The US Supreme Court tumbles into political dysfunction

October 11, 2018

The  US Supreme Court tumbles into political dysfunction

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

“When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” 15 years ago, I noted that the United States was not immune to the dangers of populism that could erode liberal democracy.”–Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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The most consequential casualty of the Supreme Court confirmation battle is not Christine Blasey Ford or Brett M. Kavanaugh. It is the Supreme Court and, thus, American democracy. The court was one of the last bastions in Washington that towered above the political fray. It is now part of the dysfunction that has overwhelmed almost the entire American system.

When I wrote a book about “illiberal democracy” 15 years ago, I noted that the United States was not immune to the dangers of populism that could erode liberal democracy. What had saved the country were the many checks and balances on pure majority rule, including the Bill of Rights, the Senate and the judicial system. At some level, the public seemed to understand and appreciate the role of these stabilizing elements that were governed by an internal code, not always responsive to what majorities demanded. I was struck that, in surveys, the three governmental institutions that commanded the most respect were all fundamentally non-democratic: the armed forces, the Federal Reserve and the Supreme Court. Of these, the Supreme Court was perhaps the most important because it is, in many ways, the ultimate arbiter of American democracy — the final decision-maker.

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The reason a democratic public admires these non-democratic institutions is not so mysterious. Aristotle believed that the best political system was a mixed regime, one that had aspects of democracy but also gained stability from some bodies that, rather than pandering to public sentiment, took a longer view and obeyed a higher set of values (such as the preservation of liberty). These kinds of institutions — rooted in history, law, technical expertise — were explicitly shielded from the short-term winds of public opinion and served as pillars for a functional democracy.

Over the years, such institutions in the United States have faced ferocious challenges. Two long wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have tested the reputation of the military. The speculative bubbles that led to the global financial crisis made many question the vaunted wisdom of the Fed. But both institutions have weathered those storms, perhaps because they were viewed to be genuinely trying their best and functioning as intended. Whatever mistakes they made were honest errors, often corrected. Neither institution is infallible, but both were seen as trying to fulfill the roles expected of them by society.

Over the years, such institutions in the United States have faced ferocious challenges. Two long wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, have tested the reputation of the military. The speculative bubbles that led to the global financial crisis made many question the vaunted wisdom of the Fed. But both institutions have weathered those storms, perhaps because they were viewed to be genuinely trying their best and functioning as intended. Whatever mistakes they made were honest errors, often corrected. Neither institution is infallible, but both were seen as trying to fulfill the roles expected of them by society.

The same cannot be said of the Supreme Court. Perhaps it began in 2000 with the highly political case of Bush v. Gore, in which conservatives on the court suddenly abandoned their long-standing principle of deference to states’ rights and voted in a nakedly partisan fashion. Some would date it further back to 1987, when the left mounted a fierce campaign against Robert H. Bork and derailed his Supreme Court nomination. Whatever the best starting date, the court has lost its reputation of impartiality and trustworthiness, so much that FiveThirtyEight says that “it’s in a weaker position now than at nearly any point in modern history.” Over the past several decades, Americans’ confidence in the court has gone from a peak of 56 percent in the 1980s to 37 percent today. It is likely to go even lower after the whole Kavanaugh mess.

Both parties are to blame for this descent, but as in most of the discussion of the rise of partisanship and polarization, studies confirm what is apparent to any rational observer: The Republican Party, especially after the “Republican revolution” of 1994, is by far the prime mover. It shifted further to the right, initiated the tactics of treating political opponents as traitors and actively encouraged the incendiary language that now dominates our discourse. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) refusal in 2016 to fulfill his constitutional obligation to give Judge Merrick Garland consideration for the Supreme Court was simply the most egregious example of a strategy that had been pursued for years. The Democrats have responded by mirroring these Republican tactics. Politicians don’t practice unilateral disarmament.

