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Trump and the USA’s failure, part 1 – some modern history regarding two democratic systems

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It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. Thomas Paine

So Australia’s getting a tiny mention now in the Trump debacle, as he and his henchmen try desperately to find dirt on Mueller, Biden, anyone they can divert attention to as this iniquitous regime stumbles towards its own doom.
So it seems to me an opportune time to reiterate and expand upon some of my views about the US political and social system which led to this pass.

First, a bit of a history of modern democracy and a corrective, to some of the views I’ve regularly heard on MSNBC and CNN as the journos and other pundits wring their hands over how the mighty have fallen. It seems accepted wisdom in the USA that their country is the leader of the democratic world, the potential bringer of democracy to the unenlightened, the light on the hill, the world’s moral police officer, the first and best of the world’s free nations. And its beginnings are often cited in the War of Independence against a tyrant king. So how could a nation, which owes its very existence to a revolt against tyranny, succumb to the blusterings, badgerings and bullying of this tyrant-child in their midst?

Well, let’s look at this story.  Britain did indeed tyrannise its colony. But let’s take note of some facts. George III was a constitutional monarch. Lord North was Britain’s Prime Minister during the war of independence. A century and a half before the War of Independence, Britain beheaded its king for being a tyrant. It was then ruled for a time by the Long Parliament, and then the Rump Parliament, before Oliver Cromwell was made Lord Protector of the Realm. These were some of the first none too successful steps towards a modern democracy. Baby steps. Two steps forward, one step back you might say. It didn’t work out so well, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, under the proviso that there would be some parliamentary representation. Then in the 1680s another king was forced out of the country, again for being a tyrant, and trying to convert the nation to Catholicism. This Glorious Revolution, as it was called, brought another branch of the royal family in from overseas, and William and Mary Stuart were presented with the crown, and the first constitutional monarchy was formed – though of course Magna Carta had earlier brought about the first limitations to royal authority, and there were more limitations to come in the future. Again, baby steps away from tyranny and towards democracy. A Bill of Rights was introduced in 1689, much of it based on the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke whose work also influenced the American constitution. 

So, America’s War of Independence was a war against tyranny, I grant that, but the tyrant was more a nation, or a government, than a king – though George III was certainly tyrannical in his attitude to the colonies. Britain, at the time, and for a long time afterwards, was a very powerful nation. And – guess what – powerful nations are always bullies. Always. That’s a universal. Imperial Britain was always a bully to its neighbours, and to less powerful nations that it could benefit from exploiting. The USA in more recent times, has been the same, as has China, Russia (or the USSR) and powerful empires of the past, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian Assyrian, etc. It doesn’t matter their internal politics – they’re always bullies on the international stage. That’s why more powerful international agencies are needed and are just beginning to arise.

So getting back to democracy – the first US Presidential election was an odd one, as there was only one candidate – Washington. There were no parties, and very few states, and even then only about 7% of the adult population of those few states were considered eligible to vote, based on the possession of property (and of course skin colour, and gender). So, one of the bigger baby steps towards democracy, perhaps, but still another baby step. Of course, parliamentary membership in Britain at the time was subject to a vote, but also with a very limited franchise. 

So The USA significantly contributed to modern democracy, without a doubt, but the whole democratic movement proceeded by baby steps worldwide. For example, it’s surely unarguable that no nation or state could consider itself an effective democracy until it gave women – half the effing population! – the vote, and the USA was far from the first nation to do so. In fact the first state of any kind to do so was New Zealand in 1893, followed by the colony of South Australia – my home, from which I’m writing – in 1894. The USA didn’t grant the vote to women until 1920. 

