Sunday, January 21, 2018

ANS -- The year of Trump has laid bare the US constitution’s serious flaws

A short-ish article on our constitution and the flaws that are showing themselves now.  It is not a harsh criticism, but an apt one.  

Illustration by Matt Kenyon
 Illustration by Matt Kenyon

There's a million things to love about Hamilton, the musical that has opened in London to reviews as glowing as those that greeted its debut on Broadway. The lyrics are so ingenious, so intricate and dexterous, that the show's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has a claim to be among the most exciting writers, in any medium, in the world today. Rarely have I seen an audience delight in the tricks and rhyming pyrotechnics of language the way I saw a preview audience react to Hamilton a fortnight ago.

As I say, there are countless other pleasures. The staging is inventive, the melodies memorable and, by having black and minority ethnic actors play Alexander Hamilton and his fellow founding fathers, the musical instantly offers a powerful new take on America's tragic, enduring flaw: race. But it was the idealism of the show – which venerates Hamilton and George Washington and unabashedly romanticises the revolution that birthed the United States of America – that struck a particular chord for me.

In 2018, it will be 20 years since I published a book called Bring Home the Revolution. Begun when I was still in my 20s, it too was an essay in idealism, arguing that the American uprising of 1776 and the constitution that followed in 1787 were a rebellion against a system of government under which we Britons still laboured two centuries later – albeit with an overmighty, overcentralised government in place of the bewigged King George.

The American revolution, I argued, was our inheritance, a part of our patrimony mislaid across the Atlantic. From a written constitution to a system of radically devolved power to the replacement of monarchy with an elected head of state, it was time for us to bring home the revolution that we had made in America.

With impeccable timing, my hymn of praise for the US constitution appeared a matter of months before what looked a lot like a US constitutional crisis, with the impeachment of Bill Clinton over perjury charges arising from his denials of a relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. "So you want us to live the American dream?" one interviewer asked. "All a bit of nightmare now, isn't it?"


That, or something like it, has happened at intervals ever since. If it wasn't a hideous, only-in-America mass shooting, it would be an election in which a man with fewer votes defeated an infinitely more qualified opponent who had won more.

Usually, I have managed to deflect these challenges, arguing that my book was a homage to a founding ideal, not to the necessarily flawed reality. But it's time for me to admit my doubts about its core idea – its admiration for the US constitution and system of government. For this first year of the Donald Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the model that I cannot brush aside so easily.

The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president.

Convention dictated that he had to divest himself of private business concerns on taking office, to prevent a conflict of interest – but in the absence of a law explicitly forcing him to do so, he did no such thing. The same goes for appointing unqualified relatives to senior jobs, sacking the director of the FBI with no legitimate cause, or endorsing an accused child molester for the US Senate. No law told him he couldn't, so he did.

I once thought the US constitution – a document crafted with almost mathematical precision, constructing a near-perfect equilibrium of checks and balances – offered protection against such perils. And there's no denying that that text, as interpreted by the courts, has indeed acted as a partial roadblock in Trump's path, delaying and diluting his Muslim-focused "travel ban", for example.

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.

Of course, there is a remedy, and its name is impeachment. Scholars are clear that Trump has already provided sufficient legal grounds for such a move – the case against him is far more compelling than the one against Bill Clinton. But impeachment proceedings are triggered by the House of Representatives, followed by a trial in the Senate, and nothing will happen so long as Republicans control both houses of Congress.

In 2017 we saw with new clarity that the strength of the US constitution depends entirely on the willingness of those charged with enforcing it to do their duty. And today's Republicans refuse to fulfil that obligation. They, like Trump, are without shame. This was a fatal oversight by Hamilton, James Madison and their fellow framers of the constitution. They did not reckon on a partisanship so intense it would blind elected representatives to the national interest – so that they would, repeatedly, put party ahead of country. The founders did not conceive of a force like today's Republican party, willing to indulge a president nakedly hostile to ideals Americans once held sacred.

My 1998 self asks me whether, say, the Westminster parliament would really be so different if confronted by a Trump-like would-be autocrat. Would individual MPs suppress their own revulsion and back him, fearing deselection by party activists if they did not – much as congressional Republicans won't move against Trump lest they face the wrath of his base? It's conceivable. And yet a parliamentary vote of no confidence is a lower hurdle than impeachment. Put simply, it would be easier to get rid of a British Trump.


