The madness continues. Yesterday’s massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school was, depending on how you count, the USA’s 18th school shooting this year – and it’s February! – and its 280th or so since the massacre at Columbine in 1999. (Some estimates are lower.) About 150,000 American school children in 170 schools have experienced a school shooting during that time, estimates the Washington Post, and this excludes gun suicides and accidents.
At times like this, one purpose Civilized Conversation can serve is to just to be a place to vent a little. That’s okay. But, if we are to live up to our name, it should be constructive venting and, well, civilized. Maybe we should explore at least these three big questions:
- Why does American’s immense level of gun violence never get addressed as a problem that has anything to do with guns?
- Which particular types of gun violence are better addressed by the mental health, law enforcement, or education systems?
- Which gun restrictions likely would work, based on what is known now?
Answering the first question requires us to take a dark journey into the world of the small but highly influential anti-government gun fetishist subculture. These folks are but a minority of gun owners and all gun owners do not deserve to be lumped in with them in liberals’ minds. But, they rule the realm in gun politics. They are zealous and highly-organized, and the politicians that share their beliefs or fear them are the reason we never can have a serious debate over gun control. Read one of the first two recommended links if you don’t know about how these people differ from regular gun collectors and folks trying to protect against home intruders.
Questions #2 and #3 are hard ones, too, and debating them was my original idea behind this topic. These days most liberals stop thinking about gun control once they identify the worst villains in our current story (NRA, militia groups, right-wing GOP politicians, etc.) Since serious gun control is off the table we end up moaning about trigger locks and background checks and never seriously consider which kinds of restrictions on firearms might actually be more than marginally effective at chipping away at our gun crime problem – if the political will ever coalesces.
The answers are not straightforward. They depends on things like –
- Which gun-related problems (mass shootings, domestic violence-related, or violence associated with street crime) deserve to be our highest priority in general.
- Extent to which easy gun availability causes or aggravates those problems.
- What the existing evidence says about which (if any) new gun restrictions would do the most good.
- At what cost (including to 2nd amendment principles, which exist whether progressives like them or not.). and
- How on earth can NRA and similar opposition can be overcome.
Here is the usual long list of OPTIONAL background readings with the most useful ones highlighted. New topics for March – July will be available on Monday, too. (h/t Gale and Ken for helping select.)
A reminder: All points of view will be welcome at Civilized Conversation. Participants must be respected.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Political system obstacles –
- “Happiness is a worn gun.” Among the fetishists. Harpers 2010, 7pp.
- Americans’ anti-govt gun fantasy. Book excerpt in Slate, 2017, 12pp.
Recommended to read 1 of those 2.
- The NRA is morphing into an even more paranoid and purely-partisan far-right-wing group. Short.
- A list of restrictions on guns Republicans are busily dismantling.
- The real problem: A deep partisan divide on a wide range of intensely-felt cultural issues of which guns may be the worst. A must-read for our discussion.
What (if any) gun control might help?
- None; gun restrictions do not reduce crime. Direct rebuttal here.
- We must:
- Wrong. Only large-scale gun control would do any good, and USA must decide if we want it, says this conservative convert to gun control.
- Key: Keeping guns away from the mentally ill is hard. Recommended NYT.
NEXT WEEK: -gates and domes: Lessons from past presidential corruption.
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 –
- Terms: What is meant by rural and urban and country/city? Who are we talking about: How many people, who, where?
- Econ: Are there big differences in objective material circumstances between rural and urban America?
- Culture: What about culturally, especially family and religious values and comfort with diversity?
- Divide: How does all this translate into a partisan political divide? How do race, religion, and immigration get mapped onto it?
- Trump as cause and effect.
- What can be done?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- 2016 laid bare our city versus country problem (read one or both):
- Objections and subtleties:
- Rural areas aren’t doing badly economically; their perceptions of the economy are just more pessimistic.
- USA’s cities/small towns have always been more liberal/traditional, but tension is bad now and getting worse. Recommended.
- Rural America enjoys disproportionate political power. Key point!
- Who’s really out of touch?
- Trump/GOP and rural America:
- Democrats and rural America:
NEXT WEEK: What is the purpose of our criminal justice system?
[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_
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)
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?
