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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

You Say You Want a Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Waimea Canyon, Kauai Hawaii

Wrongo has suggested many times that America needs a revolution. He thinks that the US political process has been so captured by large corporations and the very rich that the average person no longer can have any impact on policy. In many states, the average person isn’t even totally confident that he/she will be permitted to vote the next time they go to their local precinct.

We are in the midst of a political crisis: The people have lost faith in systems which they feel don’t respond to real people and in representatives that won’t represent us, or the society at large. Rather than debate issues thoughtfully, we are whipsawed by the appeals to emotion launched daily into the ether by the tweeter-in-chief.

Two current issues demonstrate the danger. First, Jerusalem. It turns out that Tillerson and Mattis opposed the president’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel, and move our embassy there. You know from the headlines that Trump wouldn’t listen to anyone who told him this would be a very bad idea. The State Department’s response was to issue a worldwide travel alert for those Americans who think they’re still welcome around the world. The WaPo reported that a Trump confidant said:

It’s insane. We’re all resistant…He doesn’t realize what all he could trigger by doing this.

Second, North Korea. Maybe you read this headline: North Korea says war is inevitable as allies continue war games.

Martin Longman asks the pertinent question:

The so-called adults in the room utterly failed on the Jerusalem issue, so are we supposed to put our trust in them to steer a sane course on the Korean peninsula?

What are we talking about here? Can we wait out Trump, and just work like hell to replace him with a better president in 2020? Would nuclear war get him re-elected?

What about the GOP’s control of both houses of Congress? On Thursday, Speaker Ryan told us what we face next year: the GOP will tackle the budget deficit and national debt by cutting Medicare and possibly Social Security, now that the GOP’s donor class has their tax cuts.

Things have to change, and there are only two options, neither very good. First, we can try and excise the moneyed influence via the ballot box. That is the “democratic revolution” that Bernie championed in 2016. The definition of democratic revolution is:

A revolution in which a democracy is instituted, replacing a previous non-democratic government, or in which revolutionary change is brought about through democratic means, usually without violence.

Since we no longer have a functioning democracy, a “democratic revolution” to bring it back is what we require. Is it the only way to right the American ship of state?

The second option is a coup of some kind.

  • It could be via impeachment, assuming there were high crimes and misdemeanors that Trump had committed, and assuming a Republican House would impeach him, and a Republican Senate would convict him.
  • It could come via a 25th Amendment action, which might be marginally more acceptable to Republicans, but is as unlikely as impeachment.
  • Least desirable, and least likely would be a true coup, where the “adults in the room” (in the oval office, or the Pentagon) get leverage over the Commander-in-Chief. Could a real coup stay bloodless? That seems highly doubtful, and Wrongo would rather trust Trump than a junta.

Removing Trump won’t fix what’s wrong with the Republican Party. We need to prioritize and triage this situation, focusing first on taking back the House and Senate before 2020.

Who can we count on to right the ship?

Not today’s Democrats. They are led by Chuck Schumer who approves of Trump’s Jerusalem decision. The Democrats must fire Pelosi and Schumer, or die.

What about America’s largest voting bloc, Millennials? Can they step up to the challenge?

What about America’s women? In 2016, women supported Clinton over Trump by 54% to 42%, while Trump carried non-college educated white women 64% to 35%. The #metoo movement promises to become much more than the outing of bad guys: It could weaken both male privilege, and their power.

Firing a few slime balls isn’t revolutionary, but voting them out of office would be a paradigm shift.

The stock market is in the stratosphere, and consumers are happily clicking on Amazon’s “place order” tab.

Measly tax cuts will trickle down to rubes like us, while the plutocrats will die of laughter.

Can women and millennial voters look beyond the GOP’s messaging that the Muslims are always to blame, and Israelis suffer the most?

Will they care enough about whatever Mueller turns up on Trump to go out and vote?

Revolution is in the air. Why should the right have all the fun?

