Friday, November 01, 2019

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History.  Long-time readers who want to find out how the author of this blog became the historian he is will find information about the book in a new blog, ALifeinHistory.com.  An interesting radio interview with a Denver talk show host about the book can be streamed or downloaded here.

The book can be ordered here.
I look forward to seeing your reactions. For the time being I am pinning this post. Thanks in any case to all of you for your faithful support.

Check below for more recent posts.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Paradoxes of American life

A month ago, on April 27, I reviewed Liah Greenfeld's book, Mind, Modernity, Madness.  More reflection has developed some of the thoughts that it inspired me about where the United States is today, and where our discontents come from.  This relates in particular to the growth of tribalism based upon race and gender, and how it is changing how millions of Americans see the world.  It's time for me to share some of these thoughts.

The Constitution and our state and national laws were only one part of the intellectual foundation of the United States in roughly its first two centuries of history. Another key aspect was the belief that any man in America could make almost anything he wanted out of his life, limited only by his own capabilities.  I used the word "man" advisedly in that sentence.  Most women customarily spent their lives as wives and mothers, although some careers, including teaching, were always open to them, as the story of one of my great-grandmother's lives showed.  Most of the population was agricultural and formal education did not correlate nearly as strongly with success in life as it does today.  While it is true that our first ten presidents owned plantations or had made careers as professional men, plenty of early politicians came from genuinely modest backgrounds, and Americans like Eli Whitney and Cyrus McCormack, whose inventions transformed the nation, became legends early in our history.  In the second half of the century our industrial barons included Andrew Carnegie, a poor Scottish immigrant, and John D. Rockefeller, whose father was a con man, as well as J. P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who came from distinguished and wealthy families.  Presidents like Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland also had modest origins, and Lincoln and Cleveland numbered among the many lawyers who had never attended a law school.  While most men and their families undoubtedly ended their lives more or less where they had begun them on the social scale, enough did not to fire the imagination of any ambitious young man.  That helped hold society together.  Immigrants also came to the United States believing that they could find a completely new life, as many did.  Black slaves, of course, did not enjoy much opportunity under slavery and did not achieve full legal equality after emancipation, but by the twentieth century the black community had formed its own professional class of doctors, lawyers, teachers and undertakers, and were distinguishing themselves in various walks of life.  The idea that any man could become anything could, of course, also be a terrible burden, leading to more than a few suicides when dreams did not work out.  Yet it evidently had enough truth in it to sustain a rapidly growing society.

In the first half of the twentieth century Americans in much of the nation--especially in the midwest and the far west--enjoyed another extraordinary benefit: access to nearly free higher education at great state universities.  That was how my own father, the son of immigrants who had prospered for a while in America as builders but lost everything in the housing bust that preceded the great depression, managed to attend the University of Wisconsin.  That situation reached a climax in the wake of the Second World War, thanks to the GI bill that financed veterans' education.  As late as the early 1960s, the great University of California system charged no tuition.  And in the New Deal era, Franklin Roosevelt and his political allies around the country added a key corollary to the idea of the American dream: the provision of minimum subsistence levels and important economic rights for the Americans who did not manage to rise out of the working class.  The federal government became an employer of last resort, social security made some provision for the elderly, the government recognized and protected the rights of labor, and even tried to build housing for the less well off.  Thus was born the relatively equal America of the 1950s and 1960s within which the Boom generation grew up.

Changes during the last Awakening (1965-83) and subsequent economic changes have created a completely new America--and a new set of attitudes among various different sectors of our society.

The first big change, of course--which was wrought by the GI generation and its political leadership, and by Supreme Court justices from the Lost Generation--was the end of legal segregation and the grant of full political rights to black citizens.  That both opened up every available opportunity, including Harvard Law School and the White House, to at least a few black Americans, and tended to destroy the segregated institutions that had already provided some upward mobility.  Black Americans, however, were not starting from the same point as their white fellow citizens.  Many decades of slavery, segregation, and few or no public services in the deep South had left them much poorer and less educated, as a group, than whites.  A new generation of black activists blamed all this on racism and demanded immediate redress.  By 1970, Republican politicians were complaining that the goal of equal opportunity had given way to the goal of instant equality.  Affirmative action became a mainstream Democratic provision, even though, as  referendums in California and Michigan on university admissions showed, it was not popular among the majority of the public.

The second change--a bigger one, because it involved so many more people--was the change in the attitudes of, and toward, women.  No longer, in much of our society, were they encouraged to plan their lives around marriage, or to depend on a man for support.  The explosion of the divorce rate made that strategy untenable anyway.  Women, like men, would increasingly be defined by their occupation and their success in it.  Certainly they have risen to the challenge, but that means that nearly all of us, now, are competing for the same range of occupations and salaries, with the same often frightening responsibility to define themselves and their relation to the rest of society largely on their own.

Two other unrelated changes have turned our society into an even more unforgiving jungle.  First, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed. Adjusted for inflation, Harvard College now costs three times as much as id did in the mid-1960s, and the increase at the top state schools is even greater than that.  Thus, young people routinely graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt, making it extremely difficult to buy a house or start a family.  Secondly, the pool of good jobs for non-college graduates has drastically shrunk with the de-industrialization of the US.  It is both more important, and much more difficult, to get into the upper ranks of our society, whether one is a man or woman, white, black, or Hispanic, native born or an immigrant.  That might explain why Survivor is now, I believe, the longest-running series on television: it provides a good metaphor for what real life has become.

Now the distribution of income, wealth, and good jobs does show that white males make up a vastly disproportionate share of the top reaches of our society.  That, I think--and here I know that I am risking offending some of my readers, but I can't remain silent about this--encourages people who are not white males and who are dissatisfied with their progress through life--or with their work environment, or with anything else that goes wrong for them--to blame their misfortune on their demographics.  That tendency is especially common among the academics and journalists who claim to speak for nonwhitemale sectors of the population. And indeed, it seems to me, liberal orthodoxy has just about abandoned the idea of fair competition within society, designed to identify and reward the most capable individuals.  It assumes that oppression has rewarded certain demographics (white males in particular) in the past and this must be corrected by redistributing the rewards now.  I know that the economic chances of 1000 randomly sampled women or nonwhites are probably less than those of 1000 randomly sampled white men, but I also know that there are tens of millions of white people, men and women, anchored firmly in the lower half of the population who are also facing tremendous obstacles to upward mobility.  And the tragedy of our current era is that while the nonwhite portion of that lower half votes almost entirely Democratic, the white part of it votes Republican, with women probably voting slightly more Democratic among them than men.  That split stands in the way of a real egalitarian movement in this country that could reverse the growth of inequality and corporate power.  And that in turn leaves more and more hardworking Americans struggling, locked out, and angry.

Last, but hardly least, our common institutions--our governments--are not giving us the sense of common purpose and identity that they did in decades past.  When it was fighting the Depression, winning the Second World War, building the interstate highway system,outlawing legal segregation, or going to the moon, the federal government was making all its citizens part of great common enterprises, paid for with tax dollars collected according to a very progressive code.  Only a relatively small number of Americans even remembers that kind of feeling now.

The combination of equal political rights on the one hand and a free economy on the other upon which the United States was founded has put great strain on every individual to succeed.  The pressure is worse now that we provide less of a floor or a ceiling on income.  The resulting divisions among us are playing out in the race for the 2020 Democratic nomination, with some candidates and pundits arguing that the party must regain ground among the white working class while others treat that suggestion almost with contempt.  I think we need a way out of this mess to assure the future of the country.  And no single group can find that way out on its own.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Impeachment: An historical perspective



Should the Democrats in the House of Representative decide to impeach President Trump, this will be the fourth time in our history that Article II, section 4 of the Constitution has come into play.  A review of the three earlier cases reveals two different patterns in these four actual or prospective episodes, and casts doubt on the wisdom of impeachment from the Democrats’ point of view.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded the assassinated Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, is one of the most striking illustrations of the pitfalls of the institution of the vice president.  A Democrat from East Tennessee who had rejected secession and stayed in his seat in the Senate after 1861, he won the Republican vice presidential nomination in 1864 to give the wartime ticket the broadest possible appeal.  He turned out, however, to be a fairly typical hill country white southerner, who hated both big planters and freed slaves, and he refused to cooperate with the Radical Republicans in the Congress with respect to Reconstruction, favoring the quick readmission of the southern states on terms that would leave the whites in power.  After the Republicans won veto-proof majorities in the Congressional elections of 1866, they passed a series of tough reconstruction measures over his veto, and union generals effectively governed much of the South under the sympathetic eye of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, whom Johnson had inherited from Lincoln. Then, to prevent Johnson from removing Stanton, they passed a new Tenure of Office Act, giving the Congress an unconstitutional power to prevent the President from removing cabinet officers without its consent. Johnson expressly defied them by trying to replace Stanton early in 1868.  Even though Johnson would surely fail to re-elected (as it turned out, he was not even nominated by the Democrats) later that year, the Republicans decided to impeach him.   Given the partisan nature of the whole controversy and the act that Johnson had been accused of violating—which was quickly revised as soon as his Republican successor took office—it was not surprising that a handful of Republican Senators refused to vote for conviction, and a 35-19 vote left Johnson in power for ten more months by a single vote.

