Review: The People vs Democracy

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - does liberal democracy have a future

“The People vs Democracy” goes further than many other books which claim to “explain” Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, showing that it takes both sides – outraged establishment centrists as well as populist insurgents – to successfully undermine liberal democracy. Political renewal depends on the former group finally accepting responsibility for some of the failings which brought us to this divisive moment

Introspection has been in short supply since the twin shocks of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election victory. Both sides are at fault – supporters of Brexit and Trump, well used to being the insurgent political outsiders, have frequently struggled to adapt to the fact that they now set the agenda (at least in part) and share responsibility for tangible outcomes affecting everybody. Meanwhile, dispossessed leftists and centrists, largely content with the old status quo and fearful about the speed and extent to which their worldview was repudiated at the ballot box, are so enraged at developments that they refuse to even consider how their actions and errors led to the present situation.

A new book by Yascha Mounk’s, “The People vs Democracy”, attempts to shake both sides out of their complacency while warning that doubling down on current behaviours – with populists displaying impatient contempt for norms and institutions which stand in their way, and establishment centrists concluding that even more areas of policy need to be lifted out of the “risk” of democratic influence – risk fatally undermining liberal democracy, which turns out to be a far less stable and inevitable system of government than we have all tended to believe.

The book was apparently conceived before either Trump or Brexit, but inevitably it has been seized upon by a political and media class who are overwhelmingly sceptical of (and often hostile to) both developments as a kind of guide book for how to avoid ever again losing control of the political narrative. Unfortunately, these audiences seem far more interested in analysing and condemning the supposed pathologies of voters who support populist leaders and initiatives rather than looking honestly at their own manifold failings. In an otherwise excellent interview and Q&A with the American author and journalist EJ Dionne, establishment centrist failings are barely considered at all, and certainly do not receive top billing.

Media organisations with an agenda to push have consistently portrayed the book as an analysis of the means by which “populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy”, but this is disingenuous. Such deceptive portrayals begin in media res, assuming that populist uprisings begin spontaneously and unpredictably like forest wildfires rather than as a direct result of the failures of the increasingly antidemocratic pseudo-liberalism they champion in the form of institutions like the European Union and continuity politicians such as Hillary Clinton.

In reality, any intellectually honest observer must now concede that populists do not spring spontaneously from the earth, and that the ground must be fertilised with the arrogance and failure of establishment politicians and institutions before populism can take root and pose any systemic danger to democracy. Mounk himself acknowledges as much in his book, which is refreshing, but the biases of his target audience mean that this side of the story is consistently downplayed, both in the book and in many reviews.

Yascha Mounk begins with an overview of the West’s current political landscape, looking at factors which are common between countries:

Then there are those short years in which everything changes all at once. Political newcomers storm the stage. Voters clamor for policies that were unthinkable until yesterday. Social tensions that had long simmered under the surface erupt into terrifying explosions. A system of government that had seemed immutable looks as though it might come apart.

This description of increased political division also describe periods of discontinuity and the difficult, contentious process of forming a new political consensus from the ashes of an older, failing one:

There are ordinary times, when political decisions influence the lives of millions of people in ways both big and small, but the basic features of a country’s collective life are not at stake. Despite deep disagreements, partisans on both sides of the political battle line endorse the rules of play. They agree to settle their differences on the basis of free and fair elections, are committed to the basic norms of the political system, and accept that a loss at the ballot box makes it legitimate for their political opponent to take a turn at running the country.

[..] Then there are extraordinary times, when the basic contours of politics and society are being renegotiated. In such times, the disagreements between partisans on both sides grow so deep and nasty that they no longer agree on the rules of the game.

[..] As a result, the denizens of extraordinary times start to regard the stakes of politics as existential. In a system whose rules are deeply contested, they have good reason to fear that a victory at the polls may turn out to be forever; that a loss in one political battle may rob them of the ability to wage the larger war; and that progress defeated today may turn out to set the country on a path toward perennial injustice.

This could very easily describe the post-war socialist consensus which prevailed almost uncontested in Britain from 1945 to 1979, or the subsequent supranational and technocratic (or “neoliberal”) consensus which followed. The difference this time is that it is not the coal miners or those whose lives were made more precarious by globalisation protesting and striking, but rather members of the political and economic elite raging that their judgment as to what is best of the country has been second-guessed by other, less educated or refined people.

While Mounk plants his flag quite clearly on the “liberal” side of the argument, he is refreshingly willing to examine the flaws and missteps of his own side as they increasingly work toward a future of rights without democracy:

The rise of illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, is but one side of politics in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For even as ordinary people have grown sceptical of liberal practices and institutions, political elites have tried to insulate themselves from their anger. The world is complicated, they insist – and they have worked hard to find the right answers. If the people should grow so restive as to ignore the sage advice proffered by elites, they need to be educated, ignored or bullied into submission.

Mounk uses the example of Greece and the Euro crisis as his example, but he could just as easily have taken any of the EU’s dealings with recalcitrant member states, or the economic and social consensus adopted in most Western countries.

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

In democracies around the world, two seemingly distinct developments are playing out. On the one hand, the preferences of the people are increasingly illiberal: voters are growing impatient with independent institutions and less and less willing to tolerate the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. On the other hand, elites are taking hold of the political system and making it increasingly unresponsive: the powerful are less and less willing to cede to the views of the people. As a result, liberalism and democracy, the two core elements of our political system, are starting to come into conflict.

[..] Democracies can be illiberal. This is especially likely to happen in places where most people favour subordinating independent institutions to the whims of the executive or curtailing the rights of minorities they dislike. Conversely, liberal regimes can become undemocratic despite having regular, competitive elections. This is especially likely to happen where the political system is so skewed in favour of the elite that elections rarely serve to translate popular views into public policy.

This is absolutely correct but it is important to note that democracy has atrophied much faster and further than liberalism thus far in countries such as Britain and the United States. This may seem incorrect to bewildered centrists who tended to believe that everything was marvellous (or at least on a positive path toward progress) until Trump and Brexit appeared like bolts from the blue, but it is true nonetheless.

Much of the rising anti-liberalism has thus far been confined to rhetoric only, and has not yet rooted itself in public policy, while anti-democratic practices and the effective disenfranchisement of those who hold the “wrong” views have been flourishing for years and even decades. It is also the case that many policies now considered intolerably illiberal by many opinion setters (such as aggressive immigration enforcement under the Clinton or Obama administrations in America) were accepted or even positively encouraged by so-called liberals not long ago, raising the question to what extent the current fear of “illiberal” policymaking is primarily the result of goalpost-moving by those on the progressive left determined to find evil in present policy for cultural reasons and cynical political advantage-seeking. Yes, we must absolutely tackle both sides of the equation, but we can only do so when we recognise the extent of democratic corrosion compared to real-world illiberal infringements.

And of course this is a self-perpetuating cycle – more and more areas of policy being lifted free of responsive democratic control inevitably increases support for populists and assorted dissenters, which (from the perspective of elites) only validates their belief that the people are unqualified and untrustworthy of making key decisions for themselves.

Ultimately, Mounk correctly diagnoses the burning issue of the age:

Rights without democracy need not prove to be more stable [than democracy without rights]: once the political system turns into a playground for billionaires and technocrats, the temptation to exclude the people from more and more important decisions will keep on growing.

A large part of Mounk’s criticism of populist movements (and one of the main criticisms in general) is the idea that populist politicians offer glib and simple solutions to inherently complex problems, and in doing so perpetrate a fraud on the gullible people who vote for them. Citing Donald Trump and Nigel Farage as examples, Mounk writes that populists:

…all claim that the solutions to the most pressing problems of our time are much more straightforward than the political establishment would have us believe, and that the great mass of ordinary people instinctively knows what to do. At bottom, they see politics as a very simple matter.

Yes and no. It is certainly true that the complicated technology and regulation required to make the global economy hang together does necessitate a growing technocracy and makes politics far more complicated, but at times the populists are surely reacting with righteous and justified indignation to a bipartisan or consensus view to lift decisions out of democratic control. As Mounk later goes on to admit, there is no good reason why the citizens of a country should not be heard through the ballot box when it comes to immigration levels. The complex cost/benefit analysis of different types and scales of immigration may well be hugely complex, but the principle currently being violated in many Western countries is starkly clear, hence the stark (and supposedly simplistic) solution of returning some decision-making around immigration to the electorate.

Yet for most of the book, Mounk seems happy to dismiss this causal factor, rhetorically asking:

If the political problems of our time are so easy to fix, who do they persist?

Some of these problems are really entrenched and lack a simple solution, contrary to the populist claims. But at other times, the issue is simply that centrist consensus politics – or what those on the Left might denounce as peak neoliberalism – simply will not countenance the obvious and ready solutions.

Mounk rightly warns that the willingness of populist leaders to advocate the sidestepping or abolition of various institutional roadblocks – whether through earnest impatience or more malevolent intentions – is contrary to the spirit of liberal democracy. And indeed, in Britain we have seen this play out with attacks on the judiciary and now the House of Lords because of their interpretation of law or procedural foot-dragging. Mounk correctly expresses the ideal, and warns of the danger:

Liberal democracies are full of checks and balances that are meant to stop any one party from amassing too much power and to reconcile the interests of different groups. But in the imagination of the populists, the will of the people does not need to be mediated, and any compromise with minorities is a form of corruption.

