My bread and butter, in terms of analytical work, for the Army was doing cultural assessments. First at the tactical level and then at the theater and national strategic levels of operation. Much of the formats for these assessments were my creation because they largely didn’t exist in a formal sense until I was assigned to USAWC and then temporarily assigned out to assist III Corps in 2012, US Army Europe in 2013 and 2014, and to provide assistance and support to a variety of Divisions, Army Service Component Commands, and Geographic Combatant Commands beginning in 2010. I tried to broadly root what I was doing in the closest thing the US military has to a doctrinal definition of culture, which can be found in CJCSI 1800.01E/The Officers Professional Military Education Policy. It is a very broad definition of culture:
The distinctive and deeply rooted beliefs, values, ideology, historic traditions, social forms and behavioral patterns of a group, organization or society that evolves, is learned, and transmitted to succeeding generations.
In many ways a lot of what I do is what the British refer to as cultural intelligence, which is basically looking at the human geography of the problem set, the people, places, and things within the operating environment, and trying to assess how they all interact in regard to opportunities, challenges, and threats the US is facing within that operating environment.
For a while now I’ve been thinking about the US as an operating environment, specifically in regard to the politics of and around the looming 2020 election. Here’s some preliminary thoughts, as a preliminary assessment, on this operating environment.
The Context Within Which the 2020 Elections Will be Contested
It is exceedingly important to understand the American operating environment in 2019 and going into 2020, especially for those planning on running for office or working on their campaigns, and to place their campaign strategies and planning, and, perhaps, their campaigns themselves within the context that the US is at war. Putin has made it very clear since 2014 that as far as he was concerned Russia was, at least, in a new cold war with the US and the US was the aggressor. And 2014 is around when he started to really ramp up his active measures and cyberwarfare campaign of information and psychological warfare against the US, the EU, and NATO. At the same time the US is also enmeshed in a low intensity internal war between revanchists who seek to establish a white Christian herrenvolk state and society and those that don’t. This is largely breaking along party lines. The Republicans, especially the base that supports the President, fighting for herrenvolkism. The Democratic Parties broad multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious coalition fighting against it. And Putin’s active measures campaign, his war against the US, is stoking the Republicans and seeking to demoralize and deactivate the Democrats. This is the theater of operations in which everything – from the primaries to the general election to senatorial and congressional elections to state and local elections – will take place over the next two years.
The Human Geography: A Tale of Two Tribes
A lot of the discussion of American politics has lapsed into the shorthand of discussing the two major parties as tribes. This isn’t really accurate, but it makes for a convenient shorthand. As has been documented by many scholars and analysts, the political parties began to resort themselves during and after the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, largely finishing their internal realignments in the 1990s, and finished consolidating in the early 00s. This has left us with two very distinct political parties.
Right now the Democratic Party is going through some generational changes. A lot of which were reflected in the 2018 midterm elections. The Democratic Party is changing to better reflect the demographics of its members. This observation isn’t rocket science. A lot of it is generational turnover that has accelerated and been moved to the foreground in response to Trump and a long overdue realization, from the Democratic/Democratic leaning side, of what the base of the GOP/the President’s base within the GOP and the conservative movement actually have been consolidating into as a result of the partisan realignment begun in the late 1960s. It has become an insurgent, revanchist party and movement promoting a herrenvolk democracy for white, largely evangelical Christians. These ideas and identity components that have been very heavily foregrounded, for a variety of reasons, within the GOP and the conservative movement over the past two and a 1/2 years has been remade to better support and reflect the President, his views, and his agenda such as it is. As a result, these ideas of nativism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism paired with Christian Zionist support for Israel, homophobia, and Islamophobia appear to be ascendant within the GOP in 2019. Should the GOP, as it has been presenting itself over the past three years or so, ever get its way, the traditionalist Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews that are along for the ride will be first to be purged. And then the various evangelical denominations and sects will turn on themselves until they achieve purity. Think the 30 years war with Mitch McConnell presiding over the Senate.
