Fireproofing Democracy for the Long Term

There are lines you should not cross…

We Need a Broader Consensus that a Line was Crossed

  • It will not be enough, Republicans, to let Trump quietly slink from office.
  • It will not be enough, Democrats, to gloat, to say “I told you so”, to badmouth Trump and his enablers.
  • There must be no rush to public judgment limited to an alliance of the willing.
  • That judgment must occur, but it must be broader. It must be public, procedural, and lengthy.
    • The 2nd House impeachment was a beginning. It included 10 Republican votes.
    • A drop in the bucket, you say? Think in context! The impeachment process, in its history, is incurably partisan. In two previous impeachments, Andrew Johnson’s had 0 cross-party votes, and Bill Clinton’s had 5. By real world standards, 10 is more bipartisan then it has ever been before.
  • It will take time to peel away voters, unwilling to recognize their own complicity, from those ringleaders who knowingly orchestrated and publicly legitimized the myth of a stolen election (however much they insist it was just normal political posturing or sensitivity to voter sentiment).
  • To ask for a recount, a judicial review, an investigation is not, in itself, an attempt to overturn an election, however frivolous it may be, however much performed merely as political posturing.
  • But to do so after those procedures have produced a result remarkable in its uniformity, that no significant fraud occurred — that is attempting to overturn an election (or to knowingly spread lies for future electoral advantage with reckless disregard for the damage done to democracy and constitutional procedures).

Needed: a Cure, Not a Remission

  • A huge chunk of American voters, as yet, still thinks the election was stolen. One recent poll showed that the percentage of Republicans who still believe the election was stolen was down to 45%.
  • While they cannot be allowed to dictate how this all plays out, neither can they be simply ignored.
  • If ignored, they and their leaders may spend an election cycle in the political wilderness, but they will regroup and return.
    • If you want a historical precedent, you need look no farther than the end of Reconstruction.
  • Trump backers must endure a lengthy, public, procedural examination of the claim of a stolen election, both of the many such procedures already completed and of new and newly proceeding ones without executive and legislative obstruction. They must endure a public examination of the ringleaders spreading the myth of a stolen election, AKA the big lie, which will clearly show the persistence of public officials (sworn to uphold the Constitution) in denying consensus procedural results well beyond the point at which any shred of credibility remained to them.
  • Of course, a significant fringe are beyond cure, but their standing and leverage within the Republican party will diminish, allowing more responsible leaders to regain control of that party.
  • Make no mistake: damage has been done. We’re doing triage here.
  • Ringleaders must be publicly shamed for the liars and subverters of democracy that they are.
  • But this must not become a morality play in which perfect poetic justice is dispensed.
  • It must be pragmatic and firmly focused on the long-term health of the nation.
  • That means the worst offenders must be held accountable, while lesser offenders, though complicit, must be let off.
  • Where to draw the line. Trump, obviously.
  • I would let off (though not happily) those who jumped ship early, having found lines they could not cross. That includes Mike Pence and Lindsay Graham, high profile defections that made the isolation of Trump possible.
  • For similar reasons, let off the would-be objectors to certification of the electoral college who backed off after the Capitol riot, while targeting all 8 senators who persisted, with Hawley and Cruz in their lead, and the most vocal ringleaders of those who did so in the House.
  • And, of course, all rioters convicted of criminal acts and any legislators or police caught aiding and assisting them.
  • If you want models of limited versus thorough targeting of the guilty, you need look no farther than the limited de-Nazification of Germany in 1945 and the thorough de-Baathization of Iraq in 2003.
    • In 1991, I supported (in retrospect, mistakenly and unwisely) the ban on all former Baath Party members from politics, precisely because of my moral revulsion at the “rehabilitation” of former Nazis outside the innermost circle.
    • But look at the results. Nazism became discredited and Germany transitioned to a stable democracy, while in Iraq, the sidelined former leadership strata became the organized core of the insurgency that undid whatever mission we had accomplished.
    • Grand gestures in the short-term do not compensate for disastrous failure in the long-term.

The Choice: Perfect Justice Now or Revived American Democracy in the Future?

  • The limited targeting strategy is the well-known investigation tactic of offering full or partial immunity to those lower-level figures so that they turn on the the higher-ups.
  • All the same moral queasiness applies, but it’s how you get real results. (The moral queasiness diminishes once you realize it’s the lawful alternative to confessions by torture.)
  • If the effort succeeds to tarnish the movement and its ringleaders in the eye of the publics who supported it, then many of those who escape direct punishment will be punished at the polls.
  • And, to be utterly Machiavellian about it, if that doesn’t happen, what have you accomplished? Their unrepentant supporters either reelect them or elect their clones, and they now have one more grievance to fuel their disregard of realities and constitutional restraints, with undiminished local clout.
    • But if many of their tarnished heroes lose elections, and the national clout of the remnant declines, losers and weaklings are less attractive to the demagogic temper than winners and strongmen.
  • The cure requires, in its second phase, a time in the political wilderness for the Republican party.
  • Every Republican, from McConnell on down, knows this lies ahead.
  • They are now in damage control. They were never going to simply roll over.
  • If the current majority — consisting of Democrats, reawakened Independents, and repentant or once and future Republicans — plays this well, the existing Republican party will split, weaken, spend an electoral cycle in the political wilderness, and then provide the opening for a reconquest of the party by the mainstream Republicans who had been turfed out by Tea Party Republicans.
  • This will hopefully be a chastened Republican party, newly reoriented toward the political center.
  • And if “hope” seems a weak support for a viable society, remember, democracy always rests on the hope that the electorate, given time, will recognize what is best for it.

Further Reading:

Procedural Truths Can Only Be Established Slowly

How does this play?

