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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...

Friday, September 30, 2016

The Times We Live In

Sometime in the 1960 or perhaps the 1970s, I remember, my father and I were discussing politics.  "One thing we expected," he said, "was that television would create a great demagogue.  But it hasn't happened. Apparently they lose the appeal when you can see them up close."  He had lived through Hitler and McCarthy, of course, so he had seen demagogues in action.   But his observation was, sadly, naive, because he thought that technology, rather than the age we lived in, was the critical factor.  Having experienced demagoguery as a young man, he feared it for the rest of his life.  In fact, the leadership of his parents' generation and the sacrifices that his own had made had given the country a certain political stability that made it very difficult, if not impossible, for demagogues to emerge.  Now, 40 or 50 years later, that stability has disappeared--and television has produced the worst demagogue in the history of American politics.

In the postwar world, the government of the United States enjoyed extraordinary prestige at home and abroad thanks to extraordinary achievements. Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s had defined a new role for government, including both the regulation of the economy and the provision of adequate means of sustenance for the whole population.  Even before entering the Second World War, in his January 1941 State of the Union address, he had proclaimed those goals for the whole world in the four freedoms.  The American victory in the Second World War, followed by our role in the reconstruction of Europe and Japan, had made the US the leader of the free world, and opposition to our world role had been forced onto the narrowest margins of our politics.  President Eisenhower in the 1950s had not attempted to undo any major New Deal reforms, and he had undertaken another gigantic federal project, the Interstate Highway System.  The government was also slowly addressing the issue of equal rights for black Americans.  In addition, the trust which the government had earned was shared by nearly all our major institutions, including business and labor unions, the press, and academia.  The three television networks, both understood their novel and enormous power and were careful not to use it for any controversial purpose, either artistic or political.  As a result, they drew a great deal of criticism from intellectual Americans who regarded their fare as pablum.

As David Brooks--who sounds more and more like he has read Strauss and Howe, although he never mentions them--remarked today, the nation, led by my own generation, has been on a crusade for unlimited individual freedom for the last half century, with the left focusing on personal behavior and the right focusing on economic freedom.  In the last 40 years technology, including both cable television and the internet, has favored that crusade, giving us all the opportunity to watch and listen only to those we agree with, and to express ourselves with complete freedom before the whole world.  The danger that television might appeal to the lowest common denominator among us, and that images rather than words, might become the currency of opinion, has now become real, and perhaps mortal.  In 1940-1, when the United States had to deal with the Second World War, Americans could hear radio addresses by cabinet members, legislators and prominent citizens on their radios every week.  Now tweets are driving a presidential campaign, while viral videos are threatening to set off terrible racial conflict.  The expectation that politicians, the press, and the public itself will observe certain standards of decorum has evaporated.  For the first time in our history--literally--a pathological narcissist stands within reach of the White House, based, apparently, on appeals to his countrymen's raw emotions and resentments.

Last Monday's debate--in which I believe Hillary Clinton put on the best public performance of her career--has apparently done Trump a good deal of harm.  Although fivethirtyeight.com still forecasts a close election, Clinton's chances of victory have improved rapidly over the last five days, and are once again over 60%.  But a Clinton victory will not solve all our problems.  The solution of any of our very real problems, domestic and foreign, requires a certain patience, concentration and realism which we now seem to lack.  She, like Barack Obama, will be a divisive figure, and the Republicans will be strong enough to stand in the way of most of what she wants to do.  I believe the trends of the last half century must be reversed if our government can once again function effectively, but I do not now see how this will be done.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

President Trump?

Donald Trump, the media, and Hillary Clinton--in that order--have succeeded in nearly eliminating serious policy discussions from this campaign.   Trump fills the airwaves with outrageous statements, Clinton responds with commends on the outrageousness of Trump, and the media breathlessly wonders whether Trump has gone too far.  Clinton's emails and her health have also taken up a lot of space, and this week we have been reminded of how easy it is for a terrorist bomb (which did not even kill anyone) or a police shooting to take over the news.  But the next President will, in fact, make important decisions on a wide variety of topics.  This week, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker has written an article based on months of research detailing exactly what the impact of a possible Trump election might be, and what Trump would do.   It is so unusual and so important that I have decided to spend this week's post summarizing it.

Led by Chris Christie, it turns out, Trump's organization is hard at work planning a Trump Administration--just as federal law provides.  The government has given them office space on Pennsylvania Avenue and they are making lists of possible appointees and of dramatic steps that Trump might take immediately after taking office.  One popular idea, it seems, is to begin by undoing some of President Obama's executive orders or renouncing certain executive agreements with foreign nations, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change.  The executive branch has very broad powers pertaining to immigration, and Trump could indeed ban immigrants from certain countries immediately after taking office.  But these dramatic steps, it seems, are only the tip of the iceberg.  Based on the men whom Trump is talking to--several of whom spoke freely with Osnos--it seems that his Administration would be likely to complete an extreme form of the Reagan revolution, returning yet again to supply-side economics and reducing the role of the federal government. 

