The 1960s and Today’s Crises

by Ted Morgan, author of What Really Happened to the 1960s; How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past”—William Faulkner

It’s been a long fifty years since the end of the 1960s. Yet, as current events involving racism and the police remind us, the past is still with us. In many ways, the long 1960s era—from about 1954 to 1975—remains a benchmark for protest movements, political turmoil, and youthful activism of various kinds.

On May 4, 2020, we witnessed the fiftieth anniversary of the shootings at Kent State, an iconic 1960s event. What is perhaps most notable about Kent State is how deeply divided the public was over the killing of protesting students at Kent and Jackson State. That polarization reflected the mediated events of the 1960s, and it is still very much with us.

This year’s protests against police violence erupted after millions saw the truly horrifying video of George Floyd being killed by Minneapolis policeman Derek Chauvin. These protests, heavily populated by the young, spread like wildfire across the country and much of the rest of the world. Floyd’s desperate words, “I can’t breathe,” have graced sign after sign all across the globe.

The spread of protest, itself something of a media-assisted phenomenon, became a magnet for media attention, generating multiple references to the urban uprisings of the 1960s. As they were in the 1960s, the televisual media in particular became preoccupied with outbreaks of violence against property, including, at the margins of organized protests, the looting of stores. Also echoing the 1960s, mainstream media commentary ranged from right-wing denunciations of the protests—notably President Trump’s malicious calls for crushing protesters with military force—to liberal commentators clearly sympathetic to the protesters’ anguish but who were quick to denounce any form of violence as counterproductive.

The effect of mainstream media coverage, then as now, is to steer the public discourse inside the boundaries of the two-party system, thus leaving outside those who call for more structural reforms of the American political economy. One important difference today is, of course, the prevalence of the internet and social media providing a place where people can find compatible voices, express their views, and share images.

What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy documents the way media coverage helped to spread protest while also generating increasing militancy and alienation among the many protest groups of that era. The book demonstrates how the same mass media continue to fail American democracy. Most fundamentally, the book explains how we got from an era of promising democratic reform to our current world of shocking inequality, endless wars, and a planet on the brink of ecodisaster.

The images broadcast in the 1960s gave right-wing commentators fodder for fueling a backlash to 1960s social movements and the liberal Kennedy-Johnson years. It began with Barry Goldwater’s 1964 effort to link the “riot” in Harlem to the “lawlessness” of the Southern civil rights movement—thus becoming the first Republican to win four states of the Old South. The backlash continued through Ronald Reagan’s 1966 rise as governor of California and Richard Nixon’s successful “law and order” presidential campaign of 1968.

Typically, the backlash seized on the most extreme behaviors that’s visible in the media, equating the “lawlessness” with the allegedly destructive intentions of the protest movements themselves. Highly inflammatory protest actions, like the Viet Cong flags that began showing up at antiwar protests, aided the cause of backlash commentators. Politicians cynically played on the fears, antipathies, and feelings of being “left out” of 1960s era reforms on the part of rural Americans, white southerners, the white working class, and religious conservatives.

The other backlash story revolves around corporate America’s anxiety over declining economic profitability in the 1970s. As the corporatist Trilateral Commission put it, the rise of “previously passive or unorganized groups” (notably racial minorities, women, and students) in the 1960s era produced what they termed an “excess of democracy.” Their response became a blueprint for the neoliberal America that emerged under Ronald Reagan—deregulate the economy, cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, privatize everything public, and greatly expand defense spending.

Which brings us to Donald Trump—quite probably the most narcissistic, corrupt, and polarizing president in our history. Trump very effectively plays off the post-1960s themes, voicing sentiments, however crudely, that those who’ve long felt marginalized find emotionally satisfying. At the same time, he backs policies that enrich the rich, militarize our police, and endanger the future habitability of the planet—further marginalizing the public at large.

There are, however, lessons from the 1960s era that can help point the way toward a more democratic, just, and sustainable future. These, too, are considered in the concluding chapter of What Really Happened to the 1960s.

 

Ted (Edward P.) Morgan is emeritus professor of political science at Lehigh University. In addition to What Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy, he published an earlier interpretive history of the 1960s entitled The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons About Modern America.

Devine and Kopko discuss “Do Running Mates Matter? The Influence of Vice Presidential Candidates in Presidential Elections”

The American vice presidency, as the saying goes, “is not worth a bucket of warm spit.” Yet vice presidential candidates, many people believe, can make all the difference in winning—or losing—a presidential election. Is that true, though? Did Sarah Palin, for example, sink John McCain’s campaign in 2008? Did Joe Biden help Barack Obama win? Do running mates actually matter? In the first book to put this question to a rigorous test, Christopher J. Devine and Kyle C. Kopko draw upon an unprecedented range of empirical data to reveal how, and how much, running mates influence voting in presidential elections.

Building on their previous work in The VP Advantage and evidence from over 200 statistical models spanning the 1952 to 2016 presidential elections, the authors analyze three pathways by which running mates might influence vote choice. First, of course, they test for direct effects, or whether evaluations of the running mate influence vote choice among voters in general. Next, they test for targeted effects—if, that is, running mates win votes among key subsets of voters who share their gender, religion, ideology, or geographic identity. Finally, the authors examine indirect effects—that is, whether running mates shape perceptions of the presidential candidate who selected them, which in turn influence vote choice. Here, in this last category, is where we see running mates most clearly influencing presidential voting—especially when it comes to their qualifications for holding office and taking over as president, if necessary. Picking a running mate from a key voting bloc probably won’t make a difference, the authors conclude. But picking an experienced, well-qualified running mate will make the presidential candidate look better to voters—and win some votes.

