Unsurprisingly, The “Disparate Impact” Test Reveals That Brexit (And Everything Else) Is Sexist

Brexit - gender equality - womens rights - identity politics - EU - European Union

Leftists to women: “Don’t you worry your pretty little minds with complicated talk about geopolitics, democracy or the long-term national interest – just think about Brexit in terms of whether you stand to gain or lose government benefits and entitlements”

It must have seemed like a godsend to whichever scheming left-winger first thought it up – the notion that any proposed government policy should be analysed primarily according to its impact on different identity groups, with any disproportionate impact expected to be felt by minority or designated victim groups providing concrete “proof” that said policy is inherently racist, sexist or otherwise deliberately prejudiced and therefore political Kryptonite.

Here, suddenly, was a super-weapon which could be deployed effectively against almost any policy originating from the right-of-center, and an argument structure which could be adapted and endlessly recycled by lacklustre, uninspired left-wing politicians and activists who would otherwise struggle to string a coherent sentence together on television.

Why does it work so well? Because since right-of-center policies often involve reducing or re-targeting government programs (or encouraging their future provision through the private or nonprofit sectors rather than directly through the state) and since the Left ostentatiously claims to work and speak for the recipients of many of these services, leftist politicians have been able to insinuate that innumerable conservative policies were not conceived in the national interest but rather out of a burning desire to hurt certain vulnerable communities.

Since women and certain ethnic minority groups are disproportionate consumers of certain government services and benefits, virtually any policy which rolls back government spending in these areas can be condemned not only as misguided or callous but as inherently racist, sexist and discriminatory. And the policy’s proponents, in turn, go from being wrong on a matter of policy to inherently evil. Couple this with a left-wing media which is only too happy to take up the clarion call of discrimination without putting too much actual thought or analysis into the matter and you have effectively built an automatic, reflexive Conservative Policy Smearing Machine.

One need only put the conservative policy du jour in the machine’s slot, crank the handle (sometimes multiple rotations are needed depending on the number of degrees of separation between the policy and being able to suggest a favoured minority getting less stuff from the government) and out flies a prefabricated furious press release, a viral social media campaign and an eager up-and-coming left-wing politician to make their name fighting for justice and equality.

And so it was inevitable that leftists, once their initial shock at the EU referendum result had subsided, would seek to crank up their trusty Conservative Policy Smearing Machine and aim it square at the heart of Brexit. This blog has previously highlighted one such effort being promoted by EU idolatry magazine The New European, in which the author declared:

Let’s get one thing straight. This self indulgent pratting about over Brexit will be stopped. But not by MPs kowtowing to party whips in rapture to the latest autocratic executive power grab. And not because media silence blanks out the protests of citizens, but by women kicking off.

Let’s face it. Brexit is essentially sexist. Those spitting out their dummies need a good slap as my gran would have said, and she would have been only pleased administer. She’d have probably denied them sweets, treats and pocket money until they came to their senses too. Her view would be behave like brats, and get treated accordingly.

The chain of “logic” here is that because Brexit (or specifically a mishandled Brexit resulting in economic damage, not the concept of Brexit itself, though it is not in the author’s interest to acknowledge this nuance) may have negative economic consequences, this will result in a recession, which will result in lower government tax revenues, which would mean that the government would have no choice but to cut spending (though the Left also love to argue for stimulus spending, not cuts, during economic downturns) which would then disproportionately impact women, since women are more likely to claim tax credits or various other taxpayer-funded benefits.

You could be forgiven for thinking that this chain of illogic is rather too long and twisted for the conclusion to justify the premise, being more akin to the Underpants Gnomes from the satirical TV cartoon South Park (in which little creatures busily steal underpants from the town’s inhabitants, feverishly working to the formula Underpants + ? = Profit, with the question mark never being identified). And you would be right. But for Continuity Remainers and leftist defenders of the European Union, any embarrassment at drawing such a tenuous connection is outweighed by the opportunity to smear Brexit as being not only misguided but motivated by a callous desire to hurt women. No matter how implausible, if a line can be drawn linking Brexit to misogyny or racism then that line will be drawn, personal dignity and intellectual integrity be damned.

