Gary Johnson’s Big Sin? ‘Poaching’ Votes from Hillary Clinton (and Sucky Media Savvy).

“Gary Johnson’s poll collapse is happening, as predicted,” trumpets the Washington Post‘s Philip Bump. “Gary Johnson flames out,” smirks Steven Shepard at Politico. “Right on Schedule, Gary Johnson’s Poll Numbers Are Crashing,” adds Ed Kilgore at New York magazine. It’s the most coverage the Libertarian presidential candidate has received since he couldn’t come up with the name of an international political leader he really digs, or since he stumbled on the name of the Syrian city of Aleppo during an abrupt topic change during an interview.

Which, come to think of it, may have something to do with those dropping poll numbers.

To be honest, Johnson makes some of his own trouble. As is frequently and correctly pointed out, he’s not quick on his feet in interviews, he’s awkward before a camera, and he comes off as a bit eccentric. When he stumbles, he doesn’t easily recover. But these qualities were treated as largely positive qualities early on, when it looked like he would provide an alternative for Republican voters disgusted with Trump. “Johnson is a bit of an oddball. But he’s an endearing one, which is more than we can say about Trump and Clinton, two very strange people in different ways,” CBS News’s Will Rahn pointed out in June. Rahn also noted that the Libertarians had “a lot of executive experience for any ticket, let alone a third-party one.”

I think a more serious problem is that Johnson often comes off as if he wants everybody to like him. That might be a good quality in your neighbor, but it’s a dangerous vulnerability in a political candidate sparring with those journalists who are just doing their jobs–let alone hostile interviewers. If you view the people with microphones as the adversaries they are rather than buddies, you’re going to be better prepared for gotcha questions and out-of-context presentation of your comments.

Well, if you’re quick on your feet you will.

But Gary Johnson ran into another very serious “problem” not of his making: He started gathering up voters that Democrats and political forecasters expected to go to Hillary Clinton. “Democrats thought he would take from Trump,” Politico explained last month, “but polls show he’s attracting voters who like neither candidate.” The Hill added, “Democrats panicked by third-party candidates drawing support away from Hillary Clinton are ramping up their attacks against Gary Johnson.” In particular, he began pulling in up to a quarter of millennial voters–younger participants in the political process who might not only break away from the Democratic candidate, but establish long-term voting habits favoring another political party.

Since then, Johnson’s portrayal in the national media has been almost exclusively as a dummy, rather than an “endearing” former two-term governor with very different policy proposals from his Republican and Democratic rivals. You’ve heard an awful lot about his failure to name an international political leader he respects (that’s a gaffe? Why should he be a fan boy for Angela Merkel?), and almost nothing about him, say, polling higher than Hillary Clinton among military voters (the Christian Science Monitor did run a hand-wringing piece that managed to ask “why?” without talking to any actual troops).

But is this really a media pile-on? Maybe it’s journalists in a feeding frenzy, or being lazy, rather than series of a partisan attacks on a candidate who threatens their preferred contender.

But that’s not what some journalists who have held their own shit together see happening with their colleagues.

“The number of mainstream media reporters who are out there expressing their explicit opinions, that tend to be decisively pro-Hillary and anti-Trump, to me is scary,” commented Jim VandeHei, who co-founded Politico and is no longer with the publication.

The media is “not even trying to hide it anymore” in terms of political leanings noted an op-ed in The Hill by Joe Concha, one of the publication’s own media reporters.

“Journalists shower Hillary Clinton with campaign cash,” the Center for Public Integrity reported just last week.

And indeed, among the more interesting revelations (in a series of them) to come out of the Podesta emails published by Wikileaks has been the “Clinton campaign’s cozy press relationship,” as noted by The Intercept (there is a very good reason why so many journalists have fallen out of love with the transparency site). Clinton staffers discussed “friendly journalists” with whom they could place stories, wined and dined them at off-the-record parties, and signed off on articles about the campaign.

And that coziness does seem to have an impact. You’ll find plenty of discussion of the Aleppo gaffe. But just try to find media mentions of the British Parliament’s report last month condemning American-British-French military intervention in Libya in 2011, which it held responsible for “political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” Clinton, you’ll remember, was Secretary of State at the time with responsibility for U.S. foreign policy, including our part in that Libyan catastrophe.

And try to dig up a story or two outside the ideological or foreign press about the Clinton Foundation accepting donations from the governments of Saudi Arabia and Qatar after her State Department identified them as funders of ISIS.

Yes, Trump has (a few) media supporters too. Many of them are at Fox News which has several overt cheerleaders for the populist-nationalist candidate on its schedule. And yes, most journalists target the blustery Republican candidate while favoring Clinton. While he makes much of his own trouble, there’s no doubt who the majority of news people want to see in the White House.

And that leaves little room for anything but hostile coverage of a presidential candidate who challenges the overtly preferred candidate of the majority of journalists, and the favorite of a small minority, and who, frankly, kind of sucks at publicly fencing with interlocutors who are out for blood. Johnson is being skewered on camera and in print by reporters who are essentially operatives for his opponents in the election, and he’s pretty terrible at turning the tables on them.

