Saturday, July 20, 2019

Why painting Trump as a racist won't work

As Russiagate is losing more and more of its credibility the Democratic leadership in the US has found a new issue to demonize Trump: racism.

There can be little doubt that Trump is playing on the racist instinct of some people. But many politicians have done so in the past. Even much of the appeal of the capital punishment is based on racism.


Racism is a complex issue. Even many very liberal white people will initially be shocked when they find that their new neighbors are black or that their daughter is dating a black boy. Only after this initial shock their rational brain will take over and consider that there are good black people and bad white people too and that they shouldn't judge people just on the color of their skin. There are many psychological tests that explore this subject.

While this instinctual sentiment is repressed in much of society it has its refuges such as some birthday parties and some pubs. And there are people who just indulge their instincts wherever they are and who just the rest of society just has learned to live with. But such people marginalize themselves and aren't taken too seriously. Ku Klux Klan type open racists are rare nowadays.

More problematic nowadays is the more civilized type of person that shows lip service to the societal norms while at the same time he or she "understands" the racists worries. Mass incarceration was a recent symptom of this attitude.

Much of this happens unconscious. We are happy to see that specific guy incarcerated and we don't like that boyfriend of our daughter. But we never realize that if exactly the same guy had had a white instead of a black skin we would have judged differently.


Trump is primarily a bully: someone who shows his "strength" by humiliating other people. Of course people against whom other people have prejudices too are easy targets.

Trump is also very egocentric. His discrimination against black tenants and employees may well have business reasons. He might be able to charge more for an apartment when there are no black neighbors and black employees might deter some guests in his casino's and hotels. I am not sure whether this really works. But I can understand that he might reason this way.

Trump isn't a hard core racist. He doesn't have inner convictions that white people are superior and should be on top. I doubt whether he has any convictions whatever except for a greed for power, wealth and recognition. He is just playing on widespread sentiments.

Trump has an image as taboo breaker. So he can go further than most of us without losing the respect of society. But there are limits for him too and he knows them and respects them. This is the reason that I don't expect that this new Democratic campaign will have any effect. Of course one day he might make a miscalculation and go too far even for his supporters. But don't count on that.

Trump's racist exploits are harmful and disgusting. But it would be naive to assume that that will result in falling polls. There are too many examples from the past of politicians who thrived despite (or thanks to) similar behavior.

This doesn't mean that that the Democrats shouldn't criticize Trump for his statements. But they shouldn't pretend that these are the most important issues of the country. Other issues are much more important. By ignoring the issues that people really care about - as the Democrats have done too long because of Russiagate - they are actually strengthening Trump. 

Fighting Trump

Both Clinton and Obama were presidents of the opinion polls. Every measure they took was polled extensively. This worked for them in the sense that they won elections.

But ruling by the poll means ruling without a big vision. And that has consequences. One consequence was visible with Obamacare. The lack of vision meant that the project became vulnerable to demonization by the Republicans. And the multitude of interested parties caused complications that nearly got the project cancelled.

Another problem is that many people don't have an opinion about many subjects. In those cases both Clinton and Obama tended to listen to big business and other interest groups. And so the neocons got their wars and the finance sector its deregulation. And when the peanuts that those presidents gave to the common people were finished the big presents for the interest groups remained.

It may not appear in opinion polls because it is too abstract but people do notice that their interests are ignored in many cases. And it is the resulting discontent that has resulted in the election of Trump. For all his faults Trump is a man who at least suggests that he will ignore the special interests and listen to the common people.

In order to get the trust of the voters back the Democrats need once again to embrace ideas and visions. Unfortunately at the moment the party is held hostage by a leadership that is wedded to special interests. It preaches "moderation" but that is just a code word for maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Sanders and AOC are the future of the Democratic Party. They are so influential at the moment because they are the most visible ones offering an alternative vision. Since the last presidential elections the enthusiasm that Sanders raised has already caused a shift in the party towards more vision. Once the party leadership is changed this could turn in a real change of how the party works.

Some of the left wing program points - such as universal health care and free college - make sense. Other countries have similar things and that works well. Other points - such as the New Green Deal and abolishing ICE - are not only radical: they are also ill-considered. Every country in the world has some kind of immigration service - although most aren't as vile as the ICE. And the New Green Deal is a random package of proposals for environmental policy. But environmental policy is a matter of improvisation and experimentation. Ten years from now the New Green Deal will very likely look hopelessly outdated. The voters don't want or need this kind of ideological rigidity. They just want to be convinced that their politicians take those issues seriously.

No longer pandering to special interests will also mean a different way of fund raising. But as Sanders showed in the last elections: that is possible.

Vision is an abstract thing. It is not so much in the specific program points as in the way choices are made. It means politicians who see themselves as representatives of the people who voted for them instead of as political entrepreneurs who can win power with the rights mix of program points and marketing.

Campaigning on a vision will also decrease the polarization in American politics. An important reason for this polarization is that there are almost no real differences between the parties. Republicans have always had strong ties with special interests. That leaves both parties without ideals. So neither has something to profile itself on. Neither has good arguments against the other. And neither has real reasons to want power other than the benefits of power itself for the politicians involved. So instead both resort to demonization. Obama's birth certificate, the mendacious campaign against Obamacare, Russiagate and (the denunciation of) Trump's foul mouth and racism: what all these campaigns have in common is a distortion of reality and - most importantly - a lack of relevance for what voters really want. As both parties have wedded themselves to special interests they don't want to discuss real issues. So they keep alternating between bringing up phony issues (or marginal issues like toilet rights for transgenders) and just obstructing the other side.

