Friday, April 14, 2017

The Education of Donald Trump

Slowly but surely the presidency of Donald Trump is being normalized.  By normalized it is
meant that the Trump presidency is increasingly being captured and confined by the institutional powers and realities of American and world politics.  This is something that Steve Bannon feared, and which both Trump’s supporters and distractors should recognize.

There is an old political science and political adage that declares that presidents have more authority and freedom to act internationally than they do domestically.  This is because while the structures of the Constitution–such as checks and balances and separation of powers–limit the domestic power of presidents, they are more free to act internationally, especially with either congressional acquiescence or affirmative grants of power.  This recognition that presidents have more autonomy internationally is rooted in famous Justice Robert Jackson concurrence in the 1952 Supreme Court case Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer.  Yes, in many ways this dicta is correct constitutionally, but it misses something far more powerful when it comes to defining presidential authority; specifically the political and institutional constraints on presidents and how, as Stephen Skowronek argues in Presidential Leadership in Political Time, how history and context defines presidential power.

Back in 2008 during the US presidential elections when lecturing in Europe I was asked how the presidency of Barack Obama would differ from that of George Bush in the area of foreign policy.  I argued that the best predictor of a new president’s foreign policy was to look to his predecessor’s.  Presidents really have far less freedom to depart from the past than many think.  The foreign policy establishment is big and powerful in the US and it largely bipartisan.  Geo-political forces such as  the state of the world economy, the political interests of other nations, and the overall limits on US power and reach too further define what presidents can do.  Yes some may claim some presidents made major shifts–Nixon and China–but the changing geo-political role of China in the world made such a choice inevitable.

Obama proved that.  After making numerous promises, the Obama foreign policy was defined by choices made by Bush. The war on terror continued, troops remained in Afghanistan and Iraq, Gitmo was not closed, drone attacks persisted, and the US did not fundamentally change Middle East politics even after the Arab Spring opening because entrenched support for Israel did not change.  Even Obama’s effort to make an Asian pivot has had mixed results, and he was unsuccessful in making many changes in how to handle Syria and North Korea.  Yes Obama did make some marginal changes, but fundamentally more continuity with Bush than a break.

The same is now true with Trump.   Candidate Trump disagreed with almost all things Obama.  The Iran nuclear deal would be torn up.  Trump pledged a Mexican wall, declare China a currency manipulator and impose tariffs on their products.  NATO was obsolete, the Syrian policy wrong, Putin and Russia a friend,  and global engagement must be retracted to put America first.  Great rhetoric, but the reality is tht slowly the forces that constrained Obama are constraining Trump.  

One now sees a new Trump.  The bombing of Syria, while a departure perhaps from what Obama did, is something that Hillary Clinton and most Republicans and Democrats in Congress support.  It produced a rift with Russia that now leads Trump to muse that perhaps our relations with that country are the worst ever (they are not).    Moreover, despite tough talk, trump’s options with Syria are limited, as they are throughout the Middle East.  Expect no major change in politics toward Egypt and Israel, and do not expect any major break in addressing the Palestinian quest for a homeland.

NATO is good, and China will not be declared a currency manipulator, and, in fact, if they help Trump to contain North Korea’s nuclear program, he will give them a great trade deal.  This statement is recognition that despite the show of force the US is demonstrating in sending ships to North Korea, there is little he can do along to change the politics in that country.  Gitmo will not be closed, the policy toward Cuba not reversed, and even the dropping of MOAB–the mother of all bombs–on Afghanistan–it was a policy in the works under the Obama administration.    Trump’s enhanced deportation policy and extreme vetting looks more and more like a variation of what Obama did–partly courtesy of the federal courts–and there will be no shift in the drone war

Nearly 90 days into the Trump presidency one can already seen more continuity with Obama than breaks.  Yes there are still rough edges, yes there appears to be no Trump grand strategy, but that lives a void to be filled by the bureaucracy and foreign policy establishment.  All this is exacerbated by the fact that Trump has not filled many key State and foreign policy positions, but that only means that the weight of the status quois filling the void.

The real sign of Donald Trump’s education or normalizing was the removal of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council.  Bannon saw the power of the bureaucracy and wanted to smash it.  Instead it smashed him and may soon lead to his ouster from the Trump administration in total.  That was a Trump presidency turning point.

It seemed just a few weeks ago people were talking of a failed Trump presidency, impeachment, or a major international crisis.   Yet increasingly likely is that an incompetent Trump will create the space for the bureaucracy to take over in the realm of foreign policy, for good or bad, and to the fear of delight of his supporters and detractors.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Folly of Private Prisons

It’s deja vu all over again. Nearly a year ago to this date I did a blog and Minnpost column criticizing efforts to reopen the private prison in Appleton, Minnesota.  Guest what?  There again is a push to reopen it.  For all of the reasons a year ago I wrote to criticize the move, they all apply again today.

Private prisons are a major public policy mistake. This is true regardless of whether they are privately operated or, as is being proposed by the Minnesota Legislature, they are leased and run by the state.

Contrary to what their supporters say, private prisons are not less expensive and better than public facilities. Instead, their track record on cost, rehabilitation and safety is generally inferior to that of public facilities. And — especially pertinent to the current proposal — their use as a way to expand prison capacity has been to facilitate a war on drugs and petty crimes that has been racially discriminatory.

The debate to reopen the private prison in Appleton, Minnesota, is reminiscent of one that took place 19 years ago. In 1998 Minnesota was building a new correctional facility in Rush City. State Sen. Randy Kelly pushed hard for it to be privatized. I was part of a team of impartial national experts at the Institute of Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School hired by the state to research what we then knew about the performance of private prisons across the country. We looked at cost, recidivism, rehabilitation, safety and legal issues. We examined all of the studies that then had been done on private prisons, we did extensive interviews across the country, and we toured public and private prisons. The final 1999 report, "Privatization of Correctional Services: Evaluating the Role of Private Prison Management in Minnesota," was sharply critical of the claims made by its advocates.

Initially there is a significant ethical and moral question regarding whether the punishment of crimes should be done on a for-profit basis. This is human exploitation at its worst. One can also argue that the use of punishment and force by private individuals against another is inherently a governmental function and not something that should be privatized. Our report raised these questions, but it went beyond the normative considerations to the empirical: What was the actual track record of private prisons?

First, we found that many of the claims of cost savings were suspect. The standard measure of cost for prisons – per diem costs per inmate – did not always stand up. Yes in some cases private prisons were less expensive per diem, but not always. For example, in Oklahoma, where publicly operated prisons had to compete with private operators for contracts to run individual facilities, the public institutions came out less expensive about half the time. Cost was a wash. But even here the numbers failed to reveal hidden costs. In most of the contracts awarded to private prisons, the state was still on the hook for many medical expenses and it would be required to take back control of the prisons as a result of default or to deploy security in the event of riots. Public dollars subsidized private prisons to make them profitable and look as though they were cheaper than the public facilities. Additionally, by the time one added in the public dollars to oversee and regulate the private prisons the savings to the taxpayer disappeared.

We also found that there were costs associated with the savings. The areas where private prisons saved money was, first, in salary and skill level for corrections officers. Public facilities were generally well-paid union jobs that demanded a minimum skill level. Prison privatization across the country often was a union-busting activity that hired less skilled officers at much lower wages. Second, private prisons scrimped on educational and rehabilitation services. Third, they scrimped on everything else, leading, in the case of Oklahoma, to contracts than ran a hundred pages or more so as to require private operators to provide a range of services of sufficient quality that they tried to avoid in order to maximize profits.

What did all this mean? In general, private prisons have more safety problems than public facilities. There was more prisoner or innate-to-inmate violence and more civil-rights violations in private as opposed to public facilities. There was less emphasis on rehabilitation and higher recidivism rates in private prisons. Part of all this is a consequence of trying to save money by not providing services. But something else was also going on. No warden in a public prison wants repeat business. On the other hand, private prisons have a financial interest in recidivism. The interests of the state and private prison operators is contradictory.