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A Year Later…

The Daily Escape:

Chalk Pyramids, Oakley Kansas – photo by Marlon Flores

(Wrongo is writing this on Election Day, and will not know any national or local results before you read the column on Wednesday. Two years ago, Wrongo’s hometown turned out 20+ years of Republican control in a deeply Republican county. The subsequent efforts by local Republicans to block change mirrors exactly what we have seen on a national level. Despite that, much was accomplished. We’ll know on Wednesday if vision or blockage controls the town’s next two years.)

We are one year into the Trump administration. Many of us are still dealing with the reality that the country elected someone who is incapable of empathy, who has very little understanding of how the world works. Someone who treats women, minorities, and people who disagree with him so appallingly.

The worst thing is how bad behavior (by Trump and many in his administration) has become normalized in the eyes of the press and the people. It started immediately with the administration lying about the size of Trump’s inaugural crowd. Martin Longman took a look back and sums it up perfectly:

Looking back a year later, it’s a struggle not to succumb to a well-earned cynicism. We don’t like to repeat our mistakes, which makes it tempting to over-correct for them.

There were…times when President Obama stood up and told the American people that we’re better than this, that we can do better and be better. It’s not a good feeling to know that the response [by voters in 2016] was, “No, we’re not, and no we can’t.”

…But one giant mistake doesn’t condemn us in perpetuity. I actually find comfort and a cause for optimism that so many people were unable to imagine a Trump victory. It means that I wasn’t alone in having some standards or in believing that we can be better than this. It’s just going to be harder and take longer than I was willing to imagine.

Wrongo thinks Martin is too optimistic, and we shouldn’t expect any real change in his lifetime. Why? One reason is that the Democrats can’t stop playing inside baseball long enough to have a winning vision for the country. The Donna Brazile kerfuffle tells all we need to know: There is no leadership in the Democratic Party.

So, no leadership and no vision. The Dems are like your kids fighting in the back seat of the SUV. While the GOP is a well-oiled machine, staying on message, even when they don’t agree with whatever it is that the Donald just did.

The Democratic Party leadership has to go, we can’t stand by them, not even for another election cycle. Mike Allen at Axios suggests we look to mayors for the next Democratic leaders:

Here’s something unusual and refreshing: There are two highly ambitious Democrats who don’t even bother hiding their strong desire to run [for president] in 2020 — and to reshape the party: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, president of the US Conference of Mayors.

Allen thinks that Democrats could be led back from the wilderness by a mayor:

  • Garcetti: “We’re too busy talking to ourselves, and about ourselves…People don’t care about our inner workings, or even our inner leadership battles…We’ve got to get back to speaking plain English. We are so inside baseball right now…Are you a Bernie person? Are you a Hillary person?”
  • Landrieu, speaking about the bipartisanship of the Conference of Mayors: “The one thing we never do in any of our meetings is think about what the Democratic caucus or the Republican caucus in Washington, DC, is doing. It never enters our mind…People in America are feeling unbalanced right now.”

Allen asked top Dem donors and operatives about possible candidates like Garcetti and Landrieu, and heard that they think DC experience is a vulnerability not an asset for a presidential candidate.

Wrongo agrees. America’s mayors actually do things, and getting things done energizes them. Wrongo has seen this from up close in his hometown. Mayors don’t talk like DC pols, they seem to love their jobs.

And it’s a level of government where Democrats have a deep bench.

The GOP’s goal is to destroy the New Deal, the environmental legislation passed during the Nixon administration and all of Johnson’s domestic achievements.

We won’t defeat their goals without a new message and a new messenger.

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Saturday Soother – November 4, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Grand Tetons early morning – 2011 photo by Wrongo

Two short thoughts for your Saturday. First, hidden in the language of the GOP’s Tax Bill  is a something that would change the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the tax code that prohibits churches, faith communities, and other non-profits from outright endorsing political candidates:

…The provision is not a complete repeal of the Johnson Amendment. As written, it would only free up religious communities—not all non-profits—to endorse candidates and appears to prohibit churches from going out of their way to campaign for a candidate outside of their normal religious activities.

The GOP wants to erode the separation of church and state. Let’s see who, if anyone, in Congress is willing to fight for the Constitution.

