Year In Review 2014: And The Winner Is?

More than most years, 2014 will be retrospectively consequential. The US post-1945 order finally enters its transition era. Most obviously, Putin launched an ill-conceived war to challenge its foundations. Other developments promise significant portent. Modi’s rise in India is but one example. Domestically, Americans’ facade of a post-racial society collapsed. And Neocons re-emerged.

American Luck Holds

Americans remain lucky internationally for now. Russia’s war began with clumsy improvisation and lurched to a strategic dead end. Ukrainian grit surprised Moscow – just one of many Russian strategic intelligence failures. China, India and others support Moscow symbolically in part yet preserve their own options and interests in the present order. They follow their own timetable for systemic change, not Putin’s.

America avoided directly engaging Russia, denying Moscow the co-equal status it craves. That US stance encouraged Merkel and the EU to confront Russian aggression themselves. Russian hawks (like Sergei Markov, etc.) concede their hopes to split the alliance (to date) are unrealistic. One would like to think a coherent US strategy helped shape these events. Equally plausible is American tactical improvisation simply was more fortunate.

Putin? We’d rate him 2014’s net loser. Had he stopped at Crimea, he faced no sanctions and enjoyed stratospheric domestic approval. Russia is far weaker, more isolated, and domestically more fragile than during the Sochi boondoggle. From canceling Russia’s pet Southstream pipeline into Europe, ruble woes – Russian Central Bank Chief Elvira Nabuillina may have the toughest job in Russia today – to a bad gas deal with China and Putin’s isolation at the G20, Russian horizons shrunk a great deal.

Ukraine, conversely, is far more unified and committed to a European liberal path than ever. Two successful elections and a newly vibrant society show potential. Russia’s war in the Donbass forged a new nationalism and but sidelined a region (along with Crimea) that would’ve sent significant votes for Communists and pro-Moscow parties in Kiev.

Ukraine’s struggles are still beginning. IMF-driven reforms will pack a dislocating wallop. Kiev’s economy will remain on edge for some time. And vital domestic initiatives such as lustration and anti-corruption are still embryonic.

Merkel’s clear stance against Russian revisionism surprised Moscow. Many predicted she would follow German SPD party’s equivocation and German industrialists’ demands for “understanding”. Her marathon 6 hour November conversation with Putin in Australia may mark a watershed. Merkel now directly confronts Russian subversion in the Balkans. It’s a new German EU foreign policy leadership role. Will it work? Does she have the vision to sustain it? Can she maintain German domestic support?

2015 may be another story. EU sanctions expire soon if not renewed. Some US European experts are certain sanctions will be lifted. Moscow re-packages itself as a peace maker yet again to empower EU apologists. Putin hedges bets by advising Moscow technocrats to prepare for ten years of confrontation.

Wine In A Brand New Jar?

Neocons took 2014 by storm. 2015 can only offer more blue sky.

2014 marked the year Democrats en masse scrambled to join. Yet Democrats can’t articulate an alternative to Obama’s foreign policy that differs. The Right and Rand Paul’s conversion to internationalist Realism (while Paul remains instinctually an isolationist) remain the exception. Interestingly, Fred Kagan and others openly declare their true home is in the Democratic Party (again).

The Neocons’ greatest 2014 success is framing ISIS as an existential threat. A tentative and reactive Obama Administration jumped on to ill-advised, ill-considered spastic kinetic force without a clear strategy.

The New Republic‘s demise is a different story. The larger and more important indictment? TNR long ago ceased to be an authentic, liberal, progressive voice.

Should TNR be a new Gawker or Buzzfeed for a certain social set, perhaps it’s a fitting epitaph. The staff’s reaction to young owner Chris Hughes’ decisions reveals a mindset accustomed to benefactor patronage. To discover they’re employees like much of America is a harsh lesson.

Home Alone

America’s long vacation from social realities crashed on a global stage. Ferguson, Eric Garner in NY, Tamir Rice (the 12 year old boy shot by police because he had a bee bee gun) and so many others highlight the cost in lives and potential lost. American social dysfunction can’t be obscured. And it’s more than de-legitimized, excessively militarized local law enforcement.

