The Status Quo Time Loop

The one unifying characteristic of both Donald Trump’s campaign and those who have mobilized to stop him is the concept of change. This is not piercing insight. Trump promises to remake how America relates to both itself and the rest of the world. Most of “the resistance” talks about unprecedented organization, a new type of activism. This rhetoric remains the same, whether the speaker is a loyal Democrat or an ardent revolutionary.

But one must always be wary of false promises. The opposition linked to the Democratic Party may march alongside radicals, but at the end of the day their participation is linked to getting people and money to win the 2018 midterms. Policy is not a major part of the pitch. Stop Trump, priorities #1, #2, and #3.

This focus on becoming the opposition to a person, rather than an ideology, is dangerous. Fortunately, we have lessons from history. In David Broder’s piece in Jacobin, “Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough”, he takes the example of Italy, whose politics have been dominated for over twenty years by Trump-esque populist Silvio Berlusconi. In a short time, the former Communist Party had shifted so far to the right that they mirrored the Democrats, both in their party name and outlook. They upheld neoliberalism and austerity, and focused on Berlusconi’s scandals and outrageous statements, attempting to win disaffected conservatives. The Left atrophied, no longer being seen as a way to power. And all this concerted campaign against one man did was reinforce the status quo and produce weak, unstable governments.

The election of Tom Perez as DNC chair, along with subsequent events, shows that the Democratic establishment wants to roll into 2018 with the same outlook and message that lost them the 2016 election (well, and the 2010, 2012, and 2014 ones too, minus Obama’s re-election). The energy created by Trump’s election among progressives is fuel for an attempt to reintroduce the status quo. And if the Democratic Party gets its wish, the time loop restarts- the status quo doesn’t work for many people, right-wing populist seizes on this disaffection, gains power, creates opposition, opposition funneled to Democratic Party.

Whatever your opinion on Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign, he was offering a possible way out of this time loop. Fixing the major social and economic problems in the country, or at least trying to, helps prevent another Trump down the line. With the current strategy, the Democrats aim to fight the same divisive election every two years, with climate change and a hundred other serious problems charging through unfixed.

Clinton emails and the coup in Honduras

So I’ve been poking around the Hillary Clinton emails released by Wikileaks. Though the most recent dump pertains to wars in the Middle East, I’ve used to occasion to dive into earlier content about Honduras specifically.

 

Honduran troops clash with Zelaya supporters (by Roberto Breve; CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

While popular media focuses on Benghazi, it is clear that the worst event that is definitely connected to Clinton is the 2009 military coup in Honduras against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Clinton has openly admitted her role in backing the military, under false pretenses concerning Zelaya setting himself up as a dictator. The story linked:

The question of Zelaya was anything but moot. Latin American leaders, the United Nations General Assemblyand other international bodies vehemently demanded his immediate return to office. Clinton’s defiant and anti-democratic stance spurred a downward slide in U.S. relations with several Latin American countries, which has continued. It eroded the warm welcome and benefit of the doubt that even the leftist governments in region offered to the newly installed Obama administration a few months earlier.

Clinton’s false testimony is even more revealing. She reports that Zelaya was arrested amid “fears that he was preparing to circumvent the constitution and extend his term in office.” This is simply not true. As Clinton must know, when Zelaya was kidnapped by the military and flown out of the country in his pajamas on June 28, 2009, he was trying to put a consultative, nonbinding poll on the ballot to ask voters whether they wanted to have a real referendum on reforming the constitution during the scheduled election in November. It is important to note that Zelaya was not eligible to run in that election. Even if he had gotten everything he wanted, it was impossible for Zelaya to extend his term in office. But this did not stop the extreme right in Honduras and the United States from using false charges of tampering with the constitution to justify the coup.

Not surprisingly, allowing the military to seize power has led to a Honduras that is substantially more violent, unsafe for women and LGBT+, and perpetuated the centuries-long cycle of civilian-turned-military rule in Latin America. If generals can seize power and face no lasting sanction from the United States, then every democratic government is perpetually on the edge. As we have seen all over the world, democratization is shallow when all policy is subject to a de facto veto by the military. There is a very real limit to how much progress can be made in the Americas if the State Department continues to sanction militarization.

Central American refugees flee violence.

I thought this passage from Hugo Llorens, the US ambassador, was very telling of how America really thought of Zelaya.

We found him unyielding in his position. He says that he is unwilling to return to the talks with the M [ed: interim president Roberto Micheletti] regime since he doesn’t believe they are acting in good faith.

