Category Archives: Politics

Monday’s Mtg: Do we really have a democracy?

Jim Z.’s topic is timely, for obvious reasons. But it’s also complicated and lends itself to different approaches.

First, we could discuss how much democracy this country has had in the past, given constitutional limits on majority rule and long-standing anti-democratic characteristics of American politics and culture. It might be helpful here first to explicitly identify which features make a democracy deep and lasting. Which of these does a democracy most depend on?

  • A constitutional foundation of rights, separation of powers, checks/balances, civilian control of the military, etc.?
  • Free and fair elections with universal suffrage and protections for voting rights? What about ease of voting?
  • Public faith in democracy and/or in government and/or a high level of public engagement in civic life?
  • Pluralism (multiple and competing organized interests)?
  • Strong democratic institutions, in government and outside of it (free press, political parties, so on)?
  • Limits on powerful private interests’ political power and on corruption and cronyism?

That’s a bunch of two-hour meetings right there, some of which we’ve done (undemocratic Constitutional features, voter ignorance, money in politics). Last year we even discussed whether U.S. democracy really could unravel.

A second approach for us would be to dive right in to the (in my opinion) large and growing threats to American democracy that have emerged in the last 20 years. Obviously, Donald Trump is embodies and leads the most obvious threats, his own presidency and political movement. But, there are others.

I believe that if we want to save our democracy, we have got to be honest about one particular elephant in the room: The Republican Party and its increasingly authoritarian nature. Their gutting of the Voting Rights Act and voter suppression laws/policies. The outright theft of a Supreme Court seat. Highly aggressive state-level gerrymandering to lock in electoral advantage. The welcoming of far right-wing news media and even White nationalists into the party. Legislative hostage-taking. Union-busting to “defund the Left.” And now, a deliberate, coordinated attack on the rue of law, including the FBI and DOJ.

To be fair and balanced (!) but also accurate, undemocratic forces may be emerging within progressivism, too. Examples: Antifa-type violence, intolerance of dissent on social media, etc. We could talk about the full range of partisan/ideological threats to democracy. Other, structural threats to U.S. democracy exist and might be worth discussing, too, especially runaway economic inequality and rural economic stagnation, rising xenophobia, and even foreign interference in our elections.

Finally and on a more philosophical note, we could challenge the implied premises of Jim’s question. Is a lack of democracy really a big problem in the United States? Would more of it really help solve our big problems? Does the Constitution straightjacket us from taking bold steps toward increasing majority-rule? And, does the public really want more control over a political system they all say they have no faith in and most of them care little and know even less about?

I will do a short intro on Monday and then focus my effort on making sure we address major avenues of inquiry in our discussion and on making sure everybody gets a chance to be heard. Jim, do you have anything you want to say to start us off?

A lot of links this week, since it’s a big topic. I think they all add value and don’t repeat much or rehash old issues. My suggestion: Focus on recommended ones.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

How Democratic is the USA –

Do we have too much democracy?

Threats to US democracy –

Solutions –

NEXT WEEK: Lessons of the Vietnam War, 50 years later.

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Monday’s Mtg: Is it hard to be a man these days?

This will be a fun one. Gale’s topic relates to both the political and the personal. The political, obviously includes that to man people Donald Trump personifies the most toxic form of masculinity. His Alpha male bravado and obsessive need to dominate everyone and everything. His personal history with the trophy wives and the boasting of sexual conquests (and assaults). The way Trump belittles the manhood of anybody that challenges him, unless they are women, in which case the insults are highly sexualized.

Of course, we can’t know precisely how much Trump’s macho act helped him win the presidency. He got 42% 46% of the female vote and there were other large forces at work. Still, I think it is really important to try to understand the role that politicized male grievance played in getting us to where we are now and how powerful a force it might remain going forward. Partisan news and social media make it easier than ever to organize the rage-filled, as the rise of the “men’s rights movement” described in the links below demonstrates.

