r Second Amendment Fetish
Here we are again (and still): in two mass shootings last month, ten mostly black Americans were murdered at a supermarket in Buffalo followed by 21, including 15 children, at a school in Uvalde, Texas. Even while the grief took hold, an all-too-familiar scene was replayed. Calls for stricter gun controls were again shot down (pun intended) by the claim that the Constitution's second amendment guarantees the right of citizens to bear arms. Enshrined as it is in our Bill of Rights, that pledge is sacrosanct. As a result, Americans now own roughly 400 million guns, which means there are millions more guns than people in this country. It also explains why the U.S. is an outlier among advanced nations when it comes to deaths by gunfire. Last year, more than 45,000 people in America died from gun injuries. The equivalent number of deaths in the world's other richest countries never rose to more than a small fraction of that. Since the start of this year in my own city of Philadelphia, more than 900 people have been shot, of whom over 200 have died. 44 were shot over the Memorial Day week end. We bemoan the loss then wait for the next round of violence.
Yet, I write at a moment when it's conceivable that either local lawmakers or Congress itself might agree to some small steps toward increasing gun safety. They almost certainly won't go so far as to prohibit ownership of assasult weapons, and probably won't do much to close loopholes in requiring background checks for gun purchasers. The latest assassin of children in Texas had no such check when he purchased two assault rifles and high-capacity magazines on his 18th birthday. About the most we can hope for is legislation that would make it harder for the mentally ill to purchase weapons or maybe not allow gun sales to those younger than 21. But if the past is prelude, even such modest measures may be doomed.
So, let's have another look at the second amendment. It reads as follows: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." When these words were written in the 1780s, civilians routinely kept at home the same weapons they would need if called to serve in the militia. A musket would likely have been the household's principal or only firearm. Several steps were required to prepare it for firing. If a man was properly trained in an infantry, he could load and fire four or five rounds in a minute. Doubtless the untrained farmer who kept such a weapon mainly for hunting would have been slower at preparing his musket. What no person so armed could do, of course, was to massacre rooms full of individuals before they could escape. Think for a moment of how our Constitution's creators might react to the mass slaughter that is always close at hand today.
As technology for making weapons evolved over the last two centuries, so did the assumption that arming the militia--or today's modern army--meant that its members needed little more than the rifles they had hanging on their chimneys. Soldiers increasingly were equipped with weapons that differed significantly from those thought appropriate for civilian use. As a result, judges in America came to treat the second amendment as something of a dead letter. They did, that is, until 2008, when the Supreme Court invalidated a law for the District of Columbia that forbade nearly all civilians from possessing handguns in the nation's capital. In a five-four decision, the majority ruled, astonishingly, that the second amendment protects a private right of individuals to own arms for their own defense, not a right of the state to maintain a militia. Two years later, in a case brought against the city of Chicago, a similar majority struck down such a ban at the state level.
Those decisions opened the floodgates, inundating the country with more and more guns. There is evidently nothing to be done about that, short of abolishing the second amendment. Revolutionary changes in the views of those who sit as federal judges might also do the trick. How confident are you that either will come about before--I dunno--the nation simply collapses in a killing frenzy?
After the War in Ukraine: Two Scenarios
It's ever clearer that the outcome of the dreadful war now being waged by Russia on Ukraine will do much to define the next era in world politics. From its start, the unprovoked attack seemed a throwback to an era many thought had been largely laid to rest in the aftermath of World War II. That war ended with a clear repudiation of attempts to change the map through overt military conquest of one's neighbors. It also ushered in the nuclear age, which came to threaten the superpowers with mutual suicide, thereby fortifying the norm against aggression of the kind that saw conquering armies march into other states' territories. Any outcome of the Ukraine war that might allow Putin to claim victory would give new life to the view that might makes right, that powerful states are permtted to dominate those around them and control their destinies. Let us call this the aggression succeeds scenario.
An alternative vision supposes that the Russian campaign is utterly thwarted. In its rosiest version, not only would Ukraine regain all the territory it held when Russia invaded late in February, it would also take back what had previously been contested pieces of the Donbas territory in Ukraine's east as well as the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014. Such an outcome would strengthen norms surrounding the view that nation-states are self-determined and self-governing, free to choose their own destinies so long as they allow others to do the same. This is the self-governing scenario.
These of course are opposing models of possible directions in world politics. In the real world, the shape of whatever peace eventually comes to Ukraine will more likely look like some mix of what these two scenarios depict.
In the first weeks of the conflict, Putin's aggression succeeds vision was almost completely routed. Instead of a quick takeover of Ukraine's capital and the creation of a puppet government, the Russian army fell into disarray, Zelensky stood his ground and roused his people, and Western governments united in the effort to help the Ukrainians stave off the enemy. The self-governing scenario got a mighty boost. Yet, Russia didn't admit defeat but instead regrouped and redefined its goal. No longer trying to occupy the whole country, its new aim was to secure the Donbas,where Russian speakers were in the majority. Although that changed strategy evidently gave Russia an advantage, Ukrainian resistance remained strong. What looks most likely today is that the conflict will continue with no early end in sight.
My purpose here is not to predict the outcome, but to clarify the implications to the extent the outcome mirrors one or the other of the scenarios I've sketched out here. Should the Donbas fall to Russia, the aggressor will have won enough of a victory to embolden Putin to continue to pursue his effort to regrow a Russian sphere of influence around Russia's periphery. It will also serve as a model for other would-be invaders elsewhere in the world. If, on the other hand, Ukraine, with continued strong support especially from NATO, should succeed in repelling the Russians altogether, then invaders-in-waiting would be made to reconsider their options.
Or not. Here's the rub: if the self-governing scenario is to dominate how states behave in the near future, Putin's strategy must be so thoroughly discredited that the Russians themselves turn against him and what he stands for. Russia after Putin would become a real democracy. That is more or less what happened after World War II in post-Nazi Germany and post-imperial Japan. The players and their doctrines that had turned both countries into aggressors were ousted and discredited. If, in contrast, Putin survives a Ukrainian settlement that denies him the Donbas, his revanchist aims will live on with him to fight again another day. A more surgical outcome leading to the same aggression succeeds scenario is also possible: Ukraine agrees to cede some or all of the Donbas to Russia. Then what the world will notice is that might still does make right when the chips are down.
