Monday’s Mtg: Is U.S. global leadership slipping away?

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 –

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. Reaction: Will Congress, the bureaucracy, and the public support Trump’s ideas? How will the world react: Allies + adversaries?
  4. 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 –

Its Consequences –

Alternatives beyond the status quo ante –

NEXT WEEK: Economism: The misuses of “pop economics.”

Monday’s Mtg: What is religion’s proper role in U.S. politics?

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 –

  1. 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?
  2. Partisans: How powerful and comparable are the religious Right and Left these days?
  3. Politicians & Policies: How big a role does religion play in politicians’ decision-making and policymaking?
  4. Issues: What are big current issues re
    1. Free exercise / religious liberty?
    2. Govt establishment of / support for religion?
    3. Discrimination against, for, or by religious Americans?
    4. Specific policy areas; e.g., repro rights, health care, immigration, education, foreign policy?
  5. Future: Will religion’s role in our politics decline or increase? Why/so what?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

The Public, religion, and politics –

Religious Right and Left movements –

Trump and hot issues –

NEXT WEEK: Is U.S. global leadership collapsing?

Monday’s Mtg: Should Democrats Cooperate With or Resist Trump?

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 –

  1. Trump:
    1. Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
    2. Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
    3. Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
  2. GOP:
    1. Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
    2. What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
  3. Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
  4. Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
  5. 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?

Resistance –

Republican/conservative POVs –

NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?

Monday’s Mtg: What is going right in the United States these days?

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 –

  1. Be ready to name at least one thing that’s going right in America today.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING (hard to find – a bad sign??) –

NEXT WEEK: Should Democrats cooperate or resist Trump and the GOP?

Monday’s Mtg: Have Elites Failed Us?

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 –

  1. Who are America’s elites? Are there multiple elites with different interests and power sources, such as…
    1. Economic class versus social/cultural elites.
    2. Racial and ethnic elites?
    3. Educated and regional/cosmopolitan elites.
  2. Do our elites perpetuate power unfairly, or are they a meritocracy?
  3. Why is everybody so mad at elites? Do Americans agree on who to be mad at and why?
  4. Are elites indeed responsible for the mess we are in? Why?
  5. Is Trump just scapegoating? What should/could be done to reduce the power of American elites?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

 

NEXT WEEK: A change of pace – What’s going right in the USA these days?

Monday’s Mtg: Is Turkey the Future or the End of Moderate Islamism?

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.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. 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?
  2. Islamism – What is Islamism, anyway? What separates moderate Islamists from the radical/revolutionary and/or violent ones?
  3. Lessons: What should the West learn from Turkey’s failure re:
    1. Whether Islamist movements can be trusted to accept democracy?
    2. How badly past/present Arab dictators (Mubarak, Assad, Saddam, Kaddafi, etc.) screwed up their countries and make democracy so hard?
    3. The future of the region?
  4. 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 –  

Turkey –  

Islamism and liberal democracy –

USA Policies –

NEXT WEEK: Have America’s Elites Failed Us?

Monday’s Mtg: What Will Be President Trump’s Priorities?

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:

  1. Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 –

  1. Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
  2. Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
  3. Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
  4. Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
  5. Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
  6. 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.
  7. Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What type of president will Trump be?-

Trump’s policy agenda –

NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”

New Topics Are Ready

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.

Monday”s Mtg: How Important Is White Male Privilege?

Calling out people for being clueless about privilege – usually their White, male privilege – is common these days. Doing so often provokes puzzlement and/or an angry if not furious response, which leads to a frustrated counter-response. Dialogue, much less actually learning something about oneself or society, becomes impossible.

But, understanding what is and is not meant by “check your privilege” is important, whether or not you think there is much to it.  Arguably, disagreement about who is privileged today and who has a right to feel aggrieved was one of the biggest factors in Donald Trump’s shocking from reality TV star to the President-elect. Based on my reading and personal experience, I think that Trump’s election was, well, personal to White American men in a way no other election result in my lifetime has been. A lot of people are saying that this man became president out of nowhere represents either a –

  • Restoration of a White, male-dominated social order, or an
  • Angry reaction to the false accusations of racism and of White, male privilege.

Tough stuff. Aaron L. suggested that Civilized Conversation might be one of the few venues in which people could discuss this awkward topic in a reasonably productive way. Certainly, we can try.

I think the key to civility on this topic is understanding what the assertion of White privilege (and gender privilege) means and what it does not mean. The articles below, especially the first two, explain the term. Spoiler and key point: Crying “privilege” is not an accusation of racist intent or of a personal failing of character. It’s an observation about one’s relative place in a social order, and the advantages (big and small, lifelong and day-to-day) that some people have because of it and others don’t have.

My idea for our meeting is ambitious. I hope we can explore what White, male, privilege means to people that use the term, and what it means to people that feel so offended by its use. We also can get into the actual evidence that White male privilege still is a potent force in our society and the implications for public policy and personal behavior.

We should have a new topic list of Feb – May to hand out on Monday, thanks to Rich and Aaron (The Elder, not Aaron L., Son of Bruce) . It will be Trumptastic.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

What is “White male privilege?”

Evidence and Rebuttals –

Trump and White male privilege –

NEXT WEEK:   President Trump’s Priorities.

Monday’s Mtg: The Elderly Prisoner Problem

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 –

  1. How big is this problem and what makes it a problem?
  2. What caused it? Whose “fault” is it? Was anybody thinking of this eventuality 30 or 20 or 10 years ago?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. CJ reform: Is there any hope for federal criminal justice reform now that Trump is president and the GOP controls USG?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  White male privilege – How real? How important?