Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Policy Making: Madness Disguised

Policy Making: Madness Disguised
Peter Schultz

            In an excellent biography of Robert Strange McNamara entitled Promise and Power there occurs the following assessment of McNamara by one of his contemporaries at a time when McNamara seemed to some to be on the verge of mental breakdown as the Vietnam War was degenerating into mindless and ineffective killing and McNamara knew it.

            “Everything he believed in was being knocked on its ass in Vietnam. Here was a guy who really believed that the truth is what you got out of the machine when you asked for it. You know, what would we do about x? – here comes the answer, the organizational truth.” [p. 426]

            Now this is an excellent characterization of Robert McNamara and how he thought, both in and out of the political arena. But it seems fair to say that it is also a pretty good description of how a good many, even most Americans have come to think politically. We ask: What are our problems? Then we ask: What are the solutions to those problems? The implication being that solving political problems is a lot like or exactly like solving math problems. All we need do is to find the right formula and we will be able to solve our problems.

            Hence, in Vietnam, those in charge looked for the formula, the right mixture of, say, search and destroy missions, Vietnamization, pacification, assassinations, and bombing that would lead to victory. And of course people like Robert McNamara looked like the most likely source of what would be the successful solution to the problem of Vietnam. After all, he had worked apparent wonders at the Ford Motor Company before he became the secretary of defense for Kennedy. But it didn’t work out that way and the longer McNamara dealt with Vietnam, the worse the situation seemed to become. That is, more and more civilians were killed, more and more American and Vietnamese soldiers were killed, and yet the war went on and on and on until, finally, the United States pulled out after having obtained, as the official line had it, “peace with honor.” Of course, it got neither peace nor honor. All it got was the return of is prisoners of war, while the Vietnamese once again united their country against the wishes of a powerful enemy seeking to subjugate them.

            So what are we to make of this? If policy making does not work, if it leads more often to failure than success, what are we to replace it with? And that framework has so consumed our thinking about politics that it is difficult to think of alternatives. But let me try anyway.

            Once upon a time, it was thought that there were certain fundamental political questions such as what is justice? What is the most appropriate end of politics? Is it liberty, prosperity, security, or national greatness? Or more recently, have we created a military-industrial complex, as President Eisenhower argued? How should ambition and the ambitious be dealt with? How can we prevent an oligarchy from forming and controlling our politics and society? What is a just war?

            The fact that we don’t spend much time considering such questions does not mean that they aren’t important or relevant. One cannot help but suspect that it was the pursuit of national greatness that led to the fiasco in Vietnam, the one in Iraq, and the continuing one in Afghanistan. Perhaps if we questioned whether we should pursue national greatness, our politics would not be as messed up as it is. Has the pursuit of national greatness led to the creation of that military-industrial complex Ike warned us about? Did the failure to ask, seriously ask whether the Vietnam War was a just war contribute to its outcome? For if it weren’t just, then eventually that fact would make itself known, thereby contributing to the opposition that arose the longer the war went on and that many say caused US defeat in that war. Humans have a difficult time participating in injustice, especially when the injustice involves large scale killing, torture, and oppression.

            In other words, we ignore some political questions at our own peril. Ambition and the ambitious must be dealt with by any political order, as should be crystal clear these days with Donald Trump as president, if it wasn’t already clear when LBJ, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, or George W. Bush was president. Ambition may be, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, “the ruling passion of the noblest minds” – or not! And the cost of ignoring certain political questions should be clear as we stumble from one failed military engagement, one fruitless war to another. To treat war-making as McNamara did in Vietnam and as our politicians have done in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, as a problem to be solved by the correct formula, without considering the status of war-making as a political activity or phenomenon, is to invite failure after failure. And all the glorification of our military will do nothing to avoid these failures. If not one soldier fighting in Vietnam had been dishonored – as some surely were – that war would still have been unjust and, hence, unsustainable. For that was what led to that war’s loss of legitimacy, that it was unjust, that it was inhumane, that it was a fool’s errand.

            Robert McNamara’s biography is a good one to study because he was so eminently American. That he finished his stint in the Defense Department near a mental breakdown should be taken as a sign that how he did politics, which is largely how most Americans think of doing politics, is a form of or leads to madness.

