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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, December 29, 2017

A Turning Point in history

As the year draws to a close, I believe that we are in the midst of a great turning point in western and world history, and that an era that began about 350 years ago might be coming to a close.  That era gave us western civilization and modern political institutions, based upon the Enlightenment, the idea that reason, embodied in the policy of the state, could improve the lives of nations.  It was an era of extraordinary intellectual ferment and a very creative era in politics and institutions.  I now see that I was born at perhaps the climax of that era, at the end of the Second World War, and that I lived through, and later wrote about, the events of the 1960s that were going to undermine it and, perhaps, consign it to the ash heap of history.  It is an extraordinary story, one whose consequences will continue to play out long after my generation has left the scene.

This era, which began in western Europe with the accession of Louis XIV, was characterized by the taming of the great landed aristocrats who, as I showed in Politics and War, had been at the bottom of so much domestic and international conflict in the years from 1559 through 1659.  Not only did Louis XIV create a much stronger French monarchy at home, but he also strengthened his fellow princes around Europe, rather than undermining them by subsidizing their leading aristocrats, as late 16th-century monarchs had done.  He also involved Europe in a series of wars--although they were limited wars that did not seek the complete overthrow of foreign governments.  That pattern of international politics persisted through the 18th century, until 1792.  Monarchs waged wars, in Europe and around the world, in pursuit of relatively small territorial claims.  They also waged them with relatively small armies, and civil life generally continued without much disruption during their wars.  Meanwhile, nations like Great Britain, France, Prussia, and, after 1776, the new United States, developed enormous civic pride in their institutions.  The United States specifically introduced the idea of a nation of equal citizens into western life in 1776, and it gained critical adherents in Europe as well.  During teh wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon, the European states performed unprecedented feats of mobilization and carried on war on a new scale.  Napoleon's conquests also spread the French model of a largely equal citizenry ruled by a bureaucratic state around much of Europe.  Great Britain was something of an exception.  While a democratic spirit had grown within Britain in the mid-18th century, the crown and the aristocracy reacted against it in reaction to the American and French revolutions.  But in all the major nations, loyalty to the state and its institutions had become a key political force, and so remained for another 150 years.

Shaken by the convulsions of the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the European nations managed to avoid any wars of comparable scale for a century.  The United States, on the other hand, divided over the issue of slavery in mid-century, and fought its Civil War from 1861 through 1865. That war, as Lincoln said again and again, was fought to prove that the world's first freely elected, democratic government could preserve itself.  The governments and peoples of Europe saw it as a war between the democratic North and the aristocratic South, and lined up accordingly.  The northern victory was a victory for the democrats of Europe as well, and it was no accident that Britain (1867), Bismarck's new Germany (1866 and 1871), and France (1871) all moved much closer to genuine democracy and granted the vote to more, or all, of their male citizens as a result.

In the last decade of the 19th century, European politics became world politics.  Imperialism spread direct or indirect rule of the great western nations through Africa and parts of Asia, while certain non-European states such as Japan and the Ottoman Empire struggled to adapt their institutions so as to survive in the new environment.  Meanwhile, Eastern Europe--ruled by three multinational empires from Moscow, Vienna and Constantinople--struggled to deal with the new ideas of nationalism, democracy, and socialism, all of which threatened them at their foundations.  In 1914 a nationalist conflict between Serbia and Austria led to the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War. German imperialism turned it into a world war for supremacy in Europe.  The war was, among other things, a struggle between monarchy, represented by Germany and Austria-Hungary, and the western democracies, as both the Emperor William II and President Woodrow Wilson understood.  In the end it shattered all the empires of Eastern and Central Europe and created a host of new states, all with democratic constitutions.  The attempt to spread democracy into eastern Europe, however, was a failure, and democracy also fell in Italy in 1922 and Germany in 1933.  Soviet Communism created the USSR.

By the mid-1930s a great confrontation among different states and forms of government was becoming imminent.  While France and Great Britain still stood, in essence, for the pre-1914 status quo, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and New Deal America offered new forms of government and new approaches to the problems of modern industrial society--as did Japan in the Far East. The Second World War was thus an ideological struggle, but it was waged by nation-states. It also brought the issue of nationalism to a horrifying climax in Europe, with tens of millions of people either murdered (by the Axis) or forcibly moved (by the allies) to create homogeneous states.  Only two fully autonomous nation states, the US and the USSR, emerged from that war,, and the alliances they formed became the new basis of international politics for the next 45 years.

