Friday, November 01, 2019

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Some thoughts on our President

Donald Trump, it seems to me, has never really succeeded at any substantial enterprises. Yes, he built some large luxury buildings many years ago, but he eventually had to give up ownership of most of them and sell lots of units to foreign buyers who apparently used them to hide their cash.  He was the person most responsible for the failure of the US Football League in the 1980s.  His Atlantic City casinos went bankrupt.  He owes his success to his ability to sell the self-image of a glamorous,. brilliant businessman, the image that got him his gig on The Apprentice, which in turn made him enough of a national figure to run for President.  He has never shown any talent for running an effective organization or attracting and retaining capable subordinates--a problem which has gotten worse since he went into politics.   He was very narrowly elected because of the disastrous failings of both of our major political parties, who have lost touch with most of the electorate and no longer generate any loyalty among tens of millions of average Americans.

When he was elected people began to fear an authoritarian dictatorship. I was skeptical about that  from the beginning, and I still am.  Having established a strong connection with both the religious right and the Koch network through Mike Pence, Trump has mostly governed on behalf of the right wing of the Republican Party, which is libertarian, not authoritarian.  He and they are enthusiastically consigning the Progressive era, the New Deal, and much of the Great Society and its aftermath to the ash heap of history, but they want less government, not more.  The Trump Administration is treating illegal immigrants very cruelly, but that situation, once again, has arisen because of the cowardice of our political establishment, which for about three decades has refused to educate the people about the real economic needs of our nation and the source of the labor that feeds our economic growth.

Meanwhile, Trump has cast himself, from January 20 onward, in a particular role: the savior of the country, who copes fearlessly with terrible problems in the face of the treacherous opposition of the Democrats, the media, and a few Republicans.  Yet in fact, he has emerged as a coward and a wimp, especially on the world stage.  Just as he did in his business career, he repeatedly declares victory after sustaining defeats.  After threatening a nuclear attack on North Korea, he reached a deal with Kim Jong Il that lacked any safeguards, and now refuses to admit that Kim is ignoring his vague pledge to denuclearize.  He denounced NAFTA, but the new agreement he has reached does not differ from NAFTA in any fundamental way.  American corporations are ignoring his attempts to keep jobs in the US.   I expect something similar to happen in the China trade controversy--Trump will announce huge Chinese concessions that turn out to be illusory.  He is also telling the country that his famous wall is indeed being built, and that Mexico really is paying for it.  All this will, I think, continue to take a toll on his popularity, although some supporters will remain loyal.

I am even beginning to wonder if Trump enjoys the drama of the Mueller investigation, which allows him to portray himself as an embattled victim, and to keep his supporters riled up against Democrats and the Washington establishment.  He still may, in the next few weeks, try to shut down that investigation, asking his acting AG Matthew Whitaker to fire Rosenstein and Mueller to shut the investigation down.  I didn't see any other reason why he would have installed Whitaker in the first place, but time is running out, now that Trump has announced plans to replace him quickly with a mainstream Republican figure.  On some days Trump also seems to be preparing the country for pardons for Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, too.  But perhaps he really is ready to let the drama of the investigation continue indefinitely, as a useful distraction from his policy failures (and perhaps, it seems from some major economic setbacks that might be just around the corner.)  An argument over a presidential indictment could easily tie up the courts through next year, and there's a good chance that the Supreme Court would side with Trump.  Impeachment would fill up most of the news cycle for many months, and the Republican Senate would never convict, and might even refuse to respond to an impeachment in the House.

The real question the nation faces is whether in the 21st century we can do without a government based on Enlightenment principles of reason and the public good,. something which, at the moment, we do not have.  To get it back the Democrats have to offer it convincingly, and focusing merely on the president's many shortcomings won't do that.  The New York Times still runs excellent news feature stories on what the Republicans are doing to the country and the economy--most recently on how the Koch brothers have persuaded Trump's EPA to roll back and maybe even eliminate mileage standards for automobiles, on the grounds that the nation has more than enough oil for our SUVS and pickups.  But such stories do not penetrate the public consciousness in the cable news/social media era.  Trump is indeed a symptom, not the cause, of our problems.  Focusing on that symptom to the exclusion of all else will not solve them.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Persons and Censuses

 "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.  The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. "  U.S. Constitution, Article I, section 2 (3).

Let us begin, first, with the long-term historical interest of this now-infamous passage.  Readers today are most likely to pick out the 3/5 clause.  Today many black and white Americans believe that it defined black people as 3/5 of a person, as Spike Lee, for instance, claimed in one of his movies.  It did not: the Founders in this as in other passages--as historian Sean Wilentz has just pointed out in a new book--carefully avoided any explicit mention of race, or of the institution of slavery, in the text of the Constitution.   Moreover, the southern slave owners, not the northerners whose states were then abolishing slavery, wanted to count all their slaves in the census that would determine how many representatives they sent to Congress, and the 3/5 rule was a compromise that marginally favored the southern position.   I can't resist noting, also, that the original Constitution is equally free of racist and sexist language.  In the trailer for On the Basis of Sex, the forthcoming biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, we see a dismissive white male justice tell then-attorney Ginsburg that "the word woman" does not appear in the US Constitution.  "Neither does the word 'freedom'," she replies.  The real Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I would like to think, would have responded--accurately--"Neither does the word 'man.'" The founders' chosen word to refer to inhabitants of the US, as shown in the passage above, was "persons"--one just as useful in the cause of equality today as it was then.  Yet young people today routinely refer to the founders as "those white guys" who cared about nothing but themselves.

The question I really want to address today, however, relates to the broader purpose of the above paragraph, the enumeration of inhabitants and the purpose which it is supposed to serve. The same issue found its way into the 14th amendment, the post-Civil War Republicans' first attempt to secure the rights of freed slaves and enshrine the outcome of the conflict.  It included the following:

"Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,  and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."

This clause, to begin with, makes even more explicit what the original Constitutional provision clearly implied: that the decennial census must count all inhabitants of each state, not simply all citizens--the point that has become relevant again today.  What I only learned relatively recently is that this clause was designed to encourage the readmitted southern states to allow freed slaves to vote.  Previously, under slavery, they had black inhabitants had counted at the rate of 3/5 of their numbers; now, if the southern states refused to let them vote, they would not count at all.  The Republicans also favored this solution because they were frightened to simply degree Negro suffrage (as it was then called) in the Constitution, fearing that many northern states, sadly, would reject it.  Under this clause the southern states had to choose between severely reduced representation and letting all adult males vote.  Unfortunately this tactic failed.  The former confederate states uniformly refused either to ratify the 14th amendment or to grant black citizens voting rights.  The 15th amendment followed in short order, and the northern states did ratify it.

Here, for the first time, sexism did find its way into the US Constitution--while this passage certainly does not clam that only men can vote, it denies women any specific constitutional right to do so.  As a matter of fact, 16 states--a third of the total--granted women the right to vote before the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920.  At  no time did the US Constitution prohibit women's suffrage.

And now, in 2018, the original passage from Article I has become controversial again, thanks in part because of the distinction that was implied in that passage and made explicit in the 14th Amendment: the distinction between inhabitants, who reside within the states and must be counted for the purposes of apportionment, and citizens, who now enjoy the right to vote.  The number of inhabitants of the US who are not citizens is probably at an all time high at this moment.  These include an estimated 13 million lawful permanent residents, or Green Card holders, who are eligible to become citizens but have not yet done so, and a comparable number of illegal aliens who at this time have no path to citizenship.  Illegal aliens (referred to on the left now as "undocumented") are often estimated at 11 million, but a recent study, which appears to be carefully researched, showed that the number could easily be as high as 22 million.  A new controversy has arisen because the Trump Administration wants to add a question to the census--one that has been part of the questionnaire in earlier periods--asking whether the respondent is a US citizen. Various states are suing to try to keep that question out of the census.

I hope my regular readers have come to understand that I have a real obsession with fairness, and with trying to identify workable, impartial rules to meet all sorts of legal and political situations, rather than simply to focus on what will help, or hurt, causes which I happen to favor.  That often divides me nowadays from many of my fellow Democrats.  The states and liberal activists oppose this question because they feel that it is designed to intimidate illegal aliens and cause them not to participate in the census, leading to an undercount. That may be true.  I on the other hand find the question not only reasonable, but necessary, if we are to try to deal realistically with the presence of 11 million or 22 million illegal immigrants within the US.  It seems to me that we all should care enough about this situation to try to find out the truth, whatever the motives of the administration happen to be.  I also believe that the present situation is not one that we should be trying to perpetuate.