Would any candidate be better in this position?

Any Libertarian nominee who started eating into Hillary Clinton’s presumed voting base would certainly have faced media hostility. But we can imagine candidates who would be faster on their feet in fielding surprise questions, more realistic about the inclinations on the journalists facing them, and more combative and energetic in responding to spin.

The problem comes in turning that imagination into an actual human being who wants to run for office. Johnson’s main opponents in seeking the Libertarian nomination this year were John McAfee, of tech and venture capital fame, and Austin Petersen, a libertarian activist and media entrepreneur.

McAfee is media savvy and cultivates his own image; the “crazy” persona he presents is at least partially intentional. I’m told by those who have interviewed him that he’s rather more serious and balanced in person. He might well have pursued some version of the down-the-middle strategy favored by Johnson-Weld, drawing votes from those who would otherwise have favored both Clinton and Trump. But charismatic and savvy as he is, his edgy image is only partially cultivated–he really is a “person of interest” in a murder in Belize, and he faced drunk-driving and firearms charges just last year. McAfee’s explanations may be perfectly truthful, but there’s no way that a hostile press would have passed up a chance to fill headlines about a strongly polling McAfee candidacy with the words “murder,” “drugs,” and “guns.”

Petersen doesn’t have the government or business credentials of Johnson or McAfee, but he does have media experience and polish. He would have likely run a different campaign, leaning toward the right with an eye to scooping up “never Trump” voters. To the extent that they’re sincere, the pro-life, conservatarian Petersen is what disappointed Republicans mean when they say they wish the LP would run a “real libertarian.” (That some of them then go and support a hawkish, authoritarian, ex-CIA, former Goldman Sachs mini-candidate–something of a larval Hillary Clinton–demonstrates the limits of that sincerity). It’s unlikely that he would have faced the same media hostility if he was gathering mostly never-Trump Republican voters, but it’s also unlikely that he would have made anything like Johnson’s headway among millennials and Sanders supporters.

The other contenders for the nomination were relative unknowns outside of the Libertarian Party. They came off as perfectly sincere activists devoted to the cause, but without much to grab the attention of people not already committed to the movement. Could one of them have risen to the occasion and molded a credible campaign that ventured into double-digit polling support–and then fended off a full assault by a hostile media? It’s possible, but none demonstrated that potential during the campaign for the nomination.

So yes, we can imagine a candidate for president better prepared than Gary Johnson to not only mount a serious run for the presidency but also to duel with hostile pundits. That candidate may well exist as a real person or multiple people. But it’s not apparent from the evidence that such a candidate actually sought to run in 2016.

But the Libertarian Party is going to need that sort of a candidate in the future as it seeks to build on this year’s high profile and make bigger waves in 2020 and beyond. If Johnson ultimately wins 5 percent or better of ballots, the LP qualifies for public funding from voluntary taxpayer checkoffs for the next general election. Given that the money is freely given, not coerced, the LP should seriously consider accepting what could be millions of dollars–and an enhanced opportunity to disrupt what will probably, again, be a contentious presidential campaign.

And given that the media has demonstrated its overwhelming pro-Democratic partisanship, and is highly unlikely to become more diverse in its views or less enthusiastic in its activism over the next four years, Libertarians (or any serious third-party candidates who threaten to “poach” donkey party votes) will need to be not just credible contenders for office, but accomplished sparring partners for their media opponents.

Election 2016 Mercifully Ends for Me! (See How I Voted.)

Arizona not only allows early voting, it actively encourages the practice with a registry where you can sign up to receive mail-in ballots in preference to trudging to a polling station on election day. My ballot arrived today, I promptly filled it out. And so I’ve entered my preferences, irrelevant though they may be, into the maw of the democratic machine for the hideous national election that would not end, 2016 edition.

At right, you’ll see a photograph of my presidential selection. Before you go telling me that I’ve broken the law, fuck you, no I haven’t, and I wouldn’t care if I had. Anyway, Arizona explicitly allows the practice of posting images of your own vote: “A voter who makes available an image of the voter’s own ballot by posting on the internet or in some other electronic medium is deemed to have consented to retransmittal of that image and that retransmittal does not constitute a violation of this section.”

Anyway, no surprise, I voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate for president. I consider the former two-term governor of New Mexico and somewhat squishy advocate of liberty to be the best qualified candidate for the office this year, as well as the most ideologically compatible with my own views. He’s also not evil, which is a major consideration in a mid-20th-century-ish campaign season when the Democratic Party is represented by Eva Peron without the charisma, and the Republicans are fronted by a less-stable Benito Mussolini.

Down-ballot, I selected Libertarians where available, Greens where not. I skipped those races (quite a few, since the state deliberately made it tougher for smaller political parties) where only Republicans and Democrats had candidates. Let me clarify that: I voted for no Republicans and no Democrats. Not one.

