Archive for June, 2014

Mitt in 2016?

mitt2016

The buzz is out there.  Mitt Romney is reportedly signaling to the GOP donor base that if he doesn’t face a difficult primary season and is, in a sense, anointed, he would consider running for President again in 2016.  Publicly he claims there is no way he would run, and I would be very surprised if he did.  Yet, is it possible?

A Romney run could only happen if Republican party (read: the main power brokers and donors) agree that they see Mitt as the best chance to unite the party and beat presumed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.  There is a logic to that.   The Republicans will have a better shot if there is no bloody primary battle for the nomination.   Not only will there be more money in the campaign coffers for the fall, but a united party should fare better than a divided one.

Richard Nixon was the last Presidential loser to come back and win - and that was almost 50 years ago!

Richard Nixon was the last Presidential loser to come back and win – and that was almost 50 years ago!

Of course, the biggest argument against Mitt is that he’s a proven loser in the Presidential sweepstakes.   It’s a rare Presidential candidate that goes from being a loser to a winner.   Richard Nixon did it in 1968, but that was eight years after his loss.   Of course, Romney’s likely opponent, Hillary Clinton, lost a high stakes primary battle.  But that’s not the same – and that was in 2008.

Would conservatives accept Romney?   He was always seen by some as too northeastern or moderate.   If he were the candidate, they would – but I’d expect them not to forego having a true conservative run in the primaries.   While people like Cruz, Rubio, and Walker are probably un-electable, the tea party believes that somehow there is a secret conservative majority in the US that would come out and vote them into office.  Of course, they also believe Obama should be impeached (eyes rolling).

Things like Romneycare still evoke distrust amongst conservatives, so he'd need to early on choose a conservative running mate.

Things like Romneycare still evoke distrust among conservatives, so he’d need to early on choose a conservative running mate.

One way Romney could deflect conservative opposition is agree early to a tea party friendly VP candidate.   That would scare a lot of people (heartbeat away from the Presidency), but historically the VP choice has not been a game changer.   Only John McCain’s pick of Sarah Palin seemed to actually hurt his chances, but that was less due to her views than the fact she proved herself not ready for prime time.

Romney would need to find someone who he could respect and trust – not a Cruz, perhaps Rubio (who has been a bit more careful about being too extreme) or maybe Nikki Haley, Paul Ryan (an interesting repeat performance), or Susanna Martinez.   Choosing a woman would be helpful to his cause, especially if he runs against Hillary.   There doesn’t seem to be an obvious black running mate in the GOP ready for the role, though neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson got a lot of conservative attention when he spoke at the 2013 prayer breakfast in proximity to President Obama.

Carson is smart and acceptable to conservatives, but as a non-politician he says stupid things, like "Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to America since slavery."

Carson is smart and acceptable to conservatives, but as a non-politician he says stupid things, like “Obamacare is the worst thing to happen to America since slavery.”

Carson was not over the top extreme, but some of his comments (e.g., seeming to compare bestiality with homosexuality) could come back to haunt him.   More damaging is his lack of political experience – would he have the discipline and ambition to run a national campaign?   Yet he is intelligent, black, and conservative – the right would love to embrace someone who is brilliant but does not believe in evolution.   Most arguments against evolution are inane and batty – but that’s mainly because of the people making those arguments.   Dr. Carson can make a cogent and intelligent argument for conservative positions usually seen as anti-rational.

Still, he’s a long shot, as is a Mitt reboot.  The only reason the possibility can be considered is that the GOP is fearful of a neophyte tea party type hijacking the primary process, yet worried about turning off conservatives already irked by Thad Cochran’s victory.  Mitt developed support among the right in the 2012 campaign and he might be the Republican’s best shot to have a chance in 2016.    Not likely, but….

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What Cochran’s Victory Means

cochran

On Thad Cochran’s fourth birthday Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, sending the US into World War II.   Like most Mississippians of that era, Cochran grew up a Democrat.  In those days the south produced very conservative Democrats who eschewed the Republican party because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln.   Cochran was a success at almost everything he undertook: he was an Eagle Scout, majored in Psychology (minored in Poli-Sci), served a stint in the Navy and ultimately graduated from the University of Mississippi Law School.

