Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 November 2016

Age of Empire


    Alea jacta est” (the die is cast). - Julius Caesar, on crossing the Rubicon River to begin the Great Roman Civcail War, 49 B.C.
In the short, 5,700-year turbulent recorded history of our species, democracy—real democracy—has been a rare thing. The Ancient Greeks had it, but they were only tiny city-states. Ancient Rome had it, but only for a couple of hundred years before imperial civil wars turned it into Empire. Britain had it, but Britain was only a great empire for less than two centuries. And its empire was built on an anomalous and transient phenomenon (colonialism) that allowed it to stay democratic at home and export its authoritarian, militaristic side abroad.

We Yanks claim to have the world’s greatest democracy, but ours has lasted for, at most, 240 years. For the rest of the world and most of the rest of history, empire has prevailed. And we Yanks may be losing our democracy right now.

To understand this, you don’t have to know about all the anti-democratic actions we have tolerated and even fostered for the last two generations. You don’t have to list the extreme gerrymandering, the vote suppression, the disenfranchisement of the poor, elderly and minorities, the enthusiastic acceptance of big money in politics, the filibusters used at 142 the rate during our Golden Age, the individual-senator vetoes known as Senate “holds,” the so-called “Hastert Rule” that allows minority vetoes in the House, the recent invitations of one candidate to his supporters to jail or kill another, or the plan to keep the Supreme Court, the lower courts and the Executive understaffed for years at a time.

All you have to do is look at Tuesday’s winner, who has benefitted from all of these ploys and fostered some of them, and who is now our president-elect in large measure because of them. All you have to do is watch his victory speech. Sure, Donald began by reaching out to the entire nation, with promises to rebuild infrastructure, create jobs, and take better care of our veterans. He neglected to mention his Wall (which supposedly Mexico will pay for) or his 35% tariffs, which had been the centerpieces of his campaign. Gone, at least for the moment, was the hyper-combative personality that had defined him and his “charisma” for the last eighteen months.

In short, to know Donald as our first emperor, all you had to do was to recall all he was, is and has been. And one more thing: you had to watch the bizarre ceremony at the end of his victory speech, in which he gave “thanks” to his cronies and sycophants, many of whom had fought him gamely and bitterly before jumping on his bandwagon.

There they were—Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie, Jeff Sessions, and Reince Priebus—called up to the stage like a celebrity’s flunkies to enjoy fulsome praise and a big-man’s embrace that said “I’m the emperor now! You will be on my team, and you will like it.”

You could imagine a closely similar scene having played out before the Roman Senate, or in the Roman Forum, as Nero, Caligula or (with much greater skill) Caesar gave the people notice who would be his viceroys and enforcers.

Every one of the sycophants Donald introduced (but arch-nebbish Priebus) was and is noted for his vindictiveness, from heading a team that closed down bridge lanes, to massive Senate holds, to over-the-top political back-stabbing. So in that simple ceremony Donald let us all know that the code of Frank Underwood will be the rule of politics in his administration. He even praised the Secret Service as his own Praetorian Guard. (He didn’t have to mention the millions of gun-toting Southerners who helped him win and now expect his aid to gain the right to carry their weapons openly in public, perhaps in paramilitary formation.)

But please don’t think we Yanks are alone. The same process of building empires by combing and purging is going on with a vengeance today in Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, Erdogan’s Turkey, Al-Sisi’s Egypt and even (more subtly) in Abe’s Japan. Outside of Donald Rumsfeld’s “Old Europe,” the people in their wisdom (or apathy) have found the steady but slow processes of democracy too wearing. They don’t want to govern themselves or even to think seriously about doing so. They just want a strong man who’ll promise to keep them safe and to do their planning and thinking for them. Here at home, it didn’t even seem to matter that the winner has absolutely no experience in doing that kind of thinking and planning, let alone with demonstrable success.

