Wednesday, September 16, 2015

American Ninja Warrior: Adversity and Heroism

On Monday night's broadcast, for the first time since the series began in 2009, a competitor has won American Ninja Warrior (ANW).  For those unfortunate souls unfamiliar with the sport (and it is a sport), American Ninja Warrior is an adaptation of a Japanese game show in which contestants face an incredibly challenging obstacle course.  In the American version, men and women compete at city courses across the country.  Contestants who successfully compete the city course then head to Las Vegas to encounter a four-part finals course, which culminates with a climb up Mount Midoriyama.  This season had a very successful run over the summer, often becoming the top show for Monday nights and usually one of the top shows of the week.

Until this week's finale, no one had ever made it past the third part of the finals course.  This year, two men successfully scaled Mount Midoriyama: Geoff Britten and Isaac Caldiero. Because Caldiero reached the top of Mount Midoriyama a bit faster than Britten, he won the grand prize of $1 million.

A few points about ANW:

It embodies that classic American theme of assimilation and adaptation.  Not only is it an import from Japan, but competitors in ANW come from all walks of life.  A middle-aged immigrant from Cambodia (Sam Sann) competes on an equal playing field with a sprightly 25-year-old (Kacy Catanzaro).  Veterans, stay-at-home moms, stock brokers, busboys, and carpenters are all alike on the course.

It casts light on the heroism of day-to-day lives.  While navigating an upside-down climbing wall is pretty cool, the contestants of ANW demonstrate that heroism is not just for the cameras.  For instance, Houston's Abel Gonzalez adopted his brothers and helped raise them.  Utah's Michael Stanger began physical training to help care for his wife, who has a rare and debilitating physical condition.  The broadcasts of ANW remind us of our profound capacity for resilience in the face of obstacles.

It shows how challenges can help us rise above ourselves.  The biggest competition an ANW contestant faces is not others but himself or herself.  Every person who completes a given stage is guaranteed to go on to the next one, so the emphasis is not on beating the other contestants but on beating the course.  Again, until this year, no one had ever won the title of "American Ninja Warrior" or the cash prize because no one had been able to complete the whole course sequence.  The difficulty of the courses encouraged the top competitors to train throughout the year in order to master the likely obstacles.  These Americans did not wilt in the face of adversity but instead worked harder and rose to the occasion.

Especially in today's outrage culture, cultural criticism tends to emphasize things that upset, alienate, or depress us.  But we should also take a minute to celebrate cultural forms that affirm what is good and noble.  American Ninja Warrior is not slash-and-burn reality TV but focuses on ordinary people who do things that might cause a dislocated shoulder but that also are kind of amazing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Populism and Conservatism: A Case for Detente

The sudden surge of populist presidential candidates has occasioned a renewed debate on the right about the relationship between populism and conservatism.  Some pundits seem to take for granted that populism is essentially antithetical to conservatism.  It’s true that particular populist efforts certainly can run afoul of limited-government principles. With its government control of income, the “Share Our Wealth” program of Huey Long, for instance, radically breaks with the principles of the free market and limited government.

However, a bit of political imagination can suggest potentially a partial harmony between populist principles and conservative ones. Conservatives have at least three reasons for taking the current populist insurgency, which goes far beyond Donald Trump, seriously. As a matter of principle, thinking about how to respond to these populist energies can reinvigorate conservatism as a political approach by forcing it to think more creatively about how to respond to concrete political circumstances. As a matter of political calculation, harnessing these populist energies could help conservatives secure a stronger national governing coalition. As a matter of political circumspection, conservatives might be right to fear that, if the forces driving the populist insurgency are not addressed by any coalition, the popular anger might grow more and more intense and thereby make the ultimate populist reckoning a nuclear meltdown.

What follows below is a—perhaps overly optimistic—survey of potential theoretical areas for a conservative and populist detente.

Diffusion of power: One of the central motifs of populism is the idea of returning “power to the people.” The diffusion of power is certainly an idea that conservatives can get behind. After all, the tenets of localism to which many conservatives subscribe emphasize decentralizing power in order to get it back into the hands of local communities rather than federal bureaucrats. Where populists often go wrong is in hoping that this return of power can take place through a virtuous despot or through some centralized bureaucracy. Once power is concentrated in the hands of a supreme leader, it rarely leaves his living grasp, and massive bureaucracies can often be manipulated to reward those in power rather than the people that they were originally intended to help.

Conservatives can channel this popular energy for diffuse empowerment into an emphasis on strengthening local government and kicking off a broad-based prosperity. They might stress tax reform that prioritizes working families and regulatory reform that ensure that government regulations are less cumbersome and less in thrall to special interests.

The national: Populism in general is often derided as a “nationalist” movement. Interestingly, some on the left and the right accuse both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump of subscribing to a retrograde nationalism.  Trump’s rhetoric in particular is often aggressively nationalistic. At times, he portrays the world economy as a competition between nations, with clear “winners” and “losers” (and these days he often portrays the U.S. as a “loser” betrayed by its feckless elites).

