Review of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? by Graham Allison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating, and especially topical book by Graham Allison of the Belfer Center at the Kennedy School of Government. Dr. Allison has created an academic infrastructure around the book, which can be found at http://www.belfercenter.org/thucydide…

The book makes the proposition that history teaches us that a newly rising power may create fear and a sense of instability within an existing hegemon that drives both towards war, even when both may desire to avoid military conflict. (The Thucydides’s trap) The historical reference is to the History of Peloponnesian War, written byThucydides, which shows that despite a strong desire, and major effort, to avoid war, Athens and Sparta eventually plunged into a mutually destructive conflict.

“When he turned the spotlight on “the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta,” he identified a primary driver at the root of some of history’s most catastrophic and puzzling wars. Intentions aside, when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception. It happened between Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BCE, between Germany and Britain a century ago, and almost led to war between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.”


Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Dr. Allison has brought forward 16 case studies that he believes bring historical perspective to the rise of China, and how the United States reacts to that rise. Contrary to the title Dr. Allison takes pains to point out that war is not inevitable, but that adjustments in thought and process on both sides need to occur to ensure a peaceful future.

The book gives us a good look at the economic power that has been unleashed by China.

“What a monster it may become. In the three and a half decades since Ronald Reagan became president, by the best measurement of economic performance, China has soared from 10 percent the size of the US to 60 percent in 2007, 100 percent in 2014, and 115 percent today. If the current trend continues, China’s economy will be a full 50 percent larger than that of the US by 2023. By 2040 it could be nearly three times as large. That would mean a China with triple America’s resources to use in influencing outcomes in international relations.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (p. 216). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Not only is the Chinese economy growing by enormous amounts but some of the feats of construction are simply startling.

“When Americans complain about how long it takes to build a building or repair a road, authorities often reply that “Rome was not built in a day.” Someone clearly forgot to tell the Chinese. By 2005, the country was building the square-foot equivalent of today’s Rome every two weeks. Between 2011 and 2013, China both produced and used more cement than the US did in the entire twentieth century. In 2011, a Chinese firm built a 30-story skyscraper in just 15 days. Three years later, another construction firm built a 57-story skyscraper in 19 days. Indeed, China built the equivalent of Europe’s entire housing stock in just 15 years. When he first saw the “massive, beautifully appointed” Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, which hosted the 2010 World Economic Forum’s summer conference, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman confessed to having gasped. It was built in just 8 months. Friedman noted the feat with amazement, but also dismay. It took almost as long for a Washington Metro crew to repair “two tiny escalators of 21 steps each at a red line station” near his home in Maryland. Friedman devotes an entire chapter of his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded to a fantasy about the far-reaching reforms the United States could enact if only it were “China for a day.” Today China is doing in hours what it takes years to accomplish in the US. I have been reminded of this daily when I see the bridge over the Charles River between my office at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School. It has been under reconstruction, snarling traffic, for 4 years. In November 2015, Beijing replaced the substantially larger, 1,300-ton Sanyuan Bridge in just 43 hours.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (pp. 13-14). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

With this power comes a growing assertiveness, and a willingness to challenge the established order, especially in Asia. The established order is the United States. Dr. Allison looks at some of the flash points that exist, and yes North Korea is one of them. The analysis is relatively brief, but, in my view, very insightful.
Not everyone shares the same view of what is important in a book. There is a lot to think about in this work, but for me one of the critical points is how both sides think about, and act, in dealing with the world. The Chinese are “long view” oriented, with a willingness to be patient, and accept incremental gain. 