In the sixties the country was changing and Cochran recognized that the Republican party was increasingly reflecting the view of southern conservatives.   He became one of the early converts to the GOP, winning a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972 in a close race.

After three terms in Congress Cochran successfully ran for the Senate, replacing retiring Democrat James Eastland.  That made Cochran one of the first of the new breed of southern Republicans to get elected.  Given the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern to run in 1972, the next decade would see a massive shift to the Republican party in the south.

South Dakota's George McGovern was seen as way too liberal for southern Democrats, speeding a shift in the south to the GOP

South Dakota’s George McGovern was seen as way too liberal for southern Democrats, speeding a shift in the south to the GOP

Southern Democrats were in something of a civil war then.   The establishment Democratic candidate opposing Cochran was Maurice Dantin.  He was supported by Eastland and part of the good old boy southern Democratic tradition.   Yet the Democrats were also now the party of the civil rights movement, and Charles Evers, a black liberal, ran as an independent.  This split the Democratic vote and allowed Cochran to win with a plurality.

A younger Thad Cochran campaigns with Nancy Reagan

A younger Thad Cochran campaigns with Nancy Reagan

Time once labeled Cochran one of the most effective Senators.  Always a behind the scenes “persuader,” he brought pork to Mississippi (he was a master of the earmark) and earned a strong 88% rating from the American Conservative Union.   He developed considerable influence in both Mississippi and the Senate, and was generally well liked.   In 1990 he ran unopposed, and after his narrow first win his margins were: 61-39, 100-0, 71-27, 85-13, and 61-39.   He was never given a serious challenge in a state Republican primary.

Now as the GOP is engulfed in its own civil war, Cochran faced a surprisingly serious challenge from Tea Party backed State Senator Chris McDaniel.   In the state primary, a candidate must win a majority to gain the nomination.   In the first round, McDaniel won a plurality, defeating Cochran 49.57 – 48.88.   That is enticingly close to a majority, but 50% + 1 vote is needed for a majority.   In the second round, Cochran prevailed 50.9% to 49.1%.

Chris McDaniel - photo from a fascinating Salon article on the tea party.

Chris McDaniel – photo from a fascinating Salon article on the tea party.

This result was not expected.   Most polls showed McDaniel comfortably ahead by 5 or 6%, with national groups questioning giving continued support to Cochran.   McDaniel went into the day the favorite, and came out defeated.   He is supposedly considering legal action against Cochran because Cochran’s team reached out to black voters and Democrats.  In their mind a true conservative Republican was defeated because an old establishment Republican got support from black voters.   It appears they are right – the numbers indicate that black voters probably did give Cochran his margin of victory.  They may not have been Republican, but they didn’t like McDaniel’s views.

So what does Cochran’s victory mean?   Well, coming so soon after Eric Cantor’s loss, it shows that the establishment is not dead, and the tea party has less influence on the Republican party than any time since its 2009 inception.    There is a sense of desperation within the movement that their ideals are under threat from their own party leadership.

Cochran’s victory means that the GOP “civil war” is about to enter it’s final stage.   The tea party/far right sees politics as good vs. evil. They do not want compromise and pragmatic governance, they are driven by ideology and many of them want a kind of political holy war – defeat the liberals completely and bring America back to their image of what should be/once was.   That image is more nostalgic fantasy than reality, but they are convinced they are the only ones with the proper conception of what America should be.

The tea party is starting to recognize that THEY are the RINOs!

The tea party is starting to recognize that THEY are the RINOs!

When they thought they could dominate their party and defeat the Democrats, their disdain for RINOs (Republicans in name only) meant primary challenges and, more often than not, electoral defeat at the hands of the Democrats.   This led the establishment to fight back – they can tolerate the extremists, but they can’t tolerate continual electoral defeat – and now the tea party realizes that they are a minority in their own party, and Eric Cantor notwithstanding, losing clout.

