Friday, January 20, 2017

Just Too Good A Distraction?: How Putin and Russia 24/7 Is Sidelining Another More Important Discussion- Government That Doesn’t Represent Us

On the Takeway, journalist Glenn Greenwald had some thoughts on the obsessive 24/7 thoughts the Democrats were having about Putin and Russia
Certainly you have noticed how distracted a whole bunch of people seem to be these days with whether Putin and Russia might have done something that makes Donald Trump an illegitimate president?

History of Distraction

If the main problem with American politics over the last decade is how thoroughly the public has been detracted from the real issues that might concern us, how little the our elected officials are truly representing the public to do the right thing by them, then what are we to make of the latest distractions?

Distractions?  Certainly, for more than a decade we have been relentlessly distracted by all the 9/11 stuff, the confused reporting on endless wars abroad that wind up almost impossible to understand, then there is all the junk food news, plus the silly and pervasive press release journalism, all the click bait on the web, the “infotainment.”  When it comes to politics we emphasize fascination with personalities as the perfect way to ignore issues- Not one question during the four “presidential” debates between Trump and Clinton about global warming and climate change?- . . .

. . .  Then, as Ralph Nader and others have pointed out, when it comes to focusing on any particular issues, the mainstream, corporately-owned media focuses on the issues that divide the American people and can be used to make Americans fear each other.

With all our distraction, what is the major story that goes unreported, swept under the rug?: It is the huge extent to which, when there is a consensus of the American public on many major issues (as there so often is*), the public is not being represented by its leaders who choose to act contrarily.  And then there are those additional issues, often closely related, where there would instantly be public consensus if there were proper and full factual reporting of the issues.**
(* Even with abortion, supposedly one of the most `divisive’ issues, when you do the analysis, there is much more overall agreement than the media would generally lead you to believe.)

(** Is there agreement about the over-spending of the military-industrial-surveillance complex? There probably is, but when the actual numbers are put before people that is almost certainly the case.)
Putin/Russia 24/7

Therefore, when it comes to distractions, I find myself suspicious of distractions that are just too damned perfect . . .

. . . . I find myself agreeing with journalist Drew Greenwald who, just the other day on the Takeway, said that the Democrats, obsessed 24/7 with Putin/Russia, are neglecting to speak of bad Trump policies that people truly care about.  Judged by the consensus of most of the nation Trump is doing some really bad things policy-wise. These things that people disagree with and don’t represent what they want (and we are not just talking about bringing some six Goldman Sachs guys into the White House even though he campaigned against exactly that), and the things people need to know and be hearing a lot more about.  (See: The Takeaway: Glenn Greenwald: Democrats Are Losing Again Amid Putin Frenzy, January 12, 2017)

Greewald said that very importantly “Donald Trump is doing a lot of bad things on a policy level that people care about, and Democrats are talking about almost none of that; they are obsessed with Vladimir Putin and Russia.  If you look at what they question Trump’s nominees on, it’s Russia 24/7.”

Certainly, the 24/7 talk about Putin, the Russians and how they supposedly hacked the American presidential election to “install” Trump is all part of the drumbeat (scary in some ways) to delegitimize Trump as president.  No doubt that’s something the Democrats are interested in doing . .

Russia The Evil Demon

. . . But let’s give this some thought . .

. . .  Even before we heard that the Russians were being blamed for hacking and changing the results of the election we were getting another drumbeat, a drumbeat about how bad the Russians are, bad just like the bad old days, and sounding like, when she was elected, Hillary Clinton herself wanted to go to war with them.

So this new drumbeat about Russians is sort of continuation of what was going on before.  I am not intending in this discussion to defend the Russians, an international power player in the world they (not us?) have done some bad things abroad, and they have a kleptocracy at home (a problem we also battle with here at home).  But is interesting, the facile turning on and off of this spigot of ill-will.

