25 March 2017

The system works, or does it?

Can we stop now with the talk about Donald Trump being or becoming a dictator? He's just suffered one of the most embarrassing legislative defeats in the modern history of the presidency at the hands of his own party. After promising during his campaign to repeal the Affordable Care Act as soon as possible, and after more recently threatening to primary any Republican representatives who dared vote against the "repeal and replace" bill in the lower house, the President ordered Speaker Ryan to surrender by withdrawing the bill. He has learned what every President learns, which is that our political system today virtually guarantees re-election to any congressman who wants it, regardless of what a President who is also de facto party leader wants him to do or not do. Trump's fans hoped, and many of his detractors feared that his legendary deal-making prowess or his exaggerated bullying tendencies would override this dynamic, but until he can demonstrate that he can successfully primary defiant Republican incumbents those Republicans have no reason not to dare him to try. I suspect, however, that the President won't carry this grudge into next year, especially if the threat only makes dissident Republicans in the center and on the far right more defiant. Whatever else happens in the next two years, it is now proven that this Republican congress will not simply rubber-stamp the Republican President. Hooray! Meanwhile, "Obamacare," with all its flaws, remains in place, presumably unamended, for what Ryan calls the foreseeable future. Trump's idea now seems to be to let the ACA "explode," as he expects it to, so that Democrats will still be blamed for rising premiums and other problems until popular demand for change proves irresistible to quibbling Republicans. This doesn't seem like the ideal way to reform the health insurance business, but it's probably the inevitable way so long as an admirable idea of providing insurance for everyone is yoked to ideologies and vested interests and made an object of partisan competition. So long as universal health coverage means more costs than benefits for some people and offends others' notions of deserved suffering, the politics of health care will not be easy, even (or especially) for alleged authoritarians like President Trump.

23 March 2017

The large policy

Stephen Kinzer's The True Flag is being marketed as pop history, as you can tell from the subtitle assigning Mark Twain a starring role in the narrative even though he proves a latecomer to the debate over the "imperialist" turn in U.S. foreign policy at the end of the nineteenth century. Kinzer is a historian of American interventionism, having previously written a history of U.S. complicity in the Iranian counterrevolution of the 1950s and a survey of American actions overthrowing foreign governments. In his new book he goes to the start of the trouble, the Spanish-American war of 1898 and the American victors' acquisition of the Philippines the following year. Kinzer sensibly sees multiple motives behind the war. It was the first time that the media successfully whipped up a frenzy for what we now call humanitarian intervention, thanks to William Randolph Hearst's hyping of Spanish atrocities against Filipino and Cuban freedom fighters. For Hearst himself, and more so for Theodore Roosevelt war was an opportunity to prove their manhood and more, especially their potential as history-making figures. For other Americans the most important objective was turning Spanish colonies into American markets for surplus industrial product. For other still, including Kinzer's real mastermind, Henry Cabot Lodge, the war was part of what Lodge called "the large policy" of great-power assertiveness. For Lodge and Roosevelt the conquests from Spain had more strategic than mercantile value. The Philippines in particular, not to mention little Guam, would allow the U.S. to project naval power further into the Pacific than ever before. These contradictory motives made disillusionment inevitable when the humanitarians realized that, while Cuba received a sort of independence, the U.S. had no intention of liberating the Philippines at all. Instead, American troops settled in for a hard fight against many of the same freedom fighters who had been lionized in the U.S. press shortly before but now were portrayed as savage fanatics. According to Kinzer, the U.S. killed more Filipinos in four years than the Spanish had in centuries of colonial rule. Among the disillusioned was Twain, who was touring Europe when the war with Spain broke out and cheered the fall of one cruel empire, only to deplore the rise of a new one as a betrayal of fundamental American values.

