Wednesday, November 5, 2014

As the Dust Settles. . . the 2014 Midterm Elections

The fight is over!  Let the fight commence!

First things first - the election is over, but there are still processes at work which would make it inaccurate to say that the electoral process is complete.  However that might be, let's run through what we got so far and see what explanations we can make and predictions we can level.

(1) The Senate is Taken by the Republicans

Why? Easy - lots and lots of convergent factors.

First, the president isn't popular right now.  In fact he is really unpopular - nearly as unpopular as our last president (which makes you wonder at how weird democracy is, eh?).  Anyway, because of that a sizable proportion of people who voted in this midterm weren't voting about their actual offices, but about how peeved they are at the man in the Oval Office. Point, Republicans

Secondly, midterm elections almost always result in the party identified with the president losing seats in the Senate - often quite a lot of states.  In fact, this has been the case since the end of the Second World War, and that is a long time - hell, four generations worth (the Second World War Generation, the Baby-Boomers, Gen-X, and the Millennials). Point, Republicans

Thirdly, look at the states that had senators stand for election this year - disproportionately Southern and Midwestern at a historical moment when the last of the conservative Democrats are retiring or simply beginning to lose the last of their long-fought turf battles.  This is a continued erosion of Democratic power in these areas, part of a process going on since the 1960s and the realignment of the major parties.  No big surprise, but also an interesting moment in history.  Look for this process to start getting muddier in the next two decades as Gen-Xers, Millennials, and ethno-national minorities become increasingly dominate in the political processes of these states (the Purpling!).  Point, Republicans

Fourth, this was a midterm election and the math in midterms skews, in the present party alignment, towards the Republicans.  Why?  Well, it is all about who votes in midterms. Consider - men vote at a relatively higher rate than women in midterm elections.  Fair enough.  White voters also vote at a relatively higher rate than non-white voters in midterm elections.  Okay.  Older voters, wealthier voters, and retired voters all make up higher relative rates in midterms than they do in presidential-year elections.  Thus, point Republicans. None of this is entirely surprising, by the way, and I can illustrate why with a conversation I had with the gentleman who delivered me a pizza yesterday so I could stay all but glued to the glowing television screen and monitors.  He handed me my pizza (grilled chicken, green pepper, and mushroom with light sauce on a thin crust - delicious) and I signed the receipt.  Then I asked him:

"So, did you vote today?"

He replied with a sigh, then said, "Nope.  I had to work a double."

I pointed out that he had a legal right to vote and that his boss had to give him a break to do so.

"Yeah, but that'd piss off my boss, and I need this job."

I nodded with empathy, added another buck to his tip and said good-bye.

The moral of this story?  Those who work at salaries, the working-class, are structurally less likely to participate in elections in general.  This same working-class is made up of voters who tend to be younger, made up of ethnic minorities, and poorer - and therefore, unsurprisingly, less formally educated as a rule in the field of politics.  Thus they value midterm elections less and are unwilling, or believe they are unable, to accept the costs and risks of participating in them rather than working - both generally and relative to their own behavior in presidential-election years. And these groups, well, they tend to vote for the Democrats. So it goes!

In other words, the Senate becoming Republican was, more than anything else, about systemic characteristics playing out. Which isn't to say that the Republicans didn't fight tooth and nail, they certainly did, but the bump received from this convergence is nothing to be ignored.

(2) The House of Representatives Becomes More Republican(ish)

Okay, this one is getting way less attention in the mass media than it deserves.  Most of the structural characteristics so important for the Senate races still hold for the House.  But cheese and crackers, the apparent dominance of the House by the Republicans is kinda' epic - they (probably - we'll see after the smoke clears and formal announcements are made in a couple races) gained ten seats in the House.  That is big - it means the Republicans have their largest majority in the House since - yeah, you guessed it, the Second World War.  Fascinating, right?  But ah, time to address that (ish) I put in the subtitle line!

The House Republicans are split between two rather substantially different factions.  On the one hand are the moderates, the Log Cabin Republicans, and the old "party" Republicans who identify with Nixon or Reagan or George H.W. Bush.  On the other hand is the Tea Party faction who, clearly, are as much a source of conflict in that house of Congress as interparty conflict, if not more, given that caucus is somewhat totally opposed to moderation and negotiation.  That conflict isn't going away, and likely will become worse as both sides of the internal war in the Republican party (and deny it all we might, that is essentially what it is, a wrestling match for the destiny of the party) take this election to be a confirmation of their own agendas' moral authority.  We'll see how that plays out, of course, but I think it is likely to at least stay messy.  And don't expect the House to be more, well, functional - even if it is apparently more functional it still may have a hard time playing well with the Senate and still neither body is in the land of veto override magic, so that whole President thing is still relevant - don't expect the massive uprooting of Obama's agenda to be accomplished in the next two years, no matter what crowing you're hearing out of the House.

(3) The States

The Republicans again come out, in part for all the same reasons, in the states looking rosy as well - this may be the most impressive accomplishment for the party, honestly, given it upset a number of the models predicting state outcomes - in fact the about 3/5ths of governors are Republican now and 2/3rds of state houses (bearing in mind that most of the legislatures are bicameral, so a number of states are split, rather than just being Republican only or Democrat only).  In the next few days these are the races I'm going to really look at to see what Republicans won, where they won, and what factions won - should be neat.

