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Posts published in “books”

The Equal Voice Voting option


Not all but a great many of us have serious complaints about the electoral college, the constitutionally-mandated collection of people that, most directly, elects the presidents of the United States.

Established in the constitution as a sot of uncomfortable compromise, it has shaken and wobbled through the years and when pressed given us some unfortunate results. Because electoral votes are counted in a winner-take-all approach state by state, the national results won't necessarily match the preferences of America's votes. Just that happened in 2016 (and 1888).

There's not a lot we can readily do, however, to get to the simplest and most logical result, which is to elect our presidents by direct popular vote. As a practical matter, since the EC is embedded in the constitution, the job of getting that change made would be a political lift beyond the superheroic. In anything like the near term, that simply isn't going to happen.

There are alternatives for working within the system. One, which almost a third of the states has signed on to, involves a compact in which a large group of states would agree that their electoral votes would go to whichever presidential candidate receives the most popular votes nationally. (It would have to be approved by states accounting for at least 270, the number needed to elect a president, to go into effect.) It might be better than the current system, because at least the will of the people is more likely to be directly carried out, but it does have a series of problems of its own, including some questions of constitutionality.

A new book out this year, All Votes Matter, by game theorist Jerry Spriggs, of West Linn, Oregon, proposes another way to use the current electoral college system in a way that offers some significant benefits.

There's a hint of what could be in the states of Maine and Nebraska, where the electoral college votes are awarded in a split fashion, two of them (in each state) reflecting the statewide vote but the others matched to the presidential winner in each of the congressional districts. (Both of those state split their electoral college votes between the candidates in 2020.)

What Spriggs calls Equal Voice Voting would involving splitting every state's electoral college vote based on the portion of the vote each candidate received. As a practical matter, that would mean major-party presidential candidates rarely would receive all the electoral votes from any state, in a block; they would be split depending on how strongly or poorly the candidates did. That would have meant, in 2020, that Donald Trump would have gotten some of the electoral votes from California, and Joe Biden would have gotten some of the votes from Texas - even, very likely, one of Idaho's four electoral college votes.

Part of the idea is that, for voters, no one would be shut out because they live in a "red" or "blue" state - even the underdogs are likely to collect some votes there. Another idea is that this approach would mean the electoral college vote would much more closely reflect the actual popular vote. Spriggs reviewed the national results over the last 16 presidential elections and found those electoral college votes were a close match for the popular vote.

He has some concerns I don't share or think as critical as he does - the significance of votes by states and the risk of abuse in elections, for example. And he tends to elide, as the book closes, the extreme difficulty of getting all 50 states to adopt such a system, which is what they'd have to do to make it work. (Say you're in a red or blue state: Do you want to go first in surrendering some of your party's advantages? Probably not until the other side puts up as well.)

But he makes an excellent case for the usefulness of Equal Voice Voting as a means of developing one-man one-vote system without having to take a run at the constitution. Check it out. And maybe give a little thought to launching some support for it.

The Bolton book


The newly-published - over the objections of the Trump Administration - book by former National Security Advisor John Bolton, The Room Where It Happened, is worth the read, even if not for most of the reasons I had expected.

I picked up on it (and yes, I know the many arguments for not doing so) definitely not for guidance on the more controversial aspects of foreign policy; Bolton and I, for example, simply would never see eye to on the Iraq war, or on a number of other items. In a book that covers the range of foreign policy in a rough tour d'horizon (to use the favored phrase in that crowd), I wasn't anywhere persuaded off earlier views, though I did find useful education a number of areas I hadn't been very familiar with.

And as for political bombshells ... most (not all) of those already have been exploding in news reports.

No parts of the book I found most interesting and useful, and these parts took up a great deal of the text, had to do with this: What's it like to work in and make decisions in the Trump Administration? That is, not just as a matter of adjectives and metaphors (though we do get some hot examples of those here too), but rather, in plain language, how does decision-making work, or not, at the White House in the current term, especially as compared to how it was done before.

Bolton had the advantage of working in three presidential administrations before Trump's, and at a high level in foreign affairs in two of them (the Bush administrations), so he has a basis for comparison. A lot of the book is about the nuts and bolts of how information is evaluated and decisions are made. You don't necessarily have to agree with Bolton's policy preferences to see clearly when the process is going awry. As, in Bolton's telling, it often does.

