For A Proud New Immigrant, Independence Day Offers Much To Celebrate

City of McAllen Texas - 90th annual Independence Day celebration - presented by HEB

Some reflections on my first Fourth of July spent as a permanent resident of the United States of America

Today I spent my first Fourth of July, my first Independence Day, as a permanent resident of the United States of America. After receiving my long-awaited US green card I finally came to call America my home when I landed in Los Angeles on 25th May, and since that time have been staying with my wife’s family in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas while I wait for law school to begin in September. So now here I am, a British expat living in America on the day when everyone around me celebrates casting off the yoke of the British Crown.

We live in a time when it is fashionable (among some circles) to imagine that immigrants in general are persecuted and threatened to an unprecedented degree – largely thanks to a deliberate, concerted effort by many politicians and journalists to erase any distinction between legal and illegal immigrants, economic migrants and refugees, otherwise law-abiding illegal aliens and determined criminals. And spurred on by this delusion, many American politicians, particularly those of the Left, are presently burnishing their reputations (or in some cases their presidential aspirations) by claiming to speak for me and others who, like me, were not born in the United States.

From these liberal saviors, I learn that I am presently under attack; that I apparently feel despised, devalued, belittled and threatened, both by the elected head of state, those who support him and indeed anyone who does not support tearing down the entire immigration system and even the concept of national borders itself. All this I must feel deep in my subconscious, because as a mixed-race man who has travelled through some thirteen of these United States (many of them staunchly Republican states in the Midwest) I have known nothing but friendliness and an abiding, sometimes overwhelming hospitality. But clearly the liberal saviors know best, and in reality I live my life in permanent fear of verbal abuse, physical assault or deportation, even though I don’t realise it.

My point is not to relitigate the immigration debate here, or to point out the calculated cynicism of portraying arguably overzealous action against illegal immigrants as some kind of assault on all immigrants or a betrayal of America’s founding values. I write these words simply to put on record that I and millions of my fellow immigrants seek to make our home in the United States (legally or illegally) because we believe this to be a good country and a shining city on a hill, not the newly-opened fascist hellmouth which many decent Americans have been wrongly deceived into viewing their own country.

One thing which conservatives seem to “get” instinctively while those on the Left struggle to understand is that America is and always has been greater than the sum of her contemporary government. We see the same phenomenon in my native Britain, where many on the Left denigrate their homeland endlessly and are confounded that anyone might admire the United Kingdom, simply because they themselves take exception to the present Conservative government, or to the 2016 referendum’s decision to leave the European Union. And here in America I hear from many people, including some of my own left-leaning friends, that they see little good about the United States at present. When attempting to justify this statement, most point to the Trump administration’s perceived treatment of minorities and immigrants. More than one have confessed to me that they feel unable to celebrate their country’s Independence Day as a consequence.

To them and all those who feel similarly, I can only say: not in my name. Do not think less of your country or refuse to celebrate her independence thinking that you are acting in solidarity with me or any other immigrant, legal or illegal. We choose to come to this country believing it to be inherently good, not fundamentally bad. Ignore the buzzword-laden screeds of academics and activists steeped in toxic and divisive identity politics, who never tire of claiming that contemporary America is built on white supremacy and that systemic racism is a feature, not a bug, in this country’s basic source code. They could not be more wrong.

We immigrants understand that America is flawed like every other country, but is also a work in progress toward a noble goal which few other countries even bother to write down and set as a target, let alone strive to achieve – the creation of a country whose government is predicated on the belief that all men are created equal, and free. We immigrants understand that perhaps unique among nations, America is rooted in an idea, not an ethnicity or landmass, and that this idea will persevere and survive a demagogic authoritarian president just as it has survived the suave technocrats and neoconservative nation-builders who came before.

For the record: I opposed Donald Trump during his presidential campaign and have long realised the danger posed by an authoritarian executive branch aided by a supine Republican Congress. These dangers are not to be underestimated, and indeed are the very reason why the Founding Fathers sought to build separation of powers and the checks and balances of strong, rival institutions into the fabric of American government. I am also on record opposing Donald Trump’s often racism-tinged rhetoric, his grievous temperamental flaws and the harsh manner of his administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration and asylum processing. I have frequently written that at a time when advanced Western countries must adapt to the future, a leader who explicitly promises to make America great *again* and roll the clock back economically is a huge step in the wrong direction. Indeed, there are few people I would want to see in the Oval Office less than Donald J. Trump.

And yet here I am, a newly-minted green card holder and immigrant to the United States, because I know that this country is far bigger than the shrinking moral and intellectual footprint of the American presidency. I mourned Donald Trump’s election victory and fear for some of the near-term consequences of electing such a man as leader, but not for a second did I question my desire to emigrate and leave Britain, my beloved home, for the United States.

Shortly after having left London back in March, I wrote a piece attempting to explain why this is the case:

America may not be the country it once was in terms of the richness and profundity of its civic life (though this is not to dismiss the great and necessary advances in civil rights and equality) since many of its greatest thinkers left the stage, but it is a darn sight healthier than contemporary Britain.

