Category Archives: Political Animals

Tim Alberta – American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump

Tim Alberta – American Carnage: On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump

Note: I wrote this review about a month ago, before Congress began an impeachment investigation against President Trump. I have left it unedited.

Alberta is a political correspondent for Politico. I read his book with Stephen Davies’ political realignment thesis in mind. According to Davies, people tend to align around two opposite poles in politics–but those poles tend to move around every few generations. For a lengthy period starting around the end of World War II, those two poles were capitalism and socialism. Now, with the Soviet Union almost 30 years gone, those poles have lost their relevance. Worldwide, political parties are realigning around new poles. This time around, it’s a nationalism-vs.-globalism axis.

This is apparent in the UK’s Brexit debate, and the election of populist leaders in Brazil, Italy, Mexico, and elsewhere. The process usually takes a couple of election cycles, and happens faster in some countries than in others. As Alberta’s book unintentionally shows, realignment is happening right now in America. It is also fairly far along, but not yet complete.

The GOP’s civil war is a referendum about President Trump on the surface. But the deeper philosophical split is one of nationalism against a more cosmopolitan worldview. The same fight is happening in the Democratic party, though without its own Trump-like figure to rally around or against, the struggle on the left side of the aisle is quieter. Alberta focuses almost exclusively on the GOP; a similar treatment of the Democratic Party’s realignment process would be a welcome addition to the literature.

The main fault with this book is that it is far longer than it needs to be. This is especially true of its 2016 campaign coverage, which feels as endless as the original campaign did. 2016 takes up about a third of a book that covers an entire decade. A fair amount of the campaign season slog in the book is essentially an ESPN-style highlight show of debate highlights, gaffes, and flash-in-the-pan candidates and personalities who were relevant for a few news cycles, but not particularly important for Alberta’s larger story arc.

Alberta convincingly shows, though again in more detail than necessary, that once Republicans choose a leader, they’ll follow him no matter what. This was apparent during George W. Bush’s presidency, when Republicans went along with Bush’s massive spending and entitlement increases and needless wars, and even the Keynesian bailout on which he collaborated with President Obama, who is otherwise mostly a two-minutes hate figure in the GOP.

Republicans’ pre-existing meekness has greatly amplified under Trump, almost to the point of becoming the party’s defining characteristic. He is strongly disliked inside his own party, but nobody in a position to is willing to put up meaningful opposition, whether to Trump’s spending and deficits, or his trade and immigration policies. They are just as meek about Trump’s intentionally divisive rhetoric, cozying up to dictators, and at times, outright racism.

Paul Ryan’s tragic career arc is the most prominent example, and Alberta tells it masterfully. Ryan’s choice of party over policy backfired, and ultimately led him to retire–though he was also put in an impossible situation. He became House Speaker with his party in mid-realignment. He also had a President foisted on him who is not temperamentally fit for the job, and has no philosophical commitment for or against Ryan’s policies, making him neither friend nor foe, despite their shared party membership.

Ryan’s story is is just one of many sad commentaries on party politics. Alberta shares savage assessments about Trump from some of Trump’s closest allies—many without the cover of anonymity. It is almost worse that Republicans are going along with Trump’s policies with their eyes open. They know better, and yet they continue to support Trump’s policies, values, and rhetoric. They have chosen to be this way.

Alberta’s story of weak Republican knees extends to the human weakness for a good us-vs.them narrative. People are eager to affirm their identity as part of a group, and are quick to vilify people outside it. This is why hard partisans are so eager to believe odd conspiracy theories, such as Barack Obama being born in Kenya, or Hillary Clinton running a prostitution ring from a pizza parlor—stories which Alberta tells in comic, yet tragic fashion. It also explains why President Trump’s base and party stick by him despite almost widespread misgivings about his character and his policies.

Adding Davies’ political realignment thesis on top of Alberta’s storytelling adds another level. The GOP’s reluctance to pursue limited government policies under Bush has become an active hostility to its Reagan-Goldwater tradition. People with an economist’s views on trade, immigration, and spending restraint used to be merely ignored. Now, they are actively sought as the enemy, to the point of Trump economic adviser Peter Navarro bizarrely comparing the Wall Street Journal to the communist China Daily. The GOP is still running on an us-vs.-them narrative, but the definition of “them” has changed. “Them” used to be socialists or people who prefer big government. Now “them” is seen in national, cultural, or racial terms.

The question is what will happen post-Trump. Both parties have strong populist elements. But in a two-party system there is likely only room for one strong populist party. Will that party be the Republicans or the Democrats? It’s too early to tell. The GOP base has eagerly embraced national populism, but most of the party establishment is playing along reluctantly. That support is also largely personality-based, and that personality will be gone from politics in either 2021 or 2025. The Democratic party is also divided, though the base-establishment split isn’t nearly as clean. They also lack a personality-cult figure to rally around. Much as I dislike horserace politics, how this one plays out over the next few cycles will be interesting to watch. About all we know for at this point is that there are very few good guys in this story, and they will all likely lose.

