Thursday, December 08, 2016

Germany (1933) and the United States (2016)

The comparison between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump is unavoidable not because they want the same things or will probably have similar effects--neither of which I believe--but because they both have been chosen to lead their nations without any governmental experience and from outside the political establishments of their countries.  Both, too, have been chosen in the midst of the crises that afflict modern nations every 80 years or so, and both certainly do want to change the course their countries are on significantly.  Few historical issues have been investigated more thoroughly than how Hitler managed to take power in Germany.  I was intensively exposed to that debate as a graduate student, and I thought I knew some of the answers.  Now that the United States has experienced something similar under entirely different circumstances, however, I am not so sure.

Although Hitler had been a fringe political figure in Germany beginning in the early 1920s, not until 1930 did  the Nazis score their first big electoral success, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag or German Parliament.  By that time, the German nation had experienced at least three catastrophic events during the preivous 15 years.  The First World War, which the Imperial German government did so much to unleash in 1914, cost the Germans an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million lives, reduced the value of Germany's currency by at least 2/3, and ended in defeat, revolution, and partial occupation.  The nation viewed the Versailles Treaty as a humiliation, and owed a huge reparations bill.  In 1922, the government's inability to pay the reparations led to a new Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, and the government responded with hyperinflation, totally wiping out the savings of nearly every German.  The economy stabilized and improved somewhat in the mid-1920s, but in 1929, the impact of the stock market crash hit Germany very hard.  That enabled the Nazis to make their breakthrough in 1930, and by the time of the next election in 1932, unemployment was nearing 25%.  That allowed them to do even better, although they won only 37% of the votes and 230 out of 608 seats in their best showing.They slipped a bit in the second election that year, but Hitler was nonetheless able to form a coalition government with the more traditional German National Peopls' Party.

What helped bring Hitler to power was the complete collapse of most of the established middle class parties and a split within the Left.  When the Nazis won 230 seats in July 1932, the Social Democrats--the largest workers' party--won 133, and the Communists 89.  While the Catholic Center Party maintained  agood deal of strength with 37, the established center- and left-wing middle class parties had been wiped out.  The Communists, acting on orders from Moscow--which foresaw the complete collapse of the Weimar Republic and a Communist victory--refused to cooperate with any other party, which meant that it was impossible to put together a non-Nazi majority in the Reichstag.  Indeed, that situation had prevailed since the 1930 elections, and as a result, German Chancellors had ruled with the help of emergency decrees. They alone enabled them to pass budgets.

What is astonishing is that Donald Trump has been elected President despite the lack of any comparable misfortunes in the United States.  While we have been "at war" with Al Queda and ISIS for 15 years, our total casualties are not even close to the losses that any of the First World War combatants suffered in a couple of days of hard fighting in that war and total less than 1% of German casualties in that whole war.  The Great Recession did have an impact similar, although not nearly as great, as the inflation in Germany: it wiped out the net worth of a substantial number of Americans, but by no means all.  But our unemployment rate did not reach even half what the Germans (and the United States!) had experienced by 1932.  We have been in recovery for seven years and our official unemployment rate, at any rate, is quite low.

The mid-twentieth century was the climax of an age of rationalism, and my teachers and I assumed that 37% of German voters would not vote for Hitler without some good reason--chiefly, economic misery--for doing so.  Yet we have just seen a substantially larger 47% of American voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump, strategically distributed so as to give him the election.  What happened?

Well, to begin with, since Trump secured the Republican nomination, he really managed to graft himself onto our existing political structure in a way that Hitler never did.  He, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and even, to a certain extent, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, is a product of the system of direct democracy that both parties put in place 40 years ago.  And although many of his positions are somewhat extreme, all of them have been taken by various Republicans over the last 20 years.  The Republican establishment resented him because he was not one of them, but he built on the propaganda work they had done.  Some readers will remember my posts on dau tranh (if you do not, a search of the blog will turn them up.)  Trump run on the premise that government is not working.  The Republicans had not only been saying that for several decades, they did their best to prevent it from working for the last eight years.   A Republican propaganda campaign lasting several decades has taken over the vast majority of our state governments and convinced well over 40% of the population that Washington is evil.  Trump was the beneficiary. 

