The U.S. Election in 2018: Enthusiasm Gaps

Commentary No. 453, July 15, 2017

If one looks back at the 2016 elections in the United States, there is really a quite simple explanation as to why Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The so-called hard core of Trump’s supporters was extremely fired up by the possibility that he might win. They were enthusiasts. They campaigned vigorously. They made sure that their voters voted. They put pressure on other Republicans and Independents (and even on some Democrats) to work for Trump, even if they had reservations.

The story with Hillary Clinton was quite different. Her hard core was less hard and worked less hard for her. Many of her voters and possible voters supported her only because they were anti-Trump. There was little enthusiasm, and it showed. Even if they voted for her, they spent far less energy on mobilizing others. They put less pressure on potential voters. They were sure they would win, and could afford therefore to do less.
If we look at the political situation in July 2017, there has been a major shift in enthusiasms. The hard core of Trump supporters is now like the hard core of Clinton supporters in 2016. They support Trump because they are anti-Democrats. Nancy Pelosi is their symbolic force of evil.

They are “disappointed” in Trump. He has not delivered what he promised. He is surrounded by the Goldman Sachs people he once denounced. His approval ratings, low at the beginning of his term, have continued to fall, even among the hard core. They are still supporting Trump because the other side seems far worse. But they drag their feet a bit. The proselytize less. They campaign less. They put less pressure on friends and family. They do less to get out the vote.

If one looks at the Democrats, the opposite has happened. They smell a chance. They have never been so united in their refusal to support Republican propositions. While the Republicans in the Senate struggle to get near unanimous support of Republicans for their proposals, the Democrats sit back and let them fight among themselves. They organize locally, and at the level of the separate states.

While on paper this seemed like an election the Republicans couldn’t lose, in the last two months or so bloggers are putting forth analyses showing that it might be possible for the Democrats to win back the Senate and even the House of Representatives. Possible is not certain, but even possible seemed not so long ago a fantasy.

To be sure, the Democrats are divided on a major issue – their electoral strategy. The question is a very clear one. Should they put forth candidates who are “centrist” on the grounds that this will attract the centrist votes that the Republicans seem to be losing? Or should they move to the left – nominate someone like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren on the grounds that this will energize an enlarged left base. In short, should they bank on utilizing enthusiasms, or not?

The Democrats are arguing about this. But the camp for a left program has grown notably stronger. In 2016, everyone across the spectrum moved right. Will everyone move left in 2018? We can’t tell yet. But it depends on mobilizing enthusiasms.

Now, suppose the Democrats move left in 2018 and then actually win back the national legislature and some gubernatorial races? Will this be the “revolution”? Far from it. But it will mean some better short-run decisions that will, as I like to say, “minimize the pain” for the poorest members of the population. So, it’s a short-term plus. The middle-term battle about the world we wish to build to replace the flagging capitalist system in which we have been living still needs to be fought. However, the organizing experience of a short-term left campaign by the Democrats in 2018 will enhance the skills of those who are ready for the bigger middle-run battle.

The next six months or so should be very interesting to watch if we keep our eye on the ball – energizing the left and remembering the major struggle we face after 2018.

Poor Donald Trump: His Unresolvable Dilemma

Commentary No. 452, July 1, 2017

You have to give Donald Trump credit for superb public relations. No matter what he does or says or what is going on anywhere in the world, he manages to remain a constant center of attention in the United States and throughout the rest of the world. People may love him or hate him, attack him or defend him, but they talk about him incessantly.

There is a joke circulating about him. An anti-Trump voter reminds us that Trump said during the electoral contest that if voters elected Hillary Clinton, they would find the United States governed by a president fighting constant criminal charges from Day One. The voter continues: Trump was right. I voted for Hillary and I find the United States governed by a president fighting constant criminal charges from Day One.

Most anti-Trump activists are very fearful that Trump’s public relations skills mean that he will be able to deflect these charges successfully. Donald Trump himself seems to be less sure. He appears to fear that the charges might stick and force him from office.

This is the heart of the issue concerning the Special Counsel. Utilizing a law passed after the Nixon resignation from office, the Deputy Attorney General appointed a so-called Special Counsel whose duty it is to investigate whether or not various members of the Trump administration, and possibly Trump himself, have violated the criminal code in any way.

No one knows what the Special Counsel will eventually find. He may absolve everyone. He may charge some associates of Trump but absolve Trump. He may incriminate Trump. The whole process could take a long time, quite possibly a year or so.

Trump is obviously nervous. There are now rumors that he may decide to do something that is within his legal powers – fire the Special Counsel. The situation is analogous to that encountered by Richard Nixon in 1973, analogous but not identical.

Nixon sought to fire the person investigating the so-called Watergate break-in. He ordered first the Attorney General and then the Deputy Attorney General to fire him. They refused and resigned. He finally got the accord of the third in line in the Department of Justice, the Solicitor General, to do it.

