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Forever Politicians Are Bad For America

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Beyond the numerous, fairly well documented allegations of sexual harassment against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the lengthy report ordered by Letitia James, New York State Attorney General, reveals a powerful public official –Governor Cuomo– who routinely behaves like a moody despot. Based on this report, we learn that Governor Cuomo created a climate of fear and intimidation in his office. He often shouted and mistreated his staff, while also exhibiting bizarre behavior, like asking some to learn songs by heart and sing them to him on command. These aspects of his personality and overall “management style” are not the main focus on an investigation focused primarily on sexual harassment allegations. Nonetheless, they reveal an imperious, capricious and somewhat unbalanced individual as the leading elected official in New York State. In an average private sector work environment a CEO consistently exhibiting this kind of behavior would not last very long.

Rules do not apply to special people

Yet apparently Cuomo did all this, routinely, for years. Did he have any doubts about the appropriateness of his behavior? I think not. My sense is that Cuomo truly believes that he belongs to a special caste of almost super human leaders who have the latitude to make their own rules, simply on account of their exalted status. By virtue of the high office he was elected and re-elected to Cuomo believes he must be special. Being special, by definition his behavior must be unobjectionable.

While Cuomo’s behavior may be somewhat egregious, I suspect that it is not such a unique aberration among perennial public officials. I suspect that in varying degrees other popular elected and re-elected public officials engage in unorthodox behavior, implicitly assuming that somehow the rules that apply to other common mortals do not apply to them. They enjoy high favorable ratings. They get re-elected. Therefore, they are special. In a sense, the high office they hold “belongs” to them. They “own” it. And with the job come certain unwritten perks, such as latitude in engaging in sexual harassment, along with intimidating underlings, or indulging in capricious behavior.

Professional politicians are a problem for a democracy

How did we get here? Very simple. As a society, we have come to accept as “normal” that some people look at running for public office again and again as their life time “career”. Of course, not all of those who try succeed. But some do. Indeed, if you are somewhat capable, look good on TV and are a bit lucky, soon enough you learn the ropes. You figure out how to organize effective re-election campaigns. Using to the fullest the advantages of incumbency, (rewarding supporters, bestowing favors, appointing friends, and more), you run again and again and you keep getting re-elected.

Soon enough, holding high public office has become your profession. You have become a professional politician. But over time something happens, at least in some cases. You cease to be a public servant. You treat the job as your power perch. You get a high by giving orders. You relish the flattery you receive from constituents and powerful business leaders who would like to obtain special favors from you. You like to see your face on the front page and like to watch the news when you are the lead story on TV. Overtime, you may begin to think that you are invincible, or at the very least a cut above all other people.

Some may argue that perhaps there is some value in having experienced individuals running public affairs. Indeed, government at every level has become bigger and bigger and ever more technical and complex. If at every election cycle every few years you have new people coming in, they will face a steep learning curve. Isn’t it better to let those who know the system by virtue of experience keep running it?

The answer is no. It is not good in a democratic republic to allow the creation of an elite club of perennial office holders. This invites collusion, shady deals and potentially corrupt practices. Beyond that, at least in some cases, unchallenged power clouds judgment and may allow the false belief that one can do certain otherwise questionable things without running any risks, or suffering consequences.

Public service is not a profession

If we go back to the origins of America, our Founders did not envisage a democratic republic run by a small number of individuals who would want to be in public office for ever. The generally accepted view was that public service would be something that dedicated, civic minded individuals willing to lend a hand in the effort of advancing the general welfare would do —for some time. George Washington could have been easily re-elected after his second term as President, but he chose to retire from public office, this way creating a space for others.

In the end, while Andrew Cuomo may be an extreme case in terms of abnormal behavior, having allowed the creation of a super class of semi-permanent elected public officials who come to treat their office as a private domain has corrupted the very foundations of this republic. At the root of good governance you must have civic minded, humble individuals willing to do their best by holding public office —for a while. Perennially re-elected politicians may become hubristic and vainglorious. While Cuomo is now in the news, it would be a mistake to believe that he is the odd exception.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




When Americans Stopped Believing In America

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – Does anybody remember Lyndon LaRouche? He was a weird, if colorful, U.S. agitator who founded the National Caucus of Labor Committees through which he promoted a strange combination of crazy ideas mixed with a variety of outlandish conspiracy theories. LaRouche overtime built a national organization with significant international connections. He run for President many times as a candidate for his own US Labor Party. In 1976 he got a little more than 40,000 votes –nationwide. His campaign platform stated that unless his plans were implemented, the world would come to an end in about 15 years. Undeterred by this dismal 1976 showing, he kept going. At some point he was charged and convicted of tax fraud and ended up in jail. All this craziness notwithstanding, LaRouche for years enjoyed the support of a small, yet unwavering and loyal, sliver of American voters.

Fringe candidates had modest appeal

LaRouche’s story tells us that there have been and probably there will be strange or even mentally disturbed people who tried and will try to articulate their extreme or impossible ideas into workable political movements. His story also proves that there used to be and there will be at least some Americans willing to be persuaded by these “ideas”.

Closer to our times, we may recall billionaire Ross Perot who mounted an impressive presidential national campaign as a populist independent presidential candidate in 1992. He failed; even though in a three candidates fight, with himself, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, he got a respectable, if insufficient 18.9% of the votes. After that national campaign Perot faded away.

Most Americans favored mainstream candidates

The main point here is that, while we have had fringe would-be leaders in the course of the American political history, in most cases at best they enjoyed very modest or at least limited popular support. For better or worse, the vast majority of Americans who cared to participate in the national political process have supported the two mainstream parties and the candidates they fielded. While these parties, their leaders and platforms have proven at times to be mediocre or misguided, (think of Barry Goldwater on the right in 1964, or George McGovern on the left in 1972, both of them overwhelmingly rejected by a large majority of voters), overall, winning and losing national candidates have been insiders, people who emerged from within the two established political parties. Most of them did not promote very radical agendas, let alone conspiracy theories and crazy doomsday scenarios. And this is more or less how the US political system worked.

Trump’s improbable triumph

But then in 2015 Donald Trump came along as a newly minted candidate for the Republican Party presidential nomination, even though he had no previous formal affiliation with the GOP. This sudden entry into presidential politics was not just unusual but unprecedented. Largely because of his lack of experience and therefore credibility, Trump was immediately dismissed by all analysts –liberals and conservatives– as a joke, a publicity-seeking reality TV star with zero substance when it came to public policy, let alone presidential politics.

But Trump surprised everybody. During the GOP primaries Trump in no time literally “destroyed” all the other supposedly reliable, experienced would-be presidential nominees. All of them nurtured by the Republican Party Establishment. Several of them with long public office careers and distinguished resumes.

Amazingly, with zero hands on political experience and no record as a policy-maker, Trump became the GOP nominee. By itself, this was an incredible political achievement. But then Trump proceeded to win the national elections against Hilary Clinton, the steel-plated, quintessential Democratic Party establishment candidate whose campaign had ample funding, an enormous staff and the open support of many party heavyweights. Sure enough, in 2016 Trump won by a very small margin of votes in the three swing states that gave him his victory in the electoral college, (a little less than 80,000). But he did win. And he did all this by spending almost no money and with the help of a rather poorly organized campaign managed by second rate operatives, (at least until Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon became key advisers), and assorted amateurs.

Americans fed up with the corrupt establishment

The difference between Lyndon LaRouche improbable and always losing fringe political movement and Trump’s completely unexpected political triumph, first on the old leaders of the GOP and then everything else, rests in part on the almost magic Trump appeal.

But in larger measure his stunning political success illustrates the twin problems of the cultural and psychological decline of the American society and the vastly deteriorated quality of the political establishment against which Trump run –a discredited establishment now openly mistrusted by millions of voters who would roll the dice in 2016 with an inexperienced new person rather than reflexively vote once more for one of its members.

In 2016 millions of Americans, especially those hit hard by the heavy winds of globalization, felt left out. They were tired of mediocre, self-serving politicians, always making grandiose promises that sounded and were false. Many wanted to see in Donald Trump, a successful businessman, a breath of fresh air, an untainted non politician who would come to Washington and finally clean up the mess and –yes– “Make America Great Again”.

Not the whole story

This narrative may provide a partial explanation for Trump’s meteoric rise. But it does not explain how Trump could get elected president of the United States despite his fantastic ignorance about the issues, despite his heavy personal baggage, his vulgar language and lack of a any experience whatsoever as an elected official.

