I’m Sorry, Is Brexit Boring You?

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Laughing at Britain’s Brexit woes might be justified if other countries were successfully tackling the pre-eminent problem of the early 21st century — reconciling meaningful democracy and self-determination with the imperative for global regulation and governance. But since no-one else has bothered to pick up the torch of destiny, maybe it’s time to rethink the self-satisfied mockery.

Spare a thought for poor Ryan Heath of Politico EU. He simply finds Brexit – and specifically Britain’s ongoing debate about the nature and timing of our departure from the European Union – too boring to deal with anymore .

At this point a half-competent developer could probably build an algorithm to randomly generate these generic, establishment media anti-Brexit Op-Eds disguised as Serious Analysis. Simply change the order of the sentences and the particular focus (elderly racists, evil Russians, young people having their futures stolen, glorious isolation, the end of Our NHS), crank the handle and out will come another cookie-cutter article ready to publish.

For those journalists observing from across the sea, the generic takes tend to be even more uniformly simplistic – former colonial power having an identity crisis, mid-sized country trying and failing to punch above its weight, lots of schadenfreude about loss of empire, lots of gloating over the humiliation of a country ranked by the intelligentsia alongside only America and Israel as uniquely evil and benighted, polished off with a smarmy, waggish lecture about chickens coming home to roost.

Ryan Heath gives us an absolutely perfect encapsulation of such an article this week in Politico. Headlined “Brexit Britain: Small, Boring and Stupid” it indulges every tedious trope ever to have emerged from the Remainer hive mind.

A sample:

Brexit is the story of a proud former imperial power undergoing a mid-life crisis. The rest of the world is left listening to Britain’s therapy session as they drone on about their ex-spouse, the EU: When will they stop talking and just move on?

The promise of Brexit at the time it narrowly passed in a national referendum in June of 2016 was that it was a way for Britain to feel big again — no longer hectored by the EU bureaucracy in Brussels, no longer treated as just one of 28 members in an unwieldy confederacy.

“Britain is special,” the Brexiteers assured British voters, who cast their ballots accordingly.

The last two years have revealed something different: For the first time in modern history, Britain is small. Having sailed into the 20th century as an empire, the U.K. spent the second half of the century shedding nearly all of its colonies — and as a result much of its economic and military might.

For the first time in modern history, Britain is small? Isn’t that what they said after Victory in Europe, after Suez, during the Winter of Discontent and a hundred other, smaller national and geopolitical events? If Britain truly had shrunk in power and stature as much as has been claimed by the commentariat after each of these events, we would currently have the geopolitical heft of Burundi. Something doesn’t quite add up.

But it turns out that this was just the pleasant introduction, before Ryan Heath really dials up the condescension to 100:

While many Brits have strong emotions about the EU, they rarely have a strong understanding. I feel like a kindergarten teacher every time I speak on the issue.

It is fashionable to blame an irresponsible U.K. media (including the country’s most famous sometime-journalist, now leading Brexiteer MP Boris Johnson) for stoking misunderstanding about the EU for decades. Long before Macedonian troll factories and Russian bots there were the editors of the Sun tabloid newspaper.

But what about the millions of people who consumed those fibs and the spineless politicians who avoided the hassle of correcting them? We blame Greeks for blowing up their economy and hold accountable big-spending governments for saddling future generations with excessive debts. Britons don’t deserve a free pass: It’s time they reckoned with what they sowed through 45 years of shallow EU debate.

It is Britain’s unique ignorance that makes Britain so boring. Ignorant about its leverage and ignorant about the EU, the U.K. is coming across as clumsy and caddish.

On and on it goes – you get the idea.

Ryan Heath, you must understand, exists on a higher plane of consciousness than you and I. With his demigod-like, birds-eye view of geopolitics, instinctive grasp of democratic imperatives and subatomic knowledge of the technocracy underpinning global trade, Heath has conclusively determined that everything is great, there were no issues with the EU worth fussing over, and that Brexit was motivated by nothing more than a spasm of ignorance, racism and pining for lost empire.

But if anything is truly boring, it is not Brexit but rather this well-worn take on Brexit, echoed over and over again from the New York Times to the Atlantic to New York Magazine to Politico. Wherever self-described intellectuals of a center-left persuasion are gathered together, you can read exactly the same cookie-cutter take on Brexit, perfectly crafted to enable them to nod and stroke their beards while having all of their prejudices neatly confirmed.

