Opinion Post

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.


                                                              (April 2021)






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, 1971, 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.


                                                              (March, 2021)





We Aren't There Yet


Is it just a month since I said "good riddance!" in this space when Donald Trump was about to exit the White House? I hadn't imagined then that, within days, the president would incite some of his most crazed supporters to invade the Capitol, sending members of Congress--as well as his vice president--fleeing and leaving half a dozen people dead. Neither did I guess that Trump would then be impeached for a second time, nor that Joe Biden's inauguration would take place surrounded by more American troops than remain on duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Now I'm not going very far out on a limb when I say that Trump's new impeachment trial is unlikely to result in his conviction. That can happen only if another twelve Republican senators join the five brave members of the GOP who voted for impeachment to proceed. Even though at least that many expressed varying degrees of shock and dismay at Trump's actions soon after January 6, in the days and weeks since, their alarm has noticeably faded. They've no doubt noted how Republican officials such as Liz Cheney in the House have been vilified by the Trumpian faithful for daring to say that Trump committed impeachable acts. 


If you ever entertained the dream of a condemnation of Trump's action that included preventing his ever returning to high office, then you of course assumed that large numbers of officials in both parties recognized how far over the line the man had stepped. That also let you imagine that a more general bipartisanship might accompany the rest of Joe Biden's presidency, starting with quick agreement on his COVID relief bill, then moving on to immigration reform, significant legislation to deal with the climate crisis, greater racial and economic equity, and more.


I'm not yet ready to say that such dreams are pure fantasy. If they're to become reality, Congressional leaders in both parties must reach across the aisle, find common ground, and look for outcomes that can win support across broad swaths of their caucuses and the American people. I write on February 1, a day when ten Republican senators are to meet with President Biden to discuss their much more modest alternative to the president's coronavirus relief package. I'm hopeful that they may find some common ground, for these senators and this president are individuals who generally practice the best sort of politics, the art of the possible. Even if they fail, if they can end their discussions without assigning bad faith to the other side and show a willingness to continue to seek accommodation, then hope remains.


In any case, we should not expect a repeat of comparable moments during the Trump presidency, which were likely to end in angry walk-outs and recriminations. The new tone has been set by our new--and normal--president. Joe Biden's entire career is testament to a non-ideological commitment to the greater good. I don't expect that, as a centrist, he will accomplish miracles. But it is through his centrism, his deep commitment to guiding the whole nation, that he just might be able to accomplish greater things than could, say, an Elizabeth Warren or a Bernie Sanders at this moment in our history.


My hopeful vision does assume that this next impeachment trial can be conducted in a way that does not further, let alone deepen, the political cleavages that have come to characterize our era. That may seem a faint hope, especially when I consider that impeachment is the constitutional provision that points most clearly to the dysfunction that can flow from  political cleavage. I want to believe that, even if Trump is acquitted, the trial can be conducted in a way that holds out the possibility of catharsis and renewal. By next month at this time, we should know if that possibility still lives.


                                                         (February 2021)





Going, Going  .  .  .  Gone?


With the start of a new year, the world looks forward to saying good-bye to pandemics. Now that vaccinations against COVID-19 are underway, that terrible virus may be brought under control before this year grows old. And in less than three weeks, the pandemic that has been Donald Trump's presidency will come to an end, even if it takes the Secret Service to remove him from the White House. Yet, whether our body politic will thereby be cleansed of Trumpism is another matter entirely. The side-effects of the disease may linger while the Trumpian virus lies in wait to cripple the nation again.


Consider the damage to America's health. From the day of his inauguration, Trump made clear that he was president of only some of the people. The rest of us he derided as losers, beyond the pale of his concerns. This deepened the cleavages already present in the electorate and at the same time compelled the leaders of his own party to submit to his leadership or risk also being cast beyond the pale. Congress largely failed to legislate, as a result, though the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed an unprecedented number of right-wing judges, including three additions to the Supreme Court, assuring conservative outcomes in our judiciary for many years to come. 


Trump's foreign policy followed the same pattern with similar dire results. He only welcomed to the fold foreign leaders with whom he had a personal rapport--Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman were among the favored few--while leaving America's long-time allies outside in the cold. By removing the U.S. from the Iran nuclear accord and that attempting to slow climate change, Trump opposed hard-won agreements supported by most of the rest of the world.