And it gets worse. As President Trump ruled in a chaotic fashion, misrepresenting issues, inventing data and stories on a daily basis, improvising policies, while reversing them sometimes within the same day. He caused consternation among his senior aids, many of whom were fired or left. This lack of continuity contributed to the overall confusion about policies and priorities. Furthermore, Trump picked major fights with practically all our Allies, even if at times he had ground for showing impatience with some of them, (think of the unmet pledges by most European members of NATO to increase their defense spending.) And yet his support, while never above 50%, stood firm at around 41-43%. Clearly, his vast army of loyalists stood by him, regardless of what he did or failed to do.

Trump almost won in 2020

In hindsight, it is quite clear that it was the colossal mishandling of the Covid pandemic, with over half a million of dead Americans, that ultimately caused Trump’s defeat in November 2020. Still, despite the Covid massive debacle, Trump lost by a very small margin in the electoral college, in an election that showed how his bizarre behavior and chaotic messages continue to resonate positively with millions of Americans, including minorities who almost by definition would seem to be his natural political enemies.

And, as we know, Trump did not leave the White House graciously. Now out of office, he continues to affirm publicly –without evidence– that he actually won the elections. His defeat is all about massive voter fraud. He did not concede nor is he willing to concede at any time in the future to Joe Biden. This is another first in American politics. Losing presidential candidates always concede, this way providing additional legitimacy to our elections system.

Most Republicans believe Trump

But the real problem here is not about how Trump handled his time in office and political defeat. The issue is that most Republicans actually believe his story. Indeed, despite his lies about the elections and all his rules-breaking behavior, or may be precisely because of all this, Trump continues to be very popular among rank and file Republicans, this way exerting enormous influence on the Republican Party. All GOP national leaders, whatever they may actually believe about who won the elections, will not publicly contradict him, this way allowing a colossal lie to become “truth”, at least in the eyes of millions of American voters. As all polls indicate, to this day, a majority of rank and file Republicans believe that Trump indeed won the 2020 elections and would definitely vote for him again, should he be a candidate in 2024.

The problem is us

These are some of the key facts –amazing but real. But focusing on what Trump said or did before, during, and after his presidency and how totally outrageous all this is, is not very helpful. The true and difficult issue here is not Trump.

The true issue is how a populist, protectionist, xenophobic would-be leader who routinely misrepresents facts and is at times borderline incoherent can be so immensely popular in a country composed (we thought) of reasonably well educated people, supposedly guided by a good amount of pragmatic common sense. As indicated above, Lyndon LaRouche was also an unorthodox politicians who said bizarre things and advocated strange stuff. However, LaRouche never moved beyond a loyal but very small group of followers. Ross Perot did better in 1992. But he failed to transform his significant popular appeal into a credible national political force. Trump instead became President in 2017, and he almost got re-elected in 2020. To this day, almost half the country was and still is behind him.

Sadly, I see only one simple, if disheartening, explanation for all this. The values that supposedly underpin America and supposedly inspire the aspiring political leaders who should carry them on are no longer understood or believed by millions of our fellow citizens. Maybe with cause, I should add.

A partisan cacophony

Indeed, the American national political process long time ago degenerated into a partisan cacophony dominated mostly by ideologues engaged in weird culture wars and self-serving, cynical pros who are at best capable of supporting the powerful economic interests of those who lavishly funded their campaigns. No statesmen here, only posturing crusaders and wily, opportunistic politicians.

The easiness with which Trump destroyed the old edifice of American politics shows that the building was already condemned. With a mighty Trump kick, the whole thing crumbled –literally. Because of Trump, now we know that this Great American Architecture of strong institutions supported by great values genuinely embraced by honest and competent elected leaders –an Architecture that we used to extoll as almost perfect and therefore everlasting– has not been cared for. As a result of decades of neglect, it is now both aged and corrupted. As a result of this long decay, when millions of despondent Americans saw an opportunity to dismantle it via their support for a total outsider, they did so –with enthusiasm.

In so doing however millions of Americans demonstrated that they had given up their common sense. Nothing wrong with a desire for change, trying something new. But “this” change? In choosing Trump as their unquestioned champion, millions of American have turned politics into quasi-religious fanaticism, eventually morphing their support for a candidate into a bizarre cult whose leader can do no wrong.

So, here we are. The Trump phenomenon, whether confined to the four years of his presidency or not, is not the cause of our national problems. It is the uncomfortable illustration of how deep they run.

A fragile edifice

The fact is that the American edifice we inherited from the Founders of this Republic was and is fragile. It needed and still needs constant care and repair. It is not self-fixing. We should recall the reply given by Benjamin Franklin to a lady who asked him what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had come up with. “A republic, if you can keep it”, was the answer. With this simple assessment, Franklin pointed out that the success of this newly minted creation rested in the continuing wisdom of its citizens. “We the People”, that is the education institutions, the culture we produce and embrace, the ethics and morals we display, accept or condemn, along with the respect, decency, and benevolence we genuinely feel and manifest towards one another ultimately determine who we are as “keepers” of this Republic. The sum total of all these diverse factors got us here. Obviously something –something Really Big– went wrong.

In another America, an inexperienced and untutored populist lacing his message with nativism, xenophobia and protectionism would have been at best a footnote in the history of our political process. Whereas in 2016 Donald Trump, against all odds and all by himself, competed against everybody and won, fair and square; along the way mocking, humiliating and shredding to pieces a large field of supposedly seasoned opponents, often exposing their all too real weaknesses, to the delight of his followers.

Unhappy Americans

Trump won because millions of disenchanted Americans were fed up with what they perceived as morally weak establishment politicians. They wanted radical change and believed Trump could bring it about.

In fairness, as president Trump changed many things. He cut taxes and deregulated the economy. By accident or as a consequence of his policies, he presided over an uninterrupted cycle of sustained economic growth, (not exceptional but sustained), and historically low unemployment. These are no trivial accomplishments.

But he did not transform the US economy. The 4 to 5% GDP growth rates he promised during the campaign never materialized. He did not “drain” the Washington swamp. He did not bring coal back, this way saving the jobs of thousands of coal miners. He attacked illegal immigration, but also vitally important legal immigration. Yet, despite all this, and despite the way he still refuses to accept his defeat, he is revered as a prophet among his core GOP supporters.

The Founders believed that Government’s primary mission was to preserve freedom. To accomplish this important task “We The People” (at least most of the time) would elect sensible, moral individuals who would carry out their duties with genuine dedication, in an impartial way. America was not supposed to be about prophets and visionaries to be blindly followed by enthusiastic masses. But this is where we are now.

Can we fix this?

This pernicious regression into extreme populism articulated through emotionally charged but ultimately empty slogans did not happen all of a sudden. The corrosion of our fundamentals which brought about lack of confidence in the would-be leaders who supposedly embody our traditional values on the part of millions of Americans took a long time.

With the Trump phenomenon we had a rude awakening. We had to come to terms with the fact that millions of Americans simply do not believe anymore in the textbook Good America we supposedly learn about in school. The Big Question is: “Now that we know all this, now that we know that we have to repair or maybe reconstruct the foundations upon which our successful but fragile society was built, are we up to the task”?

I really hope so.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




No Easy Way To Silence Bad Speech

By Paolo von Schirach –

WASHINGTON – In our United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution establishing the protection of freedom of speech is the cornerstone of an institutional edifice proclaiming that this Republic was created to protect individual liberties. Without the full enjoyment of freedom of speech there is no real Liberty, and therefore no real Democracy. In America every citizen should feel absolutely free to publicly state, proclaim, broadcast pretty much whatever they want, without any fear of retribution. Others may agree or disagree with what I say. They may like or dislike it. But nobody has the power of censoring me or punishing me for what I said.

Limits to free speech?

But now here in the United States, after all what happened in the last few years, culminating with the presidential campaign of 2020 , we have started a dangerous debate on what should be and should not be allowable free speech. At the root of this debate there is a legitimate concern. Is really all speech protected by the First Amendment? No exceptions? At what point –some wonder– do outright lies, outlandish conspiracy theories, combined with manipulation of facts and news become an assault on society, thus requiring censorship?

The simple answer is: never. And I mean never.

“But, wait a minute. What do you mean by never? Even the craziest things should be allowed? Even the patently lunatic theories?” The answer is yes, and yes, even though this means allowing the circulation and recirculation of pure poison. And the reason for this stand is very simple.

No logical limits to censorship

Once we start legalizing any kind of censorship whatsoever, (even if we call it something else), the dam has been broken and the trickle inevitably will turn into a flood. Think about it. We may start with perfectly good intentions, making every effort in creating narrow and precise definitions of what is so egregiously false that deserves censorship.

