Friday, April 20, 2018

Is our democracy dying?

This week I have gone through the book, How Democracies Die, by the political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.  I picked it off the new book shelf of my local library and was pleasantly surprised by its scope and quality.  It is a real work of comparative political science, looking at recent and current developments in the US in the context both of what happened in other countries during the last great Atlantic crisis (Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933), and of what has happened much more recently in nations like the Philippines in the 1970s,  Peru in the 1990s, Venezuela in the 2000s, and Hungary, Turkey, and Russia in the last decade.  The comparative method, I decided decades ago, is the best way to make judgments about the behavior of nations and of people, since it places each individual case within a spectrum drawn from reality, not theory.  The method does not let Levitsky and Ziblatt down.

The authors' model is also quite simple.  They identify four tactics common to political leaders trying to seize power within democracies, and then to establish authoritarian rule.  First, such leaders either reject outright, or show a very weak commitment to, the democratic norms of their nation.  Second, they deny the legitimacy of their political opponents.  Thirdly, they tolerate or encourage violence.  Lastly, they show a willingness to curb the civil liberties of their political opponents and of the media.By this time, every reader's sense of the present danger to American democracy will have been heightened, but I want to deal with other aspects of their argument before analyzing exactly how Donald Trump's behavior matches their checklist.

That is because a good deal of the book has a very different focus: the question of how Trump could have become president in the first place.  Here too, I think, their history is quite sound, and their analysis is sophisticated.  For most of the history of the United States, they argue, political parties--largely controlled by career politicians--served as the gatekeepers to the White House and created mechanisms that kept any demagogues or would-be revolutionaries out of the contest for power.  The seeds of our current predicament, they argue effectively, went into the ground in 1968 and afterwards, when the rather undemocratic selection of Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic presidential candidate led to the McGovern-Fraser commission and a new set of nomination rules, turning the choice of the nominee over to the voters.  At that time, I remember, there was commentary to the effect that primaries, in which relatively few people voted, were inherently vulnerable to minority success and favored more ideological candidates.  But--and this is the point the authors miss--such was the strength of the postwar consensus even then, and such was respect for our institutions, that those dangers were not immediately realized, even though, as they point out, George Wallace's strong showing in 1972 primaries, before he was shot and crippled, was a straw in the wind.

For better or for worse, primaries on the Democratic side did allow two men from outside their parties' establishments--Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton--to win the Democratic nomination and become president, but both of them governed from within the mainstream.  Some Republican insurgents, such as Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes, did surprisingly well in primaries but never got close to nomination.  Barack Obama was not, of course, the favorite of the Democratic establishment in 2008, but his positions were well within the Democratic mainstream and he quickly won them over.  The case of Donald Trump, however--the first successful candidate never to have held elecctive or appointed government office--was an entirely different matter.

Trump, of course, wiped the floor with a host of establishment candidates, as well as a couple of other outsiders (Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.)  Nate Silver, among others, predicted early on that the would be a flash in the pan like Pat Buchanan or Herman Cain, but that did not turn out to be the case.  Here was the point of the book at which some knowledge of the works of Strauss and Howe might have added an important dimension.  For the last 70 years, our political class has been living off the prestige it earned by coping successfully with the Depression, winning the Second World war, and creating a thriving and relatively egalitarian society in the 1950s and 1960s.  But their prestige as eroded as many of those achievements have been reversed and those who remember them have died off.  The elites of both parties have clearly lost touch with the American people, leading the Republicans vulnerable to a celebrity candidate who had become a national figure on television.  Trump won the nomination.  It is the crisis that we are going through, also, that is largely responsible for the polarization we have experienced, which can easily be observed in the era of the American Revolution and the Civil War and the New Deal, as well.

Returning to the comparative framework, the authors identify another key reason why he became President.  While the Republican leadership hated and feared him, they refused to repudiate him in the election.  Most even of those who had spoken frankly about the danger he represented--like Lindsay Graham--eventually made peace with him and endorsed him.  The authors list seven Republican Senators and two sitting governors (including my own) who refused to endorse Trump--but not a single one of them endorsed Hillary Clinton.  She, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, was an establishment candidate, and although she won the popular vote, Trump managed narrowly to defeat her.

To what extent, then, does Trump show the signs of authoritarianism that the authors identified, and has he taken steps similar to those of other elected leaders who did, in fact, become dictators?  These are complex questions.

Referring to the checklist above, we can certainly agree with the authors that Trump has shown a very weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game--but mostly, I would suggest, at the rhetorical level.  He argued repeatedly during the campaign that the election was likely to be rigged against him, and he said afterwards that a fair count, untainted by vote fraud, would have given him the popular vote.  What is rather frightening, however, is that the Republican Party as a whole has been not only attacking, but disregarding, the normal rules of democratic politics now for at least 20 years.  In 2000, the Republican-led government of Florida purged its voter rolls to reduce the Democratic vote, and a Republican-appointed 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court handed the election to George W. Bush, rather than allow a recount that would have honestly settled the question of who had won. (As it turns out, it was probably Al Gore.)  Another 5-4 Republican majority opened the way to voter suppression by gutting the voting rights act a few years later, and Republican state governments rushed to take advantage of the opening with voter ID laws.  Worst of all, after 2010, Republican state governments in several key states raised gerrymandering to a new scale, allowing them to control the delegations of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to an extent far out of proportion to their total vote.  The authors do show how in recent years the North Carolina Republican Party has twisted election rules and other laws in ways worthy of any banana Republic.  The Republican Party--not Donald Trump--has done a great deal in the last 20 years to deprive our democracy of real meaning.

Moving down the list, Trump has also--in fact, made his name--denying the legitimacy of political opponents.  He led the spurious birther movement against Barack Obama and he argued repeatedly during 2016 that Hillary Clinton belonged in jail, not in the White House.  Here, too, he was only climbing on an existing bandwagon, although it is fair to say that no American president has used comparable rhetoric towards his domestic enemies--including Abraham Lincoln, in the midst of civil war.  Many Republicans never accepted the legitimacy of Bill Clinton, which is why they were willing to impeach him because a consensual sexual affair.  Hillary Clinton certainly denied the legitimacy of many of Trump's supporters in 2016 when she called them a "basket of deplorables," and many Democrats today deny Trump any legitimacy even though he was elected according to the rules laid down by our Constitution.  And Trump has not as yet tried to turn the machinery of the federal government--including the criminal justice system--against political opponents.  That the George W. Bush administration did, most notably in Alabama, when it jailed a popular Democratic governor with a case that should never have been brought.  (The attempt to put Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI, on trial, may however cross that threshold.)

Moving on, Trump certainly encouraged violence at his rallies during the last campaign, and he tolerated it in response to the Charlottesville incident last year.  Yet the alt-right militias are at least two orders of magnitude smaller than Mussolini's Blackshirts or Hitler's SA, and, somewhat to my own surprise, Charlottesville has remained a unique incident so far.  And while Trump has talked a lot about reining in the media, rewriting libel laws, and doing something about fake news, this assault, too, has remained rhetorical.

Late in their book the authors introduce a second checklist of steps would-be authoritarians take on their way to more or less absolute power.  These are to "capture the referees," usually the other branches of government, such as the judiciary; "sidelining players," that is, intimidating, imprisoning, or killing political opponents; and "changing the rules," which often means rewriting the Constitution.  The biggest long-term impact, quite possibly, of the Trump Administration, is going to be the consummation of the long-term Republican attempt to take over the federal judiciary, from the Supreme Court on down.  This is proceeding rapidly, but I think it will simply return the judiciary to the role which--as the late James MacGregor Burns pointed out in his last book--it played during most of our history, that of a defender of economic power and privilege.  The Trump Administration is trying to break the power of the federal bureaucracy but, except in the McCabe matter, it has not tried to use legal intimidation to do so.  It has made no attempt to revise the Constitution.

