Will the Ground Game Help the Democrats?

voterturnout

As a football fan I believe very much in having a strong ground game.  I’ve always thought games are won or lost by the offensive line.  Yes, Super Bowl champions also need good skill players, the line can’t do it alone.  But the ability to control time of possession and keep the other team’s offense off the field can provide a real advantage late in the game when players tire.

It is with that in mind that I consider a New York Times article which notes that Democrats are spending far more than Republicans on their ground game – early voting, voter registration, absentee voting and of course election day get out the vote efforts.  Republicans are focusing media, especially television ads.

As a social scientist, I find this an interesting test.  The Democrats have always been hurt in the midterms because their voters are less likely to vote than Republicans.   In Presidential elections the turn out is good, but it drops off dramatically in the midterms.

turnoutmidterm

So the Democrats are placing a bet.   They believe that if they invest heavily in their ground game, they’ll alter the election dynamic and fare much better than polls anticipate.  Pollsters show very tight races in at least ten Senate contests.   If the Democratic get out the vote effort changes the usual voting pattern, Democrats might out perform poll expectations.  The polls weight their results based on anticipated voter turnout, after all.  Democrats are trying to change that dynamic.

Consider: young voters tend to vote Democratic.  In 2008 youth turnout (18 and 19 year olds) was 51%.  In 2010 it dropped to 20%.   Voter turnout was back up in 2012.  If you expand the age to 18-29, Obama won with 60% of that vote.  If those voters stay home in 2014, the Republicans will have a very good year.

raceturnout

The same is true when it comes to race; voter turnout among blacks surpassed white turnout in 2012 for the first time.  Youth and black voters were a major reason Obama won handily.  If the voter demographics were the same as they had been in 1980, Romney would have won a landslide victory.   Yet those voters tend not to vote in midterms.  This gives the GOP an advantage, and helps explain the discrepancy between the 2010 and 2012 elections.

voter turnout

So the Democrats are trying to wage a different form of midterm fight.  Rather than trying to win votes (i.e., market share) by advertising heavily and hoping to convince voters (consumers) that their brand is best, they’re putting money into trying to get new customers into the market with more contact on the ground.

Will it work?  It’s probably a better strategy than simply matching the Republican ad blitz.  It’s not clear how persuasive campaign ads are to swing voters, most people have made their minds up.

Consider the South Dakota race.   Despite being outspent by 13 to 1, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler, running now as an independent, has surged to 25% in the polls, becoming a real factor.   While one can attribute this climb to skillful media use, name recognition and dissatisfaction with the gridlock in Washington, clearly media spending is NOT the reason he rose in the polls.

So this is an interesting test.   The GOP is focusing on the air waves, the Democrats on getting out the vote.    If the Democrats out perform polls and do better than expected in key races, that will be strong evidence that emphasis on the ground game pays off.  If not, well, the Democrats need to find a good QB for 2016!

 

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The power of Laura Ingalls Wilder

lauraingalls

I’m getting to do one thing I always dreamed of doing as a father – I am reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder book series to my son.  We are on “Little House on the Prairie,” the second book of the series, and every time I re-read it as an adult I am ever more taken by her story.   If I were asked which historical figure I’d like to meet and sit down and talk with, she’d be my first choice (Sophie Scholl would be the second).

When we read the chapter on Christmas my son was shocked that she and Mary were thrilled to each get a candy cane, a little heart shaped cake, a tin cup and a penny for Christmas.   As the Indian Jamboree took place with war cries as the tribes considered killing all the white people that settled on the land (including Laura and her family), my son was riveted – and asking questions.

That adds something that makes the experience even more enjoyable – his questions give me a chance to teach him more about history and life values.   What’s a stockade?  Who are the Osage?  Why are the starting a new fire close to the house when they’re being threatened by a big fire coming at them?

A pioneer family, part of the original De Smet, SD settlement.  Standing: Carrie, Laura, and Grace.  Seated: Caroline (Ma), Charles (Pa) and Mary.

A pioneer family, part of the original De Smet, SD settlement. Standing: Carrie, Laura, and Grace. Seated: Caroline (Ma), Charles (Pa) and Mary.

To be sure, children’s books simplify a lot, and sometimes I hesitated reading – such as when Mrs. Scott says “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  Yet that was the mentality at the time, and just as I drove the kids through the Pine Ridge Indian reservation back in 2012 to show them the poverty of the natives of the South Dakota plains, it’s easier to teach values when you aren’t afraid of the truth.

