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Un-Conventional Wisdom

Democratic-National Convention-2016-Eric-SchnurerIt’s been quite a two weeks. A Turkish friend started IM’ing me from Istanbul as the coup attempt against President Erdogan broke out, and our text conversation continued in “real time” throughout that dramatic night and into the next few days.

The next week, the Democratic National Convention convened here in Philadelphia and quickly consumed all my time: One US Senator decided to make my house his own B&B and then insisted I stay out until 2 a.m. listening to his favorite band – and, in return, unexpectedly gave me floor credentials.

One of the final-night speakers contacted me out of the blue and asked me to redraft her prime-time speech on a few hours’ notice. I met with three 2018 gubernatorial candidates about policy, and ran into countless old friends from all over the country – it was a great time. Then the next day, I had the opportunity to meet with journalists from Pakistan and female political leaders from Afghanistan to discuss the convention and the upcoming elections. The results of all this are below: three new articles – on the Turkish coup (sorta), the current election, and its potential aftermath.

Yesterday’s piece in US News & World Report – The Other Half of America — synthesizing where I think things stand after Donald Trump’s stunning acceptance speech describing America in apocalyptic terms, has already produced a surprising number of insult-filled emails (not like it’s that hard, but you actually have to feel strongly enough about responding to go look up my email address – it’s not in the articles). More people than usual have already re-posted or re-tweeted it. So, it seems to have hit a nerve on both sides. This is becoming increasingly true, with emotions unusually high in this election – as I note in the article, a previous piece provoked a similar Twitter exchange: “When the tweet started with the words, ‘I never heard of u b4,’ I immediately knew this was the rare reader who wasn’t a member of my immediate family and that the exchange wasn’t going to end well.”

The main message of the piece, however, which seems to have gone by both the liberals who like it and the Trump supporters who loathe it, is that while the latter’s “positions may seem counter-factual,”

that’s not how it feels. As a result, they are embracing political and legal positions they once opposed and that liberals once advocated for others. To liberals, this looks like hypocrisy and disingenuousness. But the fact that this means that liberal institutions (and liberal concern) aren’t there for them only makes their anger worse.

My convention piece for Aspenia — A Major Political Realignment Amidst the Confusion —elaborates on this theme, starting with the observation that “Donald Trump has realized Richard Nixon’s vision of making [blue collar] voters the core of the Republican Party, the culmination of a process long in the works, and the party realignment will look something like today’s polling for years to come: a more upscale Democratic Party more libertarian and less inclined to Big Government solutions than in the past, and a Republican Party more solicitous of Big Government programs to help low-to moderate-income voters than the party’s traditional ‘conservatism’ would ever countenance.”

It then urges Hillary Clinton to be like Franklin Roosevelt and “reach[] out to disaffected working Americans with an agenda that speaks to their needs.” It concludes with a warning of the US breaking apart after this election – presaging the beginning of Trump’s warnings several days later that the election will be stolen from him – asserting that, “The main questions are whether this can be headed off now by the ‘newly ascendant’ crafting an agenda for the economically dislocated, as Democrats would have in the past – and, if not, if the resolution comes peacefully or not.” (I was also quoted this week in much the same vein in Governing magazine.)

My article on the Turkish coup — A Predictable Surprise in Turkey —  is similarly somber. It begins and ends, “When the end of democracy came … everyone was surprised.” You can read into it what you want – but read it. While this all might sound rather depressing, I’ve actually been enjoying myself through it all. Hope you are, too.

As always, I welcome your comments below.


‘Political Correctness’ Isn’t the Problem

Make-America-Great-AgainThe major event of the last two weeks, of course, has been the horrific shooting in Orlando. We all are saddened by the senseless loss of life, but the incident predictably turned almost immediately into a political football over the issues of terrorism and firearms. These are important issues, of course – but a lot of the commentary around them glossed over the underlying theme of the Donald Trump/Republican reaction, and of the year’s politics more generally: that the greatest threat facing the country is “political correctness.”

Facially, the “political correctness” argument of the Right suggests that the US has grown weak both abroad and at home because of liberal-induced unwillingness to deal with – or even utter – so-called hard truths, generally critical of people of color. But, as I wrote in my new piece, ‘Political Correctness’ Isn’t the Problem, in US News & World Report yesterday, the real point such polemicists as Trump and Rush Limbaugh want to make is that the militancy of their anger is really the fault of their opponents:

The spread of intolerant liberalism, which ought to be an oxymoron, however, unfortunately gives the Right in this country – which historically embraces the suppression of speech with which it disagrees – a fig-leaf with which to dress itself up as the defenders of the First Amendment.

