res publica

I wrote this years before Donald Trump appeared on the political stage. I re-post it here hopefully as a matter of historical interest.

Years ago, before the Flood, I reviewed a book written by the Ripon Society. It led me to do some research about that group since the book was well written and struck a comfortable balance between political conservatism and “bleeding heart” liberalism. I confess I find the political middle ground more firm than the ground at either extreme. At the time I wrote the review the society embraced moderate Republicanism. I discovered some interesting things about the group, including the fact that it was the first major Republican organization to support passage of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. In the early 1970s, it called for the normalization of relations with China, and the abolition of the military draft.

That was then. That was when the Republican party traced its heritage back to Thomas Jefferson who traced his roots back to Cicero and the republican ideal of the “public thing,” the res publica. The founders all had read their Cicero in Latin, of course, and they tended to idealize the Roman Republic of Cicero’s days when individuals were admonished to put the common good ahead of their own in the name of “public virtue.” It was the ideal St. Augustine had in mind when he established his monastery which became the model for similar Christian communities throughout Europe: committed to the common good, seeking to control man’s natural wish to put self ahead of the good of all.

But, as I say, that was then: the days of Jefferson, and later Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. Today the Republican party is the party of [Donald Trump], Michele Bachman, Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, the spiritually certain, Fox News, and the corporations that want to squash the common good in the name of increased profits. And the Ripon Society seems to be leaning precariously to the right these days as a consequence. It is difficult to see any connection whatever between today’s grasping and greedy Republican party that would trash social and environmental programs in the name of saving a few tax dollars and the Roman ideal. The idea of the common good has disappeared behind a stinking cloud of greed and self-interest, the very thing Cicero tried so hard to prevent. And yet these people claim to be “Republicans.”

The Republican party is not alone in its preoccupation with greed and self-interest, of course. Both parties are in the pockets of the corporations and tend to ignore the commonwealth as they push their own agendas — whatever those might be. But — as a general rule —  the Democratic party tends to care about people above profits even as it seeks to solve all problems by throwing money at them. So for all its shortcomings, the Democratic party does seem more concerned about the common good, more concerned about the welfare of others and the survival of the planet. However, the more adept members of this party become at playing the political game (and they seem to be learning quickly) the farther they will remove themselves from Cicero’s ideal of the res publica, the public thing, the commonwealth.

If that ideal is to mean anything again it will require a third party that remains disconnected from corporate wealth and special interests. Don’t hold your breath.

Prescient Philosopher

In this interesting article about the predictions of the philosopher Richard Rorty we hear the plea that liberal intellectuals stop their other-worldly theorizing and wake up to the world around them. It was true in 1998 and it is certainly true in 2016.  His observations suggest that there is much work to be done to bring this nation together.

The victory of Donald Trump caught countless progressives and establishment conservatives by surprise. Since Election Day, there’s been no shortage of ink spent trying to sort out the underlying factors behind his startling rise to the Oval Office. But for late philosopher Richard Rorty, the writing was on the wall.
In 1998, Rorty, who most recently taught at Stanford University, argued in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America that “old industrialized democracies” are heading toward a period “in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments.”
He said the left had embraced identity politics at the expense of economic justice. Resentment would fester among the working class as they realized that the powers that be were not fighting to stop wages from shrinking or jobs from being sent overseas.
He suggested that many would turn to a “strongman” to flip the script on the smug, overpaid and deceitful who had long neglected their suffering. The author said the progress made on behalf of ethnic minorities, homosexuals and women would then run the risk of being rolled back.
One reason Rorty perceived something many other left-leaning academics missed might have to do with his chosen philosophical tradition: pragmatism, which emphasizes practical consequences. He died in 2007, so we will never know for sure what he would have thought about Trump’s highly unconventional campaign.
A few days after Trump’s surprise victory, Queen’s University law professor Lisa Kerr and others posted a particularly prescient passage from Achieving Our Country on Twitter. The three paragraphs swiftly caught fire on social media and were shared thousands of times. The New Yorker cited the passage in a profile of President Obama, and the New York Times analyzed the words in-depth.
Here is the slightly condensed version of the passage that Kerr posted online:

“[M]embers of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for — someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.…

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past 40 years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.… All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.”

Amid the renewed attention, online searches for Achieving Our Country skyrocketed and there was a run on the book at Harvard University Press, which is reprinting the book and plans to make it available online as soon as possible.
Lindsay Waters, executive editor for the humanities at Harvard University Press, recalled having big arguments with Rorty before the book was published because he thought it was “too old-style liberal.”
“He thought some of the liberals from the 1930s were really fabulous. He was trying to revive the left with this book. He was trying to kick them in the rear end so they would stop doing stuff that was easy and lazy however trendy it looked,” Waters said in an interview with Yahoo News.
According to Waters, Rorty was a clear-thinking provocateur who refused to play it safe and retained the ability to see larger trends, the big picture. He said a lot of scholars in academia think of themselves as left-wingers but don’t actually do anything.

