October 07, 2003

Third Wave Politics

Roger L. Simon writes:

The media still do not get it. They are reacting to the size of Schwarzenegger victory like the Soviet nomenklatura did to the end of communism. They can hardly believe it is happening. Well I have news for them—something much bigger than they know, probably than Schwarzenegger himself knows, is going on here. We are not witnessing a Republican victory. The Republican Party in California remains a minority party. Most of the Republican true believers voted for McClintock.

What we are witnessing is the beginning—the early movement--in the death of the two-party system as we know it. This is a revolt of the pragmatic center.

I hope Roger is right. The pragmatic center is surely where I belong right now. And this is increasingly true for most of my 30-something friends, whether they started out as liberals (as is usually the case) or as conservatives.

The Democratic Party is now more unpopular than at any time since before the New Deal. And that was seventy years ago. Where I live, in Oregon, the most popular political “party” is Independent. Both the Republicans and Democrats are rightly considered wing-nuts or hacks. Roger may be right. It’s possible that the two-party system is a relic from another era. And by that I don’t mean the pre-911 era. I mean the time before the high-tech information revolution.

The two-party system worked nicely during what futurist Alvin Toffler calls “Second Wave” or Industrial civilization. But the “Third Wave” post-industrial high-tech information civilization is a world apart. Now is not the time of mass movements and conformity. This is an era of diversity and specialization, of individualism and niche groups. The world is becoming increasingly complex, and it is just not possible to reduce everything to an ideologically binary system.

Yesterday in the bookstore I leafed through Al Franken’s new book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Now, I like Al Franken just fine. He’s a decent enough guy, and he can often be funny. I bought Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot when it came out, and I enjoyed his skewering of the GOP’s most prominent blowhard. And though he (rightly I’m sure) makes short work of Bill O’Reilly and Ann Coulter in his newest release, I just don’t have much interest in the partisan party line game anymore. It feels tinny and out of date, and in the final analysis, it’s boring. I can no longer learn anything useful from spending my time with this sort of thing. It’s politics reinvented as sports. Our team versus their team. Whatever.

The most interesting non-fiction “current events” books are not being written by the Frankens and Coulters of the world; they are written by people who are not easily ideologically categorized and who don’t reduce everything to bumper sticker slogans and talking points. Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave comes to mind, as does Nonzero by Robert Wright and The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel. And for those interested in international issues, you can hardly do better than Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie and Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman. Berman, Rushdie, and Wright are unconventional liberals, and Toffler and Postrel are centrists.

Excessive bipartisanship leads to a de-facto one-party state. But that is a very different thing from non-partisanship, which leads to a no-party state. I am more and more convinced that this is exactly what we need.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 7, 2003 09:12 PM

I agree that the partisan flacks on each side tend to be tediously predictable but I'm not sure what we're seeing in California is actually a sign of major political change. It's more likely that a quirky re-call law, an out-of-control legislature, a god-awful governor, and a popular and charismatic celebrity have all converged to create a perfect political storm. It may be fascinating to watch but it's also probably going to remain a rare phenomenon.

I hope I'm wrong and Roger is right, though.

Posted by: Randal Robinson at October 7, 2003 09:58 PM

Amen to your thoughts on centrism and I hope Roger L. Simon is right, though I think it will take something far larger to root out our tremendously entrenched major parties.

I wish Arnold well and hope he can fix things for California (my brother and sister live there). As a fellow Oregonian (though from much closer to California in very conservative Josephine County), I don't think our state is that far from the chaos that's going on in California...the pervasive voter apathy here is slowly being worn thin by the ongoing budget wars. I don't know if the rest versus Multnomah County (and political class in Salem) angst is as detectable in Portland. Even many of the hippies, timber industry workers, etc. around here have gone Republican, and we have a steady influx of conservative California escapees (who have brought cash). The latter are fueling a homebuilding boom that is the only thing keeping our county from economic depression.

I continue to read articles in Portland's and Eugene's papers lamenting how the rural parts of the state are going further right and making politics across the state more divisive. From my view here, folks feel they are being driven right by the economic impacts of the social policies supported by liberals in Portland. Environmental laws (timber, salmon, etc.) have really hurt rural economies, and most of the promised replacement jobs were located in the Wilamette Valley. Much of the conservative leaning is really a protest, a feeling of being disenfranchised in the state. It's that disenfranchised feeling turning to anger that is fueling the current catharsis in California.

The governor has been reaching out some, but the budget woes have really hurt his effort. That and he never campaigned once south of Roseburg. I think folks are really frustrated with the legislature, but one can't recall other districts' legislators. Rural folks want fiscal conservatism and less intrusive government...the rest of the conservative baggage seems to be a right of passage to be electable (like Democrats being pro-union).

Some form of Healthy Forests Initiative would really help soothe the fears and calm the ire of the many of us rural types (this environmental engineer lives in the woods). The woods are burning worse nearly every year, and we are still prevented from reducing the risk in the public forests (which genuinely need thinning...and the vast majority of us don't want to cut old growth either). That Biscuit fire last year was too big and too close. And since most of our economy is now dependent upon others visiting, note that ashen forests don't draw tourists.

Posted by: Gordie at October 7, 2003 11:11 PM

What we are seeing is the death of civil debate.

Schwartzenegger has demonstrated what many already think -- that professional politicans with real records to defend that put forward real policy proposals will always lose to an "outsider" status candidate (preferably wealthy) who refuses to discuss policy under any circumstances.

His victory will lead to an increase in the number of meaningless campaigns with style and no substance.

