Friday, December 28, 2018

Our current crisis--another view

Over the last month weeks--two weeks of which I spent on a cruise--I have read three long books. I read The Path Between the Seas by David McCullough in preparation for cruising through the Panama Canal. It's a wonderful book, the kind of serious history that could become a best seller forty years ago, and the Canal turned out to be everything that I had hoped for.  The second was Madame Bovary, which I finally got into and finished on my third or fourth try.  And the last, which the cruise interrupted, was Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World, by Adam Tooze, one of the foremost historians in the United States.  Now 51, Tooze, a Brit, has taught at Yale and Columbia, and this is his third major work.  He (and I) are among the few historians to have written very seriously about both Europe and the United States.  His other two blockbusters are The Wages of Destruction, on the German war economy (which I had things to say about in Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War), and The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931.  Crashed is a financial, diplomatic and political history of the world since 2008 or so, and its mere scope--not to mention its many insights--marks it out as a most unusual work to appear nowadays. Viking Press deserves credit for commissioning and publishing it, but I have yet to read a review that really did it justice.

Rather than write a traditional review myself, I am going to approach the book from the standpoint of this blog more generally: the framework of the periodic 80-year crises that have convulsed the western world (and much of the rest of it)  at least since the 18th century, and of which we are now in the midst of the most recent one.  This view, in fact, comes up once during Tooze's book, when he is discussing Steve Bannon and the Trump Administration. Bannon, he says, saw the climax of the financial crisis in 2008 as the beginning of an apocalyptic "fourth turning," and his footnote cites Bannon's movie, Generation Zero, in which I, and Neil Howe, both appeared.  He does not however mention Strauss and Howe, who discovered the 80-year cycle and analyzed it at length in two books. Their work can add a dimension to his.

Tooze's initial economic history of the last 75 years or so does parallel Strauss and Howe's vision of the saeculum (or 80-year period) that began in 1945 or so.  The victorious Americans and British created a new international economic order after the Second World War, featuring a gold-exchange standard to keep currencies stable and the creation of money under control, the IMF to make international finance work smoothly and discipline errant nations, and the WTO to promote international trade.  The United States also emerged from the New Deal with a very tightly regulated banking system.  The system began to crack in the 1960s, when dollars piled up in Europe allowed European banks to expand the money supply more freely than the system originally allowed for, and broke down in important ways in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when flexible exchange rates replaced fixed ones.  A decade and a half of inflation led in the 1980s to severe contraction, and then to the general turn away from economic regulation and high taxes under Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US.  Deregulation continued in the 1990s, when New Deal regulation was abandoned, and big banks acquired unprecedented wealth and power.  This coincided, of course, with an increase in inequality of both income and wealth, and it occurred, in the United States, under both Republican and Democratic institutions.

Hedge funds and a "shadow banking system" also allowed money to flow far more freely, and to flow into increasingly risky investments, such as subprime mortgages.  The crash of 2008--exactly 79 years after the equally fateful crash of 1929--resulted.  Tooze's book tells the story of the response to the crisis in the last decade--a very different response from the one that came from Franklin Roosevelt, leading to a very different economic picture now, in many ways, from the one that emerged from the Second World War.

Roosevelt, as I pointed out in No End Save Victory, interpreted the crash as an economic and moral failure in his first inaugural address and argued that the country needed new values as well as new regulations.  The Glass-Steagall Act, the FDIC, and the Securities and Exchange Commission were designed to get speculation under control and avoid further panics such as had taken place at regular intervals after the Civil War (1872, 1894, 1907, 1929).  They succeeded, and the United States did not experience another such panic for 79 years--until after these reforms had been undone.  But the Bush and Obama Administrations--the latter of which included men like Larry Summers, who had helped design the new post-New Deal order--did not see the crisis that way.  They saw it as a temporary liquidity crisis which the Federal Reserve could fix with massive infusions of liquidity.  That was how Treasury Secretary Geithner and Federal Reserve Board Chair Bernanke handled the crisis, and it saved not only the big banks, but the freewheeling system of liquidity that had developed over the previous 40 years.  One of the biggest lessons of Tooze's book is that the financial community--which provides the major capitalist governments with many of its economic policymakers--played a far more important role in devising and implementing the solutions to the crisis than the political process in any democracy.  This was especially true in Europe, where bankers and finance ministers told the nation of Greece, in particular, in no uncertain terms, that it didn't matter whom their people elected to govern them--any government had to do what they asked to get the help they needed to survive. This is now the world we live in.  The new regulations that the Obama Administration tried to impose were rather vague, and depended for their effectiveness on their implementation.  The new administration is now discarding them wholesale.

The Federal Reserve took the lead in restoring liquidity both in the United States and Europe, both by buying toxic and other securities and by  making dollars available to the Europeans by other means.  The crisis, therefore, appeared to cement the global leadership of the United States, as President Obama, no less, noted in a speech that escaped my attention at the time.

Closely related to this problem is another: the whole management of the crisis, both here and Europe, was designed to shift the burden of its impact from the financial community to the rest of us.   Whether the issue was subprime mortgages in the US or the Greek national debt, the proposed solutions put all the burdens upon the borrowers, not the lenders who had willingly made loans they should have known could never be paid back.  Again and again, Tooze shows, European bondholders successfully resisted having to simply write off some of their bad loans. Meanwhile, many thousands of Americans lost their homes and their savings.

The contrast with FDR's New Deal approach is rather striking, and illustrates the difference in values between his generation, the Missionary generation (born approximately 1863-83) and the Boom generation (born 1943-60 in the US at least), which led us through this crisis.  Roosevelt and his men blamed not only bankrupt economic and moral values, but also inequality itself, for the crisis, and imposed very high marginal tax rates, as well as regulation, to create a different world.  Today's leadership sees nothing wrong in principle with the new power of financial institutions or our increasing inequality--which, as Thomas Piketty showed four years ago in his book, is a natural outcome of unregulated capitalism.  Both 1929-33 and 2008 and its immediate aftermath were serious enough to make us question whether we were on the right path.  In the first case, political authorities answered with a resounding no; in our own time, they reaffirmed the path that we were on.  In Europe, too, the crisis became an excuse to try to roll back social spending and workers' rights in many nations--a process endorsed, as Tooze shows, by Angela Merkel, among many others.  No major nation, as I write, has a governing elite that seriously disputes the power of modern finance and the necessity of enormous inequality.  None of them responded to the Great Recession with New Deal-like measures to rebuild infrastructure and stimulate their economies, either--although China, as Tooze shows, did just that.

The new morality that is now emerging, moreover, is the morality of the Gilded Age.  Tooze quotes Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple (whose name for some reason did not make the index), to the effect that antitrust issues, data protection, and government attempts to collect taxes are nothing but "political crap"--an echo of Cornelius Vanderbilt's famous declaration, "the public be damned."  Peter Thiel goes even further, declaring that "competition is for losers."  Thirty years ago Tom Wolfe created investment banker Sherman McCoy, a "master of the universe," in The Bonfire of the Vanities, but the Boomer McCoy is a field grade officer compared to the hedge fund and tech Xers and Millennials who are transforming our world today.  Their prophets are the producers of the television series Billions, which, like The Wire, is worthy of Balzac or Zola, Wolfe's heroes.

