Janus Faces 2019

Full length figure of the Roman god Janus, showing his two faces in profile. The god of beginnings is holding a key and a vine.

Janus is the Roman god of beginnings and endings; of gates, doors, and seasons; and all sorts of metaphorical passages.  Associated with the movement of time and change, the two-faced god, whose gaze apprehends both past and future, presides over all transitions, “whether abstract or concrete, sacred or profane.”  He opens and shuts doors with his key, his staff (depicted above as a living branch heavy with fruit) symbolizing his power to determine what prospers.  From this architect of the new, the month of January takes its name.

Where the past and future meet, Americans stand, wondering how “happy” or “new” 2019 can be.  Given the dismal character of national politics, cries of “Happy New Year!” have a hollow ring.  No need to be blithe, given that, in the manner of Janus, the new year will proceed from the year we’ve just had.  An impotent Congress, two parties captive to an unproductive quest for partisan dominance, a president whose vulgarity and viciousness are infecting civil society: these conditions, in combination, are weakening and destabilizing one of the most prosperous and powerful nations in the world.

Underlying all these problems is a decline in social leadership and the dying off of what was formerly an effectively unifying civic culture.  In 2018, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the late Senator John McCain, and the late President George H.W. Bush all pleaded for a renewal of civility, comity, and patriotic service, exhorting a new generation to assume the burdens of enlightened and disinterested leadership, in some cases pleading to us from beyond the grave.  To my mind, motivating America’s “natural leaders” to resume their traditional role in promoting communal well-being and an enlightened politics is one of the crucial tasks that will determine whether this year improves upon a politically dismal 2018.

Image: from this source.

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Day 23: ‘The Best People’

Winding up (western aerial), © 2016 Susan Barsy

Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump has often promised that, if elected, he will recruit the very ‘best people’ to improve the federal government. To those who favor a smaller, smarter federal government, it’s an appealing idea.  It also appeals because our need for ‘the best people’ to run the republic is old and enduring.  Representative government is only as good as the people in it: if people of low character become prevalent, the quality of representation suffers and the power delegated to officials ends up being misused.

Yet Trump is in a poor position, politically and morally, to bring the best people to government.  Politically, he has set himself up as an antagonist of the establishment.  For more than a year, he has railed against the political class, not limiting his attacks to issues of policy, but assailing the character and achievements of many people who have painstakingly built up a reputation for public service. Remarkably, Trump has not confined his attacks to members of the opposite party.  He has also insulted many within the GOP, his own adopted party, which could normally be expected to supply talent for a Republican administration.  Serving in a Trump administration would be politically risky.  Many leading Republicans, in and out of government, have openly repudiated him, leaving one to imagine a Cabinet populated by hangers-on like Chris Christie, Trump’s own children, or his loyal lieutenant Kellyanne Conway.

It’s difficult to recruit ‘the best people’ without belonging to the best class oneself.  Here Trump’s cratering social reputation will be felt.  Last week, the media’s focus shifted from the implications of Trump’s political positions to his personal conduct and mores.  Allegations of his sexual misconduct are multiplying, sparked by a leaked tape in which Trump boasted of his indecent behavior toward women in lewd and contemptuous terms.  Whatever claim Trump had to personal decency has been destroyed.  Respectable people are censuring him loudly.

The issue of social integrity is distinct from the issue of Trump’s politics.  Who would care to sit next to him at a dinner party?  Who would feel honored to shake his hand?  Until lately a popular celebrity, Trump’s own words have supplied grounds for branding him a pariah.  Were he to win in November, he would make a poor figurehead for a country whose creed is the equal enjoyment of inalienable rights.

To summarize: Trump arouses political and moral aversion in people who might otherwise be his supporters and colleagues.  The aversion is not just to Trump’s views but to his very personality.  Yes, Trump’s tactics and policies arouse aversion, but so do Ted Cruz’s.  Cruz, though, combines political iconoclasm with some personal probity.  In this, he resembles the antebellum radical John Calhoun, whose ultra pro-slavery views combined with a cold rectitude and formality that impressed even his political enemies.  How different is Donald J. Trump, whose claims to social respectability are evaporating.

Were voters to catapult Trump to the top of the government, it’s difficult to imagine his improving on the caliber of the talent it attracts.  How many able, forward-looking people of good character would decide that serving Trump is something worth doing?  Shunned by the ‘best people,’ President Trump could find it tough to deliver on the promise of better government.

