I’ve been reading the latest (excellent as usual) book from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality . The opening paras read
This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy – government of, by, and for the rich
This passage reflects the conflict between two propositions that I (and lots of others, I think) have been grappling with
(1) The rise of Donald Trump represents a radical transformation of the Republican party and American conservatism
(2) Everything Trump has done is a continuation of long-established Republican policy and practices.
Here at CT, Corey Robin has argued for a long time that (2) is correct, and that conservatives or, more properly, reactionaries have always been about preserving hierarchy and power. I find Corey’s argument convincing, but not enough to persuade me that (1) is wrong. Hacker and Pierson also broadly endorse (2). But much of their book is a comparison of the trajectory of the Republican Party with that of the German nationalists in the dying days of the Weimar Republic. The fact that such a comparison, until recently regarded as an automatic disqualification from serious argument (Godwin’s law) now seems entirely plausible, suggests that something really has changed.
In trying to find a way to understand this, I was struck by the idea that the concept of a phase transition (such as from liquid to gas, or dissolved solid to crystal) in physics and chemistry might be a useful metaphor. I didn’t get past high-school in science, so I may well use the metaphor inaccurately – I’m sure commenters will feel free to set me straight.
To develop the metaphor, think of the Eisenhower-era Republican party as a complicated mixture of many dissolved ingredients, in which the dominant element was the business establishment, and the Trump era party, as described by Hacker and Pierson as a crystallised mass of plutocratic economics, racism and all-round craziness. The development over the 60 years between the two has consisted of keeping the mixture simmering, while adding more and more appeals to racial animus and magical thinking (supply-side economics, climate denial, the Iraq war and so on). In this process various elements of the original mix have boiled off or precipitated out and discarded as dregs. Stretching the metaphor a bit, I’m thinking of boiling off as the process by which various groups (Blacks and Northeastern liberal Republicans in C20, liberaltarians more recently) have left the Republican coalition in response to its racism and know-nothingism. The dregs that have precipitated out are ideas that were supposed to be important to Republicans (free trade, scientific truth, classical liberalism, moral character and so on) that turned out not to matter at all.
Trump’s arrival is the catalyst that produces the phase change. The final product of the reaction emerges in its crystallised form, and the remaining elements of the mixture are discarded.
20 thoughts on “The Republican phase transition”
Hi John, your use of the term “phase transition” as a metaphor to describe changes in state is perfectly apt.
Another appropriate metaphor is that of a tipping point, where the Republican party can be seen to have shifted from one locally stable state point, to a new stable point, thanks in part to Trump and Trumpism. The idea of tipping points aries in the study of the stability of solutions to systems of differential equations, and can naturally be applied, say, to the study of the earth system – e.g. we’re currently shifting from a state where there is extensive sea ice in the Arctic during the summer, to a state where there is none.
Eisenhower’s warnings of the ‘military-industrial complex’ in his farewell speech suggest a degree of nuance to the generally pro-business sentiment of Republicans in that era that has been lost today. I think both propositions (1) and (2) are true if you replace the ‘everything’ in (2) with ‘many’ or ‘most’. The Republicans have been trending right for a long time, adopting policies which George Bush the elder had aptly termed ‘voodoo economics’. But as recently as 2008 a basically decent man such as John McCain, who supported action on climate change, was the Republican presidential nominee. Trump has greatly accelerated the move away from traditional Republican values such as free trade and respect for knowledge in a way that alternatives such as Mitt Romney would not have done.
I like this metaphor (though I cannot recall enough chemistry to know if it has any scientific validity). I don’t see why the two propositions in the OP are contradictory and I find Corey Robin’s insistence on 2 vs. 1 to be extremely naive.
I’ve got a vague memory that crystalization requires a seed crystal of the substance being extracted, so there is an interesting question of why Trump worked better as a seed crystal than any previous presidents, but I think that’s more to do with the continued refinement of the solution. Or maybe the Dems were supposed to be a buffer, and the intense misogyny towards their candidate could be seen as a failure of the buffer solution. But I think that could be stretching the metaphor well past breaking point.
