Tag Archives for " Barack Obama "

Donald Trump: populism, or fascism?

populismThe Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, by John Judis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

The unexpected emergence of Donald Trump as a major-party candidate for the White House has triggered a great deal of punditry about how the Republican Party managed to put forward such a bigoted and ignorant champion. Speculation has swirled around the nature of the political forces he represents. Some observers insist he, though home-grown, bears more resemblance to Benito Mussolini than to any democratic political leader. Others think of Trump’s candidacy as populist; they describe him as the embodiment of grassroots frustration with the failure of Republican leadership to deliver on its promises.

Rejecting facile definitions of populism

Veteran journalist John Judis wades into this debate with a slim volume entitled The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. Judis’ subject is not the 2016 election but the much broader topic of the politics of protest. His argument spans more than a century, beginning with the emergence of the People’s Party in the United States late in the 19th century. Rejecting many of the facile definitions of the term, Judis insists that “there is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist — from the Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp.”

Describing populism on both the Left and the Right

However, the author manages to simplify the question by describing both left-wing and right-wing populism. “Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment,” he writes. “Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants.” Unfortunately, this distinction doesn’t much help to understand Donald Trump and the millions who back his candidacy. The views he claims on the campaign trail fit both leftwing and rightwing definitions.

Populism and the rejection of the “neoliberal consensus”

The fundamental premise in Judis’ argument is that populists on both the Right and the Left have come into prominence because of their loud opposition to what he terms the “neoliberal consensus.” He uses the term neoliberal in a fashion that encompasses Bill Clinton, the New Democrats, and (up to a point) Barack Obama as well as the uncompromising right-wing intellectuals who dominated the administration of George W. Bush. That “neoliberal consensus” includes advocacy for free trade agreements, an expansive foreign policy, low barriers to immigration, a hands-off policy toward Wall Street, and other policies that tend to widen the gap between rich and poor. Leftwing populists such as Bernie Sanders have railed against free trade, an aggressive foreign policy, deregulation, and the failure to narrow the income and wealth gaps. Rightwing populists single out intervention in the affairs of other countries as well as free trade. Donald Trump’s often self-contradictory policies encompass both left-wing and right-wing populist positions.

Trump: not easy to pigeonhole

Judis explains: “Trump’s political base was among the party’s white working- and middle-class voters — precisely the voters who had originally flocked to [George] Wallace and then to Nixon, who had been attracted to [Ross] Perot and [Pat] Buchanan.” Caricatures aside, all these “conservative” populist leaders went against the Republican grain to oppose tax cuts for the rich and dismantling Social Security and Medicare, just as is the case with Trump. Judis also makes the point that Trump’s position on healthcare, for example, is closer to Bernie Sanders’ than it is to today’s Republican leadership’s. Yes, he wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But, like Sanders, sincerely or not, he advocates universal health care.

Trump as a fascist? Judis says no

Judis dismisses the contention that Donald Trump is a fascist. “Trump is a one-man show whose initial target was other Republicans,” he argues, “and who has not built a movement around himself. He has displayed anti-democratic tendencies, but they are idiosyncratic. If he has any correlate in European history, it is Italy’s Silvio Belusconi, not Mussolini nor Hitler.” However, Lawrence Rosenthal, Executive Director of the Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has a different view. He argues in the Huffington Post that it’s unfair to compare Trump’s campaign with the mature fascism of Mussolini. Instead, he finds a much closer correlate between Trump and the early fascist movement in Italy, which was much more difficult to pigeonhole.

Populism in both Europe and the US

Don’t be misled: The Populist Explosion is not in large part an analysis of the 2016 presidential election campaign. It’s a study of populism writ large, with examples liberally drawn from European as well as American politics over the last 130 years. If anything, Judis devotes more time to reviewing the rise of left-wing populist parties in Southern Europe (Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, the Five Star Movement in Italy) and right-wing populist movements in Northern Europe (the UK Independent Party, the National Front in France, the Freedom Parties in Austria and Holland, the People’s Party in Denmark).  Though circumstances vary greatly from one country to another, Judis maintains that the Great Recession created the conditions for populist movements to gain momentum not only in the United States but throughout most of Europe as well. The widening separation between rich and poor presents a rich opportunity for the politics of protest.

About the author

John Judis began his career as a journalist nearly half a century ago. For many years, he wrote for democratic socialist periodicals, several of which he helped to found. In later years he has worked for more moderate publications such as The New Republic, The American Prospect, and, now, the digital magazine The National Journal.

June 28, 2016

Understanding Wall Street’s great foreclosure fraud

foreclosure fraudA review of Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud, by David Dayen

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Recent events have made us all aware that police officers sometimes act outside the law, not just in fiction but in reality. But what about their bosses and their bosses’ bosses? And the judges, attorneys general, and Justice Department officials who are supposed to oversee the administration of the law? How do we find out about it when they act outside the law — and what can we do in response?