The American democratic system is designed to require compromise. No one controls multiple levers of government, as in a parliamentary system. The British Prime Minister simultaneously leads the executive branch and commands a majority in the legislative branch. But in the United States, the system is meant to have many different sources of power and legitimacy, all sharing in the functions of government.

For American democracy to work, all of the elements — the three branches of government, the political parties, the states and the center — must find a way to work together. And part of what makes this kind of cooperation possible is the sense that there are some institutions, rules and norms that cannot be thrown into the maelstrom of party politics. Some facets of the system must stay focused on the country as a whole, on its long-term viability, on its core values as a constitutional republic. And chief among those institutions is the Supreme Court. Or was.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

A Victory for America: Narrow Self-Interest?

A Victory for America: Narrow Self-Interest?

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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Americanism– Trump’s Victory ?

President Trump’s speech on Tuesday (September 25, 2018) at the United Nations was an intelligent — at times eloquent — presentation of his “America First” worldview. He laid out an approach of pursuing narrow self-interest over broader global ones and privileging unilateral action over multilateral cooperation. But Trump might not recognize that as he withdraws America from these global arenas, the rest of the world is moving on without Washington. Wittingly or not, Trump seems to be hastening the arrival of a post-American world.

Take one of his first major actions, pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping trade deal conceived during the George W. Bush administration and negotiated by Barack Obama’s administration. It was an attempt to open long-closed markets such as Japan and also to create a grouping that could stand up to China’s growing muscle in trade matters.

The other 11 TPP countries decided to keep the deal minus Washington, which simply means the United States will not gain access to those markets. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while sweet-talking Trump, also quickly struck a free-trade agreement with the European Union, creating one of the largest economic markets in the world and giving opportunities to Europe that might otherwise have gone to the United States.

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As Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay point out in a forthcoming book, “The Empty Throne,” if you are not at the table, you are on the menu. When Washington steps away, the global agenda is shaped without U.S. input. So withdrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Council simply means that American diplomats will watch the group’s routine condemnations of Israel from the sidelines while having less ability to bring moral pressure to bear on despots everywhere.

The Trump administration’s constant attacks on the World Trade Organization, an American idea, have left the field wide open and China is eagerly jumping in to shape the rules and conventions that will govern global trade. When Trump cuts funding for various international agencies, he is playing right into the hands of Beijing, which has long sought greater influence in these bodies. China will happily pick up the tab and accept new posts, along with the status and clout they bring. Similarly, the bizarre and continued absence of key American diplomats — no assistant secretaries of state for East Asia and South Asia; no ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and South Africa, among others — means that American interests are not represented.

Perhaps the most remarkable new effort to sidestep America has come from the Europeans, in reaction to Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear pact and re-impose financial sanctions on Iran and anyone who does business with it. Because of the immense global strength of the dollar, few major companies are willing to engage commercially with Iran — since dollars are the most commonly used currency for international transactions. This has infuriated the Europeans, who believe they should have the ability to do business with anyone they want.

They are therefore trying to create an economic mechanism that can bypass the dollar. As E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told me this week, “We cannot accept, as Europeans, that others — even our closest allies and friends — determine and decide with whom we can make business with or trade.” She indicated that others — presumably the Russians and Chinese — might join this effort. Were the European Union efforts to come to fruition, they would put a dent in the most significant element of American financial power — the unrivaled role of the dollar in the global economy.

The truth is, the European effort is unlikely to succeed. The dollar’s clout has actually increased in recent years as a globalized international system has needed a common currency. The euro’s future remains in doubt, China’s yuan isn’t even convertible, Japan’s yen represents a country in deep demographic decline. And yet, it seems foolish for the United States to pursue policies that produce the desire to curtail American power, bypass Washington and create new arrangements — especially among America’s closest allies. It’s one thing for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping to try to usher in a post-American world. It’s another for Europe to take the lead in doing so.