Luckily – and to Gale’s relief I’m sure – this topic is much broader than politics and our Dear Leader. Maybe it really is hard to be a man these days. Consider:

  • The personal financial status of non-college educated men have all but collapsed in recent decades;
  • Family structures have evolved to be more egalitarian and less centered on men and their needs;
  • Men’s cultural status arguably has eroded, as popular media celebrates female empowerment and expects men to conform to a new and more egalitarian standard of manhood;
  • Many non-White men bear the additional burden of fearing encounters with law enforcement and immigration authorities.

Lots to chew on. On Monday I will briefly introduce our topic and then give Gale an opportunity to do the same.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Reality / Changes –

Standards –

Politics –

NEXT WEEK: North Korea – Now what?

Monday’s Mtg: Does Big Money really control U.S. politics?

That big money has too much control over our political system is one of the few political statements that almost all (85%-90%) Americans agree with. Most progressives I know think Big Money is pretty much the root of all evil in politics, or at least the largest single impediment to solving our national problems. Few conservatives I know go quite this far, but polls show a majority of conservatives and Republicans agree with the general proposition that regular people are priced out of the system.

We last discussed campaign finance reform in 2015, although we do related issues periodically, like corporations’ free speech rights in 2014. For this one, I thought we could sharpen our understanding of the (alleged) problem a bit. How did big money get to be the lifeblood of politics at almost all levels of government? What’s the evidence that Big Money really is our political system’s worst problem (as opposed to other factors, see below)? And, what might be done about big money’s dominance given the GOP’s almost total dominance of government these days and its almost complete opposition to any reforms progressives would support?

I will do some kind of informative, non-polemical opening to set the stage for discussion then open things up. Here are some readings and some more-detailed-than-usual discussion questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Big Money’s rise: Trends and amounts, who spends and on what and why do they do it?
  2. Regulations’ failures: Deregulation of campaign finance and lobbying rules. Citizens United et al. Rising economic inequality reinforcing political inequality. Over-regulation of economy led big biz to fight back? Recent state/local govts trying to reign money in.
  3. Harms: In elections vs in between elections. At which levels of govt? Visible vs. invisible harms. Crowding out the public interest vs. actively opposing it?
  4. Benefits: Are there any benefits to so much money in politics?
  5. Dogs that don’t bark: What things don’t happen due to big money’s influence that would or should happen?
  6. Other culprits: Ideological and partisan polarization, voter apathy/ignorance, changing news media/social media effects, candidate quality, etc. à Is big money really more important than all of these factors?
  7. Solutions: What fixes might be constitutional, possible given total GOP opposition at all levels, and effective?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – (many, some long – pick and choose)

NEXT WEEK: What is “fair trade?” Do we need it?

Monday’s Mtg: Are corporate monopolies damaging our economy?

What’s gone wrong with the U.S. economy? Outside of the horror of our national politics, this may be the central public issue of our time. This is true even though we have had almost eight straight years of economic growth, 4% unemployment, a 20,000 Dow, and record corporate profits.

Something just seems…broken. Wage growth is anemic and average real wages haven’t risen for 40 years. Economic inequality is at 1920s levels. Droves of Americans have dropped out of the labor force. Rural areas are especially stagnant. The gig economy and intelligent robot workers are coming. Americans are angry and anxiety-ridden.

We have talked about these structural problems of modern capitalism for many years in Civilized Conversation. Left and right tend to finger different culprits. But, as I have said before, experts focus their inquiries on these four broad causes:

  1. Technology – Technological advances have raised demand for highly-educated knowledge-based workers but not for anybody else.
  2. Globalization – Free trade and outsourcing expose more Americans to low-wage foreign industries.
  3. Immigration – Migrants depress wages, especially in labor-intensive sectors; and
  4. Government – Tax policy, regulation and/or deregulation, and lack of public investment have weakened the economy and benefitted only a sliver of Americans.

Monday’s meeting concerns a 5th possible perpetrator, one that is getting a lot of attention lately, even in the popular press: Corporate concentration and monopoly. There might even be some room for agreement among liberals and conservatives on the issue (although all national policy will remain frozen for the foreseeable Trumpian future).

