Our Imminent Constitutional Crisis
Last January, weeks before President Trump was acquitted by the Senate's Republican majority in his impeachment trial, I pointed out in this space that the man was the worst demagogue ever to occupy the White House. The months since have only increased our awareness of that charge, the alarm bells now ringing louder than ever.
Trump. of course, continues to lie about all things regarding Joe Biden and the Democrats' agenda for the nation. But recently, he has also made clear that he has no intention of conceding the election should he lose, because, he insists, that can only come about if the Democrats cheat at the polls. His big lie is to assert that they will flood the system with massive amounts of fraudulent ballots. Since far more Americans will vote by mail this year than ever before, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it is now clear that the counting of ballots will extend well past election day. Many pundits expect that, if the outcome is close, the count on election night may favor Trump, since far more Democrats than Republicans will vote by mail, which will take longer to count. That would give the president all the ammunition he'd need to cry "foul" if the post-election vote count is extended and goes against him.
At that point, most bets are off. Trump himself has said he then would likely appeal to the Supreme Court. Since his ultra-conservative nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg will presumably be confirmed by then, he might expect its conservative majority (which at that point would include three of his own appointees) to look kindly on his appeal. Whatever the outcome, the Court would once again, as in 2000, determine the nation's ultimate political contest, the presidency itself. That is not a role anyone should wish on the Court.
But other, even messier scenarios may be more likely in the event of a close election. In states such as Pennsylvania, if the popular vote should produce only a razor-thin victory for Biden, the Republican majority in the state legislature might then decide to determine the list of electors, thereby ensuring the commonwealth would go for Trump. If several states engaged in such controversial--but arguably legal--actions, the resulting challenges could produce an electoral stalemate that would send the election to the U.S. House of Representatives. There, every state has a single vote, which gives equal weight to the least populous Wyoming and most populous California, even though the latter has almost 70 times as many residents (40 million) as the former (577 thousand). How would that be for an outcome not reflecting the democratic ideal of one person, one vote?
The bottom line is that the life of the U.S. Constitution has always depended on the assumption that all the key players in the nation accept its authority and play by the rules it sets out. That includes the expectation that those who lose elections will concede defeat and yield power to the winners. Almost everything about Donald Trump's presidency has brought unprecedented, norm-breaking behavior from the White House. That now includes the likelihood that Trump will refuse to play by the electoral rules that have governed this nation for 233 years. If, when they come, such moves are not opposed by huge numbers of Americans--Republican, Democrat, and independent--the result could be the demise of our Constitution and the end of our republic.
Knocked Off Their Pedestals?
Among the upheavals in our lives these past months has been the widespread attack on public monuments honoring important figures from our nation's past. Statues of Confederate leaders have been obvious targets, since these were mainly raised, years after the South's defeat in the Civil War, to try to portray as a noble cause a rebellion that tore the nation in two over the secessionists' effort to maintain chattel slavery. Because Philadelphia remained firmly in the Union throughout that conflict, it never was home to Confederate monuments, although the city did name a street for Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who wrote the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case which helped trigger the Civil War. That dre(a)dful decision maintained that African-Americans were not citizens and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. The killing of George Floyd last May prompted new efforts to rename Taney Street, as well as the Columbus Boulevard section of Delaware Avenue through center city.
Yes, Columbus has been honored since the beginning of our republic for having "discovered" America, never mind that millions of indigenous people had discovered and settled these lands several millennia before Columbus first came ashore in the Caribbean in 1492. The view of European settlers since Columbus's own time has generally assumed that it was they and their forebears who brought civilization to the hemisphere. They conveniently overlooked the uncomfortable fact that Columbus behaved brutally toward the native people he encountered. He murdered and enslaved them, sending hundreds back to Spain in chains. In the process, he and his contemporary conquistadores nearly eradicated those they didn't slaughter as the result of the new diseases they brought with them from Europe.
Not until the late 19th century did honoring Columbus become connected to honoring Italian immigrants to America. (That is itself a bit ironic when you consider that Columbus, though a Genoan by birth, worked for the Spanish crown, making Spain the leading colonial power throughout much of the New World.) Philadelphia's statue of Columbus was dedicated at the Centennial Exposition on October 12, 1876--what came to be called Columbus Day--in the city's Fairmount Park. Exactly one hundred years later, it was relocated to Marconi Plaza on South Broad Street. While that put it in the heart of a traditionally Italian neighborhood, it also marked a demotion of sorts, one that recognized growing oopposition to keeping this figure in the heart of the American pantheon of heroes. In our recent summer of discontent, opponents and defenders of the Columbus legacy clashed repeatedly near the statue, which then was boarded up by the city for its own protection. Now, both Philadelphia's Historical and its Arts Commission have voted to remove the statue and relocate it to private property, a resolution still pending as of today.
This episode should remind us all of how our views of historical figures can shift, often radically, over time. One generation's hero may well be another's villain as the result of changing mores and new knowledge. Today we recognize chattel slavery as abominable, so is it our obligation now to remove every monument in America to those very founding fathers who were slave-holders? Few of us would want to erase every tribute to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.