The Political Feedback Loop

  • Two significant blocs of voters disagree about the facts of the recent elections.
  • How can this be? Facts are facts, aren’t they?
  • What we call truth depends upon consensus.
  • Since people approach truth (especially value-laden political and social ones) with different predispositions, perspectives, and interests, consensus can only be achieved by a consensus about neutral consensus-establishing procedures acceptable to both parties, before consideration of the matter in dispute.
  • The scientific method plays this role in the realm of objective science, which is helpfully devoid of value-judgments (which unavoidably reflect the character, beliefs, and social identity of the one making them).
  • Even there, the consensus is only really firm among the scientific community, that is, experts trained, judged, and disciplined in accordance with that method.
  • The realm of politics and social and political norms is quite different.
  • In a democracy, representation splits the politically relevant into two classes, elected officials and voters.
  • Elected officials are representatives of the wills of their voters, not legal guardians who rule them (and overrule them) for their own good.
  • In short, elected officials must cater to the perceptions and views of their supporters, although they can try to influence those views, whether for the good of the voter or of the official.
  • Because officeholders must lead, while looking over their shoulders at the response of their voters, the political dynamic of democracy is that of political actors making displays before an audience of spectators.
  • This feedback loop between political actors and spectators means that spinning and posturing are unavoidable aspects of the behavior of elected officials.
  • In short, politicians are not reliable sources of truth.
  • The situation is complicated by other groups playing intermediary roles in the political process: challengers for office (non-incumbent candidates), activists, donors, and commentators (the media).
  • This problem is inherent because it comes from the process of representation itself.

Establishing a Consensus about an Election

  • Given then, that blocs of voters are predisposed to judge the fairness or the validity of an election differently, how does one form a consensus, when both power and personal vindication are at stake?
  • Fairness is the harder question, and is not soluble when the dispute is in process and a one-off. Was it fair to impose voter ID requirements? Was it fair to widen the scope of absentee voting? Neutral parties could perhaps make these judgments but parties to the dispute cannot be relied upon.
  • Validity offers a better prospect. Neutral, habitual, and observable procedures can produce a consensus for all who are willing.
  • And that is where the behaviors of Senators Hawley and Cruz are insupportable.
  • The only consensus procedures for determining validity of claims and counterclaims have all been used exhaustively, and both of these highly-educated men know that.
  • Juridical procedures. 61 lawsuits have been filed and judged (by a judiciary tilted toward Republicans), and 60 found baseless, with 1 claim of fraud found valid but negligible in size.
  • Investigative procedures (executive, legislative, criminal, journalistic). As much has been done here as was pragmatically possible (and massively more than in the Gore v. Bush election). I will mention specifically only the investigation by William Barr, then Attorney General, and a notable Trump ally.
  • Recounts. I believe all close votes in battleground states were audited in accordance with their varying state laws. The Georgia vote was recounted three times by Republican administration officials, once by hand to counter claims of voting machine fraud or failure.
  • Partisan spinning and conspiracy theories offer inexhaustible, ever more implausible scenarios of whatever arbitrary belief their advocates hold or claim to hold.
  • For in the value-laden realm of human social behavior the only consensual truths truths available are procedural ones.
  • For example, no jury trial can guarantee that the guilty are convicted and the innocent acquitted. They can only provide procedural justice, seeing that a fair trial was conducted, and that a reasonable judge and jurors followed procedures and made their judgments to the best of their abilities. To demand more — to demand that no verdict is just unless it accords with your own predisposition — that’s not procedural justice, that’s vigilante justice.
  • And that’s what was attempted at the U.S. Capitol, and that’s what Senators Hawley and Cruz continue to provide cover for.

What Has To Happen

  • Procedures for establishing consensual truths must be initiated at every level.
  • These are slow and laborious processes, and they will only add cumulatively to the conclusions already formed by those who have aimed beyond partisan advantage.
  • What are the procedures?
  • The public consideration of options like invocation of the 25th Amendment by the Cabinet, a hurried 2nd impeachment, or a more deliberate impeachment well into Biden’s tenure, which would not remove Trump from an office he no longer holds, but prevent him from running again and stigmatizing him further.
  • Resignations and denunciations of Trump by Republicans and administration officials, former donors and corporate sponsors, and declarations of his responsibility for the assault on the Capitol are another form of revelation from insiders, against their own prior personal and political interests.
  • Many lawsuits and criminal prosecutions, state and federal, will wind their inexorable way to conclusions, without the obstacles the executive office could raise against them.
  • Journalistic investigations will uncover more detailed and damning evidence of what is already abundantly clear.
  • None of this is entirely new, but the slow accumulation of ever more evidence, will make the costs of denying it higher to those like Hawley and Cruz who give cover for voters to sustain the myth of the stolen election.
  • Because this does not go away unless that myth is publicly and gruesomely vivisected in full view of public opinion.
  • And public opinion, neither trained in nor committed to standards of credibility, must be changed because, in politics, perception is reality.
  • A stubborn and persistent bloc believing in a “lost cause” is just storing up political trouble for the future. That’s what ended Reconstruction, which had looked like progress toward justice for a time.
  • The big lie becomes credible to the uncritical if repeated often enough; the awkward truth likewise gains credence through repetition and through the shaming of public figures shameless enough to deny it.

Prepare yourself for a Glacial Process

  • It will be glacial for two reasons, one strategic, one procedural.

Glacial, for “Strategic” Reasons

  • The strategic reason is that it will not be enough to sanction individual actors, whether rioters or collaborators captured on video, Trump himself, or his enablers (of various degrees), if masses of voters in the next round of Republican primaries continue to believe that the election was stolen.
  • Of course Mitch McConnell knows that, as do Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
  • McConnell cannot afford to get too far ahead of his voter base. He will be slowly and deliberately undermining and testing Trump’s support in the party, while closely monitoring public opinion, in general, in the Republican party, and among its primary voters (“the base”).
  • Pelosi and Schumer will happily initiate Congressional procedures and investigations, while following investigations led by the executive branch (Justice Department, FBI, Homeland Security), by state executives and police agencies, and by the press as well as judicial pronouncements on further electoral challenges and the under-consideration self-pardon). other branches of government, including the executive, before and after Biden’s ascension, police agencies at both federal and state levels, and judicial processes (re further electoral challenges and the constitutionality of Trump’s pardons, including the yet-possible attempt at a self-pardon).
  • They will be fine with these lengthy procedures, which will stretch into the 2022 election cycle, because they will be undermining, in an ongoing way, the respectability of continuing to support Trump and of believing in his baseless claims.
  • This would be unnecessary if politics were a morality play, but it’s not, and never has been.

