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New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

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Saturday, December 04, 2021

The 1619 Project: Whence it came

 About four weeks ago, Jake Silverstein of the New York Times, who oversaw the original 1619 Project two years ago and subsequently defended it against an opening round of criticism from accomplished historians, wrote another long piece to commemorate the publication of an expanded version as a book.  He coupled a renewed defense of its main arguments--including the completely discredited claim that substantial numbers of Americans joined the American revolution to defend slavery against the British--while trying to put the project and the reaction to it in a broader historical and academic context.  Although Silverstein himself is only 46, he stated the bare facts of what has happened to history over the last 55 years or so pretty accurately, but from a very particular standpoint.  For reasons that I hope to make clear, I regard these developments as a catastrophe. He regards them as a triumph.

Silverstein begins this part of his long essay with a threadbare survey of American historians from the 19th century to the 1960s.  Only two are mentioned by name.  Silverstein describes the 10-volume history of George Bancroft as "generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country," having an "incalculable influence.  He could not have actually looked at those ten volumes:  they tell only the history of the country from the first European landings in North America to the  adoption of the Constitution,   Bancroft did, as he says, regard the new country as an expression of the most advanced ideas of the age--and Bancroft was right.  His work was however anything but a simple hagiography.  He used extensive multi-archival research to write as good a history of the diplomacy surrounding the American Revolution as has ever been written.  From there Silverstein jumps about half a century to the progressive historian Charles A. Beard, who argued early in the 20th century that the Constitution might simply have reflected "a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption."  I happen to admire Beard myself for many reasons, but Silverstein states falsely that he fell out of favor because his views "could not provide the necessary inspiration for the America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy" during the Cold War.  This is an oversimplification in at least two ways. First, although Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution created a sensation when it was published in 1913, his greatest influence came later with his textbook, The Rise of American Civilization--co-authored with his wife--which sold hundreds of thousands of copies beginning in 1927 and undoubtedly helped many Americans warm to FDR's New Deal.  Secondly, the turn against Beard's interpretation of the Constitution came after critics showed very clearly that he had oversimplified the economic interests that helped shape the Constitution and had read issues from his own time back into the Constitutional period--not coincidentally, exactly what so many historians are doing today.  Silverstein's historical views lack the subtlety to understand any of this.  He is simply inviting his readers--as many professional historians do as well--to ignore anything written before 1968 or so.

Silverstein then makes the argument, very familiar to historians, that new generations, starting in the 1960s, transformed history by paying more attention to the common people and less to elites. “From the perspective supplied by the new history," he quotes a 1975 article, "it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”  He then precedes to argue, in effect, that historians before the 1960s had only paid attention to slavery in order to whitewash it.  There was in fact a prominent historical school in the early 20th century led by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips that tried to do just that, but it was never the only game in town, and the slavery issue was the subject of much of the best American history written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  It was at the heart of what remains perhaps the greatest single work of American history ever written, Allen Nevins's The Ordeal of the Union, on the immediate origins of the Civil War.  Only the emergence of black historians, he argues, allowed a more enlightened view to emerge--a view which would come as a great surprise to white historians such as Eugene Genovese, whose Roll, Jordan Roll remains the single best work on American slavery.  

It is here that we come to the heart of the matter: the idea that we have improved American history because, and only because, it is now written by many people who do not happen to be straight white males, and who therefore see truths that make white males uncomfortable.  In fact, good and bad historians come in all shapes, sizes and colors, and the emphasis on identity as a source of truth is behind the central flaw of the 1619 project and a great deal more of recent writing about American history.  Typically, Silverstein implies that the black historian Annette Gordon-Reid was the first to confirm that Thomas Jefferson fathered children by Sally Hemmings.  In fact, a white woman, Fawn Brodie, had argued this at length about thirty years earlier.  A broader, critical example of this way of thinking is a key point of the project, the "centrality" of slavery in American history.  To be sure, to two groups of Americans before 1861--slaves and slaveholders--slavery was the central fact of their lives and inevitably shaped their political outlook.  To the much larger number of Americans who fell into neither of those categories, it was not.  And not only was slavery not the central fact of life within the early American republic, it was not the unique fact about it either. Slavery in 1789 existed in much of the western hemisphere.  What was unique about the United States was its experiment in republican, elected government based on a universal idea of human nature--even if that idea was not originally applied in practice to anyone but white males. Thus, the traditional focus on political conflict in histories of the United States was entirely appropriate--all the more so since the country's political principles were bound to conflict with slavery, and eventually, to bring it down after a bloody war. Silverstein, on the other hand, claims that the United States was never really a democracy until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and that slavery and racism, in many forms, are still the basis for the organization of our society.  That is how today's historians, trained to focus on people who "looked like them," think, but many Americans of all races justifiably reject those claims.  To accept them simply writes off decades of extraordinary political and economic progress for all Americans, black as well as white, in order to make today's activists feel like the most important actors in American history.  

The changes in the historical profession Silverstein discusses came out of the general rejection of our parents' world by so many vocal members of my generation in the mid-1960s--largely, but not entirely, because of the Vietnam War.  At the height of that conflict in the late 1960s radical activists proclaimed, in essence, that everything our parents and teachers had ever told us was a lie, and that their vaunted democracy oppressed almost everyone.  Thanks to the gradual dissemination of those ideas over subsequent decades--largely through higher education--many younger people, like Silverstein, now seem to accept the idea that American society and American history before 1968 or so were simply a vast conspiracy of oppression by rich white males of everyone else, and that things have only begun to improve since. The opposite is true.  The years 1940-1980, statistics show, were the years of most rapid economic progress for black Americans.  That is because they were the years of the most rapid economic progress, and the greatest economic equality, for all Americans. It is since 1980 that the favorable mid-century trends have been reversed, and the Boom generation did less than nothing to stop that.  What I am suggesting is that their view of history--which the younger people who have written the 1619 project share--has been no better for the country than the economic policies of the three Boomer presidents, Clinton, Bush II, and Trump, and the other Boomers who have dominated finance and industry over that time.  

Near the conclusion of his article, Silverstein actually concludes, first, that history has some obligation to provide sustaining myths to the nation as a whole, and secondly, that it can only do so by falsifying the past.  "Democracy, we are often told," he writes, "requires a free press, one that will hold power to account. Does it also require a robust historical profession, free to ramify in a hundred directions at once, not all of them inspiring? Or in this regard do journalism and history differ, with journalism providing democracy its greatest service when most unshackled and critical, while history operates best with the sense of decorum and tradition that foments civic pride?" "You could see the pitched battles over public memory that have occurred since then as a product of the new history’s corrosive effect on national unity," he says,  "or you could conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction — freedom and slavery — was always going to wind up in an irresolvable argument over how to tell its story, that this contentiousness is American democracy, that the loss of consensus means we’ve finally arrived."  I see them the first way--while not ignoring the problems that the ahistorical right is creating, too--and I'm not ashamed to say so.  Silverstein bluntly says at one point that history is inherently political.  He evidently thinks that his own profession should be as well.  That is why both history and journalism today are--to borrow another phrase from the late 1960s--part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Two Views of Higher Ed

 I have been looking at two relatively recent books about higher education, both by successful academics.  The first, The Breakdown of Higher Education, came out quite recently.  Its author John Ellis, a scholar of literature, has been a vocal and trenchant critic of trends in higher ed in general and the humanities in particular for at least thirty years, contributing frequently to Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars.  The second, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, comes from Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School.  Both of them argue that higher ed is on the wrong track, but for completely different reasons.  Both also propose some solutions.  Combined with certain other recent indications, they leave me with a strong sense of where my old profession is going.

Ellis began teaching at UC Santa Cruz early in the revolution, in 1966.  Although I think he oversimplifies academia's problems just a bit, I have come to agree with him on the essentials.  A left wing ideology, one that I have discussed many times here, now dominates nearly every college and university in the country.  It is obsessed with real or imagined power differentials between men and women, whites and nonwhites, straights and gays, and so forth.  That intellectual approach--or, as Ellis and I would agree, anti-intellectual approach--not only dominates the humanities and social sciences, but has also spawned a huge bureaucracy of administrators designed to encourage and enforce it.  Most important of all, colleges and universities now regard advancing a "social justice" agenda as their primary mission--not studying and trying to add to the intellectual heritage of the past.  Ellis also shows that this approach is making inroads into STEM fields as well.  

I differ somewhat from Ellis as to exactly why this has happened.  He sees it, really, as a vast conspiracy of leftwing scholars trying to transform not only academia, but society at large.  In support of his position, he quotes effectively from the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the 1962 Port Huron statement, which stressed the university's role in spreading values, good or bad.  Here is some of what that document said:

 "These, at least, are facts, no matter how dull the teaching, how paternalistic the rules, how irrelevant the research that goes on. Social relevance, the accessibility to knowledge, and internal openness, these together make the university a potential base and agency in a movement of social change.