The last act of this civil war will be the tea party going all out to fight against the GOP leadership.   It will either lead to a bitter primary season in 2016 as the Tea Party goes for the big prize – the Presidential nomination.  Or if truly cut out, more radical elements will likely try a third party, convinced they are the future of the conservative movement – that the Grand Old Party is obsolete.   Either way, the Tea Party will lose, and the Republican establishment will reassert control.

Ironically, this would be a Republican version of what helped bring Thad Cochran to Congress in 1972.  The Democrats had been engaged in their own civil war thanks to the anti-war and civil rights movements.   The 1968 Chicago convention started a fight that ended after a tortured 1972 Democratic Convention rejected party moderates and nominated the fiercely anti-war liberal George McGovern.  This created widespread dissent within the party and the Democrats had one of their worst Presidential elections in history.

With eerily fascistic visuals, the tea party's desire to "take back America" increasingly collides with the Republican desire to impact public policy

With eerily fascistic visuals, the tea party’s desire to “take back America” increasingly collides with the Republican desire to impact public policy

The good news for the Republicans is that if history is a guide, the election isn’t a direct threat to their holdings in the House and Senate.   The  House Democrats did lose 13 seats in 1972, but kept their majority.   Senate Democrats actually gained two seats.   People did not automatically take dissent with the Presidential candidate as a reason to distrust their own representative.

Thad Cochran’s career will thus bookend the two biggest internal civil wars the major US parties had in the post-war era:  The Democrats in the late sixties and early seventies, followed by the Republicans since 2010.  And he represents the side that wins those civil wars – the party establishment.

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The Iraq Failure was Inevitable

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The ISIS was founded in response to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003

The blame game is going in full force.  Pro-war enthusiasts like John McCain say that they had “won” Iraq but Obama lost it.  Others say Bush lost Iraq and there is nothing Obama can do.   But trying to blame Obama or Bush is to miss the real point: Iraq proves the limits of US power.  The US was never in a position to “win” in Iraq or reshape the Mideast.

The current crisis reflects the dramatic gains of a group known as the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), which has seized control of most of the major Sunni regions in Iraq and threatens Baghdad.  Their goal is to create a Jihadist state out of the old Baathist countries of Syria and Iraq.  Their power is one reason the world doesn’t do more to help get rid of Assad in Syria – as bad as Assad is, his government’s survival prevents Syria from falling to extremists.   The ISIS has its roots in the US invasion of Iraq.

In 2003, shortly after the invasion began Abu Musab al-Zarqawi begin to recruit Sunni Muslims in Iraq and especially Syria to form what at first was called “al qaeda in Iraq.”  His goal was to create an Islamic state patterned after the beliefs of Osama Bin Laden.  He felt the US invasion gave his group a chance at success.   He could recruit extremists and use the Sunni’s hatred of the Shi’ites and the Americans to create a powerful force.

At first it worked brilliantly.  Al qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgents were two separate groups who really didn’t like each other but had a common set of enemies – the Shi’ite led government and the Americans.   By 2006 Zarqawi achieved his dream of igniting a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, throwing Iraq into utter chaos.  At that time the US public turned against the ill advised war, the Democrats took Congress, and President Bush was forced to dramatically alter policy.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as "al qaeda in Iraq" was killed by the US in 2006.  Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

Zarqawi, who founded ISIS as “al qaeda in Iraq” was killed by the US in 2006. Unfortunately this has allowed a more effective leadership to take over.

He did so successfully – so successfully that President Obama continued Bush’s policies designed to get the US out of Iraq.   In so doing President Bush completely redefined policy goals.   The goals had been ambitious – to spread democracy and create a stable US client state with American bases from which we could assure the Mideast developed in a manner friendly to US interests.  Instead, “peace with honor” became the new goal – stabilize Iraq enough so the US could leave.   In that, the goal was similar to President Nixon’s in leaving Vietnam.   The Vietnam war ended in defeat two years later when the Communists took the South.  Could the Iraq war ultimately end with defeat?   If so, who’s to blame?