Posted by: Kimmitt at October 7, 2003 11:31 PM

As a Californian I desperately hope Michael is right, and I do think there's hope, maybe even in Arnold's victory. But it's worth remembering that, pro-recall rhetoric to the contrary, this was in no way a grassroots movement. The recall effort was pioneered by wealthy and very conservative Republicans (the leader of which, Darrel Issa, having had his own gubernatorial aspirations crushed by revelations about his gun-toting ways and the fact that he is actually a complete moron). It's theoretically possible that there were people who actually volunteered their time free of charge to getting the initiative on the ballot, but almost all of the people gathering signatures were paid for by the initiative's backers. The recall was in fact a purely partisan effort.

The fact that the recall passed makes me uneasy for the future of the state. Just remember this: There's no constitutional limit on the number of recalls you can have. Personally, short of impeachable offenses (impeachment is provided for in California's Constitution) I think we should be forced to live with our mistakes. Our mistake, of course, was not voting for Davis over that other incompetent, Bill Simon--we had to. Our mistake, collectively, was not participating in the primary process and electing our candidates prior to electing our governor.

But the fact that the recall, inspired, funded and championed by conservative Republicans, resulted in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor fills my heart with glee. That'll teach 'em.

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at October 7, 2003 11:42 PM

His victory will lead to an increase in the number of meaningless campaigns with style and no substance.

Kimmitt, this year I watched a gubernatorial debate featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cruz Bustemente, Peter Camejo, Arianna Huffington and Tom McClintock. It was a remarkable moment.

I'm no fan of the recall (see above), but your off-the-cuff dismissal of the significance of the campaign strikes me as not very considered. Schwarzenegger is deficient in a number of categories, but what he has is an air of leadership about him, something sorely lacking from Davis, Bustemente and the rest. And it matters. Besides, the thing about him is, I doubt he can be any worse than Davis.

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at October 7, 2003 11:48 PM

Holding office is often overrated and misjudged the way Quarter Backs and Coaches are. What makes them great often is not their highbrow supposed intellect like Ariana (I HATE HER!) or a great throwing arm per say (Metaphor) its the intangible quality of leadership and being a leader. Steven McNair is not the best thrower, or have the bes fundamentals in the pocket, but he has the heart of Otto Graham and he's a WINNER! Same with Parcells, whose not even close to the genius of a Bill Walsh.

The point is you want the right man or woman in the job but what will make them successful is their leadership ability not some bullshit degree. That's why great businessmen and CEO's come more from every day folks and salesman than from people with Doctorate degrees.

The point is all political debates are nonsense Kimmitt! They always have been. This election shows the people are listening and they're tired of old hacks like Davis, if Arnold sucks he'll be out soon too.

The 2 Party system isn't dead its just shifting a bit, and its not the first time it has. Jennings Bryan and Teddy Roosevelt.

What a horrible thing it would be to have Europe's system of government. Then I'd have to listen to Greens, Communists, Socialists, Ulta Right Wing nuts with the crediblity of being a rep.

Posted by: Mike at October 8, 2003 12:05 AM

either or both of the 2 parties may be obsolete, but i don't know if the 2-party system is. one virtue it has is that, at least in principle, it produces a government that can govern, which the rotating coalitions of multi-party systems don't. when i heard some democrats talking about trying to recall schware... oh hell, arnold ... i thought i saw the ghost of the french 4th republic. still do.

Posted by: greeneyeshade at October 8, 2003 12:13 AM

No offense, but to say the 2 party system ISN'T obsolete is to assume that no truly dynamic and principled Centrist vision exists in this country and that couldn't be any farther from the truth. Alot of folks, like myself, find the old visions of Left and Right hugely discredited. Socialism sucks. Pacifism is dangerous. Theocracy bites. And Imperialism is retarded. It's not that hard to find a common middle ground: There are 20 Democratic DLC Senators and 9 Republican Main Street Coalition Moderates. These some odd 30 or so U.S. Senators agree with each other ON PRINCIPLE far more than they do with their respective wingnut-party-line establishments and constitute a valid "third way" reform-based alternative. Roger Simon refers to this as the "Libertarian Center", the voice of a new generation. The birth of a national Third-Way-Libertarian-Centrist Party would be the greatest advancement of American Democracy since at least the Civil Rights Movement. Imagaine a Wesley Clark/John McCain ticket...purest heaven.

Posted by: Grant McEntire at October 8, 2003 01:08 AM

Hey, great idea, in my dreams. Really. Heck, I RAN as a Libertarian for Congress years ago. I'd love to see more "Libertarian Paternalism" (AEI-Brookings paper) in gov't. It's very pragmatic. Could be part of the rise of the Center.

It could be great-- but please don't kid yourselves. It ain't gonna happen, unless (until?) a major celebrity (Arnie?) (Ross Perot?) pushes and creates a party. (And it's almost always easier to co-opt an existing party)

US politics are party politics, without a party, there won't be significant success. Jesse Ventura WAS governor (Perot's Reform Party), but governing has a way of removing ideals from idealists -- and turning them into pragmatists. Cynics.

The problem of parties is "purity police" -- wingnuts. Imagine a Pragmatic party that:
allows both pro- and anti- abortion folk to run.
allows both pro- and anti- school voucher folk to run, both pro- and anti- gay marriage, both pro- and anti- Kyoto agreement, etc.

What, really, do pragmatics believe? ??? ... well, independence, personality. Pragmatism on the specific issues of the time. Leadership. Like Arnie. Sounds good, until AFTER the election. Now what happens? Taxes go up (but not mine! or else A.S. sucks). Gov't spending goes down (but not on my programs! or else A.S. sucks).