Now the American center has not collapsed the way the German one did, and has a comfortable home in the party of the Clintons and Barack Obama.  The American left is however somewhat splintered--and we, unlike the Germans, have no Communist party.  The American left includes younger progressives who supported Bernie Sanders, some of whom clearly did not go to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton.  But it also should include lots of families in declining industrial towns, and it does not.  Such families voted for Trump.  He did what Hitler never managed to do--he won the votes of a substantial portion of the working class, even though he claims to be a billionaire and is bearing the standard of the party of the rich.

I have thus arrived at the finding that has been discussed by many Democrats and even affirmed by one of the architechts of modern Democratic strategy, James Carville.  The Democratic Party has abandoned the working class in favor of the suburban middle class--with the exception of minority voters who base their votes on race, rather than class.  Hitter's party, of course, was named the National Socialist German Workers' Party, but it never won a substantial working class vote before taking power.  Trump's support evidently came from two sources: the bedrock Republican vote in the red states, and a major portion of the white working class vote in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which hadn't voted Republican since the 1980s.

This, then is the reason Trump won 475 of the American electorate, while Hitler never got above 37% of the Germans in a really free election.  He was not, in fact, as much of an outsider as he claimed to be--he took many common Republican positions and easily won the normal Republican vote.  And somehow--and I still do not understand how--he convinced a great many voters whose economic interests would have put them on the Left that he was on their side.  He had an easier paty to power than Hitler. We are beginning to get glimpses of what he might do in power, and I will survey that situation once again after January 1.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tocqueville on Race

Tocqueville divided Democracy in America into two parts.  The first was essentially a survey of American political institutions and how they worked and has been the subject of my earlier posts about him; the second deals with American thinking, mores, and customs.  But near the end of part I, he wrote the longest and most prophetic chapter of the whole work, entitled, "Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States."  With our race relations still in flux, the chapter makes extraordinary reading today.  While Tocqueville did not foresee what would happen over the next few decades, our struggle to overcome his pessimistic view has not been by any means entirely successful.

Tocqueville was one of the founders of modern social science, even if that discipline did not yet have a name.  He was well versed in the whole history of civilization and keenly aware that he was living through a turning point in world history.  And he discussed great and terrible developments with an almost shocking clarity, accepting what he saw before his eyes rather than trying to shade it to fit his own moral judgments.  The white, black and Indian races, he wrote, were not only "naturally distinct," but "hostile."  He saw the whites as a superior civilization--a judgment validated, it still seems to me, by their supremacy on the continent--while the other two races  had only their "misfortunes" in common.  "Both occupy an equally inferior position in the land whee they dwell; both suffer the effects of tyranny, and thought their afflictions are different, they have the same people to blame for them."  While he obviously felt the injustice of this situation keenly, he saw very little that could be done about it.

I shall not spend much time on Tocqueville's discussion of the fate of the Indians, except to mention one fascinating argument that I found there for the first time.  It was not, he reported based on what he had learned, the hostility of the white settlers that drove the Indians further and further into the interior.  The problem was that the Indians lived by hunting animals, and that the wild animals that fed them invariably fled into the interior when whites settled nearby, thus forcing the Indians to follow them.  He did describe the process by which the advancing whites forced or induced tribes to admit them to their neighborhood by treaty, but it was the impact of their settlements on the Indian hunting grounds that pushed the tribes relentlessly inland. Tocqueville, to repeat, was writing in the early 1830s, just before the decision to expel the tribes of the Southeast and force them to migrate to Oklahoma.  Yet he very nearly predicted something of the kind, noting that those tribes, in contrast to others, had now been encircled with white settlement, sandwiched between the advancing settlers from the Atlantic coast and those that were settling the lower Mississippi Valley.

