Thursday, June 30, 2016

The morning after, our morning before.

It has been many weeks since my last post.  For sure, much has been happening, but my discipline is to write only when I can add to the conversation, offer some thought that wasn’t redundant.  In this unusual and unnerving political season, we have been subjected to an avalanche — overload may be more accurate — of comment and analysis.  It seems all that could be said has been, and many times over.  

Heading into July and the political conventions, I’ve have been thinking about our national mindset and more important our discontent.  The dramatic Brexit vote may be reflective of how some of us see things here in the Colonies, but of course with our own spin.  In the wake of World War I, some very unnatural boundaries were drawn up in the Middle East creating artificial countries with disparate and often deeply hostile populations.   We are still suffering the consequences of those mis-drawn lines (think Iraq et al).  The Allies did not want to make the same mistake in the aftermath of World War II.  There was no effort to draw new borders, but rather a notion of uniting Europe prevailed, aimed at avoiding future conflicts on the continent.  It was a tall order because, despite the obvious advantages and indeed necessity, there was something unnatural about putting together countries with vastly different histories, languages and cultures.  I always wondered how well that might work.  Not surprisingly, the European Union was born of compromise.  The result was a single currency and interconnected economy, but no unified government or unified language.  The EU is not a United States of Europe.

Emblematic of the somewhat artificial “coming together” was the wary participation of Britain.  Nothing expressed their ambivalence more vividly than London’s decision not to adopt the Euro.  From the start, the UK was hedging its bets, containing its participation.  England especially was never all in on the EU.  So, while the vote taken last week seemed and probably was contrary to the Britain’s economic and social interests, the leave outcome reflected that long-term ambivalence.  By the way, the Pound Sterling decision — maintaining its central bank — is in large measure what made Brexit possible.  Euro using members would have a far more difficult, not to mention very costly, disengagement.  

To be sure, resistance to immigrants — nothing new for the Brits — played some, even a significant, role in the vote.  But blaming it all on xenophobia would be to miss the larger and more significant story.  Globalization, of which the EU is a localized manifestation, may be widely beneficial writ large.  But short term, it has left the kitchen table sparse or totally bare in all too many households.  When put to a vote, people tend to ask not whether something is good for the nation (and world) but “for me”.   And the answer given in Britain by a majority of voters was, “not so much”.

It’s no wonder that the ever-opportunistic Donald Trump immediately embraced Brexit and expressing his wish that it will spread across Europe — “taking their countries and borders back”.  He wants to paint his own candidacy as part of an authentic global movement.  He’s banking on the idea that England’s fears mirror Europe’s and, by extension, America’s.  His views may come off as only xenophobic but he knows the general unease upon which he aggressively plays is far larger than that.  Anti-immigrant and even racist strains — a fear of the other — most certainly obtain among some of Trump’s followers, but sour economic realities faced at too many kitchen tables may be far more relevant.  It is at those tables where many of his and Bernie Sanders supporters converge.  It would be folly on our part to ignore this reality. 

The Donald may be many things, but being stupid is not one of them.  He has proved himself a cunning con man, knowing exactly what buttons to push.  He understood that, despite all its success of the past decades including controlling most state governments and both houses of Congress, the GOP suffers a serious talent void.  It’s presumed broad presidential bench turned out to be a “mile wide and an inch deep”.  He saw weakness not strength in the many and was able to vanquish them using the age-old strategy of divide and conquer.  He may be the most egotistical candidate ever, but he effectively played on the vanity of his opponents, presidential wannabes who, other than their own ambition, had no business in the race.  He also understood that time was ripe for a Republican demagogue and it’s not surprising that the last other man standing was Ted Cruz. 