And ultimately, though Ma would also say nasty things about Indians, the man Laura clearly admired most, her Pa, refused to go along with such talk.   So we discuss why Pa sees Indians more benevolently than the others.    His first reaction – the others are afraid of them.  Fear.  How is fear connected to hate?   And so on.

Their life on the prairie was difficult.  On the trip down to Kansas they could have easily been killed many times, alone in a covered wagon going through the prairie, crossing rivers, and having only what they could carry.  Nowadays such behavior would be criticized for endangering children.   “Why doesn’t he just stay in Pepin and not subject his girls to such threats?  Why take little girls illegally into Indian territory?”

Laura and her husband Almanzo

Laura and her husband Almanzo

But the risks now are different.  Our children are more likely to die in automobile accidents, or to suffer obesity and even childhood diabetes.  In Laura’s time diabetes was primarily genetic — and Laura like her sisters ended up dying due to complications from diabetes.  That was in 1957 when she was 90, so otherwise she lived a long healthy life!

As I go through these books I look forward to discussing everything from churning butter to how they barely survived the legendary winter of 1880-81.   Her stories are powerful in the way they convey the joy of family life despite hardship and often real poverty.

I grew up in South Dakota, and the latter books describe how her family helped found De Smet, a town 100 miles northwest of Sioux Falls.  We’re traveling out there next summer to visit my family, and I look forward to talking about South Dakota history – and the lessons and values one can learn reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recollections of her childhood.

Laura and Almanzo in 1940 -- Laura would live until 1957

Laura and Almanzo in 1940 — Laura would live until 1957

Tonight we’ll probably finish book two, Little House on the Prairie.  Then we’ll head up to Minnesota for On the Banks of Plum Creek.  It’s also not far to Walnut Grove, perhaps we’ll make a trek next summer there and to De Smet, and see the places the book describes.   One thing we won’t do is watch the old TV show.   It’s nothing like the books and frankly I can’t stomach it – I’m too much of a Laura Ingalls purist!

When I was eight I started saving up my allowances to buy those books.  My third grade teacher read the first ones in class, but didn’t get beyond Farmer Boy (about Almanzo’s childhood).  So my first purchased book was On the Banks of Plum Creek, and I will read to my eight year old son from that book I bought with my allowance.  As I read I realize how deep the impression those books made on me at a young age, and how my values were shaped in part by Laura’s books.

I hold those books and think of me at 8 and 9 riding my bike to “Courtney’s Books and Things” in Sioux Falls (it’s no longer there) and adding to my collection.  The workers there recognized me and were always delighted when I made a new purchase.  As I sit next to my son reading, my eight year old self is there in spirit.

 

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I Say ISIS You Say ISIL…

ISIS atrocities make it imperative the world respond

ISIS atrocities make it imperative the world respond

ISIS or ISIL?   It’s really a question of translation.   The borders of Arab states are for the most part artificial – that’s why Kurds reside in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and why Iraq is divided between Sunni and Shi’a.  It’s why there even is a Kuwait (the British figured a small state with lots of oil would need British protection and thus be loyal).

The Levant is a term given by the Europeans back in the 1500s for a geographic region that includes Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and some of southern Turkey.   The word comes from a French word meaning “rising” – the sun rises in the land of the East.   ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is one way to translate “al-Sham,” which the Arabs also use to describe a broader set of territory than just the state of Syria.

Practically, however, it’s fair game to translate it as “Syria” or “levant.”  Levant is not a direct Arab translation, and the group operates only in Syria and Iraq.   Its ambitions may be broader, but its reach is not.   Of course, one might eschew both ISIS and ISIL.   The French go for Daesh, which is from the Arabic acronym – not translating the Arab words and taking it from the official name of the group, Al Dawla al-Islamyia fil Iraq wa’al Sham.   That could also give us Daish.

ISIS controlled areas in blood red

ISIS controlled areas in blood red

Daish has the benefit of not saying Islamic – most Muslims are offended by that group using the term.  On 60 Minutes tonight King Abdullah of Jordan was indignant – there is nothing Islamic about what they are doing.   Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested calling it the Un-Islamic state.

Is it a state?   At one level it is a more effective state than many third world governments.  It collects taxes, sells oil (at cut rate prices), sells other items (including women to be slaves) and earns $6 million a day, making it self-sufficient.  It controls a large area of territory within Iraq and Syria.

