Over the years, I have occasionally written about individual politicians, such as Newt Gingrich, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Sarah Palin. Three were Republicans I thought presented some unique danger to democracy. Gingrich I believed, correctly as his career turned out, to be a power-hungry demagogue, and I maintain he has in fact done terrible damage to American democracy. George Bush was not smart enough to be president. Palin was also a power-hungry demagogue, though she has turned out a lot less consequential than Gingrich. She also wasn't smart enough to be president. Gingrich was intelligent enough, but shouldn't be permitted anywhere near the presidency, due to his vanity and dishonesty and disregard for the well-being of anyone he perceived standing in his way, including the American people. I am proud to say I called for Bill Clinton's resignation,despite the fact that he was a liberal Democrat whose views I originally shared, because I thought his dishonesty made it impossible for him to govern.
In the prior paragraph, I discussed what I will deem "procedural" issues, and did not mention substantive beliefs. Each of the three Republicans professed views with which I radically disagree (though the other two make Bush look like a liberal). However, intelligence and honesty are independent of belief, even if neither Fox nor MSNBC think so. Someone can be intelligent, honest and very conservative or liberal. In what follows, I mainly analyze Ted Cruz's intelligence and honesty. I will discuss his substantive views only in the context of whether Ted Cruz believes what he is saying or not.
The echo chamber
I stopped watching the nightly television news around the time Walter Cronkite stopped delivering it. Most broadcast nightly news shows seemed like pablum, especially as they trended away from complex international issues towards cat-in-tree human interest stories. I had a standing objection to television and mainstream print media such as the New York Times, that objectivity was a pretense, that media outlets, even when not licensed by government as television is, are owned by billionaires and Fortune 1000 companies and might as well admit that they express the beliefs of their owners. In the nineteenth century, when Thomas Carlyle identified the newspapers as the "Fourth Estate", what he meant was that they were a branch of government, with their own political views and agendas, battling the other branches, not some sort of pure neutral entity exerting an always truthful check on the system from outside.
The growth of MSNBC has, in that context, been a fascinating phenomenon. While Fox News continues to maintain the despicable fiction of being "fair and balanced", MSNBC is unashamed to play the role identified by Carlyle. While media pretending to be objective and serving hidden agendas is pernicious, media frankly acknowledging a role as the flack of a particular party has been a sometimes harmless and useful part of the democratic landscape. Newspapers retailing gross lies on behalf of power and burying adversaries under phony accusations have existed in many eras. Media which have a special incentive to find and disclose embarassing facts, and which also seek to crystallize and shape public opinion, are useful in a democracy. Obviously, the line between the two approaches can be very thin.
I enjoy MSNBC (which I can only tolerate for about twenty minutes at a time) because the hosts typically share my views and are unashamed to be sarcastic. Rachel Maddow is the epitome of a journalist who is opinionated, smart, funny and whose opinions I nearly always endorse. When she presents a montage of Republicans saying stupid or immoral things they thought were intelligent and righteous, I tend to react as if she was offering an important public service.
One of the accusations she and others made about the Tea Party Republicans during the government shut-down was that they live in an "echo chamber", that they were able to avoid any understanding of the terrible impact of their actions on ordinary middle and working class government employees, by only listening to each other talk, plus fellow travelers such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.
I realize the same danger exists if you get all your news from MSNBC. If I am half-watching, as I tend to do, I can drift along quite complacently until they get to something I am personally experiencing. For example, I am one of the people the right is shouting about who are losing their health insurance as a result of the Affordable Health Act. I do seem to remember the President saying that if you liked your coverage, you could keep it. On MSNBC the other day, Chris Mathews was jeering at the Fox News tropes about people who are losing insurance. He said with some possible accuracy that the coverage we will get will be better, and possibly cheaper, than what we had. But my old coverage was not, as he characterized it, "crappy", and like millions of others, I am in limbo, unable to confirm my replacement coverage because the New York State website is not working efficiently, or because the company I selected is overwhelmed with applications. Matthews could have shown a little more compassion for people like me. But he wasn't talking to us, but to those who are not in the situation, and who can be persuaded that it either doesn't exist, or isn't dangerous.
