Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Trump, Meet Mr. Godwin, or Mr. Pot, You Must Know Mr. Kettle

Watching our president-elect compare our intelligence agencies to Nazis on Twitter and at yesterday's press conference must have produced feelings of vertigo in many observers across the political spectrum. It is not unprecedented for presidents to come to loggerheads with the intelligence community, but for our elected executive to go full Godwin nine days before being sworn in must set a new record for speed of descent. The only thing more dizzying than the event itself has been the cloud of commentary surrounding it, especially from those who have risen in the president-elect's defense.

It is true that the privately produced dossier leaked by Buzzfeed that occasioned Mr. Trump's remarks is an ethically and journalistically dubious document. But, after he campaigned on the "facts" that Senator Cruz's father had assisted in the assassination of JFK, or that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims had celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11, or that "millions of people" voted illegally on November 8, et cetera, anyone who could listen to Mr. Trump declare that "it's a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public" without feeling some degree of nausea has a seriously skewed sense of plausibility.

This is not meant to excuse Buzzfeed or the media more generally by appeal to some perverse notion that two wrongs make a right. But however ill-used Mr. Trump may have been in the recent media fracas, little can change the fact that he came to the table already sorely bereft of the moral authority necessary to respond to the situation, and proceeded to make matters worse in his usual fashion. A politician who had, in all other ways, behaved in impeccably statesmanlike manner, who then compared the intelligence services to Nazis in the face of this crisis would lose all credibility in the eyes of the public and the political establishment. That otherwise serious commentators feel enabled to defend Donald Trump in this instance arises only from the fact that we have been conditioned to expect so little from Trump through long exposure, and that is a problem.

Presidents routinely come under gratuitous, libelous, and insulting attack, and are occasionally compelled to respond. President-elect Trump has so debased his own public persona and so squandered his own credibility that he comes into office completely destitute of the type of political capital needed to defend the dignity and standing of his office in the usual manner. Moreover, with each new crisis he digs the hole in which he is trapped even deeper. The contrast between his response (for example) to libelous attacks on Ted Cruz ("you can't knock the Enquirer") and on himself ("are we living in Nazi Germany?") reinforces the by now deeply-ingrained impression that nothing matters to Donald Trump apart from his own interests and position. To compare your own momentary discomfort to the worst genocide in history, especially when it arises from practices in which you yourself have frequently indulged, is to declare to the world, "For me, nothing is sacred....apart from myself."

Those of us who have opposed Donald Trump are looking forward to four years of pleas and accusations centered on the general theme of "giving him a chance." While it is true that he is the President-elect of the United States, and that to be a patriotic citizen requires that we all give Donald Trump a "chance" to succeed in office, we should be clear about what such a chance entails. Mr. Trump comes into office under a cloud of disrepute of his own making. He has profaned the principles on which our Republic is founded and forsworn the trust of the electorate he is charged to govern. He labors under an onus of redemption, and unless and until he atones for his many political transgressions by dint of long effort and restraint, he can not expect to receive any normal level of respect or deference from anyone, much less from his political opposition.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Of Strait Talk and Dangerous Bluster

You cannot truly understand cross-strait relations between Beijing and Taipei until you have visited the Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) Memorial Hall on Taiwan. The monument is dedicated to the Nationalist president of China who fled to Taiwan after being defeated by Communist rebels in 1949, and is one of the most magnificent structures of its kind in the world. It consists of an enormous white marble ziggurat topped by a blue-ceramic-tiled octagonal roof, set in a beautiful 120-hectare garden entered through temple-style gateways. The Hall stands 70 meters tall and contains a 21.25 metric ton bronze image of Chiang himself. The elegance, beauty, and sheer size of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial dwarf the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., or indeed any of the architectural tributes to past American leaders.

To anyone familiar with the modern history of China and Taiwan, the splendor of the CKS Memorial cannot help but evoke a feeling of dissonance. Though Chiang's legacy will no doubt be hotly debated for many years to come, there can be little question that he was by any terms a deeply ambivalent figure in the broad terrain of Chinese politics. If nothing else, his having been defeated and driven into exile would make the raising of such a grand structure in his memory smack of "the government doth protest too much." An equivalence here in the U.S. might be if the single commemorative structure on the National Mall as large as all others combined were dedicated to Richard Nixon.

This overcompensation is explained by the particular career of Chiang and his Nationalist (Guomindang or GMD) Party on Taiwan. When Chiang first became President on mainland China Taiwan was a Japanese colony, having been ceded to Japan by the Qing Empire at the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War in 1895. Taiwan was repatriated to China at the end of World War II. The military governor dispatched to Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek was so corrupt and oppressive that on February 27, 1947, the Taiwanese rose up in rebellion and declared themselves an independent Republic. On February 28 Chiang ordered military forces to respond with horrific brutality, eventually killing as many as 30,000 people, including an entire generation of Taiwanese artists and intellectuals.

Repression continued after the remnants of the Nationalist party and its military took refuge on Taiwan in 1949. Until 1987 the island was kept under martial law, in thrall to a system that concentrated economic and political power in the hands of mainland emigres and afforded native-born Taiwanese only token participation in the management of their own affairs. The CKS Memorial is a relic of that history. It strives to sanitize and beautify early Nationalist rule of Taiwan, as if the sins of history and the inequities of the political economy could be redressed in art and architecture. Only a regime as insecure as that of the Nationalist Party on Taiwan could have deemed the scale and magnificence of the Memorial as plausible or necessary.

 Today conditions on Taiwan are very different. During the "Taiwan miracle" of the 1980's and 1990's, the Taiwanese economy prospered with the development of new high-tech industries, and the government gradually transitioned from a single-party autocracy into a vibrant participatory democracy. But the passions and resentments of past injustices linger.

When I was a student on Taiwan in 1990, during the first administration of a native-born Taiwanese leader on the island, President Lee Teng-hui (a GMD partisan), Taiwanese citizens and leaders were in the early stages of organizing and militating for expanded political freedoms. That winter Huang Hua, a leader of the Democratic Progressive Party (or DPP, founded in 1986) declared "Long live the Republic of Taiwan" at the funeral of a colleague. Such an utterance was made in defiance of both the "one China" principle of Beijing and the official stance of the Taipei government, which to this day still deems itself that of the "Republic of China." Then as now, many DPP members felt strongly that Taiwan should and must be its own nation- that decades and centuries of mainland exploitation had nullified any bonds of kinship between Taiwan and China, and that in any case the ethnic, linguistic (most people on Taiwan are most comfortable speaking Taiwanese, a Sinic language as distinct from Mandarin Chinese as French is from Spanish), and historical characteristics of the Taiwanese people constitute a nationality unique and distinct from that of the Chinese.

The attendees at the funeral were arrested, and DPP partisans descended on Taipei to protest. The natural site for such a demonstration was the CKS Memorial, symbol of mainland oppression. A friend and I went to the south gate of the Memorial, where the demonstration had been planned to convene. Police had forced the protesters to disperse, and the DPP had organized light trucks to ferry people from the south gate of the Memorial to the west gate, where a protest site had been erected before police could be notified of the change. As my friend and I climbed on board one of the trucks a DPP organizer leaned out on the sideboard and waved at us, shouting in English, "Long live the Republic of Taiwan!"

Multiple free and direct elections for the legislature and presidency have been held on Taiwan since that time, and the current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is a member of the DPP. She is the second DPP partisan to hold the post. The first, Chen Shui-bian, briefly renamed the CKS Memorial the "National Taiwan Democracy Memorial Hall," infuriating Beijing. It reverted to being the CKS Memorial when the GMD regained power after Chen Shui-bian's second term. Though not all DPP partisans favor Taiwanese independence, there is still a strong faction in President Tsai Ing-wen's party that fervently supports Taiwanese nationhood, and is prepared to pursue that goal at any cost, even war with mainland China.

Unfortunately, though the people of Taiwan have every reason to desire and even expect independence, any formal change in the status of Taiwan to an independent nation would most certainly result in a cataclysmic conflict across the Taiwan Strait. The reasons for this state of affairs are rooted in the history of Chinese nationalism.

Nationalism is, relatively speaking, a very novel force in Chinese cultural history. From 221 B.C.E. to 1911 the Chinese people lived under a succession of imperial dynastic regimes that claimed unbounded and universal dominion. In practice and in theory this meant that all Chinese empires (including those led by non-Chinese houses, like the Manchu Qing dynasty of 1644-1911) assumed that there were gradations of allegiance among their subjects. When, for example, the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1735-1796) wrote an edict to King George III of England commanding him to "tremblingly obey"; Qianlong understood that the British monarch was his subject to a lesser degree than the King of Korea (who sent tribute missions acknowledging the suzerainty of the Qing "Son of Heaven" every three years), who was in turn a Qing subject to a lesser degree than the people of Beijing or Hangzhou.

