Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.
Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.
For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?
Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.
Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead? How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?
My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
- Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
- Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
- Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
- What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
- Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
- Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
- Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Is there hope for Democrats?
- Yes, because Trump is so unpopular and can be made more unpopular.
- Yes, because 2020 is the election that really matters and Dems are likely to win it. Recommended
- Why did trump win? An honest assessment of Dems’ mistakes. Recommended.
- A basic, 10-step strategy. Recommended.
- Resisting autocracy:
- The 25th Amendment option, explained.
- GOP: How to resist the GOP agenda since fighting Trump is not enough.
- Maybe stop calling it a “resistance.”
Republican/conservative POVs –
- The GOP Congress should do what it was elected to do – without overreaching. Recommended.
- Democrats should oppose within normal limits but not “resist.” Opposition should be inclusive not further divide us.
NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?
We did this topic once before, way back in 2007, pre-website. I don’t exactly remember what we talked about. But, a decade later I am kind of at a loss. Yes, we have mostly recovered from the 2008 financial meltdown and Great Recession, and some social and economic trends are moving in the right direction no matter you’re your political affiliation is. But in other respects, God help us. We are sure to spend many a Monday night in the next few years talking about problem after problem.
Yet, I really think we need to appreciate the good news in our country, too. Millions of Americans appear to share our new president’s dark vision of “American carnage” besieged on all sides and a shell of its former greatness. But, millions more do not. A little optimism not only steels us for the fights ahead and reminds us of our country’s ability to bounce back. But, looking at the good – and understanding its limits – also might help us to understand our fellow Americans’ abject pessimism.
Where to look? To politics? Maybe a little, depending on your POV, of course. To the economy, with its low unemployment rate and (slowly) rising wages? Science and technology? Cultural changes? Crime and punishment? Education? Foreign relations? Religion? The younger generations? I will leave the choice up to you in discussion.
I’ll just open with some jokes (funny, I swear). Then, how about this for a change of pace:
YOUR HOMEWORK –
- Be ready to name at least one thing that’s going right in America today.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING (hard to find – a bad sign??) –
- Relax. Long term, America is fine or at least is resilient. But we must fix our broken political system . Written before Trump, so oy vey.
- Americans are pretty safe and secure, all things considered.
- 2016 good news (!):
- Some “good news only” websites:
NEXT WEEK: Should Democrats cooperate or resist Trump and the GOP?
Several members of our Meetup group asked what I had in mind by “elites.” I deliberately left it undefined to make a point. Americans have some very different ways of defining the horrible, no good elite that everyone supposedly voted to overthrow. In fact, I think vast differences in the way we define our elites lay at the core of our political polarization even before we elected Donald Trump president.
Trump’s populism claims to be a call to arms to overthrow the “Washington establishment” and its collaborators here and abroad. As he said in his inaugural address (in between the talk of carnage and despair):
“For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. “
Trump’s parasitic elite seems to be our national governing elite, the establishment politicians and the permanent “deep state” that they command. His Hellish vision of a collapsing America sold out by its own elite is pretty stark, that’s for sure.
But, how specific is it, and how accurate? Who exactly are these quislings and what did they do, and to whom? Maybe history helps. When CivCon discussed modern American populism last June, I noted that populist movements everywhere share a basic characteristic. They identify some despicable, self-dealing elite that exploits the virtuous but powerless masses. The elite is not only privileged; it is unfairly privileged. The elite can be a real or imagined; Its victims all of “the people” or just a subset.
Moreover, Right and Left populist movements in U.S. history usually pick a different elite to resent and not quite the same “We, the people” to champion. Left-wing populism’s villain is concentrated private power, like the Robber Barons and their trusts or today’s giant corporations and the 1% that help them rig the game for plutocracy’s sake. Its victims are everybody else (well, except people of color, until recently), but especially the lower classes and the poor. In contrast, right-wing populism has tended to see a conspiracy of both the top and the bottom against the middle. Its corrupt overlords are government insiders helping an undeserving underclass and/or foreigners redistribute wealth and cultural prestige away from hard-working real Americans.
