Archive for May, 2016

Berlin!

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There is no city more dear to my heart than Berlin.   I am sitting on an ICE train heading to Cologne, after a superb five days in Berlin with 13 wonderful students.   Later we move on to Munich, but being here has reaffirmed how special Berlin is for me.

Berlin’s personality is unique.   Open, tolerant, diverse, left-libertarian, friendly, exciting, dynamic, and accepting.  Even the Nazis couldn’t control Berlin, at least until the war started and discipline became strictly enforced.  From the wild cabaret scenes of the 20’s to the love parades of recent years, Berlin rejects conformity, flaunts tradition, and runs to its own beat.

Berlin’s history is profound.  I’ve long been fascinated by the stories of Berlin between the wars (check out the book “Before the Deluge” by Otto Friedrichs), but my life has been personally touched by Berlin more than any other city.

German politics is my research specialty and I was lucky to be in grad school just ready to start working on my dissertation when the wall came down.    I had been in Berlin in the summer of 1989, during the last days of “old” normality before everything changed. I didn’t know it at the time; I almost didn’t pay the extra money to trek through East Germany and visit Berlin, figuring I could see the wall “next time.”  That was in August.

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That November, the wall would come down.  By late August the stream of refugees coming into Germany via Hungry would begin the crisis that would ultimately cause the collapse of the East bloc and end the cold war.  In those early August days in Berlin, none of that was expected.

I walked the streets of East Berlin and felt the absurdity of a great city so divided.  I stood along time at the edge of Unter den Linden street, looking out at the Brandenburg gate, and a platform on the other side where people could lock in from the West to the East.  That night, back in my hotel in the West, I reflected on how tragic the fate of Berlin was.

In November I literally had tears streaming down my face as I watched the scenes on November 9th when the unthinkable happened – the wall opened and people were dancing on it, starting the process of destroying it.  Visiting the musems and memorials to the wall – the East Side Gallery and the memorial near Nordbahnhof, I’m still moved.  The wall stood only 28 years; it’s been down almost as long as it had stood.    It is just an odd part of history – but once it symbolized the Cold War and the inhumanity of the Soviet style system.

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Students struggle to understand what it was like when this vibrant city was divided – this is a memorial to the wall, a portion still standing on its original location

I lived in Berlin working on my dissertation for three months in 1991, going to East Berlin and observing the old Communist party having a demonstration a year after Germany unified – Gregor Gysi and other prominent members of the new PDS spoke.

It was a strange time.  Unification had happened, but the differences were still stark.  I would explore portions of East Berlin, observing the life there, and I got to know West Berlin better, enjoying its unique personality.   I interviewed people all over East Germany as they dealt with trying to cope with and shape the changes coming at them faster than they could handle.  Now that a generation has passed, that once obvious Wessi/Ossi divide has faded.  Berlin feels like one, unified city.

Since then I’ve been back many times: 1992, 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2010, 2012, 2014, and now 2016.   The changes in the city during that time have been remarkable.  The physical and cultural markings of the division have faded.  Now they exist primarily as history.  The students try to grapple with the scenes I paint of the past – rows of modern buildings on space empty and forbidding just 30 years ago.

It shocks me sometimes to see the row of bricks showing the old location stopping because have been built where the wall once stood.  I recall looking over Potsdamer Platz which was filled with cranes as they started a massive project to build where the wall had been, and rebuild areas near the wall – areas considered undesirable due to the wall’s proximity, but now were prime real estate in the newly unified city.

I talk about how I had to go to the Lehrter Bahnhof to get a package – a sleepy S-Bahn station, run down, near the wall.  It’s gone, replaced by the multi-level modern glass train station/mall, the new “Hauptbahnhof” (main train station).   I describe how I could observe the wrapped Reichstag from the S-Bahn in 1995, as Christo’s wrapping glistened different hues and tones of light.  Now rows of new buildings block the view from the S-Bahn; the landscape has been completely changed.

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Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin 1971-95 Photo: Wolfgang Volz. ©1995 Christo + Wolfgang Volz

Beyond the history, Berlin is also a city of neighborhoods, each with its own taste and rhythm.   I went with students for a walk near our hotel, we found a Vietnamese restaurant overlooking a canal, the streets were alive, the air fresh.  So Berlin!

