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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, August 18, 2017

More Charlottesvilles?

The events last week in Charlottesville threaten to kick off a new chapter in American political history, one comparable in some respects to the student revolts of the late 1960s.  As usual, my perspective seems to be a bit different from most.  I shall try to share it.

I have no doubt, and have had none for at least the last ten years, that the United States is in the midst of a great political crisis.  Yet I am increasingly convinced that this crisis is not mainly a matter of left vs. right, but rather a crisis in our institutions and the relationship between our elites and the people which threatens either to plunge us into anarchy or even break up the United States.  The election of Donald Trump was a symptom of the crisis, in my opinion, because a demagogue without any background in public service, a man who had never been successful at anything except establishing and trading off of his own celebrity and his extraordinary neediness, and won the nomination of a major party despite the opposition of its entire leadership, and then squeaked into the White House without even a plurality of the popular vote.   The crisis was bipartisan, in a sense, because the Republican Party could not stop his nomination, while the Democrats could not come up with a candidate that could beat him.  By the time he took office Trump was firmly in alliance with the network of right wing donors led by the Koch brothers that I discussed at length two weeks ago.  That alliance, which also dominates Congress, is now working at dismantling more and more of the federal government.  Meanwhile, Trump's unstable behavior threatens war at almost any moment.

In the midst of this, two small but genuine grass roots movements have started something new.  A coalition of right wing groups, including Nazis, the KKK, and other white nationalists, decided to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA.  A larger number of people from the left decided to counterdemonstrate--and Antifa decided to show up to fight. There is really no doubt about that, and it is foolish for liberals to try to deny it.  Today both of my newspapers, the Boston Globe and the New York Times, have stories about Antifa quoting members who believe in violence against the right wing.

It took only one crazed right winger in his car to turn the Charlottesville protest into something bigger, by killing Heather Heyer.  But fatalities in such confrontations could happen in many other ways, and probably will. Many of the right wing marchers carried firearms; some of the Antifa people carried clubs.  There are many other controversies over monuments brewing around the country, and other pretexts for marches as well. Tomorrow 500 police and 100 state troopers will deploy around Boston Common to separate a right wing march for free speech from the larger number of leftists who plan to oppose it. By the time many of you read this tomorrow I suspect the Boston Common march will be dominating the news. (I won't be there.)

The concept of "space", promulgated by Jurgen Habermas, is central to postmodernist thinking, modern left wing thought, and contemporary liberal activists.  That is why they are so determined not to allow small numbers of far right activists to march unimpeded. But in my opinion, they are wrong.  Postmodern concepts of space and oppression are at odds with more traditional concepts of liberty and law.  The far right groups have the right to peaceful protest and other citizens do not have the right to impede them.  Should they become violent it is the responsibility of law enforcement to stop them, and I am confident that, in the vast majority of cases, they will.  In any case, these groups are still much too small to be any threat to our liberties, and they should be allowed gradually to return to the obscurity which they so richly deserve.

I do believe that Confederate monuments should come down.  Some months ago I devoted a post to Mayor Landrieu's speech on the occasion of the removal of the monuments in New Orleans, which I thought marked a milestone in American history.  A white southern politician not only endorsed, but embraced, the removal of the statues from a prominent outdoor location on the grounds that the Confederate leadership was on the wrong side of humanity and history.  I believe other white southern politicians, as well as many black ones, will follow his lead.  I have been shocked this week to discover that there were Confederate monuments in Baltimore and in Lexington, Kentucky, for the simple reason that neither Maryland nor Kentucky was ever part of the Confederacy.   The Baltimore statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, it turns out, came from a bequest from a man named Ferguson and went up after his death in 1948.  Their presence was endorsed, disgracefully, by Mayor Thomas d'Alessandro of of Baltimore, who happens to have been the father of Nancy Pelosi.  Just today Pelosi has asked for the removal of Confederate statues (including one of Jefferson Davis) from the U.S.Capitol. Those statues were sent by the states, each of which was entitled to select two citizens to memorialize.  I don't know exactly when they went in, and I would be curious as to whether there was any effort to keep men who had taken up arms against the government of the United States out, but I don't think Congress should insist on their removal. They came from various states (Davis from Mississippi), and the states should remove them. And I think there is a chance that they will.