He insisted that M was not interested in stepping down and would do everything in his power to ensure that he (Z) would never be restored. He stressed that if he was not restored the elections would not be legitimate and those involved in the coup would not be able to free themselves from the stigma of their actions. Z seemed totally out of touch and seemed completely focused on himself and that the future of Honduras and the future of democracy in the entire region hinged on his restoration to power prior to the elections. He predicted that if he was not restored that Honduras faced a bleak future led by a weak and discredited government and with a high probability of violence and civil conflict. I attempted to make him see the obligation he and M had in creating conditions for a workable step-by-step process that would allow for the regime to step down, ensure the holding of free and fair elections, and the smooth transfer of power, hopefully from the legitimate head of state to the newly elected president.

I will report the details on the high side, but at this moment I see no probability that Z will seek to go back to the table under the TSJA framework. He may be gaming it in order to put maximum pressure on M prior to the elections.

While on the surface the State Department backed the restoration, they saw no issue with a transition period that did not reverse the coup. As we can see in 2016, Zelaya was totally, totally right about how the coup affected Honduran democracy and a move towards violence and civil strife. Instead of seeing the fundamental legitimacy crisis caused when the peaceful transfer of power between administrations is interrupted, Clinton’s team saw vanity and pride.

This attitude has cost many lives. The unaccompanied minors surge across the southern border included many from a dysfunction post-coup Honduras. Central American stability can never be lasting if there is an exodus from some countries rife with murder, kidnapping, and sexual assault.

I don’t support Hillary Clinton. There are many reasons why, but it goes beyond her image, words, and political party. Her actions have hurt many. Honduras is a situation of her creation; it’s not something we paint by association with her husband’s presidency. Instead of Benghazi hysteria, citizens should remember something that is not only real, but that she publicly admits to.

The pre-democratic American Constitution

american-constitution

 

Discussions about the American political system often seem too…exact. The foundation of law and source of political norms in the United States is portrayed as entrenched, and the Constitution set up as laying out the politics of today in detail.

For instance, the statement “America is a two-party system”. Most facts about the modern American political system are codification through improvisation. It’s because the United States has a pre-modern, pre-democratic Constitution.

Sitting at the core of American law is an archaic foundation, that we spend a lot of time pretending isn’t a dead albatross that we have to drag around. One school of legal thought is that because the Constitution is so short and vague, it can evolve with the times. Whether this is because it is a living document, or that the wisdom of the Framers is seen as a matter of political opinion. Yet the Constitution has not aged well. Modern America is held together with legal gaffer tape.

So, what is the Constitution not equipped to handle? Competitive elections (so, democracy as we know it today). Political parties. Interest groups. Money in politics. A society in which people other than white landowners had value. The welfare state. Modern monetary policy. Economic integration. Cultural shifts on civil rights based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexual choice. The Industrial Revolution. Multilateral treaties and international cooperation.

The vagueness has often not been a benefit at all. There is nothing in the text that says women are allowed to vote, but it took a constitutional amendment to specifically make that a right. The Constitution is not adaptable if its general principles must be updated by legally binding alteration.

In practice, the Constitution is dragged into each new era by common law. But this means that the decisions of a small, homogeneous judicial clique decides what are new rights. And there’s nothing to have reversals that go in the opposite direction of progress. Judges essentially create a substantial portion of the law from whole cloth- given the vague nature of their source material, rather than giving a yes/no decision, they have to create new standards.

Now a constitution need not be updated every year, but basically no other constitution in the world predates the basic norms of how democracies govern.

This is hardly an original view. There has been one substantial effort to reconcile the 18th century worldview with principles recognizable in 2016. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights was proposed as a way to deal with one of the most fundamental shifts in American society- that is, economic rights that aren’t directly related to property. The proposal was nothing left than a complete revolution in the role of government. Most of the ideas in the Second Bill of Rights have never been implemented and may never will.

Besides economic rights, no procedures are supplied for how American democracy should work. The Framers willfully refused to regulate party politics, so when partisanship erupted, the rules were improvised. But the well is even drier here, because instead of vague principles, there’s just…nothing. America is a two-party state in practice, but it’s a zero party state in fundamental law.

It is frustrating that many all but worship the Constitution, while ignoring the problems caused by its continued existence. It feels like we’re playing blackjack, but using rules from a book about bridge.

The fight for democracy in Hong Kong

Protest march held prior to Hong Kong’s 25th anniversary vigil of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The ongoing struggle for transparent democracy in Hong Kong continues, as the last week featured significant setbacks. 2017 will bring the first direct elections for the head of Hong Kong, but it appears that the process of nomination will be rigged in order to elect candidates willing to support policies of mainland China. Candidates will need to be approved by a majority of a large nominating committee, which will likely have a conservative bias that defers to the Beijing government.

Election boards do not see high-profile use in the United States, but they are a key mechanism resisting multiparty politics. They have been used to exclude many candidates for the Presidency of Iran, and are a weapon for incumbents and dominant parties.

Encampment in Hong Kong for Occupy Central, 2014.