For the students, Berlin is huge, difficult to navigate, a “big city.”  And indeed, it takes time to get to know it – and as a guest, I only understand a minuscule portion of what Berlin is in its entirety.   I’ve been here enough to feel comfortable in the city, to appreciate it’s personality, and feel a strong attachment.  Oh, if only like Marlene Dietrich I could keep a “Koffer in Berlin” (a suitcase in Berlin).   But now it’s on to Cologne!

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Beyond Ideology

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A Republican friend of mine was aghast at the support being given to Bernie Sanders, especially the massive lead he has among Millennials.  “Don’t they realize he’s a socialist?

I grew up in the heyday of ideology.  Thankfully, ideology is fading as a driver of politics.  That seems almost incomprehensible to people of my generation.   We’re used to ideological battles – us vs. them, liberal vs. conservatives, left vs. right.   But that way of thinking is fading.

What does that mean?   Can one be “without ideology?”    To the extent everyone has a world view, or some core beliefs about how reality functions, we can be said to have a perspective.   So we aren’t completely without ideology, but I’d say we’re moving beyond ideology.

Ideologies of the past were simplistic models of how reality worked, often used to rationalize negative conditions.  The Communists rationalized control over an entire population by pointing to their ideology.  Capitalists rationalized society divided into classes by pointing to their ideology – and pointing out that they allow a lot more freedom than those of the other ideology.  Most tellingly, left and right often saw the ideological dichotomy as requiring a choice of one or the other.  There were no alternatives.

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They aren’t looking for politics as a secular religion, but practical problem solving

Imagine a 50-something man approaching a young Sanders supporter.  “Why do you support a socialist?”

In response, she’s unlikely to talk about ideology.   She is more likely to say, “the way income is distributed in the country is inherently unfair and harms large sections of the country.  It’s a kind of corruption, an insider game to control wealth.  We have to break that up.”

“So,” you might respond, “have big government take over redistribute wealth, control the economy and deny freedom?

Our young friend rolls her eyes.  “No, just make sure the super rich can’t control the economy.”

“So big government can control it?”

She sighs.  “No.  No one needs to control it.  Just make it for fair – let markets operate, but with a sense of justice.”

Our 20th Century minded agitator is frustrated.  “Come on, if you don’t embrace capitalism with all its defects, the only alternative is socialism.  Sanders calls himself a socialist.”

She smiles slightly at that.  “Not really – he called himself that when everyone was into labels, but he talks more about making sure we have a just, even moral economic system.  One that works.”

At that the old style thinker shakes his head and walks away.  “Young people.  They don’t get the dangers of socialism,” he mutters.  Our Sanders supporter chuckles, “wow, those old folk sure are into the isms!”

Beyond ideology has another term, this one with an ism: pragmatism.   Not strict philosophical pragmatism, but a sense that the world is too complex to grab onto one ideological world view and hold to it like a secular religion.   Countries with taxes that are too high don’t work.  Countries with wealth concentrated too much at the top don’t work.   People deserve basic economic and political rights.  There are ways to achieve this by problem solving, thinking practically and ditching ideological straight jackets.

Trump and Sanders both have appeal by reaching beyond ideology.  Neither really espouses a clearly articulated world view; both talk about problems that need to be addressed.  Trump appeals more to peoples’ fears, especially those who think the country is in decline and threatened by domestic and foreign agents wanting to subvert the American way of life.

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Sanders appeals to peoples’ hopes that things can change for the better, that we can solve problems and create a more just society.  In general, Trump voters are older, Sanders supporters are younger.   They are in many ways diametrically opposed to each other, yet neither can be pigeonholed into the old ideological standards.

The age of ideology has passed.   The dream of finding one objectively true world view upon which to guide our political development has been abandoned.  There is no one best system, no assured future.   There are just a lot of problems, perspectives, and ideas that we can choose from to move forward.

Rather than embrace anger or fear, I prefer the shared norms of freedom, justice, and community.  Those are the same values that inspired the enlightenment view of the world before it was subverted by ideology.  They still are our best bet for the future.