The key to President Bush’s success was to parlay distaste Arab Sunnis had for Zarqawi’s methods – and their recognition that the Shi’ites were defeating them in the 2006 civil war – into a willingness to side with the Americans against Zarqawi’s organization.   When Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike, it appeared that the US was on its way to breaking the back of the organization, unifying Iraqi Sunnis against the foreign fighters.

Bush's choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

Bush’s choice to invade Iraq was disastrous, but President Bush did an admirable job in completely altering US policy in 2006 to reject the initial goals and embrace a realistic approach

So what went wrong?  Part of the success of the ISIS is the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who seized the initiative when Syria fell into civil war and the eastern Syria essentially lost any effective government.  In conditions of anarchy, the strongest and most ruthless prevail.   Add to that the fact that the Iraqi government has never truly had western Iraq under control, this created the perfect opportunity to create a new organization.    With the Americans gone, Sunni distaste for Shi’ite rule grew, and with the Kurds taking much of the northern oil region, Sunni tribes found it in their interest to support ISIS – even if it is unlikely they share the same long term goal.

So what can the US do?  Very little.  Air strikes might kill some ISIS forces, but they could also inspire more anger against the government and the foreign invaders.   Ground troops are out of the question – the US would be drawn into the kind of quagmire that caused such dissent and anger back against President Bush’s war.   Focused killing of top ISIS leaders – meh.  Zarqawi was killed, but a more able leader took his place.  Focused killing also means killing civilians, these things are sanitary.  So it might just end up angering the public more and helping ISIS recruit.

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists - but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

Drones effectively take out dangerous terrorists – but the collateral damage often inspires anger against the US and helps groups like the ISIS recruit

The bottom line is that the US lost Iraq as soon as it invaded.  The US undertook a mission it could not accomplish – to alter the political and social landscape of a country/culture through military force and external pressure.  The US did win the Iraq war – the US won that within three weeks.  The US military is very good at winning wars – but it’s not designed for social engineering.  The idea that we could create a democratic pro-US Iraq and simply spread democracy to the region was always a fool’s pipe dream.

The fact is that the kind of military power the US has is not all that useful in the 21st Century.  We are not going to fight another major war against an advanced country, nuclear weapons would bring massive harm to the planet, including ourselves, and intervening in third world states sucks us into situations that assure failure.  We won’t be able to change the cultural realities on the ground, and the public will rebel against the cost in dollars and lives.   Moreover, as our economy continues to sputter, such foreign adventures do real harm.

The lesson from Iraq is that our power to unilaterally shape world events if far less than most American leaders realize.  Foreign policy wonks from the Cold War area are still addicted to an image of the US as managing world affairs, guaranteeing global stability and being the world leader.  That era is over.  Gone.  Kaputt.

Now we have to work with others in the messy business of diplomacy and compromise, accepting that other parts of the world will change in their own way, at their own pace.  The good news is that they are mostly concerned with their own affairs, and if we don’t butt in, we’ll not again be a target.   The real al qaeda condemns the ISIS for its brutality – without the US trying to control what happens, the different groups will fight with each other.  But that’s the bad news – change is messy and often violent.

But we can’t fix the world, or somehow turn other regions into little emerging western democracies.   That’s reality – and the sooner we accept and focus on what we can accomplish, the better it will be for us and the world.

 

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An Ugly Legacy

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Memorial at the site of the old Jewish synagogue in Vienna, destroyed in 1420-21

A travel course on German political history inevitably confronts the holocaust.   Of the 11 million humans killed, six million were Jews and the rest were Slavic, gay, gypsi (Roma and Sinti), pacifist, socialist or otherwise “ungerman.”  Yet its very easy to fall for caricatures.   To believe that the Germans were somehow seduced into a kind of unique evil, undertaking an unbelievably heinous crime while delivering Europe into the most destructive war in human history.   Or that Hitler was an inhuman pathological monster with super human seductive skills, and Germans were driven by racial bigotry and anger at the Versailles treaty!