Going to the Dark Side and Other Lies

Going to the Dark Side and Other Lies
Peter Schultz

            I am currently rereading Jane Mayer’s excellent book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, the title of which is a reference to Dick Cheney’s assertion after 9/11 that it would now be necessary for the United States to go to the dark side in combatting our terrorist enemies.

            But this idea of “going to the dark side” is a lie because it suggests that Cheney/Bush, et. al., are going to a place, out of necessity, that is part of the traditional American political order. That is, the implication is that this “side,” although rarely visited, is a part of the traditional governmental arrangements in the United States. But this is a lie. Cheney/Bush, et. al., are not going to a part of our traditional governmental arrangements but are building what they hope will be an entirely new and very different set of governmental arrangements. And this is supported by Mayer’s observation that Dick Cheney has been working on this agenda for some years, even decades now, as evidenced by the minority report he wrote for the Iran-Contra investigation, as well as Cheney’s long-standing concern with what is called “Continuation of Government” or “COG.”

            The same lie is being told when Cheney/Bush, et. al., imply that their actions instituting what Mayer calls the “New Paradigm” are being undertaken out of necessity. Rather, these actions are for these people desirable rather than necessary. And the difference is important for understanding what is going on. For clarity’s sake, think of our traditional governmental arrangements as a garment. The argument from necessity suggests that what is going on is that something additional is being added to the existing garment, that something being made necessary by events like 9/11. But the argument from desirability suggests that what is going on is the creation of a wholly new garment. The latter of course raises or should raise all kinds of questions, such as whether the new garment is a republican or a royalist/monarchical one. But, as Mayer points out, these are the kind of questions that never got raised in the aftermath of 9/11 and that the Cheney/Bush regime did not want raised. And because they did not want them raised, they pretended that they were concerned with the constitutional bona fides of their proposals. But their constitutional arguments are merely meant to disguise what is in fact a radically different kind of government than the one created in 1787.

            Mayer is correct then to argue that the war on terror constitutes “a war on American ideals.” But care should be taken here as well because that war, the one on terror, is just the convenient excuse that is being used to try to create a new political order, one that is quite unlike the order created by the constitution of 1787. So, if the war on terror were to end, it would be naïve to think that the attempts to sabotage our traditional governmental arrangements would also end. They would not.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Reflections on the Clintons: "Hillary Doesn't Live Here Anymore"

Reflections on the Clintons: “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”
Peter Schultz

            In his chapter entitled “Hillary Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” Ben Fountain, in his book, Beautiful Country Burn Again, considers in some depth the public life of Hillary Clinton, her strengths and her weaknesses. While he doesn’t exactly put it this way, it seems fair to say that he considers Bill and Hillary to have failed politically because they proved incapable of or unwilling to engage in statesmanship. And they failed at statesmanship because they could not or would not recognize and confront the contradictions confronting the United States in our time. Rather, they chose, as most politicians do, to “go with the flow” in order to win elections, to gain power and the status that goes with it.

            The Clintons knew that the Democrats had, by 1988, lost every presidential election since 1968 with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, following the debacle of Watergate. They also knew that the Republicans had won all those elections except of course the one in 1976. From this they concluded, along with others, that to win presidential elections the best thing to do was to mimic the Republicans. And, viola, the “New Democrats” were born, led by the creation of the Democratic Leadership Council – which Jesse Jackson dubbed the “Democrats for the Leisure Class.” This was to be, according to the Clintons and others, a “third way;” that is, not the old New Deal way nor, allegedly, not the Republican way, although it did reflect much, very much of Republican agenda economically, socially, and internationally. It would involve in a wonderfully empty phrase “reinventing government.”

            This was perhaps a good strategy for winning presidential elections, although the results in 2000 and 2016 make this unclear. But it was not a good strategy if one wanted to build a decent, just, and resilient political order; that is, build the kind of politics that revolved around the proposition – as Lincoln called it – that all human beings are created equal and thus should be treated as such in a political order that does not favor one social and/or economic class at the expense of others. To embrace such a politics, however, it is necessary to recognize and confront the contradictions embedded in a corporate capitalistic economic order, viz., that such an order undermines the equality that is desirable by allowing or facilitating the creation of great wealth, increasingly lodged in a relatively few hands. Now, wealth is a good, as is equality. But because the two often contradict one another, it is necessary to confront these contradictions and resolve them as best one can.

