Tag: politics

On Science and Ignorance

Quote of the WeekThe greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge. –Daniel J. Boorstin

These words by University of Chicago historian and Congress Librarian Daniel Boorstin bring to mind the consistent rejection of science by the Republican Party, and the “debate” on science that takes place in the party divide.  Republicans attacked former chemist and current Pope Francis, after issuing his Laudato Si’ encyclical on global ecology last year.  They also lampooned President Obama during their most recent debates for his involvement with the Paris Climate conference.  Yet Republicans do not merely deny science; they pretend to a knowledge of a “different” science.  For example, Senator Cruz used satellite data to attempt to disprove global climate change.  The scientist whose work Cruz was citing later distanced himself from Cruz’s argument, saying the senator had misunderstood his data and the conclusion.  Cruz has also shown a fatal misunderstanding of science in general, fatal in particular because he is the chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness.  When Republicans complain about the inefficiency of the federal government, it is lamentable that they never think to include, as an argument, that the US Government should not have legislators untrained in science telling the scientists themselves what science is or is not.  That is not merely ignorance; but the “illusion of knowledge.”

 

2016’s First Tracking Poll: Voters Expect a Clinton-Trump Race, and a Democratic Win

Less than a month away from the opening of the primaries and caucus season (beginning with the Iowa caucus on February 1, and the New Hampshire primary on February 9), NBC News partnered with Survey Monkey to release their first tracking poll of 2016.  The raw data of the tracking poll reveals a predictable separation of poll respondents from political reality within the Republican camp, and a far more sobering touch of realism from potential Democrats.

Despite Ted Cruz‘s recent surge in Iowa, and Donald Trump‘s continuing inability to get any Republican establishment endorsements (historically a key indicator of success in winning the party nomination), poll respondents leaning towards the Republicans still doled out more support for Trump than for any other candidate (with 33.7%; 39% among men and 29% among women).  Cruz and Marco Rubio were Trump’s principal challengers (with 16.8% and 13.5% respectively).  Those describing themselves as Trump supporters were also largely “absolutely certain” that they would vote for that candidate (51%); whereas Cruz and Rubio’s supporters are less committed, with a “large chance” that they would vote for their candidate (49% of both candidates’ supporters answering so).  Interestingly, despite largely avoiding traditional conservative platform issues and promising substantial increases in government spending, Trump also polled the highest among those considering themselves “very conservative,” with 33% of that group (the far more conservative Cruz got 30%; and all other Republicans polled in the single digits).  As a second choice candidate, Cruz gained the largest share of other candidates’ supporters (with 22%).  Trump and Rubio finished neck and neck as a second choice (with 14% and 13% respectively), while Ben Carson tied at 11% with that old Republican favorite, “Don’t Know.”

The Republican results in the poll clash dramatically with the picture from within the party machinery, where the actual nomination process will largely take place.  While the bulk of the decision will be made through the primary and caucus process, a reliable indicator of nomination potential is endorsement by the “superdelegates” (major Republican leaders in the party, state governments, and Congress).  Trump has yet to gain a single endorsement (out of the sum total of over 180 committed thus far).  Bush, faring meagerly in the polls, is still at the top of the machine’s food chain, with 46 endorsements; Rubio is running second with 38, and Cruz is down in seventh place with 12.  If either Cruz or Rubio pulls out of Iowa in strength, they can leave with both state party delegates and further superdelegate endorsements in their pockets.  Ultimately, tracking polls show who is winning the struggle for the American sitting at home.  The primaries will determine the victor in the struggle for the American going out to vote.

Meanwhile, back in the Democracy, Clinton got 53% of her party’s supporters; with Sanders running at 36% and Martin O’Malley running a consistent 2%.  While overall Republican “certainty” about their candidate for the primary ran 38% (with “large chance” respondents at 40%), Democrats were somewhat more stalwart about their chosen favorite; with 48% “absolutely certain,” and 33% in the “large chance” group.  While Sanders supporters largely looked to Clinton as their second choice (30% of the party seeing her as such), Sanders’s result at 31% (barely beating “Don’t Know,” who so far seems to be running a strong campaign in both parties) indicates that many Clinton supporters are looking to O’Malley as the horse to back at the convention if Clinton flames out.

As with the Republicans, the endorsements picture shows an even simpler reality.  With almost 460 party “superdelegates” having endorsed a candidate, Clinton has a virtual monopoly on the party machine, with 456 endorsements.  Sanders has only two; and O’Malley has but one.

Looking overall at both parties, poll respondents generally favored the Democratic Party over the Republican Party, despite a marginally conservative-leaning respondents pool.  Asked to identify as either “very” conservative or liberal, or conservative or liberal, or moderate, the mean response put the audience at just over the conservative side of the moderate range.  Nonetheless, asked to rate the parties from 0 (worst) to 10 (best), the respondents gave the Democrats an edge with 4.26 over the Republicans’ 3.71.  The Democrats showed further strength in that of the 3,700 respondents, Clinton supporters were the largest group (830, or 22.4%), and Sanders ran a strong second place (558, or 15.1%).  Trump was obviously the top-scoring Republican, with 497 (13.4% of respondents), while Cruz and Rubio together had slightly more (13.6%, with 282 and 221 supporters respectively).  The two main Democratic candidates got 37.5%, to the top three Republicans’ 27%.  This, of course, leaves out the 35.5% who either supported other Republican candidates (and O’Malley’s roughly 2%), or favored the always popular “not sure.”

Ultimately what this poll shows is that, without any endorsements, primaries, or caucus votes being considered (the actual mechanism by which candidates will use to win – or lose – the nomination), the poll respondents at least expect a Clinton-Trump race; with Clinton holding a strong edge over the erstwhile Republican front-runner.

Headline image via Google Image Search

Stirring Up the Stew

“Society is like a stew. If you don’t keep it stirred up you get a lot of scum on the top.” –Edward Abbey; a philosophy, environmental, and popular-literature writer from the 1950s though the 1980s.