"1. Any new left in America must be, in large measure, a left with real intellectual skills, committed to deliberativeness, honesty, reflection as working tools. The university permits the political life to be an adjunct to the academic one, and action to be informed by reason.

"2. A new left must be distributed in significant social roles throughout the country. The universities are distributed in such a manner.

"3. A new left must consist of younger people who matured in the postwar world, and partially be directed to the recruitment of younger people. The university is an obvious beginning point.

"4. A new left must include liberals and socialists, the former for their relevance, the latter for their sense of thoroughgoing reforms in the system. The university is a more sensible place than a political party for these two traditions to begin to discuss their differences and look for political synthesis.

"5. A new left must start controversy across the land, if national policies and national apathy are to be reversed. The ideal university is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond.

"6. A new left must transform modern complexity into issues that can be understood and felt close-up by every human being. It must give form to the feelings of helplessness and indifference, so that people may see the political, social and economic sources of their private troubles and organize to change society. In a time of supposed prosperity, moral complacency and political manipulation, a new left cannot rely on only aching stomachs to be the engine force of social reform. The case for change, for alternatives that will involve uncomfortable personal efforts, must be argued as never before. The university is a relevant place for all of these activities."

Fueled by the Vietnam War and the advent of the younger Boom generation, this document became extraordinarily influential over the rest of the decade, beginning with Mario Savio's speeches at Berkeley in late 1964,  which I have often quoted, referring to Berkeley students ruled just as severely by college bureaucracy as the black people of Mississippi were by white supremacy.  Activism on campus faded in the 1970s and particularly the 1980s, but it has returned over the last decade in particular, and I have to agree Ellis that these paragraphs now resemble the mission statements of many schools. I cannot agree however that all this adds up to a well-organized revolutionary conspiracy like Lenin's Bolsheviks (to be fair, I don't think Ellis actually makes that analogy).  Because the new left dedicated itself to self-expression, it repeatedly failed at organization--a tradition continued by its grandchildren in Occupy and BLM.  In my opinion, legions of mediocre academics--and the vast majority of today's academics are mediocre--have adopted social justice as a substitute for real intellectual achievement.  The most mediocre academics become administrators, and administrators have done this on behalf of their whole institution.  Hardly any college or university cares any more about offering a distinctive educational product, but they are all obsessed with diversity, equity and inclusion.  I have to agree, however, that the impact of the new academic ideology has now spread into the larger society, since it dominates the elite media, the entertainment industry, and, increasingly, the Democratic Party.  

Late in the book, Ellis talks revealingly about his attempts to get both his own university and the UC system as a whole to acknowledge the ubiquity of political indoctrination in the classroom, which violates long-standing regulations. The story he tells parallels many recent incidents of free speech controversies on campus.  On the one hand, faculty and administrators try to deny free speech to unfriendly ideas, or propagate specific political stances.  On the other hand, senior administrators insist on the record that their devotion to academic freedom remains unshaken and that they oppose politicizing the classroom.  That has in fact become their role: to stand between the ideologues on their faculty and in their administration on one side, and the broader public, including their trustees and major donors, on the other.  

What is to be done?  Ellis hopes that the legislatures of some states--presumably Republican ones--will use the power of the purse to defund politicized administrators and impose some requirements for intellectual diversity on faculties, where Republicans have nearly ceased to exist.  Once they have become more traditional and serious institutions of higher learning, he hopes, they can become a model for others.  Much as I have always admired Ellis, I can't share his optimism about this course of action.  Unfortunately we no longer have a cadre of young academics who could help restore the best intellectual and educational traditions of the west.   I was in the last generation of students trained to do this, and the most accomplished of us had little or no impact on the trends of the last 50 years. Instead, I think we should be focusing upon how to preserve the western tradition outside academia--but that is a subject for another day.

Professor Lani Guinier of Harvard Law became known to the nation in 1993, when President Clinton tried and failed to make her the head of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.  Her views on how to increase black representation in government were too controversial for those days even for leading Democrats to push her nomination--although today I doubt they would raise an eyebrow.  Her book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America is equally critical of institutions of higher learning, led by her own, but for different reasons, and her solutions are very different as well.

Guinier argues that the SATs, in particular, have created a "testocracy," rule by those who perform best on the SATs.  She also claims that the testocracy is the new means of maintaining an oligarchy of the wealthy.  That was certainly not the role that the SATs originally played.  When they became common in the 1950s they helped democratize higher education, although administrators, fearing that their campuses would be dominated by bright Jewish applicants who in those days were the top performers on them, balanced their impact with quotas and new emphases on "geographical distribution."  Guinier doesn't mention that today, Asian students are the top SAT performers--including many who are not from well-off families at all--and that their numbers are now restricted in the same way that the Jews' numbers were.  She does have a point that test preparation, which didn't exist when I took them in 1964-5, has given wealthier kids an edge.  That  problem could largely be solved, I think, by forcing the College Board to put together about half a dozen very different kinds of SAT tests, each using a different approach, so that students wouldn't know which test they would face until D-Day.  Few indeed would take the time and money to prepare for every one.  But Guinier isn't interested in improving the tests, only in doing away with them.  She would put admissions on a completely different basis.

Guinier argues that institutions like her own are wasting the education they can offer on rich, pampered kids who don't really need it because they have already learned so much.  They should instead focus on less well off students, many of them nonwhite, who could benefit more.  She even criticizes Harvard's affirmative action policies for admitting too many middle-class, biracial, and immigrant black students who do not reflect in her view the average black experience.   (I can't help pointing out that Guinier, who was two years behind me at Harvard, was that kind of admit herself--her father became the chairman of the African-American Studies department while she was there.) She also wants to transform how American education takes place by insisting on collaborative work among students, which she says has been extraordinarily successful in certain experimental high schools and individual college classrooms. She uses it herself, allowing her law students to collaborate on final exams.  This is the way, she argues, to allow students who do not do well on standardized tests to excel.  Finding opportunities for those students, she argues, is crucial for our democracy.  She also expects the cooperative approach to transform the way our society grapples with its biggest problems.  

Since 1950 or so, several new developments have transformed higher education in the United States.  First of all, the student population expanded several times over--and the faculty and administration expanded much faster than the student population.   Secondly, television, and now computers, replaced books as sources of leisure.   Thirdly, as Ellis points out, higher education became more politicized (and this has happened now in K-12 as well, particularly in elite high schools.)  All this has reduced the amount of time that students spend studying considerably.  Ellis cites a study finding that students spent about 21 hours a week studying in 1961, but only 12 or 14 hours per week studying in 2010.  Course workloads have fallen way down as well.  In my opinion, society would have been much better served by holding back the growth of higher education, while continuing the trend of 1933-71 that opened up better opportunities for a decent life for people who had not had it.  It also should never have allowed the continuing growth in faculty and administration that has more than tripled the real cost of college since the mid-1960s.  

I think that in the current context, the changes Guinier proposes are more mainstream than those put forward by Ellis.  The Chronicle of Higher Education is filled with articles on how to throw out more elements of our educational tradition, including one I just read explaining how the author grades students by offering them several options for how much work they want to do, and simply giving the As to those who perform the largest assignments in a satisfactory manner.  Higher education, I think, must provide means to identify and nurture the tiny minority of truly gifted intellectuals who can make unique contributions for us all.  A lifetime in education has taught me that those individuals come from every economic class, both sexes, and every race--that they are in fact scattered pretty much at random throughout the population.  Higher education must also train professionals, including K-12 teachers, and help everyone share in our cultural heritage.  Meanwhile, we must make a better life more accessible, once again, to those who do not need four-year college.  The current system is now fueled by debt that many students will never be able to pay, and shows signs of collapsing under its own weight.  That, rather than conservative legislators, might give a few creative leaders the chance to make higher education more effective again.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

An American Hero

 Today's New York Times features a long account of how Nancy Pelosi shepherded the current version of the Build Back Better bill through the House of Representatives.  Working with younger progressives and older moderates, and talking one-on-one with Senate roadblock Joe Manchin, she managed first to get the infrastructure bill through, and then to pass a version of the second, larger bill that may well survive the Senate after a couple of changes.  That got me thinking about Pelosi's historical significance and that of her whole generation.

Pelosi, now 81, came--like quite a few prominent Democratic politicians today, and some Republicans--from a political dynasty.  Her father was Thomas d'Alessandro, a long-time mayor of Baltimore, who in the late 1950s had the honor (as I remember) of escorting Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to a Naval Academy football game during a state visit to the US.  (With a little more research into the Queen's sporting interests, he might have taken her to Pimlico instead!)  Pelosi has been in and around politics all her life.  Like so many women of the Silent generation, she married right out of college and began having children, five in all.  Her family had moved to San Francisco, where she became a leader in Democratic Party politics without running for office.  She was very close to Congressman Phil Burton and Burton's wife Sala, who succeeded Burton after he died in 1982, and Sala Burton annointed Pelosi as her chosen successor to her very safe San Francisco seat when she herself was dying of cancer in 1987. Pelosi won a special election and has held the seat every since, for 34 years.  She became the House minority whip in 2001 after 14 years there, and the minority leader the following year.  It comes as rather a shock to realize that she has been Speaker of the House for only seven years--from 2007 through 2011, and from 2019 until now.  The Republicans have controlled the House for 19 of the 34 years she has served.  She seems likely to step down in another year whether they regain control next November or not.

