Friday, February 19, 2021

American Democracy in Crisis – Video

Hear the “American Democracy in Crisis” webinar sponsored by the Boulder OLLI Speaker Series held on February 3. The insurrection on January 6, 2021 was a 9/11 event for democracy. The transition of power – a bedrock element of American democracy from George Washington through Barack Obama – was directly challenged by a mob motivated, assembled and inspired by President Donald Trump, his family and retainers.

The OLLI webinar describes the four years of damage to American democracy and the serious threats that lie ahead. 


See blog posts on the presentation:

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Video Now Available on “The First Week: Biden vs. Trump”

President Joe Biden has inherited a formidable set of challenges, from a pandemic still spreading, a crippled economy, a social justice crisis, an injured political system and a weakened position in a threatening world.

A February Crossley Center Zoom event on the transitions, the inaugurals, and President Trump’s and President Biden’s first weeks in office provided a perspective by former Ambassador Christopher Hill, now at Columbia University; Colorado College professor (retired) and Presidential Scholar Tom Cronin; and Crossley Center Director Floyd Ciruli.

The Feb. 9 program was supported by the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research and the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

The Trump and Biden First Appointments

At the Crossley Center’s session comparing the Trump and Biden first weeks (February 9), Professor Chris Hill and Professor Tom Cronin opined on the top personnel of the respective administrations.

A comparison of the first teams of former President Trump and President Biden offer some dramatic contrasts, largely borne of the chaotic transition of Trump in 2016 and his impulsive methods of selection. As Tom Cronin said, “It is unlikely Trump had more than a brief familiarity of many of the selections. And, they are mostly outsiders.” Of the seven top positions shown below, only Steve Mnuchin made it all four years in his original position. Mike Pompeo went the distance, but switched to State after Rex Tillerson was unceremoniously removed by Tweet in March 2018.

Nikki Haley managed to leave without controversy and showed some modest independence from the White House, but was largely ineffectual due to Trump not actually believing in the UN’s purpose.

We all recall the travails of Jeff Sessions after he recused himself from the Russian investigation. He resigned under pressure (Nov. 2018). Trump then dedicated considerable attention to ending his political career.

Jim Mattis made it longer than most expected – longer than Tillerson and Sessions (Jan. 1, 2019), but it was clearly painful at the end. He joined nine other Defense Secretaries in January of this year declaring the election was decided and the threat to the transfer of power should stop.

The most infamous person on the team was Michael Flynn, who lasted slightly more than three weeks until he had to resign due to misleading about the nature and content of conversations with the Russian ambassador. From the shortest term in the job’s history, Flynn went on to a lengthy high-profile legal battle with the Justice Department, finally securing a pardon from Trump in November 2020. Flynn joined President Trump and his attorney, Sidney Powell, after the election for discussions on how to overturn the results, including using the military.

History will fill in the story on President Biden’s team, but selection was organized and the group mostly has strong backgrounds for their positions. As Chris Hill pointed out: “This is not a team of rivals, but rather friends and colleagues. It should increase coordination and reduce leaks.”

Inaugurals: Trump and Biden

Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama with spouses were present at the inaugurations of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden. When asked why attend the Trump inauguration given his treatment of them in the campaign. both the Clintons and Bush said it was to “honor the peaceful transition of power.” At the end of the short dystopian speech, George W. Bush was reported to have summed up the general reaction with: “That was some weird shit.”

Not surprising, since it was written by Steven Bannon and Steve Miller, Trump’s two leading proponents of populism and nationalism. The speech began with an attack on the Washington establishment sitting behind him and then described a vision of the country he labeled “American carnage.” It proposed a nationalism that closed borders and put “America first.” He ended with a pledge that he was the singular leader to start the winning and would never let people down.

Shortly after the speech, a long-running argument raged around Trump’s claim that he had the largest crowed in inaugural history. It wasn’t – estimated at 600,000. President Obama had one million in 2012 and 1.8 million in 2008. The speech was quickly received by European populists, anti-globalists, Euroskeptics and others as an affirmation of their movements.

Biden’s subdued inauguration had little audience, but a record number of troops and everyone was masked. It was a longer speech and offered a much more hopeful vision of the country. Given the pandemic and recent transition culminating in a riot in the Capitol, he spoke more of unity and the relief democracy had survived the last four years. He focused his speech on the hardship the virus had caused and promised it would receive his full attention. Also, he pressed on the desire for racial justice and the need to defeat political extremism.