Journalist Matt Taibbi who lived in Russia for eleven years, including being there when Putin was elected president, said the other day:
As somebody who was there for such a long time it's so weird to see this all coming full circle and Russia now playing, once again, the familiar role of the evil demon that is going to require, of course, a massive investment in the military-industrial complex.  I think it’s all very convenient, you know, we have the `enemy’ again.
(See: The Leonard Lopate Show- Why Matt Taibbi Sees 2016 as the Year of the "Insane Clown President", January 18, 2017- at 29:00)

Played Again?

Mentioning my thoughts to an astute, politically observant friend the other day he said: “You’re right. I can’t help feeling we’re being played again.  But you know, pointing those things out puts liberals in a very delicate position.”   Played again, like those “weapons of mass destruction” tales?  We all know what it feels like to be played and we know how compliantly the New York Times can be the instrument for promulgating major falsehoods concerning our international security needs.

It’s not just “liberals” who find themselves in a delicate position if they announce that they suspect we are being “played” about these things: It’s also conservatives, libertarians, socialists, radicals, virtually anybody and loving your country patriotically doesn’t make it easier.

Personal Attacks Plus Avoidance of Issues Strengthening Trump

Those who want policy change (probably including most Democrats and many of those of the other political stripes listed above) also have to be careful about attacking Trump in ways that come across as too personal.  Because Trump's trademark is to traffic in personality, and got most of the votes he did based on personality, attacking him personally can actually serve to build him up, giving him political capital to pursue bad, unpopular policy veering even further off course from the desire of the American public than he might not otherwise have.

This is something else that Glenn Greenwald essentially said when John Hockenberry was interviewing him on the Takeaway.  Hockenberry, noting how right wing radio was describing all the attacks on Trump in terms of a “huge giant conspiracy” observed: “You’ve got this obsessive attention being paid to anything that‘s bad about Donald Trump; this story has become the sort of lefty, liberal version of the Kardashian story.”

To which Greenwald responded:
I couldn’t agree more, and this is really what concerns me the most, which is the only way someone like Donald Trump and his acolytes in right wing radio can convince people to dispense with their faith in established media institutions is if those institutions prove themselves unwarranting of that trust.  So if they constantly disseminate claims for political reasons such as harming Trump without regard to whether or not they are true, Trump can then seize on that and say these media outlets are producing fake news. . . . .That does end up helping the strategy of Trump and right wing radio. .
Delegitimizing Democracy?

But, forget about Russia for a moment:  let’s think domestically, in terms of our democracy and self governance.  Delegitimizing Trump while defending our broken election system delegitimizes democracy . .  It delegitimizes democracy unless you distract by blaming Russians as an excuse.  If we weren't distractedly blaming Russians/Putin 24/7 what questions would we be asking about how we got to where we are and why the electorate's interests are always being betrayed? 

In fact, if we don’t blame the Russians we’d have to ask questions about how we got here . . .  we would have to, instead, blame some of the very same democrats who are leading the fight to blame the Russians. . . Along with that it would be obvious how a number of our institutions have earned scrutiny as well.

. . . That’s, at least, what would have to be done by those of us who still steadfastly choose to continue to believe in democracy.  I’d like to count myself among them because, I for one, don’t believe that with the way things have been run recently we can say that true democracy has been fairly tested.

Our Plight: A "Divided" Electorate or Corrupt Systems?

Alternatively, if you don’t want to question the operation of our institutions, you could blame where we have landed on the people of the United States and say that our plight is because we have a frightfully “divided” country as Hillary Clinton did in her concession speech: “Our nation is more deeply divided than we thought.”

But the spectacle of gridlock as Obama, a Democratic president offering compromise and bipartisan effort, being thwarted by a Republican House of Representatives when the national vote for representatives in the house was overall Democratic (the outcomes changed because of gerrymandering) is not a “divided” nation; it is an artificial and superficial overlay of elected officials who are divided, not the public.  (There, are however, reasons why the fossil fuel industry wants government dysfunction and to attack healthcare.)  The problem would be readily solved if the elected officials were true leaders, or even just good at following, falling in line behind the public.   