So enough about democracy for now, but one reason I brought this up was to sort of complain a bit about American jingoism. You’re a really flag-waving, breast-beating country, and you tend to go on about patriotism as some kind of fundamental value. I say you because, though I have precious few readers, by far the majority of them come from the US, according to my WordPress data. Now, this kind of jingoism doesn’t allow for too much healthy self -analysis and critical distance. You need to get out more. I live in Australia, I was born in Scotland, so I’m a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, but I barely have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag in my life, never sung a national anthem. Nowadays I call myself a humanist, but I really came to that idea much later – my kind of visceral discomfort and dislike of nationalism goes back to my childhood, I can’t easily explain it, and any explanation would be post-hoc rationalism. I’m happy in any case that my humanism chimes with modern times, as we live in a more global and integrated world than ever before, but I do recognise that nations are still necessary and useful, and that global government will probably always remain an Einsteinian pipe-dream.

In any case, I feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life here in Australia. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 35-40 countries, the most developed economies in the world – the world’s richest countries by GDP. Every year for several years now, they’ve rated the member countries on a ‘Better Life Index’ based on 11 different criteria, such as health, income, safety, job opportunities and so on. Basically, a rating of the best countries in the world to live in. A new rating has just come out, and Australia ranks at number two, up from number three last year, but down from number one the year before, and the year before that. So lucky me, though I have plenty of criticisms about the way this country is going. So how does the USA rate? Well, it’s never been number one, or two, or three or four or five or six, and I could go on – which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near the bottom. But could this just be anti-American bias from the OECD? Well, in a sense yes, because I suspect they’re biased towards nations or states that look after their citizens – where there’s more of a sense of communal values. They measure categories such as ‘civic engagement’, ‘community’, ‘environment’ and ‘work-life balance’, categories which step a little beyond individual rights and freedoms – and I think that’s a good thing.

So here’s how I see the problem. The USA seems a little overly obsessed with the individual, and that seems to put it a little out on the libertarian end of the spectrum that stretches from libertarians to communists. I’d argue that there’s never been any instantiation of a communist state or a libertarian non-state – and in a democracy, which is by its nature a bottom-up sort of system, which has to cater for a wide range of views about government, you should always expect to be swinging mildly in the centre between these extremes. But America’s focus on individual freedoms and the great individual leader was evident from the outset, with the way it set up its federal political system. My plan here is to compare it to the Westminster system which I know quite well, and which has sort of evolved slowly rather than being set in stone by an all-powerful 18th century constitution.

Under the Westminster system there’s no directly elected President. Of course, that system did begin with a great individual power, the unelected, hereditary monarch, who, in the time of the USA’s founding and the drawing up of its constitution, was a lot more powerful than today’s monarch. So it seems to have been the thinking of the founding fathers that you could have this powerful figure but he could be elected. And I do say ‘he’ because, be honest, there’s nothing in the thinking of the founding fathers to suggest that they would ever have contemplated a female President. So, remembering that many of the ideas of the founding fathers actually came from Britain, through the likes of John Locke and Tom Paine, their idea seemed to be something like a constitutional President, elected rather than blue-blooded, and hedged around by a parliament that was more constitutionally powerful than the parliament of the time back in the old ‘mother country’. And by the way, it slightly irritates me that there’s this lexical difference for the legislature in the USA versus Britain/Australia, i.e congress/parliament. They’re really the same thing and I wish they had the same name. From now on I’ll use the term ‘parliament’ to refer to the legislative branch under both systems.

So, it seems – and I’m by no means an expert on the US constitution – that the constitution was drawn up to create a kind of balance of power between three branches of law and government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And this would have been quite revolutionary and progressive in its time, some two hundred odd years ago. In fact, the founding fathers may have seen it as so progressive and all-encompassing that the term ‘eternal’ might have been whispered about, like the eternal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so they may have suffered from that natural pride which assumed that the constitution ought not to be altered without difficulty, and so the USA has largely been stuck with it. And I should point out – because it strikes non-Americans as a bit weird – that Americans seem a bit overly obsessed with their constitution.

Okay, so I’ll leave it there for now. Next time I’ll focus a bit more on the Westminster system, and a comparison between Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm

the USA’s presidential crisis – what will they learn from it?

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it really is this crazy

The USA has a tragic problem on its hands, of its own making. It now has, as its President, a career criminal, a narcissistic demagogue, a flim flam man who’ll stop at nothing to remain in power. Within a few days, though, his power will be curtailed and, I strongly suspect, and certainly hope, US law enforcement authorities will be rounding up some of his accomplices and generally turning up the heat. Everything about Trump tells me he would be prepared to destroy as much of the country’s political edifice as he possibly can, rather than go quietly.

