America Is Living James Madison’s Nightmare –The Atlantic

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This article chronicles the ills faced by the American political system. There are a number of interesting points worth thinking about. To begin with, it positions itself clearly on the side of representative democracy instead of direct democracy.

• “Madison’s reading convinced him that direct democracies—such as the assembly in Athens, where 6,000 citizens were required for a quorum—unleashed populist passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers. “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason,”
• “The Framers designed the American constitutional system not as a direct democracy but as a representative republic, where enlightened delegates of the people would serve the public good. They also built into the Constitution a series of cooling mechanisms intended to inhibit the formulation of passionate factions, to ensure that reasonable majorities would prevail.”
• “The people would directly elect the members of the House of Representatives, but the popular passions of the House would cool in the “Senatorial saucer,” as George Washington purportedly called it: The Senate would comprise natural aristocrats chosen by state legislators rather than elected by the people. And rather than directly electing the chief executive, the people would vote for wise electors—that is, propertied white men—who would ultimately choose a president of the highest character and most discerning judgment.””

Please note: the points above cover both the best and the worst of characteristics of representative democracy. It prevents mob rule, but only by allowing a privileged group (white landed men) to act as a buffer between the will of the people and policy.

The author describes the current state of American Politics as a “Madisonian Nightmare”:

• “The polarization of Congress, reflecting an electorate that has not been this divided since about the time of the Civil War, has led to ideological warfare between parties that directly channels the passions of their most extreme constituents and donors—precisely the type of factionalism the Founders abhorred.”
• “Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms have accelerated public discourse to warp speed, creating virtual versions of the mob. Inflammatory posts based on passion travel farther and faster than arguments based on reason. Rather than encouraging deliberation, mass media undermine it by creating bubbles and echo chambers in which citizens see only those opinions they already embrace.””

Quite correctly, the author points out that the problems started before Donald Trump and his twitter revolution.
• “The executive branch, meanwhile, has been transformed by the spectacle of tweeting presidents, though the presidency had broken from its constitutional restraints long before the advent of social media. During the election of 1912, the progressive populists Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson insisted that the president derived his authority directly from the people. Since then, the office has moved in precisely the direction the Founders had hoped to avoid: Presidents now make emotional appeals, communicate directly with voters, and pander to the mob.”

This trend has been exacerbated by:
Mass Political Parties: “Whatever benefits the parties offered in the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, have long since disappeared. The moderating effects of parties were undermined by a series of populist reforms, including the direct election of senators, the popular-ballot initiative, and direct primaries in presidential elections, which became widespread in the 1970s.”

The Imperial Presidency: “Madison feared that Congress would be the most dangerous branch of the federal government, sucking power into its “impetuous vortex.” But today he would shudder at the power of the executive branch. The rise of what the presidential historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency” has unbalanced the equilibrium among the three branches. Modern presidents rule by executive order rather than consulting with Congress. They direct a massive administrative state, with jurisdiction over everything from environmental policy to the regulation of the airwaves. Trump’s populist promise—“I alone can fix it”—is only the most dramatic in a long history of hyperbolic promises, made by presidents from Wilson to Obama, in order to mobilize their most ideologically extreme voters.”

Media polarization: “which has allowed geographically dispersed citizens to isolate themselves into virtual factions, communicating only with like-minded individuals and reinforcing shared beliefs. Far from being a conduit for considered opinions by an educated elite, social-media platforms spread misinformation and inflame partisan differences. Indeed, people on Facebook and Twitter are more likely to share inflammatory posts that appeal to emotion than intricate arguments based on reason.”

Ideological Polarization: “At the moment, the combination of low voter turnout and ideological extremism has tended to favor very liberal or very conservative candidates in primaries. Thanks to safe districts created by geographic self-sorting and partisan gerrymandering, many of these extremists go on to win the general election. Today, all congressional Republicans fall to the right of the most conservative Democrat, and all congressional Democrats fall to the left of the most liberal Republican. In the 1960s, at times, 50 percent of the lawmakers overlapped ideologically.”

This article describes a set of institutions that had been weakened by years of dysfunctional politics. One point may be missing though. The representative architecture of the US political system that Madison cherished may have also played a role in the alienation and radicalization of the American public. After all, it’s the elite buffer that has been the target of much of the populist anger on both the left and the right. To many Americans, the Madison’s “cooling saucer” has been nothing but a swamp.