The whole set of events is called now the Saturday Night Massacre. Most analysts attribute Nixon’s downfall a year later to Nixon’s actions at this moment, which was the point at which he significantly undermined public and Congressional support.

The dilemma for Donald Trump is whether to fire the Special Counsel now or to risk an unhappy set of charges somewhat later on. This is a classic lose-lose situation. Whichever of the alternative processes Trump decides to pursue, he loses. There is no way he can resolve the dilemma.

The basic reason is that he has been unable to deliver on the electoral promises of changes he said he would achieve immediately on assuming office. His poll levels of approval and support have dipped steadily. As a result, he is no longer either revered or feared. Rather, he is ignored.

Does Trump know this? He is notoriously smart but also notoriously hotheaded. His gut no doubt tells him to fire the Special Counsel now before things get worse. He shrugs his shoulders when he is told that many people may resign from his government. He has shown little loyalty to his associates all the while that he demands 100% loyalty from them. I suspect most persons presently serving him in high posts count the days that they will remain in these posts.

The internal discussions of the Trump administration are practically an open book. The leakage is massive. It seems that most advisors are saying to him (in muted tones) that he should remain cool and not do anything, including not tweeting about it. It also seems he is impervious to this advice, and actually probably resents getting it.

My guess is that he will find himself one day so angry about the charges that he will explode and fire the Special Counsel. But he has surprised us before and he may do so again.

The basic thing the rest of us have to remember about this is that, for Trump personally, this is a lose-lose situation. How the Republican Party will act to avoid being dragged down by Trump is another question. It is definitely too early to know yet. The leaders of the Party do not know themselves.

Finally, for the rest of us, we should beware of cheering too readily about Trump’s dilemma. Trump is awful. Pence could be worse.

Top Priority in the Trump Era: The Search for Office

Commentary No. 451, June 15, 2017

In the circles of family and friends in which I move, I don’t believe there is anyone who voted for Donald Trump. This is probably equally true of most middle-class professionals in the United States. Furthermore, a very large percentage of such people are obsessed with Trump and cannot wait until he ceases to be their president.

I am regularly asked to project for them how long he can survive in office. My standard answer is two days to eight years. This never satisfies those who pose the question. They cannot believe that this is a serious assessment. Those who pose the question see Trump as an “evil” person and find it difficult to believe that this view is not widely and increasingly shared by a majority of the population, even including those who voted for Trump.

For my questioners, it seems to be a question of ideology and/or morality. If others do not see this (at least yet), it must be because they are ill-informed or insufficiently-informed of what Trump believes and how he acts. They may draw from this two possible conclusions. The optimistic conclusion is that light will eventually shine on the benighted and Trump will be ousted. The pessimistic one is that nothing much can change the attitudes of most people and therefore the situation is hopeless.

I believe that this is a very wrong way to frame the issue. Trump is not an ideologue. To be sure he does have an agenda that he will pursue to the best of his ability. But the agenda is absolutely secondary to his top priority which is to remain the president of the United States, a position that he equates with being the most powerful individual in the world. He will do anything to remain in this post, including sacrificing any part of his agenda, temporarily or permanently.

He is extremely proud that he is the U.S. president. As he said to one reporter, he must be doing something right since he is the president and the reporter is not. He is validated by being in the post. He seeks praise from others and lavishes praise upon himself. He says he is the best president the United States has ever had and will probably ever have.

So, why do I say that Trump will remain in office two days to eight years? This is because he is not the only one who shares the priority of remaining in office. This priority is shared by almost all members of the U.S. Congress. There are at least two ways of removing a president, impeachment or invoking the Twenty-fifth Amendment about incapacity to fulfill the tasks of president.

What would move those in Congress, and especially in the Republican Party, to seek to remove Trump from office? They would have to believe that for them to remain in office depends in large part on whether to leave Trump in office or remove him from office.

The choice is clear. What is not clear to them at this point is which option is better for them. So they waffle and will continue to waffle for a while yet. At the moment, they clearly see no advantage in supporting those persons (almost all Democrats) who are urging a process of removing Trump.

Assessing the relative advantage of the two options is not at all an easy task. It is in large part a reading of shifting public opinion, a notoriously hard thing to calculate. So they read the polls (but which ones?). They meet with voters in their district (but which ones?). They talk to financial contributors (but which ones?).

As with most relatively blocked situations, the blockage could open with one small entirely unexpected event that leads others suddenly to scramble and a momentary rush to get on board a transformed tide. That could happen two days from now or never happen while Trump completes two terms in office. It is unpredictable. It is not however about ideology or agenda. It is about remaining in office for the sake of being in office.

India: The In-Between Great Power

Commentary No. 450, June 1, 2017

I have the impression that, of all the “great powers” in the contemporary world-system, however one defines “great power,” India is the one that receives the least attention. I admit that this has been true of me, but it is true as well of the majority of geopolitical analysts.

