Most of us remember the Nixon presidency, at least a little. He resigned 40 years ago on August 9. Today, he’s usually considered to be a transitional figure in the Republican Party, a kind of opening act on the way to Ronald Reagan, the Christian Right, and a much more harder-edged GOP. This is certainly true in policy terms. If we divide Nixon’s accomplishments into four areas, we can see that he oversaw a mix of conservative and liberal accomplishments.
- Domestic policy The man seems positively left-wing, at least by today’s standards. He instituted wage and price controls, signed legislation creating the EPA and the Clean Air and Water Acts, and much more (see links).
- Foreign policy: A more mixed – and bloody – bag. Nixon escalated the Vietnam war, costing us another 25,000 or so dead. But, he also went to China and started détente and nuclear arms control with the USSR.
But, Nixon’s real legacy, in my view, comes from the other two areas:
- Political strategy. He created the GOP’s famous “Southern Strategy,” to realign the South by riding the wave of reaction against the 1960s cultural revolutions. Nixon and his people invented the GOP‘s 40-years strategy of appealing to many Americans’ cultural fears and racial resentments (plus, to be fair, their anger at some liberal policy overreach) .
- Corruption: Nixon set a new standard for political corruption. His resignation echoed in our politics for years (e.g., it elected Jimmy Carter and contributed to Reagan’s rise).
So, Richard Nixon’s presidency is history but not history, past but still haunting our present. I think that will make for a good discussion. I’ll give a quick opening on Monday so we can have lots of time for debate. Please use the materials below to brush up on your Nixon Administration accomplishments if you need to.
The Nixon presidency -
- Summaries of Nixon’s:
- ABCs of Watergate scandal, in case you forgot.
Assessments of Nixon and his relevance today -
- Articles on his legacy written 40 years after resigning and 100 years after his birth (Atlantic Mag.) Recommended.
- Was he “America’s last liberal?” (Natl Review) Conservative POV.
- Was he a “hero to the left?” (Salon)
- Are we near the end of the resentments he stoked? A must-read.
- Not even close. The GOP is still the party of Richard Nixon. Must-read; a political scientist explains it for you.
Next Week: How bad/good are state-level Tea Party governments? (They are on the ballot, too, next month)
In the last two years, a huge surge of unaccompanied illegal immigrant children (URMs or unaccompanied refugee minors – mainly teenagers) into the United States has occurred. In most years, about 6,000-8,000 such minors are apprehended trying to cross our southern border. Some come to reunite with a parent who’s already here, others are sent by desperate parents trying to get their kids away from poverty and/or violence, and still others are victims of human trafficking. But, starting in 2012, something changed (opinions vary on what -see links) and the number of UACs began to soar. A lot. In the eight months prior to July 2014, over 57,000 UACs and undocumented children with a parent turned themselves in to immigration authorities at the border. . This surge had two big effects. First, it overwhelmed the government’s system for dealing with UACs. As I’ll explain, the situation was exacerbated by a 2008 anti-human trafficking law that gave all such children a right to make an asylum claim before a judge before being deported. Second, conservatives reacted with fury to the sudden influx and to the government’s ham-handed efforts to find room to house the kids by moving them to locations around the country. Protestors blocked buses carrying the children (in Murrieta, for example), and conservative media went ballistic. They blamed President Obama’s executive orders and “pro-amnesty” rhetoric for luring the kids here. All this likely put the final nail in the coffin of comprehensive immigration reform in Congress; no major GOP candidate is running for election or reelection in 2014 on an immigration reform platform – except on a deport-them-all platform. The UAC issue also has been used to pressure Obama not to issue any sweeping new executive order on immigration. The wave of unaccompanied minors crested in July and has fallen back to normal levels in recent months, but the sour taste among conservatives – and liberals – remains. I thought we could discuss some of these issues have raised.. There’s a lot to talk about, from asylum laws to border enforcement. On Monday, I’ll open us up by explaining the recent border crisis and trying to summarize U.S. refugee and asylum law. Then, we’ll see where it goes. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What caused the recent surge in unaccompanied undocumented minors? Why was the government caught flat-footed? How does a 2008 anti-human trafficking law affect the situation?