1. What’s your elevator pitch for Do Running Mates Matter? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

This is the most comprehensive analysis yet on the effect of vice presidential candidates in presidential elections. Believe it or not, we find that running mates have very little direct effect on voters, in general, nor do they “deliver” targeted geographic or demographic groups. Instead, running mates matter primarily because they influence voters’ perceptions of the presidential candidates who selected them–which means that they are really voting to elect a president rather than a vice president, in the end.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the influence of Vice Presidential candidates?

It started back in 2008, right after John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his running mate. We were graduate students at the time, at The Ohio State University, and took a road trip together to see a friend in South Carolina. Naturally, like any political junkies at that time, we were discussing the pros and cons of the Palin pick. One issue was whether McCain should have picked someone from Ohio or another battleground state, to pick up votes in the Electoral College. A lot of pundits were throwing that idea around. We started asking: Is that even true? Has anyone researched this? Back then, we didn’t have internet access on our cell phones and couldn’t look anything up. So we spent most of that drive developing hypotheses and sketching out a research design. That led to our first article, on the vice presidential home state advantage, and then another article and later our first book, The VP Advantage. But we still found ourselves asking whether running mates mattered more broadly, beyond the home state advantage. We wanted to tackle that question in the most comprehensive way possible. So, we knew we had to write this book.

3. You have been researching running mates for most of your career. What is the most challenging aspect of your research?

There isn’t just one way of measuring the effect of a vice presidential candidate, and it’s not always clear which way is best. That’s why, in this book, we use a wide variety of data sources and methodologies to test running mate effects in the most comprehensive way possible. Our conclusions do not rest on a single survey or method of analysis—far from it. We try to show that these results hold up even when you use a range of different approaches. Hopefully, this will give other researchers ideas about how to study this topic and provide further insights into running mate effects in the future.

4. What has been the most consequential Vice Presidential candidate choice of the past 50 years?

Great question. Joel Goldstein—author of The White House Vice Presidency, also from UPK—provides excellent insight here. His research shows that Jimmy Carter’s choice of Walter Mondale in 1976, and their subsequent election, really started a transformation of the vice president’s role into the more consequential one that we know today. If we’re talking about electoral consequences, though, perhaps John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin in 2008 is the most notable. Our research shows that voters’ perceptions of Palin’s readiness—or lack thereof—to serve as president, if necessary, really affected their perceptions of McCain’s judgment, and even whether he was too old to be president. In that sense, choosing Palin undermined the rationale for McCain’s candidacy—that he had what it took to be president, and Barack Obama did not.

5. What is one common misconception about the influence of running mates in presidential elections?

That running mates are, or can be, “game changers”—in other words, a brilliant strategic choice that can rescue a losing campaign, if needed. This is what the McCain campaign expected in 2008, when choosing Sarah Palin. And, we say at one point in the book, this kind of pick is really quite foolish—and reckless, to boot. Running mates matter, but mostly at the margins, and probably can do more to hurt rather than help a campaign. Chances are, voters are going to see such a desperate electoral strategy for what it is, and think all the worse of a presidential candidate for making an irresponsible choice. But even if that presidential candidate were to win the race, now he or she will be deprived of an effective partner in the White House for four or years to come—or, worse yet, saddled with someone who is a hindrance to the administration, or a distraction. Ultimately, we think—and our research shows—that the best electoral strategy is to choose a running mate who is clearly qualified to be the next vice president, or president, if necessary.

6. Has the importance of running mates increased or decreased since the election of 1952?

We don’t see any evidence, in our book, that running mates have any more effect on presidential election outcomes over time. But, certainly, vice presidents have become much more important since the 1950s—and so the stakes of selecting and electing a vice presidential candidate have increased. Here, we’d refer back to Joel Goldstein’s outstanding research on The White House Vice Presidency. Starting with Mondale in the 1970s, vice presidents have come to play a key role as a general advisor to the president and a liaison in terms of congressional relations and foreign affairs. And it’s very likely that vice presidents will continue to be influential in future administrations.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

We want to give readers the opportunity to put the conventional wisdom about vice presidential candidates to the test. Frankly, there’s a lot of bad punditry out there—on this topic, perhaps more than any other. For years, too many people have treated the “veepstakes” as something of a parlor game—brazenly strategizing about how to buy votes on the cheap through vice presidential selection, as if voters are so easily manipulated (when the presumed strategist, of course, is not) and the whole exercise is merely symbolic. Rarely have their assumptions been put to the test, and nowhere as comprehensively as what we provide in our book. With this research, we hope not only to help inform readers about the myths and realities of running mate effects but also to empower them to reject bad punditry and demand better in the future.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Joe Biden—or any other presidential candidate who has the responsibility of choosing a running mate, in a given election year. It bears repeating that vice presidents play a major role in modern American government. They can be a tremendous asset to any presidential administration trying to enact its agenda and lead the country responsibly. What a shame it would be—for the president, and for the country—if someone came into that office not because he or she is the most qualified person to do so, but because Joe Biden or any other presidential candidate overestimated a running mate’s ability to influence the outcome of an election. By providing a more realistic assessment of running mate effects, we hope to convince our readers—which, ideally, could include presidential candidates and their advisers—to focus on the real importance of a potential vice president’s qualifications, rather than his or her purported electoral advantages.

