The Dis-United States of America

By stancutler,

Inline image 1

Americans are more likely to define themselves by political party in 2017 than ever before, a trend that began in the mid-1990s. This trend is dangerous because it makes civil discourse more difficult as time passes. Alarming studies by the Pew Research Institute show American attitudes clustering around political party affiliation as never before. We are socially separating as Republicans and Democrats to an unprecedented degree. We find the “others” more different, more infuriating, more wrong, than ever before.

When populations divide along partisan lines, emotions are more easily triggered. Fewer people remain neutral and dispassionate when considering public matters. Where you stand politically becomes an element of your identity, the way you differentiate yourself from “those other people”, those human beings with whom you have ever less in common.

In 21st Century America, party affiliation tends to drive rhetoric down to matters of values and identity, things we take very personally, and away from the loftier realms of logic and reason. If differences of opinion are discounted as typically partisan, resentment is generated and we are driven farther apart.

There is so much disturbing about our current political environment. Underlying all of the incivility and nonsense that dominates the 24-hour news cycles, is our need to understand issues in binary ways, as contests. Even traditionally non-political news like mass-shootings and natural disasters are being presented through the lenses of partisanship. Where do you stand? Who are you as an American? Encouraged by these commercially-driven “realities”, Americans are increasingly separating as Republicans and Democrats.

This is not an issue of the political moment. Rather, it is a social trend already a generation in development. The Pew studies show that divergent attitudes on every issue are more likely to cluster around party affiliation than any other personal or demographic characteristic. This graph, developed four years ago, will show an even more extreme divergence when Pew publishes its 2016 findings. The 2012 version shows that other elements of identity – race, education, religiosity, income and gender – are pretty much as they were during Reagan’s second term. What has changed significantly is the degree to which partisan identity is a predictor of one’s attitudes about everything else. “Party” is now the most telling demographic.

There is nothing good about this rearrangement of America. It has already played a significant role in the dysfunction of our state and national governments. Not only are the politicians incapable of stating attitudes that offend their voter bases, we the people are more than ever likely to blame members of the other party for bad news. Social media enable ever more partisanship as people are drawn to the echo chambers of the like-minded.

How can we have rational elections if we don’t recognize each other as fundamentally the same? We are all human beings driven by the same needs, all of us American, all of us the same under the skin. But those similarities decrease in importance when we see those with whom we disagree as “not my kind people”. More than ever, my kind of people belong to my political party. There can be nothing worse for democracy which depends, above all else, on the quality of political discourse.

The commercial and political incentives that stoke the flames of partisan polarization are enormously powerful. The political parties and the commercial media depend fundamentally on a polarized, competitive perception of affairs. Would we even listen to a candidate who values civility and decorum above winning?


Politics, Government & Weather

By stancutler,

NOAA image of Hurricane Irma, 9/5/2017


Hurricane season is an annual reminder of how small we are. Even if we are not in harm’s way, the satellite images of Earth’s atmosphere in motion inspire awe. This year, with its massive storms, I’ve been thinking about the technologies that allow us to see the weather before it happens.

The benefits of these technologies are undeniable. In 1900, a powerful hurricane struck the same Texas coast as Harvey, causing the deaths of between 8,000 and 12,000 people. Harvey’s final death toll is likely to be under 100.  This remarkable alteration in our relationship to the planet is the result of seeing it from orbit. Governments at all levels prepare emergency and relief services on the basis of satellite data and images. Satellite observations shown on TV convince millions of civilians to take precautions as storms approach, precautions that protect property and save lives.

And, of course, extreme weather gives politicians opportunities to promote themselves. They don’t mention the scientists, engineers, and government workers responsible for these wonderful technologies, they’re much more concerned with demonstrating their compassion and leadership. Even though no laws require elected officials to show up at storm-damaged locations, they always do. Cynically, I don’t think they show up as much to comfort the population or to assess the problems as to be in front of the camera.

Of course, there are risks. G.W. Bush’s “You’re doing a helluva job, Brownie” comment in New Orleans hurt him when it became apparent that FEMA, the agency Mr. Brown headed, was totally unprepared to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The most famous case of weather hurting a politician was the New York City blizzard of 1969, when the residents of Queens shouted, “Get away, you bum,”  when  Mayor John Lindsay came to inspect conditions in his limousine. He’d been seen as a Presidential hopeful, but he was never able to escape the stigma of his handling of the storm, in particular that moment when the residents of Queens chased him away.

