Friday, December 30, 2016

At last, the 1950s come to life

Over the years I have been very critical here of recent attempts to dramatize the 1950s, such as Masters of Sex (which I discussed in detail), Mad Men, and the film Carol.  The new Amazon series Good Girls Revolt, while set somewhat later (1969), has also failed to impress me.  The writers and directors do not understand, it seems to me, that while today we reject many of the customs of that era--especially as regards relations between the sexes--almost no one living through that era did.  Too often, the protagonists of these shows look like 21st-century characters who have time-traveled back at least half a century and chafe under the social controls they find there.  Now, however, a new team has managed to do what all the others could not.  And ironically, they have done so in a production that does not claim to paint a true picture of that period (actually, in this case, the early 1960s), but which instead presents an alternative vision of history.  That is the Amazon production, The Man in the High Castle, based on a 1962 novel by Philip K Dick.  The premise of the novel, as you probably know, is that the Germans and Japanese won the Second World War, and the action of the series is divided between the New York area (the capital of the Nazi-ruled eastern half of the country) and San Francisco, which along with the whole Pacific coastal region is ruled by the Japanese.  The Rockies, which the first season visited briefly, are a neutral zone. The series uses superb Japanese and German actors to great effect.  I will do my best to say what I have to say about the series without giving any critical plot points away, and I highly recommend that readers watch it.

By 1962, the war has had very different effects on the two coasts.  The Pacific States remain occupied territory, partly because of the strict racial views of the Japanese.  The entire American population is terrorized and sullen, and remains at the mercy of the occupiers' whims.  The situation in the eastern states is entirely different--they are part of the greater Reich.  They have evidently been thoroughly ethnically cleansed of both Jews and black people, and the population has been screened for proper racial characteristics--but the citizenry appears to be generally loyal, despite the presence of a small resistance movement, and, critically, quite happy.  Large, clean suburbs have evidently sprung up, just as they did under Truman, Eisenhower, and JFK.  Procreation has become a duty to the Reich, and women are fulfilling it enthusiastically--just as most of them did in real life without any official exhortation to do so.  Families evidently see themselves as part of a team, and the husband is the coach.  Nearly every adult chain-smokes cigarettes.  This was virtually the only point that suggested to me that the writers might not have done all their research.  While Americans and Europeans did smoke very heavily in the early 1960s, they might not have had Hitler won the war.  He intended to ban smoking when the war was over, and while that might have been utopian, he might certainly have curtailed it.  Another slip involved cars: the streets are filled with genuine American monstrosities from that period, and nary a single Volkswagen is to be seen.  In fact, Beetles had become a familiar site in 1962 America even though the Germans had lost the war, and would surely have been more common had they won.

The inhabitants of the Reich, essentially, take their society's values for granted, largely because their regime won the greatest war in history.  And that was the situation in real life in 1962 as well--on both sides of the Atlantic.  Western Europe absorbed many of the values (and products) of the United States because the US had emerged from the war as the unquestioned leader of western civilization.  And indeed, I came away from watching the second season (which spends far more time in the eastern states) wondering whether the experience of going through the Second World War, in which tens of millions were mobilized and millions died, was more important than whether or not one wound up on the winning side.   Whoever won that epic conflict enjoyed national and international prestige which is unimaginable today, and commanded the respect of virtually everyone within its sphere of influence. The same thing, of course, also happened in the USSR and much of the Communist world, even though the atmosphere in Eastern Europe was far more similar to that of the Pacific states in The Man in the High Castle.

Nor is this all.  The role of the younger generation is also very cleverly handled.  We see a harbinger of things to come, not in New York, but in the upper reaches of Berlin society, where the plot takes one of the main characters late in season 2.  There we meet young Berliners comparable, in a way, to the undergraduates at UC Berkeley just two years later.  They have everything they could possibly want, but they are not content simply to carry on the roles their parents have laid out for them.  Deprived of any real initiative of their own, they take refuge in casual sex and pharmaceutical recreation--specifically, LSD, originally devoted by German scientists in mind control experiments.  The Awakening of the 1960s had not yet begun when Dick wrote his novel, but the team of 11 screenwriters listed in the credits know what was around the corner and they foreshadow it brilliantly.  Once again, they suggest that the same dynamic would have transformed western society no matter who had won the war.  And perhaps these episodes help answer a question that has bothered me for years: why Berkeley undergrads in the fall of 1964 eagerly embraced Mario Savio's analogy between their status and that of disenfranchised black Americans in Mississippi.  Despite all their advantages, they felt they were living in a world that was not their own.  Of such generational dynamics is history made.

The real American society of 1962 differed critically, of course, from what we see in The Man in the High Castle.  The Reich is exclusive, ruling both despised racial groups and "unworthy" physical or mentally deficient people out of the national community, while the United States had become more inclusive as a result of the war, with eastern Europeans more assimilated, and black Americans gradually securing basic rights.  But the US showed the same pressure to conform, in dress, hairstyles, diet and drinking habits.  That was where western civilization had been going at that time, and the experience of the war, when all men wore uniforms, had accelerated the trend.  But a contrary trend was about to erupt.  The two young protagonists of the series are also trying to move outside the simple black and white categories of their world--and more than once, their attempts to follow their own moral compass wind up alienating all sides.

Last but hardly least, the international situation in The Man in the High Castle mirrors the actual situation of 1962.  There, as in real life, the two victorious nations--Germany and Japan, instead of the US and the USSR--are experiencing a falling out that threatens a new great war.  There are explicit and implicit echoes of the Cuban missile crisis in the drama that plays out.  As in real life, the critical conflicts divide those who see history as an endless struggle, and those who believe that the world now needs a period of peace.

The series, in short, is great history--which is why, I predict, it does not foreshadow new events on the horizon right now.  The first half of the twentieth century was a great age of authority and huge common enterprises.  Ours is the reverse.  While President-elect Trump can talk like an authoritarian, I suspect that state authority will continue to get weaker, not stronger, under him--and that the same trend will continue around the world.  The mid-1960s remain one of the great turning points of history because they changed the individual's relationship to his family and the broader society in which he lives.  Since then, individualism has gained steadily in every realm of life.  The question before us is how far individualism can go before it becomes impossible for modern society to function, and the answer to that question is not yet clear.


Friday, December 23, 2016

The Trump Administration and the Republican Revolution

Donald Trump selected nearly all his cabinet while I was away on a long vacation.  It is both a blend of several elements of the Republican Party, and a team with a purpose, one that will clearly move quickly to make great changes in Washington.  It represents a blend of different political cultures, while completely excluding the bi-coastal cultural elite.  And while it is not entirely clear what it promises on the foreign front, its domestic direction is clear. It will try to undo virtually all that is left of the New Deal and the Great Society, fulfilling the fantasies of Newt Gingrich--Trump's most distinguished early supporter--and Grover Norquist, who has been relatively quiet of late, but who stands on the verge of the realization of his dream of shrinking the federal government until it can be drowned in a bathtub.  While press attention focuses on Trump's personality, what we are really seeing is the culmination of more than three decades of disciplined Republican work, driving the Republican party and the country steadily to the right.