“Ever more sensitive to the demands of the news cycle and popular opinion, US politicians seek alliterative and enumerated bullet-point policy plans that promise quick resolution. Chinese are strategically patient: as long as trends are moving in their favor, they are comfortable waiting out a problem.”
“Attending to every dimension in the broader relationship with the adversary, the Chinese strategist resists rushing prematurely toward victory, instead aiming to build incremental advantage. “In the Western tradition, there is a heavy emphasis on the use of force; the art of war is largely limited to the battlefields; and the way to fight is force on force,” Lai explains. By contrast, “The philosophy behind go is to compete for relative gain rather than seeking complete annihilation of the opponent forces.” In a wise reminder, Lai warns that “It is dangerous to play go with the chess mindset. One can become overly aggressive so that he will stretch his force thin and expose his vulnerable parts in the battlefields.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (pp. 149-150). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

A willingness, and the discipline, to play the long game, is something that gives the Chinese, in my view, a decided edge in the diplomatic struggle that is already underway. The great driver of Chinese modernization, Deng Xiaoping, said:

“Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

The Chinese have followed this thought, but with their extraordinary growth may be ready to claim the mantle of leadership in world affairs. This leadership does not necessarily imply military dominance, but rather the projection of economic power, with a willingness to use the Chinese governmental structure to “pool resources” and make investments in areas that allow it to reap dividends, and dominate other regional powers through the sheer weight of the Chinese economy.

“Domestic reforms are matched by similarly dramatic changes to China’s role in the global economy. In 2013, Xi announced a multi-decade, multitrillion-dollar infrastructure project called One Belt, One Road (OBOR). Its goal is a transportation and technology network spanning Eurasia and nearly all countries bordering the Indian Ocean. The plan will effectively export some of China’s excess industrial capacity and provide a cushion for the construction, steel, and cement industries, which have struggled in recent years as the country completed many of its highest-priority infrastructure projects. The planned projects abroad are massive. From an 1,800-mile, $ 46 billion corridor of roads, railways, and pipelines running through Pakistan, to hydroelectric dams and tin mines in Myanmar, to a new naval installation in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, China is moving at a pace never seen in these countries. But OBOR is about much more than simply rechanneling excess industrial capacity. Just as the original Silk Road not only spurred trade but also stimulated geopolitical competition (including the nineteenth-century “Great Game” that pitted Britain against Russia for control of Central Asia), OBOR will allow China to project power across several continents. OBOR’s promise to integrate the countries of Eurasia reflects a vision in which the balance of geostrategic power shifts to Asia. “

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (p. 125). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

Dr. Allison’s look at some of the historical analogies laid out is instructive, and does not always show that the intersection of rising and existing powers needs to lead to war. Again you can take the lessons in different ways, but I took what I consider to be some critically important points on how decisions get made when these tensions rise. A good look at British thinking in advance of World War I, and the fear they had of German continental ascendancy coupled with an increasing German spending program on naval armaments, shows how that fear, and misunderstanding of the other, can lead to war. The German resentment of the British attempt to keep them down, coupled with the British fear of a rising Germany, brought us both WWI and WWII. The miscalculations on all sides in advance of 1914 brought a war that some did not expect, or want. The British were clear eyed about the threat they perceived from Germany.

“In the end, Crowe concluded that Germany’s intentions were irrelevant; its capabilities were what mattered. A vague policy of growth could at any time shift into a grand design for political and naval dominance. Even if Germany accrued power gradually without a premeditated plan for domination, its resulting position would be just as formidable and menacing. Moreover, whether or not Germany had such a plan, it “would clearly be wise to build as powerful a navy as she can afford.” Germany’s growing wealth and power fueled its naval expansion, and German naval supremacy was “incompatible with the existence of the British Empire.” Thus, whether Germany consciously sought to supplant it or not, Britain had no prudent alternative but to stand up to perceived German encroachments and outbuild Germany’s naval expansion.”

Allison, Graham. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (pp. 59-60). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.

This is a fascinating read, and one that comes at exactly the right time. There will need to be a sober assessment of goals and objectives in both countries as they interact at a time of global upheaval. The idea that one country can impose, or dictate results, to the other, is long gone. The diplomatic struggle could bring war, but clear eyed and realistic actions by leaders in both countries, with a healthy respect for “core interests” of the other, will help us to avoid such a fate.

