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Saturday, February 17, 2018

Democracy and Its Discontents [feedly]

Democracy and Its Discontents

How Democracies Die 
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt 
Penguin Random House

Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic 
David Frum 

The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It 
Yascha Mounk 
Harvard University Press

This article will appear in the Spring 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.

Throughout the four and a half decades of the Cold War, the consoling myth of the self-styled Free World was that democratic politics constituted the end point of political evolution. It was an article of faith that once the blighted societies on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain attained democracy, the "end of history" would commence, as Francis Fukuyama memorably put it in 1989. Political contestation would not disappear, but the battle henceforth would be about mere "economic calculation" and "the endless solving of technical problems" rather than fundamental political ideology.

That things haven't worked out quite as Fukuyama imagined is the common theme of the three books under review. All three take as their fundamental premise the idea that democracy, far from being a stable and all-but-irreversible political regime, is instead fragile, perpetually vulnerable, and prey to both internal pathologies and external enemies.

It is no mystery why anxiety about the stability of democracy is rampant today. Throughout the West, countries that used to think of themselves as paragons of "advanced democracy" are facing challenges to their established political systems—challenges mounted not by restive militaries or militant revolutionaries but by broad segments of their own citizenry.

These challenges are often grouped under the label "populist" or "populist-authoritarian" or "nationalist-populist" or "far-right populist." None of these terms is quite satisfactory. After all, the foundation of democracy is what Tocqueville called "the dogma of popular sovereignty." Populists claim to speak for the People while denouncing the rest as "elites" or "aliens" or both. If a populist movement succeeds in attracting a majority of adherents, does it not have the right to rule as it sees fit? Is that not the very meaning of democracy?

No, reply the proponents of liberal democracy. Unfettered majority rule can all too easily turn into majoritarian tyranny, as Tocqueville warned (and as our constitutional Founders appreciated); or, worse, it can become a mask for the rule of a ruthless minority cloaking itself in a popular mantle. Democracy thus threatens to sap its own foundation, since a sovereign free to do as it pleases—even to the point of tampering with the rules of the electoral system by gerrymandering districts and disqualifying potential voters, appointing biased judges, and silencing critics of its policies—cannot hope to win the acquiescence of the defeated minority. Unless there exists a possibility of alternation between those momentarily in power and those excluded from it, democracy forfeits its legitimacy, even if certain of its outward forms, such as elections, are retained.

Democracy therefore rests on a contradiction. If a democratic system of government is to endure, all parties must acknowledge that the imperative of preserving the rules that define and protect that system takes precedence over the goal of achieving power. Yet at the same time, the quest for power is the parties' very raison d'être. Somehow the thirst for power must be restrained sufficiently to preserve the system itself. For as long as the system survives, the defeated can live to fight another day, but if the system itself is subverted the losers can be deprived of their very right to participate in politics. Hence when the Republicans gathered at their party's 2016 nominating convention indulged their hatred of the opposing party's candidate by shouting in unison, "Lock her up!" many Americans began for the first time in their lives to tremble for the future of their republic, which Benjamin Franklin had warned was theirs only so long as they knew how to keep it.


POLITICAL SCIENTISTS Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to examine just how shaky the foundations of American democracy might be by studying the ways in which democracy has failed in other countries. Their bravura tour d'horizon covers two centuries of democratic histories in all corners of the globe. They find that the preservation of democracy requires two things. First, the political parties that constitute the system need to act as gatekeepers. Men and women who would vie for high office must first be vetted by their collaborators and competitors, people in a position to scrutinize their character and capacity for governance more closely and intimately than the average voter can, at least in the abstract ideal. Parties can also be the locus of corrupt bargains and often were, or they can simply fail in their role as gatekeepers: "When fear, opportunism, or miscalculation leads established parties to bring extremists into the mainstream, democracy is imperiled." Commons

In their book, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt set out to examine just how shaky the foundations of American democracy might be by studying the ways in which democracy has failed in other countries. Here, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speak in 2017. 

Precisely because the parties sometimes fail in their gate-keeping role, a second line of defense is needed. Even if unscrupulous actors circumvent the gatekeepers and succeed in gaining power, they must not be free to change the rules and norms that govern the operation of the system and protect the minority from the arbitrariness of the majority. Without such constraints on the will of the majority, democracy may exist but not liberaldemocracy.

Significantly, the rules that Levitsky and Ziblatt regard as crucial are not the rules and procedures written into the U.S. Constitution, the much-vaunted system of checks and balances in which many Americans, vaguely remembering what they learned in civics class, are wont to place their faith. After detailing the ways in which explicit constitutional safeguards identical to those found in the U.S. Constitution have broken down elsewhere, the authors conclude that something more is needed. "Democracies work best," they write, "where constitutions are reinforced by unwritten democratic norms." Two such norms stand out: "mutual toleration," or recognition of the legitimacy of the opposition, and "forbearance," defined as "restraint" in the exercise of institutional powers.

The two Harvard political scientists are not sanguine about the robustness of these norms in the current political moment. Why not? Because the rot stems, they say, from "extreme partisan polarization" growing out of "an existential conflict over race and culture." Now, any political conflict that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as "existential" runs the risk of turning catastrophic, because rule-breaking is licensed by the assumed imperative of self-preservation.