Moscow and Washington were, among other things, presenting different Enlightenment models to the world.  Washington stood for western democracy and capitalism, Moscow for socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat.  The competition between them had some very healthy effects in the west, which worked to show that it could provide for its working classes better than the Soviets could. In the United States the federal government pushed civil rights for black Americans partly o the grounds that the United States had to solve this problem to maintain world leadership.  American and European politics remained an inspiring career: political leaders, drawing on the large resources of their nations, could build enormous new infrastructure, regulate the economy, and compete on the world stage.  High marginal tax rates, which kept the government strong in relation to economic interests, were a legacy of the era of the world wars.  The world was moving forward, and by the early 1960s even Soviet Communism was beginning to evolve somewhat.  Then, in the mid 1960s, enormous changes began.

The beginning of the large-scale US intervention in Vietnam in 1965 coincided with the maturing of the Boom generation.  With five years, that war had convinced many of the wealthier and better-educated members of that generation that both US foreign policy and the whole US political and economic system was hopelessly corrupt.  Virtue was no longer to be sought at the highest levels of public service, but among the oppressed members of society, including racial minorities and, by the mid-1970s, women.  Such groups had been advancing within the old framework--albeit slowly--but now activists among them increasingly gave up the idea of simply carving out their place within the established order, and rejected it altogether instead.  Meanwhile, behind closed doors of corporations, another offensive against the Enlightenment idea of government was beginning.  A Virginia corporate lawyer, Louis Powell, wrote a very influential memorandum arguing that the free enterprise system had to mount a campaign to defend itself against government encroachment.  A network of very wealthy energy producers and industrialists began to subsidize right wing thought and search for new ways to influence politics.  Splits in the New Deal coalition opened to the door to an era of Republican ascendancy from 1969 through 1993.  Meanwhile, in Europe, the old national ideal gve way to the idea of the European Union, while Communism lost its hold on the imagination of younger generations.

The collapse of Communism in 1989-91 appeared to mark a worldwide triumph of western liberal democracy. Instead, it turned out to be the dying canary in the coal mine that might have warned us all about the decline of political institutions. Communism in the USSR gave way within 15 years to oligarchy and an authoritarian state.  Meanwhile, American politics increasingly fell under the control of a Republican party utterly devoted to the pursuit of private wealth, the increase of inequality, and an end to the New Deal model of a state that regulates inequality and provides for the basic needs of its citizens.  American politics has now become a profession for beggars and sycophants, not courageous leaders, and the politicians, as the results of the last few elections make clear, have lost touch with broad areas of the electorate. Meanwhile, cultural divides have made a truly national coalition impossible.  A career in business and television, it turns out, has become a better route to celebrity and popularity than a career as an elected official.  And so it was that Donald Trump in 2016 managed to destroy establishment Republican candidates in the primaries, and to prevail narrowly over the quintessential Democratic establishment candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton--who as I showed last week could not even turn out her own base--in the general election.  Trump is an oligarch, not a politician, and evidence is mounting that he came to power with the help of Russian oligarchs with whom he and some of his campaign had long-standing connections.  This is an echo of the 1559-1659 period, when the great nobles of various states frequently allied themselves with their counterparts in other states, or with foreign monarchs.

In my opinion, the repudiation of the traditions of the New Deal and Great Society has gone much too far for the simple election of a Democratic candidate in 2020 to revive it. Government now serves the interest of the wealthy at all levels, and inequality continues to grow.  Donald Trump is the cooperative figurehead for the Repubican coalition that has been organizing for decades to destroy the legacy of the last 100 years.    And that is what his Administration is doing, gutting the EPA, which has tried to protect us against health threats from the corporate world, and the State Department, which has kept the United States at the center of the great diplomatic conflicts of the world since 1945.  Yet Trump remains a significant historical development, as today's New York Times makes clear.  He is the first person to reach the White House without any commitment whatever to the principles that guided the United States through its great era of influence and power.  And this divides him, it seems, not only from foreign leaders like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Teresa May, but from his senior foreign policy team of Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, and James Mattis.