Interventionism versus non-interventionism? That debate burns more brightly in America because it is the United States which must do the bulk of intervening in an age of parsimonious European retrenchment. Healthcare reform? The American system may exist primarily to make Britain’s NHS look good by comparison, but at least radical healthcare reform is possible in the United States, unlike Britain where NHS worship is a mandatory religion for those in power. Education? The federal system and greater role for local government in America means that far more experimentation with new policies and technologies can take place than in Britain, where “postcode lotteries” are feared and policy competition is severely limited. The benefits and costs of laissez-faire social liberalism? Nearly all of the most thoughtful writing can be found in American journals, not the incestuous British publications.

And in conclusion:

I will never stop following or writing about British politics, and this blog continues. Britain is my homeland, a place towards which I will always retain a deep attachment and where I will undoubtedly spend some future years raising a family – and indeed, one of the unique selling points of this blog – I hope – is my ability to provide a familiar Brit’s perspective on American politics and a (nearly) American perspective on British politics, which would make unplugging from the debate quite counterproductive to my work.

But since Britain has repeatedly shown itself to be disinterested in domestic or global leadership of any kind, my focus will naturally gravitate more toward the politics of my new adopted home, a country which despite its many dysfunctions still retains that optimism and self-belief that matters debated and decisions made in America can shape the world for the better.

Coming from another economically advanced country, it was not the prospect of a higher standard of living which led me to America – it was the kaleidoscopic culture, the endless variety, the sheer vastness of geography and opportunity, the freedom and (as someone interested in public policy) the fact that ideas and policies debated in America still matter and have the potential to shape the world for the better. How much more of an incentive is it then to come from a poorer country, where in addition to gaining the civil liberties and rights guaranteed under the Constitution one also stands to become immeasurably wealthier? And we immigrants are supposed to lose sight of these blessings and require additional support and encouragement because of an intemperate tweet or malicious statement from the temporary custodian of one of the three branches of American government?

I remember the interview for my green card at the US embassy in London like it was yesterday. Overprepared and unreasonably nervous, carrying far more supporting documentation and evidence than the already-onerous consular list required, I arrived early and sat on a park bench with my rosary in hand, under the statue of President Eisenhower, waiting to be admitted to the stentorious Eero Saarinen-designed embassy building (now replaced with a nondescript glass cube south of the River Thames). After a short wait I was called to hand in my documents, have my fingerprints taken and pay the remaining (significant) fees which legal immigrants are required to pay, and then waited again for the interview itself. The interview took place at a counter window much like a bank, and was over within five minutes and the answering of a few basic questions. I seem to remember asking the consular officer more than once to confirm that my application had been approved after he told me that I was “good to go”, so elated was I to be in possession of the immigrant visa I have wanted for well over half my life.

Of course, going through the process also made me very aware that it is not so easy or straightforward for everyone who wants to come to the United States. I applied for and received my green card through marriage to a US citizen; others without existing family ties, capital to invest or lucrative high-skilled jobs lined up often find it much harder, even impossible, to immigrate legally. I have sympathy for many of those who come to the United States illegally or overstay their time-limited visas, and can certainly envision myself in a similar position were my own circumstances different. Furthermore, some people now in the United States illegally live lives of otherwise-model citizenship which put many natural-born Americans and legal immigrants to shame.

That being said, the rule of law must be defended if it is to have meaning and authority, and a nation without borders is no nation at all. Uncontrolled flows of human migration can be economically disruptive and culturally destabilising, and it is in no way extremist to point out that not everybody who wants to emigrate to America can be allowed to do so. I would love to see sensible immigration form enacted, with protected status given to the many millions presently here illegally (all of whom cannot be deported without enormous economic damage and social unrest) in exchange for serious improvements in border security and enforcement, and a genuine effort to have a democratically responsive immigration policy reflective of the balance of public opinion. I abhor the ideologues on both sides, the open borders fanatics who seem to be taking over the Democratic Party and the unrealistic zero-tolerance hardline conservatives who scupper any effort at compromise.

To those who see the election of Donald Trump as some kind of negative turning point in America’s attitude toward immigration or immigrants, I would counsel that this belief stems largely from the arrogance of having assumed that there was a prior consensus when in reality there were a multitude of voices and opinions, ranging from genuine racists and xenophobes at one extreme through those opposed to uncontrolled mass immigration or those who simply believe that the rule of law and national borders ought to mean something in the reasonable center. One can perhaps argue that it is a shame that these more cautious or negative voices are now being heard and getting a hearing from the White House, but they are not new and they did not begin with Donald Trump. Opposition to illegal immigration is rooted in the successive failure of politicians to reform a broken immigration system – Donald Trump’s demagoguery on the subject is little more than the political cowardice and lack of ambition of past administrations personified.

Here in McAllen, Texas there are lessons to be learned for Trump supporters and devout open borders leftists alike. Here is a thriving town and region strongly shaped by immigration from Mexico and central Americas, which frequently displays the full richness of that cultural inheritance, but which at the same time remains resolutely and unashamedly American. Here you may well hear Mariachi music at Sunday Mass or read bilingual or Spanish language advertisements in the newspaper, hear Tejano music on the local radio or see clothes stores selling Quinceañera dresses, but the same people who consume these services also recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school, stand for the national anthem at sports games, serve in the US military or local police force and gather with family and friends to barbecue, watch fireworks and celebrate their country’s Independence Day.

