Friday, January 13, 2017

Terror and Race

A few days ago I discovered a paper I had written in 1968 for one of my favorite courses, Intergroup Relations, by Tom Pettigrew.  Only 36 at the time, Pettigrew was already a star at Harvard and nationwide. A white Virginian, he had grown up in a relatively liberal family and had become fascinated by race relations in the south. He came to Harvard in the 1950s and studied with the social psychologist Gordon Allport, who focused on the role of prejudice in individual personalities.  He had also spent an informative year in the late 1950s in South Africa, where he found uncanny similarities to his native region.  He was known around the nation and friendly with many major figures in the civil rights movement.

Race relations were a hugely important topic in the 1960s, of course, and Pettigrew's course was one of the more popular on campus.  It was well-organized, multi-disciplinary, and thorough. As he explained in the opening lecture, we studied the racial problem from six different angles.  As a preview, he started out with two lectures on lynchings, using the same six approaches to deal with it.  I had been fascinated by the topic for some years but this was the first serious introduction I had gotten to it.

In the previous summer, I had bought and read an extraordinary piece of journalism, The Algiers Motel Incident, by John Hersey, who after the Second World War had opened the eyes of the American people to the meaning of the atomic bomb with his New Yorker essay and book, Hiroshima.  A year earlier, in 1967, the worst of a long series of urban riots had exploded in Detroit.  It took more than 40 lives, most of them innocent people shot by National Guardsmen, and it triggered massive white flight and started that city on its road to terminal decline.  On the third night of the riot, police officers and state troopers thought they heard gunfire coming from the seedy Algiers Motel, and went in to investigate. It turned out that the sounds had come from a harmless "starter pistol," but that didn't stop several cops from taking drastic action.  Discovering a number of young black men and several white girls, they lined them all up, stripped them, and beat them.  Then, three cops apparently shot three of the black teenagers, killing them.  They were rapidly arrested and when Hersey published his book, they were under indictment.

Hersey did what James Michener did three years later, after the Kent State shootings.  He went to Detroit, turned on his tape recorder, and listened to everyone involved for as long as they would talk.  His interlocutors included at least two of the three policemen, although they would not talk about the incident itself.  The picture he painted was very revealing.

For my term paper in late 1968 I decided to use Hersey's book as a case study and combine it with Pettigrew's theoretical insights to see if the incident fit the definition of a lynching.  The answer, in at least two critical respects, was yes.  Given the salience of police shootings today, what I found, I think, remains very relevant.  Indeed, there may be a straight line from the days of lynching, to the killings in the Algiers Motel, to a number of well-publicized incidents and police practices over the last 30 years.  I was very surprised.

The first critical similarity I found had to do with motive.  The lynching of black people in the Jim Crow South, Pettigrew had shown--drawing on the great southern social scientist W. J. Cash, author of The Mind of the South--often had very little to do with crime they were accused of committing.  Sometimes, indeed, the offense was not even critical, and men were lynched for trying to vote.  Instead, every lynching as a blow in an endless terror campaign designed to make sure that black people--and especially black men--stayed in their place.  Equality, white southerners argued endlessly, would lead to the mixing of the races, and eventually to the ultimate evil, miscegenation.  That was why blacks must never be allowed to mingle socially with whites, and why any black assertion of equality had to be met with the ultimate punishment.

What was striking was that at least two of the Algiers Motel policemen talked about Detroit's riots and the official response to them in very similar terms.  The mayor of Detroit, Jerome Cavanaugh--who was white, like nearly all big-city majors in 1968--had immediately issued orders that police should not fire on looters.  That, the cops argued, was a deviation from standard operating procedures and a terrible mistake.  Had they been able to shoot a few looters right away, they thought, the riot might have been nipped in the bud.  Given their own chance to take drastic action at the Algiers Motel--where there was no evidence that anyone had done anything except party with a few white girls--they took it.