 

Christopher J. Devine is assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton. Kyle C. Kopko is associate professor of political science, associate dean, and director of the legal studies major at Elizabethtown College.

COVID-19: Lest We are Forced to Repeat Past Mistakes

by Mary Bryna Sanger, coauthor of After the Cure: Managing AIDS and Other Public Health Crises

When After the Cure was published, the nation was just recovering from numerous public health threats and crises. Now we find ourselves in the midst of a new and serious one with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our experiences in both the policy and management levels and at the federal and local levels have proved uneven at best. Even in areas where the science and effective treatments are clear, public health success often eludes us, even when the stakes are high as they are with COVID-19. Large-scale public health initiatives are complicated, and managing their implementation requires skillful leadership in the face of competing political, organizational, and economic forces. But, as we found in our research, the obstacles to success are often knowable, and “strategic skepticism” of effective public managers can improve the odds.

The history of COVID-19 and the needless death and suffering experienced will surely be seen as a new reminder of what is needed to face these challenges head-on—and how leaders can plan. This will not be the last pandemic.

The lessons we identified in After the Cure bear careful attention today. And it is a failure to heed them that explains much of the chaos and fear we are observing. The COVID-19 crisis, despite its broad spread and massive economic impact, is not so different from many of the public health crises the United States has faced over the years. But the current environment of political denial, weak and uneven policy response, poor and confusing communication, and contentious intergovernmental relations are predictable and typical threats to effective response. They are, in many ways, challenges of management and competence more than they are failures of science or public health. As we analyzed the successes and failures of past efforts in previous US public health crises, we found that management played an outsized role in predicting outcomes. And several key dimensions of management appear crucial.

The lessons of our book seem more relevant today than ever. We considered the discovery and implementation of the polio vaccine initiative, the swine flu vaccine implementation program, reemerging multidrug resistant tuberculosis, the childhood immunization crisis, and the early responses to the AIDS epidemic. All of these efforts faced serious obstacles and challenges, and their successes or failures when they occurred were the result in large part of the quality and nature of executive management by government actors faced with responding to these crises. All major public health crises by their very nature pose a complex combination of social, political, economic, and governance challenges. Failure to identify these challenges and develop a plan to address them in advance explains much of the historical failure in government response to public health emergencies.

Many of the dimensions of the public management challenges we found most important in both the disastrous swine flu debacle and the success of the reemerging tuberculosis epidemic in New York City are key to understanding the COVID-19 story. We documented market failures for important medical supplies, political fights over the implications of scientific findings, the politicization of government research, interagency conflicts, tensions between the federal government and the states, coordination challenges, imperfect dissemination of information through the news media, and questions of distributional equity relating to treatment of different groups and communities. These are all too familiar to our current experience.

Effective responses in past crises featured actors who were able to anticipate and deal with each of these areas—in the case of the COVID-19 response, little or no attention was directed, in advance, to anticipating and developing plans to manage these areas. COVID-19 is not the first time that governments faced challenges with supply chains or disagreements between federal and state actors. But this crisis is remarkable for a lack of planning for how to resolve such inevitable challenges.

But as the pandemic rages on, it is not too late to learn lessons from the past.

Common solutions can be found through the study of historic public health cases. They are as meaningful now as they were then. The overarching lesson is to acknowledge and anticipate these dimensions of resistance and to plan for them. Creative anticipatory responses are needed and facing the challenges with initial skepticism and planning for contingencies is key. New York City’s health commissioner Margaret Hamburg faced multidrug resistant tuberculosis through a carefully orchestrated collaboration with numerous organizational and political stakeholders. She managed the conflict between client advocates and public health nurses who met their homeless patients daily to ensure the administration of directly observed therapy—a key determinant of success among a population spreading the disease. This is not unlike the need to plan for developing a corps of contact tracers to contain virus spread of COVID-19.

Arming executive managers with alternative responses in the face of obstacles takes preparation. Indeed, it requires a way of thinking: learning from the past and anticipating the future. Program design and implementation needs to anticipate what can go wrong and plan for it, such as by sourcing and distributing protective equipment, ventilators, and testing kits. Complex logistics with a global supply chain should have been anticipated and federal leadership to support the states could have provided rational distribution chains to where they were needed. Some of the demands on executive leadership are daunting, but not all of what is needed is rocket science. Some generic types of responses can be built in advance, as the childhood immunization crisis did through legislation that provided cost sharing and indemnification.

Executive management needs to embrace the inevitability of threats to success and approach the design and implementation role with strategic skepticism. Scenario-building is a powerful way to engage in this kind of thinking and planning. Stakeholder mapping, for example, helped in early AIDS response to identify and to plan for the opposition from conservative groups and the Christian coalition. The process helped public health officials neutralize their impact of aggressive early investments in treatments. While the threats of dangerous diseases face complex forces, some unique and idiosyncratic, there is a striking similarity in the obstacles that threaten to derail them. Anticipation can help. Sometimes merely envisioning negative consequences mobilizes ideas and resources to counter them in advance. What Albert Hirschman called “an action-arousing gloomy vision” can and does serve to galvanize executives about impending danger and thus produce strenuous effort to overcome it.