IMHO, Trump is a deal maker and nothing more than that. His agenda is personal vanity and nothing more than that. Everyone’s pushing policy agendas, but the ones that influence White House policy are the ones with political power whether they carry the votes for his electoral capital or whether they have something else over him. It’s obvious (from history) that his own personal preferences don’t play a major role in shaping WT policy nor did he even get to choose who filled the more powerful roles within the administration.
I like the overall comment and the metaphor. I will add my viewpoints, including something about science.
1. Capitalism is inherently anti-democratic. Socialism is potentially but not necessarily democratic. Thus, these propositions are not diametric opposites.
2. Capitalism is inherently anti-democratic structurally and in terms of its systemic long-term tendencies. The latter follows causatively from the former. Capitalism tends to get worse over time under its standard operations; meaning it increases inequality over time during its normal (and elite-preferred) operations.
To use the fluids metaphor, capitalism and democracy are oil and water. They are not miscible. It is only in abnormal crisis periods, when wars, human resistance and revolutions occur, that the layered, non-miscible fluids of capitalism-democracy are shaken up to achieve a colloidal mix. Over a time of stable, normal operations by capitalist normative economic standards, these two, capitalism and democracy separate out again. Oil (capitalism) is the floating “dominant” fluid and democracy is the covered and suffocated subordinate fluid.
The system “draws off” all decisions from the top layer. If the top layer is all capitalism, the decisions are all pro-capital and anti-democratic. Only by continued agitation of the whole system by exogenous and/or endogenous events can a colloidal mix of capitalism-democracy be maintained. Only then are the drawn-off decisions ones which will have both pro-capital and pro-democratic content. It is never possible in this system to get decisions which are of entirely democratic content.
To sum up here, capitalism is inherently anti-democratic structurally because its of its normative nature. It’s norms like private ownership and the potential unlimited expansion of private capitals, normatively determine the system and the ways it can and cannot behave.
2. Socialism, at least theoretically, is capable of being totalitarian or democratic. Democratic is when the whole system is fluid and “all molecules are equal”. Totalitarian is when the fluid is set by a gelling agent, as in the example of gelatine used in setting water. The elite gels the society in layers (think of layers of colored jelly for example) and only the very top elite molecules get to give off decisions. (The metaphor breaks down when considering how decisions and force are transmitted.)
3. Science. I can’t believe J.Q., you did not do any tertiary science subjects at all. You certainly would have done certain STEM subjects, definitely in mathematics and probably in technology. And I would have thought agricultural economics might have some basic science subjects in there, at least in first year.
After all, look at these contemporary AG ECON subjects at University of Nebraska–Lincoln (albeit not J.Q.’s alma mater, nor his educational era).
Water in Society
Crosslisted as SCIL 109, NRES 109
Introduction to the scientific, social, and economic dimensions of historical and contemporary water systems. Students will develop an understanding of hydrologic systems and analyze and engage in decision-making about complex challenges associated with water resource use.
Resource and Environmental Economics I
Syllabus Crosslisted as NREE 265
Prereqs: ECON 211; ECON 212 or AECN 141.
Introduction to resource economics and the role of such concepts in natural resource management. The interface of economics and ecology in the context of both private and public decision making. Application of economic principles to actual natural resource/environmental issues.
Rural Sociology (Ikon notes “admittedly soft science”)
Crosslisted as SOCI 241
Prereqs: Open to second-semester freshmen and above.
The rural environment and its people; its groups and associations; and its social institutions.
I think the two versions are interesting but incomplete, Much of the rusted on groups seem to crave emotional satisfaction, ergo the attachment to nationalism , the feelings about being overlooked and losing their sense of belonging. decades of neoliberalism, a focus on the materialist and individualism has undermined their sense of group belonging. So they need a figure to attach themselves to, to be loyal and values. The lack of the social aspects in much political content leaves them feeling the need to create a leader. Similar to the populisms that create and love dictators.
Trump is not even a deal maker. He is a con man and snake oil salesman: both well understood figures and terms in American social and economic history.
Confidence man – One who gains the trust, or “confidence”, of his victims (often called marks) in order to manipulate, steal from, or otherwise predate upon them. (U.S. slang, late 1800s) – Urban Dictionary.