And now, charging into the debate, we have the London School of Economics’ execrable Brexit blog, an embarrassment to academia which exists primarily as a platform to cast as many aspersions against Brexit as possible without ever once seriously engaging with democratic or constitutional criticisms of the EU.

In a new essay by Julie MacLeavy of the University of Bristol for the LSE Brexit Blog, it is suggested that the goal of gender equality is “adrift in the Brexit backwash”. Good luck trying to decode the following identity politics word soup:

With European legislation and regulation on gender equality framed as inhibiting economic growth, the post-Brexit environment is likely to see the simultaneous intensification and erosion of gender. Should the UK government deregulation fail to enact sufficient legal protection to compensate for the removal of EU laws, directives and charters, the prior neoliberal tendencies of individualisation and the transfer of reproductive responsibilities towards the feminised spaces of communities and families – renewed in part through the implementation of austerity measures in recent years – will no longer be restricted by the promotion and implementation of gender equality policies.

At the same time, deregulation and the reprivatisation of social reproduction are likely to affect not just women, but a number of feminised individuals upon whom the burden of additional care work falls. The dimensions of class, race and ethnicity mean that any change in the gender regime will affect constituted groups differently. In this sense, Brexit indicates the significant intensification of the practices that reflect and reproduce gendered labour and economic inequality.

Making the case for Europe’s democratic values and its commitment to social justice will depend on both the popularisation of a feminist campaign in which gender equality as a main goal is rendered legitimate, as well as the incorporation of a feminist ethic within the auspices of the state. This latter task is becoming increasingly difficult given the support expressed for the repatriation of European powers by previously pro-European factions.

Left Foot Forward has also been promoting the same infantilising line of argument.

MacLeavy’s line of argument is distasteful more for its haughty contempt for democracy rather than its condescending view of women and minorities. The entire operating assumption of the article and the academic “thinking” behind it is that because Britain is a terribly backward and barbaric place, crucial and fundamental human rights have to be imposed on us by a higher, outside authority (in this case, the EU).

Since nasty, backward British voters cannot be trusted to believe in or vote for the right things, we need human rights imposed on us at a European level, so that present and future UK governments could not dial back certain rights or entitlements even if they wanted to. This is predicated on the belief that democracy, popular will, should not trump everything, which is actually a perfectly reasonable position – any good constitution should have checks and balances built in to it in order to prevent the passion of the moment finding its way onto the statute books without due discussion, diligence and consideration of the rights of dissenting minorities.

But the academic Left’s naive approach assumes that the EU will always be a force for the kind of socially progressive agenda that its academics seek to champion. By defending a structure which permanently paints the UK as the authoritarian bad guy and the EU as the right-dispensing good guys, it provides no defence in the event that the EU flips and takes a less expansive view of human rights than is currently the case. And this is more than a theoretical, irrelevant supposition – with the rise of populists and authoritarians throughout Europe, a time may eventually come when some decidedly illiberal policies flow down from Brussels. And what defence would Britain then have, given that the Left trust European voters and politicians over British people to be the final arbiter of rights and freedoms in the UK?

Thus, at best this “resist Brexit to preserve women’s rights” movement is guilty of exceptionally short-term, two-dimensional, narrow thinking in which the policy thought most likely to guarantee certain rights and entitlements today is mistakenly held as the optimal policy for the longer-term, and at worst it is as contemptuous of women as it is of democracy itself.

In truth, women should be insulted by this definition of sexism based on disparate impact, by the suggestion that women are helpless supplicants without agency or power, whose lives and livelihoods are dependent on government largesse. Self-respecting women should reject the condescending notion that their worth or societal footprint is somehow bound up in how many taxpayer resources they consume, and that they are effectively “gender traitors” if they allow their constitutional and democratic arguments for Brexit to overrule the grasping desire to secure government entitlements in perpetuity.

Is anyone else getting tired of the intellectually dishonest, emotionally manipulative “disparate impact” political test to determine the presence of sexism or racism? No policy or political decision will ever affect all identity groups equally, but this fact does not make them all inherently discriminatory. That much can only be determined by considering the intent of the policy – is there or is there not reasonable cause to believe that a particular policy was proposed or implemented with intent to disproportionately impact a specific demographic group for no reason other than an innate physical trait shared by that group?

