Champing at the Impeachment Bit

Historians try to cultivate past-mindedness. That means they are trying to recapture the sense and the dynamics of a past time without reference to or explanation by what comes afterwards. Don’t tell the story of the Civil War in the light of the Civil Rights Movement because that will make you forget that emancipation of the slaves became a central issue only when the Civil War was well underway. Political commentators and cable channel news anchors, on the other hand, cultivate present centeredness. They are on the lookout to see how the past is made relevant by the present and so they talk about what a past event predicts about the future. And so both cable and print people spent the three days of the George H. W. Bush funeral pointing out how statesmanlike and presidential he was in comparison to the current President, though that is to set a very low bar over which to hurdle. That and interviewing incoming members of the House, who have nothing much to say, is a way to fill the time until something serious comes out of the Mueller investigation, the cable and print people trying to squeeze what they can out of sentencing recommendations, about what the future will hold, because newscasters seem ever less interested in reporting what has happened and ever more interested in guessing at what will happen.

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The Midterms: O Woe Is Me!

Voting is the closest that I, as a secularist, come to having a sacred liturgy. I vote so as to receive its blessings, which is to participate in electing some of my fellow citizens to office, but also to make me feel that I am not merely an observer but a part of the political process, my vote every bit as valuable as that of Andrew Cuomo or Donald Trump. So I shed a tear when the person at my polling place gave me a sticker saying “I Voted” that I attached to my jacket. Old codgers are excused for doing that.

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Kavanaugh Consequences

Waiting for Susan Collins to make the speech in which she announced her support for the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was very dramatic because it made me think of the two different paths the nation might be headed down if she took one side or the other. If she opposed Kavanaugh, it would be a setback for Trump, though some commentators have said it would increase the turnout of conservatives for the midterms, while if she supported Kavanaugh, it would be a victory for the #metoo movement, which has taken central stage in national politics without the apparatus of being a movement, and might lead more and more women to take part in the midterms. Now, her vote determined, we face a rough few weeks of campaigning on, among other things, whether our sons or our daughters are more in danger. All this comes about because the Senate is so broken that it can’t even manage to get an objective investigation into whether a nominee has committed a criminal offense, the Democrats saying the FBI was curtailed by the White House, and the Republicans saying that the investigation was good enough. I don’t think either Chris Coons or Jeff Flake had this in mind just a week ago when they insisted that the FBI look into the matter. They expected a definitive finding. (Chris Coons was wrong when he said on “Meet The Press” today that the Senate confirmation process was a job interview and not a trial and so a credible accusation is enough to deny an appointment. But it is a trial, whether conducted in a faulty manner or not, because it reaches a conclusion of guilt or innocence. Either the reputation of the nominee is ruined by turning him down or his reputation is merely tarnished because he has been accused but approved anyway. We needed a definitive investigation.)

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The Kavanaugh-Ford Confrontation

I have been rereading big chunks of Jane Austen recently and a lot of what she observes is applicable to the present state of sexual politics, whether in Norristown, PA, where Bill Cosby was sentenced to three to ten years in jail for sexual transgressions, or in Washington D. C., where Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation as a Justice on the United States Supreme Court is being held up by a consideration of what might have been sexual transgressions he committed as a youth. Jane Austen is familiar with the things that can transpire between men and women. In “Pride and Prejudice”, both Kitty, Elizabeth Bennett’s sister, and Darcy’s sister have been seduced by Mr. Wickham, and the best solution is to get Wickham to marry Kitty in exchange for paying off his gambling debts, and get the couple shipped off to a remote army base. But that does not mean that Jane Austen thinks that girls are adverse to being courted by men. Girls like boys; they are flattered by their attentions and compliments and can feel themselves to be in love with them on the basis of courtships that we would consider today very limited. And young women know their minds well enough to decide what will be a satisfactory match. Charlotte Lucas will settle for Mr. Collins, despite his deficiencies of character, and Jane Bennett will find a love match with Mr, Bingley that sets her up very nicely, while Elizabeth Bennett will come to love Darcy, the two of them having prickly personalities no one else in the neighborhood could put up with.