So, sure, “political correctness” is a problem. But it’s not what’s stoking Islamic fundamentalism.

Rather, it’s become simply an excuse. An excuse to blame one’s opponent for one’s own venality. An excuse to say even more stupid things, and to elect a fundamentally unhinged man as president, just because doing so is politically incorrect.

This is the big problem of 2016. Last week in US News, I tried to address another aspect of it – the attempt to blame all this anger on immigrants, and what can be done to counter that. In How Clinton Can Win Over Trump Voters, I drew on another meeting from my recent Scandinavian trip in which I discussed immigration policy with analysts from the Swedish Social Democrats. As I wrote there,

[T]he angry working class is right to be angry about jobs and wages: Their jobs have been – and continue to be – threatened. But it’s not because a bunch of immigrants have come over here and taken those high-paying manufacturing jobs. It’s because those jobs, to the extent they still exist, have been shipped overseas. Yes, U.S. jobs are threatened by lower-paid foreigners, but abroad, not in the U.S.

I argued that “American workers deserve a platform that combats the real problems” – and tried in the remainder of the piece to sketch one. The other day, the Aspen Institute asked me to lay out a longer and more detailed version of this argument. Look for it in September!

In between, my trip to Sweden and Estonia produced another piece that I didn’t do much to circulate because it came out right before the Orlando shootings. But in Less Government, More Socialism, I returned to several of my favorite themes on the future of government (basically, “it’s complicated”) and the deficiencies in our current political debate (it’s not complicated enough):

In short, our domestic political debate is grossly impoverished by our dichotomy between the competing utopianisms of a country without government and one dominated by it. We in fact are headed toward a world with a lot less government – and a lot more “socialism.”

And that’s the big problem of the future…. I’ll be discussing it a lot more in articles and posts to come.

As always, I welcome your comments below.




Politics Are Not Recession-Proof

I hope the unofficial arrival of summer has been good where you are. This year, May was an unusually busy, but interesting, month for me. I’m just back from two weeks in Estonia, Denmark, and Sweden on business travel I mentioned in a previous post.

Siim Sikkut, policy advisor to Estonia’s Prime Minister.

With Siim Sikkut, policy advisor to Estonia’s Prime Minister.

Meeting with communications consultants in Sweden.

Meeting with communications consultants in Sweden.







I’ll be reporting on these in a series of articles over the next several weeks — the first of which just appeared yesterday.

Politics Are Not Recession-Proof provides the Cliff Notes version of my presentation at the annual conference of European political consultants in Copenhagen:

[T]he upheaval today – not just in the US, but across the globe – has to be understood as a direct result of the Great Recession and its aftermath. Up until 2008, there was a widely understood social compact: … The Great Recession shattered that consensus for good, destroying the idea that the elites earned their disparate control of the world’s wealth and power…. The aftermath laid bare that the elites not only weren’t all-knowing: They also didn’t have our welfare in mind at all….

In fairness to the clueless elites, today’s dislocations actually are ripples on the surface caused by deeper underlying issues reflected in the technology-driven collapsing of borders, the nation-state, and governments as we know them: These predate the global financial crisis and, while manifested in current upheavals over the economy and immigration, extend far beyond the immediate issues and will be shaping our politics for the next twenty to thirty years.

Just before my trip, I had two other pieces published. How a Third-Party Candidate Can Win surveyed the many bizarre scenarios under the Constitution under which “Republicans determined to stop Trump don’t need to run a national third-party campaign – they just need to run a one-state campaign. Maybe not even that.” My favorite:

In such a crazy environment, the House could actually deadlock in selecting a new president. What would happen then? … The Senate would decide – choosing between … Trump’s and Clinton’s designated running mates…. What if Clinton’s is a centrist senator – Tim Kaine or Mark Warner? What if Trump chooses … someone of potential breakthrough appeal like, say, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada? Members of Congress across chambers and party aisles might agree the Republic is better served by one of them heading a government of national unity and the House, intentionally, just never reaching agreement.

On a more serious note, the Aspen Institute asked me to address the role of think tanks in American politics. Here’s the nub of the piece:

[T]he reality is that liberal think tanks have done nowhere near as much to move the debate as their conservative models. In large part, this is because Democrats viewed their challenge after each disastrous defeat as figuring out how to adjust their positions better to comport with a more conservative political climate; conservatives, in contrast, have viewed the challenge as changing public attitudes to comport with their agenda – and have largely succeeded. Looking at the current presidential campaign, there has been no real attempt by Democrats to challenge, for example, anti-tax “orthodoxy”….