Weather satellites require years of research and development and billions of tax-payer dollars. Most Americans do not know that these observing platforms in space belong to them – not The Weather Channel or Accuweather. NASA and NOAA give away the data and images for free. You can find more pictures, videos, charts and graphs online than on TV, anytime, without having to endure the advertising surrounding the TV shows. Commercial broadcasters reproduce what they get for nothing and sell the airtime to advertisers.

Weather information is enormously profitable because all of us are always interested. The weather segments of news shows reliably attract the greatest viewership, even more than the headline segments. The TV personalities who stand in front of the weather maps are typically the highest paid among the members of on-air news teams. It helps if they are as interesting to look at as the maps.

When Congress passes a budget, it authorizes expenditures for satellites. The National Weather Service (NWS) gets its data from the satellites of a sister agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the 2018 budget, Congress is being asked to allocate $1.2 billion for the continuation of NOAA’s two satellite programs, one polar-orbiting and the other geostationary. These two systems provide all of the data we see on TV or get online, as well as the raw material for research in hundreds of universities, real time forest fire data, volcanic ash data, wildlife tracking, search and rescue missions, soil moisture measurements, and many other civilian uses.

By far, the Department of Defense (DOD) outspends NOAA on satellites. But we don’t know by how much because the allocation is deliberately unknowable, hidden within the Department of Defense’s $60 billion “black budget” for military intelligence. DOD’s entire 2018 budget request is $621 billion dollars. Within that larger budget, there are dozens of secret line items that might well hide more satellite costs. We just don’t know. In comparison, NOAA’s $1.2 billion allocation is peanuts.

We do know that the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps each has its own constellation of weather satellites, measuring exactly the same phenomena as the civilian observatories. Why not share? In 1993, a joint DOD/NOAA weather satellite program was initiated by the Clinton Administration as a way to save billions. DOD dropped out of the program in the mid-2000s, unwilling to cooperate with the civilians, ostensibly for national security reasons.

NOAA is the oldest scientific agency in the US Government, established by President Jefferson in 1807 to map coastlines. In 1878, weather data collection was added to its mission as The Coast And Geodetic Survey. In 1970, the older agencies were reorganized as NOAA and given the additional mission of observing weather from orbiting satellites. As an indication of the political stakes involved in this kind of science, President Nixon put NOAA inside the Department of Commerce, where it remains. All of that NOAA data, going back to 1807, is archived in Asheville, North Carolina. That’s why we can categorize the 1900 hurricane as a 4 and how we know the extent to which it flooded the region. Far less, by the way, than Hurricane Harvey because there were still wetlands to absorb the deluge.

It’s much more challenging for politicians to address climate than weather. It’s not just that the issues have become hotly political. Climate doesn’t offer eye catching photo ops – no streets filled with debris, no suffering people in shelters to attract the cameras. Civilian satellites, NASA’s and NOAA’s, measure “radiation budget”, how much sun energy enters the atmosphere in comparison to the amount radiated back into space. These measurements indicate, without doubt, that the earth is warming in proportion to the amounts of carbonaceous gas we add to the air.  And because we have satellite measurements of the atmosphere’s chemical composition, we know that burning carbon fuels is the cause. Some politicians just don’t care.

Americans Suffering from 21st Century Battle Fatigue

By stancutler,

Since Trump’s inauguration, we have been at war. We may not want the war, but Trump does. The battlefields are the media of communication. At stake is control of the American Government in an epochal contest for the future of civilization. The daily assault on our credulity and attention is a calculated tactic in the war.

I am not reading tea leaves, not guessing by piecing together bits of evidence. Theorists in the Trump Administration publicly espouse total communications warfare.  According to statements by thinkers like Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, the 2016 Presidential campaign waged by Trump was to be the first in a perpetual series of belligerent acts, his Presidency, if won, to be an extension of that horrible campaign, the most vicious in modern American history. In better times, a Presidential election provided citizens with relief from the rhetoric. As far as Trump is concerned, the war has just begun.