What we are seeing today, worldwide, is a monstrous step backward in our social evolution to the simplicity of our biological evolution: tribalism and the Alpha Male. Against this vast, regressive historical tide, the plea of a deeply flawed woman to lead the world’s most powerful nation fell on deaf ears, even among her own gender. College-educated white women, although supposedly among Hillary’s electoral bastions, apparently just couldn’t be bothered to go out and vote for her, at least not at the same rate as they had done for Obama. The same could be said of African-Americans and Hispanics: their much-vaunted “registration revolutions” pooped out.

So what happens next? How quickly does the trend toward empire manifest itself in America? How quickly does the pale, minority-rule democracy we now have convert itself into empire? How quickly does Donald reveal his true colors and act on them?

Our American Democracy is not without weapons to defend itself. Our Founders gave us numerous checks and balances, including impeachment.

The House handles impeachment, and it requires only a simple majority. That fact bodes ill for extreme moves by Donald, who has some supporters of convenience but no real allies or friends in Congress. His rough and tumble path to the top made many enemies. If he goes outside the pale, the Republicans who despise him will unite with almost all the Democrats, who do also, and impeachment will follow.

Whatever their legal trappings, impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate are purely political processes. The vast majority of members of Congress may be lawyers, but what constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is for the House to say and the Senate to confirm, without appeal to any higher or judicial authority. That’s why the House could impeach Bill for getting fellatio from a White House intern and lying about it—hardly a matter of cosmic political or criminal significance.

So if Donald goes too far, the likelihood of his being impeached, convicted and removed from office is high. The problem is that then our President will be Mike Pence, a politician of well-deserved obscurity from the far religious right. In that case, the GOP would still win its “total war” against American democracy and against the freedom and social order than most people in big cities seek and expect. And if Donald’s going too far involved nuclear weapons, it could all be over in four minutes.

As a result, the prospects for anything like English-style democracy in America is growing dimmer by the moment. The GOP minority from the South and the outback is winning its “total war” against progressives and democracy itself. Whereas progressive forces had expected a female chief executive and at least a two-branch sweep (the Executive and the Senate), the exact reverse has occurred. The GOP will now have a three-branch sweep that will enable them to step-up their total war on democracy, including gerrymandering, big-money politics, and vote suppression. (For the moment, they won’t have to rely on minority rule, filibusters, Senate holds, the “Hastert Rule” in the House, or threats not to fill Executive and Judicial appointments.)

Impeaching Trump will not halt this process. It may even accelerate it. So we humans soon may realize Orwell’s dark dreams of a tripartite imperial world, composed of great US, Chinese and Russian empires draining their creativity and disposing of their respective rebels in perpetual low-level tribal wars.

In fact, it’s entirely possible that the Russian empire may already have begun—and won—such a low-level war by “hacking” the election just concluded. Virtually every expert and pollster had predicted a far different outcome, and the centers of difference came from unexpected groups and precincts. These facts at least raise the suspicion of some sort of hacking. Yet Nate Silver (the pundit who kens probabilities most) gave trump at least a 25% chance of winning, and I myself had noted several sources of possible systematic bias in polling.

It wouldn’t be hard to verify or reject the hypothesis of Russian hacking. All the investigators would have to do is to look at the counties and precincts with the most anomalous and unexpected results. If those counties and precincts relied heavily on electronic voting, with no paper records (as many American precincts do), there would be a prima facie case of electronic hacking, which could then be investigated more thoroughly and in detail.

But to what end? If Russia actually did the deed and swayed this election, what could we do about it? A mere investigation, let alone an attempt to unwind what Donald’s faction sees as a clear albeit unexpected victory, would probably create far more chaos and discord than did the Bush-Gore debacle of the year 2000. So, if Russia actually did hack our vote, it may have achieved its primary goal—sowing chaos among us—regardless of whether or not the hacked election results stick. Nevertheless, as we Yanks begin to slide into empire, wouldn’t it be nice to know whether we are doing it on our own, or with an imperial Russian push?

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