Alas, history is not so simple.  Germany wasn’t that much different than other states in Europe, and anti-semitism has a long history full of pogroms and extermination efforts.   Hitler wasn’t that much different than other people; indeed, it’s dangerous to think such people must have been obvious monsters, that would prevent us from recognizing them in our midst today!  The technology of the past wasn’t sufficient to create the kind of holocaust experienced in the 20th Century (not to mention Stalin’s purges and various other mass killings/genocides of the last century), but in a real way WWII and the holocaust was a culmination of hundreds of years of European history.

We visited the Freud museum, located where he lived in Vienna until finally leaving in 1938.  We discussed his experiences as well as the impact of his theories on psychology and politics.

We visited the Freud museum, located where Sigmund Freud, who was Jewish, lived in Vienna until finally leaving in 1938. We discussed his experiences as well as the impact of his theories on psychology and politics.

That’s why we visited the museum and memorial at Judenplatz in the old Jewish section of Vienna, ordered destroyed in the so called Vienna Geserah of 1420-21.   Up until the first crusade in 1096 Jews had lived relatively normal lives in Europe despite real anti-semitism.  They performed services that Christians could not, and thus were protected by nobility.   As the Catholic church gained power and reach after the embrace of Aristotle in the 13th Century, Jews soon became a convenient scapegoat.

Hapsburg Duke Albrecht V, accusing Jews of colluding with the enemy in a war, ordered the elimination of the Jewish population in Vienna.  While many Jews escaped down the Danube, others were tortured, killed and their property confiscated.  Albrecht decreed that no Jews should ever live in Vienna again.   They did come back, but that event was for all intents and purposes a holocaust.  The technology and reach was not as far, but the goal and brutality was much like that of the Nazi SS 520 years later.

Sans Souci - the summer palace of Prussia's atheist, gay, military genius enlightenment King, who expanded the rights of Jews

Sans Souci – the summer palace of Prussia’s atheist, gay, military genius enlightenment King Friedrich the Great (1712-86), who expanded the rights of Jews

The history of Jews in Europe is complex.   Which country seems more anti-Semitic:  France during the Dreyfuss affair from 1894 to 1906, when Alfred Dreyfuss was falsely accused of treason, in part because of he was Jewish, or Germany in 1898 when the Kaiser paid a state visit to Jews living in Palestine?   Indeed, one reason that Hitler could arouse passion is that Germany let Jews achieve higher positions than in many other parts of Europe – though contrary to claims by Nazi propaganda on average they did no better than the rest of the German population.

Even after the Nazis came to power they got support from people like American flying ace Charles Lindbergh, who praised the unity of purpose of the German people, and dismissed the virulent anti-semitism as a mere annoyance.   The British sent ships filled with Jewish refugees back to Germany when they attempted to go to Palestine.    The US rejected Jewish refugees as well – antisemitism is part of the western cultural tradition.

At one point these grounds at Dachau, the first concentration camp, had rows and rows of barracks for the prisoners.

At one point these grounds at Dachau, the first concentration camp, had rows and rows of barracks for the prisoners.

Walking around Dachau near Munich it’s easy to forget that the first victims of Nazism weren’t Jews, but rather political opponents of Hitler’s who were round up and sent to concentration camps which were created because of the mass increase in people incarcerated.  Hitler’s first opponents were the socialists, democrats, internationalists and pacifists.   Later, outside of Germany actual extermination camps were created to do on a broader scale what Albrecht V did in Vienna in 1420-21.

One wants to believe that this centuries long on again off again persecution of Jews is over, that the holocaust was a wake up call to the world.   Indeed, right wing radicals in Europe tend to rail against Africans, Arabs and more prevalent minorities, though anti-semitism remains a part of their perverse nationalism.

If history teaches us anything, it’s that cultural baggage persists.   Despite the racist ideologies popular throughout Europe and the US in the early 20th Century, something like National Socialism would only be embraced when people were really desperate.  In 1928 the Nazis got only 3% of the vote and Hitler was a joke.   Then came the great depression, massive poverty, unemployment at near 40%, and a country riddled with internal conflicts and a dysfunctional government.