How Democracies Die has persuaded me that Donald Trump must be seen in the context of a world-wide trend towards authoritarianism, and I am sad to note that the United States resisted that trend in word and in deed during the 1930s, when it was at least as serious.  I am not yet convinced, however, that Trump seriously wants to destroy our system of government, or that he can do so.  Yet the firing of Robert Rosentsein and Robert Mueller--which I predicted here some time ago--would be a big step in that direction.  That would be an abuse of power designed to save the President himself from legal process.  It would not necessarily signify the opening of a legal campaign against political opponents. But it might.  Meanwhile, the voters will have the opportunity, this year and in 2020, either to slow the process considerably or to bring it to a halt.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Return of Anti-Intelletualism in American Life

Richard Hofstadter was probably the greatest historian of the GI generation, although his early death from leukemia in 1970, at the age of 54, allowed Arthur Schlesinger to eclipse him in the public eye.  While he believed very deeply in the achievements of the New Deal, whose pragmatism he praised in his Pulitzer-prize winning book The Age of Reform, he always had a keen idea for the darker sides of the American character, having begun his career with another very interesting and timely book, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915.  At the time of his death he was working on a grand scale history of the United States from colonial times to the present, and his widow published a few early chapters posthumously.  Recently I have returned to his second Pulitzer prize winner, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which appeared in that critical year of 1965.

Near the beginning of his book, Hofstadter distinguished between "intelligence," which Americans always praised, and "intellect," a quality that had come under attack from Republicans in the Eisenhower era--not, as his book aimed to show, for the first time.  "Intellect," he wrote, ". . .is the critical, creative and contemplative side of mind.  Whereas intelligence seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order, adjust, intellect examines, ponders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.  Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole."  Intellectuals, one might conclude, see issues in broad perspective, and not least in broad historical perspective, as Hofstadter constantly did and as I continually try to do here and elsewhere.

Tracing the ups and downs of intellectuals through the history of the American Republic, Hofstadter made many interesting findings.  He traced the roots of American intellectualism to New England Calvinism, whose early American adherents spent their Sundays listening to erudite sermons in church and discussing scripture at home.  He found in the early republic an association between intellectualism and class, and he found a turning point in history in 1828, when the quite anti-intellectual Jacksonians drove John Quincy Adams, one of our most intellectual presidents, out of office.  The Jacksonians, from the president on down, specifically argued that wisdom and virtue resided among the people, not the educated elite, and it is no accident therefore that Jackson is one of Donald Trump's favorite Presidents.  The conflict between intellectuals and "real Americans" became more explicit after the Civil War, when orthodox Republican politicians tried to hold the line against civil service reformers, who wanted to introduce competitive examinations to staff federal, state and local governments.  It was the spirit of civil service reform that triumphed, of course, in the Progressive Era and the New Deal, and that helped create the America of Hofstadter's young adulthood, into which I was born.

Before taking the struggle further, I would like to introduce--or, really, re-introduce--another perspective on these issues into the discussion. It comes from another of my favorite historians, Henry Adams, and I already discussed it here at some length back in 2005.  I quote from that earlier post:

"Specifically, I re-opened the Presidential address which he mailed to the American Historical Association in 1894 from the South Seas, entitled 'The Tendency of History.' . . .Adams referred also to Darwin's influence, and suggested that history in the last 35 years or so had been trying to turn itself into a science. Within fifty years, he speculated, historians would probably attain this goal, and lay out the immutable laws which history was destined to follow--and he could imagine only three conclusions that the new science might reach. 

"First, Adams argued, history might accept the tenets of socialism. (Something like this actually happened in the middle decades of the twentieth century, when Marxism in various forms became extremely influential in the historical professions of France, Britain, and the United States.) Yet Adams doubted (too pessimistically, as it turned out), that property owners upon whom universities depended would allow such a new orthodoxy to flourish. Secondly, historians might conclude 'that the present evils of the world--its huge armaments, its vast accumulations of capital, its advancing materialism, and declining arts--were to be continued, exaggerated, over another thousand years,' but that conclusion would be unpopular and could lead anyone who accepted it only to despair. Lastly, he said, historical science might prove 'that society must at a given time revert to the church and recover its old foundation of absolute faith in a personal providence and a revealed religion,' but in that case, the science would commit suicide.

"Adams's formulation of the problem showed the clear influence of Social Darwinism, since he assumed that one of these three possible conclusions must triumph. That, we can see now, was a mistake. In fact, these three world views--which might be described as the Utopian, the stoic, and the religious--have been at war for the whole of western recorded history. What is emerging now is that the struggle is not over, and the outcomes which we believed to be final can easily be overturned."

Nearly a decade and a half have passed since I wrote those words, and new evidence has accumulated.  We can now, it seems to me, be a little more definite about what has happened in the more than half a century since Hofstadter wrote Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

At the time Hofstadter was writing, it seems to me, one version of Adams' socialist, or Utopian, vision, had triumphed.  That is not to say that the United States in 1965 was a socialist nation--it was not--but rather to recognize that there was a consensus around the idea that the health and happiness of individuals could not be separated from that of their fellow citizens, and that our society and government were common enterprises working for the good of us all.  Only such a view would allow for the 91% marginal tax rates that had been levied on very rich Americans for several decades (but which, signally, had just been reduced to about 70% in 1964).  That view also held, critically, that a healthy economy was one in which working class standards of living were rising, and that the maintenance of full employment and strong economic growth was the duty of the federal government.  Those views had spread throughout the advanced West in the wake of the Second World War, and the official views of the Communist world also stressed that individuals only progressed within a social and economic framework--as it happened, a much more constricting one.  The nation's journalists and universities included a few dissenters such as William F. Buckley, Jr., and Milton Friedman (whom my Economics 1 section man dismissed in 1966 as a crank), but Goldwater's defeat had shown that the vast majority of the American people felt otherwise.

Now it will have undoubtedly occurred to many reasons that anti-intellectualism is running rampant in the United States once again now, and that it includes a widespread disregard for the idea of objective truth and even for science.  Indeed, one of Adams's alternative views--the religious one--has made a very impressive comeback in our politics since Hofstadter, to the extent that prominent Republicans pay at least lip service to various aspects of it as a matter of course.  I would argue that that anti-intellectualism has grown principally as a reaction to the mid-century triumph of the idea of the common good which I described above, driven by the desire of wealthy people to increase their wealth regardless of the consequences for others.  The biggest problem that they have faced is this: the mid-century economists were right.  A relatively egalitarian economy such as we enjoyed then is better for us all, resting on firmer foundations, providing a broader tax base for public goods, and fueling consumer demand, the most powerful engine of economic growth.  But because wealthy Americans such as the Koch brothers did not want such an economy, they have had to argue the opposite. 

The irony is that with rare exceptions--those who are willing to confess their love for Ayn Rand--the super rich and their publicists and advocates do not like to challenge the mid-century orthodoxy head on and to proclaim pure social Darwinism, and survival of the economic fittest.  That is the source of intellectual deformities like supply side economics, which had to argue (and still does, through the mouth of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin) that tax cuts can pay for themselves through increased economic growth and revenue.  That is why nearly the whole economic profession began to argue that deregulation would increase everyone's wealth and that markets, not the SEC, would rein in speculative excesses.  All these authors were using their intelligence (in Hofstadter's sense, above) to promote the greed of the powerful.  The Koch brothers, as Jane Mayer showed, have also created their own beachheads within George Mason University and other institutions of higher learning, designed to turn out academic products that will support their views.  And this is also the reason for the whole industry of climate denial.