This norm for conceiving of "China" as a political community changed only gradually over the course of the late 19th century, as faith in and support for venerable imperial institutions was eroded by an escalating series of (retroactively named) "national humiliations 国耻 (the Opium War, the Taiping Rebellion, the Arrow War, the Sino-French War, the Sino-Japanese War, the Boxer Uprising, etc.)" inflicted on the Qing dynasty by enemies foreign and domestic. By 1903 an 18-year old writer named Zou Rong (1885-1905) was able to galvanize a movement to overthrow the Empire with his tract, The Revolutionary Army, in which he enjoined "You 400 millions of the great Han race, my fellow countrymen, whether man or woman, aged or elderly, in the prime of life, young or child, carry out this revolution (page 126)." This group of "400 million countrymen" was a radical new vision in Chinese politics, an all-or-nothing proposition unlike the traditional imperial concept that variably deemed George III and the King of Korea Qing subjects as a matter of degree.

Of all the "national humiliations" that had created this fissure in Chinese political traditions, the cession of Taiwan to Japan in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (signed in 1895) was arguably the most traumatic and significant. It was not only the largest outright surrender of territory to a foreign power (most other territorial concessions had involved the granting of special rights or powers to foreign governments while still retaining de jure Chinese sovereignty), but entailed the transfer of 2.5 million Chinese subjects to the control of Japan (by contrast, the island of Hong Kong had 7,450 residents when it had been surrendered to the British at the end of the Opium War). For the Qing rulers, operating under traditional concepts of imperial allegiance, Taiwan was not integrally enough tied into their empire to constitute a "core interest." It had only been made a province after the defeat of diehard Ming (1368-1644)  loyalists in 1683, and was inhabited by a mixture of unintelligible southerners and strange aboriginal peoples. Thus, to Qing leaders, surrendering sovereignty over Taiwan was only incrementally more significant than surrendering suzerainty over Korea (the core issue over which the war with Japan had been fought).

For educated Chinese, who by 1895 had increasingly been exposed to the nationalist ideas becoming prevalent in industrialized societies, the Qing willingness to surrender Taiwan was shocking.  Before the cession of Taiwan, support for the Qing among Chinese literati was still fairly robust. Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) himself, the eventual leader of the 1911 revolution that would ultimately overthrow the Qing, petitioned to be employed by the Manchu monarch in 1893. After Taiwan was surrendered to Japan, not only the Manchu Qing dynasty, but the whole imperial edifice and ideology upon which it rested, were cast into irredeemable disrepute. This is reflected in the message of Zou Rong's Revolutionary Army. In an attempt to goad and shame his readers into a new perspective, he writes:

Buttonhole a man and tell him: "Your father is not your real father, he is so-and-so." He will undoubtedly jump up furiously and go into the truth of the allegation before the matter is settled. Again, there is a family, with father and son, husband and wife and brothers all living peacefully together. Suddenly ruffians descend on the house, property is seized, and the household enslaved. The whole family will fight to the death to get back their possessions before the incident is settled. As for saying to anyone that he has two fathers and he not getting angry, or the property of a family being stolen without a fight, such people are more dead than alive, mere stiff carcasses and whitened bones. I am particularly amazed that my fellow countrymen will put up with things as a nation which they would not as individuals, they will put up with things as a nation which they would not as a family...The people of Hong Kong set up a memorial to Queen Victoria, with the words: "Her virtue was in harmony with heaven and earth." The people of Taiwan sang the merits of the Meiji Emperor (of Japan) with the words: "His virtue is far-reaching and his magnanimity great."...Because people are not clear about the distinction between their own race and alien races, men act as brigands and women as whores; they shame their ancestors and defile their clans: what else would you expect? (pages 108-9)

When Zou expressed amazement at what his fellow Chinese will put up with "as a nation" he was in fact presenting them with a radically new way of thinking about political identity. If they really thought of and behaved themselves as "a nation," he implicitly asserted, they would not stand for the cession of Hong Kong or Taiwan, but (like the family in his microcosmic example) "fight to the death" to retain their "property." The powerful appeal of this vision was vouchsafed by the final and total collapse of the more than two-millennia old empire eight years after the publication of Zou's manifesto.

This nationalistic paradigm has had a tumultuous career over the last century in China, but through all the vagaries of Chinese politics it has remained a dynamically vital force and driver of historical events. If there has been a significant change, it is that where Zou's intense sentiments were novel and relatively radical in 1903, today they are ubiquitous and virtually hegemonic. The concept of "national humiliation" that Zou employed in such extravagantly polemical fashion has become an ordinary and enumerable touchstone of identity among Chinese citizens today, as intuitively integral to their understanding of their own past as the enormity of "taxation without representation" is to Americans' understanding of theirs.

The status of Taiwan is thus an exquisitely sensitive flashpoint in the collective consciousness of the people of mainland China. Though it is difficult to obtain accurate polling data about political attitudes in China, any survey will show that passions run high on this issue. In a web survey of Chinese public opinion conducted by the Global Times this past April, 97% of respondents considered Taiwan "an inseparable part of China" and 85% favored military action to achieve "reunification." A survey of the general public and "policy elites" done by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2013 showed similar patterns:

One survey question asked Chinese respondents what they saw as the most likely source of conflict between China and the United States in the next two to three years. One American elite expressed surprise that even though the question focused on such a short time horizon, most respondents still identified Taiwan, despite the positive state of cross-strait relations at present and the fact that the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party, which favors eventual reunification with the Chinese mainland, is in power...One Chinese elite emphasized that the finding shows how seriously the Chinese people take the Taiwan issue. Another Chinese discussant speculated that the percentage of Chinese identifying Taiwan as the most likely source of conflict may have been even higher had this survey been done when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party was in power in the early to mid-2000s.

Now that President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party is indeed back in power, tensions surrounding this issue are even higher than they were when the survey was conducted in 2013. What American "elites" do not seem to understand is that the larger culture of Chinese nationalism makes any potential change to the sovereign status of Taiwan an existential threat to the CCP regime in Beijing. A Taiwanese declaration of independence would, in the mind of China's people, be a re-enactment of the great "national humiliation" of 1895. Any government that tolerated such a crime would be as de-legitimized in the eyes of more than a billion Chinese citizens as the Qing imperial court had been in the eyes of Zou Rong back in 1903. Any move by Taipei toward independence would face Beijing with the stark choice between an external war that could quickly internationalize and internal unrest that would undoubtedly make the Tiananmen Square movement of 1989 pale by comparison. These condition, moreover, would not likely change even if we saw a radical revolution in the Chinese political system. If a democratically elected government arose in Beijing one day and Taipei declared independence the next, by day three the new government in Beijing would declare Taiwan in rebellion and launch an attack, or risk falling in turn to another popular uprising.

All of the problems arising from these deep-seated nationalist passions are exacerbated for the present regime in Beijing by its unique liabilities. The radical centralization of the People's Republic and the natural urge of regional interests to seek more administrative and (especially) fiscal autonomy makes the example of Taiwan an especially dangerous one. Beyond this, the lingering aspirations for democratic governance that found brief expression in 1989 are perilously exacerbated by the example of Taiwan's vibrant multi-party democracy operating just off China's southeast coast. For the leadership in Beijing, Taiwan is like a cobra that the Chinese Communist Party is forced to share its bed with, and much institutional focus and energy must constantly be expended to prevent that proximity from becoming fatal.

All of this is to say that President-elect Trump's recent declaration that the U.S. does not "have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade," expresses a profound misunderstanding of this issue and its impact on Sino-U.S. relations. For four decades the United States has cultivated a deliberate posture of "strategic ambiguity," to prevent Beijing from launching an attack on Taiwan for fear that we will militarily oppose an unprovoked invasion, while at the same time preventing Taiwan from declaring independence for fear that we will not defend them if they provoke Beijing by seceding. To abandon this fragile homeostasis in search of advantages in commercial or monetary policy is the equivalent of lighting your neighbor's house on fire in the attempt to get a better price for her used car. Such a move would only impel her to forget the sale of her car altogether and do anything and everything to prevent you from committing arson on her house ever again.

Beijing has little room to maneuver on this issue and even less desire to be forced to do so. CCP leaders understand the origins and potency of pro-independence feelings on Taiwan, but understanding such feelings only increases Beijing's perception of their lethal danger. Taiwanese nationalists bravely scoff at the mainland's fury, but no amount of contempt will make that fury any less tragically certain or destructive. The best that Mr. Trump can hope for with his reckless bluster is to destroy his credibility in Beijing, and most likely in Taipei too, because he has already telegraphed his intention to throw Taiwan under the bus in exchange for concessions from China. From there the possibilities become progressively darker, depending on how far Mr. Trump is willing to let the situation roll downhill. If the President-elect insists on calling Beijing's bluff he will quickly find that they are not bluffing. Given how little encouragement the pro-independence forces will need on Taiwan, and how little provocation Beijing is prepared to tolerate (they have passed laws authorizing military force for the mere suggestion of an intention to secede, much less a legal declaration of independence), enough irresponsible rhetoric from Washington could easily lead to a show of force that might quickly spiral out of control. For the sake of world peace we must all hope that Mr. Trump gains wisdom quickly in his conduct of Sino-U.S. relations or, failing that, that wiser heads than his prevail in crafting American policy in the Taiwan Strait.