Conservatives should not cheer a braggadocious jingoism, but they should also recognize that plenty of sober people within the American tradition (from Alexander Hamilton to Henry Clay to George Shultz) believed that nations do have interests and that American statesmen should advance those interests. Advancing those interests doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to enter a war of all against all, just like the practice of companies advancing their interests in the free market doesn’t necessarily lead to economic devastation.

Calls to strengthen the United States as a nation should not necessarily be seen as a dead-end tribalism; throughout history, the cause of liberty has often been assisted by the strength of the American republic (as the Civil War, World War II, and the Cold War demonstrate).  Like any other political arrangement, the nation-state has its shortcomings. However, it is (so far) perhaps one of the best ways we have of securing basic rights and liberties. The idea of a republic demands having a limited body-politic with the power of self-governance, so dissolving a republic in the name of transnational utopianism would likely also mean the dissolution of self-government and the evisceration of many of our civil rights.

Competence: Populists are often associated with a kind of know-nothing insouciance to competence; the fact that something is popular—it feels right—overcomes all practical objections. Ironically, then, one of Donald Trump’s biggest applause lines on the stump is his suggestion that current governing elites are, as he puts it, “very, very stupid.” Many sympathetic to the rising populist wave believe not just that our nation has been badly governed but also that it has been ineptly managed.

Conservatives can and should take a measured approach to the topic of competence. They should note that human fallibility means that efforts to run the nation’s local affairs through Washington, DC will often lead to increased misery. No technocratic savant can, alas, save us from human limitations. But even if the federal government cannot do everything well, it can do some things well (or at least can try to do some things well). What the government can do within appropriate Constitutional bounds, it should try to do efficiently and justly. A competence reconciled with a recognition of the limits of central planning can lead to gains for limited government and human happiness. Conversely, a government that proves too inept at fulfilling its responsibilities can result in calls for an even bigger and more intrusive government; the financial crisis of 2008, for instance, was central for the expansion of government power during the first two years of the Obama administration.

Integration: A common accusation against populists is that they are xenophobic troglodytes, who blame “the Other” for tainting an otherwise pure society. Xenophobia is an ugly trait, and sensible conservatives would be wise to oppose it. But some of what motivates populists is not xenophobia but the desire for a sense of common fellowship in a nation. When that desire for social integration crosses the line into demonizing groups of people, it of course loses its moral force.

But a more benign, non-xenophobic desire for fellowship and integration can unite both conservatives and populists. As political scientist Robert D. Putnam has argued, balkanization and the breakdown of social trust come with numerous costs, including alienation from the political process, diminished interest in private cooperative endeavors, and increased personal isolation. These costs should obviously concern defenders of limited government. Where there is a vacuum of civil society, the Leviathan gains new opportunities for expansion. Now, the sense of common fellowship is not the same thing as national homogeneity. One of the great enterprises of e pluribus unum is the simultaneous courting of individual uniqueness and a reconciliation of these countless different individuals into a singular republic.

Our current elites’ embrace of identity politics and the new intolerance has taken a flamethrower to the organic bonds of social trust. By pushing back against shame politics and defending social tolerance and free expression, conservatives can help promote a common but diverse public square. They could also help by rigorously challenging the slice-and-dice identity politics that is foundational for so much contemporary public discord. But these efforts to promote integration need not be confined to the social. Efforts to promote the middle class and economic opportunity also have a role to play.

Other areas where populists and conservatives could ally include support for economic growth, a vigorous and responsible foreign policy, and a respect for law and order.  We have now experienced an economic stagnation that has gone on for over a decade. This stagnation not only inflames populist anxieties, but it also weakens the ability of the United States to influence international affairs and worsens government finances.  Populist anger at elite mismanagement applies to foreign affairs, where the U.S. has too often lurched from debacle to debacle.  A more effective foreign policy could ward off the risk of isolationism as well as advance American interests and the cause of expanding liberty and justice.  Americans increasingly fear the politicization of the justice system, which in turn damages their faith in the foundational laws of the country.  The fact that the present administration has played so cavalierly with Constitutional norms no doubt exacerbates this anxiety.  Defending, and reforming when necessary, the institutions of law and order could speak to enduring conservative principles and a popular worry about the loss of stability.

Joining conservative and populist sentiments is hardly novel. Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 Labor Day address, “The High Place of Labor,” reveals the potential for joining populism and conservatism. Throughout this speech, Coolidge emphasized the dignity of labor. He did not argue for an opening of the national borders in order to correct a supposed “skills shortage.” Instead of “men hunting for jobs,” he called for “jobs hunting for men.” A tight labor market, Coolidge argued, would lead to national prosperity as well as enrich the middle class. He did not view workers’ wages as a negative on a corporate balance sheet but as a source of national growth.

