Thursday, September 22, 2016

Radical Republicanism, 2016

All the speculation lately about whether the Trump nomination represents a radical new turn for the Republican party, as opposed to a continuation of its long-term radicalization, gives me a good excuse to haul out my favorite Hegel quote: "The Owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering." He meant that we can't tell what a historical period really was about until it's ending. And then it's kind of too late to do anything about it.

So who knows if Trump is the beginning of something new and awful or just another step in the White Power-ization of the Republican Party? I'm not surprised that the Republican base is generally coalescing around Trump. The Republican Party has been on a real track of radicalization for a long time. It was Old Man Bush in 1992 who accused Bill Clinton of being a KGB agent, with zero evidence, of course. (Unlike the real questions about Trump's dubious Russian ties.) It was Newt Gingrich, leader of the Gingrich Revolution, who famously recommended in 1996 that Republicans describe their Democratic opponents with words like radical, bizarre, sick, pathetic, corrupt, cheat, anti-flag and traitors. Even though today's Republican white supremacists get their delicate feelings terribly hurt when Mean Hillary Woman calls them "deplorable."

For a flashback on the Gingrich era, check out William Douglas' Newt Gingrich's mouth is famous as a verbal blowtorch McClatchy Newspapers 12/15/2011:

During his rhetorical bomb-throwing days in the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich once dissected the seemingly innocent movie "Forrest Gump" and turned it into a scathing critique of President Bill Clinton, Democrats and liberals.

"In every scene of the movie in which the counterculture occurs, they're either dirty, nasty, abusive, vindictive, beating a woman or doing something grotesque," Gingrich, then the House minority whip, told a Republican women's group. "It's important to remember that in that period, Bill Clinton was on the side of the counterculture."

That take is vintage Gingrich circa the 1990s: loaded with his favorite vividly demeaning personal-attack adjectives — "grotesque" in particular — and aimed at reducing his opponents to the lowest common denominator.
Then there was that little matter of stealing the Presidential election in 2000. No wonder today's Reps are sure the Dems would try to steal the election, because that's what they actually did when they had the chance.

Joe Conason's book titled It Can Happen Here: Authoritarian Peril in the Age of Bush came out in 2007. So I'm still thinking Trump is in a direct line of continuity from way back. He is new in that he talks the scattered language of talk radio as a Presidential candidate. But the Gingrich Congress made Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of Congress after their 1994 win. And, of course, the Moderate Maverick McCain's Vice Presidential pick in 2008 talked like an Oxycontin-stoned radio talk host, too.

I've given up even hoping that our major media will ever hit bottom. Somebody born on the day the New York Times ran its first front-page story on Whitewater in 1992 would be 24 today. So anyone who has adult memories of the pre-Whitewater era of the press is 42 now. The Pod Pundits were not so rabid as usual against Hillary during the primaries because conventional wisdom assumed that Socialist Bernie Sanders would never be able to mount a serious challenge against her. But now that the general election is on, they have reliably reverted to the Clinton Rules, in which you can say anything you want as long as you say it about the Clintons. I hope the Owl of Minerva shows up soon.

Don't miss the series that Dave Neiwert and Sarah Posner have begun in Mother Jones on today's Republican radicalism. The first installment is Meet the Horde of Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and Other Extremist Leaders Endorsing Donald Trump 09/21/2016.

Digby Parton contrasts today's Republican Party with the one that nominated Barry Goldwater in 1964 (Divide and conquer Hullabaloo 07/18/2016). The Goldwater movement is a lineal predecessor of today's Trump campaign and today's Republican party more generally. But there actually were moderate and even liberal Republicans back then.

She includes this video from the Clinton campaign that revives a Johnson commercial from 1964, Confessions of a Republican 07/18/2016:



This is certainly an informative bit of history even though it was a campaign advertisement. But it's informative because it recalls a political context that no longer exists, in which liberal and conservative ideological lines typically spanned both parties. Today's Republican Party has factional squabbles. But they are largely over who can be the most warlike, who can cut civilian government spending the most, who can be the most zealous deregulators, who can most effectively deprive black and Latinos of the franchise, and who can be most bitterly hostile to immigrants.

There is a much more substantial ideological divide within the Democratic Party between its corporate wing and the New Deal wing.

But its unlikely in the extreme that Hillary might have the cross-party appeal that LBJ had in 1964. And Trump doesn't have the appeal to regular Democratic voters that Goldwater had among Southern Democrats in 1964 or even that Reagan had in 1980.

That political landscape is gone with the wind. To coin a phrase.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Political converts and genuine swing voters

The Trump campaign has given us the last round of hashing out the question the relationship between racial and national bigotry and conditions of economic distress. This is a perennial dilemma for left and center-left politics: how to assemble an effective electoral coalition that defends civil rights and civil liberties, equal rights for women and prolabor policies.

Kay Whitlock gives us her take on the current version in The Transformation of a Goldwater Girl: Why It Matters in the Time of Trump Political Research Associates 09/19/2016. Hillary Clinton has often described herself as a one-time "Goldwater girl" in the 1964 Presidential election. So that makes a catchy item in a headline.

Whitlock is offering a general perspective on how liberal Democrats can approach winning over Republican-leaning white voters who are vulnerable to racist/xenophobic political appeals from the Republican Party.

The left, in which I include the New Deal/Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, looks at the dominant neoliberal ideology of limited (domestic) government, privatization, deregulation and weakening of organizaed labor as Herbert Hooverish, or worse. And they are right in that judgment. These policies reduced opportunities and lower the standard of living for the majority and facilitate an ever-greater concentration of wealth and power that is a continual threat to democracy. So in terms of the way economic policy affects the general well-being of the vast majority, the left has good reason to argue that for most people, most of the Ninety-None Percent, in other words, supporting Republican economic and social policies is supporting policies that damage their won real, material interest.

But only in sterile econometric models to economics drive political behavior in a rational way. And the conventional assumption in economic models is that all market participants are making rational decisions based on a correct understanding of their own needs and a full knowledge of all their options. The fact that such conditions do not pertain in the real world don't deprive such economic models of all value. But if one makes such an assumption about voting behavior, it becomes impossible to see political choices as anything other than the ongoing clash of rationally-calculated interests. Such a radical assumption effectively eliminates the possibility of anyone being deceived, or conned, or even swayed by political slogans or advertisements.

John Kenneth Galbraith used to refer to such assumptions in the field of economics as the people in the economic department never talking to their colleagues in the marketing department.

Part of the conservative schtick for a long time has been to redefine the concept of an "elite" to be not billionaires and investment bankers, not plutocrats and Wall Street, not robber barons or industrial monopolists, but rather college professors and teachers' unions, government "bureaucrats" and liberal politicians, tofu eaters and conservationists. George Wallace used to sneer at "pointy-headed intellectuals" who rode bicycles. I've never understood what the pointy heads were about. Or why bicycles were elitist. I need to try to look that up someday.

But part of the standard dialogue on this question is one of which Whitlock provides an example:

I’m not suggesting we appeal to the Right’s lay supporters on the basis of economics and class alone. We can’t excuse or minimize the enduring emotional power and elastic utility of overt and coded appeals to White identity. But we also can’t simply write these people off as “tools,” “idiots” or “morons,” and expect them to miraculously disappear or instantly reverse course based on sudden insight. (“Oh, damn! I’ve been voting against my own interests! I need to stop doing that!”) Without actual engagement, these communities will continue to gravitate towards leaders who scapegoat communities of color, queers, Muslims, and immigrants. Some other demagogue will always be on hand to tap into this reservoir of racism — usually blended with legitimate economic grievance — and another right-wing populist crusade will commence. [my emphasis]
This way of framing the issue implicitly assumes that actual progressives and liberals are the snobs that stock Republican propaganda accuses us all of being. And snobbery does come in all shapes and sizes. White Mississippians in the 1960s who supported segregation and despised civil rights activists could be heard to disapprove of white who used what we now call the n-word. Because that was low-class, you see, and respectable whites said "Negros" or "colored people" or "nigras."