Wisdom on this subject surely must start by acknowledging that all our "heroes"--like every other mortal ever born--contained flaws in their behavior that require us to assess the whole of their character. Surely it is possible to salute the good they did while opposing the bad, including the bad that was driven by values that grew out of a time very different from our own. Jefferson remains a hero for me because of the greatness of his ideas for our political life which, I would like to think, guide us still. He seems never to have been a cruel man, even to his slaves. That is what redeems his character in my eyes even while I abhor his views on race.
So, make your own assessment of Columbus and the others. Will we be judged by our descendants for allowing racial inequality still to stand? threatening others with weapons of mass destruction? destroying the earth's environment?
If we don't judge ourselves, those who follow us will.
A Vision for Our Post-Viral World
We Americans and much of the rest of the world are still in the grip of two pandemics, one caused by the coronavirus and the other by the ravages of Donald Trump. While the first may come under control with development of an effective vaccine, hope is growing that a cure for the Trumpian plague may begin with the November election. I embrace that hope with some modest suggestions for what the political life of the planet post-Trump might look like.
Under Trump's presidency, the U.S. has largely abandoned its role as the global leader in social and economic development and the management of conflict world-wde.Trump's withdrawals from the Paris climate accord, the plan to forestall Iran's development of nuclear weapons, and the World Health Organization are clear examples. But so are his generalized snubbing of NATO allies, disdain for the European Union, admiration for autocrats, and his trade war.
No doubt, a President Biden would work to reverse many of these moves, as his campaign slogan,"Build Back Better," suggests. Here's some of what that might look like.
First and foremost, his administration should recognize that the era of American hegemony pre-Trump will not return. The U.S. now should lead by persuading others that it will join with them to tackle issues in which we all have an interest in positive change. Breathing cleaner air is an obvious example. Making that happen need not depend entirely on the formal commitments of large numbers of states. We can take initiatives on our own by phasing out reliance on fossil fuels and encouraging renewables. That will both encourage others to follow our lead and bring increasing pressure to bear on those who don't move in that direction.
If we can replace Trump's "America First" with a re-acknowledgment that the aspirations of societies around the globe are worthy as well, we can begin to undercut the appeal of today's nationalists, now riding high from Hungary and Turkey to the Philippines and Brazil. Rolling back recent tariffs is one place to start. But more generally, we can encourage regional actors to solve regional issues so that their shared interests are recognized. The new African Union Peace and Security Council is one example, for it has begun to develop standby forces that can be deployed to prevent a conflict on that continent from escalating.
Recently, the European Union did something unprecedented. It responded to the dire economic needs of a number of its members, thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, with a bigger move toward integration than had been possible before. That is, all members accepted common debt and expenditure, even the possibility of common taxation. As members increasingly acknowledge their common future in this way, that vision should reinvigorate democratic norms and begin to reverse the illiberalism now evident in several member states.
The United States should again lead in the effort to reinvigorate global trade and development. Much of our globalized economic life in recent decades has produced greater inequality, with corporate heads growing ever richer while their workers around the world remain mired in poverty. The next administration can begin to correct that through revised tax laws and greater insistence on worker protection abroad, using that as the counterweight to the removal of trade restrictions. Freer markets, after all, are meant to bring economic benefits to larger and larger numbers of people, not only the enrichment of the few.
This little sketch of some of what ought to be is built entirely on my view that the United States must once again become the exemplary nation. We were pretty much that not so long ago. Now, if we are to lead the world, we must address our own shortcomings--regarding race and inequality at home, and our abandonment of multilateralism abroad. To the extent we succeed, we will be emulated, if not by all other governments, increasing numbers of them. It is through our ideals and our example that we and the people of the world will prevail.
Depressing Lessons from American History
Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, America has experienced protests calling for police reform and greater justice for black and brown Americans such as we haven't witnessed in half a century. I was a young adult in the 1960s, and can attest to how that era resonates with the present. After sit-ins, marches, violence and demagoguery, we got the voting rights act of 1964 and the end to Jim Crow laws throughout the South--but we also got the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We don't yet know what, if any, progressive change will come from today's demonstrations or if terrible backlash will follow. I write at a moment when Congress, as is usual these days, is deadlocked on producing any significant reforms that could ensure equal justice for all Americans.
But here's what's alost more disturbing today than what we saw in the course of our social upheaval fifty years ago. We are now led by a president who is doing all he can to exacerbate our social cleavages rather than trying to bring us together. He's made himself the leader of today's backlash.
Not even Richard Nixon, with his law-and-order mantra, came close to matching the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump. "Law and order" is too tame for him; he brands demonstrators as radicals, anarchists, looters, and enemies. He makes clear that he applies those epithets to any and all who might support Joe Biden and the Democrats next November. Trump's world, as always, is divided between his friends versus his enemies, and he's making ever clearer that among the latter are huge swaths of the very Americans he was elected to govern.
Our president seems actually to want to recreate the divided America that led us to the Civil War. In the 1850s in Philadelphia alone, African American men not only were denied the right to vote, they were sometimes caught by slave hunters and spirited off to the South to be sold into slavery. Meetings of abolitionists were attacked, and their meeting places burned, by mobs bent on keeping blacks from enjoying equal citizenship. Populist, nativist, and pro-slavery parties all were agitating to keep America white, Protestant, and free from the control of the "establishment" forces they opposed.
