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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...

Sunday, June 26, 2016

History Unfolds More Rapidly

I had written Friday's post about Obama and JFK earlier in the week, and I am busily revising a book on a completely different topic (baseball), but the Brexit vote and the extraordinary reaction to it call for some comment.  I am reading the newspapers every morning with increasing interest.  I have been doing these posts for almost 12 years now--and the world is finally catching on.  No, it wasn't because they discovered me--it was because of the unmistakable evidence before their eyes.  No one, now, can deny that the western world is in a political crisis comparable to those of 1789-1815, 1859-71, and 1929-45.  It is, and will almost surely remain, less violent, but it may be just as consequential.  And like the first of those crises, it comes, more than anything else, from a complete breakdown of understanding between the elites and the masses of the people.

I have read a good deal about the Brexit vote but I have not seen one point made specifically as yet.  (It must have been make in the British press, but I haven't seen it.)  Asked to decide their nation's future, a small majority of the electorate voted against the position taken by both of their leading political parties.  Britain was probably at a similar point in both the 18th- and 19th-century crises, but the established order found solutions.  In the 1790s,  the solution was the strict repression of the popular movement for democracy.  In 1867 it was the enfranchisement of a much broader swath of the population.  This time, the solution remains to be found.  And the result may well be the breakup of the United Kingdom, after Scotland declares its independence and joins the EU.  For international soccer fans, the status of the British Isles, who have fielded four different national teams since international soccer was organized in the last century, has always seemed a bit anomalous.  It won't be in a few more years.  Before Thursday, the British political system seemed to be in relatively robust shape.  Alone among the major nations, the British actually had a government dominated by one party, the Tories. Now their leader is on the way out and the whole future of British politics could not be ore uncertain.

I spent the last week in May bicycling around southern Italy with 13 well-educated Brits, who were divided on Brexit.  Based upon what they said, Muslim immigration was not an important issue in the vote.  The great mistake which may wreck the EU was its rapid expansion into Eastern Europe, which remains, as it has been for centuries, a completely different world. (That was one of the themes of my first book, Economic Diplomacy and the Origins of the Second World War.)  Several of my traveling companions complained that eastern Europeans could not only find their way to Britain whenever they chose, but could immediately secure the benefits of the British welfare state under EU law.  The expansion of both the EU and the eurozone as far as Greece has of course had dreadful consequences, and they will get worse now.  The political divisions between Hungary and Poland on the one hand, and France and Germany on the other, are probably comparable to those between Texas and California.  Bureaucrats in Brussels simply can't hold such disparate communities together indefinitely.

The European and American elites--still led, like our own, by the postwar generation to which I belong--have fallen victim to a classic illusion.  Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and David Cameron and Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel believe that because the system has been so good for them, it must be good for everyone else.  But even in Europe, where the state provides education and health care to all, more and more people are losing faith.  In the US they have lost it.  Together the Trump and Sanders vote is probably greater than the Clinton vote.  It does not seem likely that Trump can unite it, but the New York Times reports today that even Hillary Clinton realizes that Brexit is very bad news for a campaign like hers, based fundamentally on an embrace of the status quo.

The decline of the European union is, in a sense, predictable.  It grew up in the 1950s and 1960s as a response to a potential rebirth of nationalism, which had destroyed Europe in the first half of the century, and a defense against the Communist threat.  Now the generation that experienced Fascism and Nazism has almost completely died off, and the Communist threat no longer exists.  Because European birth rates fell so low, immigration was the only way to keep European economies going--and that has created new social and political problems.  And faced with an economic crisis comparable in some ways to that of the great depression, the European elite has paid virtually no attention to the huge rise in permanent unemployment, and opted for a disastrous policy of austerity.  A loosening of the bonds among the major European states might actually help find a way out of the mess, if one or more major nations adopts new policies that work.  Apparently the European bureaucracy isn't capable of a change of course.