David Dayen explores that question in Chain of Title, an expose of the criminal conduct that ran rampant during the fallout from what is so delicately referred to as the “housing bubble.” (The phrase sounds frivolous, doesn’t it?) With a focus a handful of activists, most of them based in the state of Florida — among the states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis — Dayen uncovers the truth about the role of law enforcement officials and the Wall Street banks in forcing an estimated six million people out of their homes. It’s a grim and deeply unsettling story.

Wall Street vs. Main Street

Dayen centers his tale on the experiences of three remarkable individuals: “a cancer nurse, a car salesman, and an insurance fraud specialist,” all foreclosure victims and all living in Florida. Theirs is the story of courage in the face of implacable resistance by powerful forces completely out of their control. However, several other key figures emerge in the story, including several other activists, a handful of county registrars determined to fulfill their legal responsibilities, and two low-level attorneys in the Economic Crimes Unit of the Florida State Attorney General’s office. Ultimately, Chain of Title is the familiar tale of Main Street versus Wall Street — and, in the final analysis the result is familiar as well, with Wall Street emerging victorious. When cries for justice confront powerful economic interests, the outcome is almost always foreordained. Nonetheless, the three heroes in Chain of Title achieved something truly noteworthy: they exposed blatantly illegal activity by the big banks and collusion by federal, state, and local officials. Eventually, the media took notice. It’s due in substantial part to their efforts that we are aware today of the extent of the fraud in the foreclosure crisis.

What is “foreclosure fraud?”

During the peak years of the housing crisis, from 2007 through 2010, bankers and their allies in the criminal justice system and the media were fond of speaking about “foreclosure fraud” — referring to homeowners who defrauded the banks in order to “live free” in homes they didn’t own. Undoubtedly, there were a few people who took advantage of the circumstances to avoid paying their mortgages and committed such offenses. In fact, however, the pattern of fraud conducted by the banks was far more pervasive, far more blatant, and far more serious. Those truly responsible for “foreclosure fraud” were bankers, their business partners, and their allies in the criminal justice system.

As Dayen reveals, the overwhelming majority of housing foreclosures carried out after the bubble burst were conducted illegally — and those charged with holding the bankers and their business partners responsible almost invariably looked the other way. Why? Why have no bankers gone to prison for what we all know was their criminal behavior in setting off the Great Depression? In Chain of Title, by examining the ensuing mortgage crisis, Dayen explains why. The responsibility for this travesty starts at the top, with Larry Summers and others in the Obama White House, possibly including the President himself. However, Attorney General Eric Holder and his aides were directly responsible for shutting down the investigations into what Dayen terms “the greatest consumer fraud scandal in history.” In a just world, in my opinion, Eric Holder would have been sent to prison for obstruction of justice. However, the original sin in this tragedy was committed by bankers and their counterparts in the “non-bank financial institutions” such as Countrywide, the nation’s largest subprime mortgage lender. And it is sadly ironic that while I drafted this post the financial columnist Gretchen Morgenson revealed that the Justice Department has informed Angelo Mozilo, Countrywide’s former CEO, that he is no longer under investigation. More than any other single individual, Mozilo was responsible for the foreclosure crisis. To compound the pain of this announcement, the New York Times ran a long, front-page story explaining how huge private equity funds, which face far less regulatory scrutiny than the banks, have bought up enormous numbers of distressed mortgages and are “repeating the mistakes that banks committed throughout the housing crisis.”

The human face of foreclosure fraud

Since I was never personally affected by the mortgage crisis, I paid only cursory attention as the story unfolded in the last decade. I remember reading about the “robo-signing” of mortgage papers, thinking this meant that the banks were using machines to sign the documents necessary for them to foreclose on their debtors. I was astonished to read the truth in Chain of Title. The “robo-signing” was carried out by law firms operating as document mills, some of them offshore, churning out a flood of fraudulent papers. Why? Because in their rush to rack up enormous profits the banks had failed to meet their legal obligations in documenting chain of title. Entry-level employees signed hundreds of documents every day, day after day, in what sometimes became a ludicrous parody of legal procedure. Chain of Title is full of jaw-dropping examples. Consider just this one to get the flavor of the problem:

American Home Mortgage Acceptance . . . does by these presents hereby grant, bargain, assign, transfer, convey, set over and deliver unto BOGUS ASSIGNEE FOR INTERVENING AS[SIGN]M[EN]TS, whose address is XXXXXXXXXXX, the following described mortgage.

This document was actually included verbatim in the papers submitted to justify tossing one family out of their home! And, in the course of just a few days, a handful of the activists identified in Chain of Title turned up 36 largely identical BOGUS ASSIGNEE examples in foreclosure proceedings around the country, including at least one in each of the eight states tested!

However, the injustice of foreclosure fraud went far, far beyond the use of bogus documents. As one Wall Street analyst and blogger explained,

. . . we end up with the wrong house being foreclosed upon, the wrong person being sued for a mortgage note, a bank without an interest in a mortgage note suing for foreclosure, and cases where more than one note holders [sic] are suing on the same property that is being foreclosed . . . The only way these errors could have occurred is if several people involved in the process committed criminal fraud. This is not a case of “Well, something slipped through the cracks.”

