Preserving The Legitimacy Of The Supreme Court Must Outweigh Partisan Anger

Protesters on steps of Supreme Court - Brett Kavanaugh confirmation - SCOTUS

Conservatives lived with what they saw as a left-leaning, activist Supreme Court for decades without undertaking serious efforts to undermine the institution. But while the American Left rightly decries the various attacks on governmental institutions in the Age of Trump, their anger at the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh is leading them to do precisely that which they say endangers the Republic

I spend a lot of time criticizing the American news media, and rightly so since there is a lot to criticize in this so-called renaissance of print journalism in the Age of Trump. I often single out the New York Times for particular criticism – their claim to run a scrupulously impartial and ideologically neutral newsroom is risible when their opinion pages are stacked 10-1 with not just left-wing progressives, but the kind who have drunk deep from the well of social justice and are now utterly high on the most poisonous distillation of identity politics dogma.

But I also feel compelled to give credit where credit is due. While the New York Times and other prestige media outlets may devote large portions of their time and resources to misrepresenting conservatives and stealthily promoting leftist agendas, today their Opinion email bulletin featured a progressive Op-Ed writer who actually sought to lay out the conservative perspective in good faith for the benefit and enlightenment of Times readers, rather than misrepresenting the conservative perspective to generate cheap outrage.

Addressing the ongoing rancor generated by the nomination and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, Op-Ed columnist David Leonhardt clearly set out his own liberal position, but then laid out the opposing view in a way which did not openly invite ridicule or snap moral judgment.

Leonhardt begins:

In this polarized era, most of us don’t spend a lot of time genuinely trying to see a political issue the way that the other side does. And it’s often worth doing so. Let me give you an example.

He then goes on to state his own personal view (entirely in line with progressive thinking) that the Court is supposedly dominated by an “extremely conservative and partisan majority” sufficient to justify Democrats looking at potentially extreme ways to curb the institution‘s power.

But then Leonhardt says this:

But here, roughly, is how some conservatives think about the Supreme Court:

In the mid-20th century, a liberal court regularly overruled the popular will or blocked the democratic process. It happened most famously on abortion, but also on school prayer and other subjects. And even though Republicans won the White House in five out of six presidential elections starting in 1968, the court remained left of center, partly because a few supposedly conservative justices didn’t turn out to be conservative.

Yes, the current court is more conservative than the country, these conservatives might say. But we know how you liberals feel right now. Don’t go undermining an entire institution of government just because you have some complaints about it.

The Left does not like to be told of its glaring faults and hypocrisies, particularly by one of their own, so we will no doubt soon see what happens to the career trajectory of David Leonhardt. But laid out here, with no attempt at distortion, is the basic thought process behind most conservatives’ attitude toward the Supreme Court.

To be clear, I personally would not have nominated Brett Kavanaugh to the court over concerns about his views of executive power, and I would not have confirmed him after his performance in the confirmation hearings (yes, it’s natural to be angry at what you see as false accusations, but going on a conspiratorial rant about the Clintons is the antithesis of the impartiality which should be shown by a Justice of the Supreme Court, particularly one whose background was in the Republican presidential administration of George W. Bush). There are other judges with similar judicial philosophies who would have been better for conservatives from both a constitutional perspective and the short-term political perspective of the nomination process (cough, Amy Coney Barrett).

But while I would much rather have seen a different justice confirmed to the ninth seat on the Supreme Court, at this point I am more concerned about the hypocrisy of those on the Left who rend their garments about the damage which President Trump is doing to vital American institutions, while also actively seeking to undermine public faith in the court and even enthusiastically contemplating the idea of stacking the court to restore it’s leftward tilt, should they acquire sufficiently strong control of Congress after the midterms.

The dangers posed by President Trump’s erratic, ego-driven leadership are very real, and the precipitous decline in public faith in key institutions of government is a corrosive acid eating away at the American democracy. But those entirely valid fears are recast as cynical partisan pandering when their chief expounders are also doing their darnedest to destroy trust in institutions after having suffered a setback on the Supreme Court. And as a result of this cynical behavior, people are less likely to take the warnings seriously.

Worse still, the Democrats’ pain threshold is apparently so low that they could not tolerate a potential originalist/textualist (or more cynically, rightward) shift on the court for even a week before they started openly agitating to undermine the institution. Say what you want about the Republicans, and there is much to say – particularly concerning their disgraceful refusal to even consider Merrick Garland, President Obama’s eminently qualified Supreme Court nominee – but conservatives watched as the Burger, Rehnquist and Roberts courts handed down many decisions which they regarded as unconstitutional. Decisions which decisively reshaped the fabric of American life. And while nobody would say that Republicans took defeat gracefully or played the part of happy warriors, at least they did not try to stack the court or mount targeted efforts to delegitimize the institution altogether.

