The Dead Idea of American Populism

A few weeks ago, a friend sent a link to me and asked my thoughts on what was discussed within. The link turned out to be a series of articles from on the subject of populism and populist movements in American contemporary history. Wikipedia describes populism as

“defined either as an ideology,[1][2][3][4] or (more uncommonly) a political philosophy,[5][6][7] or a type of discourse,[3][6] i.e., of sociopolitical thought that compares “the people” against “the elite”, and urges social and political system changes. It can also be defined as a rhetorical style employed by members of various political or social movements. It is defined by the Cambridge dictionary as “political ideas and activities that are intended to represent ordinary people’s needs and wishes”.

In terms of American political history, populism is better understood as the political will of the masses of common American voters being made into policy. Practical demonstrations of populism are the trade and labor unions which were highly (by American standards) populated in the early 20th century as well as the political machines such as Tammany Hall. The populist movements focused on forwarding the political objectives of the dues-paying members, often numbering in the tens of thousands, something up into the millions. What often came along with these organizations was corruption, racketeering, and ties to organized crime or black market economies.

The first of the Salon series of articles on populism, and the one I will address here (the rest to follow), is entitled “Nobody Represents the American People“.

The major thrust of the article is that there exists no major organization in contemporary American politics which represents the wishes and will of the ordinary American. Instead, organizations which hold influence and sway in policy making or king-making have found it more efficient to go to where the money is and gather large donations from a few donors, even easier now that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as individuals and can donate unlimited amounts to campaigns. (See Citizens United v Federal Election Commission). Because of this race to the money the voice of the American people has been left out of political discourse. The author ends by noting that it may be impossible for a philosopher king to reign as one might have during the days of Lincoln or Roosevelt, and in order to fix this, the American people need to be mobilized, but instead, American money is mobilized and people are not.

While the analysis is adroit, I doubt that any mass mobilization of the American people will take place for the long campaign. All it takes is a look at my generation. The lost 20-somethings who think that changing our facebook profile pictures to cartoon is going to end child abuse, or who are too lazy to read anything more than 140 characters in length, or who are more interested in being noticed for their culture than actually contributing towards it. The American people at this point will only mobilize if it suits them, and more often than not, it does not suit them.

It is my opinion that mass membership organizations are dead and the only way for the American citizen to bring their voices back into mainstream policy is to completely rewrite campaign funding and finance laws. Eliminating the electoral college, the long-obsolete and undemocratic means of determining an election, and replacing it with a pure popular vote is a first step. Prohibiting unlimited donations is another means (i.e. reversing the most recent Supreme Court decision with legislation) of working towards a more common voice. Eliminating the year-long campaign season, setting a spending cap on campaigns, establishing term limits, and barring lobbyists from offering gifts in any form to elected officials are other methods. All of these have draws and drawbacks, and no solution is perfect, but in order to get the common voice back in politics, methods which seem as severe as these are necessary. The only way to replace money with opinion is to remove the money.

Once the money is gone from politics, a highly idealist stance, I know, the only voice remaining to influence policy will be that of citizens. Not special interests, not organizations, not lobbies, but regular citizens, be they rich or poor, weighing in on which direction American needs to go.

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Bob Woodward on Journalism, War, and A Man Divided

On Tuesday November 30, the noted author Bob Woodward came to the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University to participate in a Q&A session. The topics ranged from Wikileaks to getting the truth from sources to the name of Obama’s Wars to the blogsphere and the 24-hour news cycle.

Lacking a voice recorder, I have re-created as much as possible using Mr. Woodward’s thought but my own words. I was also able to capture some direct quotes relating to things which I thought important.

Mr. Woodward started with an anecdote about a dinner party he was attending where he happened to sit next to the former Vice President, Al Gore. He asked Mr. Gore, now, after five years (this was in 2005) of books and the 24-hour news cycle, how much do we know of consequence? Mr. Gore responded with “1%”.

With all of the constant information barraging our senses, one would think that we would have a better idea of what was going on. But, as Mr. Woodward’s anecdote displayed, and as Wikileaks (covered later) has also displayed, there is far more we don’t know that what we do.

What Mr. Woodward pointed out is that as a journalist, you try and develop a method to chip away at the secrecy surrounding events like the White House occurrences.

One of the first questions asked looked at the decision making process for picking a withdrawal date for American forces in Afghanistan. Mr. Woodward said that the July 2011 date had come out of a side comment made by Secretary of Defense Gates. President Obama seized upon that date for a drawdown, a move which rather alarmed the military. The new date for an assumed drawdown – 2014 – is a reflection on the military concern.

About a half hour into the discussion, an audience member asked the inevitable – how credible and authentic are the wikileaks documents?

Mr. Woodward believed the documents to be credible and authentic, but not as important as they were made out to be. His reasoning is that the real stories are only told in the Top Secret and above classifications, whereas the wikileaks documents were classified secret. He further clarified that we are seeing something, but it lacks context, there is very little actual intelligence without the larger picture being available.

In terms of gathering information, the issue of FOIA (freedom of information act) requests also came up. Mr. Woodward stressed that all of his best sources have been human sources. FOIA requests tend to get clogged up in the system and a cooperating human source will always provide more and better information.

Another audience member asked about the previous books Mr. Woodward had written, noting that they had focused on war. Mr. Woodward’s response was telling of the last decade. I’ll recreate his response as best as I can: ‘I’d decided the defining event for the Bush presidency was going to be the Bush tax cut. On 9/11 I realized that the defining moment of the Bush presidency was going to be the response.’

What is true about war, if you travel abroad at all, is that wars define who we are to the world, and more importantly, they define who we are to ourselves.

George Bush’s decision to engage the US in war was a tremendous one. War matters, it has defined the first decade of this millennium; and people keep notes, they keep journals, you can get the concrete deals explaining the evolution of decision making.’

The conversation turned back to Mr. Woodward’s most recent book Obama’s Wars. At some point, Mr. Woodward had considered naming the book The Divided Man (a name I personally think is better), in order to reflect the divided nature of the Obama White House. In his conversations with Mr. Obama, Mr. Woodward reported that Obama thinks, intellectually, that America can absorb another terrorist attack. He points to 9/11 and how America came out of that tragedy stronger and more unified than before. Mr. Obama also understands the difficulties of maintaining Pakistan as an ally. We need Pakistan to be friendly to us, but they also constantly harbor enemies of America.

From there the conversation turned more towards the process of journalism. The question was asked As a journalist, doesn’t the focus on personal bickering and personalities bother you? Mr. Woodward did express frustration with the constant cults of personality, but also thanked the more serious minded people who read the book as a debate on policy rather than a debate on personalities.

A follow up question asked advice on how to get the story out of people,  the truth of events surrounding them. Mr. Woodward, an old hand at the helm in this regard, had much to say. It takes time, he responded, you have to go back, to peel away the proverbial onion. As you work, you get closer to the central truths, but it requires the relationship of trust which only time and effort can build. Find people who cooperate, who will answer you questions, and who you can build this relationship of trust with. If you demonstrate that you take them seriously, it can be off-putting, but in the end, you will get the answers you seek.

As perhaps an almost ideal follow up question, an audience member asked what Mr. Woodward though of the Afghan war coverage, considering that most news organizations are cutting foreign correspondents.

The response was ‘most people are disconnected’. He felt that the American public looked at the Afghan war as a video game. Maybe if we had the draft we would feel differently. Maybe we should have the draft, as he noted, it could change the way the American public views the war. We need to do more than just watch the TV, put a ribbon on our cars, or clap as they go through the airport. We have to connect to this sense as a population. Our leadership needs to communicate that, and if we can’t demonstrate that our country is behind the war effort, then we need to disengage.

The talk concluded shortly after and exited into a book signing. During which I was able to let him now that I enjoyed his comments on the blogsphere (where is the market and the ability make a living?) and let him know that this would be posted on my blog.

Mr. Woodward provided a long and interesting look into the world of journalism and how he is able to attain inside information in order to paint a picture of decision making at the highest levels. His look at the impact of war on our politics and society show both the disconnect of the American populace and the lack of communication and consistency at the top levels of government. Until these issues are addressed, the disconnect in the populace and the conflict in the leadership will be readily apparent.


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Bob Woodward comes to town

I will be heading down to the Elliot School of International Affairs (at George Washington University) later this evening to hear Bob Woodward, author of All the President’s Men and Obama’s Wars, give a speech tonight. Look for an update later this evening on the content.

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The more you (don’t) know

As part of my research for the International Studies Association (ISA) conference in March (see here) I have been looking into issues, technologies, and metric data on cyber security issues. The results are, for the common person, terrifying, and for the more informed person, still disturbing.

Trending data provided by Verizon shows that the overwhelming majority of attacks are focused in the retail sector. 55% of reported data breaches came from retail or food and beverage industries. Interestingly enough, there is relatively little activity in the financial sectors, although Verizon does point out that this may be due to the financial sector generally having stronger controls in place to protect data than the retail sector does.