            To rise to the level statesmanship, a person must recognize and confront the contradictions between capitalism and, let me call it, republicanism. But in order to win elections, the Clintons – as well as other Democrats – pretended there were no such contradictions, just as the Republicans had been doing for decades. The Clinton’s shortcomings in this regard are well illustrated by Hillary’s blind spot regarding the millions of dollars she took from Wall Street firms as “speaker fees.” The same phenomenon arises with regard to the Clinton Foundation. The Clintons, it would seem, believed they could take huge sums of money from wealthy capitalists without it compromising their republican bona fides. But ordinary people knew or sensed that this was not possible because they knew or sensed that the prevailing capitalistic arrangements and those who wielded power therein were screwing them over. They, the ordinary people, the 99%, felt their shoes pinching and they knew who had sold them their shoes. And the people were right, just as Jesse Jackson was right to dub the DLC “Democrats for the Leisure Class.”

            The Clintons and others tried to meet these objections with rhetoric such as “We feel your pain.” Ordinary people being squeezed are not all that impressed by rich people saying that they, the rich people, feel their pain because (a) it isn’t true and (b) it isn’t what the squeezed people want or need.  And it is especially annoying when those rich people beg off by saying they are sorry it took them so long to recognize the plight of the less well off – while collecting millions of dollars in “speaker fees.” But the important point is that it was not simply distrust of Hillary that was visible in the 2016 presidential election. It was also recognition that her politics was not geared to help those most in need of help. She needed a new kind of politics but that was impossible so long as she – and other Democrats – refused to focus on issues like fairness, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth in the nation, or the increasing burdens ordinary people faced regarding education and health care. And these are precisely the issues that the “Democrats for Leisure Class” cannot address and will shut down anyone, like Bernie Sanders, who tries to address them.

            Statesmanship, that is, building a decent, just, and resilient political order, requires recognizing and confronting the contradictions built into any social and political arrangements. By ignoring these contradictions, it is possible, as Bill Clinton demonstrated, to win elections. But sooner or later, “the chickens will come home to roost,” as they did in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Beautiful Country Burn Again

Beautiful Country, Burn Again
Peter Schultz

            The title of this post is actually the title of an amazing book I stumbled upon at Z. Smith Reynolds Library, which is on the campus of Wake Forest University. If you read anything about American politics read this book, whose full title is Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, by Ben Fountain.

One chapter is especially interesting, entitled “American Crossroads: Reagan, Trump, and the Devil Down South.” It is about what has come to be called the “Southern Strategy,” whereby it is conventionally said that the Republicans overthrew the New Deal Democrats by addressing the anxieties of white southern males. As Fountain makes clear, however, the strategy was used to appeal the racists in the south and not just in the south, so they could, with the help eventually of the “New Democrats,” redistribute the vast wealth of the United States upwards.

            Let me begin with a quote from Lee Atwater, an operative in the Reagan White House, explaining the essence of the “Southern Strategy:”

            “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are really economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is a part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’” [p. 131]

            So the essence of the Southern Strategy, which “Goldwater discovered; Nixon refined; and Reagan perfected . . . into the darkest of the modern political arts.” [p. 133] Reagan perfected this strategy by going to Neshoba County, Mississippi for his first speech as the Republican Party’s nominee for president. What makes this remarkable is that although Neshoba County is a remote, rural county in a poor southern state with only seven electoral votes, it is the place where three civil rights workers, Michael Schwermer, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, were murdered and their bodies buried so well that it took the FBI more than six weeks to find them.  These three young men were arrested and then disappeared. During their disappearance, Mississippi Senator James Eastland alleged that their disappearance was announced in advance of their disappearance, while other white supremacists’ organizations reported seeing them alive even as far away as Cuba!