Much now hangs on how the chips come down.
The War in Ukraine: Prospects and Possibilities
Five weeks after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, his troops have not come close to occupying the entire country, let alone replacing the West-facing government of President Volodymyr Zelensky with a pro-Russian puppet. Unexpectedly strong resistance from Ukrainians has produced a stalemate in much of their territory beyond the Donbas, the region bordering Russia which had already been largely under Russian control for the past eight years. Most observers saw a long and grinding war of attrition ahead.
Then a moment of hope surfaced late in March. During peace talks in Istanbul, both sides made substantial rhetorical departures from their previous positions. Russian delegates declared that Moscow would significantly draw down military operations around Kyiv and Chernihiv "to increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations." Ukraine laid out a framework committing the nation to neutrality, providing for its security to be guaranteed by a number of other nations. The Russian announcement was greeted with understandable skepticism throughout the West. Sure enough, within two days, bombs and mortar fire again struck both of the named cities. Russian operations also increased in the Donbas.
Now, Western experts are concluding that the recent announcement was nothing but a cover to allow time for a complete overhaul of Russia's campaign, not a peace initiative at all. So, the war continues, as does the devastation. More than four million Ukrainian citizens have fled abroad, while millions more are internally displaced. The huge imbalance in the military forces of the two nations means that the Russians can continue to rain down destruction on their smaller neighbor for weeks, months, even years to come regardless of their inability to occupy the country. And occupy it they cannot.
So, we still seem to be far from a peaceable outcome. That will only be likely if and when Putin concludes that he can't attain his original goals. A retreat to the Donbas would at least give him an acceptable off-ramp. An assurance of Ukraine's neutrality, giving up its desire to join NATO, could also give the Russian leader an excuse to claim victory. Nor of course would Russia be the only party to win. Ending the Ukrainian bloodletting to allow the nation to rebuild would be the best possible outcome for that beleagured society. And a guarantee of genuine neutrality should be a win for all of us.
Yet, even if peace talks become productive, they will face big issues. If "liberating Donbas" is now the Kremlin's main objective, that is not an ending that has been acceptable to Zelensky and, presumably, most Ukrainians. There is also the matter of securing the agreement of a number of third countries--Ukraine has proposed the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China, and Poland--to join together to guarantee the nation's neutrality. One must wonder whether such an unprecedented group can credibly create such an arrangement as well as whether Russia might not view it, apart from China's awkward presence, as betraying a decidedly Western bias. Finally, should another Ukrainian proposal come to pass, that talks should take place over fifteen years on the future of Crimea (which Russia seized in 2014), a host of other minefields may lie there.
Here, I think, is the bottom line today: Unless the two sides can reach a formal agreement in which each gives up something it has very much desired--reclaiming Ukraine for Putin, membership in NATO for Zelensky--their power imbalance will ultimately favor Russia. That is so in spite of its near disaster of a campaign to date. Moscow can keep up the pressure on Ukraine longer than Ukraine can keep up the pressure on the West to continue to support Ukraine's fight for freedom and democracy. If peace comes soon, many nations can surely be counted on to help Ukraine rebuild. But the longer the war drags on, the more likely that the world may regrettably come to see the Ukraine struggle as a lost cause and leave it to its dreadful fate. World order will also have suffered a terrible defeat.
Russia's Ukraine Invasion and the Future World Order
I write when the Russian attack on Ukraine is less than a week old. But it has been clear from the invasion's first moments that its outcome could shatter the world order that was largely set in place in the aftermath of World War II. It was that war more than any other which ended by repudiating naked aggression. Not only have then-new institutions such as the United Nations been tasked with preventing such attacks, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the two new superpowers actually fortified the non-aggression doctrine: if a military attack on one's enemies might lead to Armageddon, such attacks were off the table. The Cold War certainly had its dangers, but we generally undrstood, following the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, that neither superpower would dare to attack a member of its opponent's allliance. However noxious as a moral code, the doctrine of mutual assured destruction helped keep the peace.
For some two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its alliance system, democracies were established throughout much of the former Soviet sphere.The Warsaw Pact was disbanded, but NATO, the West's Cold War alliance, began to grant membership to what had been client states of Russia. I thought at the time that we should have worked instead to create new East-West institutions to maintain peace across the northern hemisphere in this new era (see last month's post). It is very clear today that because we did not, Vladimir Putin's grudge against what he sees as Russia's losses to the West has grown throughout his twenty years in power, leading us to the present moment.
Yes, Putin is a throwback, a latter-day Hitler in the way he has launched this war. The West, sadly, has allowed him to come to this point. But he now must be dealt with on the terms he has laid down. Just as some eighty years ago the world's democracies banded together to crush Hitler, they now must unite to defeat this baldest attempt since World War II to insist that might makes right. To do less, to look the other way while Ukraine is conquered, could only end in hurling the world back to its fraught state in the 1930s, when, after Japan had attacked China, Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia and then attacked Poland. setting the stage for unimaginable bloodshed across the globe before the world could again be made safe for democratic self-government.
So far, there is some cause for optimism. The Ukrainians are forcefully resisting the Russians, slowing their advance and defending their cities. Their President Zelensky has behaved heroically in remaining in the country to rally his people, even though, as he notes, he is surely the man most targeted by Russian forces. President Biden has successfully led the Europeans, including not just NATO but the European Union, to send military assistance to Ukraine and enact severe economic sanctions on members of Putin's elite and Russian banks. Japan, Australia, and others have now joined in these efforts.
There are sure to be costs felt by the public in all these nations, as the price of fuel and some commodities are bound to rise. The challenge for all who want to see world order strengthened is to convince those many millions for whom this war is distant news that their sacrifices are in a just cause, one to secure the right of states to govern themselves and remain free of aggression from abroad. As others have noted, our willingness to undergo pain will reveal our determination to stop Putin.
