Two Plus Two Makes Four!

When citizens in a democratic society participate in public demonstrations, they reveal the intensity of their preferences for a political outcome. In short, they are passionate about a cause. When opponents simply dismiss demonstrators as “hired protestors,” they negate their citizenship and nullify democratic engagement.

image.pngDuring the past few weeks, I have written about the strategy of the current incumbent of the White House and supporters of denying the legitimacy of institutions that normally check the exercise of authority in a democratic system. I have argued that this approach goes beyond the deep partisanship that has become the norm in American politics in recent decades.

I’ve illustrated the argument with reference to the media – the most obvious case — and the civil service (aka “Deep State”), including the Bureau of Labor Statistics that produces unemployment data.

The argument extends to citizen protest. Intense partisanship would involve making the case that the protestors are misguided, misinformed, or simply wrong. But labeling them “fake” – hired actors rather than motivated citizens – eliminates the need to present substantive counterarguments. The exercise of citizenship rights by the protestors is simply erased in one sweeping gesture: fake.

The most prominent recent example concerns the student protestors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who organized the “March for Your Life” rally earlier this year. But the approach was already deployed in response to Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri.

In both cases, as it turns out, those on the right valuing control of power above democracy amplified the impact of their message by pointing to George Soros as the source of payments to protestors, simultaneously nullifying legitimate protest and appealing to their clutch of “anti-globalist”/antisemitic followers.

The tactic is a close kin to the frequent use of the “outside agitator” label deployed in response to labor organizing in the 1920s and ‘30s as well as in response to civil rights demonstrators in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King excoriated members of the clergy for invoking the “outside agitator” argument to oppose civil rights organizing in Birmingham, advancing in an assertion of both social justice and democracy that “Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Ironically, the tactic has been employed to powerful effect in Russia, where in 2011 and 2012 Vladimir Putin’s regime pronounced that Russian citizens protesting electoral fraud were paid by the West — AND incited by an “outside agitator,” U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton (Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom, p. 55).

The approach has now fully blossomed, as indicated by the declaration of the current occupant of the White House at a recent rally in Kansas City that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”

Sources reporting on this stunning negation of reality underscore the affinity with George Orwell’s 1984, in which the ruling totalitarian party “told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears.”

In the chapter of 1984 from which I’ve quoted above, Orwell notes that the logic of the totalitarian regime that controls all “truth” would lead it to command that “two and two made five.” He concludes that chapter with this: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two makes four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Insist that two plus two makes four we must.

The dangerous campaign to delegitimate alternative centers of power – the media, the politically neutral civil service, dissenting citizens, and, of course, U.S. intelligence agencies – will continue. We’ve seen the effort to delegitimize democratic institutions applied to the electoral system, with the claim that the system is “rigged” employed to, well, rig the system.

It is not possible to overstate the stakes of November’s election, which very possibly include the fate of American democracy.

This is not a partisan issue; if the party currently in power retains control of Congress, the administration will perceive license to follow in the recent footsteps of governments in Hungary and Poland and enact concrete measures (beyond those already underway, such as the systematic removal of FBI and potentially Justice Department officials involved in investigating the misdeeds of the current incumbent of the White House) to permanently weaken countervailing institutions.

After all, if the institutions are illegitimate, why not remove their authority?

 

 

Unemployment: Propaganda and Truth

We have gone beyond partisanship; the party in power in our country has engaged in a systematic campaign to manipulate the electorate by destroying the credibility of governing institutions.

This campaign has been disturbingly successful.

Citizens interested in preserving democracy, legitimate political debate and rule of law must combat propaganda – by identifying it, revealing the selfish and destructive motives behind it, and responding with truth.

Last week I wrote about the assault on the free press. The civil service – now presented to supporters of the current occupant of the White House as part of a “Deep State” — has been another object of attack. One target has been the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the otherwise apolitical process of calculating the unemployment rate.

With the unemployment rate declining steadily during the Obama presidency and in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crisis, Republicans decided that reality was stubbornly inconvenient. The unemployment rate was not moving in the desired direction (after all, political ends come before the welfare of the country). The numbers themselves, therefore, would have to be declared fictitious, and those involved in compiling the data would have to be villainized.

With a willing hyperpartisan following committed to condemning the Obama administration no matter the facts, Republican operatives embarked on a coordinated assault on the unemployment data and the civil servants involved in processing the data.

The right-wing Heritage Foundation was at the center of the process. In 2006, Heritage published a “Jobs and Labor” report “Hard at Work,” explaining why the decline in the unemployment rate under George Bush was real, despite a fall in the labor force participation rate. The author of that report argued that “Changing demographics explain part of the lower participation rates. Beyond that, much of the decline in labor force participa­tion (LFP) rates-the propor­tion of the population either in or actively looking for work- can be attributed to the rising numbers of younger Americans opting to invest in their future by continuing their education rather than entering the work­force.”