Finally, there is also one other major problem we found then with private prisons: The employees are not public and therefore they can go on strike. Public prisons operated by the government employing public employees can prevent strikes by preventing the employees by state law from striking. Private prisons and their labor relations are governed by federal law, pre-empting any state laws that would bar strikes. The potential of a strike or other labor problems raises many questions about safety.

In the 18 years since the Minnesota report was issued I have continued to research and teach about private prisons. For six of those years I also taught criminal justice courses. Subsequent reports and studies largely reconfirmed the conclusions found in the 1999 report.

One might argue that the objections raised against private prisons do not apply to the current proposal in Minnesota, which is for the state to reopen the Appleton facility and staff it with state employees. Fair enough, but the last 18 years have revealed some lessons we could not have seen back in 1999 and which do clearly apply here. The rise of private prisons occurred alongside the war on drugs, the broken windows theory of crime (arrest for the petty stuff before it escalates), mandatory minimum sentences, and three-strikes-and-you’re-out laws.

Nationally the expansion of private prison space exacted a racially discriminatory war against people of color. In Minnesota, prison expansion led to an explosion in a prison population that has the worst racial disparities in the nation. Private prisons have become what Nina Moore argues in "The Political Roots of Racial Tracking in American Criminal Justice" — a linchpin in creating a separate criminal justice system for people of color that is separate and unequal. The private prison industrial complex is central to all the problems that Black Lives Matters rightly protests.

We have spent enormous sums of money since the 1980s incarcerating people instead of investing in them. Imagine had we invested in addressing racial disparities in schools, economic development in concentrated poverty neighborhoods, or civil rights enforcement to bar racial discrimination in employment and housing. We would not have needed to build more prisons.  The issue thus is not looking at how to jail more people but to figure out how to prevent people from being jailed.  It is by addressing the racial disparities in education, income, and voting in the state, and it is by looking at why we are jailing so many people to start.

If Minnesota truly wishes to address the concerns of Black Lives Matters it would not add more prison space that simply enables the currently discriminatory practices that extend beyond criminal justice to many other institutions in our society.

In sum, the lessons of prison privatization or expansion of any kind is that they are bad options for Minnesota. Gov. Mark Dayton is correct in vetoing any bill that would allow this to happen.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

It Sucks Being In Charge: The Lessons of Trumpcare

It’s hard to be in charge of the government.  It comes with responsibility, much like being an adult.
 Taking care of the government comes with a fiduciary responsibility to act with care for the public good, much like being a parent comes with it responsibility to look after children.
This is just one of the many lessons that will not be learned by Trump and the Republicans as a result of their failure to repeal Obamacare.  It was so easy to vote 50+ times repeal it when it did not matter, but once the reality of owning the issue and having to be accountable for it was here, the Republicans simply failed.  They failed in part because they had become the party with a negative narrative.  By that, Trump and Republicans ran successfully in their opposition to the status quo, except they had no alternative vision of how they wanted to govern.
Part of the problem is that many of the Republicans along with Steve Bannon  have a negative theory of the state.  Their’s is not the night watchman state of minimalism, it is even more profound in terms of see the state as the enemy.  It is kind of hard to govern and be in charge when you actually do not like the machinery of power that you are holding and your aim is to dismantle it.    Another problem with the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act with a Republican alternative is that the Affordable Care Act already was the Republican alternative.  How do you out-Republican the Republican alternative?
But the failure to repeal the ACA goes deeper than health care.  Political power and influence is not stagnant; it either increases or decreases but it never stays the same.  Richard Neustadt’s the power of the presidency is the power to persuade was on full display in the health care fiasco.  Any president, including Trump, should be at the strongest in the first 100 days.  Securing their first legislative victory is important for so many reasons, including showing the political capital one has.  Herr Trump and even Speaker Ryan expended enormous political capital and failed.  Next to immigration, repealing the ACA was the signature theme of Trump and the GOP.  If there was anything they should have been able to do it should have been this.  Yet the failure here was multifold.
For all who elected Trump because he was a total outsider to Washington, guest what?  It takes insiders to govern and to know how to move legislation.  Trump had none of the requisite skills to move legislation.  He also showed the limits of his ability to negotiate when in fact, he did not negotiate. He threatened Republicans legislators and failed.  He is weaker because of that because they are no longer afraid of him.  Presidents, as I have argued, cannot simply order people around and think they will obey.  This is especially true of Congress.  Moreover, as any good negotiator will tell you, real bargaining is a non-zero sum game, it is not about bullying people around.  Trump had nothing to offer anyone to vote for the bill except his wrath and that was not enough.  The art of a deal requires dealing and Trump did not do that.
Trump and the Republicans also seemed to think that a bill that originally took over one year to pass and which had six years of implementation history could easily be replaced in two weeks. This brief time frame was not enough to vet the bill, to build coalitions, to flesh out the unanticipated consequences.  In so many ways it failed to learn the lessons of why health care reform failed under Clinton and succeeded under Obama.
Moving forward Trump seems already bored with health care reform and plans to move on.  He has said the Obamacare will die of its own accord and will do nothing to fix it.  Guess who is most hurt but Obamacare’s failures?  The rural and working class who voted for Trump and the Republicans.  Doing nothing hurts his supporters the most, but had his reforms passed they too would have hurt his supporters the most.
It seems unlikely that Trump has learned anything from his failures here.  Back in 2016 when asked what would happen if Trump or Clinton were elected, I said no matter who would be elected it would produce gridlock and produce no major change from what was happening between Democrat Obama and the Republican Congress..  Here the gridlock is intra-party, because the Republicans really are not a party united by a common vision for government and society.  Instead, they are profoundly divided by their hatred of the status quo and lack a realistic vision of what it means to be in charge and responsible.  It really sucks being an adult.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Case for Impeaching Donald Trump

Donald Trump should be impeached.  At least this is the sentiment of the most partisan Democrats and across the social media chatter even though he has barely been in office two months.  But has President Trump done anything that is or likely would constitute an impeachable offense?  The answer is that it depends, but simply put, if he has committed offenses at least as serious as what Bill Clinton was impeached for then the answer is yes, but it is still too soon to tell.

What does it mean to impeach a president of the United States such as Donald Trump? There is a lot of popular confusion over the term.  Article II, section four outlines the process for impeaching and removing a president from office.  It declares that the president, vice-president, and other civil officers of the United States can be removed from office by “impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Removal of the president is a two-stage process.  First a major of the House of Representatives must agree on one or more articles of impeachment.  If that happens, the House then appoints a committee to lead the prosecution of the articles.  The Senate then must hear the articles of impeachment in a trial-like proceeding over which the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides.  It takes a two-thirds vote of the Senate to convict and if that happens, the president is removed from office.  Think of House impeachment as similar to indicting one for a crime of which then the Senate  is a trial to determine guilt.

What would Trump have to do to constitute an impeachable offense?   Article II, section four lists three possibilities.  Treason is the first, and the Constitution defines that to be engaging war against the United States or giving our enemies Aid and Comfort.  Treason is a high bar to meet, really historically requiring  something where it involves military action or issues that directly address national security.  So far there is no indication that this is what Trump has done and thus this is an unlikely impeachable offense.

The second possibility is bribery.  Bribery would be accepting payments in return for the performance or conveyance of government services or favors.  Given Trump’s extensive business holdings and refusal to divest himself of them, there is a possibility that the conflicts of interest that he personally has could rise to a constitutional level problem that would merit an impeachable offense.  For example, allegations of Russian business connections and how they might be impacting  Trump’s foreign policy decisions might be a form of bribery.

Finally, there is the phrase high crimes and misdemeanors?  What does that mean?  In adopting this phrase the constitutional framers employed language that had existed in England since  1386 when the Parliament used the term to refer to a variety of actions including the misappropriation of funds or dereliction in the performance of official duties.  Mal-administration comes to mind as a close meaning, although when that word was proposed at the Constitutional Convention by George Mason, James Madison objected to it and substituted high crimes and misdemeanors in its place.

An alternative meaning for the phrase was offered in 1970 when the House of Representatives tried to impeach Supreme Court Justice William Douglas.  The Congressman Gerald Ford said an impeachable offense was “whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”  In truth, Ford is correct–impeachment is a matter of political judgment where Congress ultimately decides the fitness of a person to serve in office, such as president.

