Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Conspiratorial Political Science: What We Need

Conspiratorial Political Science: What We Need
Peter Schultz

            Conventional political science sees politics as primarily composed of battles over particular public policies, e.g., US policy toward China, toward Russian, toward the environment, toward education, and so on and so on and so on. So presented, politics is not seen as a series of battles between, say, republicans and oligarchs, or between democrats and aristocrats, between the not-wealthy and the wealthy. These larger issues are ignored, even buried by conventional political science, to the point that it seems we no longer have to deal with them.

            One problem with situation is that although it appears that our politics is all about a series of battles over particular public policies, in fact those larger battles are being fought and decided with consequences of the utmost importance. But these larger battles are being fought clandestinely, covertly, and it behooves us to take note of this.

            This is where what I am calling a “conspiratorial political science” comes in handy; is, in fact, indispensable because conspiracy theories reveal or at least hint at the battles over these larger issues. For example, the question “Who killed JFK?” points toward the possibility that JFK was killed by, say, a conspiracy of right-wing oligarchs who were convinced that Kennedy, if allowed to continue as president, would undermine the authority they had been enjoying prior to Kennedy’s election in 1960.  Or consider the question: Was the Watergate scandal a way to remove Richard Nixon in a coup, a coup engineered by those who were opposed to Nixon’s Vietnam policies, his China policy, and his policy of détente with the Soviet Union?

            And this helps explain why conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists are treated by many with disdain: Because such theories threaten to expose (a) what is actually going on and (b) that what is going on calls into question the legitimacy of the reigning political honchos because these honchos have achieved or are maintaining their power by undemocratic, un-republican means. Conspiracy theories replace the view of conventional political science that politics is normally, ordinarily about open disputes and battles over particular public policy questions, a view that implicitly embraces the view that the existing political order is legitimate. So, in conventional political science, any suggestion that the reigning political order is illegitimate seems out of order. According to conventional political science, attempts at clandestine changes should be dismissed as mere conspiracies and, hence, not worth serious attention because they do not constitute normal, ordinary politics. They are aberrations, often the aberrations of distorted minds.

            As a result, many aspects of our political battles are ignored or buried, e.g., the fact that the Nixon administration was being spied on by the Pentagon, or the fact that JFK cancelled a scheduled trip before his fated trip to Dallas because there had been intell that there would be an attempt to assassinate him. And this means that much of the reality of our political battles disappears or is repressed, and as a result we don’t actually know what is going on in our own government. What looks like, say, competing foreign policies are actually competing imperialistic schemes, schemes embraced by different groups seeking power. And none of these groups want these competitions to be decided in the public arena because, of course, in a nation that aspires to be republican, imperialism cannot be openly embraced. If the nation is to wage war imperialistically, this must be done on the sly, must be dressed up to look like reluctant war-making. But again and again, this reluctance is overcome. Or, as conventional political scientists like to say, the US keeps making the same mistakes over and over and over. But, in reality, these wars aren’t mistakes. They are being waged, clandestinely as it were, to serve one faction or another.

            Often, it is asked: Why don’t things in the US change, even in the face of significant public dissatisfaction? One reason is that our elections don’t decide public policy in the United States. What decides public policy in the United States, as is true I would imagine of every national political order, are the conspiracies that happen before, during, and after our elections. Until we understand this, we will go on as we have been for a long time now, allowing our conspirators to decide our fates.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?

Disengagement: Is It Always Morally Reprehensible?
Peter Schultz

            Is disengaging politically always morally reprehensible? This is a question I ran into today on Twitter, when I was charged with “the morally inexcusable act of throwing up my hands and disengaging politically.” To which my response was that there are times when it is morally reprehensible not to disengage. And when faced with a choice between two parties, both of which embrace a violent imperialism, the militarization of society, some form of mass incarceration, no universal health care, regime changes whenever it suits US interests, and the drone assassinations of people who are merely trying to go about their lives but fit a certain “profile” that makes them legitimate targets, it seems to me time to disengage and, further, it seems to me not to disengage is reprehensible.  

            More broadly, I wondered how many Vietnams, how many Koreas are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many innocent human beings incinerated by drones are needed before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as the result of a virus because of poor health care and health care facilities before a person decides to disengage? How many people have to die as a result of police behavior before disengagement becomes justified? And, of course, the list could go on and on and on, but the point seems clear: There must come a time when disengagement, so far from being morally reprehensible, is in fact a morally responsible act.