In this town I have heard white girls singing along to Selena, watched people of all ethnicities gorge themselves on some of the best Tex-Mex and Mexican food to be had, and witnessed an elderly Hispanic veteran point to Donald Trump’s autobiography in the bargain bin at Sam’s Club and tell me with fervor in his voice that “this man is going to save America”. People do not fit into the neat, pure little categories created by the partisan extremists fuelling our ongoing, self-destructive culture war. America contains multitudes, and so do individual Americans.

These are not contradictions for most people here. The cognitive dissonance only exists for Trumpian hardliners who struggle to accept any Hispanic influence or cultural accommodation on the one hand, and open borders extremists who tend to hate the very idea of the nation state (or at least the United States) and who think that assimilation into the host culture is some kind of betrayal or prima facie evidence of white supremacist oppression. And on and on these two sides go, the ugly extremes dominating our politics and cultural discourse, while the broad mass of ordinary Americans simply want to get on with their lives.

I have spent this Fourth of July celebrating the independence of the country I now call home, and I have done so in a border town which is happy, prosperous and (from everything my inquisitive eye has observed) largely at ease with itself. Some 84 percent of McAllen’s residents have Hispanic or Latino heritage. Many on the progressive Left assume that all such people presently feel under siege with their American-ness called into question (or at least believe that such people should feel this way based on their own reaction to the Trump presidency), while some on the Trumpian Right would perhaps rather these people not be here at all. Yet here they are, getting on with their lives, attending the Fourth of July Parade and watching the municipal firework display. Here we all are, all of us legal immigrants, happy and grateful to be in this wonderful country, and in zero need of liberal saviors from the Democratic Party or anywhere else.

Many of us would rather that Donald Trump were not president, just as many natural-born Americans would doubtless also prefer. But none of the things which attracted us immigrants to this great land died when Donald Trump took the presidential oath of office, and with diligence and appropriately deployed Constitutional checks on executive power, all of those wonderful blessings will remain when President Trump’s successor eventually takes over.

If anywhere ought logically to be riven asunder by the Trump presidency, it would be border towns like McAllen, Texas. Yet it is not so – the town continues to prosper and people remain civil toward one another, as you would expect from well-raised Texans. The lesson I have learned from the past seven weeks living here is that we are nowhere near as divided as politicians and the agenda-driven media, with their cynical motivations, would have us believe. Partisan differences may be everything to politicians, television journalists and cable news talking heads, but they do not form an impermeable wall of cultural separation among the people in this town.

Yes, there is a culture war in progress with significant social stakes for both sides. Yes, Trump’s proposed border wall is incredibly unpopular here, and Texan Senator Ted Cruz was (with some justification) made to feel quite unpopular when he stopped in town for a rare campaign visit today. But if it was his goal, Donald Trump has not yet succeeded in bringing about a dystopian future where brown-skinned, Latino heritage or immigrant people feel generally unwelcome or less American. The divisive efforts of the Alt-Right and the Identity Politics Left, while dominating our cultural discourse, have not succeeded in driving people apart in communities like McAllen, Texas.

And this I find to be incredibly heartening. Today I witnessed a crowd of people which appeared to be majority Hispanic or Latino happily and proudly taking part in the town’s Fourth of July parade, celebrating their country as though it were the most natural and unremarkable thing in the world – which of course it is. I waited in line at the grocery store in front of a family who had immigrated from India and were buying patriotic cakes decorated with red, white and blue frosting. And my American family didn’t kick me out when I cheekily played “God Save the Queen” and King George III’s song “You’ll Be Back” (from the musical “Hamilton”) on my iPhone at our barbecue.

Lord knows that America has its flaws – every country does, most of them far graver than the problems which exist here. But while Donald Trump’s presidency is a justifiable concern for many people, America has not suddenly become newly hostile to immigrants. This country was built by immigrants, and many first and recent-generation immigrants number among its most engaged citizens and loyal defenders.

From Washington state and California through Colorado, Kansas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri to Illinois, Ohio and New York, I have seen the soul of the country I now call home, and here in Texas I have been carefully taking America’s pulse these past weeks. And I simply do not find the unwelcoming dystopian nightmare that many on the Left insist now prevails.

And so today I give heartfelt thanks for the United States of America and celebrate her independence, even if some pessimistic, misguided people who had the great fortune to be born and grow up with the great blessing of American citizenship sadly feel unable to join me.

 

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Donald Trump And The Media – On Immigration, Two Sides Of The Same Extremist Coin

Donald Trump executive order - family child separation - asylum seekers - immigration - media bias

The American people support stronger immigration controls but disapprove of their government’s inhumane practice of separating child migrants from their asylum-seeking parents. For an increasingly partisan media which now all but explicitly advocates for open borders, this compassion tempered with a desire to uphold the rule of law and defend national borders simply does not compute.