“Rorty was trying to get people to think. That’s the philosopher’s job,” he continued. “He was trying to get people to prepare for being more responsive to the political situation in America.”. . . .
“The reason we love poets and philosophers is that they almost have some sixth sense. They pick up vibes that the rest of the world is not sensitive to or refuses to see,” he said. “He was being Cassandra: ‘If you people don’t wake up, things are going to get a lot worse. The enemy is going to win. Can I make that any more clear to you?’”
The crux of Rorty’s thesis in Achieving Our Country is that the sins of the United States past do not need to define its future. He criticized the American left of retreating into theory at the expense of taking an active role in civic life.
Rorty lamented that many of his fellow liberals had come to view American patriotism as an endorsement of past atrocities, such as slavery or violence against Native Americans. He encouraged his peers to re-embrace the patriotism of the old left and work toward a more hopeful future, much like Walt Whitman and John Dewey had before.
In the relevant passage, Rorty goes on to suggest that after his “imagined strongman” comes to power he will quickly make peace with the “international super-rich” and invoke memories of past military victories to encourage military adventures for short-term prosperity. But, Rorty continued, the strongman will ultimately be a disaster for the world and people will wonder why there had been so little resistance to his ascent.
“[Rorty] was a big-picture guy,” Waters said. “He was inspired by [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and William James and was concerned about the soul of America and what’s happening in America. I suppose that’s one of the things that makes him the most different from other people. He dared to think about the country and what’s good for the country.”

The question I would ask is whether Trump will turn out to be the “strongman” those folks were hoping for or whether they will soon realize that he doesn’t care a tinker’s dam about them and is all about himself? Then what??

Those Annoying Regulations

I wouldn’t be a politician for all the tea in China; they can’t win for losing. A case in point is the matter of regulations. Obama is criticized by the conservatives for being “regulation-happy” when according to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs he has been responsible for fewer regulations than any president since 1992 — a fact which brings criticism from the political left which thinks there should be more, not fewer, regulations.

Even more interesting is the fact that in an election year large numbers of regulations that have been passed simply sit somewhere in an office in Washington “wrapped in red tape” “under review” waiting for “experts” to move them along. They are in limbo and aren’t part of the warp and woof of our political world. They have been passed but haven’t yet been passed, if you catch my drift. This year, for example, a number of so-called “expensive” regulations — those that might reduce the profits of the large corporations and further weaken the economy (along with some that are regarded as “controversial”) simply gather dust waiting further review, even though they have been passed and approved. These regulations, according to USA Today (July 27, 2012), include such things as “four rules required under last-year’s updated food-safety law.. .[including] improved controls at food processing facilities and stricter standards on imported foods.” In addition, waiting activation are regulations to reduce exposure to silica dust, regulations to require rear-view cameras in automobiles, and the like. Some regulations would appear to be essential to our health while others seem a bit esoteric and even pointless. But they have not been activated because this is an election year and someone might get upset — someone with a fat check book. This tells us who carries weight in Washington, in case we were in doubt.

Liberals want more and tougher regulations and see the important ones gathering dust and complain loudly. But they carry little political clout so their collective voices are not heard. The corporations do not want the “expensive” regulations passed — such as the regulation to reduce silica dust — because they will cut into profits and therefore hurt the economy. This is the familiar argument that regulations (the result of an overgrown government) cut into profits resulting in cut-backs and “downsizing” (not to mention outsourcing) and the economy is further crippled. Here we have the old bifurcation fallacy: either jobs or the economy. I have discussed this error here and here. Despite the fact that it is a flawed argument, it is heard, of course. This is most interesting: politicians have determined that the economy is more important than health and human welfare. And apparently we agree with them because we keep electing the fools.

Until the regulations have been fully “reviewed” and approved they cannot be put into effect even though passed by the Congress. And since the mid-term elections the current  Administration has been reluctant to pass along many regulations and the best guess is that it will be quite a while — at least until after the elections — before the regulations are put into effect, especially the “expensive” regulations. And this despite the fact that regulations that are pending could help improve our quality of life and reduce health risks, such as heart and respiratory problems that result from poor air quality.

We need to reconsider what we mean by the word “expensive.” Some things may cost money, but even when it is a great deal of money it is cheaper than poor health and early death from causes that could be eliminated or reduced through government regulations — especially those that have been passed but are “pending” until further review — i.e., until it becomes politically expedient to move them along.