Archive for April, 2017

What does Sunday’s French Presidential election mean?

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Marine Le Pen of the far right National Front is one of candidates likely to make it to the second round of voting.

On Sunday April 23rd the French go to the polls for the first round of the 2017 Presidential election.  Current President Francois Hollande of the Socialist Party is not standing for re-election, thanks to extremely low approval ratings.  Whoever wins this election will become the eighth President in the French Third Republic, which began in 1959.

The election Sunday will not produce a winner.   To become President after the first round of voting requires a candidate receive a majority of the vote – at a minimum 50% + one vote.   That has never happened in the Fifth Republic, and won’t happen Sunday.

Emmanuel Macron, head of the political movement En Marche !, or Onwards !, and candidate for the 2017 French presidential election, speaks to employees as he visits the headquarters of the KRYS group in Bazainville

Emmanuel Macron, leader of the pro-EU centrist “En Marche” movement currently has a slight lead in the polls, with 23.5%

On May 7th, two weeks after the first round of voting, the top two vote getters will face off to see which will become President.   Historically that meant the leader of the Gaullist right against the Socialist party candidate.   That would mean Francois Fillon of the Republican (right of center) party against Socialist Benoit Hamon.  Fillon, dogged by scandal accusations, still has an outside chance at making the cut (he polls about 19%), but Hamon is way back and it would be a shock if he survived the Sunday vote.

The leader in the polls is Emmanuel Macron, a young (39 years old), brilliant investment banker and former economics advisor, he espouses a pro-EU, pro-globalization free market approach he hopes will revitalize the French economy.  He supports the French social welfare system and believes in accepting refugees, a hot button issue in France.    Following a close second is Marine Le Pen, at 22% to Macron’s 23.5%.   She is the daughter of racist right wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen, and leads the National Front party he dominated for so long.  Unlike her father she tries to espouse a softer, gentler nationalism that avoids overt racism.  Yet she is anti-EU, anti-immigrant, and argues that France should stand up for the interests of the French people first, and reject globalization.

Right now the smart money is on these two keeping their lead and competing head to head in the run off.  However, with 11 people running in the first round, and the polls bunched up, it’s impossible to know for sure.  The two who appear within striking distance of the top two are Fillon and far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.

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Jean-Luc Melenchon has shown surprising strength from the far left, and could be a spoiler.

Nightmare scenario:  If it’s Le Pen vs. Melenchon, France will be in panic mode.  It would be far right against far left, two anti-EU candidates who attack France’s core post-war identity.   This would be the most likely case for a Le Pen win.   As controversial as the far right has been, it has become more acceptable in recent years.  The far left seems a Zombie – risen from the dead but without new ideas.  Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – which poison to choose?  If this is the match up, all bets are off.  The EU may be jeopardy, France may be taking a scary and unprecedented turn, and it’ll be a helluva show.

Most likely scenario:  If however it’s Le Pen vs. Macron after Sunday, breath a sigh of relief.  This is the match up most expect, and currently the smart money would be overwhelmingly with Macron.   Yes, Brexit and Trump over performed polls and expectations.   Le Pen could as well.   Still, at least this gives the French a choice between a hard turn left or right, or maintaining the post war identity that has worked well.

Odd scenario:  If it’s Melenchon vs. Macron, it’s the reverse of the above, only surprisingly it would be the far left rather than nationalist right that becomes the primary alternative.   This can only happen if Melenchon lures votes away from Marine Le Pen by crafting his leftist nationalism in a way that appeals to working class Le Pen voters.  Macron would almost certainly win such a match up, but it would be interesting to see how the pundits and politicians react.

Right wing scenario:  On the other hand, if Fillon moves ahead of Macron, it could be Le Pen vs. Fillon.  In such a case Fillon is almost certain to win.  He keeps many conservative votes, and voters from the left will do anything to stop Le Pen.  Still…Fillon has been dogged by scandals and it’s conceivable that his appeal would be short of expected.   Le Pen may have a better chance against Fillon than she would against Macron.

Other possible matchups would be:  Fillon vs. Macron (interesting, though Macron would again be the favorite), and Fillon vs. Melenchon (Fillon favored, but Melenchon’s populist leftism could play surprisingly well).