But it’s the political edifice itself that’s allowed Trump, who isn’t a Republican, or a Democrat, or a politician or a businessman, to take over the ship of state and steer it on a bumpy ride to nowhere. This could never have happened under the Westminster system, which pertains in Britain and Australia, two countries of which I happen to be a citizen. 

The flaws in the US Presidential system have been unwittingly exposed by Trump, and this may be the one true gift he will have bestowed on his people, just as the horrors of the great European wars of last century left the one bright legacy of over seventy years of peace in Western Europe. 

So what are these problems? Well there’s one general problem of democracy, which is shared by all democratic countries, and that’s the fact that not everyone eligible to vote is sufficiently informed or detached to use their vote to the best advantage of themselves or the nation as a whole. Many are massively influenced by what is called ‘identity politics’, because they identify with a particular sub-culture, be it ethnic, religious, job-related, or special-interest-related in a host of ways. Many simply don’t understand much about politics and are easily swayed by political promises or the promises made by those around them on behalf of politicians. The intellectual elites, the cognoscenti, have no more weight to their vote than the more or less completely clueless. 

This problem is exacerbated in the USA by the fact that, every four years, they’re asked to cast a vote essentially for one person over another. In the run-up to that vote there’s massive fund-raising and lobbying, hype (short for hyperbole), overblown promising, and circus-like razzmatazz and bells and whistles. 

The one-against-one competition is, it seems, typically American, where the ‘great man’ who saves the world by single-handedly defeating all enemies is a staple of Hollywood blockbusters. In contrast, elections in the Westminster system are more like a blend of the American mid-term and presidential elections, but with much more of the mid-term than the presidential. People essentially vote for parties – a major party of the left and of the right, together with smaller independent parties and independent members. The two major parties and the smaller parties all have leaders, of course, and they’re elected by the rest of the elected MPs of their parties. They’re the ‘captains of the team’, and they work with them in parliament. The Prime Minister, the leader of the party elected to power in general elections, is thus in a very different position from the US President, who resides in and works from the White House, surrounded by staff and officials who are appointed by himself (though more or less vetted by others) without necessarily having been elected by the public to any office of any kind in the past. These include some very influential positions indeed – the 15 members of the Presidential Cabinet including Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Attorney-General and Chief of Staff. The President thus heads the ‘executive branch’ of government, which is entirely separate from parliament, or congress.

Under the Westminster system there’s no such separation. The Prime Minister does get to select his cabinet, but they’re all appointed from within parliament, and all of them work within the House, or the Senate. So the PM is literally ‘primus inter pares’, first among equals, and often has to defend his or her ministers and policies in the teeth of opposition sitting across the aisle. This creates much more of a team spirit, and if the PM ‘goes rogue’, as Trump clearly has, his party can organise a no-confidence motion to oust him. Such an event obviously has major repurcussions for the nation, but they are clearly nowhere near as disastrous as the ousting of an American President. Though, arguably, the difficulties involved in ousting the President are even more disastrous. 

In watching and learning about the US political system over the past year or so, I’ve been totally astonished at the power granted to the President, and with that power comes a sense of Presidential immunity, due to his ‘indispensability’. This is virtually a recipe for demagoguery and dictatorship. The current President has clearly utilised powers that previous Presidents quite probably didn’t know they had, because they grew up within the usual ethical guidelines of the vast majority of people, regardless of background. Trump has no such guidelines, and so has sacked appointed officials without replacing them, has used pardoning powers – and will continue to do so unless ousted – without restraint, and has issued executive orders in a manipulative and detrimental fashion. He has monetised the Presidency, obstructed justice by declaring war on the FBI and justice department officials, viciously and relentlessly attacked the fourth estate, and spread myriad falsehoods with impunity.