I’m not trying to dismiss this whole topic nor one side’s POV. Quite the contrary. I feel confident in saying that elites have failed the country, as do large majorities of Americans in poll after poll going back years. But, I am pretty knowledgeable about this stuff. I believe I can connect our country’s worst problems to specific failures by the people with all of the power and influence. I picked this topic so we can explore why just about everyone else thinks the same – even though they seem t disagree about who the elites are and what they are doing wrong and why.
We have plenty to talk about on Monday. Here are some discussion ideas and readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
- Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
- Racial and ethnic elites?
- Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
- Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
- Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
- Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
- Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- It happens: In many countries corrupt elites use “extractive institutions” to enrich/perpetuate themselves and immiserate everybody else.
- Liberal hatred of elites versus conservatives’ hatred of elitism. Recommended.
- Short: Economic inequality always leads to political inequality.
Long: Politicians deliberately created our “Robin Hood economy.”
- Conservative POV:
NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?
President Trump has all but declared war, at least a cold one, on Islam. So far, it’s just a rhetorical war, and the man’s actual foreign policy is harder to predict than his domestic policies, which was our focus last week.
Regardless of our constant obsession with every minor action and utterance of our new president…
[Update Sunday night – You all know I usually try to keep us from wandering too far for too long off-topic. But, how can we fixate on Turkish politics at a time like this, given the worldwide reaction to Trump’s EO on refugees? Let’s start with that before we get into our topic. BTW, this Administration’s immigration policies might all by themselves have some influence on the future of political Islam.]
…the rest of the world hasn’t gone away. Never has. Never will. About 40 of the 200 countries in the world are Muslim-majority nations. Many of them, especially the 22 Arab nations, are in the early stages of what promises to be a decades-long or centuries-long transition from authoritarian, one-party dictatorships to…well, to something else. Possible outcomes in these countries for the next few decades range from a painless move to liberal democracy (very unlikely, I’ve read) to a tragic region of failed states and all-against-all civil wars like Syria, Libya, and Iraq have endured (less likely, but nightmarish). Where in between they end up and how awful the road getting there will be are some of the most important questions of the 21st century.
That’s why I wanted us to discuss what’s going on in Turkey. Turkey? Well, as you may be aware since 2002 Turkey has been run by an “Islamist” political party known as the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. This 15 years is far longer than any other Islamist party has been allowed to rule anywhere else. Under its charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP won democratic elections a half-dozen times and survived a military coup attempt last July. Just a few years ago Turkey’s AKP was hailed as the world’s only successful model of a liberal Islamist political movement that accepted the rules and limits of democracy.
Boom. Splat. If you follow the news, you know this has all been blown up. Erdogan has steadily moved Turkey downhill towards authoritarianism and tyranny for a few years now. He has used the coup to finish off democracy, crushing the opposition parties, the military, and the courts that stood as the last major roadblocks to Turkey becoming just another Arab thugocracy.
Does Turkey’s downfall mean that hope for a moderate version of political Islam was an illusion all along? If so, many (albeit not all – e.g., India) of those 40 Muslim-majority countries may have to kiss democracy goodbye for a long, long time, since Islamism is far more publicly popular in these very conservative countries than liberalism is.
I’ve been reading a lot on this subject lately, including this book and this book and some journal articles. So, I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief description of what has been happening in Turkey and why it matters. Also, I will identify several of the major arguments we will be working with concerning whether moderate Islamism is/is not sustainable and is/isn’t compatible with democracy.
- Turkey – Why do recent events in Turkey matter? — A brief history of modern Turkey and its version of Islamism. — Why did people used to say the AKP was a model for moderate Islamism? — Why has Erdogan dismantled Turkish democracy and become a tyrant?