Donald Trump was not at the speech. The peaceful transfer of power was never something he intended to “honor.”

Biden Defends Democracy

It is significant that Joe Biden’s first visit to a department was State. He wants to revive America’s diplomats and make diplomacy the centerpiece of the country’s foreign policy. Also, he spoke to the importance of supporting democracy worldwide.

“…American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined, and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy…” and counter those “advocating authoritarianism.”

It is a timely shift. Democracy has been on the defensive for more than a decade. The list of smaller countries with fragile political cultures that have backslided on their modest democratic cultures is joined by major powers attempting to aggressively undermine democracy. The U.S. is not at the top of the list of democracies after recent deterioration.

Democracy today is not considered a yes or no condition, but rather a continuum. Many authoritarian countries hold elections, but they lack independent information and competition. The scale involves the examination of elements, like rule of law; pluralism; freedom of speech, assembly and religion; an independent judiciary; free press; and most important, the peaceful transfer of power.

Russia’s goal is to reduce the civic cohesion of the U.S. and Western Europe. China with its wealth, diplomacy and guile actively offers its technocratic authoritarianism as an alternative model for development. It is quashing democracy in Hong Kong and targeting Taiwan next.

Authoritarian countries use state power to silence critics and rivals. Russia has used security agents to poison critics in other countries and arrests rivals within the country. China applies its marketing power to coerce censorship in organizations that want access to its market, for example, the NBA.

American People Believe Democracy in Trouble

Only 16 percent of Americans believe democracy is working well. Nearly half (45%) believe it’s in trouble in a new AP-NORC poll.

Not surprising, a second presidential impeachment trial within a year is underway with the charge of insurrection to overturn the election.

Rep. Jason Crow (C) and other people shelter in the House gallery as a mob
of pro-Trump supporters try to break into the House Chamber at the
U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021 | Andrew Harnik/AP

Just to reinforce the trouble democracy is in, only 52 percent (Gallup 2021) of the public prior to the prosecution case believed former President Trump should be impeached and two-thirds of self-identified Republicans still adhered to the “big lie” that Trump won the election.

America Right on the Move

In four years, Donald Trump has become nearly a cult leader of the American far right. An examination of his speeches, tweets and behavior is a textbook instruction on organizing a right-wing political movement. The effort weaves together three important political themes: populism, or defending ordinary people’s interests against the elite, which often needs a strong leader to successfully espouse; nationalism, loyalty to nation above other nations; and authoritarianism, submission to an authoritative, strong leader. Among the communication and organizing themes and tactics are:

Civilization Threatened
The anti-immigrant strategy was good politics in the 2016 Republican primaries and a key part of the general messaging that Western values and civilization are threatened by outsiders. Close the borders and keep out the “other.” (Populist slogans, nationalist themes)

In policy and numerous speeches, sovereignty is praised, especially at the UN, Trump declared that each country should serve its own interests. It led to opposition to multilateralism, including the UN, but also criticism of U.S. alliances like NATO. He believed alliances are costly constraints. The slogan “America First” sums it up. (Populist slogans, nationalist rhetoric, authoritarianism)

Beginning with the inaugural address references to Washington elites taking advantage of the people, anti-establishmentism continued through draining the swamp and the endless attacks on legacy media, Trump regularly used populist rhetoric to target institutions and individuals that constrained him and critics and opponents. He conducted generalized attacks on professionals, scientists, military leaders and legal institutions. He removed critical administrators, whistleblowers and inspector generals. (Populism, authoritarianism)

Macho Politics
Trump’s language and actions are ill-tempered and hostile. He’s a master in the attacks and weaponized social media. He favors rallies and revels in chants: “lock her up,’ and “build the wall.” Violence is often rationalized and even welcomed. (Populism, nationalism, authoritarianism)

Polarize Electorate
A key strategy is to divide the public and focus affection on that segment that supports him and his agenda. The outsiders are identified, disparaged and isolated, if possible. (Nationalism)

In the end, the movement blended some establishment Republicans, many average Americans, especially in the white working class, and some extremist groups. How long it lasts as a political movement may depend on Trump’s ability to inspire and manage it, but the elements of populism, nationalism and authoritarianism are always present.

Boebert – A Fluke or the Future?