And these weaknesses in the US model have prompted me to see others. The second amendment does not compel Americans to allow an unrestricted flow of guns into the hands of the violent and dangerous, but the fact that the argument hinges on interpretations of a text written more than two centuries ago is itself a problem. It means America, in the words of that great revolutionary Thomas Paine, is too often "like dead and living bodies chained together", today's generation shackled to the words of their ancestors.

And yet, despite everything, I still see so much to admire in the founding achievement of America. The society remains innovative, restless and creative: it's still capable of producing a work of genius like Hamilton. But its next act of renewal might be to update or amend the text that gave it birth, to declare that no human invention, no matter how great, can remain stuck. Were he around, I suspect that "bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman" would agree.

 Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

Thursday, January 18, 2018

ANS -- Mueller reportedly investigating whether Russia funneled money through the NRA to elect Trump

This is a short article from Think Progress (pretty reliable) about Russian money laundering through the NRA! To influence our elections.  Isn't that ironic, that the NRA appears to be very Russian influenced?

Mueller reportedly investigating whether Russia funneled money through the NRA to elect Trump

McClatchy report says Robert Mueller's investigation examining whether Kremlin funneled 2016 election funds through the gun group.

Deputy governor of the Russian central bank, Alexander Torshin, at a 2016 National Rifle Association event.

Robert Mueller's investigation is probing whether a key Kremlin figure with close ties with the National Rifle Association may have illegally funneled money through the gun-rights group to influence the 2016 election, according to a new McClatchy report.

In November 2016, ThinkProgress examined the NRA's strange relationship with the leadership of Right to Bear Arms, a Moscow-based pro-gun organization run by a twenty-something activist named Maria Butina and her close friend and boss, the deputy governor of the Russian central bank, Alexander Torshin.

Although the NRA promotes gun rights as a defense against tyranny, it had surprisingly close ties to Vladimir Putin's authoritarian regime.  Torshin, who is an NRA Life Member, had attended multiple NRA national conventions in the United States and NRA board member and former national president David Keene, NRA First Vice President Pete Brownell, NRA funder Dr. Arnold Goldschlager and his daughter, NRA Women's Leadership Forum executive committee member Hilary Goldschalger; Outdoor Life channel head Jim Liberatore, and former Milwaukee County Sheriff and NRA supporter David A. Clarke all braved the biting Moscow winter to attend 2015 event hosted by The Right to Bear Arms.

CREDIT: Right To Bear Arms Facebook Page

While many national conservative organizations in 2016 largely eschewed direct support for Donald Trump and focused their efforts on down-ballot races, more than any other national organization, the NRA went all-in to elect Trump. The group spent at least $30 million in "independent expenditures" to support him and to attack Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and did not disclose its donors.

McClatchy reported on Thursday that multiple sources say the FBI's counterintelligence investigators are now examining whether Torshin, who has been accused by Spanish authorities of money laundering, may have provided some of those funds. Federal law prohibits foreign governments and citizens from spending money to influence federal elections. A spokesman for Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, declined to comment to McClatchy on the report.

Monday, January 15, 2018

ANS -- The Politically Impossible Has Suddenly Become Possible

Short article by Naomi Klein.  Hopeful, about fossil fuels, the law, and the environment.  

The Politically Impossible Has Suddenly Become Possible

By Naomi Klein, The Intercept

13 January 18


ive years ago, when helped kick off the global fossil fuel divestment movement, one of the slogans the team came up with was "We > Fossil Fuels."

The T-shirts and stickers were nice, but I have to admit that I never really felt it. Bigger than fossil fuels? With their bottomless budgets? Their endless capacity to blanket the airwaves and bankroll political parties? The slogan always made me kind of sad.

Well, yesterday in New York City, listening to Mayor Bill de Blasio announce that the city had just filed a lawsuit against five oil majors and intended to divest $5 billion from fossil fuel companies, I actually felt it. After being outgunned by the power and wealth of this industry for so many years, the balance of power seemed to physically tilt. It's still not equal — not by a long shot — but something big changed nonetheless. Regular humans may not be more powerful than the fossil fuel companies now — but we might be soon.

Within minutes of de Blasio's announcement going public, activists in London started tweeting at their mayor to step up in equally bold fashion. And while the press conference was still streaming live, several of us started to get emails from city councillors in other cities around the world, promising to initiate a similar process in their communities.

Such is the power of an action emanating from a center as symbolically important as New York City: What felt politically impossible yesterday suddenly seems possible, and the dominos start instantly falling.

It's also extremely significant that the divestment and lawsuit were announced in tandem — because they have the potential to reinforce one another in a kind of virtuous market cycle. Part of the reason why fossil fuel divestment has picked up so much momentum over the past two years is that fossil fuel stocks have been performing badly. This is mainly because the price of oil has been depressed, but it is also because of market uncertainty created by the increasingly powerful climate and indigenous rights movements, and the signing of the Paris climate agreement.

