The Death of Politics

In a corrupt, almost-Dystopian state, men armed with clubs, sheathed in body armor, masks covering their faces, and carrying banners with symbols representing their ideologies fought for control of city blocks. 

Distressing scenes like this are no longer found exclusively in the pages of novels or in the corrupt states of the Third World. In Greece throughout 2013, Nazi’s and Communists fought each other in the streets of Athens. 80 years earlier the two most destructive ideologies of the 20th century physically battled for supremacy across Europe – and much of Europe was eventually devastated by the fruits of those politics. Eight years after the worst moments of the American economic collapse, those politics have inched their way into the United States and embedded themselves firmly into the political discourse.

The election of Donald Trump was an indictment of the American political system and institutions. The institutions failed in their purpose and design, and the political system has been exposed as being aloof from the concerns of the American people. Decades of collusion between corporate interests, pressure groups, unions, and other special interests and the American government at the expense of populist policies have undermined American political institutions. Government and special interests have separated the political discourse from the good of society. People have become increasingly disillusioned with centrist policies that seem to benefit private interests and have turned toward the edges of the political spectrum. In our Republic this has increasingly resulted in legislative gridlock which further undermines faith in traditional and centrist politics. American politics’ weak center, with leaders lacking charisma and lacking a vision beyond maintaining the status quo, is giving way toward ideas of radical change. Wholesale changes in the economy have granted an urgency to this transformation.

In so many ways since the global catastrophe (it should never have been so meekly termed “The Great Recession”) the modern political world mirrors the upheaval of the 1930’s. Democracy is being discredited, powerful populists are emboldened in both domestic and foreign adventures, and tremendous uncertainty and economic pain are promised to be assuaged through resurgent chauvinistic nationalism. Modern anti-democratic regimes are not founded on extreme ideologies though, they are mostly run on the principles of petty theft. Disillusioned citizenries become the fertile soil for venal political structures to grow, which serve their leaders’ bank accounts well and not much else.

Anomie is a greater danger than ideology. The same vague, nihilistic lack of meaning that infects youth in the United States with pretensions of fighting grand battles against “political correctness”  or “fascism” also makes disenfranchised, disillusioned Muslim men join ISIS. The ossification of the American political system, uncertainty over the future of the planet due to global warming and technology, the slow death of religion, and the simultaneous rise and retreat of globalism all conspire to confound strong attachments of community identity and place.

The grand visions of the fringe left and the fringe right are particularly weak. In the ideological dictatorships of the 20th century, enormous things were promised – and done. Many people sincerely believed in the total transformation of societies. Efforts to end capitalism were pursued with vigor, as well as efforts to strengthen the will of the nation-state through complete purity. The vague and toothless goals of the current crop of ideologues are pathetic in comparison. Vague support for socialism and incoherent pleas for xenophobic nationalism squawk from so-called “thought-leaders” on the right and left.

The threats and aspirations are nowhere near as real, achievable, or present to modern societies as they were in the roiling 1930’s. The Spanish Civil War from 1936-1939 was as close as anything ever seen to a pure military struggle between the ideological left and ideological right. Liberals and conservatives murdered one another on the scale of the hundreds of thousands. Fascism (in its form of extreme and holistic nationalism) transformed Spain under a repressive and rigid dictatorship while pockets of the Spanish Republicans created systems of anrcho-syndicalism. This was true, radical political change and experimentation that Spain experienced. The stakes were plain in the loss of life and destruction of property. Now, in the US, lightly armed mobs of liberals and conservatives do battle at political rallies with no chance of changing the political system and with little danger of the loss of life. Unfounded anxieties about fascist dictatorships and concerns over the elimination of white majoritarianism animate fights and debates. The internet has most certainly played its part in this. In anonymous forums, incubators of hysteria and sound-proof political echo-chambers, disillusioned youth come to terms with and attempt to reanimate dead ideologies. The sin of the political left: arrogance, and the sin of the political right: ignorance, are displayed perpetually.

Republicans’ and Democrats’ failed political parties are currently incapable of rehabilitating the political discourse in the country. They are quickly becoming the hollowed slaves of populism. Populism on the left and right has no real guidelines other than satisfying the whims of populace without a deeper understanding of the structures and priorities of the state. Republicans and Democrats are each committing different sins. Republicans are acting as appeasers of an unethical and ignorant policy while Democrats are undermining democratic principles by moving away from compromise and free speech.

The establishment Republicans are much like upper-class British appeasers in the 1930’s. If the Nazi Party hated Jews and Communists so openly, it didn’t hurt to back them, it was mutually beneficial. Of course the modern American iteration of faux-fascism is venal and not homicidal, but history will not judge the Republican leadership kindly.

So we end up, especially in the United States, with collapsed political institutions and ideas and nothing with which to replace them. America faces a British Empire moment. It must radically rethink its role in the world and the government’s responsibility domestically. If the government can follow a rational policy, instead of spending almost half of our wealth on maintaining the world order through military force, and focus on the wellbeing of private citizens, the institutions of power could reassert order. A common sense, centrist policy can take back the strength of old ideas from the fringes and focus on the problems of a new age, where so many are displaced in our society.

Ben Rhodes, Facebook, and News Manipulation

A New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes inflamed controversy on a number of fronts. First on Ben Rhodes contempt for journalists and his claim that he manipulated reporters to push the Obama Administration’s narrative on the Iran Deal, and secondly on claims of poor reporting. Aside from displaying the arrogance of Ben Rhodes, and possibly the administration, it shows that the primary manipulation of news is still done by people, not by algorithms and not for pageviews.