The real problem is that gov't is being asked to use Other People's Money, to do "good" things, in ever increasing demands, or else it sucks.

Gov't sucks.

I'm glad Arnie won. The Reps at least allowed a pro-abortion guy to run--proving the dedicated pro-life activists have "no" party to fully support (that have been fully captured).

I hope it allows a Dem to say "booting Saddam was good. Really good. So good it was worth the $87 bill -- but Bush is lousy, lousy, lousy at lots of other things, including taxing & spending & arrogance & home spying & on & on."

(Kimmit, are you really claiming the current munchkin pack of Dems have been really engaging in serious debate about gov't? and it'll get worse because Arnie won?? LOL)

Posted by: Tom Grey at October 8, 2003 03:06 AM

PS. Want a Dem Pres.? "Easy". Have the Dem candidate profess being pro-life; reclaim those Catholic votes. But then, what does it mean to be Dem...

Posted by: Tom Grey at October 8, 2003 03:09 AM

Anyone want to start a pool on when the "Recall Arnold" show moves into the center ring? The only way that won't happen is if they can nail him with Gropegate.

I do love watching California politics (from the safety of Virginia). Bring in the clowns!

Semper Fi

Posted by: RickM at October 8, 2003 04:05 AM

Less than meets the eye.
Did Mr. Roger Simon vote for Mr. Davis in previous elections? Had Mr. Davis (a moderate Democrat as seen from the distance of Minnesota- pro-death penalty, willing to work with the corporate leadership, etc.) changed since his last election?

There is a consensus in the moderate middle that is breaking down on free trade (NAFTA), pre-emptive war (the adventure in Serbia was bi-partisan as was our Iraq adventure), welfare reform, the Bush-Kennedy War on Education. The outside edges get the ink and the money-raising letters; but the moderates get the policy and the programs (the laughable Farm Bill for instance).

Minnesota elected Mr. Ventura over two men who had endorsed Mr. Wellstone and Mr. Clinton in previous elections. One was once a DFLer, the other remained a DFLer. The former has become our GOP U.S. Senator after being "chosen" by Mr. Karl Rove as the "best" candidate.

The division between the two major parties is mostly smoke to obscure their agreement. The Bush (elder) Center is awarding Edward Kennedy a service award, even though that solon called Mr. Bush's son's Iraq policy a fraud. Same old, same old.

Posted by: Virgil K. Saari at October 8, 2003 06:04 AM

The birth of a national Third-Way-Libertarian-Centrist Party...

...would get my vote

The Democrats are stuck in the 1960s, the Republicans are stuck in the 1950s. Both parties have factions which are trying to provide today's answers to today's problems. I hope one of them succeeds.

Posted by: Oberon at October 8, 2003 06:51 AM

The Reps at least allowed a pro-abortion guy to run--proving the dedicated pro-life activists have "no" party to fully support

Probably the best thing about the whole campaign was that the parties weren't in control. The state GOP was in no position not to allow AS to run; they had no control over it. As has been noted above, the Cali GOP is quite conservative, much more so than the typical Cali Republican voter, and the GOP leadership was twisting itself in knots trying to find a way not to support AS. They didn't actually endorse him until a few days ago.

In the same way, the Democratic party, though it tried mightily, was in the end unable to prevent Bustamente from running.

Posted by: Christopher Luebcke at October 8, 2003 07:51 AM

I wouldn't place to much stock in what happens in California politics.

Posted by: SlimyBill at October 8, 2003 08:20 AM

I think we all tend to give too much credance to professional politicians. None of our founding fathers were professionals- a military man, a printer/scientist, country gentleman farmer - lawyer- scientist, etc. You will say that the world was less complex, perhaps. But it was a dangerous place then as it is now. What we need are real leaders, not professional politicians. We have not had one in the office of the president since Reagan. Bush is a good man and with a moral center - but I think his biggest weakness is in communicating and leading. He lost a big opportunity to rally the country. This is the largest problem in his Iraq efforts- not the logic, rightness or effectiveness of the actual campaign, but to lead with passion, to have the cleverness of a great leader to use the good news effectively, inspire and paint big picture. Clinton tried, but his hidden agenda gave lie to his faux attempts to be a real leader.

So give Arnie a chance. Maybe he has these talents and in that sense the article is right- it could a microcosm of what the country at large is looking for -leadership, passion, principle, and connection and support of our deepest values as Americans. The nine dwarfs and Clark surely do not have this. Bush does but to a limited extent as I've tried to argue.

Posted by: Richard at October 8, 2003 08:37 AM


CNN reports Arnie’s victory:

Schwarzenegger, who, like Hitler, is a native of Austria ...

CNN, which, like feral swine, is based in Georgia ...

UPDATE UPDATE. CNN has pulled the Hitler/Austria line. The earlier report may be found here.

Posted by: Bleeding Heart Conservative at October 8, 2003 09:04 AM

Gosh, BHC, when I read your post, I thought CNN had lead their story with a revolting attempt to link Hitler and Ahnuld (anyone see the Daily Show last night? "New allegations that Arnold groped Hitler..."). Good thing I followed the link and found the whole paragraph at the bottom of the story:

He has also been dogged by allegations that he expressed admiration for Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler in a 1975 interview, though those charges largely dissipated after two figures involved in the interview discounted them. Schwarzenegger, who, like Hitler, is a native of Austria, has vehemently denied that he ever had Nazi sympathies.