But this effort, we shall soon discover, cannot be contained. Once we have established that “some” really bad ideas must be censored, down the line someone else will want to add to this list some more categories of “bad things” that should be prohibited. And then, what? Do we really want to start a never ending debate regarding what is constitutionally protected free speech and what is poisonous talk, and therefore unprotected speech? Do we really want to go down that route? You can see where this goes. Not to a good place.

How do we protect ourselves?

And so, if we cannot and should not prohibit the circulation of crazy and false ideas, how do we protect ourselves from the harm they will inevitably cause to our society? Good question for which there is a very simple answer that requires however a monumental education effort as the only appropriate remedy.

The People who are ultimately the targets of all the ideas introduced in public debates need to have or gain the wisdom to know the difference between legitimate and crackpot ideas and crazy fantasies. If they do not have them now, the People need to acquire the intellectual and common sense tools of discernment that will allow them to know the difference and therefore separate legitimate free speech one can agree or disagree with from crackpot stuff to be discarded and junked.

This is at the same time a very simple operation for those who can tell the difference and difficult for those who lack the tools to do so. We know that many lack the ability to know which is which and this is why they embrace crackpot ideas that have no factual basis or –even worse– are based on foundations that deny key principles on which this Republic was founded.

Educated citizens are at the foundation of a viable democracy

And here is where we come to the real point. If millions of citizens (many or even most of them in good faith) believe in ideas that are both false and/or unconstitutional, we are facing a gigantic problem that we ignore at our peril.

As our Founding Fathers stipulated a long time ago, a viable Democracy assumes reasonably competent, fair minded citizens who share basic values and understand that along with the precious freedom of expression we all enjoy, we also must subscribe to unwritten rules of respect for facts and truth, decency, honor, tolerance, and a lot more. These “things”, these guiding principles and values cannot be legislated and ordered into place. These are things we should be able to acquire as we become functioning adults. All this should be the outcome of a good education and socialization process.

A viable republic requires educated citizens

The Founding Fathers recognized that passions and factionalism which would include the deliberate spreading of distortions and falsehood would exist in this Republic. This being the case, the best defense against them would be our constitutional system of checks and balances and reasonably well educated citizens who would be able, at least in most cases, to spot and therefore toss away dangerous and silly ideas, whatever their provenance.

In a word, it is clear that our Republic cannot really function without good citizens, and a good education is the means through which we create good citizens.

If most people look at some ideas, listen to them and quickly conclude: “This is garbage. Let’s move to on more substantive ideas and issues”, then we would have no real problem, and no need to think creatively about ways to introduce any kind of censorship. Indeed, the garbage is dangerous only to the extent that it is believed and embraced by some or many. Education creates a precious immunity against the garbage that some will inevitably spread around.

And please note that bad ideas are dangerous not because these days there are thousands of ways to spread them around. Social media and other information delivery tools are about volume levels. The bad ideas are not dangerous because now they find many powerful outlets. They are dangerous because they find a willing audience that can and will be be persuaded.

With all that, censorship, however appealing it may seem, is a bad solution to the problem. Simply because once you go down that route there is no logical or natural end to it.

Education is the only answer

The only solution, difficult as it is, is in giving the People the tools of discernment, judgment and common sense to examine and sift through ideas, theories and proposals and then simply discard the bad stuff. And please note that the bad stuff should not be the subject of public outrage and debates. The best thing that could be done about bad stuff is to toss it out and ignore it. Ignored by all, the bad stuff would simply die and its purveyors would disappear from the public scene.

I realize that all this sound simplistic or at least very unrealistic, given the magnitude of the problem we are facing. We do know that unfortunately millions of citizens, Fellow Americans, fall for the garbage. They do. They believe it and embrace it, often enthusiastically. As we have seen, at times this garbage may provide the motivation and moral justification for engaging in dangerous and illegal activities. We know all that.

The threat of censorship

However, it is even more dangerous to engage in censorship, even if we would be driven to this extreme remedy by the noble goal of protecting innocent people from garbage. As noted at the beginning, once we start creating a list of items that should fall under the category of unprotected speech, for good or bad reasons inevitably more items will be added to this list. And pretty soon free speech as we know it will be gone.

And there is more. For sure, the growing concerns that certain ideas may be suspect will cause people to start exercising a degree of self-censorship. Knowing about censorship, some people simply will not dare expressing certain unorthodox ideas for fear of negative repercussions. You see how once we enter this new dimension of limits to free speech there is no good way of getting out of it.

Help the education effort

Right now we are in a very imperfect democracy. Many people who have every right to participate in the political process lack the education and common sense to make the necessary distinctions and separations between ideas and crackpot conspiracy theories.

But banning “bad ideas” is not a good way to protect the people. As simplistic as this may sound, offering good education opportunities so that The People will have the tools to make up their own minds on the basis of reason and common sense is the only way out of this predicament. For sure, it will take years, maybe decades to improve this worrisome situation. But there is no other way.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




We Lost A Shared Reality

By Paolo von Schirach–

WASHINGTON – May be this was never true; but for a very long time many in America could argue that, whatever our political or ideological differences, we all shared the same facts based reality. We may have differed on what to do about issues and problems; but at least in a broad sense we were basing our judgments, opinions and counsel on the same facts.

Maybe it is a myth

As I said, may be deep down this was never true. Indeed, we have ample evidence that different segments of the American society for the longest time lived in different universes, with their own set of facts and related explanations.

Just to cite the most egregious example, leaders in the American South, even after the end of the Civil War that formally ended slavery, for almost a century embraced the fantasy that racial segregation was a fair and just legal and social arrangement, wisely created for the benefit of all, Whites and Blacks. They claimed that the facts on the ground demonstrated that segregation worked just fine for all parties. Nobody seemed to notice, let alone acknowledge, any conflicts between the US constitutional principle of equal justice for all and statutes that clearly and openly contradicted this core principle, denying African Americans their civil and voting rights, opportunity, education, jobs, and a lot more. And this is just one example, albeit gigantic.

A shared reality

Still, despite this and other discrepancies, the American cultural and political elites seemed to base their opinions on the reassuring assumption that they were drawn from a reality we all shared and agreed with.

For many years, the media reinforced this assumption. Every evening, when the news came into millions of American homes from the three big networks, not many viewers would challenge the truthfulness of “the facts” that were presented to them by the News Anchors, (all of them serious looking, middle aged, white males), and all the other correspondents. If it was on the evening news, well, it was factual. It was the truth. Revered CBS News Anchor Walter Cronkite famously signed off his daily broadcast with “And that’s the way it is” which could be interpreted as “This is the final word on this. We have told you the entire story”.

Again, may be what was presented on TV every night was not the entire truth. May be there was subtle or not so subtle editing and therefore willful manipulation in the way the events of the day were covered. But, even if this was happening, even if millions of viewers were in facts duped and fed lies, not many Americans openly doubted the truthfulness of what they watched every evening.

Customized media for true believers

Well, if we fast forward to today, we realize that we are in an entirely different world. Today we do not even pretend to have a shared reality. We have different realities, and we openly and consciously follow the one that suits us the most. When it comes to “news”, we choose to watch, read and listen to those who speak to our biases and prejudices. In the public affairs shows there is not even a pretense to be “objective”. Facts are presented selectively, with an obvious intent to spin in order to make a prepackaged point. Likewise, no effort to separate news and opinions. It is all a big stew. Worse yet, millions of people see nothing wrong with this approach to “news coverage”. The fact that the opinions we love to listen to in many if not most cases our grounded on fantasies, or at the very least serious distortion of “the facts”, is not even contemplated.

A nation of cult followers

Is this unprecedented? Well, not entirely. If we look at our past, of course here in America we always had some extreme political movements, strange cults, and weird sects that proclaimed outlandish things, often basing them on non existent “facts”. And these groups attracted some followers. But the point is that these were and usually remained fringe phenomena, with a modest following.

Now, very large sections of our society have voluntarily chosen to become the modern equivalent of cult followers who embrace a set of fantasyland theories with the absolute, unflinching certainty that they are based on “true facts”. The added corollary is usually that all those who disagree with the believers of a particular “truth” are deemed to be either stupid or evil. In many cases, they are portrayed as archenemies to be fought and neutralized.

A political view of Covid -19

An interesting example of this immersion in fantasyland is in the different way in which Americans, depending on their political orientations, look today at the still unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

What? Are there political views on the nature of the virus that caused this unprecedented health crisis? Yes, there are. And they are not confined to issues on which there can be legitimate policy disagreements; such as: how much money should be spent on testing, on emergency care, or on the development of a vaccine, who should be in charge of this and that, and the like. No, the disagreement is much more profound. it is about the nature of the disease, ans therefore on how dangerous it is, and what sorts of precautions individuals should take.

