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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, November 25, 2016

Our political crisis

The Trump team seems to be having some difficulty reaching agreement on key positions, making it impossible to determine exactly what the Trump administration will try to do.  I shall have more to say about that when we learn more.   But whatever they do, Trump's election and reactions to it show that we are experiencing the greatest political crisis in our history since 1860-1, when southern states seceded and civil war began.  The nature of the crisis, however, is different, and in some ways, even deeper.  We fought the civil war because the political leadership in both the North and the South enjoyed popular support.  Now, as I have recently been reminded by two separate incidents, our political class has almost entirely lost popular support, and I have no idea how to regain it.  What follows will be anecdotal but I think it is still significant.

Recently a social media friend of mine provided me with a copy of a questionnaire that his father, a retiree, had filled out.  They both live in one of the states whose loss by the Democrats was so shocking, that is, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.  His father apparently received the questionnaire in the mail because he was once a registered Republican, although he is now an independent.  He filled it out, but he made clear from the beginning that the party no longer enjoyed his allegiance because it "has changed since I joined."

The gentleman agreed that the Republican party had to do a better job appealing to minorities, women and young voters, although he also thought it should stick to its principles of low taxes, less government and free enterprise.  But he did not think the Republicans should focus on "the disastrous policies of Barack Obama's presidency" or that it should emphasize social issues, which he thought had become "too divisive."  He did not think the national media misled the public about the Republican party's positions.  More importantly, he spontaneously mentioned that he had received insurance through Obamacare, and although his premiums had increased, he strongly opposed replacing it.  He said that he belieed climate change was a major threat to the nation, but on the other hand, he did not trust the federal government to act in the best interest of our citizens, and he thought "political correctness" had indeed gotten out of hand. 

Asked which party would handle various issues better, he gave the Republicans the nod only one, a strong military, and preferred the Democrats with respect to health care, gun control, and reducing the federal deficit.  (That in my opinion was one of his best-informed responses.)  But on everything else, from the war on terror, the economy foreign policy, entitlements, immigration reform, crime, and appointment of Supreme Court justices, he checked the boxes for "No opinion," but crossed out "no opinion" and wrote "neither."  On foreign policy, he felt the United States should be more a model to the world than a policeman, and he thought we should do more to defeat ISIS, but opposed military action to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons.  He favored admitting refugees from the Middle East "with proper vetting."

The picture all this gave me was of a concerned and quite well-informed citizen who took sensible positions on most issues, foreign and domestic, and who was not caught up in the bitter ideological divisions of our time.  And it seems to me that such people could very reasonably have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, who was the more experienced, calmer, and more sensible candidate, and with whom he did not express any really big divisions on issues.  But--he didn't.  He expressed his intention to vote for one of the  minor party candidates, and his son reports that that is what he did.  Now as I have been writing here for 12 years now, the Democrats remain the party that essentially believes in government and does its best, when it power, to keep it going and make it work, while the Republicans try to tear it down.  This gentleman obviously doesn't want to tear government down, but that wasn't enough to get him to vote to keep the Democrats in power.  That is a measure of the mess we are in.

My second piece of evidence came from a conversation with four young people in their early thirties, three of them educators, and all of them Clinton voters.  They spontaneously began talking about who the next Democratic presidential candidate might be.  But like their Republican counterparts this year, all their interest was in a non-politician, some one with no electoral experience, whom they thought they would be able to trust and who might have broad appeal.  The three names that immediately came up were Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Jon Stewart.  If I had pressed them I am sure they would all have admitted to some admiration for Elizabeth Warren, and at least some of them had favored Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, but both of them, alas, will probably be too old to run for President in the future.  There was not one younger Democratic politician whom these four very well-educated young adults actively wanted to run as their next candidate or serve as their next President.  When I said to one of them that I was depressed that their opinion of the whole political class was so low, he replied that they were judging them based on what they had seen them do, and I could not argue very hard against that.

This widespread disaffection has many causes.  Nearly all our politicians are indeed heavily beholden to moneyed interests.  The Republicans have successfully kept government from functioning effectively at all levels to a surprising extent, and that has in turn discredited government. The Democrats have, in my opinion, been much too focused on identity politics, as this article in last Sunday's New York Times effectively argued.  The general distrust of authority that has been growing for the last 50 years has worked against any kind of party loyalty, especially, it seems, on the left and among the young.  But if you believe, as I do, that modern society cannot function without effective governance and that democracy crucial to human happiness, then it seems to me that you must agree that this almost complete lack of confidence in our leadership class is a very serious matter indeed.  And it does not seem at all likely that our new President, who was elected largely because he was outside that class, will be able to do very much to restore confidence.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Strauss and Howe

A very important new post appears here.