            When I would teach the book No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, I would emphasize the part where Sheriff Bell thinks to himself that it is necessary for him to quit because to do otherwise would endanger his soul. I emphasized that part for two reasons: First, to remind students that they have souls and that their souls needed nurturing, needed care. They weren’t so much interested in that. After all they all had phones. And, second, because almost always, no, always some students rebelled against Sheriff Bell’s decision to quit, to disengage. They took the position that Bell should have stuck it out. “Even if there is no hope for improvement?” I would ask. “Well, there’s always hope for improvement,” they would respond. “Even if Bell is correct that by staying he’d be endangering his soul?” I would ask. Well, that was more than they were able to process and, so, we would end up at a standoff.

            I took away from these discussions that it is hard, extremely hard for human beings to disengage from their society. It seems like “giving up.” And, of course, in some sense it is. But what if the alternative is “giving in?” That is, giving in to inhumanity, to injustice, to savagery. What then?

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Nixon and the Politics of Secrecy

Nixon and the Politics of Secrecy

Peter Schultz


            In their book, Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin pass the following judgments of how the Senate Committee investigating Watergate responded to John Dean’s testimony in July of 1973.


            “The committee bought Dean, lock, stock, and barrel … because he was an arrow…pointed…toward the president.” [318-19] And then: “In effect, Dean had a free ride” despite the fact that “there were many holes in Dean’s story, and logical inconsistencies…[which weren’t] closely scrutinized.” [319]


            While factually, these assessments are correct, what Colodny and Gettlin don’t get is that Dean needn’t have been completely truthful, that he only needed to be partially truthful, only truthful insofar as his charge that Nixon had participated in the cover up. Even the facts that Dean initiated and implemented the cover up, which were true, were irrelevant so long as it could be established that Nixon had participated in the cover up. Even the fact that Dean tricked the president to participate in the cover up was irrelevant. What the committee witnessed, along with the American people, was the John Dean Show, just as what the nation had witnessed decades earlier regarding Alger Hiss was the Richard Nixon show. Dean’s motives and actions, just like Nixon’s motives and actions, were irrelevant because Nixon, like Hiss, was the accused. If the accusation was meant to cover up Dean’s own criminal acts, that was irrelevant.


            In other words, that Dean lied was irrelevant so long as he could establish that Nixon had lied. By establishing that Nixon had lied, Dean exposed Nixon as lying, as a liar, just as Nixon had exposed Alger Hiss as a liar – who was then convicted of perjury, not treason. Once Nixon’s culpability was established, anything that was said to impeach Dean, like the “Golden Boy” memo, was irrelevant. Hence: “The Golden Boy assault on Dean’s credibility soon faded, reduced in the press and in the senators’ minds to…an attempt to throw mud at the witness.” Even if some of that mud stuck to Dean, it was irrelevant.


            But more importantly than the Dean v. Nixon drama that was played out in 1973 is what this drama reveals about the politics of secrecy, about a covert politics. While such a politics is appealing because it seems to fortify a politician’s power, because it seems to protect politicians, one of its flaws is that once the secrecy is pierced, the politician is exposed and, worse, is powerless to protect himself or herself from charges motivated by partisan concerns, even from charges that mask some of the truth. Having lied or committed a fraud, the practitioner of a politics of secrecy, when exposed, is powerless. Once a fraud is exposed as a fraud the perpetrator of the fraud is just that, a perpetrator of a fraud, even if he is president of the United States.


            Interestingly, those who don’t embrace the politics of secrecy, that embrace what might be called a politics of transparency, are immune from such exposure, from such charges. For example, when Pat Buchanan testified before the Senate committee investigating Watergate, his testimony was praised, even by his political opponents like Sam Ervin. For example: “Senator Ervin: Well, I have to say I admire the Buchanan recommendations. They are very forthright.” [342, Nixon’s White House Wars] Or this from Senator Baker, after Buchanan laid out his four gradations of electoral shenanigans: “This is really a fascinating line of inquiry, Mr. Buchanan, and you are a fascinating witness in that you not only have a clear perception of your role in the political realm of the United States, but the verbal agility to express them most clearly and forthrightly….I do greatly admire your descriptions of the gradations of political activity.” [342-343]


            What Baker attributes to Buchanan’s “verbal agility” is actually the fact that Buchanan refuses to embrace a politics of secrecy, a covert politics. As a result, he cannot be exposed as a fraud, no matter how bizarre his politics might seem. Given Buchanan’s rejection of the politics of secrecy, to confront him it is necessary to confront his political views. Because he doesn’t hide his politics, the only recourse is to take on his politics. There are other examples of such political activity, e.g., G. Gordon Liddy. Again, as bizarre as Liddy was – and he was bizarre – he could not be exposed as a fraud. He embraced his actions, even his covert actions, to such an extent that he maintained his silence, even at the price of going to prison, because he genuinely believed that his loyalties to his superiors were in the service of national security. Again, many don’t agree with Liddy’s understanding of the requirements of national security, but to take Liddy on it is necessary to critique his understanding. He cannot be charged with fraud, with pretending to act in ways he had no intention of acting.


