Our House, Divided

Abraham Lincoln, before he ran for President, famously said, “A house divided against itself, cannot stand.” America was the house, and slavery — the debate over slavery, the passions over America’s original sin — divided that house and threatened to collapse it. Today we are again a house divided, but the root of that division is not quite so clear. Or is it?

We have today in the White House a man who revels in division, who sows it deliberately. It is the old Roman strategy of divide and conquer, in new clothing: those who might oppose this regime are not weakened by geographical divisions but by a kind of mental and physical exhaustion. It is exhausting to hear, read, watch, the outrages that pour from a man who occupies Lincoln’s office, sleeps in his bed, bears the standard of Lincoln’s party; a man who has never before held public office, who defiles his oath, from whom lies pour more easily than truth, who has shown by every act and every utterance his unfitness for public life in the lowest possible capacity, let alone President of the United States.

That he has corrupted his office is well beyond doubt. The senators who voted to acquit, who quickly decided against hearing from witnesses and thoroughly examining the evidence, have openly admitted as much. They want you to believe that repetition of the words “no harm” and “perfect call” will convince you, but you won’t be gaslighted — you are smarter than that.

Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible: that means, compromise. The hyperpartisan era — ushered in by Newt Gingrich — has made that all but impossible. “Compromise” has become a dirty word, and “political” a subtle derogatory for “partisan.” You know that neither is really true: you are smarter than that.

Senator Murkowski, explaining her vote to hear no witnesses in the impeachment trial, said it was due to the “partisan nature” of the entire case. She and her party would have you believe that because they refused to participate in any meaningful way, the case was partisan. You are smarter than that.

Senator Alexander would have us believe that demanding foreign interference in our elections, though “improper,” is not an impeachable offense. The correct remedy, he says, for a president who would corrupt an election is — to vote him out. That would be news to our founding fathers, as it is to you. You are smarter than that.

And Senator Collins?  What to make of her assurance that, “I think the president has learned his lesson.”  Really?  Is she that credulous?  You aren’t.  You are smarter than that.

The Republican party would have you believe that a process is fatally flawed and hopelessly partisan because they have chosen non-participation. You know better: you see through their excuses, you know that by withdrawing they can label any process or legislation as “partisan.” Their vision of “bipartisanship” and “compromise” is strained at best: legislation, in their view, is only bipartisan if Democrats cross over to support it.

Laws aren’t supposed to be Republican or Democratic, depending on the party in power. The values that made America great aren’t the exclusive property of Lincoln or Jefferson. They did not spring, spontaneously and fully-formed, from Madison’s pen. Our constitition has endured precisely because it was forged in compromise: hammer on one side, anvil on the other. Some truths — these truths — are self-evident, and yet the president and his co-conspirators would tell you that black is white, up is down, wrong is right; and through ceaseless repetition they would exhaust you until you relent. You know better; you are smarter than that.

A house divided against itself, Lincoln told us, cannot stand. Today we seem to be more divided than ever, certainly more than we have been since Lincoln’s time. The great social divider of a half-century ago, the war in Vietnam, did not prevent the Congress and our national government from achieving great milestones. The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Clean Air Act: we have seen few similar legislative accomplishments since. These were all products of compromise, of Democrats and Republicans working together to achieve a common purpose. The Affordable Care Act is the accomplishment of this generation, and it has been labeled “partisan” because Republicans saw political advantage in refusing to participate. Think about that for just a moment: men and women sent to Congress by their constituents for the purpose of legislating in the national interest, sought political advantage in refusing to participate in the legislative process. Don’t fall for their ruse. You are smarter than that.

We are now in a worldwide public health crisis like none seen in two generations: It has been a century since the last great pandemic, and the president of the United States has, by his inaction, made it worse. His go-to mode is denial, followed by deflection. Not long ago he insisted this was something that “nobody could have predicted.” The next day he continues to say he is smarter and more prescient than anyone else: “I thought it would be a pandemic long before anyone said the word ‘pandemic’.”  And this week, “it could have been stopped, should have been stopped a long time ago but somebody decided not to do anything about it.”  Well, yes.  He casts blame outward, the buck stopping everywhere except his desk or even his White House.

