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A few talking points on specious comparisons between Trump’s Muslim Ban and Obama’s 2011 actions

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The next time someone blithely tells you that Trump’s Muslim ban is no different from Obama’s 2011 order, here are a few things to note.

  • Obama didn’t make a major decision with sweeping consequences without any consultation or vetting by the people responsible for implementing the policy on a Friday, leaving it to individual CBP personnel to figure out at airports what the order did or did not say. The result has been chaos and numerous lawsuits.
  • Obama did not take action that directly contradicted the consensus of the State Department and intelligence community in the name of fighting terror.
  • Trump kept his own national security officials out of the loop – his Defense Secretary, Homeland Security Secretary, and State Department nominee have all reported that they were not aware of the details of the directive until Trump signed it.
  • Trump worked with GOP House Judiciary Committee senior staffers on the language and directed them to not tell GOP leadership.
  • Obama did not act in the absence of an actual, concrete threat.
  • Obama did not violate statutory obligations of the Geneva convention on refugees by arbitrarily banning vetted refugees from entering the country.
  • The Obama administration did not target permanent residents as well as new applicants. The Trump administration specifically clarified to the DHS that their ban does apply to green card holders, and only pulled back after massive outcry.
  • Obama was not enjoined by a Federal Magistrate from committing “further acts and misconduct in violation of the Constitution.” No president has EVER been thus advised from the bench in our nation’s history.
  • Obama was not following up from a campaign in which he specifically called for a ban on Muslims. For example, from the official Trump campaign website: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
  • Obama does not have a history of repeating falsehoods and ugly, bigoted, false stories about Muslims.
  • Statements that the seven countries targeted by the Executive Order were identified by Obama are misleading at best.

The Washington Post has some additional discussion.


Written by Mesocosm

January 30, 2017 at 12:27 pm

Posted in Trump

Possible Constitutional Crisis Brewing in Dulles Airport

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It’s late and I’m traveling for work, but I want to put something brief out on a story that is insanely under-reported at this time. I’m way beyond baffled – this may well prove to be the biggest story of the last ten days.

In brief, CBP officers at Dulles airport refused to comply with the orders of a Federal Magistrate and allow attorneys to see detainees who are in their custody pursuant to the Trump Executive Order. Attorneys for the detainees were told in a handwritten message “It’s not going to happen.” I cannot overstate the gravity of this situation.

Four members of the House of Representatives attempted to meet with the CBP and were turned away.

Rep. Don Beyer tweeted earlier today:

We have a constitutional crisis today. Four Members of Congress asked CBP officials to enforce a federal court order and were turned away.

If the Trump administration supports the CBP position, this will constitute the greatest Constitutional crisis since the Saturday Night Massacre in 1973.

For some insane reason that is completely crazy and totally opaque to me, this story hasn’t been picked up by major national media. I have been reading about it for hours from blogs and Twitter before Slate finally wrote about it, followed by the Guardian late this afternoon.

More coverage

Now CNN is covering this issue (finally). It appears to be ongoing.

Written by Mesocosm

January 29, 2017 at 11:21 pm

Posted in Trump

What is Populism?

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Today I’m going to look at Jan-Werner Müller’s short book What is Populism?

This timely volume is invaluable for bringing conceptual clarity to the analysis of populism, an often murky and poorly-defined concept that is, as we all know, having a heyday in Europe and the Americas. 

In Müller’s analysis, populists claim a special mandate for speaking on behalf of the people, where the people is clearly understood to mean the real people, or the people who matter, not all of the people.

Populist politicians contrast the “real people” to the tiny elites who have captured governance. For example, from Trump’s inaugural address:

Today’s ceremony, however, has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the American People.

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed.

The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land.

That all changes — starting right here, and right now, because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.

It belongs to everyone gathered here today and everyone watching all across America. This is your day. This is your celebration. And this, the United States of America, is your country.

