Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Garrison State Today

     On February 24, 2017, Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association told the Conservative Political Action Conference that "Right now, we face a gathering of forces that are willing to use violence against us....Among them and behind them are some of the most radical political elements there are.  Anarchists, Marxists, Communists and the whole rest of the left-wing socialist brigade."
     This is an example today of the concept of  the garrison state identified by Prof. Harold Lasswell in 1941.  Lasswell was describing the totalitarian regimes of both the fascist right (Hitler and Mussolini) and the Communist left (Stalin).  His concept became further developed as the siege mentality, whereby a whole society can believe and act as though they were captives within a besieged city (or country).
     We continue to see many examples of governments in which the leaders persistently cry out against foreign threats and internal subversion.  They not only exaggerate the threats, they exacerbate them in order to foist a sense of great danger that will convince people that they need to support the government's policies.  These include higher military spending, the law and order crackdown of dissidents, the promotion of traditional social and religious values, and the suppression of free speech and press.  In the end, the goal is not so much to protect the country as it is to promote the interests of certain internal groups and to maintain the individuals and the party in power.
     President Donald J. Trump, with the solid support of his base, including the National Rifle Association, is the current leader of an emerging garrison state in the U.S.  He is encouraging the siege mentality of Americans by emphasizing the dire threats of radical Islamic extremists and terrorists, ISIS, the nuclear threat of North Korea, the nuclear threat of Iran, proposed restrictions to the Second Amendment, and the dangers of illegal immigrants, especially Hispanics, to the safety and security of Americans everywhere.  He discourages the freedom of speech and the press by denouncing stories that challenge him as "fake news" to be disbelieved and rejected.
     Trump is not concerned with unifying the American people.  On the contrary, he feeds contentious divisions and social unrest with fear and anger to increase the siege mentality.  He himself and his White House staff display symptoms of deep paranoia.
     By scaring people, Trump is promoting an agenda that is highly favorable to certain interests and individuals in the U.S.  He does this through increasing budgets for Defense and Homeland Security, restricting immigration, constructing a wall along our border with Mexico, permitting the private exploitation of public lands in the West, rejecting global climate change in favor of fossil fuels (especially oil and coal), and passing tax "reforms" that provide tremendous concessions to large corporations, corporate executives, stock investors, investment portfolio managers, and other very high income and wealthy people. 
     Those people of the Trump base without so much material but with high emotional interests  indicate that they are OK with the crumbs from the table according to supply-side, trickle-down economic theories.  They continue to trust Trump and long for making America great again, which they see as crushing all of Trump's and their own enemies, foreign and domestic, real and imagined.
     It is obvious that high income individuals and the interest groups of the Trump base will gain much in material advantages from the siege mentality.  But how will the base of true believers also benefit?

(c) 2017 Stephen M. Millett (all rights reserved)  

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Politics Are Personal

     In my book American Ways, I identified the four corners of American politics:  money, issues, organizations, and personalities (pp. 168-171).  These four corners have provided the foundation of American politics since colonial times, but at different times some of these corners have appeared more prominently than others. 
     Money has always been important to pay for electoral campaigns.  It has also played a major role in competing interests trying to win advantage through contributions and favors in the public arena; in return for their support, they see the kinds of regulations and taxes that they desire.  They may also get repaid through government patronage and contracts.  The border between money as a form of freedom of speech and money as corruption has always been hazy.
     Issues have included both concrete matters, such as the gold standard in 1896 and the continuation of the New Deal in 1936, and abstract ideals, such as states' rights, personal liberties, and limited government.  They include political, social, and economic ideals and ideology. 
     Organizations relate primarily to political institutions and parties.  They provide the structure for the processes of American representative democracy.  Congress, for example, passes laws according to very specific rules of order.  Parties give cohesion and continuity between elections and the organization with which to get voters registered and delivered to the polls on election days.  For some political leaders, party loyalty may be more compelling than issues and maybe even money.
     During the 1980s, Speaker of the House "Tip" O'Neill claimed that all politics are local.  My corollary is that all politics are personal.  The personalities of candidates go a long way in attracting financial supporters and voters.  Successful political leaders often exude exceptional personal charm.  They can be poignant, charismatic, and entertaining.  They can arouse public emotions, either inspirational optimism or angry indignation.  Once in office, in complex negotiations over public policy the ability of leaders to trust each other and engage in productive inter-personal dealings count for a great deal.
     It presently appears that personalities are extremely important to President Donald Trump.  He was a well-known TV personality with high ratings before 2016 and he continues to crave public adulation in the White House.  He is very wealthy and not much concerned with money (besides his own).  He is not doctrinaire, contrary to much of his rhetoric; he is more interested in practical results than ideological purity.  In this regard, Trump is at odds with the rigidly opinioned Freedom Caucus in the House.  It has been reported that Trump does not care for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who highly values the integrity of the U.S. Senate and the long-term unity of the Republican Party.  Trump likes to make deals in public policy like he made real estate deals.  Therefore, he likes people he can relate to, joke with, respect, and ultimately trust.  Such a person may prove to be a Democrat:  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.  Looking forward, the compromises finally reached on Obamacare, immigration, budgets, and taxes may be reached through the social dynamics of the streets of New York.