The result of America’s abdication will not be European or Chinese dominance. It will be — in the long run — greater disorder, the erosion of global rules and norms, and a more unpredictable, unstable world with fewer opportunities for people to buy, sell and invest around the globe.

In other words, it means a less peaceful and prosperous world — one in which American influence will be greatly diminished. How does this make America great?

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Dr. Fareed: Why I Talk to Bono

September 23, 2018

Dr. Fareed: Why I Talk to Bono

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When confronting a challenging problem, it’s sometimes useful to listen to someone who looks at it from an entirely different angle. That’s why I found it fascinating to talk about the rise of populism and nativism with Bono last weekend at a summit in Kiev. The Irish singer-activist-philanthropist sees the same forces that we all do, particularly in Europe, but he zeroes in on something intangible yet essential. The only way to counter the dark, pessimistic vision being peddled by nationalists and extremists, Bono says, is to have an uplifting, positive vision. Homing in on the trouble in his part of the world, he told me, “Europe needs to go from being seen as a bore, a bureaucracy, a technical project, to being what it is: a grand, inspiring idea.”

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To that end, Bono’s band, U2, has been choosing a moment during its concerts to unfurl — wait for it — the flag of the European Union. “Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling,” Bono wrote in a recent op-ed in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. He is trying to give that feeling meaning. To him, Europe is about the ability of countries that were once warring to live in peace, for people of many different lands and languages to come together. “That idea of Europe deserves songs written about it, and big bright blue flags to be waved about,” he wrote.

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Bono admits that Europe is a “hard sell” today. The continent is ablaze with populism. These forces have taken control in Hungary, Poland and Italy and are steadily gaining ground elsewhere, including Germany and Sweden. It seems that everywhere the fuel is the same: hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different. In April, NPR’s Joanna Kakissis reported on a Hungarian sociologist, Endre Sik, who had polled Hungarians about allowing asylum seekers into the country. He found strong resistance to accepting particular groups such as Romanians, Chinese and Arabs, and then he decided to ask about the “Pirezians.” The Pirezians are a fictional ethnic group of Sik’s own creation, yet Hungarians roundly refused to take them in. Sik told NPR, “The Hungarian form of xenophobia is, let’s say, the classic form: ‘They are different, we don’t know them, therefore we hate them.’ That’s the beast in us.”

Bono’s message resonated because I had been reading Francis Fukuyama’s new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.” Fukuyama argues that identity stems from humans’ deep-seated psychological need to be recognized as possessing dignity. In recent decades, in the understandable search for recognition, persecuted minority groups (blacks, Hispanics, gays) have celebrated their identity — and so have working-class whites, who now feel ignored and forgotten. The answer, Fukuyama says, is not to reject identity politics but to construct broad identities that can embrace others and unify different groups.

The founders of the E.U., he argues, spent too much time building the technical aspects of the project — laws, rules, tariffs. They neglected to nurture an actual European identity, something people could believe in not for rational reasons but for emotional and idealistic ones. In the American case, he argues, the anti-populist forces have to create a broad identity centered on core American ideas and values rather than narrow ethnic, racial or religious ones. Thus, we need a much greater focus on assimilation, on the celebration of American identity, on the things that make us all love being American. We need to connect with people in their guts, not just in their heads.

The European challenge might seem much greater than the American one, but in fact, distrust of foreigners doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of Europe. Even in Poland and Hungary, where ethnonationalist sentiments run high, support for the E.U. is quite high. According to the latest European Commission surveys, 71 percent of Poles say they feel attached to the E.U., more so than Germans or Spaniards, while 61 percent of Hungarians feel attached, outstripping the French, Swedes and Belgians. The problem is, it isn’t a deep, emotional bond — they are three to four times more likely to feel very attached to their own nation than to the E.U.

