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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-30-12

In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the general pile on against the American presidential campaign. Trying to mock American democracy, he asked “Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interests of the people of the world at their hearts?” Well, I argue, the answer is “yes.”

Without millions of dollars spent in political campaigns, it would be impossible for candidates to communicate with the people — and make their case that their vision is indeed best not only for Americans but for others throughout the world. Ahmadinejad said that  “Despite what big political parties claim in the capitalistic countries, the money that goes into election campaigns is usually nothing but an investment.” Here, he is correct. The money is an “investment”; an investment in the democratic process.

I am not naïve. I know that too many plutocrats hold too much sway over the American political conversation. I know that too many politicians spend far too much time dialing for dollars rather than politicking with the people. Still, it is hard to take advice from a political hooligan who used violence to secure his own re-election, which a majority of the Iranian people seems to have opposed. And it reflects a lack of proportion in the rhetorical world of the UN, that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to take a very legitimate criticism that raises important questions and dilemmas regarding the mechanics of the American campaign and use it to try delegitimizing American democracy and America itself.

This tyrant’s tirade should remind us to view our current frustrations with the current campaign in context. Yes, there is much that could be improved in the campaign. Yes, the debates we are about to witness will pivot far too much on theatrical skills rather than political messaging. But we should not take the magic of the campaign for granted. This includes the power granted the people to change course, the efforts the President of the United States and his opponent are investing in communicating with the people, and the stability, peace, harmony, and order underlying what has been and will probably continue to be a non-violent, surprisingly efficient, deeply democratic exercise involving tens of millions of voters either validating the incumbent or gently but firmly replacing him, with no tanks in the streets, no thugs manipulating results.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Globe and Mail, 9-20-12

(L) Mitt Romney pictured in Lansing, Michigan May 8, 2012 and U.S. President Barack Obama in Port of Tampa in Florida, April 13, 2012. (REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

America’s presidential campaign is turning surprisingly substantive. True, tomfoolery also abounds, with Democrats mocking Mitt Romney’s rendition of God Bless America, and Republicans questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are offering a dramatic electoral choice, rooted in conflicting visions of government’s role in American life. Even Mr. Romney’s recently revealed comments at a fundraiser, dismissing 47 per cent of Americans as too dependent and too hostile to him, reflect this divide.

Mr. Obama recognized this twist in his acceptance speech, saying: “I know that campaigns can seem small and even silly.” But, he insisted, Americans “face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” This sentiment was one of the few Obama points echoed in Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech.

Although the candidates disagree about much, they keep debating government’s size and reach. Mr. Ryan, whose selection sharpened the two campaigns’ contrasts, described the choice as “whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.” He added: “After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again.”

Mr. Romney, who only mentioned the word “government” three times (to Mr. Obama’s 10 mentions), said Americans “look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad.” In the fundraiser video, Mr. Romney’s resentment of Big Government was palpable; as the gaffe flap has grown, he has tried to shift the focus to the question of who gives and who gets in modern America.

Mr. Obama’s response to this anti-government rhetoric has been withering. “Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” he said. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”

Ridiculing years of Republican calls for tax cuts, during booms and busts, Mr. Obama joked: “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning!”

In that same spirit, Mr. Obama’s most effective non-spousal surrogate, Bill Clinton, who upstaged the President at his own renomination party, challenged Americans to “decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all’ society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

Many Americans root this debate in the 1980s’ backlash against the 1960s’ Great Society “every problem requires a big government program solution” approach. When inaugurated in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that not only was government not the solution to the problem, government was the problem. Fifteen years later, Mr. Clinton declared the era of big government over. But Americans have been debating this question for much longer.

The American Revolution rebelled against heavy-handed government and executive authority. The country’s first governing plan, the Articles of Confederation, so feared government that the central authority lacked any real power. The constitutional counter-revolution of 1787 offered a limited government compared to Europe, but a more vigorous government compared to the revolution’s initial, impotent entity. “We the people” formed the government, with power divided into three branches, each with checks and balances over the other.