So, there it is.  What can we expect?  Well, honestly I'd say that at the state level we will see more scuffling with the Federal government and probably some of the classic post-Republican win scenarios (e.g. taxes get cut too much, debt goes up, then taxes go up again - you know, the Tax Cut Polka).  But at the Federal level, well, I'd expect things to be even more contentious - unless the moderate Republicans come to dominate the party.  If they do, well, there will be compromise and legislation will actually get passed. If they don't, well, the other thing.

I think the other thing is probably what we're going to see.

Television-news-parody shows writers, as well as talk show monologue writers, rejoice.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Rant on CNN and Horrible Background Music

I have CNN on the old television right now while I keep up my reading.  I have to say this is some truly, truly disappointing coverage.  The coverage on Virginia, in particular, is very bad - it reflects a complete ignorance of previous voting patterns and races and of political geography.  As one of my peers (who has asked to remain anonymous) who is a fellow academic, but in history, just wrote me saying, and I quote, "It is also not a bloody horse race. They are calling it like the Kentucky Derby."  
I couldn't agree more.  This sort of calling is irresponsible and totally misrepresents the nature of our electoral process in the United States and the tendency to under-report urban areas relative to urban areas.  Put simply - D quality at best reporting, CNN. 

Easy fix?  Bring in experts, not failed politicians, from each swing state and ask them about their particular state.  There are more than enough experienced regional journalists and academics who would gladly donate their time and expertise.  

Also, turn off that insane video game music.  Seriously.  I feel like I'm playing Contra, without the awesome. 

CNN's Producer of Visual Effects Like Maps and Stuff

Articles That Warm the Political Sciency Cockles of My Cold, Cold Heart

The Author consults with some of the great minds of modern political science.
So, after a midday lull things are getting interesting again in the internetsylverse.  Here are some of the more robust pieces I've found - prepare to nerd out.

+ + +

Although the polls could be wrong, there isn’t much disagreement about what they’re saying. Of the seven forecasting models tracked by The New York Times, all point to a Republican win, and most with about the same probability (75 percent) as FiveThirtyEight’s forecast. Furthermore, they agree on the outcome of all states but Kansas. These include models that rely on polls alone and those like FiveThirtyEight’s that account for polls along with other factors.
Those other factors — the so-called “fundamentals” — have tended to converge with the polls over the course of the year. If used properly, they can make a forecast more stable and reduce the statistical noise associated with polling. But they make little difference now, since even those models that once used the fundamentals no longer weigh them heavily. The modest exceptions are in Kansas and Alaska, where the polling has been sparse and (especially in Alaska’s case) potentially unreliable; the FiveThirtyEight model sees the fundamentals as favoring Republicans in each state. But it would still have Republicans favored on the basis of the polls alone in Alaska. And in Kansas, the fundamentals are not enough to make Republican Pat Roberts the favorite.
Nate Silver / "Final Update: Republicans Have a 3 in 4 Change of Winning the Senate" / FiveThirtyEight

+ + +
In October 2013, the Republican Party hit the lowest approval rate in its history. Most Americans blamed the GOP for the 16-day government shutdown after a prolonged and heated debate over the Affordable Care Act’s implementation.
“Republicans are no longer the party of business,” Bloomberg Businessweek proclaimed. Liberal publications such as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone agreed with the conservative New York Post that the Republicans had committed political suicide.
One year later, Republicans are set to win the biggest majority ever in the House of Representatives and, more important, take back the Senate in Tuesday’s midterm elections. So what happened?

Alvaro Guzman Bastida / "GOP: From Shutdown Villains to Kings of Congress?"/ Al Jazeera

+ + +
Regardless of how this all shakes out, there's an overwhelming sense that the next two years are likely to see more of the same gridlock. The first two years of Obama's second term have seen little movement on much of anything—the highlights, such as they are, included a government shutdown, the disastrous initial rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and a succession of foreign crises. In some ways, it's hard to imagine much less getting done in Washington than is already happening.
But here are two ways that conventional wisdom could be very wrong. First, things could get even more jammed up. Take presidential appointees. So far, 280 Obama appointees have been confirmed to federal courts. Some of those confirmations came only after Senate Democrats changed the rules to lower the threshold for confirmation to 50 votes—a move that, in turn, stemmed from unprecedented obstruction by Senate Republicans. The administration also has to staff various executive jobs, including Attorney General Eric Holder's replacement. It's easy to imagine that a GOP-controlled Senate would be a place for Obama appointments to go to die. On the other hand, some Republicans—especially moderates—see the next two years as a chance to move real legislation, to force Obama to agree to a set of compromises palatable to moderates in both parties.
David A. Graham  / "The Midterm Elections: A User's Guide" / The Atlantic

+ + +

 Darla Cameron, Ted Mellnik and Aaron Blake / "Key Senate Races" / The Washington Post

 + + +
No group is more solidly Republican than white men.* While the long-term trend is that the nation is growing more racially diverse -- and, in particular, seeing an increased percentage of the population that is Hispanic -- it's a slow evolution. As we noted in September when President Obama postponed action on immigration reform, the midterm electorate is significantly whiter (and less Hispanic) than in presidential elections. Meaning that an already friendly 2014 midterm will see an electorate built on top of the Republican base.
Philip Bump / "Why the 2014 Electorate is the Best Possible One for Republicans" / The Washington Post

The Good Stuff: Resources for Understanding the 2014 Midterm Elections

Your Political Scientist at Work on the Midterm Elections...
Let's face it - not all news media is created equal - some of it is junk food, some of it is biased beyond utility, and some of it is just poorly done.  I'll have none of that madness on AaPS - not a bit of it! So, where can you go to learn what you need to learn to feel like you understand today's elections, not to mention the fallout tomorrow? Dig on these sites:

Al Jazeera's "America Votes 2014"

The Atlantic's "The Midterm Elections: A User's Guide"

BBC's "US mid-term elections 2014" 

The Christian Science Monitor's "What will happen on Election Day? 5 scenarios for the Senate."