Please see: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/james-madison-mob-rule/568351/

‘Big price to pay’: Inside Trump’s decision to bomb Syria -Washington Post

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“The absence of a clear strategy in Syria complicated the discussions. Trump had campaigned as a noninterventionist and vowed to withdraw from Middle East entanglements that he decried as costing American lives and treasure.

And yet to Trump’s national security team, action of some kind seemed to be a requirement, as officials said they listened to the president deride his predecessor, Barack Obama, for sometimes discussing possible military action and then not delivering it. At a White House dinner last Tuesday, Trump opined that the problems in Syria were caused “because Obama did not enforce his red lines,” according to one attendee, Alan Dershowitz, a retired Harvard Law School professor.”

“Military officials said Saturday that they believe that no one — not even Syrian government personnel — was killed in the attack, which struck nonresidential facilities in the middle of the night.

Although options for more-expansive actions were also discussed, the plan that Trump ultimately endorsed, with a mix of air- and sea-launched missiles and sophisticated standoff airstrikes, was designed to minimize risk to U.S. and allied personnel and lessen the chances of unwanted escalation, officials said.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/big-price-to-pay-inside-trumps-decision-to-bomb-syria/2018/04/14/752bdd9a-3ff9-11e8-8d53-eba0ed2371cc_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.3fd4fa747347

Breaking with tradition, Trump skips president’s written intelligence report and relies on oral briefings -Washington Post

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“For much of the past year, President Trump has declined to participate in a practice followed by the past seven of his predecessors: He rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief, a document that lays out the most pressing information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies from hot spots around the world.

Trump has opted to rely on an oral briefing of select intelligence issues in the Oval Office rather than getting the full written document delivered to review separately each day, according to three people familiar with his briefings.

Reading the traditionally dense intelligence book is not Trump’s preferred “style of learning,” according to a person with knowledge of the situation.

The arrangement underscores Trump’s impatience with exhaustive classified documents that go to the commander in chief — material that he has said he prefers condensed as much as possible. But by not reading the daily briefing, the president could hamper his ability to respond to crises in the most effective manner, intelligence experts warned.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/breaking-with-tradition-trump-skips-presidents-written-intelligence-report-for-oral-briefings/2018/02/09/b7ba569e-0c52-11e8-95a5-c396801049ef_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-low_trumpbrief-1005am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.b7602a90fbcf

WHY NO GENERAL SHOULD SERVE AS WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF -War on the Rocks

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Donald Trump has now been in office for one year. And, with Michael Wolff’s new book The Fire and the Fury coming out, it is worth looking back at a few older articles examining the changes in the White House staff since he took over. So, this is the first of several posts on the subject.

This post links to a discussion on War on the Rocks, and focuses on Trump’s reliance on military personnel (active and retired) for advisers. From the title, one can immediately deduce the article is not supportive. Here are the three reasons why relying on the military is problematic:

  1. First, having a retired general (Marine Gen. John Kelly as his chief of staff) serve in such an unabashedly partisan role further blurs the boundaries between the military and politics, and erodes the long-standing reputation of the U.S. military as an apolitical institution……..
  2. Second, Kelly’s appointment promotes the myth that military leaders are superior to civilian leaders. Healthy civil-military relations cannot rest upon a belief that when the nation is in trouble, calling upon military leaders to “take charge” in senior civilian roles is the best or only answer………
  3. The final danger of having Kelly (or any military leader) serve as White House chief of staff is that any major policy failure occurring on his watch would undermine the standing of the military, rightly or wrongly. Any such failure would inevitably lead to questions about Kelly’s judgment and fitness to serve…….

For the details of these arguments, see:

https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/why-no-general-should-serve-as-white-house-chief-of-staff/

 

See also: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/10/23/trump-is-tarnishing-the-military-brass/

 

 

 

The man who declared the ‘end of history’ now fearful of the very fate of liberal democracy -National Post

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In the early 1990s, just after the end of the Cold-War, Francis Fukuyama argued that we had reached the “end of history”. He was not saying the world was coming to an end, but instead that liberal, capitalist democracy had emerged as the only accepted form of government. Fascism had been discredited by WWII and communism discredited by the collapse of the USSR. The liberal model was, so to speak, the last man standing.

