Thursday, January 26, 2017

As I see it

We are a week into the Trump Presidency, and it is taking shape more rapidly than any since Franklin Roosevelt's.  That is no accident: both men took office in the midst of a great crisis or Fourth Turning, as described and predicted by Bill Strauss and Neil Howe about 25 years ago.  Both represent the death of an old political order and both are determined fundamentally to reshape America.  This has excited some Americans and worried a great many others, especially in the blue states.  As usual, I find my own feelings to be quite different from those of many others.  We are just beginning the rule of Trump, but I would lay to lay the groundwork for future analyses with some observations.

1.  Talk that Trump "is not my President" is silly--unless one wants to secede from the union.  Whatever your politics, if you are an American citizen you have one and one president at all times, and right now, he is it.  He was clearly elected, albeit without a plurality of the popular vote.  (We have no idea, by the way, how he and Clinton would have done if they had actually been competing for the popular vote of the whole nation, and we never will.)  He is legally exercising the powers of his office, which are indeed very broad.  He also disposes of friendly Congressional majorities, just as Obama did in 2009.

Now the Republicans clearly intend to undo as much as they can of the last 85 years of American government.  Much of the New Deal is already gone.  The SEC does not effectively regulate markets and the NLRB has not been able to protect the rights of labor for some time.  Antitrust laws, which the New Deal vigorously enforced, have been a dead letter for quite a while, and the government is not an employer of last resort.  Social Security (which was significantly increased under Nixon) and Medicare, which is 50 years old, may be severely modified.  The Republicans have announced plans to eliminate agencies such as the National Endowment of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, which, frankly, serve Democratic constituencies.  There is also talk of abolishing the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, although I am pretty sure that was established by law in the 1950s and I can't imagine that even this Congress would abolish it by law.  They also plan a new round of budget-busting tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

Now like it or not--and I certainly don't--the Republicans have used our Democratic processes to reach the position from which they can actually make these things happen.  It is characteristic of fourth turnings that engaged people stop caring about process and start caring about outcomes.  Lincoln used implied war powers to do unprecedented things during the Civil War.  FDR was prepared if necessary to proclaim a dictatorship when he took office, and said so in his inaugural address.  He was also ready, at one key point, to defy a Supreme Court decision if it did not go his way.  On the other side, the Confederacy, of course, took up arms to defy the Constitution of the US, and many elements of American society viewed FDR as anathema.  Those of us who still believe in our democracy, however--it seems to me--must not deny the Republicans the right to put their beliefs into practice.  That is how democracy is supposed to work, and that is how I hope new Democratic leadership will make it work when and if they have secured majorities.  Like Richard Nixon and George W. Bush, Trump will probably try to stretch executive power beyond the law, but the courts and Congress successfully restrained those men, and they still provide legal rccourse now.  But much of what Trump wants to do--including, sadly, the deportation of immigrants--is well within our legal traditions, and ardently supported by large parts of our populaton.

And let's be frank: the Democratic side of the fence is particular vulnerable because it has won some of its greatest victories in the last 70 years or so not through the legislative process, but through the courts.  Brown vs. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Oberkfell v. Hodges were three decisions that reshaped important areas of American life without consulting the electorate or the national legislature.  Now I happen to believe that the legal case at least for Brown and Oberkfell was very strong--even if I would have preferred to see Oberkfell decided on equal protection grounds--but at least the first two of those decisions have probably mobilized more voters in opposition to them than on their behalf.  And that is a big reason for the political mess in which we find ourselves today. 
"The only cure for the ills of democracy," a great governor of the early twentieth century frequently said, "is more democracy," and I agree.  In blue America, in academia, and in the major media the principles behind tehse decisions are regarded as sacrosanct and unchallengeable.  But the inhabitants of the red states are citizens too, and they have elected leaders who have never accepted some or all of those decisions.

2.  Partly because of the attitudes I discussed in (1), the breakup of the country, or violence between the federal government and local authorities, has now become a possibility.  Immigration is the flash point here.  It is, of course, disgraceful that Republicans have for so long refused to do anything to legalize the status of millions of immigrants who are actively contributing to our society and who have lived here for at least a generation.  Yet if we believe in the rule of law, and in the supremacy clause of our Constitution, I do not think it is in the power of big-city mayors to shield illegal immigrants from action by the federal government, any more than it was in the power of southern governments to stop integration.  Already President Trump is also threatening to exceed his own powers with respect to this conflict.  He has warned of cutting off all federal aid to "sanctuary cities," even though the Supreme Court in 2012 ruled that the federal government could only punish local authorities for infractions in this way by withholding money specifically related to those infractions.  In my opinion, it's entirely possible that Steve Bannon, in particular, would be glad to unleash an armed conflict against liberal municipal authorities.  Those authorities must ponder their courses of action carefully and try to enlist Congress in solving a very real problem.

