This topic was Penny’s idea and it is not hard to see where it came from. As most of you know, in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections the loser of the popular vote won office because his (Bush 2000 and Trump 2016) votes were distributed in a way that filled the inside straight required by the antique Electoral College. That is, both men won bare majorities in a combination of states that, taken together, are where a majority of the electorate lives. No other democratic country selects its chief of state in such a way.
We have discussed anti-democratic features of U.S. political system several times before recently. In April 2017 we discussed undemocratic features of the Constitution, of which the Electoral College is merely one, and in November we debated whether the United States really legitimately can be called a democracy.
What’s left? I think this go around would be a good time to discuss two issues in particular.
- The National Popular Vote (NPV) initiative. This interstate compact would allow the Electoral College to be effectively bypassed, require no congressional or presidential approval, and be perfectly constitutional. And –
- Whether the undemocratic features of our entire political system (not just Constitution) have grown to favor a specific type of minority rule: That of a particular political party, the Republican Party.
For the EC/NPV discussion, we can go over the origins and purposes of the Electoral College, the pros and cons of keeping it, and the NPV and other solutions that would modify the Electoral College rather than abolish it altogether. I think progressives sometimes overstate the extent to which our political system puts its thumb on the scale for the GOP. Yet, there are reasons to be concerned, especially if the current Republican leadership can pull off a few more tricks, like further weakening voting rights and eliminating the last vestiges of campaign financing limits. YMMV.
I will start our meeting by explaining the basic pros and cons of the Electoral College and the NPV initiative.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The case against the Electoral College. Recommended, or see here for more.
- Why we even have it by a historian of the Constitution. Recommended.
- A conservative says abolish it.
- In defense of the Electoral College:
- National Popular Vote initiative:
- The Republicans’ current structural advantage in American politics. Recommended.
NEXT WEEK: Should children be raised with gender-neutral expectations?
If you can remember the decade you weren’t there. Wait, that’s the 1960s. Anyway, we did a meeting on the 1960s (pre-blog) and on the 1970s, too. They were pretty good ones, I thought, even though admittedly it is a little arbitrary to consider ten year periods as distinct epochs, especially ones with first and last years ending with zeros.
Still, most CivCon members were alive in the 1980s. Where were you? What do you recall as significant about the 80s? Did the events and trends you thought were important then still seem that way now? If you were not an adult in the 1980s, what did you learn about it and how? What’s the consensus on what came out of that decade?
Below are the usual ABC-level discussion questions, and links to timelines of events to refresh your memories and to some commentary on a few of the big things that happened or trended in the 80s. I will start Monday’s mtg with a “Where were you” question for the group and we can go from there.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Where were you? How did you experience the 1980s? How did the perch you viewed it from affect your perspective?
- Major events of the 1980s: USA + abroad? Which ones were foundational from today’s perspective and which were ephemeral?
- Major changes in U.S. culture and people’s lives, same questions?
- Looking backwards: How inevitable was what happened? What about the 1980s could (should?) have gone differently?
- 30 years from now? What might we infer from our 1980s vs. now assessment about how history develops and how well we can predict what things today will have lasting significance?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- CivCon mtgs: The 1970s. The Reagan Presidency.
- Timelines of the 1980s:
- Overall assessments of the 1980s:
- Special topics of importance:
- Reagan’s presidency:
NEXT WEEK: Is it hard to be a man these days?
How can we possibly predict what kind of president Donald Trump will be? He may not know. His inaugural address did prove one thing that no one should still have been doubting: Trump meant everything he said on the campaign trail. He wants to be a transformative president or at least to be seen as one. It was not performance art or reality TV. It was him all along.
Beyond that, though, divining his main priorities is tricky. Supposedly, VP Pence and others have a large list of specific to-dos for the President to accomplish on Day 1, by Day 100, and beyond. But, they are being very secretive about the details. Partly that’s to build the suspense and drama. But I think it’s mainly by design. In the next month expect to see a blitzkrieg of executive orders and legislation. The showy, popular ones will suck up all of the media attention and shield the many highly unpopular decisions from public scrutiny. (But not from Civilized Conversation’s scrutiny.)
Other factors conspire to make it even harder to guess what Trump really wants. He is such a bizarre character: Mercurial, narcissistic, quick to lie. He has no idea what government does or how it’s organized or functions. His Administration barely exists yet and the few appointments he has made add up to no coherent governing strategy. It’s tempting to look at how Trump will govern as an exercise in abnormal psychology.
