Category Archives: American Politics

Criticizing Government Was What They Knew How To Do

 

Paul Sabin, Public Citizen:

The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism

(W.W. Norton & Co., 2021)

1965 marked the highpoint for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program, an ambitious set of policy and legislative initiatives which envisioned using the machinery of the federal government to alleviate poverty, combat racial injustice and address other pressing national needs.  Johnson was coming off a landslide victory in the November 1964 presidential election, having carried 44 states and the District of Columbia with the highest percentage of the popular vote of any presidential candidate in over a century.  Yet a decade and a half later, in January 1981, Republican Ronald Reagan, after soundly defeating Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter,  took the presidential oath of office declaring “government is not the solution, it is the problem.”

How did government in the United States go in a fifteen-year period from being the solution to society’s ills to the cause of its problems?  How, for that matter, did the Democratic Party go from dominating the national political debate up through the mid-1960s to surrendering the White House to a former actor who had been considered too extreme to be a viable presidential candidate?  These are questions Yale University professor Paul Sabin poses at the outset of his absorbing Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism.  Focusing on the fifteen-year period 1965-1980, Sabin proffers answers centered on Ralph Nader and the “public interest” movement which Nader spawned.

1965 was also the year Nader rocketed to national prominence with his assault on automobile safety, Unsafe at Any Speed.  General Motors notoriously assisted Nader in his rise by conducting a concerted campaign to harass the previously obscure author.  From there, Nader and the lawyers and activists in his movement – often called “Nader’s Raiders” — turned to such matters as environmentalism, consumer safety and consumer rights, arguing that the government agencies charged with regulating these matters invariably came to be captured by the very industries they were designed to regulate, without the voice of the consumer or end user being heard.  “Why has business been able to boss around the umpire” (p.86) was one of Nader’s favorite rhetorical questions.

Because of both industry influence and bureaucratic ineffectiveness, government regulatory authority operated in the public interest only when pushed and prodded from the outside, Nader reasoned.  In Nader’s world, moreover, the Democratic and Republican parties were two sides of the same corrupt coin, indistinguishable in the degree to which they were both beholden to special corporate interests — “Tweddle Dee and Tweddle Dum,” as he liked to put it.

Reagan viewed government regulation from an altogether different angle.  Whereas Nader believed that government, through effective regulation of the private sector, could help make consumer goods safer, and air and water cleaner, Reagan sought to liberate the private sector from regulation.  He championed a market-oriented capitalism designed to “undermine, rather than invigorate, federal oversight” (p.167).  Yet, Sabin’s broadest argument is that Nader’s insistence over the course of a decade and a half that federal agencies used their powers for “nefarious and destructive purposes” (p.167) — — the “attack on big government” portion of his  title – rendered plausible Reagan’s superficially similar attack.

The “remaking of American liberalism” portion of Sabin’s sub-title might have better been termed “unmaking,” specifically the unmaking of the political liberalism rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal – the liberalism which Johnson sought to emulate and build upon in his Great Society, based on a strong and active federal government. Following in the New Deal tradition, Roosevelt’s Democratic party controlled the White House for all but eight years between 1933 and 1969.  Yet, when Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, New Deal liberalism had clearly surrendered its claim to national dominance.

Most interpretations of how and why New Deal liberalism lost its clout are rooted in the 1960s, with the decade’s anti-Vietnam war and Civil Rights movements as the principal actors.  The Vietnam war separated older blue-collar Democrats, who often saw the war in the same patriotic terms as World War II, from a younger generation of anti-war activists who perceived no genuine US interests in the conflict and no meaningful difference in defense and foreign policy between Democrats and Republicans.  The Civil Rights movement witnessed the defection of millions of white Democrats, unenthusiastic about the party’s endorsement of full equality for African Americans, to the Republican Party.

Nader and the young activists following him were also “radicalized by the historical events of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War” (p. p.48), Sabin writes.  These were their “defining issues,” shaping “their view of the government and their ambitions for their own lives” (p.51).   We cannot imagine Nader’s movement “emerging in the form that it did separate from civil rights and the war” (p.48).  But by elaborating upon the role of the public interest movement in the breakdown of New Deal liberalism and giving more attention to the 1970s, Sabin adds nuance to conventional interpretations of that breakdown.

The enigmatic Nader is the central figure in Sabin’s narrative.  Much of the book analyzes how Nader and his public interest movement interacted with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter, along with brief treatment of the Reagan presidency and that of Bill Clinton.  The Carter years, 1977-1981, revealed the public interest movement’s most glaring weakness: its “inability to come to terms with the compromises inherent in running the executive branch” (p.142), as Sabin artfully puts it.

Carter was elected in 1976, when the stain of the Watergate affair and the 1974 resignation of Richard Nixon hovered over American politics, with trust in government at a low point.  Carter believed in making government regulation more efficient and effective, which he saw as a means of rebuilding public trust.   Yet, he failed to craft what Sabin terms a “new liberalism” that could “champion federal action while also recognizing government’s flaws and limitations” (p.156).

That failure was due in no small measure to frequent and harsh criticism emanating from public interest advocates, whose critique of the Carter administration, Sabin writes, “held those in power up against a model of what they might be, rather than what the push and pull of political compromise and struggle allowed” (p.160).  Criticizing government power was “what they knew how to do, and it was the role that they had defined for themselves”  (p.156). Metaphorically, it was “as if liberals took a bicycle apart to fix it but never quite figured out how to get it running again” (p.xvii).

 * * *

Sabin starts by laying out the general parameters of New Deal liberalism: a technocratic faith that newly created administrative agencies and the bureaucrats leading them would act in the public interest by serving as a counterpoint to the power of private, especially corporate, interests.  By the mid-1950s, the liberal New Deal conception of “managed capitalism” had evolved into a model based on what prominent economist John Kenneth Galbraith termed “countervailing powers,” in which large corporations, held in balance by the federal regulatory state, “would check each other’s excesses through competition, and powerful unions would represent the interests of workers.  Government would play a crucial role, ensuring that the system did not tilt too far in one direction or the other” (p.7-8).

Nader’s public interest movement was built around a rejection of Galbraith’s countervailing power model.  The model failed to account for the interests of consumers and end users, as the economist himself admitted later in his career.  If there was to be a countervailing power, Nader theorized, it would have to come through the creation of “independent, nonbureaucratic, citizen-led organizations that existed somewhat outside the traditional American power structure” (p.59).  Only such organizations provided the means to keep power “insecure” (p.59), as Nader liked to say.

Nader’s vision could be described broadly as “ensuring safety in every setting where Americans might find themselves: workplace, home, doctor’s office, highway, or just outside, breathing the air”  (p.36).  In a 1969 essay in the Nation, Nader termed car crashes, workplace accidents, and diseases the “primary forms of violence that threatened Americans” (p.75), far exceeding street crime and urban unrest.  For Nader, environmental and consumer threats revealed the “pervasive failures and corruption of American industry and government” (p.76).

Nader was no collectivist, neither a socialist nor a New Dealer.  He emphasized open and competitive markets, small private businesses, and especially an activated citizenry — the “public citizens” of his title.  More than any peer, Nader sought to “create institutions that would mobilize and nurture other citizen activists” (p.35).  To that end, Nader founded dozens of public interest organizations, which were able to attract idealistic young people — lawyers, engineers, scientists, and others, overwhelmingly white, largely male — to dedicate their early careers to opposing the “powerful alliance between business and government” (p.24).

Nader envisioned citizen-led public interest organizations serving as a counterbalance not only to business and government but also to labor.  Although Nader believed in the power of unions to represent workers, he was “deeply skeptical that union leaders would be reliable agents for progressive reform”  (p.59).  Union bosses in Nader’s view “too often positioned themselves as partners with industry and government, striking bargains that yielded economic growth, higher wages, and unions jobs at the expense of the health and well-being of workers, communities, and the environment” (p.59).   Nader therefore “forcefully attacked the unions for not doing enough to protect worker safety and health or to allow worker participation in governance” (p.64).

Nader‘s Unsafe at Any Speed was modeled after Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking environmental tract Silent Spring, to the point that it was termed the “Silent Spring of traffic safety”  (p.23).  Nader’s auto safety advocacy, Sabin writes, emerged from “some of the same wellsprings as the environmental movement, part of an increasingly shared postwar concern about the harmful and insidious impacts of new technologies and processes” (p.23).  In 1966, a year after publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. Congress passed two landmark pieces of legislation, the Traffic Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act, which forced manufacturers to design safer cars and pressed states to carry out highway safety programs.  Nader then branched out beyond auto safety to tackle issues like meat inspection, natural-gas pipelines, and radiation safety.

Paradoxically, the Nixon years were among the most fruitful for Nader and the public interest movement.  Ostensibly pro-business and friendly with blue-collar Democrats, Nixon presided over a breathtaking expansion of federal regulatory authority until his presidency was pretermitted by the Watergate affair.  The Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, consolidating several smaller federal units.  New legislation which Nixon signed regulated air and water pollution, energy production, endangered species, toxic substances, and land use — “virtually every sector of the US economy” (p.114), Sabin writes.

The key characteristics of Nader-influenced legislation were deadlines and detailed mandates, along with authority for citizen suits and judicial review, a clear break from earlier regulatory strategies.  The tough legislation signaled a “profound and pervasive distrust of government even as it expanded federal regulatory powers” (p.82).   Nader and the public interest movement went after Democrats in Congress with a fervor at least equal to that with which they attacked Republican-led regulatory agencies.  Nader believed that “you didn’t attack your enemy if you wanted to accomplish something, you attacked your friend”  (p.82).

In the early 1970s, the public interest movement targeted Democratic Maine Senator Edmund Muskie, the party’s nominee for Vice-President in 1968, whose support for the environmental movement had earned him the moniker “Mr. Pollution Control.” Declaring his environmental halo unwarranted, the movement sought to take down a man who clearly wanted to ride the environmental issue to the White House.  Nader’s group also went after long-time liberal Democrat Jennings Randolph of West Virginia over coal-mining health and safety regulations.  The adversarial posture toward everyone in power, Democrat as well as Republican, continued into the short interim administration of Gerald Ford, who assumed the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.  And it continued unabated during the administration of Jimmy Carter.

As the Democratic nominee for president, Carter had conferred with Nader during the 1976 campaign and thought he had the support of the public interest movement when he entered the White House in January 1977.  Many members of the movement took positions in the new administration, where they could shape the agencies they had been pressuring.  The new president sought to incorporate the public interest movement’s critiques of government into a “positive vision for government reform,” promoting regulatory approaches that “cut cost and red tape without sacrificing legitimate regulatory goals” (p.186).

Hoping to introduce more flexible regulatory strategies that could achieve environmental and health protection goals at lower economic cost, Carter sacrificed valuable political capital by clashing with powerful congressional Democrats over wasteful and environmentally destructive federal projects. Yet, public interest advocates faulted Carter for his purported lack of will more than they credited him for sacrificing his political capital for their causes.  They saw the administration’s questioning of regulatory costs and the redesign of government programs as “simply ways to undermine those agencies.” (p.154).   Their lack of enthusiasm for Carter severely undermined his reelection bid in the 1980 campaign against Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s victory “definitively marked the end of the New Deal liberal period, during which Americans had optimistically looked to the federal government for solutions” (p.165), Sabin observes.  Reagan and his advisors “vocally rejected, and distanced themselves from, Carter’s nuanced approach to regulation”  (p.172). To his critics, Reagan appeared to be “trying to shut down the government’s regulatory apparatus” (p.173).

But in considering the demise of New Deal liberalism, Sabin persuasively demonstrates that the focus on Reagan overlooks how the post-World War II administrative state “lost its footing during the 1970s” (p.165).    The attack on the New Deal regulatory state that culminated in Reagan’s election, usually attributed to a rising conservative movement, was also “driven by an ascendant liberal public interest movement” (p.166).   Sabin’s bottom line: blaming conservatives alone for the end of the New Deal is “far too simplistic” (p.165).

* * *

Sabin mentions Nader’s 2000 presidential run on the Green Party ticket only at the end and only in passing.  Although the Nader-inspired public interest movement had wound down by then, Nader gained widespread notoriety that year when he gathered about 95,000 votes in Florida, a state which Democratic nominee Al Gore lost officially by 537 votes out of roughly six million cast (with no small amount of assistance from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision).  Nader’s entire career had been a rebellion against the Democratic Party in all its iterations, and his quixotic run in 2000 demonstrated that he had not outgrown that rebellion.  His presidential campaign took his “lifelong criticism of establishment liberalism to its logical extreme” (p.192).

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

May 13, 2022

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Political Theory, Politics, United States History

Taking Exception To American Foreign Policy

Andrew Bacevich, After the Apocalypse:

America’s Role in a World Transformed (Metropolitan Books 2020)

Andrew Bacevich is one of America’s most relentless and astute critics of United States foreign policy and the role the American military plays in the contemporary world.  Professor Emeritus of History and International Relations at Boston University and presently president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, Bacevich is a graduate of the United States Military Academy who served in the United States Army for over 20 years, including a year in Vietnam.  In his most recent book, After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, which came out toward the end of 2020, Bacevich makes an impassioned plea for a smaller American military, a demilitarized and more humble US foreign policy, and more realistic assessments of US security and genuine threats to that security, along with greater attention to pressing domestic needs.  Linking these strands is Bacevich’s scathing critique of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role to play in maintaining world order and promoting American democratic values beyond its shores.

In February 2022, as I was reading, then writing and thinking about After the Apocalypse, Vladimir Putin continued amassing soldiers on the Ukraine border and threatening war before invading the country on the 24th.  Throughout the month, I found my views of Bacevich’s latest book taking form through the prism of events in Ukraine.   Some of the book’s key points — particularly on NATO, the role of the United States in European defense, and yes, Ukraine – seemed out of sync with my understanding of the facts on the ground and in need of updating. “Timely” did not appear to be the best adjective to apply to After the Apocalypse. 

Bacevich is a difficult thinker to pigeonhole.  While he sometimes describes himself as a conservative,  in After the Apocalypse he speaks the language of those segments of the political left that border on isolationist and recoil at almost all uses of American military force (these are two distinct segments: I find myself dependably in the latter camp but have little affinity with the former).  But Bacevich’s against-the-grain perspective is one that needs to be heard and considered carefully, especially when war’s drumbeat can be heard.

* * *

Bacevich’s recommendations in After the Apocalypse for a decidedly smaller footprint for the United States in its relations with the world include a gradual US withdrawal from NATO, which he considers a Cold War relic, an “exercise in nostalgia, an excuse for pretending that the past is still present” (p.50).  Defending Europe is now “best left to Europeans” (p.50), he argues.   In any reasoned reevaluation of United States foreign policy priorities, moreover, Canada and Mexico should take precedence over European defense.  Threats to Canadian territorial sovereignty as the Artic melts “matter more to the United States than any danger Russia may pose to Ukraine” (p.169).

I pondered that sentence throughout February 2022, wondering whether Bacevich was at that moment as unequivocal about the United States’ lack of any geopolitical interest in Ukraine as he had been when he wrote After the Apocalypse.  Did he still maintain that the Ukraine-Russia conflict should be left to the Europeans to address?  Was it still his view that the United States has no business defending beleaguered and threatened democracies far from its shores?  The answer to both questions appears to be yes.  Bacevich has had much to say about the conflict since mid-February of this year, but I have been unable to ascertain any movement or modification on these and related points.

In an article appearing in the February 16, 2022, edition of The Nation, thus prior to the invasion, Bacevich described the Ukrainian crisis as posing “minimal risk to the West,” given that Ukraine “possesses ample strength to defend itself against Russian aggression.”  Rather than flexing its muscles in faraway places, the United States should be “modeling liberty, democracy, and humane values here at home. The clear imperative of the moment is to get our own house in order” and avoid “[s]tumbling into yet another needless war.”   In a nutshell, this is After the Apocalypse’s broad vision for American foreign policy. 

Almost immediately after the Russian invasion, Bacevich wrote an OpEd for the Boston Globe characterizing the invasion as a “crime” deserving of “widespread condemnation,” but cautioning against a “rush to judgment.”  He argued that the United States had no vital interests in Ukraine, as evidenced by President Biden’s refusal to commit American military forces to the conflict.  But he argued more forcefully that the United States lacked clean hands to condemn the invasion, given its own war of choice in Iraq in 2003 in defiance of international opinion and the “rules-based international order” (Bacevich’s quotation marks).  “[C]coercive regime change undertaken in total disregard of international law has been central to the American playbook in recent decades,” he wrote.  “By casually meddling in Ukrainian politics in recent years,” he added, alluding most likely to the United States’ support for the 2013-14 “Euromaidan protests” which resulted in the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it had “effectively incited Russia to undertake its reckless invasion.”