Specifically, Newt Gingrich--one of Trump's intimates from the political establishment, and perhaps the Baby Boomer who has had the greatest influence on American politics--talks about taking civil service protections away from federal government workers, firing some of them, and provoking a conflict with civil service unions similar to the one that Scott Walker successfully fought out in Wisconsin.  President George W. Bush tried to open the door to something similar in 2001 when the Department of Homeland Security was formed, refusing to give full civil service protection to its employees and obviously trying to set a precedent that could be applied more broadly within the federal government.  Gingrich apparently believes such measures would unify the Republican Party behind Trump.

On economic policy, Osnos interviewed Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and an adviser to Herman Cain in 2012, who is a firm believer in supply side economics.  Trump, Moore said, is very interested in cutting taxes on businesses, which Moore claims, once again, will stimulate the economy.  This is, of course exactly what both Reagan and Bush II did when they came into office, and some tax cuts would also have probably followed the election of any of the more traditional Republican candidates this year,.   Trump, however, has given his ear to one of the most extreme proponents of low taxes, who presumably also believes that new deficits will force new cuts in government spending.   The Democrats may control the Senate next year, but Democrats in Congress caved in to both Reagan and Bush II on taxes, and enough of them might easily do the same again if Trump wins.  Nor is it clear to me that Democratic Senators would mount a filibuster to stop the repeal of Obamacare.

Osnos spends the biggest part of his article on foreign policy, talking to academics and former policy makers about the potential impact of stands that Trump has taken.  His threats to withdraw from various trade agreements, including the TPP (which of course is not yet in effect) and NAFTA, could easily shake world markets. It turns out that his senior adviser on trade and China is a professor named Peter Navarro, who wants somehow to eliminate our trade deficit with China on the spot.  Trump's veiled threat to try to renegotiate the terms of the US overseas debt--the same stratagem he has used so often and so successfully with his own enterprises--could have much more serious consequences for markets.  More serious, to me, are Trump's repeated calls for a re-evaluation and recasting of America's alliances, including our attitude towards the Baltic States, NATO members whom Vladimir Putin obviously would love to return to the Russian sphere of influence, which included them for most of the last four centuries.  Osnos spoke to analysts at the RAND corporation, where recent war games showed that NATO, as presently configured, who have no chance of stopping a sudden Russian armored incursion into those states.  It seems most unlikely that Trump would undertake the strengthening of the alliance that would evidently be necessary to deter Putin from taking this step.

On no issue, of course, has Trump made firmer declarations than immigration.  Even if he chose to deport only a fraction of the 11 million illegals he has threatened to expel, this would involve a massive expansion of federal police forces, extraordinary hardship for a few million people, and disruption of the American economy.  His wall would soak up all the infrastructure money that we desperately need for other purposes.  Osnos dos not discuss the possibility that private citizens might be deputized to help round up our intimidate immigrants, or that some might do so on their own in response to a new President's rhetoric.

The Clinton landslide which I, among any others, thought possible just a few weeks ago now seems extremely unlikely.  The calculations of fivethirtyeight.com now give Trump a 42% of victory, which is very close to the chance he would have if the election were decided by the flip of a coin.  There is no evidence that Trump will become a centrist if elected. On economic policy, in particular, he has surrounded himself with radical elements, and he would have the full cooperation of the Republicans in Congress.  This is a critical election, potentially as significant as 1860 or 1932.  Both of those, in retrospect, were won by the right candidate, and by an overwhelming electoral majority. That will not happen this time.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Conversation or change?

Ten days ago, in China, President Obama effectively endorsed Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand and salute the flag during the national anthem as a protest focusing on a legitimate issue.  “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” he said.  And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” The President’s statement undoubtedly aroused differing reactions among a divided electorate.  I myself was rather taken aback when the President clearly implied that the only Americans likely to be offended by Kaepernick’s refusal to salute the flag would be veterans of the armed services.  But I would like to focus on the way the President framed the significance of the quarterback’s protest.  His emphasis on a “conversation about things that need to be talked about,” it seems to me, is highly characteristic of most left wing approaches to problems nowadays.  Both the Occupy movement, which is having its fifth anniversary next week, and the Black Lives Matter movement, with which Kaepernick is allying himself, have also focused on starting “conversations”—but have not been very successful getting results.  Perhaps the time has come to look at the history of these ideas and to re-examine this approach.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, left wing movements were intensely practical and focused on specific goals.  Organized labor vastly increased its membership, continually fought for higher wages and better benefits, and became one of the most important political forces in the nation.  The civil rights movement used lobbying and the courts to fight lynching and segregation in education, and then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, turned to direct action, including boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations, to overcome segregation in public places.  Feminists initially focused on abortion rights, which they secured, and the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, which they could not.  In recent years the gay rights movement has made enormous gains by focusing on gay marriage and the right to serve in the military.  Occupy, however, came and went without any concrete achievements to its name, and Black Lives Matter has not been able to make progress on any specific demands. Why not?