Maybe it nothing, but it bugs me that in Whitlock's piece that "white" is capitalized, as in the passage just quoted.

Those things aside, she does have a realistic point. Part of the problem with the general acceptance of neoliberal ideology, both economic and political, is that Democratic politicians largely abandoned the Keynesian economics and support for robust social programs that defined the party during the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier and the Great Society. And it has been particularly destructive to the Democrats' appeal and its ability to frame public issues in more of a New Deal sense. President Obama's endless talk about the importance of reducing the budget deficit and his repeated proposals for a Grand Bargain that would have cut Social Security and Medicare benefits are good examples of Democrats' framing issues in conservative terms. His advocacy for Social Security cuts was particularly damaging.

What I'm saying here is that even in marketing terms, the Democrats need more than better commercials or catchier slogans. Although Hillary could surely have picked a snappier one than "Stronger Together." The Dems need to create situations in which they are seen to be seriously fighting for programs like increases in the minimum wage, workplace safety, and better protection of union rights and even measures which encourage the formation of union. The Republicans in the House of Representatives voting dozens of times to "repeal Obamacare" was silly on more than one level. But it did give them an opportunity to appear to their voting base as people who were fight what passes for the Good Fight on that side. Democrats, including Democratic Presidents, need to relearn the value of fighting for something that's both popular and good policy and losing, then coming back to try again. Done right, it can be used to mobilize financial and political support and to define the way the issues are discussed in the public discussions.

Whitlock's description of her own political history is interesting in itself. We can generalize about how political attitudes evolve. But ultimately they all are generalizations from individual stories.

But her personal evolution doesn't necessarily offer relevant general lessons for the effort to persuade Republican-leaning voters. Because in 1964 when she was a "Goldwater girl," she was in the ninth grade according to her account, i.e, 14 years old. But her conversion experience to more liberal-left thinking seems to have largely taken place when she was still in high school:

One teacher said that if I could draw on credible sources to back up my arguments about Vietnam, and the history of French and American presence there, he would, every day for a week, announce before the class that I was right and he was wrong. After sequestering myself in the public library for many hours, I came away with piles of research that refuted my beliefs. But my teacher didn’t laugh at me. Rather, we sat together one day after class, and I talked to him about how much it meant that he took me seriously. When I could so easily have been a symbolic representation of everything they held in contempt, my classmate and these teachers looked more deeply and, with no guarantees, reached for the most human and the best in me. And at some point, I started to reach back. ...

It’s excruciating to feel your own edifice of defense begin to crumble, to see your own beliefs, assumptions, and behaviors in a clearer, harsher, light. But those three teachers and that classmate made it possible for me to come through it without feeling so cornered that I had no choice but to hit back out of anger and shame. What could have been only mortifying was instead mortifying and transformative, within a context of building genuine, trustworthy relationships.

This is why I think it’s so important to try, as progressives, to compete for the part of Trump’s audience that may be reachable. People didn’t write me off. I must do the same.
But I wouldn't want to minimize the importance that aspect of her experience. Because 18 is legal voting age in the US now - it was 21 in 1964 and 1968 - and initial partisan alignment when a person starts voting is often enduring. But political evolution does take place. As one of my favorite sayings goes, only idiots never change their minds.

One concern I have about discussions like this is that they sometimes wind up obscuring the differences between habitual partisans and swing voters. Huge party alignments can and do take place, like the realignment of Southern whites from the Democratic to the Republican Party as a result of the Republicans' Southern Strategy. But every situation has its own peculiarities, of course. And in much of the South, one-party politics was the norm until the 1960s or even the 1970s. So the real political/ideological decisions were made among the factions of the Democratic Party. We could view the Southern Strategy process also as incorporating the more hardcore segregationist wing of the Southern Democratic Party into the Republican Party. A change in parties for them didn't necessarily mean a change in ideology. In a real sense, the political outlook of the Southern Democrats in the 1960s has long since become the dominant ideology in the national Republican Party.

And the factors on which swing voters make their political decisions are a different combination from those on which partisans make theirs. For instance, I was sometimes dismayed this year to see that loyal Democrats whose sympathies on issues seem to be more with the New Deal wing of the Party rather than the corporate wing were dismissive of the Sanders campaign, seemingly assuming that the Democratic-vs-Republican contest in November was the only won that really mattered.

You can see some of the same kind of party loyalty at work on the Republican side, as well. For instance: Peter Montgomery, Conservative Evangelicals Debate Whether Christians Should Support Trump Right Wing Watch 09/17/2016.

But among swing voters, there is some segment of likely voters who are white and who aren't particularly bothered by Trump's racism and xenophobia against African-Americans and Latinos but who find his economic nationalism and opposition to corporate-deregulation "trade" treaties like TTIP and TPP attractive. Plus, we've had a Democratic President for eight years. And some swing voters, many of whom could be accurately called "low-information voters," may be operating on a vague sense the some kind of change is needed.

The Democrats don't have to convince those voters to give up all their racially prejudiced or xenophobic views. But they can convince much of that group that the positive things the Democrats and Hillary Clinton have to offer are more attractive that the white racist and xenophobic alternative Donald Trump and the Republican Party are offering.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Populism: left, right or neutral

This is a good, brief article by Conor Lynch on "populism." Our Pod Pundits call anything that's designed to appeal to a voter who's not a One Percenter "populism." At least based on this article, even the Big Dawg himself (Bill Clinton) is a bit confused on the subject. In European politics, populism is generally used to refer to rightwing demagoguery.

He also quotes Jim Hightower, who was the campaign manager for Democratic Sen. Fred Harris' New Populist campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1976. I like his politics. But I don't buy his definition of populism as a “historically grounded political doctrine that supports ordinary folks in their ongoing democratic struggle for power over their lives." I agree with Lynch that there's nothing inherently "left" or "right" about populism. A populist movement can be one or the other. Or even an unholy mixture of both.

Lynch doesn't quote the late Argentine political theorist Ernesto Laclau on the topic. But the definition he uses is consistent. "Narrative" is a favorite academic word these days. And Laclau describes populism as a narrative strategy for constructing a political identity for the "people" in opposition to the "elite," the classic populist dualism.

According to that definition, populism is an approach to defining a political contest in terms of the People vs. the Elite. It can be put to service by various ideologies, from militant social democracy to political Islam to rightwing xenophobia.

Laclau has several useful concepts in defining the process, like the "empty signifier," an image or concept that takes on a newly charged political meaning that can unite the People being constructed. Occupy Wall Street gave us a great example of that. Prior to 2011, the phrase One Percent wouldn't have had any particular significance for most people. Now it's even used in business publications, everybody knows what it means, and it's generally understood in the sense of the Elite that is the standard enemy of populism.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Marx, Emerson, Mickey Mouse and the "moral mobilization of nature"

Walter Benjamin's most famous work today is the Passagenwerk, The Arcades Project in its English translation. It wasn't published until long after his death, although some of its material overlaps with his work published during his lifetime.

The Arcades Project isn't a finished work. The published edition is composed largely of excerpts that he had written on note cards, many of which are quotations from other writers. In the evaluation of Peter Osborne and Matthew Charles (Walter Benjamin Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 01/22/2015):

The arcades would become just one of five or six archetypal images of the psychosocial space of 19th-century Paris around which the project was organized—each paired with a particular, thematically representative individual. But it provided the model for the others, and its surrealist origin and liminal utopian impulse, neither quite inside nor out, established the wish-image and the dream-image—on the threshold of sleeping and waking—at the heart of a work that was initially conceived as a kind of ‘dialectical fairytale’. (The figure with whom ‘the arcades’ was paired was the utopian socialist Charles Fourier.) All of Benjamin's major essays of the 1930s derived their impetus and orientation from his Arcades work, and served to defer its completion in the act of elaborating its elements.

