us v is (What’s So Funny… 2)

...you do seem, at least, to be endlessly rationalizing U.S. imperial overreach, as if it were some sort of grand strategy upholding universal “liberal democracy”, where I tend to see incoherence, disintegration and devolution, on the part of grossly incompetent, irresponsible and ignorant ruling elites.

To which I would reply: Incoherence, disintegration, and devolution on the part of (generally) incompetent, irresponsible, and ignorant ruling elites is the grand strategy, or a leading element of the grand strategy, upholding universal liberal democracy. Or: Read your Madison and de Tocqueville, or prior posts at this blog (for instance, “The State of the Neo-Empire Is Strong”), or await publication of a long-form post currently in draft form on strategy and the neo-imperial state. Or: You’d like us even less if we were more competent.

Otherwise, same intro for this post as for the last one. I don’t yet have time to work out a “real” post, but want to archive useful discussion even if some of it is redundant (not to mention repetitious – sorry about that). I’m leaving out some trivial side-arguments and -comments – but am including a somewhat off-topic exchange with friend of this blog john c halasz (respecting his preference for lower case), because it is intermixed with the IS discussion, and also raises some issues of abiding interest to me for possible extended examination:

jch to me:

Maybe it’s because of your pro-Israel stance or your aggressive Americanism, but I think you’ve got this badly wrong. Loathsome as the Assad regime might be, (though no more than lot of others in the region, including “allies”, and it doesn’t pay to personalize the matter), it does represent the interests of a significant portion of the Syrian population, (not just Alawites, but Christians and secular Sunnis, etc.) in a country with a highly fissiparous social structure,- (remember the Lebanese civil war lasted 15 years),- against both fundamentalist fanatics and the prospect of complete disintegration. (And the precursor to the uprising was a severe drought which the regime either couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with).

If our elites, our “fearless leaders”, weren’t so heedless and profligate, then the obvious course would have been to try and contain the Syrian civil war, and constrain various regional actors from interfering in and fomenting it, resulting in a general and artificial Shja/Sunni regional conflict. And, as it is, dealing the weakened Assad regime in, to effect a regional settlement still remains the best course, given the dire alternatives. That’s better than a lot of gratuitous, self-righteous moralizing to cover a multitude of sins.

Despite differing initial premises, I tend to side with conservative realists like Col. Bacevich: you can have a republic or you can have an empire, but you can’t have both. Which side are you on?

reply to jch:

We’ve had discussions like this before at my blog, a couple of times, and it seems to me that when I have asked you – with sincere interest – to point out what I have written that leads you to reach the conclusions you reach about my views or stances, as here in regard to Israel, Americanism, and Assad, you break off the discussion or simply ignore the request.

As for Bacevich and broader questions, like most everyone else who has studied the topic, I acknowledge the tension between “republic” and “empire,” but the notion of their mutual exclusivity, or of choosing one but not the other, was, I believe, overthrown around two hundred years ago, and replaced with the concept and, quite arguably, the reality of their interdependence for modern mass societies. At this point – I mean right here on this thread – even if I were inclined to take a side, I couldn’t be confident that what it meant to me would be the same as what it meant to you, to Bacevich, or to anyone else.

jch to me:

Well, it’s difficult amidst all the abstracted curlicues to pin down the exact points of inference and implication; that’s beyond my hermeneutic skills. So I have to rely on a sense of the general tenor. But you do seem, at least, to be endlessly rationalizing U.S. imperial overreach, as if it were some sort of grand strategy upholding universal “liberal democracy”, where I tend to see incoherence, disintegration and devolution, on the part of grossly incompetent, irresponsible and ignorant ruling elites. (And the rise of “mass societies” in the 19th century is, at the very least, an incomplete description; the emergence of industrial capitalism was a main driver. So “making the world safe for MNCs” might be a better description of the “universal” interest that is being pursued).

As to the general issue here of the Assad regime, the U.S. doesn’t have to support, nor supply it, just acknowledge it. The Russians and the Iranians can provide the support and supplies. (Oops! Those are other pieces of the puzzle our fearless leaders have massively screwed up on.) The real trick, almost impossible to achieve, is to wean the Sunni areas off of supporting Daesh or other Islamic extremists, while leaving them sufficiently armed so that they can feel capable of securing themselves, but not so much that they can go on the offensive. Syria and Iraq likely will never again be unified states. At most peace could be re-instituted on the basis of loose confederations.