COVID-19 is a reminder of all that can go wrong without planning and executive leadership. Now is a time to revisit the lessons of the past, lest we are forced to repeat them.

Mary Bryna Sanger is professor of urban policy analysis and management and the Deputy Provost and SR. VP for Academic Affairs at the New School University. She is a coauthor of Making Government Work: How Entrepreneurial Executives Turn Bright Ideas into Real Results.

The Road to the Trump Presidency

by Stephen Knott, author of The Lost Soul of the American Presidency; The Decline into Demagoguery and the Prospects for Renewal / Opinions expressed here are entirely his own.

Donald Trump is everything critics of a populist presidency, particularly Alexander Hamilton, warned about—a demagogue who practices the “little arts of popularity” for purposes of firing up his base, a man lacking the attributes of a magnanimous soul, a purveyor of conspiracy theories, and a president incapable of distinguishing between himself and the office he temporarily holds.

Yet Hamilton’s fear of a demagogic, populist presidency, was realized long before the election of Donald Trump. In fact, the seeds were first planted by Thomas Jefferson in his “Revolution of 1800.” The Sage of Monticello launched the presidency on a populist course that, in the long run, undermined the intentions of the framers of the Constitution. While many members of the founding generation were worried that a demagogue manipulating public passions would destroy the republic, Jefferson argued that public opinion served as the “best criterion of what is best,” and that enlisting and engaging that opinion would “give strength to the government.” As the nation’s only nationally elected figure, Jefferson’s executive was rooted in popular support and thus uniquely situated to serve as a spokesman for and implementer of the majority’s wishes.

Jefferson turned his rival Alexander Hamilton’s arguments on their head, arguing that popular opinion conferred constitutional legitimacy. Jefferson made this abundantly clear in a letter he wrote to James Madison in 1787: “after all, it is my principle that the will of the Majority should always prevail.” In essence, the majority would govern, not the Constitution.

The “Revolution of 1800” paved the way for the populist presidency of Andrew Jackson who held that the fundamental principle of the American government was majority rule. While the American framers believed in government by consent, they did not believe in government by the majority, believing instead in a system of representation and other “filtering” elements including judicial review, indirect election of Senators, and the Electoral College. Jackson believed that checks on majority rule, including the Electoral College, represented a perversion of the principle that “as few impediments as possible should exist to the free operation of the public will.”

As all demagogues are inclined to do, Andrew Jackson played upon fears to mobilize his base. No one understood this better than John Quincy Adams, a target of Jackson’s wrath and a champion of the rights of other frequent targets of those resentments, including abolitionists, free Blacks, and Native Americans. Unpopular minorities bear the brunt of the populist presidency, and Adams was one of the last of a dying breed who understood the threat this presented to the American body politic. According to Adams, Jackson was “a man governed by passion rather than reason, a demagogue.”

With Jackson’s election to the presidency, and with the wider success of his movement at the state and local level, the American republic moved from a system designed to check majority tyranny to one where an unfettered majority governed, using its power at the state level to disenfranchise an unpopular minority (free blacks) and to press for the expansion of slavery, and leveraging its powers at the state and the federal levels to remove a different but equally unpopular minority from its midst, Native Americans.

The coalition Jackson assembled was, at bottom, a cauldron of boiling partisan, racial, and class resentments, and in Jackson’s case, all of those elements, plus decades of personal resentments thrown into the mix. Thirty years later, Jackson’s fellow Tennessean, Andrew Johnson, who considered Jackson his beau ideal of a president, stirred the same populist pot on his path to power, rising to prominence as the nineteenth century’s version of Donald Trump.

The refounded presidency of Jefferson and Jackson was embraced by many twentieth century progressives. While Jefferson and Jackson did not believe in an activist federal government, these progressives did. But having unmoored the presidency from the Constitution and grounded it in public opinion, it was a small step for Jefferson’s and Jackson’s heirs to claim that the president spoke for the majority and was uniquely situated to view the whole, and that the people demanded a federal government that could be as big as it wanted to be, led by a president who was as big a man as he wanted to be.

Progressive politicians, Franklin Roosevelt in particular, along with historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Henry Steele Commager, considered Andrew Jackson to be a precursor to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. The age of Jackson and the age of Roosevelt may have been a century apart, but both men fought the elites of their day and considered themselves the tribune of the people. As with Jackson, FDR was a genius at firing up his base by labeling his opponents as un-American evil doers.

Sadly, Donald Trump represents the apotheosis of those who sought a more responsive, unrestrained presidency, rooted in public opinion. This refounded presidency placed the office on a dangerous and unsustainable path, a path of heightened expectations that encourages a contemptuous view of checks and balances. It also diminished the important unifying role the president was expected to play as head of state, forcing him to become a party leader and policy formulator—in short, a perpetual partisan lightning rod. All of this has contributed to an erosion of respect for the office.