Granted, the Austria thing is a little weird. However, CNN made it clear the allegations of admiration (hey, that's great phrase: allegations of admiration) were debunked. Also, giving CNN the benefit of the doubt, this little fact helps the reader understand why people might have given the allegations undeserved credence, requiring Arnold deny them.

I'm sure you can find some fair and balanced evidence that CNN is swine, but this one's kinda weak.

Posted by: Oberon at October 8, 2003 10:10 AM

Good blog Michael. I agree.

Posted by: Thomas at October 8, 2003 10:22 AM

I was glad to hear that Arnold won and hardly think the world will fall apart as a result. People who moan about the "terrible decline in standards" attendant upon replacing a nasty, colorless Democrat in the governor's seat with a charismatic actor are the usual defenders of the status quo ante, passionate about a system that is already dysfunctional.

To posit that the way things are is better than the way things will be if they change is a kind of surreptitious form of elitism. Let the "expert politicians" take care of these matters! Chaos will ensue if a non-politician is given any power! Please.

I want to make damn sure my doctors are competent, but aren't most politicians recycled lawyers with a yearning for attention, and in fact similar to actors? They spend a lot of their time raising money; they have to pretend to like everyone they deal with; they traffic in symbolic posturing devoid of a great deal of substantive content. These activities also define acting to a great extent.

One reason for the political stasis in California that Arnold's candidacy has managed to break (perhaps temporarily) is the primary system--it ensures that conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats get nominated by the party's diehard bases (moderates and independents don't bother to vote in primaries), to the dissatisfaction of most in the middle. This allows for entrenched interests, from white-is-right bigots on the right to teachers and public employee unions on the left, to carry out their agendas even if they are not in the interests of the population at large.

I don't know if Arnold will be a good governor or not, but I'm glad the system has been shaken, not stirred. I strongly suspect that the republic will survive 4 or 8 (or 1.5) years of Arnold in office. Here's hoping professional politicians are worried by this outcome--perhaps they'll pay a little more attention to their ordinary constituents

Posted by: Daniel Calto at October 8, 2003 11:08 AM

Excellent post, Michael.

There is a related point to this that I can clearly see from where I reside - Europe and more specifically Paris, France. Whether or not you like Schwarzenegger or the recall process, the phenomenon speaks well of American democracy, despite those who say "politics as usual" or "Kennedy is the same as Bush blah blah blah" in a mass conspiracy agains We the People. In times of political or institutional crisis, the American people "grope" for the pragmatic, non-doctrinaire center. Here in the post-historical paradise that is Europe where we have eliminated good and evil (as a prelude to getting around to the Jews, then the Arabs), our choices are limited to the anti-globalist clowns on the left or the neo-Nazis on the right.

Appreciate the choices you have as well as those you don't have.

Posted by: Gabriel Gonzalez at October 8, 2003 11:28 AM

The more factions you have, the less representative each faction is. Each faction has narrow special interests, and advocates for specific radical changes. The Religious Right would sacrifice every element of governance to their own special concerns. Taxation, health care, crime, national defense, the environment--all judged by the extremist values of the Religious Right; values which do not constitute a robust and healthy general system of governance. Likewise the Sierra Club. Put either of these factions in power, and they'd represent a relatively small percentage of citizens. This would be a Bad Thing.

Each of our large, generalist parties must moderate its extremist positions and cater to as many smaller, less representative special interest groups as possible. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats can push for truly extreme changes, without instantly alienating every faction out there, who all want a different extreme change. Instead, they stay moderate, push for moderate changes, and try to stick close to a platform that a majority of the citizens at large can agree with. The Democratic Party may not be everything the Sierra Club wants, but honestly, aren't we all a little bit relieved at that?

Sure, there's always this general split between conservatives and liberals, but each of these two camps has the effect of unifying and moderating all the extremist factions that have chosen to fly their flag on one side or the other.

Ideally, you want the faction in power to represent as many citizens as possible. Two parties is the most representative arrangement that still allows the voters some choice in the matter.

Yes, that often doesn't feel like much of a choice at all. We become disgruntled because neither party truly represents us. I say, good! As much as I'd enjoy an extremist faction that drives relentlessly forward with all my favorite radical causes, I'd much rather have a system that prevents everybody else's extremist faction from gaining enough power to do that very thing.

Posted by: Peter at October 8, 2003 11:41 AM

With a few notable exceptions (and notable archetypes) the political edifice vibrates entirely in sympathy with what it thinks the electorate knows and wants.

That makes the facts-disconnection of major Media the central story—nationally, and most lately in California. For a long time, the inertia of customary notion has dictated that the knowledge and wants of the electorate have been shaped from the content of the daily paper and the six o’clock news. That is now changing and the political parties are, naturally, behind.

People have always been interested in what works—and what doesn’t—in the quest for fairness and the betterment of all. History and its precedents say that, for a while, fact-reporting and opinion on major ideas can be warped to some end, but eventually reasonable people catch on. Bloggers have, and their accounts and disagreements with mainstream reporting seem to be spreading. Blogger penetration into “main street” is certainly growing. So, has the Recall exposed just how ineffective warped Media has become, and so, how separated the politics?

And, isn't it clear that a healthy political edifice depends on a fact-oriented, objective-as-is-possible Media, regardless of the number of parties?

Posted by: Stephen at October 8, 2003 11:53 AM

Have the Dem candidate profess being pro-life; reclaim those Catholic votes.

Right, but most Dem candidates are pro-choice, so that would be something of a lie. I think we can all agree that there's plenty of that in politics.

