In the Ways That Count, Liz Cheney Won | Frank Bruni

Liz Cheney

Extract from Frank Bruni’s piece in the New York Times:

I know what the numbers say. I can read the returns. By those hard, cold, simplistic measures, Liz Cheney was defeated overwhelmingly in her House Republican primary in Wyoming on Tuesday night, and her time in Congress is winding down.

But it’s impossible for me to say that she lost.

She got many, many fewer votes than her opponent, an unscrupulous shape shifter unfit to shine her shoes, because she chose the tough world of truth over Donald Trump’s underworld of lies. That’s a moral victory.

She was spurned by conservatives in Wyoming because she had the clear-eyed vision to see Trump for what he is and — unlike Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, whose titles perversely include the word “leader” — she wouldn’t don a blindfold. That makes her a champion in the ways that count most.

Come January, she will no longer be Representative Cheney because she represents steadfast principle in an era with a devastating deficit of it. History will smile on her for that. It will remember the likes of McConnell and McCarthy for different, darker reasons. You tell me who’s the winner in this crowd…..


We try to stay out of party politics but Liz Cheney’s stand is about principle — the preservation of American democracy — which should be above politics. Sadly, that is no longer the case.

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The Threat to Global Democracy – August 18, 2022
Thomas Homer-Dixon: The American polity is cracked, and might collapse. Canada must prepare, The Globe & Mail – January 2, 2022

The Battle for Democracy

“Democracy isn’t liberal or conservative, not left or right — at least it isn’t supposed to be. Millions of Americans currently believe that democracy isn’t working, or even that it isn’t worth saving. The battle to prove them wrong isn’t over, it’s just begun.” ~ Garry Kasparov

How to Counter the Putin Playbook | The New York Times

Michael A. McFaul, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford, served as United States ambassador to the Russian Federation from 2012 to 2014:

…We will not find security in isolationism. No missile defense shield, cybersecurity program, tariff or border wall can protect us if we disengage. Menacing autocracies, illiberal ideas, and antidemocratic and terrorist movements will not just leave us alone or wither away. The threats will grow and eventually endanger our peace, as we saw in Europe and Japan in the 1930s, and Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Conversely, the growth of democracy around the world serves American interests. Democracies do not threaten us; autocracies do. Democratic allies also vote with us at the United Nations, go to war with us, support international treaties and norms, and stand with us against tyranny.

So we must push back, in new ways. Just as the Kremlin has become more sophisticated at exporting its ideas and supporting its friends, so must we.

We should think of advancing democratic ideas abroad primarily as an educational project, almost never as a military campaign. Universities, books and websites are the best tools, not the 82nd Airborne. The United States can expand resources for learning about democracy……

I agree with the sentiment but not the execution. Win friends by promoting education and building infrastructure abroad. These have practical, tangible benefits to citizens of developing nations. Democracy can come later. In many parts of the world it is as foreign a concept as gay marriage.

Source: How to Counter the Putin Playbook – The New York Times

The US wants to spread democratic values. It can start by cleaning up its act at home.

From Christian Caryl:

Larry Diamond, one of America’s leading scholars on global democracy, brought it up in a rousing speech at a recent conference here in Washington. He noted, with admirable frankness, that “we can’t be credible and effective in promoting democracy abroad if we don’t reform and improve its functioning at home.” He used to make this point, he said, as one of his last pieces of advice to Americans who aim to offer assistance to would-be democrats abroad. Now, he said, “it needs to be the first.” He quoted the old Greek proverb: “Physician, heal thyself.”

He’s not the only one. Just about everyone you meet in the “democracy bureaucracy” these days says the same. There’s a general awareness that democracy is experiencing dark times around the world, and that the attraction of Western models is waning fueled also by Europe’s continuing financial woes and political inertia….

REad more at The Beacon Dims.

We Should Be Protesting Too |

Lawrence Lessig compares pre-selection in America’s “green primary” to Beijing’s 1200-strong “nominating committee” proposed for Hong Kong elections:

To run in any election, primary or general, candidates must raise extraordinary sums, privately. Yet they raise that money not from all of us. They raise it from a tiny, tiny few. In the last non-presidential election, only about .05 percent of America gave the maximum contribution to even one congressional candidate in either the primary or general election; .01 percent gave $10,000 or more; and in 2012, 132 Americans gave 60 percent of the superPAC money spent. This is the biased filter in the first stage of our American democracy….

America’s government is demonstrably responsive to the “economic elite and organized business interests,” Gilens and Page found, while “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”…..

There is no doubt that because of the way we fund campaigns, the “economic elite” — what conservatives call “the cronies” and progressives “corporate power” — have hijacked American democracy…..

Read more at We Should Be Protesting, Too |

Has democracy failed us or have we failed it?

I came across this opinion piece I wrote for Memorial Day three years ago. How little has changed:

Who kept the faith and fought the fight;
The glory theirs, the duty ours.

I would like to make this quote from Wallace Bruce the theme of today’s newsletter on Memorial Day, May 30th.
We often take for granted the institutions that our ancestors sacrificed so much to secure. Have we fulfilled our duty to preserve the freedoms that they sacrificed so much for? And have we held the members of our institutions to account for the neglect of their duties?

