Thanksgiving Week: Twelve More Mass Shootings

What Would the Founders say?

With 610 mass shootings so far this year, including 12 in the past week in which 19 people were killed and 43 were injured, I believe they would say (or think), “This is not what we intended. Let’s clarify the 27 words of the 2nd Amendment.

At the rate of gun carnage so far in 2022, this year may become the worst and deadliest year since the Gun Violence Archive began tracking mass shootings in America a decade ago. 

Let’s acknowledge that the 2nd Amendment made sense when it was written and adopted 232 years ago. Let’s recognize that it meant exactly what it said and that it was essential to gaining the support of the people for the establishment of the United States of America.

The second Amendment was primarily written to assure the citizens of our new nation that they need not fear the establishment of a standing army. At the time of our founding, standing armies were armed forces that existed in the old world to repress the people and to protect the monarchies and thugocracies that ruled and plundered.

The second Amendment assured that the arms in the hands of the people of the new United States of America (living in about 800,000 households) outnumbered the arms in the hands of our standing army (about 800 men at the time) by at least one thousand to one, given that just about every household owned a musket or a sidearm.

The founders understood and intended that universal gun ownership and the ability to activate well-regulated militias would essentially negate any concern over a standing army. This notion was logical at the founding but illogical in the world in which we live today.

The overwhelming majority of Americans, including this writer, have enormous respect for our armed forces (our standing army). Indeed, it is probably the most admired single component of our government. Few, if any, thinking Americans believe that the Second Amendment is what is keeping America free. Few Americans of sound mind believe the nation’s gun owners are keeping our armed services in check.

While I haven’t fired a semi-automatic weapon since Air Force basic training, I have no problem with Americans owning guns. I count many responsible gun owners among friends and family. The avid hunters I know, family and friends alike, scoff at the idea of hunting with a high-capacity magazine.

Americans can and should accept the importance of the Second Amendment when it was woven into the very sinews of our founding structure. The courts and virtually all constitutional scholars agree that the right to bear arms was enshrined in our Constitution because that was the only way to quickly activate a “well-regulated militia” to protect the country from domestic insurrection, foreign invasion, or a rogue standing army acting on orders from a rogue domestic government.

 I, like many others, have read and reread just about everything of record attributed to the founders regarding the Second Amendment. I agree they believed strongly that an uninfringed right to bear arms would protect the American People against an American standing army that might someday repress them, as standing armies in monarchical Europe had repressed their forbears from time immemorial.

However, the era in which Americans might have been wary, if not distrustful, of the nation’s new standing military has long passed. Indeed, our armed forces are our federal establishment’s most admired, honored, respected, and trusted arm. Nonetheless, the Second Amendment, enshrined 232 years ago, remains to protect us from our own armed forces. There is no arguing with that. There also is no arguing with the total abandon with which the founders’ intent has been corrupted by the politicization and glorification of the Second Amendment.

It would be folly to question what the founders intended. Their intention was abundantly clear in what they wrote and spoke. They intended widespread gun ownership primarily to protect America from its own armed forces in the event that despotic leaders used America’s new standing army to repress the people. That is what they intended. What the founders did not intend, or anticipate, is the mockery made of their reasoning by ambitious politicians seeking votes and eager gun manufacturers seeking sales.

The founders would be appalled that their 27 words have been corrupted into a mind-numbing mantra causing many unthinking citizens to tolerate almost unrelenting carnage in American communities.

What the founders didn’t intend or envision was gun-toting citizens showing up at school board meetings to protest against books they didn’t like on the shelves of school libraries or at demonstrations to protest against vaccines, mask mandates, or at human rights rallies. Today, in the United States of America, various forms of permitless open-carry laws prevail in 38 of the 50 states. That was not unusual in the 19th century. It is a sad commentary in the 21st century.

And, for sure, the founders did not intend that an industry would, someday, profit handsomely by using the founders’ twenty-seven words to underpin and justify the mass marketing of weapons, the lethality of which the founders could not have imagined nor have condoned.

Those twenty-seven words comprising the Second Amendment speak loudly. They do not have an expiration date, even though the original rationale for their inclusion has long since expired.

The initial American standing army, 246 years ago, made many people nervous, including the founders. So, the Second Amendment to our Constitution was conceived to alleviate that concern.

The intent of those who drafted the Second Amendment was, primarily, to assure the citizens of the new nation they could defend themselves against their own government if the government ever used America’s fledgling standing army to oppress them. There was a context, however, to the constitutional right to bear arms. It was to assure American independence and freedom, not to rationalize an American nightmare.

It was presumed that the Americans of their day would accept the significant responsibility that came with their uniform right to bear arms. In Federalist 29, Alexander Hamilton writes, “Little more can reasonably be aimed at, with respect to the people at large, than to have them properly armed and equipped; and in order to see that this be not neglected, it will be necessary to assemble them once or twice in the course of a year.”

Here Hamilton articulates the logic and the reason for the Second Amendment. Perhaps, along with the right to bear arms, every gun owner should, today, contemplate Hamilton’s presumption that they and their fellow gun owners would be “assembled once or twice a year” to assure their fellow citizens that they were adequately trained and disciplined…and, of course, screened to ensure that only law-abiding citizens were among those bearing arms.

The founders embraced universal gun ownership as a counterbalance to a standing army. It presumed a citizenry well-disciplined to the task. Listen to George Washington’s letter to both houses of congress: “A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined…”

This is what George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson regarding gun ownership:

“It may be laid down, as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it, and consequently that the Citizens of America from 18 to 50 years of age should be borne on the Militia Rolls, provided with uniform arms, and so far accustomed to the use of them, that the total strength of the Country might be called forth at short notice on any very interesting Emergency.”

And listen to George Mason, at whose urging James Madison offered the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.

“That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that, in all cases, the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”

We needn’t guess what the founders intended by their reference in the Second Amendment to a well-regulated militia. Representative Sean Casten of Illinois reminded us earlier this year in an excellent Twitter posting:

“The word militia shows up four times in the basic text of the Constitution, and once in the 2nd amendment and once in the 5th amendment.”

So, let’s take a deep dive into the basic text of our Constitution to understand the founders’ use of the word “militia” when it is used later in the 2nd Amendment.

Article 1, section 8: “The Congress shall have the power to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions…(and) to provide for organizing, arming and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the appointment of the Officers…and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress.”