The United States needs above all to rediscover a functioning government that can command the allegiance of its people. A long round of battles between white supremacists and Antifa activists around the country will not get us any closer to that goal.  I believe the Democratic Party and its adherents should try to lead by example.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Perspectives on the Korean crisis

This week President Trump essentially threatened North Korea with an attack--possibly a nuclear attack--if it did not stop its attempts to develop intercontinental missiles with nuclear warheads.  His intemperate language--once again so reminiscent of the Emperor William II of Germany--was new, inappropriate, and further proof of his unsuitability for the office he holds.  Yet the crisis that we face has much deeper roots than the election of 2016.  It reflects the new nuclear weapons policy developed by my own Boom generation, abandoning the saner strategy which our parents had bequeathed to us.

From the moment that the A bombs went off over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the leadership of the American government took the position that this new weapon had to be brought under control. This was particularly the view of Henry M. Stimson, the Secretary of War who had overseen the Manhattan project and stopped the military from dropping the first A-Bomb on the ancient Japanese city of Kyoto.  The result was the Acheson-Lillienthal plan to put fissile material and nuclear weapons under international control--but the Soviets rejected it, preferring to develop their own nuclear weapons.  The British, humiliated by their new dependence on the US, decided to go the same route, as did the French during the 1960s and the Chinese in the early 1960s.

Yet having negotiated the Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the three victorious powers in the Second World War--the US, Britain and the USSR--went ahead and negotiated the non-proliferation treaty that was eventually signed in 1968.  Non-nuclear signatories pledged not to acquire nuclear weapons, while nuclear states--in a provision of which few people are still aware--pledged to do away with them.  Unfortunately, the nuclear arms race was at its height, it was another twenty years before the two superpowers took real steps in that direction.  By that time China, Israel and India already had nuclear weapons as well. Pakistan also went to work on them, eventually successfully.  The US and Russia agreed on very large cuts in their arsenals after the fall of the USSR, but proliferation continued.

The George W. Bush Administration was the first in which the Boom generation dominated national security strategy, and it came in determined to abandon the limitations of the Cold War in favor of a new vision of American power.  Believing, against all evidence, that defense against ballistic missiles was possible, they denounced the ABM treaty.  Then, in the 2002 National Security Strategy it released, the Bush Administration specifically abandoned deterrence as a strategy against new nuclear-armed states.  "The United States," it read, "has long maintained the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security. The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction— and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."  This was, of course, the heart of the rationale for the attack on Iraq that began a few months later--even though it turned out that Iraq neither had weapons of mass destruction nor any program to develop them.

During his last year in office, Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, in a courageous act of statesmanship, negotiated the nuclear deal with Iran to keep it from developing nuclear weapons.  Yet in previous years Obama had essentially endorsed the 2002 strategy, declaring again and again that Iran would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.  The last two administrations, in short, had abandoned the concept of national sovereignty insofar as it relates to weapons development, and argued that no nation on earth would be allowed to have weapons that the United States did not believe they should have.  This is an unprecedented claim to world domination--one that President Trump has now revived.  There has never really been a national discussion or debate on whether we have the right to assert such power, or whether this claim really serves our interests.  It makes for an interesting contrast with the Non-proliferation treaty, which recognized that states could not be expected to foresake nuclear weapons if established nuclear powers insisted on retaining them.

President Trump is now threatening a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea.  This strategy also has deep roots.  Just as General Turgidsen (George C. Scott) argued in Dr. Strangelove, if nuclear war is perceived to be inevitable, it obviously makes sense to go first.  US targeting plans against the Soviet Union would have also encouraged going first in a crisis, since they were designed to eliminate Soviet nuclear capabilities, which meant using ours before they used theirs.  But I have another perspective from which to view the nuclear saber-rattling of President Trump and his contemporary President George W. Bush--also born in 1946--before him.  It comes from my late friend Bill Strauss, the co-author with Neil Howe of Generations and The Fourth Turning.

Bill was among other things a playwright, and sometime around 2000, I believe, he asked me if I might want to help him on a play he had in mind.  That project unfortunately did not get off the ground.  Bill and I were very close friends with enormous mutual respect, but our initial exchanges convinced me that we would not be able to collaborate successfully.  (He had collaborated with other people on all his books; I never have, except with William Young, who had died when I took over his project about Sacco and Vanzetti.)  But the idea Bill had still haunts me.