All of this has created a kind of internal paralysis in the US, while making the country and its President both a laughing stock and a cause for grave concern worldwide. Meanwhile the success of demagoguery and ‘power’ over ethics has had its echoes in elections in Austria, Sweden and Brazil. But the USA’s political problems are unique. The two principal problems are – How do you rid yourself of a rogue president? and, How do you present this from ever happening again?

Many concerned Americans are looking to the process of impeachment as the solution. I’m writing this on the day (in Australia) of the mid-term elections, November 6, though the USA is some 11-12 hours behind us in central Australia. It seems likely that the Democrats will take control of the House and possibly the Senate, though I wouldn’t bet on it – I usually get these things wrong. But impeachment is a political process and therefore highly partisan in a nation that has become partisan perhaps to the point of extreme violence. Impeachment doesn’t exist in the Westminster system, because there is clearly no need for it.

For a Prime Minister, under the Westminster system, to ‘successfully’ go rogue, as the US President has, he would have to carry the whole of his party with him, or a substantial majority, as the party system and party loyalty are deeply entrenched in the polity. A no-confidence motion in the Prime Minister can be put up at any time during parliamentary sessions, either from within the PM’s party or from the opposition benches. It’s easier for the President to become a ‘one-man band’ because he’s entirely cut off from congress. I don’t know if Trump has ever entered congress. There seems no reason for him to do so. This complete disconnection from what is is supposedly his own party and government is, I think, disastrous. 

The massive power of the President – veto powers, pardoning powers, executive orders, and apparent, if limited, immunity from prosecution – is no small problem for a country that is the most economically and militarily powerful in the world.  Rachel Maddow of NBC has highlighted the problem of prosecuting the President. If he is charged and placed in custody or let out on bail, does he still have presidential authority? If not, who does? This would not be a problem under the Westminster system – the Deputy PM would step up, as s/he does when the PM is overseas. And if the matter were serious enough, that deputy, or another senior cabinet minister, would take over the PM’s role permanently. And there would be no hesitancy, under that system, to arrest and detain. Why should there be? The law should treat all offenders in precisely the same way.

In the US there seems to be a lot of confusion on these matters. Many consider the President ‘too important’ to be charged with a crime while in office. This is truly ridiculous. If you have allowed one person to be so important within your political system as to be above the law, for even a second, then your political system sucks, to put it mildly. 

Another bizarre anomaly of the US system is this ‘hanging back’ by the federal authorities, in terms of subpoenas and indictments, during pre-election periods. This, it seems to me, is an interference, by a kind of stealth, of the judiciary by the political sphere. Where did this ridiculous idea come from? It seems abundantly clear to me that when investigating potential felonies of any kind, the political background should play no part whatsoever. Once investigators have ‘all their ducks in a row’, as Americans like to say, that’s when prosecutions should begin. I’ve no idea right now what will happen to Trump after these elections, but he has already been clearly implicated in campaign finance violations via his criminal fixer, so prosecutions should have occurred already. To not institute criminal proceedings when everything is set to do so, because of some election or other – that constitutes political interference. Am I missing something here?  

Assuming that Trump is indicted after these elections (though what I’ve heard is that the Mueller will only issue a report to congress, even if it includes indictable offences, which makes my head spin with its unutterable stupidity and dereliction of duty), is it likely that Trump will give himself up to authorities? Trump is a career criminal who has never spent any time in jail, though his tax crimes and various scams should have seen him incarcerated for much of his adult life. It’s hard to know what he’ll do when cornered, but I can’t imagine him giving himself up to authorities. The real crisis is about to hit the fan, so to speak. It will get very very bumpy over the next few months, no matter what the election result. 