The Democratic Party is in many ways the mirror opposite of the Republican Party. Rather than shrinking itself, it has broadened itself into a sort of tribal confederation – a tribe of tribes. It’s strength, that it is far more diverse, may ultimately become a weakness if that diversity can’t be channeled in a way that provides enough for each of those diverse tribes and sub-tribes to feel as if their interests are being met within the coalition and by the coalition’s leadership. The Republican Party, especially the President’s base, after what we’ve observed over the past three years or so, should be seen as a coherent, solid tribe with a couple of caveats. It is clear that some Republicans are just going through the motions because, unlike the NeverTrumpers, they can’t bring themselves to make the partisan break with their long held political affiliations and identities. Other Republicans, especially the professional ones, are simply being opportunistic and expect, when the President’s term of office eventually ends, to be able to reinvent themselves and try to get everyone to ignore what they’ve done since 2015. Some are simply trying to ride the tiger without getting mauled and eaten. However, the base of the Republican Party, which is the President’s base, is becoming a hardened white, largely evangelical Christian ethno-party. And this dynamic is being promoted and consolidated, often for profit, by Fox News, conservative talk radio, many conservative publications online and dead tree, and conservative social media.
I hope that I’m wrong, but I’m very concerned that when Senator Sanders does not get the Democratic nomination, and I think that will become very clear very early on in the primaries next year because the US in 2019 is a very different world than the US in 2015 and 2016, that his supporters and his monomaniacal focus on economics issues, coupled with his ego, will drive him to run as an independent. And if he doesn’t, Nina Turner will shiv him and do it herself. I’m actually quite surprised that she hasn’t done this already. I honestly didn’t think she had this much restraint. Sanders won’t get the nomination because of the internal evolution and generational changes within the multi-ethnic and multi-religious coalitions that comprise the Democratic Party. A lot of his platform was incorporated into the broader Democratic platform in 2016 when Secretary Clinton was the nominee and more of it has been incorporated since then. At this point he should declare victory for his ideas and try to function as a senior mentor/the grand old sage. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s wired that way. He also won’t get the nomination because his trusted lieutenants, for lack of a better term, are even more abrasive than he is. No one paying attention to the Democratic Party’s internal politics has forgotten that neither he, nor his most senior and vocal agents, will take yes for an answer. The behavior of Turner, Konst, and several others at the various DNC events and meetings over the past 18 months or so was unprofessional, unpleasant to watch, hear, and read about, and, frankly, way out of line. What little welcome they had, they’ve worn it out. Sanders, no matter what he does, has the potential to function as a super spoiler for the Democrats in 2020. Think Jill Stein’s effect on the electoral college on steroids. And if he decides he’s going to be a team player and not do so, his trusted agents won’t play ball and you’ll have the same problem regardless. And we can now add Congresswoman Gabbard to the potential spoilers category emanating from Sanders orbit.
I expect an effort will be made, most likely by Rick Wilson again (as he detailed in his book), to draft Gen (ret) Mattis into running for President as an independent. The remarks by Mattis’s brother in an interview he gave in December shortly after Mattis resigned in protest, suggest that Mattis may be thinking about it. The question will be whether how Mattis served as Secretary of Defense, and how he resigned, would be enough to overcome the anger of Democratic leaning independents/no party affiliation and actual Democrats for anyone who accepted a position in the Trump administration no matter how noble that person’s intentions may have been.
It is also likely that one or more Republicans will try to primary the President. Though this has gotten harder now that the Republican National Committee has passed a resolution of support for the President and his effective presidency ahead of the 2020 election. The resolution basically locks the party into supporting the President’s reelection. So if Governors Hogan, Weld, and/or Kasich or Senator Flake decide to primary the President, they’ll be doing it in opposition to the Republican Party.
I think it is entirely likely that at least one, if not more, individually wealthy elite and/or notables will attempt an independent run. Some of these may be Democrats, some Republicans, some long term independents/no party affiliations that lean one way or the other. They will be driven by one or both of two things. The first is a desire to remove Trump from office and end this nightmarish farce before it leads to tragedy that cannot be fixed. The second is that they, and the people advising them, will have decided that running within one of the two major parties does not provide them with the flexibility or the support that it will for the traditional politicians. This seems to ignore the well documented within political science empirical reality that there is not a plurality of Americans who are actually really independents. Rather these self declared or described independents are actually hidden partisans who almost always lean to one of the two major political parties or the other and vote that way as well.
Someone convinced @HowardSchultz that 40% of the electorate is “Independent”. In fact, that’s just a popular cover label for hidden partisans, who are quite loyal to their hidden party. True independents are few and far between in this highly partisan era.