The Economist's "Elections / US mid-terms"

The New York Times' "Live Coverage of the Midterm Election"

Vox's "2014 Midterm Elections: Live updates, results, polls from Election Day"

The Washington Post's "Live Updates: Election 2014"

Also, I have decided to get some links to the coverage from states where the election is most contested, specifically from the most important news outlet(s) in the state:

Arkansas / The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette's "2014 Elections"

Colorado / The Denver Post's "Election 2014"

Georgia / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's "Georgia Elections 2014 Live"

Iowa / The Des Moines Register's "Iowa Election 2014"

Kansas / The Kansas City Star's "Election"

Louisiana / The Advocate's "Elections" 
                / The Times-Picayune's "Politics"

New Hampshire / The Concord Monitor's "Campaign Monitor"
                           / The New Hampshire Union Leader "Politics" 

North Carolina / The News & Observer's "Politics & Government" 
                         / The Charlotte Observer's "Politics"

Virginia / The Richmond Times-Dispatch's "Virginia Politics"
              / The Roanoke Times' "Election 2014"

The Virginia Senate Campaign and the Sarvis Effect(?)

An image not from this campaign.  Unfortunately.
First question, from one of my students at UVA-Wise, Mr. Clark!

Do you think the Sarvis campaign in the Virginia Senator's race will hurt the Gillespie or the Warner campaign more at the polls?

Ah, an excellent question, and one that, weirdly enough, might require two answers.  Answer one, to a question you didn't really ask, which you didn't really ask, but I'm answering it nonetheless, is that honestly I don't believe that Sarvis is as relevant in this election as the last one he participated in, not because he should be irrelevant, but the media attention to his campaign seems more muted and, in general, I think that the discussion of candidates has been framed more in a more dialectical way.  I mean, heck, check out the Virginia senatorial debate on C-SPAN - simple fact of the matter is that Mr. Sarvis was just flat out left out - a pity, I'd think, just because he has a tendency to bring up issues in a way that is refreshingly different, whether you agree with his stances or not.

Secondly, I'd say that Sarvis hurts both candidates equally - he is an example of the libertarian urge as it stands in Virginia, and the broader Union, today - social libertarianism to the nth degree, deep skepticism of post-9/11 in-roads by the Feds and States on personal political liberty and privacy, and sensible economic libertarianism which is muted by a distrust of corporations as great as the distrust of the state.

Ultimate answer then - Sarvis probably won't balance the outcome one way or the other. After all, Warner has a pretty comfortable, though not mind-blowing, lead in the polls - check out RealClearPolitics for those - well within the margin of error.  I think this one is pretty much in the books.


Alright ladies and gentlemen, after a long, long hiatus (explanation in four letters?  PTSD - no apologies for getting saner!) I am back.  Today is Midterm Election Tuesday and I'll be live blogging all day!  I'm headed to the polls to vote then I'll be back here at the computer with the mass media pouring into my brain - if you have questions, feel free to shoot 'm to me!


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Seven Precipices: Venezuela After Chavez

"Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and the Guianas" (1906)
Cram's Quick Reference Atlas and Gazetteer of the World

Venezuela has been riven by class conflict for years - it is generally regarded as "the" source of the newest wave of populist, socialist bureaucratic-authoritarianism in Latin America. The United States has been hampered in its ability to influence the situation on the ground, thanks in no small part to its own historical bungling of its image in the region - as is so often the case the US is blamed for a great deal of what is its fault and a helluva' lot besides.
Attempts by the pro-liberalism factions of Venezuela to oust the regime of the late Hugo Chavez failed repeatedly during his lifetime - but following his death last year a sense of possibility has emerged among his enemies. The result? Steadily swelling protests that are beginning to be spiked with violence and the emergence of armed, fortified militias - half yelling "communist," half yelling "fascist," and so far none inclined to moderation of rhetoric.

That's what you already know if you read my earlier brief .  Fair enough. Now onto the new material.

To understand Venezuela we need to understand the tensions in that nation.  They’re not too difficult to comprehend, but nonetheless deserve a little attention. 

Chunk I: Geography + Economy = Ideology

(1) Venezuela is middle-of-the-road economically.

That’s right – it isn’t a wealthy nation, but Venezuela is also better off than about half of polities on Earth with a gross domestic product (per capita) of US$13,600, 97th in the world according to the CIA’s WorldFactbook. Of course in political-economics that is generally the most dangerous place to be – enough wealth to guarantee folks’ fundamental needs (food, water, shelter, clothing) but not enough to improve the quality of life, environment, and community. 

(2) There are a lot of dissatisfied customers.

Reported unemployment is only about 8%, but that belies some heavier problems – almost 32% of people are below the poverty line and the GINI index for income inequality is pretty high, 39 – though this is better than the GINI for the United States and much better than the GINI the year I graduated college – almost 50 in 1998.  In light of the underdeveloped economy, however, the effect is still potentially destabilizing.  There are other relevant numbers too – the inflation rate, already very high (21% in 2012) is in a spring now – 57% in 2013 – while economic growth is stagnant, to say the very least – only 1.6% (GDP) last year. [For these and a lot more data check out the World Bank's World DataBank]

The dissatisfaction is made worse because it comes in two very different forms.  On the one hand are the former owners and managers of the nationalized industries and agricultural firms – many lost everything, virtually all experienced radical declines in income and many have fled to other nations (many meaning, quite literally, hundreds of thousands) – this last bit is significant – a general rule of development is “thou shalt not run off your bankers and educated elites.”

