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How Democracies Die

How Democracies DieHow Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After hearing the authors on NPR and reading an op-ed, I ordered the book and read it in about half a day.

The opening chapters are revealing, as they use their historical expertise on how democracies failed in Europe in the 1930's and Latin America in the 1960's and 70's to detail how elected officials subvert the system. They also discuss the nations where such attempts were thwarted and how.

They discuss America's history with demagogues and how the system has always been able to check them in the past. They identify the strengths of our system as not the written rules but the values of mutual toleration and forbearance.

Next they relate how since the 1970's these unwritten norms have been assaulted and weakened. Fault is spread around, but they rightly identify the Republican Party as having committed the most egregious attacks upon our democratic norms. In these chapters they illustrate how Donald Trump's election is a symptom and not the cause of our current crisis.

The chapters on how Trump's election and first year parallel the playbook of other authoritarian leaders may be necessary for the historical record, but this reader already grasped all of that before reaching those chapters.

What I looked forward to and found lacking was the ending. As they had given thorough historical analysis of how democracies die, I wanted a similar thorough analysis of how other nations had thwarted the attacks of demagogues or recovered from them. In other words, I was hoping analysis would lead to good, practical advice.

There is some of that, but not in the depth I had been hoping for. And they, unnecessarily, spend time on what policies they think the Democrats need to pursue--their "new" agenda sounding to me a lot like the policies of Hillary Clinton.

One takeaway is that playing hardball will only exacerbate the crisis, as will left-leaning ideological purity. Now is the time for moderation, compromise, and institution-building.

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Francis on Fake News & the Truth

Good remarks and a fine prayer yesterday from Pope Francis on "fake news" and our pursuit of truth.  An excerpt:

Freedom from falsehood and the search for relationship: these two ingredients cannot be lacking if our words and gestures are to be true, authentic, and trustworthy. To discern the truth, we need to discern everything that encourages communion and promotes goodness from whatever instead tends to isolate, divide, and oppose. Truth, therefore, is not really grasped when it is imposed from without as something impersonal, but only when it flows from free relationships between persons, from listening to one another. Nor can we ever stop seeking the truth, because falsehood can always creep in, even when we state things that are true. An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful. We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.


"Evangelical" Hypocrisy

Much ink has been spilled about "Evangelical" hypocrisy when it comes to Trump.  Of course these are not real Evangelicals but a version of Fundamentalism--I digress.  Here's a column from Michael Gerson contrasting Billy Graham's reaction to Nixon's scandals with Graham's son's open embrace of Trump.

But the best explanation I have yet read is this one which identifies the roots of this form of American religion in the slave-holding South and a break-away from actual Evangelicalism which was abolitionist.  Excerpt:

patriarchal amoralism, not the Bible, not Christian teachings,  is the foundation of this Evangelical sect.  After slavery, it justified the lynching of blacks, segregation, and the vile hatred that we see being fanned today in such churches.  Being patriarchal and authoritarian, it has never in America’s history supported nor nurtured the values of democracy.  Thus  Its “religious” leaders convey the theological values needed to prepare its communities for fascist rule.  This thread has always existed within American society.  It is not new. It is not superficial. It will not disappear. America made a moral compromise at the beginning of its existence. Every century or so, the reality of it gets thrown like acid into our faces. 


The Shape of Water

The_Shape_of_Water_(film)

A few weeks ago Michael and I got the rare chance to go to a movie.  Rare, since we are parents of a young child.  Rare because we don't usually use babysitting money for a movie, since we hopefully will be able to stream it sometime in the future.

We went to see The Shape of Water.  And in the various reviews I've read of the film, none have commented on what to me seemed to be the primary theme--toxic masculinity.

Our current social moment is shaping how I interpret many things, so it clearly shaped watching this film (as it did the Opera earlier this year).  

The male characters in the film demonstrate multiple types of men, with implied questions--Who are the real men? Who is the best man?

Of course the best man isn't human, which subversively makes  a point, right?

The man who, like President Trump, thinks he is the best man, is the worst man, the one possessed by a toxic masculinity.  The film does a nice job of giving you a few glimpses into his life that cause you pity instead of overwhelming dread he normally compels.

The females are, of course, the central, vital characters, but you see how they must navigate all these male types in their effort to get along.  Fortunately, the women are the agents of the film and drive the action, which the good men embrace and the toxic ones  seem at first incapable of comprehending and later react violently toward.

I highly recommend the film, which is far more layered than its whimsical fairy tale reputation might suggest.


Constitutional Weakness?

A piece in the Guardian discusses the weaknesses in the US Constitution revealed by Donald Trump's first year.  An excerpt:

But this year of Trump has also shown the extent to which the US has an unwritten constitution that – just like ours – relies on the self-restraint of the key political players, a self-restraint usually insisted upon by a free press. Yet when confronted with a leader unbound by any sense of shame – and shamelessness might just be Trump’s defining quality – America is left unexpectedly vulnerable.

 


Frum criticizes GOP tax bill

David Frum has a good essay, defending the need for corporate tax reform, but arguing that this current effort is a total failure at achieving that goal.

A key paragraph:

Congressional Republicans well appreciate the unpopularity of what they are doing. That’s why they are short-circuiting the traditional legislative process, bypassing hearings and other opportunities for public comment. The more the public knows, the more jeopardized their plan becomes. Since the Great Recession, the GOP has grown both more extreme in its goals and more radical in its methods. Apocalyptically pessimistic in its view of America’s future, it seems determined to seize for its donors and core constituencies as much as it can, as fast as it can, as ruthlessly as it can. It will then take advantage of the U.S. political system’s notorious antimajoritarian bias in favor of the status quo to defend the grab over the coming years and decades. Repeal and replace failed. The new slogan is: Rush, grab, entrench, and defend.

The strong conclusion:

A rationally conservative party of business and enterprise could, and should, have written a corporate tax-reform bill that is compelling on the merits. The slowdown of U.S. productivity growth would be the country’s leading problem if U.S. constitutional democracy were not being attacked from the White House at the same time. The GOP submitted to Trump in 2016 very largely to reach this moment. The ironic outcome is that his success that year doomed the very prize for which his party sold its soul.


Annie Proulx's hopeful speech

Receiving a lifetime achievement award, author Annie Proulx delivered a speech commenting on current affairs but looking forward to a happy ending.

As an ethicist and pastor, I thrilled to these sentences:

Yet somehow the old discredited values and longings persist. We still have tender feelings for such outmoded notions as truth, respect for others, personal honor, justice, equitable sharing. We still hope for a happy ending. 

The speech concluded:

Hence the indispensable silver lining, the lovers reunited, the families reconciled, the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded, fortunes regained, treasures uncovered, stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways, good names restored, greed daunted, old maids married off to worthy parsons, troublemakers banished to other hemispheres, forgers of documents tossed down the stairs, seducers scurried to the altar, orphans sheltered, widows comforted, pride humbled, wounds healed, prodigal sons summoned home, cups of sorrow tossed into the ocean, hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation, general merriment and celebration, and the dog Fido, gone astray in the first chapter, turns up barking gladly in the last. Thank you.