Are our own politics in an equally great state of crisis?  The answer, it seems to me, must be yes.  One whole party, the Republicans,has totally lost touch with its voters.  The Democratic Party is deeply divided within itself and its appeal to independents is, at this point most uncertain.  Congress remains in thrall to special interests and cannot follow the will of the people.  The majority of the population opposes increased integration and new trade deals, which the party establishments favor.  Inequality is increasing with staggering consequences in our leading metropolitan areas, and our generation gap seems to be as wide as Britain's.

Such crises, of course, are opportunities as well, and in the past they have produced Washington Hamilton and Jefferson; Abraham Lincoln; FDR and the leading figures of his administration; Benjamin Disraeli, Otto von Bismarck, Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.  They have also produced Napoleon, Hitler, and Lenin.  Yet in the western world there is not a single leader of remotely comparable stature on the horizon.  Here I think the educational system and my own profession of history must take a great deal of the blame.  Historians no longer teach much about nations or governments, about how they have built societies and held them together in the past, and how they have established links with the population at large.  Instead they are focused on the lives and (purported) feelings of the marginalized groups within society.  That focus was one of the luxuries of spending one's life within a relative stable world--the world that is now passing before our eyes.  Almost 25 years ago, William Strauss and Neil Howe recognized that we could not stay forever on the path that we were on, and that a great crisis was coming.  Their books found almost no resonance in the media or academia, but they attracted a few dozen acolytes within the general population who have come to know each other well on line.  None of this has surprised any of us, although the sudden acceleration of the crisis is a shock.  But we have had to face that the market for truth, in the world my generation has created, is a specialty market.  I would have loved to have had more impact on how the historical profession sees the world,. but I could not overcome the tide of history.  Perhaps in another twenty years more people will discover the keys to understanding how things fell apart, and how--for better or for worse--something new was put in their place.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Obama and Kennedy

For more than 60 years, as Andrew Bacevich has pointed out in several books, the national security establishment of the United States has generally generally assumed that American military intervention is the solution to any major problem overseas.  Within the government—and especially in civilian bureaucracies—dissenters from this view have been rare, and usually marginalized.  Occasionally, however, a determined President has stood in the way of the bureaucracy and blocked what would have been a catastrophic intervention.  Such was the case in 1961-2, when John F. Kennedy kept the Unites out of war in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.  Last week’s revelation of a memorandum from dissenting State Department officials calling for war against the Assad regime in Syria confirms that President Obama has been playing a parallel role for some time.

John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961 in the midst of a series of crises around the world.  Nikita Khrushchev was threatening to face the United States with a choice between war in Europe and the loss of West Berlin.  The newly independent Congo had erupted into civil war.  The CIA presented Kennedy with its plans to overthrow the Castro regime in Cuba.  And in Laos, the United States was poised to intervene in a civil war between a US-backed right wing government on the one hand, and a coalition of neutralists and communists supported by both the USSR and Hanoi on the other. Meanwhile, in neighboring South Vietnam, the security situation was deteriorating rapidly and the Diem regime was threatened.

As I showed in detail in my book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, Kennedy for nearly the whole of the year 1961 was deluged with a series of proposals from the Defense and State Department for large-scale military intervention in Laos, in South Vietnam, or in both.  He repeatedly refused to accept them, noting that North Vietnam and China could easily intervene far more heavily in Laos than the United States could, and arguing that it would be almost impossible to secure public or international support for a war in South Vietnam.  In November, he finally insisted on abandoning any plans for US military intervention, and settled on a course of trying to strengthen the South Vietnamese government instead.  Meanwhile, in Laos, he rejected the almost unanimous advice of team and undertook negotiations to set up a neutral government in place of the weak pro-American one that was losing the war.  Those negotiations were successfully concluded in 1962.  During 1963, a Buddhist revolt threatened the Diem regime in South Vietnam, and Kennedy eventually blessed a South Vietnamese military coup to replace it.  The option of American intervention, however, was never let back on the table.  