Trump's selections fall broadly into two camps.  Quite a few of them, including those in the most critical positions, come from the Republican political establishment and the bipartisan economic establishment.  Rex Tillerson, to begin with, is probably the most powerful business executive to assume a position in the cabinet since Eisenhower appointed "Engine Charlie" Wilson, the General Motors Chairman of the Board, as Secretary of Defense in 1953.  (Wilson is not to be confused with the Texas Congressman who three decades later became the hero of "Charlie Wilson's war.)  Ike's Wilson famously remarked during his confirmation hearings that he had always assumed that what was good for General Motors was good for the country, and vice versa, and Tillerson presumably would say the same about Exxon.   Tillerson is not a conservative ideologue, but he has been converted to a a liver-and-let-live policy towards Putin's Russia, and his company has a huge stake in the lifting of the sanctions against that country.  It is entirely possible that he will work with all major governments to make the world safer for themselves and their corporate oligarchies--although at least one report claims that Trump plans to reverse Richard Nixon's policy and forge an anti-Chinese alliance with the Russians. A second key choice from the Establishment, broadly defined, is Steven Mnuchin, the former Goldman Sachs executive and current hedge fund manager, as Secretary of the Treasury.  He seems very unlikely to push for a tougher regulatory environment, and indeed, quite likely to create a looser one, inviting a replay of the 2007 crash.  In a parallel appointment, current Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn will become the head of the White House National Economic Council in this "populist" administration.  Three other establishment selections are Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, a long-time Republican operative, U. N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao,Senator McConnell's wife, whose policy plans are not clear.  Equally unclear is the future role of Interior Secretary  Ryan Zinke a freshman Congressman from Montana who has not, apparently, taken strong public positions on key environmental issues.  And another, surely, is General Mattis, the presumptive Secretary of Defense, who had a very high reputation within the military when I was working at the Naval War College.  Retired general John Kelly, the Homeland Security Secretary, falls into the same category..

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it seems to me, occupies something of a middle position within the Trump team.  After several decades in Washington, he certainly ranks as an Establishment figure, but he has long been an opponent of abortion rights and embraced the evisceration of the Voting Rights act.  He can also be counted on to support extreme measures against immigration or against a presumed domestic terrorist threat.  All these positions are, of course, completely in line with mainstream Republican thinking nowadays.  Under Sessions the Justice Department will surely drop its aggressive advocacy of the rights of transgender Americans and will probably stand firmly behind law enforcement in any new controversies over police behavior--popular policies with the Administration's base. 

We now come to the second group of appointees, the ones who in my opinion will attempt to transform--or eliminate--the role of the federal government in various sectors of American life.  Several of them come from the Tea Party movement, which has never before had a direct role in national policy, and several have been chosen, clearly, because of their opposition to the essential functions that their departments were created to serve.

The Labor Department exists to protect the rights of American workers, but its new head, Andrew Puzder, is the CEO of a fast-food chain, an economic sector that pays low wages for very hard work and has successfully resisted attempts to organize.  No Republican of a century ago ever dared appoint a titan of non-unionized industry like Henry Ford to this post, but that is what Trump has done.  Puzder violently opposes any increase in the minimum wage.  Similarly, Scott Pruitt, the Oklahoma Attorney General who will become director of the EPA, has literally functioned as a mouthpiece for energy interests in controversies with the EPA, passing on their own draft protests as his own.  The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has led campaigns designed to reduce the role of public education in American life and promote private alternatives including--but certainly not limited to--charter schools.  I suspect she will also scale back or eliminate the department's role as a campus watchdog on issues of sexual assault and inclusion.   Presumptive Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson seems to have no sympathy for his department's role, either.   The selection of Tom Price, a Republican Congressman from Georgia, as Secretary of Health and Human Services (and thus responsible for the administration of the ACA), is parallel. Price, an orthopedic surgeon, violently opposes any government interference in the provision of health care and health insurance.  A parallel appointment in the foreign policy sphere is David Friedman as Ambassador to Israel--a vocal ally of the Netanyahu government who wants to promote, rather than restrict, Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and who will apparently move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.



And last, but hardly least, Mike Mulvaney, the South Carolina Congressman who has been seelcted to head the Office of Management nad budget, is a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, the most radical faction of the Tea Party, who was active in efforts to shut down the government to force more drastic reductions in federal spending.  Rather than oppose a Democratic Administration's budget, he will now draw up the budget upon which the Congress must act.  It will undoubtedly include huge cuts in discretionary spending.

On economic issues, Trump clearly will continue to promote the fortunes of our new economic oligarchy, led by the financial and energy sectors.  On foreign policy his course is very unclear, but the appointment of Michael Flynn, who seems to be as emotional and intellectually unstable as Trump himself, as National Security Adviser, is frightening.  Given that Trump's policies will do less than nothing for the bulk of the voters who elected him, I expect him to continue arousing hatred against presumed enemies foreign and domestic and to take harsh anti-immigration measures as a way to try to keep them behind him.  Meanwhile, his team, and the excited Republican Congress, will reap the fruits of their victory by cutting back the role of the federal government, leaving teh citizenry with no defense against corporate America.

All this is, of course, catastrophic--but it is also, bizarrely, the way democracy is supposed to work.  Beginning in the 1970s, conservative Republicans (led by Gingrich, who now looks like perhaps the most influential political figure of our era) embarked on a long-term campaign to undo the last 40 years of American history.  They perfected their strategies in the 1990s--strategies I have described in earlier posts under the heading of dau tranh, a Vietnamese Communist term for struggle   (A quick search will help new readers find those posts.)  I have tracked the progress of that campaign here for a dozen years. Their response ot President Obama was to hunker down, block him at any turn, escalate their rhetoric, and mobilize their troops. Meanwhile, they have utterly destroyed the Democratic Party in much of the nation.  In 2016 they came across a new candidate with unusual appeal who managed to win a solid electoral college victory despite losing the popular vote..   They will now proceed to do the work they had been planning for years. President Obama failed for many reasons to transform the US, but the biggest reasons was that he did not want to do so.  The system had been very good to him, and he believed in it.  Too many of the American people no longer did.  The Democrats left a vacuum.  They can't blame the Republicans for filling it.




Thursday, December 15, 2016

What Happened to the Democratic Elite

A recent commentary noted that a spate of books written by blue-state journalists and academics about red state folks had recently appeared, but added that there were unfortunately no complementary books by red staters about blue staters.  What follows is my own very blue-stater attempt to sketch out what has happened on my side of the social and political fence in the past half century.  Both sides, in my opinion bear a lot of responsibility for the political collapse that has led to the election of Donald Trump.  Like my fellow historians Luigi Albertini, Fritz Fischer, and Thucydides, I have always been the kind of patriot who believes in being hardest on his own country--and the kind of partisan who believes in being harder on his own side.  Our crisis demands no less.

Fifty  years ago my generation's revolt against our parents was slowly moving into high gear.  It had begun two years earlier at the University of California at Berkeley.  In a famous speech in the fall of 1964, Mario Savio, a student leader and veteran of the Mississippi Summer Project, had addressed his fellow students, who were enjoying an almost free education--and a much better one than they would find there today--in the midst of one of the most attractive climates and surroundings on earth.  He specifically compared the plight of Berkeley undergraduates to that of segregated, terrorized Mississippi black citizens--and he was applauded for doing so.  I have wondered for many  years how he could possibly have elicited that reaction, and I can only conclude now that it was a natural, if unfortunate, reaction to being given so much by our parents' generation.  Those students' parents had provided them with a secure environment (if an emotionally sterile one), good schools, and now, a great, nearly free university.  But what is given can be taken away, and the recipient thus easily comes to resent those who have given too much.  So it was then.

Meanwhile, my parents' generation was about to make the tragic mistake that escalated our rebellion by at least two orders of magnitude: the beginning, in the first half of 1965, of the Vietnam War.  I wrote at length about how that mistake came about in American Tragedy [see link at right], and I have often written that it gave my own generation license to disregard not only what our parents told us about the necessity of that war, but just about everything else they said, too.  Meanwhile, larger historical forces, I know believe, were at work.  Western civilization in the 1960s had reached a peak, in many ways, thanks to generations of self-discipline and self-restraint, which had allowed most people to accept their roles in their families and society.  Such self-restraint had become, it seems, literally iinhuman, and my generation renounced it.  That opened up many opportunities for women and gays (legal opportunities for black citizens had already been opened up by 1975), which was necessary and could have strengthened our society.  But we were not content to extend those opportunities within the context of society as it then existed. Instead, the previous lack of those opportunities became the pretext for a broader rejection of western civilization.  This began in my own profession of academia, and college professors have now spread new ideas through two whole new generations.

