Category Archives: U.S. politics

My thoughts on the Trump-Putin Helsinki summit

I’m grateful for the freedom to criticize my president’s words in praise of Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki Summit. It’s a freedom that Russia’s citizens do not equally enjoy.

I don’t fault a US president for meeting with authoritarian leaders. But I do fault them when they do so to praise them and imply that they’re envious of their unchecked power.

Call me old fashioned, but I think that liberal democracy is a better form of government than authoritarianism and worth defending and fighting for, both at home and abroad.

I used to think that despite our partisan differences, we all agreed on basic fundamentals like democracy > authoritarianism. I don’t think a candid read of the evidence can support that view any longer.

Our president clearly and openly minimizes the importance of democratic institutions and norms while praising strongman dictators. One party mostly gives him a pass, and the other says we need to focus on economic issues over presidential scandals/drama.

As a Millennial, I didn’t grow up with the cultural memory of WW2, the Cold War, or the Berlin Wall. I took liberal democracy as a given and for granted in my country. I suppose every generation has to learn anew why democracy, despite its flaws, is worth defending.

Highlights from “The War on Alcohol” by Lisa McGirr

I recently finished a fascinating overview of the politics of Prohibition in the early 20th century entitled The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, written by Harvard’s Prof. Lisa McGirr. Some of the book’s highlights include:

  • Part of the motivation for Prohibition was of course to improve American health and well-being. This was a peripheral concern, however, compared to the more central motivation of enacting policy which would make it more difficult for lower-income racial/ethnic minority groups to organize politically. Many of the political debates of the early 20th century pitted, on one side, working-class immigrant/Catholic/Irish/German/Italians against upscale Protestants and business entrepreneurs. Prohibition was understood to be a policy designed primarily to make it more difficult for urban Catholic immigrants (who often voted for the Democratic political machines in big cities) to organize politically, as the neighborhood saloon was a key political setting in many urban contexts.
  • This was all the more evident given that government enforcement of Prohibition was directed disproportionately at poorer regions and working class neighborhoods. In many cities, wealthy, upscale citizens could enjoy drinks at the local speakeasy assured that the police would leave them alone. Lower-class consumers and rural bootleggers, however, never enjoyed such assurances.
  • Further, Prohibition had no stronger support than among the Ku Klux Klan. “The dry mission intersected perfectly with its anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and white-supremacist agenda” (135). During this era, to support Prohibition was to put oneself on the side of “respectable” morality and upstanding American values, which was understood to be under assault from un-American (often Catholic) radicalism.
  • The hatred of Prohibition among working-class ethnic neighborhoods and immigrant communities was a key issue that swung many of them to the Democratic Party in the early 1930s. It is not a stretch to say that Prohibition was a key factor (in addition to the Depression) in the electoral realignment of the 1932 election that led to FDR, the New Deal, and the Democratic Party’s ascendancy for the next several decades.
  • The effort to enforce Prohibition led to an unprecedented expansion of the federal state in the 1920s, as many resources were needed for enforcement and punishing violators. In the view of Prof. McGirr, this directly paved the path for the further expansion of the federal government in the 1930s under FDR. Further, it set the stage for a later expansion of the federal state during the 1970s-1990s with the War on Drugs.
  • One of Prof. McGirr’s central theses is that Prohibition was the War on Drugs of the 1920s. Much of the rhetoric and social anxieties were the same, especially when it came to how alcohol and drugs were perceived to be associated with lower-class and ethnic/racial crime. “Law and order” was a rallying cry of Prohibition just as it was for the War on Drugs in the later part of the 20th century.

From a personal perspective, it was interesting to learn how clearly Prohibition was linked to anti-immigrant, anti-radical, and anti-Catholic sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s. It was in this context that the LDS Church revised its suggested recommendation against alcohol to a much more rigid prohibition and linked teetotalism strongly to its own cultural identity. Given that the LDS Church in the early 20th century was making a deliberate effort to appear normal, mainstream, and “American” after the end of polygamy in the late 19th century, hitching its cultural identity to the Prohibition wagon was a natural, and in many ways, successful strategy.