Nick Riccardi in an AP story speculated on the possible takeover of even competitive congressional districts by the extreme wings of the respective parties. It was assumed the Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s would represent a safe district in which primaries are the entire battle. But Lauren Boebert’s district has a modest Republican edge in a state trending Democratic. It was last represented by a Democrat in 2010. And, a modest change due to redistricting could make it more competitive.

But the argument that the incumbency of Congressperson Tipton made the district safer for Republicans and that seniority is valuable had little sway with the Trump base in 2020. Boebert won the general election with the same margin in most counties as Trump – 51 percent.

My comment to Riccardi was that partisanship is so dominant today, even an extreme nominee is likely to receive the party vote, which in the Third Congressional District is enough.

“Are we so locked in, so partisan, that it overshadows everything, even in these close districts?” asked Floyd Ciruli, a veteran Colorado pollster. “Bringing out such controversial forces and taking out an incumbent were not dangerous, even in a district like that.”

Hence, my view is that with extreme polarization this may be the future of both parties. They can expect primary challenges from their respective wings in even “lean” districts.

Lauren Boebert (C) recites the Pledge of Allegiance with her mother, Shawn
Bentz (L),  State Senator Ray Scott (C) and Senator Cory Gardner (R) during
a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway in Grand
Junction, Nov. 2, 2020 | Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun

Reported in The Sun, Feb. 8, 2021: A fluke or the future? Boebert shakes up Colorado district

Monday, February 8, 2021

Presidential Abuse of Power

The upcoming impeachment trial for Donald Trump will focus on the events of January 6, but the overreaching topic will be the crisis of democracy that has been ongoing. Although American democracy always faces challenges, it has been under repeated assault during the last four years. In a presentation on Feb. 3 for Boulder OLLI, “American Democracy in Crisis,” one topic was a discussion of the claims that presidential power has been abused well outside of historic norms, with some actions possibly unconstitutional or illegal reflected in the charges in the Mueller report and two impeachments by the House of Representatives. A list used in the presentation follows.

The effort to disable the transition of power, culminating in the January 6, 2021 riot, was only the most recent and dramatic White House action. The list of presidential abuse of power is large and includes politicizing the Justice Department, the U.S. Military and various agencies of science; the obstruction of the Mueller investigation; and the firing of whistleblowers and inspector generals.

The frequent attacks on legacy media and the use of social media to spread false information, foment division, attack rivals and critics reduced accountability and undermined democratic governance. Mr. Trump weaponized the White House and all the instruments of presidential power for his reelection, from staging his national convention on the south lawn, to the repeated use of Air Force One as his campaign backdrop.

American democracy held, but it is damaged and the country’s international reputation in shambles. The authoritarian behavior and rhetoric had a high cost.

Voter Polarization Grows

The partisan gap has nearly doubled since the Nixon era. As measured by the difference in the parties’ positions on presidential approval, it is now a record high of 80 percentage points, a jump from 70 points, another record, reported during the Trump era. President Ronald Reagan, a polarizing president at the time, registered a more modest 52 point difference between Republicans and Democrats who approved of his job performance. Today with President Biden, the gap is sky-high due to the 91 percent of Democrats who approve of him and the 11 percent of Republicans who early in his term approve of his performance (several other early polls had different approval numbers, but the gap was consistently above 70 points).

This record spread between the parties measured by presidential approval is accompanied with an increase in the intense and negative feelings about the other party and its candidates. Most voters tell pollsters that they mainly voted for their party’s candidate not because of a positive impression, but because they disliked the opposition candidate and party more. So, that about two-thirds of each parties’ identifiers voted more against Trump or Biden than in favor of their respective party’s candidate.

That reflects polls showing party members’ viewpoints that the other party will cause existential damage if it comes to power. There will be “lasting harm” if it wins and that the other party has incompatible “core American values and goals.” In other words, they can’t be allowed to retain or gain power.

Finally, the latest presidential party differences are not only intense, but they have spread down the ballot to other races, so senate, congressional and even local state races are increasingly in near perfect party alignment. And, partisan differences have spread to relations between family members, work, media selection and across political topics, such as how people see economic conditions. We are in the age of intense, negative partisan polarization.