Image: Aerial of a winding mountain road,
© 2016 Susan Barsy

The rude power of the vote: Brexit

morning-after-brexit

A popular vote to decide the UK’s place in the world: In retrospect, David Cameron’s idea of putting the question to the people appears more and more extraordinary.  This is not how countries (at least representative democracies) are normally led.  Normally, populations delegate power to political leaders, trusting in their competence and relying on their superior agency and expertise.

The US has never held a national referendum.  Here, referenda are technical measures.  They are used at the state and local level, to amend constitutions or see if a policy innovation is agreeable to the people.  Our national votes are reserved solely for filling the presidency.  The Brexit vote represents a high-water mark of democracy that one hopes the US will never reach.

Presidential elections are often described as referenda, but this is usually hyperbole.  The motives that determine the citizens’ choice between two candidates can seldom be reduced to a vote for or against a single policy.  One exception is the election of 1860, when the ensuing breakdown of the Union justifies our concluding that voters saw Abraham Lincoln’s victory as determining the future of slavery.  They were so sure his election spelled the end of it that they didn’t even wait for him to take power: secession conventions formed and slave-holding states began to leave.  Then, as with Brexit, the losers doubted the outcome’s legitimacy.  A minority with a lot to lose discovered a majority it couldn’t bear.

Inspiration in a deep-dish pizza

Writing in Slate, Osita Nwanevu argues convincingly that Cameron came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating a Chicago deep-dish pizza at O’Hare.  He was heading back to London from the 2012 NATO summit, which Chicago hosted that year.  While waiting for his flight, he and British foreign secretary William Hague reportedly went into a classic Chicago eatery and came up with the idea of the EU referendum while eating local food and rubbing elbows with a bunch of ‘nobodies.’

The summit itself crystallized globalism’s discontents.  Its massing of elite power drew thousands of ‘pro-democracy’ protesters to Chicago, along with a few would-be terrorist bombers.  While the leaders of the western world met to chart the future of democracy, massive crowds clogged the streets, charging NATO leaders with betrayal and insisting that their governance ignored the people’s urgent needs.  Did Cameron metaphorically ingest some of the democratic forces assailing him from all sides?  Certainly, his belief that the UK’s internal divisions could be reconciled through a popular vote represented a conversion to democratic faith.  He expected, however, that the people would ultimately strengthen the leading class’s hand.

The transcendent power of a multi-national economy

In the 1990s, I attended a forward-looking talk given by the late Harold Perkin, a historian who studied long-term class developments in England society.  His subject was the powerlessness of nation-states relative to multinational corporations.  Already, he argued, capital flows and the far-flung operations of such businesses were eroding and transcending the bonds that had previously constrained and united inhabitants of geographically defined countries.  Whereas previously the upper, middle, and lower classes in a country like Britain had been bound together legally and economically, those interdependent ties were weakening.  Increasingly, the economic elite were creating a world with rules that they, as capitalists and corporate titans, were entitled to define.  Since then, the trend that Perkins so presciently defined has grown more pronounced.  Now the professional classes are used to this world, and they don’t think the lower classes should be allowed to curb it, certainly not with the rude club that the right to vote furnishes.

The problem afflicts the US as much as the UK.  In the States, growing economic inequality has gone hand-in-hand with geographic and social changes whose tendency is to limit ordinary connections between Americans of different classes.  Increasingly, well-educated and well-off Americans raise their children within ‘bubble-worlds’ populated with others of their type.  This is very different from the earlier hierarchical class structure of American communities, where the right of an elite to exercise leadership was still connected to their position within a locality.  This vanishing social structure promoted empathy and upward mobility, while rooting elite influence in something like popular sanction.  Whether in religion, neighborhoods, or the economy, there are few traces of these old face-to-face relationships, which fed a spirit of interdependence and reciprocal obligation.

Meanwhile political leaders cede their power to ‘the people.’

Paradoxically, American politics has at the same time become increasingly democratized, with leaders instigating changes designed to give ‘the people’ more sway.   It’s a trend that’s been underway for at least a century, since the Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of US Senators, giving citizens a power previously seated in state legislatures.   Candidates for national office make their appeals directly to the people, for, with enough popular support, they can thumb their noses at the other pols whose help they once needed.  Likewise, the nominating conventions, where delegates were empowered to attain consensus authentically, are increasingly lifeless affairs, determined solely by rules and by votes the people cast in the primaries.

As the people’s rage rattles the laissez-faire globalism that an elite indifferent to their sufferings universally favors, the elite may well begin to ask, Too much democracy?

The Democratic Party of my dreams

I’m still waiting for a breakout Democrat to cast the party along new lines. I’m tired of the old Democratic party, which still plays identity politics, makes bad bargains with public resources, and is generally very loose with money. I’m tired of big government that’s inefficient and behind the times.  I want a small powerful government that does things well.