The emphasis on the need to redress grievances against minorities, women and gays has led to a general indictment of white males, both in history and in society today.  They are no longer celebrated for having done the most to create a civilization based upon reason and equality, and having written a Constitution that spoke the language of equal rights even to those who did not yet enjoy them.  Instead, we have gone so far that a recent book on the American Revolution by the historian Alan Taylor refuses to regard the revolution as a step forward because it maintained slavery in the South and did not help Indian tribes.  The intellectual elite now takes it for granted--almost without realizing it--that unfairness to women, minorities and gays is the most significant feature of our society and institutions, and presumes that anything that helps those groups--from a cabinet appointment to an Oscar nomination to a presidential candidacy--must be a good thing.  They see our society as a zero-sum game, whose only real problem is that straight white males have too much and everyone else has too little.

Although neither one of the last two Democratic Presidents was born into the economic and intellectual elite, they both moved smoothly into it thanks to their considerable abilities and our educational system.  Both of them also had personal characteristics that gave them a leg up at the ballot box: Bill Clinton's southern roots, which twice allowed him to carry a number of southern states, and Barack Obama's race and personal appeal, which led to an unprecedented turnout of younger and minority voters.  Meanwhile, Democratic strategists talked gleefully about the gradual eclipse of the white male portion of the electorate, counting on women and minorities to elect one Democrat after another.  Much (though hardly all) of the Democratic party was so captivated by the idea of the first female President succeeding the first black one that they could not even stop to ask whether the country was ready for a woman in general, or from a very controversial former first lady in particular.  But they had lost sight of something bigger in the meantime.

Hillary Clinton, like most Democrats, presented herself as the champion of "working families."  She retained a remarkable hold on the allegiance of black voters--although we may eventually find that a failure of younger black voters to turn out, and the failure of Hispanics to support her to the extent she expected, cost her the election.  But neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama had been able to halt, much less reverse, the decline of the white and black working class in this country.  Given the nature of our economy and the changes that it has been going through, it is impossible to help the nonwhite working class without helping the white working class as well.  That in turn can only happen through major changes in our economic structure and our tax code--the kind of changes that Bernie Sanders (sincerely) and Donald Trump (insincerely and inconsistently) have proposed.  Very few people believed that Hillary Clinton would ever undertake such changes, and I don't either.

Almost two centuries ago Tocqueville noted that the United States had a small intellectual elite, but that it wisely kept mostly to itself and had a very liimited role in politics.  The Progressive Era and the New Deal, and Presidents like the two Roosevelts, Wilson, Hoover, and Kennedy changed that picture a good deal--but the politicians of that era understood that intellectuals were only one constituency and that they had to respect the values of the heartland.  Today's Democrats do not understand that, and their supporters in academia understand it even less.  And that, I am convinced, as a very big reason why Donald Trump will take office on January 20.

In the recent seminar of campaign managers from both sides at Harvard's Institute of Politics, one of the Clinton campaign managers said she would rather have lost the election than have made the kinds of appeals the Trump camp made.  I do not think that Clinton should have taken any of Trump's provisions, but I do think Democratic politicians have to realize that there is nothing noble or beneficial about losing on behalf of intellectual elite values that too many voters in swing states do not share. We remain a democracy that includes people of very different types and very different beliefs and the task of political leadership is to bring enough of them together on the same side to make government function effectively.   This both parties have failed to do.  That is the challenge we now face, and both sides will have to change to meet it.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Germany (1933) and the United States (2016)

The comparison between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump is unavoidable not because they want the same things or will probably have similar effects--neither of which I believe--but because they both have been chosen to lead their nations without any governmental experience and from outside the political establishments of their countries.  Both, too, have been chosen in the midst of the crises that afflict modern nations every 80 years or so, and both certainly do want to change the course their countries are on significantly.  Few historical issues have been investigated more thoroughly than how Hitler managed to take power in Germany.  I was intensively exposed to that debate as a graduate student, and I thought I knew some of the answers.  Now that the United States has experienced something similar under entirely different circumstances, however, I am not so sure.

Although Hitler had been a fringe political figure in Germany beginning in the early 1920s, not until 1930 did  the Nazis score their first big electoral success, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag or German Parliament.  By that time, the German nation had experienced at least three catastrophic events during the preivous 15 years.  The First World War, which the Imperial German government did so much to unleash in 1914, cost the Germans an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million lives, reduced the value of Germany's currency by at least 2/3, and ended in defeat, revolution, and partial occupation.  The nation viewed the Versailles Treaty as a humiliation, and owed a huge reparations bill.  In 1922, the government's inability to pay the reparations led to a new Franco-Belgian occupation of the Ruhr, and the government responded with hyperinflation, totally wiping out the savings of nearly every German.  The economy stabilized and improved somewhat in the mid-1920s, but in 1929, the impact of the stock market crash hit Germany very hard.  That enabled the Nazis to make their breakthrough in 1930, and by the time of the next election in 1932, unemployment was nearing 25%.  That allowed them to do even better, although they won only 37% of the votes and 230 out of 608 seats in their best showing.They slipped a bit in the second election that year, but Hitler was nonetheless able to form a coalition government with the more traditional German National Peopls' Party.

What helped bring Hitler to power was the complete collapse of most of the established middle class parties and a split within the Left.  When the Nazis won 230 seats in July 1932, the Social Democrats--the largest workers' party--won 133, and the Communists 89.  While the Catholic Center Party maintained  agood deal of strength with 37, the established center- and left-wing middle class parties had been wiped out.  The Communists, acting on orders from Moscow--which foresaw the complete collapse of the Weimar Republic and a Communist victory--refused to cooperate with any other party, which meant that it was impossible to put together a non-Nazi majority in the Reichstag.  Indeed, that situation had prevailed since the 1930 elections, and as a result, German Chancellors had ruled with the help of emergency decrees. They alone enabled them to pass budgets.

What is astonishing is that Donald Trump has been elected President despite the lack of any comparable misfortunes in the United States.  While we have been "at war" with Al Queda and ISIS for 15 years, our total casualties are not even close to the losses that any of the First World War combatants suffered in a couple of days of hard fighting in that war and total less than 1% of German casualties in that whole war.  The Great Recession did have an impact similar, although not nearly as great, as the inflation in Germany: it wiped out the net worth of a substantial number of Americans, but by no means all.  But our unemployment rate did not reach even half what the Germans (and the United States!) had experienced by 1932.  We have been in recovery for seven years and our official unemployment rate, at any rate, is quite low.

The mid-twentieth century was the climax of an age of rationalism, and my teachers and I assumed that 37% of German voters would not vote for Hitler without some good reason--chiefly, economic misery--for doing so.  Yet we have just seen a substantially larger 47% of American voters cast their ballots for Donald Trump, strategically distributed so as to give him the election.  What happened?

Well, to begin with, since Trump secured the Republican nomination, he really managed to graft himself onto our existing political structure in a way that Hitler never did.  He, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and even, to a certain extent, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, is a product of the system of direct democracy that both parties put in place 40 years ago.  And although many of his positions are somewhat extreme, all of them have been taken by various Republicans over the last 20 years.  The Republican establishment resented him because he was not one of them, but he built on the propaganda work they had done.  Some readers will remember my posts on dau tranh (if you do not, a search of the blog will turn them up.)  Trump run on the premise that government is not working.  The Republicans had not only been saying that for several decades, they did their best to prevent it from working for the last eight years.   A Republican propaganda campaign lasting several decades has taken over the vast majority of our state governments and convinced well over 40% of the population that Washington is evil.  Trump was the beneficiary. 