The other form lay in the radicalized poor – the very poor, especially the urban poor, who lack basic services and have, essentially, horrible lives because of it – and their allies.

What happens when you combine either of these forms with cheap, readily available mass communication and social media technologies?  Double-whammy ideological activation in different directions.  Problematic.

(3) Oil.

The seed of growth and destruction are one in the same in Venezuela, it would seem – a classic example of resource curse.  That seed is, of course, petroleum.  Venezuela has vast reserves of the stuff and has been milking it for everything it is worth for a good while – it is the 8th largest producer of petroleum on earth, in fact, something that never ceases to surprise most Americans.  This of course traditionally contributed to Venezuela’s income inequality, a condition which has decreased largely because of the nation’s nationalization of the substance (as well as most export-oriented agriculture) – meaning that decline in GINI I mentioned earlier?  Probably the result of making the owners and managers of the old system poorer more than it is a result of making the poor wealthier.

Nonetheless Venezuela’s oil treasure has muted many of the worst potential effects of the unconventional, shall we say, economic policies of Hugo Chavez’s regime – until something insane happened.  The United States of America began to import less petroleum.  In part this is because the US economy declined so precipitously during the first decade of the post-9/11 world – less business means you need less gas.  In part this is because the US finally started producing, and its consumers purchasing, vehicles with substantially improved fuel mileage.  In part this is because the US radically upped its domestic fuel production in the last few years.  No matter the cause, or who you give credit for it, he effect has been simple – Venezuela is losing is cushioning petro-income.

(4) Foreign investors have long memories.

There used to be a lot of investment in Venezuela – however most of that investment was into the industries and agriculture.  You know, those same fields that Chavez nationalized? 

Thus another commandment, this of bankers themselves, “thou shalt not throw good money after bad.”

As long as Chavez’s clique remains in power, and the general population continues to see that clique as legitimate, foreign investors aren’t going to invest and risk further nationalization of their wealth. 


In other words, we can understand the economic problems of Venezuela as falling into two broad categories, at least for our purposes – those geopolitical and neo-colonial issues which motivated Chavez and generated the broad public support to allow him to take and hold power (more on that below) and those which Chavez himself wrought. 

Chunk II: Chavismo

I’m going to call it like it is – Chavismo, the term generally used to describe the various ideological tenets lumped together into Chavez’s incompletely defined ideological position, may best be summarized in the following terms:

(1) Service-Oriented Socialism

Oh, socialism – one of those terms that makes Americans, with their love of political-economic liberalism, feel more than a little itchy and twitchy.  But it need not be so – heck, the word has more definitions than you can shake a stick at.  The way I’d put it is that it makes more sense for us to understand socialism as a spectrum, ranging from a condition of no state ownership of productive processes to another extreme in which the government owns all productive processes.  Oh, sure, we could get more philosophical and debate whether or not the state really owns those processes or whether it is merely a manifestation of the general will of the people and whether or not there are serious moral and practical implications for both or either, but that is probably more appropriate for a different venue.  So, um, to be continued.

Regardless, if we regard the United States as a mostly capitalist, a little socialist – a state that has socialized certain services but, even for those, generally still allows citizens to purchase comparable, privately distributed services, we can understand socialism as not alien – it is just watered down.  On the other hand, in Venezuela we have seen a steady increase in socialism since the first election of Chavez almost a decade and a half ago – in other words Venezuela has functionally been moving away from the US in terms of its institutional characteristics. 

How far away? Hmm.  Well, there has been a radical expansion in both the quality and quantity of services provided to the Venezuelan people – some of these are hard to argue against since, for the first time, they have provided normal folks with regular access to healthcare and education.  However, the Venezuelan state has also socialized its productive capacities to a substantial degree as part of its  “solidarity economy” – not just base-of-everything-else industries and services (e.g. water, electricity, media) which are often held in common in our more left-leaning friends’ states across the Atlantic (much to Milton Friedman’s chagrin!), but also of good-producing activities – notably, again, petroleum and plantation agriculture. 

(2) Populism

The ancient Greeks understood the emergence of monarchies, those types of states in which one person predominates absolutely or near-absolutely, as an almost inevitable outcome of high levels of poverty.  See, the poor don’t want much – they want food, water, healthy kids, a roof, and some entertainment.  Even minor improvements to their condition make the lives of the very poor much, much better.  All it takes then is a popular figure to provide the people with access to those things which the normal people want, be it minor healthcare, subsidized food, and cheap distractions and, well, they’ll often follow him or her like a puppy, even into giving up their own sovereignty.  Bread and games, we call it in political science.    So, how do you win power in a very poor country?  You either manipulate and buy the poor or disempower the poor. 

Machiavelli would call thisdichotomy the love/fear dichotomy – if you rule a highly unequal people with principally love (directing fear-tactics at the previously privileged) you get monarchies; if you reverse the equation you get aristocracies.   The former we call populism – giving the public what they want economically and socially in exchange for their political support. 

(3) Personalism

I love the song “Cult of Personality” and, honestly, it is appropriate here.  See, when populism is employed it may be employed to build support around ideological, religious, or ethno-national tenets.  Alternatively, or coincidentally, populism may build support around a symbolic figure, a hero or messiah or some other trope.  When this latter is the case one finds an instance of personalism. 