I had another proof of the liberal echo chamber phenomenon when I started to research this article on Ted Cruz. Almost everything I knew about him came from watching MSNBC: he is a right wing liar and buffoon like Sarah Palin, and resembles Joe McCarthy, not only physically but in demagoguery. I am proud to say, just as I did when I wrote about Rush Limbaugh, that I knew going in that I would have to go directly to Cruz' own words to understand him; otherwise, I would just be a part of the echo chamber myself, retailing used MSNBC tropes.
It took only a minute with Cruz' Wikipedia bio to understand how inaccurate the MSNBC word on Cruz really is. Cruz is not a buffoon, not stupid. You could watch a hundred hours of MSNBC coverage and, apparently, never learn that he is a Harvard Law School graduate who made law review, and has argued before the Supreme Court nine times, as Texas solicitor general. Cruz is dangerous not because he is an idiot like Sarah Palin, but because he is really smart like Newt Gingrich (he is in fact probably smarter than the latter).
I went to Harvard Law School. I did not make law review. It is really difficult, and only a few are invited to join, as a result of grades or by acing a writing competition. I don't think President Obama made the law review either. While there are successes which don't mean anything (like President Bush's "success" in the business world, supported by a web of influence which would not let him fail), I don't think law review can be faked. If you make it, you are REALLY INTELLIGENT. Harvard was the first time in my life I ever felt I wasn't the smartest person in a room.
I draw a similar conclusion from Cruz's arguments to the Supreme Court as solicitor general of Texas. Any lawyer can easily fill out an application form and join the Supreme Court bar. I know because I did. Most lawyers wouldn't dream of ever filing a brief in the Supreme Court, let alone making an argument, because they don't believe they are smart enough and fear humiliation. Therefore, it is a self selecting group which, like law review, constitutes a legal intellectual elite. Cruz mainly took positions I find detestable (arguing that a young man sentenced to fourteen years in prison for shoplifting should continue to serve his sentence despite the fact there was a two year maximum for the crime charged, for example). But it certainly takes self confidence and courage, as well as an ability to think on your feet, to stand up before the Supremes nine times.
While we are dispelling MSNBC echo chamber tropes, the comparison to Senator McCarthy should also be put aside. Yes, Cruz happens to resemble him a bit physically, and he may be a dangerous demagogue like McCarthy (we can't be completely sure yet, though the evidence, which I will discuss below, seems strong). But McCarthy has gone down in a history as a lazy and rather stupid alcoholic, who got hold of one idea and rode it to near victory. Cruz is not lazy or stupid, and even though he is currently riding one idea, I suspect he is much more of a fox than that. Comparing him to McCarthy, or Palin, under-rates him substantially.
The honesty of a politician?
I have to say, before I get started analyzing whether Cruz is a demagogue, that you could, like Diogenes, walk around the agora in daylight with a lantern and never stumble on an honest politician. Even those whom we officially idolize, like Thomas Jefferson, prove to be lying sacks of shit when you look at them closely enough. So perhaps its a worthless exercise to discuss whether anyone, Dianne Feinstein or Bernie Sanders or John McCain or Ted Cruz, means what she or he says.
I persist in doing so because I am highly concerned by our casual acceptance of dishonesty in public discourse. I love the Miltonian view of the process of determining truth: "Prove all things, hold fast the good." How can we prove all things if we don't arrive at any intermediate truths on the way to a big one?
One of the main goals of the Spectacle, as I disclosed in my 1995 mission statement, has been to analyze what we are really talking about when we make claims about public goods and evils. A recent example that has me really worked up has been in the discourse about the Affordable Care Act. An honest conservative view would be to say, "Government involvement in providing health care creates a view of government, a reliance on government, I can never endorse. I am so opposed to it that it is acceptable to me that part of the population will be uninsured and may suffer and die as the result of inadequate medical care." Though I regard that as a morally despicable position, I also regard it as an honest one.
This view says that, even if government health care works, it is wrong for other reasons. That's fine, its a sustainable position, and if I was a hack, I could write a pretty good brief or essay supporting it with logical arguments.But we never, and I include Ted Cruz in this, seem to stop there. Instead, we lie to support policy goals. Lies about health care include: the assertion that Canadian and British health care is a failure (easy to test: just find and talk to some Canadians and British people, something nobody ever seems to do); the claim that the American system offers more choice and quicker availability than any other (may be true, but ignores the fact that diversity and speed is useless for services you can't afford); and, most dishonest and demagogic of all, the assertion that there is a liberty issue involved, that the government is forcing you to buy something you don't want or need (everyone in the middle and working class who wants the right not to have insurance still expects to be treated at the emergency room, at everyone else's expense, after an auto accident or heart attack).