But the position of Erdogan puzzles me. Previously, he had pursued conciliatory policies toward Syria and Iran, for the sake of security and economic benefits. When and why did he become a Sunni warrior?

reply to jch (summary of US policy as I understand it):

It’s been almost three years since Erdogan turned against Assad publicly. You can read the former’s own explanations at this NYT article – http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/world/middleeast/turkish-leader-says-syrian-president-should-quit.html?_r=0

Not easy to reverse yourself on statements like this one, directed at Assad long before East Ghouta or maybe 160 or so thousand casualties ago:

Just remove yourself from that seat before shedding more blood, before torturing more and for the welfare of your country, as well as the region… It is not heroism to fight against your own people. If you want to see someone who has fought against his own people, look at Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, Ceausescu of Romania. If you do not learn your lesson from them, look at the Libyan leader, who pointed his gun against his own people and, only 32 days ago, got killed in a way that none of us desired, after using the same phrases that you use.

Erdogan’s predicament in this respect is similar to the USG’s, since Obama & co have made similar statements about Assad, and also because Obama & co likely believe them to be true statements.

As for the rest of official US Syria policy, for a few years now it’s been, I think, not too far from the one that you and Ronan seem to favor: a unity government combining regime elements with nationalist opposition forces, cleansed of war criminals and irreconcilable Jihadists; devolution of central powers as practicable and desired, but not break-up of the state.

In the past, at points when the regime seemed more vulnerable, and before the Western-recognized opposition in its earlier incarnation had been discredited, the US hoped to use the Syrian army and other elements of the government to re-build the state quickly (learning from the Iraq experience, ideally). That Assad, with Russian and Iranian support, combats this strategy aimed at his eventual removal with a traditional (and, incidentally, IS-like) counter-strategy of his own should also be considered. By implicating his dependents in unforgivably atrocious crimes, he burns bridges between the former and everyone else. In a parallel manner, Assad’s military campaigns have always focused more on nationalist or “moderate” opposition than on IS and other Jihadist-extremist elements, trying to clarify the choice for everyone else as “me or the terrorists.” IS has somewhat similarly focused much more on its competitors, and on expanding and consolidating its areas of control, than on fighting Assad.

Though Assad’s approached has many vulnerabilities, it has worked especially well in regard to the US, where the idea of funding and arming friends of Al Qaeda is a non-starter, and where people, I guess including you, who would be happy just to see the bloodshed stop, see giving into his regime as the best way to achieve that worthy goal. Yet in the same connection backers of the anti-IS campaign, who wish the US and coalition were doing much more in Syria, believe that the “double effect” (objectively aids Assad) problem has been exaggerated, and that, under a truly consequential escalation against IS, it would be at worst only a short-term concern before the conflict was clarified in a different way: Without the terrorists to point to, the Assad regime would be revealed as the true obstacle in the way of a political settlement and a return to civil peace.

With the terrorist threat being actively “handled,” the main impediment in America to supporting the Syrian opposition substantially would also be removed or reduced. To be implemented successfully, however, this IS-first strategy would eventually require a major commitment from the international community, led by the US and allies, and backed by American and other Western citizens among whom the Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan experiences have reinforced skepticism about our or anyone’s ability to shape a favorable outcome. Whether this is the wrong lesson, or a right lesson in some cases, a wrong one in others, would be another discussion. Prospects for success would also be greatly aided by Russian and Iranian cooperation, which, however, if obtainable at all, might come at a high price.

May seem hard or impossible – may go better than expected. Either way, since the American public is prepared to accept risks in order to “degrade and ultimately destroy” jihadist extremists (i.e., Al Qaeda under whatever name), it is possible for this president to commence an attack on IS while waiting for events that might make shortening the timetable or escalating the military investment politically possible, or might turn our attention elsewhere.

 


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7 comments on “us v is (What’s So Funny… 2)

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  1. The discussions about rebuilding the Syrian government by outsiders just… What gives anyone other than Syrians the right to even attempt to decide how things go in Syria?

    Why is it so far-fetched to desire a world, if it is to be interconnected, that is so by peaceful commerce & discussion rather than by being constantly reconfigured by whoever has the most & best arms? What gives anyone the right to claim such authority AT ALL?

    Does it all simply come down to “we can, so we will”?

    • The underlying justification will be in the first instance that the truly legitimate representatives of the Syrian people – i.e., not Assad, viewed as having lost legitimacy – will request and require assistance.