The draft State Department memo that has been released was written by dissenting officials, but it probably represents the thinking of some senior ones as well.  While it does not call for the introduction of ground troops into Syria, it calls for using air strikes to punish the Assad regime for violations of the cease-fire agreement.  This, it claims—without much evidence—will strengthen Washington’s negotiating hand both with Assad and with the rebels.  Their goal is to “advance talks involving internal and external actors, to include the Iranians and the Saudis, to produce a transitional government.”  This seems to imply that while Assad may temporarily remain head of state, the intention is to remove him from power.  While recognizing that “the Asad [sic] regime might prove resilient even in the face of U.S. strikes” and that the negative effects of military steps might include “of further deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations,” the dissenters declare that “it is time the United States, guided by our strategic interests and moral convictions, lead a global effort to put an end to this conflict once and for all.”

Just as President Kennedy foresaw the pitfalls of American intervention in Southeast Asia, President Obama seems to understand the perils of Washington trying to bring down yet another Arab regime.  The conflict in Syria, as an important new book points out, is driven above all by the regional conflict between Iranian-led Shi’ites and Saudi-led Sunnis which the United States has helped to unleash and is now helpless to stop.  The fall of Assad would probably lead to a new massacre of Shi’ite Alawites, and quite possibly to more gains in Syria by ISIS.  The President has admitted that his decision to bring down Muammar Qaddafi in Libya was mistaken, and he does not intend to repeat it in his last months in office.  While he might have made a much greater effort to explain his policies to the American people, he has done an admirable job of sticking to his guns in the face of the idea that the US can, and should, put an end to any destructive conflict and any wicked regime anywhere in the world.

Sadly, the parallel between Kennedy and Obama does not end here.  Within a month of Kennedy’s death, evidence reached Lyndon Johnson that the military situation in South Vietnam was much worse than anyone had imagined, and by March of 1964 Johnson had agreed in principle to go to war, if necessary, after the November election.  The Johnson Administration completed a plan for full-scale intervention by mid-December 1964, and implemented it beginning in late February 1965.  The war Kennedy had refused to begin dragged on for nearly 8 disastrous years, with incalculable consequences for the United States and Southeast Asia.  Hillary Clinton is now the favorite to succeed Barack Obama.  She has conspicuously refused to renounce the Libyan intervention which she supported so vigorously as Secretary of State, and she has made clear that she thinks her former boss’s foreign policy is too restrained.  She will, in my opinion, have us involved in war with the Assad regime within a year of taking office.  Because Presidents who resist the consensus against foreign interventions are so exceptional, their impact is limited to their term in office.  In the foreign policy establishments of both parties, interventionism still reigns supreme.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

A way to think about terrorists

Omar Mateen's killing of more than 50 people and wounding of 50 more in Orlando has sparked a debate over its significance, one that reflects the evolution of American liberal thinking.  The world, left wingers have increasingly believed over the last few decades, is divided into privileged straight white males on the one hand, and women, gays, and nonwhites on the other.  Many instinctively reduce any issue to yet another instance of white male oppression.  In this case, I am sorry to say, the terrible killings have touched off a round of what I can only call competitive victimization. While the President and the two candidates to succeed him talk about the killing as an instance of lone wolf terrorism perpetrated by an American Muslim, some gay commentators claim the killing was mainly an expression of American homophobia.  This morning, the New York Times quotes several academics arguing that the most significant thing about Mateen is that he had beaten and tried to control his first wife, and  suggesting that political Islamic fundamentalism is more than anything else an expression of the impulses behind misogyny.  And on Facebook, I have even seen a banner claiming that this was not the biggest mass shooting in American history, that that honor should go to the Tulsa race riot of 1921, in which more than 70 people died.  I would like to suggest an alternative approach.