Section 2 first sentence: The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States”

So, the term “militia,” wherever it is used in the introductory text of the Constitution and the second and fifth amendments that reference the term has real context and meaning. We know what the term means, and as Representative Casten observes, “it ain’t the Proud Boys.”

I offer this sampling of the founders thinking regarding the uninfringed right to bear arms simply to illustrate that there was a context to the Second Amendment that gun zealots generally ignore. The Second Amendment was intended and only intended, to assure that, if necessary, a disciplined peoples’ army (think militia) could be quickly raised to confront a menacing standing army under the control of a despotic regime, or to confront an insurrection or a foreign invasion.

We should begin the long, probable multi-decade slog to amend and clarify the Second Amendment to eliminate the never-ending, deadly abuse perpetrated in its name. The Second Amendment was never intended to transform Main Street into the OK Corral.

“To Make America Great and Glorious Again…”

Really?

Yes, former President Trump really said that this past Tuesday in announcing his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. He seemed oblivious that so many of those candidates who share his vision of what makes America Great and Glorious were rejected by the American electorate in the recently completed midterm elections, including Kari Lake, Blake Masters, Doug Mastriano, Mehmet Oz, Sarah Palin, Tudor Dixon, Mark Finchem, Jim Marchant, Don Bolduc, Adam Laxalt, Kristina Karamo, and many others.

But let’s give credit where credit is due. Of course, some of those who share Trump’s vision of what would make America Great and Glorious won their elections, including Ron Johnson, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Green, Paul Gosar, Harriet Hageman, Jim Jordan, and other Trumpian Great and Glorious standard bearers.

One of the country’s most closely watched Gubernatorial races was the contest between Katie Hobbs and Kari Lake in Arizona, which Democrat Hobbs won in a tight election. “Arizonans know BS when they see it,” Kari Lake angrily tweeted after the race was called for Katie Hobbs, who led by about 17,000 votes when the counting was done. No doubt Arizona voters do know BS when they see it, but BS is generally in the eye of the beholder.

Assuming Hobb’s win is ultimately certified, Lake’s loss can largely be attributed to rather breathtaking unforced errors. Her snarky on-air response to the question, “will you accept the results of the election?” was a tone-deaf blunder. She answered, “I’m going to win the election, and I will accept that result.” When asked if she would accept the result if her opponent won, she replied with the same, snarky unresponsive answer. To Arizonans who were just recovering from a circus of 2020 election challenges, all of which confirmed Trump’s defeat, Lake’s response greatly diminished her standing as a serious candidate.

Her gratuitous attacks on the late Senator John McCain no doubt pleased former President Trump. Still, they had to have been an astounding turnoff to hundreds of thousands of Arizona Republicans and Independents who admired the former Vietnam veteran and physically abused prisoner of war. It gained her few, if any, supporters and probably cost her tens of thousands of votes.

Lake, meanwhile, wasted no time flying off to Mar-a-Lago, presumably to confer about how best to contest an election in Arizona with the most prolific (but uniformly unsuccessful) election contester in American history. Then again, the Trump ticket for the 2024 presidential run is yet to be determined, so there was probably much about which to confer.

Elsewhere in Arizona, Adrian Fontes quickly dispatched election-denier and January 6th Capitol mob marcher Mark Finchem in the contest for Secretary of State, and Mark Kelly sailed to a comfortable win to secure a full six-year Senate term, defeating election denier Blake Masters.

Virtually all of the Trump-endorsed, election-denying Secretary of State candidates from battleground states lost their bids for office as America signaled it had enough of the stolen election nonsense.

Great and Glorious?

Former President Trump certainly chalked up some noteworthy accomplishments during his one-term presidency, including the repatriation to the United States of trillions of corporate dollars parked in overseas addresses of American companies. He jettisoned many burdensome regulations, moved the American embassy to Jerusalem where it belonged, supported criminal justice reform, and succeeded in achieving the Abraham Accords, which accelerated diplomatic relations between Israel and former rejectionist Arab countries. I felt the Iranian nuclear accord negotiated by the Obama administration was seriously flawed, giving Iran a 10-year glide path to nuclear weaponry.

Nonetheless, the Trump years were anything but Great and Glorious. His was one of the most deliberately divisive presidencies in American history, and it was a carefully curated divisiveness.

While he called every Republican who criticized him a RINO (Republican In Name Only), he was the quintessential RINO. He was a registered Republican in 1987, then became a member of the Reform Party in 1999, became a Democrat in 2001, and then a Republican in 2009. His policies were anything but Republican in nature.

Trump was a vast deficit-spending Republican before COVID became a household word. Traditional Republican spending restraint was nowhere to be found in the Trump White House. His Administration was running near trillion-dollar deficits before the COVID pandemic began. He bragged that he would wipe out the national debt over eight years with Trumpian trade deals, tariffs, and tax cuts that would stimulate the economy. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projected budget deficits of two to three percent of our GNP during Trump’s four-year term. But Trump was a big-spending Republican, racking up deficits of 4% and 4.6% before COVID.

Trump’s love affair with tariffs raised prices for American consumers while achieving little to nothing beneficial. His tariffs produced an additional $36 billion in revenue over and above the Obama Administration’s final year in office. But those same tariffs so decimated portions of our agricultural sector that a nearly identical amount was needed to keep American farmers from going bankrupt.

In fairness to President Trump, COVID impacted his presidency in ways neither he nor any other president could have controlled. Nonetheless, the differences between his rhetoric and his accomplishments are considerable.

If we define a RINO as a big deficit-spending Republican, then President Trump rates as one of the great RINO’s of all time. Understand this: under President Trump, annual deficit spending skyrocketed before COVID appeared on the world scene. Annual deficits had consistently risen under Trump, going from $585 billion in fiscal 2016 — the last complete budget cycle before Trump’s presidency — to $984 billion in fiscal 2019 before COVID, and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, again before COVID, projected a 2020 budget deficit of $1trillion.

Assessments of the Trump presidency will be diced and sliced for years to come, as will assessments of the Obama presidency, which preceded it, and the Biden presidency, which has succeeded it. There were some significant pluses and some notable minuses, as there are with all presidencies. The Trump presidency was, however, deliberately and dangerously divisive.

Grand and glorious, it was not.

The Midterm elections: America is Back

American Democracy, more than anything else, prevailed in the just-completed midterm elections.