 New readers who have been brought to this page from time.com might like to take a look at the posts of July 5, 2010 and December 4, 2015, which to some extent anticipated the events that have now taken place.

Subsequent to posting this I became aware of this appearance by Bannon just two years ago, which confirms that he anticipates a huge and violent conflict between Islam and the West parallel to those of the 8th and 17th centuries (and many times in between.).

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Two Mornings After

Two questions are on everyone's mind this week: how did this happen? and what will it mean?  Let me begin with the first.

The story played by the media so far--that Trump was elected by an extraordinary surge of white voters--is only a half truth.  In the aggregate, as my older son pointed out to me yesterday morning, who did not vote was more important than who did.  Turnout was way down this year, and Donald Trump earned only half a million votes more than Mitt Romney did in 2012 across the nation.  Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, secured nearly 3 million votes less than Barack Obama.  The fear that I and so many others enunciated as much as a year and a half ago, before Donald Trump emerged, came true: Clinton simply was unable to keep the Obama coalition alive, particularly among black people and youth.  Because black Democrats voted more heavily than young ones in primaries, she won the nomination, but neither category voted in sufficient numbers to elect her.   She was the candidate of the professional class and the intellectual and media elite.  It wasn't enough.

A look at the critical states, however, shows a somewhat different story.  48 hours ago, we thought that the election would be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio,. Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.  Had that prediction held true, Clinton would be clinging to an electoral majority of 2 thanks to a lead of about 3,000 votes in New Hampshire, having lost all the other states--a possibility that I took very seriously on election day.  Unfortunately, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had to be added to the mix.  In Wisconsin Clinton's failure to turn out Obama voters undoubtedly cost here the state: Trump and Romney's totals were almost identical but she ran 240,000 votes behind Obama in 2012.  Something similar happened in Michigan, where Trump got 167,000 more votes than Romney but Clinton drew 205,000 fewer than Obama.   Iowa also showed this pattern, as Trump gained only 71,000 votes--not enough to have beaten Obama's total--while Clinton lost 165,000.  But Pennsylvania was somewhat different story.  While Romney had 2.612 million votes, Trump had 2.913 million, barely enough to have beaten Obama's total in 2012.  Clinton  ran behind Obama but by only 62,000 votes.  Trump also won enough new votes in Ohio to have beaten Obama's 2012 total, but once again, Clinton's total fell 380,000 votes short of Obama's, while Trump beat Romney's vote by just 178,000.  Florida, along with Pennsylvania, is the second state where a surge of Trump voters undoubtedly changed the result--both Trump and Clinton increased their party's vote by six-figure margins but Trump's increase was much larger.  II Clinton had matched Obama's vote totals in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, she would have secured 32 more electoral votes, but that would have left her with only 264, 6 votes shy of election.  But had she managed to increase Obama's total by as little as 10,000 votes in Pennsylvania, she would have won.  The Democratic party's racial politics failed to deliver, and with good reason. Clinton expected Hispanics and black Americans to turn out in massive numbers and vote for her simply because she has turned her year with the Children's Defense Fund into a lifetime of service to the poor and dispossessed, and because she is not Donald Trump. It didn't happen.

Trump, therefore, will take office on January 20. What does this mean?

The general on the battlefield, Clausewitz teaches us, must remain calm in the midst of danger, chaos, and uncertainty.  He must keep his head while all around are losing theirs, avoid emotional extremes, and try to grasp the truly critical elements of any situation.  He must also, in my opinion, admit to his own uncertainty.  If you're really smart, I often say, the three words you are not afraid to utter are "I don't know."  And I feel fairly certain that no one, least of all Donald Trump himself, knows what the next four years will look like.

Six weeks ago the New Yorker published a good article by Evan Osnos on Trump's transition team, which had already formed, and its plans.  They apparently want Trump to take a series of immediate steps to indicate a radical break with the past.  The first--also signaled by Paul Ryan in his press conference yesterday--could be the repeal of Obamacare.  House Republicans will undoubtedly pass it yet again in the first ten days or so of January, and in the Senate Charles Schumer, the new Democratic leader, will face his first major test: whether to try to use the filibuster to save it.  That in turn will raise the issue of how many of the Democrats, especially those up for re-election in two years, will join him.  There is certainly a significant chance that the filibuster might be defeated, clearing the way for immediate repeal. Trump will also undoubtedly withdraw some of Obama's executive orders.  Last but hardly least, Newt Gingrich, one of those closest to Trump, told Osnos about plans to embark on a Scott Walker-style war on the rights of federal workers, essentially doing away with civil service protections.  While this would be wildly popular with the Republican base, it may be a bridge too far.

