The Lawless Presidency

By David Leonhardt, New York Times, June 6, 2017

Excerpt – Democracy isn’t possible without the rule of law — the idea that consistent principles, rather than a ruler’s whims, govern society…. Even amid bitter fights over what the law should say, both Democrats and Republicans have generally accepted the rule of law. President Trump does not. His rejection of it distinguishes him from any other modern American leader…Trump’s view of the law, quite simply, violates American traditions. The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written. Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

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Democracy isn’t possible without the rule of law — the idea that consistent principles, rather than a ruler’s whims, govern society.

You can read Aristotle, Montesquieu, John Locke or the Declaration of Independence on this point. You can also look at decades of American history. Even amid bitter fights over what the law should say, both Democrats and Republicans have generally accepted the rule of law.

President Trump does not. His rejection of it distinguishes him from any other modern American leader. He has instead flirted with Louis XIV’s notion of “L’état, c’est moi”: The state is me — and I’ll decide which laws to follow.

This attitude returns to the fore this week, with James Comey scheduled to testify on Thursday about Trump’s attempts to stifle an F.B.I. investigation. I realize that many people are exhausted by Trump outrages, some of which resemble mere buffoonery. But I think it’s important to step back and connect the dots among his many rejections of the rule of law.

They are a pattern of his presidency, one that the judicial system, Congress, civic institutions and principled members of Trump’s own administration need to resist. Trump’s view of the law, quite simply, violates American traditions.

Trump has erased this distinction.

He pressured Comey to drop the investigation of Trump’s campaign and fired Comey when he refused. Trump has called for specific prosecutions, first of Hillary Clinton and more recently of leakers.

The attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is part of the problem. He is supposed to be the nation’s head law-enforcement official, but acts as a Trump loyalist. He recently held a briefing in the White House press room — “a jaw-dropping violation of norms,” as Slate’s Leon Neyfakh wrote. Sessions has proclaimed, “This is the Trump era.”

Like Trump, he sees little distinction between the enforcement of the law and the interests of the president.

COURTS, UNDERMINED. Past administrations have respected the judiciary as having the final word on the law. Trump has tried to delegitimize almost any judge who disagrees with him.

His latest Twitter tantrum, on Monday, took a swipe at “the courts” over his stymied travel ban.

Let’s walk through the major themes:

LAW ENFORCEMENT, POLITICIZED. People in federal law enforcement take pride in trying to remain apart from politics. I’ve been talking lately with past Justice Department appointees, from both parties, and they speak in almost identical terms.

They view the Justice Department as more independent than, say, the State or Treasury Departments. The Justice Department works with the rest of the administration on policy matters, but keeps its distance on law enforcement. That’s why White House officials aren’t supposed to pick up the phone and call whomever they want at the department. There is a careful process.

It joined a long list of his judge insults: “this so-called judge”; “a single, unelected district judge”; “ridiculous”; “so political”; “terrible”; “a hater of Donald Trump”; “essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country”; “THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!”

“What’s unusual is he’s essentially challenging the legitimacy of the court’s role,” the legal scholar Charles Geyh told The Washington Post. Trump’s message, Geyh said, was: “I should be able to do what I choose.”

TEAM TRUMP, ABOVE THE LAW. Foreign governments speed up trademark applications from Trump businesses. Foreign officials curry favor by staying at his hotel. A senior administration official urges people to buy Ivanka Trump’s clothing. The president violates bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his tax returns, thus shrouding his conflicts.

The behavior has no precedent. “Trump and his administration are flagrantly violating ethics laws,” the former top ethics advisers to George W. Bush and Barack Obama have written.

Again, the problems extend beyond the Trump family. Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, has used political office to enrich himself. Sessions failed to disclose previous meetings with Russian officials.

Their attitude is clear: If we’re doing it, it’s O.K.

After 75 years of progress, was last week a hinge in history?

By Lawrence Summers, washingtonpost.com, June 4, 2017

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excerpt:

…It is possible that last week will be remembered as a hinge in history — a moment when the United States and the world started moving on a path away from the peace, prosperity and stability that have defined the past 75 years.

For all that has gone wrong in the past three-quarters of a century, this period has witnessed more human betterment than any time. The rate of fatalities in war has steadily declined, while growing integration has driven global growth and improvement in life expectancy and living standards. Progress is too slow, and not well enough shared, but Americans have never lived so well. This has been driven by remarkable developments in human thought, especially in science and technology, and a relatively stable global order that has been underwritten by the United States.

Will these trends continue? …No longer. We may have our first post-rational president. Trump has rejected the view of modern science on global climate change, embraced economic forecasts and trade theories outside the range of reputable opinion, and relied on the idea of alternative facts rather than evidence-based truth.

Even for conservative statesmen such as Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Henry Kissinger, the idea of a community of nations has been a commonplace… H.R McMaster, national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, who have been held out as the president’s most rational, globally minded advisers… have taken to the Wall Street Journal to proclaim that “the world is not a global community” and advanced a theory of international relations not unlike the one that animated the British and French at Versailles at the end of World War I. On this view, the objective of international negotiation is not to establish a stable, peaceful system or to seek cooperation or to advance universal values through compromise, they wrote, but to strike better deals in “an arena where nations, nongovernmental organizations, and businesses compete for advantage.”

In service of this theory, the president in the past two weeks renounced any claim to U.S. moral leadership by failing to convincingly reaffirm traditional U.S. security commitments to NATO and abandoning participation in the Paris global climate agreement. The latter is probably our most consequential error since the Iraq War and may well be felt even longer….

It is essential that leaders in U.S. society signal clearly their disapproval of the course the administration is taking. History will judge poorly business leaders who retain positions on Trump administration advisory boards because they hope to be in a position to cut favorable deals…

What is to be done? The U.S. president is not America. The world will be watching to see whether Trump’s words and deeds represent an irrevocable turn in the nation’s approach to the world or a temporary aberration. The more that leading figures in U.S. society can signal their continuing commitment to reason, to common purpose with other nations, and to addressing global challenges, the more the damage can be contained. And, of course, Congress has a central role to play in preventing dangerous and destabilizing steps.

 

Read more on this issue:

Dana Milbank: Trump, the caricature of the ugly American, demeans us all

Trump just betrayed the world. Now the world will fight back.

The Post’s View: Trump turns his back on the world

Laurence H. Tribe: Trump must be impeached. Here’s why.

Eugene Robinson: Trump is abdicating all the country’s moral power

The Post’s View: Trump’s moral blind spot

Lawrence Summers is a professor at and past president of Harvard University. He was treasury secretary from 1999 to 2001 and an economic adviser to President Barack Obama from 2009 through 2010.

Follow @LHSummers

 

The rise of American authoritarianism

by Amanda Taub, VOX.com, March 1, 2016

Excerpt: A niche group of political scientists may have uncovered what’s driving Donald Trump’s ascent. What they found has implications that go well beyond 2016. Trump has found the key to appealing to authoritarians, which makes him dangerous. The ability of any political party to respond to the anxieties of this group of people is very limited. Do we have institutions and structures in place to prevent the dark side of this growing trend? This is a long but essential article to read and understand..At the time, even Hetherington and Weiler [the researchers] did not realize the explosive implications: that their theory, when followed to its natural conclusion, predicted a looming and dramatic transformation of American politics. But looking back now, the ramifications of their research seem disturbingly clear… .

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The American media, over the past year, has been trying to work out something of a mystery: Why is the Republican electorate supporting a far-right, orange-toned populist with no real political experience, who espouses extreme and often bizarre views? How has Donald Trump, seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly become so popular?

What’s made Trump’s rise even more puzzling is that his support seems to cross demographic lines — education, income, age, even religiosity — that usually demarcate candidates. And whereas most Republican candidates might draw strong support from just one segment of the party base, such as Southern evangelicals or coastal moderates, Trump currently does surprisingly well from the Gulf Coast of Florida to the towns of upstate New York, and he won a resounding victory in the Nevada caucuses.

Table of contents

I. What is American authoritarianism?
II. The discovery
III. How authoritarianism works
IV. What can authoritarianism explain?
V. The party of authoritarians
VI. Trump, authoritarians, and fear
VII. America’s changing social landscape
VIII. What authoritarians want
IX. How authoritarians will change American politics

Perhaps strangest of all, it wasn’t just Trump but his supporters who seemed to have come out of nowhere, suddenly expressing, in large numbers, ideas far more extreme than anything that has risen to such popularity in recent memory. In South Carolina, a CBS News exit poll found that 75 percent of Republican voters supported banning Muslims from the United States. A PPP poll found that a third of Trump voters support banning gays and lesbians from the country. Twenty percent said Lincoln shouldn’t have freed the slaves.

Last September, a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst named Matthew MacWilliams realized that his dissertation research might hold the answer to not just one but all three of these mysteries.

MacWilliams studies authoritarianism — not actual dictators, but rather a psychological profile of individual voters that is characterized by a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. People who score high in authoritarianism, when they feel threatened, look for strong leaders who promise to take whatever action necessary to protect them from outsiders and prevent the changes they fear.

So MacWilliams naturally wondered if authoritarianism might correlate with support for Trump.

He polled a large sample of likely voters, looking for correlations between support for Trump and views that align with authoritarianism. What he found was astonishing: Not only did authoritarianism correlate, but it seemed to predict support for Trump more reliably than virtually any other indicator. He later repeated the same poll in South Carolina, shortly before the primary there, and found the same results, which he published in Vox:

 

As it turns out, MacWilliams wasn’t the only one to have this realization. Miles away, in an office at Vanderbilt University, a professor named Marc Hetherington was having his own aha moment. He realized that he and a fellow political scientist, the University of North Carolina’s Jonathan Weiler, had essentially predicted Trump’s rise back in 2009, when they discovered something that would turn out to be far more significant than they then realized.

That year, Hetherington and Weiler published a book about the effects of authoritarianism on American politics. Through a series of experiments and careful data analysis, they had come to a surprising conclusion: Much of the polarization dividing American politics was fueled not just by gerrymandering or money in politics or the other oft-cited variables, but by an unnoticed but surprisingly large electoral group — authoritarians.

Their book concluded that the GOP, by positioning itself as the party of traditional values and law and order, had unknowingly attracted what would turn out to be a vast and previously bipartisan population of Americans with authoritarian tendencies.

This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which “activated” authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.

Trump embodies the classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive

These Americans with authoritarian views, they found, were sorting into the GOP, driving polarization. But they were also creating a divide within the party, at first latent, between traditional Republican voters and this group whose views were simultaneously less orthodox and, often, more extreme.

Over time, Hetherington and Weiler had predicted, that sorting would become more and more pronounced. And so it was all but inevitable that, eventually, authoritarians would gain enough power within the GOP to make themselves heard.

At the time, even Hetherington and Weiler did not realize the explosive implications: that their theory, when followed to its natural conclusion, predicted a looming and dramatic transformation of American politics. But looking back now, the ramifications of their research seem disturbingly clear.

Authoritarians are thought to express much deeper fears than the rest of the electorate, to seek the imposition of order where they perceive dangerous change, and to desire a strong leader who will defeat those fears with force. They would thus seek a candidate who promised these things. And the extreme nature of authoritarians’ fears, and of their desire to challenge threats with force, would lead them toward a candidate whose temperament was totally unlike anything we usually see in American politics — and whose policies went far beyond the acceptable norms.

A candidate like Donald Trump.

Even Hetherington was shocked to discover quite how right their theory had been. In the early fall of 2015, as Trump’s rise baffled most American journalists and political scientists, he called Weiler. He asked, over and over, “Can you believe this? Can you believe this?”

This winter, I got in touch with Hetherington, MacWilliams, and several other political scientists who study authoritarianism. I wanted to better understand the theory that seemed to have predicted, with such eerie accuracy, Trump’s rise. And, like them, I wanted to find out what the rise of authoritarian politics meant for American politics. Was Trump just the start of something bigger?

These political scientists were, at that moment, beginning to grapple with the same question. We agreed there was something important happening here — that was just beginning to be understood.

Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics

Shortly after the Iowa Republican caucus, in which Trump came in a close second, Vox partnered with the Washington-based media and polling company Morning Consult to test American authoritarians along a range of political and social views — and to test some hypotheses we had developed after speaking with the leading political scientists of the field.

What we found is a phenomenon that explains, with remarkable clarity, the rise of Donald Trump — but that is also much larger than him, shedding new light on some of the biggest political stories of the past decade. Trump, it turns out, is just the symptom. The rise of American authoritarianism is transforming the Republican Party and the dynamics of national politics, with profound consequences likely to extend well beyond this election.

I. What is American authoritarianism?

For years now, before anyone thought a person like Donald Trump could possibly lead a presidential primary, a small but respected niche of academic research has been laboring over a question, part political science and part psychology, that had captivated political scientists since the rise of the Nazis.

How do people come to adopt, in such large numbers and so rapidly, extreme political views that seem to coincide with fear of minorities and with the desire for a strongman leader?

To answer that question, these theorists study what they call authoritarianism: not the dictators themselves, but rather the psychological profile of people who, under the right conditions, will desire certain kinds of extreme policies and will seek strongman leaders to implement them.

The political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed

After an early period of junk science in the mid-20th century, a more serious group of scholars has addressed this question, specifically studying how it plays out in American politics: researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.

The field, after a breakthrough in the early 1990s, has come to develop the contours of a grand theory of authoritarianism, culminating quite recently, in 2005, with Stenner’s seminal The Authoritarian Dynamic — just in time for that theory to seemingly come true, more rapidly and in greater force than any of them had imagined, in the personage of one Donald Trump and his norm-shattering rise.

According to Stenner’s theory, there is a certain subset of people who hold latent authoritarian tendencies. These tendencies can be triggered or “activated” by the perception of physical threats or by destabilizing social change, leading those individuals to desire policies and leaders that we might more colloquially call authoritarian.

It is as if, the NYU professor Jonathan Haidt has written, a button is pushed that says, “In case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.”

Authoritarians are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump — and will persist as a force in American politics

Authoritarians prioritize social order and hierarchies, which bring a sense of control to a chaotic world. Challenges to that order — diversity, influx of outsiders, breakdown of the old order — are experienced as personally threatening because they risk upending the status quo order they equate with basic security.

This is, after all, a time of social change in America. The country is becoming more diverse, which means that many white Americans are confronting race in a way they have never had to before. Those changes have been happening for a long time, but in recent years they have become more visible and harder to ignore. And they are coinciding with economic trends that have squeezed working-class white people.

When they face physical threats or threats to the status quo, authoritarians support policies that seem to offer protection against those fears. They favor forceful, decisive action against things they perceive as threats. And they flock to political leaders who they believe will bring this action.

If you were to read every word these theorists ever wrote on authoritarians, and then try to design a hypothetical candidate to match their predictions of what would appeal to authoritarian voters, the result would look a lot like Donald Trump.

But political scientists say this theory explains much more than just Donald Trump, placing him within larger trends in American politics: polarization, the rightward shift of the Republican Party, and the rise within that party of a dissident faction challenging GOP orthodoxies and upending American politics.

More than that, authoritarianism reveals the connections between several seemingly disparate stories about American politics. And it suggest that a combination of demographic, economic, and political forces, by awakening this authoritarian class of voters that has coalesced around Trump, have created what is essentially a new political party within the GOP — a phenomenon that broke into public view with the 2016 election but will persist long after it has ended.

II. The discovery: how a niche subfield of political science suddenly became some of the most relevant research in American politics

This study of authoritarianism began shortly after World War II, as political scientists and psychologists in the US and Europe tried to figure out how the Nazis had managed to win such wide public support for such an extreme and hateful ideology.

That was a worthy field of study, but the early work wasn’t particularly rigorous by today’s standards. The critical theorist Theodor Adorno, for instance, developed what he called the “F-scale,” which sought to measure “fascist” tendencies. The test wasn’t accurate. Sophisticated respondents would quickly discover what the “right” answers were and game the test. And there was no proof that the personality type it purportedly measured actually supported fascism.

More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)

If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics?

But the real problem for researchers was that even if there really were such a thing as an authoritarian psychological profile, how do you measure it? How do you interrogate authoritarian tendencies, which can sometimes be latent? How do you get honest answers on questions that can be sensitive and highly politicized?

As Hetherington explained to me, “There are certain things that you just can’t ask people directly. You can’t ask people, ‘Do you not like black people?’ You can’t ask people if they’re bigots.”

For a long time, no one had a solution for this, and the field of study languished.

Then in the early 1990s, a political scientist named Stanley Feldman changed everything. Feldman, a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, believed authoritarianism could be an important factor in American politics in ways that had nothing to do with fascism, but that it could only reliably be measured by unlinking it from specific political preferences.

He realized that if authoritarianism were a personality profile rather than just a political preference, he could get respondents to reveal these tendencies by asking questions about a topic that seemed much less controversial. He settled on something so banal it seems almost laughable: parenting goals.

Feldman developed what has since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism: four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values.