Five years later, when no longer suited to the political moment, Heritage turned the argument on its head, embarking on a steady stream of efforts to delegitimate the measured unemployment rate. In September 2012, Heritage reported that “The workers now outside the labor force are primarily either studying in school or collecting disability benefits. Approximately 2.1 million more Americans report being outside the labor force and enrolled in school. The weak economy has both made it more difficult for students to find part-time jobs and reduced the opportunity cost of going to school.”

While leaving the labor force to pursue further education represented a choice “to invest in their future” under George W. Bush, under Obama people left the labor force for education because of declining opportunity costs of doing so.

In fall 2012; the right-wing Washington Times brought the popular media into the propaganda effort, publishing an article claiming of the pre-election reduction in the unemployment rate: “At best the new unemployment number is a fluke; at worst it is the product of partisan hacks.”

The New York Post broadened the claim with a fall 2013 article simply asserting “Census ‘faked’ 2012 election jobs report.” The article pointed to a single Census Bureau data canvasser who claimed to have made up his jobs data. Never mind that (a) the person in question did not work for the Census Bureau during the period claimed; and (b) economists familiar with the calculations explained that even if one person’s data WAS entirely made up, there would be zero impact on the data accumulated by thousands of canvassers. As with the news, the concept of “fake” unemployment numbers had entered the discourse.

MarketwatchMic and Forbes (“Did the BLS Give Obama a Major Election 2012 Gift?”) amplified the campaign, picking up on the Post’s invitation to elaborate a case for partisan fixing of the data.

Declaring the officially calculated unemployment rate “fake” or manipulated – a claim that has been proven false — is itself a manipulation, an act of propaganda.

The political advantages of propaganda are that it provides a shortcut to desired political conclusions and that it is immune to evidence. But anyone truly committed to democratic debate shuns such shortcuts and embraces evidence.

The recent decline in the measured rate of unemployment under the current administration is real. But there is important context to this decline, and discussion of that context constitutes legitimate political debate rather than the shameful, destructive propaganda that has become the stock-in-trade of the present administration.

To begin with, the recent fall in the unemployment rate clearly is a continuation of a trend well established during the Obama administration. The unemployment rate is now at 3.9%; during the Obama years, the rate declined from a peak of 10.0% in December 2009 — during the financial crisis the Obama administration inherited — to 4.7% at the end of his second term:

Obama unemployment rate.png

True, there have been 17 straight months of job gains. But this follows 75 consecutive months of job gains under Obama.

Furthermore, the rate of job gains has not increased. During the stretch of 75 months of job gains of the Obama recovery, the U.S. economy gained 199,000 jobs per month; during the second Obama administration, the average monthly gain was 217,000.

Since January 2017, the rate has been 189,000 per month.

Finally, the decline in the unemployment rate does not mean that working people are better off. In fact, during the past year, while wages rose by 2.7%, inflation was 2.9%. The average worker, in other words, is losing ground in real terms.

In short, while propaganda renders recent job market performance miraculous and unprecedented, facts suggest otherwise. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has not been lying; the current administration cannot tell the truth.

 

The Virtue of Political Accountability

I am in Oslo this week, investigating sustainability issues and government accountability in Norway. While there is no easy comparison between a country of 5.3 million people with low levels of poverty and income inequality and the United States, the contrast in degrees of political accountability could not be starker.

For all its tradition of social democracy through much of the 20th century, Norway is now governed by a right-wing coalition that includes a libertarian/nationalist/populist party advocating strict controls on immigration and asylum-seekers. This includes a Progress Party proposal to essentially criminalize asylum seekers by detaining in secure facilities those arriving without documentation as well as those whose asylum applications are rejected.

Three months ago, Norway’s Justice Minister, Progress Party member Sylvi Listhaug, posted on Facebook comments accusing the opposition Labour Party (Norway’s single largest party) of weakness in combatting terrorism.

Specially, Listhaug wrote that Labour put “terrorist’s rights” above national security.

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The Stortinget, Noway’s parliament building

Context makes the remarks particularly offensive, painful and highly inappropriate. Seven years ago, on July 22, 2011, a terrorist attack by a Progress Party supporter targeted a Labour Party youth summer camp in the worst mass shooting in Norway’s post-World War II history. The perpetrator set off a car bomb in central Oslo, killing 8, and then boarded a ferry to the island of Utoya. Impersonating a police officer checking on security in the wake of the car bombing, he spent 90 minutes executing 69 young people for their political affiliation.

What was the political reaction to the March 2018 remarks of Norway’s right-wing Justice Minister?

The opposition parties unified in condemnation of the minister’s comments, vowing to issue a vote of no confidence in the government if Listhaug did not resign.