In Trump’s view, his victory is no less than an epochal shift from the business-as-usual capture of government by special interests to the restoration of the authority of the “American People,” who were shut out entirely for the last eight years, if not longer.

In other words, the democratically-elected Obama administration did not represent the “real America,” although his electoral victories were much stronger than Trump’s. In fact, not only are Obama’s policies viewed as anti-American, but Trump bizarrely insisted for years that Obama is not even an American.

Müller describes the intersection of the anti-pluralist and anti-democratic elements of populism in the following way:

What distinguishes democratic politicians from populists is that the former make representative claims in the form of something like hypotheses that can be empirically disproven on the basis of the actual results of regular procedures and institutions like elections. Or, as Paulina Ochoa Espejo has argued, democrats make claims about the people that are self-limiting and are conceived of as falsifiable. In some sense, they’d have to subscribe to Beckett’s famous words in Westword Ho: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Populists, by contrast, will persist with their representative claim no matter what; because their claim is of a moral and symbolic – not an empirical – nature, it cannot be disproven. When in opposition, populists are bound to cast doubt on the institutions that produce ‘morally wrong’ outcomes. Hence they can accurately be described as ‘enemies of institutions’ – although not of institutions in general. They are merely the enemies of mechanisms of representation that fail to validate their claim to exclusive moral representation.

Timothy Gordon Ash extends this important analysis in his review of What is Populism? in the New York Review of Books:

The appeal, then, to common sense, is a parallel strategy for negating the role of authority as it has traditionally been understood in democratic cultures, as deriving from experience, expertise, training, evidence, and argument.

This, I submit, is precisely why Trump insists on claiming that he has an overwhelming mandate, in clear defiance of all abundant evidence to contrary. He is claiming that his legitimacy derives from the will of the people in order to justify acting outside of traditional norms and structures, which he regards as impediments to the efficient execution of plainly-warranted action. 

Thus, the White House continues to insist that Trump won a “landslide victory,” baldly asserting this again and again in face of obvious and overwhelming counter-evidence, such as the fact that he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes, and came in 46th out of 58 elections in electoral college votes.

To this we add the bizarre spectacle of White House spokesman Sean Spicer contradicting photographic evidence showing that the inauguration had a very poor turnout, leaving baffled editors to write “Not The Onion” headlines like White House press secretary attacks media for accurately reporting inauguration crowds.

Müller’s analysis, I would argue, goes a long way toward explaining why we’re seeing this odd behavior. This is a strategic gesture that serves at least two ends.

First, Trump insists on an overwhelming mandate from the people as a way of grounding his all-encompassing legitimacy and authority in the popular will. Trump systematically delegitimizes traditional norms and institutions and claims unfettered authority for himself as a spokesperson for the people.

Second, by seizing every opportunity to flatly contradict the consensus of the mainstream press, Trump provides more and more evidence to his base that all reporters are liars. As he stated yesterday, “I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth.”

Remember, because populists speak for the people, there can be no legitimate opposition. As Müller put it, anticipating Trump’s many diatribes, “Other political competitors are just part of the immoral, corrupt elite, or so populists say, while not having power themselves; when in government, they will not recognize anything like a legitimate opposition.”

This is why Trump characterizes his opponents relentlessly as disloyal, or enemies, or criminal, or not American.

Repeating accusations about the “lying media” over and over again makes it a leitmotif that his base can easily recognize. Through repetition, it takes on a matter-of-fact quality that allows one to dismiss any assertion by the media, no matter how carefully documented, as just another example of the well-known fact that the corporate media has it in for Trump, and for the “real America.”

In my previous posts analyzing the increasing failure of reason and evidence to serve their traditional roles as the basis for democratic deliberation, I spent considerable time unpacking the idea of common sense, or ideas that are taken to be obvious facts of the world.

Populism thrives on such “common sense.” Its representatives reduce complex social problems to simple models with simple policy solutions, often based on reasserting shared, rigid understanding of the boundaries of the real community. The problem is elites and foreigners, the solution is lock ‘em up and build the wall. It’s common sense.