My own view of mass murderers has largely been shaped by the insights of the late Alice Miller, a German psychoanalyst who discussed the impact of childhood on later life in several books, most notably For Your Own Good, which includes extensive discussions of both Hitler and other Nazis and how they became who they were.  Miller, as it happens, was a Jewish holocaust survivor herself, but in all her many books, I am quite certain, she never referred to herself as a Jew, and it was only in her obituary that I learned that fact.  Like Hannah Arendt, she believed she was writing for all mankind.  She argued that childhood could produce mass murderers in at least two ways.  There were those like Hitler, who was beaten repeatedly by his own father but who could never acknowledge the feelings those beatings produced in him, and found the Jews and others a convenient outlet for his rage.  And then there were the lesser Nazis, whose childhoods had taught them, in many ways, that their own feelings did not matter and that their duty was simply to submit to authority--and who could therefore collaborate in the Holocaust without experiencing any strong feelings at all.

I have no doubt, myself, that stories of tragic childhoods in one way or another lie behind every mass killing about which we read today.  Bigotry, I believe, provides an outlet for hatred whose real objects--parents, siblings, or other caregivers--cannot be acknowledged.  Ironically, many of the most dangerous people, as Miller showed, insist that they revered their parents and were well brought up--because they had been successfully trained to suppress or ignore their own anger and rage.  Many great revolutions in modern history, from France in 1789 through Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1933, has provided opportunities for men and women to act out their rage.  So does the Islamic revolution that has claimed adherents by the thousands in Muslim nations, and by the dozens in the West..

The terrorist urge to hold people under one's control exercising the power of life and death recreates, for the victims, what we all experienced at one time or another as small children when others held absolute power over our lives.  If those others used it well and with love, we can grow up to be healthy adults; if they did not, we can spend our whole lives in fear, with the temptation to pass the fear on to some one else.   Ideology and specific prejudices may provide convenient targets for these feelings, but they do not provide the drive to rule and kill itself.  I am often struck that amidst all the widespread discussion of men's violence against women, there is hardly ever any discussion of the violence the male perpetrator may have suffered himself as a child, either at the hands of women or of men.  Many seem to prefer to believe in male original sin.  Meanwhile, the many terrorists who commit suicide to kill others are telling the world, among other things, that their own lives do not matter.  Some one else must have persuaded them of this already.

Sadly, it now seems clear that radical Islam has enough adherents within the US to generate one or more mass killings a year for some time to come.  Despite Secretary Clinton's promises and Donald Trump's fantasies, it will probably be impossible to identify them in advance.  (FBI stings have sent a number of totally innocent Americans to prison for joining in supposed conspiracies started by the FBI itself, but one report states that an FBI informant tried and failed to entrap Omar Mateen long before he acted.)  Regardless of who individual killers choose as victims, we shall evidently have to expect occasional headlines like this weekend's for some time to come.  We could, I believe, reduce the scale of the slaughter by re-instituting a ban on the sale and possession of semi-automatic assault rifles, but that has become politically impossible.  Alas, more mass shootings of innocents--especially, perhaps, in red states--will be necessary to get Republicans to rethink their subservience to the NRA and gun manufacturers on this point.

Terrorism threatens public order and the security of every citizen.  Its containment deeply interests us all.  Meanwhile, we desperately need President Obama's realism about what we can and can't do, both here and in the Middle East, to prevent ourselves from doing more harm in a misguided effort to do good.  Terrorism is a fact of life as it was in the United Kingdom for much of the last part of the twentieth century. It will claim more victims.  But no one--least of all Muslims--is safe from it, and no one should lay claim to victimhood for any particular act of terror.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Et tu, Paul Krugman