All of this has raised the question of whether fossil fuel companies are really going to be able to get their pipelines and other infrastructure built, given the strength of the opposition. And they have also raised the question of whether these companies will be able dig up the huge oil, gas, and coal reserves that are currently factored into their stock prices — or are these are going to become stranded assets? Right now, we don't know the answers to these questions, and that uncertainty can give many smart investors pause.

(The Trump administration, by ditching the Paris Agreement and opening up vast new swaths of territory for exploration, has been trying frantically to reassure the markets by sending the opposite message — that it's back to dirty business as usual.)

Now, with New York City's lawsuit for climate damages, the market is confronting the prospect of a cascade of similar legal actions — cities, towns, and countries all suing the industry for billions or even (combined) trillions of dollars in damages caused by sea-level rise and extreme weather events. The more suits that get filed, the more the market will have to factor in the possibility of fossil fuel companies having to pay out huge settlements in the near to medium term, much as the tobacco companies were forced to in past decades.

As that threat becomes more credible, with more players taking New York City's lead, the investor case for dumping these stocks as overly high risk will be strengthened, thereby lending a potent new tool to the fossil fuel divestment movement. A virtuous cycle. Oh, and the more we are able to hit the industry in the pocketbook, the less likely costly new drilling and pipeline projects will be to go ahead, no matter how many precious national parks and pristine coastlines the Trump administration attempts to desecrate. If the economics don't make sense, the drilling simply won't advance.

That's why New York's actions are so significant, not just in New York or the United States, but globally. (It's also why I got so cranky with the New York Times for treating it like a minor municipal event, buried on page 23.)

Yesterday was a big, good day for the planet – and we needed one of those.



A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+27# futhark 2018-01-13 12:41
The Democratic Party now has the nominees needed in 2020 to oust the Trumplicans: Bernie Sanders for President and Bill de Blasio for Vice-President!
+24# soularddave 2018-01-13 13:15
So many *tipping points* regarding carbon fuels since Y2K. Hopeful degrees of awareness coming on line.

Europe knew since the Arab oil embardo 40 years ago. Higher prices and higher taxes have long been justified.

Good thing renewables have gotten less expensive, but the US government is sooo late to the party.

Meanwhile, we watch as China takes over leadership if the world.
+8# elkingo 2018-01-13 16:39
Brava Naomi, as usual! Let's hope (and act)!
+6# economagic 2018-01-13 21:32
"The more suits that get filed, the more the market will have to factor in the possibility of fossil fuel companies having to pay out huge settlements in the near to medium term, much as the tobacco companies were forced to in past decades."

An apt simile, as the business model and even some of the law firms are the same.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

ANS -- The Democratic Party Can Still Be Captured, and It’s Worth Doing It

This is an opinion piece from Benjamin Studebaker.  We have to get strategic about this.  


Yet Another Attempt to Make the World a Better Place by Writing Things

The Democratic Party Can Still Be Captured, and It's Worth Doing It

by Benjamin Studebaker

You know what surprised me? So many people took Bernie Sanders' defeat as a reason to give up on the Democratic Party. When Sanders announced he was running, one of my good friends messaged me. He was so excited! There was someone challenging Clinton who believed in things! But I gave him a cold shower. The Democratic Party gave up on stuff like single payer and tuition free college ages ago! Sanders was polling in the single digits. We'd be lucky if he got 10%! I eventually came around and saw that 2016 wasn't going to be a rerun of 2012. Something fundamental had changed–people were frustrated with the status quo but in a deeper way than they were in 2008. They wanted someone bold who promised to do big things. Giving nice speeches about how much you care is okay, but it doesn't pay your medical bills or your student debt. Politicians today have to persuade people they'll do exciting things. This caused problems for the Democratic Party establishment. It was good at a lot of things, but exciting policy wasn't one of them. Sanders came quite close to beating Clinton, and then Donald Trump–the least popular major party presidential candidate in history–did it. This changed the way I viewed the Democratic Party, in ways that have only slowly become clear to me.