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The LBJ Memoir “The Vantage Point” Reviewed

The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969.The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency 1963-1969. by Lyndon B. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having read all of the Caro LBJ books I was eager to read LBJ’s perspective on his Presidency. I grabbed this book at my library, and it was well worth the read. It was set up to deal with issues of the Presidency in a chronological way. LBJ reviews the awful day in Dallas and in so doing tried to refute some of the legend surrounding the trip, including some of the details on Democratic infighting that supposedly brought JFK to Dallas. LBJ’s point of view on the Johnson/Yarborough feud, and JFK’s supposed role in it, rings true, as his political logic was unassailable. The events following the assassination are covered, but with no reference to the tension that existed between him and RFK, especially over the issue of the swearing in at Love Field. LBJ expressed his views on the need for strong action immediately following the death of JFK, and he does deal with the legislative logjam that existed. How he broke that logjam is lightly touched upon by Johnson, but for real details the Caro book “The Passage of Power” tells the detailed story. LBJ highlights the two immediate bills he wanted to move, the Tax Cut bill and the Civil Rights bill, and talks of the important role of Senator Harry Byrd on the tax cuts. LBJ’s legislative mastery is left to Caro, but his discussion of those items is illuminating nonetheless.

LBJ talks early on about the war on poverty, truly one of the most important aspects of his Presidency. Again, his commitment seems real, driven by genuine concern for the plight of the poorest amongst us. In discussing whether to begin the program that Jack Kennedy had on the drawing board LBJ had a prescient observation on the political risks involved. His aide Horace Busby articulated the political risk inherent in a large anti-poverty effort, and LBJ cited that Busby warning in the book:

“America’s real majority is suffering a minority complex of neglect. They have become the real foes of Negro rights, foreign aid, etc., because, as much as anything, they feel forgotten, at the second table behind the tightly organized, smaller groups at either end of the U.S. spectrum.”

LBJ foresaw the backlash before it happened, always referring to a diminishing pile of political capital that he intended to use. The Busby warning, given in 1964, seems topical, even in 2017.

LBJ covers Vietnam, defending the policy that arguably destroyed his presidency. He moves the subject to separate chapters covering different time frames, initially attempting to show that his decisions were a natural outgrowth of the policies of JFK, and taking pains to show early RFK support for the war effort as well. When President Kennedy dispatched Vice President Johnson to South Vietnam in 1961 LBJ brought back a report urging a strong U.S. response to “communist aggression.” His description of the JFK response:

“President Kennedy shared this estimate. He regarded our commitment to Southeast Asia as a serious expression of our nations determination to resist aggression. As President, he was determined to keep the promises we had made. He understood what they meant, and what they might mean in the future.”

LBJ, eventually embittered by the “Kennedy” people abandoning him on the war, (although never in this book) went out of his way to associate those “people” with the Johnson policy. Without question they were initially supportive, but many became disillusioned about the policy, and became opponents of the war. LBJ never gave up the initial policy, upping the military ante right until the end of his Presidency. LBJ appears somewhat astonished that there was never any real movement from North Vietnam on his many peace overtures, never truly understanding what was driving the psyche of the North. While LBJ recognized the political implications of the Tet offensive he stubbornly clung to the idea that the North had suffered a major military defeat, with the stunned American public’s response a result of a “false” narrative on Tet being propagated by the anti-war media and movement. LBJ had terrific political instincts, but they failed him completely on Vietnam. As a person who grew of political age during the “who lost China” and Joseph McCarthy era LBJ was a political captive to the fear of being charged with losing Southeast Asia to the communists. LBJ’s instincts told him that he should not allow the GOP to flank him from the right on anti-communism, but he failed to discern the shifts coming in the country until it was too late. It was an American tragedy, and a personal one for the Johnson presidency. Fascinating all of these years later to see the rationales used to justify the effort.

The LBJ Presidency is certainly remembered for the Great Society, and for Vietnam, but there was so much more. He covers, in no order, the seizing of the Pueblo by the North Koreans, the Six Day War between Israel and the Arab states that still impacts us today, the Dominican crisis, shoring up the NATO Alliance, the efforts to achieve agreement with the Soviets on arms control, the NASA effort to land a man on the moon, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the income tax surcharge driven by the financial strains of guns and butter, the passing of Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the assassinations of RFK, and Martin Luther King and the turmoil in our cities. LBJ, whether you like him or not, had a monumental set of issues, and deep rooted shocks to the system that occurred during his Presidency. He handled most of them, leaving Vietnam aside, in a way that that earned him respect, if not love.