Richard Nixon, on the other hand, was riding high in early 1973, when a series of revelations showed that his re-election committee’s involvement in the Watergate break-in the year before had been covered up by a conspiracy including top White House aides.  Nixon had to appoint Archibald Cox as special prosecutor, but had him fired when Cox subpoenaed tape recordings which, as it turned out, proved that Nixon himself had participated in the cover-up as well.  An impeachment investigation began in February 1974, and on July 27-30, the House Judiciary Committee, with six Republicans joining 21 Democrats, impeached Nixon for obstruction of  justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress.  The full House would have undoubtedly followed suit, but before it could vote, Nixon lost his attempt to keep other tapes secret in the Supreme Court, and a new tape transcript confirmed his guilt.  With all support in the Senate collapsing, he resigned.  His responsibility for paying off witnesses to remain silent and using the CIA to try to stop the FBI investigation of Watergate had been clearly established.

By 1998, when he had been President for six years, Bill Clinton had been dealing with Ken Starr’s Whitewater investigation for some years.  Starr never brought any charges against the President over Whitewater, but he had extended his mandate into issues arising from a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton by Paula Jones, including the President’s brief sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Although the two had never had intercourse, Clinton gave misleading statement s about their relationship both to a grand jury and to the public. During 1998 Starr released his detailed and explicit report showing that the President had lied about their relationship, and House Speaker Newt Gingrich began pushing for, and campaigning in the fall for, impeachment.  The Republicans lost a few seats in the fall elections and Gingrich resigned as speaker, but when Congress convened after the election, a lame duck session impeached Clinton for perjury and obstruction of justice (the latter charge based in part on his attempts to persuade Lewinsky to help conceal their relationship.)  Only a handful of House Democrats voted for impeachment, and a matching handful of Republicans opposed it.  The newly elected Senate, which had a 55-45 Republican majority, tried Clinton on these counts in January and February, and the Senate rejected the perjury charge by a vote of 55-45 against conviction, and the obstruction charge by a tie vote of 50-50 (67 votes would have been required for conviction.)  A partisan House majority (including Lindsay Graham) had insisted on an impeachment on charges having nothing to do with the President’s conduct of his office that had no chance of leading to conviction.

How would the impeachment of Donald Trump fit into this historical picture?

A fair reading of the Mueller report, in my opinion, suggests that President Trump committed acts designed to obstruct justice, including the firing of James Comey, the request to White House Counsel Don McGann to remove Mueller, the public intimidation of witnesses, and the dangling of possible pardons before defendants like Steven Cohen and Paul Manafort. What differentiates his case from Nixon’s, however, is that none of these steps seems to have been successful, and that Mueller failed to find an underlying crime that Trump was trying to conceal.  Comey’s firing led to Mueller’s appointment and a thorough investigation, McGann refused to remove Mueller, and Cohen and Manafort turned state’s evidence (although Manafort apparently continued lying on many points) and are now in prison.  Trump subordinates including Attorney General Barr and Secretary Treasury Mnuchin are now putting themselves in contempt of Congress—one of the charges against Nixon—but they, not the President, would presumably be the targets of impeachment on those grounds.  One may feel, as I do, that Trump’s election represented a collapse of American democracy and that he shows on a daily basis that he is unfit for office, but also feel that no offense has been demonstrated that rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  That would certainly support the charge that an impeachment would be mainly a partisan measure.

Of the three previously impeached (or nearly impeached) presidents, Nixon alone had indisputably committed serious offenses against the law and the Constitution.  He alone earned significant bipartisan support for his impeachment and conviction, and he alone would have been convicted in a Senate vote. Trump, like Johnson and Clinton, would surely avoid conviction because no member of his own party would vote for it.  Impeachment and trial would become yet another partisan spectacle of the kind that much of the country is already heartily sick of.  The remedy for the Trump Presidency lies at the polls.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Citizenship, the census, and the future of the US


The controversy over the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 census, which reached the Supreme Court this week, illustrates once again the catastrophic state of our politics in our hyperpartisan era.  The status of millions of immigrants in the United States presents a serious problem, but neither party seems interested in giving them the permanent status that they deserve.  Instead, they focus upon the partisan advantages to be gained or lost from the census.  Meanwhile, the Republican Party seems to want to use the issue to return us, in yet another way, to the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when a large portion of the American working class did not enjoy the right to vote.

No one knows how many illegal immigrants are living in the United States.  11 million remains the most commonly quoted estimate, a carefully developed 2018 estimate found that the true number is probably about twice that figure.  These people now face increasing harassment from ICE, which is trying to speed up the deportation process.  Meanwhile, they make up a significant portion of our labor force, especially in certain states and in certain industries.  Our economy, in all probability, could not function without them.

A functional federal government, it seems to me, would recognize that most of these people now belong to American society and deserve the status of citizenship.  Such a government would also want to know how many of them there really are.  For these reasons, it seems to me, a question asking U.S. residents for their citizenship status on the census form makes perfect sense, and indeed, the census asked questions about citizenship 14 times since 1820, either about all enumerated adults, all enumerated people, or a sample of enumerated people.  The argument before the Supreme Court suggested that a 5-4 majority is likely to approve the question, and I personally cannot regard such a decision as unreasonable.

Rather than provide an argument for giving legal status to illegal immigrants, however, the Trump Administration’s question seems designed to shift the political balance of power further in favor of the Republican Party in two different ways.  First, evidence does show that in today’s climate, significant numbers of inhabitants may try to avoid census takers altogether rather than acknowledge their status.  That will undercount inhabitants in certain states, particularly in urban areas, and thus potentially reduce their representation in Congress in the redistribution of seats that will follow the 2020 census.  That, however, is not all.  In Texas and elsewhere, Republican officials want to use answers to a citizenship question to base the drawing of congressional, state and city legislative districts on equal numbers of citizens, rather than people.  That would shift representation away from poorer, largely nonwhite areas.  And while the Constitution specifies that the number of representatives in each state must be based on the whole number of persons in that state, it does not mandate using the same standard for drawing the districts within a state.

Thus, under Republican rule at the local or national level, the citizenship question may allow ICE to expand deportation measures against millions of people, while also creating a large class of unrepresented inhabitants in our elections.  This is not without precedent in American history.

The Union victory in the Civil War, led, first, to the abolition of slavery in the 13th amendment, then to the extension of citizenship (although not the right to vote) to all persons born in the United States, and lastly, to the end of restrictions on the right to vote based on race in the 15th amendment.  White southerners accepted black suffrage only at the point of guns carried by federal troops, however, and after the withdrawal of those troops in 1877, various forms of intimidation, including murder, either kept black voters away from the polls or persuaded them to vote for ex-Confederate candidates.  In subsequent decades state laws made it virtually impossible for black citizens—and many poor white ones as well-- to vote.  These measures had spectacular results.  In Mississippi, which had the largest proportion of black inhabitants, the total presidential vote fell from 165,000 in 1876 to 70,000 in 1896.  In South Carolina the total vote fell from 233,000 to 69,000 in the same period.  Not only nearly the entire black population, but also much of the white working class, lacked the vote in the southern United States from the late nineteenth century until the second half of the twentieth—a situation that allowed for the rule of an oligarchy in much of the United States.

A 5-4 Republican majority invalidated a key section of the Voting Rights Act in 2015, and since then, Republicans in various states have taken steps to make it harder—although hardly impossible—for poor and black people to vote.  Those steps, however, threaten democracy less, in my opinion, than the continued presence of millions of lower-paid workers and their families who are not citizens and therefore cannot vote.  Such people may already hold the balance of power in Texas, now our second-largest state, and in other states.  The Trump Administration’s public focus on “border security” has diverted attention from their status, and if Democratic politicians favor granting them a quick path to citizenship, they are certainly being very quiet about it.  I do not think that even the Trump Administration seriously imagines that they might deport most or all of those millions of people, or that the nation would tolerate the consequences of doing so.  But I do think that the Republican Party wants to keep a large segment of the working class without rights, by refusing to make them citizens, and therefore to make it easier to keep political power in the hands of our economic elite.  That in turn increases resentment between citizens and non-citizens among the lower half of the population, making it harder for them to unite to reverse the growing trend towards inequality.  The question before the country is whether we truly want to undo all the gains of the last 120 years or so and return to an era of oligarchy and deeply flawed democracy.

