Can American Democracy Survive Trump?

June 13, 2017

Will democracy in America survive?

First remember that democracy matters. No human institutions are perfect but democracy makes it possible to remove officials without going to war. Democracy doesn’t mean anyone alone can make good things happen. Democracy reflects the collective power of people. Collectively, if the rules are followed that protect speakers, publishers, candidates and fair elections, democracy gives us the possibility – though nothing is certain – of throwing the bastards out. That’s important.

The survival of democracy depends on leaders, institutions, and the circumstances that bring out the best and worst in us. What chance do we have?

We should have been warned when Trump repeatedly expressed admiration for dictators in Russia, the Near East and Eastern Europe, when Trump invited an enemy to break into a candidate’s email and interfere in an American election, and suggested his supporters use their “Second Amendment rights” to put him into power. We should have been warned when Trump put people with strong ties to hostile powers at the top of his Administration and gave them access to American military and intelligence secrets. We should have been warned when Trump put an attorney hostile to justice in charge of the Justice Department and installed many military leaders in his government. We can’t rely on this casino mogul turned would-be strongman to preserve American democratic government.

It’s unclear whether our institutions will protect us. The Turkish military protected Turkish democracy for a century, but that tradition is now gone. Members of Trump’s party control both houses of Congress where their commitment to their party compromises their commitment to democracy. Congress seems unlikely to protect us. The Court is dominated by members of the President’s party and their treatment of the Constitution’s due process clauses has been more a threat to decent citizens than a limitation on the powers of would-be dictators.

The circumstances in which we find ourselves have ripped democracies apart across the globe. The concentration of wealth and power we have long seen and condemned abroad has become a reality here. The more that wealth and power are concentrated, the more that the wealthy and powerful circle their wagons to protect their ill-gotten gains against the rest of us, spewing nonsense about supposed trickle-down economics as if it were fact and counting on people’s gullibility. Concentration also makes people desperate, and desperation fuels the mirage of lies and makes too many of us complicit in our own subjugation.

Without reason to rely on the leaders, institutions, or circumstances, that leaves us. Can we square our shoulders and steady our minds to resist the steady babble of nonsense and not just listen to the words but watch what those in power are doing?

When you look at behavior instead of giving a pass to the mogul in the White House, you begin to notice that his actions belie his words. He has no sympathy for coal miners or others who have been shunted aside by changes in the economy but only to protect his friends’ wealth and power from us. Birnie put his finger on the problem and Trump now aggravates the concentration of wealth and power that are taking apart the lives we thought we’d built. So-called “free markets” protect the marketeers. So-called “trickle down economics” protect the concentrations from which the trickles are supposed to flow. And the flood of inconsistent tweets boggle the mind and conceal the reality.

Can we uncover the deceptions with strong minds and clear eyes while the casino mogul in the White House gambles our birthright.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 13, 2017.

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The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


Personality and Presidents

October 11, 2016

I walked by a group talking about the election and a young woman was saying she would never vote for Hillary because of her personality – I forget the word she used. So I stopped and asked her if that was the most important thing in a candidate. She responded “Yeah” like wasn’t it obvious and went on talking. I moved on shaking my head about her naiveté. This president is going to have to deal with Russia, China, the Muslim world, climate change, and her personality is the issue? The next president is going to have to be cool under pressure, not shoot wildly from the hip, and understand the stakes, the pressures, the possibilities and the limitations of what we can accomplish, and her personality is the issue?

I know some people want to feel like they could have a beer with the president. I think George Bush would have been great to sit down with over a beer. From all accounts I think he’s probably a really nice guy, and easy to get along with. But he was so unprepared to deal with foreign affairs that he made mistakes that will reverberate for decades, if not centuries. I want someone who is preoccupied with what he or she needs to know – which doesn’t tend to make good drinking conversations.

I’ve never met Clarence Thomas but the people I do know who know him tell me he is a really nice guy to be around – including, despite the Anita Hill affair, some of the women who have worked for him. But I think he has been a disaster as a member of the Supreme Court. I did meet Chief Justice Rehnquist, more than once. Sweet guy, at least toward me. But I’m convinced he led the Court in disastrous directions. I’ve also met Breyer. He’s much more often on my side, so Steve, please take care of yourself and stay on the Court. But as far as I’m concerned, if I sat down with Breyer it would be all about business. I didn’t like his apparent manner. I say apparent because what do gestures and expressions or tones of voice really mean about someone’s congeniality when you don’t really know them?

Culturally we often think people who look over their glasses are being haughty – but former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who wore reading glasses and generally looked over them when talking with me, was very helpful regarding things my office and I were trying to do on behalf of the disadvantaged, and in the process I learned to like him as much as I respected him, which was a lot.

I’m not sure I’d even want a president to take the time to have a beer with me. I’d want her to be focused on what she needs to know to manage any of the life and death problems that are on her desk. I know presidents do take time out to meet people and try to seem connected. But I don’t have the need to take their time. The most connected thing Obama has had to do is to grieve with the families that have lost loved ones, soldiers, children, spouses, and I know he has been as deeply affected by that experience as any president. He’s got more important things on his mind than chatting with me.

