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.