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.