Both of these movements, it seems to me, suffer from diseases of the 1960s.  The protests of that era targeted authority of all kinds—within colleges and schools, in the government, and in relations between the sexes.  Unfortunately, their prejudice against authority extended to the idea of recognizing any leaders within their own movements, which was a big reason why so many of them splintered and quickly disappeared.  Occupy was dominated by the same prejudice against specific leaders who could make and implement decisions, and the same belief that every member needed a voice in every decision.  These rules made meetings very cumbersome and effective action, as it turned out, almost impossible.  Black Lives Matter has also proudly distinguished itself as “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” meaning that it will never be identified with one (probably male) leader and will generally eschew hierarchy.  The idea that genuine leftism must rely on the spontaneity of the masses is not new.  It was the idea of certain left-wing socialists and Communists more than a century ago such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, of Georges Sorel in France, and of the anarchists whom George Orwell encountered during the Spanish Civil War.  None of those thinkers or movements, however, scored any significant successes.  The major achievements of the left during the twentieth century belonged to organized revolutionary movements such as the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and China, or to movements that worked within the politics of established democracies like the British Labor Party.

                 For half a century the American left has been obsessed with its own moral rectitude and with the idea that when an abuse is identified, it should automatically be corrected.  “Conversation” has replaced the earlier mantra “confrontation,” but many seem to assume that simply talking about racism, sexism and homophobia will either convince or shame those standing in the way to give way.  And indeed, this approach has been extraordinarily successful in some sectors of American society, particularly throughout academia and in the newsrooms and editorial boards of our most distinguished newspapers.  But the approach has been a failure in the real world, largely because movements like Occupy and BLM seem to  have so  much trouble deciding exactly what they want and, more importantly, where to go to try to get it.  Consciousness raising only works among like-minded people.  The moral certainty and self-righteousness on the left has been paralleled by the growth of resentment and resistance on the right.  Hillary Clinton, to be sure, talks on many issues in the language of the cultural and political left, but she is now faced by the most rabid right wing candidate in the history of the United States—and the outcome of the election remains in doubt with seven weeks to go.

Colin Kaepernick’s protest has aroused a great deal of emotion, both pro and con.  It states, correctly, that something is very wrong in our criminal justice system and the relationship between our criminal justice system and minority communities, but it says nothing about what could or should be done about it.  President Obama has praised Kaepernick for raising the issue, but although he is commendably trying to free more non-violent offenders from federal prison in his remaining time in office, he has not proposed any sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system.  The protest, I am afraid, is simply another segment in our long-running national reality show, in which both sides continually posture while no one seriously addresses issues.  Today’s activists want to move beyond the patterns of the past—but the past shows that organization, goals, and focus—not simply conversation—bring about results.

Friday, September 02, 2016

A note about the ads

I'm sure many of you have noticed the Trump ads appearing here.  There doesn't seem to be anything I can do to get rid of them--except to drop out of google ad sense altogether.  I can click on them and mark them as inappropriate, but within 5 minutes they are back. I raised it on the blogger forum and got a non-response response.  Very annoying, but there doesn't seem to be anything more to do.

Legacies of Slavery

A couple of weeks ago, the New Yorker published this article by Jeffrey Toobin about Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer from Delaware who moved to Alabama decades ago to help criminals, and especially inmates on death row.  It includes some very disturbing quotes about justice and race in the Deep South from Stevenson, who has been on the front lines of this battle for a long time.   The stories he tells, combined with other evidence, suggest that in several states at least--Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and perhaps parts of others as well--the changes in the last 50 years, since the passage of civil rights legislation, have been more apparent than real, and that the criminal justice system there functions to terrorize the black population, in part by imposing the death penalty.  Stevenson argues that at no time did the mass of the white population or its leadership acknowledge that segregation had been wrong.  He claims--and I have no reason to doubt him--that after the city of Montgomery de-segregated its buses after the famous boycott of the mid-1950s, vigilantes drove around the city shooting black people as they waited to board them.  He also thinks that the death penalty fulfills the same function now that lynching did from the civil war until the 1950s or so, when it finally began to die out: to terrorize the black population.  I am afraid that he is right, and I am going to use the article to make some broader points about this history of the South and the United States in general.

