Monthly Archives: January 2011

1848 or 1991 in the Middle East? or, Analogies Kill

Karl Marx opens his “18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” with provocative words: ” Hegel remarks somewhere[*] that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”  The tragedy he was referring to was that of Napoleon Bonaparte; the farce was that of Louis Napoleon, at that mid-19th century writing recently elected President of the French Republic.  Marx, of course, is an historical determinist, imagining as he often seems to that any historical figure or process predictably serves the interests of the emerging bourgeois class unknowingly.  But this observation of his should be every bit as compelling to us now if we understand that social movements are often either conscious or unconscious imitations (or evocations?) of political actions innovated by others.  In mid-December of last year an unemployed 26-year-old Tunisian college graduate set himself on fire in an obvious expression of desperation after the police confiscated his produce cart for selling without a permit; in recent weeks several men in other North African countries have followed suit in an apparent effort to inspire the sort of revolution that toppled Tunisia‘s previously-stable autocracy in just 1 month.  What has happened in Tunisia, including the ongoing protests there that have forced the resignation of most Ben Ali appointees in the transitional government, appears neither tragic nor farcical, but inspired.

However, it is not yet clear what the significance of the spreading protests in other Arab states will be, in some cases inviting a re-imagining of this doubling of history into an initial triumph and an imitative tragedy.  Tunisia’s sudden and remarkable revolution notwithstanding, in the event of the failure of anti-regime protests in, say, Egypt or Yemen, crude sociological commentary might set in among prognosticators of undefined events, as some of them assure us that “The Arab World cannot sustain democracy after all.”  While they aren’t universal, such crude pronouncements are almost unanswerable, as any retort below the order of the academic would probably sum to “Oh come on, sure it could.”  The armchair sociologists’ static picture simply reflects discomfort with the fact that we don’t know what we’re looking at here yet.  The principal actors in these various set-confrontations–decades-reigning Arab despots, unemployed 20-somethings, hordes of looting thugs, professional and at times foreign-rooted opposition leaders, the military, violent and non-violent Islamists, former colonial powers and the President of the United States–don’t always have stable relationships towards one another.  In a moment of radical hope following decades of political stagnation, enemies can re-define as friends–or vice-versa.  Right now President Obama probably doesn’t know whether it is prudent to gently-encourage Hosni Mubarak–a dictator who has been a reliable ally to the US–to reform the Egyptian political system or to explicitly-state that the protesters’ sense of grievance is valid and their cause just.  Or maybe these imitation protests will prove a farce, blowing-over suddenly and unexpectedly.

The Liberal Ironist is mainly struck with the macrocosmic sense of the revolutionary convulsions in the Middle East: The jobless 26-year-old who set himself on fire mobilized a generation of previously-quiet college graduates who had come to fear their own police.  “He was just like me,” seems to have been the epiphany that set them in motion.  The quick, (in the scheme of things) easy, and apparently-decisive nature of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution made it also seem a single event, even if larger-than-life.  “Tunisia is just like us,” these succeeding opposition movements either believe or want others to believe.

Protests have emerged in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, and most notably Egypt, where president-in-name-only Hosni Mubarak has maintained a state of national emergency since the 1981 assassination of his predecessor, and the dictatorial powers that go along with it.

Scripted imitations like this aren’t exactly fated to succeed.  In Sudan, a student protest modeled on neighboring Egypt’s already looks doomed and may turn out to have been a foolish mistake in retrospect.  The revolt in Egypt, not even truly a week-old, may hold in common with Tunisia’s the growing apprehension of a young generation facing massive unemployment and fast-growing inflation in the face of a manifestly-corrupt and unaccountable government; but while protests in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and now Sudan occur in the face of autocracy these governments themselves face varying levels of dissent and differing domestic compositions of national armies and police forces, as well as variable reliance upon foreign aid or resources such as oil.  Each of these factors influence the kernels of dissent and levers of repression available to the regime.  An interesting similarity between the Tunisian and Egyptian protest situations is the fact that the military is sufficiently-empowered to play a decisive role in this episode of contention–if it can resolve to play a particular role.  The reason for this, in both cases, is that it is the police and not the military that the autocrat in each state used as the means of monopolizing political power.  The upshot is that the military’s hands have been relatively clean while police in both countries routinely carried out every infraction from soliciting for bribes to torturing suspects.  In short, the police in both countries have reputations like a mafia family–and to-date there has often been no one to check them.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia failed to cudgel the revolution in his country in part because police forces were inadequate to the task but he had kept his armed forces relatively small; meanwhile in Egypt the risk that the military may not follow Hosni Mubarak’s command if he orders a massacre of protesters seems heightened because the military is relatively large. yesterday posted an article on the structure of the Egyptian military and what this means for the kind of hand Mubarak can take against the protest movement.  “All males between ages 18 and 30 must serve one to three years, as the CIA World Factbook notes, meaning almost every family in Egypt has some personal connection to the military.”  The article noted that the military rank-and-file come from all parts of the population, and so do not perceive themselves as a distinct class or faction tied to the government.  The top ranks of the Egyptian Army, the article notes, are of course Mubarak loyalists, but if Mubarak should become desperate and order his generals to strike against the protesters, the middle-ranking officers may not implement those commands on a tactical level out of a sense of common cause with the rank-and-file, and the protests.  This could be an issue whether the army is called in against peaceful demonstrators or the violent riots that seem to have shut down parts of Cairo this weekend.