            So, it may be said that his politics of secrecy is what, in the final analysis, brought Nixon down. Being cunning, when cunning is understood to encompass a politics of secrecy, does not, despite appearances, fortify a politician’s power. Rather, it leaves politicians exposed or potentially exposed to charges of being frauds. And, yet, despite this, our politicians repeatedly embrace a politics of secrecy, or covert politics. Such is the appeal of lording it over others, of manipulating others, of playing the puppet master as if one were a god.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Politics as the Pursuit of Power

Politics as the Pursuit of Power
Peter Schultz

            It is difficult to understand how central the pursuit of power is for politicians in part because they come to us disguised as problem solvers or policy makers. But that these are just disguises is suggested by examining how politicians act.

            For this purpose, I want to unpack some passages from Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin’s Silent Coup, a comprehensive analysis of the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency. The following quote concerns John Dean’s decision to meet with the prosecutors dealing with the trial of the Watergate burglars, a decision that Dean promised would “deliver the P.”, that is, that would reveal Nixon as a coconspirator in the Watergate mess.

            “Dean’s plan for his testimony was . . . brilliant . . .. Dean would say that he had been complicitous, and paint a picture of how he had been enmeshed in the conspiracy because he was so ambitious and eager to please.” [273]

            Note, first, that Dean presents himself as being seduced into his criminality, as “enmeshed in the conspiracy,” almost against his will. But, second, note that Dean does not claim that he was seduced by the conspiracy itself, by its illegality, or by its criminality. That is, Dean became “enmeshed in the conspiracy;” he did not embrace the conspiracy, which was and is clearly not true. Dean initiated the Watergate cover up, meaning he chose to act conspiratorially, chose to act illegally and did so in order to maintain and even fortify his power in the White House.

            Dean’s presentation of himself is “brilliant” because he played all the right political notes, as it were. Decent people, politicians react to events, they seek solutions to problems. If they go astray as it were, then we want to believe that they were led astray by, say, in Dean’s case ambition or an eagerness to please. Committing illegal or criminal acts, or acting covertly have no intrinsic appeal in and of themselves. Decent people, politicians make mistakes; they do not embrace conspiracies, act conspiratorially, act covertly in order to display, acquire, or maintain their power. But acting illegally or conspiratorially is appealing, even seductive, because such acts are displays of power, and serve to confirm a conspirator’s, a politician’s power. Dean did not become enmeshed in the Watergate conspiracy. Rather, he created it, embraced it and he did so because it was how he could display and maintain his power. That it involved him in illegalities or crimes was not a deterrent at all. In fact, that the cover up involved illegalities and crimes made it more attractive to Dean, not less. At least as long ago as Augustine’s Confessions, the appeal of illegal or criminal acts should have been clear.

            There is a tendency to underestimate the importance of having and displaying power, especially in those we call politicians. So, for example, we prefer to think that our politicians, like John Dean during Watergate, became enmeshed in Vietnam, were drawn into what was called the quagmire of Vietnam. They made “mistakes,” they didn’t want to make war there, but apparently they couldn’t resist or made misstep after misstep until it was too late to get out. It’s all so very mysterious, isn’t it? But again it is pretty clear that LBJ, for example, embraced the war in Vietnam and did so as a way of displaying US power and, hence, his own power as well. He wasn’t going to be the first American president to lose a war, by golly! Certainly many others also embraced that war, although they usually hid their enthusiasm for the war behind arguments for its necessity, e.g., to prevent those alleged “dominoes,” the nations of Southeast Asia, from falling over and becoming communist overnight, as it were. That they enjoyed having and displaying their power is rarely considered as a possibility.

            It should be understood that illegal acts, conspiratorial acts are, in fact, seductive and they are as displays of power, even as displays of power exercised righteously. So, even John Dean, despite having created and executed a conspiracy that he managed to trick Nixon and other men to buy into by means of lies and deceit, could in the end come to believe that he had acted righteously by dethroning someone he said and still says was “evil.” I am not one to praise or even defend Richard Nixon. But to consider John Dean and his actions righteous is to mythologize him and Watergate.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Nixon, Watergate, and Covert Politics