In the not quite three weeks left in Trump's term, he has time to wreak still more mischief as president. Even though he'll lose vast powers once Joe Biden is inaugurated, no one expects him to steal quietly away into retirement, as his predecessors have done. He'll no doubt do everything still in his power to keep his base united and thereby try to continue his intimidation of would-be Republican leaders. His threat to seek the presidency again in 2024 is a powerful tool in that repect, especially given the vast sums he's raised since his defeat, money allegedly meant to try to overturn the results of the 2020 election.


There's still the possibility that Trump will be made to face charges in state courts on various counts of corruption. Whatever the appeal of such action for his opponents, that is likely, at least in the short run, merely to sustain the support of his true believers. As long as Trump is able to keep shouting at us from the wings, our tribalism will surely not be overcome. The most dismal prospect is that our next four years may look depressingly like the last four.


Yet, once Biden is president, there is hope that the most dismal prospect will not play out. He is the anti-Trump in terms of his character, experience, and outlook. He knows more about how the Federal government ought and ought not to work than perhaps anyone alive. His deep-rooted centrism, commitment to improving the lives of all Americans, and understanding of the legislative process will, at a minimum, be a much-needed breath of fresh air. If enough members of both parties in Congress decide they have had enough of division and paralysis, we could even see the restoration of our democracy. Just imagine the possibilities!


                                                            (January 2021)





Making America America Again?


You could almost hear the sigh of relief spreading across the globe when Joe Biden was elected president, scoring the biggest popular vote of any candidate in the nation's history and a decisive win in the Electoral College. We've had weeks since then when outrageous claims of massive fraud were bandied about by Donald Trump and his minions, but one after another of their bizarre lawsuits to overturn the results of the election were denied by courts across the country. Biden, meanwhile, went to work to prepare for his administration, naming seasoned individuals to cabinet-level positions and reminding the country of his intent to govern on their behalf, not his. These displays of the rule of law and what until four years ago had always been normal presidential behavior seemed proof that our republic's democratic norms and institutions had survived Trump's unprecedented assault on them.


Yet, even though these developments were enormously reassuring, a final victory celebration is a little premature. Trump's ongoing threats and directives may still do terrible damage to the republic. It's very troubling that some 70% of those who voted for Trump now regard Biden's election as illegitimate. Nor have more than a comparative handful of Republicans in Congress openly acknowledged Biden's victory. That's a further sign that, for now, the party still remains very much under the spell, and subject to the false narrative, of the outgoing president. He, of course, threatens to run again in 2024, thereby inhibiting other would-be Republican contenders for the top prize from reaching for the brass ring. If Trump continues to hold the kind of sway over his base and party that he demonstrated in the election, his ability to throw powerful bombs at the Biden Administration will go largely unchallenged by Republicans, perhaps throughout the next four years. And such bombs could inflict God-knows how much damage to our very constitutional system.


Today, millions of Americans long for a President Biden to be able to bring us together, address our common problems of economic inequality, racial injustice, and looming environmental catastrophe so that we can make tangible progress on many fronts. Some of that may be within the realm of possibility, most probably if the two Democratic challengers in the special Senate elections coming up next month in Georgia win those seats. If they don't, the Senate will remain under Republican control, with Mitch McConnell as majority leader. We could then expect a repeat of the highly partisan opposition meted out by that majority during the presidency of Barack Obama. Mitch McConnell made clear early in the Obama years that he would not let his Republican caucus meet the president half way. They foiled his agenda again and agaiin, creating a dreadful new normal of hyper-partisanship in Washington that set the stage for Trump's disparagement of all who disagree with him as losers and enemies.


I fear that we may be headed for a repeat of the gridlock and nastiness of the Obama years. That may look like a modest improvement over the four years with Trump in the White House. Except that it would make even more distant that day when America might again be governed by coalitions wlliing to meet each other half way, since such coalitions--vital as they are to our constitutional system--are only possible again once we have put an end to the tribalism that increasingly pits some groups of Americans against others. Make no mistake, if we are unable to reverse the course we've been on, then the time will come when the very norms and precepts that underlie our system of government will no longer sustain it. Strongmen in the mold of Trump will rise to "save" the nation from its democratic folly. Should they succeed, it would mean the destruction of this oldest democratic republic in the modern world. That's the darkest vision today.