LBJ covers his decision not to seek re-election in a way that does not quite ring true to me, but who really knows. He does acknowledge, as any good politician would, that he kept his options open until the very last minute. He truly did try to get something going with the North Vietnamese, who came to the Paris peace conference on LBJ’s watch, and as a result of his initiative to call a bombing halt. While LBJ was quite diplomatic in the book in dealing with people and controversies he was fairly explicit in accusing the “Nixon people” of going behind his back to the South Vietnamese leadership and successfully urging them to sabotage the 1968 peace push. LBJ felt that the Nixon effort severely hurt what chance there was of securing some sort of agreement with the North Vietnamese. A book of interest on this subject is the Ken Hughes effort “Chasing Shadows,” which sheds further light on the Nixon subterfuge.

Finally I was looking for some LBJ perspective on the RFK relationship, one of the most fascinating blood feuds in American history. We get some “readouts” from LBJ about the meeting with RFK on the 1964 Democratic Vice Presidential nomination, where Johnson slammed the door in Bobby’s face, as well as his last meeting with RFK after Bobby had declared for the 1968 Democratic nomination, where RFK was trying to divine LBJ’s true political intentions after his withdrawal. As RFK displayed his distrust of Johnson’s political intentions, albeit diplomatically, LBJ told him, “if I move you will know it.” Soon thereafter RFK was dead. In this book Johnson does not betray the depth of the dislike, and distrust, that existed between him and RFK.

The book closes with some transition boilerplate, but how can that not be a little fascinating when the transition is from LBJ to Richard Nixon, two giants of American politics in the 20th century. The book is hard to find, but good reading for those who are fascinated by LBJ, and the explosive period that he led our country through.

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Below, Robert Caro discusses the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson at the Kennedy Library.

Just Added on 8/7/2017

Politico, through John Farrell, a Nixon biographer, takes a look at the Nixon subversion of the LBJ Peace effort in 1968.

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Families First Comes to Seabrook

The Board of Selectmen joined Families First at the ribbon cutting for the new facility at the offices of the Community Action Council in Seabrook. A great synergy, with vital medical services now available for Seabrook residents in Seabrook. Thank you to Families First, and Southern New Hampshire Services, for a terrific addition to Seabrook.

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Portsmouth Hospital Opens New Emergency Room Facility in Seabrook

Wonderful to welcome into Seabrook the Portsmouth Hospital Emergency Room facility, a 10,000 square foot state of the art medical facility that will bring world class medical care to Seabrook, and our region. The ribbon was cut with the help of Senator Maggie Hassan, and we thank her for her support of this great project. Thanks to Dean Carucci and the great team at Portsmouth Hospital, Waterstone Development, the Seabrook Planning Board, and the Board of Selectmen, who were strong supporters of this project.

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Review of “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign”

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed CampaignShattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by Jonathan Allen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A hard look at the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, with lots “insider” thoughts on what went wrong. The book has taken some criticism over the use of unnamed sources, but I did not have an issue with how the author put forward the narrative. 


This book is not a rundown of the Presidential election of 2016, as there is little to say about the other candidates, save for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But even there the book only deals with how those candidacies impacted the Clinton campaign, and how the Clinton team responded to the challenges presented by both. The Clinton campaign strategies are dissected, and with the losing result comes the inevitable harsh criticisms leveled at the candidate, and at her campaign team, with emphasis on Robbie Mook. That analysis (criticism) will (has) been subject to pushback and scrutiny, with that back and forth, I believe, having important ramifications for the Democratic Party going forward. This book deals with the Clinton campaign, but the issues raised by the strategy, and by the election of Donald Trump, reverberate loudly to this minute in the Democratic Party.