The occupation of the Philippines provoked the rise of a sizable "anti-imperialist" movement in the U.S. Before Twain took the stage, the biggest celebrity on this side was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, while the movement's greatest hope was the defeated but still young 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. Despite betraying the movement by voting to ratify the treaty that turned the Philippines over to the U.S. -- he justified his vote by arguing that the first priority was to get Spain out of the picture, but Kinzer thinks he was afraid of disqualifying himself from the 1900 presidential campaign by alienating jingoists -- he gave the anti-imperialists their best chance of changing the nation's course at the turn of the century as he insisted on self-government for the Philippines as soon as possible. As Kinzer tells it, the country's course might well have been changed if not for Bryan's ideological stubbornness. Though not a member of the Populist (or People's) party, Bryan embodied first-generation populism for many Americans who voted against him in 1896. He wanted to help farmers get credit and pay debts by increasing the money supply with more silver coins, but that idea outraged gold-standard conservatives who saw it as a recipe for inflation. Kinzer claims that Bryan could have dropped his demand for "free silver" by 1900, because the Klondike gold rush had increased gold reserves and put more money in circulation. The author stresses that the silver issue was a big turnoff for many of the anti-imperialists who might otherwise have voted for Bryan, and argues that the Democrat's insistence on free silver killed both his 1900 campaign and the country's best chance to strangle imperialism in its cradle. Bryan's alienation of anti-imperialist monetary conservatives demonstrates a point Kinzer will emphasize repeatedly in a final chapter taking the debate over imperialism/interventionism to the almost-present day: that debate never has run parallel to the conventional Democrat-Republican or Left-Right fault lines of American politics.

You can find anti-imperialists, anti-interventionists or "isolationists" in both parties and at both extremes, from conservative Republicans like Herbert Hoover and Robert A. Taft to demagogic populist Democrats like Huey Long, who talked of making repentant imperialist Smedley Butler his secretary of war if he became president. This only makes sense, for the motives behind anti-imperialism were as diverse as those behind U.S. expansionism. For some critics, ruling other countries blatantly contradicted this country's founding principles. For humanitarians, American atrocities in the Philippines were as outrageous, if not more so, than Spanish atrocities. For many others, incorporating colored peoples into the American polity to any extent -- see also the annexation of Hawaii in 1898 -- offended racist sensibilities. In our own time, Kinzer notes, you can find anti-interventionists on both the far left, as might be expected, and on the far right among alleged isolationists like Pat Buchanan or fanatic libertarians like Ron Paul, while an interventionist foreign policy seems to be a hallmark of centrism.  The simplest explanation for all this would be that where one stands on imperialism or interventionism is not a matter of ideology. Kinzer himself implies that interventionist impulses don't really rise to the level of ideology because there isn't really much thought involved in them.

We intervene because we see bad situations, not because we have a clear plan to improve them. At moments of crisis or decision, emotion overcomes sober reasoning -- and emotion is always the enemy of wise statesmanship.

The question then becomes whether the interventionist impulse is something incorrigible in the American character, or a particular strain of American character. Let me suggest that Americans go with their gut so often when they see "bad situations" because of their peculiar commitment to individualism. Americanism, as many Americans see it, teaches that each and every human life is precious. Combine that with the hedonist tendency that has only grown stronger since 1898 and the suffering of one person allegedly caused by political oppression becomes intolerable, as does inaction in the face of that suffering. The traditional utilitarian calculus of the greatest good for the greatest number seems cruel and inhumanly unemotional if it seems to acquiesce in -- or, as now seems inconceivable to many, require -- human suffering anywhere. Fortunately, this mentality is countered by a more conservative emotionalism with enough historical consciousness to realize that intervention can do more harm than good, as well as by an attitude defined less by a lack of emotion than a lack of empathy, honestly indifferent to other nations or other people. Their individualism is less empathetic and definitely not hedonist in character; it's not about guaranteeing life, much less comfort, to every person on world or even in your own country. All these attitudes can turn against interventionism, but there still may be a natural limit to the opposition to American interventionism and the related drive for U.S. hegemony. As Kinzer notes, supporters of the taking the Philippines often argued that those who claimed that one people could not rule another or take another's land really had to repudiate the whole American project from Jamestown forward. No critic of imperialism mentioned by Kinzer accepted that premise; instead of giving it all back to the Indians, they preferred a "go and sin no more" attitude. But I don't know if that really answers the implicit question which, put at a more abstract level, asks whether there can be progress without conquest and coercion. Put that way, it may not be so easy to dismiss the past with the promise that we ain't like that no more, since with progress obviously still to be made there's no guarantee that the future won't force the same choices on us.