The other major question is – what will Americans learn from the Trump disaster? Will they reform their political system? With their jingoistic pride, I don’t hold out too much hope. My guess is that there will be some reform around the edges – the emoluments clause might be ‘promoted’ to something more than a mere clause, for example – but their beloved but outdated Constitution will remain largely untouched, and they’ll still keep their POTUS in splendid isolation, a law unto himself and a potential threat to their nation and the outside world. But then, as some dipshit has often said, we’ll have to wait and see. 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 6, 2018 at 8:52 pm

Brat Cavernaugh, or the Ruling Class at play: part one

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I’ve watched with increasing fascination, bemusement, amusement and horror, the display of hypocrisy, smugness, disbelief and final panic that has been the Republican attempt to confirm sweet little Brett Kavanaugh as the next Supreme Court justice in the USA. And I have to admit from the outset that, as a working class boy from one of the least privileged suburbs in the hinterland of Australia, I will admit to having an unapologetic anti-ruling class bias. So you might take my incredibly insightful commentary as follows with a grain of salt.

It has been the apparent aim of America’s current Chief Sexist to stack the US Supreme Court with like-minded sexists, so that they can overturn Roe v Wade and impress upon society that if girls are stupid enough to get pregnant they have to give birth to the consequences and devote their lives to making the best of their offspring – at least the male ones. 

So with that in mind, the Chief Sexist has sought out a facilitator for this desired outcome, this happy return to the patriarchal status quo. However, the Chief Sexist has a not-so-hidden other agenda. Having engaged in a spot of what losers may call hanky-panky re financial and other dealings, including with those who refuse to recognise their place within the patriarchy, he wants protection from those, such as the FBI and other insufferable meddlers, who seek to challenge the Natural Authority of the Sexist in Chief in his mission to make America male again, and to ensure that his leadership will not be circumscribed by Loser’s Law. And he has found in little Bretty an acolyte who will perfectly serve his purpose.

Okay, enough. As I write, the hearing into Kavanaugh’s fitness to be on the US Supreme Court is over, and the vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee will take place tomorrow morning. The committee consists of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats. I believe that if this vote approves Kavanaugh’s confirmation, there will be a full senate vote to confirm him. I’m hoping and expecting the confirmation to fail at either of these two hurdles. 

I haven’t watched the televised hearing of Blasey Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s testimonies, due to squeamishness, so I’m relying on the reporting and commentaries of journalists and other experts. From all reports, Blasey Ford’s testimony was authentic, detailed, insofar as a memory from 36 years ago can be, and convincing. Most importantly, she stated that she was 100% certain that it was Kavanaugh who attacked her. Kavanaugh, who of course had no story to relate since he denies that the activity ever occurred, was in some ways disadvantaged by the situation – how many ways can you deny an occurrence or go on about what an upstanding citizen you are? 

And yet. As many people have pointed out, this wasn’t a hearing which was designed to uncover the truth. It pitted two people against each other, with the reward going to the most convincing, in the subjective judgement of the audience – not the TV audience, but the audience of 21 Senators. And considering that this hearing was all about deciding someone’s fitness for the Supreme Court, it was a total farce. And the blame for this lies squarely with the Republican Party. 

The GOP and its financial backers have had one aim in mind with all this, to get a second conservative, or ultra-conservative, Justice on the Supreme Court during this presidential term. This was put in the bluntest terms by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell only a few days ago, when he promised his ‘base’ that, no matter what, Kavanaugh would take his place on the court in the very near future. So much for due process, remembering that it was McConnell who orchestrated the failure of Obama’s nomination, Merrick Garland, to even get a hearing for the best part of a year.

Apparently GOP Senator Lindsey Graham agrees with me that this whole process is an ‘unethical sham’, but for entirely different reasons. As to what his reasons are, they’re of no interest to me. What I’m interested in is the allegations against Kavanaugh, why they’ve arisen now, whether they should be taken seriously, and what should be done. 

Before proceeding I should say that not only do I prefer to avoid highly emotional moments such as the above-mentioned testimonies, I also avoid, as far as I can, listening to or watching Donald Trump. I decided that I didn’t want such a repellant individual on my TV or computer screens long before he entered politics – so it wasn’t a political decision. I also don’t accept that Trump is a Republican or a Democrat, or even a politician in any meaningful sense of the word. Just what I think he is, I won’t elaborate on here. So I tend to fast-forward or mute when the cable news networks upon which I rely for information switch to the White House or a Trump rally. Where Trump’s views on this matter are relevant, I’ll rely on other sources for his statements.

