Monday, February 27, 2017

Has democracy failed?

2017 is the year of the right wing. In the US, we have elected Donald Trump who has come to the presidency on a platform opposing immigrants and opposing international cooperation. The wall to be built along the Mexican border is symbolic of his stance, as is the plan of levying import duties on foreign-made products. Similar sentiments, especially hostility towards immigrants, motivated a majority of Britains to vote to leave the European Union. The same political position is giving Marie LePen a shot at the presidency in France, and is bringing far right groups closer to political power in Germany, in Italy, and in Greece. These groups are nationalist chauvinists, they cheer on leaders with explicit authoritarian leanings. They are contemptuous of the democratic process which is about to allow them to gain significant political power.
We are seeing democracy at its worst when it allows the anxious, the angry, the groups that feel left out to have their revenge by encouraging leaders that come to power on a platform of hatred, of arrogant contempt for people who are different from them, people who are not “White Aryans.” 2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Plato complained about democracy being unsteady, subject to constant change depending on the constantly changing moods of the people at large. Our experience bears out his criticism. It is hard to imagine a greater difference between the government of Barack Obama and that of Donald Trump. Democracy is prone to sudden and violent changes.
Winston Churchill remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the other ones.” The other ones are authoritarian or fascist governments. The authoritarian leader controls everything. Even if there is an elected legislature, it is a rubberstamp that simply passes the rules laid down by the Leader. The judiciary in an authoritarian government is also dominated by the Leader and his party. There is no independent judiciary. There are no checks and balances. Authoritarian rulers tend to be worried about possible opposition. No one is safe from government spies and violence.
A fascist government is authoritarian but adds to its centralized power the total control over all social organizations. Professional organizations, for instance, of teachers, lawyers, or physicians are now run ( and closely watched over) by the government. Instead of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, there are now government run youth organizations. Any workplace organizations now become branches of the government. There is little privacy left. The entire nation is unified by being organized into official groups.
The glaring defect of democracy is the ever present possibility of electing leaders who lean in the direction of authoritarianism and, perhaps, even of fascism. Adolf Hitler was elected by the German people in 1933. Recurrence of such catastrophic choices is a real possibility in democracies. But regular elections are only one aspect of democracy. Of equal importance is the effort to have a legislative and a judiciary branch that are independent of the executive. Our Constitution deliberately limits the scope of executive power. We already have seen examples of that: the courts have refused to approve of Pres. Trumps immigration executive order.
(To be sure the independence of the judiciary is limited. In our two-party state, the party that is dominant will have a serious effect on the judiciary by appointing Supreme Court justices.)
Similarly even where both the president and Congress and many state legislatures are dominated by the same party, the actions of the president may well be limited by the legislature and vice a versa. An elected leader with authoritarian leanings cannot do what he chooses as long as out constitutional protections remain in force.
Ordinary citizens play an important role in a democracy and how well will this democracy works depends on the people themselves: are they well-informed, do they participate, do their media do the job of informing everyone, is there a limit on the role money can play in the democratic processes? It matters whether citizens are alive to threats to their democracy. Do they protest loudly against the predominant power of the very rich in the electoral process? Do they rally around the targets of racially motivated exclusions? The survival of democracy depends on the constant vigilance of citizens.
When groups with authoritarian leanings gain power in elections, clearly democracy is not working well. It is a mistake however to blame this on the abstract institution of democracy. The claim rests clearly on the shoulders of all those who refused to take the authoritarians seriously and to work hard to oppose them. For a democracy to work, citizens have to be willing to pay attention, to spend the time to go to meetings and work in electoral campaigns. If they have money they should be willing to support candidates. The democratic process is not going to work well if the central component - the people - refuses to participate.
That clearly happened in this last electoral campaign. Many citizens are understanding that and joining the opposition to prevailing authoritarian inclinations. Our democracy is threatened, but it still has a fighting chance of surviving.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Today I am reprinting a blog from Harry Targ's Diary of a Heartland Radical reporting on the widespread misery in Indiana, thanks to more than ten years of hard right government. It illustrates the terrible price we have to pay for the millionaire ideologues that are running the country.


Harry Targ

Social and Economic Wellbeing Survey Shows No Progress

A flurry of newspaper stories appeared the first week of February in
 The Wall Street Journal and several Indiana newspapers reporting on data from a “health and wellness” national survey about the performance of the 50 states. Indiana according to several measures was ranked as the fourth “worst state” in the country. The national survey consisted of data from 177,281 people interviewed by the Gallup and Healthways organizations. Data included responses to questions about feelings of community support and pride, physical health, and financial security. 
According to the survey The Times of Northwest Indiana, (February 8, 2017) reported, “31.3 percent of Indiana residents are obese, 30.6 smoke, and 29.4 percent don’t exercise at all.” Only 24.9 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree (one of the lowest percentages of any state).  The NWIT article indicated that median household income of Hoosiers was $5,000 less than the national median income.