The US for the first time nationally experienced how social technologies fueled protests from Tehran to Tunisia, Hong Kong to Maidan. Many Americans didn’t like uncensored voices. Protestors (from varied backgrounds) self organize, distribute video and photos, and use Livestream for alternative broadcasts to cable “news” coverage. (That America in 2014 lacks an actual cable news channel at all is merely symptomatic).

Racial inequality is the most prominent aspect of American disinterest in forging a healthy, inclusive society. Socio-economic stratification continues to widen. Congress’ roll back of its own weak 2008 Wall Street reforms — at the request of Wall Street — underscores the fault lines only grow. Dysfunctional government that responds only to the few doesn’t happen by accident. Nor is it sustainable.

Richard Haas observed that Foreign Policy Begins At Home. Our effectiveness abroad is directly linked to good governance at home. The link above deliberately is to the Daily Show. American youth (or young at heart), unfettered by old wedge issues on race, gender and class, can make a powerful difference – if they choose to engage politically.

These are the year’s highlights (or low points) to us. What did we miss? Who or what do you think made 2014?

2014 And Limits Of New Romanticism

2014 And The New Romantics

We’re witnessing another New Romantic historical moment end. We see it wind down in domestic American politics, including L’Affaire Snowden. And in Kiev’s Streets. We turn our gaze from Syrian killing fields. Spontaneous, unorganized mass sentiment failed to create real change anywhere.

1848 Europe’s revolutionary, democratic moment and its lessons come to mind. Europe saw its widest ever democratic revolutionary wave quickly collapse into a Continental reactionary resurgence. Historical analogies should always be suspect, especially here. Yet, we can’t help but ask, “What comes next, now?”


The New Romantics Aren’t A Pop Group

Our last 15 years constitute a Romantic Moment. First it flourished with the Colored Revolutions’ early promise. Even elements of Americans’ manipulated arc in Iraq and Afghanistan floated on misguided sentiment. Mass sentiment erupted in Tehran, ignited the Arab Spring, Syria, rock both Thailand and now Ukraine, again. Obama’s improbable 2008 presidency and aftermath are part of the tableau, too.

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Thoughts On Boston’s Crisis, The New Tribalism And Participatory Meaning

Events in Boston last week illustrate how technology shapes our personal identity. And how little we understand the process. Boston shows us a foretaste of the new tribalism that relies on ephemeral situations and adrenalin to create a sense of belonging. It will change what it means to be an American.

Boston Is Saved By An Angel

What Is The New Tribalism?

First, the definitions. We’ll start with new tribalism is an individual’s sense of self, belonging and loyalty. That sense of self is defined by participating in communal activity responding to an ad hoc event or crisis. Here, it’s a new tribe following a terrorist bombing. This new ‘tribe’ is interesting because its values can supplement traditional ones, at least temporarily.

Doubtlessly you are already asking, ‘So is it really new’? In the past, rallies and concerts might be seen as the forerunners to today’s phenomenon. Certainly true of the Party rallies in the 1930s, for example. And the various ideologies of the now trite ‘happenings’ and ‘sit ins’ in the 1960s, as well as mass spectacles of Woodstock, etc.

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Knock Knock Knockin On Boomers’ Doors

Last night’s feeble, geriatric, reverse mortgage ‘Concert for 12-12-12′ should galvanize all to overthrow the Boomers’ tyrannical claim to pop culture relevance.

Springsteen, Rolling Stones, The Who, Concert, Sandy

$25,000 Per Ticket For A Concert Says It All

Consider the bloated, self-satisfied pricing of tickets themselves: an actual event in Madison Square Garden selling tickets for $25,000 at the box office, no scalpers. One can only imagine the Boomers’ orgasms (without their pills, mostly psychic) induced by their Amex Black invoices. Telling that media focused on scalpers’ Craigslist prices, not the underlying rapacity itself.

Consider the hollow rationalizations to justify onanistic consumerism: only Boomers can afford $25,000 ticket, ergo a 1960s nostalgia concert bill. This ‘concert’ was a pretext for a celebration by the 1% for the 1%. Only cloaked. And the 99% rubes have some vague trickle down role to play – call now.

Too cynical? Some major American cities no longer support a broad-based rock radio station. Even abhorrent ‘classic rock’ is a dying niche. The non-Boomer vote with their radio dial dispatches rock and especially ‘classic rock’ to crawl off and die.

