Saturday, August 19, 2017

Stephen Bannon is out: Good Riddance, it's Democracy over Fascist Advisors 5-0

White Nationalist Richard Spencer thanking Trump
after Charlottesville/AP David J. Phillip
Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian, has contended  that "it's pretty much inevitable" that Trump will at some point attempt to stage a coup and try to overthrow democracy.  The ouster of Bannon makes this seem very unrealistic. Trump has oligarchic, anti-demoratic instincts, but it seems like democracy will keep him in check.

Bannon is gone from the White House and back at Breitbart News. "The Trump presidency that we fought for, and won, is over," Bannon ruefully told the Weekly Standard in his first public interview after his ouster.

It turns out that this administration, like any other, is susceptible to democratic pressure.   The decision to remove Bannon was apparently made before the tumultuous events in Charlottesville last weekend.  Charlottesville merely delayed implementation, but it reinforced why it happened.  "Bannon played to my father-in-law's worst instincts," Jared Kushner is reported to have said (Maggie Haberman of the New York Times). General John Kelly, Trump's still new Chief of Staff, was visibly uncomfortable during Trump's outrageous news conference on Tuesday in which he gave his support to the alt-right. Bannon, said Haberman, was the main voice egging the president on.

The reaction to Trump's poorly handled response to Charlottsville has been widespread and negative.  Criticism has come from many prominent Republicans, including Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Arnold Schwartzenegger. It puts the lie to Snyder's pessimistic scenario. Democracy has asserted itself and Bannon is out.

Tone comes from the top, of course. Before Bannon, there was Roger Stone, and Roy Cohn, and Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn. Steven Miller (mentored by white nationalist Richard Spencer at Duke) and Sebastian Gorka (Hungarian neo-Nazi party member) remain in the White House.  There is no very good reason to think that Trump's next go-to advisor won't play to his worst instincts.  Yet, Roger Stone, Roy Cohn, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon have all been pushed aside through democratic pressure--pressure applied by the public, the press, and the political establishment.

It's democracy five, advisors with fascist tendencies zero. If you're going to institute a  coup and overthrow democracy you need people like Stone,  Cohn, Manafort, Flynn, and Bannon at your side. All signs are that despite Trump's worst instincts, democracy will keep him in check.

In the meantime, Jeff Flake's book "Conscience of a Conservative: a Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle" is a best seller (currently 9th place on NYT best seller list).

Today, we spoke with the owners of a book shop in Hermann Missouri, Jack and Pat Wendleton. They report that half of their neighbors who voted for Trump are expressing regrets.

I'm not ready to write off democracy or free speech yet.

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Populism in small doses can be productive if the center holds

A Trump rally in Huntington W.VA this month/Carlos Barria, Reuters

Our dysfunctional politics aside, we are not the Middle East. The Middle East is a petri dish of political dysfunction: from Syria’s Hobbesian state of nature, to the theocracy of Iran, the military junta led state of Egypt, the failed state of Lybia, and the Kingdom of Jordan; from the petro-princeling, theocratic compromise state that is Saudi Arabia, to the corrupted strong-man rule of Turkey, to the deeply flawed democracies of Israel and Lebanon. By paying attention to these negative examples we can appreciate what we have and must never let go of.

Take the recent essay by Hussein Agha and Ahmad Samih Khalidi (The end of this Road: the Decline of the Palestinian National Movement) in the New Yorker, describing the political plight of the Palestinians. In their essay, Agha and Khalidi say a curious thing: “The post-Abbas era will launch an uncharted and unpredictable course,” they say. “The institutional failures of the P.A. all point to an increasingly narrow and more tenuous form of leadership, one that is based more on formal elections [rather than recognized moral authority] and, consequently and paradoxically, on less solid and genuinely representative grounds” (emphasis added).

The fact that formal democratic elections should result in leaders with less genuinely representative grounds is indeed paradoxical. Yet, the legitimacy of the founding fathers of the Palestinian National movement, most prominently Yasser Arafat, was not based on democracy. The remaining legitimacy and moral authority of Mahmoud Abbas is also not based on democracy: any democratic mandate he once may have had has long expired. He last stood for elections in January 2005, and the following year—together with Israel and the United States—he pointedly ignored the democratic legislative assembly victory of Hamas. So how is it that formal democratic elections will result in less legitimacy?

