it,” you answer, a bit annoyed. “But even so, I can tell you that the answer’s ‘no’.”

Right! Congressional districts are just lines on a map. So just because they are drawn around a specific area…

“…doesn’t mean that the people living in that area have to stay there forever!” you say slowly.

Correct again! You are a sharp one, you know that?

(“Why, thank you,” you reply.)

Here, look at this map of the margins of victory by county in the 2016 Presidential election.  Look at all those giant blue columns towering over everything.

election-map-3d-by-county
Credit: Max Galka, Metrocosm.com

“Great Scott! Look at all those surplus blue votes in California!”

I know, right?  So my thought is: what if we simply transferred some of those extra blue votes into the red areas?

“You mean… people living in liberal cities should move out into the hinterlands, and cancel out all the redistricting and apportionment shenanigans?”

You ask this cautiously, because you are understandably skeptical that such a crazy idea could ever work. After all, isn’t it awfully difficult for people living in the city to just pack up and move out into the countryside? How will they get jobs and housing?

Good question.  Maybe just moving to smaller cities would do the trick, though.  Even the cities in the heartland have some liberal enclaves.  The local politicians there may be sympathetic to bringing in more liberals. That seems like a promising place to start.

“Look,” you say, striking a more realistic tone. “This all sounds great on paper, but do you really think it can happen? Can we really save America just by moving to different cities?”

Maybe.  I’m not saying it’s guaranteed.  And certain… interested parties are already passing laws to make it difficult to vote for people who have just moved to a new state. So, it’s by no means a sure thing.

But, at the same time… can you think of a better plan?

This weekend, in response to the Women’s Marches in various cities across the country, the new President tweeted:

The President of the United States had 140 characters to comment on massive protests against him and his policies, and he used 24 of them to offer the advice that celebrities were detrimental to the protest effort.

Now, why would he bother to do that? What interest does he have in teaching them how to protest more effectively?

Answer: the celebrities are actually very effective.  Thus, he is trying to discourage the Democrats and other groups opposed to him from utilizing them.

Let me repeat what I said in my first post on this subject:

[Celebrity supporters] made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

Again, it’s instructive to look at examples of a similar phenomenon from the past: Democrats advising Republicans on what sort of candidate they should run to win elections.

“You can never win with somebody so unpalatable to the diverse, socially liberal electorate”, they said. “Republicans need moderates like McCain and Romney if they want to win elections”.

This line of thinking was so influential that prominent Republicans bought into it.

The Democrats, meanwhile, convinced themselves that running against an extreme candidate like Trump would mean an easy win for them.

This was conventional wisdom in both the Republican and Democratic establishments. And it was wrong. The Republicans didn’t win with moderates, but did win with an extremist, completely contrary to what the Democrats (and the moderate Republicans) said would happen.

Let me repeat myself: Democrats would be wise not to listen to the advice given by their opponents.

 

Everyone is talking about the above speech.  Trump himself, who can never resist a celebrity feud, was compelled to respond on Twitter.  Apparently, that took priority over listening to intelligence briefings.

Meghan McCain, the daughter of Senator John McCain, also tweeted about it, saying:

This Meryl Streep speech is why Trump won. And if people in Hollywood don’t start recognizing why and how – you will help him get re-elected

This echoes many commentators, both Republicans and Democrats, who blame Hillary Clinton’s loss partly on her support from various actors, singers, and other celebrities. It made Democrats seem out of touch with the salt-of-the-Earth workers in the Rust Belt.

Moderate Republicans and Bernie Sanders voters alike have argued that the Democrats need to jettison celebrity support and focus on connecting with “everyday folks”.

It makes for a nice story. But it’s not true.

President Obama received overwhelming celebrity support in both of his campaigns. That didn’t hurt him a bit.  If anything, it helped, because many people admire celebrities and respect their opinions.

Moreover, Trump went out of his way to bring up all his celebrity endorsements, even though he had way fewer than Clinton.  He would even claim celebrities supported him when it wasn’t clear that they did.

So, if that’s the case, why do we keep hearing this “blame-the-celebs” line?

Simple: Republicans fear the Democrats’ famous and influential supporters.  So they are trying to stop them.

This is nothing new. Lots of Democrats (and moderate Republicans) said Republicans could never win with someone like Trump as their nominee.  They claimed they could not get enough votes with a candidate so widely despised.

But clearly, that claim was incorrect. And many of the people who made it probably knew it was incorrect. The real reason they did not want the Republicans to nominate Trump was precisely because they feared he would win.