For right-populist parties today, and not only in the United States, the perceived existential threat is primarily a consequence of demographic change. People fear disruption of the prevailing racial or ethnic hierarchy. In the United States it was Trump advisor Steve Bannon who, more clearly perhaps than the candidate himself, saw the potential of this issue in a country where one party, the Republican, is sustained largely by white votes, while the nonwhite share of the Democratic vote has increased sharply over the past half-century.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A group of President Donald Trump supporters is seen from the media van traveling in the president's motorcade en route to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida

There is a tension in the Levitsky-Ziblatt book between these two strands of the argument, norm-breaking on the one hand and existential crisis on the other. "Existential" issues of race and culture will always entail norm-breaking in the name of self-preservation, or else lead to compromise at the expense of minority groups. In the past, the parties have opted to preserve tolerance of opposing views and forbearance in the use of the powers of office, to be sure, but arguably at the expense of democratic fairness rather than in support of it.

As Levitsky and Ziblatt duly note, this was the case at the end of the 19th century, when Reconstruction was ended by a tacit agreement between Northern politicians prepared to tolerate Jim Crow in the South and Southern conservatives prepared to compromise on economic questions in return for the opportunity to restore the racial and class hierarchies they believed fundamental to their way of life. In the same period, similar unwritten norms countered the democratic thrust of the nascent workers' movement. This was reinforced by Supreme Court majorities wedded to a concept of "freedom of contract" inimical to organized labor and law enforcement policies with similar effect.

Like Levitsky and Ziblatt, Alexis de Tocqueville knew that the survival of democracy depended on more than written constitutions and formal legislation. "Laws matter less than mores," he wrote. Mores: an interesting choice of word (the French is moeurs). By it, Tocqueville meant not just "habits of the heart," such as the mutual toleration and forbearance invoked by the two scholars, but "the whole range of ideas that shape habits of mind … the whole moral and intellectual state of a people."

Tocqueville's notion of mores, while capacious enough to encompass Levitsky and Ziblatt's tacit norms, is really far broader. The two political scientists focus narrowly on the behavior of politicians and officials, whereas Tocqueville weighed the "whole moral and intellectual state of a people." How Democracies Die is a book with many strengths, but its single-minded focus on norms leaves out other parts of the story. The authors highlight numerous instances in which democracy has been threatened by the trespasses of officials but say little about the moral condition to which a nation must sink in order to tolerate and even incite such misbehavior in high places.

Toward the end of their book, Levitsky and Ziblatt do broaden the focus somewhat to include not just American officialdom but the American people as well. Pessimistically, they quote their Harvard colleague Danielle Allen: "The simple fact of the matter is that the world has never built a multiethnic democracy in which no particular ethnic group is in the majority." Undeterred by the absence of precedent, they resolutely insist, to their credit, that there can be no retreat from efforts to make the American political system more inclusive, no matter how much resentment of demographic change has contributed to the erosion of norms. They observe, further, that "slowed economic growth" has only compounded the anxieties attendant upon the loss of white ethnic superiority. Whatever optimism they can muster then comes down to the hope that by restoring growth and spreading its fruits more equally, racial anxieties can somehow be laid to rest. Weighed against the bleak historical record they set forth in the preceding pages, this seems a thin reed on which to rest the fate of the Republic.


DAVID FRUM, A JOURNALIST and former conservative movement operative turned apostate, has more to say about the decay of American mores in Tocqueville's broad sense of the term. Like Levitsky and Ziblatt, he blames political actors, whose pursuit of power leads to disdain for the norms that sustain the system: "Where constitutional democracy has been lost, it has been lost because political actors have broken its rules … to achieve some immediately urgent goal." But he also blames the "enablers" and "appeasers" of those actors, including a "conservative entertainment complex" that propagandized for an extremist candidate and "a donor elite who funded him" for reasons of self-interest or, as Frum prefers to put it, "plunder." Levitsky and Ziblatt have little to say about the odd symbiosis between plutocracy and populism, which is central to Frum's analysis. As a conservative keen to limit the role of the state, he is appalled by the use of state power for private gain: "Costly as the Trump family was to the presidency, the presidency was correspondingly lucrative to the Trump family" and its friends.

Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Perhaps more clearly than Trump himself, it was his advisor Steve Bannon who saw a political opportunity in the existential fear of demographic change.

Frum does not stop with the class of wealthy buccaneers keen to fill their own pockets, however. They would have been satisfied with any of the Republican hopefuls. To explain why the party went instead for the one candidate who broke the mold, the former Bush speechwriter must look to the base of his own conservative movement. He excoriates the "millions of rank-and-file Republicans" who embraced the norm-busting front-runner. This readiness to acknowledge the alarming decay of "the whole moral and intellectual state of a people" sets Frum apart from the value-neutrality to which political science aspires, and which tends to stress self-interest rather than democratic passions such as the envy and resentment of elites. If this concern with the moral foundations of democracy rather than with its formal and informal institutional arrangements reflects Frum's conservative roots, it also does honor to them.

Among the many sources of resentment that fed 2016's revolt of the masses, Frum singles out a ferocious rejection of political correctness. According to candidate Trump, political correctness "cripples our ability to talk and think and act clearly." The once-silent majority had never really been silent about its disdain for elitist "snowflakes" who refuse to call a terrorist an "Islamic terrorist" or an undocumented immigrant an "illegal alien." In speech where some saw only rank prejudice, others saw a willingness to grapple frankly with salient realities of the day. It proved surprisingly easy to persuade people who felt disrespected for candidly speaking their minds that "liberals were colluding to destroy white Western manhood."