Sunday, May 05, 2019

The Democratic Race - non-random observations

The two leaders in all Democratic polls, by far, are two men from the Silent generation, whose youngest members (like Joe Biden) will turn 76 this year.  They achieved this status by different routes, each of which says something about modern American politics.

In 1960, the last sitting Vice President to have won his party's nomination for President was Martin Van Buren, in 1836, and he was the only Vice President to have done so since the passage of the 12th amendment to the Constitution.  Since then,  five sitting or immediately former Vice Presidents, Richard Nixon (twice), Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, George H. W. Bush, and Al Gore, have won their party's nomination for President, and Biden would become the seventh.  Richard Nixon, who took office under a President with no political background, created the modern Vice Presidency, serving as the number one surrogate campaigner and link to the party faithful and donors.  He was also the first Vice President of the television age, which gave him the national recognition that the vast majority of previous vice presidents never had.  That combination of public visibility and private influence has obviously given holders of the office a huge head start when they decide to run for President, and Biden's numbers, and strength within the establishment, show that that advantage has not died out. Mike Pence, I suspect, will also exploit it either next year or, more likely, in 2024.  Biden has another potential advantage. A provocative recent story in the New York Times argued persuasively that there is a good chance that the Democratic nomination for the first time since 1952, will not be decided on the first ballot, and superdelegates will vote in subsequent ballots, if there are any. Biden would be their favorite.

Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, has achieved the second spot in the polls by an opposite route--by emerging in 2016 as the outsider in the field, the status that won Donald Trump the nomination on the Republican side.  It's sad, and a bit ironic, that he could not be nominated in 2016, since he is a more authentic outsider and authentic man than Trump, but much of his following evidently remains loyal.  Sanders is nearly the last of a type of American Senator who played a much bigger role in our politics in the first half of the twentieth century.  Writing their classic, The Washington Merry-Go-Round, during the Hoover Administration, Drew Pearson and Robert Allen  devoted part of a chapter to a small group of "insurgent" Senators, including young Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin, William Borah of Idaho, and George Norris of Nebraska, who believed strongly in effective democracy and economic justice, but who came from agrarian backgrounds and agrarian states, and had little talent for organization and no strong connection to either side of the struggle between capital and labor.  Although Sanders hails, of course, from New York, he represents one of the most rural states in the nation, which has allowed him almost total independence in developing and presenting his views on just about every issue except gun rights.  He is obviously his own man, and young people, in particular, seem to respond to him for that.

Behind these two come five Senators, mostly from relatively large and/or very urban states: my own Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker,  Amy Klobuchar, and Kamla Harris. Warren differs from the others both because of her age--she will turn 70 this year--and her focused, highly developed economic liberalism.  She is my candidate, at the moment, because of her thoughtfulness and integrity, but like my father in 1960, when he originally favored Hubert Humphrey, expect to need another candidate by the time the race is over. Warren would be vulnerable against Trump because of her unfortunate decision to list herself as a Native American at Penn and Harvard Law schools--a decision, I feel certain, which had nothing to do with her being hired, but which she regarded as a favor to her Dean.  She has not demonstrated the same appeal to younger voters at large as Sanders.   (It is rather extraordinary that Warren is the only major candidate from the Boom generation in the race, even though they now are between 59 and 76 years old.) The other three are competing for the legacy of the last two Democratic candidates, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Like both of them, they want to become the favorite of the nonwhitemale vote, but they seem certain to divide and weaken it in the primaries.  One of the  electoral traps of identity politics is this: they encourage a proliferation of candidates, one to match each visible identity.  Last but hardly least come two wild cards who have never held statewide office.  The first is Beto O'Rourke, who demonstrated broad appeal in his Texas Senate campaign, and, were he nominated, would follow in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln, another politician who parlayed a losing Senate race into a presidential nomination two years later.  (Few people realize, however, that Lincoln in 1858 won the Illinois popular vote against Stephen Douglas, but lost the election in the Illinois legislature.)  The second is Pete Buttigieg, who is obviously very capable and intelligent and who is also attracting more attention because he is gay and married.  One might argue that he, at the moment, comes closest to the status of Barack Obama in 2007, but he is younger than Obama, holds only a local office, and, like all the others but Sanders and Biden is not breaking into double digits in the polls.  O'Rourke might have the widest appeal of any of the candidates in the general election, but he has to do a lot better to get there, based on today's polls.

These candidates, meanwhile, will be competing for votes from a Democratic electorate that is dominated, in many states, by minority voters and women, a good many of whom now feel entitled to a candidate who, in one of the many unfortunate phrases of our new public discourse, "looks like them."  Failing that, they want any successful candidate to adopt one of their preferred positions, which, for black voters, now include reparations for slavery.  Several of the candidates, including Warren and Harris, have given a guarded endorsement to the idea of reparations, without committing themselves to anything specific.  It is sad, in my opinion, that many (though by no means all) of minority or female voters now focus more on the public visibility of their own demographic in high office, than on what a candidate could or will do for people of their economic status, regardless of race or gender.  It is equally sad that many loyal base voters in the Democratic Party don't seem to understand that while no candidate can win without them, he or she can't win without a lot of other non-base votes, either.  Those blind spots may help re-elect Donald Trump next year, but for the moment, we are obviously stuck with them.

All the Democratic candidates, meanwhile, will have to struggle with the practices of the modern mainstream media.  Our msm is of course almost totally Democratic in orientation, but nonetheless carries on an endless campaign to uncover all the faults and vulnerabilities of Democratic candidates.  The campaign has barely begun, but we are already reading that Joe Biden is too touchy, that Bernie Sanders's campaign failed to deal with sexual harassment issues in 2016, that Amy Klobuchar is an office tyrant, that Elizabeth Warren has an almost random element of native American ancestry, that Kamla Harris was too tough on crime as a prosecutor and Attorney General, that Beto O'Rourke married into a wealthy family, and that Pete Buttigieg controversially fired a black police chief.  More such stories will inevitably follow, tarnishing whoever finally wins the prize.

The ideal Democratic candidate, in my opinion, would be a strong economic liberal with a national reputation and a relatively young age--no more, I would argue, than 60.  I do not see such a candidate in the race.  Let us turn now to another front in the struggle, the Congress.

The Democrats in the House have the opportunity, like the Democrats in 1958-60 or the Republicans for much of the Clinton Administration and the Obama Administration, to put their party forward as offering something new.  They are torn, however, by the distraction to focus on investigating President Trump, to make the strongest possible case against him, if not to impeach him.  That, I think, is evidently what the President hopes they will do, and I think he may be right.  The House already passed a sweeping bill to reform voting and campaign finance--excellent ideas--but it has gotten almost no attention because of the furor over the Mueller report and other investigations.  The House is also distracted by conflicts within the new majority involving newly elected candidates who represent relatively extreme views within the Democratic base.  Meanwhile, the drumbeat of apparently good economic news is getting louder and louder, which is going to make it much harder for the Democrats to argue that the country really needs them in office in 2021.

Torn by generational and demographic conflicts and by their relentless self-criticism and jealousy, the Democrats lack loyalty and discipline.  The Republicans do not.  Politics is war by other means, and loyalty, organization and discipline count more in war than fighting for the right cause.  Many unforeseen events on the economic, political, and personal front can utterly transform the electoral landscape during the next 18 months, but right now, the picture doesn't look particularly hopeful to me.







Saturday, April 27, 2019

A Remarkable Book

I recently re-connected with a sociologist whom I had met many years ago, Liah Greenfeld, who has been a university professor at Boston University for many years.  I had met her in the early 1990s after discussing her first big book, on nationalism, at a conference, and stayed in touch for a while, but had not kept up.  In the course of a long conversation, she mentioned her most recent book, Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience.  I have since read it.  It's a remarkable work.

Greenfeld writes unique books, partly because she has a unique background.  Her parents, two physicians,  were Soviet Jews who emigrated to Israel in 1972, and she earned her doctorate at the Hebrew University. Coming to the United States in 1982, she spent 9 years as an assistant professor at Harvard (she had recently been denied tenure when I first met her), and then moved to BU.  (For additional information, see her wikipedia entry.) Her work as clearly been inspired by the founders of her discipline, and particularly by Emile Durkheim, whose ideas heavily influenced Mind, Modernity, and Madness.  She also works easily in all the major European languages and moves quickly from one discipline to another. She takes almost nothing on faith and readily attacks conventional wisdom of many different kinds. In short, she is a late-nineteenth century intellectual in a 20th-21st century body, which allows her, like me, to write books that literally no one else today would ever undertake.