On July 20 last, it seems, Secretary of Defense Mattis convened a meeting of the top foreign policy team in the JCS "tank" in the Pentagon which the President attended. The Times describes what happened.

The group convened in the secure conference room of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a storied inner sanctum known as the tank. Mr. Mattis led off the session by declaring that “the greatest thing the ‘greatest generation’ left us was the rules-based postwar international order,” according to a person who was in the room.

After listening for about 50 minutes, this person said, Mr. Trump had heard enough. He began peppering Mr. Mattis and Mr. Tillerson with questions about who pays for NATO and the terms of the free trade agreements with South Korea and other countries.
The postwar international order, the president of the United States declared, is “not working at all.”

Friday, December 22, 2017

How Clinton Lost the Election

The alliance of the Trump White House, the Koch donor network, and the Congressional Republicans it controls has won a huge victory, passing another big tax cut that will once again balloon the deficit, the same result achieved by Nixon and Ford, Reagan and Bush I, and Bush II--leaving a mess for the next Democratic President to clean up, and creating more pressure to cut the size of the federal government.  Donald Trump may yet add new dimensions to the crisis in American life, but with respect to the tax cut, he has merely continued the ongoing, 40-year trend of our politics and economics, which is rooted in the most profound historical changes.  In the wake of this milestone, however--and building on the revealing (I thought) analysis of the Alabama election which I did last week--I decided to look more carefully at last year's results, which I had never done before.  I realize now that the research I have done so far is incomplete, and I might finish it at some point down the road, but it still makes certain things  unmistakably clear.  Here, in summary form, are my conclusions.

1.  The 2016 election was marked, as much as anything, by an erosion in the support for both of our two major political parties--but especially of the Democrats.  While the total popular vote for President increased by 4.5% over 2012, the Republican share of that vote fell by -1.1%--and the Democratic share fell by -2.9.  Minor parties, mainly the Libertarians and to a lesser extend the Greens, increased their share from 1.8% in 2012 to 5.8% in 2016.

2.  Different parts of the country moved in significantly different directions between 2012 and 2016.  While Hillary Clinton did substantially worse overall than Barack Obama, winning 48.1 % of the national vote compared to his 51%, she did better in some states, including California, where she did 2.2% better, and Texas, where she gained 1.8%.  On the other hand, She did an astonishing 4.3% worse in her home state of New York, even though she still carried it handily, by 59% to 36.5% . This is where I might have done more research--I do not have this data, as yet, for every single state.  But it is very clear that Clinton owed her margin of the popular vote to the votes of deep blue and in some cases deep red states (such as Texas)--not to swing states.

3.  In the states that decided the election--both the ones that were identified as purple (Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire, Colorado, Nevada, and Ohio) and the ones that were wrongly assumed to be firmly in the Democratic column (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota)--Hillary Rodham Clinton and the Democratic Party got the proverbial crap beaten out of them.  That speaks, presumably, both to the weakness of his candidacy at a personal level and to the ineptitude of her campaign, which failed both to recognize the danger in some of those states, or to out campaign the Republicans in the states they actually focused on.  Donald Trump increased Mitt Romney's share of the vote in those states by .7% overall;  Hillary Clinton's share fell -4.5% from what Barack Obama earned in 2012.  And Clinton lost support relative to Obama not only in the states that cost her the electoral vote, but in the purple states she carried, including New Hampshire, Virginia, Colorado and Nevada.

Let us look at the swing states one by one.

In Pennsylvania, Clinton earned fewer votes, in absolute terms, than Obama in 2012, even though the overall vote in the state increased by 7.2%  Trump increased the Republican share of the vote by 1.6% (to 48.2%); Clinton's share fell from Obama's 52% to 47.5%

In Ohio, the fall in the Democratic vote share was the second-highest among the swing states, an almost incredible -7.1%.  Trump on the other hand increased the Republican share by 4%. Turnout overall was down 1.5%.