My God. It can happen here. And now it has. Why will be debated for decades. How did Donald Trump easily win the Republican Party nomination for president and garner enough of the popular vote (48%) in the right combination of states to pull off an Electoral College victory against Hillary Clinton?
We’d better come up with an answer fast, because already we are seeing the normalization of Trump by political and Media elites. In a way, what else can they do? Trump is now the president-elect, chosen in a constitutionally-legitimate election. Yet, history will ask us how, in 2016, we elected the presidential candidate that ran on a platform of using governmental power to ethnically cleanse the country, jail his enemies, retaliate against the press, blackmail our allies, and literally wall us off from the rest of the world – and not the candidate that violated administrative procedures in her government email account.
Before it hardens into conventional wisdom that Donald Trump lies within the normal range of American political and Constitutional norms, I think we owe it to our children to ask who bears the most responsibility for all that is to come. To me, the comforting answer – “a mere 4% of the voters [compared to Obama’s 2012 performance] plus the antique Electoral College” – is inadequate.
We also must avoid other easy answers. In a razor close election, any single factor can be cited as being “the” reason for the outcome. If only 5,000 people in Ohio had voted for Nixon instead of Kennedy, or 600 in Florida for Gore, etc. I’m talking about something larger. What made 50+ million Americans desparate enough to take such a gamble on Trump, and to ignore his obvious odious unfitness for office? Below are some articles, some pre-election, some post, that takes stabs at explaining it.
I will open the meeting on Monday with a discussion of where, if anywhere, CivCon should go next. Then, on to greater horrors.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Theories of Trumpism, our meeting of one year ago.
- A conservative POV: Conservatism did not fail; our institutions did.
- Cause? The System and/or abuse of it:
- The Electoral College strikes again.
- A shocking weakness in American democracy has been revealed. Similar but distinct arguments: Constitution meets reckless authoritarianism. Both highly recommended.
- James Comey’s disgraceful conduct at the FBI, and/or GOP voter suppression in a handful of key states like WI, OH, and NC. Too easy, IMO.
- Cause? Racism and White backlash.
- Cause? Economic anxiety.
- Key IMO: Don’t think of it as either racism or economic anxiety. Think of it as complicated.
- Cause: The Media?
- Cause: Pure old authoritarianism?
Well, the Democrats seem united, and with a clear strategy, too. As you know, it’s pretty typical for a party’s presidential nominee to tack to the center after the convention. But, it seems the Dems really are going to try to take advantage of the GOP nominating a nut job for president by moving both leftward and rightward at the same time.
As everybody knows, Bernie Sanders’ surprising success resulted in a party platform that is farther to the left than it has been in living memory. As we’ll discuss on Monday, it’s generational changeover that are driving this bus. Millennials are very liberal (or just incoherent?), on both social and economic issues. The Republican Party has no idea how to appeal to young people and the Dems are trying to cement their loyalty for a generation.
But, the Dem convention made it crystal clear (in that showy and repetitive way party conventions do) that Hillary Clinton’s Democratic Party wants to expand the Obama coalition, not just replicate it. They are making a play to peel off college-educated White moderate voters from the GOP, a group that’s been loyal to the latter since roughly the Reagan era. If they can pull it off over a few back-to-back elections, the Democrats will have pulled off a rare, historic political realignment that could last decades.
Except…how can the Democrats go in both directions at once? Even if they do so successfully this electoral cycle, can it last? Can the Dems satisfy the growing progressive sentiments of Democratic voters and pick off the low hanging fruit of an increasingly extremist GOP without flying apart from the internal contradictions?
I suggest we grope for tentative answers to these questions the same basic way we did last week when we discussed the future of the Republican Party. In brief opening remarks, I will try to lay out how the basic building blocks of the Democratic Party are changing: Its leadership, institutions, and voting blocs. The “emerging Democratic majority” that was confidently predicted in a well-known 1999 book hasn’t actually emerged in a stable form. But, it might, helped along in the near-term by Trump and in the longer-term by other factors that created Trump (last week’s discussion) and within the Democratic Party (this week’s).
Obviously, the future is too contingent to predict with much confidence. But, I think we can have another great discussion like the one we had picking over the GOP’s bleached bones last week.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What does “progressive” mean right now? Policies: Econ + social issues? Rhetoric? Abstract beliefs like size/reach of govt? Inclusiveness? Exclusiveness?