The Myth of the Stolen Election

  • In order for the nation to begin to reunify, the myth of the stolen election must be slowly and publicly flayed alive, so that those who cling to it become more and more uncomfortable in doing so.
  • While new polls show that a large majority of Republicans repudiate the violence on Capital Hill, that does not translate directly into the abandonment of the stolen election myth.
  • Only this will give Republican leaders the safety to purge gradually the intransigent Trumpists (those for whom no line has been crossed, despite pro forma denunciations of the violence) from their party institutions (while rehabilitating more passive collaborators), both those controlled by elections (executive and legislative, at both federal and state levels) and those not (e.g., the Republican National Committee, their party donor organizations, etc.)
  • Short of that, the nation will remain dangerously polarized and dysfunctional, both internally (e.g., the pandemic response, the disinformation epidemic) and externally (e.g., the weakening of global alliances and “soft power”.
  • If the myth stays in place, Trump will remain a powerful distorting influence within the Republican party, especially in primaries in safe (mostly rural) districts.
  • As President-elect Biden has said “We need a Republican party. We need an opposition party that’s principled and strong.”
  • During the impeachment, Republicans argued that, the judgment on an elected President should come from those who elected him, not the Congress. Although at the time it was only a pretext for not taking seriously their constitutional duty to consider carefully the grounds for the impeachment of President Trump, they are now in the process of getting their wish.
  • Trump’s electoral loss was the first step, the loss of the Senate, the second, and, as investigations and revelations mount, the glacial movement of Republicans away from Trump must play out.
  • A swift condemnation endorsed by a razor-thin majority of voters will not do the job. That rejection of what Trump has led us to must be more broadly bipartisan, and must extend beyond the political elites to the rank-and-file of the Republican party.
  • And that will take time.
  • Evidence, this time endorsed by the leaders and leading lights of both parties, will have to pile up, a dull roar in the background of daily life, for this effect to play out.
  • Just as lies, when repeated again and again become taken for truths by those who uncritically accept what confirms their own biases, so too the relentless accumulation of evidence, once a line has been crossed, will do its slow work.

Glacial, for Procedural Reasons

  • [This part must wait until tomorrow, but here’s a teaser.]
  • In an era of heightened disinformation, how one establishes truth becomes the crux of politics.
  • Disputed truths, and their disputants, can only be brought to a consensus view of truth by procedures seen by both parties as neutral.
  • In the empirical sciences, this role is played by the scientific method, a painstaking, time-consuming, procedure acknowledged by anyone certified to produce empirical claims of truth, and monitored collectively by the community of trained experts involved in those researches.
  • But, in the realm of practice, where truth claims: 1) involve values (forms of personal commitment and, thus, of self-identity), 2) require assessing judgments that are not matters of simple measurement, and 3) depend not on trained experts professionally bound to the procedures, but on untrained non-experts, whose biases are not held in check by procedural constraints.
  • Practical life, too, has its consensus procedures — like legal procedures (lawsuits and trials), constitutional procedures, the judicial review of both of the preceding, and standards of journalistic credibility.
  • But all of these are more transparently conventions than the scientific method (and thus more disputed).
  • They are also long and laborious procedures, which allow much time (and multiple opportunities) equally for honest challenges, gamesmanship, and outright obstruction.
  • They don’t satisfy desires for immediate vindication, and they tax the attention span of casual public opinion, which is the great bulk of all public opinion, left and right, informed and uninformed.
  • These procedural consensus-builders take time.
  • But, if allowed to play out — and if public attention can be maintained — they will be death to the subversive attempts by such as Josh Hawley and Donald Trump to circumvent the procedures for establishing truth about disputed matters (so that their followers rely on their naked words, which are merely reflections of what they think their followers are predisposed to believe).
  • That’s how Joseph McCarthy’s status was diminished from that of a folk hero to a public villain.
  • The politics of impatience is the politics of disintegration.
  • That’s not what we need now.

Words Do Not Serve

Once You’ve Already Stepped in It…

  • Too late, after you’ve already stepped in it, to pretend you don’t notice the smell. But if you depend upon his audience, your options are limited.
  • The ones that are honorable are not attractive, and the ones that are attractive are not honorable.
  • The problem with standing up to a demagogue is that, if he has enough people fooled, defying him can be political suicide.
  • That’s what happened to many principled Republican politicians: among them Jeff Flake of Arizona, Bob Corker of Tennessee, likely John McCain of Arizona, had he lived, and, in his way, Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
  • Other Republican notables, who initially called him what he was, when crushed in the Republican primaries, became his toadies: Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and Ted Cruz of Texas among them.
  • The truth has been, all along, that Donald Trump is a serial norm breaker.
  • “Norms” are what humble folk like you and me call fairness, laws, and our Constitution.
  • The demagogue breaks norms , or not, guided solely by considerations of public relations — the “optics” of how it will play with his supporters.
  • Neither truth nor moral principles have anything to do with it.
  • The lawlessness of the demagogue, and the limited options of those publicly identified with him, remains in place, as his undoing begins to unfold.