There is far more to this book than I can mention in this post.  Tooze looks carefully at the impact of the crisis on Eastern Europe.  This story is remarkably parallel to one that I helped tell myself nearly 40 years ago.  In the early 1930s, too, the newly independent states of Eastern Europe got into dreadful financial difficulties as a result of the depression, putting some of them at the mercy of western banks, and eventually leaving them with no option but to sell all the agricultural products that they could to Germany for Reichsmarks that could not be spent elsewhere.  Now financial distress in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union has led to intense great-power competition for influence again, fueled this time by financial help and energy supplies.  Tooze also suggests, implicitly at least, why Vladimir Putin was so desperate to elect Donald Trump in 2016.  The Obama Administration's sanctions had an extremely serious effect on the Russian economy and he really needs to find a way out of them.

There is however a catch, which Tooze explores at length in many contexts.  While the elites of the western nations support globalization and its consequences, large parts of their electorates do not.  This has led on the one hand to some resurgent leftism in nations like Spain, Greece, and to some extent in the United States (see Sanders, Bernie), and on the other, to right-wing anti-immigration populism, which led in Britain to Brexit and in the US to the election of Donald Trump--two developments which none of the elites actually favored, but which the Tory and Republican elites, respectively, allowed to happen.  We do not yet know what the consequences of Brexit will be for Britain or the world economy, just as we do not know whether the United States can survive the incompetence and incoherence of Trump.  And we do not know how the American electorate will eventually react when it turns out that--as Tooze had realized by the time he finished his book--Trump is really, in practice, an enthusiastic proponent of deregulation, more inequality, and more globalism, who has already been content with very slight changes to NAFTA and will in the end, I predict, accept even less from the Chinese and declare victory on that front, as well.

In the previous crisis, the New Deal, the allied victory in the Second World War, the Labour government in Britain, and the Marshall Plan and the economic recovery in Western Europe secured the very active allegiance of the electorates of the western nations while setting them on a path to greater equality and prosperity.  I see nothing similar on the horizon now for any major western nation.  Nor do we know, as Tooze points out in his last chapter, whether the Trump Administration, in particular, will be able to handle the next international economic crisis that breaks out--which Tooze is convinced that it is sure to do. That is one of the two huge questions that the book has left me with.

The second question however is even bigger, and it is one that Tooze does not, I think directly confront.   It relates not to our politics but to the new economic system which he seems to know so well.  Has deregulation made our international financial system inherently unstable?  Is the insatiable greed of our bankers, hedge fund magnates, and others made excessive lending, and periodic crashes, inevitable, as in the late 19th century?  I strongly suspect that the answer is yes,  Tooze certainly raises this question a few times, usually in the words of others, but I don't think he really tries to answer it.  He is still only 51, however, and I am sure that he will have plenty of time--and plenty of occasion--to revisit this question in the future.  Meanwhile, he has performed a great service--and I am not aware of any other professional historian who could have written this book.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Two perspectives on the week's news

The resignation of Secretary of Defense Mattis leaves the United States in the midst of one of the great governmental crises of our history, one in which the character of the President and his relationship to the government make it more or less impossible for our system to function.  The first such crisis occurred in 1841 after the death of William Henry Harrison, when his successor John Tyler turned out to be a Democrat rather than a Whig and had to dispense with his whole cabinet. The second occurred during the Great Secession Winter of 1860-1, when key members of President Buchanan's cabinet cooperated with seceding southern states while the President did nothing.  The third occurred in the Administration of Andrew Johnson, beginning just five years later, when he, like Tyler, turned out to be utterly at odds with the party that had made him its vice presidential candidates The fourth occurred in 1919-20 when President Wilson had an incapacitating stroke.  And the last was in 1973-4, when Watergate isolated President Nixon, who succumbed to his own demons, but hung on for more than a year after his guilt was fairly clearly established and his eventual ruin, in retrospect, very likely.  Each of these crises only came to an end when the President left office.

Donald Trump, like Richard Nixon in his last year, now lives in his own world, a bubble within which he is a lonely hero saving his country despite the opposition of an army of enemies.  Unlike Nixon, he can turn on the television any time (and now does so, it seems, for as much as three hours on most mornings) and hear Fox News commentators echo is view of himself and the world.  But like Nixon--indeed, even more than Nixon--he can't trust anyone around him.  He is too disorganized to plan and execute a decision on his own, but when someone else--such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner--manages to make something happen, Trump resents the idea that he himself was not responsible.  Anyone who disagrees with him is merely standing in his way out of spite, he thinks, and needs to be fired--including the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.  The big question before us is whether Trump will indeed act on his feelings and persuade either his acting or presumptive Attorney General--Matthew Whitaker or William Barr--to fire Rod Rosenstein and Robert Mueller, while pardoning some or all of the men who have already been convicted.  I still think the odds are about 50-50 that he will, and that will trigger a real constitutional crisis, forcing the House of Representatives to impeach him, if he does.

Meanwhile, however, the President last week took a decision that may have great historical significance.

I believe that politics can never be reduced to a simple morality play, since society needs government to function at home, amass and spend resources, and carry on relations with foreign nations.  Even with a moral and intellectual incompetent in the White House, life, and government, go on.  So it is that this week may mark a milestone in recent history--the beginning of the end, it seems, of one of the defining crusades (and I use that word advisedly) of our era: the neoconservative attempt to use American military power to reshape the Middle East.  Two specific developments mark the shift. First, President Trump, overruling his whole administration, announced that the US would pull its 2000 troops out of Syria.  Secondly, the Weekly Standard, the official organ of neoconservative foreign policy, lost its financial angel and closed its doors. So ends, perhaps, the era of "the Global War on Terrorism," "the Long War," "the Fourth World War," and all the other postmodern conflicts that wrecked the United States, American politics, and large parts of the Arab world over the last 17 years.  I can't say that I am sorry.

This conflict, like every great war, had both long-term and immediate causes.  Since at least 1950 or so, as my friend Andrew Bacevich has pointed out for decades, the United States foreign policy establishment has reflexively believed that the United States must take an interest in any conflict anywhere in the world, and that American military power can solve it.  Even Vietnam did not shake that establishment's commitment to that view, although it did inculcate caution in our military leadership for a couple of decades.  During the 1970s the US became alarmed by the rise of political Islam in Iran and elsewhere, and the pro-Israeli lobby in the US became stronger and stronger in subsequent decades while Israel's politics moved to the right.  Neoconservatism--born in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967--saw the fall of Communism as a vindication of its belief in US power and adopted the view that democracy--and US influence--was destined to rule the world.  Paul Wolfowitz put that view into a confidential memo early in the first Bush Administration, and came back into power in 2001 determined to implement it. Then came 9/11.