The United States would be well served to return to the constitutional presidency envisioned by George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. They designed a presidency of “sober expectations,” one that did not pander to or manipulate the public, one that was averse to the notion that it was the president’s job to provide “visionary leadership,” and one that was less inclined to implement the majority will at the expense of political, racial, and economic minorities.

The prospects for a renewal of the office are slim, but not impossible. A recovery of the constitutional presidency, one respectful of the rule of law and appreciative of the role of the president as head of state, rather than full-time rabble rouser, is within our reach. It would require, however, a renewed appreciation for the limits of the office and the limits of politics, along with an understanding that history is littered with examples of leaders who, as Alexander Hamilton put it, “overturned the liberties of republics.” These demagogues began their careers “by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

Stephen F. Knott (@publius57) is professor of national security affairs at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. His many books include Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and His Critics, both from Kansas, and Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency.

Revisiting David E. Kyvig’s “The Age of Impeachment”

Some books seem to live forever, others live multiple lives.

In the summer of 2017, as President Trump was making news with pardons, Jeffrey Crouch’s 2009 book The Presidential Pardon Power began to garner a lot (like, a lot!) of attention.

No, thanks again to President Trump, David E. Kyvig’s 2008 book The Age of Impeachment; American Constitutional Culture since 1960 is roaring back to life.

In this magisterial work, Bancroft Prize-winning historian David Kyvig chronicles the rise of a culture of impeachment since 1960—one that extends far beyond the infamous scandals surrounding Presidents Richard Nixon (Watergate) and Bill Clinton (Monica Lewinsky) and has dramatically altered the face of American politics.

A buzz word in today’s public life, “impeachment” was anything but that before 1960. Since then it has been transformed from a historically little-known and little-used tool of last resort into a political weapon of choice. By examining the details and consequences of impeachment episodes involving three Supreme Court justices, a vice president, five federal judges, and four presidents, Kyvig explores this seismic shift in our constitutional culture and gauges its ongoing implications for American political life.

Beginning with the John Birch Society’s campaign against Chief Justice Earl Warren, impeachment efforts became far more frequent after 1960, with eight actually ending in resignation or removal. In describing these efforts, Kyvig recounts stories and subplots about key political actors and the controversies they inspired. He argues that judicial cases are as important as the better-known presidential ones and shows why those cases that did not proceed—against not only Warren, but also Abe Fortas, William O. Douglas, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—are as illuminating as those that did.

Kyvig demonstrates that impeachment has been the bellwether of a changing—and increasingly toxic—political climate. Perhaps most important and ominous, the increasing threat of impeachment has encouraged presidents to hide potentially impeachable actions behind a thick veil of executive secrecy, while dramatically expanding executive power beyond the reach of either Congress or the courts

Combining political and legal history at their best, Kyvig also explores the cultural impact of journalist David Frost, editorial cartoonist Herblock, and filmmakers Alan Pakula, Robert Altman, and Oliver Stone. A gifted storyteller, he presents a cautionary tale that should be read by all who care about our national government and its ability to survive and thrive in perilous times.

Russian Hacking Scandal & Investigatory Options

by Katy J. Harriger, author of The Special Prosecutor in American Politics

As calls increase for independent investigation of the Russian hacking allegations, it is worth taking the time to look back at our modern American experience with such investigations. That experience tells us that it is important to think about the trade-offs involved in moving outside of the normal governmental process to gain independent investigation. In this post I’ll explore those trade-offs, based on my study of the use of special prosecutors in the 20th century.

While the use of special prosecutors is not unusual in state and local politics, until the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s they were a little used mechanism in national politics. Special prosecutors are used when there is a need for reassuring the public that allegations of wrongdoing by public officials are being investigated, and if necessary, prosecuted, without political bias. When calls for special prosecutors increase, it suggests a decline in elite and/or public confidence that regularly elected and appointed public officials can be trusted to impartially investigate allegations against high level officials, who may be either their superiors or people with whom they have close political or professional ties.

Before Watergate, special prosecutors had been used in national politics only during the infamous Tea Pot Dome Scandal of the 1920’s and during a less famous Tax Scandal during the Truman administration. After Watergate, however, because Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, there were at least 20 special prosecutor investigations between the time the act was passed and when it was allowed to expire in 1998. Arguably, only two of them were comparable to the Watergate scandal in that they implicated the president himself in the wrongdoing: the Iran-Contra scandal of Ronald Reagan’s second term and the Whitewater/Monica Lewinsky scandal during Bill Clinton’s second term. By the time Congress failed to renew the act both sides of the political aisle felt they had been unfairly harmed by the existence of the independent counsel provisions and decided the arrangement created more problems than it solved. Instead, the Department of Justice under Janet Reno promulgated a set of rules for determining when DOJ leadership should recuse itself from an investigation and under what circumstances they appoint an independent investigator (called special counsel). The one such appointment that we know about was for the investigation and prosecution of then V.P. Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby, for his role in leaking the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame.

The election of 2016 brought the spotlight back to the special prosecutor. During the election Donald Trump promised that, if elected, he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate all the criminal activity he had accused Clinton of having committed. Indeed, he, his surrogates, and his supporters pre-judged the outcome of that investigation with the campaign chant “Lock her up!” Since Trump’s election, a new special prosecutor demand has arisen, this time from his critics concerned about troubling information about Russia’s attempt to use hacked material to sway the election against Clinton and Trump’s advisors’ meetings with Russian officials during this time.