I think it’s time for those parties to die and make way for something that doesn’t stink up the joint.

I voted in favor of Prop. 205, a measure which would introduce imperfect but real improvements in marijuana laws, partially legalizing the stuff for people 21 years of age and older.

I voted against Prop. 206, a measure which would reduce job opportunities for new and unskilled workers by raising their cost to employers in the form of a hiked minimum wage. It would also dictate paid sick time practices, further raising the cost of hiring people.

Those are the high points.

As you can see, I didn’t throw my vote away on inferior contenders for public office.

Why Arrest Your Opponents When You Can Ban Their Fun?

Amanda Furrer

Is this the embodiment of evil? / Photo by Amanda Furrer

Maryland officials have suddenly discovered a crying need to ban spear hunting and restrict air guns (cuz you’ll shoot your eye out, I guess, or poke it). A former head of the Heritage Foundation wants to double down on drug prohibition (you can’t have enough stupid). And the federal government is severely curtailing the popular pastime of off-roading. Color me cynical, but I think this all has more to do with political point-scoring than well-considered policy preferences.

Let me elaborate.

In the midst of one of the more hideous political contests the American democratic system has coughed up in the last century or so, pundits trying to explain the horror show are rightly rediscovering Bill Bishop’s excellent book, The Big Sort. In his 2008 work, Bishop described how strongly correlated lifestyle and ideology have become in modern America, and how highly mobile Americans are leaving behind communities where they feel like outsiders in terms of both beliefs and hobbies to relocate among the like-minded. The result, he said, was that Americans are decreasingly challenged by opposing views, and increasingly likely to embrace radicalized versions of themselves.

That is, Americans who think alike are also likely to live alike, and are becoming increasingly different across the board from the broadly defined opposing camp. Bishop wasn’t alone in his conclusion. “It takes only a very small ‘nudge,’ whether from ‘within’ or ‘above,’ to tip a large population into a self-reinforcing dynamic that can carve deep cultural fissures into the demographic landscape,” Daniel DellaPosta, Yongren Shi, and Michael Macy of Cornell University wrote in “Why Do Liberals Drink Lattes?” a paper published last year in the American Journal of Sociology. “When cultural tastes in turn have a reciprocal effect on personal networks, such divisions are likely to be even further exaggerated, leading to a starkly divided world of latte-sipping liberals and bird-hunting conservatives.”

The polls seem to bear this out. In Virginia, “More than half the people who support one of the two major-party candidates say they do not have any close friends or family voting for the other,” the Washington Post reported last month.Tellingly, the Post added, “The poll also found cultural differences between Clinton voters and Trump voters, reflected in their ties to guns, gays and even hybrid vehicles.”

Those supporters are also more ideologically consistent than in the past (even if their chosen candidates are ideologically incoherent). “Looking at 10 political values questions tracked since 1994, more Democrats now give uniformly liberal responses, and more Republicans give uniformly conservative responses than at any point in the last 20 years,” Pew Research noted in 2014.

Unsurprisingly, groups of Americans who increasingly think and live differently from one another are also mutually alienated from one another. “For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party,” Pew found this summer. “And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger.”

Some commentators find fodder in this national divide for sermons about the importance of valuing diversity of ideas. That’s great. But there’s no easy way to make people separated by geography, recreational choices, culinary preferences, housing styles, and ideology to find common ground. Many Americans are drawing further away from one another in terms of all-encompassing tribal identity, and that leaves diminishing reference points in common. People who don’t understand each other and rarely encounter one another aren’t going to start reenacting My Dinner With Andre (which only half of them have any interest in seeing to begin with).

Even more disturbing, though, is that the broad cultural preferences so closely intermingled with ideological identities create an opening for the victors in political contests to punish their enemies without openly targeting partisan affiliation. Yes, overt political retribution occurs too–see the scandal over IRS mistreatment of conservative organizations–and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become more common as the partisan divide widens. But in what’s left of our liberal democratic system, it’s still relatively risky to openly penalize people for believing the “wrong things.” Restricting or banning lifestyle practices almost exclusively favored by people who believe those things, however, is another matter.

You know. Like with hunting, and marijuana, and off-road vehicles.

How much easier it is to slap high tariffs on trendy foreign cars, or tighten restrictions on those nasty guns, than to explain why you’re thumping on some guy’s kidneys because he voted for your opponent. You can still make him and his friends suffer with legal penalties and taxes that won’t really affect your supporters, and your crew will get your nudge-and-wink and approve of slams against political/cultural enemies.

Or is THIS the embodiment of evil? /Autoviva

Or is THIS the embodiment of evil? / Photo by Autoviva

Fuck those Prius-drivers/bitter-clingers. They’re getting what they deserve. Right?

You may even propose to “make the environment here so unwelcoming that some will choose not to come, and some may actually leave,” in the words of a former New Hampshire Democratic state representative who opposed the libertarian Free State Project. She added, “One way is to pass measures that will restrict the ‘freedoms’ that they think they will find here.”