      The possibility of force and the will to use it have not hitherto proven susceptible to the wish for their non-existence, meaning either that people will have to give in to whoever possesses it or call upon force of their own. So if absence of force is desirable, but not obtainable, and if giving in is not acceptable, then the question always comes down to the effort of putting preponderant force on the side of desirable ends. That formula even holds true for Gandhian pacifism, which of course relies on “soul-force” as a theoretically higher and more just or absolutely just means to compel obedience.

  2. I didn’t further reply because I was busy,- (had to organize a meeting),- and by the time I was free, the thread had been over-run by some of the usual spam commenters.

    However, here you seem dangerously close to counter-Enlightenment, as if unthinkingness were to be elevated into a supreme virtue,- (and then what next, stupidity and ignorance?)

    And I don’t think you have much sense, in the current Mid-east crisis, of how much the U.S. has already lost in terms of credibility and legitimacy, from both ostensible allies or friends and opponents and irremediable enemies. (This is also more general, as with the German finance minister blaming the U.S. for the GFC, which is not entirely incorrect, but, of course, blame-shifting for German stupidity in dealing with the Euro crisis).

    You don’t get to make drastic “mistakes” and then simply declare “time out” and ask for a do-over. The “mistakes” already have consequences and implications, and trying to cover up that fact, at home or abroad, is bootless. And by now, the concatenation of mistakes piling up has left few viable options. In the case of Daesh it is not simply enough to defeat it, but a viable source of local/regional “legitimate” rule in the aftermath needs to be formed. And the U.S. has no basis in the region for doing so. (Aside from the fact that one pick-up costs $30.000 and one bombing run costs $500,000).

    Power, however generated or arrived at, can be used effectively or heedlessly squandered. There is something like a conservation law involved. And whether it is Albright/Clinton or Cheney/Rumsfeld or the shallow Obama and his patently hypocritical moralizers, too much has been presumptuously and imcompetently squandered for any “grand strategy” based on geo-political alliances to be recuperated and rendered effective, rather than just reactive and ad hoc. Gratuitous moralizing stands revealed as just empty moralizing, and abstracting into ahistorical “theological” history, as opposed to actual temporal history, just rationalizes the problems away.

    • However, here you seem dangerously close to counter-Enlightenment, as if unthinkingness were to be elevated into a supreme virtue,- (and then what next, stupidity and ignorance?)

      I’m trying to understand, jch, not to advocate or to praise. As I understand Americanism, it does not locate “supreme virtue” in the administration of government or in policy, including foreign policy. It locates supremacy in the people or popular sovereignty prior to particular governmental (or formal political, administrative, and juridical) forms or actions. In this sense Americanism is pessimistic about government, though optimistic about the prospects for a national community well-guarded against excessive governmental optimism (or “governmentality” as apparently some are saying of late). From this point of view, for the sake of self-government, the government of “checks and balances” must itself by checked and balanced by the government that functions under a different name or under no name, and that is is customarily located in the “private” as opposed to “public” realm.

      The theory of the mixed government or polity doesn’t presume perfect and immortal success. It’s a making the best of a situation (human life on Earth) in which the best in governance (rule by the wise) is either unattainable or, if attainable for a time (the rise of a Cyrus), unsustainable (Cyrus is mortal), and, as such, highly dangerous (succession crises tear apart the state), but I don’t have time today to expand upon my parentheses and rehearse the defense of American liberal democracy before the court of history. It’s also not my purpose to do so in these comments on Syria policy. As in my initial reply to Professor Quiggin, my objective is to view Syria policy apart from certain presumptions that I also see informing your critique.

      I’ll just add for now, until some time that I can develop the idea further (or look through places where I already have done so), that “grand strategy” is not the same as “grand design.” Grand strategy can be as simple as its premises are stable. It can be seen to emerge more or less spontaneously from particular geographical and broad historical circumstances, and doesn’t necessarily require a lot of self-conscious effort, or supreme virtue either, on the part of the people implementing it. For various reasons, that description may apply to America and Americans especially and typically, since we were born on 3rd base geo-historically: exceptionality prior to exceptionalism. To observe as much doesn’t make me any more “aggressively Americanist” than natural history turned out to be.

  3. Well, I suppose I just don’t understand what your getting at and you’re talking past me (and likely many other participants). If you want to criticize (?) others’ “presuppositions”, then just what are yours and shouldn’t you be laying your cards on the table? (And if we’re not talking about Syria/the Mideast and U.S. involvement/responsibility there, just what are we supposed to be talking about?)