According to the website The Bulwark, here is the summary of views on the pandemic held by many (albeit not all) Republicans:

  • Less than half of Republicans believe that COVID-19 is a major threat to public health.
  • 63 percent of Republicans say that the extent of the coronavirus is exaggerated.
  • A quarter of the public thinks that the pandemic is the result of a planned conspiracy.
  • 40 percent of Republicans say COVID-19 is no more deadly than the flu.
  • 50 percent of Republicans say the COVID-19 death toll is an exaggeration.
  • 23 percent of Republicans say masks should be worn “rarely” or “never.”

Just to pick one item from this list of truly bizarre beliefs, I do not believe that many in the medical profession would seriously argue today that Covid-19 is more or less as dangerous as the flu. Sure enough, in many cases it looks like the flu. Its symptoms are similar, and the affected patients may experience only some temporary discomfort. But we also know that the mortality of Covid-19 is much, much higher than the flu, 52 times higher according to some calculations. Besides, as of now there is no Covid-19 vaccine; whereas flu vaccines that can prevent or at least mitigate the flu symptoms do exist. Hence the covid-induced lockdowns, and the various public health measures aimed at preventing, or at least minimizing, coronavirus contagion.

So, here we go. Medical experts say something based on empirical evidence. But a segment of the population prefers to believe others who provide an entirely different analysis. The medical experts wonder how is it possible that so many Americans would hold views that are contradicted by the known facts. But they do it anyway.

Green America within reach in no time

On the other side of the political divide, we have some segments within the Democratic Party who talk about their plans to make America Green in just 15 years as a perfectly reasonable, practical and cost effective plan. They honestly believe that it is possible to transform the entire power generation and distribution system and most industries in America, the largest economy on Earth, within a relatively short period of time, with no downside and no meaningful discomfort for a nation of more than 330 million people.

And yet recent developments, such as the California blackouts caused by significant supply problems caused by deployed, and as yet imperfect, renewable electricity prove that going green, itself a worthwhile goal, will require significantly improved technologies that as of now are not available on any scale. And yet the believers dismiss this “fact”. They see no problem in implementing this fantasy based on the “fact” that we already have what it takes to engineer this most dramatic transformation. The only people who see problems –so argue the believers– are those who want to derail the green agenda, because they represent the vested interests of the fossil fuels industry and their lobbyists. So, even here the opponents of “the truth” are essentially enemies.

Private universes

Well, here we are. It is a fact that large segments of our society now live in their own self-sufficient, private universes that have no interest in engaging others holding different views. They are completely impervious to fact based evidence that may contradict their beliefs. They believe what they want to believe, and proclaim that to be the facts-based truth.

There are still some pragmatists, for now

The only positive element in all this is that there still are some Americans who try to understand what the facts related to any issue or problem are. They genuinely seek to find common sense-based agreement on feasible solutions for real issues. And these people try to build coalitions and partnerships in order to advance real world practical solutions. And this is good. But it looks that the armies of the sectarian believers are growing. If this phenomenon does not stop, if the sectarians end up dominating the political and policy environment, we may face a real national crisis relatively soon.

This American Republic is founded on the (fantasy?) assumption that most citizens are generally reasonable people who will naturally seek common ground with others in order to address real life issues that affect the broader society. If this is no longer true, if we are just a bunch of warring sects proclaiming mutually exclusive “truths”, it is hard to understand how our system of government based on compromise and reaching out to others can survive.

Paolo von Schirach is the Editor of the Schirach Report He is also the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Sciencand International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC.




Why America is a Unique Country – Part 2

WASHINGTON – Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers of America sincerely believed that “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” were and are indeed self-evident and unalienable rights, given to each human being by a Supreme Being. These attributes, “attached” to each person from birth, were described as Natural Rights, and therefore something that no government could legitimately take away from any and all the individuals who collectively constitute The People.

Man is a rational creature

The Founders also subscribed to the belief, very popular in that Age of Reason, that human beings, while sometimes possessed by passions that may obfuscate clear judgment, are fundamentally rational creatures who most of the time reason and think rationally, especially so when their judgement is improved by proper scientific learning.

Therefore, it is expected that in general human beings will think and behave rationally on most issues, including matters of governance and public policy. Based on their optimistic view of human nature, the Founders also shared the belief that most human beings would be good, ethical, tolerant and just citizens and office holders, most of the time.

Self-government is impossible if people are ruled by emotions

Yes, passions at times would interfere with proper rational analysis and right action –some of the time. But, according to the beliefs of America’s Founders, emotions and factionalism, while recognized as threats to good governance, would not rule human thinking and behavior most of the time.

This is really important. According to America’s Founders, human beings are mostly good. And it is this basic human feature –deeply rooted in the foundations of the Enlightenment political philosophy embraced by the Founders — that makes successful self-government possible.

Indeed, the Founders fully acknowledged that if human beings were constantly ruled by uncontrollable emotions and irrational ideas it would be impossible for them to create and preserve a viable republican self-government. The institutions aimed at protecting freedom, however well crafted, would be easily destroyed by the uncontrolled passions of irrational people.

Optimistic view of human nature, with some cautionary notes

So, all in all, the prevailing view of human nature at the time was mostly optimistic. Self-government would be possible because most people most of the time would behave rationally. There were however some cautionary notes. How do we protect the republic from the dangers created by occasional but potentially serious irrational behavior? 

The “remedy” was in establishing separate constitutional powers competing with one another, a system of “checks and balances”. This would make government more complicated, as it required agreement among different centers of power. But it would also make concentration of power and therefore tyranny unlikely, this way allowing the People to enjoy their Freedoms, granted to them by Natural Law.

So here is the antidote to human irrationality. The US Constitution of 1787 explicitly divides power among the President, the Congress or the Judiciary. According to the Founders, divided powers would make government prevarication unlikely, this way safeguarding liberty by preventing concentration of power, and therefore unjust government coercion.

The Western Frontier 

Beyond this revolutionary constitution aimed at preserving Liberty, America had the unique added feature of an open Western Frontier. Thanks to the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a $15 million deal between the U.S. and France engineered by President Thomas Jefferson, America almost doubled its territory, (at about four cents an acre, an incredibly good deal). Without firing a single shot, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase, America had acquired vast, mostly unexplored territories henceforth available to new, adventurous and gutsy settlers.

The open Western Frontier created an almost magic appeal for many early Americans. In their view, America was not just a great nation founded on Freedom. It was actually an ever-expanding Free Republic which offered what no European state could ever offer: almost free land for all who wanted to go West, settle there, and claim a piece of it. Old settlers and new immigrants alike could have a real chance to make their way West, legally claim virgin land as their own, and become legitimate property owners by using their own virtues of courage, stamina, and spirit of adventure.

Plenty of land

Think about it. Where else in Europe could the children of landless peasants dream of owning the land they worked on that since time immemorial had been the uncontested property of the rapacious aristocracy? Short of a revolution that would destroy the entire political and economic order, (this happened with the French Revolution of 1789; but the Old Order eventually prevailed), this was an impossible dream. But here in America this dream of owning land was quite possible, and fully legal. Difficult and arduous, of course, but nonetheless possible.

Hence the almost irresistible appeal of a Wild American West that simply needed hard working new settlers who would turn the uncultivated prairie into beautiful and productive farm land.

Adventure for the common man

And here it is important to observe how the American Frontier evoked similar deep strands existing within some old European traditions. While unevenly spread, the drive to travel, explore and settle new lands is an old European theme.

For example, centuries before the Christian Era, sailing across the Mediterranean on rather primitive ships, the ancient Greeks colonized Sicily and parts of Southern Italy. And, as we know, classical Greek literature gave us the Odyssey, the incredible tale of a hero’s adventurous journey back to his native island, after a long war in a distant land.

And in later centuries, we have countless European travelers and navigators, from Marco Polo to Columbus, from Vespucci to Vasco da Gama and Magellan. These are the people who discovered new continents and brought back exotic riches and specimens of unknown plants and animals.

This vast heritage of journeys and explorations was in large measure transformed by legends, inaccuracies and fantastic exaggerations. But it kept alive an underlying European yearning for new places, usually imagined as better than the old ones.

The Frontier

Well, the American Western Frontier made the prospect of discovery and adventure possible and available not just to uncommon heroes and skilled navigators, but to the common folks. Driven by the vision of “conquering” the new virgin lands, ordinary people, with no special skills or prior experience, were motivated to embark in the incredible adventure of discovery, eventually claiming new lands for themselves and their families in the American Western Territories.

The caravans of covered wagons that traveled West were driven by ordinary people often with little education and rudimentary skills. These were not captains and admirals bankrolled by kings or rich merchants. They were common people animated by the hope to find good land and settle there, this way achieving the highest aspiration of landless farmers. And it is in large part for this reason that the push West by countless pioneers has become legend. This way, the drive to the American West became a glorified Everyman’s Odyssey.