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Kavanaugh's Deviance

Judge Kavanaugh’s story is evolving every day and so it is useful to try to stand back and make some observations that may withstand whatever else happens this week much less how Dr. Ford comports herself on Thursday, should that hearing actually go forward. These observations may seem obvious but they are accurate and they do explain where we are now in the interconnection between politics and sex.

The first thing to observe is that accusations of sexual harassment are the Communism of our time. A career and a reputation can be ruined by such an accusation just as was the case when charges of having been a Communist lost people their jobs and reputations during the McCarthy period. Judge Kavanaugh will always have a cloud over his head even if he makes it to the United States Supreme Court, just as Clarence Thomas does, who is associated with the Anita Hill testimony more than he is with the judicial record he has piled up since he joined the Court. The violation of sexual decorum leads to outrage, even if we do not know how prevalent this is in American society even if Feminists claim that this is a long standing scourge that has malformed the lives of many women, and even if it is not clear how serious the allegation is, since both exposing oneself and attempted rape are this week thought to justify similar responses. The accused perpetrator becomes the outcast, the Other, separated by the rest of us by his (or her) mark of Cain.

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Two Political Dramas

In my mind’s eye, I am watching tow television screens, one showing the response to the anonymous N Y Times editorial citing resistance to Trump within the inner circles of the White House, and the other screen showing the hearing on whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the United States Supreme Court. Some commentators have claimed that the two dramas are interconnected in that a President under such a cloud as is Trump should not press forward with such a weighty nomination. But Trump is still President. The issues involved in the two dramas are very different and so let us explore them separately. One is about an unprecedented breakdown in the organization of the White House and the other is about what it means to be a very, very conservative judge, which is hardly a new question.

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Has Trump Committed Treason?

Is there enough evidence out there to support the claim that Trump has already committed treason? That depends on whether you take a legal or a political approach to the question. If you take a legal approach, where it is necessary to provide evidence for the elements of a crime, such a determination is perhaps premature in that Mueller is developing the evidence that is relevant to the question. But if you take a political approach, which means to judge actions by their fruits rather than their motives, then we already know that the federal government cannot trust secret information to the President because he is likely to leak it to the Russians whether inadvertently or by design, something he has done in the past. He told the Russian ambassador of intelligence we had gotten from the Israelis and we have no idea what he said to Putin in Helsinki.

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Free Speech

The issues surrounding the doctrine of free speech are long standing even if the current debate, as it involves what to do with the Internet, and how foreign powers tried to influence the American election in 2016, raises some new wrinkles. Both Plato and, for most of its history, the Catholic Church, favored the view that the right of free speech was limited in that ignorance or untruth did not have the same standing as truth and could lead people into error. It was therefore necessary for authorities to limit what people could be exposed to. The Catholic Board of National Review gives its imprimatur to wholesome films that are tastefully done even if they deal with difficult material. That, I suppose, is about as good as censorship can get. Morning Joe supports this view because he believes that Alex Jones’ view that the Sandy Hill shootings were staged is too unbelievable to warrant public attention. By those lights, however, Donald Trump would have been barred from having his views on the airwaves because he furthered the Birther controversy which was also just ridiculous. That would have been a serious infringement on the right of voters to select any primary candidate they care to.  On the other side are the Founding Fathers, and various liberal theorists such as John Stuart Mill, who hold free speech as itself of the highest priority in that any limitations on it, short of libel, are likely to interfere in the political process and, even more important, in the feeling of individual liberty, which is always thwarted by the values of the community. So free speech is an unending battle between the forces backing freedom of conscience and those siding with tradition. How do these perennial doctrines fare in the present communications environment?