- What is political asylum and a political refugee? What are U.S. obligations under international law regarding them? How many do we let in, what is the process for doing so, and what burden of proof of persecution must asylum seekers meet?
- Should we change our laws to admit more – or fewer – refugees?
- Has the UAC crisis revealed problems in U.S. immigration law and/or policies?
- Could anything revive the prospects for immigration reform?
- ABC’s of the surge from Central America. (Vox)
- Why did it happen and why has it slowed back to normal levels? Latest. Recommended.
- Conservatives say it’s all Obama’s fault (this shows the conservative anger, too, including over the “diseases” the kids carry – I kid you not).
- Or is it mainly Congress’s fault?
- How our asylum laws work and apply to this situation. Recommended
- Regardless, it makes immigration reform dead, dead, dead. (Politico)
- Most U.S. asylum grantees come from China, and only a small % of applicants from Central America are approved.
- The requirements of international law (in great detail, FYI, from the IJRC)
- [Update: Wiki entry on U.S. asylum law is much shorter than op. cit.]
Next Week: Sex education – What works and what’s right?
Zelekha suggested this one, and I think it really fits with all of Civilized Conversation’s major themes: Politics, history, culture, etc.. Of course, all politics in a democracy is grass roots politics. Anybody that wants to affect real change needs to generate enthusiasm among regular people, and not just for voting. Movements that do not organize with an eye to building an infrastructure for the long haul seldom achieve much in the here and now or live to see the long haul,. Organizing of both activists and the semi-engaged is what the grass roots is really about, no matter how many zillionaires write you big checks. This doesn’t mean that elites can’t be involved in grass roots movements. Getting them on board is kind of the point, ultimately. But, to me, true grass roots movements at least start off as movements of regular people. This is because grass roots campaigns are most likely to spring up when the political system and political elites are ignoring something – or someone – that a lot of t regular people believe is important. They are bottom-up efforts to persuade voters and the political class to pay attention and do something about a problem they don’t want to do anything about. A lot of examples of successful American grass roots movements come to mind. Most easily can be categorized as right-wing or left-wing.
- Old: Abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights,.
- Newer: environmentalism , Christian Right,
- New: Gay rights, tea party.
A few failed ones come to mind, too.
- Anarchist movement (late 18th, early 20th century)
- Communist party.
- Occupy Wall Street (or, is it too soon to write them off?)
- Pro-life movement (in that it’s still legal)
- Scottish independence?
Our topic is, what makes these movements succeed? What conditions make a fertile breeding ground for grass roots causes and what do the successful ones do that the failed ones do not do? I had a terrible time finding good readings for you guys this week. There is a ton of scholarship on this stuff, but I could not (figure out how to??) access it. I’ll see if I can give some of the background knowledge I know in a brief opening, then I hope some of you who have participated as activists can help the rest of us out. DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- WHAT: What is a “grass roots” political movement? How does it differ from regular old politics in a democracy? Name some successful and unsuccessful grass roots movements, both in the past and recently.
- WHY: What causes the need for a grass roots movement? Are there a set of conditions in politics or society that make the rise of a grass roots movement likely?
- HOW: How do successful grass roots movements help themselves to succeed? What are their secrets? What did failed movements do wrong?
- WORLD: Any lessons from other countries’ experiences, especially lately?
- FUTURE: What’s the future of mass political movements in the United States? How will a wired and social networked world affect the grass roots?
LINKS – Good ones were really hard to find for this topic! General
- How grassroots movements work. (left-wing and a bit rah-rah, but still)
- The 4 habits of highly effective social movements. (WashPost)
- Why do social movements fail?
- It’s NOT about “succeeding” or “failing;” it’s about gaining influence, Recommended.
- “The Bigger Asshole Theory” says something all protestors need to know, IMO.