It should be possible to end Putin's war if virtually all the rest of the world opposes it--and without any of Ukraine's friends having to send their own soldiers into the fight. (Were that to happen,it could encourage a nuclear strike from Moscow, a thing already more than hinted at by Putin.)
Should Putin fail in his effort to realign Ukraine, that would of course be a win for free and self-governed societies. Then the challenge for world leaders will be to make that outcome the basis for strengthening a global political culture wherein peaceful change is the norm, where win-win solutions to interstate conflicts become the rule. That means helping Putin find an off-ramp from Ukraine, and not rubbing Russia's nose in its failure to change the map by force. Russia, too, must become committed to a world in which it can be seen to prosper only by turning away from military aggression.
Ukraine, Russia, and the West
The threat of war in Ukraine has dominated the news lately. The Russian government of Vladimir Putin has moved more than 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border while demanding that the United States and the West never admit Ukraine to membership in NATO. The Biden administration's response, which is widely but not universally shared by its NATO allies, is that Russia's behavior is so provocative that the Kiev government must be supplied with new arms and military support. Moscow calls that the provocation. Ukrainian leaders are now bracing for a possible military attack. But even while their President, Volodymyr Zelensky, has expressed his gratitude to the US for its support, he has also criticized the Americans for, as he says, causing panic.
What to make of this seemingly three-sided perspective? Ukraine of course was one of the most important constituent states of the USSR until that empire was dissolved in 1991, at which point it became an independent republic. Within a few years, it had established a partnership with NATO and an association with the European Union. Throughout the first decade of this century, Ukrainian politics see-sawed between leaders leaning toward the West and those wanting greater connections to Russia. Then, early in 2014, the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, backed out of those agreements with the West, and was soon removed from office by vote of parliament. Within months, a pro-Western president was elected.
In Moscow, an alarmed Putin soon engaged his plan to invade Crimea, which had been made part of Ukraine during the Soviet era. Once that peninsula was brought under Russian control, in March, 2014, a referendum allegedly showed that 97% of the Crimean population wanted to join Russia. Since then, in the rest of Ukraine, public opinion polls have shown steady upward trends favoring EU and NATO membership. The pro-Western Zelensky was elected president in 2019 with 73% of the vote; shortly thereafter, his Servant of the People party won a majority of the vote for parliament, allowing him to govern without a coalition. This government considers Euro-Atlantic integration its primary foreign policy objective even though, in practice, it attempts to balance its relationship with the EU and the US with strong ties to Russia.
What we see today is simply the latest in what has been central to Ukraine's history for a thousand years: In spite of its very close ethnic and cultural connections to Russia, Ukrainians have mostlly resisted Russian domination while often being made to submit to it. Today, Putin is a leading avatar of the Realist view which assumes that a great power--which is how he imagines Russia--must surround itself with a sphere of influence in order to enhance its power vis-a-vis perceived opponents. He no doubt views the West's encouragement of a closer relationship with Ukraine as an unacceptable effort by the US to extend its sphere of influence to Russia's very doorstep.
Here's a thought experiment: What if, at the end of the Cold War, the members of NATO had decided to dissolve their alliance on grounds that it had accomplished exactly what it was created to accomplish, which was to prevent the world's domination by the Soviet Union? They might then have worked to construct, not a military alliance, but a new structure whose purpose would be to assure peaceful conflict resolution among all the nations that had been in opposing camps throughout the previous half-century.
It's true that, as the Cold War was winding down, NATO and Warsaw Pact nations did join to create the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, in which they all became members, along with several European states that had not been part of those alliances. But the OSCE operates entirely by consensus, and has mainly served to observe elections in new or would-be democracies. It has certainly not been made a powerful engine of the foreign policy of its leading members, and is largely unknown to the general public. Had it been given a real capability to work for peaceful change throughout the northern hemisphere, one can imagine that the three-sided perspective referred to above could by now have brought non-zero-sum outcomes from which all might have benefitted. The current crisis would not have arisen That it has done so unfortunately reveals regression instead of progress in the way large human communities called nation-states interact. And we must learn to live together in greater harmony if humankind has a future worth celebrating.
Can the U.S Survive the G.O.P.?
The most troubling fact of American political life throughout 2021 was Donald Trump's continuing hold on the Republican Party. His Big Lie, claiming that he had lost re-election only because of massive voter fraud, became fixed orthodoxy for a majority of Republicans by year's end. That was a stunning fact of our politics, given that such a claim had been repeatedly disproved and dismissed throughout the year by courts as well as official and unofficial recounts across the land.
Now we can only conclude that one of the only two parties that really matter in American politics will contest the midterm election in November from a platform whose central plank will be a lie. This has hugely negative implications for the future of our republic, for never before in our history has either of the two major parties sought victory with so fraudulent a campaign. Yes, we've often seen politicians play fast and loose with the truth: in the 1950s, Joe McCarthy claimed that the Democrats "lost" China thanks to Communists in high places in the State Department. More than a century earlier, Vice President John C Calhoun, an ardent supporter of slavery, which he described as "a positive good," gained followers among southern Democrats with his argument that any state could nullify an act of Congress within its borders. Other examples abound of outrageous efforts to move one party or the other to bend the truth or create its own set of "facts" in the effort to win elections.
But here's what's novel about such efforts at the start of 2022: none ever succeeded in capturing a major party as fully as Trump appears to have done with today's Republican Party. Leaders who before Trump were in the Republican mainstream, figures such as Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney, are now virtual outcasts within their own party. Those who "lead" it today regard as illegitimate what was meant to be a bipartisan investigation of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol. They challenge mask mandates intended to halt the COVID pandemic, assail those on the Democratic left as traitors, and seek to ban any teaching of the history of institutional racism in this country. In trumpeting these and other such views, they yearn above all for Trump's endorsement.
So, almost nothing is left of the Republican Party today that would be recognizable to those who supported it in the age of Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan. Both those presidents opposed much that Democrats endorsed without demonizing them. But at the same time, they accommodated themselves to much that Democrats stood for. Ike made internationalism part of the mainstream of Republican politics, just as Reagan, the Cold Warrior, helped move his party and the nation toward a post-Cold War era. It's impossible to imagine that the politics of grievance, faux populism, and invented histories that characterize the Trump party of today can ever play such constructive roles in the life of the nation.