It's exactly why we must hope, and work for, a much brighter future.


                                                          (December 2020)





An Election Eve Dream


With the dawn of this November, Americans know that our imminent presidential election is the most important in our lifetimes, maybe the most important since the Civil War. Should Donald Trump eke out another victory, the future of our republic is truly on the line. Although I am tempted to add my own argument to explain yet again why that is so, I'm in no mood at the moment for another jeremiad. So, I'll focus instead on the dream I have for an outcome in which Joe Biden is swept into the  White House along with majorities supporting him in both the House and Senate.


That would mean, first of all, a resounding change of tone in our politics. A President Biden should make clear from the moment of his inauguration that he will always act as president of all the people. A shocking reversal of Trump's behavior, that would merely re-establish what we used to think was the norm for presidents. It would not mean that his every action will satisfy every citizen. But it would say that every policy he proposes will seek to enlarge the general welfare of the American people. He should make it clear that neither he nor his party view their opponents as enemies, but as fellow citizens with legitimate interests that need to be accommodated. That effort at accommodation should be front and center, guiding every negotiation in Congress and every policy directive from the executive branch. Making greater civility the basis for our political interactions will increase civility throughout society, with who-knows-what now-unimaginable improvements in all our interactions.


Second is attending to the presidency as a bully pulpit. A Biden Administration will immediately have to take action to bring an end to the coronavirus epidemic. That will require presenting the American people with a workable plan, then leading vigorously to carry it out. Scientific expertise should rule, of course, along with providing the essential resources and complete transparency in action. Meanwhile, the president must work to show the nation how climate change is threatening our future, why reliance on fossil fuels must be phased out, and what we can do to educate the work force needed as the result of the on-going changes in our economic life. A Biden plan for health care can only calm the waters stilll roiling the Affordable Care Act once large numbers of Republicans as well as Democrats are persuaded of its value. That requires a willingness to listen, cooperate, and find essential compromises.


Third, a Presisdent Biden must acknowledge the value that our friends and allies bring to the success of the American experiment. This means reassuming a leadership role in the world by articulating a vision of a future where responsibilities are shared, and the inevitable limits to our power are acknowledged and accepted. We should speak and act clearly in support of multilateral efforts to maintain the peace, improve the economic well-being of humankind and protect its rights. A Biden Administration will not have been called upon to play the role of world hegemon, but to lead by example. It should pursue the rule of law in the world by placing its military might in service to that goal.


This is the merest sketch of my dream. My vision is one in which the United States is guided both at home and abroad by its founding principles. It sees America as once more a beacon to the world, seeking cooperation in its domestic politics and internationally. It wants no posturing or swaggering, but a steady, even modest, stance on the part of our nation's leaders. Yet the kind of modesty I picture here, built on a new-found deference to what we used to regard as our finest values, could eventually result in the most radical shift for a nation that in recent years has lost sight of them. Think of it as the revolution to rebuild our foundation by restoring our first principles. 


Tell me that I'm not dreaming still!


                                                 (November 2020)





Our Imminent Constitutional Crisis


Last January, weeks before President Trump was acquitted by the Senate's Republican majority in his impeachment trial, I pointed out in this space that the man was the worst demagogue ever to occupy the White House. The months since have only increased our awareness of that charge, the alarm bells now ringing louder than ever.


Trump. of course, continues to lie about all things regarding Joe Biden and the Democrats' agenda for the nation. But recently, he has also made clear that he has no intention of conceding the election should he lose, because, he insists, that can only come about if the Democrats cheat at the polls. His big lie is to assert that they will flood the system with massive amounts of fraudulent ballots. Since far more Americans will vote by mail this year than ever before, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it is now clear that the counting of ballots will extend well past election day. Many pundits expect that, if the outcome is close, the count on election night may favor Trump, since far more Democrats than Republicans will vote by mail, which will take longer to count. That would give the president all the ammunition he'd need to cry "foul" if the post-election vote count is extended and goes against him.


