Tag Archives: Brexit

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

 

 

 

 

8 Comments

Filed under American Politics, Politics

Breaking Away

 

J.H. Elliot, Scots and Catalans:

Union and Disunion (Yale University Press)

[NOTE: 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]

Are the United Kingdom and Scotland barreling toward a crisis over Scottish independence of the magnitude of that which rattled Spain in 2017, when Catalonia, the country’s northeast corner that includes Barcelona, unilaterally declared its independence? That possibility seems less far-fetched after early May’s parliamentary elections in Scotland, in which the Scottish National Party (SNP) fell just one seat shy of an absolute majority. In coalition with the Scottish Green Party, the SNP is now in a position to set the legislative agenda for Scotland. To no one’s surprise, Nicola Surgeon, Scottish First Minister and SNP leader, announced after the recent elections that she would seek a second referendum on Scottish independence, presumably similar to the one that took place in 2014. For Sturgeon, a second independence referendum is now a matter of “when, not if.”  But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated his opposition to another referendum; that of 2014 was a “once in a generation” event, the Prime Minister explained.

Separatism also advanced appreciably in Catalan regional elections in February of this year, with pro-independence parties capturing a clear majority of seats in the regional parliament. But numerous parties with a range of views on separation seek to carry the independence banner in Catalonia. The movement has no single voice comparable to that of Sturgeon and the SNP.

While no one can say with certainty where Scotland and Catalonia are heading, J.H. Elliot, Regius Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, has produced an extraordinarily timely, in-depth guide to how separatism has come to dominate the 21st century politics of each: Scots and Catalans: Union and Disunion. From the mid-15th century up through the Catalan crisis of 2017, Elliot traces the relationship of Scotland and Catalonia to the larger entities we now call Great Britain and Spain, relationships in which genuine grievances mix with myths, resentments, and manipulations of history.

The Catalan crisis of 2017, the endpoint in Elliot’s narrative, ensued after regional authorities organized a non-binding independence referendum, conducted over the strong objection of the central government in Madrid.  90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum, but several major Catalan parties boycotted it and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted. When the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution declaring the region an independent republic, the central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and impose direct rule from Madrid.  Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, was formally accused of treason and fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, where he remains to this day.

In sharp contrast to the 2017 Catalan initiative, the 2014 Scottish independence referendum had the approval of the central government in London, having been negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, David Cameron.  Scottish voters moreover soundly rejected independence: 55%- 45%, with 85% of eligible voters casting ballots. But one of the main issues in the campaign was the desire of many Scottish voters to maintain membership in the European Union as part of the United Kingdom, rather than secede and apply for EU membership as an independent nation. The Brexit referendum two years later, also a Cameron-approved measure, upended this understanding. While a far from united United Kingdom approved the initiative to leave the European Union, Scottish voters adhered to the “remain” position by an emphatic 62%-38% margin, with about two-thirds of eligible Scottish voters participating.

Elliot is scathing in his condemnation of the Catalonian secessionists’ decision to press ahead in 2017 with their unilateral declaration of independence, describing it as an “act of folly, unleashing consequences that never seemed to have crossed the proponents’ minds as they took the plunge” (p.263).  In more muted terms, he appears to endorse the outcome of the orderly 2014 referendum in Scotland: “Stability had triumphed over risk, pragmatism over utopianism, fear over hope” (p.246).  But Elliot treats the Brexit referendum two years later only in two non-judgmental paragraphs.  Many Scots who voted “No” in 2014 have felt compelled to reassess their position in light of Brexit. Elliot’s decision not to weigh in more forcefully on the impact of Brexit constitutes a missed opportunity in this otherwise painstakingly comprehensive work.

Although Elliot focuses almost exclusively on the Catalan and Scottish independence movements, easily the most visible in today’s Europe, they are hardly the only ones. Depending upon how one counts, there are presently about 20 active separatist movements in Europe, some of which seem to be mainly quests for more autonomy rather than secession.  Finding common denominators among them can be difficult – each is mostly a product of its own historical and cultural circumstances. But nationalism is usually considered one such denominator, often the only one, and what Elliot terms a “resurgent nationalism” (p.4) is at play in both Catalonia and Scotland.

These and other 21st century secessionist movements harken back to the classical 19th century European version of nationalism: the idea that a people with a common culture and history — and often a common language, as in Catalonia – have an inherent right to rule themselves. This idea, which buttressed Europe’s 1848 uprisings, produced the modern nation-state, a state with a nationalist creed binding it together — a common core of shared principles, traditions and values accepted by its disparate regions, and its major ethnic, religious, and cultural groups. But separatist movements in Scotland, Catalonia and elsewhere are predicated on a rejection, implicit if not explicit, of the nationalist creed and in this sense are the antipode of classical 19th century nationalism. Some separatist movements partake of xenophobic and authoritarian-leaning nationalist impulses. But neither the Scottish nor the Catalan independence movement can be described in these terms – if anything, both Scotland and Catalonia tilt leftward on 21st century Europe’s left-right pendulum.

Scots and Catalans consists of six chapters, each focused on a discrete historical period. It begins with “Dynastic Union, 1469-1625.” 1469, the year in which Ferdinand of Aragon married Isabelle of Castile, marked the beginning of a composite, multi-regional monarchy on the Iberian Peninsula, with the Crown of Aragon including the principality of Catalonia. The last chapter, “Breaking Away? 1975-2017” covers the time from the death of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco and the beginnings of modern democracy in Spain in 1975, up through the Catalan constitutional crisis of 2017.  Unlike many comparative histories, Elliot does not rely on separate chapters for his two subjects. His narrative goes back and forth between Catalonia and Scotland, Spain and Britain, setting out the two histories side-by-side. Although not quite his intention, this technique highlights how different Catalonia’s relationship to Spain has been from that of Scotland to Great Britain from the early 18th century onward. Only in the late 20th and early 21st centuries does Elliot find significant convergences between the two independence movements.

