DO YOU KNOW THE HISTORY OF YOUR HOME?

I have rarely, if ever, wondered about the folks who lived in my wife’s home after she left. But this past weekend, my wife and I attended a meeting of the past and present owners of my wife’s former home in Atlanta, Georgia.

My wife’s family finished building the house in 1938 (when she was 7) and they remained there until 1960, when another family took over. After about 1970, there was a 10-year period of rapid turnover—during which four families lived there—after which one large family occupied the house for 37 years until the current owner moved in a year ago.

My initial reaction to the idea of participating in such a “union” was so what.  I did, however, want to support my wife’s interest in participating.

It turned out to be fun, interesting, and worth the effort and time put into the event.

The four participating families were different in many ways, BUT they shared a love for a very special house and the seven acres of low-lying pastures on which it stands.

It was interesting to see and hear about the different perceptions from these folks. For example, to hear why one family took out a window to make a closet after an earlier family wondered aloud where it had gone, was fascinating. They all discussed a love of horses, except for the one family, who owned “Morris the Horse” simply as a symbolic gesture of appreciation of the pastures.

In this moment when Americans are being pulled apart in so many ways, it was heartwarming to see how a group of such people could bond so quickly around their shared history regardless of today’s politics.

We all share in an awfully abstract 220 years of simply being Americans.

Perhaps an idea like this could spread and remind more people of their more tangible common bonds to give a reason to bond besides simply being Americans?

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EXECUTIVE POWER TO START WAR

There has been recently an interesting discussion about revising and limiting the President’s power to initiate war. Though the Constitution reserves that power to Congress, Presidents can take (and have taken) actions that risk or initiate war without Congressional consent. The current flashpoint is North Korea, specifically President Trump’s ability to preemptively strike the country using nuclear or conventional forces.

Trump’s unconsidered outbursts pose a real risk in provoking a war, but Congress can hardly take away his phone. But Congress could limit his ability to strike North Korea without its consent.

President Trump, according to the New York Bar Association, can only take defensive actions against a threat that is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”. However, President Trump has shown little regard for rule of law and, besides, such a definition is open to a bit of interpretation. There is currently nothing stopping Trump from giving the order.

General Robert Kehler, commander of US strategic forces under President Obama, told Congress that soldiers are not obliged to follow an illegal order. Barring a nuclear launch by Pyonyang, Trump ordering a preemptive strike without Congressional approval would likely lead to a genuine constitutional crisis.

In the end, the only solution is to remove Donald Trump from office and refrain from electing such volatile figures to the American Presidency in the future. Any legislation that crystalizes the President’s power to launch a preemptive strike risks giving our adversaries carte-blanche to maneuver and might delay an American response until it is already too late.

In the interim, Congress could pass legislation that does not change when and how a President can declare or make war, but could simply declare that as long as Trump is President, it would take a unanimous vote by the President, Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State to undertake a preventative strike.

While that process may be constitutionally questionably, by the time the Supreme Court finally rules, the Trump threat may have become moot. The upside of this subject is that it further legitimizes discussion about a person’s temperament and capacity for decision making during an election cycle.

 

THE POLITICAL AVALANCHE BEGINS

Many Americans had their fingers and toes crossed last Tuesday as they awaited the outcomes of local and state elections across the country.

There were encouraging polls and other signs going into the elections that the pendulum was swinging away from Trump’s shocking victory one year ago. Several Republican Congress persons announced that they would not run again in 2018. And then the returns started to trickle in with amazing results. The Virginia Governor race was a rout, as was New Jersey’s. Furthermore, in both states—and in others—the down ballot results showed a strong resurgence for Democrats in legislatures and other local bodies. More evidence will no doubt follow this pattern in the next few weeks.

The Republican response has been to rush the tax bill so they can sneak through tax cuts for corporations and the rich while increasing taxes on the middle class while the GOP still has control of the federal government. There seems to be little doubt that the increases will hit a lot of Trump’s base pretty hard, so it is hard to see the sense in what they say. But if that happens, a sudden drop in Trump’s popularity is likely to occur.