On the other hand, the community of states haven’t granted it sovereignty, and are not likely to.  Moreover, they will fail – there is no way for them to sustain this if the international community and Arab world bands against them.  Most Arabs do not practice Salafism, their form of Islam.  That suggests going back to live the way the Umma did in Yathrib/Medina back in 630 AD.   That doesn’t mean eschewing technology – they are very proficient at using technology against the modern world – but that in tradition and rules, they want to turn the clock back 1400 years.

Those who say we should have supported Mubarak don't understand the demographic change taking place as a large youth population come of age in the Arab world.  The old dictatorial regimes cannot last.

Those who say we should have supported Mubarak don’t understand the demographic change taking place as a large youth population come of age in the Arab world. The old dictatorial regimes cannot last.

That is NOT something most young people in the Arab world want.  And while people can point to examples of people in the West and elsewhere joining ISIS, it’s still a tiny minority.  Even the people in Syria and Iraq under their control help them out of fear rather than conviction.  This is a criminal gang that functions through raw fear, and the conviction that they’ll scare away any opposition and thus win.  They can’t win the hearts and minds of the Islamic world, but they might make them cower into submission.

Right now, the international community is waking up.   Arms are flowing from Europe and the US to ISIS enemies, and it’s possible this might finally bring the US and Iran together in a constructive way.  Iraq’s notoriously incompetent Prime Minister al-Malaki has been forced out.  His anti-Sunni bully government is one reason why Iraq squandered the chance the US gave them to succeed.   Haider al-Albadi promies to unify Iraqis, and Sunnis who realize their faith is not the same as the Salafist extremists (and who themselves are terrorized) are likely to embrace Iraqi rather than ISIS unity.

The answer is not US ground troops - they are one reason ISIS emerged as it did!  It can't be a US war.  It must be multi-national.

The answer is not US ground troops – they are one reason ISIS emerged as it did! It can’t be a US war. It must be multi-national.

I use ISIS because I think we’re better off with the jargon of the current state system, and it’s practically correct.  ISIS is only strong in Iraq and Syria.   But ISIS, ISIL, Daesh, or Daish…it’s all the same.

Fear mongers want to make ISIS larger than life, and somehow insinuate that massive numbers of Muslims are supporting them.  Bullshit.   Those fearmongers want to demonize Islam and their imaginative life is stimulated by fantasies of super powerful enemies.  It’s dramatic and some people want something to hate and fear.   The reality is that ISIS is an opportunity.  Moderate Arabs, the Iranians, and the West can unite to help overthrow the neanderthals and continue the progress started in the Arab Spring.

This is a process of modernization and transformation.  It took Europe 300 years to change, the Arab world is changing much more quickly.  Yet there is a kind of poetic justice to this.  Back when the Islamic world was more tolerant than the Christian world, Islamic rationalist scholars and Islamic knowledge from Spain started the process that would lead to the renaissance, the enlightenment and ultimately modernism.  The West owes a debt to the Islamic world for keeping Greek and Roman knowledge alive, and helping ignite the cultural development of the West.

Now it’s our turn to return the favor.

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The Venetian Republic, 697-1797

venice

The last western Roman Emperor was deposed in 476.  The Italian peninsula was in ruin – barbarian tribes were attacking what was left of the old imperial glory, and soon the knowledge and order of Rome gave way to the dark ages, as politics throughout Europe became exceedingly local, with custom and tradition defining social life.  With the church embracing Augustine’s other-worldly theology (this world has no value, it can only tempt you – eschew the things of the world and focus on preparing for the afterlife), progress stopped.

Venice was different.  As Rome fell, a group seeking safety decided that the sand dunes around what is now Venice could make it a defensible city, and keep out the barbarians.  They took wood and piled it up in the lagoon, literally creating islands!  Wood does not decay as quickly under water, and wood from that era was much stronger than today.  Without so much carbon in the atmosphere the rings of trees are tighter – that wooden foundation still holds Venice up today.

Fitting that the last western Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus - Romulus was the name of Rome's mythical founder, Augustus was the man who began imperial rule.

Fitting that the last western Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus – Romulus was the name of Rome’s mythical founder, Augustus was the man who began imperial rule.

Early on they fished and focused simply on creating a sustainable life style.   They recognized the authority of the Byzantine Empire to the East.  Rome had split into East and West, as Emperor Constantine created the city of Constantinople to rule the East.    For a time it kept the Roman heritage alive, and could provide Venice protection.   For the ensuing centuries Venice couldn’t really be called Italian – they focused on the East and stayed out of Italian political life.