Posted by: Kimmitt at October 8, 2003 12:24 PM

I think (could be wrong) that Catholics tend to vote for Democrats, anyway.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 8, 2003 01:04 PM

Historically, yes, but the abortion issue drives a wedge.

Hence, Antonin Scalia.

Posted by: Kimmitt at October 8, 2003 01:14 PM

You got it right, brother!

Posted by: beerzie boy at October 8, 2003 01:47 PM

Off topic, but I think one of these days, Michael, you should do a post consisting of book recommendations, both fiction and nonfiction. You seem to have read a lot of interesting stuff.

Posted by: pk at October 8, 2003 04:46 PM

Gordie wrote:

“[Rural] Folks feel they are being driven [to the] right by the economic impacts of the social policies supported by liberals in Portland. Environmental laws have really hurt rural economies, and most of the promised replacement jobs were located in the Willamette Valley. [Therefore] much of the conservative leaning is really a protest. [They] want fiscal conservatism and less intrusive government. The [Oregon] governor… never campaigned once south of Roseburg. [And I] think folks are really frustrated with the legislature, but one can't recall other districts' legislators.”

I think Gordie misunderstands and over-sympathizes with this “rural plight”. Rural folks are not “driven to the right,” they have always been there and always will, at least in the West. And this is not a new battle, but a very old one. It is a battle to maintain a destructive and parasitic way of life.

The West is an artificial human environment. There is abundant land, but little usable water. Without Eastern tax dollars and the Federal government larding out development projects, such as damns and roads, very few people would be living in the West and even fewer farming or logging.

Thanks to massive government assistance it became possible for people who couldn’t make it in the crowded and rule oriented society of the Northeast or the South to come west, to tame the land and each other, and to live by the strength of their will alone. This is the myth of the "rugged individualist" which epitomizes the Rural Republican's self image.

But these programs have environmental costs. Putting out forest fires for over 100 years has led to forests clogged with fuel (and I don’t mean healthy trees, but dead underbrush, and no Bush logging plan will help with that). Hydro projects, ranching, mining, and logging have all led to soil erosion, polluted streams, and dead fish.

Certainly, laws that reverse this trend of government subsidy and privilege to resource industries are going to be painful for those who rely on them. But while I sympathize with plight of many rural Oregonians, I wouldn’t want politicians to simply cave in and keep enabling the same destructive lifestyle and economy.

These laws are not “liberal social policies,” heck they aren’t social at all, they are practical economic rules. And they do not benefit only the Portland hippy. As Gordie noted much of Oregon’s economy relies upon our "green" image with the wider public, from sport fishermen to Intel’s relocating executives and manufacturing programs.

Meanwhile, the claim that rural conservatives want “less government intrusion” is as false as any similar Republican polemic. They don’t want less government when it comes to irrigation programs or farm loans. But they don’t want to be told when they can and can’t open the irrigation spigot, let their cattle roam free, or drive their Honda ATV's through sensitive endangered species habitat.

Mainly, they don’t like being reminded that the only reason they can live 40 miles into the “back country” is because city folk pay taxes to maintain their irrigation, fire fighting, and national defense bills. The myth of the “rugged individualist” needs to die, and with it any sense of entitlement by farmers, loggers, miners, et al. We must hope for the victory of the Portland liberals because the changes they advocate are vital to protecting our entire environment, that in which we all live, work, and play.

For more on the forest issue, see here.

Posted by: sblafren at October 8, 2003 05:14 PM

I blame redistricting. It has been said that voters used to choose their legislators, and now legislators choose their voters. This is not far off the mark. As a Republican, I enjoy the fact that the Democrats are now getting skewered the way the Republicans used to in the redistricting game. As an American, I'm not sure this is good for the country.

Making the legislative districts less and less competitive means that centrist legislators are becomming more and more rare. The Republicans in office are more conservative and the Democrats are more liberal precisely because the parties no longer have to appeal to the center to win. Over the long term, this is bad for our democracy.

Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to end the cycle, except perhaps for more state laws such as Iowa's redistricting scheme (where boundaries are set by a non-partisan commission, with respect paid principally to political subdivisions -- guaranteeing that districts are more compact and competitive). I do not favor an act of Congress (federalism, etc.), but states interested in real political reform could easily implement this. The problem: neither party wants to be the first to "disarm."

Posted by: Ben at October 8, 2003 05:55 PM

Ben's right on.

Posted by: Oberon at October 8, 2003 06:00 PM

You know, I'd love to see a centrist third party spring up. Marginalize the wingnuts on both sides once and for all.

But the structure of American politics just doesn't allow it to happen. As much as I'd like to agree with this post, the Dems and Republicans are here to stay, and the only real-life option is to try and reform the party of your choice. I wish it were different.

Posted by: Kevin Drum at October 8, 2003 07:04 PM

I don't agree with Kevin that there is no way out, though the inertia caused by those desperately clinging to the status quo is very substantial.

One way to build a more vibrant center would be to move to eliminate the primary system and have an open-to-all-entrants election. This would diminish the power of the wingnuts and strengthen the center. This in fact is what just happened in California.

I for one would like to see more socially tolerant liberal Republicans and more conservative Democrats running. It would certainly liven things up.

Just as important, a non-partisan approach would create substantial incentives for moderates Democrats and Republicans to work together in the interest of self-preservation, and lessen the level of harsh political invective and near-hatred of the opposing party that we've witnessed in recent times.