I’m waiting for a new Democratic party to come along, that’s resolutely focused not on unions but on all who work.  Most workers are not, and may never be, organized.  For their sake, the party needs to demand corporate responsibility and corporate investment in our citizens and our native economy.  I’m waiting for a new party that cares about industry and sustainability, that’s ardent and uncompromising about making high-quality, next-generation goods here in the States, and that believes in the collective capacities of the citizenry to take the US economy higher.

I’m waiting for a party that’s proud of universal health coverage, that insists on quality public education, and favors everything local and green.  I want a party that’s candid about globalism’s dark side.  That wants to curtail immigration sharply for a while, in order to take into account all who are here, strengthen our civic fabric, and restore American citizenship’s prestige.

I’m waiting for Democrats who will demand peace: who will foreswear the siren song, the illusory notion that we can ever really “protect American interests abroad.”  I’m waiting for a party that will respect the sovereignty of other nations and that’s clear-eyed enough to refrain from unending militarism abroad.

I’m waiting, and I’m sure that a large population waits with me.

A talent gap that favors the GOP

THE REPUBLICAN PARTY, no matter how retrograde its ideas, has long outshone Democrats in its ability to attract galvanizing up-and-comers.  Eric Cantor’s startling fall is just the latest instance of a conservative “star” self-destructing, but one that underscores the Party’s uncanny ability to spot and exploit a long string of controversial media darlings: Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan . . . the length of the list is downright alarming.

Cantor, though departing the House under a cloud, had become a nationally known leader at an impressively young age.  Figures like Cantor, Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul have few Democratic counterparts.  Rising Democrats like Kristen Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren have yet to be given leading roles that would signal their stature within their party, and Warren, a latecomer to politics, is only now beginning to hit her stride.  Only the GOP has a cadre of young iconoclastic lieutenants with big responsibilities and long resumes.

The GOP’s leadership advantage derives not just from personality but from the very ideological conflict that has threatened to weaken it as a party.  In the last presidential election, outsized but deeply flawed figures like Palin or Herman Cain held our attention because they stood for something, because they were staking their claim to the soul of their party, and because something dramatically different was going to happen if they gained enough popularity.  Even as we despised them, they contributed paradoxically to the political system’s health, energizing the opposition and re-establishing the voting public’s unwillingness to tolerate meanness, character flaws, or dangerous ideas.

Only when President Obama leaves office will it be clear how decrepit the Democratic Party has become.  His youth and charisma have tended to compensate for the Democrats’ bland leadership and ideology, concealing how staid and, well, conservative, its major figures are.  Figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden are wonderful public servants, but they can hardly be said to represent a vanguard.

Disarray in the Republican Party has given the Democrats an opportunity to dominate and prevail.  Instead, the Democratic Party is languishing.  Democratic leaders have grown unaccustomed to risk-taking, and they have lacked the energy required to consolidate their power in the states, win back the South, or expand the breadth and fervor of their support among voters nationally.  Meanwhile, their inability to cultivate young talent leaves them poorly positioned to weather the generational change at hand.

Papal Charisma

Pope Francis

The Papacy is only as good as the person in it, at best.  With the accession of the new pope and his first few dazzling gestures and appearances, the prevailing tone of Catholicism has quickened, with adherents daring to think new thoughts and regard the future more hopefully, sensing the power of a new point of view to create openings.

Whether the church on the ground can keep up with the change, Pope Francis has begun clearing paths for a global communion of followers.  His response to their desire for inspiration has been direct and almost disconcertingly unmediated.  There’s no question that Catholicism has entered a new era.

Francis’s stellar début marks the emergence of a charismatic leader.  Weber famously defined charismatic authority as “resting on [a] devotion to the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person, and to the normative patterns or order he reveals or ordains.”  In short, charisma exists where followers acknowledge it to.  A rare in-dwelling quality, charisma is the genuine form of a sort of appeal that American politicians desperately try to acquire with the aid of polling, statistics, and consultants.  In Catholic believers’ spontaneous and enthusiastic response to Francis, we see a faith in leadership largely absent from American democracy.

Charisma, however wondrous, is problematic.  In Francis’s case, it remains first to be seen whether his acts and leadership justify the adulation he is receiving.  For now, we see mainly the strength of the laity’s pent-up desire to repose trust in a virtuous leader.  Second, as Francis’s time in the Papacy lengthens, we shall see whether his charismatic authority is powerful enough to wreak change in a vast yet morally compromised global bureaucracy.  Or will his charisma be muted as he attempts to reinvigorate a hierarchy so routinized and entrenched?