Demagogue Prevention 101

  • Demagogue Prevention 101 is a course most voters don’t take until they’ve already stepped in it.
  • Apparently, it’s hard to see a demagogue for what he is, if he’s goring somebody else’s ox, particularly if that’s an ox you’d like to see gored.
  • The first lesson in DP 101 is what that fusty old word demagogue means. It means a political con man — someone who promises things they can’t deliver, but who plays superlatively to the grievances and prejudices of their targeted audience.
  • It’s a Greek word (demos, the people, gogue leader, but as used it always means a misleader).
  • The word is prominent in the critiques of radical, unstructured, or constitution-free democracy in Plato and Aristotle.
  • The concept, if not always the word, is prominent in Machiavelli, The Federalist Papers, and observers of the collapse of republics throughout their scant history, like Roman historians (Tacitus, Livy, and Sallust) looking back at the collapse of their republic, and voices of despair in the end days of the Weimar Republic. Conservative critics of democratic progressives have always warned of demagogues (even though demagogues work the Right as often as they work the Left).
  • The only difficulty in identifying demagogues is that all politicians, by electoral necessity, spin the truth — and spinning the truth runs right up against denying it and outright lying about it.
  • So, if a politician comes in your preferred flavor of Left or Right, but by the time they get to the outright lies, you’ve already bought into their worldview, drunk the Kool-Aid, put up your lawn sign, told off at Thanksgiving that obnoxious family member from the other side, whose gonna make you back down or admit you were wrong? You’re a voter and fiercely independent. Nobody’s gonna tell you what to think or how to vote!
  • That’s right, you’ve got skin in the game, reputation on the line, face that needs saving!
  • So, how do we get out of this?

Put the Ballot Down… Now Back Away from the Demagogue, Slowly…

Barbarians at the gate
  • Sometimes, the best way to deal with a demagogue, if he has first gained power, is to give way until the demagogue’s sense of what he can get away with carries him too far.
  • I think we’ve just seen that. (I’ve thought so before, but I have higher standards than many.)
  • “Enough is enough”, first from the lips of President-elect Joe Biden, repeated later that evening by Lindsay Graham, as he resigned his unofficial office as Senate-toady-in-chief.
  • Watch how the ground is shifting, now that the Donald has encouraged a farcical insurrection carried live on every media channel.
  • Mike Pence (Indiana) found a line he could not cross. So did Lindsay Graham (South Carolina). Several would-be objectors to the certification of the electoral college result also withdrew their intended objections: Steve Daines of Montana, James Lankford of Oklahoma, and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, with a few others; Tom Cotton of Arkansas had jumped ship earlier.
  • Notice, I’ve only listed politicians from red states and at-the-moment-purpling Georgia.
  • Still, don’t expect an all-out rush.
  • Mitch McConnell, a clockwork Machiavellian — glad to be rid of Trump — is not about to give up more power than he needs to, and electoral risks remain for him if he too precipitously dumps Trump.
    • It’s like leading a battlefield charge: keep an eye on those behind you, and don’t get too far out in front of them!
  • And the Democrats need him, for two reasons, one now, one later.
  • For the next two weeks, McConnell is still the Senate Majority Leader.
  • If you saw any of the certification vote and speechifying, you must have noticed how smoothly choreographed it was.
  • Schumer (D-NY), the incoming Majority Leader and McConnell (R-KY), outgoing, need one another now, and also later, when they switch roles as majority and minority leaders (remember the legislative filibuster?)
  • For now, they needed a smoothly choreographed Senate rebuke of the mob that attacked the Capitol (clearly encouraged by the President himself). By the time those who spearheaded Senate objections to certification got to speak (order of speaking is controlled by party leaders), the tone had been set, facts about completed investigations, court cases and recounts set out, and Republican critics and recent defectors, had set the tone.
  • Josh Hawley of Missouri, the first senator to declare support for the objection to certification (a freshman Senator who had staked his brand on so doing), stuck to his guns while deploring the mob violence.
  • McConnell is not about to press for Hawley’s expulsion (unless the interim replacement were securely in the hands of Republicans), but expect Hawley to be quietly blackballed and frozen out, as will others who don’t come back on side.
  • This will play out a lot like the government shutdowns of recent years. Politicians on both sides will posture and then wait to see what catches fire with public opinion, typically, who gets the blame. If the broadest swathe of public opinion attaches the blame for this where it belongs, on Trump himself, sitting Republicans will become bolder.
  • Watch for the peel-away to spread by degrees, if momentum builds, as more and more former Trump allies jump ship.
  • The situation is complicated, however, because in an electorate this polarized, there are effectively two public opinions, whose powers are manifest in the party primaries.
  • But I think (and hope) that — between the pandemic surging among the old in red states (it all depends whose ox is being gored) and Trump’s increasingly apparent desperation, loss of perspective, and the farcical nature of his failing efforts — a more centered swathe of his erstwhile supporters will wash their hands of him (and we’ll have to play along with their face-saving claims that if they’d ever foreseen this…)
  • And I think this is more than wishful thinking because — and especially among those attracted to a demagogue — nobody loves a loser, or a looney.

A Kinder, Gentler Era (2 of 2)

  • On August 18, 1988, George H.W. Bush accepted the Republican nomination for the presidency, calling for “a kinder, gentler nation”, perhaps anticipating the end of the Cold War in 1991.
  • Donald Trump, in 1990, 26 years before his improbable presidency, retorted “I think if this country gets any kinder or gentler, it’s literally going to cease to exist.”
  • So, who’s right?
  • Are we a kinder, gentler, nation, guiding the world through a kinder, gentler era?


