09 December 2019

What is it about Trump?

Part of it is this: millions of people who'd never want Donald Trump to be their boss now feel that he has become, or is becoming, exactly that. Something like this, I suspect, accounts for the great fear of his "authoritarian" tendencies, which in reality amount to the sort of insults and threats many expect from a disrespectful if not downright cruel employer. Unfortunately, the choice of this employer is nobody's own, unless someone is willing to leave the country rather than live under his rule -- an option few who feel this way about Trump will want to accept. The opposition to Trump thus becomes a metaphorical, almost spiritual general strike. It certainly isn't one in any material sense, or else the President might give it more attention than his usual spite. It remains true, of course, that Trump can't "fire" American citizens, as some no doubt fear he wants to, but that fear will persist as long as Trump does. Fear of the Trump movement is something else, to the extent that they want something more than Trump, but it's difficult to address that movement on its own terms while Trump himself remains on the scene. For that reason, 2024 could be an even more interesting year than 2020, but next year will be interesting enough in the proverbially Chinese sense of the term....

12 November 2019

Has 'Why Liberalism Failed' Failed?

One of the most talked-about books in intellectual (or at least opinionated) circles over the past two years is Patrick J. Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed. Recognizing conservative, leftist, populist and authoritarian dissatisfaction with the liberal order, Deneen reportedly traces it all to liberalism's ultimate inability to check self-indulgent, self-interested individualism on the social, cultural and economic fronts. I haven't read the book, but Robert Kuttner's review of the new paperback edition in The New York Review of Books tempts me to give the book a chance -- since Kuttner certainly doesn't. An editor and co-founder of The American Prospect magazine, Kuttner qualifies as a leading liberal thinker in the Democratic sense of the term. He's dismayed, if not disgusted by all the attention Deneen has received. In Kuttner's view, Why Liberalism Failed is at heart a brief for Catholic traditionalism that misrepresents both liberalism and the history from which it emerged. I can't judge whether he's fairly characterized the book until I read Deneen myself, but one fundamental distinction Kuttner draws is instructive. He quotes Deneen's definition of liberalism as an aspiration toward "the greatest possible freedom from external constraints" in order to damn it as a caricature. For Kuttner, liberalism's target isn't "external constraints" but plain and simple tyranny of all kinds, from aristocracy to theocracy, from bureaucratic statism to the tyranny of the majority.  Rather than failing or refusing to curb excessive individualism, Kuttner contends, liberalism is ever mindful of the limits imposed on individualism and collective power alike by the rights of others -- both other individuals and minority groups. Deneen, Kuttner claims, idealizes a pre-modern consensus in which few actually had any say and which often was enforced by cruel violence.

What Deneen actually says remains to be seen, but Kuttner's outraged review arguably plays into the author's hands. Deneen might well ask: what keeps a liberal from seeing any external constraint as tyranny? The answer must depend on how one defines "external constraint." From Kuttner's account, Deneen includes traditional values, including revealed religion, in the definition, but Kuttner himself, waxing anticlerical, argues that traditions often come with oppressive hierarchies and habits of intolerance that require the evolution of liberalism in defense of human rights. This might serve as evidence that liberals like Kuttner can't accept a normative consensus without looking for inquisitors behind every tree. Such heightened awareness of potential tyranny is well known in this country. It can be found on the left and the right alike as each sees the other as the potential tyrant. If we can no longer acquiesce in electoral defeat without worrying that tyranny is imminent, then one can argue -- though I don't say this is Deneen's argument -- that liberalism, however you define it, is failing. But while all sides seemingly grow more weary of Americans' absolute right to be assholes, I don't know if hyper-individualism is the true seed of liberalism's downfall. Liberalism is a product of particular historic conditions that no longer apply as they did in liberalism's heyday. You don't need to be a Marxist to believe this, and Marxists probably are wrong to see liberalism (or, as they'd say, bourgeois values) as characteristic of a mere stage, inevitably left behind, in human progress. It may be more useful to see the liberal/bourgeois epoch as an exceptional but not necessarily irreproducible episode in a more cyclical pattern of history -- perhaps as a high point from which decline rather than progress is inevitable, but definitely something that can't be permanent. If that's the case, the question of liberalism's failure would be as much a "when" as a "why." It could well be that Deneen is asking the wrong question, and Kuttner is giving the wrong answer anyway.