On the day before our Dachau visit, the European Union had EU Parliamentary elections.  These elections are viewed as rather meaningless by Europeans who often use EP elections to register protest votes.  Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front got nearly 25% of the vote, the first time it came in first in a French election.  Right wing radicals made gains in Denmark and Austria – but got only 1% of the vote in Germany.

Though she tries to sound less shrill, Marine Le Pen's National Front is built on the same kind of thinking that created National Socialism.

Though she tries to sound less shrill, Marine Le Pen’s National Front is built on the same kind of thinking that created National Socialism.

Now, throughout the West, we have to stay alert to racism and bigotry, be it against Latinos, gays, blacks, Jews, or any group signaled out because of their identity.  It may seem to be a harmless fringe, but given the right circumstance a harmless fringe can become a virulent cancer, destroying a society from within.  Unfortunately racism, anti-semitism, and bigotry remain part of the culture heritage of the West.   We should not tolerate it.

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Empires Wither

Schoenbrunn, the summer palace of the Hapsburg Emperors

Schoenbrunn, the summer palace of the Hapsburg Emperors

It’s common to compare the US to Rome and Great Britain, as a kind of empire that may have seen its better days.  During the trip while in Vienna I thought perhaps Austria’s decline holds a key lesson.

In 1815 Napoleon had finally been defeated, and Vienna was in the midst of hosting a long conference to determine the fate of Europe after the Napoleonic wars.   Austria, ruled by the imperial Hapsburg dynasty, encompassed eleven distinct ethnic groups and vast territory in central Europe.   The rulers knew that the threat posed by Napoleon was not just that of a strong military led by a brilliant general, but the ideas of the French revolution.

The French revolution was a rejection of the divine right of Monarchs to rule, an embrace of popular sovereignty (power via the consent of the governed), and dismissal of tradition and custom as crucial to social stability.   Under the motto “fraternity, equality and liberty,” the French revolution meant that reason and rational thought should trump religion and tradition.   That was a threat to the central fiber of the Austrian regime.

So in Wien (Vienna) leaders from around Europe meant, and Austria’s Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich urged that Europe return to the peaceful thinking of the pre-Napoleonic period, where tradition, custom, religion and the divine right to rule guided sovereignty.  It was a very conservative vision – push back the changes demanded by enlightenment thought, and embrace the old order.

The treaty of Vienna did lead to 100 years of relative peace in Europe - though arguably that was because the Europeans were conquering the planet via colonialism

The treaty of Vienna did lead to 100 years of relative peace in Europe – though arguably that was because the Europeans were conquering the planet via colonialism

They couldn’t really go back to pre-Napoleonic Europe; Napoleon’s reorganization alongside local demands meant that the old Holy Roman Empire could never be restored.   Germany would now have 39 statelets instead of 390, a King would be restored in France, Austria would dominate, and British democracy was tolerated because they kept a Monarch and anyway, they were separate from the rest of the continent.

So in 1815, Austria appeared to have come out of  the turmoil on top.   But rather than recognizing that the French revolution was a product of rather than the cause of the transformation they feared, Austria refused to change.   By 1848 growing nationalism inspired revolts across the empire which they could only put down playing ethnic groups against each other.

At 23, Franz Joseph had been Emperor for five years, and Austria seemed to be a dominant European power

At 23, Franz Joseph had been Emperor for five years, and Austria seemed to be a dominant European power

That same year 18 year old Franz Joseph became Austria’s Emperor as Ferdinand I resigned as part of the plan to end the 1848 uprisings.   Austria survived, though small wars weakened it, especially in the 1860s when Italy and Germany unified thanks to victories over Austria.  Austria had to give Hungarians improved status in what would become known as the “Austro-Hungarian Empire” to maintain stability.   Still, walking around Vienna, the Hofburg, Belvedere, the buildings around the Ring, it’s clear that in the 19th Century the Viennese considered their empire powerful and important.   Vienna to this day has an imperial feel.