In many cases, “there were horror stories: banks breaking and entering into homes in the name of ‘property preservation,’ with one company even taking the ashes of a woman’s late husband; families making all their loan modification payments and still getting foreclosed; a woman who paid off her house and then got a default notice; sheriff’s deputies conducting an eviction and finding a dead body.” Dayen also cites one case in which a couple paid off their mortgage early, and another whose mortage payment was 14 cents short: both were foreclosed!

Why did all this happen?

Dayen explains in great detail the origins of the housing crisis and describes its unfolding, with tragic consequences for millions of Americans. But the essential facts are clear: Beginning in 1980 (before Ronald Reagan moved into the White House), Congress legislated “reforms” in the laws governing home mortgages in the interest of saving the troubled savings and loan industry, “effectively legalizing consumer abuse to aid a class of financial institutions.” Those changes in the law, greatly magnified by the actions of the Clinton Administration to weaken regulations over Wall Street even further, lay the groundwork for the banks to indulge in financial hocus-pocus and effectively build a massive Ponzi scheme: the securitization, derivatives, and subprime mortgage loans that precipitated the Great Recession and upended the world economy.

When the whole system began crashing down, millions of Americans were forced out of their homes because the banks were scrambling to protect their profits; they cut corners mercilessly, ignoring the law, good business practice, and simple ethics. Judges and other officials at the state and local level failed to clamp down on them because they were beholden to the banks or in thrall to right-wing ideology, because “finding the fraud got people fired,” because sometimes there were financial incentives to overlook the problems, or simply because they were lazy. And the state attorneys general and senior officials in the Department of Justice refused to stop the unfolding disaster, much less send senior bankers to prison, partly because they themselves had come from the financial industry or from law firms serving the banks, and partly because the stakes were so high. They feared that the American economy would go into a tailspin and possibly never recover if the big banks were brought to heel. That, at least, was the rationalization that led the Obama White House to turn a blind eye to all the illegal activity.

About the author

David Dayen is a contributing writer for Salon.com and a weekly columnist for The New Republic and The Fiscal Times. Chain of Title is his first book.





A liberal icon finds fault with liberal politics

liberal politicsA review of Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, by Thomas Frank

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Blame for the widening gap between rich and poor and America is typically laid at the feet of the Republican Party, chiefly through the actions of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Without question, these two men, and their right-wing collaborators in Congress, bear a lot of responsibility for the dire circumstances under which millions of Americans now eke out a living. But Thomas Frank, an historian and widely read liberal commentator, forcefully argues that many of the policies at the heart of today’s economic dysfunction were shaped under Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. “It is time to face the obvious,” he writes, “that the direction the Democrats have chosen to follow for the last few decades has been a failure both for the nation and for their own partisan health.” He lays out the case in his eye-opening new book, Listen, Liberal: What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?

The conservative roots of today’s liberal politics

Economic inequality in America today is all around us. The income of all except those at the very top of the pyramid has been stagnant for decades. A single family (the Waltons of Wal-Mart fame) possesses more wealth than 42% of American families combined. And 91% of all the economic gains over the past decade have gone to the “one percent.” The causes are reasonably easy to see. In contrast to the period from 1945 to 1980, when the country’s prosperity was broadly based and the middle class was the envy of the world, changes in labor, law enforcement, tax, social welfare, and trade policies have shifted the balance of power to the uppermost ranks of bankers, corporate executives, and the heirs to large fortunes.

Though he points to the growing rejection of New Deal values and policies within the Democratic Party of the 1970s, Frank traces the ideological rationale for many of these changes to the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Founded in 1985, the DLC successfully moved the Democratic Party to the right, adopting traditionally Republican policies to broadcast its claim to the center of American politics. Among these were deregulation of finance and industry, “law and order,” deficit reduction, “entitlements reform,” lower taxes on the rich, and ending welfare — in other words, a shopping list of goals advanced by conservatives since the 1970s. Bill Clinton, who served as DLC Chair in the year before he announced his candidacy for President, took steps toward all these objectives during the eight years of his Administration. He enacted laws toward these ends in partnership with Congressional Republicans: witness, for example, his expansion of the War on Drugs, NAFTA, “welfare reform,” and the repeal of Glass-Steagall (the signature banking reform of the New Deal). Less well known were his secret negotiations in 1997 with Newt Gingrich to privatize Social Security. As Frank points out, “the deal [with Gingrich] evaded Bill Clinton’s grasp, but only barely” — because the Monica Lewinsky affair blew up in his face.

What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?

The groundswell of support for the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders this year dramatizes the conviction among many, especially young Americans, that there is no difference between Democrats and Republicans. While it’s true that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have staked out many positions that in other advanced countries might be considered conservative, the sad reality is that the Democratic Party is not alone in drifting to the right since the 1970s. Today’s Republican Party advances policies that might have embarrassed Ronald Reagan — positions that can no longer be legitimately described as conservative. What the news media refer to as the Tea Party wing that dominates the Republican Party today represents a perspective that ignores reality and defies rational thought. Regrettably, then, even the most “moderate,” middle-of-the-road Democrat is a paragon of logic, common sense, and compassion by comparison. Unfortunately, Frank merely pays lip service to this all-important distinction.