Second, the Democrats had a grenade go off inside the DNC when an excerpt from Donna Brazile’s new book was published by Politico. She claims that the Clinton administration assumed control over the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in exchange for keeping it solvent, then funneled most of the funds raised into her campaign, leaving the states with very little to support down-ballot races.

The states kept less than half of 1 percent of the $82 million they had garnered from the Hillary fund-raisers the campaign was holding to support state-level candidates. That’s about $4.1 million.

When Howard Dean was chair of the DNC he instituted a 50-state policy, saying the DNC would maintain full time workers in each state, to contest seats up and down the ballot from the county, to state legislature to house and senate races.

When Obama won, Dean was out, and the 50-state policy was dismantled. After that, the DNC was reorganized to serve only national level elections. And Obama For America took its place as the funds-raising vehicle for the presidential re-election. And Hillary did much the same with the Hillary Victory Fund, but she went further, as Brazile reveals: The DNC would covertly back Hillary in the primaries.

And now, through these efforts, the Democrats have lost the White House, the Senate and the House, in addition to most state governments.

It’s hard to decide what’s worse, that the party is run by incompetents, or that it is just hopelessly corrupt.

Time for a hostile takeover of the Democratic Party.

On to the weekend. You obviously need to go to a happy place that doesn’t include continual assaults by our national media. So brew up a cup of London-based Union Hand-Roasted Coffee’s El Topacio Microlot, El Salvador, available online for £8/200g.

Now kick back someplace you can see the natural world outside, and listen to Peter Mulvey playing his instrumental, “Black Rabbit”. Mulvey is known for his guitar chops and songwriting. He got started by playing in the Boston metro. This short acoustic gem is executed with ease, and pure musicality:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – September 17, 2017

(There will be no Monday Wake-Up Call this week, as Wrongo is visiting family on Cape Cod)

A rich harvest of cartoons this week. Hillary’s book signings, Bernie’s health insurance bill, Trump’s new deal with the Dems, Equifax, and the hurricanes!

Hillary lets Bernie know what she thinks of his Medicare for all bill:

Equifax tries to minimize their gigantic fail:

Equifax creates more losers than Irma:

GOP makes their priorities about disasters clear:

Trump’s dealing with Dems may hurt the GOP:

Bipartisanship deal making cuts both ways:

Why is Bannon on the left wing? Seems wrong:

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A Different Way to See Middle Class Voters – Part II

The Daily Escape:

This is the last in a series from the NJ Grounds for Sculpture – 2017 photo by Wrongo

Today, we continue with G. Mark Towhey’s idea that our political parties no longer work well enough to be relevant to a large segment of middle class voters. He says that the parties must appeal to the voters he calls pragmatists:

The opening episode of the fourth season of Aaron Sorkin’s Emmy-winning TV series The West Wing... [places]…what typical Americans want from government…into perspective for…Toby Zeigler and Josh Lyman, both senior White House staffers in the show. They’re…in a hotel bar and strike up a conversation with a middle-aged “typical American” who’s spent the day touring the University of Notre Dame with his college-aged daughter.

The man and his wife together earn $80,000 a year and, he laments, ‘I never imagined I’d have trouble making ends meet. I spend half the day thinking about what happens if I slip and fall on my front porch. It should be hard. I like that it’s hard. Putting your daughter through college…that’s a man’s job, a man’s accomplishment. Putting your kids through college, taking care of your family… [But] it should be easier, just a little easier, because in that difference is…everything.’

That guy doesn’t want welfare reform, or tax reform. He wants government to focus some of its resources and brainpower on making his everyday life “just a little easier.” The typicals don’t want perfection, just small, concrete steps that improve their lives.

They are the pragmatists.

We shouldn’t confuse “pragmatists” with centrists who are in the space between the Left and the Right. They are not necessarily moderates. Pragmatism isn’t a moderate ideology, but a different prioritization of issues. From Towhey: (emphasis by the Wrongologist)

It’s a focus on the concrete, rather than the abstract. It targets immediate, specific problems rather than deep, systemic causes. It prefers clearly defined and implementable solutions rather than aspirational visions…what if, instead of referring to a place on a Venn diagram, the pragmatic-idealistic divide actually functions like a different political axis?