Here’s the problem – in a race with 11 candidates and four of them polling just above or below 20%, there can be volatility.   Any one of those scenarios is possible, even if Macron vs. Le Pen is most likely.    What we’ll learn on Sunday is who the two candidates in the run off will be.  That’s when the fun begins!

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The do-nothing President?

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Nearly 100 days into the Trump Presidency it appears as if the Donald is over his head.  Sure, he shot a few missiles into Syria, and met with some foreign leaders.  Yet for all the talk of “making America great again,” and “draining the swamp,” this administration has been at best quiet, at worst ineffective or incompetent.

This should not be a surprise.   During the campaign I used the metaphor of a car salesman.  The salesman can make lots of claims, talk up the car, and his job is done once the buyer signs the dotted line.  Trump is a good salesman.  But when you actually need to service the car, the salesman is irrelevant.  The mechanic in the service department has no desire to talk up the car; she’ll tell you what’s wrong, and even note if a particular model has problems the salesman didn’t mention.  You would never want her replaced by the salesman – you need her to keep the car in working order.

Yet Trump made the sale and now he’s in charge of the service department and doesn’t really know what to do.  He’s used to giving orders and having his staff follow through (ready to fire them if they fail), but that’s not how the Presidency works.  Business leaders in general have problems moving to executive positions in government; this seems especially so with Trump.

The health care fiasco is this in a microcosm.  With all the bravado of a salesman Trump declared that the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare would yield a better system that would “benefit everyone.”   Yet reality was messy.   People would be thrown off insurance, the public was worried about losing aspects of what they liked about the ACA, and Republicans were split on just how to “repeal and replace.”

At that point, the President had to become a master of detail, someone who could sit down with the stakeholders, negotiate, cajole, and make the deal.  The trouble is, Trump has never really been a good deal maker.  He’s a salesman; his deals have historically been poor, which is why he has so many failed businesses and has often flirted with bankruptcy.   He assumed his staff would do the hard work, he didn’t realize he actually had to do more than just talk and posture.   The result: an embarrassing failure that left Washington insiders amazed at the apparent incompetence of GOP leaders and especially the President.

Now as the Republicans turn to his promise of tax reform, people are pessimistic that anything can be done.  With Trump’s approval ratings down around 40%, he lacks political capital to pressure people to comply, and he appears to lack the patience to learn the details and work through the issues.

The missile strike on Syria is another example.  While a few people said that this represented “toughness” on the part of the President, it’s easy to order attacks.  Obama, Bush, Clinton, and really every President in recent history have ordered strikes.   The Syrian strikes were especially impotent – the US warned Russia, who assured Syria was not caught by surprise, and they did little damage.   Overall, it’s hard to see much change from the Obama foreign policy to the Trump policy, despite his promise to “put America first.”

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At a California protest that bloodied both Trump supporters and opponents, this woman is punched by a known white supremacist – caught on film.

That leads to the most incongruent aspect of the Trump Presidency – his populist message is at odds with his style of governance.  He quickly ordered an end to the “drain the swamp” rhetoric, and has stocked the White House with lobbyists and insiders.   His nationalist guru Steve Bannon is finding himself overshadowed by Trump’s mainstream son in law, Jared Kushner.  Simply, beyond rhetoric President Trump has done nothing that really jives with his campaign.   The salesman behaves differently when he runs the service department.

Yet anger at Trump from the left, along with support by xenophobes and white supremacists on the right still resonate.   Republicans hope the President’s mainstream approach to governance will convince  moderates that he isn’t some kind of dangerous radical.  But already Breitbart news and some on the “alt.right” have warned Trump that if he veers too far from his rhetoric, or if he were to dump Bannon, they’d turn on him with a vengeance.

Simply, Donald Trump doesn’t have what it takes to be President.  He lacks patience, discipline, and is too insecure – focused on how the media portrays him.   Rather than lead a revolution in American politics – some kind of rejection of globalism in favor of strident nationalism – he’s appears like a deer caught in a car’s headlights.   He’ll enjoy the pomp, offer rhetorical flourishes, but lacks the capacity to have a disciplined approach to governance.

This could change – Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump want to turn the administration around, and they are likely a moderating influence.   This could be early day stumbles; perhaps he’ll learn on the job.  But at this point Donald Trump, for all the bluster, appears en route to becoming “the do nothing President.”