This is no hatchet job. Bolton loads his narrative with precise detail (these five people met on this day at this time for 20 minutes in this room), which speaks to his reputation (like that of many foreign affairs professionals) as a note-taker. He is careful to give credit to Trump where merited, as happens, from time to time. But the basics are damning. Trump seems unable to learn, to think conceptually, to get beyond personalities and immediate impacts on himself. His obsession with his own image (and how things play on cable television) seem as front-and-center here as in many other reports. Attempts by aides to educate him in the complexities of the real world typically run into a thick wall.

Seeing that description (you've of course seen it before) is one thing. But over the course of 592 pages, Bolton lays it out day by day, meeting by meeting, conversation by conversation. What's damning is not so much the big news items (the plea for Chinese help with his re-election, for example). What's damning is how it all settles into a depressing, rut.

What is this White House actually like? An answer to that question, from someone who was in a central position there, for a while, is what this book answers. It makes it worth the read.



The Mueller report took a little while to read, at 448 pages of fairly dense type. (I did skip many of the footnotes.) But it sped along in many places for this reason: So much of what it had to say, the people involved and the things they were doing, is by now familiar.

One of the appendices includes a list of the people involved, a rather long list. Some of the names tend toward the obscure, but a great many, from members of the Trump family to campaign personnel to shadowy Russian operatives, have become household names over the last nearly three years.

They've gotten that way through news stories - in newspapers, wire services and magazines - and through books and other media. In fact, if you've read the books about the Trump White House from writers from Bob Woodward to Michael Wolff to Cliff Sims, you've seen this story. (The fullest still might be Seth Abramson's Proof of Collusion, which covered much of the same territory as the Mueller Report but also reaches further back in time.)

It's not that there's nothing new here. There are new pieces, and even some striking quotes from Donald Trump, and a good deal of additional context has been added. Even if you've read many of the earlier reports, there's reason to add this one to your reading list. (And it reads in a clear enough manner that non-lawyers can absorb it readily enough.)

But the really striking thing about the Mueller Report is this: It confirms so much of what we already knew.

If you thought, or wondered, if much of what we've been told about the White House, Russia, cover-ups and related matters was true, then the Mueller Report as much as anything else serves as confirmation of it. Seldom has so much investigative work by news reporters been so firmly nailed down - by documents, sworn testimony and much more - than it has in this case. Mueller did not set out simply to provide confirmation of news reporting, but he wound up doing it.

Others have remarked about how no additional new charges came out of the final report, and the president was neither charged nor exonerated. And the point has been made, as Mueller took great care to do, that he felt constrained (by Justice Department rules and procedures, legal definitions and interpretations and other considerations) when deciding not to turn the final report into a prosecutor's charging document.

So then what was it for? It was written, and in the end released (the redactions raise serious questions but do not seem critical to the overall effort), with the same idea as the news reports were: To shine a light, to encourage action where it should be taken.

The location for that action, presumably and for now, is Congress.

Secondarily, next year, it may be as well in a more scattered location: The ballot box. And that might come be considered the final confirmation.

Political Hell-Raiser


History is written by the winners, so goes the line; we get accustomed to a narrative of history that doesn't allow for alternative outcomes - or choices. Sitting here today, for example, the story of the 2020 presidential election is yet to be written; two years from now, it all will seem inevitable.

We need those reminders of the mutability of our story and the options before us, and that's the value in the essays and longer narratives of counterfactual (what-if) history. And it's the value in looking at history from a different angle, a perspective that offers a fresh take on what happened and why, and what the alternatives might have been.

That brings us to Political Hell-Raiser, the new book by Marc Johnson, published by University of Oklahoma Press. (Semi-disclaimer here: This is the same Marc Johnson whose columns are appearing here on Saturdays.)

The hell-raiser of the title is Burton K. Wheeler, a U.S. senator from Montana from 1922 to 1946. He was a remarkable figure, and a full biography of him is overdue, but not just because he was one of the leading figures in Congress for a long time. He was also, remarkably, a counter to most of the trends that ran during his political career, and until near the end thrived doing it. He was a radical leftist during the 20s, when the nation veered to the right, and - after working hard for Franklin Roosevelt's election - became a bitter critics of Roosevelt and was identified toward the end more with business interests and anti-communism. (His own view was that he never changed all that much, but the emphasis and perceptions he allowed to grow certainly did.)

He loved political fights, and got into no lack of them, and more than one threatened to rip up not only his political career but private life as well. There was some courage here, no small amount of intelligence and political street smarts and a clear and persistant awareness - even allowing for some change over time - of who he was and what his guiding principles were.

He became best known as one of the leaders in the non-interventionist movement, the group (Johnson generally avoids the term "isolationist" though others might not) which argued against American involvement in a second world war, and helped keep the United States out of it until Pearl Harbor made war inevitable. He was a major national political figure then, and though a Democrat a leading - maybe the leading - thorn in FDR's side. (And FDR was fully aware of it.)

This is a side and perspective of history we don't often get. The prevailing side in American politics in that period is what we ordinarily hear: About the draft toward war, the push by Roosevelt to help0 Great Britain and oppose the Nazis, and the ultimate triumph in 1945. But there was, until Pearl, a strong anti-war movement, and it had no stronger spokesman than Wheeler. After the United States entered into the war, Wheeler's balloon deflated, fast, and after winning four races for the Senate he lost his seat, in the Democratic primary, in 1946: His views were out of step, and widely perceived as being soft on or even sympathetic to the Nazis (though Wheeler personally never was and supported the war once it was declared).

That's the outline, but there's more to the story. We see not only the poorly-informed and even naive aspects of Wheeler's non-interventionism but also the wise aspects to it; he foresaw the rise of a military-industrial complex and the tendency toward militarism, and the threats to freedom and democracy, that war would bring. We see here also some of the often-neglected dark sides of the Roosevelt years, the way the federal government's power was often abused in time of war. The internment camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry are noted here (and Wheeler was critical of them), but many other bad actions joined them in those years.

Johnson has done fine work here shining a light on a part of American history we often do not see (or might feel uncomfortable examining). Much of it, too much, resonates with American as it is most of a century later.

Book: Proof of Collusion


Quite a few years ago, I read (and still have a copy of) a book called Silent Coup, which sought to answer some of the questions and clarify some of the fuzzy areas surrounding the Watergate scandal.

In it, author Colodny reviewed a mass of facts surrounding Watergate. It did not exculpate Richard Nixon or his aides, at least in general, but it did provide a significant reinterpretation of the evidence. The summary at says, offered "revelations shocked the world and forever changed our understanding of politics, of journalism, and of Washington behind closed doors. Dismantling decades of lies, Silent Coup tells the truth." It received high touts from President Gerald Ford and a number of people connected to Watergate. It was an intriguing read.

But time hasn't been kind to Silent Coup. Several figures in the story, including one-time White House counsel John Dean, punching some critical holes in it. The biggest revelation in the book, the identity of journalistic source Deep Throat - Colodny built the case for Alexander Haig - fell apart when Mark Felt's identity as the mystery man was released by reporter Bob Woodward. They tentposts of Silent Coup's story largely fell apart.

It was a cautionary note that came to mind reading the current book Proof of Collusion: How trump Betrayed America, by Seth Abramson. In this far more recent story - we're much closer in time to the events described than the Watergate book was - the author spins for us the story of what happened in the relationship between Donald Trump and key officials in Russia. It, like Colodny's book, builds a case: Here, that there is clear evidence of collusion between Trump and his campaign, and Russia.

There's some temptation to draw a cautionary note from the Silent experience. The difference between the books, though, is also clear. Proof is an assembly of facts, a lot of them, are little is extrapolated from them.

Abramson is an attorney, and much of the book reads like a brief in a legal case. It's not quite that dry (the material is a grabber), but it's written in Joe Friday fashion, with much more emphasis on the plain and undisputed facts than on argumentation about them. Where the facts are not clear or undisputed, Abramson seems to be forthright about that too.

The caution is in how much information is still out there. In just the last few days, another critical piece of information - an acknowledgement, apparently, by Trump spokesman Rudolph Guiliani that Trump-Russia hotel negotiations continued right up to election day, rather than ending many months earlier as had been alleged - came into public view. More will be found by journalists, by congressional committees (we can only guess what the House may now unearth) and by special counsel Robert Mueller. How much more, we can't even really guess.

And yet ... so much is already out there that it's hard to conceive how what remains could be very exculpatory. The assembly into a coherent chronological (roughly) narrative is what Abramson has done here, and the sheer volume of what we already know really is astounding. What he has written (as of before the turn of the year) is so detailed that it almost feels like a complete story. And it is very well documented; through much of the book, most sentences are footnoted, and the detail and backup are impressive.

The whole story won't be told for some time to come. But Proof of Collusion does a solid intermediate job: It gives us a good framework for putting into place the information yet to come, and working out what it means.

As the title hints, it doesn't look good. And its hard to see how it could, even if what we now know is all we know.

A significant day


Over the last week I've been re-reading The Final Days, the old Bob Woodward-Carl Bernstein book about the closing months of the Nixon Administration. So much of it rings bells in our present day.

The ringing got all the louder Tuesday with the conviction in one case and guilty pleas in another of two of this current president's once top men: his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his (until recently) main personal counsel, Michael Cohen.

During the time stretch in Final Days, several of President Richard Nixon's former aides ere going through criminal trials, in some cases acquitted but in others convicted. The book did not much focus on them directly but rather on the Nixon White House, as it dealt with the fallout of the decisions made when Nixon, Haldeman, Erlichman, Dean and others all were still in place, and still a team.

But there was definite White House fallout from their legal troubles.

For one thing, Nixon himself was at least somewhat distraught. That's not hard to understand. He had hired these people, in a number of cases friends of his, to work in positions of high responsibility, and now directly as a result of choosing to go to work for and with him, they were being jump-suited and packed off to prison. Whatever else Nixon did or didn't feel guilty about, he surely felt some guilt over that, over bringing such a result to his friends and allies. Who wouldn't?

Which raises the question of, does Donald Trump? Does he feel what Nixon did?

We can ask that question in no less a serious way about everyone else working in and around the White House. Imagine this: You've gone to work for an important organization, doing important work, and then you discover that your predecessors, at least a whole bunch of them, are being laid law and slapped behind bars. Not just one or two, but a lot of them - and for reasons that stem directly from having worked for, and taken orders from and tried to please, the same boss you're now working for.

That might make me spooked enough to have, well, unfortunate side effects. It certainly wouldn't make me a more useful or helpful part of the organization, not when some significant part of the day is spent wondering if someone will be coming for me next, for having done something I didn't even quite see coming until it was too late.

Cohen and Manafort are two of the most important figures so far to be dragged in, but they're not the first and they won't be the last. Don't imagine this won't have a big effect on the White House. It may even have some effect on the elections now not much more than a couple of months away.

Review: Vanishing Neighbor


When we dig down into the substrata underlying our civic problems - our deep divisions, unwillingness to compromise, the too-deep untrustfulness and cynicism - we can see a range of prospective "root causes". For those of us around for enough years to recall a different kind of American society, one of the biggest of these is the loss of social ties and connections.

In a rough sense, that's the subject of The Vanishing Neighbor by Marc Dunkelman, a book that relies more on anecdote than statistics and wanders well afield in places. It does usefully highlight the need for careful parsing in this area, though, and teases out what we have and haven't lost.

Over the period since World War II, which roughly is the time frame Dunkelman scans, some types of contact and community have been lost, and others have not. Dunkelman sketches out three concentric circles of contact between people, and describes how each have changed. And each have, but in different ways, and one of them more dramatically than the others.

The inside, tightest, ring, of family members and closest friends, has changed but not drastically. Families are much more varied now than they once were, and divorce is certainly much more common now than in the immediate post-war period. That said, most of still are close to family and our closest associates. The arrival of digital communications has in some ways even enhanced some of that (parents tracking children via smartphone, for example).

The outer ring too has changed but in fewer sweeping ways than many people may think. Back then, most of us had networks and contacts, and we still do. More of those connections now may be of the digital variety, through social media and other connections, but the relatively far-flung links of yesteryear weren't necessarily a lot more solid. The ranging of networks may even be expanding.

It's the ring in the middle that's been changing a lot. These are the people who aren't in the category of our closest contacts, but they are personal - these are people we know face to face, come into regular contact with, influence and are influenced by. They might be the casual friends met for an after-work drink, or someone in the union hall (when there were such things), or someone in a local pickup sports activity. The book Bowling Alone focused on these kind of connections: People who are just far enough from us, in economic status or occupational interest or religious or political background, that we aren't tight with them; but just close enough that we learn how to socialize and connect with them, with - in other words - people who are a little different from us.

