Sunday, August 23, 2015

Differently the same.

Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are two different sides of the very same coin.  Their success and appeal has surprised most of us.  Neither may win their respective party’s nomination, but both have, albeit with very different messages, touched a similar nerve.  Both are drawing big crowds; both have enthusiastic supporters.  Both depart (Bernie less so) from what we have come to see as the political norm.  It is in doing so that they strike a common cord — a wish for something different than the status quo, some direction other than the one in which we are heading.  Perhaps most significantly, much of their early success derives from the weaknesses of other candidates in the field.  For The Donald it is sixteen relatively undifferentiated wannabes, perhaps especially the lackluster assumed frontrunner Jeb Bush.  For Bernie it is a growing unease with the presumptive nominee symbolized by her unconventional use of a private email in public office.  It’s the real or perceived at-the-edge “Clinton way”, with potential unpleasant surprises still to come.

But focusing on weak or potentially flawed competitors would be to miss the import of the Sanders/Trump phenomenon.  It is that they are both striking a palpable cord of discontent — two sides of the same coin.  That should command our attention.  For sure, these two men could not be more different in personality or in message.

The Vermont senator is an unabashed deep-rooted progressive.  Like Trump his weapon is candor, but his seemingly unbending and longstanding convictions are authentic and never in doubt.  His approach to politics has always been unorthodox tokened by his proudly wearing the badge of democratic Socialism.  His many victories in Vermont have been built on a foundation of integrity and probably the courage to align with an ideology — even worse than the “L” word — that has long been dismissed, even derided, by the political mainstream.  It has also been built, the present campaign shows, on much greater political skill than he was assumed to have.

The New York  business tycoon/performer is a relentless self-promoter and, looking at his record, a man of flexible ideology.  Conservatives point to his past support Democrats and progressive positions.  Some will say this bespeaks an independent mind, but I’d hazard that it reflects more a deft salesman attuned to the particular market in which he happens to be playing at any one time.   Real estate in New York may be very different than in Florida or around the world — different consumers, different sales pitch.  In the current marketing context, Trump’s pitch is to a conservative primary electorate, especially to their discomfort with the present and assumed future — specifically with the rise of  “the other”.   For them, immigration is the hot button and symbolic issue.

Sanders’ message is rooted on income inequality and the extraordinary power of the business class.  It’s a power that’s beyond rising.  His natural message as a socialist, expressed or implied, is that capitalism as we know it has run amok.  The American dream is slipping away in the wake of an increasingly two class system: the super rich and everyone else.  It is a time when the idea of middleclass is just that: an idea.  Even worse, it’s an idea that is becoming more myth that reality or even a possibility.  Despite is age, Bernie is attracting many young people to his rallies.  That is not surprising since they are the generation who, if things continue in their current path, are unlikely to achieve the dream’s promise of doing better than their parents.  Beyond that, there is an air of disappointment that the hopes and dreams of 2008 failed to be achieved.   History will judge whether blame lies with the president on whom those hopes were pinned or on the overwhelming system that made fulfilling them unrealistic in the first place.  I think more, or at the very least equally, the latter.

Trump speaks to something that I have written about in earlier posts.  His Republican audience — his 25% of potential primary voters — is largely white and skews older.   They see the America in which they grew up and upon which they relied not merely slipping away but being overtaken by an alien usurper.   The changing demographic to which political scientists point academically is their nightmare reality.  In the past they were faced only with the challenge of a growing, but certainly not dominant, African American population.  Now they must contend with the rise of Latino and Asian Americans who, together with Blacks, are headed for majority status.  White supremacy in the sense of being the dominant population is fading.  Add to that, the rise of LGBT rights, a group that has emerged from the “closet” commanding a proud place at the table.  So suddenly a significant portion of the population are opening engaging and celebration what their religion had long taught was sinful.  Marriage equality particularly represents and underscores the kind of change that they fear most.  An African American — to some quarters an “N” — in the White House of all things has been driving them crazy for years.

Sanders is attracting crowds, but still hasn’t much of much following among “the others” who Trump’s people fear.  He can’t win the Democratic nomination without them, and likely won’t.  Trump is “riding high” in both media attention and in the polls, but the reality remains that 75% of potential Republican primary voters don’t buy his candidacy.  By the way, while some believe that Trump is an media invention or kept alive by the media, I don’t buy it.  He uses the media, but what has made him more than a momentary flash in the pan, is that he has touched the nerve discussed in this post.  The convention is a year off.  The freshness of his approach may not have that long a shelf life.   Regardless, whoever the nominees — Democratic and Republican — will do well to consider the audiences of both men.  More important, a future president who does not take their anxiety to account does so at her or his own peril.  Capitalism out of balance is a tinderbox waiting to alight.  It has the potential of making the current wide fires out west look like kids play.  The fear of disenfranchisement is no fantasy.  It’s real.  The ramifications of demographic change, particularly what it means for immediate loss of influence or power may be overblown.  But there will be consequences.

