Weimar’s Lesson for the Tea Party

As political analysts around the world are wondering how on earth the standoff in Washington can come to an end, perhaps the more interesting question is what the shutdown will do to U.S. democracy in the long run. Weimar Germany offers a useful lesson here.

I know this is a tough sell to Americans, who tend to see their political system as so “exceptional” that comparisons to any other country are futile. But while Weimar Germany was radically different from today’s U.S., they share one very important trait: widespread disillusionment with the democratic system. Weimar shows that an unwillingness to cooperate in parliament can go a long way towards destroying a democracy.

Just a quick note up-front: I won’t claim that Republicans and Democrats have much in common with Nazis and Communists, and I don’t think the U.S. will be ruled by a fascist dictator anytime soon.

That said, the late Weimar Republic was suffering from a severe case of bipartisan (actually sept- or octpartisan) bickering that sounds awfully familiar. Germany was more or less a functioning democracy until 1930, when a grand coalition of several democratic parties led by the social democratic SPD split up over a dispute on social-spending cuts.

From 1930 until Hitler’s victory in 1933, no government had a majority in parliament. Chancellors Brüning, Papen and Schleicher had to rule by presidential decree and parliament was dissolved four times in three years. This state of chaos was the result of the parties in parliament refusing to cooperate on any issue.

The parties of the dissolved grand coalition lost their majority in the election of September 1930, which meant that any majority government would have to include a non-democratic party. The SPD and the Communists of the KPD shared many policy priorities and could have ruled together, but the KPD had categorically ruled out any cooperation. It followed Stalin’s theory of “social fascism”, claiming the SPD was the greatest enemy of the working class – more so than the Nazis.

Similarly, Hitler’s NSDAP was unwilling to cooperate with any party that supported a parliamentary democracy Hitler derogatorily called the “system”.

Hitler’s rise had much to do with his charisma, anger at the treaty of Versailles and the Great Depression. But parliament’s dysfunction – its inability to reach decisions by majority – was crucial in making voters disillusioned with democracy.

A similar process is noticeable in today’s U.S. Multi-party coalitions are obviously not an issue here. Unlike Weimar, the two-party system guarantees there is almost always a working majority in each chamber of parliament. But the impasse between House and Senate has the same effect as the lack of majorities in Weimar: It is impossible to pass a budget through the democratic process. And like Weimar, the impasse is the result of hardliners categorically refusing to cooperate.

By hardliners, I mean the Tea Party. Much has been written about both sides being at fault, but this is clearly a crisis created by a far-right group sticking to demands everyone knows can never be met – in effect refusing to cooperate. The Tea Party is intent not on running a country, but on bringing down a democratically elected government – a goal it shares with the non-democratic parties of the Weimar Republic.

Weimar shows how dangerous this strategy is. Germans voted a fascist in power in part because they saw that democracy was no longer functioning. The longer Congress is unable to do its job, the more Americans will think their system is broken – as polls show they already do.

Americans will never vote a politician as bad as Hitler into power. His rise was the product of very unique circumstances. America’s democratic tradition is much stronger than Weimar’s, and any demagogue will still consider him- or herself a democrat.

But what U.S. voters may soon do is fall for a populist politician who offers to clean up a complicated and dysfunctional democratic system. This could be a Sarah-Palin type or a more charismatic version of Ted Cruz on the right, or it could be a left-wing populist. Weimar shows that as democracy descends into chaos, voters start to long for simple solutions and a strong hand to end the bipartisan bickering. But populism and simplistic solutions are always dangerous because they undermine the foundation of democratic governance – compromise and reason.

America’s democratic system has functioned well for over two hundred years because the people trusted and supported it. Once this trust is gone, the damage may well be permanent.

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Government Shutdown? No Big Deal, Apparently

The U.S. government is heading for a shutdown, but it may not be as serious as it sounds. In WSJ’s Washington Wire blog, Damian Paletta writes that there have been 17 partial government shutdowns in the past 37 years. The longest one – in 1996 – lasted 21 days. None of these shutdowns had any major consequences.

This doesn’t mean there’s no reason to worry. With the Tea Party dominating the House, the odds of an agreement may well be slimmer than they were in the past. Here’s the link:


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A Historic Election Result in Germany

The result of today’s parliamentary election in Germany marks a significant political shift, and not just because the liberal/libertarian party FDP failed to gain seats for the first time in its history. The chart in the link below shows the results of Germany’s parliamentary elections since World War II. At every election between 1949 and 1990, generally right-wing parties (CDU, CSU, FDP and others) together won more than 50% of the vote. Then came Germany’s reunification, which spilled in many left-wing voters from formerly socialist East Germany. In each election after 1990, the right failed to reach 50% (although it still managed to form CDU-FDP coalition governments in 1994 and 2009). There was reason to believe that reunification had shifted the composition of the electorate permanently to the left. But in today’s election, right-wing parties  – CDU/CSU, FDP and the newly formed AfD – won around 52% of the votes, according to preliminary results. Only time will tell if this result is an exception, or if it indicates a more permanent shift of the electorate back to the right.