Now the American center has not collapsed the way the German one did, and has a comfortable home in the party of the Clintons and Barack Obama.  The American left is however somewhat splintered--and we, unlike the Germans, have no Communist party.  The American left includes younger progressives who supported Bernie Sanders, some of whom clearly did not go to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton.  But it also should include lots of families in declining industrial towns, and it does not.  Such families voted for Trump.  He did what Hitler never managed to do--he won the votes of a substantial portion of the working class, even though he claims to be a billionaire and is bearing the standard of the party of the rich.

I have thus arrived at the finding that has been discussed by many Democrats and even affirmed by one of the architechts of modern Democratic strategy, James Carville.  The Democratic Party has abandoned the working class in favor of the suburban middle class--with the exception of minority voters who base their votes on race, rather than class.  Hitter's party, of course, was named the National Socialist German Workers' Party, but it never won a substantial working class vote before taking power.  Trump's support evidently came from two sources: the bedrock Republican vote in the red states, and a major portion of the white working class vote in states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which hadn't voted Republican since the 1980s.

This, then is the reason Trump won 475 of the American electorate, while Hitler never got above 37% of the Germans in a really free election.  He was not, in fact, as much of an outsider as he claimed to be--he took many common Republican positions and easily won the normal Republican vote.  And somehow--and I still do not understand how--he convinced a great many voters whose economic interests would have put them on the Left that he was on their side.  He had an easier paty to power than Hitler. We are beginning to get glimpses of what he might do in power, and I will survey that situation once again after January 1.

Thursday, December 01, 2016

Tocqueville on Race

Tocqueville divided Democracy in America into two parts.  The first was essentially a survey of American political institutions and how they worked and has been the subject of my earlier posts about him; the second deals with American thinking, mores, and customs.  But near the end of part I, he wrote the longest and most prophetic chapter of the whole work, entitled, "Some Considerations Concerning the Present State and Probable Future of the Three Races that Inhabit the Territory of the United States."  With our race relations still in flux, the chapter makes extraordinary reading today.  While Tocqueville did not foresee what would happen over the next few decades, our struggle to overcome his pessimistic view has not been by any means entirely successful.

Tocqueville was one of the founders of modern social science, even if that discipline did not yet have a name.  He was well versed in the whole history of civilization and keenly aware that he was living through a turning point in world history.  And he discussed great and terrible developments with an almost shocking clarity, accepting what he saw before his eyes rather than trying to shade it to fit his own moral judgments.  The white, black and Indian races, he wrote, were not only "naturally distinct," but "hostile."  He saw the whites as a superior civilization--a judgment validated, it still seems to me, by their supremacy on the continent--while the other two races  had only their "misfortunes" in common.  "Both occupy an equally inferior position in the land whee they dwell; both suffer the effects of tyranny, and thought their afflictions are different, they have the same people to blame for them."  While he obviously felt the injustice of this situation keenly, he saw very little that could be done about it.

I shall not spend much time on Tocqueville's discussion of the fate of the Indians, except to mention one fascinating argument that I found there for the first time.  It was not, he reported based on what he had learned, the hostility of the white settlers that drove the Indians further and further into the interior.  The problem was that the Indians lived by hunting animals, and that the wild animals that fed them invariably fled into the interior when whites settled nearby, thus forcing the Indians to follow them.  He did describe the process by which the advancing whites forced or induced tribes to admit them to their neighborhood by treaty, but it was the impact of their settlements on the Indian hunting grounds that pushed the tribes relentlessly inland. Tocqueville, to repeat, was writing in the early 1830s, just before the decision to expel the tribes of the Southeast and force them to migrate to Oklahoma.  Yet he very nearly predicted something of the kind, noting that those tribes, in contrast to others, had now been encircled with white settlement, sandwiched between the advancing settlers from the Atlantic coast and those that were settling the lower Mississippi Valley.

Tocqueville also took a moment to put the Indian tribes in a world-historical perspective.  A true child of the Enlightenment--the tradition in which I would also prefer to put myself--he believed that civilization had flourished under the Greeks and Romans, fallen before the barbarian invasions and retreated during the Middle Ages, and revived in the Renaissance and the early modern period.  "When I perceive the resemblance between the political institutions of our German ancestors and the wandering tribes of North America, between customs described by Tacitus and those I have witnessed myself," he wrote, "I cannot avoid the conclusion that in both hemispheres the same cause has produced the same effects and that amid the apparent diversity of human affairs it ia possible to discover a few pregnant facts from which all others derive.  In all that we call Germanic institutions I am tempted to see nothing but barbaric habits and to regard what we call feudal ideas as the opinions of savages."

Turning to the condition of black Americans, Tocqueville wrote some of his most chilling words.  (I should comment here upon nomenclature and translation.  Tocqueville in the original French used the word "noirs"--literally, blacks--to describe that population, but George Lawrence, whose translation dates from the early 1960s, used what was then the polite English word Negroes.  I am using blacks, both because it is a literal translation and because it is still the term I prefer to use despite further changes of fashion in more recent times.)  While he clearly did not believe in slavery himself, recognized that it had been abolished in much of the United States, and clearly felt that it might not endure in the South, he did not believe that they could become equal citizens because he felt the white population would never accept this.  The white people, he argued, were an aristocracy defined by natural differences.  Given that it had proven so hard to remove the privileges of European aristocrats that were defined only by law, he argued, it seemed impossible that equality could be established among those divided by the color of their skin.  "I plainly see," he wrote, "that in some parts of the country the legal barrier between the two races is tending to come down, but not that of mores.  I see that slavery is in retreat, but the prejudice from which it arose is immovable . . .race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in states where slavery was never known."  Even in the northern states where black citizens theoretically enjoyed equal rights, he reported, they were too afraid to assert them.  Those states that had abolished slavery had done so not to help the black man, but to help the white, both by leaving free labor without the competition of slaves and by eliminating the corrupting influence of owning slaves upon the whites.   Tocqueville wrote at length on how slavery in the South had taught white people to scorn work, and to cultivate the traditional vices of aristocracy.

Tocqueville wrote a separate section on the possible breakup of the American union, but he did not specifically foresee a civil war based on slavery that might destroy it.  The second great wave of abolitionism was just beginning when he visited the United States, and the question of slavery in the territories was now in abeyance in the wake of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.  And Tocqueville did not understand generational theory and the emerging 80-year cycle in western history.  He saw that the United States of the 1830s was a very different nation with a very different political class than the country of the revolutionary and constitutional period, whose leaders he recognized as giants, but he did not foresee that in his own lifetime a new crisis might call forth new great statesmen who would work a comparable transformation on their country. Born in 1805, Tocqueville might easily have lived to see the Civil War and the concurrent transformation of the western European states in the very direction that he had predicted, but he died in 1859 at the age of only 54.  But he did seem to think that somehow slavery would come to an end in the South--but he could see nothing ahead but further tragedy.

"If I absolutely had to make some guess about the future, I should say that in the probable course of things the abolition of slavery in the South would increase the repugnance felt by the white population toward the Negroes [sic]," he wrote.  He understood that the migration of freed slaves to Africa or elsewhere--the solution of many of the original abolitionists--was utterly impossible, if only because there were far too many slaves to transport.  Emancipation, he argued, would lead to grater fear on the part of the whites and greater jealousy on the part of the blacks.  He seemed to think that armed conflict would ensue, and he declined to predict the result.  As the chapter wore on, he became more and more indignant about the cruelty of American slavery, yet he seemed to accept the white southern view--also expressed at one point by Thomas Jefferson--that since it had been established it would be too dangerous to eliminate it.  Yet he saw that in the long run slavery was alien both to Christianity and to the spirit of the modern world and that it must therefore be doomed. He directed his indignation less against the contemporary slaveholders, whose predicament he appreciated, and more against their forbearerers. "all my hatred," he wrote, "is concentrated against those who, after a thousand years of equality, introduced slavery into the world again."

