The Rise of Fascism

Two factors that historians and political scientists often cite to explain the rise of fascism are economic dislocation and loss of prominence on the world stage. For example, Germany lost World War I, compelling it to cede large amounts of its territory and its overseas colonies. During the period of the Weimar government, the nation experienced depression economics, hyperinflation, deindustrialization, and widespread unemployment. To link the economic and geopolitical factors together, we have the Treaty of Versailles, in which the war’s victors imposed massive reparations on Germany (draining money from the economy and eventually leading the government to deliberately and massively devalue its currency in order to make the payments lower in real-dollar terms (real-mark terms, I suppose), leading to runaway inflation, and the ceding of industrial areas from Germany to France.

Russia under Vladimir Putin is generally considered to be on the continuum of fascism, though not as extreme as the Third Reich – either full-fledged fascism, or some sort of fascism lite. During the 1990s, the Soviet Empire collapsed. Russia lost control of the rest of the Soviet republics, as well as its allies around the world. It was reduced from the status of a global superpower to, by the end of the decade, a regional power in decline. Economically, the post-Soviet pre-Putin saw its gross domestic product per capita decline by almost half, producing a situation so dire that life expectancy in Russia actually declined in the 1990s, not recovering to its 1990 level until well into the first decade of the 21st century. To tie the two factors together, one of the causes of this decline was the harsh shock therapy economic reforms imposed on the country by the west.

When looking at the two cases, we can see that the forces in Russia were similar in kind to those in Germany, but to a significantly lesser degree. Their economy declined, but not the levels of desperation during the worst of the Weimar years. They suffered a significant and damaging loss of international power, but nowhere as bad as the lass of a world war imposed on Germany. And as one might predict, the fascist government of Germany was proportionally more vicious at home and imperialistic abroad than the of Putin’s Russia. To date, anyway.

So, what about America? During the 1990s, with its Soviet rival defeated, the United States rose to a status that has been described as “sole superpower” or “hyperpower.” There was nowhere on earth that wasn’t in the American sphere of influence, and no nation or even combination of nations could hope to challenge us. Since 2001, however, we have been in geopolitical decline. The rise of China has created a peer, or perhaps near-peer, military and economic competitor. Russia has reasserted itself on the global stage. Militant Islamic groups conducted mass-casualty attacks on American soil. And those are just the wounds inflicted on us from outside. A series of self-inflicted wounds, from the invasion of Iraq to the debt ceiling debacle of 2011, have reduced our global standing in the political, military, and economic spheres. The spread of technology, media, and ideology have increased the capacity of substate organizations and small states to resist coercive actions by large outside powers. Where once our military could stop a close Russian ally in Eastern Europe dead in its tracks with impunity, or defeat and subjugate Iraq, today we see similar efforts in Syria and Iraq founder, and the American ability to influence events fade. It is important not to overstate things – our geopolitical “decline” has knocked us all the way back to a mere global superpower, like we were during the Cold War. Just as Russia’s global fall was less painful than Germany’s, ours has been of much lesser scope than Russia’s.

And then there is the American economy. The Great Recession was the most dramatic example of American economic decline, but the culmination of longstanding trends of wage stagnation and deindustrialization – at least on the jobs side – have hollowed out cities and entire regions. Again, it is important not to overstate the case. American unemployment in the recession peaked at 10% and fell steadily thereafter, to a level below 5% today. American economic troubles are comparable to our geopolitical troubles: most countries in the world would trade places with us in a heartbeat. Nonetheless, there has been decline.

Germany-Russia-America. Hitler-Putin-Trump. In hindsight, the growth of a less-severe form of fascism in the United States should not have come as this much of a surprise. And now that the jackboots have stepped across the threshold, people seeking to understand what is happening should acknowledge the parallels in both the causes and the likely results. Unfortunately, lingering bitterness over the Democratic primary has led some Democrats to overlook, or even renounce, the long-understood link between economic disruption and a growth in support for fascism. Hopefully, this will be a short-lived problem as time passes.

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Speaking of the Crumbling Democratic Blogosphere…

At some point, it is going to become necessary to think about the policies and actions of Donald Trump in terms other than the opportunity their announcement  provides to express bitterness that Hillary Clinton was unpopular among left-wingers. If, for example, your reaction to the proposal to bring back torture is, first and foremost, a sarcastic “But her emails,” you have lost the fucking point.

I understand that Clinton’s most devoted online supporters are a few months behind  some of us in the grieving process, but it’s time for political writing to be about politics and policy again. You’re not going to resist Trump by indulging yourself this way. You’re not even going to sooth your feelings.