I encourage readers to access a memo written by a senior member of The National Security Council, Rich Higgins, before he was fired by General H. R. McMaster in May. The memo was reproduced in full by the highly-respected Foreign Policy blog,

It is a remarkable document. It articulates the alt-right ideology completely and comprehensively.  Higgins is correct in so many ways. He accurately exposes the various channels of communication used in political warfare. In one sense, the document is rational and astute – even brilliant. But it is an evil manifesto because its author believes that people have a malleable moral center that can be influenced by controlling the daily news cycle. He (and presumably Bannon, Miller and Trump) does not acknowledge an absolute distinction between political right and wrong, between good and evil.

Rich Higgins Alt-Right Theorist

Rich Higgins, Alt-Right Theorist

Higgins unabashedly espouses the legitimacy of racism, xenophobia, sexism, nativism, militarism, etc.. According to him, people (like me) who consider such attitudes morally repugnant are duped victims of “cultural Marxism”. They are convinced that people who speak of Trump as illegitimate, corrupt and dishonest do so because they are misguided, because they have been persuaded by “pseudo-publicity” (fake news). They give no credence to the notion that people have deep-seated values that are impervious to the news cycle.

Higgins provides a list of entities that collaborate and inter-operate against the Trump regime. This is sickeningly reminiscent of Hitler’s worldview expressed in Mein Kampf. The list includes governments participating in international trade groups like the EU, their citizenries, Academe, news organizations, urban real estate owners, the “deep state”, Islamists (non-Christians), traditional Republicans, Democrats, and others. These powerful groups are THE ENEMY. Higgins does not agree to disagree with us according to the norms of a democracy. Rather, he justifies a crusade and invokes the norms of total war, a moral climate in which countless harmful and evil actions are justifiable in order to win an ultimate victory. To an amoral theorist like Higgins, polarization (our enemies vs. us) is a good thing and democracy be damned. This is war!

The Foreign Policy article explains that there is a power struggle within the White House. Higgins’ firing reflects the National Security Council (NSC) Chief H. R. McMaster’s more traditional worldview – fewer enemies, diplomatic tactics, decorum. McMaster fired Steve Bannon’s man Higgins when he read the memo and wants to fire the people to whom the memo was circulated.  Trump and Bannon have said no to further dismissals. Bannon, who McMaster recently ousted from the NSC,  is conducting a  propaganda campaign on the alt-right internet hoping to incite anti-McMaster sentiment.

That’s interesting, inside-baseball stuff. But Trump is Commander in Chief in this 21st Century war, and his daily tweets and on-camera statements are clear evidence that he fully embraces the wartime tactics and strategies espoused by Higgins, Bannon, Trump Junior, and Stephen Miller. I suspect that General McMaster himself has not been fired because the Department of Defense and the United States Senate still hold considerable power in Washington.  Firing McMaster would be seen as an attempted coup d’état by the two institutions who remain capable of thwarting some of Trump’s agenda.

Higgins believes that controlling the daily news cycle in a perpetual campaign is the primary function of Trump’s Presidency, an overriding objective that supersedes any other. We can expect daily outrages for the foreseeable future. (Aargh!) Ideological Trumpists consider the distinctions between campaigning and governing to be inconsequential and counter- productive. They do not care whether their governing decisions are harmful so long as those decisions can be represented as consistent with the racist, chauvinistic, sexist, militaristic, etc. memes to which their voting base adheres.

The anxiety and tension we suffer these days is a form of battle fatigue. Be prepared for much more of the same.


By stancutler,

We’re in the early months of the 2018 political campaigns. Yes, it’s sad. The times when campaigns only lasted a few months are over. Seventeen months before the next election, I’m already thinking about the political wars to come. My hope is that  Americans elect enough people to Congress to reverse the effects of Trump’s 2016 victory.

How should Democrats and sensible Republicans conduct the upcoming campaigns? They will have to win seats in districts wherein a substantial number of voters seem unshakably devoted to “their” President? How do you reason with people who resent reasoning? How do you persuade those who refuse to recognize the difference between a fact and an opinion? Are there campaign strategies available to anti-Trump candidates that could work? And did the 2016 campaign provide indications of how to win the next one?

Classical Rhetoric is a venerable academic discipline that describes the problem space as a sort of Venn diagram with at least three overlapping domains: the speaker, the message and the audience. As the campaign progresses, I’ll be writing from a Rhetorical perspective, as someone who analyzes public persuasion as communication. (I used to teach the discipline at Penn State.)