This divided governing plan was not enough for some. Ten amendments to the Constitution, mostly restricting the state while guaranteeing more individual freedoms, quickly emerged. The original plan remained so restrictive that a 16th amendment was required in the early 20th century so Congress could impose a national income tax.

As government expanded, following the centralization of the Civil War in the 1860s, and then with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal responding to the Great Depression, America’s individualistic, entrepreneurial culture also thrived. American leaders consistently sought to provide just enough government to keep up with changing Western conceptions of what basic services a state should provide.

Today, governmental services that most Republicans and Democrats take for granted – such as Social Security guaranteeing old-age pensions (and which Mr. Romney included in his 47-per-cent remark) – would surprise America’s founders. Still, Republicans retain more of the evolutionary skepticism, while Democrats retain more of the Constitution’s political activism.

To use a presidential campaign to revisit this debate takes one of American democracy’s most sacred acts, voting, and consecrates it further, rooting it in meaning and substance, even amid all the charges and counter-charges, the silly ads and the daily candidate squabbles.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University, co-editor of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, and author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

CTV NEWS, 9-19-12 

McGill professor Gil Troy on Mitt Romney

Source:  CTV Montreal, 9-19-12 

Gil Troy speaks about Mitt Romney

McGill professor Gil Troy speaks with Paul Karwatsky about American presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Culture Warriors Don’t Win

By Gil Troy, NYT, 4-27-12

Campaign Stops - Strong Opinions on the 2012 Election

Ronald Reagan campaigned for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in<br /><br /> Hawthorne, Calif.,
Associated Press Ronald Reagan campaigning for governor on Nov. 5, 1966 in Hawthorne, Calif.

Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.

Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”

Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader.

Even when it began in the 1850s as an ideological anti-slavery breakaway group, the Republican Party favored more “available” nominees. The first Republican nominee, John C. Frémont, was most famous as “The Pathfinder.” In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the compromise candidate, defeating the zealots Salmon P. Chase and William Henry Seward. Lincoln’s strategy was “to give no offence to others – leave them in a mood to come to us, if they shall be compelled to give up their first love.” He even made his acceptance letter “sufficiently brief to do no harm.”

There has been a more substance-oriented counter-tradition, epitomized by Grover Cleveland’s challenge, “What is the use of being elected or re-elected, unless you stand for something?” But the need to appeal broadly to America’s diverse electorate has usually prevailed. American voters’ weakness for popular icons over articulate ideologues ultimately frustrated even Henry Clay, the conscience of the Whig Party. As the Mexican War hero Zachary Taylor, who had never even voted for president before, conquered his party in 1848, Clay, well aware that Americans loved turning soldiers into presidents, moaned, “I have thought that I might yet be able to capture or to slay a Mexican.”

In the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan delivered his best lines as a culture warrior, including the grand slam — “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane and smells like Cheetah” – while governing California, not while he was running for president. Reagan won in 1980 by moving beyond Barry Goldwater’s cranky conservatism, which had triggered the Democratic landslide of 1964.

Reagan’s conservatism with a smiley face emphasized economic issues. Within weeks of his inauguration in 1981, conservatives were complaining that Reagan’s Cabinet was too moderate. Their cry — “Let Reagan be Reagan” — demanded a more ideological and confrontational “corely convicted” leadership. But in compromising and popularizing, Reagan was being Reagan.

Nevertheless, conservatives revered Reagan because they never doubted his essential conservative identity. In Puritan terms, Reagan had a “covenant of grace” with conservatives, not a “covenant of works.” His salvation came from sharing core beliefs not engaging in particular acts.

Since Reagan, conservative ideologues like Santorum have inspired voters, disrupted primaries, enraged Democrats, alienated independents, but lost. In 1988, the evangelical preacher Pat Robertson surged in Iowa, then faltered. In 1992, Pat Buchanan was only popular enough to hurt President Bush, not to win. This pattern has held, with flareups of varying incandescence from Alan Keyes to Gary Bauer to Mike Huckabee. George W. Bush did not run as the conservative ideologue many saw when he governed but as the Romneyesque “compassionate conservative” whom many on the right at first mistrusted.