Virginia and Colorado were the only two swing states in which Donald Trump did substantially worse than Mitt Romney--minus 2.9% worse in each of those states.  Clinton's share of the vote also fell below Obama's in those two states, and in Colorado, it fell even more than Trump's did (-3.3%), but she still won them both.  (The minor parties obviously did very well in Colorado.)  In New Hampshire, where Clinton won by the narrowest of margins, Trump posted an impressive gain of 4.5% while she lost -5.1%.

North Carolina was another state where the total vote increased but the shares of both major parties fell. Once again, Clinton's fell more (-2.2% compared to -0.6%), and she lost worse than Obama.  In Florida the total vote showed one of the largest increases in the nation, 11.2, and Trump virtually held on to Romney's share while Clinton dropped -2.2%.  The Democratic failure in a state where turnout increased so much is a frightening sign.

That leaves Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota--the rust belt.  The Democratic share of the vote in those states declined by -6.9%, -10.2% [sic!], -6.4%, and -6.6%.  The Republican share grew by 2.8%, 5%, and 1.3% in Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin, but declined by -0.6% in Minnesota, where Clinton hung on for a narrow victory.

Now Clinton did win the popular vote against Donald Trump.  I do not agree with those who think that that fact deligitimizes Trump's win.  Not only did he win according to the rules of our Constitution, but we also have no idea what would have happened had the two candidates actually been competing for a plurality or majority of the popular vote.  More than that, however, Clinton's victory in the popular vote should not be allowed to obscure another significant fact. Barack Obama in 2012 won 51% of the total popular vote, to 47.2% for Mitt Romney.  Clinton won only 48.1%, to 46% from Donald Trump.   Trump did a better job of holding on to Romney's votes than Clinton did in holding on to Obama's.  Meanwhile, the minor party share increased from 1.8% in 2012 to 5.8% in 2016.  That is a sign of a collapsing political system.

2020 is a long way off, but in my opinion, these results still provide important lessons for Democrats.  First of all, they cannot get back into the White House by getting stronger either in deep blue states or n deep red ones: they have to focus on the rust belt and southeastern states where they lost the last election.  Their establishment, represented in 2016 by Clinton, did not energize voters in those states, including the ones in which they won.  Secondly, they need to face the painful question of whether sexism cost Clinton the election in those states, and if it looks like it did, they have to make a hardheaded political calculation that they need a male candidate in 2020.  Just writing that sentence, I know how angry it will make many blue state Democrats, but the point of politics--expecially at an historical moment like this one--is to win.  Lastly, there is a bonanza of voters--more than enough to swing an election--out there who have tuned out both parties.  It would behoove the Democrats to pay attention to them.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Meaning of the Alabama Election

As Doug Jones himself pointed out in his victory speech Tuesday night, his win over Roy Moore was, as much as anything, a great victory for Alabama.  For the first time in roughly half a century, a progressive Democrat had won a statewide election there, following in the tradition of Hugo Black, John Sparkman, Lister Hill, and 1950s Governor Jim Folsom. (Although Sparkman and Hill were segregationists, they were New Deal liberals on everything else and helped pass a lot of important legislation.)  Meanwhile, the victory signals today’s Democratic Party that all is not lost, and that the elections next year might turn out much better than expected.  Exactly why Jones won, however, is being misunderstood, because so many people do not understand the numerical dynamics of American politics and off-year elections.

Black turnout is frequently being credited for Jones’s victory, and it played a part.  I have seen references to a “surge” in black voter turnout.  That, however, is somewhat misleading.  Considerably fewer black (and white) people voted for Jones, as a matter of fact, than voted for Hillary Clinton a year ago.  And even the relatively good turnout of black voters on Tuesday was not the main reason that Jones won.  As I hope to make clear, the figures leave no doubt about this at all.

We easily forget that the distribution of political power in our country is heavily impacted by people’s failure to vote.   Last year only 55.4% of the voting-age population cast ballots in what has turned out to be one of the more consequential elections in American history.  Yet as we shall see in a moment, even that low figure is much higher than turnout in off-year elections such as 2014 or (in three states) 2017.  And we need to understand that to understand what happened in Alabama.