A decade earlier, in 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe had first predicted that the United States would come together to meet a great crisis sometime in the first 10-15 years of the 21st century.  The nation would put partisan divides behind it and coalesce, imposing more uniformity of thought and action, as it had after 1774, 1860, and 1933.  Most of us have forgotten, I think, how closely the Bush II Administration followed that script after 9/11 and how receptive the country was.  The nation adopted the goal of ending terrorism and the regimes that supported it.  Not only neoconservatives, but nearly the whole Democratic establishment, lined up behind the wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq.  The venerable Robert Byrd, a GI, opposed the Iraq War, but the presidential aspirant Hillary Clinton supported it.  So did the editorial boards of our major newspapers.  No one could possibly argue, in 2003, that the Administration did not have the country behind it.

The problem, of course, was that we had no more chance of turning Iraq into a functioning, pro-American democracy than our parents had had of doing the same in South Vietnam.  Yet we embarked upon that project with a fraction of the resources we sent to Vietnam.  Meanwhile, the Bush Administration thought it could combine the war with tax cuts, and created a permanent deficit that has been with us until this day and which crippled the federal government when it had a real crisis to deal with in 2008-10.  Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest of them threw away the chance to rebuild trust in government by embarking upona fool's errand.

One of my best posts on this blog, in 2007, documented Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard's cheerleading for the Iraq war during its first four years.  I didn't spend any time in how wrong he had been about the wisdom of the war before it began, but I showed how he had constantly predicted victory just around the corner, while things got worse and worse.  That post was written at the height of the "surge," General Petraeus's temporarily successful attempt to quiet things down in the Sunni portions of Iraq, when Kristol was once again claiming that triumph was at hand.  It wasn't: only Americans, who were not going to remain forever, made the political deals with the Sunnis that brought about a temporary peace.  They did quiet things down enough for Barack Obama, who had opposed the war, to withdraw American forces within a few years.  But they left the Shi'ite government still at odds with the Sunni minority, and ISIS arose as a result, forcing the US to assist the Iraqi government in a new military campaign.  Meanwhile the Arab spring had broken out, and the Obama Administration (and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) had adopted its predecessor's goal of democratizing the Middle East.  Their project too has ended in spectacular failure in Egypt, where a military coup restored the old regime, and in Libya, where the elimination of Qaddafi brought chaos and a refugee crisis that has destabilized European politics.

The crusade in the Middle East had profound institutional consequences.  A new military-industrial-intelligence complex sprang up in suburban northern Virginia and Maryland, one that remains largely under the radar, and the US military was reconfigured, giving contractors a much greater role.  The military rediscovered counterinsurgency--which never had more than temporary successes in Iraq or Afghanistan.  The government created the Guantanamo prison, where it still holds captives.  And the philosophy behind the new wars--that the US had to kill Islamic extremists anywhere they pop up--has led us into new campaigns in Pakistan and Africa, killing people who pose no conceivable threat to the US.  But the crusade lost all resonance among the American people at large years ago.

In my review a few months ago of Bob Woodward's new book, I noted that Donald Trump apparently had some sound instincts about the futility of many overseas US involvements, including Afghanistan.  He had however allowed establishment types like Lindsay Graham--who explained to him, paraphrasing Bacevich, that there would always be evil in the world for the United States to fight--to prevail upon him to continue that war.  But now, apparently, he has had enough in Syria, and he has declared victory and ordered the boys brought home.  Whatever his motives--which may include doing a favor for Vladimir Putin--I think that was a sound decision.  Under Obama we undertook one of our fruitless searches for good guys in a foreign civil war, and refused to face the fact that Bashir Assad was too strong to be overthrown.  We need a reality-based foreign policy.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Trump is disengaging from the Middle East.  Jared Kushner has enmeshed us in close partnerships with Netanyahu in Israle and Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and the Administration seems united in its hostility to Iran.  But these seem to be ties among allied families, rather than strategic decisions.  The crusade in the Middle East was the centerpiece of the foreign policy of the Boom generation, and shows how little long-term influence the Vietnam War actually had on the so-called strategists of my generation, who rejected any lessons that suggested that they might not be able to get anything they wanted merely by wishing for it.  Trump--the third Boomer President--may now put that crusade in reverse. That will not be an unwelcome development.


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.




Sunday, November 18, 2018

The 2018 election, a postscript

I decided to take another look at this week's post and do some research on the 2016 election to see what had changed.  The results are very interesting and seem to show that the whole country is moving in the same direction--but a huge X factor remains. The first thing the 2016 figures confirm is the high turnout.  133 million people voted for President, and 113 million voted last year.  That is unprecedented in recent history.

I will put off a thorough demographic analysis until later, but let's just look at basic race and gender breakdowns.  In 2016 Trump beat Clinton  52-41% among men (a full 7% of voters either voted for third parties or refused to answer), and Clinton won 54%-41% among women.   This year men favored Republicans by 51-47, and women favored them 59-40.  Essentially, Democrats picked up the entire third party or didn't answer vote among men, gaining a full 6% of them, while adding 5% of women.  In other words, Democratic gains among men and women were about equal.

As for race, whites voted for Trump, 57%-37%, while nonwhites voted for Clinton, 74%-21%.  (I'll provide a fuller breakdown later.)  This year  whites voted Republican by 54%-44% and nonwhites voted for Democrats by 76%-22%.  Democrats gained a full 7% among whites--71% of the electorate--and 2% among nonwhites, 29%.  Whether you were white or nonwhite, male or female, the odds that you would vote Democratic went up.  There isn't much reason to think that that will change during the next two years.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Race and politics, 2018

I have written here a number of times about postmodern ideology, which in my adult lifetime I have watched take over university life in the United States, becoming the dominant approach to the study of history and literature, and which has now become extremely influential among most liberals, many of whom probably don't understand what it is or where it came from.  Its dominant tenets, I would argue, are more or less as follows.

Human society is defined by struggles among different demographic groups contesting for power.  White people--especially straight white males--have traditionally dominated society, oppressing women, LGBTQs, and nonwhites. Each of us carries in our genes either the sins or the victimhood of our ancestors.  All right-thinking people have a duty to reduce the imbalance between straight white males on the one hand, and everyone else on the other.  A key aspect of white male oppression is visibility.  We need far more nonwhitemales in visible positions--such as positions of power--to correct for centuries of oppression.

Given this mindset, Democrats have easily adopted the equation, white people bad, nonwhites good, with the corollary (sometimes) that the really bad white people are men.  In another manifestation of this tendency, when a few white men commit terrible crimes, commentators (and Facebook posts) immediately cite them as proof of the intrinsic, evil nature of white men.  When President Trump does this about immigrants, we accuse him (rightly) of racism, but doing it about white men is quite acceptable in liberal circles.  Those who hold these views are also entirely intolerant of those who don't, which is why many liberal women view the 50% of American white women who voted Republican this month as traitors to their sex and are not afraid to say so.

The postmodern ideology, to a surprising extent, has convinced a lot of us that American politics are fundamentally about a racial divide.  I would like to present some figures from the election to suggest that this ideology has made it impossible to see reality clearly.