Right-Wing Versus Left Wing Movements
- Why did the tea parties accomplish so much more than the Occupy movement?
- Why Occupy failed. (a U.K. progressive magazine) Recommended.
- Labor: Unions are doomed unless they transform/ally with into broader social justice movements.
- Why the tea party movement will endure, like it or not. Recommended
- Conservative populism: A sympathetic view. An unsympathetic rebuttal.
Future/New Movements –
- How the gay rights movement won. (Prospect) Recommended
Will the internet and social media fundamentally change political activism? (Economist) Recommended[OOPs. That wasn't even about our topic! Try this for the basic issue of the internet and grass roots activism, or for a contrary view that the internet will NOT spread democracy, "The Myth Of Digital Democracy".]
Next Week: After Ferguson, MO: Racism, militarization, and the police.
The $64,000 question in American politics in the last decade has been, what went wrong? Why is our political system so gridlocked and unable to address the nation’s problems? Everybody has their favorite explanation and we’ve talked about a lot of them. Polarization and voter sorting. Money in politics. An extreme and/or dysfunctional Republican Party. Too many Americans dependent on government spending. Too much government interference in the economy. Barack Obama. People that agree with Bruce. Or with me.
In case you didn’t know, some experts pin a lot of the blame on the Constitution itself. They point out that no other nation on earth is governed by a founding document written over 200 years ago and amended barely at all in the last 100 years. They draw a straight line between the Constitution’s alleged flaws and archaic provisions and many of our longstanding political problems, especially the gridlock. A lot fo these experts have their own wish list of amendments they say would update the constitution for the 21st century.
None of them are going to be adopted, of course. It’s almost impossible to amend the Constitution at all, given the need for a 2/3 vote in both House and Senate and ratification by ¾ of the states. Worse, any amendment that would substantially alter our political system also would upset the current distribution of power within it. I suggested this topic anyway because I think it is illuminating to consider how constitutional restrictions affect our political problems and whether and how a different set of rules might change things. I also think that where people stand on prominent proposed constitutional amendment reveals a lot about their political values and priorities in our democracy. Progressives and conservatives have very different ideas on what’s wrong with our Constitution and/or what’s wrong with the way we interpret it. I’ll explain more what I mean in Monday’s opening.
Lots of links this week. I tried to highlight the pithiest and best ones.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Why did the founding fathers make the Constitution so hard to amend? Was this wise or an error?
- Can today’s political problems really be laid at the Constitution’s feet, or do they have other origins? Which are the most problematic parts of the Constitution and why?
- What major amendments have been proposed to “update” the constitution? Do you think any of them would improve the functioning of the system?
- What do our opinions about this subject reveal about our political philosophy and political motives?
- Are there ways to “get around” the constitution’s restrictions or archaic parts other than by amendment?
- What about calling a constitutional convention of the states? Would this bypass Washington and the special interests – or be taken over by them and/or by ideological partisans?
LINKS – The Problem (or is it?)-
- Our political system is gridlocked because it was designed to be easily gridlocked. Recommended. More on the Constitution causing our gridlock..
- The worst problem is we cannot really amend the Constitution. (Judge Posner)
- “Our undemocratic Constitution.” Recommended
- No, the Constitution does not need changing. We just need to go back to its original meaning including limited government. (RedStates.com)
- Conservatives have proposed many constitutional amendments, including the “Liberty Amendments.” Recommended
- Changes some experts would like to make. Recommended
- John Paul Stevens: The retired liberal SCOTUS justice says we need six new amendments. For them. Against them. A much fuller analysis (Sunstein).
- Another (ambitious!) expert wants 23 changes! His list of the 23 + his explanation.
- A wild idea, FWIW: Let’s just give up on the Constitution!
- Public opinion: Which amendments does the public support?
Next Week: Why Do Grass Roots Political Movements Succeed or Fail??