The criticism of the candidate falls along the expected lines. Insular, arrogant, too scripted, too calculating, not representative of desired change, with a wooden campaign style. Those evaluations have been heard since 2008, and Clinton was determined, as she started, to change the narrative. She hoped to apply lessons learned from the Obama loss, and brought on Robbie Mook to make sure that the campaign was relentless in its hunt for delegates in the run up to the Democratic nomination. The fly in that ointment? Bernie Sanders, and the left wing populism that drove his campaign, managed to expose the flaws in the campaign, and the book explores those issues in detail. Did the Sanders campaign weaken Hillary, or simply expose the deficiencies that would be more fully exploited by Donald Trump? A Sanders criticism in the book seemed to sum up the problem:
“This kind of campaigning, of going to rich people and asking them for money and modulating your policies in a way that didn’t inspire people, that was a losing formula.” The Clinton “modulation” on the Trans Pacific Partnership, and President Bill Clinton’s past support of NAFTA, were cited, correctly I believe, as positions that hurt her in the primary against Sanders, and would come back to haunt her in the final against Trump. Careful “issue positioning” has worked in the past, but is substantially more difficult with waves of anger sweeping over large segments of the electorate. The Clinton loss, in Michigan, to Sanders, was a harbinger of things to come:


“But for all her attention to detail, Hillary mostly put her fate and her faith in the hands of the professionals she’d hired to run the campaign. The “Valeant” ad was symbolic of her larger challenge in overrelying on data. It tested well with focus groups, but corporate profiteering wasn’t the issue animating the working-class white voters Hillary had to fight for to win Michigan. They cared about trade, trade, and trade. “Bernie Sanders really captured the zeitgeist,” said one longtime Michigan politician. And, like Trump, he did it without Hillary’s taking notice. The traction they were getting should have been a warning sign to Hillary not just about the rest of the primary but for the general election looming behind it.”

Beyond some of the focus on the candidate the book zooms in like a laser on the strategy of Campaign Manager Robbie Mook. Mook’s vaunted analytics model pushed the campaign into a “go where the Democratic votes are” model that essentially gave up on persuasion in areas that were traditionally red.

“During the primaries, Mook’s obsession with efficiency had come at the cost of broad voter contact in states that would become important battlegrounds in the general election. It led him to send the Clintons to big cities, where black and Latino voters would produce major delegate hauls. Putting Hillary in Detroit, for example, was the most efficient way of building votes for the primary and the general election, but it meant that she wasn’t in mostly white Macomb County, just outside the city. “If you’re a white voter in Macomb County, that means something,” said one high-ranking campaign aide. Some of Hillary’s top brass would eventually theorize that this was a major difference between Hillary and Obama: white voters punished her for running a campaign so focused on minority voters, whereas Obama was able to spend time in the white-heavy suburbs of major cities without alienating his African American base. Mook was giving up on persuading voters who weren’t inclined to support Hillary because it was less efficient to go after them. “It’s hard if you try; it’s even harder if you don’t try,” one senior aide said of the decision to forgo appearances in white suburbs. “This is where the analytics can mislead you.”

That argument, pushed hard post election by some, (why did the candidate not visit Wisconsin?)is still being debated. Nate Silver over at Five Thirty Eight has cast some doubt on the theory, but many fault Mook for a strategy that wrote off large segments of voters. Bill Clinton himself, during the campaign, urged that more attention be paid to smaller rural areas. Big Dog or not the campaign, specifically Mook, overruled him.

“Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player— a senator, a governor, or a former president— could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data— he loved poring over political numbers— but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics. One longtime Bill confidant put the difference this way: Robby was an expert in GOTV (get out the vote) data, and Bill came from a time when GOTV meant “go on television”— not to get interviewed but to get free media exposure that amplified his appearance in a small town and ensured everyone there knew he’d been by to check in. Trump’s mastery of turning social media posts into twenty-four-hour reporting on his campaign echoed Bill’s instincts for getting free press.”

Mook’s aversion to polling is highlighted, as well as some of the decisions made on how to deploy resources. Constant complaints about the real lack of a Hillary ground presence in major states was a constant source of bickering in the campaign. (That deficiency, if it was real, was not covered extensively by the media.)

Finally the management dysfunction, while not appearing to be as great as the mess in 2008, still existed. With a network as large as the Clinton’s it may be that there is no way around a certain amount of campaign chaos, but it sure does not help. While the Obama “management model” from 2008 was the goal it is safe to say that Clinton 2016 came up short in that area.

