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Political Chaos and Confusion

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

Americans were treated to a dramatic contrast between know-nothingism and transparency on the eve of the Iowa Caucuses and the conclusion of Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

On Friday, January 31, 51 Republican senators voted against hearing any witnesses in Trump’s impeachment trial, for the first time in US Senate history. ‘There were no first-hand witnesses,’ to Trump’s extortion of false accusations from Ukraine, his lawyers had argued, not-quite-truthfully. ‘That’s OK, we don’t want any!’ GOP senators cheerfully replied.

That’s what the Democrats running in Iowa were up against—not just Trump, but an increasingly cult-like party congealed around him, as well as the historical forces that have enabled this development.

The next day, February 1, the Des Moines Register cancelled release of its gold standard last pre-caucus poll, for the first time in 76 years, because of a single phone call which raised questions about the fairness of its polling process. “It is imperative,” Executive Editor Carol Hunter wrote, “that there is full confidence that the data accurately reflects Iowans’ opinions.”

But then came the calamitous failure of the caucus itself, with a fog of confusion in place of results, highlighting a different profound split: between the legions of local party volunteers and grassroots activists who made the caucuses work on the ground, and the out-of-touch state party leadership, who relied on an untested vote-reporting app, produced by political insiders who typify how tech-savviness has too often ill-served Democrats.

That split echoed another troubling sign of a base/establishment disconnect: Last Friday, the Democratic National Committee changed its rules to let billionaire Mike Bloomberg onto the debate stage without any showing of grassroots support. For the January debate, candidates had to receive donations from 225,000 individuals, with a minimum of 1,000 donors in at least 20 states. Bloomberg isn’t doing any of that. Instead, he’s spent $132 million on television advertising alone, and $188 million total through the end of December, with another $33 million in invoices owed.

“That’s the definition of a rigged system,” said Bernie Sanders’s senior adviser Jeff Weaver, after the change was announced. Other candidates spoke out directly on Twitter.

“The DNC changing its debate criteria to ignore grassroots donations seems tailor-made to get Mike Bloomberg on the debate stage in February,” Andrew Yang tweeted. “Having Americans willing to invest in your campaign is a key sign of a successful campaign. The people will win out in the end.”

“The DNC didn’t change the rules to ensure good, diverse candidates could remain on the debate stage. They shouldn’t change the rules to let a billionaire on,” Elizabeth Warren tweeted. “Billionaires shouldn’t be allowed to play by different rules — on the debate stage, in our democracy, or in our government.”

The rule change could give Bloomberg a debate stage opening, just as establishment favorite Joe Biden appears to be stumbling badly—just as he did in his previous presidential bids, once voters got involved. Though results haven’t been released as this story goes to press, reports suggest a fourth-place finish in Iowa—possibly tied with Amy Klobuchar —significantly below his already lowered expectations.

While Bloomberg touts his advocacy for progressive causes, like gun control and climate change action, his record as New York Mayor was more mixed, with strong support for the city’s racially discriminatory “stop and frisk” policy, which peaked at almost 700,000 stops in 2011, before being declared unconstitutional in 2013 case. The city also paid out an $18 million settlement for illegal arrests of protester at the 2004 Republican National Convention, where Bloomberg spoke as the host.

Unlike other candidates, Bloomberg’s massive wealth allows him to flood the media with advertising and effectively preempt serious questioning about the contradictions in his actual record. While there’s a certain appeal to Democrats running an actual billionaire against a phony one, it’s a strategy that ignores how we got here, as described by Anand Giridharadas, in his book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. On Twitter he neatly summarized: “We’re led by a billionaire crook because, for decades, billionaires ran America like a club for their own benefit; and now billionaires promise us they are the solution.”

On caucus day, he summarized, “Today in 2020 America,” thus:

A “billionaire” president is soon to be acquitted because his party cares more about tax cuts for plutes than the Constitution.

A foe of billionaires is surging in Iowa, so pundits are scaring you about him.

Bloomberg is trying to buy the White House.

And also, speaking to the pundit class:

If you’re less skeptical about a billionaire buying the presidency than about taxing billionaires to give everyone healthcare, look within.

Perhaps the best big-picture way to clarify where we are in America today comes from structural demographic theory, which explains fluctuations of political instability in terms of changes in mass well-being, elite competition and state fiscal capacity. SDT has been used to explain cycles of social integration and disintegration across thousands of years, since it was first introduced in a 1991 book, Revolution and Rebellion in Early Modern Europe, by historian Jack Goldstone.

Disintegration begins as mass well-being declines, so more wealth is available for elites, whose numbers also increase, creating more competition between them, reducing their public-spiritedness, and willingness to be taxed. Other factors play roles as well, but these are perhaps the clearest connecting links between the three factors driving societies toward potential breakdown, which Goldstone warned that America was heading toward — a description roughly compatible with that offered by Giridharadas.

As these pressures increase, Goldstone noted a fourth factor: “Ideologies of rectification and transformation became increasingly salient.” Trump’s pledge to “Make America Great Again,” however vague or even cartoonish it may seem, gains strength from resonating with a spectrum of beliefs in different forms of rectification. The vagueness is part of his appeal: it allows white nationalists to read him as supporting them, and others to read him as having nothing to do with racism. It allows many different people with specific grievances to believe that he speaks for them — which he is happy to do as a life-long conman. The incoherence of his defense in the impeachment trial is another reflection of how central vagueness is to his political power. The GOP as a whole needs that vagueness as much as he does, since they have tied their survival to him.

Sanders and Warren stand in stark contrast with their calls for bold transformational change, which are much more specific. Pete Buttigieg offers a diluted version, whose specifics have also been in flux. Tom Steyer is more like Sanders and Warren, but, is also a billionaire who needs to be viewed skeptically, as Giridharadas suggests.

While cycles of integration and disintegration have been found to be surprisingly regular — though some cycles move faster than others — there is profound uncertainty around moments of crisis, which aptly describes where we find ourselves today.

Sanders and Warren’s calls for big structural change — taxing billionaires, raising the minimum wage, and restoring economic fairness — are consistent with what SDT tells us is needed. Returning to how things were before Trump — as Biden argues for — simply isn’t possible, Trump’s election was a result of the deeper trends which have been headed in the wrong direction for decades.

But perhaps most frightening is that nothing is guaranteed when a crisis occurs. They can lead to revolution or civil war, which can take a generation or more to begin recovering from. Or they can permanently fracture a society. The one thing they cannot do is take us back in time. Not as Donald Trump would promise, nor as Joe Biden would.

One more thing is certain: we know more about this process than anyone society that’s gone through it before. Do we want more information to help guide us? Or do we act like the GOP Senate?

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