Trump understands that many rightly frustrated, mostly White Americans, are hungry for a return to yesterday’s “better times”.  His slogan “Make America Great Again” implies not merely that we are in trouble, but that restoring the past will fix it.  That claiming the ability to turn back the clock is the cruelest of false promises matters little to this serial liar. Trump is the champion Washington Post 4 Pinocchio recipient.  He is running a cruel disingenuous campaign beginning with the notion that this billionaire who has built a fortune creating an image of luxury and hob knobbing with the most elite is an “outsider”.  He attributes our under employment problems to globalism and immigrants while Trump branded products largely carry made-in-other-countries labels and his businesses employ low wage foreign-born labor.  And, of course, he conveniently overlooks the role of technology in permanently obviating any restoration of the past.  Indeed, most current and former workers know that even in factories that still function here (and there are many of them) advanced technology, specifically automation, has been the real job killer.  Detroit is back, but it requires far fewer workers to produce a car.  Technology, and our serious lag in preparing and enabling young people for it, has had a far greater impact than either immigrants or trade.

Before going further, a word about trade and globalization.  It seems to me that politicians on all sides, and that was certainly true in the run up to the Brexit vote, are less than candid about this subject.  The world in which we live is interconnected.   Just look in your closet or up at that light fixture on the ceiling above your head.  Your car may have been assembled in Detroit or Tennessee, but many of its parts were made elsewhere.  That has been true for a very long time, longer than the majority of American citizens have been alive.  We don’t have trade treaties just because we want them.  We need them to function and to remain competitive.  Globalization can’t be undone nor, if we are honest, do we want it to be undone.  The citizens of the UK are just beginning to discover how difficult, if not impossible, disengaging will be.  In all likelihood, the parting will be more in name than in reality.  Interdependency rules in the 21st Century and that’s the ultimate fact that counts.

Part of Brexit’s morning after question is obviously whether the forces that made it a winner are, as Trump happily asserts, present here and could bring him to office.  Without question, kitchen table lag frustration, a feeling of powerlessness and a sense, real or imagined, of government’s inability to function or deliver on its promises are at play in 2016.  Any one who has followed our primary season and doesn’t understand that hasn’t been listening.  That Washington has been in gridlock during most of Obama’s presidency only fuels that frustration.  It not only impacts those who have yet to catch up to the recovery but most of us.   Does that spell a Trump presidency?  I don’t think so, but we shouldn’t rule out that potential/danger.

I hope and trust that Hillary Clinton is taking this reality to both head and heart.  While most students of politics dismiss Vice Presidential choices, her selection this year will count and can made a difference.  Democrats’ frustration and dissatisfaction gave substance to Bernie Sanders’s campaign.  She doesn’t only need those votes but those voters enthusiastic support.  Elizabeth Warren probably speaks to that better than anyone else and she has become the most effective debunker of Trump than anyone else around.  For a long time my bet was on Julian Castro who is both young and would have obvious appeal to Latinos.  But he doesn’t necessarily bring on Bernie’s followers.  Obviously, selecting a senator is tricky given the importance to retaking the body, but winning the presidency remains the top priority.

Many of Sanders’ supporters are young.  They really have more at stake in this election than anyone else.  The makeup of the Supreme Court alone will determine much about the rest of their long lives ahead.  What kind of country we will be?  The Reagan, Bush and Bush presidencies have given us years of conservative decisions, not the least Citizens United.  W appointed the youthful Roberts and Alito.  Anyone thinking it doesn’t really matter who sits in the White House or how much damage they can do must not be paying attention.  Presidents count big time.  Young people were wild about Bernie and young people in the UK were wild about Retain.   The problem is that while older folks who actually have the least at stake (the fewest years to be impacted) are committed voters, young voters are lazy and unreliable in that regard.  64% of young people supported Remain, but only a fraction of them went to the polls.  Senior citizens, whose lives will be only minimally touched by its consequences, determined the Brexit outcome.  For me, that, not dissatisfaction with the economy or government, is the larger message of what happened in the UK last week.  Our turnout in elections is a general embarrassment, but the low turnout of young voters is nothing less the irresponsible even criminal.

Donald Trump won’t be president if we turn out to vote, most especially if our kids and grandkids don’t stay on the sidelines…again.   We dare not — they dare not — let that happen.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Clarity, ugh!

Okay, I’m not getting paid to follow campaigns or prognosticate, but to use that as an excuse would be really lame.  I blew it, big time!  Donald Trump whom I refused to take seriously will be the GOP nominee.  The election is still almost six months away.  Buckle up; things are likely to get even more poisonous and ugly.

