American Review

American Review provides a global perspective on United States politics and foreign policy. Published from Sydney, Australia, with contributions from all over the world, it aims to give its readers a fair and balanced account of US foreign policy.

American Review is published daily on the internet and as a quarterly on our iPad app. It is published by the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. Founded in 2006, the Centre's mission is to increase understanding of the United States in Australia.

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Here is a book about Detroit. I wrote a review of it for the latest issue of American Review. (Full disclosure: I am a subeditor at AR.)

I was introduced to America’s motor city in the winter of 2005, landing at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport at dawn off a red-eye flight. I was there to visit a family friend who lived, like so many other white folks in the city’s metropolitan area, not in the city itself, but in one of the less dysfunctional suburbs that ring the outskirts — in her case, a working class neighbourhood in the Westside enclave of Livonia.

It was getting ready to snow that day, and the grey skies did little to brighten the city. As my host and I drove around downtown — Detroit long ago gave itself over entirely to the automobile — the overcast conditions lent even the parts of the city yet to succumb to urban decay an air of hard scrabble gloom. The refurbished Fox Theatre, the gleaming Renaissance Center hulked over the river, the gigantic sculpted tigers prowling the outskirts of the pristine new ballpark, the uncharacteristic bustle of Greektown, and the rare neighbourhoods in which lavish mansions left over from the city’s more prosperous days were still well-kept seemed less a sign of life and more a stubborn refusal to succumb to the popular conception of Detroit as a 139 square mile urban hospice.

My host didn’t try to pretend Detroit was not disintegrating, and tolerated well my prurient fascination with its evacuated boulevards and its acres of inner-city prairie interrupted by the odd boarded-up shopfront or what locals call “party stores” — outlets catering for the ever-resilient demand for liquor, lottery tickets, and payday loans. But she insisted that I also see the parts of the city that defied the death sentence the rest of the nation had written for it. Detroiters, understandably, get prickly if you start to pretend theirs is a city that exists as a relic rather than a real place where actual people — seven hundred thousand of them, in fact — live and, in lesser numbers, work.

[and etc.]


The diplomatic tweet

Think tanks and foreign services that shun social media are being left behind

The boundaries between journalism, intelligence, diplomacy and think tank analysis are dissolving at a rapid rate, thanks to the unstoppable advance of social media. It is not entirely an original thought—Daryl Copeland, the Canadian diplo-wonk and author of the book Guerrilla Diplomacy, has made a similar point recently (and on his blog, naturally). This process of creative destruction has a long way yet to play out, so its full implications are far from understood.

What is clear is that the job descriptions for hacks, spooks, diplomats and wonks are becoming less and less distinct, blurring at the edges into a spectrum of geopolitical knowledge makers and manipulators. Sure, there will always be important differences: for spies and journalists especially, the most precious information will always be what someone else does not want them to know.

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With seemingly nothing beyond the pale for Republicans where contraceptive and reproductive rights are concerned, Nicole Hemmer wonders what Todd Akin did differently:

Why did the GOP unite so solidly against Akin, while letting other offenders off?

It wasn’t his affronts to women or science or the Romney campaign. It was that Akin made his remarks while he could still be replaced, and Republicans saw an opportunity to salvage a winnable Senate seat.

Sound cynical? Consider the following:

  1. Akin’s position on abortion matches the GOP platform. Akin holds that no woman should have access to abortion even in cases of rape. That may seem like a fringe position, but since 1984 the party’s platform has included support of the Human Life Amendment, which would outlaw abortion and makes no exception for rape or incest.
  2. Republican legislators already differentiate types of rape in abortion policy. Okay, Akin isn’t going to win any support with the phrase “legitimate rape”. But the idea behind it — that the type of rape matters — has the backing of several prominent Republicans. High on the list? Vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, who co-sponsored a “forcible rape” bill with Akin. They added the word “forcible” to a bill concerning insurance coverage of abortion procedures. The language meant that victims of statutory rape would not be covered.
  3. The Republican Party is a science-free zone. Akin’s belief in the magical properties of the female body leaves him — and his party — open to ridicule. But that’s not a deal-breaker in today’s GOP, where presidential candidates hesitate to embrace evolution or climate change. Even Ronald Reagan once said trees cause pollution. Scientific literacy is not a prerequisite for electability or popularity in the Republican Party.
  4. Side-tracking the Romney campaign isn’t cause for resignation. Otherwise Romney would have had to abandon the ticket ages ago. The Massachusetts governor steps on his own message at least once a week. He did it again on Friday with a joke about the President’s birth certificate. The campaign spent the rest of the day answering questions about birthers rather than the economy.

[Read more]

Americans disagree about important issues. But the division is not simply between rich and poor voters, or religious and secular, or rich and poor states. Each of these factors is important, but the true differences lie in subsets of the population: rich versus poor voters in poor states, high-income religious versus high-income secular voters, red states versus blue states among rich voters, and so forth.
Andrew Gelman’s Red State, Blue States, Rich State, Poor State (2008) lays out America’s electoral divides.
Here is some positive and even practical advice on what to do about a country whose private economy and culture are still highly resilient, but whose ability to address public problems is being destroyed…
James Fallows gathers together some recommended reading on one of the United States’s more intractable problems, the filibuster.
I don’t think there’s a more quintessentially American institution of civil society than the Methodist Church. An 18th century offshoot of Anglican Protestantism, American Methodism is infused with the cultural, institutional, and political character of the United States. And nowhere is this more clear than in the governance structure of the church. First and foremost, the congregants are sovereign. Everything — and I mean everything — can ultimately be put to a popular vote. Second, there’s a Constitution, which not only requires a supermajority of the legislature (oh yes, more on this in a sec) to change, but also must be ratified by the provincial bodies. At the national level, there are three branches — a legislature (the General Conference) that can write/amend a body of laws, an Executive (the Council of Bishops; there’s no singular pope-like figure), and a Judiciary (the Judicial Council). And while the Council of Bishops is obviously restricted to clergy members, it is ultimately popular elections (either direct or indirect) that populate all of the positions.