But, that would be a big mistake, IMO. He’s the president now. He has (or will have) an entire Administration and a GOP Congress. I think if we look at the many available clues, we can get a pretty good idea of what the new president’s main policy priorities will be and what his governing style will look like. Possibilities include:
- Chaos: Trump keeps acting like he’s been acting and we have no president for all practical purposes. The congressional GOP runs the government.
- Conventional: Trump leads, but helps the Republican Congress implement almost its entire long-dreamt-of policy agenda. Trump takes the credit/blame. Despite the inaugural address, this is the odds-on favorite to me.
- Hyper-Nationalism / White Nationalism: Something brand new: Trump remakes the GOP in his image and pursues a true right-wing populist agenda. Some mix of genuine help for working people at home (except for internal “enemies”) and hyper-nationalism abroad (aimed at external – mainly Islamic and Chinese – enemies).
But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think talking about broad-brush priorities is a good place to start with any new administration, even this one. What does President Trump really want to accomplish, in terms of both policy and politics, and whose agenda will it be?
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Trump: During and since the campaign, what did he promise re a “vision” for America, for its government, and for himself as its leader?
- Congress: What are the GOP’s top priorities? Will they really pursue a radical downsizing of govt?
- Public: Which promises do Trump supporters most care about?
- Differences: How will big differences between 1, 2, 3 be resolved? Whose priorities will prevail?
- Personnel: Clues based on cabinet/sub-cabinet appointments.
- Personal: Trump’s authoritarian personality, impulsive nature, belief in his own genius? à Corrupt influences: The role in setting priorities of Trump family members, biz interests, cronies, Putin, etc.
- Top 5: Okay, what’s your guess on Trump Administration’s top priorities?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
What type of president will Trump be?-
- Three paths a Trump Administration could take. Recommended.
- Four leaders to model: Trump will be either Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Berlusconi, or (least likely), Mussolini. Recommended.
- The CEO President: Trump lets Pence handle most domestic policy and Flynn foreign policy.
- Government by gimmick?
Trump’s policy agenda –
- Plutocracy, not populism: Trump’s agenda = GOP’s agenda of upper-bracket tax cuts, deregulation, privatization. Recommended.
- Clues from the inaugural address:
- It had five major themes.
- It augurs radical change, if you know how to read between the lines.
- Clues from Trump’s nominees and advisors. Recommended.
- Clues from the campaign (long) and the new White House website (short).
- A list of the major things Trump might do in his first term.
- Foreign Policy: What is the right label?
NEXT WEEK: “Turkey – The Future or the End of Modern Islamism”
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?
Between now and next January a lot of retrospectives on the Obama Administration will be penned. I thought it would be helpful for us to get a head start on the debate, since Obama has achieved so much (for good or ill, YMMV) and since Hillary Clinton must run on his record and, if elected, govern with its consequences.
As we’ve discussed in meetings on other presidents (e.g., LBJ, Reagan, Clinton, Nixon, Wilson), it can take decades for a president’s true legacy to become fully visible. Even then, reputations are colored by the politics of whoever is doing the judging and wax and wane as new events shed new light on old decisions. I think our assessment of Obama has to be especially tentative because so much of what he accomplished has been incremental. At practically every juncture (health care, financial reform), Obama chose to achieve what he could, rather than go down in a blaze of ideological purity. Many of his accomplishments also were done via executive actions (immigration, civil rights enforcement), so they are easily reversible by a Republican president.
Still, when taken together, Obama’s eight years of incremental and contingent changes have added up to…a big f***ing deal, as VP Biden likes to say. No matter your political POV, the scale and breadth of the sum of those achievements are simply stunning. Obama entered office with a collapsing economy, two failing wars, and a political opposition dedicated to his destruction. Yet, he managed to affect major changes in almost every area of national government policy, including in
- heath care;
- energy, climate, and environmental policy;
- education (K-12 + college);
- financial market regulation and consumer protection;
- labor law and civil rights enforcement;
- criminal justice reform; and
- tax policy.
His foreign policy was not as, let’s say, action-packed and transformational as his immediate predecessor’s. But, Obama
- continued the struggle against Al Qaeda;
- wound down the Iraq and Afghan wars (and now shares responsibility for their aftermath);
- negotiated a global climate treaty, historic nuclear agreements with Iran and India, and several major trade agreements; and
- pivoted (kind of) U.S. foreign policy towards Asia.
Shocking disclosure: I’m a big fan.
So, are we just going to spend Monday evening listing our most (or least) favorite Obama accomplishment? No, I hope not. In my opening I will briefly remind us of some of, IMO, Obama’s most important but less well-known accomplishments, like in energy and climate actions, education, and civil rights enforcement. But, with Republicans are committed to what they have told their supporters for almost a decade: All of Obama’s policies are disasters and they will reverse as many of them as they can, as soon as they get the chance. So, my real idea behind this meeting is for us to explore this question:
- What is it that makes a president’s achievements endure rather than be reversed and forgotten?
