I moved this back here from Medium since I ended up not visiting that site very often.
Watching the slow-motion train wreck that is the Republican Party, the ending of the Lord of the Flies comes to mind. I feel like the naval officer who comes upon Ralph at the very end, and is shocked at how quickly the schoolboys, left to themselves, have degenerated into a savage, Hobbesian war of all-against-all. Along those lines, looking at the awfulness unfolding before us, I can’t help but wonder, what happened to the Republican Party I knew when I was growing up? How did it come to this?
When I was young, the Republican Party was respectable. It wasn’t perfect but neither was the Democratic Party. Reasonable people with moderate views could still give consideration to candidates from both parties, and choose between them after some comparison of the specifics of each. The Republican Party was still the party of Eisenhower and Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln, and many candidates’ views were still within the mainstream. Reagan had problems, most notably his embrace of dog-whistles to secure the support of the extreme elements in the party that are causing so many problems now, and of course the whole Iran-Contra affair, but he also had some accomplishments. At key moments, he did show flexibility in both domestic and international politics. Then of course there was Nixon, who was in a class of his own in terms of his disregard for institutions. Even Nixon, however, had some accomplishments.
That said, Democrats had their share of misfires as well, including Woodrow Wilson, who was not only racist, but so eager to keep the US out of WWI that he overlooked outrageous activities on US soil by German agents. John F. Kennedy also had his problems, most notably in his approach to handling Vietnam. And then there is Jimmy Carter. Carter is a truly great human being, a very smart man, and as President made many correct decisions, but when all was said and done I don’t think he was up to the challenges that the country faced in the late 1970s. When the country is in a morass as it was in the late 1970s, it not only needed someone with a tremendously analytic mind, but someone who could inspire. Then again, I don’t know if anyone else could have done any better.
In middle and early high school, I was if anything to the right of the Republican Party, in the sense that I was a full-blown libertarian. That’s it, I confess: I was a libertarian. For an immature and self-centered adolescent who knew very little about the complexities of the world and had little in the way of empathy or sympathy, and no real understanding of the difficulties that others faced, libertarianism is appealing. Like most philosophies that prove disastrous in practice but which appeal to angry young people, including Marxism, fundamentalist Christianity, and radical Islam, it is highly reductionist, in retrospect ridiculously so, and offers simple answers to complex questions.
During the acute phase of my libertarianism, I read Atlas Shrugged cover-to-cover dozens of times, including John Galt’s speech in its entirety. I read The Fountainhead, and many of Ayn Rand’s lesser-known works, like Anthem and We The Living. As a frustrated adolescent, it was easy to imagine myself as Hank Rearden, an underappreciated giant being held back by petty minds like Wesley Mouch. I even read works by some of Rand’s lesser-known acolytes and designated intellectual heirs. I read science fiction that had a libertarian perspective, including Robert Heinlein’s wackier later work. I listened to Rachmaninoff, because he was Ayn Rand’s favorite composer. Of course, I listened to Rush, because Neil Peart was an Ayn Rand fan, and Rush lyrics reflected a libertarian sensibility. Think about “The Trees” and “Tom Sawyer.” I even had a Libertarian Party bumper sticker on my car.
My libertarianism began to go into spontaneous remission at some point in college. I was still immature and self-centered, and I apologize to and thank everyone who put up with me during that time, but I did begin to realize the world was much more complex and diverse than I had previously imagined. I also began to take courses in economics where I began to realize that the assumptions underlying many of the claims about the wonders of markets only held under a narrow set of circumstances, most notably perfect information and the inability to collude. By reading history, it also dawned on me that talented people who held power, whether in politics or business, mostly considered only their own interests, or if they were especially altruistic, the interests of their family and friends. Celebrated captains of industry, in other words, were not like Hank Rearden and the other heroes of Atlas Shrugged, but rather more like Wesley Mouch. Somewhere along the line, perhaps toward the end of sophomore year, I stopped rereading Atlas Shrugged.
Other factors contributed to my retreat from libertarianism, at least when it comes to the economy. One was that whereas in high school, I could in some demented, immature way identify with the talented, underappreciated heroes of Atlas Shrugged, once I was in college, I was surrounded by people who were mostly smarter and more talented than I was, had diverse views, and weren’t self-centered. And as much as I liked to admire myself, after a dark period during the beginning of my junior year when I behaved terribly, I realized that I was at least as flawed and imperfect as everybody else, if not more so. The libertarian notion that geniuses left to themselves in an unregulated free market would produce optimal results for everyone without colluding or otherwise taking advantage of their situation was clearly ridiculous. Finally, I read a biography of Ayn Rand, I think The Passion of Ayn Rand, that made it clear that she and most of her followers were completely bonkers.
To this day, I am mystified about how anyone but an adolescent with little understanding of the complexity of the world could believe in hard-core, absolute libertarianism, or for that matter any reductionist political creed that offers easy solutions to complex questions. I can understand why adolescents buy into libertarianism, or Marxism, or any number of philosophies that offer bold, straightforward solutions, but how can anyone a few years older who has spent time in the world and confronted its complexity and encountered its diversity retain any hope that there is a single Theory that has a universally applicable Answer which will deliver the right results in all contexts and settings? The world is a mess. I’m not arguing for relativism here, but for an appreciation that the world is too complex for there to be any one-size-fits-all solution to its many problems. We can certainly start with simple, straightforward models of the world as a way of clarifying our thinking and generating ideas, but when their predictions clash with experience, we have to go with the latter, and adjust. When I see grown-ups advocating for what I regard as hard-core, pure libertarianism, my main thought is that I wish that they would acknowledge that the world is more complicated, so that what may work well when basic assumptions about the market hold may not work well for situations like health care, infrastructure, and education, where there are information asymmetries, externalities, and difficulties assessing costs.
To my mind, ideologically pure, hard-core libertarianism, that is the absolute rejection of any state action except the enforcement of contracts and a few other activities, is the bizarro universe twin of Marxism, and just as silly. Whereas Marxists rejects the market and places unwarranted faith in the benevolence of the state, libertarians reject the state and place unwarranted faith in the benevolence of the market. Just as a state with no checks on its power will become autocratic, with its leaders pursuing their own narrow self-interests, so to will a market with no checks to its power lead to collusion and eventually monopoly. The market works extremely well in situations where the basic assumptions about complete information and so forth hold, but any deviation from those assumptions create opportunities for exploitation and concentration.
All that said, there are things we can learn from libertarianism, and I haven’t gone full Wesley Mouch. One is that when it comes to economic policy, a light touch is almost certainly best, and intervention has to be weighed carefully and justified by theory and evidence. State intervention in domains where the assumptions required for the market to work actually hold is often disastrous, and degenerates into rent-seeking on the part of the politically connected. We have decades of experience showing that efforts to create ‘national champions,’ narrowly target specific industries for development, and dictate the production of commodity goods are generally unsuccessful.
By the time I could vote, my views were middle-of-the-road. I didn’t have a strong preference for either party, and was happy to vote for whichever party put forward whoever I regarded as the most talented, reasonable candidate. I think that in 1988 and definitely in 1992, I voted for George H.W. Bush. At the time I regarded him as thoughtful, prudent, flexible, and generally committed to the good of the country. We have much to be grateful for when it comes to his stewardship in international affairs at a critical period in history. At that time, the Republican Party still seemed to be dominated by people who were respectable and cared about the interests of the country. There are problems with his record, but I don’t know if they were overall worse than the problems with the records of other Presidents.
During the 90s, I was troubled by Clinton’s performance, especially the botched effort to introduce health care reform, but also by the recurring issues related to his probity and conduct. I was also leery of what I thought was the Democrats’ deep embrace of public sector labor unions, who I came to conclude were perverting the original mission of unions, which was to protect workers against the depredations of private sector employers. While the Republicans were maniacal in their desire to find fault with Clinton, I do think that he could have defused many of the problems more quickly than he finally did by being more straightforward and less defensive. I also didn’t share the willingness of many Democrats to dismiss the Lewinsky affair as trivial. I was always puzzled about why he didn’t save the country a lot of time and admit to what he had done early on.
At the same time, though, the Republicans were beginning a descent into madness. Like the beginnings of tertiary syphilis, their increasing eccentricity probably reflected an infection that was already there for some time, and could have been cured if recognized and treated early, but by the nineties it was chronic and had spread to the Republican Party central nervous system, where it eventually led to paranoia, dementia, and delirium. In retrospect, Newt Gingrich, the Contract with America, and the government shutdown were probably symptoms, not a cause.