Winning candidates need a broad national reach. The appeal of the culture warrior is far more limited than the Tea Party crowd claims. If Americans actually embraced Rick Santorum’s worldview, the rates of premarital sex, abortion, births to single mothers, divorce, and same-sex relationships would be much lower, especially in the “red states.” But these are not “blue state” phenomena or liberal Democratic behaviors.

Most Americans are not ready to jettison traditional moral strictures even as many live non-traditional lives. Especially in this election, with no particularly pressing social or cultural issue demanding the attention of voters, Santorum’s sanctimony functioned as a form of identity politics, telegraphing membership in a self-selected club of the “virtuous,” while churning divisive emotions.

Romney should be wary because culture warriors can sabotage presidential campaigns. When, at the Republican National Convention in 1992, Pat Buchanan declared a “religious war,” a “cultural war,” a war “for the soul of America,” it was President Bush who suffered. Karl Rove blamed the 2000 electoral deadlock on millions of evangelical voters who stayed home because harsh conservative attacks on George W. Bush made them doubt his ideological purity.

Romney also has to worry because when smartphones and Facebook make everyone a reporter and modern journalists can shamelessly eavesdrop at Palm Beach fundraisers, it gets harder to reconcile primary-driven genuflection toward the right with more moderate inclinations. Both Republican conservatives and liberal Democrats will resurrect his most extreme statements as he veers toward the center. But in recalibrating, he will be behaving like most nominees. As one Republican Party founder, the passionate, wild-bearded Gideon Welles, advised his ambitious friend Franklin Pierce in 1852, when Welles was an anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrat: “Be the candidate of all.”

In 1984, Reagan’s chief of staff, James Baker, offered a recipe for victory that was more apple pie than red meat: “Crime, Education, Economics – Unity.” Reagan understood that Americans had complex feelings about many issues. He knew that a presidential campaign was not a Christian camp meeting. His covenant of grace gave the conservatives a popular victory they never would have achieved otherwise. And it taught Republicans (and Democrats) that even in primary season, winning the center and the swing voter remains the candidate’s central mission; political purity is useless if you lose.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 12-15-09

As we enter the last few weeks of the first decade of the twenty-first century, if we had a better name for this period, we might have a firmer fix on its identity. Modern Americans are decade-focused, packaging our historical memories in easily-labeled ten-year chunks: the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties. Yet neither the “oh-ohs” nor the “oughts” has stuck as a label, making this decade’s character elusive. With 2010 fast approaching, branding our trying times can help us understand them better.

Yes, as historians we know that we should not fall into this decade-labeling trap. We know that it leads to oversimplification. But we also know that periodization is a valuable weapon in our historians’ arsenal, helping us make some sense out of the passage of time. And we also know that just because we don’t plunge in and offer our judgments it won’t stop others. Let’s face it. Journalists – and more superficial popularizers — rush in where historians fear to tread.

At first blush, this period has been marked by catastrophes. The Al Gore-George W. Bush electoral deadlock of 2000 exposed major fault lines in American democracy. In 2001, the dot-com bubble burst and the most lethal attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor murdered nearly 3000 Americans on 9/11. Two years later, in 2003, President Bush led us to war in Iraq. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Finally, the financial meltdown of 2008 triggered America’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Any one of these traumas could have defined a decade. When they look back on this cascade of catastrophes, Americans in the future will assume our lives were miserable, practically unlivable. Yet, for most of us, life has continued. We have maintained our routines, while watching these disasters unfold on the news. In fact, these have been relatively good years. America remains the world’s playground, the most prolific, most excessive platform for shopping and fun in human history. Most Americans can take for granted that our basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter, will be met. We enjoy a stable government while our liberties expand and the microchip miracles dazzle. In perhaps the greatest sign of robust social health, in 2007 America experienced its highest birthrate in fifty years, since those giddy baby boom days. And on Election Day 2008, Americans welcomed Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency with a redemptive, affirmative “Yes We Can.”