            But as Fountain reports, after the bodies of the three were found, one of who had still been alive when buried, an investigation found that this was no unplanned murder. Rather, “a distinct picture emerged of a brutal, highly organized power structure procuring [these] murders” that involved “elected officials . . . as well as local Citizen’s Counsels” and the “Sovereign Commission” and “law enforcement”, that is, “The ‘community.’” [p.135] These murders were part of the South’s attempt to maintain white supremacy. And they were condoned by state authorities.

            And this is where Ronald Reagan made his first speech after securing the Republican nomination for president. And in that address, Reagan, who of course made no mention of the three murdered civil rights workers, spoke in code to signal southern racists that he understood them and that he was on their side:

            “I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe we have distorted the balance of government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to be given to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I am looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.” [p. 133]

            No need for Reagan to say “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” None indeed for southern racists understood him very well indeed. As Fountain points out, “These days we know it as dog-whistle politics, that coded language Lee Atwater was talking about.” With no mention of the three murdered civil rights workers, Reagan’s “screaming silence was a dog-whistle too, and to think that Reagan didn’t know what he was doing is to consign him to the ranks of the epically stupid.” As Fountain concludes: “The Neshoba County speech stands as one of the masterpieces of the Southern Strategy, a dog whistle that blew out the eardrums of every reactionary within three thousand miles.” [p. 135-36]

Trump: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Trump: The Gift That Keeps on Giving
Peter Schultz

            The political establishment in the United States is, once again as it was in the 60s, under attack, both from the right and from the left. And as illustrated by Bernie Sanders’ powerfully popular attack on Hillary Clinton during the battle for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, as well as by Donald Trump’s successful bid of the presidency, that attack in powerful and the status of the political establishment tenuous at best. Which is why Trump’s success may be seen as just what that establishment needed to re-legitimize itself.

            Trump is so bad, so crass, so dishonest, to untethered to reality, so unprincipled, so unprofessional that he has managed to make the likes of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney look good. Almost by himself, Trump has re-legitimized the political establishment that has controlled American politics for decades. For example, according to John Dean of Watergate fame, Trump makes even Richard Nixon look redeemable, look legitimate, look like a desirable politician. Thanks to Trump, all the flaws of that political establishment – an establishment that gave us two impeachable presidents, Nixon and Clinton, gave us two disastrous wars, Vietnam and Shrub’s Iraq, and allowed the nation’s economy to tank in 2008 and then bailed out the perpetrators of that fiasco – have almost been forgotten. Almost by himself, Trump has redeemed a political establishment that going into 2016 seemed to be on its last legs. Trump is, in this regard, “the gift that keeps on giving.” A person could almost be excused for thinking that the result of the 2016 presidential election was seen as a godsend by the ruling political classes seeking to maintain their power and status. Trump did for them what they could not do for themselves.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Washington Ain't Broke: It's Rigged

Washington Ain’t Broke. It’s Rigged.
Peter Schultz

            Want to know why our two political parties are so intensely divisive? Because that’s how they preserve their power and privileges. Want to know why there is stalemate in D.C.? Because it serves the interests, preserves the power of our political or ruling elites. It really is that simple.

            In the 60s, it became necessary, given the civil unrest taking place, fed by radical factions within American society, to drive these factions out, to dismantle them, to delegitimize them. Hence, the government practiced repression via a vast network of spying on these Americans, and via covert activities including even assassinations ala’ the deaths of Black Panthers in Chicago, not to mention other assassinations that may have been conspiratorial. Most importantly, however, it was necessary to de-legitimize these radical forces then in vogue, which was accomplished by our two parties adopting and intensifying certain political differences.

            The Republican, even before the advent of the so-called “Reagan Revolution,” embraced what they called the “traditional values” of “the silent majority,” e.g., religion, law and order, the war on drugs, national tranquility, family values, heterosexuality, and of course corporate capitalism. With Reagan, this embrace tightened and intensified as conservatives and “neo-cons” took over the party.

            And then the Democrats announced that they were to be “new Democrats,” who were going to, among other things, “reinvent government.” They too would embrace “traditional values” like family values and other values that “nearly every American” embraced, to quote Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. Clinton would, he announced, find ways to make certain that children could live safe lives again, a forerunner to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” in the form of “Make America Safe Again.” Like the Republicans, these new Democrats would stand for family – don’t forget DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act that Clinton signed – religion, law and order, capital punishment, and of course corporate capitalism. There was no room in the Democratic Party for even the likes of George McGovern or even Ralph Nader.