But, the harm caused by monopoly power and how to combat it are tough issues. No one denies what we all see around us: Industry after industry has grown to be dominated by a handful of (3-5 or even fewer) gigantic companies. It’s true for health insurance, telecommunications, energy, mining, banking, social media platforms, even retail. Only a few industries are monopolies, dominated by a single company selling to the public. But, many are oligopolies (several firms dominate sales) or monopsonies (they dominate as buyers, of labor and supplies).

Yet, it is not clear exactly how much harm monopolistic concentration is doing to our economy. Experts even disagree on who is being harmed and how entrenched today’s monopolists are. I will go into more detail on Monday, but basically monopolies might be:

  • Extracting what economists call “rents” from the rest of us; i.e., profits in excess of what could be earned in a competitive market;
  • Raising consumer prices and limiting consumer choice;
  • Extracting wealth from their supply chains or employees via lower wages;
  • Depressing innovation and R&D;
  • Contributing to growing economic inequality; and
  • Buying off political power that could be used to stop them.

Here are some readings that purport to explain what’s going on. I’ve tried to note which ones are the easiest and hardest reads. Note the ones that argue growing monopoly power is NOT a big problem.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Re-thinking the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Monday’s Mtg: A New American Nationalism?

We picked a bad week to give up sniffing glue. I mean we chose a hard week to talk about American nationalism, given the fuhrer furor over President Trump’s responses to Charlottesville. Trump’s “new American nationalism” has finally been totally laid bare. It’s ethno-nationalism, pure and simple. It’s a largely symbolic one, too. As was bluntly pointed out today, he has no concrete plans on trade or infrastructure, nothing new on managing the economy, and nothing serious on national security. Bannon/Trump’s Economic Nationalism only works in the areas of (hmmm) immigration and civil rights. We’re deporting more illegal immigrants and changing sides at the Justice Department. It was a con.

Still, the empty content of Trump’s patriotism does not preclude the rise of a genuinely new American nationalism of another kind. Americans love their country and want it to succeed again, for them and their children. As we will discuss, other factors could be public weariness with global leadership, long-building fear of Islamist terrorism, economic inequality and stagnation that needs a culprit, or (mainly) White resentment of globalism and its attendant economic integration and cosmopolitanism.

I am game to try to discuss it all civilly if you are. I’ve been ill this week so I won’t have time to prepare anything. Here are a few optional background readings and the discussion questions I imagine us focusing on.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. American nationalism: How many kinds/flavors of U.S. nationalism it are there? What makes them wax and wane?
  2. Trump’s White nationalism:
    • What is it? How popular is it?
    • How differ from older forms of White supremacy, or same old thing?
    • Why did GOP elites – and voters – ride this tiger for so long? What will they do now?
    • Will Trump profoundly change U.S. nationalism, or be a blip?
  3. Another New Nationalism:
    • Is a more benign “New American Nationalism” emerging, too? What are its main elements (e.g., exhaustion w/global leadership, economic insecurity, anger at Lefty anti-nationalism)?
    • Why has this happened? Is it just a conservative thing?
    • Impacts good bad?
  4. Liberal nationalism:
    • What is the case for a progressive nationalism?
    • Why do many progressives hate all nationalisms? Good/bad thing? When is patriotism just chauvinism?
  5. Global resurgence: Why is nationalism surging in many countries? Effects/will it last?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What do today’s movies and TV say about us?

Monday’s Mtg: Can California Stop Trump?

Has the worm really turned on federalism? Can blue states successfully resist the ultra-conservative agenda emanating for Republican-controlled Washington?   A lot depends on California. In the words of one observer (see link below):

“California is the Trump administration’s most formidable adversary, not only on matters of immigration, but on damn near everything. No other entity—not the Democratic Party, not the tech industry, surely not the civil liberties lobby—has the will, the resources, and the power California brings to the fight. Others have the will, certainly, but not California’s clout.”

