Saturday, March 10, 2018

The retreat of liberalism goes on

As communism seemingly disappeared from view at the end of the 1980s, in a sudden and unexpected blow-out, there was plenty of triumphalism around in the west.  The most infamous was perhaps that of Francis Fukuyama, a US state department career man turned historian.  He got his publishing break with a book called “The End of History and the Last Man”.  The end of communism, he suggested, meant that man’s ideological evolution, the very stuff of history, was over. Western liberalism had won.  Nothing seemed to appear on the horizon to challenge its by then unquestioned dominance.

Francis Fukuyama has continued to publish books on the history he thought had ended but his original thesis looks more and more messy the further away we get from the 1990s.
Here we are in March 2018 and the retreat of liberalism is pretty much full-on.  The authoritarian march of Putin and Xi is matched by their less consequential peers and puppets, men such as Erdogan in Turkey, Assad in Syria, Maduro in Venezuelas.   Meanwhile, the challenge from within continues, as liberalism is broadsided in its own realms by such as President Donald Trump, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Poland’s Morawiecki and the onslaught of populist parties like Five Star in Italy or AFD in Germany. 

The problem of liberalism is further exacerbated by the feebleness of its defending leaders.  Angela Merkel has been holed beneath the political waterline by her poor election showing last November, and the 5 months it has taken since to establish a workable government.  Britain’s Theresa May is wholly occupied in withdrawing her country from the last great international liberal project, the European Union.  As she does so, her supporters attack both the courts and those elected MPs who disagree with their hard Brexit ideology.  Only President Macron of France and Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada seem to be charismatically manning the bridges in defence of liberalism, and Trudeau suffered a set-back with a ludicrous recent tour of India that exposed him more to ridicule than respect. 

As liberalism struggles to assert itself, the vacuum it is leaving becomes all too readily apparent.  Nothing this week has been so redolent of the enfeebled nature of a liberal state than Britain’s position as the recipient of a chemical attack by Russia.  You can hear the suppressed, gleeful laughter in the Kremlin even as Putin and his acolytes seek to po-facedly deny any links to the attack by nerve agents on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

Over in Syria the misery of Eastern Ghouta is testament to the consequences of America’s abandonment of its role as liberal guardian.

The wanton destruction of Yemen stands as witness to the removal of restraint by any liberal leadership over the one time client states of the middle east.

In Italy the people vote for parties led by clowns, one a former artist of the genre and another the corrupt, criminal buffoon who brought clowning into the prime minister’s office; the rise of both a stunning rebuff to liberalism and its leaders.

While liberalism retreats the dictators stand triumphant, and the laughter of Donald Trump as he admires the right to rule for life acquired by China’s Xi Jinping is the maniacal noise of the inmate who has finally stolen the keys to the asylum.

If as Fukuyama suggested the triumph of liberalism represented the evolutionary end point of mankind’s ideological and political journey, then the species has apparently managed to find a post-evolutionary slope to speed down afterwards. 

Friday, March 09, 2018

Trump's More Than Lewinsky Moment

It's always a busy time for the Donald.  Today alone he is defending his new tariff system and agreeing to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, where they will engage in personal diplomacy since Trump hasn't actually got any advisers who know anything about North Korea.

Despite the shrill insistency of news about Trump, it appears there is still space for porn star Stormy Daniels to keep popping up.  This is the person who Trump's lawyer allegedly paid $130,000 to in order to stop her revealing her liaison with Trump at the height of the 2016 election.

Republicans and evangelicals, once the very embodiment of moral outrage over Bill Clinton's tawdry affairs, have now accustomed themselves to the ways of the world.  This piece from Eugene Robinson on Real Clear Politics is a clear summary of the Daniels affair, and concludes with this robust, scathing and on point analysis:

"The personal lawyer of the president of the United States, days before the election, paid $130,000 to apparently buy the silence of a porn star. Said porn star credibly describes an affair she had with the president and the ham-fisted attempts by his lawyer to keep her from talking about it. All of this unquestionably speaks volumes about the president's character and morals.
Republicans who regarded Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky as the end of civilization as we know it are serenely untroubled. Evangelicals who rail against sin and cloak themselves in piety offer nothing but a worldly, almost Gallic shrug. Daniels has taught us much about their character and morals, too."