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Misperceptions about U.S. gun violence

Most Americans think gun violence has increased, even though it has actually decreased significantly since the 1980s, The Economist writes. The magazine explains this with a rise in highly publicized mass shootings, which may give people a wrong impression of general gun-violence trends. But it’s also possible that this reflects a widespread sense that things are getting worse and America is in decline. The right tends to complain about an alleged erosion of American values and dismantling of the free market, while the left sees a growing income gap as a sign that the U.S. is getting a worse place to live in. Realizing that some things are actually getting better might do America’s political discourse good.

Here’s the link: http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21586585-mass-shootings-are-up-gun-murders-down?fsrc=scn/tw/te/pe/massshootingsareupgunmurdersdown

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The Other 9/11

Today marks the 12th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but in Chile 9/11 is associated with another event: 40 years ago today, Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected, socialist President Salvador Allende in a U.S.-backed military coup. Allende died the same day – officially a suicide, but quite possibly murder. Pinochet went on to rule the country for 17 years as a ruthless dictator who tortured and killed thousands.

September 11, 2001 led to a dramatic shift in U.S. domestic and foreign policies, as policymakers decided their country should never again be vulnerable to terrorism. But perhaps the U.S. can draw a lesson from Chile’s 9/11 as well. Backing murderous dictators may make sense at the time, but will eventually come back to haunt Washington. The U.S. support for Pinochet has done much to undermine America’s credibility abroad. Its implicit backing of Egypt’s generals – through continued military support – is bound to further erode the myth that the U.S. is a global defender of democracy.

Here’s a photo of Allende on the day of the coup: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/picture/2013/sep/11/photography-chile-coup-salvador-allende

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Does a History of Racism Discredit Anti-Interventionism?

Noah Berlatsky takes the longer view and notes that anti-interventionism (or isolationism) has been championed by the U.S. far right since Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, which essentially associated the Union with military intervention. Racist southerners subsequently tended to oppose interventions abroad that were meant to help non-whites. But what complicates the matter further is that foreign interventions were often driven by a similar kind of racism – the notion that other races couldn’t take care of themselves. In the end, Berlatsky finds that both isolationism and interventionism have racist roots and are therefore highly questionable. A thought-provoking piece, although the really interesting question would have been to what extent these racist traditions shape today’s discourse, for example on Syria.

Here’s the link: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/09/the-awkward-all-american-marriage-of-anti-interventionism-and-racism/279525/

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Should we call Assad a terrorist?

Authoritarian governments keen on attacking the opposition have found a new favorite swear word: terrorists! Egypt’s military rulers recently used the term to describe largely peaceful protesters, following in the linguistic footsteps of Gaddafi, Putin and many others. This trend shows how much our understanding of “terrorism” has changed over the centuries.

There is no universal definition of terrorism, but the U.N. General Assembly has repeatedly used the following: “criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.” This definition leaves open the possibility that terrorism can be perpetrated by an army or government. Indeed, terrorism has historically had little to do with bearded outlaws.

Terror entered political language in the aftermath of the French Revolution as a state-led political program: Robespierre’s revolutionary dictatorship used excessive violence to strike fear in opponents and fight the counterrevolutionary movement. “The attribute of popular government in a revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror”, Robespierre famously said in 1794. “Terror without virtue is fatal; virtue without terror is impotent.”

The Bolsheviks adopted this thinking during the so-called Red Terror of the Russian civil war, 1917-1921, that saw thousands of counterrevolutionaries murdered. When Austrian socialist Karl Kautsky criticized the “bloody terrorism carried out by Socialist governments”, Leon Trotsky, at the time head of the Red Army, responded: “terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class which does not want to leave the scene of operations. Intimidation is a powerful weapon of policy, both internationally and internally.” The concept of Red Terror was resurrected under Haile Mengistu Mariam in Ethiopia – whose regime murdered hundreds of thousands of people in the 1970s and 1980s.

To be sure, terrorism wasn’t always just a state affair. Left-wing radicals used bombs and assassinations to fight democratic governments and monarchies from the 19th century onwards. But the term terror always referred to a practice rather than a group of people.

Then came 9/11 and the Bush administration’s “war on terror”, a slogan that really referred to a certain group of Islamist radicals. Soon the term terror in common usage no longer described the practice of intimidating through violence, and instead became a name for an organized group of non-state actors attacking states by killing civilians.

This gradual change in meaning has given repressive regimes a publicity advantage. The Egyptian government’s massacre of protesters, clearly intended to sow panic among oppositionists and discourage further demonstrations, fits the classical definition of terrorism. The same goes for Assad’s use of poison gas against civilians, which has limited military value but creates terror among opponents. And yet hardly anyone brands them “bloody terrorists”, as Kautsky would have done in his time. On the contrary: they are the ones who can accuse the opposition of terrorism. Ever since “terrorists” became a term for non-state actors, repressive governments no longer have to worry about being branded as such.