How well, or badly, have these predictions held up?

In one sense our ancestors proved themselves more moral, courageous, and heroic than Tocqueville had imagined.  The abolitionist and free soil movements gained ground rapidly in the North after the Mexican War while the slaveholders became more eager not only to maintain, but to extend, slavery.  The civil war resulted, and Abraham Lincoln turned it into a total war to end slavery.  The Republican Party in the wake of the war passed the Constitutional amendments that appeared to give the freed slaves full citizenship.  Meanwhile, the freed slaves did not, as Tocqueville had evidently feared, immediately turn to insurrection and the slaughter of their former masters, but seemed more than willing simply to enjoy the benefits of citizenship.  The white southerners, however, vindicated his prediction.  Terrified of the freed slaves, they terrorized them once again into submission as soon as they could and zealously deprived them of their rights for another 80 years.  Eventually many black southerners (as well as a great many white ones) began moving to the cities of the North the Midwest and the West, but they did not find genuine equality or acceptance there either.

In the wake of the Second World War--a war fought for human equality around the globe--the civil rights movement led to legislation that turned the 14th and 15th amendments into reality and finally eliminated the legal barriers to citizenship for black Americans.  Yet those victories a half a century ago, sadly, rapidly validated some of Tocqueville's predictions of 130 years earlier.  While better-off black people enjoyed more of the fruits of equality, many white citizens still shunned the black population and fled from contact from it.  Meanwhile, with their legal chains at last cast aside, a wave of resentment erupted among younger black generations.  Eliminated by law, segregation has largely persisted by custom.  It has also become political.  About 90% of black voters are Democrats, while more than half of white ones are now Republicans.  Black Americans are incarcerated at extraordinary rates, and still suffer disproportionately from poverty and poor education.

The election and re-election of Barack Obama confirmed that black Americans have been integrated into various sectors of the American elite with the full assent of more than half the American people.  Their views have also entered the mainstream of the intellectual community.  But the election of Donald Trump obviously drew on continuing resentment of the black community and of what much of its leadership now stands for.  The chasm that now divides the black and white poor of America--one that was much narrower in the middle of the twentieth century--is one of the tragedies of contemporary American politics.  Some of Tocqueville's predictions proved too pessimistic--but others did not.  Let us hope that some new common purpose may allow us to prove, once again, than we can be better than he thought we might.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Our political crisis

The Trump team seems to be having some difficulty reaching agreement on key positions, making it impossible to determine exactly what the Trump administration will try to do.  I shall have more to say about that when we learn more.   But whatever they do, Trump's election and reactions to it show that we are experiencing the greatest political crisis in our history since 1860-1, when southern states seceded and civil war began.  The nature of the crisis, however, is different, and in some ways, even deeper.  We fought the civil war because the political leadership in both the North and the South enjoyed popular support.  Now, as I have recently been reminded by two separate incidents, our political class has almost entirely lost popular support, and I have no idea how to regain it.  What follows will be anecdotal but I think it is still significant.

Recently a social media friend of mine provided me with a copy of a questionnaire that his father, a retiree, had filled out.  They both live in one of the states whose loss by the Democrats was so shocking, that is, Pennsylvania, Michigan or Wisconsin.  His father apparently received the questionnaire in the mail because he was once a registered Republican, although he is now an independent.  He filled it out, but he made clear from the beginning that the party no longer enjoyed his allegiance because it "has changed since I joined."

The gentleman agreed that the Republican party had to do a better job appealing to minorities, women and young voters, although he also thought it should stick to its principles of low taxes, less government and free enterprise.  But he did not think the Republicans should focus on "the disastrous policies of Barack Obama's presidency" or that it should emphasize social issues, which he thought had become "too divisive."  He did not think the national media misled the public about the Republican party's positions.  More importantly, he spontaneously mentioned that he had received insurance through Obamacare, and although his premiums had increased, he strongly opposed replacing it.  He said that he belieed climate change was a major threat to the nation, but on the other hand, he did not trust the federal government to act in the best interest of our citizens, and he thought "political correctness" had indeed gotten out of hand. 

Asked which party would handle various issues better, he gave the Republicans the nod only one, a strong military, and preferred the Democrats with respect to health care, gun control, and reducing the federal deficit.  (That in my opinion was one of his best-informed responses.)  But on everything else, from the war on terror, the economy foreign policy, entitlements, immigration reform, crime, and appointment of Supreme Court justices, he checked the boxes for "No opinion," but crossed out "no opinion" and wrote "neither."  On foreign policy, he felt the United States should be more a model to the world than a policeman, and he thought we should do more to defeat ISIS, but opposed military action to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons.  He favored admitting refugees from the Middle East "with proper vetting."

The picture all this gave me was of a concerned and quite well-informed citizen who took sensible positions on most issues, foreign and domestic, and who was not caught up in the bitter ideological divisions of our time.  And it seems to me that such people could very reasonably have been expected to vote for Hillary Clinton, who was the more experienced, calmer, and more sensible candidate, and with whom he did not express any really big divisions on issues.  But--he didn't.  He expressed his intention to vote for one of the  minor party candidates, and his son reports that that is what he did.  Now as I have been writing here for 12 years now, the Democrats remain the party that essentially believes in government and does its best, when it power, to keep it going and make it work, while the Republicans try to tear it down.  This gentleman obviously doesn't want to tear government down, but that wasn't enough to get him to vote to keep the Democrats in power.  That is a measure of the mess we are in.

My second piece of evidence came from a conversation with four young people in their early thirties, three of them educators, and all of them Clinton voters.  They spontaneously began talking about who the next Democratic presidential candidate might be.  But like their Republican counterparts this year, all their interest was in a non-politician, some one with no electoral experience, whom they thought they would be able to trust and who might have broad appeal.  The three names that immediately came up were Oprah Winfrey, Tom Hanks, and Jon Stewart.  If I had pressed them I am sure they would all have admitted to some admiration for Elizabeth Warren, and at least some of them had favored Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination, but both of them, alas, will probably be too old to run for President in the future.  There was not one younger Democratic politician whom these four very well-educated young adults actively wanted to run as their next candidate or serve as their next President.  When I said to one of them that I was depressed that their opinion of the whole political class was so low, he replied that they were judging them based on what they had seen them do, and I could not argue very hard against that.

This widespread disaffection has many causes.  Nearly all our politicians are indeed heavily beholden to moneyed interests.  The Republicans have successfully kept government from functioning effectively at all levels to a surprising extent, and that has in turn discredited government. The Democrats have, in my opinion, been much too focused on identity politics, as this article in last Sunday's New York Times effectively argued.  The general distrust of authority that has been growing for the last 50 years has worked against any kind of party loyalty, especially, it seems, on the left and among the young.  But if you believe, as I do, that modern society cannot function without effective governance and that democracy crucial to human happiness, then it seems to me that you must agree that this almost complete lack of confidence in our leadership class is a very serious matter indeed.  And it does not seem at all likely that our new President, who was elected largely because he was outside that class, will be able to do very much to restore confidence.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and Strauss and Howe

A very important new post appears here.

 New readers who have been brought to this page from time.com might like to take a look at the posts of July 5, 2010 and December 4, 2015, which to some extent anticipated the events that have now taken place.

Subsequent to posting this I became aware of this appearance by Bannon just two years ago, which confirms that he anticipates a huge and violent conflict between Islam and the West parallel to those of the 8th and 17th centuries (and many times in between.).

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Two Mornings After

Two questions are on everyone's mind this week: how did this happen? and what will it mean?  Let me begin with the first.