Trump cons people and sells snake oil nostrums to “make America great again”, economically and nationalistically. Of course, almost all politicians are confidence tricksters and snake oil merchants to a greater or lesser extent. Trump is simply a particularly crude, florid and proto-fascist example of the type (since Godwin’s Law has been declared not to be off-limits in this discussion).
“Phase transitions and critical phenomena are the changes of a system from one regime or state to another exhibiting very different properties, and the unusual effects that occur on the boundary between them. A change in the state of matter, such as from a solid to a liquid, is a classic example.” [nature.com]
The term critical phenomena seems to describe the same or a similar idea as the notion of a tipping point with a little more description regarding what happens at or around the tipping point.
If one were to take Donald Trump as the critical phenomena then the current state is a boundary state regarding the Republican party. Would the state of the party return to the Eisenhower regime? If this is not the argument then what would be the marker of the critical phenomena during the period Eisenhower to Trump?
It seems to me drawing analogies from natural science to convey thoughts regarding economic systems faces a difficulty. The natural science example of phase transition – the state of matter from a solid to a liquid – is reproducible and the phase transition can be taken as fixed or knowable. By contrast economic systems are not independent on the institutional environment, which is created by humans. What will come next? What do people want and will they get what they want and will they still like what they wanted after they got it?
Eisenhower spent eight years as President doing absolutely nothing whatever to keep the military-industrial complex in check, and then after he’d been President for eight years he made a speech about how it was a concern. Not impressive.
I’ll just provide this reminder that the Eisenhower presidency was responsible for the overthrow of democracy in Iran and in Guatemala, for supporting the fascist government of Spain, and for the cruelties of Operation Wetback, including eighty-eight deaths.
John, I’d say the Republican Party is more like a large container for rubbish. A lot of stuff gets thrown in. Maybe there was some stuff that was good thrown in there, maybe clothes someone could have used or perfectly good food, but now it has become contaminated by the filth and muck and vileness that’s in there and is now no good to anyone. In this analogy Trump is just the lit match that started the dumpster fire that is now American politics.
If you consider the course of any great river, you find that the river at its mouth is radically transformed from the river at its source, but also that it’s a continuation. If you consider the life of any long-lived person, you find that the elderly person is radically transformed from the youthful person, but also a continuation. It’s the same in any evolutionary lineage of living organisms, or the natural development over time of any star. Processes like that, with simultaneous continuation and dramatic change, are ubiquitous.
That said, the change in the Republican Party between Eisenhower and Trump–say, between 1954 and 2017–is nothing like as dramatic as the change in the Republican Party over the same length of time between 1854 (when it was founded) and 1917.
Perhaps we need to radically critique what we were and what we have become, rather than just project onto the Republican Party of the USA. By “we” I mean first the West and then the whole of humanity. We can read “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by Charles C. Mann and the “Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism” by Gerald Horne. We can read any good history of the West or of the world. What we discover is the grossly greedy, destructive and violent nature of the West and indeed of all humanity. There is almost nothing good about us. Even our best inventions are turned to bad ends. We are causing the sixth mass extinction and are soon to destroy our entire epoch and ourselves.
If humanity wreaks this much havoc then we must be judged in the harshest moral terms. The total sum of all our achievements must be adjudged as annulled and worthless. I hold there is no Judge with a capital “J” but I also hold we ought to correctly judge ourselves. However, existentially and in order to avoid piling on even more cruelty and destruction, we still need to try to do something.
Human beings now have two stark choices;
(a) work together in a coordinated fashion; or
(b) go extinct from limits to growth, climate change, 6th mass extinction etc
In terms of political options, there are just three realistic choices now;
(i) corporate-oligarchic dictatorship (the Rockefeller Foundation model);
(ii) one party corporate-oligarchic dictatorship (the Chinese model);
(iii) democratic socialism with a heavy nationalized, dirigist foundation.
The non-civilizational options/possibilities are;
(iv) collapse into warlordism;
(v) collapse into “catabolic” and hunter gather tribalism;
My prediction is that we will follow the path of dictatorships, warlordism, remnant tribes and thence near human extinction by or about the year 2050. Humanity has failed in every sense but especially as beings who should have been capable of survival, co-existence and broadly acceptable and sustainable behaviors. But we have failed. Humanity and civilization themselves are, at least so far, failed projects.