This week, Spark! is introducing a new weekly blog, the Quote of the Week.  Each week, we will feature a commentary on someone’s witty saying, reflecting on how that saying fits into modern politics, history, or society.

Our first Quote of the Week, by Edward Abbey, is full of relevance in that it reflects some political attitudes by both the Left and the Right in American politics.  Both sides tend to view each other as “scum” (and themselves, of course, as the cream of the crop, to mix metaphors as well as the stew).  In a social context, Abbey’s advocacy of “stirring” implies using the institutions of our society (education, immigration and assimilation, welfare programs to build the City on a Hill, etc.) to keep opening up opportunities for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.  From this social message we can also derive a liberal political imperative, to keep fueling support programs, to strengthen equal opportunity and affirmative action, and to fight for individual rights.  And in our party system and government, we can also derive an imperative to break apart the large banks and to dismantle Citizens United, to keep lobbyists away from our political leaders, and to separate as much as possible the strains of inherited wealth (especially that of power-seekers like Donald Trump) and the pathways to actual political and legislative power.  While Trump himself seems to be stirring up the stew (by attacking establishment candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush), keeping people like Trump away from the far more toxic potentials of political power was at least part of what Abbey may have had in mind.

Spark! The Mission for 2016

Happy new year, and welcome to Spark!  For those readers who are new, you should check out our overall mission statement.  In brief, our mission is to heighten the political dialogue in the US with reports and commentaries on themes of political importance (dealing mostly with either national or international events).  Last year, Spark! went online for the first time, and dealt with political events like the presidential debates and the terror attacks in Paris in November.  We looked at individual politicians, like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz.  We commented on various general themes, such as the foundational American notion of the City on a Hill, a central theme for this blog; as well as on the meaning of Thanksgiving, and some lesser subjects.  We presented reviews of Hillary Clinton’s book, Hard Choices, and of the film Trumbo.  We ended the year with a “Primer on the Primaries,” and that old media standard, a Year in Review, looking back at some of 2015’s most important political moments.  We also relaxed with some lighter moments, our “Blogs of Lightness,” often seeing what other authors, pundits, and voices are saying.

Now that 2015 is behind us, Spark! is looking forward to an exciting year.  We hope to build the blog into something worthwhile and substantial, something that can capture the interest of readers and commenters, and perhaps even diversify its voice through additional writers and other forms of media presentation.  Spark! will be working with WordPress and other outlets to expand its audience and its outlook.

Nonetheless, Spark! will be just one of millions of inconsequential blogs as long as only a few people read each article.  If you like something, you should “like” it on our blog space, “like” it on Facebook or Twitter, and “share” it with your friends on social media.  Shared links (in emails, etc.) are also good for getting the word out.  Also, if you enjoy reading Spark!, or if you think we got something wrong, you should also comment on anything that captures your interest.  Our slogan is “Fomenting a Political Conversation”; but if we’re just talking to ourselves, no conversation ensues.  You read our words; now let’s have some of yours!  (We would, of course, prefer your comments to be helpful, not insulting; “conversation” implies an exchange of ideas between adults, not just invective and rhetoric.)

Thanks for reading us in 2015, and for coming back (or starting up) in 2016, and welcome to Spark! and to 2016.

A Primer on the Primaries

With the 2016 election year almost upon us, it is time to review the election process that is about to unfold.  The three major political events of the 2016 election process will be:  the primaries (from February to June); the party conventions (in July), and the general election (in November).  The first two events (primaries and conventions) are party events, with Democratic and Republican party events taking place more or less separately; while the general election will of course be a contest between and involving both parties (and possibly smaller, “third” parties).

The primary process begins on February 1, and actually includes both party caucuses and party primaries, two different forms of decision-making.  Each state’s party engages in only one of the two types, for the purpose of selecting delegates to the conventions (each of whom will then, in turn, support one of the party’s candidates for the party’s nomination for president).  Caucuses are larger, more involved and complex activities than are primaries, and they typically include informal meetings, “town halls,” and other events, as well as formal party votes.  Because of the greater demand on time for participants, caucuses tend to involve smaller numbers of voters, and are therefore oriented more toward party activists and politicians.  Primaries, on the other hand, are generally just basic elections (in regular polling places); the voters come, vote, and leave, and they therefore also turn out in greater numbers than they do for caucuses.  Some states have “open” or “mixed” primaries or caucuses, that allow people to get involved regardless of their party registration status; while others have “closed” primaries or caucuses, in which voters may only participate in party activities if they are registered with that party.  Whichever system a particular state and its parties use, the primaries and caucuses will select delegates (and the delegates’ support to specific candidates) to the party conventions in July.

The two parties use this system slightly differently in allotting delegations and support to the candidates.  The Republican Party employs a more uniform system in assigning numbers of delegates to the states based on their electoral weight.  The Democrats, on the other hand, combine electoral weight with each state’s proportionate support to previous presidential candidates (in past general elections).  Those states that voted more heavily for the Democratic candidates get a greater delegation than those with the same electoral weight but which saw weaker Democratic votes in the previous general election.  In other words, states with strong Democratic parties get proportionally more weight at the conventions than do those with weaker Democratic parties.  Republicans and Democrats also differ in handing state delegations’ support over to the candidates.  Republicans use a combination of “winner takes all” in some states, and proportionate representation in others (so some states can support only a single Republican candidate; while others can support multiple candidates).  The Democrats more uniformly use only proportionate representation; each Democratic state delegation can in theory support multiple candidates.

A greater difference between the parties during the primary season is the Democratic Party’s use of “superdelegates,” a practice used to a much lesser extent by the Republican Party.  The Democratic National Committee (DNC) allots roughly one sixth of the delegates’ voting power at the convention to various individuals of importance within the party.  The superdelegates (selected by the DNC) include certain DNC members themselves; former presidents and vice-presidents; congressional leaders; and certain US Senators, US Congressmen, and state governors.  There are currently (for 2016) over 700 of them.  Unofficially, almost half of them (329) have already endorsed Hillary Clinton, and are therefore expected to vote for her at the convention; while only a handful support either Bernie Sanders (who has 7 endorsements) or Martin O’Malley (with only 3).  Although the entire primary process still lies yet before us, Clinton is already poised to jump out of the gate with an overwhelming advantage.