The issues today aren't identical, though they certainly chime with those that led to the Civil War. What is most frighteningly different is that today the president of the United States seems determined to deepen our divisions rather than try to bridge them. Presidents in the 1850s--Frankllin Pierce and James Buchanan--both failed to resolve the issues that were tearing the nation apart, but neither man worked actively, as does Trump, to create and lead a culture war. If American society is not yet as badly divided as was the United States on the eve of the 1860 election, that is no thanks to President Trump. He still has four months to drive the nation toward the precipice.
What looms over us now is the question of what action Trump will take if--as the polls now suggest will happen--he is defeated by Biden on November 3. It's hard to imagine that he will simply pack his bags and quietly leave the White House, as the Democrat Buchanan did when Republican Lincoln was inaugurated. He may challenge the vote's legitimacy, rallying his supporters to join him to prevent the normal, peaceful transition of power from one elected president to the next. That could well become the opening scene in a 21st-century civil war.
In the last week of May, the United States officially passed the milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Our nation, with less than four percent of the globe's population, had one-quarter of the world's known cases, more than any other country on earth. But, President Trump, instead of leading a moment of national mourning--the kind of presidential gesture that used to be standard for occupants of the oval office--responded by withdrawing all assistance to the World Health Organization, a key player in the effort to halt the pandemic, falsely claiming that the WHO was in China's pocket. At about the same time, he also accused his predecessor of unspecified crimes and concocted a murder charge against a cable news host.
Long buried is the childish hope of some when Trump was elected that the office would remold him and make him "presidential," as had happened for most of his predecessors. But Donald Trump has never had any concept of what it means to be presidential. Now all the world knows that he is constitutionally incapable of behaving except as a man forever pitted in a contest, and one with an unworthy opponent.
However badly he bungled the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is not the kind of crisis best addressed by pugilistic words and actions. That opportunity came, only days after the coronavirus milestone for the US, when protests and rioting broke out across the country following the murder by suffocation of a black man on a street in Minneapolis, an event that all the world witnessed. As protests and demonstrations grew, here was a crisis ready-made for a Trumpian response.
"When the looting starts, the shooting starts," Trump tweeted in an apparent call for violence as his initial reaction to the unrest in Minneapolis. Over the next two or three days, when protests spread, he retweeted the video of a supporter saying "the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat." He backed that up with the charge that "Liberal Governors and Mayors" needed to get MUCH tougher on protesters" or he would unleash "the unlimited power of our military" againt them. When CNN headquarters in Atlanta were attacked by demonstrators, his message was that the cable company "is being attacked by the very riots they promoted as noble and just." He doubled down on some of his favorite adversaries when the unrest grew: "Much more 'disinformation' coming out of CNN, MSNBC, @nytimes and @washington post by far, than coming out of any foreign country, even combined. Fake news is the Enemy of the People!"
No, the real enemy of a people who are trying to maintain and improve their democracy is the divisive rhetoric and behavior of their purported leader. From our perspective nearly a week after the murder of George Floyd, it is becoming frighteningly clear that the unrest it has triggered across the country is playing directly into Trump's hands. It gives him an unmatched opportunity to play his us-versus-them brand of politics. When the president of the United States stokes the flames of division, more logs are thrown on the fires of our polarization. What began as sympathy for the cause of greater justice for African Americans is on the way to being overwhelmed by the revulsion good citizens naturally feel for lawless destruction and looting. The president is doing his best to conflate the righteous demands of peaceful protestors with the lawlessness of the looters. To the extent that he succeeds, we will again see demands for justice put off until another time.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump will have led America ever farther down the road to dystopia.
Slaves of Our Own Pollution
Last month, the world marked 50 years since the first Earth Day. So it's now half a century since people across the globe presumably have been tuned into the impact humanity is having on the health of our biosphere. But whether tuned in or not, over the past half century the ever greater disconnect between our growing awareness of global warming and our pitiful response to it has only produced more dissonance and greater alarm about the future of our planet.
Why environmental problems have only worsened over these decades isn't difficult to understand. Since the time of the industrial revolution, economic growth and development have been almost entirely built on the extraction of fossil fuels. Those fuels have fired up our factories, run our machines, and allowed us to speed across the earth to command its most distant reaches--even into space and to the bottom of our oceans--in ways unimaginable to our pre-modern ancestors. Most of us can scaracely conceive of a world that didn't operate like this. And those who benefit most directly from the extraction industry have largely succeeded in convincing the rest of us that our way of life depends on keeping all that mining, drilling, and fracking on the go forever. Even for many with environmental concerns, the tendency has been to shrug and say, well, there's nothing much that I can do about it.
Our situation reminds me of another era. For some 250 years, chattel slavery in the American south was the backbone for a way of life that looked essential to those who reaped its fruits. The planter economy that dominated the region was sustained on the backs of enslaved laborers who, like draft animals on these farms, received no wages and no freedom to make choices governing their own lives. Of course, there were some among free white citizens who deplored the slavery system, but, like many would-be environmentalists today, they no doubt thought that, if they opposed it, the only civilization they knew would come tumbling down.