American uniqueness

So, there you have it. Here is the exhilarating picture of America. There is this New State, founded by a Sovereign, Free People who created strong institutions of Self-Government, whose main purpose was and is to protect Individual Freedoms. On top of that, this New Blessed Land was luckily removed from backward Europe and its constant wars. Thanks to the American Constitution and the Bill of Rights, in this New Blessed Land people, including all newcomers, can be and are free.

And, to top it all off, people who arrived from Europe almost penniless, with some effort could figure out a way to be outfitted and travel towards the seemingly infinite West, where they would find plenty of land that they could claim as their own, according to clear laws and statutes.

Yes, this attractive picture is in large measure myth. Most likely, reality was much harsher and unforgiving for tens of thousands of ill-equipped, naive immigrants. Nonethless, the myth of a Good America became the established narrative. And this positive narrative sustained the American Republic in its early decades.

Freedom and land

Whatever the exaggerations about what America could offer, for the common man and woman for sure no other country in Europe could match such an attractive prospect. By the standards of the time, America was indeed exceptional: Freedom and Land for all well-meaning, hard-working people.

Over time, this country became successful not because of its size, resources and open land –Brazil and Russia also have size, resources and open land– but because it was founded by people who shared the firm determination to affirm a constitutional arrangement that would uphold and preserve the God-given individual liberties of its citizens.

Protection of Individual Freedom is the core principle at the foundation of America, and its most precious gift to new settlers. Over time, vast prosperity was created by millions of free people who engaged in diverse productive activities, being reassured that their government would protect their endeavors, and not hinder them.




Why America is a unique country – Part 1

America is a truly unique country. But not for the most commonly held reasons: “Come to America ,so that you will have a great chance to make money and be rich”. In truth, throughout the world America is viewed (sometimes with envy, sometimes with contempt) mostly as a country of great economic opportunity for those who are willing to push forward with determination, grit, passion and sometimes heartless aggression. America is the Promised Land where making money, advancing one’s social position, and building a better future for oneself is easier than elsewhere.

The other side of the coin is that America is viewed as the country where only money and material achievement are worthwhile goals, pursued singlehandedly by most people, sometimes in a heartless and unscrupulous (and at times even illegal) manner. According to many critics, because of this narrow focus on getting rich, the Americans have created a materialistic and somewhat decadent, soulless society. Some of this, both the positives and negatives, may be true.

But this is not what America, at its core, is about.    

It is all about Freedom

Indeed, both admirers and critics of America get it wrong. They focus on outcomes –material success—and neglect to appreciate and understand what inspires people to engage in activities. In other words, they do not understand the deep drivers leading to prosperity.

The truth is that material success in America is possible because all citizens know that, thanks to the protection of individual rights guaranteed by the US Constitution, they are truly free citizens.

And individual freedom, of course, includes economic freedom, that is freedom to engage in profit-oriented enterprises. When motivated people engage in enterprises without the constant fear of arbitrary obstacles placed on their way by a tyrannical, unaccountable government, economic success, while certainly not guaranteed, is more likely.

So, here is the thing about America. The fundamental idea at the foundation of the United States of America was not and is not “Come here to America to Make Money”. The main idea was and continues to be “Come here to America to be Free”. From this perspective, prosperity (again, possible, aspired to, but not guaranteed) is a welcome outcome of a life in which the individual, being free from state-imposed coercion, has the luxury to focus his/her efforts on the pursuit of his/her passions.

“In America you have a better chance to prosper because you are truly free to pursue your own dreams. You are free because you enjoy the protection of basic Individual Rights provided by the US Constitution. As the US Government protects your Freedoms, in America you do not have to worry about a rapacious, arbitrary government interfering with your affairs, or punitive regulations and taxes that will ultimately suffocate your enterprise”.

Indeed, it was this single fundamental principle –achieving and securing Freedom for all Americans—that inspired the Revolutionary War of 1776 and subsequently the creation of the US political institutions whose primary purpose is the protection of Individual Liberty. After the Constitution of 1787 established the institutions aimed at securing and protecting political and personal Freedoms, millions of Americans, old settlers and new settlers, could peacefully unleash their personal creativity without any fear of interference by the state, confiscatory taxes or other impediments to private sector economic activities so common in Europe at that time.

Freedom to do

So, having secured “Freedom from Tyranny”, the Americans could unleash their collective “Freedom to Do”, freeing up individual creativity, (if it was and is exercised within the boundaries of the Law). And, as we know, creativity often turned into innovation and entrepreneurship. Over time, entrepreneurship and the pursuit of commercially viable innovation made millions of Americans into successful professionals, inventors and business owners. 

In a word, in America, widespread prosperity is the welcome consequence of constitutionally guaranteed Individual Freedoms. Individual Freedom is at the foundation of economic success. America became rich not because becoming rich was the declared goal; but because it upheld and protected the Freedom of its citizens.

The European intellectual roots of the American political culture

How did America come to embrace this unique notion whereby government’s primary purpose is not to get on with public administration and “get things done” but to protect individual liberties? The answer is in the enthusiastic embrace by the intellectual elites in the British Colonies in North America of the ideas elaborated by European political philosophers who belong to the intellectual current known as the “Enlightenment”.

Indeed, the XVIII Century is generally known as the “Age of Light”. Yes, this was the age of the “Enlightenment”. Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, d’Alembert and Diderot are among the mostly French and British thinkers and authors of that prolific era.

The Enlightenment started with a renewed and vigorous focus on science, the rigorous observation of nature, experiments and emphasis on physics, mathematics and geometry. Many educated people, especially in France and Britain, over time developed the firm belief that the Universe surrounding human beings is a beautiful, harmonious whole designed by a Benign Creator, according to clear mathematical principles.

From this perspective, while much about the Universe was still unknown, everything was deemed to be knowable. Provided consistent effort and a keen desire to educate oneself about the proper ways to open the secrets of the natural world, eventually everything would become clear.

This is the meaning of “Enlightenment”, literally a process leading to expanding the light of knowledge. In turn, this approach would bring the light of science-based knowledge into the world –for the benefit of all human beings. Hence the emphasis on engaging in new scientific endeavors, described in many new books aimed at the general public, and education. Most fundamentally, via education, all people, including the common man of modest means, would become enlightened. 

Rational Man

According to most of the thinkers of the Enlightenment, rationality and reason –the essential organizing principles of the physical universe– are also essential human features. If men often behave irrationally, this is due to ignorance, lack of education, or bad teachings that instill superstitions, false ideas, and bigotry.

But for all these ills there was an excellent remedy: proper, science-based education. Education inspired by rigorous science would offer precious, scientific knowledge to all human beings, this way strengthening man’s natural foundations of reasoned thinking, rationality and even handed tolerance vis a vis other humans. 

Relying on these strong philosophical foundations, the European thinkers created new –and truly revolutionary– notions about the proper foundations of a political society, including the concept of the Natural Rights of Man, while elaborating the construct of a new type of rational, organized state populated and governed mostly by reasonable, “enlightened” men. This new political society would be based on voluntary arrangements agreed to by free people –a “Social Contract” — aimed at setting up just and accountable governments.    

Well, needless to say, given the prevailing reality of mostly medieval states ruled by absolute monarchs, there was almost no chance to see any of this come to fruition within Europe.

The American elites embraced the Enlightenment

It was instead in the New World, in the British Colonies of North America, that these truly revolutionary European ideas about science, learning, knowledge, Natural Rights, Individual Freedom and self-Government found a truly dedicated audience. And therefore, a truly fertile ground.

The middle class elites of the New World seemed to be animated by a spontaneous yearning for science and learning. Many early Americans had received just some or little formal education. Still, they were keen students and avid readers of the great works of the European thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Eventually, these self-taught American Colonists came to believe that, once free of the yoke imposed on them by the oppressive and unjust British Monarchy, in this New World they could give life to a new society ruled justly through a well balanced self-government, just as theorized by their favorite Enlightenment philosophers. 

And it worked. These ideas inspired the first clashes with the British authorities and eventually the Declaration of Independence of 1776 and the ultimately successful Revolutionary War which led to the end of British rule. With the notable ghastly exception of the long and bloody Civil War –a conflict between the supposedly universal principles of freedom and equality and the horrendous practice of slavery in the South– America seems to present an almost linear picture of the happy evolution of a free society that became prosperous because the citizens could freely engage in productive, money-making enterprises.