 The Wall Street Journal put it: “Indiana is one of just a handful of states to rank worse in every category of well-being--sense of purpose, social life, financial health, community pride, and physical fitness--than most other states…”  On all these measures combined Indiana’s rank was only ahead of Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Previous Data on the Indiana Economy
The centerpiece of Indiana public policy since 2004 has been corporate and individual tax cuts and reduced budgets for education, health care, and other public services. Indiana was one of the first states to begin the privatization of the public sector, including transferring educational funds from public to charter schools. It established a voucher system to encourage parents to send their children to private schools. Also Indiana sold public roads; privatized public services; and recruited controversial corporations such as Duke Power to support research at the state’s flagship research universities. Meanwhile the manufacturing base of the state shifted from higher paying and unionized industrial labor (automobiles, steel, and durable goods) to lower paying service jobs and non-union work such as at the Amazon distribution center.
The narrative about Indiana economic growth presented by the former Governor Mike Pence varied greatly from data gathered between 2012 and 2014. For example, between 2013 and 2014, despite enticements to business, Indiana grew at a 0.4 percent pace while the nation at large experienced 2.2 percent growth.
Indiana’s economy historically was based on manufacturing but has experienced declines since the 1980s (with only modest increases in recent years).  However, newer manufacturing between 2014 and 2016 has been mostly in low-wage non-unionized sectors.   For example, the Indiana Institute for Working Families reported on data from a study of work and poverty in Marion County, which includes the state’s largest city, Indianapolis.  Four of five of the largest growing industries in the county paid wages at or below family sustainability ($798 per week for a family of three) and individual and household wages declined significantly between 2008 and 2012 (Derek Thomas, “Inequality in Indy - A Rising Problem With Ready Solutions,” August 13, 2014, (
Further, Thomas quoted a U.S. Conference of Mayors’ report on wages and income:  “…wage inequality grew twice as rapidly in the Indianapolis metro area as in the rest of the nation since the recession.” This is so because new jobs created paid less on average than the jobs that were lost since the recession started.
Thomas pointed out that the mayors’ report had several concrete proposals that could address declining real wages and stimulate job growth. These included “raising the minimum wage, strengthening the Earned Income Tax Credit, public programs to retrain displaced workers,” and developing universal pre-kindergarten and programs to rebuild the state’s crumbling infrastructure. They may have added that declining real wages also relates to attacks on unions in both the private and public sectors and the dramatic reduction in public sector employment.
Thomas recommended in 2012 that Indianapolis (and Indiana) should have taken these data seriously because in Marion County “poverty is still rising, the minimum wage is less than half of what it takes for a single-mother with an infant to be economically self-sufficient; 47 percent of workers do not have access to a paid sick day from work, and a full 32 percent are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines ($29,685 for a family of three).” 
More recently, November 10, 2014, the Indiana Association of United Ways issued a 250 page report on the state called the “Study of Financial Hardship.” The study, parallel to similar studies in five other states and prepared by a research team at Rutgers University, introduced the concept of  Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed or (ALICE). ALICE refers to households with incomes that are above the poverty rate but below “the basic cost of living.” The startling data revealed that:
-a third of Hoosier households cannot afford adequate housing, food, health care, child care, and transportation.
-specifically, 14 percent of households are below the poverty line and 23 percent above poverty but below the threshold out of ALICE, or earning enough to provide for the basic cost of living.
-570,000 households are within the ALICE status and 353,000 below the poverty line.
-over 21 percent of households in every Indiana county are above poverty but below the capacity to provide for basic sustenance.
Referring to those within the ALICE category of wage earners who have struggled to survive but earn less than what it takes to meet basic needs, Kathy Ertel, Board Chairperson of Indiana Association of United Ways said: “ALICE is our child care worker, our retail clerk, the CAN who cares for our grandparents, and our delivery driver” (Roger L. Frick, “Groundbreaking Study Reveals 37% of Hoosier Households Struggle With the Basics,” Indiana Association of United Ways, November 10, 2014,
Indiana Politics
Perhaps the starkest fact to note in reference to the growing economic insecurity in the state of Indiana over time is that in 1970 forty percent of Hoosier workers were in unions, then the state with the third highest union density. By the dawn of the second decade of the twenty-first century only 11 percent of workers were in trade unions. Recent legislation has disadvantaged Hoosier workers including passage of a Right to Work law and repeal of the state version of prevailing wage. The Mitch Daniels/Mike Pence administrations (2004-2016) have used charter schools and vouchers to weaken teachers unions. In addition, in his first day in office in January, 2004, newly elected Governor Mitch Daniels signed an executive order abolishing the right of state employees to form unions. 
In 2005 the Indiana state government (legislature and governor) passed the first and most extreme voter identification law. Voters were required to secure voter identification photos. Michael Macdonald a University of Florida political scientist estimated that requiring voter IDs reduces voter participation by 4-5 percent, hitting the poor and elderly the hardest. In addition, Indiana law ended voter registration in the state one month before election day. And polls close at 6 p.m. election day, among the earliest closing times in the country. Finally, requests for absentee ballots require written excuses. 
Traditionally when Democrats were in the Governor’s mansion and/or controlled a branch of the legislature, they too tended to support neoliberal economic policies, but less draconian, and had been more moderate on social policy questions. In recent years, many legislators and the two most recent governors have been friends of or received support from the American Legislative Exchange Council (or ALEC) funded by major corporations and the Koch brothers. 
With ALEC money, some active Tea Party organizations, the growth of rightwing Republican power, and centrist Democrats, Indiana government has been able to initiate some of the most regressive policies in reference to voting rights, education, taxing, and deregulation in the country. And as the data above suggests, the political economy of Indiana has increased the suffering of the vast majority of working families in the state. Other data suggests that the quality of health care, education, the environment, and transportation have declined as well.
In sum, the working people of Indiana enter the coming period with little economic hope, a politics of red state dominance, and the number two person in the White House who bears some responsibility for the economics and politics left behind. Social change in Indiana, as with the nation at large, will require a vibrant, active progressive program in the electoral arena, the 2018 elections for example, at the same time that mass movements direct their attention to improving the lives of the 99 percent.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Road Ahead

Politics is clearly on the top of the agenda these days. But there are very different ways of doing and thinking about politics. On the one side are those whose political opponents are their enemies. They are the good people; their own opinions are correct. People who disagree are bad and dead wrong.
On the other side are those who understand that if we are going to live together in a democracy, that is if we are going to govern ourselves together then we must be able to work together and before we work together we need to be able to talk to each other. The slogan here is: “let’s come together.”
That is an important recommendation, but what exactly do we have to do to come together? It is important to ask and to answer that question. If we don’t, if we do not understand the next step, we will be frustrated and, after it while, angry and that leads to destructive politics.
Here is how this talk about “coming together” goes off the rails very quickly. We conclude that in order to come together we must avoid being hostile, we must not exclude anyone and therefore not build a wall between the United States and Mexico or refuse to allow Muslims to come to this country or, if they are already here, make them register. But now the idea of coming together just shows that we have been right all along, that some of the central demands President Trump and his folk are unjustified.
Others may interpret " coming together" as an affirmation that women should have control over their bodies and their reproductive choices, or that different forms of sexuality should all be legitimate. Such an interpretation of course would not sit well with the opponents of abortion or with people troubled by the legalization of gay marriage. Giving this interpretation to " coming together" would make it very difficult to form a unified opposition to the current Administration in Washington to include groups with whom we do not agree on everything.
Finally, some people may identify "coming together" with working in electoral campaigns, with recommending over and over that people go to the polls and vote. That would exclude the people who believe that political demonstrations are extremely important and that sometimes resistance has to be openly violent, or at least leave open the possibility of violence when protesters state their views strongly and publicly.
If we are reaching for unity we have to acknowledge that we have very different ideas about the appropriate forms of political action. A unified movement must find ways for these different tactics to be employed.
It is not difficult to see that identifying our specific views on controversial topics as “coming together” is an attempt to impose our world view on others. This line of talk will not bring anyone together except those who are together already. We cannot very well pretend to try to come together with those who think differently from us if all we’re doing is repeating once again what we believe to be true and good.
When we try to explain what it means to “come together” we often call for holding a conversation. We need to talk to the people who disagree with us. But what sort of shape will that conversation take? Proposals for conversations are often animated by the hope that if we can just sit down with people who see the world very differently from us we can persuade them to change their mind, to come over to our beliefs. We are not really hoping that the others will persuade us, that we will emerge from this conversation condemning abortion and gay marriage or shouting “America First!” or insisting that working in elections are the only proper tactic for political activists.
But this hope for a conversation that will overcome significant differences among us by bringing everybody around to see that we are right is, of course, a fantasy through which we avoid facing how serious the differences are in our nation. Would that our differences and difficulties were that easy to resolve!
There are people who have thought about this problem for a very long time and this is what they often suggest: people who hold to very different principles and who therefore may very well have different styles of talking and expressing themselves should be asked to talk to their political opponents. Some of them and some of us may well be willing to give that a try, even if we are not optimistic about the outcome.
We would talk not about what we disagree about because we understand that to be a waste of time. The question would instead be: are there projects we would be willing and able to cooperate on? In some places pro-choice and pro-life women have come together in projects aiming at preventing unwanted pregnancies or facilitating adoption for women who do not choose, for whatever reason, to raise the children they are giving birth to. It may be possible that individuals who have very different views of immigrants may still want to help immigrants already here to flourish and to become productive citizens. Persons who have very different ideas about the causes and remedies of poverty, may nevertheless want to cooperate to make sure that poor children get enough to eat.
We live in the same country and we participate in the same institutions. We share many common concerns. We can only cooperate to address these concerns if we talk to each other and foster cooperation even among people who disagree profoundly and may be inclined to distrust one another. That would be one way of coming together.
We can do this and secretly hope that after a long time of working together, we might have some good conversations not in order to persuade one another but in order to understand better how these people we have come to like and trust in the course of our common projects could have beliefs which we find quite wrong and, frankly, unattractive. But for the time being we need to be content to create projects on which persons of very different persuasion can learn to cooperate and learn to trust one another.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The War on Terror is once again in the center of attention after the Executive Order banning all Syrian refugees from entering the United States and banning anyone from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from coming into the US for from 60 to 120 days.

Questions have been raised about what countries are and are not on this list. Why is Egypt not on this list, or Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan? The answer is unclear. But in all the countries on the list, US military or para-military forces have been active. The CIA fomented a revolt against a duly elected government in Iran in the 1950s, putting the Shah of Iran on his throne and thereby making a powerful country in the region into an enemy. When in the 1980s, Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, we supported him for a while. Since 1991 we have conducting open or covert war against Iraq. We bombed Libya into chaos where, now, the country has two governments, neither able to govern effectively. We have conducted military actions in Sudan, and involved ourselves in the civil wars in Somalia and Yemen.

 It is not unreasonable to expect that natives of any of these countries might attempt some sort of terrorist attack in our country. We have interfered in their nations militarily . In several cases we have bombed their cities and used drone strikes that killed civilians.

Terrorist attacks on us are not as they are often said to be " unprovoked." It is true, that for any particular terrorist act , it is not easy to explain why the perpetrators chose to do what they did, and when they did it. But it is important to realize that the same is, of course, equally true of our actions.

The earliest of these events, the overthrow prime minister Dr. Mohamed Mosaddegh in Iran, had the goal of securing control of the petroleum resources in Iran for us and other Western powers. But subsequent history shows that this was an extremely ill-considered action. Iran is not a good enemy to have. The US government officials who cooked up this project did not consider the consequences of their actions at all well. It is unclear how anybody could have thought that we could manipulate the internal politics of a fairly large and flourishing modernizing country for any length of time without paying a high price for that manipulation. What were they thinking?

There is indeed a war on terror , but that is only one half of the war because the other half is a war of the United States against a large number of countries concentrated in the Middle East, a war that surely sows terror among the citizens of these nations. We are not merely the victims of terrorism; we are terrorists.

We bring to bear our fearful military power with most advanced technology. They fight back flying airplanes into buildings, by killing a few civilians, or military personnel . The imbalance between our military actions in the Middle East and the terrorist response is pathetic. We have a much much more powerful military than they do, but we are not winning. Neither are the people in the countries affected, witness the flood of refugees in Europe. No one is winning.

This is the fundamental lesson we should draw from these events: it is impossible to justify most, if not all wars. Our military attacks on Mid Eastern countries and the terrorist response by inhabitants of these countries creates enormous pain on all sides . The only people that profit are the arms manufacturers and maybe the generals. The enormous burden of suffering is borne by the foot soldiers and by the civilians who lose their lives , their family members , their homes and their livelihood.

Instead of continuing to kill and destroy, instead of continuing to sow hatred between people who do not know each other —how many Americans even know exactly where Afghanistan or Iraq are on the map? — we should learn the lesson that is so very obvious. Most wars -- and the present ones are clearly among them-- have no reasonable justification. They are entered for poorly thought-out reasons or, as the second war against Iraq, are justified only by lies and deception.

We must stop.

We must seriously reduce our military expenditures and use the money saved to build the roads and bridges and schools the president has promised us.