You are smarter than that. You know that both statements cannot be true: either it was unpredictable, or he predicted it. If he
predicted it, why are we only now learning of this? Why were we caught flatfooted and unprepared?  Either earlier action could have stopped it, or it could not.  The story changes with dizzying speed, the lies and nonsense spewing faster and faster while he tries not to reap the fruits of his own incompetence.

You are smarter than that.

Our government has been hollowed out, from Justice to State, from Energy to Interior, from the EPA to the CIA. Professionals — career men and women whose choice was to serve the American people regardless of the president’s party or the congressional majority, have departed in droves. In their place are hacks who want only to serve the president — this specific president — not the people, not the country. It is Amateur Hour aboard the ship of state.

A house divided against itself cannot stand.  We must stand together — apart, for now, united in our agreement to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.  We must also stand together, shoulder to shoulder, to arrest and reverse the continuing decline of our institutions, the guarantors of our freedom and of our democracy.  We are smarter than that.

Party Differences

No matter what anybody says about the two parties being “no different”: they are.  The GOP doesn’t care how deep in the mud they have to get to win.  Race-baiting ads and dog-whistle code words have been standard practice since David Gergen and Roger Ailes kicked off Nixon’s Southern Strategy.  Reagan had his Welfare Queen and Strapping Young Buck, GHW Bush had Willie Horton. The list goes on and on.  (McCain and Romney were arguably more principled — and lost.  The lesson for the GOP wasn’t, “Improve your product.”  It was, “Whatever it takes.”)

The difference between the parties comes down to two things, I believe:

  • Democrats want to win on the merits; Republicans want to win.
  • Democrats want to govern; Republicans want to rule.

The second point shows why the first is so important.  We ignore the difference between “govern” and “rule” at our peril.

Calvin Coolidge and The Business of Government

“The business of government is business.” Coolidge didn’t say that, exactly: what he said was, “The business of the American people is business.” In today’s Republican Party (indeed, the Republican Party of the last half-century at least) that is a distinction without a difference. We have, in this country — in the world — an awful lot of people who have taken much too literally the adage that “the government that governs least, governs best.” The GOP has, since that day in 1986 when Ronald Reagan — President of the United States, leader of the free world, and his own government’s Chief Executive Officer — declared war on the idea that government had anything useful to offer. “The nine most terrifying words in the English language,” he declared to a cheering crowd, “are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help!’” It was a great applause line, and it certainly caught on. But it begs the question which too few thought to ask at the time: If you don’t believe in government, why are you in it? And, mightn’t the energy and effort required to dismantle government be better spent improving it?

I have always understood Coolidge’s line — even, or maybe especially in its misquoted form — to mean that government, to be successful, must create and preserve the conditions that allow and enable its citizens (and their businesses) to thrive. Government’s role is to build out and maintain essential infrastructure: good roads, clean water, adequate sewerage, excellent schools. This infrastructure must be available to all regardless of station or stature. Established firms will rely on it; entrepreneurs will leverage it.

And when there is a disaster — a 100-year storm, say — government has to step in to provide emergency assistance to those suddenly in need: a roof, a meal, a helping hand with cleanup and rebuilding. Floods, being local matters, are generally left to the state governments; the federal government, with its wider reach and greater resources, provides a backstop whenever necessary.

Well, now it is necessary: we have a global pandemic that in three months has infected over 1 million Americans and killed over 56,000; to say nothing of the millions of other people around the world. And where is the federal government, whose coordinating role is essential to preventing the spread, mitigating the damage, and developing a vaccine? “I take no responsibility at all,” says Donald Trump. And, “It is up to the governors to decide when to reopen their states.” Reopen?? We’ve barely begun to understand how this new virus spreads let alone its mechanisms for ravaging the body; a speedy return to business as usual almost certainly will mean a second wave of infections and another tsunami of job losses and economic devastation. The “cure” of reopening will surely be worse than the disease of stay-at-home orders, quarantine, and social distancing.