THE TWO BOOKS DISCUSSED thus far have both centered on the dilemma of American democracy in the era of Donald Trump. Levitsky and Ziblatt take an admirably comparative approach, but their primary concern is with the fate of American democracy in light of what has happened elsewhere. Frum writes of American politics with an insider's intimacy. Yascha Mounk's book is different. Born in Germany but now a citizen of the United States, Mounk sees the Trump catastrophe as but the latest in a series of populist uprisings against the status quo ante. Hence the title of his book: The People vs. Democracy.

Since this opposition has sprung up in many countries, there must, Mounk reasons, be a cause common to all. He finds the cause he is seeking in the concept of undemocratic liberalism: "Unnoticed by most political scientists, a form of undemocratic liberalism has taken root in North America and Western Europe. In this form of government, procedural niceties are carefully followed (most of the time) and individual rights are respected (much of the time). But voters have long since concluded that they have little influence on public policy." Provocatively, he adds, "They aren't altogether wrong."

One way of reading this is to take Mounk as seizing the other horn of the dilemma identified by Levitsky and Ziblatt. They worry about what happens to democracy when "procedural niceties"—that is, democratic norms, both formal and informal—are not respected. He worries about what happens when respect for norms serves to mask the denial of democratic voice.

Why has this happened? Mounk singles out three changes in the environment in which liberal democracy flourished after World War II. First, the economic growth that sustained the expansion of the welfare state has ended. Wages have stagnated across the developed world, and inequality has increased. Globalization has limited the ability of nation-states to deliver healthy growth. Legislative bodies have been reduced to impotence as what limited economic sovereignty remains has been shifted to the executive or to supposedly independent entities such as central banks when not simply ceded to supranational bodies such as the European Commission. Furthermore, lobbying by economic interests has infiltrated all these institutions, whose decisions are increasingly captive to will of powerful economic actors rather than responsive to the will of the people. All these changes have undermined liberal democracy from within, yielding what Mounk dubs, with appealing symmetry, undemocratic liberalism.

Abetting the corrosive effects of undemocratic liberalism is what the author calls illiberal democracy. This is the cultural side of the reaction to globalization. If undemocratic liberalism thrives on the free movement of goods and capital, illiberal democracy stems from the free movement of people, which forces once-homogenous nations to contend with the influx of people whose language, religion, culture, and habits of mind and heart—Tocqueville's mores—are unlike those of the native population.

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

Then-candidate Donald Trump turns around to supporters behind him as he speaks before a crowd in Phoenix in 2015. 

The final threat to liberal democracy comes, according to Mounk, from the internet. Democratic politics flourishes best where there is a shared civic culture. The rapid spread of social media via the internet has meant that people no longer need expose themselves to views not consonant with their own. Their prejudices, never challenged, grow unimpeded in this hothouse environment.

This picture of what has happened to Western democracy is no less dire for being familiar. Mounk may concede more to the populist critique than he has to or should, however. For example, he acknowledges that "the case for taking so many policy decisions out of democratic contestation may be perfectly sound. … Undemocratic liberalism may have great benefits, but that doesn't give us a good reason to blind ourselves to its nature." But what is its nature, exactly? Surely the reliance—and perhaps over-reliance—on technocracy stems in part from the recognition that the democratic will is often as inscrutable as the Delphic oracle when it is not outright self-contradictory. People want their medical costs to be paid for when they are sick but don't want to pay insurance premiums when they are healthy. They want excellent schools yet resist paying taxes to support them. They want the benefits of low-cost imports yet also want jobs in industries that shift production to low-wage countries in order to remain competitive (as well as line the pockets of their shareholders).

Especially in Europe, the rise of technocracy was in part a response to the previous wave of populism, fueled by the perception that the European economy could continue to compete globally only if it could achieve economies of scale engineered by experts in Brussels. Mounk's category of undemocratic liberalism leaves no room for distinguishing between the more social democratic European Commission of Jacques Delors and the conservative one of José Manuel Barroso. During what the book portrays as the golden age of liberal democracy, which coincides with the 30 years after World War II to which the French refer as les trente glorieuses, France was arguably the very embodiment of undemocratic liberalism: a dirigiste state run by a technocratic elite guided by a strong executive with little input from a docile and subservient parliament. In retrospect, the considerable opposition that this regime aroused at the time can be portrayed as reasonable and constrained, democratic and rational rather than populist and irrational. But only in retrospect—at the time, it was denounced by opponents as authoritarian and hypernationalist and contested vigorously in the streets in May 1968. Mounk concludes with a series of policy recommendations that he believes will assist in re-asserting democratic control over the technocrats without ceding too much ground to their critics. Liberal democrats should confront populists on their home terrain. As an expatriate and citizen of the world, he formerly thought that nationalism's virulence could be quelled, but he has come to see nationalism as a powerful and permanent influence in human affairs. Liberal democrats should therefore embrace what he calls "inclusive patriotism," seeking to use the powerful emotions and symbols associated with the nation-state to advance their cause. Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama serve as examples of how this can be done. So does Emmanuel Macron, whose Marseille speech extolling the composite nature of the French nation Mounk salutes. Unmentioned, however, is the policy line that Macron has followed since that speech, which emphasizes more stringent conditions on political asylum and accelerated deportation proceedings for immigrants who do not meet the requirements.

Indeed, Macron is a good test case for Mounk's nostrums. Is he a liberal democrat or rather a complex blend of technocrat, pragmatic politician, and skilled rhetorician capable of mobilizing the rhetoric of inclusive patriotism on one occasion, of entrepreneurial capitalism on another, and of national grandeur on still another? There is a danger, I think, of allowing "liberal democracy" to become a value-laden term conveying broad approval without analytical purchase. What the current moment demands is insight like Tocqueville's into the way in which successful democracies rely on a blend of contradictory ingredients, not all of which can be labeled "democratic." Indeed, it was the heart of Tocqueville's argument that a successful democracy must incorporate elements of its opposite, which he called "the aristocratic social state." Conditions have changed since Tocqueville's time, and so has the precise blend of contrary components required to hold the centrifugal forces of the democratic social state in check. Each of these books reveals in its own way a part of democracy's contemporary predicament, but much work remains to be done to elucidate the conundrum of the present moment.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Bachtell: Trumpian threat to democracy raises stakes for 2018 elections [feedly]

Trumpian threat to democracy raises stakes for 2018 elections

The American people face a crisis of governance and threat to democracy unlike any in our history. The stakes couldn't be higher in the outcome of the 2018 elections.

Trump's release of the so-called Nunes memo and his blocking of the Democrat's rebuttal is the latest attempt by Trump, his family and closest associates to obstruct the investigation into his crimes being led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump views the Mueller investigation and its accumulation of evidence as a fundamental threat to his power. Another document compiled independently by investigative journalist Cody Shearer confirms much of the infamous contents of the Steele dossier including compromising information Russian officials may be using to blackmail Trump and his corruption and criminality.

The Nunes memo named after Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), chair of the House Intelligence Committee was widely discredited. This is the latest stunt by Nunes who has abetted Trump's obstruction all along.

The memo's release was coordinated with the right-wing mass media and leaders of the Republican Party who have also abetted the obstruction from the start (recall Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's refusal during the 2016 election to sign a bi-partisan statement condemning Russian interference).

There are indications social media bots originating in Russia independently helped promote the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign.

Using the Nunes memo, Trump aims to oust Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who is overseeing the Mueller investigation. He can then appoint someone who will fire Mueller.

The push to get rid of Rosenstein is part of a wider purge across governmental agencies that include the resignation of career officials who have resisted or don't want to be associated with Trump's policies. The danger is they will be replaced with so-called "alt-right" fanatics.

Other recent incidents reflect Trump's mindset including his charge that Democratic elected officials were treasonous for not clapping during the SOTU and his demand for a military parade in Washington D.C.

These pronouncements may sound preposterous to any reasonable person, but they resonate with his mass base that embrace the lies and hate.

It's not unthinkable that Trump and his allies including white supremacists, misogynists, immigrant haters, climate deniers, militarists and fascists, would manufacture a provocation to end the investigation and abolish democratic rights.

This is a dangerous moment. If Trump succeeds in firing Mueller, the nation will face a constitutional and democratic crisis of a new magnitude.

This is a test for the American people and our long history of opposing tyrants and upholding the truth. It is a test of our traditions of extending democratic rights and the resiliency of existing democratic institutions and norms, checks and balances.

What we learned from Watergate

Richard Nixon attempted to place his presidency above the law when he carried out the Saturday Night Massacre during the Watergate Scandal. His administration was dubbed the "imperial presidency" when the executive branch trampled on democratic norms and acted as if they were accountable to no one.

Trump's similar efforts to put himself above the law have occurred over an extended period with the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and then FBI Director James Comey, the forced resignation of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and his on-going efforts to fire Mueller.

Trump's actions constitute key characteristics of U.S. – style authoritarianism: the purveyance of "alternative facts" and fear of "the other," the attempt to purge any resistance, the escalating concentration of power in an unaccountable presidency and steps to dismantle government for the social good and efforts by the Republican Party to institutionalize single-party rule.

Trump poses an unprecedented threat. That such a figure has appeared on the U.S. political scene should come as no surprise. It is the rotten fruit of decades of economic and political developments accompanying the rise of the extreme right.

Wealth and power have become concentrated in an oligarchic capitalist class or the .1 percent. U.S. politics is marked by hyper-polarization. Democratic institutions are under assault especially from extreme right political movements and their support base among the most reactionary fractions of capital in the financial, fossil fuel and military industries. A highly developed right-wing mass media infrastructure propagates racism, misogyny, anti-immigrant hate, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and militarism and holds sway over tens of millions.

And now the Oval Office is openly aligning the GOP with once on the edge American-style fascist elements.

Fascism has traditionally been defined as the open, terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary sections of finance capital under which all democratic rights are eliminated. The history of Nazi Germany reminds us that to prevent fascism from gaining power, a broad united front must resist at every point the assault on the rule of law and the penetration of divisive and fascist ideological poisons.

U.S. style fascist ideology has specific features and characteristics rooted in the development of U.S. capitalism These include white supremacy and racial oppression rooted in slavery, misogyny, nativism, anti-working class "rugged individualism," anti-science attitudes, single super power chauvinism, the glorification of violence and U.S. military power in the service of imperialism. It builds on the presence of the military in daily life and culture, the saturation of guns and deadly mass shootings, an extensive right-wing media and Evangelical movements, among others.