We have a wide variety of opinions and a cacophony of competing voices at election time in America. There are winners and losers, whiners and braggarts, and always happy voters and those who are crestfallen. That’s the way it has always been, and that’s the way it has turned out this year. It was, in some respects, a typical American mid-term election. Nationally, the election shenanigans that many feared didn’t materialize. Neither right-wing nor left-wing mischief prevailed. Instead, America prevailed.

The election results reflect the nation—a patch quilt of voter preferences. The enormous red wave that many predicted and many feared produced barely a puddle, or as conservative columnist, Mona Charen put it, a small toxic spill. There was little-to-no trace of an America besotted by far-right authoritarianism.

The Party out of power always gains some congressional seats in off-year elections, and the Republicans are almost certain to eke out a few gains in this just-completed election. The Democratic Senate candidate from Nevada, Catherine Cortez Masto, having defeated Republican, Adam Laxalt, has secured Democratic control of the United States Senate. Should Raphael Warnock prevail against Herschel Walker in Georgia’s runoff election next month, the Democrats will have secured a 51-vote majority. Vice President Kamala Harris will cast deciding votes whenever there is a 50/50 deadlock should Walker prevail in the runoff election.

It has been a generation since the Party out of power has done as poorly as the Republicans have this year. Given the big red wave that so many anticipated, the normalcy of this election is to be celebrated.

There is no mystery as to why the Republicans so underperformed. Several weeks ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell alluded to the looming Republican problem. Candidate quality, he called it, or primaries that were unduly influenced by the bull in the Mar-a-Lago china closet. What was the price of a primary election endorsement from the former president? A candidate just had to hold their nose and say the magic words, “Trump won. The 2020 election was stolen.”  Those words would, indeed, produce a Trump endorsement, as well as an inordinate roster of decidedly poor-quality Republican candidates, many of whom went down in defeat.

As we go to press, the Democrats have held on to control of the US senate and have obliterated any thought of a massive Republican sweep of the House of Representatives. Republican control of the House may be in single digits compared to forecasts of a 60-vote advantage made by minority leader Kevin McCarthy barely a year ago.

What changed? Three things. Concern about the fragility of American Democracy, the Dobbs decision overturning Roe, and too much Republican pandering to former President Trump.

Impact of overturning Roe

Both liberal and conservative states have rebelled against the Supreme Court decision overturning a woman’s right to choose. Voters in Montana, Kentucky, Michigan, California, Vermont, and Kansas voted decisively to safeguard a woman’s right to choose. The Dobbs decision overturning Roe has been an albatross for Republicans. Restricted access to abortion may have significantly impacted Arizona’s Republican candidate Kari Lake’s election chances.

In Arizona, a substantial majority of voters say a candidate’s stance on abortion would affect their voting decision. According to Arizona Public Opinion Pulse, 9 in 10 Arizona voters feel abortion should be legal in at least some cases. 81% of Democrats say a candidate’s stance on abortion would impact their voting decision, as does 58% of Independents and 18% of Republicans. Newly elected to a full six-year term, Senator Mark Kelly, who won his race decisively against Republican Blake Masters, and who polls as the most personally liked of all state-wide candidates, supports a woman’s right to choose. Republican Gubernatorial Kari Lake does not, except in cases of rape and incest.

Misleading Polls Producing Misleading News

The polls predicting a red wave were a disaster. Not simply because they were so wrong but because news-hungry print and broadcast sources relied on rather worthless polls to print and broadcast rather worthless news. There is a fundamental problem with polling today, and until it can be cured, news outlets should avoid reporting polling results.

The problem with polls today.

An election poll must be based on a sample in which every prospective respondent has an equal chance of being selected. That’s the definition of a proper area probability sample. Any election poll that isn’t based on such a sample is, more or less, worthless. The integrity of the sample determines the accuracy of the poll. A huge sample not truly representative of the universe being studied is of little value compared to a modest sample that is appropriately designed to be truly representative. The cellphone revolution made sampling much more difficult compared to a decade or two ago when every household had a landline telephone and could be identified in crisscross directories that telephone companies published that listed every household by street address along with the household’s telephone number.

Many years ago, in an earlier life, I conducted political preference polls armed with nothing more than a semester of Statistics 101 and a gem of a 145-page book, “Sampling in a Nutshell.” I could design remarkably reliable polls by turning a telephone crisscross directory into a table of random numbers, in which every household in a congressional district had an equal probability of being selected for inclusion in my candidate-preference surveys.

In 1972, I was part of the small team managing the congressional campaign of the Republican candidate for Congress in Maryland’s fifth congressional district, Larry Hogan (the late father of Maryland’s Governor Hogan). The campaign team wanted to spend the remaining funds we had to purchase radio ads the weekend before the election. I was opposed to the idea because the most recent poll I had conducted that week indicated that Hogan would get 62.5% of the vote.

I argued that the proposed media buy would be a waste of money. The campaign team, somewhat reluctantly, agreed. Hogan won that election the following Tuesday with 62.9% of the vote. That’s just how revealing a poll based on a well-designed area probability sample can be.

Cell phones are exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to identify for meaningful sample design purposes. Most people no longer rely on landlines, so crisscross directories would be useless. Furthermore, few respondents would tolerate being called on their cell phones to answer survey questions. Online questionnaires are of equally dubious value.

Some reporting services try to compensate for the reliability problem by averaging data from several polls. But if the averages reported from several polls result from unreliable samples, the result would be an average of junk—junk that newspapers and broadcast channels then eagerly report as breaking news. This is an immense disservice to voters who are in the process of deciding how they will vote.

Conversely, polling on issues tends to be much more reliable than election or candidate polling. A small sampling error in measuring candidate support can make the difference between accurately predicting the winner or loser of an election. However, minor errors in measuring concern about global warming or mask mandates would not significantly mitigate our understanding of how the country feels about those issues.

The ramifications of the extraordinarily weak outcome for Republicans in this week’s midterm election should be seen as a warning shot over the bow. If the GOP doesn’t extricate itself from the Trumpian knot in which it has tied itself, Trump will squeeze the life out of the Party.

Antisemitism: The Malevolent and Deadly Memeplex

Memeplex a set of memes that interact to reinforce each other.

Julius Streicher, Publisher of the virulently anti-Semitic pro-Nazi publication Der Stürmer was dispatched to the dustbin of history over seventy years ago at Nuremberg, but not before wreaking deadly havoc on German Jews by circulating unrelentingly, crude, vicious and cartoonish characterizations of the Jewish People.