Quite so. But we cannot level this criticism against populism unless we acknowledge that many of these cherished, long-standing institutions have thus far seemingly offered no defence against an effective cartel whereby both (or in some countries, all) the main political parties implement the same policies and pursue the same basic worldview without offering meaningful choice to the electorate. In such a case – as with EU membership and New Labour era mass immigration in Britain – it is not unreasonable to complain that the institutions or checks and balances currently in place are not fit for purpose, and require urgent reform at the very least.

Despite moments of real clarity, there are other occasions when for whole sections at a time, Mounk lapses into the kind of lazy, almost arrogant view of his political opponents which has for too long infected the media and mainstream opinion-setting public figures:

So much of the angry energy that fuelled [protests against Angela Merkel’s lax and permissive immigration policies  in Germany] had been on display in the streets of Dresden that I could not help interpreting the events of 2016 an 2017 in light of what I saw there: the hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities; the mistrust of the press and the spread of fake news; the conviction that the silent majority had finally found its voice; and, perhaps more than anything else, the hankering for somebody who would speak in the name of the people.

Have journalists and academics really no alternative way to think about and describe opposition to mass migration than “hatred of immigrants and ethnic minorities”? This is half the problem – the determination of many opinion-setters to read the worst possible motives into popular protests, thus making it even harder for politicians to take those legitimate concerns seriously lest they be accused of “pandering”.

In fact, the best refutation to Mounk’s assertion is the story of the far right in Britain. While Mounk meticulously documents the rise of populist hard or far-right political parties in many European countries, he is conspicuously silent about the fate of the British National Party in the UK. Early on in the era of mass migration to Britain, in the early 2000s, the BNP secured a stunning series of victories in local and European elections, seeing their vote share climb and jostle for position with other more established and respectable smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats. The BNP prospered in a climate where none of the major political parties promised to seriously grapple with the issue of mass migration, and rising support for the BNP was taken and portrayed by the commentariat as rising support for the BNP’s worst and most racist tendencies. However, the rise of the UK Independence Party, a staunchly Eurosceptic party lacking the racist baggage of the far right, saw the BNP quickly fade back into obscurity. In subsequent elections, the BNP lost almost all of their local council seats and entered a period of organisational dysfunction from which it has not yet emerged.

This shows that when the subjects of race and immigration are separated (as they were when voters were offered a clear choice between the BNP and UKIP), voters are far less racist and prejudiced than many establishment commentators give them credit for. The triumph of UKIP over the BNP proved as definitively as possible that concerns about mass immigration implemented without democratic consent were not primarily ethnicity based – why else would voters eschew the party which was more willing to make race and ethnicity an issue? Yet political and media elites continually over-conflate the issues of immigration and race, partly because of a soft bias which leads them to instinctively favour higher immigration and look down on those who equivocate, but also, one suspects, because they know that accusations of racism are the best way to discredit an otherwise legitimate policy argument.

The lazy charge of racism is not the only instance where Mounk unfortunately lapses into comforting establishment dogma. In this paragraph he effectively ventriloquises the sense of entitlement felt by displaced establishment politicians throughout the West, from displayed centre leftists in denial about their newly diminished position in Jeremy Corbyn’s hard left Labour Party to identity politics-worshipping Democrats who now want to double down on the divisive rhetoric of racial or gender-based grievance:

Populist leaders’ willingness to offer solutions that are so simple they can never work is very dangerous. Once they are in power, their policies are likely to exacerbate the problems that drove public anger in the first place. It would be tempting to assume that voters, suitably chastened by the ensuing chaos, would then return their trust to establishment politician.

Tempting? Chastened? Yascha Mounk is clearly an intelligent and conscientious writer, but these words reveal the extent to which he and other opinion-setters marinade in a very ideologically and culturally homogenous environment. “Tempting” suggests that it would be good if voters returned power to the same unrepentant establishment politicians that Mounk has elsewhere conceded to have led us into our current difficulties, and “chastened” suggests an establishment view of the electorate as spoiled children to be either indulged or reprimanded at various times, but never given full agency over their own lives. Mounk may not have intended it to come across this way, but there are few other ways of reading this paragraph, which itself is very reflective of prevailing opinion within the political bubble.

Throughout the book, generally the most extreme degrees of anti-establishment or populist argument are analysed, with the more moderate positions whose continued stonewalling led to a populist revolt in the first place are frustratingly avoided. We see this again here:

The major political problems of the day, populists claim, can be easily solved. All it takes is common sense. If jobs are moving abroad, you have to ban other countries from selling their products. If immigrants are flooding the country, you have to build a wall. And if terrorists attack you in the name of Islam, you have to ban all the Muslims.

On one hand it is quite right and proper to note the glib simplicity and unpleasant tone of these policies, particularly since Donald Trump did come to office promising to implement them all in one form or another. But taking potshots at the obvious impracticality of Trump’s proposals is easy. What is much harder – and would have made the book even stronger – is a more consistent and rigorous introspection as to why the continued downplaying of these issues (job displacement due to globalization and poorly enforced immigration laws with tacit acceptance of illegal immigration) by previously ruling elites led to their downfall in the first place. An understanding that continually crying “racism!” in the face of sober minded and reasonable policy proposals ultimately led to the emergence of someone with far catchier but less workable policies – the kind of introspection shown in Mark Lilla’s book “The Once And Future Liberal” – would have rounded out “The People vs Democracy” and made it a less frustrating read for moderate conservatives who agree with Mounk’s diagnosis but marvel at his inability to keep a fixed gaze on the root cause.

Too often, Mounk gives a free pass to the media, whose manifold failings also contributed enormously to this populist moment:

Critical media outlets cover protests against the populist leader. They report on his government’s failings and give voice to his prominent critics. They tell sympathetic stories about his victims.

All well and good, exactly as it should be. But where was this brave and critical media during previous administrations? Where are the equivalent stories about the victims of policies pursued through the establishment consensus? Yes, many news outlets, dazed and confused after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, urgently dispatched reporters to far flung parts of their countries in a bid to speak with and understand the motivations of people who voted for populist options – and to be fair, there has been some good and incisive reporting as a result. But why were those journalists not always rooted in these communities, reporting sympathetically on the struggles taking place there? Why did so few media outlets or opinion-setters correctly predict the two most shocking electoral events of the century? The answer can only be that the media was and remains utterly unfit for purpose, thinking and reporting almost exclusively from one side of an emergent divide while having few authentic connections to – and zero credibility with – the other.

We should absolutely celebrate and defend a free press and reward good reporting and analysis wherever it is produced. But we delude ourselves if we hold up the existing media class as plucky heroes and defenders of democracy when their collective failure did as much as anything else to ensure that populist concerns were not fully heard until they exploded into the open with the election of Donald Trump.

Mounk is also sometimes too forgiving towards other institutions which have historically been part of the problem rather than the solution:

Attacks on the free press are but the first step. In the next step, the war on independent institutions frequently targets foundations, trade unions, think tanks, religious associations, and other nongovernmental organizations.

Populists realize how dangerous intermediary institutions with a real claim to representing the views and interests of large segments of society are to the fiction that they, and they alone, speak for the people. They therefore work hard to discredit such institutions as tools of old elites or outside interests.

Again, Mounk’s basic warning is a fair and important one. But focusing only on the attacks which these institutions are now attracting from populists and largely ignoring their significant failures makes it much harder to successfully argue for needed reform, or to reach a bipartisan compromise which might help rebuild trust in the various institutions while cleansing them of any existing bias or corruption. For example, many Brexiteers are wrong to propose the total abolition of the House of Lords due to the assembly’s scrutiny of the Brexit process and defeat of government motions, but those defending the institution are too willing to overlook the lopsided, unrepresentative and undemocratic nature of the Lords. And in America, defending the free press against the outrageous tweets and bluster emanating from Donald Trump’s White House risks overlooking the deep flaws and blind spots which run through many news organizations which consider themselves strictly objective and impartial.

Mounk also fails to consider other reasons why populist leaders may seek institutional or systemic change in addition to implementing their own policies, confidently asserting:

The reason why populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norm is in part tactical: Whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo.

Fair enough, but one cannot offer this cynical explanation without offering the far more reasonable corollary – that if the existing political system and institutions had successfully kept his own worldview and preferred policies at the political margins despite significant public support, then he too might have just cause to believe that a deeper bias exists and that institutions really do need comprehensive reform or abolition.

“The People vs Democracy” is strong where it analyses the economic forces behind populism, going further than issuing the usual misleading banalities uneducated working class citizens voting against their own interests:

The most straightforward markers of economic well-being do not predict whether somebody voted for Trump or for Clinton. Whereas Americans who saw Trump favourably had a mean household income of nearly $82,000, for example, those who viewed him unfavourably had a household income of a little over $77,000. Similarly, Trump supporters are “less likely to be unemployed and less likely to be employed part-time” than other people in the sample. In short, the popular media narrative according to which Trump primarily appealed o the poor and the lowly just doesn’t hold up.