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Feldman’s test proved to be very reliable. There was now a way to identify people who fit the authoritarian profile, by prizing order and conformity, for example, and desiring the imposition of those values.

In 1992, Feldman convinced the National Election Study, a large survey of American voters conducted in each national election year, to include his four authoritarianism questions. Ever since, political scientists who study authoritarianism have accumulated a wealth of data on who exhibits those tendencies and on how they align with everything from demographic profiles to policy preferences.

What they found was impossible to ignore — and is only just beginning to reshape our understanding of the American electorate.

III. How authoritarianism works

In the early 2000s, as researchers began to make use of the NES data to understand how authoritarianism affected US politics, their work revealed three insights that help explain not just the rise of Trump, but seemingly a half-century of American political dynamics.

The first was Hetherington and Weiler’s insight into partisan polarization. In the 1960s, the Republican Party had reinvented itself as the party of law, order, and traditional values — a position that naturally appealed to order- and tradition-focused authoritarians. Over the decades that followed, authoritarians increasingly gravitated toward the GOP, where their concentration gave them more and more influence over time.

The second was Stenner’s theory of “activation.” In an influential 2005 book called The Authoritarian Dynamic, Stenner argued that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been “activated.”

The social threat theory helps explain why authoritarians seem so prone to reject not just one specific kind of outsider or social change, such as Muslims or same-sex couples or Hispanic migrants, but rather to reject all of them

This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.

Other researchers, like Hetherington, take a slightly different view. They believe that authoritarians aren’t “activated” — they’ve always held their authoritarian preferences — but that they only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.

But both schools of thought agree on the basic causality of authoritarianism. People do not support extreme policies and strongman leaders just out of an affirmative desire for authoritarianism, but rather as a response to experiencing certain kinds of threats.

The third insight came from Hetherington and American University professor Elizabeth Suhay, who found that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians.

But Hetherington and Suhay found a distinction between physical threats such as terrorism, which could lead non-authoritarians to behave like authoritarians, and more abstract social threats, such as eroding social norms or demographic changes, which do not have that effect. That distinction would turn out to be important, but it also meant that in times when many Americans perceived imminent physical threats, the population of authoritarians could seem to swell rapidly.

Together, those three insights added up to one terrifying theory: that if social change and physical threats coincided at the same time, it could awaken a potentially enormous population of American authoritarians, who would demand a strongman leader and the extreme policies necessary, in their view, to meet the rising threats.

This theory would seem to predict the rise of an American political constituency that looks an awful lot like the support base that has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, to propel Donald Trump from sideshow loser of the 2012 GOP primary to runaway frontrunner in 2016.

Beyond being almost alarmingly prescient, this theory speaks to an oft-stated concern about Trump: that what’s scariest is not the candidate, but rather the extent and fervor of his support.

And it raises a question: If this rise in American authoritarianism is so powerful as to drive Trump’s ascent, then how else might it be shaping American politics? And what effect could it have even after the 2016 race has ended?

IV. What can authoritarianism explain?

In early February, shortly after Trump finished second in the Iowa caucus and ended any doubts about his support, I began talking to Feldman, Hetherington, and MacWilliams to try to answer these questions.

MacWilliams had already demonstrated a link between authoritarianism and support for Trump. But we wanted to know how else authoritarianism was playing out in American life, from policy positions to party politics to social issues, and what it might mean for America’s future.

It was time to call Kyle Dropp. Dropp is a political scientist and pollster whom one of my colleagues described as “the Doogie Howser of polling.” He does indeed appear jarringly young for a Dartmouth professor. But he is also the co-founder of a media and polling company, Morning Consult, that had worked with Vox on several other projects.

When we approached Morning Consult, Dropp and his colleagues were excited. Dropp was familiar with Hetherington’s work and the authoritarianism measure, he said, and was instantly intrigued by how we could test its relevance to the election. Hetherington and the other political scientists were, in turn, eager to more fully explore the theories that had suddenly become much more relevant.

Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians

We put together five sets of questions. The first set, of course, was the test for authoritarianism that Feldman had developed. This would allow us to measure how authoritarianism coincided or didn’t with our other sets of questions.

The second set asked standard election-season questions on preferred candidates and party affiliation.

The third set tested voters’ fears of a series of physical threats, ranging from ISIS and Russia to viruses and car accidents.

The fourth set tested policy preferences, in an attempt to see how authoritarianism might lead voters to support particular policies.

If the research were right, then we’d expect people who scored highly on authoritarianism to express outsize fear of “outsider” threats such as ISIS or foreign governments versus other threats. We also expected that non-authoritarians who expressed high levels of fear would be more likely to support Trump. This would speak to physical fears as triggering a kind of authoritarian upsurge, which would in turn lead to Trump support.

We wanted to look at the role authoritarians are playing in the election

The final set of questions was intended to test fear of social change. We asked people to rate a series of social changes — both actual and hypothetical — on a scale of “very good” to “very bad” for the country. These included same-sex marriage, a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and American Muslims building more mosques in US cities.

If the theory about social change provoking stress amongst authoritarians turned out to be correct, then authoritarians would be more likely to rate the changes as bad for the country.

In the aggregate, we were hoping to do a few things. We wanted to understand who these people are, in simple demographic terms, and to test the basic hypotheses about how authoritarianism, in theory, is supposed to work. We wanted to look at the role authoritarians are playing in the election: Were they driving certain policy positions, for example?

We wanted to better understand the larger forces that had suddenly made authoritarians so numerous and so extreme — was it migration, terrorism, perhaps the decline of working-class whites? And maybe most of all, we wanted to develop some theories about what the rise of American authoritarianism meant for the future of polarization between the parties as well as a Republican Party that had become both more extreme and internally divided.

About 10 days later, shortly after Trump won the New Hampshire primary, the poll went into the field. In less than two weeks, we had our results.

V. How the GOP became the party of authoritarians

 

The first thing that jumped out from the data on authoritarians is just how many there are. Our results found that 44 percent of white respondents nationwide scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians, with 19 percent as “very high.” That’s actually not unusual, and lines up with previous national surveys that found that the authoritarian disposition is far from rare1.

The key thing to understand is that authoritarianism is often latent; people in this 44 percent only vote or otherwise act as authoritarians once triggered by some perceived threat, physical or social. But that latency is part of how, over the past few decades, authoritarians have quietly become a powerful political constituency without anyone realizing it.

Today, according to our survey, authoritarians skew heavily Republican. More than 65 percent of people who scored highest on the authoritarianism questions were GOP voters. More than 55 percent of surveyed Republicans scored as “high” or “very high” authoritarians.

And at the other end of the scale, that pattern reversed. People whose scores were most non-authoritarian — meaning they always chose the non-authoritarian parenting answer — were almost 75 percent Democrats.

But this hasn’t always been the case. According to Hetherington and Weiler’s research, this is not a story about how Republicans are from Mars and Democrats are from Venus. It’s a story of polarization that increased over time.

They trace the trend to the 1960s, when the Republican Party shifted electoral strategies to try to win disaffected Southern Democrats, in part by speaking to fears of changing social norms — for example, the racial hierarchies upset by civil rights. The GOP also embraced a “law and order” platform with a heavily racial appeal to white voters who were concerned about race riots.

This positioned the GOP as the party of traditional values and social structures — a role that it has maintained ever since. That promise to stave off social change and, if necessary, to impose order happened to speak powerfully to voters with authoritarian inclinations.

Democrats, by contrast, have positioned themselves as the party of civil rights, equality, and social progress — in other words, as the party of social change, a position that not only fails to attract but actively repels change-averse authoritarians.

Over the next several decades, Hetherington explained to me, this led authoritarians to naturally “sort” themselves into the Republican Party.

That matters, because as more authoritarians sort themselves into the GOP, they have more influence over its policies and candidates. It is not for nothing that our poll found that more than half of the Republican respondents score as authoritarian.

Perhaps more importantly, the party has less and less ability to ignore authoritarians’ voting preferences — even if those preferences clash with the mainstream party establishment.

VI. Trump, authoritarians, and fear

Based on our data, Morning Consult data scientist Adam Petrihos said that “among Republicans, very high/high authoritarianism is very predictive of support for Trump.” Trump has 42 percent support among Republicans but, according to our survey, a full 52 percent support among very high authoritarians.

Authoritarianism was the best single predictor of support for Trump, although having a high school education also came close. And as Hetherington noted after reviewing our results, the relationship between authoritarianism and Trump support remained robust, even after controlling for education level and gender.

Trump support was much lower among Republicans who scored low on authoritarianism: only 38 percent.

But that’s still awfully high. So what could explain Trump’s support among non-authoritarians?

I suspected the answer might lie at least partly in Hetherington and Suhay’s research on how fear affects non-authoritarian voters, so I called them to discuss the data. Hetherington crunched some numbers on physical threats and noticed two things.

The first was that authoritarians tend to fear very specific kinds of physical threats.

 

Authoritarians, we found in our survey, tend to most fear threats that come from abroad, such as ISIS or Russia or Iran. These are threats, the researchers point out, to which people can put a face; a scary terrorist or an Iranian ayatollah. Non-authoritarians were much less afraid of those threats. For instance, 73 percent of very high-scoring authoritarians believed that terrorist organizations like ISIS posed a “very high risk” to them, but only 45 percent of very low-scoring authoritarians did. Domestic threats like car accidents, by contrast, were much less frightening to authoritarians.

But Hetherington also noticed something else: A subgroup of non-authoritarians were very afraid of threats like Iran or ISIS. And the more fear of these threats they expressed, the more likely they were to support Trump.

This seemed to confirm his and Suhay’s theory: that non-authoritarians who are sufficiently frightened of physical threats such as terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.

That’s important, because for years now, Republican politicians and Republican-leaning media such as Fox News have been telling viewers nonstop that the world is a terrifying place and that President Obama isn’t doing enough to keep Americans safe.

There are a variety of political and media incentives for why this happens. But the point is that, as a result, Republican voters have been continually exposed to messages warning of physical dangers. As the perception of physical threat has risen, this fear appears to have led a number of non-authoritarians to vote like authoritarians — to support Trump.

An irony of this primary is that the Republican establishment has tried to stop Trump by, among other things, co-opting his message. But when establishment candidates such as Marco Rubio try to match Trump’s rhetoric on ISIS or on American Muslims, they may end up deepening the fear that can only lead voters back to Trump.

VII. Is America’s changing social landscape “activating” authoritarianism?

But the research on authoritarianism suggests it’s not just physical threats driving all this. There should be another kind of threat — larger, slower, less obvious, but potentially even more powerful — pushing authoritarians to these extremes: the threat of social change.

This could come in the form of evolving social norms, such as the erosion of traditional gender roles or evolving standards in how to discuss sexual orientation. It could come in the form of rising diversity, whether that means demographic changes from immigration or merely changes in the colors of the faces on TV. Or it could be any changes, political or economic, that disrupt social hierarchies.

What these changes have in common is that, to authoritarians, they threaten to take away the status quo as they know it — familiar, orderly, secure — and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing, but also sometimes because it upends their own place in society. According to the literature, authoritarians will seek, in response, a strong leader who promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, and to preserve the status quo.

This is why, in our survey, we wanted to study the degree to which authoritarians versus non-authoritarians expressed a fear of social change — and whether this, as expected, led them to desire heavy-handed responses.

Our results seemed to confirm this: Authoritarians were significantly more likely to rate almost all of the actual and hypothetical social issues we asked about as “bad” or “very bad” for the country.

For instance, our results suggested that an astonishing 44 percent of authoritarians believe same-sex marriage is harmful to the country. Twenty-eight percent rated same-sex marriage as “very bad” for America, and another 16 percent said that it’s “bad.” Only about 35 percent of high-scoring authoritarians said same-sex marriage was “good” or “very good” for the country.

Tellingly, non-authoritarians’ responses skewed in the opposite direction. Non-authoritarians tended to rate same-sex marriage as “good” or “very good” for the country.

The fact that authoritarians and non-authoritarians split over something as seemingly personal and nonthreatening as same-sex marriage is crucial for understanding how authoritarianism can be triggered by even a social change as minor as expanding marriage rights.

We also asked respondents to rate whether Muslims building more mosques in American cities was a good thing. This was intended to test respondents’ comfort level with sharing their communities with Muslims — an issue that has been particularly contentious this primary election.

A whopping 56.5 percent of very high-scoring authoritarians said it was either “bad” or “very bad” for the country when Muslims built more mosques. Only 14 percent of that group said more mosques would be “good” or “very good.”

The literature on authoritarianism suggests this is not just simple Islamophobia, but rather reflects a broader phenomenon wherein authoritarians feel threatened by people they identify as “outsiders” and by the possibility of changes to the status quo makeup of their communities.

This would help explain why authoritarians seem so prone to reject not just one specific kind of outsider or social change, such as Muslims or same-sex couples or Hispanic migrants, but rather to reject all of them. What these seemingly disparate groups have in common is the perceived threat they pose to the status quo order, which authoritarians experience as a threat to themselves.

And America is at a point when the status quo social order is changing rapidly; when several social changes are converging. And they are converging especially on working-class white people.

It is conventional wisdom to ascribe the rise of first the Tea Party right and now Trump to the notion that working-class white Americans are angry.

Indeed they are, but this data helps explain that they are also under certain demographic and economic pressures that, according to this research, are highly likely to trigger authoritarianism — and thus suggests there is something a little more complex going on than simple “anger” that helps explain their gravitation toward extreme political responses.

Working-class communities have come under tremendous economic strain since the recession. And white people are also facing the loss of the privileged position that they previously were able to take for granted. Whites are now projected to become a minority group over the next few decades, owing to migration and other factors. The president is a black man, and nonwhite faces are growing more common in popular culture. Nonwhite groups are raising increasingly prominent political demands, and often those demands coincide with issues such as policing that also speak to authoritarian concerns.

Some of these factors might be considered more or less legitimately threatening than others — the loss of working-class jobs in this country is a real and important issue, no matter how one feels about fading white privilege — but that is not the point.

The point, rather, is that the increasingly important political phenomenon we identify as right-wing populism, or white working-class populism, seems to line up, with almost astonishing precision, with the research on how authoritarianism is both caused and expressed.

That is not to dismiss white working-class concerns as invalid because they might be expressed by authoritarians or through authoritarian politics, but rather to better understand why this is happening — and why it’s having such a profound and extreme effect on American politics.

Have we misunderstood hard-line social conservatism all along?

Most of the other social-threat questions followed a similar pattern2. On its surface, this might seem to suggest that authoritarianism is just a proxy for especially hard-line manifestations of social conservatism. But when examined more carefully, it suggests something more interesting about the nature of social conservatism itself.

For liberals, it may be easy to conclude that opposition to things like same-sex marriage, immigration, and diversity is rooted in bigotry against those groups — that it’s the manifestation of specific homophobia, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

But the results of the Vox/Morning Consult poll, along with prior research on authoritarianism, suggests there might be something else going on.

There is no particular reason, after all, why parenting goals should coincide with animus against specific groups. We weren’t asking questions about whether it was important for children to respect people of different races, but about whether they should respect authority and rules generally. So why do they coincide so heavily?

What might look on the surface like bigotry was really much closer to Stenner’s theory of “activation”

What is most likely, Hetherington suggested, is that authoritarians are much more susceptible to messages that tell them to fear a specific “other” — whether or not they have a preexisting animus against that group. Those fears would therefore change over time as events made different groups seem more or less threatening.

It all depends, he said, on whether a particular group of people has been made into an outgroup or not — whether they had been identified as a dangerous other.

Since September 2001, some media outlets and politicians have painted Muslims as the other and as dangerous to America. Authoritarians, by nature, are more susceptible to these messages, and thus more likely to come to oppose the presence of mosques in their communities.

When told to fear a particular outgroup, Hetherington said, “On average people who score low in authoritarianism will be like, ‘I’m not that worried about that,’ while people who score high in authoritarianism will be like, ‘Oh, my god! I’m worried about that, because the world is a dangerous place.’”

In other words, what might look on the surface like bigotry was really much closer to Stenner’s theory of “activation”: that authoritarians are unusually susceptible to messages about the ways outsiders and social changes threaten America, and so lash out at groups that are identified as objects of concern at that given moment.

That’s not to say that such an attitude is in some way better than simple racism or xenophobia — it is still dangerous and damaging, especially if it empowers frightening demagogues like Donald Trump.

Perhaps more to the point, it helps explain how Trump’s supporters have come to so quickly embrace such extreme policies targeting these outgroups: mass deportation of millions of people, a ban on foreign Muslims visiting the US. When you think about those policy preferences as driven by authoritarianism, in which social threats are perceived as especially dangerous and as demanding extreme responses, rather than the sudden emergence of specific bigotries, this starts to make a lot more sense.

VIII. What authoritarians want

From our parenting questions, we learned who the GOP authoritarians are. From our questions about threats and social change, we learned what’s motivating them. But the final set of questions, on policy preferences, might be the most important of all: So what? What do authoritarians actually want?