Pelosi Finally Beats Trump in Favorability; McConnell Off the Chart

For Donald Trump’s entire term, Nancy Pelosi trailed him in favorability by about 5 points, typically 42 or 43 percent for Trump and 39 to 38 percent for Pelosi. She’s now ahead of him by one point. Joe Biden paces the field to 51 percent and Mitch McConnell has a 63 percent unfavorable rating, producing a 41 percent negative difference.

McConnell’s political partner, Donald Trump, has become even less popular as an ex-president. And the relationship has damaged McConnell. First, he rationalized the behaviors and claims of election fraud by Trump and his friends, like Rudy Giuliani. Then on December 15, he attempted to pull the Senate toward acceptance of the results, which mostly failed. Trump then contributed to the Georgia disaster and loss of the Senate for Republicans and McConnell. But even post-riot members of his caucus continue to support the former president’s message, “stop the steal,” because the ex-president remains popular with many Republicans. All highly controversial positions possibly popular in a few states, but very vulnerable nationally and in swing states, some of which will have open Senate seats in 2022, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Read: Transition Starts With Election Defeat, Ends With Impeachment

California Presses New York as the State With the Most Fatalities

As the national death toll from COVID-19 passes 440,000, California has become the nation’s deadliest state, with a death toll of 39,000, pressing the original and still leader in fatalities, New York – 43,000. Texas (36,000) and Florida (26,000) continue fighting the surging virus with many casualties. With vaccines now being distributed, the next few months will hopefully see a dramatic fall-off in deaths.

This chart was last prepared in mid-September when there were 200,000 fatalities and California was in fourth place with less than 15,000. Governors were popular then compared to President Trump. Today, for many, their popularity has fallen as difficult decisions and missed expectations have led to massive waves of criticism. Gavin Newsom is facing a recall, which if it becomes a grievance election, he’s in trouble.

Biden’s Opening Approval 55%; Trump’s 44%

Joe Biden begins his presidency with a 55 percent approval and 37 percent disapproval, an 18-point positive rating. How long it lasts in today’s polarized environment is a question. Biden benefits from two public opinion influences since the election. His transition effort has been judged very favorably – mid-60 percent in numerous polls, and Donald Trump’s behavior has been a disaster with the public.

Also, good news for Biden is that he starts 11 points higher than when Donald Trump began in 2017. Trump’s approval and disapprove were tied at 44 percent according to RealClearPolitics. His approval dropped to 40 percent by April 1, 2017 and disapproval soared to 53 percent (-13 points). His approval never exceeded 50 percent in his 4 years. His low was 37 percent in December of his first year and his last year average was 44 percent. His final approval was even worse than his starting week at 39 percent according to 538 and 41 percent in RealClearPolitics.

Read: Trump Leaves Office With Record Disapproval

Impeachment Has Narrow Majority, But Seen as Important

In 1974, a group of Republican Senators told Richard Nixon they couldn’t guarantee 34 votes to stop conviction and that he should consider resignation. He did. His support with the public had also collapsed, even after winning a landslide reelection in 1972.

In the most recent impeachments, Republicans have been avoiding the substance of the articles and arguing a technicality. The first impeachment of Donald Trump never garnered much over 50 percent public support, but it was considered intensely important by many to draw a line around unacceptable political behavior. Most Republican defenders thought the behavior was outside the rules, but didn’t rise to impeachment, and in any event, an election was 10 months away. Now a year later, he has been impeached, and today, many of those same Republicans are arguing his behavior was irresponsible and dangerous, but since he lost the election and is out of office, impeachment is not constitutional (or needed). Of course, behind their strategy is the fact impeachment is political and Trump appears to still retain considerable ability to reward, or at least punish disloyalty.

Current polls indicate, as in January and February 2020, impeachment overlaps the polarized fissures of American politics, with Democrats strongly in favor, Republicans ferociously against and independents divided if leaning toward conviction. Several recent polls show about half the public favors impeachment (56%), conviction (52%) by the Senate, and more popular, banned from holding future federal office (57%) (Monmouth).

New Words in a Transformative Year

2020 will be a transformative year. Every aspect of our lives, our relationships and our country has changed. It is hard to imagine the new “normal” is going to be a close reflection of life before March 2020. The following are the words that have pushed their way into our speech, writing and thinking in 2020, which highlight the shock and awe of 2020. COVID-19 changed our health and behavior. Masks and elbow bumps are now the appropriate social interactions. Zoom altered how we communicate. Shortages are a part of our life and we now mostly take-out from our favorite restaurants and order everything online. Finally, the “big lie” and insurrection started the year with a shock as devastating as the shutdown last March. For democracy and political stability, the January 6 riot was a 9/11- and Pearl Harbor-type event.

