Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Can We Be a Better Neighbor?

Long after the juvenile Republican presidential campaigns and campaigners of 2016 are forgotten, President Barack Obama’s movement toward normalization of relations with Cuba will still be talked about. That overdue effort is another reason why Obama’s practical and cautious foreign policy is superior to the bombastic and outdated belligerency of the Republicans.

The history of American domination of Cuba presents a textbook case of the anti-democratic brutality and stubborn ideological self-interest of 20th-century American foreign policy. After Cuba won its independence from Spain in 1898, the US military repeatedly landed on the island to promote American economic interests against the protests of poor peasants, whose land had been taken by giant landowners, many of whom were US citizens. Repressive dictatorships were put into place and supported by American armed forces against all popular Cuban attempts to create more democratic systems.

Fulgencio Batista represents the essence of 20th-century American policy in Latin America. From his base in the Cuban army, he overthrew the authoritarian government of Gerardo Machado in 1933. Supported by Franklin Roosevelt, Batista encouraged American economic interests in Cuba as he manipulated elections to dominate Cuban politics into the 1950s. After Batista overthrew another government in 1952, President Eisenhower threw full US support behind his corrupt and repressive regime.

Fidel Castro and others tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Batista in 1953, and were captured and jailed until 1955. Castro resumed the struggle from Mexico, and then landed in Cuba in 1956 and created a small guerrilla army in the Sierra Maestra mountains. The US government withdrew its support of Batista and after a three-year struggle, Batista fled the island and Castro’s forces entered Havana in January 1959.

Within two months, the CIA formulated plans to overthrow Castro, fearing the spread of communism in Latin America. CIA clandestine intervention had already been “successful” in the 1954 coup against the elected Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz. Thirty years of dictatorship followed, including the deaths or disappearances of about 250,000 people.

After a series of escalating measures by both sides, the Cuban government nationalized property held by foreigners, mostly Americans, in August 1960. The Eisenhower administration responded by freezing Cuban assets in the US, cutting diplomatic ties, and instituting a commercial, economic, and financial embargo in October 1960. After John F. Kennedy took office, he allowed the Cuban invasion plans to proceed, leading to the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco in April 1961.

The Bay of Pigs may have been a failure, but US-sponsored regime change, military intervention, and suppression of democratic opposition as “communist” continued to be basic elements of our Latin American foreign policy. After failing to destabilize the elected government of Joao Goulart in Brazil with a propaganda campaign, the CIA supported a military coup in 1964. The result was the suspension of civil liberties and abolition of political parties for the next 21 years, supported by widespread torture. In 1973, the CIA supported a military coup by General Augusto Pinochet against Chile’s elected government, leading to 17 years of military dictatorship in which thousands were killed or tortured. In 1976, the US supported a coup by Argentina’s military against the elected government, which led to 7 years of “Dirty War”, in which 30,000 people were “disappeared”. After 1968, both Republican and Democratic administrations gave “Operation Condor” technical and military assistance, helping right-wing dictatorships in Latin America to use state-sponsored terror to silence opposition. As many as 60,000 people were killed.

Just before his assassination, President Kennedy had been exploring the possibility of a meeting between Cuban and American representatives. He told French reporter Jean Daniel, who was on his way to Cuba: “I believe that there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. . . . Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States.”

The embargo Eisenhower initiated was a product of that immoral American foreign policy, which justified smashing democracy in Latin America because it threatened American interests. It has been continued for 55 years with the ironic justification that the Cuban government violated human rights, while we supported far more repressive and deadlier regimes throughout Latin America.

American foreign policy in Latin America surrounding the time when the Cuban embargo was instituted has become an embarrassment. President Obama had to acknowledge American support for the military dictatorship and our role in the Dirty War when he visited Argentina last week.

No balance sheet could possibly justify American encouragement for dictatorship, torture, and mass murder across Latin America. The admission that we, much more than the Castro brothers, are responsible for human rights violations is long overdue. Ending the Cuban embargo is one necessary step in creating a real “good neighbor policy”.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 29, 2016

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Election Day

I voted last Tuesday. Seemed like a normal, if infrequent experience that my neighbors and I were sharing. But voting is far from normal in human societies, and the way we just voted in America is unique.