* * *

Prior to its 1707 the union with England, Scotland had been an independent kingdom, one shaken by the 17th century’s religious and civil wars that had upended its more powerful neighbor to the South.  Catalonia, by contrast, had never been a sovereign state in any modern sense of the term.  But as one of several rebellious provinces within Spain’s composite monarchy, Catalonia had a colorable claim to a set of ancient liberties and privileges that the Nueva Planta decrees of Phillip of Anjou, the first Bourbon King of Spain, erased between from 1707 and 1716.

Designed to impose the centralized French model on Spain’s unruly provinces, the Nueva Planta decrees abolished the Catalan legislature and imposed the Castilian language – today’s Spanish — on the region. While Scotland’s consensual association with England was the result of genuine negotiations between two sovereign kingdoms, Catalonia was “subjected to a settlement imposed by a victorious monarch, who stigmatized its peoples as rebels” (p.89).  Catalonia came to be seen, both by its citizens and the central government in Madrid, as a territory under military occupation.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the feeling in Spain that the Catalans were inherently intractable never disappeared. Catalans, constantly inveighing against “centralization,” responded to pressures from Madrid by emphasizing with “growing stridency” the “uniqueness of their own history and culture” (p.163), Elliot writes. By contrast, the Scots felt less need to be assertive about their distinctive heritage, and less obsessed about their potential loss of identity. Tensions between London and Edinburgh were “far fewer than those to be found in the Barcelona-Madrid relationship” (p.163).

Spain fell under the rule of two military dictatorships in the 20th century. That of Primo de Rivera, from 1923 to 1930, preceded the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco regime, which lasted until the General’s death in 1975. Both de Rivera and Franco pursued national unity by ruthlessly suppressing regionalist tendencies across Spain. But Franco probably distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule. Spain did not begin its transition to a modern democratic nation-state until after Franco’s death.

In 1979, following the first free elections in Spain since the 1930s in 1977, Catalan voters approved a statute of autonomy for the region that recognized Catalonia as a “nationality,” gave the Catalan language an official status equal to Castilian Spanish, and conceded extensive powers to Catalonia in education, culture and language. Catalonia henceforth became what Elliot describes as an “integral but largely self-governing part of what the bulk of its inhabitants had long wanted – a democratic, decentralized and modernizing Spain” (p.229).

1979 was also the year Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party were voted into office in Britain. Thatcher moved quickly to shut down all talk about “devolution,” which envisioned re-establishing the Scottish parliament and according more autonomy to Scotland. In Elliot’s view, Thatcher probably did more to spur the modern separatist movement in Scotland than any other single individual. Devolution came to Scotland in 1997, when Scottish voters approved creation of an independent Scottish parliament, its first since the 1707 union with England. By 1997, Scotland enjoyed approximately the same degree of autonomy from the central government in Westminster that Catalonia had achieved in 1979.

Elliot further fits both independence movements into a broader 21st century framework, wherein pressures upon the traditional nation-state from above, driven by the European Union, economic inequalities, and what we often term globalization, have generated a “general sense in many parts of the western world that highly bureaucratized central governments [have] become too remote to understand the true needs and problems of the governed” (p.3).  Separatism for Scotland and Catalonia, as elsewhere, appears to offer an easy answer to those who feel they have lost control over their lives. “Independence [will] allow them once again to be masters in their own house,” he writes. But much of this, he adds tartly, referring more to Catalonia than Scotland, is “nostalgia for a world that never was” (p.267).

* * *

A second independence referendum for Scotland – and with it Scottish independence — now appears, if not inevitable, more probable than not, despite Boris Johnson’s opposition. As Scottish journalist Jamie Maxwell wrote in the New York Times after the May elections, a Johnson veto would be tantamount to “transforming Britain from a voluntary association based on consent into a compulsory one” –– an ironic transformation to the way Catalan secessionists view their relationship to Spain.

Continued political stalemate, rather than realistic prospects for independence, looks like the better bet for Catalonia. The region lacks a leader comparable to Sturgeon, who has ruled out a “wildcat referendum” and is generally cautious, steady and unusually adept at playing the long game – words rarely used to describe former Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont.  Sturgeon seems confident that Johnson will “ultimately buckle under the weight of democratic pressure,” as Maxwell puts it.  Independence may nevertheless be in the cards in this decade for both Scotland and Catalonia.  But in demonstrating the deep historical dissimilarities between Scotland’s relationship to Great Britain and Catalonia’s to Spain, Elliot’s erudite history suggests that the two entities are likely to travel distinctly different paths to independence.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

July 8,  2021

 

 

 

3 Comments

Filed under British History, European History, Spanish 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

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

Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Raphael Minder, The Struggle for Catalonia:

Rebel Politics in Spain (Hurst, £15.99 ppb)

            Two years ago, in the last quarter of 2017, Spain faced its most severe constitutional crisis since its transformation into a modern democracy began in 1975 in the aftermath of the death of long-term military dictator Francisco Franco.  On October 1, 2017, the regional (and semi-autonomous) province of Catalonia, the northeast corner of Spain that incudes Barcelona, held a non-binding referendum on the question whether the region should declare its independence and secede from Spain. The central government in Madrid vigorously opposed the referendum and took measures to impede it.

90% of Catalans who voted approved the referendum. But several major Catalan parties boycotted the referendum, and only 43% of eligible voters actually voted.   Later that month, on October 27, the Catalan regional parliament adopted a resolution unilaterally declaring the province an independent republic.  The central government responded by invoking the 1978 Spanish constitution to remove regional authorities and enforce direct rule from Madrid over the region.  Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan regional president, fled to Belgium with key members of his cabinet, with Spain’s Attorney General pressing for their return to Spain to face charges of sedition and misuse of public funds.