As Müller observes:

[T]he emphasis on a singular common good that is clearly comprehensible to common sense and capable of being articulated as a singularly correct policy that can be collectively willed at least partly explains why populism is so often associated with the idea of an oversimplification of policy changes.

Dealing with Populism

So how do we deal with populism? To answer this key question, Müller focuses primarily on how to accurately describe,  analyze, and engage with populists. One noteworthy suggestion is that mainstream parties and media outlets have often tried isolating them, refusing to engage with populist parties and politicians. This approach, Müller warns, frequently backfires, because it feeds into the central populist narrative that their concerns are ignored and marginalized by the political elite.

Müller also warns against obvious tactics that are likewise self-defeating, such as “proving” that populists are themselves part of the very elite they claim to criticize:

It scores no points to prove that Trump is part of the elite – everyone knows that. What matters is that he’s perceived as part of the “right elite,” and that they will faithfully execute the people’s unambiguously articulated political agenda.

Let’s all take careful note of this important point – we should take it to heart. This approach is a waste of time.

As an alternative strategy, Müller argues for direct engagement on the strength of the issues. In this, he reminds me of Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago, who compared Trump’s populism to that of former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Zingales warned that the politics of outrage and protest are counter-productive, pointing out that Berlusconi was only defeated by politicians who disregarded the sideshow, treated him as an ordinary opponent, and focused on issues.

Müller argues forcefully that we must compete with populism by opposing it with better ideas and better action. He wants us to take populism seriously on its own terms and engage it on the policy level. He warns against the “dead end” of trying to understand populism as an expression of anger or frustration by the electorate, or as a political ideology symptomatic of an underlying personality type, such as authoritarian. 

These explanations are simply reductive, in his view – that is to say, they do not offer any explanation, they simply explain it away.

He further warns against taking populism as indicative of bad reasoning or poor education, pointing out that these charges actually exemplify the very elitism that populists criticize. We should not try to find pathology in it, but take it seriously as an expression of ideas and beliefs.

I have several problems with this approach. Much as I would like to believe that fundamental issues of political relevance can be decided on the strength of ideas and evidence, the clear fact of the matter is that this has failed to happen in crucial domains.

There is simply no rational basis for anyone to maintain at this point that Obama was not a legitimate president because he is a Muslim – that is false, and, further, is patently absurd and quite racist. When reason and evidence fail to sway people with respect to the basic facts of the world, such as climate change, we have a very serious problem. 

I do think we have to take seriously the possibility that populism appeals primarily to people who are not adept at abstract conceptual thinking – this is a large part of the appeal of its conceptual simplicity.

We do have empirical support for this conclusion – for example, see Nate Silver’s lengthy analysis in which he concludes that “it appears as though educational levels are the critical factor in predicting shifts in the vote between 2012 and 2016,” with lower education correlating strongly with support for Trump.

I do not agree that explaining populism as symptomatic of frustration or anger, or of particular personality types or processing styles, is necessarily reductive. There is a tradition of ideological analysis called strain theory, for example, that is based on the theory that ideologies are primarily symptomatic of social stresses and frustrations. Such a view can be the beginning of a deeper analysis rather than the end of critical engagement.

We also have to be serious about the degree to which Trump will refuse to engage in dialog with anyone outside of his entourage of cheerleaders and yes-men. In his last press conference, he was centrally occupied by berating the press and refusing to answer pressing questions. I honestly don’t know what engagement with these people would like.

Furthermore, the question that occupies me more and more as I work to formulate my own strategy of opposition is this: If Trump has not plainly shown himself to be a corrupt, incompetent buffoon in the eyes of his base through his own words and actions, what more could anyone else possibly add through any criticism? Trump said at a campaign rally that he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” and the available evidence suggests that he’s right.