Bacevich’s article for The Nation also argued that the idea of American exceptionalism was alive and well in Ukraine, driving US policy.  Bacevich defined the idea hyperbolically as the “conviction that in some mystical way God or Providence or History has charged America with the task of guiding humankind to its intended destiny,” with these ramifications:

We Americans—not the Russians and certainly not the Chinese—are the Chosen People.  We—and only we—are called upon to bring about the triumph of liberty, democracy, and humane values (as we define them), while not so incidentally laying claim to more than our fair share of earthly privileges and prerogatives . . . American exceptionalism justifies American global primacy.

Much  of Bacevich’s commentary about the Russian invasion of Ukraine reflects his impatience with short and selected historical memory.  Expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the 1990s, Bacevich told Democracy Now in mid-March of this year, “was done in the face of objections by the Russians and now we’re paying the consequences of those objections.”  Russia was then “weak” and “disorganized” and therefore it seemed to be a “low-risk proposition to exploit Russian weakness to advance our objectives.”  While the United States may have been advancing the interests of Eastern European countries who “saw the end of the Cold War as their chance to achieve freedom and prosperity,” American decision-makers after the fall of the Soviet Union nonetheless  “acted impetuously and indeed recklessly and now we’re facing the consequences.”

* * *

“Short and selected historical memory” also captures Bacevich’s objections to the idea of American exceptionalism.  As he articulates throughout After the Apocalypse, the idea constitutes a whitewashed version of history, consisting “almost entirely of selectively remembered events” which come “nowhere near offering a complete and accurate record of the past” (p.13).  Recently-deceased former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s 1998 pronouncement that America resorts to military force because it is the “indispensable nation” which “stand[s] tall and see[s] further than other countries into the future” (p.6) may be the most familiar statement of American exceptionalism.  But versions of the idea that the United States has a special role to play in history and in the world have been entertained by foreign policy elites of both parties since at least World War II, with the effect if not intention of ignoring or minimizing the dark side of America’s global involvement.

 The darkest in Bacevich’s view is the 2003 Iraq war, a war of choice for regime change,  based on the false premise that Saddam Hussein maintained weapons of mass destruction.  After the Apocalypse returns repeatedly to the disastrous consequences of the Iraq war, but it is far from the only instance of intervention that fits uncomfortably with the notion of American exceptionalism. Bacevich cites the CIA-led coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953, the “epic miscalculation” (p.24) of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, and US complicity in the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, not to mention the Vietnam war itself.  When commentators or politicians indulge in American exceptionalism, he notes, they invariably overlook these interventions.

A  telling example is an early 2020 article in  Foreign Affairs by then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.  Under the altogether conventional title “Why America Must Lead Again,” Biden contended that the United States had “created the free world” through victories in two World Wars and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” Biden wrote, “does not just define our past.  It will define our future, as well” (p.16).  Not surprisingly, the article omitted any reference to Biden’s support as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Biden had woven “past, present, and future into a single seamless garment” (p.16), Bacevich contends.  By depicting history as a “story of America rising up to thwart distant threats,” he had regurgitated a narrative to which establishment politicians “still instinctively revert in stump speeches or on patriotic occasions” (p.17) — a narrative that in Bacevich’s view “cannot withstand even minimally critical scrutiny” (p.16).  Redefining the United States’ “role in a world transformed,” to borrow from the book’s subtitle, will remain “all but impossible until Americans themselves abandon the conceit that the United Sates is history’s chosen agent and recognize that the officials who call the shots in Washington are no more able to gauge the destiny of humankind than their counterparts in Berlin or Baku or Beijing” (p.7).

Although history might well mark Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an apocalyptic event and 2022 as an apocalyptic year, the “apocalypse” of Bacevich’s title refers to the year 2020, when several events brought into plain view the need to rethink American foreign policy.  The inept initial response to the Covid pandemic in the early months of that year highlighted the ever-increasing economic inequalities among Americans.  The killing of George Floyd demonstrated the persistence of stark racial divisions within the country.  And although the book appeared just after the presidential election of 2020, Bacevich would probably have included the assault on the US Capitol in the first week of 2021, rather than the usual transfer of presidential power, among the many policy failures that in his view made the year apocalyptic.  These failures, Bacevich intones:

 ought to have made it clear that a national security paradigm centered on military supremacy, global power projection, decades old formal alliances, and wars that never seemed to end was at best obsolete, if not itself a principal source of self-inflicted wounds.  The costs, approximately a trillion dollars annually, were too high.  The outcomes, ranging from disappointing to abysmal, have come nowhere near to making good on promises issued from the White House, the State Department, or the Pentagon and repeated in the echo chamber of the establishment media (p.3).

In addition to casting doubts on the continued viability of NATO and questioning any US interest in the fate of Ukraine, After the Apocalypse dismisses as a World War II era relic the idea that the United States belongs to a conglomeration of nations known as  “the West,” and that it should lead this conglomerate.  Bacevich advocates putting aside ”any residual nostalgia for a West that exists only in the imagination” (p.52).  The notion collapsed with the American intervention in Iraq, when the United States embraced an approach to statecraft that eschewed diplomacy and relied on the use of armed force, an approach to which Germany and France objected.   By disregarding their objections and invading Iraq, President George W. Bush “put the torch to the idea of transatlantic unity as a foundation of mutual security” (p.46).  Rather than indulging the notion that whoever leads “the West” leads the world, Bacevich contends that the United States would be better served by repositioning itself as a “nation that stands both apart from and alongside other members of a global community” (p.32).

After the apocalypse – that is, after the year 2020 – the repositioning that will redefine America’s role in a world transformed should be undertaken from what Bacevich terms a “posture of sustainable self-sufficiency” as an alternative to the present “failed strategy of military hegemony (p.166).   Sustainable self-sufficiency, he is quick to point out, is not a “euphemism for isolationism” (p.170).  The government of the United States “can and should encourage global trade, investment, travel, scientific collaboration, educational exchanges, and sound environmental practices” (p.170).  In the 21st century, international politics “will – or at least should – center on reducing inequality, curbing the further spread of military fanaticism, and averting a total breakdown of the natural world” (p.51).  But before the United States can lead on these matters, it “should begin by amending its own failings (p.51),” starting with concerted efforts to bridge the racial divide within the United States.

A substantial portion of After the Apocalypse focuses on how racial bias has infected the formulation of United States foreign policy from its earliest years.  Race “subverts America’s self-assigned role of freedom,” Bacevich writes.  “It did so in 1776 and it does so still today” (p.104).  Those who traditionally presided over the formulation of American foreign policy have “understood it to be a white enterprise.”  While non-whites “might be called upon to wage war,” he emphasizes, but “white Americans always directed it” (p.119).  The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to show the centrality of slavery to the founding and subsequent history of the United States, plainly fascinates Bacevich.  The project in his view serves as an historically based corrective to another form of American exceptionalism, questioning the “very foundation of the nation’s political legitimacy” (p.155).

After the Apocalypse raises many salient points about how American foreign policy interacts with other priorities as varied as economic inequality, climate change, health care, and rebuilding American infrastructure.  But it leaves the impression that America’s relationships with the rest of the world have rested in recent decades almost exclusively on flexing American military muscle – the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Bacevich says little about what is commonly termed “soft power,” a fluid term that stands in contrast to military power (and in contrast to punitive sanctions of the type being imposed presently on Russia).  Soft power can include such forms of public diplomacy  as cultural and student exchanges, along with technical assistance, all of which   have a strong track record in quietly advancing US interests abroad.

* * *

To date, five full weeks into the Ukrainian crisis, the United States has conspicuously rejected the “failed strategy of militarized hegemony.”  Early in the crisis, well before the February 24th invasion, President Biden took the military option off the table in defending Ukraine.  Although Ukrainians would surely welcome the deployment of direct military assistance on their behalf, as of this writing NATO and the Western powers are fighting back through stringent economic sanctions – diplomacy with a very hard edge – and provision of weaponry to the Ukrainians so they can fight their own battle, in no small measure to avoid a direct nuclear confrontation with the world’s other nuclear superpower.

The notion of “the West” may have seemed amorphous and NATO listless prior to the Russian invasion.  But both appear reinvigorated and uncharacteristically united in their determination to oppose Russian aggression.  The United States, moreover, appears to be leading both, without direct military involvement but far from heavy-handedly, collaborating closely with its European and NATO partners.  Yet, none of Bacevich’s writings on Ukraine hint that the United States might be on a more prudent course this time.

Of course, no one knows how or when the Ukraine crisis will terminate.  We can only speculate on the long-term impact of the crisis on Ukraine and Russia, and on NATO, “the West,” and the United States.  Ukraine 2022 may well figure as a future data point in American exceptionalism, another example of the “triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy,” to borrow from President Biden’s Foreign Affairs article.  But it could also be one of the data points that its proponents choose to overlook.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 30, 2022

 

 

 

11 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Eastern Europe, Politics

Flawed Ideal

Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit:

What’s Become of the Common Good (Farrar Strauss and Giroux)

 

“Those who work hard and play by the rules should be able to rise as far as their talents will take them.”  This catchphrase, a favorite of politicians of all political stripes, captures in shorthand the American idea of meritocracy. More formally, Merriam-Webster defines meritocracy as a “system, organization, or society in which people are chosen and moved into positions of success, power, and influence on the basis of their demonstrated abilities and merit.”  In a modern democracy, one would be hard pressed to argue against the idea that life’s major opportunities should be open to all who can prove themselves through talent and hard work.

Renowned Harvard professor Michael Sandel is not about to make that argument.  But in The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Sandel nonetheless delivers a searing critique of meritocracy today, primarily in the United States and secondarily in Great Britain.  Sandel, one of America’s best-known philosophers, begins The Tyranny of Merit by acknowledging that as an abstract principle, meritocracy has won the day in the United States, dominating the national debate about such matters as access to jobs, education, and public office.  “Our disagreements are less about the principle itself than about what it requires,” he writes. “When people complain about meritocracy, the complaint is usually not about the ideal but about our failure to live up to it” (p.119).

But in this provocative, against-the-grain work, Sandel asks us to consider the possibility that the real problem is not that we have fallen short in trying to live up to the meritocratic ideal, but that the ideal itself is flawed. Sandel’s argument rests on a straightforward premise: today’s meritocracy stratifies society into winners and losers, defined mostly by economic status and university diplomas, generating hubris among the winners and resentment and humiliation among the losers.

The winners, our elites, “believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work” (p.14),  Sandel writes.  They view success not as a matter of luck or grace, but as something earned through effort and striving, making success a “sign of virtue. My affluence is my due” (p.59).  The downside of meritocratic stratification is that those left behind—typically those without a college education—are perceived as being responsible for their fate, with “no one to blame but themselves” (p.14).  The result is that we have lost a shared notion of the common good and with it a sense of the solidarity that might bind us together in all our diversity.

The more we view ourselves as self-made and self-sufficient, Sandel contends, the “less likely we are to care for the fate of those less fortunate than ourselves” (p.59).   Meritocratic hubris “banishes all sense of gift or grace. It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for solidarity” (p.25).  Sandel links meritocracy’s hard edge to rising economic inequality at home over the past four decades, accentuated by what we term globalization—the form of capitalism associated with freer international trade, increasingly inter-dependent markets and, in the United States, the loss of blue-collar jobs to foreign locations with lower labor costs.

The jump in economic inequality in the United States began around 1980 with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, while globalization took off after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.  Today, Sandel points out, the richest one percent in the United States take in more than the combined earnings of the entire bottom half of the population, with median income stagnating for the past forty years. In 1965, according to the Economic Policy Institute, the CEOs of America’s largest public corporations earned about twenty-one times what an average worker in the corporation earned; today, the ratio is 350 : 1.  One of Sandel’s key points is that rising economic inequality, combined with market-driven globalization, contributed to Donald Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 in the United States, to the Brexit vote that same year in the United Kingdom, and to the phenomenon known as populism in both countries and elsewhere around the world.

Sandel characterizes the Trump electoral victory as an “angry verdict on decades of rising inequality and a version of globalization that benefits those at the top but leaves ordinary citizens feeling disempowered” (p.17).   Trump’s victory tapped into a “wellspring of anxieties, frustrations, and legitimate grievances to which the mainstream parties had no compelling answer” (p.17-18).  It was also a rebuke for a “technocratic approach” to politics that is “tone-deaf to the resentments of people who feel the economy and the culture have left them behind” (p.17).

The meritocratic promise, Sandel emphasizes, is not one of greater equality, but of “greater and fairer mobility” (p.85).   Allocating jobs and opportunities according to merit simply “reconfigures inequality to align with ability” (p.117); it does not reduce inequality.  This reconfiguration “creates a presumption that people get what they deserve” (p.117).  To be sure, Sandel sees nothing wrong with hiring and promoting people based on merit. In fact, he writes, it is “the right thing to do,” (p.33), dictated by both efficiency and fairness.

But if we are to overcome the “tyranny of merit,” we need to rethink the way we conceive success, question the meritocratic conceit that those on the top have made it on their own, and challenge the inequalities of wealth and esteem that are “defended in the name of merit but that foster resentment, poison our politics, and drive us apart” (p.155).    To move beyond the “polarized politics of our time,” we must have a “reckoning with merit,” (14), Sandel argues, a reckoning that begins with the two domains of life most central to the meritocratic conception of success, education and work.

* * *

The Tyranny of Merit treats both education and work throughout but builds up to a final chapter on each: “The Sorting Machine,” largely a discussion of the admission process at elite American colleges and universities; and “Recognizing Work,” a plea for restoring a  sense of dignity to the work of those without a college or university degree.  Linking the two is what Sandel terms “credentialism,” the meritocratic insistence that a college degree is the “primary route to a respectable job and a decent life” (p.73).

Credentialism and “disdain for the poorly educated,” (p.95), Sandel suggests, may constitute the last acceptable prejudice in an age when racism and sexism are frowned upon in most circles.  The constant call for working people to improve their condition by getting a college degree, however well intentioned, “eventually valorizes credentialism and undermines social recognition and esteem for those who lack the credentials the system rewards” (p.89).  Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a prerequisite for dignified work and social esteem, moreover, has a “corrosive effective on democratic life.  It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less educated members of society … and provokes political backlash” (p.104).

But if success in today’s meritocratic world is measured primarily by education and economic standing, it is unclear how the two fit together, part of a more fundamental question that runs through Sandel’s analysis: just who are meritocracy’s self-satisfied winners? How do we identify them?  Much of The Tyranny of Merit suggests that they are mostly the super-rich, such as Wall Street financiers and high-ranking corporate executives, along with top government officials, such as cabinet officers and leading legislators.  Sandel emphasizes—overemphasizes, in my view—the importance of a degree from an elite college or university, defined as one which admits less than 20% of its applicants.  But what about the Harvard graduate who goes on to be a high school math teacher?  Or the high school dropout who creates a wildly successful construction business and lives at the upper end of the upper middle-class?

 “The Sorting Machine,” Sandel’s chapter on higher education, focuses primarily on the differences in today’s meritocratic society between those credentialed with a college or university degree from an elite college or university, and those with degrees from other educational institutions, including community colleges.  Degrees from elite institutions are perceived all-too-often as the only reliable prerequisites for dignified work and social esteem—a ticket upward for those aspiring to rise on the economic ladder, and an insurance policy for those already there, that they don’t fall down the ladder.  But the majority of students at elite institutions, Sandel notes, still come from wealthy families, due in no small part to the many advantages that well-off parents can provide their children, giving rise to a “pervasive unfairness that prevents higher education from living up to the meritocratic principle it professes” (p.11).  Still, only about 20% of graduating high school seniors get caught up in the frenzied pursuit of admission to elite colleges and universities.

For the remaining 80%, Sandel writes, the “tyranny of merit is not about a soul-killing competition for admission but about a demoralizing world of work that offers meager economic reward and scant social esteem to those who lack meritocratic credentials” (p.188).   He quotes one of his students, a young man from Texas, who opined that one must work hard in high school to “get into a good college and get a good job. If not, you work in the oil fields” (p.77).  Becoming a plumber or electrician or dental hygienist, Sandel argues at another point, should be “respected as a valuable contribution to the common good, not regarded as a consolation prize for those who lack the SAT scores or financial means to make it to the Ivy League” (p.191).  That sentence more than puzzled me.

Had Sandel himself succumbed to the elitist conceit that the pathway to meaningful and important work is open only to graduates of a small sliver of higher education institutions, the very credentialism he seeks to discredit?  Or was he merely expressing the perception of many of his students, like the young man from Texas?  This binary view—the Ivy way or the highway­—may well be how the world looks from places like Harvard, within the belly of the elitist beast, but the real world is awash with leaders, movers, and shakers whose degrees do not come from hypercompetitive, elite American colleges and universities.