The story played by the media so far--that Trump was elected by an extraordinary surge of white voters--is only a half truth.  In the aggregate, as my older son pointed out to me yesterday morning, who did not vote was more important than who did.  Turnout was way down this year, and Donald Trump earned only half a million votes more than Mitt Romney did in 2012 across the nation.  Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, secured nearly 3 million votes less than Barack Obama.  The fear that I and so many others enunciated as much as a year and a half ago, before Donald Trump emerged, came true: Clinton simply was unable to keep the Obama coalition alive, particularly among black people and youth.  Because black Democrats voted more heavily than young ones in primaries, she won the nomination, but neither category voted in sufficient numbers to elect her.   She was the candidate of the professional class and the intellectual and media elite.  It wasn't enough.

A look at the critical states, however, shows a somewhat different story.  48 hours ago, we thought that the election would be decided in Florida, North Carolina, Ohio,. Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire.  Had that prediction held true, Clinton would be clinging to an electoral majority of 2 thanks to a lead of about 3,000 votes in New Hampshire, having lost all the other states--a possibility that I took very seriously on election day.  Unfortunately, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania had to be added to the mix.  In Wisconsin Clinton's failure to turn out Obama voters undoubtedly cost here the state: Trump and Romney's totals were almost identical but she ran 240,000 votes behind Obama in 2012.  Something similar happened in Michigan, where Trump got 167,000 more votes than Romney but Clinton drew 205,000 fewer than Obama.   Iowa also showed this pattern, as Trump gained only 71,000 votes--not enough to have beaten Obama's total--while Clinton lost 165,000.  But Pennsylvania was somewhat different story.  While Romney had 2.612 million votes, Trump had 2.913 million, barely enough to have beaten Obama's total in 2012.  Clinton  ran behind Obama but by only 62,000 votes.  Trump also won enough new votes in Ohio to have beaten Obama's 2012 total, but once again, Clinton's total fell 380,000 votes short of Obama's, while Trump beat Romney's vote by just 178,000.  Florida, along with Pennsylvania, is the second state where a surge of Trump voters undoubtedly changed the result--both Trump and Clinton increased their party's vote by six-figure margins but Trump's increase was much larger.  II Clinton had matched Obama's vote totals in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio, she would have secured 32 more electoral votes, but that would have left her with only 264, 6 votes shy of election.  But had she managed to increase Obama's total by as little as 10,000 votes in Pennsylvania, she would have won.  The Democratic party's racial politics failed to deliver, and with good reason. Clinton expected Hispanics and black Americans to turn out in massive numbers and vote for her simply because she has turned her year with the Children's Defense Fund into a lifetime of service to the poor and dispossessed, and because she is not Donald Trump. It didn't happen.

Trump, therefore, will take office on January 20. What does this mean?

The general on the battlefield, Clausewitz teaches us, must remain calm in the midst of danger, chaos, and uncertainty.  He must keep his head while all around are losing theirs, avoid emotional extremes, and try to grasp the truly critical elements of any situation.  He must also, in my opinion, admit to his own uncertainty.  If you're really smart, I often say, the three words you are not afraid to utter are "I don't know."  And I feel fairly certain that no one, least of all Donald Trump himself, knows what the next four years will look like.

Six weeks ago the New Yorker published a good article by Evan Osnos on Trump's transition team, which had already formed, and its plans.  They apparently want Trump to take a series of immediate steps to indicate a radical break with the past.  The first--also signaled by Paul Ryan in his press conference yesterday--could be the repeal of Obamacare.  House Republicans will undoubtedly pass it yet again in the first ten days or so of January, and in the Senate Charles Schumer, the new Democratic leader, will face his first major test: whether to try to use the filibuster to save it.  That in turn will raise the issue of how many of the Democrats, especially those up for re-election in two years, will join him.  There is certainly a significant chance that the filibuster might be defeated, clearing the way for immediate repeal. Trump will also undoubtedly withdraw some of Obama's executive orders.  Last but hardly least, Newt Gingrich, one of those closest to Trump, told Osnos about plans to embark on a Scott Walker-style war on the rights of federal workers, essentially doing away with civil service protections.  While this would be wildly popular with the Republican base, it may be a bridge too far.

Many pundits, stuck in the denial stage of grief, are hoping that Trump might finally "pivot" to respectability as President.  Certainly by turning moderate he and the Republicans could bring the crisis in our politics to an end and start a new era of US history, but I do not think that will happen.  I see two possibilities.  One is that Trump will simply go along with Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and implement the conservative Republican agenda of a new round of tax cuts and some kind of "entitlement reform" that puts a major dent in Medicare and even Social Security, at least for younger generations.  They will also dismantle a good deal of our regulatory structure.  The role of the Justice Department in relation to local police departments will surely change, and I would not be surprised if the Office of Civil Rights in the Department of Education, which has become a Ministry of Truth for institutions of higher learning, was disbanded entirely.  (Alternatively it might focus on the free speech rights of conservative organizations and religious groups on campus.)  All this could be accompanied by another one of Trump's signature proposals,. a big infrastructure program--if the Republican Congress would go along with it. That is a very open question.

The three biggest question marks, I think, are immigration policy, trade policy, and foreign policy, and here the key will be the people whom Trump chooses to appoint to key positions.  Already there is talk about the traditional Republican foreign policy elite making its peace with Trump, and this might easily happen if Gingrich,. as rumored, became the new Secretary of State.  But on immigration Trump's rhetoric has been so heated and his supporters have been so committed that I expect some fairly drastic steps.  Hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, may well be deported, and I will not be surprised if immigration from certain Muslim countries is banned--a step well within the President's power.  Trade could easily be handled more subtly.  Trump will be under enormous pressure from our economic elite not to do anything too drastic, and he may find it more convenient to make extravagant rhetorical claims about his success than to actually block imports, just as he has often done in his business career.  There is, of course, no way that he can possibly bring millions of industrial jobs back to Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

That raises perhaps the biggest question of all: how will Trump's base react when he betrays their interests, as he will surely do?  And will the Democrats actually be able to make new inroads among t them?  We do not know.  Ultimately, the answer to the puzzle lies within Trump's psyche. If he is simply driven by a narcissistic need for affirmation, he may take the path of least resistance, adopt in practice relatively less radical and disruptive measures, and further entrench our corporate elite while putting the cultural left more on the defensive.  But if he is driven by real hatred stemming from his childhood, as Hitler was, he will undertake truly radical and brutal measures both at home and abroad, with potentially world-historical consequences. Trump, as I have argued, only became a successful businessman, a tv celebrity, and a presidential candidate because of the bankruptcy of our institutions and values.  A sound financial system would have put him out of business decades ago, a healthy culture would have had no place for him, and he would never have been nominated in an age of strong political parties.  We have left ourselves vulnerable to a demagogue like him.  He will decide what the consequences will be.


Friday, November 04, 2016

Aristocracy or Despotism?

Barring some very extraordinary event in the next three days--that is, before next Tuesday--this will be my last post before the most dramatic and potentially consequential American presidential election since 1860.  I undertook my reading of Tocqueville's Democracy in America in the hope of gaining some new insights into what we have been going through, and in the belief that Tocqueville, like Clausewitz, is one of those thinkers whose perspective is so broad that they will always provide valuable insights, even in a new and evidently different age.  I have not been disappointed.  Tocqueville not only described the functioning democracy that he found in the United States and identified its short- and medium-term problems--including the threatened dissolution of the union, and the terrible problem of slavery--but he also discussed the ways in which our system might evolve.  I have finished volume I, which deals mainly with political as opposed to social questions, and I do indeed think that he defined our problem and the choices that we face quite well.