Do the policies have to “work;” i.e., solve the problems they’re intended to solve? Must they be popular? When do future leaders feel free to roll back what a predecessors did and when do they feel constrained?
Anyway, enough rambling. I don’t have time to add a lot of links this week. But, here are some assessments of the Obama presidency and related matters. I’ll keep my opening remarks short, especially if we have a big crowd like last week’s 22 souls.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Lists of accomplishments –
- Obama is one of the most consequential presidents ever. Recommended
- He will be considered a great or near-great president. Recommended.
- Paul Krugman’s opinion on economic and a few other issues is here.
- Is Obama “the Left’s Reagan?”
- More mixed assessments: In general. On foreign policy especially.
Conservative POV –
- Because Obama is not a strategic thinker, his achievements are ephemeral and they will not last.
- He is a bad president, period.
Next Week: Are science and religion inherently in conflict?
As I sit here on Thursday night Donald Trump has just finished delivering his shocking, openly authoritarian victory speech at the Republican Party convention. I am beside myself. I have never been more frightened for my country. The Republican Party has destroyed itself and may destroy us all.
Trump’s speech (and entire campaign) is an audition to be America’s dictator. When he paints his terrifying portrait of a helpless and exploited United States preyed upon by criminals and foreigners, he is describing a nation near its final, apocalyptic collapse and arguing that only he can prevent it. “Law and order” is means one-man rule, Constitution and checks and balances be damned. Make no mistake.
So, what is a group called Civilized Conversation to do? Talk seems so pointless now, so strongly must we all fight to stop this monster and the political party he now speaks for. The election will be close – count on it. This man is guaranteed 45% or so of the national vote and the party he is molding in his image holds more legislative power than at any time since the mid-1920s. I think tonight’s speech is so well-written, passionately-delivered, and rousing that the entire GOP leadership will cave in now to his grotesque spell. For now, it’s Trump’s party, body and soul, an enraged, terrified White nationalist party.
But, hold on. The future isn’t written yet. Only with time will we learn whether Trumpism really is a movement or just a man. I think we can discuss in a civilized (-ish) fashion how the Republican Party is likely to evolve from here. The GOP’s future will depend on many things besides November’s outcome. Leadership. Organization. The corporate, evangelical, and other wings of the Party. Media. Events. Even how the Democratic Party comports itself!
On Monday I will give a brief introduction on what the future of the GOP might depend on. This will be future-focused. For “theories of Trumpism” I refer you to our meeting we had on him last November. It is going to be very hard to turn the Republican Party from this path, given Trump’s immense talent at fear-mongering and persuading a crowd that he has the easy solutions he promises. But, maybe it can be done, and maybe the GOP can be something other than what it has become.
(Oh, and we should also discuss the many ways in which Trump is NOT conservative. The man has shredded conservative orthodoxy on trade, foreign policy, immigration, and much else, and I’m not sure what that signifies and where the Party will go.)
Civilized conversation? Always. But, after that strong-man oration and the crowd’s adulatory response? Saving our civilization is a part of the discussion now, too.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Causes and Lessons of Trumpism –
- My opinion: By turning their own voters into suckers, conservative Media and politicians made them vulnerable to a scam artist. Recommended.
- [Update:] Conservative ideology’s three massive failures lead to this moment.
- Other causes of Trump.
- GOP voters don’t really care about conservatism values or policies. Recommended.
- Wrong. Rhetoric aside, Trump’s policies are conventionally conservative and he will implement most of the GOP agenda. Recommended
- The GOP establishment’s lack of ideas is to blame the most.
- Trumpism = ”socialism for Whites only.
Future of GOP and Trumpism:
- Update/A must read: What Trump wants the GOP to become.
- Will Trump go away if he loses? Recommended.
- If he loses big, will GOP learn anything or just lazily blame him and refuse to change?
- Who can change the Party from inside? My thoughts from 2013.
- GOP leaders face a single, impossible choice of their own making: Moderate and lose their angry base, or embrace Trumpism and lose the future. FYI, this was obvious long before Trump emerged. Must-reads.
- Conservative POV:
Next Week: The Democrats’ Turn – How far Left will the Party move?
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.?
The mind just reels. Donald Trump will be the 2016 GOP presidential nominee. . One analyst I read said this is the saddest moment in American politics since Nixon’s resignation. I think it’s surely the most shocking political development since JFK was killed. May you live in interesting times, I guess.