What triggered this post was a story about Congresswoman Marcia Fudge of Ohio, a black woman who is talking about challenging Nancy Pelosi for speaker. An interview quoted her as follows.

"Instead, Fudge said [that her possible candidacy] was about a fresh start in Congress, making sure that Democratic leadership reflects the voters who gave Democrats the majority ― specifically, African-American women. (Fudge pointed out that while women have gotten a lot of credit for ushering in the Democratic majority, white women are still broadly supporting Republicans. She mentioned that Stacey Abrams lost white women by 76 percent in her bid to be governor of Georgia, and that were it not for black women in Alabama, Roy Moore would now be a senator.)"

The big problem with this statement is that it is not true.  The following figures are based on CNN exit polls  The question I used the polls to answer was, who voted for Democratic candidates?

The CNN polls showed that 53.2% of the electorate voted Democratic.  That's very good news, even though the Democratic failures in Ohio and Florida suggest that it doesn't guarantee a win in 2020.  60% of all Democratic votes came from whites,   19% from blacks, 14% from Latinos (CNN's word), 4% from Asians, and 3% from other races.  Despite everything you have led to believe, most Democratic voters were white--even though 54% of whites voted Republican.  All the talk about demographic change, particularly among Democrats, seems to have obscured simple mathematics: 71% of the electorate remains white.

Having said that, the demographic breakdown of the Republican Party is a bit frightening.  White Americans cast 86% of Republican votes, compared to black Americans (2% of Republican votes), Latinos (7%), Asians (2%) and other races (3%.)  While white voters comfortably outnumber nonwhites among Democrats, they make up nearly the entire Republican Party.  150 years after Reconstruction, 64 years years after Brown v. Board of Ed, and 54 years after the great Civil Rights Act, the Democratic Party is highly integrated, or, to use the contemporary term, diverse. The Republican Party is integrated at a token level, at best. But let us not get confused about the significance of two different figures.  86% or Republicans are white--but only 54% of whites vote Republican.  That's too many, but it left room two weeks ago for 36 million Democratic votes.

The numbers remain just as interesting when  we factor in gender as well as race.  Combining these categories, we find that the single largest bloc of Democratic voters--contrary to what Marcia Fudge seems to think--are white women, 20.5 million strong.   The second largest is white men, with 15.4 million.  Then come black women (6.2 million), black men (5 million), Latino women (4.9 million), and Latino men (3.6 million.)  The CNN sample apparently wasn't big enough to break down Asians or "other races" by gender.

Now let's go back to Marcia Fudge's statement and test it and try to understand where she is coming from.  I can't see any justification for her statement that black women (6.2 million votes) deserve more credit for winning the Democratic majority than white women (20.5 million votes.)  She seems to be arguing that black women deserve a leadership position in the House because such a high percentage of them voted Democratic--92%, compared to 50% (essentially) for white women.  Her new colleague Arianna Pressley has put another slant on this issue by frequently remarking that "people closest to the pain should be closest to the power."  I can't help but wonder if Fudge's outlook has been skewed by representing a majority black district for many years, where white votes are a luxury rather than a necessity.  In any case, in the United States, we have never evaluated the significance of a person's vote (presuming that they could cast in the first place) based upon their demographic or how the rest of their demographic votes.  Every vote has always counted equally.  I personally do not believe in allocating leadership positions solely based on race and gender, but if you do, it seems to me that Nancy Pelosi--or failing her, a different white female Congresswoman--would have the best claim to the Speakership right now.

So far I have been focusing on pure equity based on numbers and attempting to show that the actual numbers do not bear out current liberal assumptions.  I would now like to take the argument a step further and talk about political strategy.

Black and Latino voters together made up 33% of the Democratic vote--and about 80% of black and Latino voters voted Democratic  (90% black, 69% Latino.)  That obviously makes them an indispensable part of any Democratic majority, but their numbers, as we have seen, are still dwarfed by those of white Democrats.  And, clearly, far more white than minority votes remain in play.  That, interestingly enough, was also the reason, as I showed in an earlier post, that Doug Jones was elected over Roy Moore in Alabama--not because black turnout was so huge, but because an extraordinary number of white voters refused to vote for Moore. Minority turnout might still increase, and we should make every effort to see that it does and to stop Republican voter suppression efforts.  But the Democrats will still depend more on white votes than on black ones to secure more votes than the Republicans get, simply because there are so many more of them.  And Donald Trump, in my opinion, won the 2016 election because many (though very far from all!) white people felt that the Democratic Party did not care about them anymore.

For 2020, in my opinion, the Democrats need a serious, charismatic candidate, preferably under 60, who bases his or her appeal on the needs of the great majority of Americans who are not rich, regardless of race or gender.  The last Democratic candidate to fit that profile was Barack Obama.  Developing an effective candidate has become extremely difficult for many reasons.  The media no longer pays enough attention to government, as opposed to politics, to allow anyone to make a national name for him or herself based on achievements in office, and the Republican Party has made it very hard for government to function on any level.  But I really doubt that postmodern ideology--the idea that only the election of a nonwhitemale can redress a history of oppression by giving the oppressed visible representation--can either win back the Presidency for the Democrats or move the nation to a better place.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Krugman vs. Brooks

While this will not be the topic of my piece today, may I mention that the possibility I have referred to here more than once in the last year--that President Trump will fire Robert Mueller after the midterms--appears to be coming true.  I see no other explanation for the decision to replace Jeff Sessions with Republican hack  and propagandist Matthew Whitaker.  Meanwhile, may I say that I looked into the question of whether the temporary appointment is constitutional, and while the law on the question is as impenetrable as any that I have ever encountered, I'm sorry to say that I don't think it's obvious that it isn't.  The President feels vindicated by the election results and confident that that the Republican Party belongs completely to him. Dramatic developments are just over the horizon.

Having gotten that out of the way, I turn now to the overall significance of the election.  I don't have the time or energy for a remotely complete analysis, but I have done some research on one key area: turnout.  The results were staggering.

In an earlier analysis of the 2016 presidential election, I noted that turnout for both presidential candidates was quite low, and that Hillary Clinton lost because her turnout in critical states was even lower.  In my discussion of Doug Jones's victory in Alabama I showed quite conclusively that high Democratic turnout did not elect him--he sits in the Senate because such a gratifying number of Alabama Republicans would not vote for Roy Moore.  Low turnout did not however decide any key races this year.  Turnout was virtually record breaking in many states.

I checked data in four critical states--Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Georgia--for 2014 and for this year.  5.7 million Floridians cast ballots (in a very close election) in 2014; 8.1 million Florida votes have been counted so far this year, with similarly close results.  In Texas the total vote increased by 78%, from 4.6 million to 8.2 million.  In Ohio, where the governor's race was less heated and the Senate race was not close, it went from 3.1 million to 4.2 million.  And 3.9 million Georgians voted this year, compared to just 2.3 million in 2014--a 70% increase.  Donald Trump, clearly, has gotten many millions of Americans more involved in the political process--but on both sides.  There were blue and red waves in this election.  The blue waves in Texas and Georgia were bigger insofar as Beto O'Rourke and Stacey Abrams did much better than previous Democrats in statewide races in Texas and Georgia--but they were not, it seems, big enough.  (A recount may possibly lead to a revote in Georgia but it won't give Abrams a victory.)