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) January 28, 2019
The belief that an independent run for the presidency can be successful also fails to account for a major structural impediment: the electoral college. Regardless of its original purposes, the electoral college largely serves to force and keep US politics divided into two major parties. As a result, candidates trying to run outside the two parties, especially given that we know the Russians and others are going to continue their active measures and cyberwarfare campaigns against the US, have the potential to serve as spoilers on steroids. These potential independent candidacies are far more likely to peel off just enough support from the Democratic nominee to allow for a rerun of the 2016 election where the Democrat wins the popular vote, but Trump once again wins a narrow majority in the electoral college. Democratic candidates and campaigns will begin to develop strong and proactive strategies and plans to counter this dynamic.
Larry Sabatow, the Director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and one of the best political pollsters in academia, has already had this reaction to Howard Schultz’s 60 Minutes interview earlier this evening.
What do you bet that the GOP and the Russians will do everything possible to surreptitiously promote @HowardSchultz among Democratic constituencies, to drain the maximum number of votes from the D POTUS nominee?
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) January 28, 2019
— Larry Sabato (@LarrySabato) January 28, 2019
It’s also what American political historian Kevin Kruse, who just coauthored a history of the development of the modern and contemporary American partisan political divide, thinks too:
I’m an American political historian and I can assure you that the only thing you’ll accomplish by running for president as a centrist independent is helping re-elect Donald Trump.
— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) January 28, 2019
And it is what Howard Wolfson, who is a long time senior advisor to Michael Bloomberg, has concluded, which helps explain why Bloomberg is planning to run as a Democrat, not an independent, if he runs:
I have seen enough data over many years to know that anyone running for POTUS as an independent will split the anti-incumbent, anti-Trump vote. The stakes couldn’t be higher. We can not afford the risk of spoiler politics that result in Trump’s re-election.
— howard wolfson (@howiewolf) January 28, 2019
The 21st Century American Resource War: An Ideological and Partisan Dispute Over Who Gets to be an American
The most divisive political dispute, for lack of a better or less incendiary term, that is going on in the US right now and will continue into and through the 2020 election is one over resources. This is not a dispute over physical resources; and it is not really over even political and economic power in the sense that we’re used to understanding those types of disputes in the post WW II United States. Rather, the actual resource in dispute is Americanness itself. As in who actually is, or may make a claim to be, an American. This is not a new fight within and between Americans. It goes back to the origins of the country. And it, as it is doing right now, usually flares back up immediately after there has been an extension of civil liberties and rights to groups that were not previously considered, whether for political, social, religious, and/or ethnic/racial reasons, to be entitled to the full rights, protections, and liberties of other Americans. We are, unfortunately, currently in one of these periods. And the fight is over two very different visions of what it means to be an American and who gets to be an American
The President, his senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, fellow travelers like Congressman Steve King, many of his outside advisors like Anne Coulter and Ginni Thomas, and his base are committed to a very narrow, crimped, and small minded vision of what it means to be American and who gets to be an American. Those in opposition to this have a far broader, expansive, open minded, and welcoming understanding of Americanness. This is the real core political, social, and religious dispute in the US today. It is an ideational, ideological, and in some cases theological and dogmatic war over the resource of Americanness. And, for the time being, it is fortunately and largely non-violent. Though the acts of domestic terrorism that are being driven by the most extreme adherents of the narrow, crimped, small minded understanding of Americanness and who is an American are accelerating as we saw in Pittsburgh.
One final thought, for now, on what the human geography in the theater of operations in the 2020 elections looks like. If we use the military doctrinal term “center of gravity” meaning a key constituency, or social, political, economic, religious, or physical structure or institution, there is an additional one to the Republican Party/the President’s base and the Democrats. This third center of gravity is the part of the electorate that doesn’t vote. It too is subdivided. Some of these voters don’t vote because they don’t believe they know and understand enough about what is going on to vote. As a result the idea of voting makes them uncomfortable as an exercise in decision making. Some don’t vote because they see politics as so messy and unsettled that it turns them off. These are Americans who don’t vote because they’ve bought into the propaganda and influence operations that tells them that their vote must only be given to the ideologically pure. For these voters the good or very good electoral choice is always the enemy of the perfect one! A final group within this third portion of the electorate just don’t have the time and the resources to vote. They feel overwhelmed in their daily lives; their existence as Americans is a struggle to get by from day to day. As a result they choose to focus their limited resources and energy on trying to survive to the next day, rather than pay attention to politics. Whichever candidate can make inroads into this large pool of potential voters will be able to tap an electoral resource that is waiting to be mined.