By "madness," Greenfeld means the three most common major mental illnesses in the modern world: schizophrenia, manic-depressive disorder, and severe depression.  In one of her many ambitious claims, she argues that these are really only two different illnesses, not three, because the first two are really the same illness.  She has plenty of evidence for this--it has been shown, for instance, that people diagnosed with schizophrenia in the US are likely to be diagnosed as manic-depressives in Britain, and vice versa--and I have learned talking to a research psychiatrist that other authorities share this view.  More controversially, she argues that these are diseases of the modern world that had not been observed or identified before the 16th century, when they appeared in Britain as a result of the development of a new idea of nationalism.  By nationalism she means a society of equal rights, a shared political community, and elected government--all of which, to be sure, were only embryonic at best in 16th century Britain.  Those ideas, of course, spread through the western world (and even into Russia) in succeeding centuries, and she makes  a convincing case that modern forms of madness spread with them.  Her most fascinating evidence, for me, came from the United States, the real pioneer of nationalism as she describes it, and specifically from several 19th-century scientists who helped found our first mental institutions and wrote at length about their patients.  They understood that they were seeing new disorders, and some of them saw how the difficulties of coping with the newly modern world were making their patients crazy.  And because they had no formal training such as therapists and psychologists must undergo today, nothing stood in the way of their observation and record of what they saw before their own eyes.

Culture, Greenfield argues, is a system of ideas an symbols within which we place ourselves to form an identity.   Because for the last few centuries anyone can, in theory, be anything, this has become a burden for us all, and for a certain percentage of us, she argues, the burden is too much and leads to madness.  This is the hardest part of the argument to document systematically.  To illustrate what schizophrenia and manic-depression are, Greenfeld discussed at length the cases of the mathematician John Nash, who has been the subject of a biography and a not-very-accurate film, and a therapist, Kay Jamison--nearly an exact contemporary of my own, who turns out to be just two degrees of separation away--who became a therapist and has described her own struggles in a book.  Both of them had family backgrounds that made it harder for them to figure out exactly where they fit into American society, but I couldn't help feeling that millions of other people whose backgrounds were equally or more problematic had not gone mad.  Some other factors must be at work--but one such might be another common trait, their extraordinary intelligence.  Another might be the specific dynamics of their families.  In short, while Greenfeld makes a persuasive case, bolstered by additional data I shall discuss below, that madness is a modern disease, she hasn't in my opinion be able to explain exactly why some people get it and others don't.

I could not help thinking, as I read the book, of what I had learned from a 19th-century giant, Tocqueville, when I read him in college--particularly The Old Regime and the French Revoluion, which is at least as important a book as Democracy in America.  Tocqueville understood that the society of orders and privleges from which he came was dying all over the world and could not survive, but he also appreciated its strengths.  Belonging to a particular order in society gave one a certain security that the new social equality could not offer.  I remember thinking 50 years ago that peasants and artisans in traditional society could blame their fate on a higher power, while we twentieth century men and women could only blame ours on ourselves.  That makes modern life a terrible burden, and a growing one, now, as we cast aside the policies that the US and other advanced countries adopted in the mid-twentieth century to try to assure a decent life for everyone.  The burden has also grown because everyone--women a well as men, all racial and ethnic groups, and people of all sexual orientations--also have total responsibility for their own future--the flip side of our social equality. In my opinion--and Greenfeld does not explore this point--the explosion of tribalism among those groups is in fact a response to the terror of facing the world alone.

And this leads us to Greenfeld's bottom line: that madness is increasing, not declining, all over the modern world.  (She seems to think, by the way, that the modern forms of madness that she is focusing on are much less common in Asia than here.  I could cite some anecdotal evidence from South Korea suggesting that that is not true, and in any case, I suspect that if it is, it won't stay true for much longer in the more advanced countries of Asia.)  A lot of statistical evidence supports her.  The problem is complicated in the US, too, by the decision we reached several decades ago, to stop institutionalizing hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps as many as one million in 1960) in mental hospitals. (Many such people, of course, are now in prison.)  One reason Greenfeld wrote the book, she informs us, was the prevalence of depression among her own students at BU.  Suicide, the  ultimate symptom of madness, has been increasing in the US, especially among young people, with enormous costs to the living as well as the dead.

As I read the book I also began to think about the role of madness in our current political life.  Two key symptoms of schizophrenia are paranoia and megalomania.  Paranoia dominates the thinking of both the left and the right today; both see their world at risk from vast conspiracies. Madness is the enemy of rationality, and we all see how the role of rational thought has declined in our public life.  We now have  President who sees himself beset by enemies on all sides, and who has told us, repeatedly, that he, the greatest man who ever lived, is the only person who can solve all our problems.  More significantly, 40% of the population has hitched their wagon to his star.  All this, obviously, is food for thought in the years to come.

This book, whether one accepts all its conclusions or not, should have had great interest not only for sociologists, but quite obviously for psychologists and for historians like myself.  In that way it also resembles some of the great works of the 19th century.  But it is not surprising, it turns out, that I had never heard of it--it was not even reviewed in either the New York Times or the New York Review of Books.  I too have found that works of unusual ambition tend nowadays to fall through the cracks.  They remain tributes to the western intellectual tradition, however, and those fortunate enough to discover them will still find that they make us think.





Friday, April 19, 2019

What the Mueller Report means, Part I

The very narrow election of Donald Trump as President of the United States represented a collapse of our political system and a catastrophe for the nation that has few precedents.  A political neophyte who had made his reputation as a developer--despite numerous bankruptcies--and a television star wiped the floor with a gaggle of traditional Republican candidates and defeated a quintessential establishment Democrat.  Trump lacks all the intellectual and personal qualities that a President (or, for that matter, the leader of any other large organization) requires. He is almost impossible to work with, making his administration one big revolving door.  He is a paranoid and a megalomaniac, who believes that only he can solve the nation's problems--yet he lacks the concentration to understand what those problems are, what might solve them, and what might make them worse.  That is why the deficit, the trade deficit, and the rate of illegal immigration--three of his signature issues--are all getting worse on his watch.  He also lacks any understanding of how the US government is supposed to function and doesn't really understand American legal traditions.  In foreign policy, he has no use for our traditional allies and admires a string of dictators.  Meanwhile, he enjoys flaunting liberal convention wisdom and race, gender, and just about everything else.

For all these reasons, most liberals, including the liberal media elite (yes, it exists), have not accepted the idea that he could be President and have assumed, really, that he must somehow be forced to leave office before his term is  up.  They have counted, essentially, on the federal bureaucracy, as represented by Robert Mueller and the FBI, to make this happen--a fantasy oddly parallel to the Trump partisans' view of the Deep State.  They are now furious that Mueller did not recommend that the President be indicted and even more furious at William Barr for claiming that Mueller exonerated him.  I intend to use Mueller's report to examine these questions in two posts, following the report's organization.  The first volume of the report deals with Russian interference in our election and the publication by wikileaks and elsewhere of emails hacked from Clinton campaign aids and the Democratic National Committee.  The second volume examines the question of obstruction of justice, and I will leave it for next week.

The first volume begins with a long account of the Russian government's intervention in the US election, involving two Russian agencies, the IRA (which seems to specialize in computer crime of all kinds) and the GRU.  Their activities included hacking into the DNC and various Democratic Party officials, trips by IRA officials into the US to gather intelligence, a massive, multifaceted social media campaign, especially on Twitter, both to support Trump and disrupt Demoratic campaigns, the active recruitment on social media of pro-Trump Americans to help in their activities, and attempts to organize or affect campaign rallies.  Mueller's very thorough investigation discovered links between this effort and the Trump campaign.  First, Trump campaign workers such as Michael Flynn, Kellyanne Conway, and Trump's two sons Eric and Donald Jr. linked and retweeted numerous posts that the IRA made surreptitiously on social media.  Secondly, "starting in June 2016, the IRA contacted different U.S. persons affiliated with the Trump Campaign in an effort to coordinate pro-Trump IRA-organized rallies inside the United States." and those persons worked with them.  However, in neither case did Mueller's investigation find any evidence that these Trump officials knew that they were retweeting material produced by the Russians or dealing with Russian agents.  That left them without any basis even to consider charges against them on this point.