Posted by: Daniel Calto at October 9, 2003 07:02 AM

Michael, I'm sure most lapsed Catholics vote Dem, and JFK is a huge Dem draw, still. And Catholics like most Dem social justice rhetoric. But I suspect the Catholic pro-life single issue folk to be making it hard to be both a Dem and a Catholic -- there's a serious move to excommunicate Ted Kennedy because of his pro-abortion position. It prolly won't succeed, but the point is that the Dem purity police are forcing out any pro-life folks.

Posted by: Tom Grey at October 9, 2003 10:49 AM


I read your blog regularly and enjoy it. I read your forest blog at the time and thought of writing in but didn't. So you know from whence my perspective comes, I'm a degreed environmental engineer who lives in the forest (woods as we call them) here in southern Oregon...near Grants Pass. GP is in Josephine County, the county that hosted most of the Biscuit fire, the U.S.'s largest last year, and Oregon's largest in more than a century (500,000 acres, most of it in Oregon, so I have no idea why the Oregon forestry folks have the stats you quoted much lower...see www.biscuitfire.com for data). Note that when Bush tried to visit our forests this summer near The Sisters but couldn't because they were burning, that fire alone was larger than the stat the errant Oregon forestry site was posting.

And regards recovering the Biscuit fire deadwood, both incessant legal challenges and a slow-moving Forestry Service (which around here is populated with activist environmentalists) have effectively stonewalled the efforts of local companies to harvest the deadwood from the burned public lands...as the wood goes into its second winter, little will be economically viable to recover if ever the roadblocks are removed. The lipservice paid by local environmentalists and forestry folks regarding the desire to allow smart recovery of the burned lumber has been precisely that, lipservice. We have unemployed and unemployed timber folks who would love the work and can't get it.

I can provide some color on some of your other forest statistics. Just over half of Oregon's timber harvest has come from the logging of private lands (our local paper has the stats every year, but it doens't post articles on-line). In smaller logging operations, land owners typically sell only their "money trees," the ones big enough to turn a profit for the logging effort. Even most of the larger selling landowners don't clearcut because of both financial and PR issues. Thus, these operations really skew lower the board feet per acre calculations versus clear cut (or burned) board feet numbers.

You're right about the fire acreage numbers being fairly randomized versus rising every year as one might expect when hearing alarmist news of more fires and their intensity. Some of the randomization is eliminated when one merges the fire data with rainfall data...some. The data worked in spades here last year when we'd had a drier than average winter, then had zero rain from mid-May until Nov 1. This year we had an average rainfall year, but the rains were light mid-winter and heavier than normal in the spring...that really reduced the fire risk. Years with high summer dry lightning usually spike fire data...and actually last year was not a high dry lightning year, but it sure started a huge fire.

Regards forest thinning, one of the first critical pieces of data that needs to be considered is regards the forest...old growth or regrowth. Half the Bisuit fire (it was two fires that merged) started in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness, which is/was mostly old growth (the area had been lumbered and mined in places before being made into a wilderness). Thinning old growth makes no sense I can see. Much of Josephine County's timber is not old growth...my land burned in a huge fire in the 1920s and is going through the typical local progression of timber varieties to try to return to an old growth ecosystem balance. Much more of the county has been logged, with the regrowth ranging from maybe 30 years old to more than a centruy. Most forests cut long ago weren't replanted, so the trees have had to reconquer from varieties of selective and clearcutting. The tree progression around here tends to be as follows:

On my land, a few very scattered large pines and cedars (not high enough for douglas fir) survived the fire. In the drier, hotter climate here, the seedlings rarely survive in an unshaded seedbed. So, oaks and madrone take over the sunny areas (and that evil invader, the scotch broom that likes to choke south-facing slopes). They thrive in significant density (the thinning recommendation comes when they and start starving each other out for resources) and eventually get big enough that they create some decent shade. Then with a few wetter years, the pines and cedars that germinate all over the place every year can survive until they don't need the protection of the seed bed. Then they grow strong and tall through the oaks and madrone and eventually shade them out to death. As we haven't been here long enough to observe the entire process, we can only theorize how many centuries it will take until the forest would be considered truly old growth again, if ever.

Most of the forested land you see in the Rogue Valley in the I-5 corridor is regrowth somewhat like the above...it looks like a pine forest from a distance, but it's really much more mixed, especially at lower elevations...as one goes higher, the pine and cedars, and eventually firs have an environmental advantage with more rain and cool. It's also more mixed than the average forest because the Siskiyou Mountains are the intersection between the more northerly type forest ecosystem dominated by douglas fir and the drier ecosystems found in California. Note that there's lots of houses in these woods...if you think it's just vacation homes, you don't understand the rural demographics here in wooded Oregon. Look at the population of the towns for instance in Josephine County, then look at the total population of the county...a goodly percentage of the delta is people living in the woods. And while some of the houses are certainly indicative of money (many from fleeing Californians), more are the trailers and shacks of the landed poor, our imitation of West Virginia. The land they live on just happens to have trees as its most successful crop/weed. We accept fire (and big animal) risk like folks accept tornado risk in the midwest...but we also expect our tax dollars to translate into some disaster response.

No question the U.S.'s fire policies of the past have adversely impacted the balance of nature throughout the west. The question becomes what do we want the balance of nature to be. The U.S. overall has more forested land now than it did when white man arrived, but the numbers in the west are down and are up in the east and south (and it's mixed in the midwest). Your suggestion to let more fires burn is absolutely valid for a number of areas...but it needs to be better strategized than what the Forest Services and the like are providing right now. The Biscuit fire last year cost about $150M to fight and burned just 4 homes, 9 outbuildings, a fire tower, and some recreational facilities (though if it had burned a bit further SE or E, it would have burned into areas with some population density...like the town of Cave Junction). It could have gone much further north and burned out almost nobody, but it would have further dented our recreational tourist draw.