And meanwhile, on the other side of the political spectrum, we have seen an equally strong revolt against mid-century America, one that began, I think, at Berkeley in 1964, when student leader Mario Savio drew applause by arguing that Berkeley undergraduates--who were enjoying perhaps the best higher education ever provided in the history of the world, free of charge--could be compared to black sharecroppers in Mississippi, among whom he had worked the preceding summer, because they were each, in their own way, cogs in a corrupt machine.  That led to the premise that what really defined mid-century America were racism, sexism, and homophobia, and to the corollary that the feelings of repressed groups, rather than any objective truths, must be the foundation of educational and public policy.  My own profession has tried to rewrite the history of the whole world according to those premises over the last few decades--and that is a new form of anti-intellectualism, one that begins with emotionally based conclusions and tries to make the facts fit them.  I am coming to think, actually, that the roots of these views are in their own way religious, but that must be a subject for another time.

Let me return to my comments on Henry Adams' presidential address, above, and particularly my conclusion.  What he called the socialist, the religious, and the stoic views of history will always be in competition, and any apparent triumph of any one of them will always turn out to be illusory, because they appeal to different aspects of human nature.  So do individualism on the one hand and respect for the common good on the other.  And the last, but hardly the least, critical influence on history is the generational dynamic which impels certain generations to reject the world they grow up in, regardless of how much of an advance it might represent, measured against the scale of human history.  It is our misfortune to live in a time when many things--including intellectual life--are going badly, but we must always remember, as I tried to do at the end of American Tragedy, that every era is only one part of a much larger cycle, and that the same mechanisms that have undone so much good work in the the last 50 years will, in some future time which we cannot imagine, move things back in the other direction once again.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Trump's real German analog, part II

It was very early in the Trump Administration, I believe, that I had occasion to note the similarities between Trump and a famous German leader.  The man in question was not Adolf Hitler, who had a discipline, singleness of purpose, capacity for dissimulation, and, when necessary, patience, that our President entirely lacks.  Instead, it was the Emperor William II, who acceded to his throne in 1888 at the age of 29, and reigned until he was forced to abdicate in November 1918, taking the German Empire with him, and helping to pave the way for Hitler's eventual rise, which he applauded from exile in Holland.  I have in my lap the third volume of the memoirs of Prince von Bülow, a Prussian diplomat who became William's Imperial Chancellor--the equivalent of a Prime Minister--in 1900, and remained at that post for nine years, until William dismissed him.  Published after the First World War, his memoirs created a sensation as a result of his utterly unsparing criticisms of so many of his fellow public men--and above all, of the Emperor himself.  Bülow's dealings with the emperor occupy many pages of this long volume, but I need only dip into it more or less at random to show why I know think the parallel is more appropriate than ever.

The German state of which William had become head in 1890 was not an absolute monarchy, since both Prussia--the leading state within the Empire--and the Empire itself had constitutions and parliaments whom the emperor needed to respect.  But William believed that it should be an absolute monarchy, and although he never mustered the courage to try to do away with those constitutions, he insisted that he and he alone knew what was best for Germany, and that the duty of his ministers was to enforce his will.  He was, meanwhile, a narcissist, convinced that he knew more than anyone else about every important question, distrustful of all his subordinates, and liable to seize upon absurd ideas that came to him from various quarters.  Thus, in 1903, when tensions between Germany and Britain were rising because of William's determination to build a fleet, an historian [!], Theodor Schiemann, convinced William that Germany should challenge Britain to a naval duel, a battle to which they would both dispatch an agreed number of warships."My patience was sorely tried and the nervous energy necessary for serious affairs exhausted," Bülow wrote, "by refuting such suggestions to the Kaiser, who, unfortunately, in such matters displayed a peculiar naivete.  With all the exalted ideas of the dignity and sacredness of his Imperial alling, William II failed to understand that, more than any other, this very calling demanded hard work, concentration, and seriousness."  Today, obviously, Generals Kelly and Mattis are similarly devoted from their real and very serious work by the need to refute the suggestions of various commentators on Fox News.

The horrible tragedy of William's rule, as Bülow saw at the time, was that Germany was already the strongest and richest power in Europe, and that it was growing thanks to international trade and did not need war or a much larger colonial empire to continue on its path to pre-eminence, though not necessarily hegemony in Europe.  Yet William insisted on seeing Germany as threatened by encirclement and spoke constantly of taking preventive action, including war, to stop it.  In a typical letter to Bülow in 1908, he insisted that King Edward VII of Great Britain was trying to encircle Germany and bring about her ruin, but that his policies were unpopular even in Britain itself, while William's own subjects were more than ready to fight the British.  William was just as indiscreet with foreign leaders as he was with his own subjects, and bluntly told the King of Italy, on a visit to Venice, that while the other European states had always tended to ignore what he had to say before he began building his beloved fleet in 1897, now they had changed their tune.  He also exaggerated the force of his own personality and was repeatedly convinced that he could win Tsar Nicholas II of Russia over to an alliance with himself.  I could not help but be reminded, reading about these episodes, of President Trump's rants about how the United States, actually the world's most powerful and (until recently) respected nation), had been "losing" in world affairs for decades, and his certainty that the force of his personality can redress the balance.

William's biggest flaw was a complete lack of tact, both in public and in private.  Again and again, Bülow accompanied him to public appearances all over Germany and heard him utter such inflammatory words that the Chancellor immediately went to the press gallery to beg the reporters, usually successfully, not to report them verbatim, in the interests of the nation and the monarch himself.  Trump;s staff, of course, is helpless, since the President so frequently shares his most unrestrained thoughts on Twitter.  One of the great crises of William's reign occurred when Bülow cleared an interview the monarch had done with the British Daily Telegraph correspondent without reading it.  The Emperor had taken credit, not for the first time, for the campaign plan that had allowed the British to win the Boer War, enraging his own people, who had sympathized with the Boers, as much as the British.  Typically, William could never forgive Bülow for failing to prevent the publication of his own words, and within a year, he had replaced the Chancellor.  Because the Emperor could not take responsibility for anything that went wrong, he replaced his subordinates quite frequently, especially during the First World War.

The real question raised by this parallel, however, is this: is President Trump a danger to world peace?  The answer turns out to be surprisingly complex.

William II endangered the peace of Europe, in the long run, because he was not satisfied with Germany's very strong position in the world and did believe that war might improve it.  His insistence on building his fleet helped drive Britain into an opposing alliance with France.  I concluded many years ago in an article I wrote that his subordinates, civilian and military, were more to blame than he for their course of action in July 1914, when they welcomed a confrontation with Russia, France and possibly Britain, confident that it would produce either a diplomatic or military victory.  William too favored that course, although the experience of previous crises suggests that they could have changed his mind if they had wanted to do so.  Meanwhile, however, there was another side to William, which may also be relevant to our problem today.

Bülow was older than William, and had been barely old enough to participate in the latter phases of the Franco-Prussian War that had established the German Empire as a combat soldier.  For that reason, he--like all the veterans of the Second World War who became Presidents of the US--was essentially satisfied with the position his country had obtained in that war, and did not believe in war to go beyond it.  William, who had been only a child in that war (in which his own father commanded an army), felt very differently.  In many of Bülow's appreciations of him, one hears the contempt of the combat veteran for the man who has never heard guns fired in anger--and nowhere more so than in this passage from the memoirs, which I quoted from the lecture podium many times.