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Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

This 1967 book has long been a Cato Institute favorite, and had been on my to-read list for years. It was particularly influential on Gene Healy’s Cult of the Presidency, which makes a compelling case for reining in an executive branch that has grown proportionally too powerful compared to the legislative and judicial branches.

Bailyn is a very detailed writer; his more recent The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction is so filled with minutiae in its chapter-by-chapter crawl of the different regions of North America’s east coast takes almost as long as the actual journey. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is much livelier in comparison. It opens with a close look at the origins of pamphlets as a medium, in Bailyn’s usual microscopic detail, discussing everything from page size to word counts to stylistic conventions—yet it’s genuinely interesting, and difficult to put down.

Other themes get similar treatment, but Bailyn always keeps in mind the bigger picture; there is method to his madness. Along the way I was surprised to learn of John Adams’ skepticism of Montesquieu, who inspired many revolutionary ideas. Adams, ever practical, thought Montesquieu’s thought too theoretical and idealized. Bailyn also offers insights into the debates over when rebellion was a legitimate course of action (Locke was not the only inspiration); the rejection of rigid European-style social hierarchy and titled nobility; slavery; freedom of religion; and more.

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

Robert Penn Warren – All the King’s Men

As CEI founder and Louisiana native Fred Smith likes to say, “In Louisiana, we don’t expect our politicians to be corrupt. We insist on it.” Warren’s famous novel is a lightly fictionalized biography of Huey Long, the famous Louisiana politician. While raucous and entertaining as a personality study, this novel also helps to take some of the bloom off the rose of the type of people who run for political office. Huey Long was an exaggerated character, and Warren’s fictional Willie Stark is a an exaggeration of an exaggeration. But the difference between such men and more everyday political types is more a matter of degree than of kind.

Also revealing is the way people enabled, rationalized, and defended Stark’s flaws and the hurtful things he said and did to people throughout the novel. Similar things happen today with famous people from athletes and entertainers all the way up to presidents.

Tolstoy’s Insights on Political Types

A passage from Part 6, chapter 18 of Tolstoy’s War and Peace reminds me of more than one person I met during my years in Washington:

The visitor was Bitski, who served on various committees, frequented all the societies in Petersburg, and a passionate devotee of the new ideas and of Speranski, and a diligent Petersburg newsmonger—one of those men who choose their opinions like their clothes according to the fashion, but who for that very reason appear to be the warmest partisans.

Herbert A. Simon – Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisations

Herbert A. Simon – Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition: A Study of Decision-Making Processes in Administrative Organisations

Realistic, subjective, and humble—probably a reflection of Simon’s time at the University of Chicago. Rather than the typical snake-oil management guru who pretends to know everything, Simon that there is no perfect structure for an organization. Every possibility has at least some drawbacks. Simon instead emphasizes the need to treat organizational structure as an ongoing process, rather than a finished product. Often personnel will dictate what structures work best, and personnel change over time. Technology has its own impacts, and Simon even in 1947 saw that computers would have significant effects on the workplace. Part of trial is error, and wise managers will accept this as part of the process. The trick is being humble enough to admit mistakes and being flexible enough to try different approaches with more promise.

Randall G. Holcombe – Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained

Randall G. Holcombe – Political Capitalism: How Political Influence Is Made and Maintained

Excellent, though probably a difficult read for a layman. Most people have a two-axis view of politics—most countries are some blend of capitalism and socialism. Holcombe argues that there is a distinct third system, which he calls political capitalism. It has characteristics of market capitalism, such as private property and usually democratic political institutions. But political capitalism also features heavy control by elites. Because votes count for very little in any decent-sized election and because voters typically have low information, it is naturally easier for elites to control public policies with relatively little public accountability.

An underappreciated key point, first made by Mancur Olson, is that small groups have lower transaction costs than larger groups. A small group is easier to form, and it is easier to monitor members so they don’t shirk on the rest of the group.

Another point is that principled legislators have almost no chance of being influential under political capitalism. If a politician is known for sticking to their principles, other legislators will not bother trying to win their vote on bills. If they support a bill, they’ll vote for it no matter what. If they oppose it, their support cannot be bought, so it’s not worth spending resources on.

That means principled legislators aren’t offered choice committee assignments, fundraising assistance, or get introduced to powerful social connections. Principled legislators are doomed to ineffectiveness.

It is well known that political office naturally attracts certain undesirable personality types. Holcombe demonstrates that institutional structures actually reward them, so there is a natural selection process to put the worst on top.

Holcombe also makes several valuable contributions to the theory of rent-seeking. I wish I had known about these when Fred Smith and I were working on our 2015 rent-seeking paper, which would have greatly benefited from his insights. I will definitely be citing this book in the future.

Gabriel García Márquez on Partisanship

Times and places change, but much else stays the same. From pp. 241-242 of Gabriel García Márquez’s 1967 novel One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“The only difference today between Liberals and Conservatives is that Liberals go to mass at five o’clock and Conservatives at eight.”