Friday, 29 November 2019

The Quality and the Rabble in American Government

The health of democracy, indeed government generally, often rests more with the quality of a country's civil servants than with the quality of its politicians and their associates. Rarely have we seen as graphic a contrast between the two as we are seeing at the Trump impeachment hearings. On the one hand, we have seen a series of witnesses illustrating the very best in American government, indeed in American society. On the other hand, we have Trump's rabble of enablers and associates.

For example, among the witnesses we have Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to the Ukraine, who courageously defied the administration by responding to a subpoena from Congress in order to testify. Her testimony included comments that Trump and his allies’ actions may have encouraged corruption in Ukraine rather than help curb it. Ms. Yovanovitch has given 33 years of sterling service to her country for which she was rewarded with a smear attempt by Trump and his allies.

Then there is Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the White House's top Ukraine expert, who expressed concerns about President Donald Trump's phone call with the Ukraine President to the National Security Council. He testified that it was "completely apparent" that to get a meeting with Trump, the Ukrainian president had to deliver an investigation of Biden's son. Vindman, who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq and still carries shrapnel in his body, is currently Director for European Affairs with the National Security Council.

Fiona Hill, a Russian expert, made a particularly powerful witness. Her testimony dismissed the suggestion that it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 U.S. election as a "fictional narrative," emphasizing that it was the Russians who "systematically attacked our democratic institutions" and who perpetrated the Ukraine narrative. Hill served as an intelligence analyst under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and as Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council until she resigned in July.

And there were others, such as such as William B. Taylor, Jr., a decorated Vietnam veteran and top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who testified that the president of the United States pressured the president of Ukraine to sully the reputation of a political rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for a meeting in the Oval Office and a release of defense funds already approved by Congress. The integrity and dignity of these witnesses shone in bright contrast to the shenanigans of the wretched characters that Trump surrounds himself with, a number of whom are now in jail with more on their way.

The American civil service will require extensive repair after Trump and his minions are through with it. Nonetheless, if there is hope for America through these times of dimmed democracy, it lies largely with the integrity and ability of dedicated civil servants, specifically the integrity and ability of people such as Yovanovitch, Vindman and Hill.

Incidentally, all three are immigrants.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Hong Kong Has Spoken

Hong Kong has spoken, indeed has shouted, and it has shouted "democracy" loud and clear. Pro-democracy candidates secured almost 90 percent of district council seats in Sunday's election, taking control of 17 out of 18 councils, a staggering defeat for the Chinese government and pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The councils have little power and therefore usually attract little interest, but this election experienced a record turnout, 71 percent, obviously to make a statement. Ms. Lam had said, despite months of demonstrations against her government, that she had the support of a silent majority. On Sunday the majority begged to differ. The unpopular Lam acknowledged that among the issues voters wanted to express their views on included "deficiencies in governance."

"This is a democratic tsunami," said Tommy Cheung, a former student protest leader who won a seat himself. The tsunami is a challenge to Xi Jinping, but he is unlikely to make concessions, and indeed his minion, Lam, has made no concessions. China. after all, needs to send a message to Xinjiang and Taiwan. Beijing predictably blames foreign forces for the protests.

Regardless of what happens next, this display of democratic fervour is deeply refreshing at a time when authoritarianism, nationalism and isolationism are on the rise, and the liberal world order is being tested. The over 70 percent turnout, even though exceptional, was particularly impressive. Our municipal elections commonly get turnouts of closer to 40 percent even though our municipal councils have substantial power. We could use a little of that Hong Kong passion.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Evangelicals and Their Populist Prophets

Christian evangelicals are having good innings in the political sphere these days. First, their man Donald Trump becomes president of the U.S.; then another of their populist heroes, Jair Bolsonaro, becomes president of Brazil; and now Bible-toting evangelical Jeanine Anez has assumed the presidency of Bolivia. Hallelujahs all around.

Curiously, for an ostensibly moral bunch, they seem to have a fatal attraction to bad boys. President Trump, for example, is a misogynistic, racist, lying narcissist without even a distant relationship with common decency. Yet evangelicals love him. Or at least white evangelicals do. He captured 80 per cent of their vote in the 2016 election.