The book, as mentioned, was tough on candidate Clinton. I think we can agree that there were some self inflicted wounds that Hillary suffered. But the book was without much mercy:

“But another view, articulated by a much smaller number of her close friends and high-level advisers, holds that Hillary bears the blame for her defeat. This case rests on the theory that Hillary’s actions before the campaign—setting up the private server, putting her name on the Clinton Foundation, and giving speeches to Wall Street banks in a time of rising populism—hamstrung her own chances so badly that she couldn’t recover. She was unable to prove to many voters that she was running for the presidency because she had a vision for the country rather than visions of power. And she couldn’t cast herself as anything but a lifelong insider when so much of the country had lost faith in its institutions and yearned for a fresh approach to governance. All of it fed a narrative of dynastic privilege that was woefully out of touch with the sentiment of the American electorate. “We lost because of Clinton Inc.,” one close friend and adviser lamented. “The reality is Clinton Inc. was great for her for years and she had all the institutional benefits. But it was an albatross around the campaign.”

The book makes a large issue out of the difficulties that Hillary, and the campaign, had in articulating the reason she was running for President. That failure, and the ability of Donald Trump to simplify and put forward a strong campaign message, is pointed at as a major reason for the Clinton loss.

With all of that the late hit by FBI Director James Comey certainly played a role in the outcome. Was it the reason Hillary lost? That will be debated, along with the accepted and acknowledged Russian intelligence interference, for many years to come, although the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel may expedite some of those answers for the American public. The authors have put forward a pretty good book on the Clinton campaign, which is worth a read even if you do not agree with all of the analysis they have offered.

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The Matt Taibbi Look at the book.

The Five Thirty Eight take on the “Clinton Ground Game” impact on the election result.

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Seabrook Recognizes Timberland

The Board of Selectmen, at the May 22, 2017 meeting, recognized Timberland for the magnificent work and contribution done to beautify the Seabrook Community Center. Timberland sent many volunteers, and donated much of the material used to spruce up the Community Center. The Board of Selectmen recognized Timberland for the this work, for their past generosity in donating boots to Seabrook school children, and for their corporate philosophy, centered on giving back, and creating green space in communities for all to enjoy. The Board presented Timberland with an official citation. The Board recognized and thanked Recreation Director Katie Duffey for all of her hard work in spearheading this effort.

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A Review of Richard Rorty’s “Achieving Our Country”

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century AmericaAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard M. Rorty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For having been written many years ago (published in 1998) the Richard Rorty book “Achieving Our Country” has drawn plenty of attention lately. The Rorty book has been republished, with new stories in the New York Times, Vox and other media highlighting some of the very prescient observations made by Rorty in this book.

This attention to Rorty has been driven by the results of the 2016 Presidential election, and Rorty’s analysis of the “split” in the left that he posits would lead to a divorce between a “cosmopolitan elite” and the working class whites who had been a mainstay of the New Deal Democratic coalition. Rorty identifies the mid-sixties as the time in which the “reformist left” split from the “new left,” with the so called “new left” becoming ascendant, and focusing more on “identity politics” than on bread and butter issues that had traditionally driven the “reformist left.” Rorty is self identified as a member of the “reformist, anti-communist left,” but has strong words of support for the “new left” efforts to address the major social injustices (sadism) that existed for so many in the United States. But this effort, in Rorty’s telling, took the left away from the traditional connection to union households, and away from the issue of growing economic inequality in the United States. 

“During the same period in which socially accepted sadism has steadily diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. It is as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time- as if either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.”

Rorty believed that increasing economic inequality, and the preoccupation of the left with “identity politics” would open the door for a right wing demagogue to use populist rhetoric to seize political power. Rorty passed away long before 2016, but he did identify a major trend line that was coming, and that many just did not see. He even identifies Patrick Buchanan, the godfather, in my opinion, of Trumpism, as a right wing populist seeking to exploit the growing economic inequality being felt in the United States. Rorty, in discussing the economic pain of many American families, brings issues forward that are currently exploding on the political landscape. 