Paul Krugman suggested in a recent column that the emergence of Trumpism reflects the fact that the GOP simply hasn’t delivered for its base.  I don’t know if that’s really how they feel.  It doesn’t much matter because what began in 2010 as the anti-establishment Tea Party rebellion has now reached a new, albeit counter intuitive, height: the crowning of a billionaire demagogic whom they have convinced themselves is just like them: a “true outsider”.  Trump has been deft at understanding their frustration, at hitting all the right notes for his angry and frustrated prime audience.  As I’ve written before the real issue for them — many in the Republican base — is feeling a loss of power, of disenfranchisement.  Someone has usurped their rightful place and pushed them figuratively if not literally out of the homestead.  The future is being written and they aren’t, or more to the point feel they aren’t, part of it.   They aren’t responsible for the shift but feel individually and very personally victimized by it.   Whether that’s the case, doesn’t really matter.  They are mad as hell and are looking both for someone to blame — “the other” — and equally are desperate for someone to lead them back to their promised land.  “Making American Great Again” translates simply into “bring back their good old days.”

Blaming the “other” started long before Trump escalated down from on high in his flagship Fifth Avenue namesake building.   He played the “other card” to the hilt from his initial xenophobic portrayal of Mexicans through his suggesting on the eve of the Indiana vote that Cuban American Ted Cruz’s father was a JFK conspirator.  Over and over we’ve heard supporters tell interviewers that Trump had the honesty to say out loud what “we’re all thinking”.  If that’s the case, then a lot of Americans are having some terrible and distorted thoughts.  It’s not a sign of leadership that Trump is giving them voice.  Most assuredly, it’s not “honest”.   Far from it! While I may have underestimated him from the start, I have not changed my view that his rhetoric is purely manipulative and opportunistic.  There is nothing to suggest in either his record or utterances that he possesses an ounce of conviction other than seeking personal power and feeding his overblown ego.

In contrast to the GOP, Krugman suggests the Democrats have largely kept their promises.  While I agree with him, especially with regard to the President who has by and large delivered on his campaign promises (including the ACA), how do you explain the rise and appeal of Bernie Sanders?  Clearly the crowds who listen to him rail against the “millionaires and billionaires” seem to be expressing the same anti-establishment frustrations.  Perhaps, but I think it is totally wrong to conflate Trump and Sanders supporters.  Bernie’s followers are not so much opposed to the political establishment — they are more than likely to vote for Clinton in the fall — as they are frustrated by economic inequality.  They are the logical next step of the short-lived “Occupy” effort spotlighting the 1% but more generally growing inequality.  Their anger is decidedly not directed against others who, regardless of their background, ethnicity or gender, are suffering challenges equal to or greater than their own.  Rather it is against a system that seems, and largely is, rigged in favor of the wealth class.  It is unsurprising that so many of Sanders most dedicated supporters are young.  This is after all a generation, probably the first since the Great Depression in the 1930s, who legitimately wonder if they can surpass or even match the income and lifestyle of their own parents.  Many have pursued higher education and taken on massive debt with no guaranteed prospect for a return on their intellectual or financial investment.  Instead they see a work world that no longer cares about their success, much less well being.  The loyalty upon which their parents could count is gone; the prospect of doing better than living paycheck to paycheck is dimmed for the foreseeable future. 

Superficially the two constituencies — Trump and Sanders — may seem aligned, but nothing could be further than the truth.   Something fundamental separates them and that difference is profound.  Unlike the Trump followers, those attracted to Bernie don’t see themselves as losing out to “people not like me”.  Indeed, the very idea that any one is an “other” is alien to them.   Xenophobia and prejudice of any kind is just “so yesterday”, so meaningless.  They may be wary of trade, may attribute loss of jobs to manufacturing moving to Mexico or China, but they know that even if reopened today factories would employ only a fraction of their former pre-automation work forces.  Intellectually they know that we are in a period of economic transition.  What frustrates them is not that Pedro, Sally or Muhammad has taken “their” job, but like for them, good wage jobs remain in short supply.