This year’s election and the Republican push for a middle class tax increase might bring the whole Trump story to a conclusion a lot earlier than most of us had even hoped for.

Ryan and many moderate Republicans have strong survival instincts and, under the scenario above, the only possible way out would have to be to reverse course and remove Trump from office. The sooner they do so, the sooner they might just save their political skins?

The struggle is switching gears from political beliefs to political realities.

Therefore, Democrats should begin to seek out a new generation of new leadership (Al Franken and Seth Moulton, for example) and develop a plan to cope with Pence through 2020, to keep the courts balanced and to set the stage for the next President.

Hopefully the relatively brief Trump era will be looked back on as a painful curative (like cod liver oil) period that helped the country adjust our governance to deal with a very changed modern world!

Memorable Baseball Moments

The 5th game of this year’s World Series was an amazing experience. No doubt this year’s GNP, lost a couple of basis points due the lengthy contest, which surely shortened Monday’s workday by about a couple of hours of millions of sleepy Americans .

The springy, slippery new baseballs may have had something to do with how incredible Sunday’s game was. But doughty players determined to make a difference was the ultimate cause of its excellence.

However, as very few who saw Sunday night’s game through to the end were alive in 1951, let’s relive the contest between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final playoff game for the National League pennant.

The Giants were at bat behind by two runs in the bottom of the 9th inning. There were two runners on base, with two outs, and Bobby Thompson was at bat with the great Ralph Branca pitching. The count got to 3 and 2 and the odds at that moment that the Giants could win were 5,765,843,242 against. Branca threw and Thompson swung and the ball left the park completely.

Giants WON! At 5-4.

It took over 50 years for enough people to not ever know or forget that moment, and now we have an equally memorable game to stimulate interest in baseball for another 100 years!

Diamonds are FOREVER!

The Bottom Line of Democracy

As I wrote yesterday, the Constitution we created over 200 years ago stands in the way of solving the problems faced by a modern nation like the United States.

One major change that has occurred since 1817 is the rise of cities. Well over half of the population in 1817 lived in rural areas. Today, that number is around 20%. However, the distribution of voting power in our Senate and Electoral College and in the mis-configuration of our Congressional districts is largely stuck in the rural past.

A real majority of Americans are being held hostage by a rural minority, and to solve that problem, the country has to go through a constitutional process created with the same pre-industrial society in mind, one in which rural voters also hold disproportionate power, which means that may be impossible.

However, a truly democratic solution exists if we want it badly enough!

We should hold a national referendum on the question “Do we want to amend the Constitution to provide for a new distribution of voting power everywhere to reflect the actual majority of the population eligible to vote?

I know of no obstacle for having such a referendum other than that there is no explicit authorization in our Constitution.

Of course, such a referendum could not be binding unless it was given force of law by Congress, but the idea could catch on with enough Americans to force their Congressional representatives to act and/or create a private nonpartisan referendum.

If we want the majority to truly rule in America, we must first show that there is a serious majority who truly wants that change!

And the time to do that is NOW.

The ballot box is the best bottom line that can exist.

 

Our Fragile Republic

When he emerged from the Pennsylvania State House on September 17th, 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether the citizens of the new United States would have a monarchy or a republic. Pausing for a moment on the stairs, he responded “A republic, if you can keep it”. Even at the triumphant birth of a new nation, Franklin knew that the government he had helped bring into the world must be maintained through constant vigilance and action.

All nations can fall. All democracies can slip into autocracy. Sparta and Athens did both, as did Ancient Rome. France has managed to emerge from autocracy again and again only to succumb to the temptations of imperial rule. There is no reason to believe the United States is fundamentally different.