11 November 2019

Evo-lution or Revolution

Evo Morales, Bolivia's leader since 2006, resigned over the weekend after losing the support of the country's military amid protests against alleged fraud in recent elections. Predictably, the global left sees Morales' fall as a coup d'etat, while the right (and many self-styled centrists) sees it as a victory for civil society, people power, etc. over a socialist caudillo. It comes as something as a surprise, since for all that Morales was as radical as Hugo Chavez and his movement in Venezuela, his government had seemed less tumultuous or dysfunctional than the Bolivarian regime. Yet there were signs that Morales' own people were tiring of him. His referendum to overturn term limits so he could remain in office had been defeated at the polls, though friendly judges found a questionable "human rights" excuse to overturn them anyway. Morales clearly saw himself as the sort of indispensable man that the sort of democratic revolution his supposedly was shouldn't really need. Unfortunately, self-conscious revolutions too often suffer from a sense of dependence upon strong personal will. Socialist revolutions seem particularly vulnerable to this dependency, and to the temptation to see individual leaders as indispensable. The Cincinnatus archetype has little appeal on the left, perhaps because it's a patrician archetype -- the leftist presumably has no plantation to which he longs to return, and does not see politics as a burdensome imposition on his personal life. They live to carry out revolution and so probably find it hard to imagine themselves retired from revolution. Yet to the extent that any of them believe their own revolutions to be democratic, they should not want them to be dependent on any one individual's will or vision. No one claiming to lead a democratic revolution should believe himself indispensable to history. That so many leaders do see themselves that way only lends credence to conservative, libertarian or anarchist charges that leftist revolutionaries are interested more in imposing their will on others than in liberating others. That being said, in Bolivia it could be argued that Morales had done enough by promising to hold a new election. To claim that the government can't be trusted to conduct a fair election is a grave charge, but one easily made by parties accustomed, as in Bolivia, to losing when victory seemed theirs by right. The possibility that Morales needed to be removed by extra-electoral means can't be ruled out absolutely -- nor can such possibilities be ruled out anywhere -- but the swiftness with which Bolivia reverted to a sad South American pattern is most likely to encourage those on the left who see the democratic revolutions in Bolivia and Venezuela as failed or hopelessly flawed experiments, overly vulnerable to counterrevolutionary or "imperialist" manipulation. Should the hapless Maduro finally fall in Venezuela, we may well see a reversion on the left to all-out Leninist tactics, including the immediate suppression of all opposition during the seizure of power. While others may draw different lessons from Morales' career, some may conclude that his real failing was his failure to seize absolute power and eliminate his enemies as soon as possible. It's not clear whether what's happening in Bolivia is a right-wing coup or not, but if right-leaning authoritarianism seems ascendant in much of the world, a violent revival of Leninism in response should surprise no one.

05 November 2019

Sign of an off-year election

Seen today in Albany NY
Who knew that job was subject to a vote? Did anyone see a "Give Us Barabbas" sign anywhere?...

31 October 2019

'Lock him up' part two

A day after I wrote about liberals lamenting the spectacle of baseball fans chanting "Lock him up!" at the President of the United States, a textbook example of this tendency appeared in the local paper. Jonathan Bernstein's piece exemplifies the slippery-slope thinking of those who reject the obvious when it doesn't fit their narrative, and shows an unhealthy condescension toward people who probably share many of his views. Bernstein and other concerned citizens are determined to hear "Lock him up" as a call for lawlessness. To be fair, Bernstein acknowledges what to most people would be the obvious meaning of the chant. Isn't it "Merely shorthand for saying [Trump] should be tried and held accountable for his crimes"? It can't be that, though, because another pundit thought the crowd wanted Trump "jailed without due process," which is "an authoritarian strategy, even when liberals do it," and another called the chant "an act of desperation that says that you don't believe in the rule of law." Bernstein himself rejects the implicit-due process reading because " we can't know everyone meant that. And the chant only encourages those who do not." He worries that people who say such things "can wind up valuing results over democratic processes." 