In global politics, wording matters. The Egyptian government’s description of oppositionists as terrorists seems to work very well as a propaganda tool, winning over Egyptians fearful of chaos and violence. In the same vein, our unwillingness to call the military rulers terrorists arguably weakens the opposition’s case. Saying a regime uses violence or repression will never have the same impact as saying it employs systematic terror.

Winning over the hearts and minds of media consumers is crucial for the repressive regimes in Egypt and Syria. Our misuse of the term terror makes it easier for them.

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Russia’s New History Censorship

With all the attention media  (self) censorship in Russia is getting, it is easy to forget about a related practice: history censorship. Today the Moscow daily Kommersant reminded us that Putin’s ambition isn’t merely to control Russia’s present and future, but also its past. The ministry of culture, having denied funding to Alexandr Mindadze’s new film “Dear Hans, Dear Peter”, justified its step as follows:

“We have unanimously decided that, on the 70th anniversary of the victory over Germany, a film that does not conform to our ideas about the war shouldn’t be released. … This film may not express the view veterans of the Great Patriotic War expect. ”

I haven’t seen the screenplay, but according to Kommersant it tells the story of a German engineer who ended up in the Soviet Union in 1940. The film engages critically with some Russian war myths, which was apparently seen as reason enough to deny funding.

The incident shows that any non-heroic depiction of Russia’s past is unacceptable in Putin’s state. This isn’t just the President’s doing. Patriotism has been on the rise since the 1990s and prominent oppositionist Alexei Navalny, for all his virtues, is a worryingly xenophobic Nationalist. As long as the government encourages these sentiments instead of fighting them, Russia is on a dangerous trajectory.

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Why Measuring Productivity Differently Will Change the Way We Live

Can you imagine a world without 9-to-5 jobs? Adam Davidson suggests it’s not too far away. In the latest New York Times Magazine, the journalist urges us to change the way we measure productivity. Accountants and Lawyers bill by the hour, encouraging slow work. Paying people by what they produce, rather than by how long it takes them to produce it, would more accurately reflect productivity in the modern economy.

What’s really interesting about Davidson’s argument is his historical narrative. He claims that measuring productivity by hour of work, popularized among accountants in the 1950s, is a leftover of the industrial age. This way of measuring made sense for assembly-line manufacturing, where time units had a fixed correlation to output. But since the 1960s industrial production has become less and less important at the expense of services and the creative economy. Measuring productivity of the latter has little to do with hours worked.

Davidson writes: “Measuring productivity is central to economic policy — it’s especially crucial in the decisions made by the Federal Reserve — but we are increasingly flying blind. It’s relatively easy to figure out if steel companies can make a ton of steel more efficiently than in the past (they can, by a lot), but we have no idea how to measure the financial value of ideas and the people who come up with them. “Compared with the mid-1900s, goods production is not as important a part of our economy, but we continue to devote about 90 percent of our statistical resources to measuring it,” says Barry Bosworth, a Brookings Institution economist who is a leading thinker on productivity in the service sector.”

Davidson doesn’t address the consequences of measuring creative work by its value rather than by time worked, but they would certainly revolutionize our economy. On a microeconomic level, it might mean the end of the 8-hour work day. Measuring the value of ideas would let us work until we have achieved results, not until the clock hits five. How about working 2 hours on Tuesday and 13 on Wednesday? What’s already a reality in some creative professions could become the norm.

The possible macroeconomic effects are just as intriguing. Countries still tend to measure the productivity of their workforce by how many hours people work in a day. For example, business advocates have long lambasted unions for trying to shorten work days. During the Euro Crisis, some have urged Spain to scrap the Siesta, a lengthy lunch break, and stretch out work days to increase productivity. But what if a long break and shorter work days increase productivity in our modern service economy? A one-hour nap might make a good idea more likely than 20 hours of hard work. Perhaps the supposedly lazy Greeks are way ahead of the hard-working Americans.

The entire capitalist system revolves around the notion of productivity. If it turns out we’ve been measuring it incorrectly, sweeping changes are bound to follow.

Here’s a link to the article:


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Is 1942 the new 1984?

Newly released documents, analyzed in today’s Wall Street Journal, show the U.S. government struggling to deal with leaks as early as World War II. In 1942, Chicago Tribune reporter Stanley Johnston reported that the U.S. navy was informed of japanese battle plans, all but confirming the U.S. had cracked the Japanese navy’s code. The department of justice unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute Johnston for disclosing a military secret. Similarly to the current case against Bradley Manning, on trial for leaking classified government documents, the prosecutors weren’t able to prove Johnston intended to aid the enemy.

The  Johnston case shows that freedom of press is on much firmer footing today than in 1942. Back then, prosecutors were willing to not just go after those who leaked information, but also after a journalist who reported on them. Today, Glenn Greenwald – the Guardian journalist publishing Edward Snowden’s revelations –  is apparently still safe from prosecution. But there are enough pundits and politicians who want Greenwald put on trial as a traitor. Hopefully the unsuccessful case against Johnston serves as a discouragement to those who believe you can have a functioning democracy without a free press.

Here’s a link to the article: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323420604578651951028990338.html?mod=WSJ_WSJ_US_News_5


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