A great many illegal immigrants live in blue states--although some red states, led by Texas, have large populations of illegals as well.  The Democrats are worried that if a great many of them avoid the census, their states will be undercounted, leading to a reduction in federal benefits allocated to their states, and even, possibly, a reduction in the number of representatives in Congress they receive in the next reapportionment.  What really disturbs me about all this is that the leadership of the Democratic Party seems to have dropped any demand for a path to citizenship for our 11-22 million illegal aliens, the vast majority of whom hold down jobs, obey the law, and are raising families.  The Democrats are finding it more expedient to focus on DACA and the dreamers, a more appealing group from a public relations standpoint, but who represent only a fraction of the real problem.  Ironically, by pushing for the fullest possible count of inhabitants both legal and illegal, while failing to push for a path to citizenship, the Democrats are echoing, weirdly, the position of the antebellum white southerners.  While they want these people counted to get full benefits and representation for their states, they don't particularly care if they get to vote.  And they seem comfortable with this position even though the current situation, like the situation in the South from 1876 to 1965, obviously undermines American democracy.  In each case, we have a large working population--most of it in the lower economic half of our society--who cannot vote.  That obviously skews national, state and local politics rightward, and helps perpetuate, and worsen, economic inequality.

On too many issues--especially economic ones--the Democratic Party has been reduced to calling for marginal changes that appear to at least check the prevailing trends in our political and social life, rather than make a fundamental attack on the ills of our age.  This also seems to me the problem with their stance on immigration. Yes, DACA recipients deserve protection, and yes, the increasingly aggressive persecution [sic] of illegal residents by ICE needs to stop,  but the only real solution to our demographic problem today is a path to citizenship, even if it has to be combined with new and more severe restrictions on additional  immigration.  We must not in my opinion try to sweep the issue under the rug, as we did the issue of suffrage for black Americans for 90 years.  I hope to live to see some real progress on this issue.




Sunday, November 25, 2018

A close look at some Trump voters


The Forgotten, by Ben Bradlee, Jr., is the latest in a series of books by blue state liberals about red state Trump voters.  It's unfortunate, as another reviewer of one of those books noted, that no comparable books by conservatives about blue state voters have appeared to balance them--we need to know how the other half sees us.  Bradlee writes about Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, in the heart of what was once anthracite coal country.  The county is 83% white, 11% Hispanic, and 5% black.  Traditionally Democratic, it voted for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, 72,000 to 61,000 (with 2300 minor party votes) and for Obama over Mitt Romney in 2012 (64,000 to 58,000, again with 2300 write-in votes.)  Two years ago, however, Donald Trump carried the county over Hillary Rodham Clinton, 79,000 to 52,000, and the minor party vote doubled to 4700 votes.  The 27,000 margin for Trump was about half of his total 45,000 margin in the critical state of Pennsylvania.  Note that the overall turnout fell significantly in 2012, but equaled the 2008 total in 2016.

Let me start with a point of my own.  While millions of racists undoubtedly voted for Donald Trump in 2016, I don't see how anyone can look at those figures and argue that racism won him the election, either in Pennsylvania or in the nation as a whole.  Barack Obama, who is black, carried the county with 72,000 (mostly white) votes in 2008 and 64,000 in 2012.  Hillary Rodham Clinton won ony 52,000 votes in 2016.  Sexism, it seems to me, might have cost the Democrats the  election (although I'm not aware of any sophisticated statistical analysis making that case.) Racism could not have.  Let's move ahead.

Bradlee's impressionistic but effective book consists of long interviews with a dozen Trump supporters about their individual political odysseys.  He begins with now-former Congressman Lou Barletta, who rose to local prominence and got some national ink in 2006, when he was the Mayor of Hazleton, a small city that has now become majority Hispanic.  In that year Barletta pushed through ordinances making it a crime to rent to or hire illegal aliens in an attempt to reduce the Hispanic influx.  Other cities around the country followed his lead.  Two federal courts ruled these measures unconstitutional on the grounds that they usurped federal authority, but, in a portent of things to come, Barletta became a local hero and was elected to Congress in his third race against a Democratic incumbent.  He has served there ever since,  although he gave up his seat to run for Senate this year. 