After Abbas there is no consensus leader who might be able to lead the Palestinians to a compromise political settlement with Israel, say Agha and Khalidi. A new leader may emerge from formal elections, but such a leader will lack the moral authority for leadership of the Palestinian national movement, presumably because the Palestinians lack a cohesive and coherent vision of what the Palestinian nationalist movement should be, and what kind of society they should have.

Because the Palestinians do not have sufficient established political structures, and because they lack a consensus around such structures, they need a strong, universally accepted leader, a charismatic strong leader like Arafat. Winning the most votes in an election is not sufficient.

What can we Learn from the Palestinian’s Plight?

In the United States we can relate. We have been more and more divided in our politics. We have the feeling that our elected officials are exercising leadership based on merely formal electoral victories. Merely formal electoral victories are not satisfying. Nearly half the country did not feel that Barack Obama was “their” president. More than half the country does not feel that Donald Trump is “their” president. Like with the Palestinians, mere formal electoral victories do not confer moral authority to speak for the entire country.

But we have something the Palestinians lack. We have a democratic consensus around institutions and political norms. Particular elected leaders are secondary. Driving around the country this past month and speaking with many Trump voters, I have the strong impression that their support for Trump is not about cult of personality, or because they are racists. There is a non-rational belief that “maybe he’ll shake things up!” The non-college educated, previously Democratic voting whites who put Trump over the top want to be noticed. They want someone addressing their concerns. They feel the Democratic Party has taken them for granted. They did not identify with Hillary Clinton as their champion. But these people are not rejecting our political consensus: a free, democratic society, rule of law, free enterprise, social security, Medicare, Medicaid, National Parks, National Forests, apple pie and baseball.

Indeed, as the Republicans in Congress are learning, “repeal and replace Obamacare” does not mean Trump voters don’t care about actual solutions for improving our healthcare system. Trump voters don’t believe the government has no role to play in providing affordable healthcare, they just think the established politics has not delivered. Obamacare was a first step to expand coverage, but it did nothing about making medical insurance more affordable. And these voters are not wrong to be dissatisfied. They recognized that “repeal for the hell of it,” as McConnell, Ryan, and Trump were set to do, would not have served their purpose. And so, despite seven years of using “repeal and replace” as a war-cry, when it came down to it, GOP voters wanted something productive done about health care, and when Ryan and McConnell offered nothing productive, there was not enough support for repeal to get it done.

In the wake of their 2016 defeat, Democrats are adjusting their politics to deal with the new reality. The next Democratic campaign, starting in 2018, won’t make the mistake of ignoring Michigan voters, or belittling non-college educated voters. Populism in moderate doses can be useful.

Populism is dangerous only if the populists are successful in undermining our institutions to such an extent that they can’t be thrown out of office in the next election when they don’t accomplish what they promised. Do Bannon, Miller, Gorka, Sessions, Trump, et al, want to undermine our political consensus and institutions, and our right and ability to “vote the bastards out?” There is concern that’s what they aim to do. But there is cause of optimism. The path to replacing our political consensus with a cult of personality would run through events like we witnessed in Charlottesville this weekend. But the country has rejected this march of a few hundred hate filled white nationalists. Trump, who initially bent over backwards not to criticize this hateful, pathetic mob of neo-Nazi marchers, has had to back-track. Just like GOP senators and representatives have learned these past six months, Trump is finding that the center is holding. We want our presidents and Congress to get positive things done. . ., and if they fail to, we will vote them out of office. 

2018 and 2020 can’t come soon enough!

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Farm States of South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin

The areas suitable for plow agriculture in the Great Plains is affected by past glaciation.  Great glaciers covered much of North America during the Pleistocene (~2.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), and as they they receded they left behind a deep and fertile soil covering. The glaciers did not reach everywhere.  In the Dakotas, they traced a diagonal line from midway on the western border of North Dakota toward the northeastern corner of Kansas. South of the glacial line, the top soil today consists primarily of thin layers of windblown loess not suitable for plow agriculture. 