I am willing to venture that the president of just about any American college or university considered non-elitist would be delighted to provide the names of “famous” alumni and cite a litany of graduates who have gone on to important positions in the community and elsewhere in the world. As one personal example, while assigned to a United States Embassy in Eastern Europe, I worked under two different US Ambassadors, both extraordinary leaders with multiple talents, each a genuine superstar within the ranks of the US Foreign Service.  The first was a graduate of Arkansas State University, the second from Grand Valley State University in Michigan, neither likely to be on a list of elitist higher education institutions.

Sandel advocates more support, moral as well as financial, for non-elitist higher education institutions.  But his more pressing concern is to restore dignity to those without a college or university degree, a surprising 70% of the adult American population.  His chapter “Recognizing Work” focuses on the role of blue-collar workers in American society, particularly those who voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections—thus mostly white blue-collar workers.

Sandel notes that from the end of World War II to the 1970s, it was possible for those without a college degree to find good work, support a family, and lead comfortable middle-class lives.  Globalization and the loss of well-paying blue-collar jobs have made this far more difficult today. Although overall per capita income in the United States has increased 85% since 1979, white men without four-year college degrees now make less, in real terms, than they did then.  Any serious response to working-class frustrations, Sandel argues, should start with rethinking our notions of the common good as they apply to those without a college degree.

How a society honors and rewards work is “central to the way it defines the common good” (p.205), implicating such questions as what counts as a valuable contribution to the common good and what we really owe to one another.  Today we operate under what Sandel terms a market definition of the common good, where individual preferences and consumer welfare are paramount. If the common good is “simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences,” Sandel contends, then market wages are a “good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want”  (p.208).

Sandel seeks to displace the market definition with a civic definition, rooted in the thinking of Aristotle and Hegel, the American republican tradition, and Catholic social thinking.  A civic definition is “inescapably contestable” (p.214), Sandel warns. We may never come to agree on its substantive terms but nonetheless need to engage in a debate over what those terms could include. This will require “reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives” (p.208).   Moving the debate about the dignity of work away from the market definition of the common good has the potential to “disrupt our partisan complacencies, morally invigorate our public discourse, and move us beyond the polarized politics that four decades of market faith and meritocratic hubris have bequeathed” (p.214).

Critical reflection on the common good and a renewed debate on the dignity of work are incontestably fine ideas, but is difficult to imagine any wide-scale debate in today’s United States that would take us in the direction of a wholesale change in the prevailing meritocratic ethos.   Yet, several pragmatic steps that could narrow the glaring economic disparities between the very rich and working-class Americans might, in turn, smooth some of the sharper edges of the meritocratic ethos and thereby enhance the dignity of work.

One place to start lies in changing tax policies.  A political agenda that recognizes the dignity of work, Sandel argues, would “use the tax system to reconfigure the economy of esteem by discouraging speculation and honoring productive labor” (p.218).  A consumption or “VAT” tax would be a modest step in this direction, along with a “financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy” (p.219).  A more progressive income tax with higher rates on the highest brackets—top tax rates in the 1950s reached 91%—would also help narrow economic disparities, as would higher estate taxes, which today exempt all estate wealth up to about $12 million.  Then there is my favorite: enhanced funding for the IRS to equip the agency to better pursue high level tax fraud and avoidance.

Narrowing the economic gap can also be accomplished from below by more generous social welfare benefits, not unlike those contained in President Biden’s proposed Build Back Better Act: universal and free childcare, affordable health insurance, and extending the Child Tax credit and Earned Income Tax credit.  More job retraining programs need to be established for workers whose jobs move overseas and higher education—at both elite and non-elite institutions—needs to be made more accessible for young people from lower income families (to include pathways to relief for student debt).  Sandel mentions each briefly.  Surprisingly, he doesn’t give much attention to the potential of a reinvigorated organized labor movement to diminish some of the most glaring economic disparities in American society, which could in turn provide a tangible statement of the dignity and value of work.  The term solidarity, after all, is closely associated with the American labor movement.

* * *

Sandel’s trenchant critique of the meritocratic ethos in today’s United States leads — inescapably in my mind — to the conclusion that changing that ethos starts with narrowing the space between those at the top of the economic ladder and the ladder’s bottom half.  Until then, The Tyranny of Merit’s eloquently argued case for a more humane version of the common good could be scintillating subject matter for a (Sandel-led) philosophy seminar at Harvard, but with little likelihood of gaining traction in the world beyond.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 23, 2022

 

 

 

 

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American Polarizer

 

 

 

James Shapiro, Shakespeare in a Divided America:

What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future

(Penguin Press, 2020)

In June 2017, New York City’s Public Theater staged a production in Central Park of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, directed by Oskar Eustis, as part of the series known as Shakespeare in the Park.  As in many 21st century Shakespeare productions, non-whites had several leading roles and women played men’s parts.  Eustis’ Caesar, knifed to death in Act III, bore more than passing resemblance to President Donald J. Trump: he had strange blond hair, wore overly long red ties, tweeted from a golden bathtub, and had a wife with a Slavic accent.

A protestor interrupted one of the early productions, jumping on stage after the assassination of Caesar to shout, “This is violence against Donald Trump,” according to The New York Times.  Breitbart News picked up on the story with the headline “’’Trump’ stabbed to death.”  Fox News weighed in, expressing concern that the play encouraged violence against the president.  Corporate sponsors pulled out.  Threats were levied not only against the Public Theater and its actors, but also against other Shakespeare productions throughout the country.  A fierce but unedifying battle was fought on social media, with little regard for the ambiguities underlying Caesar’s assassination in the play.

The polemic engendered by Eustis’ Julius Caesar unsettled Columbia University Professor James Shapiro, one of academia’s foremost Shakespeare experts.  Shapiro also serves as Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater and in that capacity had advised Eustis’ team on some of the play’s textual issues. His most recent work, Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Our Future, constitutes his response to the polemic, in which he demonstrates convincingly that the frenzied reaction to the 2017 Julius Caesar performance was no aberrational moment in American history.

Starting and finishing with the 2017 performance, Shapiro identifies seven other historical episodes in which a Shakespeare play has been enmeshed in the nation’s most divisive issues: racism, slavery, class conflict, nationalism, immigration, the role of women, adultery and same sex love.  Each episode constitutes a separate chapter with a specific year. Shapiro dives deeply and vividly into the circumstances surrounding all seven, revealing a flair for writing and recounting American history that rivals what he brings to his day job as an interpreter of Shakespeare, his plays and his age.  Of the seven episodes, the most gripping is his description of the 1849 riot at New York City’s upscale Astor Place Opera House, one of the worst in the city’s history up to that point.  By comparison, the 2017 brouhaha over Julius Caesar seems like a Columbia graduate school seminar on Shakespeare.

* * *

Fueled by raw class conflict, nationalism and anti-British sentiment, the Astor Place riot was described in one newspaper as the “most sanguinary and cruel [massacre] that has ever occurred in this country,” an episode of “wholesale slaughter” (p.49)— all arising out of competing versions of Macbeth, starring competing actors.  The Briton William Macready, performing as Macbeth at Astor Place, and the American Edwin Forrest, simultaneously rendering Macbeth at the Bowery Theatre, only a few blocks away but in a decidedly rougher part of town, offered opposing approaches to playing Macbeth that seemed to highlight national differences between the United States and Great Britain: Forrest, the “brash American, Macready the sensitive Englishman” (p.66).  Macready’s “accent, gentle manliness, and propriety represented a world that was being overtaken by everything that Forrest, guiding spirit of the new and for many coarser age of Manifest Destiny, represented”  (p.66), Shapiro writes.

Shapiro’s description of the riot underscores how theatres in a rapidly growing New York City in the 1840s were democratic meeting points.  They were  “one of the few places in town where classes and races and sexes, if they did not exactly mingle, at least shared a common space. This meant, in practice, that the inexpensive benches in the pit were filled mostly by the working class, the pricier boxes and galleries were occupied by wealthier patrons, and in the tiers above, space was reserved for African Americans and prostitutes” (p.56).  The Astor Place Opera House, built in 1847, was an explicit response of New York’s upper crust to these democratizing tendencies. It did not admit unaccompanied women – there was no place for prostitutes – and it imposed a dress code.  The new rules were seen as fundamentally undemocratic, especially to the city’s large number of recent German and Irish immigrants.

While Forrest opened at the Bowery, Forrest fans somehow obtained tickets to the opening Astor Place performance—who paid for them, Shapiro indicates, remains a mystery—and began heckling Macready, telling him to get off the stage, “you English fool.”  Three days later, the heckling recurred.  But this time a crowd of about 10,000 had gathered outside, an unruly mix of Irish immigrants and native-born Americans, groups that had common cause in anti-English and anti-aristocratic sentiment (many of the Irish immigrants were escaping the Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s, often attributed to harsh British policies; see my 2014 review here of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People).  Incited by political leaders and their cronies, the crowd began to throw bricks and stones. They fought a battle with police that continued for several days, with dozens of deaths on both sides.

There were “no winners in the Astor Place riots,” Shapiro writes. The mayhem “brought into sharp relief the growing problem of income inequality in an America that preferred the fiction that it was still a classless society” (p.76).  But the riots also spoke to an “intense desire by the middle and lower classes to continue sharing the public space [of the theatre], and to oppose, violently if necessary, efforts to exclude them from it.  Shakespeare continued to matter and would remain common cultural property in America” (p.78).

In two other powerful chapters, Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s plays also intertwined with mid-19thcentury America’s excruciating attempts to come to terms with racism and slavery.  One examines abolitionist former president John Quincy Adams’ public feud in the 1830s over what he considered the abominable inter-racial relationship Shakespeare depicts in Othello between Desdemona and the dark-skinned Othello.  In the second, Shapiro shows how, in a twist that was itself Shakespearean, fate linked President Abraham Lincoln, a man who loved Shakespeare and identified with Macbeth, to his assassin, second-rate Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth, himself obsessed with both Julius Caesar and what he perceived as Lincoln’s efforts to undermine the supremacy of the white race.

John Quincy Adams, who served as president from 1825 to 1829, found Desdemona’s physical intimacy with Othello, known at the time as “amalgamation” (“miscegenation” did not enter the national vocabulary until the 1860s), to be an “unnatural passion” against the laws of nature.  Adams’ views might have gone largely unnoticed but for a dinner party in 1833, in which the 66 year old former president was seated next to 23 year old Fanny Kemble, a rising young Shakespearean actress from England.  Adams apparently thrust his views of the Othello-Desdemona relationship upon the unsuspecting Kemble.

Two years later, Kemble published a journal about her trip to the United States, in which she described her dinner conversation with the former president.  A piqued Adams felt compelled to respond, elaborating in print about how repellent he found the Desdemona-Othello relationship. The dinner conversation of two years earlier between the ex-president and the rising British actress thus became national news and, with it, Adams’ anxieties about not only the dangers of race-mixing but also the threat posed by disobedient women.

Yet, the ex-president who was so firmly against amalgamation was also a firm abolitionist.  Adams’ abolitionist convictions, Shapiro writes, “seem to have required a counterweight, and he found it in this repudiation of amalgamation” (p.20).  By directing his hostility at Desdemona rather than Othello, moreover, Adams astutely sidestepped criticizing black men, and it “proved more convenient to attack a headstrong young fictional woman than a living one” (p.20).  Although a prolific writer, Adams’ public feud with Kemble represented his sole written attempt to square his disgust for interracial marriage with his abolitionist convictions, and he chose to do so “only through his reflections on Shakespeare” (p.20).

Abraham Lincoln, from humble frontier origins with almost no formal schooling, developed a life-long passion for Shakespeare as a youth.  Shapiro notes that the adult Lincoln regularly asked friends, family, government employees, and relative strangers to listen to him recite, sometimes for hours on end – and then discuss – the same few passages from Shakespeare again and again.  John Wilkes Booth too grew up with Shakespeare, but in altogether different circumstances.

Booth’s father owned a farm in rural Maryland but was also a leading English Shakespearean actor who immigrated to the United States and became a major figure on the American stage.  His three sons followed in their father’s footsteps, with older brothers Edwin and Julius attaining genuine star status, a status that eluded their younger brother John.  Although Maryland was a border state that did not join the Confederacy, John, who had been convinced from his earliest years that whites were superior to blacks, was naturally drawn to the Southern cause.

In 1864, both the year of Lincoln’s re-election and the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Booth was stalking Lincoln and plotting his removal with Confederate operatives.  Lincoln, who had less than six months to live when he was re-elected in November, found himself brooding more and more about Macbeth in his final months, and especially about the murdered King Duncan.  Through his reflection upon the guilt-ridden Macbeth, Shapiro writes, Lincoln felt the “deep connection between the nation’s own primal sin, slavery, and the terrible cost, both collective and personal, exacted by it” (p.113)

After Booth assassinated Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington in April 1865, many of Lincoln’s enemies likened the assassin, whose favorite play was Julius Caesar, to Brutus as a man who killed a tyrant.  But Macbeth proved to be the play that the nation settled on to “give voice to what happened, and define how Lincoln was to be  remembered”(p.116).  Booth had “failed to anticipate that the man he cold-bloodedly murdered would be revered like Duncan, his faults forgotten” (p.118).  For a divided America, the universal currency of Shakespeare’s words offered what Shapiro terms a “collective catharsis” which permitted a “blood-soaked nation to defer confronting once again what Booth declared had driven him to action: the conviction that American ‘was formed for the white not for the black man’” (p.118).

The year 1916 was the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, a year in which one of his least known plays, The Tempest, was used to bolster the case for anti-immigration legislation. The Tempest centers on Caliban, who is left behind, rather than on those who immigrate.  But the point is the same, Shapiro argues: a “more hopeful community . . . depends on somebody’s exclusion” (p.125).  This notion resonated in particular with Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, an avid Shakespeare reader who led the early 20th century anti-immigration campaign.

The unusual number of performances of The Tempest during that tercentenary year meshed with the fierce debate that Lodge led in Congress over immigration.  The legislation that passed the following year curtailed the influx into the United States of immigrants representing “lesser races,” most frequently a reference to Southern and Eastern Europeans. “How Shakespeare and especially The Tempest were conscripted by those opposed to the immigration of those deemed undesirable is a lesser known part of this [immigration] story” (p.124), Shapiro writes.

Closer to the present, Shapiro has chapters on the 1948 Broadway musical, play, Kiss Me, Kate, later a film, about the cast of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, which raised the issue of the roles of women in a post-war society; and on the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, by far the most successful film to date about Shakespeare or any of his plays, which began as a film about same-sex love but evolved into one about adultery.

Kiss Me, Kate takes place at the backstage of a performance of The Taming of the Shrew.  With music and lyrics provided by Cole Porter, the Broadway musical contrasted the emerging, post-World War II view of the role of women with the conventional stereotyped gender roles in the Shakespeare play itself, thereby featuring “rival visions of the choices women faced in postwar America” (p.160).  In Shakespeare’s play, “women are urged to capitulate and their obedience to men is the norm,” while backstage “independence and unconventionality hold sway” (p.160).  Kiss Me, Kate deftly juxtaposed a “front stage Shakespeare world that mirrored the fantasy of a patriarchal, all-white America” with a backstage one that was “forthright about a woman’s say over her desires and her career” (p.162).

In the earliest version of the film Shakespeare in Love in 1992, Will found himself attracted to the idea of same sex attraction (he was actually attracted to a woman dressed as a man, but the point was that Will thought she was a he).  But same sex love was reduced to a mere hint in the final version, about how the unhappily married Will’s affair with another woman, Viola, helped him overcome his writer’s block, finish Romeo and Juliet, and go on to greatness.  Those creating and marketing Shakespeare in Love, Shapiro writes, “clearly felt that a gay or bisexual Shakespeare was not something that enough Americans in the late 1990s were ready to accept” (p.194).  For box-office success, “Shakespeare could be an adulterer, but he had to be a heterosexual one in a loveless marriage” (p.194).

Shakespeare in Love ends with Viola leaving Will and England for America, reinforcing a myth that persisted from the 1860s through the 1990s of a direct American connection to Shakespeare  — anti-immigration Senator Lodge was one of its most exuberant proponents.  This fantasy, Shapiro writes, speaks to our desire to “forge a physical connection between Shakespeare and America” as the land where his “inspiring legacy came to rest and truly thrived” (p. 193).