As I tried to point out in the first post in this series, Tocqueville believed democracy as he understood it to be the wave of the future, but he did not idealize it.  Democracy meant to him the leveling of all distinctions among men, the end of aristocracy and special privileges, and he expected it to sweep at least through all the western world.  Yet he felt that its ability to create sound and stable government depended very much on specific historical and geographical circumstances, and above all, on mores (moeurs in French.)  Both our circumstances and our mores have changed beyond recognition in the 180 years since he wrote, and as a result, we no longer live in the kind of democracy that he described.  We now face, I think, a new choice.

I cannot take the time and space to enumerate all the features of American life and culture which in Tocqueville's opinion contributed to the functioning of our democracy in the early 1830s, but I can certainly mention the most important.  Chief among them, I think, was the relative economic equality he discovered, and the lack, in most of the nation at least, of anything resembling a hereditary European aristocracy.  While there were unusually rich men and even a few great estates, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region and the South, he found that they generally stayed away from politics and did not try to make their views prevail.  Most Americans held some property, and thus,. he remarked, socialism, which was already on the march in Europe, had no appeal in the United States.  Their government--local,. state, and even national--was in the hands of men of moderate means and moderate educational endowments, They were less skilled at the arts of politics and government, he felt, than aristocrats might be, but they truly spoke for the people, they had had practical experience of government all their lives, and they could act quickly and decisively, even though they frequently reversed themselves very rapidly.  Above all, they spoke for the majority of Americans, because they were drawn from it.

Tocqueville returns again and again to the influence of the majority on affairs, which he regarded as overwhelming.  This in part reflected the precise moment at which he did his research.   As he noted--and he was very well versed in the 1774-1800 period, as well as more recent times--the Federalists had been an aristocratic party, but after helping institute the Constitution, they had disappeared as a political force.  The supremacy of the Democratic Party had been as yet unchallenged  when he wrote--he never even mentions the Whigs.  The President, Andrew Jackson, while himself a plantation owner, was the first US President to base his Administration on a direct appeal to the masses and claimed to stand with them against the moneyed interests.  The majority believed in a weak federal government, in westward expansion, in free primary education for all, and in an effective postal service.  The tariff and the related nullification crisis were the most heated issues before the nation, and they had recently been settled, Tocqueville explained, by a compromise which gave President Jackson the issue in principle while conceding something to the South in substance.

Tocqueville also noted that Americans loved to form associations dedicated to specific causes, including temperance and the abolition of slavery.  (The "second wave" abolitionist movement was just getting started when he visited the US in the early 1830s, and he surely would have paid it more attention had he visited ten years later.)  But the associations, he noted, clearly stood outside the majority, since if the majority actually shared their views, they would not be necessary.  And here, for me, occurred one of the first of several moments of clarity that I experienced while making my way through the book.  Associations have contineud to play a key role in our political life from his day to ours, without interruption.  Leading associations in influence today including the AARP, the NRA, and AIPAC, the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee.  Those associations, however, unlike those of the 1830s, have  become more powerful than the majority.  The NRA and AIPAC in particular take positions which the mass of the American people do not support, but such is their power over our elected officials that they have determined key questions of national policy for decades.  They are not alone.  What has changed?

To begin with, of course, the United States has had, for at least 80 years, a much stronger central government, with far greater power at home and abroad, and a centralized authority in Washington which no Americans in Tocqueville's time even dreamed of.  Our powerful associations work their will in Washington, and our representatives live in terror of them in the same way that in the 1830s they lived in terror of the opinion of the majority.  Why is it that opinion has become weaker?

It seems to me that opinion still rules much of our politics today--but the differences is that we have really become two countries, with two completely different sets of values.  In the same way that politicians in my home state of Massachusetts have carefully limited the rights of gun owners and protected the right to abortion, legislators in the red states would never dream of doing either.  The red and blue sections of the country have entirely different values and different governments.  As I write, the outcome of Tuesday's election, according to Nate Silver's models,. is in serious doubt in only 7 of the 51 jurisdictions that will decide it.

The cultural cleavage also reflects something Tocqueville did not anticipate--a real regional split about religion.  Now Tocqueville was very struck by the great variety of religious sects in the United States, but he noted that atheists appeared to be very unusual, and that they tended to keep to themselves.  Moreover, virtually every religion concentrated on maintaining its religious rights while disclaiming any desire to influence the political world--a difference from Europe that he much admired.  All this has changed too. We are divided into an irreligious party in the blue states on the one hand, and a militantly religious one that argues for the supremacy of religion in politics on the other.  That too has deprived us of the kind of majority opinion Tocqueville found.

But more importantly, perhaps, we suffer from two of the obstacles to effective democratic government that Tocqueville identified, and which he envied the United States for having escaped.  The first, of course, is economic inequality, which in the last 40 years has increased rapidly and has now reached literally unprecedented heights, with no end in sight.  I shall return to this point in a moment.  And the second is that the US has been, for about a century, one of the leading--if not the leading--world power, exercising military force and diplomatic influence in every corner of the globe.  In the 1830s Tocqueville argued that the US combined the advantages of large and small nations, since our isolation from the great powers allowed us to do without large armies or navies, and the ambition for glory among our leading men which foreign adventures tends to stimulate.  Today we are stuck with a bipartisan foreign policy establishment absolutely committed to the idea that the United States has both a right and a duty to impose its will all over the world.  And that has corrupted our democracy in a thousand ways since the time of the Cold War, just as many isolationists warned that it would when the United States first stepped onto the world stage around 1900.

The kind of democracy Tocqueville describes requires a sense of national community that we have lost for other reasons.  He saw the nation as an Anglo-American nation in the 1830s, when that was beginning to change.  It changed much more, of course, as a result of new waves of immigration in the 1840s, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the late twentieth century.  The great national enterprises of the Civil War and the Second World War recreated new national communities and integrated many of the immigrants into our political body. They also created new consensus on critical issues.  But we have not gone through anything similar in my lifetime, and it does not look as if we are about to do so.

What kind of government, then, do we have today, and what are the stakes of Tuesday's election?

In my opinion, a new kind of aristocracy has increasingly dominated the United States for a little over 100 years, and our politics are now dominated by competing aristocracies.  The political aristocracy that arose during the Progressive era and generally ruled the US, I would argue, from the New Deal through the 1970s or so, was largely an intellectual one.  While it certainly came from the and upper strata of our society, it was not primarily interested in money, and it rose to power and stayed in power in alliance with the working classes. Its leaders were the two Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, the elements of the east coast establishment that gave us our foreign policy elite.  It allied itself with labor unions and farmers, and eventually with the civil rights movement.  It was an open aristocracy, with room for descendants of Catholic and Jewish immigrants and for striving poor young men like Richard Nixon.  The Goldwater candidacy of 1964 represented the first overt revolt against its power, and Ronald Reagan brought that revolt to power in 1980.

Since around 1980, it seems to me, our politics have been a battle between competing aristocracies.  One one side are the highly educated professionals and our educational elite, who have become much richer, much less interested in the lives of poorer Americans, and increasingly focused on the rights of women, gays, and minorities.  (That has not prevented the Democratic elite, however, from collaborating enthusiastically in the mass incarceration of poor minorities, including poor women.)  On the other side are powerful rebels against the whole course of mid-twentieth century American life, who are particularly strong among the barons of the energy industry, but who include many other economic interests as well.  In a truly terrifying development, these two aristocracies, one Democratic and one Republican, have divided up the electorate largely based upon race and gender.  We still do not know what consequences this will have,. but I am afraid that they will be dire.

Now Tocqueville did not believe that the United States would become an aristocratic nation--but he was afraid that it might fall under a tyranny.  That, he felt, was the danger that came from the leveling of social distinctions--that there would be no intermediate powers to stand in the way of a despot, particularly if he were backed by the will of the majority.  Now the accusation of despotism was hurled in Tocqueville's day against Andrew Jackson, and it arose again in much sharper form against Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, and now against Barack Obama.  But I believe that on Tuesday we will face for the first time the real possibility of electing a despot--and largely because a large portion of our population has turned against our new aristocracies.