Set in New York, the play would have had two acts: the first on the day of the stock market crash in October 1929, and the second on the day after the Hiroshima bomb in 1945.  It dealt with a distinguished New York family, led by a member of the Missionary generation who seemed to me to be modeled on Henry M. Stimson, although I think he was an academic.  Let's call him Michael.  The family also included his father Gus, an aged civil war veteran; his Aunt Polly, Gus's younger sister, who remembered Lincoln's death; and two sons, Larry and George.  Larry was about 30 in 1929, while George was only a teenager. (Studnets of generational theory will perhaps realize the pattern behind the names.) Act I was designed to portray an atmosphere of frenzied speculation and irresponsibility, parallel to what was happening around 2000 when Bill conceived the idea.  It was a portrayal of an Unraveling, or Third Turning, as Bill and Neil defined them--the profligate, partisan era that leads to a crisis in which new leadership takes the country in a new direction.

Act II, on the other hand, hoped to convey the atmosphere of the Second World War, in which the country had pulled together and devoted unprecedented resources ot the common good.  Gus was dead, but Polly, now very old, was still with the family. Michael had been working in a high position in Washington. Larry had become a bomber pilot but was now at home.  George, a physicist, had not gone to war--he had been doing secret work for the Manhattan project.  In one of the revelations of Act II, George learned for the first time that his father was among those who had convinced President Roosevelt to undertake the development of the atomic bomb.

I tried to imagine the conversation the family might have about the atomic bomb, just before the last moment of the play, which Bill had already planned.  Michael would have explained that it was now our mission to put the bomb under international control, to make it the foundation of lasting peace.  George, who had helped develop it--from the generation of Kennedy and Nixon-- would have agreed.  Larry, his older son, from the cynical Lost generation, would have chuckled at this misplaced idealism. "Next time," he said, "it won't be dropped on the last day of the war--but on the first day."  But Polly, a pacifist whose hero had been Woodrow Wilson, would have sunk to the depths of despair.  She would have remembered Michael's idyllic childhood and his work in settlement houses in the 1890s--only to have it all come to this.  "We never believed after 1865 that we could live through another war like that," she would say.  "It was a few years after that, Michael, that you were born.  We had so much hope for you and your generation, especially after President Wilson came along.  And how you've done this horrible, horrible thing."

At that point, in Bill's formulation, the door opened, and Gretchen, George's wife, entered, crossed the room, and give her husband a hug.

"I'm going to have a baby," she said.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Dark Money and the new American politics

Last weekend I finished Dark Money by Jane Mayer, which appeared last year.  It was marketed, largely, as a history of the involvement of the fossil fuel magnates Charles and David Koch in American politics over the last few decades, but it is much more than that.  I intend in what follows to summarize what I found in the book, but from a slightly different perspective than Mayer’s, and without much of any attention to the voluminous, and fascinating, personal data that she provides about the Kochs and other financiers of our new “conservative” political movement.  Instead I am going to treat the book as the first draft, as it were, of a genuine political history of the last 40 or 50 years—because it explains more about where we are and how we got here than anything else that I have ever read.   Mayer leads her readers through the story in rough chronological order, and I recommend the book to everyone.  I on the other hand am going to try to identify its major features in an effort to explain how we got to the miserable point at which we find ourselves.

Charles and David Koch are the most striking example of extraordinarily wealthy Americans who have had an outsized impact on the politics of the last forty years—and whose impact is reaching a new peak right now.  They followed in the footsteps of their father Fred, who in the 1950s was one of the founding members, along with candy manufacturer Robert Welch, of the John Birch Society.  Nothing illustrates what has happened to American politics in my lifetime in more striking fashion than this.  The ideas of the John Birch Society, a group of fanatically anti-government lunatics who in the 1950s identified Dwight D. Eisenhower as a member of the international Communist conspiracy, are now the single most influential set of ideas in American political life. Their main tenets are an unlimited faith in free enterprise and a conviction that government attempts to moderate the negative impacts of capitalism are simply a power grab designed to establish dictatorship.  And because of the success of their political movement, their fortunes have grown by orders of magnitude over the last few decades.