Primary elections were invented here. Reformers calling themselves Progressives in both parties in the early 20th century wanted to wrest control of candidate selection from party bosses. Oregon established a presidential preference primary in 1910, requiring delegates to the national conventions to support the voters’ choice. Twenty states had primaries in the 1920s, but by the 1960s, it was down to a dozen.

The 1968 campaign for the Democratic nominee was chaotic. President Johnson was forced to abdicate. 80% of primary voters selected anti-war candidates like Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy. Hubert Humphrey entered no primaries, but collected the largest number of delegates in states dominated by Party leaders. He won the nomination amidst riots in Chicago and lost the election to Richard Nixon.

The Democratic Party created the Commission on Party Structure and Delegate Selection to insure that never happened again. New rules insured more participation in candidate selection by the poor, the geographically isolated, minorities and women. Delegates had to represent all Democratic voters in the states. Those rules could still be satisfied with caucuses, but states began to institute primaries, and the Republican Party joined in. Soon most states had primary elections.

Today about 30 states require that voters be registered members of a party to vote in a primary or caucus, while the remaining 20 allow voters to choose which party’s process they will vote in.

Illinois is an open primary state, so depending on which party’s election I wanted to influence, I could take a Democratic or Republican ballot into the little booth. I chose to vote among Democrats.

In a few cases, my vote could make a difference. Although there were 6 Democratic candidates for President, only Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were serious. The vote was very close: out of 2 million votes, Clinton won by only 35,000. For Senator, Tammy Duckworth, House Representative from Chicago, was challenged by Andrea Zopp and Napoleon Harris, both experienced and persuasive candidates.

That was it for me, though. The Democratic ballot didn’t list anyone for the House of Representatives or for the Illinois State House or Senate. The legislative districts drawn around Jacksonville at the state and federal level are so tilted to Republicans, that no Democrats thought it was worth even trying to unseat the Republican office holders. Of 18 congressional districts in Illinois, there were 8 contested Democratic races and 6 contested Republican races.

The US Congress is constructed of mostly safe seats, designed by Party-dominated legislatures. According to one calculation, of the 435 congressional districts, only about 90 are considered “swing seats”.

The primary system is itself influenced by shifting party politics. So-called Super Tuesday in March originated as an attempt by Southern Democrats in nine states in 1988 to unite their primaries and seek a moderate candidate, but the Southern states were won by four different men, including eventual nominee Michael Dukakis. New Hampshire has defended its outsized influence by refusing to participate with Vermont and Massachusetts in a New England primary.

Average voters have more power in primaries than in smoke-filled rooms, but primaries are not perfect exercises in democracy. An amusing article in a British newspaper about the Conservative party cautiously trying out primaries for Members of Parliament puts forward all the theoretical arguments for the primary process. The author believes that primaries will insure that incumbents are not lazy or absent, and will increase diversity. Even though about two-thirds of British parliamentary seats are safe for one party or the other, primaries will make every seat unsafe.

But primaries can be used as vehicles to punish politicians for bucking Party discipline. State Senator Sam McCann here in Morgan County had voted with Democrats to support the power of labor unions against Governor Bruce Rauner’s attempt to insert himself into negotiations, and Rauner funded the primary challenge of Bryce Benton. Rauner also reached across the aisle to fund a Democratic challenger to House Speaker Mike Madigan. On the Democratic side, Ken Dunkin, state representative from Chicago, who sided with Rauner on key budget votes, was defeated by newcomer Juliana Stratton, supported by the Democratic establishment, including President Obama.

The drift of the Republican Party to the right has been driven by primary voters. Although most established Republican politicians have repulsed primary opponents, a few were defeated by candidates claiming to be more conservative, most notably, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in Virginia.

Primary elections are part of a highly democratic political system. But the biggest problem in the American political system is the rancor of contested contests, fueled by the unlimited wealth of a small number of the richest Americans. One of the most successful political campaign strategists, Mark McKinnon, explains in a video interview how he helped Bush defeat Kerry in 2004, by playing up the terrorist threat. He emphasizes story-telling, but his stories focus on threat, fear and villains. He says, “People respond to fear.” Watching the 2016 campaign, McKinnon regrets how nasty elections have become and worries whether our country can return to political equilibrium.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 22, 2016

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Why Are Some Americans So Angry?