Instead of a single, coordinated, and effective response to this crisis we have fifty separate jurisdictions each managing its own response; they have given up pleading with the federal government for leadership or even a single supply chain for essential medical equipment like protective gear and ventilators.  A crisis response regime under which the states must compete against each other in a world market for scarce resources while FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — sits back or, worse, seizes shipments arriving in New York for domestic redistribution by well-connected private companies? That’s not a system of government by and for the people, it’s kleptocracy and just one small step away from anarchy. That’s profiteering, aided and abetted by the feds.

“When you drown the government in a bathtub, people die.” That arresting headline in The Washington Post’s opinion pages got my attention a couple of weeks ago, because it is so very true. Sure, small government is great, and the government that governs least, governs best. Until there is a crisis. Until you actually need a government to step in and do what only governments can do. When that government is filled with apparatchiks and cronies, with people whose only purpose in being in government is to shrink it further, with men and women without relevant experience but who will pledge undying loyalty to the cult leader, the enormous and deadly consequences should surprise exactly nobody.

There is plenty more that big government can and should do; I hope to explore that soon. It seems I’ll have plenty of time because the governor of my state — unlike the governors of at least a few other states, and unlike the president — is proceeding with very sensible caution. He knows what he doesn’t know, and when he needs to rely on expert advice from epidemiologists and crisis managers who have spent years training themselves for this. (The day-to-day manager of the HHS coronavirus task force has also spent years training — labradoodles.)

Government exists to improve the lives of all people, not just a few. Because the business of government isn’t business: it’s governing. At the end of the day, competence and relevant experience matter.

Genocide

The tragic events that continually unfold in Sudan (like the events in Rwanda a decade since) are, the world must acknowledge, genocidal in their scope, in their intent, in their effect.  For all intents and purposes, the world has acknowledged these facts; and yet the world has stood by, continues to stand by and watch it happen.  One is tempted to observe, bitterly, that genocide has become a spectator sport — but spectator sports garner far more attention, and indeed far more money.

The United Nations decries it; the United States has, through its Department of State, declared the unraveling in Darfur to be genocide; and yet neither can muster the political will — or the military force — to intervene: the former because it is chronically weak, the latter because its forces are bogged down, as it were, in the Central Asian desert, the sand turning marshy as the blood pours recklessly, needlessly, and indiscriminately from invader and indigenous, infidel and faithful.

The world stands by as the people of Darfur are slaughtered.  One is forced to wonder: Is the genocide-ignorer a genocide-enabler?

The United States deplores the events, but the colossus too is impotent.  And one’s thoughts turn to America’s self-inflicted wounds, and the coming bloodbath in Iraq: genocide is in the wind there, too, and we are all but powerless to stop it.  The invasion set it in motion, “Mission Accomplished” assured its emergence, and our continued presence slows its arrival — for now.  And the question arises:  When a power (however inadvertently) create the conditions for genocide, does it thereby undertake a continuing obligation to prevent it?

These are not idle or theoretical questions, by any means: They are central to winding down America’s misadventure Iraq, and they neatly define the quandary of Americans who opposed the invasion of Iraq as unwarranted and now oppose withdrawal as immoral.

The argument runs something like this: Having once created an unstable and untenable situation in Iraq, the United States cannot now walk away from the civil war that has ensued.  Or: We lit the fire, after all; we ought to stick around long enough to put it out.

Alas, this is not a fire that can long be contained, much less extinguished.  Like the wildfires that devastate the American west, this one will (I fear) have to burn itself out.  The cultural animosities infecting the peoples of Iraq have alternately simmered and boiled over for centuries.  Only Saddam’s brutality held the region together as a modern nation-state, as no occupying power — no matter how benign or benevolent — could ever do: the Ottomans had a hard time of it, and the British failed utterly.  Now the United States takes its turn, and by freeing three disparate (and antipathetic) peoples from the tyrant’s grasp has unleashed the ethnic conflict and super-heated it.

