Wednesday, February 19, 2020

If You Can Keep It

Via Ars Technica, "That time Benjamin Franklin tried (and failed) to electrocute a turkey".

Maybe I need to apologize for being so ill-tempered in the comments yesterday. I really am feeling angry at the Sanders forces for exploiting Elizabeth Warren's honesty, as I see it, to sink her candidacy, if it is in fact sunk, when she acknowledged that the achievement of universal health care would be difficult (showing how to do it) and they continued to pretend it wouldn't until just around now.

Also I'm not sure everybody understood that's what I was saying, or that my concern isn't with relative leftness or rightness but presidential effectiveness; which is frustrating, because I really didn't want to say it twice. I really wanted to be ready to move on and support Sanders as hard as I can, if necessary, as seems likely at the moment, against Biden, against Bloomberg, against Trump if we get that far.

I'm really upset about Bloomberg, not because of how many inches on the "right" he is situated with respect to his rivals, distressing as that may be, but because of the money, which is just horrifying to me, and I don't think people are getting that at all. If he's spending a billion dollars before he's even in a primary (I don't know if it's that much, but $344 million on ad buys alone in the last three months, plus 150 field offices with 2400 full-time staff members), if he's staging rallies the way you stage an album launch, with alcohol and hors d'oeuvres and light shows, if he's paying operatives $6,000 a month, he is entirely changing the way politics is conducted in this country. Especially that last point, because nobody else is going to be able to hire skilled operatives. The best campaign people are going to start feeling they can't afford to work for less. He's putting presidential campaigns out of the reach of anybody who isn't more or less as rich as he is. President Bloomberg, meet President Bezos. President Zuckerberg. I am not down with this.

Especially if it works and he gets elected. I'll still vote for him in November if that's our fate, but I am really not going to feel good about it.

I am honestly getting that late Roman Republic feeling at last (commenter Redhand has been having it for years), driven by startling parallels. For instance, Rome in the 1st century B.C.E. had a Putin figure, King Mithridates of Pontus off around the Black Sea and the Caucasus, whose agents infiltrated Roman-held territories fomenting dissension and lethal riot, and a kind of immigration crisis, when Rome fought the Social War against Italian cities whose inhabitants were clamoring for Roman citizenship. Rome's main industry was imperial war, and its tycoons, the generals, grew fantastically rich, as rich as our information barons, rich enough to buy political power, like popular Gaius Marius and aristocratic Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who fought two civil wars against each other between 88 and 80, ending up with Sulla as dictator. It was in this atmosphere that Gaius Julius Caesar became the richest general of all and the republic began dying for real.

Speaking of republics, I'm also thinking about the oddity with which our two main political parties have come to resemble their names, Republican and Democratic, in their different visions of representative government (a point I think I made somewhere some time ago but I can't be arsed to find it). As we know, the Fathers, blessings be upon them, tried to design the United States as a republic ("if you can keep it") rather than a democracy, for a singular People that would carry itself forward in majestic unity, not a snarling pack of competing factions, but democracy has never stopped trying to establish itself, from the original quarrel between Adams and Jefferson, who expressed his idea that you should try somehow to bridge the two concepts in his own party name, the Democratic-Republicans, from which both of ours derive their own. But those names, coined by Jackson and I guess the 1854 protesters in Ripon respectively, weren't originally meant to mean much of anything. Meanwhile democracy expanded, slowly but inexorably, to give more and more people the vote in any case, while the republic often stood against it.

The deepest belief of today's Republicans, I think, is that there really shouldn't be any opposition; they like that idea of unity at all levels, they hate partisanship without every suspecting themselves of it. They are The American People, as McConnell likes to call himself it, or Real Americans in Trump's cruder language, and everybody who isn't one of them isn't really part of the nation at all. Today's Democrats truly believe in pluralism not just in the republic but right inside the party, in the need for everybody to have a voice, in what the Republicans mock as "identity politics"—which sometimes comes across as silly everybody-gets-a-trophy liberalism, sometimes as just asking for a fight.

It strikes me that, in fact, a republic is really a too rigid structure to endure, with its dependence on a unity that doesn't ever quite exist, and the noise and fractiousness of democracy is a kind of stabilizing factor which allows for some give. If you want to keep that republic, you need to let more democracy in (as obviously didn't happen in Rome). Even billionaires have a right to express their needs, but not at the price of suppressing others.

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