A second possible source of criminal charges involved the famous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and two Russians, one a woman visiting from Russia who had promised significant dirt about Hillary Rodham Clinton.  It turns out, based on testimony from various participants, that we have tended to exaggerate the significance of what went on there.  The dirt had nothing to do with hacked emails. The woman claimed that three prominent anti-Russian Americans--led by William Browder, a businessman who is more or less responsible for the Magnitsky Act, named after a business associate of his--had stolen money in Russia and given it to the Clinton campaign.  She could not however back up those charges, and no evidence appears to have changed hands, nor did the Trump campaign ever make such charges.  The Special Counsel's team looked carefully at campaign finance statutes and concluded that although Donald Trump Jr. might have illegally accepted a foreign contribution by agreeing to take the meeting so as to receive such information, he should not be indicted because he evidently did not understand that this might be illegal, and thus had not "willfully" violated the law.  That position has rightly drawn some criticism, since Americans generally learn that ignorance of the law is no excuse. I on the hand would have to conclude that since the woman did not produce any valuable information and the campaign got nothing out of the meeting, a prosecution would have been gratuitous.

Proceeding chronologically, we now come to the role of Trump campaign associates--specifically Roger Stone and Jerome Corsi--in working with Wikileaks during the summer of 2016 to encourge the release of more stolen emails.  Here I appear to have been under a misapprehension regarding the law.  I thought that I had researched this issue last year and discovered that publishing stolen computer material such as emails was in itself a crime.  Clear evidence had emerged to show that Stone, and probably Corsi as well, had been talking to Wikileaks about publication of what they had, which would have made them co-conspirators in that particular crime even if they hadn't hacked the material.  But it seems now that mere publication is NOT a federal crime, although it's a state crime in some jurisdictions.  We don't know what Mueller's team decided about all this, however, because most of the discussion of Stone, Corsi and Wikileaks, beginning on p. 51 of volume 1 of the report, is blacked out, under the heading, "Harm to Ongoing Matter."  That suggests that the investigation of these issues is continuing and that other prosecutors may bring more charges.  We don't know that either, because a parallel section of the report in the midst of a later portion of it that deals with decisions to bring, or not to bring, cases, is also blacked out.  The failure to make these portions public seems to me to be the biggest weakness in the report, and I hope Congress will be able to clear it up.

Other apparently serious matters turn out to be illusory.  Jeff Sessions did lie when he told a Senate Committee that he had no Russian contacts during 2016, but it turns out that the contacts he had with Ambassador Kislyak were brief and almost surely inconsequential.  Jared Kushner's post-election suggestion to Kislyak that the President-elect's team might communicate with Moscow through Russian channels related to one very specific issue and does not seem very sinister.  Michael Flynn did ask the Russians not to retaliate against sanctions the Obama Administration imposed on Russia after the election, and Putin in fact did not do so--but that would at worst constitute the very technical, almost never prosecuted crime of violating the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from conducting diplomacy.  What remains rather interesting is that Flynn would ruin his life by lying about this.

We already knew that Trump campaign officials including Manfort, Carter Page, and various others had extensive contacts with Russians, many of them linked or even in the government, during the campaign.  We also know that the Russians obviously wanted Trump to win and looked forward to doing business with him in the future.  All of that, like so much else about Trump, should have raised serious questions about his candidacy--but it didn't.

Oddly enough--and I haven't seen anyone else mention this--the decision not to seek prosecution on any of these grounds strikes me as somewhat similar to James Comey's decision not to prosecute Hillary Clinton for using a private email server.  Both cases arguably involve technical violations of the law, but in neither case can anyone claim that a serious crime was committed.  We shall see next week that parallel questions surround the vexing issue of obstruction of justice by the President.  I shall wait until then to summarize my thoughts about the whole episode and its significance for the future.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Turning points

For 250 years or more, a particular model of human political development has led the way towards a new future, first in Europe and the Americas, and then, in the twentieth century, in the rest of the world.  Democracy--the election of political leadership--emerged as one part of that model in the wake of the American Revolution, but it was only one aspect of it.  A second aspect was the idea of equal citizenship under the law, societies without legal privileges for particular classes---which was what Tocqueville, among others, meant by the democracy which he saw spreading over the whole world.  And the third, which was to some extent independent of the first two, was the idea of government operating according to science and reason, respecting established procedures, and promoting the health, economic progress, and general happiness of the whole population.  One could argue that the third was the most important of all, since it could govern the actions of an enlightened monarchy or even a totalitarian dictatorship as well as those of a democratically elected government.  All these ideas are in retreat in much of the world, as three news items show.

The first of these, closest to home, is a story in the New York Times about President Trump's new chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.  Trump came into office railing against the Washington establishment and the "Deep State", the mostly liberal bureaucrats and national security bureaucracy that have been trying to implement the Enlightenment model of government since the founding of the Republic, and more actively since the progressive era.  In so doing, he spoke for the Republican base in the heartland, who had railed against that group since the New Deal, and who, as the 2016 primaries showed, had lost all confidence in the Republican establishment, which had reached at least a truce with that class a long time ago.  Trump's first two chiefs of staff--and particularly John Kelley, who held the position for well over a year--saw their role as negotiating between the President on the one hand and the establishment on the other, especially on national security issues.  Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who won election to the House of Representatives in the 2010 Tea Party wave, appears to have as little sympathy for the bureaucracy as his boss, and as a New York Times story today reports, he is "letting Trump be Trump," making no effort either to control access to the mercurial President or to moderate his views.  He and Trump decided on their own to join the lawsuit attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act, they agreed on the firing of  Homeland Security Secretary Kirsten Nielsen and some of her leading subordinates, and Mulvaney did not attempt to restrain the President's threats to close the border.  No modern president has tried to govern from the White House in defiance of the bureaucracy in this way.   Trump and Steven Miller seem to want to transform DHS and ICE into bureaucracies that will do their bidding, and if they can do so, that will take a big step towards a different kind of presidential government.

The second step away from the principles of the 19th and 20th centuries, I would argue, is Benjamin Netanyahu's apparent victory in the Israeli elections, after he had promised to begin annexing parts of the West Bank.  The founders of the state of Israel in 1948 took care to put it firmly within the mainstream political thinking of the twentieth century, even as they also called upon Old Testament precedents to justify their claim to the land.  Not only had they secured the approval of both the League of Nations and the UN for some form of the Zionist project, but they also founded a state based on democratic principles and equal rights, even for the non-Jews who remained inside Israel after the formation of the state.  52 years ago, the 1967 war vastly increased the Arab population under their control, and that population--within all the territory west of the Jordan River, and in Gaza--is now about equal to the Jewish population of Israel, and is still increasing more rapidly.  Since the aftermath of the 1967 war, the rest of the world, including the government of the United States, has stood for a two-state solution that will give Palestinians equal rights, and some Israeli governments have endorsed it in principle.  Now Netanyahu and his allies have apparently become weary of this endless disconnect between theory and practice and want to move towards annexation.  That will leave millions of Palestinians without political rights, living in tightly controlled and segregated communities in a condition which certainly walks and quacks like apartheid.  Every sign suggests that President Trump will enthusiastically endorse any steps in this direction that Netanyahu chooses to take.  Netanyahu's victory also showed that the Arab citizens of Israel (who were recently reduced to second-class citizenship as well by a new law proclaiming Israel to be a state of the Jews alone) had lost faith in modern democracy.  Their very low turnout--which the government took steps to encourage--was key to the right wing coalition's apparent victory.

Even closer to home, the measles crisis in Queens and Brooklyn shows that another fundamental principle of modern life has now eroded.  We take public health for granted nowadays, but it was a critical feature of the growth of the modern state, which asserted the right to take various coercive steps against disease, such as quarantining and contact tracing to halt the spread of infections.  Vaccination, which by their very nature often had to be universal to be effective, also became a kind of government measure.  Now we have an outbreak of measles, which could have been completely eradicated by now, because Americans of various political and religious persuasions refuse to be vaccinated.  The mayor of New York is trying to reassert a fundamental feature of modern government authority, and I hope that he succeeds--but the problem itself shows how we are leaving the Enlightenment behind.

The rhythm of history decrees that new generations will challenge any consensus, mobilizng the ambient anger that ebbs and flows under the surface.  That is why previous high points of civilization in various ancient empires did not survive, and gave way instead to centuries of anarchy and intellectual regression.  I feel very fortunate now, having written my autobiography, to have been born into a world dominated by Enlightenment thought, and to have tried to use some of its principles myself in my work as an historian. That I shall continue to do for as long as I can.   We must however recognize that the era of the mid-20th century is over and that the achievements of that period are under grave threat--especially in the political sphere.  They were, like all living human achievements, provisional.


Saturday, April 06, 2019

Our out of touch elites

Not long ago, I attended a joint presentation by two former public servants at one of our local universities.  Although the presentation was open to the public, it was technically off the record, and I will not identify them by name.  Together they combined service in a White House, as an elected representative, and in a prominent bank.  One is a Democrat and the other a Republican and I shall so identify them.

