America is a failing state

According to Harvard political scientist Robert Rotberg, states fail because of the purposeful actions of their leaders. In writing these words in an edited volume back in 2007, Rotberg was referencing countries like Zimbabwe under the disastrous rule of Robert Mugabe in the 1990s and 2000s, or later Syria under Bashar Assad.

State failure doesn’t just happen. Rotberg writes:

Nation-states do not stumble into failure. Human agency is always the proximate cause. … [Even the weakest states] teeter on the precipice of failure only if and when they cheat their citizens or give unfair preference to one set of elites over another or over ordinary citizens.

I’m reviewing these arguments as I sit in my office because I’m discussing them with my students tonight in the class I’m teaching on international conflict and security. Toward the end of his chapter Rotberg lays out the warning signs of the dynamic process that is state failure. It is a process that always begins with the decisions of those holding power at the top.

I am struck by how familiar these warning signs appear in the fraught political moment we are currently living. The signals are economic, political, and violent.

Economic signs of a state slipping into failure include the drying up of foreign investment, massive job losses, and falling per capita incomes. Critical infrastructure, public education, provision of health care, and entitlement programs are chronically underfunded, cracking under the strain of government neglect. Meanwhile, the rulers tend to benefit from the economic inequalities being inflicted upon their citizens. As the poor get poorer, the rulers and their cronies get richer.

Does that sound familiar?

Political signs of impending state failure are signaled when leaders and their associates subvert existing democratic norms, restrict political participation of all kinds, including voting rights, crack down on civil society, and override institutional checks and balances on their own power. Regimes going down this path curtail judicial independence, harass the media, and co-opt the security forces into a mailed fist answering to the personal whims, interests, and dictates of the ruler. Rotberg writes:

[R]ulers show more and more contempt for their own nationals; surround themselves with family, lineage, or ethnic allies; and greatly narrow the focus of concern and responsibility.

Does that sound familiar?

The last warning signal is also the most ominous. If the level of societal violence rises precipitously, the state is clearly failing.

Does that one sound familiar too?

So here’s a question: What can we do to arrest the trend? Because, as Rotberg argues, corrupt autocrats and their associates usually have little incentive to arrest the slide into state failure. They benefit from it.

How about this. If you can vote early, do so. If you are voting absentee, don’t trust it to the postal service. Take your ballot to your town clerk’s office or to an official ballot dropbox. And if you haven’t done those things, then do what I’m going to do.

Go to your local polling place next Tuesday, Nov. 3, and cast your vote for candidates that will work to turn this thing around. What can we do?

We can vote.

We once had a president

(Kronos Quartet featuring Meklit. Credit: Vimeo)

I have forgotten how long it’s been since we had a president who sought to heal the wounds of this country rather than pour salt into them. And then I listened to the beautiful, wrenching song The President Sang Amazing Grace.

It is the second track on the Kronos’s Quartet’s most recent album Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger released on the Smithsonian Folkways label. The album features arrangements of 13 songs written or made famous by the legendary American folksinger Pete Seeger or his band the Weavers, along with newer compositions.

The vocalist on The President Sang Amazing Grace, Meklit, delivers a poignant, heartbreaking performance that frankly brought me to tears. The song is a reminder that at their best our political leaders can bring us together rather than divide us. They can inspire us to be better than we are rather than pander to the worst within us.

In short, this song reminds me that we can have a president again. Eight days and counting.

Are journalists at risk?

(Credit: Bloomberg)

Ever since the domestic terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was disrupted by the FBI and State Police, one of the questions that I’ve repeatedly fielded from local journalists and reporters is whether they are at risk themselves from the kind of anti-government extremists behind the planned attack against Whitmer.

My immediate reaction was no, just off the top of my head. Such anti-government groups have an ideology that points toward a very different target list.

While anything is possible, I could not recall a single incident of an attack on a journalist or media establishment by any organized American far-right group, at least since the early 1980s, and only one or two by violent right-wing extremists since. But when in doubt, look at the data. In this case, that data comes from the Global Terrorism Database.

From 1980 through 2018 there have only been 44 terrorist attacks on journalists or the media in the United States. Only six of those attacks occurred since 2010.

Only a handful of attacks attributable to organizations or extremists on the political far right — including antisemitic, white supremacist, white nationalist, or anti-government — have been carried out in this nearly 40 year period. Here’s a quick list, in chronological order. Descriptions of the events are taken from the incident summaries presented in the Global Terrorism Database, augmented with additional research where helpful.

  • Dec. 19, 1981 — Jackson, Miss: This is the first of two attacks on the office of the Black newspaper the Jackson Advocate, one month apart. In this case shots were fired into the building, and firebombs thrown. While no specific group was identified as responsible, see the next entry.
  • Jan. 1, 1982 — Jackson, Miss: Two members of the Ku Klux Klan carry out a second attack on the offices of the Jackson Advocate, firing rifles through the windows. both perpetrators were arrested.
  • June 18, 1984 — Denver: Prominent and controversial Jewish talk-radio host Alan Berg is assassinated outside his home by members of The Order, a white supremacist terrorist group active between September 1983 and December 1984.
  • May 1, 1996 — Spokane Valley, Wash.: Two masked attackers detonate a pipe bomb at a suburban office of The Spokesman-Review newspaper. The bombing was apparently a diversion intended to occupy police while a nearby bank was robbed. The attackers left notes at both scenes signed “Phineas Priests.” The Phineas Priests were not a formal organization, but a self-description adopted by extremists rooted in the racist and antisemitic Christian Identity movement.
  • Dec. 15, 2016 — Dallas, Texas: Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who has epilepsy, suffers a seizure triggered by a flashing GIF image embedded in an electronic message sent to him via Twitter. The original indictment in the case charged the perpetrator was motivated by anti-Jewish bias.
  • Oct. 29, 2018 — Atlanta, Ga.: A letter bomb addressed to the offices of CNN is discovered and defused at a mail sorting facility in Atlanta. This was one of 16 coordinated mail bomb attacks between Oct. 22 and Nov. 1, 2018 targeting critics of Pres. Donald Trump. When the suspect in the attacks, Cesar Sayoc, was arrested, his vehicle was covered with posters and stickers espousing right-wing propaganda. Sayoc is described in the GTD data as a “pro-Trump” extremist.

So that’s the list. Since 1980, we can only attribute six out of 44 terrorist attacks targeting journalists or media establishments on groups or individuals that we can place on the extremist far-right of the American political spectrum. None of those attacks are linked to the kind of anti-government far right groups accused of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s governor. They’ve mostly been the work of racists and antisemites.

Does this mean that journalists won’t potentially become targets in the future? No, we can’t say that. But we can say that, in general, these groups tend to have other targets in their crosshairs.