[..] But when we turn our attention from the attributes of particular voters to the places in which they live and the fates they likely face, it becomes clear that economic factors do mater. For one, voters who favour Trump are much less likely to hold a college degree or to have a professional job – which implies that they have a much better reason to fear that their economic fortunes might decline because of globalization and automation.

Mounk perceptively concludes that at present, countries like Britain and America are vulnerable to populism because they “can no longer offer their citizens a real sense of momentum.” This is prime Stepping Stones territory – only a comprehensive analysis of the challenges facing developed countries (and the complex linkages between them) can hope to restore the kind of positive national momentum which is needed to maintain widespread faith in liberal democracy. Piecemeal efforts to solve discrete issues (or, more realistically, to avoid bad headlines in the media) will always be insufficient. If one acknowledges that the global economy, financial and regulatory environment is so complex as to require a significant technocracy to aid good policymaking then it is ludicrous to believe that the democratic nation state can continue to prosper without any kind of forensically strategic analysis of a country’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Yet far too many governments – Britain’s being one of the most dismally prominent examples – are stuck in neutral, focused on irrelevancies or fighting for political survival rather than maintaining a strategic outlook. And so the key questions raised by Mounk continue to go unanswered:

What do liberal democracies need to do to extend their remarkable record of past stability? Is it enough for them to afford their citizens a decent life? Or do they need to be able to cash in on the old promise, implicitly issued in the long decades of rapidly growing plenty, that each generation will do much better than the one that came before?

How indeed. We will never find out unless our politicians and governments lift their gaze from their navels and initiate a conversation about these pressing questions and the policy solutions required to confront them.

Where Yascha Mounk does offer proposed solutions, they tend to be quite sensible (if sometimes overly hopeful). Much like Mark Lilla, Mounk writes very much from the perspective of a US “liberal” writing for the consumption of other liberals, but he does not spare criticism of his own side. Citing the example of Poland, Mounk warns that splits in the opposition to an authoritarian regime can be instrumental in helping it to cement long-term control, a lesson that many Democratic Party activists might want to consider heeding, given the endless identity politics purity wars roiling the party and pushing them ever further to the left. Mounk’s counsel for liberals to tone down the public mockery of those they disagree with is also sound advice, for nothing shuts down debate and eliminates the possibility of persuasion than a dose of finger-wagging mockery – and this is as true for pro-EU activists in Britain who love to scoff at “uneducated” Brexiteers and deploy their new, racially-tinged “gammon” insult as it is of American leftists who demonise average Trump supporters.

Mounk also writes about the importance of constructing a rival, positive narrative to compete against the populist vision, rather than simply protesting or mocking the populists. At present, far too many of those people connected with the #Resistance in America or the anti-Brexit #FBPE collective in Britain visibly project an image of simply wanting to roll the clock back to the moment before the 2016 presidential election or EU referendum. The ongoing prominence of Democratic Party grandees like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer, and even the public utterances of Hillary Clinton herself, project an air of aggrieved entitlement rather than contrition or introspection for their role in bringing us to this point. New, fresh faces are needed, people with charisma, yes, but also the political vision and policy know-how to offer a viable, appealing alternative. As Mounk points out:

To rival the narrative according to which only they can fix the nation’s problems, defenders of liberal democracy have to put forward realistic promises of their own.

[..] the defenders of liberal democracy will not vanquish the populists as long as they seem wedded to the status quo.

[..] To avoid the mistake Clinton made in 2016, defenders of liberal democracy must demonstrate that they take the problems voters face seriously, and seek to effect real change. While they don’t need to emulate the simplistic solutions or pander to the worst values of the populists, they urgently need to develop a bold plan for a better future.

One of the most valuable contributions of “The People vs Democracy” to our discourse is its searching consideration of whether the growing identity politics movement and political activism within academia are truly helping the fight for equality or undermining the basic trust in the institutions of democracy which is necessary for the proper functioning of a democratic nation state.

The net effect of he deliberate failure to inculcate respect and reverence for democracy among young people (and to corrode whatever attachment to democracy does exist) is stark:

Millennials in countries like Great Britain or the United States [..] barely experienced the Cold War ad may not even know anybody who fought fascism. To them, the question of whether it is important to live in a democracy is far more abstract. Doesn’t this imply that, if they were actually faced with a threat to their system, they would be sure to rally to its defense?

I’m not so sure. The very fact that young people have so little idea of what it would mean to live in a system other than their own may make them willing to engage in political experimentation. Used to seeing and criticizing the (very real) injustices and hypocrisies of the system in which they grew up, many of them have mistakenly started to take its positive aspects for granted.

Mounk also inveighs against the current hysteria over “cultural appropriation”:

Far from celebrating the way in which different cultures can take inspiration from each other, the opponents of cultural appropriation implicitly assume that cultures are pure; that they are forever owned by particular groups; and that there should be strict limits on the degree to which they influence each other. In other words, they ultimately think of the culture of particular identity groups in much the same way as right-wing xenophobes who are continually on guard against foreign influences on their national cultures.

Mounk also possesses a more realistic take on nationalism and the nation state than is now common among academia and much of the elite, who tend to see patriotism as outdated and embarrassing at best, and inherently harmful at worst:

The energy on today’s left, by contrast, is increasingly directed toward a radical rejection of the nation and all its trappings: This is the left that delights in 4th of July op-eds entitled “The Making of a Non-patriot”. It is the left that chants “No Trump, No Wall, No USA at all!” And it is also the left that, not content with acknowledging the copious failings of the Founding Fathers, refuses to recognize that they might be defined by anything other than their moral faults.

Mounk, by contrast, favours “domesticating nationalism” and calls for both elites and the Left to embrace a more expansive form of patriotism instead of attacking and ridiculing the symbols and institutions which bind societies together. This sounds good in theory but is hard in practice, given the extreme to which the Democratic Party has moved in America and many activists have moved in Britain.

At its core, “The People v Democracy” identifies many of the same developments, trade-offs and challenges that several others have noted – solving international problems versus defending national sovereignty, the need for technocratic bodies vs the need for democratic input and accountability, for example. Many of these I have also laid out several times in my agitation for a new Stepping Stones Report – a document which, like the original 1977 report which Margaret Thatcher brought with her into 10 Downing Street and was used to help navigate the last great period of discontinuity in Britain – updated to identify and tackle the new challenges of the 21st century.

Yascha Mounk’s book is ultimately a call for people – particularly disaffected leftists and centrists – not to give up on all of the goodness inherent in the liberal democratic nation state just because some of the institutions of government have been temporarily captured by populists. Amy Chua made a similar point at the end of her excellent book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct And The Fate Of Nations”, quoting from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again”:

O, let America be America again –
The land that never has been yet –
And yet must be – the land where every man is free….
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be!

Mounk closes by referencing the end of the Roman Republic as a warning example, casting the populists of today as the heirs to Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus:

The brand of politics propagated by the Gracchi and perpetuated by their opponents shaped the Roman Republic long after they themselves had left the scene. Every dozen or so years, a new follower was able to capture power. Each time, the norms and rules of the Roman Republic were a little less capable of containing the assault.

There was no one breaking point, no clear moment at which contemporaries realized that their political institutions had become obsolete. And yet, over the course of a tumultuous century, the Roman Republic slowly withered. As the old norms of restraint crumbled, violence spiraled out of control. By the time ordinary Romans recognized that they had lost the freedom to rule themselves, the republic had long been lost.

A prescient warning indeed, particularly because it acknowledges that it often takes two sides to degrade institutions and norms of behaviour. After all, today’s establishment would be the Roman Senate and patricians in this analogy, groups which hardly covered themselves in glory during the period.

Much prevailing opinion still holds that the establishment holds a near-monopoly on wisdom and morality, and that the populist insurgencies we now witness are entirely the result of low-information, uncultured voters being preyed upon by opportunistic leaders with ulterior motives. There is a widespread, arrogant assumption that voter dissatisfaction is somehow displaced, that people do not understand the real causes of their own unhappiness and that elites should be allowed to continue governing as they see fit, explaining to the people why they are wrong rather than adapting to their will. Mounk’s book shows that establishment centrists are every bit as much to blame for our present crisis than the populists they fear.

The danger is that these establishment centrists, driven mad by their sudden fall from power and influence, react not by examining their own flaws and failings but rather by lashing out at their opponents and continuing the loss of faith in democracy whose consequences form the root of their present situation. There is such anger among elites – often (though not always) out of proportion to any so-called populist policy which has yet been proposed or enacted – that many establishment politician and activists will accept nothing less than total defeat of every populist initiative, regardless of merit, which then only confirms the populists’ suspicion of an open conspiracy against them.

Democracy without rights versus rights without democracy. The populists have been heavily scrutinised and fairly criticised for their sometimes cavalier attitude to rights, norms and institutions. When will establishment politicians be held to account for their cavalier attitude toward democracy?

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

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Santa Fe School Shooting: Does Gun Control Gridlock Undermine Conservative Pro-Life Claims?

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Could a more expansive view of liberty and pro-life advocacy countenance more gun control restrictions than conservatives are traditionally willing to concede?

Satirical news site The Onion has taken to republishing the same weary article each time that a mass shooting incident rips a deadly path through schools and communities, extinguishing innocent lives while politicians and activists strike poses rather than forging an overdue compromise addressing gun violence.

The article has already appeared numerous times in 2018, most recently today in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in which ten people were killed and ten more injured at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas.

‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens“, reads the headline:

In the hours following a violent rampage in Florida in which a lone attacker killed 17 individuals and seriously injured over a dozen others, citizens living in the only country where this kind of mass killing routinely occurs reportedly concluded Wednesday that there was no way to prevent the massacre from taking place. “This was a terrible tragedy, but sometimes these things just happen and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop them,” said Indiana resident Harold Turner, echoing sentiments expressed by tens of millions of individuals who reside in a nation where over half of the world’s deadliest mass shootings have occurred in the past 50 years and whose citizens are 20 times more likely to die of gun violence than those of other developed nations. “It’s a shame, but what can we do? There really wasn’t anything that was going to keep this individual from snapping and killing a lot of people if that’s what they really wanted.” At press time, residents of the only economically advanced nation in the world where roughly two mass shootings have occurred every month for the past eight years were referring to themselves and their situation as “helpless.”

The increasingly regular reposting of the article only serves to underline its point.

One cannot help but agree with The Onion’s sense of frustration. Nobody can realistically expect any feasible political or policy action to snuff out gun violence of any kind (mass shooting or otherwise) within a short timeframe such as that between the recent Parkland school shooting in Florida and yesterday’s carnage in Santa Fe, Texas. But within a functional democratic country, leaders should at least be able to point toward concrete signs of planning and action. As things stand, there are no such encouraging signs.

Many Democrats would rather engage in silly performative stunts like loaded televised town-hall meetings or congressional sit-ins – the latter particularly risible, with legislators behaving like immature students, effectively petitioning themselves to do their own jobs – than even consider conservative proposals for reducing mass shootings, like the hiring of more armed security officers. Meanwhile, Republicans tend to put far too much faith in last-line-of-defence security measures and consistently thwart the kind of upstream policy solutions which might better tackle mental illness before it manifests in violence, under the banner of their disingenuous commitment to “fiscal responsibility”.

Meanwhile, in this time of pronounced political tribalism, both sides see themselves as victims. The thoughts and prayers for victims of mass shooting incidents are no doubt all very sincere, but it usually takes only a matter of hours for the public discourse to revert to a screaming match as both sides try to label themselves as vicarious victims and their opponents as oppressors. Many conservatives spent the entire Obama presidency hysterically convincing themselves that the government was coming for their guns, making themselves even more partisan in the process, while Democratic and allied leftist organisations increasingly use rhetoric better suited for describing malevolent terrorists to denounce conservatives who simply want to tackle gun crime in a different way. The governor of Connecticut and others have likened the National Rifle Association to a terrorist organisation, for example.

The net result of all this public posturing and cowardly refusal of politicians of both sides to lead (rather than follow) their most strident activists is another deadly school shooting – and the depressing re-emergence of that Onion news article – reliably taking place every couple of months.

To my mind, the fundamental question – as I previously laid out following the Parkland shooting – is this: to what extent should American society allow the defence of an increasingly abstract principle (the right for the citizenry to heavily arm themselves as a safeguard against government tyranny) to take priority over defending very real and non-abstract innocent citizens, often children, from being killed in mass casualty shooting events.

The longstanding political gridlock in America has thus far allowed the abstract defence of liberty to win a total victory by default. But at some point we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to accept this outcome in perpetuity – not least because lax gun controls repeatedly fail to safeguard against government incursions on individual liberty. An armed citizenry did not give the federal government a moment’s pause for thought as Washington D.C. created a vast and largely unaccountable system of domestic surveillance or abused the Constitution to seize ever more power for the centre, let alone successfully dissuaded government from pursuing such illiberal policies. Neither have states with loose gun restrictions successfully prevented their police forces from becoming ever-more militarised and aggressive. So given that loose gun controls have not prevented vast and likely irrevocable encroachments on individual liberty thus far, is conservative faith in a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment misplaced?

One can certainly argue that a maximalist interpretation of the Second Amendment still serves as a final insurance policy, but its efficacy is weakened to the point of uselessness by previous concessions to authoritarian government, many of them (including the more draconian provisions of the PATRIOT Act) enthusiastically cheered on by the very same people who cite suspicion of the federal government as sufficient reason to scupper any measures limiting civilian ownership of higher powered weaponry. Putting one’s thumbs on both sides of the scale like this – tolerating an intrusive government while citing the danger of big government as a justification for thwarting gun control – begins to look suspiciously like hypocrisy.

A new article by James Mumford for The American Conservative draws out another interesting hypocrisy in the conservative case against gun control – the conflict with conservatism’s pro-life position. In his piece, Mumford essentially argues that the right to life currently takes second place to defending the present interpretation of the Second Amendment:

Some time later I came across an online comment by a conservative chap talking about the sanctity of life. I was impressed. “So basically [it’s] a life vs. liberty debate. We already recognize in everyday life the fact that human life has more fundamental value than freedom.” Absolutely. I totally agreed. And the chap’s recognition of the essential trade-off was refreshingly realistic. What will it take to prevent another Newtown? Law-abiding gunowners, often in rural areas, sacrificing their freedom to own assault weapons because they realize that “human life has more fundamental value than freedom.” The chap must have been imagining the six-year olds at Sandy Hook cowering behind their teacher when Adam Lanza blasted into their classroom. The blogger was issuing a rallying call. We’ll do what it takes. We’ll give up what we have to. We’ll stop that from happening again.

But again, I’m so thick. I thought he was talking about a high-school massacre. In fact, he was talking about abortion!

[..] Presumably, those who own guns for self-defense wouldn’t accept the claim that they rank freedom over life. They would say the freedom to own guns is precisely a freedom to defend life, their own and other people’s. Yet are more lives saved than lost by people having such easy access to lethal weapons?

This is the rub. There is certainly a risk of government tyranny which must be mitigated against so far as possible, including through remedies such as the Second Amendment. But certain mitigations also come with a cost attached – in this case, a cost which is growing and growing, the ledger filled in with blood red ink. What price are we currently paying for each incremental degree of protection from tyranny? Is the insurance policy starting to cost more than is justified by the catastrophic event it is designed to cover? Should we not at least be open to having this discussion?

Mumford concludes:

[..] no possible reading of the Second Amendment can possibly excuse the fundamental hypocrisy here. Just because you’re free to do something doesn’t mean you should do it. Conservatives like me who care deeply about family values typically forego their freedom to sleep around.

Plus, a right is never absolute anyway. In 2008 Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion in Heller, recognized that even the individual rights reading allows for a raft of gun-control measures—prohibitions on carrying weapons in public, extension of background checks, etc., etc. So there’s a lot for consistent pro-lifers to be campaigning for with as much vigor as they’re trying to defund Planned Parenthood.

Mass shootings by monsters armed with AR-15s, like the one in San Bernardino last December, constitute a fraction of gun violence in America. That’s the final argument I’ve heard bandied about a lot. But again it seems weird. For why should it matter that it’s a fraction of gun violence? Don’t fractions matter? Doesn’t a pro-lifer believe that “he who saves one life saves the world entire”?

This is by no means to argue for the repeal of the Second Amendment or the abolition of all gun rights. It is simply an argument for conservatives to take a more expansive view of the pro-life case than the current laser focus on their preferred pet issue of abortion, and to at least entertain the possibility that a new balance might be struck between safeguarding liberty – perhaps more proactively, rather than lazily relying on the nuclear option of armed insurrection – and defending life.

It may well be the case, following such a conversation, that conservatives decide that the balance between liberty and life is already correctly struck and that no changes are needed – though I find this to be increasingly implausible. But a conversation needs to take place, and conservatives increasingly need to be able to justify their stance given the fact that large-scale school massacres do not take place with this regularity anywhere else on Earth.

For conservatives to maintain the moral high ground, the principle worth defending at such a terrible, ongoing cost must be both incredibly valuable and consistently defended on all fronts over a long period of time. I do not believe that most mainstream conservatives can demonstrate this track record or appear willing to publicly make this argument, and to the extent that conservatives are unwilling to fully defend their own position on gun control, their position cannot command full public respect.

 

Update: Another thoughtful reflection on the pro-life / pro-gun (potential) dichotomy here, by an Evangelical preacher.

Pro Choice - Second Amendment - Gun Control - Abortion - Pro Life

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Matthew Parris, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown And Turbo-Charged Brexit Derangement Syndrome

Yasmin Alibhai Brown - Brexit - Mental Health - The edge of mental illness and madness

Warning of economic Armageddon didn’t work, and nor did peddling ludicrous conspiracy theories about government perfidy. So now, prominent Remainer opinion-setters are resorting to tear-stained pleas that Brexit is so personally stressful as to be injurious to their mental health

One of the more annoying aspects of modern political journalism is the way that those who cover events increasingly seek to insert themselves into the story, either by oversharing on social media, grandstanding during press conferences or writing tell-all books full of juicy campaign gossip which inadvertently reveals just how much the journalistic class traditionally suck up to those in power rather than holding them to account.