Nevertheless, fight we must, and I’d like to conclude with a pointed quote from the book which explains why populism is a problem per se, and why we must oppose it, if we believe in democracy:

We might want to say that the real problem with populism is its denial of diversity effectively amounts to denying the status of certain citizens as free and equal. These citizens might not be excluded officially, but the public legitimacy of their individual values, ideas of what makes for the good life, and even material interests are effectively called into question and even declared not to count. As John Rawls argued, accepting pluralism is not a recognition of the empirical fact that we live in diverse societies; rather, it amounts to a commitment to try to find fair terms of sharing the same political space with others whom we respect as free and equal but also as irreducibly different in their identities and interests. Denying pluralism in this sense amounts to saying “I can only live in a political world where my conception of the polity, or my personal view of who is a real American, gets to trump all others.” This is simply not a democratic perspective on politics.

As I hope is clear, I found this book extraordinarily useful, and would very highly recommend it to any interested reader. It’s scarcely over 100 pages long and provides a stellar guide to the strange and ugly terrain that we find ourselves in. This is clearly the political crisis of our current times.

Next time I’d like to look at some rather different takes on populism through the eyes of two of the great European thinkers working today: the French economist Thomas Piketty and the German political philosopher Jürgen Habermas.

Written by Mesocosm

January 22, 2017 at 3:28 pm

Posted in post-truth, Trump

A More Perfect Union

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“It can be said that establishing a universal and lasting peace constitutes not merely a part of the doctrine of right but rather the entire final end of the doctrine of right within the limits of reason alone.” – Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals

People rally to platforms that inspire them; that awaken their hearts to possibility, speak to their interests, and comfort their fears – so long as they are competently represented and communicated by plain speech. In Strategies for Opposing Trump’s Agenda, I stressed the importance of building such a platform rather than focusing excessively on criticism, as elections are better won, and more easily, by enthusiasm than by fear.

Today my purpose is to think through a few of the particulars of what such a platform might look like, and begin the longer process of sketching it out. I will focus on a vision of a just and equitable internationalism based on democratic norms, which strikes me as a much more desirable outcome than the chauvinistic nativism and unilateralism espoused by Mr. Trump and his ardent supporters.

Why have so many great minds of recent centuries, such as Goethe, Schiller, Kant, Humboldt, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King – not just great thinkers, but great human beings – regarded openness and interchange with other nations of the world to be a general good?

It is not merely because of the enormous material benefits conferred by the easy, uninhibited flow of peoples, goods, and ideas across borders, great as that may be. But the deeper purpose is a commitment to the mutuality that dawns when many nations forge deep economic ties, and thereby bind themselves to a common destiny. In this we see a recognition of our common humanity reflected in the very fabric of our society, and that is something true and good.

Let us not forget that Europe, in the period of internationalism following World War II, has seen the longest uninterrupted peace in its recorded history. That is no mean achievement, and before we move to dismantle the political framework that has been an integral part of it, we must examine the problems that would move us to do so, and consider the best available solutions, with the utmost care.

In Europe and the United States, many people have become skeptical of globalization for two primary reasons. First, the great majority of persons have been systematically excluded from sharing in the benefits, and second, they increasingly feel out of control of the decisions being made by elites.

Attributing the economic woes of recent decades primarily to globalization is, I believe, a serious error, and retreating to a defensive posture of protectionism will not fix them. The underlying problem that I see is the failure of the global economic and political establishment to control exploding inequalities in wages and capital accumulations, and the failure to ground international cooperation in real democratic accountability. The elites who have managed globalization in the United States and Europe for the last few decades have been catastrophically indifferent to these effects – until now.

In the United States, as is well known, real wages have stagnated for decades across the board for every income group except the very wealthiest – the famous “1%,” or more accurately, the top .1% of income earners.

This economic stagnation has been exacerbated by the increased role of automation in displacing workers, and shocks such as the financial crisis of 2008. The situation is moderately better in Europe for income inequality, but wealth inequality remains extremely high.

