Sunday, August 26, 2007

Good Fundamentalists vs. Bad Fundamentalists

What is it that drives someone to blow themselves up in the name of God? Why are some Muslims willing to die in order to kill others? The process by which Islamic fundamentalists adopt an apocalyptic world view is the same by which fundamentalists of other religions and cultures descend into apocalyptic fundamentalism; it is the environment and catalysts that are different.

Start at the beginning. What is a fundamentalist? For our purposes, I will define a fundamentalist as an individual who literally interprets a religious creed, political belief, or social movement in such a way as they believe they adhere to an exclusive truth about the universe. From the fundamentalist’s point of view, those who subscribe to such a belief are inside the circle of truth, while those who do not are on the outside of what is true and right. Such a vague definition applies to millions of Muslims, Christians, Orthodox Jews, political conservatives, environmentalists, and atheists. Such people constitute the first of four levels of fundamentalism.

Simply holding fundamentalist beliefs does not necessarily lead to destructive or conflictual behavior. If I believe I am going to some form of heaven because of what I believe, and you are going to some form of hell because you do not believe it, our different beliefs matter little if I am willing to interact with you in the necessary transactions of life and accept you as a member of my society or community, even if you are a heathen member.

The drama begins at the second level of fundamentalism – those who seek to shape their surroundings in the image of their exclusive beliefs, yet still work through the existing social and political system. Socialists in Italy who campaign for Parliament in order to implement a socialist economic system fall into this category, as do evangelical Christians in the United States who protest against gay marriage. The activities of level II fundamentalists cause conflict, but not necessarily violence. They accept as legitimate the current system and work within its parameters to change the world to their exclusive view of the truth.

Problems begin (depending on your perception) at the third level of fundamentalism – those who are willing to commit violence to implement their world view. They believe their vision is important enough and different enough from what is actually happening to justify acting violently outside the accepted social and political system. Christian ministers who have killed abortion doctors fall into this category, as do the Sadr Shiite militias in Iraq. Before we completely condemn the third level fundamentalists, the American colonists who fought British rule also fall into this group, as would the Chinese who fought for independence against Mongol rule in the 14th century.

The fourth level of fundamentalism is the most dangerous to an established world order – the apocalyptic visionaries. It is those who believe divine or cosmic support of their exclusive view of the truth is so strong, nearly any means are justified in fighting against the established world order. Islamic suicide bombers falls squarely into this category, as did David Koresh and his followers who died in Waco, Texas. This group will not stop until their divine interpretation of the true nature of the universe comes to fruition, or until they are dead. Their view of truth is so radically different from the reality of the world, they are irreconcilable with modern life. Usually, they die, killing along the way.

Most would agree the first two levels are relatively benign, while the danger of the third depends on your perspective. Certainly most Americans believe the colonists were justified in violently breaking away from the British Empire, and that the people of Eastern Europe had a right to resist Soviet communist domination. But what about Taliban insurgents attacking NATO troops in Afghanistan? Or Sunni insurgents combing U.S. convoys in al Anbar Province of Iraq?

What is it that drives someone to become a fundamentalist who will resort to violence, willing to risk everything in the name of a cause? In part, it is because they have so little to risk. When lack of opportunity intersects significant threats to self identity, violent fundamentalism provides an emotional anchor to internally stabilize troubled individuals. Lack of opportunity does not have to be economic; it can be cultural or social. The middle class (or better) Muslims who flew planes into American cities six years ago were not suffering from a lack of material needs. Their stale cultures did not provide them a meaningful avenue toward self fulfillment. Combine that with the threat modern global culture arrays against traditional Islamic values, and the conditions are ripe for spawning apocalyptic fundamentalists, willing to die for their cause.

The key question is, where else in the world is lack of opportunity and threats to identity intersecting to spawn the next wave of violent fundamentalism?

Monday, August 20, 2007

When Nominations Come Too Early

Both main U.S. political parties will likely nominate their presidential candidates by the evening of February 5th early next year (see schedule). The partisan elites continue to believe the earlier their candidate is decided the better, despite the evidence presented by recent electoral history. Al Gore secured the democrat nomination in 2000 by March 7th, about eight months before the general election, and still lost to our current president George W. Bush. Even accounting for the controversies in Florida, securing a contested nomination for an open-seat presidency did not even propel Gore above 50% of the popular vote. In 2004, John Kerry secured the nomination after the Super Tuesday results on March 2, only to lead the democrat’s second loosing presidential effort in this century. Both Gore and Kerry secured their party’s nominations significantly earlier than have candidates in past contested primaries.

The Kerry case is interesting for the severity of the mistake the Democratic Party made in its rush to find anyone who could defeat Bush. Dean was leading all major polls and was the darling of the party right up until the Iowa Caucus. Conservative pundits and politicians loved it – ultra lefty Deany would be cake in the general election against the Republican’s war time president. Then the democrats changed their mind – at once. A sudden case of groupthink swept the party as they realized they needed to nominate someone who could beat Bush. Who better than Kerry, who actually joined the military and served in the Vietnam War?

This deprived the democrats of a vetting process to thoroughly examine their candidates and determine which could best stand up under the pressures of a modern national election. Political Scientists and Economists know that countries with more competitive electoral and economic systems have better quality governance and more vibrant economies, because competition forces the competitors to improve their game to their very best. By opting for a candidate they thought could win, rather than waiting for a candidate to win, the democrats deprived themselves of the competitive process to determine who had what it takes.

The national leadership of the parties is not the only factor driving the nominating process early and early each year. State parties and governments have an incentive to move their elections and caucuses up to ensure their states are more relevant to the nominating process, and receive consideration of their issues by the candidates. If left unchecked, this leads to a situation where all states have near simultaneous primaries and caucuses in January of the election year.

Since there is no apparent benefit to the parties to completing the nominating process so early, while it is beneficial to have a competitive process of sufficient duration to thoroughly test and vet their candidates, why cram all the state primaries and caucuses so early in the election year? Congress has the authority to regulate the primary election activities of the states, and it is time Congress stepped in to bring order and efficiency to the partisan nominating processes.

Divide the states into four quarters of roughly equal population; the South, Northeast, Midwest and West, and the West Coast plus Hawaii and Alaska. The states in each region will have their primaries or caucuses on the same day, with each region’s Election Day separated by about a month. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have a tradition of being the first three presidential nominating battlegrounds. And this also helps level the playing field, as a lesser known or lesser funded candidate can make a run by doing well in these relatively small states early on. Each election year, the sequence of the regions will rotate, to ensure the same states do not fall at the end of the calendar and risk have an election after the nomination is already secured. This would prevent the states from racing to January.

Applying this to 2008, a draft schedule would look something like this:

  • January 29 – Iowa Caucus
  • February 5 – New Hampshire Primary
  • February 12 – South Carolina Primary
  • February 26 – Northeast Region Primary Elections
  • March 18 – South Region Primary Elections
  • April 22 – Midwest and West Region Primary Elections
  • May 20 – West Coast Region Primary Elections