The first state caucus, on February 1, will be in Iowa, which since 1972 has kicked off every presidential election primary season.  Then, on February 9, New Hampshire will hold the first state primary, also considered a traditional beginning to each primary season.  Later in February, the Nevada state parties will caucus, and then the South Carolina voters will get to vote in their primary.  These first primaries and caucuses can play havoc with campaigns, until then only graded by public telephone polling which tends to record rather different results than do actual electoral events.  Strong campaigns, especially by insurgent candidates (like Trump and Sanders), can deflate rapidly, and be replaced by mainstream candidates (like Bush and Clinton), who are generally stronger in caucuses than in primaries (as the former are more based on career party activists and politicians), and who do much better in electoral events than in public opinion polling.

Then, on Tuesday, March 1, 2016, each party will hold caucuses and primaries in over ten states simultaneously, the largest electoral event of the primary season.  Until that day, called “Super Tuesday,” each state gets its primary or caucus to itself; and candidates usually visit each state during these vital first primaries and caucuses, talk to their voters, and speak on issues of particular importance to the voters of each of those states.  On Super Tuesday, candidates have to make priorities; usually “triaging” the states so that their limited time can be used to reap the greatest rewards.  Candidates may ignore states whose decision is not likely to change if they stay away, and focus on those states where they believe they can make a difference and change the voters’ minds.  They typically also spend more time in states with the most delegates (Texas and Georgia, in particular, among those states voting on Super Tuesday).

Two weeks later, on March 15, after numerous additional primaries and caucuses, comes a smaller version of Super Tuesday with five states voting at the same time, including the typically vital battleground states of Florida and Ohio (which usually see heavy campaign activity).  March 15 is  also a key date because with the states voting on that date, those states which have already voted have collectively, in both parties, over half of the weight of delegates to the conventions; and a good picture may finally have developed of which candidates look strong for the finish, and which candidates no longer have much hope for victory.  As weaker candidates drop out, their resources (remaining campaign funds, activists, and supporters) may be turned over to specific remaining candidates, endorsed by candidates suspending their campaign operations.

The primary process continues until June 7 or so (although some lesser primaries, like the Democratic primary in the District of Columbia, may take place after this date).  On June 7, the last five states (the massive state of California, the dominant New Jersey, as well as Montana, New Mexico, and South Dakota) hold their primaries.  This last, big Tuesday can still breathe life into a foundering campaign with California’s massive party delegations, or kill a campaign barely holding an edge over its competitors.  Once the smoke has cleared, a winner should have emerged; and at the very least only those candidates with strong, national bases and support should have survived.

In the following month, July, the parties will hold their conventions – first the Republicans in Cleveland, Ohio; and then the Democrats in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  A party convention can be a formality, if the winner is clear from the primaries, and the losing candidate(s) have conceded victory and endorsed the winner.  If doubt remains within either party whom their nominee will be, the delegates at the convention will have opportunities (possibly multiple such) to cast or recast (and change) their votes.  If a seemingly weaker candidate refuses to concede victory, and can still tie up enough delegates to keep a stronger candidate from getting the nomination, the process can draw out until one side or the other puts the interests of party over their personal ambitions and concedes.  Drawn-out convention fights can also erode independent voter support, and turn party voters against the party’s nominee if the final mud-slinging goes on too long and too far.  Ultimately, whether the nominee is decided before the convention, or during it, the party convention process is intended to finalize the selection within each party of that party’s nominee for the presidential campaign in the general election.  After the nomination, each party works to steer all of its support toward its nominee, including especially the candidates and supporters recently contesting the nomination.

After the party conventions and nominations in July, the two parties and their candidates concentrate on battling each other for the general election on Tuesday, November 8, 2016.  There will be more debates, between the presidential candidates; and between the vice-presidential candidates, generally also selected during the convention process.  Candidates will continue to visit those states seen as strategically vital and/or potentially undecided (the “battleground states”), and other states with something to offer one or both of the candidates.  Finally, in November, comes the general election to decide which candidate (and their party) deserves the chance to steer national policy for the next four years.  And then, we have but a mere two years until the so-called “mid-term” elections (to Congress and various state and local offices), and another two years until the next presidential election; and we begin the process all over again.

Headline image via PBS and Getty Images.

Trump’s Potemkin Candidacy

During the reign of Catherine the Great of Russia, her favorite, Grigory Potemkin, created a fake village to show her, to prove that her reforms had made life better for the peasants.  The term “Potemkin village” derived from this has come to mean an elaborate facade built to hide the emptiness behind it.  Donald Trump, the GOP’s current front-runner candidate, seems to have taken the story to heart in developing his website and platform.  He is the GOP’s Potemkin candidate, with the barest veneer of policy, but hiding behind it a vast emptiness of thought or competence.  He is running on a thin film of xenophobia and nostalgia for a “whites only” America that has not existed since the 1950s.  This facade of policy is spelled out through five platform issues that together virtually ignore the entire range of issues vital to Americans today, and which also contain no logical consistency or even basic conservatism, beyond the xenophobic paint on the cover.

First on the list of Trump’s platform issues is US-China trade reform.  On no other trade issue does Trump enunciate any ideas, so his trade strategy is hinged solely upon achieving greater success in China.  Trump assigns our current trade imbalance with China to “Wall Street insiders that [sic] want to move US manufacturing and investment offshore,” thereby ignoring his own business model in doing exactly that.  He claims his own administration will somehow employ “smart negotiators”; but he neglects to say what strengths or strategies he would have that are different from past negotiations.  Trump blames Chinese tariffs and other barriers for protecting Chinese markets from American products; but he fails to explain how he would bring lost jobs back to the US, or how American-made products (which are more expensive than Chinese-made products) would penetrate the lower-income Chinese economy.  He also elucidates no strategy or plan for solving (as he promises to do) the problem of Chinese intellectual property abuse.