* * *

While finding no credible evidence for a direct American  connection to Shakespeare, Shapiro sees a legacy in Shakespeare’s plays that should inspire Americans of all hues and stripes.  Pained by the polarization he witnessed at the 2017 Julius Caesar performance, Shapiro expresses the hope that his book might “shed light on how we have arrived at our present moment, and how, in turn, we may better address that which divides and impedes us as a nation” (p.xxix).  The hope seems forlorn in light of the examples he so brilliantly details, pointing mostly in the other direction: a Shakespeare on the cutting edge of America’s social and political divisions, with his plays often doing the cutting.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

September 19, 2021

[NOTE: A nearly identical version of this review has also been posted to the Tocqueville 21 Blog, maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies]

 

 

 

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Alarming Portrait of a Ruthlessly Ambitious Crown Prince

 

 

Ben Hubbard, MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman

(Tim Dugan Books)

Mohammed Bin Salman, better known by his initials, MBS, is today the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and seems poised to become Saudi King upon the death of his ailing father, 86 year old Salman bin Abdulaziz.  Still youthful at age 36, MBS has achieved what appears to be unchallenged power within the mysterious desert kingdom, the birthplace of Islam and the location of its two most holy sites.   Internationally, MBS is indelibly associated with the gruesome October 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a murder he probably ordered, but if not almost certainly enabled.  Even apart from the Khashoggi killing, the Saudi Crown Prince has compiled a record that is awash in contradictions since his ascent to power began in 2015.

MBS seems bent on modernizing and diversifying the oil-dependent Saudi economy. He has taken highly publicized steps against corruption; clipped the wings of the clergy and religious police; and accorded Saudi women the right to drive.  Young Saudis appreciate that MBS is largely responsible for movie theatres opening and rock concerts now taking place in their country.  But MBS’s record is also one of brutal suppression of opponents, potential opponents and dissidents  – brutal even by Saudi standards.  His regime seems to be borrowing from the authoritarian Chinese model of extensive economic modernization, accompanied by limited and tightly controlled social liberalization, all without feigning even nominal interest in political democratization.  Saudi Arabia under MBS remains, like China, one of the world’s least democratic societies.

In MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed Bin Salman, Ben Hubbard, a journalist for The New York Times with extensive experience in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, has produced the first — and to date only — biography of the Saudi Crown Prince available in English.  Any biography of MBS is bound to be incomplete, given the wall of secrecy MBS has built up around himself, shielding much of the detail of what he has done and how he operates within the generally secretive royal Saudi circles.  But somehow Hubbard managed to scale that wall.  Using a wide array of sources, many anonymous, he has pieced together a remarkably easy-to-read yet riveting and alarming portrait of a man who has eliminated all apparent sources of competition.

Today’s Saudi Arabia is in unfamiliar territory, with power concentrated in a single individual, Hubbard demonstrates convincingly.  Everyone of consequence, from rich tycoons to the extensive royal Saudi family itself, answers to MBS.  There is little that Saudi Arabia’s old elites can do to counter the upstart Crown Prince.  The collegial days when seniority reigned, elder princes divided portfolios among themselves, and decisions were made through consensus are little more than memories of a by-gone era.  MBS has “destroyed that system” (p.267), Hubbard bluntly concludes.

* * *

Although MBS studied law at university and finished 4th in his class in 2007, at the time of his graduation there was little reason to expect that he would become anything more than, as Hubbard puts it, a “middling prince who dabbled in business and pitched up abroad now and then for a fancy vacation” (p.15).  Unlike many Saudi princes, the young MBS “never ran a company that made a mark.  He never acquired military experience.  He never studied at a foreign university.  He never mastered, or even became functional, in a foreign language.  He never spent significant time in the United States, Europe, or elsewhere in the West” (p.16).

All that changed in January 2015, when his father Salman became Saudi king at age 79.  MBS, 29 years old, was named Minister of Defense and placed in charge of the Royal Court, with a huge role to play in the kingdom’s finances.  Within days, he had reorganized the government, setting up separate supreme councils for economic development and security.  Although little known outside inner Saudi circles at the time, as Minister of Defense MBS was the force behind the Saudi military intervention in neighboring Yemen to suppress an on-going insurgency led by the Houthis, an Islamist group from Northern Yemen whom the Saudis had long considered proxies for Iran.

Touted as a quick and easy military intervention, the conflict in Yemen turned into a stalemate, with humanitarian and refugee crises that continue to this day. The decision to intervene militarily appears to have been that of MBS alone  — a “one man show,” as a Saudi National Guard official told Hubbard, undertaken with no advance consultation, either internally or with the Saudis’ traditional military benefactors in Washington.  The National Guard official told Hubbard that the Saudi intervention was “less about protecting the kingdom than burnishing MBS’ reputation as a tough leader” (p.91).

In April 2017, King Salman appointed MBS’ cousin, the considerably older Mohammed bin Nayef, known as MBN, as Crown Prince, with MBS named “Deputy Crown Prince,” second in line to the throne.  MBN had been the Saudis’ official voice and face in the war on terror, with deep CIA contacts.  The Americans thought he was the perfect “next generation” king.  But MBS had other ideas.  Although the Deputy Crown Prince remained outwardly deferential to his cousin, he appears to have been plotting MBN’s ouster at least from the time his cousin was appointed Crown Prince.  When the plot succeeded in June 2017, with MBS replacing his cousin as Saudi Crown Prince, the official Saudi version was that the appointment was the decision of King Salman alone.

Hubbard tells an altogether different story.  In his account, MBS in effect kidnapped his cousin to force his abdication.  When MBN refused to abdicate, a council friendly to MBS met to formally “ratify” what was presented as a “decision” of the king to make MBS Crown Prince.  Only then did MBN give in, signing a document of abdication.  He was placed under house arrest by guards loyal to MBS and removed of his counterterrorism and security duties, which were “reassigned” to a new security body that reported to MBS.   His bank accounts were frozen and he was stripped of many of his assets.  In March 2020, MBN was arrested on charges of treason and has not been heard from since, held in a location unknown even to his lawyers.

MBS attracted world attention few months later, in November 2017, when he invited many fellow members of the royal family, along with other movers and shakers within the kingdom, to the posh Ritz-Carleton hotel in Riyadh for what was billed as an anti-corruption conference.  Anxious to meet MBS and obtain insider advantages, the attendees eagerly came to Riyadh, only to be all-but-arrested and forcibly detained when they arrived.  The detentions at what was dubbed the world’s most luxurious prison lasted weeks and sometimes months.  By mid-February 2018, most of the detainees had “settled” with the government and were allowed to leave.  The Ritz detainments were what Hubbard describes as a pivot point in MBS’ ascendancy, an “economic earthquake that shook the pillars of the kingdom’s economy and rattled its major figures” (p.200), all of whom thereafter answered to MBS.

Less noticed internationally was a surprise royal decree stripping the Wahhabi religious police of many of their powers.  Henceforth, they could not arrest, question, or pursue subjects except in cooperation with the regular police. The decree, part of an on-going effort to curtail the authority of Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative religious establishment, “defanged the clerics,” Hubbard writes, “clearing the way for vast changes [which] they most certainly would have opposed”  (p.63).  The changes involved some wildly popular measures, especially the opening of commercial cinemas and other entertainment venues, such as concerts and opera.  Equally popular was a decree allowing Saudi women to drive.

For decades, activist Saudi women had challenged, often at considerable cost to themselves, a ban on driving that was only a Wahhabi religious dictate, not codified officially in Saudi law (in 2017, I reviewed here the memoir of Manal Al-Sharif, one such activist).  But when MBS saw fit to declare women eligible to drive in June 2018, he did not give any credit to the activist women. They were never thanked publicly or even acknowledged; some were jailed almost simultaneously with the lifting of the ban.

MBS’ grandiose and upbeat plans for modernizing the Saudi economy by shifting away from its oil-dependency found expression in his Vision 2030 document.  Prepared in collaboration with a phalanx of international consultants, Vision 2030 projected that the kingdom would create new industries, rely on renewable energy, and manufacture its own military equipment, all in an effort to “transform itself into a global investment giant, and establish itself as a hub for Europe, Asia, and Africa” (p.67).  MBS presented his plan when he accompanied his father to a meeting in Washington with President Barack Obama, where it was perceived as a slick set of talking points, without much depth.

Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia and MBS all fared better when the administration of Donald Trump replaced the Obama administration in early 2017.  One of the greatest ironies of the Trump era, Hubbard writes, was that Trump, “after demeaning Saudi Arabia and its faith throughout the campaign, would, in the course of a few months, anoint Saudi Arabia a preferred American partner and the lynchpin of his Middle East policy” (p.107).  Saudi-American relations improved in the Trump years in no small part because of the warm if unlikely relationship that MBS struck with the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, two young “princelings,” as Hubbard describes them, “an Arab from central Arabia and a Jew from New Jersey”(p.113).

The two princelings were “both in their thirties and scions of wealthy families who had been chosen by older relatives to wield great power.  They both lacked extensive experience in government, and saw little need to be bound by its strictures” (p.113). Their relationship blossomed because Kushner viewed MBS as someone who could help unlock peace between Israel and Arabs, while MBS expected Kushner to push the United States to champion Vision 2030, stand up to Iran, and support him as he sought to consolidate power.  But the Khassoggi killing in October 2018 temporarily flummoxed even the Trump administration.

Khashoggi had served briefly as one of MBS’s confidantes as the Crown Prince began his rise to power.  Their initial meeting led Khashoggi to believe that MBS was open to openness and had given him a “mandate to write about, and even critique, the prince’s reforms” (p.78).  But as Khasshoggi became a more visible critic of the regime from abroad, mostly in the United States where he was a permanent legal resident and wrote for The Washington Post, the relationship deteriorated.  Hubbard was an associate and friend of Khashoggi and dedicates a substantial portion of the last third of his book to the slain journalist and what we know about his killing.

Hubbard presents a plausible argument that MBS may not have actually ordered the killing  — essentially that MBS’s team was carrying out what they thought the boss wanted, without being explicitly ordered to do so.  Even so, MBS had “fostered the environment in which fifteen government agents and a number of Saudi diplomats believed that butchering a nonviolent writer inside a consulate was the appropriate response to some newspaper columns” (p.280).  The Khassoggi’s killing served as a wake up call for the world.  It “flushed away much of the good will and excitement that MBS had spent the last four years generating”  (p.276).

In the aftermath of the killing, President Trump issued a statement in which he insisted that United States security alliances and massive Saudi purchases of US weaponry were more important than holding top Saudi leadership accountable.  “We do have an ally, and I want to stick with an ally that in many ways has been very good,” Trump was quoted as saying.   After publication of Hubbard’s book, a new administration led by Joe Biden arrived in Washington amidst hopes that the United States would recalibrate its relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly in light of the known facts about the Khassoggi killing.

* * *

Those hopes increased in February of this year when the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a two-page summation of its investigation into the killing (the Trump administration had withheld the full report for nearly two years).  The ODNI concluded that MBS had “approved” the Khashoggi killing.  But its  conclusion was derived inferentially rather than from any “smoking gun” evidence it chose to reveal publicly.

The ODNI based its conclusion on MBS’ “control of decision-making in the Kingdom since 2017, the direct involvement of a key adviser and members of Muhammad bin Salman’s protective detail in the operation, and the Crown Prince’s support for using violent measures to silence dissidents abroad, including Khashoggi.” Given MBS’s “absolute control of the Kingdom’s security and intelligence organizations,” the ODNI found it “highly unlikely that Saudi officials would have carried out an operation of this nature without the Crown Prince’s authorization.”

To the disappointment of human rights activists, the Biden administration nonetheless determined that it would impose no direct punishment on MBS.  Sanctioning MBS, according to an anonymous senior official quoted in The Washington Post, would have been viewed in the kingdom as an “enormous insult,” making an ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia “extremely difficult, if not impossible.”  After having looked at the MBS case extremely closely over the course of about five weeks, the senior official said that the Biden foreign policy team had reached the “unanimous conclusion” that there was “another more effective means to dealing with these issues going forward.”  As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated at a public press conference, sounding eerily like former President Trump, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is “bigger than any one individual.”

The Biden administration did identify 76 other Saudi officials subject to sanctions for their presumed roles in the killing.  President Biden also announced the end of US military supplies and intelligence sharing for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. He has moreover refused to speak directly with MBS, restricting his contact to his father, King Salman.  For the time being, MBS’ Washington contacts as the Saudi defense minister stop at the level of the US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin.

* * *

These protocol decisions will have to be revisited if, as expected, MBS becomes king when his ailing father dies.  One way or another, the United States will need to find a way to deal with a man likely to be a consequential figure on the world stage for decades to come.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

August 31, 2021

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Biography, Politics

Converging Visions of Equality

 

Peniel E. Joseph, The Sword and the Shield:

The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Basic Books)

[NOTE: A version of this review has been posted to the Tocqueville 21 blog: https://tocqueville21.com/books/king-malcolm-x-civil-rights/.  Tocqueville 21 takes its name from the 19th century French aristocrat who gave Americans much insight into their democracy.  It seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  The site is maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies].

Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X met only once, a chance encounter at the US Capitol on March 26, 1964.  The two men were at the Capitol to listen to a debate over what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a measure that banned discrimination in employment, mandated equal access to most public facilities, and had the potential to be the most consequential piece of federal legislation on behalf of equality for African-Americans since the Reconstruction era nearly a century earlier.  There wasn’t much substance to the encounter. “Well, Malcolm, good to see you,” King said.  “Good to see you,” Malcolm responded. There may have been some additional light chitchat, but not much more.  Fortunately, photographers were present, and we are the beneficiaries of several iconic photos of the encounter.

That encounter at the Capitol constitutes the starting point for Peniel Joseph’s enthralling The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, a work that has some of the indicia of a dual biography, albeit highly condensed.  But Joseph, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has written prolifically on modern African American history, places his emphasis on the two men’s intellectual journeys.  Drawing heavily from their speeches, writings and public debates, Joseph challenges the conventional view of the two men as polar opposites who represented competing visions of full equality for African Americans.  The conventional view misses the nuances and evolution of both men’s thinking, Joseph argues, obscuring the ways their politics and activism came to overlap.  Each plainly influenced the other.  “Over time, each persuaded the other to become more like himself” (p.13).

My final stages of this review on the convergence of the two men’s thinking coincided with the trial of Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd last May, along with the recent killing of still another black man, Daunte Wright, in the same Minneapolis metropolitan area.  Watching and reading about events in Minneapolis, I couldn’t help concluding that the three familiar words “Black Lives Matter”  –  the movement that led demonstrations across the country and the world last year to protest the Floyd killing — also neatly encapsulate the commonalities that Joseph identifies in The Sword and the Shield.

* * *

In March 1964, King was considered the “single most influential civil rights leader in the nation” (p.2), Joseph writes, whereas Malcolm, an outlier in the mainstream civil rights movement, was “perhaps the most vocal critic of white supremacy ever produced by black America” (p.4).    The two men shared extraordinary rhetorical and organizational skills.  Each was a charismatic leader and deep thinker who articulated in galvanizing terms his vision of full equality for African Americans.  But these visions sometimes appeared to be not just polar opposites but mutually exclusive.

In the conventional view of the time, King, the Southern Baptist preacher with a Ph.D. in theology, deserved mainstream America’s support as the civil rights leader who sought integration of African Americans into the larger white society, and unfailingly advocated non-violence as the most effective means to that end.  White liberals held King in high esteem for his almost religious belief in the potential of the American political system to close the gap between its lofty democratic rhetoric and the reality of pervasive racial segregation, discrimination and second-class citizenship, a belief Malcolm considered naïve.

A high school dropout who had served time in jail, Malcolm became the most visible spokesman for the Nation of Islam (NOI), an idiosyncratic American religious organization that preached black empowerment and racial segregation.  Often termed a “black nationalist,” Malcolm found the key to full equality in political and economic empowerment of African American communities.  He considered racial integration a fool’s errand and left open the possibility of violence as a means of defending against white inflicted violence.  He seemed to embrace some form of racial separation as the most effective means to achieve full equality and improve the lives of black Americans – a position that the media found to be ironically similar to that of the hard-core racial segregationists with whom both he and King were battling.

But Joseph demonstrates that Malcolm was moving in King’s direction at the time of their March 1964 encounter.  Coming off a bitter fallout with the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad, he had cut his ties with the organization just months before the encounter.  He had traveled to Washington to demonstrate his support for the civil rights legislation under consideration.  Thinking he could make a contribution to the mainstream civil rights movement, Malcolm sought an alliance with King and his allies.  Although that alliance never materialized, King began to embrace positions identified with Malcolm after the latter’s assassination less than 11 months later, stressing in particular that economic justice needed to be a component of full equality for African Americans.  King also became an outspoken opponent of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, of which Malcolm long been had critical.

Singular events had thrust both men onto the national stage.  King rose to prominence as a newly-ordained minister who at age 26 became the most audible voice of the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, after Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white person.  Malcolm’s rise to fame came in 1959 through a nationally televised 5-part CBS documentary on the NOI, The Hate that Hate Produced, hosted by then little-known Mike Wallace.  The documentary was an immediate sensation.  It was a one-sided indictment of the NOI, Joseph indicates, intended to scare and outrage whites.  But it made Malcolm and his NOI boss Elijah Muhammad heroes within black communities across the country.  King seemed to buy into the documentary’s theme, describing the NOI as an organization dedicated to “black supremacy,” which he considered “as bad as white supremacy” (p.85).