As always, I would love to know your thoughts.  Feel free to comment below!

My presentation in Copenhagen at the conference, "Is Europe ready for the future?"

My presentation in Copenhagen at the conference, “Is Europe ready for the future?”


Where Does The Presidential Campaign Stand?

Presidential Campaign 2016 2I’ve done a lot of writing in the past two weeks, thanks to several invitations from the Aspen Institute’s European branch in Rome, in addition to my regular contributions to US News & World Report. I penned a think piece on think tanks for Aspenia that’s awaiting publication – but meanwhile I contributed an analysis of where the presidential campaign stands.

The primary season: end of the beginning argues that Trump’s chances in November need to be taken much more seriously than many currently accept:

Conventional wisdom asserts that Trump has offended so many groups that make up an ever-larger share of the electorate – minorities and women – not to mention mainstream voters, that, as sports-statistics pioneer Bill James entertainingly wrote on his website, there aren’t enough “morons” for Trump to win. The history of elections the world over undercuts James’ claim.

In part this is because Republicans will make their peace with the party nominee and “come home,” and, for every swing state Trump’s xenophobia takes “out of play,” there’s a larger one that his nativism and misogyny might put back in. But mostly, it’s because of the bet Trump, like countless successful politicians before him, is making about the American public:

[H]e intends to say something different to the rest of us, and count on the two different audiences ignoring what he says to the other. In short, he will run a campaign based on the assumption that there really are enough morons out there. And as a man who conceived a chart-topping reality show, and is widely accepted as a business genius despite going bankrupt repeatedly – well, he may be on to something.

As I argued in The Missing Moral Core of Donald Trump, the real danger posed by Trump is not cynical disrespect for truth – which hardly makes him unique – but rather that

Trump’s argument isn’t amoral – it’s immoral: The Islamic State group beheads people and burns or drowns them in cages. So we should get to torture them and kill their families. It’s unfair that we can’t just because, you know, we have rules against those things….

Those pesky rules. They get in the way of us good people getting to do what the bad people do. We shouldn’t have to live by the rules. Because we’re the good people.

But for most of us, living by the rules is what makes “good people” good people.

Voters of all persuasions have good reasons for the anger at the political class – including well-heeled donors – into which Trump has tapped. But, as my new US News piece  — Supreme Court Cynicism — notes, the Supreme Court appears poised to rule that corruption is essentially just government-as-usual.

At the same time, those in the political arena – including the Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision that essentially allowed unlimited flows of money into politics – insist that campaign contributors aren’t committing bribery because they neither expect nor get anything back in return for their “donations.” Well, you can’t have it both ways: You can’t contend that there isn’t any quid-pro-quo for campaign contributions, on the one hand, and that such “innocent” behavior is indistinguishable from the bribery that anti-corruption laws target.

The Supreme Court’s tone-deafness on this issue reflects part of the growing anger throughout the country with the elites (the other part being uneven economic gains) that has fueled the insurgencies of both Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders — and looks set to continue into the fall and beyond.


Letter from Aspen: Hillary Clinton and Her Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton Hard Choices

Hillary Clinton Hard Choices

Memoirs are subject to something like the law’s “hearsay rule”: They are admissible not for the truth of the statements they contain but for the fact that the declarant said them. This is especially true of former statesmen, writing to frame the judgment on their past actions. It is even truer of those still in the political arena, trying to position themselves for the future. And it is most true of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, which bears the double burden of both justifying the ample and controversial career of someone already an historical figure and simultaneously advancing the anodyne pronouncements of a candidate.

Nevertheless, what the author chooses to reveal about herself is still revealing. The publication of Hard Choices essentially marked the beginning of the former Secretary of State’s pursuit of the presidency – and in many ways, the book and its launch proved to be a doppelganger for the subsequent campaign: Overly ponderous, overly expensive, and overly long, calculatedly unexciting and unintentionally controversial. Yet, if Hillary Clinton is any guide to Hillary Clinton, then the “vast right-wing conspiracy” needn’t be as concerned about a radical President Clinton as it once was. The most significant passage in the book may be this rather insignificant biographical tidbit:

“As a girl in Illinois, I played my share of softball, and one of the lessons that stuck with me was that if you try to hit only home runs, you’ll end up popping out more often than not. But if you also go for singles and doubles, even walks, they can add up to something bigger”.

