Professor of Political Science, University of Maine - Farmington
Posted in Uncategorized on March 13, 2019
Two and a half years ago the British voted to leave the European Union. Populist parties came to power in Greece and Italy, and people feared (or in some cases hoped) that Brexit was the start of the breakup of the EU. Others noted that populist movements were bringing back European nationalism, which could point to a return to the politics of old, when European countries went to war, and economic cooperation was limited due to fear of dependency.
Fast forward to March 2019. In Greece the Syriza party remains in power, even as its leader Tsipas, elected as a leftist Euroskeptic, has embraced neo-liberal reforms. In Italy the power of the Five Star Movement and the Lega Nord meant a right wing populist government that was seen as anti-EU and very suspicious of German influence. Now Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte is embracing reforms promoted by the EU, and the parties have distanced themselves from their pre-election rhetoric.
One reason for this decline in populist fervor could be the British tragedy unfolding in the United Kingdom. I mean tragedy in a theatrical sense – the British political system seems tied up in knots as they can’t figure out how to do Brexit – and they still not even sure they’ll do it.
This week Theresa May put a deal her government made with the EU to a vote. It was a good deal, probably the best that May could have hoped for. It would limit the disruption of the departure by phasing it in, and reaching agreements to keep economic links in place. It was clear that a complete break would mean a flight of capital from the UK, a loss of jobs, higher costs, and maybe even short term shortages.
Her deal failed dramatically in a January vote, and failed by a smaller, but still significant margin on March 12th. Today – March 13th – the House of Commons voted to not accept a “no-deal Brexit.” But even that was controversial. Prime Minister May opposed an amendment to her bill which took out language saying that without the EU agreeing to an extension of negotiations, a no deal Brexit is the default. She ordered her party to oppose the amendment, but to her chagrin it passed anyway. On Thursday the parliament will vote to ask the EU for an extension.
Now, without a deal or an extension, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty legally mandates a hard Brexit – the UK out with no deal. But MPs (members of parliament) claim that March 13’s amendment legally obligates the government not to accept a no-deal Brexit. That seems to be an obligation that by definition the government can’t guarantee.
So they want Brexit. They want a deal. But they are rejecting the only deal the EU is likely to offer. The major reason is Ireland. The Irish strongly oppose a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. One reason the “troubles” of northern Ireland have died down is that the EU has made it somewhat irrelevant that the North remains in the UK. One can trade across the border and travel between the two without having to go through customs. The Irish will not support any deal that changes this situation, so the agreement had a “backstop” – a provision that the border will remain open. That is the part of the deal that many Brexitiers oppose – they fear that keeps the UK in a defacto customs union.
There seems to be no compromise solution to this situation, even though the EU made it clear that they don’t consider the backstop permanent.
So what now? Many argue that the only way out of this mess is a new referendum, and perhaps new parliamentary elections. No Prime Minister has suffered the kind of loses that Theresa May has and remained in office. She’s still there because most people realize this is not her fault – David Cameron left her with an almost impossible situation, and a very slim parliamentary majority. Brexit is an issue that divides the Tories and has no clear or easy answer.
A new referendum could be to either accept the deal, or back out of Brexit. That would incense true Brexitiers because it would take a hard Brexit off the table. Perhaps they could revisit the original referendum, with the knowledge of what kind of deal is likely. But if Brexit again wins by a narrow margin, what would change?
May has rejected a new referendum, saying that it would diminish faith in British democracy. You can’t “keep voting until you get it right.” Yet critics say the 2016 vote was flawed – people didn’t understand the stakes, and the emotion of the Syrian refugee crisis, which was at its peak, lead to a nationalist backlash as many thought being in the EU would force them to take more refugees. Now after two years, the British voters could be asked “is this what you really want?”
It’s clear that the woes in Great Britain have taken the steam out of Euroskepticism and populism across the continent, but the reasons they arose still exist.
Both populism and the woes of Brexit underscore a political reality that Guiseppe Conte of Italy describes as such: “the ideological schemes of the 20th Century are no longer adequate to represent the current political system.” The EU is correctly criticized for being too centralized and bureaucratic – that’s as much a cause of the populist backlash as nationalism.