(c) 2016 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)                 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The American Politics of Afghanistan

     In Chapter 8 of American Ways, I observed that "Americans view their relations with other countries as more or less extensions of their relations with each other, with typically compatible combinations of self-interests and ideals, so that American foreign policy often has more to do with domestic than with international politics." (p. 281).
      We saw an example of this general trend in American history in the speech that President Donald Trump gave on Monday, August 21, 2017.  The President rejected the policy option of American withdrawal after 16 years of our fighting in Afghanistan and pledged eventual victory there over the Taliban, ISIS, and other terrorist groups.  He did not say how this could be achieved or when.  He did not specify what constituted "victory," but he said that it would depend upon conditions, also not defined, in Afghanistan and not upon some artificial timetable.
     Although the President acted as though his new policy was based on careful analysis of the realities of the Middle East and South Asia, Trump's re-invigorated war in Afghanistan has more to do with domestic than international politics.  It is based primarily on the ideals and self-interests of his political base, upon which he expects to win re-election in 2020.  What are the political appeals of an extended war and the hope of victory in Afghanistan?
     At a very basic level, Trump's war in Afghanistan diverts national attention away from or makes up for domestic political disasters, such as the investigations into Russian meddling in the American elections of 2016, the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, and the white supremacy mess of Charlottesville.  It's an old political maneuver to shift public attention from divisive domestic to unifying foreign issues. 
     In particular, Trump is arousing the patriotism of national unity that focuses on military might and service values.  Among other demographics, one target is the aging Boomers who painfully remember Vietnam.  They seek a military victory in the future that will compensate for the frustrations of Southeast Asia some half-century ago.  This generation today is prone to hold in contempt those who might be soft on terrorism like those in the past who were seen as being soft on communism.  They believe deeply in teamwork and social cohesion.  Trump gains politically when he convinces people that he is a strong leader who knows how to solve problems with the advice of generals.
     Furthermore, there are young men and women from small towns and rural areas around the country who enlist primarily because the Armed Forces present the best paying jobs to be had.  Their families and neighbors know this, too, and they enthusiastically support the military as the industry that supports their children.
     There certainly are Americans who deeply believe in a strong military to defend liberty and the American way of life against foreign enemies.  They greatly fear ISIS and foreign-generated acts of terrorism in the U.S.  Nobody wants another 9/11.  And along with high ideals often come the self-interests of military patriotism, including the pay and benefits of the military, the revenues of military contractors and suppliers, and the election of representatives in districts and states with military bases and instillations.  Defense has been a strong sector of the American economy, and a strong economy provides strong politics.   
     Trump is probably correct in his expectations that some kind of military success in Afghanistan could be called "victory" and leveraged for political gain.  On the other hand, he is tempting the same fate of other nations and leaders who have tried and failed to extend their foreign policy goals into this region of the world, including the British and Russians over the last two centuries.