Under this far more reasonable test for discrimination, the idea that Brexit is somehow sexist rightly appears absurd – one may just as well declare that going to war is sexist and deliberately antagonistic toward women because it would redirect taxpayer resources from welfare to the military, even though men would be doing the lion’s share of the fighting and dying. Brexit, like going to war, is based on a foundation of interweaving ideas and aspirations far wider and more complex than a desire to roll back societal progress toward gender equality. It encompasses arguments about governance, democracy, trade and regulation, almost none of which are even tangentially linked to the relative status of men and women. Even so far as Brexit can be conceived as a desire to roll back employment and other regulations, the idea that the goal of such rollbacks is to harm women because they are women is utterly ridiculous.

If politicians, activists or academics came to me and told me that as a mixed-race man raised in a single-parent family I would be disproportionately impacted by Brexit and should therefore abandon my existing views on the European Union in order to vote in accordance with someone else’s interpretation of my best interests, I would tell that person to take a hike, and none too politely.

As a country, isn’t it time we shut down this growing cottage industry of left-wing wannabe heroes whose loudly stated conception of what is best for minorities always conveniently gels with their pre-existing leftist, Utopian worldview? Isn’t it long past time that the entire country told these unwanted saviors to mind their own business?

 

Remainer paints EU flag on her face - European Union - Brexit

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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.

 

US Flag - Fourth Of July Cake - Independence Day - Baking - Let Freedom Ring

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Is Brexit Sexist?

Remainer paints EU flag on her face - European Union - Brexit

When anti-Brexit hysteria and identity politics collide…

As the question of Britain’s future relationship with the European Union is folded ever more deeply into our ongoing culture war, it continues to be the establishment centre-left – that bipartisan group who broadly support the status quo of the past two decades and viscerally hate the very idea of Brexit – who continue to acquit themselves the worse in public debate.

The country already has very low expectations when it comes to mainstream Brexiteers, both within government and without. Whether it is the increasingly Alex Jones-style populism of Nigel Farage, the polished and carefree ignorance of Jacob Rees-Mogg, the unhinged provocation (and potentially illegal activity) of Leave.EU or the most proudly obnoxious Brexit supporters on social media, few people think of the Brexit movement as one characterised by profound intelligence or abiding statesmanship. That may be unfair on the more earnest, thoughtful Brexiteers – such as those of the Leave Alliance, with whom I stand – but it is undeniably the case, and few of us now waste time trying to challenge the abiding impression given off by our movement, particularly in the face of a fundamentally uncurious media who have no interest in looking beyond their preset narrative.

This is not the case when it comes to the Remain camp, however. From the beginning, EU apologists and campaigners against Brexit have sought to trade on their reputation as cool-headed, fact-based, reason-driven pragmatists who alone are untouched by base motivations such as nationalism or political tribalism. While Brexiteers may be gammon-faced nostalgics or barely concealed racists, goes this narrative, Remainers think with their heads, not their hearts. They take a broader, more strategic view of affairs. They certainly do not need to resort to rhetorical trickery or emotional manipulation in order to win support for their cause.

After a two-year public meltdown on the part of Britain’s political, academic and cultural elite, I think we can finally disabuse ourselves of these unhelpful stereotypes – because it turns out that in their sorrow and rage, Remainers have quickly caught up with the worst traits of the worst Brexiteers, often exceeding them in both passion and delusion. Whether it is intellectual pin-ups such as the eminent Professor A C Grayling peddling risible conspiracy theories or establishment fossils such as Andrew Adonis attempting to save the country from Brexit with their trusty swords of sanctimony and shields of superiority, not only has the Remain camp failed to learn a single lesson from their 2016 referendum defeat; worse, they have decided to double down on all of the political tactics, talking points and personality traits which led them to defeat in the first place.