 

The responses to our policy questions showed that authoritarians have their own set of policy preferences, distinct from GOP orthodoxy. And those preferences mean that, in real and important ways, authoritarians are their own distinct constituency: effectively a new political party within the GOP.

What stands out from the results, Feldman wrote after reviewing our data, is that authoritarians “are most willing to want to use force, to crack down on immigration, and limit civil liberties.”

This “action side” of authoritarianism, he believed, was the key thing that distinguished Trump supporters from supporters of other GOP candidates. “The willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters.”

Authoritarians generally and Trump voters specifically, we found, were highly likely to support five policies:

  1. Using military force over diplomacy against countries that threaten the United States
  2. Changing the Constitution to bar citizenship for children of illegal immigrants
  3. Imposing extra airport checks on passengers who appear to be of Middle Eastern descent in order to curb terrorism
  4. Requiring all citizens to carry a national ID card at all times to show to a police officer on request, to curb terrorism
  5. Allowing the federal government to scan all phone calls for calls to any number linked to terrorism

What these policies share in common is an outsize fear of threats, physical and social, and, more than that, a desire to meet those threats with severe government action — with policies that are authoritarian not just in style but in actuality. The scale of the desired response is, in some ways, what most distinguishes authoritarians from the rest of the GOP.

“Many Republicans seem to be threatened by terrorism, violence, and cultural diversity, but that’s not unique to Trump supporters,” Feldman told me.

“It seems to be the action side of authoritarianism — the willingness to use government power to eliminate the threats — that is most clear among Trump supporters,” he added.

If Trump loses the election, that won’t remove the threats and social changes that trigger the “action side” of authoritarianism

This helps explain why the GOP has had such a hard time co-opting Trump’s supporters, even though those supporters’ immediate policy concerns, such as limiting immigration or protecting national security, line up with party orthodoxy. The real divide is over how far to go in responding. And the party establishment is simply unwilling to call for such explicitly authoritarian policies.

Just as striking is what was missing from authoritarians’ concerns. There was no clear correlation between authoritarianism and support for tax cuts for people making more than $250,000 per year, for example. And the same was true of support for international trade agreements.

These are both issues associated with mainstream GOP economic policies. All groups opposed the tax cuts, and support for trade agreements was evenly lukewarm across all degrees of authoritarianism. So there is no real divide on these issues.

But there is one more factor that our data couldn’t capture but is nevertheless important: Trump’s style.

Trump’s specific policies aren’t the thing that most sets him apart from the rest of the field of GOP candidates. Rather, it’s his rhetoric and style. The way he reduces everything to black-and-white extremes of strong versus weak, greatest versus worst. His simple, direct promises that he can solve problems that other politicians are too weak to manage.

And, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to flout all the conventions of civilized discourse when it comes to the minority groups that authoritarians find so threatening. That’s why it’s a benefit rather than a liability for Trump when he says Mexicans are rapists or speaks gleefully of massacring Muslims with pig-blood-tainted bullets: He is sending a signal to his authoritarian supporters that he won’t let “political correctness” hold him back from attacking the outgroups they fear.

This, Feldman explained to me, is “classic authoritarian leadership style: simple, powerful, and punitive.”

IX. How authoritarians will change the GOP — and American politics

To my surprise, the most compelling conclusion to come out of our polling data wasn’t about Trump at all.

Rather, it was that authoritarians, as a growing presence in the GOP, are a real constituency that exists independently of Trump — and will persist as a force in American politics regardless of the fate of his candidacy.

If Trump loses the election, that will not remove the threats and social changes that trigger the “action side” of authoritarianism. The authoritarians will still be there. They will still look for candidates who will give them the strong, punitive leadership they desire.

And that means Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics, with potentially profound implications for the country.

It would also mean more problems for the GOP. This election is already showing that the party establishment abhors Trump and all he stands for — his showy demagoguery, his disregard for core conservative economic values, his divisiveness.

We may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians

But while the party may try to match Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric, and its candidates may grudgingly embrace some of his harsher policies toward immigrants or Muslims, in the end a mainstream political party cannot fully commit to extreme authoritarian action the way Trump can.

That will be a problem for the party. Just look at where the Tea Party has left the Republican establishment. The Tea Party delivered the House to the GOP in 2010, but ultimately left the party in an unresolved civil war. Tea Party candidates have challenged moderates and centrists, leaving the GOP caucus divided and chaotic.

Now a similar divide is playing out at the presidential level, with results that are even more destructive for the Republican Party. Authoritarians may be a slight majority within the GOP, and thus able to force their will within the party, but they are too few and their views too unpopular to win a national election on their own.

And so the rise of authoritarianism as a force within American politics means we may now have a de facto three-party system: the Democrats, the GOP establishment, and the GOP authoritarians.

And although the latter two groups are presently forced into an awkward coalition, the GOP establishment has demonstrated a complete inability to regain control over the renegade authoritarians, and the authoritarians are actively opposed to the establishment’s centrist goals and uninterested in its economic platform.

Over time, this will have significant political consequences for the Republican Party. It will become more difficult for Republican candidates to win the presidency because the candidates who can win the nomination by appealing to authoritarian primary voters will struggle to court mainstream voters in the general election. They will have less trouble with local and congressional elections, but that might just mean more legislative gridlock as the GOP caucus struggles to balance the demands of authoritarian and mainstream legislators. The authoritarian base will drag the party further to the right on social issues, and will simultaneously erode support for traditionally conservative economic policies.

And in the meantime, the forces activating American authoritarians seem likely to only grow stronger. Norms around gender, sexuality, and race will continue evolving. Movements like Black Lives Matter will continue chipping away at the country’s legacy of institutionalized discrimination, pursuing the kind of social change and reordering of society that authoritarians find so threatening.

The chaos in the Middle East, which allows groups like ISIS to flourish and sends millions of refugees spilling into other countries, shows no sign of improving. Longer term, if current demographic trends continue, white Americans will cease to be a majority over the coming decades.

In the long run, this could mean a GOP that is even more hard-line on immigration and on policing, that is more outspoken about fearing Muslims and other minority groups, but also takes a softer line on traditional party economic issues like tax cuts. It will be a GOP that continues to perform well in congressional and local elections, but whose divisions leave the party caucus divided to the point of barely functioning, and perhaps eventually unable to win the White House.

For decades, the Republican Party has been winning over authoritarians by implicitly promising to stand firm against the tide of social change, and to be the party of force and power rather than the party of negotiation and compromise. But now it may be discovering that its strategy has worked too well — and threatens to tear the party apart.


Correction: Matthew MacWilliams is a PhD student at UMass Amherst.

http://www.vox.com/2016/3/1/11127424/trump-authoritarianism

Contrived Chaos and States of Confusion

by Randall Amster, Common Dreams, February 24, 2017

There has been a lot of analysis suggesting that the executive-level politics we’re seeing play out right now are about incompetence or irrationality. The psychology of the President himself has been called into question, with bizarre public performances and blatant falsities being propagated, mirroring that of others in the Administration. To those accustomed to the presidency (irrespective of ideology) requiring certain levels of comportment, decency, and accountability, this moment can be dizzying and even terrifying.

To reach the conclusion that this is the product of ineptitude or insanity, however, would also require us to conclude that the past two years of campaigning and governing have been equally accidental or the result of someone being unhinged (not to mention the years spent on television). A far more plausible conclusion is that this actually is being done by design, in the sense that the immediate goal itself is to stimulate chaos to induce fear in some and admiration in others. Indeed, Dr. Allen Frances (who helped write the DSM) cautioned against following this red herring: “Trump represents a political challenge to the American democracy. To attribute this to his psychological quirks is to underestimate the danger.”

This is distinct from supposing that the contrived nature of the turmoil and ineptitude we seem to be experiencing is a kind of diversion or subterfuge meant to keep us from following the real moves being made or to throw us off the trail of potentially damaging storylines. It might be even simpler, in that chaos is the lifeblood of this Administration, the essential quality that animates their personalities and that has made them seemingly impervious to rational discourse, bad publicity, lampooning, or even fact-checking.

If chaos itself is both their method and goal, then the principal mistake they could make would be to seem reflective or repentant at any point. Instead, the premium is on being outrageous, unvarnished, off-the-cuff, impolitic, even shocking. In this view, the value is in appearing “unhinged,” taunting the media and others with ridiculous “alternative facts,” tweeting out misspelled rants at all hours of the day, asserting bald-faced lies, and acting in bizarre ways that give new meaning to the “bully” facet of the bully pulpit.

Taking it one step further, one can see the potential appeal of this modus operandi in some sectors—particularly those in the support base who are tired of politicians being all talk and no action. This contingent is more accustomed to the personality types found on “reality TV,” which is popular for a reason. The President not only garnered support through those channels, but did so by accentuating a persona that is natural in its brashness—and that doesn’t overestimate the refinement of the public.

Still, it leaves one to wonder where all of this may lead. Chaos for its own sake may be the order of the day, but surely there must be a long game at work in all this. Consider the posturing of an Administration whose support hinges on an intention to dismantle bureaucracies and “drain the swamp,” to roll in and restore that which has been lost through years of capitulating to career politicians who have sold out our values, jobs, and security. This has been the mantra for a long time now, as was noted back in 2015:

“And while it may seem like a lurching, chaotic campaign, Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate, according to a Washington Post review of the businessman’s speeches, interviews and thousands of tweets and retweets over the past six months. Trump delivers scores of promises, diatribes and insults at breakneck speed. He attacks a regular cast of villains including undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, his GOP rivals and the media. He keeps the narrative arc of each controversy alive with an endless stream of statements, an unwillingness to back down even when he has misstated the facts—and a string of attacks against those who criticize him. All the while, his supporters see a truth-talking problem solver unlike the traditional politicians who have let them down.”

That was written over a year ago, in an article titled: “It’s not chaos. It’s Trump’s campaign strategy.” The phrase “disciplined and methodical” stands out, as in sticking to the game plan and being calculated—further suggesting that all of this isn’t happening by accident or due to irrational behavior, but instead represents a form of contrived chaos. As such, Steve Bannon recently stated that the aim is nothing less than the ”deconstruction of the administrative state,” and previously had reportedly said that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down.”

Which brings us back to the question: to what end? The inducement of dizzying chaos may be a brilliant strategy and even a short-term goal in itself, but if it actually succeeds in bringing “everything crashing down,” then what? And who or what is the “everything” in that equation? We might surmise that this could mean “everything that potentially stands in the way of our agenda,” or perhaps simply that which is deemed superfluous or redundant in an attempt to streamline operations and consolidate power.

Following this arc, David Brooks recently characterized his fear about this Administration as “not that it’s incipient fascism, it’s that it’s anarchy.” Brooks is making a common mistake here in his conflation of anarchy with chaos, and moreover with his assessment of the Administration’s possible intentions. One clue is the nod to Lenin as a paragon of “destroying the state,” since what he replaced it with scarcely resembled anything like anarchism, instead moving toward an even more centralized apparatus. An even stronger prompt is Bannon’s description of the aim as implementing “an economic nationalist agenda.”

The contrast returns us to the question of what ensues in the emptiness created should the “chaos first” strategy succeed in crashing the system. History cautions that inducing such a vacuum by itself will more likely lead to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, fascism, or other similarly troubling variants. These repressive outcomes entail the replacement of the preexisting state with deeper forms of autocratic power (even when cloaked in populist rhetoric), often vested in an “inner party” circle or a single person.

Anarchism is actually the opposite of this. While the impetus to break down oppressive structures may be overlapping, it is equally the case that anarchism seeks to foster wider forms of participation in the process. As such, it is constructive in its attempt to “prefigure” this future through action in the present, seeking not primarily to create a vacuum (which could serve as an invitation to tyranny) as much as it strives to cultivate more egalitarian relationships and greater capacities for self-organization in the process.

As the German anarchist Gustav Landauer observed: “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another…. We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.” Landauer articulates a more evolutionary perspective that sometimes contrasts with anarchism’s revolutionary spirit, but the shared impetus is constructive.

At this juncture, the current Administration has not articulated a coherent worldview that provides any confidence that its penchant for destruction and chaos is anything other than an attempt to consolidate power. Indeed, the methods utilized (promulgating alternative facts, false populism, bullying and strong-arming, profiteering through governance, and the like) align much more closely with the hallmarks of despotic regimes, and bear no semblance to anarchism beyond a superficial equation with disarray.

Today we find ourselves at the horns of an ostensible conflict between “order” and “chaos,” with the apparatuses of the “deep state” seemingly at loggerheads with this Administration’s desire for “deconstruction.” Where it will lead is hard to say, and we still haven’t factored a third pole into the dynamic: the people, a large number of whom are awakened and mobilized right now. It is entirely possible that this era represents an opportunity for another framework to emerge, one that isn’t defined in either reactionary or stationary terms. Perhaps out of the confusion will ultimately emerge evolution.

Randall Amster

Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).

The fight we are engaged in is a fight for democracy against authoritarianism

by Robert Reich, Facebook, 2/23/17
Let me state this as clearly as I can: The fight we are engaged in is not Democrats versus Republicans. It’s not big government versus small government. It’s not traditional Left versus traditional Right. The more this fight is viewed in partisan terms, the less power and legitimacy it has. The fight we are engaged in is a fight for democracy against authoritarianism, for inclusion against exclusion, for tolerance against hate, for a fair economy against one rigged by and for those with great power and wealth. We must fight this and win this together — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. This is the only way we can reclaim our democracy, our economy, and our fundamental values.

How a Ruthless Network of Super-Rich Ideologues Killed Choice and Destroyed People’s Faith in Politics

By George Monbiot, Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics, Originally published at the Guardian,  February 18, 2017

Excerpt from full article – scroll down for content – highlighting by curator of this website

Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph

The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975. Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party…was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She [Thatcher] … pulled out a dog-eared book…“This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun. The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations…This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy…He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands. Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take. He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion…Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources. It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics. By the time Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme. Thatcherism and Reaganism were not ideologies in their own right: they were just two faces of neoliberalism…Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not possess a narrative of their own. Rather than develop a new political story, they thought it was sufficient to triangulate. In other words, they extracted a few elements of what their parties had once believed, mixed them with elements of what their opponents believed, and developed from this unlikely combination a “third way”. It was inevitable that the blazing, insurrectionary confidence of neoliberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pull than the dying star of social democracy…. the result is first disempowerment then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation…The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming. Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives. The key task now is to tell a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st centuryA few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that – as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature. Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.

Full text as posted at http://evonomics.com/ruthless-network-super-rich-ideologues-killed-choice-destroyed-peoples-faith-politics/

How a Ruthless Network of Super-Rich Ideologues Killed Choice and Destroyed People’s Faith in Politics

Neoliberalism: the deep story that lies beneath Donald Trump’s triumph

By George Monbiot, Evonomics: The Next Evolution of Economics, Originally published at the Guardian,  February 18, 2017  http://evonomics.com/ruthless-network-super-rich-ideologues-killed-choice-destroyed-peoples-faith-politics/

The events that led to Donald Trump’s election started in England in 1975. At a meeting a few months after Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party, one of her colleagues, or so the story goes, was explaining what he saw as the core beliefs of conservatism. She snapped open her handbag, pulled out a dog-eared book, and slammed it on the table. “This is what we believe,” she said. A political revolution that would sweep the world had begun.

The book was The Constitution of Liberty by Frederick Hayek. Its publication, in 1960, marked the transition from an honest, if extreme, philosophy to an outright racket. The philosophy was called neoliberalism. It saw competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. The market would discover a natural hierarchy of winners and losers, creating a more efficient system than could ever be devised through planning or by design. Anything that impeded this process, such as significant tax, regulation, trade union activity or state provision, was counter-productive. Unrestricted entrepreneurs would create the wealth that would trickle down to everyone.

This, at any rate, is how it was originally conceived. But by the time Hayek came to write The Constitution of Liberty, the network of lobbyists and thinkers he had founded was being lavishly funded by multimillionaires who saw the doctrine as a means of defending themselves against democracy. Not every aspect of the neoliberal programme advanced their interests. Hayek, it seems, set out to close the gap.

He begins the book by advancing the narrowest possible conception of liberty: an absence of coercion. He rejects such notions as political freedom, universal rights, human equality and the distribution of wealth, all of which, by restricting the behaviour of the wealthy and powerful, intrude on the absolute freedom from coercion he demands.

Democracy, by contrast, “is not an ultimate or absolute value”. In fact, liberty depends on preventing the majority from exercising choice over the direction that politics and society might take.

He justifies this position by creating a heroic narrative of extreme wealth. He conflates the economic elite, spending their money in new ways, with philosophical and scientific pioneers. Just as the political philosopher should be free to think the unthinkable, so the very rich should be free to do the undoable, without constraint by public interest or public opinion.