That said, the Republicans still had occasional periods of lucidity, and the Democrats had their problems, so I didn’t abandon the Republicans. Even when they were behaving bizarrely, like someone in an abusive relationship, I kept hoping that they they might come to their senses, and once again offer an alternative to the Democratic Party. I thought that Dole and Kemp were respectable. I can’t remember how I voted, but I do remember thinking that if it weren’t for the behavior of Gingrich and his colleagues in the House, I would have been supportive. And at the same time, as talented as Bill Clinton was, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky was deplorable and irresponsible, and the willingness of Democrats to excuse or ignore the behavior was to me troubling. Moreover, from a tactical standpoint, I was puzzled by Clinton’s unwillingness or inability to deal with the accusations in a straightforward way.
At the time, I still tended to think of myself as a conservative, not in the way that the Republicans defined it, but in an older and perhaps original definition, that emphasized prudence and deliberation. Perhaps I was idiosyncratic in following this definition. In my view, a true conservative recognizes that the world is complex and there are no simple solutions for anything, so change should be incremental, cautious and above all, evidence-based. To me, the essence of conservatism should be an inductive approach to policy, according to which policy choices are shaped by experience of what works and doesn’t work in the real world, not an deductive approach in which policy is made by reasoning from first principles.
By this standard, self-styled conservatives in the 1990s, and probably earlier were no longer conservative. In the 1990s, Republicans were radical, not conservative. Their thinking was deductive, not inductive. Especially in the House, Republicans advocated views rooted in ideology, not experience or evidence. Some of these, most notably the mania for cutting taxes, were not justified by any empirical evidence, and indeed were contradicted by most available evidence. Rather than advocating cautious, incremental, evidence-based change, Republicans wanted to burn everything down and roll the dice on solutions. The primary standard for choosing a policy seemed to be that it felt right. To me, this wasn’t conservative, but radical. Intellectually, it is no different from the approach of Marxists and other leftists who chose policies by reasoning from first principles, appealing to laws of history, without any regard for whether any evidence suggested that the policies they advocated actually worked.
In 2000, I think that I voted for Gore, but I was not smitten with him, and when George W. Bush was declared the winner, I was hopeful that he would govern like his father. I wasn’t overly concerned. I thought that he acquitted himself reasonably well in the response to 9/11, as well as other challenges in his first year, most notably the handling of the Hainan incident with the EP-3. I have yet to see anyone suggest an alternative to the invasion of Afghanistan, given that they were harboring the architect of 9/11. He appointed people like Colin Powell who I thought were talented and moderate. At the time, I didn’t appreciate how awful Cheney and Rumsfeld were.
For me, the wheels came off of W’s administration with the tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, and then the invasion of Iraq. I thought the tax cuts were irresponsible and ridiculous. The evidence for beneficial effects was limited or non-existent, and indeed they quickly turned the government from surplus into deficit. At the time I thought that the best use of the surplus inherited from the Clinton administration would have been improvements in infrastructure, which was clearly substandard. As for Iraq, I am ashamed to say I was initially not opposed to the war, and when it started I was confident that it would end fairly quickly, but of course it was a debacle. Not only was it a failure that further destabilized the Middle East, but it diverted us from finishing what we had started in Afghanistan.
I voted for Kerry in 2004. During the campaign, I was particularly troubled by the way in which his service in Vietnam was turned into a negative, via outright falsehoods. While dirty tricks had been a staple of campaigns for quite some time, this marked a new low. Meanwhile, I had concluded that George W. Bush was incompetent. He was not necessarily a bad person, but he didn’t have the energy, focus, or temperament to be President. He had delegated responsibility to people like Rumsfeld and Cheney who were truly awful, and failed to oversee them.
For me, the final straw with the Republican Party was in 2008, when John McCain picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. I thought highly of McCain and respected and appreciated his service to the country, but to me the selection of Palin represented a capitulation to the worst, most retrograde and dangerous elements within the Republican Party. She was irresponsible and willfully ignorant, offering little more than an attitude and a personality. There was no way I could countenance someone with so little depth and intellect being anywhere near the Presidency. Had McCain not picked someone who was so obviously unqualified, I might have kept an open mind, but the prospect of her anywhere near the levers of power was terrifying. At the same time, in 2008 the Democrats had 2 candidates who were both highly qualified. I supported Obama because of reservations about Hillary Clinton, and was happy that he won.