As the world decides how to handle the latest disaster in Iraq, it’s our turn to discuss the future of that tortured nation. It’s hard to know how permanent a problem the Islamic State (IS) is. The group has been around in some form for a few years, and was formally allied with and subordinate to Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until February of this year. It’s run by some guy who thinks he’s destined to be the Sultan of a new Islamic caliphate that will encompass the entire region. IS is crueler and crazier than many of its peers, but radical Islamist groups are common these days, especially in the wild west that is central Iraq.
Yet, as everybody knows, in the last couple of months (and to the shock of Western intelligence agencies) IS has become a significant threat to Iraq and, probably, to the West. IS has gone on a bloody conquest spree. The group now controls about 1/3 of Iraq and gleefully slaughters its enemies and innocent civilians. After IS overran Fallujah and Mosul the West woke up. The United States began airstrikes and emergency humanitarian aid, and may have succeeded in stopping the group’s advance. Obama and world leaders are trying furiously to come up with a plan to stop IS and eventually roll it back. NATO met this week to decide on a course of action.
Making the stopping of IS even harder is that IS has become a major force in Syria’s ghastly, never-ending civil war. As President Obama has admitted, no one really knows what to do to stop IS in Syria. We have very little influence inside Syria and can have little confidence we even know who’s who exactly, plus there is no friendly government to work with.
So, IS, IS, IS. Yet, the Islamic State is just one more manifestation of the same basic problem that we have been staring at since we toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003: Iraq has not achieved national reconciliation between its major factions: Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, and assorted other religious and ethnic minorities. That is our real subject for Monday, IMO, along with U.S. strategy. As Obama said, Iraq’s disunity fundamentally is a POLITICAL problem and can only be solved by Iraqis. Obama did just engineer the ousting of Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, who was part of the problem. But, the road will be long.
I’ll explain recent events in a little more detail to open Monday’s meeting. Then, I’ll open it up. I hope we can speak realistically about what we can and cannot accomplish in Iraq.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- IS: Who are these monsters? What caused IS rise? How does the IS situation both arise from Iraq’s longstanding problems and make them worse?
- Stopping IS: How can the group be stopped? Can it be rolled back or just contained? Who should do what specifically?
Syria: What are our options? Any good ones? Would attacking IS in Syria mean we’d be supporting Assad? Should we do it anyway?
- Iraq: What are its basic political divisions and problems? How – ideally only, let’s say – can the country find peace?
- U.S. culpability: Is all of this just the fallout from Bush’s war? Does Obama deserve any blame here?
- U.S. Limits: How much influence does the United States really have over Iraq’s long-term future? Over Syria’s?
- U.S. Policy: What should the United States do? What should be our (1) goal and (2) the means?
The Islamic State (IS) –
- What does it want and what is its main weakness? (New Republic) Recommended.
- 17 facts about IS you need to know and 9 myths same (Vox) Good primers.
- Is this awful group a threat to the United States? Yes. Or, No. Both.
- Why it ‘s our problem. (New Yorker)
- The almost comical emptiness of some of Obama’s critics on the Right. (Atlantic Monthly) Recommended.
- But, Obama needs to level with us about what it really will take to combat IS (as do his conservative critics). (War on the Rocks)
Healing Iraq, more broadly –
- Who’s who in the battle over Iraq’s future: IS, Shiites, Kurds, etc . (WashPost, a good primer.)
- Iraq’s divided future. (Financial Times) Same.
- Divisions within Iraq’s Shiites are a major source of the problem. (NYT)
Healing the Middle east, more broadly –
- Actually, Obama does have a Middle East foreign policy. This is my view.
- A Saudi Arabian-Iran compromise is what’s really needed to make peace in the region. (Carnegie)
Next Week: Does the Constitution Need Updating?
With an election upcoming, I thought now would be a good time to reschedule a topic of major importance that we originally were going to discuss last June: The struggle over voting access and voting rights. (We postponed because a young man fresh from Iraq showed up and we persuaded him to discuss what life there was like in the last decade.) We did debate the Voting Rights Act last year, right before the Supreme Court struck down its key enforcement mechanism and Southern states began gleefully passing a bunch of new laws to make voting harder, or, as they argue, boosting their elections’ integrity.