That’s a pretty explicit scheme to use the law to punish political opponents by targeting culture and lifestyle preferences associated with their viewpoint.

I’d suggest that most gun control efforts of recent years are more about punishing “right-wingers” than about serious attempts to reduce crime. Similarly, I suspect that much remaining resistance to marijuana and the weirdly persistent state-level attempts to prevent Tesla from opening car dealerships are intended to inconvenience people on the left. In both cases, the target is a cultural marker strongly identified with (though not exclusive to) an identifiable political-cultural faction of the American public.

So the next time one of your hobbies is targeted for an overtly unjustified and seemingly ill-considered restriction, give it some thought. There may have been more intellectual effort expended on the law or regulation than you’ve allowed for–but it was more in the form of malice toward your “tribe” than any real concern about the activity in question.

The True Threat to Britain

There's a cop up ahead. Crucify him? Or just harsh words? / Romanarmy.net

There’s a cop up ahead. Crucify him? Or just harsh words? / Romanarmy.net

Apropos of nothing, I’ve realized that Roman military reenactment is rather popular in the United Kingdom. In a country that has not only strict gun laws, but also draconian laws restricting anything sharper than a cutting comment, there’s an enormous loophole. To bypass those tight regulations regarding knives, swords, and javelins, you need only say the magic words: “Holy shit, have you had a look at Bettany Hughes’s tits?”

So, you can’t go pistol shooting, you’re forbidden to defend yourself with a knife, and even hanging a sword on the wall is a chancy thing. But training in the weapons and tactics of the army that conquered most of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East and held it for centuries is totally cool.

Let’s be clear. These reenactors could march across the country half-drunk, just like real legionaries, and take it over. At least, they could be impolite while making clanking noises to millions of Britons.

True, The U.K. has a well-trained, and pretty well-armed, military. And if its troops are able to catch an Uber ride, it’s probably game over for any coup attempt too small too fill more than a pub or two. But if that Uber ride is suborned or simply delayed by a fellow traveler…

Well, then it’s Senatus Populus que … what? … Manchesterus?

Solar Power is a Cool Idea With Lousy Execution

Bow down before Ra!

Photo: AleSpa

I’m intrigued by the idea of solar power, as are many people. Pointing solar panels toward the sun and simply harvesting energy–what a cool concept! So last year I looked into having solar installed at my house and made appointments with representatives from two companies to come out and bid on the project. One was SolarCity, the national firm headed by Elon Musk, and the other was a local company with a good reputation.

My major requirement for both companies’ bids was that I wanted a system that gave me access to the power I generate. That sounds like a natural, right? You have solar panels on your roof or in your yard, just feet from your home. You’d think you should be able to use the power they generate. Well, you’d think that, but that’s not always the case.

For years, most solar installations have been designed to be grid tied–hooked to the electric grid–and dependent on net metering requirements that obligate electric utilities to buy the resulting power. Basically, you install a generator on your property and sell juice to the electric company, but draw your own power for home use from the same grid as everybody else. In a blackout, despite the solar panels on the roof, your refrigerator stops humming just like everybody else’s appliances. You might have a plug or two available to you on the installation, but that’s it. And, of course, once the sun goes down, the panels don’t generate anything. Your installation lowers your bill, but it gives you no added independence.

So, I asked the solar salesmen to bid me on some storage capacity so that those panels on my roof would benefit me directly, not just as a bill-lowering measure. SolarCity had just included Powerwall batteries–basically Tesla car batteries–in its line. The local company had two battery vendors to pick from and offered me a couple of options.

To cut to the chase, there are no solar panels on my roof, a year later. The local company’s bids were very well-considered, very flexible, and between $30,000 and $40,000 based on some variables. From that I’d be able to subtract tax credits, but that’s a big chunk of change. SolarCity’s bid came in just shy of $40,000, and I wasn’t convinced that its battery installation would be worth a damn, because my research on Powerwall capabilities turned up information entirely at odds with the salesman’s vague assurances. The lion’s share of that cost was the batteries; the panels themselves were roughly 30%-40% of the overall expense, but they alone didn’t do what I wanted.

When I said thanks but no thanks. The local company rep was very understanding. The Solar City guy tried to guilt trip me with the following text message.

X from SolarCity here… don’t want to bother you but I did some more research into the politics of solar in AZ since your accountant thought that was what you should base your decision on. It turns out there are laws in place on both the federal and state levels that protect solar consumers after they go solar. There is no chance, according to precedent, that your contract with APS will change after you go solar. They are putting out confusing scare tactics to try and stall people until next year when rates will be higher for new customers. I have a letter directly from APS that they sent to existing solar customers explaining the grandfathering contract which promises NO INCREASE FOR EXISTING CUSTOMERS. So if you want to do the right thing for your sons future… and set a good example… please get back in touch with me so I can show you the APS document which guarantees you are  protected when you go solar for the life of your equipment. Thanks for reading!

