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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The fruit of 50 years in academia

 Eight years since my last college class wrapped at Williams College, I still have to remind myself continually that the academic world I was introduced to in 1965 and that shaped my intellectual and professional development no longer exists.  At the same time, I literally cannot pick up a single issue of the New York Times or the Boston Globe without seeing the impact of the ideas that first surfaced on campus in the late 1960s and now, four generations later, have become  mainstream among the intellectual elite.  These ideas--or customs--include an emphasis on various forms of identity, a preference for emotional over rational responses to difficult issues, and above all, the belief that modern western civilization is an oppressive conspiracy that needs to be "re-imagined."  Yet I still look at the web site of the Harvard Crimson once or twice a week to see what is going on. My last discovery is this article about Hispanic student activism at the Law School, entitled, "In Decades-Long Push to Diversity Harvard Law Faculty and Course Offerings, Students Seek to Amplify Previously Unheard Voices."  I will quote the first few paragraphs.

"In 2015, Juan A. Espinoza, a current third-year student at Harvard Law School, spent his summer participating in one of the Law School’s enrichment programs. Espinoza recalled walking through a famous hall where the portraits of professors were displayed. He remembers asking himself how it was possible there was so little representation.

“'How crazy is it that there isn’t a single Latino up on these walls?' Espinoza said. 'I remember having a very visual image of custodial staff — two Latino immigrants — cleaning the portraits of these professors and yet, there being no one from my community or any Latino immigrants represented on the faculty.'

“'They just don’t represent us here,' Espinoza said. 'It’s true in the curriculum, it’s true in the classrooms, it’s true in the faculty, it’s true across all course offerings, it’s true in every resource office — we’re not represented here. We just are not, and they know it.'"

Now let me contrast that with the way in which law school students, including those from minorities (and I knew one such very well in the mid-1960s, and met others through him), thought about their status as law students way back then.  They, like every other educated person, were intensely aware of civil rights issues in the nation at that time, and how the law related to them.  We were all living through an era of extraordinary civil rights legislation.  They were also alert to signs of racism in individual faculty members. But they were focused on their educational experience, as their training as lawyers, in courses like contracts, civil procedure, constitutional law, administrative law, commercial transactions, etc. etc.  Those are the legal issues that lawyers need to understand to help society function--regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation.  And learning about them was a very demanding task.  In their first two years, many of them studied six to eight hours a day, and I saw them agonizing over their exams.  The faculty, in short, had no doubt that they were offering all their students a very important and worthwhile product, and the students understood that they had implicitly accepted that assumption by applying, enrolling, and paying their tuition.  Of course, many of the students had big long-term financial goals as well.  That is one thing that certainly has not changed.

47% of Harvard Law School students are now listed as "students of color," which means that somewhere between 50 and 100 of the entering class of 502 students are probably Hispanic.  I am sure that they are, in the traditional sense of the word, a diverse group, with different backgrounds, intellectual interests, attitudes towards their identity, and career goals. I do not believe, in short, that all of them think just like Mr. Espinoza by any means.  Yet his concerns about "representation" are the concerns of ethnic activists and of large bureaucracies at most of the colleges and universities in the country.  They have arrived at their college, university or professional school angry and they keep themselves angry for their whole time there.  Rather than focusing on really learning how law and justice work in America, they criticize the makeup and curriculum of the school because it doesn't support their idea of justice.  The whole long article includes many more details.  They have no compunction about doing this because they believe their background gives them insights into these issues that the less diverse faculty cannot have.

Critical race theory--originally developed at Harvard by Law School professor Derrick Bell--holds that the legal system is just one of many power structures designed to oppress nonwhites.  The article also quotes activists demanding that the theory be mainstreamed into the curriculum.  Like the student radicals among my contemporaries--who in 1968-9 persuaded the Social Relations Department at Harvard to let them offer a fully accredited course on student radicalism--they have no doubt that they, not the faculty, know best. Again I quote:

"Zoe Russell, a founding member of the Law School’s Bell Collective for Critical Race Theory alongside fellow law students McKenna and Olivia M. Castor ’17, said her organization is hoping to 'implement more institutionalized spaces,' including co-education groups where students can teach and learn various aspects of critical race theory.

