Where Democracy Is Greener



The Haitians at Del Rio

Over one weekend, some 15,000 people, mainly Haitians, suddenly appeared at the Mexican border of the US, wanting to come in.  They fled Haiti because Haiti is broken down.  Its resources are meager and mismanaged.  Its political culture is corrupt; its government, dysfunctional.  Its last democratically elected president, Jovenel Moïse, was mysteriously assassinated, possibly by a clique of private outside adventurers.  He left Haitian government in a precarious position, for he had been hollowing out and disabling its already puny civic institutions.  Haiti is a Somalia in the making, where utter lawlessness could follow a decline in stable control.

Extreme weather plagues Haiti.  A colossal earthquake recently shook the country, which has long been the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.  Nothing relieves the people there, despite perennial international efforts, including the infusion of massive amounts of cash, food, and other forms of humanitarian aid.  Haiti is a nation state that doesn’t deliver what its people need.  To an alarming extent, Haiti’s problems are representative of many of the world’s nations, where poor governance, corruption, chronic violence, and extreme weather threaten the safety and survival of citizenry.

In olden times, misery made Haiti a pressure cooker of change.  Its history is as heartbreaking as any country’s.  In the 17th century, the French colonized Haiti.  French masters sent enslaved Africans to work sugar plantations there under pestilential conditions, knowing that the majority would have brief lives.  The terrifying violence and brutality of the slaves’ captivity is poignantly captured in their spiritual art.  Eventually, their misery bore fruit, for, in 1804, the slaves revolted and became self-governing.  They fomented a remarkable revolution, rebuking France and casting off oppression for the sake of personal freedom and political autonomy.  Ninety-five percent of Haiti’s 11.26 million inhabitants today descend from those once-captive slaves.

Now, however, the Haitians can flee rather than remake the oppression and misery besetting them again.  Modern communications and the ease of movement have led to swelling migration around the globe.  It’s hard to create a healthy democracy and the rule of law where they’ve ceased to exist, harder still to build a prosperous economy where the necessary cultural capital has always been wanting.  So, though Haitians already live in a democracy, some are flooding toward where its blessings are in fuller flower, leaving Haiti itself even more hopeless than before.  Because, why flee overland to the US?  Failing as citizens, Haitians want to live in a polity where the living is good.

So they have undertaken a harrowing, roundabout journey across Mexico, over water and mountains, leaving everything familiar to huddle together under the Del Rio International Bridge, which normally admits travelers into the US via south Texas.  Given the abnormal flood of migrants, most of whom have no hope of legal entry, the border crossing at Del Rio has been completely closed.  Journalists report that the Haitians will be flown back to their country at US government expense.

I feel for the Haitians who made this journey.  If I were in their place, I might consider leaving Haiti, too.  The fact that they are from a democratic country, though, and that people all over the world are now fleeing pseudo-democracies where repression, exploitation, and corruption are flourishing, gives me pause.  The tendency of many journalists to depict these hapless citizens as childlike and powerless victims is dangerously patronizing and retrograde.  When should the people of Haiti be regarded as accountable for the terribly low outcomes from their country’s “democratic experiment?”  When will the US get its act together, put aside its vanity, and restore order at the border by promulgating a set of new, Congressionally approved immigration laws?

To be in a reactive position with respect to immigration and border control exposes the “both ways” dithering that is impairing the prestige of the democratic form.  Common sense and realism must temper compassion in crafting a rationale for augmenting the current population mix of the US.  Global instability is increasing, requiring the US to temper boundlessness with a regard for its own political vulnerability.

Human migration is destined to swell, particularly as extreme weather events make barely habitable places like Haiti even more uninhabitable.  The US must meet the new forces driving human migration with something more than ad hoc executive orders, fuzzy feelings, vice-presidential sound-bites, and so-called media “campaigns.”  The circumstances under which non-citizens may enter the US and the procedures they must follow should be clear, universally broadcast, and incontrovertible.  Paradoxically, the firmness with which such boundaries are drawn may redound to the long-term health of other democracies.

Image: A Port-au-Prince neighborhood,
courtesy Alsandro via Wikimedia 
Commons.

 


w-c-osborn

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A Noteworthy Day in Politics

Tuesday, January 9, was a noteworthy day in politics, particularly if viewed with the question of Trump’s re-electability in mind.  On three different fronts, events cautioned against writing off or underestimating the president, whose manners and morals Americans rightly revile.  In other eras, the president’s lack of virtue would have posed an insuperable obstacle to his attaining office, but this is a more easy-going time, when Americans temporize more and cut others more slack when it comes to low and disreputable behavior.  Indeed, the cynicism that has prompted many formerly disapproving GOP party stalwarts to support and collaborate with Trump, has given him a boost and a shot at political viability, that’s disturbing.  That Trump’s leading detractors within the GOP would be so willing to make common cause with him would have been difficult to foresee just one year ago.  Yet this cynicism is the cornerstone on which the GOP establishment will build its Trump-era achievements.

Click here for the audio version.

1. The market is booming

The Democrats have every reason to be afraid.  For what if, despite Mr. Trump’s bigotry and ineptitude, his White House ends up being associated with prosperity and peace?  Since his inauguration, the stock market has climbed.  On Tuesday, stock indexes again closed at or near all-time highs.  The major indices rose about 20 percent in 2017, meaning that everyone with money invested in the market is significantly richer than when Mr. Trump took office just one year ago.