(C) 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)      

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Importance of Process

     In Chapter 6 of American Ways, I observed that "When Americans cannot agree on conflicting ideals and interests, they resort to agreeing on a fair and equitable process to resolve their conflicts peacefully."  Since the earliest days of the colonies, Americans have asserted their individual ideals and interests.  They often butt heads with other individuals doing the same.  While Americans have enjoyed certain rights, they have never enjoyed the right to infringe the rights of other individuals.  Had there been no agreed-upon procedures to settle numerous conflicts among individuals, Americans would have fought and killed each other off a long time ago.
     Processes are extremely important to Americans.  Most Americans have followed the axiom "live and let live."  But to people with self-absorbed interests and absolute beliefs, the ends justify the means.  We see this often in the business world of high-competition and high-expectations.  Profits are what matter most to many business people and investors.  But they have to stay within the boundaries of the law and social acceptability or they risk alienating authorities and customers.  We also see people with uncompromising values who are willing to go to extremes regardless of who else gets hurt.
     To most Americans since the 17th century, however, the means justify the ends.  There are "right" and "wrong" ways to get things done, not just favorable or unfavorable results.  If you live according to the rules, then you are entitled to your gains, and those gains become protected under the law with broad community approval.  You are also respected by the community of other individuals.
     What do the concepts of fair and equitable mean?  "Fair" means that all parties in a dispute agree to a process by which to settle conflicts and then abide by the outcome.  In the eyes of many Americans, "fair" may relate more to the process than to the results.  If the process is run according to consensual rules, then you have to accept the results as fair even if they are not what you wanted.  Then, you just move on.  "Fair" also means that the process was run without trickery, corruption, or perversion of the rules.  Many times Americans have tried to bend the process to get their desired results.  Therefore, procedural knowledge and transparency are required.  For example, judges, lawyers, and law enforcement agents must understand the American system of justice.  And "equitable" means that all parties are treated the same with no biases based on political favor, power, wealth, or social standing.  That's the concept, at least.  Unfortunately, achieving the ideal is a continuous struggle in the practical world in which wealth and influence play such prominent roles in the day-to-day affairs of both business and government.
     Furthermore, the concepts of fair and equitable in the operation of peaceful processes apply to the most powerful person in the country, the President of the United States.  He or she cannot excuse any means to justify the ends.  The Constitution lays out a process for national government with limited powers and internal checks and balances.  Just as a judge in a court, the President has to know the proper institutional procedures and follow them with transparency.  In addition, the sensitivities of the American people based on generations of social processes must be respected, even in the technological world of social media.

(C) 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)           

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Ideals and Self-Interests of Global Climate Change

