Political Chaos Theory
“Chaos theory,” at least in the popular version, is the study of unstable systems that can rapidly reach a tipping point where massive and radical change occurs—the point at which a seemingly stable equilibrium careens toward dangerous extremes.
Both major political parties experienced a chaos theory moment over the weekend, in which the balance we have historically looked to as a steady state suddenly degraded, and we were reminded how fast a veneer of reasonable “moderation” can break down into dangerous fanaticism.
In the Democratic party, a simmering insurgency by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her “squad” of young socialist “progressives” broke out into open insurrection when Ocasio-Cortez deployed the ultimate weapon against Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi: She accused Pelosi of racism for “the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color” for criticism.
The word “explicit” implies that Pelosi has been criticizing Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad”—Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts—because they are women of color.
Of course, Pelosi has been doing no such thing. She has been targeting them because they are grandstanding loudmouths whose radicalism is threatening the re-election of the other freshman congressman who actually gave the Democrats their House majority. All four of the radical congresswomen were elected in “safe” Democratic seats. The current House majority was won in 2018 by getting Democrats to run as moderates in swing districts, yet these moderate Democrats were subsequently ignored by a press that has been fawning over four freshman congresswomen whose policies and style are toxic to the party’s national image. You’re damn right Pelosi has been trying to tamp them down.
I linked a while back to an analysis showing that Ocasio-Cortez and some of her “squad” got elected, not on the strength of minority voters, who went for traditional Democrats (like the incumbent she defeated in the primary), but on the strength of educated, upper-middle-class white “gentrifiers” who lean much, much farther to the left.
That is exactly what we see in this conflict, where the main pushback against Ocasio-Cortez and in defense of Pelosi is coming from the Congressional Black Caucus:
Congressional Black Caucus members are furious at Justice Democrats, accusing the outside progressive group aligned with firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) of trying to oust lawmakers of color, specifically African American lawmakers.
Justice Democrats is backing primary challengers to eight-term Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), a Hispanic Caucus member, and 10-term Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The insurgent group also made noise this year about challenging Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), a CBC member seen as the heir apparent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) . . .
“I don’t know what that agenda is, but if they want to come after members of the Black Caucus, it’s two ways,” warned [Gregory] Meeks, the Queens Democratic Party boss who clashed with Justice Democrats in a local district attorney race last month. . . .
“She’s only a woman of color when it’s convenient. None of the things she’s fought for aligned with communities of color and her group is funded only by elitist white liberals; she’s a puppet,” the top Democratic aide told The Hill in a phone call.
As for what the “Progressive” agenda is, Ayanna Pressley made it clear when she proclaimed, “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice.” The “Progressives” have decided what the correct, “genuine” political thoughts are for every minority politician, whether they like it or not, and the Justice Democrats are bound and determined to enforce this new orthodoxy.
The generational and ideological divide in Congress is spilling over into the media, too. In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, who has become something of a grey lady herself, took up Pelosi’s defense and called Ocasio-Cortez on the carpet:
She slimed the speaker, who has spent her life fighting for the downtrodden and who was instrumental in getting the first African-American president elected and passing his agenda against all odds, as a sexist and a racist.
AOC should consider the possibility that people who disagree with her do not disagree with her color.
It is nice of Dowd to discover that being vilified for political disagreements and unjustly accused of racism are bad things—when they happen to people like her.
For her troubles, Dowd was written off by Karen Attiah—a younger rising star who is global opinions editor for the Washington Post—as part of an “Axis of Shevil”:
Putting them in their place by any means necessary.
— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) July 14, 2019
Funny she should mention an Axis, because while all this “Progressive” posturing about race was going on, the people behind it were seriously undermining that message with expressions of support for the original Axis.
When Dowd slips in an offhand reference to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “and her Pygmalion,” that is, the man who sculpted her, she is referring to Saikat Chakrabarti. (It’s a reference that would really bite, if Millennials were likely to understand a Classical allusion.) Chakrabarti is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned leftist firebrand. He started the Justice Democrats group, he recruited Ocasio-Cortez, he supported her, and as his reward he appointed himself as her chief of staff. From this position of what he imagines to be power, he has been busy making enemies in the Democratic party:
Mr. Chakrabarti ignited a firestorm two weeks ago after a bruising intraparty fight over an emergency border aid package that progressives said lacked sufficient restrictions on the Trump administration. Calling out moderate Democrats who sank a more liberal aid package, he compared them to “new Southern Democrats.”
They “certainly seem hell bent to do to black and brown people today what the old Southern Democrats did in the 40s,” he said on Twitter. He later deleted the tweet.
On Friday night, Democratic leaders showed that they had enough. Using the House Democratic Caucus’s official Twitter account, they delivered a rhetorical slap that questioned not only Mr. Chakrabarti’s future but also whether Ms. Ocasio-Cortez wanted to be a lawmaker on the inside or an outsider campaigning to purge the party of centrists and force it to the left.
The rebuke shared a tweet by Mr. Chakrabarti that explained that he believed Representative Sharice Davids of Kansas, one of the two first Native American women to serve in Congress, was enabling a ‘racist system’ in voting for a weaker border aid package.
“I don’t think people have to be personally racist to enable a racist system,” the aide had written, to which Democratic leaders demanded, “Who is this guy and why is he explicitly singling out a Native American woman of color?”
Aside from the merit of Chakrabarti’s claims, or the lack thereof, there is a more immediate institutional issue for House Democrats: “It is considered a breach of protocol for unelected congressional aides to criticize lawmakers even in closed-door meetings—much less publicly blast out their grievances—and those who step out of line typically face consequences.”