If you want to piss me off, try convincing me to give you $40,000 as an expression of love for my son.

But what was the SolarCity guy talking about?

He and I had discussed not just the price, but the fact that the entire basis for making a net metering arrangement pay for itself depended on legal requirements that power utilities purchase power from people who install panels, and assumptions that the details of the arrangement will remain largely unchanged for two or more decades. He’s right that the contract itself is unlikely to change, but there can certainly be added costs in a market in which the buyers are all unwilling and actively lobbying to change the law. A market made by politics can be unmade the same way, and I didn’t want to get stuck with a legacy system based on old legal arrangements–especially since the batteries required to give me some actual energy independence add so much expense.

Why are the batteries so expensive? Well, battery technology has made incremental progress over the years, while the panels themselves have improved by leaps and bounds. Much of that is just technological reality. You can’t make a breakthrough happen. But in the case of solar power the incentives have been legally crafted to encourage grid-tied installations with little thought to storage. The law has crafted a model that depends on an artificial market at the expense of allowing the natural development of a market that would take advantage of solar power’s natural ability to create electricity where it’s needed (which is both convenient and an attractive prospect at a time when there’s growing concern over the power grid’s vulnerability to deliberate attack).

Tellingly, when Britain reduced subsidies, new installations flatlined, demonstrating how artificial the market is.

Letting the solar market develop naturally would encourage installations based on its strengths–perhaps a greater focus on battery research–and weaknesses alike. Weaknesses? Yes, a big part of the battery cost in my bids results from the need for oversized storage to accommodate the startup load — often three times the running load — for appliances designed with a grid-tie in mind. If you build a home and install appliances that start slowly and run smoothly — say a small well pump that continuously feeds a cistern from which water flows downhill into a home rather than a larger pump that runs intermittently to a pressure tank — you reduce storage needs. But if you create artificial incentives for a different kind of market, that potential is likely to be overlooked.

Unlike the SolarCity rep, the local company rep was actually a bit apologetic with his bid. He told me that he knew the market was changing and that he thought they’d lost valuable time during which they could have worked to develop a different sort of market by relying on the net metering requirements. I really wish I could have given him my business.

But instead, I installed a generator tied into natural gas. It just makes more sense for my current needs, no matter how cool solar power looks.

Dear Trumpkins and Clintonistas, Your Candidates Are Evil

Choose the form of your destructor!

Corrupt-ilicious or tyrant-tastic?

As I write these words, the FBI is reportedly investigating, after an aborted earlier attempt, Hillary Clinton’s use of the Clinton Foundation to, essentially, peddle access and government positions to generous donors. The revelations are actually just the culmination of a long-festering pattern of behavior that has seen suspicious favors done for individuals and companies including UBS, Uranium One, and the Saudi government.

Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, is busy trying to shrug off reports that his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, pocketed millions of illegal dollars in payments from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. Trump, famously, has a man-crush on the thuggish Russian strongman and has even gone so far as to deny Russian military designs on Ukraine after Putin seized Crimea. Or maybe the money is unrelated–after all, he praised North Korea’s ruthless dictator, Kim Jong Un and the Chinese government’s brutal suppression of protests at Tiananmen Square without obvious compensation. This is independent of Trump’s attack just yesterday on freedom of the press.

Oh, and both Trump and Clinton have very serious problems with free speech in general.

Let’s face it: These are two of the shittiest creatures to ever to crawl out from under a rock and scurry into American politics, which is saying something, considering that it’s not an industry that brings out the best in people. But even compared to the control freaks, Klansmen, and grifters who have long made their livings by seeking government office, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton bring an unprecedented degree of overt grasping corruption and explicit contempt for the rest of the human race to their quests for the vast powers of the U.S. presidency. It’s no stretch to say that they embody evil in a way that we rarely have so openly rubbed in our faces.

Choose the form of the destructor, indeed.

To their credit, a good many Americans have glanced at what the Republican and Democratic parties left on the carpet and immediately gagged at what they’d stepped in. Clinton and Trump have consistently scored record high unfavorable ratings with voters. But they went on to win the nominations of their respective political parties anyway, testifying to the sad shape of these two senile and creaky organizations. Since then, “a full 13 percent of Americans would rather have a meteor hit Earth than vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton,” according to pollsters.

And yet…I’m still hearing people say that we have to choose between the psychopath and the sociopath. We must choose the form of the destructor, because it’s irresponsible to vote third party/refuse to vote. They insist that Gary Johnson and Jill Stein can’t win the election (because you shouldn’t vote for them, I guess) and not voting makes you responsible for the the destructor who ultimately triumphs. We must embrace evil, or else the other evil will win.

I think Julian Assange of Wikileaks had it right when he said, “You’re asking me, do I prefer cholera or gonorrhea?” Neither for me, please.