The 2018 elections are the main arena where the fight to defend democracy and the role of collective action, including government for the social good is currently being waged. By electing Democratic majorities in Congress and state legislatures, the American people can ensure that the investigations, which objectively challenge creeping fascism, continue. The American people can put the brakes on the corporate assault on democratic institutions and rights, peace and the environment. We can block the defunding of social programs and governmental agencies.

We can block the Republican Party's efforts to institutionalize single party rule.

United resistance, fissures and institutional interests

An unrelenting democratic resistance has sharpened the political and democratic crisis precipitated by the Trump administration and its Republican enablers. It has been intensified by the Mueller investigation.

The resistance includes millions protesting and organizing at the grassroots. It includes the Democratic Party. It even includes institutions within the capitalist superstructure, which are under assault including parts of the mass media and an independent judiciary.

It also includes those fractions of the capitalist class in conflict with the extreme right for example in the tech sector and parts of finance capital. It includes fissures between the Trump administration and intelligence and law enforcement agencies and military, however temporary and self-serving, which also contribute to the resistance hindering Trump's attempts to consolidate total power.

In building a united front against authoritarianism and fascism, every rift within ruling circles and the state apparatus should be welcomed and taken advantage of.

Take for example the conflict between Trump and the FBI and intelligence community. While these institutions are part of the state security apparatus they also constitute centers of power with specific institutional histories, cultures, contradictions and interests.

By their very nature the FBI and intelligence agencies have been incubators for extreme right and fascist tendencies, which have been alternatively resisted or used by presidential administrations.

Trump would like to purge these agencies of anyone who resists his authority. At this moment, the Trump conspiracy with the Russian government and criminal mafia oligarchs is a direct challenge to the U.S. state security apparatus. Those resisting Trump within the intelligence community see him undermining its ability to function. Here are two examples of Trump's actions that are riling those agencies:

Trump shared classified information with Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting. He thus exposed a highly classified Israeli intelligence operation;
The intelligence community was originally tipped off to the Russia-Trump campaign conspiracy by Dutch intelligence, which had penetrated Russian hacking operations and was following the Russian government penetration of the Democratic National Committee. It appears the Dutch were deliberately exposed by Trump to protect the Russian hacking operation.

The institutional bureaucracy of the U.S. intelligence community is alarmed by these developments. They feel it compromises their relationships with intelligence agencies of allied countries.

Trump's war with the intelligence agencies and FBI along with the acquiescence of GOP elected officials is ironic because the GOP portrays itself as the "law and order" party. The GOP base is now more negative toward the FBI.

According to historians Trump's open war with the FBI is unprecedented and an effort to force the FBI to do its bidding. Trump couldn't attack the investigation without attacking the institution of the FBI itself, divorcing himself from a force that in other circumstances might have been a reliable ally.

The origins of the FBI date to the post World War I era and the suppression of the radical upsurge in labor, left and revolutionary movements including preventing the birth of the CPUSA.

Authoritarianism, white supremacy and misogyny are part of the agency's institutional DNA. Its entire history, especially under J. Edgar Hoover, is associated with criminal conduct. Its sordid history includes murders, collaboration with the Mafia, harassment and suppression of labor, civil rights, social justice movements, the left, disruption of the Black Panther Party, involvement in the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and JFK, COINTELPRO, etc.

The FBI's professed function is law enforcement including against counterterrorism, financial crimes, espionage, drug trafficking, etc. Even though the law enforcement community leans strongly to the right, there is a struggle between extreme right and more moderate factions over upholding democratic norms.

For example, Mueller, Comey and FBI Director Christopher Wray are all registered Republicans. But all three were involved in dramatic efforts to block the Bush administration from renewing the program authorizing surveillance on American citizens, which they stated was unconstitutional.

On the other hand, during the 2016 election right-wing elements in the FBI illegally leaked information about the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails to Rudy Giuliani.

Thus prior to the election, Clinton's emails were investigated while criminal activity by Trump and his associates weren't including the suppression of the Steele Dossier.

In addition, right-wing FBI agents in its New York office conspired with Giuliani and Erik Prince and a right wing network in the New York Police Department to force Comey to reopen the Clinton email investigation days before the election. Trump later appointed Prince's sister, Betsy DeVos, to the position of Secretary of the Department of Education.

Opinions differ on how much this move contributed to Clinton's defeat but according to FiveThirtyEight analysis of polling data the Comey letter "probably cost Clinton the election".

The FBI and intelligence community can in no way be counted on to save democracy. But these criminal actions give an idea how the FBI and other governmental agencies would function if Trump were able to purge them of resistance and bring them totally into the service of consolidating his power.

This is why ousting the GOP and Trump is vital. Electing a Congress and administration that will keep these agencies in check and ultimately reform and abolish them is a key radical democratic task.

Democracy and national sovereignty

Defense of national sovereignty is also at stake. National sovereignty is a basic democratic issue for the U.S. and every country. It is a separate issue from the long and shameful imperialist policies of U.S. government interference in elections, overthrowing elected governments and undermining of national sovereignty of other countries. These policies serve the interests of the U.S. capitalist class, which rakes super profits from plundering and exploitation of people around the world.

Nevertheless, an attack on the democratic institutions of our country – specifically our electoral system – in the interests of capitalists from another country are also against the interests of both our working class and that of the other country and are wrong.