But even at this time, each man had connected his US-based activism to anti-colonial movements that were altering the face of Africa and Asia.  Both recognized that the systemic nature of racial oppression “transcended boundaries of nation-states” (p.73).    Malcolm made his first trip abroad in 1959, to Egypt and Nigeria.  The trip helped him “internationalize black political radicalism,” by linking domestic black politics to the “larger world of anti-colonial and Third World liberation movements” (p.18-19), as Joseph puts it.  King, whose philosophy of non-violence owed much to Mahatmas Gandhi, visited India in 1959, characterizing himself as a “‘pilgrim’ coming to pay homage to a nation liberated from colonial oppression against seemingly insurmountable odds”  (p.80).   After the visit, he “proudly claimed the Third World as an integral part of a worldwide social justice movement” (p.80).

After his break with the NOI and just after his chance encounter with King at the US Capitol, Malcolm took a transformative five-week tour of Africa and the Middle East in the spring of 1964.  The tour put him on the path to becoming a conventional Muslim and prompted him to back away from anti-white views he had expressed while with the NOI.  In Mecca, Saudi Arabia, he professed to see “sincere and true brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their color.” (p.188).   He went on to Nigeria and “dreamed of becoming the leader of a political revolution steeped in the anti-colonial fervor sweeping Africa” (p.191).  Malcolm’s time in Africa, Joseph concludes, “changed his mind, body, and soul . . . The African continent intoxicated Malcolm X and informed his political dreams” (p.192-93).

By the time of their March 1964 meeting, moreover, the two men had begun to recognize each other’s potential.  After over a decade of forcefully criticizing the mainstream civil rights movement, Malcolm now recognized King’s goals as his own but chose different methods to get there.  Malcolm also had a subtle effect on King.  The “more he ridiculed and challenged King publicly,” Joseph writes, the more King “reaffirmed the strength of non-violence as a weapon of peace capable of transforming American democracy” (p.155).  King for his part had begun to look outside the rigidly segregated South and toward major urban centers in the North, Malcolm’s bailiwick, as possible sites of protest that would expand the freedom struggle beyond its southern roots.

Joseph cites three instances in which Malcolm extended written invitations to King, all of which went unanswered. But in early February 1965, after Malcolm had participated in a panel discussion with King’s wife, King concluded that the time had come to meet with his formidable peer.  Later that month, alas, Malcolm was gunned down in New York, almost certainly the work of the NOI, although details of the assassination remain murky to this day.

In the three years remaining to him after Malcolm’s assassination, King borrowed liberally from the black nationalist’s playbook, embracing in particular the notion of economic justice as a necessary component of full equality for African Americans.  Although he never wavered in his commitment to non-violence, King saw his cause differently after the uprising in the Watts section of Los Angeles in the summer of 1965.  Watts “transformed King,” Joseph writes, making clear that civil unrest in Northern cities was a “product of institutional racism and poverty that required far more material and political resources than ever imagined by the architects of the Great Society” (p.235).  King also began to speak out publicly in 1965 against the escalation of America’s military commitment in Vietnam, marking the beginning of the end of his close relationship with President Johnson.

King delivered his most pointed criticism of the war on April 4, 1967, precisely one year prior to his assassination, at the Riverside Church in New York City, abutting Harlem, Malcolm’s home base.  Linking the war to the prevalence of racism and poverty in the United States, King lamented the “cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.” (p.267).  Joseph terms King’s Riverside Church address the “boldest political decision of his career” (p.268).  It was the final turning point for King, marking his formal break with mainstream politics and his “full transition” from a civil rights leader to a “political revolutionary” who “refused to remain quiet in the face of domestic and international crises” (p.268).

After Riverside, in his last year, King became what Joseph describes as America’s “most well-known anti-war activist” (p.271).  King lent a Nobel Prize-winner’s prestige to a peace movement struggling to find its voice at a time when most Americans still supported the war.  Simultaneously, he pushed for federally guaranteed income, decent and racially integrated housing and public schools — what he termed a “revolution of values” (p.287).  During this period, Stokely Carmichael, who once worked with King in Mississippi (and is the subject of a Joseph biography), coined the term “Black Power.”  In Joseph’s view, the Black Power movement represented the natural extension of Malcolm’s political philosophy, post-Malcolm. Although King frequently criticized the movement in his final years, he nonetheless found himself in agreement with much of its agenda.

In his final months. King supported a Poor People’s march on Washington, D.C.  He was in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968 on behalf of striking sanitation workers, overwhelmingly African-American, who held jobs but were seeking better salaries and more humane working conditions, when he too was felled by an assassin’s bullet.

* * *

After reading Joseph’s masterful synthesis, it is easy to imagine Malcolm supporting King’s efforts in Memphis that April.  And if the two men were still with us today, it is it is equally easy to imagine both embracing warmly the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

April 20, 2021

 

 

 

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, Political Theory, United States History

Digging Deeply Into The Idea of Democracy

 

James Miller, Can Democracy Work:

A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World

(Farrar, Strauss & Co.,) 

and

William Davies, Nervous States:

Democracy and the Decline of Reason

(WW Norton & Co.)

[NOTE: A condensed version of this review has also been posted to a blog known as Tocqueville 21: https:/tocqueville21.com/books/can-democracy-work.  Taking its name from the 19th century French aristocrat who gave Americans much insight into their democracy, Tocqueville 21 seeks to encourage in-depth thinking about democratic theory and practice, with particular but by no means exclusive emphasis on the United States and France.  The sight is maintained in connection with the American University of Paris’ Tocqueville Review and its Center for Critical Democracy Studies.  I anticipate regular postings on Tocqueville 21 going forward.]

Did American democracy survive the presidency of Donald Trump?  Variants on this question, never far from the surface during that four-year presidency, took on terrifying immediacy in the wake of the assault on the US Capitol this past January. The question seems sure to occupy historians, commentators and the public during the administration of Joe Biden and beyond.  If nothing else, the Trump presidency and now its aftermath bring home the need to dig deeply into the very idea of democracy, looking more closely at its history, theory, practice, and limitations, asking what are its core principles and what it takes to sustain them.  But we might shorten the inquiry to a single, pragmatic question: can democracy work?

This happens to be the title of James Miller’s Can Democracy Work: A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World.  But it could also be the title of William Davies’ Nervous States: Democracy and the Decline of Reason. The two works, both written during the Trump presidency, fall short of providing definitive or even reassuring answers to the question that Miller, professor of politics and liberal studies at New York’s New School for Social Research, has taken for his title.  But each casts enriching yet altogether different light on democratic theory and practice.

Miller’s approach is for the most part historical. Through a series of selected – and by his own admission “Eurocentric” (M.12) — case studies, he explores how the term “democracy” has evolved over the centuries, beginning with ancient Athens.  The approach of Davies, a political economist at Goldsmiths, University of London, is more difficult to categorize, but might be described as philosophical.  It is grounded in the legacy of 17th century philosophers René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, his departure point for a complex and not always easy to follow explanation of the roots of modern populism, that combustible mixture of nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear that seemed to have triumphed at the time of the 2016 Brexit vote in Great Britain and the election of Donald Trump in the United States later that year.  Davies is most concerned about two manifestations of the “decline of reason,” his subtitle: the present day lack of confidence and trust in experts and democratically elected representatives; and the role of emotion and fear in contemporary politics.

Miller frames his historical overview with a paradox: despite blatant anti-democratic tendencies across the globe, a generalized notion of democracy as the most desirable form of government retains a strong hold on much, maybe most, of the world’s population.  From Myanmar and Hong Kong to the throng that invaded the US Capitol in January, nearly every public demonstration against the status quo utilizes the language of democracy.  Almost all the world’s political regimes, from the United States to North Korea, claim to embody some form of democracy.  “As imperfect as all the world’s systems are that claim to be democratic,” Miller writes, in today’s world the ideal of democracy is “more universally honored than ever before in human history” (M.211).

But the near-universal adhesion to this ideal is relatively recent, dating largely from the period since World War II, when the concept of democracy came to embrace self-determination of populations that previously had lived under foreign domination.  Throughout most of history, democracy was associated with the danger of mob rule, often seen as a “virtual synonym for violent anarchy” (M.59).   Modern democracy in Miller’s interpretation begins with the 18thcentury French and American Revolutions.  Revolts against the status quo are the heart of modern democracy, he contends.  They are not simply blemishes on the “peaceful forward march toward a more just society” (M.10).  Since the early 19th century, representative government, where voters elect their leaders  — “indirect democracy” – has come to be considered the only practical form of democratic governance for populous nation-states.

* * *

But in 5th and 4th century BCE Athens, where Miller’s case studies begin, what we now term direct democracy prevailed.  More than any modern democracy, a community of near absolute equality existed among Athenian citizens, even though citizenship was tightly restricted, open only to a fraction of the adult male population.  Many of Athens’ rivals, governed by oligarchs and aristocrats, considered the direct democracy practiced in Athens as a formula for mob rule, a view that persisted throughout the intervening centuries.  By the late 18th century, however, a competing view had emerged in France that some sort of democratic rule could serve as a check on monarchy and aristocracy.

In revolutionary Paris in early 1793, in the midst of the bloodiest phase of the French Revolution, the Marquis de Condorcet led the drafting of a proposed constitution that Miller considers the most purely democratic instrument of the 18th century and maybe of the two centuries since.  Condorcet’s draft constitution envisioned a wide network of local assemblies in which any citizen could propose legislation.  Although not implemented, the thinking behind Condorcet’s draft gave impetus to the notion of representative government as a system “preferable to, and a necessary check on, the unruly excesses of a purely direct democracy” (p.M.86).

The debate in the early 19th century centered on suffrage, the question of who gets to vote, with democracy proponents pushing to remove or lesson property requirements for extending the franchise to ever-wider segments of the (male) adult population.  A cluster of additional institutions and practices came to be considered essential to buttress an extended franchise, among them free and fair elections, protection of the human rights of all citizens, and adherence to the rule of law.  But Miller’s 19th century case studies are instances of short term set backs for the democratic cause: the failure of the massive popular movement known as Chartism to extend the franchise significantly in Britain in the 1840s; and the 1848 uprisings across the European continent, at once nationalist and democratic, which sought representative political institutions and something akin to universal male suffrage, but failed everywhere but in France to extend the franchise.

In the second half of the 19th century, moreover, proponents of democracy found themselves confronting issues of economic freedom and social justice in a rapidly industrializing Europe.  Karl Marx, for one, whose Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, doubted whether democracy – “bourgeois democracy,” he termed it – could alleviate widespread urban poverty and the exploitation of workers.  But the most spectacular failure among Miller’s case studies was the Paris Commune of 1871, which collapsed into disastrous violence amidst tensions between economic and political freedom.  Ironically, the fear of violence that the Commune unleashed led to a series of democratizing political reforms throughout Europe, with the right to vote extended to more male citizens.  The organization of workers into unions and the rise of political parties complemented extension of the franchise and contributed to the process of democratization in late 19th and early 20th century Europe.

In the United States, a case apart in Miller’s case studies, a genuinely democratic culture had taken hold by the 1830s, as the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville recognized during his famous 1831-32 tour, ostensibly to study prison conditions.  As early as the 1790s, there was a tendency to use the terms “republic” and “democracy” as synonyms for the American constitutional system, even though none of the drafters of the 1787 Constitution thought of himself as a democrat.  James Madison derided what he termed pure democracies, “which have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” (M.99).  The constitution’s drafters envisioned a representative government in which voters would select a “natural aristocracy,” as John Adams put it, comprising “men of virtue and talent, who would govern on behalf of all, with a dispassionate regard for the common good” (M.92).

The notion of a natural aristocracy all but disappeared when Andrew Jackson split Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party’s in two in his successful run for the presidency in 1828.  Running as a “Democrat,” Jackson confirmed that “democracy” from that point forward would be an “unambiguously honorific term in the American political lexicon” (M. 110), Miller writes.  It was during Jackson’s presidency that Tocqueville arrived in the United States.

Aware of how the institution of slavery undermined America’s democratic pretensions, Tocqueville nonetheless saw in the restlessness of Jacksonian America what Miller describes as a “new kind of society, in which the principle of equality was pushed to its limits” (M.115).  As practiced in America, democracy was a “way of life, and a shared faith, instantiated in other forms of association, in modes of thought and belief, in the attitudes and inclinations of individuals who have absorbed a kind of democratic temperament” (M.7).  Tocqueville nonetheless seemed to have had the Jacksonian style of democracy in mind when he warned against what he called “democratic despotism,” where a majority could override the rights and liberties of minorities.

Woodrow Wilson’s plea in 1917 to the US Congress that the United States enter World War I to “make the world safe for democracy” constitutes the beginning of the 20thcentury idea of democracy as a universal value, Miller argues.  But Wilson’s soaring faith in democracy turned out to be “astonishingly parochial” (M.176).  The post-World War I peace conferences in 1919 left intact the colonies of Britain and France, “under the pretext that the nonwhite races needed more time to become fully mature peoples, fit for democratic institutions” (M.190-91).

The Covenant of the League of Nations, the organization that Wilson hoped would be instrumental in preventing future conflict, “encouraged an expectation of self-determination as a new and universal political right” (M.191), even as the isolationist Congress thwarted Wilson’s plan for United States membership in the League.  For countries living under colonial domination, the expectation of self-determination was heightened after the more murderous World War II, particularly through the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Although a text without enforcement mechanisms, the declaration helped inspire human rights and independence movements across the globe.

Miller finishes by explaining why he remains attracted to modern attempts at direct democracy, resembling in some senses those of ancient Athens, particularly the notion of “participatory democracy” which influenced him as a young 1960s radical and which he saw replicated in the Occupy Wall Street Movement of ten years ago.  But direct democracy, he winds up concluding, is no more viable today than it was at the time of the French Revolution. It is not possible to create a workable participatory democracy model in a large, complex society.  Any “serious effort to implement such a structure will require a delegation of authority and the selection of representatives – in short the creation of an indirect democracy, and at some distance from most participants”  (M.232-33).

The Trump presidency, Miller argues, is best considered “not as a protest against modern democracy per se, but against the limits of modern democracy” (M.239).  Like Brexit, it expressed, in an “inchoate and potentially self-defeating” manner, a desire for “more democracy, for a larger voice for ordinary people” (M.240) – not unlike the participatory democracy campaigns of the 1960s.  At the time of Trump’s January 2017 inauguration, Miller appreciated that he remained free to “protest a political leader whose character and public policies I found repugnant.”  But he realized that he was “also expected to acknowledge, and peacefully coexist with, compatriots who preferred Trump’s policies and personal style.  This is a part of what it means to be a citizen in a liberal democracy” (M.240)  —  a portentous observation in light of the January 2021 assault on the US Capitol.

Democracies, Miller concludes, need to “explore new ways to foster a tolerant ethos that accepts, and can acknowledge, that there are many incompatible forms of life and forms of politics, not always directly democratic or participatory, in which humans can flourish” (M.234).  Although he doesn’t say so explicitly, this sounds much like an acknowledgement that present day populism is here to stay.  By an altogether different route, Davies reaches roughly the same conclusion.

* * *

Davies is far from the first to highlight the challenges to democracy when voters appear to abandon reason for emotion; nor the first to try to explain why the claims of government experts and elected representatives are met with increased suspicion and diminished trust today.  But he may be the first to tie these manifestations of the “decline of reason” to the disintegration of binary philosophical distinctions that Descartes and Hobbes established in the 17thcentury — Descartes between mind and body, Hobbes between war and peace.

For Descartes, the mind existed independently of the body.  Descartes was obsessed by the question whether what we see, hear, or smell is actually real.  He “treated physical sensations with great suspicion, in contrast to the rational principles belonging to the mind” (D.xiii).  Descartes gave shape to the modern philosophical definition of a rational scientific mind, Davies argues, but to do so, he had to discount sensations and feelings.  Hobbes, exhausted by the protracted religious Thirty Years War on the European continent and civil wars in England, argued that the central purpose of the state was to “eradicate feelings of mutual fear that would otherwise trigger violence” (D.xiii).  If people don’t feel safe, Hobbes seemed to contend, it “doesn’t matter whether they are objectively safe or not; they will eventually start to take matters into their own hands” (D.xvi).

Davies shows how Descartes and Hobbes helped create the conceptual foundation for the modern administrative state, fashioned by merchants who introduced “strict new rules for how their impressions should be recorded and spoke of, to avoid exaggeration and distortion, using numbers and public record-keeping” (D.xiii), not least for more efficient tax collection.  Using numbers in this pragmatic way, these 17th century merchants were the forerunners of what we today call experts, especially in the disciplines of statistics and economics, with an ability to “keep personal feelings separate from their observations” (D.xiii).