When I consider any audience, let’s say Trump voters, I imagine that each of the individuals in it has a hierarchical belief system. The foundation of the hierarchy is Identity. A winning candidate is perceived by a majority of voters as a personification of group identity. This level is illogical, by definition it is impervious to reasoning. Trump’s appeals are pandering – their effect is to amplify the self worth of individuals as belonging to a just and powerful group – “the best” of all groups – good ol’ fashioned hard-working patriotic Americans. Trump does this by mocking and belittling The Others, those who “are not us”.

Part of the genius of the Trump phenomenon is recognition that his overbearing executive style, perfected over 14 seasons of The Apprentice, his macho shtick, his ethos, seems Presidential. His supporters will stay in his camp for as long as they perceive him as a winning champion on their behalf. They dismiss his personality flaws as inconsequential. They cannot be dissuaded by a Chuck Schumer lecturing about the consequences of pending legislation. Why? Not because Schumer is illogical, but because he is perceived by Trumpites as challenging to deeper levels of their belief systems. If Trumpites were to agree with Schumer, no matter how logical his positions, it would constitute a betrayal of their identities.

I am, by no means, suggesting that candidates running in 2018 copy the Trump playbook. But they have to craft and deliver messages that seem as all-American as Trump’s, and they have to exude absolute certainty in their ability to succeed as the voters’ champion. This is not a new playbook, it is why any successful candidate wins an election.

So, assuming that candidates can come across as all-American and confident, how can they communicate sound ideas in ways that win elections in districts with many Trumpites? I think they have to simplify. They have to remember that they are not in classrooms or courtrooms. They have to be entertaining. They should glorify their vision for America and their districts. They should say what they are for in a loud, clear and dignified manner. They must make voters feel better about themselves for believing in them. And they must not present themselves as Trump antagonists.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do it, but both are flawed. My sense is that Warren is too “holier than thou”, a teacher’s pet, a goody-two-shoes. Younger versions of Sanders could win. But both may be too left-wing for the right-leaning American electorate. We need American Emmanuel Macrons.

Macron is a highly-trained public servant with experience as a senior government official. It was certainly an advantage that he was 39 years old, articulate and physically attractive. In the French elections, Macron’s most powerful opponent was Marine Le Pen, the champion of the “true French” much as Trump is the champion of “true Americans”.

Many 2018 American candidates will be tempted to run against Trump. But Macron demonstrated that such a strategy would be ineffective, particularly in pro-Trump districts. Macron did not campaign against Le Pen, he did not present himself as a polar opposite, but rather as a pro-business centrist. We desperately need candidates who know that there are more votes in the moderate center than on the polar extremes.

Macron did not publish a Platform until a month before the first of the two Spring elections. And then he devoted only a single day of his campaign to defending it in a structured public forum. It is always better to describe problems afflicting the audience rather than specific solutions that are easily attacked as unworkable or unrealistic. On the campaign trail, he avoided the wonky weeds of policy. He did not exaggerate the problems, he did not try to scare people into voting for him. Rather, he emphasized goals – a vision. People voted for him because they wanted to make France great again. 2018 American candidates would do well to follow his example.


The Politics Show

By stancutler,

We are fascinated by the President’s shtick. When we tune to our favorite news channels or read what’s printed, his latest mockeries are the headlines and top-of-the-show stories. As defined by Google, “shtick is a gimmick, comic routine, style of performance, etc., associated with a particular person”. Trump’s shtick attracts more interest than any other topic on planet Earth. It’s huge. He perfected it as a reality TV performer. In the commercial entertainment environment, ratings are the only measures that matter.

I think about the similarities between  theater and politics when I retrieve the newspaper from my doorstep every morning. As I work at my computer, I avoid checking the newsfeeds. If I relied on my smart phone to feel connected on social media, I’d have to resist clicking links to Trump’s latest bit of shtick as I went about my business. I avoid cable news. I feel as if I’m hunkered down in a blizzard of Trumpnews, shoulders hunched against the bit storm.

We are being intentionally manipulated by the President to keep his show at the top of the ratings lists. In Trump’s value system, our opinions are less significant than our attention. In our media ecology, in which Trump is the dominant creature, it matters far less what we think of him than that we think of him at all.

Throughout the 2015-2016 primary election season, he kept his place on the podium because we tuned-in to see him play The Fool, a stock theatrical character whose role is to mock The King. He won the ratings war and, contrary to common sense, succeeded in converting his ratings into enough votes to win the general election. The problem, of course, is that he is now The King, but still plays The Fool. It’s his shtick.