The section on Charles Fourier is mostly quotes from others. One of the sections which is a paragraph by Benjamin himself offers this intriguing observation (from the 1999 translation of Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin):

Fourier's long-tailed men became the object of caricature, in 1849, with erotic drawings by Emy in Le Rire. For the purpose of elucidating the Fourierist extravagances, we may adduce the figure of Mickey Mouse, in which we find carried out, entirely in the spirit of Fourier's conceptions, the moral mobilization of nature. Humor, here, puts politics to the test. Mickey Mouse shows how right Marx was to see in Fourier, above all else, a great humorist. The cracking open of natural teleology proceeds in accordance with the plan of humor.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was a French Utopian theorist whose social criticism and radical speculations about social reforms were a key part of the development of socialist thought in the 19th century.

Frederick Engels wrote of Fourier in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880):

Fourier is not only a critic, his imperturbably serene nature makes him a satirist, and assuredly one of the greatest satirists of all time. He depicts, with equal power and charm, the swindling speculations that blossomed out upon the downfall of the Revolution, and the shopkeeping spirit prevalent in, and characteristic of, French commerce at that time. Still more masterly is his criticism of the bourgeois form of the relations between sexes, and the position of woman in bourgeois society. He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation.
The Brook Farm cooperative social experiment of 1841–46 was a significant effort to implement Fourier's ideas in the United States.

Jessica Gordon describes Fourier's ideas as follows (History of Brook Farm American Transcendentalism Web n/d; accessed 09/18/2016):

Charles Fourier was a French Utopian Socialist who lived from 1772-1837. He was the only son of a cloth dealer, a business which he inherited and despised. During the French Revolution he lost his inheritance and his brush with the Terror of 1793 left him permanently jarred against revolutionary violence. As early as 1803, he called himself the "Newton of passionate attraction." He believed that he had discovered the laws of social psychology just as Newton had the laws of gravity. He devoted his adult life to solving the problems of the market economy and by the early 1830's, he had attracted a small group of followers in Paris who published a journal called La Reforme Industrielle. Fourier believed that the cause of conflict and suffering was the perversion of natural human goodness by faulty social organization. However, he was convinced that reason could discover the laws of harmony and create perfect order by rearranging economic relationships. He went against claims that men were shaped by their environment and considered civilization repressive and against man's happiness. He advocated a solution of small planned communes, and he called then phalansteries. He devised a blueprint precisely indicating the size, layout, and industrial organization of each community or "phalanx." Organized as both producers' and consumers' cooperatives, the communities would escalate economically and fulfill all man's passions. The result was to create social harmony and unimaginable bliss. His main hope was to speed man's process from a primitive "civilization'; to the highest "state of harmony." Fourier believed that God was a "supreme economist" who had devised a plan for a perfect society creating human "happiness" and "riches."
And, in Benjamin's judgment, Fourier had ideas foreshadowing Mickey Mouse!

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about "Fouriersm and the Socialists" (unsigned in the original) in the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial 3:1 (July 1842). There he recounts a speech by a New York Fourierist, Albert Brisbane. He recounts the speech in a respectfully bemused tone:

Mr. Brisbane pushes his doctrine with all the force of memory, talent, honest faith, and importunacy. As we listened to his exposition, it appeared to us the sublime of mechanical philosophy; for the system was the perfection of arrangement and contrivance. The force of arrangement could no farther go. The merit of the plan was that it was a system; that it had not the partiality and hint-and-fragment character of most popular schemes, but was coherent and comprehensive of facts to a wonderful degree. It was not daunted by distance, or magnitude, or remoteness of any sort, but strode about nature with a giant's step, and skipped no fact, but wove its large Ptolemaic web of cycle and epicycle, of phalanx and phalanstery, with laudable assiduity. Mechanics were pushed so far as fairly to meet spiritualism. One could not but be struck with strange coincidences betwixt Fourier and Swedenborg. Genius hitherto has been shamefully misapplied, a mere trifler. It must now set itself to raise the social condition of man, and to redress the disorders of the planet he inhabits. The Desert of Sahara, the Campagna di Roma, the frozen polar circles, which by their pestilential or hot or cold airs poison the temperate regions, accuse man. Society, concert, cooperation, is the secret of the coming Paradise.

Emerson was obviously far from full agreement with Brisbane's declarations and the theory behind them, writing, "Our feeling was, that Fourier had skipped no fact but one, namely, Life." But Emerson was also impressed by the sweeping social criticism in Fourier's vision: "Yet in a day of small, sour, and fierce schemes, one is admonished and cheered by a project of such friendly aims, and of such bold and generous proportion; there is an intellectual courage and strength in it, which is superior and commanding: it certifies the presence of so much truth in the theory, and in so far is destined to be fact."

Friday, September 16, 2016

Cynicism about politics as a millstone for the Democrats

David Dayen is one of the best analytical writers on politics, particularly the politics of economic policy.

He takes up the public option for health insurance in How Democrats Can Overcome Their Self-Defeating Cynicism New Republic 09/16/2016.

"The dominant theme of modern American politics," he writes, "driven by virtually everyone in the media, is cynicism. It’s no surprise that the most cynical candidate America has seen in recent memory [Trump] can press the advantage."

Cynicism about politics on the whole works to the advantage of the most cynical party and most cynical politicians. And since the Republican's "anti-government" stance appeals to skepticism and cynicism about government in general. It's been my own anecdotal experience that almost anyone who says they are suspicious or cynical about all politicians is almost always notably more skeptical of Democratic politics and politicians.

David explains how the corporate media are currently promoting political cynicism:

Issues have been surgically removed from the political bloodstream. A personality-obsessed television media doesn’t care about them and wouldn’t know how to explain them if they did. Data journalism, the hot new trend, is too preoccupied with polls and electoral simulations to bother with the true substance of elections. Hillary Clinton has on occasion tried to reset the focus back on issues—her campaign is a giant policy paper-generation machine—but the political neutron bomb known as Donald Trump has the entire country swinging its head to track who he’s insulted or who’s insulted him.

Meanwhile, partisan liberal media runs down Trump more than it discusses its own candidate. And the liberal punditocracy, newly enamored with political science, has become so certain that presidents cannot achieve their goals in a fractured system with multiple veto points that it has wrung hope out of politics, presuming that public opinion is static. Some have even argued that support for Bernie Sanders was entirely identity-based and had nothing to do with his ideas, to a degree that writes voter intention completely out of the story. [my emphasis]
He argues that the public option is a solid policy proposal that also makes good Democratic politics:

The momentum for the public option has been building for months. Hillary Clinton and then President Barack Obama came out in favor of it, after a succession of bad news about lack of competition in the insurance exchanges. The public option would help induce that competition, a benchmark that competitors in private insurance would need to mind. It would lower costs throughout the system, by using the clout of the government to bargain down the cost of provider treatment. In 2013, the Congressional Budget Office found that adding a public option to the exchanges would save the government $158 billion over ten years, while lowering premiums 7 to 8 percent.
He's right.

Let's hope the Democratic establishment gets on board with this one. The base has been on board with it for a long time.




Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Britain in the Great Depression and post-Brexit

Barry Eichengreen recounts an important piece of the history of the Great Depression in Brexit and the Pound in Your Pocket Project Syndicate 09/13/2016:

In 1931, when the UK abandoned the gold standard, sterling plummeted by 30%. Like now, the country relied heavily on exports of services – not just banking services but also shipping and insurance. And the external environment was even more unfavorable than it is now.

Yet, despite these headwinds, the merchandise trade deficit fell by a quarter between 1931 and 1932. By 1933, the services balance was strengthening as well. At this point, the economy was on the road to recovery.

Three circumstances made this possible. First, excess capacity enabled companies to ramp up production. Second, Britain was able quickly to put in place a set of favorable trade deals, negotiated with Commonwealth countries at the Ottawa Conference in 1932. Third, political uncertainty fell sharply, as the Labour government, widely blamed for the 1931 crisis, was replaced by a Conservative-dominated cabinet with broad popular support.
He goes on to say with reference to Britain's current economic situation that currency flexibility - which members of the eurozone do not have - can be helpful. But it can't in itself restore full economic health.

Monday, September 12, 2016

The mainstream media fail on Trump and other "deplorables"

Chauncey DeVega reminds us of some of the basics in the Presidential election (He is Graded on a Curve: White Racism and a Cowardly News Media are Keeping Trump Close to Hillary in the Polls Indomitable 09/12/2016):

Primarily, both candidates are viewed negatively by large segments of the American public. The U.S. economy has also experienced a relatively anemic recovery (in terms of wages and wealth) from the Great Recession of the George W. Bush years.