Silent Cal, perhaps one of our least demagogic presidents, offered a conception of government that could align with both populist and conservative worldviews. A similar point could be made about William F. Buckley, who had a conflicted relationship to populism but who also shared many of its disruptive impulses, Ronald Reagan, and others. While there are tensions between certain populist policy proposals and certain conservative ones, the two political approaches can also find possible alliances.

At the outset of his speech, Coolidge addressed what he took to be a central problem, one that both populists and conservatives might agree upon: 

To my mind America has but one main problem, the character of the men and women it shall produce. It is not fundamentally a Government problem, although the Government can be of a great influence in its solution. It is the real problem of the people themselves. They control its property, they have determined its government, they manage its business. In all things they are the masters of their own destiny. What they are, their intelligence, their fidelity, their courage, their faith, will determine our material prosperity, our successes and happiness at home, and our place in the world abroad.
If anything is to be done then, by the Government, for the people who toil, for the cause of labor, which is the sum of all other causes, it will be by continuing its efforts to provide healthful surroundings, education, reasonable conditions of employment, fair wages for fair work, stable business prosperity, and the encouragement of religious worship.

Coolidge did not offer the state as the magical solver of all problems. Indeed, he did not believe that the state could be a perfect substitute for the richer textures of civil society. But he did think that the state could help advance the interests of civil society through its efforts at public safety, education, a vibrant economy, and a defense of religious freedom.

The health of a republican government ultimately depends upon the principles to which it subscribes and to the conditions of the people who constitute that government. An economic recovery that reignites growth and opportunity for the middle class combined with a reinforcement of civil society could go a long way toward improving those conditions. Much of what drives the current populist insurgency is very likely the desire for renewed economic energy an­d a reinvigorated faith in the strength of the foundations of the American republic. We can deliver on both of those things in a way that is in essential accord with the principles of limited government.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Myth of "Oops"

Former Texas governor Rick Perry has now suspended his race for the White House.  In many respects, Governor Perry had an impressive record as governor.  He had assembled a worthy policy team around him, and his campaign seemed inclined to raise some innovative policy ideas for the Republican party.  But the governor's campaign never really caught fire.

In the aftermath of Governor Perry's withdrawal, many in the media seem to be spinning an interesting narrative around him: his 2012 and 2016 campaigns were destroyed by the infamous "oops" moment (when he could not remember the name of the third federal agency he wanted to close during a primary debate).  While this moment is unfortunate and easy fodder for blogging, it's hard to say that this gaffe destroyed Governor Perry's presidential aspirations in 2012, at least.

Let's look at a timeline of events.  Governor Perry exploded onto the GOP primary scene in the late summer and early fall of 2011.  According to Real Clear Politics, his national primary polling peaked at around 32 percent on September 12, 2011.  The "oops" moment occurred on November 9th.  But Governor Perry's national lead had already collapsed by then.  Between mid-September and the end of October, his support had fallen from the 30s to around 10, and he had fallen from first to fourth place.  It's true that his support fell further after the "oops" moment, but the sharpest decline was beforehand.

So what actually destroyed Governor Perry's presidential bid in 2012?  A number of forces contributed to his political decline, and media gaffes were no doubt one of them.

But surely part of what injured the Perry campaign was the counterattack launched by Mitt Romney's campaign.  Governor Romney's team hit Perry on a number of issues, especially immigration and Social Security.  Romney argued that the Texas governor was soft on illegal immigration and specifically highlighted Perry's support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.  The fact that Governor Perry suggested that those who oppose in-state tuition for illegal immigrants did not "have a heart" probably upset grassroots Republicans even further.

Romney also slammed Perry's past remarks on Social Security.  At various points, Governor Perry called Social Security both a "Ponzi scheme" and a "failure," and Romney's team pounced on those statements.  By emphasizing anti-illegal immigration and pro-Social Security themes, Romney was able to bring Perry back down to earth.

The "oops" moment might have damaged Perry's brand over the longer term, but it certainly was not responsible for his campaign's failure in 2012.  It's worth noting this fact for a couple reasons.  At times, the media has a tendency to want to adjudicate presidential campaigns solely through the lens of verbal missteps.

However, we should be wary about judging the whole of a politician's career through a single verbal misstep.  Governor Perry's record is much bigger than "oops."  But we also should not deny real policy debate by fetishizing media optics.  Perry fell not because of "oops" but at least in part because many Republicans had doubts about his approach to illegal immigration and to Social Security.

This fact has implications for 2016.  Especially on immigration (though on other issues, too), many in the Beltway media want to avoid a real debate about policy issues.  They try to reduce the rise of various outsider candidates to political theater.  While political performance art no doubt plays a role here, part of what has set the stage for these various outsider candidates is voter dissatisfaction with current policy outcomes and a desire for a new way forward.  As I've suggested before, specific policy innovation will be important for addressing the forces causing the rise of outsider candidates.  Words matter, but political optics should not the exclusive focus of political journalism.  Policy matters, too.