     In Chapter 5 of my book American Ways, I set out one of the major patterns of historical American behavior:  Americans find clever ways to combine their lofty ideals with their self-interests and self-satisfaction, and only rarely will they consciously pursue their ideals at the direct expense of their own well-being (p. 143).
     Let’s take a simplified example from an extremely complicated issue:  global climate change.  On one side are those who assert that the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly, with many areas suffering from increased surface temperatures and storms; that global warming is potentially damaging to all life forms on land and in the seas; and that actions must be taken now to avert climate disaster in the future.  In particular the Paris climate accord of 2015 called for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and a shift from the extensive use of fossil fuels with high concentrations of carbon dioxide to sustainable energy.
     Who benefits from such goals in the U.S.?  One might argue ideally that everybody will benefit by not enduring climate disasters.  Many arguments are based on the high ideals of quality of life, improved health and safety, and environmental stewardship.  But behind such ideals are many self-interests, too.  Scientists and R&D enterprises might receive more Federal government programs.  Insurance companies might reduce their risk exposure to large claims based on extreme weather events such as hurricanes, thunderstorms, and floods.  Obviously, there are farming, ranching, forestry, and fishing interests at stake if climate conditions reduce their outputs.  The shift to sustainable energy forms particularly favors investors and companies engaged in the production and operation of electricity-generating windmills, hydro-electric facilities, solar panels, geothermal systems, and perhaps large-sized batteries and fuel cells.
     In addition, the natural gas industry has been benefitting by the increasing use of methane as a fuel for central station generation of electricity.  Furthermore, greenhouse gas emission restrictions might reinvigorate nuclear energy. 
     Less well-known are shipping and tourism interests that see new business with the melting of the North Pole ice cap.  This aspect of global warming may also appeal to oil and gas interests seeking new drilling opportunities farther north.
       On the other hand, the opponents of the Paris climate accord and the environmental and energy policies of the Obama Administration denounce the notion of global climate change as fake news and perverted science.  They decry the environmental regulations of Big Government and the meddling of Washington, DC, in the smooth operation of the private sector.  They argue that global climate restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions will crimple the American energy industry, throw millions of people out of work, and lower the annual GDP growth rate.  But what are their vested interests?  There are the traditional interests in fossil fuels, especially coal.  In its extreme form, global climate regulations would virtually kill the coal industry, as coal remains a relatively dirty form of energy with typically high carbon emissions.  Five states produce over 70% of American coal:  Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.  Coal interests are also strong in Ohio and Montana.  The industry hit a peak in 2006 and has been in steady decline for over a decade with lost jobs and reduced company revenues.
     Many electric utilities continue to rely heavily upon coal to operate central station facilities representing billions of dollars in plant investment.  Some electric utilities have claimed that further restrictions on their carbon emissions would result in skyrocketing electric bills for consumers and eventually leave tens of millions of Americans in the dark.
     The automotive industry might be severely impacted by global climate regulations on gasoline emissions, but many companies are gradually shifting to more efficient internal combustion engines, hybrids, and electric vehicles, as the consumer demand supports such products.
     In addition to the high ideals and self-interests at play, the global climate change debate has exposed deeply held social biases and hatreds:  the academic community vs. large corporations, tree-huggers vs. economic opportunists, rugged individuals vs. Big Government, conservatives vs. liberals, Democrats vs. Republicans, and the admirers vs. the detractors of Barack Obama.  For example, Vice President Mike Pence once said that the principal problem with Obamacare was Obama – he might have said the same of global climate change and the Paris climate accords.                  

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Get Even President

     Donald J. Trump is the Get Even President.  He has emerged as the champion of Americans who feel that they have been gravely wronged and who seek retaliation against their enemies, real and imagined.  Trump’s behavior reflects the mood of his base: confrontational, indignant, impatient, defiant, abrasive, and unapologetic.  Not far beneath the surface exist layers of pain, fear, and anger.
     Who are the people who support Trump?  The Trump coalition consists primarily of six groups, among which there are many overlaps.
     The first consists of highly partisan and “yellow dog” Republicans.  Their faith in the GOP is largely based on family political tradition, regional political preferences, the ideals of individualism and free enterprise, and vested interests.  They include Republicans who remain enamored with Ronald Reagan and adhere to the conservative principles of Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater.  They generally fear and loathe Democrats, who threaten them through government regulations, taxes, and social reforms.  Many Republicans continue to hold great disdain for Bill Clinton and his unseemly personal conduct as President; they also greatly distrust Bill Clinton’s wife, or “crooked Hillary” as Trump calls her.
     The second group is the American déclassé that I discussed in my blog posting of June 1, 2017.  These include people from the middle and working classes who suffered from the Great Recession of 2008 and never fully recovered.  Many lost their jobs, savings, homes, and their comfortable lifestyles and they want them back, now!  They feel victimized by various evil-doers in a corrupt system (“drain the swamp”) and exploitive illegal immigrants (“build the wall.”).  They are very angry, and in particular damn President Barack Obama.  Anything connected to him (such as Obamacare, environmental restrictions, global climate change, trade agreements, and post-2008 banking and financial regulations) must be reversed.
     The third group is Baby Boomers who are now approaching retirement and who still have vivid memories of the 1960s.  They recall the violence of the Civil Rights movement (especially the urban race riots) and the war in Vietnam, both in the jungles of Southeast Asia and in the streets of the U.S.  They resent the perceived shunning of Vietnam veterans as though they were war criminals.  They want a strong military that will be allowed to win foreign engagements.  They in particular want to “make American great again,” or a return to a world order in which countries defer to the U.S.
     Americans who have a persistent fear of criminals and terrorists make the fourth group.  They abhor street shootings and random acts of violence.  They remain traumatized by the Al Qaeda attacks upon New York City and Washington, DC, on 9/11 of 2001.  They generally supported American retaliation in Afghanistan and the unilateral, preemptive invasion of Iraq.  In contrast, they bemoaned the seemingly irresolute policies of the Obama administration in the Middle East.  They defend domestic gun rights and distrust Muslims (“the travel ban”).  They cheer a strong leader who will end criminal violence and foreign-generated acts of terrorism one way or another.
     The fifth group are members of the social conservative movement, especially those who embrace traditionalist social and religious views.  They are defenders of their own religious freedoms.  They may not always condone Trump’s language, but they support him as a national leader who will curtail abortions, gay marriages, and the mandated coverage of contraceptives in Obamacare.  Most importantly, they support Trump’s appointment of conservatives to federal courts, like Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.
     Finally, the sixth group consists of Trump’s fans who love his books, reality TV shows, speeches, and tweets.  They are awed by his great wealth and CEO style.  They see Trump as spectacular political entertainment.
     Will these groups find satisfaction?  And will they be better off in the long run?