The Liberal Ironist could easily believe the conjectures that the breakdown of order on Saturday was the result of a cynical withdrawal of police forces by the government–a ploy to let chaos grow on the streets calculated to frighten those uncertain about the prospects for reform into embracing the government’s generalized pronouncements against “chaos” and “criminality.”  Today the New York Times reports that “Thousands of inmates poured out of four prisons, including the country’s most notorious, Abu Zaabal and Wadi Natroun.” You might recall that Saddam Hussein released violent prisoners in Baghdad on the eve of the the US military’s entry into the city as a means of salting the Earth in the face of the decisive defeat of his regime.  Dictators often achieve the power they have over the state because they have the creativity (read: lack the scruples) to wield it in burdensome yet unaccountable ways that encourage conspiratorial thinking of this sort; after decades of political domination by men such as Saddam Hussein, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, it should be easier to understand how conspiracy theories, strained assumptions that some corrupting power monitors everyone and enforces every outcome, have a long pedigree in Arab politics.

Just because the story in Egypt is not certain doesn’t mean all characters are powerless to control their characterization.  So far, our President has sought to play the ambiguous part, essentially embracing both Mubarak and the protesters.  Blake Hounshell, writing for CNN, argues that this tack isn’t viable and that our government will have to take sides between the protesters who say they want democracy and the government that cries “Anarchy!”  The Liberal Ironist agrees.  Being unsure of the prudent course of action between 2 seeming extremes at a juncture like this doesn’t mean that a policy ambiguity that makes others doubt either one’s commitment or one’s motives is a prudent alternative.  In John Carpenter‘s satirical science fiction flick They Live, the hero challenges his new friend for being unwilling to fight injustice: “That white line (you’re walking) is in the middle of the road.  That’s the worst place to drive.”


The First Snow of the Winter of Our Discontent Hasn’t Even Fallen Yet

This is going to hurt.

I hope you find House Speaker John Boehner amiable-enough, because I have a feeling he isn’t going anywhere.  Only us full-time political junkies have seen the extent of Republican gains last Election Day.

The 6 Senate seats the Republicans netted then were almost irrelevant by comparison.  (Actually, the partisan turnover there was average for the past 4 national elections, and the Senate Democratic delegation is currently at its second-greatest extent since the 103rd Congress contained 57 Democratic Senators from 1993-1995.)  The Republicans net gained 63 seats in the House of Representatives–their biggest wave in the House since 1938 and their largest House caucus since 1948–but even the extent of that win isn’t necessarily the biggest cause for alarm among Democrats.  On the same day the Republicans made a net gain of 6 governor’s offices.  Relatedly but scarier still, 680 seats in the State legislatures went to Republicans–the largest aggregate partisan swing among state legislatures in the modern era, according to National Journal.  In sum this means a net increase of 11 State legislature majorities with 26 of 50 State legislatures (all but Nebraska’s being bicameral) now having a Republican majority.  And yes, this down-ballot wave came right before the reapportionment of Congressional Districts following the US Census tabulation.

It All Comes Down to Congressional Reapportionment

Reapportionment is an interesting issue because it shows the way economics drives demography, and the way “demography,” as political scientist Samuel Huntington put it in a different context, “is destiny.”  As certain regions of the country have responded too slowly to the decline of certain industries or certain State or local governments failed to maintain the standard of living people expected, populations stagnated relative to the rest, or even declined.  The rapidly-growing populations of areas on the frontier, where there were vast natural resources to tap or trade routes to service, eventually granted those regions of the country greater political weight.  Congressional reapportionment used to be a positive-sum game–until 1920, that is.  A Republican Congress refused to reapportion add Congressional seats past the existing 435 in acknowledgment of of the parts of the country that were growing; this appears to have been a result of their concern that reapportionment would hurt their majority.  In 1929 Congress passed the aptly-named Reapportionment Act of 1929, which capped the number of seats in the United States House of Representatives at 435.  Reapportionment was now a zero-sum game; the States with the fastest-growing populations now couldn’t gain a seat without comparatively-stagnant States losing.  An economically-stagnant or declining region no longer experienced a mere relative loss of political weight, but an absolute one as well.

There were already signs that this absolute loss of Congressional representation (even while populations sometimes increased) would hit the American industrial core of the Northeast and Midwest by 1930, when the first zero-sum reapportionment occurred.  You can follow this on a neat interactive map produced by the US Census Bureau which tracks a century of reapportionments.

By the 1960 reapportionment it was undeniable that the Northeast and Midwest were stagnating in overall population and thus declining in relative influence in national politics, losing 6 and 4 House seats, respectively.  The West again gained 12 House seats in that year–8 of them in California and 3 going to the newest States, Alaska and Hawai’i.  In the 1980 reapportionment, the West picked up another 9 House seats.  The South picked up 8 that time, after netting only 1 in 1970.  1980 was also noteworthy, of course, for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 landslide presidential election win over incumbent President Jimmy Carter.

What made Reagan’s election indicative wasn’t just the scope of this victory–comparable to Johnson’s and Nixon’s crushing defeats of their opponents in 1964 and 1972, respectively–but the fact that Reagan was an ideological Conservative, while Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford–the only Republicans to become President between 1932 and 1980–were not.  I cannot remember who I first heard say that the post-Civil Rights/Great Society shift to the right in American politics could mainly be explained by how “the Solid (Democratic) South became the Solid (Republican) South,” but that plus the growing Electoral and and Congressional weight of the South is the central component of Republicans’ political successes simultaneous with successive rounds of ideological hardening.

The Night of a Hundred Gerrymanders

Today the shifting weight of reapportionment is familiar in the Northeast and Midwest, but the relative political benefits to the South and the West are reversed: In the post-2010 reapportionment, the Northeast will lose 5 House seats and the Midwest will lose 6.  The South will gain 7 House seats and the West 4–its weakest relative gain in over 100 years.  A testament to the rising cost of living and diminished commercial opportunities in that State, California won’t gain a single House seat from the current reapportionment.

Texas will gain 4.