In other words, don’t appeal to them with policies, speak about solutions. Towhey thinks we should imagine the traditional Left/Right political spectrum on a horizontal line, the “x-axis,” running naturally, from left to right. Now imagine a vertical line that intersects the x-axis at its center. That’s the “y-axis.” At the top of this vertical line, we’ll put people who place a high value on ideals and ideologies that affect society in the abstract. The top end of the y-axis is the “idealist” end. At the opposite end of the y-axis are people who place a high value on practical solutions and actions that help them personally. This is the “pragmatic” end. Here is a representation of Towhey’s matrix:

Prepared by Wrongo from Towhey’s article. Position of politicians by Wrongo

Towhey thinks that the y-axis (Pragmatists to Idealists) shows how most Americans see the world: how a policy affects the world, versus how it impacts me; people who’ve succeeded in the current system, versus people who are struggling in it. Those at the pragmatic end struggle to make it under the status quo. They’re people who want small, but real improvements, a few practical solutions.

Pragmatists are too busy to worry about the future. Whether they’re on the left or right on the x-axis, they share a focus on more immediate needs. And today, voters don’t move along the x-axis as easily as they may have in the past.

If Democrats are to compete in this “pragmatic” voter segment, they need to recognize that the typicals comprise many American citizens, enough to have elected a president in 2016.

The lesson for Democrats is to support leaders who will perform the basics of government exceptionally well. Mayors are great examples of this.

On the national level, health insurance is a great example. Pragmatists want action on health insurance, not on health insurance ideology. If Trump can’t form a coalition with an ideologue GOP Congress, pragmatists would be happy if he worked with pragmatic Democrats, so long as the new health insurance law makes their lives easier. It doesn’t have to be perfect, as it has to be for idealists on the right or the left.

This is the message of pragmatism: less ideology, more action. Small steps, not grand gestures. Results, not principles. And pragmatists are up for grabs. They can, and will vote for Democrats.

They’ll follow a politician who unites them behind a few plans that people think will deliver tangible results. That is how Bernie out-polled Hillary, who had 39 positions on her campaign website.

But, if Democrats can’t make this shift in thinking and leadership, new candidates and new alliances may form, and pragmatists will vote for them.

It could lead to the end of the Democratic Party as a national political power.

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A Different Way to See Middle Class Voters – Part I of II

The Daily Escape:

Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia – 2017 photo by Shelley VanKempen

Yesterday, we discussed how building consensus among voters was the best way to beat the disruptive, and in many ways, destructive efforts by Donald Trump to change our democracy.

When Democrats bring up Clinton’s winning of the popular vote in 2016, they overlook the reality that Democratic congressional candidates lost in 23 districts that Clinton won, including seven in California. Imagine, those voters didn’t want Trump, but liked what their local GOP candidate for Congress stood for enough to split their vote.

Trump won the white vote by 58% to 37%, while 51% of American women also voted for him.

To beat Trump, or whoever might be next, Democrats need to move from following a few failed strategies. First, they have been trying only to win the White House, not the Congress. Being a presidential-only party is a powerful thing, until you lose the White House. Second, they need to move away from identity politics. People know the size of the pie is relatively fixed, and the effort to fix the problems of one group can easily be a zero-sum game for others.

An interesting analysis in American Affairs by G. Mark Towhey says that our traditional view of voters as positioned along a spectrum of left to right is no longer germane. He argues for a new grouping of “pragmatists”, who are everyday middle class people:

This bloc of typical citizens—overstressed, under-informed, concerned more with pragmatic quality of life issues than idealistic social goals—has become a powerful political movement…Conventional political leaders seem to completely misunderstand them…

They are not among those of us who read (or write) long-form blogs or articles. We aren’t typical Americans:

We have time to read…we can pause our breadwinning labor and child-rearing duties long enough to consider hypotheticals and to ruminate…on an idea or two. We may not recognize this as a luxury in our modern world, but we should.

