Thursday, June 21, 2018



                                        HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN HERE?


"[A] dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people, than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.  History will teach us, that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism, than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics the greatest number have begun their career, by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing Demagogues and ending Tyrants."  "Publius", The Federalist I (Alexander Hamilton)

"You cannot fool all of the people all of the time, but you can fool enough of the people for long enough to do irreversible damage."  Joseph Schumpeter


It has been a little over a year since Donald Trump (or Agent Orange as Spike Lee refers to him) was inaugurated, but we continue to be inundated with analyses in the media of how and why his election happened.  It remains an obsessive topic of private conversation, at least among those who voted otherwise.  Although there are many explanations, none are entirely satisfactory, perhaps because the most likely are so unattractive and run counter to the essence of the American Creed, which, albeit only sporadically adhered to in unblemished form, in the main, for all its shortcomings, has been a successful experiment in pluralistic republicanism .  It's becoming clear that the election was less about who Trump is (we always knew the answer to that) than about who the American  people are.  Trump has been successful (and maybe this is his only true success story) in stirring up the latent shameful undercurrents of American society which have been with us from the beginning and erupt in times of stress.  As Camus wrote, with regard to the plague bacillus, "it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests".  Likewise the plague of ethnocentrism, racism and intolerance is always present in some segments of the population, ready to re-emerge given the right conditions.  Madison himself felt that there was more to fear from the power of the majority than from the government, and this after the colonies' war against the government of England. That's certainly been brought home to us in the last election, albeit by an artificial majority.

Perhaps a good place to start is with the problem of terminology.  Political power resides with those who dictate the vocabulary.  The Republican Party for some time and Donald Trump more recently have proven themselves most adept in this regard and the mainstream media have become passive accomplices, purveyors of false equivalence. Our political vocabulary today is rife with misnomers that aid and abet what has become a hostile takeover, a non-violent "democratic" coup, of our government.  Regime change evidently begins at home.

                                                           
                                                Populism and Democracy

For instance, we are told that Trump ( as well as other leaders or leadership hopefuls in France, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and elsewhere in Europe) is leading a "populist" revolution, that is, suggesting a revolution of the people against what in a different era might be called the aristocracy or plutocracy. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The use of the term "populism" by itself is misleading.  It fails to distinguish what might be called populism of the left, i.e., positive populism, and populism of the right, i.e., negative populism. Trump's financial and political backers are anything but positive populists.  Populism of the left supports the concerns of ordinary people and their right to have control over their government, rather than a small group of political insiders or a wealthy elite, to achieve a better life for themselves, and in principle to see a broader and more equitable distribution of the economic pie, e.g., Bernie Sanders populism. In the US, historically the populist movement was a politically oriented coalition of agrarian reformers in the Middle West and South that advocated a wide range of progressive economic and political legislation in the late 19th century which eventually broadened its base to include labor and other groups (positive populists).

At a more abstract level, populism of the left speaks for "we, the people", that is, all of the people.  A more recent example of positive populism is FDR's New Deal.  If there is anything which Trump's movement speaks for, it is not "we, the people".  To the extent that there is any coherence to what might be called Trump policy, it favors the wealthy, and rule by oligarchy, banks, big business and financial entrepreneurs, precisely the groups that the historical populists of the left and any contemporary self respecting heirs to that tradition did and would oppose. Populism of the right, which is the populism of Trump, the Tea Party, the House Freedom Caucus and the rest of the Republican Party, represents a narrowing of the concept of "we, the people".  It is nationalist populism where majority rule is not tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of minorities, and of individuals.  Followers of this tradition attack both above and below.  They aim at a so-called "elite", which includes the educated, the intelligent, the academic community, scientists, artists, writers, teachers, journalists, secularists, government officials, etc. (but not the wealthy), what might be characterized as a meritocracy (these populists of the right seem to have an undying hatred for anyone who is not mediocre), but also at those who are economically below them or are otherwise different - the poor, African Americans, immigrants, Moslems, LGBT, etc.  They are about exclusiveness, not inclusiveness.  Populists of the right do not accept the right of all others to participate fully in society regardless of their background.  It is non-pluralistic populism.  Those not included are not part of the "people".

By associating the Trump movement with populism without highlighting this distinction, the mainstream media provide an undeserved positive imprimatur.  Trump and today's Republicans, to the extent they represent any form of populism, stand for right wing populism, for negative populism. Trump, with the unintentional help of such media, has skillfully sold himself as a man of the people, particularly what he posits as the neglected middle class.  Admittedly one would have to be pretty gullible to accept this characterization, but maybe naivete is one aspect of the stereotypical American character which does hold true.  America may be the land of the entrepreneurial, but maybe in part because it is also the land of the conman, the land of the "sucker born every minute".

In fact, even bona fide populism, that is, populism that is pluralistic, raises doubts.  Madison's view of populism was perhaps more realistic.  He believed that ordinary citizens lacked civic virtue; as noted above he feared the tyranny of the majority, so-called popular sovereignty, the same "popular sovereignty" advocated by Senator Stephen A. Douglas in support of a popular vote in the Territories to determine whether to be slave or free states. Madison was fearful of the character of the popular majorities that would rule the States and of the populist sentiment that would swirl through the body politic under the influence of the charismatic demagogue; the populism of the authoritarian leader who caters to the passion of the crowd while neglecting the bestowal of real benefits, such as health care, education, etc., which would truly improve the lot of the broader population; who embraces their negativism.  Whether representatives in a representative democracy would act as enlightened deliberators or simply act as agents for parochial interests was a great conundrum that republican constitutionalists had to address at the Constitutional Convention.

People in a democracy, whether representative or direct, are often the slaves of perverse demagogues who know how to manipulate and flatter them.  In a democracy the people often have no real conception of what liberty is and their rule can be harsher than that of the worst tyrants.  As Bret Stephens has put it, "... a diabolical ideology gains strength not because devils propagate it, but because ordinary men embrace it."  He quotes Bertolt Brecht: "as he put it after the war, 'The womb is fertile still, from which that crawled'".

Perhaps then it is democracy itself which is the curse, unless we distinguish between liberal democracies (ours still?) and illiberal democracies, such as those in Hungary, Poland and Turkey with their authoritarian overtones.  This type of democracy is the majoritarian democracy, which places higher value on the interests of the majority than on the rights of others, which Madison and other of the founders feared.

In any event, branding the Trump movement as "populist" gives it a more appealing face to voters who are otherwise dissatisfied with what they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as their neglected status in society.

Trump's form of populism is a movement which incites and embraces the worst instincts of human nature - white nationalism, racism, religious intolerance, ethnocentrism, homophobia, misogyny, violence - which musters the darker forces of our nature to achieve electoral success.  In short, everything which goes against the grain of what our textbooks tell us that America stands for. By clothing these passions in the nomenclature of populism, we provide cover for the dark side of human nature. Is this the true nature of America?  Does populism of the right trump (no pun intended) populism of the left?  We'll see.  There is more in our history to support this view than we like to admit.  (Examples: virtual eradication and forced relocation of Native Americans; the nativism of the Know Nothing Party before the Civil War; the original KKK; Jim Crow; the Chinese Exclusion Act; Attorney General Mitchell Palmer and the Red Scare after WW I; the second coming of the KKK in the 1920s; the internment of Japanese-Americans in WW II; McCarthyism; to name just a few)

There is, of course, another consideration which underlies and supports the above, that is, ignorance. The Trumpists and their alt-right acolytes stand for the dumbing down of America.  Perhaps we can't blame the Republicans alone for this.  For a long time we have been aware that Americans are breathtakingly uninformed, even when it comes to their own history and form of government, and seemingly unconcerned about it.  From the beginning of the Republic, it was understood that democracy would only work if the polity was educated.  On this premise, over the years the U.S. has been a leader in broad-based public education, but for the extreme right today it has low priority and has become a target because it is "liberal" and "secular".  In reality, education is anathema to their program which relies on irrationality and ignorance for its success.  58% of Republicans think that universities have a negative effect on the country, presumably because these institutions value skepticism, not credulity, and are committed to the exercise of reason rather than the recitation of dogma.

The less people know, the more obdurate they are in upholding what they think they know.  It is the ignorant person who, being credulous, has no doubt about anything and becomes violent and ferocious when challenged.  This plays into the hands of right wing demagogues.

One is reminded of Learned Hand's Spirit of Liberty speech in which he said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right ...."

A subset of this dumbing down is the rejection of professionalism, experience and expertise.  This assumes that the people know as well as, if not better than, the experts (who are the "elite"), perhaps because they think they can look it up on the internet.  It is all part of the anti-intellectualism in American life written about by Richard Hofstadter.  This has been around for a long time but seems even more pervasive today.