Since June 2016, Remainers have replaced arrogance with an even more supercharged arrogance that they and only they could have correctly weighed up all the important variables worth considering and found in favour of the EU. They have replaced intellectual and cultural contempt for their opponents with an even deeper, uglier form of largely class-based hatred which they espouse with ever-decreasing shame, particularly the racist and classist term “gammon” which they use to describe white working class Brexit supporters. They have replaced a naive total faith in supranationalism with an even more derisively hostile attitude toward the nation state and any continuing relevance it may have for the good governance of human society.

But worse than all of that, Remainers have become the very caricature which they attempted to make of Brexiteers. It was long claimed that Brexiteers won the referendum by painting a dishonestly simplistic view of the world and proposing glib, simplistically local solutions to global challenges. Now it is Remainers who promote a falsely simplistic worldview where supranationalism solves everything and nations with very different cultures, priorities and national interests hold hands beneath a rainbow and joyfully hand their worries over to a benevolent continental technocracy. No longer do Remainers grudgingly admit that the EU needs reform; now it is a perfect and noble institution with greater claims to democratic legitimacy than the British government itself. Now it is Remainers who peddle simplistic and misleading slogans such as the idea that Brexit means “going it alone” and “trying to resurrect Empire 2.0”, that supporting Brexit means rejecting the very concepts of friendship and cooperation among individuals, groups and nations.

This much became inevitable when Brexit was folded into the larger culture war. At that point, reinforcing the dogmas and credos of one’s own tribe (whichever it may be) became more important than meaningful discussion or attempting to empathise with the other side. Acceptance by and membership of one’s own tribe became contingent on adopting a pure and uncompromising position rather than engaging in introspection or admitting doubt, with dissenters either shamed into silence, bullied into conformity or else simply left out of a prestige media narrative which sought to pitch the good and the right (Remainers) versus the stupid and malevolent (eurosceptics).

This is a problem afflicting both sides. For example, in the past this blog has often found common cause with Brendan O’Neill and other writers at Spiked magazine on matters of liberty and democracy, but that publication’s uncompromising take on Brexiteffectively asserting that anything less than a total severing of every link with the EU and single market, be they related to political union or not, represents some kind of betrayal of the people – is an extreme stance which I cannot and do not share. Unfortunately, the culture war lens applied to Brexit by the likes of Spiked has become the prevailing view among Brexiteers, to the extent that pragmatists favouring a compromise form of Brexit are now regarded with suspicion at best, and as traitors to the cause at worst.

But this pathology affects the Continuity Remain side of the debate just as badly, and often worse, since they are able to use their public platforms and reputations to give their tribal anti-Brexit behaviour an undeserved veneer of serious thought and respectability. There was a time when prominent Remainers could be found admitting through clenched teeth that “of COURSE the EU needs reform”, before quickly changing the subject with an impatient wave of the hand. Now, this is increasingly rare. Mention any of the EU’s once commonly accepted and lamented democratic flaws, for example, and Remainers are far more likely to shoot back with an irrelevant wisecrack stating that the existence of the House of Lords or our First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system invalidates any criticism of Brussels (thus totally skirting the EU’s glaring lack of a demos coherent enough to justify the institutions established in their name).

In other words, just when Remainers need to show contrition and understanding if they are to have any hope whatsoever of persuading Leave voters to change their minds, many are instead doubling down and insisting on the EU’s relative perfection. Their rage and political tribalism blind them to the politically astute path of action.

The latest sign that Brexit has fused with our ongoing culture war is the risible claim that Brexit is inherently sexist. We have long been lectured that Brexit is inherently racist, because wanting to control immigration from other majority-white European countries is somehow a sign of white nationalism, but now many Remainers are advancing the idea that Brexit is sexist too.

While the tempo of these claims has increased, the seed was planted before the referendum even took place, with articles such as this in the Guardian, declaring:

If you were feeling waspish, you might conclude that women’s major contribution to the EU debate so far has been to say that more women should contribute to the EU debate. On 27 January, Caroline Lucas of the Greens called out the abundance of “men in grey suits”. On 1 February, Barbara Judge, chair of the Institute of Directors, asked if “women had been sidelined or have chosen to absent themselves from the debate”. On 1 March, Labour’s Mary Creagh warned we should not leave the decision to the “old boys’ club”.