Typical Americans don’t read lengthy articles. They: (brackets by the Wrongologist)

Get up far too early in the morning, after too little sleep, [and] work too hard for too long in a job that pays too little, before heading home, feeding the kids, cleaning the house, and collapsing into bed far too late. He or she has precious little time to consume news…maybe a two-minute newscast on the radio if they drive to work or a few minutes of local TV news…It is through this lens that typical Americans view the world beyond their personal experience and that of friends and family. It’s through this lens that they assess their government and judge their politicians.

Towhey says that these people elected Donald Trump.

We all know that there is a gap between the lifestyles, perspectives, and priorities of the most successful Americans and the “typical Americans.” The people who make the decisions that matter in America are, by definition, our political and business leaders — people who have been successful under the current system. They believe that the system works, because it has worked well for them.

The smart people that lead our politics believe the typicals don’t really know what’s best for them. The typicals want to end immigration, hoping it will increase wages, but we smarties know better. From Towhey:

A politician who promises to deliver the demands of an ignorant electorate is a “populist,” and that is a very bad thing. A politician who equivocates during the election, then does nothing to impede immigration, on the other hand, is a wise man skilled in the art of political campaigning and governance.

Typical Americans have always elected the smart people who call themselves Republicans or Democrats. After each election, the typicals wait for their lives to improve, but nothing changes. Most typical Americans don’t simply divide the world into Left and Right. Instead, they instinctively divide the world into things that affect them and things that don’t, things that help them, and things that won’t.

In 2016, the typicals decided that it was time to elect someone from outside the system. Maybe it won’t work out, but electing smart status quo types hadn’t worked out so well for typical Americans, so what did they have to lose?

(Tomorrow we will talk about the emerging political power group of middle class voters that Democrats need to satisfy if they want to remain relevant, the group that Towhey calls “pragmatists”.)

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Monday Wake Up Call – August 28, 2017

The Daily Escape:

Rats Restaurant, NJ Grounds for Sculpture – 2017 photo by Wrongo

The politics of disruption brought us Donald Trump. With hindsight, the evidence was everywhere. Americans were unhappy with our political system. Voters had lost faith in the government and political parties. About 10% of voters believed Congress was doing a good job. Both political parties had favorability ratings of less than 40%.

In 2008, people were frustrated and angry. By November 2016, with continued economic discontent, worsening conflicts in the Middle East, and serious public policy issues left unattended, people voted for the guy who promised to break our politics.

Trump won 53% of the over-65 vote, but was supported by only 37% of 18-29-year-olds. He won the white vote by 58% to 37%. And 51% of American women voted for him.

Mark Leonard  says that the election was decided by pessimistic voters. They were attracted by Trump’s anti-free trade arguments, his anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric, his (false) statistics about increased crime, and the loss of American jobs to Asian countries.

Trump said all of this was caused by Washington and could be fixed by a disruptive billionaire. The pessimists won, and felt very hopeful that Trump would change America.

Are they having buyer’s remorse today? No, most say that they still support their guy.

Yesterday, we highlighted some findings of the Public Policy Polling (PPP) national poll taken after Charlottesville. PPP found that Donald Trump’s approval rating was steady despite all of his backtracking around the Charlottesville attack:

40% of voters approve of the job Trump is doing to 53% who disapprove, little change from the 41/55 spread we found for him in July.

This despite that just 26% of Trump voters think he has delivered on his promise to “drain the swamp”, to 53% who say he hasn’t. When asked if Trump has come through on “Making America Great Again,” just 33% of his voters say he has, to 59% who say he hasn’t.

PPP found that 57% of Republicans want Trump to be the party’s nominee in 2020, compared to 29% who say they would prefer someone else. That 28 point margin for Trump against “someone else” is the same as his 28 point lead over Mike Pence. Both Ted Cruz, with a 40 point deficit to Trump at 62/22, and John Kasich, a 47 point deficit to Trump, are weaker potential opponents than ‘someone else’.