The subject of their presentation, in which the Republican took the lead, was international trade and President Trump's tariff policy.  They both explained patiently and confidently that Trump's notions of international trade are obsolete and bear no relation to the realities of our place in the world economy.  Trade deficits with individual countries, they argued, simply did not matter.  Nor was trade the main cause of our de-industrialization: automation was.  Neither one of them mentioned the intimate connection between trade deficits and domestic borrowing, which remains the only way to pay for them.  The Republican did say a good deal about Chinese thefts of intellectual property and hoped that President Trump could persuade them to stop.  They did make some good points.  A real trade war with China (which they insisted, correctly I think, that we are not having now) would make life in these United States extremely difficult.  The products we now buy from China include much of our prescription drugs, including penicillin and other antibiotics, which we obviously could not do without.  Both of them, but the Republican in particular, stressed the rapid job growth we are now experiencing, and the Republican said at one point that no one should be concerned about the factory across the street closing if they could go to work in an Amazon warehouse instead.  I don't think either one of them said anything about union rights or minimum wages.  At one interesting moment, the Democrat said that the Republicans had traditionally been the free trade party while the Democrats had expressed more reservations.  That is very dubious.  Republicans were the high tariff party from the Civil War until at least the 1930s, and Democrats in the 1990s were fully on board with NAFTA and other free trade agreements. 

The two presenters spent more than half an hour taking questions, and I finally manged to get recognized just before the end.

"What you have given us, it seems to me," I said, "is the conventional wisdom that we have been hearing from both parties for some decades now.  I am not saying that it is wrong.  However, Donald Trump is in the White House--which I regard as a very serious matter--because he defied the conventional wisdom on this subject, as well as on others.  That allowed him to defeat a slew of traditional Republican candidates and to win the general election narrowly.  That tells me that a large number of our fellow citizens simply aren't buying this piece of conventional wisdom, and I wonder how you both see that particular problem."

The Republican, who had been skeptical about Trump all along, immediately replied, "It's still working for him!" and speculated (as most Wall Streeters do these days, it seems) that he would be re-elected.  The Democrat said that our rhetoric had to be less divisive and "more aspirational," but added that we simply couldn't be too disturbed by people who say their ambition is to be coal miners.  That didn't strike me as a particularly critical group of voters.  Like nearly all of our politicians--including Donald Trump--these two evidently represented our elite, and have lost touch with millions of their fellow Americans.  The same can probably said of the Democrats who spend their time obsessing about the Mueller report and other transgressions, and about issues of race, gender and sexual orientation.  They too are living within a particular part of our population and simply assuming that everyone shares their concerns.  The question of how, and whether, we can bridge this gulf in the immediate future seems to me critical.


Saturday, March 30, 2019

Investigations and elections

I am withholding any comment on the Mueller report in the hope that we will in fact get to see it.  In the meantime I could speculate a great deal about what it might and might not say, and I could return to things I have said previously about what available evidence seems to show about relations between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, but I think that would be irresponsible, since nothing I said would be based upon the best evidence that may become available.  The end of the Mueller investigation, however, may in any case mark a very significant milestone in US history, as do many of the steps being taken by the Republican Administration and the court system.  The age of government by bureaucracies established to serve the public good may be coming to an end.

The Mueller investigation was the fifth in a series of prosecutorial investigations of sitting Presidents and their administrations or campaigns, following those of Watergate (1973-4), Iran-Contra (1986-93),  Whitewater (1994-2000), and the leak of a CIA operative's name (2003-7).  While Congress had probed wrongdoing within earlier or current administrations on a number of occasions in the past, I cannot at the moment recall any cases of the federal criminal justice system investigating the administrations, campaigns, or personal and financial behavior of sitting Presidents that compare to those four.  The government, in the person of Attorney General Elliot Richardson, handled Watergate in 1973 like the unprecedented event that it was, appointing the first Special Prosecutor, Archibald Cox, after the initial round of Watergate convictions and investigations led to revelations of wrongdoing at the highest levels of the Nixon campaign, the Justice Department, and the White House.  In October 1973 Nixon arranged for the firing of Cox after Richardson and his deputy resigned, but public pressure forced him to replace him with Leon Jaworski, who eventually convicted a number of the President's closest advisers of various kinds, and would have moved to indict Nixon himself after his resignation had President Ford not pardoned him.  The Watergate controversy also led to the passage of a law providing for the appointment of a special counsel whenever an executive branch official was accused of serious wrongdoing, and numerous investigations resulted for the next thirty years.  Almost fifteen years later, the Iran-Contra investigations also led to some convictions at the highest levels of the Reagan Administration, but President George H. W. Bush eventually pardoned the convicted men, and his own involvement, well documented, in the abuses under investigation did not prevent his being elected President in 1988.  The Whitewater investigation continually broadened its mandate and eventually resulted in the impeachment of President Clinton for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, but did not convict any government officials of wrongdoing.  The investigation of the leak of CIA operative Valerie Plume by the George W. Bush Administration led to the conviction of Scooter Libby in  Bad feeling over these various investigations eventually led to the Congress allowing the special counsel law to lapse.   Robert Mueller's investigation has indicted more than a dozen Russians for interference in our election by computer hacking and secured convictions of a number of campaign officials.  Watergate, Iran-Contra, and Whitewater also provoked intense and often televised Congressional hearings, but since the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in 2017-8, there has been no parallel investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia yet.  The House Intelligence Committee, now controlled by Democrats, may undertake one.

Beginning with Watergate the continuing through the three subsequent administrations, defenders of the administration under attack have complained that these investigations were fishing expeditions or witch hunts that threatened the legitimate powers of the executive branch, or, as Republicans like to claim, turned policy differences into crimes.  (The case of Whitewater, which did not involve the exercise of governmental authority, was different, but it struck most Democrats as a hopelessly partisan investigation into trivial financial matters and personal matters that were no one else's business.)  Given that these investigations threatened sitting Presidents, the possibility of presidential pardons hung over them, and such pardons did save Nixon from prosecution and eventually wiped out the convictions of several Iran-Contra figures. Donald Trump has now pardoned Scooter Libby, and he may well pardon some of the people whom the Mueller investigation successfully prosecuted.

Taking a very broad view of this history, I think, hardly anyone could argue that this process has worked well.  It has generated an enormous amount of media coverage and stoked partisan feeling, but it has not resulted in very many convictions for actual wrongdoing related to the offenses charged, at least since Watergate.  The convictions of American citizens secured by Mueller's office almost all relate to other kinds of offenses, not conspiring with a foreign power to affect the election.  It seems to me that these episodes have been confrontations between, on the one hand, our relentless criminal justice system--which, as another author and friend of mine has argued, could convict almost anyone of something, if it devoted substantial resources to doing so--with a highly and increasingly partisan political environment.  The Watergate investigation obviously had the most striking results of these four, and it took place when the GI generation still ruled Washington and partisanship was not nearly as all-encompassing as it later became.  It clearly dealt with serious crimes, including burglary, wiretapping, and obstruction of justice, all deployed to affect an election result.  The most important illegalities in Iran-Contra, while very serious, in my opinion, from a constitutional point of view, were much harder to translate into personal criminal liability.  In Whitewater there were few, if any, real crimes involved at all on the part of anyone but the actual developer of the resort.  Regarding the Mueller investigation, I will remark that while it seems quite clear that several high officials discussed lifting sanctions on Russia with Russian officials, that in itself would not be a crime either.

In general I think these cases (except for Watergate, which, interestingly, also wrapped much more quickly than any of the others) accomplished more harm than good, insofar as they distracted politicians, the press, and the public from the real business of government and increased partisan rancor.  The conclusion of the Mueller probe, managed partly by the President's new Attorney General, has left the Democratic party and its media allies in the position of having brought a knife to a gun fight--they evidently depended on it to destroy the Trump Presidency, which now finds itself in its most powerful position since it came into office.  That however seems similar to the conclusion of Iran-Contra, Whitewater, and the Libby probe, none of which did critical harm, in the end, to the administrations then in power or to their historical reputations.   The mass of the American people did not take Iran-Contra seriously enough to punish George H. W. Bush at the polls in 1988, Bill Clinton survived the impeachment that grew out of Whitewater, and George W. Bush was re-elected in the midst of the Plame investigation in 2004.  Donald Trump may well lose next year's election but if he does, I do not think it will be because of the Mueller investigation or the Congressional probes that may follow this year.

Partisanship and ideology, it seems to me, have led both to the real or imagined abuses of power that led to these investigations, and to their failure to do much good.  The Reagan national security bureaucracy believed so deeply in the support of the Nicaraguan contras that it chose to defy a Congressional ban on it.  Republicans in the mid-1990s were so freaked out by the election of a young Democratic President (just 18 months after it seemed that Bush could not possibly lose) that they moved heaven and earth to continue the special counsel investigation, even when the first special counsel was ready to give it up. (Jesse Helms apparently persuaded a judge face to face to appoint a successor.)  Meanwhile, one legacy of Watergate, it seems, is to have convinced Democrats that disgrace or impeachment is a good way to get rid of a hostile and perhaps dangerous Republican President.  That model has failed both in the case of Reagan and of Trump.  In a remarkable video, Representative Tulsi Gabbard--one of the most independent thinkers in Congress today--suggests that it is time to put the investigation behind us, and turn to the business of governing America, allowing the voters, a mere 18 months down the road, to decide upon the fate of the Trump Presidency.  This would be an important step towards the reinvigoration of our democracy.








Saturday, March 23, 2019

Then and now--from the 1880s to the 2020s

I have often remarked that for productive authors, or composers, or artists, the trick to keeping things moving is to get going on one's next project before the last one has appeared.  I have followed my own advice again and am now immersed in the politics of the 1870s and 1880s, envisioning a book on Gilded Age politics that will climax (but not begin) with the very exciting election of 1884.  The book, I am convinced, will resonate among students of our current scene.  The hallmark of politics in those days, as in ours, was extreme partisanship, and both parties argued in every election that their opponents' victory would lead to complete and immediate disaster.  The press was so partisan that one very informed observer could cite only two major newspapers--the New York Herald and the Boston Herald--that simply tried to report the facts. Then as now, partisanship led to numerous attempts at various levels to manipulate the electoral process.  The economy was on an upward course by the late 1870s, although it was subject, like ours, to the periodic panics and crises that we managed to do without from 1933 until 2008 because of the tight regulation of the banking system that the New Deal adopted.  Labor had virtually no rights, there were no income or capital gains taxes, and inequality was growing rapidly.  Political corruption ruled the federal, state, and various local governments.  The race issue remained very heated, and some Republicans had not yet given up on preserving votes for freed slaves despite the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877.   When the Democratic Party took control of Congress in the mid-1870s, it tried to force President Hayes to accept restrictions on federal power by threatening a government shutdown.   In one respect, one could argue, the leaders of that period showed more responsibility than ours:  they were paying off the huge debt accumulated during the civil war at a remarkably quick rate.  Amidst all this, a small group group of journalists and a few maverick office holders such as the German-American Carl Schurz demanded a saner, cleaner politics, actually focused on making the government work better  and meeting some of the nation's needs.  History eventually vindicated them.

In at least one sense, however, those nineteenth-century men and women had a healthier political system than we.  They took politics far more seriously than the average American does today, and it filled up incomparably more of their time.  The daily and weekly press shows that American citizens followed public affairs far more intensely and knew much more about them than they do today.

In the wake of the Civil War, Republicans in particular felt keenly that they were living in a great progressive era of history, marked by the development of democratic government, which was also making progress across the Atlantic.  They had fought and won a gigantic struggle--still the most costly conflict, in absolute terms, in American history--to preserve the Constitution and eliminate slavery.  They saw themselves in the forefront of history, and Democrats did not disagree with that.  Observers of all stripes customarily remarked in those days that they were not living in an era of great political leaders such as Adams and Jefferson, Webster and Clay, and Lincoln and Seward.  The characteristic political figure of the time was a boss such as Roscoe Conkling of New York, or Donald Cameron of Pennsylvania, or James G. Blaine of Maine, not a great and courageous thinker with new ideas for the future of the nation.  Meanwhile, the world of 1880 had no television, broadcast or cable; no radio; and no social media.  Newspapers, which proliferated like web sites today, provided all the news and much of the nation's entertainment.  And they covered politics with astonishing detail.

No one, I often say, is entirely lucky or entirely unlucky.  I have spent my adult life watching serious history go out of fashion, but at the same time, advances in information technology have made my work easier and easier to do.  Thanks to various newspaper databases and magazine archives, I can bring virtually any publication to life right on this computer screen within a minute or less.  And reading the newspapers of the Gilded Age is a remarkable experience.

Without word processors or even typewriters (until the mid-1880s at least), newspapers could commit remarkable amounts of information into print in one 24-hour news cycle.  And politicians provided most of their copy.  They constantly printed whole speeches, either on the campaign trail or in Congress.  They also printed interviews.  The very words of politicians, delivered at great length, were the stuff of politics, in a way that the rants of cable news people are today.  Carl Schurz, the leader of the reform Republicans, had immigrated from Germany as a young man and made his name by speaking to German-Americans for the Republican Party.  As late as 1880, he often spoke in German, but the papers managed to get translations of his remarks before the public within 24 hours.  The political leaders themselves set the tone of public discussion in a way that they have now ceased to do.  They talked at length, and often quite technically, about financial issues, civil service reform, the status of black Americans in the South, and much more. The public took them seriously precisely because they saw them as the heirs of the great men of the previous 100 years--even if they generally agreed that they did not deserve that legacy.  We no longer see our politicians that way, partly because so many activists on both the right and the left do not view the history of the last 100 years as an inspiring story which it is our job to continue. Nor do we seem to have very many political leaders who consciously identify with any of the greats of the twentieth century, including the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, or even Reagan.

The political leaders of the late 19th century did little to arrest some alarming trends in American life.  Fueled by a cruel process of industrialization, inequality grew apace, and money played an increasing role in politics.  Black Americans lost most of the rights they had been granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.  A bipartisan consensus did take some small steps towards replacing a politicized civil service with a professional one, laying the foundation for the great achievements of the twentieth century.  Still, the nation took the American experiment, the attempt to make democratic government work and serve the needs of the people, seriously, to an extent that I am not sure that it does today. 

Even though the two sides had fought the civil war out to a final conclusion at Appomattox, the divisions that had led to it created the intense partisanship of the post-crisis era.  Today, as we slowly move towards a most uncertain outcome of our own crisis, it seems pretty sure that partisanship will persist for a long time as well.  The election of 1884, in which a Democrat won the White House for the first time since 1856, and Grover Cleveland's first term that followed it, marked a step towards the reconciliation of the two sides, and the progressive movement that began to emerge in the next decade was bipartisan.  Perhaps we too must look forward to a new era in which the two parties can genuinely work together to solve at least a few problems--even if many of the biggest ones remain unsolved.  To do so we must all maintain some faith in the processes and institutions we have inherited from our forbears.




Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Meaning of "Economic Mobility"

High-level college admissions are in the news this week thanks to an infuriating scandal. They were in the news last fall thanks to the lawsuit against Harvard and how it selects its freshman class.  I followed that case very closely and have been planning to write something about it for quite a while, but I have not yet done so.  The new controversy has provoked a lot of revealing discussion about how people see the role of our top institutions in our society, and one remark, from an article this morning in the New York Times, especially caught my eye.

The article asks, essentially, whether the very rich parents who bribed their kids into Yale, USC, UCLA, and Georgetown got their money's worth with respect to their children's economic future.  (Whether they got their money's worth with respect to bragging rights among their friends, or their parental self-esteem, would of course be harder to measure, although I suspect those motives were equally important.)  The answer, according to some studies that researchers have done, is probably no.  The children of very rich parents are likely (though not certain) to wind up well-off themselves whether they attend an elite school or not.  The article cites evidence, however, that for low-income students, top institutions can have a dramatic effect.  This paragraph, in particular, caught my eye:

"At the same time, research from the Equality of Opportunity Project found that while many kinds of colleges can help students move to the top 20 percent of the income distribution from the bottom 20 percent, moving to the top 1 percent from the bottom 20 percent almost always requires a highly selective institution. If you’re at all concerned about economic mobility, this underscores the waste of unfairly displacing qualified low-income students from top colleges and universities."

I have two comments here.  To begin with, I honestly believe that that this paragraph captures the real motivation for affirmative action programs for poorer minorities at Harvard and other elite schools.  They understand perfectly well that they are admitting (or retaining) young people into, or in, the topmost ranks of our society, and they want those top strata to be integrated, or, to use the current term, "diverse."  And they are succeeding.  There isn't any evidence that Barack Obama needed affirmative action to get into Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard Law School.  Attending the elite Punaho school in Hawaii was enough to get him onto the top track, and his own achievements kept him there. But his accession to the White House represented the ultimate success of the strategy these schools are pursuing.

Yet that paragraph--and the pride top institutions take in their affirmative action programs--disturbs me a great deal, because it expresses a remarkably obtuse vision of what "economic mobility" means.  Yes, it's inspiring when some one moves from the bottom 20% of the income distribution to the top 1%, and those who managed to do so have been the stuff of American legend from the beginning of the Republic onward.  But a view that measures mobility by the ability of people to move into the top 1% is rather narrow, insofar as it totally ignores the fate of the 99% who will never get there. And these policies are doing nothing for most of them.