Lobby him? That’s not social; that’s business. Beer? That’s my problem, not hers. Personality? Give me a break.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 11, 2016.


Hilary

September 27, 2016

I’ve been traveling and so I’m playing catch up. But I was shocked at the reactions I heard to Hilary’s illness. I expected people to do what we do when most people get sick – wish her well and hope she can get over it quickly. What I heard was just grousing that she said she was fine.

What do you and I do when people ask how we are? “Fine how about you?” “Good, I’m fine too.” Got a cold? “Nah, I’m fine. How about you?” In America we’re taught to be tough and not complain. In fact, if I ask my students how they are, their most common answer is “Can’t complain.” I often joke back, asking what they’re doing in law school if they can’t complain. I once passed one of my best college profs and with the usual pleasantries, I asked him how he was. Prof. Babbitt leaned in toward me, with a smile on his face, and burst out “Terrible!” Then he straightened up laughing and walked on, leaving this college kid totally nonplussed. But I got the message. We’re taught to be strong; that’s the way Americans handle illness. And we admire that in others.

But people didn’t give Hilary the benefit of adhering to our standards of behavior. The woman tried to tough it out like we’re all taught to do but the press crucified her for it. Thank heavens I’m not running for president; I don’t need that nonsense. You’d of thought people would have the grace to wish her well instead of crucifying her for trying to put a strong face on an illness.

I hate to tell you folks but anyone can get sick, including presidents and candidates, whether they try to tough it out or play bluster about their health. We can argue ‘til kingdom come about what Hilary should have done. But what she did do was to behave the way we are all taught to do. How bad is that? As for me, I wish her well.

I also wish that people would give her the credit she deserves. She’s pretty obviously a very intelligent person, and had the benefit of a terrific education. She could have earned a mint as a lawyer. But she left her practice and devoted herself to public service. I respect her for that.

She was our senator here in New York and what I kept hearing was that she won a great deal of respect all over the state and in Congress because people quickly saw that she worked hard at the job, worked on the needs of the whole state, studied the problems, and worked with everyone she could to solve problems. She was our senator and she took that seriously. I respect her for that.

She’s also been criticized for the way she handled some of her husband’s mistakes. But we are all taught to forgive. Hilary did, and she was crucified for it. We used to be taught that marriage is permanent, for all time. Hilary stuck by her husband and got crucified for it.

It seems that there is no code of behavior that is good enough for Hilary. But I respect her as a person who is doing her best to work for me and for you. She ought to get a lot of credit for that.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Sept. 27, 2016.


The Bully in the Debate

September 20, 2016

People keep saying that Hilary will destroy Donald in debate. But I’m concerned. I’m bothered by the memory of one exchange between Bush and Gore in one of the presidential debates in 2000. When Gore confronted Bush with the math behind Bush’s tax proposals, Bush just responded by calling Gore’s figures “fuzzy math.” In fact, Gore’s numbers weren’t fuzzy – he had laid it right out for all to see. I concluded that Bush was trying to bully Gore and the American people by substituting insult for fact. But people reacted that Gore was a nerd and Bush would be nice to have a beer with. I think that was unfortunate largely because, as president, Bush took us into the war in Iraq with what I believe were disastrous results. This isn’t the place to refight the issues of the Bush presidency. The real problem is that Trump has never shown any dedication either to the facts or to policy detail and many Americans have shown an appetite for unsupported slogans and invective. So I’m concerned that he may try to bully Hilary in the debates and concerned about how Americans will react.

We’re not perfect and it’s clear that some of us like bullies. The big question is whether that’s just a few or a lot. We know that some people think it’s perfectly appropriate to win their disputes by brandishing their “Second Amendment” powers; that some still spank their wives and girlfriends and put them through hell so the almighty men can get what they want. We know that some people still behave as if rape is just the assertion of their own “authority,” and as if it’s perfectly appropriate to belittle women, gays, Blacks, browns, immigrants, or people who grew up in different religious traditions. Some still think it’s OK to get what they want by denying other people access to the vote, running them out of town, throwing Blacks and browns into prison, or shooting and killing young men out of fear for their skin color, scared that they meant ill by walking home. We have laws against schoolyard bullies but some adults act like them. Some people are bullies and some people like bullies.

Donald with his bullying jabs is clearly after their votes. He wants the votes of people who put others down like he does because of the color of their skin or put people down like he does because their parents brought them to America from somewhere else. He reminds people they might solve problems with their Second Amendment rights because he wants the votes of bullies who intimidate people with their Second Amendment rights.

The question that will be settled by the debates is not just how Trump will, or can, behave, but what proportion of us  are or admire bullies, what proportion of us are prepared to admire Trump supporters like leaders of the Ku Klux Klan because they appear strong, and what proportion of Americans respect careful, thoughtful and considerate behavior.