Over the last 20 years, the EU has undergone a crisis of democratic legitimacy, because the mechanisms of economic union are strong, while the mechanisms of political union have remained weak. As the Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff sardonically noted, “Europe is like a couple that wasn’t sure they wanted to get married, so they decided to just open a joint checking account and see how things went.”

In good times, the lack of strong democratic structures for establishing a legitimate, deliberated consensus among member states could be tolerated, but when Brussels, led by Germany and France, pushed southern states hard to adopt punishing austerity regimes as a condition for debt reduction, political tensions regarding the sovereign rights of member states have rightly exploded.

An analogous but not identical problem exists in the United States, where economic inequality is the outcome of policy decisions that are overwhelmingly monopolized by wealthy elites. In a much-cited 2014 study, for example, Gilens and Page found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.”

In the span of this blog post I wish only to achieve a cursory sketch of the problem, which I believe is deeply rooted in the crisis of democratic legitimacy and economic inequality, and to offer my thumbnail sketch of the solution, which consists, in essence, of working cooperatively toward a more perfect international union, in which conflict and trade can be mediated by nonviolent procedures and deliberation, enshrined in a basic concept of fundamental, universal human rights.

That requires progressive tax policies, reformed domestic and international political mechanisms, including the repeal of Citizens United and the establishment of a European constitutional congress with real power and real accountability to member-states, and working toward the establishment of a global tax on capital as a way – probably the only way – of combating the strategies commonly used by global corporations and wealthy individuals to circumvent their tax obligations.

I will look in greater detail at all of these proposals in future posts.

Written by Mesocosm

December 7, 2016 at 10:32 am

Posted in Foreign Policy, Trump

Strategies for Opposing Trump’s Agenda

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A number of articles have appeared in recent weeks with calls to action for concerned people who wish to oppose Trump’s destructive agenda. We clearly have good reason for serious concern – his cabinet nominations have telegraphed policies that will do enormous harm to geopolitical stability, efforts to combat climate change, and the US economy.

I have reviewed a few dozen of those articles and solicited advice from knowledgeable friends and analysts, and in this post I’ve compiled a list of my favorite recommendations, adding a few of my own.

Strategy One: Focus on a Positive Alternative

I believe it’s safe to say that the election has shown that blistering critique, even when trenchant, has limited political utility. One must construct and broadcast a coherent counter-narrative and alternative strategy which people can believe in.

Instead of focusing on negatives such as opposing the dismantling of climate protections and regressive tax reform, for example, in the long run we have to advocate on behalf of positive solutions, such as making a persuasive case for renewable energy investment and clearly articulating the economic benefits of progressive taxation. Obama was very good at this, Hillary, not so much.

I believe in the long term this is the more effective political strategy. Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago observed in the New York Times that Donald Trump in some ways resembles former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is also something of a populist demagogue and media celebrity. He warns that the politics of outrage and protest are counter-productive, noting that Berlusconi was only defeated by politicians who disregarded the sideshow, treated him as an ordinary opponent, and focused on issues.

I also believe this is the most sustainable form of political engagement on the human level. There is a substantial psychological difference between a sustained critique of ideas you oppose and the active support of ideas you believe in, and it can make a big difference in remaining committed.

Strategy Two: Remain Involved

In today’s climate, one can’t help but remember the words of William Butler Yeats, who wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

It is tempting to turn away from the horrifying barrage of public discourse and disengage from a political climate that is hyper-polarized, noxious, and, at times, seemingly broken beyond repair. However, doing so leaves the country’s political culture in the hands of the profoundly cynical and the maniacally zealous, and this is indeed part of a clear, concerted strategy of the Republican party to undermine civil discourse in the US. The more people are driven from the public square in horror and disgust, the more they cede political power to fringe interests who ram through extremist policies that are routinely at odds with what the American people say they want in public opinion polls.