At this writing, the 2017 Spanish secession crisis continues to simmer, with no clear winner.  Catalonia remains a part of the Spanish republic – indeed one of its most prosperous parts, with an economy larger than that of Portugal, accounting for almost twenty percent of Spain’s GDP.  Puigdemont and his cabinet colleagues remain outside Spain, still sought by Spanish justice.  The country has held two national elections since the October 2017 crisis, prompting some newspapers to label Spain the “new Italy.”  The secessionist movement seems somewhat less potent than it did two years ago, but has in no sense disappeared.

Raphael Minder’s The Struggle for Catalonia: Rebel Politics in Spain first appeared in the spring of 2017, and thus does not address that year’s momentous last quarter events.  But it almost appears to anticipate them.  Minder, a Swiss-born, Oxford-educated journalist who is now the Madrid-based correspondent for the New York Times, ranges widely in describing Catalan life and culture, including language, religion, sports, tourism and cuisine.  He seeks to explain the factors that have produced the mindset of contemporary Catalans – of those who believe, often fervently, that their region’s future lies outside the Spanish republic and those who, with equal fervor, maintain that Catalonia is and should remain part of Spain.  Throughout, he relies heavily on the views of academics, Catalan especially but not exclusively, for their takes on his broad range of subjects.  He  also includes the fruits of his discussions and interviews with a diverse range of Catalans and those interested in the future of the region, including journalists and business people.

Minder engages the arguments for and against secession mostly indirectly and obliquely, scrupulously avoiding the appearance of taking sides in the polemical debates on the subject.  Catalonia’s complicated contemporary politics, with multiple parties representing all points on the spectrum on the secession question, are thus part of Minder’s story but far from the major part.  He treats Catalonia’s history, but not systematically, preferring to weave pivotal historical background into his consideration of contemporary Catalonia and its culture.

The historical background includes the 2008 global financial crisis, in Minder’s view the most immediate catalyst for the current Catalan separatist challenge.  During the recession that followed, several Catalan parties and much of the public became “increasingly convinced that Catalonia had more to gain than to lose by breaking away from a crisis-hit Spain. As the recession deepened, secessionism shifted from fringe to mainstream thinking in Catalonia” (p.204).  Minder also returns repeatedly to other pivotal historical events and periods which have abetted the secessionist urge, especially Barcelona’s fall in 1714 to Phillip V, ending the War of Spanish Succession; and Spain’s Franco period, including both the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, and the long Franco dictatorship, 1939-1975.

The 1714 conquest by Phillip V, the grandson of Louis XIV who was born at Versailles and became the first Bourbon king of Spain, constitutes the “historical wrong that needs to be challenged for Catalonia to assert its nationhood” (p.21), Minder writes.  For many Catalans, Bourbon rule entailed a “model of governance that sought to crush diversity in Spain. The Bourbons imported and imposed French centralism, which left no room for the recognition of the singularity of Catalonia” (p.193).  Phillip’s troops completed their conquest on September 11, 1714, Catalonia’s 9/11.  Long before hijacked airliners destroyed the Twin Towers in Manhattan, Catalans observed September 11 as a day of commemoration and remembrance.

Two centuries after Phillip’s conquest, Barcelona and Catalonia constituted the center of resistance to General Franco’s 1936 anti-republican coup and the ensuing conflict, the fiercest in Europe since World War I (assiduous readers of this blog will recall my 2017 review of Adam Hochschild’s book on the Spanish Civil War).  Minder suggests that Catalonia may have been less anti-Franco during the Franco regime itself than popular mythology holds, with many businesses and Catalonian elites supporting the regime.  Nevertheless, Franco distrusted Catalonia more than any other region during his long rule.

Minder further addresses secessionist movements elsewhere, particularly in Scotland and Spain’s Basque country, concluding that they have little relevance to the Catalan separatist cause.  The current wave of Catalan secessionism coincides with the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe, the United States, and other parts of the world.   Catalan secessionism might seem at first glance to be a cousin to the xenophobic nationalism of, for example, Hungary.  Both embody a form of tribalism, based on a powerful sense of identity and the prioritizing of a particular set of historical traditions over all others, and both thus constitute a challenge to modern liberal democracy.  Yet Catalonia has traditionally been one of the most progressive pockets of Spain, a sort of melting pot for migrants from other parts of the country and elsewhere; it was notably welcoming to Middle Eastern immigrants during the refugee crisis of this decade.  The main link between today’s Catalonia and Hungary with its xenophobic nationalism may be that the European Union takes an equally dim view of both.

* * *

               The Catalan language constitutes a natural starting point in seeking to grasp the diverse components of Catalan culture.  It is the glue that not only holds the components together but also links the region to other parts of the world where the language is spoken, including the area in and around Perpignan in Southern France and, most unlikely, in pockets of Sardinia.  About 11 million people understand Catalan while 9.1 million people speak the language, according to a recent government study. After Barcelona’s fall to Phillip V in 1714, Spain’s Bourbon monarchy banned the official use of Catalan.  In the late 19th century, a movement of Catalan poets and authors took on the task of reviving the language, “which was by then widely considered to be ‘doomed’ and irrelevant” (p.29).  In the early post-Franco years, Catalan became the obligatory first language in Catalan schools.