Amazon.com shows a couple of short biographies of Pelosi and several collections of articles about her, but nothing close to a definitive biography appears to have been written  This is too bad.  No woman has yet held a more powerful position than Speaker of the House, and she must have been an extraordinary politician to reach the party leadership.  The Democratic class of 1974 was one of the largst and ost influential in House history, but she leapt over them all to become the party leader.  More astonishingly, the whole Boom generation never produced a significant member of the House leadership, and the other two top Democrats today, James Clyburn and Steny Hoyer, are also Silents. (Republican House leaders Newt Gingrich and John Boehner, on the other hand, were Boomers, and Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy are from Gen X.) Joe Biden climbed to the top of generational political heap last fall when he became the first Silent to reach the White House, but he is still quite obviously depending on Pelosi to get anything done.  Therein lies a broader historical tale.

The Silent generation (b. 1925-46)--children during the Depression and the Second World War--belong to what Strauss and Howe called the Artist archetype.  Their counterparts from earlier eras were the Compromise generation (including Daniel Webster and especially Henry Clay) from the early Republic and pre-civil war era, and the Progressive generation (b. 1843-1862 or so), which produced Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.  After living through violent times in their childhood, these generations tend to become accommodators and conciliators, wary of the ideologues coming from the next-younger Prophet generation.  The Compromisers prevented the Civil War from breaking out until after their leading figures had passed from the scene, and the Progressives, who dreamed of universal peace during and after the First World War, gave way to the Missionaries who led the nation through the greatest war of all time.  The Silent generation--which also includes Mitch McConnell--have lasted so long at the highest levels of political power partly because they learned their trade when our politics still worked.  The Democratic ones in particular do not let ideology stand in the way of getting something done.  

Pelosi has already been credited by some with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Barack Obama was reportedly ready to give up on it after Scott Brown's Senate victory in Massachusetts took away the Democrats' supermajority in early 2010, but she insisted on trying to get it through via reconciliation, which worked.  She has now managed a very demanding year of negotiations within her own party to get the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills through a fractious House.  First she persuaded the Democratic left to allow the infrastructure bill to pass (even though some of its most fervent members insisted on voting against it.)  Now she got enough moderates on board for Build Back Better, and the Times story suggests that she has reached some kind of deal with Manchin as well. (It is not clear, however, that she has been in touch with Kristin Sinema.)  All this amounts to a replay, 171 years later, of Clay's Compromise of 1850.  Sadly, these compromise measures--like that one--will not put an end to the controversies that were, and are, fracturing the nation--but that was not Clay or Pelosi's fault.  It will soon be up to the Boom and Xer generations to show that they can do better than the Transcendentals like Davis and Lincoln and find a way to avoid a new breakup of the country or civil war. 

Pelosi's career has another interesting feature.  She has been subject to sexist attacks for the last 20 years.  Searching amazon for books about her, I also found on the same page ads for a Nancy Pelosi urinal target, a Fuck Nancy Pelosi daily planner, and Nancy Pelosi toilet paper.  Amazon shows no similar products for Donald Trump.  I am sure that Pelosi, like professional women of the GI generation (and yes, there were significant numbers of them), encountered plenty of sexism among fellow Democrats too--but she never makes much of a public issue of it.  This was also the attitude of many successful people from earlier generations about racial and ethnic prejudice: yes, it was there, yes, it was infuriating, but it seemed better not to dignify it by reacting and save one's energy for getting things done.  That has become a most unfashionable attitude in the age of microaggressions, and I hope some younger generation will revive it.

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Fall of the American Empire?

 Six years ago, in a post entitled "The Fourth Great Crisis in American National Life," I argued that the crisis in our civilization was ending in a new Gilded Age of personal individual freedom and massive corporate power and economic inequality.  I am now wondering whether I was too optimistic.  I did not foresee, at that moment in December 2015, the nomination and election of Donald Trump and his effective takeover of the Republican Party.  Corporate power was continually expanding regardless of which party held the White House, and had no need to rig elections.  I had already recognized the judicial coup d'├ętat that had given George W Bush the presidency in 2000, but I couldn't envision a sitting president inciting a riot to try to overturn clear results in four different states, or the amendment of state laws to allow gerrymandered legislatures to overturn the popular vote.  Nor did I imagine a great pandemic and what it would reveal about the United States in the 21st century.

Our nation, as I have seen clearly reading early presidential addresses, was founded on the principle that human reason could promote the greatest good for the greatest number, and that elected governments could work.  Lincoln explicitly began the war to suppress the confederate rebellion to prove that democratic government could survive.  Franklin Roosevelt justified his policies, both domestic and foreign, on the same grounds.  In the last two years, a new crisis--the pandemic--has split the nation over the question of the authority of science, with whole sections of the country defying it at the cost of the lives of tens of thousands of their citizens.  So hostile to our central government has the Republican party become that it now wants to strip it of perhaps the most fundamental attribute of a modern state, a monopoly of legitimate force.   And activists and bureaucrats on the other, Democratic side of the political fence have adopted a world view based upon identity instead of universal human reason.  People, and their ideas, are bad or good based upon the racial and gender characteristics of those who hold them, and many of them, implicitly or explicitly, also condemn the whole enterprise of western civilization as nothing more than a scheme for straight white male dominance.  And while Republicans reject all restrictions on private firearms, leftist legal reformers have decided that punishment is more of a problem than crime.  They also stand in the way of a consensus based upon data and reason that might restore faith in our institutions across party lines.

In the spring of 1969 I took the second half of a course on modern France taught by Stanley Hoffmann, who later became a good friend of mine.  That course began around 1890, when a new generation of intellectuals-- both left and right--rebelled against the highly bureaucratic and uninspiring Third Republic.  The same thing was already happening in Hoffmann's other ancestral home, the United States--I learned only much later that his father was American--but oddly, I do not remember him mentioning that, even when leftist revolution brought classes to a halt for about a week that April.  I had grown up believing in the New Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society, and for the most part I still do, but I have now concluded that there is something about a bureaucratic state based upon reason that repels significant elements of human nature.  The impulse towards nationalism and national pride that dominated western nations from the 18th century until the last third of the twentieth also seems to have proven to be just one historical phase.  One reason, ironically, has been the invention of nuclear weapons.  They have as it turned out eliminated war among the great powers, vastly reducing the size of national armies and removing another element of the glue that formerly held nations together.  Thus, even if war were to break out between China and the United States over Taiwan--which is quite possible--it might just as easily divide the US further as unite us, especially since we would probably fail to keep Taiwan out of Chinese hands.

Lastly, while so many millions of ordinary people have lost faith in our intellectual class, that class is more confident than ever of its right to rule based on its own beliefs.  That may be why the Democratic Party no longer bothers to make national effort to sell policies like Obamacare or the bills that Biden is now trying to get through Congress.  Their righteousness is supposed to be self-justifying.  Our foreign policy elite, despite the catastrophes into which both parties have led us in the last twenty years, still sets goals for all the world and zealously sanctions anyone who stands in their way.  

Where will all this end?  The Supreme Court may very well overturn Roe v. Wade by next spring, and the Republicans seem likely to win back control of at least the House, and possibly the Senate, next fall.  Those developments will, I suspect, accelerate demands to break up the country.  Faith in our institutions held us together for more than 200 years, but that faith is gone.  Prominent academics such as Harvard Law professor Noah Feldman are rewriting our history to undermine it.  Summarizing his new book, Feldman  two weeks ago in the New York Times argued in effect that Lincoln's decision to put down the rebellion in 1861 was unconstitutional and that the Emancipation Proclamation had no proper legal foundation.  Yesterday Professor Sean Wilentz, to his great credit, showed clearly how wrong Feldman's historical interpretation is, but he is one of the rare academics who has not repudiated the early American experiment. Feldman's view is mainstream.  Without a critical mass of Americans devoted to our best traditions, we cannot maintain them.  I do not see that critical mass today.

Saturday, November 06, 2021

Tuesday's elections--an analysis

[The last two paragraphs of this post have been updated.]

On Wednesday I posted in a facebook group about the elections in Virginia, where the Democrats lost the governorship, and in New Jersey, where it turns out that they won a close race.  I said at that time that those elections showed that large numbers of Republicans who had refused to vote for Donald Trump--including many who had voted Democratic--had returned to the Republican fold.  I have now looked at figures for the last three elections in each of those states--2017 (governor), 2020 (president), and 2021 (governor.)  It turns out that I was wrong.