Sunday, December 04, 2016

#Clownarchy Calling

The moment I realized just how dangerous a Trump presidency could be came back in March, when I watched  a town hall meeting with the prospective GOP nominee moderated by Chris Matthews. In response to a question about reproductive rights, Matthews and Trump fell into a long exchange about the mechanics of a ban on abortion, with Matthews pressing Trump on the issue of how such a ban would be enforced. After several attempts to deflect or dodge the question, Trump finally declared, "The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment."

What alarmed me was not the illiberal principles underlying this pronouncement, but the look on Trump's face as he made it.  He looked as if, reluctant as he was to be pinned down on a politically sensitive issue, he was nonetheless sensible of delivering the wisdom of Solomon. His tone said, "Here comes the straight shooter again. Watch and learn, America. This is how it is done."

Only someone who was blissfully and totally ignorant of the state of debate concerning reproductive rights could have projected that air of self-satisfaction. Looking at him in that moment, one could see that the howls of protest that would arise from Republicans across the ideological spectrum, even among his most ardent supporters, would come as a total surprise to Mr. Trump. He had no idea that he had just demolished a carefully cultivated rhetorical position (the insistence that an abortion ban would NOT requires sanctions against women) that "pro-life" advocates had spent years building and defending.

This is the peril posed by the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump is not merely ignorant. His ignorance extends to a complete incomprehension of just how ignorant he is. He in fact knows so little that he is insensible to the danger of just how little he knows.

This problem has been on display since his ascent to the position of President-elect. Whether he is equating the loss of citizenship with a year's incarceration or alleging millions of illegally cast votes without proof, Trump does not seem to have the slightest understanding of how his pronouncements will be perceived or the potential damage they may do to his credibility. His supporters might view such antics as "bold," but for them to truly be bold there would have to be some evidence that Trump understands that they entail risk, and such evidence is missing. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, those risks are real.

The most alarming example thus far has been Trump's congratulatory phone call with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. This was an enormous breach of the protocols of "strategic ambiguity" that have been the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Taiwan Strait for more than four decades. The Strait is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world, surpassing even the DMZ of the Korean Peninsula. Though formally a province of China, since the flight of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government to the island at the close of China's civil war in 1949, Taiwan has had its own president, legislature, constitution, and judiciary. Moreover, there is a large faction in Taiwanese politics that resents mainland exploitation of Taiwan (which began long before 1949) and who would seek a break from China at all costs.

At the same time, the citizens of the People's Republic of China on the mainland harbor deep and painful grievances over European, American, and Japanese imperial aggression against their homeland, the history of which includes the forced cession of Taiwan to Japan as a colony in 1895. Any formal declaration of independence by Taiwan would thus be met with massive popular unrest on mainland China to rival the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989. No government in Beijing, even one that had been democratically elected, could survive the political firestorm that would follow a Taiwanese declaration of independence.

It has thus been the policy of the United States to keep the peace through a diplomatic balancing act calibrated to maintain the status quo. On the one hand, our government concedes that there is only "one China" and that Taiwan is a part of it. There can thus be no "President of Taiwan," as the island is not sovereign. On the other hand, we maintain close informal relations with Taiwan (through the office of a "trade consul") and provide the Taiwanese military with billions of dollars of advanced military hardware, to dissuade the mainland government from trying to settle the conflict militarily.

This homeostasis has been maintained by every president, Democrat and Republican, for more than  forty years. Donald Trump's decision to not only receive a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen but to then tweet his thanks to "the President of Taiwan" is thus an unprecedented move for a president-elect. Politicians and commentators may debate the wisdom of this maneuver (I personally find it incredibly foolhardy), but no one can deny that this is an enormously consequential and risky shift in our foreign policy. If the President-elect did not mean it to be read that way, he did not understand what was at stake. If he did intend some significant statement, his choice of the telephone and Twitter as the media with which to make it (and the tenure of his sitting predecessor as the time to do so) were unthinkingly irresponsible. Either way, this latest gaffe is another in a long string of signs that Mr. Trump does not understand the role of the President or what is at stake in its conduct.

With Mr. Trump we are quickly entering terra incognita in the history of the modern presidency. The response of the Chinese government to this latest provocation reveals a trajectory for our future path. In a face-saving maneuver, they have blamed the incident on Taiwanese "trickery." While this preserves Sino-U.S. amity, it likewise reduces Mr. Trump to the status of an ignorant dupe. This is the inevitable direction in which Trump's presidency will evolve: as more actors cannot or will not take his words or deeds seriously, his persona will progressively transmute  into that of a clown, and the Presidency from a sovereign Executive into a #Clownarchy.

Confucius taught that, "If one conquers oneself and returns to ritual for a single day, the world will return to humaneness (Analects 12.1)." This is a profound insight into the universal nature of civil authority. Civil power relies on the regularity, predictability, and dignity of ritual and protocol. Though personal dynamism and charisma can be effective in performing a role like President of the United States, those assets will be counterproductive if one is unable to subordinate one's own selfish idiosyncrasies to the essential ceremonial parameters of the office. There are occasions when a civil official must simply do and say what protocol demands, a necessity that all of our presidents have acknowledged and successfully fulfilled to varying degrees.  Mr. Trump does not have the ability to recognize what those occasions are or even the shallowest knowledge of what the ceremonial aspects of his office entail. More perilously than that, he does not recognize that this is a problem. The whole world may suffer as a consequence.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The South (or the North, or the West...) Will Rise Again, and Again, and Again: Viewing the Electoral College from the Perspective of Chinese History

On July 20, 1842, during the Opium War, British soldiers and warships captured the garrison town of Zhenjiang, at the juncture of the Yangzi River and the Grand Canal in the Qing Empire's Jiangsu Province. When news reached the Daoguang Emperor (r. 1821-1850) in Beijing, he authorized his emissaries to treat for peace. Though Qing resistance up to that point had been robust, the capture of Zhenjiang gave the British control of a fatal fracture point in the larger imperial edifice.

With the Grand Canal blocked, little tax revenue could flow from the southern reaches of the empire to the capital. Two-thirds of the population of the Qing empire lived south of the Yangzi, and the economic disparity south-to-north was even greater than the demographic one. The per capita GDP of the agriculturally and commercially rich southern Jiangnan region was nearly twice that of more arid, sparsely populated northern districts like Qinghai and Gansu. The revenue system of the Qing, which drew tax receipts into the capital on the North China Plain, served as a wealth-transfer mechanism from the wealthy south to the impoverished north. Disrupting that flow for any length of time could  cause the precarious social contract holding the empire together to unravel.

In the wake of the Opium War the worst fears of the Qing government were realized. In Guangzhou (Canton) in 1837, the young scion of a southern gentry family, Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864) had for the second time sat for and failed the imperial exams that were  the surest route to political, economic and social success. The pass rates on the exams were extraordinarily low throughout the empire, but the odds were made even worse for southerners like Hong by the imposition of quotas favoring candidates from disadvantaged northern regions. His rage and frustration at this second failure induced a nervous collapse: he fell into a feverish state in which he had prophetic visions. After the Opium War he came to understand these visions as a divine calling and began to gather followers. The movement that he began eventually threw the Qing Empire into civil war, with large parts of southern China breaking away to form the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom from 1850 to 1864. Unity was only restored after conflict that left as many as 20 million people dead and the economy of the empire shattered.

The Taiping Rebellion is only one (though admittedly among the worst)  of the many instances of cataclysmic breakdown experienced within the Chinese empire over the 2+ millenia of its history that were, in part, induced by inter-regional tensions and conflicts. Successive imperial regimes struggled to hold together an expansive domain throughout which social and economic capital were unevenly distributed. Though Chinese leaders developed and maintained redistributive mechanisms to offset regional disparities (for example, the quotas favoring northern candidates in the imperial exams), these were not generally elastic and responsive enough to relieve the persistent centrifugal forces driving the component regions of the empire apart. The problem, moreover, remains an urgent concern today, as attested by the recent unrest over Beijing's refusal to allow two secessionist legislators to be sworn in as members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.

This history poses lessons for those of us contemplating the issue of the Electoral College in the wake of the most recent election. Not only has the Electoral College subverted the results of the popular vote for the second time in less than twenty years, but the 2016 race has yielded an unprecedented disparity between popular and electoral vote outcomes. At this writing, Hillary Clinton leads by 1.7 million votes in the popular tally (a 2.7% lead) and is down by 58 Electoral College votes (a 20% deficit). That the relative differential between the two vote tallies should be so wide understandably creates a sense of profound unfairness- the impression that the democratic will of the people has been effaced by an arcane institution.