Once the Democrats make this switch the appeal of Trump's behavior will diminish. Racism is feel-good policy. It can capture the attention of people only for a short time. Sooner or later they will realize that you cannot eat hatred and they will start to see Trump as a salesman of hot air. The trigger to such a realization is usually that another politician offers something real.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

How not to present Democratic campaign points

The recent campaign debates among the Democratic candidates for the primaries showed mainly how not to present proposals. The proposals seemed made for the East Coast elite, the Democratic Party leadership and the Liberal press. Everyone seemed to compete to win their favors. Not those of Joe Sixpack with a low income.

Let's look at some proposals:

Universal health insurance
What would work: you will pay less for the same service, you will have a wider choice of gp's and you no longer risk to lose your insurance when you are laid off.

Considerations: Setting such goals turns universal health insurance into a "means" instead of an end. It shows that you are open to other solutions as long as you can achieve your goals. That way it takes the dogmatic stigma away.

What would work: Illegal immigration is caused by a bad economy in some countries. We can do something about that. We can give them better conditions of trade. We can stop trying to overthrow their governments and instead focus on real cooperation.
But we should treat the people that do arrive decently - even when send them back. After all we are a decent country with strong values.

Considerations: America obviously cannot allow billions of people to enter the country. So don't make remarks that can be interpreted as such. Instead offer a solution that matches your values with the desired outcome of abetting the fear of being inundated by immigrants.
Of course many of the Democratic candidates won't do this because in their hearts they do want wars in other countries.

The environment
What would work: We need to do more to save energy. We need to do more to promote alternative sources. We need to do more to force the industry to become cleaner. And guess what: it will hardly cost us anything when we do it smart. A cleaner environment will make us healthier. And alternative energy is increasingly become cost effective.

Considerations: Environmental policies too often embrace fads that turn out badly. Biofuel, carbon tax, electric cars: there is an endless stream of proposals that turn out bad.

The New Green Deal is exactly the kind of formula that tries to lock people into defending such proposals.
In this area there are quite a few subjects on which there is almost universal agreement. Focus on those and don't waste your credibility on defending more controversial proposals. Even if you might personally agree with them it is just bad strategy.

Reparations for slavery
What would work: It is obvious that there are still remaining effects of slavery such as discrimination, segregation and low income. We need policies to address that. In some situations that can be positive discrimination. In other situations that can be the raising of aware that discrimination is taking place when for example a big corporation is all-white. And sometimes it can mean establishing services and building infrastructure that focus on predominantly black communities.

Considerations:There is no need for some study of the effects of slavery. Every can see them. And everyone can see how hard it has been to get rid of them.
Reparations won't fix anything. Suppose that you would give every black person 30,000 dollar - what in total would amount to one trillion. Then the black community will live better for a few years. And after that it will in mostly the same position. In fact worse as people will start to claim that they already have been compensated and that they have nothing to show for it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bernie Sanders is not a populist

Populist translates as a politician who tells the people what they want to hear. Of course every politician tells people what they want to hear. You won't win elections by insulting your audience and telling them that you will increase taxes, raise the retirement age and offer nothing in return.

What discerns discerns populists in the usual definition from other politicians is opportunism. "Normal" politicians follow to a considerable extent their convictions. They may discard some of their more extreme beliefs as unfeasible and they may highlight the attractive parts of their plans while hiding the less attractive parts, but for the most part they follow their convictions.

Populists on the other hand have few fixed ideas about what they want to do. They will promise people whatever they want to hear. Only when they are in power will they bother to look how to implement their ideas. Many of their promises will vaporize at the moment they are chosen. As long as they deliver a few and organize good pr around it their supporters will be happy.

Trump is a typical populist. Very likely he wouldn't care about a wall at all if it wasn't so popular with his audience. His promises about infrastructure have long been forgotten. And his trade wars to protect America's industry have become a bit messy as he is shooting from the hip and has no idea what how such things work.

Sanders on the other hand has a clear idea what he wants. His ideas are not mainstream and if he might rise to power he certainly would encounter situations that he hadn't thought through. But his promises derive from his ideas about society and not from opportunism. So it would be wrong to call him a populist.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Trump can still win the next elections

It is striking how little has changed since the elections. The liberal press and most Democratic politicians are still talking about Trump in the same way: he is incompetent and outrageous, his tweets are ridiculous, he has no program and he is a friend of Russia.

In fact Trump has a program. In fact he was called a populist by many of the people who didn't like that program. They forget that "populist" means listening to the common people and telling them what they want to hear. Of course there can be an element of insincerity in this and many populists act very different from what they promised. But that still means that there was a program. Trump's program contains issues like immigration (for which he wants to build his wall) and America's decaying industries (for which he has started all his trade wars).

Of course you can argue that Trump's analysis of those problems and his solutions are wrong (I do think so). But that doesn't distract from the fact that as long as you don't provide an alternative solution Trump is the only one who has a solution for those problems. And that makes him an attractive candidate for many.

As for all those other points (Trump's incompetence, tweets and Russiagate), they are primarily tools to distract the public from the fact that those Democratic politicians don't have alternative solutions to the problems Trump addresses. But unfortunately for them only Trump's adversaries are impressed by those points. His supporters overwhelmingly see them for what they: efforts by people who don't have an argument to change the subject.