The ultra rich are “scouts”, “experimenting with new styles of living”, who blaze the trails that the rest of society will follow. The progress of society depends on the liberty of these “independents” to gain as much money as they want and spend it how they wish. All that is good and useful, therefore, arises from inequality. There should be no connection between merit and reward, no distinction made between earned and unearned income, and no limit to the rents they can charge.

Inherited wealth is more socially useful than earned wealth: “the idle rich”, who don’t have to work for their money, can devote themselves to influencing “fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs”. Even when they seem to be spending money on nothing but “aimless display”, they are in fact acting as society’s vanguard.

Hayek softened his opposition to monopolies and hardened his opposition to trade unions. He lambasted progressive taxation and attempts by the state to raise the general welfare of citizens. He insisted that there is “an overwhelming case against a free health service for all” and dismissed the conservation of natural resources. It should come as no surprise to those who follow such matters that he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

By the time Thatcher slammed his book on the table, a lively network of thinktanks, lobbyists and academics promoting Hayek’s doctrines had been established on both sides of the Atlantic, abundantly financed by some of the world’s richest people and businesses, including DuPont, General Electric, the Coors brewing company, Charles Koch, Richard Mellon Scaife, Lawrence Fertig, the William Volker Fund and the Earhart Foundation. Using psychology and linguistics to brilliant effect, the thinkers these people sponsored found the words and arguments required to turn Hayek’s anthem to the elite into a plausible political programme.

Thatcherism and Reaganism were not ideologies in their own right: they were just two faces of neoliberalism. Their massive tax cuts for the rich, crushing of trade unions, reduction in public housing, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services were all proposed by Hayek and his disciples. But the real triumph of this network was not its capture of the right, but its colonisation of parties that once stood for everything Hayek detested.

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did not possess a narrative of their own. Rather than develop a new political story, they thought it was sufficient to triangulate. In other words, they extracted a few elements of what their parties had once believed, mixed them with elements of what their opponents believed, and developed from this unlikely combination a “third way”.

It was inevitable that the blazing, insurrectionary confidence of neoliberalism would exert a stronger gravitational pull than the dying star of social democracy. Hayek’s triumph could be witnessed everywhere from Blair’s expansion of the private finance initiative to Clinton’s repeal of the Glass-Steagal Act, which had regulated the financial sector. For all his grace and touch, Barack Obama, who didn’t possess a narrative either (except “hope”), was slowly reeled in by those who owned the means of persuasion.

As I warned in April, the result is first disempowerment then disenfranchisement. If the dominant ideology stops governments from changing social outcomes, they can no longer respond to the needs of the electorate. Politics becomes irrelevant to people’s lives; debate is reduced to the jabber of a remote elite. The disenfranchised turn instead to a virulent anti-politics in which facts and arguments are replaced by slogans, symbols and sensation. The man who sank Hillary Clinton’s bid for the presidency was not Donald Trump. It was her husband.

The paradoxical result is that the backlash against neoliberalism’s crushing of political choice has elevated just the kind of man that Hayek worshipped. Trump, who has no coherent politics, is not a classic neoliberal. But he is the perfect representation of Hayek’s “independent”; the beneficiary of inherited wealth, unconstrained by common morality, whose gross predilections strike a new path that others may follow. The neoliberal thinktankers are now swarming round this hollow man, this empty vessel waiting to be filled by those who know what they want. The likely result is the demolition of our remaining decencies, beginning with the agreement to limit global warming.

Those who tell the stories run the world. Politics has failed through a lack of competing narratives. The key task now is to tell a new story of what it is to be a human in the 21st century. It must be as appealing to some who have voted for Trump and Ukip as it is to the supporters of Clinton, Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.

A few of us have been working on this, and can discern what may be the beginning of a story. It’s too early to say much yet, but at its core is the recognition that – as modern psychology and neuroscience make abundantly clear – human beings, by comparison with any other animals, are both remarkably social and remarkably unselfish. The atomisation and self-interested behaviour neoliberalism promotes run counter to much of what comprises human nature.

Hayek told us who we are, and he was wrong. Our first step is to reclaim our humanity.

Originally published here at the Guardian.

2017  February 18

Farewell, America

By Neal Gabler, billmoyers.com, November 10, 2016

Excerpt

No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country… It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us. We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist… Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? …This country has survived a civil war, two world wars and a Great Depression. There are many who say we will survive this, too. Maybe we will, but we won’t survive unscathed. We know too much about each other to heal. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things. Nor can we pretend that democracy works and that elections have more-or-less happy endings. Democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things.

The virus that kills democracy is extremism because extremism disables those codes. Republicans have disrespected the process for decades…they haven’t believed in democracy for a long time, and the media never called them out on it.

Democracy can’t cope with extremism…because ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, rhetoric has obviated action, speechifying has superseded governing…

Just as Trump has shredded our values, our nation and our democracy, he has shredded the mediaJust as the sainted Ronald Reagan created an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor that the Republicans would later exploit against Democrats, conservatives delegitimized mainstream journalism so they could fill the vacuum.

Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.

Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information — a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.

With the mainstream media so delegitimized… not having had the courage to take on lies and expose false equivalencies — they have very little role to play going forward in our politics. I suspect most of them will surrender to Trumpism — if they were able to normalize Trump as a candidate, they will no doubt normalize him as presidentFor the press, this is likely to be the new normal in an America in which white supremacists, neo-Nazi militias, racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-Semites have been legitimized by a new president who “says what I’m thinking.” It will be open season… if anyone points the way forward, it may be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is no paragon. He always had seemed to willfully neglect modern Republicanism’s incipient fascism (now no longer incipient), and he was an apologist for conservative self-enrichment and bigotry. But this campaign season, Brooks pretty much dispensed with politics. He seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any of this and retreated into spirituality. What Brooks promoted were values of mutual respect, a bolder sense of civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, and overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. He is not hopeful, but he hasn’t lost all hope.

For those of us now languishing in despair, this may be a prescription for rejuvenation. We have lost the country, but by refocusing, we may have gained our own little patch of the world and, more granularly, our own family. For journalists, Brooks may show how political reporting…might yield to a broader moral context in which one considers the effect that policy, strategy and governance have not only on our physical and economic well-being but also on our spiritual well-being. In a society that is likely to be fractious and odious, we need a national conversation on values. The media could help start it….We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.

Full text

No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently.

America died on Nov. 8, 2016, not with a bang or a whimper, but at its own hand via electoral suicide. We the people chose a man who has shredded our values, our morals, our compassion, our tolerance, our decency, our sense of common purpose, our very identity — all the things that, however tenuously, made a nation out of a country.

Whatever place we now live in is not the same place it was on Nov. 7. No matter how the rest of the world looked at us on Nov. 7, they will now look at us differently. We are likely to be a pariah country. And we are lost for it. As I surveyed the ruin of that country this gray Wednesday morning, I found weary consolation in W.H. Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, which concludes:

“Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.”
I hunt for that affirming flame.

This generally has been called the “hate election” because everyone professed to hate both candidates. It turned out to be the hate election because, and let’s not mince words, of the hatefulness of the electorate. In the years to come, we will brace for the violence, the anger, the racism, the misogyny, the xenophobia, the nativism, the white sense of grievance that will undoubtedly be unleashed now that we have destroyed the values that have bound us.

We all knew these hatreds lurked under the thinnest veneer of civility. That civility finally is gone. In its absence, we may realize just how imperative that politesse was. It is the way we managed to coexist.

If there is a single sentence that characterizes the election, it is this: “He says the things I’m thinking.” That may be what is so terrifying. Who knew that so many tens of millions of white Americans were thinking unconscionable things about their fellow Americans? Who knew that tens of millions of white men felt so emasculated by women and challenged by minorities? Who knew that after years of seeming progress on race and gender, tens of millions of white Americans lived in seething resentment, waiting for a demagogue to arrive who would legitimize their worst selves and channel them into political power? Perhaps we had been living in a fool’s paradise. Now we aren’t.

This country has survived a civil war, two world wars and a Great Depression. There are many who say we will survive this, too. Maybe we will, but we won’t survive unscathed. We know too much about each other to heal. No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things. Nor can we pretend that democracy works and that elections have more-or-less happy endings. Democracy only functions when its participants abide by certain conventions, certain codes of conduct and a respect for the process.

No more can we pretend that we are exceptional or good or progressive or united. We are none of those things.

The virus that kills democracy is extremism because extremism disables those codes. Republicans have disrespected the process for decades. They have regarded any Democratic president as illegitimate. They have proudly boasted of preventing popularly elected Democrats from effecting policy and have asserted that only Republicans have the right to determine the nation’s course. They have worked tirelessly to make sure that the government cannot govern and to redefine the purpose of government as prevention rather than effectuation. In short, they haven’t believed in democracy for a long time, and the media never called them out on it.

Democracy can’t cope with extremism. Only violence and time can defeat it. The first is unacceptable, the second takes too long. Though Trump is an extremist, I have a feeling that he will be a very popular president and one likely to be re-elected by a substantial margin, no matter what he does or fails to do. That’s because ever since the days of Ronald Reagan, rhetoric has obviated action, speechifying has superseded governing.

Trump was absolutely correct when he bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his supporters wouldn’t care. It was a dictator’s ugly vaunt, but one that recognized this election never was about policy or economics or the “right path/wrong path,” or even values. It was about venting. So long as Trump vented their grievances, his all-white supporters didn’t care about anything else. He is smart enough to know that won’t change in the presidency. In fact, it is only likely to intensify. White America, Trump’s America, just wants to hear its anger bellowed. This is one time when the Bully Pulpit will be literal.

The media can’t be let off the hook for enabling an authoritarian to get to the White House. Long before he considered a presidential run, he was a media creation — a regular in the gossip pages, a photo on magazine covers, the bankrupt (morally and otherwise) mogul who hired and fired on The Apprentice. When he ran, the media treated him not as a candidate, but as a celebrity, and so treated him differently from ordinary pols. The media gave him free publicity, trumpeted his shenanigans, blasted out his tweets, allowed him to phone in his interviews, fell into his traps and generally kowtowed until they suddenly discovered that this joke could actually become president.

Just as Trump has shredded our values, our nation and our democracy, he has shredded the media. In this, as in his politics, he is only the latest avatar of a process that began long before his candidacy. Just as the sainted Ronald Reagan created an unbridgeable chasm between rich and poor that the Republicans would later exploit against Democrats, conservatives delegitimized mainstream journalism so they could fill the vacuum.

With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived.

Retiring conservative talk show host Charlie Sykes complained that after years of bashing from the right wing, the mainstream media no longer could perform their function as reporters, observers, fact dispensers, and even truth tellers, and he said we needed them. Like Goebbels before them, conservatives understood they had to create their own facts, their own truths, their own reality. They have done so, and in so doing effectively destroyed the very idea of objectivity. Trump can lie constantly only because white America has accepted an Orwellian sense of truth — the truth pulled inside out.

With Trump’s election, I think that the ideal of an objective, truthful journalism is dead, never to be revived. Like Nixon and Sarah Palin before him, Trump ran against the media, boomeranging off the public’s contempt for the press. He ran against what he regarded as media elitism and bias, and he ran on the idea that the press disdained working-class white America. Among the many now-widening divides in the country, this is a big one, the divide between the media and working-class whites, because it creates a Wild West of information — a media ecology in which nothing can be believed except what you already believe.

With the mainstream media so delegitimized — a delegitimization for which they bear a good deal of blame, not having had the courage to take on lies and expose false equivalencies — they have very little role to play going forward in our politics. I suspect most of them will surrender to Trumpism — if they were able to normalize Trump as a candidate, they will no doubt normalize him as president. Cable news may even welcome him as a continuous entertainment and ratings booster. And in any case, like Reagan, he is bulletproof. The media cannot touch him, even if they wanted to. Presumably, there will be some courageous guerillas in the mainstream press, a kind of Resistance, who will try to fact-check him. But there will be few of them, and they will be whistling in the wind. Trump, like all dictators, is his own truth.

What’s more, Trump already has promised to take his war on the press into courtrooms and the halls of Congress. He wants to loosen libel protections, and he has threatened Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos of Amazon with an antitrust suit. Individual journalists have reason to fear him as well. He has already singled out NBC’s Katy Tur, perhaps the best of the television reporters, so that she needed the Secret Service to escort her from one of his rallies. Jewish journalists who have criticized Trump have been subjected to vicious anti-Semitism and intimidation from the white nationalist “alt-right.” For the press, this is likely to be the new normal in an America in which white supremacists, neo-Nazi militias, racists, sexists, homophobes and anti-Semites have been legitimized by a new president who “says what I’m thinking.” It will be open season.

This converts the media from reporters to targets, and they have little recourse. Still, if anyone points the way forward, it may be New York Times columnist David Brooks. Brooks is no paragon. He always had seemed to willfully neglect modern Republicanism’s incipient fascism (now no longer incipient), and he was an apologist for conservative self-enrichment and bigotry. But this campaign season, Brooks pretty much dispensed with politics. He seemed to have arrived at the conclusion that no good could possibly come of any of this and retreated into spirituality. What Brooks promoted were values of mutual respect, a bolder sense of civic engagement, an emphasis on community and neighborhood, and overall a belief in trickle-up decency rather than trickle-down economics. He is not hopeful, but he hasn’t lost all hope.

For those of us now languishing in despair, this may be a prescription for rejuvenation. We have lost the country, but by refocusing, we may have gained our own little patch of the world and, more granularly, our own family. For journalists, Brooks may show how political reporting, which, as I said, is likely to be irrelevant in the Trump age, might yield to a broader moral context in which one considers the effect that policy, strategy and governance have not only on our physical and economic well-being but also on our spiritual well-being. In a society that is likely to be fractious and odious, we need a national conversation on values. The media could help start it.

But the disempowered media may have one more role to fill: They must bear witness. Many years from now, future generations will need to know what happened to us and how it happened. They will need to know how disgruntled white Americans, full of self-righteous indignation, found a way to take back a country they felt they were entitled to and which they believed had been lost. They will need to know about the ugliness and evil that destroyed us as a nation after great men like Lincoln and Roosevelt guided us through previous crises and kept our values intact. They will need to know, and they will need a vigorous, engaged, moral media to tell them. They will also need us.

We are not living for ourselves anymore in this country. Now we are living for history.

Neal Gabler Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two LA Times Book Prizes, Time magazine’s non-fiction book of the year, USA Today‘s biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.

http://billmoyers.com/story/farewell-america/#.WLWQK_Sbyos.facebook

Donald Trump Is Becoming an Authoritarian Leader Before Our Very Eyes

By Jeet Heer, The New Republic, January 23, 2017 …The new administration’s bewildering boasts and outright lies are what make it so frightening, as they’re early signs of what many of us in the media have warned about for months: Authoritarianism….The purpose of the Trump administration’s lies is not necessarily to deceive, but to separate the believers from the disbelievers—for the purpose of rewarding the former and punishing the latter. …what Trump did in his CIA speech, which was rife with deceptions and examples of a narcissistic will to reshape the truth…Turning a speech at an intelligence agency into a political rally is a deep betrayal of political norms. But it is very much in keeping with Trump’s disturbing habit of claiming the armed wing of the state, including the military and law enforcement, as his political allies…. John MacGaffin, a high-ranking veteran of the agency. “What self-centered, irrational decision process got him to this travesty?” MacGaffin told the magazine. “Most importantly, how will that process serve us when the issues he must address are dangerous and incredibly complex? This is scary stuff!”… One of the defining tactics of his campaign was disinformation, coupled with accusations of the same against the media. That hasn’t changed now that Trump is president. The administration’s unified anti-press and anti-fact message over the weekend is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy that was hatched many months ago, and is only likely to intensify. The president will wage a rhetorical war against the media, with the intent of delegitimizing one of the few institutions that can hold him accountable, and he will wage it with his most effective weapon: Lies, damned lies, and false statistics.


 

The administration’s many lies this weekend should frighten all Americans.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is expert at estimating crowd sizes. When trying to figure out whether a protest in some foreign hotspot could turn into a revolution, the CIA uses satellite imagery to get a sense of how many people are protesting. So it was particularly brazen of Donald Trump, while addressing the agency for the first time as president, to lie about the size of Friday’s inauguration crowd.

“We had a massive field of people,” Trump told a crowd of about 400 CIA employees at the agency’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia, on Saturday. “You saw them. Packed. I get up this morning, I turn on one of the networks, and they show an empty field. I say, wait a minute, I made a speech. I looked out, the field was—it looked like a million, million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there. And they said, Donald Trump did not draw well.” Crowd scientists estimate that there were around 160,000 people at Trump’s inauguration in the hour before his speech.

In a bizarre press briefing later on Saturday, Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer ranted against the media and claimed, not just falsely but nonsensically, that Trump enjoyed “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period—both in person and around the globe. These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.” In fact, the record is still held by Barack Obama for his 2008 inauguration, which drew an estimated 1.8 million.