So it was that, when the successful challenge to slavery did come, it was driven largely by unmatchable force from "outside," i.e., from erstwhile fellow-countrymen whose own livelihoods were not dependent on maintaining the slave system. The pre-industrial society of the South was destroyed by the more dynamic economic model of the North, one that had no need or place for chattel slavery. Only then did nearly every American agree that slavery was and is immoral. Today we are critical of those otherwise sterling founders of our nation, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, for participating in such a system. Yes, they deserve our criticism, but we also need to remember that, like us today, they were the pawns of a system they thought they couldn't change. If they were guilty, so are we. Our perpetuation of a civilization built on fossil fuels is this era's equivalent of maintaining slavery in America before the Civil War.
We now must recognize that it's immoral to rely on these energy sources to keep things humming. Increasingly, the younger generation is doing just that. They are today's abolitionists, shaming their elders for turning a blind eye to how we are still poisoning the only home we're leaving them. Now the question is whether shaming today's "mature" generations will actually turn the tide before it's too late. Make no mistake, time is running out. I can't imagine a worse calamity for humankind than for its tale to end, not in a record of unimaginable accomplishments, but as one that ultimately made it impossible for its own species to survive and thrive on the planet.
In 1800, you willingly bought the cotton goods manufactured on the backs of slave laborers. Today, you happily drive an SUV whose internal combustion engine and what it produces is killing our planet. Will our 21st century moral dilemma end in finally abolishing the fuels that are killling our planet, or in its death and that of all humanity?
My Front Yard in a Time of Crisis
For many years, I've lived in a high-rise building facing Washington Square, one of five that William Penn drew on his plan for Philadelphia in the 1680s. I've been reminded as never before in this time of the COVID-19 crisis how this little park is serving once again as a place of refuge. That is a role it has played over the course of three-plus centuries, although that seldom occurs to me in "normal" times. But in recent weeks, people have been congregating there in what seems to be an inverse relationship to the social restrictions on their lives. Some of this can be accounted for by pleasure in watching springtime renew the park. But a visit to the square also relieves the tedium of self-isolation at home, allowing for fresh air and exercise while maintaining social distancing in the heart of the city.
For a century and more after Philadelphia was founded, this plot was simply undeveloped land, left to nature. It served as a potters' field and burial ground for soldiers from both sides during the Revolutionary War. In 1793, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital, George Washington was living a block away in his second term as president. In August of that year, yellow fever came to the city from a ship docked in the Delaware River. The president and his household soon fled to the relative safety of Germantown, just as most other well-off citizens also moved out of the city. That first great epidemic in the new nation only subsided months later after killing up to 5,000 residents, or ten percent of the city's population at the time. The bodies of some of the victims joined those of the soldiers who were buried in trenches along the perimeters of the square.
In the 1820s, Washington Square was landscaped (and named for our first president) in the general configuration visible today. It remained an attractive oasis while the city thrived and grew. But by the last years of the 20th century, Philadelphia's parks budget wasn't sufficient to keep our green space from looking ever more bedraggled. Then, in 2005, Philadelphia gave the National Park Service (NPS) the responsibility to maintain our patch of Penn's heritage, bringing it under the control--though not the ownership--of the adjacent Independence National Historical Park. We've seen improvements ever since. The current need for respite there has happily occurred at just the time its caretakers have been enhancing its beauties. Late last winter, the NPS engaged in major pruning of the square's trees. A remarkable group of neighborhood volunteers maintains and improves the park's plantings in cooperation with the NPS. Well-tended flower beds are now bursting with colorful blossoms.
After World War II, our Society Hill neighborhood began to be rejuvenated, so that it soon became one of the city's premier residential quarters, just as it had been a century and more earlier. Washington Square got a makeover when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers of the Revolutionary War was created there in the 1950s. The monument features the life-size statue of George Washington by the great 18th-century sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, who in 1785 traveled from Paris to Mt. Vernon at the behest of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to create this likeness of the future president (this bronze copy was cast from the marble original, which stands in the Virginia statehouse in Richmond).
The tomb's solemn presence has helped make Washington Square a place more for quiet reflection than boisterous games. Today, more than ever, it is a beautiful and spiritually uplifting oasis. How reassuring it is to see that this treasure still endures, serving us through a time of upheaval just as it has for centuries!
The Trumpification of Our Politics
Now that we're into the fourth year of Donald Trump's presidency, we Americans have grown accustomed--somewould say, inured--to the injuries he has wrought to our political landscape. Whether it is the daily taunts and insults he lobs at his opponents or his trashing of the norms of behavior that have evolved for the presidency since George Washington first defined it by his own example, Trump has defiled presidential conduct in unprecedented fashion. It has therefore seemed unarguable that whoever opposes him next November must be seen as someone who can start to restore the presidency, making its occupant once again someone to look up to.
But as the competition continues among those Democrats who seek the nomination, we are beginning to see signs that whoever succeeds Trump in the White House may neither get there in accordance with the old playbook nor draw the usual support from traditional constituencies.
These signs are clearest in the rise of Bernie Sanders. In spite of his good fight four years ago, it was generally supposed then that he was too far to the left either to win the nomination or be elected president. Today, however, this most contrarian of the candidates may be increasingly viewed as having, on the one hand, the kind of personality that can take on Donald Trump, and on the other, an agenda that's the polar opposite of Trump's.