An indictment of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama

In Listen, Liberal, Frank spells out the many ways in which Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have betrayed the Democratic commitment to progressive principles. The case against Clinton is solid, encompassing a litany of policies that still raise the hackles of activist Democrats, as enumerated above. His indictment of Obama, while difficult to contest on economic issues, is less convincing overall.

Frank acknowledges some of the progressive accomplishments of both men. “Clinton raised the minimum wage and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit,” he writes. “He secured a modest tax increase on the wealthy.” And under his presidency the country achieved nearly full employment. But in Frank’s view these modest accomplishments paled against Clinton’s signature achievements, such as NAFTA, welfare reform, and the repeal of Glass Steagall. In the final analysis, Frank contends, “Clinton made the problems of working people materially worse. . . To judge by what he actually accomplished, Bill Clinton was not the lesser of two evils, as people on the left always say about Democrats at election time; he was the greater of the two. What he did as president was beyond the reach of even the most diabolical Republican.”

Frank concedes the importance of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, but in his single-minded focus on economic inequality he dwells at length on the many ways that Obama continued to champion the same Wall Street-friendly economic and trade policies as Clinton. However, he largely ignores what the Obama Administration has sought to achieve in other areas, notably immigration policy and climate change. Frank would have been on solider ground had he limited his indictment to Clinton, whom historians are certain to regard as a conservative President. It would be difficult to render the same judgment about Obama without considerable qualification.

The root of the problem, as Frank sees it

For decades following the Great Depression, the Democratic Party’s success at the polls rested on what political historians have called the New Deal coalition, which found its greatest strength in trade unions, racial minorities, and white Southerners. This assemblage of forces began to unravel quickly with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which drove many working class whites out of the Party, not just in the South but nationwide.

Beginning in the 1970s, Democratic intellectuals began to search for a new formulation that would reliably return a Democratic majority. Eventually, they found what they thought was the answer in the New Economy. Frank’s prose drips with sarcasm in describing this shaky concept: “Postindustrialism! Globalization! The information superhighway! These were gods before whom everyone bowed back then, deities who made their will known to the country’s opinion columnists and management theorists.” And the gods demanded that the Democratic Party turn its back on the unions, adopt free trade policies such as NAFTA, deregulate industry, lower taxes on the rich, and set its sights on Innovation and the so-called Creative Class.

Instead of poor people and the working class, the Democratic Party came to identify itself with “the upper 10 percent of the population — the country’s financiers, managers, and professionals.” Frank refers to this diverse group as a “professional class” defined by graduate degrees and specialized white-collar work. At the apex of this class sit the exalted products of Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and other elite universities — the sort of people who have dominated both the Clinton and Obama Administrations. Supposedly, “[p]rofessionals are the people who know what ails us and who dispense valuable diagnoses.” In Frank’s view, they have proven to be the crux of the problem, not the solution.

About the author

Listen, Liberal is Thomas Frank‘s ninth book. He’s best known for What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, a bestseller a decade ago. Frank is a columnist for Harper’s Magazine.


35 excellent nonfiction books about politics

politics - Dark Money - Jane MayerI was seven years old when I first became aware of politics. It was 1948, and the presidential race between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey was underway. With all the wisdom of a seven-year-old, I picked the obvious winner, Dewey. We all know how that worked out. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get actively involved politics until I was in high school, when I actually did manage to pick a winner, John F. Kennedy. (I was the only member of my government class who did. It was a very Republican town.) I couldn’t vote for Kennedy, of course — the 18-year-old vote wasn’t permitted until 1971 — but I got a taste for the process. And from the time in college when I served as president of the Young Democrats, I’ve been engaged to one degree or another ever since.

All of which goes to explain why I seek out books about politics. Fiction, nonfiction — it doesn’t matter. If it’s credible and at least reasonably well written, I’m game. So, ever since I launched this blog six years ago, I’ve read and reviewed a fair number of books about the topic. Here, I’m listing only the 35 nonfiction books that have appeared in this space. These titles, and the underlying links to my reviews, appear roughly in reverse chronological order based on the dates of the reviews’ publication. I hope it’s obvious that this is not an attempt to provide a comprehensive reading list. I’ve only included recent books I’ve read from beginning to end and reviewed here.

Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California, by Steve Swatt, Susie Swatt, Jeff Raimundo, Rebecca LaVally

When Money Talks: The High Price of “Free” Speech and the Selling of Democracy, by Derek Cressman

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, by Jane Mayer

One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon, by Tim Weiner 

National Security and Double Government, by Michael J. Glennon

Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United, by Zephyr Teachout

Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches From America’s Class War, by Joe Bageant

The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and Their Secret World Warby Stephen Kinzer

A Fighting Chance, by Elizabeth Warren

Taxing the Poor: Doing Damage to the Truly Disadvantaged, by Katherine S. Newman and Rourke L. O’Brien

The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man, by Luke Harding

The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country, by Gabriel Sherman

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Harms the Middle Class, by Robert H. Frank

The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T. J. Stiles

Double Down: Game Change 2012, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral—plus plenty of valet parking!—in America’s Gilded Capital, by Mark Leibovich

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, by Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin III

The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America, by Robert Scheer

Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power, by Seth Rosenfeld

Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power, by Robert A. Caro

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, by David E. Sanger

Corporations Are Not People: Why They Have More Rights Than You Do and What You Can Do About It, by Jeffrey D. Clements

Rebuild the Dream, by Van Jones

The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality Is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It, by Chuck Collins

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

This Changes Everything: Occupy Wall Street and the 99% Movement, edited by Sarah van Gelder and the staff of Yes! Magazine

Republican Gomorra: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, by Max Blumenthal

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Obama’s Wars, by Bob Woodward


A terrific novel for political junkies about Africa

africaA review of The Seersucker Whipsaw, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Clint Shartelle is a honey-tongued Southerner who wears impeccable three-piece suits and drinks like a fish. (Waitaminnit! Do fish actually drink? Whatever.) Shartelle claims to be one sixty-fourth Native American, one-twelfth African-American, and the country’s best political campaign manager. Apparently, he is not the only one who believes that. Enter Peter Upshaw, who represents a fast-growing London-based American PR firm. Upshaw carries an offer of an immoderate sum of money for Shartelle to run a campaign in a West African nation that bears a considerable resemblance to Nigeria. This — eventually — turns out to be an offer Shartelle cannot refuse. Thus begins The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas.

Africa for the Africans

It is 1966, barely more than two years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and before the major U.S. escalation that seared the Vietnam War into the memory of all who lived through it. In Africa, decolonization was just getting underway; Ghana had been independent for less than a decade. Presidential elections are scheduled in a country called Albertia (as in Prince Albert, get it?), and the British are falling all over themselves to get out and leave Africa to the Africans. Albertia is wealthy, so competition for the presidency is naturally stiff.

A problematic three-way race

With little delay, Shartelle and Upshaw arrive in Albertia to launch the campaign for Chief Akomolo, the Big Man in the west of the country. He faces two major opponents, one in the north, the other in the east. Unfortunately, both command more populous territories and are better positioned to win than the Chief. To make matters worse, other American organizations are working for the two opponents — and one of them is the CIA. Shartelle, as strategist and manager, and Upshaw, as speechwriter and flack, realize that Akomolo can’t possibly win if they run a clean, straightforward campaign. But Shartelle, it turns out, is a genius at dirty tricks — and Akomolo’s advisers prove to be equally flexible about campaign ethics. For anyone with even the most casual experience in electoral politics, the ensuing campaign is a wonder to behold.

Dialogue that sings

To say that Ross Thomas has a way with words is akin to claiming that Barack Obama is a fair-to-middling orator. His narrative prose is superb, his characters are unforgettable, and his dialogue is priceless: witty, intelligent, and oh-so-natural.

About the author

Ross Thomas began writing novels in the 1960s and passed away twenty years ago, but his books are just as fresh and engaging today as they were when first published. The Seersucker Whipsaw is the fourth of the twenty thrillers he wrote under his own name. He also wrote five novels under a pseudonym and two books of nonfiction.

Five illuminating books every American should read

illuminating booksStop. I’m not going to make you feel guilty by suggesting you read the Federalist Papers, the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Travels in America, and other works on every historian’s list of seminal books in our past. (After all, how many of us have actually read those books — I mean, actually opened them up and read them from cover to cover?)

No, instead you’ll find below a short list of much more recently written books that cast a penetrating light on the reality of American life in the 21st Century. You won’t find any archaic language in any of these five books. I’ve chosen them from among the nearly 300 I’ve read and reviewed here during the past four years.

Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Read more . . .

1The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

Are you aware that the highest incidence of the use and sale of illegal drugs is found in communities characterized as White? That the percentage of federal prisoners convicted of violent crimes is 7.9%? That the greatest increase in funding for the War on Drugs took place during the Administration of Bill Clinton?

Read more . . .


1The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

If you were among those who sighed with relief when Barack Obama was reelected because you’d been concerned that a Republican administration would invade Iran, David Crist has news for you. In fact, The Twilight War is full of surprises, even for one who stays relatively well informed about world affairs. The underlying message — the meta-message, if you’ll permit that conceit — is that what we normally consume on a daily basis as “news” is an awkward mixture of critical opinion, wishful thinking, rumor, partisan posturing, self-serving news leaks, and a smattering of hard information.

Read more . . . 

10The Self-Made Myth, and the Truth About How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed, by Brian Miller and Mike Lapham

[Editor’s note: This review was written in 2010, but it could easily apply to 2014 as well.] Last week the Republican majority in the House of Representatives passed a budget that slashes taxes for corporations and high-income taxpayers while drastically cutting federal assistance for food and other safety-net programs. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic expression of contemporary “conservative” ideology. It’s straight out of Atlas Shrugged,based on the tragically misguided notion that brilliant, driven individuals produce the country’s wealth and are solely responsible for creating jobs for the rest of us.