Of course, the shifting electoral weight of these over-aggregated “regions” isn’t the most-relevant way to conceive of our shifting political winds.  That would be the balance of partisan control during Congressional redistricting. has a helpful map indicating the states that allow the majority parties in each legislative chamber (and the governor) to redraw Congressional districts on a partisan basis.  The Consititution requires near-equality among the populations in Congressional districts (the population norm for a Congressional district drawn after the 2000 Census was about 685,000), but it’s up to the States to decide just who has the power to draw new Congressional districts, and in most places it’s up to the dominant elected partisans.

How’s the outlook for House Democrats for the 2012 elections?  It’s probably bad regardless of political circumstances.  Having net-gained 6 governorships and 11 State legislatures in the last election, the question is how many States will have their redistricting entirely in Republican hands.  Brace yourself.

The Republicans have both a majority in State legislatures and the governor’s office in 21 States–and in North Carolina they have a legislative majority and can pass a redistricting plan without the Democratic governor’s involvement.  4 of these 22 states–the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming–will continue to have 1 at-large Congressional district, hence no redistricting.  Finally, 3 of the remaining 19 States–Arizona, Maine and Idaho–have non-partisan redistricting commissions.  So, the Republicans will be able to gerrymander the Congressional districts in 16 States to their hearts’ content.

Democrats have both a legislative majority and the governor’s mansion in 12 States–but 2 of those are tiny Vermont and Delaware with 1 at-large House seat each, and 3 (Rhode Island, Washington and Hawai’i) also have non-partisan redistricting commissions, giving the Democrats a free hand to gerrymander Congressional districts to their liking in 7 States.

But where are the biggest opportunities to improve one’s party’s prospects?  It may be counterintuitive, but having control of redistricting in states that are losing House seats can be as fortuitous for your party as having control in a state that is gaining a seat or 2.  Take Ohio, for instance, where Republican Governor John Kasich enjoys a large Republican majority in the legislature.  Ohio is losing 2 seats in the House; legally, there is nothing stopping the Republicans there from re-drawing district lines so that 2 pairs of Democrats must run against each other or else move to another part of the State and run for re-election on someone else’s turf for the good of the Party.

Republicans will completely control redistricting in 5 States which are gaining a total of 9 House seats, as well as in 3 States–Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania–that will lose a combined 4 House seats.  (Much of the population loss in those States has been in more-Democratic parts–such as Detroit or the greater Pittsburgh area–anyway.)  How many States meet such qualifications for the Democrats–as in, where Democrats control redistricting on a partisan basis and the State is either gaining or losing Congressional districts?  There is only 1–Massachusetts–where the delegation is completely-Democratic, and the State is losing 1 seat in the House.

Remember, John Boehner already has the largest Republican majority in the House of Representatives since 1948.  As someone who was very happy with what President Obama was able to accomplish in his first 2 years, I nonetheless have a caution to issue to those, such as economist, author and New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman, who urge the President to fight the Republicans rather than take a pragmatic tack and at least try to make deals with them: It is entirely unreasonable for President Obama to act as though he is going to outlast the House Republicans and win back a majority there.  He will not, and so to pass laws and budgets he will have to work with a Republican House of Representatives for the next 6 years.

The State of the Union

The President’s 2011 State of the Union Address Tuesday night was a call to think big in an age where Republicans at all levels of government are saying that we can’t take on the problems of our generation because taxes should be lower on the rich.  This was one of the President’s best speeches, and it put him firmly in a place of leadership not long after the opposition made historic gains in the House of Representatives and out among the states.

Some people dismiss the annual State of the Union Address as purely-cosmetic, nothing more than the President’s to define both his intentions and his political capabilities in the best possible light; I never have been one of them.  The State of the Union is the President’s means of using the bully pulpit to make a credible commitment to pursue a set of policies over the course of the following year, Congressional prerogatives be damned.  While there have been dramatic failures in implementation–Recall George W. Bush’s unheeded calls to flatten and simplify the income tax and create those (fortunately-nonexistent) investment accounts for Social Security in the 2005 State of the Union Address–most Presidents usually do diligently pursue the policies enumerated in the State of the Union.  Of course, the President has set a list of priorities, some preexisting, some bold, some an attempt to reach out to a new Republican House majority with radically different policy goals.  But these shifts themselves are significant, indicating the President’s sense of his capacity to take the initiative in the face of a major political setback.  This State of the Union suggests that the President’s vision hasn’t been shaken, but that he recognizes future initiatives must be conceived, or at least framed, in terms of a centrist fixation on jobs.  Furthermore, House Republicans’ insistence on cutting Federal spending and regulations must be both gratified and attacked; it is sound politics to invite them to be part of the solution regardless of the extent to which they heed the invitation.

Considering the Republicans hold 242 seats in the House–55.6% of the body that sets the budget and where partisan control is decisive–and a majority of state legislatures and governorships in the years of Congressional reapportionment, President Obama will have virtually no capacity to set legislative and budget priorities going forward if he cannot make deals with the people who brought you the “Pledge to America.”


The Liberal Ironist would like to address his “wish-list” of measures for in the 2011 State of the Union Address.  To review, they were…

A new financial commitment to highway and transit spending;

A new financial commitment to keep States’ psychiatric services open, possibly including a new Federal mandate;

A revisit of the purpose of an assault weapons ban–the outlaw of the possession or sale of high-capacity ammunition clips;

A stern reminder that global warming is very real, and a call for climate legislation–without the cap-and-trade protocols so-vilified by the Republicans;

A call to the United States to aid the democratic transition unfolding in Tunisia–on the opposition leaders’ terms–and a warning to other Middle Eastern dictators that political and economic reforms are absolutely necessary;

and finally: A warm greeting to Speaker Boehner, and an acknowledgment that a little partisanship is good for us.

I’m calling 2.5 out of 6 of those wishes accommodated by the State of the Union.  The President made the call for expanding our transportation infrastructure–as well as aggressive new investments in telecommunications infrastructure–that I’d hoped for, he received the new Speaker of the House warmly while acknowledging the endurance of partisan differences without frustration or contempt, and while he seems to have conceded the issue of new vehicle emissions regulations for the time being, he is proposing new investments in alternatives to petroleum consumption along the pragmatic “all-of-the-above” approach that has become mainstream since the debates over President George W. Bush’s proposed “National Energy Policy.”

There was no mention in the President’s Address of dangerous cuts being made to the States’ mental health services, our lack of adequate regulation of high-capacity bullet magazines, legislation to reduce the rate of man-made global warming, or call to stand with the Tunisian people and reform our blowback-prone foreign policy towards Arab autocracies.  While the President laid out a bold alternative to the Republicans’ agenda, he delivered proposals that were integrated with his theme of investment in the (jobs of the) next generation, rather than an ideologically-informed charge on multiple policy fronts.

One call in the State of the Union surprised me: I didn’t expect the President to say anything about immigration.  While it was frustratingly-short on specifics, President Obama seems to be calling for something like George W. Bush’s migrant worker legalization plan, which had been reworked in Congressional negotiations to include stiffened border patrols and fence construction in order to placate Conservatives.  That initiative didn’t just fail to survive filibuster in the Senate, it didn’t get majority support. The odds of immigration reform may seem more-distant because now, unlike then, Republicans control the House of Representatives; however, if any immigration reform plan that included some naturalization component could pass in the House of Representatives–a big if–the chance of another Republican-led filibuster in the Senate is diminished.  In sum, it was bold for the President to call for immigration reform under current political constraints, but not surprising that he said nothing more than that he wished “to protect our borders, enforce our laws and address the millions of undocumented workers now living in the shadows.”  That generality and way of tacking both right and left on the issue is intended as another invitation to a bipartisan compromise on the issue from within Congress; to be frank, that sounds like wishful thinking that will go nowhere once again.


The Republicans were elected on their strongest anti-government platform at least since 1994, in their biggest wave since 1938. It’s possible that House Republicans will consent to spending increases in certain areas, but overall spending is going down, period. Even if the President vetos the relatively steep spending cuts the Republicans are proposing, he can’t tell Speaker Boehner or the Republican committee chairs–the real power in Congress now with the possible exception of the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders–what to do. So the President can soften Republican spending cuts somewhat, but he can only achieve their cooperation on new programs if he can broadly-accommodate their demands.

I’m most concerned that President Obama secures Republican support for new highway and transit spending.  John Mica, the new Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, supports a massive new highway bill, and is calling for spending increases to be covered by private investments and new toll roads rather than increases to taxes or the deficit.  While this is the biggest new spending item the President is proposing, I don’t think people recognize, even after the horrifying spectacle of a bridge carrying Interstate 35W in Minneapolis collapsing into the Mississippi River during rush hour, the poor condition of our transportation infrastructure.  Businesses won’t invest in this because there’s usually no profit in it, but one of the biggest drivers of economic growth in metropolitan areas is mobility.

3 Republican initiatives have received a big boost from the President now: nationwide tort reform to restrict awards in medical malpractice lawsuits, a lowering of the corporate income tax for the first time in 25 years, and stricter border enforcement.  With a Democratic President offering such controversial proposals to a Republican House, they can have them–if they play ball.

What I’d Like to See in the 2011 State of the Union Address

In a few hours the White House website will post the upcoming 2011 State of the Union Address–scheduled for 9:00 pm this evening, Tuesday, January 25, 2011.  So, in good ironic fashion, with just hours left until the President Obama settles all such speculation, the Liberal Ironist would like to join the sundry lobbyists, pollsters, and political advisors left, right and center trying to advance ideas for the President to include in his speech tonight.  Note I only said I have a few ideas for what President Obama should want to talk about.  These suggestions are not necessarily mutually-regarding or prudent.  Alternately, they might not fit into the speech (or on the legislative docket).


A new financial commitment to highway and transit spending: As I wrote in a previous entry in late-December, our nation’s transportation infrastructure is a sorry state of repair.  The New York Times today also carries a good news analysis on the President’s political challenge in championing infrastructure spending.

Even if we all went in to the Matrix, we’d still need freight trains to bring raw materials in and haul waste materials out, so there’s no getting around the need to build, maintain and reconstruct transportation infrastructure.  More than just a momentary job-creator (and unemployment within the construction sector is twice the official national unemployment rate), highway and transit spending is an investment in cheaper goods and more-efficient on-site services, land values and planning flexibility (as it gives prospective workers and businesses more alternatives in where to locate within a metropolitan area).  We need to confront imprudent fiscal conservatism, the NIMBYs (“Not In My BackYard!”) in the civic organizations, and yes, some of the more-ideological environmental groups to rehabilitate and enhance our highway, railroad and transit network.  This commitment is visibly overdue; it’s time we had a new highway bill.


A new financial commitment to keep States’ psychiatric services open, possibly including a new Federal mandate: As the Liberal Ironist sees it, the real failure of our political system behind the massacre in Tucson had little to do with our hostile or even conspiratorial partisan rhetoric, nor did it have much to do with our very-minimal Federal gun laws and enforcement.  The fundamental problem is our failure to identify and address the needs of the mentally-ill.  Horrifyingly, as the New York Times reported last Friday, many of the States are now making cuts to already gap-ridden psychiatric services.  In Massachusetts, a person who shows up in an emergency room complaining of intense suicidal thoughts can wait 3 days before a psychiatrist is available to see him or her.