"William II did not want war. He feared it.  His bellicose marginal notes [tweets, essentially, written in the margins of diplomatic papers] prove nothing.  They were meant to ring in the ears of his privy councilors, just as his more bellicose speeches were designed to convince the listener that here was another Frederick the Great or Napoleon.  William II did not want war, if only because he did not trust his nerves not to give way in any really critical situation.  The moment there was danger, His Majesty became uncomfortably aware that he could never lead an army in the field.  He knew that he was neurasthenic, without real capacity as a general, and still less able, despite his naval hobby, of commanding a squadron or even captaining a ship."

The President of the United States is a bully, and many bullies are cowards. I would not be surprised if the same could be said of him.  Meanwhile, we must not lose sight of the different systems that brought these two kindred spirits to power.  William inherited the throne at the age of 29 and reigned for 26 years before disaster struck.  Incompetent monarchs are obviously an inevitable hazard of hereditary monarchy.  Our founding fathers had studied the classics, and they knew that the Greek and Roman Republics had produced poor or evil leaders too, but they left the responsibility for the selection to the people, and limited the President to terms of four years.  Until the week that he abdicated, William believed that his hold on power was secure by virtue of his birth.  Trump, of course, has no such assurance, and that could make him more dangerous.  Meanwhile, whatever happens, he will live as one of the foremost examples of the pitfalls and perils of democratic government has it has evolved into the 21st century.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

No Way Out?

I do not think that many informed people would disagree that the United States and the whole world are in a deep crisis.  At home we have a President who was probably elected with the help of a foreign power to whom he may have financial obligations, and who seems unable to run his administration competently and to secure and keep competent subordinates.  Our engaged population is divided into two roughly equal factions that agree on almost nothing.  Headlines, meanwhile, proclaim, correctly, the death of the post-1945 international order, and authoritarianism is on the rise in both Asia and Europe (although it has made fewer gains, so far, in the Americas. )  It is extremely difficult, in such times, to keep a clear head and a long-term perspective on events, but that is what I am trying to do. 

It was more than 20 years ago, now, that I first discovered Generations and The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, and realized that they had indeed unlocked a key to history.  I knew enough history to evaluate what they had to say in a great many contexts, and it made an astonishing amount of sense.  That is why I have incorporated their insights into several books and why I did what I could in the classroom to spread them further.  My new intellectual interest raised a lot of eyebrows among some friends and colleagues, but I took that in stride.

Bizarrely, many of those eyebrows have not lowered, and those books have not, become more popular in mainstream media or academic circles in the last decade, even as their major prediction--that the United States, if not the world, was going to enter a crisis comparable to 1774-1794, 1860-68, and 1929-45, sometime in the first 15 years of the 21st century, has come true.  That is partly because of the death of Bill Strauss in 2007, and Neil Howe's decision to spend most of his time on the managerial and marketing implications of their theory, but it is also, I am convinced, because that kind of long-term perspective gets crowded out during a crisis in which all sides are equally convinced of their own righteousness and equally incapable of putting their own views in broader perspective.  We are now living, once again, in the world Orwell described in his essay "Notes on Nationalism," which was written in the mist of the last crisis, during which he managed to keep his head while all around were losing theirs.  I shall return to him later.

Strauss and Howe grasped that history was dominated by a cycle of birth, maturity, death and rebirth--a cycle that affected both institutions and ideas.  Every 80 years, a great crisis created a new order, and the generations that were young adults and children during that crisis remained committed to it, essentially, for the rest of their lives.  But about 60 years later, when the postwar generation came into power, the old order began to crack, as different factions within the new generation struggled to replace it.  Eventually, one faction triumphed, establishing new institutions and a new consensus, and the cycle began again.

The crisis of 1774-1794 (latter date approximate) overthrew British rule, drove perhaps 200,000 Tories out of the new nation (although quite a few eventually returned), and established the Constitution.  A battle between the Federalists and Republicans immediately arose in the 1790s, but Jefferson managed quite successfully to bring it to a close beginning in 1801, when he declared, "We are all Federalists, we are all Republicans."  His party established a national consensus (climaxed in the near-unanimous election of 1820) around certain principles.  But beginning in 1820, the issue of slavery began to destroy that consensus, and eventually divided the nation even more sharply than it is today.

The Civil War, Lincoln explained at Gettysburg and on many other occasions as well, was being fought to determine whether democracy could preserve itself.  Even abolition, as carried out in the Emancipation Proclamation, was a means to that end, not an end to itself--the confiscation of rebel property, designed to make it easier to break the rebellion. The Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict in the history of the United States--in absolute, not relative terms.  It ended with the Union preserved and slavery abolished.  But the nature of the new order that it created took a little longer to establish.  As it turned out, it gave unprecedented economic and political power to an industrial and financial elite, bred a corrupt form of democracy, and re-established white supremacy in the former Confederacy.   By the 1880s, the vast bulk of the nation (there are always a few exceptions) accepted this new order and it faced no major political challenges.

The Progressive Era--coinciding, once again, with the rise of a new, postwar generation--challenged the foundations of that order in the economic sphere, and also witnessed the first direct challenge to white supremacy and segregation.  Yet the old order was still quite intact during the 1920s--until the economic crisis destroyed it.  Then, the Missionary generation (b. 1863-83, in my judgement) seized the opportunity to create new orders both at home and abroad.  The New Deal put very real limits on wealth and its power, gave new rights to labor, and gave the federal government a critical role in planning the nation's future and maintaining its economic health.  In response to the rise of aggressive totalitarian states, FDR made the US a military and naval power second to none, forged alliances, defeated Germany and Japan, and bequeathed the United Nations to the world.  As always, domestic political conflict remained heated for much of a decade after the end of the crisis in 1945, but by the late 1950s, there was, once again, a bipartisan consensus on the shape of the nation at home and its role abroad.   That consensus, and the relatively effective government that went with it, allowed most of the American people to live their lives in peace, in a thriving economy, and to make progress in intellectual pursuits.  It was during that period that I discovered Orwell--particularly his essays.  Some of them had had far fewer readers than these blog posts when they were written in the 1930s and 1940s, but in the calmer atmosphere of the postwar era, they developed a wide following, while 1984 became one of the century's best sellers.  A new round of intellectual and artistic ferment began in the late 1960s, and I was very fortunate to share in it.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for President opposing Social Security,  Medicare, the Tennessee Valley Authority, progressive taxation, the rights of labor, the United Nations, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964--all the major achievements, in short, of his own era.  In the spring of 1963, I discovered recently, he told the Harvard Young Republicans that his generation had gotten the nation into trouble, and that he was counting on their generation to get it out of trouble.  He was prophetic--although it was Ronald Reagan, from his own generation, who began the attack on the New Deal in the 1980s.  Since then, we have seen the steady erosion of the limits on economic activity and profit imposed by the New Deal and in subsequent decades (ending, I would say, in 1970 with the Clean Air and Clean Water acts),   While, as always happens, the Democrats from the Boom generation (such as the Clintons) seemed to assume that the status quo, being just, would continue forever, the Republicans waged a long, coordinated campaign to build a new America.  It featured a coalition of energy barons (the Koch brothers and their friends), Evangelical Christians, and disaffected white Americans.  It stopped Barack Obama from reviving economic liberalism, and it has now taken over most state governments and all three branches of the federal government.  That is serious enough, but that is not where I want to end today.  Instead I would like to turn to the question of our new national consensus.