Tocqueville also took a moment to put the Indian tribes in a world-historical perspective.  A true child of the Enlightenment--the tradition in which I would also prefer to put myself--he believed that civilization had flourished under the Greeks and Romans, fallen before the barbarian invasions and retreated during the Middle Ages, and revived in the Renaissance and the early modern period.  "When I perceive the resemblance between the political institutions of our German ancestors and the wandering tribes of North America, between customs described by Tacitus and those I have witnessed myself," he wrote, "I cannot avoid the conclusion that in both hemispheres the same cause has produced the same effects and that amid the apparent diversity of human affairs it ia possible to discover a few pregnant facts from which all others derive.  In all that we call Germanic institutions I am tempted to see nothing but barbaric habits and to regard what we call feudal ideas as the opinions of savages."

Turning to the condition of black Americans, Tocqueville wrote some of his most chilling words.  (I should comment here upon nomenclature and translation.  Tocqueville in the original French used the word "noirs"--literally, blacks--to describe that population, but George Lawrence, whose translation dates from the early 1960s, used what was then the polite English word Negroes.  I am using blacks, both because it is a literal translation and because it is still the term I prefer to use despite further changes of fashion in more recent times.)  While he clearly did not believe in slavery himself, recognized that it had been abolished in much of the United States, and clearly felt that it might not endure in the South, he did not believe that they could become equal citizens because he felt the white population would never accept this.  The white people, he argued, were an aristocracy defined by natural differences.  Given that it had proven so hard to remove the privileges of European aristocrats that were defined only by law, he argued, it seemed impossible that equality could be established among those divided by the color of their skin.  "I plainly see," he wrote, "that in some parts of the country the legal barrier between the two races is tending to come down, but not that of mores.  I see that slavery is in retreat, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable . . .race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in states where slavery was never known."  Even in the northern states where black citizens theoretically enjoyed equal rights, he reported, they were too afraid to assert them.  Those states that had abolished slavery had done so not to help the black man, but to help the white, both by leaving free labor without the competition of slaves and by eliminating the corrupting influence of owning slaves upon the whites.   Tocqueville wrote at length on how slavery in the South had taught white people to scorn work, and to cultivate the traditional vices of aristocracy.

Tocqueville wrote a separate section on the possible breakup of the American union, but he did not specifically foresee a civil war based on slavery that might destroy it.  The second great wave of abolitionism was just beginning when he visited the United States, and the question of slavery in the territories was now in abeyance in the wake of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  And Tocqueville did not understand generational theory and the emerging 80-year cycle in western history.  He saw that the United States of the 1830s was a very different nation with a very different political class than the country of the revolutionary and constitutional period, whose leaders he recognized as giants, but he did not foresee that in his own lifetime a new crisis might call forth new great statesmen who would work a comparable transformation on their country. Born in 1805, Tocqueville might easily have lived to see the Civil War and the concurrent transformation of the western European states in the very direction that he had predicted, but he died in 1859 at the age of only 54.  But he did seem to think that somehow slavery would come to an end in the South--but he could see nothing ahead but further tragedy.

"If I absolutely had to make some guess about the future, I should say that in the probable course of things the abolition of slavery in the South would increase the repugnance felt by the white population toward the Negroes [sic]," he wrote.  He understood that the migration of freed slaves to Africa or elsewhere--the solution of many of the original abolitionists--was utterly impossible, if only because there were far too many slaves to transport.  Emancipation, he argued, would lead to grater fear on the part of the whites and greater jealousy on the part of the blacks.  He seemed to think that armed conflict would ensue, and he declined to predict the result.  As the chapter wore on, he became more and more indignant about the cruelty of American slavery, yet he seemed to accept the white southern view--also expressed at one point by Thomas Jefferson--that since it had been established it would be too dangerous to eliminate it.  Yet he saw that in the long run slavery was alien both to Christianity and to the spirit of the modern world and that it must therefore be doomed. He directed his indignation less against the contemporary slaveholders, whose predicament he appreciated, and more against their forbearerers. "all my hatred," he wrote, "is concentrated against those who, after a thousand years of equality, introduced slavery into the world again."