Though there will be renewed calls for the abolition of the Electoral College, the historical experience of China should give us pause to wonder at the wisdom of such a course. Like China, the United States is a vast and diverse domain in which social and economic capital are unevenly distributed and the interests of different groups vary widely from region to region. The most recent election has starkly highlighted the regional tensions straining our social fabric, with voters in the industrial Midwest and rural Appalachia mobilizing to deliver an electoral result that radically undermined conventional expectations. Donald Trump would not have won this election unless poor and working class voters in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin had defected from the Democratic Party in favor of his disruptive campaign, and that movement would not have resulted in a Trump victory absent the auspices of the Electoral College.

This being the case, as predictably as there is and will remain pressure to dismantle the Electoral College, there will be strong resistance to any campaign in this direction. To understand why, it is useful to contemplate what a presidential campaign would look like if such contests were decided purely by the popular vote. Candidates would focus almost entirely on the densely populated coasts to the exclusion of the interior, and on urban centers to the exclusion of more sparsely settled rural districts. By giving disproportionate leverage to more rural and sparsely populated states, the Electoral College forces candidates to wage truly national campaigns and to float policies that can win the votes of more marginalized citizens.

The 2016 election provides an object lesson in these redistributive dynamics. At this writing, Hillary Clinton leads the popular vote tally in California by 2.5 million votes. Thus if one eliminates California's total from the national tally, Donald Trump wins the national popular vote by 800,000 votes. This is a reflection of the fact that the Electoral College weights the popular vote of smaller and less densely populated states heavily, such that a vote cast in West Virginia is worth three times that of a vote cast in California. While that disparity might seem strangely arbitrary, to citizens in West Virginia, which has a per capita GDP of $38,567, it no doubt feels very fair that their votes should count more than those of their compatriots in California, who enjoy a per capita GDP of $61,924. In light of these facts we can see that in the 2016 election, the system as currently constituted has (or at least will be perceived as having) delivered a shocking victory to rural and industrial working-class voters over coastal elites; one that they would never have achieved in the absence of the Electoral College. For this reason, any move to eliminate this institution will be perceived as an attempt at the kind of "rigging" so loudly decried by the more acrimonious rhetoric of the recent campaign.

As votes continue to be counted and Hillary Clinton's lead in the popular vote widens, anger at the mechanics of the Electoral College will no doubt increase. In contemplating the situation, however, we must clearly understand that the elimination of the Electoral College cannot be taken for granted as an obvious "fix" to a quaintly arcane and obsolete institution. Reversion to the popular vote to decide presidential elections is and would be a drastically radical change to our larger social contract, one that materially impacts the interests of millions of citizens and significantly redistributes power across the political terrain. There are good philosophical arguments to be made against the "unfairness" of the Electoral College, but the historical experience of China demonstrates that there are likewise good practical and even ethical arguments on the other side of the issue. We must acknowledge and account for all of the consequences of changing the current system as we debate the issue moving forward, and undertake any such discussion in a spirit of extreme sensitivity to the interests of all groups that would be affected by any reform.



Thursday, November 17, 2016

#NotNormal

The last election leaves the majority of voters facing grave alternatives in responding to the election of Donald Trump. One understandable reaction has been to deny his legitimacy as president-elect altogether, as expressed by the slogan #NotmyPresident. Though there are valid political and moral arguments to support such a stance, it is, as I have written in previous posts, very unwise. We have now been through a series of presidential elections the outcomes of which have been decried as illegitimate by different sectors of the electorate. If this trend continues there is a strong possibility that it will eventually be impossible to convince a critical mass of the populace that the president wields legitimate authority at all, and the system will finally collapse.

This does not mean, however, that we are forced to simply accept the results of the most recent election fatalistically. Trump's transgressions and provocations demand resistance. Thus it is incumbent upon those who recognize the threat that Trump represents to find an idiom of resistance that will produce constructive results. In this regard, it is possible for us to accede to Trump's legitimacy as POTUS but to deny him the power to normalize the aberrant political values and practices that have come to embody "Trumpism."

Such resistance, begins, of course, with the defense of basic constitutional safeguards. If Trump should try to institute genuinely illiberal policies (for example, a mandate that Muslim-Americans register in a special database) opposition must be total and unequivocal: noncompliance and civil disobedience are the only response. But resistance should not and cannot await such blatant provocations. We must begin by opposing subtle shifts in values and practices that, even if Trump should refrain from material assaults on civil rights, would corrode the austerity, credibility, and coherence of our basic institutions. 

Trump's appointment of Stephen Bannon to the post of "chief strategist" exemplifies such a shift in standards. Bannon has (or does a credible job of pretending to have) a substantial world view, one that has elements that will appeal to working class voters and even to some progressive activists. But as editor of Breibart News, Bannon has associated with and given encouragement to some of the most toxic elements at the margins of American politics. The excuses he makes for the presence of anti-Semites, racists, homophobes and misogynists among his colleagues can only seem plausible and reassuring to someone who is not directly threatened by such figures. Moreover for someone who approved the publication of headlines such as "Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive And Crazy," "Hoist It High And Proud: The Confederate Flag Proclaims A Glorious Heritage," "The Gun Control Movement's Human Shield" (about former Representative Gabby Giffords), and "Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew" to seek broad mainstream acceptance would have been unthinkable even a few weeks or months ago, much less an official position inside the house of Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. No conscientious citizen should treat the presence of Bannon in the White House as tolerable, and we must exert relentless pressure on the Trump administration to repudiate him. This is not a call for petty "political correctness," but a defense of the fundamental standards of civic decency and fairness.

Even if we can prevent Trump from warping the gauge of civic virtue, the alteration that he has induced in the climate of political rhetoric will be difficult to redress. When President Obama declared that Mr. Trump was "unfit for office" many of us were (and still are) inclined to agree. But it cannot foster broad confidence in our institutions when, in the conventional course of the "peaceful transfer of power," voters see the same President that had declared Mr. Trump "unfit" reassure them that their future was secure in the new President-elect's hands.  This, moreover, is just an inkling of what we may have in store. When Trump declared his opponent the "most corrupt person ever to run for president" and President Obama the "founder of ISIS" he was a private citizen. When he runs for re-election, what might Mr. Trump say as POTUS, and how completely will it undermine his  credibility when it comes his turn to relinquish power?

We are compelled to concede that Donald J. Trump is legitimately President-elect of the United States. But we are not compelled to admit that any aspect of the values or practices he brings to that office are proper, tolerable or fair. As citizens we have to vigilantly observe Mr. Trump's conduct and ideals, and by word and deed we must make clear that his breaches of procedure, decorum, and decency are #NotNormal, and never will be. 




Monday, November 14, 2016

An Open Letter to President-elect Trump and His Supporters

To President-elect Donald J. Trump and My Fellow Americans Who Voted for Him:

         I write to you out of a concern for the country that we all love. The contest on November 8th was free and fair, and in any ordinary election year it would only be left to congratulate the winner, allow the transition team to work, and await January 20th. This is not an ordinary election year, however.

         Mr. Trump, I wish that I could congratulate you, but the manner in which you conducted your campaign precludes me from doing so. You are the first modern president-elect to have joked about killing journalists. Or to have toyed with the idea of forcing people to enter a special registry because of their religion. Or to have waxed nostalgic about "the good old days" when dissent was met with bludgeoning. Or to have declared a member of the judiciary incompetent to serve because of his ethnicity. Or to have threatened to have citizens' marriages declared invalid. With these and other inflammatory statements you excited the enthusiasm of one-half of the electorate, but in so doing you completely forfeited the trust of the other half. Your defenders might protest that these statements were only bluster, but now that they are the words of the future President of the United States, no one who might be affected by them can view them as amusing or benign. You have squandered the confidence that you will need from the people you hope to govern, and as a result the whole constitutional edifice in which you are about to play a key role is endangered.

        You have expressed skepticism of or derision for the many who have taken to the streets to protest since your election. This is a serious mistake; the fears and concerns of those protesters are undeniably legitimate. Secretary Clinton was right to say that her supporters owe you an "open mind," but the insistent calls of the protesters for fair treatment are the best response that one can expect from an open-minded citizen given the tone of your campaign and the nature of your provocations.

         In all honesty, Mr. Trump, because I have been a lifelong Democrat and oppose many of your stated policy goals, under the best circumstances the most you could have hoped for from me was a posture of "loyal opposition." As things stand, however, we are a long way from the best circumstances. Though I accede the legitimacy of your election and revere the office that you will hold, I cannot offer you the normal deference a citizen owes his or her President before you repudiate the bigotry and illiberality that was the hallmark of your campaign. Unless and until I have been given reason to believe that you will fulfill your constitutional role in good faith, without injury to the rights and freedoms of the groups that you threatened (Muslims, women, Latin@s, people of color, LGBTQ citizens) I must add my voice to the protesters now decrying your election.