The increased turnout, moreover, does not seem to have increased the influence of younger generations.  More of them voted, but more of their elders did too. According to the national CNN exit polls in 2014 and 2018, the percentage of voters in the 18-39 age group was almost identical in those two years.

Within their home areas--which include the four states I listed above, even though Florida remains closely divided--the Republicans are as strong as ever.  Agricultural areas voted Republican this week even though Trump's trade policies are hurting them.   The gender gap in red states was quite small.  We remain two Americas, and both sides are quite confident in their values and beliefs. 

Much to my surprise, two columns in today's New York Times stated, as clearly as I could have myself, two opposing views of what the election means. They came from the paper of record's longest-serving opinionators, Paul Krugman and David Brooks.  Ten years ago I could not have imagined finding myself in agreement with Brooks, rather than Krugman.  Now, for reasons that will become apparent, that happens all the time.

Krugman caught much of the nation's eye around 2000 as an unregenerate New Deal Democrat, rather like myself, who called a spade a spade rather than referring to it metaphorically as a shovel during the George W. Bush administration.  He wrote frequently about the growth of inequality and nostalgically about the relatively equal economy of our youth.  He welcomed the emergence of Barack Obama in 2008.  But by 2016--for reasons I do not know--he had changed.  He was now an establishment Democrat who, to my horror (and not only mine) argued fervently for Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, whom he dismissed as an unrealistic idealist.  In today's column, he repeats, not for the first time, the self-serving claptrap that so many Democrats, alas, are feeding on these days. 

Krugman starts with a valid point.  The movement of population into urban areas in the last half century has created an extraordinary differential in the population of different states that allows the Republicans to control the Senate with much less than half of the votes cast for Senators.  Unfortunately nothing can be done about that, since the Constitution specifically forbids taking equal suffrage in the Senate away from any state without that state's consent.  Then, however, he tries to explain Donald Trump's appeal to the Republican party.

"Not to put too fine a point on it: What Donald Trump and his party are selling increasingly boils down to white nationalism — hatred and fear of darker people, with a hefty dose of anti-intellectualism plus anti-Semitism, which is always part of that cocktail. This message repels a majority of Americans. That’s why Tuesday’s election in the House — which despite gerrymandering and other factors is far more representative of the country as a whole than the Senate — produced a major Democratic wave.

"But the message does resonate with a minority of Americans. These Americans are, of course, white, and are more likely than not to reside outside big, racially diverse metropolitan areas — because racial animosity and fear of immigration always seem to be strongest in places where there are few nonwhites and hardly any immigrants. And these are precisely the places that have a disproportionate role in choosing senators."

Now I happen to think that the Alt-Right movement has been a godsend to Donald Trump, but not for the reasons normally advanced.  The Alt-Right remains tiny and hardly represents an important bloc of votes.  But rather than face up to their own failings and blind spots, Democrats (see below) have chosen to regard the Alt-Right as the backbone of the Republican Party.  This is an undeserved insult to many Republicans and they resent it.  In fact, although I cannot prove it, I think that resentment of intellectuals and Democrats is much, much stronger among Republicans than resentment of any "darker people."  That certainly seems to be what Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity think--if you don't believe me, try listening to them for a few minutes any day of the week--and they ought to know. On another front, everyone routinely assumes now that opposition to immigration is simply racism, and thus unworthy of a moral person.  I favor immigration, but I also believe that the presence of between 11 and 20 million people with no right to be here in the country represents a huge problem that cannot simply be ignored. (The 20 million figure comes from a recent study by very reputable academics.)  Similarly, a liberal Gen X woman of my acquaintance just posted on facebook a graphic showing that a majority of white women in various key states voted Republican, with the caption, "Shameful."  It seems to me that liberal women would do well to understand that other women do not owe them agreement on anything.

Krugman, I am sorry to say, has moved in the last 20 years from being an independent left wing voice to very predictable partisan. David Brooks, whom I almost never agreed with about anything until quite recently, has done the opposite.  He is utterly disgusted with Donald Trump but almost equally disgusted with the Republican Party, and he sees that neither party is really offering what the country needs, a real platform that could bring us together.

Brooks notes today that large numbers of red state Republicans voted Tuesday to expand Medicaid and raise the minimum wage.  Trump's appeal, he argues, relates to both parties' failure to do anything meaningful for the working class for decades.  (Trump of course isn't doing much to help them either, unless they work in oil and gas drilling, but he has talked a good game.)  he then discusses a new book, The Once and Future Worker, by a certain Oren Cass, which deals with our economy and its discontents.  We focus on GDP, Cass argues, without asking hard questions about where gains are going.  We give poor people tax breaks (unpopular among Republicans) that help them consume more, but we don't help them produce more.  Our whole educational system is designed for the relatively few people go to college and become part of the elite. 

Democrats, others have argued, are now, above all, the party of the professional class. "We in the college-educated sliver," Brooks writes, "have built a culture, an economy and a political system that are all about ourselves." That class believes, for the most part, that what's good for the professional class must be good for the country.  But that isn't necessarily true at all in law, in medicine, in education, and in my own profession of academia.  The professional class believes itself entitled to power because of its superior values and has no use for people who do not share them--as a very impressive Harvard undergraduate just argued in the Crimson.  The Democrats won a substantial victory in the House of Representatives and brought out some new voters.   To win back the White House, in my opinion, they will need both an impressive new candidate, and some new values.

Saturday, November 03, 2018

The nature of our current crisis

War, wrote the great Clausewitz, "is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means."  Twice before in our history, in the great crises of 1774-94 and 1860-68 or so, political conflict has led to actual war, the first time to create an independent nation and the second time, to preserve it.  In this crisis we have been engaged since 2000, in my opinion, in a struggle over the future of the United States, waged peacefully but along party lines.  The Republican Party initiated the conflict to undo the work of the New Deal and the Great Society, destroy the rights of labor, complete the deregulation of the economy, and reduce the diversion of private wealth to public purposes.  They are waging the war by peaceful means, but those means are every bit as dangerous to our national health, at times, as real war.  The struggle has been complex, and often, we can only with some difficulty distinguish between ends and means.  The two sides are fighting, as they did from 1861 through 1865, on many fronts.  155 years ago the fronts were mostly geographic; now they represent different aspects of American politics, and even of American life.  Republicans have taken the offensive on some fronts, Democrats on others.  I do not believe that either side can win a total victory, and increasingly I believe that our real task now is to find a way to make some kind of peace.