Perhaps Brexit is a necessary moment to dramatize that the European Union, and perhaps all of us need to rethink our political values. The era of independent sovereign states has given way to globalization and interdependence. The process started after WWII, but has intensified with the technological and information revolutions of the past three decades. The world has outgrown the political structures, values and norms of old, but we don’t have anything else to grab on to. Out of this mess a new thinking has to emerge, one that recognizes that the information revolution empowers individuals and localities, meaning that centralization can exist alongside localization in a manner that seems contrary to the “one or the other” choice we usually face.
In that, perhaps we should thank the British for going through a very difficult situation in a way that dramatizes the dilemmas we all face. And if any state can pull through this effectively, it’s the United Kingdom.
Posted in Uncategorized on March 11, 2019
The Democrats are riding a wave of good political fortune. In 2018 they regained control of the House and avoided devastating loses in the Senate that once seemed likely. They are the opposition party to the only President NEVER to have positive approval ratings, and who remains unpopular despite the fact the economy isn’t doing bad and the US isn’t involved in divisive wars or crises. All the signs point to the Democrats winning big in 2020 for the Presidency, House and Senate.
So why on earth would they want to mess that up by impeaching President Trump, a move likely to cause a backlash and, unless new incendiary evidence emerges, would not remove Trump from office. The GOP controlled Senate is almost certain not to find the President guilty, and would use the trial to attack Democrats. Simply, impeachment creates so much uncertainty that the clear and present advantages the Democrats now hold could be lost. Impeachment would increase the slim chance of President Trump being re-elected.
Donald Trump, in my opinion, is unfit to be President, lacking both the character and intelligence to handle the job. He is, indeed, dangerous, bringing unprecedented levels of dishonesty and incompetence to the White House. It would benefit the country greatly to have him out of office. That logic is what leads supporters of impeachment to push hard for it: we need to rise up and reject a dangerous, incompetent, perhaps mentally disturbed President.
But politics is the art of the possible. Being right doesn’t mean one will be successful. Impeachment is not the removal of the President from office. It is more like an indictment, a claim that there is enough evidence to put the President on trial for high crimes and misdemeanors (which Congress can define however it sees fit). If impeached, the President goes on trial in the Senate, which can either convict him with a 2/3 vote (67 Senators) or acquit him with anything less than 2/3 voting to convict.
When President Clinton was in the midst of the Lewinsky scandal, his approval ratings dipped below 45%. Sensing blood, the anti-Clinton GOP went into overdrive, impeaching the President and sending him to trial in the Senate. There he was easily acquitted, with five Republicans joining the Democrats to vote “not guilty.” When all was said and done, Clinton benefited from a wave of sympathy as the Republicans went too far – he left office with a 60% approval rating, about the same as Ronald Reagan had at the end of his tenure.
I do not expect Trump would reap that much benefit, but moderate Republicans currently willing to reject Trump’s re-election bid could be pushed back into the pro-Trump camp by the emotion and accusations an impeachment battle would cause. Independents might decide the Democrats are reckless and too ideologically driven. If the election is at all close, the dynamics of an impeachment fight could well make Trump’s re-election if not likely, at least more probable.
Right now the Democrats have the moral high ground. They can investigate. They can call witnesses like Michael Cohen whose testimony embarrasses the President and paints a picture of a corrupt, incompetent narcissist. Over the next two years they may get the President’s income tax records released, and make sure that Trump’s approval ratings stay low.
Moreover, they control the purse strings. As the bizarre effort to claim a “national emergency” to bypass Congress shows, the President can’t do anything significant without support from the House. They can completely halt his agenda and stymie his efforts. Yeah, the Republicans hold the Senate and the President still has enormous clout in terms of government regulations, judicial appointments, and other executive actions. But forcing President Trump to use those powers has benefits for the Democrats – they can use his actions to fund raise, inspire their base, and accuse Trump of defying democracy.
So the choice now is this: a) stay the course, continue investigations and efforts to undermine the President’s authority, but don’t impeach. This makes it likely that in less than two years President Trump will be out of office; or b) go full throttle on impeachment and hope that undermines the President more and makes his re-election even less likely. That path risks creating the opposite result, perhaps keeping Trump in office until 2024.