At that point, most bets are off. Trump himself has said he then would likely appeal to the Supreme Court. Since his ultra-conservative nominee to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg will presumably be confirmed by then, he might expect its conservative majority (which at that point would include three of his own appointees) to look kindly on his appeal. Whatever the outcome, the Court would once again, as in 2000, determine the nation's ultimate political contest, the presidency itself. That is not a role anyone should wish on the Court.


But other, even messier scenarios may be more likely in the event of a close election. In states such as Pennsylvania, if the popular vote should produce only a razor-thin victory for Biden, the Republican majority in the state legislature might then decide to determine the list of electors, thereby ensuring the commonwealth would go for Trump. If several states engaged in such controversial--but arguably legal--actions, the resulting challenges could produce an electoral stalemate that would send the election to the U.S. House of Representatives. There, every state has a single vote, which gives equal weight to the least populous Wyoming and most populous California, even though the latter has almost 70 times as many residents (40 million) as the former (577 thousand). How would that be for an outcome not reflecting the democratic ideal of one person, one vote?


The bottom line is that the life of the U.S. Constitution has always depended on the assumption that all the key players in the nation accept its authority and play by the rules it sets out. That includes the expectation that those who lose elections will concede defeat and yield power to the winners. Almost everything about Donald Trump's presidency has brought unprecedented, norm-breaking behavior from the White House. That now includes the likelihood that Trump will refuse to play by the electoral rules that have governed this nation for 233 years. If, when they come, such moves are not opposed by huge numbers of Americans--Republican, Democrat, and independent--the result could be the demise of our Constitution and the end of our republic.                         


                                                      (October 2020)





Knocked Off Their Pedestals?


Among the upheavals in our lives these past months has been the widespread attack on public monuments honoring important figures from our nation's past. Statues of Confederate leaders have been obvious targets, since these were mainly raised, years after the South's defeat in the Civil War, to try to portray as a noble cause a rebellion that tore the nation in two over the secessionists' effort to maintain chattel slavery. Because Philadelphia remained firmly in the Union throughout that conflict, it never was home to Confederate monuments, although the city did name a street for Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, who wrote the majority opinion in the 1857 Dred Scott case which helped trigger the Civil War. That dre(a)dful decision maintained that African-Americans were not citizens and that Congress did not have the authority to prohibit slavery in U.S. territories. The killing of George Floyd last May prompted new efforts to rename Taney Street, as well as the Columbus Boulevard section of Delaware Avenue through center city.


Yes, Columbus has been honored since the beginning of our republic for having "discovered" America, never mind that millions of indigenous people had discovered and settled these lands several millennia before Columbus first came ashore in the Caribbean in 1492. The view of European settlers since Columbus's own time has generally assumed that it was they and their forebears who brought civilization to the hemisphere. They conveniently overlooked the uncomfortable fact that Columbus behaved brutally toward the native people he encountered. He murdered and enslaved them, sending hundreds back to Spain in chains. In the process, he and his contemporary conquistadores nearly eradicated those they didn't slaughter as the result of the new diseases they brought with them from Europe.


Not until the late 19th century did honoring Columbus become connected to honoring Italian immigrants to America. (That is itself a bit ironic when you consider that Columbus, though a Genoan by birth, worked for the Spanish crown, making Spain the leading colonial power throughout much of the New World.) Philadelphia's statue of Columbus was dedicated at the Centennial Exposition on October 12, 1876--what came to be called Columbus Day--in the city's Fairmount Park. Exactly one hundred years later, it was relocated to Marconi Plaza on South Broad Street. While that put it in the heart of a traditionally Italian neighborhood, it also marked a demotion of sorts, one that recognized growing opposition to keeping this figure in the heart of the American pantheon of heroes. In our recent summer of discontent, opponents and defenders of the Columbus legacy clashed repeatedly near the statue, which then was boarded up by the city for its own protection. Now, both Philadelphia's Historical and its Arts Commission have voted to remove the statue and relocate it to private property, a resolution still pending as of today.


This episode should remind us all of how our views of historical figures can shift, often radically, over time. One generation's hero may well be another's villain as the result of changing mores and new knowledge. Today we recognize chattel slavery as abominable, so is it our obligation now to remove every monument in America to those very founding fathers who were slave-holders? Few of us would want to erase every tribute to Washington, Jefferson, and Madison.