More fascinating is the federalism of the system, which looks something like a cross between American federalism and the structure of the 19th century American political parties. Churches are grouped into conferences, with each conference headed by an elected bishop. The conferences serve as provincial governments. Each conference has an annual meeting (confusingly called the annual conference), which is attended by all pastors and an equal number of delegates elected by the individual churches and which serves as the legislative session for the year — ordaining clergy, setting budgets, goals, and policies. And, of course, every four years, the annual conference selects delegates to the national general conference. The general conference — the meeting of the national legislature — is the only entity that can make general policy (theological, governance, or otherwise) for the church.

Matt Glassman, who also includes an H.L. Mencken quote:

Whenever a reporter is assigned to cover a Methodist conference, he comes home an atheist.

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At The Nation, historian Rick Perlstein says that he can sum up his books in four words: “Republicans, crazy; Democrats, stupid.”

This seems to be a pattern running through Republican attempts to unseat Obama this campaign season. Conservatives are convinced that the President was given a free pass by a napping media in the 2008 campaign. They believe he was insufficiently vetted, and that both reporters and the campaign of Republican nominee John McCain failed to draw the public’s attention to parts of Obama’s biography that the right considered troubling. After three years in office and with two books penned by the President readily available in stores across the United States, many on the right are still firmly convinced that Obama is a mystery man about whom the American public knows little.


My new piece at American Review could, in one sense, be read as concern trolling, but it wasn’t written in that spirit. Springing off the Joe Ricketts story, it’s a discussion of how so many Republican electioneering attempts thus far in the campaign have been targeted against the president as conservatives imagine him to be, which, I believe, is something different to how the rest of America sees its president.

I find the conservative take on Obama, and the Obama presidency, rather interesting. Not so much the really out there stuff — birtherism, Kenyan anti-colonialism, etc. — but the things that run-of-the-mill base members believe. What makes it all such a mess is the overlap between the right wing fringe and the Republican mainstream, and how difficult it is to separate the two. For instance, many conservatives believe Obama is a dunce (the teleprompter, the idea that he relied on affirmative action for his education) and an arrogant fraud (the “celebrity” thing). Undoubtedly that’s a belief that, for a lot of people, is motivated by uncomplicated racism — but for many others it arises from a sincere failure to understand the appeal of the man or his policies, and so, to these folks, accusations of racism look like an attempt to silence criticism of the president.

I’m also fascinated by the constant accusations on the right that Obama has wantonly disregarded the Constitution. That’s because those accusations are so similar in tone to the ones the left made against George W. Bush in his presidency. I’m not going to fall into the trap of false equivalency: the left had an immeasurably better case than the right does. And though some of the right’s criticisms are grounded in fair concerns about the Administration’s foreign policy and anti-terror tactics, for the most part, they’re fairly groundless. But then, perhaps the left mixed in a lot of groundless accusations against the Bush administration along with its multitude of very real concerns?

The reason this happens is that America is a nation founded on an idea*. The only problem is that no one in America can agree on what that idea is, although they all think they’re personal conception of the idea is a universal one. And there’s a widespread belief that the Constitution is a pretty good attempt at capturing the idea. (The Declaration of Independence is an even better one.) So if you’re someone for whom the policies of a president like Barack Obama do not accord with your ideas of what America should be, then it makes sense that you will consider them in breach of the Constitution — the document that explains what America should be.

Anyway, this is venturing into territory I haven’t fully thought through. But my column is here. Read!


*This is a piece of American exceptionalism of which I firmly believe the truth. I can think of few other nations to which this applies; the states of the old world are  ethnic entities, while few new world nations share such ideological origins. Australia, for instance, was founded out of a desire to preserve the colonial outpost’s Britishness, and we’ve spent our entire history trying to imagine what being Australian might be. See here for more of my discussion on this.

"The Internet will be forever grateful for the introduction of the term ‘black metrosexual Abraham Lincoln’."

Right you are, Adam Serwer (“Jeremiah Wright is Not the Silver Bullet”).

[Slate video screengrab from here]

Jimmy Carter did indeed make a gutsy go/no-go call. It turned out to be a tactical, strategic, and political disaster. You can read the blow-by-blow in Mark Bowden’s retrospective of “The Desert One Debacle.” With another helicopter, the mission to rescue U.S. diplomats then captive in Tehran might well have succeeded — and Carter is known still to believe that if the raid had succeeded, he would probably have been re-elected. Full discussion another time, but I think he’s right. (Even with the fiasco, and a miserable “stagflation” economy, the 1980 presidential race was very close until the very end.)
James Fallows is unimpressed with Mitt Romney’s contention that “even Jimmy Carter” would have given the order to kill Osama bin Laden.