Now that Donald Trump’s campaign for President looks likely to win him the Republican nomination, outraged writers both left and right are screaming bloody murder. The screams sound different, though. Liberals worry that Trump is a fascist, with comparisons to Mussolini and Hitler. Establishment Republicans denounce him as an insincere conservative and worry that he’ll lead them to crushing defeat in November. Only late-night comedians appear to be enjoying the spectacle.

Trump loves all the attention. He deliberately provokes the screams and then screams back. Much more important than listening to his wailing is to ask why he has so many followers. Why are millions of Americans so angry that they look to Trump for leadership?

The comparisons of Trumpism to fascism often invoke the history of Germany before Hitler came to power. But that comparison doesn’t work well. Hitler and the Nazis were a fringe party as late as 1928. That year they won 2.6% of the vote and were the ninth largest party. Only after the crash of the Western world’s economy in 1929 did their votes jump to 18.3% in 1930, as unemployment surged to 23%, on its way to over 40% by 1932.

Nothing like that is happening in the US. We see signs of economic distress in America every day, however unemployment has fallen to 4.9%, after peaking at 10% just after Barack Obama took office. But even if the economy may be improving, that is barely noticeable to most people. The proportion of Americans who have “good jobs”, meaning more than 30 hours per week with a steady paycheck, has barely inched up from about 42% five years ago to 44% now. Wages have stagnated for 20 years.

Since 2009, despite the recovery, the percentage of Americans who think economic conditions are “getting worse” has remained over 50%, reaching 56% in the most recent Gallup poll. Republicans are overwhelmingly pessimistic about our future: in January, 88% of Republicans, but only 27% of Democrats told CNN/ORC that things in the country today are going badly.

I don’t think the anger that propels people to Trump is all about the economy. The greatest unemployment and the dimmest economic prospects for the future plague young African Americans: their unemployment reached nearly 50% in late 2009 and 2010, and still hovers around 25%. Overall, black unemployment is twice white unemployment, and Hispanic unemployment is 50% higher than whites.

But this month Hispanics told pollsters how much they disliked Trump: 77% said they had an unfavorable opinion of him. None of the other candidates, Republican or Democrat, had higher than 30%. Another poll was worse: over 70% of Hispanics had a “very unfavorable” view of Trump. Even 60% of Hispanics who are Republicans have an unfavorable opinion, three times as high as the other Republican candidates. African Americans dislike Trump even more.

A poll from July 2015, when many Republicans were still in the race, showed Trump’s appeal to be greatest among whites without a college degree. That advantage grew by the end of 2015. Americans without a college degree are much more likely to have negative ideas about immigration in general and undocumented immigrants in particular.

A February Public Policy poll in South Carolina, before the primary, identifies which Republican voters like Trump best: those who support banning Muslims and homosexuals from entering the US; who support shutting down mosques in the US and making Islam illegal; who support flying the Confederate flag; who think whites are a superior race.

One of Trump’s biggest attractions is his disdain for what he calls political correctness. His supporters recognize that their beliefs in white superiority, the evils of Islam and homosexuality, and the importance of ending immigration are no longer acceptably announced in polite society. What once was politically fine is now incorrect, liable to be criticized. Trump says these things in the crudest way and ironically makes them more respectable. His voters’ idea of a great America may mean a place where they have better jobs, but it also means an America where Christian whites regain their ascendancy, where the world respects our dominance, where traditional hierarchies return.

Trump voters don’t travel in the same circles as establishment Republicans. Powerful Republicans say they don’t know any Trump voters. Surveys in January show that Republican voters consider Trump the most anti-establishment candidate.

Trump the birther gave birth to Trump the candidate. Outrageous racist attacks on a black President provided a base of support: two-thirds of Trump supporters still believe that Obama is a Muslim born outside of the US. Trump exploits the anger about a changing America and stokes it. He repeatedly has encouraged violence against those who protest his message. His white supporters have been waiting for their deliverance. They will be even angrier if he loses or if he wins and can’t turn the clock back.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 15, 2106