Physical divisions of U.S. and maximum extent of
glaciation/USGS map

South Dakota

We followed the Bad River Valley east along highway 14 from Wells, South Dakota, towards Pierre (pronounced Pier by the locals) the state capitol, on the Missouri River. This area, south of the line of glaciation, is dominated by cattle ranching and small irrigated crops over an undulating western landscape.
Bad River drainage, South Dakota/Platek
In Pierre we swam in the Missouri River and hobnobbed with local Trump voters. Three young city employees tended a well kept river-front park with weed-whackers. Others were setting up for a local hog farm's annual barbecue in the park. "I'm 24 years old, and I have to pay $400.00/month to add my two year old to my health plan," complained one of the city workers. "I still support Trump. Perhaps he'll make a difference." He was a friendly young man. He sounded less than adamant. Perhaps he'll be receptive to a pitch for universal health care from Bernie?

Pierre, South Dakota/
The Missouri River forms a distinct boundary line between ranching and plow agriculture. Moving east from Pierre along highway 14 we drive over glacial till next to fields of alfalfa, canola, corn, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat. The terrain is flat, treeless, and the crops stretch wide across the horizon.

South Dakota has a small population of 865,000, but it has 32,000 farms. There are 4,075 farms between 1,000 acres and 2,000 acres; 3,667 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and 1,970 farms with more than 5,000 acres. The average farm size is 1,366 acres (fifth place behind the large cattle ranching states of Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada).


Although we cross no discernible natural border, there is an unmistakeable transition as we cross into Minnesota on our way to Minneapolis: the farms are more numerous, smaller, and they are nestled among stands of trees. 
Minnesota farmland/Robert Mizrahi 
Minnesota, just 11% larger, has twice as many farms as South Dakota (74,542), but the farms are smaller: only 205 farms exceed 5,000 acres; there are only 1,960 farms between 2,000 and 5,000 acres; and only 4,003 farms between 1,000 and 2,000 acres.  

Minnesota has a population of 5.5 million. Hillary Clinton eked out a 1.5% victory in Minnesota over Donald Trump in 2016 (46.9% vs. 45.4%). The "never Trump" Evan McMullin (1.8%) and the libertarian Gary Johnson (3.9%) were the spoilers for Trump in Minnesota. 

Minnesota is represented by five Democrats in the House of Representatives (Tim Walz, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison, Collin Peterson, and Rick Nolan) and three Republicans (Jason Lewis, Erik Paulsen, Tom Emmer) and by two Democrats in the Senate (Amy Klobucher and Al Franken). 


From Minneapolis we drove south on Highway 52 into Amish country. At Cannon Falls, home of Pachyderm Studio, we turned left towards the Mississippi River, and entered Wisconsin at La Crosse, the largest city in Western Wisconsin. [Yes, the name is derived from the Indian game] Wisconsin is only slightly smaller than South Dakota and Minnesota, yet it has nearly the same number of farms as Minnesota (69,754); but its farms are much smaller. Only 74 farms are larger than 5,000 acres; there are only 587 farms between 2,000 to 5,000 acres; and only 1,580 farms from 1,000 to 2,000 acres. 

Forty-six percent of Wisconsin is covered by forest. It has been gaining, not losing, forest acreage as marginal crop and pasture land has been planted with trees, or reforested naturally. Today the state  has more forestland than at any time since inventories began in 1936.

The stereotype is true: Wisconsin is a heavy hitter in the production of milk (30 billion pounds annually) and cheese (3 billion pounds annually).  Wisconsin, just forty percent the size of California, produces nearly as much milk as California and produces more cheese than California. 

Glaciers largely bypassed the western uplands region of Wisconsin. Erosion in this "Driftless Area" was accelerated when ice dams, backing up large lakes, suddenly gave way as the ice receded. Rivers draining into the Mississippi have carved shallow east-west trending valleys in this region.

Regions of Wisconsin
In the fertile central plain soft hills were formed by glacial moraines. 

Drumlins formed by glacial moraines west of Milwaukee
Wisconsin has a population of 5.8 million. They gave the nod to Trump by 1 percentage point (47.9 vs. 46.9) in the last election. The lefty, Jill Stein, received 1.1 percent of the vote, and the libertarian Gary Johnson received 3.6 percent of the vote.  

Wisconsin is represented by five Republicans in the House (Paul Ryan, Jim Sensenbrenner, Glenn Grothman, Sean Duffy, and Mike Gallagher) and three Democrats (Marc Pocan, Ron Kind, and Gwen Moore) and by a Democrat (Tammy Baldwin) and a Republican (Ron Johnson) in the Senate. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles