Trump Loses in Alabama: How Important?

Commentary No. 463, December 15, 2017

By now, the whole world knows that in one of the most conservative states in the United States, a Democrat, Doug Jones, defeated Judge Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, in a special election for a vacant seat.

In the analyses almost everyone is making of the election result, it is being called “stunning,” “a surprise,” and “a miracle,” among a long list of similar summary judgments.

In almost all of these analyses, the big loser is said to be Donald Trump. The only dissent to these views is coming from a few Trump ultra-loyalists, but their words are generally seen as a not very convincing case to limit the damages.

Of course, everyone in the United States and in the rest of the world wants to know what the largely unexpected Democratic victory changes in the prospects of the forthcoming U.S. elections in 2018 and 2020, as well as in the geopolitical strength of the United States. In short, how important was this so-called stunning surprise?

Let us review what major U.S. actors had favored doing before the Alabama election and what they had anticipated would be the consequences if Roy Moore was or was not elected. It is no secret that the Republican Establishment, incarnated by Mitch McConnell, the Republican Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, tried in every way to defeat Moore in the primary and, once Moore had won the primary, to distance the Republican Party from association with Moore’s campaign.

McConnell’s motive was clear. For one thing, the Moore campaign was intended to be a major boost to an effort to oust McConnell as Majority Leader. The hope of the Moore supporters was to push the Republican Party far to the right and eliminate any so-called moderate Republicans from political power.

In this Alabama election, President Donald Trump intruded himself twice. First, in the primary election he supported (albeit somewhat weakly) Luther Strange against Roy Moore. Secondly, when Moore won the primary, he called upon voters (and this with force) to vote for him against the Democrat. He intruded twice and each time his candidate lost – not exactly a brilliant achievement.

From the point of view of McConnell and his allies, the outcome was the worst possible they could imagine. The Republicans are now the underdog in the 2018 Congressional elections and have a good chance of losing control of both Houses of Congress.

Worse yet, the partisan divide in the United States has deepened and the Republicans are unlikely to regain their strength in the suburban zones they had previously counted upon to win elections.

This seems to be explained by the reaction of educated women to the identification of the Republican Party with the rightward swing of the party and the misogynous rhetorical tweets of Donald Trump. It is not just Alabama. This has been going on for some time. In the last years, Republicans have lost votes in suburban zones in every single election that took place across the country.

So, while the Republican Party will be struggling defensively against a Democratic swing, the Democrats will be struggling to maintain their unity between their traditionally centrist leaders and their newly-empowered aggressively leftward camp.

What made the difference in Alabama was that the Democrats got out the vote – of African-Americans, young people, [email protected], and independent women voters, while too many normally Republican voters stayed home – because of Moore and because of Trump. This is a scenario that the Democrats need to repeat in all the forthcoming elections. The general consensus is that they can do this, with one major doubt. Can they do it by a margin wide enough to overcome the gerrymandering that is stacked against them?

It could well be that what might decide the next U.S. elections is the geopolitical stance of the United States – primarily in northeast Asia and in the largely Islamic southwest Asia. Here Donald Trump is the key actor. He fancies himself powerful enough to alter the situation via blustering rhetoric and deliberate military menace. This is entirely an illusion, but that won’t stop Trump from acting in very dangerous ways. Trump frightens almost all the actors in both arenas because they fear, correctly, that Trump refuses to acknowledge the decline of U.S. geopolitical power and his own derived power.

To the degree that Trump’s arrogant misreading of the real rapport de forces frightens enough people in the United States, it is more likely that this will affect internal elections in the United States.

The present U.S. position on world affairs did not originate with Trump. It is the continuation of long-standing U.S. policies from Nixon to Bush to Obama. However, there is one crucial difference. Trump is sure of his illusory power. His predecessors were at least worried that they actually had as much power as they wanted. This is what led them to make the deal with Iran. This is what led them to renew relations with Cuba. This is what led them to refrain from recognizing publicly Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. All these decisions Trump is seeking to undo. Whether he can be restrained by anyone anywhere is totally unsure.