A beacon of light across the Atlantic

And this mostly benign picture, of course, inspired millions of unhappy Europeans. While there were many drivers behind the migratory waves of Europeans into America –and the pursuit of better economic opportunity was definitely a major factor–  the notion of leaving behind misery and poverty caused by political oppression, while embracing a New World ruled by benign laws that protect individual freedom, was definitely a powerful magnet which motivated millions to sail from Europe and its rather miserable conditions to America –never to come back.

And there is more. Owing to its geographic position, this New Blessed Land was conveniently separated by a vast Atlantic Ocean from the constant fracas caused by quarrelsome European states.

Indeed, this New Republic was situated in a pristine New World. It had no enemy states at its borders. (Of course, we should not forget how the American settlers over many decades essentially destroyed the Native American Nations that were pushed away by the colonists from the lands they had inhabited for centuries. The “Indians” were eventually confined into small reservations with few if any opportunities).

Which is to say that America became something like a controlled laboratory experiment. It could grow and develop without the constant worries of threats to its national security and the need to go to war to preserve it.

End of Part 1




Why Mass Shootings? Heavy Political Rhetoric, Psychopaths, and too many Weapons

WASHINGTON – The El Paso slaughter stunned America. It is human nature that when something completely out of the ordinary happens –an immense tragedy in this case—everybody wants to know “why”. And this case the simple “why” seems to be that the young man who went to the Walmart to kill as many Hispanics as he could did so because of his White Supremacist convictions. Apparently, he strongly believes that Latinos and Hispanics are alien enemies, and therefore they must be eliminated.

The hate crime narrative

Putting all
this together, this mass murder episode becomes yet another tragic episode of
violence motivated by racist hatred –another hate crime. And who is fueling
racist hatred in America these days? But, of course, as we all know, it is the
President himself, Donald Trump. Therefore, it is all finally clear.

And here is
the media-sponsored “official” narrative
that explains the roots of the tragedy and the event itself. President Trump,
with his abrasive and openly anti-immigrant and anti-Latino rhetoric, provided
cover to all those who share his beliefs and are also willing to act to enforce
his vision of a White America finally restored to its appropriate position of
primacy.

Not a good explanation

Of course,
there is a small amount of truth in this “explanation”.
National leaders should never set a bad example by over using inflammatory
language. It is very bad when they publicly and repeatedly disparage ethnic
minorities or any other segment of our society, fingering them as bad,
inferior, criminal or what have you. These messages, coming straight from the
top, are false; and they may give bad ideas to somebody.

Some psychopaths may act

That said, it
takes a psychopath to follow up with a mass shooting of complete strangers
based on the notion that “The President himself
declared that this people are bad news. The clean-up has to start somewhere,
and I may as well do my part”.
If anybody interpreted Trump’s offensive
language against Latinos as a license to get an automatic weapon and start
killing people, it means that they are mentally deranged.

Our national problem

And here is our national conundrum. Sadly, we do have an inflamed political climate –-and no doubt the President has contributed to raising the temperature. But we also have too many non diagnosed psychopaths, or at least mentally disturbed people, many of whom have unhindered access to lethal weapons.

Not to sound too simplistic, here is the thing. When you have extreme ideas that pass for normal political discourse, crazy people who may act on them, and literally millions of legal weapons in circulation, then we cannot be too surprised when one unhinged person does something really horrible. Yes, as the El Paso carnage shows us, just one person armed with a powerful weapon can create an immense human tragedy.

No easy solutions

Fixing all
this will be incredibly complicated. Changing the tone of the national
political debate is difficult enough; but not impossible. Far more complicated
is the effort to identify and place legally binding restrictions on mentally
disturbed people. Finally, limiting access to weapons will be even more
complicated, given the almost religious belief held by millions of Americans in
the absolute right to buy and carry weapons supposedly provided by the Second
Amendment to the US Constitution.

So, here is
the list. Here are the key ingredients for tragedies such as El Paso:  1) crazy ideas that demonize segments of our
society; 2) at least some deranged individuals willing to act to implement them;
3) and plenty of weapons available.

As a society,
we must face the magnitude of the problems confronting us. While it may take a
long time, we must change all this. The penalty for inaction will be more such tragedies. 




The New Immigrants And America’s Future Identity

WASHINGTON – We now know that the Australian government is openly concerned that unless it can manage its immigration policies properly, there is a serious risk that Australia may soon lose its political and cultural identity. There is fear that there are now too many new economic immigrants who, while living and working in Australia, do not fully understand and embrace the core values that bind Australia together. If this were indeed the case, the country will soon lose its identity and become something else.

Non assimilated immigrants 

On the face of it, this stance does not seem to be motivated by anti-immigrant prejudice, or xenophobic hysteria. Rather, it seems to be driven by a genuine concern that all new comers to Australia, even if initially motivated mostly by economic reasons when they decided to become immigrants, along the way have also embraced Australia’s national values.

If this is not so, non assimilated economic immigrants may contribute to the progressive fragmentation of the Australian society. This is valid concern in a country largely composed of recent immigrants.

America is also a country of immigrants 

If we switch over to the U.S., the current immigration debates, well-meaning in some aspects, emotional and acrimonious in others, are somewhat similar. America is also a country of immigrants. However, there is a significant qualitative distinction between earlier waves of migration to America, mostly from Europe, and the current wave composed mostly of individuals immigrating to the U.S. from Mexico, Central and South America. Most of the old immigrants wanted to become Americans as soon as possible.

In contrast, the new immigrants are usually happy to be here. But they do not feel the same urgency/pressure to quickly assimilate. given this, just like the Australians, we would like to be reassured that there is a way whereby the new immigrants can and will be successfully assimilated into the main stream of American culture and society, just like millions of others before them.

Is the American core still intact?

In other words, as a society, we should be able to feel confident that new waves of immigration will not weaken America’s core values as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. America’s core values are relatively simple, yet of fundamental importance. But we cannot assume that every new American truly understands them and will live by them.

Simply stated, America is a country based on popular sovereignty in which the government has been established to preserve individual freedom and serve the People, where accountability is a duty, and the protection of all basic individual freedoms is the main obligation of all public institutions, while a properly functioning system of checks and balances prevents abuses and protects minorities. Sounds really simple.

But it is not at all simple. Understanding the deep meaning and broad implications of these relatively elementary principles requires deep reflection, and in most cases the rejection of other models in which the state is sovereign and the citizen a subject.

No pressure to assimilate

But why can’t we be sure that these American principles are properly embraced by the new immigrants? Very simple. Fundamental changes have occurred in the immigration process in the last 20 to 30 years. Absorbing core values was an integral part of the assimilation process, mostly because new immigrants wanted to be part of the mainstream.

But here is the thing. Assimilation as we understood it until a few decades ago may not be happening anymore. New immigrants are no longer automatically “blended”, this way quickly becoming Americans.The US has already become a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual society, with distinctive ethnic enclaves within which people preserve the language, culture and belief systems of their country of origin.

And this happened in large measure because there is no longer any strong incentive nor pressure to assimilate and be assimilated. It is a fact that in the U.S. many states or regions within them now are predominantly Hispanic or Latino, and Spanish-speaking. Other ethnic enclaves also exist; but the communities from south of the border are by far the largest.

No pressure to embrace American core values

Let me be absolutely clear. These relatively new Americans are mostly industrious, good people. Still, if we cannot be sure that these new immigrants, after they came here, fully embraced the American political culture and its underlying values, overtime this will lead to a significant –in fact structural– transformation of the America we know today.

And since America developed and grew in what it is today because its diverse citizens subscribed to a certain set of constitutional principles, it is important to check as to whether most citizens still share those beliefs. And if some do not, we have a real problem.

There is no more a “melting pot”

The main –and probably irreversible– change when it comes to the difference between old and new immigration, is that the old “melting pot” metaphor used to describe America no longer applies. Up to the 1960s the “melting pot” was a fair representation of the willingness and ability of the American society to receive, absorb and homogenize large waves of diverse immigrants, this way turning them rather quickly into “true Americans” .

All this no longer applies. The US ceased to be this mostly Anglo-Saxon “cultural blender” that overtime absorbed, digested, homogenized and integrated millions of other immigrants coming from different backgrounds.

Old immigrants under pressure to become assimilated 

How did this happen? Here is the thing. The  reason why the “melting pot ”  metaphor no longer applies is about the fundamental difference between the immigration experience of the Europeans who came to America a hundred years ago and the experience of the Latinos who come today. The qualitative distinction is that most of the older immigrants –in particular the Europeans– came to the U.S. with a keen awareness, explicit or implicit, that by immigrating into the U.S. they had also permanently severed their ties to their countries of origin.