Let's look at New Jersey first.  In 2017, the Democratic candidate for governor, Phil Murphy, won over Carlos Rendo, with 1.2 million votes to 900,000. a 56-42 per cent margin.  In the 2020 presidential election, the total vote more than doubled, and Joe Biden beat Donald Trump, 2.6 million votes to 1.9 million, a 57-41 per cent margin.    The turnout of 4.5 million represented a very substantial increase from the 3.9 million turnout in 2016, and Donald Trump increased his vote by nearly 300,000 votes.  What happened in this year's election is quite astonishing.  The Republican vote dropped from 1.9 million for Trump last year to 1.2 million for the Republican gubernatorial candidate.   The Democratic vote dropped from 2.6 million for Biden to just 1.3 million for Governor Murphy--a drop of more than 50%.  Republicans felt much more motivated to vote than Democrats.   The comparison with the 2017 gubernatorial election is even more striking. Murphy polled less than 100,000 votes more in 2021 than in 2017, while the Republican vote increased by about 320,000 votes. 

The Virginia results are similar, but even more striking.  In 2017 Ralph Northen (D) received 1.4 million votes against Ed Gillespie's 1.2 million, winning by 54-45 per cent.  Last year, turnout was up about 10% from the 2016 presidential election in Virginia, and Biden totaled 2.4 million votes to Trump's 2 million, winning 54-44 per cent--the same margin as in the governor's race.  This year, the Democratic vote for Terry McAuliffe increased by 180,000 votes from four years ago, reaching 1.6 million.   The Republican vote grew by almost half a million votes in four years, and Glenn Youngkin beat Terry McAuliffe by 1.7 million to 1.6 million votes.   Comparing the vote to last year's, we find that that the Republican vote declined only 300,000 votes--while the Democratic vote fell by 825,000 votes.  One in every three Democratic votes for Biden either failed to show up at the polls or voted Republican. Think about that.

 The CNN exit polls for 2020 and 2021 in Virginia show another interesting story.  In 2020, the voters they polled--presumably reflecting an attempt to get a representative sample--were 67 per cent white, 18 per cent black, 7 per cent Hispanic, and  4 per cent Asian.  This year those figures read 73 per cent white, 16 per cent black, 5 per cent Hispanic, and 3 per cent Asian.  The Republican share of the white vote rose from 53% for Trump to 62% for Youngkin, while Youngkin's percentage among the minority groups actually increased.  

Both county-by-county data from Virginia and a CNN exit poll that I had not noticed confirm my essential conclusion: Republicans crushed \Democrats in turn-out.  In Bath County, a white, rural area featured in a New York Times story on Sunday, November 7, Trump beat Biden by 1834 votes to 646.  Youngkin beat McAuliffe by 1534 to 395.  The Republican vote fell by 1/6, the Democratic vote by more than 1/3.  In Chesterfield county, a Richmond suburb that showed the biggest swing in its vote in the state, Biden won by 107,000 to 93,000, and Youngkin won by 82,000 to 74,000.  The Republican vote fell by a little more than 1/8; the Democratic vote fell by more than 1/4.  And in largely black Richmond, the Democratic vote fell from  92,000  to 60,000--essentially the same percentage as the Democratic vote in the state as a whole--while the Republican vote fell from 17,000 to 15,000.  Last but not least, the CNN poll asked voters not only for their vote this year, but last. 95% of Biden voters voted for McAuliffe; 98% of Trump voters voted for Youngkin. That, I believe, amounts to a net shift of about 1.5% from Democrats to Republicans, within an overall shift of 6% statewide. 

     This data suggests that Donald Trump may have left behind a far more united and determined Republican Party, one whose voters will turn out in much higher percentages than Democratic ones this fall, even in blue and purple states.  Barring unforeseen events--of which there is rarely a shortage these days--the Democrats, who look more divided than ever this week in Congress, do seem likely to lose both houses of Congress in November, putting an end to any hopes of new legislative achievements and setting the stage for two years of gridlock.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

A COVID update

 Last Thursday afternoon, I received my Moderna booster and a flu shot.  I experienced a much more severe reaction than I had for either of my original shots, and was laid pretty low for a full 48 hours.  Thus I am taking a relatively easy way out this morning and will content myself with an update on COVID data from around the country for the last week, and how it compares to previous weeks.

The news, basically, is good, suggesting that the delta variant surge has definitely passed its peak.  On August 20, nationwide new deaths per million for the previous week were at 23.  Two weeks later, on September 3, new deaths per million for the past week were up to 35, and on September 17 that figure was 41.  It appears to have peaked one week later on September 24 at 44, and on October 8 it was down to 41.  The average figure for the next two weeks was 35, and for the week ending last Friday it was just 30.  In short, weekly deaths nationwide nearly doubled between August 20 and September 24, and if present trends continue we will be down to the August 20 level within two more weeks.

Meanwhile, however, we remain two completely different countries with respect to the pandemic.  19 of the top 20 most seriously hit states last week were red or purple. The full list includes Montana, West Virginia, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Delaware (blue), Wyoming, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Texas, Maine, Alaska, and Michigan.  They averaged 43 deaths per million people for the week.  The best-off 20 states, on the other hand, averaged just 16 deaths per million, and 15 of them are blue.  The full list: Colorado, Utah, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, South Dakota, Louisiana, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Nebraska, D.C., Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.  There are 216 million people in those 20 worst-hit states, and 5832 people died there last week who would not have if their death rates had matched that of the 20 best off states.  These figures also explain why we are losing people more quickly than the major European states now.  

The refusal of the political authorities in the red states--who presumably speak for the majority of their populations--illustrates the attack on enlightenment principles coming from the right.  Another attack, based on identity as the source of all knowledge, is coming from the left.  I do not think there is any alternative to enlightenment principles to hold a modern nation together.


Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Republicans Struggle On

It was about nine and a half years ago that I wrote the post reproduced below, about half way through the Obama Administration.  Thanks to important reading about Communist strategy during the Vietnam War, I realized that the Republican Party was pursuing a long-term strategy of making it impossible for the federal government--their enemy--to function.  I was reminded of it and moved to repost it by reports that two Republican Senators, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, are pushing the strategy to new heights--or rather, depths--in the Senate.  Cruz is putting a "hold" on every Biden ambassadorial appointment to pressure the Administration to impose sanctions on European nations who have agreed on a new natural gas pipeline from Russia.  Hawley is doing the same for every confirmable appointment to both the State and Defense Departments in an obviously vain attempt to get Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin, and National Security Adviser Sullivan to resign because of the results of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  As a result, only one ambassador as been confirmed, nine full months into the Biden administration.  Only 21% of State Department positions in Washington requiring confirmation have been confirmed.  

68 years ago, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy tried to block President Eisenhower's selection of Charles Bohlen, one of our leading Soviet experts at the time, as Ambassador to the USSR. Bohlen had served in the American delegation at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and Republicans had branded that meeting as a treacherous betrayal of the United States.  President Eisenhower refused to be intimidated, however, and Bohlen was confirmed.  McCarthy at that point was almost unique in his demagoguery, but Cruz and Hawley are Republican stars, past and future presidential hopefuls.  I remember the day in the spring of 1961 when my father appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after JFK had appointed him Ambassador to Senegal.  Also present was a black academic, a Howard University professor of romance languages named Mercer Cook, who had been chosen as Ambassador to Niger.  The committee approved both of them quickly.  They had not had to fill out endless questionnaires about their financial situations in those distant days, and when the Senator chairing the hearing--Frank Lausche of Ohio, I believe--asked a single standard question as to whether they had any holdings that would create a conflict of interest, Cook replied, "Sir, I'm a schoolteacher," to general laughter.  My father and Cook were typical of an almost new kind of ambassadorial appointment of which JFK made a couple of dozen--neither foreign service officers nor major campaign contributors, but simply Americans who had distinguished themselves in government, journalism, or academia, who knew foreign languages and history, and whom the new administration thought would be good advertisements for the country.  They also included Edwin Reichsauer and John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard, whom he appointed to Japan and India; William Attwood in Guinea; and General James Gavin in France.  

No Republican sought to hold any of those choices up, because everyone agreed that the United States was engaged in a continuing struggle to preserve and extend our values around the world.   No, we did not always wage it wisely, but it held us together and encouraged us to try to live up to our ideals, most notably with respect to civil rights.  We have lost the sense of our nation as a common enterprise, the view that presidents from one Roosevelt to the next managed to develop, and another few decades of presidents managed to maintain.  The same feeling enabled us to pass a series of lasting and effective domestic reforms, and to get rich Americans to pay their full share of the price of civilization.  I hope that somehow we can recover some of that.

The extent of Republican success became even more apparent earlier this week in a New York Times story about a nationwide attack on the authority of public health agencies, a result of the COVID epidemic.  These agencies were already underfunded when the epidemic began, and now threats have driven many of their leaders to resign, while Republican state and local governments cut back their authority.  Like the Republican gun mania, this attacks one of the fundamental functions of the modern state.  Quarantines and vaccines emerged centuries ago as essential weapons against disease, and now Republicans are taking them away where they can. 

Here is the original 2012 post.