As I wrote in my pre-meeting post to the postponed meeting, the war over who can vote has very old roots in America, of course, but it was rekindled with a vengeance 14 years ago:
Suppressing the other side’s votes is as American as apple pie. Rigging the rules and fooling or intimidating voters happened all over the country for much of our history – not just in the South. In the 21st century, however, we all thought that was largely behind us.
Then came Bush v. Gore. Florida in 2000 reminded both sides that, in a sharply divided country in which the differences between the two parties are greater than they have ever been, just a few votes can make a huge difference in which direction the country takes. Discouraging the other side’s voters from casting their ballot counts just as much as encouraging one’s own side. So, since then, Democrats have tried to make it easier for people to vote, maybe out of the goodness of their hearts, but also because when more people vote, they win.
I added that after 2000 Democratic-controlled states:
- Made registering to vote easier, including through same day and on-line registration;,
- Expanded early voting opportunities, including by mail;
- Extended election day voting hours; and, most of all
- Fought the GOP’s highly coordinated and dedicated attempts to make voting harder for some people.
While Republicans-governed state have tightened voting rules to make it casting a ballot harder. Especially since the 2010 tea party wave election, a top priority in many GOP-controlled states has been to:
- Impose severe limits on voter-registration drives;
- Close early-voting windows;
- Further limit voting rights for ex-felons;
- Enact strict new limits on absentee ballots;
- Pass restrictive voter ID laws that many young, poor, and minority Democratic voters lack; and
- Prevent Democrats from extending voting hours on election day, even when there are long lines.
What I did not say on-line last time is how despicable I think the GOP efforts are. These laws are subtle efforts to rig the rules of elections so that their side wins more often. I categorically reject the idea that what the Democrats are doing is just a mirror-image or morally equivalent effort. To me, trying to stop Americans from voting is on a much lower ethical plane than trying to help more people vote, even if the latter also is done for partisan advantage. à So, the links this week are more unbalanced than usual. Sue me. I’m sure our discussion of just this one aspect will be fun for the whole family.
Still, conservatives in my opinion have identified two matters that deserve our attention for a good reason, IMO. First, liberals probably are exaggerating the number of votes that will be lost under GOP voter ID and similar laws. A well-respected expert on election law is clear: Far fewer than 5-7 million Americans will be blocked or discouraged from casting ballots. That may change our calculus on how harmful these laws are, although, in my view, it should not change our level of outrage, especially over the dishonest justification for them.
Second and more crucially, the U.S. election systems have some real problems. They are, at all levels, often poorly managed and chaotic. Maybe it’s partly because, we have no national election standards that states or localities must adhere to, unlike every other advanced industrial democracy, Regardless, public confidence in the integrity of our most basic tool of democracy is very low. Large majorities (75%!) support things like strict voter ID laws as commonsense solutions. People also believe that in-person voter ID fraud is common, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
I will open on Monday by explaining what’s new in the voting wars and some of the arguments and evidence (and motives for!) for tightening U.S. election laws. I hope, at some point in the evening, we can get into whether there might actually be room for compromise between the two warring sides on this volatile issue. I think there is, at least in a a good government reform-y sort of way.
Discussion Questions –
- WHAT: What tactics has each party used to either expand and shrink the electorate? Why did they not make much difference in 2012?
- WHY: Where is the evidence of a problem that these laws solve?!
- WHY: If not, is this just a cynical, despicable, effort by one side to suppress votes, like Democrats claim, or (and, IMO!) is something else at work philosophically? Is there any independent value to democracy in making it as convenient as possible to vote, or are Democrats just trying to win more, too?
- THE PUBLIC: Why do huge majorities of Americans support these laws? What evidence/arguments could persuade them otherwise?
