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 came, 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 right 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 whoh 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?
Reading the Tea Leaves:
The Democratic Presidential Field
Yes, there are too many Democrats running for president to keep track of them all, let alone make predictable who will prevail in the end. The front-runners prior to the first round of debates in June--Biden and Sanders--owed those positions to their name recognition more than anything else. Of the others near the top, Elizabeth Warren has conceivably been more fully in the national spotlight longer than her competitors. The only real surprise among the top half dozen was that they included the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, who impressed those attuned to the race with his clear, direct and thoughtful speech, proving at the same time that an openly gay candidate would no longer automatically be ruled out of contention.
The June debates seem to have shaken things up at the top. Senator Kamala Harris's attack on Joe Biden for the comity he had with segregationist senators decades ago brought a somewhat defensive and slightly rambling defense from the former Vice President that at least temporarily knocked him off his front-runner perch. Julian Castro came out of nowhere to lambaste his fellow Texan, Beto O'Rourke. One or two others may have moved a notch or two up or down in the polls. Just as notable was the near total invisibility of several already on the margins, who got almost no time to make the case for themselves. It's hard to imagine that they will gain traction in the weeks and months ahead.
Wrapped up in the performance, and fate, of individual candidates was the larger question of which of them is most likely to beat Donald Trump next year and win majorities for the Democrats in both houses of Congress. That was Biden's trump card (pun intended) from the time he entered the race, including the argument that he was the moderate who could attract independents and anti-Trump Republicans in a way more "extreme" candidates could not. Pundits concluded that the debates showed nearly all the candidates shifting to the left in, for example, their nearly universal support for providing free health care to immigrants crossing our border.
Here are several points to consider about that perceived shift. The first is simply to wonder if it was in any way decisive or the likely result of the dynamics of the debate forum itself. Time will tell. Second is to note that "playing to the base" follows the usual script in primary campaigns. Moving back toward the center is thought to be the likely, essential shift once a nominee is selected, when the appeal to the whole electorate is what matters (but see the 2016 election for a refutation of that thesis). A third possibility is that, as some polling evidently suggests, younger Americans, and especially millennials, are indeed farther to the left than their elders. If so, and if younger citizens are to be persuaded to vote in 2020, the argument runs, then the more left-leaning candidates are those who will excite them.
It still seems too early to know if any of those points are decisive. There remain, unfortunately, several completely irrational considerations that could still make the difference in who gets elected president next year. They include this qustion: is America ready to elect another black man? How about a black woman? A white woman? Any person of color? It would be the height of irony if a gay white male, and one witihout any experience on the national stage, turns out to be seen as more electable than any of the above. What astonishing things that would tell us about which prejudices are truly intractable in America!
Fraught but Moving Forward:
Europe's Parliamentary Elections
Elections to the European Parliament last month reflected greater polarization within the EU at the same time they showed that overall support for continued integration is at historic highs. That paradox is at the heart of the electoral outcome. Traditionally dominant parties of the center-right and center-left lost substantially while the far right made big gains. Green factions were winners, as were liberals joined with the En Marche party of French President Emmanual Macron, who has made support for the EU a centerpiece of his presidency. Across Europe, the left lost 100-plus seats while the right gained around 60. Even so, pro-EU parties remain a clear majority, with some 470 seats in the 751-seat parliament, which Euroskeptics will now hold 251.
Ironies rule the day. Start with that inherent in the rise of nationalist populism: its central dynamic works against the kind of cooperation with like-minded parties from other member states that is essential to turn back the progressive, integrationist tendencies of those supporting the EU. Nor is their goal of returning to national control compatible with playing a significant role in the global economy. Nevertheless, those paying allegiance to Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and their ilk now hold more than a quarter of the seats and must be reckoned with.