To say that Trump has the lowest favorable ratings, only 40%, of any incoming president, is not to say that the country is “divided.”  (A CBA poll has him even lower at 32%, while, in comparison, Obama before his first inauguration was at 84%. In another poll, only 42% of voters approve of the job Trump is doing in his transition, compared to 47% who disapprove.)  It more likely says exactly the opposite, when taken in conjunction with the fact that, at the end two terms, Gallup says Obama is set to leave office with the highest favorability rating of any president in 24 years, 58% (18 points higher than Trump).  (Another poll says 53%.)

 That speaks of a certain kind of consensus.

The meme associated with the last election’s exit polls is (with much truth to it) that a frustrated American public is hungry for change.”  What kind of change?: Most Americans, about three-fifths or more of the public, prefer progressive policies. Of all the voters, 17% said explicitly the change from Obama’s agenda should be to “more liberal policies,” and almost one of every four of them, 23%, however unwise their strategy might have been, voted for Trump.

That speaks of a certain kind of consensus too.

But if American’s are so overwhelmingly dissatisfied to have Trump as the incoming president, there are those who would steer us to believe that the fault lies with American people while asking us to assume that we’d be wrong to concern ourselves about whether and how our tools for pursuing democratic goals might have been sabotaged . . . One of them is the favorably rated President Obama.

In president Obama’s Chicago farewell speech, invoking quotes from George Washington, Obama pinned the blame for getting government that we are dissatisfied with on those deciding that corruption of the system is itself responsible for giving us bizarrely unsatisfactory outcomes (emphasis supplied):
In his own farewell address, George Washington wrote that self-government is the underpinning of our safety, prosperity, and liberty, but "from different causes and from different quarters much pains will be taken to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth;" that we should preserve it with "jealous anxiety;" that we should reject "the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties" that make us one.

We weaken those ties when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character are turned off from public service; so coarse with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are not just misguided, but somehow malevolent.  We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others; when we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt, and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.
Perhaps the only saving grace in Obama’s words is the suggestion that  “whole systems” should not be written off, that there are at least some workable parts - probably true, and the suggestion that we should not be doing nothing- that’s true too.

The Clipboard is Mightier Than. . . .The Corrupt System

But what should we do?  What tools do we have?

Obama told us in his speech:
If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  If you're disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up.  Dive in.  Persevere.  Sometimes you'll win.  Sometimes you'll lose.
Well, as someone who has grabbed a clipboard and knows my way around well enough so that I generally prefer to wield and keep going three or four clipboards at a time in order to be even more efficient and effective in that regard (a small group of us collected about 600 signatures last Sunday), I can tell you that, even though this is an effective tactic, it doesn’t solve the problems we are facing. . .

It doesn’t prevent the way in which elected officials betray and ignore you after they are elected.  It doesn’t prevent the way in which elected officials routinely treat public hearings as sponges to sop up the frustrated energy of their complaining constituents while they, afterwards obliviously do what the money wants instead.  It doesn’t fix how when you succeed in deposing one sham politician another pops up to take their place immediately afterward.  It doesn’t prevent Donald Trump campaigning against Goldman Sachs and vowing to “drain the swamp” to nevertheless, immediately put six Goldman people in his White House.

. .  And Trump’s claim in his inaugural address that the time has finally come when the people will be represented doesn’t change the fact that this isn’t what is shaping up to be the case:
What truly matters is not what party controls our government but that this government is controlled by the people.

Today, January 20 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.
.  And it doesn’t make him sound any different from the many who have made the same sort of speeches before.

Conclusion With a Few Examples

That’s about all I have to say, except to suggest that if you consider what you are hearing in this framework, all the drumbeats to delegitimize Trump plus the distracting 24/7 focus on Putin and Russia may take on a new flavor.  Something else that may also get more of your attention along with that is the emerging meme questioning whether democracy and/or the rule of law has had its day, whether they are dying as public faith in them drains away.

We’ll depart with some examples of what we are talking about.