In addition to the Kochs, the superrich political elite has included John Olin, a chemical manufacturer; Richard Mellon Scaife, a scion of a Pittsburgh family prominent in banking and industry; and Harry Bradley, another Birch Society acolyte who ran the Allen-Bradley Electronics Company in New York.  In the middle of the twentieth century, when marginal income tax rates topped out at 91%, these men had all taken advantage of a provision in the tax code—first used by the Rockefeller family—to create a “philanthropic” foundation to shield substantial portions of their enormous income from taxes.  Unfortunately, the definition of philanthropy has been broad enough to include the subsidy of a particular ideology—and ultimately, direct intervention in politics.  That one tragic flaw in our tax code has reshaped opinion and redistributed power at every level of American government.

            Now I have rarely been impressed by any of the ideas coming out of the new Right during the last few decades, but like many liberal Democrats, I suspect, I have assumed that conservative intellectuals had honestly come by their ideas.  I am not suggesting now that they have lied about them, but Mayer leaves no doubt that the entire new right wing intellectual establishment was created from the ground up by the handful of major benefactors listed above.  Both the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation—the two centers of conservative “thought” in Washington—were originally funded largely by Richard Mellon Scaife. The Bradley and Olin Foundations were also powers behind the Heritage Foundation, and the Kochs have been involved as well.  I have always thought of the Cato Institute as a nest of principled libertarians—partly because it tends to oppose foreign interventions—but it turns out to have been started by Charles Koch.  Charles Murray was an unknown writer before the Olin foundation adopted him and subsidized his first book, Losing Ground, arguing that social programs were hurting the poor.  (Spoiled, perhaps, by success, Murray went a bridge too far when he and Richard Herrnstein argued in The Bell Curve that black people were intellectually inferior to whites.)  And I was amazed to learn from Mayer that the Bradley foundation gives four annual awards of $250,000 each to leading conservative journalists, activists, and intellectuals. Winners have included George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Sowell, Ward Connerly, Heather MacDonald, Shelby Steele, Victor Davis Hanson, John Bolton, William Kristol, Paul Gigot, Michael Barone, Jeb Bush, Harvey Mansfield, Edwin Meese, Roger Ailes of Fox News, General John Keane, and Charles Murray.

Changing the intellectual climate was step 1 in the program.  Another spectacularly successful front was opened within the American legal system, Started in 1982 with money from the Olin Foundation and affiliates of the Scaifes and the Kochs, the Federalist Society has become a behemoth, an organization of conservative legal thinkers that includes all the conservative members of the US Supreme Court.   That is not all. The Olin Foundation has sponsored two week seminars on Law and Economics for sitting judges, somewhat reminiscent of the seminars drug companies hold for physicians at major resorts.  There they have exposed sitting judges to the evils of regulation and the glories of the free market—and this may explain some of the more extraordinary decisions that federal courts have handed down lately, such as one that limited the legal definition of insider trading to narrowly as to make most prosecutions for it impossible.

Nor is this all: the foundations have not hesitated to challenge liberal intellectuals in their own presumed stronghold, universities.  Using the irresistible lever of their wealth—which no American university, in this day and age, can resist—they have established beachheads such as the Olin Center at Harvard University (promoting conservative ideas on foreign policy) and several institutes at George Mason University, conveniently located in the Washington suburbs.  These have opened career paths for conservative public policy intellectuals—at the same time that mainstream academic departments have been going in directions largely irrelevant to real politics.

This vast intellectual infrastructure works in tandem, of course, with the right wing media, led by Fox News and Clear Channel Radio, to shift public opinion on key events.  The alternative media outlets are largely self-financing, of course, but I was very surprised that another key rightwing organization, Freedom Works—funded largely by the Scaife foundation—had paid Glenn Beck more than $1 million a year to allow them to write his monologues.  And this infrastructure has not only convinced many Americans, and probably most better-off Americans, that social programs do more harm than good, but it has also convinced millions that lower taxes on the wealthy increase economic growth—and, critically, created real doubt as to whether man-made global warming exists.  Mayer traces the campaign against global warming effectively.  It employed some of the same personnel and used the same playbook as the tobacco companies’ earlier effort to create doubt as to whether cigarettes caused cancer—but evidently with far more significant results.  (I am leaving out of this essay the names of many key operatives within the network who have organized particular legal, lobbying and electoral campaigns.  They are the battlefield commanders of our new political struggle.)  The intellectual infrastructure also carries out campaigns against academics and journalists who stand in its way—including Mayer herself.

