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Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Great Again

Part of the exceptional Donald Trump campaign is his not-so-exceptional slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Demanding and promising a return to Glory Days is centuries-old American theme, shared by both the political right and political left, based on the conviction that today’s America is less than yesterday’s America. Trump channels a grand mythic feature of American cultural life, of our “collective memory,” the belief that we are threatened by decline. But the slogan’s appeal is not just mythic; it also taps reality for a specific segment of the population.Make America Great

(My previous post looked at another dimension of the Trump appeal: authoritarianism. Both are at play.)

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A Celebrity Strong Man

This weekend Gawker spoofed Donald Trump into re-tweeting a saying of Italian fascist Benito Mussolini (Il Duce–The Leader) to illustrate their view that Trump is a fascist. Fascist or not, Trump certainly demonstrates the political draw of the “strong man.”

On the eve of Super-Tuesday, Trump looks like a prohibitive favorite to win the Republican nomination. His success has befuddled the Republican establishment, the political pundits, and the social scientists (me, too). But it now appears that the most coherent explanation of Trumpism is that he satisfies a widespread desire for a “strong man”–that he has tapped an authoritarian strain in the American public.

Trump’s message is: I am strong and a winner; everyone else is weak and a loser (“low energy,” a “baby,” a “pussy,” a friendless liar, a perspirer, a woman who has to pee sitting down, etc.). Through my personal strength, he says, the country–and you personally–will be strong and be a winner, too. Even the traits that horrify so many observers–Trump’s preening, boasting, insulting, bald lies, obscenities, calls to attack hecklers, over-the-top claims, and so on–only reinforce the line: “I am the alpha male.”

(Disclaimer: I am not a political scientist, much less an expert on presidential elections. Discount this essay accordingly.)

That so many Americans would be attracted to such a figure has surprised the world. This is the land of individualism and of hostility to government power. Yet Trump promises to exercise an extremely strong hand from oval office; he will “win” whatever it takes. In post-defeat and Depression-era Italy and Germany, the strong-man appeal was perhaps understandable; in Spain and Latin America, for cultural reasons, perhaps also understandable. But in the United States? Can it happen here? Now?

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Women in Politics 1780-2014

As many Americans anticipate the likely nomination by a major party of a woman for president – the New Republic cover of July 14 calls Hillary Clinton “Inevitable” – it is worth pausing to reflect on how women’s participation in politics has changed over the course of American history. In eras before Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Nancy Pelosi, participating in politics was not only nearly impossible for women but was also considered a violation of what it meant to be a woman.

A just-published article in the Journal of the Early Republic by Emily J. Arendt illustrates the stark contrast between then and now. Arendt tells the story of the Ladies Association of Philadelphia, “the first female voluntary association in the United States,” formed in 1780 to assist Continental soldiers. The domestic nature of its work and awestruck reaction observers had to activist women underlines the era’s low expectations for women’s participation in civic life. Those low expectations lasted – despite the notoriety of early feminists – well into the twentieth century, making the last half-century a sharp historical departure for women in politics.

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De-Democratizing?

Political power in America has dispersed and democratized over the last 200-plus years. Where once only white men could vote and hold office, and in some states, only property-holding Christian ones at that, now just about every citizen 18 years or older can. Although actual political power is not and has never been shared in any way close to this ideal model, it is shared more than in the days of planter and merchant domination. Democracy’s expansion, however, was not ceaseless; there have been periods of shrinkage – notably the decades around 1900. We appear to be living through another retreat. Money plays a key role in both episodes, though differently now than it did before.

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Extremely Local

So many people seem to be into being “local” these days. We are urged to shop locally, to eat locally, to act locally (even if we still think globally). This is a new enthusiasm of the left. The ideological right has always tilted local — opposed to the “cosmopolitan.” Americans have generally focused on the local anyway. Just pick up almost any newspaper (aside from that two or three that have tried to be national papers) and see what grabs the headlines.

American political ideas have long reinforced what some might consider people’s “natural” attention to the local community. More strikingly, American political structure reinforces this localism — with some dubious consequences.

This is the topic of my July/August 2013 column in the Boston Review here.

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Back in the day – roughly the third quarter of the 20th century – observers of American politics debated the wisdom of what seemed to be a Tweedledee-Tweedledum party system. Some thought it was pretty good. In the 1960s, political scientist Robert E. Lane hailed an emerging “politics of consensus in an age of affluence.” Government by agreement and expertise would replace divisive, ideological politics.[1] Famed political columnist James Reston explicitly endorsed Tweedledee-Tweedledum parties that disputed only the details of the emerging welfare state. He counseled Republicans that their best route to success was “not by moving to the right and exaggerating the differences” with the Democrats, but by showing that they “can administer [liberal policies] more efficiently.”[2]

Others thought the similarity in positions was terrible for democracy. Conservatives demanded A Choice, Not an Echo. Leftists bemoaned a “choice of a tweedledee as against a tweedledum” and liberals’ timidity to go to a third party. [3] In 1950, the American Political Science Association complained (pdf) that the parties’ differences were too poorly defined against one another and that they were insufficiently cohesive. Beware of what you ask for.

As is well-known, the political positions of the two parties have divided sharply since those days. This animation

[3] shows visually how members of the House separated out on a left-right dimension from roughly 1950 to 2000. Most of the shift has been due to the GOP moving right, exactly opposite to James Reston’s recommendation. Early analyses of this ideological polarization stressed that it seemed to be exclusive to politicians and the politically active, that average Americans were not drawn into this ideological fight. Recent work suggests that, while average Americans have still not gotten more ideological, they have become more tightly loyal to their parties as the parties have become more distinct. Party identification has almost become almost tribal. (See this earlier post.) Three new studies underline the power of party loyalty.

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immigration

Salt Lake Tribune

Two hot-button social issues seem to be moving to some sort of political resolution rather quickly. Their stories tell us something about the nature of attitudes Americans hold on such topics and also about the nature of American politics. One issue is gay marriage. It appears that, whether de jure or de facto, most gays will be able to marry or to “marry” relatively soon. This outcome seems to be driven in great measure by strong shifts in public opinion. According to the General Social Survey, the percentage of American adults agreeing that “homosexual couples should have the right to marry” rose from 11percent in 1988 to 49 percent in 2012, a strikingly rapid shift in public opinion.  Although young people and more liberal Americans are leading the cultural shift, this rush to accept gay couples is evident virtually across the board. (A recent Pew study shows the same.) Politicians are now tripping over one another to declare that they have “evolved” on this issue.

The other issue concerns undocumented immigrants. Most Washington observers are saying, as of this moment, that some reform is likely to come to fruition this spring. This political development, however, does not seem to be riding on a rushing wave of popular support.

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