When the British left in 1997 very little effort was expended towards ensuring a democratic Hong Kong. Thus the past two decades have been full of vague promises. Since no dates were etched in the political process, things have been delayed as long as possible. This has mostly benefitted pro-Beijing groups; democratic opposition can only show its full power when there are democratic elections to move in.

One of the main democratic coalitions, Occupy Central, are furious. They promise to radicalize and expand protests, but Hong Kong does not have the same powerful push for democracy that other places have. Due to its economic importance, and its attachment to the political and economic power of China, few major players date side with Occupy Central:

China recently warned foreign countries against “meddling” in Hong Kong’s politics, with an article in a state-run newspaper on Saturday accusing some in Hong Kong of “colluding” with unnamed “outside forces”.

Despite great wealth and geopolitical importance, Hong Kong is an ignored front in the fight for worldwide democracy.

EU elections – the nature of democratic fatigue

In march I wrote a lengthy piece on voter turnout in developed nations, particularly ones with low corruption. My ultimate explanation for the phenomenon of declining voter turnout was what I dubbed democratic fatigue. Google shows that I’m not the first writer to come up with this phrase, but I’m one of very few. It’s a good definition of the problem, so I will continue to use it. Perhaps it will catch on.

The European Union elections concluded last week, one of the largest democratic events on Earth. Ever since direct elections to a European Parliament started, turnout has decreased significantly. Good news in 2014 came not from a positive growth in participation but a stagnation. It was basically the same as it was the last time around in 2009.

Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html
Found at http://www.results-elections2014.eu/en/turnout.html

What this figure means is an open question. It could mean that 43%, on aggregate, is the bottom. What may be more likely is that there was an increase in interest from far-right and Eurosceptic parties, which propped up an otherwise shrinking electorate. Certainly this may explain some results in countries like France – it’s not just a big shift from other parties, but rather that the National Front electorate is just more interested in these elections. Looking at a party like UKIP, which won the UK elections, one has to see their history of success with EU elections alongside their zero Members of Parliament.

That’s an interesting modifier when looking at democratic fatigue – belief that the election results will change power relations. This applies locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. The perception is that the European Parliament is basically powerless, so voting is more an intellectual (or anti-intellectual) exercise. I find the whole process interesting as an outsider from a two-party country, but it’s quite different from the inside. There’s a thirty point difference between this year’s European elections and the 2010 general election in the United Kingdom. The split between presidential and midterm elections in the United States is well-known. It’s clear that it’s a continuum – people view the President as a clear power player, Congress as a lesser and more nebulous institution, and it goes down the line. The European Parliament at this point has more in common with the UN General Assembly; it is adjacent to power in several directions but is clearly not the group in charge of things.

How to make the EU more engaging and increase participation (an article with some of that conversation is here) is not sure- the disillusion with the elections is nearly total in Slovakia, for instance, while turnout in other countries is robust and healthy. The current state of things seems to be sliding towards a negative election, where people vote for anti-EU parties in increasing numbers, rather than groups that want to build the EU into something larger and better. This isn’t a majority of the vote but it’s headed that way. In my original post I talked about how turnout declines when things are working more or less okay; the Eurozone crisis perked some people up a bit, going against the prevailing feeling that the EU elections are pointless.

There are lessons with last week’s elections all over Europe that can apply on the local and national level. What the European Parliament lacks in power and reach may apply to other governments, and turnout may be lower because of those same issues. Overall turnout for these elections was about the same as for Egypt’s election of their new military general-turned-politician, despite an opposition boycott. Perhaps everyone has found a reason to not show up.

Political tea leaves

In 2008, one of the best posts in the time around the November election was by Ed from Gin and Tacos, a whip smart blog that I link here from time to time. It’s about the idea of constructed explanations, or what is created by the public and the media from events where there is inadequate data for a more objective explanation.

In the context of elections it’s very apt. Think about it this way. Modern society is feedback-driven, whether it’s a form asking you how your hotel experience was, or a text box that opens up when you ask to unsubscribe from an email list. It’s easier than ever to tell a business what you thought about whatever it is that they do. Far beyond the era of hotlines, it’s something you have to avoid these days.

So it seems odd that a ballot, despite being part of an immensely important process, has nothing to provide context to what is marked. Why did this person vote for Proposition 23 but not 25? Wouldn’t they want both? Don’t know. They might as well be cryptic runes from a thousand years ago.

What emerges then, is a guessing game about a huge, complex event. There is a ton of potential data to collect, but very little is; it remains in the mind of each individual voter. Exit polls are notoriously inaccurate and don’t take a representative sample. In any recent United States presidential election, you would have a pretty decent idea of what Ohio or Florida voters did – including important data like their key issues and what influenced their vote.