Although Catalans appreciate having their own language, a minority of Catalan speakers, fairly described as linguistic extremists, have pushed to make Catalan the only official language of Catalonia. “Certain separatists have shown a complete disregard for the benefits of a multilingual upbringing and society” (p.34), Minder writes.  The irony is that part of the wealth of Catalonia’s linguistic and literary tradition “lies in its ability both to attract and interact with other cultures” (p.35).  If its language sets Catalonia off from the rest of Spain, so too does its relationship with the most traditional of Spanish institutions, the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Minder considers the Spanish monarchy to be the most discredited national institution in Catalonia. “It is common to find Catalans displaying an indifference towards the monarchy that sometimes borders on ignorance” (p.193), he writes.  One Catalan told Minder that most of his fellow Catalans “feel no more for Spain’s King than they would for the Queen of England” (p.191). The relevance of Catholicism, moreover, has “declined faster in Catalonia than in other parts of Spain” (p.188).  A Catalan theologian and lawyer explained to Minder that Catalonia had:

modernized early because of the industrial revolution, and then it embraced anarchism and other anti-religious ideas more enthusiastically than other parts of Spain. . . After the civil war, Franco promoted his National Catholicism from Madrid. This too convinced many Catalans to break free of the church because it was an institution associated with a dictatorship. The fact that the Catalan church withdrew its support from the regime during Franco’s final years did little to reverse the decline (p.187-88).

Football might be considered Catalonia’s secular religion today, with enthusiasm for its flagship team, FC Barcelona (or “Borça”), a shared passion across the region. But, Minder notes, football and politics have become increasingly intertwined in Catalonia.   Some FC Barcelona fans shout for independence during matches and wave the independence flag, Estelada.  Fans also sometimes boo when the Spanish national anthem is played.  Bullfighting, once the rival to football as Spain’s national sport, is by contrast on the decline in Catalonia.  In 2010, shortly after a controversial decision of the constitutional court struck down a portion of Catalan’s statute of autonomy, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting as unjustified animal cruelty.  Animal rights activists applauded the ban while bullfighting proponents countered that it was politically motivated.  Some Catalan politicians acknowledged that the ban “helped present Catalonia as more modern than the rest of Spain” (p.177).

Sports enthusiasm in Catalonia took on a new cast in 1992, when Barcelona hosted the Olympic Games, the “real moment of transformation” for the city and the region, Minder writes, “brought about by sports rather than culture” (p.157).  The 1992 games allowed Barcelona to show itself off as a center for innovation.  The games also provided a giant shot in the arm for the region’s tourism industry, with the number of visitors roughly eight times greater now than in the years prior to 1992.   Today, Barcelona faces the dilemma of too much tourism – the city has more visitors than it can comfortably accommodate.

Minder includes Catalonia’s distinct cuisine as another component of its culture.  Catalonia has been a leader in European gastronomy since at least the 14th century, he indicates.  Catalonia today has more Michelin- starred restaurants than any other region in Spain, roughly one third of all such restaurants in the country.  Minder quotes an American food writer who describes Catalan cooking as looking outward, “toward Europe and the Mediterranean, rather than back into the Iberian interior . . . It is a real cuisine, distinct and elaborate in a way that the cooking of, say, Castile, Andalusia and Extremadura . . . [is] not” (p.282).

* * *

               Minder dates the start of the modern secessionist movement to 2006, when Catalonia adopted a new statute of autonomy.  Parts of that statute, as noted above, were struck down by Spain’s constitutional court in 2010.  The court’s decision “changed the mindset of many Catalans” (p.249-50), he writes, generating more enthusiasm for secession in Catalonia than had the adoption of the original statute.  In the interim, of course, the 2008 financial crisis intervened. The bursting of Spain’s property bubble in 2008 led to a huge number of people unable to pay their mortgages, in Catalonia and throughout Spain.  Although nobody knows exactly how many Catalans converted to secession after the 2008 financial crisis, politicians and sociologists generally agree that about half of those who voted for separatist parties in a Catalan regional election in 2015 had not supported secessionism a decade earlier.  In the 2015 election , 48 percent of Catalans cast their ballots in favor of separatist parties, “enough for separatists to gain a parliamentary majority” (p.11).

So is secession a good idea for Catalonia? Is it likely to succeed? Minder might provide different answers to these related but distinct questions today, in light of the events of the last quarter of 2017 and Spain’s current situation.  But in the early part of 2017, he answered both with a definite maybe.  The creation of a new Catalan state “does not look like a pipedream,” he writes.  But “neither, of course, does it seem inevitable” (p.300).  Although Minder notices a secessionist mindset taking hold among younger Catalonians, he finds secession unlikely to succeed as long as the region’s main separatist parties “find more reasons for disagreement than consensus.  Separatist politicians have sought to brush their differences under the carpet until their statehood project matures, but the voters have the right to receive a clearer roadmap before deciding in which direction Catalonia should go” (p.7).  Catalan politicians “need to consider the divisions that they have helped widen within a society that has always had its split personality, torn between what Catalans call their ‘seny i rauxa,’ or sanity and rage” (p.300).

Catalan secessionism differs  from secessionism in Scotland in that there are many parties with independence tendencies in Catalonia, often with conflicting agendas, whereas a single party has represented the cause of Scottish independence.  Scotland’s nationalist politicians, moreover, “have not seen any benefit in banding together with an independence movement that faces greater obstacles in Catalonia” (p.148).  Nor does secessionism in Spain’s Basque region resemble that of Catalonia. The Basque and Catalan regions have markedly different economic clout, and there are only about 2 million people in the Basque region, compared to more than 7 million in Catalonia.  Moreover, the Basque history of anti-state violence and terrorism has no analogue in Catalonia.  For these and other reasons, Basque and Catalan elites “have not come together to coordinate their response to separatism” (p.238).  But if neither Scotland nor the Basque region offers Catalonia either a viable model to follow or a potential partnership, I couldn’t help thinking as I worked my way through Minder’s comprehensive survey that the best lesson for Catalonia may lie in the Brexit ordeal currently convulsing Britain, namely that breaking away can be far more complicated than it initially appears.