Although Listhaug resorted to the empty “free speech” defense that has become so tiresome as justification for outrageously uncivil and destructive comments in American politics, she ultimately did resign. Listhaug was free to speak her mind. But she was held accountable for her verbal recklessness.

Accountability is vital for democracy; without it, trust in governing institutions, trust between citizens and the willingness to treat political opponents as loyal fellow citizens evaporates.

Politics in Norway may in recent years have become highly contentious, but a sense of competition between competing policy agendas nonetheless endures.

Perhaps so for Norway, but no longer for the United States.

In U.S. politics, spokespersons for the current administration now say virtually anything, no matter how scurrilous, about anyone – from the Prime Minister of a friendly country to a former U.S. President or Vice President, to elected members of the opposition party, to the policies and role of the Democratic Party, with increasing abandon and zero accountability.

Over time, the ultimate casualty may be democracy itself.

Progressives, the Right and the Dangerous Purge of “the Deep State”

While out walking my dog yesterday I had a revealing political exchange with a neighbor.

The conversation began with a polite discussion of the neighborhood; the neighbor generously volunteers to keep up maintenance in the community to save the homeowner’s association money on repairs. As we discussed various concerns about the neighborhood people had brought to his attention, his reference to “the liberals” came up; I self-identified as such. That’s when things got interesting.

In response to my confession, the first thing my neighbor asked was how much I knew about Stalin and the number of deaths for which he bore responsibility. Taken aback, I probed the source of the question. Knowledge about Stalin was his litmus test for liberals – and evidence of their denial of atrocities on the political left.

University students, apparently, are kept from knowledge of the horrors of Stalinism by professors who sweep this history under the rug as a means of sanitizing the political left.  I responded that this was not only entirely untrue, but that his association of progressives with Stalinism was severely misguided.

I chose not to take the discussion in this direction, but the obvious irony is that the political right is at this moment engaged in a campaign to “purge” the “deep state” in our federal government – a project with clear Stalinist overtones.

What is this project about?  What are its objectives and its consequences?

The New Yorker recently published an insightful account of the shameful “deep state” campaign.

The project amounts to a decision to go after civil servants who were important to developing Obama-era policies that the new administration finds objectionable. The New Yorker focuses on a loyal, talented young woman who was targeted due to her value in negotiating the nuclear deal with Iran and extracting the best possible terms for the U.S.

Of course, the record of the federal civil service is one of faithfully executing policies of successive administrations regardless of their politics. There can be obstruction and foot-dragging, but civil servants also are bound by a code of ethics that illuminates by contrast the disgraceful behavior of the current cabinet oligarchy.

The New Yorker points out how the Nixon administration systematically sought to marginalize civil servants it saw as a threat to that lawless administration’s political control.

The infamous “Malek Manual” was the guiding document for that project. This was an 80-page memo associated with a business executive brought into the Nixon Administration as a loyalist to1526960943.jpeg be assigned to political tasks in various agencies.

The manual establishes a system for classifying civil servants on a K, O, L, or N basis — for “Keep,” “Out,” “Let’s Watch,” and “Neuter.” The very project is reflective of an administration with no more regard for the rule of law than the current administration.

The manual rehearses in detail civil service rules of appointment and laments the difficulty of removal and adverse action against civil servants.

The objective is to identify means to circumvent these rules.

As the manual states on p. 72: “there are several techniques which can be designed, carefully, to skirt around the adverse action proceedings.” These include the “frontal assault” involving a frank announcement that the individual “is no longer wanted” and can leave either under favorable conditions immediately or be forced out under humiliating conditions later on.

“There should be no witnesses in the room” for the frontal assault.

Then there is the “special assistant technique” of assigning a “family man” who does not want to travel to duties involving extensive travel in order to force a resignation. The report actually contains this passage: “Until his wife threatens him with divorce unless he quits, you have him out of town and out of the way.”

But even this odious document refers in its conclusion to political costs that will ensue: “There is no question that the effective activities of a political personnel office will invoke a one-shot furor in the hostile press and Congress.” The costs would nonetheless be worth the benefits because of the necessity of establishing “political control.”

That political control, the document arrogantly concludes, “is the difference between ruling and reigning.”

Still, the document was to be kept confidential and there could be no links to the president.

What differs now is the brazenness of the purge and the very public way in which the process is portrayed as a virtuous assault on forces seeking to undermine a legitimately elected political authority.

In fact, while the Nixon era politicization of the civil service relied on secrecy, the “deep state” purge depends on its public nature.

In short, the current occupant of the Oval Office is attempting to turn the world inside out by weaving a story of victimization at the hands of federal institutions – from the intelligence agencies to the Justice Department to the Obama loyalists seeded throughout the federal bureaucracy.

This narrative has gained momentum on Fox and other right-wing media, and has reverberated on the official English-language Russian news station, RT.

If American citizens like my neighbor buy into the “deep state” purge, American democracy is on very treacherous ground indeed. As reported recently by the Washington Post, that is precisely what is happening as increasing numbers of Republicans (now a substantial majority) express opposition to the Mueller probe.

The objective, of course, is to undermine the legitimacy of Mueller’s findings in advance so that it will be possible to continue to wage political war on the findings as a buttress to the legal assault, which may well fail.

But democracy can not function without effective institutions whose legitimacy is widely embraced by citizens. The American political system will bear the costs of this institutional wreckage for years to come.

 

 

 

 

 

The Troubling Question of Democracy in the West

The cover of the latest issue of the German news weekly Der Spiegel shows a background of a US president setting the world ablaze. In the foreground, a hesitant German Chancellor Merkel stands back-to-back with a confident French President Macron holding a fire extinguisher labeled “I love Europe.”

“Who will save the West?” asks the headline — the issue is about freedom and democracy. Macron needs Germany’s help, yet the Chancellor, laments Der Spiegel, is ceding the field to Macron.

SP_2018_17_Digitaltitel_600.jpgThe English-language international issue notes that “The U.S. is no longer leading the West, neither morally, economically, on foreign policy or militarily.”

The need to ask who will save democracy in the West is itself a sad statement. But the question is indeed relevant. A Turkey once close to docking at the harbor of democracy and rule of law has drifted into authoritarian seas. A Hungary and a Poland firmly anchored in the democratic harbor and embedded in the rule of law represented by the European Union have each come unmoored, and have drifted from the harbor.

As these alarming developments proceed, where are the global beacons of democracy?

The notion of the U.S. as such a beacon is of course flawed; no doubt, there has always been a great deal of hypocrisy underlying the notion of the U.S. as the world’s beacon of democracy. But the symbolic dimension matters nonetheless, if only as a cautionary note to those seeking to spread illiberalism and as a rallying point for those working for government accountability, responsiveness and rule of law.

While the light may have been mottled in the past, the U.S. beacon now grows ever dimmer.  This is a result both of failures to denounce authoritarianism abroad and a willingness to encroach on democracy and rule of law at home when politically useful.

The US Congress has been silent on the spread of authoritarian, because it is understood that any critique of tactics in Poland or Hungary is an implicit critique of the current occupant of the Oval Office. The authoritarian tendencies of our own presidency have muted U.S. advocacy for press freedom and rule of law around the world. Without that voice, authoritarians are empowered, given license.

Furthermore, members of the U.S. Congress have willingly taken part in the administration’s effort to eliminate checks on executive authority – through leaks, for example, and other warnings of the administration’s efforts to undermine science- or evidence-based policy.

Some members of Congress have championed an assault on the “deep state” (an Erdoganesque construct) comprised of FBI and Justice Department officials — who in reality are intent on imposing rule of law on an executive resentful of legal limits.

In contrast to these shameful betrayals of democracy and rule of law, the European Parliament has at least taken the symbolic steps of passing resolutions condemning violations of rule of law in Hungary and in Poland.

In the case of Hungary, the European Parliament’s resolution cites commitments of EU member state governments made in the Treaty on European Union, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Referencing violations of rights of asylum seekers, attacks on civil society organizations and on media pluralism, assaults on freedom of organization and of expression and overt engagement in propaganda campaigns regarding immigration, the European Parliament “Regrets that the developments in Hungary have led to a serious deterioration of the rule of law, democracy and fundamental rights over the past few years.”

Similarly, in a November 2017 resolution the European Parliament condemns numerous actions of the Polish government “risking the systematic undermining of fundamental human rights, democratic checks and balances and the rule of law.”

Furthermore, in December 2017, the European Commission invoked Article 7 of the Treaty on European Union, which calls for the national governments to act where there is a “clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law”

Justifying its action, the European Commission explained that it “is taking action to protect the rule of law in Europe. Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority.”

The Commission continues: “A breach of the rule of law in one Member State has an effect on all Member States and the Union as a whole. First, because the independence of the judiciary – free from undue political interference – is a value that reflects the concept of European democracy we have built up together, heeding the lessons of the past.”

Meanwhile, as Poland grew more isolated within the EU, a July 2017 visit from the U.S. executive sent a contrary message.

Rather than taking the opportunity to diplomatically caution the Polish government regarding violations of rule of law, the current occupant of the White House instead, while on the soil of a government that has displayed growing authoritarian tendencies and engaged in violations of press freedoms, gleefully reiterated attacks on the U.S. media to which we have grown so accustomed at home.

It is indeed sad that the question of who will save the West must be asked at all. It is sadder still that the United States is no longer part of the answer.