While some of our previous crises have turned out better than others, it is fair to say that every new national consensus so far as represented some kind of advance.  The revolutionary and constitutional period introduced a new form of government to the entire world, with consequences that endure to this day.  The Civil War abolished slavery.  The 1929-45 period left us with a more just society (and laid the foundation, in many ways, for the success of the Civil Rights movement) and created a relatively stable world order.  The same cannot be said for the impact of many previous crises in other lands--such as Europe after 1815, or the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution.  Now, too, it seems to me likely--though not certain--that in 20 years, authoritarian governments will once again be the norm in a good deal of the world.  But in any case, I am convinced by history,  this kind of resolution, leading to a couple of decades of stability ruled by some new broad consensus, is a necessary part of the rhythm of history, one that societies need.  And since I believe (and have argued here many times) that our current crisis began in 2001, it is due to end pretty soon, somehow or other.

What frightens me is this: the end and resolution of every previous crisis has involved the application of a great deal of force and violence.  The first two, the revolution and civil war, were violent by their nature.  The 1929-45 crisis was relatively peaceful at home but involved the greatest war in human history abroad.  The extraordinary demonstration of military might by the US, the USSR and the UK established those three powers, and particular the first two, as the leaders of the new era for decades to come. 

The two questions that trouble me are these: first, do we in fact need some new consensus that will put an end to the chaos of our current political scene, to allow government and society to function? And secondly--particularly since we lack a Lincoln or Roosevelt in the White House, and our political system in general commands to little respect--how can it be brought about?  Must it involve some forcible exercise of governmental authority, at home, abroad, or both--as it has in the past?  Or is it possible, as Bill Strauss used to speculate 15 years or so ago, that the United States is genuinely threatened, as in the 1850s, with a breakup?  I do not know the answers to any of these questions, but I am convinced that, in one way or another, the nation will have to find answers in the next ten years.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Nixon and Trump

Q.  How much, really, does Donald Trump resemble Richard Nixon?
A.  A lot.

Q.  What has changed in the last 45 years?
A.   The world around them.

In October 1971--long before Watergate, but subsequent to the Pentagon Papers release and the formation of the Plumbers unit--Richard Nixon saw something on the evening news that he did not like.  An INS California regional director named George Rosenberg had ordered a raid on a company owned by Romana Banuelos, whom Nixon had nominated to be Treasurer of the United States, and arrested dozens of illiegal immigrants.  Nixon called Attorney General John Mitchell the next day with specific instructions.

 "The fellow out there in the Immigration a kike by the name of Rosenberg. He is to be out. He is to be out. Transfer him to some other place out of Los Angeles. I don't give a goddamn what the story is.

There's one thing that I want done and I don't want any argument about it. I want you to direct the most trusted person you have in the Immigration Service that they are to look over all of the activities of the Los Angeles Times — all, underlined. And they are to send their teams in to see whether they are violating the wetback thing.

"Now let me explain, 'cause as a Californian, I know. Everybody in California hires them. There's no law against it, because they are there, because — for menial things and so forth. Otis Chandler — I want him checked with regard to his gardener. I understand he's a wetback. Is that clear?"

Nixon had come to Washington in 1947 (the same year that I did, via a different route), when the Republican Party had been railing for 15 years against the bureaucracies created by FDR's New Deal, and had joined the hue and cry about socialists and Communists within the government.  His view of the bureaucracy was the same as Trump's and Fox News's view of the "Deep State": that it teemed with hostile forces determined to do him in.  He centralized power over foreign policy under Henry Kissinger in the White House, and after his re-election, he planned a significant purge of the bureaucracy--a plan that had to be abandoned because of Watergate.    In this instance, he combined his prejudice against bureaucrats with his prejudice against Jews.  (The whole exchange can be heard in the HBO documentary, Nixon in His Own Words, which reproduced many choice excerpts from the Nixon tapes.)  The media was an even more common target of such outbursts, both in writing and in print, and was every bit as convinced as Trump that the New York Times and the Washington Post were purveyors of "fake news" and deserved retaliation for it.  In retrospect it is not surprising that the Pentagon Papers set him off the way they did, since it involved those two newspapers and a Harvard-educated intellectual bureaucrat of Jewish ancestry named Daniel Ellsberg,.

Nixon was worried that Ellsberg and unknown co-conspirators might release more secrets about his own Administration that might torpedo his Vietnam policy, and that is why the Pentagon Papers led to the formation of the Plumbers Unit (to do things the FBI would not do) and eventually to Watergate.  But the case of George Rosenberg was more typical of what happened after Nixon's outbursts.  Nothing happened to him, as far as is known, because Nixon's subordinates knew better than to take that particular order seriously.  Nor did the public learn anything about Nixon's vendetta towards Rosenberg for many decades.

Like Trump, Nixon was a narcissist who could not accept any opposition to himself personally or to his his policies.  He too felt the need to vent his hatred on almost a daily basis.  But Nixon had grown up in an era in which bright young men understood that they had to make a good impression on their elders, and keep their nastiest feelings to themselves.  In public he almost always maintained an iron self-control, and his aides collaborated in keeping his inner self away from the public.  That is why the American people were so shocked by the language in the tapes that were released in 1973-4, even though they had to wait much longer to hear the most revealing ones.

Trump, on the other hand, grew up while his contemporaries were joyfully tearing down traditional emotional restraints, as well as restrictions on language, clothing styles, and what could be seen and heard in movies and on television.  He built his persona on unrestrained excess, and when he entered politics, he built his appeal around unrestrained hatred, free of any code words.  And Trump, unlike Nixon, communicates directly with the public.  So it was that, at about 1:00 AM last night, Trump broadcast the following tweet, which represents a new low in Presidential conduct.

Andrew McCabe FIRED, a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI - A great day for Democracy. Sanctimonious James Comey was his boss and made McCabe look like a choirboy. He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!"

McCabe, a 21-year veteran of the FBI, had risen to the position of deputy director of the Bureau under James Comey, and had played key roles in investigations, or projected investigations, into Hillary Clinton's emails, the Clinton foundation, and the Trump campaign's connection to Russia. What seems to have turned him into a prime target of Trump and his administration is that his wife Jill had run for Virginia State Senator (before 2016) as a Democrat and had received six-figure contributions from long-time Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe. (President Trump, with customary fidelity to the facts, claimed in a tweet last July, "Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!" After pressure from the White House, McCabe agreed to retire from the bureau early this year and took a leave of absence. That was not good enough for Trump and Jeff Sessions, and an internal FBI investigation has found him guilty of a lack of candor regarding an investigation of a Wall Street Journal article in October 2016 about the FBI and the Clinton probes. The specific accusations remain secret, and there is no hope that the current Congress will look into this episode. McCabe's firing, which could possibly cost him his pension, is a new building block in the false narrative that Trump needs to fire Robert Mueller and end the investigation of his links with Russia.
Nixon came into office when the prestige of the US government was still
very great, both at home and abroad, and when Presidents were still in some sense answerable to both their own party and to the media and the public at large. That kept him in check, in many ways, for much of his presidency, and eventually brought him down after he had stepped outside the bounds of normal behavior. There are no similar cultural of political checks on Trump, who is now the unchallenged leader of the Republican Party, who is terrorizing his leading subordinates into obedience, and who speaks with the American people directly through Twitter and in other ways. I am pretty certain that we have never--literally never--had a President who publicly talks about political opponents and bureaucrats the way he does, because every previous President recognized that he and his office stood for something bigger and had a dignity that he had to try to preserve. Trump comes from my generation which believed that it was not bound by any previous standards. Little did we know half a century ago, when Mark Rudd was orchestrating the collapse of Columbia University, that another Mark Rudd would some day occupy the White House.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

The last 13 plus years

Last week I marked the 1,000,000th visit to, and it occurred to me that I might repost an early effort today to provide some perspective on what had happened since then.  Instead, I have decided to do a quick survey of the most important changes in American and world culture sine the late fall of 2004, when I debuted.  It was a very long time ago and that galaxy already seems pretty far away.