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Amidst the turmoil, Trump can count major successes

From Dan Balz in the Washington Post today, this assessment of the credit side of President Trump's ledger makes for encouraging reading if you're a conservative, and should give you pause for thought if you're a liberal who thought that Trump's bizarre, maverick style might spell his doom:

"That’s not to say the president hasn’t had successes or made progress in changing the course of policy in the aftermath of the administration of President Barack Obama. He signed a huge tax cut. The economy is in good shape, unemployment is at a low level, and the stock market, despite some recent downs and ups, is well above what it was when he came into office.
He has changed the enforcement of immigration laws, as he promised during the campaign. He has softened or reduced regulations on businesses. He has facilitated a conservative shift in the makeup of the federal judiciary. He has pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and sought to shift U.S. trade policy away from the free-trade consensus of past administrations.
President Trump attends a bipartisan meeting Wednesday with members of Congress to discuss gun control and school and community safety in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Those changes cannot be underestimated, and to the degree that he has been stymied or unsuccessful elsewhere, many of his supporters blame the Democrats, congressional Republicans or the federal bureaucracy, a.k.a. the deep state. The core of his support remains intact, and he is the most popular person in his party by a mile."

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Who's voting,for whom and where? US election analysis talk

The next concrete vote on Trump isn't until November, but pollsters and election wonks are all analysing the data furiously to see if the Democrats will ride a wave back to congressional power, or whether Trump and the Republicans will in fact be able to dig down further and secure a counter-cycle triumph.

This election analysis and discussion from Politico is fascinating and a must read for students of American politics.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Shooting Schoolkids and mis-using the Second Amendment

The wording of the famous Second Amendment to the US Constitution is this:

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed".

My students and I saw it just a few days ago, the faded writing on the Bill of Rights displayed in the National Archives still visible. I was puzzled for a while, as in the document this is actually the fourth amendment, but it turns out the first two weren't ratified, thus pushing the famous arms amendment up to number 2 in the ranks.

I've read it a number of times, and it still seems to me that the so-called right to bear arms is very dependent on the maintenance of a militia to defend the state.  It is not, thus, an individual right at all.  It is very much a concession granted in the interests of state defence.

So how has this seemingly obvious interpretation become so sullied that the second amendment now becomes synonymous with individual freedom and democracy?  So ingrained into the American psyche as a key element of freedom that no matter how many kids are shot in schools, the right to buy any type of weapon for individual use can never be controlled?

It turns out this is a recent phenomenon.  And it's down to an organisation called the National Rifle Association, itself the front group for gun manufacturers.

As early as 1876 the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment was not a granting of the right to bear arms (United States v Cruickshank).  A 1939 ruling (US v Miller) maintained the link between arms and a militia.  Only more recently has the Second Amendment been given such broad latitude as to imply a defence of the individual right to bear arms, most noticeably in the 2008 District of Columbia v Heller ruling.

It beats me how the so-called "originalists" - the right-wing judges who claim to adhere to the very wording of the constitution and its amendments - can possibly interpret the 2nd in any other way than the one written above - as the need to preserve a "well regulated" militia.  They say the commas should be ignored and that the two clauses, on militia and the right to bear arms, are not really linked.  Doesn't read that way at all, so I guess originalists are more like creativists after all.  Which is just one of the many tragic ironies of the gun control debate in America.

The NRA's chief, Wayne LaPierre, has given an uncompromising defence of arms in the wake of the Florida school killings, at the CPAC conference.  He trotted out the old line that all you need to stop bad men with guns is good men with guns.  Do lots of "good men" hold guns?  Would "good men" want to be always ready to shoot to kill I wonder?

The NRA has been so successful in its defence of the right to have guns - and thus the immediate use of a lethal killing machine right by your side as and when you want it - that it has radically altered the culture of America.  From the president down, dozens of lawmakers - nearly all Republican - dance to the NRA tune.  Not just because of NRA money, though some do receive lots of that, but because they have bought wholly in to a culture that now identifies the right to own the means to kill with freedom.

The kids who are campaigning so prominently and admirably for gun control now won't win.  Not yet anyway.  They're up against lawmakers who can witness any number of mass killings and still refuse to ban the one thing that cause them.  If they do want to change, they have to be in for the long haul.  That's what the NRA did, and they were so successful they even got Supreme Court Justices to re-interpret the second Amendment for them.  Money and culture is still powerfully behind gun possession in America, and don't expect it to change anytime soon.

