Sunday, January 1, 2017

Fearmongering, False Predictions, and the Future

Now that Barack Obama's second term is coming to an end, let's review some of the dire predictions people on the right made about his presidency.

He didn't declare martial law. He never came for anyone's guns. He didn't ban hunting and fishing, or make any move at all to limit them outside the areas he declared National Monuments. He did turn modestly toward gun control in his second term, but nothing came of that, and the measures he suggested were so weak I didn't even bother to support them.

Obama never brought 100 million Muslims to America or staged a coup on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood.

He never seized anyone's IRA, as various right-wing news outlets and Michelle Bachmann predicted he would.

Energy prices stayed low throughout his presidency. This was one of Newt Gingrich's big talking points during his 2012 campaign, when he said Obama's policies would drive gas prices past $10 a gallon and promised $2.50 a gallon if he were elected, which as it happens is a little more than the average right now.

He never managed to "unleash the Environmental Protection Agency to impose crushing new burdens on U.S. business," as the American Enterprise Institute predicted.

Various politicians, business columnists, and Donald Trump all predicted that Obama's re-election would tank the stock market. Stocks are up 46% since then, to record highs.

Mitt Romney said that if Obama were re-elected unemployment would stay above 8% for years, and promised that if he won he would bring it down to 6% within four years. Right now it is at 4.6%.

Rush Limbaugh was only the most prominent right-wing journalist saying that under Obama the economy would collapse: "There’s no if about this. And it’s gonna be ugly. It’s gonna be gut wrenching, but it will happen." No sign of collapse in sight.

There are a couple of errors behind the more serious of these predictions: first, exaggerating the importance of the president, and second, believing that our system constantly teeters on the edge of disaster. But the president just plain can't seize everyone's gun, and his power over the economy is quite limited. On something like energy policy the power of the president is very small. I have mentioned here before the policies governing long-distance transmission lines I have been involved with, which were enacted in the 1990s and maintained by every administration and Congress since. Fracking is mostly governed by state laws. The president does control off-shore oil leases, but it can take 20 years for new leases to produce oil for the market, so nothing Obama did would have impacted the supply of offshore oil during his own presidency. As it happens he has made new leases at about the same rate as his predecessor.

Opinions differ as to how unstable the current political and economic order is, but I lean toward very stable. I can't see what would cause our system to collapse.

It is worth going over this when we think about the upcoming presidency. Trump may turn out to be a terrible president, but there are some things he would have a hard time doing. For example, some people have worried that a Trump administration will stop enforcing Civil Rights laws; but decisions about which cases to pursue are actually made by career prosecutors who are hard to remove, and I doubt a single Trump term would be enough to change their culture very much. If Trump even tries to deport millions of illegal immigrants, he is going to find it very difficult. On trade policy the president has the powers to make a big mess, but it remains to be seen whether Trump will do anything besides jawboning a few CEOs. Big changes to the tax code or entitlements will require laws passed by Congress, and I doubt the whole Republican caucus can be brought to make big changes in Social Security or Medicare.

In foreign policy the president's power is very great, and Trump could create much misery in the world. I personally have no idea what he will do, so it's wait and see for me and everyone else.

Personally I think that Obama was obviously a great choice to be president, and Trump a very risky one; to me the various dire fears expressed about Obama have always seemed absurd, and those about Trump much more worrisome. But it is worth remembering that millions of Americans have felt the opposite.


Unknown said...

Aren't you ignoring what other posts of yours indicate you well realize: that the point of such apocalyptic statements isn't to convey the results of sober analysis, but to express the speaker's deep hostility, and to mobilize others to join the speaker in that hostility. That is, as you often say, the point is to vaunt a certain identity, and to energize those who might be drawn into sharing it. That kind of politics has served them very well.

Not engaging in that kind of politics is, of course, part of what the forces of light are supposed to be about. And yet, not engaging in that kind of politics has been part of the reason the forces of light have been so weak in this country for decades. And of course, by forces of light, I mean a certain kind of identity.

The choice that identity faces right now seems to me, in the final analysis, either to dim the light by adopting the enemy's tactics, or to dim the light by embracing the way of quietism--and, make no mistake, "we'll cooperate where we see common ground and speak out when we disagree"--that whole mode is a kind of quietism.

Unknown said...

Thinking further, you could say that the discourse of apocalyptic danger expresses and creates a state of moral panic, the feeling that a great evil threatens our society. The Right's and Trump's mastery of this discourse has given them tremendous momentum, which they have translated into real power. You seem to be arguing that, on the domestic front, this power is bound to not amount to much, and therefore the anti-Trump forces should not feel any moral panic of their own. I'm wondering if the anti-Trump forces shouldn't work to master and use the discourse of moral panic anyway. As an alternative to this "let's talk like they do" strategy, you seem to be saying, if I read you right, that the anti-Trump forces should basically wait and let the huge forces of contemporary reality destroy Trump on their own. And sometimes I wonder too if that wouldn't be the best strategy.

Then again, sometimes I tell myself none of this matters, since events are really just waiting on the AI.

John said...

I was first of all speaking to allies, reminding them that hysterical panic is generally unnecessary and looks bad in retrospect.

As for strategy, yes, spreading panic is one of the oldest political moves, besides being the essential prerequisite to authoritarian rule. But if that is the way to win, I am not interested in winning. The dame done by such tactics is too great even when only one side indulges them.

Yes, I think the best response to Trump is to let his voters see that he cannot deliver on his promises. Until that is established others will keep making the same promises and the threat will remain.