Today, there are thousands of Julius Streicher’s in the persons of internet trolls who create and publish, on social media, vicious anti-Semitic memes. By memes, I’m not referring to those easily recognized images like deviously grinning or pouty faces that are copied and circulated repeatedly online. I’m referring to the meme phenomenon first identified by Richard Dawkins in his landmark 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, written long before the internet, let alone social media.

Dawkins wasn’t suggesting that memes were genes but rather packets of spoken, written, or broadcast messages that are generally simple, attention-grabbing, easily remembered, and, subsequently, liberally passed along or replicated.

The first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony have become a famous meme because they are memorable and often repeated and suggest that something ominous is about to happen. Those four notes invariably create the same impression on all who hear them.

Thus, memes, in effect, replicate, create an impression, and influence in much the same way genes do, often with equally dramatic and sometimes devastating impact. They spread through the behavior they generate, which others observe and copy. A vicious meme such as anti-Semitic messaging by trolls can become and is in danger of becoming, a social contagion.

Social media has supercharged the creation, replication, and impact of abusive and highly dangerous messaging. Antisemites are having a field day, and, as is true with all successful memes, anti-Semitic messaging floods the blogosphere every minute of every day. As a result, anti-Semitic incidences in America are at the highest level ever recorded since the Anti-Defamation League began keeping records of such incidents over forty years ago. Violence has followed the message as it always does. The hate genie is out of the bottle.

Anti-Semitic behavior is a symptom of anti-social pathology. It is not simply a passing flirtation with boorish behavior among miscreants. It is a carefully curated contagion, the impact of which can be deadly.

Everything we consume as information, whether true or false, leaves a mark on our brains. In time, those exposed to this curated antisemitism will physically internalize the message. As Nobel-prize winner in physiology, Dr. Eric Kandel discovered and wrote about in his landmark book In Search of Memory new information spurs new neuron growth.

Whether fanciful or factual, information impacts our brain’s physical structure. Thus, we are well advised to contemplate the destructive nature of carefully curated misinformation and noxious calumnies with which we are bombarded throughout our waking hours.

Absorbing and pondering information, especially information designed to agitate, literally has a physical and neurological impact on the brain. Enough of it changes and influences who we are, thought by thought, utterance by utterance, neuron by neuron.

Antisemitism may be the cruelest and most deadly meme ever evolved by man. It is, and has been for millennia, passed along from generation to generation, sometimes unthinkingly, often very deliberately, and invariably, with devastating impact.

Infants, prepubescents, teenagers, and adults are exposed to sometimes subtle, often cutting, slurs uttered unthinkingly or, quite often, very deliberately. Far too often, insults have been uttered either as background noise or carefully calculated affronts that, over time, have consigned boys and girls and men and women to that dreadful status of the other.

The collective impact has been and continues to be, the perpetuation of the greatest and deadliest of historical slanders and libels. Whether it manifests itself in the inane ramblings of a Kanye West, a calculated insult of a Margorie Taylor Greene, a deadly harangue of an Adolph Hitler, or by miscreants who hang banners over freeways, or internet trolls who create and pass along hateful calumnies, antisemitism is a corrosive mutation within the human condition. It leaves misery and often death in its wake and, ultimately, enfeebles the perpetrators as well as the victims.

As American Historian Timothy Snyder explains in his influential book, On Tyranny, “The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands. It would serve us well today to understand why.”

It is, as Snyder explains, what happens when reason is rejected in the name of will, when objective truth is rejected in favor of a myth articulated by so-called leaders who claim to give voice to the people. They invariably claim a conspiracy against the nation; a time-tested prevarication injected into the body politic from time immemorial with devastating impact.

Invariably, the conspirators become architects of movements to turn a nation against itself; teacher against student, employer against employee, neighbor against neighbor.

Antisemitism is often described as the oldest hatred. Perhaps, it was first sparked when Abraham smashed the idols. Idol worship was de rigueur when fear dictated one’s religious fervor. No one wanted an angry sea god when setting sail.

The world has been plagued by political antisemitism, a sort of tribal ostracization of those who are viewed as the other, and by religious antisemitism, which is a remnant of the ancient deicide calumny.

Factually, all of the early Christians were Jewish followers of Jesus. To be a Christian during much of the first century, one had to be Jewish. All early Christians were Jews. That was until Saul of Tarsus (Paul) determined that one didn’t have to be a Jew to become a Christian. Cornelius, a Roman centurion stationed in Jerusalem, became the first non-Jew to convert to Christianity. Jews who refused to trade their Judaism for the new Christianity were (and in many instances, still are) held in contempt.

The hatreds are old, but with social media, the weapons for stoking that hatred are new. The hateful meme is the weapon. The human brain is the target.

GOP and Progressives Going Munich on Ukraine?

 

 

 

It wasn’t quite Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time.” Still, Kevin McCarthy’s untimely and unseemly “additional aid for Ukraine would be difficult” wasn’t exactly signaling America’s resolve to stand by a determined but beleaguered Ukraine. Nor was the Democrat’s Progressive Caucus’s “…we also believe it is in the interests of Ukraine, the United States, and the world to avoid a prolonged conflict…”

These are terribly wrong signals by McCarthy and Progressive Caucus chairwoman Pramila Jayapal and at precisely the wrong time. McCarthy’s statement wasn’t about a belated Republican sense of fiscal responsibility. More likely, it was about putting the brakes on any further recognition of Biden’s quite deft handling of Russia’s war against Ukraine. Jayapal’s progressive caucus letter was just plain naïve.

To the discomfort of the Republicans, Biden has managed the western world’s (think NATO’s) response to the unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine remarkably well. Biden’s decision to publicly release early and detailed intelligence on the protracted Russian arms and troop build-up on the Ukrainian border was precisely the right thing to do. He checkmated Putin’s planned false-flag excuse for attacking Ukraine. The President ensured the entire world was watching the Russian movement of men and munitions to the Ukrainian border. Biden’s aggressive supply of arms to Ukraine has also been the right thing to do. History will treat him well on his handling of the Russian aggression thus far.

A coalition of allies hasn’t pulled together like this since Desert Storm over thirty years ago. Indeed, even Sweden and Finland have taken steps to join NATO. With the United States leading the way, arms from all over NATO have been pouring into Ukraine. Ukraine’s President Zelensky stands very tall as he faces a belligerent, aggressive, and substantially diminished Vladimir Putin. What a strange time for the Republicans and the Progressives to be signaling, whoa, let’s reconsider our commitment.