To me the answer is clear – Democrats should pursue the goal of defeating President Trump in 2020. If I thought impeachment would bring about his removal of office or weaken his chances of re-election, I’d support it. I think by many measures he has proven himself unfit for the office. But again, politics is the art of the possible, and at this point impeachment followed by removal from office does not seem at all likely, and the effort could backfire.
Posted in Uncategorized on March 9, 2019
When Constantine became sole ruler of the Roman Empire in 306, it appeared that Rome had weathered the storm of corruption and collapse that had dominated until the reforms of Diocletian (who ruled from 284-305). The Empire had reorganized, and Constantine began to build a city in the East which would later govern the eastern Roman Empire (usually called the Byzantine Empire) until 1453. Constantine granted religious tolerance to all with the Edict of Milan in 313, and Theodosius I would make Christianity the state religion of Rome in 380.
The Roman Empire had been a success, spreading prosperity and peace – so called “Pax Romana” – from Britain to northern Africa, from Spain to Turkey. Yet in the 400s the western Empire slowly disintegrated. Barbarians (a term meaning simply ‘foreigners’) were given land within the Empire and charged with protecting Rome; in the end they formed their own Kingdoms as the power of the western Empire evaporated. To don the cloak of legitimacy they embraced the Latin Language and the Christian church. Later they would spread Christianity to Germanic tribes not part of the Empire. By the time of the Emperor Justinian (ruled in the East from 527 to 565), the West was essentially lost. His effort to recapture the Italian peninsula created massive destruction, and the glory of the Roman world faded.
We all know what came next – the so called dark ages. Politics became local, learning subsided, the kingdoms that adopted Latin soon were speaking very bad Latin as their linguistic practices atrophied (we call that bad Latin ‘French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese’). The Church had central authority but lacked the ability to project power; secular rulers had inconsistent efficacy, as the roads, buildings and grandeur of the old Empire fell into disrepair.
The “dark ages” weren’t truly dark; there was a lot of politics, intellectual activity, and cultural development. But there was also a sense that a great civilization had ceased to exist, and life had become more difficult and poor. The great cultural accomplishments of the Greek and Roman world were all but forgotten. Today, when one takes into account global warming, poisons in our food and air, and the fact that our global society is held together by virtual connections that would be thrown into chaos with a loss of power and cheap transportation, people have been predicting a similar decline for decades. Are they right?
First, it’s possible. If you stood in Rome as late as the fourth Century you would not think all could collapse – even though the collapse, which was more a slow transition, was already happening. Our planet of over 7 billion relies on a network of food, transportation, and communication that could be threatened by global warming or other disasters, natural and human made. Nuclear war is most obvious potential culprit, but global depression, energy crises and political unrest could go along with climate change to destroy the nexus of goods and services we rely upon.
However, unlike Rome, we are a society of rapidly evolving technology. The Romans never really did expand their technology. They were superb builders, but once they lost their military edge, they simply could not maintain the system. Our technological progress creates possibilities for solutions that are unique to the modern era. Collapse is not inevitable.
Moreover, the knowledge of science and the ability to communicate via basic radio waves means that we are unlikely to have to rely on passing minstrels for news updates, and probably won’t put our loyalty into a religious institution that rejects progress, claiming that attainment in this world keeps us from doing what we need to to assure an afterlife in paradise.
The most likely outcome, even if the doom and gloomers are right, is a world more fragmented and less prosperous – with many regions of famine and disease – but yet one that will find a new equilibrium and avoid the kind of decay and collapse the western Roman Empire endured. How bad it becomes depends on the choices made in the coming decades; my generation messed things up, today’s youth will determine how bad it becomes, or if they can turn things around.
The dangers: CO2 production, factory farms that are unsustainable, reliance on inefficient foods like beef and chicken, reliance on fossil fuels, spiraling debt (both public and private), and a belief that things will simply take care of themselves. History suggests that if you ignore warning signs, you pay a heavy price.
The solution is still unclear. Foremost it will involve new thinking about political organization (the sovereign state as we know it may be obsolete) and economics. Environmentalism is not “concern for the earth,” but a self-interested effort to make sure our planet can still sustain us. The earth will be fine, it’s our place on it that is in question. I’m convinced we are entering a period of dramatic transition as old practices and beliefs become unsustainable and counterproductive. While we need new actions, we also need a new way of thinking.