One of the most important readings about the Vietnam War that I have ever encountered is a chapter by the late Douglas Pike, a real authority on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, about dau tranh, or struggle, the philosophy behind the Vietnamese Communist revolution. Dau tranh, Pike explains, had two forms: military and political. Of the two, the political was far more important, and indeed, the Viet Cong always had several times as many active political workers as soldiers during the Vietnam War. Their mission was to rally their own troops and sow confusion among the enemy, doing whatever they could, in particular, to make the South Vietnamese government unable to function effectively. They also infiltrated that government at every level and tried to influence the views of enemy forces. Their goal, essentially, was to reduce society to chaos and allow the well-organized Communist Party to take over. The other day I raised some eyebrows in a small group setting by suggesting that the Republican Party has been practicing dau tranh for more than twenty years. It has now crippled government at all levels and has a good chance of reducing much of the United States to chaos in the next ten years.

Dau transh in its current form started with Newt Gingrich's all-out assault on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, whom he was determined to demonize in order to take away their majority. Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, now signed by almost every Republican in Congress and thousands more in state legislatures around the country, is another form of dau tranh. So, of course, is the ceaseless drumbeat of propaganda day after day, week after week, year after year, on Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest. So is the attack on the authority of the mainstream media, universities and scientists. Oddly, while this attack on government probably did more than anything to land us in our current economic mess, the mess also makes dau tranh more effective, because it undermines confidence in the government. Conservative Republicans have also waged long-term dau tranh within our legal system, using the Federalist society to develop a network of conservative lawyers and judges and packing the courts whenever they can. Jeffrey Toobin has analyzed the increasingly significant results of that effort in a series of articles in the New Yorker.

I was moved to write this post because I have to deal with dau tranh almost daily myself in managing this blog. One of my regular readers is a fanatical right-winger who probably posts 50 comments a week here, week in and week out. They are not really comments, for the most part--they are links to some piece of right-wing propaganda, often accompanied with personal abuse towards myself. I think I know who he is, although we have never met face to face, and I also regard him as the prime suspect for having put my name on the Obama=Hitler email which is still circulating, even though he denied it when we were both still on the same discussion forum. (He was kicked off the forum when his dau tranh and personal abuse went too far.) I warn, of course, on the blog, that abusive anonymous comments will be deleted, but he berates me for doing so nonetheless. The attempt to keep the extreme Republican view of the world in the foreground is a key element of Republican dau tranh, just as it was for Nazis and Communists.

The Republicans' real target is the idea that dominated the last century--the idea that human reason can design, and create, a better world. That is why Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have been given places in their Pantheon of villains. I'm afraid they have sufficiently discredited that idea that it no longer dominates our political life, and might be disappearing altogether. Their lust for power is much, much greater than their respect for the truth. This is the threat the nation faces. Pike also argued provocatively in one of his books that there was no known counter-strategy to dau tranh, and I'm afraid he may have been right.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Does Democracy Depend on Literacy?

 My new book in progress, States of the Union, 1789-2021--a concise political history of the US based on presidential addresses--is now complete in draft form through Herbert Hoover, and I am working on the research for FDR, focusing so far on the New Deal and his various attempts to reshape the economy before 1940.  Coincidentally, President Biden and the Democrats are trying to push a kind of new New Deal through Congress, including both an infrastructure package and redistributive measures dealing with health care, child care, and the tax code.  FDR had the advantage of huge Congressional majorities.  1930 through 1936 represent the only time in American history when the same party--the Democrats--gained strength in four consecutive presidential elections--although their greatest majority, the 1936 one, suddenly proved elusive during 1937.  He also enjoyed the support of some very liberal Republicans such as George Norris of Nebraska and Robert Lafollette of Wisconsin.  I am struck, however, by the difference in the kind of debate the country was having then and what we are having now.  The country debated many complex issues in a very sophisticated way in the 1930s--and we don't seem to be able to do that anymore.

For at least the first 160 years of our history, our leaders spoke frequently about the great democratic experiment that we had undertaken, and what it would take to make it succeed.  They took their mission very seriously--and so did the country.  Every significant newspaper (and some insignificant ones) printed major presidential addresses in full, and without radio, the movies, or television before 1920, the people had little choice but to read them, and they did.  The length of the State of the Union message grew steadily during the 19th century, partly because presidents didn't deliver it in person, and it peaked with Theodore Roosevelt, who annually sent messages of 20-25,000 words.  Woodrow Wilson brought the annual address into the modern era by drastically reducing its size and delivering it in person, and that has been the norm ever since.  FDR, despite the extraordinary breadth of his program, also kept his addresses relatively short, and he supplemented them with one or two radio Fireside Chats lasting 30-60 minutes each year, which also explained how he saw the nation's problems and what his administration and the Congress were trying to do about them in some detail.  In my earlier book on 1940-1, I found that evening radio addresses by major political figures had been another key forum for political debates.

By contrast, it seems to me that neither President Biden nor any other leading Democrats are making a sustained, detailed effort to explain what they are trying to do, what it will cost, and what effects they expect it to have to the American people.  If we read the newspapers and listen to a little cable news we know that a $550 billion infrastructure bill has already passed the Senate, and that the Democrats have an addition $2.5 trillion bill for child care, medicare expansion, and environmental measures under consideration, whose cost is likely to shrink to $1.5 trillion or less to get Senators Manchin and Sinema on board.  Checking, I find that the $550 billion infrastructure bill is for five years--$110 billion a year--whereas the $2.5 trillion infrastructure bill is for ten, another $250 billion a year.  Federal expenditures currently are about $6.6 trillion annually.  While I am not a domestic policy wonk, I think I'm better informed than average, and I have very little understanding of the details of either bill, how they will change the US, and what economic effects they are expected to have.  No one seems to be making much of an effort to let us know.

This must in part be the fault of our politicians.  Given that they are more or less required to spend several hours a day fundraising with wealthy donors and institutions, they don't have that much time for communicating with the public at large.  But it is also the fault of the media, which have transformed our political landscape.  I can't remember the last time that a Senator, a Congressman or a cabinet member made a major impression on the country with an hour long speech on some policy--perhaps because they do not think that significant numbers of Americans would watch or read such a speech.   The media runs on sound bites.  And broadcast media--television and talk radio--no longer sees its role as the vehicle for politicians to reach the country.  Rather than market our political leaders or our political process, the TV networks market themselves.  Even on NPR's News Hour--easily the most serious tv news broadcast available now--one sees many times as much of Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins than one does of any political figure from Joe Biden on down.  That  problem is even bigger on the private cable networks.  The consequences of this trend emerged in dramatic, horrifying fashion in 2016, when a reality TV star defeated the leading candidates of both parties in the presidential election.  Our political leaders still hold our destiny in their hands, but we no longer pay them nearly as much attention as we did in the first two-thirds of our history.  The media used to tell us what politicians said and what they were doing--leaving the citizenry to decide how they felt about it.  Now they spend most of their time telling us what to feel about it.  

Democracy, the founders understood, required an informed citizenry.  That is why several early presidents, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, called frequently for a national university in Washington--a proposal Congress never adopted.  Perhaps American democracy grew and thrived largely because of a nationwide thirst for the printed word, then almost  the only form of entertainment.  Now books play much less of a role in our lives, the newspaper audience has shrunk, and the newspapers have cut way back on conveying complex information in favor of fanning approved emotion.  That is why even I had to look up the total of federal revenues (about $3.6 trillion) and expenditures (about $6.6 trillion) lately.  The cyberworld has been a godsend for me because it makes so much information instantly available--but one has to have the curiosity to find that information, and the framework in which to integrate it.  We don't teach those things anymore, and we are suffering for it.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

A Brief History of the Nobel Peace Prize

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists from the Philippines and Russia this past week piqued my curiosity about what sort of person has generally received it in different eras.  With help from Wikipedia, I found that the answer was in some ways more interesting than I had expected.

Great wars, of course, mark appropriate dividing lines for a history of a prize devoted to peace.  The first thirteen years of the prize (1901-13) set the pattern for the future. Of the 18 persons or organizations awarded the prize during those years--multiple awards have always been common--15 of them had worked in  some national or international organization working for peace, such as the Interparliamentary Union or the International Peace Bureau.  Of the remaining three, two were American statesmen--President Theodore Roosevelt, recognized for mediating the peace negotiations between Russia and Japan in 1905, and former Secretary of State Elihu Root, who had worked for international arbitration.  The third was a German novelist, Bertha von Suttner, recognized for her pacifist and feminist novel Lay Down Your Arms. These three categories--individuals or organizations working for peace, statesmen who have done much to bring it about, and authors with a political bent--have remained the most popular kinds of selections ever since.