The conclusions of such experts, denominated and accepted as “facts,” established the value of objectivity in public life, providing a basis for consensus among people who otherwise have little in common.  Facts provided by economists, statisticians, and scientists thus have what for Hobbes was a peace-building function; they are “akin to contracts, types of promises that experts make to each other and the public, that records are accurate and free from any personal bias or political agenda” (D.124), Davies explains.  But if democracy is to provide effective mechanisms for the resolution of disputes and disagreements, there must be “some commonly agreed starting point, that all are willing to recognize,” he warns. “Some things must be outside politics, if peaceful political disputes are to be possible” (D.62).

Davies makes the bold argument that the rise of emotion in contemporary politics and the inability of experts and facts to settle disputes today are the consequences of the break down of the binary distinctions of Descartes and Hobbes.  The brain, through rapid advances in neuroscience, rather than Descartes’ concept of mind, has become the main way we have come to understand ourselves, demonstrating the “importance of emotion and physiology to all decision making” (D.xii).  The distinction between war and peace has also become less clear-cut since Hobbes’ time.

Davies is concerned particularly with how the type of knowledge used in warfare has been coopted for political purposes. Warfare knowledge doesn’t have the luxury of “slow, reasonable open public debate of the sort that scientific progress has been built upon.”  It is “shrouded in secrecy, accompanied by deliberate attempts to deceive the enemy. It has to be delivered at the right place and right time” (D.124), with emotions playing a crucial role.  Military knowledge is thus weaponized knowledge.  Political propaganda has all the indicia of military knowledge at work for political advantage.  But so does much of today’s digital communication.  Political argument conducted online “has come to feel more like conflict” (D.193), Davies observes, with conspiracy theories in particular given wide room to flourish.

The upshot is that democracies are being transformed today by the power of feeling and emotion, in “ways that cannot be ignored or reversed” (D. xvii-xviii).  Objective claims about the economy, society, the human body and nature “can no longer be successfully insulated from emotions”  (D.xiv).  While we can lament the decline of modern reason, “as if emotions have overwhelmed the citadel of truth like barbarians” (D.xv), Davies suggests that we would do better to “value democracy’s capacity to give voice to fear, pain and anxiety that might otherwise be diverted in far more destructive directions”  (D.xvii).

Yet Davies leaves unanswered the question whether there are there limits on the forms of fear, pain and anxiety to which democracy should give voice.  He recognizes the potency of nationalism as a “way of understanding the life of society in mythical terms” (D.87).  But should democracy strive to give voice to nationalism’s most xenophobic and exclusionary forms?  Nowhere does he address racism which, most social scientists now agree, was a stronger contributing factor to the 2016 election of Donald Trump than economic disparity, and it is difficult to articulate any rationale for giving racism a voice in a modern democracy.

In countering climate change skepticism, a primary example of popular mistrust of expert opinion and scientific consensus, Davies rejects renewed commitment to scientific expertise and rational argument – “bravado rationalism,” he calls it  — as insufficient to overcome the “liars and manipulators” (D.108) who cast doubt on the reality of climate change.  But he doesn’t spell out what would be sufficient. The book went to press prior to the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Were Davies writing today, he likely would have addressed similar resistance to expert claims about fighting the pandemic, such as the efficacy of wearing masks.

Writing today, moreover, Davies might have used an expression other than “barbarians storming the citadel of truth,” an expression that now brings to mind last January’s assault on the US Capitol.  While those who took part in the assault itself can be dealt with through the criminal justice process, with all the due process protections that a democracy affords accused law breakers, an astounding number of Americans who did not participate remain convinced that, despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary, Joe Biden and the Democrats “stole” the 2020 presidential election from Donald Trump.

* * *

How can a democracy work when there is widespread disagreement with an incontrovertible fact, especially one that goes to democracy’s very heart, in this case the result of the vote and the peaceful transfer of power after an orderly election?  What if a massive number of citizens refuse to accept the obligation that Miller felt when his candidate lost in 2016, to acknowledge and peacefully coexist with the winning side?  Davies’ trenchant but quirky analysis provides no obvious solution to this quandary.  If we can find one, it will constitute an important step in answering the broader question whether American democracy survived the Trump presidency.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

March 17, 2021

 

7 Comments

Filed under American Politics, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, United States History

Liberals, Where Are They Coming From?

 

Helena Rosenblatt, The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome

To the Twenty-First Century

(Princeton University Press) 

             If you spent any time watching or listening to the political conventions of the two major American parties last month,  you probably did not hear the word “liberal” much, if at all, during the Democratic National Convention.  But you may have heard the word frequently at the Republican National Convention, with liberalism perhaps described as something akin to a “disease or a poison,” or a danger to American “moral values.”  These, however, are not the words of Donald Trump Jr. or Rudy Giuliani, but rather of Helena Rosenblatt, a professor at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, in The Lost History of Liberalism: From Ancient Rome to the Twenty-First Century (at p.265).  American Democrats, Rosenblatt further notes, avoid using the word “liberal” to describe themselves “for fear that it will render them unelectable” (p.265). What the heck is wrong with being a “liberal”? What is “liberalism” after all?

Rosenblatt argues that we are “muddled” about what we mean by “liberalism”:

People use the term in all sorts of different ways, often unwittingly, sometime intentionally. They talk past each other, precluding any possibility of reasonable debate. It would be good to know what we are speaking about when we speak about liberalism (p.1).

Clarifying the meaning of the terms “liberal” and “liberalism” is the lofty goal Rosenblatt sets for herself in this ambitious work, a work that at its heart is an etymological stud — a “word history of liberalism” (p.3) — in which she explores how these two terms have evolved in political and social discourse over the centuries, from Roman to present times.

The word “liberal,” Rosenblatt argues, took on an overtly political connotation only in the early 19th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Up until that time, beginning with the Roman authors Cicero and Seneca, through the medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe, “liberal” was a word referring to one’s character.  Being “liberal” meant demonstrating the “virtues of a citizen, showing devotion to the common good, and respecting the importance of mutual connectedness” (p.8-9).  During the 18th century Enlightenment, the educated public began for the first time to speak not only of liberal individuals but also of liberal sentiments, ideas, ways of thinking, even constitutions.

Liberal political principles emerged as part of an effort to safeguard the achievements of the French Revolution and to protect them from the forces of extremism — from the revolution’s most radical proponents on one side to its most reactionary opponents on the other.  These principles included support for the broad ideals of the French Revolution, “liberté, égalité, fraternité;” opposition to absolute monarchy and aristocratic and ecclesiastical privilege; and such auxiliary concepts as popular sovereignty, constitutional and representative government, the rule of law and individual rights, particularly freedom of the press and freedom of religion.  Beyond that, what could be considered a liberal principle was “somewhat vague and debatable” (p.52).

Rosenblatt is strongest on how 19th century liberalism evolved, particularly in France and Germany, but also in Great Britain and the United States.  France and French thinkers were the center points in the history of 19th century liberalism, she contends, while Germany’s contributions are “usually underplayed, if not completely ignored” (p.3).  More cursory is her treatment of liberalism in the 20th century, packed into the last two of eight chapters and an epilogue.  The 20th century in her interpretation saw the United States and Great Britain become centers of liberal thinking, eclipsing France and Germany.  But since World War II, she argues, liberalism as defined in America has limited itself narrowly to the protection of individual rights and interests, without the moralism or  dedication to the common good that were at the heart of 19th and early 20th century liberalism.

From the early 19th century through World War II, Rosenblatt insists, liberalism had “nothing to do with the atomistic individualism we hear of today.”  For a century and a half, most liberals were “moralists” who “never spoke about rights without stressing duties” (p.4).  People have rights because they have duties.  Liberals rejected the idea that a viable community could be “constructed on the basis of self-interestedness alone” (p.4).  Being a liberal meant “being a giving and a civic-minded citizen; it meant understanding one’s connectedness to other citizens and acting in ways conducive to the common good” (p.3-4).  The moral content to the political liberalism that emerged after the French Revolution constitutes the “lost” aspect of the history that Rosenblatt seeks to bring to light.

Throughout much of the 19th century, however, being a liberal did not mean being a democrat in the modern sense of the term.  Endorsing popular sovereignty, as did most early liberals, did not mean endorsing universal suffrage.  Voting was a trust, not a right.  Extending suffrage beyond property-holding males was an invitation to mob rule.  Only toward the end of the century did most liberals accept expansion of the franchise, as liberalism gradually became  synonymous with democracy, paving the way for the 20th century term “liberal democracy.”

While 19th century liberalism was often criticized as opposed to religion, Rosenblatt suggests that it would be more accurate to say that it opposed the privileged position of the Catholic Church and aligned more easily with Protestantism, especially some forms emerging in Germany (although a small number of 19th century Catholic thinkers could also claim the term liberal).  But by the middle decades of the 19th century, liberalism’s challenges included not only the opposition of monarchists and the Catholic Church, but also what came to be known as “socialism” — the political movements representing a working class that was “self-conscious, politicized and angry” (p.101) as the Industrial Revolution was changing the face of Europe.

Liberalism’s response to socialism gave rise in the second half of the 19th century to the defining debate over its nature: was liberalism compatible with socialist demands for government intervention in the economy and direct government assistance to the working class and the destitute?  Or were the broad objectives of liberalism better advanced by the policies of economic laissez faire, in which the government avoided intervention in the economy and, as many liberals advocated, rejected what was termed “public charity” in favor of concentrating upon the moral improvement of the working classes and the poor so that they might lift themselves out of poverty?  This debate carried over into the 20th century and, Rosenblatt indicates, is still with us.

* * *

With surprising specificity, Rosenblatt attributes the origins of modern political liberalism to the work of the Swiss couple Benjamin Constant and his partner Madame de Staël, born Anne-Louise Germaine Necker, the daughter of Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker who served as finance minister to French King Louis XIV (Rosenblatt is also the author of a biography of Constant).  The couple arrived in Paris from Geneva in 1795, a year after the so-called Reign of Terror had ended with the execution of its most prominent advocate, Maximilien Robespierre.  As they reacted to the pressing circumstances brought about by the revolution, Rosenblatt contends, Constant and de Staël formulated the cluster of ideas that collectively came to be known as “liberalism,” although neither ever termed their ideas “liberal.”  Constant, the “first theorist of liberalism” (p.66), argued that it was not the “form of government that mattered,” but rather the amount. “Monarchies and republics could be equally oppressive. It was not to whom you granted political authority that counted, but how much authority you granted.  Political power is dangerously corrupting” (p.66).

Influenced in particular by several German theologians, Constant spoke eloquently about the need for a new and more enlightened version of Protestantism in the liberal state.  Religion was an “essential moralizing force” that “inspired selflessness, high-minded principles, and moral values, all crucial in a liberal society. But it mattered which religion, and it mattered what its relationship was to the state” (p.66).  A liberal government needed to be based upon religious toleration, that is, the removal of all legal disabilities attached to the faith one professed.  Liberalism envisioned strict separation of church and state and what we would today call “secularism,” ideas that placed it in direct conflict with the Catholic Church throughout the 19th century.

Constant and Madame de Staël initially supported Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1799 coup d’état.  They hoped Napoleon would thwart the counterrevolution and consolidate and protect the core liberal principles of the revolution. But as Napoleon placed the authority of the state in his own hands, pursued wars of conquest abroad, and allied himself with the Catholic Church, Constant and Madame de Staël became fervent critics of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

After Napoleon fell from power in 1815, an aggressive counter-attack on liberalism took place in France, led by the Catholic Church, in which liberals were accused of trying to “destroy religion, monarchy, and the family.  They were not just misguided but wicked and sinful.  Peddlers of heresy, they had no belief in duty, no respect for tradition or community.  In the writings of counter-revolutionaries, liberalism became a virtual symbol for atheism, violence, and anarchy” (p.68).  English conservative commentators frequently equated liberalism with Jacobinism.  For these commentators, liberals were “proud, selfish and licentious,” primarily interested in the “unbounded gratification of their passions” while refusing “restraints of any kind” (p.76).

Liberals hopes were buoyed, however, when the  bloodless three day 1830 Revolution in France deposed the ultra-royalist and strongly pro-Catholic Charles X in favor of the less reactionary Louis Philippe.  Among those initially supporting the 1830 Revolution was Alexis de Tocqueville, 19th century France’s most consequential liberal thinker after Constant and Madame de Staël.  Tocqueville famously toured the United States in the 1830s and offered his perspective on the country’s direction in Democracy in America, published in two volumes in 1835 and 1840, followed by his analysis in 1856 of the implications of the French Revolution, The Old Regime and the Revolution.

Tocqueville shared many of the widespread concerns of his age about democracy, especially its tendency to foster egoism and individualism.  He worried about the masses’ lack of “capacity.” He was one of the first to warn against what he called “democratic despotism,” where majority sentiment would be in a position to override the rights and liberties of minorities.  But Tocqueville also foresaw the forward march of democracy and the movement toward equality of all citizens as unstoppable, based primarily upon what he had observed in the United States (although he was aware of how the institution of slavery undermined American claims to be a society of equals).  Tocqueville counseled liberals in France not to try to stop democracy, but, as Rosenblatt puts it, to “instruct and tame” democracy, so that it “did not threaten liberty and devolve into the new kind of despotism France had seen under Napoleon” (p.95).

Tocqueville’s concerns about democracy and “excessive” equality were related to anxieties about how to accommodate the diverse movements that termed themselves socialist.  Initially, Rosenblatt stresses, the term socialist described “anyone who sympathized with the plight of the working poor . . . [T]here was no necessary contradiction between being liberal and being socialist” (p.103).   The great majority of mid-19th liberals, she notes, whether British, French, or German, believed in free circulation of goods, ideas and persons but were “not all that adverse to government intervention” and did not advocate “absolute property rights” (p.114).

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a growing number of British liberals began to favor a “new type of liberalism” that advocated “more government intervention on behalf of the poor.  They called for the state to a take action to eliminate poverty, ignorance and disease, and the excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth .  They began to say that people should be accorded not just freedom, but the conditions of freedom” (p. p.226).   French commentators in the same time period began to urge that a middle way be forged between laissez-faire and socialism, termed “liberal socialism,” where the state became an “instrument of civilization” (p.147).

But it was in 1870s Germany where the debate crystalized between what came to be known as “classical” laissez faire liberalism and the “progressive” version, thanks in large part to the unlikely figure of Otto von Bismarck.   Although no liberal, Bismarck, who masterminded German unification in 1871 and served as the first Chancellor of the newly united nation, instituted a host of sweeping social welfare reforms for workers, including full and comprehensive insurance against sickness, industrial accidents, and disability.  Most historians attribute his social welfare measures to a desire to coopt and destroy the German socialist movement (a point Jonathan Steinberg makes in his masterful Bismarck biography, reviewed here in 2013).

Bismarck’s social welfare measures coincided with an academic assault on economic laissez faire led by a school of “ethical economists,” a small band of German university professors who attacked laissez faire with arguments that were empirical but also moral, based on a view of man as not a “solitary, self-interested individual” but a “social being with ethical obligations “(p.222).  Laissez-faire “allowed for the exploitation of workers and did nothing to remedy endemic poverty,” they contended, “making life worse, not better, for the majority of the inhabitants of industrializing countries” (p.222).  Industrial conditions would “only deteriorate and spread if governments took no action” (p.222).

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many young Americans studied in Germany under the ethical economists and their progeny.  They returned to the United States “increasingly certain that laissez-faire was simply wrong, both morally and empirically,” and “began to advocate more government intervention in the economy” (p.226).  On both sides of the Atlantic, liberalism and socialism were drawing closer together, but the debate between laissez faire liberalism and the interventionist version played out primarily on the American side.

* * *

During World War I, Rosenblatt argues, liberalism, democracy and Western civilization became “virtually synonymous,” with America, because of its rising strength, “cast as their principal defender” (p.258).  Germany’s contribution to liberalism was progressively forgotten or pushed aside and the French contribution minimalized.  Two key World War I era American thinkers, Herbert Croly and John Dewy, contended that only the interventionist, or progressive, version of liberalism could claim to be truly liberal.

Croly, cofounder of the flagship progressive magazine The New Republic, delivered a stinging indictment of laissez-faire economics and a strong argument for government intervention in his 1909 work, The Promise of American Life.  By 1914, Croly had begun to call his own ideas liberal, and by mid-1916 the term was in common use in The New Republic as “another way to describe progressive legislation” (p.246).

The philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that there were “two streams” of liberalism.  But one was more humanitarian and therefore open to government intervention and social legislation, while the other was “beholden to big industry, banking, and commerce, and was therefore committed to laissez-faire” (p.261).  American liberalism, Dewey contended, had nothing with laissez-faire, and never had.  Nor did it have anything to do with what was called the “gospel of individualism.”  American liberalism stood for “‘liberality and generosity, especially of mind and character.’ Its aim was to promote greater equality and to combat plutocracy with the aid of government” (p.261).

