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.