- THE FUTURE: What’s coming in the voting wars, from both sides? What will happen now that the Supreme Court has stricken the Voting Rights Act?
- A FIX? Could there really a problem with election integrity? Are there ways to both expand/protect the right to vote AND ensure integrity?
- 2011 report: The GOP War on Voting, Rolling Stone Mag. Read.
- There. Is. No. Voter. Fraud. Read it and weep.
- Yet, beyond election-rigging motives lie something interesting: A fundamental clash of philosophies about democracy and voting. Read.
- GOP defenses of these laws:
- BUT, are Democrats overstating the impact? Yeah, probably.
- LATEST DEVELOPMENTS:
- A SOLUTION? Would doing this end the voting wars? No, but recommended.
NEXT WEEK – The future of Iraq. (New schedule begins)
Thanks to Bill and Zelekha, we now have topics for Sept – January. Some very interesting ones, too. From Iraq to Ferguson, MO. From life (sex education) to death (euthanasia). From the Constitution to the grass roots. Try to find another group that does all that! See “Full Mtg Schedule,” above. I’ll have hard copies on Monday night.
I hope you’ve liked our meetings on individual presidents and their legacies as much as I have. We’ve done Reagan, Andrew Jackson, and Wilson so far, and Nixon is up later this year. But, to me, LBJ has got to be one of history’s most fascinating – and consequential – presidents. He also has been meticulously studied, notably by historian Robert Caro, who wrote four (I think) vast biographies of the man. I have not read any bios of LBJ, but any basic list of Johnson’s domestic policy accomplishments would include:
- The Great Society, including Medicare and Medicaid. He raised Social Security benefits by 20%
- The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
- The War on Poverty: e.g., Food Stamps and Head Start
- Federal aid to education laws, esp. Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
- Open housing laws
- Public Broadcasting Act, creating public TV and radio.
It was a flurry of government activism not seen since FDR and never seen since.
Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy legacy is, of course dominated by the Vietnam war. By 1968 we had 550,000 troops there, up from less than 20,000 when JFK was killed. Many weeks saw 500 U.S. casualties as our national wealth poured into that tiny country. However, LBJ also
- Signed major immigration liberalization law.
- Prosecuted the Cold War around the world (especially via covert actions in other countries), and
- Intervened militarily in the Dominican Republic.
Jim Zimmerman, our resident historian, will try to make it to the meeting, although he has another commitment. I’ll save the explanation of how historians judge presidencies for our upcoming meeting on presidential power. I think Johnson’s presidency was one of the most important in American history. But, I’m not that well-versed. So, Monday, I’ll just give a quickies opening listing the highlights and lowlights of the Johnson presidency. Then we can talk about LBJ and, I’m hoping, how his legacy shapes our world today.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What were the Johnson Administration’s major achievements and notable failures? To what extent are we still affected by those achievements 50 years later?
- How different are the liberal and conservative points of view here? Why?
- To what extent was LBJ himself the driving force behind these achievements and failures? What does that tell us about presidential power? (we’re discussing the power of the presidency next quarter.)
- Also, hindsight is 20/20. Do any of LBJ’s achievements look different if we put ourselves in their shoes back in the mid-1960s?
- How do other Democratic presidents stack up to LBJ, including Obama? How different is our national political environment from those days (1964-69)? How can we compare the performance of presidents across time?
- [Update: Late, but read these, esp. first one:
- The Great Society at 50 (WashPost)
- In comments I added two links that make key points about poverty that will help us to evaluate the War on Poverty’s success or failure.
- Thumbnail biography of LBJ.
- LBJ was a liberal hero.
- No, he does not deserve that moniker.
- He was both a great success and a colossal failure.
- And, many others should get more credit and LBJ less.
- Conservative POV: His legacy is mixed, but much of it is a failure.
- Obama versus LBJ: Obama could not have achieved what Johnson did. (I should have had you read this for our recent meeting on Obama’s legacy.)
Next Week: Voting Wars: How Can We Protect Americans’ Voting Rights?