Wisdom on this subject surely must start by acknowledging that all our "heroes"--like every other mortal ever born--contained flaws in their behavior that require us to assess the whole of their character. Surely it is possible to salute the good they did while opposing the bad, including the bad that was driven by values that grew out of a time very different from our own. Jefferson remains a hero for me because of the greatness of his ideas for our political life which, I would like to think, guide us still. He seems never to have been a cruel man, even to his slaves. That is what redeems his character in my eyes even while I abhor his views on race.


So, make your own assessment of Columbus and the others. Will we be judged by our descendants for allowing racial inequality still to stand? threatening others with weapons of mass destruction? destroying the earth's environment?


If we don't judge ourselves, those who follow us will.


                                                        (September 2020)





A Vision for Our Post-Viral World


We Americans and much of the rest of the world are still in the grip of two pandemics, one caused by the coronavirus and the other by the ravages of Donald Trump. While the first may come under control with development of an effective vaccine, hope is growing that a cure for the Trumpian plague may begin with the November election. I embrace that hope with some modest suggestions for what the political life of the planet post-Trump might look like.


Under Trump's presidency, the U.S. has largely abandoned its role as the global leader in social and economic development and the management of conflict world-wde.Trump's withdrawals from the Paris climate accord, the plan to forestall Iran's development of nuclear weapons, and the World Health Organization are clear examples. But so are his generalized snubbing of NATO allies, disdain for the European Union, admiration for autocrats, and his trade war.


No doubt, a President Biden would work to reverse many of these moves, as his campaign slogan,"Build Back Better," suggests. Here's some of what that might look like. 


First and foremost, his administration should recognize that the era of American hegemony pre-Trump will not return. The U.S. now should lead by persuading others that it will join with them to tackle issues in which we all have an interest in positive change. Breathing cleaner air is an obvious example. Making that happen need not depend entirely on the formal commitments of large numbers of states. We can take initiatives on our own by phasing out reliance on fossil fuels and encouraging renewables. That will both encourage others to follow our lead and bring increasing pressure to bear on those who don't move in that direction.


If we can replace Trump's "America First" with a re-acknowledgment that the aspirations of societies around the globe are worthy as well, we can begin to undercut the appeal of today's nationalists, now riding high from Hungary and Turkey to the Philippines and Brazil. Rolling back recent tariffs is one place to start. But more generally, we can encourage regional actors to solve regional issues so that their shared interests are recognized. The new African Union Peace and Security Council is one example, for it has begun to develop standby forces that can be deployed to prevent a conflict on that continent from escalating. 


Recently, the European Union did something unprecedented. It responded to the dire economic needs of a number of its members, thanks to the Covid-19 crisis, with a bigger move toward integration than had been possible before. That is, all members accepted common debt and expenditure, even the possibility of common taxation. As members increasingly acknowledge their common future in this way, that vision should reinvigorate democratic norms and begin to reverse the illiberalism now evident in several member states.


The United States should again lead in the effort to reinvigorate global trade and development. Much of our globalized economic life in recent decades has produced greater inequality, with corporate heads growing ever richer while their workers around the world remain mired in poverty. The next administration can begin to correct that through revised tax laws and greater insistence on worker protection abroad, using that as the counterweight to the removal of trade restrictions. Freer markets, after all, are meant to bring economic benefits to larger and larger numbers of people, not only the enrichment of the few.


This little sketch of some of what ought to be is built entirely on my view that the United States must once again become the exemplary nation. We were pretty much that not so long ago. Now, if we are to lead the world, we must address our own shortcomings--regarding race and inequality at home, and our abandonment of multilateralism abroad. To the extent we succeed, we will be emulated, if not by all other governments, increasing numbers of them. It is through our ideals and our example that we and the people of the world will prevail.


                                                                  (August 2020)





Depressing Lessons from American History


Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May, America has experienced protests calling for police reform and greater justice for black and brown Americans such as we haven't witnessed in half a century. I was a young adult in the 1960s, and can attest to how that era resonates with the present. After sit-ins, marches, violence and demagoguery, we got the voting rights act of 1964 and the end to Jim Crow laws throughout the South--but we also got the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. We don't yet know what, if any, progressive change will come from today's demonstrations or if terrible backlash will follow. I write at a moment when Congress, as is usual these days, is deadlocked on producing any significant reforms that could ensure equal justice for all Americans. 