There have been three serious efforts to impeach presidents of the United States.  In 1868 the House voted on 11 articles of Impeachment against President Andrew Johnson.    The core of the charges were allegations that Johnson illegally removed Secretary of War Ed Stanton in violation of the Office of Tenure Act.  Lurking behind this impeachment were political fights over how Johnson–a southerner–was going to support the Reconstruction agenda of the Republicans in Congress.  Johnson survived removal from office when his conviction in the Senate fell one vote short of the two-thirds requirement.

Richard Nixon was the second president where there was a serous effort to impeach.  In 1974 the House Judiciary Committee recommended three articles of impeachment against the president-- obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress–arising out of Nixon’s refusal to cooperate with them and the special prosecutor in terms of the investigation surrounding the Watergate break-in.  Nixon opted to resign instead of facing an impeachment vote.  All these charges represented serious claims about a president breaking the law and refusing to cooperate with a criminal investigation.  They also spoke to clear abuses of presidential power.

Finally in 1998 the House voted two articles of impeachment against Bill Clinton–perjury and obstruction of justice–arising out of investigations into his sexual relationship with white House intern Monica Lewinsky and the sexual harassment law suit filed by Paula Jones against him.  The Senate acquitted him, mostly along a straight party-line vote.  For some, the charges were partisan and political and less having to do with Clinton’s real performance as president but for others there was real evidence of lying under oath that merited removal.

In the two cases where the House actually voted on Articles of Impeachment partisanship or political differences seem to be at the heart of the charges.  With Johnson arguably there were also questions about mal-administration, but it is hard to argue that with Clinton.  Perhaps the most serious charges of impeachment were against Nixon, and not surprisingly they garnered bipartisan support.

So how does all this apply to Trump?  So far his presidency has been marked by either non-or  mal-administration.  It has largely been ineffective in getting much done, and it is mired in a host of controversies that include allegations of Russian involvement in his campaign and perhaps administration.   An FBI investigation may clarify these allegations.  There are other concerns too about his competence and fitness to be president.  All of these are possible grounds that constitute high crimes and misdemeanors, yet it will take a lot to convince a Republican House and Senate of  that.   However, if history is a guide, the allegations against Trump are at least as bad as those against Clinton, and if the FBI investigation yields more proof, or if Trump remains the ineffective president  his is starting off to be, impeachment is a possible remedy.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Trump Presidency versus the Deep State

The Trump presidency is fraught with contradictions.  Among the most notable is the degree to which
the Steve Bannon war on the “deep administrative state” is at odds with a presidency aimed at making America great again.  To achieve that goal–whatever it means–it requires the Trump administration to take control of the political machinery of the state to secure policy goals, not seek to destroy it as Bannon and many Republicans aspire.
There is an old adage that the skills need to become president are different from those to be president. Presidential campaigns depend on media skills, crafting narratives and messages, and on fund raising among other things.  While some of these skills might also apply to being president, campaigning is different from governing.  Governance is more than words and rhetoric; it is formulating public policies and setting agendas.  It requires the coordination of multiple agencies and officials, working with Congress, proper use of discretion, implementation, and the oversight of programs.
Campaigning is easy, but governing is hard.  Fortunately there are careerists and a civil service in Washington that transcends presidents to maintain institutional knowledge about how to run things.  There are the 3,000 or so members of the Senior Executive Service–the most senior careerists who  run the major government agencies and programs.  There is the foreign policy establishment that generally directs the US national security and diplomatic functions of the country.   All of this is what makes the federal government work and gets things done.   It assures stability, consistency, competence.  This is the real  deep state–not the deep state of those conspiracists who still think there was a second shooter in Dallas in 1963 or who think there is a CIA coverup over area 51 in New Mexico.   Or the deep state of anti-Semites, racists, misogynists,  and homophobes who see CNN and the NY Times in a plot to oppress white Christian men.  Trump needs the real deep state–the administrative state– but he is at war with it.
Trump’s presidential campaign as an outsider was not atypical of many recent candidates.  He ran as the outsider, as someone who would “drain the swamp” of Washington.  Yet the Trump candidacy and now the Trump presidency went further.  It saw a virtue in no government knowledge or experience.  It naively believed that a bunch of real outsiders with no government experience could simply come in and get things done, such as building a Mexican wall, crushing Isis, imposing tariffs, forcing renegotiation of trade agreements, and demanding changes to health care.   To accomplish any of these tasks a president and his staff have to have a plane, and people who can execute it.  So far it does not appear Trump has either.  He is literally a man without a plan–except for one–to also destroy the current administrative state, if Steve Bannon is to be so understood.
The entire foundation of anything the Trump wants to do rests upon the deep or the administrative state.  Executive orders in part get their power from administrative law and regulations.  The ability to move on any of the issues that Trump says he cares about requires there to be a strong and viable administrative state.  Yet this is the very state Bannon wants to see wither away.  Take away the administrative state and Trump will be weak, ineffective president.  That appears where the Trump presidency is now.
The efforts to destabilize the government only weaken it.  The failure to get hi appointments named and confirmed weaken the state.   The failure to listen to those who know better or how to get things done weakens the state.  Trump may simply not realize that his tactics are at odds with policy views.  Or perhaps what Trump wants and what Bannon wants are two different things.  Trump may want to build, Bannon wants to destroy.
Back in the 1960s when people were still waiting for the revolution to occur political scientist Robert Dahl wrote a book called After the Revolution?  He pointed out that after the revolution someone would still have to pick up the garbage, make sure the streets are paved, that sewage goes down sewers, and that all the other functions that we cherish as part of civilization would go on.     Revolutions to improve the quality of life still require authority, structure, and organization, unless of course you are a complete anarchist and either don’t want that or think that a modern society can spontaneously govern and structure itself.  Maybe that is what Bannon thinks.  However the track record of complex systems simply self-ordering themselves in ways that are beneficial to all is not very good.  Free markets and capitalism are the most notable failures in that aspect.
The point here is that contrary to the simplistic view that the state is going to wither away and  allow Trump to be a strong and effective president, the two cannot stand together.  The Trump presidency is actually pursuing policies that will largely make it less effective and competent than many hoped or feared.  The contradictions of the Trump style of anti-governance doom his presidency, and perhaps setting it up to be crushed by the deep state that it resents but needs.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Democracy, Politics, and the War on Science