The other long-running campaign waged by the new right was the attempt to undo a century of regulation of spending on political campaigns. At the dawn of the Progressive Era a consensus emerged that the influence of money on politics had to be restricted, and Watergate had reinforced that lesson. But the counteroffensive against regulation began in the decade after Watergate, won various victories, and culminated in the Citizens United decision, the Kochs’ and their allies’ greatest and perhaps most influential triumph.  The floodgates are now open, and the results are clear for all to see.

The right wing network gained much power over the Republican Party by 2000 and was rewarded by very friendly Bush Administration policies towards the energy industry, which turned fracking loose and set the US on the path to energy independence.  It could not prevent a groundswell of negative feeling against the Bush Administration in its second term, however, or stop the election of a Democratic Congress and Barack Obama.  But it went into high gear to stop Obama from accomplishing very much.  To begin with, implementing a long standing plan to form a mass base, the Kochs and their allies took advantage of the financial crisis to get the Tea Party movement going in 2009.  Their newly won financial power under Citizens United allowed them to intimidate virtually every Republican Senator and Representative with the threat of primary opposition, bringing them all into line for total opposition to the President. The Kochs now hold seminars every year for Republican officeholders, where they are informed in secret of the party line.   They convinced millions of Americans that the financial crisis was really the fault of the federal government.  When Obama threatened the carried interest tax loophole, their lobbying organizations found new allies among private equity titans and hedge fund managers on Wall Street.  All this enabled the Republicans, backed by this network of plutocrats, to win their extraordinary victory in the 2010 elections.  After redistricting was finished with the help of techniques provided by the same set of conservative donors, the Republicans probably had secured control of the House of Representatives for the rest of this decade.

The Koch network has also made a huge and successful effort at the state level, making the Democratic Party irrelevant in large parts of the nation.  Originally founded with Scaife money in the 1970s, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) now writes draft anti-government, pro-business legislation for state legislatures all over the country.  Local Kochs have also sprung up, such as Art Pope, a North Carolina discount store owner who in the last decade has taken over the state Republican Party and orchestrated its (now partial) takeover of the North Carolina state government.  At the national level, ideological loyalties are still strong enough to allow Democratic candidates to win the popular vote in 4 of the last five Presidential elections, but at the local level, in red and some purple states, there is no alternative force that can stand up to the Koch-led network. And the ultraconservative domination of state legislatures poses perhaps the greatest threat to our democracy of all: a constitutional convention called by those legislatures which could rewrite key provisions of the Constitution along more “libertarian” lines.

Another chapter of this story does not appear in Mayer’s book.  She finished it when Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy had just begun, and he initially exchanged insults with the Kochs, who did not trust him.  Six months into his Administration it seems to represent an unqualified victory.  The Kochs had a long-standing connection to Mike Pence. The DeVos family—the founders of Amway, an organization that has escaped serious legal trouble more than once—has also been a long-standing member of the megadonor network with a particular interest in education, and they have provided Trump with his education secretary.  The EPA and the Department of Energy and firmly in the hands of Koch allies and are now taking the skeptical line on climate change.  New rounds of tax cuts are being prepared.  The Kochs are undoubtedly unhappy about the failure to repeal the ACA, but they now hold more levers of power than they ever did. 

A political revolution has been in progress for more than four decades, a reaction to the New Deal and the more just society that it created.  Fueled by successive rounds of tax cuts, this revolution has created a tiny group of billionaires that now control most of our political life.  This is way, as a widely cited study by Marin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page discovered, the beliefs of average American citizens and broad-based activist groups on key issues have very little influence on policy outcomes, while the beliefs of interest groups have a great deal. It's also why most Republicans will vote for legislation that will clearly hurt far more of their constituents than it will help. This is, I believe, the new America that our current Fourth Turning has created, and like the Gilded Age, it will not be overturned, in all probability, for a very long time.