That said, personalism has another apt meaning as well, one significant in this context.  Specifically it refers to the tendency of some states to put the power to exercise authority executively, legislatively, and/or judicially into the hands of individuals rather than the making those individuals mere arbiters of preexisting laws.  The intent is often to compensate for complex moralistic paradigms, a general distrust of liberal rationales, and/or a distrust of institution in general.  To put it simply, legalistic polities don’t really give a damn if you are or are not moral as long as you obey the law – which means bad people sometimes win and it is considered an ethical outcome.  Personalistic societies insist that, since law and morality are non-equivalent morality must be taken as the first consideration.  This being the case law must be of less concern than the empowering of ethical trustees.   

(4) International Opportunism

Chavismo is opportunistic internationally.  The decisions of the regime have alienated, well, most states.  This isn’t surprising – populism and a willingness to ignore contractual agreements and proprietary definitions don’t make friends among people who regard law and property as sacrosanct (i.e. those who rule and own stuff).  As a result Chavez’s Venezuela made friends wherever they could find them – indeed, look at the polities that honored him – it is like a who’s who of nations that the United States kinda’ hates.   Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Belarus?  Oh yeah – superfun best-friend time.  This even extends to a willingness to use the great powers disagreements and mutual distrust against them – remember Venezuela’s agreement to let Russia use its airspace and facilities for bombers and naval vessels?

The US government sure as hell does.

(5) Snowball/Demonstration Effect

Finally, Chavismo envisions itself as an internationalist movement with high demonstration effect potential – the idea wasn’t merely to revolutionize Venezuelan society but to catalyze similar movements throughout the developing world.  And, honestly, to a degree this has been the case – certainly Bolivia has been influenced by Chavez, and it is arguable that movements like those transpiring in Brazil right now draw directly on Chavez’s influence.  That said, I suspect Chavismo is taking more credit than it deserves – Latin America and the developing world in general have had leftist movements for a very long time and not all of these, even by a long shot, we delegitimized by the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – most important among them, in my opinion, being the liberation theology movement. 

Chunk III: Anti-Chavismo

Okay, knowing what Chavismo is constitutes a good start.  Yet it is worth a pause to note, further, who has emerged as anti-Chavismo, the groups which we can assume are the principal movers behind the protests which have emerged in the wake of Chavez’s death. 

(1) Those who despise Chavismo economics.

Easy enough – the more ideologically capitalist you are on that spectrum  I mentioned above, the more likely you are to reject the fundamental tenets of populism and socialism. 

(2) Those who despise Chavismo politics.

Chavez and his clique have remained in power through a lot of techniques, some of them legitimate (give enough voters what they want and they vote for you), others less so – there are pro-regime militias, reports of near constant violence, extreme levels of media censorship, extended periods of constitutional suspension and rule by fiat, and the human rights record under Chavismo is just abysmal, honestly.  Add to this the unusual interstate company Venezuela has begun keeping and, well, under such circumstances even if you are sympathetic to Chavismo economic ends there is a damn good chance you’re not fond of the political means.

(3) Those for who hate Chavez and his successors personally.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs – it is one of the oldest metaphors for realist politics that exists.  It also explains part of Chavismo’s problems – the broken eggs in this case weren’t cooked up and served with delicious bacon, but instead were left, brooding, poorer, angry, and with more rather than less free time.  They didn’t forget their educations and they didn’t lose their old international connections to the US, Canada, Europe, and the non-socialist Latin American polities.  And some of them aren’t just angry, but they hate.  Hate makes them willing to accept costs and risks that would otherwise be untenable.  And that makes them very, very dangerous to the regime.

The Timing

Okay, so a fair question – check that, a very fair question is – why now?

Well, in part we can attribute it to the absence of Hugo Chavez who passed away in March of 2013 from complications related to cancer – if you found a regime on the personal charisma of one leader, well, you are unlikely to see the regime endure much longer past his or her death without some sort of serious challenge – as often as not one that is successful. 

I’m reminded of Hua Guofeng. 

When Mao Zedong died in the fall of 1976 he was torn about who to leave the chairmanship to.  His most trusted confidant of any competence, Zhou Enlai, had died earlier that year.  He didn’t trust most of his other competent lieutenants to maintain the Maoist path – mostly moderates like the late Deng Xiaoping – but he also didn’t trust the more ideologically charged leftists (the dominant figures being he folk who would ultimately be grouped under  the less than complimentary nickname of the “Gang of Four”).  As a compromise he appointed the well-regarded, but politically not particularly important, Hua – a man loyal to Mao and his vision of China’s future.  Within two years, however, the final reins of power had been wrested from Hua and the Gang of Four was on trial as Deng and the moderates became the premier force behind the People’s Republic of China.  

It wasn’t that Hua was a bad leader, or incompetent, or stupid.  He simply wasn’t the man for the job.  Indeed, by helping the moderates with the disempowerment of the Gang of Four he, in essence, negated the rationale for his holding position in the party – making the moderate domination of the state, and the emergence of the Dengist reforms, nearly inevitable. 

Nicholas Maduro, the current president of Venezuela, bears many shades of Hua.  Endorsed by Chavez in the days before his death and supported, at least officially, by his primary competitors for power his ascension to the presidency was smooth – and legal, given his role as vice-president.  Chavez’s endorsement also carried him through the next presidential election, only about a month later – but barely.  Winning only about 1.5% over his primary competitor, substantially less than Chavez’s last win of around 5% and radically less than his substantial margins in earlier elections, Maduro won only by the skin of his teeth – or, if reports of electoral incongruities are to be believed (I have found mixed statements on this so I leave it open – but the close margin means even small variations in free and fair elections geographically could have serious implications), lost.

