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Thursday, November 10, 2016


Regular readers of this blog may recall that from time to time I have reprinted, and then archived, foreign policy analyses by William R. Polk, a distinguished retired professor and diplomat whom I knew in  1959-61 when we were both in the  Winthrop House Senior Common Room at Harvard.  [It was Bill who brought back from Europe for our annual Senior Common Room dinner a Jereboam of brandy, which was the proximate cause of one of the three times in my life when I have been drunk.]

Yesterday Bill circulated this lengthy response to the election of Trump by George Polk, who is, I am assuming, a relative [Bill had an older brother George, a journalist, who was murdered.]  It is quite long, but I recommend it.  It proposes a response to the election quite different from any I have seen.  I have chosen not to edit it for several typos.  Here it is:

Dear Friends, 

Thinking about the events of the last 24 hours in the US and what they mean, the thought that keeps coming back to me is "welcome to the Brexit syndrome."    Americans are now experiencing what everyone in Britain experienced the morning of the Brexit vote.   Very little had actually changed, since the vote only signaled the start of a process with an uncertain outcome.   In fact the only immediate tangible shift was the dramatic fall in the value of the pound.    And so will go the US, with another two months with Obama in office and Trump unable to do much in the meantime.  But just as in the UK we have felt incremental small impacts, slice by slice, which together add up to a very difficult future, in the US we are likely seeing the beginning of a very fundamental change.   Some will get comfort from the unclear nature of the change — I suspect that just as still no one knows what Brexit really means, because all the actors have only seen their own lines, in a Trump America it is likely that the only certainty is the uncertainty about what he might do and how he might do it.   But there are too many signs that the general drift will be terrible to ignore them.

The potential for social unrest is huge.   In both votes, some significant portion of those who voted felt completely left behind by the current economy in the UK and the US.   They harken for more security, more economic opportunity and are angry at the system which has evolved over the last decades.    As societies, the UK and the US have done a poor job of dealing with this discontent, failing to engage with the core issues and tackle the hard investments necessary to bring these discontented people back into the mainstream.   If we intend to remain democracies (which could be an open question), then we need to deal with this problem head on.    Looking across modern nations, there are some who seem to have done a better job, and we have to look closely at what has worked for them and import those ideas.  Ideally we would shape a movement to make this a strong social priority.

But even if we develop a strong sense of what must be done, how could we do anything?    I doubt that anyone will have any chance to implement coherent policy in any arena at the national level.    The core Trump and Brexit voter is not committed to the principle of cause and effect, and i'm not sure they understand the idea of investing in their own future, so getting them to accept sacrifices and trade offs may be hard.   There is little sign that they are prepared for the work necessary to reshape their situation, and there is every sign that they will simply become more disgruntled as their aspirations are no easily delivered.   Of course, the frustration on the progressive side will also be intense, as the new policies ensure that their aspirations are also being thwarted.   Remember that Trump's victory was in fact razor thin (despite what the electoral college numbers say) and there are at least as many people on the progressive side willing to fight for their values as there are on the side of the discontents.    In many ways, it is hard to see that this ends in anything other than violence, either individual or of crowds or institutional, with institutional violence is in some ways the most insidious.  In the US, and with the likely appointment of several supreme court justices during Trump's term, the discontents now have the legal system on their side, and they are likely to be able to reshape in their image official law enforcement in many parts of the country.    Trump has already indicated a disdain for constitutional rights, and this will likely spread through the system.    

But this is where the effects of the votes diverge. 

Brexit is a different problem, largely because the institutions of government are still uncompromised, the process forced the channeling of the discontent into a focus on a single, ultimately containable issue, and the country is trying to deal with the "exit" issue almost in isolation.    While the economic pain of the decision will likely be profound, and there may be social unrest as a result, so far there is a sense that the national structure may be able to deal with the challenges rationally.   

But in the US, the Federal government will largely be taken over by the discontents, and their willingness to preserve the institutions, policies and laws that many of us consider fundamental to the republic is at best suspect.   It is likely that under a Trump presidency, coordinated with a right wing legislature, much that many of us will consider deplorable and even anti-constitutional can and will be pursued.     

So what can we do?    It seems that it is time for a necessary and radical rethink of how the part of America which still believes in progressive social issues and science can progress.   Radically, it seems to me that the only possible short term response is for a selection of progressive states to pursue some expansion of their powers and coordination of their policies, moving to what could conceptually be considered a light form of limited succession into a new progressive sub-nation.   Succession is a dramatic term, evoking thoughts of civil war and carnage, but what I mean is simply that if the progressive states take control of all the powers that they constitutionally have, they could form a united coalition that would not control its destiny on all issues but could maintain control of many.   

In fact, this is a recognition of what has been happening at a local level for some time.    A powerful governor working with aligned state legislators can build strong and durable state policies and institutions that can compensate for Federal action or inaction in many areas of civil society.    Many right-leaning states have been doing this on social issues for some time.  On the progressive side, and on a much more limited set of issues, as the Federal system has started to shift to the right, individual states like California and New York have already taken more control of their destiny., using their constitutional powers to create local policy where national policy has failed.   Because I work on climate change, where despite some ambition from the Obama administration there has been little action at the Federal level, I have noticed the far more aggressive and independent path that some states have been able to chart.   But I expect that advocates for some other issues had a similar experience, and I am sure other issues have become more local than national in response to national gridlock.

it is likely that we now need to go further, working within that framework to design and fund comprehensive mulit-state institutions and policies that address a much broader set of issues than are normally considered (by progressives) to be within the scope of any given state.  This may seem both unthinkable and impractical, but it is not clear to me that there will be any other option.   Perhaps we can fight and win in the next presidential election, although I worry as there is a strong chance that if Trump cannot deliver for his constituency, his voters will just move on to the next demagogue.   But even if we can retake the White House, there is a structural disfunction embedded in the Federal congressional trends — and particularly the rejection of the notion of reasonable compromise — that mean that it may be a long time before we can muster legislative support for a positive agenda nationally.     Instead we will likely see an even greater movement towards divisiveness.   We have seen the pattern already in Congress, where an inability to deliver basic governance has only shifted the majority to the right.  