One can disagree with the originalist and textualist judicial philosophy which may now come to more prominence in the Supreme Court’s deliberations, but it is a valid and serious worldview worthy of respect, certainly no less so than the “living constitution” alternative. The answer to political setback is not to take one’s toys and go home in a temper – it is to seek to persuade voters that the progressive alternative is better such that Democratic senators and presidents are elected who can nominate like-minded individuals to the Court. The answer is not to falsely claim that theirs is the only pure and neutral interpretation of the constitution while the conservative perspective is uniquely partisan and dangerous.

Congress already has a rock-bottom approval rating, with hardly anyone respecting the legislative branch of government. The divisiveness of the Donald Trump era has seen one group hold out the present head of the executive branch to be worshipful and almost divinely given while the other group thinks he is Literally Hitler. That leaves only one branch of government held in significant public esteem – the judiciary, led by the Supreme Court.

Is undermining remaining public trust in the third branch of government and sawing the third and final leg off America’s governmental tripod the responsible thing to do right now? Is it even the most politically lucrative thing to do in the short and medium term, given how the Kavanaugh saga has energized the Republican base and put a handful of oncecompetitive seats further out of the reach of Democrats?

My opinions on how best to move forward are currently in flux, but I am attracted by propositions that the Supreme Court should no longer be populated with the same nine lifetime appointees, but rather by federal appeals court judges selected at random for shorter terms, on a staggered basis (see this Vox piece, which is sadly also a prime example of how the Left see theirs as the only legitimate point of view and recent progressive leanings of the Supreme Court not something even worth mentioning). Of course, this change is about as likely as President Trump admitting that he is a Russian stooge, resigning Nixon-style and flying away in a helicopter as a bemused nation watches him go. But it seems like a good potential approach, and one which would do much to depoliticize the highest court (even if the nomination of federal appeals court judges then became somewhat more contentious as a result).

But realistically, we go forward with the institutions we have in the form we have them, staffed by the people whom due process has put in charge. And there is a simple choice to be made by the American Left: do they press ahead and burn away remaining public faith in the Supreme Court, or do they commit – as conservatives did, when they saw that they would keep losing and losing at the hands of the judiciary unless they took a long-term approach to regaining influence – to advance their goals utilizing the legitimate, existing (if flawed) processes and institutions available to them?

Last week I attended oral arguments at the Supreme Court for the first time, hearing the somewhat dry but still fascinating case of New Prime Inc. v. Oliveira being argued before the then-eight sitting Justices of the Court. Sitting in the public seating, soaking in the weight of history within those walls and watching some of the best-credentialed lawyers at the top of their game argue before eight eminent and generally well-intentioned jurists was an unforgettable experience, especially given that I am now studying law in the shadow of that court, right here in Washington, DC.

This case was about employment rights and whether long-distance transportation workers were required to resolve workplace disputes through compulsory arbitration rather than through the courts – an edict which currently varies depending on whether the individual is a waged employee or an independent contractor (an increasingly irrelevant distinction in today’s economy). This kind of case is the Supreme Court’s bread and butter – deciding disputes whose facts would make most people’s eyes glaze over within thirty seconds, but which nonetheless need to be resolved in order to give direction to lower courts and advance the broader course of justice in the United States.

This was not one of the few hot-button social issues which attract hordes of placard-waving protesters to the courtroom steps. The case certainly matters, but primarily to the litigants involved and those who share their interests – transport corporations, unions and the like. Does the Left really want to wage such war on the legitimacy of the United States Supreme Court that even these workaday cases become seen by half the country as fraudulently or illegitimately decided? So that lobbyists, pressure groups and corporate interests feel more emboldened to undermine every negative decision and even mount targeted campaigns against specific Justices as a result of their opinions?

I share some of the American Left’s concerns about America’s direction, particularly the slide toward authoritarianism and protectionism (though I hold the Left equally if not more responsible for these phenomena than the Trumpists, who are largely a symptom, not a cause of America’s malaise). But for the life of me I fail to see how waging an all-out assault on the remaining credibility of the most respected branch of the United States government redounds to the Left’s long-term advantage, results in a more functional country or a more harmonious society. All I see is more bitterness, more mutual distrust and more negative energy fueling the ever-growing vortex of our ongoing culture war.

The Left have every right to be angry with some of the circumstances of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and with cynical Republican political behavior prior to that. But they do not have the right to enjoy decades of often-amenable Supreme Court decisions, and then seek to tear down an institution vital to all Americans the moment they believe it may no longer adequately serve their progressive purposes.

In that regard at least, the price of the Left’s present paroxysms of rage may be more than this beleaguered country can bear.

 

Brett Kavanaugh swearing in ceremony Supreme Court - SCOTUS

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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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Update From The Road

Angkor Wat - Cambodia - Sam Hooper

And now for something completely different

Those who watch my Twitter timeline particularly closely or otherwise follow me outside of this blog may know that I am heading to graduate school in the United States to study law this September.