That said, dissatisfaction clearly isn’t enough.  We have yet to deal with  a lag – the current crisis didn’t begin until almost a year after Chavez died and was elected – indeed, protests didn’t emerge until February 12th of 2014, to be specific.

Easy enough – the kindling was stacked, it would, apparently, only take a match to light it.  That match as a series of particularly brutal crimes (including the murder of a former Miss Venezuela) that initiated widespread anti-crime and corruption protests that, in essence, merged with student protests that were taking place in commemoration of overlapping events – National Youth Day and a national holiday commemorating the Battle of La Victoria from the Bolivarian revolutions in the early 19th Century.  From that point the protests gradually became coopted by the opposition leadership which coordinated overlapping, multiple city protests.  These continued to swell – the government attempted to abate them by arresting key leaders (most notably Leopoldo Lopez) and attempting to radically increase censorship (going so far as to shutdown opposition media sources completely in some cases).  There were also attempts to undermine the protests by raising the minimum wage however this did little to abate the staggering national inflation of Venezuela.

Increasingly the government has deployed police and military forces, particularly when opposition protestors constructed barriers, armed, and/or armored themselves.  Incidents of violence are on the rise between state and protesting forces but nonetheless remain less frequent than might ordinarily be expected – thank goodness.

International Reaction

I’m going to summarize this pretty simply – the more left-leaning a government is, the more likely they are to support the government of Venezuela; the more right-leaning, well, the protestors.  The United States saw several State Department officials ejected when the Venezuelan government started scapegoating, attempting to explain away the protests as an American conspiracy – probably a very unwise political move given that it was this action that brought the crisis in Venezuela into American media’s active consciousness.  Above all, however, the international community has called out for peaceful resolution and meaningful addressing of the protestors’ concerns.  And, of course, attention to Venezuela has waned as the Ukrainian crisis has heated up - once again, if it happens in Europe, it leads.

Emergent Outcomes Possibilities and Probabilities

This is a tough one to call – those election numbers, 50/50 – well, they’re scary.  That means there is a powerful, meaningful ideological division in Venezuela, one that is unlikely to be alleviated soon and, equally, one that may harden given the fact that Venezuela’s problems are simply not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.  Honestly, I see two potential outcomes and I wouldn’t want to put money towards either one.  Option one – the protestors and state come to blows and whichever side the military comes down on, well, wins.  And honestly, I’m guessing the military comes down on the side of government given recent trends in behavior.  Option two – the protests continue, sometimes more dramatically, sometimes less dramatically, but never going away as the government’s approval rating continues to shrink, not only thanks to the its near-inevitable failure to deal with Venezuela’s economic problems but also because of mismanagement of the protests (in the age of social media state censorship does not win battles over the future of nations).  As a result the protests destabilize the state to the degree that emergence elections are held, allowing opposition leaders to take control – a position they will only continue to hold if they consciously deal not only with the economic problems but also with the fact that the politically activated poor and military of Venezuela must be included in any reform-of-regime efforts. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Seven Precipices: The Ukrainian Crisis [UPDATED]

Map of Crimea (1854) from A School History of England
Courtesy of Maps, Etc. 

The history of Ukraine is complicated to say the very least.  It is a principally Slavic nation which has been dominated in part or in whole for most of its history by outside powers - Russia (sometimes in the guise of the Soviet Union), Prussia, Austro-Hungary, Turkic tribes, the Mongol, and Poland-Lithuania.  It is religiously somewhat diverse, but it is Ukraine's ethno-linguistic divisions which are driving the competition for control of the state and two fundamentally different visions of that nation's political-economic future.

Rural Ukrainians and urban western Ukrainians (those who principally speak the Ukrainian language) want a liberal political-economy allied and linked to the West.  Urban eastern and Crimean Ukrainians want a Russo-centric polity, one that follows the bureaucratic-authoritarian principles of Putin's everything-old-is-new-again state. Finally, there are other regional minorities - notably Crimean Tatars (returned from Stalin's deportation), Bulgars, Romanians, and Hungarians - who are generally in accord with Ukrainian-speakers.   

Put simply - this looks messy from the get-go. 

Make it messier from the fact that Russia's meddling has made this a face-contest - if Putin let's Ukraine out of its sphere of influence then Russia looks like it can't keep its house in order and its domination of other parts of Eurasia, perhaps even within its own border, becomes far more problematic. 

Make it messier still by adding some realpolitik.  Take a second and look at a map of the world.  Russia is big with lots of coastlines, but not all coastlines are made equal.  Little of that vast coast is pointing in the right direction to efficiently reach markets or strategic locations either in-region or inter-regionally and much of it requires passing through minority-dominated areas, areas that, were they to rebel, could be cut off from Moscow. Not only that, but most of those ports are ice-locked for large periods of time during the winter months.  Russia therefore sees domination of Ukraine, and its portages, as essential to its interests - economic at the least, since the strategic value of the Black Sea ports is radically lower given NATO's post-Cold War domination of the Straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus (though I dare say that Russian policymakers emphasize the military at least as much).

That's what you already know if you read my earlier brief brief (one being an adjective, the other a noun).  Fair enough.  Now onto the new material.

Before the Olympic War

Viktor Yanukovych was president of the Ukraine.  If you are in favor of the ousting you probably consider this a restoration of liberalism and Orange Revolution ideals.  If you are against the ousting you consider this an illegal and unjustifiable act of violence. 

Fact of the matter, it was a coup - justifiable or not being a matter of ideology, ethnicity, or both.  