I’ll continue to try to care or appear to care but really I have given up all hope in and for humanity both morally and existentially. These are very bitter words I know. I believe these bitter words to be fully justified. We must prepare now for our horrific “punishment” or our horrific “natural end”. Choose your preferred term according to your teleological viewpoint.
What is the primary motivator of far right supporters ,economic issues or cultural ? Apparently the established research says its firmly cultural. That is political scientist Cas Mudde s claim . There is plenty of far right support from middle and upper classes and a good education doesnt always get in the way either .Economic insecurity (and pandemic) makes the ground more fertile ,and some far righters have some socialist sounding economic policy, but its primarily a culture war .Everyday conservatives have that cultural insecurity . The Nazis were anti capitalist (seen as Jewish) at least in their public rhetoric in the beginning ,even Trump railed against the bloated finance industry at his election rallies. Many fascists such as the Nazis and the Christchurch murderer also have a kind of environmentalism, if only from a perverse origin .
If pressed the capitalist class will go along with most of that in order to keep people punching downwards.
The most dangerous of authoritarians are those who accept no limits, especially of self-imposed ones. If they see civility in another person, they also see a weakness to exploit. Power is to be mastered, and to be increased, whatever the cost. They are not necessarily inherently evil, but a trail of destruction in their wake, of great collateral damage, is a hallmark of their tenure. Such authoritarians, by their nature, cleave groups into those who are loyal to them, and those who are to be mocked, derided, attacked, gas-lit, scapegoated. The non-negotiable demand of Loyalty to them is a flashing red sign: danger ahead. For any institution or political party that gets one of these at the top of the hierarchy, expect to become morally corrupted as the price of rollin’ with them. It’s the old adage of not mud-wrestling a pig: you get soiled by it, and the pig enjoys it.
At the risk of Godwin’s Law, I’ll mention Hitler. His rise, among several setbacks, in to the Nazi party, taking it from a moribund second-rate amateur hour political party to a military backed killing machine, is informative of the authoritarian’s mind-set and general approach to gaining and consolidating power. Hitler chipped away at the judicial system, he used Brownshirts as his personal bother boys to rough up vocal critics, burn their businesses, loot, and terrorise neighbourhoods. Hitler didn’t need to tell his top officials what to do, merely give a basic direction, and let them rip; if he felt the need to, he could distance himself from one atrocity too many, until the dust settled. Hitler closed down (via legal means and by use of Brownshirts’ particular skill-set) media that he felt were inimical to his kind of propaganda.
Hitler appealed to the public through his explicit support of workers rights, grievances to be addressed, and the old go-to of making the nation prevail, instilling civic and national pride among his support base. Hitler gave what they needed, or at least projected that in his oratory. The reparations of the First World War hurt the pride of some German people, and Hitler exploited that, relentlessly. He secretly rebuilt the military war machine, even as he claimed to be honouring the commitments Germany made in defeat. Hitler promoted the belief that parts of the German nation had been stolen from beneath their feet, and that they were entitled to land now in possession of neighbouring countries. Hitler used the Jews as a convenient group for vilification and as the hated “elites” who had more in society than the German worker; this inflamed the simmering resentments those workers had at a loss of livelihood and of gross structural change due to forces from outside the country, as much as from within. Disenfranchise those who weren’t likely to vote for you, and turn them into a punching bag for another lot who are more likely to vote for you. Pretty simple strategy and sadly very effective.
Hitler’s egregious use of violence (and ultimately genocide) put him at the extreme end of the authoritarian range, but to some extent that was a function of what he saw as useful to his ends. Authoritarians don’t necessarily default to violence as a convenience, and perhaps for some it is simply not a tool they feel necessary to grasp; don’t be fooled though, for they can easily change their opinion on that score, and they usually have a segment of the military that they believe will do their bidding, should they need it to. They seek ways of buttressing such military support early on in their tenure. The conflation of nationalism, jingoism, and military pomp and ceremony, pardons, medals, funding; it is so combustible. So many of the steps Hitler took were the steps that kind of authoritarian *always* takes, if they can manage it. That’s what they do. Trump is no different in the following of that basic pathway to consolidation of power. Hitler contended with a democracy that could have upended him and very nearly did, and yet he installed himself for life. We all know how that turned out.