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Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialism is the political philosophy that believes that you can combine an elected government that fully protects civil liberties with the nationalization of the means of production so that you produce a society which provides for the welfare of all its citizens. Such a government was put in place by the Labor Party in Great Britain after the Second World War. Deeply committed to democratic practices, they nevertheless created government ownership of the coal and steel industries, the railroads, and medicine. These reforms were largely turned back by Margaret Thatcher, leaving only the National Health Service and a university system that had been remodeled into a meritocracy where the government paid tuition to whatever level institution a student was qualified to attend. So nationalization was not of the industries key to the economy but of those services which, over the course of the post-war years, were taken to be a matter of right rather than a luxury purchase, like a fine car, which the consumer might care to buy if the consumer could afford it. In the United States, fair wages and fair working conditions were not instituted by the government. The New Deal left that to collective bargaining, that generally jimcracked system of negotiation which worked because it was cheaper for employers to negotiate than face strikes. Collective bargaining was therefore successful for the American coal, steel, and automobile industries.

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False Election Wisdom

As the midterms approach, and there are even hints about what the next Presidential election will be about, such as that Elizabeth Warren will make a run for it, commentators come up with a lot of conventional wisdom to frame their remarks about breaking news. I want to point out that these are largely shibboleths that don’t stand the weight of analysis, while there are other generalizations, such as the idea that midterms favor the out-party, that do, because those can be backed up with statistics and case studies while the shibboleths are mostly just faulty phraseology for what is not there. Let us look at a few of these cliches that pass for political wisdom.

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The Kavanaugh Confirmation

Well, despite my prediction otherwise, it now seems that something important is about to take place in politics before Mueller weighs in with his report and totally upsets the Washington apple cart. That is the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. This time, both parties are spoiling for a fight and will engage with one another and that may result in confrontations over ideas of the sort we haven’t seen in a while. That is because both parties see important issues at stake and because side thinks that  the public will side with them. The Republicans are on the brink of having a majority conservative court for a generation or two and believe that the voters will side with them in the midterms because the Court is so important to their base and this will lead the voters to not concentrate so much on making the midterms a referendum on Trump’s character. The Democrats believe that what is at stake are abortion rights and health insurance and that the voters, particularly women, will turn out in force if they believe those rights to be threatened. So it will be a gloves off confirmation hearing, no beating about the bush, however much recent confirmation hearings allowed nominees to get off the hook by claiming that they cannot opine on any matters that may appear before the Court and so have made the Senate settle for anodyne descriptions of cases from the past and what the nominees wish to present as the way judges settle cases. That way they avoided the disaster that occured with Justice Bork, where he was penalized for actually getting into substance about his own jurisprudence. I think he got the best of the argument but it also led Senators to side against him under the excuse that he was too proud of his legal acumen. A nominee is supposed to be both brilliant and modest.

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The Stability of Electoral Politics

The Enlightenment thinkers, whose ideas were put into practice during the Age of Democratic Revolutions at the end of the Eighteenth and the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, believed that elections could replace hereditary monarchy as a principle of stable and peaceful succession of governmental regimes. Rousseau thought there should be elections every year, a thought shared much later by the English Chartists of 1848, who wanted an annual Parliament. This idea of how to avoid the succession crises of the Roman Empire or of what to do if a king did not have legitimate offspring, which had led to general wars involving all the major European powers, or if the King had become so obnoxious that his people could no longer put up with him, was a radical idea in at least three ways. First, it meant that the life of a regime would be rather short: four years in the American system, and so long as the Prime Minister could command a majority in a Parliament subject to frequent elections, no Long Parliament, such as had kept Charles I in power, any longer allowed. How could such a short term regime build up the expertise in its leadership or its ministries so that experienced people could cope with a crisis? In an electoral system, as we who observe the political scene well know, you are up for reelection just as you are getting the hang of the thing. Thomas Jefferson confronted this problem when he said that you could train enough “natural aristocrats” so that they could manage the government. Second, elections are a rather cumbersome device. It requires gathering people at polling stations, examining their credentials and certifying the results, all of which might lead to unrest. The Founding Fathers left the governance of elections to the states while the number of seats each state would be granted in the House of Representatives was decided by a decennial census, science replacing the judgments that had led to rotten boroughs in England, where places which had lost their populations were still represented in Parliament because Parlament had long ago granted representation to those places. And, third, you are trusting to the people to make these very crucial judgments, people not as well educated as, for the most part, the people that were elected to represent them. It would have made people considering the prospects of democratic elections think that the experiment could not last very long-- and yet it has lasted more than two hundred years, and elections as the way to legitimize a ruler are respected largely everywhere, even in Russia. Putin may rig his elections but he stands for them and is somewhat concerned about public opinion, which is why he presents himself as a macho man, which is more than can be said for the leaders of China and North Korea. Why has government through elections proven to be so reliable in keeping succession orderly even if the choices made by the electorate are not always wise?

