I’ve been thinking a lot about American foreign policy lately.  I don’t, normally–I don’t think I have the training to be any good at making positive contributions to it.  But I think I have a negative contribution to make–generally a stronger suit for me.  American foreign policy is strikingly bipartisan and repetitive.  There have been only two American presidents in the last 75 years who neither started nor escalated a war: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they both have a problem with being taken seriously by popular history.   Neither one of them was, like, a terrible president; granted, they presided over a really terrible economic crisis (ultimately probably a much more damaging event than the current thing), but it’s not like either one had the power to dissolve OPEC.  (I can already hear the ultra-neoconservative counterargument: Carter should have invaded countries X, Y, and Z in order to break up OPEC and keep the oil flowing to American consumers.)

But it’s basically become a sort of rite of passage for American presidents to kick some ass somewhere in the Third World.  Honestly, how else can we make sense of things like George Bush’s invasion of Panama?  But it wasn’t always so.  FDR was preceded by twelve years of near-isolationism, which he spent a good deal of his second and third terms trying to fight his way through–only to have Hirohito force the issue.  I think it’s crucial that the trend picks up after FDR–that it characterizes the long “postwar era” that we’re still in, more or less.

The root problem with our foreign policy in this era is that we’re looking for analogies with the Second World War experience.  We’re looking for new Hitlers to save the world from and new Holocausts to avert.  You see this explicitly in Cold War rhetoric, in the sorts of things that were said about Saddam in the winter of 2002-2003, in the mainstream narrative of the collapse of Yugoslavia, in the complaints about the lack of an intervention in Rwanda (when there actually was an intervention).

The thing is, well, these analogies all suck.  Nazism was a really weird thing.  “Aberration” is a little strong, but it appeared in pretty extraordinary circumstances.  Germany in the Weimar period was the locus of what you might call a legitimacy vacuum–a state defeated in a war it thought it was winning had a constitution written for it by the parties whose patriotism was trusted least by their opponents, modeled on those of the countries that had defeated it.  And this was just the beginning–the economy was bad all through the 1920s, no stable governing coalition emerged, most of the major political parties had paramilitary wings that sparred in the streets, and then the Great Depression hit, toppling dozens of governments worldwide a dealing a major blow to the legitimacy of capitalism, liberalism, and democracy.  It was a perfect storm for empowering an ideology based on mass repression and total reshaping of the world order.  And this was all a legitimate threat to the whole world, because it happened in the most technologically advanced society on Earth.

The regimes we try to compare to Nazi Germany simply haven’t been comparable.  One major reason in the invention of the atomic bomb–conventional war between major powers just doesn’t make sense anymore.  Leaving aside the case of whether the Soviet Union was ever that much like Nazi Germany internally (and I tend to think that the differences look much smaller from where we stand than they really were), they were completely dissimilar externally; the postwar Soviet Union could never really think about conquering the world.  To be sure, they had their sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and they could intervene in various Third World conflicts, but that’s nothing special.  Most developed countries like to stick their hands in Third World conflicts when they think there’s something in it for them.

And as for the Holocaust comparisons that seem to crop up in American discourse about every modern ethnic conflict … well, I’m not sure those really hold water.  What happened in Bosnia in the 1990s was not a second Holocaust.  Let’s start with the simple facts: it was a three-sided conflict (at least), one in which every side committed some atrocities against every other side.  Or the fact that it was a civil war.  It’s hardly as though there were an organized Jewish army fighting to establish a Jewish state somewhere in Poland or Prussia, seeking and forcing the expulsion of non-Jews from the territory it controlled.

So … where am I going with this?  Nowhere in particular.  I don’t have my own cogent doctrine about the use of force and its relationship to humanitarian goals, besides a general suspicion that we should use it less than we have been.  This has been just another iteration of my series on how the world is more complicated than we want it to be, and understanding it stays really hard no matter how much you know.

And anyway, I told the truth

December 30, 2008

So it looks like both the Senate Democrats and the Illinois Secretary of State have decided to ignore Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s appointment of Roland Burris to Illinois’ class 3 Senate seat (a.k.a. “Obama’s Senate seat).  Frankly, I’m disgusted at them.

Number one, Roland Burris is exactly the right choice.  A lot of people have expressed a desire for this seat (as well as the ones that are opening up in New York, Delaware, and Colorado) to be filled by a “placeholder,” and elder statesman who will stand down in 2010 and allow the democratic process to come up with a more permanent replacement.  Burris is 71, not exactly the age when a guy starts a long-term career in the US Senate.  And his record in office, as state comptroller and state AG, was completely impeccable.  Also, it would probably do some good to have at least one black person in the US Senate.  (Following the President-Elect’s resignation, we currently have zero.)