Like so many liberals, I regarded Paul Krugman as a beacon of light over the last 16 years.  While I was not so dependent upon him during the Bush years as one friend of mine who confessed that he often stayed up late the night before Krugman's next column was scheduled to appear so as to read it on line, he was a rare kindred spirit.  Although he is a full six years younger than I am, Krugman repeatedly expressed admiration for the strong points of the America of our youth--in particular, its relative economic equality and sense of concern for the public good--and regretted their eclipse as our own generation took power.  He was never afraid to call a spade a spade rather than referring to it metaphorically as a shovel, to quote Mark Twain, and he earned hysterical enmity from the right wing during the Bush years because he was the most visible figure willing to tell the truth about what the Bush Administration was doing.  During Bush's attempt to privatize social security Krugman actually quoted something I had written to the effect that a failure to pay benefits out of the Social Security Trust Fund would violate the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the public debt of the United States.  Delighted, I made a few attempts to make personal contact with him, but never heard anything back.  Now I feel that is just as well.

The great turning point in Krugman's career occurred late last year, when he came down squarely on the side of Hillary Clinton against Bernie Sanders, claiming that her vision of "incremental change" was superior to his sweeping proposals.  Exactly how and why a man who had written so eloquently about the catastrophic consequences of the deregulation of the financial industry under Bill Clinton could come to embrace the candidate who is herself the darling of Wall Street is something I will not try to guess, but I don't see how anyone can deny that it represents an extraordinary change in his position.  Some of his columns on the Clinton-Sanders contest carried the clear implication that we no longer had any choice but to live with the society our generation has created, simply tweaking it around the edges to make it a little less unjust.  Sanders was the candidate, it seemed to me, who was standing for the New Deal values Krugman had always embraced--and he was opposing him.

Today, however, Krugman's evolution has taken a further disastrous step.  Drawing on a question he was asked a ta conference, he endorses the concept of the primacy of "horizontal inequality"--inequality among groups--over what he calls "vertical inequality," that is inequality among individuals.  What really shocked me about this dichotomy is that it leaves out a third, rather relevant concept, class inequality, which surely, in the age of the 1% and in a column claiming the superiority of Clinton over Sanders, was worth at least a mention.  What has happened to Krugman, however, is that he has succumbed to prevailing economic fashion.  Thus he repeats the canard, immortalized some time ago in a book, that Irish-Americans at one time were not regarded as white.  This is absurd: they were not, indeed, regarded as "Americans," a term which until the Second World War was often reserved for what we would call WASPS, but they were certainly regarded as white, and they were among the most anti-black ethnic groups in America.  More importantly, he suddenly encourages us all identify primarily with the groups to which we belong, citing even his own Judaism.  He even implies that Hispanics and black Americans are rightly Democratic in their politics that white people because the Obama Administration has done more for them than for white people, specifically in the area of health care.  And he suddenly seems willing to concede the votes of most white Americans to Donald Trump.

Now in my own case the option of reverting to some ancient group identity is not available.  Being half Jewish, but not eligible for Israeli citizenship and lacking any religion whatever, I have no tribe to which I can return--but I have never wanted one either. Yes, I am white, but I don't vote the way the majority of white people do, that is, Republican.  I have never wanted to be identified as anything but an American citizen, and even today I know there are a great many more like me out there.  But Krguman's and my personal feelings aren't very important.   The real question is whether the United States can continue to exist as a nation in which its citizens primarily identify themselves as member of a particular ethnic group--or, for that matter, gender or sexual orientation.  And I am convinced that it cannot.

The great crises of the past--1774-1794, 1861-69, 1929-45--were all periods in which our citizenry had to pull together as Americans and put their differences aside.  Every one of those crises strengthened national identity and helped integrate previously excluded groups.  Slavery was abolished in the northern states in the wake of the revolution and the suffrage was broadened.  Irish were assimilated after the Civil War in large part because of their service in that war.  Jewish and Italian Americans became fully equal citizens in the wake of the Second World War, and black Americans drew on the capital they had accumulated serving in the military and in war plants to create the triumphs of the civil rights movement. Those great efforts created a new sense of American identity in which minorities wanted to be included.  In addition, as I have pointed out again and again, programs to help the less well off became unpopular at the very moment--50 years ago--when they became identified with the interests of minorities.  And today, the problems of health care, mass incarceration, the costs of college, opioid addiction, economic inequality, and infrastructure, are not specific to any racial or ethnic group.  They affect us all, and a concerted attack on any or all of them could bring us together just as the fight against the Depression and the Axis did 80 years ago.   And that is what Bernie Sanders wanted to start.