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What people in Europe and the United States ought to be proud of, what they should celebrate, are the remarkable achievements of diversity. “I love our differences,” wrote Bono, “our dialects, our traditions, our peculiarities. . . . And I believe they still leave room for what [Winston] Churchill called an ‘enlarged patriotism’: plural allegiances, layered identities, to be Irish and European, German and European, not either/or. The word patriotism has been stolen from us by nationalists and extremists who demand uniformity. But real patriots seek unity above homogeneity. Reaffirming that is, to me, the real European project.”

And, I would add, the American project as well.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group


The Threat to Democracy — from the Left

September 17, 2018

The Threat to Democracy — from the Left

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

It has become commonplace to hear cries on the left to deny controversial figures on the right a platform to express their views. Colleges have disinvited speakers such as Condoleezza Rice and Charles Murray. Other campuses were unwilling or unable to allow conservative guests to actually speak, with protests overwhelming the events.

For several years now, scholars have argued that the world is experiencing a “democratic recession.” They have noted that the movement of countries toward democracy has slowed or stopped and even, in some places, reversed. They also note a general hollowing out of democracy in the advanced, industrial world. When we think about this problem, inevitably and rightly we worry about President Trump, his attacks on judges, the free press and his own Justice Department. But there is also a worrying erosion of a core democratic norm taking place on the left.

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It has become commonplace to hear cries on the left to deny controversial figures on the right a platform to express their views. Colleges have disinvited speakers such as Condoleezza Rice and Charles Murray. Other campuses were unwilling or unable to allow conservative guests to actually speak, with protests overwhelming the events.

A similar controversy now involves Stephen K. Bannon, who, in recent months, has been making the rounds on the airwaves and in print — including an interview I did with him on CNN. Some have claimed that Bannon, since leaving the administration, is simply unimportant and irrelevant and thus shouldn’t be given a microphone. But if that were the case, surely the media, which after all is a for-profit industry, would notice the lack of public interest and stop inviting him.

The reality is that the people running the Economist, the Financial Times, “60 Minutes,” the New Yorker and many other organizations that have recently sought to feature Bannon know he is an intelligent and influential ideologist, a man who built the largest media platform for the new right, ran Trump’s successful campaign before serving in the White House, and continues to articulate and energize the populism that’s been on the rise throughout the Western world. He might be getting his 15 minutes of fame that will peter out, but, for now, he remains a compelling figure.

The real fear that many on the left have is not that Bannon is dull and uninteresting, but the opposite — that his ideas, some of which can reasonably be described as evoking white nationalism, will prove seductive and persuasive to too many people. Hence his detractors’ solution: Don’t give him a platform, and hope that this will make his ideas go away. But they won’t. In fact, by trying to suppress Bannon and others on the right, liberals are likely making their ideas seem more potent. Did the efforts of communist countries to muzzle capitalist ideas work?

Liberals need to be reminded of the origins of their ideology. In 1859, when governments around the world were still deeply repressive — banning books, censoring commentary and throwing people in jail for their beliefs — John Stuart Mill explained in his seminal work, “On Liberty,” that protection against governments was not enough: “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose . . . its own ideas and practices . . . on those who dissent from them.” This classic defense of free speech, which Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes later called the “freedom for the thought that we hate,” is under pressure in the United States — and from the left.

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Bannon says Trump is facing a ‘coup’. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon called the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times “a crisis” for the Trump administration.


We’ve been here before. Half a century ago, students were also shutting down speakers whose views they found deeply offensive. In 1974, William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who in many ways was the father of the computer revolution, was invited by Yale University students to defend his abhorrent view that blacks were a genetically inferior race who should be voluntarily sterilized. He was to debate Roy Innis, the African American leader of the Congress of Racial Equality. (The debate was Innis’s idea.) A campus uproar ensued, and the event was canceled. A later, rescheduled debate with another opponent was disrupted.

The difference from today is that Yale recognized that it had failed in not ensuring that Shockley could speak. It commissioned a report on free speech that remains a landmark declaration of the duty of universities to encourage debate and dissent. The report flatly states that a college “cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility or mutual respect. . . . it will never let these values . . . override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”

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The report added: “We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time.” It is on this bet for the long run, a bet on freedom — of thought, belief, expression and action — that liberal democracy rests.