Sure, in many cases they would retain, at least the immigrant generation, a specific identity within the American ethnic mosaic. But most of them were absolutely bent on “becoming Americans”, as soon as possible. Rightly or wrongly, fast assimilation was deemed to be the ticket into the American mainstream. With assimilation came acceptance; and therefore more economic and social opportunities, for the new immigrants and certainly for their children growing up in America. 

Superficial differences remained

Looking among newcomers to America a century ago, one could have easily recognized Polish Americans as different from Italian Americans. But, by and large, whatever the different countries of origin, physical appearance and accents, there was a unifying trait that most new immigrants shared.

Indeed, those who came to the U.S. and stayed here had made a total commitment to becoming Americans, and to place any residual tie or connection with their country of origin: linguistic, cultural or culinary, on a much lower tier.

Old ties soon dissolved 

Furthermore, in many if not most cases, the new immigrants were unable or unwilling to preserve their linguistic identity and pass it on to the following generations. Many of them were often semi-literate or illiterate within their own cultures. Thus they did not have the tools to preserve linguistic and cultural complexities that they did not fully master.

Therefore, the kaleidoscope of exotic last names that still today dots the American landscape has value mostly for the ethnographers and historians who can spot and identify Norwegian, Irish, Greek, Russian, Polish, Portuguese, or German origins.

Immigrants intermarried

However, if we fast forward to today, the individuals who bear those last names –the descendants of the original immigrants– with a few exceptions, usually can barely tell you that their great grand parents came from somewhere in Ireland or Germany. Besides, mixed marriages among different immigrants blurred the picture even further. The Italians intermarried with the Irish and their offspring later on with other descendants of other nationals. A third or fourth generation American today can easily be part German, Swedish, Scottish, Russian and Greek. Therefore, for him or her it is almost impossible to determine a meaningful national or cultural origin, let alone have strong feelings of belonging to it.

Immigrants today stay connected 

Well, today it is different, very different. And the basic difference between these old waves of immigrants and the Latino waves rests largely on geographic proximity to the countries of origin, and the consequent easy travel back and forth, relatively higher standards of living, and the availability of low cost or zero cost communication tools that keep the old ties alive and relevant. This level of communication between new immigrants and their country of origin was simply unimaginable a century ago.

A hundred years ago, most European immigrants by and large came on a one way third class ticket on overcrowded steamers. Once they had landed, and after they had been processed at Ellis Island, they were psychologically and materially committed to a fast track to integration in order to increase their chances of improving their lot vis-a-vis the other Americans. In most cases, going back to the country of origin was out of the question. Immigration to America was final. Thus, embracing this new world, in all its aspects, including its political culture and values, was absolutely necessary in order to have a chance to succeed in it.

Ties to the country of origin 

The Latinos belonging to this new wave of migration instead do not have the same urgency to assimilate. They come by bus, by car or by air, many of them across the Mexican border. For the most part, (even if we take out the many who do not have legal papers who therefore cannot cross the border back and forth for fear of apprehension), except for the very poor, these immigrants have the opportunity to travel at least occasionally to their country of origin. Some do this rather frequently. Back home in Mexico, El Salvador or Colombia there are many relatives and circles of old friends. US-based immigrants send money back to them. At least some of them plan to make enough money in America, so that they can bring theirs savings back home and live comfortably there.

To think of Polish peasants transplanted in Illinois at the turn of the last century taking an even occasional summer vacation to visit relatives back in the village is preposterous. Except for the extremely successful few who had become really rich in America, hardly anybody ever went back.

Easy to communicate

On top of that, nowadays, even for the relatively poor Latinos, phone and video contact with relatives back home is the norm rather than the exception; while the gigantic remittance flows from the U.S. into Central and South America, indicate continues involvement with families and communities in the countries of origin.

And the retention of the Spanish language as the primary or at least co-equal language is an indication that these immigrants do not have the same urgency to integrate and in some fashion forget about their origins. They see no need for this.

Large immigrant communities retain their identities

The strength of large numbers in most cases may help in shaping attitudes. No need to learn English fast in large communities where the Spanish-speaking Latino population is actually the majority. Indeed, at least in some communities in the U.S. it is possible to have a reasonably “normal” life in terms of semi-decent work opportunity without any need to acquire real English fluency, something that certainly was not the case, even in the most “ethnic” states or regions, at the height of the European immigration waves.

Learning English used to be the ticket to success 

Certainly, even in the past there have been many large ethnic islands within the United States. And it is true that many immigrants could get by in America with little or no English. However, the understanding of all was that English was the only official language of the country and that all official transactions would be conducted in English. No equivalent at that time of the now ubiquitous “press 2 for Spanish”, in any telephone help line, let alone taking driver license tests in languages other than English, or the notion of having officially sanctioned bilingual education.

We know that being an American is not about ethnicity, as demonstrably there is no “American” ethnic group. However, becoming an American is both possible and absolutely necessary, if we want the original American ethos, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, to be preserved.

And it all boils down to the voluntary and sincere embrace (“without mental reservation, or purpose of evasion”, as the Oath all citizens have to take says), of a set of constitutional principles and the values that sustain them.

Immigrants had to become Americans

Of course, we know that, even in the past, most immigrants coming to the U.S. were primarily economic immigrants, driven by material needs, rather than by lofty political ideals.

However –and this is a crucial distinction between then and now– whether they liked it or not, the old immigrants were “forced”  by circumstances to buy into the prevailing Anglo-Saxon political culture and become sooner than later “homogenized Americans”, thus quickly shedding the legacy of their origins and embracing America and its core values, at least in most cases. As indicated above, at that time, America was a genuine melting pot. Today, it is a completely different story. No more a melting pot.

Civics exams do not make citizens 

True enough, the rule today is that before being naturalized, that is legally accepted into the American society and polity, all applicants must take and pass a test of basic knowledge of the U.S. Constitution.

This is not a bad idea. But since this is the only test, it is a truly low bar. So low, in fact, that it is insignificant. Demonstrating decent knowledge about how many Justices sit on the U.S. Supreme Court is important, but hardly conclusive evidence that the would-be US citizen understands –and most importantly agrees with– the principles of the American Constitution when it comes to the preservation of individual liberties, popular sovereignty, limited government, or the purpose of effective checks and balances, let alone the values that should sustain these core principles.

No real differences among the descendents of earlier immigrants 

When political leaders today affirm that the strength of America lies in the diverse backgrounds of the diverse immigrant population that somehow enriches all of us, they are talking nonsense. They should know that when we talk about Americans of European descent, today this “diversity” is in fact so superficial that its is in fact insignificant. They know that the descendants of those Italian, Swedish, Portuguese, German, Russian and Greek immigrants are now indistinguishable from one another.

Indeed, while some of them may have retained some superficial traces of their distinctiveness, (Italian Americans may have dark hair, Scandinavian Americans have blonde hair), at this is point they are all homogenized Americans. Kohl, Lantos, Giuliani, Voinovich, Kerry, Tenet, Dukakis, Rubio, Pompeo, just to stay within the sphere of people involved in public policy, are all “ethnic” names. Yet, all these are Americans –with a capital A.

Latin immigration is different 

However, ten years from now, will we say the same about the Mercado, Martinez, Ortiz, Lopez and Rodriguez who will be the Mayors, Senators, Governors and eventually national leaders of America? The critical difference between the old and the new immigrants is that many Latinos did not and do not have the same pressure to integrate and quickly become “homogenized Americans”.

Both old and new immigrants appreciated then and appreciate now the opportunity to have a better life in the USA. However, to the extent that the new immigrants (most of them from Central and Latin America) can easily maintain an active connection with their countries of origin, (something that those who came along with the previous immigration waves simply could not do), they do not seem to have the same urgency to totally and quickly transform themselves into “Anglo”.

Embracing America and its values 

If, while preserving the old family and cultural ties, all or at least most of them would voluntarily choose to truly and fully embrace the values of their adopted country, this would be a genuine achievement of good multiculturalism.

Let me be clear, this is not about “forcing” people to abandon their cultures, their language and their roots. There is absolutely nothing wrong in retaining and cultivating one’s culture and language of origin, as long as there is also a genuine embrace of American values up to the point that they become the key reference.

But, here is the thing. The old immigrants willingly or unwillingly were “sucked into America”.

As for today’s immigrants, realistically most of them will not spend sleepless nights poring over the Federalist Papers or other tomes on Jefferson or the U.S. Constitution in order to critically understand and fully appreciate America’s core values and how they were incorporated into the Constitution.

But here is the thing. Without the perception that in order to have a normal life in America they need to embrace the values of this society, most new immigrants will simply tend to their own private affairs. And, in the pursuit of their own interests, they will be guided by the principles that they acquired in their formative years.