At home, George W. Bush was just about to win a very narrow re-election victory, thanks to carrying the key states of Florida (comfortably) and Ohio (pretty closely.)  That victory owed something to the issue of gay marriage, which Karl Rove had decided to turn into a wedge issue for the campaign by getting it onto the ballot in numerous states.  The Republicans also controlled the House and the Senate--the latter quite narrowly--and President Bush was looking forward to a productive second term.  However, he unwisely made the privatization of Social Security his main legislative proposal, and it was so unpopular that it never even came up for a vote.  Then came the federal government's failure at the time of Hurricane Katrina.  The economy had been growing for a couple of years, although less robustly than it has recently, and the housing bubble was really getting going.  It would not burst for another three years.  The Bush Administration had started us down the road to energy independence through fracking, which would later have dramatic consequences. I will return to developments here in the US later.

Meanwhile, in 2004, the Iraq War was going very badly, an not for another two years did the US manage to stabilize the situation somewhat.  That apparent victory, of course, turned out to be temporary, and although ISIS no longer rules an part of Iraq, the relationship of the Sunni eras to the Iran-backed government remains very unclear today.  Afghanistan was pretty much off the radar in 2004, but Pakistan, apparently, was about to mount an offensive there, with results that continue to this day.  Meanwhile, the turmoil in the Middle East which we unleashed in Iraq has spread, first to Lebanon, then to Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen, and Syria.  The clash between Shi'ites and Sunnis which we unleashed in Iraq now occupies the whole region, and the US government is now pretty much lined up on the side of the Shi'ites.   In Palestine, the new elections which President Bush had called for were two years away. When they took place in 2006, Hamas won the Parliamentary elections.  Since 2004 Israeli politics have swung way to the right, and the government of the United States is now, for the first time, completely behind the Israeli government position on peace talks, making any real settlement impossible.

There has been a great swing towards authoritarianism around the world.  Russia was already on that path in teh early 2000s under Vladimir Putin and has remained upon it.  Meanwhile, the Russians in 2008 resumed independent action in foreign affairs, invading North Georgia, and later annexed Crimea and started a border war with Ukraine which continues. Putin has emerged as an outspoken opponent of the "unipolar" US-led world, and his intelligence agencies are busily trying to subvert the politics of the United States and other western nations. The US and NATO have taken new steps to try to stabilize the Baltic states. Authoritarian governments now rule Hungary and Poland, and in general, the swing towards democracy in Eastern Europe that began in 1989 has turned out to be as ephemeral as the one after 1919.  At the same time, Turkey, which had been the most westernized state in the Islamic world since about 1920 and which in 2004 was dreaming of joining the EU, has become an authoritarian dictatorship based in part on the Muslim religion.  Pakistan, another long-time US ally, is also on its own more Islamic path.

In East Asia, China in 2004 looked like it might embark on some political liberalization to match its newfound economic freedom, but that trend has now definitely been reversed, as President Xi prepares to take over for life.  Both Japan and India have more nationalist governments although neither one is threatening any drastic action at this time.  North Korea's nuclear program, already a source of concern in 2004, has progressed much further and threatens to bring about war with the US.
Looking further around the world, an authoritarian regime continues to rule Venezuela, and a new one has taken over in the Philippines.  Several Central American nations face internal chaos, and Mexico has been completely unable to cope with its drugs cartels.  Most of South American, however, remains in pretty stable shape, relative to earlier decades.

Perhaps the most alarming developments, however, have occurred in Western Europe and the United States, where the political systems and coalitions that have ruled the most advanced areas of the world for fifty to sixty years and in varying degrees of trouble. David Cameron's decision to hold the Brexit referendum turned out to be disastrous, and Teresa May has not had the courage to challenge it.  Great Britain itself is barely holding together against the challenge of Scottish nationalism.  Established parties have fallen to all-time lows in the Parliaments of Germany and Italy, and Spain is threatened with a breakup of its own.  The European economy is finally beginning to move forward but it has a long way to go.  Immigration into Europe, stimulated by turmoil in the Middle East, has created huge problems for political establishments.  In the midst of the general trend, Emmanuel Macron scored an impressive victory in last year's French elections, winning a majority for his party and undertaking major reforms.  Although he naturally faces opposition he remains the most hopeful sign in western politics.

In the United States, the election of Barack Obama in 2008 seemed to signal a resurgent liberalism, but such did not turn out to be the case.  Thanks to a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, gay marriage did become legal throughout the land, but abortion rights remained under attack.  More seriously, although Obama presided over a good recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Depression, he did not fundamentally alter the system that had given us that crisis.  The Dodd-Frank law was rather tentative and now Republicans are undoing it.  The Affordable Care Act has been partially repealed.  Inequality continued to grow through the Obama years.  And Republicans used the economic crisis and resentment against Obama to mobilize around the country, regaining the control of first the House, then the Senate, and most of the nation's state governments.  Guided by the Koch brothers' political network, they have been turning energy producers lose, cutting back workers' rights, and generally undoing the role of government that began with the Progressive Era.

The election of Donald Trump, as I have said many times, could take place only in the context of the collapse of the US political system as we have known it. Neither major party could find a candidate who could beat an outsider who traded on television and tabloid celebrity and hateful rhetoric.  Although Trump now has some real achievements to his credit, the crisis is continuing because foreign influences upon him are the subject of an independent investigation, and because he does not know how to attract, and keep, a competent team around him in the White House, which looks more like an early modern French court than the seat of a modern government.  Critical parts of the federal government, including the once-proud State Department, are now hardly functioning at all.  The Trump Administration, meanwhile, is trying to impose tough immigration policies and increased deportations against states such as California that are determined to treat all immigrants like full citizens.  This is beginning to look like the most serious crisis in federalism since the civil war, and I have no idea how it will turn out.

As in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and again in the 1930s, the question is whether western democracy can surmount new challenges and prevail against a trend towards authoritarian rule.  I am increasingly afraid that a failure to agree on certain key issues may lead to more authoritarian solutions, even in some of the old western democracies.  Alternatively, it is not impossible that the oldest democracies, Britain and the US, might break up.  The trends since 2004 have not been hopeful.  Within another 13 years, I suspect, we will see a move towards more stability--but what it will look like, I do not know.

Friday, March 02, 2018

80 Years Ago

I use proquest historical newspapers frequently, and I have gotten into the  habit of looking at the New York Times front page of exactly 80 years ago.  The United States was then more than halfway through our last great crisis, the one that created the world in which we have spent our lives, and now we are in another one.  I don't think anyone could argue with that last statement now--our old order is clearly dead and a new one is struggling to emerge, just as Bill Strauss and Neil Howe suggested would happen about 25 years ago in Generations and again 21 years ago in The Fourth Turning. They are still known only to relatively few Americans despite having been proven right in their critical prediction, but it turned out to be true, all the same.

The nature of this crisis, however, is very different.  That last one, I believe, marked the climax of an heroic era in western and world history that began with the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and that revolved around the application of science and reason to human problems, largely through the medium of national states.  Now the power of states and governments has been declining and confidence in our institutions is at a very low ebb--and with good reason.  To those of us born in the late 1940s the speed an extent of the changes we have witnessed is quite astonishing, just as it was, probably, for many of those born in the late 1860s in 1938.  As usual, a comparison of the front page of March 2, 1938 with that of March 2, 2018 highlights some of the changes that have taken place.