Politically, the Venetians created one of the most successful Republics in history.   In 697 they elected their first Doge, who would be the symbolic leader.  The Venetian Republic would last 1100 years, and be dynamic for most of that time.   It’s decline would start in the 1400s but even in decline Venice would remain stable and prosperous.

Their political system was complex.  Up until 1297 nobility was something that came with wealth – if you were a successful merchant, you could be in the Venetian ruling class.  The system had what we would call checks and balances to guard against any group getting too much power.  The Doge was “first among equals” and had very limited power.

The onion domes at San Marco show the Byzantine influence on Venice

The onion domes at San Marco show the Byzantine influence on Venice

The rise of Venice as a true power started with the first crusade of 1095.   Although we tend to see the crusades in primarily religious terms, and certainly religion was the rationale provided, it was also political.  Europeans had been fighting the Vikings and other groups for centuries.  By the eleventh century things had stabilized and they needed something for their warrior class to do – expansion to the east was natural.  Venice would transport troops and material for the crusade, and bring back goods to sell.   Quickly they became exceedingly wealthy and their influence grew.

The Serrata of 1297 altered the Republic by preventing anyone new from joining the Venetian Great Council.  Nobility was now by birth, ending the centuries of having a ruling class that was chosen by a kind of entrepreneurial meritocracy.  However, the nobility knew that they could not lose the loyalty of the rest of the merchant class, so they created the cittadini originari which gave those who might begrudge the new nobility certain rights and powers.  Various workers had their own status, as well as political roles.  It worked.

What Venice managed to do was to create a system with virtually no political dissent.   They did this by institutionalizing decision making in a manner that kept everyone with the same goal: protect and enhance Venetian prosperity.  Differences of opinion were worked out peacefully, almost invisibly.

The dark red was original Venice, lighter red is territory they acquired.  Pink they held temporarily.  Yellow routes, and light yellow shade is where Venice dominated trade in the 1300s

The dark red was original Venice, lighter red is territory they acquired. Pink they held temporarily. Yellow routes, and light yellow shade is where Venice dominated trade in 1500

This gave them the capacity to defeat Genoa in 1381, becoming for awhile the dominant force in European international trade.  Venice was at the height of its power, but faced a new problem.   The Byzantine empire, which was a buffer from the power of the Islamic world, was in rapid decline.   The Ottoman Empire emerged as a real threat.  At that point Venice truly became Italian, and in the 1400s built the Terrafirma empire which stretched almost to Milan.

Alas, this led to rivalry with other Italian powers, and in 1509 Venice was defeated at Agnadello.  If not for the Pope, who wanted Venice to remain a buffer preventing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Italy, the city might have been taken and the Republic would have ended.  As it was, it would last almost 300 more years.

Venetian power was in decline, however.   Their defeat at Agnadello combined with the expansion of the Ottomans to eat away at Venice’s trade dominance.   When Portugal managed to get around the cape of Africa, states on the Atlantic coast rose in trade power.  It’s a credit to the Venetian Republican system that it could endure all that without creating bitter rivalries.  Other cities like Genoa and Florence were weakened by internal power structures, Venice was not.

Italia2011 042

In some ways, Venetian history is more impressive than that of the Roman Empire.  They remained a republic (albeit an oligarchic one), and except for the relatively small terrafirma, focused on making profit rather than expanding territory.  Imperial Rome was constantly riveted by civil war and power struggles – Venice had a kind of unity of purpose that is rare.

As a political scientist I ponder what they got right, and if there are lessons we can learn.   More on that soon; those who may join us on the May term trip to Italy, think of the rich, wonderful history we’ll encounter.  Venice is so much more than beautiful canals and narrow alleys.

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Hadrian’s Rome

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian was Rome’s Emperor from 117-138.  This was a fateful time for the Roman Empire.  His predecessor Trajan ruled from 98-117, and was declared by the Roman Senate Optimus Princeps, the greatest leader of Roman history – even surpassing Augustus.  Trajan had reformed the empire and brought it to near its apex of power, territory and prosperity.  Hadrian would die despised by many, lacking his predecessor’s foresight and diplomacy.

