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St Cuthbert's Society


Ted Gup, an IAS fellow from Michaelmas Term 2015 based at St Cuthbert's Society, has started his own 'blog' for Cuth's entitled 'A Postcard from America'. Ted is a Boston-based author, journalist, and professor. He has written widely about government and public institutions, and is recognized as an authority on the subject of secrecy and its impact on democracy. For many years he was an investigative reporter with The Washington Post on Bob Woodward’s project team. There he wrote more than 100 front-page stories for the Post. His work has been recognized as a Pulitzer finalist in national reporting and was honored with the George Polk Award, the Worth Bingham Prize for investigative reporting, the Gerald Loeb Award, and other awards. He later covered Congress and the environment for Time Magazine and was its Washington investigative reporter. His work has appeared in a wide array of publications including The New York Times (he is a frequent contributor to the op ed page,) the Nation, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated, the Harvard International Journal of Press and Politics, Slate, National Public Radio, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. For more information, see the IAS website.

Note from America 2

At this point, just sixteen days from the presidential election, I am tempted to make all manner of prediction. My past record on such matters has been somewhat flawed – I can’t recollect the last time I got anything right – but since when has that stopped a pundit from spouting off? So, here is what I see on the horizon. First, Trump will lose, Clinton will win. From folks like myself you will be able to hear, even across the broad expanse of the Atlantic, a huge collective sigh of relief …followed by a gasp reflecting the realization that nothing really has changed. Contrary to those who foresee an implosion of the Republican Party, I see a resurgence and a coalescing around a common enemy – Hillary. I see a concerted effort to thwart her every initiative, to subvert her agenda, and sink her noblest aspirations. Hillary, like her husband, is largely a centrist, but that will not stop her avowed enemies – and there are legions of them – from marshaling their forces against her. It will not be pretty. I imagine even the most qualified of Supreme Court nominees will struggle to win confirmation. The prevailing policy on Capitol Hill will be that of scorched earth, thinly veiled in talk of responsibility, future generations, and the courage of one’s convictions. (“Convictions” is a word on Capitol Hill that rightly makes people squirm.) The House of Representatives, home to some of the most rabid and evangelical of far right conservatives, will be emboldened to dig in even further in their obstructionist ambitions. Essential budgets may not pass. New investigations of Hillary’s past deeds may be launched. Hillary will reach out in the first days and demonstrate her own conservative bona fides but will be rebuffed. The object will not be governance but resistance. The rancor between the parties will intensify. There will be no honeymoon period. Each side will be posturing for its respective bases, representing the extremes. The Senate, even if it goes Democratic, of which I am not convinced, will not have sufficient numbers to override a filibuster, meaning that the minority, if truly committed – and God knows they are that (and many should be committed) – will be able to block that which it deems objectionable, which is to say, any and all Clinton initiatives. The toxicity of Washington’s partisan politics will test new boundaries. The Republican Party will avoid introspection at all costs, scrupulously dodge accountability for the Trump fiasco, and plot and conspire in every way allowed by the rules of Congress – and they are many indeed – to frustrate the will of the new administration and, by extension, the people who expressed their preferences in the election. (Which, in all fairness, is precisely how the Democrats would respond in the event of a Trump victory – and God knows, I would expect and ask no less of them.) The beauty of American government is that it is so designed so that every four years hopes are elevated but the process ensures that no one, neither Saint nor sinner, can get anything significant done. We sometimes call that the “balance of power,” or “checks and balances,” but really what it means is that if the bad guy gets in (that is the opposition) there’s only so much harm they can do. We pride ourselves in continuity and smooth transitions of power which is another of way saying no one is allowed to rock the boat. This confrontation between Republican and Democrat shall reach a crescendo as the new president reverts to political legerdemain, and the old ways - executive orders to end-run Congress, uses of recess appointments ( temporary appointments when Congress is not in session) to fill contested vacancies, and exercise of all manner of creative governance to neuter Congress. All this shall exacerbate the already frayed relationship. I foresee a number of Constitutional crises on the horizon – some real, some fabricated, to embarrass the administration, get on the evening news, and solicit campaign contributions. After a lot of saber-rattling, and threats of law suits, Donald Trump will finally go the way of Sarah Palin and the dodo, disappearing into the ooze from which he first emerged. On a cheerier note, relations between the US and Russia will quickly deteriorate, as Clinton nurses her wrath over the leaked emails and an innate hostility to Russia. Very smart people will be summoned to Washington to fill roles in the Clinton administration where their wisdom will be ignored by yahoos from the countryside who are suspicious of anyone with an advanced degree, especially those from the Ivy League. Bill Clinton, the First Husband of the Land, will be given a long and lavish portfolio of responsibilities, many of them involving extensive foreign travel, and all of them designed to tap into his charisma and to make sure he doesn’t have time to let that charisma get him into any more mischief. Look for him to be a regular at foreign state funerals in the company of dowdy State Department apparatchiks assigned by Hillary to keep a close eye on him. (Revenge is a dish best served cold….) Two dates to keep in mind. First. November 9th, the day after the election. That’s the first day the next election begins and egos will be jockeying for attention, mouthing platitudes, skipping Congressional hearings, ignoring the duties of office to which they were just elected, and soliciting funds from those whose interests coincidentally coincide with the particular Congressman’s legislative committee assignment. The second date to keep in mind is January 20th when the next president will be sworn into office, takes the oath on the Bible, promises to be president for one and all – not just those who voted for her – and shares with the world a vision of bipartisan and global co-operation, while her minions make lists of who’s most vulnerable to pressure in the opposition’s ranks. Regretfully, I shall miss the speech and spectacle of the Inauguration, being in far-off Durham and my beloved St. Cuth’s, but having seen it more than once, I know how it will go. Besides, were I to stay in the States, I fear I might become a cynic.

A Postcard From America #1

My Dear St. Cuthbertians

First, I miss you all terribly, and I miss the sanity of Durham. (My friends, not even Klute rivals the insanity of American politics these days.) As a journalist and registered Independent – neither of the Democratic nor Republican persuasion – I wish to assure you that I am completely objective (not really) when I declare the leading candidates of the Grand Old Party (the Republicans) as sorrowful a lot as I have witnessed in my sixty-five years. Trump may lack the subtlety of his rivals, but he has in no way cornered the market on the politics of divisiveness and bigotry. America, the “melting pot” where all are welcomed and all enjoy an equal chance to succeed, has always been something of a myth, cherished though it is, but rarely in times of such relative prosperity has the specter of bigotry been so visible – or, sadly, so effective. This country that I very much love is now as polarized as I have ever seen it. Not since the days of the Vietnam War some forty years ago, has the nation been so divided, domestic rivals so demonized, and the patriotism of honest men and women on both sides of the political divide so subject to questioning. Politics is and always has been a blood sport, but there used to be some rules of engagement. Today’s politics is as different from yesterday’s as boxing is to cage-fighting.

Into this maelstrom, Donald Trump has leant his particular brand of mischief, stirring things up, pitting one side against the other. And for those who drew relief in the Iowa victory of Texas Senator Ted Cruz, the comfort is short-lived indeed. Felling Trump may be a virtue – even if short-lived (in New Hampshire polls have him well ahead) – but Cruz is a menace made all the more dangerous by a keen intellect and a lack of scruples. He is feared by his opponents and utterly reviled by those in his own party. He could not even persuade his Republican colleagues to pass a measure declaring him eligible to be president, notwithstanding his Canadian birth and American mother. (They prefer to watch him twist in the winds of uncertainty.) And then there is Marco Rubio who continually gives thanks to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, an unabashed play for the Evangelical vote. It is reminiscent of those basketball players who cross themselves before taking a foul shot. It is unsettling to see such sanctimony or to hear faith trivialized by unadulterated partisanship.

It is strange coming from Durham, a city in the shadow of an ancient cathedral (a venue from which I drew immeasurable peace) but a city that is highly secular in a country that is, I sense, increasingly secular. America is increasingly composed of multiple nations, some, like the Northeast, good-hearted but not so God-fearing, others, under the sway of Christian fundamentalism. I joke with friends that the foreign powers I fear the most are North Korea, Iran and Texas. Fanatics are fanatics, geography notwithstanding. My friends muse that watching the rise of Trump reminds them of witnessing what befell the Weimar Republic. Such hyperbole is not constructive but it does reflect the fear and discomfort that many feel watching the nation lurch to the right and listening to demagoguery aimed at hapless immigrants and Moslems – and who knows who next.

The Democrats practice their own brand of divisiveness, exploiting the widening chasm between the haves and have-nots and playing on the class divides that are real enough – the obscene concentrations of wealth and the unconstrained infusion of money into American politics where billionaires have such disproportionate say that the entire political process sometimes feels like a tug of war between a handful of shadow oligarchs. That financial behemoth Goldman Sachs paid the leading Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton some $676,000 for a few speeches does not enhance her credibility as a reformer. And Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders, close on her heels, has all the ardor of a true believer, but ultimately could play the role of spoiler. Should he run as an independent or fatally discredit Hillary, he could deliver the nation into the hands of one of those unsavory characters like Trump or Cruz. Horribile dictu!

I have always believed in democracy, but like many, I have privately observed that the only weakness in the system is that it depends upon the people. In our case, I am not sure which is more worrisome – the silence of the many, or the unmodulated volume of the few. This election is a referendum not merely about the parties, or political philosophies, but about the integrity of the political process and whether it can actually produce someone capable of governing. In light of the current polarization, he or she who wins the current contest for the White House may well be in the least enviable of all positions – one in which governing will be less about setting a common direction, than herding quail. Then again, it would not be the first time that the inability to move forward with an agenda may be the saving grace of our democracy.