Trump does advocate, however, certain points that he thinks would improve American negotiating strength.  He wants first to lower the corporate tax rate in the US; but he ignores the main problem pushing jobs out of the US, which is that wages and overall production costs are substantially lower in China and other overseas markets than in the US.  He claims that reducing overall American debts and deficits would reduce Chinese financial advantages (which they likely would); but of course he ignores the fact that most of his overall platform involves greater spending and lower taxes, a clear recipe for greater reliance on Chinese financial underwriting of his typically Republican “borrow and spend” approach to government.  Finally, Trump imagines that a greater US military presence in the Pacific (especially in the East and South China Seas) would somehow push China into more cooperative behavior.  He clearly ignores China’s historical gift for long-term geopolitical strategy, and China’s historical lack of response to momentary military demonstrations.  Trump also fails to explain how the already overwhelming strength of US forces in the Pacific are insufficient; and the economic cost of greater deployments to the western Pacific also goes unmentioned.  Trump’s China “strategy” (his only plan for enhancing American trade) therefore ignores basic political, strategic, financial, and economic realities; and also is based on an unexplained hope to somehow negotiate more successfully, without any ideas as to how that might be done.

Trump’s next platform issue is the inefficiency of the Veteran’s Administration.  Trump offers to make the VA more competitive, by enabling vets to get care through any doctor or facility that accepts Medicare.  He, again, fails to explain where Medicare is supposed to find the available funds.  He also wants to spend more money to fund more research on veterans’ mental health issues (e.g. PTSD); and on job training and placement, veterans’ education, and business loans for vets.  He wants to expand the VA dramatically by creating satellite clinics in rural and other areas.  His main complaint about previous attempts to fix the VA is that they adopted a strategy of throwing money at the problem; and yet that is exactly what he proposes to do, by expanding both Medicare and VA funding.  Trump also blames waste and corruption in the VA, and imagines that a simple house-cleaning should fix things.  He offers no numbers indicating to what extent a house-cleaning would improve efficiency; and he offers no guidance as to how he would get an increasingly miserly GOP to pay for other people’s health care with the substantially greater funds he proposes to throw at the problem.

Tax reform is a greater and more central problem for Trump.  He wants to lower not just taxes, but our debt and deficits.  With greater spending on military and VA programs (the former already the nation’s single-greatest fiscal problem, and therefore the only real option for large-scale deficit reduction), Trump cannot adequately explain how he would reduce both taxes and the deficit.  His tax reduction plan is typically childish.  He wants poor people to send an “I win” form to the IRS, relieving them of paying taxes which they already do not generally have to pay.  How they get to “win,” by still not paying taxes, is never explained, not to mention insulting considering the paltry services available for their support.  He wants to simplify the tax code (from seven to four main income brackets), lower the corporate tax rate (to a maximum of 15%), and eliminate estate taxes.  He claims that encouraging more domestic investment, and taxing off-shore income more consistently, will make up for the great losses elsewhere; but of course he has no actual numbers to back any of this up.  Trump is blissfully free of difficult or enlightening details, and merely expects that his sheer Trumpness will somehow change the fiscal realities of American taxation and economics.

Trump also expends some of his very sparse language on promising to do nothing whatsoever about the problem of increasing gun violence.  He refuses to accept bans on military-style weapons, and he calls for national right-to-carry legislation that would stomp all over states’ rights to defend their citizens from out-of-state gun carriers.  Trump’s unabashedly federalist approach also includes expanding mandatory minimums for various classes of crimes, taking away power from the judicial branch of federal and state governments.  He also falls upon the “mental health problem” of gun violence; and (of course) fails to identify how he would ensure that those without any diagnoses or clinically documented histories of mental illnesses (but who harbor the kind of anger that has been producing atrocities like mass shootings) would somehow be prevented from gaining access to weapons – or how doing so would not, contrarily, violate the very Second Amendment he promises to uphold.

Trump’s final platform issue is immigration reform.  Trump continues his bigoted and unsubstantiated claim that aliens pose a violent crime hazard, and he still promises to get Mexico to pay for the construction of a massive border wall.  Looked at more closely, this claim actually is intended to implement a large-scale increase on fees for legally documented immigrants coming to the US; making not the Mexican government but the legal immigrants themselves pay for the wall.  Trump actually offers few measures for tackling illegal immigration, focusing almost entirely on reducing overall legal immigration (and he ignores the effect this would have of incentivizing illegal immigration).  He also refers to the main pathway by which illegal immigrants gain residence, by arriving here legally but then overstaying temporary visas, as “… a threat to national security” (without explaining that insulting assertion).  Finally, as with so many of Trump’s other proposals, he comes to the conclusion that we need to spend more money (this time by tripling the personnel of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE), as the billionaire seems uniquely suited to finding new ways to spend other people’s money.

As the reader may have noticed, this short list leaves out most of the vital issues up for debate between the parties for 2016.  Some very few clues can be gleaned from statements elsewhere (speeches and interviews, etc.), but there is a vast silence on a number of vital questions.  With national security and defense a suddenly predominant issue, Trump’s silence is appalling.  He has denigrated veterans (such as Senator John McCain) and claimed his high-school education (at a pre-military prep school) gave him more military training than some of our professional soldiers get.  But that “training” has not manifested in any other ideas of how to defend our nation, beyond banning Muslims (and/or marking them and putting them into concentration camps), and claiming that illegal immigration is a significant threat (without any substantiation).  Trump’s xenophobia has alienated over half of the American voting public (not to mention some 72% of potential Democrats), erasing any possibility that he could be a consensus candidate or achieve strength among independent voters.  And he has offered nothing at all about defense policy, deployments (other than expanding our Pacific forces in theory), strategy, etc.

