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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Where we stand

I am increasingly convinced that the fourth great crisis of American national life (after 1774-1794, 1861-68 or so, and 1929-45) began either on 9/11 or in November 2000 at the time of the contested election, and that it is limping towards its conclusion as Barack Obama moves through a disappointing second term.  Events could change my mind. Another economic collapse or a foreign war could put us back into full crisis mode, although the latter, despite disquieting noises from China, seems unlikely.  The crisis is in many ways a non-violent version of the civil war.  The nation, divided largely on regional lines, has fought a bitter conflict over the role of the federal government and over values.  Religion has played a larger role in this crisis than in any other in American history.  This time we have not fought the conflict militarily, but rather through a ruthless use of our political institutions designed to mobilize both sides around common values.  Because I have given small amounts of money to Democratic campaigns I get about three emails a day asking me for contributions to elections that are 17 months away, and I'm sure Republicans get parallel messages.  This ensures that nothing like a consensus between the parties will emerge any time soon.

The Supreme Court played an enormous role in the post-civil war period, striking down civil rights legislation and the income tax, limiting the federal government's ability to protect the rights of freed slaves, and providing new legal protections for corporations under the 14th Amendment.  Meanwhile, after initial postwar Republican victories, the political parties fought each other to a standstill for almost twenty years.  From 1876 through 1892, the shift of a single state in the electoral college would have changed the results of every presidential election.  In our time, a more closely divided Supreme Court has had at least as big an impact.

This week, the invalidation of the key section of the Voting Rights Act confirmed that the conservative majority has no compunction about substituting its judgment for that of the politically elected branches in defiance of precedent or the Constitution--something the Warren Court rarely did.  The Voting Rights Act is a straightforward exercise of the express power granted the Congress to enforce the provisions of the 15th Amendment barring racial discrimination in voting. Congress first exercised that power in 1965 and has done so repeatedly since, most recently late in the Presidency of George W. Bush.  The court has now thrown out their work because it does not feel that the 1965 rules for coming under the act should still prevail.  In practice they do not--some districts in the deep South have been able to earn their way out of the act with good behavior, while various northern districts have become subjected to it.  But Chief Justice Roberts did not care, and the Justice Department will no longer be able to block voter ID laws based upon their discriminatory impact. Once again, as in the Citizens United decision, a 5-4 majority composed entirely of Republican-appointed judges has given the Republican party a boost in the elections.  The chance of a redefinition of eligibility getting through the current Congress appears to me to be nil.

Meanwhile, the court continued undoing the achievements of the Progressive era and the New Deal, narrowing the application of the antitrust laws in a key case involving American Express.  As I recall, the Clayton Act, passed in the Wilson Administration, was specifically designed to prevent monopolies from unfairly exploiting their market power, for instance by forcing buyers of their products to buy additional ones in order to get access to the one they exclusively produced.  American Express falls into that category: it has a monopoly, apparently, on credit cards for businesses, which it exploits to force restaurants to accept its consumer credit cards as well, even though it charges higher user fees than other credit cards.  Bringing a suit would not be a worthwhile investment for a single restaurant, but a class action suit could save restauranteurs millions if they won at American Express's expense.  The Court disallowed such a suit, effectively endorsing the use of monopoly power.  This is yet another echo of the Gilded Age.

But two different majorities essentially invalidated the federal Defense of Marriage Act and undid Proposition 8 in California, which had banned same-sex marriage.  Incredibly, Justice Scalia, dissenting in the DOMA case, blasted the majority for overruling the will of Congress and the Executive, even though he had helped do the same in the Voting Rights case earlier in the week, and even though DOMA is nearly ten years older than the latest revision of the Voting Rights Act.   I am glad that gay marriage remains a matter for individual states.  Roe v. Wade was disastrous for American politics because it created a new right-wing cause of enormous power, and I do not think that cause would have played such a role in our national life had the states retained the power to legalize abortion, as the two largest ones had already done in 1973.   Pressure will mount even on states like Texas to recognize gay unions. This is a real victory for human rights, but it exemplifies what has happened to liberal politics in the last forty years.