Look, you can talk the inevitability of the two-party system all you like, but that doesn’t mean it has to be these two parties. In healthy democracies, political parties rise and fall. In recent years, Canada’s Reform Party competed with and then supplanted the Progressive Conservative Party before changing its name to “Conservative.” Before that, Britain’s Labour Party bumped the Liberal Party out of the ranks of the two dominant parties (though the displaced entity, now known as Liberal Democrats, hung on and is part of the current government as a junior partner to the Conservative Party). Even in the U.S. the Republican Party croaked the Whig Party in the 1850s and took its place. Political parties are private organizations. They live only so long as people see a need for them, and can be replaced when they do awful things like nominating evil people as their candidates for president.

Did I mention that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both horrible human beings and that to pick between them is to choose different brands of malevolence?

Look, if you really just can’t get enough of corrupt-ilicious Hillary or find the Donald just tyrant-tastic, knock yourself out with your chosen destructor. Just don’t act astonished when the rest of us back away with a frozen look of horror on our faces.

Because we’re better than that. And we’re still trying to scrape your candidate off our shoes.

In Which I Am Interviewed at Length About Politics, Criminal Hijinks, and Near-Death Experiences

A buddy of mine, Paul Fuhr, has a weekly podcast in which he interviews interesting people at length about what makes them tick. A few weeks ago, he included me in the category of people he considered worthy of a chat for his Fuhrious Podcast. I’ll let his summary speak for itself (note that I was managing editor of Reason.com, while the excellent Katherine Mangu-Ward was and remains managing editor of the print magazine):

Jerry Tuccille called in from his home near Sedona, Arizona to discuss Libertarianism, the publishing world, the election, what inspires him, hiking the Desert Southwest, family art heists, trying not to die while camping, buying John Cusack a beer, and the challenges of homeschooling. Tuccille is a political writer for Reason, the foremost libertarian magazine in the U.S., where he was its managing editor. His articles have appeared everywhere from Salon to the Washington Times, covering government overreach, civil liberties, and free markets. (Intro Song: “Don’t Wanna Know If You’re Lonely,” Husker Du)

The interview can be found here.

Trump (and Sanders) Damage Not Just America, But the Liberal Democracy Brand

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew / Photo by U.S. Department of Defense

A few days ago, the editorial page of China’s Global Times basically pointed at America’s political system and laughed. Look at what the nagging democrats coughed up!

Big-mouthed, anti-traditional, abusively forthright, [Trump] is a perfect populist that could easily provoke the public. Despite candidates’ promises, Americans know elections cannot really change their lives. Then, why not support Trump and vent their spleen?

The rise of a racist in the US political arena worries the whole world. Usually, the tempo of the evolution of US politics can be predicted, while Trump’s ascent indicates all possibilities and unpredictability. He has even been called another Benito Mussolini or Adolf Hitler by some Western media.

Mussolini and Hitler came to power through elections, a heavy lesson for Western democracy. Now, most analysts believe the US election system will stop Trump from being president eventually. The process will be scary but not dangerous.

Even if Trump is simply a false alarm, the impact has already left a dent. The US faces the prospect of an institutional failure, which might be triggered by a growing mass of real-life problems.

Pundits immediately (and rightly) jumped on this, pointing out the flaws that the paper was ignoring in China’s own authoritarian system of government, which not only excludes public input but also suppresses dissent. “Of course, there are a couple of glaring lacunae in that argument,” noted the Washington Post‘s Simon Denyer. “The most obvious being the tyranny and mass insanity unleashed by Mao Zedong, who killed tens of millions of his own people, (as indeed Stalin did in the Soviet Union). But hey, that bit of history is officially glossed over here.”

And no matter the populist lunacy into which democracies descend, they’re pretty good at peaceful shifts in political leadership. Dictatorships are a bit clumsy at that whole transition of power thing.

But Denyer and other commenters missed the fact that the Global Times editorial wasn’t a one-off. It’s part of a much larger reconsideration of the principles of government by much of the world that hasn’t fully (or at all) adopted liberal democratic values.A lot of that “reconsideration” is self-serving twaddle by autocrats looking to retain power while granting their subjects sufficient access to prosperity that they don’t revolt. But there’s enough truth to the analysis of the West’s flaws and the growing political crisis in supposedly stable, established systems that editorials criticizing democracy can gain traction among educated people who are deciding on their own future path.

Similar criticism could also be directed at Bernie Sanders–a surging politician who would and should be the year’s astonishment if Americans weren’t flocking in even greater numbers to support an orange authoritarian narcissist. The Vermont socialist’s promises to loot prosperous Americans to support a ludicrous grab-bag of unaffordable goodies are excellent examples of a prevailing problem with western democracies that dominated attention before the emergence of an open thug on the U.S. scene.