Just as my initial career in management consultancy was wonderful and taught me much but ultimately was not where I wanted to make my life’s contribution, so producing this blog for the past six years has (hopefully) stretched me as a writer and thinker but ultimately proved frustrating due to the rather incestuous UK political media’s absolute refusal to acknowledge or promote the blogosphere, or nurture the kind of positive symbiotic relationship between old and new media which still characterises American political discussion at its best (even now, this blog is cited far more in US outlets like the National Review than most UK publications).

Fear not, this blog and the political writing will continue. But having read and written so much about policy and political values in recent years, I’ve reached the point where I actually want to see some of my ideas implemented – or at least to advocate for those ideas from a position where there is a fighting chance of making a tangible difference. Deeds, not words.

As I recently wrote in the personal essay component of my various law school applications:

I am proud of my part-time work as political writer and campaigner, particularly my advocacy for Britain’s secession from the European Union during the 2016 referendum, but writing and commentating from the sidelines is often frustrating. I now realise that without a legal education of my own, there will always be a constraint on my ability to fully participate and influence many of the technocratic and constitutional debates about which I care deeply.

Through my writing activities, I see that the future is being shaped by intersecting developments in trade and international law, intellectual property, privacy, civil liberties, national security and constitutional law. I know from my current activism that my future work will require a rigorous knowledge of several of these fields, and that the law, if not quite the battleground on which these issues will be fought, is certainly the language in which they will be contested. I want to have a voice in those conversations, and it is for this reason that I now seek a legal education.

My wife and I have now left London as our permanent home, and having shipped off all of our personal belongings are currently en route to the United States by way of an 11-week trip through southeast Asia. We began in Hong Kong, moved on to Chiang Mai and Bangkok, Thailand, spent an enlightening few days in Siem Reap, Cambodia and are now back in Thailand doing various beachy things before travelling to Singapore, Bali, Australia and New Zealand, arriving in Los Angeles some time in June and then road-tripping back to my wife’s native Texas.

I am currently in the process of hearing back from various law schools and while I am blessed to have already received some very appealing offers of admission we still find ourselves in the strange and rather stressful position of not yet knowing where we will be living and working come September – it could yet be on either coast of this vast country, or somewhere in between. I am also having to frantically switch my brain from work mode to study mode after a decade-long hiatus, and hoping that Study Brain successfully reboots after its extended hibernation.

All this by way of saying sorry for the lack of recent new blog pieces. We front-loaded the trip with most of our time-intensive activities (as of yesterday, for instance, I am now a PADI certified open water scuba diver) so writing time has been largely nonexistent for the past three weeks, but we are now moving into a more relaxed phase of the trip which should afford me some time to blog from various coffee shops and beaches. It’s a tough life.

The benefit of half unplugging from the daily news cycle and not feeling the need to react to every twist and turn of the Brexit negotiation, the establishment backlash against democracy or the metastasization of corrosive identity politics through our culture is the opportunity to gain clarity and perspective which is easy to miss when one is in the fray of daily political debate.

I am currently re-reading Charles Murray’s excellent 2012 book “Coming Apart: The State of White America” in the context of our present reality, which itself is perfectly captured in Amy Chua’s new book “Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations”. Murray’s warning about the growing societal schism (in terms of both geography and values) goes a long way to explaining how the ruling classes – the “new upper class” in Murray’s language, the “coastal elites” in Chua’s, but both equally applicable to Britain as America – have come to hold very different values and priorities to the broad centre of the countries they lead, to the extent that there has been a near-total breakdown of mutual trust and empathy.

It has long been a theme of my writing that the fault for this schism lies first and foremost with the ruling elite – the well-educated, well-connected and well-employed – for having been content to run society exclusively in their own favour for so long, and for the stunning lack of consultation or restraint with which they pushed ahead with their policy goals. One can potentially agree with every single one of the coastal elite or pro-EU centre-left’s values and still deplore the way in which those who make policy and influence the culture have become so ignorant of the lives of their fellow citizens, and the open disdain shown by many elites for those who hold different values and aspirations. For democracy to long survive, those with power, wealth and influence have a particular responsibility to be magnanimous and empathetic to their political opponents, but instead we are currently witnessing an establishment backlash which ranges from the hysterical to the furious, by way of the conspiratorial.

I have more detailed thoughts on all of this which properly belong in a future blog post, which will hopefully also include some ideas for how these bewildered and furious elites might actually begin to regain the pulse of their own countries – if they are willing to do so. For now, however, I wanted to give this quick status update and apologise for the recent lack of blog posts. More updates (and new material) to follow soon.

 

Law school - books and gavel

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Political Tribalism, Brexit And The Liberalist Insurgency

Us vs Them - Political Tribalism

Many so-called liberals are great at diagnosing destructive political tribalism when it manifests in other people, but are often blind to the same pathologies within their own ranks

I wrote a long piece earlier this month about deepening political tribalism as it relates to Brexit. After the piece was serialised in Country Squire Magazine, much of the pushback I received from the usual suspects within the Remain camp (university professors and the like) only served to prove my point – that Brexit merely exposed, rather than caused, the increasing depths of partisan tribalism afflicting Britain.

This tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of the under-educated, supposedly simple-minded working classes whose emotions and voting habits are apparently so easily manipulated by Rupert Murdoch, Cambridge Analytica or the dozens of other shadowy figures who now stand accused of ushering in Brexit for their own nefarious ends. Indeed, through their growing obsession with these new scapegoats, many of those opposed to Brexit reveal themselves to be capable of behaving in an equally aggressively tribal manner without even realising that they are doing so.

It never occurs to many of those people who occupy the groups most statistically prone to supporting Britain’s EU membership – students, university professors, artists and arts workers, young urban professionals – that they might be doing something so base, so primal as to be influenced by tribal behaviour. Why? Because many are used to seeing tribalism as a pathology affecting only the poor, the uneducated or others traditionally seen as either victims (like welfare recipients) or potential threats to be mitigated (juvenile criminals or nascent Islamist extremists). To many journalists, academics and politicians, tribalism is seen as something afflicting only society’s losers and outcasts,  not something which might also pull the strings inside AC Grayling’s neocortex.

The idea that political tribalism might just as easily drive the behaviour of an Oxbridge professor, a PR director on a six-figure salary or a young university student often simply fails to compute, but it is a real and frequent occurrence nonetheless. Being educated and even nominally aware of the existence of tribal impulses does not automatically make one immune from being driven by tribalism oneself, particularly when one possesses the intellectual capacity and vocabulary to rationalise one’s behaviour as more noble and high-minded than it necessarily is.

And so time and again we see those who would normally be first to decry tribal behaviour engaging in its most vicious forms, whether it be the American college students or graduates who refuse to visit their Trump-voting parents or public figures who believe they have license to say the most horrible things about Leave voters and Brexiteers from atop their perch on the “right” side of history. More concerning, since these new converts to overtly tribal behaviour supposedly make up much of the cognitive elite, they seem unable to acknowledge the drawbacks of their behaviour or the many ways in which it actively harms their end goal, be it overturning the result of Britain’s EU referendum or prematurely turfing President Donald Trump out of office.

Smart people should be capable of noticing when an existing strategy is not delivering results and adjusting course to deliver better outcomes, but many within the anti-Brexit academic, cultural, commercial and political elite instead seem intent to double down on losing strategies which may feel cathartic but fail to achieve their political ends. Only political tribalism can drive nominally smart people to behave in so counterproductive a way.

Political tribalism causes anti-Brexit members of the elite to act out in a couple of negative ways – firstly by failing to understand or acknowledge the true motivations and drivers for the Leave vote, and secondly by engaging in public statements and actions which actively alienate many of the people whose good opinion they need to court and convince in order to change their minds. In my recent long article about political tribalism and Brexit I covered a number of the ways in which anti-Brexit elites harm their own cause through misbehaviour and bad messaging, but it is also worth focusing on the way in which political tribalism causes Brexit opponents to consistently ignore the full range of valid reasons which drove thinking adults of good character to vote to leave the European Union.

The first is a binary worldview which sees the EU as representing (if not always achieving) the highest ideals of mankind, and euroscepticism as the antithesis of all that is good in the world. This widely held opinion reveals itself in every tweet decrying Brexit as the result of unchecked xenophobia and racism (or a neo-imperial quest for lost glory) while simultaneously ignoring the EU’s manifest flaws. The best one can often get in debate with a pro-EU activist is an exasperated admission that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!” uttered through clenched teeth, though specific proposals for such reform or estimates of their probable implementation are always curiously lacking. Meanwhile, despite post-referendum polling which showed sovereignty and not immigration as the key driver of the Leave vote, heinous racist or xenophobic statements are taken to represent the broad church of pro-Brexit opinion.

The second reason is the exclusionary nature of many of the strongest bastions of pro-EU sentiment. There are people of good conscience in the academic and arts industries who support Brexit, but they rarely make themselves heard for fear of social or professional reprisal. If the prevailing opinion within one’s social or professional circle holds that Brexit is a national calamity with grievous implications for human rights, few people will have the courage (or luxury of courage) to take an openly contrarian view. Unfortunately this only worsens the situation, with those who do most to oppress pro-Brexit sentiment within their respective circles then failing to see that Brexiteers can sometimes be respected colleagues and friends.

Just as increased meaningful exposure to immigrants tends to reduce xenophobia or opposition to immigration, so structured and controlled exposure to Brexiteers might make many of the loudest anti-Brexit advocates realise that their opponents are not the evil masterminds or stupid pawns they have been portrayed as. But ironically, while many anti-Brexit campaigners are eager champions of multiculturalism, they also either encourage or tacitly tolerate a sometimes aggressively ideologically homogeneous pro-EU school of thought to dominate their field – ideological diversity is the one kind which is not celebrated and put on a pedestal.