What is a fact and how do we know when something is true?  These are not just philosophical questions.  In this era of intense partisan polarization, especially in the United States, the very notion that both objective facts and truth exist is contested.  Contrary to the assertion of former US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who once declared that Aeveryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,@ it now seems that each person and political party does have their own facts and truth. Why? Simply putBscientific facts and truth are not the same as political facts and truth; democracy and science are often in conflict.
For 30 years, I have taught American politics, law, and public policy.  As someone with graduate degrees in astronomy, philosophy, law, and political science, my research and teaching  centers on how policy making can be more evidence-based. In most aspects of our lives and in business we are taught to draw upon the best available evidence before making decisions. The same should be true for politicians and government.  Decisions crafted on political myths and faulty or no evidence yield bad public policy, causing a waste of taxpayer dollars and failed or ineffective programs.  Yet too much policy is crafted without real evidence. 
There are many reasons for this.  One can clearly point to intense interest group politics and the corrosive impact of money on politics as possibilities.  There is also a deep-seated distrust in American culture that disdains intellectualism and intellectuals, as told by historians such as Richard Hofstadter. But perhaps most importantly, there is a profound difference residing in how scientists and politicians gather facts and think about the world.
Scientists (and most social scientists) ascribe to the scientific method. It is a rigorous approach ideally using controlled experiments where the inductive process of gathering discrete data is aggregated to test hypotheses. Statistical sampling is often employed as ways of estimating the probability that some samples are truly representative of the phenomena being studied.  One cannot examine every molecule in the universe to conclude about all of them.  Good samples allow for generalizations, but there is always a slight probability of error.
For scientists, facts are rigorously tested but cannot be proved with 100% certainty.  Science is about falsifying claims.  Scientific knowledge is also incremental, built upon what is previously known like with bricks upon one another to construct a wall.  Scientists have built a wall of knowledge, facts, and truth.  The laws of gravity, Einstein=s famous e=mc2, and 1+1=2 are examples.  Scientific facts and truth have made telephones, television, the Internet and the cure for polio possible.  If one denies scientific truth one might as well deny civilization.
But scientific knowledge is different from political knowledge.  What is political truth, especially in a democracy?  It is what 50% plus one of the population saysBmajority rule.  For elected officials, what counts as facts and truths is what they learn from their constituents.  A politician=s world is not of controlled experiments, hypotheses, and statistically valid samples; what counts as valid evidence in making policies are the stories and interests of constituents.  Hearing something from voters is powerful evidence to someone who many need their support in the next election.  What is true has less to do with rigorous method of investigation than it does with how some assertion plays well with the media or voters.
On occasion, scientific and political truths or knowledge converge, resulting in good public policy.  But historically they do not.  The tension between scientific or expert knowledge culled from rigorous testing versus political knowledge based on majority rule is deep and has existed since Plato discussed it nearly 2,500 years ago. This is the technocracy/democracy gap.  Some have more or specialized knowledge compared to others. Should the people defer to the experts or choose for themselves what they consider true?
 While science and democracy are in tension, how do we explain the partisan war on science between Democrats and Republicans in the US?  Battles over global warming and alternative facts are sourced in competing economic interests that support or sustain specific biases or factual world views.  The two parties represent divergent interests, creating financial interests in rival conceptions of truth. Right now, Republicans are representing interests generally hostile to science, including energy companies that wish to deny climate change, or workers who fear automation will un-employ them.  But this could change.
The gap between scientific and political knowledge might be bridged with more scientific education in schools.  It might also be good if we elected more scientists to office.  Together they might create conditions that make the political process more hospitable to science, yet there is no guarantee.  Differing economic interests drive scientific skepticism, as does simply fear and prejudice and something needs to be done to address both.  Yet even with all that, the challenge for scientists is convincing the public and politicians that science is not a threat but that its enables and enriches our society, not hurts it.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Tu Madre! Trump’s Crueler and Coarser America

President  George H. W. Bush was once mocked for envisioning a “kinder and gentler” America and then failing to do anything to realize it or produce the “thousand points of light” that he wanted for the United States.  If only we could have such rhetoric again from a president we would be much better off than we are.

Trump’s America is a mean and petty country.  We learned that during the election with his demeaning of almost everyone under the sun, ranging from immigrants and Muslims to military personnel who were prisoners of war.  He denigrated and vilified women by reducing them to their sexual organs, and he mocked the physically handicapped. It took him days to acknowledge that anti-Semitism is wrong. And now, with his reversal of a Obama legal interpretation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he displays insensitivity and cruelty to transgender children.  And his base cheers.

Why is Trump so cruel, why is his base so hateful?    Why do they think it is okay to be mean to those who are weak, to those with whom they disagree, to those who are the less fortunate.  The quality of mercy should not be strained; it should be the mark of real strength and leadership to reach out to those with whom we disagree and embrace them.  As Abraham Lincoln beautifully said in his Second Inaugural speech regarding the South:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Trump does nothing to appeal to the better angels in all of us.  His is not a JFK speech of asking “not what this country can do for us but what we can do for our country.”  It is even worse than asking if you are better off now than four years ago.  Instead, his “America first” is me first and the rest of you can “F–k off.”  I want to believe that the United States and most of its people are better than that.   But the real danger of Trump is the lack of leadership when it comes to respect for human dignity,  embolding instead hateful rhetoric and behavior.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Two Walls of American Political Discourse

The Trump presidency shows how the United States is trapped by its own
political walls and  tradition, creating a problem both for the Democratic and Republican parties.  The problem is that the current range of political options to address many of the most entrenched policy issues in the United States is caught between failed fundamentalist market solutions of the Republican Party and the neo-liberal regulatory proposals offered by the Democratic Party.

Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America is a classic book often forgotten.  It describes a country that was born of a liberal tradition indebted to the political philosophy of John Locke. This is an ideology of limited government, protection of individual rights, and a belief in the centrality of private property.  Hartz contends that the American political tradition demonstrates a core political consensus around these values, with historians such as  Richard Hofstadter, Daniel J. Boorstin, Clinton Rossiter, and Henry Steele Commager argue the same, alleging that there is a powerful core ideology in the United States favoring these liberal values, along with a commitment to market capitalism.   Hartz once correctly argued that the reason there is no viable socialist tradition in the US is because of the strong consensus and support for market capitalism.   McCarthyism and disdain for truly progressive politics are both a product of the liberal consensus and xenophobia and the paranoid style of politics that historian Richard Hofstadter described.  In effect, there is a left wall to American politics beyond which is appears no politician can go, with market fundamentalism describing the right wall.

At its core, American politics has that of a liberal capitalist (representative) democracy.  Markets are presumed good, government bad, and government intervention into the economy to address market failures is a last resort, not a first policy option.  New Deal and Great Society regulation is the exception and not the preferred first approach to solving social, political, and economic problems.  Contrary to what many may think, both the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties ascribe to this belief, with the latter clearly favoring more market fundamentalist solutions while the former endorses more regulatory approaches at times.

How its political tradition affects politics in the United States is playing out now under the Trump presidency.    In many ways the reason why Trump got elected and his message resonated so well with so many is that the political-economic institutions have not benefitted the majority of Americans for the last 40 years.  It is not necessary to recount here the statistics pointing to the widening gap between the rich and poor since the 1970s, producing what is today the most maldistributed US economy since the 1920s.  Many feel they are no longer living the American Dream, and there is ample evidence to support that.  In part, the reason why so many have been left behind is that American public policy since the 1970s has not favored the middle class or the poor, working instead to the advantage of the already most affluent.

Both the Democrats and the Republican Parties have been guilty in not addressing the needs of the former, but the Republicans clearly have pursued  policies more supportive of the rich than the working or middle class.  And now under Trump, Ryan, and McConnell, their embrace of market fundamentalism will do little to help those who voted for them.  Instead, if the history of the last 40 years has shown anything, less regulation and more markets fail to address issues such as economic inequality, health care, the cost of higher education, and the loss of jobs overseas.  There is little evidence that even if the Trump-Ryan-McConnell agenda gets enacted, it will help those who most need help.  The right wall of American politics–market fundamentalism–cannot solve many of the most entrenched problems the United States confronts.

But conversely, the Democrats are trapped by a different wall.  In many ways the crisis of this party is all about the limits of regulation.  The timid regulatory politics that mark Democratic politics from Carter to Obama had limited benefit to the poor, working class, and the middle.  At some point, minor redistributive politics and limited market regulation is not enough. Bolder and broader solutions may be required.  Yet there is a left wall–the wall that defines the limits of progressive politics– as political scientist Charles Lindblom calls it, which imprisons what the Democrats can offer as policy solutions.

The irony of the Trump era is that his call for a wall is a wonderful metaphor for the limits and poverty of American political solutions offered not just by him and the Republicans, but also by the mainstream Democratic Party now.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Constitution 7, Trump Administration 0.