The cold calculation of forward brand positioning also stands out. It’s no accident, as the Sovs used to say, that we see Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder paired with a 69 year-old Brit, or shoe gazing darling Nirvana’s shards together with a wizened McCartney. Gen-X, stand at attention. You soon will be cogs in the nostalgia-celebration-exploitation machine. You’re just not liquid enough yet.

But What About Those Power House Rock Bands?

Springsteen and his now amorphous E-Street Band wobbled out first. Now largely immobile, Bruce tried projecting ‘sincerity’ and ‘presence’ to evoke when they truly, briefly led rock and pop culture. Seeing the comparatively limber 50-year old Bon Jovi on stage in juxtapose sent a powerful, but unintended statement.

If you remember the 1970s, local FM stations bleated about Pink Floyd laser shows in some planetarium. Roger Waters’ few Pink Floyd stoner classics doubtlessly launched thousands of reminiscences about Boomers’ favorite college bongs. Musically tight but a Pink Floyd concert never was really about music at all. As the kidz say, meh.

Bon Jovi’s set already fades from memory. Mercifully. He is not really for the $25,000 ticket class. But someone has to play to the $150 nose (noise) bleed seats. Chris Christie’s real home. You know?

Clapton, looking surprisingly spry, wisely avoided “Let It Rain”. His blues turgid yet too energetic to rekindle memories of quaaludes, heroin chic and stoned immobility.

It’s Only Entertainment, Yes It Is

Then the Stones. We’ve always said – back when it happened, not now when it’s ‘so obvious’ – that the Stones ceased to be a *good* rock band circa 1973 and the last Mick Taylor shows in Europe. For a while in the 1970s they were blatantly mediocre – something Jagger cops to now and then.

As we all know, Jagger and then the other Stones switched gears with the 1981 “Tattoo You” tour. Jagger decided if they couldn’t play reliably, they’d overwhelm with spectacle. And they got very rich.

No surprise their two lackluster songs offered good visuals. “You Got Me Rockin” remains an embarrassment as when foisted on us in 1994. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” even more shambolic and anemic than usual. Still, Jagger’s supranatural gyrations ensured an arcane, creaky spectacle. Appalling.

Alicia Keys gets the Billy Ocean award. You remember him? In 1985 when it was pointed out that Live Aid had no black artists at all, promoters glommed Billy Ocean to the setlist. He pathetically lip sync’d his then pop hit alone in front of the JFK multitudes.

Alicia as token woman underscored promoters’ original sin. Minor kudos for not choosing Betty White. Boomers might be puzzled at her brief and musically out of context set. How many watching thought “Oh, so that’s what I heard in Starbucks”? Or worse, remembered an Amex commercial.

Then The Who. Their incendiary, eruptive prime with Keith Moon continues to haunt them. Musically, this ensemble remains tight – perhaps the evening’s best. Daltrey’s voice is gone and Townshend’s low-volume Strat noodling glaringly far removed from halcyon days. The NYT loved it all.

Fellas, retire. You’ve nothing left to prove.

And so on through Kanye and Billy Joel. Kanye seemed defiantly gleeful as The Other Token Act, happy to contend with Alicia Keys for the Billy Ocean award. Billy Joel’s interminable set lulled Boomers to that special Hell when ‘Piano Man’ was as ubiquitous as ‘Stairway to Heaven’. For everyone else, it must have seemed inexplicable.

Next, Gwyneth Paltrow’s husband’s uniquely ball-less stylings added to the bizarre. Ordinarily, Chris Martin’s Cold Play John Tesh-isms should be banned from joining these bands, debilitated or not. Martin was perfect. Somehow, like Fellini-via-Simon Cowell, after everything before, the absurdity of it all invoked a certain manic, indiscriminate aesthetic abandon. Aural vandalism if you will.

Finally, McCartney. What better closing to the lunacy than a creepy, crinkled vampire trying to feast off of Nirvana’s remnants and rejuvenate his relevancy. And seduce them and their followers. Couldn’t they see his fangs?

His vampirism a warning and vision for the Gen X, Seattle shoe gazing alt rock fans. Macca’s siren call is to embrace affluence and self-absorbed nostalgia that keeps him alive. Become the new Boomers.

It won’t be easy for Sir Paul’s victims. The old mono culture is gone. Plus, Boomers’ bubble economies are toast. But kids, you can still focus on 401-ks and equity portfolios. Because, in the words of Monty Python, “One day lad, all this could be yours.” For now, it’s sufficient to follow wrinkled Uncle Paul and join in “Helter Skelter” — unironically, please.

Will any of the Gen-Xers on stage last night aspire to mince in their 70s? Inspiring their equally aged cohorts to shell out staggering sums for tickets? A huge industry is betting on it.

As grooming exercises go, surely last night’s concert marks a fine start.

A Military Perceived As Possibly Losing Grip

You’ve probably noticed numerous military (or special operators) personnel acting out against Democrats and President Obama. Some are active duty, some are retired. All are leveraging their public-funded training and experience for partisan advantage.

Military Headaches Come In Threes?

The three most recent incidents are: (i) a group of low-ranking active duty military committing murder to further a scheme to assassinate the president; (ii) a former SEAL trying to publish a book on the UBL raid without submitting it for clearance; and (iii) that now well-known front group of former SEAL and special operators attacking Obama for the election. (Video h/t @Sam_Lowry_USA).

No one should deny anyone’s First Amendment rights if retired and in compliance with classification rules. Still, these examples risk creating the perception of the military as just another partisan special interest group. And it’s perceptions that are important here.

Senior military leadership have an opportunity to set or re-establish bright, emphatic lines of expected behavior. And communicate what’s permissible, even if unwelcome. In a healthy domestic political environment, much of that would be undertaken by both parties. What is crucial is that communication occurs.

We’re just entering the first phase of resource contraction for the military/intelligence/contractor community after unprecedented largesse. Severe domestic cuts are also likely, regardless of November’s results. The service chiefs need to look ahead.

The Military Benefits From Clarifying Bright Lines

Chairman JCS Dempsey’s statements that he’s “disappointed” by recent events and that they “don’t make my job any easier” are candid but only a tepid first step. Admiral McRaven’s reaction to the SEAL book, while adhering to an unwritten code of understatement, should be only the beginning in clarifying for the public what is or isn’t permissible activity. Especially after a year of ‘leaks’ being used as a partisan wedge issue.

Public trust is a crown jewel for the military but can be fragile. Internal military cultural signals, personnel shifts, etc. to address recent events won’t be enough. This isn’t about trying to clean house at Colorado Springs because of Evangelical excesses. A national stage is involved. Given the permeability of military culture with the civilian social networks, service chiefs can’t assume their cultural signals are axiomatically ascendant.

Conclusion

These three events occur amidst the long-standing civilian-military divide. We’ve devoted decades to following that matter and tried to focus attention in the 1990s. We spoke about it with the old Office of Force Transformation, NDU and elsewhere. Lots of smart people work the problem; solutions still elusive.

We’d be the first to argue that civilian inattention and indifference to obligations, commitments and cultures remains a large contributor to the gap. We see little sign of civilian leadership and culture changing focus soon. Work must be incremental in both directions. Yet the military is subordinate to our civilian society and must remain so.

All the more reason for the military to do its utmost to assure the public it remains apolitical. To be be perceived as such. Above all, we urge that when in doubt, err on the side of communicating where its control over personnel and their actions begins and ends.

The ‘Republican’ Inner Voice: Let Them Die

The hypothetical? If a young healthy person elects not to get health insurance but encounters sudden catastrophic medical emergency, should society help?

In fairness, Paul hearing the chants of ‘yeah, let him die’ answered ‘No’, suggesting the hypothetically illl person a Randian martyr and offering local charities. That moment an accurate snapshot about the health of our social contract. How lucky are we to have such a resolute champion to articulate the America we remember.

Republican Party, Tea Party, Republican Tea Party Debate, Let Him Die, Right WIng, CNN Debate

The Paths Ahead (Tweak On 8/4/11)

So are we there yet? Some thoughts as they occur, probably to be consolidated in an omnibus post.

Turn Your Head And Cough, Please

We begin where we are. Political science and philosophy lead to the same diagnosis: today’s America is a hybrid demotic-oligarchy. The hybrid qualifier? Existing institutions are deployed as both hammer and victim. Oligarchy, while increasingly bold, prefers to act through intermediaries. Economic difficulties may highlight oligarchical self-serving action. They still remain, good times or bad. But you already knew that.

All should know by 2011 oligarchy and the Movement are momentarily bed fellows. Koch money et al. funds the Movement. To agitate on tax cuts or issue X. The Movement remains distinct. Across history oligarchies typically are overthrown by authoritarianism. See, e.g. Venice, Genoa, Rome (and even Athens, which was never a republic but a democracy) Or your own example.

Oligarchical rule is never sustainable. It’s primarily extractive and self-interested nature leads to dissipation or opposition, usually chaotic or disorganized because political institutions have atrophied. Thus enters the Man on the White Horse to restore order. (Oligarchical money of course also famously funds Democrats).

Howard Fineman’s ‘we are watching slow rolling secession (from democratic pluralism)’ sums it up. He’s late to the realization; still a nice turn of phrase. We should be clear what this means. When societies reach this devolutionary point, there usually is no ‘re-set’. Things don’t just go ‘back to the way they were’ (see post on Audacity’s failure below).

Politics and society have changed. A by-product of Obama’s refusal to implement (and defend) roll-back of the 2001-2008 corrosion. We should adapt accordingly. For the post-Obama world.

Cowboys And Democrats

Do Democrats want to challenge the game? Today’s circumstances demand a thorough intellectual re-boot. Secession from pluralism requires a new ideological response. Even if Dems must play the money game without reform. The hardest part? Just beginning it all. Democrats have paralyzed themselves with tropes like seeing a snapshot poll and muttering “America is center right anyway”. Forgetting *that’s* the result only after decades of almost totally unopposed Movement AgitProp. How far do Democrats really want to move the cheese?

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Begin The Long Retreat (Revised)

History will record the brief American intoxication with the Obama Audacity Campaign a reckless gamble. Strategically, the Campaign had two components necessary for success. The first was to overwhelm and penetrate Republican/Movement ranks with the power of personality to seize control of American government in 2008. The second, assuming opponents’ psychological surrender, was to govern by verbosity, intention and situational accommodation via the existence of a wholly undefined ‘new politics’.

That Campaign failed. Its second phase rout fueled the seemingly impossible: Obama re-energized, strengthened and then mainstreamed the most radical Movement elements. From being mere marginalized ghosts gnawing on themselves in the shadows 3 years ago Obama planted their radicalism firmly in the center-most heart of American politics. It is a catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions.

When Winning Is Not What It Seems

The Audacity Campaign’s core failure is that its second phase, successful control of government and validation through re-election, was non-sensical from the outset. The entire venture’s success would be possible only if its opponents agreed to cooperate, stand down and join the so-called ‘new politics’. Audacity meant Obama never controlled his victory conditions, nor his future (and the Nation’s).

The importance of this ‘new politics’ to the Audacity Campaign is almost always overlooked by political pundits. In phase two Obama did not intend to govern as a traditional political figure. But neither he (nor his advisors who asked for more crises) thought to ask why would political opponents so recently defeated cooperate in their further eclipse? Naturally no contingency plans laid out.

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The Ongoing Chemistry Experiment

Bemusing that even today, most ‘mainstream’ political commentators and elected Democrats are surprised by and ill-equipped to deal with the Movement phenomenon. You, Dear Reader, look at the Hill and see: (x) a non-structured ideological phenomenon; that (y) exists apart from traditional institutional entities; that (z) when it wins elections retains primary loyalty to itself, not the institution. Others see something unprecedented.

Recap

A Movement is anchored to ideological purities as it lacks any formal structure. Moreover, ideology must evolve, imparting Movement direction and dynamism. Movements manufacture or benefit from crisis mentality for that dynamism and individual self-identity. All is cast in binary terms: victory or defeat, forward or back, with us or against us. Never compromise.

Membership retention and recruitment occur via public theater (protests, rallies, votes). Movements naturally flourish in times of social upheaval and fear (often creating or exacerbating those very circumstances).

The amorphous nature of Movements ensures that there may be sub strands or variants participating. Align with and internal loyalty to core polestar tenants key, not the optics from an external ‘other’ point of view.

Wherever Movements successfully assumed political control after infiltration they swept aside traditional, conventional political behavior. Wherever Movements failed? They co-mingled with existing norms and thus lost ideological dynamism, self-generating radicalism and members.

All of the above summarizes our long running conversation. Professional elected Democrats and pundit class still don’t understand what they’re seeing. Consumed by frisson of tactical minutiae. Lessons learned the hard way.

Now What?

Let’s turn to the Movement’s next steps. Where are they?

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