Preserving The Legitimacy Of The Supreme Court Must Outweigh Partisan Anger

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

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

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

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

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

Leonhardt begins:

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

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

But then Leonhardt says this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Brett Kavanaugh swearing in ceremony Supreme Court - SCOTUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rachel Maddow cries - Trump migrant asylum seeker family separation - MSNBC

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Dan Rather, Solving The Migration Crisis Through Poetry

Dan Rather - MSNBC

The migration crisis cannot be solved by feelings alone

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

From the veteran newsman’s permanently outraged Facebook page:

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

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

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

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

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

A choice excerpt:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Dan Rather

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Who Is Truly Marginalized? – Part 2

Tendayi Achiume - UN Special Rapporteur - Britain UK racism Brexit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cobley continues to explore:

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

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

And warns:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Update – 30 May 2018

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

 

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Review: The People vs Democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so we find ourselves locked in a negative spiral:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Yascha Mounk - The People vs Democracy - book review

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