Only once during the First World War in 1914-18 was the prize awarded, to the International Red Cross-which has won three times--in 1917.  Peacemaking became the leading task of statesmen after that war, No less than ten leading politicians or diplomats won between 1919 and 1939, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, justly regarded as the founder of the League of Nations.  Others in this group included the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in 1924-5--Sir Austen Chamberlain, Aristide Briand, and Gustav Stresemann--and the American diplomat and soon-to-be Vice President Charles Dawes, who concluded the Locarno Treaties and reached a settlement of the reparations question during those years.  In 1936 the Argentinian foreign Minister Carlos Saavedra Lamas won for mediating a war between Paraguay and Bolivia. A new kind of winner, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, won in 1922 for work among refugees, and the organization bearing his name won again for similar work in 1938.  Six individual activists for various causes related to peace won in this period, including the American social worker Jane Addams and a German journalist, Carl von Ossietzky, who had exposed Germany's secret rearmament.  The winners also included the British author Norman Angell, who had correctly predicted in his 1913 book The Great Illusion that great power war would be economically disastrous, falsely trusting that this would prevent the powers from embarking upon it.

The prize was not awarded from 1939 until 1944, when the International Red Cross won for the second time.  Long-time Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who won in late 1945 for helping to bring about the United Nations, was I suspect a stand-in for Franklin Roosevelt, who had died in April of that year (the prize has only once been given posthumously.)  In the years 1946-89--the era of the Cold War--23 activist individuals or organizations have won, including two Quaker organizations, the missionary Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Linus Pauling for his campaign against nuclear testing, Martin Luther King, Jr. , Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, the Polish labor leader Lech Walesa,  the Dalai Lama, and the South Amnesty International, Africans Albert Luthuli and Desmond Tutu.  The ten statesmen or diplomats who won during this turbulent era included Secretary of State George Marshall (for the plan that bore his name); the American Ralph Bunche and the Canadian Lester Pearson for stopping wars in the Middle East in 1948 and 1957;  German Chancellor Willy Brandt, for the agreements with Poland and East Germany that ended the critical period of the Cold War in Europe; Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who declined the award) for negotiating the 1973 Vietnam agreement; UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, awarded the prize posthumously in 1961; Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (but not Jimmy Carter) for the Camp David agreements of 1979; Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan, who renounced nuclear weapons for his country; and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, for attempts to bring peace to Central America, in 1987. They also included Mikhail Gorbachev, who did the most to bring the Cold War to an end.  

The post-Cold War period is now about thirty years old.  Initially, the end of that long conflict led to determined and sometimes successful attempts to settle longstanding conflicts.  Frederick Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the prize for ending apartheid in South Afirca in 1993, and Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres won for the first major Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 1994.  Like Answar Sadat, Rabin also paid for his peacemaker's role with his life. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta shared the prize for work to free their native East Timor in 1996, and South Korean President Kim Jae-Dung won for ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reconcile with North Korea in 2000.  John Hume and David Trimble, two Northern Irish politicians, won for helping to pacify their country in 1998.  Kofi Annan won for his work as UN Secretary General in 2001, and former President Carter won for numerous diplomatic efforts in 2002. Since then, however, the only two heads of government to win have been Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia, for helping to end his country's long civil war, and  Barack Obama, who received the award within months of taking office and did very little to justify it in his eight years as President.  His only major diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement, did not survive the change of administration.  25 activist individuals and groups have won since 1991, including Al Gore for his work on global warming, three separate groups of women's rights activists in the Third World in 2011 (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leyman Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman), 2014 (Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai), and 2016 (Nadia Mursa and Denis Mukwege), four Tunisians who helped set up a democratic government in their country after 2011, and this year's two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov.

Nine years ago, I concluded my last lecture at the Naval War College with the following quote from Clausewitz.

"“In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident.  In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis must extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace.”

Rabin, Arafat and Peres won the Nobel for the Oslo Accords in 1994.  Those accords did not ultimately bear fruit, and since then, no head of state, head of government or foreign minster has won the Nobel Prize for actually settling an international conflict, and only one, in Colombia, has won for settling a civil war.  The major nations of the world--including, I regret to say, my own--have evidently forgotten that the task of statesmanship is to bring about peace.  Despite--and in some ways, because of--the two world wars, the dream of world peace dominated the 20th century.  We need to revive it in the 21st.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Sunday, September 26, 2021

The End of an Era

 Everyone seems to believe that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is in some sense the end of an era, and I am trying to figure out what that era was.  Here are some thoughts, inspired in part by reading the remarkable book by Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers. 

This era began, clearly, not long after the collapse of Communism in 1989, which put an end to the Cold War as we have known it and seemed to leave the United States without serious political rivals on the world stage.  In academia, Francis Fukuyama announced that the Hegelian "end of history" had arrived--a position he has since reconsidered.  At the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz wrote that the United States must now try to make sure that no new "peer competitor" emerged to replace the Soviet Union, and he has since been quoted as saying that the US had ten or fifteen years to eliminate smaller hostile regimes like Iraq before a new peer competitor emerged to defend them.  The new era coincided with a generational shift in American leadership.  While some members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Madeleine Albright remained important figures in new era, GIs like George H.  W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft gave way to Boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush,  Wolfowitz, and Condi Rice.  They were in power when 9/11 gave the foreign policy establishment a new mission.

I honestly cannot think of a single individual who did more to change the world in his time than Osama Bin Laden.  Operating on his own, he led the world's leading nation onto a disastrous course of action that continues to this day, twenty years later.  Al Queda was not the first international terrorist movement that the western world has faced.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European anarchists killed a Russian Czar, an Italian King, the Empress of Austria, a President of the United States, and many others.  As late as 1920, anarchists perpetrated the Wall Street bombing in New York, killing thirty people and wounding hundreds--but none of these events led to international crusades.  9/11 did, because the US leadership was already looking forward to a dramatic extension of American power.

My current book project has taken me through a tour of the renewed growth of western imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly as it related to the United States. The North Atlantic nations began interfering in what we now call the third world for several reasons, but failures to observe international law and keep order ranked high among them.  Such failures included outrages against foreign life and property, as in China in 1900, and failure to pay foreign debts, which brought the British into Egypt in the 1880s and the US into various Caribbean nations early in the twentieth century.  When William McKinley in 1898 decided to go to war against Spain in Cuba, he cited the need to stop a cruel war, in which the Spaniards had resettled tens of thousands of Cubans into concentration camps.  European nations began trying to intervene in the Ottoman Empire on behalf of its endangered Armenian minority in the 1890s, without much success.  Partly, perhaps, because universities don't spend much time on such history anymore, we haven't seen many analogies between the early 20th and the early 21st modes of imperialism, but they are there to be made.   Because of its own anti-colonial tradition, the United States did take the lead in one respect.  After 1898 it left Cuba independent--albeit while reserving a right to intervene to keep the government in friendly or competent hands--and although it brutally suppressed a Philippine insurrection, it took quite seriously, I have found, the task of preparing the islands for self-government. That in fact became a party issue, which Democrats favoring relatively rapid independence while Republicans found excuses to postpone it, but by the 1930s the US had promised Philippine independence by 1946, and it kept that promise.

During the Cold War, of course, any threat of Communism--or even supposed threat of Communism, as in Iran in 1953--became an excuse for American intervention, political or military, to install and maintain a friendly regime.  That rationale changed governments in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, British Guyana, and Chile, and tried and failed to do so in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Syria, and probably other places as well.  "Nation-building," or attempts to make client governments more responsive to their peoples' needs, accompanied military intervention in South Vietnam, without much success, and later played some role in El Salvador in the 1980s, where a friendly government settled a war with Communist guerrillas after the Cold War was over.  The Reagan administration also started and supported costly guerrilla wars against pro-Moscow regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique, with no immediate success.  Bloody internal conflicts, meanwhile, rarely led to calls for foreign intervention, such as those in Nigeria and Indonesia in the mid 1960s.

In the early 1990s, after Communism's fall, pressure arose to intervene to stop mass killings and ethnic cleansing both in the former Yugoslavia, which immediately broke  up after Communism fell, and in Rwanda.  Western governments rarely showed enough commitment and resources actually to try to stop it, only setting the Serbian-Bosnian conflict after the Serbs had achieved many of their objectives and the war had run its course, and ignoring Rwanda.    Meanwhile, the neoconservative sector of the American foreign policy establishment was increasingly opposed to allowing anti-American dictatorship in the Middle East to remain in power.  9/11 provided them with the excuse to try to implement this policy.  American forces easily overthrew the governments of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and tried to turn them into western-style democracies.  In both cases these efforts turned out to be bad jokes.  Iraq descended into religious civil war within a few years, and that war has never been settled.  The new Shi'ite government we helped create allies itself with Iran.  As for Afghanistan, Whitlock in The Afghanistan Papers draws on hundreds of after-action interviews with American military and civilians to show that our ideas for its future never had a chance.  They pretended that we could eliminate competition among warlords and the drug trade, key elements of Afghan politics and the Afghan economy.  Our attempt to spread western ideas about women's equality made many friends in urban areas but alienated much of the countryside--just as a very similar Soviet attempt had twenty  years earlier.  We appropriated billions more than the country could possibly absorb, and the profits went to contractors and well-placed Afghans who immediately moved the money overseas.   Our military tactics killed thousands of civilians, and we tried, and failed, to train the Afghans in the use of modern weapons despite their illiteracy and innumeracy.  I shall return to another even more depressing aspect of the adventure momentarily.

