The American Conservative, an often refreshing publication espousing classical conservatism, has a rather provocative article out suggesting that President Obama is really a Republican, heir to Richard Nixon rather than Saul Alinsky (photo above is from their article). I had to google Alinsky, he was an mid-20th Century radical.
The piece goes issue by issue, noting that Obama has undertaken essentially conservative policies, ones much in line with traditional conservative thought. He has been hawkish on national security, yet skeptical of jumping into wars. His economic policies have dramatically brought down the deficit, and he has been fiscally conservative, much to the consternation of his own party. He still enforces tough drug laws, even as states decriminalize. It took him a long time to voice support for gay marriage, even as his party was leading the way.
Corporate profits have risen, he hasn’t done much to address the imbalance of wealth between blacks and whites, he’s been hawkish about security leaks, and even his health care reform was based on Romney’s plan in Massachusetts (and is less bold than Nixon’s proposal back in the 70s).
So why does the right have such outlandish personal attacks on Obama? By any objective standard he’s been a competent, centrist President. Yet he gets called a radical. He gets labeled “incompetent,” and his successes are swept under the carpet. He gets blamed for things like ISIS – an absurd claim, but one those on the right fall over themselves to make. Though the Center for Disease Control is one of the most respected health organizations in the world,the cautious and successful approach they’re taking to ebola gets criticized. In fact anything wrong in government (and left and right can agree there are always some problems in government) is laid at his feet.
Up until now I thought the reason for this antipathy was because some on the right think Obama is different. Not just racially, but he’s urbane, cosmopolitan, has a strange name, and doesn’t seem to be the kind of good old boy Americans were used to. He symbolizes a transformation of the country that many fear but are powerless to stop.
However, there are two other factors. One, given the treatment of Bush by the left, it might be that any President these days will be vilified by the other side, especially given the prevalence of inbred media (blogs, media, and other sources populated by only one part of the political spectrum). But more importantly, if someone is a competent centrist, all you really have are personal attacks.
To true partisans of the left, the news that Obama governs from the center isn’t new. Much of his disapproval rating comes from the left side of the political spectrum. The biggest criticism of his Presidency is that he’s too cautious, too willing to work with Republicans and concerned more about finding solutions that appeal broadly, rather than fighting for a cause. From fracking to the trans-pacific partnership and the Canadian oil pipeline, Obama has been slow to act. A liberal activist would govern much differently.
Partisans of the right might grumble that it’s only because of Republican opposition that Obama could not get more done. They may take credit for forcing him to govern from the center. Yet that doesn’t explain his style – even during his first two years with a Democratic Congress he showed a penchant for pragmatism.
So is this a good thing? With all due respect to my liberal activist friends, I still believe Obama will be remembered as one of the great Presidents in large part because of his pragmatism. It’s not that I agree with him on everything – I don’t. Yet agreement with me isn’t the measure of a President!
The country is in the midst of a radical transformation. The economy is deep in debt, and the financial meltdown Obama inherited shows deep structural flaws in our economic system. Transformation in the Mideast, the source of our cheap energy for last half of the 20th Century, creates real security threats. Environmental problems are real, even if people want to close their eyes to them or embrace some wild theories to deny global warming.
The only way we’ll get through the next decades without paralyzing political gridlock is if we find a way to work together. Not just here at home, but internationally (and Obama retains very high respect abroad). That means compromising even on important issues- that’s how the world works. While Republican hyperbole and obstructionism may tempt Democrats to use executive power to its fullest extent, Obama has been moderate in its use. He believes in being President to all Americans, even those who call him names.
We are undergoing a profound cultural and demographic transformation. As the tea party fades and Republicans finally start to work against extremists in their party, the stage is set for compromise in the future. No matter who wins the midterms, the conversation has shifted away from the radical rhetoric of 2010. Obamacare is entrenched – it may be changed, perhaps improved, but not gutted. The power of Grover Norquist, while still real, has declined. Tax increases are thinkable as part of a budgetary compromise. Even climate change denial is shifting as the weather patterns make clear something real and potentially dangerous is happening.
So the left may be dissatisfied by Obama’s centrism while the right finds all sorts of absurd reasons to try to cut him down. But quietly and effectively, he’s been a steady force in a country under going a fundamental transformation – a fact that will become much more evident in hindsight.
“Close the borders!” “I’m not going to travel anywhere!” “Kick any African out of the country!” These are statements of irrational fear of Ebola. The reality is that the US is probably going to contain the virus this time due to the intense and thorough efforts by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) . Ebola is not easily transmitted, the biggest threat currently is to care givers, especially those at the end of life.
Yet while a lot of the panic we see in the US is irrational fear, there is reason to fear the spread of Ebola, which could become a global pandemic. That rational fear is illustrative of the changing nature of global politics. Diseases like Ebola cannot be contained geographically if it reaches a certain tipping point. Due to globalization the threat is real and universal. China does a lot of business on the African continent, one could imagine it hitting that country. The world is connected.
So what is the proper response? First, the racist reaction of some needs to be rejected. The idea that this is an African or “black” disease is simply wrong. It’s a human disease, and no life is more valuable than another. Second, irrational fear must give way to rational fear. That is the fear that the disease could spin out of control in Africa, thereby dramatically increasing the likelihood of a global pandemic.
That rational fear gives us one logical course of action: the countries of the developed world, with wealth and technology, need to do all they can do to combat Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia before it spreads further. We need to recognize that their problem is our problem. Trying to isolate ourselves from them only increases the chances that we’ll ultimately suffer from a pandemic. Our best defense is to defeat the virus while it can still be contained. Rapidly, time is running out.
It strikes me that Ebola is a perfect example of how our thinking is not yet in sync with the reality of globalization. We still think in terms of sovereign states, independent, and able to protect ourselves from outside threats. We’ve not yet internalized the fact that we are so connected with the rest of the world that sovereignty exists more as a legal concept than practical reality. Instead of calling for a massive influx of aid and support for the fight against Ebola in Africa, we call to close the borders and stop travel. That’s short sighted and counter productive.
Yet it’s still that way on a plethora of issues. While neo-liberal orthodoxy keeps us from grasping protectionism in a down economy, on most issues we act like we have the power to go our own way as a country, regardless of what others want. That is an illusion.
China could in a day destroy our economy. China won’t, because the consequences for China could be catastrophic. However, they have the capacity to inflict economic harm at will if we do things that they find contrary to their interest. That’s just one example. Globalization has so linked the world economy that we’re all on the same boat, even if we imagine we’re captaining one boat in a vast fleet of individual ships.
Ebola perfectly illustrates the dangers of such anachronistic thinking. By fearing the disease and thinking we can protect ourselves, we call for things like travel bans, isolation, and an internal focus. We worry about it spreading here, and follow the small number of US cases with diligence, open to rumor and gossip.
What we should be doing is following the cases over in Africa, worried about the inability of those states to contain the virus. We should be clamoring for our government, the UN, and the governments of the industrialized world to do everything possible to contain Ebola now in those countries. The reality is that if Ebola continues to spread, it will mutate, perhaps become airborne, and ultimately be global. Nothing we can do will prevent it from hitting our shores if that happens.
We don’t really protect ourselves by focusing on what’s going on now in the US, our best protection is to be proactive in places where Ebola is rapidly spreading.
But we won’t, too many of us are locked in old style thinking. Meanwhile the clock is ticking on our chance to contain Ebola in West Africa, our best bet to avoid a global pandemic.
In May I hope to be part of a University of Maine – Farmington travel course to Italy. It will be the eighth time I’ve taken students to Italy, the seventh as part of a team that includes my colleagues Sarah Maline (Art History), Steve Pane (Music History), and Luann Yetter (Literature). Part of the run up will be blog posts on a blog especially built for people interested in the Italy trip. But the posts will have a broad base – the last one was on coffee in Italy, but there have been posts on aspects of ancient Rome, the Venetian republic 697-1797, food in Italy and politics in Italy.
So if you have an interest in anything Italian, you might check out that blog: http://italyumf.wordpress.com/
Buona notte, amici!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.