Trump has also offered virtually nothing at all on the economy, only his few scattered and unrealistic notions on trade with China, and his skepticism on raising the minimum wage.  With jobs and economic security a major issue for many voters, his silence is ominous.  He also has little to say about health care, focusing his few thoughts upon throwing more money at the VA, and repealing ACA, without indicating any replacement.  Previously, Trump had been more of a leftist on that issue, favoring universal socialized care along the lines of that used in Canada, but he claims now to have changed his mind (to conform with the expectations of his new-found alliance with the GOP).  On the issue of climate change, Trump’s statements would almost be funny if they were not so pathetic.  He admits that, “I believe there’s weather.  I believe there’s change…,” and otherwise denies the science as anything more than a “Chinese concept” for somehow gaining some industrial advantage.

Education, a major issue influencing American competitiveness in the twenty-first century, is another problem area.  Trump tells us that he is “…not cutting services, but [is for] cutting spending” (again, without clarifying how to get the same services at lower costs).  He wants to cut the Department of Education’s budget, eliminate Common Core, and delegate education administration almost entirely to the states, apparently relieving himself of the burden of forming his own thoughts about priorities or strengthening overall educational performance.  In addition, Trump’s failed attempt to develop a for-profit “scamiversity” (Trump University, now the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative) presents an ill omen of support for other anti-education businesses posing as educational institutions, a sobering prospect for higher education and American competitiveness.

Finally, Trump’s cultural position shows a complete failure to appreciate historical trends and demographics.  On women’s issues (beyond wanting more money for women vets), Trump has been absolutely silent.  On minority issues, he has said too much; proposing to deport, or mark and concentrate, immigrants and refugees.  He also openly encouraged his supporters’ violence against BLM protesters.  He is eager to surrender to ISIS and similar groups their main immediate objective, that of making the US more afraid of Muslims and more anti-Islamic, to push them into the arms of extremist recruiters.  Trump clearly wishes to restore a pre-1960s, “for white men only” America, which is exactly what making our superpower “great again” is intended to mean.

Trump’s platform is weak in both establishing objectives, and in offering actual proposals for meeting those objectives.  Trump is virtually silent on a vast array of major issues (national security, health care, the economy, education, and climate change), and he has little more to say on the few superficial issues he has deigned to care about – immigration reduction, trade with China, VA reform, tax reform, and federalized gun-rights expansion.  However, his few suggestions for policy all add up to one thing:  increasing the size and cost of the federal government; while at the same time he offers to reduce taxes.  That recipe has always meant borrowing from China, bizarrely another policy he claims to reverse.  While working within the GOP, his platform is barely conservative, and is predominantly federalist and expansive, but in ways which will lose liberal and independent voters.  His policy is like the old Potemkin village of Russia, designed to fool those looking only long enough to see the facade but no more.  Trump intends to reach only the low-information voter who cares nothing about data or logic.  For anyone else, Trump’s “ideas” (such as they are) can only mean one thing for the real City on a Hill behind the Potemkin village:  complete and utter disaster.

Headline image from bashny.net; via Google Image Search

What We Have to Fear From Trump

The internet has in many ways cheapened and vulgarized our definitions of knowledge and dialogue.  Expressions of emotional content, uninformed by facts or logic, abound on all sides of the political scale.  Internet phenomena have even developed rules of their own, such as Godwin’s Law, which suggests that in any uninformed political conversation, comparisons by one side of the other to Adolf Hitler or to Nazism are effectively inevitable.  Hitler is seen (justifiably, of course) as an ultimate evil, and his name is used to denigrate everything opposed by uninformed political amateurs and commenters, from Bush’s war in Iraq to the Affordable Care Act and even Obama himself.  The latest recipient of the comparison is Donald Trump; but for once, critics have finally come close to the truth.  Trump is not Hitler; nor could he ever replicate Hitler’s initial success or the terrors that he unleashed.  But Trump has created a monstrosity of fascist forces beyond his control, forces which themselves now pose a greater threat to our nation than the foreign terrorists of ISIS.  Trump has unleashed forces that threaten the community of our City on a Hill; and to defeat our enemies abroad, we must defeat these forces at home.  But our enemies are not a new Nazi Party or anything like it.  Our enemies are our own hatreds, fears, and paranoia about each other, and about our community and government.

Comparisons of politicians and their philosophies and policies with Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler have become a part of the political vulgarity, a cheap and generally uninformed criticism of issues beyond the understanding of most of those who make the comparison.  Cheap shots are fired from both sides, by meaner and uneducated critics of the other side, and recent presidents (and other leaders) of both parties have been compared to Hitler by those not understanding either the full meaning of the terms they used or the politicians they wished to criticize.  George W. Bush’s unpopular decision to invade Iraq for reasons later proven to be wrong subjected him to leftist criticism which was cheapened by such comparisons, and his successor, Obama, has also weathered such moronic attacks, which amazingly compared giving uninsured Americans access to health care to genocide policies of the Third Reich.  One problem with the frequency of such attacks is that they are reminiscent of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  They desensitize Americans to the problem of actual fascists among us, such as southern “flaggers,” and other extremists.  It becomes easy not only to compare such icons of bombastic pettiness and hatred like Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, but to ignore such comparisons as a now too-common cost of doing business in politics.  Trump supporters can deflect such arguments with the same casual superciliousness and nonchalance that Democrats enjoyed when Obama was Hitlerized by right-wing extremists, or that Republicans experienced when Bush suffered such comparisons.  The ease with which both sides can now both fire off and ignore comparisons to Nazism therefore closes our eyes, as in the case of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” to real enemies of our City on the Hill when they arise in our midst.  When the real wolf shows up, we treat him as just another prank.