See the full documentVerizon 2010 Data Breach Report (PDF)

Richard Clarke reports in his new book ‘Cyberwar’ (Amazon) that governments are most certainly not immune to these attacks either, although they are a smaller portion of the total cyber attacks numbers. He points to Russia using DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks to shut down Georgian critical infrastructure when invading the country, preventing the Georgian military, economy, and government from responding., through CACI, has provided another report point the finger at China as the party responsible for repeated high level coordinated Cyber attacks which either have attempted to or have in the past cracked secure systems.

These documents are just some of the papers and websites which I have been looking through, and yet already, the disturbing outline has developed. ARPA net, the original incarnation of the internet, was created to serve as a network where the users had implicit trust agreements with each other. That is no longer the case. As the network grew and technology advanced, the basic idea of anonymity remained. It became far easier to for users intent on malicious activity to engage in such activity without giving away their identity.

While there are many merits to the argument for maintaining cyber anonymity as a necessity – for protection of individuals from unnecessary snooping, for those government activities which are necessary but must be deniable, for whistleblowers (i.e. wikileaks) – as well as others, there still remains some point which the argument for identification of malicious intruders remains. There should be a method to backtrack an identity in a case of known security breaches, and there should be a way to punish those who engage in illegal activities. But when we delve into that issue, it is a lot murkier than expected.

The first is that hackers have gotten very good at using layers of activity to mask their activities. If one were to take a quick look into things such as the TOR network, you can see why backtracking is such an issue. Other problems include ISP borders – the digital ‘land’ where one ISP’s network ends and the other begins. ISPs would need to organize instant coordination methods in order to effectively track cyber criminals, something which is very possible, but still needs to be done. State boundaries also have to be considered – can and should the US prosecute a cyber criminal based in China or Russia, or should those people be accountable to their own governments. Would their own governments even prosecute them (the likely answer is no, they would be offered jobs).

Couple those issues with the fact that many vulnerabilities in data systems are not known until they are exploited (either internally by a firm’s risk management team, external contractors, or malicious attackers), then one can begin to see the scope of the problem which the cyber landscape faces.

Some of the most important efforts to combat the problems of cyberspace are happening currently, and they are promising. ICANN has been working on IPv6 and DNSSEC deployment, the Black Hat Abu Dhabi conference just wrapped up with Dan Kaminsky, a renowned researcher, releasing phreebird – an easy DNSSEC deployment tool, NIST and the GAO are releasing ongoing reports on creating standards and highlighting successes and failures, and private firms and researchers across the globe are developing solutions to the growing pile of cyber security problems.

While these developments are all indeed promising, what remains is the actual implementation.



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NookColor Unboxing!

Well, I finally got a chance to try out the NookColor, the newest iteration of Barnes and Noble’s e-readers. I have to say, it is one sexy device. The weight of the actual device feels great in-hand. It’s a little under a pound, but feels more solid than that. The screen resolution is incredible, it looks sharper than my laptop set to 1280 x 800 and true to advertisement, the screen is viewable at almost 180 degrees.

The touch screen is responsive and intuitive, I was able to easily navigate to everything I wanted to find quickly.

Its a box!

Inside of the box is the unit, manual, and power adaptor.

Inside of the box

The screen is very shiny, even through the plastic.

Wrapped in plastic with yours truly

Out of the plastic

Nook Color, out of the box


Micro USB port





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Obama’s India Trip Creates A New UN Question

UN Security Council Chamber in New York.

Image via Wikipedia

As President Obama begins to wrap up his trip to India, the first leg of a 10-day Asia tour, he backed a proposal to add India to a new, permanent seat in the UN Security Council. This would be the first expansion of the UN permanent security council since its inception in 1945. There have been five historic permanent seats on the council – the US, China, United Kingdom, France, and Russia. Adding a sixth seat creates a host of new problems, not the least of which is the possibility of a deadlock 3-3 vote on issues brought before the security council.

From the Washington Post:

NEW DELHI- President Obama said Monday that the United States would support adding India as a permanent member of an expanded U.N. Security Council–a powerful endorsement of India’s growing global aspirations offered on the final day of his India visit.

Backing India in its quest for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council is a great move to forward diplomatic goals with India specifically, but the ramifications in other issues, I feel, have not been fully considered. India is the worlds most populous democracy and does indeed deserve the recognition which comes from that status, as well as the status of having one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the world.


Creating a new permanent seat on the Security Council creates a potentially dangerous precedent. If a new security council seat is created, what is to prevent other States from requesting the same treatment. Brazil, for example, or South Africa. Pakistan, India’s perennial rival, will certainly demand similar treatment, if for nothing else than to ‘keep up with the Jones’.

Creating a new Asia seat in the council also increases the voices of other regions for permanent seats – an African seat, or a South American seat. While there does exist a compelling argument for creating a new security council based upon regional powers, simply adding seats is not the way to go about such matters.