In Brexit Britain, however, this is being taken to a whole new level with newspaper columnists and TV talking heads – particularly those of a pro-establishment, pro-EU Remainer persuasion – taking a break from offering soundbites and analysis to let us all know just how traumatised and stressed Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union is making them feel.

First up this week was Matthew Parris, with a long stream-of-consciousness confessional in the Spectator:

My spirit is restless and I must confess. This Brexit thing is driving me slightly mad. And I do mean that clinically: not as a rhetorical flourish. My mental state, like that of so many I know on both sides of the Remain/Brexit divide, is capable of medical diagnosis. A shaft of insanity has pierced our interior lives. I really am becoming a Remainiac.

Is it not the first and clearest indication that the balance of one’s mind has been disturbed that, when having done all one reasonably can to achieve a result, one simply cannot let something go? What is the point of waking up at 3 a.m. and fretting sleepless until sunrise that we are leaving the European Union? What is the point of reading every one of the Times readers’ online posts beneath one’s column (they numbered more than a thousand last Saturday) and actually trying to answer scores of those many that are critical of one’s point of view? One knows perfectly well one will never change their minds, and they know perfectly well they will never change one’s own. So what are we doing staring at our stupid screens and taking verbal jabs at each other when outside the sun is shining?

[..] Well (you may say), isn’t that what fierce public debate on important questions of politics is all about? But no, not really. In my time I’ve taken sides with some passion on many great political questions, variously suffering reverses, chalking up victories or acknowledging myself impotent to influence the outcome — yet have always been able to sleep. But this ridiculous Brexit thing is spoiling my summer, spoiling my life; and I can see it’s doing the same for my adversaries on the Leave side too. I’m beginning to pine for a perhaps-imagined golden age when a Conservative-led coalition was in power and we didn’t all hate each other and the EU thing — whichever side you took — was just a minor irritation.

Of course, Britain’s EU membership and slow subsumption into antidemocratic continental political union was never just a “minor irritation” to those millions of British citizens who wholeheartedly objected to the project and would have loved to have made their feelings directly known at the ballot box much earlier, if only they had been given the opportunity. But then Matthew Parris displays that peculiar, almost robotic lack of empathy for people outside his own social caste common to many prominent Remainers, and so he could not have possibly known this.

But unlike many other prominent Remainers, at least Parris has the self-awareness to recognise that his behaviour may be counter-productive:

I mentioned the first indication of a disturbed mental balance: being unable to let something go. But I think there’s a second too, perhaps more worrying still. It’s when you self-diagnose and know this is the case, know you’re going crazy, know you’re self-harming, know that friends who tell you to leave Chazza alone because he isn’t worth it, are right — yet feel no inclination at all to mend your ways.

Like the paranoiac who is persuaded by the patient rationality of a kindly counsellor that ‘they’ are not all out to get him, but pursues his own mad train of reasoning undeterred by what he accepts to be wise advice, I rave on into the night.

I know it’s doing no good. I know I’m boring my readers; know there’s almost nothing left to be said; know that the voice in my head, my mother’s voice, telling me I just need a good night’s sleep, is right. But I’m not going to take a blind bit of notice of it. Having seen friends and colleagues drawn to their professional ruin by a fixation they cannot shake off, I resolve this summer to trudge forward, head down just like them, towards the wreck of whatever reputation I have left for dispassionate objectivity.

How bracingly, unexpectedly honest.

Not to be outdone by Parris, though, fervent EU hagiographer and Remainer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown then immediately took to the BBC Daily Politics studio to confess that Brexit has left her “feeling on the edge of madness and mental illness”:

I’m so glad that Matthew wrote this. I am behaving, feeling kind of on the edge of madness, of mental illness with this.

[..] I can’t go anywhere anymore, including with distant relatives, and not have a fight. I was at a wedding party last week, a wonderful wedding party – and it isn’t even left or right – and there were people from Momentum at this wedding party talking about why they were Brexiters, I had a big fight with them. And I had to go out and, like, cigarette smokers, get deep breaths, and I thought what are you doing, this is a wedding party.

[..] I can’t talk to relatives; I even had a fight with somebody on the bus, normal citizens talking about why they wanted out because they didn’t want foreigners here, I got up and had a fight. I think I’m there with Matthew.

But why is Britain’s imminent departure from the European Union so profoundly and earth-shatteringly disturbing to the likes of Matthew Parris and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown? Why is this event so much more weighty than any other political setback they may have endured in the past?

Part of the answer is that they are in fact not reacting just to Brexit, but to what they think that Brexit represents – Britain turning toward being a more introverted, hostile and unpleasant place – in a way that no other single political decision (such as a tax cut or education reform) alone can symbolise replicate. This much is evident from the Twitter timelines and public pronouncements of much of the #FBPE #WATON “Brexshit” crowd – not only do they (correctly) see Brexit as far harder to reverse than a normal political policy shift, they also fear a sea change in the character and fortunes of Britain.

But there is also something deeper and more obvious at work, driving this unprecedented hysteria from a group of commentators and public figures who generally love to portray themselves as calm, reasonable and pragmatic – the fact that the likes of Matthew Parris have never really known until now what a true political setback feels like. In recent decades (and in the case of younger pro-EU activists, their entire lives) many of the EU’s loudest cheerleaders have never known what it is for their political agenda to stall, their worldview to be repudiated or their preferred policies not to be enacted.*

For these opinion-setters and those they represent, general elections – supposedly the greatest regular opportunity for political change and democratic course correction in this country – have been largely meaningless, their outcome worth tussling over on a superficial level but never reaching the level where it might have grave or existential consequences for present trajectory of the country or for their own lives.

A decade after Tony Blair’s New Labour government took power, the top rate of income tax had not been raised from the level set by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1988. Meanwhile, privatised industries had not been renationalised, nor was there any likelihood that they would be, to the chagrin of the Corbynite Left. And to the frustration of more conservative citizens, six years of Tory rule had seen no halt to the march of social progressivism or the persistence of a broken welfare and immigration system by the time of the EU referendum. It was not that there was no popular dissent against the effective bipartisan consensus on these issues, it was merely that in each case the political class had effectively decided to lift the “correct” course of action out of the bothersome influence of electoral politics.

Thus the Matthew Parrises of this world have long slept easy in their beds, knowing that Britain would be run as a technocratic social democracy with swathes of policy outsourced to the EU where the public could less easily interfere, and that broadly pro-business and pro-middle aged, middle class homeowner policies would prevail whoever sat in 10 Downing Street. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader gave an early wake-up call that not everybody was entirely happy that the country was effectively being run for the personal benefit of Matthew Parris and others like him, but even then it was airily assumed that Corbynism would flame out and that moderate establishment centrism would reassert its dominance within the Labour Party, restoring balance to the universe and predictability to their lives. A pleasant predictability utterly lacking in the far more precarious and uncertain lives of millions of fellow citizens whom Matthew Parris and his cohorts barely deigned to notice, but a pleasant predictability nonetheless.

This is why what we are now witnessing from many establishment commentators more closely resembles an hysterical toddler’s tantrum than reasoned analysis or advocacy. With Brexit, something very precious of theirs (to their mind, their natural right to see the arc of history bend favourably toward their wallets, careers, lifestyles and preferred holiday destinations) has been rudely stolen – and they are not going to take it lying down.

Unfortunately, this strangely unmoving bid for public sympathy will prove to be just another failed tactic to add to the gallery of missteps and forced errors of the Continuity Remain campaign. Insulting Leave voters and accusing them of xenophobia or racist tendencies didn’t work. Casting aspersions about the intelligence and education attainment of Brexit supporters (as though a degree in chemistry or gender studies imparts some special wisdom about the best forms of government to secure freedom and prosperity) likewise did not work. Resorting to unhinged conspiracy theories (such as in-house Remainer intellectual AC Grayling’s insistence that the UK government planned to provoke China into sinking a Royal Navy frigate in order to distract from difficulties in the Brexit negotiations) failed to generate anything other than derision and embarrassment.

And now this belated establishment bid for public sympathy will also fail; not only because it makes a mockery of real mental illness and those who face stresses and mental difficulties of an infinitely more severe nature with none of the financial and social cushions enjoyed by prominent media personalities, but because those people now seeking sympathy in their time of “trial” have tended to show an astonishing disregard – and sometimes outright contempt – for the worries and concerns of those they now paint as the enemy and pick fights with at wedding receptions.

The next time a famous and well-remunerated journalist or opinion-setter takes to the television studios to bemoan the harm that Brexit is apparently doing to their mental health, they should first perform this role-reversal thought experiment: imagine that rather than Brexit being the first time in their life that they didn’t get their way on a matter of deep and abiding personal importance, that it was the first time that they ever knew victory. What might that have felt like, to have been so disenfranchised and overlooked for so long?

Any pro-EU personality of honour and dignity might then pause before flaunting their mental trauma and parading their emotional scars before a nation with far more important things to worry about.