Yes, a diverse elite is better than a narrow one, but neither is much good to the bulk of the population within an economy that is trending steadily towards more and more inequality. They can only benefit by returning to the kind of income distribution and society that we enjoyed half a century ago, in which top marginal tax rates had just been cut from 91% to 70%, workers' wages were still rising in absolute terms, and executive salaries were a fraction of what they are today.  Unfortunately, because, I suspect, of the huge expansion in their own personnel, universities today need the much richer 1% of 2019 much more than they did in the 1950s.  Their admission strategies, we have learned, put a high priority on cultivating the wealthiest donors on whom they must rely for their economic future.  And with respect to income inequality--to use a phrase from half a century ago--that makes them part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, no matter how many disadvantaged people they manage to funnel into the top 1%.

The excellent book Winners Take All, which I reviewed here a few months ago, analyzed the moral dilemma of the new superrich: how to feel progressive while remaining solidly within the 1%.  Affirmative action as it is practiced today by elite schools is one "solution" to that problem.  I have thought a lot about who is benefiting and who isn't from the Harvard admissions policies that were laid bare last fall, and I will eventually getting around to sharing my views about that.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The space program and its era

Over the years I have made a number of posts here about the misrepresentation of the world of my childhood.  Today's writers and producers have a lot of trouble grasping how different the 1950s-early 1960s were--how there were so many issues in life that people simply didn't talk about, and how generally accepted the norms of those era really were.  I have noticed that the post, Truth, Fiction and Masters and Johnson draws a dozen or two hits almost every week.   About a year ago I posted about The Shape of Water, which caricatured 1962 to a remarkable extent.  This week I discovered not only another symptom of this disease, but an antidote.  The subject was another iconic aspect of that era, the space program.

First Man, focusing on Neil Armstrong and starring Ryan Gosling, clearly had big aspirations for box office success and rewards, but sank like a stone.  It closed before I could see it in theaters and I just watched it on DVD.  It was the third major motion picture about the space program in the last 35-40 years.  The first, The Right Stuff, based on Tom Wolfe's best-seller, came out in 1983, only 14 years after the Apollo moon landing, and dealt with the original Mercury program.  Its writer/director, Philip Kaufman, came from the same generation as many of the astronauts.  The second and by far the best was Apollo 13, the dramatic story of a nearly disastrous 1970 mission, appeared in 1995, and its director, Ron Howard, had seen the space program from the beginning as a small child and was already a national icon himself at the same time that the astronauts were.  Now, a full 24 years later, comes First Man, directed by Damien Chazelle,  who was born in 1985 and is therefore much too young to remember the Challenger disaster, much less any of the moon shots--or, more significantly, to have any real sense of what that era was like.

Chazelle's film focuses almost obsessively on Armstrong the man, and I must apologize for not having looked at the biography that he claims to have relied on, to see how it described his personality.  Gosling's Armstrong appears to be--there is no other way to put it--clinically depressed.  The film focuses on his loss of a baby daughter to cancer, and portrays a man who even by the standards of the 1950s-1960s is almost entirely without emotion, speaks as rarely and briefly as possible, and has a great deal of difficulty showing any emotional connection with anyone.  The film showed him flying what I took to be an X-15  in the 1950s but spent no time explaining that Armstrong, unlike nearly all the other astronauts, was not a military man, but a civilian test pilot.  I did, however, find a BBC interview on youtube which Armstrong did in 1970, if either Gosling or Chazelle saw it, they didn't allow it to influence them very much.  Armstrong clearly is quiet and reserved, but he shows plenty of emotion, and he also shows a quick intelligence and a very observant, engaged mind, responding in detail and without hesitation to all his interviewers' questions, confident that he is part of a great enterprise which will continue, and expand, throughout the rest of his life--in ways that it did not.

The bigger historical problem with First Man, however, is that it extends the image of Armstrong the loner to the entire program and the environment of all the astronauts.  They are portrayed, astonishingly to those of us who remember those times, as an isolated group who don't seem to enjoy much public support, who cope alone with terrible dangers, and who have to beg the public and the authorities to even keep their program going.  The opposite was true.  The whole program was a national drama from 1961, when Alan Shephard made the first suborbital flight, through the first Apollo landing in 1969, and most of the classroom instruction in the United States came to a halt whenever a launch took place during the day.  I don't think Chazelle can imagine what a world with just 3 tv channels, all of whom would tune in to major events like NASA mentions, was like.  There is nothing today--literally nothing--that commands the kind of attention that those launches did as it happens, not even, probably, the annual Super Bowl.  Our media, like our politics, are now fragmented and tribal, and we don't experience things as a nation the way that we did then.

A central episode in the movie led me to the primary source I was looking for to put the film in perspective.  That was the Apollo 1 disaster in January 1967, when the three astronauts who had bee assigned to the first Apollo launch--Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee--burned to death in their capsule after an electrical malfunction created a spark and set the oxygen atmosphere of the capsule on fire.  The accident took place around dinner time, but I remember that I didn't hear about it, for some reason, and learned it when I saw the front page of the New York Times that was delivered to me dormitory room the next morning.  It was a terrible shock because no astronaut had died before; despite some problems (including one that figures earlier in the film) the Mercury and Gemini programs had been completed without any catastrophes.  But I found on youtube what I missed then: a CBS special report, hosted by Mike Wallace, that probably ran about 11:30 PM that night.  It should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand what masculinity really meant 50  years ago. It was not toxic.

Wallace and the other correspondents--including both Walter Cronkite, whose involvement in the whole program was particularly intense, and Dan Rather, who reports from Washington--are obviously deeply affected by the tragedy, but they speak calmly, factually, and in full grammatical sentences.  So does Gus Grissom, the oldest and most experienced of the three dead men, in a previously taped interview in which he is asked whether, preparing for his third trip into space, he fears that the "law of averages" might catch up to him.  "There's always the possibility that you can have a catastrophic failure, it can happen as well on the last one as on the first one," he says, but one can't do anything but prepare as well as possible.  "You have to understand the feeling.  .that a test pilot has," Ed White says, "that I look forward a great deal to a first flight, there's a great deal of pride involved in making a first flight."  "Our business," said Roger Chaffee, "is to find our if this thing will work for us."  Like the nation they represented, they had confidence, and like professionals who deal with life and death in any era, they accepted the risks they faced as part of their job.  In another moving clip, White suggests that the example of the moon program will inspire young people to set, and achieve, difficult goals."I think if a civilization, if our country, becomes so obsessed with making our country easy to live in, and making our surroundings so comfortable, that we are in an ever-descending spiraling-in spiral right within ourselves, and if we don't look out and continue to expand ourselves and expand our horizons. . .we're not going to progress as a nation."  The even keel with which he delivers those words makes it quite clear that he was not in any way posturing; he believed every word.  In another clip, John Glenn, our first orbiter, had stated in response to a question that "we" fully expected to lose a man sooner or later.

I am often struck as I listen to NPR nowadays that broadcasts are based on emotions, that they are the basis of the "stories" the reporters chose to tell.  The CBS broadcast reeks with tragedy, but it is secondary to the inexorable march of the facts, of what had  happened, of how the men had died, and of what was known and not known about why the disaster had taken place.  NASA, including its chief scientist Werner von Braun, spoke very frankly even that evening.  Another astronaut, Walter Schirra, speculated that the mission would be delayed for only a few months. As it turned out, it took longer than that, but the program, of course, met John F. Kennedy's original goal of reaching the moon during the decade of the 1960s.

When the Apollo I disaster took place, the greater disaster that would destroy the ethos of that era--the Vietnam War--was already in full swing.  Within just a few more years, our government and many of our other institutions would be presumed guilty by much of the citizenry whenever anything went wrong, and responsible authorities were learning to react defensively and to start spinning from the word go.  In January 1967 that was not the case, and Walter Cronkite, in his last words on the program  also emphasized, "this is a test program," that many test pilots had died in conventional aircraft, and that while this would delay the program to 1969 or 1970, it "shouldn't, in any way, damage our national resolve to press on with the program for which these men gave their lives."

That era will not come back in any of our lifetimes.  It had taken a century, I now think, to create its ethos, and for half a century we have been tearing it down.  We have made social progress in areas that that time had neglected--but politically, we have regressed in ways that Wallace, Cronkhite and the rest could never even have imagined.  One cannot, I think, watch that CBS special--as I hope many readers will take a half an hour to do--without realizing that it embodied virtues that we lack, and that we can try at least to revive in our own environment and our own lives.