Wednesday, September 19, 2018

American Politics: Don't Mean Nothin'

American Politics: Don’t Mean Nothin’
Peter Schultz

            It all dawned on me as I responded to a friend’s post on Facebook that the charges against Kavanaugh were “a set up.” I responded that, of course, it was a set up and then it became clear to me what I meant. It was a set up but the people being set up were the American people; they were being played by both parties in a little drama that reveals how meaningless most of the American political drama is.

            Here’s the jest of the story. Senator Feinstein reveals that she has a letter, which of course she turned over to the FBI, in which the nominee Kavanaugh is accused of sexually attacking a young woman some 30 years ago when he was in high school. Of course, with the help of an all too willing media, the story blows up and becomes a major story.

            But think about it: Which party loses? The answer: Neither one loses. The Democrats get to trot out another sexually abused victim, and appear to be fighting Kavanaugh’s appointment “to the bitter end.” And, of course, with the mid-terms only a few weeks away, they win because they can appeal to their base and charge the Republicans with trying to ram through the appointment of someone who might be guilty of sexual abuse. So the Democrats win.

            And the Republicans? Well, they win too because they can protest that this whole event is a charade, a bogus charge with little to back it up of something that may or may not have happened decades ago. Think of how the Trumpsters, et. al., can pound this rather lame charge into the ground, which of course makes the charges leveled against the president himself look just as weak. Our patriarchy will be fortified. And then, of course, the Republicans will still get Kavanaugh on the court because it will be so easy for the Senate to shoot down these charges. So the Republicans win as well.

            This encapsulates the character of American politics. The two parties collude in ways that benefit both parties and to do so takes no great effort at all. No “smoke filled rooms” are needed. All that is needed is that the two parties act as people expect them to act, as they pretend to be “indispensable enemies.” They are in fact “indispensable enemies,” insofar as the games they play fortify their power, fortify their authority, while convincing the American people they are “enemies.”

            Does anyone lose? Well, I am guessing that Christine Ford will lose. Her life as she knew it is over and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the not too distant future her career will take a dive. And, of course, I also suspect that we, the American people, will lose also as another hypocrite takes a seat on the Supreme Court which he will hold at his own pleasure, pretending that he actually cares about the Constitution and what it means. “So it goes.” American politics: Almost all smoke and mirrors.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Presidency as Fairy Tale

The Presidency as Fairy Tale
Peter Schultz

            Below is a link to a book review of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s latest offering Leadership: In Turbulent Times. While I wonder whether or how much of this book has been plagiarized, as has happened in other instances of Goodwin’s work, I am more concerned with yet another hagiography on some of our presidents. This is problematic because, as near as I can reckon, we have not had a decent president since at least the 1950s. More importantly, I believe this phenomenon may be traced to the office itself, which was flawed in its conception and has grown more flawed over the course of American political history.

            The fly in the ointment, as it were, was noticed by Benjamin Franklin at the constitutional convention in 1787 when he argued that it would be unwise to create an office that appealed to avarice and the love of honor:

“there are two passions which have a powerful influence on the affairs of men. Separately each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but when created in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honour that shall at the same time be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it.”

Franklin argued that given such an office ‘It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust [who seek such an office]. It will be the bold and violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your Government and be your rulers. And these too will be mistaken in the expected happiness of their situation: For their vanquished competitors of the same spirit, and from the same motives will perpetually be endeavoring to distress their administration, thwart their measures, and render them odious to the people.”

So, according to Franklin, the presidency would not only encourage “the bold and violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits” to seek that office, but this office would lead to a political system that would be constantly characterized by partisan warfare as others, also bold and violent, sought to undermine a sitting president and his administration. And it would seem, given our situation today, Franklin was quite prescient in his speculations.

Hence, while Goodwin wants us to look to the presidency for our political salvation, insofar as Franklin was and is correct, we should rather be looking for ways to reform the presidency, to make it less attractive to those human beings who crave both profit and honor. Several possibilities come to mind, of course. But perhaps the most obvious one would also be the best one: Limit presidents to one term of six years, after which such officials would be banned from serving in any federal office. This would lessen the appeal of that office to those who wish to acquire a reputation for “greatness,” thereby encouraging others, less enamored of such honors and their accompanying “profits,” to seek the office. Could or would we be any worse off than we are today?

Monday, September 10, 2018

The "Integrity of America's Democratic System." What?

The “Integrity of America’s Democratic System.” What?
Peter Schultz

            The fear is rising that the current state of affairs is threatening “the integrity of America’s democratic system,” to quote an article on the CNN website, linked below.

But the idea that there is a core of "adults in the room," as described by the op-ed writer, subverting the President's authority and wielding for themselves the power granted to the commander-in-chief during an election season should also be a troubling one, since it raises questions about the integrity of America's democratic system itself.”