Gay marriage is a step forward in individual freedom and a welcome one.   Unfortunately, the rights of women, minorities, and gays have been virtually the only issues around which liberals have been able to organize themselves over the last few decades.  Progress in those areas has certainly helped highly educated women and minorities realize their dreams, and open gays can now lead much happier lives, but the bulk of the population continues steadily to lose ground.  It is not clear to me that lower-income women or minorities and better off than they were 40 years ago, and the Democratic Party is now unable to do much about that.   Ironically gay marriage is a major step towards more traditional values, since it is about family formation.  I don't think we know yet exactly what the long-term effects of the decline of the traditional family are going to be.

Thus, during this crisis, each side has gotten what it wanted most.  The Democrats have secured rights for women, minorities and gays; the Republicans have promoted massive economic inequality and corporate freedom.   This is another parallel to the Civil War crisis, in which Democrats managed to restore white supremacy in the south while Republicans established corporate supremacy all over the nation.  These will be the legacies of the Boom generation.  I am not sure that generation will live to see the country go in a new direction.l

Saturday, June 22, 2013

For the Republicans, an idea whose time has come

The Republican Party has a problem: it represents several shrinking demographics, led by elderly white people and the well-to-do.  The ineradicable views of white voters in the red states and gerrymandering in purple states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania have locked a majority in Congress in for them for some time to come, but they are having a much harder time in presidential elections and even statewide races.  Their rhetoric increasingly emphasizes the electoral power of the less well off, whom they like to stigmatize as those who merely take from the government while they give to it--the notorious 47%, which may well grow thanks to the sequester that they ordered.  Now they face the dilemma of immigration reform, which studies show would benefit the nation's economy but which would also add millions of new hispanics to the voting rolls.

It occurred to me this morning that the solution to Republican electoral problems is, when you think about it, obvious, and a friend of mine from a red state pointed out that a Tea Party leader has already mused about it, back in the heady days of 2010.  The solution, which has a rich tradition in western and US history, is a property qualification for voting.  And what is rather shocking is that there does not seem to be anything in the Constitution to prevent it.

Property qualifications for voting were common--although I am not sure they were universal--in the original 13 colonies.  They were eliminated state by state in the era of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, and that may have had something to do with the landslide election of Andrew Jackson in 1828.  The original federal Constitution blessed them in effect when it gave the right to vote for Congressmen, in every state, to those allowed by state law to vote for the more numerous branch of the state legislature.  Meanwhile, the Constitution specified that Senators would be elected by state legislatures and left the question of how to select presidential electors entirely up to the states.  Gradually the custom of allowing the voters to select them by voting for the presidential candidate of their choice became general.

The Civil War amendments to the Constitution only marginally affected the issue of property qualification.  The 15th Amendment barred states from abridging the right to vote based upon race, color, or previous condition of servitude, but said nothing about property.  The 14th Amendment included a provision that could be used to punish states for imposing a property qualification, although that was not the provision's intention.  While the 14th Amendment allowed states to impose racial qualifications for voting, it continued, "But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State."  In other words, should Texas, for instance, establish a property qualification that disenfranchised 40% of its adult citizens, their number of House seats could--by some unspecified procedure--be reduced by 40%.  This provision of the 14th Amendment was originally designed to induce the southern states to admit the freed slaves to the vote themselves in order to secure larger representation in Congress, but when the southern states refused to do so, the Republicans resorted to the 15th Amendment instead.

Nearly half a century later, the 17th Amendment gave the right to elect Senators to the people but once again fixed the qualifications for voting for Senators as the same as those for voting for the most numerous branch of the state legislature.  The 19th Amendment, forbidding limitation of the right to vote based upon sex, did nothing to change the rules on voter qualifications in any other way.  In 1964 the 24th Amendment, passed after a very long struggle, outlawed the poll tax as a requirement to vote, but said nothing about property qualifications.  (Curiously, the amendment did not abolish poll taxes, but simply forbade states from denying the vote to anyone who refused to pay them.)  Lastly, the 26th Amendment prohibited any age qualification of 18 years or older.