–> Is Left/Right too simple a way to describe our politics, or at least many voters?
- How liberal are Dem right now, in terms of their (1) elected officials and (2) voters? Has the Party really been moving rapidly leftwards recently?
- If so (or if not), why? Leaders, institutions, voters, events?
- Is it permanent?
–> Will the forces moving Dems leftwards last? Will new trends emerge?
–> What about countervailing forces, including the GOP response?
–> If Dem coalition gets bigger, must it get more centrist?
- Ought: What do you think the Democrats should do (morally + strategically)?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Why the “emerging Democratic majority” coalition never happened.
- Demographics do NOT guarantee a new era of Dem dominance. Recommended.
Movement leftwards so far –
- On economics, both Obama and Dem electorate have moved left.
- Conservative POV: Really, really left on everything.
- Wrong. As this graph shows, Dem elected officials even in the House have moved only a little left since 1980. It is House Republicans that moved far to the right.
The future Democratic Party will be…
- More progressive:
- Too progressive: If Dems chase ideological purity like the GOP has. Recommended.
- Less progressive:
Next Week (Aug 8): Is Obamacare working? What comes next?
Everyone is talking about the return of populism to American politics in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing primary victory and Bernie Sanders’ near-miss. But, there is some sloppy use of the term, even in the elite media. Many commentators seem to say “populist” when they just mean “popular.” Many ignore important differences between left-wing and right-wing populisms and democratic versus authoritarian populisms. I find this to be a shocking dereliction of their duty.
Of course, populist appeals are not just those that work really well on regular people. The term has a specific meaning historically. In the words of one of the links, populism
…generally refers to a rhetorical style that seeks to mobilize “the people” as a social or political force. Populism can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism. Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.
The point is that populism defines The People and fingers The Guilty Elites. But, historically, left-wing and right-wing populisms in America do this very differently. (I think neither is inherently democratic or undemocratic, or at least I used to). Sanders and Trump continue this sharp difference. Both men and their movements have starkly divergent ideas about who are the oppressed people and who are their oppressors. And, despite some loose talk about their alleged substantive similarities, Bernie and the Beast have radically different ideas on what to do about it.
Now, the broader impact these two men and their revolutions (or “revolutions”) will have on our politics will be on Civilized Conversation’s radar for a long time. We will meet on the future of the Republican and Democratic parties right after their nominating conventions. July 25 = GOP, August 1 = Dems). But, I think the populist revival is not a flash in the pan in the USA or elsewhere, so I thought modern populism merited its own evening in our spotlight.
On Monday, I will open our meeting with some brief remarks on the differences between left-wing and right-wing populism in the United States and a (very!) quick summary of the major populist features of both Bernie and Trump. Then, we can have a wide-ranging discussion of whatever’s on your minds, including, I hope, the following tough questions.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What has populism meant, historically? Have American versions of populism had unique characteristics?
- What is the difference between populism and…
- Popularity (mass appeal) in a democracy?
- Right-wing versus left-wing populisms: How do they differ, specifically?
- Underlying world views?
- Who they appeal to (“us”) and target as the enemy (“them”)?
- Their solutions?
- Populism versus authoritarianism: When does populism expand democracy versus threaten it?
- Sanders and Trump: How populist are their
- How lasting will their “revolutions” be on GOP/Dems?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING – Lots, so pick and choose.
ABCs of American Populism:
- Brief history of U.S populism.
- Right-wing and left-wing populisms are different. Recommended
- Populist economic pressures in USA have been building for decades.
- It’s not just us: Authoritarian populism is on the rise worldwide.
- Sanders and Trump bringing European-Style populism to America, although both have uniquely American characteristics. Either recommended
- Wrong. Neither Trump nor Sanders are genuine populists. Recommended.
Trump and Right Wing Populism’s Future:
- White Lives Matter is Trump’s unstated campaign slogan. Recommended
- Too simple. His appeal is to both racial and economic anxiety.
- Yeah, simple: Trump won because the Tea Party has always been about protecting older Whites’ govt benefits from being taken away and given to minorities. Recommended
- Conservative POVs:
Bernie and Left-Wing Populism’s Future:
- “Bernie Sanders and the New Populism.” Recommended.