            Two responses. First, what is happening to Trump is nothing new, nor is it especially egregious when it comes to attempts to subvert a president’s agenda. Just one example should suffice here, viz., the presidency of JFK, where some members of the CIA and the military wanted to invade Cuba and overthrow the Cuban regime even though JFK had expressed no desire to do so. Hence, the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was meant to force Kennedy to send US forces into Cuba to support what both the CIA and the military knew was an invasion that could not succeed without such action. But Kennedy did not send US troops to help the invasion succeed and said afterwards that he would like to “break the CIA into a thousand pieces.” And if you want to talk about “a coup,” as Steve Bannon did recently, then just let your mind consider the Kennedy assassination which even the Congress concluded – in the 1970s – was a conspiracy. Now that could have been a coup.

            Second: “America’s democratic system” is an illusion. What makes our political system democratic? The fact that we have a president who received more than 3 million less votes than the person he allegedly “defeated?” Or the fact that we have a Senate where states like Rhode Island, North and South Dakota have the same number of senators as states like California and Texas? Or the fact that we have a Supreme Court whose justices serve at their own pleasure, often for decades, and are not accountable for their decisions in any way?

            If this is a democracy, it is a democracy of a very weird kind because the will of the many is more often thwarted than respected and our governmental institutions were constructed and are functioning to do just that, thwart the popular will. Our governmental institutions invite officials to oppose the president, both overtly and covertly because this is another way to ensure that the popular will does not predominate.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

No, Nikki, Resistance to Presidents Is Not "Fundamentally Wrong"

No, Nikki, Resistance to Presidents Is Not “Fundamentally Wrong”
Peter Schultz

Here is a passage from a column written by Nikki Haley, Trump’s UN ambassador, a link to which can be found below.

What this anonymous author is doing is very dangerous. He or she claims to be putting the country first, and that is the right goal. Everyone in government owes a greater loyalty to our country and our Constitution than to any individual officeholder. But a central part of our democracy requires that those who work directly for the president not secretly try to undermine him or his policies. What the author is describing is an extra-constitutional method of addressing policy disputes within the administration. That’s wrong on a fundamental level.”

            To cut to the chase, it is not “a central part of our democracy . . . that those who work directly for the president not secretly try to undermine him or his policies.” Our Constitution makes the president the “chief executive,” not the only executive. There are other executives, cabinet secretaries for example, who also possess executive powers and responsibilities that in many instances cannot legally be controlled by the president. For example, during the Watergate affair, Nixon could not fire the special prosecutor so he had to get another executive to do that after two executives, including the attorney general, refused to obey Nixon’s order. Talk about undermining the president and his policies. This act of disobedience led to Nixon’s resignation.

            Even officials who serve at the pleasure of the president possess powers that the president cannot legitimately control. He can fire a disobedient executive but he cannot assume the powers of even the newly appointed official. And because the president can fire some officials, acting covertly against the president when an executive thinks that is in the national interest makes sense. And, of course, this scene has been played out again and again and again in our political drama, with officials seeking to undermine the president and his policies. It is just part of a drama framed by the separation of powers in the service of limited government.

            Patrick Henry criticized the Constitution for “squinting in the direction of monarchy” and he was correct. But it only squints in that direction; it does not embrace monarchy and the presidency is, at most, a disguised monarch. But the disguise is important in helping to preserve constitutional or limited government. And in a limited government, the powers of all officials, and especially of the chief executive, are limited. How these limits are enforced, made real, is left up to the discretion of those whose duty it is to impose them.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Is This A "Constitutional Crisis?"

Is This a “Constitutional Crisis?”
Peter Schultz

In the link provided below, David Frum wants us to believe that we are facing a “constitutional crisis” because of “Overt defiance of presidential authority by the president’s own appointees….” According to Frum, such defiance is not “a constitutional mechanism” and, hence, its use creates a constitutional crisis.

Well, while I am with Frum in thinking that such defiance is troubling, to call it a constitutional crisis is a bit much. After all, this is hardly the first time that a president has been defied by others in his administration, whether appointed by him or not. For example, it seems pretty clear that the CIA was actively involved in undermining the presidency of Jimmy Carter and several parts of the bureaucracy were actively seeking to undermine Nixon’s presidency, as he, Nixon, claimed. Defiance of presidents, both overt and covert, is a common practice, one that has bedeviled presidents for a very long time. And in fact such defiance is built into our constitutional order via the separation of powers and the bill of rights, the latter of which protects the freedom of the press as well as the freedom of speech or expression.

In sum, there is no constitutional requirement that other officials, either elected or unelected, support or not defy a president. Of course, the Supreme Court is composed of unelected officials serving at their own pleasure and, while appointed by the president, they are not expected to support his policies. The Court may be, as Hamilton argued, “the least dangerous branch,” but that does not mean it isn’t dangerous at all or that it shouldn’t wield its power even in defiance of the president. It is, in fact, it’s constitutional duty to do so.