Thus, we have the ethical spectacle of people with really excellent government sponsored health care, including Ted Cruz, urging others to refuse coverage.
The real debate should be about whether health care is a proper role for government or not. That's one I would be delighted to have. My own proposed test is a science fiction thought experiment. You and I and ten thousand of our closest friends have just signed up to receive a free, uninhabited earth-like planet in a distant area of space, and we are all on a hill in our new colony, deciding on the constitution we will adopt. I will argue furiously, and endlessly, that taking care of the health of its citizens is a more fundamental function of the government I want us to have than that of spying on us or involvement in wars so senseless that future generations will be able to read ten books about them and still not understand why they were fought. (I happen to be reading a seventeenth century history right now which touches on the wonderfully named War of Jenkins' Ear.)
But we never quite seem to get there, because demagogues frightened of losing on the fundamental issue launch us into false debates about practical matters (the website doesn't work!) or inapplicable liberty issues (insist on your right to be a free rider in the American health system!).
Is Ted Cruz a demagogue?
I suggest before continuing to read this essay, you do a search on "Ted Cruz demagogue" and read a few of the results. They range from a David Denby piece in The New Yorker and a Washington Post column answering yes to some angry Tea Party supporters making the point that, when liberals use it, the word "demagogue" means nothing more than "We don't like him". I sympathize with and smile at that interpretation: when the right calls someone a "socialist", all it means is that same thing: "We don't like him". After all, President Obama and everyone else accused of socialism in American politics don't actually believe the workers should own the means of production.
Before continuing, I will define my terms, as I should always do in a Spectacle essay. I don't like Ted Cruz, but when I ask if he is a demagogue, I mean: does he say things he doesn't actually believe in order to stir up popular passions and attain power?
I would answer this a qualified yes. I have just spent an hour pulling the complete transcripts of a number of speeches of his. The man is too smart and organized to put really stupid crap out there of the "legitimate rape" variety. Reading about his life and then taking a look at his actual words has resulted in my respecting him a lot more than I expected.
Stuff he says which he probably knows isn't true is a lot more subtle than with, say, Rick Scott or Sarah Palin (or even John McCain, at this late date).
In Cruz' attacks on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), he says things like this: "It does not provide protection and is not affordable, and it denies care to millions."
There is not the least recognition that the system before the Act was already broken. Cruz is too smart to believe that a return to the status quo is acceptable. One out of five people in his home state has no health insurance. He is not saying simply that the ACA is a bad solution to a problem (I would agree with that, from the other end of the political spectrum; I want single payer). Cruz maintains that the ACA is a solution without a problem, as if the existing system took appropriate care of people at all levels. Cruz, like his party (not just the Tea Party fringe of it) resolutely refuses to acknowledge that health care as we are experiencing it is having a toxic effect that cannot be contained. It would be bad enough to say that most of us are fine, less than half of us are not, and whatever happens to them, let them suck it up. The great contradiction in the system, which Cruz is too smart not to understand, is the fact that hospitals are obligated to provide services to trauma and heart attack victims for which nobody is obligated to pay. That's why large, important hospitals like St. Vincent's in NYC have gone out of business in recent years.
When I attended Harvard Law School in the late 70's, we learned not only the law, but economic concepts of how to value wrongs, evaluate the risks of action and inaction on a problem, such as "Coase analysis" and "Pareto optimality". I took a wonderful course with Professor Alan Stone, on medical policy, in which we dealt with a swathe of medicolegal issues, including the effect of putting one more expensive MRI machine into a hospital ecosystem. The memory of what I learned from Dr. Stone has helped me understand the realities and dangers of our system now. Ted Cruz had that same education.
Regardless of whether the ACA is the right answer, the existing health care system was not sustainable. We were on our way to losing more hospitals while being forced to take care of more uninsured people, or allow them to die. Republicans, with their hypocritical tropes about "death panels", haven't come anywhere near dealing with that reality. I find the whole party demagogic on this issue, including Mr. Cruz.