In 2014’s The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, John Micklethwait, then editor-in-chief of The Economist, and Adrian Woolridge, management editor of the same magazine, sketched the “revolution” in government through the nation state, the liberal state, and the welfare state. Published just two years ago, the book seems almost quaint as it discusses the crisis in which the modern welfare state finds itself–before the political eruptions of the last year which drove a populist thug to prominence in the Republican Party, an economically illiterate socialist to draw crowds of young Americans, a crazy Trotskyite to gain the leadership of Britain’s Labour Party, the surge of nationalist-populists in Germany, France… But though overshadowed since, the authors’ points about the crisis of the modern western political system remains valid. Describing the condition of Britain in the 1970s, they write, “Ever-bigger government meant ever-greater social dysfunction. Vested interests competed ever more viciously for their share of the pie.”

More importantly, those flaws have been picked up by those seeking an alternative–an alternative to western democracy, and also an alternative to loosening their own grip on power.

“When you have popular democracy, to win votes you have to give more. And to beat your opponents in the next election, you have to promise to give more away. So it is a never-ending process of auctions–and the cost, the debt being paid for by the next generation,” they quote Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew as commenting. Lee, who died last year, famously created an economically free and socially authoritarian city state that has limited  democratic input–and stiff penalties for too vigorously criticizing the powers-that-be.

Lee was listened to and is eagerly studied, partly because he tells many people what they want to hear, but also because even when his tightly controlled system suffers an economic setback, it still seems to be doing better than the much freer democracies of the West.

And his example has been adopted and touted elsewhere. At the China Executive Leadership Academy in Pudong (CELAP) which trains the country’s future government apparatchiks and considers models to take the massive country into the future “there are better places to look than gridlocked America–most notably Singapore.”

The Singapore model is also admired, write Micklethwait and Woolridge, in places including Russia, Dubai, and Rwanda.

So the Global Times editorial fits into the ongoing erosion and disparagement of the western model of liberal democracy–often on a very calculated and deliberate basis–by people considering what system of governance should take them into the future. Many of those people obviously want an authoritarian model that maintains their clout and privileges. But to the extent the established western democracies keep shitting the bed, the Lee Kuan Yews of the world will find an increasingly receptive audience among those who need a system that effectively allows them to get rich while protecting lives and property. Civil liberty…well, if it leads to Trump, maybe they’ll pass.

While critical of libertarianism–at least in quasi-anarchist form–Micklethwait and Woolridge call for a revival of classical liberal solutions which most people would recognize as libertarian. They want to see the state restrained and reduced in size, power devolved, and rights protected. They see that–convincingly I think–as reinvigorating liberal democracy and securing its continued existence where it is already established, as well as its status as a model for the rest of the world.

“It is time to put the ‘liberal’ back into ‘liberal democracy’: to persuade both voters and governments to accept restraints on the state’s natural tendency to overindulge itself.”

Yes, I think that’s convincing. But how to accomplish that is the trick. How do you convince people to rein it in when they’re reveling in the use of the state as a bludgeon (Trump voters) or a mugger-for-hire (Sanders supporters)? Because if they don’t limit themselves, the system will fall apart–and then the Lee Kuan Yews of the world will happily do the limiting for them.

It’s Not Just Trump; the Rot Goes Deeper

Over the weekend, I received a slightly frantic message from an old friend beside herself over the Trump phenomenon that has dominated this year’s political cycle–and looks poised to turn the Republican Party into a smoking pile of wreckage. Her note contained horror not just at Trumpkins, but Republicans in general, who she characterized as “PRO violence, bigotry, racism, lies, hot air and nonsense…”

She’s a Bernie Sanders supporter, herself, and somewhat enamored of socialism.

She went on to explain how she advised a daughter who lives in New Zealand to never move back to the U.S.

I don’t think it’s a surprise to anybody that I share her dismay over the rise of Trump’s cult of personality. But my diagnosis is rather different. I think the rot goes deeper and has spread more widely. Below is my reply to her.

***

Hi B–!
I appreciate your sentiments. This campaign season is bringing out strong feelings, often for good reason. But some of those feelings–the more vitriolic ones–are part of the problem.

Donald Trump

Photo by: Michael Vadon

Keep in mind that both major political parties are in crisis. The Democratic Party would be perceived as a basket case, if the Republican Party weren’t so obviously on the brink of disintegration and in the process of being hijacked by a populist thug. As Britain’s The Economist notes, “The state of the Republicans is particularly parlous. But the contradictions among Democrats, though less obvious, also run deep.” Trump, a political centrist of the populist variety (really) could have easily run under either party’s banner, but he chose the more hollow and direction-less one for convenience’s sake. That’s because the Republican establishment (some individuals excepted) have spent years ignoring ideas and stirring up opposition for the sake of opposition so that they could avoid taking tough positions on important issues like entitlement reform, spending choices, and corporate welfare. Having handed out pitchforks to the mob, they now find themselves on the receiving end.

But the Democrats are not only deeply divided, they’re also increasingly authoritarian, having abandoned their civil libertarian ideals and interest in foreign policy restraint. That’s how we get a primary race between an openly corrupt party hack and an economically illiterate socialist who praises totalitarian regimes.