All in, Trump is keeping his base together, while losing a few moderate Republicans. So the question is, what will it take to make Trump a one-term president?

If you want to defeat Trump, focus on how his political disruption has only caused destruction. It isn’t enough to tear shit down. Any president has to be a builder, and not just for a phony wall.

Have there been any gains from the disruption? Is there any evidence that Trump has the leadership skills to bring policies into law that will improve the lives of those who voted for him?

The winning message is about building: Build unity. Build the economy. Build a vision for a growing middle class.

Be a builder, not a disruptor.

Wake up America! Find a builder, or be a builder. To help you wake up, here is John Mayer with his 2006 Grammy-winning hit “Waiting On The World To Change”:

Takeaway Lyric:

It’s hard to beat the system
When we’re standing at a distance
So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change

Now if we had the power
To bring our neighbors home from war
They would have never missed a Christmas
No more ribbons on their door
And when you trust your television
What you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want.

Don’t wait to be a builder. Dr. King didn’t wait, neither did Mandela. They changed the world. WE have the power to change America.

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Do Trump’s Poor Approval Ratings Mean Much?

The Daily Escape:

Lake Louise Sunrise, Alberta, Canada

On Monday, Gallup released Trump’s job approval rating in all 50 states, based on a collection of over 81,000 survey results gathered in the six months between the president’s inauguration on January 20 and June 30. The results show an interesting trend, particularly if you divide them into three categories: states where Trump is above 50%, states where Trump is in the 40%’s, and states where Trump is under 40%:

The dark green states where Trump is above 50% are states Trump carried in 2016. The yellow states, where Trump is under 40%, are all states that Clinton carried in 2016. The light green states are 2016’s swing states: New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nevada. From Gallup:

Trump largely owed his victory in the 2016 presidential election to his wins in three key Rust Belt states — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — that had not backed a Republican for president since the 1980s. In these states, his January-June approval ratings were just slightly above his overall average of 40%, including 43% in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and 42% in Michigan.

So those three states that put him over the top in the 2016 Electoral College could now be in play. Other interesting data:

  • In the 2016 election, Trump won all 17 of the states where Gallup now shows him with an approval rating of at least 50%.
  • During the six-month survey period, residents in West Virginia (60%), North Dakota (59%) and South Dakota (57%) gave Trump his highest approval ratings. Montana, Wyoming and Alabama all had average approval ratings of 55% or higher.

This is consistent with the geographic patterns of Republican strength nationally. Trump’s highest approval ratings tend to be in Southern, Plains and Mountain West states. His lowest ratings are in Northeast and West Coast states.

Maine, Georgia, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi, Arizona and Texas are now in the minority-favorable category. Clinton carried Maine and Nevada, but the rest are states that voted for Trump.

In Michigan, North Carolina, Florida and Texas, Trump is at 42% and at least nine points underwater with majority disapproval. Majority disapproval in Texas could help Dems in 2020.

This means that Trump is solidly under 50% in 33 states, including every swing state.

Gallup has been running this daily tracking poll for about 70 years. It showed Trump’s approval at 46% at inauguration. Now the same Gallup poll, done with the same protocol, shows Trump’s approval at 36%.

But this doesn’t mean that Trump is toast in 2020, or that the Democrats have a path to control either the House or Senate in 2018. Peter Hessler had an interesting article in The New Yorker about how Trump has a deeper influence on his voters than we previously thought:

If anything, investigations into the Trump campaign’s connections with Russia have made supporters only more faithful. “I’m loving it – I hope they keep going down the Russia rabbit hole,” Matt Peterson told me, in June. He believes that Democrats are banking on impeachment instead of doing the hard work of trying to connect with voters. “They didn’t even get rid of their leadership after the election…”

Trump is drawn to making silly statements on the Twitter machine like a moth to flame, and it is scorching him enough to reflect in his approval numbers. But Russia alone won’t be a winning hand for Democrats, as the New Yorker article shows. These Russia investigations may not amount to anything, or they may be something that takes until Trump’s second term to fully flower.