And that is exactly what is so troubing about our current situation. In contrast to the fate of other former presidents who've been defeated, Trump not only isn't going away, he's still heading an apparently powerful movement that is both the wreck of a political party and a wrecking ball for our democracy. It's a wrecking ball precisely because it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of its opponents and, in some quarters, even refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the electoral system itself. When one party seeks to overthrow the very rules of the game, the days in the life or our Constitution are surely numbered.
If the Republican Party is still to be reformed at this late date, that may come about only if and when Donald Trump is finally and thoroughly discredited, perhaps in one of the several lawsuits now pending against him. That is not at all a sure bet at this writing. Unless and until such a thing happens, the G.O.P.'s initials now stand for the Grotesque Out-of-control Party.
Your Sacred Right to Guns
Gun control is clearly a losing cause in the United States. It's been years since a serious effort has been mounted to pass legislation that might begin to rein in the flood of arms across the land. In fact, in 2020, some 39.7 million firearms were sold in the United States, a forty percent increase over the year before, which itself was a bumper year for gun sales. And 2020 ran its course while Donald Trump was still in the White House even though, as every God-fearing gun owner knows, it's the Democrats who will try to take guns away from decent Americans.
So, now that Biden is president, we can no doubt expect that, when the data are all in, we'll learn that even more guns made their way into private hands during 2021. Why so many guns? Apart from all those upright Americans who love killing animals for the fun of it, folks buy guns to protect themselves and their families. That, at least, is what they claim. Evidently, they are convinced that they live in a Hobbesian state of nature (whether or not they have ever heard of Hobbes) where the absence of law and order means that every man must protecct himself and his family in a war of all against all.
The trouble with this view of the world is that it makes for a self-fulfilling prophecy. Strangely enough, arming ourselves to the teeth doesn't lead to the rational conclusion that I'd better not try to shoot my neighbor lest he shoot me first, which, after all, would be one way to keep the peace. Instead, the increase in gun ownershp correlates pretty clearly with an increase in gun deaths. My own city of Philadelphia witnessed 500 gun homicides by the end of this November, setting a new annual record even before the year was out. Nor was Philadelphia an outlier in a year when gun deaths increased across the nation.
You already know the crux of the problem. It's called the Second Amendment, which grants Americans the right to keep and bear arms. Through most of our history, the text of that amendment was read to suggest that it was largely about the right of each state to create and maintain a well-ordered militia. But in 2008, a five/four decision by the Supreme Court struck down a federal law for the District of Columbia, which forbade nearly all citizens from possessing handguns in the nation's capital. Two years later, the same majority struck down a similar ban at the state level.
Today, it's estimated that about as many guns are sloshing about the nation as there are residents of the United States, i.e., something over 300 million. And the Supreme Court says that's just fine.
Here's my immodest suggestion: Let's amend the Second Amendment. Here's how it has read since the Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791: "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
My amendment would merely revise that third phrase so that the entire text reads "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to serve in such Militia shall not be infringed."
I think this comes close to what the writers of the amendment had in mind back in 1791. No, I don't suppose that such a common-sense revision to a constitutional amendment will come about anytime soon. But isn't it worth at least thinking about a definitive way to start to fix a problem that makes the United States of America the world's leader in gun violence?
America in the World: A New Chapter?
It is time for soul-searching and a re-evaluation of the place of America in global order. Many factors now point us there. They include, among others, Trump's flouting of every norm of our foreign policy consensus during his occupation of the White House, growing public disenchantment with the nation's "forever wars," and our shambolic departure from Afghanistan. Add to that the growing economic and military might of China and it is clear that we have moved well beyond the unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the United States was generally viewed as the single dominant player responsible for world order.
There's also this: Americans are now about as divided as they have ever been. So far, those divisions have been focused mostly on our political life at home. But it's only a matter of time before some issue will arise in the world beyond our borders that will cause our tribal strife to spread there, too. In fact, it already has, inasmuch as the whole world now knows that all is not well inside the U.S., and that has consequences for the world. The Chinese government, for one, insists that the United States is in decline, along with the democratic model held up by the West. The only way to refute that charge is to demonstrate our ability to adapt, lead, and cooperate so that together we can meet the distinctive challenges the world faces today. In a moment, I'll suggest one or two examples of what is needed.
It may seem that Joe Biden's foreign policy is guided by nothing so much as a desire to restore the nation and the world to what it was in the era of American primacy. That was of course when he earned his foreign policy chops. He's made it clear that he's not Trump, and that he values our allies for their shared contributions to the common good. His immediate goal evidently is to reassure the world of our reliability along with our willingness to take on new challenges. It's the new challenges that should lead us to new initiatives on the world stage.
A response to one of those new challenges came days ago when the Group of 20 endorsed a new global minimum tax of 15% aimed at reversing the decades-long decline in tax rates on corporations around the world. The effort was initiated by Biden's Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellin. Nearly 140 countries representing more than 90% of global economic output have voiced their approval of the new tax standard. Now comes the difficult effort to implement that plan. As always in the decentralized political system of the globe, the actions of (especially powerful) individual states are what push others to follow suit. The resulting reciprocal action, when replicated widely, creates the global standard. So, it is up to the United States to take the lead in enacting legislation to make the new tax the law in this country. That will not be easy at a time when corporate interests typically lobby Congress to fend off such legislation. But it should be an important piece of how America leads in the years ahead, a bold initiative to be followed by others relating to the global economy.
Similarly, it is imperative for the U.S. to take the lead at the U.N. Climate Change Summit now underway in Glasgow and to ensure that bold action follows. Yes, it would have been immensely helpful if Congress had been able to agree on the full array of climate provisions in the president's Build Back Better legislation. Bold new initiatives in foreign policy can only happen when Congress supports them, which is to say that the kind of new and improved world leadership I'm calling for from the United States will only come about when our internecine divisions at home are overcome or much reduced.