- Islamism – What is Islamism, anyway? What separates moderate Islamists from the radical/revolutionary and/or violent ones?
- Lessons: What should the West learn from Turkey’s failure re:
- Whether Islamist movements can be trusted to accept democracy?
- How badly past/present Arab dictators (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam, Kaddafi, etc.) screwed up their countries and make democracy so hard?
- The future of the region?
- USA: What can/should we do about any of this (Turkey, Syria, ME, etc.)? [Hint: Trump’s “take their oil” since “to victors belong the spoils” gets an F.]
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What’s happened and why: Short version Good.
- Better, deeper: Long version.
- More on the USA-based Gulen movement.
Islamism and liberal democracy –
- A short history of Islamism.
- Islam and democracy are incompatible for foreseeable future, but all is not lost. I loved his book.
- A Tunisian Islamist disagrees.
- The limits of the “Islamic” label. Fareed Zakaria.
- The Middle East’s worst problem in one map. You see the point.
USA Policies –
- We need to call out the zealots and support reformers in the Middle East. Conservative POV, kind of.
- Donald Trump resembles an authoritarian Middle Eastern leader.
NEXT WEEK: Have America’s Elites Failed Us?
How can we possibly predict what kind of president Donald Trump will be? He may not know. His inaugural address did prove one thing that no one should still have been doubting: Trump meant everything he said on the campaign trail. He wants to be a transformative president or at least to be seen as one. It was not performance art or reality TV. It was him all along.
Beyond that, though, divining his main priorities is tricky. Supposedly, VP Pence and others have a large list of specific to-dos for the President to accomplish on Day 1, by Day 100, and beyond. But, they are being very secretive about the details. Partly that’s to build the suspense and drama. But I think it’s mainly by design. In the next month expect to see a blitzkrieg of executive orders and legislation. The showy, popular ones will suck up all of the media attention and shield the many highly unpopular decisions from public scrutiny. (But not from Civilized Conversation’s scrutiny.)
Other factors conspire to make it even harder to guess what Trump really wants. He is such a bizarre character: Mercurial, narcissistic, quick to lie. He has no idea what government does or how it’s organized or functions. His Administration barely exists yet and the few appointments he has made add up to no coherent governing strategy. It’s tempting to look at how Trump will govern as an exercise in abnormal psychology.
But, that would be a big mistake, IMO. He’s the president now. He has (or will have) an entire Administration and a GOP Congress. I think if we look at the many available clues, we can get a pretty good idea of what the new president’s main policy priorities will be and what his governing style will look like. Possibilities include:
- Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
- Conventional: Trump leads, but helps the Republican Congress implement almost its entire long-dreamt-of policy agenda. Trump takes the credit/blame. Despite the inaugural address, this is the odds-on favorite to me.
- Hyper-Nationalism / White Nationalism: Something brand new: Trump remakes the GOP in his image and pursues a true right-wing populist agenda. Some mix of genuine help for working people at home (except for internal “enemies”) and hyper-nationalism abroad (aimed at external – mainly Islamic and Chinese – enemies).
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think talking about broad-brush priorities is a good place to start with any new administration, even this one. What does President Trump really want to accomplish, in terms of both policy and politics, and whose agenda will it be?
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
- Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
- Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
- Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
- Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
- Personal: Trump’s authoritarian personality, impulsive nature, belief in his own genius? à Corrupt influences: The role in setting priorities of Trump family members, biz interests, cronies, Putin, etc.
- Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
What type of president will Trump be?-
- Three paths a Trump Administration could take. Recommended.
- Four leaders to model: Trump will be either Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi, or (least likely), Mussolini. Recommended.
- The CEO President: Trump lets Pence handle most domestic policy and Flynn foreign policy.
- Government by gimmick?
Trump’s policy agenda –
- Plutocracy, not populism: Trump’s agenda = GOP’s agenda of upper-bracket tax cuts, deregulation, privatization. Recommended.