In the meantime, the Dems issued a new manifesto, “A Better Deal”, a re-branding of their greatest hits: more and better-paying jobs, lower health care costs, and cracking down on the abuses of big business.

But this time, they really mean it.

It is doubtful that the new slogan or its underlying policies will have Republicans quaking in their Ferragamos.

If there is one lesson Democrats should have learned from 2016, it is that opposition to Trump is not enough to win elections. They need new leadership and a better message.

Otherwise, despite the rosy (for Democrats) poll results on Trump favorability, Democrats will be explaining what went wrong again when the 2018 midterms roll around.

On to today’s tune. Here is Aretha Franklin doing “It Ain’t Necessarily So“, with lyrics and music by George and Ira Gershwin. It is from their opera, “Porgy and Bess”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Parsing the “Russia Hacked Our Democracy” Meme

The Daily Escape:

Kangaroos in a vineyard in Barossa Valley Australia, June 2017 – photo by David Gray

People can’t stop talking about the Donny/Vlad meeting in Hamburg, and the idea that Trump’s position regarding the potential Russian involvement in the 2016 election is: “Let’s move on”. Then, we learned that our new Syria strategy is driven by Russia and its plan for a cease fire.

But, Russia is the story of the Trump presidency. We learned over the weekend that Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. met with Russian lawyers back in June of 2016. But, despite the continued news about meetings with the Russians, appearances don’t make the Trumps guilty. Mueller and his team will examine and understand the full extent of what the Russians did, and what they attempted to do. Only then will we determine if the Russians efforts had any effect.

There are two broad areas of potential Russian involvement to consider:

Interference in the electoral process: Russians attempt to manipulate domestic politics of many countries, including the US. We do the same. How serious is the threat? Political candidates already use a full array of tools and technologies to persuade voters toward specific social and political agendas. This persuasion effort is as old as humanity itself.

Whether tech-centric forms of propaganda, employing social media, fake news and data-mining techniques are effective remains to be proven. America has been engaged in exactly this sort of exercise in foreign lands for a long time, without significant (or lasting) success.

These technologies can only support ideas and feelings that are already out there. So, what was out there? Consider these:

  • Hillary’s emails threatening national security!
  • Dispensing contradictory, or conflicting, information like “Hillary Clinton is very sick”.
  • Using social connections to generate, or modify, beliefs, like “Trump is a successful executive who can fix the government”.

This type of information warfare is a lot like managing a stock portfolio. Hackers write small, diverse news stories and then wait to see what pays off. It is unclear that hackers were the tipping point in the election, and it is far from clear that the Russians were the sole party behind them. We don’t talk about the many countries that tried to influence our elections, including Saudi Arabia, China, Israel, and Ukraine. Is it more acceptable that the Saudi’s did it the “right” way, by donating massive amounts to their candidate’s campaign?

It is highly unlikely that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians regarding interference in the 2016 election.

Hacking into political databases: the “Russian hacking” stories are not just that Russians hacked the computers of US political operations including the DNC, but that the Russians have somehow delivered the election to Trump. Thus, the story morphed from “Russians infiltrated DNC computers,” to “Russians hacked our democracy.”

The first is both possible and probable, but the second is just wrong.

Hacking our democracy requires changing or destroying votes for one side in the presidential election, or suppressing voter turnout. Not even the Russians have the resources to pull off that feat. They may have preferred that Trump win, they may have done a few things, and Trump won, but that isn’t “hacked our democracy”.

Wrongo thinks it is probable that “Russian hacking” occurred. It is a serious story, but it needs to be placed in context. Yes, Russia has a political agenda. Yes, they use dirty tricks to influence political outcomes. Yes, this needs to be taken seriously. The problem is that once that is taken out of context, everything is reduced to political talking points. We are asked to choose between two absurd choices: Either Trump is a Russian stooge, or accusations against Trump are a baseless pack of lies.

The likely “truth” is that Russians were doing something, but what they did wasn’t material to the (relatively) close outcome of this election. This has been crowded out of serious discussion.

