Thursday, November 30, 2023

Kissinger is Dead But Realpolitik Lives On

The internet is abuzz with the news of Henry Kissinger's death. Amidst all the jubilation and snark, I have seen little analysis of his actual legacy. I think this might be because those celebrating his demise are well aware that his ideas and approach to foreign affairs are still making their mark on the world.

Back around 2007 I was living in Grand Rapids, and Kissinger came to town to deliver a talk. I showed up out of curiosity and to see what this man was like in the flesh that I had heard so much about. For years I had heard about his charisma and skill with romance, which seemed inexplicable until that night. When he took the stage, the man talked with a striking air of certainty and obvious erudition. While I strongly disagreed with the conclusions of his analysis, I understood in that moment why he had been such a successful diplomat and political operator. 

He was more of a legend to me to that point, a figure I had seen on television since my youth. In college I took some classes on international politics, where I learned that he was more than a diplomat. Kissinger was a thinker, probably the most important modern proponent of "realism." He referred to this viewpoint with his famous statement, "America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests." A modern day Bismarck, Kissinger defended the doctrines of Realpolitik in a time when international institutions and connections undermined the old certainties of nation-state politics.

When I took that class in the late 1990s, Kissinger's realism felt very antiquated, the political science equivalent of a leisure suit. The end of the Cold War opened up the possibility of a more global world where peace would be achieved by international cooperation, rather than the machinations of "balance of power." 

9/11 and especially the "war on terror" shook that certainty. The Bush administration's murderously idealistic attempt to remake the Middle East not only discredited neoconservatism, it undermined the belief in globalist, idealist solutions among a lot of people. (Kissinger supported the Iraq invasion, although on different grounds than the neocons.)

As the neocons have faded, a Trumpian "America First" nationalism dominates the Republican Party. That's certainly not Kissinger's methodology, but both America First and Kissinger's more diplomatic global Realpolitik are rooted in a belief that no moral or legal considerations ought to restrain the government in pursuing the perceived interests of America. Many world leaders from MBS to Putin to Xi to Netanyahu practice Realpolitik with gusto. Kissinger may be dead, but his spirit lives on. Amid the grave dancing we ought to be paying attention to that. 

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Coping with Winter's Onset

Thanksgiving came, and with it, winter. Night falls hard, the darkness at 5 making it feel like ten o'clock at night. The wind bites, stabbing through the buttons of my coat. Even when the clouds clear, the sunlight feels feeble, cut at an angle. 

I feel the transitions in the seasons more than most people. My clothing, diet, and even music choices change radically this time of year. The outdoors goes from something to be enjoyed to something to be endured. I embrace the holiday season as a fun distraction, but that makes the first two and a half months of the year even more bleak. Knowing I will soon have to live through them is already weighing on me.

I have well-worn coping mechanisms, but a little perspective is helping me face this winter. It hit me today that we are almost four years away from the anniversary of the first COVID-19 cases in Wuhan. I suddenly remembered the awfulness of the winters of 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. The deaths, the disruptions, illnesses and uncertainty are something I never want to revisit. Last winter I was still waiting for the axe to drop. This winter, for the first time in years, I can just have the good ole winter ache without a big blast of fear. Maybe things will go south and we will have another outbreak, but I am at enough peace right now to not get antsy about it.

As those of us in the northern latitudes face winter I'd like to share some of my traditional coping mechanisms.

Root Vegetables

To get through winter you've got to stay healthy, and as quality fresh fruits and vegetables get scarcer with the change in temperature, root vegetables are there for you. Throw those parsnips in your stews, boil and mash up a rutabaga with some carrots and your stomach will since a happy song. 

Canadian Folk Music

I listen to inordinate amounts of Gordon Lightfoot, early Leonard Cohen, and Ian & Sylvia in winter. Who knows better how to weather the cold than Canadians? The music soothes me to boot. No song embodies winter to me more than Gord's "The Way I Feel," either the acoustic or electric version


When you've got to shovel your walk there's no better prep or reward than a shot of bourbon. The whiskey keeps you warm, and that complex bourbon flavor has the depth to match the emotions of the winter months. Putting it in a hot toddy? Even better. 