So, I grant there's a chicken-and-egg problem here. Domestic divisions are not conducive to foreign policy boldness. But possibly, just possibly, bold foreign policy initiatives that are viewed as constructive of improved world order can begin to bridge our tribalism at home and start to return us to a society in which our shared values are more widely recognized. One can dream!
The Big Lie and the Threat to Our Democracy
I've now lived for more than four-fifths of a century, and have considered myself a student of American politics for nearly as long. Never in all that time have I been more concerned for the future of our democratic system of government than I am now. Trumpism is at the heart of why that's so. When he was president, it was Trump's constant practice to flout the norms of the office, whether by disdaining those Americans who opposed him, cossetting a right-wing fringe, or insulting the nation's allies.
But since his departure from the White House, Trump's influence has become even more baleful. Refusing to concede his loss of the 2020 election, he has turned that refusal into the Big Lie. That is what has produced ongoing investigations in a number of states into alleged cheating in the last election, never mind that it reportedly was the most secure and honest election in the nation's history. The recently concluded, phony "audit" of votes in Maricopa County, Arizona, produced zero evidence of fraud there, and even added a few dozen votes to Joe Biden's margin of victory. But instead of shutting down the Trumpists, that outcome has only encouraged them to continue to trumpet their bogus charges. Now what we're witnessing throughout the country is a systematic effort to undermine the faith of American voters, not simply in the soundness of last November's outcome, but in the integrity of our election process in the years to come.
That is unprecedented--and an unprecedentedly dangerous omen for the nation's future. Every state in the union underwent audits of the last election in accordance with their own state laws. That was done prior to the certification of each state's electoral votes, during the period when lawsuits filed in many states by Trump and his followers were dismissed in courts as without merit. Then came Congress's certification of Biden's election last January 6, which of course was the very day that a Trump-inspired insurrection at the Capitol threatened the lives of members of Congress as well as Vice President Pence, who, as President of the Senate, was constitutionally responsible for certifying the election.
The events of January 6 resembled nothing so much out of American history as they did the days when Hitler was attaining power in Germany through intimidation. In the months since the Capitol was breached, the constant drumbeat of the Big Lie keeps reinforcing the anger of the radical right, setting the stage for more violence against those individuals and institutions committed to our Constitutional order.
Today, Donald Trump almost certainly has a lock on the Republican nomination for president in the 2024 election. The way is now being prepared to make the Big Lie the vehicle for either manipulating or overturning the election outcome in a number of states and claim fraud should Trump lose.
No, we haven't yet arrived at the point where our democracy is sure to be overthrown. But remember that Hitler came to power "lawfully." By the same token, should Trump return to power in 2024, it will no doubt be through what may still resemble Constitutional means, however much they will have been degraded and manipulated since he was made to leave the White House. A large segment of the Republican Party today is in Trump's thrall. If the events of the past eleven months are any indication, his grip on his followers will likely only strengthen in the years immediately ahead. The consequences for the nation could be catastrophic.
Lessons from Afghanistan?
The close of America's longest war at the end of August left disaster behind in Afghanistan, no question. Although it was remarkable that nearly 120,000 people--both Americans and Afghans who helped them--were flown out of Kabul in the last two weeks, the Biden Administration clearly was unprepared for the swift collapse of the Afghan government it had nurtured and the Taliban's lightning takeover. There are few if any cases in modern history where the fate of an entire nation was reversed so quickly.
Whatever Biden's failings in the end game, each of the three presidents who preceded him bears some of the blame for the final outcome. Bush II set the thing running in October 2001 as his response to the attacks on the United States on 9/11. From the outset, his goal was not just to take out al-Qaeda but to remake Afghanistan as a modern society. We now can see that set us on the path to overreach and failure. Nor did Obama deviate from the larger goal. He ordered a troop surge shortly before Osama bin Laden was killed (in Pakistan, not Afghanistan), thereby crippling al-Qaeda. But the surge reflected Obama's misguided hope that a greater military commitment could secure a political solution. Trump then promised the Taliban that the U.S. would end its engagement without gaining concessions from its foe. When Biden largely accepted Trump's decision to get out, and named an end date, he pretty much gave away whatever was left of the game.
So, the Afghanistan conflict played out in accordance with a playbook the U.S. had followed from early in the Cold War. That began with our intervention in Korea, followed by Vietnam, with assorted lesser interventions along the way. Not all have turned out to be such dramatic failures as our venture in Afghanistan appears today. But all sprang from the notion that as the greatest--or only--superpower, it was incumbent on the United States to remake troubled states in our own image.
It is that hubristic assumption that is at the root of the problem. And the hubris is hard to counter because it flows directly from the very structure of world politics: we live globally in a decentralized system without a central government or police power. That therefore invites the strongest state or states, which because of their strength may have a stake in an orderly world, to do the policing. Yet the self-interest of such states means that they are not likely to convince all the others that their actions are undertaken selflessly for the common good.
I certainly would not want to argue that the world would be better off if the United States had never exercised any of its power beyond the nation's borders. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pol Pot and assorted unacceptable others might then have ruled the world. But I do believe that we should learn finally to use that power in as limited and incisive a way as possible, with the aim solely of righting what most if not all the actors in world politics acknowledge as a wrong. That means leaving the field once the agreed-upon harm has been stopped or much lessened. It also means that a much greater effort is required to consult and, hopefully, coordinate our action with that of other players. The greater the consensus, after all, the more nearly forcible action engaged in or approved by many becomes indistinguishable from the kind of monopoly on the legitimate use of force that is the sole justification for police power in any community.
This is the merest sketch of how great states might better use their power to enhance rather than diminish what is good for all humanity. They need both to advance realistic, if comparatively modest, goals and then work assiduously to achieve them. They need to be much more careful than was the U.S. in Afghanistan to prevent the largesse they spread around from corrupting the very individuals who are supposed to be working hand in glove with them to advance goals meant to improve the lives of many. Is it too much to ask of our leaders that they learn from their mistakes and interact with the rest of the world in ways that respect our differences, nourish our common values, and act whenever possible with the support and approval of others?