The arguments for pressing for the appointment of a special prosecutor removed from direct control by politically interested officials are several and not to be easily dismissed:

  • The allegations involve multiple advisors and officials with direct connection to the President
  • The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is a close associate and seen as a partisan for the President
  • Public opinion polls show that a majority of those polled (made up of a very large majority of Democrats, a slight majority of Independents, and a quarter of Republicans) think some kind of investigation is needed either by Congress or a special prosecutor. This suggests a high level of skepticism about whether regular attorneys in the Department of Justice are sufficiently disinterested in the outcome of such an investigation.

But there are also arguments or questions that encourage caution before concluding that a special prosecutor is necessary in order to get to the bottom of the Russian hacking scandal:

  • Is there sufficient evidence that a crime was committed that justifies a criminal investigation with a prosecutor, a grand jury, and the possibility of a criminal trial? The burden of proof for criminal charges is high – responsible prosecutors always ask whether a jury is likely to convict on evidence that shows that the crime occurred “beyond a reasonable doubt”.   Refusal to prosecute doesn’t mean there is no reason to believe wrongdoing occurred. It just means we can’t meet the high standard to proof required of the prosecutor to gain conviction. The tradeoff involved in having a prosecutor in a situation like this is that inability to convict for violation of a criminal law can be interpreted as lack of evidence of wrongdoing, abuse of the public trust, or unethical conduct. These are not legal equivalents. Just because one is not a “criminal” does not mean one meets the ethical standards we desire for our public officials.
  • What is most important: public understanding of what happened during the election of 2016 or prosecution of the associates of the president who may have been complicit in the foreign attempt to influence the election? This is a judgment call but merits careful consideration. The tradeoff is between the greater public exposure to the evidence of what happened that can be generated through a congressional committee hearing or a special commission and the ability to prosecute specific criminal wrongdoing. It may well be that there is insufficient evidence to successfully prosecute anyone for violation of criminal laws against foreign attempts to influence elections, but that does not mean that there is insufficient evidence that there were inappropriate and unethical collaborations between Trump advisors and the Russians. Congressional committees and independent commissions are more likely to produce this kind of information. Then the burden is on voters to decide in the next election whether or not the evidence merits rejection or return of the incumbent implicated by the evidence.
  • Why not have both? In Watergate there was a special congressional investigation and a special prosecutor. While there was sometimes tensions between the two entities, one could argue that it was the combination of the two that led to both the president’s resignation and the prosecution of key actors in the break-in and cover-up.   But there is a counter example that must also be remembered. In the Iran-Contra scandal the decision by Congress to grant immunity in exchange for testimony to key actors in the affair made it extremely difficult for the special prosecutor to pursue his case. In the end, the convictions he gained in the Oliver North and John Poindexter cases were overturned on appeal because he was unable to prove that the prosecution had been untainted by the immunized testimony. Other special prosecutors who have been brought into a case after congressional investigations have begun, even when testimony has not been immunized, have reported that their investigation was made more difficult by the public airing of witness testimony.

All of these considerations suggest that simultaneous congressional hearings/investigations and special prosecutor investigations are difficult to accomplish without undermining the actual ability to prosecute should crimes be revealed. Watergate suggests it may be the best way to go, but Iran-Contra suggests that it should not be done unless Congress is willing to forgo use of its authority to immunize witnesses who could be key to prosecutions. But choosing one path over the other should be done only with a full consideration of the tradeoffs. One route maximizes the democratic process, using the normal checks and balances of the system, with the payoff usually being maximum information for the citizen about what happened. It works best when members of Congress find the will to cooperate in a bipartisan way.  If one party calls all the shots and it’s the party of the president, there is little likelihood that some significant swath of the public will accept the outcome. The other route tends to maximize independence (also interpreted as non-partisanship) and requires the norms of the criminal justice process be followed. Those being investigated have the protections of due process and the high standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” to protect them. If a prosecution happens, the public will get a full airing of the issues that relate to the criminal charges brought, but many aspects of the affair will be irrelevant in a criminal trial. If a special prosecutor decides not to indict, the public will have very little information on what happened and why because it is not the practice of prosecutors to provide detailed explanations for decisions not to prosecute.

Congress has begun its investigation and it will no doubt be watched closely by those suspicious of whether the party in power will follow the evidence that is harmful to the president and his associates. The Attorney General has recused himself and it remains to be seen how the Associate Attorney General will assess the situation and exercise his power to request a special counsel for a criminal investigation. Whether the public can be fully informed of the Russian interference with the election and there can be successful prosecution of those (if any) who broke criminal laws remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

Katy J. Harriger is a Professor and Department Chair in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University

 

The Trump Spectacle

9780700622856By Bruce Miroff, author of Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face

As the inauguration of Donald Trump approaches, his future course as president is as hard to predict as the man himself. One prediction, however, seems safe to make: Trump’s presidency will be a continual spectacle in the media.