Rosenblatt credits President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal with demonstrating how progressive liberalism could work in the political arena. Roosevelt, 20th century America’s most talented liberal practitioner, consistently claimed the moral high ground for liberalism.  He argued that liberals believed in “generosity and social mindedness and were willing to sacrifice for the public good” (p.261).  For Roosevelt, the core of the liberal faith was a belief in the “effectiveness of people helping each other” (p.261). But despite his high-minded advocacy for progressive liberalism – buttressed by his leadership of the country during the Great Depression and in World War II – Roosevelt did not vanquish the argument that economic laissez faire constituted the “true” liberalism.

In 1944, with America at war with Nazi Germany and Roosevelt within months of unprecedented fourth term, the eminent Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, then teaching at the London School of Economics, published The Road to Serfdom, the 20th century’s most concerted intellectual challenge to the interventionist strand of liberalism.  Any sort of state intervention or “collectivist experiment” threatened individual liberty and put countries on a slippery slope to fascism, Hayek argued in his surprise best seller.  Hayek grounded his arguments in English and American notions of individual freedom.  “Progressive liberalism,” which he considered a contradiction in terms, had its roots in Bismarck’s Germany, he argued, and leads ineluctably to totalitarianism.  “[I]t is Germany whose fate we are in some danger of repeating” (p.268), Hayek warned his British and American readers in 1944.

Although Hayek always insisted that he was a liberal, his ideas became part of the American post World War II conservative argument against both fascism and communism (meanwhile, in France laissez faire economics became synonymous with liberalism; “liberal” is a political epithet in today’s France, but means a free market advocate, diametrically opposed to its American meaning).  During the anti-Communist fervor of the Cold War that followed World War II, the interventionist liberalism that Croly and Dewey had preached and Roosevelt had put into practice was labeled “socialist” and even “communist.”  To American conservatives, those who accepted the interventionist version of liberalism were not really liberal; they were “totalitarian.”

* * *

The intellectual climate of the Cold War bred defensiveness in American liberals, Rosenblatt argues, provoking a need to “clarify and accentuate what made their liberalism not totalitarianism. It was in so doing that they toned down their plans for social reconstruction and emphasized, rather, their commitment to defending the rights of individuals” (p.271).  Post World War II American liberalism thus lost “much of its moral core and centuries-long dedication to the public good.  Individualism replaced it as liberals lowered their sights and moderated their goals” (p.271).  In bowing to Cold War realities, American liberals in the second half of the 20th century “willingly adopted the argument traditionally used to malign them . . . that liberalism was, at its core, an individualist, if not selfish, philosophy” (p.273).   Today, Rosenblatt finds, liberals “overwhelmingly stress a commitment to individual rights and choices; they rarely mention duties, patriotism, self-sacrifice, or generosity to others” (p.265-66).

Unfortunately, Rosenblatt provides scant elaboration for these provocative propositions, rendering her work incomplete.  A valuable follow up to this enlightening and erudite volume could concentrate on how the term “liberalism” has evolved over the past three quarters of a century, further helping us out of the muddle that surrounds the term.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 7, 2020

 

3 Comments

Filed under American Politics, English History, European History, France, French History, German History, History, Intellectual History, Political Theory

German Lessons: Is Mississippi Learning?

 

Susan Neiman, Learning from the Germans:

Race and the Memory of Evil (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 

Less than two months ago, protests and public demonstrations erupted on an unprecedented scale across the United States and throughout the world over the killing of African American George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer, captured on videotape.  Fueled by the movement known as “Black Lives Matter,” the protests and demonstrations that continue to this day focus most directly on police violence and reform of criminal justice practices.  But at a deeper level the protests also seek to call attention to the endurance of systemic racism in the United States, the subject that hovers over Susan Neiman’s thought-provoking Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil,  giving her work a timeliness she probably never imagined when it first appeared last year.

To address systemic racism, Neiman argues, the United States needs to confront more directly and honestly the realities of its racist past: human bondage dating from the early 17th century which plunged the United States into a Civil War in the mid-19th century, followed by an additional century of legally enforced segregation, rampant discrimination, racial terrorism and second class citizenship, with official sanction of racial discrimination not ending until passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.  Neiman’s title, moreover, is a give away to her surprising suggestion that Americans can learn much from how Germany finally confronted its own racist past, specifically the Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population that it perpetrated over a 12-year period, from 1933 to 1945.

When Neiman looked at the contentious issue of monuments honoring Southern Civil War veterans from the perspective of Germany, where she has lived on and off since 1982, she found it hard to “imagine a Germany filled with monuments to the men who fought for the Nazis.  My imagination failed. For anyone who has lived in contemporary Germany, the vision of statutes honoring those men is inconceivable.” Germans who lost family members during World War II realize that their loved ones “cannot be publicly honored without honoring the cause for which they died” (p.267).  In the United States, by contrast, the president and a substantial if declining portion of the public still support maintaining statutes and memorials honoring the cause of the Southern Confederacy, a reflection of the broader differences between the two countries in coming to terms with their racist pasts that Neiman seeks to highlight.

Learning from the Germans is not an attempt to compare the evils of slavery and discrimination against African Americans in the United States to those of the murder of Jews and others during the Holocaust, an exercise Neiman considers fruitless.  Rather, her work revolves around what might be characterized as “comparative atonement,” for which she uses her preferred if foreboding German word, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, translated into English as “working off the past.”  The word came into use in German in the 1960s as an “abstract polysyllable way of saying We have to do something about the Nazis” (p.30).  In atoning for its racist past, Germany is markedly further down the path to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung than the United States, Neiman argues, but she also emphasizes how East Germany, when it existed and despite its many faults, was further along this path than West Germany.  Only after German reunification in 1990 did efforts of the former West Germany to atone for its racist crimes begin to gather serious momentum.

The first part of Neiman’s three-part work, “German Lessons,” outlines Germany’s attempt to come to terms with its crimes of the Nazi period, both before and after unification.  The second part, “Southern Discomfort,” looks at the legacy of racism in the American Deep South, heavily concentrated on the state of Mississippi and on the persistence of the notion of the Lost Cause, a romanticized version of the American Civil War that insists that the war was fought not over slavery but over “states’ rights” — an “abstract phrase that veils the question of what, exactly, Southern states thought they had a right to do” (p.186).  In her third part, “Setting Things Straight,” Neiman considers in broad terms how the American South and the United States as a whole can make strides in coming to terms with a racist past, with the German experience serving as a partial guide.  But this part is a more an invitation to debate than a provision of definitive answers.

Neiman, a Jewish American with no direct family connection to the Holocaust, was raised in the American South, in Atlanta, Georgia.  A philosopher by training who studied at Harvard under John Rawls and taught at Yale, she is today the Director of the Einstein Forum, a German think tank located in Potsdam, just outside Berlin.  After nearly a quarter century living and working in Germany, Neiman spent a year at the Winter Institute for Racial Reconstruction in Oxford, Mississippi, a forward-looking institution dedicated explicitly to encouraging people to “honestly engage in their history in order to live more truthfully in the present, where the inequities of the past no longer dictate the possibilities of the future” (p.143).  Utilizing these diverse professional and personal experiences, she mixes analysis and anecdote while introducing her readers to an impressive array of Germans and Americans working on what might be described as the front lines of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung in their respective countries.

Although her analysis of the United States concentrates on the state of Mississippi, Neiman recognizes that Mississippi is hardly representative of the United States as a whole, and not even of the states of the former Confederacy.  But she contends that awareness of history is arguably more acute in Mississippi than anywhere else in United States.  “Focusing on the Deep South,” moreover, is “not a matter of ignoring the rest of the country, but of holding a magnifying glass to it” (p.17-18), she writes.   Although just about everyone in the United States now accepts that slavery was wrong, , the “national sense of shame” which she finds in today’s Germany is “entirely absent” in the United States; shame  is “not the American way” (p.268).

During the nearly three years that Neiman worked on her book, many of the Germans  she met with laughed at her proposed title and rejected the idea that Germany had anything to teach Americans about dealing with their racist past.  Most Germans today are defensive about their country’s efforts to work toward Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, she observes.  They think they  took way too long to transition from looking at themselves as victims, with some adding  that many of their fellow citizens never made the transition.  “Good taste,” she writes, “prevents good Germans from anything that could possibly be construed as boasting about repentance” (p.56).   Neiman sees this widespread defensiveness as “itself a sign of how far Germany has come in taking responsibility for its criminal history” (p.17).  But how Germany arrived at this position is not easy to pinpoint.

* * *

Competitive victimhood, Neiman writes, “may be as close to a universal law of human nature as we’re ever going to get.”   Postwar Germany was no less inclined than the defeated American South to participate in this “old and universal sport”(p.63).   Although 80 years separate the defeat of the American South from that of Nazi Germany, Neiman perceives similar litanies: “the loss of their bravest sons, the destruction of their homes, the poverty and hunger that followed – combined with resentment at occupying forces they regarded as generally loutish, who had the gall to insist their suffering was deserved” (p.63).  For decades after World War II, Germans were “obsessed with the suffering they’d endured, not the suffering they’d caused” (p.40).

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States, Britain and France, the occupying powers in what became West Germany, aimed to institute a process of de-Nazification.  Among its many aims, de-Nazification was supposed to purge former Nazis and Nazi sympathizers from positions of influence.  More broadly, as Frederick Taylor argued in Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany (reviewed here in December 2012), de-Nazification was “perhaps the most ambitious scheme to change a nation’s psyche ever mounted in human history.” But de-Nazification was a failed scheme.  West Germans mocked the Allied attempt to impose a change of consciousness.

The Allies, moreover, lacked the resources to make de-Nazification successful, and Cold War rivalries and realities intruded.  The Allies were “far more interested in securing [German] allies against the Soviet Union than in digging up their sordid pasts” (p.99).  The de-Nazification program was turned over to the West German government, which had “no inclination to pursue it” (p.99).  Well into the 1960s, West German commitments to democratic governance were “precarious, and the possibility of a return to a sanitized Nazism could not be ruled out” (p.55).  The implicit message of Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first post-war chancellor, seemed to be: behave yourself, don’t call attention to your past, and we won’t look too deeply into that past.

East Germany worked off its Nazi past differently.  Although its official name was the German Democratic Republic (GDR), there was little that was democratic about East Germany.  Its borders were closed, its media heavily censored, and its elections a national joke.  Yet, East German leaders had been by and large genuinely anti-fascist, anti-Nazi during the war; the same cannot be said of West German leaders.  East Germany put far more old Nazis on trial proportionately and convicted more than in the West.  The West never invited Jewish émigrés to return; the East did.  Overall, Neiman concludes, East Germany quite simply “did a better job of working off the Nazi past than West Germany” (p.81).

It was not until around 1968 that West Germany began to get serious aboutVergangenheitsaufarbeitung, embarking on a path out of denial in conjunction with the student protests that roiled Europe and the United States that year.  Because their parents could not “mourn, acknowledge responsibility, or even speak about the war” (p.70), the 68ers, as the generation born in the 1940s was called, felt compelled to confront their parents over their war experiences and their subsequent silence about those experiences.  A decade later, the American TV series “Holocaust” served as a catalyst for “public discussion of the Holocaust that had been missing for decades” (p.370-71).  Then, on May 8, 1985, 40 years after Germany’s surrender, West German president Richard von Weizsäcker made headlines when he termed that day one of liberation. Up to that point, May 8 in West Germany had been called the Day of Defeat or Day of Unconditional Surrender (yet Weizsäcker even then symbolized the ambivalence of West German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung: his father had been a high-level Nazi, an assistant to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop; Weizsäcker defended his father at the post-war Nuremberg trials and always maintained that his father was trying only to make a bad situation better).

By the time of reunification in 1990, expressions of pro-Nazi sentiment had become “socially unacceptable” and have since become “morally unacceptable” (p.311).  A 1995 exhibit on the Wehrmacht, the Nazi army with 18 million members, demonstrated convincingly that it had systematically committed war crimes,  thereby breaking West Germany’s “final taboo” (p.24).  The exhibit was extended to 33 different cities in Germany and Austria and “ignited media discussions, filled talk shows, and eventually provoked a debate in parliament” (p.24).

Today, the right-wing Alternative for Germany, AfD in German, continues to rise in influence in Germany on an anti-immigrant platform many consider neo-Nazi.  Germany gained further unwanted attention earlier this month when Nazi sympathizers were revealed to  have infiltrated an elite German security unit:

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/world/europe/germany-military-neo-nazis-ksk.html

But today’s Germany has nonetheless reached the point where “open expressions of racism are politically ruinous,” Neiman concludes, which may be the “best outcome we can hope for and it may also be enough. . . Very often, social change begins with lip service” (p.310-11).

* * *

As in Germany, Neiman observes, “the War” throughout the American South is a singular reference.  “Everybody knows that one was decisive, and its repercussions are with us today.”  This knowledge is “more conscious in a Deep South that was occupied, and almost as devastated as Germany, than in the rest of the United States” (p.37).  But the Lost Cause narrative that arose in the American South was an exercise in Civil War historical revisionism that flourished toward end of the 19th and into the early 20th century, in which the war was rebranded as a “noble fight for Southern freedom,” with the post-war Reconstruction period becoming a “violent effort by ignorant ex-slaves and mercenary Yankees to debase the honor of the South in general, and its white women in particular” (p.181).

Reconciliation under the Lost Cause mythology was “between white members of the opposing armies” to be achieved by “valorizing the defeated, and ignoring the cause for which they fought” (p.182). Reconciliation between white and black folk was not on the agenda.  Slowly and hazily, the Lost Cause narrative “came to capture the hearts of the North. Weary of war, eager for reconciliation, and keen to get on with the business of industrialization that was changing the American economy, Northerners conceded most of the mythmaking to the South. Not many had been enthusiastic abolitionists anyway” (p.186-87).

The Winter Institute, where Neiman conducted much of the research for this book, has sought to counter the Lost Cause narrative through such institutional reforms as creating and implementing school criteria on human rights, fostering inter-racial dialogue in communities known for racial violence, and promoting academic investigation and scholarship on patterns and legacies of racial inequities.   What keeps the Winter Institute going is the notion that “if you can change Mississippi communities, you can probably change anything” (p.142).  The primary lesson Neiman derived from her time at the Winter Institute: “national reconciliation begins at the bottom. Very personal encounters between members of different races, people who represent the victims as well as those who represent the perpetrators, are the foundation of any larger attempt to treat national wounds . . . It is a long and weary process, but it is hard to see an alternative” (p.301).

Neiman discusses at length two notorious murderous acts in mid-20th century Mississippi: the 1955 murder of Emmitt Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy brutally killed during a summer visit to Mississippi; and the murders of  Andrew Goodman, Mickey Schwerner, and James Chaney, three civil rights workers, two young white men from New York and a black man from Mississippi, killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi during the following decade while organizing African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.  The two men tried for the Till murder were promptly acquitted.  Protected   by the Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution, they thereafter took money from Look magazine to confess that they had killed the teenager.  No trial at all ensued in the immediate aftermath of the killing of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney.

While the world knew the story of the ghastly Till murder, for decades nobody in the local Mississippi Delta community, black or white, wanted to talk about it.  Neiman sees a similarity to the silence that prevailed in Germany in the first decades after the war, where to both non-Jewish and Jewish families, “anything connected to the war was off-limits.  Neither side could bear to talk about it, one side afraid of facing its own guilt, the other afraid of succumbing to pain and rage” (p.217).

In 1989, the Mississippi Secretary of State issued a public apology to the families of the three slain civil rights workers, the first local white man to publicly acknowledge the crime.  Most Mississippians think that is the reason he lost when he ran for governor the following year.  With a strong push from the Winter Institute, a trial in the case finally took place in in 2005.  The prime suspect, Edgar Ray Killen, then 80 years old, was convicted, but only of manslaughter.  Killen received three 20-year sentences and died in prison in 2018.  Neiman wonders whether the trial has helped a “healing process” or allowed Mississippi to “rest in the self-satisfaction that the horrors that stigmatized the state all belonged to the past” (p.301).

* * *

In her final section, Neiman runs through the most common arguments against reparations to descendants of victims of slavery, and proffers counter arguments.  She glosses over what in my mind is the most difficult: how to determine who gets what amount.   She notes that West Germany paid Israel what amounted to reparations early in the history of the two states, the “price for acceptance into the Western Community and the price was relatively cheap . . . Reparations were paid in exchange for world recognition and the opportunity to keep silent about the quantity of Nazis, and Nazi thinking, that permeated the Federal Republic” (p.289).  Iin the United States, she argues, reparations  need not take the form of precise compensation to individual African Americans but should be the subject of public debate.