Progress? or reversion? [Image source: @JasonDCMatthews on Twitter] (And, yes, post-1982 Spain should be dark blue, a member of NATO; his error, not mine.)
  • National sovereignty, independence, and annexation. We seem to be past the age of open conquest for territorial gain. But various forms of conflict and aggression still occur, both across sovereign borders and within them:
      • Territorial claims are now exercised only covertly (Russia’s “little green men” in the Donbas region of Ukraine), or by claiming traditional territories under some previous high-water mark of the nation (China re Taiwan, the Ryukus, and the Nine-Dashed-Line, Russia re Crimea, Serbia re Kosovo, Morocco re Spanish West Sahara), or as defensive (Turkey re its Syrian buffer zone).
      • Regional powers reasserting control in their “spheres of influence” (Russia in Ukraine and Belorussia, Iran in Iraq and Syria, Turkey in Iraq, Syria, and Libya).
      • National power recentralizing regional autonomy, often accompanied by internal colonizing by the dominant ethnic group (China re Tibet and Sinkiang, India re Kashmir, Israel re its Palestinian territories).
        • Much gentler disputes over regional autonomy and independence occur in Western republics (Spain re Catalonia and Basque country, United Kingdom re Scotland and Northern Ireland, Russia re Siberia, Canada re First Nations).
      • Internal resettlements of people have gone out of fashion, but were practiced most recently by Russia in the Caucasus and the partition of India and Pakistan post-WWII, by then-Apartheid South Africa in the creation of Bantustans, and by America in various resettlements of “sovereign” native American nations.
      • Proxy wars are local wars, often civil wars or rebellions in which hegemonic powers back opposing sides, whether overtly or covertly. They are viewed by the hegemonic powers as defensive wars in hegemonic struggles for allies and client states, although each side typically sees the other as an aggressor. In the post-WW II years the Cold War between rival world hegemons the United States and the Soviet Union gave rise to many such conflicts. Currently, in a more multipolar world, regional proxy wars, like those in Syria, Yemen, and the Congo have become increasingly common.
      • Border wars , like those between China and India, and China and Russia also occur.
    • Tragic as these modern conflicts may be, they are an improvement over the naked territorial conquest marking most of prior history.
    • Although WW II ended the era of great wars of aggression between European wolrd powers (latterly joined by Japan), the following Pax Americana only looked like an era of peace to affluent republics in Western Europe and North America.
    • Under the protection of NATO, the dominant hegemonic (and largely defensive) alliance, anchored by the American superpower, these nations no longer warred among themselves.
    • That world order is now fraying, as we move back into a multipolar world more typical of the bulk of history.
    • It remains to be seen how much of the qualified progress in the norms of geopolitics will survive that reversion to a more typical multipolar structure of geopolitical power.
  • Rules of warfare such as the Geneva conventions, and the defining and prohibiting war crimes, genocide, and torture as violations of human rights, have only been routinely applicable in the republics of the Free World. Authoritarian regimes and dictatorships permit themselves to violate human rights in their treatment of their own citizens, so are hardly likely to treat foreign civilians or soldiers better.
    • While all such rules are subject to violation under combat conditions, free republics have tended to honor them in official policy, a notable exception being the Gulf War II official American permitting of torture without lasting damage (e.g., waterboarding).
    • Even when supported by official policy, prosecutions of violations by its own soldiers (parallel to prosecutions of civil police) are more the exception than the rule.
  • Rogue nations have routinely ignored such prohibitions.
  • Authoritarian regimes routinely violate them also, but covertly with public denials.
    • Both the violation of rights and regional rivalries feature in the embarrassing case of Saudi Arabia’s assassination of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi (a Washington Post columnist), murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by known associates of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and whose corpse was dismembered with a bone saw, and carted out in a suitcase.
    • This became known only because the Turks, feuding with their regional Saudi rivals, released audio tapes of the murder from the bugged consulate.
  • China denounces Western notions of human rights as a non-Chinese vestiges of Atlanticist cultural imperialism.
  • Various qualifications:
    • War crimes and the tribunals that judge them, have always faced the charge of being victor’s justice. While the Nazis at Nuremburg got better justice than they gave, Soviet atrocities went unpunished. And civilian populations were spared by neither side, witness Hiroshima and the fire-bombing of Dresden.
    • The International Criminal Court ICC, similarly to the UN, cannot challenge great powers directly, as reflected by the refusal to join its member nations by China, India, and the United States, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Qatar and Israel. African leaders complain that it’s mostly used against African leaders, with the occasional Serb or Croat thrown in.
    • Genocide nowadays occurs primarily in second-tier states, the question for republics being whether they are obliged to intervene. Again, progress of a sort.
    • Asymmetrical warfare blurs the boundaries of warfare for both the non-state actors that take refuge in it and the states that oppose them. It has morphed from guerilla warfare into terrorism. Asymmetrical warfare is the weapon of the weak, so it is predictably opposed by great powers, who are not, however, above funding it when it is directed against their rivals, as America and Russia have taken turns doing in Afghanistan.
      • Terrorism is warfare conducted by non-state actors deliberately directed against civilian populations.
      • Weapons of mass destruction is warfare conducted by great powers which, because of its destructive scope is technically incapable of distinguishing between combatants and civilians.
      • Guerilla forces are quite as capable of committing atrocities as any other military forces.
      • Informational warfare has always existed, but has lately morphed from espionage and propaganda to hacking, disinformation, bot-driven disinformation, whose general purpose and effect is to undermine trust in all forms of authority, and no longer just political authority.
  • General principle: Empathy and inclusion within borders (as in free republics that respect human rights in their own citizens) creates expectations of empathy and inclusion across borders.
  • General issue: How much of the partial progress we have witnessed depends upon the comparative hegemony of the United States and its allies in NATO, the emerging Quad (the United States, India, Japan, and Australia), and a looser alliance of free republics?
Four Pacific powers drawn together by the newer, more belligerent phase of China’s rise
  • Possible futures:
    • Pax Americana continues in weakened form
    • Regression to multi-polar great powers with America and China as superpowers
    • Permanently-raised standards upheld by an alliance of republics with a less dominant America
    • A China-dominated world or some axis of Asian powers

Domestic Politics

  • In a following post , I will consider the current state of domestic politics, in a post to be entitled either:
    • Are Democracies Here to Stay?“, or
    • Can Democracies Thrive in a World Where They Aren’t Dominant?

A Kinder, Gentler Era? (Part 1)

We Have Changed

  • In my last post, starting from a comparison with the Roman Republic, I noted some harsher similarities than one normally sees between modern republics and those of the Roman or Renaissance eras.
  • Every partial analysis (the only kind publishable in blog form) is an overstatement of the featured characteristics, so I thought I’d redress the balance.
  • Thesis: Political motivations at the national level have changed.
    • The great shift from pre-modern to modern times is the shift from viewing the welfare of a nation and its citizens as depending, not on territorial growth and defense, but on economic growth and defense.
    • The great pivot point of this shift was the advent of classical liberalism, a reaction and solution to the sectarian warfare that had split Europe, setting Catholics and Protestants at one another’s throats.