 

* This hysteria and sense of a coming apocalyptic event which must be prevented at all costs is also what allows politicians like Lord Andrew Adonis and activists like Gina Miller to pose as plucky underdogs and doughty defenders of democracy in their long guerrilla war to derail Brexit. Many of the arguments they make about the dangers of unchecked executive power and disparagement of the judiciary are entirely valid, in principle, yet these Crusaders for the Preservation of Democracy had absolutely nothing to say when the executive under David Cameron was making highly questionable actions to sway the EU referendum in favour of the Remain campaign (such as the £9m government propaganda leaflet or the violation of the spirit and possibly letter of purdah rules). Their commitment to constitutional observance and separation of powers extends only so far as these principles can be leveraged to their own advantage – they have no compunction violating these principles when doing so serves their own purposes.

 

Brexit - EU protesters - My life would suck without EU

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Update From The Road, Part 2

Sydney Opera House - steps and sails in the sunlight - SJH

A political union which might actually work

As day 57 of our slow-motion American migration (by way of Southeast Asia and Australasia) draws to a close, I thought it was about time for another brief update from the road.

After a frenetic, exhilarating time in Singapore (don’t go there without visiting  Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, the cheapest Michelin-starred lunch you will ever eat, clocking in at about $1.50 USD) and an alternately wonderful and frustrating couple of weeks in Bali, we finally made it to Australia. We began in Melbourne, which the coffee snob in me enjoyed very much and which generally validates everything you read about Melbourne being one of the most liveable cities in the world, and then flew up to Sydney for five days, and now on to Cairns. I write this evening from the dining table in our motel room in Port Douglas.

Country highlights thus far would have to include the Great Ocean Road heading north from Melbourne, with its views of the majestic coastline and powerful sea. Also the private wildlife tour we took out of Sydney, in which we spotted a variety of birds, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, a couple of (thankfully) baby huntsman spiders and a vain search for a platypus. My highlight, though, has to be the Sydney Opera House. This marvel was of course bound to tick all of my boxes as a classical music and opera-loving architecture geek, and the behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating. The sweeping beauty of the modernist architecture and the ingenuity of its construction make the building fully deserving of its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the kind of building which, having beholden it, makes one feel sad that one can never again encounter it for the first time. Sadly there were no performances of interest scheduled while we were in town, but visiting the building was pleasure enough on this trip.

What a fantastic place is Australia. Those who know me personally probably grew tired of my pre-trip jokes about how I fully expected one or other of the many terrifying creatures which inhabit Australia to kill me, but the truth is that I have been very taken with this country since arriving a couple of weeks ago. The similarities to Britain are, as you might expect, almost too numerous to list, though there are also important and valuable differences too.

The spoken English and many of the idioms used here are of course easily recognisable and understandable by most Brits – we attended a show at the Sydney Comedy Festival a few nights ago, and while my wife (a Texan) struggled in some places to follow along, I was able to do so without effort. Much of the free-to-air television seems to consist of either old British shows from the 1990s (lots of Inspector Morse) or reality TV format exports, while the shorter store opening hours – many stores seem to shut up shop not long after 6pm, even in the cities – also resemble Britain prior to New Labour, circa 1996. Many UK businesses and brands have a visible presence here. The food is also very similar to that of Britain. Neither country really have a national cuisine as such; Australians may claim to produce superior meat pies or fish and chips, but after extensive personal research I can confirm that in reality it is pretty much a draw on that front.

We had the pleasure of visiting friends from London who moved to Sydney for work a couple of years ago, and it was interesting to hear anecdotes revealing their positive and negative experiences. Both found it very easy to make the transition from working in London to working in Sydney, not just because working culture is similar in the two cities but primarily because the general culture is so similar. Australians tend to be a little more direct and confrontational where necessary – much less British passive aggressiveness here – and in parts of Sydney there is a kind of health and body-obsessed vanity which those who know such things compare to the culture in Los Angeles, but overall there are few impediments save financial cost and homesickness which would stop any Brit from packing up and transporting their lives to Australia with relative ease. Well, aside from the points-based immigration system, of course.

All of which naturally led me to think about culture, national identity and the argument from Remainers in Britain that the UK has so much in common with our European friends and allies that a supranational political union is harmless at worst, and most likely deeply desirable. One need only spend half a day in Australia to realise that if there was to be a culturally viable supranational political union it would be between countries like Britain and Australia, with their deeply rooted shared history and multilayered cultural connections, than our closest geographic neighbours, dear and valued friends though they are.

The language barrier is the obvious issue, though far from the only one. For a supranational political union to work, there has to be a cohesive and willing demos to give the political institutions legitimacy – or at least a desire among the people to forge such a multinational demos and meld themselves into it. Without a shared language, this is an almost impossible task. Even conversational or business knowledge of another language can be insufficient to forge the kind of understanding and close relationships needed on a wide scale for people to see themselves as a single body. Being able to order food in a restaurant or even participate in a business meeting in a second language is often not enough, particularly when so few are likely to do the latter relative to total population size.

Rage against human nature all you want, but successful political systems and settlements are those which work with human nature rather than against it – capitalism being the prime example, harnessing individual self-interest and leveraging it in the ultimate service of the greater good. Supranational political union without consultation and consent is as doomed to failure as socialism, as both demand that human nature subordinate itself totally and unquestioningly to Utopian political theory.

If supranational political union is the goal – and to be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating this – it would be most likely to work where countries already share a language, a similar system of government and laws, numerous cultural references and deep links at all levels of society, not just between post-national elites. In other words, between countries like Britain and Australia (and most likely New Zealand and Canada too, though I shall have to confirm this as the grand tour winds its way toward America).

Those who say that Britain is so culturally aligned with Europe that we inevitably and rightfully belong in the EU’s political union find themselves not only delusional but also caught in a pincer movement by cold, hard reality. On one hand, there is the stubborn fact that ties of history, language and culture bind us much more strongly to the Commonwealth Anglosphere than to Spain or Germany, and on the other hand there is the fact that while “citizen of the world” post-national elites and knowledge workers may increasingly share a common culture and tastes, this emerging culture is itself global, not parochially European. A digital marketing executive from Bangkok or a hipster from Melbourne is likely to have as much in common with their British counterparts than mainland European, and in the latter’s case

I am presently reading “The People vs Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, himself no populist rabble-rouser, and even Mounk admits:

After a few months of living in England, I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I had imagined. They were also more wide-ranging. Far from being confined to food or language, they extended to humor and temperament, to personal outlook and collective values.

After college, when I spent more time in Italy, and then in France, I came to the same conclusion all over again. The residents of various European countries were much more attached to their national cultures, and much more resistant to thinking of themselves primarily as Europeans, than I had wanted to believe.

Again, Mounk is no Brexit apologist or excuse-maker for populism, but unlike many Remainers in Britain he is at least willing to change his assessment based on cold, hard reality and observance of human nature. EU defenders seem more determined than ever to ignore such qualitative facts, seemingly because unlike warnings of forthcoming economic doom, vital cultural issues cannot be so easily added up in an Excel spreadsheet and then pasted into an alarmist infographic to be shared on social media.

The furious insistence that Britain is culturally European and thus destined for political union centred in Brussels is primarily an elite phenomenon, and therefore a marginal viewpoint. If one has the money and inclination to ski in France or cycle in Italy every year, one is far more likely to perceive closer ties and similarities between Britain and Europe than exist on the macro level – and I say this as someone who has travelled a fair deal in Europe including four consecutive summer vacations in Santorini, Greece. While I love the Greek people and their culture, and readily acknowledge many similarities and crossovers with my own, I am deluding myself if I tell myself and others that the shared culture of Britain and Greece is more or equally capable of supporting political union than the shared cultural heritage of Britain and Australia.

For the final time, this is not to suggest that Britain and Australia do form such a union, or that the wildest dreams of the CANZUK fanclub be pursued – there is no real economic case, only a slender geopolitical one and very little mainstream interest for such a radical move in any of the concerned countries. The point is merely that if a political union were to be attempted, its chances of success would be infinitely higher among the Commonwealth Anglosphere than it is among the far more heterogenous countries of Europe.

And yet this does not stop the Remainers, with their endless tropes about the dangers of “going it alone” in the world and the evil “British exceptionalism” which leads us to believe we are somehow “better” than our continental European allies. They would struggle manfully against human nature right to the bitter end, furiously clinging to their dream of a supranational European government and political union, all the while ignoring the only kind of deep political union which might potentially work.

Brexiteers are often accused of a pig-headed refusal to engage with facts and deal with empirical reality, a charge which is frankly often deserved in the case of truculent leading hard Brexiteers who haven’t made the first effort to properly acquaint themselves with the details (or even the basics) of international trade and regulation, or who see Brexit not as a constitutional or technocratic challenge/opportunity but rather as nothing more than an exciting new front in their ongoing culture war.

But having now spent time in Australia and witnessed the degree to which cultural similarities with Britain are of such an entirely different (and higher) order than exists between the UK and most EU member states, I see that there is far greater pig-headed stubbornness on the other side – a stubbornness which is far less forgivable since its bearers love to portray themselves as highly educated disciples of reason, and have persisted in their delusion for so much longer.

