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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, February 24, 2017

War in the age of democracy, past and present

For reasons that shall eventually emerge, I have been reviewing my work as an historian over the whole of my lifetime, and have been most recently looking at Politics And War: European Conflict from Philip II to Hitler, which appeared in 1990.  While it is not my favorite among my books, I do think it was my most remarkable achievement.  For more than ten years previously I had been reading very widely indeed in the literature of European international politics in four periods of general war: 1559-1659, 1661-1713, 1792-1815, and 1914-45.  The book told much of the story of those conflicts, but that was not its main purpose. Instead, I tried to define the essence of international conflict in each period by asking two questions: what were nations (or men) fighting about, and were they able to achiever their goals?  Those questions ultimately turned the book into a meditation on the nature of modern politics and its discontents.  Such a book, if successful, should remain relevant 27 years later, and I would argue that it has.

In each of my four periods, I argued, conflicts revolved around one or two fundamental issues.  From 1559 through 1659, I argued, monarchs in Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and England fought in vain to impose their will upon their aristocracies.  Conflict in that era combined civil and foreign war, disrupting economies, crippling whole nations, and achieving very little.  In the era of Louis XIV (1661-1715), by contrast, war became the province of monarchs. Louis XIV managed to tame his aristocrats and enlist them in his own wars, and indirectly helped his fellow monarchs do the same.  He also fought--for most of his reign--for much more limited and achievable goals.  His era set the tone for conflict in most of the 18th century, allowing Europe to make remarkable economic, intellectual and artistic progress.  In the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era, the ideas of the Enlightenment--that the state could be reconfigured along rationalist lines--unleashed the ambition of monarchs, both to remake institutions at home and extend their power as far as they could abroad.

"The era of the two world wars, I wrote, "witnessed new attempts to transform European society according to abstract principles, with tragic and horrifying consequences."  Two ideas--the demand for great empires, most notably within both Imperial Germany and Nazi Germany, and the attempt to create homogeneous national communities all across Central and Eastern Europe--drove the two world wars.  They did so even though economic progress was coming far more from international trade than from empires, even for imperial nations like Great Britain and France, and even though the populations of those regions were too mixed to create homogeneous national states without ethnic cleansing and murder on a gigantic scale.  But another, deeper problem emerged, relating to the demands of modern democracy. "Modern societies," I wrote, "demand that wars be fought to a brilliantly successful conclusion, and wartime governments have become hostages to realities far beyond their control. ... War has been harder to begin, but also much harder to end, in the era of democracy."

I wrote those sentences with the two world wars in mind, and modern society has changed enormously in the last 70 years.  After the Vietnam War, the United States gave up conscription and shrank its army, and most nations around the world have followed suit.  Even with anarchy spreading around the world, today's conflicts do not approach the scale of those that began 100 years ago.  Yet Vietnam, where the US intervention lasted nearly eight years, showed how hard it was to end even a clearly mistaken war. It took more than half a century to the United States to end its economic war on Cuba, which had had no result.  President Obama courageously reached the nuclear deal with Iran, but did not dare even try to resume diplomatic relations  And we are now in an age of endless war, comparable, in one sense, to the 16th and 17th centuries.  We have begun wars for unattainable objectives, such as functioning democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan--and those wars are more than halfway through their second decade.  In an attempt to fight terror, we have spread anarchy.   While our capabilities have shrunk, our pretensions have increased: to spread democracy and western ideas of human rights literally all over the globe. And while our public hardly feels the same stake in Iraq and Afghanistan as the European publics did during the First World War, it is much less engaged, and therefore less likely to protest the interminable conflicts.

The dreadful crimes and sacrifices of the Second World War, including not only the Holocaust but also the ethnic cleansing of millions of people by the victors after the war was over, did provide much of the world--and the whole industrialized world--with more than half a century of peace.  We are now at sea, with the political order that grew out of that war in headlong retreat in the United States and Britain, and threatened all over the EU.  Much conflict lies ahead, and it may be decades before the world achieves a measure of stability.  Perhaps by then, a new realism about the possibilities of international affairs will have emerged.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Biggest Threat

Two weeks ago I suggested that the Republicans would try to undo the expansion of the role of the federal government since 1933, if not since 1901.  I still think that the House majority and many Senators want to do just that, and that Donald Trump would probably go along with it.  This would be a New Deal in reverse, with legislation passed and signed more rapidly than at any time since 1965, when LBJ used his huge majority to push through the Great Society while he covertly began the Vietnam War.  But the tumultuous events of this week suggests that we face an even bigger threat: the advent of anarchy such as we have not seen, perhaps, since the time of the Articles of Confederation.   The threat now comes from both sides of the aisle.

For the last eight years, the Republican Party in Congress and in the courts has done its best to prevent the federal government from functioning.  The nation faced urgent problems relating to energy and the environment, immigration, and gun violence, but the Republicans stopped any attempt to deal with them in its tracks.  They did everything they could to obstruct the Affordable Care Act, and only the vote of Justice Roberts allowed the act to go into operation.  In what I believe to be a move without precedent, they unanimously opposed a major foreign policy agreement, the deal with Iran.  They invited a foreign leader to declare his opposition to that agreement before Congress.  They used their congressional majorities to insist on automatic reductions in the federal budget, another unprecedented move.  They refused to allow Senate debate on many important measures, and refused to consider many Obama appointees for confirmation.

Almost five years ago, I described this strategy as dau tranh--a Vietnamese term describing the Viet Cong's strategy against the Saigon government.  That strategy, which was more political than military, aimed at making it impossible for that government to function effectively, and in 1975 it was crowned with a spectacular victory when the South Vietnamese government and army collapsed in the face of the North's last offensive.  The Republican strategy was shamelessly irresponsible, but it prevented the Obama Administration from doing enough to build a new political consensus, and helped worsen the esteem in which the federal government was held.  Now the Republicans control that government.  This development poses not one, but two grave dangers to its effectiveness, and to the Republic.

One danger, I regret to say, comes from the Democratic Party.  Everything suggests that the Democrats in Congress are going to treat President Trump and his Administration exactly the way that the Republicans treated President Obama and his.  Some of Trump's cabinet appointees are indeed unqualified, but Senate Democrats are voting unanimously against most of them--something the Republicans never did.  They are talking about filibustering the nomination of Judge Gorsuch, an eminently qualified and personally distinguished judge who is completely within the Republican mainstream.  Democrats, as I have mentioned before, say that Trump "is not my president," in defiance of our law and Constitution.  Local and state authorities threaten to defy the federal government on immigration issues.  These tactics, like their Republican counterparts, deny the right of approximately half the citizenry to make their wishes felt in our national government, despite the result of the last election.  They will inevitably bring the Washington establishment into even greater disrepute.  The Democrats need to do more than oppose: they must propose policy alternatives of a different kind.  But they should also show some respect for the institutions we have inherited from our forefathers, and opposition parties generally have throughout our history, except, of course, from 1861 through 1865.

I for one do not want to relive that era.  Secession talk has already begun on the west coast, and it may well spread.  Had Clinton won instead of Trump I have no doubt that it would have started by now in Texas, the Deep South, and elsewhere.  Lincoln in 1861 decided to try to preserve the union by force not to abolish slavery, but rather to save our democratic experiment both for ourselves and for all of humanity.  He succeeded, and within ten years Germany, Great Britain and France had moved much further in the direction of democracy themselves.  As in the 1850s and the 1930s, democracy once again finds itself in crisis around the world.  It has failed to take root in Russia and much of Eastern Europe, it has given way to authoritarianism verging on totalitarianism in Turkey, and it has failed to solve western Europe's problems.  The election of Donald Trump is probably the biggest setback that American democracy has ever suffered, but it is no excuse for giving up on it.  Trump--democratically elected--threatens to reduce us to chaos.  If we cannot use the democratic process to restore order and some semblance of good government, we shall sink into authoritarianism, a catastrophe for future generations here and abroad.  Any attempt at secession would create chaos, if not violence.  The two coasts--the richest parts of the republic--simply cannot disengage from the federal government.