There will be more women in high positions in Washington than ever before after 4 or 8 years of Hillary Clinton in the White House--but will there be significantly fewer numbers of women (and men) in prison?  Will there be more women (and men) graduating debt free from college?  Will it be easier for young women (and men) to find affordable housing in major metropolitan areas?  There comes a time in the life of generations--and particularly Prophet generations like the Boom, to which Krugman and I belong--when many of us must recognize that history is not going our way.  Some of us however refuse to bend with the wind, and I think in the long run our country is stronger for it.

[p.s. Don't miss yesterday's new post, below.]

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Feminism and politics

In 1994, shortly before the stroke that killed him, Richard Nixon had a last conversation with his former speechwriter William Safire.  As usual, the talk turned to politics, and specifically to the coming presidential election, two years away. "Let's get a woman on the ticket," Nixon remarked. "It hurts the Democrats, but it would help us."  Now that Hillary Clinton has secured the top spot on this year's Democratic ticket, it behooves us to think about the wisdom behind Nixon's statement and its implications for this year's election.

Nixon was speaking like the consummate political pro that he was.  His remark reminds me of the conversation that my father, an exact contemporary of Nixon's, had with Robert Kennedy early in the 1960 presidential campaign, when he told RFK that many Jews were reluctant to vote for his brother because they thought his father Joe was an anti-Semite who had favored Hitler.  Robert Kennedy, another political pro who was speaking to my father for the first time, took no offense.  He replied not only that he was well aware of the problem (which I later found had surfaced in previous campaigns in Massachusetts), but that his father had in fact contributed significantly to Jewish charities.  He assured my father that those contributions had taken place some time previously, and he wasted no time confirming or denying the allegation against his father, which he knew very well was true.  All that mattered to both RFK and my father was to elect JFK, and that they managed to do.

Nixon made his remark a decade after 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro had contributed significantly to Walter Mondale's crushing defeat.  While she was qualified, a great many older women in the Democratic base were not yet ready for a woman on the ticket.   What Nixon grasped was that while a woman on the Democratic ticket had alienated some of the Democrats' base, a woman on the Republican ticket might draw swing voters, in part because her choice would not look like pandering to the base.  And it was a Republican, John McCain, who became the next Presidential candidate to run with a woman on the ticket, although his particular choice turned out to be unfortunate.

The question now, of course, is not whether Hillary Clinton belongs on the ticket--she has won the nomination.  The question is the role she wants gender to play in the coming campaign.  Two questions in particular are important: the nature of her rhetoric, and her own choice of a running mate.

Clinton began her campaign late last year emphasizing her role as the putative first female president, with ads featuring her mother. When Bernie Sanders provided unexpectedly strong opposition, she moved away from that theme and argued instead that she was the more qualified and realistic candidate, the one who cold "get things done." Meanwhile, black voters favored her in the primaries by far larger margins than female voters did.  But literally the instant that she clinched the nomination on Tuesday, the feminist theme took center stage again--not only in her own victory speech, but in hundreds of comments by supporters.  Once again we are hearing that she must be elected to prove to the women of America that they, too, can become President--and to provide them with some emotional revenge for all the slights that they have suffered at men's hands in various walks of life. Once again she is saying that she is running to honor the hardships endured by her late mother.  Believing as I do that it is very important that she prevail over Donald Trump in November, I feel compelled to ask--is this good politics?