And on Sunday’s Meet the Press, when asked to explain why Spicer “uttered a falsehood,” senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told Chuck Todd, “Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”

Some observers have warned journalists against an “alarmist” response to Trump’s early actions, lest the media too quickly exhaust our capacity for outrage and cause readers, especially those inclined to give the new president a chance, to tune out. “The danger for the established press,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in a column over the weekend, “is the same danger facing other institutions in our republic: That while believing themselves to be nobly resisting Trump, they end up imitating him. Such imitation will inspire reader loyalty and passion—up to a point. But beyond that point, it’s more likely to polarize than to persuade, which means it often does a demagogue’s work for him. Fellow journalists, don’t do it.”

That column appears to have been completed before the weekend’s events, though; it makes no mention of Trump’s speech or Spicer’s briefing, which ought to change the calculus on the merits of press alarmism. The new administration’s bewildering boasts and outright lies are what make it so frightening, as they’re early signs of what many of us in the media have warned about for months: Authoritarianism.

The purpose of the Trump administration’s lies is not necessarily to deceive, but to separate the believers from the disbelievers—for the purpose of rewarding the former and punishing the latter. As chess champion Garry Kasparov, an expert in authoritarianism as an outspoken opponent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, tweeted on Saturday:In an already hyper-partisan political landscape, the Trump administration can blatantly lie, knowing that his base trusts him more than the “dishonest media.” And that’s exactly what Trump did in his CIA speech, which was rife with deceptions and examples of a narcissistic will to reshape the truth. While telling a story about a Time magazine reporter who wrongly reported that Trump removed the Martin Luther King, Jr. bust from the Oval Office (a mistake that was quickly corrected, but which the Trump staff continues to harp on), the president went on a tangent about Time.

“I have been on their cover, like, 14 or 15 times,” he said. “I think we have the all-time record in the history of Time magazine. Like, if Tom Brady is on the cover, it’s one time, because he won the Super Bowl or something, right?  I’ve been on it for 15 times this year. I don’t think that’s a record…that can ever be broken. Do you agree with that? What do you think?” (The all-time record is held by Richard Nixon, who appeared on 55 Time covers.)

Aside from these lies and factual mistakes, Trump’s speech was genuinely weird on a number of a counts. His intended purpose was to mend fences with the agency, with which he’s feuded over their conclusion that Russia interfered in the election to help him defeat Hillary Clinton. Yet he did very little to reassure CIA staff, only briefly acknowledging their sacrifice and service by alluding to a wall commemorating agents who died in line of duty.

Rather, Trump was in full campaign mode, attacking the media (“among the most dishonest human beings on Earth”) and praising himself (“they say, ‘is Donald Trump an intellectual?’ Trust me, I’m like a smart person”). He also indicated the U.S. might reinvade Iraq for imperial plunder. “The old expression, ‘to the victor belong the spoils’—you remember,” he said. “I always used to say, keep the oil…So we should have kept the oil. But okay. Maybe you’ll have another chance.” The entire event was orchestrated like a campaign stop, so much so that Trump even brought along around 40 supporters, who could be heard cheering and clapping during his applause lines.

Turning a speech at an intelligence agency into a political rally is a deep betrayal of political norms. But it is very much in keeping with Trump’s disturbing habit of claiming the armed wing of the state, including the military and law enforcement, as his political allies. He said early in the CIA speech that “the military gave us tremendous percentages of votes. We were unbelievably successful in the election with getting the vote of the military. And probably almost everybody in this room voted for me, but I will not ask you to raise your hands if you did.” At the end of his speech, Trump sounded like a pathetic suitor making his final pitch: “I just wanted to really say that I love you, I respect you. There’s nobody I respect more.”

While Trump’s antics might have impressed his fans watching from home, they seem to have done little to assuage worries in the agency. The New Yorker interviewed a variety of intelligence experts, including John MacGaffin, a high-ranking veteran of the agency. “What self-centered, irrational decision process got him to this travesty?” MacGaffin told the magazine. “Most importantly, how will that process serve us when the issues he must address are dangerous and incredibly complex? This is scary stuff!”

Trump’s self-centered decision process is authoritarianism, and it’s anything but irrational. He campaigned in an authoritarian style, with rallies where he riled up large crowds to jeer at the press and protesters. One of the defining tactics of his campaign was disinformation, coupled with accusations of the same against the media. That hasn’t changed now that Trump is president. The administration’s unified anti-press and anti-fact message over the weekend is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy that was hatched many months ago, and is only likely to intensify. The president will wage a rhetorical war against the media, with the intent of delegitimizing one of the few institutions that can hold him accountable, and he will wage it with his most effective weapon: Lies, damned lies, and false statistics.

The Republicans waged a 3-decade war on government. They got Trump.

by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann Jul 18, 2016

Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party’s steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.

While that descent has been underway for a long time, it has accelerated its pace in recent years. We noted four years ago the dysfunction of the Republican Party, arguing that its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.

Consider, as a sign of the party’s decadence, how quickly Bob Corker, a card-carrying member of the Republican Party elite — the center-right chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — caved in to this horribly miscast party standard-bearer. Trump’s campaign has been filled with statements whose ignorance and bombast have appalled the establishment. Then a ballyhooed foreign policy speech in late April was widely panned by experts across the foreign policy spectrum. (“A very odd mishmash”; “strident rhetoric [that] masked a lack of depth.”) Corker’s response? He praised “the broadness, the vision” of the speech.

When Corker subsequently praised Trump’s disastrous press conference in Scotland as “one of his better events” — this was the press conference that mainly showcased Trump’s golf resort, and in which Trump praised the UK’s vote in favor of Brexit in strongly pro-Europe Scotland, after earlier demonstrating he did not even know what Brexit was — the cave-in was complete.

Corker, of course, was not alone. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fell in line quickly, and while House Speaker Paul Ryan hedged his support for a while, he also joined the Trump team. The Republican Party was about to nominate the most inexperienced, unpopular, and temperamentally unsuited major party presidential candidate in the history of American politics, and there was nothing the establishment could do about it beyond trying to contain the political damage.

It gives us little pleasure to say we foresaw that the Republican Party was on a destructive course that could lead to such a situation.

In April 2012, we created a major stir in the political world with a long piece in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section called, “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” It was adapted from our book published days later, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, and this was our money quote:

The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

As scholars who had worked for more than four decades with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, we faced a ton of scorn from sitting Republican lawmakers and outside observers for making this argument — and denial from most of the mainstream media. For reporters, professional norms and concerns about accusations of partisan bias dictated that the parties be treated equally, whatever the underlying reality. The safe haven of false equivalence led the press to ignore one of the most consequential developments in contemporary American politics: the radicalization of the Republican Party.

The Republicans abandoned compromise, which is essential in a democracy

The Outlook piece went viral and became the talk of political Washington even before the Sunday paper was delivered. So we were bemused that the major Sunday talk shows on the three networks and cable news — whose panels focus each week on buzzy topics in politics — all maintained radio silence about the essay. The denial surrounding this issue has barely changed since 2012.

We came to our blunt conclusions from perches inside the belly of the beast, observing, analyzing, and interacting with the top political figures in Congress and the executive branch since 1969. Other scholars and journalists, including Jonathan Chait, James Fallows, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson had paved the way with observations and analyses similar to ours.

We did not advance our argument about asymmetric polarization lightly. We had worked closely with members of both parties and are not unaware of the issues and divisions inside the Democratic Party. But we had seen the GOP go from a problem-solving center-right party to a problem-solving very conservative party — and then evolve into an obstructionist party intent on appeasing extreme forces inside and outside Congress.

This new version of the party eschewed any serious effort to bargain and compromise with the opposition party, an essential activity within the American constitutional system.

The reasons for the changes in the GOP were many, and the Democrats were affected by some of the same forces. Both parties were reshaped by political developments in the 1960s — the counterculture, the Vietnam War, Barry Goldwater’s candidacy, the Voting Rights Act, and the racial realignment of the South.

The two parties became more internally homogeneous and distinct from each other. Partisan identities adjusted to reflect these changes. People became more comfortable living and socializing with those sharing similar values and group identities. Parties in government became more unified and strategic in the legislative arena.

As political scientist Frances Lee has demonstrated, the trend toward polarization was driven not just by sharper policy differences but also by a much more competitive struggle for control of the levers of power. Unlike the situation through most of the past century, both parties now had a reasonable shot in most elections at winning the White House and Congress. There were fewer presidential landslides and fewer extended periods of one-party control of the House or Senate. Pressure built for more party loyalty in Congress; legislating became more than ever driven by the permanent campaign.

These polarized parties could and did act decisively when one of them controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the more frequent periods of divided party government inspired willful obstruction and policy avoidance.

Newt Gingrich and the politics of destruction

Why then single out the Republican Party as an insurgent outlier? Newt Gingrich, first among other Republican leaders, took this polarization to a new level. He was key in the transformation of the party into a destructive and delegitimizing force in American politics (which makes his recent bonding with Trump very fitting).

From the time he came to Congress in 1979, Gingrich deployed a strategy to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in the House by moving to polarize the parties, to use the ethics process to taint both the majority and the entire political process, and to get Americans so disgusted with politics and politicians that at the right moment, they would rise up and throw out the incumbent party.

Four years ago, we identified the deep dysfunction of the Republican Party. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.

A decade into his tenure, Gingrich was able to seize on and exploit a wave of populism triggered by a proposed 25 percent pay raise for members of Congress, judges, and top executive officials — a raise, ironically, Gingrich himself supported. The move ignited a broad national anger, empowering such diverse figures as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and, later, H. Ross Perot, and solidifying talk radio under Rush Limbaugh as a political phenomenon.

When populism exploded again with the 2008 financial collapse and TARP bailout, the next generation of Republican leaders — led by Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, the self-named Young Guns — took the Gingrich playbook and ran with it, exploiting and fueling populist anger at the political establishment and the new black president to take back power.

The theory was that a deliberate strategy to make all government action in Washington look disastrous, whether by stopping legislation or delegitimizing the process and its products, would work against the party in power: the Democrats. Scandal politics, which vaulted Gingrich to prominence in the first place, could be hyped and exploited; see Benghazi. The “birther” movement was not explicitly embraced by party leaders, but it was encouraged; it was an indirect way to criticize the “African” president while also, incidentally, vaulting Donald Trump to prominence in the political realm.

Republicans attacked science and egged on conspiracy theories

These leaders also thought that an attack on climate change and, more broadly, evidence-based policy analysis would fuel suspicion and demonization of not just liberal politicians but the broader liberal establishment. The conspiracy theories and over-the-top attacks on Obama and Democrats repeated regularly on cable TV news shows, talk radio, blogs, and social media were not created or directly condoned by GOP establishment leaders — although they were repeated by rank-and-file lawmakers.

But when leaders neither criticized nor condemned the assertions, it gave them more legitimacy with voters. We do not believe that party leaders themselves believed Obama was a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist, or that a Black Panther uprising was ever imminent. But those claims were cynically exploited to foster anger among base voters.

The Young Guns and their allies, including McConnell, also blew up a series of governing norms. While the debt ceiling had been a political football for both parties for decades, leaders were always careful not to push too far, to flirt with default. Republicans in both the House and the Senate, starting in 2010 and continuing through 2014, explicitly held the debt ceiling and US credibility hostage to a series of ideological demands, coming dangerously close to going over the edge.

Then, faced with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans declined to offer alternatives or technical “corrections” — as an older generation of Republicans would have and instead voted dozens of times simply to repeal the law. And in the Senate, the threat of filibuster, once reserved for a handful of highly charged large issues, exploded into a regular tool of mass obstruction.

This “new nullification,” as we call it, has left President Obama’s nominee to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, Merrick Garland, drifting in limbo.

Stirring up rage they couldn’t control

At first, the assault on government worked, at least electorally. Just as the Gingrich strategy brought, in 1994, the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years, the Young Guns and establishment leaders’ strategy resulted in a huge Republican majority in the House in 2010 and then a Republican majority in the Senate, and gains to solidify the House majority in 2014.

But the risks of the cynical game were becoming apparent. To the populist Tea Party voters whose anger had carried the GOP to those majorities, the promises made to them by these leaders — that Republican majorities in the House and Senate could bring Barack Obama to his knees, repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and blow up government as we knew it — were starting to appear hollow. Whether through weakness or perfidy, the Republican establishment, by stirring up the base and fomenting rage among its voters, did betray the trust given it by those voters.

At the same time, having worked to demonize the president as illegitimate and not loyal to America or American values, every subsequent compromise made by GOP leaders to keep the government open or to pass policy was by definition working with the enemy.

All these forces created a massive backlash against the Republican Party leadership. From the beginning stages of the presidential nomination process for 2016, 60 to 70 percent of Republicans in polls opted for insurgent or outsider candidates, with 20 percent or less for insiders and establishment figures. In the end, the only two viable contenders were Ted Cruz, whose calling card was calling his own leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor — and Donald Trump.

Pundits and scholars had seen the establishment play along with Glenn Beck–style radicalism and conspiracy-mongering before, only to engineer a nomination for a “regular” Republican leader. They assumed history would repeat itself, with a Bush, Rubio, Kasich, or Walker. We did not.

It seemed far more likely to us, with 17 candidates in the race, a new money system that made it easier for more to stay in longer with the help of one or two “sugar daddies” running Super PACs, a delegate selection process that would keep a race going longer, and a more radical populist zeitgeist, that Trump and Cruz would be the last ones standing — and that Trump could indeed prevail.

Criticism of Trump was too little, too late

The buyer’s remorse felt by so many in the party establishment — including the pathetic #NeverTrump movement — went nowhere. Only a handful of significant Republican officeholders, led by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, emphatically rejected Trump. Other conservative figures, including the columnists George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Kathleen Parker, and Michael Gerson, have been deeply and eloquently disdainful, but many of these same people had missed repeated opportunities over the years to identify and condemn the party’s drift to radicalism.

The party’s acceptance of Trump as its standard-bearer exposed further a set of divisions and tensions inside the GOP that will linger. Some of those divisions are among and between leaders and elites; others involve deeper disagreements between party leaders and the broader party voter base.

Consider the ironies: A tribal party ended up nominating a man who has a very loose connection to the party and has had as many party affiliations in the past as he has had wives. A party moving toward more strident right-wing ideology, reflected in the candidacy of Ted Cruz, chose a nominee who is against free trade, has a long history of pro-choice sentiment, boosts Social Security, Medicare, and Planned Parenthood, and can sound like a neo-isolationist.

In the end, the exploitation of anti-government sentiment by Republican leaders, and the active efforts on their part to make all government look corrupt and illegitimate, reached its logical conclusion. The Republican political establishment looked no less corrupt, weak, and illegitimate than the Democratic one, and the appeal of a rank outsider became greater.

Whatever happens in November, the fractured Republican Party will struggle for a long, long time to find an identity and a center of gravity. Almost certainly, given the retirements from Congress and the vulnerable incumbents, the relative influence of the Freedom Caucus — radical lawmakers who want no compromises — will be significantly greater.

Trump’s bombastic rhetoric aimed at minorities, including Hispanics, African Americans, and Muslims, among others, including his pledge to build that wall on the southern border, will make it even more difficult than it was after the 2012 loss for Republican leaders to make any gesture on immigration that might broaden the party’s appeal beyond white working-class voters.

A Trump victory, unlikely but far from impossible, would not create a new GOP: The old problems we identified would remain, along with new ones. There is no way to predict how Trump, who has no discernible knowledge of public policy or the governing process but who has made stark pledges on a range of issues, would handle his presidency, but the differences between his stated policy preferences and those of party leaders in Congress are substantial. In any case, Democrats will have enough members in the Senate to filibuster his initiatives.

On some issues, like immigration and trade, Freedom Caucus Republicans will be with Trump. On others, including his support for Social Security and Medicare, neither they nor the leaders will back him. Most likely, when it comes to things like torture and trade, Trump would bypass Congress and use executive action in ways that would potentially create constitutional crises and divide Republicans in profound ways.

A Clinton victory could inspire a return to the old playbook

If the single most likely election outcome occurs — a Clinton presidential victory and a narrow edge for Democrats in the Senate, with a reduced Republican majority in the House — the party divisions will be huge. A Trump loss will energize the Ted Cruz/Tom Cotton/Freedom Caucus wing, with Cruz doubling down on his assertion that Republicans keep losing because the party is not pure enough: It keeps nominating moderates like Romney and liberals like Trump instead of purists like Cruz (who would theoretically bring out tens of millions of voters who stay at home otherwise).

At the same time, Trumpist populists inside and outside Washington will attribute any Trump loss to the perfidy of the party establishment. Aided by the bevy of cable TV hosts, talk radio impresarios, and bloggers who thrive on chaos — they will spread the belief that Americans have been betrayed both by Democrats and by weak-kneed and corrupt Republican establishment leaders. They will continue to push nativist and protectionist policies.

And the establishment itself, divided over its level of support for Trump, battered by a horrible political year, targeted both by the purists and the populists, will have little traction to craft the kinds of policies that both fit its broader philosophy and can achieve meaningful compromises with Democrats.