Two Big Ideas

  • It’s two great ideas were:
    1. Separation of church and state, achieved by shielding religious faith — and its divisions — within a newly-created private sphere, free (in principle, if not always in fact) from public interference.
      • Seminal work: Locke’s Letter on Toleration
    2. Limited government, that is, putting certain rights of citizens and social institutions (like churches) outside the jurisdiction of sovereign political authority.
      • Seminal works: Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws
  • The first was a critical step in the modern shift from political identity based on cultural identity & differences to one based on common humanity. The second was a critical step in shifting ultimate authority and value from the interests of the collective to those of the individual.
  • But still, a nation can only function as a solitary political authority, however much this authority is limited in its jurisdiction and determined by defined procedures (e.g., elections).
    • This is true as well for federal systems, which cannot function without federal authority within a sovereign jurisdiction (a problem for America’s weakly federal Articles of Confederation and today’s EU).
  • But that authority — within its jurisdictional and procedural limits — will be determined by the interests of the groups holding power (officeholders, moneyed influencers, and voter demographic groups) in whatever weights and combinations prevail (de jure and de facto).

We’ve Changed… But Not That Much

  • In modern times, the interests of republics are determined by economic rather than territorial growth, so modern republics are less warlike, or at least more defensively than offensively warlike. (“Threaten our oil supply and we’re invading, whether we’re 1940’s Japan or 1990’s America.”)
  • Modern republican electorates are thus less ruthless in provoking wars of expansion, but their ruthlessness reemerges in defending themselves from what is perceived to impact their economic growth. Thus, in hard economic times electorates are open to ruthless appeals against whoever can be targeted as a scapegoat — a role usually played by foreigners, immigrants, minorities, and elites associated with the change, because these groups are culturally different and less able to defend themselves politically against a resentful electoral coalition of sufficient clout.
  • But rapid economic change always promotes the interests of those leading the change while undermining the interests of the rest. So, even economic progress, especially the dynamic and disruptive kind we are experiencing now (aptly described by the economist Joseph Schumpeter as “gales of creative destruction”) is perceived as economic decline by some groups, who organize political resistance to the threatening changes.

From Without, not from Within (Law, not Spirit)

  • This line of argument supports Kant’s insight that human moral progress, viewed historically, works form the outside in rather than from the inside out
  • Kant means that moral progress comes, in the aggregate, from an increasingly tightly-woven rule of law, not from “spiritual rebirth”.
  • In the aggregate the lowest common denominator dominates, and that’s self-interest, the motive spring of a biological survival machine.
  • Only increasing law and regulation makes human beings better. New social conditions, imposed from without, constrain survival machines, in the aggregate, to adapt to them.
  • Take that, starry-eyed utopians!
    • Though I concede that, growing up under and adapting to better laws, develops more cooperative and less belligerent habits and characters.
  • Take that, libertarian dreamers!
    • That’s not a blanket endorsement of regulation. Good regulation must be balanced, pragmatic, and politically realistic. The ever more gargantuan bills of modern legislation, much of their length driven by lobbying, suggests something gone awry. That growing complexity diverts increasing effort from economically productive to non-productive tasks, and to navigate it requires expertise available only to the affluent.

  • In my coming Saturday post, I’ll consider two further aspects of this problem:
    1. Are today’s kinder, gentler republics a result of permanent human moral progress? or of a Pax Americana, that depended upon a diminishing American hegemony?
    2. Has humanity permanently progressed beyond such evils as slavery, genocide, and territorial conquest? Or do they still occur in disguised and denied forms, especially outside areas controlled by the broad alliance of free republics (i.e., NATO + friends)?

How Ruthless Are Modern Republics?