    But from what I can make out of your apparent assumptions here, they strike me as fairly dubious. For one thing the assumption of a continuous American “exceptionalism” from the very origins of the country seems tendentious and teleological. There are no origins, except retrospectively and somewhat mythical, (as opposed to a welter of confused contingencies), and the history of the country is subject to emergences and transformation, resulting is periodizations or “epochs”, though only retrospectively identifiable. (History involves both continuities and discontinuities, if it is to be regarded as intelligible, which is what is wrong with Foucault’s structural mutations, just as much as traditional unreflective historiography of “the West” as originating in ancient Greece and Rome, as transmitted through the Renaissance and resulting in a triumphant and distinctive Western “humanism”).

    SO if you want to discuss the U.S. ascendency to global hegemony and its strange from of “neo-imperialism”, (without assuming some sort of pre-destination), then perhaps some periodization is in order. And post-WW2, there are two, the Bretton Woods era, and the neo-liberal era, which emerged as a result of the failure of BW and the stagflationary crisis that resulted from it. There is also, of course, the Cold War era that overlaps the two, which ended with American triumphalism, (though with no accounting for its risks and damages, which likely continue with us). But the key point is that the Bretton Woods framework, in Keynes’ conception, but also partly in White’s, was intended to allow each nation a measure of control over its economic policies, to suit its own peculiar circumstance and allow for its development, with some degree of success. But the neo-liberal era of U.S. sponsored “globalization”, (which corresponds to the switch from net creditor to net debtor status and resulted in the unprecedented condition that the global hegemon was an importer rather than exporter of surplus capital), has persistently undermined the sovereignty of nation-states and their capacity to conduct domestic policy, in favor of the extra-territorial power of finance capital and MNCs.

    So ISTM that you’re rationalizing such a “logic of disintegration” (Adorno) under the guise of intrinsic Americanism, when it is not self-evidently in the national and public interest of Americans, at least conceived as a majoritarian system. But nor is the legitimacy of such a system automatically guaranteed by any sheerly autonomous proceduralism, as if such were immune from manipulation, hollowing-out and “corruption”. Yes, power is said to derive from the people, as “sovereign”, as is the case in our “democratic” age with nearly all regimes, even the most despotic, but that, of course, is something of a legal fiction. But likewise, the location of “the people” in the essentially private interests of individuals rather than in the public status and compact of citizens,- (rather Hobbesian, that!),- rather undermines the claim to republican self-government, (and at the limit, encourages all sorts of infantilism and paranoia and their manipulation). And it encourages the faith, not uniquely, though especially American, that political problems are susceptible to technological solutions.

     

    I can’t quite shake the impression that your perspective seeks to disable all criticism, in the name of the sheer facticity of American power and its demand for “sacrifice”, (which is especially absurd in the face of the clusterf*ck that is U.S. Mideast policy over the last 2 decades).. But perhaps rather than appealing to Schmitt, you should be heeding Arendt, with her emphasis on the key role of judgment. (The two could be considered 2 halves of a broken whole, when considering the political).”Great” leaders are to be distinguished by the quality and efficacy of their judgments, regardless of the cause, party or ideology that they serve. Obviously, few completely measure up, (Bismarck or Venizelos might serve as examples though), but the point is that they are just as well subject to the judgments of lesser mortals and to be held accountable in such terms. And when the leadership so persistently fails in its judgments and forfeits the trust, (another version of legitimacy), that they have claimed from the people, then they have dissipated the very power that they have claimed. IOW there is much to be said for the power of self-restraint, for observing limits.

    But then perhaps my POV is just unreconcilable with yours. I’m first generation, the offspring of post-war European immigrants and have the betwixt-and-between perspective of an immigrant. I lack the self-confident complacency of “native” Americans and their unreflective assumption that voluntaristic individualism is somehow the natural and “universal” order.

  4. jch – thanks for your comment. I’ll respond to it with an even longer one, more or less point by point, reserving the right to revise and extend.

    1. Aint never noticed “many other participants” in these here parts, jch. I try to make things easy for those who do want to participate, but I’m grateful if I manage even a handful of “sanity testers.” I apologize if I don’t always seem to pass the test.

    2. This whole blog is the table. I’ve been laying cards out to the best of my ability for years. Lately, I’ve been working harder at organizing the content and making it more accessible for those (including myself) who want to trace the development of an argument. Guess we’ll just have to see how far I get before one or both of us check out in whatever way or ways. Maybe this comment will work as a template for a future index post or page.