But it’s great timing for us! Certainly, it is too simplistic to chalk Trumpism up to GOP voter racism and nothing else, even though progressives will do it anyway. Yet, as calls proliferate to hold accountable the people, institutions, and processes that led us here, the role played by escalating White conservative racial identity and anxiety must feature prominently, IMO. And they must have been caused by something, too. Are deteriorating race relations the answer we’re looking for? If so, how did it happen and why?
I used the old term “race relations” because it conveys more than just the political expression of racial tensions. Race relations refers to the whole spectrum of ways that people of different races in a society resolve (or not) the tensions and conflicting interests that arise between them. Yes, the term often was used euphemistically, to avoid talking about plain old racism and to shovel responsibility for bad relations onto both “sides.” Still, I think it’s a useful bucket term for us in trying to figure out what fissures and fault lines brought us to this extraordinary moment.
Anyway, on Monday I imagine people will be anxious to talk about Trump. Love to oblige (see all the links). But, I also hope we can focus a bit on the broader topic of why racial tensions seem to be so high right now. Is it just a confluence of events, like police shootings and the Trump rhetoric, or is it a confluence of trends, too, like demographic changes and hard economic times?
To take it easy on everybody, I’ll limit my introduction on Monday to a brief description of the (1) possible reasons why U.S. race relations seem to have worsened lately, and (2) some major theories (some subtle, some not) of the role that racial anxiety has played in putting Donald Trump one-person away from the nuclear launch codes.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What do we mean by “race relations?” What fields are race relations played out on: Political, cultural, economic, etc.? Are any of them level; i.e., can we separate “race relations” from differences in “objective lived racial realities?”
- Perceptions: Regardless of reality, how do Americans view race relations? Agreements/Differences?
- Events: What big events may be straining race relations, like police killings and the Great Recession?
- Trends: Same for demographic/immigration and economic and cultural developments.
- Culprits: Who has been particularly unhelpful, besides Donald Trump?
- Now what?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Perception/public opinion:
- There’s a huge Black/White gap in economic well-being in the USA. Recommended.
- There’s only a small gap in racist viewpoints among White Democrats and White Republicans.
- But, some U.S. Whites believe they are racism’s worse victims.
- Trump and 2016:
- Trump himself is obsessed with racist conspiracy theories. .
- His supporters have fused racial anxiety and economic anxiety. Recommended. Or, maybe they mainly see his racial comments as proof he’s a fearless outsider and a disrupter.
- No. Trump’s supporters look to him to restore a racial hierarchy they think got inverted by the Great Recession. A crucial but debatable read.
- Conservative POV: The tables have turned somewhat. Being non-White now conveys many advantages.
- FYI: Old CivCon mtgs on race:
- 2014-15: Trump’s rise. Racial profiling and police shootings.
- 2012-13: What is racism, perceptions versus reality, and its role in our politics. Racism and mass incarceration. Racism as a motive for hating President Obama. Our increasingly race-based politics – nice links. Will we end up with all-White GOP and a largely non-White Democratic Party?
Next Week: Are there any universal religious principles?
April 13 was Thomas Jefferson’s 273rd birthday. I sent a card and signed all your names. On Monday, Jim Zimmerman, our historian, will be our guide as we discuss Jefferson’s life and legacy. In the past few years, Jefferson’s complex legacy has become fodder for a new generation of historians that hate the guy, love the guy, or condemn/claim various pieces of him.
Outside of the academy, both Right and Left have wrestled with Jefferson in recent years. Conservatives sometimes claim him as the founding father most opposed to centralized big government and as much more traditionally Christian than historians generally allow. Liberals struggle with the paradox of the towering polymath that authored the Declaration of Independence and founded the Democratic Party while keeping a plantation full of slaves, some of whom he raped (Sally Hemings) and few of which he even bothered to free in his will.
So, lots to chew on. I’ll be there on Monday. But, I will leave it to Jim to run the meeting and you all to discuss history through any lenses you wish to peer through. I think our discussion should be wide-ranging, like Jefferson’s intellect, his accomplishments, and his dark side.
Here are a few basic readings on Thomas Jefferson and commentaries on aspects of his legacy that have been in the news lately.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Basic info on Jefferson:
- Controversies of late:
- Today’s historians are furiously debating Jefferson. Recommended.
- Why both Right and Left claim a piece of him. Recommended.
Or audio! A 30-minute podcast on same.
- Wiki Sally Hemings entry.
- Party politics of late:
- Conservative POV: A long (20+pp) defense of Jefferson by historian Sean Wilentz. He’s reviewing a 1997 Ken Burns film on Jefferson.
- FYI, for fun: What liberties with history did the new Broadway musical “Hamilton” take?
Next Week: Causes of deteriorating U.S. race relations/politics