Friday, February 09, 2018

Republican Power and Evangelical Influence

1.  The Republicans have been accused of "turbo-charged" gerrymandering in order to hold on to their state and federal offices, and the two states which seem to critics to exemplify their approach are Pennsylvania and North  Carolina.  The New York Times provides, as might be expected, excoriating commentary on both situations, suggesting that Republicans are no longer just about holding power but about de-legitimising their opponents.

At stake are not just hundreds of state legislative seats, but also control of the House of Representatives, which Republicans currently hold by a 45-seat margin.

The most shocking case is playing out right now in Pennsylvania, where Republican lawmakers in 2011 created maps so skewed that when Democrats won a majority of the popular vote the following year, it translated into only five of the state’s 18 congressional seats.

But when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the districts, the Republicans were ready.  After their appeal to the US Supreme Court was struck down by none other than Samuel Alito, they moved against the elected Pennsylvania judges:

A Republican legislator this week moved to impeach the five Pennsylvania justices who voted to strike down the maps, on the grounds that they “engaged in misbehavior in office.” 

And if Pennsylvania sounds bad, how about North Carolina, where electors put a Democrat, Roy Cooper, into the state house as Governor, only to have the gerrymandered state legislature quickly strip the office of as many powers as possible before Cooper took office.

Democracy in America?  Not going terribly well, it would seem.

2.  Meanwhile, evangelicals continue to parade their support of Donald Trump.  

America's fundamentalist protestant Christians have a habit of preferring non-religious presidents like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, both divorcees who could hardly be seen as exemplars of Christian teaching on marriage.  In Trump, they have managed to find a leader to support who has committed serial ethics violations, engages in abusive personal tweets, and can rarely be found holding to truth.  

Evangelical leaders claim they do not want to judge Trump as an individual, not a tolerance they held towards Bill Clinton, or to any American citizens who happen to be gay.  

In abandoning any moral stance whatsoever, evangelicals have at least revealed their colours as a partisan pressure group which merely holds its religious statements up as an umbrella for its political activism, rather than as a serious set of principles to live by.  Atheists must be delighted at their overt outing.  

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dems still look good for mid-terms - WaPo

From the Washington Post's "Plumline" blog, some still optimistic points about the Democrats' chances in November:

* DEMS POUR MONEY INTO STATE LEGISLATIVE RACES: The New York Times reports that a Dem-aligned group led by former attorney general Eric Holder is set to pour big money into obscure state legislative races across the country in 2018:
The group [is] determined to deny Republicans so-called trifectas in state governments — places where a single party controls the governorship and an entire legislature … The group’s list of high-priority states includes most of the critical states in presidential elections.
Preventing total GOP control in as many states as possible could block lopsided pro-GOP congressional maps in the next decade and avoid a repeat of the last decade’s disaster.
* DEMS GRAB ANOTHER SEAT IN DEEP RED TERRITORY: Last night, Democrat Mike Revis won a special election for a state legislative seat in Missouri. Reid Wilson explains:
If Revis’s lead holds, it would mark a significant swing from 2016, when President Trump won the district by a 61 percent to 33 percent margin. Four years before that, Mitt Romney beat President Obama in the district, south and west of St. Louis, by a 55- to 43-percent margin.
It’s another sign of the energy on the Democratic side putting deep red territory in play, which continues to bode well for 2018.
* DEMS HOLD ADVANTAGE IN BATTLE FOR HOUSE: The punditry has swung toward a Trump/GOP comeback, based on the economy and Trump’s slightly rebounding approval. But National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar diagnoses the situation much more accurately:
If there’s one constant that strategists in both parties acknowledge, it’s that Democratic turnout will be sky-high, fueled by deep-seated antipathy towards Trump. … For Republicans to mitigate the impact, they need to persuade enough independent voters to support them and turn out their own voters in similar numbers. … They could hang on to many of their most-vulnerable seats, but still see the bottom fall out because of red-hot Democratic intensity and lackluster GOP preparation. It’s why Democrats still hold the edge in the battle for House control, even if the anti-Trump tsunami never materializes.
By the way, ignore the punditry that tells you Dems are overconfident. They know this is still very much up in the air and that there’s tons of work to be done.
(Greg Sargent)

The retreat of liberalism goes on

As communism seemingly disappeared from view at the end of the 1980s, in a sudden and unexpected blow-out, there was plenty of triumphal...