“'We’re hoping that this model will let HLS know that critical theory is something that is valuable and important to every part of legal practice and application, regardless of whether you’re going into a firm or you’re dedicating your life to public interest,' Russell said. 'That this is something that they need to invest more in.'

"[Law School spokesperson Jeff] Neal wrote that the Law School was 'committed' to teaching courses about race and racial justice, 'subjects that are woven into the fabric of countless courses.'

Castor, a second-year student and steering committee member of the Law School’s Critical Race Theory conference, said that Harvard should introduce more 'context-rich courses,' unlike many of the standard classes where professors actually instruct students to disregard background information and personal experiences when approaching a case.

"'That is not at all how the law works,' Castor said. “You have judges who are deciding the law, you have legislators who are writing a law — all these people are human beings. The idea that they go in and they’re able to somehow strip themselves of context when they’re deciding which way they want to enshrine doctrines makes absolutely no sense.'”

Castor, in short, wants to throw out the idea of law as an impersonal, rational institution that can try to treat everyone equally.  Granted that such law never works perfectly, many of us still believe that it is our only realistic option, especially in a diverse society.  Similar ideas have done enormous harm to the humanities--in which I worked--over the last five decades.  The disciplines of history and literature bear the responsibility for their own decline, I know, because they now produce so little work, and so few courses, that deserve genuine intellectual respect.  I don't know if there has been a decline in legal instruction parallel to what has taken place in the humanities, but such a decline might have created the intellectual vacuum that some student activists are trying to fill.  Higher education has many problems,. most of them related to  money.  Because it has too many administrators and faculty, it costs much too much.  Students inevitably resent the cost, and the cost also has helped make higher ed--led by institutions like Harvard Law School--the training ground for our most powerful and richest institutions, which in turn tends to make them still richer.  I do wish that just a few institutions might react to the current crisis they face by returning to the values, institutional structure, faculty-student ratios, and minimal administrative structure of another era.  Unfortunately I see no sign of this happening.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Goodbye, Afghanistan

 I am glad that President Biden has announced that all American troops will leave Afghanistan within four months, but I was astounded that he publicly and explicitly linked the final withdrawal date to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. The response to that event of the American political elite--of which Biden himself was already a member in very good standing--may have been the worst foreign policy blunder in American history.  It also destroyed much of the peoples' confidence in our leadership.  Biden seems quite willing to emphasize what a failure it all was.  That suggests to me that the gulf between the foreign policy establishment and the people still exists.

It was quite possible to see even in the immediate wake of 9/11 that the invasion of Afghanistan might turn out very badly.  I know, because I said so at the time in this piece, which must have been written before the invasion began. We did not trap Osama Bin Laden there, and it took ten years to find him and kill him living safely in a garrison town inside our "ally" Pakistan.  We got the Taliban out of power, but it has used sanctuary in Pakistan--and active support from important institutions in that country--to rebuild, and it now controls much of the country and some of the urban areas as well, and may well be back in power in Kabul within a couple of years.   The Afghanistan war became the prelude to the even more disastrous war in Iraq, which has still not achieved stability while falling into the orbit of Iran, another regime that Bush II hoped to topple   The democracy project in the Middle East seemed to be succeeding in 2011 at the time of the Arab Spring, but only in Tunisia has it had a good medium-term result.  Egypt lapsed into despotism, the Syrian regime defeated the rebellion against it, and Libya remains in a 10-year civil war. 

The experience of the Vietnam war changed me from a run-of-the-mill liberal cold warrior into a determined skeptic about intervention.  It did not have that effect on my contemporaries who sought power and glory as foreign policy bureaucrats or politicians elected to office.  Republicans, led by neoconservatives, blamed liberals for the defeat in Vietnam and looked for new dragons to slay in the Middle East and elsewhere.  Leading Democrats such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joe Biden,  and even Barack Obama (after he became President anyway) decided that they could not risk looking soft on national security, and undertook or endorsed a series of interventions of their own.  Women's rights have become another excuse for US intervention in distant lands.  In Fear, Bob Woodward quoted Lindsay Graham telling Donald Trump that there would always be evil abroad in the world and that the US had a destiny to fight it.  Trump, to his credit, was not impressed.  Biden has endorsed Trump's withdrawal policy for now, but he has also appointed a completely traditional foreign policy team.  Meanwhile, through all this, the defense budget has continued to grow. 

Several leading Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, have attacked Biden's decision.  (To be fair, McConnell attacked the withdrawal policy when Trump announced it, as well.)  Many however have not.  For all his greed, mendacity and incompetence, Donald Trump realized that much of the American people no longer accepted the mainstream thinking of the elite on many issues, including foreign policy.  He has left a big legacy within the Republican Party and in the nation at large.  The Boom generation is falling out of power.  The question now is whether new generations can adopt genuinely new principles in foreign policy.  With real trouble brewing in both Russia and China, I suspect the answer is no.

Friday, April 09, 2021

Bitter equilibrium

 Two days ago, Senator Joe Manchin published a revealing op-ed in the Washington Post, explaining why he would never vote to weaken or eliminate the filibuster and why he does not favor additional use of hte reconciliation process to pass legislation with a simple majority vote. The piece fails as a work either of history of of constitutional theory.  Manchin begins by pointing out correctly that the Founders created the Senate to protect the rights of small states like West Virginia, to make sure that they "would always have a seat at the table."  "The filibuster," he continues, "is a critical tool to protecting that input and our democratic form of government."  That makes no sense.  The equal representation in the Senate alone  gives small states ample protection against majority rule.  The smallest 26 states send a majority of the Senate today, even though they send only 84 out of the 435 members of the House of Representatives to Washington.  But with the filibuster, the smallest 21 states can block any legislation--and they send only 57 members of the House to Washington.  In the very first Congress, the seven smallest states (out of thirteen total) sent 22 out of 65 total seats to Washington--a full third of the total.  There is no evidence that the Founders had any intention of giving a legislative veto to as little as 20 per cent of the population, must less 13%.  In addition, the Constitution, by requiring a 2/3 vote for the ratification of treaties in the Senate, clearly indicates that a simple majority should suffice for any other legislative purpose.  Manchin clearly wants, and intends, to paralyze our democracy to an extent that the Founders never contemplated.

Manchin, however, is likely to make his position stick, with enormous consequences for the country.  As his article goes on, he suggests that no major legislation--no "sweeping, partisan legislation"--should pass without substantial support from both parties.  I can't help but wonder why he didn't write a comparable op-ed in 2017, when he and every other Democrat opposed the enormous Republican tax cut that passed on a 51-48 party line vote under the reconciliation process. That, however, is a secondary issue.  What Manchin is arguing, in effect, is that the nation is so evenly divided that we must emasculate the federal government and make it impossible for it to take effective, positive action to resolve our problems. And given the extraordinary power that he and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona hold in the 50-50 Senate, there is an excellent chance that he will get his way. 

Thanks to the research I've been doing over the last 18 months or so, I can say that the situation which Manchin as frankly advocated, and in which we have been stuck since 2011 in any case, has a great deal in common with US history roughly from 1865 to 1896, in the wake of the Civil War.  The country was equally evenly divided between the victorious Republicans and the Democrats, who included all the ex-Confederates and who had opposed some of the key results of the war, such as the enfranchisement of former slaves, even if they had supported war for the Union.  In the immediate wake of the war, the Republicans didn't have to cope with Democratic filibusters, but they faced a hostile President, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, whom they had picked as Vice Presidential candidate in 1864 to to broaden their support.  They passed the key Reconstruction acts that allowed them to set up Republican governments in the southern states only after securing veto-proof majorities in the 1866 Congressional elections, and by keeping the South out of Congress until those governments had been established.  But because the Republican governments in most of the southern states did not enjoy majority voter support, they lasted only a few years.  Meanwhile, the panic of 1873 allowed the Democrats to regain control of the House of Representatives in 1874.  The Democrats actually won a narrow victory in the disputed 1876 election, but Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republican candidate, took office as part of a compromise that ended Reconstruction in the last three states where it still continued, as well.  The partisanship of the era had led to many of the tactics we have become familiar with today, including fiddling with the number of Supreme Court justices to secure favorable outcomes; suppressing hostile voters (ex-Confederates in the early years of Reconstruction, black voters after that); and threatening to shut down the government to get Congress's way on particular issues, as the Democrats did under Hayes. 

Then as now, the Republicans were the preferred party of big business, although the Democrats were hardly economic revolutionaries.  The tariff was the main source of revenue, and the Republicans kept it high throughout this period.  It was their main issue the way low taxes are today.  The rival administrations of Grover Cleveland (1885-89, 1893-97) and Benjamin Harrison fought a tug-of-war over the tariff comparable to that between Bush II, Obama, Trump, and now Biden over taxes, abortion rights, and many other issues.  Cleveland definitely came out for much lower tariffs late in his first term, but could not get them through Congress.  Harrison promptly raised them again in 1890, and used the money to make a huge giveaway to a key Republican constituency, Civil War veterans.  That proved unpopular, and the Democrats (as in 2006 and 2018) won a sweeping victory in the Congressional elections of 1890, and returned Cleveland to power two years later.  Then the panic of 1893 and the subsequent Depression led to a Republican sweep in 1894.  The radical, free silver wing of the Democratic Party selected William Jennings Bryan--only 36 years old, the AOC of his time--as its candidate in 1896. William McKinley defeated him soundly, beginning 16 years of continuous Republican rule, and even higher tariffs. A new era did not begin until 1912, when, significantly, new progressive ideas had become very strong in both parties and had adherents in all sections. 

President Biden has already put a transformative agenda on the table. I cannot rule out the possibility that he will work a miracle and pass most of it, but the odds seem to me against it.  If he cannot--and especially if the Democrats cannot maintain their razor-thin majority in the House in 2022--that will finally confirm the view that I first posited here in July 2010, when I realized that the last Democratic president was not going to be transformative.  That would tend to confirm that the truly transformative moment in American politics was the Bush II administration and Obama's first term..  It would even suggest that our crisis--in the sense of a turning point in American politics--has been over for some time.

Saturday, April 03, 2021

Voting again

The nation faces yet another round in its intermittent, historic split over voting rights.  Having lost a pretty close election in the electoral college because of high turnout and close counts in Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the Republicans who control the state legislatures in all those states--and those in a good many other states besides--are trying to make sure that the same thing does not happen again.  Let us be frank: in no state, including Georgia, do new laws make it impossible for anyone to vote.  They do make it more difficult,. which is wrong, but there is nothing in them, in my opinion, which a determined, well-organized campaign could not overcome.  They still represent a big step backward for our democracy and another desperate attempt by the minority Republican Party to cling to power.  President Biden and the Democratic Party in Washington have declared war on these new laws and are trying to pass a new federal law that would in effect invalidate a great many of them.  Let me put one thing on the table right away:  such a law is clearly constitutional.  The Constitution states, "The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations."  That is what they are trying to do. They are also enlisting the support of corporate America, led so far by Major League Baseball, to pressure Georgia and other states to abandon these laws.  I think this may lead to a larger secession movement in some red states.  The nation is ripe for it, and it would provide an appropriate climax, perhaps, to our fourth great political crisis.

Meanwhile, however, I would like once again to offer something different to the whole historical question rights in the United States.  Every commentator presents it as exclusively a racial question, involving the preservation of white supremacy.  That it undoubtedly was, from the time of Reconstruction until at least 1965, and I certainly agree that there is a racial aspect to what is going on around the country today.  But that was not all it was, and I have finally taken the trouble to put together the data necessary to prove that.

Voting since Reconstruction has been a battleground.  While Andrew Johnson wanted to allow states to disenfranchise black people, the Republicans who controlled Congress wanted to elect Republican governments in the southern states.  They could not do that simply by guaranteeing the vote to freed slaves, because only in Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina were blacks a majority of the population.  They thus arranged for the initial Reconstruction governments to have the right to disenfranchise white voters who had supported the great rebellion and refused to swear a new oath of allegiance.  That allowed them to elect Republican state governments almost all over the South and i the border states, but they did not last more than a few years, as the restrictions on white voting were overturned.  They lasted the longest, for obvious reasons, in Louisiana and South Carolina, but there, as in Mississippi, the terror of the KKK began to keep black voters away from the polls. The Democratic Party was fully in control of the southern state governments, with very rare exceptions--and also in the border states--by 1884 or so, without major legal restrictions on voting.  