His argument was controversial at the time. Many saw it as simple self-congratulatory American rhetoric. Others, like Samuel Huntington argued the new world order would be dominated by a clash of civilizations.

Now Fukuyama is himself questioning the future of liberal-democracy. Much of his concern is due to the election of Donald Trump. However, the problem is deeper then this, according to Fukuyama, and more widespread.

In part he argues it is a long-standing problem in American politics where “the Republican Party has gerrymandered districts and established what amounts to de facto one-party rule in parts of the country.”

In part, it is also globalization, which produces “internal tensions within democracies that these institutions have some trouble reconciling,” he said. Combined with grievances over immigration and multiculturalism, it created room for the “demagogic populism” that catapulted Trump into the White House.”

It is also present in Europe, where he argues the EU is “unraveling” and right-wing nationalism is on the rise.

He certainly is not arguing that liberal democracy is doomed, but his ideas about the nature of the international system have certainly changed:  “Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have a sense or a theory about how democracies can go backward,” said Fukuyama in a phone interview. “And I think they clearly can.”

The man who declared the ‘end of history’ now fearful of the very fate of liberal democracy

 

 

‘Why let ’em in?’ Understanding Bannon’s worldview and the policies that follow. – Washington Post

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The description of Bannon’s Islamophobia and general callousness is pretty much par for the course. There has been so much written on the Trump administration’s moral bankruptness that it is impossible to keep up with it all. This article digs a little deeper into Bannon’s psyche and his preoccupation with a particular understanding of the concept of “sovereignty”.

Bannon’s “worldview, which….laid out in interviews and speeches over the past several years, hinges largely on Bannon’s belief in American “sovereignty.” Bannon said that countries should protect their citizens and their essence by reducing immigration, legal and illegal, and pulling back from multinational agreements.”

This goes beyond typical realist thinking in its xenophobia and the belief that the “United States and the “Judeo-Christian West” were in a war against an expansionist Islamic ideology”. Further distancing himself from traditional realism, even ultra-hawkish realism, is his belief that this cultural threat is so pressing, it takes precedent over balance of power politics and the US’ deteriorating relationship with Russia:

“However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you’re facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I’m not saying we can put [Russia] on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first,” Bannon said.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/bannon-explained-his-worldview-well-before-it-became-official-us-policy/2017/01/31/2f4102ac-e7ca-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html?postshare=1711485989417561&tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.b50125428f6a

 

THE MIND OF DONALD TRUMP -The Atlantic

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The Atlantic has published a long, detailed psychological analysis of Donald Trump. All psychological profiles have to be taken with a (very) big grain of salt, especially when they are not based by direct interviews and clinical observation, which is the case here. However, it does give an interesting overview of how some political scientists and psychologists see the relationship between personality and decision making.  Don’t read it as the definitive word on Trump’s personality, but rather as an interesting example of an approach to studying political leadership.

According to the author, it attempts to “draw from well-validated concepts in the fields of personality, developmental, and social psychology” and use theories about how “fundamental features of human personality—such as extroversion and narcissism—shaped the distinctive leadership styles of past U. S. presidents, and the decisions they made. The intent is to “create a psychological portrait of the man. Who is he, really? How does his mind work? How might he go about making decisions in office, were he to become president? And what does all that suggest about the sort of president he’d be?” Along the way, it also refers to other presidents to provide contrast and comparison.

There are actually some positive comments in this article, though the overall theme is very negative. It begins by referring to an article written in the late 1990s for The New Yorker Magazine by Mark Singer, which concludes that Trump “had managed to achieve something remarkable: “an existence unmolested by the rumbling of a soul.”

The article focuses on 4 dimensions of personality. I have edited down the text to hit the main points.

  1. Disposition, which is measured in terms of 5 character traits:

Extroversion: gregariousness, social dominance, enthusiasm, reward-seeking behavior

Neuroticism: anxiety, emotional instability, depressive tendencies, negative emotions

Conscientiousness: industriousness, discipline, rule abidance, organization

Agreeableness: warmth, care for others, altruism, compassion, modesty

Openness: curiosity, unconventionality, imagination, receptivity to new ideas

  • “dispositional personality traits may provide clues to a president’s decision-making style. Research suggests that extroverts tend to take high-stakes risks and that people with low levels of openness rarely question their deepest convictions.”
  • “The psychologists Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer, in conjunction with about 120 historians and other experts, have rated all the former U.S. presidents, going back to George Washington, on all five of the trait dimensions. George W. Bush comes out as especially high on extroversion and low on openness to experience—a highly enthusiastic and outgoing social actor who tends to be incurious and intellectually rigid. Barack Obama is relatively introverted, at least for a politician, and almost preternaturally low on neuroticism—emotionally calm and dispassionate, perhaps to a fault.”
  • “Across his lifetime, Donald Trump has exhibited a trait profile that you would not expect of a U.S. president: sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness.”
  • “Because he is not burdened with Bush’s low level of openness (psychologists have rated Bush at the bottom of the list on this trait), Trump may be a more flexible and pragmatic decision maker, more like Bill Clinton than Bush: He may look longer and harder than Bush did before he leaps. And because he is viewed as markedly less ideological than most presidential candidates (political observers note that on some issues he seems conservative, on others liberal, and on still others nonclassifiable), Trump may be able to switch positions easily, leaving room to maneuver in negotiations with Congress and foreign leaders. But on balance, he’s unlikely to shy away from risky decisions that, should they work out, could burnish his legacy and provide him an emotional payoff.”

 

  1. Mental Habits:
  • “Cognitive-science research suggests that people rely on personal schemata to process new social information efficiently and effectively. By their very nature, however, schemata narrow a person’s focus to a few well-worn approaches that may have worked in the past, but may not necessarily bend to accommodate changing circumstances. A key to successful decision making is knowing what your schemata are, so that you can change them when you need to.”
  • “Trump’s focus on personal relationships and one-on-one negotiating pays respect to a venerable political tradition. For example, a contributor to Lyndon B. Johnson’s success in pushing through civil-rights legislation and other social programs in the 1960s was his unparalleled expertise in cajoling lawmakers. Obama, by contrast, has been accused of failing to put in the personal effort needed to forge close and productive relationships with individual members of Congress.”

 

  1. Motivations (Narcissism)
  • “Asked to sum up Trump’s personality for an article in Vanity Fair, Howard Gardner, a psychologist at Harvard, responded, “Remarkably narcissistic.” George Simon, a clinical psychologist who conducts seminars on manipulative behavior, says Trump is “so classic that I’m archiving video clips of him to use in workshops because there’s no better example” of narcissism. “Otherwise I would have had to hire actors and write vignettes. He’s like a dream come true.”
  • “In a 2013 Psychological Science research article, behavioral scientists ranked U.S. presidents on characteristics of what the authors called “grandiose narcissism.” Lyndon Johnson scored the highest, followed closely by Teddy Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson. Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Nixon, and Clinton were next. Millard Fillmore ranked the lowest. Correlating these ranks with objective indices of presidential performance, the researchers found that narcissism in presidents is something of a double-edged sword. On the positive side, grandiose narcissism is associated with initiating legislation, public persuasiveness, agenda setting, and historians’ ratings of “greatness.” On the negative side, it is also associated with unethical behavior and congressional impeachment resolutions.”

 

  1. Self-Conception
  • Trump’s story “is akin to what the great 20th-century scholar and psychoanalyst Carl Jung identified in myth and folklore as the archetypal warrior. According to Jung, the warrior’s greatest gifts are courage, discipline, and skill; his central life task is to fight for what matters; his typical response to a problem is to slay it or otherwise defeat it; his greatest fear is weakness or impotence. The greatest risk for the warrior is that he incites gratuitous violence in others, and brings it upon himself.”
  • “…presidents create in their minds personal life stories—or what psychologists call narrative identities—to explain how they came to be who they are. This process is often unconscious, involving the selective reinterpretation of the past and imagination of the future. A growing body of research in personality, developmental, and social psychology demonstrates that a life story provides adults with a sense of coherence, purpose, and continuity over time. Presidents’ narratives about themselves can also color their view of national identity, and influence their understanding of national priorities and progress.
  • Victories have given Trump’s life clarity and purpose. And he must relish the prospect of another big win, as the potential GOP nominee. But what principles for governing can be drawn from a narrative such as his? What guidance can such a story provide after the election, once the more nebulous challenge of actually being the president of the United States begins?”
  • “Donald Trump’s story—of himself and of America—tells us very little about what he might do as president, what philosophy of governing he might follow, what agenda he might lay out for the nation and the world, where he might direct his energy and anger. More important, Donald Trump’s story tells him very little about these same things.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/?utm_source=eb