            Under this new alignment, which was confirmed by the 1992 presidential election in which Clinton bested Poppy Bush, the more radical political choices or options of the 60s disappeared from the political arena and had no nationally recognized spokespersons or nationally recognized organizations. Such options were replaced by the likes of Ross Perot! But the appearance of deeply divisive political differences were and are maintained even while the more radical political options remain outside the prevailing political discourse and debate. The allegedly deeply divisive political differences between the Republicans and Democrats serve then to preserve the status quo, keeping genuinely alternative political options off the table. Hence, while the US wages war throughout the world, there is no discernable peace movement, as there was in the 60s. And anyone who suggests that our corporate capitalistic economy is not serving most people well is labeled a “socialist” and thereby marginalized. And as was clear from the recent Kavanaugh debacle, even those who suggest that the prevailing patriarchy is flawed will be dealt with promptly and judiciously, that is, silenced and marginalized. A person could even be forgiven for thinking that that debacle was welcomed by and served the interests of our ruling elites.

            There is thus a kind of collusion between the Republicans and the Democrats these days whereby their allegedly intensely divisive political differences serve to maintain the status quo, both in terms of their own power and in terms of the prevailing political agenda. The resulting stalemate is useful and it is practiced, maintained, and fortified by both parties to the detriment of the people. Washington ain’t broke. It’s rigged and it’s rigged to serve the interests of our ruling elites rather than the general welfare.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Bill Clinton; Prelude to Trump?

Bill Clinton; Prelude to Trump?
Peter Schultz

            Reading Joan Didion’s Political Fictions made me realize how much of a prelude Bill Clinton was for Donald Trump.

            After the “defections” of the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” “all election appeals were directed” at them, “a narrow focus with predictable results, not the least significant . . . was that presidential elections [were] conducted almost exclusively in code.” [p. 144]

            For example, one code phrase was “middle class.” The Democrats’ focus on the “middle class” was code for support of the death penalty, law and order, and being anti poor, black, Hispanic, urban, and homeless people.” “’Middle class” Mr. Clinton [said] “’was not a ‘code word’ for racism.’ “[This] was accurate [because] the appeal was broader [than racism] to an entire complex of attitudes held . . . by those who [felt] isolated and set adrift by . . . demographic and economic and cultural changes….” [145]

            As Clinton put it, “’Middle class’ referred to values nearly every American holds dear: support for family, reward for work, the willingness to change what isn’t working….” But take note of the phrase “nearly every American,” which means that there are some who don’t endorse these values and they are the enemy. And therein resides the coded message. Those Americans who don’t endorse these values and those like the “new Democrats” who are endorsing them are actually un-American. And we can pretty much guess who those people are, those left-wingers and other “radicals.”

            As Clinton elaborated on his “life work,” he sounded almost like Trump: “I have spent most of my public life worrying about what it would take to give our children a safe place to live again.” [146] So, Clinton’s campaign could have been called “Make America Safe Again,” and this meant safe from those Americans who don’t share those values that “nearly every American” shares.

And apparently, to make America safe again would require use of the death penalty and especially use of the death penalty as applied to the likes of Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally challenged young man who was executed per Clinton’s order only 48 hours before the Clintons appeared before the Super Bowl to address Bill’s affair with Jennifer Flowers! In his endorsement of the death penalty and the use of code, to say nothing of his extramarital activities, does anyone see a prelude to Trump?  

Moreover, how large a step is it from “worrying about what it would take to give our children a safe place to live again” to securing our borders? Perhaps Clinton and Gore would use their proposed “National Police Corps,” made up of “unemployed veterans and active military personnel,” to secure the borders. Thus, it doesn’t seem to be much of a step from Clinton’s concerns to Trump’s concerns. Or how big a step is it from such worry to declaring a worldwide war on terror after 9/11? And, again, it doesn’t seem such a big step to me. So, it seems fair to me to say that Clinton and Trump share much more politically than is commonly recognized. If so, this seems like a phenomenon worth considering.