Unfortunately, what will likely emerge a few months into the Clinton presidency is a deep desire by Republicans to recapture the party mojo by once again prevailing in the forthcoming 2018 midterm elections — by using the old scorched-earth strategies. Following the road maps of 2010 and 2014, party leaders will want to demonize the president, delegitimize Washington and the policy process, and block any meaningful policy action that could lead to a Clinton signing ceremony —feeding the anger of the grassroots.

That could once again result in both sizable GOP gains in the House and a renewed Republican majority in the Senate, but it would also mean a repeat of the vicious cycle that led to Trump in the first place.

On the other hand, if Speaker Ryan, filling his fiduciary responsibility as a constitutional officer and his heartfelt vow to become a party of ideas and policies, moves to enact constructive policies, or simply to keep the government operating, it is hard to see how he could avoid the fate of his predecessor John Boehner: retirement.

Just as troubling is the shameful appeal Trump is making, as the Republican standard-bearer, to racist, anti-Semitic, and nativist elements in the populace. To their detriment, party leaders did little to discourage those nefarious appeals. Getting the racist genie back in the bottle may prove impossible.

When we wrote It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, many former Republican officeholders understood we were not attacking the Republican Party as partisans but trying to save it from itself. We took no comfort from calling out the GOP. We well recognize that our polity will not function as it is supposed to without two strong and vibrant parties whose goal is to solve societal problems within the rubric of our constitutional system.

That does not mean going back to an Eisenhower-era or even Nixon-era GOP, when centrists were key forces; it means a very conservative party by any reasonable measure. As such, we sympathize with Republicans like David Frum who have been harshly critical of the party’s course but refuse to leave it, believing their presence is necessary to fight to yank the party back to a problem-solving state.

If they can’t, perhaps, as when the Whig Party hit a dead end, a new force will emerge to replace or challenge the Republican Party. But anyone expecting a quick or clean resolution of this turmoil will be sorely disappointed.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor and writer for the Atlantic. Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and a resident scholar, Institute of Governmental Studies, at the University of California Berkeley.

The Republicans waged a 3-decade war on government. They got Trump.

Updated by Norman J. Ornstein and Thomas E. Mann Jul 18, 2016, 10:50a

Newt Gingrich’s politics of destruction paved the way for Donald Trump. John Sommers II/Getty Images

Trumpism may have parallels in populist, nativist movements abroad, but it is also the culmination of a proud political party’s steady descent into a deeply destructive and dysfunctional state.

While that descent has been underway for a long time, it has accelerated its pace in recent years. We noted four years ago the dysfunction of the Republican Party, arguing that its obstructionism, anti-intellectualism, and attacks on American institutions were making responsible governance impossible. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.

Consider, as a sign of the party’s decadence, how quickly Bob Corker, a card-carrying member of the Republican Party elite — the center-right chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — caved in to this horribly miscast party standard-bearer. Trump’s campaign has been filled with statements whose ignorance and bombast have appalled the establishment. Then a ballyhooed foreign policy speech in late April was widely panned by experts across the foreign policy spectrum. (“A very odd mishmash”; “strident rhetoric [that] masked a lack of depth.”) Corker’s response? He praised “the broadness, the vision” of the speech.

When Corker subsequently praised Trump’s disastrous press conference in Scotland as “one of his better events” — this was the press conference that mainly showcased Trump’s golf resort, and in which Trump praised the UK’s vote in favor of Brexit in strongly pro-Europe Scotland, after earlier demonstrating he did not even know what Brexit was — the cave-in was complete.

Corker, of course, was not alone. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fell in line quickly, and while House Speaker Paul Ryan hedged his support for a while, he also joined the Trump team. The Republican Party was about to nominate the most inexperienced, unpopular, and temperamentally unsuited major party presidential candidate in the history of American politics, and there was nothing the establishment could do about it beyond trying to contain the political damage.

It gives us little pleasure to say we foresaw that the Republican Party was on a destructive course that could lead to such a situation.

In April 2012, we created a major stir in the political world with a long piece in the Washington Post Sunday Outlook section called, “Let’s Just Say It: The Republicans Are the Problem.” It was adapted from our book published days later, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, and this was our money quote:

The Republican Party has become an insurgent outlier in American politics — ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

As scholars who had worked for more than four decades with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, we faced a ton of scorn from sitting Republican lawmakers and outside observers for making this argument — and denial from most of the mainstream media. For reporters, professional norms and concerns about accusations of partisan bias dictated that the parties be treated equally, whatever the underlying reality. The safe haven of false equivalence led the press to ignore one of the most consequential developments in contemporary American politics: the radicalization of the Republican Party.

The Republicans abandoned compromise, which is essential in a democracy

The Outlook piece went viral and became the talk of political Washington even before the Sunday paper was delivered. So we were bemused that the major Sunday talk shows on the three networks and cable news — whose panels focus each week on buzzy topics in politics — all maintained radio silence about the essay. The denial surrounding this issue has barely changed since 2012.

We came to our blunt conclusions from perches inside the belly of the beast, observing, analyzing, and interacting with the top political figures in Congress and the executive branch since 1969. Other scholars and journalists, including Jonathan Chait, James Fallows, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson had paved the way with observations and analyses similar to ours.

We did not advance our argument about asymmetric polarization lightly. We had worked closely with members of both parties and are not unaware of the issues and divisions inside the Democratic Party. But we had seen the GOP go from a problem-solving center-right party to a problem-solving very conservative party — and then evolve into an obstructionist party intent on appeasing extreme forces inside and outside Congress.

This new version of the party eschewed any serious effort to bargain and compromise with the opposition party, an essential activity within the American constitutional system.

The reasons for the changes in the GOP were many, and the Democrats were affected by some of the same forces. Both parties were reshaped by political developments in the 1960s — the counterculture, the Vietnam War, Barry Goldwater’s candidacy, the Voting Rights Act, and the racial realignment of the South.

The two parties became more internally homogeneous and distinct from each other. Partisan identities adjusted to reflect these changes. People became more comfortable living and socializing with those sharing similar values and group identities. Parties in government became more unified and strategic in the legislative arena.

As political scientist Frances Lee has demonstrated, the trend toward polarization was driven not just by sharper policy differences but also by a much more competitive struggle for control of the levers of power. Unlike the situation through most of the past century, both parties now had a reasonable shot in most elections at winning the White House and Congress. There were fewer presidential landslides and fewer extended periods of one-party control of the House or Senate. Pressure built for more party loyalty in Congress; legislating became more than ever driven by the permanent campaign.

These polarized parties could and did act decisively when one of them controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But the more frequent periods of divided party government inspired willful obstruction and policy avoidance.

Newt Gingrich and the politics of destruction

Why then single out the Republican Party as an insurgent outlier? Newt Gingrich, first among other Republican leaders, took this polarization to a new level. He was key in the transformation of the party into a destructive and delegitimizing force in American politics (which makes his recent bonding with Trump very fitting).

From the time he came to Congress in 1979, Gingrich deployed a strategy to break the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in the House by moving to polarize the parties, to use the ethics process to taint both the majority and the entire political process, and to get Americans so disgusted with politics and politicians that at the right moment, they would rise up and throw out the incumbent party.

Four years ago, we identified the deep dysfunction of the Republican Party. The rise of Trump completes the script, confirming our thesis in explicit fashion.

A decade into his tenure, Gingrich was able to seize on and exploit a wave of populism triggered by a proposed 25 percent pay raise for members of Congress, judges, and top executive officials — a raise, ironically, Gingrich himself supported. The move ignited a broad national anger, empowering such diverse figures as Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan, and, later, H. Ross Perot, and solidifying talk radio under Rush Limbaugh as a political phenomenon.

When populism exploded again with the 2008 financial collapse and TARP bailout, the next generation of Republican leaders — led by Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan, the self-named Young Guns — took the Gingrich playbook and ran with it, exploiting and fueling populist anger at the political establishment and the new black president to take back power.

The theory was that a deliberate strategy to make all government action in Washington look disastrous, whether by stopping legislation or delegitimizing the process and its products, would work against the party in power: the Democrats. Scandal politics, which vaulted Gingrich to prominence in the first place, could be hyped and exploited; see Benghazi. The “birther” movement was not explicitly embraced by party leaders, but it was encouraged; it was an indirect way to criticize the “African” president while also, incidentally, vaulting Donald Trump to prominence in the political realm.

Republicans attacked science and egged on conspiracy theories

These leaders also thought that an attack on climate change and, more broadly, evidence-based policy analysis would fuel suspicion and demonization of not just liberal politicians but the broader liberal establishment. The conspiracy theories and over-the-top attacks on Obama and Democrats repeated regularly on cable TV news shows, talk radio, blogs, and social media were not created or directly condoned by GOP establishment leaders — although they were repeated by rank-and-file lawmakers.

But when leaders neither criticized nor condemned the assertions, it gave them more legitimacy with voters. We do not believe that party leaders themselves believed Obama was a secret Muslim, that Hillary Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin was a terrorist, or that a Black Panther uprising was ever imminent. But those claims were cynically exploited to foster anger among base voters.

The Young Guns and their allies, including McConnell, also blew up a series of governing norms. While the debt ceiling had been a political football for both parties for decades, leaders were always careful not to push too far, to flirt with default. Republicans in both the House and the Senate, starting in 2010 and continuing through 2014, explicitly held the debt ceiling and US credibility hostage to a series of ideological demands, coming dangerously close to going over the edge.

Then, faced with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Republicans declined to offer alternatives or technical “corrections” — as an older generation of Republicans would have and instead voted dozens of times simply to repeal the law. And in the Senate, the threat of filibuster, once reserved for a handful of highly charged large issues, exploded into a regular tool of mass obstruction.

This “new nullification,” as we call it, has left President Obama’s nominee to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, Merrick Garland, drifting in limbo.

Stirring up rage they couldn’t control

At first, the assault on government worked, at least electorally. Just as the Gingrich strategy brought, in 1994, the first Republican majority in the House in 40 years, the Young Guns and establishment leaders’ strategy resulted in a huge Republican majority in the House in 2010 and then a Republican majority in the Senate, and gains to solidify the House majority in 2014.

But the risks of the cynical game were becoming apparent. To the populist Tea Party voters whose anger had carried the GOP to those majorities, the promises made to them by these leaders — that Republican majorities in the House and Senate could bring Barack Obama to his knees, repeal Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, and blow up government as we knew it — were starting to appear hollow. Whether through weakness or perfidy, the Republican establishment, by stirring up the base and fomenting rage among its voters, did betray the trust given it by those voters.

At the same time, having worked to demonize the president as illegitimate and not loyal to America or American values, every subsequent compromise made by GOP leaders to keep the government open or to pass policy was by definition working with the enemy.

All these forces created a massive backlash against the Republican Party leadership. From the beginning stages of the presidential nomination process for 2016, 60 to 70 percent of Republicans in polls opted for insurgent or outsider candidates, with 20 percent or less for insiders and establishment figures. In the end, the only two viable contenders were Ted Cruz, whose calling card was calling his own leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor — and Donald Trump.

Pundits and scholars had seen the establishment play along with Glenn Beck–style radicalism and conspiracy-mongering before, only to engineer a nomination for a “regular” Republican leader. They assumed history would repeat itself, with a Bush, Rubio, Kasich, or Walker. We did not.

It seemed far more likely to us, with 17 candidates in the race, a new money system that made it easier for more to stay in longer with the help of one or two “sugar daddies” running Super PACs, a delegate selection process that would keep a race going longer, and a more radical populist zeitgeist, that Trump and Cruz would be the last ones standing — and that Trump could indeed prevail.

Criticism of Trump was too little, too late

The buyer’s remorse felt by so many in the party establishment — including the pathetic #NeverTrump movement — went nowhere. Only a handful of significant Republican officeholders, led by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, emphatically rejected Trump. Other conservative figures, including the columnists George F. Will, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, Kathleen Parker, and Michael Gerson, have been deeply and eloquently disdainful, but many of these same people had missed repeated opportunities over the years to identify and condemn the party’s drift to radicalism.

The party’s acceptance of Trump as its standard-bearer exposed further a set of divisions and tensions inside the GOP that will linger. Some of those divisions are among and between leaders and elites; others involve deeper disagreements between party leaders and the broader party voter base.

Consider the ironies: A tribal party ended up nominating a man who has a very loose connection to the party and has had as many party affiliations in the past as he has had wives. A party moving toward more strident right-wing ideology, reflected in the candidacy of Ted Cruz, chose a nominee who is against free trade, has a long history of pro-choice sentiment, boosts Social Security, Medicare, and Planned Parenthood, and can sound like a neo-isolationist.

In the end, the exploitation of anti-government sentiment by Republican leaders, and the active efforts on their part to make all government look corrupt and illegitimate, reached its logical conclusion. The Republican political establishment looked no less corrupt, weak, and illegitimate than the Democratic one, and the appeal of a rank outsider became greater.

Whatever happens in November, the fractured Republican Party will struggle for a long, long time to find an identity and a center of gravity. Almost certainly, given the retirements from Congress and the vulnerable incumbents, the relative influence of the Freedom Caucus — radical lawmakers who want no compromises — will be significantly greater.

Trump’s bombastic rhetoric aimed at minorities, including Hispanics, African Americans, and Muslims, among others, including his pledge to build that wall on the southern border, will make it even more difficult than it was after the 2012 loss for Republican leaders to make any gesture on immigration that might broaden the party’s appeal beyond white working-class voters.

A Trump victory, unlikely but far from impossible, would not create a new GOP: The old problems we identified would remain, along with new ones. There is no way to predict how Trump, who has no discernible knowledge of public policy or the governing process but who has made stark pledges on a range of issues, would handle his presidency, but the differences between his stated policy preferences and those of party leaders in Congress are substantial. In any case, Democrats will have enough members in the Senate to filibuster his initiatives.

On some issues, like immigration and trade, Freedom Caucus Republicans will be with Trump. On others, including his support for Social Security and Medicare, neither they nor the leaders will back him. Most likely, when it comes to things like torture and trade, Trump would bypass Congress and use executive action in ways that would potentially create constitutional crises and divide Republicans in profound ways.

A Clinton victory could inspire a return to the old playbook

If the single most likely election outcome occurs — a Clinton presidential victory and a narrow edge for Democrats in the Senate, with a reduced Republican majority in the House — the party divisions will be huge. A Trump loss will energize the Ted Cruz/Tom Cotton/Freedom Caucus wing, with Cruz doubling down on his assertion that Republicans keep losing because the party is not pure enough: It keeps nominating moderates like Romney and liberals like Trump instead of purists like Cruz (who would theoretically bring out tens of millions of voters who stay at home otherwise).

At the same time, Trumpist populists inside and outside Washington will attribute any Trump loss to the perfidy of the party establishment. Aided by the bevy of cable TV hosts, talk radio impresarios, and bloggers who thrive on chaos — they will spread the belief that Americans have been betrayed both by Democrats and by weak-kneed and corrupt Republican establishment leaders. They will continue to push nativist and protectionist policies.

And the establishment itself, divided over its level of support for Trump, battered by a horrible political year, targeted both by the purists and the populists, will have little traction to craft the kinds of policies that both fit its broader philosophy and can achieve meaningful compromises with Democrats.

Unfortunately, what will likely emerge a few months into the Clinton presidency is a deep desire by Republicans to recapture the party mojo by once again prevailing in the forthcoming 2018 midterm elections — by using the old scorched-earth strategies. Following the road maps of 2010 and 2014, party leaders will want to demonize the president, delegitimize Washington and the policy process, and block any meaningful policy action that could lead to a Clinton signing ceremony —feeding the anger of the grassroots.

That could once again result in both sizable GOP gains in the House and a renewed Republican majority in the Senate, but it would also mean a repeat of the vicious cycle that led to Trump in the first place.

On the other hand, if Speaker Ryan, filling his fiduciary responsibility as a constitutional officer and his heartfelt vow to become a party of ideas and policies, moves to enact constructive policies, or simply to keep the government operating, it is hard to see how he could avoid the fate of his predecessor John Boehner: retirement.

Just as troubling is the shameful appeal Trump is making, as the Republican standard-bearer, to racist, anti-Semitic, and nativist elements in the populace. To their detriment, party leaders did little to discourage those nefarious appeals. Getting the racist genie back in the bottle may prove impossible.

When we wrote It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, many former Republican officeholders understood we were not attacking the Republican Party as partisans but trying to save it from itself. We took no comfort from calling out the GOP. We well recognize that our polity will not function as it is supposed to without two strong and vibrant parties whose goal is to solve societal problems within the rubric of our constitutional system.

That does not mean going back to an Eisenhower-era or even Nixon-era GOP, when centrists were key forces; it means a very conservative party by any reasonable measure. As such, we sympathize with Republicans like David Frum who have been harshly critical of the party’s course but refuse to leave it, believing their presence is necessary to fight to yank the party back to a problem-solving state.