I depict the presidential spectacle in the first chapter of my recently published book with the University Press of Kansas: Presidents on Political Ground: Leaders in Action and What They Face. It is through spectacles mounted in the media that presidents establish a political identity (and critics contest it with their own media efforts). The idea of the presidential spectacle contains three elements:  the presentation of the president as a larger-than-life character, the supporting role of the president’s team, and the ensemble of White House gestures whose principal aim is to dramatize the president’s virtues rather than to promote policy accomplishments. Since the coming of the television age in the administration of John F. Kennedy, every president has had to cope with the imperative of producing a winning spectacle.

During his extraordinary run for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama seemed to possess all the ingredients of a historic spectacle. Once in office, however, Obama concentrated heavily on the details of policymaking, slighting, by his own admission, the “symbols and gestures” through which a president communicates with the public. Immersed in rational deliberation, Obama lost much of his campaign luster, and the press began to complain that he was too cerebral, too cool, too aloof—in short, “professorial.” Obama regained some of his spectacle mojo in his second term, especially with African Americans and millennials, but his presidency remained committed at its core to good policy as the core of good government.

Evincing little interest in the substance of public policy, Donald Trump is likely to epitomize the opposite of Obama: the presidency as pure spectacle. Trump’s campaign for the White House was all “symbols and gestures,” with grandiose themes backed by scanty details. The signature spectacle of the Trump campaign was his rallies. These were participatory events for rally attendees, vicarious participation for his millions of followers watching on television.

Trump rallies were unlike any others in presidential campaigning. They were spectacles of fervor and fury. In some respects they resembled rock concerts: the star performer in the spotlight, the audience garbed in fan T-shirts and hats, the crowds chanting their favorite lines. “Build the wall” and “lock her up” allowed the crowds to echo Trump’s own contempt for immigrants and for his opponent, simultaneously signaling menace to the protestors and journalists in the hall who Trump pointed out in anger.

The rally attendees and the fans watching around the nation were predominantly the white working-class base that was the key to Trump’s election as president. His rallies were not the first occasions when he had found this base and made it his own. Recall Donald Trump’s stint with professional wrestling: he will be the first president who has previously been welcomed into the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) Hall of Fame. Recall Trump’s role as impresario of the Miss Universe pageant.  Trump staged profitable spectacles of beauties and beasts—of slim young women in bathing suits and huge men in trunks. These were not spectacles that appealed to the educated classes, especially to those that Trump delighted in denouncing as “politically correct.” But through these spectacles the billionaire connected to a working-class base that no other candidate in 2016 could reach. One cannot imagine a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz, as the host of wrestling matches or beauty contests.

Since his election, Trump has not let go of spectacle for a minute. His auditions for cabinet positions have been a near-daily TV drama as he holds court in his iconic Manhattan tower. He has even reenacted his campaign rallies in “thank-you” appearances–a golden-oldies tour that keeps the fans aroused. His inauguration is likely to be over-the-top in gold and glitz. But the day after, he will have to govern, and then the Trump spectacle will meet its real test.

At least two major risks for the Trump spectacle can be foreseen. One is that Trump’s non-stop spectacle will grow tiresome, as an increasing share of the public audience feels that they have seen his antics too many times. Franklin D. Roosevelt is an instructive guide here. FDR’s fireside chats were an electronic marvel of simulated intimacy between a president and his people. Yet the fireside chats were broadcast on average only 2.5 times per year. When a supporter urged FDR to take to the air more often to promote his agenda, the president demurred, arguing that over-exposure would take away the freshness—and the effectiveness—of his radio appearances.

An even larger risk to the Trump spectacle is the intrusion of reality. It is far easier to make promises on the campaign trail than to deliver on them in the White House, especially when the promises, like Trump’s, are grandiose and may run contrary to long-established trends. The capacity of stark realities to subvert crowd-pleasing spectacles is illustrated by a notorious event during the presidency of George W. Bush. When Bush staged his “Mission Accomplished” spectacle on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln to celebrate his apparent triumph in Iraq, the press treated it as a new peak in the production of spectacle. However, after the conflict in Iraq resumed with appalling brutality, “Mission Accomplished” became a mockery for Bush. Presidents may score points for an appealing spectacle, but they are judged in the end by how well they perform in enacting successful policies.

Donald Trump has built a remarkably successful career through his talent at spectacle. It has been his one true qualification for the office of president. But will it be enough to carry him through a successful administration? In business, and now in politics, he has lived by spectacle. In the White House, that may be a fatal flaw.

UPK Author Addresses the Mainstreaming of the Alt-Right

Michael 10.inddGeorge Michael, UPK author of The Enemy of My Enemy, recently contributed an article to The Conversation examining how the “alt-right” movement has “gone from being an obscure, largely online subculture to a player at the very center of American politics.”

Michael explains that the movement has gained traction not by promoting “principles such as the U.S. Constitution, free market economics and individual liberty” but by focusing on “concepts such as nation, race, civilization and culture.”

Head over to TheConversation.com to read the strong article.

The End of the Conservative Movement (Still)…

A few weeks ago we posted a new piece from Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, that dissected the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement. Because his great piece is even more timely now, we are re-running it below…

By George Hawley, PhD

donald-trump-supporter-yells-sieg-heil-nazi-salute-at-las-vegas-rallyIn American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.