To illustrate this point, I want to compare presidential and off-year voting in two hotly contested purple states, North Carolina and Virginia.  Alabama, of course, is not usually a purple state, but it momentarily became one last Tuesday, when the electorate at the polls divided almost evenly. 
The North Carolina votes for President in 2012 [sic] and for Senate in 2014 provide a very simple control, because although Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney in the former year and Republican Tom Tillis beat incumbent Kay Hagan in 2014, both elections were extremely close, indicating that differences in turnout affected both sides about equally.  North Carolinians, it turns out, cast 4,448,786 votes for President in 2012, and just 2,915,281 for the Senate in 2014.  That represents a 35% drop in total turnout—both sides, in short, lost about 1/3 of their votes.  

 Turning to a more recent (and relevant) comparison, we find that purple Virginia cast 3,984,631 votes for President in 2016, with Hillary Clinton winning by a comfortable five percentage points, and just 2,614,282 in 2017—an almost exactly equal decline of 34%.  When we look at the votes for the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates, however, we find an unequal decline.  Republican Ed Gillespie’s vote was 66% of Donald Trump’s, while Democrat Ralph Northam’s was a full 71% of Hillary Clinton’s. (The reason both parties showed declines smaller than the overall 34% decline in turnout is that minor parties won several percentage points of the 2016 vote, but only 1% of the 2017 vote.)  Northam held on to a higher percentage of Clinton’s vote than Gillespie did of Trump’s—and this allowed him to win by a very comfortable margin of 54%-45%.

            What happened in Alabama Tuesday followed the same pattern, but on a mind-boggling scale.  Here are the results of the Alabama presidential elections of 2012 and 2016, and the Senate election this week.

2012 Presidential election
Romney 1,255,925 61%
Obama   795,696 38%

              2016 Presidential election
Trump   1,318,255 62.1%
Clinton: 729,547 34.4%

2016 Senate election
Shelby (R) 1,335,104
Crumpton (D) 748,709

              2017 Senate election
Moore 652,300
Jones: 673,236

         Comparing the two presidential results, it is not surprising that Barack Obama was a significantly more popular candidate in Alabama than Hillary Clinton, or, sadly, that Donald Trump did somewhat better than Mitt Romney.  But moving to the Senate, what happened yesterday suddenly becomes very clear indeed.  Neither black turnout nor Democratic turnout overall, it seems to me, could reasonably be said to have “surged” compared to 2017, since Jones didn’t get as many votes as Crumpton. But he totaled 90% of Crumpton’s vote, which is, indeed, an extraordinary figure compared to a more expected 65% off-year total of the previous presidential election.  Because of the peculiar circumstances of this race—the candidacy of Roy Moore and the related incumbency of Donald Trump—it looks at first glance as if the Democratic Party turned out an extra 15% of its votes, compared to what normally would have been expected.
That in itself, however, would not have won the election for Jones. Equally striking is the collapse of Republican vote, which was almost only 49% of what it was last year.  While the Democrats turned out 15% more votes than expected, the Republicans turned out 16% less.  And since the Republican vote last year was much, much larger than the Democratic one, the Republican decline was almost twice as responsible for Jones’s victory than the Democrats’ success in turning out more votes than expected.  Had it not been for the evident antipathy of a substantial number of Republicans towards Roy Moore, he still would have won.

But that is not all. This analysis assumes that no significant number of voters cast ballots for Trump in 2016 and Jones in 2017.  Evidence suggests, however, that that is not true.  First, polls show that a good many Republican women crossed over to vote for Jones.  And secondly, at least one estimate—which I received over the phone from a reliable source, but unfortunately can’t document—is that black turnout this year was only 80% of what it was last year, less than the overall Democratic figure of 90% of last year. 

The Democrats won one of the reddest states in the nation because the Republicans fielded one of the weakest candidates in modern history, a 21st-century theocrat who was reported to have pursued and molested teenagers many years ago, while they fielded a very strong one (as Jones in his victory speech showed himself to be.)  Jones’s win is a great result that shows there is a limit to what moderate Republicans, including southern ones, will swallow.  But it is certainly not clear that Moore’s defeat portends any general swing towards the Democrats in red states—or indicates any ability on the Democrats’ part to get the 45% of the eligible population that never votes to go to the polls.  The vote vindicated the Republican establishment, and one of the big losers Tuesday was Steve Bannon.