And who hacked us is still not definitively attributed: there are too many suspects with a motive, means, and opportunity. We can’t yet discount the possibility of domestic operatives (or disgruntled campaign workers) or political plants within campaigns doing mischief.

Sooner or later, we will figure out the definitive attribution for the hacks. And 2018 will bring new tools and techniques.

Who falls short may depend more on message, and less on technology.

Time for a tune. Here is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit doing “Hope the High Road” (leads you home again):

Takeaway Lyric:

I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
Uninspired
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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From Russian Hacks to Russian Collusion: Where’s the Beef?

The Daily Escape:

Image of Saturn taken from the Cassini spacecraft on July 19, 2013

Wrongo has read much of the evidence that Russia interfered with the 2016 US Presidential election. He has watched House and Senate committees ask the intelligence community and the Justice Department what is known and not known about the Russian hacking story.

 It is clear that the Russians have extremely capable cyber technicians. They have a pragmatic view about getting what they need strategically, so it is both feasible and possible that they could have been disruptive to our democratic process.

But is there actual evidence that Russia interfered in our elections in 2016? And if they did, is there evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with them? The answer so far is summed up by Caitlin Johnstone:

Russiagate is like a mirage: from a distance it looks like something, but once you move in for a closer look, there’s nothing there. Nothing. Nothing solid, nothing substantial, nothing you can point at and say, “Here it is. This hard evidence justifies saturating the media waves with obsessive 24/7 coverage, escalating tensions with a nuclear superpower, stagnating political discourse in America and fanning the flames of a hysterical, xenophobic McCarthyist feeding frenzy.”

Most of what we know comes from the intelligence assessment by James Clapper when he was the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) for Obama; Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections. Here are the conclusions:

  • We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.
  • Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.
  • We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.
  • Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.”

From Sic Semper Tyrannis:

The assessment says Russia did three basic things to “influence” the Presidential election. First, the NSA, CIA and, to a lesser extent, the FBI, believed that the Russians hacked into the DNC and John Podesta emails, then passed that content to WikiLeaks and DC Leaks, who subsequently published the information. Second, the Russians supposedly obtained access to “elements” (undefined) of US state or local electoral boards. Third, Russian media outlets, RT and Sputnik News, put out Kremlin friendly messages.

There is no evidence backing up the claim that the Russian intelligence service hacked the DNC and Podesta that has been presented to the American people. The FBI did not conduct a forensic examination of the computers of either the DNC or of Podesta. The belief that the Russians did it is based on an independent firm, Crowdstrike’s examination of the DNC emails. Moreover, the release of Podesta’s emails had little to no effect on the election, while the Comey on-and-off-and on again investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails were certainly damaging to her electoral chances.

The larger point is that Democrats have convinced themselves that getting rid of Trump justifies throwing pasta (or any other sticky substance) at the wall to see what sticks. And that is what is happening with the “all Russia, all the time” hearings in the House and Senate.

An important subtext to this whole Russian conspiracy theory is the insistence that the Trump campaign colluded with Vladimir Putin to sabotage Hillary’s campaign.  That is repeated endlessly on the cable channels, and has become an article of faith to many Americans, especially Democrats. But, a few meetings do not create collusion. Possibly the intelligence community has some proof, but it has not been presented in a form that inspires credibility.

About a month ago, the DOJ appointed a Special Counsel to ferret out what is real from what is fake in the allegations about Russiagate, from hacks to collusion.

Let’s hope that he gets to the bottom of the story.

In the meantime, stay focused on the potential damage that Messrs. Trump, McConnell and Ryan are trying to do, from the gutting of Dodd-Frank to passing an Obamacare replacement that hurts many Americans.

Now for a tune. The Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” was released in 1968. It was intended to be a parody of “Back in the USA” by the Beach Boys. The song shocked many at the time for its pro-Soviet message. Years later, Paul McCartney stated he knew very little about the Soviet Union when he wrote the song. Here is McCartney doing the song live in Moscow’s Red Square:

Note Putin vaguely rocking @ 0:14

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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