So, what do we do about the people who live in the forests...and our need for wood (besides just let other nations deforest themselves and destroy lands, especially in tropical areas, with vastly more biodiversity than ours)? Lots of forest dwellers are stuck in a policy black hole, the battlefield between environmental interests and industry. Many forests aren't by strategy going back to nature where folks would be reimbursed to leave, like those flooded out by dam construction. And, many aren't being managed for tree harvesting (like for instance much of the panhandle of Florida) because of environmental blockades and cheap imports. So, what can we do?

- Leave old growth alone, meaning let it burn when nature dictates. Same goes for land that we're allowing to go back towards old growth. And for those folks we've economically trapped on land they thought they owned more rights on, they should be reimbursed to move (maybe like folks in floodplains)...long run that's cheaper than fighting fires in such areas.

- Where we have a huge number of acres of old growth that's essentially the same ecosystem, the case can be made for harvesting some of it. Man is going to continue to develop, and we need to spend more of our effort conserving rare ecosystems and species. Tough decision area though.

- Fight fires on land that being managed for tree harvesting...or at least make an economic decision if fighting the fire is more expensive than letting the land burn...tough decision where those fires get close to civilization. If we want cattle to graze on it and/or to build roads through it...smartly, fine.

- Make final decisions on the land between the two categories of old and managed growth...and if we're going to manage it, thin it..the density of transitional tree makes quite a bit of this type of land dangerous regards fire. And yes, various editions of the Healthy Forests Initiative have defined thinning way too loosely...but remember some of that is bargaining language for those who would have us do nothing in the forests. We genuinely need to smartly thin overly dense forests, and it probably will cost money in most cases to do so. If we can't come to a decision on what we're going to do with that land, either fight the fires, and/or pay folks to leave if they're burned out. Don't leave people in the never-never land of indecision.

And remember, the longer unmanaged forests lies fallow in this over-dense small tree stage (and there are all kinds of local ecosystems for how this tree transition occurs), the more likely it is to burn, and to burn too hot. If we sterilize large chunks of land in a major conflagration, no one wins...well maybe except the radical environmentalists who want everyone off the land anyway.

A note of local color...some local environmental activists are fanning the reactive ire here. A few of the locals campaigning to further close off the woods in/near the Kalmiopsis Wilderness near here are doing so in part because they want less possibility of their marijuana plantings in the wilderness of being discovered. A bit hypocritical, no?

Anyway, sorry to be so wordy, but while I agree with most of your post regarding forest management, I also recognize the need for disciplined thinning in managed forests. I hope the Healthy Forests Initiative is helping move forward the debate between environmental interests, industry, and the needs of the forest residents...as it certainly isn't helping us make any physical process in managing the land with as long as this legislation is taking.

Posted by: Gordie at October 9, 2003 02:06 PM


I think most people would have few problems with “thinning” or “salvage logging” if they could trust that this is really what would happen. But the Forest Service is not charged with protecting America’s wilderness, it is charged with putting timber to “use” (and they have a history of losing money at it). Many timber companies have been caught illegally stripping land that they were paid to “thin” with the Forest Service looking the other way. Essentially the FS is a government subsidy for loggers, not an oversight agency (for fun you can look up the many heads of the service who have resigned in disgust). The Cubs would win a pennant before Oregonians accept the Bush “forest plan”!

Some of my family’s friends have been real life examples of private loggers. Our experience is that it costs more money to selectively log land, especially a steep hill (at least this is what everyone believes). People prefer to bring in a backhoe and chains to simply strip the land bare. Most private landowners who allow logging on their land do so out of economic desperation or sheer greed, stewardship is rarely a concern.

People have been here long enough to observe both natural recovery processes and the unnatural destruction of forests. There has been significant logging in Oregon for more than a century, while bear and deer have returned to New England woods and 300-year-old farmsteads have been swallowed into the trees. Meanwhile the largest timber company in Oregon, Louisiana Pacific, sold its tower in Portland and moved to Memphis (full circle once again?). Logging is a “deluge” business model that doesn’t work even by its own measures. While nature is an old hand, slow and steady, and very effective with out human oversight.

A wildfire in an un-managed forest clears the ground, forces open cones, and prods seeds to germinate. A natural fire not only poses little risk to the forest, but is vital to successful propagation. But logging and extreme fire damages the soil, destroys seed cones, and kills large trees outright. In this setting there is no “progressive recovery,” but rather a permanent invasion of sun loving deciduous trees that don’t give ground. They establish wide surface root systems; suck specific soil nutrients dry; alter the PH of the soil; and can even effect the temperature and rainfall of the area.

Local environmental problems are compounded by larger phenomena such as global warming. A year after the Biscuit fire a ranger went looking for seedlings as a sign of recovery. NPR recorded her disappointment as she realized that a day’s hike failed to turn up any conifer seedlings. She explained that every winter evergreens must go into a state of hibernation in which they do not put out new shoots. The trees rely upon predictable patterns of fall cooling to tell them when to “sleep” and arborists are finding that the trees are being confused by our changing climate. In desperation, the FS is considering replanting southern Oregon with redwoods from California! The successful recovery in the Rogue got its start about 70 years ago, but times have changed and it would be folly to count on a natural recovery when we are so busy “managing” and wrecking nature itself.