I asked how important is the Alabama election. In the short run, I think it is very important. In the longer run, however, it is a mere bump in terms of the world’s ability to survive amidst the structural decline of the modern world-system.

Left Social Movements: What Electoral Tactics?

Commentary No. 462, December 1, 2017

The central difficulty for left social movements is determining electoral tactics that will enable them to win both in the short run and in the middle run. On the surface, it seems that winning in the short run conflicts with winning in the middle run.

In the short run, the primary objective of a left movement must be to defend the urgent needs for survival of all the so-called 99% of the population, but especially those of the poorest strata. In order to do this, they have to control state institutions at all levels. This means participating in elections.

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The U.S. Elections 2017: The Unexpected Democratic Sweep

Commentary No. 461, November 15, 2017

Elections in the United States have one feature that almost no other country shares. They largely occur on mandatory fixed dates. Presidential elections are every four years. Senatorial elections are staggered. One-third of them occur every two years. Both of these elections occur in years ending in an even numeral. Gubernatorial elections tend to occur in the same even years. Local elections are more varied but very many also occur in the even years.

As a result, the so-called off-year elections (that is, years ending in an odd numeral) tend to be considered less important by the national parties. And voters participate at a far lower rate than in the even-year elections

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What about China?

Commentary No. 460, November 1, 2017

Very often, when I write about the structural crisis of the modern world-system, and therefore of capitalism as an historical system, I receive objections saying that I have neglected the strength of Chinese economic growth and its ability to serve as an economic replacement for the clearly waning strength of the United States plus western Europe, the so-called North.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but one that misses the fundamental difficulties of the existing historical system. In addition, it paints a far rosier picture of China’s realities than is justified by a closer look. Let me address this question then in two parts – one, the historical development of the world-system as a whole, and two, the empirical situation of China at the present time.

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The Presumed ‘Mystery’ of Frozen Wages

Commentary No. 459, October 15, 2017

According to neoclassical economic theorizing, the relation between wages and jobs is a simple one. When there’s not enough demand for work, wages suffer. Workers compete against each other to get a job. But when there’s high demand for work, wages go up. Employers compete against each other to get the now scarce work force. This shifting cycle is said to maintain the smooth functioning of the free market system, guaranteeing a constant swing back to a moving equilibrium.

What has happened is that this cyclical process isn’t working that way anymore, and for pundits and academics this is seen as a big puzzle to explain. The explanations are varied and multiple. What seems to be at their heart is to suggest that there is a new normal. But why, and how does it work? In the October 8 issue of the New York Times, the lead article in the Sunday Business section had the following headline: “Plenty of Work: Not Enough Pay: Even as job markets tighten in major economies, low unemployment is failing to spur robust salary gains.”

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The Myth of Sovereignty

Commentary No. 458, October 1, 2017

Donald Trump spent much of his speech to the United Nations asserting that he was elected to defend U.S. sovereignty. He said that every other member state was also seeking to defend its sovereignty. What did he mean by this?

There is probably no other word in the public vocabulary of both political leaders and scholarly analysts that have as many conflicting meanings and usages as “sovereignty.” The only other one that comes close in confusion is “liberalism.” It is therefore useful to trace a little of the history of the term.

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Chaotic Uncertainty

Commentary No. 457, September 15, 2017

Are you confused about what is going on in the world? So am I. So is everyone. This is the underlying and continuing reality of a chaotic world-system.

What we mean by chaos is a situation in which there are constant wild swings in the priorities of all the actors. One day, from the point of view of a given actor, things seem to be going in a way favorable to that actor. The next day the outlook looks very unfavorable.

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Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy

Commentary No. 456, September 1, 2017

Donald Trump is approaching the end of his first year as president of the United States. By now, everyone – supporters, opponents, even indifferents – seem to agree on one thing. His pronouncements and his actions are unpredictable. He ignores precedents and behaves in ways that constantly surprise people. Supporters find this refreshing. Opponents find this terrifying.

Yet very few have remarked upon what is I think his most singular achievement. He has managed the trick of being the most unpredictable actor on the U.S. and world scene, and being at the same time the most predictable actor.

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