Nor was this all.  Quotes from other riots--particularly in Los Angeles--suggested that much of the ghetto population had indeed felt controlled and intimidated by the police, and that they rioted in part for the sake of the sense of freedom it gave them.  That in turn brings up an aspect of the inner-city situation in cities like Los Angeles and Detroit in the 1960s.  The Great Migration, which brought millions of people north and west to work in industry, was very much a bi-racial phenomenon. White southerners, as well as blacks, trkked from Texas to California and from Alabama to Detroit during the Second World War.  Some of those whites found their way onto the police force (although none of the Algiers Motel shooters, it seems, were from the South.)

But in today's context I am most troubled by two things.  First, at least one of the cops argued to Hersey that the police had been trained to believe that when they came upon some one committing a crime--and not necessarily a violent crime--and that person tried to flee, they were expected to shoot them.  That is what has bothered me the most about some of the recent police shootings that have been so widely publicized, and I thought it was a new practice. It seems I was wrong.  But more importantly, the whole "broken windows" style of policing that Rudy Giuliani so proudly pioneered in New York strikes me as another strategy of intimidation, designed to punish populations for minor offenses in the hope of dissuading them from committing major ones.  The practice of stopping and frisking young men more or less at random, or stopping drivers who don't seem to belong in the neighborhood, could be interpreted in the same way.  If policemen come to feel that their task is to control a dangerous population, rather than to punish specific offenses, terrible offenses will result.

In the second part of the paper I found personality similarities--particularly traits of the "authoritarian personality"--among the accused policemen as well. One of them, however, did not fit that pattern.  He was the most sympathetic of the three, and by an odd quirk of fate, he was the only one to come to trial.  The other two had their cases dismissed by a sympathetic judge who argued that the evidence against them was too contradictory and confused every to secure a conviction.  The third, who had taken one black teenager alone in to a motel room and killed him with a shotgun, claimed self-defense, and a jury in another city acquitted him.  He, like so many participants in southern lynchings, seemed to have participated not out of hate, but simply out of conformity.

The election of Donald Trump seems likely to lead to a resurgence of dangerous and often lethal police practices.  It is already an article of faith among conservative commentators--echoed by some senior law enforcement officials--that crime is suddenly rising because the police have stopped being sufficiently aggressive.  Police departments may no longer have to fear Justice Department investigations if one of their officers kills some one during a traffic stop.  "This paper," I concluded in 1968, "has tried to demonstrate parallels between the lynching at the Algiers Motel and southern lynchings.  But there is one obvious difference about this modern ynching which may be more terrifying than any of the parallels: that it was executed solely by the police. This is a new and serious development in American lynching, which has previousy depended on police cooperation rather than police initiative.  It is a grim warning to our society that we may be as far from racial justice in our northern cities as we have ever been in the old South."  I leave it to readers to assess the lessons of the last few decades.


Friday, January 06, 2017

Tocqueville - In Conclusion

 In the second part (originally published as a second volume) of Democracy in America, Tocqueville attempted to analyze the influence of democracy upon virtually every aspect of human life.  By "democracy," it bears repeating, Tocqueville did not refer primarily to an elected government orpopular liberties as enjoyed under the US Constitution.  He meant the opposite of aristocracy, a society without legal distinctions among different classes, special privileges, and traditions of deference.  He saw this kind of democracy spreading all over Europe, and he was not at all sure what kind of political institutions it might lead to.  Indeed, he clearly believed that it was at least as likely to lead to despotism, as it had in France under Napoleon, as to liberty, and he spends much of Part II warning of the dangers he saw.  While some of part II specifically discusses the United States, it is more about the whole future of western civilization.

The book includes echoes of two other great thinkers whose lives overlapped with Tocqueville, the older Clausewitz and the younger Karl Marx.  Democracies, he noted--as did Clausewitz--were potentially stronger militarily than aristocracies because they could command the whole resources of the people.  Clausewitz also made this point in On War,  and he added that the other European powers had only managed to defeat Napoleon when they, too, had incorporated some of the political changes that had occurred in France in their own nations.  At another point, he noted the tendency of industry to create both a new aristocracy of wealth and a new submerged class of poor laborers, and speculated that that might be a threat to liberty as well--anticipating Marx and Engels.  While in the United States he repeatedly noted that the central government remained weak, and the state governments more important, he fond the central power in Europe increasing everywhere, taking a keen interest in the direction of education, industry, and provision for the poor, and in short, threatening to establish a dictatorship.  This of course came to pass in the Fascist and Communist states of the 20th century, and a good many European citizens seem to feel that the European Union, whose bureaucrats are not elected, has achieved almost absolute power as well.  In the United States the central government also became far more powerful than in Tocqueville's day in the 20th century, but the prejudice against it has remained strong.