 

Sydney Harbour Bridge at dusk - SJH

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No, Jesus Would Not Demand Open Borders

Immigrants are all Gods children - Christian immigration protest

Those who make a Christian case for open borders and uncontrolled mass immigration do not apply the same altruism they demand of society to their own personal lives, and neither would tearing down national borders improve the common good. Those who use their faith (or even more cynically, the faith of others) as a bludgeon to agitate for open borders do so based on a deliberately superficial reading of Christianity, in which Jesus is little more than an easy-going aging hippie, or a benevolent Santa Claus figure

The Windrush scandal – in which British permanent residents and citizens, either naturalised immigrants or descendants of immigrants, were wrongly targeted for deportation because of bureaucratic incompetence and the eagerness of a fawning, rootless government to appear tough on immigration – has pushed the issue of immigration back up the list of top voter priorities in the United Kingdom.

At times like this, it is customary for cynical and opportunistic voices on the Left to exploit developments in order to agitate for their broader goal of open borders (or at least something perilously close to open borders – few left wing politicians are now willing to publicly articulate any restriction on immigration or sanction for immigration law violations which they actually support). And so it was this time, with a parade of Labour and other left-wing politicians effectively making the preposterous case that bureaucratic callousness with regard to the affected Windrush immigrants means that the government has now morally forfeited the right to control the borders at all.

Unfortunately, these voices are often also joined by left-wing Christians who waste no time extrapolating from one appalling example of Big Government callousness to press entirely tangential arguments about a more permissive immigration system. The Church of England’s own Migration policy subsite rather deceptively makes mention only of asylum and refugee issues, utterly ignoring the dominant economic migrant subgroup. One can only assume that this is because the CofE knows as well as the rest of us that pretending that the great migration wave consists entirely of the former type and not the latter is more likely to generate sympathy and lead to pressure for looser immigration policy.

As the depth of the government’s failure and mismanagement with regard to Windrush immigrants became evident, social media was swiftly flooded with tweets and sentiments suggesting that any attempt by politicians or civic leaders to dissuade or expel illegal immigrants – people entirely unconnected with the Windrush scandal – from maintaining unlawful residence in the United Kingdom is prima facie evidence of a missing or defective conscience:

 

Even Martyn Eden, political editor of Premier Christianity magazine, equivocates:

Some will see this affair as reflecting an underlying racism in British culture. Given that the density of population in the UK is 268 people per square kilometre, second only to Holland in the EU, a case can be made for limiting immigration, but the Brexit campaign certainly showed evidence of a xenophobic hostility to foreigners.

Our duty to love our neighbours regardless of their racial and family backgrounds, following Jesus’ teaching and example, will shape how Christians understand and respond to this distressing and shameful episode in our national life.

This mirrors the vague, evasive wooliness and anti Brexit bigotry which swathes of the Church of England (including all the senior hierarchy) displayed so prominently during the 2016 EU referendum campaign and its aftermath (see here, here, here and here).

Recently, Pope Francis has made noises (in the form of an apostolic exhortation) deeply suggestive that he believes open borders to be “pro-life” and the correct starting point for any Christian view of immigration:

102. We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children. Can we not realize that this is exactly what Jesus demands of us, when he tells us that in welcoming the stranger we welcome him (cf. Mt 25:35)? Saint Benedict did so readily, and though it might have “complicated” the life of his monks, he ordered that all guests who knocked at the monastery door be welcomed “like Christ”,[85] with a gesture of veneration;[86] the poor and pilgrims were to be met with “the greatest care and solicitude”.[87]

We see exactly the same climate in the United States, where the progressive wing of the Church is enthusiastically embracing the concept of “sanctuary cities” and taking an increasingly extreme position against any kind of immigration enforcement. The argument usually goes along the lines of that advanced here by Michael Clark in Sojourners:

I currently live in Houston, Texas, the nation’s fourth largest city and most diverse metropolitan area. We’re a city with no racial or ethnic majority, where nearly 1 in 4 people were born outside the U.S. We’re also home to 400,000 undocumented immigrants, earning us the label “sanctuary city” from some.

[..] but Houston’s status as a sanctuary city requires a response from everyday residents, nearly three quarters of whom claim to be Christians. Will Christians make a sanctuary in our city?

Before we put our defenses up (They’re here illegally! They’re taking our jobs! They need to come in the right way!), let us remember that our allegiance is not primarily to this nation. Jesus himself said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Paul reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20), and though we are to respect earthly authority (Romans 13:1), when push comes to shove, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Will we be a sanctuary in the tradition of the early church? Will we heed God’s commandment: “the stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)?

Will Christ say to us, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison [or an immigration detention center] and you came to visit me”?

Let us remember his words, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40).

This is manipulative schmaltz of the worst kind. All of it. Anybody can harvest quotes from the Bible to build a case that Christian compassion involves rolling over and doing whatever a particular activist wants at that moment in time. But what we lack in this argument (and we see this over and over again in Christian arguments for mass immigration or open borders) is any acknowledgement that the immediate benefit to one new incoming migrant is not the only important consideration at stake.

When Jesus performed miracles there was no tradeoff, with one individual newly afflicted by the disease which Jesus cured in another, or the alleviated suffering of one person displaced onto somebody else. Nobody died because Lazarus was raised from the dead. Those who were healed at Gennesaret by touching Jesus’ cloak were not offset by a similar number who were struck down in their place. Uncontrolled mass immigration does not work like this. While there is a clear personal benefit to each marginal unskilled migrant  (and we are talking economic migrants here, remember, not refugees) allowed into a developed country, there are offsetting costs to be considered, too.

Sometimes these costs are tangible and quantifiable, such as the additional burden on infrastructure, services and the welfare state. Other times these costs are uncertain and appear only in the form of risk (such as risk to public order or national security). But the net effect is that the “good” done by letting in unlimited numbers of unskilled migrants from poor countries is offset by a commensurate cost. And this cost is no less important or worthy of consideration just because it is diffused across society as a whole rather than concentrated on one individual.

Rod Dreher makes a similar point in religious terms, rebutting the idea that Christian hospitality must be open-ended to the point of self-destruction:

This is why St. Benedict’s rule of hospitality is not open-ended. Monks will certainly welcome guests as if they were Christ, but that welcome does not imply that visitors have the right to stay in the monastery for as long as they like. What’s more, monks cannot welcome guests who, whether by their behavior or their sheer numbers, prevent a monastery from fulfilling its purpose. No stranger has a right to expect the monks to abandon their way of life to accommodate his desires. It’s simply dishonest and manipulative for the Pope to invoke St. Benedict’s example in this way. One likes to think that even Pope Francis would not expect a monastery to fling its gates open and house as many migrants as want to set up camp there, indefinitely.

We know that these negative costs of open borders will be incurred, and that they will be borne by society at large. So why is it more Christ-like to prioritise one over the other? Welcoming the stranger is absolutely the right thing to do when there are no offsetting costs to that act of charity, but what if welcoming the stranger causes a completely innocent third party to suffer harm? What we see, though, is many Christians prioritising the needs of the former over the latter. And in a way this is understandable – the benefit to the migrant is obvious, easy to measure and enjoyable to bestow, while the cost to society is diffuse, sometimes intangible and only detectable on the macro level, not at the individual level. Choosing the tangible and immediate over the intangible and time-delayed is a natural human instinct, albeit a harmful one in this instance.

So perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is this: does Jesus want us to think purely from with hearts, or does He also want us to engage our brains?

Viewed this way, the emotionally incontinent “Jesus would let in all the migrants” line of argument is becoming increasingly tiresome and threadbare. Maybe He would, and maybe not – perhaps instead He would work miracles to improve the broken and dysfunctional countries which feed mass migration in the first place, rather than feeding an urban leftist’s fetish for infinite diversity. Presuming that Jesus would opt for the immediate solution, the easy answer, the quick fix, grant the superficial human desire rather than the deeper human need, is to fundamentally misunderstand how Jesus’ ministry unfolded. Claiming that Jesus would advocate open borders is to subscribe to an incredibly two-dimensional, aging hippie version of Jesus, one which reduces the Son of God to little more than a genial Santa Claus figure.

If – as the Christian open borders activists insist when it comes to welcoming strangers – we sought to emulate Jesus’ dealings with and instructions to his contemporaries in our geopolitical dealings then the world would be a very different, and likely much darker place. Nazism and Soviet Communism were not defeated through pacifism, after all. And if we were to take Jesus’ instructions to his immediate disciples and contemporaries as granular instruction for twenty-first century life we would forever be forsaking all material goods, leaving our families to pursue nomadic and ascetic lives of service and chasing after muggers offering them the few personal effects they haven’t already stolen from us. I know of very few Christians who meet – or even seek to meet – this standard, not because they are selfish and evil but because it is generally understood by everyone (except the far Left) that a one-time charitable binge or government wealth expropriation exercise is not a sustainable long-term solution to poverty and want. Dropping everything and working for the immediate benefit of the person in front of us is not necessarily in the interest of millions of other deserving people beyond our vision. Sadly, our loaves and fish do not miraculously multiply; ultimately, we can only improve the common good by teaching the five thousand how to bake and fish for themselves.