It is very hard to say how long the mood of the Republican Party is going to last.  On the one hand, the Tea Party is composed mainly of older voters who are dying off every day.  On the other hand, the Republican Party has produced a large cohort of politicians from Generation X whose views echo or even go beyond those of the Tea Party.  If in fact demographic changes begin to threaten their position in purple or red states, then I will not be surprised at all if the idea of property qualifications becomes popular.  And many will be surprised to find that the Constitution does not forbid them.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Syria: What Obama Might Say

Among the millions, if not billions, of people around the world who in 2009 hoped that Barack Obama might introduce basic changes to American foreign policy were the Nobel Committee in Norway, which offered him a very premature Nobel Peace Prize.   Of the four Presidents to have received it, including Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and Carter, he now looms as by far the least deserving.  He did withdraw American troops from Iraq and promises to do the same in Afghanistan, but only after six more years of futile war in that second country.  He has made no major progress in our relations with any major industrial state, and he has gotten nowhere in his attempts to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.  In the Middle East he has essentially continued, at lower cost, the neoconservative policies of George W. Bush, according to which the only good dictator is a fallen dictator, regardless of what consequences might follow.  He committed himself successively to the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qadaffi, and Hafez Assad, but it is far from clear that the fall of the first two is going to benefit either their nations or the United States.  In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, David Bromwich has written a brilliant attack on Bill Keller of the New York Times, John McCain, and others calling for intervention in Syria, emphasizing not only the weakness of the case for it but the unlikelihood that it could have any beneficial consequences. Today, days after I began this post, we learn that the Administration will indeed supply small arms to the Syrian opposition--apparently to preserve its credibility with allies like Jordan and Saudi Arabia who are taking the Sunni side in the Syrian civil war.

 I have been wondering what the President--or for that matter, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel, or David Cameron--might say with respect to the Syrian situation at this moment.  Here is a quick draft.

"Since 1979, and more intensely in the last few years, the nations of the Middle East and Central Asia have been wracked by revolution and political conflict.  In the vast sweep of human history such periods have occurred in every region of the world.  France, Germany, Britain and the United States have all experienced revolutions and long, costly civil wars, as well as massive foreign conflicts.  All of them ultimately resolved those wars themselves, without foreign intervention, and this must be the task of nations like Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt as well.  Nations and regions have different histories and cultures, and indeed, the primacy of western values is no longer taken for granted as it was only half a century ago.  Yet the history both of the western nations and of the Middle East itself offers critical lessons in the present crisis.  Humanity has advanced to its current stage only by abandoning religion as the basis of politics.  Across North Africa and the Middle East, many nations must decide whether they intend to doom themselves to decades of religious strife, or whether instead they can establish forms of government that will enable all their citizens to live together in peace.

"For two millenniums, the three closely related monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have spread through the Middle East, Central and South Asia, North Africa, and across the seas.  These religions still offer billions of people the comfort of faith and rules to live by.  But whether or not they are divinely inspired--as most of their adherents believe--they have inevitably been interpreted from the moment of their foundation by living men and women--and those interpretations have differed.  Christianity has endured two major schisms, first between the Roman and Byzantine orthodox churches and then, in the sixteenth century, between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.  Islam divided very early into Sunni and Shi'ite faiths.  Judaism has taken many forms over the centuries.  And despite the fervor with which individuals believe in each of the various branches of these faiths, history shows clearly none of the dreams of a single universal church shall ever be fulfilled on earth--a fact predicted, one might say, by the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel.

"Sadly, each of these schisms has led to large-scale violence.  Coming myself from a western nation where Christianity has always been the most numerous religion, I shall look more closely at the impact of religious divides in western Europe.  The birth of modern Protestantism in 16th-century Germany triggered civil wars, initially resolved in 1555 by granting to the rulers of individual German states the right to decree the state religion.  In the second half of the sixteenth century a violent civil war between French Catholics and Protestants raged for decades, concluding only when the French King Henry IV converted from Protestantism to Catholicism and specified particular areas where Protestants could worship freely.  The conflict in Germany began again in 1618 and continued for thirty bloody years, inflicting terrible human and economic damage before a new compromise was finally reached in 1648.  The civil war in Britain in the 1640s also turned largely on religious differences.  In 1685, the French monarchy banned Protestant worship, driving hundreds of thousands of Protestants out of the country.  It would be very difficult, I think, to find Germans, Frenchmen or Britishers today who would argue that any of these terrible events reflect credit on their ancestors.  All were tragedies of history.