Read more . . .

1All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis, by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera

Once upon a time, not so long ago, really — it was 1999 — there was a group of three exceedingly smart men whom Time Magazine called The Committee to Save the World. In fact, these three men — Alan Greenspan, Larry Summers, and Robert Rubin — seemed to think they were the smartest people in the whole wide world. Together, they had put in place the economic policies of the Clinton Administration, and, boy, did things look rosy then, back in 1999, with a big budget surplus and the Dow Jones averages heading for Neptune!

Read more . . . 

Now, if you’re tempted to complain that all these five books take a negative view of the issues within their scope, all I can say is, if we can’t identify the problems we face, we’ll never fix them. And I doubt you’ll feel that there are no problems that cry out for fixing.


Red meat for political junkies: “The Making of the President 2012”

political junkiesDouble Down: Game Change 2012, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

For a campaign junkie like me, reading Double Down was sheer pleasure, as was its predecessor by the same authors, Game Change. I’ve been reading book-length accounts of presidential campaigns since Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960. This has something to do with my having been personally engaged in six campaigns for the presidency, including several with significant fundraising roles. But there’s more involved than that.

There are few human experiences that so predictably and so routinely subject the individuals involved to such excruciating stress as a big-time political campaign, and those for the presidency are the most extreme case. It’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced something similar to understand what it’s like to be forced to make highly consequential decisions within minutes, or sometimes even seconds, with only the barest minimum of information to go on — at the end of a stretch of several 100-hour workweeks when an uninterrupted night’s sleep is only a distant memory. And not just once, but repeatedly: for weeks or months on end, the pressure never stops. If anything mimics the pressure that routinely comes to bear on the President of the United States, it’s a campaign for the office. And getting a ringside seat to witness the behavior of these highly influential people in extremis is a rare privilege, worth far more than the price of this book.

Double Down makes it possible for those of us who prefer the role of spectator to that of actor to enjoy this experience vicariously (if “enjoy” is really the right word). An Author’s Note claims that Halperin and Heilemann conducted “more than five hundred full-length interviews with more than four hundred individuals . . . between the summers of 2010 and 2013.” And this isn’t hard to believe, given the innumerable references to the state of mind, or the actual words, of many leading actors in the latter-day reality play that was the presidential election of 2012. For example:

  • Mitt’s wife, Ann, was even more upset — and it was all about Palin. . . She could barely comprehend McCain choosing anyone but Mitt, but this moose-hunting woman from Wasilla, Alaska? Really?
  • [Referring to his strange performance at the Republican National Convention, shouting at an empty chair on network TV] “If somebody’s dumb enough to ask me to say something,” [Clint] Eastwood remarked, “they’re gonna have to take what they get.” [It was Romney who’d asked him.]
  • [After stealing Obama’s thunder by stating on Meet the Press that he favored same-sex marriage] Biden went home after the taping thinking that he hadn’t made news and had done nothing wrong. That he’d been clear he wasn’t enunciating new policy, just stating a personal opinion.

You can’t make this stuff up! Or, rather, you can, but if you put it in print, you might get sued. 

For any political junkie, Double Down is a must-read. The lengthy narratives about the two candidates’ preparation for the debates are priceless by themselves.

Mark Halperin is the senior political analyst for Time magazine, Time.com, and MSNBC. John Heilemann covers politics for New York magazine.


June 11, 2013

Concerned about NSA surveillance? Read this book!


NSA surveillanceTop Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State, by Dana Priest and William M. Arkin

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Note: This review first appeared here on September 11, 2011 (yes, 9/11/11). In view of more recent news about the NSA’s Prism program and other widespread and long-standing efforts to amass personal information about the American public, I’m posting it again. This superb book deserves a far wider audience than it received in 2011.

If you treasure your freedom as an American . . . if you’re concerned about how the U.S. Government spends your tax money . . . or if you simply want to understand how our country is managed . . . you owe it to yourself to read this brilliant book. Alternately mind-boggling and blood-curdling, Top Secret America is the most impressive piece of investigative journalism I’ve read in years. Dana Priest and Bill Arkin have written a book that, in a rational world, would usher in an orgy of housecleaning through the far reaches of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and every other department, agency, or office that pretends to be involved in strengthening our national security.

Even then — even if we somehow reined in the known alphabet agencies — we would only be scratching the surface. Here’s Priest writing about the work of her co-author: “After two years of investigating, Arkin had come up with a jaw-dropping 1,074 federal government organizations and nearly two thousand private companies involved with programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in at least 17,000 locations across the United States — all of them working at the top secret classification level.” There is an additional three thousand “state and local organizations, each with its own counterterrorism responsibilities and jurisdictions.”

Perhaps there’s one saving grace in this brouhaha of activity. Priest again: “Post 9/11, government agencies annually published some 50,000 separate serialized intelligence reports under 1,500 titles, the classified equivalent of newspapers, magazines, and journals. Some were distributed daily; others came out once a week, monthly, or annually.” There is so much “information” generated by the counterterrorism establishment that senior managers frequently ignore it all and instead ask their aides to talk to people to find out what’s really meaningful.