Of course the danger of burnout is very real, and everyone needs to pay attention to their limits, so please, yes, pull back when necessary for the sake of your sanity and well-being. But if people of conscience do not keep an eye on what is going on and turn out at the polls, then we have lost utterly, and our democratic process has broken beyond repair.

Strategy Three: Give Wisely

Give what you can afford to organizations that you support – many of my favorites are included in the links on the right sidebar, but I’ll call out a few for special mention: the ACLU, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC), the Sierra Club, and Planned Parenthood. These organizations are going to be on the front line in coming years of fighting destructive policies.

Many organizations prefer small monthly gifts to large periodic gifts, as it helps for regular budgeting. There are different schools of thought regarding whether or not it is better to give a little to many organizations or a lot to a smaller number – I favor the latter approach personally, but it may be something you wish to think about. It also makes sense to think about whether or not there are organizations that you are committed to supporting in the long term.

I strongly suggest that when it comes to projects that are extremely ambitious, but which stand a very low probability of success, that you take care not to spend too much time and money pursuing them. There are a lot of ideas out there about how to drive change, and our resources are limited.

You may believe passionately in advocating for the secession of your state or lobbying Electoral College delegates to vote against Trump, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing these objectives. But we have to be realistic – they are long shots. Planned Parenthood or the NRDC can put your time and money to use today, right now, and directly help people who urgently need it.

Strategy Four: Stay Informed

An ill-informed electorate is an ineffective electorate. Keep up with the news, and be sure to focus on sources that are credible, and that invest in investigative reporting, such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and Pro Publica. Please subscribe if you can – they need and deserve financial support.

I recommend limiting your exposure to strongly partisan or editorializing news sources such as Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now!, Occupy Democrats, and so forth. It is not that I disagree with where they are coming from, but their first commitment is generally to persuading readers of their point of view. The dangers of confirmation bias are well-known, and especially where we feel the most certain, we must be the most cautious and self-critical.

Same goes with the Jon Stewart tradition of reportage. For every ten minutes you spend with John Oliver, think about spending twenty with the Economist.

Try to be a responsible consumer of news. The GOP has been very effective at transforming the media into an unwitting ally by essentially duping them into going along with any faux-controversy they put enough time and energy into. Remember the 140 hours of sworn testimony that went into a Republican-led inquiry into the White House’s alleged misuse of their Christmas card list?. (ht Paul Krugman)

Whenever we click on those stories, we’re participating in the climate of public interest that fuels this manipulation of public opinion. Don’t buy into the latest outrage, and do what you can to push newspaper editors not to legitimize them with excessive attention.

It is up to all of us to work together to minimize the spread of misinformation.

Strategy Five: Think Strategically

To some substantial degree, this comes down to knowing yourself and your situation. In my own process of deliberation, I started by looking carefully at the things I care most about, and deciding which ones I particularly wish to focus on.

Once you have a sense of the values that you most wish to support, then it makes sense to ask “What are the levers that I can pull that will make a difference in these areas?” In my case, one area where I felt I could make a difference is by doing what I have always done by disposition – digest a lot of information and communicate my findings.

We have to be realistic about what we can do. The GOP currently controls the Senate and the White House and will soon control the Supreme Court. In nearly half of the states, the GOP holds the governorship and controls the state assembly. What does that leave? Where can we most effectively apply pressure?

My own initial conclusion is that the left must function as an opposition party, and work hard in the next several years to resist the push to roll back laws and policies such as the Affordable Care Act and environmental regulations.

One way to do that is to think about holding the line at the state level. California, for example, currently has strong emissions standards that have an impact over what happens nationally – auto manufacturers do not want to make one model for California, and another for Wyoming, so all of them meet the higher standard.

My prediction is that a major battleground in the upcoming years will be court battles over whether or not federal agencies can force individual states to lower their protections. As such, I’m supporting organizations that will be on the front line of fighting those court battles, such as Planned Parenthood and the NRDC.

Written by Mesocosm

December 4, 2016 at 1:52 pm

Posted in Activism, Trump