What is fascinating about Hadrian’s rule is that the path Rome took early in that second Century helped program the future decline of what would become the western Empire, and set up the rise of Christianity.   It is fair to say that civilization had a level of comfort and prosperity in second Century Rome that was not equaled until the 20th Century.

Hadrian’s foreign policy was a sign of the change.  He built fortifications along the frontiers to protect the empire.  This was a momentous pivot from ongoing offensive wars to expand the empire in favor of a clearly defensive approach.  The empire was comfortable and content – why get involved in costly foreign wars?

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian's wall in Great Britain still stand.   The wall also had ditches.  Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian’s wall in Great Britain still stand. The wall also had ditches. Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Hadrian’s era also began an intensely spiritual part of Rome’s history.   Christianity was spreading, especially among women who rebelled against some of Rome’s harsh sexism.  Women would convert their husbands and family, and the once Jewish sect became a major force in the Roman world.   Most Romans, however, would have probably found themselves more comfortable with the Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Epictetus was born a slave but was later freed.   Like Jesus and Socrates before him, he (55-135) never wrote down his words, but simply taught.  An example:  “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”  That’s the stoic philosophy.  You control your mind and your actions – everything else is beyond your control.  You can’t control the twists of fate, the choices of others or even the consequences of your actions.   So to be happy you must accept whatever happens to you.

Hadrian's pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods - for Rome in an era of spirituality

Hadrian’s pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods – for Rome in an era of spirituality

To the stoic, one becomes enslaved if they get enmeshed in trying for wealth or success, pining for a lost love, or even feeling sorrow at the death of a friend or family member.  God controls those things, we control only our mind.  Later Marcus Aurelius, a late Second Century Roman Emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and stoic philosopher would say “Someone will irritate me today.  I must not let it bother me.”  To the stoic a human has the power not to let their happiness depend on anything anyone else does – or anything that happens.  That is the will of God.

The stoic philosophy had a natural fit with Christian beliefs, especially with the Greek twist Augustine gave Christian theology in the Fourth Century.  That helped assure that Rome would adopt Christianity as its official religion, which has shaped our world to this day.

This also was the start of a shift to a society that would lose itself to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, no longer embodying the virtues of early Rome.  Marcus Aurelius would be a virtuous leader and stoic philosopher who would spend much of this rule trying to defeat the Germans.  However his son and successor Commodus would live purely for his own pleasure.  Instead of tolerating the gladiatorial games, he embraced them and in fact participated, becoming a reasonably proficient gladiator himself.  Most put the start of Rome’s decline with Commodus.   And the war with the Germans?   Commodus couldn’t be bothered, he signed a peace treaty which emboldened the Germans who saw that as weakness.

Hadrian's villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Hadrian’s villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Ironically Rome’s success helped program its fall.  Though there would be efforts to expand the empire after Hadrian, Rome was at its apex.  The people were growing soft due to comfort, and resource use helped deplete Rome’s forests and force them to go to greater lengths to keep up their lifestyles.  The Imperial form of government would leave Rome subject to poor rule by power hungry Emperors and increasing political intrigue – with poisonings and other types of assassination common.

Next May I co-lead a travel course to Italy.  One focus will be “Rome of the Second Century,” with visits to some of Hadrian’s sites, and discussion of the Emperors of that era – from Trajan to Commodus.   We’ll try to get a feel for what life in Rome was like – and how in some ways it wasn’t so unlike our own.  In fact, we’d probably feel more comfortable in Second Century Rome than 17th Century Europe.   Exploring Rome is always enjoyable.  To learn about and experience it through the eyes of the past makes it even more powerful.

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Dare I hope?!!

Joe Kapp, in the snow against the LA Rams in the late sixties

Joe Kapp, in the snow against the LA Rams in the late sixties

When I was nine years old for the first time I watched the Super Bowl with interest – the Minnesota Vikings vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.  The Vikings were tough – the defense was the famed Purple People Eaters – Eller, Page, Marshall, and Larsen up front.   Lonnie Warwick called defense from the Middle Linebacker position, and in the secondary Paul Krause was on his way to setting career interception records.

Alas, the Vikings lost to Lenny Dawson’s AFL Champs, the Kansas City Chiefs, but I’m sure I was optimistic that next year we’d win.   The Vikings made it to four superbowls during my school years.   They were one of the top NFL teams of the 1970s.   The game against the Chiefs was January 11, 1970, they’d also play in 1974, 1975 and 1977.   Every time they lost.   Most of the games weren’t even all that close.   But for four years they were one of the dominant teams and I knew it was only a matter of time.