As for 2012, I do think that Romney was a respectable candidate, and in other circumstances I would have given him more consideration. In the end, though, I think he went too far in terms of appeasing the worst elements within the Republican Party, debasing himself by abandoning many of the moderate views that had allowed him to succeed as Governor of Massachusetts. I was also disappointed by the selection of Paul Ryan, who has always struck me as an inconsequential lightweight, even though he seems to be widely regarded as a serious person. Under him and his predecessor as Speaker, the House has been intransigent and obstructive.
Now, in 2016, we have the denouement. We have a freak, Donald Trump, as the nominee of the Republican Party, and a less obviously obnoxious but just as awful nominee for Vice-President. The Republican Party has put forward a racist, misogynistic, predatory, anti-Semitic, ignorant, mendacious, lazy, irresponsible, incompetent, thuggish, mercurial, long-winded, paranoid, thin-skinned and possibly traitorous buffoon as its Presidential nominee, and seems to be circling its wagons around him, even though it is apparent that disaster is looming.
At this point, the debasement and intellectual degradation of the Republican Party is so utter and complete that I don’t understand how any thinking person, including libertarians or traditional conservatives, can continue to embrace it. Note that I distinguish here between being Republican and being conservative. I have no problem with people being conservative, but conservatives need to understand that the Republican Party has abandoned them.
The Republican Party is no longer conservative by any reasonable definition. It is now a shrieking, ignorant ball of white-hot misogynistic, racist, populist rage that will not act in anybody’s interests, especially not those of the people who are still likely to vote for it. True conservatives who are still in denial about where there party has gone should realize that their Party has left them behind, and start looking for other options.
What the Republican Party has now become is truly terrifying. Whereas in the past it was an uneasy alliance of business interests, evangelicals, and downright awful populists that periodically but with declining frequency produced qualified candidates, the latter have come to dominate. We now have the spectacle of flagrant misogyny, anti-Semitism, and racism not only from the candidate himself, but from surrogates and proxies, some of whom at some point in the distant past actually seemed halfway respectable.
In retrospect, perhaps this is the inevitable culmination of the process that began with the Southern strategy of Richard Nixon and the dog-whistle dalliances with magical thinking, racism, and intolerance by Reagan, accelerated during the 1990s under Newt Gingrich, became undeniable with the selection of Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate, and is now consuming the Party.
In this light, I am befuddled by those who claim to be puzzled or concerned by the over-representation of Democrats and lack of Republicans among academics. At this point, how could any self-respecting academic, including conservatives, support the Republican Party? I know political conservatives in academics who I suspect would have been fine with the Republican Party of George H.W. Bush’s era, or earlier eras, but I think they would be nuts to support the Republican Party in its current dysfunctional incarnation. The only apparent unifying principle in the Republican Party right now is anti-Clinton rage. The Republican Party is now profoundly anti-intellectual and anti-science, with a seething hatred of academics, and seems to regard anyone who can speak in complete sentences as an elitist, so any academic left who still plans to vote Republican is voting against their own interests, and probably promoting their own eventual extinction.
Going forward, I can’t imagine what the future holds for the real conservatives among the Republican Party. Some have acquitted themselves honorably, notably the National Review crowd, who came out strongly against Trump at an early stage. Their abject failure to influence the primaries, however, suggests that they no longer have any real influence within the Republican Party, and are now a hapless, ineffective fringe. I’m not a fan of the National Review crowd since they still hew too close to the libertarianism that I discarded decades ago, but they deserve credit for recognizing the danger early, being forthright about it, and sticking to their guns. The Republican Party is not the same party as it was a few decades ago, and people need to realize that.
That said, I am mystified by the tendency of libertarians to align with the Republican Party. While it is true that the Republican desire of the last few decades has been to eliminate practically any regulation that inconveniences its corporate donors, it is abundantly clear that the Republican Party has no truck with libertarian thinking when it comes to social issues. At least for the last several decades, the Republican Party has consistently advocated for government regulation of private behavior, whether by making contraception difficult to access or fighting against LGBTQ rights. They have also been retrograde when it comes to drug policy, but then again, so have the Democrats.