I also doubt Mr. Cruz believes the following words: " Collectively, millions of Americans made the case that this is not working, this is the number one job killer in the country. This is causing millions of Americans to lose their jobs." That is almost random hype for which he brings no proof whatever. If he wants to say the ACA is a drag on the economy, fine. It certainly imposes costs on business, and it does give 49 person companies an incentive not add one more full time person. But to accuse it of killing jobs, Cruz is smart enough to know you would have to wait a few years--and take into account as an offset any jobs created by the act, and also the boost in productivity created by the removal of the costs of the dysfunctional existing system (workers dragged down by medical debt or losing their jobs or their lives due to untreated conditions).
Something Cruz said which is complete nonsense is his description of the Supreme Court case he won, relieving Texas (and other states) of a U.S. treaty obligation to inform a foreign consulate of the arrest of its nationals charged with a capital crime. This was really a case about whether the states are obligated to keep a promise the federal government lawfully chose to make in a treaty (which the Senate then voted to accept). You could have an honest debate about that one. But Cruz is too smart and well educated to believe the following: "And so Texas stood up and we fought the United Nations. We fought the World Court, we fought 94 nations and we fought the President of the United States." Cruz in his garden variety stump speech portrays his battle to execute an unassisted Mexican citizen as a crusade for American sovereignty against the United Nations. Please.
Then there's this side-swipe at Mitt Romney (though he claims it isn't):
The narrative of the last election was the 47% of this country who are not paying income tax, who are dependent on government, we donít have to worry about them.
I got to tell you, I canít think of an idea more antithetical to what we as conservatives believe than that. For one thing, it buys into the notion of the Left that the economic pie is fixed. That it never changes.
And if thatís right, the arguments for wealth distribution make a lot of sense. If the economic pie never changes, itís very hard to justify so few having so much more than so many. What we understand as conservatives is the economic pie isnít fixed.
That it is growing and dynamic and indeed the free market system in the United States of America has been the greatest engine for wealth creation, for opportunity, for prosperity in the history of the world.
In my view, Republicans should be the party of the 47%.
This sounds pretty good, if you don't parse it too closely. It includes no apparent consciousness of the decline of the American middle class, for a wide variety of reasons. Here's just one: the wrongs of banks and brokers that pushed adjustable rate mortgages, sliced and diced them into crappy securities, and then bet via derivatives that their own securities would fail, none of whom have been prosecuted. The right is already fighting to make sure derivatives, after all this experience, are still not regulated, so the next bubble can happen unimpeded.
The right wing trope is that all you have to do to take care of the poor is create jobs. This is a hypocritical trope for multiple reasons. First of all, talking among themselves, most of the right believes (with Mitt Romney), that the poor are lazy and won't work, and deserve whatever happens. Therefore, any verbiage addressed to the poor, offering anything, is not honestly meant by people who hold these contemptuous beliefs: they don't believe the poor are listening or will vote for them anyway, as Romney said. These tropes are therefore intended to persuade other parts of the electorate than the ones to which they are ostensibly directed, of the sincerity, compassion, etc. of the speaker: they are really directed to independent middle class swing voters with a heart, who may be convinced to vote Republican if they buy the lie. Secondly, to the extent that what the Republicans mean is that billionaires should be left completely unregulated in their economic decisions, job creation will not necessarily result: automation will continue to replace workers, jobs will continue to be outsourced to India and elsewhere, and American jobs will continue to be temporary, underpaid, and without benefits. Apropos of this last point, jobs aren't enough to improve the lot of poor people: they would have to be stable jobs, (minimum wage), with some security,(unions) and a shield (yes, social services) against ill health (the ACA), and against job loss (unemployment insurance). Cruz' pitch, which he is too smart to believe, is pure trickle-down, that if we just don't fetter the billionaires, there will be champagne for everybody. But those unfettered billionaires on the last go round, chose to double down on mortgage backed securities and associated derivatives that almost tanked the economy in 2008. Cruz is sheltering behind the same worn out trope the Republicans have used for the past eighty-four years to trick the people into voting against their own employment, home ownership, and health care.