Turning to the question of mores, Tocqueville found much in the United States that tended to preserve stability and liberty.  Americans by and large were most interested in making money, although he repeats again and again that very few of them manage to make, and fewer still to conserve, great fortunes.  Tocqueville's claim that the United States lacked many rich men has been vindicated decisively by Thomas Piketty's 21st-century classic, Capital in the Twenty-First Century(2014), which found that because 19th-century land was so plentiful and cheap, capital--that is, wealth--was much lower relative to national income in the United States than in Europe at least until the second half of the nineteenth century.  The growth of great industrial enterprises was recognized as a threat to democracy in the United States from the Gilded Age onward, of course, and although as Piketty showed the Progressive era did not stop the growth of inequality, the Depression, the New Deal and the Second World War did reverse the trend until the 1970s.  Then, as I discussed in a series of posts on Piketty's book nearly three years ago, inequality of income and wealth began to rise rapidly, and many voters clearly now view this as a threat to their future and their liberty.

The Americans, Tocqueville said again and again, had moderate habits, befitting their moderately prosperous economic status.  Because they were not rich, they focused their energies on getting richer, and that made them supporters of a stable social order.  He was also profoundly impressed, like many other contemporary Americans and Europeans, by the stricter morality prevailing in America in the relations of the sexes.  Some of this he ascribed to social equality.  In France or Britain, a rich man might seduce a poor woman without fear of having to marry her, since society would reject such a match.  In the United States no one could claim this aristocratic privilege among free citizens.  Married women almost never betrayed their husbands, he noted, and although they had to submit to their will and share their good fortune and bad, they freely chose their husbands,  and rarely complained.  All this, too, has obviously changed so much as to have little relevance today.  Tocqueville could scarcely have imagined societies like contemporary America and Europe, where such a large portion of the adult population remains single for most or all of their lives.  We do not yet know what the consequences of this new state of affairs will be.

Tocqueville still provides a compelling framework for the analysis of the United States today.  Alas, perhaps the most important change in the last 200 years or so involves the political sophistication of the average American citizen.  In volume I Tocqueville showed how deeply ordinary Americans were involved in the local and state management of their political affairs, and how this gave them real knowledge and experience about government.  This, it seems to me, has not been the case for some decades, and although a higher percentage of the population has the right to vote, the number of qualified voters who actually exercise that right has probably fallen as a percentage of the total.  Few indeed are the Americans who actually understand where the money in state and federal budgets comes from and where it goes, and political rhetoric deals in generalities that often have no relationship to actual fact.  Tocqueville saw that emotion played an important role in American politics, but surely it has rarely if ever been so important as it was in the election of 2016.  And the breakdown in the people's relationship to their political leadership has led to the election of Donald Trump, who capitalized, it is increasingly clear, on very real economic grievances in the heartland of the United States to win election, but who will obviously do little or nothing to improve the lives of the voters who elected them.

The citizenry still enjoys all its basic freedoms--indeed, in some ways, it enjoys more of them than ever.  The legal profession remains an important obstacle to despotism, although it may not be able to protect our 11 million illegal immigrants, who represent a problem without parallel in Tocqueville's day.  Our greatest problem, I believe--echoing Tocqueville--is one of mores and values.  Greed has created a new elite, with tremendous consequences, and greed reigns unchallenged.  Associations, which Tocqueville thought so important in American political life, remain very powerful today--but nearly all the most powerful ones are on the right.  Half a century ago the NAACP and the AFL-CIO were perhaps the two most powerful lobbies in Washington.  Today they do not remotely compare to the NRA, AIPAC, the network of groups funded by the Koch brothers, or the Chamber of Commerce. 