    3. I specifically distinguish between “exceptionalism” and “exceptionality.” The exceptionality of the New World is a geographical fact with far-ranging effects on culture and state formation, in other words on history. One need not pinpoint and proclaim a single origin point to support this observation, which may seem too obvious even to require argument, but which for the same reason tends to be forgotten or set aside. Even if we managed to re-assemble Pangaea, the former separation of the nations by the oceans and the late settlement and development of former North America would still influence human culture uniquely or “exceptionally.”

    “There are no origins” is reminiscent of similar claims typical of the skeptical and eventually nihilistic position or pseudo-position, as in “there are no causes,” “there is no reality,” “truth is an illusion,” “consciousness is an artificial construct,” “nothing matters,” and so on. In other words, it’s one of those seemingly possibly or certainly true statements that no one truly believes or can self-consistently think true (in part because truly to believe requires and presumes truth, significance, a conscious being, reality, cause-and-effect, etc.).

    4. To me, “global hegemony” isn’t the right term for what the US has ever achieved or sought. “Neo-imperialism” is a term that acknowledges similarities and potentially as crucial differences between actual and possible constitutions of power in the world today as compared to previous eras. I like to date the neo-imperium to the birth of the United Nations, not the organization currently housed in New York City, but its immediate precursor, declared and founded by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in a famous story is said to have excitedly announced the name to Winston Churchill, interrupting the latter in his bath. Churchill is supposed to have said to the startled FDR, “The Prime Minister has nothing to hide from the President of the United States”: A worthy and telling origin story, in my view, since, in the Neo-Empire to come, the leaders of the former British Empire would in effect stand naked yet not truly vulnerable before the global “neo-hegemon.”

    But I’m happy to acknowledge this moment as just one of many candidates for leading origin among origins.

    5. I’m not sure why we need to go to the periods, but in any event yours don’t differ greatly from mine regarding sub-divisions of the longer “realized neo-imperial” period or “early global era” or Pax Americana. However, the sovereignty of nation-states was already compromised definitively by the new regime of international law, especially under the rather radically transformed international law of war, and in different ways throughout the period prior to the advent of neo-liberalism or financialized neo-liberalism.

    As for the “unprecedented condition” of the global hegemon as debtor – everything or anyways much the global hegemon does would tend to be unprecedented, since there would have been, at most, only one other – while among empires in general, financial difficulties up to and including collapse are common.

    6. The notion of an “Americanism not in the national and public interest of Americans” is in one sense paradoxical, in another, typically, to be presumed.

    Specifically regarding majoritarianism, or simple numerical democratism, the American system today is arguably more majoritarian or majoritarianist than it was at inception, but still is built on numerous qualifications and exceptions against the “tyranny” of “majority faction.”

    As for the other contradictions you examine from your fourth, “ISTM” paragraph to the end of your comment, they comprise, ISTM, the typical tensions of the modern mixed regime. “Voluntaristic individualism” may propose a universal, but even as such it would not necessarily exhaust the whole: It suggests an essential and irreducible moment, the moment of  (Cartesian, metaphysically individual) “man” in the neo-Judaic trinity of “God-world-man”: that possessor of universal rights, of a juridical “person,” of “a self,” whose political annihilation reveals the worst of worlds.

    7. In my view Schmitt happened to understand and also to explain the functioning of the modern state – mass liberal democracy under popular sovereignty (sacrificial communion) in a global state of sates – in ways that Adorno and Arendt, always keen to judge and to justify the urge to judge, something you seem to admire about them, could never allow for themselves. From a unique vantage point Schmitt observed, analyzed, participated in, and anticipated catastrophically apocalyptic or apocalyptically catastrophic developments that were, I believe, anticipated but necessarily only dimly in Hegel’s philosophy of world history, and, one might say, prophesied by de Tocqueville as well as by the American founders of the “Empire of Liberty,” by the re-founders and “consecraters” of the government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” and by, as already observed, a third set of founders, of the Americanized world state of states, or of the United States of America self-consciously as world-historical power.