The first difference, one I have noted before, concerns the scope of the front page itself.  It had eight columns in 1938; it has six now.  There were 12 different stories on the front page in 1938 and there are only six today.  No one had television, a computer or a smart phone in 1938, and keeping up with the newspaper was a much bigger job then than it is now.   But people did it. 

Column 1 in 1938 featured a story on the political crisis in Austria, where intimidation from Berlin had forced the government to include Nazis among its members, and a final struggle that very shortly led to the Anschluss of Germany and Austria had begun.  The next story along the top of the paper does have a modern ring. President Roosevelt had decided to publish, and syndicate, his public papers as President--the beginning of a tradition that endures to this day, although the Government Printing Office now takes care of it--and his press secretary announced that any profits would be devoted to some public purpose, supervised by the government, rather than go in FDR's pocket.   Two other stories on the left side of the page dealt with the death of the Italian poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, who had helped inspire Fascism, and an announcement that the famous newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst was going to sell or give away about two-thirds of his fabulous art collection, valued at $15 million (easily 10 times that now), to avoid forcing his heirs to pay inheritance taxes on it.   The first story out of Washington was that Congress, over the objections of President Roosevelt, had specified that part of a new Navy bill to fund experimental weapons be set aside for a new dirigible, which FDR did not want.  It has been many years since I read in the newspaper about a comparable argument about weaponry between the President and Congress.  A second page one story dealt at length with the testimony of financier and industrialist Bernard Baruch about the state of the economy and the Administration's new efforts to break up monopolies.  Baruch's stature in 1938, I would suggest, was comparable to that of Warren Buffett today, but Buffett is not called to Washington to have serious public discussions with Congressional committees about economic policy.  Indeed it is hard to think of any area of policy that is now seriously investigated and discussed by Congress.

A story at the bottom of page 1 discussed a proposal from two Latin American nations, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, for an Inter-American league of nations responsible for the settlement of disputes.  The State Department had no comment on it as yet.  Today the State Department is largely without leadership--most second-level posts are still unfilled--and there is less interest in new international institutions.

Moving to the last three columns, another story on Congress reported a minority, Republican demand in the House Ways and Means Committee for the repeal of several relatively new taxes on business as a means of fighting the current recession.  Then as now, Republican legislators loved to claim that business could solve all our economic problems if government lifted its restrictive hand, but their philosophy was doing much less well then, when Democrats had almost a 3-1 majority in the House, than now.  Three stories, indeed, in columns 6-8 dealt with taxes on three different levels, national, state and local.  The state legislature was increasing the gasoline tax and working on other measures to encourage home mortgages and regulate savings banks.  Last but not least, New York City taxes were going up slightly, setting a new record as a percentage of assessed valuation.  The strongest impression this front page leaves with me is of a nation, state and city working very hard at governing themselves, trying to tailor economic policy for the common good, not afraid to raise more money when necessary, and filled with detailed, open public discussions of all measures which the public was accustomed to reading about.  That brings me to today.

Column 1 today also leads with a foreign story: President Putin of Russia's boast about his new missiles.  That, certainly, was a kind of story that must have frequently appeared in 1938 with respect to Hitler and Germany, and we must hope that our battles with Putin will remain largely rhetorical, political, and digital.  Then, in columns 2-3, is a story about a non-issue in 1938: our President's call to arm teachers in schools to protect against random attacks.  The enormous growth in citizen armament in the last half century is an important characteristic of our own age and it has created conflicts that remain unresolved.  Then comes the story, so typical these days, headlined, "Chaos theory in the Oval Office is Taking Its Toll."  That story is in a sense a reaction to the lead news in columns 5-6: "Trump Proclaims Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum and Stocks Sag in Reply."  Once again we have a President who prides himself on being an economic innovator, but one who, unlike FDR, disdains expertise and relies completely on his own instincts.  Those stories illustrate a big difference in our political situation.  6 years into his presidency, FDR had definitely got the nation onto a new path, and although the economy was once again in a severe recession, he and the Congress were grappling with it together.  Now we have an erratic and inexperienced President who cannot keep his staff together or give an impression of carefully considered policy, taking steps in international trade exactly opposite to those of the New Deal era and every era since, until now.

The nation is in many ways better off than it was in 1938, when unemployment had reached double digits again and poverty was much more widespread.   Today's regional war in the Middle East is much smaller in scale than the Sino-Japanese war that was raging then, there is no European analog to the Spanish Civil War, and as far as we know, no great power is about to provoke a crisis comparable to the one that Hitler was about to unleash over Czechoslovakia.  But our country's institutions, both executive and legislative, were far more focused on doing their jobs than they are now.  In many ways, one could argue, we are still living off the institutional capital that the New Deal era and the postwar decades built up--and that the Republicans are tearing down now.  And last but hardly least, the  nomination and election of Donald Trump  demonstrated the bankruptcy of the two established parties, neither of which could come up with a candidate that could stop him.  We don't know what critical foreign or domestic problem our government may now be called upon to solve, but its capacity to find solutions to a major crisis seems pretty near to an historic low.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Over a million!

To all my readers over the last 14 years, thank you!  This week's post follows.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Post - and Justice Hugo Black

Regular readers know me as a severe critic of many "historical" films, such as Bridge of Spies, Selma, and The Birth of a Nation (by Nate Parker.)  I was worried about The Post, the story of Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Kay Graham (Meryl Streep), and their decision to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers after an injunction stopped the New York Times from doing so, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  I knew Hanks wouldn't have the proper GI generation gravitas to play Bradlee, but he did much better than I expected.  Streep had a difficult assignment too because Kay Graham simply did not project the strength of her personality (just search youtube if you want proof), but Streep didn't try to make her something that she was not.  Some complained that the design of the movie slighted the more critical role of the New York Times (and of Daniel Ellsberg himself), but I didn't.  What I really liked, however, was the ensemble cast, the production design, and the very sincere and successful attempt to recreate the atmosphere of 1971.  The portrayal of the middle aged men of that generation was accurate, and we saw how they got the job done.  Steven Spielberg has usually put a lot of thought and effort into historical films such as Schindler's List and Lncoln, and he did this time, too.

Having said all that, however, today I want to share with my readers what was, for me, the highlight of those tumultuous two weeks: the Supreme Court's decision to let publication go forward, and in particular, the opinion of Justice Hugo Black.  Elected to the Senate from Alabama in 1926, replacing another distinguished, progressive southerner, Oscar W. Underwood.  Although he was elected with the support of the KKK, Black rapidly emerged as a liberal on everything except race--a southern species that was quite common from the 1930s through the 1950s, until it was driven out of politics in the wake of the civil rights movement.  In 1937, in the midst of the court packing crisis, Franklin Roosevelt appointed Black to the Supreme Court, and he was confirmed. Subsequent to his confirmation, the story of his membership in the KKK leaked, causing a sensation.  Walter White, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, declined to join the hue and cry over the news, telling all who would listen that Black was a real liberal who belonged on the court.  His judgment was vindicated over the next 34 years.