But it is still early in the first quarter and we know what happened to the
Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl.
It was no surprise at all that Trump lost in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals when it came to his travel ban.  Even though the decision was not on the merits but only on the stay, the Court indicated that the challengers were more than likely to win on the merits when it came to two constitutional claims–a Fifth Amendment Due Process claim regarding revocation of travel privileges without hearings, and a First Amendment Freedom of Religion claim.  The Trump administration lost because it was sloppy.  The executive order–as with most of them–are more showmanship than substance.  His Administration is full of a bunch of amateurs who do not know how government works and they think they can flout the law and rules and do whatever they want.  And Trump himself is unwilling to listen and take advice from those who k ow their way around Washington.
Trump’s performance after three weeks is a reminder of what I have been arguing for weeks.  There is this amazing document out there called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that has nifty things such as checks and balances, separation of powers, due process, equal protection, federalism, and an independent judiciary.  These structures actually do work and mean something.  They were meant to frustrate rapid political change, to make it difficult for a–as James Madison described in Federalist Paper number 10: “[M]majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
For all those liberals or conservatives who moaned that they could not get rapid or significant political reform accomplished, in part the reason was the structural design of the Constitution meant to prevent that. Thus, for the Trumps and Jason Lewis types of the world who whine that politics in the United States is played between the 40 yard lines, guess what?  It was designed to do just that.  We may live in a time of polarization where many want to go for the Hail Mary pass but the reality is that in politics as in football, such plays seldom work.
But having said all the above, remember it is early still in the first quarter and lots can happen in this political game.  There will be many forces converging that will tame Trump.  The foreign policy establishment that is so powerful in Washington is already constraining Trump when it comes to China.  Week three into his term and the Iran Nuclear deal is not torn up.  No one sees the first brick being laid along the Mexican border.   Free markets and returns on investment will largely doom many of the ideas to bring back coal and kill off renewable energy.  
Yet complacency is a real danger, and Democrats are hobbled by it.  Across the country one hears repeated talk of impeachment, or of the idea that Trump will be so inept that he will bring himself and Republicans down in 2018 and 2020.   Thus, the complacency is the idea that Trump is so bad voters will return to their senses and vote for Democrats and the DFL in two or four years.   One might as well wish for a pony.  This was Clinton’s strategy in 2016. Remember, in part she lost because she had no narrative, no message.  She assumed voters were hers.  The Democrats thought their policies for the last eight if not more years were fine and that they did not need to do anything wrong.   If only it were not for the FBI Director Comey letter or some other freak occurrence such as the Electoral College, she would be president.  She was not the problem, the message was not the problem, the strategy was not the problem, it was someone, somebody, or something else that was to blame.  That seems to be the message of the 2017   Minnesota DFL listening tour according to my friends who have attended.  It is less listening and more about what we were right and the tide is now turning to the DFL and Democratic party advantage.
The reality is that  Democratic party policies, narratives, and strategies,  for the last generation were part of the problem.  From Bill Clinton to Barack Obama the Democrats failed to treat seriously the needs of the working class.  The bailed out the banks but ignored the homeowners after the crash of 2008.  Obama never moved on minimum wage when he could, he failed to push for the Employee Free Choice Act to help the labor unions, he did nothing to address the role of money in politics.  Democrats across the country supported tax cuts that favored the rich.  No, they did not support the wholesale attack on the welfare state but neither did they endorse a major restructuring of it to improve it.  Instead, they went along with the thousand nicks and cuts that undermined it.
Obama and Clinton left the Democratic Party in the weakest position it has been in since the 1920s.  Hoping to run out the clock when it is only in the first quarter is not a viable game plan.  Yes, the Constitution has won and it should be recognized that it sets the rules for the game of American  politics.  But Democrats if they are to be successful, they need to have a real team with a real game plan and strategy beyond one that assumes that Trump and the republicans will simply continue to fumble or commit fouls.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Trump's America--A Not So Shining City on the Hill

Barely two weeks into the Trump presidency and the United States is already less great and weaker
than it was before he took office.  The reason for that is Trump’s failure to grasp the essence of leadership and the unique role that the United States has a moral exemplar among nations of the world.
MBA and other graduate programs are littered with leadership classes.  A ton of ink has been spilled seeking to describe the essence of leadership, especially for the presidency.  But James MacGregor Burns’ 1978 Leadership is still the single best book that joins these topics.  In it Burns distinguishes between two types of leadership–transactional and transformational.  Transactional  is the quid pro quo of cutting deals, the ordinary game of bargaining, but real leadership is transformational.  A transformational leader literally transforms institutions or the world, forging new ways to look and organize the world.  Presidents such as George Washington, Abraham  Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan were transformative.
But to be a transformative leader sometime special is required–moral authority. Transforming leadership happens when "one or more persons engage with each other in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality."  Burns once stated succinctly that real transformative leadership is authority guided by moral principle. Authoritarians exert mere power or brute force, but real leadership has a moral dimension capable of transforming and moving people in ways that mere transactional bargaining cannot.
For the most successful of US presidents, the concept of moral leadership is enhanced by the country’s special status in the world.  Maybe it goes back to the concept of American exceptionalism rooted in Puritan John Winthrop’s 1630 speech “A Model of Christian Charity” he gave on the ship Arbella before it docked in Massachusetts colony where he described this new place as a “shining city upon the hill.”  For many coming to America we were as Abraham Lincoln as others declared, the “last great hope” on Earth to found a just and ethical country. Part of what makes the United States great is it moral leadership–the defender of human rights, democracy, and its willing to play fair for the right causes and reasons.  This country’s strength was not simply the hard power of bombs and bullets, but as Paul Kennedy said, it also included our soft power of moral leadership and authority in the world that makes it possible to criticize dictators and despots.  The power to persuade includes a moral position.
None of this is something that Trump understands.  First his concept of leadership is narrow and transactional.  Trump’s entire Art of the Deal is an ode to quid pro quo bargaining in its thinnest sense.  Good negotiators tell you that real bargaining is not zero sum, it leaves both sides feeling good because both are winners.  The Art of the Deal is about how Trump took advantage of others for selfish or personal reasons, not to enhance the position of both sides.  But even if the Art of the Deal was more, it still describes a world of transactions and not transformation.  Trump’s concept of leadership is woefully thin and confined to this narrow notion of quid pro quo.  It is about the US getting better one-on-one deals with other countries that puts American first.  It is hardly a form of leadership that rebuilds or builds structures and institutions in ways to help the country.
But Trump also misunderstands the importance of American exceptionalism and the gravity it exercises in the world.  America’s real authority–which includes its soft power–rests upon its moral status in the world.  If we respect individual rights at home, support freedom of the press, and  obey rule of law, it makes it easier to criticize authoritarians and regimes around the world that fail to do that.  Trump simply does not understand that.  Eschewing respect for the press, his Muslim travel ban, or in his recent prayer breakfast speech declaring only “citizens can practice their beliefs without fear of hostility or a fear of violence,” Trump undermines not only domestically the values that are important to American democracy but he vastly weakens the moral position of the United States and his presidency in the world.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Presidential Executive Orders and the Constitution: What Can Trump Really Do?