And if Trump is bad, Bolsonaro is outright evil. This homophobic, racist misogynist once called for the assassination of a former president; argued that torture is a legitimate practice; told a fellow female legislator that he wouldn’t rape her because she was ugly; and said he would rather have his son die in an accident than come out as a homosexual. He has referred to the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 as a "glorious" period but faults it for "the error ... that it tortured, but did not kill." Like Trump a climate change denier, he wants to deforest and develop the Amazon. A former military superior once reported he was "lacking logic, rationality and balance.” But a lack of rationality and balance doesn't bother evangelicals. Without their support he wouldn't have become president. Needless to say, he is a fan of Donald Trump.

And most recently, we have right-wing senator Jeanine Anez replacing Evo Morales as president of Bolivia. Although her credentials are more respectable than those of Trump and Bolsonaro, they include a fair measure of bigotry. She has made derogatory statements about the country’s indigenous people, who make up 60 percent of the population, tweeting on one occasion, “I dream of a Bolivia free of Indigenous satanic rites. The city is not for Indians, they should go back to the mountains or the fields.”

What attracts the white religious right to these barbarians is certain common beliefs, particularly around gender, including opposition to abortion and gay rights. They see these leaders as divinely appointed and themselves as the true believers. They tend to view the world in the same fundamentalist way—black/white, good/evil, us/them. Evangelism is a brittle faith, overcome by the challenge of multiple perspectives.

I have often wondered if it isn't this cohort of Americans that explain why the U.S. is among the least compassionate and most vindictive of Western nations. Its foreign aid as a percent of GDP, for example, ranks near the bottom of all developed countries. Its legal system is one of the harshest by Western standards, the only Western country that still has capital punishment. All this in addition to its perpetual waging of war. Not a lot of Christian love and forgiveness here.

Not all white evangelicals are fans of demagogues, of course. In the U.S. there's that 20 percent who didn't vote for Trump. Many of those are no doubt liberal and believe in social inclusion. But the solid majority prefer the visceral appeal of a Trump or a Bolsonaro to the promise of honourable leadership. And their prayers are being answered.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Big Bump for PR (Take Note Mr. Trudeau)

Has this election awakened Canadians to the need for proportional representation? The results of a recent Angus Reid poll certainly suggest so. From the support of under half the electorate following the last election, PR is now supported by over two-thirds.

Support has increased with voters of all parties but most dramatically among Conservatives. In 2016, twice as many Conservatives opposed PR as supported it; now two and a half times as many support it. The fact their party got more votes than the Liberals but Justin Trudeau remains prime minister while they continue to languish in opposition has apparently changed a lot of minds. Liberal voters showed the least increase and are now the least supportive.

NDP and Green voters remain solidly in favour. And so we might expect. The NDP got twice as many votes as the Bloc but fewer seats. The Bloc got only 18 percent more votes than the Greens but ten times as many seats. The Bloc was rewarded for contesting seats only in Quebec while the NDP and the Greens were punished for contesting seats across the country. Thus is regionalism exaggerated, exactly what our highly regionalized country doesn't need.

Support for PR is also strong in all areas of the country. The Prairie Provinces, most opposed to PR in 2016 are now the most supportive. These Conservative voters no doubt noted that the Liberals won almost half the seats in the House with only a third of the vote.

2016 surveys found a lot of "don't knows" or "don't cares." The new survey shows broad, enthusiastic support. Prime Minister Trudeau justified the betrayal of his promise last time arguing there was no consensus for change. He can no longer credibly make that argument. So all you supporters of PR, get out your pens and let him know.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Trump and Israel—So Much for Separation of Church and State

The Trump administration has taken yet another step in its radical support of Israel. Having recognized Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights, cut off aid to the Palestinians, and abandoned the Iran agreement, it has now declared that Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land are not necessarily illegal. This represents a dramatic break with decades of international law, US policy and the position of most its allies.

Why, we might wonder, has this administration gone overboard in its support of Israel. The answer is not hard to find. Among Trump's most fervent supporters are white evangelical Christians. Over 80 percent voted for him. Furthermore, his vice-president, Mike Pence, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, are both born-again Christians, converted from Catholicism, and converts are the most zealous of believers. And Evangelical Christians are the most ardent supporters of Israel, even more so than American Jews.

Indeed the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee avoided praising the decision, simply declaring it does not take a position on settlements. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, urged Trump to reverse course, saying it would cause "long-term threat to Israel's status as a Jewish and democratic state" while Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of liberal Jewish advocacy group J Street, accused the Trump administration of "trampling on the rights of Palestinians."