One of the traits of some accomplished liars is the fact that they are able to make themselves believe their own deceptions. This ability to convince oneself of one’s own lies is what makes many pathological liars so effective, but even many people who are not pathological liars can come to “misremember” certain events after decades of repeating a particular narrative – see any celebrity or political autobiography for abundant evidence.

We see the same thing happening now with many in the political and media elite as they struggle to understand public attitudes toward immigration in light of the Trump administration’s botched family separation of illegal entrant asylum seekers policy. An increasing number of commentators are struggling to reconcile widespread public outrage at the present situation impacting detained child asylum seekers with the known fact that many people favour stricter immigration controls and lower overall levels of immigration.

Having spent so long deliberately conflating all kinds of immigration – legal and illegal, economic migration and asylum seeking – for political purposes which are as obvious as they are overtly manipulative, many opinion-setters fail to realise that the public still hold a more nuanced view of the issue. It suits the purposes of tacit open borders supporters in the media to refer to everyone as “immigrants” regardless of whether they cross the border legally or not, or whether they move for economic advantage or to flee imminent danger to their lives, because they can then portray anyone who expresses the slightest equivocation about illegal immigration or abuse of the asylum process as being hostile to immigrants in general.

But after years of making this deliberate conflation it now seems as though many politicians and activist journalists have come to believe their own propaganda – that all immigrants are one and the same – to the extent that it causes confusion and cognitive dissonance when voters persist in seeing these categories as distinct classes of migrant requiring a customised response rather than a blanket one, more generous in some cases and stricter in others.

The latest example of this cognitive dissonance comes in an article by academic and author Yascha Mounk for Slate, in which Mounk presents the fact that Americans both oppose Trump’s draconian family separation policy while still supporting stricter immigration control as some kind of stunning discovery. Mounk is a perceptive author willing to acknowledge some of the failings of his own side, as I point out in my review of his recent book “The People vs Democracy”, but his ideological blind spot on the subject of illegal immigration is acute.

Celebrating the Trump administration’s apparent climbdown over detaining asylum seeking children separately from their parents, Mounk marvels:

Though it has so far gone largely unnoticed, the last few days have also demonstrated something else: that the fronts in the fight about immigration in the United States—and across much of the western world—are much less clear-cut than commentators usually assume.

It would be tempting to characterize the high-voltage fights about immigration, integration, and refugees that have emerged over the past years in countries from Italy to Britain and from Germany to the United States as a simple clash between left and right; between the advocates of an open and of a closed society; or, most simply, between the compassionate and the bigoted. Given the evident cruelty of the policies pursued by the Trump administration, as well as the way in which immigration reform has become the object of a determined partisan fight between Democrats and Republicans, there is obviously some truth to that view. But the deeper you dig, the harder it is to avoid the conclusion that the most important split about immigration does not run between different camps—but pits competing instincts against each other within the souls of most citizens.

The only people tempted to characterise the immigration debate as a fight between open and closed, compassionate and bigoted, are the left-leaning political commentariat who marinate in ideological groupthink and who were so detached from the country on which they report that they utterly failed to anticipate the appeal of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. And the only bigotry here is the sanctimonious assumption, nearly uniformly held by the media class, that any qualms about unrestricted immigration or desire for border enforcement amounts to an absence of compassion.

One doesn’t know whether to be insulted at Mounk’s next realisation or simply grateful that a mainstream opinion-setter has finally acknowledged the obvious:

The country is deeply divided about the overall level of immigration. But in virtually all polls, more Americans seek to decrease than to increase immigration. And even when they are asked whether they would like to halve current immigration levels, 48 percent favored such a drastic reduction, with 39 percent opposed.

But if the desire to curb migration and secure the border runs deep in most countries, so too does the popular revulsion at state cruelty against immigrants. In fact, while ordinary citizens have, in many countries, rebelled against traditional political elites in part because they don’t trust them to take robust measures to curb immigration, they are also surprisingly willing to punish governments that do take extreme measures to keep out refugees or illegal immigrants. In the United States, for example, four out of five Americans oppose the revocation of protections for the so-called DACA kids, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country by their parents when they were children. And according to polls taken in recent days, two out of three reject the Trump administration’s recent practice of separating parents from their children.

One might think that this fact – that the great mass of public opinion favours “robust” measures to curb illegal immigration but rejects “extreme” measures – would have guided politicians toward an equitable compromise involving compassion toward those illegal immigrants already in the United States leading productive lives while taking a stricter stance on border security and enforcement measures against future illegal immigrants. But of course no such compromise has even been entertained, not least because a vast swathe of the American Left has quietly moved toward a de facto open borders position whereby any opposition to illegal immigration is painted as tantamount to racism, though at present they lack the courage to openly declare for open borders.

Indeed, the actions of the Left speak louder than their words, inasmuch as they routinely oppose any “future enforcement for present amnesty” deal, denouncing such enforcement proposals as inherently racist and thus revealing that when push comes to shove, they care far more about securing the uninterrupted future flow of illegal immigrants than securing the status and alleviating the plight of current illegal immigrants. This fact is never picked up by mainstream commentators from the left to the respectable centre, because it so closely aligns to prevailing opinion among elites that it is considered unremarkable and unworthy of comment.

Still, Mounk marvels at the fact that Americans can be so heartless as to oppose de facto open borders but still hold a sufficient shred of decency that they oppose detaining children indefinitely in cages:

It is this tension between a desire to curb migration and an aversion to do so by cruel means that helps to explain the radical swings in public mood we have witnessed in country after country. In the United States, it is clear that Trump’s virulent stance against immigration has done more than just about anything else to get him elected: It was his denigration of Mexican-Americans and his promise to build a wall that set him apart from other candidates for the Republican nomination and turned out much of his base on election day. And yet, the events of the past week also make clear that some of the very same people who favor real curbs on migration, and might even cheer the idea of some kind of wall on large parts of the southern border, will not stand for the separation of children from their parents. When Trump overplayed his hand, the backlash was surprisingly broad, strong and swift.

It is genuinely concerning that this self-evident truth should be so remarkable to opinion-setting elites that it merits a breathless explanatory article by Yascha Mounk in Slate magazine. This much should be obvious to anyone with a brain, but the political and media elites are so used to promoting the idea that all types of migration are equally virtuous and that opposition to (or ambivalence about) any one of them is a sign of moral turpitude that it simply does not compute in their minds when the American people are angry at continual flouting of the national border but simultaneously aghast at the indefinite detention of child asylum seekers separated from their parents.

“After all”, the thought process of these commentators must go, “anyone so bigoted as to object to uncontrolled immigration must also want those detained illegally crossing the border to be treated in the harshest, most cruel way possible”. And then when it turns out that American voters do not feel this way and are not the monsters they are portrayed as on MSNBC or the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, it provokes widespread confusion among the people who are supposed to represent our cognitive and social elite.

Mounk then points to the Windrush scandal in Britain, in which the UK government deported or attempted to deport many post-war Commonwealth immigrants who had every right to reside in the UK but lacked the paperwork to prove it, out of a desperate desire to hit an unrealistic and foolishly-offered net immigration target:

If Trump is currently experiencing a bit of whiplash, it is a feeling with which politicians in other developed democracies are intimately familiar. In the United Kingdom, for example, Conservatives have long won elections on their promise to restrict immigration to the “tens of thousands.” Theresa May’s hardline stance as home secretary was one of the main reasons why she was popular enough to ascend to the top job in the wake of the Brexit referendum. But when it became clear that her government had tried to deport members of the so-called Windrush Generation— migrants from Commonwealth countries who had been invited to come to Britain in the wake of World War II to fill labor market shortages but never received formal documentation of their immigration status—there was massive public outrage. To appease widespread anger, May had to reverse her policy and to sack Amber Rudd, her successor as home secretary and a close political ally.

Again, the backlash against the unfair harassment of Windrush generation immigrants is treated as something surprising, as though it is somehow remarkable that the cold-hearted British people who want greater control over immigration might also have compassion for those unfairly targeted or harshly treated by their incompetent government.

Mounk accounts for this cognitive dissonance by asserting, without evidence, that the seeming compromise which voters seek – roughly characterised as compassion for current illegal immigrants but stricter enforcement of the border in future – is somehow unrealistic:

The problem with this set of preferences is not so much that it is immoral as that it is impracticable. Since many people are understandably desperate to flee the violence, persecution, and poverty they experience in countries like Syria, Congo, or Honduras, they are willing to go to extreme ends to make it to a place that promises a better life. But that also means that it takes extreme measures to eliminate the incentive to cross borders, or to identify and deport those people who do.

And that is also why so many people on both sides of this debate are conspiring to sustain subtly different versions of the same noble myth: The moderate left mostly talks about avoiding cruelty while the moderate right mostly talks about keeping people out. But both pretend that it is possible to reduce the number of refugees and undocumented immigrants without stooping to the kind of cruelty and violence that most citizens will find hard to bear.

And there is an element of truth to this – at some point, enforcing border security means getting tough with people who flout immigration law and illegal cross the border in future, and this getting tough will inevitably involve detentions or deportations. Mounk calls this “intolerable”, because he writes from the perspective of elitist groupthink which now holds that any immigration enforcement is evil. The great mass of American voters likely disagree, however, and believe that the rule of law requires that lawbreakers are stopped and punished, while carving out generous exceptions for those who were brought to the United States as children or who have lived as model (undocumented) citizens for many years. There is room for compromise here, but because Mounk adopts the extremist position newly taken by many elites (only in the past few years have Democrats found it impossible to even mention immigration enforcement), he finds it exquisitely uncomfortable.

But in truth, the only thing shocking here is that people are shocked – that people who present themselves as experts in policy, political science or analysis are somehow dumbstuck that American voters can simultaneously disapprove of illegal immigration while also disapproving of inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants. Such ignorance is only possible when the political and journalistic elite, the people who set the narrative and write the histories, are sealed in such an airtight ideological bubble of their own making that they have come to believe their own propaganda about detractors of illegal immigration.

To the man on the street, this is simply common sense: Don’t deport the schoolteacher and mother of three children who has lived and contributed to her community for years, deal fairly and swiftly with new asylum claims while preserving family unity and deport those immigrants who commit crimes or who continue to try to enter illegally once some form of amnesty has been passed. The only extremism on display is that of many political elites who happily embrace the carrot while refusing to wield the stick.

Policy-wise, the overlooked extremism in politics comes from a subset of the Democratic Party who have fallen under the spell of activists for whom no immigration or border enforcement will ever be acceptable. So tight a hold does this dogma now have on much of the media and the political class, and so faithfully do many of its members propagate the same worldview, that any collision with reality – with normal Americans who are both compassionate and supporters of the rule of law – comes as a confounding, inexplicable shock.

Quite how the political and media elites can work themselves out of the extreme position of tacitly supporting open borders in which they now find themselves without losing face or being toppled by angry subordinates, I cannot say. It is far from certain that many of them even realise that they have become the extremists, though the more reflective conclusion of Yascha Mounk’s article suggests a glimmer of recognition that the Left’s current puppies and rainbows approach to immigration is not sustainable.

But when esteemed academics and political analysts find themselves shocked at the inherent reasonableness of the American people on the subject of immigration, viewing their pragmatism as “schizophrenia” rather than sanity, it suggests a persistent detachment and divide which urgently needs to be acknowledged and repaired if this country is to knit itself back together in the wake of our present Trumpian schism.

 

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Donald Trump, Unwitting Champion Of Open Borders

President Trump is the single biggest threat to moderate conservative immigration reforms

As I sojourn with my wife’s family in McAllen, Texas before heading to law school in the autumn, I unwittingly find myself in the epicentre of the biggest political and social crisis to afflict the United States this year, with the federal government effectively enforcing a revised policy of separating illegal immigrant or asylum-seeking parents from their children when apprehended crossing the border, and then losing those children in an inept bureaucratic handoff between government agencies, including cases where the parents are later deported while their children remain in US detention.

I find myself witnessing this situation as a new immigrant to the United States, one who applied for a green card through marriage and entered the country in the proper lawful way after considerable time, expense and stress; I do so as a conservative who favours greater democratic control over the levels of immigration (though my personal preference is not automatically for lower levels of immigration to the United States, just for politicians to better consider popular opinion and uphold the rule of law); and I do so as someone increasingly convinced that President Donald Trump is the single worst thing possible to happen to conservative efforts for reasonable immigration reform and stricter future border enforcement.

At this point we are used to witnessing statements and events which would spell the end for any other presidency or administration, and seeing those outrages and scandals swiftly disappear into the rear view mirror as Donald Trump drives on unscathed. At this point, nobody seriously thinks that this latest drama will be the straw that broke the camel’s back, the issue where Trump finally crosses the event horizon of political survivability. But it may well be the moment when conservatism totally loses control over the immigration narrative, when the media’s cynical conflation of all types of legal and illegal migration reaches its manipulative zenith, and when the Open Borders Left are handed the propaganda coup they need to grow in strength and influence.

This is one of those issues where conservative hair-splitting about unfair media coverage and lost nuance relating to the Trump administration’s behaviour will achieve precisely nothing – and rightly so. The fact that children (albeit not children forcibly separated from their parents) languished in holding pens during the Obama administration does not excuse or justify an extension of this kind of detention under Trump. Wailing that it is the duty of Congress to fix the issue (as many Trump apologists are currently doing) is particularly hypocritical, since Republicans control both the House and Senate and could act immediately on their own, and a supercharged executive office willing to issue far-reaching executive orders on almost any issue could dictate new instructions for the processing through the Department of Homeland Security in even less time.

Ignore the appalling public relations consequences of this policy for a moment – it is wrong on a basic level for asylum-seekers to be denied access to legitimate ports of entry in order to tacitly encourage them to make illegal crossings, thus triggering family separations, as is apparently happening. No matter how dubious some of these asylum claims may be, effectively closing the US southern border to all legal asylum claims before they can even be lodged is a grave abdication of any nation state’s moral responsibility. By all means detain families pending vetting and apply strict scrutiny to their claims. By all means find many of those claims without merit and initiate deportation proceedings where necessary. But the United States has a moral responsibility to at least consider those claims, and a country as rich as America ought to be able to easily build facilities for family detention before applying a draconian new interpretation of existing laws and regulations which would inevitably see greater strain placed on threadbare facilities and processes.

The American television news media was camped out in force in McAllen, Texas last night. Driving around, I saw MSNBC broadcasting live from outside the Ursula CBP processing center, in addition to a number of Spanish-language news services, while CNN were camped out in neighbouring Brownsville. These are media organisations which at the best of times actively sought to blur the line between legal and illegal immigration, going so far as to employ the euphemistic term “undocumented” to minimise the lawbreaking aspect of illegal immigration. These are the organisations which deliberately conflate all types of immigration and suggest with very little subtlety that legitimate concern about uncontrolled illegal immigration is the same as opposition to “immigrants” in general. And the actions of the Trump administration only vindicate the already ideologically-skewed position taken by the mainstream press.

