Politics Feed

How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

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The importance of Foucault's analysis of power

An essay discusses the continuing importance of Foucault's work on power.  An excerpt:

Herein lies the richness and the challenge of Foucault’s work. His is a philosophical approach to power characterised by innovative, painstaking, sometimes frustrating, and often dazzling attempts to politicise power itself. Rather than using philosophy to freeze power into a timeless essence, and then to use that essence to comprehend so much of power’s manifestations in the world, Foucault sought to unburden philosophy of its icy gaze of capturing essences. He wanted to free philosophy to track the movements of power, the heat and the fury of it working to define the order of things.

Also:

To be sure, disciplinary training is not sovereign violence. But it is power. Classically, power took the form of force or coercion and was considered to be at its purest in acts of physical violence. Discipline acts otherwise. It gets a hold of us differently. It does not seize our bodies to destroy them, as Leviathan always threatened to do. Discipline rather trains them, drills them and (to use Foucault’s favoured word) ‘normalises’ them. All of this amounts to, Foucault saw, a distinctly subtle and relentless form of power. To refuse to recognise such disciplining as a form of power is a denial of how human life has come to be shaped and lived. If the only form of power we are willing to recognise is sovereign violence, we are in a poor position to understand the stakes of power today. If we are unable to see power in its other forms, we become impotent to resist all the other ways in which power brings itself to bear in forming us.


A Landscape

 A Landscape

Carl Dennis  

This painting of a barn and barnyard near sundown
May be enough to suggest we don’t have to turn
From the visible world to the invisible
In order to grasp the truth of things.
We don’t always have to distrust appearances.
Not if we’re patient. Not if we’re willing
To wait for the sun to reach the angle
When whatever it touches, however retiring,
Feels invited to step forward
Into a moment that might seem to us
Familiar if we gave ourselves more often
To the task of witnessing. Now to witness
A barn and barnyard on a day of rest
When the usual veil of dust and smoke
Is lifted a moment and things appear
To resemble closely what in fact they are.


Election optimism

An optimistic take on the recent elections, asserting that the real majority is taking back control from the "bitter third."

Tuesday’s election allowed millions in the American majority to finally take a deep, cleansing breath after a year of fear and loathing, watching the rampant corruption of our government and the degradation of our culture by the vulgar president and his Putinite coterie. It allowed the world to see that our country has not gone entirely mad.


The Politics of Fear & Anger

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum delivered this year's Jefferson Lecture in the humanities on the topics of anger and fear in our politics.  A clear statement of her topic:

One of the trickiest problems in politics is to persist in a determined search for solutions, without letting fear deflect us onto the track of anger’s errors.

Democratic work is not easy, as it involves the transformation of our anger and controlling our fear.

Making a future of justice and well-being is hard. It requires self-examination, personal risk, searching critical arguments, and uncertain initiatives to make common cause with opponents—in a spirit of hope and what we could call rational faith. It’s a difficult goal, but it is that goal that I am recommending, for both individuals and institutions.

And, of course, she thinks philosophy makes a vital contribution to that effort:

Philosophy does not compel, or threaten, or mock. It doesn’t make bare assertions, but, instead, sets up a structure of thought in which a conclusion follows from premises the listener is free to dispute. In that way it invites dialogue, and respects the listener. Unlike the over-confident politicians that Socrates questioned (Euthyphro, Critias, Meletus), the philosophical speaker is humble and exposed: his or her position is transparent and thus vulnerable to criticism. 


Rule by citizens not experts

A robust defense of democracy against rule by the experts.  An excerpt:

The remedy for our democracy deficit is to devolve as much power as possible to the local level. Many problems can be addressed only on the state, federal and international level, but the idea is that participating in local politics teaches citizens how to speak in public, negotiate with others, research policy issues, and learn about their community and the larger circles in which it is embedded. Like any other skill, the way to become a better citizen is to practise citizenship.


More from Conscience of a Conservative

A few notable excerpts from Conscience of a Conservative.

We are only as good as our information, and if we lose our sense of objective truth, we lose everything. We must protect and preserve our healthy public sphere--that civic space in which we vigorously debate and negotiate, agree and disagree--or else.

***

Giving away one's agency and becoming captive to such outlandish and vile alternative facts would be bad enough were one an average person, quietly living his or her life. But giving away one's agency to such a confusion of fact and fantasy when one has power--well, that is truly dangerous.  And it is something else, too: highly influential.  Bad information propagated by powerful people spreads like a contagion, infecting vulnerable people in its path.

I really appreciated the concept of giving away one's agency related to dishonesty.

From a very young age in ranch country, you also get to know immigrants intimately and honestly.  You learn through experience how indispensable they are to making things work in America. It seems that once every generation or so, we have these spasms of immigrant resentment and scapegoating, if not outright hatred. We are at our worst when we give in to these impulses and resort to a device that can be emotionally satisfying, perhaps, and politically expedient but very self-destructive--the impulse to look for somebody else to blame for our problems.  If only these people weren't here, we would be much better off. The nativist impulse is always destructive, always comes with a cost, and never ends well.

***

Seemingly overnight, we became defined not by the limitless aspirations of a free people but by our grievances and resentments and our lowest common denominators. . . .  The quick answer: We did it because it was cheap and easy and the real world is hard and defending a principled position to voters is harder still.

***

Far from conservative, the president's comportment was rather a study in the importance of conflict in reality television--that once you introduce conflict, you cannot de-escalate conflict.  You must continually escalate.  

Reading this comment during the weekend of white supremacist violence and the President's sociopathic, racist response to it made me even more frightened for the future.

What is best for the country is for neither base to fully get what it wants but rather for the factions that make up our parties to be compelled to talk until we find policy solutions to our problems.

As I said in my review earlier this week, a worthy book. 


Conscience of a Conservative

Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to PrincipleConscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle by Jeff Flake
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A worthy book.

I do not share Senator Flake's political worldview (even when I called myself a conservative, I wasn't his brand exactly) but it is a recognizable, legitimate, and rational American political position with which one can dialogue and compromise.

But the bulk of this book is not Flake expounding a version of conservatism, it is his conservative critique of the current state of American politics, particularly his criticism of the Republican party selling its soul to Donald Trump. And his criticisms are scathing.

Since the election I have believed it important to work with folks across the spectrum who identify our current moment as one of crisis. I believe now is a time for finding common ground for the common good.

The one glaring absence in Flake's book is any serious discussion of race and the role it has played in our current crisis.

The book has caused me to reflect upon my Republicanism of the 1990's and how as a Gen Xer I held out hope for a modernizing of the party that would advance environmental protection and LGBT rights. I left the party when it became clear that the Fundamentalists and NeoCons had gained control.

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