The American working class and people are already up against powerful capitalist oligarchic, corporate and right wing forces undermining our democratic institutions. We're up against limitless money, voter suppression, gerrymandering and a program of systematically reducing the power of organized labor. In addition, trade pacts dominated by global capital establish tribunals that can override national governments and laws.

What measure of democracy the American people have achieved has been the result of constant battles: Bill of Rights, abolition of slavery, collective bargaining, voting rights for African Americans, Native Americans and other people of color and women, direct election of U.S. Senators, marriage equality, environmental protection, etc. have all been achieved only as a result of bitter struggle. Defending these democratic gains is part of the class struggle; it's upon these achievements that further democratic advances will be won.

In spite of the fact that the U.S. is an imperialist power and the U.S. government and electoral system are dominated by capitalist class interests, the American people will not be won to the fight for democracy except on the basis of love of country and true working class patriotism including the appreciation for all that has been won. Defense of democratic institutions, including the U.S. electoral system and national sovereignty are basic democratic issues affecting the U.S. working class and people.

There is a valid concern that anti-Russian hysteria could facilitate a new Cold War. But the sources of this danger are reactions to Russia as a capitalist rival, sharpened geo-political competition and what may be the beginning of a new global nuclear arms race.

Russia is a capitalist state with an authoritarian government and its domestic and foreign policy serves the interests of its capitalist oligarchy, not the Russian people. Our fire should be directed at our own ruling class first of all, but also against the Russian capitalists, many of who are ex-communists who looted the nation's wealth. Their actions of interference have adversely impacted the conditions of the class and democratic struggle here. On this basis, the U.S. working class and people have common cause with the working class and people of Russia who are under the boot of that regime.

The Mueller Probe and Trump crimes

There are five known threads in the Mueller investigation. Four people have been charged and more indictments are expected. The plea deals are aimed at gaining testimony against people at the center of the conspiracy, i.e. Trump, his family and close associates.

After a year of investigation by Mueller, the mass media and the army of patriotic civilian journalists, the extent of Trump's criminality and the conspiracy with Russia' ruling circles in the 2016 elections is becoming clearer.

The goal of the Russian government and oligarchs was to help elect a U.S. president who would end economic sanctions imposed by the Obama administration after Russia occupied the Crimea in response to a U.S.-inspired coup in the Ukraine. The sanctions initially exacerbated the economic crisis caused by collapse of global oil prices.

The quid pro quo for the promise to end sanctions was the pledge to supply dirt on Clinton and to conduct a social media disinformation campaign.

Russian hackers targeted election systems in twenty-one states or nearly half the country in 2016. Only a handful were successfully penetrated, and Illinois is the only state to has acknowledge it was compromised. There is no evidence any votes were changed.

Some 126 million people were exposed to Facebook ads and posts during the election through hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that promoted anti-Clinton messages. These posts became feeding grounds for anti-Clinton conspiracy theories and hoaxes including "fake news" on Election Day.

Estimates of the reach of the disinformation campaign range from less than one-tenth of one percent of posts to an estimate that social media bots originating in Russia generated 18 percent of Twitter traffic.

"At least a third of pro-Trump tweets during the election came from bots, and half of Trump's most engaged Twitter followers are bots," reported Think Progress.

There is no way to fully measure the extent of the influence. Campaigns including fake events, memes and petitions also targeted Black Lives Matter, immigration, and LGBTQ activists, and promoted rumors about the Clintons. All were aimed at driving wedges in the anti-right coalition.

While the emails stolen from the DNC, Podesta and Clinton didn't reveal anything truly damaging, they helped shape the impression Clinton had something to hide.

Mueller is also investigating the role played by Wikileaks. The timing of the email dumps by Wiki Leaks was impeccable – on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, they were calculated to do maximum damage to the unity of Clinton and Sanders forces.

Indications are Wikileaks coordinated with the Russian government to spread the Clinton and Podesta emails.

Mueller is also investigating if Cambridge Analytica, the data firm owned by Robert Mercer, the right wing oligarch backing Trump and Breitbart News, coordinated with Russian officials to target voters with their disinformation campaign.

Therefore, it's vital the investigation continue until the truth is fully known. The outcome of the 2018 elections will determine the fate of the investigation. We should do all we can to ensure a victory, because it will be a defense of democracy and step toward ultimately ridding the government of the authoritarian and fascist menace.


 -- via my feedly newsfeed

Sam Webb: Mass killings, Trump, and some loose ends

Mass killings, Trump, and some loose ends

Sam Webb

1. I find it hard not to despair at moments like this, but I also can't help but feel anger at the Republican Party and the NRA that over and over have prevented any, even the most mild, measures to institute gun control and other steps that will cut down on this senseless slaughter of children, teachers, and other innocent people. What they offer in the wake of yesterday's mass shooting, instead, is what they have offered on earlier occasions when gun violence stole away the lives of innocent people — their prayers and perhaps a conversation at a later date. That's it.

When nothing happened after Sandy Hook, I concluded that gun control legislation was dead-on-arrival as long as this retrograde gang is in control of Congress. And with Trump in the White House, the obstacles only become bigger. The craven dependency of both to the NRA and their own retrograde politics are an effective barrier to any solutions, including common sense gun laws, to the reoccurring cycle of mass killings. And this will continue to be the case until we elect a Congress that is committed to meaningful steps to address this national crisis. This fall we have that opportunity. Let's seize it by electing a Democratic Party majority in both chambers of Congress.

2. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the extreme right began its ascendancy in the Republican Party and became a wrecking ball in U.S. politics. Too many on the left, however, awash in the contemporary language of neoliberalism and influenced to a degree by sectarian notions from the sixties, didn't get this. It didn't register on their radar screen. What did was a critique that saw the two parties as nothing more than "two peas in a pod." And whatever differences existed between them were not worth noting.

This analytical-strategic blind spot turned this grouping of the left into passive observers of one election cycle after another. Meanwhile, right wing extremists were of a different mind. They planted themselves squarely on the terrain of "bourgeois" politics and its electoral cycles. For them it was anything but a spectacle. Indeed, they seized this terrain and catapulted themselves from the edges of power into its main corridors. In so doing, they shifted the balance of power in Washington and nationally in favor of the most reactionary class and social forces in the country.

This new constellation of anti-democratic power should have been obvious to any observer of politics long ago. But for some on the left, it was only with the election of Trump — an authoritarian president, enjoying the near uncritical support the Republican Party — that some melting away of these flawed positions began.

To what extent? Well, the elections this fall, in which the overriding challenge is to elect a Democratic Party majority in the Senate and House, will provide a pretty good answer to that question. Let's hope the melt is extensive. We need every hand on deck if we hope to turn the possibility of a Democratic wave election into a reality.

3. Perhaps it is obvious, but the outcome of the elections in November won't be decided in cities like Berkeley or Cambridge or San Francisco or Los Angeles or New York. It will be decided elsewhere – in states like Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Illinois as well as congressional districts that are purple or red and have to be flipped if the Democrats are to become a majority in both chambers of Congress.

In other words, Democrats have to score big in states and congressional races in which the politics aren't as liberal, the demographics not as favorable, and the districts gerrymandered to favor Republicans. In normal times, that might be a insurmountable hurdle. But these times are anything but normal. So much so that the structural advantages that the Republicans enjoy going into the fall elections could dissipate in the face of an unpopular authoritarian president, a Democratic Party intent on making major electoral gains, and the surging energy of women and a larger opposition that resists narrow boundaries.

4. I hear said that Trump embraces and practices the politics of victimization and resentment. No quarrel here. But it would also mention in the same breath two other things: First, these same politics have animated the right for decades ago. Indeed, they have been the grease that catapulted it to positions of power in Washington and in a majority of state capitals.

At the same time, it would be a mistake to see Trump as simply a continuation of these politics. His sense of victimhood and resentment are unapologetic, unconcealed, and unconstrained. Moreover, he speaks for a mass political constituency that viscerally shares his sense of resentment and victimization. Not least, the logic of his politics, evident in his nearly daily lacerations to the fabric of our democracy, could lead, if not challenged, to authoritarian rule – that is a qualitative break from the historically constituted norms, values, and practices of democracy and democratic governance of our country.

Luckily, the elections this fall give the American people an opportunity to rollback his assault, coauthored with his Republican counterparts in Congress.

The other thing I would say is that the politics of resentment and victimization (and I would add the politics of nostalgia) are inseparable from the animus of racism, misogyny, and nativism. It's in their pairing with these particular forms of inequality and oppression that these politics gain their visceral power and tenaciousness, especially among white males.

5. It is said that the fish rots from the head. Well, that is the case in the White House. And last weekend we got another example of this when Trump made no mention the two ex-wives of Rob Proctor who were the victims of sexual violence. At the same time, there are no innocents running around the White House. Whether everyone knew of Porter's history of sexual violence early on is debatable. But it is preposterous to think that the main principals, including Trump, didn't. Moreover, the footprints of most of the staff are evident in the subsequent coverup and attempts to discredit Porter's ex-wives.

At some level, one has to wonder if their thinking is that Porter's ex-wives got what they deserved. After all, Porter is a "man of great integrity."

6. The unified Korean delegation marching into the stadium for the opening of the Olympics was an impressive. and hopeful sight. We can only hope that it leads to further steps to ease tensions on the peninsula and in the region. Of course, little help can be expected from the Trump White House. And if you wanted some evidence, albeit symbolic, of its posture toward the thawing of relations, it was on display when Pence sat stone faced and with his hands at his side as the Koreans walked in as one.

7. It strikes me that to reduce the Mueller investigation and the heated controversy around the FBI to simply an intra-class conflict in which each side is pursuing some narrow class interests and nothing more is shortsighted, notwithstanding being dressed up in the gown of Marxism or Marxism-Leninism, albeit a dogmatic one. Usually, attempts to stuff reality, which is always contradictory, complicated, and novel, into such rigid schemes yield little analytical fruit. It misses more than it captures, and thus can easily mislead politically. The purpose of theorizing is to give us an approach or entry points to understanding reality, not to substitute for or simplify it.

8. Watching the event below hosted by the Obama White House is uplifting, but also very bittersweet, knowing that in the White House today sits someone who is so morally, politically, socially, and culturally retrograde and irredeemable.

John Case
Harpers Ferry, WV

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Gun Makers Are Reeling Even as Threat of Regulation Recedes [feedly]

Gun Makers Are Reeling Even as Threat of Regulation Recedes

Gun Makers Are Reeling Even as Threat of Regulation Recedes - The New York Times

As the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., stokes the national debate over firearms, it may be easy to overlook another major development in the gun world this week.