"The eighteenth century saw the dawn of the age of reason, and a new attitude towards the place of religion in public life.  Nowhere was this more apparent than in the new nation of the United States, whose Constitution rejected any established religion or religious test for public office, and where believers and non-believers alike enjoyed full rights.  For the next century and a half that principle drew immigrants from all over the globe to immigrate to the United States.  Europe, however, followed suit.  During the nineteenth century Britain, Germany, France, and virtually every other western European nation eliminated legal distinctions among citizens based upon religion.

"Meanwhile, let it be noted, most of what we now call the Middle East, as well as North Africa and a good deal of Eastern Europe, had been ruled from the 15th century until the early 20th by the Ottoman Empire.  And while that empire could not be considered a modern state, its laws at least allowed Muslims, Christians and Jews to live together, albeit on unequal terms.  In that sense it, like the emerging European monarchies, asserted civil over religious authority.

"The newly independent states in North Africa and the Middle East that emerged about sixty years ago were also based upon civil, not religious authority.  In the past forty years much of that region has experienced a new religious awakening--one that is also visible in Israel.  Now some of the governments of those states have disappeared while religious conflicts have grown.  In the past forty years three Middle Eastern states--Lebanon, Iraq, and now Syria--have been torn apart by catastrophic civil wars fought by the adherents of different religions.  Most of the states of the Middle East include both Sunni and Shi'ite populations, and Sunni and Shi'ite states are now supporting the opposing factions in the Syrian civil war.  That was what happened in Germany from 1618 to 1648.  It is not impossible that within twenty years nuclear weapons could be deployed in this internecine conflict.  In any case, this is a catastrophe which men and women of goodwill must try to stop.  The new President of Iran--a man pledged to repair hsi country's relations with the rest of the world--could make an enormous contribution to this task.

"The western nations and the broader UN Security Council cannot impose a political system or a political settlement upon Syria, but they can recognize the principles upon which one can be based.  The fate of individual rulers is far less important than the need to re-establish the principles of equality before the law and freedom of worship.  Only then can societies commit themselves to the Enlightenment dream of progress based upon human reason--the only vision that offers hope for the survival of modern civilization in an increasingly complex world.  We call upon the leaders of all Syrian factions to accept the idea of a tolerant Syria that respects human rights for all, to agree upon a political solution to their war guaranteeing freedom of worship, and to lay down their arms.  If they can do so, they can provide a critical example to the other nations of their region.  If they cannot, their own people and the people of the region will suffer a series of catastrophes that will set them back for decades or even centuries.  Meanwhile, we ask every government in the region to commit itself to religious equality and religious peace within its borders to forestall even greater catastrophes.  We believe the mass of their people would welcome such a step.

"The age of imperialism is over.  While some nations remain much richer than others, they no longer dispose of the human resources, the will, or the moral certainty that led them, in centuries past, to impose their will and their values on others.  This too is progress.  The fate of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa rests in their own hands.  Yet they are a part of a broader history and they cannot, and must not, ignore its lessons.  The United States will do nothing to encourage the triumph of any faction based on ethnicity and religion, but its government stands ready to do all it can to encourage a broad political settlement that will turn Syria away from the disastrous path of religious war."

Friday, June 07, 2013

Pearson and Assange

Nearly eight years ago, I wrote a post on the career of Drew Pearson, the muckraker who with his collaborators Robert Allen and Jack Anderson infuriated Administrations from Roosevelt to Nixon, and who successfully defended all but one of many dozens of libel suits along the way.  I concluded that post with a lament that there was no one remotely like Pearson writing today, either for newspapers (he was a syndicated columnist) or in the blogosphere.  Last weekend I saw We Steal Secrets, a very well-balanced documentary about Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, and Wikileaks, and I left the theater thinking about the similarities and differences between Assange and Pearson, and between Pearson's time and ours.

Neither Pearson nor Assange had, or have, any respect for government serecy regulations per se.  Pearson published lots of classified information and was repeatedly investigated for doing so.  Pearson, however, always did so for a very specific purpose--to point out that a particular government official had lied about a particular matter or policy, or to expose a corrupt national, state or local official in some part of the country, or to let the American people know about the concerns of the War Department in the critical summer of 1940, as I found researching my new book. He saw himself, as I wrote in 2005, as a political activist as well as a journalist, and his remarkable diaries show him working hard for or against various appointments or pieces of legislation.  He continually balanced his personal reservations about Harry Truman and some of the men around him with his commitment to the broad liberal cause of which Truman was the only representative on the scene.  Pearson, in other words, used his platform to expose wrongdoing, but also to participate in the great enterprise of governing the American people and  influencing the rest of the world for the better.