What may be most significant is that the fears and concerns that drive Democrats to Sanders and drive Republicans to Trump are shared by many Americans and indeed some of the specifics are even shared by the very different audiences that these men attract.  Income inequality touches the vast majority of us.  The loss of white dominance, the rise of a new immigrant class and the recognition that a significant percentage of us have different, and natural, sex drives suggests a societal change that will touch everyone.  We are living at the beginning of a new social order.  However each of us may perceive that new order, positively or negatively, it still represents change and the need for adjustment.  We may be unnerved by Bernie or repulsed by Donald, but when it comes to what has made them possible, “attention must be paid”.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Foreign misadventures.

We spend more on healthcare than others, but our outcomes are generally no better, often worse.  I’d suggest the same could be said about our foreign affairs, often accompanied by military action.   Don’t get me wrong, we have great, often leading edge, medicine and remain the most powerful nation on the globe.  But so much of what we do internationally, especially what may best be described as our “adventures” abroad, fail to achieve their stated or implied goals.  Often those goals shift with the wind or are never clearly defined.

On August 14th, Secretary John Kerry spoke at the reopening of our Havana embassy.  Part his speech was delivered in Spanish, something not many of his predecessors could (or in some cases would) do.   Watching the symbolic end of one of our most inane policy standstills, I couldn’t help thinking about our all too often-hapless foreign policy over my lifetime.  Perhaps Jeb Bush’s preposterous blaming Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the mess in the Middle East a few days earlier had already started me on that track.

As a superpower, our world reach is undeniable, though not unprecedented.  Perhaps we don’t rule an empire in the sense that did the Romans, Ottomans, Spaniards, French or English, but these are different times.  What’s most remarkable, especially in the post WW II age, is how very inept and, in many cases, shortsighted our foreign policy has been.  Why is that? 

I think geography plays a significant role, certainly on our mindset.  Surrounded by two vast oceans, we have been largely untouched by foreign invasion or even immediate and regularized contact with others.  That has left us with somewhat of an island, even provincial, mentality.  The curiosity of a State Secretary speaking Spanish underscores how few of us are conversant in other languages, or need to be.  Driving from Chapel Hill to New York, I pass through six states knowing that along the way everyone speaks English.  A trip of similar distance from Paris to Prague takes one through only three states, but each with their own distinct culture and language — French, German and Czech.  Driving here from Carolina to California (ocean to ocean) involves many more miles and states but still one language, our language.  We expect immigrants to learn and speak English — quickly.

It isn’t only geography and language that impact on our foreign policy.  We are a country that tends to focus mostly on the immediate present, paying only lip service to history and its perspective.  We have the national attention span of a distracted child or an adult with onset dementia.  We seem rarely to think through the consequences of our actions — our leaders certainly don’t communicate risks or any sense of realistic uncertainty or self-doubt.  Equally so, despite our flexibility and ingenuity in so many areas, we tend to hold fast to a “story” once told oblivious to any change it might undergo.  Cuba, as the threatening Communist menace, is just such a story.  Conversely, we seem to routinely switch sides where one moment’s close friend is the next moment’s adversary.  The “friend” hasn’t really changed, but the relationship turns out to have been opportunistic rather than longstanding, much less real.

Jeb Bush’s critique was a classic case of throwing stones from a “glass house”, but in truth our misadventures and culpability are bi-partisan.   A Republican president, in this case brother George, may gave gotten us into the Iraq mess — more accurately the neighborhood mess — but Democrats Kennedy and Johnson got us bogged down in Indochina.   Lessons not learned, certainly ignored.  In each case, our adventures went ary in large measure because we didn’t (and still don’t) understand the country/neighborhood and the critical nuances that drive its ways.  Colin Powell invoked his Pottery Barn rule — if you break it, you own it — and it seems that we are constantly breaking and consequently talking ownership of things that don’t belong to us.  We don’t speak the languages and we most defiantly don’t understand the culture and ethos; both remain profoundly “foreign” to us.  Our claim, or more accurately often excuse, is that we pursue what’s in “our national interest”.  Too often, that’s more fiction than a reality — a different kind of story we tell others and, perhaps worse, ourselves.

