Dysfunctional American Politics and Speculation About Root Causes

  • Paul Krugman on the decline of Pax Americana;
  • New Republic on why the Republicans are dysfunctional: they have no policy ideas or purpose;
  • NYT’s Jamelle Bouie on how the Republican Party got Southernized;
  • And a note about Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge, which I’m reading now.

I wonder if I spend too much time on this blog commenting about current affairs that most people pay no attention to, and which may be forgotten in a month. But if SNL opens with a skit about Jim Jordan’s problems getting elected Speaker of the House, as they did last night, I don’t think so.

Today, more about dysfunctional America, due mostly to one side.

NYT, Paul Krugman, 16 Oct 2023: The Strange Decline of the Pax Americana

When Hamas attacked Israel, Republicans knew whom to blame: President Biden. Donald Trump asserted that the attack wouldn’t have happened if he were still in the White House; Mike Pence, while condemning Trump for praising Hezbollah, asserted that Biden was somehow endangering U.S. interests by “projecting weakness.”

Like much of what the American right says these days, these smears were both vile and infantile. No, the U.S. president isn’t like Green Lantern, able to shape world events through sheer force of will. And Biden has, in fact, taken remarkably tough positions on foreign affairs, much more so than his predecessor.

There’s an element of this on the other side. But only at the very fringe:

More generally, it’s striking how both the far left, which has no significant influence on the Democratic Party, and the far right, which largely runs the G.O.P., are American solipsists. They blame U.S. leaders for everything bad that happens in the world, denying foreigners any agency.

“But why is the Pax Americana in decline?” Krugman considers the world economy, the Covid recession, China, etc.; and gives examples of how the Biden administration has been relatively aggressive on the world stage, more so than the preceding administration was. Yet…

Yet it seems safe to say that the world no longer trusts U.S. promises, and perhaps no longer fears U.S. threats, the way it used to. The problem, however, isn’t Biden; it’s the party that reflexively attacks him for anything that goes wrong.

Right now America is a superpower without a fully functioning government. Specifically, the House of Representatives has no speaker, so it can’t pass legislation, including bills funding the government and providing aid to U.S. allies. The House is paralyzed because Republican extremists, who have refused to acknowledge Biden’s legitimacy and promoted chaos rather than participating in governance, have turned these tactics on their own party. At this point it’s hard to see how anyone can become speaker without Democratic votes — but even less extreme Republicans refuse to reach across the aisle.

And even if Republicans do somehow manage to elect a speaker, it seems all too likely that whoever gets the job will have to promise the hard right that he will betray Ukraine.

Given this political reality, how much can any nation trust U.S. assurances of support? How can we expect foreign enemies of democracy to fear America when they know that there are powerful forces here that share their disdain?

Yes, the Pax Americana is in decline. But the problem isn’t lack of toughness at the top. It’s the enemy within.


The New Republic, Alex Shepherd, 20 Oct 2023: The Real Reason House Republicans Can’t Elect a Speaker, subtitled “Turns out there are consequences for not having any policy ideas or purpose.”

More about the difficulties Republicans are still having electing a new speaker. Because of fissures within the party? In part.

But there is another culprit as well. For all the talk about extremists and moderates, there are almost no concrete policy demands being discussed among Republicans. The party has a set of broad priorities, sure: Cut spending, investigate Joe Biden, and own the libs at every opportunity. But none of the factions vying for power want to actually do anything in particular. This has resulted in a conflict based almost entirely on personalities and vibes; it is no wonder that it’s become intractable and endless. But this is the natural end state of a party that has long since abandoned policymaking in favor of weaponizing the government to fight culture-war battles.

The writer then goes into detail about the speakership race.

As I’ve observed before: the Republicans don’t see any problems worth addressing (they deny the big obvious one) except for resisting everything the Democrats try do. Yet I keep wondering: what is the big picture reason for this? Do Republicans represent the faction of the US population, triggered by the civil rights laws of 60 years ago, that has gone pure reactionary and wants to stop history? And has meanwhile dived into the rabbit hole of social media conspiracy theories?


The theme does recur. Here’s another take. The trigger for this was the recent death of Kevin Phillips, who shaped Republican strategy under the Nixon administration. (That’s Nixon in the photo here.)

NY Times, Jamelle Bouie, 13 Oct 2023: This Is How the Republican Party Got Southernized

“It was Phillips’s thesis,” the historian Geoffrey Kabaservice recounts in “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party,” “that the Republicans could build an enduring majority by corralling voters troubled by ‘the Negro problem’ and drawing in elements that had not traditionally been part of the Republican Party: conservatives from the South and West, an area for which Phillips coined the term ‘the Sun Belt.’”

… Phillips was also not the first person to notice the potential of racial strife to move this process along. Barry Goldwater, the party’s 1964 nominee for president against Lyndon Johnson, won five states of the former Confederacy, doing so on the basis of his vociferous opposition to the Civil Rights Act passed that year.

Phillips eventually turned against the modern Republican party, “…condemning the extremism, military adventurism and free-market fundamentalism of the George W. Bush years…”

Phillips’s turn against the modern Republican Party he helped create gets at what made his work significant. He didn’t just identify a constellation of political, social and economic forces that could produce a durable Republican majority; he identified a social base for the right-wing conservatism that would, in short order, eclipse its ideological rivals within the Republican Party. The new Southern Republicans would be avowedly conservative, committed to the destruction of as much of the social insurance state as possible.

The writer ties this to the recent run by Steve Scalise for speaker of the House. The piece concludes,

A funny thing has happened as the national Republican Party has rooted itself ever more deeply in the South: The Southern style of conservative politics — hidebound, populist, staunchly anti-union and devoted to the interests of capital above all — has migrated well above the Mason-Dixon Line. We’ve seen it take hold in Wisconsin, Kansas, even Maine. It should be said that Scalise’s original rival for the speakership, the MAGA radical Jim Jordan, is from Ohio.

The Republican Party did not just win the white South in the years and decades after Phillips wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Nor did it just become the party of the white South — or at least its most conservative elements. No, what happened is that the Republican Party Southernized, with a politics and an ideology rooted in some of the most reactionary — and ultimately destructive — tendencies of that political tradition.


I’m currently reading The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch, published in 2021, which gives the best account I’ve yet read of how the infrastructures of rules, norms, laws, and practices, that underlie both science (and the broader “Constitution of Knowledge” that defines the accumulate knowledge of the human race) and the government of the United States, are being systematically undermined by the way social media subverts all those rules and norms.

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