I am also puzzled by the continued support from at least certain evangelicals for Trump. He is not only someone who is clearly not religious, but he is also mercurial and completely unprincipled. Evangelicals seem to think that Trump would indulge them if elected by appointing Supreme Court justices according to their preferences, but based on what I have seen, it is just as likely to that he would discard his evangelical supporters the moment he was inaugurated, and pursue his own interests. Trump’s behavior doesn’t suggest that he follows the tenets of any mainstream religion, and indeed suggests he worships only himself, so it is hard to imagine that the evangelical agenda would fare any better under Trump than any other candidate. Indeed, Trump’s willingness to turn on his fellow Republicans rather than accommodate any of them or listen to them should give pause to evangelicals.
Even more puzzling to me are the people who remain undecided, or who oppose Trump but plan to vote for a third-party candidate. They will have no one but themselves to blame if he wins. At this point, I don’t think he will win. Given that he represents the gravest threat to the United States since it was founded, however, it is irresponsible to vote for any candidate other than the one with the best chance of beating Trump.
The situation is unfortunate, since the United States would be best served by having two parties that were both committed to responsible governance but with differing views about the best way forward, so that elections offered a real choice for people who were reasonable and open-minded. At present, however, the Republican Party is no longer a viable option. I’m supporting Hillary Clinton this time around. She’s an excellent candidate. She isn’t perfect, and I consider the use of a personal email server a lapse in judgment, but she’s smart and qualified. That said, I don’t have an ideological commitment to the Democratic Party, and I would be much happier if I had a real choice between two viable candidates who I thought were both qualified for the Presidency. If the Republican Party was still fielding serious candidates, not only for the Presidential election but further down the ballot, I would certainly give them thought.
We are in deep trouble. It is evident now that the naive, Panglossian faith in the market to deliver solutions that would make everyone better off was wildly misplaced. Changes in the last few decades have certainly made elites better off, and there has been admirable improvement in the standards of living in many countries that used to be poor, but in other parts of the world, including the United States, the last few decades have been a story of stagnation for those who were not fortunate enough to be part of the elite. Free trade and deregulation lead to economic growth that eventually does benefit everyone, but the key word here is eventually, and meanwhile while we are on our way to the new equilibrium promised by economic models, there is a lot of short- and medium-term carnage that we have to deal with. Another problem is that many of the benefits of free trade and open markets are diffuse, with small amounts of growth spread over many industries, the costs are highly focused, and very clear to those affected by a plant closure.
The rise of Trump and degeneration of the Republican Party reflects not only economic change, but the years of Republicans messaging that has emphasized simplistic solutions, hatred of elites and disregard for expertise, and misogynistic and racist dog-whistles. In other words, while the emergence of Trump’s base may indeed be a response to economic changes in recent years that have caused many to feel that they have been left behind, they were primed to lash out in the way that they have by years of Republicans telling them that sinister forces were out to get them. We are now in a situation where people who are ostensibly frustrated by their economic situation are rallying behind the candidate and Party who bear most of the responsibility for their problems, and whose policies will only make things worse.
The United States is hardly alone in its political depravity, and clouds are gathering around the world, with thuggish demagogues everywhere responding to the frustrations of those who feel left behind by offering seductively simple answers to the complex problems of modernization. Moreover, these demagogues are connecting with each other and with existing authoritarian states, like cells coming together to form a tumor, raising the prospect of a new era of darkness. Fortunately, they don’t so far seem to be animated by any coherent ideology, and their leadership and appeal seems to be personality-based, so it isn’t clear what will happen in each of their respective countries once they pass away or are incapacitated.
The solution is probably robust state action focused in infrastructure investment, redistribution, health care reform, and other interventions to improve the lot of the 98% of the population who can’t afford a private helicopter, a walled compound, private school education, and a personal MRI machine. Unfortunately, however, we are in a situation where state capacity to act has been seriously eroded by budget cuts, endless attacks on its government agencies and civil servants, and promotion of cynicism about the ability of the state to accomplish anything.
Hopefully at some point in the future we can make governance boring again. We need to move past the markets good, bureaucracy bad mantra, and once again openly make the case that while markets work well in many situations, they have well-known limitations where theory and evidence all indicate that they can’t be relied on to deliver solutions, and in those situations, the state must act, subject to oversight from the electorate.