21 March 2017

What populism is not

Every so often I get a free sample copy of The Progressive Populist in the mail. It's a biweekly tabloid size compendium of opinion pieces and occasional reporting with a mandate to reconcile two contradictory tendencies in American politics and society. Of course, the extent to which "progressive populist" seems like an oxymoron depends on how you define both populism and progressivsim. For instance, they seem contradictory to me because progressivism, as I understand it, expects or requires everyone to change, while populism, tending to blame elites or minorities for everything wrong, assumes that its own kind don't really need to change at all. Other definitions are possible and inevitable, "populism" being perhaps the vaguest term in political discourse. Needless to say, the proprietors of The Progressive Populist resent any description of the Donald Trump movement as "populist," since the President embodies the opposite of anything "progressive populism" may be presumed to stand for. In the sample issue I received, Max B. Sawicky, an economist and blogger, states bluntly that "Right-wingers cannot be populist," and "There is no right populism, only intolerance." There can be no "right populism," Sawicky explains, because "Populism is about replacing the power of elites with democratic governance in the interests of the 99%." He acknowledges that the original Populist movement of the 19th century looks a lot like "right populism" to some observers who "stigmatized [it] as backward, racist, and prone to money crankery." He further acknowledges that "the old populists certainly did not measure up to contemporary standards of multicultural sensitivity," as they were nativist if not also Christianist (Protestant style) in their sentiments. What can be salvaged from that heritage, Sawicky claims, is a populist economic policy presumably antithetical with Republican pro-wealth policies under Trump. He finds it "interesting to note that the forward edge of radical economic thinking in nineteenth century America was upheld by some of the most culturally conservative Americans." But he never explains why that interests him.

Perhaps Sawicky is trying to say that today's xenophobes or nativists might yet be redeemed if only they shared their ancestors' critique of concentrated wealth. He writes that "populism and Republicans really don't mix" because Republicanism always favors the economic elite. Implicitly, the haters could keep on hating, but as long as they also hated the wealthy (or the hard-core capitalists among them) they could still be populists in good standing. Such an analysis would put Sawicky at odds with those who now see intolerance as the essence of Trump-era Republicanism, as well as those whose first priority remains ending intolerance rather than ending elitism. But Sawicky makes a fundamental error about populism that you may have noticed in the previous paragraph. He wrote that populism's goal is "democratic governance in the interests of the 99%." That, I think, is wrong. You can fudge the numbers as you please, but "democratic governance in the interests of the 51%" is probably closer to the truth about populism.

Liberals have always been uncomfortable with the idea of populism because, no matter how they'd like it to progress, populism remains essentially majoritarian. Certain other things have been consistent in American populism, particularly a desire for easy credit and easy payment terms that would make student debt relief the most populist issue of our time in purely economic terms. But populism is probably best seen as the hard edge of democracy, the demand that the majority, however defined, must have its way with as little resistance as possible. Majoritarianism can target both elites and minorities, the seemingly all-powerful and the seemingly powerless, if either seem to thwart the will of the majority. It also pushes against the Constitution's protections on state or individual rights in the name of pure democracy as a first principle of political life. Populism appears more threatening the more it identifies its implicit majority, the people who are The People, as a distinct people in social (i.e. class) or cultural terms, and the more it sees those outside the implicit majority as inherent enemies. Its goal is not a "99%" consensus of the sort Sawicky idealizes, unless that can be achieved, in extreme circumstances, by some great purge. Arguably, if populism is something that has evolved since the 1890s into something distinct from leftism -- the term is useless if populism and leftism are synonymous -- that may be because populists have come to assume that the implicit majority can't be defined entirely in terms of socioeconomic class. If Sawicky is right that "the most culturally conservative Americans" upheld "the forward edge of radical economic thinking" in the Populist heyday, this distinction between populism and leftism may have existed all along. It may also make a lasting alliance between 21st century populism and 21st century progressivism impossible. But Sawicky's historical note definitely should remind us that conventional left-right polarities don't necessarily help us understand what was going on in 1890, or even what is going on today.