It is also very telling that the “Jesus would let them all come in” brigade only seem to want to apply His teachings so far as they can be twisted to support open borders. The activists who go to protests chanting “no human being is illegal”, the often-wealthy coastal leftists who support unconditional amnesty for all and the establishment media who make a point of proudly failing to distinguish between legal and immigration, very few of them would open their New York or San Francisco homes to those cities’ many homeless, share their shiny new Tesla car to help a poor family do the school run every day or hand over their iPhone X to whomever demanded it. Yes, some profess a willingness to pay a higher marginal tax rate themselves in order to fund more plentiful public services, but that is about as far as it goes – keeping the needy firmly at arm’s length. Otherwise, their “generosity” actually consists of nothing more than calling for the government to tear down borders and disregard immigration law, and loudly screaming that anyone who expresses doubt about this reckless course of action is a racist.

But the costs of unskilled immigration (for the kind of mass immigration entailed by open borders would inevitably be of the unskilled kind) tend not to impact the wealthy enclaves where the cognitive, financial and social elites live, falling instead on far less privileged groups and communities. Many of those calling for open borders or more immigration in the name of Jesus also conveniently stand to get cheaper maids, gardeners and cleaners as a result, or live in neighbourhoods where the principle consequence of immigration is a wonderful explosion of diversity in art, culture and food. They are not the ones who typically rely on increasingly stretched public services, compete for low wage jobs or live in areas of higher crime or social tension. Nestled within gated communities or exclusive neighbourhoods, many will be insulated from the kind of widespread social unrest which the implementation of open borders would quickly deliver.

These activists are, in effect, disguising their naked self interest as generosity, benefiting economically and making themselves feel good and progressive while pushing nearly all of the negative externalities of mass immigration onto others. Jesus, let us remember, said nothing about giving away one’s neighbour’s possessions – the whole point is supposed to be one of personal devotion and sacrifice. The Jesus 4 Open Borders crowd, on the other hand, seek largely to give away something which is not theirs, promising to bear a cost which in actual fact they have every intention of palming off onto people further down the social ladder. How very Christian.

Ultimately, if the Jesus 4 Open Borders brigade are to maintain intellectual integrity while holding to their extremist stance they must concede that the policy they want, if retroactively applied decades or centuries ago, would mean that human development would be far less advanced today than is currently the case and that net human suffering might well be significantly higher. They must also concede that if the policy were implemented today, there will be an unknowable but significant opportunity cost in terms of curtailed future human progress and relief of suffering. They must admit that one or other or both of these seismic and overwhelmingly negative changes would be a price worth paying to achieve their particular conception of social justice.

Why? Because the nation state forms the bedrock of our current prosperity and the stability of the world order, and open borders are an all-out assault on the concept of the nation state. Humanity is not homogeneous – some cultures and value systems are objectively superior to others, and even in the case of immigration between broadly similar countries, human nature is such that too fast a rate of immigration creates political resentment and the potential for societal unrest. Implementing open borders in this age, when access to information is so widespread and fast modes of transport so ubiquitous, would immediately trigger a wave of migration from poor and dysfunctional countries that make the present global migration crisis look like a slow trickle.

While immigration activists love to tout the many economic benefits that immigration brings, and rightly so, they generally neglect to point out that there is often a (significant) time lag between the marginal new immigrant arriving and local housing and infrastructure expanding in proportion to service the increased population. In fact, unless deliberate steps are taken by local and national populations, that increase might never happen at all. Even in the best case where the marginal immigrant is a net fiscal contributor, this does not instantly make the freeway a fraction of an inch wider or add a few thousandths of a new bed to the local hospital. This necessary growth in service provision requires political direction and civic planning, and must often be commenced in advance, long before the tax revenue stream from the new immigrant comes online (thus requiring deficit spending in the interim).

Now imagine a situation where developed countries receive greatly inflated numbers of new immigrants who are not in a position to be immediate positive fiscal contributors due to language, cultural or educational barriers which may also hinder quick and easy assimilation into the host country’s culture. Not only do housing and infrastructure continue to lag behind demand, now social tensions are also likely to spike, leading to scenes which make recent anti-immigration protests look like a model of peaceful, reasoned civility. We may well be looking a riots. Martial law. Deepening social division, violence and even deaths.

This kind of environment is not one in which great prosperity is easily created. Unless open borders were implemented everywhere in a coordinated way there would likely be a brain drain of the most educated and productive native citizens (many of whom had likely cheered on open borders while possessing the ability to skip out of town the moment their Utopian fantasy turned into a nightmare) to other more sensible developed countries with functional immigration systems, leading to a self-perpetuating spiral of decline among those advanced Western countries (and it is always Western countries – activists are not demanding that Japan drop its exclusionary immigration practices) which decided to throw open their borders.

In short, one does not have to play the tape forward very far to realise that there are alarmingly few steps between implementing a policy decision which makes woke, “no human being is illegal”, Jesus 4 Open Borders activists feel warm and virtuous on the inside and a situation where everything that makes their country an attractive destination for mass immigration in the first place is utterly snuffed out. Open borders is the kind of rash, ill-considered “Jesus, take the wheel!” policy proposal which its most ardent advocates would never replicate in any other area of their lives.

But of course, none of this matters. Christian immigration activists can adopt the “good-hearted” open borders position at zero cost to themselves, knowing that fully open borders (and the chaos that would be unleashed) will never plausibly be implemented. Campaigning for open borders is an opportunity to appear compassionate without having to either dip one’s hand into one’s pocket or seriously risk the unravelling of one’s present, privileged existence. And rather than wrestling with the far more thorny questions of why so many countries remain so dysfunctional and deeply unattractive to their own citizens, and driving solutions to help those countries help themselves, many Christians can opt instead to abdicate the intellectual work and simply shroud themselves in moral outrage that evil Western governments don’t let anyone and everyone breeze into the country.

As John Zmirak writes in Quadrant Magazine:

When we inflict such radical changes on our society, we should ask ourselves whether we are being faithful stewards of the prosperous, free societies for which our ancestors struggled, fought and sometimes died. Perhaps instead we are squandering our inheritance, for the sake of that happy frisson we experience when we do or say something supporting “openness”, “tolerance”, and “social justice”. We are purchasing approval from our fellow upper-middle-class citizens, with social capital stolen from our children and grandchildren. We are feathering our own cosy nests, while making life even more wretched for our own nations’ native poor—whose ancestors did fight and die, alongside ours, for their descendants’ stakes in the nation. We are stealing the precious gifts of freedom and order from our least-advantaged fellow citizens—the blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the troubled war veterans—in order to salve our confused consciences, and feed our self-esteem.

In the case of mass migration, Christian outrage would be far better directed at the fact that all too often, the West ignores or downplays pressing questions relating to the root cause and does little to help solve the drivers of continued poverty and instability in much of the world, often actively contributing to the problem rather than helping, be it though haphazard military interventions or discriminatory trade policies. This criticism would be absolutely justified, though the solutions are nowhere near as simple as clamouring for open borders.

It may not fit quite so neatly on a protest placard, but I am personally inclined to believe that the more Christian thing is to wrestle with these difficult questions and to make intelligent national and personal self-sacrifice in targeted areas to improve the lot of poor and unstable countries, while pressing for an immigration system which is fair and non-discriminatory to applicants and seeking to find the optimal “sweet spot” where the benefits and costs of immigration, however defined (and it should be an expansive measure) break even.

I’m no theologian, but something tells me that a well-considered policy which diligently aims to deal with the root drivers of mass migration is both superior and more authentically Christian than a rash, emotion-driven and deeply harmful policy whose primary benefit is to make overwhelmingly privileged, first world activists feel better about themselves.

 

Update: A thoughtful and balanced Christian reflection on the proper response to mass migration, written by Luke Bretherton in 2014, can be read here.

Update 2: See also this very thoughtful piece by Stephen Kneale of the Building Jerusalem blog.

Update 3: This is an excellent reflection from Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith, published late last year in the Catholic Herald, concluding:

When it comes to welcoming the stranger, the wise must look to the future, and ask what the long term effects will be. What happens to the stranger five, ten, or twenty years down the line? This is the real question. Does the stranger return home? Does the stranger assimilate? Does the stranger live as what the Bible calls a “sojourner”, a resident alien who is not assimilated? Is it a violation of their human rights to ask new arrivals to assimilate?

[..] my impression is not that the Catholic Church has not got a firm teaching on immigration, but rather that the Church has not yet worked out the implications of what welcoming the stranger means. “Welcoming the stranger” sounds like a good principle, but what does it mean in practice? It would be an excellent idea for the Universal Church to hold some sort of synod on this matter. Then the American and European bishops could hear from bishops whose countries have welcomed large numbers of refugees and migrants, such as Kenya, South Africa, and in particular, Jordan and Lebanon. The latter is an important case study, as the huge influx of Palestinians into the country after 1948 and 1967 is generally regarded as one of the contributing factors to the country’s destabilisation and descent into 17 years of savage civil war. Even today Jordan and Lebanon are under huge pressure thanks to the effects of the Syrian conflict.

As for border controls, annoying as they are for first world travellers as well, these have to stay. Every country needs to know who is coming in, who is going out, as this information is useful in the matter of governing the territory. For in immigration matters the greatest of virtues is prudence, which must work hand in hand with justice and charity.

 

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