Yet holding on to tradition and trying to resist change made the empire ever more anachronistic in a increasingly rational and modern world.   Austria fell behind more progressive states.    It could not let go of a world view that saw a divinely chosen Emperor ruling via tradition and custom.

In 1916 Franz Joseph died, as his empire was about to be destroyed by World War I and its aftermath

In 1916 Franz Joseph died, as his empire was about to be destroyed by World War I and its aftermath

By 1914 it was clear that Austria’s refusal to embrace change – to try to hold on to an era gone by – had doomed the empire.  Their only hope was to take over territory being vacated by an even more obsolete empire, the Ottoman Turks.   Russia, an empire also more conservative than Austria, had that same hope.   And it was their competition to replace the Ottomans as the major power in the Balkans that ignited World War I – the war that would eliminate the conservative order and give victory to modernism.

Walking by the state opera house, where the live opera is now projected on a big screen TV out front, I wondered how it must have felt in the early 20th Century.  The Empire was doomed, yet all must have felt as majestic as ever.   Empires fall, but they also wither, almost without notice until they reach the point of no return.

People compare the US to the Roman or British Empires, but I think Austria now is an apt comparison.   Globalization, the rise of new powers, the decreasing importance of traditional military power, and the fading of sovereignty are all trends that many Americans wish to resist.   They want the world to stay as it was during the “American Century,” with the US leading and dominating the global agenda.  But that day has passed.  And if we try to hold on to it, America’s fate may be similar to Austria’s.   Not utter collapse like Rome, but a loss of power and prestige, taking a less important role on the world stage.

To be sure, the US won’t be dissected like Austria was, but even the sum of all the parts together don’t have anywhere near the world role the empire had in the 19th Century!

The beautiful Art History Museum, which stands across from a twin building that is the natural history museum in Vienna, just across from the Hofburg, the Hapsburg Winter Palace.

The beautiful Art History Museum, which stands across from a twin building that is the natural history museum in Vienna, just across from the Hofburg, the Hapsburg Winter Palace.

Not that I expect us to be engulfed in a world war – that’s a 20th Century way for an empire to end.  Rather, the US will find itself eclipsed by a new mode of political and economic power.  Rather than confronting the need to change, we’ll turn on each other, blaming people for weakening the US within, finding scapegoats.   To avoid Austria’s fate, we need to understand how politics is changing and embrace thinking for a new era.

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Generations

ampelmaennchen

I recall the interview in the summer of 1995.  I was in Dresden, and had an interview with an elderly member of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) to discuss the difficulties of German unification.

In Berlin there was a controversy brewing about the above shown “Ampelmaennchen.”   The icons of East German traffic lights showed a little man with a hate, green and walking to indicate “walk,” and read with hands spread apart to indicate “don’t walk.”   In Berlin the goal of unification meant standardizing traffic lights, which meant doing away with the Ampelmaennchen in favor of the more modern West Berlin figures.

In 1995 this emerged as a full blown controversy, with groups protesting in favor of the Ampelmaennchen and pressuring the Berlin government to back down.   At first it refused, and the Ampelmaennchen became a symbol of a growing East German resentment for what they felt was a take over by the West.   Not that they wanted communism back – only a few aging stalwarts wanted that – but they wanted a new Germany that could be shaped by them alongside the “Wessis,” rather than simply having the West shove a new system down their throat.

As I chatted with the man whose name I forget (I’ve got it written down somewhere if I dug through my records), I told him about how it seems like the “wall in the head” was dividing Germans with as much power as the original wall had divided them physical.  It was Ossi vs. Wessi.   You could tell an “Ossi” (easterner) by their clothes and dental work; it was clear almost all the time which Germany one was from.

 

1961 "No one has the intention to build a wall."  Forty years later: "Many have no intention of removing the wall in the head" (Ossi vs. Wessi)

1961 “No one has the intention to build a wall.” Forty years later: “Many have no intention of removing the wall in the head” (Ossi vs. Wessi)

Moreover, the former Communist party (SED, now renamed PDS – Party of Democratic Socialism) was rebounding quickly in the East.  Most thought it would vanish as Communism was discredited; instead, as East Germans felt alienated in the new system, it quickly became the most powerful political force in many parts of the East.   Was unification failing?