But ever since the Remain campaign lost the EU referendum, despite enjoying every conceivable advantage, the exculpatory narrative has moved on from women’s voices supposedly not being heard enough in the public debate to Brexit causing real, tangible, gender-targeted harm to women.

Professor Juliet Lodge, writing in that bastion of pro-EU groupthink The New European, recently wrote a masterpiece in which she crowed that it is good that the EU makes Brexit nearly impossible for a departing member state, declares Brexit to be immoral, sexist and doomed to defeat by an army of angry women who will supposedly rise up and stop the “nonsense” of a democratically determined secession from the EU.

Money quote:

Let’s get one thing straight. This self indulgent pratting about over Brexit will be stopped. But not by MPs kowtowing to party whips in rapture to the latest autocratic executive power grab. And not because media silence blanks out the protests of citizens, but by women kicking off.

Let’s face it. Brexit is essentially sexist. Those spitting out their dummies need a good slap as my gran would have said, and she would have been only pleased administer. She’d have probably denied them sweets, treats and pocket money until they came to their senses too. Her view would be behave like brats, and get treated accordingly.

The Fawcett Society, in thrall to intersectionality, published a report warning of the specific impact of Brexit upon women back in March this year, based upon the Harriet Harman technique of making dubious predictions about absolutely every possible variable and claiming that any sphere where a particular impact might be felt more by women than men is de facto evidence of sexism.

The report was full of the kind of tenuous nonsense and logical overreaches which now sadly characterise the identity politics Left, and thus we learn that clothing and textile industries being vulnerable to potential trade barriers will disproportionately affect women, though the fact that hits to engineering or aerospace industries might disproportionately impact men is of seemingly no relevance at all.

We also learn that a potential fall in GDP may lead to government cuts, which would impact more greatly on women as they are more likely to work in the public sector and consume public services. Never mind that the inevitability or even desirability of this state of affairs being taken as given by the Fawcett Society and others is itself a sign of a condescening, paternalist attitude towards women, assuming that women are perpetually vulnerable wards of the state – no, we are supposed to take this seriously too.

And from there the report delves into all kinds of Remainer fantasyland predictions about what Brexit “could” do – the Fawcett Society’s most gnawing fear that an economic crisis would lead to draconian rollbacks of employment rights – though at best this fear is tied to one potential governmental response to Brexit rather than being inherent in Brexit itself. Nonetheless, we are firmly told that with Brexit “we risk turning the clock back on gender equality”, because women are incapable of articulating or defending their own interests and require the EU and its hagiographers to do so on their behalf.

CapX effectively rebutted many of the report’s claims in a piece by Madeline Grant:

But relying on potentially faulty forecasts is the least of the report’s crimes. The authors call on the Government to “amend the EU Withdrawal Bill to protect [gender] rights from being weakened”. This is where the report becomes disingenuous. The EU Withdrawal Bill already enshrines all EU rights into UK law. Any alterations made by a future government would have to be approved by Parliament, and so the amendments they propose would be both unnecessary and meaningless.

More broadly, their insistence that, free from the EU, the UK government would choose to scale back gender equality legislation is tenuous. So far, all indicators suggest that the government is moving in the opposite direction, and strengthening these rights. This year, the UK became one of the first countries in the world to require private- and public-sector employers with 250 or more employees to publish their company-wide gender pay gaps.

[..] Historically, the UK, far more than the EU, has led the way when it comes to women’s rights and workplace and family protections. The first Equal Pay Act (championed by the sewing machinists in Dagenham) in 1970, predates our accession to the European Union by several years, as do the Abortion Act (1967), the Divorce Reform Act (1969) and the decision to make the contraceptive pill free on the NHS. FGM has been illegal in Britain since 1985, but the EU only passed legislation addressing it in 2012.

The infamous “tampon tax”, which levies a 5 per cent VAT on sanitary products and contraception, is an EU directive which we have been obliged to impose despite the opposition of government and a majority of MPs. Moreover, the UK’s 52 weeks of statutory maternity leave is considerably more generous than the 14 weeks guaranteed by EU law.