So the states may be the only forum we can really play in.    

Is this really a hopeful path forward?    Obviously it is much less effective than focusing at the Federal level.   But a concerted and well resourced focus on states could protect at least in those states many of the policy trajectories that we all care about.   As the right has long recognized, states have tremendous constitutional power over many issues.    States have the power to tax and spend, both directly through their own fiscal policies and indirectly through fees they can levy on service providers, so they can fund.   In fact, if Trump follows through on his promises to cut Federal taxes, certain states could probably get away with expanding their financial base by seizing the surplus if they make the case effectively to their constituencies that they will use the money to deliver initiatives the local citizens care about.    California has already done this.   

That's not to say that there aren't huge challenges.    The most fundamental is that we will be accepting that we are leaving much of the country to another fate, and that will likely make the social divide even greater.   But while that is lamentable, and worth trying to contest, it is also the reality of where we are.   

The largest practical challenges of a state by state approach is that states are generally less well resourced the the Federal government when it comes to designing complex policy.   they lack economies of scale.and are often are poor at sharing best practices and the learning from each other how best to overcome the challenges of policy and regulatory design.   I see this through the narrow lens of energy, where policies are often redesigned state by state, but it is true in all areas.   

This is not surprising, because until now only the Federal government has had the right scale and funding to design national policies, and states have taken from that well.   If this is no longer possible, as part of focusing on states, we will need to help the emergent coalition of states to learn new skills and habits, including how to club together to achieve economies of scale.     We will have to help them to build well resourced collaboration and regional institutions and alliances that formally and persistently provide resources, support and tools that help their constituent states to become more sophisticated and effective at putting in place and enforcing a much broader range of policies than they have traditionally done.   This is a huge job, and the impetus to do it needs to come from within the states themselves (possibly championed by a strong and charismatic governor), but it will need funding and advocacy and convening and lots and lots of help to come into practical existence.

Although this may seem like a radical response, or an admission of defeat, it is actually the only available option.   Clearly it is important to try to win back the Federal ground, but in the meantime, we can and must dramatically shift our focus to pulling together those states where there is a strong consensus around a more progressive agenda and turning them into a sub-United States, able to harness their combined economies and skills to create a model of success that can over time become the envy of those who have for now swung very far to the right.   Done right, this is almost a redesign of the union, allowing a sub-national collaboration that (given who would be likely members) still has the scale of a small nation, and even though it could only focus on domestic issues and would have limited power, could still allow that part of the country to advance on the agenda which it believes in without having to drag along the part of the country which is headed somewhere else.    If we follow our natural tendency to focus primarily on the national arena, I don't see that we have any chance in the next decade to protect our rights and our priorities.   instead trying to build a coalition of the willing to create a new alliance of states where we can continue to hold the values that many of us think are fundamental to being an American is our only ray of hope.    


Dennis Whitcomb said...

This is interesting. The west coast states are reliably blue. Maybe we could start with an alliance of those states. Perhaps there would be benefits for those states if they jointly enforced increased minimum wages and increased environmental pollution standards, and if they bargained as a group for health insurance. For instance, the health insurance costs might get driven lower and various companies, not wanting to be driven out of the west coast altogether, might be less likely to leave for other states with lower minimum wage standards. Has this sort of thing been tried already?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I don't know but I agree that it sounds interesting. California alone has an economy the size of that of a mid-sized country. An alliance of the West Coast and the Northeast would be a very powerful ecomomic entity.

Craig said...

Pursuing reforms at the state level makes sense, but only up to a point. The worry I have is that many reforms that promote social justice require additional taxes. I'm for levying those taxes, personally, but the reality is that a state that raises taxes past a certain threshold risks seeing businesses leave for other states, and even residents may leave. It's something of a collective action problem, with familiar dynamic of "race to the bottom" rearing its head.

David Auerbach said...

RPW: May I post that more widely?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

yes. Bill sent it to many people with no restrictions.

Anonymous said...

An oblique comment on the historical political significance of the color red - which may or may not be of significance.
Once upon a time we were all warned about the dangers of the "red menace" - red Russia and China, reds infiltrating the levers of power in the USA (McCarthyism), and of course reds under the bed.
Many know-nothing right wingers still talk as if there is some world-wide Marxist conspiracy to take over the USA in particular, Australia where I live, and the world altogether. The letters section in my local right-wing Murdoch "news"-paper (The Australian) regularly features such opinions.
All of which is a tad bit ironic because the (hairy) chest-thumping politicians from the red states in the USA have now taken over.
In terms of the color spectrum red is essentially the color of anger and aggression and of course blood. Anyone for some good old time blood-sacrifices to purify the collective body-politic of its toxic elements!
It is also the color associated with materialism, and of an aggravated feeding-frenzy disposition too which is why fast-"food" "restaurants" such as Mcdonalds use red