Ukraine has not asked America or NATO to send troops. They’ve asked that we augment the Ukrainian arsenal of equipment and munitions to meet the Russian onslaught. And we have, and they have demonstrated, with our help, a great determination to protect their homeland.

So, just what is the Republican diminishing resolve to support Ukraine all about? It’s not so much about curtailing spending as it is about curtailing a possible groundswell of recognition that Ukraine, with the massive help of the NATO alliance led by President Biden, is successfully defending itself against Vladimir Putin and the Russians.

The now rescinded letter from Representative Jayapal’s group of ultra-progressives simply reflects old-fashioned pacifism in the face of criminal aggression by a despot.

Anyone with even a marginal sense of history understands that the fate of Ukraine very likely foretells the fate of other recently freed former soviet-bloc nations.

As long as Ukraine is prepared to fight for its freedom, what should our commitment be to provide the means? Whatever it takes.

Abandon Ukraine, and it will only be a matter of time before Finland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania will be in Russia’s crosshairs. The threat of hostilities involving Russia and the United States will only increase if our resolve to stand by Ukraine falters. Putin is focused like a laser on what is going on in our Congress, just as North Viet Nam’s Le Duc Tho was transfixed on our politics fifty years ago.

The far-left telegraphed that it was prepared to back away from Ukraine this week but hastily “withdrew” its naïve letter urging Biden to pursue negotiations with Russia to end the fighting. The naivete is staggering.

The extent of Putin’s miscalculation cannot be overstated. He has turned Ukrainian President Zelensky into a hero while transforming himself into a scorned thug. Putin and the Russian Federation he leads are now held in abysmally low regard throughout the developed world.

A Pew Research survey of 18 developed countries found that favorable views of Russia had plummeted to 10% or less. At the United Nations, the General Assembly voted 143 to five, with 35 abstentions, to reject the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory. Putin, once an ever-present figure on the world stage, is today really welcome nowhere. He is reviled almost everywhere.

When Donald Trump left office, there was, according to PEW Research, a seventeen-point spread between Democrats and Republicans concerning their respective favorability views of Russia, with Republicans holding the more favorable view. That isn’t surprising, given Trump’s embarrassing swoon over Putin. “This is genius,” Trump gushed following Putin’s attack on Ukraine. “Putin declares a big portion of Ukraine as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful …I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart. He’s taking over a country—really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.” Trump called Putin’s approach to Ukraine genius. “Here’s a guy who’s very savvy…I know him very well…Putin is playing Biden like a drum, and it’s not pretty to watch,” said our former President.

Today, the spread between the Republican and Democratic negative ratings of Putin has disappeared, with the gap narrowing to only five points.

At the end of the Trump administration, only 48% of Republicans or Republican-leaning independents saw Russia as a major threat compared to 68% of Democrats. Today, over 60% of both Republicans and Democrats see Russia as a major threat to the United States. A short time ago, the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) tweeted and then deleted a horribly ill-advised message for Democrats to “end the gift-giving to Ukraine.

Far-right European politicians are scrambling to readdress their recent swoons over Vladimir Putin. Far-right Giorgia Meloni, Prime Minister of Italy, has rushed to jettison her recent warm words for Putin, vowing to continue sending weapons to Ukraine. Italy’s current Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, who once described Putin as “the best statesman on earth,” now insists he supports Ukraine.

Support for Putin has plunged throughout the world. The latest Pew Research reveals that favorable opinions of Putin and the Russian Federation have collapsed, even among the far right, since Russia invaded Ukraine. Among Salvini’s followers in Italy, confidence in Putin regarding world affairs has imploded from 62% last year to 10% today.

France’s Marine Le Pen, whose own swoon with Putin is an embarrassment as she protests that the Putin we see today is “not the one” she met when she was promoting stronger ties with Russia. Actually, he is precisely the same man. Just a year ago, her National Rally Party members were overwhelmingly pro-Putin. Today just 21% admit to favorable views of him.

We don’t know how the Russian aggression against Ukraine will finally be resolved. However, assuming Ukraine remains free and independent and Putin is still at the helm of the Russian Federation when the fighting ceases, the Russian strongman will not have been chastened by the experience. He will not be a friendly neighbor to those free and independent nations that used to be old Soviet vassals. He will simply be better informed about what to do differently next time.

The Ruckus Over Censorship in America: It’s Really About Trust

First, let’s see if we can agree on what illegal censorship is in America. Very simply, it is constitutionally unlawful for government, or an instrument of government, to establish or enforce a prior restraint on speech (written or spoken) with certain very narrow exceptions for national security and harmful activity such as the creation and distribution of child pornography. By and large, that’s it.

So, when the political class, either on the left or right, hyperventilates that private media platforms are censoring their writings or utterings, especially social media platforms, they are, by and large, making a political comlaint and not a legal complaint.

A case in point would be Senator Chuck Grassley’s (R-IA) very public disclosure this week (three weeks before the mid-term elections) of his letters to the FBI and the Justice Department, complaining about the apparent lack of progress in the investigation of Hunter and James Biden’s alleged dealings with individuals connected to the Chinese communist government. The letter also referenced Hunter Biden’s role in Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company. Senator Grassley demands that the FBI essentially turn over its findings regarding its long, ongoing investigation by Thursday of this week, barely a week before the midterms. While his letter has been widely covered by right-wing social media and the Iowa press, it has, as of this writing, received relatively little attention elsewhere. To be sure, the allegations against Hunter and James Biden (and, by inference, President Biden) are quite damning, but the timing of Grassley’s letter smacks of partisan purpose. Reticence to cover Grassley’s salvo at this point in time represents editorial judgment, not censorship.

Now, to be sure, we are living in a challenging age with extraordinary means and instruments of communication that were not contemplated when our founders labored to ensure that no American government would restrict what fellow Americans had to say or write. Nonetheless, for most of our early history, newspapers and pamphlets, which were the only real means of mass communication, were often highly partisan and routinely excluded political opinions inconsistent with their publishers’ particular political points of view.

No one cried censorship because it simply wasn’t censorship, at least not in the sense that censorship was, and is, proscribed by our constitution. We did have one rather outrageous flirtation with censorship during the administration of a very thin-skinned John Adams, but that flirtation ceased at the end of the Adams Administration and the termination of the Alien and Sedition Act in 1801.

Many media outlets throughout history have had a long track record of discriminating about what political “news” they would or would not publish or promote.