Number two, nothing gives any of these people the right to even think about not accepting the appointment.  The US Senate doesn’t have the authority to refuse governors’ appointments, only to judge election returns submitted to it.  The Supreme Court has ruled on this before, and there’s really no wiggle room here.  And, while I’m not familiar with Illinois constitutional law (yet), I think it’s pretty clear that the Secretary of State isn’t supposed to hold veto power over anything the Governor does.

They’d probably answer that Blago is a bad, bad man and that he’s lost his legitimacy as Governor, and therefore fuck him.  Um, what happened to the rights of the accused?  What happened to the presumption of innocence?  Blagojevich has only been indicted.  He has been convicted of nothing; he is an innocent man in the eyes of the law, and therefore exercises the full powers of the office of Governor of Illinois.  Speaking of which, he was elected twice to that office by the people of Illinois, and it’s not like it was a secret in 2006 that he had some ethical deficiencies.

We Democrats have been tripping over each other trying to demonstrate that we’re the party of clean government.  Lieutentant Governor Madigan and the Illinois Legislature are practically racing to see who can remove Blagojevich from office first.  The Obama-Biden transition team as well as every single Democrat in the US Senate have denounced Blagojevich’s choice.  But the central principles of American government are democracy, constitutionalism, and rule of law.  We shouldn’t throw those out the window because the court of public opinion has decided that someone did something improper.  (And, frankly, these sorts of deals happen all the fucking time.  The only egregious thing Blago did was be a little too crass about it.)

(Hey guys, not dead!  End of semester sucked!)

So let’s say it’s December 2010, about the time when presidential candidates start announcing. At this point, Obama’s likely to still be in office, to have some problems with a lot of groups but not anything utterly crippling, and to still have large majorities in both chambers of Congress. There are three ways he can lose:

1) The Democratic Party does not renominate him.

2) A Republican gets 50% or better in all the crucial states.

3) A third-party candidate siphons off support and drags him under in at least a few crucial states.

The first probably is probably very difficult for young Americans to imagine.  Why even mention it?  Well, historically it’s been a serious concern.  Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman, Chester Alan Arthur, Rutherford B. Hayes, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Millard Fillmore, and John Tyler were all turned away by their own parties.  Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Calvin Coolidge, William Howard Taft, Benjamin Harrison, and Grover Cleveland had difficult renomination fights.  Bill Clinton, both Roosevelts, and Abraham Lincoln all had to deal with serious threats of primary challenges that never quite materialized.  So, historically, since the emergence of a hard-and-fast party system, only Jackson, Van Buren, Grant, Eisenhower, Reagan, and both Bushes have had completely worry-free renominations.  It’s not something to completely write off, especially given the current economic circumstances.  There’s likely to be a lot of disappointment going around among rank-and-file Democrats, two and a half or three years from now. 

What would such a candidate have to look like?  Well, Obama was least popular during the primary season this year with low-socioeconomic-status whites.  The challenger would have to have some appeal to them.  Obama’s top two opponents this year–Hillary Clinton and John Edwards–both had a lot of sway with this group.  But Hillary’s been tapped for the Cabinet, which severely cramps the possibilities for breaking ranks with Obama.  Unless she does the whole resign-in-disgust thing, which really doesn’t strike me as her style.  And John Edwards has been ridden out of town on a rail (pretty unfairly, IMHO).  So someone would really have to come out of the woodwork.  It’s hard to think of a Congressional Democrat, not being brought into the Obama administration, who has any real national renown.  By “renown” I mean more than fame–Harry Reid has a national profile, but hardly anyone thinks he’s doing a particularly good job as Senate Majority Leader or that he has any Presidential-level vision (not to mention that he’s pro-life).  And the crop of Governors isn’t that much more interesting.  Of people that are young enough to run for something in 2012, have strong electoral appeal in their home states, aren’t being brought into the Obama administration, and are pro-choice, there are only really two names to watch: Mike Beebe of Arkansas and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.  They’re both from fairly small, not especially rich states, and neither one of them has Congressional experience.  So it’s hard to seem them going up against Obama in terms of fundraising.  Barring some major failure or scandal, then, it looks like Barack Obama will coast to renomination. 

So what about third-party candidates?  Well, Ralph Nader’s still around, and he did better in 2008 than 2004.  But he’s turning 75 in a couple of months.  He may not be up for a fifth run.  After that, there’s a major name-recognition problem for the far left.  The Greens are hardly in good position–their nominee this year, former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, happens to have made some anti-Semitic remarks in public.  Not a great move if you want to run a left-of-center third-party campaign for the Presidency.  Below that there’s really nobody, unless someone like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn can be talked into running.  Honestly, Jello Biafra might be the best candidate the Greens have.  (I’m completely ignoring the whole array of explicitly socialist parties, since they mostly can’t even get ballot access, and the last time a socialist candidate got so much as .1% of the vote was Lenora Fulani in 1988, whose organization has been defunct for fifteen years.)

