Friday, March 18, 2016

The US political landscape in 2016

Historical preamble

The people of the United States tend to decide that after eight years of one political party being in the White House, it is time for a change. Since George Washington took the office in 1789, it has happened only eight times that one party has headed the executive branch for more than eight consecutive years. Washington’s Federalist Party was in power for a total of twelve years, but after John Adams was defeated after one term by Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist Party never again occupied the presidency. Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans held the presidency for the next twenty-eight years, as Jefferson, Madison and Monroe served two terms each, followed by John Quincy Adams serving a single term. Since Adams left office in 1829, no political party has retained the presidency that long, and no Democratic-Republican was ever elected again. After that, the Democratic Party has occupied the White House more than eight years just twice. Andrew Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, led the executive branch for a total of twelve years (1829–1841), and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman held the office for a total of twenty years (1933–1953). The Republican Party has done somewhat better. They were in power for sixteen years from 1869 until 1885 with the presidencies of Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur, and for another sixteen years from 1897 until 1913 with the presidencies of William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. The Republicans had two further twelve-year runs through the presidencies of Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover (1921–1933) and the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush (1981–1993). Since the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, limiting a President’s tenure to a maximum of two terms, the election of Bush after Reagan is the only time a non-incumbent has been elected from the same party as his predecessor.

Applying the Pattern

If the 2016 election follows the pattern that has predominated since 1951, the Democratic Party will most likely lose to the Republican Party. If any one of the three candidates still actively vying for the nomination of the Republican Party as of March 18, 2016 manages to become the next President of the United States, the country’s change in direction will be noticeable. All three Republican candidates are promising to reduce or even eliminate most environmental regulations, measures that protect consumers from unscrupulous banking practices, and federal social programs aimed at providing aid to the poor and opportunity to marginalized. One candidate, Ted Cruz, has promised to eliminate the Internal Revenue Service altogether. These promises to “reduce the size of government,” if carried out, would fulfill the dreams of such anti-government billionaires as the descendants of Andrew Mellon, Fred Koch, John M. Olin and Lynde and Harry Bradley, who for decades have been generously funding lobbying campaigns against taxation, social security, welfare programs, and the regulation of the business sector, and pouring money into education programs that emphasize the values of a free-market economy. These lobbying and “educational” efforts have managed to convince numerous politicians, and the voters who vote for them, that taxation is a form of theft (or of punishment of the industrious and successful) and that welfare is immoral because it weakens those who avail themselves of it by making them dependent on handouts rather than industrious and self-reliant.

Although the incessantly repeated mantra of this year’s Republican candidates is reducing the size of government, there are some areas of life in which increased government is being called for. All of the candidates, for example, want to make the military significantly stronger and to deploy personnel and materiel to politically unstable parts of the world. The military is part of the government. Moreover, there is a shared will to expand the size and the powers of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and to “secure our borders,” and to enhance the ability of various other agencies to surveil and detain known or suspected “bad guys,” all in the name of making America safe. Some, but not all, of the current Republican candidates seem to be in favor of increased governmental regulations against same-sex marriage, although this effort is now being marketed as an effort to reduce government-imposed restrictions on the freedoms of religious people to manifest their biases against people whom they deem to be offensive in the eyes of God. There also seems to be a consensus that restricting the use of marijuana, even for medical purposes, is a desideratum; doing so everywhere in the nation, including states in which marijuana use is now legal by state law, would require increased power at the federal level. At the risk of oversimplification, the Republican theme appears to be less governmental control of non-human entities such as corporations and more governmental control of human citizens in almost all areas except their absolute and untrammeled right to bear arms.

Political plotting

Some time ago I wrote a post about an alternative to the outdated characterization of political views as left or right, and liberal or conservative. The so-called Political Compass plots political views along a horizontal and a vertical axis. The visitor to that site can take a quiz that then plots the visitor’s overall political philosophy on a Cartesian graph. The horizontal x-axis shows the degree to which one favors governmental regulation of the economy, with heavy regulation to the left and no regulation to the right. The vertical y-axis shows the degree to which one favors an authoritarian government, with heavy authoritarianism at the top and libertarianism at the bottom. On that way of plotting political views, a libertarian socialist (such as Noam Chomsky, Nelson Mandela or Dennis Kucinich) would fall in the southwest quadrant, while a more authoritarian laissez-faire free-market capitalist (such as all the Republican candidates and Hillary Clinton) would fall in the northeast quadrant. The Political Compass provides a graph of the 2016 Presidential candidates still in the race. On that graph, Hillary Clinton is almost as far to the right on the economic scale as the Republican candidates but significantly less authoritarian. (Not surprisingly, Donald Trump is near the top of the authoritarian scale; he is, however, somewhat to the left of Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio on economic matters.) It is noteworthy that only two US presidential candidates (Kucinich and Bernie Sanders) who have run as Republicans or Democrats in the 21st century fall outside the northeast quadrant.

There is another way of characterizing political views on a website called On the Issues. The visitor to that site can take a quiz of twenty questions, the responses to which will show the visitor’s overall philosophical views on a diamond-shaped grid. It will also show the degree to which the visitor agrees with each of the political candidates from the two major parties, including those who have dropped out of the race or suspended their campaigns, and of other parties such as the Green Party and the Peace and Freedom Party. When I took the quiz, for example, the website calculated that I am 98% in agreement with Jill Stein of the Green Party, 90% with Bernie Sanders, 78% with Elizabeth Warren, 75% with Hillary Clinton, 63% with President Obama, and 3% with Donald Trump, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.

Like the Political Compass website, the On the Issues website scores the visitor’s quiz answers in two categories, which they call the Personal or Social Score and the Economic Score. A high Personal Score indicates a strong belief in personal and social freedoms, which manifests as a belief in tolerance for different people and different lifestyles, while a low score indicates a belief that one’s standards of morality and safety should be enforced by government. (My score was 100%.) A high Economic Score, on the other hand, indicates a strong belief in markets free of regulations, tariffs and other factors that limit free enterprise. A high Economic Score indicates a belief in personal responsibility for financial matters and a conviction that free-market competition is better for society than a planned and regulated economy, while a low score indicates a belief that a good society is best achieved by government redistributing wealth and making decisions about which programs are good for society. (My score was 0%.)

By taking both scores into account on a graph, a political label is generated. At the limits, a score of 0% on both the personal and economic scale—minimum personal and economic freedom—indicates what the authors of the website puzzlingly called a Populist view. Both National Socialism and Fascism are sometimes characterized as populist movements, so it might be more accurate to call the zero-freedom stance Fascism. The website’s authors call high score of 100% on both scales—maximum personal and market freedom—a Libertarian view. 100% personal/social and 0% economic is called a Hard-core Liberal position, while 0% personal/social and 100% economic is called a Hard-core Conservative position.

Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, both of whom scored 100% personal/social and 0% economic are labelled Hard-core Liberals. Hillary Clinton, with a score of 80% personal/social 10% economic, is also labelled Hard-core Liberal, as is Barack Obama (80%, 20%). In fact, every Democratic politician at the actual or aspiring presidential level discussed on the website is called a Hard-core Liberal, the differences in their scores being relatively minor.

There is somewhat more variety among the thirteen Republican candidates. Among Republican presidential candidates who have suspended their campaigns, Chris Christie is labeled a Moderate Libertarian Conservative (50%, 70%), while Rand Paul (60%, 90%) is called a Libertarian Conservative; Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson (both 30%, 80%) are Libertarian-leaning Conservatives; and Marco Rubio (10%, 80%), Rick Santorum (10%, 90%), Bobby Jindal (20%, 90%), Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham and Mike Huckabee (all at 20%, 80%) are all Hard-core Conservatives. Of the Republicans still actively contending for their party’s nomination as of March 18, John Kasich (40%, 90%) and Donald Trump (30%, 80%) are labeled Libertarian-leaning Conservatives, while Ted Cruz (20%, 100%) is the only remaining Hard-core Conservative.

That only two candidates from either party, Republicans Chris Christie and George Pataki, fall in the sector that the website labels Moderate is an indication of how polarized this year’s presidential campaign has been.

In a future post I will make an effort not only to describe but to defend the position that the On the Issues website designates Hard-core Liberalism.