What is an executive order and what can presidents such as Trump do with them?
            Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution describes the process for how a bill becomes a law.  The process requires both houses of Congress to pass legislation with identical language and for it to be signed by the president.  In the alternative, Congress by two-thirds majorities in both Houses can override a presidential veto to make something a law, and in some cases bills the president has not signed but not vetoed and returned to Congress may also become a law (if the president refuses to return a bill adopted in the last 10 days of a session, the president has exercised what is known as a pocket veto). Once a bill becomes a law it is legally binding, enforceable by the executive branch.
            Yet the congressional route is not the only way law is created.  Orders by the courts become binding and enforceable as law by the courts.  In some circumstances, orders issued by the President of the United States too carry the force of law.  These executive orders have been issued by presidents since the time George Washington became president, and over time they have been used by almost every president, often either with support or controversy.
            The legal or constitutional basis for executive orders has several sources.  The first is in Article II, Section I, Clause 1,which vests in the president the executive power, and  Article II, Section 3, which requires that presidents “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”   While lacking precise definition, the executive power gives  presidents broad enforcement authority to use their discretion to determine how to enforce the law or to otherwise manage the resources and staff of the executive department.  Second, executive orders have a legal basis in power delegated by Congress to the president or executive department agencies.  Congress may delegate to the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, authority to make determinations about what constitutes clean air or water under the Clean Water Act of 1972 or Clean Air Act of 1973. This delegation power is subject to the constitutional limits outlined by a host of Supreme Court decision.
           Third, since the adoption of the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) in 1946, there is a complex process and structure for how administrative agencies and members of the executive branch can make rules and have then become legally binding.  Taken together, these constitutional clauses, specific congressional delegation, and the rule making process of the APA form the legal basis of presidential executive orders.
            With the exception of President William Henry Harrison who died barely a month after being sworn into office, every president has issued executive orders.  George Washington issued the first one, directing officers of the Articles of Confederation government to compose a report for his administration on the status or state of affairs of America.  Other famous orders included Thomas Jefferson ordering the Louisiana Purchase, James Knox Polk ordering the annexation of Texas, Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Franklin Roosevelt ordering the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and John Kennedy creating the Peace Corps.  The numbering of executive orders began in 1907, and not until the Federal Registration Act of 1936 was there a formal process for recording executive orders.  Prior to 1936 and 1907 executive orders were issued less formally.
            From 1789 to the end of the Obama presidency there have been nearly 14,000 executive orders. Franklin Roosevelt holds the record with 3,721 orders, with second place going to Woodrow Wilson at 1,803, and third place to Calvin Coolidge with 1,203.  Among recent presidents, Bill Clinton issued 364, George Bush 291, and Barack Obama fill in.  The American Presidency Project at maintains a list of all executive orders.
            In the last several years, partisan and political gridlock between Congress and the president has led the latter into using executive orders as a way of addressing issues or creating rules of laws in the absence of explicit congressional action.  The Obama Administration through the EPA issued rules regulating carbon emissions. Yet in Murray Energy Company v. Environmental Protection Agency,      U.S.,      ;136 S.Ct. 999; 194 L.Ed.2d 18 (2016) in a suit brought by more than two dozen states and several utility company, the Supreme Court in a 5-3 vote issued a stay on the rules pending review by the Court of Appeals.  In United States v. Texas,      ___ U.S.     ; 136 S.Ct. 2271 (2016), the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 and issued a per curiam decision that upheld a lower decision that issued an injunction to prevent enforcement of an executive order or program entitled Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which would provide legal presence for illegal immigrants who were parents of citizens or lawful permanent residents.  This decision effectively ended President Obama’s effort to use an executive order to effect immigration reform.  The lower court decision is provided in this book.
      While many criticize executive orders as a way to circumvent Congress and the separation of powers process, there is no question that these orders are a major part of federal executive power that is unlikely to disappear in the future.  However, as should be clear, presidents are not kings and do not have any inherent power to issue orders.  Their authority must come from the Constitution or law, subject to limits.  Nor are presidents like Captain Pikard able simply to say “Make it so” and it will happen.  Once presidents do issue executive orders they carry the binding force of law and they are hard to repeal or undue.  This  will make it difficult for Trump to undo except a very few of Obama’s recent executive orders.  Conversely, moving forward , any of Trump’s orders will have to follow a specific process to have the force of law, and there are many things he simply cannot order.
Finally, when one looks at the executive orders Trump has already issued, they really are so vague and general that they really do not do anything.  His first on Obamacare did not really order anyone to do anything, and the executive order on the Mexican wall too was vacuous and could not really command anything, especially when it required an appropriation of money that Trump did not have.  In many cases these “executive orders” seem more like press releases or public relations than real legally-binding executive orders.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The case against billing protesters

Today's blog appeared originally in the Pioneer Press.

Respect for individual rights is the hallmark of a constitutional democracy such as the United States. Among the most sacred of those rights are the expressive ones found in the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech, press, petition, and association. Free societies require free expression, including the ability of individuals to protest government action they find wrong. That is why legislation aimed at billing protesters for the costs of policing when they break the law in a nonviolent fashion is ethically and constitutionally wrong.
The price of a free society is permitting and respecting individuals’ rights to express their views through civil disobedience, including peaceful breaking of the law. America’s independence begins with an act of civil disobedience when colonists in 1773 dumped tea in Boston harbor to protest an unjust British tax. It includes abolitionists Henry David Thoreau who challenged slavery by refusing to pay taxes, civil rights advocates who sat at lunch counters and at the front of buses to contest Jim Crow laws, and pro-life individuals who blocked the entrances of abortion clinics to defend the rights of the unborn. Not all of us necessarily agree with their causes, but those who broke these laws were not common criminals. Common criminals are individuals who break the law for personal gain, with the intent to harm others, or simply for the sake of breaking the law. Protesters who break the law do so for different reasons and should be treated differently than common criminals.
Protesters break the law to demonstrate that a law is unjust, or that the government is acting wrongly or unconstitutionally. They break the law to appeal to the sense of morality or justice of the political community, demanding the government or others to recognize the injustice and correct it. The power of civil disobedience is the willingness of individuals to face punishment for a cause, testing both the content of their character and the courage of their convictions that they believe are moral and political wrongs. This is not mere hooliganism, it is a patriotic act of political action, aimed at invoking the deeply held constitutional values of American society, demanding that the current law or practices be changed.
Such activity is critical to the functioning of a free society as the United States. Such protest is consistent with and furthers the constitutional morality upon which this nation was founded.
That is why legislation aimed at billing individuals for the costs of their protests is wrong.
Across the country and in Minnesota elected officials are introducing bills that would do that, or enhancing penalties for breaking the law when protesting. Even if the laws were limited to billing individuals convicted of breaking the law, that is still wrong. In cases where the validity of the laws is doubtful one should never bill protesters for civil disobedience because such activity serves to chill expressive rights. It is an effort to squash the ability of individuals to act in ways to draw attention to unjust or unconstitutional activity and thereby prevent social and political change.
Even in cases where the law is clear and protesters have clearly broken the law, yes, in many cases they should be charged and convicted for breaking the law, but they should not be billed for policing or face enhanced penalties. These protesters are not criminals as defined above; they are challenging laws for ethical and constitutional purposes. Even in violating laws that are valid they perform an important function in exposing wrong. Imagine if abolitionists were billed for policing, or if Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were assessed. American society is better for their actions, our constitutional system is stronger, our respect for individual rights more entrenched, and our respect for human dignity furthered.
These laws establish bad precedents. Why not bill for the cost of police protection for the 100,000 who marched in St Paul against Donald Trump or for the thousands who showed up for his airport rally last November? Assess a process fee for petitions submitted to the government? Bill the press for time government officials spend answering their questions? These acts are core to a free society and billing for them would damage First Amendment rights.
The price of a free society is respecting differences of opinion. It recognizes that dissent – including breaking the law – is often capable of being more ethical and just than blindly and passively obeying it. In some cases, breaking the law invokes and promotes a shared sense of ethics that underlies the legal regime of the United States. That is why it would be wrong to treat protesters as mere criminals and force them to pay for the exercise of their First Amendment rights.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Donald Trump and the End of America’s Century

Donald Trump’s call to place “America first” as he declared in his inaugural speech is propelling him
into direct conflict with his campaign slogan to “Make America great again.”  Already in his first week in office he has undertaken a series of actions that do more to weaken rather than strengthen the United States.
It was Time publisher Henry Luce who proclaimed in a 1941 Life Magazine editorial that the twentieth century would be the “American Century.”  And to a large extent it became so after World War II and then clearly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.  In the former case the USA emerged from WW II as the strongest country in the world, in the latter, it was ,as Francis Fukuyama declared in The End of History and the Last Man, because of its dominance as the last standing superpower in the world that had won the Cold War and the battle for ideological ideas.
America’s  strength was not just measured by military might but also by being the  richest and largest economy in the world.  America’s power was also measured by it cultural exporting of its values, it role as the leader of the free world, the leading democracy, and moral leader of the world.  Its willingness to engage in alliances, trade, and political adventures across the world gave it what historian Paul Kennedy in the Rise and Fall of Great Powers the soft power to be great.  To be a world leader the USA had to be hegemonic, and it was.
But the worlds of 1946, 1989, or 1991 are far different than the one that exists today.  The  political world is not bi or monopolar but multipolar.  The EU has a larger GDP and economy than the US, as does China.  Whether anyone likes it or not, the global economy is global as Thomas Friedman pointed to in The World is Flat, with a degree of global interconnectedness that in many ways is impossible to reverse.  And the USA is no longer the best educated, most technologically advanced, or singularly-dominant country in the world.   The USA is a first nation among rivals and friends, and America’s ability to remain a leader resides in adapting to a changing world and continuing to engage with others.
This is what Trump fails to understand.  Whatever “Making America Great Again” means  it is impossible and perhaps undesirable to turn the clock back to some halcyon days of old the US dominated the world, when White guys worked in union scale manufacturing and mining jobs that built  cars, steel, and dug coal, and women stayed home and dressed in heels and skirts like Donna Reed while raising 2.3 children.  That world does not exist anymore and no matter what one does, it is not coming back.  The same is true internationally, especially if Trump continues along the path he has already taken.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Trump. LL Bean, and American Politics in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