So a Republican has to hit 50%, give or take a certain fudge margin for the Electoral College, in order for Barack Obama not to get a second term.  Happily, most of the names that are being talked about now make absolutely no sense.  Sarah Palin is a walking punchline, and even her stock as Alaske governor seems to be plummeting.  Tim Pawlenty is boring as hell, and barely won re-election in 2006.  Rick Perry got less than 40% of the vote in Texas in 2006, and might lose the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010.  Bobby Jindal is a bit of a nut; at some point someone is going to make a bigger thing of that time he said that Protestants go to Hell.  Romney and Huckabee both have some decent openings if they decide to run again, but they also both have a lot of baggage to overcome.  Nevertheless, they’re both out of Congress and therefore away from having to cultivate relationships with Congressional Republican and define themselves in terms of support or opposition.  Both of them have fundraising bases from their 2008 campaigns, and polls show both with quite a bit of support from Republican primary voters.  They also both have obvious crossover appeals: Romney to upscale business and management types, Huckabee to working-class voters, especially in the South and Midwest.  Either of them could be an issue.

Then again, this time two years ago a lot of smart people thought RudyGiuliani was going to be the next President …

So Obama’s going to be President.  Which means that 2012 will be in large part a referndum on him.  If he fucks up badly, the Republicans will probably be able to win if they find someone decent; if he’s solid, they don’t really stand a chance.  

Right now, Obama has a serious amount of political capital. He also has really fat congressional majorities–depending on the outcome of a few outstanding races, probably the largest since the second half of Carter’s term. And, because of the decline of the conservative wing of the Democratic Party, his working majority is probably a little stronger than Carter’s. George W. Bush was maybe in as strong a position from the fall of 2001 to the spring of 2003. Clinton was never this strong. George H. W. Bush and Reagan had some moments like this, but not as many in reality as in the Legend of the Conservative 80s. (I could write a whole post on that, come to think of it.)

So can he hold his coalition together? The bad news comes from the Gallup Organization, which has been doing presidential-approval polls since FDR was in the White House. Of the twelve presidents in that time, eleven (including GWB) have left office with a lower approval rating than they entered with. The good news is that approval ratings are a pretty bad predictor of reelection performance. Bush won in 2004 with approval below 50% in several polls; Ford lost in 1976 with approval over 50%; Nixon had lackluster approval most of his first term and took home more than 60% of the vote in 1972.

The fact is that Obama won by seven points; given the way younger and older voters broke broke, and the fact that individuals tend to vote fairly consistently over the course of their lives, we would expect him to go into 2012 with about an eight- or nine-point natural lead. So the question is: can anybody make inroads into his coalition? Well, what is his coalition? I think it might make sense to break this down by race and religion:

Blacks: Pretty much everyone.
White Christians: Pro-choice women, union members and some other poor to middle-class voters concerned primarily with their own economic interests, environmentalists, Iraq War opponents, the LGBT community.
Others: Those who aren’t passionately right-wing about at least one issue (including things like taxes).

The problem for the Republican Party was summed up pretty well by Howard Dean three years ago: “It’s pretty much a white Christian party.” Now, they have some opportunities to solidify their standing with that group. If the Iraq War ends–or, more likely, fades away–that neutralizes one winning issue for Obama. If Obama falls short of his goals on energy independence and reducing carbon emissions, that creates an opening for a Republican who sounds like he cares about the issue. And if most Americans feel like their own economic situation is getting worse, a Republican who sounds sort of sensible can make inroads there as well. But, really, the Republicans are still very much hemmed in by their commitment to the culture wars. If they want to make any sort of inroads with young voters–a group that’s disproportionately black and Hispanic and generally contemptuous toward homophobia–they need to find some middle ground on a wide range of issues.

Part 3 will consider whether the Republicans have anybody that fits the bill, and also whether there are openings for third-party candidates.

I’m a big ol’ election junkie.  I’m not all that keen on following governments in office, because I’m sort of an extremist and it gets depresssing.  But elections are fun.  There’s sort of like sports, excet that the outcome matters and people (or at least the people here at Caecius) don’t look down on you for being a nut about them.

So right now is a hard time for me.  The Big Show has left town, and there are only four national elections let this year in the whole world.  Of these, only one is in a country whose politics I understand anything about.  So if I want to have even a rough idea of who to root for, I need to get down to some serious research.  There’s a bit of a thaw in the spring–three Latin American countries and another European one–but still, not much excitement until the European Parliament in June.  That’s a ways away.  

So I might as well start looking ahead to the future of American politics.  Let’s assume that, in 2012, Obama will be alive, well, and non-disgraced.  It’s possible he won’t be all these things, but it’s fairly unlikely, and there’s not much use trying to predict what will happen in that event.  

The next major electoral contest in the US is actually happening right now, and mostly behind closed doors–the race for RNC chair.  Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t matter mcuh, but the Republican Party and the conservative movement are unusually leaderless at the moment.  This hasn’t really happened in a while.  During the 1950s and early 1960s, when the soncervative movement was just taking shape, Barry Goldwater held the informal leadership role.  But he wasn’t really credible after 1964, and so Nixon (previously known as a moderate) stepped into the role–not that he did much for conservatives in while in office, and not that they weren’t sort of pining for Reagan, who ascended in the mid-1970s.  After the Gipper retired, George H. W. Bush stepped in for a while, to be replaced by the Dole/Gingrich tag team.  But they introduced a real problem–they made Reagan-style libertarian conservatism look like a vehicle for heartless, hypocritical bastards.  So, around 1999, party elders lined up behind George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”  Which sort of got lost in the shuffle, leading to the very soul-searchy Republican primary season of last year–which ended inconclusively and led to a failure in November.  

So the options for RNC chair appear to be: Mitt Romney (maybe), Mike Huckabee (maybe), Newt Gingrich (maybe), Michael Steele, and some random no-name or another.  Gingrich probably won’t run unless there’s a groundswell of support for him, which … there won’t be.  So he’s a longshot.  Huckabee could get it, if the party decides they need to focus on social conservatism, and if he runs.  Both big ifs.  Ditto Romney, only replace “social” with “economic.”  So it probably won’t be a major national politician–for reasons I’ll get to in parts 2 and 3, there’s very little the Republicans can do right now except wait and hope Obama fucks up.  Of the remaining names that have been floated, the one that gets special mention is Michael Steele–former one-term lieutenant governor of Maryland who currently works with training young Republican candidates.  He’s black, which Republicans think will be enough to get black people to start voting Republican.  This seems to be not so much the case, if you look at actual elections involving actual black Republicans.  And he’s hardly an ideological visionary of any sort.  So … not a whole lot to worry about there.

So me and my BFF Jill are hosting a play party in a few months.

We’re not quite the best people in the world to be doing this.  Neither of us has ever been to a play party.  (We’re not really into the “BDSM community,” we’re young, play parties are not exactly common where I’m from, etc.)  Hell, I’ve only ever really done very light BDSM.  We have almost no equipment.  And, well, Caecius College is a pretty sexually repressed place, where people don’t openly talk about BDSM.  Like, our invite list is mostly people we’re guessing are kinky based on other personality traits.  

So why am I (are we) so dead-set on doing this?  Besides just wanting to have some fun, there’s the whole we’re-badasses-who-totally-pulled-this-off factor.  For me, though, it’s just as much about striking back at this place.  Caecius has an über-radical reputation that possibly no school could live up to.  In the few years I’ve been here, and (I think especially) in the couple years immediately before I was here, there’s been a striking backlash against its radical past–a backlash that virtually nobody will admit to being a part of.  Compare the alcohol policy, the availability and vitality of student-run space, the political and sexual attitudes of students, the general willingness to question authority, or whatever else you want to–this place has moved dramatically away from what it was.  

And yet, in theory and in certain trappings, Caecius is as liberal as it ever was, and in many ways still pretends to be the school it was 5 or 10 years ago.  Last week, our president sent an email not just to all employees and students, but also to students’ parents, to talk about how great Obama’s election was.  Tour guides still talk about the Big All-Campus Drag Party that hasn’t happened for the last six years (and sometimes about the campus-wide orgies that used to go on a decade or two ago), the student demonstrations in support of crisis counseling from about a decade back, and so forth.  This creates a pretty bizarre environment, where we constantly hear about what a liberal environment we’re in, while being warned that, due to (nonexistent or unavoidable) legal-liability issues or “discomfort” or “concern” that’s nobody will admit to being the source of, we can’t do any of those fun things anymore.  

So yeah.  Sexuality is complicated and sometimes people get hurt.  And that goes double for BDSM and double again for anything thta takes place in a public, group setting.  Of course, we’ll do what we can to minimize that risk.  But, more to the point, there’s something hurtful–somethin repressive–about spending 3+ years here and finding ourselves clueless about basic aspects of the sexuality of friends, people we’ve seen on a daily basis 8 months a year since we were 18.  And, betrayed as I sometimes feel by this school, I think there’s something cool about Caecius, something I want to keep going in however limited a way.  I spent most of last year trying to actually change administrative policy here, and haven’t come up with much for it but some nice resume items and a lot of enemies.  But I can at least do this.

Hey guys.  Welcome to the blog.  We’re going to try to keep things pseudonymous around here.

Since my interests are all over the place, I’m not going to try to give this thing a very tight theme.  I’ll probably post a lot about politics, philosophy, sexuality, and the creative process.  The only things that definitely aren’t going to appear here are purely autobiographical how-was-my-week entries, scholarly works, and any sort of heavy formal experimentation.  Enjoy!