Trump and Nixon Leave in About the Same Style

Both Donald Trump and Richard Nixon tried to put the best appearance on what were disastrous endings to their presidencies. Nixon, of course, resigned due to Watergate. He had lost public support and the loyalty of Republicans in the Senate where he faced a possible impeachment vote.

Trump lost his reelection and denied the result so relentlessly he ended up fomenting a riot. He was impeached a second time in 12 months and faced the prospect of a second trial in the Senate. The public and even many Republicans had had enough.

Donald Trump leaves White House for last time
as president, Jan. 20, 2021 | David J. Phillip/AP

Richard Nixon’s last day at the White House,
Aug. 9, 1974 | ABC News photo

Nonetheless, they both staged faux departures as men still in control of their fates, with final speeches to staffs and a few supporters, red carpets and final waves on Marine One – sad.

Trump Leaves Office With Record Disapproval

  • Trump approval record low – Gallup 34%, Pew 29%
  • Biden transition approval high – Gallup 68%, Pew 64%

As Donald Trump vacates the White House in an off-hour send-off, he has reduced his modest public approval with a months-long fight against the transition of power and the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump has become toxic everywhere except within the confines of the Republican Party, and both the party and his supporters have contracted in the last month.

Since the Capitol riot, numerous national polls are recording approval ratings in the mid-30s, 10 points off his post-election peak of 46 percent on November 8. The approval of 39 percent is down net 6 to 7 points since the high. The decline has been most steep since January 6 and during the impeachment, showing a 5-point drop from 44 percent to the current 39 percent. Even 15 percent of Republicans have abandoned him.

Polling Results
January 20, 2021

  • RealClearPolitics: Trump approval – 39%, Trump disapproval – 57%
  • 538: Trump approval – 38%, Trump disapproval – 58%
  • Net approval rating falls 6 points in 8 days (538)
  • 538: Net approval among Republicans down – 15 points
  • Quinnipiac: Net approval down among Republicans – 16%; 89% Dec. 10 to 73% January 18
  • Washington Post/ABC: Approve Biden’s transition – 67%

Although Joe Biden has a high approval rating for his handling of the transition, he begins office with a nation in a very sour mood. Two recent polls have only 12 percent and 17 percent of Americans saying the country is moving in the right direction.

Trump Hands Off 400,000 COVID-19 Fatalities

At noon on January 20, Joe Biden inherits a death toll of more than 400,000 COVID-19 fatalities – a fifth of the world’s 2 million fatalities. It represents more than 50,000 new deaths since January 4, or more than 3,500 deaths per day. Although Biden already has outlined a plan and identified personnel to fight the pandemic, it will require a national mobilization. More private and nonprofit sector participation will be needed to augment the near exhausted government agencies.

One of the more difficult tasks will be to depoliticize health rules, such as mask wearing. Both parties and the country’s key institutions will need to join the effort.

Read: COVID-19 Should Top Biden’s Agenda

Monday, February 1, 2021

American Democracy in Crisis – OLLI Boulder

January 6, 2021 was a 9/11 event for democracy. The transition of power – a bedrock element of American democracy from George Washington through Barack Obama – was directly challenged by a mob motivated, assembled and inspired by President Donald Trump, his family and retainers. A webinar sponsored by the Boulder OLLI Speaker Series on February 3 will examine the crisis of democracy in America.

Although after four years of the Trump presidency, American democracy held, it is damaged and serious threats lie ahead. Strong, dramatic and collective action will be needed to repair it. 

The First Week: Biden vs. Trump – Crossley Center Zoom Event, Feb. 9, 2021

President Joe Biden has inherited a formidable set of challenges, from a pandemic still spreading, a crippled economy, a social justice crisis, an injured political system and a weakened position in a threatening world.

Providing a perspective on the transitions, the inaugurals, and President Trump’s and President Biden’s first weeks in office are former Ambassador Christopher Hill, now at Columbia University; Colorado College professor (retired) and Presidential Scholar Tom Cronin; and Crossley Center Director Floyd Ciruli.

Join us on Zoom February 9 at 11:00 am.