Fascism fearfulness is everywhere these days. Serious people are worried that the sudden rise of right-wing authoritarian political movements all over the democratic West may be more than ephemeral. A new era of extremist politics may be emerging, including fascism. I thought we would consider this proposition in two meetings. We will focus on the global rise of fascism/authoritarianism at our May 1st meeting (on May Day – ha, ha.) Monday’s meeting is about the rise of illiberal right-wing authoritarianism in the United States.
Many observers think worries that something resembling fascism could take hold in America are overblown. The public’s commitment to a democratic ethos is too strong. Our Constitutional system distributes power (checks and balances, civilian control of the military, and federalism) too widely, and civil society institutions are too resilient. It can’t happen here, they say, even with an authoritarian character like Donald Trump as president. Trump cannot destroy American democracy even if he wants to.
Maybe. Probably, even. But I look at the whole debate a little differently. I don’t see fascism is an all or nothing possibility. We don’t just have a choice of full-blown dictatorship or pluralistic liberal democracy. As we discussed last year regarding Russia’s crypto-fascist lurch, authoritarian systems and even fascisms vary widely in form and degree. Fascism takes on the characteristics of each country it infests: Anti-Semitic and revanchist in Germany, highly religious and anti-modern in Spain, kleptocratic and anti-Western in Russia.
Moreover, a descent into a more than we dreamed possible degree of authoritarianism doesn’t have to happen overnight, or due to one president’s election. Consider these (albeit debatable) points.
- U.S. politics has always had authoritarian tendencies – and moments. We had 100 years of Jim Crow, brutal wartime crackdowns on dissent (like in WWI), state violence against striking workers, and Red Scares. Not fascism for everyone, certainly, but authoritarianism for some.
- Large majorities of Americans express no confidence at all in the government or in conventional politics. President Trump was contemptuous of liberal democracy on the campaign trail and all but campaigned as a wannabe strongman. He got 46% of the vote and he’s president for the next four years.
- A true far right-wing movement (“Alt-Right”) may become a permanent, influential wing of the GOP. To me, this is not a big stretch. I have long argued that the entire Republican Party has grown increasingly authoritarian over the last 10-20 years.
- The middle class may further hollow out in the next decade or two, for reasons we have discussed before. If this happens, non-college educated Americans outside of the major cities will be hardest hit. They voted for Trump.
- Fascism feeds off of emergencies and war. Think of our response to 9/11. How do you think Trump and his top advisors would react to a major terrorist attack or war threat?
So, yes, American democracy is very resilient. But it has failed us before, at least temporarily. Trump may be either too ideologically mushy or incompetent to be our Mussolini. (Or, I could just be all wrong about him.) But, could he and the people who support him move the USA quite a distance along the continuum of authoritarianism?
It’s all worth discussing on a Monday, I think. I will have a brief opening that leaves us plenty of time for Civilized Conversation.
(A note on links: A million of them, so pick and choose. Except for link #1 and some Krugman I tried to find ones you are unlikely to have encountered.)
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Fascism and Trump –
- Is Trump a fascist?
- No, Trump is not a fascist, for many reasons and the label is not useful. Recommended. (h/t Rafael)
- Regardless, Trump will never be a dictator and fascism will never triumph in America.
Is U.S. democracy really at risk?
- Democratic institutions have stood up to Trump pretty well so far. Recommended.
It’s not just about one man’s character –
- The rise of American authoritarianism.
- It’s the culmination of the GOP fanning extremism for 20 years. The Republicans’ age of authoritarianism has just begun. I link you decide.
- Forget fascism, it’s anarchy we have to fear.
- Ultimately, our democracy’s survival depends on how strong our institutions really are. (Long and wonkish but great)
Conservative Voices –
- From a pro-Trump (Alt-Right?) website.
- Liberals are the real fascists. Worth knowing. (Fun rebuttal here)
- Ron Paul: Fascism is a bipartisan affliction.