One of the nation's oldest and largest gun makers, Remington, said it was nearing a bankruptcy filing.

Hit with slumping sales and unable to sell itself, Remington has negotiated a deal with its lenders to cut its debt and keep operating.

Other gun makers are also struggling. Colt completed its trip through bankruptcy last year, while sales and profits at Smith & Wesson's parent company have plummeted and its stock price is sagging. All three companies make a version of the AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, which was used by the killer in Parkland on Wednesday and is the weapon of choice for mass shootings.

The problems demonstrate the paradoxical and tumultuous nature of the gun industry. It has prospered when the prospect of tighter regulations induces people to buy more guns.

And it slumps when that threat of new regulation subsides, as it has done during the Trump administration. President Trump, who has called himself a "true friend and champion" of guns, did not mention gun control in his remarks on Thursday about the Parkland shooting. And many leaders in the Republican-controlled Congress, where gun restrictions have withered over the years, have shown no change of heart in light of this week's school shooting.

"When people feared there would be increased gun regulation, they went out and bought more guns," said Kevin Cassidy, an analyst at Moody's Investors Service, who covers the gun manufacturers.

Declines in the Gun Business

Firearm background checks, often used as a proxy

for firearm sales (for which data is not readily

available), fell farther last year than they had before.

Guns flooded into the American market in the past decade as

manufacturing surged during the Obama administration,

creating an inventory glut that now exceeds slowing demand.

Sales by two of the country's biggest gun

manufacturers declined sharply last year.


Outdoor Brands

Firearm background checks










change in revenue




and other







































Formerly Smith & Wesson

During the Obama administration, F.B.I. background checks on prospective firearms buyers — a rough proxy for sales — surged nearly 50 percent in the month of the Sandy Hook attack in 2012, compared with the same month a year earlier, as calls rang out for tighter legislation. Similarly, the number of background checks swung up more than 43 percent after the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in 2015 and nearly 40 percent after the massacre in Orlando six months later.

But that trend has reversed since Mr. Trump has been in office. In October, when a gunman killed 58 people in Las Vegas and injured hundreds, background checks slumped, falling 13 percent from the same month a year earlier.

Over all, background checks tumbled more than 8 percent last year, the largest fall since the F.B.I. began keeping track in 1998.

"There is no panic buying of guns because there is clearly no threat of federal government action in response to mass shootings that would restrict or regulate firearms," Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, wrote in an email. "The gun lobby can't scare their followers into thinking Donald Trump would sign any piece of gun control legislation as they could under an Obama presidency."

Remington, founded in upstate New York by Eliphalet Remington II in 1816, is the oldest manufacturer of rifles and shotguns in the country.


Continue reading the main story

DuPont, the chemical company, bought a majority share in Remington in 1933, purchased the firearms maker outright in 1980 and then sold it to an investment firm in New York in 1993. The private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management bought the company in 2007 for $118 million and rolled it up with other gun manufacturers into a conglomerate called Freedom Group.

Under Cerberus, the company enjoyed years of expanding gun sales. In 2012, the number of guns made in the United States totaled 8.5 million, more than double the 3.3 million that were produced a decade earlier.

But in December 2012, a gunman walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six adults. When the authorities reported that the gunman had used an AR-15-style rifle made by Remington, public anger focused on the manufacturer.

Gun-control initiatives in the wake of mass shootings used to spur gun purchases, but not lately. Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times

Large investors, like the California State Teachers' Retirement System, began taking steps to divest from the gun maker. Cerberus said it would seek to sell the company.

Despite the public outcry, the fallout from Sandy Hook helped the company's bottom line. Spurred by calls that gun controls were imminent, buyers purchased more Remington firearms, and sales surged 36 percent, to $1.3 billion in 2013, Moody's said.

Some investors may have had objections to Remington, but not everyone. After the Sandy Hook shooting, Remington was able to borrow millions more as gun production boomed, particularly heading into the 2016 presidential election because Hillary Clinton was expected to win and push for tighter gun controls.

The company borrowed $12.5 million from the City of Huntsville, Ala., in 2014 to open up a new plant there. The city has agreed to eventually forgive the loan if Remington meets hiring targets over a number of years, said Chip Cherry, chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Huntsville and Madison County.

Remington also borrowed $175 million to buy out investors that wanted to divest. (Remington has paid out a total of $48 million, according to a company filing.)

The company does not disclose its lenders, but an analysis by Morningstar shows that some of Remington's debt is held in funds managed by JPMorgan Chase. Oppenheimer, the large mutual fund company, also owned some of the bonds issued by Remington, but said it sold its debt holdings last year.

In 2017, Mr. Trump's first year in office, sales fell 27 percent in the first nine months (the most recent data available) from the same period a year earlier. After production was ramped up in expectation of a Clinton presidency, gun inventories have piled up.

On Monday, Remington announced that its lenders had agreed to cut its $948 million debt load by $700 million in exchange for an ownership stake in the company. Analysts said at the time that even with its lower debt, the company still faced a challenging sales environment.

But this week, things are looking up to some on Wall Street. The price of Remington's bonds have increased more than 16 percent since Wednesday — a sign that some investors believe the company has promise.

 -- via my feedly newsfeed