A further irony is that traditional center-right parties came close to adopting the platforms of the extremist right only to be soundly trounced by the latter in a number of countries. If you add in the anomalous role of the UK, which participated in the election only because its leaders had been unable to achieve Brexit, the traditionally dominant parties were all but wiped out. Britain's Laboour Party got only 14% of the vote, while the Conservatives fell to 9%. Pro-EU Liberal Democrats, in contrast, were resurgent with 20%, while the Greens managed 12%. The turmoil over Brexit is now so great that many wonder if it is not the end of the two-party system that has long defined British politics.
In France, the traditional left-right parties each scored less than 10%. Even though Macron was badly wounded by months of Yellow Jackets demonstrations--his forces coming in second to Le Pen's National Rally (almost 23% to the NR's 24%)--he held onto his base. The "Macron effect" brought a higher-than-expected turnout among French voters under 35. The French delegation, whose members may owe their victory more clearly to their pro-EU stance than any other such group, is the largest in the new coalition.
The new parliament will organize itself around the two poles of nationalist and globalist forces. Among the nationalists, some may try to blow up the European project. Others will do their best to hollow out European institutions. Yet progressive forces surely remain strong enough to prevent these groups from creating an existential crisis for the union itself. As we have seen already in this election's outcome, knowing that the goal of some candidates was to demolish the EU served to concentrate the minds, and propel the votes, of many more who wanted to prevent such an outcome.
Yes, there are some similarities to--and lessons for--America's political condition. "Polarized" has been the catchhword for our situation ever since Trump entered the White House. Progressives strengthened their hand in the 2018 midterm elections even though, soon after, reactionary policies were becoming more deeply embedded in parts of the nation (see, e.g., draconian new anti-abortion legislation in several states). If the threat to the U.S. is not now existential, its consitutional crisis is certainly growing almost daily. Both the Eureopan Union and the United States of America are undergoing trials by fire.
How to Undermine Democracy--or Improve It
Keeping a giant representative democracy like the United States on the rails is a messy business in the best of times. In times like the present, threats to how we choose our representatives can turn messiness to grave injustice. Recent election cycles have revealed how the one-citizen-one-vote ideal undergirding our democracy is still thwarted. We've called that gerrymandering ever since Massachusetts' Governor Elbridge Gerry signed a bill in 1812 creating new congressional districts contorted--one was shaped like a salamander--to favor his party.
The latest census in 2010 led to particularly unrestrained gerrymandering in my own state of Pennsylvania. Here, the Republican majority in Harrisburg redrew the electoral map to so benefit their party that in the 2012 election, Republicans held 13 seats to 6 for Democrats, even though the popular vote was almost evenly divided between the two parties. That almost certainly would have brought a similar outcome in 2018 were it not for the fact that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stepped in months earlier to strike down that congressional map on grounds that it violated the commonwealth's constitution. After the court then imposed a map that much more nearly conformed to actual municipal boundaries, the November election produced a 50-50 split between the two parties of those elected to the new Congress.
But that was a one-time solution. New legislation is required to prevent the majority party from again creating a gerrymandered map after the 2020 census. In the Pennsylvania House, two bills have been introduced to put a citizens redistricting commission in place in time for the 2021 redistricting. One would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to create an indepedent commission for determining the legislative districts for the Pennsylvania House and Senate. The second would amend the election code to create an independent commission for Congressional redistricting. That requires no change in the constitution, but only a change to the state's election code.
Party leaders of course cannot be counted on to lead this fight to end gerrymandering, since it is they--including those in the minority party who hope to become the majority--who relish the greater power they have when they are free to draw district lines to suit their partisan interests. Yet these House bills do have bipartisan support and are already co-sponsored by more than 40% of current legislators. True, the prospects for comparable bills passing the Senate are less promising today. Nonetheless, such public interest groups as Fair Districts PA are hard at work to push these reforms through in the current session. We now are closer to this good-government outcome than at any time in our history.
There's also the undemocratic matter of a provision written right into the U.S. Constitution: the Electoral College. Any student can see that in preventing the direct election of our president, it permits the candidate who has lost the popular vote nation-wide to win the presidency. That has happened five times in our history--most recently, with the election of Donald Trump--and could easily happen again. Amending the Constitution to eliminate the Electoral College is probematic, because the rural interests and small states who benefit from that system naturally don't want to lose their greater voice than city folks get.
Yet, there's a simple way to solve the problem without a constitutional amendment. That is by getting state legislatures to pass statutes committing them to ensure that their electors vote with their state's popular majority regardless of the party affiliation of the electors. The movement pushing for this has succeeded in getting 12 states and the District of Columbia to join such a compact. They account for 181 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Electoral College. Once enough other states join to reach that magic number, we will, for the first time, be sure that whoever gets the most votes wins.
Making that happen, and ending gerrymandering, can go far to revitalize our messy democracy.
Our Post-Mueller Trumpian Future
I confess to being one of many on the left who imagined that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Donald Trump's connections to Russia during the 2016 election would prove him so egregious a law-breaker that his removal from office would swiftly follow. 'Twas not to be. As of now, only a handful of Justice Department officials have yet seen the report, although it presumably will be made public, with redactions, in another few weeks. What we've been told about its findings is, first, that neither Trump nor his minions colluded with Russians working to influence the election, but, second, that he was not exonerated from charges of obstructing justice even though Mueller chose not to rule on the evidence he obtained. Yet strangely, Attorney General William Barr immediately ruled in place of Mueller, declaring the evidence insufficient to charge the president with a crime.
That immediately launched a predictable firestorm. Trump and his allies falsely claimed complete exoneration, while his opponents insisted on seeing the complete report for themselves and castigated Barr for making a judgment call from his position outside the investigation that he was not charged to make.
That wrangle will get sorted out in due course; I won't pursue it here. I'll focus instead on the way forward for those millions of us who regard the Trump presidency as disastrous. We need to begin by acknowledging that to move quickly to articles of impeachment is not now in the cards. The Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress is correct not to encourage what could only become a strictly partisan procedure that therefore would fail, and which would push whatever Trump skeptics remain among Republicans into his defense.
Starting in 1984, when Newt Gingrich made it his party's holy grail, unyielding partisanship has increasingly threatened our political system. We must draw back from whatever encourages more of it. It means that Congressional Democrats are right to advance their own social and political agenda instead, just as the party's presidential candidates are doing. (All of them, by the way, were handed a gift last week when Trump again annnounced his goal of overturning Obamacare, whose popularity will continue to grow the more its life is threatened). By attending to their legislative priorities, Democrats can give the electorate far more positive alternatives for the nation's future than the hate-filled, us-against-them nostrums of the Trumpists.
Meanwhile, the essential Congressional investigations of Trump-related matters of course should go forward, but with as much calm and careful deliberation as it's possible to demonstrate. Yes, Republicans in the House will continue to lambaste Democratic committee chairs as unfit to lead, charging them, as they already have, with holding preconceived notions of the outcome. So, it won't be easy to navigate the shoals of partisanship in a way that will convince the world of the integrity of the process. But to the extent such hearings proceed in workmanlike fashion, they will also allow time for other legal proceedings against Trump to reach their conclusions. And there are several with the potential to reveal smoking guns, perhaps with the kind of clarity that could lead to Trump's demise.
Trump's character is such that impeachable offenses are almost certain to come to light on these other fronts in the months to come. His likely violations of the Constitution's emoluments clause is a case in point, though the possibilities are legion for exposing other high crimes and misdemeanors. In the final analysis, Trump's presidency poses an unprecedented threat to our political system, and only some of that threat relates to his violation (or not) of criminal law. It is in the political arena where his term of office should ultimately be judged.
Suspending--and Suspending--Republican Disbelief
One of the most surprising aspects of Trump's presidency after its two-year mark is his continuing support among Republicans. He is still viewed favorably by some 80% of Republican voters, in spite of behavior--which includes playing nice with autocrats, closing down the government, and lying several times daily--that we used to think would be political suicide. And what do they make of an outpouring of scandals that has led to the indictments of more than a dozen individuals with ties to team Trump, including the convictions of a number of them?
What alone explains his continuing support is the suspension of disbelief, in massive doses, on the part of the faithful. The now-familiar refrain of most of them is that, although they don't always approve of the way Trump behaves, they applaud his intentions. They view their man as relentlessly attacked by the press and the far left, who refuse to give him credit for any of the good things (huge tax cuts often head the list) he's accomplished. For the most extreme of his disciples, the pernicious power of the "deep state" is what accounts for the courts saying no to his early effort to halt the immigration of Muslims, opposition to his administration's separation of children from their parents at the border, and even the ongoing effort from many quarters to block building the wall from the Rio Grande to the Pacific.
The last has now created an ongoing dispute over a president's constitutional authority to claim that an emergency exists at the border so that he can take unauthorized funds from elsewhere to do what Congress has denied him. I write at a moment when it seems likely that the Senate may oppose Trump's action, as has the House, but two-thirds majorities will be lacking in both houses to overturn his expected veto. Whatever their misgiviings about the wall and the rationale Trump has used to try to build it, most Congressional Republicans will stick with their man. The courts once more may be the final arbiters while the political divisions, in Congress and the nation, will further harden.
Nonetheless, this is also the moment when the president's legal troubles are beginning to mount, and in ways that scarcely seem likely to make his base double down in support of his agenda. Here are the main arenas in which Trump activities are being probed: (1) Five standing committees in the House are starting to look at various aspects of Trump's business deals and finances. (2) The state of Maryland and the District of Columbia are both suing Trump for his alleged violation of the Constitution's emoluments clause, which prohibits presidents from accepting gifts from foreign governments. (3) The New York Attorney General has brought a lawsuit alleging that Trump misused his Trump Foundation in "a shocking pattern of illegality." (4) The Southern District of New York continues its investigation of Michael Cohen, Trump's former fixer, in a case that is virtually certain to bring charges against other members of the Trump team, no doubt implicating the president as well.
All of that is quite apart from whatever is produced in Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report.
If even some of these actions provide hard evidence of criminal conduct by the president, the cries of partisanship from the right surely must recede as the circle grows of Americans demanding justice. If this fraught presidency is to end with genuine political redemption for the nation, it will only come once the overwhelming majority of Americans becomes convinced of the need to correct its high crimes and misdemeanors. We are not there yet. But it at last begins to look as if the tools may be in place to move us toward such a redeeming ending.
The New Congress and Our Political Future
The recently installed 116th Congress gave Democrats the majority in the House of Representatives, where they gained 40 seats in the midterm elections. However, they lost two in the Senate, where they now number 47 to the Republicans' 53. Yet, the power of the House majority was instantly on display when Speaker Nancy Pelosi held her caucus intact to oppose President Trump's demands for a border wall while shutting down much of the federal government in December. But after 35 days, not only did Trump finally cave to the Democrats, he was even made to postpone his state of the union address when Pelosi refused to introduce a resolution inviting him to speak in the House chamber as long as the shutdown continued. All that was a dramatic reminder of the powers of just one half of the legislative branch.
Meanwhile, however, the shutdown so completely preoccupied Congress that there was no time for doing what newly empowered Democrats insisted was their goal: legislating on behalf of the American people. Then the shutdown's end bought only a three-week reprieve, so now all attention is focused on the work of a joint Congressional committee tasked with finding a formula for border security that the president might sign. A month into the lifetime of the new Congress, Trump is once again revealing his ability to control the narrative and create chaos in his wake.
If the border wall debate was a smokescreen shielding much else from view, you could still detect some hints that the 116th Congress may begin to rein in Donald Trump on a bipartisan basis. During the last days of the shutdown, the Democrats' bill that tried to end it drew substantial bipartisan support--although it did not attain the supermajority needed for passage in the Senate.
Then, a week later, the Senate passed an amendment to a Middle East policy bill that chastised the president for withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan. That action, led by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, reasserted Republican orthodoxy on our military presence in the region, which is why a number of Democrats refused to support it. Still, it marked almost the first time that Senate Republicans broke from Trump. But we know they are increasingly unhappy at the prospect of a new shutdown or the possibility that the president might invoke emergency powers to fund his wall.
Something like normal will return to Washington (or will, at least, if impeachment isn't on the agenda). We should expect Congressional Democrats to advance proposals to assist the depleted and demoralized middle class through such means as Medicare for all, new taxes on the nation's richest, and support for education and the environment. Republicans will only begin to buy into such measures if and when they are persuaded of their appeal to the electorate. And the electorate will, after all, make its voice heard again in 2020.
That's where the growing field of Democratic presidential hopefuls comes in. As their campaign themes emerge, supporting such measures as I've just indicated, they either will or won't gain traction. Underlying each of their themes, it's fair to assume, will be that of unity, of how we go about bridging the divides Trump has so exacerbated. But for such rhetoric to acquire legs, candidates will have to project policy that large swaths of the population regard as helpful, or better yet, essential, to their own and the nation's welfare. The not-Trump candidate who wins must also find support from within Trump's base. That has to be the real-world outcome of the call for greater unity.
These are tall orders, both for Democratic presidential hopefuls and for Congress. Yet, as the campaign season gets into gear, we may find a more positive and inspiring debate about what we can accomplish and where we ought to be going than has been the case for many years. Wouldn't that be a wonderful change?
Wishing for a Happier New Year
No doubt about it, the year just ended has not been one of the world's brightest. America's bargain with a charlatan as president increased the nation's downward spiral. In Europe, the trials of Brexit threatened terrible damage to both Britain and the European Union. Germany's political stability was shaken, while the realignment of French politics went from promising to fraught. From the Philippines to Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, autocratic governments strengthened their hold. And the planet warmed even more alarmingly than we had previously imagined.
Is it wishful thinking to look for signs that 2019 might turn us in a more positive direction? I look now only at the possibilities in my own country. Amidst the chaos and dysfunction that, among other things, produced a government shutdown in the year's last week--the second in 2018--here are hopeful signs: the Senate voted unanimously on a recent resolution that blamed Saudi Arabia's crown prince for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. That at least separated every Republican senator from the refusal of President Trump to cast similar blame. It was the first time in Trump's presidency when anything like that happened, and could foreshadow a time when members of his own party in Congress will finally distance themselves on truly substantive matters from the president who is creating such havoc for the nation.
That no doubt depends upon a brighter ray of hope, i.e., that the required two-thirds majority of senators may be moved to oppose Trump's continuation in office. That cannot happen until the Mueller probe ends in a report that shows incontestably how Trump and his minions have subverted the Constitution. Impeachment is a political act which won't succeed if it's only a Democratic majority in the House that demands it. Should this new majority take that step at the outset, the result will produce only more gridlocked refusal to act on the part of the Republican Senate, which alone tries impeachments. To succeed, a motion to impeach must follow persuasive findings by the independent counsel that Trump has violated the Constitution. That looks increasingly likely.
Still, the whole impeachment process, should it come, is likely to be long and drawn out. Dare one hope that sometime in 2019, a Republican or two will challenge Trump's reelection in the primary? Neither of the obvious possibilities, retiring Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, will become candidates unless they perceive that Trump is beginning to lose his base. Should it come to such a challenge, Trump just might decide to bow out at the end of his term (no doubt with the claim that he's been the greatest president ever). The best outcome would be a thorough indictment from Mueller's evidence followed by the abandonment of Trump by enough disaffected Republicans--especially Republican senators--to see through a trial of impeachment. These aren't pipe dreams, but real-world possibilities.
In the meantime, my overwhelming hope is that, starting with Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House, Congressional leaders will learn to govern again. That means working with the opposition to pass legislation, rather than to behave, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has always behaved, as if their only purpose is to deny their opponents at all costs, including even the right of presidents to appoint judges. That has made our national politics a zero-sum contest, which is largely to blame for bringing us to our current state, and which may lead to the demise of our constitutional system. If Democrats, and other Republicans, can begin to push back on the McConnellization of our poliitical life, there is hope that non-zero-sum outcomes may regenerate our politics and improve all our lives.