My advice to Congressional Republicans: fight President Trump’s trade war

GOP Senator John Cornyn recently explained why most Congressional Republicans are reluctant to push back against President Trump’s aggressive economic tariffs:

The (understandable) logic is that Congressional Republicans who defy Trump on these tariffs risk facing his Twitter-wrath which may hurt their reelection chances and/or congressional majority in this November’s midterm election. As a result, they have chosen mostly to keep their heads down rather than to speak out in defense of free trade (with a few notable exceptions), something that has traditionally been a key conservative/Republican priority.

Congressional Republicans should keep in mind, however, that tariffs have historically hurt economic growth. Indeed, the World Bank has recently warned that Trump’s tariffs risk starting a trade war that could cause another global economic recession similar in magnitude to the 2008 recession.

This matters for a variety of reasons, but more to Senator Cornyn’s concern, there is a strong correlation between economic performance and midterm congressional outcomes. When the economy is weak, the president’s party suffers heavy losses. 

Thus, I would advise Republicans who are concerned about maintaining control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections to do everything they can to oppose President Trump’s recent tariffs. Not only would this demonstrate that their party’s commitment to free-market economic principles is genuine, but it would also help improve their reelection chances this fall.

Further, if President’s Trump’s tariffs do indeed spark a global trade war and a subsequent global economic recession, it will be very, very, very difficult for President Trump to win reelection in 2020, as domestic economic growth during the election year is a key predictor of presidential and election outcomes.

In sum, I predict that congressional Republicans will do more to hurt their chances this November by going along with President Trump’s tariffs than they would by opposing them.

 

 

One can support both the Second Amendment and public safety restrictions on guns

I’m a believer in civil liberties. I am grateful I live in a country where the First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees the freedom of speech, press, and religion.

Throughout U.S. history, the courts have consistently interpreted these civil liberties as freedoms that, while guaranteed and protected by the Constitution, are not absolutes. In a free society, it is necessary to balance individual freedoms with protection against infringements of the rights of others.

For example, we have interpreted freedom of speech not to include the freedom to falsely “shout fire in a crowded theater,” as that would incite pandemonium and threaten public safety. Our freedom of press is balanced with laws against libel and slander, as they can threaten the good name and reputation of our citizens. We rightly restrict the freedom to produce and distribute child pornography, to protect the safety and dignity of children.

While we rightly celebrate and cherish our freedom of religion, we also do not permit someone to endanger public safety (e.g. practice human sacrifice) as part of a sincerely-held religious belief, for self-evident reasons.

In the same vein, it seems reasonable to me that one can equally defend and promote the civil liberties guaranteed in the Second Amendment while balancing them with measures designed to protect public safety. This might include measures to reduce the amount of guns available that are commonly used in school shootings or more aggressive background checks.

The Second Amendment guarantees important civil liberties, just as the First Amendment does, yet in a free society that must balance individual liberty with public safety. Reasonable people can have disagree over where to draw the line, but it seems reasonable to me that one can love and cherish the freedoms guaranteed by both the First and Second Amendments while still accepting reasonable limitations on each in the interest of public safety.

In my view, being pro-Second Amendment does not require someone to also be anti-gun control, just as being pro-First Amendment does not require someone to oppose restrictions on child pornography, libel, slander, inciting public violence, or preventing human sacrifice in the name of religious freedom.

 