As Kavanaugh’s confirmation process approached, a great deal of attention became focused on his views re Roe v Wade, presidential powers, immigration, gun rights, environmental issues and the like. His work as a Republican Party operative during the G W Bush presidency, and as assistant to Ken Starr during the Clinton impeachment process, and his entire background of right-wing privilege, his attendance at an exclusive all-boys Catholic high school, followed by Yale University and Law School, followed by clerking for Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, mark him out as a scion of the conservative ruling class. Naturally there has been great concern among progressives about his promotion to the Supreme Court.

Concerned oppositionists naturally began digging into Kavanaugh’s past, as I assume has always been the case when nominees of a partisan persuasion get close to being confirmed. A chink in the armour appeared to be his activities as a teenager, and rumours about heavy drinking and related unseemly behaviour, especially in the treatment of girls/women. Kavanaugh’s high school year-book contained hints of such, but he emphatically denied any wrong-doing, apart from the odd ‘cringeworthy’ moment. However, it was being noticed by Kavanaugh’s critics that he seemed to be using his legal skills to be evading direct answers to more specific questions, both in regard to his past and in regard to his views on key issues that might come up before the Supreme Court in the future.

Then came a bombshell claim about an incident that occurred 36 years ago at a party during Kavanaugh’s high school years, when he was 17. The claim was about an assault which may have amounted to an attempted rape. The claimant, Professor Christine Blasey Ford, was 15 years old at the time. As Republicans sought to play down or repudiate the claim, and others sought to ‘weaponise it’ against the GOP and its attempt to rush everything through, many observers questioned the timing. However, Blasey Ford had written to Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein detailing the incident back in July, in confidence. When the letter was apparently leaked to the press, Republicans tried to blame Feinstein and the Democrats for leaking it, claiming a smear campaign conducted by the opposition. This has been denied both by Feinstein and by the press. What seems to have happened is that stories of Kavanaugh’s alcohol-fuelled bad behaviour at high school and college were gradually gaining traction, as well as rumours regarding Blasey Ford’s letter, which eventually led to the leak, and which led to further allegations, from two other women. All three have allowed themselves to be named, and have expressed a preparedness to testify under oath and to co-operate fully with an FBI investigation of their claims. Clearly this relates to Kavanaugh’s nomination, and to concerns these women have as to his fitness for such high office. 

Still the question can be asked as to why these serious allegations weren’t brought up much earlier. Trump’s ridiculous claim that Blasey Ford, or her parents, would obviously have gone to the police 36 years ago if the incident had really happened, can be easily dismissed. My own childhood tells me that my parents would be the last people I would confide in at that age, were I a witness to such events, nor would I or the girls I knew at the time have reported such behaviour to the police. Not a chance. My guess is that conservative upper-class, reputation-obsessed kids would be far less likely to expose themselves and their families to the opprobrium of having played any part in such activities, however unwittingly, than mere human dross such as myself. 

Again, as time went by, these young women would have been concerned to preserve their reputations at least until those reputations were well-established. It’s notable that of the three female complainants who have been named in the press, Christine Blasey Ford is now a widely published professor of psychology at Palo Alto University and a research psychologist at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Julie Swetnick has worked in Washington in the public and private sectors, and ‘has held several government clearances, including with the State Department and the Justice Department’.Deborah Ramirez works for the Boulder County housing department in Colorado and has worked with a domestic violence organisation, for which she remains on the board. All three appear to be highly credible, and have far far more to lose than to gain in coming forward in this way – sometimes reluctantly.  Finally, I don’t see the fact that these women have come out about these allegations recently as a trap. The ‘Me Too’ movement, the fact that the object of these serious allegations is on the verge of becoming a very powerful Supreme Court Justice, as well as pressure from the press and from friends and family previously confided in, have all doubtless played their part. In any case, the question of whether these allegations are true is far more important than their timing. And that brings me to the response of Kavanaugh. I’ll focus on that in my next post.


Written by stewart henderson

September 30, 2018 at 9:30 pm

Posted in Congress, Donald Trump, politics

Tagged with , , ,