        Though, in fairness, you have made some statements that were reassuring, they have not been enough. Your thanking of Secretary Clinton for her service and your televised call for your supporters to refrain from expressions of hatred both showed the proper spirit of reconciliation. But in the same way that you galvanized your supporters during the campaign with audacious gestures, you must find some dramatic signal of your determination to win back the trust of those you have alienated.

         In this regard you have gotten off to a bad start. Your appointment of Stephen Bannon, a man steeped in white supremacist, ethnic nationalist, and anti-Semitic politics, completely undermines the confidence of those you need to win over. A reversal of that decision would go a long way to establishing trust. Beyond this, some political sign of your determination to forge an independent path might force people to reassess their impression of you. If, for example, you were to recommend the confirmation of Merrick Garland as a Supreme Court Justice during the lame-duck session of Congress, this would project a willingness for fair compromise that might ease your opponents' fears.

       To my fellow Americans who voted for Donald Trump, I offer my unreserved congratulations. Your civic activism has garnered an historic and transformative victory, your feelings no doubt resemble my own in 2008 and 2012. I would only ask that you, like President-elect Trump, give serious consideration to the apprehensions of voters like me that were on the other side of the last election. Mr. Trump comes into his office under the greatest trust deficit of any president since the Civil War. It will take careful leadership on his part to insure that he can get around all of the obstacles that he has placed in his own way, and earnest citizenship on the part of everyone else to move the process of reconciliation forward to the point where his presidency has a chance to succeed. Though we are bound to disagree in the months and years ahead, if we proceed in the spirit of mutual respect and open communication, we can ensure the continued flourishing of the constitutional order that is our shared legacy as Americans and in which we are all blessed to participate.

               Sincerely,

               Andrew Meyer

Friday, November 11, 2016

Aboard the Wonkatania, Entering the Tunnel

There's no earthly way of knowing,
Which direction we are going....

            My brother, a lifelong Republican, posted these words from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to Facebook on Tuesday night, as returns began to suggest that Donald J. Trump had been elected the 45th President of the United States. The sentiment struck me as the most apt among many similar expressions of alarm and dismay from friends, colleagues, and family members that night and the next day. Whatever else might be said about this election, it is undeniably true that Donald J. Trump has left us in a state of profound uncertainty as to exactly what will happen when he becomes the captain of the ship of state on January 20.

Even his victory speech at 3 A.M. on November 9, while reassuring in tone and substance, was an object lesson in the erratic and volatile nature of his public persona. It was gracious of him to declare that, "Hillary has worked very long and very hard over a long period of time, and we owe her a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country." But one could not be blamed for being confused by the contrast this posed to his statements of the previous Friday, when he declared that ""Hillary Clinton is the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States." If he can swing so wildly in less than a week (and it must be stressed that this is only one of many such examples), we are unquestionably left guessing about what manner of Donald Trump will emerge in the time between now and January 20, much less how many different Trumps we might encounter in the days, weeks, and months after that.

While it is difficult to predict with any confidence exactly which way Trump will steer, a few clear inferences can be made from the substance and tone of his campaign rhetoric. The constant stream of invective that he let loose against Muslims, women, people of color, Latin@s, and others gives millions cause for anger and fear, and has given millions of others license to vent their darkest feelings. 

Thus, while I agree with Secretary Clinton that we owe Trump an "open mind," the best that one can expect from an open-minded citizen at this point is an urgent skepticism about his future actions. This anxiety is corroborated and exacerbated by the clear presence among his supporters, however small a minority of his coalition that they might be, of individuals and groups (e.g. David Duke, the KKK) that cherish racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic ideals.   Precisely because Trump's public persona is such a mercurial and enigmatic entity, the extremist elements of his coalition (who are left in as much uncertainty as the rest of us exactly what he plans to do) will expect and demand for President Trump to translate bigoted words into bigoted policy. 

All of this uncertainty leaves open the question of how those of us in the majority that voted against Donald Trump should respond to his victory. Calls for healing and reconciliation are understandable, but are premature. Trump comes into the presidency under the biggest trust deficit of any president-elect since the Civil War. Unless and until he closes that trust deficit, we must put constant pressure on him to ensure that the most destructive aspects of his campaign do not find their most malignant expression. We must march. We must protest. We must write letters. We must donate to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU.

But at the same time that we make clear the political price Trump will pay for carrying his bigoted rhetoric into action, we must not forget Rule #1. We must not give way to panic. Violence at this juncture will only make the situation worse. Violence will drive Trump into the camp of the David Dukes and Alt-Right monsters who were so energized by his vicious campaign. 

I sympathize with the protesters carrying signs saying #Notmypresident, but they are being very foolhardy. Our best defense against Trump now is not to deny that he is the president, but to force him to act like one. If he is the president, then he is restrained by the Bill of Rights, and the independent judiciary, and the separation of powers, and a host of other mechanisms that can be used to prevent him from encroaching on and abrogating citizens' rights. If we refuse to acknowledge that he is the president, then he will not feel constrained to act like one, in which case he becomes a bully with an army, a secret police force, and big pile of nuclear weapons. 

Anger and fear are warranted, but panic is not. Civil disobedience should be reserved for use against infractions of the constitutional order and policy goals of the highest priority, and violence should be eschewed entirely. If Trump is determined to use his power in bad faith, the most effective strategy will be to call attention to his transgression of rules on which the security of all citizens, even his supporters, depends. If we begin from the premise that he is so illegitimate that any and all rules might (or should) be broken to obstruct him, we will induce a total collapse of the system through the effect of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  

If we assume for the moment that Trump can be persuaded to fulfill his constitutional role in good faith, the question remains as to what the most effective strategy of "loyal opposition" might be. In this respect Democrats should seriously reflect on the lessons of the last election. Though Trump's victory was obviously won, in part, through reprehensible tactics, it cannot be denied that some part of his support derived from a rejection of the neoliberal politics of the last 25 years. Working class and rural voters from states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania threw their support to Trump in the hope that any change to the status quo might improve their quality of life. These were constituencies that used to give their allegiance to the Democratic Party, and the failure to deliver policy solutions to ease the impact of globalization and recession drove these voters to abandon Democrats in this election cycle.

 As a result, we no longer have divided government. The GOP has control of both Congress and the White House, and we should be prepared for them to use that power to effect policy. Some might counsel that the Democrats should use what little power they have left, in the same manner as Republicans have done for the last six years, to obstruct all policy and prolong gridlock. That would be extremely unwise for several reasons.

Firstly, the Democrats' power has ebbed to such a low nadir that total obstruction is not likely to work. If all that stands between the GOP and the passage of new legislation is a Democratic Senate filibuster, Republicans will eventually eliminate the filibuster altogether. Even if they do not, the concentration of GOP power in the both the executive and legislative branches at both the state and federal level will allow them to steamroller over a Senate filibuster using executive orders, the budgetary process, and other governance "work-arounds."       

Secondly, the attempt at total obstruction is likely to come at a prohibitively high opportunity cost. Democrats will be forced to do triage to see what policy measures can be preserved in the face of the oncoming juggernaut. In that respect, the highest priority should be placed on the concerns and problems with the most severe long-term consequences. The clear winner on those terms is the issue of climate change, as a reversal of the measures taken by the Obama administration will have catastrophic effects for the global environment in the future. Democrats should fight a rear-guard action to preserve the Paris Climate Accord and other environmental measures, horse-trading tacit compliance, however painful and distressing, on other policy goals of the Trump administration (repealing the ACA and Dodd-Frank, renegotiating NAFTA).

Thirdly, allowing for the easing of gridlock is, counter-intuitively, the best strategy for overcoming the political disadvantages now faced by the Democratic Party. Obstruction worked well for the Republicans because they are a party ideologically committed to the Reaganesque dictum that government is always part of the problem, not the answer. Thus hobbling government's ability to improve people's lives reinforced the narrative on which the party mobilized its base. 

But Trump's lopsided electoral college victory was only made possible by drawing in the support of disaffected working class voters in regions that have been impacted by globalization, technological change, and the lingering impact of the Great Recession.  These voters have genuinely suffered, and they have been galvanized and excited by the prospect of change promised by a Trump administration. They will expect results, and like most people swept up in populist movements, their enthusiasm and patience will be short-lived. The only measures that will genuinely improve these poor and lower-middle-income voters' lives are those that have been the mainstay of Democratic policy goals for many years, like a raise in the minimum wage, expanded funding for higher education and worker retraining, and public investment in energy and infrastructure. If Democrats allow the policy machinery to move again, there are thus two possibilities. 

The first is that the Republicans use their legislative mandate to actually enact policies that Democrats have supported for years, hoping to take credit for the resulting good effects. If and when this should be the case, Democrats should join them (as Nancy Pelosi has offered to do with Trump's suggested infrastructure spending bill) on principle, as such policies stand to improve people's lives. Statesmanlike patriotism would not be the only reason to do so, however. 