Some legislators only wish vengeance against a particular enemy. Others only look out for themselves. They devote very little time to consideration of any public issue. They think that no harm will come from their neglect. They act as if it is always the business of somebody else to look after this or that. When this selfish notion is entertained by all, the commonwealth slowly begins to decay.

Little seems to have changed since Thucydides made this observation in about 400 BC, a century after the foundation of democracy in ancient Athens. The fundamental weakness of democracy seems to be that those who are elected to office tend to place their own interests ahead of the interests of their electorate — and ahead of the interests of the nation. Not surprising when, as Thucydides pointed out, they believe that little harm will come from their neglect. But if enough legislators place their own interests ahead of those of the country, they will cause irreversible damage.

The First Rule of Politics is to Get Re-Elected

By placing their own interests first, I do not necessarily mean that office holders seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the taxpayer — although that does occasionally happen. Rather that they define their primary duty to their country as re-election. The pressure to get re-elected is bound to influence their thoughts and actions on almost every issue.

The Presidential Cycle

The temptation to manipulate the system to maximize your chance of re-election is too great for most politicians to resist. In fact it has become so ingrained that the whole economy, and the stock market particularly, is subject to the political cycle. Jeremy Grantham explains the presidential cycle in his last quarterly newsletter:

In the first seven months of the third year (of the presidential cycle) since 1960, Year 3 has returned 2.5% per month for a total of 20% real (after inflation adjustment)…. Now, 20% is perilously close to the total for the whole 48-month cycle of 21%. This means, of course, that the remaining 41 months collectively return a princely 1%.

It’s the economy, stupid

The third rule of politics is don’t run for re-election during a recession. Ask George H. W. Bush who, despite successful prosecution of the first Iraq war, was beaten by Bill Clinton in 1992 with the slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.” (The second rule, by the way, is: never forget Rule #1)

Successive presidents/governments have failed to find a way to re-schedule elections to a time that bests suits them (despite many examples in the rest of the world). They soon, however, came up with an ingenious alternative: re-schedule the recession.

How to Re-Schedule a Recession

As soon as politicians realized they could spend future taxes as well as current taxes, the demise of the current system became inevitable. Prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s, governments were assessed on their ability to balance the books. Previous disasters with fiat currencies (continental and confederate dollars) were still fresh in the national consciousness. Only during times of war could they justify running a deficit. So much so that Herbert Hoover refused to run a deficit despite the deflationary spiral following the 1929 Wall Street crash.

When FDR lifted that constraint in the 1930s, with the acquiescence of a desperate public who were willing to try almost anything, an immense new power was born. Unfortunately with immense power comes immense responsibility — and successive governments have proved themselves unequal to the task.

Spend Future Taxes and Leave your Successor a Pile of Debt

It has become too easy for whoever is in power to spend future taxes to stimulate the economy and postpone a recession. The result is that their successor inherits a pile of debt, which if they attempt to repay, is likely to lead to a recession. So the game becomes one of pass the parcel, with each elected government adding to the debt and passing it on to the next.

If the ancient Greeks had the same power, the decline of Athens may have been a lot sooner. Their modern counterparts have demonstrated that the game cannot continue indefinitely. At some point the market will begin to question government’s ability to repay, raising interest rates to compensate for the risk of sovereign default. Their fears become a self-fulfilling prophecy, with higher servicing costs increasing the burden on the already-precarious fiscal budget.

Fed Compliance

The second actor in this modern form of Greek tragedy is the Federal Reserve. Without a compliant Fed, government efforts to kick the can down the road would be largely negated. An independent Fed could put the brakes on government efforts to stimulate the economy with borrowed money, merely by acting as a counter-balance to their actions. Unfortunately the Board of Governors are political appointments, nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) may be more evenly balanced with the addition of the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and four of the remaining eleven Reserve Bank presidents, who serve one-year terms on a rotating basis, but is still dominated by the seven Board members. You can be sure that very few mavericks are appointed as governors and that most dissenting votes come from the regions.

Washington, Inc.

Elections are an expensive business and no candidate is likely to achieve re-election without financial backers, making them especially vulnerable to outside influence. The finance industry alone made $63 million in campaign contributions to Federal Candidates during the 2010 electoral cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That will buy you a lot of influence on the Hill, but is merely the tip of the iceberg. Interest groups spent $3.5 billion in that year on lobbying Congress and federal agencies ($473 million from the finance sector). While that money does not flow directly to candidates it acts as an enticing career path/retirement plan for both Representatives and senior staffers.

The revolving door between Capitol Hill and the big lobbying firms parachutes former elected officials and staffers into jobs as lobbyists, consultants and strategists — while infiltrating their best and brightest into positions within government; a constant exchange of power, influence and money. More than 75 percent of the 363 former senators or representatives end up employed by lobbying firms, either as lobbyists or advisors.

Can the Present System Evolve?