The Populist movement in the South, which brought together poor white and black voters for a while, frightened the white South into stronger action.  Grandfather clauses and literacy tests disenfranchised nearly all black voters in most of the South beginning in the 1890s.  That, however, was not all.  Those laws evidently were also applied fairly strictly against many poor and uneducated whites as well.  The white turnout, as well as the black one, remained very low in most of the South through the first 2/3 of the twentieth century.  I first noticed this studying election results in the World Almanac in the 1960s. Now I have been able to put together the data to prove it--and it will open quite a few eyes.

Using Wikipedia's excellent articles on presidential elections and combining it with census data, I have computed turnout, as a function of the whole population, in every one of the 50 states in 1960.  It would be possible to get comparable data merely for the voting age population but that would require far more time than I can allot to this project now, and I don't think it would be significantly more accurate for my purposes today, since the whole country in 1960 was awash in children.  The results are astonishing. With the interesting exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii (who were voting for president for the first time, Arizona and New Mexico, and Oklahoma, every state that was not a slave state in 1860 had a turn out of from 42 per cent to 49 per cent of its total population.  (New Hampshire led the way with 49 per cent, with Massachusetts close behind.)  Doing a quick calculation that may come in handy later, I find that nationwide, 61% of the over-19 population--the best approximation I can get to the voting age of 21--cast ballots in 1960. 

The former slave states lived in a different world.  25 percent of Alabama's total population cast votes in 1960; 24 per cent of Arkansas; per cent of Florida's; just 19 per cent of Georgia's; 37 per cent of Louisiana's; 14 per cent of Mississippi's, the lowest figure in the nation; 30 per cent of North Carolina's; 16 per cent of South Carolina's; 29 per cent in Tennessee, 24 per cent in Texas, and just 19% in Virginia.  In neither Maryland nor Kentucky did 40 per cent of the population cast votes either.  

Now on the one hand, almost none of the black population could vote in states like Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama, and large portions of blacks could not vote in other states.  Yet disenfranchisement severely affected many white populations as well.  Let us recall once again that in most of the country, about 45 per cent of the whole population cast votes.  Let's look now at the percentage of the white population that cast votes in the old Confederacy.  Florida, remarkably, had what seems to be a higher-than-average turnout among whites, at 55 per cent of their total population--perhaps in part because that population was unusually old.  But the total vote as a percentage of the white population was 25 per cent in Alabama, 26 per cent in Georgia, 37 per cent in Louisiana, 24 per cent in Mississippi, a full 40 per cent in North Carolina, just 25 per cent in South Carolina, 29 per cent in Texas, and 25 per cent in Virginia.  In other words, while 480,000 out of every million white people in Massachusetts cast votes, less than 260,000 of every million white people in Georgia did (allowing for a significant black vote in Atlanta, even then.) 

Sitting in on hearings on the great Kennedy civil rights bill in the summer of 1963, I more than one white southern witness explain that back home, they didn't regard voting as a right, but as a privilege.  I don't know exactly how so many whites were kept away from the polls as late as 1960, but the figures show that many thousands of them didn't enjoy that privilege either.  Class obviously played a huge role in who voted, as well as race.  And it may still.  The turnout as a percentage of voting age population in the various states for 2020 also showed important regional variations. The national average for the whole country was exactly 66.7%.  The top ten states were Minnesota (80 per cent), Colorado, Maine, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan (73.9 percent.)  Every one of them voted for Biden. The bottom ten were Alabama (63.1 per cent), Indiana, New Mexico, Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, West Virginia, Hawaii, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.  All but two of them voted for Trump, most of them by huge margins.

Even if the new Republican regulations survive, they will not restore the situation of 1960.  I often wonder, as I mentioned here many years ago, whether some Republican legislature will introduce a property qualification for voting--something which is in no way forbidden by the original constitution or any subsequent amendment.  Perhaps we can do more to preserve voting rights if we recognize that this problem--like so many others we face--has never been simply a matter of race.