The Storm; Or, Putin’s Race To The Bottom

Chromolithograph showing Cupid and Psyche fleeing from an approaching storm (War).

Outside, rain is falling, and all America is waking to the news that Vladimir Putin is sending troops into sovereign Ukraine, having concocted an excuse that the world is too savvy to believe. It’s a deadly serious day for Ukraine, which has been moving fitfully toward genuine self-government.  For Americans, the challenge is to disregard the media hype Putin is deliberately stoking and to see his aggression as the desperate, go-for-broke gesture that it is.  If Americans start thinking that Ukraine is our fight, we fall into a trap that proves Putin’s point.

Putin can’t tolerate the shape of the post-Soviet world.  Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, many of Russia’s former satellite states have gotten used to being self-governing.  They enjoy more autonomy; their citizens have more civic and economic freedom.  Do they want to end up under Russia’s thumb again?  No.

Inside Russia, Putin struggles to turn back the clock politically, cracking down on pro-democracy NGOs and on opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny.  Navalny enraged Putin by exposing how Putin’s United Russia party enriches itself at the people’s expense, famously branding it “a party of crooks and thieves.”  Despite having all the resources of the Russian state at his disposal, Putin can’t tolerate Navalny’s inconvenient truths.  For the past several years, Putin has gone to grotesque lengths to torment Navalny, going so far as to order the KGB to attempt Navalny’s assassination by putting a Soviet-era nerve agent in his underpants.  At this point, Navalny’s death (the poor man remains imprisoned) would likely undermine Putin’s already doubtful popularity, just as the latter seeks re-election, in hopes of remaining president for 12 more years.

Russia is shrinking all over, thanks to Putin’s crooked and cowardly authoritarian rule.  He chose to turn the nation toward oligarchy and repression, instead of being “a river to his people” and empowering them to become creative, healthy, and autonomous.  Russia’s economy is based on the export of oil and natural gas, a narrow base of support for the nation’s population of 144 million people, a population that’s shrinking dramatically and is estimated to have lost nearly a million people in the last year alone.

Russia’s global prestige derives mainly from its military might, but this comes at a high social cost.  Its military comprises some 900,000 personnel.  A war in Ukraine will have require significant manpower, imposing a heavy burden on Russian families.  The population of Russian men aged 20 to 34 is estimated to have been just 14.25 million in 2020.  Russia’s failure to pacify the Donbass region, echoing the Soviet Union’s failure to prevail in its 9-year war of agression in Afghanistan in the 1980s, testifies to how limited Russia’s concrete military successes have been.  Some observers have noted that, when true crises call for a demonstration of leadership, Putin tends to disappear from view.  His decision to send troops into Ukraine will further burden the Russian people and continue to hamstring the Russian economy.

All this needs to be kept in mind as American journalists compare Putin to Hitler and carelessly compare the current moment to WWII.  Russia in 2022 is not Germany in 1939; Putin is not Hitler.  Russian sentiment is not mobilized around the unwarranted aggression against Ukraine that Putin is bent on.  Putin is using a very tired playbook from earlier times, largely because he doesn’t have what it takes to keep his once pre-eminent nation from sliding down to a secondary position in a changing world.

Image: from this source.

Day 15: The No and the New

The only way to rid the nation of Trump is to vote for Biden. It’s a strategic fact driving millions of Democrats, independents, and Republicans to fill out the same bubble on their ballots, temporarily coalescing into a vast and powerful coalition. If they get their way, Joe Biden, perhaps the most underrated frontrunner in US history, will be the oldest person ever elected to the presidency. He is also one of the most knowing national politicians when it comes to our civic traditions, when it comes to the machinery of government and foreign affairs, and when it comes to the people on the Hill, who are the crucial players when it comes to deals.

Saying no to Trump is saying yes to Biden. Implicitly, the contest between the two is an opportunity to reject an “imperial presidency” in favor of a more balanced Constitutional government. Under Trump and his allies, the tripartite organism born of the Constitution has grossly atrophied. The federalism that holds the states and citizens together in one powerful conglomeration is now bitterly resented and railed against, as though the Proud Boys or Wolverine Watchmen or even Anonymous could build up something more viable and fairer in its place.

If Trump wins, what’s left of the republic will swiftly decline. If Biden wins, the republic will survive, but barely. For the scars of Trump’s wreckage to heal, the body politic will need much in the way of restoration and reform. “Build Back Better,” indeed. Forces at work in American society ordain that, if elected, Biden will preside over a political rehabilitation reshaping the economy, the presidency, Congress, and the parties. Paradoxically, then, one of the oldest members of the old political guard stands to authorize and usher in a dramatically new age.

Those who believe the federal experiment is worth continuing will vote for Biden. Blue voters believe that they can resolve the current crisis in a way that promotes Americans’ collective health, security, and prosperity. They believe that saying no to Trump is saying yes to a new and improved United States.

Image: “Condemned to Die” (1894),
from this source.

Illustration from Puck’s magazine shows reformers building a guillotine
for corrupt politicians condemned in the court of public opinion.

Lori Lightfoot’s Mandate


Lori Lightfoot has become mayor-elect of Chicago in an election confirming the waning power of the Chicago machine. Newscasters’ muted coverage of Lightfoot’s lopsided victory over her only remaining challenger, the comfortingly familiar Toni Preckwinkle, registered the unexpectedness of Lightfoot’s achievement and what it really portends for this troubled city.  While the scope of the new mayor’s work is gargantuan, her mandate is alarmingly slight.

In a town of some 2,7 million souls, just under 1.6 million of its adults are registered voters, and, on April 2, only 504,123 (31.65%) of them cast a vote for mayor.  Lightfoot received 73.7 percent of these votes to Preckwinkle’s 26.3, but the salient fact is that, given the low turnout, Lightfoot became mayor with just 371,529 votes, representing 23.3 percent of Chicago’s voters and 13.65 percent of its total population.

Most voters did not turn out, presumably out of apathy or because they did not like or approve of either of the two remaining mayoral candidates.  Lightfoot and Preckwinkle beat out all the other candidates who had qualified for the first mayoral election on February 26, 2019, their first- and second-place showings putting them ahead of their thirteen rivals, including all whites and all men of color.  One wonders how many black and Hispanic men stayed home from the polls this week, disdaining to choose between two gifted black women who had risen above the males in a wild competition.  Several black women I spoke with reported meeting with angry silence from men in their workplaces when the subject of the mayoral race came up.

Thus, when, the day after the election, the Chicago Tribune blared, “Lightfoot In a Landslide,” the message it communicated was somewhat misleading.  Support for Lori Lightfoot is intense, but it’s not particularly broad.  The media’s emphasis on identity politics is likewise of little help in understanding what happened in this week’s momentous election.  Voters did not turn out for Lori because of her race or sexual orientation; most turned out for her irregardless of these traits.  She won the liberal white vote everywhere, racking up her biggest margins on the north and northwest sides.

Lightfoot won because she is extremely smart and deadly serious about waging war on corruption and the “Chicago way.”  She won because she’s committed to equal treatment for Chicago’s neighborhoods and peoples.  Yet given the slimness of her mandate and the legions of Chicagoans still loyal to the old patronage system, Lori will be sorely challenged to “Bring In the Light.”

Another Illinois politico goes down

Cameramen waiting for Hastert, © 2015 Susan Barsy

June 9.  The cameramen shooting the breeze near the entry to the Dirksen Federal Courthouse meant that something big was happening.  It turned out to be the arraignment of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Continue reading