If they can’t, perhaps, as when the Whig Party hit a dead end, a new force will emerge to replace or challenge the Republican Party. But anyone expecting a quick or clean resolution of this turmoil will be sorely disappointed.

Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor and writer for the Atlantic. Thomas E. Mann is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and a resident scholar, Institute of Governmental Studies, at the University of California Berkeley.

We, the Plutocrats vs. We, the People

by Bill Moyers, TomDispatch, September 12, 2016 commondreams.org

Excerpt and highlighting by Phyllis Stenerson, curator of ProgressiveValues.org 9/23/16 full text follows

They [citizens] simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives.  Fiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations — fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves. 

… this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:  

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together?…

…And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion…that we are all in this together. American democracy grew a soul, as it were…

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the soul of democracy, too.  He expressed it politically, although his words often ring like poetry.  Paradoxically, to this scion of the American aristocracy, the soul of democracy meant political equality.  “Inside the polling booth,” he said, “every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences.” 

God knows it took us a long time to get there.  Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others.

So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes — sung and unsung — sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy.  And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.

No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and one-time Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:

“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people.  Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts.  Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.”

Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints…And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together…

So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes — sung and unsung — sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy.  And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.

No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and one-time Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:

“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people.  Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts.  Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.”..

The Greek historian Plutarch is said to have warned that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Yet as the Washington Post pointed out recently, income inequality may be higher at this moment than at any time in the American past.

… In 2009, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez explored decades of tax data and found that from 1950 through 1980 the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans had grown, from $ 17,719 to $ 30,941.  That represented a 75% increase in 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top…Even though everyone took a hit during the recession that followed, the top 10% now hold more than three-quarters of the country’s total family wealth.

these statistics highlight an ugly truth about America: inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health, erodes social cohesion and solidarity, and starves education. In their study The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, low educational achievement, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration was economic inequality.  

… The Pew Research Center recently released a new study indicating that, between 2000 and 2014, the middle class shrank in virtually all parts of the country…

Once upon a time… the American ideal was one in which all children had “a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.”

Almost 10 years ago, economist Jeffrey Madrick wrote that, as recently as the 1980s, economists thought that “in the land of Horatio Alger only 20 percent of one’s future income was determined by one’s father’s income.” He then cited research showing that, by 2007, “60 percent of a son’s income [was] determined by the level of income of the father. For women, it [was] roughly the same.” It may be even higher today, but clearly a child’s chance of success in life is greatly improved if he’s born on third base and his father has been tipping the umpire.

This raises an old question, one highlighted by the British critic and public intellectual Terry Eagleton in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

”Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality?… Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality?”

The answer, to me, is self-evident.  Capitalism produces winners and losers big time.  The winners use their wealth to gain political power, often through campaign contributions and lobbying.  In this way, they only increase their influence over the choices made by the politicians indebted to them. While there are certainly differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic and social issues, both parties cater to wealthy individuals and interests seeking to enrich their bottom lines with the help of the policies of the state (loopholes, subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation).  No matter which party is in power, the interests of big business are largely heeded.

… plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As the late (and great) Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” The rich…should not be able to buy more democracy. That they can and do is a despicable blot on American politics…In a recent poll, 71% of Americans across lines of ethnicity, class, age, and gender said they believe the U.S. economy is rigged…

Millions of Americans, in other words, are living on the edge.  Yet the country has not confronted the question of how we will continue to prosper without a workforce that can pay for its goods and services.

the United States was being transformed into one of the harshest, most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies.  You could instead have read the Economist, arguably the most influential business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world.  I keep in my files a warning published in that magazine a dozen years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term.  The editors concluded back then that, with income inequality in the U.S. reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age and social mobility diminishing, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”…The United States now has a level of income inequality unprecedented in our history and so dramatic it’s almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around.

… the world is made to work by those with the money and power… As G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago, “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men.  But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.” Exactly.  In our case, a religion of invention, not revelation, politically engineered over the last 40 years. Yes, politically engineered.  On this development, you can’t do better than read Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science….troubled that the heart of the American Dream — upward mobility — seemed to have stopped beating; and dumbfounded that all of this could happen in a democracy whose politicians were supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. So Hacker and Pierson set out to find out “how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.”…they concluded, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system.  And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, “saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers.” The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by…

Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our hearts.” This isn’t it.

Looking back, you have to wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.  In the 1970s, Big Business began to refine its ability to act as a class and gang up on Congress.  Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, political action committees deluged politics with dollars. Foundations, corporations, and rich individuals funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. Political strategists made alliances with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, to zealously wage a cultural holy war that would camouflage the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

To help cover-up this heist of the economy, an appealing intellectual gloss was needed.  So public intellectuals were recruited and subsidized to turn “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington Consensus” into a theological belief system.  The “dismal science of economics” became a miracle of faith…  Self-interest became the Gospel of the Gilded Age…. evolution, i.e., the natural process of improvement… successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps evolution, but it typically does.”

Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; [neoliberal and neoconservative] doctrine of “progress” is taking us back to the jungle….Our founders warned against the power of privileged factions to capture the machinery of democracies.  James Madison, who studied history through a tragic lens, saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Like many of his colleagues, he was well aware that the republic they were creating could go the same way.  Distrusting, even detesting concentrated private power, the founders attempted to erect safeguards to prevent private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” For a while, they succeeded…

Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s… he did warn of the staying power of the aristocracy, even in this new country.  He feared what he called, in the second volume of his masterwork, Democracy in America, an “aristocracy created by business.”  He described it as already among “the harshest that ever existed in the world” and suggested that, “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”

…[from] the ravenous excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News, to the business press’s wide-eyed awe of hyena-like CEOs; from the Republican war on government to the Democratic Party’s shameless obeisance to big corporations and contributors, this “law of nature” has served to legitimate the yawning inequality of income and wealth, even as it has protected networks of privilege and monopolies in major industries like the media, the tech sector, and the airlines.

A plethora of studies conclude that America’s political system has already been transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy (the rule of a wealthy elite)…Whether Republican or Democratic, they concluded, the government more often follows the preferences of major lobbying or business groups than it does those of ordinary citizens.

We can only be amazed that a privileged faction in a fervent culture of politically protected greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population for our problems, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever. …

Which brings us back … to all those who simply can’t see beyond their own prerogatives and so narrowly define membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.

How would I help them recoup their sanity, come home to democracy, and help build the sort of moral compact embodied in the preamble to the Constitution, that declaration of America’s intent and identity? 

First, I’d do my best to remind them that societies can die of too much inequality.

Second, I’d give them copies of anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed to remind them that we are not immune.  Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for describing how the damage humans have inflicted on their environment has historically led to the decline of civilizations…Any society, it turns out, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if elites insulate themselves endlessly from the consequences of their decisions…. the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature.  So he puzzled about why some people override it and give up their lives for others.

“Can this happen?” [Joseph] Campbell asked. “That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved. What creates that breakthrough when we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”

Schopenhauer’s answer, he said, was that a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and the other are two aspects of one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time.  Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.

Sometimes, however instinctively or consciously, our actions affirm that reality through some unselfish gesture or personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity.

The truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together.  We are all one another’s first responders…

I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

Full text http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/09/12/we-plutocrats-vs-we-people

We, the Plutocrats vs. We, the People by Bill Moyers, TomDispatch, September 12, 2016 commondreams.org  They simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives.  Fiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations — fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  

Sixty-six years ago this summer, on my 16th birthday, I went to work for the daily newspaper in the small East Texas town of Marshall where I grew up. It was a good place to be a cub reporter — small enough to navigate but big enough to keep me busy and learning something every day.  I soon had a stroke of luck.  Some of the paper’s old hands were on vacation or out sick and I was assigned to help cover what came to be known across the country as “the housewives’ rebellion.”

Fifteen women in my hometown decided not to pay the social security withholding tax for their domestic workers.  Those housewives were white, their housekeepers black. Almost half of all employed black women in the country then were in domestic service.  Because they tended to earn lower wages, accumulate less savings, and be stuck in those jobs all their lives, social security was their only insurance against poverty in old age. Yet their plight did not move their employers.

The housewives argued that social security was unconstitutional and imposing it was taxation without representation. They even equated it with slavery.  They also claimed that “requiring us to collect [the tax] is no different from requiring us to collect the garbage.”  So they hired a high-powered lawyer — a notorious former congressman from Texas who had once chaired the House Un-American Activities Committee — and took their case to court. They lost, and eventually wound up holding their noses and paying the tax, but not before their rebellion had become national news.

The stories I helped report for the local paper were picked up and carried across the country by the Associated Press. One day, the managing editor called me over and pointed to the AP Teletype machine beside his desk. Moving across the wire was a notice citing our paper and its reporters for our coverage of the housewives’ rebellion.

I was hooked, and in one way or another I’ve continued to engage the issues of money and power, equality and democracy over a lifetime spent at the intersection between politics and journalism. It took me awhile to put the housewives’ rebellion into perspective.  Race played a role, of course.  Marshall was a segregated, antebellum town of 20,000, half of whom were white, the other half black.  White ruled, but more than race was at work. Those 15 housewives were respectable townsfolk, good neighbors, regulars at church (some of them at my church).  Their children were my friends; many of them were active in community affairs; and their husbands were pillars of the town’s business and professional class.

So what brought on that spasm of rebellion?  They simply couldn’t see beyond their own prerogatives.  Fiercely loyal to their families, their clubs, their charities, and their congregations — fiercely loyal, that is, to their own kind — they narrowly defined membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.  They expected to be comfortable and secure in their old age, but the women who washed and ironed their laundry, wiped their children’s bottoms, made their husbands’ beds, and cooked their family’s meals would also grow old and frail, sick and decrepit, lose their husbands and face the ravages of time alone, with nothing to show from their years of labor but the crease in their brow and the knots on their knuckles.

In one way or another, this is the oldest story in our country’s history: the struggle to determine whether “we, the people” is a metaphysical reality — one nation, indivisible — or merely a charade masquerading as piety and manipulated by the powerful and privileged to sustain their own way of life at the expense of others.

“I Contain Multitudes”

There is a vast difference between a society whose arrangements roughly serve all its citizens and one whose institutions have been converted into a stupendous fraud, a democracy in name only.  I have no doubt about what the United States of America was meant to be.  It’s spelled out right there in the 52 most revolutionary words in our founding documents, the preamble to our Constitution, proclaiming the sovereignty of the people as the moral base of government:  

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

What do those words mean, if not that we are all in the business of nation-building together?

Now, I recognize that we’ve never been a country of angels guided by a presidium of saints.  Early America was a moral morass.  One in five people in the new nation was enslaved.  Justice for the poor meant stocks and stockades.  Women suffered virtual peonage. Heretics were driven into exile, or worse. Native people — the Indians — would be forcibly removed from their land, their fate a “trail of tears” and broken treaties.

No, I’m not a romantic about our history and I harbor no idealized notions of politics and democracy.  Remember, I worked for President Lyndon Johnson.  I heard him often repeat the story of the Texas poker shark who leaned across the table and said to his mark: “Play the cards fair, Reuben. I know what I dealt you.” LBJ knew politics.

Nor do I romanticize “the people.” When I began reporting on the state legislature while a student at the University of Texas, a wily old state senator offered to acquaint me with how the place worked.  We stood at the back of the Senate floor as he pointed to his colleagues spread out around the chamber — playing cards, napping, nipping, winking at pretty young visitors in the gallery — and he said to me, “If you think these guys are bad, you should see the people who sent them there.”

And yet, despite the flaws and contradictions of human nature — or perhaps because of them — something took hold here. The American people forged a civilization: that thin veneer of civility stretched across the passions of the human heart. Because it can snap at any moment, or slowly weaken from abuse and neglect until it fades away, civilization requires a commitment to the notion (contrary to what those Marshall housewives believed) that we are all in this together.

American democracy grew a soul, as it were — given voice by one of our greatest poets, Walt Whitman, with his all-inclusive embrace in Song of Myself:

“Whoever degrades another degrades me,
and whatever is done or said returns at last to me…
I speak the pass-word primeval — I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms…
(I am large — I contain multitudes.)”

Author Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has vividly described Whitman seeing himself in whomever he met in America. As he wrote in I Sing the Body Electric:

“– the horseman in his saddle,
Girls, mothers, house-keepers, in all their performances,
The group of laborers seated at noon-time with their open dinner-kettles and their wives waiting,
The female soothing a child — the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn –”

Whitman’s words celebrate what Americans shared at a time when they were less dependent on each other than we are today.  As Townsend put it, “Many more people lived on farms in the nineteenth century, and so they could be a lot more self-reliant; growing their own food, sewing their clothes, building their homes.  But rather than applauding what each American could do in isolation, Whitman celebrated the vast chorus: ‘I hear America singing.’” The chorus he heard was of multitudinous voices, a mighty choir of humanity.

Whitman saw something else in the soul of the country: Americans at work, the laboring people whose toil and sweat built this nation.  Townsend contrasts his attitude with the way politicians and the media today — in their endless debates about wealth creation, capital gains reduction, and high corporate taxes — seem to have forgotten working people. “But Whitman wouldn’t have forgotten them.” She writes, “He celebrates a nation where everyone is worthy, not where a few do well.”

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood the soul of democracy, too.  He expressed it politically, although his words often ring like poetry.  Paradoxically, to this scion of the American aristocracy, the soul of democracy meant political equality.  “Inside the polling booth,” he said, “every American man and woman stands as the equal of every other American man and woman. There they have no superiors. There they have no masters save their own minds and consciences.” 

God knows it took us a long time to get there.  Every claim of political equality in our history has been met by fierce resistance from those who relished for themselves what they would deny others. After President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation it took a century before Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — a hundred years of Jim Crow law and Jim Crow lynchings, of forced labor and coerced segregation, of beatings and bombings, of public humiliation and degradation, of courageous but costly protests and demonstrations. Think of it: another hundred years before the freedom won on the bloody battlefields of the Civil War was finally secured in the law of the land.

And here’s something else to think about: Only one of the women present at the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 — only one, Charlotte Woodward — lived long enough to see women actually get to vote.

“We Pick That Rabbit Out of the Hat”

So it was, in the face of constant resistance, that many heroes — sung and unsung — sacrificed, suffered, and died so that all Americans could gain an equal footing inside that voting booth on a level playing field on the ground floor of democracy.  And yet today money has become the great unequalizer, the usurper of our democratic soul.

No one saw this more clearly than that conservative icon Barry Goldwater, longtime Republican senator from Arizona and one-time Republican nominee for the presidency. Here are his words from almost 30 years ago:

“The fact that liberty depended on honest elections was of the utmost importance to the patriots who founded our nation and wrote the Constitution.  They knew that corruption destroyed the prime requisite of constitutional liberty: an independent legislature free from any influence other than that of the people.  Applying these principles to modern times, we can make the following conclusions: To be successful, representative government assumes that elections will be controlled by the citizenry at large, not by those who give the most money. Electors must believe that their vote counts.  Elected officials must owe their allegiance to the people, not to their own wealth or to the wealth of interest groups that speak only for the selfish fringes of the whole community.”

About the time Senator Goldwater was writing those words, Oliver Stone released his movie Wall Street.  Remember it? Michael Douglas played the high roller Gordon Gekko, who used inside information obtained by his ambitious young protégé, Bud Fox, to manipulate the stock of a company that he intended to sell off for a huge personal windfall, while throwing its workers, including Bud’s own blue-collar father, overboard.  The younger man is aghast and repentant at having participated in such duplicity and chicanery, and he storms into Gekko’s office to protest, asking, “How much is enough, Gordon?”

Gekko answers:

“The richest one percent of this country owns half our country’s wealth, five trillion dollars… You got ninety percent of the American public out there with little or no net worth. I create nothing. I own. We make the rules, pal. The news, war, peace, famine, upheaval, the price per paper clip.  We pick that rabbit out of the hat while everybody sits out there wondering how the hell we did it.  Now, you’re not naïve enough to think we’re living in a democracy, are you, Buddy?  It’s the free market. And you’re part of it.”

That was in the high-flying 1980s, the dawn of today’s new gilded age.  The Greek historian Plutarch is said to have warned that “an imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of a Republic.” Yet as the Washington Post pointedout recently, income inequality may be higher at this moment than at any time in the American past.

When I was a young man in Washington in the 1960s, most of the country’s growth accrued to the bottom 90% of households.  From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, in fact, income grew at a slightly faster rate at the bottom and middle of American society than at the top.  In 2009, economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez explored decades of tax data and found that from 1950 through 1980 the average income of the bottom 90% of Americans had grown, from $ 17,719 to $ 30,941.  That represented a 75% increase in 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, the economy has continued to grow impressively, but most of the benefits have migrated to the top.  In these years, workers were more productive but received less of the wealth they were helping to create. In the late 1970s, the richest 1% received 9% of total income and held 19% of the nation’s wealth. The share of total income going to that 1% would then rise to more than 23% by 2007, while their share of total wealth would grow to 35%. And that was all before the economic meltdown of 2007-2008.