Update:  This article in the “Daily Beast” chronicles an effort by the “adults” in the White House to gain control and stabilize the Presidency:  http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2017/04/16/new-power-center-in-trumpland-the-axis-of-adults.html?via=newsletter&source=DDMorning

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What Is Love?

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Is Tina Turner right that love is “just a second hand emotion?”

I was in South Dakota this weekend for my niece’s wedding reception.  Two years ago, my nephew got married.  Both have awesome partners and are clearly in love.  In all the talk about love, partnership, commitment, it occurs to me that as a culture, we have a very tenuous grip on what love actually is.

The divorce rate is over 50%.  I’ve been divorced more than once.  I clearly haven’t understood love properly.  Perhaps Joni Mitchell put it best in her classic “Both Sides now”:

“Moons and Junes and ferries’ wheels
The dizzy dancing way you feel
As every fairy tale comes real
I’ve looked at love that way
But now it’s just another show
You leave ’em laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away
I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all”

Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” is a classic in questioning love, life and of course clouds!

So what is love?

I’ll take a Platonic approach to this.  Plato argued that the world we experience, the world of appearances, is not the true world.  The true world is the ideal; our world is just a poor reflection of that ideal, more illusion than reality.

In our world ideal love is distorted by human weakness, emotion, jealousy and fear.   If we want to experience love, it seems we should seek the ideal, and try to work against the distortions.

So what is ideal love?   Here’s a stab at a definition:  Love in its ideal form is when one person cares about another to the point that the well being, happiness, and autonomy of the other is an end in and of itself.    The last phrase is important – if it is an end in and of itself, it is not transactional.  One doesn’t give love in return for love, or predicate love on what another does in response.  In the move from ideal to “real in the world” love, the most difficult aspect is to have love as an end in and of itself.

Autonomy is an important aspect of love, yet one that people find difficult to apply.  If someone complains, “She doesn’t pay attention to me,” “He doesn’t buy me anything,” or “She ignores me when I’m talking about things important to me,” then one is really saying, “he or she is being autonomous, rather than doing what I want them to do.”   That ain’t love, that’s a desire for control.  Even harder might be, “she slept with someone at the party, she cheated on me.”  She can’t cheat if she’s autonomous.

While monogamy may be a common result of real love, expectations of monogamy are attempts at control.   People usually nod to human jealousy and decide that if its expected of both, then at least it’s fair – two people agree that they can’t give up wanting some control of what the other does.  In essence they say “we’re humans, humans are jealous, so let’s just accept that and promise to give up our autonomy in this realm.” That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s a step away from ideal love.

The happiness of the other as an end is also an ideal difficult to achieve.   Two people decide to find ways to be happy together, each compromising so that their happiness is shared.   When these compromises yield happiness – the two enjoy doing something together – it’s great.  They’ve learned to expand the experience of happiness to something new, that is an important benefit of love and friendship.   But if they struggle through something (‘Football is important to Joe, so I’ll entertain his friends and pretend I’m enjoying the game….then he’ll go shopping with me which I know he hates…’), then it’s really misplaced.   Better to go off and do something on their own or with other friends than believe it’s necessary to be together all the time.

At base, the more insecure one is, the more it becomes tempting to use relationships as a crutch to bolster self-esteem or avoid confronting difficult truths.   Insecurity is the root of negativity, and the most certain path to the farthest point away from ideal love.   Since all humans have some level of insecurity, love in the world is always likely to fall short of the ideal.

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Perhaps the Buddhist Philosopher Daisaku Ikeda put it best.

Yet as I think of my niece and her husband starting a life together, the joy of the two dancing to their song, and sparkle when they’re eyes meet, I hope they don’t give up the quest to express love in the most ideal way possible.

And as I consider a planet full of fear, jealousy, insecurity, stress and struggles for control, I realize that this isn’t just about relationships.  The quest to experience love in its ideal form is universal, connecting all humanity.   Getting closer to idealized love is the only path to really limit pain, misery and boredom in this world.   But universal love for humanity is abstract and difficult.

Best to start the quest to express love as ideally as possible with the people around us – friends, family, partners, and even those who just cross our path for brief periods of time.  Perhaps most importantly is to love ourselves – one cannot be strong and secure without self-love.   We may learn that love is indeed the answer.

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