Dictators

Specter of Infinite War

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From “Stories of Gods and Heroes” (1920) by Thomas Bulfinch with color illustrations drawn by Sybil Tawse. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I am among the apparent majority of American voters opposed to Donald Trump’s election and re-election. The majority wasn’t big enough in 2016 and may be too small in 2020 to overcome the negative effects of indirect election, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and foreign interference. As a citizen of a decidedly red state, I register my vote in full knowledge that it will not count in the final tally, since the presidential candidate with the most popular votes in Indiana, even if just a plurality, receives all eleven of the state’s electoral votes. Winner-takes-all rather than proportional allocation is the case in 48 of the 50 states, red or blue, big or small. It allows a candidate who loses the popular vote to win the office. If the electoral college was supposed to prevent the selection of a manifestly unqualified candidate, recent experience suggests that choosing the winner directly by popular vote might serve the country as well or even better. (more…)

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US Imperial Decline in Geopolitical Perspective

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Eurasia (orthographic projection). Credit: Keepscases / Wikimedia Commons

Historian Alfred McCoy has quickened my interest in the discourse of geopolitics applied to the waning state of US empire.  His book, In the Shadows of the American Century:  The Rise and Decline of US Global Power (Chicago:  Haymarket Books, 2017), makes a clear case that the end of global dominance is near.  The question is what kinds of disruption and what degree of violence the imperial fall will occasion.  What might a post-imperial era mean for Americans and others caught up in the transition?  From the perspective of geopolitics, McCoy sees a number of mostly disturbing possibilities.  His observations are valuable for indicating the challenges ahead.  (more…)

Trump the Strawman

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President Donald J. Trump is greeted by Kim Jong Un, Chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019, at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi, for their second summit meeting. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Donald Trump’s fizzled summit meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un is yet another occasion for commentary on this president’s unfitness for office, particularly in matters of foreign affairs.  The failure in Hanoi was Trump’s greatest blunder so far, according to Simon Tisdall, a foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian.  It was another “Trump vanity project.”  His “self-reverential style of personalized, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants diplomacy” is irresponsible in nuclear talks, per se, and ineffectual more generally.

Tisdall’s summary of Trump’s failed leadership is stunning: (more…)

Trembling for my Country

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Jefferson Memorial at dusk, 4 October 2011. (Credit: Joe Ravi)

“It’s come to that. I tremble for my country.” These chilling, Jeffersonian words could be the refrain of an unwritten elegy on the fate of the republic.[i] They are the lament of a judicious person I know in Washington, D.C., a person who has served in previous administrations of both political parties and now works as a policy adviser. They are words to express the inchoate angst lurking inside us. Could anyone—even someone stunned by the last presidential election—have foreseen our present predicament of government unhinged and politics gone vile? Yes, it’s come to that, and I, too, tremble for my country. (more…)

Pessimism and Hope for Democracy

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Progressive Democratic Candidate Liz Watson. (Credit: Liz for Indiana on Facebook)

Just before the midterm elections and immediately thereafter, I found myself feeling pessimistic and saying so to anyone within earshot. That was an unwelcome downer for friends and fellow progressives wishing to celebrate an election that gave the Democratic Party control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The “blue wave” may not have been as big as many expected (or at least hoped for), but one-party rule in the nation’s capital had been defeated at the polls.

The Democrats also made gains in governorships and other state offices. Even in deep-red Arizona, Democrats won a U.S. Senate seat and took a 5-4 advantage in the state’s nine Congressional districts.

The Arizona victory underscored my pessimism. Why could that red state, where my Hunt the Devil friend Oscar lives, show blue when Indiana, the state in which I reside, deepened its already dark shade of red? Maybe we progressive Hoosiers will never overcome Republican gerrymandering. Maybe Republicans do not even need to gerrymander to dominate in Indiana. It just seems hopeless. (more…)

Soul of the Republic

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Exhibition at the Grand Palace. “Me, Augustus, Emperor of Rome” (19 March 2014-13 July 2014) Around 44 BC. Julius Caesar, white marble. (Credit: Gautier Poupeau)