Sanders may reflect establishment wariness in the land, but Hillary Clinton’s record as a progressive (albeit more hawkish on foreign affairs) makes her acceptable.  Indeed, the Sanders success is seen as a positive nudge to the left that I remain confident she will take to heart and adopt as her own.  Indeed the best thing that’s happened to the Democrats and to her is Bernie’s full-throated campaign.  He has focused attention on the issues that a vast number of Americans, including Republicans, face in this period of extended and painful transition from the economy that was to the one that is still in formation.  What bothers many Democratic voters is not so much the so-called establishment per se, but that they have been unable to catch up to the economic change.

It is a transition that has concentrated wealth on the fewer than ever before and kept so many treading water or losing ground.  This process may simplistically be blamed on NAFTA and trade in general — and there are reasons to fault specifics in such agreements — but it has much more to do with technology and automation.  Moreover, low worker pay in a number of mostly Southern states that boast automobile plants (for among others Toyota and Nissan), has been impacted by Republican enacted “right to work” laws aimed at keeping unions out and worker rights at bay.  Today, you may be fortunate enough to work in an automobile factory, but it’s not the job or the security your father knew.  Workers who considered themselves highly skilled find themselves replaced by machine, out of sync and at sea.  Conversely, politicians whose jobs and incomes have not been even slightly impacted by this fundamental change, and who reside in a bubble of partisanship, posturing and safe districts, are mostly out of touch with this pain.  Is it any wonder that constituents in both parties have had it and are in an angry rebellious mood?

In his first and very thoughtful article for New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan writes about the dangers we face in an election whose backdrop is wide scale discontent.  It has produced the unexpected strength of Sanders and the very alarming ascendency of Donald Trump.  Sullivan warns us not to underestimate the potential of this figure at a moment when our democracy is fragile.  While this general discontent is widespread, it is particularly strong among those, many of them blue collar workers, who feel themselves increasingly disenfranchised from what has largely become the American Pipe Dream.  Trump is capitalizing on this discontent, an unnerving mix of economic distress and loss of political power in the works.  He promises to protect them from both in part by keeping “the other” from taking their jobs and place at the table.   As the son of Hitler refugees, and an “anchor baby” to boot, I can’t help but be particularly unnerved by a sense of déjà vu.  In the 1930s, the man with the funny mustache was dismissed and looked on as a buffoon before manipulating his adopted country into a living hell.  This is said only to suggest is that the man who others and I dismissed as a blowhard theatrical act has emerged as a frightening potential that we dare not underestimate. 

And central to that danger of underestimation is the notion that the coming election will surely end in a Democratic landslide.  That won’t happen unless we vote.  In his Saturday Howard University’s commencement speech, President Obama pointedly told graduates:

Your plan better include voting — not just some of the time, but all the time.  It is absolutely true that…there are still too many barriers in this country to vote.  This is the only advanced democracy on Earth that goes out of its way to make it difficult for people to vote. But let me say this: Even if we dismantled every barrier to voting, that alone would not change the fact that America has some of the lowest voting rates in the free world. In 2014, only 36 percent of Americans turned out to vote in the midterms -- the second lowest participation rate on record. Youth turnout — that would be you — was less than 20 percent.  Four out of five did not vote.  In 2012, nearly two in three African Americans turned out. And then, in 2014, only two in five turned out.  You don’t think that made a difference in terms of the Congress I've got to deal with?  What would have happened if you had turned out at 50, 60, 70 percent, all across this country?  People try to make this political thing really complicated.  You know what, just vote.  It's math.  If you have more votes than the other guy, you get to do what you want.  It's not that complicated.  And you don’t have excuses.   So you got to vote all the time, not just when it’s cool, not just when it's time to elect a President, not just when you’re inspired. It's your duty.

His message (excerpted with above) was to young people, but it was equally directed at all of us.  If we’re our usually lazy selves this November first we may wake up to a President Trump.  That will be on all of us, and we can’t let that nightmare day happen.  Could you have any greater clarity than that?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Oh, Bernie.