Black was a liberal on a variety of legal issues, and he joined the unanimous majority in Brown V. Board of Education in 1954 and remained a strong supporter of civil rights thereafter. But his most moving opinions related to civil liberties, and especially to the First Amendment.  During the Second World War, when the Congress added an amendment to an appropriations bill forbidding the payment of salaries to three left-wing New Dealers, Black wrote an opinion invalidating the decision.  The Founders, he said, knew the dangers of legislative punishments from their study of English history, and had therefore outlawed Bills of Attainder--of which this was one.  In the midst of the bitterest period of the Cold War and McCarthyism, Black also argued unsuccessfully that the Smith Act, which was used to convict the leaders of the Communist Party of the US of "conspiracy to advocate" overthrow of the government, was unconstitutional on its face.  Later in the decade the court came much closer to his view.  In the late 1960s Black did an hour long interview with Eric Sevareid of CBS, one which I regret to find is not available on youtube. Sevareid started the interview by asking Black if recent Supreme Court decisions had made it more difficult to convict criminals.  "Of course they've made it harder to convict criminals!" he replied. "But look in the Constitution!" he added, pulling his pocket copy out.  "A defendant must be provided counsel! You need a warrant for a search!" And so on.  Black, in short, believed that the words of the Constitution, and particularly of the Bill of Rights, meant exactly what they said.

Black was 85 years old and his abilities were failing when the Pentagon Papers case reached the Supreme Court in the summer of 1971.  He wrote a separate, concurring opinion providing for publication.  It was by far the most moving of the opinions, as readers will see in a moment, and it remains one of my three or four favorite opinions from the whole history of the court.  It was also his last opinion.   Recognizing that his health was failing, he retired--one of two departures whose seats were filled by Lewis Powell and William Rehnquist.  A few months later, he died.

Many years ago, a friend of mine named Tom Kerr, the head of the ACLU chapter in Pittsburgh and a fellow Carnegie Mellon faculty member, told me the story of Black's funeral, which he attended. Black knew, of course, that President Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell, who had tried to stop the publication, would attend the ceremony.  He left instructions that his last opinion be read in full to conclude the service.   It was a fitting summary of his most important views and really of his life on the court, and he movingly concluded it with a bow to Charles Evans Hughes, the first Chief Justice under whom he had served.  It put the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a turning point in our history, in the whole context of our history, and it did so in absolutely unforgettable language. This is a big week for History Unfolding.  Sometime in the next few days--probably Sunday or Monday--this web page will receive its one millionth visit since I started writing this posts in the fall of 2004.  This is a fitting text to mark that occasion.  Here it is.

I adhere to the view that the Government's case against the Washington Post should have been dismissed, and that the injunction against the New York Times should have been vacated without oral argument when the cases were first presented to this Court. I believe
that every moment's continuance of the injunctions against these newspapers amounts to a flagrant, indefensible, and continuing violation of the First Amendment. Furthermore, after oral argument, I agree completely that we must affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit for the reasons stated by my Brothers DOUGLAS and BRENNAN. In my view, it is unfortunate that some of my Brethren are apparently willing to hold that the publication of news may sometimes be enjoined. Such a holding would make a shambles of the First Amendment.

Our Government was launched in 1789 with the adoption of the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, followed in 1791. Now, for the first time in the 182 years since the founding of the Republic, the federal courts are asked to hold that the First Amendment does not mean what it says, but rather means that the Government can halt the publication of current news of vital importance to the people of this country.

In seeking injunctions against these newspapers, and in its presentation to the Court, the Executive Branch seems to have forgotten the essential purpose and history of the First Amendment. When the Constitution was adopted, many people strongly opposed it because the document contained no Bill of Rights to safeguard certain basic freedoms. [Footnote 1] They especially feared that the new powers granted to a central government might be interpreted to permit the government to curtail freedom of religion, press, assembly, and speech. In response to an overwhelming public clamor, James Madison offered a series of amendments to satisfy citizens that these great liberties would remain safe and beyond the power of government to abridge. Madison proposed what later became the First Amendment in three parts, two of which are set out below, and one of which proclaimed:
"The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments, and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable. [Footnote 2]"
(Emphasis added.) The amendments were offered to curtail and restrict the general powers granted to the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Branches two years before in the original Constitution. The Bill of Rights changed the original Constitution into a new charter under which no branch of government could abridge the people's freedoms of press, speech, religion, and assembly. Yet the Solicitor General argues and some members of the Court appear to agree that the general powers of the Government adopted in the original Constitution should be interpreted to limit and restrict the specific and emphatic guarantees of the Bill of Rights adopted later. I can imagine no greater perversion of history. Madison and the other Framers of the First Amendment, able men that they were, wrote in language they earnestly believed could never be misunderstood: "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom . . . of the press. . . ." Both the history and language of the First Amendment support the view that the press must be left free to publish news, whatever the source, without censorship, injunctions, or prior restraints.

In the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government's power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government. The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people. Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell. In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw so clearly. In revealing the workings of government that led to the Vietnam war, the newspapers nobly did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would do.[Emphasis added, DK.]

The Government's case here is based on premises entirely different from those that guided the Framers of the First Amendment. The Solicitor General has carefully and emphatically stated:
"Now, Mr. Justice [BLACK], your construction of . . . [the First Amendment] is well known, and I certainly respect it. You say that no law means no law, and that should be obvious. I can only say, Mr. Justice, that to me it is equally obvious that 'no law' does not mean 'no law,' and I would seek to persuade the Court that that is true. . . . [T]here are other parts of the Constitution that grant powers and responsibilities to the Executive, and . . . the First Amendment was not intended to make it impossible for the Executive to function or to protect the security of the United States. [Footnote 3]"

And the Government argues in its brief that, in spite of the First Amendment,
"[t]he authority of the Executive Department to protect the nation against publication of information whose disclosure would endanger the national security stems from two interrelated sources: the constitutional power of the President over the conduct of foreign affairs and his authority as Commander-in-Chief. [Footnote 4]"

In other words, we are asked to hold that, despite the First Amendment's emphatic command, the Executive Branch, the Congress, and the Judiciary can make laws enjoining publication of current news and abridging freedom of the press in the name of "national security." The Government does not even attempt to rely on any act of Congress. Instead, it makes the bold and dangerously far-reaching contention that the courts should take it upon themselves to "make" a law abridging freedom of the press in the name of equity, presidential power and national security, even when the representatives of the people in Congress have adhered to the command of the First Amendment and refused to make such a law. [Footnote 5See concurring opinion of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS,
post at 403 U. S. 721-722. 

To find that the President has "inherent power" to halt the publication of news by resort to the courts would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make "secure." No one can read the history of the adoption of the First Amendment without being convinced beyond any doubt that it was injunctions like those sought here that Madison and his collaborators intended to outlaw in this Nation for all time. [emphasis added.]

The word "security" is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic. The Framers of the First Amendment, fully aware of both the need to defend a new nation and the abuses of the English and Colonial governments, sought to give this new society strength and security by providing that freedom of speech, press, religion, and assembly should not be abridged. This thought was eloquently expressed in 1937 by Mr. Chief Justice Hughes -- great man and great Chief Justice that he was -- when the Court held a man could not be punished for attending a meeting run by Communists.

"The greater the importance of safeguarding the community from incitements to the overthrow of our institutions by force and violence, the more imperative is the need to preserve inviolate the constitutional rights of free speech, free press and free
assembly in order to maintain the opportunity for free political discussion, to the end that government may be responsive to the will of the people and that changes, if desired, may be obtained by peaceful means. Therein lies the security of the Republic, the very foundation of constitutional government. [Footnote 6]"

I will never forget the excitement with which I read those words in a St. Louis newspaper, in the midst of my four months' active military service at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.  Years later, my friend Tom Kerr heard them read from the pulpit of the National Cathedral, and watched Nixon, Mitchell, and other leading members of the Administration walk out down the middle aisle. They were, he said, purple with rage.  Justice Black's words live on.