But the greatest driver (or manifestation) of political tribalism among anti-Brexit activists now is not the deeply ingrained sense of moral superiority or self-imposed isolation from contrarian viewpoints – rather, it is the degree to which many of the afflicted now seem willing to latch onto anything from issues of concern to downright conspiracy theories, promoting them as valid reasons for nullifying or re-running the EU referendum in order to seek the “correct” response from the electorate.

The latest cause du jour is Cambridge Analytica, which seems to have transformed itself in the minds of Remain supporters from the tawdry and morally questionable data huckster outfit into a shadowy, all-powerful corporate behemoth which single-handedly tipped the balance and inflicted Trump and Brexit on a naive and defenceless world. The re-emergence of Cambridge Analytica in the headlines following news of its connection to a Facebook data “breach” and the Trump presidential campaign has only encouraged those already looking for reasons to invalidate (rather than argue against) Brexit to seize upon the scandal and make a lot of tenuous and irresponsible insinuations.

Pro-EU advocacy website InFacts can now be found – contrary to their name – raising “questions” whose entire purpose is to put the murkiest deeds of Cambridge Analytica as close as possible to Brexit on paper or a smartphone screen in the hope that insinuations about the former question the legitimacy of the latter.

Prior to Cambridge Analytica, the figure of Russia loomed largest in the Remainer imagination as the driver of Brexit. While any foreign interference in British electoral processes represents an abhorrent and unacceptable attack on our national security and civic institutions, one which we should probably be taking far more seriously both in terms of reprisals and future safeguarding, the idea that even a large scale attempt at Facebook manipulation had a material impact on the referendum result is both unproven and far from meeting the common sense test.

Are Remainers seriously proposing that the full weight of UK government advocacy, the massed ranks of the artistic and cultural world, a plurality of big business and heavyweight external interventions from the likes of the IMF and even President Barack Obama, all encouraging a Remain vote, were overshadowed by £1 worth of Facebook ads and the addled efforts of a Twitter troll farm in Russia? Apparently so – and yet many of the high profile personalities and Serious Thinkers who make and amplify these assertions are unable to step back and escape the prison of their political tribalism for long enough to appreciate how unhinged their conspiracies are beginning to sound.

In short, a significant strand of anti-Brexit opinion remains obstinately unwilling to consider any failure on the part of the Remain campaign or the European Union itself, instead attributing their every setback and woe to crude dismissals of the electorate or fantastical conspiracy theories of the type embraced by leading Remainer intellectual Professor AC Grayling.

It takes a lot to make intelligent and accomplished people behave in a way which is both counterproductive to their interests (they will never stop Brexit by repeatedly shrieking that Leave voters are stupid automatons who were hoodwinked either by Vladimir Putin or sinister corporate interests) and damaging to their long-term reputations. In fact, one of the only things which can induce such a mania in so-called “respectable” people is the phenomenon of political tribalism, whereby it becomes more important to be seen as strongly aligned with and supporting ones own people than it is to be either pragmatic or empathetic.

And when it comes to Brexit, so strong is the force of political tribalism among certain demographics that even those whose job it is to understand political and constitutional matters find themselves unable to acknowledge, let alone meaningfully engage with, the real issues which prompted millions of decent people to vote for Brexit, instead blaming “fake news”, the Russians or Cambridge Analytica.

Tom Peck makes a reasonable observation in the Independent:

People have almost entirely forgotten that, say, in 2015, when the BBC hosted its first hustings in the Labour leadership contest in a church in Nuneaton, some hitherto unknown man called Jeremy Corbyn was the only one who had anything of any interest to say. Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall were beyond abysmal, and they remained so throughout the contest.

Is it acceptable to wonder if the fire is only being turned on technology because it hasn’t delivered the results the bulk of the media class wanted? If the Democrats had delivered a candidate better equipped to deal with the shallowness of the media age, and if the Remain campaign had been run as well as the Leave one, this apparently existential crisis would not be occurring.

The comparison with the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest is an instructive one. Then, as now, a cadre of people accustomed to calling the shots and having their worldview acknowledged, respected and advanced at all times – the Labour centrists – suddenly found themselves out of power and influence within the party for the first time since John Smith and Tony Blair ushered in their long period of domination. But rather than engage in any kind of introspection as to why they were so unloved by the Labour base, centrist Labour MPs instead engaged in an unseemly year-long insurrection against new leader Jeremy Corbyn, culminating in the rather disgraceful and ultimately unsuccessful decision to use the shock EU referendum result as a convenient “fog of war” in which to take down their new leader.

Why did the Labour centrists behave in this way? Because they were motivated more by tribal affiliation and beliefs than political principle or even civic decency. They (rightly) sensed that their tribe was under attack from the hard-left Corbynites within the party, and worried that their status would be permanently eroded were Jeremy Corbyn able to cement his grip on power. And thus rather than spending the following years attempting to hold the Conservative government to account, as an Opposition party is supposed to do, we instead saw the biggest names from Labour’s centrist wing engage in a long period of unseemly infighting – because political tribalism trumped their commitment to either party unity or the national interest.