    8. “World-historical power” is a term derived, as I assume you know, from that Hegelian discourse just referenced. It is a self-consciously “tendentious and teleological” comprehension of history, and I think in this sense Arendt, Adorno, Schmitt, among many others, whatever their differences, are all very much in Hegel’s tradition, since all would view history taken as mere assemblage of facts, as one damn thing after another without tendency or telos, as pseudo-history or history without meaning, so history for meaningless people or subjectless subjects, or bourgeois science, or technologism, or ideology unaware of itself as such. More subtly, so therefore more seductively, it would be another one of those nihilisms (nowadays frequently “post-modernisms”) that everyone imagines believable, but no one can really believe, yet which are not without power simply for being impossible. (Any inquiry or argument or logic at all must presume their falsehood.) It serves (as) the empty self-consciousness of the empty throne of the American neo-imperial pseudo-state or state of states, which locates and simultaneously dislocates or de-locates or universalizes absolute self-consciousness as telos properly and immanently of spirit creating itself or busy being born, never as simple particular or image or ideological reification.

    9. What this all has to do with Syria… I’ve already been trying to explain, first to myself. I’ve written extensively on the topic of America as world-historical power, and somewhat intensively on the US in relation to the Middle East, and I’ve sought to link the two subjects, since current events and the longer historical and especially historical-philosophical view (ought to) illuminate each other even if the attempt brings constant risk of self-deception. The front-line participants in events seek meaning in them in a parallel way: They kill and die for something they perceive to be “transmortal” – greater than their own lives yet for that same reason lending their lives and possibly their deaths a greater meaning in a specifically and self-consciously historical relation. I think it’s rather obvious, in fact, and is uppermost in the minds of leading participants, that in the fight between IS and the US, at least two theories of history, or standpoints on world history, or world-historical concepts, are also colliding.

    • Briefly, 1) yes, it’s your blog, but the “other participants” were on the CT thread that you’ve cited here. 3) Yes, 2 oceans and abundant natural resources, (though the latter are somewhat relative to economic/technological systems). But geo-political considerations apply quite generally and are never completely explanatory. 3b),5), 8) I’m not po-mo. This is just standard hermeneutics (Gadamer). Any sort of tradition, as effective history, only survives and renews itself through its successive applications and re-interpretations. And any origins only become identifiable when enough distance has been gained from them, which implies also that they have somewhat lost their hold. History, insofar as it is not just one damned thing after another, concerns the conjunctural emergences and transformations of meanings, understanding, norms and world-views, together with their correlated social/institutional structures, which is the prime interest in such a study, (and why “origins” must be plural and periodic), insofar as it contributes to current self-understandings. And it also follows that there are no “eternal”,  extra-worldly or trans-historical truths, reflexively, especially about history itself, which doesn’t vitiate any sort of validity claim, but simply limits it, as always potentially and even inevitably, if unforeseeably, revisable. Further, there is a third alternative between reductive causal immanence and unjustifiable metaphysical teleology: teleonomy. 6) Economics is not your strong suit, eh? 7), 8) Power can’t be reduced to the classical couplet force or fraud. There are also both functional and normative components to its generation and exercize, no matter how ideologically obscured or distorted they might be. Perhaps a purely Schmittian account has some functional and normative deficits which would qualify its explanatory and explicative “force”. 7), 8), 9), This is what I honestly don’t understand about your POV. The U.S. just has to be (itself?), regardless of any of its doings, (however attributed)? Whereas ISTM that heedless U.S. doings, (and the “Peter principle” governing its supposed elites), has severely undermined its hegemony and its reputation effects. The Mideast is a perfect example, since its actions destabilized the area to the point where neither its ostensible friends or allies, nor its selected enemies show much respect for U.S. interests or objectives. And I don’t think your reading of Daesh/Al Qaeda, in terms of a supposed “clash of civilizations” and “transcendent values” is remotely plausible. Like Ebola, they are malignant and dangerous, but far more a threat over there than here, and the hysteria is rather misplaced, insofar as it ignores the contributions of “our ” mistakes, which have undermined credibility and legitimacy in the region. But as I think I’ve remarked before here, Daesh/Al Qaeda are just a species of religious nihilism, generated from the shocks of the modern world, (rather in the manner of Arendt’s take on Nazism, as a wildly slap-dash and incoherent ideology, hollow at its core, and thus self-consuming), rather than any enduring opponent, “justifying” the over-extension of the national-security state, when no such “security” is at issue and no such means are appropriate, relevant or effective. There are all sorts of “reasons” why some might seek to fight-to-death, but that doesn’t make those reasons “transcendent”. (That’s what the “Darwin awards” are for). I prefer the term “devolution” to notions of corruption, degeneration , decadence, as repeating reactionary tropes, but the decline of the “American century” is as inevitable as a self-inflicted wound. Bottom line: reality is not a TV show.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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