Another parallel to theater has to do with our emotional investment in the outcome. We watch the show if we care. There are no stakes higher than the United States Presidency. In every plot, whether it be a children’s story or a Shakespeare play, the audience has to believe that the outcome matters. Our interest intensifies in proportion to the level of danger or to the value of the prize. In the media world, intense interest is the coin of the realm. Trump’s “great again” boasts inflate the likelihood of reward. Similarly, his exaggerated warnings heighten our perception of risk. He refers to the threat of terrorism and the likelihood of a North Korean attack out of all proportion to the actual risks because these exaggerations intensify our focus on him.

We can take the parallels between politics and theater too far – one is pretense and the other painfully real. But that doesn’t mean that the similarities are inconsequential. Many Americans, almost half of us, choose not to vote. Some of the non-participants think the news is only theater. To them, all politicians are acting with no more concern for their interests than someone playing a character on a TV show. Despite all the bluster from our capitols, they are convinced that their daily lives are not influenced by whoever wins an election. For these citizens, it’s just another show.

Our urges to be entertained and to learn are both powerful. In combination, they are the basis of a kind of addiction that the news media and Donald Trump feed in partnership. There are important and meaningful distinctions between entertainment and learning, but they are distinctions that matter little in the news business. The news shows have to be sensational and emotionally engaging else the ratings plummet. Trump’s shtick got him to the Presidency, our fascination so great that all other stories were minimized to satisfy our interest. He hijacked the news. Call me old fashioned, but I think we have to be able to distinguish between shtick and substance.

I still harbor a hope that Trump can change from Fool  to King. I watch the news now to learn whether the Chorus, the sensible populace, will prevail as it did in ancient Greek comedies. When the Chorus failed, it was a tragedy.


The Testosterone President

By stancutler,

Imagine that there is a simple psychological difference between men and women, a continuum with placid passivity at one extreme and headlong aggression at the other, yin and yang. Now imagine that the recent exercise in American democracy was a campaign in which a winning margin of voters opted for a male leadership style, deliberately rejecting feminism. Viewed as an exercise in gender identity, the 2016 election was not about policy or issues – it was about national character.

When voters rejected Hillary Clinton for President, they were rejecting the ethos of female government. Anti-Clinton voters were tired of  ambiguity and nuance. Trump is not so much a Republican, or a billionaire, or a conservative as he is All-Male, near the loony end of the male/female continuum. Trump voters wanted their personification to be emphatically male: aggressive, fearless, obsessed with winning. Many of these voters were women.

From the earliest days of the campaign, when Trump floated down on his golden escalator, he has consistently behaved as a deranged male, a gleeful bull in a china shop of fragile egos. His tweets are calculated aggression, a way for him to seize the initiative every morning. His appearances before the TV cameras are the same – aggressive, on offense, combative.  Lots of Americans believe that is precisely how a strong national leader ought to behave. This belief is pre-rational, arising from a bedrock of identity deep below the conscious level at which “rational” decisions are made. Gender is as fundamental to political choice as patriotism, religion, or values. Trump’s supporters are less concerned with what he does than they are with the way he does it.

The 2016 election was the culmination of a century of gender revolution, a period during which the social distinctions between men and women departed radically from the norms of our ancestors. Birth control and the replacement of muscle by machines had much to do with the changes. In 1916, the overwhelming majority of women were at home all the time, mothers, housekeepers. In 2016, more women than men had salaried jobs outside the home, many earning more than the men in their families. Women were increasingly holding elected office and running companies. Homosexuals and lesbians were getting married. For many people, these trends had personal impacts that were deeply disturbing, testing their notions of a core American identity. A Presidential election is always about national character, a choice of who best personifies the American nation.

Much has been made about the current political power structure, the dominance of Republicans in State Governments and in the US House of Representatives. In thousands of election victories since 2010, Americans expressed discomfort with the Democratic Party style.  The Democratic Party is bewildered – how can they have gotten it so badly wrong? Of course, gerrymandering and political tactics were influential. Yes, there were bad court decisions and big money. Global economic changes had an impact. But something more fundamental was also taking place. As much as 2016 was about issues, the rejection of Clinton in 2016 was also a rejection of feminism as national character.

I am aware that this is an extreme simplification of an enormously complicated phenomenon. But to ignore the gender dimensions of recent elections would be a mistake. And, as we watch Trump’s behavior as President, it would be well to keep gender in mind. His blustering is  calculated. His is the testosterone Presidency, and he’s not going to let us forget it.