No one knows what Donald Trump would actually do as President, but he has certainly been speaking the language of despotism.  Only he, he tells us, can fix the problems that afflict us.  Our whole aristocracy, he says--headquartered in Washington--is hopelessly corrupt, as he knows from his own dealings with it.  And his promise to cleanse the stables and do whatever is necessary has earned him the support of about 40% of our population , at least, and there is a non-trivial chance that he could be elected on Tuesday.  A very large portion of our citizenry is willing to surrender authority to an irresponsible, overwhelmingly ambitious leader ,and most of the Republican aristocracy--with the interesting exception of the Republican foreign policy elite--is clearly willing to to try to cooperate with him.

Given the economic and demographic changes that the United States has gone through since Tocqueville's time, I think it was inevitable that we would develop a ruling class--albeit one open to people of all backgrounds--with many of the elements of an aristocracy.  We were fortunate in the last century to produce several generations of aristocrats who felt a real obligation to the common people and a real sense of  how the United States could defend and promote freedom in the world.   Some of them, led by FDR, were the subject of my last book.  Yet we are in terrible trouble today because we have no comparable ruling group, and the American people know it.  Trump has been the result, and he will not be the last one.  We face a choice between the first real despot we have ever had in the United States, and a representative of an aristocracy that has lost touch with much of the nation and will not have much chance of enacting it ideas into law.  In a few days we shall know a lot more about where we stand.  I shall have more to say about Tocqueville's insights and their implications for our time in weeks to come. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

More on Nat Turner



[The Tocqueville series will continue next week.]    

 Because I was under pressure to write a piece on The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s film about Nat Turner, I based my critique almost entirely on Nat Turner’s confession, which is linked I the original piece two years ago.  But because I did want to find out how much truth there was behind various other aspects of the film, I checked four books on the rebellion out of the library.  One thing in particular shocked me.  It turns out that the massive reprisals against innocent black people—free and slave—which Parker describes in the closing caption never took place.  Parker evidently wanted to insist that more black people than whites were killed as a result of the rebellion, but that was not true.

     Although Turner’s rebellion took place in a relatively remote area of southern Virginia, contemporary sources about the rebellion and its aftermath were quite rich.  As Alexis de Tocqueville, who was traveling through North America at the time of the rebellion and referred to it in Democracy in America, reported, every hamlet in the United States had at least one newspaper.  It is no exaggeration to compare the impact of Turner’s rebellion to 9/11, at least within Virginia and nearby North Carolina.  The newspapers wrote a lot about it, the story was picked up all over the country, and local authorities investigated it quite thoroughly—although they did not, learn very much about Turner himself, making his confession by far the most important source that we have.  Thus my reading has developed only one significant fact about Turner’s life before the rebellion: that he was in fact beaten by his master about two years before the rebellion for having stated that the slaves should be free. While the story of his baptism of a white man is true,  there is no evidence that he was punished for it.  In other respects the historical record turns out to be much more vague than the movie suggests.  Cherry, portrayed in the film as Turner’s wife, is only one of several women who may have actually been his spouse.  There is nothing at all in the record about any outrages perpetrated on her, as the film depicts.  Nor could I find anything about his preaching, and specifically to confirm that he had told other slaves to be content with their lot and obey their masters, as the film shows.  The key question of the reprisals, however, was exhaustively researched in a 2004 book by David Allmendinger, Nat Turner and the Rising in Southampton County.  

         The story that about 100 slaves or free blacks had been killed was originally popularized, it turns out, by the Massachusetts white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison in his newspaper The Liberator some weeks after the massacre.  It probably drew on some statements made at the time by local Virginians that were misinterpreted.    Theodore Trezvant, a storekeeper, apparently wrote a letter to a newspaper on September 5, about two weeks after the insurrection, stating, that, and claimed to know of 22 specifically killed by “scouring parties.”  John Hampden Pleasants, a Richmond newspaperman, wrote on September 6 that 25-40 blacks, or possibly more, had been killed without trial in circumstances of “great barbarity.” Garrison in the Liberator raised the estimate to 100 later in the month, and by 1861, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote of “many hundreds” as he tried to rally support for the civil war in the North   Allmendinger found that a number of black people were indeed summarily executed—but almost all of them were in fact part of the rebellion. 
According to Allmendinger’s very careful researches, the tax rolls for St. Luke’s Parish, which seems to include the whole area of the rebellion, show a loss of 107 slaves from 1831 to 1832 of which he says 42 probably died as a result of the rebellion including the 18 who were  executed after a trial.  (The slave population was slowly declining in this part of the country at that time as many slaves were sold to owners in the Deep South.) 12 more were transported outside the 10 had been killed during the uprising including 3 who died in captivity after wounds. Two of those were decapitated and count as “atrocities,” the word that General Eppes, the commander of forces deployed to suppress the rebellion,  used.. The other 7 of these 10 could also be counted as atrocities since they had been captured and were killed on the spot.  All these people were actually involved in the rebellion.  Various other observers or later researchers—including Thomas Gray, Turner’s interrogator—concluded that between 3 and 6 completely innocent black people had been killed.  The 42 dead compares to 55 white victims of the massacre that Turner led.  Local authorities faced pressure from some of their white fellow citizens to make further reprisals upon the slave and free black population, but having interrogated the captured rebels—including Turner—they concluded that they had all the guilty men and resisted that pressure.  The rebellion did lead to some executions or killings in neighboring North Carolina in response to real or fancied slave conspiracies there, Contemporary reports confirm only three such deaths, but by 1839 some authors were speaking of 15-20.  There seems in any case to be no detailed contemporary evidence that 1-200 black people were killed “for no reason but being black,” as Parker’s movie states.

The shock of the rebellion had interesting political consequences.  Sadly, although Turner had been a slave, it led to new restrictions on free black people in Virginia and a number of other southern states.  But it also led to a full scale debate in the Virginia legislature on the abolition of slavery, which many delegates regarded as a great evil that was bound to lead to further outrages like the Turner rebellion.  Abolition had the support of a substantial minority, but that was all.  The post-revolutionary idea that slavery was an evil that could and should die out was not yet dead in Virginia.  During the next 25 years a new generation of white southerners abandoned that tradition and insisted that slavery was a necessary and positive good, one that needed to be expanded, not abolished. Secession, the civil war and abolition resulted.

Something has happened over the last half century among much (but hardly all) of the black intelligentsia of our nation, and many white intellectuals have eagerly followed in their wake.  To begin with, their identification with their oppressed forebears and their resentment of all whites tarred with the brush of slavery or collaboration with it has become more intense.  Although the northern states abolished slavery in the wake of the American Revolution and became the home of an active abolitionist movement and eventually fought a war to end slavery, historians (many of them white) now accuse them of collaboration with the peculiar institution in all sorts of ways, including the acceptance, by Harvard Law School, of a bequest from a southern slave owner.  But more importantly, Parker clearly sees history as a mine from which to draw inflammatory material to arouse racial resentment today.  Because blacks have been oppressed, he seems to think, he is free to spread any particular stories of oppression he chooses, making them far more inflammatory than historical fact would admit.  And following in the tradition of Stokely Carmichel, H. Rap Brown and the Black Panthers, Parker seems to feel there is something sacred about black rage that justifies making Nat Turner, who responded to slavery with the murder of 55 people in their homes and their beds without regard to age of sex, into a hero and in some sense a role model.  He said as much to Anderson Cooper in a  60 Minutes interview.   Parker has grown up in a relatively advanced society (albeit not one free from racism), received his higher education at the expense of the public, and has pursued a film career.  All that was possible because men in other age of all races found ways of living together that did not involve acting out violent rage.  Our survival as a nation still depends on recourse to law.