Tocqueville ended Democracy in America with one of my favorite passages, one which I frequently quoted as history classes came to an end.  Democracy, he repeated--social equality--was the wave of the future, and nothing could stand in its way.  Attempts to preserve aristocratic virtues, he argued, were doomed, and should be abandoned--even though he himself had more inherent sympathy for aristocracy.  The future held many possibilities, and here were his last words.

"For myself, looking back now from the extreme end of my task and seeing at a distance, but collected together, all the various things which had attracted my close attention upon the way, I am full of fears and of hopes.  I see great dangers which may be warded off and mighty evils which may be avoided or kept in check; and I am ever increasingly confirmed in my belief that for democratic nations to be virtuous and prosperous, it is enough if they will to be so.

"I am aware that many of my contemporaries think that nations on earth are never their own masters and that they are bound to obey some insuperable and unthinking power, the product of pre-existing facts, of race, or soil, or climate.


"These are false and cowardly doctrines which can only produce feeble men and pusillanimous nations  Providence did not make mankind entirely free or completely enslaved. Providence has, in truth, drawn a predestined circle around each man beyond which he cannot pass; but within those vast limits man is strong and free, and so are peoples.

"The nations of our day cannot prevent conditions of equality from spreading in their midst.  But it depends upon themselves whether equality is to lead to servitude or freedom, knowledge or barbarism, prosperity or wretchedness."

Amen.

   

Friday, December 30, 2016

At last, the 1950s come to life

Over the years I have been very critical here of recent attempts to dramatize the 1950s, such as Masters of Sex (which I discussed in detail), Mad Men, and the film Carol.  The new Amazon series Good Girls Revolt, while set somewhat later (1969), has also failed to impress me.  The writers and directors do not understand, it seems to me, that while today we reject many of the customs of that era--especially as regards relations between the sexes--almost no one living through that era did.  Too often, the protagonists of these shows look like 21st-century characters who have time-traveled back at least half a century and chafe under the social controls they find there.  Now, however, a new team has managed to do what all the others could not.  And ironically, they have done so in a production that does not claim to paint a true picture of that period (actually, in this case, the early 1960s), but which instead presents an alternative vision of history.  That is the Amazon production, The Man in the High Castle, based on a 1962 novel by Philip K Dick.  The premise of the novel, as you probably know, is that the Germans and Japanese won the Second World War, and the action of the series is divided between the New York area (the capital of the Nazi-ruled eastern half of the country) and San Francisco, which along with the whole Pacific coastal region is ruled by the Japanese.  The Rockies, which the first season visited briefly, are a neutral zone. The series uses superb Japanese and German actors to great effect.  I will do my best to say what I have to say about the series without giving any critical plot points away, and I highly recommend that readers watch it.

By 1962, the war has had very different effects on the two coasts.  The Pacific States remain occupied territory, partly because of the strict racial views of the Japanese.  The entire American population is terrorized and sullen, and remains at the mercy of the occupiers' whims.  The situation in the eastern states is entirely different--they are part of the greater Reich.  They have evidently been thoroughly ethnically cleansed of both Jews and black people, and the population has been screened for proper racial characteristics--but the citizenry appears to be generally loyal, despite the presence of a small resistance movement, and, critically, quite happy.  Large, clean suburbs have evidently sprung up, just as they did under Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK.  Procreation has become a duty to the Reich, and women are fulfilling it enthusiastically--just as most of them did in real life without any official exhortation to do so.  Families evidently see themselves as part of a team, and the husband is the coach.  Nearly every adult chain-smokes cigarettes.  This was virtually the only point that suggested to me that the writers might not have done all their research.  While Americans and Europeans did smoke very heavily in the early 1960s, they might not have had Hitler won the war.  He intended to ban smoking when the war was over, and while that might have been utopian, he might certainly have curtailed it.  Another slip involved cars: the streets are filled with genuine American monstrosities from that period, and nary a single Volkswagen is to be seen.  In fact, Beetles had become a familiar site in 1962 America even though the Germans had lost the war, and would surely have been more common had they won.