20 March 2017

Jacksonian Trumpism

As part of the continuing effort to find fault with President Trump's every thought, Michael Gerson has identified Andrew Jackson as Trump's favorite president, on the evidence of a wreath 45 recently placed on 7's tomb. Gerson presumes that Trump admires Jackson as a macho proto-populist and the scourge of the establishment of his time. For the columnist, Trump represents the worst of the Jacksonian tradition. Old Hickory's reputation has declined since the 1940s, when Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s bestselling The Age of Jackson portrayed Andy as a precursor of the New Deal and its egalitarian vision for America. In its own time Schlesinger's book was criticized for idealizing or whitewashing Jackson, who self-evidently wasn't an egalitarian by 20th or 21st century standards. Since then, Jackson has come under regular criticism, as Gerson notes, for his cruelty toward blacks and bloodthirstiness toward Native Americans. On top of that, Jackson has also been seen as a precursor of the "imperial presidency." Dubbed King Andrew I by his Whig critics, Jackson developed the idea that the President was the unique representative of the American people as a whole, and claimed an equal right to the Supreme Court's to interpret the Constitution. Gerson passes over these finer points of criticism quickly (noting that Jackson "consistently pressed the bounds of executive authority") in his hurry to define Old Hickory as a hater.

Within the lifetimes of people still living, Andrew Jackson has gone from a role model for the Democratic party to a tar baby with which to besmirch Donald Trump by association. Jackson's status as American hero -- he was sometimes known simply as "The Hero" after the Battle of New Orleans -- has fallen to a revolution in national priorities reflected in Gerson's remark that "the dignity and value of people of color" was "the largest issue" of Jackson's own time. A historian may claim that it was the largest moral issue of the whole antebellum epoch, whether political leaders agreed or not, but it self-evidently was not the largest political issue of the Jacksonian era in the minds of its leading players, despite Gerson's efforts to put Jackson's enemies on the right side of history. He sees Trump's supposed choice of favorite President as a "self-indictment," but he arguably distorts Jackson to make him an evil proto-Trump, defined by a seemingly paradoxical populism that is anti-elitist without being egalitarian. For a historian that is presentism par excellence: judging people of the past by the standards of later times. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was no racist; for much of the 20th century he was a liberal of the liberals, from advising JFK to criticizing George W. Bush. It's probably no accident that he became a critic of "political correctness" late in life. It probably had something to do with seeing people repudiate Andrew Jackson instead of recognizing, as Schlesinger did, the progressive role he played for his own time in the democratization of America. Jackson certainly was wrong on many issues touched on barely or not at all by Gerson, but in what most likely really was the largest political issue of his time, this unrepentant slaveholder stared down fellow southerners who claimed a state's right to nullify national trade policy, despite their claims that federal power thus asserted threatened the peculiar institution itself. If President Trump could see that as a model for dealing with the conservative entrenched interests of our time when they go against the common good, we might be better off encouraging him to be more Jacksonian, not less.