The latest wolf in our midst is Donald Trump; and to a lesser extent the Republican Party’s current field of political leaders.  Trump, who has no political experience at all, and no political legitimacy at all, has managed nonetheless to build a base of rabid supporters from the lowest common denominator of hatred, fear, and self-entitlement.  Tapping into a politically marginalized horde of anti-intellectuals and xenophobes, Trump uses simple facsimiles of public oratory such as his slogan “Make America Great Again.”  There is an easy parallel to find with Hitler’s promise to put Germany “back” as the centerpiece of European civilization, and with Hitler’s promise of an innate and genetic German greatness that had been oppressed by a conspiracy of foreign powers and subhumans.  Trump’s argument is not nearly as thought out (however ahistorically) as was Hitler’s message.  Trump merely pushes his base into seeing that at one time, America was “great”; but that now – due to the actions of “stupid” politicians – we have lost that greatness.  Trump claims also to have the solution:  close the borders, build a wall, keep out Mexicans and Muslims, deport or intern and publicly mark such untermenschen; and, of course, believe in the essential greatness of our new Leader.  Trump ignores essential constitutional principles (which at any rate lie above his educational and intellectual pay grade), and he cares less about the basic history behind the challenges the US currently faces, challenges with which our next presidents will have to contend.

An even scarier comparison to Hitler can be found in those following Trump.  Trump’s supporters have attacked, openly and violently, those opposing or questioning his candidacy, a frightening parallel to the Nazi Party’s use of the Sturmabteilung (SA) in fomenting street violence and providing “security” at Nazi Party events.  Trump has encouraged such violence from his supporters by applauding the rough treatment of anti-Trump protesters.  However, Trump demonstrates himself to be less a leader than an impotent follower unsure of how to handle the violent base he has crafted from the dregs of our polity.  Unlike the Nazis, who deliberately created an organized political street army (with uniforms, ranks, and all), Trump manifests more as a Dr. Frankenstein, unable to control the monster he’s created.  The monster is real; and the evil behind the monster’s creation is also just as real.  But it is getting out of the control of its depraved and alienated creator.

It is with Trump’s metamorphosis from Hitler to Frankenstein that some of the problems of Hitler analogies begin to manifest.  Other problems with the analogy arise, such as Hitler’s acquisition of power through the collapse of a weak and inflexible political structure.  Hitler never faced an electoral situation like that provided for by the US Constitution; and the US has never had a small party take power without developing substantial electoral strength throughout the nation.  With even his own new-found Republican Party fleeing from him in droves, his front-runner status may still be strong in the polls in comparison with his rivals, but only a small portion of Americans (or even of Republicans) actually support him.  The prospect of Trump facing a Democratic candidate (Clinton or Sanders) is both exciting and nerve-wracking to Democrats; exciting because it virtually guarantees a Democratic victory, but nerve-wracking because of the small but frightening prospect that he might actually win anyway.

Another problem in comparing Trump with Hitler is in their relative political and oratorical skills.  Hitler demonstrated much political acumen in his earlier years (later becoming ever more unable to grasp basic political realities); and his skill at using public oratory to move the crowds remains legendary.  He brought even well-educated people over to his side, and powered them with a thirst for greatness and a belief in their rights to it.  Trump, on the other hand, is an oratorical buffoon, able to move with xenophobic rhetoric those weak-minded enough to enlist in his mob army, but easily dismissed and laughed at by comedians, pundits, and real politicians.  Trump’s few proposals for action on problems faced by our country earn a similar reception, as the creations of a simple-minded child unable to cognize the world around him.  Trump is unable to master even conservative politics as he has attempted to do, earning not only the front-runner position in public polling (a position not backed up yet by any state primaries), but also a firmly entrenched opposition to him from the very party he claims to be leading.

As with any political phenomenon, the two American parties of course have different responses to Trump’s “campaign.”  Usually, most candidates in the pre-primary struggle for relevance defend their partisan comrades from the other side, but point out the great differences between themselves and their rivals.  While the Democrats have very cohesively defended each other against external attacks (e.g., Sanders’ defense against Clinton’s critics on the email investigation and the obviously partisan Benghazi committee), and the mainstream Republican field has done much the same among themselves, the GOP has become increasingly hostile to Trump, with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Carli Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Dick Cheney, and others objecting to Trump’s anti-Islamic rhetoric.  If there’s anything the nation can seem to get together on, it is that Trump’s core political values are a betrayal of our City on a Hill.  Nonetheless, as Clinton, Obama, and others have pointed out, while the GOP mainstream is opposed to Trump’s cheap invective, they still collude with Trump on the party’s basic message, including their mutual xenophobia.  What the GOP fear in Trump is not so much a transformation of the country, as that a political outsider and neophyte would be at the helm of that transformation.  They do not fear the developing paranoia or nationalism; but they fear their own loss of power as the traditional helmsmen of such forces, and they fear that Trump’s political incompetence will make the transformation superficial and ephemeral, risking the future of the conservative revolution.

Donald Trump’s campaign, and the many trending comparisons of Trump to Hitler, teach us that we have many demons yet to fight before we can achieve our City on a Hill, and that those demons, our greatest threats, are here at home.  Trump is not Hitler, nor could he ever be, for a variety of individual and political reasons.  But he is unleashing, deliberately, forces which threaten the core values of our nation.  He is unleashing, deliberately, forces of hatred, fear, xenophobia, and mutual suspicion.  He is unleashing, deliberately, forces opposed to the formation of a community of care, a value that forms the center of the American promise.  That promise is what our enemies, both foreign and domestic, hope to destroy:  the promise to build a community of all people, of all faiths, of all races and nationalities, of all classes, working together and caring for each other.  To defeat our foreign enemies, and defeat those here at home, we must respond not in fear but with strength and confidence in our mission, welcoming those wanting to join us, and caring for those in need.  Those fearful of others, those frightened of their neighbors, are the ones threatening our City on a Hill, and strengthening our enemies abroad.  Just as Franklin Delano Roosevelt observed that such forces threatened America in the 1930s, just as he saw not foreign enemies but Americans’ own fears of each other as itself the greatest threat to our security, we must once again be warned that, “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Headline image via Google Image Search

Why the Democrats are the New National Security Party

Gopper

Following a series of terrorist attacks in the Middle East and France, national security has become a vital issue in the continuing contest between the Democratic and Republican parties for the hearts and minds of the American voters.  Americans were particularly shocked by the Paris attacks, in a city seemingly far removed from the conflict zone of the Middle East, and especially considering the long and close relationship between the US and France.  Reacting with an almost post-911 frenzy, American pundits and social media commentators ratcheted up the panic level to maximum.  Seemingly reading the temperature of frightened Americans, the US House of Representatives pushed through House bill 4038, restricting the entry of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the US.  Numerous state governments also issued arguably illegal restrictions of refugees to their own states as well, ignoring increasing evidence that refugees in France were not involved in the attacks (perpetrated by French and Belgian nationals), and contradicting France’s own immediate response of welcoming even more refugees.  As the election year draws ever closer, American voters will consider the two major parties’ (and their candidates’) responses to terror and their positions on national security policy.