I think Trump represents something different. Yes, the Republican Party was moving right, but under the Cheneys and the Wolfowitzes it was still singing from the American exceptionalism songsheet and was supposing a mission to remake the world in the image of the USA.
That world-changing imperative has now gone. America has turned in on itself. Trump is channelling a nihilist, a pox-on-all-your-houses dismissal of any greater agenda than an unapologetic white supremacist, nationalist dismissal of any legacy of America’s once cherished civilizing mission. It’s why Trump has gone so hard against immigration, which traditional business lobby Republicans supported for the cheap labour supply.
Under the first Bush, and even the second, there was a willingness in Washington to engage with the world and build partnerships. Trump, according to one of his own in the hawk Bolton, is only interested in answering the phone to other dictators and ‘strongmen’ leaders. Can you imagine George W cosying up to Nazis??
The big question for me is how long this marriage of convenience between the plutocratic big business low-tax right and the neo-fascist authoritarian right can survive. Surely the business interests know they are playing with fire? The country, according to many of my friends in the US, feels close to civil war. Political discussions are virtually impossible. The system of law and order is breaking down, the health system is broken in the middle of a pandemic, the legislature is permanently gridlocked by the Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate and the country is seen, by many of its allies, as a virtual failed state.
When does this dire state of affairs start seeming to be incompatible with the business of making money….and keeping it? And, at what point do the white working classes drawn to Trump’s Pied Piper tune realise how badly they have been had??
I wonder why people don’t pay greater attention to the way in which discourse has been colonised by media entertainment values and THAT has gone through an intensification/phase transition with social media.
I tried to do that here.
A good example of the difference between the Bush and Trump administrations is PEPFAR, a major international aid initiative which was super important in the battle against HIV and primarily benefited poor Africans, especially women. It was well-funded, far-reaching, and is generally credited with having stopped the HIV pandemic from getting out of control. If Bush hadn’t started his stupid war he might have gone down in history as one of the better republicans in global health (not saying much I know!) It’s just inconceivable that the Trump admin could come up with anything like it, or that they would bother or care enough to do anything about it. There are a lot of common threads in the two administrations – incompetence, domestic policy viciousness, and foreign policy belligerence – but the Bush administration were at least able to conceive of PEPFAR. Trump couldn’t possibly do anything resembling it.
The goon squads are out there, in another Trumpian parallel with history. So much for Godwin’s Law.
Glass (humanmade like economies and politics) doesn’t act like the rest of crystalline phase transitions. A new model and previously hidden dynamics revealed. We – society – never crystalise imo, but seem solid like glass.
JQ said: “suggests that something really has changed” …”concept of a phase transition (such as from liquid to gas, or dissolved solid to crystal)”
I too am “Stretching the metaphor a bit”… Capture the hidden dynamics leading to ‘crystalisation. *“the structure is maybe more predictive of the dynamics than people thought.”.
Project some time into the future using revealed dynamic processes leading to “a crystallised mass of plutocratic economics, racism and all-round craziness”. Political scenario – Heat population (now stuck in lockdown retort) to 1500 angry scared degrees, turn off heat [cash flow] and throw into election and pandemic and see transition dynamics. That does seem to be an apt description for our current world.
JQ, as you have punctured (yay) the economists physicist barrier, the dynamics described in “Why Is Glass Rigid? Signs of Its Secret Structure Emerge” will potentially allow you to show and use the hidden dynamics of gop & trump’s catalyst. I think we – you – need new ideas & maths too break standard analysis and to enlighten how we end up in the current situation. You have the group around you from ‘Epistemically Feasible Choice project’ to crack such a new analysis.
As US, others and our Treasury are all now publishing qualitative data ala “Senriment Indexes” with ‘News Sentiment’ being the latest, the math described will allow for a “propensity map” of sentiment and potential action to be built and simulated. Choose your own propensity.
How is this appicable to economics, pandemics or policy? – I do not know! The glass transition model allowed simulation to “reaching 463 times further into the future than the previous state-of-the-art machine learning prediction method”? I could not determine a measure for 463x ahead – how far ahead? 2 nano sec? 1 election cycle? Tomorrow? Next decision propensity?
“Why Is Glass Rigid? Signs of Its Secret Structure Emerge.