Far more of the mentally-ill pose a threat to themselves than to others; a larger share than that simply languishes in isolation.  A Conservative ethic of personal responsibility cannot plausibly apply to the mentally-ill, and budget cuts that leave unknown numbers of the insane to fend for themselves are not merely unjust but the prologue to the next (preventable) massacre.  The President could propose Federal subsidies for mental health services that the States are proposing to cut, or maybe even a fully-funded Federal mandate for the States to maintain a certain accessibility and quality of psychiatric care.  While that doesn’t jive with their limited-government political philosophy, Congressional Republicans might just allow such reforms to go forward as a way of mitigating the vague accusations in calls to “tone down the rhetoric” or the intermittent but surely-unwelcome calls to bring back the (previously-conceded) national gun control debate.


That said, let’s revisit the purpose of an assault weapons ban–the outlaw of the possession or sale of high-capacity ammunition clips: The Washington Post‘s recent Sunday edition had a front-page article reporting that Virginia police seizures of high-capacity bullet magazines used in crimes have reached an all-time high–in both absolute and relative terms.

The Second Amendment reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

The purpose of the Second Amendment was not for citizens to prepare to personally-wage a war, but to be at the ready to participate in one.  The Second Amendment isn’t “going” anywhere; nor are the lobbies, gun manufacturers and sellers, or the millions of impassioned citizens whom associate in its name going to change their convictions.  (For that matter, the criminals and the bears that provide part of the justification for private gun ownership won’t be going anywhere, either.)  What the President could propose in the State of the Union is a new Federal ban of the 11+ capacity bullet clips that have been repeatedly used in the killing sprees that clog our airwaves.  Republican Congressmen who were happy to embrace the President’s “return to civility” just as solemnly insisted that gun regulations had no bearing on the Tucson massacre.  They insisted on this as the story broke that the clearly-insane perpetrator of this massacre bought his hand-held arsenal legally.  It’s time the President invited the Republicans to get on board with a new Federal high-capacity magazine ban or explain their position on this at length–on his terms.

The remorseless madman behind the Tucson massacre was able to fire 31 times before he had to reload.  The purpose of high-capacity magazines is to be able to shoot a lot of people quickly.  The President should take the initiative and then leave it to the Republicans to make the case that the rapidly-rising number of high-capacity magazines being used in crimes is making people safer.  Incidentally, he has public opinion on his side on this one already.


A stern reminder that global warming is very real, and a call for climate legislation–without the cap-and-trade protocols so-vilified by the Republicans: Any climate bill may have to be light on subsidies to have any chances, either.  The general Republican sentiment towards corn-based ethanol is skeptical, to put it mildly.  That’s understandable; corn-based ethanol is much less-clean and less-efficient than sugar-based ethanol.  In 2008, Brazil got a majority of its gasoline from sugarcane-based ethanol produced domestically!  I first read about that in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, a very cool book by UCLA professor of geography Laurence C. Smith.  What I also read in that book was a suggestion that we import sugarcane ethanol from the sometimes-struggling nations of the Caribbean.

Try to imagine it: President Obama works together with House Republicans to find a cleaner, renewable fuel alternative to Middle Eastern-produced gasoline just hundreds of miles away, that troubled countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Haiti could produce for us.  Can it be done?  Yes, it can.  Only billions of dollars in farm subsidies and hefty tariffs on foreign agricultural imports stand in the way.


A call to the United States to aid the democratic transition unfolding in Tunisia–on the opposition leaders’ terms–and a warning to other Middle Eastern dictators that political and economic reforms are absolutely necessary: The Washington Post‘s recent Sunday edition offered several calls to the President to become more-engaged in current Middle East developments.  Suggestions included offering both assistance to Tunisians and sterner warnings to the remaining Arab dictators that they must create more-vibrant economies and civil societies and mechanisms for the redress of grievances if they want to keep their heads.  Recovering Neoconservative and monthly Post contributor Robert Kagan offered a somewhat-alarmist but substantive criticism of the President’s strangely-explicit reticence to raise the obvious questions about political repression in Egypt when speaking with its despotic ruler, Hosni Mubarak; the Post‘s lead editorial from the same day pragmatically called for the President to offer technical assistance, foreign aid to sponsor political reforms, and trade negotiations to Tunisia’s interim government to help consolidate the recent revolution.  The Liberal Ironist thinks President Obama could do far more to achieve his predecessor’s political reform dream in the Middle East through calm but clear enunciation of a carrot-and-stick approach to building a civil society than George W. Bush did with violent rhetoric and tactics; the advent of a Republican House majority without a clear foreign policy perspective seems like a good time to lay out a positive Middle East agenda.


A warm greeting to Speaker Boehner, on the order of George W. Bush’s 2007 State of the Union welcome to “Madame Speaker”–no, I’m not kidding–and an acknowledgment that a little partisanship is good for us: The Democratic Party is fundamentally-concerned with using the power of government to promote and secure the conditions for a higher individual standard of living, and to institutionalize a regard for civil rights and social justice.  The Republican Party–in the wake of the Tea Party insurgency, at least–is fundamentally-concerned with reducing taxation and the scope of government, particularly the Federal Government, and perhaps with fostering the kind of civil society that protests technocratic initiatives to mobilize government to solve social problems.  Why is the existence of the disagreement itself so horrifying?  Sure, the Liberal in me misses the Democratic majority already.  (Actually, I’ve really missed the Democratic majority since the House Republicans went ahead with their silly stunt of passing the Health Care Reform repeal even though it self-evidently doesn’t even have majority support in the Senate or even enough votes in the House to override a Presidential veto.)  Still, the ironist in me acknowledges that the Republicans ran a clear campaign on a platform of reducing the scope of the Federal Government, and they were rewarded with the biggest Republican wave of most of our lifetimes.  I’ve previously argued that the extent of the Democrats’ loss this year has far more to do with their failure to address high unemployment and a lethargic economy than a popular rejection of their ideology, but it is completely unreasonable not to expect the Republicans to propose $100 billion in cuts to the Federal budget, the “already accomplished” dead-end of passing a repeal of Health Care Reform in the House, and a push to at least extend the budget-busting Bush tax cuts yet-again in late-2012.  As imprudent, absurd or offensive as these initiatives may strike us Democrats, the fact remains that these were the core of “the Pledge” the Republicans made to their base.  They will fight for those goals, and the Democrats will fight against them.