Well before the elections of 2018 and 2020, however, we may need a bipartisan movement to preserve a functioning government.  The Trump Administration in its first few weeks has been highly incompetent, and the President seems incapable of steering the ship of state.  Oddly enough, his tweets are not entirely unprecedented for a President. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson both railed against their opponents in the same way.  But they lived in a different age, when they could not instantly share their thoughts with the public, and knew enough to keep them within their inner circle. Trump does not--nor does he understand the need to project real authority.  To fire General Flynn while announcing that he was unfairly treated by the media was disgraceful.  If Flynn had done something wrong (as he evidently had) the President should have taken responsibility for removing him. If he had not he should have stood by him.  On Wednesday the President also spontaneously backed away from the two-state solution in the Middle East, and answered a question about rising antisemitism by bragging about his total of electoral votes.  In his meeting with sheriffs he obviously had no idea what asset forfeiture was.  His team has filled only a tiny fraction of the vacant positions in the federal government, and it is apparently planning an adversarial relationship with the civil service (another dream which Nixon knew enough not to turn into reality.)  The administration's economic plans seem certain to bust the budget, and any number of its planned economic steps might trigger a recession.  It seems quite likely that within a few months, the government will be entirely at sea.  It also seems subject to unprecedented foreign influence.

Meanwhile, both sides continue to undermine the authority of the government.  Today's New York Times leads with Trump's plans to appoint a billionaire friend of his to conduct a special review of our intelligence agencies, an obvious attempt to intimidate him.  But it also includes an op-ed detailing how a Virginia federal judge ruling on the immigration order has argued, in effect, that President Trump cannot exercise recognized constitutional authority because he has expressed animus towards Muslims.  Our government will fail if we will not allow its officials, from Presidents down to civil servants, to exercise their legal authority.

Many Democrats--especially younger ones--believe that progressive Democrats can sweep the next two elections and turn the tide.  I frankly doubt this very much.  Much of the country seems immune to their appeal in any case and gerrymandering will protect many of the House Republicans.  The Democratic establishment evidently remains strong.  After the civil war--the crisis which clearly most resembles our own--the country benefited from the prestige of President Grant, and then, after the disputed vote of 1876, reached a compromise in which each side got important concessions.  A similar compromise may be our only hope for national unity--one that will sacrifice important interests of both parties.  I would not be so bold as to speculate what shape it might take, but I hope politicians and citizens will start thinking about it.  The armed subjugation of either blue or red states is not an option.  There is no evil comparable to slavery that it could eliminate, and it took a long time after 1865 for it to restore real harmony to the two sections.  We cannot do without our federal government and we need it to function with minimum effectiveness. That may require the legal removal of the President, but it will surely require the discovery of some common ground between the two parties.

My posts about Steve Bannon have brought many people here for the first time, most of them liberals.  I could write those posts because I have been open to original ideas.  Had I not become interested in the ideas of William Strauss and Neil Howe twenty years ago, Bannon never would have heard of me and interviewed me and I would not have gotten any insight into who he was and what he might do.  But that same openness to different ideas means that you will not find standard liberal boilerplate here.  You will find ideas you will not see anywhere else, and I hope you can regard that as a plus rather than a minus.

I once heard Alistair Cook quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to the effect that Constitutions were meant to reconcile men of differing opinions.  (I cannot find the quote myself and would welcome any assistance.)   Holmes had been wounded four times fighting for the Union and knew whereof he spoke.  We are in terrible trouble partly because both sides hold other principles in higher esteem than our Constitution.  For the right these principles are religious and economic; for the left, they stem from the left's vision of a higher morality.  The framers gave us the Constitution because they believed so deeply in the role of government.  We shall suffer disastrous consequences if we cannot once again recover some of their fervor for the only principles and institutions that can hold us together.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Selective Enforcement

Two nights ago, during the debate on the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney General, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell silenced Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts after she read a statement by the late Edward Kennedy (whose seat she now occupies) and a letter from Coretta Scott King violently criticizing Sessions back in the 1980s, when he was rejected for a judgeship.  When Warren appealed the ruling and called for a vote, the Republican majority affirmed it.   McConnell’s ruling was absurd on its face, and the vote was vindictive.  But what everyone seems to have missed in the controversy is the utter hypocrisy of McConnell—who, less than two years ago, let a far worse iinsult from a fellow Republican go completely unpunished and without any response at all.