  • I’ve been reading heaps of Roman history (with a little Chinese and American history thrown in for perspective and comparison) in preparation for reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, his work on republics, which is no less ruthless than The Prince
  • If you doubt that modern republics are as ruthless as ancient ones, read John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, remembering that republics were overrepresented among the nowadays much reviled colonial powers: The British, the French, the Dutch.   
  • When it comes to survival and preeminence, modern republics are little less ruthless than ancient ones.  True, Hiroshima was more polite than the razing of Carthage (an unfortunate side-effect of ending the threat rather than a street-by-street massacre, but it comes to the same thing in the end).
  • True, nations nowadays, by and large, respect sovereign boundaries, but that comes with two big caveats:
    • Russia has set a precedent for great powers routinely violating national sovereignty, and China, Iran, and Turkey are testing the boundaries.  The seeming worldwide acceptance of national sovereignty within international law may have been a by-product of a fading American hegemony.
    • First working through non-state actors and now Internet hacking and trolling have become effective ways to violate sovereignty without openly doing so.
  • True, nativist outbursts in modern republics no longer seek national prosperity in conquest and annexation, but the populist scapegoating of foreigners, experts, elites (and other suspicious characters) is a less bloodthirsty, more insular and culturally narcissistic form of ruthlessness.
    • Nativists want history to stop while they remain comfortably on top, and when that position feels threatened, they can become ruthless in their domestic political actions and constitutional challenges.  (But that varies by degrees, usually depending upon how closely tied their political futures are to the demagogue who channels their voice; and that’s as true of demographic groups as of sitting politicians.)
  • So, it seems, modern republics engage in a kinder, gentler form of ruthlessness, but ruthlessness nonetheless.
  • Are progressive demographic groups as ruthless as nativist ones, when they hold power?
  • Ruthlessness increases on both extremes. Leftist autocrats (e.g., communists) are as ruthless as rightist autocrats.
  • Left- and right-wingers who still support popular elections and constitutionally limited powers will play political hardball, but without crossing certain lines. Opponents may be demonized and opposition voting suppressed using legal pretexts (e.g., gerrymandering). Still ugly, but gentler than purges and proscriptions.
  • Nativists are more prone to these vices than progressives, who stick to demonizing the wealthy without disenfranchising them.
  • I will grant that the global elites of the faded neoliberal “Washington consensus” often pushed policies that disrupted the livelihoods of trailing demographic groups, with less concern for that than the members of those groups.
  • But that, sadly, is all politics. The groups with the bit in their teeth run in the direction that seems best to them with scant regard for those who either disagree or whose decline is hastened by the latest form of assumed progress (or by returning to a past better, certainly, for those pushing for it).
  • Neoliberal policies foresee a common good fueled by Schumpeter’s creative destruction, perfectly illustrated by the current serial disruption of industries by the digital economic revolution, which uses information and expert knowledge (both human and machine-based) to provide services and products remotely through the digital cloud.
  • Your basic standard of living now depends upon skill sets different from those that sufficed in the smokestack industries of the 1950’s, in a world where America was (for a time) the last industrial power standing.
  • But this is as much the doing of history and of the ongoing development of technology as of an emerging elite.
    • You could say that technological progress buried the Soviet smokestack economy, but took another quarter century to overshadow the rural and hinterland manufacturing tail ends of dynamic Western economies.
  • In history, as much as in sport, there is no gain without pain.
  • Certainly, the groups that most benefit could be better about accommodating the trailing groups. But two things work against that:
    • Every person and group knows its own benefit and its own pains more than those of others, so those in power can only rule imperfectly on behalf of those not now in power.
      • But the attitude of pragmatists and centrists who understand that they must compromise does better than the more extreme, ideology- and identity-stoked attitudes of wing groups, whose dogmatic certainty and perpetually-renewed groupthink makes them unwilling to compromise or respectfully negotiate.
    • The groups losing ground from these changes must recognize the real causes and not let themselves be led astray by demagogues and con-men who peddle scapegoats and conspiracies, which are easier to swallow than that that one’s preferred way of life is not adequate to coming times. It’s easier to demonize enemies in the here and now than to imagine a new life under changing circumstances.
    • In Machiavelli’s words “nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders. For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old order as enemies, and he has but lukewarm defenders in all those who might benefit from the new orders. This lukewarmness arises partly from fear of adversaries who have the laws on their side and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not truly believe in new things unless they come to have a firm experience of them.” (The Prince, Chapter VI)
  • So, are modern republics less ruthless than republics of old?
  • To a great degree, yes, but that doesn’t extend to political civility when previously secure groups feel threatened either economically or culturally. Then it’s back to uncivil disharmony.
    • Interestingly, our old friend Machiavelli saw Rome’s greatness as originating in the frictions between its have’s and have not’, providing the drives that fueled fresh conquests. If conquest no longer measures national greatness, economic progress (and, yes, economic hegemony) still does.
    • That’s why there’s really no choice about whether or not to embrace the future.
    • Nations that try to stand apart from historical progress at best go into a dream state from which they eventually waken to find themselves no longer strong and no longer the standard of good living (China and Japan in the early 1800’s, and China again under Mao).

Human Beings, the Divided Animal

  • We, as human beings, are two things at once, deterministic biological survival machines and moral agents.
  • The biological machine is an empirically observable being built from genetically-regulated organic chemicals engineered bottom-up by natural selection, while the moral agent is an abiding potentiality of the organism-based powers of thinking, foreseeing, and the sharing of thoughts and foresight in language.
    • Thinking has two aspects, generalizing into categories and drawing logical inferences from the relations of those general categories and applying generalized inferences to the particular cases before us.
    • The former is the basis of theory, the latter the basis of practice; theory relies on methodical thinking, practice relies on experiential judgment.
    • Practice pursues ends, and ends are derived from living agents, because ends are without significance to the lifeless and the inert, the ultimate objects of the reductive methodology known as science.
    • All ends arise from living organisms, and all either originate from or depend upon the original Darwinian end of all organisms: survival.
    • Theory, because its power is drawn from concepts which are innately general because their function is to link particular experiences under general rules (whether of theory or practice), produces conclusions independent of the particular, the individual, the idiosyncratic, and thus of the individual organism’s interest in its own survival..
    • 1) Thus, theory makes possible general (perhaps even universal) laws that can apply to a general category like moral agent. Specifically, theory makes possible the conception of moral principles aiming at, not the individual’s own good, but the general good of moral agents.
    • 2) The theoretical aspirations of morality are always a second nature overlay upon the primary nature of the biological survival machine, an ever-present potential, but often overridden by the impulses of the organism or disguised by adherence to the ingrained and enforced norms of its social groups.
    • 3) These two aspects of human nature, primary and secondary, can lead in different directions but can also overlap.
      1. The evolved impulse to individual and group survival, the former guided by the pleasure principle, the latter by social conditioning with its rewards and punishments (such incentives, when effective, pay individuals in personal benefits for actions yielding social benefits).
      2. The aspirational commitment to the good of moral agents in general.
      3. Adherence to the good of society can approach aspirational morality, to the extent that it subordinates the agent’s personal good to a wider good and to the extent that society’s good is determined with respect to the good for all members rather than primarily to the good for dominant groups.
  • If this be dualism, it is dualism of a non-Cartesian kind (two substances: body & soul); it is Kantian (two perspectives: observable & aspirational).
  • In this Kantian dualism, the measure of free will (I prefer Aristotle’s more metaphysically neutral term, choice (prohairesis, in Aristotle’s Greek) is not an exemption from determinism (at least not from its compatibilist formulation, as in Daniel Dennett), for determinism is the operational hypothesis required by empirical science, a rational construct openly designed to maximize the reliability of hypotheses, once they are confirmed by predicting the results of the systematic manipulation of measurable objects .
  • Rather, the measure of choice is its accordance with a justifiable rational schema.
  • But to the extent that seeming choices can be manipulated and measured, justification is superfluous, and they no longer count as choices.
    • For example, if someone accuses you of having acted badly, the appropriate response is not that you did out of fear or greed, but a justification of the course you chose by a rationale that can be scrutinized and, in principle if not always in practice, agreed to by other rational agents.
    • A second example is confessions forced by torture. Forced confessions are deemed invalid in credible courts, being seen not as an agent freely choosing to accept responsibility for their actions, but as as an agent reduced to forced choices undermining their own agency.
  • That is what we mean by choice (and its sister term, responsibility) in practice; and it’s all we can mean by it in theory.
  • We want what we want as organisms, but we also wish to view ourselves positively as moral agents (we like to think we’re good).
  • We have the capacity for being rational beings, and we like to think of ourselves as that. There is a relentless if sporadic tension between our two selves, a cold war in which evolving hot spots flare up and then subside in an unstable armed truce.
  • We wish to be good, while reserving the leeway to be naughty, on occasion, if it’s not too bad and no one sees us. But “not too bad” is a slippery slope, and those with power and influence can make their misdeeds socially invisible (i.e., only the victims see and feel the evil, until illuminated by the Me-Too and Black Lives Matter movements).
    • Think of the relapse into sin or addiction; think of the-heat-of-the-moment reversions to suppressed earlier versions of ourselves; think of the recurring flareups of xenophobia and all the other hatreds.
  • So, are we basically rational continents resting securely atop slowly shifting primal tectonic plates of irrational self-centered desires (or are we thin veneers of rationalization overlaying boiling cores of primal drives)? Or does that vary from person to person and from group to group?
    • For David Hume (Scottish Enlightenment empiricist), or Jonathan Haidt (contemporary empirical psychologist), this irresolvable ambiguity shows the limits of reason, but both think well-balanced sets of cultural values can suffice for a worthwhile life.
    • For Kant (Enlightenment rationalist) only reason can save us, making us aspirational moral agents eternally vigilant against the irrational animal within which our reason is lodged.
    • For Augustine (here taken as representing the Abrahamic faiths), that is the sad limit of life on earth, from which only divine redemption can save us.
  • Or are we just moral agents? having a rational potential which permanently outpaces every attempt at its realization?