Sanders came in with nothing. He polled in single digits and he had no money. There was no one in the party machine who wanted him to do well. In spite of this, he won a bunch of states and outraised Clinton in multiple months. People say that the Democratic Party is useless to the left because it's in thrall to the big donors. But Sanders was more than competitive financially with Clinton relying famously on donations which just averaged $27 (although The Washington Post wants us to know that sometimes the average was as high as $29.14). Yes, it's true that in general, big donations are becoming more important politically and that candidates and parties which rely on grassroots fundraising have to work harder to compete:

But it's still possible for them to compete, even from a deeply disadvantageous starting point. Sanders was an independent. He had no one. The Republican Party had spent years setting the stage for a populist outsider. The Tea Party had been challenging establishment Republicans in primaries since 2010 and pushing conservative media in an ever more overtly right nationalist direction for at least as long. It did most of this with the money of a few billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers. But the Democrats nearly nominated an outsider with none of this infrastructure. For someone as cynical as I was in that 2011-2015 period (and believe me, I wrote plenty of blog posts showcasing it that you can still read), this was a revelation.

Of course, party capture is really challenging. Even if someone from your faction gets the leadership, they can be sabotaged by disloyal ground troops. The Tea Party, despite its best efforts, never cleaned out establishment figures like McCain, Murkowski, and Collins. Those three were enough to stymie Obamacare repeal (though they were happy to go along with the Trump tax plan). But while the Republican Party doesn't look exactly the way they want, it sure doesn't look exactly the way Jeb Bush wants either.

The right tried the whole third party thing. It tried Ross Perot and Reform. It tried Ron Paul and the Libertarians. But in the United States, third parties aren't a great investment. It costs a lot of money to get people to pay attention to third parties. Theodore Roosevelt couldn't take the Progressive Party past 2nd place, and he's one of the most talented politicians in the history of the country. It's cheaper to fight the beast from within. Why throw money at Gary Johnson when you can buy yourself a Ted Cruz? Sure, Donald Trump eventually stole leadership of the movement from his fellow billionaires, but they still own the congress and he's still one of them.

The Sanders campaign proved that the left doesn't need billionaires to pose a material threat to the Democratic establishment. There are two models it can use:

  1. The Tea Party model, in which the left primary challenges Democratic candidates that don't meet its standards.
  2. The UKIP model, in which the left uses third parties not to compete for power to increase the credibility of its threat to the Democratic establishment and tow the Democratic Party in its direction.

If you're American you may not have heard of UKIP–the UK Independence Party. UKIPis one of the most successful political parties of the last 20 years, but it never won more than a single seat in Britain's parliament. UKIP is devoted to taking Britain out of the European Union. It peaked in 2015, when it won 12.6% of the vote. UKIP petrified the British Conservative Party. The Conservatives believed for decades that leaving the European Union was a vote-losing position, but UKIP began siphoning off crucial percentage points of the electorate. To appease them, Prime Minister David Cameron reluctantly agreed to a referendum on Brexit, and eventually he lost. In 2017, UKIP only got 1.8% of the vote, but it doesn't care because it's already accomplished its purpose–it made the British political establishment embody its values. In the same vein, much of the Republican establishment agreed with the Bush administration's willingness to consider amnesty for undocumented immigrants. American conservatives used the primary system to intimidate the Republicans into going their way, but the Tea Party could have directly run anti-immigrant candidates to accomplish the same purpose, as UKIP did.

There are a few different movements which seem to want to follow one or both of these models, ranging from Brand New Congress to Democratic Socialists of America. Some on the left scoff at these movements because they don't think we can end capitalism without abandoning the Democratic Party altogether. But splinter movements which attempt to deplace the Democratic Party completely have no connections to ordinary people and there's no reason to believe they can create those connections out of thin air in a country where third parties have always done terribly. We don't need a left version of the Libertarian Party–we need a left version of the Tea Party, and at most UKIP. Sure, that left organization probably won't end capitalism. Maybe all it can do is make the Democratic Party into a 21st century, less racist and less sexist and less homophobic version of the party of FDR and LBJ. But you know what? For ordinary people, that really is a heck of a lot better than nothing. We might really be able to get single payer. If we have to wait for the robots to transform our economic system, we can at least stop health insurance companies from bankrupting people in the meantime. We can at least ensure that when our technology progresses to a point where more transformative change is possible, we have the right kind of political movements on the scene to make the most of those moments.

The alternative–sitting around in isolated rooms talking to likeminded people about how bad and useless everyone else is–doesn't cut it.

It starts with this year's midterms. The most important thing isn't the number of seats the Democrats take from Republicans, it's the number of left primary challenges and their success rate. If the end of Trump looks like Oprah Winfrey or Cory Booker, we'll just end up right back where we started, and the next Republican nationalist might be more capable than Trump. Winning isn't enough–the Democrats have to win the right way, with people who have the right convictions and the right competencies.