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)     

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The American Déclassé

     Toward the end of the 19th century, the French introduced the word déclassé to describe people who had fallen in social status.  The déclassé might include aristocrats who lost their titles or their estates for one reason or another.  They might also be middle class who lost their businesses, white-collar employment, savings, and homes.  They were reduced to the tattered trappings but no longer the substance of their former comfortable lifestyles.  They felt victimized and marginalized and often blamed others for their own misfortunes.
     Many Germans experienced a middle class déclassé in the 1920s due to hyper-inflation that wiped out long-term savings.  Then they suffered further from the Great Depression and deflation.  Financial reverses along with personal loses and the humiliating defeat in World War I caused many German déclassé to turn to hyper-nationalism, including German racial superiority as expressed by the Nazis.
     Now the United States has its own déclassé.  They were used to middle class standards of living until the Great Recession of 2007.  Some were upper- and middle-middle class who were overextended in debt, particularly inflated home mortgages.  When the financial and real estate bubble burst, many lost their houses, which were their principal assets as well as their homes.  Others lost their businesses and investments, too.  Meanwhile, white collar workers lost their jobs to process innovations and business cost reductions.  After decades of wages and benefits that lifted so many factory workers from the working to the middle class, millions of industrial jobs were eliminated by factory automation, offshore production, and layoffs by companies faced with reduced demand for their goods and services.  For many, the upward spiral of the American Dream had suddenly reversed its course downward.
     Particularly devastated was the new working poor, broadly defined, of people who could not find any jobs, or took jobs that paid significantly less than their previous jobs, or went into retirement without pensions and adequate savings.  They found themselves on the wrong end of the growing income-wealth-education gap in the U.S.  Having once enjoyed a middle-class standard of living, they now had to struggle to just make ends meet.  If they still bought the things they were used to, they went more heavily into debt.  Many became very bitter about their losses and retreated into social isolation and alcohol and drug abuse.  Some turned outward and blamed various other people, including Wall Street fund managers and bankers, the one-percenters, the Federal government that seemed pleased to help the chronically poor but not the working poor, and illegal immigrants who allegedly exploited public assistance programs.  In addition there was a growing fear of public violence and acts of foreign-generated terrorism.
     Some of the American déclassé personified their anger in President Barack Obama and railed against the well-educated and well-paid elites who appeared to dominate the Democratic Party.  They hated when the President lectured them about large corporation bailouts (but none for the “little guys”), mandatory healthcare insurance (which for some people resulted in unwanted coverage with unwanted premiums and new taxes), race relations, and global climate change.  What about good jobs with good pay?  What about people who were not working but getting public handouts?  What about illegal immigrants from Mexico?  What about Muslim terrorists shooting and bombing innocent Americans?
     Then came the elections of 2016…. 

© 2017 Stephen M. Millett (All rights reserved)