Cognitive DissonanceSuffering from a debilitating cognitive dissonance, Democrats often seize on exogenous factors like inadequate funding or, as Keith has now suggested, (American Counterpoint 12/27/16) lousy campaign management to explain their poor showings. The point seems odd given that Mrs. Clinton had the experience, connections and money to have constructed the most formidable campaign staff in the history Western democracy. And if her executive skills were so poor that she squandered all this, one wonders why anyone ever would have wanted her in charge of the Federal Government. Democrats also drag in rationales like voter intimidation or, more recently, the voguish trope of the day "fake news", as though news distortion was somehow a Republican invention suddenly making its way past the liberal media's honest watchdogs.
What many Democrats privately believe, and a few openly say, is that Americans collectively are simply too stupid to know what's good for them. Yet the more self-reflective Dems understand this flip attitude to be unsatisfactory. The politically savvy among them also realize that such arrogance is part of what put them into electoral jeopardy in the first place. Hence, in addition to all the hand-wringing among Democrats and shallow gloating among Republicans, there is an honest search currently underway in both parties to decipher the genuine signals coming out of this bizarre election.
Fear Of Cold And Distant PowerIn one of my recent postings (American Counterpoint 11/24/16) I enumerated certain of the issues I feel hurt the Democrats. Now I'd like to approach the question from a more macro vantage point. More than any other national election in my lifetime, this one was dominated by politicians openly appealing to people's fears and hostilities. On the surface this negativity made little sense in light of the fact that conditions which might normally give rise to it - extreme economic turbulence or active external threats - have been mostly absent for the past few years. Yet by 2016 people of many different persuasions were feeling angry and afraid, with Bernie Sanders channeling outrage from the left and Trump rallying nativist factions on the right. The common denominator among the malcontents on both sides was a fury with remote and self-serving power.
The Counterbalance Itself Becomes Dead WeightHistorically, popular anger has tended to work in the Democrats' favor, since they have always positioned themselves as the humane anti-Establishment party there to protect people against everything in their lives that was cruel. The Democrats aren't what they used to be, however, in part because overweening power has shifted guises too. The original Progressive rationale for Federal Government expansion, championed by both Roosevelts during the first half of the last century, was to build an empathetic counterbalance to the dominance of Wall Street and Big Business. What modern-day Democrats have failed to grasp is the extent to which Government has now itself become the cold-blooded Establishment, dwarfing the size and power of even the largest corporations or banks. The traditional David-vs-Goliath rhetoric always favored by the Party's politicians has grown increasingly strained over the years and, today, has become a political liability for them because it compounds the Party's other failings with the sin of hypocrisy. They themselves nurtured the creature that has grown up into such an ogre and now has a threatening life of its own.
In my 12/24 posting I mentioned health care and environmental regulation as two of the key issues that worked against Mrs. Clinton in the recent election. Both of these can be understood better now in the context of the overarching problem that Government's ability to manage complex processes inevitably reaches a point of diminishing and then negative returns.
Doomed OverreachHealthcare services are among the most fundamental of human needs. Medicine touches all of us in the most intimate manner and often at times when we're feeling most vulnerable. Government health insurance programs were designed to reassure people that their medical needs would always be met and at prices they could afford to pay. However, modern medicine is tortuously complex and requires decentralized decision-making and on-the-ground engagement by an array of skill disciplines. Medical service thus by its nature defies top-down regulation. Yet bureaucratic insurance programs in general and government programs in particular have little choice but to impose top-down rules. Insurance makes everything appear free or nearly so to consumers, removing them from their normal role as cost-control guardians. This dynamic both encourages people to seek more services than they need, and it incentivizes health-care providers to accommodate and then overcharge. Insurance programs have to impose discipline or soon face insolvency.
Yet the system is too convoluted for universal rules to work effectively. Anyone who has ever laid eyes on the dictionary-size CPT manual (for Current Procedural Terminology) that has become the bible in medical billing offices everywhere in the U.S. has seen the discrete tip of the iceberg. The whole iceberg is massive, mutating and expanding relentlessly. Small medical practices are becoming a thing of the past as factory-style operations are necessary to manage billing and legal compliance. Patients, doctors, and nurses alike are feeling alienated within the system and the burnout rate is high. Providers are quitting the system at the very time increased insurance coverage is pushing up demand for their services.
Compounding the problem is the fact that frightened and angry patients often turn to lawyers to redress grievances. The legal industry, somewhat out of control today in its own right, is eager for the pricey business and happy to oblige. High legal risk incentivizes providers to order otherwise unnecessary procedures to ensure legal protection for themselves should a case, fairly or otherwise, fall under legal scrutiny. The medical system itself thus has morphed into something akin to a viral epidemic, with problems feeding on themselves and triggering new problems.