To be sure elements of our policy are driven by self-interest.  An insatiable dependence of oil to power our inefficient cars has always loomed large in our Middle East interactions and interventions from Iran to the Persian Gulf.  But we are also often moved by the usually short term and short sided idea that “your enemy is my enemy” even when the momentary “friendships” that derive from it often end in disaster.  We sided with what became the Taliban, indeed facilitated their rise to power, because they were fighting the Russians.  Likewise we allied ourselves with Saddam Hussein when he was at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The Taliban hosted and sided with Al Qaeda and Saddam morphed into a fabricated existential enemy.  Eisenhower’s CIA helped overthrow the elected government of Iran reinstating a brutal dictator and we wondered why those who took their country back didn’t view us as a friend.   We invaded Iraq without thinking of what sectarian strife that was bound to unleash.  The turmoil of today in which old pent up rivalries and animosities are playing out isn’t totally or even fundamentally our fault, but we certainly have acted as a naive midwife.

In today’s polarized politics, foreign policy once a unifying force has become a point of hot contention.  There have always been so-called hawks and doves, but a shared discipline about the water’s edge.  Even that is gone.  It seems the only thing on which all sides agree is that America is, as Muhammad Ali used to claim for himself, “The Greatest”.  In that context, the supporters of even patently disastrous policies not only don’t admit to their mistakes but also continue to support the same adventurism or stories.  Those who urged us into Iraq want us to engage in Syria, those who contributed to dangerous instability in the Middle East want to kill the Iran agreement.  On the other hand, playing into our distaste for the body bags returning from the front, a more dovish president orders killer drones that can be deployed from safe places away for the dirt of the battlefield — antiseptically without shedding our own blood.

Theodore Roosevelt, one of our most aggressive presidents famously said, “speak softly and carry a big stick”.   Too often we seem to rely on the big stick while giving short shrift to speaking at all.  In these instances we often conflate diplomacy and military action as if they are one and the same, interchangeable.  If you look at the last half-century that’s exactly when we have gotten in the most trouble, been on the shakiest ground.  It isn’t a matter of not having diplomatic skills, which we clearly do possess, but in replacing them with adventures that have almost all dead-ended.  What a dismal track record is that?  When we pretend to engage with each other on matters of foreign policy — as we may do during the coming election campaign — we are likely to see more posturing than serious discussion.  It will be a far cry from Isaiah’s (1.18) invitation to “reason together”.

Without question, there are times when military force must be employed; even times where we should intervene on foreign soil to save lives or legitimately protect our national interest.  To claim otherwise would be na├»ve, even irresponsible and dangerous.  Criticizing and questioning, as I do here, is far easier than executing.  That said, heeding Isaiah’s invitation, as a guideline for foreign affairs seems more compelling — would produce better outcomes — than TR’s advice.  His direction was flawed because “speaking softly” and a “big stick” aren’t honest equivalents.   At the least, it’s speaking so loudly (read what Obama and others did with Iran), so that the stick need never, or rarely, to be used.   More important, as technology shrinks the world, we’ve got to move on from our island mentality and learn some new “languages” — ways of engaging with our now near neighbors around the globe.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


And the winner is?  Fox News.  In the weeks before and days after the first Republican presidential debate, it has managed and driven the story.  From its taking on to itself the role of arbiter — who would and would not be in prime time — it assumed absolute control of the show.  And “show” is the right word.  Roger Ailes certainly didn’t invent presidential campaigns as theater, but he has been its most effective director and stage manager.  Fox specifically has benefited from the before and after publicity garnered by the show’s star attraction.  It still is.   No one, even those who follow politics closely, can remember what substantive policy issues were “debated” in Cleveland.  It was, and continues to be, all Trump, all the time.  Not inconsequentially, it has also been about Megyn Kelly a star Fox performer.  If James Carville made 1992 “all about the economy, stupid”, Fox and Trump have made the start of 2016 all about ratings.