If that were to become the new standard, the Security Council would face the prospect of becoming an ever-expanding board, prone to longer and more deadlocked discussion and debate than it already is.

In order to try preserve some of the UN effectiveness and to accurately reflect the changes in the World since 1945, The UN does need to restructure the Security Council, but not in the way proposed. Maintaining the five seat council promotes a faster decision making process than simply expanding the security council to account for new voices. However, in order to effectively reflect the changing world status, the permanent council seats should be assigned regionally.

North America

South America




While this is, admittedly an imperfect solution (watch China, India, and Pakistan duke it out for Asian seat, along with Australia), it does do a better job of reflecting the powerful voices in the World than the current system of one North American, Three European (Russia is a border-hopper) and one Asian seat dictating world security policy.

Obama has the right of things when he says that the US should and will back India in a bid for a permanent security council seat, but what remains unsaid is how India should go about claiming the seat which its influence deserves.

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Digg: What Went Wrong? (via nocachyblog)

This is an interesting post on some of the reasons digg may have gone downhill. For those of you which participate in the vast web of social media/news aggregation sites, you will understand the problems which cropped up when digg went to v4 and when facebook and twitter began to implement extra sharing or digg-esque changes.

You may have heard recently that news sharing/ranking website Digg had to lay off a third of its staff after a relaunch of its site flopped. Two years ago when I visited Digg on TechTrek, Digg was a darling of the Web 2.0 generation of startups. It had a charismatic founder in Kevin Rose, a veteran of the first dot-com bubble in CEO Jay Adelson, and an innovative idea that was poised to change how we consume news. Those Digg icons were all over t … Read More

via nocachyblog

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In The Post-Election Wave of Destruction…A Third Way?

Citizens registered as an Independent, Democra...

Image via Wikipedia

Now that we’ve all had our fill of the mid-term election results, the celebrations or somber walks home, and of course, the non-stop rounds of talking heads telling us how this is the start of a bright new era or the end of world as we know it; we can actually pause and consider something rather of an enigma in the history of American politics: a Third Party.

Well, more correctly, not really a third party but a third way of thinking. My personal opinions aside, the Tea Party has presented a phenomenon rarely seen in US politics – the powerful third option. Ralph Nader was a pioneer of one movement, Ron Paul the symbol of another, the Know-Nothings were present in the 1840s and 1850s. Several other examples occur throughout the years as well, but those are some of the most prominent ones.

This last election cycle saw the rise of the Tea Party as a prominent force in American politics. Tea Party backed candidates ran in dozens of races with multiple races receiving national attention (Nevada, Kentucky, Delaware) and Fox News ran almost continual coverage of Tea Party events. Regardless of views on the actual politics of the Tea Party, it was indeed something of a political spectacle not seen in many years. Neither of the last two political movements (the Greens or the Libertarians) have quite garnered as much attention as the Tea Party managed.

What this signaled, rather than a shift to the right, in my eyes, was a greater dissatisfaction with the two party system and a yearning for more political options than the US political system has traditionally offered as viable alternatives

Unfortunately for Democrats and fortunately for Republicans, the Tea Party happened to be a mostly-conservative movement based on fiscal principles. I have, however, heard many many other reports of individuals voting outside of their normal party lines and crossing into libertarian, green, and write-in candidates.

The Tea Party movement may have fueled the Republican super-victory in the House, and the seat pickups in the Senate and Governor’s Mansions, but I still think that it is more indicative of a rising flow of viable third-party candidates and parties, rather than a simple desire to shift to one of the two major parties.

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Stewart/Colbert Go Establishment on America

Well, unfortunately I couldn’t make it to the Stewart/Colbert rally to restore sanity and/or fear. However The Nation ( ) is running a live stream of the event and NPR is posting updates via twitter. Also keep track of whatever news media is handy and you too can watch America be curiously polite and/or tremble in fear.

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General Wesley Clark Speaks at GWU Elliot School

Last week I had the privilege of listening to General Wesley K Clark speak at the Banville Forum, a speaker series presented by the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University. General Clark is a former NATO Supreme Commander for the European theatre, a distinguish US commander, a former Democratic Presidential candidate, a former CNN analyst, an investment banker, and a current strategic consultant.

The essence of Mr. Clark’s speech revolved around finding a new sense of national strategy, the same type of sense which propelled the United States to the forefront of world power and wealth from the late 1800s and into today. The starting question of the speech was “how do we fit this [the current American security dilemmas] into American history?”