The funny thing about political tribalism is that its most ardent practitioners tend to see themselves as being immune from the phenomenon while ruefully detecting its presence among nearly everyone with whom they disagree. Thus it simply never occurred to many of the Labour MPs who made it their primary mission to destabilise Jeremy Corbyn that they were primarily motivated by tribal interest, just as many of those who howl the loudest about Brexit cannot bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that their behaviour is driven by anything other a rational, fact-based analysis of the common good.

 

The Liberalist Insurgency

The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president have been widely painted by many establishment opinion-setters as an assault on liberal democracy and liberalism itself, as progressive or enlightenment values fell prey to reactionary populism spouted by right-wing demagogues. Indeed, it pleases many of those who oppose both Donald Trump and Brexit (for the record, this blog strongly opposes the former and supports the latter) to paint themselves as brave guardians of liberal democracy and sole keepers of the frame of liberalism in these uniquely benighted times.

And yet when many of the great and the good in the anti-Brexit or anti-Trump camps are not fulminating against their respective bêtes noires, they can often be found undermining and attacking the same liberal values which they claim to champion. How often are those who decry Brexit as the first step toward fascism also found supporting draconian hate speech laws, advocating censorship and No Platforming on university campuses, attempting to excommunicate those who merely profess (without seeking to enforce) traditional social values from polite society and aggressively ushering in radical new gender theory and the divisive intersectional identity politics movement which seeks to stigmatise and oppress any questioning of these goals? None of these behaviours are remotely liberal in the true sense of the word, yet all are being enthusiastically adopted by many of those who also seek to paint themselves as guardians of liberalism in their fight against Brexit.

It is therefore important that we deny the anti-Brexit campaigners automatic and exclusive use of the “liberal” label, particularly when their actions and words – wheher expressed through contempt for a democratic referendum result and those who voted for it or other stances taken against science, liberty and free speech – are the antithesis of true liberal behaviour. When prestige journalists, academics and politicians who are complicit in these illiberal behaviours also inveigh against Brexit in a way which denigrates Leave voters and fails to even acknowledge the existence of their legitimate arguments we should not allow them to pretend that they are safeguarding either liberalism or democracy when they do so.

And that’s where the word “liberalist” could be very useful. Just as Islamism refers to a fundamentalist, politicised and perverted strain of Islam and the word Christianist has been memorably coined (by Andrew Sullivan among others) to refer to those Christians who profess a harshly authoritarian, theocratic political worldview, so the word “liberalist” (as distinct from “liberal”) should perhaps be taken to mean a hypocritical self-serving authoritarianism masquerading as genuine concern for democratic stability and outcomes, a cynical perversion of true liberalism.

Post-Brexit (and to some degree since the election of Donald Trump in the United States, though the analogy is imperfect), liberalists have effectively become the “faith militant” of progressive liberals, a combative sect who use their typically high-status positions in electoral politics, journalism, culture and academia to inveigh against any political initiative which threatens to disrupt a stale status quo under which they have largely prospered while other groups have largely stagnated.

In order to shroud their blatant self-interest in the more noble garments of high-minded civic duty, liberalists portray their objection to current political developments as flowing from an overriding commitment to individual rights, the protection of vulnerable minorities and the preservation of democracy. This is quite impressive, since many of them have built entire careers on the back of attacking individual freedoms (particularly core civil liberties like free speech) and signing away our right to democratic self-determination by blindly and naively entrusting sovereignty to a supranational political union which represents a non-existent demos, which has never sought public input and which even now shows no real willingness to change for the better.

Taking on this faux-superhero role serves a dual purpose for the liberalists – firstly it allows them to avoid any real introspection as to why the values, norms and institutions they champion are increasingly rejected by a plurality of voters, and secondly it helps to soothe the cognitive dissonance which inevitably arises when people whose identities are so closely tied to projecting the appearance of social conscience and civic virtue act so shamelessly in their own short-term self-interest.

But whatever their protestations to the contrary, the liberalists are engaged in a performative act, if not a downright fraud. That is not to say that there are no legitimate reasons to oppose or even deplore Brexit – of course such a case can be made. But the liberalists will not engage in reasoned debate because they refuse point-blank to even acknowledge the Brexiteer frame of reference, insisting instead that everything is debated through the lens of short-term economic impact. And on top of this obstinacy they treat us to an increasingly tedious and condescending tale about civilisation teetering on the brink and the only safe option being a return to the EU’s cold embrace, with not so much as a nod to Brexiteer concerns.

Political tribalism is not the exclusive preserve of any one demographic group or end of the political spectrum, but the media focus is nearly always on those deemed to have fallen under the corrupting influence of “populist” rabble-rousers – understandably so, because such people are so poorly represented in the politico-media and cultural elite that they can raise no significant objection when one weepy Guardian article after another frets about rising nativist tendencies among the provincial rabble while ignoring rising insularity and decreasing social solidarity within the London-centric elite.