So, no, this isn’t a “constitutional crisis.” In fact, it is just normal politics in what claims to be a constitutional order that creates a government of equal and coordinate departments. And as Harry Truman is rumored to have said: “If you can’t stand the heat, you should get out of the kitchen.”

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Term Limits: What It Might Be Like

Term Limits: What It Might Be Like
P. Schultz

            Below is a link to an article that helps to illustrate what our politics might be like if we had term limits. Briefly, term limits would open up our political order to change in a way that having a permanent political class does not.

            In an aside, the article which is about the primaries in Massachusetts makes me a bit sorry that I now live in North Carolina and not Mass. But then, only a bit and in Massachusetts I cannot play golf year round or watch, live and in person, Wake Forest soccer [ranked #1 in the nation again] or Wake Forest football. You gotta take the bad with the good.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Trump Hysteria and the Good Old Days

Trump Hysteria and the Good Old Days
Peter Schultz

            Recently, I have heard people lamenting the fact that, especially in the age of Trump, that the United States has become a divided nation like never before. In the “good old days” it is said that the American people were moderates politically and now they are “forced” to take sides and are not willing as a result to compromise, as they did in “the good old days.”

            Some things about this argument bothered me and it took a little while to figure out what these things were. First, the very idea of “the good old days” bothered me as I think Billy Joel was right to sing, “The good old days weren’t always so good and today isn’t as bad as it seems.” I especially like the first part of this refrain because today is, often, as bad as it seems.

            Second, “the good old days” is a  myth, a comforting myth according to which that in the good old days people were moderate, willing to listen to opposing viewpoints and to compromise. I wonder: When was this “golden age” of moderation and compromise? Was it the 50s and 60s when blacks could not legally sit at lunch counter and order food in Greensboro, N.C.? Was it when there were no blacks at southern colleges and universities like UNC, N.C. State, or Wake Forest College? There was a time, in the good old days, when there were no black athletes playing any sports in the ACC or the SEC and a basketball player like Oscar Robertson, a resident of Winston Salem, N.C. had to go north to play division 1 college basketball.

            Were people moderate and willing to compromise when very few gays or lesbians would “come out” for fear for their bodies and lives and for being arrested and charged criminally?  Was our politics moderate when JFK, because he was a Catholic, was not on the presidential ballot in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia? Was our politics moderate when JFK was gunned down in Dallas in 1963? Or when MLK was gunned down in Memphis in 1968? Or when Bobby Kennedy was gunned down in Los Angeles also in 1968? Or when Malcolm X was gunned down in the 60s as well? Or when Ronald Reagan, as governor of California spoke of shooting student protesters? Or when no one was charged with any crime after the killings of unarmed students at Kent State and Jackson State? If this is moderation, it is certainly a strange kind of moderation.

            Thirdly, such arguments about “the good old days” imply that moderation and a willingness to compromise are the “default political position.” That is, moderation and a willingness to compromise are thought to characterize politics in its “natural state,” and this state is only upset by the efforts of people and politicians committed to disruption and chaos. And this is just another myth and one that is dangerously geared to political passivity. By this view, people shouldn’t have fight to be heard, to advance their agendas in the political arena. All people have to do is “start a discussion,” say, about race and, in the end, people will “see the light,” act moderately and compromise to advance justice.

            Well, as near as I can tell, this is just poppy cock. It wasn’t a “discussion” that ended, for a while anyway, the racist apartheid regime that existed in the U.S. since the end of the Civil War. It wasn’t a “discussion” that led the government, eventually, to change its policies in Vietnam, to seek “peace with honor” rather that “victory” over those evil Communists. It wasn’t a “discussion” that won workers the right to unionize and that led to legislation meant to make work places safer. It wasn’t a discussion that won women the right to vote in national elections. None of these phenomena occurred because the nation had “a discussion.” They occurred as the result of battles, real, bloody battles. As Plato makes evident in his Republic, justice does not just appear, is not “self-evident.” Knowing what justice is requires a struggle, which is what Plato understood to be philosophy.  And of course this means that a politics of justice necessarily involves struggles, even battles as contestants seek to advance, one way or another, their different versions of justice.

            The argument condemning Trump – and he deserves condemnation as do others as well – for dividing America based on the idea that in the past, in “the good old days,” moderation and compromise characterized our political order and society is an argument that leads to political passivity. As a result, eventually people will just throw up their hands, giving up when their wishes for a “discussion” about this or that are thwarted, thinking “what’s the use? Our political activity doesn’t get us anywhere.”

            But as my mother use to say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
Calling for “discussions” of race, of gender, of imperialism are powerless against the likes of Trump. It was Malcolm X who said a relatively long time ago, “The ballot or the bullet.” And, indeed, that is still the choice. It was Malcolm X who also said, “By any means necessary.” Without intending it, Trump has helped to create a situation where even people who claim to be “white” can understand, can feel what Malcolm meant.