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Political Update

It is time to review the bidding on domestic and international political events. More than a year ago, I predicted that nothing much would happen until the Mueller Report, which at that time was expected in a few months. It has been a long while since then but I think that, on the whole, my prediction remains sound despite the events of the past few weeks, including the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border, which does much to besmirch the reputation of the United States, but is not nearly as bad as the things that were expected to happen under Trump when Trump was first elected.

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Illegal Immigrant Children

The separation of children from their parents has quickly replaced the North Korea deal as the story of the day, even as Trump brushes aside as a technicality the question of when North Korea disarms. Reporters had not sufficiently updated themselves on the new story so that they could do little more than express outrage when the Secretary of Homeland Security appeared before them three days ago. Nor did they pick up on what she said, which was devastating. She said people accompanying children would only be arrested if they could not prove they were the parents of the children. Did it not occur to the reporters to ask how that was supposed to be accomplished? Even a birth certificate would not do because those usually do not have photographs as if the photograph of a two or three day old baby looks like the two or four year old being presented at the border. A previous official, who had served in the Obama Administration, said you could see who were parents by how they interacted with the children and that was good enough for him. So what did the Secretary mean by “proof”? Moreover, she added, people who wanted to present themselves for asylum ought to present themselves at ports of entry, which means everyone who crossed elsewhere would not have to be treated as asylum seekers and so could be arrested. She went on to say that crossing the border illegally was a crime according to federal law, and so people violating it can be arrested and their children separated from them. But it is a misdemeanor rather than a felony and so such draconian measures are not required.

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The North Korea Deal

Some Presidents and diplomats think that the panoply of summit meetings distract from the hard negotiations that take place there and so they arrange for extended stays at isolated spots so that participants can dig into details and come to compromises. Carter used Camp David, Clinton also used Camp David, and Roger Holbrooke used Dayton Air Force Base. Carter and Holbrooke were successful and Clinton was not. Churchill, for his part, regarded panoply as an essential part of what was to be undertaken. Famously, he arranged for the hymns at the Anglican Church service he held on the deck of the H.M.S. Prince of Wales when Roosevelt and Churchill met off the coast of Newfoundland in 1940 to issue their proclamation of the Four Freedoms to be the same hymns that FDR might have heard at Groton when he went to school there. The purpose was to build a sense of solidarity between the two nations by showing their intimate connections with one another. Churchill fills many pages of his memoir about World War II with the toasts presented at international meetings. That was not just to fill space or to use whatever in the archives was available but to provide his sense that the toasts, in some complicated way, spelled out what the toasters really thought about their allies and what they really thought the alliances could accomplish. Trump is different or, to modify Marx, anything serious shows up sooner or later as farce. Trump likes the panoply for its own sake because he thinks that is the substance of any agreement, and so he has a win-win situation in his Singapore meeting with Kim Jong Un in that whether he walked away from it saying it had failed or, as he hoped, walked away from it proclaiming it a great victory, which he did, it would play well in America with his base and beyond, Democrats not knowing what to say to an agreement without substance, not that it mattered, in that Trump seemed confused about whether the final document did or did not refer to verification of nuclear disarmament, because he knew that denuclearization was not at the heart of the agreement, which was, rather, that the United States would normalize relations with North Korea, welcome it into the world community, never mind its nuclear weapons or its human rights abuses. And that was a very good deal indeed, no matter that critics are caught flat footed wondering what North Korea gave up in the immediate or near future in exchange for being welcomed into the world community and having some of its own security needs addressed, such as the elimination of joint US-ROK military exercises.