Let me reveal my bias - Yanukovych was an autocrat, crushing dissent and freedom of speech, movement, assembly, and privacy.  There is a lot of discussion with regards to the quality of the election that brought him into office but it certainly is a matter of some contention due to concerns of Russian efforts at electoral corruption.

Regardless of the validity of the election (which I think is interesting but not immediately the crux of the matter) the official geodemography of it reveals a great deal - check out these maps of the internal political divisions in the nation and a helluva' lot becomes immediately clear - kudos to The Washington Post's "WorldViews" contributor Max Fisher.

Fair enough.  Fast forward to 2013, late November.  Yanukovych announces by fiat that he is withdrawing Ukraine from trade discussions with the European Union in favor of closer political-economic ties with the Russian Federation.  Among ethnic Ukrainians and other non-Russian ethnic groups there is widespread and general outrage at the decision.  Within a week and a half not only are there nationwide protests but furthermore there are clear efforts to suppress the protests using police violence.  In mid-January Ukraine reinforces efforts to undermine the protests by passing several extremely repressive anti-protest laws - I have been looking for an English translation of these but so far haven't found one, but the manner in which they were passed was, frankly, offensively anti-democratic (and a helluva' justification of bicameral legislatures) - in essence, in the middle of discussions of unrelated materials the vote was initiated without discussion, completely surprising the opposition and clearly coordinated secretly by the leadership of the ruling party.  To summarize, however (with the rejoinder that, again, I haven't read these myself and would be immensely grateful to anyone who could get me a translation to read and, if possible, publish) the laws created huge civil and criminal punishments for protesting or critiquing the regime in person, print, or online.  

The effect was, rather predictably, to encourage rather than discourage opponents of the regime and the scale and violence of protests increased until late February when it seemed that civil war was nearly inevitable.  

Finally, as the threat loomed so large even Yanukovych couldn't deny it, the president resigned his office, fled the capital for parts unknown, and the parliament cancelled the majority of the anti-protest laws.   

This was, however, to be no Second Orange Revolution, however, which is not an entirely negative thing - after all, a repeat of that regime change would more than likely result in similar long-term outcomes.  Yet this was not to be a Velvet Revolution either, leading to a peaceable parting of ways between ethnic Russian and non-Russian Ukrainians.  Heck, it wasn't even to be an inelegant modern-day Sudentenland Incident.  Why?  Because Russian interest in Ukraine isn't limited to the ethno-national angle - heck, it probably isn't principally interested in the ethno-national angle.  No, friends, this is about the Black Sea and the Black Sea fleet.  

The Olympic War: Everything Old is New Again

First, let's address the term I'm using (that I damn well made up).  The Olympic War.  Have a lot of people died - no, not yet.  But did a great power invade a weaker neighbor with the intent of intervening in the government and guaranteeing geopolitical and geostrategic dominance over it?  You're damn right.  And that, my friends, is a war. 

So, let me liberally quote the good folks at al-Jazeera who are maintaining a very nice timeline of the events. Consider: 

Feb 22: Ukraine politicians vote to remove Yanikovich. Tymoshenko is freed from prison and speaks to those gathered in Kiev. May 25 is set for fresh presidential elections.

Feb 23: Ukraine's parliament assigns presidential powers to its new
speaker, Oleksandr Turchinov, an ally of Tymoshenko. Pro-Russian protesters rally in Crimea against the new Kiev administration.

Feb 24: Ukraine's interim government draws up a warrant for Yanukovich's arrest.

Feb 25: Pro-Russian Aleksey Chaly is appointed Sevastopol’s de facto mayor as rallies in Crimea continue.

Feb 26: Crimean Tartars supporting the new Kiev administration clash with pro-Russia protesters in the region. Potential members of the new Ukrainian government appear before crowds in Independence Square. Turchinov announces disbanding of Berkut - the feared riot police. Russian troops near border with Ukraine are put on alert and drilled for "combat readiness".

Feb 27: Pro-Kremlin armed men seize government buildings in Crimea. Ukraine government vows to prevent a country break-up as Crimean parliament set May 25 as the date for referendum on region’s status. Yanukovich is granted refuge in Russia.

Feb 28: Armed men in unmarked combat fatigues seize Simferopol International Airport and a military airfield in Sevestopol. The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of aggression. United Nations Security Council holds an emergency closed-door session to discuss the situation in Crimea. The United States warns Russia of militarily intervening in Ukraine.

Moscow says military movements in Crimea are in line with previous agreements to protect its fleet position in the Black Sea. Yanukovich makes his first public appearance, in southern Russia.

Mar 1: As situation worsens in Crimea, local leaders ask for Russian President Vladimir Putin's help. Russian upper house of the parliament approves a request by Putin to use military power in Ukraine.

Damn elegant.  Let me make it more complicated.  The Winter Olympics are taking place in Sochi, Russia.  The Ukraine attempts to deal with their crisis smoothly.  The Russians wait until the international press has shrunk to pre-Olympic levels.  They call up their forces, design a strategic incursion plan (or more likely a series of said plans), make sure Yanukovych is safe and sound in their own borders (cough - puppet - cough) and begin taking steps to secure their bases in the Black Sea, steadily expanding their capabilities from the bases themselves into the territories abutting those bases.  After Putin gets permission to intervene (unanimous permission - probably a combination of rally-around-the-flag, patrimonialism, corruption, and good-old-fashioned threats) he begins upping the ante, actively moving forces on a significant scale into strategically important areas of the Ukraine, most importantly the Crimean Peninsula and its its principle port, Sevastapol (or Agyar in Crimean Tatar), though there is reason to expect at least the ethnic Russian dominated cities of eastern Ukraine stand to be occupied as well - a broader incursion is possible but the costs entailed are radically higher, of course.  