Are we likely to experience slow decay that Thucydides predicted? The present system is entrenched and likely to resist any attempts at reform. Evolution, however, does not occur in small increments. The norm is quite the opposite, with species enjoying long periods of stability followed by violent change when threatened with extinction. The current GFC presents just such an opportunity for change. The Tea Party movement, for example, is attempting to re-define the way that the system works, while I am sure that there are many Democrats who mistrust the motives of Washington.

If they fail to succeed, there is bound to be a next time. And probably sooner than we think.

The state that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its laws made by cowards,
and its fighting done by fools.

~ Thucydides (c. 460 BC – c. 400 BC).

The EU should take inspiration from Switzerland in its attempts to increase democratic legitimacy | EUROPP

Joseph Lacey explains why the EU should follow the Swiss example:

Three major factors help to explain how Switzerland is possible. First, there are national elections and nationally-held referendums connected to the workings of a national government. Second, though national elections only take place every five years, referendums are far more frequent. On average, usually on three scheduled dates, Switzerland holds seven referendums annually. Some of these are constitutionally mandated, though the majority are demanded at the initiative of at least 100,000 citizen signatures. Third, unlike the case of Belgium where national consciousness is fragmented by two party systems divided along linguistic lines (French and Flemish), Switzerland has a single party system where the dominant cleavage is ideological, cutting across linguistic barriers and thereby allowing parties to draw common support from all public spheres.

Read more at The EU should take inspiration from Switzerland in its attempts to increase democratic legitimacy. | EUROPP.

China: US Shutdown Exposes ‘Ugly Side of Partisan Politics’

Reuters Shanghai:

China on Wednesday said the U.S. government shutdown had exposed “the ugly side of partisan politics” in Washington and expressed concern about its effect on the world economy.

An editorial on the state-run Xinhua news service, considered a channel for Beijing’s official views, said: “The United States, the world’s sole superpower, has engaged in irresponsible spending for years.”

“In the view of the latest political failure, a replay of the 2011 summer drama seems likely, which is certainly a concern for U.S. foreign creditors,” it said.

“With no political unity to redress its policy mistake, a dysfunctional Washington is now overspending the confidence in its leadership,” the editorial said.

Chinese leaders must be both puzzled and perplexed by the current spat between Congress and the Senate. How can a government which considers itself a beacon of democracy — and which advocates democracy to emerging nations — exhibit such disfunctional behavior? Separation of duties between the President, Congress and the Senate — designed to safeguard the nation from excessive concentration of power — have evolved into a recurring political logjam. Both major parties are guilty of burdening future taxpayers with public debt, in order to buy off existing voters, and kicking the can down the road — avoiding unpopular political decisions that are in the long-term interests of the nation. Failure to address unsustainable welfare spending, for example, has allowed unfunded liabilities to balloon to more than $70 trillion by 2012.

Weak political coalitions have also led to unstable government and a short-term focus in many Western democracies. These issues are completely foreign to China’s Central Committee.

The Central Politburo Standing Committee (“PSC”) of the Communist Party of China is a committee of 7 members appointed by the Chinese Communist Party to run the country, with Li Jinping acting as General Secretary. No political group has the power to block decisions of the Committee, allowing them to focus on long-term goals rather than short-term considerations. Ascendancy of the PSC is one of the major contributing factors to China’s phoenix-like rise from the ashes of decades of political turmoil.

I am not advocating that we abandon democracy and revert to a one-party state, but we need to address the weaknesses in our current system and adopt some of the strengths of others. An outstanding example of this is the Swiss system where a similar central committee is democratically elected, based on proportional representation. All parties are represented on the 7-member Federal Council and decision-making is collective. Council members serve one year terms as the largely-ceremonial head of state. The strength of the system is its stability, with only one change to the composition of the 7-member Council over the last 50 years. This enables members to focus on long-term goals rather than on short-term political concerns — one of the reasons why the Swiss economy is one of the most stable and successful, ranked 8th in the world in terms of GDP per capita according to the IMF.

Powers of the central committee are restrained by a vibrant direct democracy where citizens regularly vote on national referendums. The power of voters to overturn their decisions maintains a strong check on the central committee throughout their elected term and would also curb the influence of special interest groups, another abscess on butt of many democracies.

While most recognize the need for change, a major obstacle is the power of vested interests that are likely to impede progress at every turn. Only a major ground-swell of popular support could sweep them aside. In a way we should welcome crises like the current impasse, as further cracks in the dam wall of public opinion. When the wall breaks, hopefully we can build a better system…..if we have learned from our past mistakes.

Read more at China: US Shutdown Exposes 'Ugly Side of Partisan Politics'.

Youth protests: The “legitimacy crisis” of modern democracy

The youth riots in Brazil, Chile, the European Union, the Arab Middle East, Turkey, and even the “Occupy” movement in the West all reflect what political theory broadly calls the “legitimacy crisis” of modern democracy – the notion that participation in democratic politics does little to change the actual process of government, that elites are dug-in and immoveable, that cronyism is endemic, and so on. Young voters particularly become cynical of the formal electoral process, either dropping out in disdain, or expressing their grievances “extra-parliamentarily”, i.e., on the street.

Read more at Will These Youth Protests Spread to Asia’s Corrupted Democracies? | The Diplomat.