But that was then, and this is now. Today, we have social media, something akin to electronic public bulletin boards to which pretty much everyone has access…or do they?…or should they? Which is worse: to say you can’t publish something or to say you must publish something? It probably depends on whose ox is being gored.

Enter Section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act. This provision, which is nestled securely in a section of Title 47 of the United States Code, essentially provides immunity from liability for both users of and content providers to social media platforms and, of course, the platforms as well.

So, one argument goes, if you, as the owner of a social media platform, bear no responsibility for what someone posts, what right do you have to restrict or eliminate any content you do not like or of which you disapprove? “Well,” a social-media platform provider might respond, “I have as much right to use editorial discretion and judgment as any other purveyor of news or information.”

And that is, today, a raging political issue, and it is an issue that is resonating across the political spectrum. For example, a recent Pew Research Center survey found that nearly 75% of adults in America believe that social media sites are either very (37%) or somewhat (36%) discriminatory, that is, that they intentionally censor political positions that they find objectionable. Only a quarter of American adults doubt that such censorship exists.

Among Republicans, or those who lean Republican, fully 90% believe it is somewhat likely that social media sites censor political messaging they do not like. Not surprisingly, about 70% of Republicans, or those who lean Republican, believe these social media platforms generally favor liberal points of view over conservative points of view.

The data also suggest a substantial trust deficit in America. For example, it has been suggested that social media platforms could have fact checkers flag those political postings by elected officials that are demonstrably either misleading or inaccurate. Only about half of all adults would be somewhat comfortable with such an arrangement. About 70% of Republicans would disapprove of such a fact-checking feature, and nearly a quarter of Democrats would disapprove. Overall, it seems clear there is insufficient trust that social media could accurately flag inaccurate or misleading political statements.

These data shouldn’t surprise anyone. A casualty or, perhaps, a symptom of our current political environment has been an extraordinary diminution of trust in our leaders, our institutions, and those uniquely American traits that once identified America as the world’s indispensable nation. While the American temperament was never kumbaya, far from it, we seemed to know when we had to pull together. Perhaps it was always fiction, but we once seemed to be guided by an inner gyroscope that, for a couple of centuries, made America the best hope of humankind.

We were the exceptional nation. We were exceptional because there was simply no place like America. Every American generation, pretty much, did much better than the prior generation. Every political season was raucous, but when the political banter, electioneering, and voting were done, we dusted ourselves off and got on with making America work.

The political give-and-take was spirited but rarely hateful. Political hyperbole was always par for the course, but calculated, destructive and blatant lying was never acceptable. At the proverbial end of the day or of the political season, no one seriously contemplated pulling down the entire fabric of American political life.

Maybe that’s simply because the tools and machinery to undertake such a misplaced and self-destructive task weren’t previously available, at least not sufficient to undo the great American experiment. America, warts, and all, was still the best example of what a constitutional democracy could aspire to be. Except for a few Lindberghs along the way, Americans didn’t fawn over the world’s autocracies as some high-profile Americans do today.

We had always known that our democracy was fragile, requiring politicians and statesmen who would, when push came to shove, stand together in deference to the generations of Americans who were committed to preserving the constitutional democracy the founders had created.

Benjamin Franklin defined the great American challenge. We had a Republic if we could keep it.

For nearly two and a half centuries, we trusted that we could. 

It has always been a matter of trust, determination, and the hard work of democracy.

Trump, January 6th, 2021, and the Long, Dark Shadow of Roy M. Cohn

Many, perhaps most, readers of this column will have no real recollection of the late Roy M. Cohn. Cohn was the disgraced and disbarred attack-dog-of-a-lawyer who served as the character-assassinator-in-chief for the infamous and disgraced Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. He also, much later, served as Donald Trump’s attorney and mentor.

The pejorative term, McCarthyism, could have just as easily been coined Cohnism or, now, Trumpism. The former President once bragged about Cohn many years ago, “I can tell you he’s been vicious to others in his protection of me.” Trump’s own derogatory references to those who oppose him are unprecedented in American presidential politics. Then again, he learned at the knee of Roy Cohn, a master of pejoratives.

Trump was among Roy Cohn’s greatest admirers, commenting that Cohn was a genius. “He’s a lousy lawyer, but he’s a genius.” Trump once said.

What made Cohn a genius in Trump’s eyes was his ability to strike dread and fear in those who dared to oppose him. “Where’s my Roy Cohn,” Trump is reported to lament when adversaries or underlings have irritated him.

Investigative reporter Wayne Barrett spent many hours over the years interviewing both Cohn and Trump. In “Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” he wrote that Cohn began to “assume a role in Donald’s life far transcending that of a lawyer. He became Donald’s mentor, his constant adviser.”

Barrett observed, “Cohn’s stamp on Trump is obvious. I just look at him and see Roy. Both of them are attack dogs.” Roy Cohn, who publicly expressed contempt for homosexuals, died nearly 40 years ago of AIDS.

Cohn is quoted in a Vanity Fair Article in 2017 as having once claimed that Donald Trump called him 15 or 20 times a day to check on the status “of this or that.”

Cohnism is alive and well in the Trump-controlled Republican Party. Just as prospective litigants dreaded the firestorm of public abuse and spurious countersuits they would face when Roy Cohn was an opposing litigant, so have Republican politicians dreaded having to contend with an angry Donald Trump.

His invective or opposition makes a Republican office seeker like Sisyphus pushing a bolder up a steep hill. It’s just easier to agree that Trump won the last election and that Biden has become President through a rigged election.

Roy Cohn once bragged, “My scare value is high. My arena is controversy. My tough front is my biggest asset.”  Sound familiar?

“You knew when you were in Cohn’s presence you were in the presence of pure evil,” said prominent first-amendment attorney Victor A. Kovner, who had known him for years. Cohn could wield power simply because he could intimidate potential adversaries with spurious threats and groundless lawsuits. His demand of those he represented or befriended was said to be, simply, ironclad loyalty.

Like Cohn, Donald Trump’s most potent weapon has been the fear he induces. That is, after all, the greatest lesson Trump gleaned from his years of fawning over Roy Cohn.

Trump learned from Cohn how to exploit power and instill fear. It was a simple strategy: attack, counterattack, and never apologize.

“The country has moved on from January 6th,” someone is sure to comment whenever I reference the failed coup engineered by the Trump-Bannon-Stone troika. That is precisely why it is so important to write about that dreadful day whenever new information comes to light regarding the failed coup. Often overlooked in all of the coverage of that day, and endless other days of Trumpian arrogance, is the outsized influence that Roy M. Cohn exerted on the life and behavior of Donald Trump. 