Therefore, it is time that we turn the focus back on the people who ostentatiously fret about the tribalism and populism they so readily detect in others. It is high time that we stop naively accepting the liberalist narrative that their objections to Brexit are exclusively rooted in high-minded concern for the national interest – at least so far as the word “national” incorporates any regard at all for the importance of democratic self-determination. They are not.

Brexiteers may be equally susceptible to political tribalism, but how much more dangerous is it when members of the political, cultural and media elite, with all their power and influence, throw themselves into the opposing side of the anti-Brexit culture war with such verve and venom?

We are about to find out.

 

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Journalists Buying Fake Twitter Followers, Another Symptom Of Institutional Decay

Journalists buying fake Twitter followers - fraud

Some journalists and political pundits choose to buy artificial Twitter followers because being good at their job matters (and is incentivised) less than appearing like the Next Hot Thing.

I’ll admit it – in earlier years, in my weaker moments as a struggling political writer, I have idly thought about purchasing Twitter followers. But I have not and never will do so, and deplore those in journalism and politics who choose to sell out in this way.

The New York Times recently reported that a company called Devumi was offering dummy Twitter followers (either fabricated individuals or the fruits of identity theft) to those seeking to boost their social media stature for mere cents per follower. A whole swathe of celebrities were implicated (most of whom promptly rolled over and blamed their managers or PR people) but so too were a number of journalists at supposedly respectable outlets of the legacy media.

From the New York Times:

Genuine fame often translates into genuine social media influence, as fans follow and like their favorite movie stars, celebrity chefs and models. But shortcuts are also available: On sites like Social Envy and DIYLikes.com, it takes little more than a credit-card number to buy a huge following on almost any social media platform. Most of these sites offer what they describe as “active” or “organic” followers, never quite stating whether real people are behind them. Once purchased, the followers can be a powerful tool.

“You see a higher follower count, or a higher retweet count, and you assume this person is important, or this tweet was well received,” said Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, a company that makes search engine optimization software. “As a result, you might be more likely to amplify it, to share it or to follow that person.”

Twitter and Facebook can be similarly influenced. “Social platforms are trying to recommend stuff — and they say, ‘Is the stuff we are recommending popular?’” said Julian Tempelsman, the co-founder of Smyte, a security firm that helps companies combat online abuse, bots and fraud. “Follower counts are one of the factors social media platforms use.”

In some ways, this temptation is just one of many ways that using social media can warp our behaviours and motivations, as Jacob Brogan writes for Slate:

Twitter is a machine designed to generate ugly feelings. Here everything is subject to quantification: the number of people who like the things you tweet, the number who share your words with their own followers, and, perhaps most of all, the number who follow you. If you spend too much time on the platform, those numbers quickly become an index of your own self-worth, and no matter how high they get, they will always be too small.

Purchasing fake followers is thus rather grubby and slightly pathetic, but perhaps still fair game if you are a TV star looking to make a bit more money sending promotional tweets for haemorrhoid cream. But what if the person deceiving the public is somebody whose job it is to inform, educate and tell the truth? Surely then it becomes quite unambiguously wrong?

Well, lots of political journalists clearly don’t think so, according to NBC News:

Big media outlets have embraced Twitter as a distribution platform but still struggle with how reporters and editors use the social media service, particularly when they appear to be breaching journalism ethics.

This sizable gray area came into clearer focus this week, after a New York Times exposé revealed that more than a dozen news media figures had paid to artificially pump up the number of followers they have on Twitter.

Journalists and commentators, who presumably joined the platform to enhance their stature, instead found themselves grasping to explain why they had paid for counterfeit supporters. When contacted by NBC News, the journalists identified by The Times as having bought Twitter followers had a range of responses: Many ducked requests for comment, others blamed associates, while just one sounded chastened.

This practice doesn’t bother me so much when it takes place in other fields; if you’re a mediocre provincial stand-up comedian who wants to pretend you have an audience of half a million eager people hanging on your every word, so be it. Good luck to you. Same if you’re a B-list actress, a celebrity chef, an unremarkable footballer or a giver of lousy TED-style talks about personal development. I expect no realism from such people, and personalities from these fields who choose to over-inflate their popularity do no real harm.

Not so with journalists and political commentators, both those who parade around beneath the banner of the blue-tick Twitter verified logo and those scrambling for the Ultimate Recognition. Political Twitter is a nasty swamp of obnoxiousness at the best of times, but those of us who choose to lurk within it do so in the vague hope of coming across useful information or commentary once in awhile. And since nobody has time to vet every account that crosses one’s timeline to determine whether they deserve a follow or a clickthrough, a quick glance to see whether they have a decent (or at least a baseline) level of followers is a useful first line of due diligence.

Is this person for real? Well, their profile picture is the default egg icon and they have eleven followers. Hmm, probably not going to click that link or believe their sensational “report” about Theresa and Philip May using a ouija board in the Downing Street basement to seek inspiration and advice from Britain’s failed prime ministers of the past (plausible though that one actually sounds).