In my opinion, it is not--and the example of Barack Obama in 2008 helps prove why.  At no time during the campaign, I believe, did Obama ever argue that he should be elected because he would be the first black President.  Race was an issue on which he had to play defense, not offense, particularly after Jeremiah Wright's sermons became known, and he dealt with the issue the way John Kennedy dealt with religion in 1960, by convincingly explaining that Wright's views did not represent his own while declining to condemn them categorically.  Of course he knew that he would win the overwhelming support of black voters, and that the problem was to secure enough white ones.  And that he managed to do,. not once but twice.

This will be, I suspect, a hard principle for Clinton to keep in mind, because she is surrounded by women and men who feel their mission is to get the first woman into the White House and who believe that their cause must prevail by virtue of its obvious righteousness.  They are drawn from a social and intellectual stratum of our society in which the need to advance women more rapidly is taken for granted, and any dissent from that position marks one as a retrograde yahoo.  But the election, let me repeat, will be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  All those with feminist sympathies in those states will vote for Clinton, but that will not, I suspect, be enough to win her the votes of any of them.

And it is for this reason, too, that any talk of a second woman on the Democratic ticket ought to be nipped in the bud right now.  Yes, one can easily argue that all but two major party tickets to date have been composed entirely of men, but we are talking politics today, not abstract justice.  Donald Trump has gotten where he is largely because of widespread resentment of political correctness, and one cannot compete effectively with him for swing voters by throwing political correctness in their face.  Some of course are attracted by the idea of Elizabeth Warren on the ticket, but I doubt very much that she would be interested--the position would neuter her politically, as it has so many others--and in any case, it is a bad idea.   With Bernie Sanders obviously out of the running as well, the Democratic Party has a shocking lack of white male leaders of any distinction, but the vice presidential candidate, in my opinion, should in any case be a man.  This morning an analysis in the New York Times suggests that the eclipse of the white voter has been greatly exaggerated.

Let me close with two related observations.  I will address the first in particular to all my female and minority readers, of whom I know there are quite a few.  The emphasis on race and gender as sources of prejudice and obstacles in the workplace in recent decades has been somewhat misleading.  Far too many minority and female Americans seem to feel that white males simply never have problems rising to the top of their field of endeavor by virtue of their "white male privilege." This is, frankly, silly.  Since the founding of the republic, simply being a white male has never been a guarantee of anything.  And today, an equally great problem in our workplaces is their tendency to marginalize anyone with unusual gifts, courage, or a tendency to take the job seriously--the lesson that the series The Wire taught in season after season.  The overemphasis of demographic characteristics works against an emphasis on ability, because ability is indeed distributed relatively equally among races and genders.

Last but not least:  anyone who thinks that the most important goal of this election is to elect a woman is making a critical assumption about the state of our nation.  That is that the shape of our society is fundamentally just and we are moving in the right direction--our biggest problem is our failure to be fair to women and minorities.  Others among us, particularly in the younger generation, believe that what a president will do is more important than exactly who they are.  Clinton has gotten where she is by cultivating the Establishment, from Goldman Sachs to Henry Kissinger.  She will govern as an establishment figure.  She will also, in my opinion, have us involved in a new Middle Eastern war, probably with Syria, within two years.   She may manage to do what I outlined here last December: to bring our long, bitter, useless political crisis to an end and move us into an era of consensus. But that era will not be one of the more inspiring periods of American history.

Friday, June 03, 2016

Clinton, Trump, and the American People

I spent the last two weeks in Europe, where Austria narrowly failed to elect the first far-right head of state to hold power in that region since Francisco Franco died in 1975.  Le Monde devoted a lot of space to the election, including an op-ed by a left-center Austrian who made a very telling point about his political milieu.  He could no longer visit his Facebook page, he said, without driving up his blood pressure, because all he saw there was leftist accusations against the supporters of Norbert Hofer were Fascists.  This, he argued, was both false and useless.  Instead of simply writing off half their fellow citizens, he suggested, his friends should spent some time thinking about why a vast majority of their fellow citizens had turned completely away from the two established parties that had ruled Austria since the Second World War.  The same warning could well be addressed to virtually every nation in the North Atlantic world--and certainly to the elite of the United States of America.