In my opinion, the whole history of race relations in the South--as well as issues of criminal justice and the "right to bear arms"--is still a legacy of slavery--but in a very particular sense.  Slavery deprived both slave and master of freedom.  The slave faced violence if he or she asserted their humanity; the master faced the ever-present possibility of a slave insurrection.  Exactly how likely such an insurrection ever was is far from clear.  Nat Turner, of course, tried to start one in Virginia in the 1830s, and another slave,. Denmark Vesey, was convicted of plotting one in Charleston some time earlier.  (In Vesey's case, a very prominent historian once argued to me that it was far clear that the defendant had done anything at all.)  But it was natural enough for white slave owners to imagine that the slaves would take their revenge for what had been done to them if they ever got the chance, and this became one of the many excuses for the maintenance of slavery and, in the years immediately prior to the Civil War, for greater restrictions on free blacks.  The loss of that war, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments seemed to make the white Southerners' worst nightmares a reality.  Even though many of the Reconstruction governments provided the southern states with the first effective state government they had ever had, the whites formed the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize the freed blacks, stop them from voting, and regain political power.  They succeeded after the disputed election of 1876, in which Rutherford B. Hayes was awarded the Presidency in exchange for his pledge to withdraw federal troops from the South.  Both the legal system and extralegal terror kept the black population subservient for decades to come.

As I have written many times, a countervailing and more hopeful trend in southern politics emerged during the New Deal era.  The Progressive movement had made some inroads in the South, and by the 1940s, even the states of the Deep South had elected a number of legislators, including future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black of Alabama, who supported the New Deal and took liberal positions on everything except race.  After the war, a young Senator from Tennessee, Estes Kefauver, emerged not only as a leading Democratic progressive--he nearly was nominated for President in 1952--but also as a supporter of civil rights for Negroes.  But this trend did not survive the successes of the civil rights movement.  The white liberal became extinct south of the Mason Dixon line, in elected office at any rate, and after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, southern politics began polarizing along racial lines once again.  The civil rights movement's decision to press for majority black districts contributed to this trend.  "Christian values," as I have come to understand, became a new code word for southern white solidarity.  Meanwhile, the governing establishment lured northern businesses to the south with promises of a union-free environment.  Others, alas, can play that game as well, and now many of those same industrial jobs have migrated once again, this time to the third world.

Alas, real-world developments fed southern fears.  The victories of the civil rights movement in the 1960s did in fact coincide with the beginning of a very big crime wave that lasted for nearly three decades.  The Boom generation was both large and violent, and the rate of violent crimes nationwide more than doubled from 1960 to 1969, and increased by an additional 50% from 1969 to 1979.  (The biggest increases, in rapes, may have owed something to better reporting.  Murder rates doubled from 1960 to 1979.)  When politicians like George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Nelson Rockefeller called for harsher measures against crime in the late 1960s, they were not making up the problem out of whole cloth.  In the South and most of the rest of the rest of the country as well, the criminal justice system went on a counteroffensive.  One form this took was the reinstitution of the death penalty, which the Supreme Court had provisionally outlawed in the late 1960s.  It has indeed been most popular in the South.  Rates of violent crime did not peak until 1993, by which time the murder rate was 50% higher than in 1960.   They then began to fall, slowly at first and more quickly in the last decade, and by 2010 the murder rate was down to the level of 1970.

Meanwhile, the nature of the American gun rights movement changed as well.  When gun control first became a political issue in the 1960s in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, its opponents stressed the rights of sportsmen.  By the 1990s such rights had become secondary.  Americans, the NRA increasingly argued, needed guns for two reasons: to protect their homes and families, and to defend against the encroachments of a potentially totalitarian state.  At the recent Republican Convention, an NRA spokesman raised the example of a single mother with children alone in her home, facing a dangerous burglar, who would have to wait 10 minutes for help if she dialed 911.  This is an echo of white southern fears of slave insurrections--and a most inappropriate one, given how rare violent crime that crosses neighborhood boundaries has become. 

Donald Trump hails from New York, but he has played upon traditional white southern fears from the beginning of his campaign.  He began his new phase of political activism, of course, as a birther, and in the announcement of his candidacy he identified Mexican immigrants as "rapists."  (He borrowed that from his devoted supporter Anne Coulter.)  Now his speeches feature detailed references to a handful of Americans who have been killed by illegal immigrants.  He claims, without any foundation, that violent crime has never been worse.  And he is gaining ground.  Three weeks ago, fivethirtyeight.com showed him with an 11% chance of winning. Today that chance is up to 27%.   The civil rights movement succeeded in eliminating racist language from elite public discourse, but that did not eliminate racist fears and feelings from the populace at large.

Hillary Clinton seems to have reduced her whole platform to a single plank: that she should be elected because she is not Donald Trump.  That may not be inspiring enough to carry her to victory.  This election looms as perhaps the most tribal in American history.  The cures for tribalism are a belief in reason, on the one hand, and a common national enterprise on the other.  Neither one, at the moment, is very strong in the United States.