The inhabitants of the Reich, essentially, take their society's values for granted, largely because their regime won the greatest war in history.  And that was the situation in real life in 1962 as well--on both sides of the Atlantic.  Western Europe absorbed many of the values (and products) of the United States because the US had emerged from the war as the unquestioned leader of western civilization.  And indeed, I came away from watching the second season (which spends far more time in the eastern states) wondering whether the experience of going through the Second World War, in which tens of millions were mobilized and millions died, was more important than whether or not one wound up on the winning side.   Whoever won that epic conflict enjoyed national and international prestige which is unimaginable today, and commanded the respect of virtually everyone within its sphere of influence. The same thing, of course, also happened in the USSR and much of the Communist world, even though the atmosphere in Eastern Europe was far more similar to that of the Pacific states in The Man in the High Castle.

Nor is this all.  The role of the younger generation is also very cleverly handled.  We see a harbinger of things to come, not in New York, but in the upper reaches of Berlin society, where the plot takes one of the main characters late in season 2.  There we meet young Berliners comparable, in a way, to the undergraduates at UC Berkeley just two years later.  They have everything they could possibly want, but they are not content simply to carry on the roles their parents have laid out for them.  Deprived of any real initiative of their own, they take refuge in casual sex and pharmaceutical recreation--specifically, LSD, originally devoted by German scientists in mind control experiments.  The Awakening of the 1960s had not yet begun when Dick wrote his novel, but the team of 11 screenwriters listed in the credits know what was around the corner and they foreshadow it brilliantly.  Once again, they suggest that the same dynamic would have transformed western society no matter who had won the war.  And perhaps these episodes help answer a question that has bothered me for years: why Berkeley undergrads in the fall of 1964 eagerly embraced Mario Savio's analogy between their status and that of disenfranchised black Americans in Mississippi.  Despite all their advantages, they felt they were living in a world that was not their own.  Of such generational dynamics is history made.

The real American society of 1962 differed critically, of course, from what we see in The Man in the High Castle.  The Reich is exclusive, ruling both despised racial groups and "unworthy" physical or mentally deficient people out of the national community, while the United States had become more inclusive as a result of the war, with eastern Europeans more assimilated, and black Americans gradually securing basic rights.  But the US showed the same pressure to conform, in dress, hairstyles, diet and drinking habits.  That was where western civilization had been going at that time, and the experience of the war, when all men wore uniforms, had accelerated the trend.  But a contrary trend was about to erupt.  The two young protagonists of the series are also trying to move outside the simple black and white categories of their world--and more than once, their attempts to follow their own moral compass wind up alienating all sides.

Last but hardly least, the international situation in The Man in the High Castle mirrors the actual situation of 1962.  There, as in real life, the two victorious nations--Germany and Japan, instead of the US and the USSR--are experiencing a falling out that threatens a new great war.  There are explicit and implicit echoes of the Cuban missile crisis in the drama that plays out.  As in real life, the critical conflicts divide those who see history as an endless struggle, and those who believe that the world now needs a period of peace.

The series, in short, is great history--which is why, I predict, it does not foreshadow new events on the horizon right now.  The first half of the twentieth century was a great age of authority and huge common enterprises.  Ours is the reverse.  While President-elect Trump can talk like an authoritarian, I suspect that state authority will continue to get weaker, not stronger, under him--and that the same trend will continue around the world.  The mid-1960s remain one of the great turning points of history because they changed the individual's relationship to his family and the broader society in which he lives.  Since then, individualism has gained steadily in every realm of life.  The question before us is how far individualism can go before it becomes impossible for modern society to function, and the answer to that question is not yet clear.


Friday, December 23, 2016

The Trump Administration and the Republican Revolution

Donald Trump selected nearly all his cabinet while I was away on a long vacation.  It is both a blend of several elements of the Republican Party, and a team with a purpose, one that will clearly move quickly to make great changes in Washington.  It represents a blend of different political cultures, while completely excluding the bi-coastal cultural elite.  And while it is not entirely clear what it promises on the foreign front, its domestic direction is clear. It will try to undo virtually all that is left of the New Deal and the Great Society, fulfilling the fantasies of Newt Gingrich--Trump's most distinguished early supporter--and Grover Norquist, who has been relatively quiet of late, but who stands on the verge of the realization of his dream of shrinking the federal government until it can be drowned in a bathtub.  While press attention focuses on Trump's personality, what we are really seeing is the culmination of more than three decades of disciplined Republican work, driving the Republican party and the country steadily to the right.

Trump's selections fall broadly into two camps.  Quite a few of them, including those in the most critical positions, come from the Republican political establishment and the bipartisan economic establishment.  Rex Tillerson, to begin with, is probably the most powerful business executive to assume a position in the cabinet since Eisenhower appointed "Engine Charlie" Wilson, the General Motors Chairman of the Board, as Secretary of Defense in 1953.  (Wilson is not to be confused with the Texas Congressman who three decades later became the hero of "Charlie Wilson's war.)  Ike's Wilson famously remarked during his confirmation hearings that he had always assumed that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, and vice versa, and Tillerson presumably would say the same about Exxon.   Tillerson is not a conservative ideologue, but he has been converted to a a liver-and-let-live policy towards Putin's Russia, and his company has a huge stake in the lifting of the sanctions against that country.  It is entirely possible that he will work with all major governments to make the world safer for themselves and their corporate oligarchies--although at least one report claims that Trump plans to reverse Richard Nixon's policy and forge an anti-Chinese alliance with the Russians. A second key choice from the Establishment, broadly defined, is Steven Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs executive and current hedge fund manager, as Secretary of the Treasury.  He seems very unlikely to push for a tougher regulatory environment, and indeed, quite likely to create a looser one, inviting a replay of the 2007 crash.  In a parallel appointment, current Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn will become the head of the White House National Economic Council in this "populist" administration.  Three other establishment selections are Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a long-time Republican operative, U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao,Senator McConnell's wife, whose policy plans are not clear.  Equally unclear is the future role of Interior Secretary  Ryan Zinke a freshman Congressman from Montana who has not, apparently, taken strong public positions on key environmental issues.  And another, surely, is General Mattis, the presumptive Secretary of Defense, who had a very high reputation within the military when I was working at the Naval War College.  Retired general John Kelly, the Homeland Security Secretary, falls into the same category..

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it seems to me, occupies something of a middle position within the Trump team.  After several decades in Washington, he certainly ranks as an Establishment figure, but he has long been an opponent of abortion rights and embraced the evisceration of the Voting Rights act.  He can also be counted on to support extreme measures against immigration or against a presumed domestic terrorist threat.  All these positions are, of course, completely in line with mainstream Republican thinking nowadays.  Under Sessions the Justice Department will surely drop its aggressive advocacy of the rights of transgender Americans and will probably stand firmly behind law enforcement in any new controversies over police behavior--popular policies with the Administration's base. 

We now come to the second group of appointees, the ones who in my opinion will attempt to transform--or eliminate--the role of the federal government in various sectors of American life.  Several of them come from the Tea Party movement, which has never before had a direct role in national policy, and several have been chosen, clearly, because of their opposition to the essential functions that their departments were created to serve.

The Labor Department exists to protect the rights of American workers, but its new head, Andrew Puzder, is the CEO of a fast-food chain, an economic sector that pays low wages for very hard work and has successfully resisted attempts to organize.  No Republican of a century ago ever dared appoint a titan of non-unionized industry like Henry Ford to this post, but that is what Trump has done.  Puzder violently opposes any increase in the minimum wage.  Similarly, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who will become director of the EPA, has literally functioned as a mouthpiece for energy interests in controversies with the EPA, passing on their own draft protests as his own.  The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has led campaigns designed to reduce the role of public education in American life and promote private alternatives including--but certainly not limited to--charter schools.  I suspect she will also scale back or eliminate the department's role as a campus watchdog on issues of sexual assault and inclusion.   Presumptive Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson seems to have no sympathy for his department's role, either.   The selection of Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (and thus responsible for the administration of the ACA), is parallel. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, violently opposes any government interference in the provision of health care and health insurance.  A parallel appointment in the foreign policy sphere is David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel--a vocal ally of the Netanyahu government who wants to promote, rather than restrict, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and who will apparently move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.



And last, but hardly least, Mike Mulvaney, the South Carolina Congressman who has been seelcted to head the Office of Management nad budget, is a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, the most radical faction of the Tea Party, who was active in efforts to shut down the government to force more drastic reductions in federal spending.  Rather than oppose a Democratic Administration's budget, he will now draw up the budget upon which the Congress must act.  It will undoubtedly include huge cuts in discretionary spending.

On economic issues, Trump clearly will continue to promote the fortunes of our new economic oligarchy, led by the financial and energy sectors.  On foreign policy his course is very unclear, but the appointment of Michael Flynn, who seems to be as emotional and intellectually unstable as Trump himself, as National Security Adviser, is frightening.  Given that Trump's policies will do less than nothing for the bulk of the voters who elected him, I expect him to continue arousing hatred against presumed enemies foreign and domestic and to take harsh anti-immigration measures as a way to try to keep them behind him.  Meanwhile, his team, and the excited Republican Congress, will reap the fruits of their victory by cutting back the role of the federal government, leaving teh citizenry with no defense against corporate America.

All this is, of course, catastrophic--but it is also, bizarrely, the way democracy is supposed to work.  Beginning in the 1970s, conservative Republicans (led by Gingrich, who now looks like perhaps the most influential political figure of our era) embarked on a long-term campaign to undo the last 40 years of American history.  They perfected their strategies in the 1990s--strategies I have described in earlier posts under the heading of dau tranh, a Vietnamese Communist term for struggle   (A quick search will help new readers find those posts.)  I have tracked the progress of that campaign here for a dozen years. Their response ot President Obama was to hunker down, block him at any turn, escalate their rhetoric, and mobilize their troops. Meanwhile, they have utterly destroyed the Democratic Party in much of the nation.  In 2016 they came across a new candidate with unusual appeal who managed to win a solid electoral college victory despite losing the popular vote..   They will now proceed to do the work they had been planning for years. President Obama failed for many reasons to transform the US, but the biggest reasons was that he did not want to do so.  The system had been very good to him, and he believed in it.  Too many of the American people no longer did.  The Democrats left a vacuum.  They can't blame the Republicans for filling it.




Thursday, December 15, 2016

What Happened to the Democratic Elite

A recent commentary noted that a spate of books written by blue-state journalists and academics about red state folks had recently appeared, but added that there were unfortunately no complementary books by red staters about blue staters.  What follows is my own very blue-stater attempt to sketch out what has happened on my side of the social and political fence in the past half century.  Both sides, in my opinion bear a lot of responsibility for the political collapse that has led to the election of Donald Trump.  Like my fellow historians Luigi Albertini, Fritz Fischer, and Thucydides, I have always been the kind of patriot who believes in being hardest on his own country--and the kind of partisan who believes in being harder on his own side.  Our crisis demands no less.

Fifty  years ago my generation's revolt against our parents was slowly moving into high gear.  It had begun two years earlier at the University of California at Berkeley.  In a famous speech in the fall of 1964, Mario Savio, a student leader and veteran of the Mississippi Summer Project, had addressed his fellow students, who were enjoying an almost free education--and a much better one than they would find there today--in the midst of one of the most attractive climates and surroundings on earth.  He specifically compared the plight of Berkeley undergraduates to that of segregated, terrorized Mississippi black citizens--and he was applauded for doing so.  I have wondered for many  years how he could possibly have elicited that reaction, and I can only conclude now that it was a natural, if unfortunate, reaction to being given so much by our parents' generation.  Those students' parents had provided them with a secure environment (if an emotionally sterile one), good schools, and now, a great, nearly free university.  But what is given can be taken away, and the recipient thus easily comes to resent those who have given too much.  So it was then.

Meanwhile, my parents' generation was about to make the tragic mistake that escalated our rebellion by at least two orders of magnitude: the beginning, in the first half of 1965, of the Vietnam War.  I wrote at length about how that mistake came about in American Tragedy [see link at right], and I have often written that it gave my own generation license to disregard not only what our parents told us about the necessity of that war, but just about everything else they said, too.  Meanwhile, larger historical forces, I know believe, were at work.  Western civilization in the 1960s had reached a peak, in many ways, thanks to generations of self-discipline and self-restraint, which had allowed most people to accept their roles in their families and society.  Such self-restraint had become, it seems, literally iinhuman, and my generation renounced it.  That opened up many opportunities for women and gays (legal opportunities for black citizens had already been opened up by 1975), which was necessary and could have strengthened our society.  But we were not content to extend those opportunities within the context of society as it then existed. Instead, the previous lack of those opportunities became the pretext for a broader rejection of western civilization.  This began in my own profession of academia, and college professors have now spread new ideas through two whole new generations.

The emphasis on the need to redress grievances against minorities, women and gays has led to a general indictment of white males, both in history and in society today.  They are no longer celebrated for having done the most to create a civilization based upon reason and equality, and having written a Constitution that spoke the language of equal rights even to those who did not yet enjoy them.  Instead, we have gone so far that a recent book on the American Revolution by the historian Alan Taylor refuses to regard the revolution as a step forward because it maintained slavery in the South and did not help Indian tribes.  The intellectual elite now takes it for granted--almost without realizing it--that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the most significant feature of our society and institutions, and presumes that anything that helps those groups--from a cabinet appointment to an Oscar nomination to a presidential candidacy--must be a good thing.  They see our society as a zero-sum game, whose only real problem is that straight white males have too much and everyone else has too little.

Although neither one of the last two Democratic Presidents was born into the economic and intellectual elite, they both moved smoothly into it thanks to their considerable abilities and our educational system.  Both of them also had personal characteristics that gave them a leg up at the ballot box: Bill Clinton's southern roots, which twice allowed him to carry a number of southern states, and Barack Obama's race and personal appeal, which led to an unprecedented turnout of younger and minority voters.  Meanwhile, Democratic strategists talked gleefully about the gradual eclipse of the white male portion of the electorate, counting on women and minorities to elect one Democrat after another.  Much (though hardly all) of the Democratic party was so captivated by the idea of the first female President succeeding the first black one that they could not even stop to ask whether the country was ready for a woman in general, or from a very controversial former first lady in particular.  But they had lost sight of something bigger in the meantime.

Hillary Clinton, like most Democrats, presented herself as the champion of "working families."  She retained a remarkable hold on the allegiance of black voters--although we may eventually find that a failure of younger black voters to turn out, and the failure of Hispanics to support her to the extent she expected, cost her the election.  But neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama had been able to halt, much less reverse, the decline of the white and black working class in this country.  Given the nature of our economy and the changes that it has been going through, it is impossible to help the nonwhite working class without helping the white working class as well.  That in turn can only happen through major changes in our economic structure and our tax code--the kind of changes that Bernie Sanders (sincerely) and Donald Trump (insincerely and inconsistently) have proposed.  Very few people believed that Hillary Clinton would ever undertake such changes, and I don't either.

Almost two centuries ago Tocqueville noted that the United States had a small intellectual elite, but that it wisely kept mostly to itself and had a very liimited role in politics.  The Progressive Era and the New Deal, and Presidents like the two Roosevelts, Wilson, Hoover, and Kennedy changed that picture a good deal--but the politicians of that era understood that intellectuals were only one constituency and that they had to respect the values of the heartland.  Today's Democrats do not understand that, and their supporters in academia understand it even less.  And that, I am convinced, as a very big reason why Donald Trump will take office on January 20.

In the recent seminar of campaign managers from both sides at Harvard's Institute of Politics, one of the Clinton campaign managers said she would rather have lost the election than have made the kinds of appeals the Trump camp made.  I do not think that Clinton should have taken any of Trump's provisions, but I do think Democratic politicians have to realize that there is nothing noble or beneficial about losing on behalf of intellectual elite values that too many voters in swing states do not share. We remain a democracy that includes people of very different types and very different beliefs and the task of political leadership is to bring enough of them together on the same side to make government function effectively.   This both parties have failed to do.  That is the challenge we now face, and both sides will have to change to meet it.