3.  Finally, as I indicated last week, another problem of a different character faces us.  Like William II of Germany, Donald Trump may rather quickly turn out to be intellectually and emotionally unfit to be President of the United States.  His decision to push for an investigation of non-existent massive vote fraud suggests that he is counting on the federal government to act out his irresponsible fantasies.  The ABC interview that will screen this evening is not reassuring.   If serious bipartisan opposition to Trump emerges, I think it will be on those grounds.  But if Democrats want civic virtue to prevail over partisanship among Republicans, they had better set a good example.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Trump's real German analog

Donald Trump takes office on Friday, and the world holds its breath.  Has a major nation ever been led by such a man—a flighty, unstable narcissist, self-indulgent to the core, who acts on impulse, wears his emotions on his sleeve, and bullies his subordinates with pithy, brief comments?  How exactly will the presence of such a man in the White House challenge the American people and the people of the world?

There is a very important historical precedent for Trump, dating from more than 100 years ago, on the other side of the Atlantic.  The leader in question was German—but not the Austro-German whose name seems to be on so many people’s lips.  The man in question was the German Emperor William II, the famous Kaiser Wilhelm, who ascended to the throne in 1888 at the age of 29 and ruled until driven into exile in the midst of defeat and revolution in November 1918, at the end for the First World War.  That war grew out of the biggest obsession of William’s imperial career: to make Germany not simply great, but greater—not merely the leading European nation, which it already was, but also a world power on the scale of the British Empire or the United States.

To illustrate the profound similarities between William and Donald Trump, I would like to begin with an appreciation written in 1897, when William was 38.  The author, Philip Eulenburg, was a nobleman and one of his intimate friends; the recipient was Bernhard von Bülow, a diplomat who had just become foreign minister and who would serve from 1899 until 1909 as Chancellor, the leading official of the empire.  Eulenburg’s advice on how to handle the emperor would undoubtedly serve the leading figures of the new administration very well.

“Wilhelm II takes everything personally. Only personal arguments make any impression on him.  He likes to give advice to others but is unwilling to take it himself.  He cannot stand boredom; ponderous, stiff, excessively thorough people get on his nerves and cannot get anywhere with him. Wilhelm II wants to shine and to do and decide everything himself.  What he wants to do himself unfortunately often goes wrong.  He loves glory, he is ambitious and jealous.  To get him to accept an idea one has to pretend that the idea came from him. . . . Never forget that His Majesty needs praise from time to time.  He is the sort of person who becomes sullen unless he is given recognition from time to time form some one of importance.”  (I owe this quote and much of the data here to the wonderful, multi-volume biogarphy of William by the British historian John C. G. Rohl.)

William also held grudges.  Although Donald Trump spent much of his life within the eastern establishment, he has now developed a hatred for the liberal elite and lashes out against anyone who dares question him on twitter.  William resented anyone who questioned his imperial authority.  Even though Germany had had a constitution since 1866 and his chancellors could not govern without the support of the Reichstag or parliament, he saw himself as a divinely ordained absolute ruler.  He frequently threatened to stage a coup d’etat and do away with the Reichstag altogether, and he regarded the two largest parties—the Social Democrats and the Catholics—as subversive elements whose leaders, he frequently said, should be shot.  

Like Trump, William could not control himself.  In Chancellor Bülow’s own memoirs, he told how he frequently accompanied the emperor on visits around Germany and had to beg the press not to print his latest intemperate remarks.  His famous “marginal notes” on state papers—his comments in his own handwriting—read like Trump’s tweets.  He frequently excoriated his own ministries and officials, as well as foreign leaders and domestic political opponents.  He also made commitments to foreign leaders without consulting his subordinates, and sometimes created European crises by insulting them in public.  He was sure he knew what foreign leaders intended, and his certainty that Russia would go to war with Germany as soon as it felt ready—an idea with very little basis in fact—played a big role in his aggressive policy in July 1914, which led to the First World War and his own and Germany’s downfall.  In one marginal note he actually claimed that sovereigns like himself could see the future in ways that statesmen and diplomats very rarely could.  And while these remarks were for the eyes of his leading subordinates alone, Trump has already stated or tweeted similar criticisms of military leaders and the intelligence committee for all to see.

The First World War might easily have broken out at various times between 1905 and 1914, but William’s civilian, military and naval leadership held him back during several previous crises.  That was not all.  In a famous passage in his memoirs, Bülow—who knew him as well as anyone—insisted that William did not want war, “if only because he did not trust his nerves not to give way in any really critical situation,” and knew that he could never command an army, lead a naval squadron, or even captain a ship. Whether Trump, another bully, will also prove to be a blowhard in office remains to be seen.  

William came to power at the age of 29 at the end of an age of confidence and stability, and reigned for 30 years before he fled to Holland in disgrace.  Trump is already 70, comes to power in the midst of a world political crisis, and knows he cannot remain in office for more than 8 years.  He seems in more of a hurry to put his own stamp on events—and the Republican Congress shares his feeling of urgency.  As a modern President of the United States, with Congressional majorities behind him, he is much closer to enjoying the absolute power that William only dreamed of.  Some subordinates inevitably will try to curry his favor by telling him what he wants to hear, while others may try to make him see reason and restrain his emotional impulses.  Trump is a commentary on the wretched state of our political life.  William II inherited his throne, but the American people elected Donald Trump.  William’s example suggests that Trump is truly a grave danger to our future as a nation. His tenure may well force his subordinates—whom he will select—to make difficult choices, and could force the Congress to choose between partisanship and fidelity to the Constitution.  Let us hope they are all up to the task.

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."