- Clues from the inaugural address:
- It had five major themes.
- It augurs radical change, if you know how to read between the lines.
- Clues from Trump’s nominees and advisors. Recommended.
- Clues from the campaign (long) and the new White House website (short).
- A list of the major things Trump might do in his first term.
- Foreign Policy: What is the right label?
NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”
Thanks to Aaron D. and Rich, we have three months worth of new topics. See here or the various sidebars: Civcon-schedule-2017-#1-feb-June
Hard copies available on Monday.
Linda, who’s a criminal defense attorney in private practice, suggested this topic. Since 1995, the number of U.S. prison inmates over age 55 has roughly quadrupled. They now comprise one-sixth of the entire U.S. prison population.
Why so many aging prisoners? One cause is the sheer size of violent crime wave that roiled the United States from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. Another is that the country is aging in general, including those that commit serious crimes. But most notoriously to blame are all of those harsh sentencing laws passed by state legislatures and Congress in response to the crime wave and the War on
Some People That Use Certain Drugs. Civilized Conversation has discussed both mandatory minimum sentences and racism in sentencing on separate occasions.
Having so many aging prisoners is a problem for a lot of reasons. As one of the links below says, older prisoners “require special attention in prison, as they often suffer from chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart failure, cognitive impairment, and liver disease, as well as age related disabilities. They are also more vulnerable to victimization in prison.” Just providing their health care costs a fortune. Many prisons have expensive geriatric wards. Nearly 80% of all deaths in prison are older (55+) prisoners.
Recently, the Obama Administration and some state governments – including California’s – have tried to devise programs to speed compassionate release for the least dangerous elderly prisoners whose further imprisonment makes little sense. This has proven harder than you might think, both administratively and politically. I imagine that the Trump Administration will end all federal efforts and that bipartisan criminal justice reform of any kind is dead. But, who knows?
Below are some rather duh-level discussion questions and a few straightforward readings on the elderly prisoner problem and on mass incarceration. On Monday I will skip my usual opening presentation, except to briefly summarize the issue for any new members that might not have read the background materials.
Linda, with her many years of experience as a defense attorney, will then have the floor.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- How big is this problem and what makes it a problem?
- What caused it? Whose “fault” is it? Was anybody thinking of this eventuality 30 or 20 or 10 years ago?
- Solutions: What’s being tried, including by the USG and in California?
How are those going? If not well, why, and what else should be done?
- Mass incarceration: Is the elderly prisoner problem another one of the consequences of America’s disastrous mass incarceration experiment? Or, is it a sad but inevitable consequence of our vast but in-the-past crime wave?
- CJ reform: Is there any hope for federal criminal justice reform now that Trump is president and the GOP controls USG?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- What caused our 20th century violent crime wave and why did it end? Recommended.
- [Late update] The huge affect lead poisoning from gasoline and paint played in the 1960s-1990 wave. Not a joke nor sloppy pop-science.
- Our huge aging prisoner crisis. Recommended best summary, but sorry for the annoying multiple automatic audio plays.
- The human costs are high everywhere. WashPost.
- But, and recommended: Releasing aging violent offenders is controversial even in California.
- Optional, very detailed studies:
- Our mass incarceration problem more broadly:
NEXT WEEK: White male privilege – How real? How important?
What better way to start the New Year than by debating an impossibly complicated question? How in the world could we judge the benefits and costs of the Global War on Terror (GWOT)? I still call it the GWOT because, even though President Obama mercifully retired the clunky phrase in 2013, it remains an apt description of the sheer scope and scale of our anti-terrorism efforts.
The easiest measure of anything government does is its budgetary costs. For the GWOT, even that is hard to gauge. That’s partly because some spending is secret but mainly because anti-terrorism is an embedded function throughout government at all levels now and it’s hard to separate out the anti-terrorism spending. Almost 1,300 government organizations and 2,000 private companies work on anti-terrorism. One estimate puts total GWOT spending since 9/11 at around $1.7 trillion and others put the long-term costs (inc. caring for the disabled vets) at more than $4T. Critics often express such monetary costs in terms of the opportunities foregone to have spent the money solving America’s other problems or leaving it in taxpayers’ hands.