A Tale of Two Nations
If the current political era in America has an overriding theme, it's surely that we are deeply divided. Yes, there have been political differences and divisions from the birth of the republic. The Civil War was the most tragic result. But today, we can see that the less bellicose divisions such as we've lived with since then have deepened gradually over the past forty years until the Trump presidency produced a yawning canyon separating his fervent suporters from the rest of the nation.
What's maybe most remarkable now is that eight months after his defeat, the former president retains a hold on his base that's unprecedented in our history for a losing candidate. Perhaps the most stunning feature of that hold is the unwillingness of Trump and a majority of his followers to admit his defeat, even today. A poll done in the closing days of July found that 66% of Republicans continued to say that Joe Biden was illegitimately elected, and as many as 76% held favorable views of Trump. Yet, in the country as a whole, 60% of the population regarded Trump unfavorably.
Our apparent division into separate nations now manifests itself over issues that in other times would have been entirely outside politics because they are so clearly matters of the common good. One such issue relates to Biden's push last spring to get 70% of Americans vaccinated against the covid-19 virus by July 4. When Independence Day came, we learned that the effort had fallen slightly short. In normal times, that might have brought a bit of head-shaking and a renewed resolve to meet that goal quickly. But not so in Trumpist circles. At the Conservative Political Action Conference ten days later, an activist snorted, "the government was hoping that they could sort of sucker 90% of the population into getting vaccinated, and it isn't happening." The crowd clapped and cheered at the news.
Joe Biden's long and distinguished political career reveals him as the very antithesis of Trump. Neither ideologue nor extremist, he worked across the aisle as a senator, helping to move legislation forward that had wide support. Once in the White House, he moved quickly to provide relief to the huge number of Americans whose economic livelihood had been challenged by the pandemic. In the months since, however, Congressional deadlock has largely ruled the day again. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the refusal of the Republican leadership to create an independent commission to investigate the causes and aftermath of the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, and when Speaker Nancy Pelosi then created a select committee in the House to take up those issues, to refuse even to participate in its work.
One glimmer of light did shine through in the waning days of July. After arduous work by a bipartisan group of senators, 16 Republicans joined all 50 Democrats to advance Biden's infrastructure bill for consideration. Even Mitch McConell joined those who assented. Since the majority contained substantially more than the 60 necessary to prevent a filibuster, the prospects for a bipartisan outcome grew very much brighter.
Even should that happen, it was clear that the bill's multi-trillion-dollar twin, which was demanded by Democrats as its essential accompaniment, would pass the Senate, if at all, without a single Republican vote and only if every Democrat came on board, since the rules allowing it to proceed by "reconciliation" would not bring the filibuster into play. That leaves the infrastructure bill, should it pass, as little more than "a bipartisan blip, not a movement," as one headline put it.
Still, wouldn't it be wonderful if a big and substantial bipartisan vote for infrastructure might prove catching? Just think how our (one) nation might again become a shining light of democracy!
Deepening the Divide: Voting Rights
Not long ago in this space, I set out how the growing effort in many states to make voting harder might be thwarted. Should that happen, I argued, it would start to close the divide that has come to characterize our political life over the past decade and more. it would help return us to the only grounds on which politics in a democratic system can successfully be played, those where compromise is the rule and non-zero-sum outcomes are assured. Now I must ruefully point out that my hopes were dashed on July 1 when the Supreme Court announced its decision to allow states to restrict voting rights, thereby knocking out one of the pillars of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
The purpose of that 1965 Act was to expand and protect the right to vote, particularly on the part of African Americans and others who had been systematically prevented from doing so while Jim Crow restrictions prevailed for generations throughout much of the South. For nearly half a century, that 1965 Act fulfilled its purpose. Then in 2013, the Court gutted its Section 5, which required states with a history of discrimination to get clearance from the Justice Department for changes in their election procedures. Now, this recent decision limits the prospect for effectively challenging voting changes made by states. Specifically, it permitted a new Arizona law to stand which called for ballots to be discarded that are cast in the wrong precinct, and to prevent partisans or activists from collecting and delivering ballots to polling places.
This decision has given what may be the death blow to the Voting Rights Act. The 6/3 decision placed all six of the Court's conservatives in the majority and the three remaining liberals in dissent. So, in revealing the justices' opposing viewpoints regarding ballot access, this outcome confirmed very clearly how the ideological differences that have characterized our political cleavages now extend to the nation's highest court. The majority opinion, in my view, goes directly against what I take to be the overarching and progressive theme of our history as a constitutional republic: the effort to expand rather than restrict our democracy by allowing all citizens to benefit from the opportunities that flow from equal access to the ballot box--and the American dream.
The Court's action in this case calls to mind the years in Franklin Roosevelt's first term when a conservative Supreme Court struck down several critical pieces of New Deal legislation. Yet, the Democratic majorities in Congress at the time were such that revised legislation soon was enacted which salvaged most of the president's agenda. We have no such prospect today when the Senate is evenly split and the House has a very slim Democratic majority. This spring's effort to pass H.R. 1, the new Voting Rights Act, recently came to a halt in the Senate by the refusal of Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, even to allow debate on the matter. The faint hope I held out not long ago that real consideration of this bill might make it the instrument to start to close our political divide has thus grown even fainter (see my Opinion Post from last April).
With every new sign that our nation's political divisions remain unbridged, the likelihood of overcoming them any time soon grows more remote. It is increasingly difficult to imagine a scenario in which any legislation that might come during the current session of Congress will actually start to bring us together to the point that we might agree on a common future. That is an unhappy thing to contemplate, at best. At worst, it could mark the penultimate stage in a tragic end to our nearly 250-year experiment in government by the people.
Is the Death of a Capitol Panel a Death Knell for Our Republic?
In the waning days of May, the Senate failed to muster the super-majority necessary to create an independent, nonpartisan commission to investigate the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. The proposed legislation, which had already passed the House with 35 members of the GOP joining the majority Democrats, was based on the commission established after 9/11 to determine the causes of that devastating event 20 years ago. This recent vote--which was stunning if not surprising--called into question whether Congress is any longer capable of agreeing to look for the truth when the nation is threatened. Truth-finding is presumably the path to preventing such threats in the future.