First on the radar screen at the moment is Daesh (or the Islamic State; the author prefers the former term particularly as the group finds that term to be offensive to their image), the group behind last week’s terror.  Sadly, neither party has a cohesive plan (let alone an exit strategy) for pursuing war, with both parties apparently employing a “one-piece-at-a-time” chess-game strategy.  Candidates from both parties are reluctant to engage in another seemingly indefinite ground war, and the complexities of the Syrian civil war perplex the candidates on all sides.  Trump, Cruz, Bush and Christie (and Clinton on the Democratic stage) all urge a greater use of US airpower (most unrealistic is Trump’s focus on destroying oil facilities, which are of only minimal value in petroleum-poor Syria).  Trump and Carson both urge a greater ground effort in Iraq (containing Daesh to Syria, though neither candidate is willing to use the term “containment” to describe their strategy).  Bush has, since the latest wave of attacks, begun to favor the use of ground forces, but has not specified where or how, or how many, or with what objectives.  Paul wavers indecisively between calling the use of ground forces “unconstitutional,” and stating that he would use “…overwhelming force.  I wouldn’t mess around.”  He is as devoid of details as Bush, however.  Kasich favors invoking Article V of the NATO agreement, to “take care of business and come home,” but also has not said how either the deployment or the coming home would actually work.  Finally, Sanders, still trying to maintain relevance against Clinton’s rising popularity among Democrats, calls for a new, greater coalition (including Russia as well as the Muslim states of the Middle East).  Sanders, however, has not been able to explain how to defuse the increasing hostility and suspicion between the US and Russia.  With Russia bombing anti-Assad groups who have been aided by the US, there is much to do if Russia and the US are to work together instead of seeing the war as a zero-sum conflict between themselves.  No one on either side of the partisan divide has successfully addressed that issue.

Another issue of the Syrian war is the status of refugees seeking to escape the war zone.  On this issue, the parties have spelt out their differences far more prominently.  Republicans pushed through the House bill, and most of the state efforts to restrict refugees have come from Republican governors.  Republican candidates have said little to oppose restrictions, and have even called for “religious tests” denying Muslims refuge in favor of Christians.  Trump has even echoed Nazi racial programs by calling for the “registration” of Muslim refugees.  Sanders and Clinton have both (in league with President Obama) attacked such as un-American and un-Christian; and that argument has resonated with the evangelical community (normally a Republican stronghold).  Various commentators have linked Republican language of restrictions to Daesh’s specific goal of dividing America from the Muslim community, calling the Republicans out for surrendering in one fell swoop the terrorists’ most immediate political objective.

Taking the bipartisan confusion about the Syrian war together with the clear partisan divergence on the greater philosophy of conflict and engagement, we can define a reluctant tendency of a few Republican hotheads to push for a greater “imperial overreach,” while most candidates agree that a new war may simply not be in our national interest.  The Democrats, while being only slightly more (but questionably) reasoned and willing to lean on allies and other powers, see a clear link between the pursuit of war policy in the Middle East and maintaining our “shining City on a Hill” through one of our most American and liberal values, the compassion for refugees seeking a better life in a civil society.  Republicans are more willing to sink to the lowest common denominator of popular suspicion and resentment of the “Other,” and choose to empower themselves in a confusing conflict by taking power from those seeking asylum.  As with so many other issues, the Democrats’ approach seeks to build the City on a Hill; whereas the Republicans want only to wave the flag while denying its true meaning and value.  The Democrats’ approach also de-emphasizes the military aspect of the conflict in favor of the greater political conflict, while the Republicans confusedly wallow in the mud over tactical military problems without a greater appreciation of the politics driving the issue.

Iran is another issue more cohesively dividing the parties, both as an actor in the Syrian war, and as a power seeking a greater role in regional affairs.  All candidates recognize that Iran and Daesh are inherently opposed to each other, but they also fear what an increased role for Iran in Syria would mean for Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, and other regional states and issues.  Clearly as the US looks to regional states to step up and defeat Daesh, Iran’s massive and well-equipped military poses as a major potential ally; but a sudden US-Iran relationship could not be formed from that foundation alone, particularly as long as Iran and Israel both remain inherently hostile to each other.  As with Russia, Iran shows something of a zero-sum game approach to the conflict, with an Iranian defeat of Daesh as not necessarily in the strategic interest of the US (and with Iran viewing a potential US defeat of Daesh through a similar lens).  Neither US political party has developed a viable pathway to a US-Iran partnership on Syria.