Was It Over When the Germans Bombed Pearl Harbor?! Bad History and Bad Advice for Democrats

Over at Daily Kos, Joan McCarter has a piece titled Democrats Are Not Following the Successful Republican 2009 “Oppose Everything” Playbook. Her argument, which echoes commentary from many Democratic sources, is here:

Congressional Democrats aren’t going to do what Republicans did in 2009, and what many progressives have called for. They’re not going to oppose everything. That’s true of progressive leaders like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, who have announced they’ll vote for Ben Carson as HUD secretary, as well as of the party’s leadership. Instead, Democrats are focusing on specific fights:

She later doubles down on this argument, demanding that Democrats adopt the non-strategy strategy “fight all the battles.” In addition to the obvious problem of trying to fight all the battles – A telling metaphor: has there ever been a military that refused to choose where and when to fight, and instead took up the fight everywhere that the enemy chose, that did not end with disastrous defeat? – this argument has another hole in it: her history is a myth. The Republicans didn’t oppose every nominee in 2009, or even most of them; they focused on specific fights.

Let’s take a look back at confirmation votes in 2009, keeping in mind that there were 40 Republican senators:

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 94-2
Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner: 60-34 (10 Republicans in favor, about a quarter of their caucus)
Attorney General Eric Holder: 75-21
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar: Voice vote (Meaning, no Republicans challenged it)
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack: Unanimous voice vote
Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson: forced to withdraw due to federal investigation.
Secretary of Commerce Judd Gregg (R): Withdrew under pressure from Republicans
Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke: 96-0
Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis: 82-17 (after making hay for weeks over some minor tax problem)
Secretary of HHS Tom Daschle: forced to withdraw for tax thingy
Secretary of HHS Kathleen Sibelius: 65-31
Secretary of HUD Shaun Donovan: Unanimous Consent

I could go on – and on, and on, and on, since the pattern holds throughout the Senate confirmation period – but the point is pretty clear. The Republicans’ strategy in 2009 did NOT include voting against all cabinet nominations at the beginning of Barack Obama’s term. In many cases, all or virtually all of the Republican Senate voted for the nominees. Call Joan’s history “fake news.” Call it “alt facts.” The one thing you cannot call it is true. (At the time I’m writing this, her diary is six hours old, and has not been updated or corrected in any manner. She’s letting the bogus history stand. This bothers me. We’re supposed to be the reality-based community.)

Contrary to the blogger’s assertion, what the Republicans actually did in response to Obama’s cabinet nominations was “focusing on specific fights” – that is, executing exactly the strategy McCarter denounces the Democrats for doing. They put their energy and messaging into stopping people like Daschle, Solis, and Richardson, each of whom had some individual bad story for the opposition to get their teeth into. They did not simply vote against every Obama nominee, or even most Obama nominees, just because they were Obama nominees.

If McCarter wishes to argue that the Democrats should do something entirely unprecedented in American history and implement the novel strategy of bloc voting against every single cabinet nomination, she should make the argument for why they should take such an unheard of step. (She doesn’t, in either piece; the entirety of her argument is that it worked for the Republicans.) What she cannot do is assert that the  Democrats are failing to follow some successful Republican obstruction strategy. The Republican strategy in 2009 was to make hay of the problems of individual nominees, not “universal obstruction.” If Ms. McCarter is so impressed by how the Republicans handled cabinet nominations from Obama, she ought to come up with a strategy around the actual facts of the matter. Instead, she chooses to push some alt-history and waggle her finger at Senate Democrats for no good reason.

I assume most people are familiar with the old computer-programming term “GIGO.” Garbage in, garbage out. The Democrats are not going to come up with an effective political strategy for resisting Trump and the Republicans if they substitute alt-facts for reality.

Let Them Not Say

The Academy of American Poets features Let Them Not Say by Jane Hirshfield, written in 1953, as its poem of the Day for January 20. 2017. It seems fitting.

Let Them Not Say

Let them not say: we did not see it.
We saw.

Let them not say: we did not hear it.
We heard.

Let them not say: they did not taste it.
We ate, we trembled.

Let them not say: it was not spoken, not written.
We spoke,
we witnessed with voices and hands.

Let them not say: they did nothing.
We did not-enough.

Let them say, as they must say something:

A kerosene beauty.
It burned.

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,
read by its light, praised,
and it burned.

What Is Wrong With Downtown Lowell?

Specifically, downtown Lowell’s retail sector.

The commercial storefronts in Lowell’s core commercial district continue to have a distressingly high rate of vacancy, and the businesses that fill them tend towards short tenures. And yet, the downtown residential market continues to thrive – we had a builder in front of our board last night who wants to build a glass tower full of $700,000 condos.* Developers have been elbowing each other out of the way for years to develop our remaining mill space into condos. The downtown office market is not as hot as the residential market, but is doing just fine.

Meanwhile, the city’s neighborhood commercial districts, whose condition 20 years ago was accurately depicted in the first scene of The Fighter, which had long been even more troubled than the downtown, are thriving. Similarly, the city’s regional retail districts are also doing quite well.

What does this all add up to? How can the downtown be a retail, and only retail, black hole while the rest of the city’s retail sector, and the downtown’s residential sector, boom?

*And a restaurant on the first floor. I questioned the developer about his business plan, and he made it clear that he expects to make little money on the commercial space, or even to subsidize it. The role of the commercial space is to make the residential space more attractive for the building’s residents.