What about Trump's support system, the establishment Republican Party?  How does it fit into this paradigm?  Has it transformed itself to support Trump solely as a matter of political expediency now that his presence in the White House enables its policy objectives?  Doubtful. The Party has been on this same path of populism of the right, although somewhat less overtly, for a long time, at least since Nixon's Southern strategy and the decamping of racist Southern Democrats to the Republican Party. Quite simply, it is the path to electoral success, perhaps the only path, for a party that is programatically, intellectually and morally corrupt. Trump's victory has been exploited by a political party which refuses to distance itself from what is, in fact, a white, religiously intolerant, nationalist, racist government.  If Trump hadn't come along, Republicans would have had to invent him, and they certainly have tried their best, e.g., Palin, Cruz, Santorum, Bachman, Huckabee, Bannon, Buchanan, etc.  Let us recall that conservatives in Weimar Germany made the gargantuan mistake of seeing Hitler as a  useful tool for rousing the populace.

                                                     
                                                Liberalism vs Conservatism

Here we have another problem of terminology which obscures our political vision, that is, the definitions of "conservative" and "liberal".  The Republican Party has done a clever job of demonizing the term "liberal" as threatening, and promoting "conservative" as America's political standard, which it claims for itself.  In short, conservative is good, liberal is bad, and the Democratic Party is liberal. According to the journalist and academic Thomas Edsall, "Trump's success, such as it is, has been to accelerate the ongoing transformation of traditional political competition into an atavistic struggle in which each side claims moral superiority and defines the opposition as evil." Liberalism has been equated with radicalism, with revolution, with foreign "isms" that would destroy America's past and its traditions; on the other hand conservatism has been equated with patriotism, the Constitution and good old fashioned Norman Rockwell Americana.  These terms have thus become the signposts which signify where one stands in society.

Furthermore, by denominating the differences between the Parties in such terms, a false impression is created that their differences are ideological, and thus just competing approaches to problem solving, which gives them a cover of legitimacy when in fact they represent fundamental differences in standards, values and concepts of civic virtue.

The sad fact is that most Americans have little idea of where these terms come from or what they mean.  As descriptive terms they are meaningless in today's political environment.  In truth, these terms are not mutually exclusive, and both Parties could be characterized as fundamentally both liberal and conservative in the original sense of these words.  (As Adlai Stevenson said, "The strange alchemy of time has somehow converted the Democrats into the truly conservative party of this country - the party dedicated to conserving all that is best, and building solidly and safely on these foundations.")  That is, both Parties could have been so characterized until about 40 years or so ago when the Republican Party became neither liberal nor conservative insofar as its actions were concerned.  It became instead the Party that believes it can not only stop but reverse change and believes that modernity is a dirty word, the Party that harks back to an illusory utopia and ignores the trajectory of history. As per William Buckley, speaking for the Republican Party, the conservative mission is to stand "athwart history, yelling stop.''   It has rejected the traditional liberal values of tolerance and freedom and adopted the illiberal values of conformity and coercion.

How did this happen?  First of all, it is useful to distinguish between two or perhaps three strands of conservatism as defined by the political psychologist Karen Stenner - "laissez faire conservatives", "status quo conservatives" and "authoritarians", although it is questionable whether this latter group should be classified as conservatives.  They would seem to fit into what Richard Hofstadter, writing in  1954, a different era, classified as "pseudo-conservatives ... because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions."

Laissez faire conservative are not conservative in any real sense.  They can better be identified as classical liberals or libertarians.  They favor free markets and are pro-business, and oppose intervention in the economy and efforts to redistribute wealth.  They have nothing in common with authoritarians who are not generally averse to government intrusion into economic life.

Status quo conservatives are those who are psychologically predisposed to favor stability and resist rapid change and uncertainty.  They are in a sense the true conservatives, the heirs of Edmund Burke, epitomizing a recognition of the limits of human reform and a skepticism about far-reaching public initiatives.  Status quo conservatism is only modestly associated with authoritarianism.

In contrast to status quo conservativism, authoritarianism is primarily driven not by aversion to change but by aversion to complexity; in a nutshell, authoritarians are simple-minded avoiders of complexity more than close-minded avoiders of change.  This distinction matters because in the event of an authoritarian revolution, authoritarians may seek massive social change in pursuit of greater oneness and sameness, willingly overturning established institutions and practices that their psychologically conservative peers would be drawn to defend and preserve.  In Hofstadter's characterization, the "pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition."

Based on her studies, Stenner concludes that one-third of the population qualify as authoritarians.  Another survey found that 64% of white working class Americans have an authoritarian orientation, including 37% who are classified as "high authoritarian".  82% of white working class evangelical Protestants have such an orientation.

The Republican Party of the past was conservative in that it represented laissez faire conservatives and status quo conservatives.  They differed from liberals, as represented by the Democratic Party, more as a matter of degree than of kind.  But the new Republican Party shifted to the authoritarian mode which comports with populism of the right in appealing to those with authoritarian tendencies who now comprise the Republican base, which has been further cultivated by Trump.

Trump himself is too shallow and non-reflective, or just plain ignorant, to think through or understand any of this, but his natural predilection toward a Hobbesian world view, where if a person blocks you, you knock him down, no matter who he is, and his perverted personality play perfectly into the hands of the new Republican Party.  Thus, as noted above, their acquiescence in his bad behavior. Trump really has no positive agenda in the normal sense (he is capable of adopting any belief according to political expediency) or, indeed, any interest in governing.  He understands nothing of our history or of the necessary preconditions of our democracy.  He is motivated by a petulant envy of Obama.  He is an unscrupulous provocateur, driven solely by the need to see his name in headlines every day ( a Trump logo on the White House?), whether for good or bad, regardless of the consequences for the country, and, like a spoiled child acting out with temper tantrums, the need to get his own way, a monomaniac whose singular obsession is himself.  As was said of Huey Long when he was a young boy, he will do anything to attract even unfavorable attention (there are other more frightening similarities, but Long at least pursued progressive policies).  Trump himself, according to the New York Times, told top aides to think of each presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.  Narcissism raised to the infinite power.

His apologists would have us believe that he is merely a fabulist, but as Adam Gopnik has written, there is a difference between the fabulist and the fraud - "The fabulist wants to convey the dramatic experience of events, while the fraud wants to convey a false evaluation of them.  The fabulist wants to dramatize himself; the fraud to deceive others." Trump wants both.  Selling snake oil is his business model.

The kindest thing that can be said about him is that although he's a phony, he is a real phony because he honestly believes all the phony junk which he believes, to echo Martin Balsam's character describing Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's.  This seems to be what passes for genuineness and authenticity in certain circles these days.

Trump has, in his mind, created an image of himself, based on his warped personality, which dictates his "policy" decisions which have the sole aim of reinforcing that image, i.e., toughness, strength, power, infallibility, etc.

British historian Alan Bullock depicted Hitler as a charlatan, a manipulator, an opportunist entirely without principle.  Sound familiar?

Given that he has no positive vision, the only way for him to attract attention is to tear down everything that preceded him, to attack norms and standards of long standing, to destroy what exists and to diminish anyone who stands in his way with ad hominem insults and inuendo and outright lies. He is a con artist who gets his highs by nose thumbing on a grand scale; as a person of no virtues he can build himself up only by tearing down others and their accomplishments, including his predecessors. That catches people's attention, makes headlines, appeals to people who can only express themselves through violence and destruction in their personal lives.  To have plans, to build for the future, to have imagination, has no immediate payback; it takes time to see the results which in fact may be problematic.  To knock down what already exists has immediacy and visibility and symbolizes power.  And, sad to say, one gets as much attention by hurting people and taking something away from them as by helping them, particularly if one can characterize them in a demeaning way and classify them as the "other".

Maintaining liberal democracy depends as much on following recognized and accepted customs and traditions and procedures and standards of conduct, both written and unwritten, and the exercise of restraint and toleration, as on observing the Constitution and statutes.  In this sense, it is a government of men or women, not merely a government of laws. Trump makes a point of flouting such practices in his quest for personal authority and autocracy.

Again according to Edsall, Trump is determined to leave the destruction of democratic procedure as his legacy.  He is a nihilist who seeks to trample, to trash, to blight, to break and to burn.  He fully believes and acts on the adage - the strong always take from the weak.  This could well be the watchword of the Republican Party.

Trump has become a cult leader of a movement that has taken over a political party - and has specifically campaigned and acted on a platform of one-man rule.  He views the government as a personal fiefdom.  His narcissism is perhaps well illustrated by Barbara Tuchman, as quoted by the historian Jon Meacham, referring to "wooden-headedness" in statecraft: "assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring any contrary signs".  As she wrote, wooden-headedness was best captured in a remark about Philip II of Spain: "No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence."  As Paul Krugman has said, "invincible ignorance", or, in another context, zombie economics.