The eyes of the US media, and increasingly the world, are focused on the Rio Grande Valley region of Texas because of an entirely self-inflicted crisis – both a political crisis for the Trump administration and a setback for advocates of stronger immigration control in general, but more importantly an humanitarian crisis affecting innocent children and increasingly the reputation of the United States.

When this immediate crisis is behind us – and Trump will end up caving, no matter how he spins it – those on the Open Borders Left will use this incident to tarnish anyone and everyone who advocates for conservative immigration reform and stronger enforcement. This will now be a millstone around the necks of anybody who dares to claim – against already-strong ideological headwinds – that our society cannot function if any degree of need serves as a valid ticket for illegally crossing national borders.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, as with the 2016 presidential election, the mainstream media are acting as such an echo-chamber on this issue that they have convinced each other (and me) that a majority of Americans are outraged by what they are now witnessing on television when in fact an electorally-viable plurality are perfectly fine with separating asylum-seeking parents and children in order to act as future deterrent. Perhaps. But my guess is that this inept, badly executed and deliberately callous policy execution goes too far, even for many people who support President Trump or are otherwise willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I see no upside here whatsoever. Certainly no moral upside – and it is the children, current and future, who should be our top priority in this mater – but no political upside, either. This is yet another one of those issues where hugging Donald Trump too close will burn conservatives to a degree they do not yet fully appreciate, even now. People are already talking about the administration’s pig-headed implementation of the family separation policy and subsequent tongue-tied response as being the “Hurricane Katrina” of the Trump presidency, the event from which an already-beleaguered administration never truly recovered. And Trump goes into this scandal with far less institutional goodwill than George W. Bush enjoyed in 2005.

So to my mind, we are faced with an appalling choice: either Donald Trump prevails with his policy and the mean-spirited attitude which bred it, in which case America truly has taken a sharp turn toward selfishness and authoritarianism, or he has overreached in a way which will quite possibly fatally tarnish by association the reasonable conservative argument for stricter border security and enforcement.

If, within the next decade or so, we see a de facto open borders position prevail in the United States, with even more overt encouragement of illegal immigration and even fewer efforts to prevent it or enforce the rule of law, then we may well look back upon this moment, this policy, this incompetent administration as the final catalyst.

It would be deeply ironic – but no longer beyond the realm of possibility – if Donald Trump ends up being the president who does more than anyone else to make open borders a reality in our time.

 

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Dan Rather, Solving The Migration Crisis Through Poetry

Dan Rather - MSNBC

The migration crisis cannot be solved by feelings alone

Dan Rather – elder statesman of American television journalism, disgraced during the George W. Bush administration but lately rehabilitated before a new social media audience in the Age of Trump – thinks that the best way to tackle the intractable, thorny issue of mass immigration and the global migration crisis is to read a rather jejune, unsubtle poem about the subject, and let our feelings be our guide.

From the veteran newsman’s permanently outraged Facebook page:

Immigration is always going to be a difficult subject but we cannot allow that to rob our nation of its decency, humanity and empathy.

It is true that we do not have the capacity to welcome everyone who wishes to come here. But at the same time, we cannot forget that our country has been shaped by immigration. And can we not see the echoes of our own history in the faces of the men, women, and especially children, now coming to our borders and shores?

It is a tragic irony that many who now wish to slam the doors shut to the newcomers without a shred of empathy have their own ancestors who must have felt the same swirling emotions as our newest arrivals. Their dreams, the bravery of their journeys, and their fears are undoubtedly similar to the basic human experiences of those who yearned to be Americans in decades and centuries past.

[..] I recently came across the poem “Home” by the young British poet Warsan Shire. It is a powerful and thought provoking work of art. I think it is something everyone should have to read before participating in the immigration debate or formulating policy.

Dan Rather then links to a poem by young British poet Warsan Shire, entitled “Home”. In this poem, apparently, we can find the Arkenstone of wisdom which will allow us to effortlessly solve a global migration crisis brought about by persistent dysfunction and turmoil in some countries, and a growing unwillingness to enforce or acknowledge national borders in the richer, stabler countries to which millions of people now flock.

A choice excerpt:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

And then this articulate reflection on the reaction to illegal immigration (cast deceptively in the poem, as elsewhere, as opposition to immigration and asylum in all their forms) in the recipient countries:

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

This is, in fact, not a very good poem. It is certainly not remotely original, in language, imagery or message. One might more accurately describe it as standard boilerplate leftist open borders talking points, fractured and separated into verses to lend the words a vague air of profundity.

It also happens to be factually incorrect. Many people leave home when they are far from imminent danger, but rather for economic advantage. The poem attempts to describe the plight and emotions of refugees, but does not account for people who pass through multiple other safe countries en route to the United States, or who move illegally simply because financial prospects are better on the other side of a national border. Unfortunately, this is the standard modus operadi of the Open Borders Left, cheerfully conflating economic migrants and refugees, legal and illegal immigrants under the same banner and presumptuously declaring that opposition to or equivocation about one form equals opposition to all.