US Foreign Policy: Look Beyond CrazyTown, says Fareed

September 9, 2018

US Foreign Policy: Look Beyond CrazyTown, says Fareed

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

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For those few people who still believe that President Trump is unconventional but canny, that there is a method to the madness, the revelations of this week should clarify. Bob Woodward’s new book and the New York Times op-ed written by an anonymous official make plain that behind Trump’s ranting, impulsive, incoherent and narcissistic facade lies a ranting, impulsive, incoherent and narcissistic man. But while the great presidential psychodrama captivates us, let’s remember that there are real things in the real world that continue — trends that will prove important and consequential, whether or not they get talked about on television.

Perhaps the main reason we are not peering too far behind the curtain is that, in general, things look good. Broadly speaking, the world is experiencing peace and prosperity. The U.S. economy in particular is robust, with strong growth and low unemployment. Why is this? No one is quite sure. But it’s worth keeping in mind that since World War II, growth has been the norm. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times points out that since the early 1950s, the world economy has grown every year and, other than a few exceptions, always at 2 percent or higher. Political issues (short of major war) rarely have much impact on the economy. The U.S. economy is a vast, complex $19 trillion beast that is shaped more by large, structural trends than by a few policy changes in Washington.

The U.S. economy is growing a bit faster than expected. Trump tries to take credit for this nearly every day. And some credit is justified. The widespread deregulation taking place under his administration has probably eased constraints on business activity. The sweeping tax cut freed up cash for businesses. The infusion of money, however, is likely to produce only a temporary bump for the country, a sugar high that comes at the cost of a massive increase in deficits and deepening inequality.

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CrazyTown’s Commander-in-Chief and Fearmonger

The three broader trends shaping the world are peace, globalization and technology. Peace among the major powers allows for the continued surge of economic activity in most of the world. The “rise of the rest,” the growth of once-poor countries outside the West, remains the largest force powering world economics. This globalization and an ongoing technological revolution have allowed growth to persist without the one economic factor that has almost always stopped it in the past — inflation. It is hard for prices to rise when goods and services can be supplied cheaply by a person in some developing country or through automation. The absence of inflation over the past 25 years is still the most remarkable trend that keeps the global growth engine chugging.

But look below the surface, and the forces producing these benign circumstances all seem to be increasingly under pressure. The United States, the world’s leading architect of the international order and stability, seems determined to disrupt it. Trump is at heart an isolationist who constantly questions the value of the alliance structure that has kept the world peaceful and stable since 1945. He seems to want the United States to either withdraw from the world or turn its international role into a profitable, quasi-colonial enterprise, such as by extracting payments from Europe, Japan and the Gulf States and confiscating the oil resources of Iraq. His administration has been in major trade disputes with the United States’ top trading partners — the European Union, China, Canada and Mexico.

That leaves the technological revolution that has transformed the world. But here also the trends are not entirely promising for the United States. First, the country is living off seed capital. Investments in basic science and research that were made in the 1960s and 1970s continue to undergird U.S. technology companies today. Could Amazon, Facebook and Apple have dominated the world without the Internet and GPS, both technologies developed by the U.S. government? The next wave of massive investment in science and technology is indeed taking place — but in China.

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And then there is the rising backlash to technology. We are in a very different world than just five years ago. Technology companies are increasingly seen as having monopoly or oligopoly power, crushing competition, ransacking consumer data and then profiting from it, intruding on privacy and being part of an elite that is utterly divorced from the rest of society. The best evidence for this is that Trump, who does have good instincts for where and when to pander, has taken to tweeting against the tech giants with regularity.

Despite the Trump freak show, we are living in peaceful and prosperous times. But beneath the surface, there are currents that could disrupt the calm, especially for the United States.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group