In short; suggesting that EU intervention is required to safeguard these rights is to ignore reality, and shows very little faith in British lawmakers.

Others, including Nina Parker of the #WomenAgainstBrexit movement and the Our Future Our Choice campaign have taken up the same self-debasing arguments, writing in Left Foot Forward:

Equality rights have for too long been second to the interests of business. Trade is not the most impending risk posed in Brexit Britain. It is human rights which should be at the forefront of negotiations.

The Brexit path being taken is very male, very right wing, deeply un-progressive, extremely unrepresentative. if we get a chance to vote on the final deal, we owe it to the memory of the suffragettes too, to use it. And we owe it to ourselves to fight to get that vote and reverse the catastrophic path we are on.

One might have thought that the suffragettes strove to win the very right to influence political decision-making in their country which Remainers are now desperate to continue divesting to a more distant, unaccountable supranational body. But today’s EU-supporting progressives, playing their part in the culture war, instead seem to believe that the goal of women’s suffrage is the right to meekly accept or petition for rights underpinned at a supranational level, through fear and mistrust of the domestic electorate. There seems to be little to support this patronising and fundamentally antidemocratic worldview in the historical literature, but nonetheless this is what we are asked to believe.

And what can one say in response? Identity politics and the culture war have firmly taken hold of Brexit, with the progressive Left (minus a Corbynite subset) co-opting the Remain position and fiercely clinging to that stance. And since the modus operandi of identity politics activists is to identify and exploit any angle or facet of an issue which can be shown to affect designated gender or minority groups, it was inevitable that we would eventually be told that Brexit is a specific assault on women, on ethnic minorities, on gay people or transgender individuals. Because the identity politics Left long ago gave up any concept of unifying shared citizenship, many activists are now only able to communicate in terms of how a particular issue or eventuality will impact specific subgroups with competing and often diverging interests.

The downside for progressive Remain campaigners is that in folding Brexit into the wider culture war and making the issue indistinguishable from all their other intersectionality-soaked grievances, they risk speaking only to themselves. Unfortunately for them, many British people do still acknowledge the idea of a unifying bond connecting all British citizens regardless of race, gender or sexuality, even if those bonds are frayed or even inarticulable at times. Few Leave voters went to the polling booth motivated primarily by thoughts of how Britain’s future relationship with the EU would affect them and their country based on their particular gender, and many are suspicious of Remainer entreaties to view basic matters of democracy and self-determination through the ludicrous prism of their genitalia.

After two years of furious denialism and rage against the EU referendum result, Remainers among the identity politics Left have become world experts in talking amongst themselves and telling one another exactly what they already think and want to hear, with arguments perfectly tailored to their own worldview and niche obsessions. As an act of misguided, unhelpful civic engagement this is depressingly predictable. But as a strategy for overturning Brexit and re-establishing the status quo it is incredibly tone-deaf, short-sighted – and ultimately doomed to failure.

 

EU protest - You Stole Our Future From Us

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Who Is Truly Marginalized? – Part 2

Tendayi Achiume - UN Special Rapporteur - Britain UK racism Brexit

Champions of intersectional identity politics in academia, culture and government have accrued near-hegemonic societal power for themselves by exploiting both the real and imagined oppression of certain groups on whose behalf they boldly presume to speak

Last month, I wrote a short reflection on who is and is not effectively marginalized in 21st century Western society, both societally and intellectually. Building on far more substantial contributions from Rod Dreher and Kevin Williamson, I concluded that while racism, sexism and LGBT discrimination remain very real and pressing challenges to be overcome, when it comes to setting the political and cultural agenda it is those who refuse to embrace, uphold and evangelise intersectional identity politics who are increasingly the most functionally marginalized.

To me, this seems self-evidently true. Try being a black conservative or libertarian politician in America, or a gay politician questioning of current gender theory in Britain and see how far you rise and how welcome you are in the Democratic or Labour parties, or the Op-Ed pages of prestige newspapers. In each case it will not be the color of your skin or your sexual preference which holds you back, stymies your career and invites social and professional ostracization from the most prestigious and influential networks; rather, it will be the “unacceptable” opinions you profess and the supposed harm you are doing to sweepingly designated victim classes.