Ten observations on President Trump’s 2018 State of the Union address

  1. Some political science context is important. Most research shows that presidential addresses generally don’t shift public opinion on issues nor do they usually affect a president’s approval ratings. Also, presidential State of the Union proposals rarely become law. So in terms of the substantive effect of translating rhetoric into tangible political outcomes, the State of the Union is usually not terribly effective. I expect much will be the same this time around as well.
  2. Instead, State of the Union addresses are important rituals in American democracy. They give the president the opportunity to share his (or someday her) priorities and values, and an opportunity to parties to signal to their constituents, via their level and length of applause, how much they agree with the president’s agenda and values. This is important information for elected officials to provide to voters, as it enhances the ability for voters to hold elected officials accountable for their public stands on important political issues.
  3. Much to my great surprise, the first 45 minutes or so of the President’s speech was surprisingly bland, normal, and completely unlike his Twitter, campaign, and governing rhetoric. This does not negate, of course, the thousands of things he has done and said to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the United States, but if he behaved on Twitter and in other public forums the way he did in the first 45 minutes of his State of the Union address, he might be a less unpopular and more successful president. Given his patterns of past behavior, though, I’m not optimistic.
  4. For the first 45 minutes or so, President Trump’s rhetoric in this speech was more or less within the mainstream of traditionally conservative political ideology, and not at all in harmony with the more populist authoritarian rhetoric that he usually uses on Twitter and other public forums. Which Trump is the real Trump? I strongly suspect the latter.
  5. “So tonight, I call on the Congress to empower every Cabinet Secretary with the authority to reward good workers — and to remove Federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.” This is the only line that I saw that could reasonably construed as clearly authoritarian, unless clarified by strong and clear definitions as to what “fail the American people” means. (A view, by the way, expressed by both liberals and conservatives.)
  6. Around the 50-minute point, President Trump veered full-out nativist and anti-immigrant. From a personal perspective, it’s heartbreaking for me to see how much success political leaders have had over the past several years demonizing immigrants and refugees. Empirical evidence directly refutes what the president said about immigrants toward the end of his speech. For example, immigrants commit less crime than native-born Americans and are a strength to our economy. It’s sad, on a personal level, to see someone who promised to “build a wall” and claimed that Mexicans are “murderers and rapists” win a major party’s nomination and then later win a general election to be the chief representative of our country’s values and priorities.
  7. Given the talk about border security, it’s helpful to remember that research has shown that increased border security in the late 20th century actually increased the size of the undocumented population in the United States, see here.
  8. I’m glad to see the president publicly support the right of Iranians to protest against their government. Russian and Chinese citizens, though, and doing the same thing, and yet we see no similar signals of support from the U.S. president.
  9. I appreciate the president’s rhetorical support of liberal democracy toward the end of his State of the Union address. I wish his more normal rhetoric, which regularly devalues the freedom of press, the independence of the judiciary and FBI, and the integrity of our election processes were more in line with the rhetoric of his State of the Union address. It’s difficult to take him at his word when most of his rhetoric outside this setting is to the contrary.
  10. Kennedy’s Democratic response was surprisingly conventional. At a time where the most salient differences between the two major political parties in the U.S. concern what used to be non-partisan liberal democratic norms and institutions, the Democrats focus their response on traditional partisan contrasts. It’s not necessarily bad or wrong, but risks normalizing the decline of democratic norms as something not worth highlighting as the most important thing that Democrats would (theoretically) do differently if elected. Instead, I would have advised him to look America in the eye and said: “Look at Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Russia, etc. Your president is slowly turning the U.S. into an illiberal democracy like those countries, and the majority party in Congress is letting him because tax reform and other legislative priorities are more important to them. If elected, we won’t do that.”

Finally, here’s a list of fact checks for the president’s address. Politifact also has some good analysis.

My quick reactions to the first Mueller indictments

In the interest of engaging in democratic deliberation with my fellow American citizens, here are my thoughts on yesterday’s special counsel indictments of Paul Manafort, et al.:
 
1. The presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” is an important component of liberal democracy. The evidence presented yesterday certainly is damning for those specifically indicated. To my knowledge, though, there is still no clear evidence that Donald Trump was directly involved in the events described in the indictments. There is, however, more than sufficient evidence (in my view) to warrant Mueller continuing to aggressively pursue his investigation, including the possibility of knowledge on the part of President Trump during the campaign regarding the actions of his campaign manager and other advisers.
 
2. While the indictments yesterday are important, I am watching much more closely President Trump’s reaction in coming days and weeks to Mueller’s investigation. Any objective assessment of the evidence strongly indicates that Trump has shown a willingness to ignore, weaken, and constrict democratic norms and institutions for his own advantage. He’s already fired James Comey for (in his own words) investigating the Russia issue. Will he do the same with the Mueller investigation? Will he blanket pardon anyone indicted in the investigation? If so, this would be a key test of the strength of our democratic institutions in the United States which operate, for the most part, on the “honor system.”
 
3. A key question is also how Congress is reacting to these events. If President Trump were to use his power to issue these blanket pardons and/or eliminate the Mueller investigation, what would be the response of Congress? Would they act as a “check and balance” to preserve our liberal democratic norms and institutions, or would they turn a blind eye in an attempt to secure legislative goals of tax cuts and health care reform? I always thought that they would do the former, but they’ve shown a terrifying willingness to do the latter.
 