Bannon, Putin and Clausewitz

By stancutler,

Many of my friends in Chestnut Hill are incensed by Donald Trump’s appointment of Steve Bannon to a seat on  the National Security Council. They say Bannon is a man who incites bigotry through the internet, a purveyor of twisted truth who panders to alt-right nativist attitudes. Most Hillers I’ve talked to, and the overwhelming majority of media pundits, charge that someone as outrageously political as Steve Bannon has no place in the innermost sanctum of American strategic thinking. They seem to have forgotten Clausewitz, who wrote that war is a form of politics, rather than vice versa.

Vladimir Putin certainly understands this strategic concept and has weaponized the internet in the political wars to devastating effect. Bannon’s political strategy is much like Vladimir Putin’s use of lies and misinformation in ways that inflame and legitimize right wing opinion while delegitimizing Establishment information sources. If Trump is interested in combating Putin, than there are few people as well suited to the challenge as Steve Bannon.

The internet technologies have forced a reinvention of warfare as surely as did earlier technologies like gunpowder, aircraft and telegraphy. In 2016, we and our allies lost decisive battles because Russia seized on the new information technologies and used them in highly effective ways. American international policy seeks above all to maintain the strength and stability of the NATO Alliance.

Since the annexation of Crimea in 2012, diplomats and war strategists have been writing about the effectiveness of Putin’s cyber and information strategies. Here’s a quotation from a 2015 NATO publication, CYBER WAR IN PERSPECTIVE,

“Russian strategic culture focuses on war as a political activity; for cyber power to have a truly strategic effect, Russia believes that it must contribute directly to shaping political outcomes by altering the political perceptions of their opponents to better suit their interests. If one also accepts the idea that Russians are especially adept at understanding the political and strategic impact of new technologies, it is possible that they have grasped the real strategic opportunities created by the information revolution – opportunities that might be given short shrift by analysts shaped by different strategic cultures.”

Wars need ruthless generals. Ulysses Grant and George Patton, shining stars in America’s Warrior Hall of Fame, were absolute bastards who cared nothing for soldier blood or government treasure. And wars need grand strategists. Steve Bannon may be no more lovable than Attila the Hun, but he has the right qualifications for modern war and may be the only smart appointment Trump has made.


Who’s Winning The Cyber War?

By stancutler,

President Trump is trying to convince the American people that Russia’s cyber attack on our election did not matter. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It was an enormous triumph for Russia, a major battle won by them in the cyber war against the NATO Alliance.

It is a war in which America has much to lose. Without the stability of a unified Europe, our global presence would be weaker. We have been the dominant player on the world stage since 1946 because the great European powers have been aligned with us. The stability of this unprecedented alliance is precious. But that stability is under deliberate and constant attack by Russia under Vladimir Putin’s deft leadership.

Since 1946, Russia has contested our influence in Central Europe. Vladimir Putin, a KGB Colonel, has been a cyber specialist since the 1980s. Trump seems unaware of Putin’s war. He is so fixated on the Muslim Menace that he overlooks the geopolitical stakes for which Putin is playing. Putin wants his government to dominate the buffer states surrounding Mother Russia, and to extend that influence outward as far as possible, west and north to Central Europe and the Baltic States, and south through Syria into the Middle East. This is a different game from “wiping out ISIS,” Trump’s fixation.

Putin conducts information warfare. The first thing his Little Green Men did when they invaded Crimea was to seize the building containing the internet exchange servers for the region. But this “tactile” aggression was a small element in his larger information strategy.  Before foreign elections (Ukraine, The French Primary, Brexit, ours)  online communities funded by Russia aggressively publish hundreds of demeaning online messages about candidates they seek to weaken. These Russia-sponsored groups establish nationalistic websites that appeal to the right-wing that exists in every population. Nationalism is the great threat to European stability. The dissolution of NATO and the European Union are absolutely what Putin is after.

The President must broaden his vision. It is not only European stability that is threatened in the cyber war. Democracy itself, which relies upon a well-informed electorate, is being attacked. The effect of Putin’s lies is comparable to the effects of the President’s egocentric  tweets. Trump has attacked our free press with as much venom as our enemies. He does not seem to realize that our democracy depends on professional journalists. Without them we cannot know the facts. There is no truth without facts, and there is no democracy without truth. When he tweets fact-free opinions, he bypasses the truth seekers we depend upon.