Remember Senator Joe McCarthy?  Jon Meacham on McCarthy: "A master of false charges, of conspiracy-tinged rhetoric, and of calculated disrespect for conventional figures (from Truman and Eisenhower to Marshall), McCarthy could distract the public, play the press, and change the subject - all while keeping himself at center stage. ...  He thrived on a dangerous, but politically alluring, combination: hyperbole and imprecision. ... McCarthy was an opportunist, uncommitted to much beyond his own fame and influence."

And Edward R. Murrow on McCarthy: "The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies.  And whose fault is that?  Not really his.  He didn't create this atmosphere of fear, he merely exploited it - and rather successfully.  Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"

As Mark Twain is often credited with saying, "History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes."  Trump is the second coming of McCarthy.

Thus the agenda of the Republican Party and Trump's compulsive, obsessive drive for publicity and attention mesh very well together, but in neither case does it have anything to do with conservatism; far from it.  It is just a label.  Trump wants revolution, that is, the overthrow of anything that anyone who came before him can claim as theirs.  True conservatives build on what went before, making modifications where necessary, perhaps more slowly and less experimentally than progressives, but nevertheless open to reform.  Burke was a reform whig.  That is not Trump's way. Nor is it the way of today's Republican Party, which, in its marginalization of its laissez faire and status quo conservative wings and its appeal to its authoritarian base, would prefer to destroy the accomplishments of the social legislation of the 1960s and the New Deal and recreate the world of the robber barons.  That is reaction and destruction and radicalism from the right, not conservatism.

Burkean conservatism, to the extent that it was based on a fear of revolution, more particularly the radicalism of the French Revolution, and on the hereditary element of the British Constitution, is no longer relevant.  And although Burke accepted an aristocracy, it was an open aristocracy based on social mobility that reflected a pluralistic society, what today may be compared to an open meritocratic elite nourished by equality of opportunity.  What he did fear was mob rule and its destructive force, which he foresaw as the outcome of the French Revolution. As Alan Ryan, the political theorist and historian, has pointed out, as a reform whig Burke looked to government to provide efficient and corruption free administration, promote security and prosperity for everyone, and include economic interests beyond those of the traditional aristocracy.  He shared Adam Smith's view of the benefits of free trade.  He was a believer in progress.  It was utopian rationalism which he attacked, not reasoned argument.  He feared both royal despotism as well as populist pressures which could likewise lead to despotism. The Republican Party of today is not the party of Burkean conservatism.  One can reasonably assume that Burke would more likely equate Trump and the Republican Party, particularly its Tea Party and Freedom Caucus factions, with the destructive radicals of the French Revolution.

As for liberalism in its classical form, it advocates sovereignty of the people and liberty under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom.  In this form, subject to preservation of the rights of minorities, it has been embraced by both the Democratic Party and, in the past, the Republican Party.  Today it incorporates what might be called welfare capitalism which has been endorsed more strongly by the Democratic Party, but also by the Republican Party, albeit to a far lesser extent (they, that is, the laissez faire branch, adhered in large part to laissez faire economics, i.e., leave businesses alone and success at the top raises all boats), up until the time of the Reagan administration (surprisingly, perhaps, there was much progressive legislation during Nixon's administration but probably due in large measure to the fact that Congress was controlled by the Democrats).    If our political system was functioning as it should Democrats and Republicans would be working to find the balance on a case by case basis within this paradigm.  However, in today's era of dysfunction the Republican Party seeks only to maximize the individual freedom of its wealthy backers and their corporate allies, focused on non-interference with their private projects without regard to any deleterious effects on the common good, by manipulating its authoritarian base.  Thus, the Republicans have rejected their inherited ties to liberalism, and for that matter, in large part, laissez faire and status quo conservatism, in favor of plutocracy and oligarchy, or plutarchy.  As the only way to achieve this goal, they have descended to the depths of hypocrisy and charlatanism by appealing to the authoritarian instincts of a substantial portion of the populace.  Thus, a combination of plutarchy and negative populism.

In any event, the liberal/conservative distinction is a red herring or straw man created by the Republicans. This is not really what divides the Parties. The issues which divide the Parties today, and for that matter the populace, are only marginally related to liberalism and conservatism as usually understood.  Those terms become just a misleading ideological excuse to justify Republican policy positions which are based not on liberalism or conservatism but on appeals to the pathological tribalism and identity politics of their base and on the interest politics of their financial backers. Conservatism has become the clan logo which is attached to status issues which appeal to the Party base, which is comprised largely of rural whites with limited education who feel most comfortable with a static, authoritarian, conformist and hierarchic society based on revealed truth as opposed to reason and science, and which have been packaged together, as an indivisible platform, with interest issues which satisfy the wealthy financial and corporate backers of the Party.

If the Party that fulminates against blacks, moslems and immigrants also votes against free trade, control of global warming, financial regulations and pollution controls, for example, uneducated whites, particularly rural whites, will go with them because they see themselves as fellow members of the same cultural group, even if those issues are race or ethnicity neutral, all under the false rubric of conservatism.

For instance, why is gun regulation considered a liberal cause. If one must characterize this as liberal or conservative, it would seem that this would be a conservative approach.  The NRA types would seem to be the radicals.  But by labeling gun control as liberal, the NRA and its Republican enablers attempt to remove the issue from an objective rational analysis of the balancing of individual rights and community safety and make it a partisan Party issue of "us against them".

Abortion and contraception: liberal or conservative? They don't fit well into either category.  If anything, "pro-choice" could be considered libertarian (laissez faire conservatism) which ties in nicely with the Republican professed desire for individual freedom, liberty, etc., while "pro-life" represents government interference in private choice, anathema to a traditional laissez faire conservative Republican outlook. Republicans try to squirm out of this conundrum by claiming "personhood" for the unformed embryo. Contraception is more of the same.  To the extent that the Republican view can be considered to be driven by ideology, it is that of religious orthodoxy (although I would be surprised to find any reference to abortion or contraception in the Bible; the reaction thereto is of fairly recent vintage), not any conservative policy criteria.  It is an appeal to their authoritarian base and their desire to regulate moral behavior.  Similarly, for the benefit of the Republican original meaning/intent constitutionalists, there would appear to have been no prohibitions in the US on abortion at the time of the ratification of the Constitution.  The contradictions of the Republicans' so-called conservatism is exposed by their opposition to contraception which would reduce the occurrences of abortion, to say nothing of their lack of concern about the gun deaths of school children and others.

Same sex marriage:  again not so clearly liberal or conservative.  To the extent that this represents a significant change in established and historical traditions and practices, opposition can be considered as status quo conservativism.  But such opposition is at the same time a rejection of the concept of individual liberty and laissez faire conservatism which Republicans are constantly flaunting.  Nevertheless, a complicated issue.  However, one suspects that for Republicans this is less a matter of defending custom and tradition than one of homophobia and religious orthodoxy, of authoritarian intolerance of the other and desire to regulate moral behavior and impose conformity.

Voting rights: it would seem obvious that this is not an issue as to which there is a liberal or conservative view.  Everybody who meets the statutory criteria should be allowed to vote.  What could be more American than voting - one person, one vote, etc.  This was at the heart of the "republican" principles of the founding generation.  Although admittedly the franchise was originally limited to white male property owners, the original concept has taken us way past that.  How can the Republican attempts to restrict voting rights be characterized as conservative and Democratic attempts to preserve such rights as liberal?  It doesn't fit.  What does fit is the Republican's perceived need to disenfranchise groups which are not disposed to vote for them.  That is chicanery, not conservatism.

Immigration: the issues surrounding legal immigration also do not easily fit into a liberal/conservative dichotomy.  They raise questions as to the benefits and costs to the US economy and workers, both short term and long term, and, as to certain types of immigration, families, etc., humane considerations.  If anything,  reasonable immigration rules should appeal to a conservative mentality; this is an American tradition-we are and always have been a nation of immigrants.  True conservatism of the Burke variety (status quo) defers to traditional customs and practices. Certainly there have been ups and downs in US immigration policy, but the overall trend has been towards openness.

As to how to deal with illegal immigrants currently residing in the US, again considerations of humanity which have little to do with being politically liberal or conservative, should dominate.  Was not amnesty granted to the defeated Confederates soldiers who tried to destroy the Union?  What about the pardon of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio after having been convicted of criminal contempt?  An analogous example is that of courts of law and courts of equity.  They have been merged today in most States, but the separate principles still prevail.  The touchstone of equity is fairness and its principles are used to help adjust situations where the law's unbending character leaves an unfair result, where a threatened future action is likely to cause irreparable harm.  Adhering to such longstanding precedent would seem to be in the "conservative" mold.

As to refugees, humane considerations and American tradition should provide the guiding principles. But in fact Republican policy is based on appeals to authoritarianism and its intolerance of the other and concerns as to voting patterns of immigrants.

Nobody disputes stopping illegal immigration; the issue is what works best - pragmatism, an American tradition.

Religion in politics: the issues relating to government endorsement of religion and interference in the exercise of religious belief or non-belief were settled in the early days of the American republic. Initially all or most of the American colonies had established churches, but establishment was long ago dispensed with.  Jefferson and Madison were in the forefront of disestablishment and the exercise of religious freedom.  What better endorsement could there be.  Why is this being resurrected today? How is this a conservative cause?  One could more easily argue that keeping religion outside of politics is more conservative (both laissez faire and status quo) than liberal.  But this is not a question of conservatism versus liberalism.  The Republican position rejects one of the foundation stones of the American republic.  The Republican/Trump position here is simply kowtowing to religious fundamentalists, primarily evangelicals, for their votes.  And the religious orthodox are interested only in using the coercive powers of government to secure a privileged position in society for their version of Christianity and in imposing their religious beliefs and practices on the nation, thus enhancing their own power. They do not want to be relegated to the private sphere and are reluctant to surrender their position as arbiters of public questions.  Again, is this conservatism?  Hardly.

As an aside, for evangelicals and the religious right, religion is no longer, if it ever was, about ethics - what we actually believe or do - but purely about identity; who we think we are.  After their endorsement of Trump, as immoral as one can get, their hypocrisy nullifies any voice they might have on such matters.

Privatization in public education: education is probably the most important issue being faced today, both for the social and economic issues which it addresses and for America's long term economic  competitiveness.  How to improve our educational institutions, both in terms of results that work for and accommodate the needs of all and in terms of accessibility, does not lend itself to easy solutions. But is a blind reliance on the private sector, which is arguably a laissez faire conservative cause, a path in the right direction?  Is blaming teachers and teachers' unions a constructive argument?  This is an issue which should be non-partisan.  Nor should the move from public education, a long standing institution, appeal to status quo conservatives.  Underlying the different approaches of Democrats and Republicans is the question of money - how and where to spend it and how much and for whom.  It could be argued that this is indeed a liberal/conservative issue, and perhaps some aspects are, but on the whole this doesn't appear to be the case.  It really comes down to the Republican elite not wanting to spend money (through increased taxes) on schools in poor neighborhoods and for disadvantaged children, to religious groups seeking subsidies for their religious schools, maintenance of de facto segregation in schools, and more control of educational content to reshape history to promote a partisan political position. Public schools from the earliest days of the republic have been the backbone of the American education system which has led the country to world leadership.  Now all of a sudden it is "government" education, i.e., liberal, and bad by definition.  Once again it is the use of false terminology to obscure ulterior motives.  The irony is that Republicans who glorify the private sector and demean government programs are here asking for public money to finance private schools.  They want it both ways to advance their true motive which is to advance the cause of the white upper class, to appeal to the religious orthodox who wish to promote the teaching and celebration of their religious preferences in the schools, and to put money in the pockets of some of their wealthy backers.

Unions: this is not a liberal/conservative issue; it is employers/investors versus employees on how to share the fruits of labor.  It is an interest issue.  One can argue as to what is a fair allocation in any given situation, but to oppose the right of workers to organize in seeking to make their claims would seem to be more a matter of greed than political ideology (and certainly not populism).  Historically, it was argued that unions and labor legislation infringed on property rights and the right of contract, i.e., laissez faire and status quo conservatism, but only if conservatism is defined as giving priority to protecting the rich and powerful. That may be conservatism, but it is not Americanism, at least as we thought of it from the early 20th century until recently.  For those elements of the Republican base which are motivated by their economic travails, anti-unionism is self-defeating, but they go along with it as Party team players because unions are supportive of the Democrats.

Environment and global warming:  if there is any issue as to which Republicans seem to be twisted out of shape it is this one.  It would seem that the conservative position would be to preserve the environment, a la Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican President.  Instead they oppose all efforts to do so, mainly it would seem to support pollution spreaders and developers providing financial backing to the Party.  The conservatives here are literally and figuratively the Democrats.  The Republicans in their opposition condemn science much as their forbears condemned Galileo as a heretic.  Reaction, not conservatism.

We need a new set of labels today to differentiate the political parties in any meaningful way. "Liberal" and "conservative" have outlived their usefulness. To the extent that generic terminology might provide any insight into the principles of today's political parties, how about progressive/pragmatic/liberal for the Democrats and authoritarian/reactionary/dogmatic/illiberal for the Republicans (with or without Trump).

                                                         The Republican Strategy

As argued above, today's Republican partisanship has little, if anything, to do with legitimate populism or conservatism.

To the extent that there is any dominant ideological theme to the Republican Party's positions (making the rich richer does not qualify as ideology; it is just interest politics), it is the antipathy towards the federal government, i.e., "small government", sometimes rationalized as deferring to state and local government (where appeals to narrow self interest are easier to convert into voting majorities and politicians are easier to control), which has a long history in the United States dating back to the American Revolution and the Anti-Federalists who opposed the Constitution.  That Federalist/Anti-Federalist split might still well be the nearest thing to a defining ideological divide between the parties today.

As Paul Krugman has written, "[T]here's a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom," and quotes George Will as an example as follows: "' ... liberals like trains not because they make sense for urban transport, but because they serve the goal of diminishing Americans' individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism'".

But this is still a cover for interest politics.  Even here the Republicans rely on a distorted characterization of the federal government as showing favoritism toward minorities or "others" ahead of "hard working" whites, again appealing to its authoritarian/pseudo-conservative base, while ignoring the historical beneficial role the federal government has played in stimulating and developing the American economy.

If the partisan policy differences with the Democrats are not truly reflective of the conservative pole of the liberal/conservative spectrum what are they due to?

The Republican Party leaders want political power, as do all politicians, in order to be able to influence government policy in directions which benefit themselves and their financial and corporate backers (and to pave the way to big bucks on K Street).  However, such policies are in virtually all cases unlikely to bestow any benefits on the base, that is, the middle class working person, which they need to win elections.  Those  policies which would help the middle class have long ago been preempted by the Democratic Party.  Once FDR put together his coalition, the Republicans struggled.  FDR's election made politically possible the use of government programs to remedy the inequities of free-market capitalism.  How could they break the hold that the Democrats had on the nation with their progressive legislation based on a pro-active government?  Finally the opening occurred with the passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-60s as well as the rebellion of the anti-war activists during the Vietnam War along with the drug culture with its "anything goes" attitude.  Then the switch of the southern Democrats to the Republican Party allowed them to play the race card.  It became clear that the path for the Republicans was an appeal to the instincts of the American voter as manifested through authoritarian personality characteristics, such as fears relating to social status and maintenance thereof and the concomitant fear of the implications of social mobility and being left behind, the need for a sense of belonging to a like-thinking peer group, and finally to outright hostility to certain elements of the "other" as characterized by their political leaders.  In short, authoritarianism and demographic anxiety, as described in more detail below.  And that has been their program ever since.  It has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism.  It does have a lot to do with populism of the right, negative populism, more properly - racism, intolerance, ignorance and incitement of fear and hatred.  Thus, the Republican Party has come to be associated with white, Christian, rural and male identity, and the Democratic Party is seen as the party of nonwhite, non-Christian, urban and female or feminist identity.

                                                           The Republican Base

Who are these people?  Hillary Clinton characterized them as the "deplorables", which was impolitic but accurate to the extent that she also distinguished them from those who were truly suffering and being left behind economically.  These are people who are psychologically indisposed to change, who actually prefer a rigid authoritarian hierarchic society where everyone knows his place and can be secure in preserving his status whatever it may be as long as there is a lower status, who want a static society in which no one has to make adjustments, where one has to make no effort to keep up with progress and one doesn't have to contend with new ideas or new people, where everything is fixed in place.  They cannot abide ambiguity and uncertainty and complexity.  They are overwhelmed by a nostalgia for a past of mythic purity.  They see themselves as defending our history and our culture.

They are willing to follow a demagogue - 60% of white working class Americans say that because things have gotten so far off track, we need a strong leader who is willing to break the rules.

They resent what they see as the cosmopolitan elite.  They will follow anyone who promises to restore  the rightful economic and cultural status of the common people in relation to the decadent urban intelligentsia.

There is perhaps another element here - the failure of rural working class whites to adjust: the refusal to move, to get an education, to make an effort to change their prospects.  54% of the white working class view getting a college education as a risky gamble.

There are certain personality traits and attitudes which psychologists have identified as being associated with those who deem themselves "conservative" which may account for their voting predilections: they are more likely to accept or even embrace authority, they are more moralistic and more conventional, they have a stronger need for order and control and stability and a greater dislike of change, they value equality less than "liberals" and have less empathy, their moral sense is less centered on fairness and kindness and more on loyalty, deference to authority and moral and sexual purity, they have a stronger need for certainty and cognitive consistency, they have a greater need for social order and greater acceptance of aggression as intrinsic to human nature.  In this post-truth era facts are less influential than emotions.  These are the authoritarian "conservatives" of which Kenner speaks.

These traits are reflected in white resistance to the perceived takeover of the country by non-whites and the declining white share of the national population.  As minorities are seen as getting more power, there is a perceived threat to the status quo, which makes hierarchical social and political arrangements more attractive, creates a nostalgia for the stable hierarchies of the past, triggers defense of the dominant in-group, results in greater emphasis on the importance of conformity to group norms and beliefs.  Conformity is a way of guaranteeing and manifesting respectability among those who are not sure that they are respectable enough.  The nonconformity of others appears to such persons as a frivolous challenge to the whole order of things they are trying so hard to become a part of.  Naturally it is resented, and the demand for conformity in public becomes at once an expression of such resentment and a means of displaying one's own soundness.

Opportunity is viewed, as per Trump, in zero sum terms.  The Republican base sees their own opportunity as dependent on domination over others, which is why such people see the expansion of opportunity for all as a loss of opportunity for themselves in their scramble for status and their search for secure identity.

Call it the long delayed coming into fruition of the prophecy of Sojourner Truth in 1851, "I think that 'twixt the negroes in the South and the women of the North, all talking about rights, the white man will be in a fix pretty soon".

For the most part, the Republican base is not really interested in or aware of the issues on the merits.  Winning is more important than policy because it is rooted in their sense of personal status. They have rejected interest politics for status politics.  They are motivated primarily by threats to their social or cultural status, as they perceive it (which includes race, ethnicity, sexual preference, gender roles) , and since the Republican Party has successfully labeled the Democrats as the Party which is promoting programs which supposedly endanger this status, they will blindly support the Republican Party in opposing any Democratic initiatives.

                                        The American Voter and Tribal Politics

As Steven Pinker has written: "The answer lies in raw tribalism: when someone is perceived as a champion of one's coalition, all is forgiven.  The same is true for opinions; a particular issue can become a sacred value, shibboleth, or affirmation of allegiance to one's team, and its content no longer matters.  This is part of a growing realization in political psychology that tribalism has been underestimated in our understanding of politics, and ideological coherence and political and scientific literacy overestimated."

Group victory is seen as more important than the practical matter of governing a nation.  For Republicans, party victory is tightly bound with racial and religious victory.

Another commentator: "Our species is profoundly coalitional, and in most times and places moral prescriptions apply only to one's in-group, not to humanity in general.  I don't see any evidence that we evolved innate, universal moral values about how to treat all humans. ... It's not that they feel killing a random stranger for no reason is morally ok; it's that loyalty to their coalition is primary."

If it's liberal, it's Democratic; if it's Democratic, it's them-the other side which must be defeated for no other reason than that it is the other side, the enemy, and if we don't defeat them then they will win and we will lose.  It is a primordial tribal outlook of the clan stoked by fear.  How does one qualify to become a member of the tribe? There is a litmus test, i.e., anti-woman's choice, anti-gun regulation, anti-immigrant, homophobic, anti-feminist, anti-science, anti-intellectual, etc., which must be adhered to, and which helps define the tribe.  No outliers are tolerated.  The need for a tribe, a place where one feels among his or her own kind is overwhelming.  The substance of issues doesn't even come into play.  The term "conservative" is just a code word attached to a position on any issue to alert the tribe members of where the tribe stands on that issue.  "Liberal" conversely describes the other tribe.

The Republican Party has successfully sold a fake bill of goods to a substantial portion of the American electorate - that to be a true American one must adhere to conservatism, a label which it claims for itself by fiat, that to be other than conservative is to align oneself with the anti-Christ and thus be a tool of evil, that liberalism is the enemy of conservatism and that the Democratic Party is the tool of liberalism.  The wars of religion with different flags.

                                                       Justice as Fairness
So, that's how it happened here.  Hillary may not have run the ideal campaign, but even if she had emphasized the right issues in the right places it may not have been enough.  Those who needed to were not interested in listening.

How does one cope with this fakery?  To what  elements of human nature can one appeal?  Is there a basic goodness and decency to be found in the American electorate?  The 2016 election indicates that it is virtually a toss-up among those who voted.  Too many voted their passions, not their interests. Given their personality inclinations there is little to suggest that Trump voters are reachable. Notwithstanding the disaster which Trump and the Republican leaders have turned out to be, the Republican base stands firm. These people do not want to change.  As William Allen White wrote with regard to the KKK, "They have no capacity for receiving arguments, no mind for retaining or sifting facts and no mental processes that will hold logic."  If they had any of these they would not have been Trump voters in the first place.  The appeal must be to those who sat out the last election to get them to the polls and to third party voters.  As the late David Foster Wallace said, there is no such thing as not voting.

No clear answers readily come to mind as to how to do this.  Our Founders emphasized virtue.  That was a different age; today's age seems to be that of "elective despotism", which Richard Henry Lee feared in that earlier age - illiberal democracy.  Reinventing the labels to clarify and emphasize the choices might help as a start.  Ultimately the goals of society are, or should be, in addition to individual liberty and freedom of conscience, economic and social justice for all.  John Rawls has defined justice as "fairness".  Fairness is one of the first social concepts with which young people come in contact and should strike a chord with everyone. Like pornography, one cannot define it, but children get it.  Think of the playgrounds of your youth or even your first confrontations with your parents.  How often did you say, "That's not fair", or on the playground, "no fair", or just generally, "play fair".  Think of a "level playing field" and "not moving the goal posts". It harks back to the New Deal of FDR and the Fair Deal of Harry Truman and plain speaking.  That is really what the Democratic Party is about - fairness.  Fairness in education, in the work place, in employment opportunity, in health care, in public facilities, in voting, in access to housing; not favors, but fairness; simple justice, not undue advantage. If the Democratic agenda could be put forth in terms of programs for achieving fairness for all, not just for specific groups, and not just in terms of rights or equality or altruism, perhaps the Party can regain its momentum.

                                                              *   *   *

I recognize the full and complete necessity of 100% percent Americanism, but 100% Americanism may be made up of many various elements. ... If we are to have ... the union of spirit which is the foundation of real national genius and national progress, we must all realize that there are true Americans who did not happen to be born in our ... country, who do not attend our place of religious worship, who are not of our racial stock, or who are not proficient in our language.  If we are to create on this continent a free Republic and an enlightened civilization that will be capable of reflecting the true greatness and glory of mankind, it will be necessary to regard these differences as accidental and unessential.  We shall have to look beyond the outward manifestations of race and creed.  Divine providence has not bestowed upon any race a monopoly of patriotism and character.  President Calvin Coolidge, October 6, 1925





Saturday, February 25, 2017

                                 LETTER TO THE EDITORS AT THE N.Y. TIMES


From: Stein, Stephen
Sent: Thursday, February 23, 2017 5:22 PM
To: 'letters@nytimes.com' <letters@nytimes.com>
Subject: Even if Trump is the Enemy, His Voters Aren't - Feb. 23, 2017

In fact, Trump’s voters are the enemy.  Trump himself is despicable, but we have known from the beginning what he is, a classic immature ill-informed bully.  People like him are a dime a dozen.  We see them every day.  What is “deplorable” is that such a person could be elected President.  For that we can’t blame him.  He has not pretended to be anyone other than who he is.  His voters are another story.  Leaving aside the racists, white supremacists, misogynists and other ethnocentric bigots, who are undeniably the enemy, the other Trump voters had a choice, and they knowingly chose badly.  If they could do so with the information available to all, they cannot be trusted or persuaded to do any better in the future.  They have delivered us to the worst of times and are the cause of what will be much suffering for people who can least afford it, have put the country at risk and have rejected the historic values of the nation.  To say that some of his voters had fallen on hard times, whatever sympathy such circumstances may evoke, doesn’t excuse voting for such a truly and obviously dangerous man just because they may have been enduring hardship themselves.   On the other hand, if the excuse is ignorance, willful or otherwise, that is hardly an acceptable explanation either.  In a democracy, ignorance is indeed the enemy.

Stephen Stein   

Monday, February 20, 2017

                                           OPEN LETTER TO SENATOR SCHUMER




I am writing to express my strongly held view that the Democrats should filibuster the nomination of Judge Gorsuch as a Supreme Court Justice.
 
Normally, as a moderate Democrat, I would not take such an extreme position (except in such obvious cases as Bork-type nominations), but, although Gorsuch is not a Bork, he can be just as dangerous with regard to issues which are important to Democrats, liberals, progressives and to values which are embedded in our national ethos.  There are special circumstances present at this time. 
 
First, and perhaps foremost, with Donald Trump as President (with Bannon as his eminence grise) and the Republicans in the majority in the House and the Senate, and as a result with all of the extremist kooks (both radical and reactionary) coming out of the woodwork, those values are going to be under constant assault.  The Supreme Court is the last line of defense, and as you know that is a tenuous line as it is.  In short, the situation calls for desperate measures to which one would otherwise perhaps not want to resort.
 
Second, Trump has no interest in any sort of bi-partisan approach on any issue.  He considers any attempt at cooperation by the Democrats as a sign of weakness of which he can and will take advantage.  Opposing him every step of the way may not achieve many victories, but at least can limit the damage.
 
Third, Gorsuch is a wolf in sheep's clothing.  His credentials are unquestionable on paper, and he comes across as reasonable person, but he is just another Alito.  When Alito was nominated, progressives had high hopes that he would be open minded, a moderate, mainstream conservative.  In the event, he has been a disaster.  Let's not make that mistake again.  As the saying goes, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me".
 
Fourth, and this is a bit more intangible, Democrats must demonstrate that they can be just as irresponsible as Republicans in playing political games.  So far, as in the cases of Judge Garland, raising the debt limit and closing down the government, the Republicans have done just that.  As a Party which stands for stasis and reaction, the Republicans take advantage of the Democrats, who see government as a positive force, by putting a freeze on action.  Democrats need to show that they can and will put a hold on action when it suits their purposes.  Gorsuch's nomination is such a case.  Killing the nomination doesn't do any damage to the country.  Operating with eight Justices, if that is what it ultimately comes to, is not the worst thing in the world for the country, and for the progressive cause, at least in the current configuration, is a positive.  If Gorsuch is defeated, will the next nominee be any better?  Maybe not, but the Republicans will have to think twice about who they nominate.
 
The nuclear option?  Call McConnell's bluff.  He's clearly uncomfortable with using it.  See if he can hold together his caucus on this issue.  You only need three defections/abstentions.  If he goes for it and succeeds, you get the same result as you would have if you didn't use the filibuster.  Of course, you lose the right to filibuster ( as do the Republicans, and the pendulum will swing back, as they well know), but what good does it do you if you don't use it.  And until you use it, and certainly if you don't use it now, the Republicans will have no fear of pushing the envelope as far as they can.  What are you saving it for?  To oppose future bad legislation?  If it won't work here, it won't work anywhere.  Anyhow, legislation can be overcome when the tide turns.  Supreme Court nominations, particularly this one, will be with us for thirty years or so.
 

What does this do to Democratic Senators defending their seats in states that went for Trump?  My guess is it isn't going to make any difference.  There will be other issues which, for better or worse, will dominate those races.  Maybe the greatest downside of failing to use the filibuster is that the Democrats will lose the momentum and support for Democratic values which have been building up in the Party and throughout the country since Trump took office.  If this is lost, a bad situation is only going to get worse.  Democrats need an act of defiance, even if it turns out to be only symbolic, and this is the opportunity.  In the current political environment, nice guys finish last.
 
 OPEN LETTER TO SENATOR SCHUMER AND CONGRESSWOMAN PELOSI


Attention: Senator Charles Schumer
               U.S. Senate
 
               Representative Nancy Pelosi
               U.S. House of Represntatives
 
Dear Senator Schumer and Representative Pelosi:
 
I write to you in your positions of Senate Minority Leader and House Minority Leader and, as such, the leaders of the Democratic Party.
 
I hardly need to point out to you the disaster to this country that the election of Donald Trump represents.  It may be an old saw, but if ever there was a desperate time calling for desperate measures it is now.  The only way to survive this calamity and maintain the values and ethos of this country is to oppose him, his policies and his surrogates in Congress every step of the way.  There is no choice.  You cannot work with someone like him and his advisers, such as Bannon, Flynn, etc.  If you reach out, they will take it as a sign of weakness and try to steamroller you.  Their substantive goals are secondary to that of imposing their will as an end in itself.  They truly evidence the authoritarian personality of which Hannah Arendt wrote.  You cannot negotiate with such people.  To combat this, the Democrats must with no delay and on a regular basis get across to the public the harm which will be imposed upon them by each of Trump's policies and of the Democrat alternatives and their advantages in basic every day bread and butter terms. 
 
One suggestion: set up the equivalent of the British Parliamentary "shadow cabinet" with one Democrat member of Congress designated for each Trump appointee to react to each proposed policy, act of legislation, regulation and executive order as it is announced or in anticipation, demonstrate its flaws and promote an alternative or explain why the current policy, legislation, etc., need not be changed.  Equally important is to immediately point out every misstatement of fact promulgated by the Trump administration.  Much of Trump's policies are justified on the basis of non-existent facts, the public's faulty assumptions or misreading or distortion of the public's desires.  Since we have no Prime Minister to coordinate such a process, someone will have to be authorized to do so.  Maybe someone like Joe Biden. 
 
In addition, why not publish a "White Paper" with specific policy proposals representing the program of the Democratic Party.  It needs to be simple and straightforward, ideally on one page.  It can be based on the Democratic Platform but substantially condensed.  Nobody is going to wade through the platform.  Something like, I hate to say it, the 1994 Republican Contract with America.
 

Trump lost the popular vote.  He does not represent the majority.  He has no mandate.  Keep reminding him.  It gets under his thin skin, and he strikes out violently.  When he does, he looks like a fool.  It may take time, but sooner or later people will catch on.  Use his lack of self control against him.  Like judo, which originally evolved in response to bullying at school, use his strength (as he sees it) against him.



                           THESE ARE AGAIN THE TIMES THAT TRY MEN'S SOULS


Where is Thomas Paine when you need him?  We certainly need someone like him today.  Our system and our values are under attack by domestic forces as never before since the Civil War.  It would appear that this is not the view only of progressives, but of thinking conservatives as well, i.e., David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Robert Kagan, et al.  But we have wallowed enough; the time has come to put the recent election itself behind us and prepare for the next one.

There may be no Thomas Paine around today, but there are infinitely more means of reaching the people today then there were in his time.  It will take a concentrated effort; in fact, given the news cycle today, a daily effort.

First, Trump and his stooges (although he himself may be Bannon's stooge or puppet) must be confronted on every issue.  The attack must be continuous and unrelenting. They must be put on the defensive on a regular basis.  There is no room to work together with them. That is not their intention. They are destroyers, not governors.  Their primary goal is to impose their will by taking down everything that represents evidence of anyone else's will.  In a way not unlike the destruction of symbols of prior societies by ISIS in Palmyra, only worse.  There it is only stones; here it is living social, economic and moral institutions and ideas fundamental to our history and present society.  As evil as ISIS is, Trumpism is far more dangerous.  His Administration's present policies, if you can call them that, are dangerous enough on their merits, but, perhaps more importantly, each success they achieve will only encourage them to reach further.  That is an added reason to oppose them every step of the way, starting with a filibuster of Trump's nomination of Gorsuch to the Supreme Court..

The people who voted for Trump have been duped.  That should be the approach, although not in such explicit terms.  It is not enough to attack Trump and his claque personally, although there is much justification for that, but it must be brought home to the populace that the Administration's programs will not be for their benefit or result in improving their situations; in fact, just the opposite.  It needs to be demonstrated that these actions will actually be detrimental to America's "greatness" in the eyes of the rest of the world, and will weaken America's position, both tangibly, e.g., economically, politically and strategically, and intangibly, e.g., morally.  What Trump and his minions totally fail to understand is that it is that moral image, which they seem intent on destroying, that gives us any claim to be primus inter pares.   His policies for making "America First" likely will have just the opposite effect.

Second, What is needed is the equivalent of the British shadow cabinet.  The Democrats should designate someone as a counterpart to each cabinet member and member of Trump's policy team to comment on each program or statement announced by each cabinet member and policy maker or his or her spokesperson, and in each case to respond and propose the Democrats' own program to deal with that particular issue or explain why the present policy is preferable to any proposed changes.  Such designated persons should take the initiative in proposing their own programs.  To make this effective, each designee must have the authority to speak for the Party and a staff to support him or her.  To coordinate this effort, there will need to be someone who will be the equivalent of the opposition party leader in the parliamentary system.  This will require a cohesiveness and consistency which we are not used to in American politics and particularly in the Democratic Party, but these are unusual times which call for creative and imaginative measures.  Perhaps the minority leaders of each house of Congress could share this responsibility, or maybe designate someone like Joe Biden for this role who would consult with Schumer and Pelosi.

The critical themes should be (a) how Trump's policies will (i) not help the people who voted for him, and (ii) in fact hurt them, and (b) the Democrats' alternative.  In addition, a few digs at Trump on a regular basis won't hurt, although this should not be the main thrust of the attack.  Nevertheless, he is so thin-skinned and insecure (yes, that's where it all comes from) that he will strike out with his absurd tweets (as he is already doing) and eventually people will finally catch on that they have a fool and impostor as President.  The more he says, the worse he looks, and even the gullible have their limits.

The public should be constantly reminded that Trump lost the popular vote by almost 3 million votes; that he has no mandate; and that on many if not all substantive issues a majority of the American public are opposed to his positions.  This is the case on abortion, gun regulation, the environment and global warming, gay marriage, mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and health insurance. When the issues are characterized broadly as small government, government mandates, over- regulation and individual freedom, the public in knee-jerk fashion may be supportive of Trump and the Republicans, but when issues are presented in specific terms that directly affect individuals the outcome is different.  The Democrats need to keep emphasizing this opposition to Trumpism. Democrats need to frame the issues better than they have in the past.  Some examples of popular support for Democratic policies in recent polls, as reported by Moyers & Company:
     Health care reform - while respondents are split roughly 50/50 on repealing Obamacare, 58% supported a third option, replacing it with a federally funded health care system providing insurance for all Americans;
     Unions - 58% of respondents said they approve of labor unions, and 72% said unions should have either more influence than they now have or at least the same amount;
     Campaign finance reform - 77% of the public supports limits on campaign spending;
     Climate change and renewable energy - 64% are at least a fair amount worried about climate change; 59% believe that the effects have already begun; 65% in one poll believe human activity causes climate change (in another poll, only 48%); 80% support solar panel and wind turbine farms; a majority opposed every other potential energy source: offshore drilling, nuclear power plants, fracking and coal; 61% said companies should be required to reduce carbon emissions and 78% support air pollution-regulations;
     Abortion - 56% believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases;
     Gay marriage and LGBT rights - 61%believe gay marriage should be legal, and by a narrow margin most Americans believe transgender people should be able to use the public bathroom of the gender they identify with;
     Undocumented immigrants - 84% support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.  Only 33% supported building a wall along the US-Mexico border (among Republicans, 62%, but 76% also supported a path to citizenship);
     Higher minimum wage and free child care - support of roughly 60%.
This doesn't mean that Democrats should ignore the economic issues of jobs, economic inequality, consumer protection and financial regulation.  Contrary to the perception that Trump prevailed on the basis of those types of issues, 2016 exit poll data show that Hillary Clinton won voters who said the economy was the most important issue by 11 points, 52-41.  Democrats can't afford to lose those voters.
 
There also needs to be a full time team of fact checkers that is responsible for reminding the public constantly that Trump bases his positions on alternative facts, also known as outright lies and distortions.  The actual facts that are relevant to the policy issues and of which the public is uninformed, either willfully or otherwise, have to be publicized repeatedly.  For example, the number of persons who will lose health insurance coverage if Obamacare is cancelled, the fact that Mexicans represent less than half of undocumented immigrants and that the numbers are running the other way with more leaving than coming, that illegal immigrants commit less crimes than citizens, that undocumented immigrants in large part only take jobs that citizens won't take, that imposing hardship on the Mexican economy will likely increase illegal immigration from Mexico, that discouraging birth control will lead to an increase in abortions, the number of accidental deaths and suicides from guns compared to deaths from criminal use, the fact that a majority of police favor more gun regulation, that the recent immigration ban from our "so-called" President will increase the terrorist threat, not reduce it, that the number of deaths from Muslim terrorists since 9/11, according to one source, is 123 (none by anyone who emigrated from or whose parents emigrated from the seven countries targeted by our "so-called" President), compared to a total of more than 230,000 killings by gang members, drug dealers, angry spouses, white supremacists, psychopaths, drunks, domestic terrorists (Aurora, Charleston, Newtown, Colorado Springs, Oklahoma City, Columbine, the latter two before 9/11) and others, clear-cut data relating to global warming caused by human activities, the actual increase in domestic manufacturing production over the last several years, such inconvenient facts as the rust belt losing jobs to the South and not always overseas, the correlation of the demise of unions with loss of worker rights and stagnation of compensation, decreases in air and water pollution due to environmental regulations, how the income tax proposal will benefit mostly the very wealthy, how the border tax with Mexico will increase prices of products that are imported into the US, how rejecting TPP is a gift to China, that we already have extreme vetting of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, the distinction between legal and illegal immigration, etc.

Trump and Bannon ultimately base their programs on fear, but many of the sources of that fear are virtually nonexistent or de minimis.  This needs to be demonstrated to the public.  Democracy without an informed electorate is no democracy at all.  There will always be the willfully uninformed, and they certainly made their presence felt in the last election. But the Democrats did not do a good job of getting their message across.  Some voters are not interested - the "deplorables", but others are reachable.  With the Republicans in control of both the House and the Senate and the White House, they will be able to set the agenda.  Thus it is all the more important for the Democrats to make sure that voters in the next election know what they stand for.

Friday, January 27, 2017

                                                  THE ACCIDENTAL PRESIDENT

We have just elected as our next President a dysfunctional demagogue with authoritarian instincts who is totally unqualified for the position.  He rode to victory as a successful businessman, which in large part he was not (Trump Airlines, New York Generals, bankrupt Atlantic City casinos, et al) and a TV reality show star, which is also questionable (contrary to his claim his show was not the number 1 show on television or even on Monday nights where in fact it finished only 67th) .  He gives promise to be remembered in the history books as our worst President since Andrew Johnson (who wasn't actually elected) or James Buchanan in the mid-19th century.  In addition to being a sociopath and a shameless pathological liar, he is a man woefully uninformed and seemingly proud of it, breathtakingly lacking in self control and judgement, irresponsible, without any sense of history or respect for the office of the Presidency or moral sense, and consumed by self absorption and delusions of grandeur. And that's just the beginning; he is a crude, vulgar egomaniac devoid of integrity and suffers from arrested development and a transgressive personality.  But we're familiar with this type of person from our school days confronting arrogant boastful bullies on the playground.  They exist.  What is shocking is not that such persons exist, but that, notwithstanding this, such a person was nominated and elected.  It's not as if the electorate didn't know this.  It was all out in the open.  One has to give Trump credit, he didn't hide it (unlike his tax returns); in fact he flaunted it, seemingly as a qualification for the office. Along the way he was helped by the lies and the empty promises.  And the suckers came running. They bought it, hook, line and sinker.  Just as in any third rate democracy.

Is this the price of democracy?  If so, maybe we need a different system.  Maybe history is on the wrong track.  Maybe the rubric attributed to Lincoln (probably wrongly) should be something like, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and although you can't fool all of the people all of the time you can fool enough of them enough of the time to win elections."  The results of the recent election certainly cast doubt on the ability of an electorate based on full adult citizen suffrage to make intelligent decisions.

But maybe the problem is not with the electorate, but with the process.  Maybe we haven't tried true democracy, at least in Presidential elections.  Let's not forget that the electorate, that is, those who voted, elected Hillary Clinton as President by almost 3 million votes, a substantial margin of  2.1 %.  So Trump did not fool enough of them to have won in a truly democratic process.  It's pretty frightening that he fooled as many as he did, but Hillary won the popular vote by a larger margin than elected Presidents who won the popular vote in 1844, 1880, 1884, 1960 (JFK),1968 (Richard Nixon) and 1976 (Jimmy Carter), and by more than any losing candidate who won the popular vote since 1876 including Al Gore in 2000.  Something is wrong here.  And this is the second time the popular vote winner has lost in the last five Presidential elections. (Some believe it may also have happened in 1960 depending on how the popular vote is calculated.)  So the principal ogre here is not the American voter, at least not the majority of them, but the electoral college, which in 2016 permitted 55,000 voters who gave Trump his margin in Michigan and Pennsylvania to count for more than 2,800,000 voters who gave Hillary a winning margin in the country as a whole. Keep in mind that with the current partisan split in the country this unacceptable situation is more likely than not to be repeated.

[Just for laughs - maybe Trump's mandate is to implement Hillary's program.]

Let's give democracy a chance.  What we need is election reform.  Of course, it won't help with the damage likely to be created by the result of this election, but progressives need to be prepared for the next election.  We may be able to hold the worst off for four years, but for eight years it will be tough (after all, how long can we expect RBG and Breyer to hold on).  Election reform includes, among other things, doing away with or neutering the electoral college, reducing the impact of money on elections, and making it possible and easier for those eligible to vote to register and vote.  And to make sure that democracy performs in fact as it should on paper we need to stress continuing voter education, an essential ingredient for a working democracy.

Let's start with the electoral college.  As noted above, there are other measures which need to be pursued to make our election process in fact as well as in theory democratic, but I will leave them to be addressed at some other time.

In the first place, as one constitutional expert has stated, the electoral college is an odd political contraption.  It's like some Rube Goldberg machine, a compromise resulting from the Founders' inability to agree on anything else and their exasperation and exhaustion as they tried to finish up their work on the Constitution.