With opposition led by the Republican Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, some Republican senators who had earlier expressed support for a commission stayed away from the Capitol, presumably so they wouldn't have to vote against either their convictions or the directive from their chief. Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia guessed that maybe 13 or 14 Republicans would have voted for the bill had it not been for McConnell's determination to keep his caucus in the "no" column.
It's now commonplace to note that Congress is at least as polarized as the nation at large, and declare bipartisanship dead. The failure of this effort to create a commission drives home that point. But it also suggests a deepening of our divide to such an extreme that no threat that might face the nation can now rise above partisanship to be addressed on its merits. We can'texpect agreement on what constitutes reality if, as some on the right have suggested, a riot at the Capitol which left members of Congress fearing for their lives was little more than a bit of hanky-panky by over-zealous tourists.
Only once before in our nation's history have we come to such an impasse. That was some 160 years ago when, after decades of struggle, the only way to break the stalemate was through civil war. Unitil it came to that, North and South increasingly viewed each other as aliens rather than fellow citizens. Today, our alien political outlooks are not so easily relegated, or reducible, to geographic divisions. Open warfare would pit neighbor against neighbor, some groups against others.
Even so, whether or not the opposing parties are ready to take up arms against those on the other side is becoming an open question. We got a foretaste of that prospect in the January 6 riots. Whipped up by Donald Trump's lies about a stolen election, the rioters, like the former president, clearly regarded the business of Congress as corrupt and dastardly. So they mounted a physical assault on the very basis of our Constitution. That resembles nothing so much in our history as the assault on Fort Sumter which ignited the Civil War. But in today's environment, not even this unprecedented assault on the Capitol has motivated the Republican Party to rally its forces to the defense.
It seems likely that the nation will carry on more or less as it has for a time. That would include, as in the May vote, the will of a minority of the Senate still winning the day. But if refusing to investigate the insurrection foretells the beginning of the end, then the end of this republic as a beacon for enlightened self-government is surely already at hand.
It needn't be so, even though the hour is late. I retain hope that there are some among today's Republicans whose honor and good sense will bring them to seek a different way, one that can lead us forward based upon mutual respect, a willingness to compromise, and a desire for achieving greater things for the whole society. If such are to be found, they can lead their party back from Trumpism into a position of leadership rather than destructive opposition. If they succeed, they should some day count among the nation's saviors.
Our Weird Game of Naming Races
My thoughts go back to my childhood--i.e, to the dark ages. I have a fairly clear memory of the first time I became aware of how we Americans tried to identify the various strands of our humanity. At about age ten, I was given a world atlas whoe title page declared that our species was divided up into four races: white, black, yellow, and red, all in caps, most likely. Prototypes of each were sketched below each identifying label. These looked like immutable categories, ordained in nature and fixed for all time.
Except that I already had seen evidence that said otherwise. Although the white people in my small town evidently accepted their label, the polite name at the time for the blacks (also called "colored people") among us was Negro--capitalized and the name spoken clearly so as not to be confused with the ugly epithet that was a demeaning corruption of that same word. And what to call the many people of Mexican heritage who worked in the railroad yard? Their skin color was neither white nor black, but came in varying shades of tan. I may have been told that they were part of the red race, since no true Native Americans lived among us to complicate that claim. At that age, if I had even seen people deemed to be of the yellow race, I must have noticed that their skin was not truly that color either.
Soon, I began to understand that racial boundaries could be and often had been crossed. Those color-coded race distinctions were of ideal types, not real world actuality. Eventually, I also understood that the very concept of race was a social, not a biological, construct whose use throughout human history was to distinguish "us" from "them," almost always with hostile intent. With the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, I learned that "Negro" should give way to "African American" as the more acceptable name to members of that minority group. At about the same time, "Native American" became preferred over "Indian," and "Asian American" superseded other labels, often derogatory, for those with origins on that continent. (Interestingly, "Caucasian American" never caught on as the appropriate name for those descended from Europeans, perhaps because it seemed too parochial for many members of the race that dominated in America.)
Now we have come to another change in racial terminology. A few years ago, a number of writers began capitalizing "Black" in naming people of that "race." But no one suggested giving the same prominence to "white" or "brown" ("yellow" and "red" had long since fallen out of our lexicon). Once the New York Times, chief among American language style-setters, announced its acceptance of "Black," that usage became de rigueur throughout the nation.
Here is the result: our written language now singles out one "racial" group by making its name and that of no other group upper case. This usage is no doubt well-intentioned. It's meant to be a mark of respect, I guess, in much the way capitalizing "Negro" had benign intent in an earlier era. But what I can't help but see in it is the kind of finger-pointing that suggests "you stand out, you're different from the rest of us." A mark of respect also makes a target. I'm afraid I see echoes of the way the Nazis made Jews wear the Star of David.
Yes, I know the comparison is invidious. But, for what it's worth, I suggest that as long as we're doomed to differentiate ourselves by using colorful adjectives, we should make those qualifiers uniformly lower case; capitalizing any or all of them draws too much attention to the very concept of races while suggesting they're not equal.
I wish that our usage could reflect the kind of humor I heard years ago from the mouth of the late, great Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa when he was leading the fight against Apartheid in his native land. In commenting on the literal inaccuracy of describing all those, like himself, of African descent as "black" and of European heritage as "white," he said to a group of us of mostly the latter complexion,"you actually look kind of pink to me."
Voting for the People
The House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 1, a sweeping effort to expand the ability to vote and protect voting rights across the nation. It includes such measures as automatic and same-day registration, and requires election officials in each state to establish automatic voter-registration systems. It goes so far as to require all states to create nonpartisan redistricting commissions to end the gerrymandering of Congressional districts. The bill was narrowly adopted in the House on a party-line vote, with all but one of the Democratic representatives voting in favor and every Republican voting against.
Because of the Senate's filibuster rule, ten Republican senators would be needed to allow for a vote on the measure in that chamber. But, for now, this For the People Act of 2021 faces united Republican opposition there. Utah Senator Mike Lee's declaration that "this is a bill as if written in hell by the devil himself," gives some idea of its prospects. Talk of abolishing the filibuster is now in the air, although at least a couple of moderate Senate Democrats are likely to oppose that move, which makes a simple majority vote an unlikely way to move H. R. 1 through that chamber.