The Republican offensive against the regulatory state of the New Deal and the Great Society is reaching a climax under Donald Trump.  Once again a round of tax cuts has left the federal government with a large, permanent deficit, as under Presidents Reagan and Bush II.  The deregulation of Wall Street, which at least slowed under Barack Obama, is plunging ahead.  Federal bureaucracies, managed by hostile ideologues or inexperienced incompetents, are having much more trouble doing their jobs.  Environmental protection has been rolled back on many fronts.    Unprecedented drilling on public lands goes forward.  The bulk of the American people oppose most of these measures, but the Republicans have managed to reduce the peoples' influence in politics.  They managed to steal the vote in Florida and thus the presidential election in 2000, and with the help of the Supreme Court (see below) they have gerrymandered districts in key states to an unprecedented degree, allowing them to retain a majority in the House of Representatives with less than 50% of the vote.  They have also taken advantage of the gerrymandering of the Senate--brought about by population movements, not legal legerdemain--which has given power to small states, most of them Republican, totally out of proportion to their size.  The 5-4 Republican Supreme Court majority has also allowed them to take full advantage of their superior financial resources in elections. They have also demonized the Democratic Party and its works, convincing their own voters that the welfare state simply subsidizes tens of millions of undeserving slackers, many of them immigrants, whom they insist on treating as outsiders. All told, they have eliminated the power of the Democratic Party and of liberal ideas in large parts of the country, and they currently control all three branches of the federal government.  Many of their leading ideologues and politicians want a total victory that will end New Deal and Great Society liberalism as we have known them--including Social Security and Medicare.

In the last crisis, the Democrats relied mainly on Congressional majorities to change the relationship between government and business, but Franklin Roosevelt also bequeathed to the nation a liberal Supreme Court.  President Eisenhower also made two key liberal appointments, Justices Warren and Brennan, and the Court decreed school integration, expanded civil liberties, legalized abortion, and in recent years, narrowly endorsed gay rights.   Several decades ago the Republicans embarked upon a campaign to train, identify, and promote conservative justices--a campaign now reaching its peak under Donald Trump.  The campaign will limit what government at all levels can do for decades to come.

Donald Trump, of course, initially disturbed the Republican establishment when he ran for President, but has reconciled them to his leadership since his victory.  The odyssey of Lindsay Graham, who abandoned criticism of the President in favor of support, is quite typical of leading Republicans, who see how much of their agenda the President is implementing.  Trump has certainly escalated the demonizing of the Democrats, issuing many repeated, violent personal attacks, especially against female and nonwhite Democrats.  And now, in a desperate attempt to retain control of the House of Representatives, he has created an immigration crisis largely out of whole cloth, proclaiming an imminent, dangerous invasion of the country and intermittently threatening to meet it with deadly force.  His administration is also using the ICE bureaucracy to try to terrorize our millions of illegal immigrants into leaving the country.  Making immigrants the primary target of the hatred that he has mobilized--an inevitable concomitant, as Clausewitz noted many times, of war--has huge advantages, since most Americans do not identify with these immigrants and they cannot vote.

On the other side, the Democrats have tried to protect our parents' legacy, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the EPA--although they have collaborated in dismantling the sweeping regulation of the financial industry that has changed the world.  They tried to extend that legacy with Obamacare, which so far has survived, in much weakened form, the return of the Republicans to power.  They have taken the offensive on another range of issues: women's rights, including abortion, LGBTQ rights, the protection (in states ruled by Democrats) of illegal immigrants, and an increase in the numbers of women and minorities holding public office.  This last effort seems to combine political tactics (a means of energizing their base) and an ideological commitment to reducing white male power as an end in itself.  For better or worse, the campaigns of women and minorities have shifted from struggles for equal rights to struggles for political power.   These tactics did help the Democrats win the presidency in 2008 and retain it in 2012, but it may have cost them the presidency in 2016.  We shall find out this Tuesday in Florida,. Georgia, and many Congressional districts, how successful it has been this year.

Both social and economic issues have left the two parties utterly at odds and without any trust in one another, every bit as much as the northern and southern states in the wake of the Civil War.  It is the years 1865-1876, I think, that come closest to what we are now going through, since the sectional conflict once again became political rather than military.   In those years the Republican Party controlled the national government--although it surrendered control of the House of Representatives in 1874--and it presided over the enormous growth of the power of corporations and financial institutions that created the Gilded Age.  Republican presidents appointed Supreme Court justices--most of them who had represented railroads--who defeated any attempts to regulate the economy. By the time the Democrats regained the White House in 1884 they had accepted this new order, and economic radicals had to form various third parties, including the Populists, whose achievements were quite limited.  Meanwhile, after a bloody local struggle, white southerners re-established white supremacy.  Two distinct political oligarchies ruled the South and the North from the 1870s through the early 1890s, and just a few swing states, led by New York and Indiana, decided most of the presidential elections.  In 1896 the populists essentially won control of the Democratic Party, but William Jennings Bryan suffered the party's worst defeat since 1872, ushering in another 16 years of Republican rule.

The Republicans have also achieved much (by their own lights) because they have fought their war in a relatively disciplined fashion.  While many still dislike Trump, nearly all of them are deferring to him because of his power among their constituents and because he has given them much of what they want.  This applies to many Republican women who continue to believe--as fewer Democratic women do--that other issues matter more than the president's casual misogyny and personal history.  Only in 2009-10 did the Democrats in Congress show similar unity.  A large number of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination will emerge after Tuesday's election, representing different demographics and different constituencies.  Age and ideology divide the Democratic party, and too many of its leaders are now well over 70.  If, as seems almost certain, the Democrats regain the House, legislative deadlock will follow for the next two years and President Trump will double down on divisiveness and hatred.  A Democratic candidate will have to offer something different to win over a new majority--and to lay the foundation for bringing our political war to some kind of conclusion.




Friday, October 19, 2018


Political Murders in Changing Times

Last week, it seems, Saudi officials murdered the exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  Press reports have now identified one of the killers as a close associate of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler of the Kingdom.  The world community in general and the government of the United States in particular are deciding what to do.  Kashoggi's death is more than a single international crime or an episode in the relations between the US and an important ally; it is another big step towards a world of authoritarian dictators who show no respect for established norms.  As such, it recalls another big step towards such a world in the early stages of the last great world crisis in the first half of the twentieth century: the murder of the Italian deputy Giacomo Matteotti by Fascist terrorists in June 1924.

European democracy began to die in the 1920s in Italy.  United by a series of small wars from 1859 through 1871, Italy had been a functioning constitutional monarchy from 1871 until 1922.  Its government and traditional elites had lost the confidence of the people, however, after a costly, disastrous decision to enter the First World War in 1915.  Although Italy was among the victors, the war brought less than no benefit to its people, and both left- and right-wing revolutionary movements arose in its wake.  Benito Mussolini, a former socialist, emerged in the early 1920s as the leader of the new Fascist Party.  Terrorism helped bring that party to power.  Fascist militias called Squadristi, for which there is at present no parallel in any western nation, terrorized large parts of Italy, driving socialists and liberals into exile in major cities.  In 1922 they escalated their revolution, marching into major cities, and later in that year Mussolini led them in a March on Rome. Mussolini was however in many ways a traditional politician, and he did not attempt to overthrow the established order. Instead he became head of the government within its own framework, appointed Prime Minister by the King—rather like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, or, in his own way, Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.  Mussolini initially formed a coalition government with other right wing elements, and during the first two years of his rule, political violence ebbed within Italy and the country seemed to have stabilized.  Parliament, complete with opposition deputies, continued to function.  Similar situations prevail in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, where the new leaders have carried out extensive purges but the framework they have inherited remains, today.