The amount of attention generated by the Fox/Trump combo makes one wonder how spontaneous the “conflict” between candidate and questioner really was?   Was Kelly’s provocation purposeful and was it unexpected?  Did both she and the anointed “star” know what a publicity jewel was in the wind?  Was hers a softball question dressed in hardball cloths?  Probably not, but the fact that I even pose those questions — have such thoughts — speaks volumes about the sad state of things as we approach 2016.  All this is made possible by the undeniable fact that the American presidency is firmly built around the cult of personality.  That may have been baked in from the start — the choice of a separately elected president (term-bound monarch) rather than a prime minister elected with (and a member of) parliament.  But precisely what we have today must be credited to the Roosevelts, TR and Franklin, perhaps our greatest cult-of-personality practitioners.  They were so good at it that their immediate successors — perhaps because they couldn’t perform or as a reflection of public fatigue — were almost anti-heroes.  That didn’t last long.  JFK and Reagan revived the art and now, thanks in large measure to the media, the personality cult is the norm, not the exception.  Being able to project star quality seems qualification #1 for presidential aspirants. The pollsters measure it in terms of “likability”, but we all know what it means.   

More than anything, candidate Donald Trump is a perfect Foxworld creature — politics as show business.   Fox has been so successful that every major outlet, regardless of where it fits into the media landscape, can’t help but headline its story.  That’s profound and we should all take notice.  The usual take on Fox is as the voice of the right in general and the GOP in particular.  That may be true, but I think misses the more important point.  Ideology might drive Fox and its programing, but more important is that Ailes has been successful in guiding and fine tuning politics as entertainment.   Foxworld is the new standard.   MSNBC may aspire to be “the alternative” but it is a mere copycat and thus an inconsequential sideshow.  Foxworld’s real impact can be seen across the broadcasting spectrum but also in such distinguished institutions as The Times, Washington Post and even to some degree The New Yorker.

Whether we call it ratings, page views or whatever is today’s equivalent of “newsstand”, Foxworld sells.  It seduces and draws us in.  The form, format or style may differ but the same story — these days Trump — is universally covered.  Hello, I’m writing about it here and not for the first time.  I challenge you to find a news oriented program, website or publication that hasn’t succumbed to not one but multiple stories about the effectual Foxworld Trump partnership.  I continue to believe that the Donald won’t be accepting a nomination in Ohio next August, but for the moment he is sucking the life out of everyone else’s campaign, especially the Republicans.   This season’s Bush has trouble getting more than one story a week and most of the others have all but disappeared.  Of course that says something about the seventeen who are running not to mention our general ability to focus on but one story at a time.  One almost has to feel sorry for them, almost.

We are certainly living in interesting, often frustrating, times.  But let’s not get so caught up in the present that we think things have never been like this.  They have.  Rupert Murdoch didn’t invite tabloid journalism; slanted broadcast sensationalism didn’t start with Roger Ailes.  Yes the degree to which these been taken to the extreme may be slightly different, but less so than we’d like to think.  The parties may be more polarized than we personally remember them — or chose to remember them — but things got pretty hairy in the 1950s not to mention in the seventeen and eighteen hundreds.  Let’s not forget that at one point the country and parties got so divided that we ended up in a civil war.  That said, what really counts for most of us is where we are, not where we have been.  In that regard, whether an echo of another time or something unique in ours, Foxworld is both dominant  and not a pretty sight.  It likely won't last forever, but so far nobody seems to be leading us in another direction.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Run Joe run.

Chapel Hill is a beautiful place to live.   Despite every effort to undermine it by a now rightist controlled legislature, UNC remains one of the county’s greatest public institutions of higher learning.  The number of Duke faculty who call it home, further reinforces that we are a university town.  They are joined by a host of high tech and pharmaceutical professionals.  Chapel Hill is among the most progressive places where one can live, a liberal bubble in a swing state.  Politics hadn’t heated up when I arrived here in 2006, but that would change as we closed in on the '08 presidential vote.   People here are politically engaged.  Soon bumper stickers appeared, and in this Democratic dominated place they tended to be either for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.  There were more Obama stickers (mine included), but a large number for Hillary.  It was a contest with heartfelt enthusiasm and conviction on both sides.  Obama ultimately prevailed here in the primary and then in the November election.

Fast forward to 2015 where, at this early date, presidential politics dominates the news.  Even so, I’m not seeing any bumper stickers for the seventeen announced GOP candidates — this is a Democratic stronghold — but am struck by what I do see: “Vote Bernie”.  I have yet to encounter Hillary’s name displayed in a local parking lot.  Moreover, while inundated by emails and mailings from the 2008 Obama campaign — they still keep coming even though he isn’t running in ’16 — I have seen only sporadic snail mail from the assumed Democratic nominee.  Perhaps that’s because I haven’t responded to the few that have come; in itself a big contrast from eight years ago when I had already contributed to Obama’s exploratory.  Are we ready for Hillary?  As I’ve written before, not so much, not yet.  The “Vote Bernie” bumper stickers tell me that I’m not alone.  Does that mean that I might be ready for Bernie?  Absolutely not.  I’ve cast my McGovern vote and won’t travel toward that dead end again.  Also, bumper stickers notwithstanding, Bernie commanded a paltry crowd of 200 when he appeared recently in neighboring (and even more activist liberal) Carrboro. 

