Power Can Lose

I talk a big talk about politics but I do not particularly walk much, if by walking we mean regular participation in groups committed to political action. (Though I do plan to canvass for Clinton, the first time I’ve done that in quite a while.)

There are reasons. Inertia and sloth, for one. Another, however, is that I found earlier in my life in being part of such groups that I have a tendency to skepticism and inward-looking criticism that is not always helpful (or welcome). I think that role, which I believe is my best strength, is best fulfilled by not being in the room when people are working on their plans but instead by giving advice when it is sought, or through postfacto critiques of actions once undertaken.

Another issue, connected to that one, is that the people I am most likely to be in political sympathy with also have what I believe to be some really bad habits, both theoretical and practical. Here’s one: progressives or leftists often view power (the kind they oppose) as either omniscient in its pursuit of its own needs or as checked only by successful resistance. Or if they’re in a particularly teleological frame of mind, checked by the regularly scheduled heightening of the contradictions. This is a bad habit in part because it acts in advance as an alibi for mistakes by progressives: it just wasn’t our time, can’t fight City Hall, power is always one step ahead. This is how Howard Zinn structured his very cyclical narrative in his People’s History: power dominates, people resist and gain some ground, power does whatever necessary to crush resistance, repeat.

This makes it harder to credit is that power sometimes falls apart because of the contingent bad decisions of both individuals and social groups, that sometimes it is self-sabotaging. That might be under pressure from opponents or it might not be. It might be because of contradictions that can’t be easily resolved even with skilled leadership, it might be the blindspot of an insular culture, it might be sheer incompetence or fecklessness.

If you can acknowledge that sometimes power is at least partially self-sabotaging, it becomes much easier to understand why the leadership of the present Republican Party did not attack Donald Trump with any degree of focus or intensity early in the primaries even though many of them seemed to have some understanding of the likely consequences of his nomination for their own interests and fortunes.

At least some of that reluctance is a pretty fair case of what’s meant by the “heightening of the contradictions”. Meaning that the Republicans have been playing around with an incendiary mix of populist resentment and white nationalism at least since the 1968 Presidential campaign but have inevitably been less and less in control of that mix as their own economic policies and their toxic rhetoric about “government” have added fuel to the fire. People like Karl Rove have continued to act as if they were the “astroturfers” that progressives have long accused them of being, but the truth is that since 2000 they have been holding on to a maddened bull, not riding a galloping horse. But even this much is contingent in the sense that there were several opportunities between 1968 and 2000 to pull back or pursue a different more centrist strategy. To some extent, it is Rove’s strategy for locking in Republican legislative advantage that sealed the party’s fate, combined with the take-no-prisoners pursuit of state-level power by the Koch Brothers. They stopped playing for a share of power and went after the whole thing, which meant that they couldn’t afford to ignore the electoral and social power that white nationalism could provide them even if they understood, vaguely, that it would someday threaten the security of any power they managed to achieve.

But in this election, there are more immediate mistakes to take note of. One of them is pretty well described by game theory.

The other candidates and the party leadership figured that Trump would be knocked out as a one-minute wonder once he mocked a disabled man on television, or made overtly racist comments, or acted like a bully during debates. But they didn’t reckon with how much their own party has changed the rules of political respectability. They figured that it was easier for the press or the public to take Trump down, without noting how much they’ve exploited the tendency of the press to pursue false equivalences or to chase attention at the expense of truth. They figured someone else would do the dirty work, without accounting for how much they’ve benefitted from making the dirty work nearly impossible to do.

The other candidates wanted Trump’s voters for themselves. They figured that using the obvious negatives surrounding Trump to attack him would risk losing those voters, since some of those voters don’t even accept that it is necessarily bad to be a racist, a sexual predator, an authoritarian, or dangerously ill-informed in the mode that Trump has steadily offered since before this campaign began. So they just sat on that information. They figured it was some other guy’s job to fall on his sword, to be courageous. They’re still figuring that: they wait and wait to take a stance until it’s too late, and then they even walk it back after that. Even “respectable” figures like Colin Powell have become selfish players of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, waiting until the account of their respectability is overdrawn and then trying suddenly to spend the last dime in it as if it were a million bucks.

So parties and elites and groups can fail to act when they ought to in response to crises that they can see coming from miles away. Whether that’s lethal personal selfishness, willful delusion, or profound cluelessness is a further determination. But there’s no mystery about why the Republican Party didn’t unload a lethal dose of opposition research on their wayward candidate back when they could have stopped him from blowing up their party: because they made a mistake. A lot of them. It would be nice to simply luxuriate in that fact, but we’ve discovered that we’re all of us too near to the blast crater to escape the damage.