 

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

September 13, 2019

 

 

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Minding Our Public Language

Mark Thompson, Enough Said:

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics 

          In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, Mark Thompson examines the role which “public language” — the language we use “when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything else in a public context” (p.2) — plays in today’s cacophonous political debates.  Thompson, currently Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times and before that General Director of the BBC, contends that there is a crisis in contemporary democratic decision-making today that at heart is a crisis of political language.  Public language appears to be losing its power to explain and engage, thereby threatening the bond between people and politicians. “Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere,” Thompson writes, and the way our public language has changed is an “important contributing and exacerbating factor” (p.297-98).

          Thompson seeks to revive the formal study of rhetoric as a means to understand and even reverse the contemporary crisis of public language.  Rhetoric is simply the “study of the theory and practice of public language” (p.2).  Rhetoric “helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to ‘pay heed’ to the ‘opposite side,’ the other” (p.361). Democracies need public debate and therefore competition in the mastery of public persuasion. Rhetoric, the language of explanation and persuasion, enables collective decision-making to take place.

        Across the book’s disparate parts, Thompson’s central concern is today’s angry and polarized political climate often referred to as “populist,” in which the word “compromise” has become pejorative, the adjective “uncompromising” is a compliment, and the “public presumption of good faith between opposing parties and factions” (p.97) seems to have largely evaporated.  Thompson recognizes that the current populist wave is founded upon a severe distrust of elites.  Given his highest-of-high-level positions at the BBC and The New York Times (along with a degree from Oxford University), Thompson is about as elite as one can become.  He thus observes from the top of a besieged citadel.  Unsurprisingly, Thompson brings a well-informed Anglo-American perspective to his observations, and he shines in pointing to commonalities as well as differences between Great Britain and the United States. There are occasional glances at continental Europe and elsewhere – Silvio Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills are examined, for example – but for the most part this is an analysis of public language at work in contemporary Britain and the United States.

          In the book’s first half, Thompson uses the terminology of classical rhetoric to frame an examination of what he considers the root causes of today’s crisis in public language. Among them are the impact of social media on political discourse and how the pervasive use of sales and marketing language has devalued public debate.  Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a “Darwinian natural selection of words and phrases,” he writes, in which, “by definition, the only kind of language that emerges from this process is language that works. You hear it, you get it, you pass it on. The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius – a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill – is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art, but as algorithm” (p.187).  The use of language associated with sales and marketing serves further to give political language “some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing,” while stripping away its “explanatory and argumentative power” (p.191).

          In the second half, Thompson shifts way from applying notions of classical rhetoric to public debate and focuses more directly upon the debate itself in three settings: when scientific consensus confronts spurious scientific claims; when claims for tolerance and respect for racial, religious or ethnic minorities seek to override untrammeled freedom of expression; and when, after the unprecedented and still unfathomable devastation of the 20th century’s world wars, leaders seek to take their country into war.  Thompson’s analyses of these situations are lucid and clearheaded, but for all the common sense and good judgment that he brings to them, I found this section more conventional and less original than the book’s first half, and consequently less intriguing.

* * *

       Thompson starts with a compelling example to which he returns throughout the book, involving the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin and her rhetorical attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Before the ACA was signed into law, one Elizabeth McCaughey, an analyst with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, looked at a single clause among the 1,000 plus pages of the proposed legislation and drew the conclusion that the act required patients over a certain age to be counseled by a panel of experts on the options available for ending their lives. McCaughey’s conclusion was dead wrong. The clause merely clarified that expenses would be covered for those who desired such counseling, as proponents of the legislation made clear from the outset.

         No matter. Palin grabbed the ball McCaughey had thrown out and ran with it. In one of her most Palinesque moments, the one-term Alaska governor wrote on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of heath care. Such a system is downright evil (p.4-5).

By placing the words “death panel” and “level of productivity in society” in quotation marks, Palin left the impression that she was quoting from the statute itself.  Thus presented, the words conjured up early 20th century eugenics and Nazi doctors at death camps.  To her supporters, Palin had uncovered “nothing less than a conspiracy to murder” (p.7).

        In the terminology of classical rhetoric, “death panel” was an enthymeme, words that might not mean much to a neutral observer but were all that Palin’s supporters needed to “fill in the missing parts of her argument to construct a complete critique of Obamacare” (p.30).   It had the power of compression, perfect for the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the effect of a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.  Its words were prophetic, taking an imagined future scenario and presenting it as current reality.  Palin’s claim was symptomatic of today’s polarized political debate. It achieved its impact “by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty,” building on a presumption of “irredeemable bad faith,” and rejecting “even the possibility of a rational debate” with the statute’s supporters (p.17).

        Thompson considers Palin’s rhetorical approach distinct in keys ways from that of Donald Trump.    Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Thompson observes that Trump had “rewritten the playbook of American political language” (p.80). Trumpian rhetoric avoids cleverness or sophistication:

There are no cunning mousetraps like the “death panel.” The shocking statements are not couched in witty or allusive language. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again! – could hardly be less original or artful. Everything is intended to emphasize the break with the despised language of the men and women of the Washington machine. There is a wall between them and you, Trump seems to say to his audience, but I am on this side of the wall alongside you. They treat you as stupid, but you understand things far better than they do. The guarantee that I see the world as you do is the fact that I speak in your language, not theirs (p.79-80).