Why should this be? India after all is rapidly approaching the point where it will have the world’s largest population. It is respectably high on most measures of economic strength and improving all the time. It is a nuclear power and has one of the world’s largest armed forces. It is a member of the G20 which is the imprimatur of being a great power. However, it is not a member of the G7, which is a far more restricted group and a far more important one.

It is one of the five countries known as the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. But the BRICS, the rising force of “emerging” economies at the beginning of the new century, has now slipped in geopolitical significance, as their economies, with the exception of China, have suddenly weakened radically since the post-2008 decline in the world-economy. They are officially a member, with China and Russia but also with Pakistan, of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, but this structure has never seemed to become a major force in world politics.

India’s governments, whichever party has been in power, have spent much energy seeking a larger role in the world-system. In particular, they have sought to obtain support from other powers in India’s long-standing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir. They have never seemed to achieve this goal.

In the days of the cold war, India was officially neutral and de facto closer to Russia. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, India has tried to improve its relations with the United States. But what it gained in terms of U.S. support, it lost in terms of Chinese policy. China has had serious armed conflicts with India over territory, and is angry about India’s hospitality to the Dalai Lama.

India has been a rare country in Asia to have a functioning parliamentary system, with shifts in electoral strength between the Congress Party (heir of the independence movement) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (a rightwing Hindu nationalist movement). This fact receives regular plaudits from analysts and political leaders in the pan-European countries, but doesn’t seem to have meant that they support India’s demands for greater recognition to any important degree.

One question one should ask is, “who really needs India?” The United States, especially since Donald Trump has come to power, wants India to buy more from it without however investing too much in return. Indeed, at the moment, the return of Indian internet technology personnel to India from the United States (and other western countries) is threatening the United States with significant loss of employment in one of the few sectors where the United States has been doing well up to now.

Does China need India? Of course, China wants the backing of India in any of its quarrels with the United States, but India is a rival for the support of countries in southeast Asia, not a partner in their development. Russia and Iran could use Indian support on Middle East issues, but India is hesitant to give too much support, even when they basically agree on questions concerning say Afghanistan, for fear of offending the United States. Southeast Asian nations believe that coming to terms with China will pay off more than coming to terms with India.

The problem, clearly, is that India is an “in-between” state. It is strong enough to be taken into account by others. But it is not strong enough to play a decisive role. So, as the other powers constantly juggle their priorities, India seems fated to be one that reacts to their initiatives, rather than one to which others react to Indian initiatives.

Will this change over the next decade? In the chaotic geopolitics of the present state of the world-system, anything is possible. But it does not seem too likely.


Global Left vs. Global Right: From 1945 to Today

Commentary No. 449, May 15, 201

The period 1945 to the 1970s was one both of extremely high capital accumulation worldwide and the geopolitical hegemony of the United States. The geoculture was one in which centrist liberalism was at its acme as the governing ideology. Never did capitalism seem to be functioning as well. This was not to last.

The high level of capital accumulation, which particularly favored the institutions and people of the United States, reached the limits of its ability to guarantee the necessary quasi-monopoly of productive enterprises. The absence of a quasi-monopoly meant that capital accumulation everywhere began to stagnate and capitalists had to seek alternative modes of sustaining their income. The principal modes were to relocate productive enterprises to lower-cost zones and to engage in speculative transfer of existing capital, which we call financialization.

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France: Anyone but LePen?

Commentary No. 448, May 1, 2017

France is about to have the second round of its presidential election. The two candidates are Emmanuel Macron, the En Marche! candidate and, with slightly less votes on the first round, Marine LePen, the candidate of the Front National (FN). Now a week in advance of the election, it looks like Macron will win but, as we have learned, nothing is less sure than the predictions of pollsters and politicians.

This has been a wild fluctuating campaign, in which the first round’s outcome seemed almost impossible to predict. The principal reason was the enormous number of persons who were unsure how they would vote. There were persons, many persons, who were not sure as they entered the poll booth whom they would choose.

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The Challenges of Feminism

Commentary No. 446, April 1, 2017

Feminist and women’s rights movements draw their strength and their ideological arguments from one simple observation. Throughout the world and throughout very long historical time, women have been oppressed in multiple ways. There is now an enormous literature presenting a very large gamut of views both about what explains this and what ought to be done about it.

I would simply like to explore here what are the major unresolved tactical issues that feminism as movement and feminism as ideology pose for all of us in the global struggle that is the central feature of the structural crisis of the modern world-system.

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The Falsity of False Consciousness

Commentary 445, March 15, 2017

People do not always behave the way we think they ought to behave. We often perceive others as behaving in ways we think is contrary to their self-interest. This seems crazy or foolish. We then accuse these persons of “false consciousness.”

The term itself was invented by Friedrich Engels in the late nineteenth century to explain why workers (or at least some workers) didn’t support workers’ parties at the polls or didn’t support strikes called by a union. The answer for Engels was that, for some reason, these workers misperceived their self-interest, suffering from “false consciousness.”

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