It’s not new, and it’s not clever. Foreign journalists and media outlets have been repeating the same old tired “humiliation of a former colonial power” trope since the end of the Second World War. Often, these articles pointedly incorporate Dean Acheson’s famous quote about Britain having “lost an empire and not yet found a role”, presumably in an effort to add some gravitas and borrowed credibility. And now as 2018 draws to a close, Ryan Heath has the nerve to draw a salary in exchange for churning out the same tired observations made by half a century’s worth of diplomats and journalists.

Words cannot express how profoundly Brexit has caused me to lose faith in our political, intellectual and media class. At a time when the prestige media is increasingly busy beating its collective breast, playing the victim and positioning itself as the last great bulwark protecting Liberal Democracy from the (white working class) barbarian hordes, at best they seem to have become fundamentally uncurious about the single most important political debate and experiment in the world currently taking place in Britain, and at worst they openly cheerlead for the status quo.

If Ryan Heath spent less time airily declaring his boredom, he might dwell on the fact that Brexit – in all its halting, stop-start awkwardness – is the first significant attempt by any country to answer the question of how a modern nation state can reconcile the technocratic demands of global trade with the need to preserve meaningful democracy. On this key question, Britain is currently the laboratory of the world. No other first-tier country has dared to touch the subject with a ten-foot bargepole. At best, some of the more forward-thinking opinion journalists are belatedly ringing the alarm bells, but nowhere other than Britain have these concerns generated any kind of significant governmental response.

Sure, it doesn’t always sound like anything so noble is taking place, particularly when you hear one self-aggrandizing MP after another parade their ignorance on the television news, or when UKIP’s leader du jour stands up to grunt about Muslims and evil immigrants. But the job of good journalists working for a vigilant press is to look beyond the obvious, superficial headline at the deeper, underlying story. Just as no one expert in any particular field can plausibly claim to speak authoritatively on the merits and drawbacks of Brexit, no one journalist can make authoritative sweeping statements about Brexit from the sole perspective of their own cloistered social and professional circles.

At a time when the EU is signally failing millions of its citizens, when southern Europe’s economy remains sclerotic, youth unemployment endemic, populist parties and authoritarian leaders are gaining traction everywhere and civil order has been restored in Paris only thanks to EU-branded armored personnel carriers, some introspection as to the EU’s flaws and capacity to overcome those flaws might be in order. Some serious interrogation of the political leaders who delivered us to this baleful moment might justifiably be expected. But don’t look for such searching coverage in the prestige press, which would rather unquestioningly take the side of the people whose lack of foresight and political courage pushed the campaign for Brexit over the finish line.

In what passes for my feeble magnum opus of 2017, I laid out some of these challenges as they pertain to Britain:

Automation, outsourcing and globalisation have incrementally, relentlessly eaten away at the idea of a steady, 9-5 factory or retail job being sufficient to raise a family or buy a house. Millions of people who in decades past went through an education system which prepared them for little else now find themselves having to learn new computer or service-based skills from scratch, with almost no support or coordination from local or national government.

Even university graduates find that their degrees are of increasingly dubious value, and are obliged to virtually fight to the death for a coveted place on a corporate graduate scheme. The losers go back to live with their parents or work in minimum wage drudgery, wondering why their BA in critical gender theory hasn’t proven to be the passport to the slick professional city life they crave. Call centres and giant Amazon distribution centres have become the new dark satanic mills of modern Britain. Our present education policy should be focused entirely on this looming precipice, yet we distract ourselves by arguments over grammar schools or whether boys should be allowed to wear tiaras and tutus in class.

Meanwhile, there is a huge global human migration underway, prompted by the fact that countless millions more people are connected to the world through the internet and have the means to move from struggling countries to new lands of perceived opportunity – sometimes legally, usually illegally. Political leaders have openly or tacitly welcomed and even fuelled this flow, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the required housing, infrastructure and services do not smoothly and automatically increase in direct proportion to a rising population – and then dare to act startled and affronted when the resident population complains about the impact.

At the same time, elites have preached a gospel of absolute tolerance and multiculturalism while refusing to promote British or Western values, or encourage new immigrants to assimilate, and then cry “racism!” when inevitable tensions occur. They have created a country where some British-born people feel more affinity and allegiance to a barbaric Islamist death cult than the country which gave them life and liberty – and then prove it by stealing away to join ISIS or launching terror attacks which kill and maim their fellow citizens.