Incredibly, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush did not prevent Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from ramping up the Afghanistan war despite the warnings of the American Ambassador that more troops would do more harm than good, or from extending similar policies to Syria and Egypt after the Arab Spring broke out.  In Syria we could not depose the tyrant whom we had identified as the problem, merely encouraging hopeless resistance against him.  In Egypt, after the Muslim Brotherhood won the first free presidential election the country had ever had, we cooperated with the Egyptian military to restore dictatorship.  In Libya the Obama administration intervened to depose Muhammar Qaddafi, and that country also sank into chaos.  The policy created millions of refugees who are still fleeing to Europe, with serious social and political consequences there. 

The Whitlock book, sadly, suggests that our military and foreign policy bureaucracy will not only undertake any mission civilian leaders give it, but will also refuse seriously to re-evaluate it when it goes badly and will publicly defend the indefensible for as long as higher authority needs them to do so.  Whitlam lays out the continually, absurdly optimistic statements of successive military leaders in Afghanistan in excruciating detail.   Whitlock's book puzzled me in one respect.  Like his fellow Gen Xer Barack Obama--whose leadership in Afghanistan comes across as disastrous--Whitlock apparently doesn't want to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam, but the parallels are endless.  We did not understand the politics of either nation; we thought they could adopt western-style institutions; we didn't understand the depth of corruption in either one; and we used tactics that inevitably alienated the people were were supposed to be trying to help.  In neither case could we create a client regime that would fight on without us.  This time, however, the American people remained surprisingly detached from what was going on in this new theater of war, and Congress and the press did not fundamentally challenge the administration's rosy requests.  Indeed, it is astonishing how much the American press and the Congress deferred to both the Bush II and Obama administrations--opening up, as it turned out, the opportunity for Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016 and embark upon the destruction of American democracy.

From 100 to 140 years ago, imperialist nations did frequently restore order to parts of the third world.  I do not think that they can do so any longer, even in a good cause.  The biggest single reason is probably population.  Iraq had about 1.5 million people when the British took over in the early 1920s; both Iraq and Afghanistan have tens of millions now.  Western armed forces have shrunk.  And western institutions and ideas do not enjoy the prestige they did around 1900 in most of the world, because they haven't been working especially well.  The foreign policy establishment seems to be shifting its attention to Russia and China, but there, too, it is drawing on earlier traditions from the Cold War that may not help us move into a new world at all.  We are long past the point where we could live off the achievements of the middle of the twentieth century.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

What General Milley did

 During the more than twenty years that I taught strategy and policy at the Naval War College, I had many occasions to think about the military plot that attempted to assassinate and overthrow Adolf Hitler in July 1944.  That plot actually went back at least until 1938, when some high-ranking officers discussed overthrowing Hitler to prevent a disastrous war with Britain and France. The plot revived again after that war broke out in the fall of 1939, but it collapsed completely after Germany defeated France.  It revived in 1943-4 when the war against the USSR began to go badly and the British and Americans had landed, first in Italy and then in France.  While the most senior officers involved had already lost their commands, many others were still active.  They paid for their complicity with their lives.  The question I wondered about from time to time--but never, I think, raised in class--was, if the American presidency had fallen into comparably evil hands, would senior American officers be willing to do something similar?  I was not confident that they would, because of the respect for civilian authority that is so much a part of their outlook.

Things never got anywhere near that far under Donald Trump, partly because he is clearly a coward who would shy away from actual military action or even a declaration of martial law.  He did however exercise disastrous leadership on a variety of fronts.  It now turns out that at the turn of the year 2020-2021, after Trump had lost the election, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley, worried that Trump might begin war with China to try to save his presidency.  Bob Woodward has now reported--and Milley has not denied--that Milley made two calls to a senior Chinese general to try to avoid a Chinese reaction to a possible US attack. In the first call, he assured the general that no attack would take place.  In the second he assured him that if an attack was imminent, he, Milley, would let the Chinese general know in advance.  We shall see that Milley was not simply worried that the Chinese might falsely believe that war might be imminent, and that he took the possibility of American military action seriousy.  I do not agree with Republicans who suggested that these calls were treasonous.  The Constitution defines treason as giving aid and comfort to the enemies of the United States, and I interpret enemies to mean nations with whom the US is at war. We were not at war with China.  I am very curious to know exactly why Milley was worried about what Trump might do, and I hope that Senators will ask him that in detail when he testifies before them later this month. I do not think, though, that he found the appropriate means to  try to head off a possible war waged for political purposes.

A little less than two years ago, I discussed the issue of how senior military officers should have responded to the Trump presidency here, describing a public exchange I had at the JFK School of Government at Harvard with General James Mattis (retired), who at that time had just stepped down as Secretary of Defense.  I argued that I had been taught both during my own military service in the 1970s and again at the War College that if a soldier is serving under a commanding officer who is behaving in an illegal or disastrous manner, that soldier has not only a right but a duty to let higher authority know about what is happening. I had confirmed that belief with some of my old colleagues who were still serving officers.  If the commanding officer were the president of the United States, the higher authority would be either the Congress--which retains the power to remove him--or, in an election year, the American people.   Mattis made clear that he did not agree with me, but this is still what I think.  Donald Trump was trying to stage a coup in late December and early January, and Milley feared that he might use war to help make it happen.  He owed it to his countrymen to let us know. Had he done so, it might even have persuaded Mitch McConnell to vote for conviction in the subsequent impeachment trial, thus relieving the nation of the nightmare of Trump's threatened return to office.  But he didn't.

It seems that Milley genuinely worried that Trump might initiate war, including nuclear war.   According to an AP story, "Milley, according to the book, called the admiral overseeing the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the military unit responsible for Asia and the Pacific region, and recommended postponing upcoming military exercises. He also asked senior officers to swear an “oath” that Milley had to be involved if Trump gave an order to launch nuclear weapons, according to the book."  That was important because Milley himself had no authority to stop anything that Trump ordered.  None of the press accounts of this incident that I have seen have mentioned this, but under the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while designated the president's senior military adviser, is not in the chain of command.  The chain of command runs directly from the President to the Secretary of Defense, and then to the local theater commander--in this case, the commander of what is now the Indo-Pacific Command (formerly CINCPAC), headquartered in Honolulu.  That was Admiral Philip S. Davidson, who should also appear before the Senate to give his perspective. 

Milley did apparently discuss Trump's deteriorating mental state with Speaker Pelosi, although it's not clear that he mentioned his fear of war.  The AP story also suggests that one US military exercise in the Far East was canceled.  But like General Mattis as Secretary of Defense, or one-time White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly, or National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, he did not share his concerns about Trump's leadership with the American people, and preferred to try to avert disaster behind the scenes, both within the miltiary chain of command and in conversations with a foreign general.  In so doing, I think, he contributed to the catastrophic decline of American democracy, which still threatens us with authoritarian rule in another few years.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

The anniversary

Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, and Pearl Harbor  were the catalytic violent events in the first three great crises in American national life.  September 11, 2001 played the same role in the fourth.  It's impact has been the opposite of the first three.  Lexington and Concord led to the Declaration of Independence, the victory over the British, and the writing of the Constitution.  Fort Sumter led to the northern victory four years later and the end of slavery.  Pearl Harbor led to the victory in the Second World War and the establishment of the United States as the leading power in the world.  9/11 led to the collapse of American politics, because our leadership responded to it in disastrous ways.  

We have forgotten the overwhelming national response to 9/11.  Overnight George W. Bush, previously a minority president of dubious legitimacy, turned into the symbol of national resolve.  Congress almost unanimously passed an open-ended resolution to fight a "war on terror," and, a year later, voted 296-133 in the House and 77-23 in the Senate (29-21 among the Democrats) to authorize the war in Iraq.  The mainstream media supported the two wars as well.  The chorus included a lot of people who should have known better.  One of my colleagues at the time in the Strategy and Policy Department of the Naval War College remembers a department meeting in which only three of us--including himself and myself--expressed reservations about the Iraq war, even though we had all been teaching for years about the Athenian expedition to Sicily and our parents' generation's adventure in Vietnam.  Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, Douglas Feith, George Tenet and the rest of them had lived through Vietnam but had evidently convinced themselves that our defeat there was unnecessary, and that they could do better. They couldn't.  They embarked upon two bigger ventures--defined by the size and population of the territories we aimed to control--with far fewer men.  Failure was inevitable.  Yet the counterterror effort and the attempt to bring democracy to the Middle East by force persisted through the Obama administration in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, with more disastrous results.  It took Donald Trump to reverse it, and we shall have to wait and see whether Joe Biden finds it necessary, as Barack Obama did, to act boldly somewhere else to make up for the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

These new wars, as various opinion pieces have made clear in recent days, had an extraordinary impact on the US government and American society.  Military spending had fallen to a post-1949 low in 2001 in the wake of the end of the Cold War, but it doubled in absolute terms during the next ten years, reaching 4.6% of GDP and 19.6% of total federal outlays by 2011.  Previous military buildups after 1940, 1950, and 1965 had fueled our industrial economy, but this one did not.  The bulk of the new money went to private contractors focusing on intelligence, as the US government searched frantically for new terrorists all over the globe. In the same decade payments to private contractors doubled from $181 billion to $375 billion, creating a new military-intelligence complex centered in Northern Virginia.  It is not clear that this complex contributed anything significant to US security.  That was not all.  The FBI went with the flow as well and turned domestic counterterrorism into its top priority, eclipsing white collar crime and other priorities.  A recent New York Times Magazine article on an FBI agent who leaked documents on the antiterrorism campaign to the press and served severael years in prison for it details at length how useless most of this effort was--a matter of blackmailing immigrants into becoming informants, even though they had almost no real intelligence to provide.  Several sting operations in which bureau informants created fraudulent terror networks out of nothing, leading to lengthy prison terms for men who would never have done anything on their own, have been the subject of television documentaries. 