Monkey On The Democrats' BackThe term "Obamacare" was coined derisively by critics of the 2010 Affordable Care Act. However, driven by his trademark overconfidence and believing at the time he had a political winner on his hands, Obama himself cheekily co-opted the term. Soon "Obamacare" was in universal use to characterize everything the President and his allies were trying to do to fix the healthcare system. What this meant, of course, was that he had now put his personal brand on the problem, even though he didn't cause it, and when unhappiness with the system only deepened on his watch, the monkey naturally climbed onto his back. Everybody struggling to get appointments with overworked doctors, or to decipher arcane insurance forms, or to figure out why premiums were rising and coverage for needed services was being denied, could find a ready scapegoat in Obamacare. And when Mrs. Clinton made the decision to embrace his legacy with such enthusiasm, this unwelcome monkey was part of the baggage that transferred itself from his back to hers.
Saving HumanityEnergy is another fundamental human need into which the Democrats, in their mode of chronic overreach, have chosen to insert themselves. The Environmental Protection Agency was actually founded under the authority of a Republican president, Richard Nixon, and it's mission was to protect the nation's vital natural resources - land, air, water, and forests - from reckless exploitation and careless abuse. However, in one of the more extreme manifestations of mission-creep that has ever occurred with a Federal agency in this country, the EPA assumed increasingly ambitious responsibilities.
After Barak Obama took charge in 2009, the EPA reinvented its role and positioned itself grandly it seemed as humanity's protector against climate-induced extinction. Since no cause on Earth could be more important that this surely, the EPA felt empowered to begin issuing sweeping restrictions on utilities and fossil fuel companies in the apparent belief that that no cost was too high to help accomplish even marginal gains in the war against global warming.
If allowed to run unchecked for too long, such an approach would undermine the American economy for the sake of improvements that even the EPA's own scientists acknowledge will have little real impact any time soon. More and more would always be necessary before material progress was even a possibility, promising a grim and hopeless future rather at odds with the President's optimism. In a democracy, such disruptive measures should naturally encounter constructive opposition, but the Obama Administration resorted to apocalyptic rhetoric to justify its reliance on executive orders bypassing both debate and appeals.
Nearly all Americans today support some degree of environmental regulation, and most have an open mind on the issue of climate change. However, the majority is repelled by the dogmatism of the true-believers who have found a home for themselves on the left fringe of the Democratic Party and within the EPA itself. Certain of these people are quite open about their ambition to eliminate fossil fuels entirely and their desire furthermore to put an end to discussion. The doctrinaire refrain that "climate science is settled" rings as falsely to most people as the rightwing claim that the whole thing is a hoax.
Franz Kafka Saw It All ComingFranz Kafka was a German-speaking Czech writer who lived in obscurity during the early years of the twentieth century. Professionally he worked in the boring recesses of a German insurance company, and in his fiction he created a surrealistic world where hell manifested itself as a kind of humdrum cosmic bureaucracy. His characters were helpless against unseen forces which held absolute power and ruled via irrational orders delivered by bland functionaries. Kafka became popular because this vision struck a chord in the growing numbers of people who in their normal lives were coming up against bureaucracies that seemed unfeeling, threatening and insurmountable. In Kafka's day, this was the world of early bureaucratic capitalism, and it would soon metastasize into the Nazi and Communist totalitarianisms that were to overwhelm his homeland.
Getting back to the question of why our Democrats in this country are losing elections, I believe the most fundamental reason is that they have abandoned their legitimate mission of being empathetic champions of humanity and have instead become tagged as the party of pitiless bureaucracy. Obamacare and the climate change juggernaut are but two examples of how the Democrats identify legitimate social problems but then attack them with a crusading zeal that inevitably bogs down in high costs and endless, ineffectual mission-creep. The impulse to double-down in response to failure is generally stronger among Democrats than the willingness to re-think a problem.
Paranoia Digs DeepOne of the most disturbing features of the recent election was the weirdness of it all and the feeling on both sides that dark forces were at work behind the scenes. Overwrought bloggers on the right and left alike seemed fixated on conspiracy theories in general and, in particular, on the idea of the Deep State, which they all believe to be a kind of hidden government behind the visible government, controlling politicians and functionaries like puppets. Franz Kafka would have recognized the vision. Such irrational paranoia on both sides aggravated the partisan virulence of the campaign and is now threatening to make the aftermath poisonous.
Many left-fringe Democrats believe in the Deep State idea, and I think that in the end their party suffered from the notion more than did the Republicans. Mrs. Clinton's long experience actually worked against her here because it could be construed as prima facie evidence of her connection to the Deep State, which frightened many of her own supporters. Had Jeb Bush won the Republican nomination, his family history would have exposed him to the same suspicion among voters who might otherwise have been favorably inclined towards him.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, made much of his own virtuous independence. In the primary campaign he savaged virtually all of his Republican opponents for being in somebody's pocket, and in the general election he was merciless in his attacks on the well-connected "Crooked Hillary". He managed to make his own half-baked grasp of policy issues actually work in his favor because it positioned him so obviously outside the Washington mainstream compared to the wonkish Mrs. Clinton. He convinced many voters to see him as the political free spirit he claimed to be. Breezily waving all complexity aside and promising easy solutions to the nation's problems, Mr. Trump looked like just the guy finally to bull-charge his way through bureaucracy and make our lives simple again.
It's my judgment that, by smugly belittling any serious politician to their own right, the Democrats threw away this election and cleared the field for Trump. I'm tempted to say it serves them right now to have him as their president, except for the fact that the rest of us are stuck with him too.