[..] Each one of these issues forms part of a crumbling edifice representing the failed, discredited and obsolete centrist political consensus. Tinkering with the EU – to the limited extent that Britain could ever effect meaningful directional change in Brussels – was never going to happen, despite the constant disgruntled, exculpatory outbursts from Remainers that “of COURSE the EU needs reform!”.

What do all of these issues have in common? They are things that the Ryan Heaths and other establishment journalists of this world spend their professional careers furiously refusing to acknowledge as a significant problem in the first place.

In fact, with very few honorable exceptions, one has to look to the neglected and under-appreciated political blogosphere for the kind of analysis that household-name journalists are apparently incapable of performing.

Here’s Pete North, on typically good form, doing Ryan Heath’s job for him:

They think Brexit only happened because of “austerity” – not because we are utterly sick of the lot of them. They think they can once again dip into our wallets to dish out electoral bribes and we’ll be ok with them pissing on our votes. They reckon we didn’t really mean to leave the EU – and that it’s just the underlying issues *they* need to fix. It doesn’t occur to them that the underlying issue is the fact that we hate them and their EU vanity project. It’s all just a management and PR problem to them.

They genuinely think we’re too bovine to care about things like self-determination,. democracy and accountability – and we’ll pack up and go away if there’s a top up of regional funding. We all know nothing would change if we trusted them. As much as anything, we voted to leave precisely because we have an establishment that will continually do as it pleases and ignore the rest of the country when we protest. Even now they don’t get it which is why they can so casually talk about overturning a vote.

They don’t recognise that Brits genuinely want regime change and a change to reshape Britain – and all they offer us is more of the same – more taxes, more authoritarianism and more paternalistic meddling while they heap on the insults. The fact that these well compensated individuals parade Blair, Major, Adonis and Campbell on our screens honestly thinking it will win people over tells you everything you need to know.

Ryan Heath thinks that Britain has made a fool of herself by taking the plunge and voting for Brexit in an attempt to address these looming challenges. That may be so. But what has any other country done to address the pressing challenge of adapting democracy to work in a globalized world? What has the United States done under Trump? Germany under “leader of the free world” Angela Merkel? Or France under the establishment’s beloved Emmanuel Macron?

It is easy to laugh and cast judgments at Brexit’s many pitfalls and the…significant intellectual and personality flaws of those who claim to be leading and speaking for it. But it is much less funny when one is forced to acknowledge that other countries still have their heads in the sand and are not even attempting to answer these increasingly existential questions, despite facing exactly the same democratic pressures and rifts as Britain.

When Donald Trump or his Democratic Party opposition come up with a coherent plan to address these interlinked challenges (rather than ranting about making America great again or bowing down even further to the cult of intersectional identity politics), Britain might look legitimately bad in comparison. When Emmanuel Macron emerges from his hiding place brandishing a plan for national renewal more sophisticated than simply hiking fuel taxes by 40% and screwing the rural poor, Britain might rightly feel a degree of shame. When the European Union takes these issues seriously and prioritizes the welfare of its citizens rather than the completion of the covert federal project, Britain might seem like the ignorant and churlish party by comparison. Needless to say, that day has not yet arrived.

In the European Union we have a supranational, continent-wide political union of distinct nation states, unloved by its nominal citizens, sorely lacking legitimacy, seethingly antagonistic to anything more than rote, symbolic democracy and displaying a marked unwillingness to listen to its people or change direction. Britain at least attempted to resolve this impasse by voting to leave that sclerotic organization, which is more than any other country has done, though the reasons for doing so and preferred modes of Brexit were many and varied. And so if you insist on laughing at Britain for taking this step, then you had darn well better have a bevy of superior, practical and politically feasible alternatives up your sleeve, ready to roll out.

But Ryan Heath has no superior answer to give. His preferred benchmark is the status quo. He clearly sees absolutely nothing wrong with the state of affairs which led to Brexit – the increasing political alienation and sense of powerlessness, a mode of governance which firehoses a stream of economic opportunity at the well-educated but rains financial and social desolation on everyone else, the rampant corruption of the European Union, the sinister drive to implement the project in defiance of any national referenda which stand in its way. All of which is unsurprising, since his professional history includes a stint working as spokesman for Jose Manuel Barroso at the European Commission. A more institutionally captured “objective” journalist does not exist on God’s green earth.