- Can the Democrats win in long run with populist appeals?
- [Added on Saturday] Progressives should AVOID populism like the plague. It’s dangerous and antithetical to building civic engagement.
Next Week: Brexit – What if the U.K. votes on June 23 to leave the E.U.?
Okay, maybe I’m reaching on this one. When I google phrases like “is American democracy collapsing” I get either Socialist Workers Party-type left-wing screeds or Obama’s FEMA army is coming for your guns right-wing stuff. But, an avowed White supremacist con-man has been the leading candidate for president of one of our two major political parties for seven months. Our national legislature is as dysfunctional as at any time since Fort Sumter. The middle class keeps hollowing out. Something’s wrong.
But, can we say that the system failing us lately augurs something much worse, like a devolution into some kind of non-functioning failed state or – maybe worse – a softly-authoritarian super-state? Many countries have the forms of democracy without the substance. Are we really immune?
To me, our first step on Monday should be to explore what we think American democracy is supposed to be like when it’s functioning properly. How does it determine the public interest, mediate between conflicting demands on govt resources, and self-correct? We also have to avoid getting carried away. There’s no military coup in our future, almost certainly. Nor are we likely, IMO, to discard the basic outer forms of democracy, like elections and a free press. And, yes, every generation has worried U.S. democracy will fall apart unless it does what the complainer wants. We’re pretty resilient pessimists.
The thing is: Sometimes the pessimists have been right to worry. Our democratic system was bent and broke or nearly broke over slavery, Reconstruction, Robber Baron excesses, labor rights and violence, the Great Depression, and the fight over ending segregation, to name just the most obvious ones. Today, people are worried over whether our democracy is flexible enough to handle a bunch of intersecting/interrelated problems:
- Rising economic inequality and concentrated wealth with unlimited access to the political system.
- A broken Republican Party.
- An increasingly extreme GOP, bent on changing the electoral rules (voter suppression laws, weakening “1 person 1 vote,” completely deregulating campaign finance laws, gerrymandering, etc.) to lock in its advantages.
- Polarized voters that live in different news/public affairs factual universes.
- A growing dependence (conservative POV) on govt programs for peoples’ livelihood. In this theory, the addicted masses will just keep voting to make govt larger and larger until it becomes a tyranny of the majority that destroys the economy.
- Growing racial and immigration tensions.
- Creeping presidential power due to Obama’s contempt for democracy, or congressional paralysis, or legitimate anti-terrorism needs, or what have you.
Hmmm. I guess we need to dissect the question before we attempt an answer. I will list some of the IMO less-than-nutty worries about the health of American democracy in my brief opening remarks and then we can see where this goes.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- OUGHT: What is American democracy supposed to be like? Whose interest should it serve and how well does it adapt to new conditions and self-correct?
- IS: What has gone wrong recently that might be different from our usual political/social turmoil? Why? What’s the connection between democracy’s health and (a) a healthy economy, (b) social peace versus rapid change, (c) conflicts between elite and group and public interests, and (d) intermediating institutions (like the news media)?
- MIGHT BE: What does it mean to have the forms/institutions of democracy but not the function/actual democracy? Is USA immune?
- ARGUMENTS/EVIDENCE: Who really worries democracy is at risk? What specific evidence/arguments do they offer? Persuasive??
- HISTORY LESSON: How has U.S. politics righted the ship in past times of great doubt about our democracy? (Depression, Robber Baron era, etc.)
- SIGNS TO LOOK FOR: If the pessimists are right, what signs should we look for? What does the GOP civil war augur?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- CivCon has debated important failings of our political system often, such as: Can our political system still solve problems (2/1/714); Who broke Congress (12/7/15); Why great nations fail and could we (4/8/13); What could force the GOP to moderate (1/28/13 before Trump); Are so many Americas dependent on govt it threatens republican democracy (3/3/14)?
- A few of the better links from those meetings:
- The Constitution makes U.S. political paralysis easy.
- The GOP;
- No. Elites in general have failed us. Could be.
- No. The voters are the real extremists.
- Some new material:
Next Week: Do neoconservatives still control GOP foreign policy?