Nixon, Watergate, and Covert Politics
Peter Schultz

            In their account of Watergate in their book, Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin emphasize that Richard Nixon reacted in similar ways to, first, the revelation in December 1971 that there was a spy ring operating out of the Department of Defense that was spying on the White House and especially on Nixon and Henry Kissinger and, second, to the revelation that “the magnitude of Watergate” went well beyond “out-of-control employees at the CRP” [Committee to Re-elect the President]. In both cases, “without full cognizance of the facts . . . the president [sprung] into action . . . “ in order “to limit the investigations and prevent political damage.” And as Colodny and Gettlin point out, “There seems to have been no hesitancy on the part of Haldeman, either, to embrace this line of action.” [200, 202]

            It is worthwhile to speculate about these apparent coincidences and to do so, not from a psychological point of view but from a political point of view. That is, Nixon, twice being confronted with apparent “crises,” opted to act, to “spring into action” by acting covertly and apparently doing so without a second thought. It would seem as if Nixon was controlled by what might be called a politics of covert action; that there were forces that led Nixon to readily succumb to the temptation of acting covertly, and this without even knowing whether such covert actions were actually necessary or desirable. And insofar as there is a politics of covert action, what made it so “seductive” that Richard Nixon embraced it almost unthinkingly?

            Certainly there are practical reasons for acting covertly, e.g., limiting the political damage exposure would bring. But is that the whole story, so to speak? Or is there more to be said about the appeal of acting covertly, which may account for the fact that Nixon made a choice to cover up Watergate despite knowing the dangers such a cover up posed to himself and his presidency? That Haldeman did not hesitate to embrace a cover up, and readily agreed to act covertly, contributes to the thought that there is something seductive about a politics of covert action.

            To start, it is worthwhile to point out that covert action seems especially useful and appropriate when confronting crises. Crises need to be resolved quickly, with “secrecy and dispatch,” as Alexander Hamilton put it. And acting covertly is well adapted to such expeditious actions. This illuminates one of the attractive aspects of covert action: It gives at least the illusion of control, of the ability to act with secrecy and dispatch. When acting covertly, a politician need not seek the consent of the governed, so to speak. Necessity governs a politician’s action in crises, making deliberations or debates seem undesirable. In a crisis, a politician acting covertly is wielding power; as Colodny and Gettlin put it regarding Nixon, “the president was springing into action.” By acting covertly, Nixon was acting powerfully, thereby proving he deserved to have power. By acting covertly, Nixon was confirming his fitness to be president. And that kind of confirmation would be hard to resist.
            A political of covert action and a politics of crisis are then intertwined, which helps explain why Nixon never really stopped to wonder if in fact the burglary at the Watergate, even if it did involve some White House personnel, was a crisis or needed to be treated as a crisis. But that covert action and crises are intertwined is also borne out by the fact that Nixon’s “enemies,” his political opponents, also saw before them a crisis, the Nixon administration itself, and one to which they responded covertly. Just as Nixon saw the Watergate burglary as a crisis requiring covert action to resolve, so too his opponents saw the Watergate burglary and the Nixon administration generally as crises that would be best resolved by covert action, ala’ by secret liaisons between journalists and “leakers“ like “Deep Throat,” and by spy rings. Nixon’s opponents also found the appeal of covert political action irresistible.

            Another appealing characteristic of a politics of covert action is that those acting covertly need not seek consent to justify their actions. To put this differently, a politics of covert action is not a republican politics because republican politics requires the consent of the governed. Republican politics involves, essentially, reciprocity between the government and the governed, whereas covert action allows the government to bypass the requirement of consent, to bypass the governed. As a result, what might be called republican reciprocity is short-circuited, thereby freeing the powerful to use their power as they see fit. This is a temptation, as we know or should know all-too-well, that is neither often resisted nor used to advance the public good.

            So beyond any particularities of Nixon’s psychological make-up, such as his all too obvious insecurities and suspiciousness, there were political forces at work that help explain why Nixon – and so many others by the way – acted as he did during Watergate. And these political forces help to explain why John Dean was able to successfully initiate and implement a cover-up that tricked Nixon and others in the White House to buy into it and that led, ultimately, to Nixon’s downfall. Because after all, Dean’s actions appeared “normal” to those who had succumbed to the temptations of acting covertly and so no one, until it was too late, questioned Dean’s activities, which should have set off alarms from very early on.

            And those same political forces, those same temptations, affected how Nixon’s opponents behaved. Both Nixon and his opponents saw crises and assumed that these were best handled covertly, that is, without appeals to the people. Although both sides appealed to republican values to justify their actions, neither side practiced republican politics. So, to see Watergate and its resolution as a triumph of democracy or republicanism is to mythologize it. Or as one commentator wrote regarding Watergate: “Our recent history is a forgery, the by-product of secret agents acting on secret agendas of their own.” [Hougan, Secret Agenda. xvii]