For Iraq it hardly matters, at this moment, whether U.S. ground forces stay or go: by staying they forestall the inevitable conflagration; perhaps when it does occur, the other nations of the world will see fit to step in and suppress the violence.  Meanwhile, other corners of the world where the American forces could make a positive difference — Darfur being uppermost at this moment — burn and bleed, because American forces are, as of now, spread too thin.  Multilateral action — the African Union, the United Nations — has been tepid at best; only the United States has the power to take the kind of action, unilaterally, that is required.

And so the giant is twice shamed: for not intervening when it could, and then tying its own hands by intervening where it shouldn’t.

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Additional resources:

“A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (Samantha Power)

“We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda” (Philip Gourevitch)

“Encyclopedia of Genocide (2 Volumes)” (ABC-Clio Inc)

SaveDarfur.org has a post called “Educate Others” that’s worth checking out…

Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have responded to the suffering in Darfur by standing up and demanding that their governments take action to end the crisis. However, many individuals still have not heard about the genocide in Darfur. To build the political will necessary to…

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Surging Generals

With the long-overdue departure of Donald Rumsfeld (not to mention the arrival, come January 4, of some much-needed adult supervision from Congress), perhaps the defense establishment can engage an honest and open debate about Iraq. For the last week the punditocracy and the retired generals on the talking-head circuit have chattered on about the “surge,” the idea being that an additional insertion of 20,000 or so ground forces would turn the tide in Iraq.

That tide went out many, many months ago, and it’s not coming back in. We have two choices: issue an apology and leave; or continue to watch our blood and treasure disappear into the desert sands, never to return.

What is now being called “the surge” is nothing more nor less than Frank Rich, Thomas Friedman, and others have been writing about for some weeks now: it is code for an invasion de novo in Iraq. It is the only way, at this point, to secure the country so that the really critical job of building (and repairing) basic infrastructure can get properly under way.

Why the Orwellian euphemism? Because distortion of language is a lesson this Republican party has learned well; it is Karl Rove’s stock-in-trade. Because in the absence of any real plan or progress, the only alternative — Rumsfeld himself as much as admitted it in his “deathbed” memorandum — is to attempt to redefine (for example) “victory” downward. As so many other things in this sorry war foisted on the world by this sorry administration, this “only alternative” is so only when regarded through the Bush funhouse prism, the one that presents all of the decider’s decisions in stark Manichean terms, as the obvious selection from a set of false choices.

All of which brings us back to those talking generals: some indeed say that a “surge” would secure Baghdad (for example) to better enable the training of Iraqi troops and police and permit the rebuilding to continue apace, without the distraction of open warfare in the streets (and around the power plants). Others, more realistic, perhaps, point out that a surge is another band-aid, a tactical response to a strategic blunder.

The problem with the surge is not that it’s a flawed idea (it isn’t); it is that we haven’t sufficient ground forces nor matériel to accomplish the job. The surge is, rather, a “do-over,” a weak attempt to correct our initial strategic blunder (the invasion) and tactical error (assignment of insufficient resources) by trying, too long after the fact, to “get it right.” We had the men and equipment in 2003, but Rumsfeld insisted we didn’t need them; the results were disastrous. Now that we have created chaos where there was none; terrorists where there were none; and contempt in the wake of admiration; we have squandered our resources and our prestige, and there is no getting them back. Recovery of our national pride will not be had by doubling-down a bad bet, but by a frank and full confession of our error.

The invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, up to the present day and into the foreseeable future under any circumstances, has been one enormous national humiliation. The executive lied, the legislature waffled, and the judiciary is doing its best to turn a blind eye to extra-legal excesses that are more effective at highlighting American hypocrisy than extracting intelligence or “keeping us safe” in any meaningful way. In short, democracy has failed and its true meaning bled away, drop by precious drop.