        Yet Thompson roots both Palin’s populism and that of Trump in a rhetorical approach that dates from the 18th century Enlightenment termed “authenticism,” a mode of expression that prioritizes emotion and simplicity of language, and purports to engage with the “lowliest members of the chosen community” (p.155).  To the authenticst, if something “feels true, then in some sense it must be true” (p.155).  Since the Enlightenment, authenticism has been in tension with “rhetorical rationalism,” which venerates fact-based arguments and empirical thinking.  Authenticism rises as trust in public leaders declines.   Authenticists take what their rationalist opponents regard as their most egregious failings, “fantasies dressed up as facts, petulance, tribalism, loss of control of one’s own emotions,” and “flip them into strengths.”  Rationalists may consider authenticism “pitifully cruel, impossible to sustain, downright crazy,” but it can be a compelling rhetorical approach for the “right audience in the right season” (p.356).

        Authenticism found the right audience in the right season in Brexit, Britain’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, with people voting for Brexit because they were “sick and tired of spin, prevarication and policy jargon” (p.351).   A single topic referendum such as Brexit, unlike a general election, requires a “minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved,” Thompson writes. By this standard, the Brexit referendum should be considered a “disgrace” (p.347).  Those opposing Brexit had little to offer “in the way of positivity to counterbalance the threats; its Tory and Labour leaders seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about Britain’s membership [in] the EU than their opponents.  Their campaign was lackluster and low-energy.  They deserved to lose” (p.347).

        In understanding how classical rhetoric influences public debate, Thompson attaches particular significance to George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the “best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century” (p.136).  Although Orwell claimed that his main concern in the essay was clarity of language, what he cared most about, Thompson contends, was the “beauty of language . . . Orwell associated beauty of language with clarity, and clarity with the ability of language to express rather than prevent thought and, by so doing, to support truthful and effective political debate” (p.143).  Orwell’s essay thus embodied the “classical understanding of rhetoric,” specifically the “ancient belief that the civic value of a given piece of rhetoric is correlated with its excellence as a piece of expression” (p.143).

* * *

      In the book’s second half, Thompson looks at the public debate over a host of contentious issues that have riveted the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, beginning with the deference that democratic debate should accord to questionable scientific claims.  So-called climate skeptics, who challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, can make what superficially sounds like a compelling case that their views should be entitled to equal time in forums dedicated to the elaboration of public issues, such as those provided by the BBC or The New York Times.  Minority scientific views have themselves frequently evolved into accepted scientific understanding (one 19th century example was the underlying cause of the Irish potato famine, discussed here  in 2014 in my review of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking).  Refusal to accord a forum for such views can easily be cast as a “cover up.”

         Thompson shows how members of Britain’s most distinguished scientific body, the Royal Society, once responded to public skepticism over global warming by becoming advocates, presenting the scientific consensus on the need for action in terms unburdened by the caution and caveats that are usually part of scientific explanation, and emphasizing the bad faith of climate change skeptics. Its efforts largely backfired. The more scientists sound like politicians with an agenda, the “less convincing they are likely to be” (p.211).   The same issue arose when a British medical researcher claimed to have a found connection between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. The research was subsequently found to be fraudulent, but not before a handful of celebrities and a few politicians jumped aboard an anti-vaccination movement (including, in the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Donald Trump, when he was more celebrity than politician), with an uncountable number of parents opting not to have their children vaccinated.

       Thompson’s discussion of the boundaries of tolerance and free speech raises a similar issue: to what degree should democratic forums include those whose views are antithetical to democratic norms. While at the BBC, Thompson needed to decide whether the BBC would invite the British National Party (BNP), which flirted with Holocaust denial but had demonstrated a substantial following at the ballot box, to a broadcast that involved representatives of Britain’s major parties. In the face of strident opposition, Thompson elected to include the BNP representative and explains why here: the public “had the right to see him and listen to him responding to questions put to him by a studio audience itself made up of people like them. They did so and drew their own conclusions” (p.263).

       Thompson also delivers a full-throated rebuke to American universities that have disinvited speakers because students objected to their views.  The way to defeat extremists and their defenders, whether in faculty lounges or the halls of power, is simply to out-argue them, he contends.  Freedom of expression is best considered a right to be enjoyed “not just by those with something public to say but by everyone” (p.262-63), as a means by which an audience can seek to reach its own judgment. With a few exceptions like child pornography or incitement to violence, Thompson finds no support for the notion that suppressing ideas of which we disapprove is a better way to defeat them in a modern democracy than confronting and debating them in public.

       In a chapter entitled simply “War,” Thompson argues that war is today the greatest rhetorical test for a political leader:

To convince a country to got to war, or to rally a people’s courage and optimism during the course of that war, depends on your ability to persuade those who are listening to you to risk sacrificing themselves and their children for some wider public purpose. It is words against life and limb. [It includes the] need for length and detail as you explain the justification of the war; the simultaneous need for brevity and emotional impact; authenticity, rationality, authority; the search for a persuasiveness that does not – cannot— sound anything like marketing given the blood and treasure that are at stake” (p.219).

        Today, it is almost impossible for any war to be well received in a democracy, except in the very short term.  This is undoubtedly an advance over the days when war was celebrated for its gallantry and chivalry. But, drawing upon the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, and to Britain’s decision to join the United States in the second Iraq war in 2003, Thompson faults anti-war rhetoric for its tendency to assume bad faith almost immediately, to “omit awkward arguments or to downplay unresolved issues, to pretend that difficult choices are easy, to talk straight past the other side in the debate, to oversimplify everything” (p.254-55).

* * *

      Thompson does not see today’s populist wave receding any time soon. “One can believe that populism always fails in the end – because of the crudity of its policies, its unwillingness to do unpopular but necessary things, its underlying divisiveness and intolerance – yet still accept that it will be a political fact of life in many western countries for years to come” (p.363).  He ends by abandoning the measured, “this-too-shall-pass” tone that prevails throughout most of his wide-ranging book to conclude on a near-apocalyptic note.   A storm is gathering, he writes, which threatens to be:

greater than any seen since the global infernos of the twentieth century. If the first premonitory gusts of a global populist storm were enough to blow Britain out of Europe and Donald Trump into the White House, what will the main blasts do? If the foretaste of the economic and social disruption to come was enough to show our public language to be almost wholly wanting in 2016, what will happen when the hurricane arrives?” (p.364).

       Is there anything we can do to restore the power of public language to cement the bonds of trust between the public and its leaders?  Can rhetorical rationalists regain the upper hand in public debate? Thompson argues that we need to “put public language at the heart of the teaching of civics . . . We need to teach our children how to parse every kind of public language” (p.322).  Secondary school and university students need to know “how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly” (p.366).   This seems like a sensible starting place.  But it may not be sufficient to withstand the hurricane.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 18, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments

Filed under American Politics, British History, Intellectual History, Language, Politics

Turning the Ship of Ideas in a Different Direction

Judt.1

Judt.2

Tony Judt, When the Facts Change,

Essays 1995-2010 , edited by Jennifer Homans

      In a 2013 review of Rethinking the 20th Century, I explained how the late Tony Judt became my “main man.” He was an expert in the very areas of my greatest, albeit amateurish, interest: French and European 20th century history and political theory; what to make of Communism, Nazism and Fascism; and, later in his career, the contributions of Central and Eastern European thinkers to our understanding of Europe and what he often termed the “murderous” 20th century. Moreover, Judt was a contemporary, born in Great Britain in 1948, the son of Jewish refugees. Raised in South London and educated at Kings College, Cambridge, Judt spent time as a recently-minted Cambridge graduate at Paris’ fabled Ecole Normale Supérieure; he lived on a kibbutz in Israel and contributed to the cause in the 1967 Six Day War; and had what he termed a mid-life crisis, which he spent in Prague, learning the Czech language and absorbing the rich Czech intellectual and cultural heritage.  Judt also had several teaching stints in the United States and became an American citizen. In 1995, he founded the Remarque Institute at New York University, where he remained until he died in 2010, age 62, of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS, which Americans know as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”

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      Rethinking the 20th Century was more of an informal conversation with Yale historian Timothy Snyder than a book written by Judt. Judt’s best-known work was a magisterial history of post-World War II Europe, entitled simply Post War. His other published writings included incisive studies of obscure left-wing French political theorists and the “public intellectuals” who animated France’s always lively 20th century debate about the role of the individual and the state (key subjects of Sudhir Hazareesingh’s How the French Think: An Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, reviewed here in June).  Among French public intellectuals, Judt reserved particular affection for Albert Camus and particular scorn for Jean-Paul Sartre.  While at the Remarque Institute, Judt became himself the epitome of a public intellectual, gaining much attention outside academic circles for his commentaries on contemporary events.  Judt’s contributions to public debate are on full display in When the Facts Change, Essays 1995-2010, a collection of 28 essays edited by Judt’s wife Jennifer Homans, former dance critic for The New Republic.

      The collection includes book reviews and articles originally published elsewhere, especially in The New York Review of Books, along with a single previously unpublished entry. The title refers to a quotation which Homans considers likely apocryphal, attributed to John Maynard Keynes: “when the facts change, I change my mind – what do you do, sir” (p.4). In Judt’s case, the major changes of mind occurred early in his professional life, when he repudiated his youthful infatuation with Marxism and Zionism. But throughout his adult life and especially in his last fifteen years, Homans indicates, as facts changed and events unfolded, Judt “found himself turned increasingly and unhappily against the current, fighting with all of his intellectual might to turn the ship of ideas, however slightly, in a different direction” (p.1).  While wide-ranging in subject-matter, the collection’s entries bring into particularly sharp focus Judt’s outspoken opposition to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, his harsh criticism of Israeli policies toward its Palestinian population, and his often-eloquent support for European continental social democracy.

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      The first essay in the collection, a 1995 review of Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991, should be of special interest to tomsbooks readers. Last fall, I reviewed Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century, a collection of Hobsbawm’s essays.  Judt noted that Hobsbawm had “irrevocably shaped” all who took up the study of history between 1959 and 1975 — what Judt termed the “Hobsbawm generation” of historians (p.13). But Judt contended that Hobsbawm’s relationship to the Soviet Union — he was a lifelong member of Britain’s Communist Party – clouded his analysis of 20th century Europe. The “desire to find at least some residual meaning in the whole Communist experience” explains what Judt found to be a “rather flat quality to Hobsbawm’s account of the Stalinist terror” (p.26). That the Soviet Union “purported to stand for a good cause, indeed the only worthwhile cause,” Judt concluded, is what “mitigated its crimes for many in Hobsbawm’s generation.” Others – likely speaking for himself — “might say it just made them worse” (p.26-27).

      In the first decade of the 21st century, Judt became known as an early and fervently outspoken critic of the 2003 American intervention in Iraq.  Judt wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2003, two months after the U.S.-led invasion, that President Bush and his advisers had “[u]nbelievably” managed to “make America seem the greatest threat to international stability.” A mere eighteen months after September 11, 2001:

the United States may have gambled away the confidence of the world. By staking a monopoly claim on Western values and their defense, the United States has prompted other Westerners to reflect on what divides them from America. By enthusiastically asserting its right to reconfigure the Muslim world, Washington has reminded Europeans in particular of the growing Muslim presence in their own cultures and its political implications. In short, the United States has given a lot of people occasion to rethink their relationship with it” (p.231).

Using Madeline Albright’s formulation, Judt asked whether the world’s “indispensable nation” had miscalculated and overreached. “Almost certainly” was his response to his question, to which he added: “When the earthquake abates, the tectonic plates of international politics will have shifted forever” (p.232). Thirteen years later, in the age of ISIS, Iranian ascendancy and interminable civil wars in Iraq and Syria, Judt’s May 2003 prognostication strikes me as frightfully accurate.