The Bush II administration, meanwhile, took advantage of the national mood to push through two rounds of tax cuts, re-creating the permanent federal deficit that the Clinton administration had eliminated.  It also embarked behind the scenes on a program of energy independence that has transformed the United States.  It did nothing about the housing bubble, leading to the crash of 2008.  And by that time, our new financial sector was strong enough to define the Bush and Obama administrations' responses to the crisis, leaving them even more powerful than ever now.

None of this, sadly, bothered our political establishments--Republican and Democratic alike--until 2016.  In that year they both discovered that these disastrous policies had broken their bonds with the American people.  Neither party establishment could field a candidate who could defeat Donald Trump.  Trump lost his re-election bid convincingly, but in four years he created a new politics of personal loyalty without precedent in American history.  The 2024 Republican  nomination appears to be his for the asking, and it is certainly not impossible that the normal rhythm of American politics might return him to office, especially since Biden is most unlikely to begin a new campaign at the age of 81.  And if Trump does not run, the nomination seems very likely to go to the most convincing claimant of his legacy.   

In 1775, in 1860, and in 1932, the authority of the federal government had fallen to a low point.  Success in war did a great deal to restore it.  Failure in war, this time, has helped discredit it.  The Republican Party has been working towards that same goal for decades.  President Biden is trying to re-establish the government's prestige with new infrastructure, more egalitarian economic policies, and an attack on climate change--but even his attempts to mount a serious response to the pandemic are provoking bitter resistance.  As in 1776, 1861, and 1932, our democratic experiment is threatened.  The foreign policy failure of the last twenty years contributed mightily to its critical illness.

Monday, September 06, 2021

Political Life Then and Now

 Many of us have books on our shelves that we have been intending to read for decades.  I got two French novels of that list during and after my recent trip to Paris, and that inspired me to take a very different one down: Albert Beveridge and the Progressive Era, written in the 1920s by the historian Claude Bowers, who also wrote a three-volume set on the life and times of Jefferson.  This book was called to my attention, oddly enough, by Richard Nixon, who in an interview with Gary Wills in 1968 had described it as one of the most interesting books he had ever read.  I apparently bought it at a library sale in the 1980s.  Later, I read Charles A. Beard's argument for isolationism, The Open Door at Home, in which he quoted a Beveridge speech to illustrate his idea of "industrialist statecraft," a form of American imperialism.  The book was neither quite as interesting or inspiring as I had hoped, but it held my interest for more than 500 pages and I learned a lot, in particular, about struggles over progressivism within the Republican Party in the first 15 years or so of the twentieth century.  Beveridge in any case represents a fascinating kind of politician, one which it is fair to say we no longer have in this country, and his career inevitably raises questions about how the nation has changed.

Beveridge was born in 1862 to an Ohio farmer and his wife.  His father lost his farm in the agricultural depression that followed the Civil War, and never regained any substantial means. He continued trying many enterprises, and his son ran a logging camp for him when he was only in his mid-teens. Like so many in 19th century America, he got, or gave himself, an education in high school which no one gets today. "It was during his high-school days," Bowers wrote, "that he read Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," and the novels of Scott, Dickens, George Eliot and William Black." (I don't recognize William Black either.)  So it was before radio, television, smart phones and the internet.  The post-civil war atmosphere--like the post-Second World War atmosphere for me, I suppose--gave him a consuming interest in politics, and he attended every political meeting he could--something that now seems to be impossible even on line.  Desperate to go to college, but without funds, he tried and failed to get an appointment to West Point.  Then he wrote a number of colleges asking how he might attend without money, and received a letter from DePauw University--later the alma mater of Dan Quayle--stating that he would need $50 to do so.  That would amount to between $500 and $1000 in 2021 dollars, I believe, and a lumberman whom Beveridge had worked for staked him the money.  No one can go to college that way today, because its cost has gotten so much higher.  In that way the nation wqas more democratic in the late 19th century than it is now, and it so remained until the last third of the twentieth century.

Once in college, he worked his way through it in large part by entering and winning oratorical contests.  Lectures, political speeches and debates were a prime form of entertainment in late nineteenth century America, and the agnostic Robert Ingersoll became a national celebrity by trumpeting his controversial views around the country.  I suppose the internet might provide the same kind of opportunity for an ambitious twenty-something today but I am not yet aware of any who have turned a podcast into a political career.  Then he apprenticed himself to a prominent lawyer to prepare for the bar--another vanished opportunity for an ambitious youth seeking to become a professional.  By the late 1880s he was practicing law and participating very actively in Indiana politics, and by his 30th birthday he was much in demand all over the state.    He retained very wide intellectual interests, and he once gave a talk to a local literary society arguing in quite compelling fashion (Bowers quotes it in full) that Sir Walter Raleigh was the real author of Shakespeare's plays.  His fame spread and he gave well-attended lectures in New York and elsewhere, often arguing for a strong, centralized federal government such as the new century was destined to create. In 1898 came the Spanish-American War, and Beveridge began making his name as an advocate for a new imperialistic America that would spread its rule to new domains--starting with Puerto Rico and the Philippines--to provide markets for his abundant agriculture and growing industry.  Later in that year the Indiana legislature elected him to the Senate.  

Before taking his seat in December 1897, however, Beveridge took passage to the Far East to see the Philippines and the American attempt to bring them under control first hand. During the same trip he visited Japan and had a remarkable interview with the Prime Minister, Ito, who advised the United States to keep the Philippines in the same way that Japan was keeping Formosa.  This was the first of several ambitious foreign trips that he took.  The next one took him to the Russian Far East, and he wrote a book predicting the imminent war between Russia and Japan.  After the First World War broke out he went to Europe on a newspaper contract and interviewed every leading man he could in Germany, France, and Great Britain.  He had a long interview with the Emperor William II, who made a terrific personal impression on him, but he unfortunately kept a promise never to reveal the substance of their discussion until his own death.  

Beveridge emerged as a leading domestic progressive during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose own progressivism, as I have discovered myself, was more rhetorical than real.  Beveridge pushed without success of stricter meat inspection laws, including a label on all canned meats indicating when they had been canned.  He also pushed for a national ban on child labor, arguing that the power to regulate interstate commerce included the power to specify how articles produced for such commerce might be made.  He was not hostile to trusts as such--neither was TR--but he favored stronger regulation.  Beveridge lost his bid for a third Senate term in 1910, but became a leader in Roosevelt's Progressive Party two years later, after Taft had defeated TR for the Republican nomination.  He dreamed of turning that party into a major party, and suffered perhaps the biggest disappointment of his life as it became clear during the next two years that Roosevelt himself had no such plans and was ready to come back into the Republican fold with his tail between his legs if the party would take him.  That they absolutely refused to do in 1916, and TR's death in 1919 from a disease he caught on the Amazon ended any chance of a 1920 run.  

Beveridge meanwhile emerged as a serious historian.  He wrote a four-volume biography of Chief Justice John Marshall during the First World War, and he wrote two volumes on the early life of Abraham Lincoln during the 1920s.  Alas, he died, apparently of heart disease, in 1927 when he was only 64, perhaps a victim, like so many, of the nicotine and high-fat diet of the era.  

While there were some issues I would have agreed with Beveridge on, such as economic regulation, and others where I would not have, such as imperialism, I regret that our society and our educational sytem no longer produces politicians of this type.   They were largely self-educated and rose through society with the help of a nearly free educational system, as my own father did in the 1930s.   They read widely all their lives. They traveled to see the key developments of a rapidly changing world first hand.  And their job was to make sense of both the American present and the American past, relating their own time to those that had gone before and those that would come in the future. Today's politicians, exhorted by their party leadership to raise money four hours ever day, have ceded that function to academics and journalists.  We live now in a world of memes, video clips, sound bites and twitter posts, but we can still retreat into another one at our leisure.