Amid all the happy talk, for all the shopping, Americans have responded to the various crises with an odd mix of despair and disinterest. Experts caution that America’s empire is teetering, America’s seemingly-never-ending boom is ending, the unemployment figures are, quite literally, depressing. But, except for the mobilization around Obama’s election, the dire warnings rarely trigger action. Many more Americans watch the Super Bowl than vote. Americans seem dangerously resigned to the status quo. Ours is an era of delighted nihilism, epitomized in Simple Plan’s mega-hit: “I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare,” sung to a happy, infectious beat. Further illustrating this disconnect, Michael Jackson’s recent death engaged many more Americans more intensely than the tragic deaths of over four thousand heroic American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. It seems that Americans collectively have said to these repeated, frequently-sobering calamities what too many of our teenagers have said to their parents lately: “whatever.”

The aptly-named oh-ohs are the Whatever Era. In this decade of dissociation Americans collectively seem to wallow in the defensive, post-traumatic mental state wherein individuals disconnect from memories, emotions, actions. Our dismissive, passive, amusement imperative amid such great disasters reflects social strength – and weakness. According to Dr. Patti Levin, a Boston-based psychologist, even when people do not experience traumas directly, mass disasters such as 9/11 and the economic crash become “vicarious traumas,” puncturing individuals’ myth of the “just world,” as they discover that “no longer do bad things only happen to bad people – or to others – but they can happen to anyone, including themselves.” Some then succumb to a “detached, hopeless (not even daring to hope) state of passive victimhood,” what Dr. Martin Seligman termed “Learned Helplessness.”

Long-term trends intensify the collective PTS – post traumatic stress – Americans are exhibiting these days. The twentieth century was a centrifugal century. The revolutions of capitalist consumerism, individuating technologies, and personal liberty, all celebrating the “I” not the “us,” cut ties to community, dismissing tradition. Even Ronald Reagan’s supposedly traditional post-Sixties counterattack propelled Americans away from the past and each other. The Reaganite Eighties were an age of conservative libertinism, encouraging individualistic disconnection and less social responsibility. Right-wingers demonstrated the great conservative blind spot, denouncing many social changes without acknowledging how the capitalist consumerism they championed undermined the traditions they cherished. From the left, Barack Obama and others have also talked about the need for community while ignoring how rights-based liberalism helped shape our epidemic of selfishness and failing to shake the status quo boldly enough to restore a sense of American engagement and empowerment.

Great pessimism during economic busts is as characteristically American as great optimism during boom times. The oh-ohs’ whateverism is less fleeting and thus more dangerous. A culture of denial, disengagement, dissociation is dysfunctional. We need a culture of engagement and responsibility, even with all our traumas, distractions and high-tech toys.

NOTE: If you have other suggestions regarding how to label this decade, please post here or email them to me at: namethatdecade.america@gmail.com

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Gil Troy “Canada’s best Presidents Relations with the U.S. still depend on how our leaders get along”:

Source: Macleans, 2-19-09

The interaction between Pierre Trudeau and Ronald Reagan makes an intriguing case study. At first glance, they seemed bound to clash. “There’s a great picture,” says Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University and author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, “of Trudeau in an ascot, looking very European, and Reagan in a brown suit, looking sort of midwestern.” Yet he points out that Reagan writes favourably in his memoirs about his first meeting with Trudeau, recalling how they agreed on the need for a closer North American alliance, planting the seeds of the free trade deal Reagan eventually signed with Brian Mulroney.

When there’s a clash between American and international interests, or course, presidents tend, like politicians everywhere, to play to the home crowd. In Obama’s case, that might eventually spell disappointment for his legions of admirers abroad, including Canadians. “At a certain point it is more important for him to be popular in Peoria than in Ottawa, let alone than in Europe,” says Troy.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Gil Troy “Barack and Michelle: A more perfect union? First Couple-to-be could be relationship role models for nation, experts say”

Source: MSNBC, 11-29-08

The Obamas have the best of both worlds, said Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University and author of “Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons.” “The Obama marriage is a modern partnership between equals; they are a working couple just like the Clintons,” he said. “But, unlike the Clintons — and more like the Bushes — the Obamas appear to be a solid couple, devoted to each other, with no fidelity questions hovering overhead.”

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