The turning point in the history of Mussolini’s regime came in July 1924, when Squadristi kidnapped and murdered the socialist deputy and opposition leader Giacomo Matteotti,  To many Italians Matteotti symbolized honesty and rectitude in politics, and although Mussolini muzzled the Italian press, he suddenly became massively unpopular.  In January 1925, in an extraordinary parallel with current events, an Italian journalist named Camille Cianfarra obtained a confession from one of Matteotti’s murderers, the head of the press bureau of the foreign office.  Cianfarra was now the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune, and after the Tribune published the confession, the Italian government arrested him and tortured him. The American Embassy did secure his release, but he died shortly thereafter.  Meanwhile, Mussolini in January 1925 had proclaimed a totalitarian regime, the beginnings of the establishment of dictatorship.  Nonetheless, the British, French and German governments treated him as a fully equal power in the critical Locarno negotiations later that summer, which reached new agreements on the Franco-German frontiers.  The Matteotti murder started a long term trend.  In 1932, Japanese naval officers assassinated several leading politicians, including Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi, and effectively brought civilian politicians under control for the next 13 years.  Then on June 30, 1934, a year and a half after taking power, Adolf Hitler sent SS men to murder a number of key dissident Nazis and other political opponents in the Night of the Long Knives.  The era of Fascist dictatorship was in full swing.  Three years later, in 1937, Stalin began large-scale executions of leading generals and Communists.

Both President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Kim Jong Un of North Korea have apparently ordered assassinations of political opponents in foreign countries over the last few years.  President Trump has continued to heap praise upon them both, and he has not yet criticized Mohammed Bin Salman for Kashoggi’s death.  While there are no totalitarian movements comparable to Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism in power anywhere today, authoritarian rule has become a normal feature of our landscape.  While the western nations still must maintain some kind of relations with authoritarian states, they must also find ways to hold them accountable for acts on foreign soil, if not at home, and to make it clear that advanced democratic nations stand for something very different.  That is what Franklin Roosevelt managed to do in the 1930s.  As yet we have no FDR on the horizon this time around.





Saturday, October 13, 2018

Feminism, postmodernism, and politics

Because this post may easily make some people angry, I shall begin with a statement of what I am, and am not, trying to do with it.  I have no illusions that I can affect the ideological and emotional movement known as #MeToo, which burst upon the national scene once again last month in connection with Justice Kavanaugh's confirmation.  It is well established and its impact is going to continue.  It has helped to bring one prominent criminal to justice and may do the same again.  It has created a new orthodoxy within the Democratic Party.  My goal is simply to identify some of its intellectual origins, to explore some of the implications of its ideology that have emerged quite clearly in several contexts, and to assess its contemporary political impact.  I plan to stay away from any explicit value judgments about it and I hope that people of all political stripes might be able to get something out of this post.

The movement, of course, grows out very real problems, sexual violence against women and the exploitation of power by men for sexual purposes.  The intellectual fashions of the last few decades, however, have moved those problems in to a particular context and addressed them with particular language.  We must begin with those fashions.

To those who want to understand those fashions and what has happened in academia since the 1980s I comment an essay by a young British intellectual, Helen Pluckrose, entitled, "No, Postmodernism is Not Dead (and Other Misconceptions)."  Ms. Pluckrose's name is in the news because she, along with two authors, wrote a series of hoax articles based on grievance politics, some of which were accepted and published by academic journals.  She appears to have the makings of a Millennial Camille Paglia, not only because of her clarity of thought, but because she lacks the histrionics and extreme edginess of her Boomer counterpart.  Her essay, a serious piece of intellectual history, begins at the beginning and tries to distill the essence of Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida, with particular attention to their view of the relationship between language and reality. Language, they argued, did not and could not objectively reflect reality, but served as a tool to situate people of different kinds within a hierarchy of power.  I would add, although she does not say this, that many postmodernists, consciously or unconsciously, have come to regard language as the only meaningful form of power, and indeed, to reduce real political events--up to and including the Second World War--to symbolic statements about power that resonate in people's memories (another favorite term.)  This has always looked to me like an easy trap for a professional academic in the relatively stable late twentieth century to fall into, since in academia knowledge, or holding the right views, is power, and often prevails without anything resembling a real-world test.  I don't disagree that ideas can and do acquire a power of their own, but that often has to do with the degree of their correspondence with reality.

The original postmodernists, Pluckrose argues, weren't very political at all. They only wanted to undermine the idea of objectivity and replace it, really, with chaos.  "Deconstruction" wasn't followed by "reconstruction," it was an end in itself.  New generations, Pluckrose argues, went in an entirely different direction. "The next wave of critical theorists," she writes, "developed postcolonial theory, queer theory, intersectionality, and critical race theory."  I don't know why she left out "gender theory,"  since she proceed to discuss various types of feminism.  To explain the shift these strains represented, she quotes KimberlĂ© Crenshaw, who defined the term“intersectionality.”

“While the descriptive project of postmodernism of questioning the ways in which meaning is socially constructed is generally sound, this critique sometimes misreads the meaning of social construction and distorts its political relevance… But to say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not to say that that category has no significance in our world. On the contrary, a large and continuing project for subordinated people – and indeed, one of the projects for which postmodern theories have been very helpful in thinking about – is the way power has clustered around certain categories and is exercised against others.”

"Intersectionality" refers to multiple categories of oppression.  Dominant ideologies might subordinate an individual because she was female on the one hand and nonwhite on the other (as Crenshaw is), or as LGBT.  More importantly, however, Pluckrose says that "intersectional feminists. .  .developed a strong focus on identity politics which the earlier postmodernists had not, following Crenshaw and those who expanded upon her work. This form of feminism dominates the academy and activism now."  And she might have added, I think, that elite institutions have mainstreamed these ideas about liberals, as contemporary commentary and reporting on issues like Kavanaugh's confirmation shows.

To be specific I shall now focus on two specific controversies that have upended our political and intellectual worlds over the last month or so.  One, of course, is Kavanaugh's confirmation.  The second was the publication in The New York Review of Books--for half a century our outstanding intellectual journal--of a lamentation, "Reflections from a Hashtag," by Jian Ghomeshi, who was for some years a radio star on the Canadian Broadcasting Company, hosting a popular program on culture.  In 2014 the CBC fired him after allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault, and in 2016 he was tried for three charges of sexual assault brought by three different women.  The judge acquitted him for reasons which any readers can look into on a very detailed wikipedia page about  his trial. The Crown dismissed a fourth charge after Ghomeshi posted a peace bond and apologized for his behavior.  Notwithstanding his acquittal, he became a pariah in intellectual circles and the target of a widespread campaign on social media.