Partly depending on how one defines being marginalized – and there are different perspectives here, one being the ability to speak up for one’s personal interests and meaningfully control one’s own destiny, the other being the ability to wield influence to shape wider society in one’s preferred direction – a powerful case can be made that race, gender and sexuality are now far less a determining factor than whether or not one possesses the education, social justice lexicon and properly conforming social viewpoints to avoid scrutiny and censure by other “gatekeepers”. In other words, we have returned to an almost class-based form of societal hierarchy where the new underclass do not necessarily work with their hands or sit on the dole queue but generally hold opinions and values now considered unfashionable or harmful, while the new upper class do not necessarily own mansions or penthouses but are uniformly fluent in the lore and language of intersectionality.

Note that this is very different to making the tedious, self-pitying Alt-Right claim that straight white Christian males are now a terribly downtrodden group while reverse discrimination-benefiting racial minorities or perpetually unsatisfied “feminazis” are on the ascendance and have the best of everything – far from it. In fact, a straight white male is still likely to do extraordinarily well, to the extent that he also holds a narrow range of opinions deemed acceptable by current elites, while a black lesbian woman who blasphemes against one of the identity politics movement’s main articles of faith is likely to find herself every bit as limited in opportunity and outcome as a straight white male who commits the same sin.

Thus we need to think about power in a more nuanced, multilayered way. There are differences in power between various individuals in society, resulting from numerous factors including (but certainly not limited to or even predominantly caused by) race, gender and sexuality. But there are also differences in power between various voices in the public square, and these differences depend even less on immutable personal characteristics and more on the particular political opinions which people hold and either choose to voice or suppress. The former may well often be overwhelmingly important to the individual, whose personal happiness or fulfilment is likely closely tied to getting through life unstymied by various forms of discrimination. But the other power differential – the ongoing interplay of voices in the public square, which slowly shapes society through rules, customs and laws – is far more consequential to us all. And it is here where the social justice left insult our intelligence by continually playing the overwhelmed underdog when in reality they enjoy every conceivable advantage and inch closer to victory with every passing day.

To this end, I was very heartened to read the latest blog post by Ben Cobley, a left-wing journalist who freely expresses qualms about the groupthink and illiberal authoritarianism now rampant on the Left. Cobley focuses on the work of UN “Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance” E. Tendayi Achiume, who recently made an official fact-finding trip to Britain in order to apply a remarkably presumptive “post hoc ergo propter hoc” analytical lens to the supposed impact of “Brexit” (which hasn’t yet taken place) on racial equality in the UK.

Referencing the UN Special Rapporteur’s report, Cobley writes:

For this interpretation, which is appearing in our public life daily and prominently, the life chances and well-being of non-white-skinned people, women, the ethnically non-British, Muslims and disabled people are determined by those identity markers, so that they appear as universal victims of society and of the identity groups which dominate it. This is direct causation she is talking about – that identity leads to either success or failure. She makes no qualification on it and makes an unequivocal judgement on the situation as unacceptable and also sometimes unlawful – so assuming a kind of absolute authority over it.

Achiume, who The Times described as a ‘Zambian-born, US-based academic’ and ‘a UN expert’ on its front page, added, “Austerity measures have been disproportionately detrimental to racial and ethnic minority communities. Unsurprisingly, austerity has had especially pronounced intersectional consequences, making women of colour the worst affected.”

Here we see the logic of this form of knowledge, attributing victimhood along the lines of identity categories – so, combining women and people ‘of colour’ as victims, we arrive at a maximum victimhood of ‘women of colour’. This type of knowledge, of ‘intersectionality’, will be familiar to anyone accustomed to the theories coming out of the social sciences (and wider humanities) departments of Western universities.

However the ability to make assertion in the public sphere – and to have it leading the news with the one making the assertion described as a ‘UN expert’ as in this case – is an indication of political power. The domination of academic discourse by this sort of universalising theory is a sign of political power. That someone propounding this theory gets appointed by the body that brings the world together to go and inspect countries and tell them what to do is a sign of political power.