Feeling chilly when you want to be cozy? Put on a cardigan and all your problems are solved, baby!

Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Seeing Bob Dylan on a Rainy Jersey Night

Tonight I got to see the last show on Bob Dylan's Rough and Rowdy Ways tour. As I wrote about on my Substack, I have been anticipating this for months now. I was not disappointed. 

His band set a perfect smoky vibe with Dylan behind the piano. I was in a large theater but it was a performance meant for a cozy club. Moody selections from his most recent album mixed with old chestnuts of the kind normies don't know. He started with "Watching the River Flow" and ended with "Every Grain of Sand." On the latter, he played a harmonica solo, a surprise where I could hear echoes of Woody Guthrie and freedom songs in the Mississippi heat.

It was hard to believe I was hearing an 82 year old; he played like a man reborn. The time in the hourglass is running out, but like his namesake, Dylan raged against the dying of the light. As I look at my own 48 years on this earth it's hard to believe there's anything coming that I haven't already seen. This show made me believe there's still surprises in store. 

We all have only one life to live, and each one is a fragile flame, ready to be blown out at any moment. In the meantime, we live and try to flourish. 

Thursday, November 9, 2023

Tuesday's Election Illustrates Why Republicans Gerrymander and Suppress Votes

Over on Substack before Tuesday's election I was remembering the anniversary of Obama winning the 2008 election. I argued that the current anti-democratic, white nationalist Republican Party has its origins in that time. The 2007-2008 economic collapse helped undermine belief in Reaganomics, even among conservative voters. Trump figured this out, and won Republican support while giving out free money during COVID and assailing free trade. Sarah Palin's "Real America" talk in 2008 was a harbinger of the future. 

As the Republican Party has become the party of populist nationalism, it has come to rely on a shrinking demographic of aging white people, many of them living in declining rural and Rust Belt areas losing population. This has made it necessary for Republicans to tilt elections and use the non-democratic institutions in our system to maintain power. It's why they try to suppress votes and aggressively gerrymander. It's why they managed to rig the Supreme Court to overturn reproductive rights despite winning the presidential popular vote only once since 1988. The electoral college allowed them to put in two losers of the popular vote with disastrous consequences this century.

Writing two days after the election, I now see that the Republican agenda is even more unpopular than I first realized. In red Ohio voters decisively approved of voting rights and legal weed. An anti-abortion Republican challenger for the governor's mansion went down in flames in red Kentucky. Virginia Republican governor Glenn Youngkin's attempt to get control of the state legislature ended in embarrassment after he floated a 15 week abortion ban "compromise."  

This is part of a larger and longer trend. In many states with Republican state houses, voters have passed ballot initiatives to overturn laws passed by Republican legislatures. Voters have approved Medicaid expansion, raises in minimum wage, and abortion rights. In my home state of Nebraska, voters have approved an initiative to be put on the next ballot to overturn a law diverting money from public to private schools. In some of these states gerrymandering has all but eliminated free and fair elections. Tuesday night's referendums, which circumvent gerrymandering, show why.

Intriguingly, there also appears to be a significant number of people who vote for Republicans while voting against some of their core priorities when given the chance. If Democrats can solve this riddle, they have the chance to make big gains in places assumed to be hostile territory. For a long time conventional wisdom said that opposition to abortion explained why so many voters in red states could disagree with Republican economic policy yet for politicians who prioritized the interests of the wealthy. The recent abortion referendum votes show this is not the case at all. Perhaps the core issue is actually white resentment, perhaps not. As Andy Beshear illustrates in Kentucky, it is not impossible for Democrats to do well in red states while still governing as Democrats and not Mancin-style Republican Lite. 

Just as Donald Trump changed the older political coalitions with his focus on nationalism, abortion has the chance to reorient things in another direction. Basic assumptions are changing. Opposition to abortion, unions, higher wages, LGBTQ rights, and public educators are not winning issues anymore. The Reagan era was a long time ago. A normal political party would react by moderating their positions, but I expect the maximalist current version of the Republican Party will just double down on diluting the people's voice. After all, the people who vote against them aren't "real Americans."