Iran’s search for greater regional power and relevance further conflicts with American security policy on the nuclear weapons issue.  Flanked by  a hostile, nuclear-armed Israel to one side, and a hostile, nuclear-armed Pakistan to the other, and faced continuously by US naval forces in the Persian Gulf (themselves obviously backed by a massive nuclear deterrent), Iran has obvious motivations for acquiring a nuclear weapon.  Such a capability would force the US to use greater reflection before employing its military forces against Iran, and could theoretically increase Iranian prestige in the region (albeit also triggering a regional arms race, as Iran’s other regional rivals would seek to acquire their own nuclear deterrents).  The US, wishing to keep its military options on the table (and also fearing a potential Israeli-Iranian nuclear exchange), wishes also to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.  This issue has driven the past year’s antagonistic partisan debate over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and related agreements, by which Iran has agreed to surrender the vast majority of its nuclear weapons production potential (in both its on-hand materials and its processing capacity).  Republicans responded to their growing irrelevance in international politics with alarmist misrepresentations of the agreement (relying on their supporters’ reluctance to read 160-page technical agreements).  The Democrats, on the other hand, were able to brush aside Republican arguments, although they did face some difficulties over Republican accusations regarding “secret language” in the Additional Protocols.  Nevertheless, the Democrats secured a victory both internationally as well as domestically, in first pushing Iran to the peace table (through Clinton’s construction, as Secretary of State, of a rigid international sanctions environment), and second in getting the agreement approved over the opposition of the conservatives of both nations.

Another major security problem for the US is Russian expansionism.  Republicans have scored points by recalling Obama’s 2012 criticism of Mitt Romney, telling the governor that US-Russian conflict was a thing of the past.  Sanders hopes in effect to prove Obama right by developing a more productive relationship with Russia; but has not indicated how he would make that happen.  The Republicans dither between Trump and Fiorina imagining themselves using their corporate boardroom experience to build a better relationship (disregarding the historic lack of success that American business leaders have had in using business strategy in international politics), and Carson’s details-free “position of strength” exhortations.  Clinton is the only candidate with actual experience in negotiating with Russia and Putin; although her track record there is a combination of both successes and failures.  Otherwise, Republicans do not actually say what they would do differently from each other, or from Obama.  They attack Obama as somehow impotent in the face of Russian expansion into the Ukraine and Syria; but they ignore their own party’s failure in preventing or halting an actual outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia in 2008.  They have offered no actual solutions not already explored or implemented, only insisting that their sheer Republicanness would somehow force Putin to back down (despite the fact that that did not work the last time they tried it).  The Democrats, with Sanders’ vague intent to partner with Russia, and Clinton’s actual experience in doing so, therefore show a modest superiority over the Republicans, who seem more confused and torn over what to do (and over how to frame a campaign statement about it).

Finally, the Democrats claim a right to a major national security interest that the Republicans have traditionally denied en masse: the threat posed by climate change.  A few of the current flock of “clown car” candidates, however, see the issue as an arena in which to grab moderate American voters, and so the GOP’s diversity on that issue has grown.  Trump, Huckabee, Cruz, and Carson are still flatly in denial; while Fiorina, Rubio, and Paul are willing to concede that something freaky is happening, but all demonstrably oppose any  government action to limit or reverse the process.  Kasich, Christie, and Bush all recognize climate change as the real result of human actions; but they only see the need for the most limited of government action to curtail the problem.  Clinton can also be shown as having only limited commitment, having (while serving as Secretary of State) pushed fossil-fuels development as a key to foreign states’ overall energy independence; but her language is far more hawkish and she supports the president’s Clean Power Plan.  She may well have been steered to the left by Sanders’ more inflammatory language (describing climate change, at least before the recent wave of attacks, as the greatest threat to the US).  Martin O’Malley has fought for relevance from his single-digit approval ratings by in part pushing a far more detailed and comprehensive Clean Energy plan than have either of his Democratic rivals.  Both parties have therefore used the issue not merely to hammer the other party, but as an in-party arena to attract different political constituencies.  However, across the board, the Democrats have called unapologetically for greater action, while the Republicans’ most “radical” elements call simply for limited action at best, preferring to rely on private corporations’ good will to accomplish energy transformation and ecological protections.  The most popular Republican candidates fall on the flat denial side (although collectively those “most popular candidates” still poll at less than half among total Republican supporters).  Overall, the Democrats continue to be the party most willing to pursue actual reform on environmental and energy policy.

The Democrats can lay claim, therefore to being the US’s “National Security Party,” having by far the more coherent view of American security interests, as well as potential solutions to current problems.  Neither party really has much of a vision for Syria; but the Republican “fire and forget” military strategy applied in Iraq (and which created the Daesh problem in the first place) still remains their preferred alternative.  The Democrats see the need for a more philosophically consistent political conflict, between the American City on a Hill and an extremist, deliberately antidemocratic way of life, using our nation’s greatest assets and the power of modern information systems to push Daesh into irrelevance while using limited military efforts to neutralize physical targets as they manifest themselves.  The Democrats also have a far better plan (and history) of dealing with Iran, although there, too, both parties suffer from strategic myopia.  Even more short-sightedness is evident on the Russian front; but the Democrats have the greater experience and willingness not just to talk but also to listen, a fundamental step to repairing relationships.  Finally, on climate change, the Democrats have a much clearer vision of both the scope of the problem and the venue for solutions, a vision far more consistent with the actual data acquired by climate scientists.  As we near the start of the election year, the Democrats have demonstrated themselves as the party most capable of facing and solving our most vital national security problems.

Three Reasons Why I’m Buying a Cup of Starbucks Coffee Tomorrow

Starbucks

Normally, I’m not that big a fan of Starbucks.  It’s not so much a political or moral thing; I mostly just don’t like their coffee that much.  However, tomorrow, I’m looking past all this and buying a cup of Starbucks.  Why?

  1.  The dark side of Christian conservatism, that wants to see a “war on Christmas” in everything they see, thinks red Christmas cups without dancing snowflakes make the Baby Jesus cry.  I’m going to enjoy a warm cup of Jesus tears; maybe a latte.
  2. Starbucks has just announced a program to provide a gay-friendly safety environment for victims of hate crime.
  3. Starbucks has also just announced it is increasing substantially its program to provide educational funding for dependents of veterans (if those vets are company employees).

Today (November 10, 2015), there is a strike against companies not paying a living wage (which Starbucks vowed to do last year, effective this past January); so I’ll wait to make Jesus cry until tomorrow.  But tomorrow, I’m going to give Starbucks some money.