On the current polemic surrounding statutes and memorials honoring Confederate war veterans,  Neiman reminds her readers that most were erected in the early part of the 20th century with the express purpose of reinforcing and providing legitimacy to the regime of rigid segregation and discrimination.  They should not be seen as “innocuous shrines to history; they were provocative assertions of white supremacy at moments when its defenders felt under threat.  Knowing when they were built is part of knowing why they were built. . What is at stake is not the past, but the present and the future. When we choose to memorialize a historical moment, we are choosing the values we want to defend, and pass on” (p.263).

* * *

“Forgetting past evils may be initially safer,” Neiman writes, but in the long run, the “dangers of forgetting are greater than the dangers of remembering — provided, of course, that we use the failures of past attempts to learn how to do it better” (p.373).  Although there is no single pathway to Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, understanding the distance Germany has traveled in coming to terms with the Nazi era’s racist crimes should benefit Americans yearning to find a better pathway in the turbulent aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

July 29, 2020

 

6 Comments

Filed under American Politics, American Society, German History, History, Politics, United States History

Is Democracy a Universal Value?

 

Larry Diamond, Ill Winds:

Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency (Penguin Press) 

Stanford professor Larry Diamond is one of America’s foremost authorities on democracy – what it is, how it works in diverse countries throughout the world, how it can take hold in countries with little or no history of democratic governance – and how it can be lost.  Diamond brings a decidedly pragmatic perspective to his subject.  His extensive writings focus in particular on how to sustain fragile democratic governance.  He rarely dwells on classical theory or delves into the origins of democracy.  He is more likely to provide an assessment of the prospects for democracy in contemporary Nicaragua, Nigeria or Nepal, or most anywhere in between, than assess the contribution to modern democracy of, say, Thomas Hobbes or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  In the two decades following the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, Diamond’s bottom line seemed to be that democracy had the upper hand in most corners of the world – the Middle East being at best a giant question mark – and was steadily extending to numerous countries that had hitherto been considered unlikely places for it to take hold.

That was then. Today, Diamond says that he is more concerned about the future of democracy than at any time in the forty plus years of his career.  He begins Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency, a distinctly more guarded assessment of democratic prospects across the globe than his earlier writings, by noting that the march toward democracy began to slow around 2006.  The independent Freedom House, which tracks democratic progress worldwide, found that 2017 was the twelfth consecutive year that the number of countries declining in liberty significantly outstripped those gaining.

Rather than democracy, it is now authoritarian government — sometimes termed “illiberal democracy” and often associated with nativist, xenophobic “populism” — that seems to be on the rise across the globe.  Throughout much of the world, Diamond notes, authoritarian governments and their autocratic leaders are “seizing the initiative, democrats are on the defensive, and the space for competitive politics and free expression is shrinking” (p.11).  Today’s world has “plunged into a democratic recession” (p.54), with democracy finding itself “perched on a global precipice.”  If authoritarian ascendancy and democratic erosion continue, Diamond warns, we may reach a “tipping point where democracy goes bankrupt suddenly – plunging the world into depths of oppression and aggression that we have not seen since the end of World War II” (p.293).

Diamond’s sub-title reveals that the “ill winds” of his title are blowing chiefly from a Russia rife with “rage,” and a China abounding in “ambition,” while the United States stands by “complacently” rather than blowing in the opposite direction, as it once did.  If the United States does not reclaim its traditional place as the keystone of democracy, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jinping of China, and their admirers “may turn autocracy into the driving force of the new century” (p.11).  Emboldened by the “new silence from Donald Trump’s America,” the “new swagger” emanating from Jinping’s China and Putin’s Russia have allowed autocrats across the globe to “tyrannize their opponents openly and without apology”(p.58).

Diamond starts his urgent and alarming assessment with general, introductory chapters that provide a working definition of democracy and summarize the present world wide crisis, for example, “Why Democracies Succeed and Fail,” “The March and Retreat of Democracy,” and “The Authoritarian Temptation.”  He then devotes a chapter to each of his three main actors, the United States, Russia and China.  From there, he moves to a series of recommendations on how established democracies can counter the forces that seem to be leading many countries away from democracy and toward authoritarian styles of governance.  His recommendations include combatting public corruption (the “soft underbelly of authoritarian rule;” p.192); and making the Internet safe for democracy (the “global fight for freedom is inseparable from the fight for internet freedom;” p.259).

In a book about the future of global democracy, Diamond’s recommendations are oddly U.S. centric. They are mostly about how the United States can promote democracy more effectively abroad and render its internal institutions and practices more democratic.  There is little here about what other established democracies – for example, Great Britain, Germany or Australia — can do to be more effective abroad or more democratic at home.  Diamond moreover breaks little new ground in this work.

Few readers are likely to be surprised to learn that Russia and China constitute the world’s major anti-democratic actors; that Hungary and Poland, both part of the European Union, the quintessential  democracy project, are among the most prominent countries moving away from democracy and toward authoritarianism; or that countries otherwise as diverse as Turkey, India, the Philippines and Brazil are moving in the same direction.  Nor does Diamond venture into unfamiliar territory when he argues that the United States under President Donald Trump appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries.

But Diamond is an accomplished  salesman for democratic governance, the product he has relentlessly pedaled for over four decades, and his salesmanship skills are on full display here.  Amidst all the reasons he provides for pessimism about democracy’s worldwide prospects, readers will be reassured to find more than a little of the optimism that characterized his earlier works.  Although authoritarians may seem to be on the rise everywhere, people across the globe are not losing their faith in democracy, he argues.   Democracy for Diamond remains nothing less than a “universal value” (p.159).  The world’s democracies quite simply “have the better ideas” (p.225), he writes.  But is modern democracy up to the task of halting and reversing the world’s authoritarian turn?  Is it capable of countering effectively Russian rage and Chinese ambition?  These are the questions Diamond wrestles with throughout this timely and passionately argued work.

* * *

For Diamond, democracy at its core is a system of government where people choose and can change their leaders in regular, free and fair elections.  Such a system should also include strong protections for basic liberties, such as freedom of speech, press and religion; protection for racial and cultural minorities; a robust rule of law and an independent judiciary; trustworthy law enforcement institutions; and a lively civil society.   Diamond says little here about the economic systems of countries seeking to establish and sustain democratic institutions.  But at least since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, most democracy experts agree that market economies allowing for free enterprise — along with ample room for state regulation in the public interest — are most compatible with modern democracy.

But sustaining democracy over the longer term depends more on culture than institutions, Diamond argues.  A country’s citizens need to believe in democracy and be “willing to defend it as a way of life” (p.25), in which case the level of economic development and the precise design of institutions matter less. When democracy lacks broad support, it will “always be a fragile reed” (p.25).   And the paramount component of democratic culture is legitimacy, the “resilient and broadly shared belief that democracy is better than any other imaginable form of government.  People must commit to democracy come hell or high water, and stick with it even when the economy tanks, incomes plunge, or politicians misbehave” (p.25).

Democracy is hardly restricted to those economically advanced countries we call “Western” (“Western” and “the West” include not just the countries of Western Europe and North America but also prosperous democratic countries that are not geographically part of the West, such as Japan and New Zealand).  A country does not have to be economically well off to institutionalize democracy, Diamond insists. Many African countries have made earnest starts.  But successful transitions to democracy nonetheless remain strongly linked to economic prosperity, he argues, citing the examples of Greece, Spain, Chile, South Korea, Taiwan and South Africa.

But Russia and China are undermining democracy in all corners of the globe, each blowing its own “ill winds” across the planet.  In Russia’s case, they are the winds of “anger, insecurity, and resentments of a former superpower;” with China, those of “ambitions, swagger, and overreach of a new one” (p.130-31).  Both are investing heavily in efforts to “promote disinformation and covertly subvert democratic norms and institutions” (p.12).   Among today’s foes of democracy, only two leaders, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, have “enough power and ambition to undermine the entire global liberal order” (p.161).

Russia experienced some shallow and tentative moves toward democracy in the 1990s, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  But since Putin assumed power in 2000, the movement has been almost exclusively in the opposite direction.  Deeply insecure about the legitimacy of his rule, Putin believes that the West is “seeking to encircle Russia and keep it weak” (p.111).   The 2013-14 “Eurormaidan Revolution” in Ukraine, which brought down Viktor Yanukovych, a key autocratic partner, infuriated Putin.   The United States had “toppled his closest ally, in a country he regarded as an extension of Russia itself,” as an American journalist put it.  “All that money American had spent on prodemocracy NGOs in Ukraine had paid off” (p.112).

Russia has mastered the use of social media to “stimulate division, increase social and racial unrest, and undermine the self-assurance of the major Western democracies – and work to divide them from one another” (p.112). Its most dramatic targets were Hilary Clinton and the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. Clinton “would almost certainly have won the Electoral College if there had been no Russian intervention” (p.118), Diamond asserts, although he offers no evidentiary support for this assertion.  In hacking the 2016 US election, Putin succeeded in both of his apparent aims: to “sow division and discord in American democracy . . . [and] to punish Clinton and elect Trump” (p.118).

But the 2016 election was just one instance of Russia’s use of social media disinformation campaigns to undermine liberal democracy.  These campaigns, assaults “on truth itself” and  on the “very notion that there can be ‘an objective, verifiable set of facts” (p.119), often aim to strengthen extremist political forces within established democracies.  They “do not need to – and do not really aim to – persuade democratic publics that Russia’s positions are right, only that a democracy’s government and political leaders cannot be believed or trusted” (p.119).  Russia under Putin has sought to wreak havoc within the European Union, aiming in particular to end the economic sanctions that Europe and the United States imposed on Russia in retaliation for its aggression in Ukraine.  Russia almost certainly provided significant illicit funding to the Brexit campaign, Diamond contends, helping to tip Britain into leaving the European Union, a “major achievement for a Kremlin that has the destruction of European unity as one of its major aims” (p.121).

But Diamond emphasizes that Russia is a declining power whose “malign intentions and nationalist bravado cannot disguise its outstripped economy and shrinking importance to the twenty-first century world” (p.124).  In the long run, the “ambitions of a rising China, not the resentments of a falling Russia” represent the greatest external challenge to global democracy.  Today’s China, still recovering from what many Chinese consider a century of humiliation at the hands of Japan and the West, is the world’s “most dynamic power” (p.144), with global reach and power that will “increasingly and inevitably dwarf Russia’s” (p.124).

China seeks hegemony over all of Asia and the Pacific, Diamond argues.  It also increasingly aspires to challenge the United States for global leadership, “economically, politically, and, some believe, eventually militarily” (p.131).  Its military spending is now second only to that of the United States and it may catch America militarily “sooner than we care to imagine” (p.142-43).  China has already established a claim to global dominance in such  transformative technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, and electric cars.

Manipulating social media massively and aggressively, China is also building a “sweeping surveillance state that aims to assess every digital footprint of every Chinese citizen and then compile each person’s ‘social credit score.’” (p.236).  It readily shares its “Orwellian tools” with other a autocratic regimes, “threatening an ‘Arab Spring in reverse’ in which digital technology enable ‘state domination and repression at a staggering scale’” (p.237).

China’s foreign aid goes disproportionately to the world’s autocrats, many of whom think that China has developed a secret formula.  While some authoritarian regimes dislike China’s heavy-handed attempts to win influence and gain control — sometimes considered a new form of colonialism — others are lured to China’s side by “money, power, ambition, and simple admiration for its sheer success” (p.144).  In addition to assisting the world’s autocracies and countries that could bend in that direction, China also focuses on influencing the world’s democracies.

Diamond sees China playing a longer and more patient game than Russia in its dealing with the West. Through media deals, investments, partnership agreements, charitable and political donations, and positions on boards of directors, it is seeking wider and deeper infiltration into what Diamond calls the “vital tissues of democracies” (p.133): publishing houses, entertainment industries, technology companies, universities, think tanks, non-governmental organizations.  Favorable views of China, he notes, exceed that of the United States in much of the world.

Prior to Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential candidacy, Diamond considered the United States uniquely qualified to lead the global resistance to Russian rage and Chinese ambition.  Since Trump became president, however, the United States appears to be more on the side of the authoritarians and populists rather than those seeking to institutionalize democracy in their countries – or, at best, on the sidelines while Russia and China seek to extend their influence and undermine democracy.  If there is any upside to the Trump presidency, Diamond notes, it is that it provides a glimpse into the alarming consequences of world without American leadership and steadfastness, a “far more frightening and dangerous place, with muscular, corrupt dictatorships dominating large swaths of the globe through blatant coercion and covert subversion” (p.287).

Trump’s unremitting insistence that the United States is being cheated by its friends and allies has propelled the country “down the self-defeating path of ‘America alone’” (p.301).  His decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 2016 twelve-nation Pacific Rim free-trade agreement, “so visionary and so necessary,” constitutes in Diamond’s view the “most grievous self-inflicted wound to America’s global leadership since the creation of the liberal world order after World War II” (p.144).  US withdrawal from the TPP amounted to a “massive gift to authoritarian China and a body blow to democratic aspirations in Southeast Asia” (p.144-45), serving  as a “stunning symbol – and accelerator – of both China’s rise and America’s descent.  As the great democracy that dominated world politics in the twentieth century retreated, the great dictatorship that aims to dominate world politics in the twenty-first could hardly believe its luck” (p.145).

Diamond provides an extensive set of recommendations on how the United States and other advanced democratic countries can deliver more sustainable assistance to aspiring and fragile democracies to counter Russia and China.  Priorities need to be combatting kleptocracy, public corruption, and international money laundering; making the internet safe for democracy; and improving  public diplomacy through  smarter uses of “soft power” to counter Russia and China’s “sharp power.”

Kleptocracy, a recent term now frequently used for high level state corruption, involves the theft of state resources that could have advanced the public good but instead were diverted for private gain – hospitals and schools that were not built, for example – and by definition constitutes a crime against a country’s citizens.  Kleptocracy depends upon using the international financial system to “move, mask, and secure ill-gotten fortunes across borders,” posing the “single most urgent internal threat to democracy,” a threat which renders fragile democracies “all the more vulnerable to external subversion” (p.184).  Many of the world’s democracies, not least the United States, are complicit in providing refuge for the ill-gotten gains of the world’s kleptocrats.  Global transfers of untraceable funds have enabled a “stunning array of venal dictators and their family members, political allies, and business cronies to acquire property and influence in the West as well as to corrupt democracy and the rule of law within free nations” (p.184).

Diamond’s recommendations for combatting public corruption and international money laundering are for the most part US-oriented (e.g. modernize and strengthen the Foreign Agents Registration Act; empower the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network to conduct its own investigations).  But he also offers some general recommendations that all the world’s advanced democracies could and should follow (e.g. end anonymous shell companies and real estate purchases).

Today, moreover, the Internet and related technologies – email, text messaging, photo sharing – have the potential to uncover public corruption, as well as highlight human rights abuses, expose voter fraud, and organize demonstrations.   These technologies played a major role in the protests in 2011 that brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; and those that challenged Iran’s blatantly fraudulent 2009 elections.   But many modern authoritarian regimes – not just Russia and China — have developed sophisticated means to to “manipulate, manage, vilify, and amplify public opinion online” (p.234). Freedom House considers  growing state level manipulation of social media one of the leading causes of the steady eight-year decline in global Internet freedom.  Making the Internet a safe place for democracy requires a “concerted partnership among democratic governments, technology companies, civil-society groups, and individual ‘netizens’” (p.229).

Diamond also provides a set of recommendations for how the United States can fine tune its own internal democratic mechanisms through, for example, adoption of ranked choice voting, reducing the gerrymandering of legislative districts and the influence of money in politics — worthy objectives, but markedly out of line with the priorities of the Trump administration and today’s Republican Party.  Looking beyond the Trump administration, however, Diamond argues that the tide of authoritarianism can be reversed.

Few people celebrate authoritarianism as a superior system, “morally or practically” (p.225 ).  There are no large-scale surveys of public opinion showing a popular groundswell for authoritarianism.  Rather, in  surveys from every region of the world, “large to overwhelming majorities of the public, on average, said that democracy is the best form of government and that an unaccountable strongman is a bad idea” (p.159-60).  Within even the world’s most tenacious autocracies, “many people want to understand what democracy is and how it can be achieved.  Even many dictators and generalissimos know and fear democracy’s allure” (p.225).  In this networked age, “both idealism and the harder imperatives of global power and security argue for more democracy, not less” (p.200).

* * *

The best way to counter Russian rage and Chinese ambition, Diamond counsels, is to show that Moscow and Beijing are “on the wrong side of history; that people everywhere yearn to be free, and that they can make freedom work to achieve a more just, sustainable and prosperous society” (p.200).   Yet Diamond makes clear that checking the worldwide authoritarian tide depends to an unsettling degree upon the United States reversing its present course and prioritizing anew the global quest for democracy.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

June 26, 2020

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under American Politics, World History