Mr. Clark sketched a brief picture of American military history, beginning with the end of WWII and touching on every conflict to the end of the Cold War, including Korea and the Chinese counter-attack, to sputnik, Vietnam, and the American policy of containment of the Soviet Union. He did note that

“Our national security strategy of total engagement was validated”

when he referred to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

His point rested on the idea that Americans all shared the single sense of necessity in defeating the Soviet Union, or if it was not universal, the overwhelming majority of American shared the sentiment. It gave our sense of strategy validation, direction, and most importantly, will, to see it through the finish. The collective strategy was rewarded by a victory – the United States surviving as the sole legitimate super power in the world.

Mr. Clark continued on, saying

“We were the leaders in the research and development sectors, we had to have it for our military-industrial complex.”

He was indeed referring to the military-industrial complex President Truman warned of, but he was also referring to the complex as the driving force for American greatness in the post-WWII era. If it was an important invention, the Americans had done it, in essence. An important note was the existence of DARPA – the defense advanced research projects administration, which invested in the technology giants of today, such as Bell Labs, and eventually created the technology we use everyday – cell phone, laptops, cable televisions – they spawned from DARPA investment projects.

While his overview of American military history made for interesting listening, he true purpose in explaining the American sense of strategy lay in more current events.

“Without a national strategy that we could adhere to as a people, we politicked our way into a war we shouldn’t have.”

He presents to us now, the year 2010: a dangerous global security situation, 6.5% of GDP (not the national budget, but total American GDP) is devoted to defense spending, and that spending is constrained by a 3.2 trillion dollar deficit. Middle class incomes haven’t grown in terms of real wages in 30 years, but the top .5% are increasingly wealthy and influential. How did we [as asked by Mr. Clark] succeed so immensely beyond our wildest expectations, but become a debtor nation fighting two wars?

Mr. Clark’s answer – we have no national security strategy; or at least not like we used to.

His suggested solutions are to carefully start working our way out of Afghanistan. He suggested increasing the number or surgical strikes; harkening back to the Phoenix program during Vietnam, which targeted Viet Cong infrastructure; except this iteration of Phoenix program is the targeted elimination (execution, assassination etc…) of Taliban and Al-Queda leaders. Mr. Clark emphasized the need to do more, more quickly and quietly, in order to accomplish our military objectives overseas.

Mr. Clark also spoke about Pakistan, and American concerns there. He articulated the belief that Pakistan is using American friendship strategically to force continued American friendship for the Pakistani government; suggesting the Pakistanis were not cooperating to their fullest extent in the hunt for Osama Bin-Laden, because, in Mr. Clark’s terms, the continued existence of Bin-laden ensures the continuation of American military investment in and around Pakistan and prevents the American government from giving preferential treatment to India, Pakistan’s long time regional enemy.

To wrap up his speech, Mr. Clark summarized his thoughts on history and the present security situations, and explained the young people are in search of a nation security strategy, we are still trying to export petrodollars like we were in the cold war, but we no longer have the overreaching security strategy which we used to have. Gen. Clark likens the NSS to a subconscious mission of expanding American values. If we have an NSS, American cannot fail because we have a mission.


Mr. Clark ended the speech at that point and took several questions. Below are two of the questions asked. I have tried to faithfully replicate Mr. Clark’s answers. They are note exact quotes, but re-iterations of his thoughts using my own words.


Q– How Can we increase security but reduce spending?

A– We can extricate ourselves from Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly and cleanly as possible. We cannot support the military spending growth rate which as occurred in the last five years without matching economic growth at home, which has not occurred. We use small steps to push our expansions and projects, essentially deferring them to the future to stop immediate spending. Projects can be returned to when the economic situation is more appropriate. Our problem is in the long-term budget deficit, rather than what people pay attention to, which is short term budget deficits. We also need to engage the mission of the government – which is gaining full employment, we are sacrificing several trillion dollars per year of potential money by maintain a 10% unemployment rate.

Q – What about the North Korean threat, and is there possible reconciliation?

A – The North Korean threat is real, they are arming and proliferating. We have had nothing but North Korean threats for 60 years though. In 1994, [Mr. Clark] had a discussion at the Pentagon about possibly going to war with North Korea – they had a nuclear reactor and had not shared information which they needed to. The DOD had a war plan drafted for presentation to the president. The most constant and most severe threat from North Korea is the proliferation of nuclear arms.

Here are two excellent quotes to part company on:

“We have a real problem in America … we’ve lost our national vision for where the country is headed. We’ve lost it for a variety of reasons … there was always a sense in the country from George Washington’s time forward, and we acted on it, that we would dominate this continent.”

“We had a 20th century vision too, we were the arsenal of democracy”


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