By aping the propaganda techniques of a Russian dictator, President Trump makes himself Putin’s ally in the cyber war. He says there is “no proof” that the hacks of Clinton’s campaign manager and of the DNC influenced the outcome of the election. He denies the deliberate insertion of Pro-Trump fake news into the campaign. Any statement he doesn’t like he declares as false.

The President seems to think that nothing is as important as his popularity. But the geopolitical cyber war is not a TV-ratings war. To lie about the vote count as if it is a Nielsen Rating is not simply immoral and un-Presidential, it reflects thinking that misses the greater significance of the Russian hacks.  Russia wins when nationalism wins. Russia wins when Western democratic institutions are destabilized. World peace and democracy are both at stake in the cyber war. We lost a decisive battle in that war in 2016.  President Trump must reverse the losing trend by turning his attention away from measures of his popularity and dedicating himself to more important matters.

Presidential Elections: a Flawed System

By stancutler,

Presidential candidate “debates” have become the central mechanism of American democracy. In all, television audiences have had 25 opportunities to assess the worthiness of those who wish to hold the most important political office in the world.

From August 6, 2015 through March 10, 2016, Republican candidates participated in 12 debates, beginning with 17 aspirants and concluding with 4 at the final pre-convention debate. The Democrats had 9 debates, beginning with 5 aspirants on October 13th and concluded with 2 on April 14. Since the Nominating Conventions in July, there have been 3 Presidential Nominee debates and 1 between the Vice Presidential candidates. Integral to this modern electoral process are the opinion polls of likely American voters that are taken continuously before and after the debates. The post-debate polls are compared to the pre-debate polls to determine the “unofficial” winners and losers.

There’s a lot about this system that troubles me.  To begin with, it allowed Donald Trump to become one of the two final candidates for the Presidency. Any system that could elevate such a woefully unqualified degenerate is fundamentally flawed. It should never have happened and we, the people, ought to do something to insure that it never happens again.

The televised debate system evolved in tandem with state primary elections and caucuses.  The Republican and Democratic parties conduct one or the other in each of the 50 states to allow partisans to make a choice in a democratic manner. However, the implementation differs dramatically from state to state. Some primaries are winner-take-all, some are proportional. Some primary ballots include the names of convention delegates, some do not. The events take place sequentially from early February until mid-June, a month before the July nominating conventions, at which the majority of delegates are committed to cast a first ballot for the Presidential candidate they supported in their state’s primary or caucus or, in winner-take-all states, the candidate who received the most primary or caucus votes state-wide.  The Conventions certify the results of the states’ elections by officially Nominating a candidate.

None of this is in the Constitution. Our founders’ plan was for a President and Vice President  to be selected every four years by electors chosen by the House of Representatives in proportion to the number of Representatives to which the States were entitled by population. But they did not deal with the issue of how the candidates vying for Electoral College votes were to be selected. In 1800, it took the Electors 36 ballots to elect Adams over Jefferson. In the process, the entire system of American government almost collapsed. Bitter partisanships has been fundamental to our system ever since. A tie-breaking Amendment, the 12th,  was added to the Constitution, but it didn’t address the underlying question of candidate selection.

By the 1830s, two Parties had become quasi-governmental organiztions and began convening every four years to nominate their Presidential candidates. Through the 20th Century, State laws mandating primaries and caucuses were passed to ensure that the Parties faithfully represented the wishes of the people at the conventions.

That’s all pretty good – it authorizes us, the people, to directly influence the selection of Presidential candidates. But in 2016 the system generated a demagogue candidate, a frozen Congress,  and a deadlocked Supreme Court. The Presidential campaigns – not the Presidents – dominate the entire system of government. The 20th Century system doesn’t work in 2016. I worry that this appalling campaign will become the model for years to come.  This year, we need to start looking for the flaws in our system, repairs that we might make to ensure that our great democratic experiment does not end in disaster.

What about this cumbersome system can be changed? Many feel that the problems are best addressed by limiting campaign financing, proposing to amend the Constitution to negate the 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited money to be spent on the campaigns. I disagree. My approach is to de-commercialize politics by lowering campaign costs. I support legislation to abbreviate the primary campaign season  and to regulate political advertising rates.