Yes, the GOP and Trump have been slow and incompetent at enacting their program. But it is still coming, and some of it will hit California hard (and is aimed specifically at us), including on climate and energy policy, immigration, health care, and even housing and transportation. A lot has already happened. Governor Jerry Brown, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, and others have been talking tough – and passing laws and filing lawsuits – on almost every conceivable front. This week’s links give some of the details.

How successful CA’s “resistance” to Trump/GOP will be in the long run will depend on all of the usual factors in federalism disputes: Law, legal strategies, and judges; public opinion; congressional priorities; media coverage and sympathies, and so forth. It also will depend on wild card factors of a kind that has become an exhausting staple of the Trump era: Things like the President’s volatile personality, congressional GOP foibles and schisms, and God knows what else.

On Monday, I will go over a few of the main policy battleground areas and talk a little bit about the shape of the legal and political terrain ahead. I’m not up to date on all the details in the news, but maybe some of you who focus more on state politics are.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What are the main Trump/GOP policies that will be aimed at CA and its interests? Which ones require new law v. merely regulatory changes?
  2. Which ones are top priorities for the GOP and/or Trump? What’s coming next?
  3. Pols: What has California done so far to oppose specific GOP/Trump actions? Other states? How is GOP trying to crush it?
  4. Points: Who’s winning so far? Who decides and (how) will the fight end?
  5. People: Do Californians support all of these actions? The broader U.S. public? Does public opinion really matter?
  6. Principles: Is federalism just a tool for hypocrites? What actual and enduring principles are at stake here and is anybody being consistent?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Is there a “New American Nationalism?”

Monday’s Mtg: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Criminal justice reform stays perpetually under the Media radar, but not CivCon’s. We have debated juvenile justice, the death penalty, mass incarceration, marijuana legalization, and other topics. This stuff can get complicated and it is not my area, so I usually like to tackle it one issue area at a time.

But, Linda had an interesting idea: Go back to first principles. What should our criminal justice system be trying to do? Is the goal punishment, vengeance, public safety, rehabilitation, or something else? Who sets those goals and how do we know which purposes are the priority?

The Trump Administration sure acts like it knows. And you’ll applaud if your idea of reform is to reverse Obama-era reforms that made the system a little less punitive. As promised, law and order is back. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expanded use of mandatory minimum sentences and local police departments’ asset forfeiture powers. He probably will refuse to enforce the many consent decrees that the Obama DOJ negotiated city-by-city to clean up systematic police mismanagement and abuses. There’s more, and more coming. See the links.

Liberal reforms still have momentum, however, because a fragile but bipartisan consensus has emerged at the state/local levels that the current mass incarceration-producing system needs a big rethink.  It is unsustainable financially, politically, and morally.  It probably has passed the point of net marginal benefit (to society, individuals) and it is no longer necessary as crime rates have dropped.

So, despite events in Washington, D.C., Linda’s question fits the times. Specifically, Linda asks whether the true purpose of America’s criminal justice system is:

  1. Punishment,
  2. Retribution, or
  3. Rehabilitation.

To those goals I might add:

4. Incapacitation (warehousing so they can’t commit more crimes),
5. Deterrence,
6. Restoration (reconciling with their victims and communities).

We also can debate more controversial notions about The System’s real intentions, such as whether it is a deliberate system of racial control and/or increasingly just a big stream of cash to be privatized for a profit motive. I have other theories that I will raise. This is a big topic.  But, how can we judge the need for criminal justice reform without knowing what the current system is trying to do?

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. In whose eyes? Who sets the purposes of justice? Legislatures/courts? Bureaucrats? The police? Experts? The public (which public)?
  2. Motives/Incentives: What motivates each of the above actors? Different interests/preferences or different biases?
  3. The System – Purposes: Which ones matter overall the most and how do you know this?
  • Punishment
  • Vengeance
  • Rehabilitation.
  • Incapacitation.
  • Deterrence.
  • The precautionary principle or the inertia of decision accretion. Important concepts!
  • Others: Racism, fear, profit, etc.
  • JUSTICE? What does that mean?