Not all Christians were happy about the decision either. A representative from the National Council of Churches said that it "stands by its long-stated position that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are clear violations of international law." The Presbyterian Church called the rejection of established policy "yet another occasion where the Trump administration is disregarding international law."

Trump’s declaration doesn't affect international law, of course, but it will encourage an expansionist Israel, and make a just settlement for the Palestinians and peace in the area that much more difficult. But to evangelicals the return of the Jews to the Holy Land is a prerequisite to achieving the millennium, the golden age, and ultimate salvation. And they are the ones at Trump's elbow; thus their church dictates the policies of the Trump state.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

The Extraordinary Arrogance of "Kamikaze" Kenney

Lorne Gibson, Alberta's elections commissioner, has had his differences with the province's Conservatives. In 2009, he was Alberta's chief electoral officer and, unhappy with the 2008 election, he recommended 182 reforms to the province's electoral system. The Conservative government of the time was not amused and failed to renew his contract. The NDP, however, admired the cut of his jib and hired him for the new office of election commissioner created under the Act to Strengthen and Protect Democracy in Alberta.

Now Gibson has got under the skin of the Conservatives again. He has been investigating the so-called "kamikaze" campaign of Jeff Callaway for leadership of the newly-formed United Conservative Party (UCP). Callaway allegedly entered the race to discredit Kenney's chief rival, Brian Jean, only to drop out and endorse Kenney weeks later. So far Gibson's investigation has resulted in fines against 15 people totaling $207,223. The investigation now may be coming to an end. The UCP has introduced Bill 22 which, among other things, will eliminate the position of elections commissioner.

The election commissioner is an independent officer of the legislature and to fire him in the midst of an investigation of the governing party is an act of extraordinary arrogance. Furthermore, the UCP intends to invoke closure on the bill limiting debate to three hours, all while Premier Kenney ducks the debate entirely with a visit to Texas.

The UCP has said that the chief electoral officer could rehire Gibson or a replacement and continue the investigation. However, there is no timeline and, in any case, the current chief electoral officer's contract is up in April. The UCP will then choose a new officer which, considering they are under investigation, is rather like a defendant in court choosing his own judge. The RCMP is also investigating the UCP leadership race. Fortunately Kenney doesn't have his own police force, but of course he's looking into that as well.

Kenney is ruling Alberta more like a strongman than a democrat, perhaps taking a cue from the pipeline-loving president of our good neighbour to the south.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Democracy or Putinism?

Vladimir Putin has been quoted as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." Whether or not his words have been interpreted correctly is a matter of dispute; nonetheless, his compatriots apparently agree with the sentiment. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, over 60 percent of Russians consider it a "great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists," an increase in 13 points since 2011. The sentiment was strongest among older Russians, those who spent most of their lives in the USSR, but even half of millennials agreed.

Fewer than a quarter of Russians say ordinary people have benefited since 1991, while most say life is worse than it was under communism. Two-thirds are dissatisfied with how "democracy" functions in Russia.

Does this reflect badly on democracy? Not at all. As I pointed out in a previous post, people in most East European countries believe their lives have improved since the Berlin Wall fell, and are supportive of democracy and free markets. And they certainly don't miss the Soviet Union. Of the eight former Soviet bloc countries surveyed, only Russians are growing more convinced that the economic situation was better under communism.

This would be a real concern if what the Russians are experiencing was democracy, but it isn't even close. It's a combination of rigged elections, political intimidation, suppression of civil rights and economic gangsterism. In a word, it's Putinism.

Unfortunately democracy is increasingly getting a bad name among people who think they are living in a democratic state but in fact are ruled by some form or other of Putinism. The confusion is understandable in societies that have never experienced democracy but are told by their rulers that is what they have. Simon Tisdall, writing in The Guardian, observes that "instinctively undemocratic, oligarchic and corrupt national elites find that an appearance of democracy, with parliamentary trappings and a pretense of pluralism, is much more attractive, and manageable, than the real thing." Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary proudly refers to his increasing authoritarianism as "illiberal democracy." Illiberal it certainly is, democratic not so much.

Unfortunately, we frequently hear these corrupt regimes referred to as democracies even in this country, apparently for no other reason than that they have elections. This does neither the word nor the practice any favour. It creates the impression that democracy is somehow failing when in fact it is about as strong in the world as it has ever been. And it helps give a variety of unsavoury characters a status they don't deserve.