Monday, May 02, 2016

ANDREW SULLIVAN AND THE MYTH OF ELITE FAILURE

Andrew Sullivan has a big honking essay about Donald Trump in New York magazine right now. A lot of Sullivan haters are going to dismiss it as ridiculous without reading it. As for me, I don't think he's crazy to fret about the danger that Trump poses to America -- I think he'll lose in November, but I'm not certain of that, and I think the election will be 53%-47% at best. If Trump were to win, do I agree with Sullivan that, "In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event"? I think we'd survive. But it would be ugly.

A key argument Sullivan makes is that our Constitution wasn't designed to permit pure democracy, yet we're approaching pure democracy now, partly as a result of the failure of our elites:
An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: “We Respectables” deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.
But I think Sullivan overestimates how much the elites are failing, at least by their own standards. They've been made whole since the start of the Great Recession. Their economy isn't in the doldrums. That's because they still get the government they want. They absolutely have control at the state and local level. And even in Congress, while they've failed to prevent gridlock, they've made it clear to even the increasingly insane GOP that the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 is not to be repeated.

They don't love Trump, but I think they assume they can live with him, or get their way in a Trump presidency by taking advantage of his utter ignorance of federal law (a problem they, with their armies of lawyers and lobbyists, don't have). The horror of Trump won't be full-blown fascism -- it'll be unbridled Republicanism, what you see in Kansas and North Carolina and Michigan and Wisconsin, with a big dollop of Trump on top. It'll be awful for Mexicans and Muslims, for terror suspects we torture and for civilians we bomb the shit out of. But, beyond that, it'll just be Brownbackianism -- Trump won't know any better, so, as Scott Lemieux says, “he will sign pretty much every horrible piece of legislation that a Republican Congress puts on his desk,” as long as work starts on his glorious wall.

Sullivan, because he's a media guy, is certain the elites are in decline because he's seen the elite-run press give way to blogs, then social media. He believes America's historical expansion of the franchise and the rise of party primaries have taken power away from the elites. Fine so far -- but he falls for the myth that money doesn't matter anymore in politics:
Many contend, of course, that American democracy is actually in retreat, close to being destroyed by the vastly more unequal economy of the last quarter-century and the ability of the very rich to purchase political influence. This is Bernie Sanders’s core critique. But the past few presidential elections have demonstrated that, in fact, money from the ultrarich has been mostly a dud. Barack Obama, whose 2008 campaign was propelled by small donors and empowered by the internet, blazed the trail of the modern-day insurrectionist, defeating the prohibitive favorite in the Democratic primary and later his Republican opponent (both pillars of their parties’ Establishments and backed by moneyed elites). In 2012, the fund-raising power behind Mitt Romney -- avatar of the one percent -- failed to dislodge Obama from office. And in this presidential cycle, the breakout candidates of both parties have soared without financial support from the elites.
First of all, it's a myth that Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton and then John McCain bankrolled exclusively by small donations, as The Washington Post's Dan Eggen noted in 2012:
Nearly half of the donors to Obama’s reelection campaign in 2011 gave $200 or less, more than double the proportion seen in 2007, according to the analysis from the Campaign Finance Institute, which tracks money in politics....

The 2011 data show that Obama has relied more on small donations this cycle than he did in 2007, when he raised a larger proportion of his money from wealthy donors before grass-roots supporters drove his fundraising.

Obama had raised only 22 percent of his $96.7 million in 2007 from donors whose contributions aggregated to $200 or less, the CFI study found....

It’s harder to accurately gauge Obama’s reliance on higher-end donors because this year he can raise money jointly with the Democratic National Committee, which can accept donations of up to $30,800 per donor.
(Emphasis added.)

This year, we can be impressed by the small-donation fundraising of Bernie Sanders, but, well, he's losing. And Trump is a special case, because he gets all the campaign advertising he needs from the networks and cable news, for free.

The elites have lost a fair amount of control over the process, but in part it's because pragmatic elitists, who prefer establishment Republicans and Democrats, have lost power to ideological-zealot elitists such as the Koch brothers. Into the breach walked Trump, a zealot whose ideology is himself. But I strongly suspect that the elites will help defeat him -- and if not, I assume elite-funded politicians will largely contain him if he's president. It may be a horrorshow for us, but they'll get what they want. They always do.

6 comments:

Ten Bears said...

I suspect that we out west will be just fine. What with California the world's sixth rapidly closing in on fifthe largest economy and about half Mexican and most folks in Oregon and Washington not at all unwilling to flip y'all a friendly gesture and wish you a fine fare thee well. Ain't nothing east of The Rockies we need.

We have to stop what we're doing. Now. Trump would be by and far the more effective catalyst for change. Rapid, violent change.

Sometimes the ends do justify the means.

Frank Wilhoit said...

It is not a failure of elites, it is a failure of institutions.

Jeffery said...

We survived Dubya and Cheney.

sdhays said...

I have no doubt a lot of elites tell themselves that they can control Trump, but I think if Trump were to actually win, the chaos that his narcissism, arrogance, corruption, and ineptitude would bring would literally be uncontrollable. Ignorance of federal law doesn't matter if the President doesn't care. Under Obama with the unprecedented Republican obstruction, we've already endured years of low boiling Constitutional crisis. Under Trump, I suspect we would have constant, bubbling over Constitutional crises. And anyone, rich or poor, white or otherwise, who is sure that they would come out of that whirlwind unscathed is naive.

M. Bouffant said...

Ten Bears: Indeed!!
That means, just to cherry pick some stats, California is bigger in population than Canada, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Australia and all but about 32 other countries.
Let's build that wall atop the Rockies!

Theo said...

I agree with the point of your post, but what does this sentence, [Obama] raised a larger proportion of his money from wealthy donors before grass-roots supporters drove his fundraising, by Dan Eggen even mean? It sounds like, early on, a larger proportion of Obama's 2007 funds were raised from wealthy donors, but then grass-roots supporters took over. So, who knows who actually contributed the most funds.

Furthermore, in the excerpt, Eggen only addresses fundraising in 2007 and 2011, ignoring the--I would think--much higher amount of funds raised in the actual election years, 2008 and 2012.

Poor research and writing by The Washington Post.