That would be a disaster for the Democrats — if somebody who acts like Mussolini wasn’t about to run away with the Republican nomination. As another British commentator notes, “The violence seen in Chicago is part of a long-term crisis: the nihilism of the Right, the authoritarianism of the Left and the weakening of republican institutions.”

As that quote implies, the rot goes deeper than the political parties. A big chunk of our population is embracing populism, nativism, and authoritarianism. Trump is attracting the white blue collar vote across ideological divides. Chunks of the electorate are changing party affiliation to support him, especially in the East and rust belt (Pennsylvania, Massachusetts). Given that he happily operates outside the norms of liberal democracy, this is extraordinarily troubling.

It’s also something that won’t be resolved by the destruction and replacement of the GOP, since the populist mob will still be out there and available for the next leader.

I don’t think Trump will win the election; his negatives are prohibitively high and his divisiveness puts a ceiling on support. But I think our political system is actually sicker than just his candidacy would indicate.

Feel free to share the above, if you like. For what it’s worth, New Zealand–and Australia–look to be in better shape than the U.S. or continental Europe [just hours after I wrote this the state election returns came in from Germany, reporting the success of the Trump-esque AfD]. Both, by the way, are not just politically stable, but less socialist overall (despite rhetoric) than the U.S.

Democracy Is Nothing More Than a Fragile Truce–and We’re Testing Its Limits

Is the truce still on?

Karl Popper. Photo: London School of Economics

Karl Popper, the author of the rightly revered The Open Society and Its Enemies, didn’t believe in “the rule of the people” which he dismissed as a “completely impractical ideology.” Oh, he supported democratic systems of government all right–he just thought it was nonsense to pretend that they represented some sort of popular will. “But, of course, nowhere do the people actually rule,” he wrote for The Economist in 1988. “It is governments that rule (and, unfortunately, also bureaucrats, our civil servants—or our uncivil masters, as Winston Churchill called them—whom it is difficult, if not impossible, to make accountable for their actions).”

Instead, Popper favored democracy as an effective means by which “bad rulers can be got rid of without bloodshed, without violence.” His endorsement of elections was pragmatic.

I would go one step further. Democracy represents not just a relatively peaceful means of disposing of bad rulers, it also represents a suspension of (violent) hostilities between opposing factions within a political system. Ultimately, democracy is an unspoken truce among various peoples suffering under the rule of the government in question. They’re bound together by the assumption that the outcome of elections and legislative debates will be less terrible, on balance, than the political consequences of going at it in the streets hammer and tongs.

That we keep coming back to variations of democracy and that even profoundly unrepresentative (and unresponsive) regimes feel obliged to pretend that they represent the outcome of popular deliberation is testimony to the system’s perceived success in this realm.

But having dispensed with the civic religious trappings surrounding elections and recognizing that their value lies in disposing of the malicious and incompetent, and buffering factional disputes, it’s apparent that democracy’s value continues only so long as the vast majority of people agree that its outcomes can generally be expected to be less bad than the possible results of open conflict. If that perception changes, then all bets are off.

This, I think, is one of the better pragmatic arguments for limited and decentralized government in addition to democracy. By reducing the chances that the various factions that compose a society (and which evolve, disappear, and are replaced over time) will have unacceptable outcomes thrust upon them, you increase the likelihood that working within the democratic process will continue to be perceived as preferable to taking a chance on the alternative. Limited government lowers the stakes by putting some areas of life off-limits to political decision-making. Decentralized government (including federalism in the U.S. context) means that factions can implement political preferences in geographic areas where they’re concentrated while leaving largely untouched those areas where people who would find such policies objectionable are dominant. People caught “behind enemy lines” can (and do) move elsewhere to find a regime more to their liking.

Imperfect, no doubt, but a generally workable and peaceful way of allowing people with important differences to live within the same political system.

So, if you really want to break the truce and make conflict-solution outside the system seem more appealing, raise the stakes. Centralize the political system and increase the reach of whoever is currently in power so that people come to believe that they can’t really afford to lose too many political battles. And then raise tensions by making it difficult to change the people running the political machine.

Looking at the dumpster fire that is political debate and the presidential campaign in 2016 America, I can’t help but thinking that the democratic system is broken across the board. In a world in which political parties usually appear and disappear with regularity, the Republican and Democratic parties have been unassailable for a century and a half, as have most of their leaders, making the system appear (rightly) largely unresponsive in turning out politicians that large segments of the population want to see removed from power (Another Bush? Another Clinton? McConnell? Pelosi?). Resentment at the situation has erupted in the populist candidacies of the economically ignorant but crowd-pleasing Bernie Sanders, and the wildly narcissistic but equally crowd-pleasing Donald Trump. And all levels of government have reached ever-further into people’s lives even as decision-making has been concentrated in Washington, D.C., meaning that there’s no way for people to escape from intrusive policy decisions to which they object.

I don’t see how this ends well.