Meanwhile, this bill has so frightened--and mobllized--Republican officials that any number of Republican-controlled states are hard at work passing their own election "reform" legislation whose effects will restrict access to the ballot. Georgia just became the first state to do so, with others likely to follow. So, now our unhappy prospect is not only that the first great Congressional effort in decades to advance voting rights will fail, but also that the effort may have the opposite effect, rolling them back in many places in the name of making elections more secure.
Must we just count this another, truly egregious, example of the intractability of our politics today? Are we simply doomed to face off, draw lines that can't be crossed while our divisions deepen? Are we now reaching the point where reconciliation becomes impossible? To say yes to such questions is to see no viable future for our constitutional republic, the last chapter, perhaps, in our final failure.
No, no, a thousand times no!
Surely it is not too late to learn from the accommodations and compromises that have always marked whatever progress we have made in creating a just society in which all are protected in their pursuit of happiness! We once understood that successful legislation grew from the give-and-take in which different interests and values were accommodated so that a common good might emerge from a shared outcome. How might that play out in this case?
Start with the fact that polls now show a majority of rank-and-file voters favor H.R. 1. That includes a majority of Republicans, even though their support doesn't match that of Democrats and independents. It is Republican politicians in Washington who still play the destructive game initiated years ago by Newt Gingrich which says that defeat of the other party's legislative aims is all that matters. (Yes, Democrats in Congress have learned to play this game as well.)
So, now it is up to President Biden and the Democratic leadership to demonstrate that non-zero-sum outcomes are in the interest of all. They might start by acknowledging that to make sure that our elections are secure is not in principle a bad idea. As a veteran of the Senate, Biden surely knows that finding votes across the aisle is the key to building broad-based support for legislation. He should reach out to those Republicans willing to support the protection of voting rights in exchange for reinforcing election security, making clear to them that the goal is legislation that is a win-win for Americans across the political spectrum.
There is no guarantee that such an effort will succeed. But not to try is to acquiesce in the destruction of the kind of comity that is all that prevents the final failure of the American experiment in government. President Biden is ideally suited, both from experience and temperamentally, to lead America away from this poisonously destructive era of our politics.
For Octavius Catto, Black Lives Mattered
A trial will soon begin in Chicago of the former police officer charged with causing the death of George Floyd last year. That event brought demands for greater social justice for black and brown people on a scale we haven't seen since the 1960s. In Philadelphia last spring, protest marches swirled about the monument on City Hall's south apron to a man, Octavius V. Catto, who would have been at the forefront of such demonstrations were he alive today. Protestors dramatized how Catto connects across a century-and-a-half to the ongoing fight for the equal treatment of all citizens in America today.
Catto was born in Charleston, S. C., in 1839 and brought to Philadelphia as a child when his parents moved here. The 15-year-old Octavius became a student at the Quaker-run Institute for Colored Youth. Four years later, he graduated as class valedictorian. He then spent a year studying Latin and Greek in Washington, D.C., before returning to Philadelphia in 1859 and a position--at the ripe old age of 20--at his alma mater as a teacher of English literature, higher mathematics, and classical languages. He soon became an assistant to the school's principal.
Then came the Civil War. Catto was immediately inspired to make the Union cause advance the rights of blacks. Following Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, he helped found the Pennsylvania Equal Rights League in 1864. He then worked with Frederick Douglass to recruit black troops for the Union Army. Eventually, 8,612 troops were raised from Pennsylvania, the most from any northern region. Catto himself served in the National Guard as a major in the Union Army, although neither he nor the troops he'd helped raise saw action, thanks to unwillingness on the part of white officers to accept their help.
Still, that wartime effort allowed Catto and his associates to develop allliances with sympathetic whites. Once the North's victory was secure, Congress enacted what were meant to be the transformative Reconstruction Amendments to the Constitution. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in the United States, the 15th guaranteed voting rights to all free men (women of all races would wait until 1920 to secure that right). Catto took the lead in pushing the adoption of the last of these, which finally was accomplished in 1870.
By that date, Catto was perhaps the most prominent leader of Philadelphia's African Americans, which made up the largest such community in the nation. He had already led the long struggle to desegregate Philadelphia's streetcars. He insisted on principled behavior by black people as a way of demonstrating why they deserved equal rights, saying they must adhere to "strict standards of personal morality."
October 10, 1871, was the first Election Day in Philadelphia in which African Americans had the right to vote. Catto had been tireless in the weeks leading up to it to help thousands of his newly enfranchised neighbors register so that they might exercise that right. These efforts unleashed a backlash among, especially,working-class Irish immigrants who viewed their own livelihoods as threatened by the newly attained freedoms of the black population. On Election Day, white ruffians roamed the streets, intent on intimidating black men from going to the polls. The police, tacitly supported by local Democratic leaders, made little effort to control them even as some grew more menacing.
That evening, Catto left a polling place, heading home. When he passed several armed white men, words were exchanged and one of the men shot him in the chest. He died as he stumbled toward his own front door.. He was 32 years old.
Catto's funeral, paid for by the city, became a national event. Grieving Philadelphians lined Broad Street as the cortege passed with full military honors. More than 5,000 mourners attended the service. His assassin, a Democratic operative named Frank Kelly, was quickly spirited out of Philadelphia and soon fled to Chicago. Six years later, Kelly was at last extradited to Philadelphia to face justice. But at the end of a ten-day trial, an all-white jury acquitted him.
Fast forward 140 years to September 26, 2017. On that date, Philadelphia's monument to Octavius Catto was unveiled outside City Hall. It reminds us that America's quest for social justice and racial equality advances still in fits and starts, so that many see little change from Catto's day to ours. That is why it is--what?--touching sad, ironic, a little chilling, even, that the issues confronted by the great Philadelphia martyr Octavius V. Catto, nearly a century before Martin Luther King, Jr., was martyred in the same cause, should still resound loudly with so many of us today.