Many pundits, stuck in the denial stage of grief, are hoping that Trump might finally "pivot" to respectability as President.  Certainly by turning moderate he and the Republicans could bring the crisis in our politics to an end and start a new era of US history, but I do not think that will happen.  I see two possibilities.  One is that Trump will simply go along with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and implement the conservative Republican agenda of a new round of tax cuts and some kind of "entitlement reform" that puts a major dent in Medicare and even Social Security, at least for younger generations.  They will also dismantle a good deal of our regulatory structure.  The role of the Justice Department in relation to local police departments will surely change, and I would not be surprised if the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, which has become a Ministry of Truth for institutions of higher learning, was disbanded entirely.  (Alternatively it might focus on the free speech rights of conservative organizations and religious groups on campus.)  All this could be accompanied by another one of Trump's signature proposals,. a big infrastructure program--if the Republican Congress would go along with it. That is a very open question.

The three biggest question marks, I think, are immigration policy, trade policy, and foreign policy, and here the key will be the people whom Trump chooses to appoint to key positions.  Already there is talk about the traditional Republican foreign policy elite making its peace with Trump, and this might easily happen if Gingrich,. as rumored, became the new Secretary of State.  But on immigration Trump's rhetoric has been so heated and his supporters have been so committed that I expect some fairly drastic steps.  Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, may well be deported, and I will not be surprised if immigration from certain Muslim countries is banned--a step well within the President's power.  Trade could easily be handled more subtly.  Trump will be under enormous pressure from our economic elite not to do anything too drastic, and he may find it more convenient to make extravagant rhetorical claims about his success than to actually block imports, just as he has often done in his business career.  There is, of course, no way that he can possibly bring millions of industrial jobs back to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

That raises perhaps the biggest question of all: how will Trump's base react when he betrays their interests, as he will surely do?  And will the Democrats actually be able to make new inroads among t them?  We do not know.  Ultimately, the answer to the puzzle lies within Trump's psyche. If he is simply driven by a narcissistic need for affirmation, he may take the path of least resistance, adopt in practice relatively less radical and disruptive measures, and further entrench our corporate elite while putting the cultural left more on the defensive.  But if he is driven by real hatred stemming from his childhood, as Hitler was, he will undertake truly radical and brutal measures both at home and abroad, with potentially world-historical consequences. Trump, as I have argued, only became a successful businessman, a tv celebrity, and a presidential candidate because of the bankruptcy of our institutions and values.  A sound financial system would have put him out of business decades ago, a healthy culture would have had no place for him, and he would never have been nominated in an age of strong political parties.  We have left ourselves vulnerable to a demagogue like him.  He will decide what the consequences will be.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Aristocracy or Despotism?

Barring some very extraordinary event in the next three days--that is, before next Tuesday--this will be my last post before the most dramatic and potentially consequential American presidential election since 1860.  I undertook my reading of Tocqueville's Democracy in America in the hope of gaining some new insights into what we have been going through, and in the belief that Tocqueville, like Clausewitz, is one of those thinkers whose perspective is so broad that they will always provide valuable insights, even in a new and evidently different age.  I have not been disappointed.  Tocqueville not only described the functioning democracy that he found in the United States and identified its short- and medium-term problems--including the threatened dissolution of the union, and the terrible problem of slavery--but he also discussed the ways in which our system might evolve.  I have finished volume I, which deals mainly with political as opposed to social questions, and I do indeed think that he defined our problem and the choices that we face quite well.

As I tried to point out in the first post in this series, Tocqueville believed democracy as he understood it to be the wave of the future, but he did not idealize it.  Democracy meant to him the leveling of all distinctions among men, the end of aristocracy and special privileges, and he expected it to sweep at least through all the western world.  Yet he felt that its ability to create sound and stable government depended very much on specific historical and geographical circumstances, and above all, on mores (moeurs in French.)  Both our circumstances and our mores have changed beyond recognition in the 180 years since he wrote, and as a result, we no longer live in the kind of democracy that he described.  We now face, I think, a new choice.