Quotations on Life and Happiness

  • Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking. Marcus Aurelius
  • I’m an old man. I’ve been through terrible things, some of which actually happened. Mark Twain
  • Happiness can exist only in acceptance. George Orwell [Pretty ambiguous, considering its source.]
  • Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value. Albert Einstein
  • Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it. Confucius
  • Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever. Mahatma Gandhi

Uncertainty, Contingency, Assumptions, and Dialectic

Two Austrians and a Prussian walk into a bar…

  • In the Incompleteness Theorems of 1931, Kurt Goedel (favorite walking companion of Albert Einstein, when both worked at the Institute for Advanced Study, located in Princeton, NJ) published a proof that no formal mathematical system could simultaneously be shown to be both valid and complete.
    • This can be roughly translated into layman’s non-mathematical terms as: no proofs can avoid relying on at least some fundamental assumptions, which though taken to be true, cannot be proven.
    • If no purely formal mathematical system determined entirely by logical deduction from its defining assumptions could be known with certainty to be complete and fully self-proving, nothing with any element of empirical contingency can be so known.
  • In 1781 Immanuel Kant argued, in his Critique of Pure Reason (in “The Antinomy of Pure Reason“, pp. 384-429 tr. Norman Kemp Smith, New York: St. Martin’s Press; 1965) that four fundamental questions crucial to knowing our world were unanswerable.
    • These four questions could be set out as four paired contradictory theses, each seemingly provable:
      1. Is the world with or without beginnings, limits, and endings in space and time?
      2. Is matter composed of least parts or is it infinitely divisible?
      3. Does the causality of natural laws determine all events in the world or does autonomous free will exist alongside it?
      4. Does an absolutely necessary being (God) exist either within the world or outside it as its cause?
    • Each of the eight proofs (4 questions times 2 theses) uses the same kind of proof: reductio ad absurdum — the procedure in which one sets aside the assumption one means to prove, assumes the contrary, shows the impossibility of that contrary, and thereby claims to have proven the assumption. Each pair of contradictory proofs proves its partner false. Think of it as the logical and metaphysical equivalent of the nuclear war failsafe of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).
    • Kant’s analysis of this paradox was that neither of each set of opposed theses (i.e., assumptions) were provable, because both assumed the observation of an infinite sequence, something impossible for human minds.
  • Karl Popper elevated the general truth of the scientific method — that no experimental proofs were in principle final, but always subject to possible revision due to new evidence — into the formal principle of Falsificationism, that all empirically-determined truths are provisional, that is, the only certainty is that they have survived all previous attempts to refute them, but never the full infinite sequence of possible refutations extending into the future.
  • Goedel shows that even the most deductively necessary conclusions are never free of all assumptions, and thus are not entirely self-supporting: no proof proves itself without relying on assumptions.
  • Kant shows that there are no possible assumption-free answers to metaphysical questions about the complete and ultimate sequence of any observable sequence.
  • Popper clarifies, what the scientific method (in principle permanently self-correcting because never free from the risk of refutation by the continued application of the scientific method) already proclaims, that all empirically-confirmable truths are provisional, resting on contingent assumptions.
  • In sum, at the logical-mathematical, metaphysical, and empirical levels, all truths are provisional in that they are anchored by fundamental assumptions which are themselves beyond proof.
  • This does not mean that truths are relative. That is the easy way out for lazy minds.
  • It means that all thinking is hypothetical. Thinking is informed by methods for building upon assumptions, using empirical evidence where pertinent.
  • Put differently, rigorous thinking is the construction of models, using one of several methods (logical, mathematical, empirical, etc.) to match against our experience of the world.
    • A less rigorous kind of thinking — much less certain, probabilistic rather than provable, yet much more applicable in pursuing the goals of practical life — substitutes judgments and associations drawn from personal experience for the discipline-defining practices and standards of the more rigorous methods.
  • If this is correct, and all thinking is hypothetical, then the most overarching method of thinking must be dialectical, that is, it must trace the flow-chart of viable alternative models built by the various methods from the various assumptions. This must continue indefinitely until a given assumption or method can be refuted or improved upon, at which point the overarching flow-chart of pathways is modified to reflect that result.

Thinking German, Talking Irish, on Big Questions, with Banter

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