The 2016 Election and the End of the Conservative Movement

photo courtesy of CNN
photo courtesy of CNN

Every Thursday from now until the election, we will feature a piece by a UPK author that deals with an aspect of American politics. Today, Dr. George Hawley, author of Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, dissects the possible effects of Donald Trump’s candidacy on the American conservative movement.

By George Hawley, PhD

In American politics, we are accustomed to thinking about people and groups in binary terms: liberal and conservative, left and right, and Republican and Democrat. Because the GOP has established itself as the conservative party, and the GOP has won many impressive victories in recent cycles (presidential elections being prominent exceptions), we might infer that there is large grassroots support for conservatism. At the very least, we should be able to describe the average Republican voter as a conservative. Such a description would be wrong. Observers make this mistake because they fail to understand that conservatism as a general sensibility is very different from American conservatism as an ideology and dogmatic collection of inflexible policy demands. Once we disaggregate these two phenomena, Trump’s success, and the conservative movement’s ineffectual efforts to stop Trump, make more sense.

As a general disposition, conservatism is a normal tendency. If we define conservatism as a fear of radical change, then all societies at all times have had a large proportion of conservatives. Indeed, we may even think of conservatism as the default position of most people. For decades, polls have shown that more Americans define themselves as conservatives than liberals. Republicans are especially likely to define themselves as conservatives.

Yet the major institutions of organized conservatism do not define conservatism as a disposition; to the leading journalists and intellectuals associated with the movement, conservatism requires devotion to the free market, support for traditional values, and commitment to an aggressive foreign policy abroad – the so-called three-legs of the conservative stool. These are the hallmarks of a “true conservative.”

Political scientists use different terms for these two types of ideologies. To understand the distribution of Americans across the ideological spectrum, we must understand that operational ideology is different from conceptual ideology – for the best recent examination of this issue, I recommend Ideology in America by Christopher Ellis and James Stimson. Americans, especially Republicans, tend to be symbolically conservative; they love the flag, consider themselves religious, and enjoy rhetoric about liberty and the Constitution. But when it comes to actual policy preferences, their operational ideology, Americans are, on average, pretty liberal.

Most Americans do not support upper-class tax cuts; they are not pro-life purists; they are not eager for more wars. In fact, this is not just true of Americans overall. Most Republican voters reject at least one important element of the conservative policy agenda. In terms of operational ideology, consistent conservatives are not just a minority of all Americans; they are a minority among Republicans.

To get a sense of just how little the Republican electorate supports the conservative policy agenda, we can examine polling data. Looking at the 2012 American National Election Survey, we see that almost 62 percent of Republicans would support new taxes on millionaires; only about 19 percent said they supported cutting the federal budget for education; fewer than ten percent supported cutting Social Security spending. Republicans are also, on average, rather moderate or even liberal on many social issues. Fewer than one in five Republicans said they wanted to prohibit abortion in all circumstances; a majority of Republicans supported legal recognition for same-sex couples. If we define a “true conservative” as a person who supports the conservative position on every policy issue, then such conservatives are a tiny percentage of the electorate.

Professional conservatives are faced with a frightening reality: the GOP has been successful in spite of its conservatism, not because of it. The Republican Party can successfully activate voters by appealing to their symbolic conservatism; but Republican leaders, conservative intellectuals, radio hosts, and talking heads have had little success in selling the operational conservative ideology to the public. Even Tea Party supporters, those ostensibly intractable devotees of supply-side economics, are divided on corporate and high-income tax cuts.

The weak hold that conservatism has on any segment of the electorate is not a new development. But Donald Trump has put the conservative movement’s weakness on very public display. Trump kept the GOP’s conservative symbolism (the flag, appeals to greatness and patriotism), added an implied element of ethnic grievance, and otherwise ignored conservative dogma. Conservative pundits are right that Trump is not a true conservative, and they are right to oppose him on ideological grounds. The National Review cover story denouncing Trump, the #NeverTrump movement, and Glenn Beck’s Trump-inspired tears were all justified.

Unjustified, however, was the belief that the conservative movement’s hostility to Trump mattered. The disconnect between the conservative movement’s influence on public policy and the public’s actual support for conservative policies is one of the dirty secrets of American politics. The real problem that Trump presents the conservative movement is not that he ensures a new Clinton Administration – though he may. Instead, Trump showed that conservatism is a spent force, easily abandoned by ordinary Republicans when they are provided with a right-wing alternative, even a flawed and erratic alternative.

When Trump won the GOP nomination, in spite of conservative objections, we saw definitive evidence that the organized conservative movement has little popular support. If he goes on to win in November, conservatism is finished. If Trump loses to Clinton, conservatives will try to wash their hands of the defeat. But much damage will have already been done.

In contrast to conventional wisdom, the United States is not a “center-right nation.” The American voting public may be to the right of the electorates in other advanced democracies, but it is certainly not conservative in the sense that William F. Buckley used the term. In fact, despite the claims by various talk-radio personalities, Republicans do not lose because they “betray conservative principles.” Those very principles have been a hindrance to greater electoral success. Trump has broken this illusion, and having demonstrated that there is no conservative consensus among GOP voters, we can expect others to follow his lead. Although the Republican Party will likely survive the 2016 election, its status as a uniformly conservative party will not. The end result of the Trump campaign will be an ideological vacuum on the right, one that will likely be filled by something very different from the mainstream conservative movement we have known for six decades.