Although Senate Rule 19 is very rarely invoked, it exists for good reason.  Its prohibition against Senators impugning one another’s motives was obviously designed to prevent the chamber’s debates from turning into episodes of Jerry Springer.  Violent clashes often threatened on the eve of the Civil War, when southern Senators often exhorted colleagues to shoot northerners who dared to challenge slavery, and I have reported on one that took place in the House of Representatives in 1945 when a Mississippi Congressman said a Michigan colleague was “mixed up with” the Communist Party and the Michigan man called him a liar.  Now we are again engaged in a great political civil war, to paraphrase Lincoln, and such exchanges are to be expected.  Yet the application of the rule in this case was absurd.

Senator Warren did not quote what Kennedy and King said about Sessions to his face during an exchange with him on the floor.  She was not debating Senator Sessions, she was debating with her colleagues on the question of whether Senator Sessions should depart the Senate to become Attorney General.  When the Senate is contemplating a candidate for the chief law enforcement officer of the United States, Senators have a right and a duty to examine his career thoroughly.  That was all that Warren was doing.  After she was silenced, Bernie Sanders and two other Democrats read King’s letter as well, without penalty.  McConnell singled out Warren, in all probability, because she is the sharpest thorn in the Republicans’ side, and perhaps because she is a woman.

What everyone seems to have forgotten, however, is that McConnell conspicuously failed to invoke rule 19 just a year and a half ago, when a more obvious breach of Senate decorum occurred.  The offender, in that case, was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—then making his name as the most undisciplined member of the Republican majority—and the target was none other than McConnell himself.  Cruz was leading the fight to kill the Import-Export Bank, one of those sinister Washington institutions that strike fear into Tea Partiers’ hearts because it actually makes loans to American corporations to make them more competitive in world markets.  McConnell had refused to allow a Senate vote on Cruz’s measure, and Cruz bluntly called him a liar on the Senate floor.  McConnell made no motion to silence Cruz.  Instead, neither he nor any other Republican Senator said a single word against him.  That reflected the new balance of power within the Republican Party.    “Tea Party groups, the Heritage Foundation’s political arm, and Charles G. and David H. Koch’s Freedom Partners,” the New York Tines reported, “immediately rushed to Mr. Cruz’s defense.”  “Like the battle against Joe McCarthy in its second and decisive phase (1953-4),” I wrote at the time, “the battle against Cruz, Donald Trump and their ilk will take place primarily within the Republican Party.”  It did—and Trump and Cruz’s allies won.  The Republicans have taken note, and even John McCain declined to criticize McConnell’s move against Warren, much less to vote against it.

The ferocity of the Republicans threatens to destroy the political and economic achievements of the last 80 years, but history suggests that it may also destroy them.  Both the French Jacobins in 1793-4 and the Russian revolutionaries after 1917 eventually turned against themselves in a frenzy to enforce ideological purity.  Something similar may happen when the Republicans realize they do not have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act,  that they cannot possibly justify the enormous expense of a new wall on the Mexican border, and that immigrants, legal and illegal, are too deeply entrenched in the American economy to expel.

Senator Warren, meanwhile, has stepped into the role of another Massachusetts Senator, Charles Sumner, who was beaten nearly to death at his Senate desk in 1856 by a Congressman, Preston Brooks, after violently attacking Brooks’s uncle, another Senator, Andrew Butler.  Sumner recovered from his injuries and lived to see the South defeated in the Civil War and the Reconstruction amendments added to the Constitution.  Warren’s re-election has suddenly become more assured, and she will be emboldened, not intimidated, by what has happened.  It remains, alas, for the Republican Party to recover both their common sense and their honor, and I hope the day will not be too far off when they do.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Mistaken identity

This is indeed the blog of David Kaiser, historian (see list of books at right), who also posts at time.com and who has been frequently quoted in the last few days about Steve Bannon and the fourth turning.
However, contrary to what several stories say, I am NOT the David Kaiser who teaches at MIT. I spent my teaching career at Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, the Naval War College, and Williams College. Journalists please take note.