Though Frances Fukayama argued in 1989 that the rise and spread of liberal democracy may have meant the end of history, recent events have challenged that thesis. Though America likes to pat itself on the back for having found the perfect form of government (or, as Winston Churchill put it, “the worst form of government, except for all the others”), there are plenty of reasons to believe that liberal democracy—whether in its purely democratic, republican, or hybrid forms—is on the brink of some kind of disaster.

The United States, in particular, seems closer to the edge than any time since the 19th Century. We have become a starkly divided nation, and support for liberal norms and institutions are shockingly low. At the root of our failure is our inability to deal with basic flaws in our Constitution.

As evidenced by the Three-Fifths Compromise (a compromise reached between Northern and Southern delegates that agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person when counting population in order to determine Congressional representation), the Constitution was less a timeless document than a set of accommodations to the political realities of that moment. Though that particular compromise has been properly excised from our founding document, some of the fundamental problems remain. In particular, the outsized importance that the Senate and the Electoral College plus Congressional gerrymandering gives to the citizens of sparsely populated states has fueled the drive of our partisan division and the radicalism of the modern Republican Party.

Such relics still operative in our Constitution has caused our political system to calcify, which is a mortal danger. As Jared Diamond argued in Collapse, societies that do not adapt to changing realities are the most likely to be destroyed. And there is no doubt that modern America is struggling to adapt to the realities of the contemporary world, whether that means the echo chambers of the internet, growing automation,  income inequality, the rise of other Great Powers to challenge American hegemony, or the unknowable world that will be created by anthropogenic climate change.

This recitation may sound quite academic and even highbrow to some people. But that does nothing to diminish its importance.

We have to get past that type of deflection and take head on and deal clearly and firmly with these ever too real threats to the survival of America as we have known it.

NOW!

Back to 1790 and the Fight Over Federalism

As our forefathers learned during their struggle to move from a revolutionary Confederacy to a genuine constitutional democracy, the fundamental differences between regions and local constituencies can be dangerous.

In 2015, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a brilliant and gripping book called The Quartet about how Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay led the fight to unify the former colonies under a Constitution. It is not clear that Ellis foresaw the results of the 2016 election, but he may well have because he teaches vividly that we are now facing a similar fight.

Divided as our country is today, our standing in the world is at the risk of blowing away. The classic phrase “united we stand, divided we fall” appears to have vanished. Or perhaps it has been revealed as prophecy.

Part of the problem is again the haves vs the have nots, but the cultural schisms between “us” and “them” have assumed a greater prominence than in a very long time.

If there were a single dividing issue—as there was with slavery in the middle of the 19th century—it might be possible that we could be on the brink of not just protests but genuine military fighting.

The map of our divisions is different today from the late 1700s and the late 1850s, BUT it is clear that most of the coastal USA (plus a few major urban centers) is liberal in its orientation and most of the rest of our country is conservative.

Happily (?), this map does not lend itself easily to organized military conflict. But as we see globally, maps are no longer the cornerstones of modern armed conflict, which can erupt seemingly anywhere and everywhere and at any time.

So what are the major issues which are dividing us today?

–Immigration: Though not a problem in 1800 or 1860, it is today and can be managed without conflict.

–Race: we fought the civil war and have made great progress toward genuine equality, but we still have quite a way to go.

–Elites vs blue collar: our economy is changing as we inexorably become more and more a service society and we need to find ways to  lift up all members of society.

–The internet: the echo chambers of social media are destroying productive political discourse.

–Representation: our system is collapsing with abuses of campaign finance and distorted districting.

–Checks and Balances: Congress and the President show no signs of interest in seeking common public good through good faith efforts to compromise.

–Sloganeering: simplistic and misleading slogans like America First and “drain the swamp” are taking over rational thought.

The days when leaders like Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Jefferson’s voices stood out and meant a lot to most people sadly may be gone forever.

But what was clear when the Constitutional Convention first assembled is clear again.

Read Ellis’s book and urge everyone you know to do so. It will never go out of style.

Together, there may be in due course enough support to try for a new Convention to seek consensus on the issues that must be addressed today to save our nation.