More traditional news media has been breaking down for some time now and another story highlights the consequences of that. A recent report by Gizmodo displayed the manipulation of trending news topics at Facebook. Facebook has become an important source of news and a primary means of information dissemination for a large part of the Western populace. And now, with the fake news scandal after the election it is obvious that people are the culprit and not merely algorithms.

Pressure to break stories, because the first person or organization to post a story online will get an enormous bump in traffic, has never been greater for journalists. This has led to the fraying of ethics and helps people like Ben Rhodes manipulate the public. So now, as prominent individuals manipulate the traditional media, and unreliable news sources overwhelm social media, the basis for public cooperation in democratic governments is eroding. The prospect of the collapse of democracies is not unthinkable as it may have once been.

Why Obama should be more like Ronald Reagan

Initiative is a paramount theme in the operational philosophy of warfare. The ability of an actor to impose their will on their opponent, to choose a time and place of conflict and place pressure on an opponent’s weakness is a valuable strategic advantage. The United States, while avoiding wasteful and costly foreign entanglements, has ceded strategic initiative in a variety of global affairs, but particularly in Iraq and Syria.

In the midst of America’s steep decline in its ability to project power globally at the end of the 1970’s, Ronald Reagan started a “crusade” against the Soviet Union. Confronting the “Evil Empire” directly with increased military spending (preying of their weak economy) and fighting proxy wars against them helped to destroy the Soviet system. There were, as there always are, unintended consequences and blowback that came to the fore only after the loftier goal had been achieved. Notably, and regrettably, the funding and supplying of radical Islamists would come to haunt the United States. There was also the diminished respect for many peoples of the world after the United States supported oppressive dictatorships in the name of anti-Communism and the dangerously increased tensions with the Soviet Union that could have led to a nuclear war. The aggressiveness and assertiveness, paid for with deficit spending, gave the United States the strategic initiative and allowed for American-advantaged negotiations to take place between the superpowers.

The disaster in Syria and Iraq is the result of many historical failures and murderous groups attempting to hold or seize power. It is also a vortex dragging in major world powers with the pull of the global disasters of social collapse and terrorism fears. In addition to the global problems, there are complex regional rivalries that have combined to make the countries (perhaps former countries) of Iraq and Syria bloody battlegrounds for proxy wars.

Many pundits have argued aggressively for US intervention or applauded the Obama Administration for its restraint in not fighting unwinnable wars. In many ways the President is an impossible bind when confronting the disasters in the Middle East. For the US, the prospect of a complete power vacuum in Iraq and Syria is untenable while at the same time reacting in a mild, or very targeted manner is not effective in the long term.

Admitting the fact that there is already a humanitarian disaster, and that the United States has partnered with dubious, and indeed, criminal, allies – the US has little to lose by facing its geo-strategic enemies with greater force and resolve. Bombing the Assad regime directly in Syria and arming our chosen militias with greater technical abilities would send a strong message to Russia and deter the Putin regime from greater aggression or, if it were strongly opposed, would spread Russia’s military thin. In a broader view it would allow the United States to dictate terms of peace and influence the rivalries between Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

The enemies of the United States are emboldened, but weak. A strong show of force and resolve would likely strengthen the United State’s ability to conduct diplomatic enterprises effectively. The value of initiative is known, the disaster in the Middle East is already manifest, and long term consequences are unknowable for the greater part. It behooves the United States to control what it can, and for the Obama Administration to act more like the Reagan Administration.

Obama vs. Eisenhower

President Truman had many difficult tasks that faced him at the end of World War II, and he handled them ably, for the most part. The most intractable problem he dealt with in foreign policy was the worsening relations and oppositional stance that he faced in the Soviet Union. In order to stop Communist expansion he was willing to go to war. In Korea the United States engaged in a tremendous blood bath.

When Eisenhower became president he was concerned about the death of American soldiers in a war that they could not win without massive escalation. He ended the Korean War and throughout his two terms he refused to get the United States entangled and military conflicts. Eisenhower had a dilemma:  he had to confront and actively oppose Communism and he desperately wanted to avoid direct armed conflict. So he turned to technology and covert activity. The CIA was given free reign during his tenure and the value of having a distinct technological advantage was realized. An unintended effect of the prolonged arms race was to institutionalize the military programs that were put in place during the Korean War.

Now to Obama, if there are circumstances that could be said to provide a direct analogy from one presidency to another, Eisenhower’s could not be more fitting. The Bush Doctrine necessitated military intervention with combat troops invading countries and overthrowing regimes. This costly and largely failed approach informed much of the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

If there is one thing that truly separates their views on foreign policy it is that Obama has wielded the fear of terrorism less effectively than Eisenhower wielded the fear of Communism. Eisenhower used that fear as a bludgeon to bolster his domestic agenda. It may be dishonest but it was effective in building infrastructure for the American economy, advancing education, and balancing the budget. Obama has not used the fear of terrorism in an effective manner on the domestic front. It is possible that he could have better used American’s fears to advance infrastructure projects or other worthy domestic projects.

The salient features of Obama’s policy toward confronting terrorism are a heavy reliance on drone strikes, which are shrouded in a veil of national security secrecy, and the institutionalization of legal justifications for attacking terrorists and the maintanace of NSA dragnets, covert military operations, and domestic security measures. These are the largely negative consequences of Obama’s policy of confrontation without war. A permanent Cold War-style apparatus has been called into existence to oppose an intractable political, economic, and religious problem. In the new world of crumbling borders and technology it remains to be seen whether or not this will be an effective strategy for defeating terrorism, but it certainly is an oppressive weight on the American government and military and it diminishes the dominance of the law in restraining the impulse to tamp down rights and use force.