Fran Tarkenton, the original scrambler, changed the position of quarterback and held most career QB records when he retired (most have been since broken)

Fran Tarkenton, the original scrambler, changed the position of quarterback and held most career QB records when he retired (most have been since broken)

The Vikings have had good teams over the years.  Tommy Kramer’s passing arm got them to the playoffs often in the 80s.  In 1998 it looked like they could be the team of destiny as rookies Daunte Culpepper at QB and Randy Moss at WR lite the league on fire, going 15-1 for the season, favored to make to the big game.    I recall the agony of that overtime loss to Atlanta.

More recently, former foe Brett Favre came to the Vikings and helped engineer an amazing season in 2009.  The Vikings went 12-4 and yet again lost the NFC Championship in overtime, this time to the New Orleans Saints.  So close!

The memories – back in 1980 I was home with my dad from college to watch the Vikings vs. the Browns.  If the Vikings won they’d make the players.  But they were stuck with just 14 seconds and 80 yards to cover.  Then one of the most amazing catches ever won the game as Ahmad Rashad caught a hail Mary from Kramer (and the play before that with Ted Brown was pretty nifty).  My dad and I lept to our feet in the den.  My mom, outside carrying bags of groceries dropped them and came running – watching us through the window she thought my dad was having a heart attack.   Watch the video, it’s exciting:

I have been going without cable or satellite for going on two years.  I haven’t missed it except for sports, which almost always requires some kind of pay TV.   I saw the World Cup finals at a local pub, but this year I’m thinking I need to get Direct TV and order the NFL pass.  The Minnesota Vikings look real this year!

They have Matt Cassell, an efficient, smart quarterback who has in my opinion the best Running Back in history, Adrian Peterson, to hand the ball too.   He has one of the most dangerous break away wideouts –  Cordarrelle Patterson – who they got by trade with the New England Patriots, the Vikings foe next week.  Patterson never played for the Patriots, the Vikings traded to get the draft pick to choose him before last season.  Today he had a touchdown run of 67 yards and over 100 rushing yards!

Adrian Peterson has power, speed and in the opinion of a lot of people, is the best running back in NFL history.

Adrian Peterson has power, speed and in the opinion of a lot of people, is the best running back in NFL history.

Offensive Coordinator Bill Musgrave has instituted an offense that is designed to use the Vikings tools in a more unpredictable and creative manner.  Last year, you knew what the Vikings would do almost every play – now they can keep foes on their toes.    Most importantly defense minded rookie Head Coach Mike Zimmer has turned what was a subpar defense last year to what dare I hope is powerful unit.  If today is a sign of what they are capable of, this could be a big season!

So tomorrow I’ll have to decide – do I call Directv?  Do I spend the money to maybe see what I’ve been waiting over four decades for – a Vikings team bound for a Super Bowl victory?   Gee, when I put it that way, the answer seems clear!

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Responding to Kissinger’s Argument

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry - who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

Kissinger with current Secretary of State John Kerry – who led a veterans movement against the Vietnam war while Kissinger was Secretary of State

In my last post I talked about Henry Kissinger’s world view, using the example of detente as indicating the strengths and weaknesses of his approach.  His focus on power politics to the neglect of emergent issues across the globe helped put us on a path to the myriad of challenges we face.  Russian and American policies helped breed corruption, militarism and dictatorship in newly independent states, thwarting accountability and rule of law.

Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa were the biggest losers of the Cold War – and suddenly they are relevant.  So how does Kissinger describe what needs to be done?

First he notes the nature of the changes taking place.  The fundamental unit of the international system, the state, is under pressure.   He very correctly notes a major weakness in our international institutions.  The world economy has become global, but the institutions that govern international affairs remain rooted in the state system.  This means we have an institutional structure not suited for 21st Century conditions.   Prosperity can only be achieved with globalization, he notes, but globalization feeds into the forces challenging international stability.

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue - great powers are focused on stability.  But in our era they are linked - poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

For realists like Kissinger, global poverty is a local issue – great powers are focused on stability. But in our era they are linked – poverty increasingly is the driver of instability

And, true to his realist principles, he argues that diplomacy is harder now because great powers cannot consult so easily.  In the new multi-polarity there is no equivalent of a Nixon-Brezhnev summit.    Meetings that do happen are less frank and more subject to media scrutiny.  Realists would prefer the public let the experts handle foreign policy, leaders working in back rooms with media blackouts can achieve much more, Kissinger would claim, than a in a public spectacle.