NEXT WEEK: Is the Constitution too democratic or not democratic enough?
Happy Passover! Monday’s Jewish holiday seems like a good night to pose Aaron’s topic question: What does it mean to be Jewish today? Aaron said that he wanted us to consider in particular how the two most dramatic and disruptive events of the 20th century changed Judaism and Jewish identity.
Of course, sharing historical events – no matter how harrowing or horrible – is not the only shaper of a people’s identity. We also could discuss what modern Judaism “is.” Is Jewishness a religion? In some ways no. As one of the links explains, the idea that Judaism is a “religion” like Methodism or Lutheranism is a modern notion. To my father’s father, being a Jew was who he was. Judaism wasn’t just a sect to which he belonged. Plus, in America, less than one-half of Jews say they believe in God.
Are Jews a nationality or ethnicity? They have no common language nor geographic origin and most of them don’t live in Israel. Israel’s Rabbinate defines who is a Jew pretty narrowly, too, and for the moment (changing it has been proposed) Israel is not formally a “Jewish state.” Is Jewishness its own culture? American Jews do tend to share common moral and political values, but not a lot of day-to-day cultural practices. Maybe we’re a People, whatever that means.
As a half-Jew on my father’s side I’m not sure what being Jewish means, either. It’s a great discussion idea, especially since we have a few Jewish (or perhaps, “Jewish”) group regulars.
Below are some optional readings on Jewish identity. The first ones are some analyses of survey results, so at least we have some idea of what American Jews think about their Jewishness. I added some think pieces on Jewish identity including several focused on the role of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel in Jewish identity.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- How do American Jews define what it means to be Jewish? Recommended
- Differences re: identity between…
- Mavens ponder Jewishness:
- Some issues:
- Can you be Jewish and not believe in God?
- Non-Jews being “Jew-ish” is a thing. Oy!
- U.S. Jews have abandoned Israel. (Conservative POV).
- It’s time to move beyond defining Jewishness as Holocaust + love of Israel.
- [Update Saturday: Apropos also to next week, see this re the Middle Earth-like battle between anti-Semites and Jewish appointees in the chaotic Trump White House.]
NEXT WEEK: Is an American Fascism Possible?
We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group. Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones. (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.) We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.
Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too. But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.
Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.
I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Our 2011 meeting on how will future historians judge us and last year’s mtg on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy..
- Should we condemn our ancestors’ moral failures?
- The problem of “presentism.” Recommended.
- Useful perspectives:
- The past is so distant to us that it is hard to imagine what people were like – or should be expected to have been like. Fascinating.
- Ask yourself this: How might our descendants judge us? Recommended.
- Conservative POV: Howard Zinn and other leftists distort history to teach moral lessons, leading to bad history.
NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?
I timed this topic in the expectation that the Republican Congress would have completed Obamacare repeal and be nearing completion of its first budget, with yet more large tax and spending cuts. Like everybody else I overestimated their competence. President Trump just announced that repeal is dead and it’s time to move on to…more tax cuts (aka tax reform.) Since by law the first major step in preparing the FY2018 federal budget must be completed by April 1 and the FY2018 budget is not even close to finished yet, now would be a good time for both the GOP and CivCon to focus on taxes and spending.
Radically altering who bears the burden of paying for the American government has been the GOP’s raison d’etre for 20+ years. Obamacare repeal itself would have been a big tax cut on the wealthy and a big cut in subsidies for low-income Americans. It also would have opened up room in the budget for the really huge tax cuts they were planning as the real centerpiece of GOP governance. (I will explain how on Monday, or just see the link below.) I guess creating such room is wasn’t worth walking the plank of taking away millions of people’s health insurance.