“Unless something unexpected happens, economic insecurity will continue to grow in America. Indeed, it is easy to imagine things getting much worse much faster. This is because a good deal of the insecurity is due to the globalization of the labor market- a trend which can reasonably be expected to accelerate indefinitely.”

He focuses on the impacts of globalization, and writes the following: 

“Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by any one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result in only depriving them of employment. This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises. The increasing dependence of American universities on gifts from abroad, of American political parties on bribes from abroad, and of the economy on foreign sales of Treasury bonds are examples of the tendencies which are at work.”

The “cosmopolitan elite” are further defined by Rorty: 

“This frightening economic cosmopolitanism has, as a by-product, an agreeable cultural cosmopolitanism. Platoons of vital young entrepreneurs fill the front cabins of transoceanic jets, while the back cabins are weighted down with paunchy professors like myself, zipping off to interdisciplinary conferences held in pleasant places. Bit this newly-acquired cultural cosmopolitanism is limited to the richest twenty- five percent of Americans. The new economic cosmopolitanism presages a future in which the other 75 percent of Americans will find their standard of living steadily shrinking. We are likely to wind up with an America divided into hereditary social castes. This America will be run by what Michael Lind (in The Next American Nation) has called the “overclass,” the highly educated and expensively groomed top 2.5 percent. One of the scariest social trends is illustrated by the fact that in 1979 kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were four times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter; now they are ten times more likely.”

Sound familiar? There is much more that sounds like it was written in 2016. Rorty looks at two alternatives to dealing with world-wide economic inequality. The first would be a globalist solution, while the second is a “take care of our own citizens” solution. The difference?
“The first solution suggests that the old democracies should open their borders, whereas the second suggests that they should close them.” The political divide on immigration may be the very largest gulf in an extremely polarized society in 2017, and played a major role in the ascent of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Rorty appears to have seen this one coming many years ago. 

Beyond immigration Rorty saw the great big wedge that free trade would be for right wing populism. With economic security slipping away for so many free trade has come into the crosshairs: 

“Union members in the United States have watched factory after factory close, only to reopen in Slovenia, Thailand, or Mexico. It is no wonder that they see the result of international free trade as prosperity for managers and stockholders, a better standard of living for workers in developing countries, and a very much worse standard of living for American workers. It would be no wonder if they saw the American leftist intelligentsia as on the side of the managers and stockholders-as sharing the same class interests. For we intellectuals, who are mostly academics, are ourselves quite well insulated, at least in the short run, from the effects of globalization. To make things worse , we often seem more interested in the workers of the developing world than in the fate of our own citizens.”

Sounds like it could have been written by Steve Bannon, and it certainly was the linchpin of the assault on the Hillary Clinton candidacy by Donald Trump. It also provided to us a hint of the divide to come in Democratic politics, with Bernie Sanders decrying Democratic support for free trade, and condemning the “corporatists” in the Party who he believes have sold out working people. Clinton, at heart a free trader, could never truly give a cogent answer on the trade question, tripping badly in the primaries and in the general election in the face of the anti-trade groundswell. She lost Michigan in both.

Rorty accurately predicts the coming “crack” that will rupture traditional politics. 

“…is that members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers – themselves desperately afraid of being downsized – are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.
At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking for a strongman to vote for – someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots.”

And the Trump era begins. Rorty even manages to hit on a theme you hear, ad nauseam, from the right, about rejecting politically correct speech: 

“All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” 

Rorty speculates that this “backlash” has the potential to roll back gains made by minority groups over the past forty years, and we can see some of that prophecy coming to pass with efforts to disenfranchise minority voters, and in so many other areas.

For a book published in 1998 the analysis is fairly well thought out, and accurate. Rorty certainly, in my opinion, oversimplifies some concepts, including the dichotomy between “reformist” and “new” left. His prescription for curing the “sadism” suffered by so many in American society in the run up to 1964 is unclear to me. Despite those criticisms it is a book worth reading, especially for Democrats. His discernment of how the forces he identified would change American politics was and is truly amazing.

View all my reviews

A link to the VOX story on the Rorty book.

The New York Times story on the Rorty book.

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