The gentleman had been part of the Ost-CDU, one of the “block parties” which offered symbolic opposition yet had to promise to support the SED (Socialist Unity Party – the Communists) in East German politics.  Many Ost-CDU politicians were distrusted because they had collaborated; others saw it as a way to raise different voices.   Angela Merkel, the most famous Christian Democrat from the East, was not a member of the Ost-CDU, she joined Democratic Awakening (DA) after the wall fell.  The DA later merged with the CDU.

“It’s just a matter of generational change,” he told me.  ” This generation will never accept it completely, their world has changed too much.  As much as they hate communism, they don’t know anything else, and resent demands from the West.  They aren’t used to having to work hard because in communism there wasn’t enough work – ten people did the job one person could do.  That was to avoid unemployment.   Come back in 25 years, you’ll see.”

It is now 25 years since the wall came down. Perhaps most obvious of the change is the Berlin public transportation system.   The idiosyncrasies and annoying detours caused by the wall are gone.   When we went to Potsdam I tried to go the old route via Wannsee.   We got there, but then I found out that  the S-Bahn cuts through the city now, the system is efficient and unified.

The subway system in 1988, the red line dividing the two Berlins

The subway system in 1988, the red line dividing the two Berlins

Now the city is whole, and the wall only a memory

Now the city is whole, and the wall only a memory

I thought of  that conversation in Dresden as I walked through Berlin two weeks ago, noting that it was now virtually impossible to distinguish Wessi from Ossi, or to see where the wall had been.   A top the television tower in old East Berlin it was clearer – the ugly architecture of “real existing socialism” distinguished itself from the more vibrant West.   The S-Bahn stations also showed the difference; in 25 years the infrastructure rebuilding remains an on going project.  Berlin is still a “city of cranes,” as construction vehicles dot the city, rebuilding train stations, neighborhoods and homes.

The architecture of Communist East Berlin can be described as a cross between bland and ugly.

The architecture of Communist East Berlin can be described as a cross between bland and ugly.

 

With “Ossi” Angela Merkel now in her ninth year as Chancellor, her reputation and success has led to a point that she no longer is distinguished by the fact she’s the first woman and first ex-East German Chancellor.   Rather she is Angie, perhaps the most powerful woman on the planet.   She’s compared with Helmut Kohl and Konrad Adenauer.   When Kohl plucked her from the young DA party to become Family Minister on his cabinet, most thought it was purely symbolic – he just needed an Eastern woman.   She’s shown herself to be much more.

In 1990 Merkel would start as deputy premier of the last East German government, then join Kohl's first united Germany government as a minor cabinet member

In 1990 Merkel would start as deputy premier of the last East German government, then join Kohl’s first united Germany government as a minor cabinet member

The notion of generational change is powerful.   The differences have blurred.   The West clearly dominated the change, but not completely.  The old PDS ultimately linked up with disenchanted Social Democrats in the West, who thought their party had drifted too much to the center.   That allowed the creation of the leftist “Linke” party, altering the German political landscape.

Perhaps most symbolic is the survival of the Ampelmaennchen.  Not only did the Berlin city government give up on its effort to standardize all traffic lights to the modern sleek figures of West Berlin, but they decided that as they replace or add new signals in the West, the old Ampelmaennchen figure will be preferred.  Thus the Ampelmaennchen are no longer East Berlin phenomena, they are all over in the West, helping blur the distinctions between east and west.

For the last quarter century cranes have been ubiquitous on the Berlin skyscape

For the last quarter century cranes have been ubiquitous on the Berlin skyscape

Generational change yields new politics; one sees that in the US as well.  A generation ago gay marriage and a black President named Barack Hussein Obama would have been unthinkable.    In Berlin, however, it is profound and communism is very quickly becoming an historical oddity, a short lived failure.

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