Anyway, even without all of this drama, a number of considerations would complicate our discussion of tax fairness. There is more than one way of defining what’s equitable, for instance. Beyond fairness, Public Finance 101 says that a good public finance system should have other features, like be as “efficient” as possible (minimally distorting to the private economy). It should be sustainable and stable, simple,; and politically acceptable. Oh, and no discussion of the costs of government makes any sense if it ignores the benefits of government. As I have mentioned 8 million times, informed citizens must have a rough idea of what and who our taxes are spent on.
For links, I’ll try something a little different this week. This post will stay at the top of the website all week. It has the usual meeting discussion questions and a few short, useful introductory articles.
But, below it I will do 2-3 short posts. Each one will have one or two simple charts that illustrate something important about how high the tax burden is in the United States and who bears it. The idea is we need to know what is before we meet to debate what should be.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Tax level/burden: What is the level and distribution of the tax burden now? Federal v. state/local taxes. Which types of taxes (income, corporate, payroll, etc.) cost the most? Who pays which taxes?
- Spending: Biggest programs and who benefits? Biggest misconceptions?
- Loopholes like the mortgage interest deduction are equivalent to spending. How are these “reverse tax burdens” distributed?
- Fairness: Ways of defining it + how should it be defined?
- Short run: How and for whom does GOP plan to change tax burden?
- Long run: How should/will burden be shared?
- What changes to tax fairness would Americans accept?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Principles: The 5 principles of a good tax system = Equity, adequacy, simplicity, exportability, and neutrality. Very short and recommended.
- Public opinion on taxes/spending is plain nuts:
- ACA repeal: Why GOP must repeal Obamacare’s taxes to make room for future tax cuts.
NEXT WEEK: Which moral standards should we use for judging historical figures?
The chaos of the first 5 weeks of the Trump Administration’s foreign policy can’t continue indefinitely, can it?
It absolutely could, and for all the reasons people cite. Trump knows little about the world and nothing at all about U.S. foreign policy and he doesn’t seem inclined to learn. Key foreign affairs agencies like the State Department and the intelligence agencies are unstaffed and/or being marginalized. Trump keeps insulting foreign governments and contradicting long-established U.S. foreign policy positions. Then there’s the Russian influence scandal, his business conflicts of interest, etc. Oy.
Or, maybe this won’t happen. After a shakeout period we might end up with a more or less conventional and at least minimally stable conservative Republican foreign policy. For good or ill. I think Trump’s instincts on foreign affairs – a bellicose nationalism – are a lot closer to today’s “centrist” GOP foreign policy canon than a lot of people are willing to admit. But YMMV. Alternatively, maybe U.S. foreign policy is so strongly based on eternal and unchanging national interests (also for good or ill) that even Trump and his crew could not fundamentally alter it.
Still, I think it’s entirely appropriate to ask whether U.S. global leadership is at risk going forward, for two reasons. First, chaos aside Trump has proposed some real roll-the-dice policy stuff. I will go over some of his big ideas in my little opening presentation on Monday. Maybe U.S. foreign policy needed shaking up and/or a more nakedly self-interested and transactional approach. But these proposals are huge departures from 60 years of post-WWII consensus, and a lot of people are worried they could cause or accelerate a decline in U.S. influence.
Worse, some of Trump’s most trusted advisors and perhaps Trump himself may have a genuinely radical vision for America’s global role. Steve Bannon, in particular, has been described as seeking a kind of global alliance of far right-wing Western political parties and governments. Call it “White Internationalism” united to oppose our “true” enemies, like China and Islam. That’s not going to happen, of course. But even trying to bring it about could quickly pole-axe trust in American leadership.
Second, the global system and our position at the apex of it were deemed fragile long before Donald Trump decided he would look good as president. We have talked before about the possibility of declining U.S. global influence and whether the entire 60 year-old global liberal democratic order that is at risk. So, we have some good substance to cover. Trump has in some ways enunciated a coherent worldview, plus we can revisit the declinism debate in light of our new chief executive.
Here are the usual broad discussion questions and some background readings.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Decline? Was a less U.S.-centric world order emerging before Trump’s rise? Why?
–> Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
–> What should we have been doing to stop it or shape it?
- Trump: How does he see our international problems and what solutions did he promise?
–> What vision and theory of power are behind them?
–> How accurate and how radical is it? à How committed/flexible is he on this stuff?
- Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
- Results: What’s likely to be happen? Will transnational alliances/loyalties be remixed? Will global problems be neglected?
–> How will we know if U.S. leadership is less respected and our power reduced?
–> Any benefits to us from this?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Was global order at risk before Trump?
- Yep, it’s dying.
Trump’s foreign policy vision –
- A 19th century foreign policy. Recommended.
- One that’s allied with and identical to those of the European far right-wing. Recommended.
- An “Alpha Male foreign policy.”
- Or: A more realistic and pro-American foreign policy. Semi pro-Trump POV.
Its Consequences –
- It will end the American century. Recommended.
- “The Return of Self-help.” Other nations will have to rely more on themselves and each other. Recommended.
- Trump’s budget would gut funds that support U.S. soft power, making war more likely. (h/t Aaron)
- Will Trump blunder us into a major war?
Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –
- Rebuild Americans’ trust in foreign policy by making it work for them.
NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”
We haven’t done a meeting on religion in a while, so I thought a topic on religion’s role in politics would make for a nice, wide-ranging discussion. It also gives us a partial reprieve from the constant bombardment of Trump Administration news. (Partial because he is rolling out many policies that are favorites of the religious Right and that could alter the role of organized religion in politics in substantial ways.)
Obviously, for lots of reasons religion has always been very intimate with politics in the United States and is going to stay that way. Almost two-thirds of Americans say religion is either important or very important in their daily lives. By placing limits on any particular sect’s political power, the 1st Amendment arguably encourages healthy competition among religious POVs for political influence. Our high (until now!) immigration levels ensure religion stays popular and vibrant. Voters are going to keep rewarding politicians that affirm their piety and justify policies in religious terms, and people of faith will keep boldly organizing to see their values represented in politics.
Still, might this be changing in the 21st century? As you know secularism is on the rise, especially among young Americans. About one in five U.S. adults say religion is not important to them, a three-fold increase in just 20 years. Public support for explicitly faith-based politics/policies has been trending (very slowly) downward. The religious Right is not what it used to be, and the religious Left never seems to organize effectively.
On the other hand, religious conservatives are the foot soldiers of the Republican Party. They voted in droves for Donald Trump and are about to be rewarded handsomely for helping to put the GOP in complete control of the federal government and of 33 state governments. Trump’s outrages may be energizing religious progressives. They are especially outraged over his immigration policies and – maybe – they can unite to oppose the coming large cuts to the social safety net.
The following discussion questions are among the things we could discuss on Monday. I will start us off by summarizing the major changes Trump is making to appease the religious Right. Some are big deals. Then, we can debate any of my discussion questions or anything else related to the role religion does or should play in our political system.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Public: What role does religion play in forming Americans’ political beliefs and influencing their votes and political participation? à What role “should” it play? à Is religion’s influence over our politics waxing or waning?
- Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
- Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
- Issues: What are big current issues re
- Free exercise / religious liberty?
- Govt establishment of / support for religion?
- Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
- Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
- Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The Public, religion, and politics –
- The political leanings of major U.S. religious groups.
- Americans hear lots of political opinions from the pulpit. Recommended.
Religious Right and Left movements –
- Religious conservatives were being consistent in backing Trump! But backing him will kill off the religious Right. Recommended.
- No, the religious Right is here to stay.
- Can the religious Left lead a Democratic revival? Dems need them (long, Lefty).
Trump and hot issues –
- His planned executive order on religious freedom is celebrated by religious Right, hated by Dems. Recommended.
- Johnson Amendment: Repealing it same + it’s a huge deal. Recommended.
- In defense of religious liberty. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?
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?