I cannot take the time and space to enumerate all the features of American life and culture which in Tocqueville's opinion contributed to the functioning of our democracy in the early 1830s, but I can certainly mention the most important.  Chief among them, I think, was the relative economic equality he discovered, and the lack, in most of the nation at least, of anything resembling a hereditary European aristocracy.  While there were unusually rich men and even a few great estates, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region and the South, he found that they generally stayed away from politics and did not try to make their views prevail.  Most Americans held some property, and thus,. he remarked, socialism, which was already on the march in Europe, had no appeal in the United States.  Their government--local,. state, and even national--was in the hands of men of moderate means and moderate educational endowments, They were less skilled at the arts of politics and government, he felt, than aristocrats might be, but they truly spoke for the people, they had had practical experience of government all their lives, and they could act quickly and decisively, even though they frequently reversed themselves very rapidly.  Above all, they spoke for the majority of Americans, because they were drawn from it.

Tocqueville returns again and again to the influence of the majority on affairs, which he regarded as overwhelming.  This in part reflected the precise moment at which he did his research.   As he noted--and he was very well versed in the 1774-1800 period, as well as more recent times--the Federalists had been an aristocratic party, but after helping institute the Constitution, they had disappeared as a political force.  The supremacy of the Democratic Party had been as yet unchallenged  when he wrote--he never even mentions the Whigs.  The President, Andrew Jackson, while himself a plantation owner, was the first US President to base his Administration on a direct appeal to the masses and claimed to stand with them against the moneyed interests.  The majority believed in a weak federal government, in westward expansion, in free primary education for all, and in an effective postal service.  The tariff and the related nullification crisis were the most heated issues before the nation, and they had recently been settled, Tocqueville explained, by a compromise which gave President Jackson the issue in principle while conceding something to the South in substance.

Tocqueville also noted that Americans loved to form associations dedicated to specific causes, including temperance and the abolition of slavery.  (The "second wave" abolitionist movement was just getting started when he visited the US in the early 1830s, and he surely would have paid it more attention had he visited ten years later.)  But the associations, he noted, clearly stood outside the majority, since if the majority actually shared their views, they would not be necessary.  And here, for me, occurred one of the first of several moments of clarity that I experienced while making my way through the book.  Associations have contineud to play a key role in our political life from his day to ours, without interruption.  Leading associations in influence today including the AARP, the NRA, and AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee.  Those associations, however, unlike those of the 1830s, have  become more powerful than the majority.  The NRA and AIPAC in particular take positions which the mass of the American people do not support, but such is their power over our elected officials that they have determined key questions of national policy for decades.  They are not alone.  What has changed?

To begin with, of course, the United States has had, for at least 80 years, a much stronger central government, with far greater power at home and abroad, and a centralized authority in Washington which no Americans in Tocqueville's time even dreamed of.  Our powerful associations work their will in Washington, and our representatives live in terror of them in the same way that in the 1830s they lived in terror of the opinion of the majority.  Why is it that opinion has become weaker?

It seems to me that opinion still rules much of our politics today--but the differences is that we have really become two countries, with two completely different sets of values.  In the same way that politicians in my home state of Massachusetts have carefully limited the rights of gun owners and protected the right to abortion, legislators in the red states would never dream of doing either.  The red and blue sections of the country have entirely different values and different governments.  As I write, the outcome of Tuesday's election, according to Nate Silver's models,. is in serious doubt in only 7 of the 51 jurisdictions that will decide it.

The cultural cleavage also reflects something Tocqueville did not anticipate--a real regional split about religion.  Now Tocqueville was very struck by the great variety of religious sects in the United States, but he noted that atheists appeared to be very unusual, and that they tended to keep to themselves.  Moreover, virtually every religion concentrated on maintaining its religious rights while disclaiming any desire to influence the political world--a difference from Europe that he much admired.  All this has changed too. We are divided into an irreligious party in the blue states on the one hand, and a militantly religious one that argues for the supremacy of religion in politics on the other.  That too has deprived us of the kind of majority opinion Tocqueville found.

But more importantly, perhaps, we suffer from two of the obstacles to effective democratic government that Tocqueville identified, and which he envied the United States for having escaped.  The first, of course, is economic inequality, which in the last 40 years has increased rapidly and has now reached literally unprecedented heights, with no end in sight.  I shall return to this point in a moment.  And the second is that the US has been, for about a century, one of the leading--if not the leading--world power, exercising military force and diplomatic influence in every corner of the globe.  In the 1830s Tocqueville argued that the US combined the advantages of large and small nations, since our isolation from the great powers allowed us to do without large armies or navies, and the ambition for glory among our leading men which foreign adventures tends to stimulate.  Today we are stuck with a bipartisan foreign policy establishment absolutely committed to the idea that the United States has both a right and a duty to impose its will all over the world.  And that has corrupted our democracy in a thousand ways since the time of the Cold War, just as many isolationists warned that it would when the United States first stepped onto the world stage around 1900.

The kind of democracy Tocqueville describes requires a sense of national community that we have lost for other reasons.  He saw the nation as an Anglo-American nation in the 1830s, when that was beginning to change.  It changed much more, of course, as a result of new waves of immigration in the 1840s, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the late twentieth century.  The great national enterprises of the Civil War and the Second World War recreated new national communities and integrated many of the immigrants into our political body. They also created new consensus on critical issues.  But we have not gone through anything similar in my lifetime, and it does not look as if we are about to do so.

What kind of government, then, do we have today, and what are the stakes of Tuesday's election?

In my opinion, a new kind of aristocracy has increasingly dominated the United States for a little over 100 years, and our politics are now dominated by competing aristocracies.  The political aristocracy that arose during the Progressive era and generally ruled the US, I would argue, from the New Deal through the 1970s or so, was largely an intellectual one.  While it certainly came from the and upper strata of our society, it was not primarily interested in money, and it rose to power and stayed in power in alliance with the working classes. Its leaders were the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, the elements of the east coast establishment that gave us our foreign policy elite.  It allied itself with labor unions and farmers, and eventually with the civil rights movement.  It was an open aristocracy, with room for descendants of Catholic and Jewish immigrants and for striving poor young men like Richard Nixon.  The Goldwater candidacy of 1964 represented the first overt revolt against its power, and Ronald Reagan brought that revolt to power in 1980.

Since around 1980, it seems to me, our politics have been a battle between competing aristocracies.  One one side are the highly educated professionals and our educational elite, who have become much richer, much less interested in the lives of poorer Americans, and increasingly focused on the rights of women, gays, and minorities.  (That has not prevented the Democratic elite, however, from collaborating enthusiastically in the mass incarceration of poor minorities, including poor women.)  On the other side are powerful rebels against the whole course of mid-twentieth century American life, who are particularly strong among the barons of the energy industry, but who include many other economic interests as well.  In a truly terrifying development, these two aristocracies, one Democratic and one Republican, have divided up the electorate largely based upon race and gender.  We still do not know what consequences this will have,. but I am afraid that they will be dire.

Now Tocqueville did not believe that the United States would become an aristocratic nation--but he was afraid that it might fall under a tyranny.  That, he felt, was the danger that came from the leveling of social distinctions--that there would be no intermediate powers to stand in the way of a despot, particularly if he were backed by the will of the majority.  Now the accusation of despotism was hurled in Tocqueville's day against Andrew Jackson, and it arose again in much sharper form against Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and now against Barack Obama.  But I believe that on Tuesday we will face for the first time the real possibility of electing a despot--and largely because a large portion of our population has turned against our new aristocracies.

No one knows what Donald Trump would actually do as President, but he has certainly been speaking the language of despotism.  Only he, he tells us, can fix the problems that afflict us.  Our whole aristocracy, he says--headquartered in Washington--is hopelessly corrupt, as he knows from his own dealings with it.  And his promise to cleanse the stables and do whatever is necessary has earned him the support of about 40% of our population , at least, and there is a non-trivial chance that he could be elected on Tuesday.  A very large portion of our citizenry is willing to surrender authority to an irresponsible, overwhelmingly ambitious leader ,and most of the Republican aristocracy--with the interesting exception of the Republican foreign policy elite--is clearly willing to to try to cooperate with him.

Given the economic and demographic changes that the United States has gone through since Tocqueville's time, I think it was inevitable that we would develop a ruling class--albeit one open to people of all backgrounds--with many of the elements of an aristocracy.  We were fortunate in the last century to produce several generations of aristocrats who felt a real obligation to the common people and a real sense of  how the United States could defend and promote freedom in the world.   Some of them, led by FDR, were the subject of my last book.  Yet we are in terrible trouble today because we have no comparable ruling group, and the American people know it.  Trump has been the result, and he will not be the last one.  We face a choice between the first real despot we have ever had in the United States, and a representative of an aristocracy that has lost touch with much of the nation and will not have much chance of enacting it ideas into law.  In a few days we shall know a lot more about where we stand.  I shall have more to say about Tocqueville's insights and their implications for our time in weeks to come.