Consider for a moment that the way we communicate is an expression of who we are or are becoming. Do we communicate as a democratic people, as citizens of a republic, and/or as subjects of an empire—perhaps increasingly less as democratic citizens and more as imperial subjects, marking the impending loss of the soul of the republic?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s The Imperial Presidency chronicled the systematic growth of presidential power since the founding of the republic, a trend that has increased since the book’s publication in 1973. Jeffrey Tulis and his colleagues followed suit in 1981 and 1987 with a discussion of the rise of the rhetorical presidency and its deleterious effects on republican government.[1] Demagoguery and government by mood, in Tulis’s view, mark rhetoric as a degraded form of political communication that undermines the interests of the public and destabilizes the political system. Of course, not all rhetoric is demagogic, but rule by presidential mass persuasion that bypasses the deliberative function of the Congress, by this estimation, erodes the constitution of the republic. While I have criticized the elitism of the rhetorical presidency thesis in general terms,[2] the present degraded state of presidential rhetoric clearly is deleterious to the prospects of representative democracy and the future of the republic.

(more…)

Trump the Traitor

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Joint press conference of Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the United States of America Donald Trump, 16 July 2018. (Credit: Kremlin.ru)

I count myself among the majority of Americans appalled by Donald Trump’s presidency. Even so, righteous talk of his treason is worrisome from my standpoint as a critic of US war culture. I worry that a desire to defeat Trump and Trumpism by attacking any point of vulnerability works, in the present case, to reinforce militarism, even if inadvertently.

“Trump the Traitor” pretty well sums up the mainstream reaction to Mr. Trump’s resistance to the investigation of Russian meddling in US elections and his affinity for Mr. Putin. That is the title of Michael A. Cohen’s July 16 commentary in the Boston Globe. (more…)

Fourth of July Protest

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1902 American cartoon about celebrating the Fourth of July. (Credit: Udo Keppler/Wikimedia Commons)

It was the day after the Fourth of July. Three of us met for breakfast at the local deli.  There had been a sizable Families Belong Together rally the previous Saturday in our downtown square attended by two of us. I had missed the rally but had marched with a group in our city’s July 4th parade. Our group carried signs that called for keeping families together and endorsed more humane alternatives to detention.

The three of us were comparing notes over breakfast and, as is our custom, engaging in spirited debate. We like disagreeing with one another. Sometimes it’s each one of us opposed to each of the others; sometimes it’s two against one in short-lived and shifting alliances. Usually we find points of agreement, or at least partial agreement, in the midst of the give and take. We provoke and listen to each other for the sake of friendship.

This was the dialectical context in which I shared with my friends some reflections on the previous day’s parade experience.  (more…)

Democracy at Home, Imperialism Abroad

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“Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States” by Howard Chandler Christy, oil on canvas, 1940. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution, as it relates to the military and war, specifies that:

The Congress shall have power To . . . provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States (Clause 1);

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water (Clause 11);

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years (Clause 12);

To provide and maintain a Navy (Clause 13);

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces (Clause 14);

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions (Clause 15);

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States . . . (Clause 16).

In short, the elected representatives of the people in Congress are constitutionally empowered on military matters and warfare, including the declaration of war. (more…)

Democracy in Authoritarian Times

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American poet Walt Whitman, September 1872, Brooklyn, New York. (Credit: G. Frank E. Pearsall)

We promote a mythic sensibility in this forum on the assumption that, for good or ill, myth is ubiquitous in human affairs. Our goal is not to debunk myth. We expose it where it harms polity and sustains war, but we also wish to cultivate myth to redeem democracy and promote peaceful pursuits.    

A culture of positive peace requires a democratic ethos. Democracy is not simply a matter of voting. It is an attitude, an outlook, a way of life that entails managing our serious differences robustly and constructively. It is not to be confused with the present outbreak of authoritarian populism and demonizing rhetoric.

As E. J. Dionne Jr. maintains, populism per se is not a villain nor is it necessarily hostile to democracy. The kind of populism that maintains faith with democracy does so by challenging “ruling elites to face up to injustices that undermine free institutions.” It does not define “the people” narrowly or treat political opponents as enemies. (more…)