There have been many, many other costs to fighting Islamist terrorism, of course. 5,000+ American dead and 50,000-100,000 wounded (excluding 9/11 casualties and the, ahem, 1 million or so foreign civilians.). Weakened civil liberties and creation of a vast surveillance state. Accrual of unilateral presidential power. A fearful electorate. Loss of respect for American leadership. There are many more, some serious, others perhaps not.
Yet, we cannot ignore the benefits of anti-terrorism efforts. Al Qaeda has been decimated over 15 years and (for the moment) largely is reduced to rooting for lone wolf attacks by extremist social media junkies. ISIS, AQ’s rival and wannabe successor is slowly being rolled back, although at great cost. Our government has prevented all but a handful of Islamist terrorist attacks planned on U.S. soil since 9/11. Anti-terror efforts also have yielded other benefits that are less visible, like a revamping of public health and emergency response/disaster relief infrastructure and greatly improved international intelligence-sharing and money laundering enforcement.
What’s the bottom line? Well, that is for us to discuss. But, a few points I will come back to during our discussion:
- There is a reason they call it “asymmetrical warfare.” The costs of defending against terrorist attacks are inevitably huge compared to the damage of any single attack.
- The damage attacks do goes far beyond their immediate casualties. The public grows fearful and vengeful. Politicians panic. Democracies get brittle and fragile. How much crazier would our politics be if other 9/11-scale attacks had succeeded or if we had Europe’s ISIS problem? In comparing costs to benefits of anti-terrorism, we have to look at the dogs that haven’t barked, too.
- The GWOT is far larger than the catastrophic Iraq war. How would you judge counter-terrorism had we not invade Iraq?
- President Trump will soon control our vast surveillance and counter-terrorism apparatus.
I’m still pondering ways to structure our meeting to accomplish more than just let us serially vent about our biggest war on terror pet peeves (Iraq, torture, NSA, not preventing ISIS’s rise, drones, etc.) Later this weekend I will try to do some discussion questions that might help us. Have a good New Year!
(AND, start thinking about topic ideas for 2017!)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The enemy: How terrorist groups and the threats they pose are evolving. Worth knowing.
- Spending too fight terrorism has been staggeringly high.
- Casualties: Ours, as compared to deaths/wounds in other US wars. [Plus 1m or so Iraqi and other foreign civilians.]
- The permanent war:
- Evaluations of GWOT:
- Short: It cost a lot, but do not call our efforts a failure. Recommended.
- Long RAND Corp. (20p pdf): We’ve done pretty well. Recommended
- Long US Army (17p pdf): No, the GWOT has not accomplished most of its objectives. Not
- Donald Trump will…
NEXT WEEK: The coming tidal wave of elderly prisoners.
Instead of a new introduction to this topic, I refer you to my framing from our meeting of several years ago on “does religion have to be conservative?”
We have had several other excellent discussions of the nature of religion and there were some good links. Here’s a list of those meetings, plus a few more optional readings. For many more fine articles that provide insights into the inherently conservative or liberal nature of specific religions, I refer you to the entire Internet.
Have a great Christmas, everyone and perhaps I’ll see you on Monday.
SUGGESTED BACGROUND READINGS –
- 2012 CivCon: Must Religion Be Conservative? Recommended.
- 1011 CivCon: What Is Liberal Christianity?
- 8 principles of progressive Christianity.
- How about eschewing labels like these altogether?
- Can the Christian Left become a real political force in America? Or, this shorter similar article. Either recommended.
- Cool chart: The political affiliation of all major US religious denominations.
- Conservative POV:
Next Week: Are we paying too high a price to combat terrorism?