Brexit, in all its imperfections, is an historic opportunity, and one which deserves to be discussed as such at least some of the time by some of the prestige media – even if only as an opportunity missed – rather than the unmitigated, irrational, self-inflicted calamity that it is continually portrayed as by the likes of Heath. As I wrote when (not so implausibly) comparing the story of the hit musical Hamilton to Britain’s current predicament:

Through Brexit, history has gifted us the opportunity to imagine a new and improved form of government, one which strives to meet our future challenges rather than cower from them (all that EU membership offers, most telling in the rhetoric used by Remainers) or pretend that they do not exist (favoured by the more retrograde Brexiteers who envisage a simple rollback to the old nation state). We must seize this opportunity and be a beacon for other nations, all of which must ultimately grapple with the same issues though they may deny or postpone them for a time.

I’m very sorry that Ryan Heath finds Brexit so boring, and one country’s lonely attempt to address the preeminent challenge of the early 21st century a bothersome distraction from the true job of a Politico journalist – breathlessly reporting court gossip and revealing who was spotted dining with who at whichever Michelin-starred restaurant in Brussels or Strasbourg. Silly, selfish us for intruding too long on his consciousness with our concerns about representative democracy and self-determination.

Fortunately for Heath, it increasingly appears that he shall get his wish. The incompetence of Britain’s political class, the invidious dishonesty of the Tory extreme Brexiteers and the highly successful efforts by all corners of the establishment to obstruct and discredit Brexit has gradually increased the possibility that Britain never leaves the European Union at all – or that such a departure consists of nominally leaving the political union while remaining for all intents and purposes permanently bound to its key institutions.

And then of course, Brexit having been thwarted, all will be well with the world once again. Britain will reset to 1998 and a time when all of these pesky concerns about democratic deficits and a dehumanizing macroeconomic policy focus were a low-level hum rather than a piercing, inescapable alarm. People like me will know our place, and once again defer to people like Ryan Heath and the soulless technocracy he so faithfully serves.

Oh, wait.

Brexit - EU - European Union Flag - Missing Star - Britain - UK

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The Mainstream Media May Be The Worst Enemy Of The Resistance

The hand-in-glove partnership between the mainstream media and the progressive “Resistance” may pay dividends in the midterms – but if so, it will likely also be their undoing in 2020

Here is CNN’s Don Lemon calling white men the greatest terrorist risk to the United States live on air last week – moments after sanctimoniously calling for an end to divisiveness or demonizing certain groups, and all without a hint of irony.

Don Lemon is not an Op-Ed contributor to CNN. He is not marketed as a fire-breathing Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham character; no, Don Lemon puts himself forward as a news anchor on a supposedly objective cable news network. And yet here he is, saying in the aftermath of the recent horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh:

We have to stop demonizing people and realize the biggest terror threat in this country is white men, most of them radicalized to the right, and we have to start doing something about them. There is no travel ban on them. There is no ban – you know, they had the Muslim ban. There is no white guy ban. So what do we do about that?

This is the kind of social justice and identity politics bilge which just a few years ago was uttered only by screechy protesters on liberal arts college campuses as they protested about Halloween costumes or some other “genocidal” attack on their feelings. Yet now in 2018 these exact same sentiments, once the province of fringe lunatic academics in the pseudo-social sciences, now emerge from the mouth of one of America’s leading television news personalities.

Here is that same network’s star White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, goading the Trump administration with his sassy little take on the ability of the president to bring about sweeping constitutional changes to birthright citizenship by executive order:

 

You’ll note that no such tweets accompanied any of the sweeping Obama executive orders relating to immigration or any other matter, presumably because Acosta either agreed with them or just hadn’t read his pocket Constitution at that point.

And here is Jim Acosta again, tweeting the famous lines from the poem “The New Colossus” affixed to the Statue of Liberty, following a highly choreographed confrontation in the White House press briefing room last year in which the CNN White House Correspondent forgot for a moment that he is supposed to be a reporter and not a student activist:

 

Switching networks for a moment, here is the banner image recently used by the NBC news Twitter account – an image of the caravan of asylum seekers and economic migrants slowly working its way through Mexico toward the United States. This is about as firm a planting of one’s corporate or editorial flag in the sand as it is possible to make:

NBC news Twitter banner image - migrant caravan - journalistic bias

I am slowly giving up being angry at the way the mainstream and prestige media carry themselves like small- (and large-) D democratic heroes while utterly failing to cover the country on which they report with anything approaching objectivity, or make editorial decisions from any other perspective than that of the progressive elite. Now, my anger is giving way to fear.