The Constitution begins, "We, the people ...", as distinct from "we, the States ...", and there is good reason for that.  The Constitutional Convention was convened to remedy the Articles of Confederation, which was a compact of states, and the choice of words was not without purpose.  [In fact, an early draft of the preamble did contain the words, "We, the people of the states of ...", but it was replaced by Gouverneur Morris with the present language.]  The electoral college certainly does not reflect "we, the people", at least not with the unit rule that all but two states use to allocate electoral votes.  As we know, the Founders, in order to get agreement on the overall package, had to make a number of concessions to the States, particularly the slave states, such as equal representation in the Senate and the three-fifths rule for slaves which, in addition to its inherent injustice and moral abomination, made both the House of Representatives, the Senate and the electoral college undemocratic.  We finally did away with slavery and the three-fifths rule, but the composition of the Senate and the electoral college remain the same.  As a practical matter, the Senate will never be changed, and there are arguably legitimate reasons to keep it as it is (in fact, though, over time it has become even more undemocratic with the expanded use of the filibuster, but that was the subject of an earlier blog).  The electoral college is something else. There is no good reason to keep it.  It has on a number of occasions failed and retains the potential to do even more damage.  As yet, in modern times, we have not had occasion to see an election in which no candidate receives a majority of the electoral votes.  In such a case the House of Representatives would vote to decide the winner.  Each State delegation would have one vote, with such vote to be determined by a majority vote of its members.  If the electoral college in its first phase is not guaranteed to reflect the nationwide popular vote of "we, the people", in its second phase such a vote by the House makes a total mockery of popular representation (don't even think about the chicanery which would take place in trying to sway the votes of individual Representatives).  I hardly need to spell it out; suffice it to say that Wyoming (population of 584,00) would have the same vote as California (38.8 million), Florida (19.89 million), Texas (26.96 million) or New York (19.75 million) (although I don't believe the election has gone to the House since 1824, it becomes ever more likely today when politics are so partisan and third parties keep popping up to distort the choices).

To me, any method of electing the President by other than the nationwide popular vote is prima facie absurd in a nation based on the democratic process.  The President is the president of the people, not the president of the States.  After all, we elect Governors in all fifty states by popular vote; we don't do it by counties; same thing with Senators.  Why not for President?  Deeply ingrained in our national ethos is the principle of one-person, one-vote, and the Supreme Court has ruled it a constitutional requirement (other than for President but only due to the express inclusion of the electoral college in the Constitution).  The electoral college represents a rejection of such principle; it denies political equality and fundamental fairness.

Nevertheless, let's take a look at the arguments submitted by supporters of the electoral college.

One argument is that the Founders wanted to balance the interests of big (high population) states and small (low population) states.  On the face of it this is not a persuasive argument.  It's a carryover of the Confederation concept, the elimination of which was the purpose of the Constitutional Convention, but as the mindset was difficult to overcome a compromise was in order.  The form the argument takes today is that without the electoral college the candidates would ignore small states in their campaigning, and people in those states wouldn't be in a position to judge their relative merits.  The reality is that the candidates ignore the small states anyhow.  For that matter they ignore many of the big states as well.  They focus on the so-called swing states, of which there are only a relative handful.  There is a certain irony in this argument when you consider that the decisive swing states in the 2016 election, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, are not exactly small states.  In any event, with the advent since 1789 of radio, television, the national media and the internet every voter, regardless of location, has all of the access, and then some, needed to make a decision as to whom to vote for.  In fact, then as now, the major political divisions have run, not between big states and small states, but between the south and the north, and between the cities and the rural areas (of which there are both in all states).

Another Founding-era argument, which certainly made sense then, was that voters spread over a large geographic territory would not have sufficient information to make an informed choice among leading presidential candidates.  That was before there were national political parties.  With the coming of the two party system with national candidates and platforms and modern means of communication and transportation this objection became obsolete.

The sad reality is that the electoral college mechanism, like many other political issues of the day, was primarily driven by the slavery question.  The slave states were credited with more than their legitimate number of voters in tabulating their share of electoral votes in the first phase of the electoral college voting, and then in the second phase (it was assumed at the time that the electors would merely, in effect, nominate candidates and that the House would make the final decision) these less populated states would be treated equally with the more heavily populated non-slave states.  We are left, some 225 years later, with a peculiar anachronism which grew out of the "peculiar institution".  The weakness of the electoral college as a democratic institution is further compounded by the adoption by all of the states (other than Maine and Nebraska) of the winner-take-all unit rule which allocates all of a state's electoral votes to the candidate with the highest number of votes, regardless of whether that candidates wins the state popular vote with only 50.1% of the votes.

One more argument, which in my opinion borders on the frivolous (and with which we are familiar in another context), is that in the case of relying on a national popular vote in which the contest is very close and there are allegations of voter fraud there would have to be extended time consuming and expensive recounts.  This is of a part with the by now tiresome knee-jerk claim of the Republican Party (and the obsessional Donald Trump) that there is voter fraud lurking everywhere.  We know that voter fraud is almost non-existent, and there is no reason to think it would be any more present in an election determined by a nationwide popular vote.  Votes would presumably still be counted at state and precinct levels, and allegations of fraud, such as there may be, would be handled in the same way as they are handled today.  True, since every vote would count, there is the possibility that there could be more disputes, but the purpose of an election is not to see how we can reduce the number of disputes.  It is to make sure that every vote counts and counts equally.  If opponents of a national popular vote are really serious about the integrity of the election process, they would instead support efforts to modernize our voting mechanisms and apply consistent voting procedures throughout the country.

In effect we have system in which is ingrained the idea that the votes of some citizens are worth more than those of others because they are cast in less populous states.  It is doubtful that it was ever a good idea, but the reasons for its adoption certainly have no relevance today.

Unfortunately, in the real world there would seem to be little likelihood that a constitutional amendment eliminating the electoral college and replacing it with Presidential elections based on a nationwide popular vote could be enacted.  Although this should be non-partisan issue, in today's political atmosphere it becomes a partisan issue.  There is no inherent political bias in relying on a national popular vote for President.  No one can predict whether it would result in a different outcome in future elections.   However, it would seem that the most outspoken defenders of the electoral college are Republicans.  Apparently they see the electoral college as benefiting them.  This certainly was the case in 2000 and 2016, but in the future it could as easily go the other way.

Sad to say, the Republicans seem to feel that they cannot prevail unless they can disenfranchise voters. We see this in places like North Carolina and other states where state governments are controlled by Republicans, and they have tried to impose requirements that limit voting aimed at groups who they feel they cannot convince to vote for them.  It never seems to occur to them that it would be more constructive to develop programs and policies that appealed to a majority of voters. On the other hand, perhaps they recognize that as a Party they do not believe in the ideals that appeal to a majority of Americans.  As such, they have become a party which is trying to maintain those undemocratic mechanisms which we have inherited from a very different and hardly appealing past and to re-impose certain undemocratic practices which we have been able to eliminate, e.g., poll taxes and the like.  Be that as it may, the chances for a constitutional amendment are pretty slim.

There is some hope though through the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact.  This is an agreement among a group of U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all of their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.  It will come into effect only when it has been adopted by states with an aggregate total of 270 electoral votes.  So far it has been adopted by 10 states and the District of Columbia which together have 165 electoral votes.  To become effective, additional states with 105 electoral votes will have to adopt it.  Still an uphill battle, but it has more promise than a constitutional amendment.  If progressives keep hammering on this, it may bear fruit.  Polls show that a majority of the public favor eliminating the electoral college, 62% in a recent poll and a majority in every Gallup poll asking the question going back to 1967.  It will probably be necessary to get big swing states like Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio to join the Compact and that may be difficult given Republican control of state legislatures and Governorships but perhaps passing ballot initiatives is possible.

One further thought - what about mandatory voting?  I raised this in an earlier blog, but it's worthy of further discussion.  In the recent election about 57% or 58% of the voting age population cast a ballot, fairly typical in the US but lower than in most OECD countries.  Trump got 46.1 % of the vote and Clinton got 48.2%.  Thus Trump was elected by 26% of the vote of the eligible population.  He is a minority President in every sense of the word.  This is ridiculous.  Even George W. Bush and Barack Obama won with only around 30% of the vote of the voting age population.  Of course, they won the majority of that vote (2004 only for Bush).  Part of this is due to voter suppression and difficulties in registration, but it is also due, according to some commentators, to lack of enthusiasm, "The more significant costs of participation are the cognitive costs of becoming involved with and informed about the political world.... Political interest and engagement ... determine to a large extent who votes and who does not." According to this view, making voting easier, which has been the case over the last 20 years (notwithstanding the recent Republican voter suppression campaign), doesn't increase turnout.  If this is correct, and the consistent pattern of low turnout in the US would seem to bear this out, the only remedy might be a mandatory requirement to vote.  Turnout in the nine elections after Australia adopted compulsory voting averaged 94.6%, compared to a 64.2% average for the nine elections before the reform.  An added benefit is that if everyone, or almost everyone votes, any socio-economic bias in the voting should be eliminated.   However, along with this there needs to be a campaign of voter education for the politically disengaged.  This, too, would be an uphill battle, particularly given the Republican reaction to the health care mandate, but here the mandate is only that one has to vote; one doesn't have to pay anything and the vote can be for a Republican or a write-in candidate.

These are challenging propositions, but, as Rahm Emanuel has said (although apparently not the originator), "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste", or words to that effect.  And make no mistake, this is a serious crisis, as is brought home repeatedly each day.  There is probably no better time to act.