That’s the narrative.  So, to get out ahead of the Republicans on the cause of government-cutting, President Obama will have to acknowledge that “the people have spoken” in electing a large Republican House majority as well as a total of 29 Republican governors and a majority of state legislatures.  But then in order to maintain his authority and to rally his base, he’ll have to confront the Republican House majority and say he will brook no effort to undo his legacy of Health Care Reform, new financial regulations and “neat stuff” like high-speed rail pilot projects.  Sending both messages won’t be easy to do.

Nor will it be an easy thing for the President to defend his vision while acknowledging that popular opinion has rejected his overall economic philosophy.  But at nearly every step of his Presidency (excepting disastrous unemployment and a catastrophic oil spill), Barack Obama has exceeded expectations and left the cynics by the roadside.

And as far as I know, the President is still the lead writer for most of his own speeches.  When the Liberal Ironist tunes in for the State of the Union Address tonight, he expects to hear President Obama not just talking, but really speaking.

Harff’s Genocide Typology, Along with Some Explanation

I’m back, and I’m going to putting up a lot of academically-themed posts along with some of the usual news.  Today I’m raising, re-interpreting, and offering a slight critique of a typology of genocide that was offered a generation ago, as an early effort by a political scientist at a general theory of genocide.

Back in 1989, Barbara Harff–a researcher at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis who innovated a few crucial theoretical premises in the contemporary understanding of genocide–and Ted Robert Gurr co-authored “Toward Empirical Theory of Genocides and Politicides,” a preliminary typology of genocidal episodes, in the political science journal International Studies Quarterly.  This typology was based on the motivations of the state in question:

“…(Our) definitions are not victim-centered.  Although the intrinsic characteristics of the victims are important, what is crucial are the characteristics and purposes of the state.  Of course the definitions reflect one of our basic theoretical assumptions: Whether an episode of mass killing is a genocide or a politicide depends on the combination of a state’s objectives, the motives of its ruling elite, the prevailing ideology, and the power relations within its authority structure.”

I make the same assumption about genocides, as is typical of current-generation theoretical work on the subject.  I make a few distinctions over the meaning of genocide is among different strategic contexts perceived by the state that will perpetrate it.  The basic point I want to make now (and which will be reasoned later) is that genocides are radical actions taken by nation states either to secure its territory in its state-building phase, or to prevent its loss.

“By our definition, genocides and politicides are the promotion and execution of policies by a state or its agents which result in the deaths of a substantial portion of a group.”  This definition of genocide is stricter than the Genocide Convention standard, which includes both conditions imposed to create mental anguish upon group members and conditions that make cultural continuity impossible; those qualifying conditions under international law are relevant from a moral as well as a legal standpoint, but undermine the conceptual coherence of the term, as I argued earlier.  However, this definition is still looser than Manus Midlarsky’s, which labels only those cases in which the state commits to policies designed to kill most or all members of a group as genocide, thus removing cases in which large numbers of an ethnic minority group are killed in ways which may qualify as crimes against humanity but which are still incidental to war or civil war.

They further elaborate that genocides are “victimized groups…defined primarily in terms of their communal characteristics, i.e., ethnicity, religion, or nationality,” whereas “In politicides the victim groups are defined primarily in terms of their hierarchical position or political opposition to the regime and dominant groups.”

This is where this research note gets complicated—and offers distinct theoretical contributions on this subject.  Harff and Gurr specify 2 types of genocide and 4 types of politicide:


“Hegemonial genocides: mass murders which occur when distinct ethnic, religious, or national groups are being forced to submit to central authority, for example during the consolidation of power by a new state or in the course of a national expansion.

“Xenophobic genocides: mass murders of ethnically, religiously, or nationally distinct groups in the service of doctrines of national protection or social purification which define the victims as alien or threatening.

“Retributive politicides: mass murders which are targeted at previously dominant or influential groups out of resentment for their past privileges or abuses.

“Repressive politicides: mass murders targeted at political parties, factions, and movements because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity.

“Revolutionary politicides: mass murders of class or political enemies in the service of new revolutionary ideologies.

“Repressive/hegemonial politicides: mass murders targeted at ethnically or nationally distinct groups because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity.”


This conceptual breakdown of genocide is so illuminating that I will adopt it without reservations or modifications.  In practice, genocides have always occurred in the context of attempts at either state-building or state-preservation; either rapid growth or rapid contraction of the state creates the favorable conditions for genocide.  This is the properly-understood context of the event.

Harff and Gurr’s typology of politicides, however, is both needlessly-complex and slightly misleading.  For one, I propose collapsing the category of “retributive politicides” into either repressive or revolutionary politicides, as in practice this quality of retribution, “targeted at previously dominant or influential groups out of resentment for their past privileges or abuses” occurs either in the context of fear of opposition (as is the case with repressive politicides) or in the case of perceived hindrance of an ideological program (as is the case with revolutionary politicides).  Furthermore, so-called “repressive/hegemonial politicides,” defined as “mass murders targeted at ethnically or nationally distinct groups because they are engaged in some form of oppositional activity,” are a better fit for Stathis Kalyvas’ (2006) concept of “civil war violence,” which is the sum total of what is often reciprocal mass killing of civilians by both the state and insurgent groups aiming at separatism or social revolution.  Civil war violence is different from these other types of mass killing because it may be one-sided or two-sided, and in any case it may occur over the course of a long war rather than episodically as is typical with these other types, and it is geographically-contingent upon shifting zones of control in the war theater rather than the top-down, nationwide explosion of violence typical of genocides or politicides.