But here's what's alost more disturbing today than what we saw in the course of our social upheaval fifty years ago. We are now led by a president who is doing all he can to exacerbate our social cleavages rather than trying to bring us together. He's made himself the leader of today's backlash.


Not even Richard Nixon, with his law-and-order mantra, came close to matching the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump. "Law and order" is too tame for him; he brands demonstrators as radicals, anarchists, looters, and enemies. He makes clear that he applies those epithets to any and all who might support Joe Biden and the Democrats next November. Trump's world, as always, is divided between his friends versus his enemies, and he's making ever clearer that among the latter are huge swaths of the very Americans he was elected to govern. 


Our president seems actually to want to recreate the divided America that led us to the Civil War. In the 1850s in Philadelphia alone, African American men not only were denied the right to vote, they were sometimes caught by slave hunters and spirited off to the South to be sold into slavery. Meetings of abolitionists were attacked, and their meeting places burned, by mobs bent on keeping blacks from enjoying equal citizenship. Populist, nativist, and pro-slavery parties all were agitating to keep America white, Protestant, and free from the control of the "establishment" forces they opposed.


The issues today aren't identical, though they certainly chime with those that led to the Civil War. What is most frighteningly different is that today the president of the United States seems determined to deepen our divisions rather than try to bridge them. Presidents in the 1850s--Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan--both failed to resolve the issues that were tearing the nation apart, but neither man worked actively, as does Trump, to create and lead a culture war. If American society is not yet as badly divided as was the United States on the eve of the 1860 election, that is no thanks to President Trump. He still has four months to drive the nation toward the precipice. 


What looms over us now is the question of what action Trump will take if--as the polls now suggest will happen--he is defeated by Biden on November 3. It's hard to imagine that he will simply pack his bags and quietly leave the White House, as the Democrat Buchanan did when Republican Lincoln was inaugurated. He may challenge the vote's legitimacy, rallying his supporters to join him to prevent the normal, peaceful transition of power from one elected president to the next. That could well become the opening scene in a 21st-century civil war.


                                                                  (July 2020)




America's Presidemic


In the last week of May, the United States officially passed the milestone of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19. Our nation, with less than four percent of the globe's population, had one-quarter of the world's known cases, more than any other country on earth. But, President Trump, instead of leading a moment of national mourning--the kind of presidential gesture that used to be standard for occupants of the oval office--responded by withdrawing all assistance to the World Health Organization, a key player in the effort to halt the pandemic, falsely claiming that the WHO was in China's pocket. At about the same time, he also accused his predecessor of unspecified crimes and concocted a murder charge against a cable news host.


Long buried is the childish hope of some when Trump was elected that the office would remold him and make him "presidential," as had happened for most of his predecessors. But Donald Trump has never had any concept of what it means to be presidential. Now all the world knows that he is constitutionally incapable of behaving except as a man forever pitted in a contest, and one with an unworthy opponent.


However badly he bungled the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic, it is not the kind of crisis best addressed by pugilistic words and actions. That opportunity came, only days after the coronavirus milestone for the US, when protests and rioting broke out across the country following the murder by suffocation of a black man on a street in Minneapolis, an event that all the world witnessed. As protests and demonstrations grew, here was a crisis ready-made for a Trumpian response. 


"When the looting starts, the shooting starts," Trump tweeted in an apparent call for violence as his initial reaction to the unrest in Minneapolis. Over the next two or three days, when protests spread, he retweeted the video of a supporter saying "the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat." He backed that up with the charge that "Liberal Governors and Mayors" needed to get MUCH tougher on protesters" or he would unleash "the unlimited power of our military" againt them. When CNN headquarters in Atlanta were attacked by demonstrators, his message was that the cable company "is being attacked by the very riots they promoted as noble and just." He doubled down on some of his favorite adversaries when the unrest grew: "Much more 'disinformation' coming out of CNN, MSNBC, @nytimes and @washington post by far, than coming out of any foreign country, even combined. Fake news is the Enemy of the People!"


No, the real enemy of a people who are trying to maintain and improve their democracy is the divisive rhetoric and behavior of their purported leader. From our perspective nearly a week after the murder of George Floyd, it is becoming frighteningly clear that the unrest it has triggered across the country is playing directly into Trump's hands. It gives him an unmatched opportunity to play his us-versus-them brand of politics. When the president of the United States stokes the flames of division, more logs are thrown on the fires of our polarization. What began as sympathy for the cause of greater justice for African Americans is on the way to being overwhelmed by the revulsion good citizens naturally feel for lawless destruction and looting. The president is doing his best to conflate the righteous demands of peaceful protestors with the lawlessness of the looters. To the extent that he succeeds, we will again see demands for justice put off until another time.


Meanwhile, Donald Trump will have led America ever farther down the road to dystopia.


                                                                        (June 2020)





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 can do about it.


Our situation reminds me of another era. For some 250 years, chattel slavery in the American south was the backbone for a way of life that looked essential to those who reaped its fruits. The planter economy that dominated the region was sustained on the backs of enslaved laborers who, like draft animals on these farms, received no wages and no freedom to make choices governing their own lives. Of course, there were some among free white citizens who deplored the slavery system, but, like many would-be environmentalists today, they no doubt thought that, if they opposed it, the only civilization they knew would come tumbling down.


So it was that, when the successful challenge to slavery did come, it was driven largely by unmatchable force from "outside," i.e., from erstwhile fellow-countrymen whose own livelihoods were not dependent on maintaining the slave system. The pre-industrial society of the South was destroyed by the more dynamic economic model of the North, one that had no need or place for chattel slavery. Only then did nearly every American agree that slavery was and is immoral. Today we are critical of those otherwise sterling founders of our nation, such as Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, for participating in such a system. Yes, they deserve our criticism, but we also need to remember that, like us today, they were the pawns of a system they thought they couldn't change. If they were guilty, so are we. Our perpetuation of a civilization built on fossil fuels is this era's equivalent of maintaining slavery in America before the Civil War.


We now must recognize that it's immoral to rely on these energy sources to keep things humming. Increasingly, the younger generation is doing just that. They are today's abolitionists, shaming their elders for turning a blind eye to how we are still poisoning the only home we're leaving them. Now the question is whether shaming today's "mature" generations will actually turn the tide before it's too late. Make no mistake, time is running out. I can't imagine a worse calamity for humankind than for its tale to end, not in a record of unimaginable accomplishments, but as one that ultimately made it impossible for its own species to survive and thrive on the planet. 


In 1800, you willingly bought the cotton goods manufactured on the backs of slave laborers. Today, you happily drive an SUV whose internal combustion engine and what it produces is killing our planet. Will our 21st century moral dilemma end in finally abolishing the fuels that are killling our planet, or in its death and that of all humanity?


                                                                    (May 2020)





My Front Yard in a Time of Crisis


For many years, I've lived in a high-rise building facing Washington Square, one of five that William Penn drew on his plan for Philadelphia in the 1680s. I've been reminded as never before in this time of the COVID-19 crisis how this little park is serving once again as a place of refuge. That is a role it has played over the course of three-plus centuries, although that seldom occurs to me in "normal" times. But in recent weeks, people have been congregating there in what seems to be an inverse relationship to the social restrictions on their lives. Some of this can be accounted for by pleasure in watching springtime renew the park. But a visit to the square also relieves the tedium of self-isolation at home, allowing for fresh air and exercise while maintaining social distancing in the heart of the city.


For a century and more after Philadelphia was founded, this plot was simply undeveloped land, left to nature. It served as a potters' field and burial ground for soldiers from both sides during the Revolutionary War. In 1793, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital, George Washington was living a block away in his second term as president. In August of that year, yellow fever came to the city from a ship docked in the Delaware River. The president and his household soon fled to the relative safety of Germantown, just as most other well-off citizens also moved out of the city. That first great epidemic in the new nation only subsided months later after killing up to 5,000 residents, or ten percent of the city's population at the time. The bodies of some of the victims joined those of the soldiers who were buried in trenches along the perimeters of the square.


In the 1820s, Washington Square was landscaped (and named for our first president) in the general configuration visible today. It remained an attractive oasis while the city thrived and grew. But by the last years of the 20th century, Philadelphia's parks budget wasn't sufficient to keep our green space from looking ever more bedraggled. Then, in 2005, Philadelphia gave the National Park Service (NPS) the responsibility to maintain our patch of Penn's heritage, bringing it under the control--though not the ownership--of the adjacent Independence National Historical Park. We've seen improvements ever since. The current need for respite there has happily occurred at just the time its caretakers have been enhancing its beauties. Late last winter, the NPS engaged in major pruning of the square's trees. A remarkable group of neighborhood volunteers maintains and improves the park's plantings in cooperation with the NPS. Well-tended flower beds are now bursting with colorful blossoms.


After World War II, our Society Hill neighborhood began to be rejuvenated, so that it soon became one of the city's premier residential quarters, just as it had been a century and more earlier. Washington Square got a makeover when the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers of the Revolutionary War was created there in the 1950s. The monument features the life-size statue of George Washington by the great 18th-century sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, who in 1785 traveled from Paris to Mt. Vernon at the behest of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to create this likeness of the future president (this bronze copy was cast from the marble original, which stands in the Virginia statehouse in Richmond).


The tomb's solemn presence has helped make Washington Square a place more for quiet reflection than boisterous games. Today, more than ever, it is a beautiful and spiritually uplifting oasis. How reassuring it is to see that this treasure still endures, serving us through a time of upheaval just as it has for centuries!


                                                               (April 2020)






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.


                                                                     (March 2020)





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.


                                                              (February 2020)





A Republic, If We Can Keep It


Living, as I do, in a high-rise building a block away from Independence Hall, I can look down on that birthplace of our republic whenever I like. It's always a reassuring reminder of how two seminal gatherings there produced plans for the nation that have guided us ever since.


The nation's founders viewed tyranny as especially dangerous, often the destroyer of republics throughout history. So they gave checks and balances to the three branches of government. In Federalist No. 1, Alexander Hamilton put it this way: " . . . of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants." That explains why the founders included the power of impeachment, so that a demagogue might be removed from the presidency before the republic had succumbed completely to a state of tyranny. That is also why they thought it insufficient to allow such a person to remain as president for the voters to judge at the next election. Because demagogues by definition play on popular emotion and prejudice for support, their tyranny may be confirmed rather than thwarted at the ballot box.


Now the greatest demagogue ever to claim the presidency has been impeached. But we also face the likelihood that he will be acquitted by the Republican majority in the Senate. That will then leave it to the voters in November to decide whether he shall remain in office for a second term. Meanwhile, we can surely not expect an end to Trump's outraged and outrageous tweets, his personal attacks and lies, i.e., his demagoguery. We can continue to hope that we have not moved so far down the path toward tyranny that he will be re-elected in November. Opinion polls do show that only a minority of the electorate supports him.


But there is a catch, one also written into the bedrock of our Constitution. That's the Electoral College, which is what made Trump president in 2016 in spite of losing the popular vote. It may have seemed smart to the men who worked all this out in 1787 to provide for educated--or at least not illiterate--electors in every state to act as an election filter, since not all the (white, male) citizens with the right to vote presumably had enough information about the candidates or understanding of the issues to cast their votes intelligently. But the best that could be said for the anti-democratic Electoral College until the start of our century was that it typically confirmed the popular vote. Only three times, in 1824, 1876, and 1888, did the electoral vote not go to the presidential candidate who had also won the popular vote.


Yet now that's happened twice again in only the past five election cycles, starting in 2000. The same arithmetic that gave Trump the Electoral College vote in 2016 will be at work again this year. His advantage lies in the largely rural and less populated states that are favored by their over-representation in the Senate and the under-representation of urban areas where votes pile up for electors who represent far more people than do their counterparts in less populated states. Here the nightmare prospect is the possibility that the 2020 election could produce an Electoral College tie. That would trigger the constitutional requirement for the election to be decided by the House of Representatives. Then matters could truly take a bizarre turn, for every state would have just one vote. Alaska's would equal that of California, which has more than fifty times as many people and eighteen times as many electoral votes.


Who would then give a shout-out for the good sense of our founders?


                                                               (January 2020)





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.


                                                      (December, 2019)






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.


                                                         (November 2019)





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. 


                                                             (October 2019)