      Judt’s essays dealing with the state of Israel and the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict generated rage, drawing in particular the wrath of pro-Israeli American lobbying groups. Judt, who contributed to Israeli’s war effort in the 1967 Six Day War as a driver and translator for the Iraqi military, came to consider the state of Israel an anachronism. The idea of a Jewish state, in which “Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded,” he wrote in 2003, is “rooted in another time and place” (p.116). Although “multi-cultural in all but name,” Israel was “distinctive among democratic states in its resort to ethno-religious criteria with which to denominate and rank its citizens” (p.121).

      Judt noted in 2009 that the Israel of Benjamin Netanyahu was “certainly less hypocritical than that of the old Labor governments. Unlike most of its predecessors reaching back to 1967, it does not even pretend to seek reconciliation with the Arabs over which it rules” (p. 157-58). Israel’s “abusive treatment of the Palestinians,” he warned, is the “chief proximate cause of the resurgence of anti-Semitism worldwide. It is the single most effective recruiting agent for radical Islamic movements” (p.167). Vilified for these contentions, Judt repeatedly pleaded for recognition of what should be, but unfortunately is not, the self-evident proposition that one can criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel.

      Judt was arguably the most influential American proponent of European social democracy, the form of governance that flourished in Western Europe between roughly 1950 and 1980 and became the model for Eastern European states emerging from communism after 1989, with a strong social safety net, free but heavily regulated markets, and strong respect for individual liberties and the rule of law. Judt characterized social democracy as the “prose of contemporary European politics” (p.331). With the fall of communism and the demise of an authoritarian Left, the emphasis upon democracy had become “largely redundant,” Judt contended. “We are all democrats today. But ‘social’ still means something – arguably more now than some decades back when a role for the public sector was uncontentiously conceded by all sides” (p.332). Judt saw social democracy as the counterpoint to what he termed “neo-liberalism” or globalization, characterized by the rise of income inequality, the cult of privatization, and the tendency – most pronounced in the Anglo-American world – to regard unfettered free markets as the key to widespread prosperity.

      Judt asked 21st century policy makers to take what he termed a “second glance” at how “our twentieth century predecessors responded to the political challenge of economic uncertainty” (p.315). In a 2007 review of Robert Reich’s Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, Judt argued that the universal provision of social services and some restriction upon inequalities of income and wealth are “important economic variables in themselves, furnishing the necessary public cohesion and political confidence for a sustained prosperity – and that only the state has the resources and the authority to provide those services and enforce those restrictions in our collective name” (p.315).  A second glance would also reveal that a healthy democracy, “far from being threatened by the regulatory state, actually depends upon it: that in a world increasingly polarized between insecure individuals and unregulated global forces, the legitimate authority of the democratic state may be the best kind of intermediate institution we can devise” (p.315-16).

      Judt’s review of Reich’s book anticipated the anxieties that one sees in both Europe and America today. Fear of the type last seen in the 1920s and 1930s had remerged as an “active ingredient of political life in Western democracies” (p.314), Judt observed one year prior to the economic downturn of 2008.  Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that Judt had the convulsive phenomena of Brexit in Britain and Donald Trump in the United States in mind when he emphasized how fear had woven itself into the fabric of modern political life:

Fear of terrorism, of course, but also, and perhaps more insidiously, fear of uncontrollable speed of change, fear of the loss of employment, fear of losing ground to others in an increasingly unequal distribution of resources, fear of losing control of the circumstances and routines of one’s daily life.  And perhaps above all, fear that it is not just we who can no longer shape our lives but that those in authority have lost control as well, to forces beyond their reach.. . This is already happening in many countries: note the arising attraction of protectionism in American politics, the appeal of ‘anti-immigrant parties across Western Europe, the calls for ‘walls,’ ‘barriers,’ and ‘tests’ everywhere (p.314).

       Judt buttressed his case for social democracy with a tribute to the railroad as a symbol of 19th and 20th century modernity and social cohesion.  In essays that were intended to be part of a separate book, Judt contended that the railways “were and remain the necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit. They cannot exist without common accord . . . and by design they offer a practical benefit to individual and collectivity alike” (p.301). Although we “no longer see the modern world through the image of the train,” we nonetheless “continue to live in the world the trains made.”  The post-railway world of cars and planes, “turns out, like so much else about the decades 1950-1990, to have been a parenthesis: driven, in this case, by the illusion of perennially cheap fuel and the attendant cult of privatization. . . What was, for a while, old-fashioned has once again become very modern” (p.299).

      In a November 2001 essay appearing in The New York Review of Books, Judt offered a novel interpretation of Camus’ The Plague as an allegory for France in the aftermath of German occupation, a “firebell in the night of complacency and forgetting” (p.181).  Camus used The Plague to counter the “smug myth of heroism that had grown up in postwar France” (p.178), Judt argued.  The collection concludes with three Judt elegies to thinkers he revered, François Furet, Amos Elon, and Lesek Kołakowski, a French historian, an Israeli writer and a Polish communist dissident, representing key points along Judt’s own intellectual journey.

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      The 28 essays which Homans has artfully pieced together showcase Judt’s prowess as an interpreter and advocate – as a public intellectual — informed by his wide-ranging academic and scholarly work.  They convey little of Judt’s personal side.  Readers seeking to know more about Judt the man may look to his The Memory Chalet, a memoir posthumously published in 2010. In this collection, they will find an opportunity to savor Judt’s incisive if often acerbic brilliance and appreciate how he brought his prodigious learning to bear upon key issues of his time.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
July 6, 2016

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