In acknowledgment of Kanchan Chandra’s recent (2008) definition of ethnicity as socially-contingent but inherited properties, I would modify Harff and Gurr’s general definitions as follows:

Genocide: The imposition by a state of conditions designed to destroy an impersonal hereditary group by the killing of most or all of its members.

Politicide: The mass killing by the state of the members of a voluntary association such as a political party, professional group or class of property-holders.

Tunisia’s Presumptive Opposition Leaders Set a Good Example

There was a deeply-troubling period of about 2 days–through the past weekend–when anxious prognosticators anticipated that a military dictatorship would emerge from the chaos in Tunisia.  Instead, a deal has been struck between Mohamed Ghannouchi, the Ben Ali-appointed Prime Minister, the Speaker of Parliament, and the several unusually low-profile leaders of Tunisia’s decentralized opposition.  The result is a coalition government that will prepare elections to occur 6 months from now, and which has pledged to end all bans on opposition parties and to fully-respect freedom of speech and assembly.  Apparently even the long-banned Islamists and the Communists will be allowed to participate.

The fears were plausible.  Writing for The Atlantic, Max Fisher made the pertinent observation that Tunisians had deposed 2 presidents in 2 days, and there were no clear leaders–let-alone professional politicians–among the various opposition parties.  To him the worst-case scenario was a French Revolution-type prospect, where the heady days in which a mob jeers at the high brought low evaporated in the face of incompetent leadership, personality conflicts, and uncontrolled and unfocused violent purges.  Fisher noted that the military remains by far the most-intact among Tunisia’s institutions–a situation which, at its most-extreme, describes failing Pakistan.

But Tunisia is nothing like the late-18th century Ancien Régime, and it is nothing like Pakistan.  The interim government brings both incumbents and opposition leaders together, and The New York Times reports that the military has done battle with Ben Ali regime holdouts among the police and opportunistic gun-wielding thugs, not opposition protesters.  In an appalling display of unprincipled self-interest (assuming that it is true), several members of the state police loyal to Ben Ali, and even some of the deposed president’s family members, have been arrested after allegedly driving around the capital in police cars and shooting at people indiscriminately in an attempt to sow chaos.  The military has taken an impressively-beneficial role in all of this, a fact that has been credited to its relatively small size in a small country without any strategic rivalries where the regime has long relied upon the police for its repressive apparatus.  In spite of this past association, many of the police have worked with the military and the transitional government to calm the streets–an overcoming of established loyalties that indicates the way forward in Tunisia.

A speculative discussion has emerged over whether Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution raises the prospect of popular democratic movements in other Middle Eastern countries.  So far, this speculation suggests nothing conclusive.  All opinion-makers opine that dictators in many Arab countries will “get the message” that they cannot take their power for granted, but this understanding should motivate them to consolidate power.  That could mean economic and political reforms and greater repression of civil society and opposition parties; in general, the Liberal Ironist expects Arab rulers to update political strategies they expect to undermine prospects for democracy.

There are also the internal conditions of Tunisia, which aren’t very portable to other Arab states.  The kernel of the current revolution is one of the best-educated populations in the Middle East confronting rising poverty and unemployment. The ideational context of the anti-government riots was set by the recent revelations of the extent of the Ben Ali government’s corruption and even kleptomania. One of several remarkable things about this conflagration is that we can pinpoint the spark that set it off: It was the public self-immolation of an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate after the police took away his produce cart because he was selling fruits and vegetables without a permit. From that expression of hopelessness, events in Tunisia have perfectly resembled the proverbial snowball rolling downhill.

Michael Wahid Hanna, writing for The Atlantic, expressed confidence that Tunisia’s prevailing protests offer a more-resonant exemplar for democratic movements in Arab countries than either the US regime change in Iraq or the defeated 2009 Green movement in Iran.  Others have noted the “Vanishing Immolator’s” diffusion effect, however, as protesters have lit themselves on fire in other Arab states in an extreme act of protest of their governments.  The rapid diffusion of a tactic that doesn’t involve threats or violence against others is of interest; however the Liberal Ironist would prefer to see the success and tactical adoption of a repertoire of contention that didn’t require protests to do violence to anyone, including themselves.  Sometimes it is most-compelling to let the regime in question do that, as demonstrated by Gandhi and the recently-commemorated Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I acknowledge the possibility that I celebrate Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution prematurely; it seems to be in the nature of non-professional opposition movements that they are full of holdouts who see no merit in deal-making.  The New York Times reports that Tunis still seethes with thousands of protesters angry that presumptive opposition leaders have formed a coalition government with incumbents of the government of deposed former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  In the Times article, Ahmed Bouazzi, an executive committee member of the Progressive Democratic Party, said the opposition movement currently faces “three possibilities:”

“The first choice is the complete chaos of Somalia, the second choice is a military coup after a savior comes to rescue us from the chaos and lasts for 23 years, and the third possibility is working with the people who are in charge of the state right now to prepare fair elections.”

Continuing protests are perhaps inevitable in the euphoria of such a moment, and the holdouts in aggregate likely have no idea who should run the government, other than that they should have no past association with Mr. Ben Ali.  But therein lies the rub: The efficacy of Mr. Ben Ali’s past repression is such that there is probably no one else with the practical experience to take the reigns right away.  The protesters still in the street include many who have been scarred by Mr. Ben Ali’s crass means of imposing order; but that crowd also includes Tunisia’s Jacobins.  The pursuit of a grim justice at the expense of the peace required for the current revolution consolidate its gains is no justice at all.  The challenge before the transitional government is to wait-out a crowd that has no vision–as peacefully as possible.

The Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia

Something extraordinary is happening in Tunisia–but the end is not yet.  The kernel of the current revolution is one of the best-educated populations in the Middle East as it confronts rising poverty and unemployment. The ideational context of the anti-government riots was set by the recent revelations of the extent of the Ben Ali government’s corruption and even kleptomania. One of several remarkable things about this conflagration is that we can pinpoint the spark that set it on fire: It was the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate after the police took away his produce cart because he was selling fruits and vegetables without a permit. From that expression of hopelessness events in Tunisia have perfectly resembled the proverbial snowball rolling downhill.

The New York Times has carried several articles covering various aspects of this remarkable story.  First sequentially, though not by reporting, on November 28 of last year, Tunisian dissidents started the TuniLeaks website on the same day Wikileaks began their campaign to subvert our government’s foreign policy.  As the Times recently reported, these dissidents used this new website to air the mounting alarm of our foreign service personnel at the corruption and transparent kleptomania of the Tunisian government of strongman Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.  These disclosures struck a nerve in Tunisia, where one of the best-educated and most-professional national populations in the Middle East have confronted mounting unemployment and inflation while government officials increasingly took advantage of their monopoly on power.

The clear documentation of corruption by often-indignant State Department officials did not solely provoke this amassed expression of outrage; it does seem to have set the ideational context for what came next.  A 26-year-old college graduate who had been unemployed a long time sought an out as a street produce vendor; the police confiscated his produce because he didn’t have a permit to sell.  Having come to the end of his rope, the young man committed suicide through public self-immolation.  In the wake of this pathetic spectacle something extraordinary happened: A rash of riots broke out in mid-December, spreading to all parts of this small country until by January 10 Mr. Ben Ali ordered all schools and universities in the country closed in an attempt to deny student protesters a place to congregate.  As seems reflexive when authoritarian governments face student protesters, police had already killed at least 14 protesters by this timeThe following day, the riots spread to the capital Tunis for the first time.  This was the point at which Mr. Ben Ali’s son–a member of parliament, presumptive heir to the…Tunisian presidency, and not incidentally one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, left Tunisia for what, perhaps for the first time in his life, was now a friendlier business environment abroad.

Mr. Ben Ali didn’t solely rely upon the truncheon, the tear gas and the gun, however; as it became clear that the riots continued unabated he also promised political reforms, and even started firing a growing number of high-ranking officials as part of a promise to reign in corruption.  By now, however, it had become clear that the rioters believed that Mr. Ben Ali himself was the problem.  In addition to the Tunileaks website, dissidents used their Facebook and Twitter accounts to announce future protests–a move that made a high scale of relatively-spontaneous organizing possible, but which meant many such protest-organizers were going “all-in” as it would now be relatively easy for the Tunisian government, well-known to be truncheon-happy, to identify many of those responsible for these demonstrations.

Among his various attempts to placate the growing ranks of rioters: Mr. Ben Ali called for a release of jailed demonstrators and even internal investigations to determine whether excessive force was used to quell any riots; pledges to root-out corruption and address high unemployment, and eventually the sacking of his entire cabinet.  The textbook but increasingly-desperate efforts to intimidate and attack the opposition, to smear it as the work of foreign radicals and “terrorists”–There is no evidence that these protests have an Islamist or other militant affiliation–followed by a variety of symbolic and substantive actions aimed at mollifying the protesters’ grievances made no difference in the end.  Tunisian President-for-life Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunis Friday night, seeking refuge in Saudia Arabia.

Seeking to gloss over the magnitude of what had just happened, Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi tried to step into the void, asserting in the indirect manner of euphemism that the President was simply temporarily indisposed to govern.  In his Friday announcement upon assuming power, Prime Minister Ghannouchi insisted that he would respect the Tunisian Constitution and proceed with implementation of the reforms promised by the deposed strongman.  If anything, Mohamed Ghannouchi’s presidency may go down as the briefest in history, as according to the New York Times, Facebook pages previously carrying the status message “Ben Ali, Out,” promptly switched over to a new one: “Ghannouchi, Out.”  The next morning, the Prime Minister also stepped aside, prompting his succession by the Speaker of Parliament according to Tunisia’s order of succession.  Though police repression reached its highest pitch by Friday, it is no longer clear who the buck stops with in Tunisian government anymore.  The Speaker of Parliament is expected to call for new elections within 60 days.

So, that’s the story so far.  What’s the significance?  The Liberal Ironist isn’t sure there is any.  For starters, I didn’t need the New York Times to clarify that this is in fact the first time a grassroots revolution has deposed an Arab dictator.  (The Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian influence and new elections, was successful in its goals by a narrow conception but ultimately failed to diminish Hezbollah’s influence; it also didn’t set the deposition of a regime as its aim.)  Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution occurred without any kind of Islamist appeal or backing or the spectacle of violence that often attends radical Islamism in politics.  It’s also worth pointing out that this was a middle-class revolution, and that likely explains the difference.  Tunisia is as modernized and educated as any Arab country (if you conscientiously factor-out all the politically-perverse effects of developing an oil-based economy in a context of weak political institutions).  To that effect, the expressions by the Tunisian crowd that have been repeated in the media abroad (as the space, linguistic and narrative exigencies of journalism must not be discounted) strongly emphasize the movement’s reasonableness.  If, once the dust settles, Tunisia finds it has become a democracy, time will likely show this is a function not of the discontent of the “Arab world” but of Tunisia, a relatively-small, Europhile Arab state with a large middle class, abruptly-worsening economic circumstances and a particularly complacent and opulent ruling family accustomed to using the country’s police as a cudgel.  Some of these qualities are present in other Arab states, but their particular combination in Tunisia owes to Tunisian political history.

That said, the coherence of this political opportunity owes, somehow, to a man named Mohamed Bouazizi, a college graduate who festered without a job until the day he set himself on fire.  The revolution came when it did because Tunisia’s dispossessed and disenchanted young adults believed a dictator’s selfishness had brought them all to that abject state; seeing their country that way, revolution became the rational thing to do.