It’s no wonder we’re hearing that Joe Biden may be seriously considering a run.  Months ago, as in 2008, Hillary was already considered the presumptive nominee and once again something seems to be missing.  In fact, even without the charismatic Obama in the mix, the level of Hillary enthusiasm seems, if anything, to be lower.   Disturbingly, polls give her a negative rating on both honesty and trustworthiness.  In many respects, these are the result of self-inflicted wounds, one’s that I have written about before.  I’m not of course talking about Benghazi, a politically fabricated scandal reminiscent of Whitewater.  I do think Clinton-wealth and foundations contributions are part of the problem, but perhaps not as much as her use of a personal email account while at State.  It isn’t that she did anything illegal; it is rather the optics — not what it is, but what it says.  In often tone-deaf ways the Clinton’s, emulating Frank Sinatra, like to do things, “their way”.

My question continues to be, “what was she thinking?”   Clearly, Hillary never lost the presidential bug and knew from the day Obama won the nomination that she would run again.  She knew it and everyone, most especially her close advisors, expected it.   So if your positioning yourself for a presidential run and you know how treacherous those waters can be — certainly the Clintons know from personal experience — why do something that departs from the norm?   Why raise a red flag?  Yes others, including Jeb Bush, have used personal emails while in public office, but once his brother became president few people, including him, expected a run.  He also wasn’t Secretary of State, among those in the line of succession.  The perception is that rules are not made for a Clinton, that in fact a Clinton makes her or his own rules.  It bespeaks a sense of entitlement; exactly what lost Hillary the all but certain nomination in 2008.  History may repeat itself.

The question of a Biden candidacy first surfaced in late June.  At that time, I posted a blog, “Why not Joe”.  It was a statement, not a question.   Nothing has happened in the intervening weeks that would change my mind.   If anything, my unease about the coming election has grown and, despite some good speeches on substantive issues, my “not so much” feeling about Hillary has become, if anything, stronger.  This is not to suggest that the GOP is offering any alternative.  Among their crowded field are men who have been elected governors of substantial states or who serve in the Senate, but they are all avowed conservatives.   Many have taken their states backwards.  I shudder to think, for example, whom they might appoint to the Supreme Court.  In that regard, Hillary stands head and shoulders above them — no contest.  It is rather that she has done nothing to assuage my (and I think our) uneasy feeling.  At this point, I don’t see any of the announced Democrats as a credible option.  On the other hand, Joe Biden has done everything to make me feel better about him, starting with his obvious humanity but mostly his take on the issues of the day.   A devout Catholic, he was out in front of Obama on marriage equality.  He doesn’t merely understand the middle class; he is one of them.   Like Obama and sometimes more so, he has been reluctant to get us involved in more unwinnable wars.

Biden is older than Clinton, but not by much.  His biggest negative at this time in history is not his unpredictable mouth, but that he is a man.  That is disappointing for anyone like me who would so much like to see a woman in the Oval.  Is Hillary qualified for that job?  Absolutely, but she brings in a lot of baggage, some of which might prove to heavy to withstand the general election against, say, Jeb Bush or worse a Scott Walker.  What’s truly sad is that while there are some very able women, especially in the Senate, none (aside from Elizabeth Warren) has been allowed to even position herself for a run.  That said, several would be powerful Biden running mates, among them Warren, Kristen Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar and Patty Murray.   Would it be even better if one or all of them would run for president?   Yes, but I don’t think that’s likely in what has become a late date for a new face on the national scene.  Moreover, someone like New York’s Gillibrand would be hard pressed to challenge the woman whose seat she took seven years ago.

Could Joe Biden defeat Hillary Clinton for the nomination?   I don’t know, but it’s clear to me that he has a far better chance than any of the currently announced candidates.   I don’t take Sanders poll numbers and crowds for more than an expression of “none of the above”, most pointedly, Clinton.   In fact, I’d venture that many Democratic voters would be hard pressed to even name the others much less know anything about them.   Biden would give Hillary a real run  — I hesitate to say a run for her money — and he could win.  If he does, Democrats might have an even better chance of retaining the White House.  If she prevails in a real challenge the same can be said of Hillary.   I guess my bottom line is pretty simple, run Joe run.