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Why Sanders Should Continue

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Bernie Sanders will almost certainly not be the Democratic nominee for President.  Let me get that out of the way before explaining why he should continue his campaign.  The numbers don’t lie.  Hillary Clinton has so far won 1716 delegates to Bernie Sanders’ 1430.  That’s leaving “super delgates” out of the equation.  2382 delegates are needed to win.

The total degates still to be won in primaries or causes are 1065.  To reach the magic number without super delegates, Clinton needs 62.5% of delegates to be awarded.  Sanders would need 90%.   It’s unlikely either will get to the magic number with only won delegates, though it’s possible for Clinton since she has significant leads in the two most delegate rich states, California and New Jersey.  Those two likely Clinton states have 65% of the delegates yet to be awarded.  Still, given the probability that Sanders will rack up wins in the smaller states, Clinton is unlikely to win it out right by the end of the primary season.

She will be very close though.  Here is the remaining schedule:

Tuesday May 17, Kentucky 61, Oregon 73 delegates

Saturday June 5 – Sunday June 5, Virgin Islands 12, Puerto Rico 67 delegates

Tuesday June 7: California 546, Montana 27, New Jersey 142, New Mexico 43, North Dakota caucus 23, South Dakota 25 delegates

Tuesday June 14: District of Columbia caucus 46 delegates 

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To get the lead over Hillary, Sanders would have to win 63.4% of the remaining delegates, something that is virtually impossible.  For Hillary to have the lead, she only has to win 36.5%.  There would need to be a major external event – an indictment over her e-mails (extremely unlikely) or some major scandal – for her not to reach that extremely low bar.

Most likely, given the proportional allocation of delegates and Clinton’s strengths in the most delegate rich states, she’ll end up a few hundred short, with Sanders lagging behind. In such a case Sanders’ only hope is that the super delegates ditch Hillary and vote for him, even though she will have won far more votes.   Sanders supporters, upset about Hillary’s lead among super delegates, have criticized the system as being un-democratic.  The irony is, Sanders only hope is for the super delegates to ditch democracy and the voters.  Again, absent some major outside upheaval, the odds of that are virtually nil.

So why should Sanders carry on?   First, politics brings out wishful thinking.  The “never Trump” folk were convinced until Indiana that Cruz was going to come back and “save the party.”  That was never remotely likely.  Sanders supporters indulge fantasies in which somehow he wins California decisively or runs the table in terms of victories, thereby giving super delegates cause to choose the number two vote getter.  Some hope for that external event.  So as long as wishful thinking remains viable, Sanders should be expected to continue.  But there are better reasons to do so than wishful thinking.

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Ultimately the Democrats need the two to work together as a team (not with Sanders as VP though) to win in November.

The reasons for Sanders to stay are: 1) to help Hillary win the election in November; and 2) expand and give momentum to his populist, inspirational message.

Hillary is not a sure thing against Trump.  If Sanders supporters don’t back Hillary with enthusiasm, Trump has paths to victory; don’t buy the message of some pundits that Hillary has it all but won.  Trump has proven the pundits are often wrong; they didn’t think he had a chance at the GOP nomination.   Sanders has to give his supporters cause to vote for Hillary by having a positive role at the convention, and then going on the campaign trail as a party united.  He can only do that if he keeps fighting; otherwise, his influence is less, and Hillary is hurt.

Moreover, Sanders is changing the Democratic party, just as Trump is changing the GOP.  His message about middle class decline and America becoming an oligarchy resonates with large sectors of the population, especially Millennials and working class whites – the latter a group that could go for Trump.  If he can pressure the Democrats to maintain this message, perhaps even with Hillary choosing a progressive Vice Presidential candidate, his campaign will be more than a failed effort to get the nomination.  It will be a force that moves both the Democratic party and perhaps the country towards the progressive left by popularizing a message that has until now only resonated with activists and elites.

Again, if he leaves pre-maturely, his influence declines.   Does he wait until the convention, or drop out of the DC primary on June 14th?   If the Democrats are smart, they will find a way to have Hillary and Bernie coordinate and choreograph the transition from being primary opponents to uniting to defeat Trump.

Yes, Sanders’ continued success shows that Hillary has real weaknesses as a candidate.  But Hillary’s overall greater success shows the same about Bernie.  That is why if the Democrats are going to defeat Trump in November, the two have to work together.  For now, that means Sanders needs to keep his campaign going strong.

 

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