4. On that same note, I continue to be strongly disappointed with the gap between rhetoric and actions on the part of Congressional Republicans in terms of their commitment to liberal democratic principles. The GOP has traditionally been a proud defender (however imperfectly) of liberal democracy both at home and abroad. When push comes to shove, though, they’ve (so far) sadly chosen legislative priorities over defending our system of government. (Notable and honorable exceptions include Senators John McCain, Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and a few others.)
 
5. Continuing on this theme, imagine a hypothetical where Hillary Clinton had won the election and a special counsel investigation had indicted her former campaign manager for money laundering, tax evasion, etc. and a campaign foreign policy adviser for meeting with a Russian professor to get damaging information about the Trump campaign. How would Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Fox News have responded? How closely does that match how they *did* respond yesterday? Hypocrisy is always to be found in electoral politics, from Democrats and Republicans alike, but this is a whole new level of willful inaction.
 
6. In my view, Congressional Republicans are declining to aggressively “check and balance” the president to defend democratic norms and institutions in our country because they’re betting that a critical mass of their voting bases in their states and districts agree with President Trump’s actions and priorities. Public opinion polling tends to support that conclusion. I encourage my Republican friends to contact your congressional representatives and let them know that while you agree with them and support their fight for tax reform, abortion restrictions, health care reform, etc., you are NOT supportive of the President’s continual attacks on our democratic systems (free press, free speech, rule of law, etc.) and that you will NOT vote for them for reelection if they do not more aggressively “check and balance” the president. This might jeopardize their ability to get tax reform or other legislative priorities. I encourage you, though, to consider that defending our system of government is a higher priority. Without a strong liberal democratic government, it will not in the long run be possible to have the freedom to debate about tax reform, health care reform, etc. Our government is worth fighting for.

My quick thoughts on Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination

  1. Contrary to many of President Trump’s other appointments, Neil Gorsuch appears by all accounts to be an extremely well-qualified, thoughtful, and experienced jurist with stellar credentials. Judging purely on the merits, I have seen no evidence to suggest that Gorsuch is anything other than entirely within the mainstream of conservative jurists that Republican presidents typically appoint to the Supreme Court.
  2. I will admit I was expecting a more “Trumpy” Supreme Court pick. On just about every opportunity Pres. Trump has declined to follow democratic norms and actively tried to delegitimize our political institutions. On this score, however, he made a choice that is entirely consistent with Supreme Court nominee norms and I have not seen any evidence that Gorsuch will do anything other than try faithfully to strengthen the legitimacy of the judicial branch of government. Thus, I commend Pres. Trump for respecting democratic norms on this particular choice and hope that he will continue to do so in his future decision-making.
  3. In my opinion, Democrats should not automatically filibuster the Gorsuch appointment for purely political reasons. Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans did a great disservice to our nation and our political institutions by uniformly opposing Pres. Obama’s Merrick Garland’s for purely political reasons (their inconsistent and self-serving justifications notwithstanding). This jeopardized an important democratic norm and further politicized the judicial nomination process. If Democrats were to return in kind, they become complicit in the further weakening of our democratic norms and institutions.
  4. That being said, if the Senate Democrats choose to filibuster Gorsuch for purely political reasons, any Senate Republican who criticizes them for their obstruction is 100% hypocritical and disingenuous. They insult the American public to pretend that they took the high road on the Merrick Garland nomination.
  5. If the Senate Democrats choose to filibuster Gorsuch, one silver lining might be that it will force Sen. McConnell’s hand to eliminate the filibuster once and for all. Under normal circumstances, I support the Senate filibuster as an important check on the rights of the minority. Over the last two decades, though, it has become standard operating procedure for the minority party to automatically filibuster just about everything, making an undemocratic super-majority necessary to do anything in our political system. This prevents democratic majorities from being able to govern and weakens democratic accountability by allowing the majority to blame the minority if they fail to deliver results. Given these realities, I think the it’s time for the filibuster to go, and a Senate filibuster of a qualified Supreme Court appointment might be a good occasion to make it happen.
  6. It would be a nice gesture if Neil Gorsuch were to publicly say some kind words about Merrick Garland. On the merits, it should be Garland’s seat if Senate Republicans had chosen to put democratic norms and institutions over blatant partisanship.