It would be refreshing if the debate, in Congress and on the opinion pages, included an acknowledgment of the real reason anyone is considering a surge: to forestall admission of “defeat” and thus preserve — for some segment of the voting public — the sense of “honor and dignity” that Bush promised to “restore” (as if it were ever missing). We have already been defeated, as much by our own hubris and want of planning as by any enemy; the only thing that remains, if our national honor is truly to be restored, is to issue an apology and walk away, chastened. It’s time for us to grow up and see ourselves as the world sees us.

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The “complexity” of Iraq

You would expect and desire a commander in chief, in looking at a situation, to examine military concerns, security concerns, diplomatic concerns, internal political concerns within Iraq, regional ramifications, how you get people to work in concert with one another. It is enormously complex.

— White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, on the delay of a major Iraq policy announcement, 12 December 2006

Well, yes, it is enormously complex. Actually, I’d expect all of those things of a commander in chief before he gives the order to invade a sovereign nation.

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Aspiring Presidents

Josh Marshall notes today Jeff Greenfield’s “Obama sounds like Osama” sound bite; sure, it’s idiotic, it’s been noted before, and it’s going nowhere.

More interesting was Greenfield’s comment about the senator’s casual dress, that it “reflects one of Obama’s strongest political assets, a sense that he is comfortable in his own skin, that he knows who he is.”

Greenfield goes on to contrast Obama with Kerry, Bush, and Richard Nixon: Kerry and Nixon seemed always uncomfortable. As for Bush, Greenfield wryly notes: “Third-generation Skull and Bones at Yale? Don’t be silly. Nobody here but us Texas ranchers.”

Think for a moment about our recent presidents — about all of the candidates of the last twenty years. Kerry might have been the smartest guy in the room, but he was never comfortable in that role; Clinton, by contrast, relishes it and has the rare ability to make even the most abstruse and complex ideas accessible to almost anyone within earshot. Gore? A stiff. Bush 41? Another stiff, unable to connect with the public and the victor in ’88 because Dukakis was, incredibly, even stiffer.

Vote counting

The debate over electronic votes — as noisy and as intellectually impoverished as it has been — has missed the central point, and the central problem. Many of the technologies being pushed — Diebold’s touch-screens come to mind — make the fatal error of conflating two distinct acts: the casting of votes, and the counting of the votes cast. The focus has been on counting, not casting: with accurate counting as the priority, the “new and improved” process is optimized for the convenience of the county clerk, whose (tedious) job it is to tally ballots.

This focus on counting misses the point of voting in the first place: if the first priority isn’t accurately recording the voter’s intent, accurate counting doesn’t count for much. If we were serious about solving (or at least mitigating) the problems that have made electronic balloting famous (or infamous) of late, we might try examining it as a system — with discrete component parts — rather than as a function. The essential components are, of course:

  1. Record the votes: The voter’s choice is accurately recorded, in fixed and tangible form. This means that a paper trail is required: simply displaying the choice on-screen won’t do.
  2. Count the votes: The recorded ballots are tallied, and (if necessary) tallied again. For the sake of simplicity, the paper ballots might be scanned, separated, and tallied; for the sake of accuracy, it might be worthwhile to employ multiple methods.

Much has been made of the need for paper trails, but even so the processes of casting and counting, of recording and tallying, coalesce into the single process of “voting.” A paper trail actually serves two distinct purposes: it verifies, to the voter, that the vote recorded is the vote he cast (see 1, above); and it provides a means of counting tangible, physical ballots (refer to 2, supra).

[Update: an editorial in The New York Times stresses the need for a paper trail and calls for Congress to act, after yet another election debacle in Florida.]
The fundamental difficulty, as noted above, is that the purchasing decisions are effectively made by the people who specify the equipment: the county clerks; and those decisions are heavily influenced by the equipment vendors, who often hire retiring clerks as “consultants” who can credibly lobby their former peers. Every interest, in short, is served save one: that of the voter.

What’s wrong with this picture?