How well, or badly, have these predictions held up?

In one sense our ancestors proved themselves more moral, courageous, and heroic than Tocqueville had imagined.  The abolitionist and free soil movements gained ground rapidly in the North after the Mexican War while the slaveholders became more eager not only to maintain, but to extend, slavery.  The civil war resulted, and Abraham Lincoln turned it into a total war to end slavery.  The Republican Party in the wake of the war passed the Constitutional amendments that appeared to give the freed slaves full citizenship.  Meanwhile, the freed slaves did not, as Tocqueville had evidently feared, immediately turn to insurrection and the slaughter of their former masters, but seemed more than willing simply to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.  The white southerners, however, vindicated his prediction.  Terrified of the freed slaves, they terrorized them once again into submission as soon as they could and zealously deprived them of their rights for another 80 years.  Eventually many black southerners (as well as a great many white ones) began moving to the cities of the North the Midwest and the West, but they did not find genuine equality or acceptance there either.

In the wake of the Second World War--a war fought for human equality around the globe--the civil rights movement led to legislation that turned the 14th and 15th amendments into reality and finally eliminated the legal barriers to citizenship for black Americans.  Yet those victories a half a century ago, sadly, rapidly validated some of Tocqueville's predictions of 130 years earlier.  While better-off black people enjoyed more of the fruits of equality, many white citizens still shunned the black population and fled from contact from it.  Meanwhile, with their legal chains at last cast aside, a wave of resentment erupted among younger black generations.  Eliminated by law, segregation has largely persisted by custom.  It has also become political.  About 90% of black voters are Democrats, while more than half of white ones are now Republicans.  Black Americans are incarcerated at extraordinary rates, and still suffer disproportionately from poverty and poor education.

The election and re-election of Barack Obama confirmed that black Americans have been integrated into various sectors of the American elite with the full assent of more than half the American people.  Their views have also entered the mainstream of the intellectual community.  But the election of Donald Trump obviously drew on continuing resentment of the black community and of what much of its leadership now stands for.  The chasm that now divides the black and white poor of America--one that was much narrower in the middle of the twentieth century--is one of the tragedies of contemporary American politics.  Some of Tocqueville's predictions proved too pessimistic--but others did not.  Let us hope that some new common purpose may allow us to prove, once again, than we can be better than he thought we might.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Our political crisis

The Trump team seems to be having some difficulty reaching agreement on key positions, making it impossible to determine exactly what the Trump administration will try to do.  I shall have more to say about that when we learn more.   But whatever they do, Trump's election and reactions to it show that we are experiencing the greatest political crisis in our history since 1860-1, when southern states seceded and civil war began.  The nature of the crisis, however, is different, and in some ways, even deeper.  We fought the civil war because the political leadership in both the North and the South enjoyed popular support.  Now, as I have recently been reminded by two separate incidents, our political class has almost entirely lost popular support, and I have no idea how to regain it.  What follows will be anecdotal but I think it is still significant.

Recently a social media friend of mine provided me with a copy of a questionnaire that his father, a retiree, had filled out.  They both live in one of the states whose loss by the Democrats was so shocking, that is, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.  His father apparently received the questionnaire in the mail because he was once a registered Republican, although he is now an independent.  He filled it out, but he made clear from the beginning that the party no longer enjoyed his allegiance because it "has changed since I joined."