Assange's goal, from the time he set up Wikileaks, has been to expose as many secrets as possible, period.   At no time does the film about him show him enunciating any political philosophy or policy position--merely a general feeling that governments lie.  Nor apparently does he have the patience to go through a treasure trove of documents to figure out which are the most important and what they really mean.   And in this respect, he typifies what has happened to our public life in the years since Pearson's death in 1969: any sense of belonging to a common political enterprise that can move us all forward has been lost, replaced  by a general distrust of authority of all kinds, an endless,. useless resentment, lacking even any vision of how things might be different, much less of how we might get there.  This attitude has put the left at a great disadvantage relative to right wing sites like Breitbart.com, which know exactly whom they want to hurt and why, and which function actively on behalf of the Republican Party--the more organized part of the anti-authority movement.

I have recently been re-reading the early criticism of the film critic Pauline Kael, and she identified the onset of this trend in the mid-1960s, talking about the reaction of younger movie audiences to films like Dr. Strangelove.  "Dr. Strangelove," she wrote in 1967, "opened a new movie era. It ridiculed everything and everybody it showed, but concealed its own liberal pieties, thus protecting itself from ridicule. . . .Dr. Strangelove, chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity.  It was experienced not as satire but as a confirmation of fears. . . From Dr. Strangelove it's a quick leap to MacBird [a then-current off-Broadway play accusing Lyndon Johnson of assassinating John F. Kennedy] and to a belief in exactly what we were not supposed to find in Dr Strangelove.  It is not war that has been laughed to scorn but the possibility of sane action." 

There are some ironies in these comments.  I saw Dr. Strangelove on the night it opened in New York, and over the last half-century I have discovered that almost every detail in it reflects true facts.  Eisenhower had signed off on a real "Wing Attack Plan R," authorizing local commanders to attack the USSR if Washington had been destroyed.  McGeorge Bundy had argued (on JFK's behalf) with the Joint Chiefs of Staff about whether a conflict in which the US lost 30 million people while killing 100 million Soviets could be called a victory.  A fellow scholar and friend doing interviews with Air Force brass in the 1980s was told that yes, in a real crisis with the Soviets, the pressure for an all-out pre-emptive strike would become intense.  But Kael was right to argue that sanity remained possible.  Already, JFK's extraordinary leadership and Khrushchev's residual sanity had saved us from holocaust at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.  And despite another scary moment during the first Reagan Administration, successive Presidents and general secretaries kept their nerve much better than George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did after 9/11, and the nuclear holocaust never took place.  But meanwhile, the mindset that Kael--a liberal from the GI generation--identified in 1967 remains very much alive today, dominating much of academia.  And Julian Assange seems to share it.  There is an enormous, critical difference between publishing secrets to make government more responsive to the public and more beholden to the truth, and publishing secrets because one disbelieves in the possibility of honest government completely.  The history of the last forty years should have taught American leftists that people with no faith in institutions will eventually get institutions utterly unworthy of their faith.

We Steal Secrets does at one point try to give Wikileaks some credit for the Arab spring, because Bradley Manning's massive dump of State Department cables included some having to do with Egypt and Tunisia.  I suspect that is a stretch.  While some of those cables as reported at the time were potential embarrassments to foreign leaders, I doubt any of my readers could remember any of the specifics published in the New York Times now.  Bradley Manning's treatment has been disgraceful, but no government could allow a soldier to go entirely unpunished for what he did.  (The movie also makes clear that he was a very emotionally troubled young man, one of many drawn into the military during the recent wars.) 

It is no accident that Assange comes from Australia, one of the most peaceful nations on earth.  A complete disbelief in authority, as Orwell understood, is a luxury that only those who have been fortunate enough to grow up in unusually stable circumstances can afford.  The millions of Boomers who have denied the legitimacy of all authority for nearly half a century now have been indulging that luxury thanks to the achievements of their parents and grandparents.  Generation X, now assuming positions of power all through our society, has never had any faith in institutions.  The question of whether modern society can survive without strong institutions enjoying the confidence of most of the population will be answered over the next few decades.