Even though everyone took a hit during the recession that followed, the top 10% now hold more than three-quarters of the country’s total family wealth.

I know, I know: statistics have a way of causing eyes to glaze over, but these statistics highlight an ugly truth about America: inequality matters. It slows economic growth, undermines health, erodes social cohesion and solidarity, and starves education. In their study The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that the most consistent predictor of mental illness, infant mortality, low educational achievement, teenage births, homicides, and incarceration was economic inequality.  

So bear with me as I keep the statistics flowing.  The Pew Research Center recently released a new study indicating that, between 2000 and 2014, the middle class shrank in virtually all parts of the country.  Nine out of ten metropolitan areas showed a decline in middle-class neighborhoods. And remember, we aren’t even talking about over 45 million people who are living in poverty.  Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2013, that top 1% captured 85% percent of all income growth.  Even after the economy improved in 2015, they still took in more than half of the income growth and by 2013 held nearly half of all the stock and mutual fund assets Americans owned. 

Now, concentrations of wealth would be far less of an issue if the rest of society were benefitting proportionally.  But that isn’t the case.

Once upon a time, according to Isabel Sawhill and Sara McClanahan in their 2006 report Opportunity in America, the American ideal was one in which all children had “a roughly equal chance of success regardless of the economic status of the family into which they were born.”

Almost 10 years ago, economist Jeffrey Madrick wrote that, as recently as the 1980s, economists thought that “in the land of Horatio Alger only 20 percent of one’s future income was determined by one’s father’s income.” He then cited research showing that, by 2007, “60 percent of a son’s income [was] determined by the level of income of the father. For women, it [was] roughly the same.” It may be even higher today, but clearly a child’s chance of success in life is greatly improved if he’s born on third base and his father has been tipping the umpire.

This raises an old question, one highlighted by the British critic and public intellectual Terry Eagleton in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

”Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality?… Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality?”

The answer, to me, is self-evident.  Capitalism produces winners and losers big time.  The winners use their wealth to gain political power, often through campaign contributions and lobbying.  In this way, they only increase their influence over the choices made by the politicians indebted to them. While there are certainly differences between Democrats and Republicans on economic and social issues, both parties cater to wealthy individuals and interests seeking to enrich their bottom lines with the help of the policies of the state (loopholes, subsidies, tax breaks, deregulation).  No matter which party is in power, the interests of big business are largely heeded.

More on that later, but first, a confession.  The legendary broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow told his generation of journalists that bias is okay as long as you don’t try to hide it. Here’s mine: plutocracy and democracy don’t mix. As the late (and great) Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Of course the rich can buy more homes, cars, vacations, gadgets, and gizmos than anyone else, but they should not be able to buy more democracy. That they can and do is a despicable blot on American politics that is now spreading like a giant oil spill.

In May, President Obama and I both spoke at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony.  He was at his inspirational best as 50,000 people leaned into every word.  He lifted the hearts of those young men and women heading out into our troubled world, but I cringed when he said, “Contrary to what we hear sometimes from both the left as well as the right, the system isn’t as rigged as you think…”

Wrong, Mr. President, just plain wrong. The people are way ahead of you on this.  In a recent poll, 71% of Americans across lines of ethnicity, class, age, and gender said they believe the U.S. economy is rigged.  People reported that they are working harder for financial security.  One quarter of the respondents had not taken a vacation in more than five years.  Seventy-one percent said that they are afraid of unexpected medical bills; 53% feared not being able to make a mortgage payment; and, among renters, 60% worried that they might not make the monthly rent.

Millions of Americans, in other words, are living on the edge.  Yet the country has not confronted the question of how we will continue to prosper without a workforce that can pay for its goods and services.

Who Dunnit?

You didn’t have to read Das Kapital to see this coming or to realize that the United States was being transformed into one of the harshest, most unforgiving societies among the industrial democracies.  You could instead have read the Economist, arguably the most influential business-friendly magazine in the English-speaking world.  I keep in my files a warning published in that magazine a dozen years ago, on the eve of George W. Bush’s second term.  The editors concluded back then that, with income inequality in the U.S. reaching levels not seen since the first Gilded Age and social mobility diminishing, “the United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.”

And mind you, that was before the financial meltdown of 2007-2008, before the bailout of Wall Street, before the recession that only widened the gap between the super-rich and everyone else. Ever since then, the great sucking sound we’ve been hearing is wealth heading upwards. The United States now has a level of income inequality unprecedented in our history and so dramatic it’s almost impossible to wrap one’s mind around.

Contrary to what the president said at Rutgers, this is not the way the world works; it’s the way the world is made to work by those with the money and power.  The movers and shakers — the big winners — keep repeating the mantra that this inequality was inevitable, the result of the globalization of finance and advances in technology in an increasingly complex world.  Those are part of the story, but only part. As G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago, “In every serious doctrine of the destiny of men, there is some trace of the doctrine of the equality of men.  But the capitalist really depends on some religion of inequality.”

Exactly.  In our case, a religion of invention, not revelation, politically engineered over the last 40 years. Yes, politically engineered.  On this development, you can’t do better than read Winner Take All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of political science.

They were mystified by what had happened to the post-World War II notion of “shared prosperity”; puzzled by the ways in which ever more wealth has gone to the rich and super rich; vexed that hedge-fund managers pull in billions of dollars, yet pay taxes at lower rates than their secretaries; curious about why politicians kept slashing taxes on the very rich and handing huge tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are downsizing their work forces; troubled that the heart of the American Dream — upward mobility — seemed to have stopped beating; and dumbfounded that all of this could happen in a democracy whose politicians were supposed to serve the greatest good for the greatest number. So Hacker and Pierson set out to find out “how our economy stopped working to provide prosperity and security for the broad middle class.”

In other words, they wanted to know: “Who dunnit?” They found the culprit. With convincing documentation they concluded, “Step by step and debate by debate, America’s public officials have rewritten the rules of American politics and the American economy in ways that have benefitted the few at the expense of the many.”

There you have it: the winners bought off the gatekeepers, then gamed the system.  And when the fix was in they turned our economy into a feast for the predators, “saddling Americans with greater debt, tearing new holes in the safety net, and imposing broad financial risks on Americans as workers, investors, and taxpayers.” The end result, Hacker and Pierson conclude, is that the United States is looking more and more like the capitalist oligarchies of Brazil, Mexico, and Russia, where most of the wealth is concentrated at the top while the bottom grows larger and larger with everyone in between just barely getting by.

Bruce Springsteen sings of “the country we carry in our hearts.” This isn’t it.

“God’s Work”

Looking back, you have to wonder how we could have ignored the warning signs.  In the 1970s, Big Business began to refine its ability to act as a class and gang up on Congress.  Even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, political action committees deluged politics with dollars. Foundations, corporations, and rich individuals funded think tanks that churned out study after study with results skewed to their ideology and interests. Political strategists made alliances with the religious right, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition, to zealously wage a cultural holy war that would camouflage the economic assault on working people and the middle class.

To help cover-up this heist of the economy, an appealing intellectual gloss was needed.  So public intellectuals were recruited and subsidized to turn “globalization,” “neo-liberalism,” and “the Washington Consensus” into a theological belief system.  The “dismal science of economics” became a miracle of faith.  Wall Street glistened as the new Promised Land, while few noticed that those angels dancing on the head of a pin were really witchdoctors with MBAs brewing voodoo magic.  The greed of the Gordon Gekkos — once considered a vice — was transformed into a virtue.  One of the high priests of this faith, Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, looking in wonder on all that his company had wrought, pronounced it “God’s work.”

A prominent neoconservative religious philosopher even articulated a “theology of the corporation.”  I kid you not.  And its devotees lifted their voices in hymns of praise to wealth creation as participation in the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth.  Self-interest became the Gospel of the Gilded Age.

No one today articulates this winner-take-all philosophy more candidly than Ray Dalio.  Think of him as the King Midas of hedge funds, with a personal worth estimated at almost $16 billion and a company, Bridgewater Associates, reportedly worth as much as $154 billion.

Dalio fancies himself a philosopher and has written a book of maxims explaining his philosophy. It boils down to: “Be a hyena. Attack the Wildebeest.” (Wildebeests, antelopes native to southern Africa — as I learned when we once filmed a documentary there — are no match for the flesh-eating dog-like spotted hyenas that gorge on them.)  Here’s what Dalio wrote about being a Wall Street hyena:

“…when a pack of hyenas takes down a young wildebeest, is this good or bad? At face value, this seems terrible; the poor wildebeest suffers and dies. Some people might even say that the hyenas are evil. Yet this type of apparently evil behavior exists throughout nature through all species… like death itself, this behavior is integral to the enormously complex and efficient system that has worked for as long as there has been life… [It] is good for both the hyenas, who are operating in their self-interest, and the interests of the greater system, which includes the wildebeest, because killing and eating the wildebeest fosters evolution, i.e., the natural process of improvement… Like the hyenas attacking the wildebeest, successful people might not even know if or how their pursuit of self-interest helps evolution, but it typically does.”

He concludes: “How much money people have earned is a rough measure of how much they gave society what it wanted…”

Not this time, Ray.  This time, the free market for hyenas became a slaughterhouse for the wildebeest. Collapsing shares and house prices destroyed more than a quarter of the wealth of the average household.  Many people have yet to recover from the crash and recession that followed. They are still saddled with burdensome debt; their retirement accounts are still anemic.  All of this was, by the hyena’s accounting, a social good, “an improvement in the natural process,” as Dalio puts it.  Nonsense.  Bull.  Human beings have struggled long and hard to build civilization; his doctrine of “progress” is taking us back to the jungle.

And by the way, there’s a footnote to the Dalio story.  Early this year, the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, and by many accounts the richest man in Connecticut where it is headquartered, threatened to take his firm elsewhere if he didn’t get concessions from the state. You might have thought that the governor, a Democrat, would have thrown him out of his office for the implicit threat involved.  But no, he buckled and Dalio got the $22 million in aid — a $5 million grant and a $17 million loan — that he was demanding to expand his operations. It’s a loan that may be forgiven if he keeps jobs in Connecticut and creates new ones. No doubt he left the governor’s office grinning like a hyena, his shoes tracking wildebeest blood across the carpet.

Our founders warned against the power of privileged factions to capture the machinery of democracies.  James Madison, who studied history through a tragic lens, saw that the life cycle of previous republics had degenerated into anarchy, monarchy, or oligarchy. Like many of his colleagues, he was well aware that the republic they were creating could go the same way.  Distrusting, even detesting concentrated private power, the founders attempted to erect safeguards to prevent private interests from subverting the moral and political compact that begins, “We, the people.” For a while, they succeeded.

When the brilliant young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the 1830s, he was excited by the democratic fervor he witnessed.  Perhaps that excitement caused him to exaggerate the equality he celebrated.  Close readers of de Tocqueville will notice, however, that he did warn of the staying power of the aristocracy, even in this new country.  He feared what he called, in the second volume of his masterwork, Democracy in America, an “aristocracy created by business.”  He described it as already among “the harshest that ever existed in the world” and suggested that, “if ever a permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy again penetrate the world, it may be predicted that this is the gate by which they will enter.”

And so it did.  Half a century later, the Gilded Age arrived with a new aristocratic hierarchy of industrialists, robber barons, and Wall Street tycoons in the vanguard.  They had their own apologist in the person of William Graham Sumner, an Episcopal minister turned professor of political economy at Yale University.  He famously explained that “competition… is a law of nature” and that nature “grants her rewards to the fittest, therefore, without regard to other considerations of any kind.” 

From Sumner’s essays to the ravenous excesses of Wall Street in the 1920s to the ravings of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News, to the business press’s wide-eyed awe of hyena-like CEOs; from the Republican war on government to the Democratic Party’s shameless obeisance to big corporations and contributors, this “law of nature” has served to legitimate the yawning inequality of income and wealth, even as it has protected networks of privilege and monopolies in major industries like the media, the tech sector, and the airlines.

A plethora of studies conclude that America’s political system has already been transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy (the rule of a wealthy elite).  Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page, for instance, studied data from 1,800 different policy initiatives launched between 1981 and 2002.  They found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”  Whether Republican or Democratic, they concluded, the government more often follows the preferences of major lobbying or business groups than it does those of ordinary citizens.

We can only be amazed that a privileged faction in a fervent culture of politically protected greed brought us to the brink of a second Great Depression, then blamed government and a “dependent” 47% of the population for our problems, and ended up richer and more powerful than ever.

The Truth of Your Life

Which brings us back to those Marshall housewives — to all those who simply can’t see beyond their own prerogatives and so narrowly define membership in democracy to include only people like themselves.

How would I help them recoup their sanity, come home to democracy, and help build the sort of moral compact embodied in the preamble to the Constitution, that declaration of America’s intent and identity?

First, I’d do my best to remind them that societies can die of too much inequality.

Second, I’d give them copies of anthropologist Jared Diamond’s book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed to remind them that we are not immune.  Diamond won the Pulitzer Prize for describing how the damage humans have inflicted on their environment has historically led to the decline of civilizations.  In the process, he vividly depicts how elites repeatedly isolate and delude themselves until it’s too late.  How, extracting wealth from commoners, they remain well fed while everyone else is slowly starving until, in the end, even they (or their offspring) become casualties of their own privilege.  Any society, it turns out, contains a built-in blueprint for failure if elites insulate themselves endlessly from the consequences of their decisions.

Third, I’d discuss the real meaning of “sacrifice and bliss” with them.  That was the title of the fourth episode of my PBS series Joseph Campbell and the Power of MythIn that episode, Campbell and I discussed the influence on him of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who believed that the will to live is the fundamental reality of human nature.  So he puzzled about why some people override it and give up their lives for others.

“Can this happen?” Campbell asked. “That what we normally think of as the first law of nature, namely self-preservation, is suddenly dissolved. What creates that breakthrough when we put another’s well-being ahead of our own?”  He then told me of an incident that took place near his home in Hawaii, up in the heights where the trade winds from the north come rushing through a great ridge of mountains.  People go there to experience the force of nature, to let their hair be blown in the winds — and sometimes to commit suicide.

One day, two policemen were driving up that road when, just beyond the railing, they saw a young man about to jump.  One of the policemen bolted from the car and grabbed the fellow just as he was stepping off the ledge.  His momentum threatened to carry both of them over the cliff, but the policeman refused to let go.  Somehow he held on long enough for his partner to arrive and pull the two of them to safety.  When a newspaper reporter asked, “Why didn’t you let go? You would have been killed,” he answered: “I couldn’t… I couldn’t let go.  If I had, I couldn’t have lived another day of my life.”

Campbell then added: “Do you realize what had suddenly happened to that policeman? He had given himself over to death to save a stranger.  Everything else in his life dropped off. His duty to his family, his duty to his job, his duty to his own career, all of his wishes and hopes for life, just disappeared.” What mattered was saving that young man, even at the cost of his own life.

How can this be, Campbell asked?  Schopenhauer’s answer, he said, was that a psychological crisis represents the breakthrough of a metaphysical reality, which is that you and the other are two aspects of one life, and your apparent separateness is but an effect of the way we experience forms under the conditions of space and time.  Our true reality is our identity and unity with all life.

Sometimes, however instinctively or consciously, our actions affirm that reality through some unselfish gesture or personal sacrifice. It happens in marriage, in parenting, in our relations with the people immediately around us, and in our participation in building a society based on reciprocity.

The truth of our country isn’t actually so complicated.  It’s in the moral compact implicit in the preamble to our Constitution: we’re all in this together.  We are all one another’s first responders.  As the writer Alberto Rios once put it, “I am in your family tree and you are in mine.”

I realize that the command to love our neighbor is one of the hardest of all religious concepts, but I also recognize that our connection to others goes to the core of life’s mystery and to the survival of democracy.  When we claim this as the truth of our lives — when we live as if it’s so — we are threading ourselves into the long train of history and the fabric of civilization; we are becoming “we, the people.”

The religion of inequality — of money and power — has failed us; its gods are false gods.  There is something more essential — more profound — in the American experience than the hyena’s appetite.  Once we recognize and nurture this, once we honor it, we can reboot democracy and get on with the work of liberating the country we carry in our hearts.

© 2016 Bill Moyers

Bill Moyers is the managing editor of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com. His previous shows on PBS included NOW with Bill Moyers and Bill Moyers Journal. Over the past three decades he has become an icon of American journalism and is the author of many books, including Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues, Moyers on Democracy, and Bill Moyers: On Faith & Reason. He was one of the organizers of the Peace Corps, a special assistant for Lyndon B. Johnson, a publisher of Newsday, senior correspondent for CBS News and a producer of many groundbreaking series on public television. He is the winner of more than 30 Emmys, nine Peabodys, three George Polk awards.