…”Then there’s glass, a strange in-between substance that has puzzled physicists for decades. Take a snapshot of the molecules in glass, and they’ll appear disordered just like a liquid’s. But most of the molecules barely move, making the material rigid like a solid.
“Glass is formed by cooling certain liquids. But why the molecules in the liquid slow down so dramatically at a certain temperature, with no obvious corresponding change in their structural arrangement — a phenomenon known as the glass transition — is a major open question.
“DeepMind’s artificial neural network was able to predict how the molecules move over extremely long timescales, using only a “snapshot” of their physical arrangement at one moment in time. According to DeepMind’s *Victor Bapst, even though the microscopic structure of a glass appears featureless, “the structure is maybe more predictive of the dynamics than people thought.”
“By simulating these molecular dynamics, computers can generate “propensity maps” for thousands of glass molecules — but only on timescales of trillionths of a second. And molecules in glass, by definition, move extremely slowly. Computing their propensity to a horizon of seconds or more is “just impossible [for] normal computers because it takes too much time,” said Giulio Biroli, a condensed matter physicist at the École Normale Supérieure in France.
“They created a virtual cube of glass comprising 4,096 molecules [powerbrokers], simulated the evolution of the molecules based on 400 unique starting positions [voting records / policy positions] at various temperatures [social, economic, enviro, market], and computed the particles’ propensities in each case. After training the neural network to accurately predict these propensities, the researchers next fed 400 previously unseen particle configurations — “snapshots” of the glass molecules’ configurations — into the trained network. [Party, money, fluidity of networks, propensity]
“Using only these structural snapshots, the neural network predicted the molecules’ propensities at different temperatures with unprecedented accuracy, reaching 463 times further into the future than the previous state-of-the-art machine learning prediction method.”
By JOHN PAVLUS
July 7, 2020
Yes, I’ve stretched the metaphor to brekaing point, but so has Trump and covid and George Floyd’s kilker. So I do not see as unreasonable that someone commisions a mathematician to attempt to find dynamics leading to “a phenomenon known as the glass transition ala KT2’s “propensity of political position transition” .
Next up the actors.
And a method to scope political actors;
self, personal(L1), social(L2) & system(L3) – I suggest something like fig 3 & 4 in this paper. I bravely suggest to you, Ted & your compatriats involved in “Epistemically Feasible Choice project” would probably have fun digesting and producing scope of actions of actors in this “Republican phase transition”. (and may be of some value to Katie Steele – Levelling Counterfactual Scepticism)
I have.contacted author Peter Burton with a view to gamifying Fig 3 & 4.
Fig 3 human attributes -self, personal, social & system and…
Fig 4 “Cognitive cycles (top-left to bottom-right) generate the realization that agency being exerted exposes characteristics of personal identity on the one hand, and of personal authority on the other; eventually, seen as ‘two sides of the one coin’ of the agent. Endogenous ( L 1 , L 2 , L 3 ) and exogenous (nurture ) learning inputs increasingly particularize and shape mental capability. The leading diagonal accounts for objective aspects of cognitive content; the cross-diagonal aggregates derived (meta cognitive) understandings , two aspects of control, intrinsically present yet only ratcheting into clarity through multiple cycles of controlled experience.”
“Internal Control of Human Cognition Guidance from Theory to Model the Mind”
And I may as well ask what are you going to do about the ‘r’ word – religion?…JQ, & Katie Steele who co-authored:
“Modelling the Moral Dimension of Decisions” …is the above of any value for your work or insight triggering in any way?
Mark Colyvan , Damian Cox & Katie Steele
23 August 2010
(LCS)..” while “standard” decision theory is not exclusively consequentialist, it is not necessarily ethically neutral. Moreover, even if our decision‐theoretic models get the right answers vis‐à‐vis morally correct action, the question remains as to whether the motivation for the non‐consequentialist theories and the psychological processes of the agents who subscribe to those ethical theories are lost or poorly represented in the resulting models. ”
(LCS) Katie Steele working paper;
Levelling counterfactual scepticism
(joint work with A. Sandgren)
– argues against counterfactual scepticism in proposing that the meaning of counterfactual statements depends on the domain or level of scientific inquiry that is invoked
Thanks as always for being a catalyst JQ.