Buying Twitter followers makes a mockery of what the rest of us are trying to do, and undermines one of the few metrics left for gauging success (financial reward having long since ceased to be either a possibility or a useful indicator). I have a mere 2,500 followers on Twitter. However, unlike the cheaters, I earned my entire following by providing consistently useful or entertaining (intentionally or otherwise) content to my audience. Whether it is links to my blog, links to bloggers in my circle, flagging news articles of interest, engaging in feuds with trolls or writing in-depth threads on a particular topic, around two thousand people care enough about what I have to say to stay tuned on an ongoing basis (I imagine that many of the remaining 500 are either businesses or largely dormant accounts).

A study from 2016 suggested that of those people who had tweeted once within a six month period, their average number of followers was 707. This figure seems a little high to me, as I routinely interact with people whose following/follower figures are only in the double figures – but this may be a function of swimming almost exclusively in the political niche rather than venturing out into the deeper oceans of celebrity Twitter. Anyhow, the study would suggest that anything over 707 is then a pretty good sign, and in lieu of an affirmative action-gifted writing gig for The Spectator I am proud of my 2,500 followers as a sign that my hours in front of the keyboard are not entirely wasted.

Ultimately, all this predictable scandal tells us is what a fraud so much of journalism and political commentary has become. Portentously spewing words into the void of Twitter knowing that most of your audience is actually imaginary can’t bring positive feelings of journalistic pride, since one would be aware of the fraud. All that those followers can do is burnish one’s reputation and make one seem like an important person to get drinks with or be seen talking to at one of the many insufferable events that take place every day in Westminster or Washington, D.C.

And the problem is that for those journalists who buy Twitter followers, that’s just fine. They don’t want to organically build an engaged audience of followers who find what they say to be genuinely insightful. They may not object were it to happen, but actual professional accomplishment is clearly no longer the prize to these people. What they want is the aura of success, to be seen as uniquely knowledgeable, titillating or controversial without putting in the labour to do it themselves.

We see the same thing with many of our politicians. Twenty months on from the EU referendum and the number of MPs who have even a basic grasp of the technical issues relating to trade arising from Brexit can probably be counted on two hands. An even smaller number have paid much thought to the constitutional ramifications and the opportunities and threats to our future governance, if any at all. The most significant political development to happen in Britain in decades, and only a handful of our parliamentarians have bothered to stop spouting slogans from the referendum campaign to actually master the issues at hand.

Why is this? Because sitting down with books and consulting advisers in a spirit of humility and willingness to learn is boring and unsexy. The personal payoff just isn’t there, particularly when one can do so much more for one’s career by bleating an angsty speech about the Evil Tor-ees in the Commons chamber or going viral on social media with a well-timed quip on Question Time. And the only reason that our star journalists – the ones who pull in the big bucks and now get terribly worked up at the thought that their celebrity pay packets might not be “equal” – have not rumbled the politicians and revealed the extent of their ignorance is because much of the legacy media is in an equally benighted state.

The whole reason our politics are currently so dysfunctional is that being good at your actual job is no longer adequately incentivised. Looking good and frantically maintaining all the appropriate outward signs of success and positive momentum are what matters most, not solid work diligently performed in the spirit of self-improvement. That’s why people cut corners and do things like participate in Twitter follower-purchasing frauds – because they believe, often correctly, that the rewards which flow from mastering an issue or having an original idea are far less than those which flow from being on some insufferable “Westminster’s 100 people to watch in 2018” list.

You can write for months or years before establishment journalists (as I did) that the Tories were going on an ideology-free jaunt into political oblivion, or that Jeremy Corbyn ought to be taken seriously because the public responds to conviction and consistency, but it doesn’t matter. You won’t get the slightest credit, because nothing has officially been thought or written until it has come from certain approved sources within the Westminster Bubble. And even within the bubble exists a hierarchy, with all of the attendant temptations to level-up by artificially boosting one’s standing.

And that’s why I never have and never will buy Twitter followers. It represents everything that is rotten, sleazy and stupid about modern politics, and the alarming frequency with which people who shouldn’t be within ten promotions from the top of their respective fields end up prancing around at the pinnacle, lording it over the rest of us (be that the prime minister, whole swathes of Parliament, the editors of several newspapers, numerous television news personalities and various assorted celebrity columnists).

We will never live in a perfect meritocracy, and it is stupid to set unrealistic goals which ignore human nature. But one thing you ought to be able to trust in this day and age is that the Very Serious Journalist with the blue “verified” tick next to their Twitter account name is not perpetrating a fundamental fraud every time they broadcast their news, analysis and opinions.

I earned my Twitter audience, and my follower count rises and falls according to the value I deliver. Anything short of this basic standard of behaviour is akin to selling a used car having first tampered with the odometer. And while social media juicing may not be illegal, we should look upon those who engage in it with the same scorn and distrust one might reserve for a convicted fraudster.

 

Twitter for journalists

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