Cruz is probably also too smart to believe the following:
Just keep your head down and we will win races. That is not how you win races. By the way it is driven I the old ó by an old Nixonian adage ó What complete poppycock. That is based on the oh so clever idea that if your opponent is here, that you want to be just to the right so you could capture every marginal voter. The problem is if you do that, you destroy every single reason anyone has to come up and vote.
This is the astonishingly wrong-headed trope that resounds among the Tea Party types that there is a hidden far right electorate that is discouraged from voting for John McCain or Mitt Romney but would come out and vote for Ted Cruz for president. There is no polling data or other evidence which gives any support to the idea there is a hidden electorate. Cruz needs only to study the changing demographic in his own state to know the truth. He is probably thinking along the following lines: If I shout long enough, loudly enough, with enough self confidence, perhaps Chris Christie or some other moderate will pick me as his right wing running mate, like McCain/Palin and Romney/Ryan. Get close enough to the presidency, and who knows what happens next? At this point you just squinch your eyes shut and have a leap of faith that you'll get elected after two terms of a popular moderate Republican (like Dan Quayle did?) or that the President may....but lets not go there. Cruz doesn't actually need the mythical Tea Party electorate to become president in this scenario.
Cruz's demagoguery seems most evident in his destructive sponsorship of a government shut down that has done so much harm. His bullying nature, his disregard for the other members of his own party, and most of all his complete indifference to the 800,000 middle and working class people to whom he denied salaries, suggests a terrible vanity and craving for power.
I believe Ted Cruz is dangerous to his own party and to democracy. The Framers expected Congress to operate on consensus, and without the dangerous, impulsive divisiveness they called "faction". A congress frightened and bullied by an angry vocal minority, one that cannot agree on the least compromise solution for governance, is not what the Framers wanted. Cruz violates the Kantian categorical imperative, by treating government workers and everyone else harmed by the shut down as means and not ends (breaking eggs to make a Tea Party omelette). The shut-down also betrayed a Tea Party exceptionalism, or even Ted Cruz exceptionalism, a viewpoint that only we are right, and therefore can use dangerous means to put our views across. If it isn't exceptionalism, do you expect, now that the gambit has been introduced, the right wing to stand by complacently when other minority groups follow their precedent and shut down the government, to obtain increases in foodstamps, laws against fracking, creation of new subsidies for unheard of products, or animal rights bills?
The birther crap
I naively believed until recently that the Constitution of the united States required a president to be born in the country. It doesn't, it just says a "natural born" citizen. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't qualify because he was born Austrian. Ted Cruz, who is aiming to run for president in 2016, was born in Canada to one American and one Cuban parent. John McCain was born to two American parents in Panama. So exactly what was all the nonsense about when the far right was screaming that president Obama was born to one American parent in Kenya and not Hawaii as he claimed? It wouldn't have mattered even if it were true.
What to do about Ted Cruz
The solution to the problem of Ted Cruz is an easy one, but it requires a little more backbone than the Republican party currently seems to have. John Boehner makes me remember the good/bad old days of speakers who actually ran the House, such as Tip O'Neill of late lamented memory, or even the corrupt, dangerous and over-reaching Newt Gingrich, who presumably would have crushed any congressperson who followed a Senator's lead without Gingrich's permission. To me the paralyzing fear of Tea Party primary opposition which is making the Republican party weak in the knees is actually a fear of Koch Brothers money, therefore of oligarchy. It is a pleasing development that in the weeks since the shutdown, a stunned Wall Street, which never lost control of the party before, is starting to pour money into centrist candidates, and fighting the Tea Party crazies (and therefore opposing the Kochs, billionaire against billionaire, mano a mano). But the other, ultimate and very satisfying solution would be to expel the destructive extremists from the Republican Party, and let them seek their correct level of status and influence by forming a third party of their own. This minority party, which, given the changing demographic in this country, would never achieve any substantial growth, would be able to make a little noise, and get a little press, but would lose every vote and soon recede to the very limited influence and visibility that it deserves. The Tea Party's impact has been based entirely on the fact that it has succeeded in using the much larger Republican party as its puppet, disturbingly reminiscent of certain parasites in nature, like the nematode hairworm that takes over and steers a much larger grasshopper to drown itself in water, where the hairworm's next phase of its lifecycle needs to live. If the Republican Party can just succeed in expelling its nematode hairworm, the two parties can resume the process of governance this country so badly needs.