True, probably the majority of homes in rural Oregon are not vacation homes. Many are what we city folk unfairly call “poor white trash” living in trailers and old farmsteads. But these people didn’t sprout out of the soil. They came west from company towns in W. Virginia, the chaos of post war Dixie, or the dust bowl of Okalahoma - the “Okies”. They came looking for work in mines, logging camps, and farms. Their very lives were probably saved by government-assisted development of the West. And this is precisely why they are so threatened and upset by changing policies. However, just as with poor rural Southerners, also living in trailers, these people are not paying significant taxes upon which they predicate disaster release (if they are laid off mill workers they are receiving government assistance instead of paying taxes). Their existence in the woods and deserts is artificial and parasitic upon mostly East Coast urban taxpayers (this is the old dirty secret of the “independent” West), not to mention the inevitable environmental consequences of the wholesale teraforming needed to maintain their “neighborhoods”.

It doesn’t make economic, social, or environmental sense to maintain this system. If these people truly “accepted the risks” of living in the backcountry (such as wildfires) they would change their lifestyles and expectations. For starters they would clear the land around their homes, build with stone, and never expect fire fighters to risk their lives (when I say this I keep in mind that a few people do just that, which only points out the unreasonable expectations of the remainder). These people need to face the unpleasant music of new rules to protect their own habitat and the larger environment that even city folk rely on.

I don’t mean to be callous. I grew up in the “mixed company” of rural country families in addition to a professor’s more urbane friends and I believe that I have a pretty good understanding of the priorities, good and bad, and the pressures, natural and man-made, upon our rural communities. I also believe that much that is positive about American culture comes from farmers and woodsmen as well as from businessmen and city folk. Something definitely needs to be done to re-balance our society and I have my eyes and ears open for any and all possibilities. I am open to ideas that help family farmers keep agribusiness at bay and I would love to be comfortable again with recreation in our wilderness areas. But I am not sure what would do this for me… perhaps it would help if people from the State Of Jefferson™ stopped fighting urban legislators and if our next Governator™ campaigned south of Lane County!

Truly, I don’t think you and I are too far apart on our views or proposals. I don’t think this situation is beyond resolution, but both sides will need to compromise. The city cant have unlimited economic growth while limiting the country, and neither one can survive or succeed ongoing with out some limitations.


Posted by: sblafren at October 10, 2003 01:17 AM

And Gordie... thanks very much for the compliment. I certainly dont mean to offend you with my reply. As I said... I think we are actually pretty close to agreeing. I liked some of your proposed solutions alot. Say, I blogged our exchange here and here.

Posted by: sblafren at October 10, 2003 01:33 AM

The binary root of the two-party system isn't industrial-age info technology. It is winner-take-all elections for President and, to a lesser degree, for legislators. So long as we have our current electoral system, there will only be two viable parties. They may not always be the same two we have now, but there will only be two.

Small parties can still have a real role in other voting systems, like the Parliamentary systems in Europe. Under our system, though, third parties can serve only as spoilers, and as such will always be marginal.

Posted by: R C Dean at October 11, 2003 05:26 AM

R.C. Dean is right to say our system of single member districts with plurality win tends to leave us with 2 viable parties. (N.B., in all countries with this electoral system, third parties tend to be marginal (Liberals in the UK) or regional in nature (Quebec)). Where I take issue is that third parties can have a profound impact on the two party system. Normally, they are subsumed by whichever one of the larger parties takes their ideas (e.g., the Dixiecrats have largely gone Republican, the Reform party is still in play), but sometimes they actually replace one of the larger parties (e.g., the Republicans replaced the Whigs).

Posted by: Ben at October 11, 2003 09:12 AM
The most interesting non-fiction “current events” books are not being written by the Frankens and Coulters of the world; they are written by people who are not easily ideologically categorized and who don’t reduce everything to bumper sticker slogans and talking points. Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave comes to mind, as does Nonzero by Robert Wright and The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel. And for those interested in international issues, you can hardly do better than Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie and Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman. Berman, Rushdie, and Wright are unconventional liberals, and Toffler and Postrel are centrists.

If you believe non-partisanship is cathcing on, then why do the partisan books massively outsell the non-partisan fare?
While there are more "self-proclaimed" independents than ever, there are fewer effective independents (folks who regularly vote for both parties). The truth is that the country is more divided than ever. Arnold's victory was that of a socialy liberal celebrity in a liberal state against a riviled incombent. Similarly, conservative Democrats win governorships in a conservative states all the time.

Sadly, actual election statistics show that the "pragmatic center" is very small.

Posted by: WillieStyle at October 12, 2003 12:52 PM
The most interesting non-fiction “current events” books are not being written by the Frankens and Coulters of the world; they are written by people who are not easily ideologically categorized and who don’t reduce everything to bumper sticker slogans and talking points. Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave comes to mind, as does Nonzero by Robert Wright and The Future and Its Enemies by Virginia Postrel. And for those interested in international issues, you can hardly do better than Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie and Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman. Berman, Rushdie, and Wright are unconventional liberals, and Toffler and Postrel are centrists.

If you believe non-partisanship is cathcing on, then why do the partisan books massively outsell the non-partisan fare?
While there are more "self-proclaimed" independents than ever, there are fewer effective independents (folks who regularly vote for both parties). The truth is that the country is more divided than ever. Arnold's victory was that of a socialy liberal celebrity in a liberal state against a riviled incombent. Similarly, conservative Democrats win governorships in a conservative states all the time.

Sadly, actual election statistics show that the "pragmatic center" is very small.

Posted by: WillieStyle at October 12, 2003 12:54 PM


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