It is the same thing here: Republicans are attempting to neutralize the Democrats’ advantage in mobilizing voters using celebrity endorsements. Democrats should not listen to them.

Probably the best chapter in Donald Trump’s book The Art of the Deal was about his renovation of the Wollman ice rink.  Trump, operating as a private businessman, could get the job done much faster and cheaper than the city bureaucracy could. That was good.

Trump claimed he did it to be a nice guy.  But I don’t think that was it.  I think he did it because he knew he could get publicity, and that he could make his nemesis, then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch, look stupid.  It was about getting attention and getting revenge, as it often is with Trump.

But that’s ok.  Who cares what his reasons were? He did something good.

This gives me an idea for how the Democrats might be able to prevent the Trump Presidency from being a total disaster: trick him into thinking he is getting revenge on them by doing stuff that they want.

I’m not sure precisely how to do this.  I think even Trump would see through it if Pelosi were to say “Oh, don’t you dare make sure all Americans have affordable healthcare, Donald. That sure would make me mad.”  Or if Obama said “Boy, Donald; the egg would really be on my face if you appointed Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Then I’d just look silly.”

They will have to be more subtle about it. (Not too subtle, though. He wouldn’t pick up on it then.) But it’s worth considering.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is based off an old essay I wrote years ago, and didn’t publish.  I revised and updated it for the present.]

I think I have a better understanding of the so-called “alt-right”–which I refer to as “nationalists”–than most people do.  I blame H.P. Lovecraft.

I had just read his horror novella At the Mountains of Madness, and learned that certain ideas in it had been suggested to him by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. I decided I wanted to find out more about Spengler, so I read it.

I should note that at this point in my life I was your typical college “liberaltarian”. I thought  that all those people on the right on who hated gays and feminists and liberals in general were just ignorant, uneducated hillbillies; probably waving Confederate flags.

I have not changed my views on the issues that much since then, but I have changed my perception of my opponents. And reading Spengler was the cause.

Spengler was an immensely intelligent man, and his education was tremendous. I constantly had to look things up to be able to attempt to understand him–not just words, you see, but concepts, incidents in history, philosophies, even civilizations. Spengler was many things, but “ignorant” was not one of them.

And yet… throughout his work ran a strangely familiar undertone. The hostility to the cosmopolitan liberal, and the admiration of the people bound to the  blood and soil. The intellectual and cultural gap between Oswald Spengler and the average Trump supporter is inconceivably vast; yet the sentiments that motivate them are shockingly similar.

This, I don’t mind saying, was troubling. For if an intelligent person,  steeped in knowledge of not only his own culture and civilization, but of others, could hold these same views, it meant that one of my core assumptions was wrong. It was not ignorance which made the conservatives think as they do, but something else–something much deeper.

Spengler had done the work of a philosopher, which was to follow and articulate coherently those impulses and thoughts which motivated him. He explained, logically and thoroughly, a worldview which I could never share, but which I could now, at least, understand.

After that, I began to see many so-called “conservatives” in a different light. I sought to understand as much of their underlying motivation as I could–the unseen, visceral instinct that made some people, regardless of education or background, into what we today call the alt-right, but which might be better described as “nationalists”.

It is not easy thing to describe, and indeed I read many upsetting ideas, which I considered immoral and wrong. But ultimately, I became convinced of one thing: that this is something felt very deeply in people’s hearts, not in their minds.

This was an oddly–dare I say it–liberating moment for me. I realized that I was a liberal, and they were conservatives, and that was that.

A good deal of what is called the “alt-right” movement is nothing more than some very old philosophies, recycled for our times. The spirit of nationalism which Spengler described is not as dead as liberals believed.

I started this post with Lovecraft;  so I wil give him the last word.  From his most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:

“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”

A lot of my liberal friends are despairing now; what with the election results.  Personally, I’m actually not too worried. These things go in cycles.  I remember back in 2002 the Republicans thought they had a “permanent majority”.  Four years later they were all voted out in disgrace. (I exaggerate, but only a bit).

To an extent, this was a referendum on people’s dissatisfaction with the Obama administration, but more than anything else, I think people have a tendency to think “things are not great right now; let’s vote some other guys in.”  In two or four years, when things are still not perfect, people will get sick of Republicans and vote the Democrats in.

Liberal ballot initiatives, like raising the minimum wage, actually passed even as Republicans won.  That tells me people are more generally discontented with the status quo than they are mad at one party or excited about the other.