Posted in Uncategorized on March 4, 2019
In 2017 the Twins made the playoffs as a wild card team. Full of young talent, they looked ready to break out in 2018, led by the bats of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. Instead, they floundered. 2017’s AL Manager of the year Paul Molitor “resigned” (read: was fired, but allowed to stay in the organization) , shocking many as the Twins young front office dynamic duo of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine look to make their mark on the team. They inherited Molitor, he was never “their manager.”
To be sure, I was mad when I heard Molitor was let go. He is from the Twin Cities, he had a stellar career and seemed to be doing a good job – most of the 2018 woes were not of his making. But Falvey and Levine may have done the right thing in bringing in Rocco Baldelli. The inability of Sano and Buxton to play to their potential – the team was counting on them – was a major flaw. They believe that Molitor was not the right man to bring out the talent of young players. Baldelli, only 37, has already made a difference, visiting Buxton down in Georgia and connecting with the team.
The last few years the Twins marquee players were Brian Dozier at second base, who had 42 homeruns in 2016, and super star Joe Mauer. Last year Dozier was traded, and Mauer, who never regained top form after suffering multiple concussions and moving from Catcher to First Base, retired. It isn’t a stretch to say that the Twins are starting a new era in 2019.
What must happen for the Twins to win?
- Sano and Buxton have to break out. Sano was a phenom hitting homeruns at a torrid clip in 2017, only to find himself striking out consistently and even sent down to the minors at one point in 2018. Pitchers learned his weakness (breaking balls down and away), and he put on weight. Now he’s trimmed down and says he’s focused on making sure he doesn’t repeat the mistakes of 2018. Byron Buxton was injured and hit poorly while up. Yet in September 2017 he had ten homeruns, and in 2017 he won the platinum glove for his unbelievable speed and fielding in Center Field. The fielding is there (and his speed is perhaps the fastest in the league). He has the talent to hit. If Buxton and Sano do what they should do, the Twins will be in the hunt.
- First base. With Mauer gone, first base will go from a position yielding a high on base percentage and little power to one where power will be highlighted. The Twins picked up C.J. Cron who had 30 homeruns last year, but Tyler Austin, acquired from the Yankees in the Lance Lynn deal, hit 17 in almost no time. He may be the real deal. If the Twins get power at first, that will be huge.
- Nelson Cruz and Jonathan Schoop. The two most important free agent signings could be Cruz and Schoop. Cruz is a consistent 35 homerun a year veteran who is said to be excellent in helping young players find themselves. If he can help with Buxton and Sano, he’ll provide value. He’s certain to be a power DH. Schoop hit 30 homeruns two years ago at second base, but his output last year for the Orioles and Brewers was disappointing. If he regains his stroke, well, this team may relying on the long ball from many positions!
- Rosario and Kepler. On any other team these would be the stand out young players. Rosario flirted with .300 most of last year, has good power, and finally is showing some discipline at the plate. He has a powerful arm and baserunners try to challenge it at their peril. Max Kepler has good power – 26 homers last year and don’t be surprised if he hits over 30 this year – and the Twins think his batting average can climb. He and Rosario are lefties, providing a balanced lineup.
- THE PITCHERS! Pitching wins titles, and all this offensive promise could go for naught if the Twins don’t improve their pitching. The outlook is good. Jose Berrios, the lefty who will start opening day, made his first all star game last year and showed signs of brilliance. He seemed to tire at the end of the season, but the Twins believe he’s the real thing – his curve ball is the best of any Twins pitcher since Blyleven. Kyle Gibson finally showed last year why the Twins have been so patient with him – he has great stuff, he finally is learning how to use it. The Twins lack a closer, though I think Trevor May is the most likely to fulfill that role. Last year he had a very bad habit of walking the first batter he faced, not something you want from your bullpen. But he has the stuff that you want a closer to have. Without going through the rest of the staff (including some interesting free agent pick ups), the Twins have reason for optimism – but, of course, we’ll have to see how they perform. They have a lot of young arms, but this is the one area where I’m a bit nervous. Again, pitching is the key to winning – good starters, good set up men, and a closer. The Twins have more question marks than answers at this point. Will Free Agent Martin Perez regain form? Who will join Gibons, Odorizzi, and Berrios in the starting rotation? Will the “young arms” perform as hoped?