The gentleman agreed that the Republican party had to do a better job appealing to minorities, women and young voters, although he also thought it should stick to its principles of low taxes, less government and free enterprise.  But he did not think the Republicans should focus on "the disastrous policies of Barack Obama's presidency" or that it should emphasize social issues, which he thought had become "too divisive."  He did not think the national media misled the public about the Republican party's positions.  More importantly, he spontaneously mentioned that he had received insurance through Obamacare, and although his premiums had increased, he strongly opposed replacing it.  He said that he belieed climate change was a major threat to the nation, but on the other hand, he did not trust the federal government to act in the best interest of our citizens, and he thought "political correctness" had indeed gotten out of hand. 

Asked which party would handle various issues better, he gave the Republicans the nod only one, a strong military, and preferred the Democrats with respect to health care, gun control, and reducing the federal deficit.  (That in my opinion was one of his best-informed responses.)  But on everything else, from the war on terror, the economy foreign policy, entitlements, immigration reform, crime, and appointment of Supreme Court justices, he checked the boxes for "No opinion," but crossed out "no opinion" and wrote "neither."  On foreign policy, he felt the United States should be more a model to the world than a policeman, and he thought we should do more to defeat ISIS, but opposed military action to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons.  He favored admitting refugees from the Middle East "with proper vetting."

The picture all this gave me was of a concerned and quite well-informed citizen who took sensible positions on most issues, foreign and domestic, and who was not caught up in the bitter ideological divisions of our time.  And it seems to me that such people could very reasonably have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, who was the more experienced, calmer, and more sensible candidate, and with whom he did not express any really big divisions on issues.  But--he didn't.  He expressed his intention to vote for one of the  minor party candidates, and his son reports that that is what he did.  Now as I have been writing here for 12 years now, the Democrats remain the party that essentially believes in government and does its best, when it power, to keep it going and make it work, while the Republicans try to tear it down.  This gentleman obviously doesn't want to tear government down, but that wasn't enough to get him to vote to keep the Democrats in power.  That is a measure of the mess we are in.

My second piece of evidence came from a conversation with four young people in their early thirties, three of them educators, and all of them Clinton voters.  They spontaneously began talking about who the next Democratic presidential candidate might be.  But like their Republican counterparts this year, all their interest was in a non-politician, some one with no electoral experience, whom they thought they would be able to trust and who might have broad appeal.  The three names that immediately came up were Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Jon Stewart.  If I had pressed them I am sure they would all have admitted to some admiration for Elizabeth Warren, and at least some of them had favored Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, but both of them, alas, will probably be too old to run for President in the future.  There was not one younger Democratic politician whom these four very well-educated young adults actively wanted to run as their next candidate or serve as their next President.  When I said to one of them that I was depressed that their opinion of the whole political class was so low, he replied that they were judging them based on what they had seen them do, and I could not argue very hard against that.

This widespread disaffection has many causes.  Nearly all our politicians are indeed heavily beholden to moneyed interests.  The Republicans have successfully kept government from functioning effectively at all levels to a surprising extent, and that has in turn discredited government. The Democrats have, in my opinion, been much too focused on identity politics, as this article in last Sunday's New York Times effectively argued.  The general distrust of authority that has been growing for the last 50 years has worked against any kind of party loyalty, especially, it seems, on the left and among the young.  But if you believe, as I do, that modern society cannot function without effective governance and that democracy crucial to human happiness, then it seems to me that you must agree that this almost complete lack of confidence in our leadership class is a very serious matter indeed.  And it does not seem at all likely that our new President, who was elected largely because he was outside that class, will be able to do very much to restore confidence.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Strauss and Howe

A very important new post appears here.

 New readers who have been brought to this page from might like to take a look at the posts of July 5, 2010 and December 4, 2015, which to some extent anticipated the events that have now taken place.

Subsequent to posting this I became aware of this appearance by Bannon just two years ago, which confirms that he anticipates a huge and violent conflict between Islam and the West parallel to those of the 8th and 17th centuries (and many times in between.).