Of course, I suppose the fact that people are relying on either of the parties to fix the nation’s problems, when the past strongly suggests they can’t, is cause for despair.  So, ok; carry on despairing.  Forget I said anything.

When reading political news, I often read phrases like “a study from the non-partisan such-and-such institute/group/think tank/shadowy syndicate/whatever found blah blah blah…”

When I read that, I ask myself: “how do you get to be labeled as ‘non-partisan’ organization?” Is there an application to fill out? Does it just mean they are not actively being paid by any political party to lie on their behalf?  Do they just get a room with one half Republicans and one half Democrats and make sure they are both unhappy with their conclusions? Or do they just have to file a report saying they’ve put an equal number of studies out that enrage both sides?

Is it just about their tax-exempt classification? If so, that’s pretty weak stuff. Or is it just something political journalists say because they don’t know and haven’t investigated the potential biases of the organizations in question?

If you follow politics, you probably hear a lot of people saying that the central debate in American politics is about the size of government.

Those people are wrong.

Most of them are not lying, however; they are just repeating something they heard from someone else.  And they even have some evidence for the claim.  After all, the Democrats tend to favor expanding Federal social programs, whereas Republicans favor cutting these programs.

But the tip-off that this really is not the central debate is that sometimes these positions get reversed.  For example, the Republicans generally support increasing military spending, whereas Democrats favor cutting it.  As fielding an army is one of the oldest and most basic functions of government, this clearly shows that the divide is a bit more complex than just some random debate over what percentage of GDP the Federal government outlays should comprise.

“Size of Government” is a vague concept anyway.  What does it mean?  Government outlays as a percentage of GDP?  Number of people employed by the government?  Even then, it’s not like “government” is some monolithic entity–is it spending most of its money on education or on the military, for example?

Then there are those who say the debate is over the “role of government”.  This is so vague that you can’t really call it a lie, but you also cannot call it terribly useful.  The role of government is to govern–the questions are, what kind of society shall it govern, and how shall it govern it?

Some Republicans have been throwing around the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.  This is the amendment that allows for the direct election of Senators, instead of having them appointed by State legislatures. It was passed in 1913, after decades of groups like the Populist party arguing for it.

The Republican version of American history does seem to really hinge on the year 1913.  that was the year that the power of the Federal government began to increase. In addition to the direct election of Senators, it was the year the 16th Amendment–the income tax–was passed. (This was also something the Populists had wanted.) It also was when the Federal Reserve was created, thus paving the way for  many a libertarian conspiracy theory.

I’m assuming this why the Republicans want to do this–it’s a first step towards repealing the so-called “Progressive Era”.  I think the real point they’re driving at is the repeal of the income tax, as part of a “Starve the Beast” strategy.

That said, I do actually see some reason for opposing the direct election of Senators. I don’t endorse it, but I can see some logic to it.  The Senate was supposed to be a less polarized place than the House of Representatives–the idea being the Senators could compromise with each other more than the elected Representatives in the House. Probably having the members be appointed rather than elected might decrease the amount of fighting among Senators.

This might be a good step towards reducing the gridlock in Washington, especially since the current trend is the Senate becoming more like the House, and ending up just as deadlocked.

Then again, there’s no reason to assume giving control of appointing senators back to the State Legislatures would help anything.  Whichever Party controls the legislature will just appoint their favorite cronies, and we’ll end up in the same predicament.

In addition, I don’t know how you would ever get people to vote for someone advocating this.  It essentially boils down to saying “I think you people vote for lousy candidates, and so am going to take away your ability to do so. Vote for me!”

I suppose the legislatures could call for a Constitutional convention and try to get it changed that way, though who knows what else they might end up changing in the process.  (This is another scheme the Republicans have been toying with for some time.)

So, the government is shutdown, and the two Parties are blaming each other for it.  To some extent, the blame must be shared–it takes two to tango, and it also takes two to come to a stalemate.  In that sense, both Parties are to blame.

But the interesting thing is that only one of the Parties spends most of its time decrying the evils of an oversized Federal government.  So when that same Party, after being at least partially responsible for the shutdown, then starts moaning about how awful it is that the Federal government’s services are being denied to the citizens, it makes them look hypocritical and stupid.

This by itself would be bad enough for them, but they have an additional problem, which is that they seem to have no clear goal. They want to delay Obamacare and… what?  They have no plan, no vision for the nation.  It seems to me that they have developed a Captain Ahab-like obsession with defeating Obamacare, so much so that they’ve lost all sense of perspective.