This isn’t an original idea, and could reflect Clinton’s tactical approach without speaking to any larger strategic vision. What’s striking about Hard Choices, however, is that this appears to be the strategic vision: Whatever her politics, Hillary is, essentially, a tactical, and conservative, thinker. Partially, this is again due to the book’s emphasis on narrative: In relating major world events from the perspective of day-to-day, sometimes hour-to-hour developments, it reflects all too well the reality that those in high government positions rarely get to think deeply and long-term but rather react simply to the crisis du jour. But, consistently, even in those situations Hillary’s is the voice for going slow, for doubts and suspicions – for conservatism: As the Arab Spring erupts and spreads, she longs to join in the enthusiasm and idealism of both President Obama and his aides – which she consistently identifies with youthfulness – but sees more reason to stand with the regimes that have historically served as the cornerstone of US foreign policy. She opens a chapter specifically on the world-changing nature of new technologies with a lengthy denunciation of Wikileaks and, by extension, all the ways in which these technologies are undermining the nation-state.

Again, one can dismiss all this inherent conservatism as promoting other narrative needs – distancing herself from Obama’s Middle East policies, or proving she’s sufficiently patriotic and pro-security to be president. But it’s clear even when Clinton comes closer to articulating a global “vision.”

Like most thinking people on the left today – in fact, like even the military and virtually everyone outside the increasingly hermetic world of Republican politics – Clinton contemplates a much broader conception of US national interest than military might and balance-of-power politics. “I wanted,” she writes at the outset, to deal with a range of emerging challenges that were going to require high-level attention and creative strategies…. I knew there would be traditionalists in the foreign policy establishment who would question whether it was worth a Secretary of State’s time to think about the impact of Twitter, or start programs for women entrepreneurs, or advocate on behalf of American businesses abroad. But I saw it all as part of the job of a 21st-century diplomat.

Well, maybe the first two; “advocating on behalf of American businesses abroad” isn’t exactly a groundbreaking preoccupation for an American diplomat. She starts to give this a more visionary framework, declaring that “now we needed new architecture for a new world, more in the spirit of Frank Gehry than formal Greek classicism. Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, now a dynamic mix of materials, shapes and structures was needed.” This promising metaphor is followed by a list of subjects outside “the traditional work” of foreign policy – social media, pipeline routes, carbon emissions, marginalized groups, human rights, common economic rules – that “would be crucial measures of our national power.”

But just when it appears that Clinton aims to present a “21st-century” vision of America’s national interests, the limits of that vision become clear: Using the au courant term “smart power” to encapsulate all these non-hard (i.e. military) aspects of national strategy, Clinton writes, “For me, smart power meant choosing the right tools [emphasis added] … for each situation,” and, “The goal of smart power and our expanded focus on technology, public-private partnerships, energy, economics, and other areas beyond the State Department’s standard portfolio was to complement more traditional diplomatic tools and priorities, not replace them.” In case this isn’t clear, she provides illustrations of her concept from “our work on Iran”: “We used new financial tools and private-sector partners,” “energy diplomacy [to] help[ ] reduce sales of Iranian oil” and “social media to communicate directly with the Iranian people.” In other words, Clinton seems to envision all of this in the context of rather traditional jostling between traditional states: This is a book about new means, not new ends; about tactics, not strategies; and about new playbooks, not necessarily an entirely new game.

Of course, Hard Choices, intended primarily to highlight its author and her experiences, is inherently backward-looking, and thus only in the book’s final section – 100 of its 600 pages – does it address “The Future We Want.” This future apparently consists of environmental sustainability, Third World development, new communications technology, and human – largely gender – rights. Apart from passing references to Arab countries’ poor treatment of women, and an early mention of “food,” however, the issues on which this volume of Aspenia focuses are otherwise largely absent from the book’s Frank Gehry “architecture.” For instance, the causes of the Arab Spring are nowhere analyzed, other than occasional references to the fact that maintaining corrupt autocratic regimes probably wasn’t a good long-term strategy either for those countries or for the US; almost as soon as such a lull for reflection intervenes, however, we are back to the latest phone call with a foreign minister or meeting with President Obama. Yet, given that almost half the book is given over to problems in Islamic countries (about one-third of that to Afghanistan and Pakistan), one might hope for some deeper analysis of what’s causing all these, in order to help get to that “Future We Want.” A great deal of analysis suggests that rising commodity prices – a consequence of global climate change – is what ignited the Arab Spring and poses one of the great challenges to global stability over the next several decades. But this subject is merely hinted at in Hard Choices.