I’m convinced that the team has the nucleus to assure it will be playing meaningful games deep into September. If the pitchers are as good as expected, they may be playing extremely meaningful games deep into October.
Now, however, the most important thing is to hope that between now and when the Indians come to Target Field later this month the snow melts and we can have March baseball.
Posted in Uncategorized on February 20, 2019
A short little blog post from the Whitechapel district in London.
Researching “Brexit, the EU and the Future of Globalization” has been an exciting but often exacerbating project. So much political intrigue, so many diverse views, but one underlying truth: the world is changing, and we have to figure out how to handle it.
Tonight I enjoyed a marvelous Indian dinner at an inexpensive take out place. Around it were Korean, Thai, Chinese and Arab restaurants. Indeed, the Muslim population in this part of London is exceedingly large – and friendly, and peaceful.
Yet a few bad apples generate fear, and that feds back to generate anger. If we allow that to continue, everything we’ve worked for since World War II would be in jeopardy.
I read of my country’s President throwing hissy fits because he doesn’t like being made fun of by Saturday Night Live. That he can wear his weakness and insecurity on his sleeve like that and still fool his faithful is a sad commentary on how easily people are duped. I see the exciting vibrancy of this diverse neighborhood and know that many people both fear and detest it. Difference breeds fear, fear breeds anger and hate.
Yet going for an evening walk, optimism won out. So many warm, friendly faces, so many positive interactions between diverse groups. Indeed, London has its extremists of all bents, left and right, but the overall vibe I get from this city is one that suggests tolerance will win out. Those who deal with fear are weak, and their weakness causes them to lash out. Those of us who are brave enough to believe in love are stronger, and we will ultimately win.
The path to that point, however, can be violent and destructive – especially if the fear mongers get the upper hand. Good night from London.
Posted in Uncategorized on January 29, 2019
The shut down is over, and despite the bluster, it’s not going to start up again. It’s a political loser for President Trump, and he knows it. Senate Republicans would turn on him. Moreover, the idea of declaring a national emergency is dangerous for the White House. The President says the odds of a deal being reached are “less than 50-50.” What next?
The victory glow on Nancy Pelosi for staying firm and keeping her caucus united hasn’t yet faded. Pundits colorfully claim Pelosi “got Trump’s balls,” with Ann Coulter calling him “the biggest wimp” as President. Does this mean Pelosi can write the script?
In a word, no. Her challenge, though, is less with Trump than within her own party. She prevailed in a bruising battle to remain speaker, and even critical Democrats acknowledge that her political savvy won this battle. One wonders what she had to promise centrist Democrats friendly to the idea of some kind of wall to keep them in line. I suspect that she promised “real” negotiations and to make a deal that the President can accept. She had to win this one or else it would have become clear that Trump could run roughshod over the Democrats, threatening things like a shutdown and watching Democratic cohesion splinter.
Now she has to show the centrists that she listens to them and awards their loyalty due to the shutdown. If she just defies Trump it’s possible she could win big and have him back down completely. But it may be better in the long run to give Trump a face saving way out, make gains on policies that can be traded for enhanced border security.
To be sure, she also has the progressive wing of the party that want total war on Trump, and think the talk should be impeachment. She has to mollify that wing of the party too, who may grumble that she isn’t “going for the jugular” in negotiations.
Progressives in the party sense that the American public is on their side more than ever, and now is the time for the Democratic party to veer left. In many parts of the country, that is true – but in vast chunks of the US the Democratic party relies on moderate and centrist voters disturbed by Trump’s incompetence, but not wanting to embrace the left.
Pelosi’s challenge is to keep both wings of her party satisfied enough that the party can stay united. She has to convince the progressives that with the Senate and Presidency in GOP hands, the only way to get things done is to compromise. She has to convince centrists that she really is willing to compromise.