If Democrats underperform in next week’s US midterm elections then it will largely be thanks to a huge negative assist from the establishment media, which has given an enormous motivational boost to conservatives of all stripes thanks to skewed and hyper-reactionary coverage of the very presidency their own greed for ratings helped to bring about. But this self-foot-shooting is actually the better scenario for the left and their media allies, compared to the alternative.

Though they don’t yet realize it, the nightmare scenario for the Left is that the love-in between the progressive “resistance” and the establishment media – a journalistic class which has been driven mad by Trump’s constant taunting into dropping their thin veneer of objectivity and revealing their true ideological colors –  actually works this midterm season, at a time when many conservatives and Trumpists do not show up to vote.

Why? Because a strong Democratic showing in the midterms will only encourage the prestige media in their collective mania, and lead to a doubling down on the various anti-conservative tactics – the bias, the gaslighting, the double standards and false equivalencies which mean most conservatives are forced to begin any argument proving they are not a Nazi while most progressives are allowed to commit the most egregious sins multiple times before their media halo begins to tarnish even slightly.

Two years of this unhinged and irresponsible reaction to the Trump presidency has succeeded in uniting even many Never Trump conservatives behind the administration and the GOP this midterm cycle. That may not be enough to prevent Democrats from making significant and encouraging gains in the midterms on Tuesday, but two more years of this behavior at an even greater level of intensity than we have thus far seen (and be assured: it will only get worse) may be all it takes to win Donald Trump a second term. You can bet that the president is counting on it.

Many nominal conservatives – myself included, though my political values are far from alignment with the Trumpian GOP – were almost as depressed by the victory of Donald Trump as were Democrats. Many felt that this was no longer a political party they recognized, or wanted to be associated with. But something odd happens when you realize that virtually the entire prestige US media has used the Trump presidency to jettison any remaining pretense of objectivity and openly plant their flag on the progressive side. Something odd happens when views which were entirely mainstream only a few years ago – views which were even espoused by darlings of the political Left – are now being used by leftist activists and sagely nodding network anchors to mark you out as a hate-filled extremist and enabler of fascism.

When that happens, suddenly the distasteful people on your side don’t seem quite so bad.  When that happens – and I’m not saying it’s necessarily right or praiseworthy – suddenly the idea of a president who can thwart and enrage your own political tormentors becomes a little bit more palatable. When that happens, in short, conservatives are more likely to hunker down, put their differences aside and march to the polling booths to re-elect Donald Trump as president of the United States.

And if that happens, given another mandate and with no more elections left to fight, the country will likely see what Trumpism can really do when it is unleashed and made angry by hysterical, partisan journalistic attacks – as if such attacks are even necessary given everything legitimately objectionable that the administration and the man are actually doing.

I don’t want that. I didn’t want Donald Trump to be president in 2016, and frustratingly I will become a US citizen a matter of days too late to vote for someone else in 2020. But just as I see governing elites stubbornly refusing to learn from the mistakes which brought the populist rebuffs of 2016 (good in the case of Brexit, much less so with Trump) now I see the journalistic class – who are very much part of that elite – almost engaging in a competition with the woke wing of the Democratic Party to see who can do more to usher in a Trump second term.

There will come a time, I am convinced, when we look back on the footage of Don Lemon slandering an entire ethnic group for being “dangerous” white males, Jim Acosta engaging in melodramatic activism in the White House briefing room and NBC News changing their Twitter image the way a tween might add a filter to her Snapchat and marvel that the supposedly serious, prestige media could ever have debased itself in such a way – and done so in a way which potentially wrought such harm on the country.

The problem is, if that day does not come before early 2019 then I don’t see there being sufficient time for a course correction prior to the 2020 general election. And currently there is zero sign of that epiphany dawning on the Don Lemons and Jim Acosta of this world, or their editors, or their paymasters. We are dealing with people who need to be smacked in the face with the consequences of their smug, self-satisfied, sanctimonious hectoring multiple times before the message sinks in – if at all.

And all of us must suffer for their selfish obstinacy.

 

Don Lemon CNN - White men are the biggest terror threat to United States

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Preserving The Legitimacy Of The Supreme Court Must Outweigh Partisan Anger

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

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

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

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

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

Leonhardt begins:

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

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

But then Leonhardt says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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