Make no mistake, this is a battle for the soul of America. Who stands for decency and who standards for hate, who stands for considerate behavior and who admires the bullies of this world?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 20, 2106.


Bernie and Ralph

May 24, 2016

Let’s talk about Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader. I have enormous respect for what both men have been trying to tell us. I also have enormous respect for Nader’s willingness to plow his earnings back into the effort to improve many aspects of life while he, Nader, lived on a shoestring.

Then came the 2000 election. Nader argued that there was no difference between the major parties so it didn’t matter which one won that election. On the economic issue he was close to right, although the 2008 meltdown should have made clear that there are important differences between Republicans and Democrats on handling the economy. On other issues, particularly the environment, and the War in Iraq, the parties were far apart. That election made an enormous difference.

And it almost killed Nader’s movement; it certainly killed his ability to be an effective advocate. The conversation after the 2000 election wasn’t about Nader’s message; it was about the damage Nader did.

Bernie has an important message, which he shares with people like Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, that the American economy is organized to take advantage of the vulnerable and deliver its benefits to those who have much more than they need. But if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, what happens to Bernie’s message will depend on how he treats Hillary. It will be important for his message that he works for her election – and that his supporters do. If he and they work for the ticket, then his message has staying power because it becomes a shared message, his people are welcome and they broaden their own power within the Party. But if they sit it out or vote for the other side, their only message is that they aren’t important, reliable or helpful. It will stir resentments that will block their appeal going forward.

Nurturing Bernie’s message requires looking beyond this election, making friends and alliances for future elections. The way to create a lasting movement is to build on good feelings and organize for challenging down ballot in future federal, state and local elections much like what conservatives did to the Republican Party. Winning the top spot is a defective balloon, useless without down ballot organization. Bernie’s people have a chance to push the whole party, not just the White House, to the left. That’s the big prize. It doesn’t mean Bernie lost if he can’t catch Hillary; it means he and his supporters can do something much more powerful and sustainable.

Sitting back, or communicating that it’s my way or the highway infuriates the public. Republicans are learning the costs of that strategy, and even if Donnie wins, he may have no coattails or ability to govern. One of the crucial features of a democratic culture is the ability to be a good sport. Moderates usually win in the general election because that’s where the public is, so compromise must join principle in a successful strategy. Movements build over time. The best way to limit a movement’s prospects is to look like a sore loser.

I hope that message gets across to Bernie and his supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2016.


Hillary

September 22, 2015

We were delighted when Kermit Hall, a friend since the early 80s, became president of the University at Albany. A week before he died, we had breakfast with Kermit at the President’s house. So I went to the memorial service at the University with a heavy heart. There was a woman standing in the crowd I didn’t recognize. She was just standing around quietly. My ability to recognize faces is poor, good enough for most things but it often fails me. She eventually made her way to the makeshift outdoor stage that had been organized for the memorial. Once the memorial got under way, she was introduced – as Senator Clinton. I don’t remember her reading anything. What I heard was a warm, heartfelt eulogy of my friend, a eulogy that flowed easily from her, filled with memories of their work together to strengthen the University in New York.

I know Hillary has a heart. I know she is a warm person with strong feelings. And I do not care in the least whether she would want to have a drink with me. I don’t care whether a president is spontaneous or funny when you get to know them.

I admired FDR enormously, not because of his dog, but his good sense. Thank heavens that he knew German well enough to understand how dangerous Hitler was before anyone else in America. I admired his wife and regret the pain it caused her that some women were sufficiently devoted to do anything for the president, but in the scheme of things, I have no ill feelings toward FDR for it. What mattered most was that he put his energies into turning this country around in the middle of the Great Depression, and preparing this country for what he knew was the inevitable battle with Hitler. He was the man we needed and thank the Lord for him. To heck with who his drinking buddies were.

I don’t want Hillary to be spontaneous so I could imagine enjoying her company or she mine. I want her to be thoughtful. I don’t want her to take us into foolish wars on wild hunches, or to come out with whatever thoughts she has in the moment. We don’t need a president whose calculations are as bankrupt as some of the companies he ran into bankruptcy. A president needs the mental equipment to calculate carefully. And a candidate needs to position herself or himself to win, lest we find ourselves with one of the clowns on the other side who compete for the privilege of exercising their free speech in the most vicious ways, arguing we should deprive friends and neighbors of their citizenship, breaking up families, and throwing as many people as possible behind bars in a collective orgy of prejudice.  That may be spontaneous but it’s also small-minded and stupid.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long had my admiration and I support the message they have been taking to America. I want them to give Hillary cover to move leftward without losing the public in the process. But I think Democrats have been misevaluating Hillary. She has many of the qualities we need. She surprised many in both parties by just how good a senator she turned out to be. Democrats need to appreciate her toughness, experience and ability to navigate the challenges that confront presidents, not her ability to handle a stein of beer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 22, 2015.

 


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