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Lies and Trust

Most of the things Trump does as President are not likely to outlast him. Tax bills go in one direction under Republican Administrations and then go in the other direction under Democratic Administrations. Environmental regulations can be rolled back even as some of the changes do not even get implemented because Scott Pruitt’s EPA staff is so inept. The Federal Judiciary will, however, be impacted for a generation, but who cares how the North Korea negotiations go? They won’t move the yardstick very far no matter what happens and the next Administration can start all over again. The Europeans know that they can just outlast this Administration and the long term, bipartisan policy towards Europe will be back in place. What has changed, however, are some basic perceptions about the political culture, and I want to talk about two of those, one which is very overt and discussed, and the other not so.

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When a March is a Movement

A social movement is an attempt to change the hearts and minds of the population as a whole in the service of aiding the interests of one group within the population. The Civil Rights Movement was successful at doing so by taking the high moral ground. The clean cut young people who were marched off to jail or hosed by police were superior in their ideals and aspirations to the white policemen and sheriffs who were their tormentors. That changed the narrative about white-Black relations in the South from being the one that had for generations been used by those who supported segregation, which was that black people were an unruly lot given to low morals and drunkenness and liable to violate white womanhood and nowhere near ready to have voting rights or be otherwise integrated into white society. The new narrative was that it was the black protesters who were middle class and appealing to law rather than the kind of order that was established by Bull Connors. There were a number of devices that were used to carry out this purpose and those included a charismatic leader, a legislative agenda, a distinctive means of demonstrating their convictions (which was, in this case, both marches of a previously unprecedented scope and sit ins) and an ideology (which was, in this case, that black people were people and so not an inferior social caste). Let us apply this analysis to recent protests against gun violence that were set off by the Parkland, Florida shootings.

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Trump's Exit

The noose seems to be tightening and so it makes sense to review where we stand and how things might unfold. As MSNBC panelists would seem to imagine it, President Trump is so unhinged that he will be taken out of the White House under sedation and strapped onto a gurney when the Mueller Report makes clear the extent of his connections with the Russians. That would obviate the need for impeachment proceedings because grounds for invoking the Twenty Fifth Amendment on Presidential incapacity will be abundantly clear. The commentators base their views of Trump’s state of mind on what their White House sources tell them about how Trump blows up and that he changes his mind all the time and that there are fewer and fewer people around him who can tell him anything resembling the truth. The latest evidence of this is that he congratulated Putin on his phony electoral victory even though his national security staff had explicitly left a note for him all in caps not to do so. And only the high level national security staff would have been in a position to leak that story. So it seems reasonable to think that the White House is in chaos.

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The Budget Deal

Well, something really did happen on the way to the Mueller Report. Congress struck a budget deal that is a mini-version of the grand bargain Democrats are always all too willing to cut with Republicans, but this time it worked and is likely to have positive consequences and set the scene for other constructive legislative initiatives, though not at least until the congressional elections this November. The budget deal has been much criticized. People on the Right say that it does away with any shambles of the idea that Conservatives are interested in fiscal austerity, and people on the left suggest that the deal just shows what hypocrites are the deficit hawks, who now show themselves willing to bust the budget just so long as they have very recently taken care of the need to give tax cuts to their financial backers. Consider, instead, what the budget deal does accomplish in the way of re-introducing some rationality into the budget process.

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