There is probably no one better suited to face this challenge than Pelosi. At 78, she’s already stated that she plans not to stay on as speaker after 2020 – and the country may indeed be in a very different place at that time. For now, she’s capping her career with a stellar performance during the shutdown, but to be truly successful she has to have an effective two years both keeping the party together and making compromises when possible.
Posted in Uncategorized on January 27, 2019
Yesterday I posted something political, so today I’ll head into religious territory to grapple with that age old question: is there a God? To be sure, it’s really more of a recent question. Go back far enough and you find certainty that there are many Gods. Even the Hebrew God that now dominates three major world religions started as a local God – the Hebrews were not originally monotheists. Still, the question has merit, it can’t be dismissed.
Consider: Why is there something and not nothing? By all our logic and laws of physics, we shouldn’t be able to get something from nothing. Some might claim that reality is infinite – infinite in the past, and in the future (which would be two infinities, but OK). We can get out of that problem with an obvious observation: our space-time universe emerged from the big bang, and thus had a beginning. One could even claim it was “created” (either by volition or chance).
That actually gets us somewhere. If the origin of our space-time universe comes from outside space-time, then it is utterly incomprehensible to us. I don’t mean just hard to understand or figure out, but beyond human understanding. Our minds are programmed for a space-time universe. Try to think of something without it having a space or time – maybe you can imagine something really abstract, but one can’t truly imagine a reality – a world – outside of space-time. All our concepts of processes, change, evolution, mutation, etc., assume space-time. We don’t even get space-time right. We think of them as separate – time is the progression of events, space is where these events take place. But physicists know that space-time is a single entity, even if that is hard to comprehend (and don’t get me started on quantum physics).
So to the God question. If you posit “God” as some old man with a grey beard, well, that’s a space-time kind of being. Any “God” that exists would be outside of space-time, and thus incomprehensible to us. In fact, one could posit “God” as simply the source of this space-time universe, emerging from “outside” space-time. I have to put “outside” in quotes, and emerging should be in quotes too, since those are space-time concepts that really can’t apply to something not in space-time. But I have no choice, we can’t think in terms truly outside space-time.
I’m ready to accept that there is a God according to that definition, but it doesn’t tell us much about what this God is like or even if it is volitional (rather than some kind of accidental process…and terms like “process” are space-time terms…you get the picture).
Do we have any way to transcend space-time and sense what might be outside it? Maybe. Intuition, emotion, meditation, out of body experiences, and forms of spirituality do claim a non-corporeal and perhaps non-temporal nature. The problem is that once we try to translate these into something communicable, we run into the same problem – our language and our rational minds are bounded by space-time.
Yet if our universe had to come from outside space-time, and if we can’t comprehend anything outside space-time, then a belief in a God-concept (even if not a particularly well defined or traditional God) makes sense. And I think that’s as far as I can take this. There is likely a God, but that’s only if we define “God” in a way that is so broad that we cannot know its attributes, or even if it has volition.
There is one more tool we have that might help – imagination. One reason art speaks to us is that our imaginations seems to hold knowledge and understandings that are beyond communicable thoughts and words. Music, the visual arts and even poetry all try to communicate something beyond our usual rational mode of operation.
So I’ll choose to imagine “God” as something that we are all a part of, connected to, and we have chosen to live in the space-time world to learn lessons and have fun. Note I left out suffering – we can choose that, if we need it to learn, but that’s not why we’re here (and if that sounds callous, well, if we’re all part of the same entity, then we all suffer when one person suffers, even if we don’t experience directly at that moment in space-time).
This God is thus personal, and its laws reflect a kind of golden rule – if we’re all connected and part of the same whole, then we should treat anyone else as we would like to be treated. But since we are separate entities, we have differences, and in dealing with others we have to recognize those differences – I like to be left alone if something bad happens, others like to be consoled. So the golden rule has to be taken a step deeper, not just how we would like to be treated, but what would be kind and considerate treatment for other individuals based on their identity.
Can I prove this? Of course not. Do I believe it absolutely true? Nope, it’s an imagined notion of God I choose to hold playfully without dogmatism. Is that good enough for me? Yes. But it’s up to you all to use your imagination and then decide if you find a God concept good enough for you. This does mean that forcing beliefs on others makes no sense. So I believe there is a God, but I reject religious dogma.