It’s not that Clinton doesn’t see the problems, and can’t connect the dots. At the outset of the final “Future” section of the book, she writes, “In the 21st Century, we’ve also had to pay attention to the emerging global challenges that affect everyone in our interdependent world: pandemic diseases, financial contagion, international terrorism, transnational criminal networks, human and wildlife trafficking – and, of course, climate change.” That discussion would make a terrific book. It would even make a terrific section of this book. But out of all those topics, the only one that gets any real attention is climate change.

Here, Clinton muses, “Imagine the violence that could follow in the wake of more severe droughts and extreme food and water shortages in fragile states, or the effects on global commerce as farms and infrastructure are destroyed in floods and storms. What will be the effect on global trade and stability as the gap between rich and poor countries widens further?” What, indeed. Unfortunately, the reader will have to imagine on his or her own, as Clinton provides little guidance on these problems. A few pages later – right after she brings up the softball analogy with which I opened – she gives a sample of the type of “small-ball” policies she pursues: a “Climate and Clean Air Coalition” (in other words, a working group of the type beloved of policy wonks) to reduce short-lived particulates “that would buy the world precious time to develop new technologies and the political will to deal with the tougher carbon problems.” In other words, Clinton, brilliant though she may be, is no grand-strategist.

Perhaps what is really a campaign screed rather than a serious attempt at either historical analysis or 21st Century agenda-setting isn’t where to expect a real discussion of the ways in which non-traditional problems, such as pandemic disease and population movements, are going to change calculations of national interest and national security – or how emerging technological and economic forces will alter not just the “tools” at the disposal of nation-states but also the challenges they face and the very foundations upon which they stand.

There is one area, however, where Hillary Clinton holds the promise of being a truly revolutionary president. She has worked hard not to be a women’s candidate – but Hard Choices makes clear that she would be very much a women’s president. The theme that global women’s empowerment could be transformative burbles in the background of the entire book but it finally gushes forth in the very last chapter, on human rights. As noted, “human rights” for Clinton is very much wrapped up in questions of gender (she spends almost as much time on LGBT issues as on women, per se). But she does not state her case as a matter of justice; rather, it is an issue of a more secure, stable, and prosperous world:

“This was a point lost on many of the men working across Washington’s foreign policy establishment, but over the years I came to view it as one of the most compelling arguments for why standing up for women and girls was not just the right thing to do but also smart and strategic. The mistreatment of women was not the only or even the chief cause of our problems [around the world]. But the correlation was undeniable, and a growing body of research showed that improving conditions for women helped resolve conflicts and stabilize societies…. I became convinced that this was a cause that cut to the heart of our national security.”

Clinton comes to her feminism naturally. But it also reflects a broader reality that she seems to have come to intellectually: Like many Americans of differing ideologies – but especially the Midwest Republicanism with which she was raised – she sees economic development as leading to bourgeois values that eventually produce more liberal, open and stable societies that are, in turn, conducive to American security and supportive of American values: “The global middle class is a natural constituency for America. It’s in our interest to see it grow to include more people. We should do everything we can to expand it at home and around the world.” Unfortunately, this declaration concludes a chapter; how exactly to do that isn’t worked out in the book.

But it’s clear from her earlier asides, and certainly by the time one reaches the final chapter, where Hillary Clinton thinks the answer lies. Currently, more than half the world is consigned to lives that limit their productive capacity along with their happiness and fulfillment, purely because of their sex. As the World Bank concluded several years ago, this is the biggest reason for the Islamic world’s poor economic performance. It is what is holding back Africa, the continent growing the fastest in the 21st Century, and India, which will be the century’s largest nation. Expanding education and entrepreneurship for women in these regions is probably the single biggest change that could unleash global growth, stabilize dangerous societies, and relieve global population and environmental pressures, and (incidentally) generally make the world a better place for Americans.

Pursuing such policies would not really be a hard choice. But it’s pretty clear that a Hillary Clinton Administration is the only one that will make it.


The ‘None of the Above’ Election

If voters made one coherent statement in the midterm elections, it was that they don’t like either party. While Republican candidates routed Democrats in races for national and statewide offices, voters across the country embraced issues and ballot measures favoring Democratic positions such as an increased minimum wage. As frequently happens right after Election Day, media coverage focused on the Democrats’ shellacking while the real story is more nuanced. Read more here.