Trump has taken other actions on the economic front that will become “credits” for him if “good times” continue.  He opted for continuity and moderation at the Fed in choosing Jerome Powell to succeed outgoing Fed chair Janet Yellin.  Trump can also take credit for the poorly crafted “tax reform” bill that Congress has passed, which will lower taxes for many Americans, at least through the next election cycle, after which many of the benefits will expire.  (Note the cynicism again.)

2. Inter-Korean talks

Tuesday brought news of a positive break in the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula.  With little fanfare, representatives of North and South Korea met face-to-face and agreed that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympic Games, which will open in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on February 8.  In the US, the evening news aired startling footage of delegations from the two sides, shaking hands and grinning after their meeting in the Demilitarized Zone.  It was the first such meeting since late 2015, breaking up a dynamic of deterioration that North Korea’s worrisome advances in proto-nuclear bomb testing had brought on.

Though North Korea’s desire to participate in the Olympics mainly prompted the meeting, it was symbolically and diplomatically important, resulting in “gains” for the Koreas and the Trump administration.  The sudden thaw in relations is a win for North Korea, in that it will be spared the humiliation and “invisibility” of being excluded from the international games (an exclusion that Russia, for example, will be suffering).  Inclusion is meaningful to all Koreans as a symbolic token of unification. It also allows the North to share in the gratification and global recognition that comes from South Korea’s hosting the games.  The South’s concession gives credence to the prospect of better North-South relations, which its new president, Moon Jae-in, has promised.

Amid the happy buzz of this inter-Korean detente, whom did President Moon credit but Donald J. Trump?  Moon connected the breakthrough to Trump’s blunt promise to wipe the North Korean regime off the face of the earth should it attempt a nuclear strike on the US or its allies.  For the past several months, Trump has engaged in nuclear brinkmanship.  Now, though, he can argue that it’s paid off.

3.  Cuing Congress on immigration reform

Above all, Tuesday’s unusual meeting on immigration reform, which brought Congressional leaders of both parties together at the White House, illustrates what makes the president so politically dangerous.  This meeting, which was novel in its conception and effects, was the lead story in a news-heavy day.  What made the meeting novel was that Trump instigated bipartisan discussion of the immigration issue right there on the spot.  Pledging to “take the heat” and sign whatever immigration reform bill Congress might come up with, he prompted a nearly one-hour discussion between Democrats and Republicans, who sparred back and forth as the television cameras rolled.  At the end of the meeting, participants emerged with consensus on the four broad topics that an acceptable bill must treat.  Mr. Trump looked presidential, in that he gave direction to his party and the legislature, while reminding the Congress that working out the details of legislation was its Constitutional role, not his.

Video of the event showed Republicans and Democrats in the same room, publicly and spontaneously working out a point of policy: just what is supposed to happen routinely in the House and Senate chambers, but which in fact has not happened there in decades.  The publicity that used to surround such spontaneous exchanges is the very thing that once gave serving in the US Congress such enormous prestige.  One can only hope that the ballyhoo surrounding Tuesday’s activities will inspire senators and representatives to revive their historic tradition of open and authentic deliberation.

Word has leaked out that, in the unrecorded portion of this meeting, Trump used vulgar language to demonize immigrants from Haiti and African countries.  The fact that Trump is both immoral and a nimble politician is precisely what his opponents must reckon with more aggressively.  He is inept, unacceptable, and embarrassing; he is also intent on transforming American trade and foreign policy and restoring American prosperity.  Trump’s opponents mustn’t be satisfied with denouncing his latest outrage: they must devote their attention to figuring out how to defeat this thick-skinned monster and his party at the polls.  Trump is a change-agent without a heart, and he will continue to hold power and rack up “successes” until those who oppose him figure out how to chip away at his base by offering viable alternative policies.

Be Our President, Please

Forget the polls: I woke up yesterday with the cold hard conviction that Obama will lose the presidency.  It was a moment when wishes dropped away, exposing a bleak vista shaped by the President’s own choices and style of proceeding.

If only he thought of his office differently, Obama would be far more popular than he is, and his reelection would be a certainty.  From the start, he has styled himself as an activist president rather than an executive duty-bound to stand as a symbol of the whole country and its legislatively expressed will.  His would not be a role secondary to the other leaders of his party.  No, from the outset Obama has positioned himself as one who, separate from all others, would push to redirect established institutions of power.  From the vantage of the White House, he would elevate the nation to a state that had previously eluded the whole governing community and other members of his party.

This vision has given free rein to the narcissism and paternalism that are aspects of Obama’s personality.  After a point, it doesn’t matter whether the president has a good heart or an intelligent grasp of policy: what matters is that, in his zeal to do more and be better than others, he is subverting the collaboration and interdependence on which the government is premised.

When Obama was first running in 2008, I was reluctant to believe Chicago friends who told me that he was famous for throwing fellow-Democrats under the bus.   Four years later, after watching Obama tirelessly lecture and upstage everyone else in his party, I’m ready to believe.  The latest instance was on Friday, when the president couldn’t wait to strike out in a new direction on immigration policy—a complex and divisive issue whose resolution warrants the whole voice and weight of Congressional authority.

Sadly, in arrogating to himself matters more appropriately left to Congress, Obama has foregone the chance to be a different kind of executive—one who embodies the authority of the government and symbolically represents the people as a whole.  By aiming to do less, Obama could do more to uplift and unite a beleaguered country.

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