A move like this on the part of the GOP is almost surely bound to backfire in political terms, or at the very least to have a wildly unpredictable impact at the polls. Voters are not so blindly and non-ideologically partisan that the GOP could get away with doing what it has told its base voters for years would amount to catastrophic malpractice. This would be especially true if GOP lawmakers actually raised the revenues needed to fund such programs. The resulting dissonance in Republican ranks would give Democrats ample opportunity to make gains in 2018 and 2020, especially as this scenario would provide a case study to prove the timeworn Democratic contention that government can be made to work for people.

The second, and more likely outcome of an end to gridlock will be that the Republicans will do what they have promised to do and what they have reliably done in the past: cut social programs, cut taxes (especially for the wealthy), and lower regulations. In the best case scenario, this will have the same results that it had during the presidency of George W. Bush: wage stagnation for the working and middle class, and windfall profits for corporations and wealthy investors. It is possible that Trump will successfully re-institute protectionist barriers to global trade, but without some robust government intervention to ameliorate the disruptive effects of such policies, it is unlikely that they will do much to improve workers' lives (if such robust interventions are undertaken see scenario 1, above). In this second scenario the white-hot enthusiasm of working class voters for the Trump Revolution will most likely transmute quickly to bitterness and disappointment. In either of these scenarios, the most probable political result of allowing the machinery of policy to work again would be to give the GOP just enough rope to hang itself.

Finally, refraining from total obstruction is the best long-term course, both for ameliorating the recent damage done by Trumpism to the larger political culture of the nation, and for laying to rest a political strategy that the GOP has used successfully for more than four decades. Trump scraped together his minority coalition through a combination of reality-TV shock antics and a deployment of the venerable "Southern Strategy" first developed by Lee Atwater and Richard Nixon. Constant successive breaches of the bounds of good taste, conventional courtesy, and even standards of moral decency kept people entertained and distracted during the 2016 campaign, preventing them from focusing on Trumpian liabilities like total ignorance and a complete lack of specific policy plans. Meanwhile, Trump exploited floating white anxiety about the election of the nation's first African-American president to sell voters a doomsday picture of an America vastly worse than empirical reality would attest, seizing upon anecdotal episodes and incidental data to confirm whites' suspicions that, with Barack Obama in the White House, something must be deeply wrong. This is not to minimize the very real pain of Rust Belt workers and rural farmers that have continued to suffer, but the flames of their discontent were further fueled, in part, by seeing their distress reflected back to them in middle- and upper-middle class white voters passing along the meme that, in spite of their own experience of recovery and regrowth, the country had "gone to hell."

Though these paired strategies delivered Trump a shocking electoral college victory, they are not likely to work again if gridlock ends. By placing such high-stakes bets and employing such hyperbolic rhetoric, Trump has written a loan note against the political good will and credulity of his working class supporters that will be very difficult to cover with actual results. If positive change is not swift and tangible, it will discredit Trump's claims that Barack Obama was uniquely responsible for recent hardships. 

Moreover, if the gridlock ends, Trump and his party will not be able to use the same reality-TV stunts to the degree he has in this cycle. It will be impossible to avoid a discussion of policy once the GOP has had a chance to put its preferred policies into effect. Even if, to the good fortune of the American people, the GOP chooses to enact policies that bear some good fruit, Democrats will be the clear winners in any return of the national discourse to matters of policy. The GOP will need some Democratic votes to clear ideological hurdles in search of policy success, thus Democrats will be able to take some credit for any successful measures. And once voters are reminded of the good that government can do, Democrats will be able to argue for further policy initiatives eschewed by the GOP that would be appealing to workers, like laws to support union membership and strengthen collective bargaining power.

There is no way to sugar-coat the moment of peril at which we stand on the eve of Donald Trump's inauguration. Through his reckless and unthinking use of hateful and irresponsible rhetoric, he has corroded the basic bonds of trust that a president-elect must foster and protect if he is to have any chance of successfully fulfilling his constitutional role at home and abroad. His defenders dismiss his attacks on women, Muslims, Latin@s, LGBTQ citizens and others as "bluster," but now that he is about to assume a mantle of enormous power every word he said is of course being taken deadly seriously by everyone concerned. His constant flow of invective and profanity was entertaining and made for good television, but in political terms it was the equivalent of playing with matches next to an open barrel of gasoline. Trump will have to tread very carefully if he is to overcome the obstacles he has put in his own way. If he fails, not only his own administration, but the entire constitutional system upon which he has put such egregious strain, could collapse catastrophically.

However Trump conducts himself, it is the responsibility of all of us who voted against him to hold him accountable and to monitor his moves. This election has changed many things, and we should be prepared for that. But it has not changed our rights and responsibilities as citizens. We will have to engage the political sphere under different conditions than most of us expected, but the basic task remains the same: guide the ship of state so that it ultimately takes us all to a better place for ourselves and our children.
        


Sunday, November 06, 2016

Why I'm with Her

In my last post before the election I would like to write about why I will be extremely proud to cast my vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton to be the 45th President of the United States. I have been a supporter of Secretary Clinton's since long before Donald Trump became the GOP nominee. I donated to her campaign during the Democratic primaries and voted to make her the nominee over Senator Bernie Sanders. If she wins the election on Tuesday it will be to the great good fortune of our nation and its people.

Though I understand the qualms of many of my friends on the left about Clinton, I cannot share them. Yes, she is a friend of corporate interests and Wall Street. But we have a political system that requires the building of broad coalitions across complex regional, social, and economic boundaries, thus it is not possible to completely eliminate the influence of corporate or financial interests in the negotiation of policy. For all her amity to corporate elites, Clinton has a proven track record of fighting for the interests of vulnerable groups: minorities, children, the working poor. She wants to make the system work more inclusively and has shown that she can do the hard political work necessary to achieve progressive change.

As for the caricature of Clinton as a uniquely corrupt malefactor, that is totally and obviously false. Clinton has lived in the public spotlight for three decades, she has been very transparent about her political and business dealings. If she had done one hundredth of what she is accused of, there would be overwhelming and irrefutable evidence to make Trump's "Access Hollywood" tape look like an "Our Gang" episode.

Hillary Clinton is committed to and shows obvious concern for issues that will be of vital importance in the near term. She will fight to arrest the course of climate change. She will make expanding economic opportunity a priority. Her record of past success during her time as First Lady and in the Senate holds out hope that she will make headway on these issues despite strong political headwinds.

The area that drew my support to Secretary Clinton early on was foreign policy. As Secretary of State, she was instrumental in the execution of policies that were most effective during the Obama administration: renewing diplomatic relations with Myanmar and Cuba, negotiating a halt to the Iran nuclear program. In the continuing crisis in Afghanistan and the Middle East, Clinton has been a voice in favor of a hard-nosed pragmatism that will be needed in the years ahead. Her support for "no-fly zones" in Syria exemplifies the kind of course-correction needed to help the US deal more effectively with the threat posed by groups like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram.

Hillary Clinton is knowledgeable, intelligent, and has demonstrated an almost inexhaustible reserve of political endurance. It is difficult to imagine any candidate that could have conducted this campaign as doggedly or strategically as she has done against the unique challenge posed by Donald Trump. I have every confidence in her leadership, and will be very pleased to have the opportunity to cast my vote for her on November 8th.

Friday, October 21, 2016

There's Got to Be a Morning After

It is a sobering thought that, whatever the outcome on November 8, on the morning of November 9 we will yet be a nation in which Donald J. Trump has held the Republican nomination for the presidency of the United States. That fact alone will pose challenges for our country moving forward, and will continue to derail our political system unless citizens and political leaders rally to the cause of changing course. Even if our electoral process never again produces another Donald J. Trump, our institutions will progressively erode and eventually collapse unless we confront and redress cultural and social problems that Trumpism has exposed, created, or exacerbated.

The social problems exposed by the Trump phenomenon are fatally perilous and extraordinarily daunting. Though much (perhaps most) of Trump's support has derived from partisan inertia (in other words, many of the voters casting their ballot for Trump would have done so for any GOP candidate), and some of it is rooted in various forms of bias (racism, sexism, xenophobia), Trumpism would never have achieved the degree of traction it did if Trump himself had not spoken powerfully and appealingly to a core constituency of dispossessed and disenfranchised voters. The people of areas like the "Rust Belt," where globalization and automation destroyed the job market, and rural Appalachia, where already excruciating poverty was intensified by the Great Recession and the sequester; have been utterly failed by both government and the private sector. Though much of the country is slowly recovering from the disruption of 2008, many regions are in the grips of a steady decline that extends back decades, and that in the wake of the Great Recession has become a cripplingly vicious cycle of destruction and despair.

For these voters, many of whom are entering the political process for the first time in this election cycle, a vote for Donald Trump makes pellucid sense as a vote against a system by which they feel betrayed. Unless we can make our institutions work for everyone, the strife and damage produced by these tragic conditions will continue to undermine the foundations of the system in unpredictable but assuredly dramatic ways. Robust policy measures must be adopted so that economic vigor may be restored to or instilled in chronically impoverished communities. Some of the policies that are likely to be high on the Democratic Party's agenda, such as a rise in the minimum wage or expanded access to higher education, would constitute a move in the right direction.

But both parties would be unwise to ignore international trade and immigration as factors contributing to the woes of the working class, however vexed the discourse on these issues has become in the age of Trump. With complete sensitivity to the rejection of racism and xenophobia, all policies and regulations in these domains should be assessed for their impact on real wages. For example, it would be acceptable to either regularize the status of undocumented workers so that they may demand higher pay (a policy that would be especially effective in tandem with a raise in the minimum wage), or to impose harsh and consistently enforced penalties on employers that hire the undocumented (obviously, both of these policies could, perhaps should, be adopted at once), but it would be madness to assume that the electorate will tolerate an indefinite persistence of the status quo.

If moving to redress current conditions were our only worry, our circumstances would be critically dire. But the situation is exacerbated by impending developments certain to make all of these issues worse. Existing and developing technology will continue to drive globalization and automation in ways that will be difficult or impossible to counter with legislative measures. Take, for example, the automated cars currently being pilot-tested on the streets of Pittsburgh. If and when such vehicles go into mass-production and utilization, what will become of the 10 million Americans that are currently employed in some capacity as drivers? This kind of dislocation is not going to be manageable by a piecemeal programmatic approach. We are going to have to imagine and establish new organs and forms of government service and entertain radical changes in our social contract in order to meet these challenges. A cabinet-level Department of Employment Transition or a new social welfare system such as a Universal Basic Income (or both) will have to be instituted to forestall crisis.

As serious as the social problems exposed by Trump's candidacy are, they can at least be engaged through concrete government policies. In this sense, the cultural problems exposed or exacerbated by Trumpism are perhaps even more challenging. Trump has trivialized and vulgarized our national politics in a way that is corrosive of the civic spirit necessary to the persistence of our system. His attacks on the credibility of basic institutions such as the judiciary or the electoral process undermine faith in democracy. Unfortunately, Trump is only the worst and most recent malefactor in a process that has been ongoing for many years. Trump could not have trivialized our politics to the degree that he has unless we had all been complicit in trivializing our culture more generally before he ever hit the campaign trail. It was no accident that a reality TV star should rise to prominence in our celebrity-obsessed era, or that a huckster and sensationalist should command hundreds of hours of free air time in a media culture driven by commercialism and the inerrant demand of the audience to be entertained. Even beyond the general shallowness and laziness of our recent intellectual habits, the persistent march of the discourse into further and further recesses of postmodern irony has laid the groundwork for Trump's rise. No one should be shocked when an electorate that gets most of its news from comedians (from both Coulter and Limbaugh on the right or Stewart and Maher on the left) is easily persuaded that basic guarantees like the First Amendment are laughably disposable.

Even more distressing than the damage done by trivialization and vulgarization to the austerity of our institutions is the impact they have had on our values. The reduction of serious issues to partisan and politicized rhetorical contests has debased the impact of crucial ideals. The logical tools to counter the real threat that Trumpism poses to racial equality were blunted by the hyperbolic rhetoric leveled at past candidates such as John McCain or Mitt Romney. The urgent struggle to counter the vile misogyny embodied by Donald Trump himself is impeded by past partisan efforts to deflect criticism from the misogyny of Bill Clinton. Unless political leaders on all parts of the spectrum are willing to draw a line and publicly defend basic principles, even if they conflict with partisan interests, the debasement of our political life (and the accompanying decay of our institutions) will continue long after November 8.

Exactly what can be done systemically to set our culture on a new course is an exquisitely difficult question. I personally feel that the "low hanging fruit" in our condition of cultural vulnerability is the generally prevailing state of civic ignorance. The statistical number of Americans who don't know how many branches of government there are, or the name of the current Vice President, is shockingly high. If we could persuade people to learn more, they might think more, and if they thought more, they might take the principles and ideals at the heart of our system more seriously. I wrote previously about a policy proposal that might engage this problem, providing monetary incentives for students to learn more in order to earn federal college tuition assistance.

Whether or not we were to adopt such a program as I propose, one thing is certain. This election has done real and lasting damage to the fabric of our Republic, and as happy as we will all be to see it resolved on November 8, our cause for relief will be slight. The harm that has been done will have to be repaired, and the approaching challenges will have to be faced. The real work of fixing what has gone wrong begins the morning of November 9, and is sure to continue for some time to come.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Trump, Disqualified

     As we anticipate the first debate tonight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would like to plead the case as to why Trump  goes into this contest already disqualified from being the President of the United States. I do not mean "disqualified" in a narrowly technical or legal sense, but in a logically objective one, the way someone who had spent a year posting on Facebook how desperately she wanted the Patriots to win the Superbowl would be logically disqualified from serving as referee for that game.
    My judgment is not rooted in some estimation of Trump's character or state of knowledge. Trump may be a much finer, more decent man than the one he plays on TV, and he may know much more than he lets on. He obviously has engaged in some corrupt business practices, but whether or not that should disqualify him from the presidency is an arguable question. Rather, he has disqualified himself by a number of statements he has made and positions to which he has committed himself over the course of this campaign. He stands in such stark breach of the political norms of our system that he can no more reasonably fill the office of President than a publicly rabid Patriots fan could fill the position of referee.
    An old Chinese adage states that "racing chariots cannot chase down one's own words," and in making certain utterances Donald Trump has shaped his public persona in ways that make it utterly incommensurate with the office of President. He is the proverbial square peg pleading to be jammed into a round hole. Indeed, this metaphor is much too quaint. More apt would be to compare him to a virus, which if introduced into our system by being given the office he seeks, will cause breakdown and dysfunction on an unpredictable scale.
    Below I've listed what I deem to be the six most egregiously disqualifying statements made by Donald Trump over the course of the campaign, with my explanation as to why they are so problematic. This is obviously a very partial list that could be greatly expanded, and there is room to quibble about their order of importance. I offer them as food for thought as people prepare to watch the debate:

6) "If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes." Asked whether he would defend our Baltic NATO allies against a Russian attack, NY Times interview, June 20, 2016.
   Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia joined NATO in 2004, over the strong objections of Russia. These Baltic states are in a similar relationship to Russia as the Ukraine- large ethnic Russian minorities live in each, and each nation disputes control of some territory with their larger neighbor. The potential of an outbreak of hostilities along these frontiers is thus very high, and no one who seeks to be Commander in Chief should EVER leave the Russians in any doubt that we stand ready to make good on our commitment to defend our NATO allies, so as to prevent the Russians from doing anything that might snowball quickly into a World War. In making this statement Donald Trump has guaranteed that the Baltic region will be radically destabilized as soon as he takes the oath of office, and he will never be able to conduct diplomacy concerning this region or the affairs of the NATO alliance more generally with the baseline confidence that a new president requires from allies and other counterparts.

5) “26,000 unreported sexual assults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Tweet, May 8, 2013.
    Aside from the doubt that this casts on Trump's general capacity as Executive to ensure the 14th Amendment's guarantee of the "equal protection of the law" with respect to issues of gender, this quote taints Trump's credibility as Commander in Chief in relation to the soldiers serving under him. How can soldiers expect him to serve as a fair broker in resolving this chronic problem if this is his professed perspective on its cause? How can they trust that they have his respect if this is his general estimation of their character?
  
4) “I am prepared to — if they’re not going to take care of us properly...” On whether he was prepared to see South Korea and Japan develop nuclear weapons, CNN, May 4, 2016.
     The entire balance of power in Northeast Asia has been predicated on the demilitarization of Japan and the security partnerships between the US and Japan and South Korea, respectively. For Trump to signal that he is willing to alter that balance of power invites mayhem and discord. The Korean War was in part set in motion by the North Korean leadership's misinterpretation of official pronouncements coming out of the US. With this kind of loose talk Trump tempts fate.

3) “We should have kept the oil. Now we go in, we knock the hell out of them, take the oil, we thereby take their wealth. They have so much money.” Speaking about Iraq on Fox and Friends, August 11, 2015.
        Trump's repeatedly stated intention to take Iraq's oil undermines any and all credibility that may remain in our Mid East policy. Millions of Middle Easterners are already highly suspect of the motives of the US, this will confirm them in their worst suspicions. If Trump actually carried through on the policy he would make us a bandit nation in breach of international law. Even if he never acts on this declaration, his simply having made it will cast a shadow on everything the US does in that region from the moment he is sworn in until doomsday, as every president that succeeds him would be viewed through the lens of this pronouncement. Even staunch allies such as Kuwait and Bahrain would be reticent to cooperate with us, out of fear that their assets would be targeted as plunder.

2) “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall.” Explaining why Judge Curiel could not fairly try a lawsuit concerning Trump University, June 3, 2016, interview on CNN.
      This statement will forever poison Donald Trump's relationship with both the Latino community and the judiciary. For a man who seeks to be the Executive to call into question the competency of a sitting judge because of his ethnicity is beyond the pale, it fundamentally undermines his capacity to serve as a functional agent within the system of checks and balances that the Founders designed. For an agent of one branch of government to arbitrarily question the legitimacy of officials of the other branches of government is terribly corrosive to the credibility of the system as a whole. No one who wanted to serve the system in good faith should ever have indulged in this kind of invective. 

1) "Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." December 7, 2015, campaign press release.
      In principle, this is a breach of the "no test of religion" clause of Article VI of the Constitution and of the First Amendment's prohibition against "the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion [or] impeding the free exercise of religion." This is such an egregious attack on the foundations of our Republic that it alone immediately disqualifies Trump from seeking the office of President. Beyond that, as I have written before, this statement is such a profound breach of the trust of the larger Islamic community that it would effectively hobble Trump in his relations with 1/5 of the world. Even if he repudiated this statement entirely and apologized for it, he would be met with mistrust and hostility in any country that had a significant Muslim population, making the most mundane aspects of foreign relations insuperably difficult. 
      Any one of these statements would have disqualified Trump from serving as President. If he knew how problematic they would be and made them anyway, he demonstrates a contempt for the office that precludes him serving it with any modicum of authority. If he did not know that making these statements would undermine his administration, he manifests a lack of competency that likewise disqualifies him from serving. Questions about whether Trump is a racist or a sexist are interesting, but their relevance to this contest are negated by the evidence of Trump's own words. On the basis of what Trump himself has said, he cannot serve as President of the United States. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Millenials, If You Believe in Global Warming, Vote for Hillary (Not Gary Johnson)

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Hillary Clinton losing support among younger voters. In that survey, though Clinton enjoys the support of 41% of the electorate nationally, only 31% of voters aged 18-34 give Clinton as their choice in a four-way race. These younger voters are not rallying to Donald Trump, he exhibits a comparable gap between his national support and that among younger voters.  Rather, it would seem that a large segment of the youth vote that helped carry Barack Obama into the White House is contemplating defecting to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee. He polls 29% of voters aged 18-34, a number far above his aggregate support of 13% among the national electorate at large.

This is counter-intuitive, as polls consistently show the environment to be among the concerns that most motivate younger voters, especially the crisis of global warming. Gary Johnson has managed to create the superficial impression that he is an environmentally conscious candidate. This is in part a function of his personal biography- he is an inveterate outdoorsman and seasoned mountain climber. He has suggested in interviews that he might be open to a "carbon fee" to reduce emissions. But a Johnson presidency, if it ever happened, would set back the fight against global warming by decades.

The Libertarian Party that nominated Johnson is a hotbed (no pun intended) of anti-global warming skepticism. A recent survey taken by the party of its own members found that a plurality agree with Donald Trump that "this whole global warming thing is a hoax." In his report of the survey's results, the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party, Wes Benedict, noted, "My natural inclination is to distrust politicians' proposals that grow government. I also distrust the scientists who live off government grants and benefit from generating hysteria over global warming." His attitude exemplifies the ideological stance of the party as a whole.

For all his attempts at bamboozling younger voters into believing otherwise, Gary Johnson is very much in lockstep with his party on the issue of global warming. He immediately drew intense fire from his co-partisans for his expressed willingness to consider a "carbon fee," and began backpedaling on that pronouncement. More troubling, when asked  in an LA Times interview whether he supports the Paris Agreement, the first effective international protocol that unites the world in the fight against global warming, Gary Johnson predictably dodged the question. His answer gave no position on the accord itself, only some pablum about the power of market forces to protect the environment that might have been lifted from the Libertarian Party platform.

Hillary Clinton suffers from the perception, during a time in which voters on all parts of the political spectrum want to see significant change, that she represents continuity. But on the issue of global warming this conventional wisdom overlooks the fact that we are in the midst of a profound change in US environmental policy that must be fostered and perpetuated if ecological catastrophe is to be averted. The Obama administration invested enormous effort and political capital into negotiating the Paris Agreement, a hugely significant reversal of the fossil fuel-friendly policy of the George W. Bush administration. For all the criticisms of this accord as not having gone far enough, it is the most robust and effective global policy response as yet formulated to the problem of global warming. Given the time frame in which action must be taken, the Paris Agreement is the best and last foundation on which the world has a chance to build moving forward. If the Agreement were scrapped now (say, because a President Johnson or a President Trump reneged on America's commitment to the accord), there is little chance that an effective response, coordinating all of the nations that would need to sign on board, could ever be negotiated again. In this sense, for an environmentally conscientious voter a vote for Hillary Clinton, who will affirm and build on the Paris Agreement, is wiser even than a vote for the Green Party nominee Jill Stein, who effectively advocates jettisoning the accord and going back to the drawing board, a recipe for political disaster.

Millenial voters are those for whom the issue of global warming is most urgent, as they will live to see the worst impacts of environmental degradation if the greenhouse effect is not redressed. For a millenial to vote for Gary Johnson is a vote against one's own interests on a scale that is difficult to exaggerate. Hillary Clinton may be a career politician and a member of the Washington establishment, but in this election cycle, for someone concerned about the mounting crisis of global warming, she is the only choice for President of the United States.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Call Bibi's Bluff

On Friday, September 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on YouTube entitled "No Jews." In it, he asks why the presence of Jews on the West Bank (he uses the nomenclature preferred by Gush Emunim settlers, "Judea Samaria") should be considered an obstacle to peace, and accuses Palestinian leaders of pursuing "ethnic cleansing." He compares the Jews living in the Occupied Territory to Arabs living in Israel, noting that "no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel [are] an obstacle to peace." The implicit rhetorical question is superficially persuasive: if Israel does not require that two million Arabs depart its borders, why would the Palestinian Authority need the 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank to relocate?

This rhetorical question of course overlooks the most salient comparison to be made between Arabs living in Israel and Jews living in the West Bank: they are all citizens of Israel. They thus are all enfranchised to participate in the political affairs of a sovereign nation, unlike the Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu's short diatribe thus elides the heart of the issue. West Bank settlers are not a problem chiefly because they threaten peace, but because they obstruct Palestinian sovereignty (in a way that Israeli Arabs do not, in Israel's case). In this latter respect it is not the fact that they are Jews which is at issue, but the fact that they are the citizens of a sovereign power that does not formally lay claim to or accept ultimate responsibility for the land on which or the people among whom they live. 

To dwell on the faultiness of Netanyahu's reasoning, however, is to fall into the rhetorical trap that he clearly wishes to set. He expects that all of his political opponents, on hearing his glib and audaciously specious pronouncements, will become apoplectic in voicing the reasons why Jews must of course depart the Occupied Territories. He knows that the aesthetics of this exchange favor him. No one looks good when calling for the expulsion of Jews, especially when those calls are fueled by indignation over the mendacity of one's interlocutor.

In making this rather brilliantly Trumpesque rhetorical sally, however, Netanyahu has inadvertently set a trap for himself much more ironclad than any he has laid out for his opponents. If he seriously, in his position as Prime Minister of Israel, wants to lay down a marker committing the Israeli state to the moral imperative of allowing Jewish settlers to remain on the West Bank, the international community should call his bluff. If forcing Jews to leave the West Bank would be ethnic cleansing, then all world leaders, those of Israel included, should feel compelled to do whatever is necessary to let them stay. 

In this regard, who can doubt that the most egregious motivator of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank today is the de facto state of apartheid driving a wedge between its Jewish and Arab residents? If the world hopes to prevent ethnic cleansing, nothing is more imperative than the immediate establishment of Palestinian statehood. Only when Jews and Arabs on the West Bank are all citizens enjoying a sovereign franchise will the risk of ethnic cleansing be averted.

There is no reason that Jews could not continue to live in that future Palestinian state, either as naturalized citizens or as resident aliens holding permits from their host government. As long as they remained law-abiding and paid taxes into the Palestinian fisc, then as Netanyahu suggests they ought to be welcome. Pragmatically such a plan would face challenges. The residents of Ofer might violently oppose living in any state that is not the holy Jewish kingdom they envision, and radicals on the Palestinian side might try to attack their Jewish neighbors in order to incite an Israeli-Palestinian war. But the idea that four million Palestinians must be kept forever stateless and disenfranchised in order to accommodate the comfort and preferences of 400,000 Jews is as ridiculous as asserting that....well, as asserting that ethnic cleansing is the only path to peace.

If Bibi insists that the relocation of Jews living in the Occupied Territories would be ethnic cleansing, then let him put his money where his mouth is. Let Israel commit the political and economic capital needed to avert such a moral outrage. With sufficient funds and human resources, Israel could facilitate the safety and security of the Israeli residents of the West Bank in the wake of occupation. Palestinian statehood now! It is the only way to avert the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing against which Prime Minister Netanyahu so sagely warns us.