Furthermore, the American electorate is highly partisan and polarized. As Election Day in November approaches — and despite whatever misgivings voters may feel — it is much more likely than not that a given individual will solidify their support for their political party’s chosen candidate.

These foundational factors have combined to create a close presidential race.

The American news media, much of it owned and controlled by large corporations, has also played a significant role in keeping Hillary Clinton within reach of Donald Trump.
While this information gets garbled in the sensationalism and "horse race" obsessions over polling in typical mainstream reporting, those observations are not out of the range of conventional wisdom. Elections actually do take place, and the results can be counted. So there is an anchor in reality that political coverage has to acknowledge, however reluctantly.

Also well understood by Democratic voters and activists is the following, though for obvious reasons the corporate media and our Pod Pundits are reluctant to acknowledge it, is the following:

The American news media, much of it owned and controlled by large corporations, has also played a significant role in keeping Hillary Clinton within reach of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump is an atypical presidential candidate who has utter disregard for the standing norms of American politics and even less respect for the Fourth Estate. This has allowed him to outmaneuver and manipulate many journalists and pundits. They feel beholden, or perhaps enslaved, to norms of “objectivity,” “fairness” and “balance.” Trump feels no such limitations.
This observation, however, is one that's inconvenient for the mainstream press and it's Both Sides Do It convention. It's also inconvenient for corporate Democrats who like to make "bipartisan" pitches:

Moreover, despite the media’s discussion of the so-called alt-right, which is little more than an ideological smoke screen, Trump and his supporters are not outliers or aberrations in the Republican Party. They are its unapologetic base and its political id. Right-wing elites may be turned off by Trump’s lack of polish, but his core message, attitudes and values resonate among mainstream Republicans. This gives Trump a deep reservoir of preexisting support. [my emphasis]
I agree with his reading of the probabilities here, "This will get Trump close to the finish line but not over it."

He also does a good job of describing how the "populist" factor interacts with the white racism and xenophobic elements:

Trump is the beneficiary of a populist moment of discontent in American and global politics. While Bernie Sanders’ progressive version of populism was inclusive, cosmopolitan and forward-thinking, Trump’s populism appeals to racism, tribalism and reactionary thinking. Trump is also a political necromancer, deftly skilled in manipulating white conservatives’ anxieties and fears of both generational and cultural obsolescence.
Parsing the role economic discontent plays in interaction with racial/ethnic/nationalistic sentiments is always a challenge because it's a complex relationship and practically impossible to measure in a clear-cut manner.

Charlie Pierce also picks up the granding-on-a-curve metaphor Chauncey uses in The Truth About This Alleged 'Basket of Deplorables' Esquire Politics Blog 09/11/2016:

Hell, we've been grading Republicans on a curve for decades. We graded Reagan on a curve when he burbled about trees and air pollution. We graded him on a curve during Iran Contra on the grounds that he was too dim to know what was going on around him. We graded W on a curve for the whole 2000 campaign when he didn't know Utah from Uzbekistan, but Al Gore knew too much stuff and what fun was he, anyway? We graded Republicans on a curve when they attached themselves to the remnants of American apartheid, when they played footsie with the militias out west and with the heirs to the White Citizens Councils in the South. We graded them on a curve every time they won a campaign behind Karl Rove or Lee Atwater or the late Terry Dolan back in the 1970s. We talked about how they were "reaching out" to disillusioned white voters who'd suffered in the changing economy, as though African-American workers didn't get slugged harder than anyone else by deindustrialization. We pretended not to notice how racial animus was the accelerant for the fire of discontent in the "Reagan Democrats." That was, and is, grading on a moral curve.
He also quotes Hillary's "deplorables" statement more fully than the one sentence the Pod Pundits seized on:

You know, just to be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. They're racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now have 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now some of these folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America. But the other basket–and I know this because I see friends from all over America here – I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas–as well as, you know, New York and California–but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they're just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
It's hardly roaring populism. But it does define the Republican coalition as well as any politician running for election is likely to these days. Charlie describes it this way:

It is timidity now that grades this ridiculous man [Trump] running this ridiculous campaign on the biggest curve of all - the timidity of a people who have declined the responsibilities of serious citizenship and the abdication of its duty under the Constitution of a putatively free press too timid to call them on it. That is the political correctness that truly is hurting the country and may yet hurt it beyond all repair. There's only one candidate now running however gingerly against that.
But Hillary's statement does a decent job of defining Republican popular support, as distinguished from plutocratic support.

The formulation I've been using this year is that white racism and xenophobia have a psychological and political life of their own and can't be related immediately and clearly to economic distress. Factors like authoritarian inclinations play a large role in the political alignments. But it's also obvious to me that good economic prospects for ordinary people make it less likely on average that voters will be looking for racial or foreign scapegoats.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Clinton on Trump's "deplorables"

I assume that the Sunday morning shows featured weeping and gnashing of teeth and much anguished discussion of Hillary Clinton's sharp criticism of the "basket of deplorables" among Trump's core Republican voters. I watched Meet the Press and that was the case there. Time for the handwringing was limited by the scheduled maudlin reminiscence segments on 9/11. Including a ludicrous segment in which notorious warmongering Paul Wolfowitz was invited by Chuck Todd to justify the false claims about Saddam Hussein's nonexistent "weapons of mass destruction" that the Cheney-Bush Administration used to justify the illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. Plus there were news flashes about how Hillary Clinton felt queasy for a few minutes Sunday morning and does this justify the Trump campaign's lurid allegations about her health.

Josh Marshall warns that she needs to stand behind her words on the "deplorables," This Is Critical: Hillary Can't Back Down TPM 09/10/2016:

It may have been easier not to say this and left herself vulnerable to a faux-populist counterattack. But she did say it. She cannot unsay it. And since it is not only basically true but in fact a matter of central importance to the entire election, it is truly critical that she not back down.

If there's nothing else we've learned from this cycle we should have learned the centrality of 'dominance' politics. Campaigns are performative displays of strength, resolve. To back down, apologize or cower would not only play into Trump's dominance politics routine, it would make Clinton look weak. It would deepen suspicions that she has no beliefs or will change them out of convenience. Far more importantly though, backing down would demoralize her supporters since it would amount to apologizing for or backing down from and delegitimizing what is in fact a central truth of the election.
Actually, that stance presented us with the Hillary Clinton I've been hoping to see, going after the core ideological convictions of the Republican Party and stepping outside of the "bipartisan" frame to which establishment Democrats are almost inexplicably committed.

Josh's post includes news about her initial response to the howls of outrage from the Republicans. And while he wasn't entirely satisfied with it, he believes that she avoided the kind of backing down he feared.

Let's hope she stands her ground on this one.

Sam Levine reports on her initial response to Republican criticism in Clinton Stands By ‘Deplorables,’ But Walks Back The Basket Size A Bit Huffington Post 09/10/2016.

Annie Karni reports for Politico on Why Clinton isn’t sweating ‘deplorables’ 09/10/2016:

Perhaps the greatest effect of “deplorables” will be on the psychology of Clinton’s campaign. Coming days after NBC’s Matt Lauer seemed to give Trump a fact-check-free pass during a live presidential forum -- after grilling Clinton aggressively on her email use -- it uncorked a huge amount of pent-up frustration at the Democratic nominee’s Brooklyn headquarters. There, many Clinton operatives saw the Republican outrage and media attention devoted to Clinton's words as the latest example of an absurd double standard at work.

“Trump has insulted and degraded everybody he has talked about during this campaign -- from our generals in the military to a gold star family to a judge who has devoted years to serving the public, for his heritage,” senior campaign strategist Joel Benenson said in an interview. “Nothing compares to that. We will not stop talking about the bigoted remarks he’s made, or the white supremacists he retweets. He doesn’t deserve a pass on any of those comments.”

"[T]his is a fight we're eager to have,” Clinton campaign chair John Podesta said in a statement that reinforced her own. "We will never stop calling out Trump’s bigotry and racist rhetoric, because we know our country is better than this."
But the Beltway conventional wisdom, embedded as it normally is in horserace talk, is likely to be what Karni writes here, "Clinton’s inartful honesty briefly handed the moral high ground of the campaign to an opponent whose character and judgment the former secretary of state has been methodically trying to impeach. And it allowed Republicans, for a day at least, to rally behind a nominee that many of them find deeply distasteful."

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Missile defense and how idolatry of the military wastes enormous amounts of public money

In my pre-blogging days, I would often makes notes on dead-tree paper. Here is a note I made on October 2, 2001, about three weeks after 9/11.

*********************
October 2, 2001

Several old ideas that seemed obsolete or were at least half-forgotten now seem to take on new relevance. Remember the "military-industrial complex"? It was a major bogeyman of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the "New Left" of those days. Some liberal economists like John Kenneth Galbraith continued to warn of the long-term dangers it presented to democracy. Even the occasional isolationist, Libertarian-oriented conservatives would grumble about it. But the idea has been largely absent from public discussion since the fall of the USSR.

No politician - with the possible exception of my Congresswoman Barbara Lee - wants to criticize the military right now. But no one can overlook the fact that on September 11, our military not only failed to protect our cities and our people from the worst sneak attack in history. What's even more scary in terms of public confidence in their ability to defend "the homeland" as we're now learning to call it is that they couldn't even defend the Pentagon, the worldwide command headquarters for our military forces, from a low-tech but devastating terrorist attack.

When I think back to earlier this year [2002] when the military faked, outright faked, the results of the Star Wars "Missile Defense" tests, it5 seems to me a classic example of the "military-industrial complex" at work, in its most corruptive, corrosive sense. If the task of defending the homeland were the top priority throughout the command structure, the military would be the first to insist that such tests be conducted honestly. They wouldn't want anyone to be wasting military dollars on a defense system that couldn't work.

But in this case, the Pentagon was more concerned to fake the results to encourage more investment in a technology they know is not yet able to do what its marketers claim. Because of they really thought the thing could work, the wouldn't have had to fake the results, now would they?

The most generous explanation I can imagine is that it was normal bureaucratic inertia. Find excuses to build up your budget. Remind everyone how critical your function is.

The more likely explanation is the unhealthy relationship between many senior military officials and private defense contractors. Not least of these incentives is the prospect of post-military-retirement jobs as officers or consultants at defense industries, despite the restrictions currently in place.

But this was the "military-industrial complex" at work. Finding excuses to spend billions on highly questionable weapons systems. While Bin Ladin's al-Qaeda group and the nation of Afghanistan prepared a successful attack on the Pentagon.

*********************

On that last point, my understanding now is that the Taliban government in Kabul not only tolerated but welcomed Al Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan. But I don't recall hearing any direct evidence that the government itself was involved in the actual planning of the 9/11 attacks.

The Star Wars boondoggle continued, of course:


David Willman has been reporting on Star Wars/missile-defense for the Los Angeles Times. Two years ago he reported $40-Billion Missile Defense System Proves Unreliable.

Just this month, he reported in A flawed missile defense system generates $2 billion in bonuses for Boeing 09/02/2016:

The interceptors failed to destroy their targets in six of the 11 tests — a record that has prompted independent experts to conclude the system cannot be relied on to foil a nuclear strike by North Korea or Iran.

Yet over that same timespan, Boeing Co., the Pentagon’s prime contractor for GMD, collected nearly $2 billion in performance bonuses for a job well-done, the Los Angeles Times has learned.

The Pentagon paid Boeing more than $21 billion total for managing the system during that period.

A Times investigation also found that the criteria for the yearly bonuses were changed at some point to de-emphasize the importance of test results that demonstrate the system’s ability to intercept and destroy incoming warheads.
And when were such changes made?

Early on, Boeing’s contract specified that bonuses would be based primarily on “hit to kill success” in flight tests. In later years, the words “hit to kill” were removed in favor of more generally phrased benchmarks, contract documents show. ...

In 2002, President George W. Bush ordered “an initial set of missile defense capabilities” to be put in place within two years.

To accelerate deployment, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld exempted the missile agency from the Pentagon’s standard procurement rules and testing standards.

The Pentagon’s own Operational Test and Evaluation office has documented serious deficiencies in the system. So have other government agencies and independent experts. [my emphasis]

Nice work if you can get it! And defense contractors do get it.

We're now into the fourth decade of the major Star Wars/missile defense effort. It's main purpose was to provide a missile shield to intercept nuclear missiles. Which only works if it's extremely close to 100% reliable. The strategic idea behind it was always dubious, to put it mildly, even if it had that level of reliability. Which it's never come close to having.

But who cares about that if it's generating not only billions of dollars in profit to companies that fail decade after decade to make the thing work?

Friday, September 09, 2016

Bobo Brooks on why we have such fact-free politics these days

We had what surely will be a signature moment in the history of Boboism today (Shields and Brooks on high stakes for debate moderators, a dead heat in the polls PBS Newshour 09/09/2016):



Bobo:

And the final point to be made, just in terms of cognitive science, the idea that when you correct a fact, you erase that fact from people’s memories is the reverse of the truth. When you correct a fact, what you do is you further lodge that fact into people’s minds, and they remember the error.

And we have had all these fact-checking services on TV in the print, three Pinocchios, liar, liar, pants on fire award, and we have not entered a more factual era of American politics. We have entered a less factual era. So, there’s just that blunt fact that it doesn’t work.
Fact-checking is the reason the Republican Party runs on fact-free fantasy. Awesome! Because all this here fact-checkin' don't really mean nothin' nohow.

Bobo's specialty is making ridiculous Republican proposals and slogans sound respectable. Or at least harmlessly boring.

But his explanation today of how fact-free nonsense became common currency in American politics may be a classic moment in Boboism. It's all the fault of journalists doing what they call "fact-checking," you see.

I'm in awe! All these silly hippies grumbling about how we need better "journalism" should just stop their whining, amirite?

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"Identity" politics, economics, populism and the complicated relationships among them

Here are two very recent essays dealing with neoliberalism and its political manifestations: Joan Walsh, Can the Democrats Win Back White Working-Class Voters? The Nation 09/05/2016; and, Frances Coppola, Austerity and the rise of populism Coppola Comment 069/05/2016.

Joan's piece deals with a perennial dilemma of left politics, center-left and otherwise: the conflict between "identity" politics (feminism, anti-racism, gay rights) and politics focused on economic issues of particular benefits to the working class. She's also the author of the informative and perceptive book What's the Matter with White People? Finding Our Way in the Next America (2012). She's done a lot of work and put a lot of thought into these issues.

In this piece, she argues against the position that Thomas Frank has been arguing for years, which she characterizes this way: "Frank has repeatedly argued that Democrats alienated their former base through their support for neoliberalism, NAFTA, and Wall Street deregulation."

Leaving aside whether that adequately characterizes Franks' position, Joan starts off seeming to argue that "identity" politics, particularly white racism, was decisive in moving so many white working-class voters into the Republican column. But she winds up suggesting that the dilemma, or contradiction if you prefer, is misleading. She sympatherically quotes  Karen Nussbaum of the AFL-CIO's Working America project:

“We try to fill the void with information,” Nussbaum explains. She avoids chicken-and-egg arguments about which came first: white working-class economic suffering or a misplaced resentment of racial minorities. She also believes that choosing between the Obama coalition and the white working class is a false dichotomy. “I believe in a multiracial progressive movement that includes white working-class people,” Nussbaum says. “We can’t govern nationally without them. We make either/or choices at our peril. It would be wrong to concede the white working class to an ever bigger, consolidating hard right. We can’t just defeat Trump—we have to defeat Trumpism, or else Democrats are not going to be able to govern.” [my emphasis]
Joan also provides some reality-check information that reminds us that the appeal of the Republican Party and Donald Trump to white "working class" isn't such a clear-cut thing as superficial punditry often suggests.

One frustrating complication in these analyses is the lack of a common understanding of who the working class is. My own operating definition is something like, anybody who would be eligible to join a union (or who should be eligible). Largely because of the kinds of background information pollsters collect on their samples, people without four-year college degrees are often taken as the functional equivalent of working class, which Joan also does in this essay. I strongly suspect that its a seriously inadequate definition.

Her arguments don't lead to any decisive results. But her cautious optimism on the following is justified: " The resurgent populist, pro-opportunity, and anti-oligarchy left wing of the Democratic Party has pushed politicians, including Clinton, to embrace many policies—on trade, union rights, Social Security, and education — that many hope will win back this cohort [white working class voters]." That's true. And it's an encouraging development.

Frances Coppola is looking at this set of issues from a different perspective. I plan to return to her long piece in a later blog post. Her focus is on how the economic policy dogma of austerity as a solution to the Great Recession set the stage for a populist reaction, especially in Europe. That dogma is also known as Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economics. As she explains:

But the prescription turned out to be voodoo. Seven years on, prosperity has not returned: many countries in Europe are still mired in austerity, some are deeply depressed, government debt is higher than ever and unemployment is still painfully high. Failure of austerity measures to deliver the promised prosperity is toxic: popular anger and fear fuel the rise of populist politicians. Rudi Dornbusch, in a wonderful paper about debt crises and populism in Latin America, observed that the roots of populism lie in austerity, often imposed by an external agent such as the IMF. Chancellor Brüning's austerity measures in the German Great Depression, designed to end Germany's debt crisis and restore foreign confidence, led to the rise of Hitler.
And here is how she frames the broad relationship between the effects of neoliberal policies and voter receptiveness to populist political appeals:

Thatcher's generation of populist politicians discarded the big state, "Keynesian" model that had dominated since WWII. They replaced it initially with austerity (to break unions power and defeat inflation). But in any democracy, austerity is short-lived unless you can find a way of convincing your supporters either that they are not really suffering (so you protect people who will vote for you) or that the good times will return "any day now". Thatcher's generation - or perhaps more correctly, Reagan's generation, since this comes from economic thinking in the USA - promised that globalisation would bring prosperity for all. We could say that they replaced a "big state" model with a "big world" one. Free trade, free movement of people, free movement of capital: these were the pillars on which the new golden age would be built. ...

But the Western middle classes saw no benefit. For them, globalisation brought stagnation and decline, as their jobs were offshored and their wages fell to the global mean. Their prosperity turned out to be an illusion, built on an insubstantial debt bubble. The promise made to them in the Reagan years has been exposed as a lie. And they are angry. Globalisation has failed - now it is time to "take back control". [my emphasis]
Voters and political activists are motivated by variety of issues and operate with sometimes conflicting beliefs. There is no simple and easy link between bad economic conditions and attraction to rightwing populism. But there are links. As I've mentioned before, people who have a well-founded confidence in their economic prospects are at the very least less likely to be looking for scapegoats for overall frustration that they feel about society and the government.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Brazil's "soft coup" against Dilma Rousseff completed last week

Jonathan Watts Donna Bowater summarize the story of former Brazilian President Dilms Rousseff's impeachment in Brazil's Dilma Rousseff impeached by senate in crushing defeat 09/01/2016. This is the biggest example so far of what has come to be known as a "soft coup":

For more than 10 months, the leftist leader fought efforts to impeach her for frontloading funds for government social programmes and issuing spending budget decrees without congressional approval ahead of her reelection in 2014. The opposition claimed that these constituted a “crime of responsibility”. Rousseff denies this and claims the charges – which were never levelled at previous administrations who did the same thing – have been trumped up by opponents who were unable to accept the Workers’ party’s victory.

Speaking to her supporters from the presidential palace after the vote, Rousseff pledged to appeal her impeachment, which she called a parliamentary coup. The ousted president also called on her supporters to fight the conservative agenda now bolstered by her removal from office.

“Right now, I will not say goodbye to you. I am certain I can say, ‘See you soon,’” she told supporters in Brasilia.

In keeping with her pledge to fight until the end for the 54 million voters who put her in office, Rousseff – a former Marxist guerrilla – ended her presidency this week with a gritty 14-hour defence of her government’s achievements and a sharply worded attack on the “usurpers” and “coup-mongers” who ejected her from power without an election.



eMeg campaigns for Clinton

This is not the kind of story progressive Democrats like to see: Seema Mehta, Meg Whitman stumps for Hillary Clinton, demurs when asked about Cabinet post 08/30/82016. This is not the kind of thing I want to be hearing about a campaign that has a great chance to build a real public mandate for important progressive policy ideas which it (nominally?) supports:

Republican billionaire Meg Whitman, in her first appearance on the campaign trail for Hillary Clinton, wouldn’t rule out serving in a Cabinet position if the Democratic presidential nominee wins the White House in the fall.

“We’ll see what happens,” Whitman told KUSA-TV in Denver, adding that she enjoyed her life in California and was committed to Hewlett-Packard, where she is chief executive. ...

Whitman, who previously served on the GOP presidential campaigns of 2016 candidate Chris Christie, 2012 nominee Mitt Romney and 2008 nominee John McCain, praised Clinton’s “compassion, commitment and courage,” and told the crowd that Clinton would be the steward for the nation’s economy.

“If you are a lifelong Republican, it’s hard to come across [the partisan divide,]” Whitman said, according to the Denver Post. “But I decided that this year it was clear to me that Secretary Clinton’s temperament, leadership experience and commitment to America’s foundational values make her the far better choice for president.”

In interviews with local media, Whitman said she remained a Republican, and after voting for Clinton in November, she would work to rebuild her party.[my emphasis]

In the still-unlikely event that Hillary loses to Trump, her campaign will of course blame Bernie Sanders and his supporters, even though Sanders endorsed her and is campaigning for her. That's how it works with the establishment Democrats, the DFHs are always to blame.

Still, I have to wonder what her campaign thinks that she will get from having eMeg Whitman campaign for her. eMeg's major direct foray into politics was her ill-fated campaign for Governor against Jerry Brown in 2010. She outspent him by a large margin, tens of millions more. But she lost. She's spent much of her career giving speeches to corporate and investor audiences who were unlikely to press her on hot-button political issues. And she mostly went before FOX News and other friendly media during her campaign. It really showed in their debates, which sealed it for Jerry. Who, not incidentally, is a master debater.

But she was about as uninspiring a candidate as you could imagine. Unless you include that guy who ran against him in 2014 who nobody knew and nobody remembers. What does eMeg campaigning bring that's positive? It's not as though Hillary is in desperate need of shoring up the women's vote. Of course, if she plans to continue Obama's Bipartisan schtick after she wins...

But even that doesn't make sense. Republicans have not special fondness for eMeg, not even the ones who know who she is.

John Frank reported on eMeg's Denver appearance in Republican Meg Whitman makes campaign debut for Hillary Clinton in Colorado Denver Post 08/30/2016:

Clinton is the first Democrat for president that Whitman endorsed. She supported Al Gore in 2000 and has donated to various other Democratic politicians in recent years.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper introduced Whitman and suggested her endorsement of Clinton is “one of the most significant moments” in the effort to recruit support across the aisle.

“The business community has really turned out in force, again and again” for Clinton, he said. “It’s not surprising. … There’s not much of a choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. What’s perplexing for some of us is there are still some business people out there who haven’t followed through on that.” [my emphasis]
After nearly eight years of President Obama confronting radical Republican obstructionism with tepid Bipartisanship, Democrats should be take talk of working "across the aisle" or reaching "across the aisle" or doing anything else "across the aisle" as a signal that the candidate doesn't take progressive Democratic positions seriously.

And having the Democratic Presidential campaign reach "across the aisle" also doesn't help much with inspiring Democratic turnout in the fall, turnout that is critical to building Democratic strength in the House and Senate.

Thursday, September 01, 2016

The twisted conflict in Syria

Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham take a look at the recent complications that have developed in the incredibly messy and complicated Syrian civil war in U.S. Strategy to Fight ISIS Has Set Off a New Conflict in Syria The Intercept 08/31/2016:

Turkey’s intervention represents a significant escalation of the conflict, as well as a sign that the country is likely to take a more aggressive approach to foreign policy following July’s failed military coup and subsequent purge.

But Turkey’s intervention is also an indication that the U.S. strategy of empowering Kurdish groups to fight the Islamic State in Syria has helped trigger an entirely new conflict, this time between U.S.-backed militias and a NATO ally.

Turkey launched its recent incursion both to take territory from the Islamic State and also to halt gains by the Syrian Democratic Forces and People’s Protection Units, Kurdish-led groups backed by the United States. The government in Ankara fears these groups will set up an autonomous Kurdish zone on its border, emboldening separatists within Turkey.
Joshua Landis talks about the Turkish intervention in Turkey’s Syria Intervention Syria Comment 08/28/2016:

I doubt Turkey’s attack on the Kurds will bring Turkey, Russia and Assad closer to each other. Yes, Assad and Russia are pleased to see the Kurdish-American juggernaut stopped. Neither Syrian Arabs nor Turks want to see a contiguous Kurdish state stretching the length of Syria’s border with Turkey. All the same, Assad and Turkey remain bitter enemies. Turkey is promoting and arming rebel groups that plan to destroy Assad and conquer all of Syria. Assad hopes to drive Turkish backed groups from the country. The two will come into conflict sooner than later. Their common enmity for the Kurds is a bad foundation for understanding.

Turkey will become drawn into the Syrian quagmire. Kurdish groups and some Arab militias will begin to attack the Turkish presence in Syria. This will suck Turkey into the fighting. The Syrian gov & Russia will promote these attacks. They have an interest in bleeding Turkey. They hope it will make Ankara more amenable to compromise. Turkey has already been weakened by the burden of refugees, renewed war with the Kurds, exacerbated internal secular-religious (Sunni-Shiite) discord, the failed coup attempt, the collapse of its Zero Enemies policy, and a sinking economy. Sending Turkish forces into Syria is only likely to continue this downward spiral. Turkish direct participation in the Syria conflict is unlikely to lead to a solution. Rather it is likely to prolong Syria’s agony. If we have learned anything from the Syrian conflict it is that the more external actors are willing to provide money, arms and firepower to Syrian proxies, the longer the war will gone on and the less likely one side is to win. [my emphasis]
And he notes, " It is quite clear that the United States no longer expects the rebels to win in Syria. The Turkish government also seems to have resigned itself to the survival of the Assad government in the medium term if not indefinitely."

Gareth Porter looks at how the Obama Administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wound up compounding the seriousness of the Syrian situation (A US-Fueled Syrian Sectarian Bloodbath Consortium News 08/31/2016):

The Obama administration bears responsibility for this atrocity, because it could have prevented Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia from launching their foolishly adventurous war in Syria. None of them did so out of desperate need; it was a war of choice in every case.

And each of the three states is part of the U.S. security system in the Middle East, providing military bases to NATO or to the United States and depending on US support for its security.

But instead of insisting that those three Sunni allies reconsider their options, the Obama administration gave the green light at a conference in Riyadh at the end of March 2012 for proceeding with arming those who wanted to replace the regime, leaving the United States ostensibly free to be a peacemaker.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Turkey, Europe and the war in Syria

Marc Pierini analyzes the current state of relations between the EU and Turkey in The Ankara-Brussels Problem Carnegie Europe 08/25/2016. He summarizes the currently pressing issues this way:

Between Turkey and the EU, priority issues for discussion include, as a start: Syria, counterterrorism cooperation, the implementation of the refugee assistance program in Turkey, the modernization of the customs union, and ongoing civil society cooperation (including educational and cultural programs such as the Jean Monnet Scholarships.)
He also makes this observation about the recent failed coup in Turkey:

The attempted coup was a vicious attack by Turks against Turks. It resulted in a massive destabilization of the country, its armed forces, its state institutions in general, and its international prestige. This was a self-engineered disaster and, in its aftermath, the EU and the West immediately showed their solidarity with Turkey.

Right now, Turkey is telling the world that the Gülen movement is behind the coup. This is plausible. It is important that solid evidence and a thorough enquiry show whether this was in fact the case. For the time being, Western diplomacies may recall that not too long ago, and until December 2013, AKP [the ruling party] ministers and Gülenist organizations were working hand-in-hand toward the same religious-conservative societal project. Gülenist organizations were always treated with great caution by the West because the movement was secret and its governance, membership, and financing unknown. However, Western diplomats occasionally came across Gülenists at the behest of AKP ministers, who promoted some Gülen members as the privileged interlocutors of visiting foreign dignitaries. In other words, let’s not forget that the AKP’s arch-enemy today was its closest ally yesterday.
I'll note in passing that Pierini uses "political populism" as though it should be taken as pejorative on the face of it, a common usage in the EU political vocabulary.

It's notable that Pierini lists Syria as the first item on his priority list. Turkey has recently undertaken a cross-border incursion into Syria. Nominally, the incursion is aimed at the Islamic State. But it's widely assumed that Syrian Kurdish forces are Turkey's main concern. Aljazeera reports (Erdogan: 'Syria operations will continue until the end' 08/29/2016):

On Sunday, Turkey intensified its "Euphrates Shield" military offensive in northern Syria, with Turkish warplanes and artillery pounding areas held by pro-Kurdish forces close to Jarablus, the town taken from ISIL by Ankara-backed Syrian rebels earlier this week.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 40 civilians were killed in separate Turkish strikes near the village of al-Amarneh and in Jeb al-Kussa, outside Jarablus - the first reports of significant civilian casualties since the start of Turkey's operation on Wednesday.

Birce Bora reports on the Kurdish angle (Kurds and refugees behind Turkey's Syria offensive Aljazeera 08/28/2016):

Turkey's military intervention in Syria is more about controlling Kurdish progress than combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), Turkish analysts say.

"The Jarablus operation may be against ISIL, but its main aim is to make sure the border zone is controlled by Turkey-friendly rebels and not Kurdish forces," says Faik Demir, an expert on Turkish politics and foreign policy at Istanbul's Galatasaray University.

On Wednesday, Syrian rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), backed by Turkish tanks and Special Forces, launched a military offensive titled "Operation Euphrates Shield" in northern Syria. It saw them recapture the strategic border town of Jarablus from ISIL fighters in a matter of hours.

Turkish analysts say while the operation was unprecedented - given that it is the first time a key regional power puts boots on the ground in Syria since the Syrian crisis broke out in 2011 - it was not surprising.
Robert Olson (Jarabulus: Another Escalation in the War between Turkey and the Kurds LobeLog Foreign Policy 08/29/2016) adds on the Jarabulus operation:

On August 24, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield, an attack on the Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Jarabulus, a small town located on the Turkish-Syrian. While Turkey has had troops on the Syrian side of the border for some time, the attack on Jarabulus and on some of its surrounding territory marks an important escalation in Ankara’s participation in the U.S.-led war against IS, which Turkey first joined in July 2015 after agreeing to allow the U.S. to use Incirlik air base to strike IS targets in Syria and Iraq. This agreement also allowed Turkey to heighten its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The escalation in Jarabulus targets the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is closely affiliated with the PKK.

Turkey’s mission in Jarabulus, in support of anti-Assad rebel forces, will likely be open-ended, much like the ongoing deployment of Turkish forces in Bashiqa in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)-controlled part of Iraq. Turkey will now likely move to establish an IS-free zone, some 70 miles long and 30 miles deep, on the Syrian side of the border. Such a project has been bruited about for some years, and has been supported by U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. This zone would be used to aid in the liberation of Aleppo, much like the Turkish forces in Bashiqa would aid in the liberation of Mosul. [my emphasis]
Who knows what American foreign policy priorities will be next January? But Hillary has repeatedly stessed that she wants an expanded American participation in the Syrian civil war. And the main US allies right now are Kurdish forces that our NATO ally Turkey has been attacking.

The "soft coup" in Brazil goes after Lula de Silva

Eric Nepomuceno looks at development in the ongoing "soft coup" in Brazil. (Lula es el verdadero blanco del golpe Página/12 29.08.2016)

The headline is a word play on "golpe blanco" (soft coup), also called golpe en blanco. Blanco also means "target." So the headline reads, Lula is the real blanco of the coup.

Elected President Dilma Rousseff (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) of the Workers Party was removed from office in impeachment proceedings driven by the opposition on trumped-up corruption charges. The credibility of the whole proceeding isn't enhanced by the fact that the interim President Michel Temer is currently restricted banned from running for any public office in Brazil as part of a legal penalty related to corruption charges.

Nepomuceno reports on a new development in which the Policía Federal, the Brazilian version of the FBI, has made a report implicating former President Lula de Silva in what sounds like another very shaky corruption charge having to do with an apartment he and his wife had bought while it was being constructed. According to Nepomuceno's report, Lula had pulled out of the arrangement and his attorneys had asked the construction company to recover the money. Since apparently Lula and his wife stood to lose money on the deal, it's kind of hard on the face of it to see how this functions as some kind of a bribe for him. In this way, it's reminiscent of the Whitewater pseudoscandal in the 1990s in the United States.

The successive governments of Lula and Dilma were part of what has been called the "pink tide" of left governments in Latin America which challenged the neoliberal "Washington Consensus" in various ways. Lula was President 2003-2011, succeeded by Dilma until she was removed from office in this year's "soft coup."

Corruption is a part of life in business and in government, but that's certainly no reason to be complacent about it, much less accepting.

Corruption accusations are also part of politics. And accusations of corruption are not the same as real corruption. The long history of pseudoscandals is an excellent reminder of that.

But politics is also involved in even legitimate investigations of corruption, particularly when it involves the head of government. The impeachment of Bill Clinton is a great example of that, too. The charges against him were essentially trivial in the end. And the partisan motivations were painfully obvious. Which is why a solid majority of the public supported him in his fight against impeachment.

The other Presidential impeachment in the US, that of Andrew Johnson, was also intensely political and partisan. The underlying political issue there was a substantial one. Johnson's opponents were seeking to have a democratic Reconstruction in the occupied South that would protect the right of black citizens instead of the planter-friendly "Presidential Reconstruction" Johnson had implemented. The formal charge against him is still debated. But, at best, it involved a big judgment call on the part of those Senators voting unsuccessfully for his removal from office related to the Tenure-of-Office law which Johnson was impeached for allegedly violating.

John Kennedy in his 1957 Profiles in Courage, written before he had his touch encounters as President with the intransigence of Southern segregationist Governors like Ross Barnett and George Wallace, selected Kansas Republican Sen. Edmund Ross (1826–1907) for one of his profiles based on his voting against convicting Johnson in the Senate. It was a decisive vote, since conviction failed by only one vote.

In the Brazilian case, there are real problems with corruption, many of them stemming from the state oil company Petrobras. Brazil isn't as exclusively a petrostate as Venezuela. But it is a petrostate. And corruption is one of their chronic problems.

Still, the superficial and strained nature of the corruption charges against both Lula and Dilma is an indication of how insubstantial the actual evidence against them is. The conservative parties in South America share a common program of opposing left governments and defending the neoliberal political and ideological project.

And "soft coups" have become a common approach to unseating left governments. (See my post The art of the "soft coup" 04/12/2016 for more details.) Paraguay served as a kind of test case for a golpe blanco in 2012. Outside of Latin America, Ukraine in 2014 also experienced a "soft coup" with a destructive upshot in the conflict with Russia. That is one of the options being attempted by the opposition in Venezuela.

What the exact American role was in those coups, we probably won't know for years. But in Paraguay and Ukraine, and apparently now in Brazil, the Obama Administration has been sympathetic to the soft coups. And presumably would be sympathetic to one in Venezuela, as well.

More on the Hillary Clinton "access" issue

Thomas Lippman makes a point in Clinton Foundation Story Highlights DC’s Access Problem LobeLog Foreign Policy 08/29/2016 similar to the one I made in my previous post on the controversy over whether donors to the Clinton Foundation may have received preferential treatment in official business when Hillary was Secretary of State:

The outrage, however, is misdirected. This is not just about who got face time with the secretary of state; it’s about the way Washington works all the time, regardless of who is president or who is secretary of any cabinet department. Access is to people in Washington what gold is to gold miners. It is what lobbyists and trade association executives are paid to develop; it is what enables think tanks to get their policy papers to the top of the inbox. It’s why government official X or Senator Y returns this phone call instead of that one. Rarely is there a specific trade-off. In this sense Washington is no different from Albany or Sacramento or any other state capital.

Is this corruption? Angry voters may think so because the system appears to favor some insiders over ordinary folk, but the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t agree, overturning the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell in a gifts-for-access case. Absent a specific quid pro quo, the Court ruled, it’s not corruption, even if it doesn’t pass the smell test. Similarly, the court ruled in the Citizens United case that corporate contributions to political campaigns are free speech, not corrupt purchase of access. [my emphasis]
This is an important point that understandably may not be not entirely clear to many voters. And it's a key issue in regulating campaign finances. Pay-for-play arrangements between donors and politicians are illegal. But the law can't be enforced unless an explicit quid pro quo arrangement can be proven.

One of the most famous cases in which quid pro quo was demonstrated was the FBI sting operation in the 1970s kinow as Abscam. The 2013 film American Hustle was based on the Abscam case. Ted Sherman summarized the case in Jersey Hustle: The real-life story of Abscam Inside Jersey 11/25/2016

The elaborate sting ensnared seven members of Congress, including six in the House of Representatives and a veteran U.S. Senator, along with a powerful New Jersey state legislator, three Philadelphia councilmen and a number of high-level political operatives. Abscam involved phony, oil-rich Arab sheiks with suitcases full of cash, stolen artwork, payoffs for Atlantic City casino licenses and backroom influence peddling that generated worldwide headlines and set off political shockwaves for years thereafter.

The undercover probe, which came to light in February 1980, ultimately led to the convictions of Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), Camden Democratic Mayor Angelo Errichetti, New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Thompson Jr., and other lawmakers, who were caught on secretly recorded surveillance video accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.

It was a sting that still enrages defense attorneys who say it was based on crimes the government itself created. Sharply criticized by one federal district judge who accused the government of using “outrageous” tactics, the affair was flatly labeled a case of prosecutorial misconduct by a former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.
The fact that the case was a sting operation is an illustration of the difficulty of enforcing the laws against quid pro quo in campaign donations. Unless the deals are recorded or a direct participant rats out the others, it's nearly impossible to prove. People making large campaign donations for a illegal quid pro quo aren't in the habit of making written contracts spelling out the illegal obligations. In the Asbscam sting, Democratic Congressman Michael Myers was famously recorded as saying to someone he thought was a donor, "money talks and bullshit walks."

Source Watch has an entry on the Abscam bribery scandal (04/01/2008) providing details on the case.

That's why the problem has to be controlled through regulations, limits and reporting requirements on campaign donations. Wendy Brown in Undoing the Demos (2015) characterizes the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision this way, "Calling such bans an abridgement of free speech and giving corporations the standing of persons with an unqualified right to political speech, the ruling permits corporate money to overwhelm the election process." She observes that the decision "permits large corporations to finance elections, the ultimate icon of popular sovereignty in neoliberal democracy." Without the ability to regulate such campaign contributions, the ban on explicit quid pro quo is effectively meaningless.

Lippman in his final paragraph has this comment on the complexity of access issues:

The problem in the Clinton access case is not that individuals pulled whatever strings they could to gain access to her or to someone who could obtain access for them. That happens all the time, even if ordinary Americans don’t understand how the system operates. The problem is that the apparent lubricant in this case was money, which people do understand, but there are other lubricants, such as the potential for a post-government job. It would be a mistake to believe that if there were no Clinton Foundation, people would not have had some other channel by which to seek access to Secretary Clinton. The Crown Prince of Bahrain, for example, might have gone through a contact in the Navy, rather than the Foundation, because his country is home to the Fifth Fleet. Inside the Beltway, that’s what access is all about. [my emphasis]