Here is what I mean: Sanders is curmudgeonly where Trump is insulting, and, like him, makes sweeping pronouncements while disdaining details. Where the president is the embodiment of the self-serving plutocrat, Sanders' career has been all about opposition to plutocracy and economic inequality. If Trump gains support for his appeal to a presumed past golden age, Sanders holds to the nostrums that have long challenged that vision as corrupt and unjust. Both men are scolds, but about nearly opposite values and matters. Neither practices what establishment politics regards as essential, which is reasoned discourse to produce mutually acceptable outcomes built on a willingness to compromise.
Sanders' appeal is evident within two overlapping constituencies: young people and Hispanics. Large numbers of both evidently approve of his history of activism in civil rights, which gives him a warrant, as they see it, for his commitment to immigration reform and a halt to deportations, and to a more sweeping reversal of America's militarism over the past three-quarters of a century.
In short, Trump's misdeeds, as seen through the eyes of some of his opponents, now require steps that traditionally have been seen as too radical to pass muster, at least in the eyes of those establishment politicians and their followers who are used to greater "refinement" in their politics. Sanders' remaining primary opponents, including even Elizabeth Warren, all fit more comfortably in the Democratic Party's establishment than does the Vermont senator.
Much of Sanders' support is coming from groups that have not much entered the political arena in the past. The big question at this point in the primary season is whether they will stay motivated to help elect him president should he win the nomination, or leave the fray altogether if someone else is the nominee. Clearly, Trump's unexpected victory in 2016 showed that many who had previously been written off as uninvolved could be mobilized on his behalf.
Nominating Bernie Sanders as Trump's opponent this year could test that prospect once again, but this time, for both parties. Such a test could also trasnform American politics for generations to come.
The Return of Tribalism
We Americans have had more than enough time to recognize how Donald Trump appeals to our worst instincts. He pits us against each other, contributing to the polarization that has come to characterize our era. But he also pits America against the world, telling us that we should go our own way and to hell with other nations. Now it's plain that the us-versus-them view that defines Trumpism isn't restricted to the U.S. It has infected much of the world. Here are a few examples:
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has led his Fidescz party in opposition to the 2015 migrant crisis, erecting a barrier between his state and Serbia, while championing "illiberal democracy" and trumpeting his disdain of the European establishment.
In Poland, the Law and Justice Party under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski rallies the nation as a bulwark of conservative Catholicism while opposing same-sex marriage and multi-culturalism generally.
Brazil's President Bolsonario adds to his anti-immigrant, pro-gun and pro-life policies his admiration for the nation's 20 years of "glorious" military dictatorship. Rejecting climate change, this "Tropical Trump" promotes the accelerated destruction of the Amazon rain forest.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pushed through a law in India preventing Muslim residents or would-be migrants from the citizenship rights granted to other religious communities, a move which many see as an effort to make India a Hindu nation, rather than the secular state that has defined this immense democracy since its independence.
Perhaps most depressing of all, getting Brexit done has meant taking the U.K. back to a time that the European Union has so successfully left behind, when state-based conflict too often got resolved through war. Among the further negative consequences could be the dissolution of the United Kingdom itself if the English, the Welsh, Scots, and Irish should choose to revert to their individual tribal identities as the logical next step after Brexit.
These examples are all from countries that have had more or less success in establishing liberal democracies over decades or centuries. None are those where authoritarian politics have been the rule recently. Together, they reveal how a reactionary tribalism increasingly characterizes the world we live in today.
The truly terrible irony is that this is happening at exactly the moment when the social problems of our era call out loudly for just the opposite: the ever greater dissipation of our tribalism in growing integration. That couldn't be clearer: the world has shrunk remarkably in the social sense, now that people move far and wide from their places of birth, mingling and intermixing on an unprecedented scale, and mostly for the benefit of all. Virtually no one alive today is untouched by the lives and actions of those from half-way around the globe. Our prosperity and our livehilood flow from our interdependence.
We're also beginning to acknowledge at last that our planet is the shared home for all of us, an intricately interconnected biosphere that is now under threat from our own actions. Here our tribalism is of a different order of magnitude than confrontational politics, since even the most humane polities are still exploiting the earth as if the eventual price is not the death of the biosphere itself.
My perennial optimism makes me want to cling to the old saw which says that the darkness is greatest right before the dawn. But at the moment, the darkness looks nearly complete. Not only that, it is the wrong image to depict our condition today. We are not the helpless pawns of natural forces which we are unable to change. If we are to move toward greater light across the globe, it is we--Homo sapiens--who will have to find the means to make it shine.
A Republic, If We Can Keep It
Living, as I do, in a high-rise building a block away from Independence Hall, I can look down on that birthplace of our republic whenever I like. It's always a reassuring reminder of how two seminal gatherings there produced plans for the nation that have guided us ever since.
The nation's founders viewed tyranny as especially dangerous, often the destroyer of republics throughout history. So they gave checks and balances to the three branches of government. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton put it this way: " . . . of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants." That explains why the founders included the power of impeachment, so that a demagogue might be removed from the presidency before the republic had succumbed completely to a state of tyranny. That is also why they thought it insufficient to allow such a person to remain as president for the voters to judge at the next election. Because demagogues by definition play on popular emotion and prejudice for support, their tyranny may be confirmed rather than thwarted at the ballot box.
Now the greatest demagogue ever to claim the presidency has been impeached. But we also face the likelihood that he will be acquitted by the Republican majority in the Senate. That will then leave it to the voters in November to decide whether he shall remain in office for a second term. Meanwhile, we can surely not expect an end to Trump's outraged and outrageous tweets, his personal attacks and lies, i.e., his demagoguery. We can continue to hope that we have not moved so far down the path toward tyranny that he will be re-elected in November. Opinion polls do show that only a minority of the electorate supports him.
But there is a catch, one also written into the bedrock of our Constitution. That's the Electoral College, which is what made Trump president in 2016 in spite of losing the popular vote. It may have seemed smart to the men who worked all this out in 1787 to provide for educated--or at least not illiterate--electors in every state to act as an election filter, since not all the (white, male) citizens with the right to vote presumably had enough information about the candidates or understanding of the issues to cast their votes intelligently. But the best that could be said for the anti-democratic Electoral College until the start of our century was that it typically confirmed the popular vote. Only three times, in 1824, 1876, and 1888, did the electoral vote not go to the presidential candidate who had also won the popular vote.
Yet now that's happened twice again in only the past five election cycles, starting in 2000. The same arithmetic that gave Trump the Electoral College vote in 2016 will be at work again this year. His advantage lies in the largely rural and less populated states that are favored by their over-representation in the Senate and the under-representation of urban areas where votes pile up for electors who represent far more people than do their counterparts in less populated states. Here the nightmare prospect is the possibility that the 2020 election could produce an Electoral College tie. That would trigger the constitutional requirement for the election to be decided by the House of Representatives. Then matters could truly take a bizarre turn, for every state would have just one vote. Alaska's would equal that of California, which has more than fifty times as many people and eighteen times as many electoral votes.
Who would then give a shout-out for the good sense of our founders?
And a Child Shall Lead Them
Many years ago, at what I remember as my fifteenth Christmas, my father wrote me a letter that was meant to inspire adolescent me. And it did.
In it, he said that, like all parents, he hoped that his children's accomplishments would surpass his own, a wish he linked to this touchstone thought: each generation has a responsibility to leave the world in better shape than when they entered it.
Those words came back to me vividly when I heard sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg shame her elders on their failure to reverse the climate crisis in her speech at the United Nations weeks ago. "How dare you continue to look away and come here saying you're doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight," she chided them. Then days ago, before a December meeting in Madrid on climate change, tens of thousands of mostly young people rallied across the world. An angry German youth among them noted, "The generations before us messed it up, and we're the ones that will feel the consequences. I would like to spend another 60 years on this planet, grow old, and have grandchildren."
The shame lies with all of us "responsible" adults. We knew in 2015, when 188 countries met in Paris to curb greenhouse gas emissions, that our legacy to the planet was that we were making it dangerously hotter. Our representatives then pledged to avoid more than 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. Yet their pledges at the time fell well short of making that goal feasible. Four years later, we have learned that even those unambitious targets are likely to be missed while our situation has grown more dire. We now know that the 2-degree goal was too modest. If we can cut global emissions in half over the next ten years, we have a 50% chance of staying below the 1.5 degrees of additional warming that might prevent setting off irreversible chain reactions of climate change beyond human control. Instead, the world is on target to double C02 emissions over the next twenty years above what might limit warming to an additonal 2 deegrees.
Little wonder that those generations who will inherit our planet must think that oldsters like me--who are most of those who run governments--have thrown in the towel. After all, we don't have a stake in the future like they have. Too many decision-makers seem to think that it's politically impossible, too disruptive, to enact measures demanding radical and rapid reversals in the burning of fossil fuels. But to do less, the youngsters remind us, is to leave them a planet that may become virtually uninhabitable within what ought to be their lifetimes.
The planet is doomed if we don't take unprecedentedly bold action now. The good news is that we now have many of the technologies--including ever cheaper and more efficient renewable energy--to make bold action possible. Yes, the political obstacles are enormous. The tentacles of the fossil fuel industry reach into every aspect of our industrial and post-industrial societies. To remove them will be disruptive to all our lives. But not to do so will be to leave our children a barren legacy, none that's worthy of the name.
All that I learned from my father as a teen-ager--which I have always hoped was also learned by many millions of adult members of my species, which we still call Homo sapiens (Man the wise)--tells me that is unacceptable.
The Slog to the White House
Only a year to go. If it's already felt like a long campaign to determine who will be the next president of the United States, you ain't seen nothing yet. In contrast to, say, Canada where the recent parliamentary campaign was all wrapped up in six weeks, semi-permanent--and wildly expensive--contests are the American way. Since the start of 2019, the Democratic field has shrunk from more than two dozen to a mere dozen and-a-half. The idea, if you've forgotten, is to winnow that down to one by next summer.
No earthquakes have yet much rearranged the line-up. Joe Biden remains the odds-on favorite to win the nomination, although he's lately ceded first place to Elizabeth Warren, with Bernie Sanders close behind. Pete Buttigieg has moved up to fourth place in most polls, which show Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and one or two others slightly ahead of the rest of the pack. After three televised debates in which one or more of the latter group is credited with standing out, their numbers haven't changed dramatically, nonetheless.
Too many forces are still at play for any sensible handicapping of the race to date. Here are some of the factors visible today:
All three at the top are septuagenarians, which historically speaking has not been the optimum age for one's first election as president. Although Sanders still seems vigorous in spite of his recent heart attack, as the oldest of the three, it's hard to imagine that concerns about his health won't negatively impact his candidacy going forward. Neither Biden's nor Warren's health is currently in question. But even though neither Biden nor his son evidently engaged in activities that were corrupt in their dealings in Ukraine, you can be sure that Trump and his allies won't let the matter rest should Biden become the nominee. We'd get a replay of the Clinton email scandal to poison his campaign from the outset.
Buttigieg is currently polling in third place in Iowa, whose caucus next February will begin the actual nomination process. He's ahead of Warren and right behind Biden and Sanders there. At 37, he's by far the youngest candidate, whose only experience of electoral politics is as mayor of a smallish city. Nationally, he lacks support among African Americans. His higher-than-usual showing in Iowa may reflect that state's relative paucity of black voters. But he's widely seen as a possible middle-of-the-road replacement for Biden should the latter stumble.
The possible impeachment of President Trump is the elephant in the room (yes, I know). So far, the Democratic candidates have tried mightily to focus on their own hoped-for agendas and not be diverted into the impeachment brawl. The danger to all of them is that their campaigns may largely fade from view until this president's fate is decided by Congress. If he's not removed from office, then the terms of the 2020 election will surely hinge on whether he should continue as president. Should he be convicted and replaced by Mike Pence, the variables in the race will change considerably.
In any case, the interminably long vetting process for would-be Democratic candidates could permit time for serious appraisals of each person's strengths and weaknesses. The downside is the likelihood of voter fatigue long before next summer. That could be disastrous for the kind of get-out-the-vote campaign that will no doubt be key to Democratic chances for success.
Some now argue that our endless primary season has contributed to the lack of party control over electoral races, which in turn has contributed much to our polarization. In this climate, Democrats may be tempted to nominate a polarizing candidate rather than one whose aim is to win back independents and disaffected Republicans. Which kind of candidate prevails should tell us what the 2020 campaign may look like. The election that follows should more than suggest whether or not our era of nasty polarization is drawing to a close. If it is not, the dangers to our republic will only deepen.
What Now? The Impeachment Inquiry
So, here it is at last. The House of Representatives last week opened an impeachment inquiry regarding President Trump after a whistleblower charged him with abusing his constitutional authority in a conversation with the new president of Ukraine. A transcript of the conversation revealed how Trump had asked President Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for Trump's release of military aid authorized by Congress. That the White House itself released the damning document may have seemed an astonishing misstep by the administration. Not so, however, from Trump's own point of view, for, as one commentator put it, he is America's self-anointed Sun King who appears to equate his own interests with those of the state. L'etat, c'est Trump.1
Now events are moving fast. Subpoenas are flying from the House Intelligence Committee for documents and testimony from officials with light to shed on the Ukraine affair. It's hard to see at this juncture how, as the evidence accumulates, the outcome will be anything other than a bill of impeachment. Trump's defensive strategy, true to form, is to sling mud at his accusers. He's trying to out the whistleblower, even though the law is clear that such individuals are to be protected. He's called that person treasonous, as he has those leading the inquiry.
House Democrats seem determined not to respond in kind. Speaker Nancy Pelosi speaks of the process as serious and sober, which is no doubt the only tone that stands a chance of bringing Congressional Republicans into the impeachment fold. That chance at the moment still looks vanishingly small, as many have noted. Although the Democratic majority in the House pretty much assures a majority will vote for a bill of impeachment, when a trial follows in the Senate, twenty Republicans would have to join all the Democratic senators to convict the president, since a two-thirds majority is required.
So, the most obvious outcome at the moment is that the House will support a bill of impeachment, and then the Senate will vote not to convict. That could produce the worst-case scenario. Our political polarization would deepen to the point of a "virtual civil war," to use Trump's own warning. His base would seek revenge at the polls next year, possibly re-electing their man, and thereby throw our constitutional system into deeper crisis. Alternatively, if a Democrat is elected instead, the outcome could be nearly as dire, perhaps with Trump and many of his followers refusing to concede defeat. Even short of that, the nation could be virtually ungovernable no matter what the skills of a new president.
Until the decision was made to begin an impeachment inquiry, many thought it was smarter politically to hold off and let the voters decide in 2020. But now that the die has been cast, the stakes are starker. They require those bent on impeaching the president to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that he has behaved unlawfully, in violation of his constitutional oath. The case must be made so clear that "rational" actors--if that is what they truly are--will conclude that they have no choice but to remove this president from office. Those actors will be first and foremost Republican Senators, but their change of mind will only come if it reflects a clear majority of the views of citizens. Then, and only then, will it be possible to say that our democracy not only has survived, but has produced a positive outcome for the nation and the world.
1.Michael Hirsh, "Trump's Call With Zelensky Was Not Out of the Ordinary--for Trump," https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/26.
Trump at Loose on the World
During the last week in August, the G-7 met in Biarritz, France, for the annual get-together of the world's leading economic powers. The host, French President Emmanuel Macron, sensibly announced before the group convened that they would break with tradition and issue no joint statement at the end. He thereby acknowledged that Donald Trump's presidency has so upended America's role in the world that we can no longer expect what used to be a routine pronouncement of cooperation among friends. The other six heads of state, in addition to those of many more countries long considered friendly, evidently are gritting their teeth and waiting for the time when this "leader" is gone from the scene.
Gritted teeth were called for in the days before the G-7 convened. That's when Trump made the bizarre announcement that he'd like to buy Greenland from Denmark. He huffed that the Danish prime minister was rude when she called the suggestion "absurd." He then cancelled his scheduled visit to Copenhagen. He named himself "the chosen one" in negotiating with China, and suggested that Americaan Jews who voted Democratic were in fact anti-Semitic. That and more in roughly a week.
While still in Biarritz, the president spoke of wife Melania's cordial relationship withi Kim Jong Un, never mind the fact that she's never even met the North Korean dictator. Oh, and then, he said he'd like to host next year's G-7 (it's his turn) at his Doral Golf Club outside Miami. That would mean all the other leaders and their retinues would get to pony up big bucks to the Trump family for the privilege of staying there. The club, we learned, is not doing well so surely could use the money.
The list of additional acts of mayhem from our president is very long. While our Constitution may serve to correct at least the worst of the damage in the months and years to come--impeachment is the starkest remedy--the damage to America's standing in the world is likely to be long-lasting no matter how or when he leaves the White House.
True, if a Democrat beats Trump in next year's election, she or he could actually lead the G-7 again, return the U.S. to the Paris climate accord, recommit the nation to the NATO alliance, and turn away from protectionism as America's zero-sum economic outlook on the world. The next president might at least try to persuade Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons development on the basis of some strategy other than the Obama-era agreement Trump abandoned last year. But accomplishing all of that will take great skill and hard work, not to mention considerable time.
Meanwhile, however, the world will not stand still any more than it has through Trump's destructive tenure in the White House. China continues its rise, and is gaining influence and power through its belt-and-road initiative and the extended presence of its military might in the South China Sea, which it increasingly treeats as if it owns. Brexit's outcome looks calamitous and may launch a global recession while setting back both Britain's economic livelihood and the further deevelopment of the EU itself. Putin's Russia will continue to meddle in our elections. And those populist figures who have made Trump their model will continue to wreak havoc, whether over press freedoms and other rights in parts of Eastern Europe or in the destruction of Brazil's Amazonian forest, now devastated by massive fires.
Global disarray will present challenges to our next president and to the restoration of the liberal international order that has been such a boon to so much of the world for three-quarters of a century. Every additional day of Trump's presidency raises the stakes for America's future role in the world.
Making Our Planet Uninhabitable
The only hoax about climate change today pertains to those still hoodwinked into believing it's a hoax. The earth is warming catastrophically and we humans are heavily responsible. The big question today isn't whether it's happening, but whether it's still possible to turn down the pressure cooker before we're cooked, almost literally. Instead of heeding past warnings about the threats to our environment, we're still headed in the wrong direction, only faster.
Worst-case scenarios are now much worse than anyone imagined just a few years ago. The United Nations told us recently that we have maybe twelve years, not half a century, as we'd previously been told, to cut global fossil fuel use by half or face catastrophe. Just since the Paris climate accord was signed in 2015--which Trump had the United States abandon last year--we've lived through three of the most destructive hurricanes in history, gigantic forest fires in the West, so-called thousand-year floods every couple of years, not to mention massive loss of polar ice. The July just past may turn out to have been the hottest ever recorded for America. There are scores more such examples.
Take a deep dive into how our earthly home has come to this, and you start with two historic developments, both relatively recent in humanity's lifespan: industrialization and population growth. The first came about fairly quickly starting in the 18th century, and entailed the ever-more-massive extraction of the fossilized remains of earlier life forms to keep industry humming. The result has been ever greater emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere along with other greenhouse gases. At the rate we're going, hundreds of millions of people could soon die from pollution.
Meanwhile, human populations have grown exponentially. Because industrial-scale farming has vastly increased crop yields, our species has quadrupled in size just within the 20th century. That's something no other large animal species has done throughout earth's entire biological history. Consider the ever greater amounts of energy all those individuals consume and you have all the explanation you need for the ecological crisis we now face. One million other species are now at risk of extinction while we continue to live in a way that may make our planet uninhabitable for us as well.
To prevent catastrophe, we know that we must wean ourselves off fossil fuels and adopt renewable sources of energy. But our recent history also shows how impossible that seems to be. Did you know that today we burn 80 per cent more coal than we did in 2000, even though the cost of solar power has fallen by 80 per cent during the same period? Every tentative move we've made toward adopting green technologies has been more than countered by still more extraction of non-renewable resources.
Either human beings must change the way they've lived over most of the past three centuries or they will give the lie to their very species name: Homo sapiens (wise man). If we cannot restore the planet's health, we shall simply be one of the million species we have driven to extinction by our inability to save ourselves from our own actions. Are we truly that stupid?