16 March 2017

Don't cry for me, Montenegro

By the standard applied to Senator Warren earlier this year Senator McCain ought to have been silenced or reprimanded for his outburst against Senator Paul yesterday. Paul had blocked debate on a treaty admitting the tiny nation of Montenegro into the NATO alliance, and since all he had to do was register an objection, that's all he did. McCain, his fellow Republican, found this cowardly and insulting, and with Paul gone, he insulted the Kentuckian in a cowardly manner, accusing him of working for Vladimir Putin. This morning, on the Morning Joe show, Paul answered in kind, calling the Arizonan "unhinged" and an argument for term limits.His more substantial argument was that he saw no American security interest in extending NATO protection to the former Yugoslav republic. McCain accuses the Russians of backing an attempted coup d'etat there last fall, perpetrated by members of the country's pro-Russian Serb minority. Russia's supposed interest in Montenegro, as far as I can tell, is that a more friendly government might provide Russia with another naval base on the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Montenegro has been described as the 51st state of the Union by critics who contend that its post-communist privatization mainly benefited American businesses. While Rand Paul, as a libertarian of a sort, presumably has no objection to Americans making money abroad, his commitment to their freedom of action stops when it requires military guarantees.On Morning Joe he asserted quite plausibly that few if any Americans would be willing to risk their lives or spend their resources in Montenegro's offense. At least one panelist, however, felt that Paul had overstepped when he said the same thing about Ukraine. Told that some Americans are willing to fight for Ukrainian sovereignty against Russian aggression, Paul replied that he was okay with people volunteering themselves to fight in foreign countries' defense, but he clearly felt that it wasn't the U.S. government's business. From the perspective of McCain and his fellow neocons, Paul is simply following irresponsibly in the "isolationist" footsteps of his father, if not treacherously providing aid and comfort to that existential threat to American liberty, Putin. Paul, however, seems more committed to an "America First" foreign policy than the "America First" president, who as yet has taken no clear stand on the Montenegro question. Paul, at least, has made a decision that American lives count more than Montenegrin liberty, presuming that the latter is even in danger. You might think a believer in American exceptionalism would also believe that American lives are exceptional, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Those exceptionalists who promote a neocon foreign policy seem to believe that American lives are no more important than Montenegrin lives or liberties -- or the liberties of American businessmen there -- but may be sacrificed for all of those. The "America First" camp is probably more likely to think of the American people as exceptional, but they probably also know better than to assume that they're exceptional among nationalists around the world in that respect. There's still arguments to be made for a more egalitarian and universalist regard for humanity, but exceptionalists like McCain aren't making those arguments. They're arguing for American privilege instead.

15 March 2017

Somebody else's babies

Rep. King of Indiana embarrassed the Republican party and outraged just about everyone to its left a few days ago when he tweeted that "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies." Subsequently King attempted to clarify his position, emphasizing that his concern was with culture, rather than race. He did not object to Americans adopting babies from all over the world, and in fact looked forward to a time when the interbreeding of races would make Americans more homogeneous in appearance and, he hoped, in their culture. At the same time, he insisted that the U.S. had to keep its birth rate up, strongly implying that adoption could not make up for a declining birth rate among culturally sound Americans. His comments disturbed many critics in the Republican party, while criticisms of King disturbed many in the Trump movement and on the so-called alt-right. His concern with American birth rates is reminiscent of Theodore Roosevelt's worries over "race suicide." Teddy also felt that the native stock wasn't replenishing itself fast enough to keep up with the birth rates of the seemingly unassimilable others of his time. It's more disturbing to many to hear such talk more than a century later since it begs the question of whether King thinks American women have an individual duty to breed. But that wasn't what really bothered Republicans about King's recent remarks. Jonathan S. Tobin's column at National Review Online summarizes the critique of King from a self-conscious Right. Tobin considers King's unamended position a betrayal of American exceptionalism.

At the heart of King’s statement is not only a prejudicial mindset but also a profound pessimism about the strength of the values the congressman says he wishes to preserve. The country thrived because those values were not the preserve of a specific ethnic or religious group but could be embraced by anyone regardless of his background or faith. It is not na├»ve to assert that this hasn’t changed even while the skin color of immigrants is darker today than it was in the past. That is the essence of American exceptionalism. To think that only white babies can preserve this legacy is a betrayal of conservative principles that are rooted in faith in the law rather than race.