Trump’s insistence that he won the election and that it had been stolen had nothing to do with the election results. However, it had everything to do with lessons learned from Roy Cohn, his mentor; attack, counterattack, and never apologize.

“Roy was a master of situational immorality. He worked with a three-dimensional strategy: 1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counterattack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens or how deep into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.” As columnist Liz Smith once observed, “Donald lost his moral compass when he made an alliance with Roy Cohn.”

Fear!

Fear of his wrath. Fear of his ridicule. Fear of Trump is why nearly 300 election deniers are on the ballot in the mid-term elections in less than a month. Most of them are election deniers because that was the price they had to pay to secure Donald Trump’s endorsement. That was the only price they had to pay. It is the tactic the former President has waged to keep a vast cadre of Republican officeholders and office seekers in line. Their dread of being consigned to electoral purgatory in any Republican primary by the former President has been palpable across the American political landscape.

Loyalty to Trump; that was the ticket to his endorsement. That was the total price of admission to Team Trump. Indeed, experience or qualifications didn’t matter. For that matter, being a resident of the state in which you were running didn’t really matter either. Just declare that Biden stole the 2020 election. That’s what matters. It is all that matters.

This is dangerous stuff. Clearly, the Trump plan to steal the election was concocted months before the election. Those most involved with the planned election theft stated to their followers months before the election that the grift would be for Trump to declare victory regardless of whether he was winning or losing. The objective? To create enough chaos to get congress to remand the election in several states back to Republican-controlled legislatures.

“Just declare (without a shred of evidence) that the election was corrupt, and leave the rest to me and the Republicans,” Trump demanded of Justice Department officials.

Chaos was the strategy. The appeals of Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, and Peter Navarro, three high-profile Trump acolytes, along with the breathtakingly overt and desperate behavior of the former President himself, demonstrate a crude, chaotic, violent, and clumsily executed plan.

Some have commented to me, critically, that the country has moved on from January 6th and that I should as well. Not a chance, at least not while there are those who have moved on from January 6th.

Moving on from Trump’s tactical plan to falsely declare victory and unleash the calculated chaos that he and his lieutenants had carefully plotted would signal the end of our American constitutional democracy. Had they succeeded, or should they succeed next time, American democracy as we know it, and as the founders intended it would be done. Trumpism and Cohnism would have won the day, and the country as well.

SAUDI-OPEC+ DECISION: A MIDDLE FINGER TO BIDEN

OPEC+ = 13 OPEC cartel member nations plus ten other oil-producing countries.

I assumed, quite incorrectly, that President Biden’s sojourn in July to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was a pre-arranged, high-stakes quid pro quo. The Crown Prince and his fellow OPEC+ price-fixers would increase oil production, thereby keeping oil prices down, but first, President Biden had to travel to Saudi Arabia and ask (think beg).

President Biden made the trip, fist-bumping with the Prince to show the world they were still pals, and presumably formalized our request that the oil-rich kingdom keeps the oil flowing. The Biden fist-bump was returned this week with a middle finger from the Prince.

There was a lot of agenda window dressing at the July meeting, including ending America’s near-half-century peace-keeping contingent on Tiran Island and supporting Saudi Arabia against attacks from Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. But let’s not kid ourselves; the real purpose of the meeting was to avoid an OPEC+ oil squeeze as winter approaches amid Russia’s war against Ukraine. Oil and gas revenue, and only oil and gas revenue, keep the Russian economy afloat as the free world rushes defensive military aid to Ukraine.

In the you’re with us or against us world in which we live, the Saudis and their fellow OPEC+ price fixers have let us know in no uncertain terms where they stand.

The Saudi-OPEC+ timing was diabolically exquisite. Europe is bracing for winter, Ukraine has run circles around the Russians on the battlefield but will soon have to pause for the coming deep freeze, Russian cash reserves will swell with a massive infusion of inflated oil revenue, and in North America, gas prices may soon soar as the so-called OPEC+ artificially gooses the price of petroleum. As though to punctuate the metaphorical middle finger, the 2 million barrel-a-day production cutback will go into effect exactly one week before the most consequential mid-term elections in the lifetime of most Americans today.

Now, to be sure, the so-called OPEC+ price-fixing cartel includes many oil-producing nations besides the Saudis and the other original oil-producing member countries, including Kazakhstan, Mexico, and, surprise, Russia. However, Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman call the shots. Without Saudi concurrence, there would be no cut in production to goose the price of oil.

The decision to cut production, thereby raising prices, was justified as necessary “in light of the uncertainty that surrounds the global economy and oil market outlooks,” the cartel said in a press release. Let’s unpack that rather weird justification for raising the price of oil. The fact is, for a variety of reasons, the demand for crude oil has recently been steadily dropping. Barely 90 days ago, a barrel of so-called Brent crude brought $125 on the open market. This past week the same barrel was selling for $93. So, the oil producers rationalize the best way to fight declining demand is to raise prices. Huh?

Well, maybe not so crazy. Consumers have defended themselves against high oil prices by avoiding unnecessary automobile travel, and, of course, the widespread COVID restrictions for much of the past two years kept families close to home. But now winter, always cruel in much of Europe and certainly in Ukraine, assures that there will be a brisk market for fuel oil and an opportune time for the price-fixing cartel to push the cost of staying warm as high as possible.

Saudi Arabia, the driving force behind OPEC, needs petro-dollars today to support its future growth plans. The kingdom, or its princely class, understands that it can’t continue to support a lavish lifestyle simply by selling off its primary natural resource. The kingdom produces little of what is in demand elsewhere in the world other than oil, of which, by happenstance, it sits above an estimated 250 billion to 300 billion barrels. By and large, that goop increases in value over time, depending on what is happening worldwide.

For example, last April, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) increased its estimate of Saudi growth by about three percentage points simply because Russia invaded Ukraine. The Saudis didn’t have to do anything other than selling off some of their oil. The boost Saudi Arabia got from Russia’s land grab represented the greatest economic boost among all of the major economies in the world, according to the IMF.

Here’s the thing, as they say, the Saudi Arabian budget breaks even, according to the IMF, when oil sells at about $69 a barrel. As I write this column, the price of a barrel of Brent crude is trading at $94.42. That’s $1.05 more per barrel than it sold for yesterday. The Saudis intend for the price to go a lot higher when they cut production in three weeks.