The politicization of LL Bean is only the latest in the ongoing culture war in the United States.
Here, because of contributions by an heir and one of the board members to LL Bean who has supported Trump have  been attributed to the company itself, it has led to a boycott against the company among some who dislike Trump.  It did not help that Trump tweeted endorsement for LL Bean and encouraged consumers to support it. Earlier in the week it was the Golden Globes and Meryl Streep v. Streep.   Both instances point to the politicization and polarization of practically everything in American society.  How did this happen?  The simple answer lies in how our culture has been stripped of its independence and captured by economics.  This is exactly what Walter Benjamin predicted and described.
Walter Benjamin was a pre-World War II social and political critic who was part of the German Critical School.   One of the most influential essays he ever wrote–and well known to many in the arts and cultural theory–was his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”  Here he argued that t he capacity to mass reproduce original art changed it.    Market reproduction and sale of art would strip the original “aura” or context of an object and art, placing it within a new context and thereby change its meaning also.  Context for art, means everything.  The recently deceased John Berger’s Ways of Seeing is classic in pointing to this, and much of Andy Warhol’s  art–such as with Campbells Soup cans–also articulates how stripping objects out of their original context can convey new meanings.
But Benjamin’s essay asks if mass reproduction of art has striped art of its aura, what has replaced it?  Politics.  He saw in fascism the merger of politics and aesthetics.  But Benjamin’s arguments about art’s reproducability is not simply about art.  His deeper critique is also about the power of market forces to transform the world.  It was Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto who declared of the power of capitalism to render “ All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”  For Marx the commodification of all of life–work, home, family, and the arts–is what made for part of the class war.  Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks noted the same phenomena–the use of cultural landmarks as lines in the hegemonic  political wars over class struggles. Capitalization would eviscerate the walls the distinguished what Daniel Bell argued in the Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism  once described as the three distinct spheres of culture–politics, economics, and civil society.  Everything would be commodified, everything politicized.  If as political theorist Michael Walzer once argued that the essence of modern society was the art of separation–ensuring that we draw limits on various activities and institutions–we no longer see that separation.
The politicization of everything as it plays out in the United States seems less class-based  and more partisan.  It was brought on by the failure of our society, in part, to put firm fire walls in place that separate the economic marketplace from the political marketplace.  Allowing for personal  wealth to translate into political influence, letting corporations make political expenditures, and permitting businesses and corporations to speak as if they were real persons, all have contributed to this. But the same is true in letting pop culture and its icons make political statements or use art for political purposes.  Of course the First Amendment protects that right but the side effect is that everything has become or potentially could become a political statement.
Thus, there is nothing now that is not politicized along partisan lines.  Driving Suburu cars versus snow mobiles, shopping at Whole Foods versus eating at Cracker Barrel, watching Duck Dynasty v. Modern Family, all of the are predictors of partisanship as much as registering or voting Democrat or Republican.  In many cases, these fights are side shows, diversions for more fundamental issues that actually should be fought and addressed; yet people become so consumed with the sideshow they ignore the deeper problems of poverty, racism, sexism, and unequal divisions of political and economic power that are the real sources of division in America today.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Trump Meets Reality: Why his presidency will be weaker than many hoped or feared

            One of the ironies of American politics is that while the US presidency is arguably the most powerful elected position in the world, the office is also surprisingly weak.  As Donald Trump prepares to take office he may be surprised that for all that he says he wants to do, he may be less power to accomplish them than he and his supporters hoped, or his detractors feared.    The truth is that there are many constraints on US presidential power, dictated by the Constitution and the reality of American politics, international relations, and the precedents set by his predecessors.
            Richard Neustadt’s 1960 Presidential Power arguably endures as the single best book every written on the American presidency.  It opens with a quote from Harry Truman in 1952, offering advice to the incoming president and former general Dwight Eisenhower: “He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Ike—it won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll find it very frustrating.”  Neustadt’s use of the Truman quote was to underscore a reality of the American president who cannot simply order people about like kings or business CEOs.  Instead the power of the presidency is the power to persuade.
            Article II of the US Constitution defines the formal constitutional powers of the president that have not changed since George Washington.  But as Neustadt and James David Barber in his President Character contend, it the personality or character of the person who is president, along with a host of other factors that define the ability of presidents to persuade Congress, the media, foreign countries, and the American people to follow them.    These factors include rhetorical and media skills, margins of political victory, knowledge and experience of government, public support, the strength of political opposition, and perhaps the overall likeablity of the persons.  Presidential power is to the power to persuade, but that persuasive power is a form of bargaining power.  Some presidents such as Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were powerful because of these factors.
            From the New Deal until perhaps recently there was a fear of what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., termed the “imperial presidency.”  Born of the New Deal regulatory state and the reality of the Cold War and Vietnam, presidents were viewed as dangerously powerful and prone to abuse their authority, as did Richard Nixon.  But we are a long way from days of the imperial presidency and as Stephen Skowronek points out in Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal, context too demarcates the limits of presidential power.  Today, as a result of Supreme Court decisions–many of which clipped Obama’s power when it came to executive orders and Bill Clinton when it came to issues about legal accountability for personal behavior–Trump inherits a far weaker office than it was a generation ago.
            Soon if not already Trump is about to confront this reality.  He and his supporters and his detractors seem to have forgotten that there is this thing called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which defines the power of the presidency.  Both contain concepts such as separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, and the basic rights and liberties which presidents cannot violate.  There are some things President Trump cannot do alone with executive orders or even with legislation. He cannot order states and cities around, he cannot order citizens to do things that are illegal.  And even though Congress is of the same party as he is and he will get to appoint federal judges and a new Supreme Court justice, the logic of the political system that the American constitutional framers designed is one that is resistant to sudden and dramatic change.  Congress and the Supreme Court will have their own institutional identities and interests that will make them resistant to being ordered around by President Trump.
            Moreover, while the attraction of many to Trump was him being an outsider, yet unskilled in Washington politics will make it hard to govern.  President Jimmy Carter was an outsider whose presidency was compromised by his lack of Washington skills even though he was a governor.  Trump does not even have that and many of his senior appointees lack that too. They will soon find themselves out maneuvered by the federal bureaucracy, the senior executive service, and all the others who really run the government and know how to make it work.
            So long as Trump continues to fight the reality of American politics he will get nowhere.  Conversely, as the confirmation hearings are starting to show, in areas such as foreign affairs and intelligence gathering there is a powerful establishment and bureaucracy that will crush Trump if he does not learn how to work with them.  Presidents really have little freedom to change the course of American foreign affairs, with the best predictor of what a new president will do is to look at the previous one.  Besides the constraints of domestic politics, international contexts such as real politics and the support or opposition of allies and enemies dictate narrow courses of action for any president.
            All of the above suggests that Trump is about ready to be inaugurated and confront reality.  He will have to operate in a context that would limit any president.  But now also consider that he is a minority president who did not win the popular vote and had one of the narrowest electoral college victories in history.  He was never popular as a candidate with nearly 60% disapproving of him, and recent polls suggest an approval rating of 37%.  Presidents normally are sworn in with lots of good will, Trump will not have that. He enters a weakened office as a weakened president, lacking the traits that Neustadt, Barber, and Skowronek describe as key to presidential success.   It is not an imperial presidency located in Trump Tower that Trump inherits, but a weak office that can do far less to produce jobs, force Mexico to build a wall and pay for it, and abrogate unilaterally trade agreements without facing political and legal problems.    

            He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen. Poor Donald—it won’t be a bit like The Apprentice. He’ll find it very frustrating.”  

Friday, January 6, 2017

Donald Trump's Coup

Note:  On June 30, 2015, I posted this work of political fiction as my blog.  I thought it would be fun to repost  and see how much I got right and wrong.  Thoughts?

It was not so much that he made America great again, but when Donald Trump was elected president on November 8, 2016 he transformed the United States in ways that few, including he, could have imagined.
Right from the start establishment politicians and pundits just never understand Trump.  He was consistently derided as having no chance.  First it was that his repeated insults against John McCain, Megyn Kelly and women, immigrants, or Muslims that would doom him. But with each insult his fame only grew.  Then it was the claim that he could not win in Iowa but he did.  Or that his loss in Wisconsin would doom him.  Or that his tirades against the media, his name calling of Hillary Clinton, or even selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate would surely kill his campaign.  Back in June of 2016  as stories mounted about how little money he had raised, or that Clinton had double digit leads in some polls, he was still dismissed.  Nat Silver, the whiz kids of political money ball, said that Trump had barely a 20% chance of winning and who could doubt the person who had so brilliantly declared that Clinton was a cinch to win the Michigan primary .
Even as late as the July Republican convention, despite the riots and arrests outside and one final push by party elites to use the rules to oust him, some thought that Trump would not get the nomination.  But he did.
Trump’s success was in exploiting fear, prejudice, and ignorance.  These are the core elements of what most advertising does–appeal out our vanity insecurities,  and fears.  Trump as the consummate  salesman understood that.  But he also exploited the failures of the Republican and Democratic parties which for the last generation or more has sold the public on free trade, globalization, and open borders, saying that it would benefit us all.  Somewhere along the way these promises did not add up and mainstream national journalists, living in New York City, socializing on the upper east side, and vacationing in the Hamptons, for some reason just did not realize that average people were not reaping the benefits of NAFTA and free trade.  Perhaps they were too busy attending or covering the six figure speeches Hillary Clinton was giving to Wall Street to notice that most people were making less money now while working harder than they did twenty years ago.  Yes as F Scott Fitzgerald once said, the rich are different–they do have more money–but with money comes attitude and Trump played on resentment toward them and the elitism that they, the media, and the Washington establishment all represented.
Trump also understood they way that politics and entertainment had converged.  Politicians  no longer campaigned and the media no longer covered politics–both were marketed.  Trump understood the for-profit spectacle that politics had become and which the news industry wished to deny but depended on. He knew that CNN, MSNBC, and the rest could not resist a good headline and that if he dropped a comment–no matter how outrageous–the media would pick it up and it would fill the news cycle for an entire day.  Trump thus understood how getting headlines for him also meant the media  would get ratings.  They were trapped, and forced to market the presidential elections on Trump’s terms.
But Trump also benefited from running against for many a hugely unpopular and uninspiring candidate who was the face of the establishment and status quo in a year where   neither was a plus.  Clinton struggled to win the Democratic nomination against an aging self-described socialist who  never considered himself a Democrat until he decided to run for president.  Clinton should have easily defeated him, but her difficulties revealed how poor of a candidate she was.  She started a race with 70% approvals and a 50%+ lead over Sanders only to see it disappear.  Some of it yes was sexism.  No doubt there is about 30% of Americans who will never vote for a woman and thus Clinton faced problems from the start.  But she also had many other problems they were not the result of sexism but self-inflicted.
At the end of the day Clinton had no narrative for her campaign.  It was all about breaking the glass ceiling and being the first female president.  That did not cut it with young people, including women, who preferred someone who shared their politics and not simply their gender.  Additionally, whatever narrative Clinton had was one that was either too conservative for an emerging Millennial generation of voters, or one that harkened back to her husband.  In so many ways she was still running, as she did in 2008, for Bill’s third term.  Yet times had changed and what was once thought of as good public policy in the 90s was no long seen the same in 2016.
Hillary–a once youthful Republican turned New Democrat turned sort of progressive during the 2016 primaries and then back to a centrist Democrat who tried to appeal to Republican voters–was perplexed why no one trusted her.  This perplexity was also shared by her core supporters–women over 40–who saw in every criticism of her sexism.  Yet what was also perplexing  in the campaign was why Democrats supported her, let alone women or even people of color.  Clinton  who supported the death penalty, fracking, TPP and globalization , and a militaristic foreign policy, (at least until the primaries), and in the past who supported welfare reform, her husband’s crime bill, and oppose marriage equality until recently, hardly seemed like someone who Democrat or women should support.  Given her positions, it is wonder why she was a Democrat and why so many women who considered themselves progressives supported her beyond the fact that she was a woman. Clinton had a narrative problem along with an identity problem–voters did not trust her and did not like her for sexist and legitimate policy reasons.
Yet Clinton was supposed to win according to pundits and politicians.  But she did not.  She selected Tim Kaine from Virginia and played conventional politics in a year when the normal rules of politics changed.  Similar to Frank Skeffington in the Last Hurrah who never understood how the  New Deal had changed politics and therefore was clueless to how the old rules of campaigning had changed.  Clinton campaigned like it was 1992 again, just like she did in 2008.
The election came down to a core of swing states again, with Ohio and Florida again decisive.  The media and Clinton were distracted by Trump’s huge negatives and by how well she was doing in the popular vote and fund raising comparatively.  She went toe-to-toe negative campaigning but in the end Trump was able to dig deeper, go nastier, and insult better than her. He knew fear, prejudice, and ignorance would make the difference.  Benghazi, her e-mails, and all the other rumors around her stuck along with the image of Crooked Hillary.    In the end, Clinton, like Gore in 2000, won the popular vote by racking up huge majorities in Democrat states, but she lost among swing voters in swing states, handing the Trump-Palin ticket  an Electoral College victory.
Trump’s January 20, inauguration and swearing in were a made for TV event.  The inauguration ball and swearing in was held at the Trump International Hotel at 1100 Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, newly remodeled and just down the street from the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania  Ave. The cost of doing both was billed to the taxpayers and Trump of course profited from it, serving also Trump champagne and steaks. At his swearing in he also announced that Air Force 1 would be sold to save tax payer money, replaced with a Trump charter jet that would be rented by the government from him.
Trump’s inaugural speech–or rant–was exactly what was expected from him.  He said that his first order of business would be to expel all Muslims from the US, along with deporting all immigrants from Mexico. He also renounced NAFTA and all the free trade agreements with China and issued a 40% tariff on their goods.    He issued orders suspending enforcement of Obamacare and declared all EPA orders null and void. Palin was put in charge of a special task force on energy and the environment, and he declared all federal lands open to mining and drilling for oil. Drill Baby  Drill was now the official policy of America.
Trump thought he could simply push through want he wanted but with a Republican House and Senate that flipped to the Democrats, he found that they were less they willing to do his bidding.  He insulted in bipartisan fashion but it did little good.  As the economy began to tank Trump saw his approval rating slip more.  Legal challenges to his orders and actions mounted, coming from both Congress and citizens.  The cases began to choke the federal courts, necessitating Supreme Court review.  But since the death of Scalia the Court was operating one justice shy and it did not look as if Trump was going to be able to get through his judicial appointments.
But whatever one can say about Trump he finally achieved the impossible–he got the Democrats and Republicans to agree on one thing–his impeachment.  Fed up quickly with his presidency there was bipartisan agreement to impeach him.  By the time Trump was to be impeached Palin had already resigned.  Trump was without a vice-president and his impeachment was for self-dealing and disregarding the Constitution and the Supreme Court which had declared many of his act illegal.  This left Paul Ryan as the successor.  Except Trump refused to leave office, defying both the Congress and the Courts.
But Trump’s troubles did not stop there.  Following up on comments he made during the campaign, he ordered th US out of NATO. He ordered troops out of Japan and South Korea, and he torn up the nuclear agreement with Iran.  Early on  much of the career diplomatic staff at the State Department had resigned, leaving the US with few trained officials.  Trump named almost all of his friends as ambassadors, but they shared a common Trump trait–no diplomatic tact.  Soon the US was rhetorically fighting with everyone–even Great Britain who elected their own Trump like figure after Brexit, and President Le Pen in France. Tensions escalated in the Middle East as reaction to the Muslim US ban kicked in and domestic and international terrorist attacks against the US mounted.  Tensions with Iran, China, and North Korea reached a fever pitch, and finally Trump began talking  about nuclear weapons to be used to resolve all these disputes.
Finally the day came, July 4, to be exact.   Trump ordered the military leaders to act or face removal. With the Joint Chiefs of Staff worried about what Trump would do next, and seeing that Congress and the Courts were unable to restrain him, they did they only thing they thought patriotic to save the United States.