Just last month, the New York Review of Books published a long article by Ghomeshi detailing, not his version of the events which had led to his termination and trial but his experiences as a target of that campaign.  A firestorm of criticism immediately engulfed the New York Review and its editor, the very respected Ian Buruma, who had replaced the late Robert Silvers less than one  year ago.  Confronted by threats from university presses to pull the ads on which the publication depends, Buruma resigned as editor.  The current issue concludes with 36 different letters about Ghomeshi's piece, 31 one complaining about it (and a few canceling their subscriptions) and 5 approving of it.  It also includes a letter from more than 100 contributors to the magazine--really a kind of Who's Who of the intellectual elite of the Silent and Boom generations--praising Buruma's editorship and finding it "very troubling" that he could have been forced to resign because of one article, "repellent though some of us may have found this article." 

Both the feminist reaction to Christine Blasey Ford's testimony, in my opinion, and the negative letters about Ghomeshi's article, illustrate some essential principles of feminist activism today which, as Plumrose points out, reflect basic tenets of postmodernism in its two phases which no longer need to be spelled out, and which some protesters may not even explicitly understand themselves.  I would state these as follows.  Modern western society is characterized by the domination of men, especially straight white men, over women.  That domination is expressed both through language and through acts, which are themselves a form of language.  Any form of sexual assault is such an act.  (For decades feminists have argued, without systematic evidence of any kind, that rape is about power, not sex, and that its very purpose is to subjugate women.)  Straight white men also exercise domination by inflicting trauma--and any act that reflects their dominance can inflict such trauma.  This is the theory behind the idea of "microaggressions" which is a feature of campus ideology today.  And critically, every form of trauma experienced by any member of an oppressed group--that is, any nonstraightwhitemale--is simply one tiny part of a much larger trauma that straight white males have been inflicting for millennia.  That is why even hearing Christine Blasey Ford's story of 35 years ago, many women said, triggered their own traumas.  It's also why feminists claim that reporting an assault, much less bringing the accused to trial and testifying publicly against him and undergoing cross-examination, is a further trauma that victims should not have to undergo.  Let me say again that I am not taking any position on these tenets of the new ideology, I am merely trying to report them.  Everyone can decide for him or herself whether to accept them.  There is some reason to think that Blasey Ford accepted them herself.  That may be why she actually believed that by giving her story to her Congresswoman she might stop Kavanaugh from being nominated or confirmed.  Here Senator Feinstein, in my view, did her a grave disservice.  When the accusation reached her she should have told Blasey Ford that she had only two choices. She could come forward publicly, at great personal cost--a cost reflecting the political stakes involved in the appointment--or she could decide to remain silent.  There was no third way--and in a free political system, there should not be.

It is because every violation of boundaries, from actual rape to an unwanted hand on the posterior, supposedly symbolizes a much bigger system of oppression, I believe, that feminists have thrown out any concept of degrees of severity where these issues are concerned.   No less a figure than the junior Senator from New York, Kirsten Gillibrand, stated this very clearly in a famous facebook post in which she explained why her colleague Al Franken had to resign from the Senate because a news reporter said that he had given her more of a kiss than she had bargained for, and a few women said he had patted their rear at campaign stops. I quote:

"
The pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the experience women face every day across America within the existing power structure of society has finally come out of the shadows. It is a moment that we as a country cannot afford to ignore. . . . To achieve lasting change, we will need to fight this everywhere on behalf of everyone by insisting on accountability and working to bring more women into leadership in each industry to fundamentally shift the culture. .  . .
"We have to rise to the occasion, and not shrink away from it, even when it’s hard, especially when it’s hard. That is what this larger moment is about. So, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on Senator Franken’s behavior. Enough is enough. The women who have come forward are brave and I believe them. While it’s true that his behavior is not the same as the criminal conduct alleged against Roy Moore, or Harvey Weinstein, or President Trump, it is still unquestionably wrong, and should not be tolerated by those of us who are privileged to work in public service.
"As the mother of two young boys, we [sic] owe it to our sons and daughters to not equivocate, but to offer clarity. We should not have to be explaining the gradations between sexual assault, harassment and unwelcome groping. And what message do we send to our sons and daughters when we accept gradations of crossing the line? None of it is ok and none of it should be tolerated. [emphasis added.]
"We should demand the highest standards, not the lowest, from our leaders, and we should fundamentally value and respect women. Every workplace in America, including Congress, needs to have a strong process and accountability for sexual harassment claims, and I am working with others to address the broken and opaque system in Congress.
"While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve."

Any transgression, in short, by any man against any woman, should evidently result in the termination of whatever his career happens to be, followed by an indefinite sentence as a social leper.  Neither exoneration in court, nor offenses that (as in Franken's case) could never be subject to prosecution, makes any difference--because every offense is part of something much bigger, a generalized series of offenses by men against women in which each must be punished for all.  And for the same reason, any man who defends an accused man, or even gives a public forum--as Buruma did for Ghomeshi--must be severely punished as well.  

To this must be added another tenet: that women's accusations against men should, by their very nature, be believed.  The general model of oppression helps get around some of the problems inherent in this tenet.  Ghomeshi was acquitted partly because he was able to produce a morning-after message from one of his accusers in which she spoke very warmly about the encounter that she later claimed to be abusive.  Many feminists would argue that this message merely proved the depths of her oppression.   

And behind this controversy lies the biggest question of all.  Has western civilization been mainly a system that allows straight white men to oppress anyone else? Or is western civilization characterized, especially in comparison to othercivilizations, by certain ideas of equality that initially applied only to white men but which inevitably have spread to include everyone else?  Forty years of academic postmodernism, I think, have brought the first view into the mainstream and into our politics.  I do not share it.

And thus, from the moment Christine Blasey Ford came forward, millions of women and many men immediately trusted her story and assumed that Kavanaugh, based on what she said he did 36 years ago at age 17, must be denied his seat on the Supreme Court.  Here, however, ideology met reality.

Numerous commentators and op-ed writers have suggested, in effect, that President Trump and Republican Senators stood up for Kavanaugh not in spite of the accusations against him, but because of them.  In this view they were defending their "white male privilege" and reasserting their contempt for women.  Only in the postmodern vision, however, does this  hold water.  I did not, as I explained here earlier, want Kavanaugh confirmed, either before or after the allegations.  The Republicans wanted him confirmed for one reason: that he would hand down the kinds of opinions that they wanted handed down.  (These do, to be sure, include overturning Roe v. Wade, but they include a lot more besides.)  They think his legal opinions are more important than what he may have done when he was 17 or 18.  The Republicans, unlike the Democrats (see Franken, Al), believe in strong party loyalty, which is one reason that they have achieved such dominance in our government at this time.  Now it turns out that the whole controversy has energized Republican voters and, crucially, made it easier for Republicans to turn red state races into referendums on national issues instead of local ones.  If they retain control of the Senate, which seems likely, Donald Trump may choose yet another Supreme Court justice.
To repeat: I have tried to describe the ideology of feminist activism accurately and to assess its effects.  In our hyperpartisan climate, many people, I think, are lining up behind certain ideas without really understanding where they came from or what their implications are.  I am asking readers to think about certain hard questions.  In another, quieter time, I think that other answers will emerge.