As noted, King subsequently stated that he did not think virtue depended upon blood. Nevertheless, while Tobin upholds a vision -- not the only one, obviously, -- of American exceptionalism, he rejects a vision of what could be called Islamic exceptionalism. "The fact that some immigrants or their children reject American democratic traditions or embrace violence is certainly discouraging," he writes, "just as it was a century ago when anarchists and violent leftists posed a threat that inspired the same kind of fear we experience today." In other words, Tobin rejects the idea that Islam is essentially incompatible with American values in an exceptional, unprecedented way that makes all comparisons with past nativist outburst irrelevant, arguing instead that all people who have judged any culture incompatible with American values are equally wrong. It would appear that one cannot be both an American exceptionalist and an Islamic exceptionalist in the sense I've just described, since the American exceptionalist admits no possible exception to his rule that people from any cultural background can recognize the appeal of American values and choose them over his native values. What makes America exceptional, presumably, is its uniquely universal appeal, to which no one is inherently immune. But given how many native-born Americans of ancient pioneer stock espouse values incompatible with "American" values as defined by Republicans, the confidence exceptionalists express seems somewhat misplaced. 
Republican criticism of Rep. King exposes a divide within the American right on the subject of culture. King and Tobin might well agree that "multicultralism" as espoused by Democrats and people further to the left isn't good for the country, but while each man presumably champions an "American" culture, it's not clear whether they agree on what that culture is. On the right, there's been an ongoing debate between those who see the U.S. as a "propositional" nation whose "culture" is defined by its founding documents -- the Declaration, Constitution, Federalist papers, etc. -- and those who define the culture in more cultural terms, as a matter of "blood and soil" or as part of a larger, pre-existing culture to which Americans still owe loyalty and to which immigrants must assimilate more thoroughly than the "propositional" proposition may require. This debate has been obscured, to the chagrin of the exceptionalists and "propositional nation" types, by the current imperative to define American civilization negatively as not Islamic, not Hispanic or not something else. But doing that only begs the big question, even as it postpones the answer for a time. At some point, however, people will want to know just what (or who) they're defending from the irreconcilable Other. Is it a culture defined by the Republican party? By the Christian Right? By the longshots in the white nationalist movement? What makes American culture distinctive if not exceptional? It won't do to say "freedom," since just about every culture on earth espouses some vision of freedom -- even the monotheists who see obedience to scripture as freedom from enslavement to self. If it were just "freedom" then no one would dispute the "propositional nation" idea, but once we get past "freedom," once someone suggests that true citizenship means more than simply knowing you're free, it becomes less likely that everyone on the current Right will agree with any one notion of what American culture is. That doesn't mean a consensus isn't possible, but it might take more work and more debate than many people are willing to undertake just now. And that's why King's recent comments made many people uncomfortable. Whether he intended to or not, he raised questions that probably will have to be answered eventually.

13 March 2017

Reet, Preet and Gone

You should be able to tell the difference in the way American right-wingers generally and right-wingers from New York responded to last weekend's news that federal prosecutor Preet Bharara had been asked to resign by the Attorney General, and then fired for refusing to do so. To the rest of the country, it looks like Bharara is just another whiny Democrat, being an Obama appointee, whose foreign name probably makes him all the more contemptible. To New Yorkers, Bharara, born in India of a Sikh father and Hindu mother, Bharara looks more like one of the last truly nonpartisan figures in public life. He owes that reputation to his record of fighting corruption in the New York State Legislature. His investigations led to the fall from power and conviction of Sheldon Silver, the Democratic speaker of the state assembly, and Dean Skelos, the Republican leader of the state senate. More recently his inquiries have penetrated the inner circle of Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, and I heard many people rooting for him to go after the biggest of prizes within his reach, the governor himself. Unfortunately, as a federal prosecutor Bharara serves at the pleasure of the President, and when the White House changes parties spoilsmanship is the customary practice. Bharara was removed in a clean sweep of federal prosecutors that seems to have been more the Attorney General's idea than the President's. Resignations were asked (i.e. demanded) of all of them, and the only reason Bharara kicked was that Donald Trump supposedly had told him last November that he wanted Bharara to stick around after he became President. Automatically it was assumed by partisan observers and others hostile to Trump that the President must have had something to hide, in his public or private capacities, from the relentless prosecutor. The simpler and more likely explanation would be that Trump or Sessions wanted new prosecutors in place, both as customary practice and in order to assure that they'd all be on the same page as the administration. I don't know to what extent the White House can tell these prosecutors whom or what to prosecute, but I'd assume they wanted zero possibility of resistance or obstruction and considered every Obama appointee suspect, even one of Bharara's honorable reputation. It's unlikely, however, that this is the last we'll hear of Preet Bharara. He'll certainly be in demand as a talking head on TV, and his inevitable memoir will be in demand from publishers. While his foreign birth disqualifies him from the presidency, his influence over New York State politics may not be at an end. It might be fitting for his next public role to be that of the Empire State's attorney general, if not its governor. He could be the next Thomas Dewey, the next Rudy Giuliani or -- one really hopes not in this case -- the next Eliot Spitzer. New York loves its prosecutors, but they don't always justify that love.