Only recently I moved from my native Britain to America, not because the United Kingdom is ravaged by armed conflict and strife but because I am attending law school as part of a career change. I immigrated legally, willingly subjecting myself to an intrusive, expensive and stressful process in order to comply fully with the laws of the United States. And I was glad and grateful to do so.

People move countries for a multitude of reasons, but Dan Rather wants to you read this mediocre poem before you engage in the immigration debate because he (and many others like him) do not want you to think about people moving for economic reasons when you ponder immigration controls and enforcement. He wants to trick you into thinking that all illegal migrants are refugees fleeing immediate peril, and then tug on your heartstrings to push you toward the de facto open borders position he clearly holds but lacks the courage to embrace outright.

So we have read the poem – now what? What exactly does Dan Rather think we should do with this “information”? How should we let it inform our policymaking, both our long-term strategy and day-to-day tactical decisions in response to changing situations at the border? Rather neglects to spell it out in his Facebook post, but you can place a pretty safe bet that his unspoken hint could be summed up as “let everybody in, all the time, no questions asked”.

Dan Rather would rather emote and share sentimentalist poetry on Facebook than propose an alternative immigration scheme for the US, or spell out the compassionate but forever-ethereal approach that he would adopt. He says that not everyone can be welcomed but then has nothing but criticism for anyone who attempts to draw or enforce any line against illegal immigration or selective asylum seeking (attempting to reach a preferred country rather than the first safe one) as cruel, unfeeling and inhumane.

We see this time and again from many on the Left who are all too happy to bank the political and social capital which comes with being seen as compassionate and pro-immigration while remaining infuriatingly evasive about where exactly they draw the line on enforcing the rule of law. If Donald Trump’s present policy of separating parents and children apprehended while making illegal crossings rather than presenting at official points of entry is morally reprehensible – and it is – then the self-satisfied preening of many on the Left, effectively endorsing open borders without having the courage to say so, is political deception and moral abdication of a different sort.

Dan Rather believes that everybody should have to read a poem which addresses only one category of overall migration and one type of migrant experience in order to manipulate our mindset before participating in the immigration debate. Yet he and others of his persuasion are the same people who accuse the other side of being reactionaries motivated by base emotion while they are the enlightened, compassionate disciples of reason. How hollow, how fatuous, how utterly hypocritical does this claim sound in light of Dan Rather’s call for everyone to read a poem and legislate based on their immediate feelings?

The global migration crisis is a complex, intractable problem involving millions of people in many countries and regions. You cannot formulate good policy of a systemic nature by responding to emotional manipulation, or by relying exclusively on feelings rather than qualitative and quantitative facts. Individual stories of hardship and injustice are certainly a key component when it comes to informing political decision-making, but what is best for the heart-rending case before us today is not necessarily what is best for people tomorrow, or for society overall.

Many on the Left continually fail to recognise this basic truth, doing (or advocating for) what makes them feel good and compassionate in the short term, even if it leads to greater problems or evils in the longer run. How many hand-wringing speeches and editorials have we witnessed in Europe and Australia decrying the idea of turning back illegal migrant boats, even though their preferred policy of allowing or even encouraging illegal sea crossings leads to more failed attempts and more drownings in the longer term? Yet this seemingly does not matter to the Open Borders Left – by this point they have already burnished their reputations as progressive, compassionate people by advocating for the previous boat, even as the next overcrowded raft capsizes and slips beneath the Mediterranean.

That’s what happens when you act purely on feelings rather than evidence. People who forever accuse Trump and Brexit voters of being motivated by reactionary feeling and superstition over facts and reason should appreciate this, yet on the subject of illegal immigration and the migrant crisis they tend to be the ones most likely to cast any strategic long-term thinking out the window in pursuit of whatever salves their conscience in the given moment.

Poetry at its best is arresting, sublime, transfiguring, a wonderful way of evoking or capturing the essence of its subject in a way that prose alone can not. But no intractable problem in human history that I am aware of has been solved primarily through poetry. It took the Apollo Program and a Saturn V rocket, not the words of Carl Sandburg or Maya Angelou, to put a man on the moon. The great Homerian epics evoked mighty and fantastical deeds from the past; they were not a contemporary call to action.

Dan Rather’s suggestion that we all need to read a rather insipid, pedestrian poem about the plight of refugees in order to be more well-rounded participants in the wider immigration debate suggests a prevailing lack of sympathy which is largely nonexistent among policymakers of all stripes. Most of us feel viscerally for the plight of people driven to leave their homes in search of safety or greater prosperity, and would likely do the same placed in their situation. Unfortunately the rule of law, national security and the viability of the nation state do not lend themselves so easily to florid literary depiction, but this does not make them any less important.

Emotional manipulation, whether it originates on the Right or the Left, is always unhelpful and never conducive to the kind of political compromise which we all know is ultimately required in order to address immigration, namely compassion for those already here illegally in exchange for serious future border control and enforcement.

Dan Rather in his prime would probably have readily acknowledged this fact. Sadly, the dried out husk that is Dan Rather today would rather emote with his social media audience than help lead his country to that necessary compromise.

 

Dan Rather

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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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