Weapons of M@@ss destruction?  New York Times Magazine- Cyberwar for Sale, By Mattathais Schwart, Januar. 4, 2017- Above two photos
Above and below: Donald Trump and the Tainted Presidency, by Charles M. Blow January 9, 2017- “Donald Trump’s victory and his imminent presidency are already tainted beyond redemption.. . .it is irrefutable that the integrity of our democratic process was injured when the sanctity of what we considered uncorrupted self-determination was assaulted. . . Donald Trump is Vladimir Putin's American `president’”

Above and below: America Becomes a Stan, Paul Krugman January 2, 2017. “Mr. Trump will be in violation of the spirit, and arguably the letter, of the Constitution's emoluments clause. . Everything we know suggests that we're entering an era of epic corruption and contempt for the rule of law, with no restraint whatsoever.. . How could this happen in a nation that has long prided itself as a role model for democracies everywhere?”

Covered before in National Notice: "Support for autocratic alternatives is rising, too. Drawing on data from the European and World Values Surveys, the researchers found that the share of Americans who say that army rule would be a “good” or “very good” thing had risen to 1 in 6 in 2014, compared with 1 in 16 in 1995."
 New York Times: A Threat to U.S. Democracy: Political Dysfunction, by  Eduardo Porter, January 3, 2017.
The United States resisted the temptations of Nazism, fascism and communism that beguiled Europe in the first half of the 20th century. . .  And yet, when the 21st century brought about a populist insurrection, the United States government was quick to cave.

* * *
- the political system itself has come to be seen by too many voters as illegitimate.

"There is persistent lack of confidence in U.S. political institutions which allows populists to make hay," said Pippa Norris, a political scientist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and the University of Sydney in Australia. "And the institutions need a major overhaul because some, like elections, are badly broken."

This is not just about the Electoral College system. .

* * *

The Electoral Integrity Project, run by Professor Norris and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Sydney in Australia, surveys thousands of election experts to assess the quality of hundreds of elections around the world. . .

Based on the average evaluations of the elections in 2012 and 2014, the United States' electoral integrity was ranked 52nd among the 153 countries in the survey - behind all the rich Western democracies and also countries like Costa Rica and Uruguay, the Baltic states, and Cape Verde and Benin in Africa.

* * * *

Perceptions of weak electoral integrity matter. They depress voting turnout, according to Professor Norris's analysis of 2012 data from the American National Election Studies. Perhaps even more important, they can put into question the whole democratic enterprise.
New York Times: Donald Trump, This Is Not Normal! By Charles M. Blow December 19, 2016
The durability of our democracy is not destined. It is not impervious to harm or even destruction. The Constitution can't completely prevent that, nor can protocols and conventions. The most important safeguard against authoritarianism is an informed, engaged citizenry vigorously opposed to acquiescence and attrition.
New York Times: Will Democracy Survive Trump’s Populism? Latin America May Tell Us, by Carlos de la Torre December 15, 2016
The United States has a tradition of checks and balances to control political power. The Constitution divides power into three branches; elections are spaced; power is split between the states and the federal government; and there are two dominant parties. . . .

But, even if the institutional framework of democracy does not collapse under Mr. Trump, he has already damaged the democratic public sphere. . .

. . . Populist polarization, attacks on civil rights and the confrontation with the press could lead in the United States, as in Venezuela and Ecuador, to authoritarianism. Chávez and Mr. Correa did not eradicate democracy with a coup d'état. Rather, they slowly strangled democracy by attacking civil liberties, regulating the public sphere and using the legal system to silence critics.
New York Times: Trump's Threat to the Constitution, by Evan McMullin, December 5, 2016
As a C.I.A. officer, I saw firsthand authoritarians' use of these tactics around the world. Their profound appetite for absolute power drives their intolerance for any restraint - whether by people, organizations, the law, cultural norms, principles or even the expectation of consistency. For a despot, all of these checks on power must be ignored, undermined or destroyed so that he is all that matters.

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