Televised debates are an important component of the system, but they should not be under the control of media companies with a financial interest in prolonging campaigns and sensationalizing the proceedings. As the system has evolved, audience share and viewer ratings have become as influential as elections. Watching the debates is frustrating because the candidates are entitled to deliver irrelevant responses. They preoccupy public attention for years and promote polarization in the process. The debates should be conducted with mandatory rules of order enforced by impartial judges. The Primary Election debates should be produced by public broadcasters – not news companies driven by profits.

The 2016 Presidential campaign should be the last of its kind. It’s time for reform.


Republican Leaders Face Daunting Challenges

By stancutler,

The Keynote Speaker at the 2016 Republican Convention was Willie Robertson, star of Duck Dynasty, a reality TV show about his duck-call business. His selection tells us a lot about the Republican Party’s transformation since the year 2000 when the Keynote Speakers were John McCain and Colin Powell. Rudy Giuliani was given the honor of personifying the GOP in 2008. In 2012, Chris Christie was the chosen one. The demographic data of Trump voters were used, in the manner of TV ratings, to identify a public figure who most precisely matched the characteristics of Republicans who voted for Trump in the Primaries. And so it was that that a bush-bearded avid hunter and outspoken Christian foe of  federal government from rural Louisiana was selected to represent the GOP.

I was heartened by this morning’s poll numbers, which make Hillary Clinton a 3 to 1 favorite to win the election. If these predictions prove accurate, the fallout from the election, the implosion of the Republican Party, will influence our politics long after Election Day. With luck, Donald Trump’s candidacy will be relegated to that special place called the trash bin of history. But the story by no means ends with this election. Many Americans who identified themselves as Republicans before 2016 will struggle to ​feel at home in Willie Robertson’s GOP, but there probably aren’t enough of them to be the foundation of a viable national party. Nor are there enough Trumpists like Willie Robertson to win a national election. If Republicans can’t establish a workable coalition, and given the increasing electoral clout of everyone other than people like Willie Robertson, the GOP’s future as a national party is bleak.

In some respects, the disintegration of the Republican Party is a good thing, an example of democracy in action. As the country changes, so too must the two political parties. Apparently, the Republican Establishment lost touch with ordinary white folk who rejected their leadership and voted for an anti-Establishment candidate. That’s how the system’s supposed to work. But we are looking at the prospect of one-party rule in a two-party system, and that’s not how the system’s supposed to work. Even after the Civil War, we had two effective national Parties.

Optimistically, a more effective Republican Party will somehow emerge from the rubble. Intelligent Republicans like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and John McCain are not supporting Trump because they want him to be President. Their lukewarm endorsements are meant to ensure that they will still have standing in the Party after the predicted 2016 disaster. They survived the 2010 Tea Party insurgency by allowing the nativist right-wing to block all Democratic legislation while holding onto their elected offices. They might attempt a similar strategy with the even more vociferous Trumpists. They might see no other option but to try, even if their majority in the House is diminished by 2016 down-ballot losses.

The Republican Establishment will tell the Party, “You didn’t listen to us in 2016, so you’d be well advised to heed our counsel in 2020.” But what will they counsel? What ideas do they have to offer alienated people whose political identities are so specifically cultural? Can such voters be wooed by a message of multi-cultural centrism?

One possibility, in the aftermath, might be abandonment of legislative obstructionism as a political strategy. The Republican Establishment might conclude that they lost the loyalty of many rank and file voters in spite of the fact that McConnell, Boehner and Ryan were able to block Democratic legislation. Their strategy encouraged the un-white Democratic President to use Executive powers, further demonstrating the ineffectual character of the Republican Establishment. I hope that they will counsel a different, more cooperative legislative strategy, one that would demonstrate to the disaffected Trumpists that they have some value. A working Congress would come as a very welcome change. It might be the only way to save the Republican Party.

I believe that the Republican Party’s response to this election, should they lose, will be as significant as the Democratic victory. I am concerned that the defeated party will try to survive by more Congressional obstructionism. And I worry that an angry Trump fringe might forsake elections for insurrections. It’s a fear based on the depth of feeling and the extent to which the love of guns, as personified by Willie Robertson, has taken hold among so many alienated white people. He opened his brief speech to the Republican Convention with a prayer to Jesus to keep his family safe in troubling times. If I was the praying sort, I’d ask for the blessing of wisdom to be bestowed upon the leadership of the Republican Party.