Rystad Energy analyst Jorge León predicts that Brent could surpass $100 by year’s end, and the Saudi Arabian oil minister says he anticipates that the cut in oil production will continue through the end of 2023.

Meanwhile, the days of friendly fist bumps seem to be over for the time being, as The White House declared that Saudi Arabia and the cartel it controls have aligned with Russia. Already a bill has been introduced in Congress allowing the United States to sue OPEC for violating our antitrust laws.

The White House circulated talking points that referred to the prospect of a production cut as a “total disaster” and as a “hostile act.”

Bloomberg energy analyst, Javier Blas, warns the Saudi-Russia partnership “is becoming a permanent axis” that is “redrawing energy geopolitics. Saudi Arabia is, today, one of the only sure friends that Putin has left,” Blas said.

And the benefits of the partnership between Russia and Saudi Arabia increasingly appear to come at the expense of other global energy powers.

Karen Young with Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy was equally ominous in her assessment of the Saudi move. “OPEC+ has the leverage as a market maker, U.S. shale does not, and at the end of the day, Russia, Saudi, and UAE are in business together.”

Professor Heather Cox Richardson of Boston College sees the OPEC move as being as much about influencing U.S. politics as energy policy. “It also appears to serve both Moscow and Riyadh’s interests in harming Democrats’ chances in the looming midterm elections,” she said. Cox may be on to something. Notwithstanding the steady drumbeat of criticism from the far right, Biden has racked up some impressive legislative accomplishments, and his management of the NATO nations’ response to Russian aggression will be well-treated by history.

The late Nobel economist Milton Friedman believed that sooner or later, all cartels break up as different members break ranks to pursue different interests. It will be interesting to see if the Russians will give up any of their OPEC+ quotas.

One administration official described the White House as “having a spasm and panicking” as it became clear that OPEC+ members were determined to cut production and raise prices. Nothing would change the cartel’s petro-dollar grab, not even a visit and a fist bump from the President of the United States.

The Growing Worldwide Flirtation with Authoritarianism.

There’s a lot at stake.

The 2022 midterm elections in the United States, barely five weeks away, will have an outsized influence on the 2024 presidential election and the kind of country we are apt to be for years to come. There is a historic political schism in our country which is mirrored throughout much of the world today.

We do not know how the midterms will turn out in the United States. While, historically, the Party out of power would be expected to gain seats in Congress, polls show an increasingly narrow race. A betting person might wager that the Democrats might hold on to the Senate, but a wager that they could manage to hold onto the House would find few takers.

What we do know is that populism, and in a growing number of cases, authoritarianism, seems to be on the march throughout much of the world and quite possibly in the United States as well.

The World Values Survey, now in its forty-first year, has shed light on troubling trends.  It has, for the last six years, found a strong deterioration throughout much of the developed world in people’s faith in democracy. Alarmingly, this appears to be particularly true among voters under 50 years of age.  For example, in the United States, Germany, and Japan, somewhere between 20% and 40% of this cohort would embrace “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliaments and elections.”

In France, last April, Emmanuel Macron managed to once again defeat right-winger Marine Le Pen, but by a much narrower margin than in their last faceoff in 2017.

And just two weeks ago, in traditionally liberal Sweden, a coalition of right-wing parties, anchored by the far-right Sweden Democrats, took control of Parliament. And last April, Hungary’s uber authoritarian, Viktor Orbán, swept the board, securing his fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister.

And most recently, in Italy, a coalition led by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni came out on top and will likely put together Italy’s first far-right government since World War II.

And there is the far-right British National Party, the Norwegian Progress Party, and the Dutch Pim Fortuyn List. While these particular parties may or may not ascend to power, they can and do exert tremendous influence on whatever Party is in power.

Freedom House, which was founded in 1941 and is primarily funded by the United States government, paints a pretty bleak picture. The organization which publishes an annual assessment of “Freedom in the World” issued one of its darker assessments earlier this year. Authoritarianism is having a great run, it seems. Freedom House says in 2020, the world’s leading democracies “turned inward,” marking the 15th consecutive year of diminished global freedom. The number of countries Freedom House listed as “no longer free” grew to the highest level in fifteen years. Countries registering declines in political rights were also the highest in fifteen years.

So, the degree of disunity we see in America is simply our version of what is going on, sadly, throughout much of the world.

Vanderbilt University’s Unity and American Democracy Project developed the Vanderbilt Unity Index (VUI) over forty years ago to measure, on an ongoing basis, the state of political unity in America. That is, the degree to which we Americans agree or disagree, or put another way, the level of disunity in our country. Not surprisingly, we Americans love our political give and take. We’re not as united as we would like to think, nor are we as fragmented as many may think we are.

Unlike polling companies, the Vanderbilt Unity Index doesn’t focus on the spectrum of opinion but rather on the prevalence of extreme opinion. The Vanderbilt Index concentrates on five specific categories: (1) clear disapproval of the President, (2) ideological extremism, (3) social trust, (4) congressional polarization, and (5) protests and civil unrest.

The VUI does not concern itself with degree. That is, they eschew delving into whether a respondent feels – not very strong, or somewhat strong, but only if a respondent feels “very strong” about a given issue. In other words, the Vanderbilt Index focuses like a laser on the prevalence of extremes.

Working with the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and other pollsters, they focus on those who identify themselves as strong liberals or strong conservatives and even those who reveal that they simply do not trust most people. The VUI even considers the ideological chasm between congressional parties at specific points in time.

Of course, the VUI has never achieved a rating of 100, which would indicate unanimity of opinion, just as it has never sunk to 0, which would indicate total disunity. The highest rating ever achieved since the index was created was 71.3 during the second Gulf War in 1991. Nine out of ten of the lowest VUI ratings were during the Trump presidency, with the lowest being 35 in 2017. That is not necessarily a reflection of the Trump presidency but rather a reflection of how Americans reacted to that presidency. The Trump years were volatile, with strong opinions emanating from traditional and social media and thousands upon thousands of tweet storms to which the country had never before been exposed. The average VUI during the Trump years was 51, and, thus far, in the Biden administration, the average is 58. Both are quite far from “0”.

So, what are we to conclude from this survey of world affairs? Perhaps, that constitutional democracy is not given from on high. It is generally born of struggle, fragile, and can be wrested away in a proverbial blink of any eye.

Of Thee I Sing 1776 Moving to Substack

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