Don’t be mollified by the belief that all this activity is carried out by designated intelligence agencies. The nation’s warriors have their own alphabet-soup of agencies, departments, and units devoted to the same ends. The Pentagon created a major new entity called the Northern Command headed by a four-star general (the military’s highest rank) to protect the “homeland.” However, the Northern Command has no troops of its own and, to take any action, must ask permission from the leaders of each state’s National Guard and other agencies on whom it depends for personnel.

Priest and Arkin clearly take a dim view of all this:

  • Many, if not all, of the Federal Government’s most closely guarded secrets are vulnerable to theft through simple file-sharing software installed on 20 million computers.
  • The Director of National Intelligence, a new position created in 2004 to coordinate the work of the 16 major U.S. intellgence agencies, possesses no power to do so and is frequently ignored by them. But his staff numbers in the thousands, and they hold forth from a new, 500,000-square foot office building.
  • The degree of duplication in the national security world is chilling. “Each large organization [engaged in counterterrorism] started its own training centers, supply depots, and transportation infrastructure. Each agency and subagency manned its own unit for hiding the identities of undercover employees and for creating cover names and addresses for them and for their most sensitive projects. Each ecosystem developed a set of regional and local offices.”
  • Duplication of effort runs so deep that there are three separate lists of “High Value Targets,” one each for the CIA, the Pentagon, and the super-secret Joint Special Operations Command (the people who killed Bin Laden). And “at least thirty-four major federal agencies and military commands, operating in sixteen U.S. cities, tracked the money flow to and from terrorist networks.”

The depth and quality of Priest and Arkin’s research is unexcelled, and their writing is brisk and easy to read. The book benefits from the straightforward, first-person approach Priest adopted. It’s written largely from her point of view, with Arkin’s contributions as a researcher noted in the third person.

Dana Priest has reported for the Washington Post for more than 20 years. She won the George Polk Award in 2005 for reporting on secret CIA detention facilities and the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for uncovering black sites prisons. Her exposure of the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital helped the Washington Post win another Pulitzer in 2007. She deserves another Pulitzer for this illuminating book.

Bill Arkin served in U.S. Army intelligence in 1974 to 1978 and had worked as a consultant, political commentator, blogger, activist, and researcher for a number of progressive organizations before teaming up with Priest to write the widely-acclaimed series of Washington Post articles on which this book was based.

For my review of a book on a related topic, see When it comes to national security, do you really get what you pay for?

Tea Party politics may not be what you think

Tea Party politicsSteep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party, by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you know nothing about the Tea Party other than what you’ve picked up from the daily news and a magazine article here and there, chances are excellent that you’ll learn a great deal from reading Steep. Here are just a few of the insights I gained from this superb collection of scholarly articles that examine the Tea Party from the front, the back, upside down, and sideways:

  • There is, really, no such thing as “The Tea Party.” The term encompasses thousands of organizations at the national, statewide, and local levels that at any given time may well be found squabbling with one another about ideology, tactics, or just plain personality differences. I knew about the proliferation of groups but not about the diversity of views among them.
  • The Tea Party phenomenon first surfaced less than a month after Barack Obama’s inauguration as President in 2009 — yes, less than four years ago — as what one scholar calls a “test marketing” campaign backed by money from the Koch Brothers and mainstream Republican operatives such as former Congressman Dick Armey, which we all knew very well at the time. However, the movement spawned by this intentional investment in destabilizing the fledgling Obama Administration grew so quickly and with such spontaneity that its original backers soon lost control. Whatever else it might be, the Tea Party is a grassroots phenomenon.
  • Unlike the Christian Right before it, the Tea Party brought few new voters into the Republican column. As several of the authors in Steep make clear from their studies of a wide variety of poll results, the Tea Party is populated largely by Right-Wing Republicans who usually vote, anyway. (They also tend to be white males at or nearing retirement age.) The Tea Party brought passion to the Republican grassroots base, providing the necessary motivation to draw more foot-soldiers to the conservative cause.
  • The old John Birch Society, which we all thought had gone the way of the Cult of Isis in the 1960s after William F. Buckley, Jr. consigned it to purgatory, somehow managed to resuscitate itself and become engaged in Tea Party activities. So did former leaders of the White Citizens Councils, the militia movement, and other assorted cranks, kooks, and eccentrics and the delusions they brought with them. Since nearly one-half (44%) of Tea Party adherents professed to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim and was not born in the United States, using the term delusional is not out of line.

The most intriguing chapter in Steep is University of Michigan political science and women’s studies professor Lisa Disch’s, in which she “advances a counterintuitive argument: The Tea Party movement is sparked, in part, by the threat its supporters perceive to their share in two key programs of the liberal welfare state [i.e., Social Security and Medicare]. Tea Party politics is conservative, but its supporters’ material commitments and even aspects of their rhetoric place them in a liberal genealogy.” Disch argues that, during its first two decades, Social Security was explicitly racialized — farmworkers and domestic workers were specifically excluded from benefits (and guess who they meant by that!) — and that for decades afterward Social Security was seen as largely a benefit to white people, even after the coverage was broadened. “This makes Tea Party mobilization a ‘white citizenship’ movement: action in defense of material benefits that confer ‘racial standing’ in a polity that purports to deny precisely that — special standing based on race . . .  [T]he Tea Party movement belongs to liberal America even as Tea Party rhetoric denounces liberalism and liberals denounce Tea Partiers.”