So, where do Russian forces stand now?  I'll be honest, I'm having a difficult time confirming specifics - some things seem to be emerging from the fog however.  First, there are clearly troops in several strategic points in Crimea who are working for the Russians - the reports are just too overwhelming to doubt that.  The "identity" of these troops is dependent however on the report you're reading - mercenaries (think Russia's very own Blackwater), Russian military forces, or some combination of those being no matter.  There are some indications that Russia is at least in communication with ethnic-Russian militias in different parts of the Ukraine, almost definitely gleaning intelligence and possibly establishing weapons caches, training insurgents, and establishing plans for strategic and tactical sabotage and Ukraine military resource diversion.  There has been a significant increase of military preparedness on the Russo-Ukrainian borders (I suspect there are probably similar preparations in Transnistria as well - call it a gut instinct).  

So why aren't we calling it a war?   Easy.  They're big.  They're beautiful.  They are the most dangerous things our species has ever created.   And Russia has a helluva' a lot of them.  

If you said nuclear weapons, well, you probably remember the Cold War.  Everything old, my friends, is new again.  

The International Reaction

Is exactly what we'd expect at this early stage - Europe is up in arms, but only allegorically.  The United States is fuming and spitting but not substantially changing its military disposition.  Russia is insistent of its good intents.  The United Nations is generally condemning but the only organ that really matters, the Security Council, is functionally unmoved despite closed negotiations and talks (which I would love to have been a fly on the wall for) - unsurprising since Russia has a veto on the UNSC.   

More specifically, I have rounded up some official, up to the minute, press statements from the big players.  Consider:


[Most other statements on Ukraine from recent days seem to have disappeared - indicating China is considering a policy shift]

European Union




MOFA on monument dismantling - February 25 2014  [there are many examples of this sort of release]

United Kingdom

United Nations

United States

The Emergent Outcome Possibilities and Probabilities

Well, now to the crux.  What comes next? 

Almost Definite - Ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars will engage in open conflict with Russian troops and ethnic Russian Ukrainian militias. 

Almost Definite - Ukraine will, for the foreseeable future lose control over the Crimean Peninsula.

Almost Definite - The United States and its allies (de facto and de jure) will covertly and diplomatically oppose Russian actions on a large scale but this opposition will fall far short of overt military action or economic sanctions on a large scale, in part because the US is incapable of replacing Russian supplies of natural gas to European consumers, in part because the West and its liberal allies will be unable to mobilize intergovernmental organizations to actively punish Russia (in part because of Russia's powerful role in these institutions), and most importantly because of Russia's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. 

Almost Definite - The People's Republic of China will be extremely uncomfortable with this Russian military activism in the borders of another nation and will further lean towards the West - this potentially (consider this Likely, not Almost Definite) could be mirrored in the behavior of other states that have complex relations with the West and share strategic space with Russia, including India, Iran, and Pakistan.

Almost Definite - Whatever element of the Ukraine survives as an independent sovereign polity will seek to rearm with weapons of mass destruction as a deterrent to Russian depredation.  NATO will radically increase its deployment of anti-ballistic missile technology in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, possibly openly extending the ABM shield to the Ukraine and Georgia and possibly other former Soviet polities.  

Almost Definite - A broad international consensus will emerge between the West and much of the Islamic world officially, improving intercivilizational relations.

Possible - Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea could become yet another of the growing class of polities which are recognized only by a single patron polity and its puppets (most of which today are clients of the Russian Federation), declaring themselves independent but exercising sovereignty only insofar as Russia allows this in practice.  Western Ukraine would almost definitely align with the West, signing bilateral defense treaties in the near-term and fast-tracking as much as possible denser association with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Insurgency or even civil war is almost inevitable should this come to pass and massive refugee movements should be expected.  This likely would further spur other disestablishmentarian movements in Russia proper, including among un-repatriated Tatar (descendants of Tatar expelled from the peninsula by Stalin who have not returned).  This group of Tatars, principally Muslim in terms of religious identity, are likely to be targeted by transnational radical religious fundamentalists as a source of recruiting and potential allies.  

Unlikely - The broad emergent international consensus will result in tangible Western and/or Islamic political and economic responses of strategic importance - serious economic sanctions.

Very Unlikely - The broad emergent international consensus will result in tangible Western and/or Islamic political and economic responses of strategic importance - a closing of the Bosporus and Dardanelles to Russian military and/or economic naval vessels.

Very, Very Unlikely - A United Nations peacekeeping operation of the Cypriot-type (divide and keep 'm from fighting) stabilizes de facto Russian Ukraine's border from ROU (Rest of Ukraine). 

Almost Impossible (But Not So Impossible That it Doesn't Warrant Note) - Russo-American military standoff a la the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Terrifying, but a near-worst-case scenario.   


This is far from over, and information is very limited - I'll continue to update as the crisis unfolds, however. 

God save the Ukraine and the Ukrainians. 


March 2 2014

There have been three major developments, concurrently transpiring in the short hours since I wrote this entry - notably (1) Russian military forces control virtually all of Crimea, thankfully with little or no loss of life, and are digging in on the peninsular border; (2) Ukraine has activated its entire military strength, reservists and militia included; and (3) the Western powers are apparently very close to imposing "targeted economic sanctions" against Russia.  More as I learn it.