Kissinger is absolutely right that the state is under immense pressure, yet he can’t let go of a vision that is based on the activities of sovereign states.  For a realist the state is the central foundation of the international system.  He sees the EU not as an alternative to the state, but a kind of confederation that has not yet achieved the status of statehood.

I think he misses the way in which the information revolution has rendered the European style sovereign state – created by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 – obsolete.   Only institutions that cross borders and ultimately erode or perhaps “pool” sovereignty can handle the challenges ahead.  After all, it’s hard to argue that the European style state functions well in most of the world.  It was a colonial creation based on fake and sometimes absurd borders and has not been able to establish rule of law and accountability in most of the world.   The only reason the realist state-fetish hangs on is that no one has figured out what could possibly replace it.

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state - a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

The Peace of Westphalia, ending the 100 years war created the sovereign state – a kind of new thinking that brought peace to Europe after the information revolution caused by the printing press led the old order to disintegrate

Accordingly, he turns to the US role as he discusses the possibility of establishing a new world order.  Kissinger’s words:

To play a responsible role in the evolution of a 21st-century world order, the U.S. must be prepared to answer a number of questions for itself: What do we seek to prevent, no matter how it happens, and if necessary alone? What do we seek to achieve, even if not supported by any multilateral effort? What do we seek to achieve, or prevent, only if supported by an alliance? What should we not engage in, even if urged on by a multilateral group or an alliance? What is the nature of the values that we seek to advance? And how much does the application of these values depend on circumstance?

For the U.S., this will require thinking on two seemingly contradictory levels. The celebration of universal principles needs to be paired with recognition of the reality of other regions’ histories, cultures and views of their security. Even as the lessons of challenging decades are examined, the affirmation of America’s exceptional nature must be sustained. History offers no respite to countries that set aside their sense of identity in favor of a seemingly less arduous course. But nor does it assure success for the most elevated convictions in the absence of a comprehensive geopolitical strategy. - Kissinger 

This conclusion seems vague.   It also is rooted in the notion of states and alliances, and doesn’t creatively think about new ways of political organization.   Moreover, the emphasis remains on putting out fires and trying to create stability via power politics.  One gets the sense that his genius allows him to see the situation pretty accurately, but his world view pushes him to a solution that is vague, and cannot work.  The US trying to create a world order, of working with allies to impose values and stability is bound to fail.   The Metternich system discussed in my last post collapsed into 30 years of war and depression.   This order could suffer a similar fate.

My current work is based on trying to figure out what kind of new political structures and organization can handle the vast area of technological change and the power of new media.   We live in an odd time when the old structures still have life – governments can put down rebels, silence critics, and impose their will.  But cracks are evident – no one thought Mubarak or Qaddafi could be brought down, the Arab spring was a shock.   The world is in motion.

The EU is a fascinating example of a system that has morphed into a new kind of political organization.  The states have given up (or some say pooled) their sovereignty in favor of supranational organization.  Yet they are doing so under the concept of subsidiarity – power should be exercised at the lowest level possible – local, regional, state or supranational.   Theoretically the state could lose both to the EU institutions and to local and regional governance.  Given the power of the new information and technology, local governments can handle problems that used to require national action.

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

Although some protests call for acceptance, it is easier for demagogues to use fear and hate to rile up the masses

What is needed is new thinking – moving away from ideology, nationalism, parochialism and “them vs us” to a recognition that globalization requires pragmatism, openness to other cultures and ideas, and “us with them,” solving problems.  The forces that oppose such new thinking range from nationalists to groups like ISIS, who want to create an Islamic caliphate that contradicts the forces of globalization and change.   Defeating them may require military action, but also requires a new vision that can speak to young Arabs and address the problems of poverty, disease, and oppression.   These are the problems Kissinger’s world view simply dismisses as secondary to the need for great leaders to craft and maintain an order.

Unfortunately, it’s hard for people in government to give up the idea of state dominance and power.   Cooperation is seen as dangerous, and xenophobes are ready to fight against anything that seems to open a state up to new cultures or people.   Kissinger’s piece thus stands as an example of the old thinking – something insufficient in dealing with a changing world.   Unfortunately the new thinking is still a work in progress – and if it doesn’t emerge and get embraced soon enough the future could get bleaker before it gets better.

 

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