My facebook page is filled with daily complaints that Donald Trump simply cannot, must not, will not, be elected President, frequently tinged with a sense that no sane, educated or respectable person could possibly support him.  I certainly agree that his election would be a serious catastrophe, but the fantasy that the moral superiority of certain better-off Americans will suffice to prevent it is very dangerous.  As I write, an average of polls shows Trump just a couple of percentage points behind Hillary Clinton, with a large number of voters undecided.  In fact, the whole story of this election reflects the enormous gap between "respectable" opinion and the beliefs of very large numbers of Americans who no longer care what their better-educated and better-off citizens think--and with good reason. 

Trump's imminent nomination indicates that several things have gone dreadfully wrong with our political system. First, it seems unable to produce leaders of genuine quality who have made a name for themselves in public service.  The problem does seem a little worse in the Republican party, where John Kasich was the only candidate with a serious record of achievement, but politicians nowadays have to spend so much time pandering and fund-raising that it is not surprising that both sides suffer from it.  But as so many have pointed out, Trump's emergence as the man who is picking up the pieces also shows that celebrity has wider appeal than government service.  Worst of all, however, the whole model upon which our system is based, of  a rational discussion of issues leading to the development of solutions to our problems, has broken down.  While some the millions of people who have voted for Trump may have real reasons to resent the state of the country and what has happened to their lives, they have very little excuse, it seems to me, for believing that he will really do anything to help. 

In writing that last sentence, I have just stepped into a growing debate which was aired last week on radioopensource.com: who is to blame for the collapse of our political system--the people or the elites?   The Anglo-American pundit Andrew Sullivan insisted, first of all, that the American economy was in remarkably good shape, and secondly, that the catastrophic war in Iraq (which he enthusiastically supported himself) was popular in the country at large, which did not hesitate to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004.  He complained, in effect, that the American people had suddenly become too stupid to appreciate all the wise leadership they had been getting--or that the leaders were only doing what they wanted anyway--and were responsible for the threatened destruction of our democracy.  Other guests suggested that the people had justifiably lost confidence in their leadership.  Regular readers know that that is my opinion as well.  Alas, our current establishment, I am afraid, is so generally pleased with itself that it will have great difficulty recognizing that it could indeed by to blame for our discontents, and this problem is going to continue regardless of the outcome of the election.

I do not, as you all know, regard Hillary Rodham Clinton as likely to do much to alter the course that the country is now on, except to involve us in some new war in the Middle East.  Yet she is surely the lesser evil of the two candidates before us, and her speech yesterday was undoubtedly the highlight of her campaign to date.  Rather than imply that she should be elected because she is a woman, or make highly questionable boasts about her fights for the underdog, or--as I had feared she would--defend establishment foreign policy, she found a kind of lowest common denominator for the campaign ahead. Donald Trump,. she said repeatedly and effectively, is both intellectually and temperamentally unfit to be President.  Today's New York Times story about the speech did unfortunately include more evidence of the ineptitude of her staff, since her campaign actually leaked the names of the four staffers who had written it.  Obviously most candidates' speeches (though not, it seems, some of Barack Obama's) have been written by staffers for a long time, but most of them have been smart enough not to admit it.  My friends are right: Trump really threatens the well-being of the US at home and abroad, and it is very alarming that he is now estimated by markets to have a 40% chance of victory.  Clinton's new line of attack will do well with educated Republicans.  But Trump could still win, and the United States will still face huge problems even if he loses, because of the almost complete disconnect between our leading economic and intellectual classes on the one hand, and the mass of the American people on the other.  The divide can't help but remind me of France in 1789 or Russia in 1917, and it is up to our leaders to start to close it.