    4.  The System – Evolution: How have purposes evolved since 1980? Why?
5. Future: Which way will reform go? How can your preferred direction be realized?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING – 

Purposes

Trump’s Reforms –

Stuff you may not know –

NEXT WEEK: Is Africa’s future a bright one?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Rural v. Urban Our Worst Political Divide?

Since Donald Trump’s election, some observers have declared that a growing “urban versus rural” divide is our worst and most unbridgeable political conflict. Supposedly, a huge cultural, economic, and values gap between cattlemen and sheep-herders Americans in big cities and small town America lies at the root of our partisan warfare. Certainly, it’s well worth an evening’s discussion at Civilized Conversation.

But, let’s be accurate in what “rural v. urban” means and what people are divided about. Small-town voters did not elect Trump. (FYI, nor did White working class voters, ¾ of whom live near cities). He won two-thirds of rural votes, but, they are only 17% of the electorate, ergo not even 10% of his voters. Small-town, “heartland” America is nowhere near a majority of the country, even a silent one.

If we move the goalposts a bit, however, we start to get somewhere. As I will explain on Monday’s opening remarks, evidence is piling up a widening gap between Americans that live and work in (1) large and medium-sized cities and their close-in suburbs, and (2) those cities’ exurbs, small towns and true rural areas. This way of seeing blue/red as city/country doesn’t explain everything in our politics, nor does it fit easily on a bumper sticker. But it sheds a lot of light on some of the forces that are tearing us apart politically, I think.

This geography-based theory leaves a lot out to be sure, notably our racial and religiosity divides. But the poles of these other deep divisions in American society are starting to line up in either rural/small town or urban/cosmopolitan camp, so the metaphor still has value.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Terms: What is meant by rural and urban and country/city? Who are we talking about: How many people, who, where?
  2. Econ: Are there big differences in objective material circumstances between rural and urban America?
  3. Culture: What about culturally, especially family and religious values and comfort with diversity?
  4. Divide: How does all this translate into a partisan political divide? How do race, religion, and immigration get mapped onto it?
  5. Trump as cause and effect.
  6. What can be done?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?

Monday’s Mtg Part 2: What Does USA Stand For?

[Authored by Ali, this is our topic for Monday:]

“The US moral divide and How the US defines itself.”

I came up with this idea a few weeks ago when I listened to a TED talk (first link) about how to talk across the political lines by using terms and ideals that the other side can readily accept. This got thinking about how most of our political discussions today are useless because we don’t share a basic moral agreement about what the government and the nation as a whole morally stand for.

This, of course, a philosophical question but it has very real ramifications on the economy, the role of government, foreign policy, healthcare, and cultural themes.

Are we group of people who should aspire to be pure of heart and mind (maybe genes) and try to shut all other “pollutants”? Are we guardians of something? And what is that thing? The weak? Our way of life? Civilization? The survival of the species? Should our society try and imitate nature, and if so then is Nature competition or harmony?
Do we have a moral obligation toward others, and does those “others” include all humans, all living beings, all animals, the entire planet, just “our own people”?
Do we have a role in this world? Or are we just one of many nations and should mind our own business and people, or are we inherently wrong (We’re built upon invasion and slavery) and shouldn’t try to infect any other nation until we fix the problems that we have a home?

The subject might seem a little too overreaching, and I agree, but we should try and keep it about morality and its role in our personal and political choices.

https://www.ted.com/…/robb_willer_how_to_have_better_politi… (How to talk across the Moral divide_

https://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (What is scientifically speaking is the moral divide)

https://www.scientificamerican.com/…/how-science-explains-…/ (The moral divide and how it can affect the political conversation and discourse)

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…/morally-what-does-the-us-_b… (our moral standing in the world and how it’s changing)

Monday’s Mtg: What Should Americans Be Nostalgic For?

Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.

Who’s laughing now?  More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.

I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis.  But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities.  The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common.  It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days.  Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.

But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners.  It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it.  Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism.  I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones.  Maybe using these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
  2. Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
  3. What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
  4. Who and what do they blame?
  5. How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
  6. Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.