I am not going to discuss the rest of Bradlee's subjects in detail, but perhaps some basic Democratic data is in order. He begins with four men.  Vito DeLuca, 50, is a lawyer and self-described Reagan Democrat.  Ed Harry, 72, is a Vietnam veteran and labor organizer who voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in 2016.  Marty Bacone, 54, owns a bar. Bruno Lanigan, 57, is a retired state trooper whose father was a leading figure in the A.F.L.-C.I.O.  Four women come next.  Lynette Villano, 72, is a long-time Republican, whose enthusiastic support for Trump led to a series of very painful email exchanges with her college-age son, who wrote, "Thanks to you and your kind, hatred and bigotry have been normalized and legitimized. I hope you're proud of that."  Donna Kowalczyk, 60, has run a hair salon for many years, and lives in a neighborhood now blighted by shootings and prostitution.  Kim Woodrosky,in her late 40s, is a very successful real estate developer who voted Democratic from 1992 through 2008 and didn't vote in 2012.  Tiffany Cloud, 50, is a housewife married to a veteran, and a long-time Republican.  Her husband Erik Olson gets a chapter of his own in recognition of the critical role veterans played in Trump's election, giving him a 2-1 margin.  Steve Smith, 47, a truck driver, gets a chapter to himself because he's an active white nationalist who holds a leadership position in the county Republican party.  And Jessica Harker, a 60-year old registered nurse,  is a devout Christian who thinks that God chose Trump to save America.

Reading their stories, I felt that these men and women took politics very seriously and, in many cases, had come to their new views slowly.  A good many, clearly, had been Democrats.  They had watched the coal mines, and then various other industries, die around them over the last few decades thanks largely to globalization.  Many of them had voted against George W. Bush and had greeted Barack Obama with some enthusiasm as an agent of change.  But he had disappointed them for the same reasons, really, that he disappointed me: he had done very little, if anything, to reverse the economic changes that had disturbed them so much.  The Democrats after 2008 had a chance to restore the nation's faith not only in themselves but in the whole political process, and they had failed to do so.  These voters chose Trump because he was an outsider who rejected all the conventional wisdom.  And because of that they were willing to excuse all his personal baggage.  They also despised Hillary Clinton--and accepted a lot of the accusations against her that they had heard from Trump and on Fox News. 

Democrats, it seems to me, have fallen into the trap of belief in their own moral superiority.  That, they feel, entitles them to the votes of any reasonable American, and anyone who votes against them is some sort of deplorable.  (Even Hillary Clinton, in the appearance in which she made that word famous, allowed that only half of Trump's supporters were racists, sexists, and homophobes; now the mainstream liberals I know are less likely even to be as generous as that.)  But in fact, many of thee people refused to vote Democratic because they didn't feel the Democratic Party had done anything meaningful for them in decades, and I for one cannot say that I blame them.  I will have more to say about this from another angle within the next month or so, after reading another much more important new book about global economic policy.  The Luzerne county voters also dislike illegal immigration on principle--illustrating the consequences of the establishments failure to legalize it over the last three decades--and the spread of political correctness in the culture.

Bradlee concluded his book with a return visit to Luzerne County earlier this year, in which he found all his subjects still enthusiastically pro-Trump, while wishing that he could stop tweeting and moderate some of his rhetoric.  The recent election, however, told a somewhat different story, there as elsewhere. 

In 2016 the popular Lou Barletta was re-elected to Congress with  a 64%-36% margin. Luzerne  county was split between two  Congressional districts and in the total vote the Republicans tallied 73,300 and the Democrats 58,200.  This year the district was split between the new 8th and 9th districts, and the Democrats won 53,600 votes and the Republicans 54,000, suggesting that far more Republicans stayed at home.  Barletta carried the vote for Senate handily in the county, but long-time Democrat Bob Casey, Jr., beat him 54-46 in the general election, at least temporarily ending his political career.  Republican voters in many other parts of the country, as I showed last week, did shift to the Democrats, and the critical questions for 2020, obviously, are the identity of the Democratic candidate and the degree to which Trump's personal magic will continue to work on the voters who elected him so narrowly in 2016.