Absolutely so. Such is the power wielded by devotees of intersectional identity politics within academia that reputations can be ruined, careers terminated and cringeworthily fawning apologies extracted by identity politics practitioners, not on the basis of an intellectual refutation of a contrary argument but by the mere assertion that merely having to hear such alternative opinions constitutes intolerable cruelty and harm.

Such is the power wielded by identity politics practitioners within British politics that a one-time party leader – Tim Farron of the risibly named Liberal Democrats – can be forced through media pressure to publicly deny what we all know to be his true beliefs on certain hot-button social issues, and ultimately to quit his post because of the incompatibility of private conscience with the totalitarian demand that he personally approve of alternative lifestyle choices rather than simply promising never to legislate against them.

The power to hand down a statement or opinion of any kind – from a UN report accusing Britain of becoming a land of racist oppression following the Brexit vote to a university professor redesigning a curriculum or writing a grievance-soaked Op-Ed – and receive unsceptical, unquestioning newspaper coverage or approving cable news commentary is immense indeed. They who control the universities, cultural outlets serving mass markets and the media outlets consumed by political elites can be reasonably said to control the basic narrative of society. Sure, dissenting voices are still permitted to appear (though less frequently in prestige outlets, and often with various disqualifying provisos attached) from time to time, but as a general rule they who control the narrative determine the future.

Those in opposition to the social justice and identity politics movements simply do not possess this media or cultural reach. Their arguments are not given the same weight by opinion-makers and their messages are not amplified to nearly the same extent by media gatekeepers. Bad individuals on this side of the societal divide remain intermittently capable of causing physical or emotional harm to others through their private actions, which is always reprehensible, but the conservative movement as a whole is firmly in retreat on a societal level. Even many of those most concerned about the rise to power of Donald Trump concede that this historical aberration is very much a “last gasp” from a segment of society they openly write off as unimportant and “deplorable”.

Cobley continues to explore:

[..] how this power works through relationships which have built up between what I am calling ‘the liberal-left’ [..] and these favoured groups via those who appear as their representatives – so feminists, Islamists and ethnic group activists for example. These relationships make up what I am calling ‘the system of diversity’ – a form of society grounded in these relationships of favouring and representing, linked to assumptions of identity group victimhood.

As I am seeing it, many of our major institutions, including major media organisations like the BBC, Sky NewsThe Times and especially The Guardian and Channel 4 are constantly being drawn towards the system of diversity and its ways of relating to the world – seeing fixed and ‘quasi-fixed’ identity as primary to what is going on in the world and primary to how they should address it.

And warns:

This agenda is increasingly working its way into our daily lives as rules and orders and social norms – to implement positive discrimination in the workplace, to attend training to correct our ‘unconscious bias’ and to report assertions that are not favourable to favoured group members to the police as ‘hate crime’.

The natural response in this situation is to give way, which is after all, fundamentally, a giving-way to power. We evade, we protect ourselves, while the winners go on producing their reports and setting the agenda and setting the rules that govern our lives.

It takes a strong person to resist all of these pressures to conform. Only the very brave, generally reckless or those with little to lose will readily voice dissent against the identity politics left’s stark design for society, which is why such dissent is concentrated among a handful of brave and exceptional academics or journalists, opportunistic politicians or disenfranchised and often under-occupied young men online.

Unfortunately, despite the ability to generate the occasional flashpoint of resistance, these groups count for little against the great mass of middle class opinion which is either actively supports the identity politics message saturating the culture or (perhaps more often) is too fearful of negative personal consequences to question or object to the present direction of travel.

And all the while opposing voices are silenced, careers ended and lives ruined for failing to move in fast-enough lockstep with evolving identity politics orthodoxy, those powerful figures doing the silencing, ending and ruining have the temerity to portray themselves as the underdogs in this culture war. We must not fall for their charade.

 

Update – 30 May 2018

Ben Cobley has a new book on this very subject coming out on 1st July, entitled “The Tribe: The Liberal Left And The System Of Diversity“. I will be getting a copy and encourage my interested readers to do the same, as it promises to delve into these issues in more depth and certainly with a more scholarly eye than I currently possess.

 

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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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