The tweet (now deleted) slapping down Chakrabarti is here:
I have to admit that this whole contest over which leftist can call which other leftist a racist has me wondering whether it is possible to die of schadenfreude.
But wait, it gets better, because at about this same time, someone dug up a video of Chakrabarti from a few months ago wearing a T-shirt decorated with an image of Subhas Chandra Bose.
For those who don’t know, Bose was an actual, literal Nazi collaborator. He was an opponent of British rule in India, but not because he wanted to replace it with representative government. Instead, he took his cue from the fascists, styling himself “Netaji,” or “Leader,” in imitation of Il Duce and Der Fuhrer. He even raised an Indian legion to fight for Hitler’s Germany as part of the SS. To be sure, Bose is still seen as a hero today by many Indians, despite his Nazi connections, and Chakrabarti comes from a family of Indian immigrants. But regarding Bose as a hero only makes sense from the standpoint of dogmatic nationalism, which is not exactly a defense against suspicions that those who do so are sympathetic to authoritarianism.
As if to underscore this, Ocasio-Cortez herself tweeted out quotes from Evita Peron, to whom she clearly means to compare herself. Evita was the wife of Argentinian strongman Juan Peron, whose authoritarian nationalist regime aided the escape of Nazis from Europe after World War II.
So the left has been working itself into a lather for the past few years about how they are “antifascist” and want to “punch Nazis”—while their new stars pay tribute to Nazi collaborators.
To complete the circle, what is Donald Trump’s favorite Broadway musical? You guessed it: Evita, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s bizarre tribute to the self-aggrandizing, publicity-hungry wife of a nationalist strongman.
That brings us to Trump’s role in this, because you know that when there’s a good Twitter fight, he can’t stay out of it. So Trump intervened in Pelosi’s defense—but in the most offensive way possible.
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!
Only one of the congresswomen he is talking about is actually from another country. Ilhan Omar was a refugee from Somalia, though she is now a U.S. citizen. Rashida Tlaib was born in Detroit. Ayanna Pressley is not even the child of immigrants, though it seems Trump assumes she is, perhaps because she is black. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was born in the Bronx, and her family is from Puerto Rico, which has been part of the United States since 1898.
Telling immigrants, or those presumed to be immigrants, to “go back to your country” is an old racist and nativist trope. To see it coming from a man who launched his presidential campaign by smearing Mexican immigrants as rapists is hardly surprising. We have known Donald Trump is a creature of prejudice—Archie Bunker with money—from the very beginning.
But we also know Trump has a species of low cunning, so we can see his purpose with these tweets. On the pretext of taking Nancy Pelosi’s side, he is making things harder for her. It will be much more difficult for her to oppose Ocasio-Cortez’s “squad” now that Trump has anointed them as victims of his bigotry. He is deliberately raising their profile, because he knows they are beginning to define the Democratic party nationally, to its detriment. “‘If all voters hear about is AOC, it could put the [House] majority at risk,’ said a top Democrat who is involved in 2020 congressional races. ‘[S]he’s getting all the news and defining everyone else’s races.’” Trump needs that to happen so he can campaign as the only alternative to socialism.
But notice that this strategy has deleterious effects on the right, too. The presidential appeals to prejudice and xenophobia have stopped being dog whistles and are now being shouted through a bullhorn. This has prompted people on the right to twist and weave and bend their brains in an effort to defend it. Witness a dignified elder statesman like Brit Hume, for example, making logic-chopping differentiations between “xenophobia” and “racism.”
Recently, I’ve been puzzling through the plight of the “moderate” in the age of Trump. If you look at it a certain way, it seems like chaos theory at work, where one after another of the people who once repudiated Trump and what he says become first reluctant apologists and later ardent defenders.
But in the end I don’t think this process is all that chaotic or unpredictable. It’s bound up in the inherent philosophic vulnerability of “moderation.”
Think of it this way: The “moderate” is someone who accepts a compromise between opposite principles. Yet for precisely that reason, a “moderate” outlook that seems safe and conventional is also inherently unstable. It is determined by the relative positions of the opposing poles. All it takes is an event, a personality, a political shift to start those poles moving. Once they do, the moderate’s relative position must shift, too. And once the moderate starts moving, there is little to arrest his slide.
There is nothing to arrest it because he is not really abandoning his principles. He is acting in a way that is truer and more consistent to some part of his principles. His previous moderation, which seemed so stable, was actually a delicately balanced counterpoise between contradictory principles. Once part of it is dislodged, that counterpoise comes crashing all the way down. That’s how you get spectacles like a formerly pragmatic mainstream conservative going to a convention of “nationalists” and telling them the private economy is the enemy.
The fragility of the “moderate” suggests that what we need is not actually more moderation. What we need is more consistent devotion to the right kind of principles: reason, individual rights, representative government.
The old “horseshoe” theory in which the political spectrum goes from the totalitarian far left of communism to the totalitarian far right of fascism, with the “moderate” occupying the ideal spot in the middle, actually offers us a fundamentally grim prospect. The moment the moderate starts to be moved by the basic logic of any of his ideas, one way or the other, he starts an irretrievable slide toward some form of tyranny. We’re far better off thinking of the alternative Ronald Reagan described: up versus down—up to freedom, down to tyranny—and encouraging people to follow one side of that conflict upward to its logical conclusion in a fully free society.
In the shorter term of electoral politics, it may be the “moderates” who help pull us back from this particular precipice—and did you ever think you would be relying on Nancy Pelosi to do that for you? But in the long run we’re going to have to choose our side and stick to it all the way. Certainly, the middle of the road is proving to be a far less stable ground than advertised.