America is not just the place you found work 

If this is so, regarding these new waves of immigrants, we cannot rest assured that their value systems and beliefs are or will be the same as those that are prevalent among other Americans, simply because their backgrounds are different and their learning and socialization took place in a different context, while the urgency to embrace American values is simply not there.

And herein is the challenge. America has worked reasonably well so far because a recognizable political culture has been preserved and passed on to new generations and millions of new immigrants over more than two hundred years through a fairly successful homogenization process that caused total outsiders –millions of immigrants from different countries– to become integrated into the American mainstream rather painlessly and in a relatively short time.

More than just language 

The substantial recent inflow of millions of people from nearby Mexico, Central and South America who bring with them not just another language but also different values and who see neither the obligation nor the need to fully understand and subscribe to the American political culture will bring about substantial qualitative changes. These changes will provoke new debates about what is it that we mean by “being an American”.

Once again, let me be clear. I am not even remotely suggesting that all these new Latin immigrants are disloyal or suspect people. I am simply suggesting that most of them are fundamentally economic immigrants who –unlike the European economic immigrants who landed here more than a century ago– are not under any pressure to understand, absorb and fully embrace American values.

Many Americans do not know much about their history and values

True, the notion that all the descendants of the old European waves have an unflinching, clear understanding as to what are the American values that they theoretically subscribe to is highly questionable. Indeed, many do not. But, at least in general, they cannot look at political or cultural alternatives that derive from other perspectives that coexist in their cultural and personal universe.

That said, if anything, the lukewarm appreciation about the distinctiveness of American political culture and values among many descendants of older immigrants complicates the problem, as it does not present to the new immigrants a really clear picture of the value system that they should absorb in order to become “real” Americans.

America is a political society shaped by shared values 

We all know that America is a rather unique country, in as much as those who are here today cannot point to a shared ethnic, religious or cultural identity. America is not a Nation-State in the European sense. America is a community of people coming from a variety of countries who freely decided to subscribe to a set of values which became the unifying principles of this republic.

Americans are Americans because they share a political culture. Until not too long ago, the implicit assumption was that all of those who are here genuinely understand it and willfully embrace it.

This political culture has been the intangible yet ultra strong magic glue that kept this complex machinery of the American society together. Going forward, we have to face the fact that this glue may not be as strong a bonding agent as it used to be.

A new era 

And we have to face this fact now. Indeed, for the first time in our complex history, we have a large chunk of new immigrants who may very well live here as law-abiding, productive citizens; but who are under no pressure to truly join in by sincerely embracing our political culture.

Again, let me stress that this does not automatically make these new immigrants disloyal or dangerous citizens. But it makes them different.

Just like the previous waves of immigration into America, these are predominantly economic immigrants. However, unlike the immigrants of old, these relatively recent immigrants did not and will not go through the “political and cultural indoctrination”, benign or “forced”, willfully accepted or “suffered” by millions of others before them. The old blender that homogenized everybody and made them into “true Americans” is no longer working.

The new immigrants are different. Their large and growing numbers will affect the culture and the values of the broader society in which they live, and eventually they will radically transform it –its value systems and core beliefs. How this transformation will change America and us all is impossible to predict.

But America will never be the same.




After Another Tragedy, A Chance For Gun Control In The U.S.? Don’t Count On It

WASHINGTON – After the most recent mass shooting in Florida, many  believe that “this time”  it is different. This time something will change. I disagree. Meaningful gun control in America is a fantasy, a mirage. After many decades observing the political process in Washington DC, I have concluded that unless both political parties will agree on a far more restrictive interpretation of the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, (“the right to bear arms”), and unless the Courts will support this new course, NOTHING –repeat NOTHING– will happen, when it comes to serious (as opposed to merely cosmetic) proposed gun control legislation. And, given the sharp political divide separating the two parties, the chances of such a new bipartisan agreement being forged are practically zero.

Tired script

After every new tragic mass shooting there a predictable, totally scripted, ritualised kabuki dance featuring prominent Democrats posturing and grandstanding against the gun lobby and their agents in Congress. With the appropriate gravitas, they accuse the Republicans of being in the pockets of the National Rifle Association, NRA, the powerful association of gun owners and pro-gun people in general. And then, what? Well, then nothing. After a few days, the whole thing goes away. EVERY SINGLE TIME.

The sacred Second Amendment 

Sadly, over many decades, tens of millions of Americans have acquired a distorted (in my view) notion of what “the right to bear arms” granted by the U.S. Constitution means. If we go back in history, it seems that what the Founders meant was the right of local communities to raise armed militias, so that they could defend themselves against a government that had turned tyrannical.

However, overtime, the current interpretation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution –unrestricted gun ownership, including large collections of military hardware– developed and then acquired the status of a theological mandate. It is bizarre; but it is so.

Nothing moves the needle

Extremely powerful opponents of this state of affairs, including former NYC Mayor and multi billionaire Michael Bloomberg, have poured rivers of money into the noble effort of trying to change the national conversation on gun ownership rights in the USA. Results? ZERO.

Daunting task

May be someone else will come up with a better idea. However, looking at the entrenched positions, and in particular at the semi religious attitude about gun ownership shared by millions of Americans, combined with the tens of millions of guns legally purchased and legally owned in this country, I am not optimistic about any chances for REAL change.

Sadly, the horror caused by yet another avoidable tragedy quickly subsides; and it is back to business as usual.




Oprah For President?

WASHINGTON – Oprah for President? Yes, after her recent Hollywood speech this is now a distinctly possible scenario for the 2020 presidential contest. Well, are we to conclude that America has gone mad? Are we going to see a presidential contest between highly polarizing former developer and reality TV star Donald Trump and Oprah, the much loved queen of inspiring TV talk shows? Is this what Americans want? To be led by entertainers with only vague knowledge about public policy issues and the complicated art of government?

Systemic failure 

The answer is: may be so. Well, how did we get to this point? Very simple. “The Establishment”, both Democrats and Republicans, pounded and demonized during the 2016 presidential campaign, was and still is completely discredited. And rightfully so, since it has failed. Miserably.

Far from being the expression of a self-confident, forward looking Republic,  America’s political leadership –the elected Senators and Congressmen– is composed mostly of small minded, often ignorant and risk averse, pros who long ago lost sight of the purpose of government: preserve liberty, protect the Nation, ensure the administration of justice, and deliver critical services in a fair manner, and at a reasonable cost to the American taxpayers.

Government is not working 

Just a few examples. Washington can no longer perform even basic, fundamental operations. The Congress cannot create and pass sensible federal budgets within the established time lines. We limp along from stop-gap to stop-gap through “continuing resolutions”, gimmicks that secure funding for government agencies, without however any serious debates about strategies, priorities and goals.

The elected leaders in Congress reflexively focus on their own narrow parochial issues –in order to please their constituents, this way paving the way to their own reelection– while disregarding the progressive deterioration of America’s public finances.

Colossal fiscal mismanagement

Indeed, lacking any serious policy debate about a proper and fair rebalancing of revenue and public expenditures, especially on vast and growing entitlement programs, (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid), the federal government spends all it gets from taxes and mindlessly borrows the rest. The net outcome of this systemic and now colossal fiscal mismanagement is a gigantic and growing U.S. federal debt: $ 20 trillion and counting. At some point this monster will eat us up. And yet, this impending public debt calamity is hardly mentioned at all in current Washington policy debates.

No serious discussion about critical issues 

Indeed serious issues with a huge impact on federal spending, such as the need for a serious reformulation of major entitlement programs, so that the elderly and the truly needy are covered, while the federal government secures the necessary revenue to finance these current and projected outlays, are left untouched.

Grotesque realities such as our astronomic health care costs –the highest among all rich countries– and our bad and declining health statistics, are not part of the national conversation.

Last but least, our chronically under performing public education system is only occasionally mentioned. Apparently the fact that almost half of all young Americans –especially the poor and minorities– grow up and get into the world without a modicum of knowledge and skills that would give them a fair chance to get good jobs and move up in our society is of no importance for our elected leaders sent to Washington to serve the Republic.

Inept leaders 

Simply stated, the professional politicians who are supposedly in charge, are mostly mediocre people, if not completely inept. They lack vision, intelligence, and the courage to deal with complicated problems. They simply do not know how to mind the store.

When the pros fail, Americans looks at outsiders 

Well, no wonder then that millions of unhappy Americans turned somewhere else for help. In 2016 they tried Donald Trump. In 2020 they may want to try Oprah. Will she run? Can she be elected? Who knows.

But if these –Donald or Oprah– are the possible leaders that America wants to choose from, as opposed to the pros that supposedly know how to run a modern Republic, it is because the pros have proven that they cannot do it. As simple as that.