The hundred million plus who live in safe states? Not likely to meet a data collector. If you’re trying to create a large-scale political narrative, the map looks like a crappy cellular network. Key places are covered, but most is a black hole. When it comes to voters in states like California or Oklahoma, media explanations fall on stereotypes more than anything.

In the 21st century the only other major post-vote data source are online polls, which measure the most politically engaged slice of the electorate. Voters who keep to themselves are a question mark. When the numbers come in, the contours of the results may lie with them and the subtle, small reasons many of them showed up to vote, and what they ultimately voted for.

With the EU elections going on, and the US midterms approaching in a few months, narratives will be constructed well in advance, then paired with polling. If they line up well with the results, they are accepted as gospel. This is problematic, because there are many reasons a party wins or doesn’t win. Is the narrative that X Party won, or is it that they only won by that amount? In a context like the EU elections, where are supporters moving among the various parties? Did turnout bolster certain parties, and should it be considered high, low, or normal given the circumstances?

2012. Mitt Romney wasn’t a good communicator. It was a bad year to be a Republican. The Tea Party dragged the ticket down. Obama’s campaign was run very well. Or maybe just better than Romney’s. Or maybe they cocked things up and got lucky with a weak candidate. These are all estimations because you’re looking at numbers and assigning agency and motives to them. But just like the Man in the Moon isn’t a real face, just something that resembles a face, sometimes numbers resemble a narrative.

The advantage for the media is that it’s hard to call bullshit. And as any detour into cable news can show you, the narrative factory – the myth-making, if you will, goes beyond being a part of the business.

It is the business, now.

The fallout: intervention and the Arab Spring

Clashes between Gaddafi and rebel forces during the initial civil war. February 2011. Wikipedia license, public domain.

Disturbing news -there is a serious power struggle in eastern Libya– not just between secular and Islamist groups, but between government armed forces and renegade paramilitaries.

This is the lesson of 21st century Western-backed regime change in the Middle East. When a dictator is toppled, so goes the one institution that can use sanction and force to establish order. One may remember the order in 2003 that dissolved Iraq’s Republican Guard and other police and military forces as a more formal way to create a situation like 2014 Libya. True, Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein were using their armed forces for terrible things – both warfare against their own people and bloody wars like Hussein’s slugfest with Iran in the 1980’s. When they are gone, however, it becomes a free-for-all, and any democratic successor relies on the military foundation to enact political policy. If the rebel victory in Libya could be considered a potential revolution, though if it is it’s a complicated one, the reaction is when civil conflict attacks the ideals of the original movement.

In Iraq, looking solely at the development of democratic institution, the new regime had the assistance of a large Coalition force that, struggles with insurgents notwithstanding, had a lot of firepower to back a new government. Libya has none of that. It’s the remnants of Gaddafi’s power bloc and the shattered pieces of the rebels, plus any foreign Islamist force that wishes to creep in from neighboring countries. The country becomes a set of fiefdoms, just how the Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds had their own districts in Iraq. It shouldn’t be some great surprise when this is where the Libyan Civil War ends up. Military intervention only becomes justifiable if it’s a benefit in both the short and long-term. Personally, I opposed any kind of bombing campaign against Syria, as proponents (who had the burden of proof) couldn’t show how it would save lives and improve a future resolution of the conflict. You don’t throw missiles into a situation without a clear of idea of why their damage is important. Or to be more realistic, you shouldn’t.

It was clear that a massive humanitarian response was both urgently needed and ultimately defensible. Libya is much the same- if not now then soon.

A paramilitary stands guard.

The ledger of the Arab Spring, about three and a half years later, is complex and still shifting. As Jeffrey Laurenti writes that elections “have been unfolding this spring in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria as well as Egypt. Not all of them are a sham. But even the genuinely free elections are often associated with dysfunctional governments and deeply divided societies.” Egypt is going back to a military autocrat, with much of the electorate happy with the change, even among widespread violence against the Muslim Brotherhood. One may think of this as mere window dressing. Was Egypt really anything but a military junta going through a bit of an experiment? Laurenti points out that even Lebanon, which scores the highest in terms of political freedom in Middle East states if you disqualify Israel, is charitably a complete mess – though some of this is a war in Syria that they cannot separate themselves from.

This is the 21st century. Movements can be worldwide, countries influence each other on so many levels. And political revolution and crisis are harder and harder to ignore. From this comes the question – what can I do to make other societies fairer, safer, more egalitarian? What can my country do? Everyone is finding their limits. Clearly Western powers often get involved in cultural and societal conflicts that they don’t understand. But then other times they sit by and do nothing – as I write this, two decades ago Hutu extremists were massacring Tutsis in the streets with machetes. The balance of doing something and letting things play out on their own is always there, and everyone has their own take on where their country and the world should stand.