That puts a finer point on the increasing solidity of the bubbles so many of us now live within, the echo chambers so many experience when the only voices heard are of those who think like us.

The step between the formation of those bubbles and the walls between, for example, the reds and the blues, is short and obvious. The inner circle a group of people we do not choose lightly (or in the case of family may not have chosen at all) tends not to piece the bubble much, except in the case of things like family argument blowups at Thanksgiving. The outer circle, our network of loose connections, is too easily replaceable, with names dropping and out, or too focused on a narrow area of interest or commonality, to force us to communicate much with people who are not exactly like us.

We're missing that middle range, that middle circle, that helps us more than the inner or outer layers, to navigate a society where we're not all the same.

It's a useful point, and The Vanishing Neighbor makes it usefully.

Notes . . .


It's been a long time since I've a full biography of Abraham Lincoln - much less can I be sure which one that was, there being so many of them - but A. Lincoln by Ronald White now repays the read quite well.

It wasn't a perfect or ideal Lincoln bio, but it puts the pieces together nicely. Maybe reading it in our present situation gives it some extra flavor.

It seemed to me the second-best White biography of the period; I preferred the too-overlooked U.S. Grant life American Ulysses for its finer-grain detail and willingness to stretch. (I even prefer it over the more recent and hotly acclaimed Chernow book, though that's no criticism of it, either.)

If I have some quibbles with this Lincoln book, it's in two areas. White skims over some areas and subjects that, a number of other writers probably would argue, merit a little closer look. (The Ann Rutledge aftermath and Lincoln's bouts of depression come to mind.) In some other places, White seems to be a little too determined on agenda, notably in the area of Lincoln and religion, which is an ambiguous area where some ambiguity is best probably let alone.

It's a recommended read, though, for putting Lincoln into context in his time. The political and military context is neatly lined out, in some cases in ways I'd not seen before. The story of his first run for the U.S. Senate is more neatly told than usual, and his relationship with the emerging Republican Party, from which he at first wanted to keep at arm's length, is nicely clarified.

It is not an emotional work, and the writing is direct rather than overwrought (something easily done in Lincoln's case). If you've not read a full biography of Lincoln or done so in a long time, the time may be right, and A. Lincoln would be a sound choice. - rs

Beware the boom


The last few months have seen headlines about the possibility of another oil renewal in the Bakken Formation, the massive oil shale field in western North Dakota and eastern Montana (extending across the border into Canada). Oil development there, which boomed a decade ago, crashed with lower oil prices about three years ago. Now it might be coming back.

A lot of people in that area are praying it happens. The better advice would be: Be careful what you wish for.

The area has had fluctuations of oil development, wavelets of varying sizes and intensities, for more than a century. Long-timers in the area, those who are left, have come to know the drill, and some are wary of it. But probably more common is the attitude reflected on a popular t-shirt in the area a few years ago: "Please, God, give me one more oil boom. This time I promise not to piss it away."

Problem is, it' always pissed away. There have been no exceptions. For a short time, the money flows like flood water. Overwhelmingly, it is wasted, and lives, communities and landscapes are wrecked beyond recognition in the process.

If that sounds a tad theoretical, I refer you to the recent book The New Wild West by Blaire Briody, Who spent many months around the Williston, North Dakota area during the last great (and to date, greatest) oil boom in the area. With fine-grain detail, focusing on the lives of many of the people who came to participate in or were caught up in the development, Briody fills in a clear sense of what actual life is like in such a place.

It is a hell hole. At best, it can mean significant money; a relative handful of people from and around the area do emerge as millionaires, and some others - oil field workers, a significant number of them - do earn incomes in the low six figures. That's pretty the extent of the upside. The bulk of the 300 pages of careful description of western North Dakota during the boom, however, runs through the other side of the story: Wreckage of all kinds of lives - in personal, medical, social, educational and even business aspects - organizations and environments. The human society of the area is trashed - the ability of people to basically get along. Almost every negative indicator you can think of shoots through the roof. Very little positive results, and that includes economic results for most people. The great bulk of the immense number of dollars flowing through the area winds up in very few hands.

I've heard some people pointing to an economic boom and low unemployment in North Dakota as representing an example to emulate. I have a book I want them to read.