Bernie Sanders, coming off a series of primary victories, is feeling pretty good.  Who can blame him?  He’s also feeling more aggressive, and that isn’t necessarily a good path to take.   His recent assertions that Hillary Clinton is not qualified to be president are more than a stretch.  One may not agree with her on matters of policy past and present, even vigorously so, but objectively she remains the most qualified person running in either party.  There is likely no more difficult job in the world than being our president.  No one is fully prepared for what is in some ways the ultimate unknown.  It’s like being a parent for the first time multiplied a thousand fold.  Hillary has an unusual depth of experience beginning with her eight-year birds eye view inside the White House, another eight years in the senate and then four as secretary of state.   While not serving herself, she is as close to being an incumbent candidate as we have had since TR ran against Taft and Wilson.

For reasons expressed in February, I support and expect Hillary to win the nomination, but would certainly vote for Bernie if he accomplishes what would be an upset.  And that wouldn’t be a difficult vote since I agree with many of the things he says and in which he believes.  But one of my problems with Bernie is that he is an absolutist — his long held views are both admirable and potentially troubling.   For sure they strike a chord with many voters in this discordant and frustrating time, but such fervor may tip the balance between conviction and feeling possessed of “the” truth.  As I’ve often written, that’s bad in religion and equally so in politics — bad and potentially dangerous.    It is exactly what has put governance in virtual limbo these last years.  I’m sorry to say this, but Sanders’ assertion smacks of “she’s unqualified because she doesn’t think or act like me”.  Maybe he doesn’t mean it that way, and one hopes it’s only over-the-top campaign rhetoric, but to me it’s a red flag.  Presidential campaigning, especially with big adoring crowds and some success at the polls can be a huge ego boost.   It’s addictive.  I hope it hasn’t gone to his head.

Hillary Clinton is hardly a perfect candidate.   She continues to have high unfavorable ratings and has trust problems, some self-inflicted.  Just being a Clinton carries a lot of baggage.   Much of Donald Trump’s wealth, though most of his admirers are blind to it, comes from celebrity rather than business management.   And, like the political class described in Mark Leibovich’s book This Town, so does Clinton’s.   At the core, and unlike her husband, Clinton is also private person, not necessarily ideal on the stump.  But she’s no more private than Obama, though she considers him a more natural politician.  Understanding all these perceived deficits, I think Clinton is a true progressive.  She was onto expanding healthcare before Obama and has been a consistent advocate for women whether on choice or in the workplace.  She is a strong believer in climate change and its scientific underpinnings; a partner with Obama is seeking global partners in that regard.

Clinton is a progressive, but not an ideologue.  From some of us on the left, that’s a negative.   I don’t agree.  Ideologues claim possession of “the” truth, which stands in the way of getting anything done, of the compromise necessary not only in politics but in sharing the planet with others.  Whether in our family life, our friendships and acquaintances, or simply functioning on some reasonable level, accomplishments are generally more likely with some sense of modesty, even of some self-doubt.   This is not to argue against conviction or passion but to suggest that the other person might possibly have it right, or as right.  I think Hillary understands that.  Finally, unlike many of the Democratic candidates for office in 2014, she is not running away from either the person or the record of Barack Obama.  Rather she clearly hopes to build on what he has accomplished in his two terms.  She will be different, not the least being the first female president, but promises continuity.

Contested primaries are essential to the democratic process, if for no other reason than reminding us that we should always and do have options.  Bernie Sanders has brought excitement and a refreshing — I think essential — focus on both economic and political inequality.  He has pushed Clinton and the party to the left, demanding focus and conviction.  What he has done will hopefully endure impacting on the agenda of the next president and the country.  His meaningful and vigorous challenge has, as did that of Obama eight years ago, made her a better candidate.  That was evident in her speech yesterday at Carnegie Mellon University broadcast on C-Span.  The coming election, even if Donald Trump wins the  Republican nomination will not be a cakewalk.  The stakes as she said yesterday are high.  Of course, we hear that in every election cycle.  This time it may be an understatement.  Come November, I hope all Democrats will stand behind and work vigorously for the nominee.  I hope too that if Hillary prevails she will not only have benefited from Bernie's vigorous challenge, but that she will take his message to heart and make much of it part of her own.