Since I’m not bound by the strictures of academic “objectivity” (whatever that is), I can sum up all this information with my own conclusion: The Tea Party is the latest and the most extreme expression of the Right-Wing Republican movement that has been growing since its inception in the 1940s and 1950s in McCarthyite anti-Communism, the John Birch Society, and Southern opposition to civil rights, and in the backlash to the New Left, feminism, and the anti-war movement. Though the Tea Party is heterogeneous in many ways, and its focus nationally has been on advancing the Republican agenda of small government and rolling back taxes, the overwhelming majority of its adherents also embrace the social politics of the Christian Right (anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-women’s rights) and the suppressed but all too real racial resentment that has been the centerpiece of the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy since the days of Richard Nixon.  

As I write this, however, I wonder whether anyone but historians and political scientists will care much about the Tea Party five years, or even a year, from now. It remains to be seen what impact the Republican losses of 2012 will have on the spirit and the cohesion of the Tea Party.

Steep is a product of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies at the University of California’s flagship campus, edited by Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, the Center’s director and associate director, respectively. More power to them!

The surprising emergence of Barack Obama’s secret wars

Secret Wars

Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power by David E. Sanger

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, I expected a great deal from his Presidency — much too much, it’s clear in hindsight. What I didn’t expect was that as President he would exercise U.S. military power almost as aggressively as George W. Bush. As the subtitle of this excellent book hints so broadly, the apparently anti-war candidate Obama quickly morphed in office into a resolute, hands-on Commander in Chief.

In his campaign, Obama had “promised to restore traditional American ‘engagement’ by talking and listening to America’s most troubling adversaries and reluctant partners. His supporters saw a welcome turn away from the ‘with us or against us’ black-and-whites of the Bush years. His critics saw naivete and softness. Both have been surprised. This is a book about those surprises.”

In practice, Obama learned that his brand of engagement yielded little more than vitriolic rhetoric from Iranian mullahs, North Korean generals, and the Pakistani military. What has proved far more effective are the actions he could take consistent with his more sophisticated view of American power: a massive increase in drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the country’s first-ever (known) use of cyberwarfare in a targeted attack on Iran’s nuclear program, along with increasingly brutal sanctions on the country and its government; the ever-growing use of Special Forces in operations such as the murder of Osama bin Laden; and a pronounced “pivot” from Europe to Asia in combating the rise of China, as exemplified by the opening of a new military base in Australia. While ending U.S. participation in our “war of choice” in Iraq and beginning the pullout from Afghanistan, President Obama has sharply stepped up our use of the weapons of war in a growing number of undeclared and sometimes undercover hostilities.

Make no mistake about it: Barack Obama has made an idelible mark on the U.S. military and intelligence services, sharpening their missions and reshaping their priorities, and all while forcing them to live within more limited means. And anyone who might be tempted to think that Obama acted this way out of weakness needs to understand that great extent to which he made decisions at crucial times in the face of opposition from nearly all those around him — in giving the green light to the Navy SEAL mission to kill bin Laden, and in deciding to ask Hosni Mubarak to resign. As Sanger writes, “‘He personally basically overrode just about his entire government,’ said one official in the room, noting that Gates and Clinton were still actively opposed, ‘Look, this is what I’m going to do,’ Obama said, according to notes of the meeting. ‘I’m going to call [Mubarak] now.'”

All this, and more, comes to light in the five sections that form the backbone of this book. Sanger writes about each of the leading hotspots in turn: Afghanistan and Pakistan; Iran; Egypt; China and North Korea. This is truly world-class reporting, informed by sources at the very highest levels of the U.S. government.

Sanger concludes, “It is too early to know if the emerging Obama Doctrine — a lighter footprint around the world, and a reliance on coalitions to deal with global problems that do not directly threaten American security — will prove a lasting formula. His effort at ‘rebalancing’ away from the quagmires in the Middle East toward the continent of greatest promise in the future — Asia — was long overdue. But it is a change of emphasis more than a change of direction. Obama proved her was adaptable to new realities, what James Fallows rightly called ‘the main trait we can hope for in a president.'”

If you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to be a 30-year veteran of The New York Times and serve as its Chief Washington Correspondent, read this extraordinary book with an eye on those sources, both named and anonymous, and their revelations, which pop up seemingly on every page. You’ll see, then, how very deeply embedded in the fabric of official Washington is this one newspaper — a newspaper that serves as the source of an extraordinary proportion of the stories that make their way onto evening news broadcasts and the front pages of other papers around the world. In laying bare the pattern of Barack Obama’s surprisingly aggressive use of military power, Confront and Conceal is just as effective in revealing David Sanger’s unusually high-level access at the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon.