Confirming our location

Welcome to CivCon!  But, know that City Beat / The Reader events section sometimes gets our location wrong.  Our permanent mtg spot is the Panera Café at 5620 Balboa Ave., at the Genesee intersection in Claremont.  Also, see the next post down for some optional background readings for this Monday’s mtg.

Monday’s Mtg (2/15/16):What Does “Socialism” Mean Today?

left-winger critiques Socialism lives. In the United States. At least as an abstract idea. Bernie Sanders’ no-longer-quixotic presidential campaign seems to be reviving the label’s popularity almost single-handedly. “Socialism” was the most searched for word at the Mirriam-Webster website in 2015, and surveys show public approval of “socialism” is rising fast, especially among Millennials. Go, Bernie, I suppose. And, yet…

A couple of yets. First, Bernie’s version of socialism seems to be more like European-style Democratic social democracy than any of the old-style forms of socialism, in which the government or workers own the means of production. Second, he has yet to flesh out a lot of the details of his version of socialism. Abstract ideas are often more popular than their detailed policies/programs version. (See “conservatism.”) Also, Bernie’s socialism has not yet been subjected to the white hot flame of full on news media scrutiny – or to the supernova of GOP attacks.

Finally, socialism is still a dirty word to most Americans, especially older ones that vote a lot.  Perhaps it even deserves to be or, at least, so many Americans’ objections to a large expansion of government need to be taken seriously by progressives.  (FYI, at the last debate Bernie repeatedly dodged the question of how much he would expand government)

Before any of this extended combat happens, I thought it might be a good time for us to explore what socialism could mean in the 21st century. Bernie’s isn’t the only possible version of socialism, to say the least. Europe alone has 2-3 different varieties of social democracy, not just the Scandinavian model. Asia has its own successful models of what today’s American conservatives would pan as “socialism” in Korea, Taiwan, and (gulp) China. Some socialists still believe that unless concentrated private power is abolished all versions of socialism are just window dressing (see link).

I’m hoping we have a good turnout on Monday, so I will not prepare any lengthy opening remarks. I’ll probably just briefly summarize Bernie’s vision of socialism and briefly compare it to other social democratic systems around the world.

Many of you are big Bernie fans. I urge you to read the links below to make sure you know what he actually stands for and how it differs from the socialism many of us remember from an earlier time.


  1. THEN: What did socialism used to mean?
  2. NOW: What models of social democracy exist around the world today? How “socialist” are they?
  3. BERNIE: What does he mean by socialism? How does it really differ from
    –>  The policy consensus within the Democratic Party?
    –>  Hillary’s platform?
  4. WHY has “socialism” gained popularity in America? What do you think people think it means?
  5. HOW do American conservatives define socialism and why do they despise it?
    –>  Do they have a point?
  6. FUTURE: What version of socialism in the 21st century could” à   Work to solve USA’s problems? à Be popular enough with the public to actually be enacted and endure?


Next Week: Is our country’s safety really in danger?


Monday’s Mtg: Do Neoconservatives Still Control GOP Foreign Policy?

I have long argued that there is no real “civil war” in the Republican Party, at least not over its domestic agenda. They are arguing mainly over tactics and leadership, not policy differences. This week’s meeting, though, is about the one major area where the GOP is truly divided: Foreign policy.

To some extent, this is a function of having no sitting president, since the president is so central to setting foreign policy. Yet, I think the Republicans truly are adrift on foreign affairs. It’s not just that their leaders are making more and more extreme statements on foreign affairs (Read the links below to get a sense of the bizarre statements their presidential candidates have repeatedly made at their debates.) It’s that, underneath this bumper sticker-level rhetoric, the GOP has not seemed to have settled on a doctrine or strategy on foreign affairs that could replace the neoconservatism of the Bush years. Neocons are fighting like Hell to reassert their influence in the GOP.  Rubio is one.  So is Jeb Bush.  I think now would be a good time for Civilized Conversation to try to figure out what the GOP stands for in foreign policy beyond condemning everything Obama has done and promising miraculous outcomes.

Neoconservatism, you’ll recall, began in the 1970s but really got its groove on as a product of conservative intellectuals rethinking the U.S. role in the world after the fall of the U.S.S.R. Its ranks included theorists like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Richard Perle; and some seasoned politicians like Cheney, Rumsfeld, and McCain. To simplify somewhat, neocons believed that post-Cold War it fell to the United States to dominate global affairs, especially militarily, and that the United States should use military force and the threat of it to prevent any other power from becoming strong enough to challenge U.S. dominance anywhere in the world. They also believed the USA should compel regime changes in “rogue states” like Iran, North Korea, and (especially!) Saddam’s Iraq. Finally, some of the younger neocons emphasized that future U.S. military interventions to achieve national security goals should try to birth democracies, or at least stable pro-Western governments.

After 9/11, the neocons’ big moment came.  Their philosophy quickly became the core of the Bush Doctrine of preventative war and the Global War on Terror. You know the rest of the story. Eight years later, Barack Obama was elected by a weary public to pick up the pieces. Obama’s foreign policies were a mix of more war and military force, diplomacy, and some retrenching/winding down of old wars. Obama’s results were mixed, too, as we have discussed on several occasions.

As for the Republicans, it’s hard to tell what they believe now.  Based just on their presidential candidates’ statements, it seems they believe that

  • every evil in the world is coming to kill us in our beds (led by an entire religion, Islam) and we should all be terrified;
  • It’s all because Obama’s weakness, cowardice, and/or secret sympathy with the enemy emboldened them; and
  • The GOP’s strategy is to kill every enemy as dead as possible (somehow), but without inconveniencing Americans too much.

That is why I wanted to have this meeting. There has to be something nuanced and sophisticated underneath all of that hyperbole, doesn’t there? This is the party of Eisenhower, George Bush Sr., and Bob Dole, after all.  Maybe there is more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than it appears at this weird moment in our political history.

I will start us off on Monday with…something. Since many progressives use “neocon” to mean “all conservative beliefs I hate,” maybe I’ll try to define the term’s different meanings to different people. I’ll also read the links on Rubio and the other prez candidates’ POV to see if I see any pattern other than hawkishness.


  1. HOW does foreign policy get made for a party that does not hold the presidency? Who makes it (Congress, interest groups, think tanks, Fox and talk radio) and how can we know what they believe when no one is in charge?
  2. NEOCONS: What were the neocons’ original core beliefs? Did they have merit, despite the Bush failures?
    ** Who are today’s neoconservatives? Has their thinking evolved?
  3. OTHERS: What other competing foreign policy factions exist in today’s GOP?
    ** Which presidential candidate is represents which competing POV?
    ** How popular is each alternative within the Party?
  4. THE BATTLE: What drives the GOP FP debate? Events and fear of attack? Belief that Obama has been weak/naïve? Suspicion of diplomacy? Xenophobia or fear of Islam? Partisanship and fear-mongering? Lack of experienced leadership?
  5. THE WAR: Which faction/POV will come out on top? Wither the neocons?
  6. DEMS: Is Hillary Clinton a bit neocon? Will this help or hurt her in the primary and/or general election?


Next Week:  Socialism’s meaning today.

Monday’s Mtg: Could American Democracy Unravel?

Okay, maybe I’m reaching on this one. When I google phrases like “is American democracy collapsing” I get either Socialist Workers Party-type left-wing screeds or Obama’s FEMA army is coming for your guns right-wing stuff. But, an avowed White supremacist con-man has been the leading candidate for president of one of our two major political parties for seven months. Our national legislature is as dysfunctional as at any time since Fort Sumter. The middle class keeps hollowing out. Something’s wrong.

But, can we say that the system failing us lately augurs something much worse, like a devolution into some kind of non-functioning failed state or – maybe worse – a softly-authoritarian super-state? Many countries have the forms of democracy without the substance. Are we really immune?

To me, our first step on Monday should be to explore what we think American democracy is supposed to be like when it’s functioning properly. How does it determine the public interest, mediate between conflicting demands on govt resources, and self-correct? We also have to avoid getting carried away. There’s no military coup in our future, almost certainly. Nor are we likely, IMO, to discard the basic outer forms of democracy, like elections and a free press. And, yes, every generation has worried U.S. democracy will fall apart unless it does what the complainer wants. We’re pretty resilient pessimists.

The thing is: Sometimes the pessimists have been right to worry. Our democratic system was bent and broke or nearly broke over slavery, Reconstruction, Robber Baron excesses, labor rights and violence, the Great Depression, and the fight over ending segregation, to name just the most obvious ones.  Today, people are worried over whether our democracy is flexible enough to handle a bunch of intersecting/interrelated problems:

  • Rising economic inequality and concentrated wealth with unlimited access to the political system.
  • A broken Republican Party.
  • An increasingly extreme GOP, bent on changing the electoral rules (voter suppression laws, weakening “1 person 1 vote,” completely deregulating campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, etc.) to lock in its advantages.
  • Polarized voters that live in different news/public affairs factual universes.
  • A growing dependence (conservative POV) on govt programs for peoples’ livelihood. In this theory, the addicted masses will just keep voting to make govt larger and larger until it becomes a tyranny of the majority that destroys the economy.
  • Growing racial and immigration tensions.
  • Creeping presidential power due to Obama’s contempt for democracy, or congressional paralysis, or legitimate anti-terrorism needs, or what have you.

Hmmm. I guess we need to dissect the question before we attempt an answer. I will list some of the IMO less-than-nutty worries about the health of American democracy in my brief opening remarks and then we can see where this goes.


  1. OUGHT: What is American democracy supposed to be like? Whose interest should it serve and how well does it adapt to new conditions and self-correct?
  2. IS: What has gone wrong recently that might be different from our usual political/social turmoil? Why? What’s the connection between democracy’s health and (a) a healthy economy, (b) social peace versus rapid change, (c) conflicts between elite and group and public interests, and (d) intermediating institutions (like the news media)?
  3. MIGHT BE: What does it mean to have the forms/institutions of democracy but not the function/actual democracy? Is USA immune?
  4. ARGUMENTS/EVIDENCE: Who really worries democracy is at risk? What specific evidence/arguments do they offer? Persuasive??
  5. HISTORY LESSON: How has U.S. politics righted the ship in past times of great doubt about our democracy?  (Depression, Robber Baron era, etc.)
  6. SIGNS TO LOOK FOR: If the pessimists are right, what signs should we look for? What does the GOP civil war augur?


Next Week:  Do neoconservatives still control GOP foreign policy?

Topic Idea Thread

On Saturday, 1/30, David, Linda, and James will pick new topics for 2016/Q1.  If you have any ideas please put them in comments.  Remember, politics, public affairs, philosophy, science, history, foreign policy, religion, or something else that’s fun to discuss.

Monday’s Mtg: Do We Need Universal National Service for Young Americans?

National service is an old idea that’s getting new life, including at some pretty high political levels. Requiring every young American to devote 1-2 years to a job helping their communities and their country was briefly considered after the military draft was ended in 1973. But, the idea never really got much traction, in large part because no one liked that it would be mandatory or could think of that many public service jobs to fill.

National service got new life in the 1990s. A 1994 law proudly signed by President Clinton created AmeriCorps. A small voluntary program, AmeriCorps finances and facilitates 75,000 public service jobs for young Americans. Other federal service programs. Like Teach for America, also were set up. Candidate Barack Obama made expanding national service opportunities a plank in his agenda in 2008. His Serve America Act authorized up to 250,000 jobs in AmeriCorps, but Congress refused to fund it. National service has been just one part of Obama’s ongoing – and little noticed – effort to resurrect the old-fashioned (and once-bipartisan) concept of citizenship. Emphasizing both the individual rights and mutual obligations of being an American is a theme he has returned to again and again throughout his presidency.

Now, Democratic presidential candidates hoping to succeed Obama have upped the ante, embracing expanded national service in one form or another. The most ambitious plan is Martin O’Malley’s, but Hillary Clinton wants to provide debt-free college education in exchange for national service. (Bernie Sanders has not matched these promises, specifically, but he surely favors federal support for full employment and public service jobs.) Just last month (12/15), Congress closed some of the funding gap for AmeriCorps and other national service programs, with some Republican support.

But, of course, most Conservatives HATE the idea of national service, even voluntary service. The GOP-controlled House of Representatives has tried repeatedly to abolish AmeriCorps and zero-out all national service funding. They argue that national service is potentially coercive of young people and that the programs add no value.

So, national service will be a campaign issue in 2016, especially if the GOP refuses to come up with any ideas for lowering college costs. I thought it would be useful for Civilized Conversation to go over the basics of the Dems’ national service proposals and pros and cons of the issue.

Discussion Questions –

  1. WHAT: What federal national service programs exist now? AmeriCorps, Teach for America, SeniorCorps, etc. What help do they give and for what kinds of jobs?
  2. HOW USFUL: How do we know whether these programs are worth their cosrs; i.e., that they add value without duplicating what’s already available to young people seeking service jobs?
  3. PROPOSALS: Who is proposing what kinds of expansions of national service? How would the programs work?
  4. PROS/CONS: Arguments for and against expanding the programs.
  5. POLITICS: Do people care enough about this to matter in 2016 election? Will it turn out young voters for the Democrats?


Next Week: Is American democracy at risk of unravelling?


Monday’s Mtg: Solutions to California’s Water Woes

Put down your umbrellas and let’s talk about our water shortage. As everybody knows, despite recent downpours California – and the western USA, and large parts of the world, for that matter – has a long term freshwater problem. Too much demand, too little supply, not enough conservation, perverse incentives, aging water infrastructure, and a special interest-captured water politics make the whole water issue a mess. It becomes a glorious mess when you add in water policy’s intersections with just about every other area of public policy, like agriculture policy, urbanization and land use, environment/energy, transportation, etc.

How can Civilized Conversation intelligently discuss such complicated stuff? I think it would be a useful start to identify the biggest moving parts of our policy and political Water World and how they fit together. I’ll try to do that really briefly in my little opening remarks on Monday. Nothing can change the fact that 100 million or so Americans in a dozen states live in a desert. But, the Southwest’s water policies are so screwed up there’s plenty of room for improvement.

Below are some “ABCs of our water problems” links. I also added a few articles on more specific issues, like the relationship between climate change and water, and global issues like water privatization. A lot of links, so maybe focus on my recommended ones.


Next Week: Do we need a universal national service program for young Americans?

Monday’s Mtg: Conservatives’ Religious Freedom of Conscience Movement and the Culture Wars

Happy Religious Freedom Day! January 16 commemorates the adoption in 1786 of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, a pioneering law protecting religious faith and practice. Since then, the contours of and limits to religious liberty in our country have, like all other constitutional rights, evolved.

Since the at least the 1960s, state laws often have allowed people to claim an exemption from some secular laws in some circumstances based on their personal religious objection. Conscience clauses are common in education (opt-outs for vaccinations and sex education), health care (refusing to participate in abortions), and in other areas.

I had us discuss this topic in 2013 because conservatives had begun a political campaign to expand the scope of what they term ‘religious freedom” laws into new areas, like marriage equality and LGBT rights. I timed our meeting to coincide with oral arguments in the Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby” Supreme Court case. In that case, the owners of a big craft chain store argued that their first amendment religious liberty included the right to disobey the Obamacare mandate to cover all effective forms of contraception in its employee health insurance plan.

A few months after we met, SCOTUS ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor. The Court’s reasoning was…innovative, to say the least. It said that the religious freedom of the companies’ owners extends through the corporate veil, all the way to the earned benefits of its employees. Hobby Lobby had the first amendment right, the Court said, to dictate which forms of contraception its health care plan would pay for, solely on the basis of its owners’ personal religious beliefs. Progressives immediately grew suspicious that SCOTUS had opened the door to new corporate abuses of power and/or new ways for conservatives to ignore law they didn’t like.

Don’t worry, said the Court. This ruling really is a narrow one. It applies only to “closely-held” companies and only to the specific forms of birth control that Hobby Lobby’s owners believed were immoral. If in the future other claimants tried to use this decision to make more outlandish religious claims – outlandish in the Court’s eyes, I guess – SCOTUS would not be receptive.

Well, guess what? In March 2016, SCOTUS will hear a new case in which a religious non-profit employer wants out of the Obamacare contraception mandate, too. The Court might use its ruling to open the religious conscience exemption door even wider – perhaps much wider. And it’s not just the Supreme Court. Since Hobby Lobby, congressional conservatives have introduced the First Amendment Defense Act and the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act, both designed to protect conscientious religious objectors to federal LGBT laws. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio cosponsored both these bills and Donald Trump just said he would sign the latter. On the state level, GOP-controlled governments have tried to enact similar laws.

You see my motive for this topic revisit. Maybe all of these efforts to expand religious conscience laws to protect lost culture war battles will fade away or be contained by ether the courts or public opinion. (Maybe some are even sensible – we shouldn’t dismiss the whole idea of expanding conscience clauses out of hand, IMO). But, I doubt it. I think conservatives’ conscience clause/ religious freedom movement is major a new frontier of our 21st century culture wars.

On Monday, I’ll open our meeting with a little more info on what conservatives have planned in this area and a bit of the reasoning supporters and opponents use.

Discussion Questions –

  1. What is a religious conscience clause and what is its moral and constitutional justification? Historically, what were their limits?
  2. How did (or, did) the Hobby Lobby ruling change the limits of religious conscience?
  3. How do conservatives want to expand this part of the law? Do their ideas have merit?
  4. Is DavidG wrong: Are conservatives not going to keep the pedal to the metal on this issue?
  5. Are there other ways to split the baby on these tough moral questions; e.g., more federalism, or defining the limits to religious exemptions in a single, federal law?


Next Week: Solutions to California’s Water Woes (yeah, yeah, it’s raining).

Monday’s Mtg: Is China Destined to be Our Adversary?

I love the smell of grand strategy topics during the holidays! I’m not sure why, but I’ve scheduled some big-think foreign policy topics for late December in recent years. (Arab Spring 2014, our post-War on Terror foreign policy 2013, religion’s effect on U.S. foreign policy 2011). But surprisingly, we haven’t discussed China as a separate topic in since 2011.

That’s kind of a bad oversight. I mean, for at least 20 years everybody has been saying the 21st century will be an Asian Century. They argue that we are in the early years of a big shift in the center of gravity of the world’s economic, political, diplomatic, and maybe even military power. As Asian countries grow even richer and more powerful, the U.S. and the West’s ability to shape global events, agreements, and governing institutions to our main benefit may fade away even more quickly. Most analysts I read say these fears are exaggerated and they doubt that even mighty China will ever actually eclipse the United States.

Yet, China’s rise is a reality and it will have to be accommodated, balanced, or contained, depending on one’s point of view. The big grand strategy-level worry re China arises out of what every World History 101 student should know: The world has a bad track record of peacefully accommodating rising, aggressive new powers. (Think Germany and Japan in the 20th century, or Holland in the 1600s.) Emerging powers tend to want to disrupt or abolish the existing international political order, while status quo powers fight to keep what they have. Will China’s rise be easier or turn out better? How can we help that come to pass?

I will open our meeting on Monday with some analytical framing of the main strategic questions concerning China, as I understand them. Then we can discuss the following questions and other issues.

Discussion Questions –

  1. TODAY: How does China rate today as a world power and why? What issues do we have with China? What have we done so far to manage China’s arrival as a global power?
  2. What are U.S. strategic interests in Asia? What matters to us the most?   Does China actually threaten vital American and/or global interests?
  3. TOMORROW: Will China’s power just keep growing indefinitely? What could prevent that?
  4. CHINA’S POV: What does China want in its international relations? Do they want the responsibility of global power or just its benefits?
  5. STRATEGIES: Should we accommodate China’s power, balance it, contain it, or what? How will “the system” have to be changed to accommodate China?


Next Week: Conservatives’ “religious conscience” movement and the culture wars.

Monday’s Mtg: How Does a Cult Differ From a Religion?

For your holiday consideration we have this interesting topic idea of Bruce’s.  At last week’s meeting on the Cold War we all got to talking about cults a little bit and it and I began to get a sense of how hard it is to sharply delineate cults from religious sects. In 10 minutes of discussion, I think I heard a half dozen or so different definitions of a religious cult, such as a sect that:

  • Changes or ads to Christian scripture. (Lace said this is many evangelicals’ definition of a cult);
  • is centered on a single charismatic leader rather than on ideas or theology;
  • enriches its leader(s) in a corrupt fashion;
  • has plenty of ideas, but bizarre ones;
  • isolates members from the broader society and shuns ex-members; and
  • Is itself shunned by the mainstream.

Sounds reasonable to me.  Except those characteristics helped to define many of our major faith traditions at one time or another.  Were they cults?  If so, what made them stop being cults?  If not, what is the difference between and IHOP, the one described in the last link, below?

This week’s links are pretty basic, a few definitions of a cult I found in the few minutes of research I had this Christmas week. Peruse them if you have a chance and I hope to see a good number of you on Monday.


Next Week: Is China destined to be our adversary?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.