These pundits seem to be confusing "Lock him up" with "String him up." When crowds start chanting that, we can all start to worry. Until then, only a morbid fear of "mob rule" (the dark side of "people power") can explain these ideologues' refusal to accept the most straightforward interpretation of both the anti-Trump chant and its anti-Clinton precursor. All this shuddering over the heckling of the President betrays an unhealthy distrust of fellow citizens' commitment to the rule of law. Perhaps this is why some are so quick to describe today's angry movements as "populism." Maybe they don't trust anyone outside their own professional class to be a proper American citizen. And if they seem more worried lately, it may because they realize that the rest of us -- right, left or other -- know what they think.

29 October 2019

'Lock him up!'

The President visited the World Series the other day to see the home team play. There's footage showing his smile collapse and his face harden as he first sees his image appear on the stadium's big screen and then hears many in the crowd chanting, "Lock him up! Lock him up!" The day after, it was interesting to learn that some liberals and anti-Trump types were unhappy with the crowd. Many in the opposition will see the incident simply as Donald Trump getting a taste of his own medicine, years after encouraging "Lock her up" chants about Hillary Clinton. Many of those experiencing qualms about the baseball crowd might have had no problem with the people simply booing the President, but hearing "Lock X up" directed at any politician really bugs them. It is a portent of the "criminalization of politics," by which is meant not the takeover of politics by criminals but an authoritarian or merely extremist tendency to treat political opponents as criminals, regardless of their actual conduct.  There's a good deal of bad faith behind the "criminalization of politics" concept, or at least a reluctance to believe that others actually might believe political candidates to be literal, statutory criminals. This defensiveness against the possibility of an illegitimate criminalization of politics has fostered a belief in what I call "partisan immunity," perhaps best described as the suspicion that any criminal charge against a candidate or elected official is motivated primarily if not exclusively by partisanship. One could believe that some people would rather let politicians get away with at least some corruption rather than risk law enforcement becoming a partisan tool. But the American political system should be able to survive even the sort of criminal scandal that could result in the dismantling of a major political party -- unless one believes that only the established institutional strength of the two main parties prevents the republic from becoming a one-party state. That's an open question for another time, but we shouldn't leave the ballpark without noting one more curious thing about the anxiety over the "Lock him up" chant. Had this been Russia, and had Vladimir Putin gone to a soccer match only to hear the fans chant zaperet' yevo, the same people who hate to see similar chants directed at either Trump or Clinton almost certainly would be applauding the Russian crowd for a brave and necessary display of "people power." Name any foreign authoritarian and the response from America most likely would be the same. What, then, is different about the United States? Do our classically liberal political institutions render "people power" of this sort unnecessary or even subversive? While other countries need more democracy, do we need not as much? These chants aren't literally "speaking truth to power," but they're at least part of what civil-society enthusiasts mean when they applaud that ideal. Rather than warn against the dire implications of such language, critics should concern themselves more productively with encouraging people to make such demands more consistently. But even when those demands aren't made consistently, that doesn't mean that all of them are wrong.

16 October 2019

Into the vacuum

Establishment Democrats and neocon Republicans agree that the President has done a bad thing by  withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria and leaving the Kurds, longtime American favorites in the Middle East, to assault from Turkey. As usual, the Kurds are the hard-luck story of the region, having no enclaves of wealth or power abroad, but only pundits and politicians to promote their cause. Their claim to nationhood is no less compelling than those of other peoples, but the imperial moment when a Kurdish state could have been created passed without action, and indigenous sovereignty in Syria, Turkey and Iraq will concede nothing to the Kurds on principle. The Kurds' only hope down the line is for the sort of existential war that would carve a Kurdish enclave from one or more of those nations by force, and even that probably would mean ethnic cleansing for the Kurds in the victorious nation or nations. It may be unfair, but what price fairness? Meanwhile, those mourning in advance for the Kurds of northern Syria also bemoan the likelihood of Russia acquiring more influence in the region as a broker between their Syrian friends and their Turkish neighbors. As usual, Donald Trump is blamed whenever Russia's geopolitical prestige appears to improve, but all his latest move shows is that his zone of economic competition with Russia isn't as expansive as others' zone of ideological competition. Some would have us take alarm anytime Russia appears to benefit from some Trumpian decision, as if 21st geopolitics operates on zero-sum principles, according to which any Russian gain means harm to the U.S. Where exactly is the harm to the U.S. in leaving Russia to sort out the Syrian mess? Syria is already a Russian client state, and there never was a realistic chance of it becoming an American client. Is Russia better positioned to harm American interests now? Some certainly will argue that it is, but they presume that Russia's mere existence as a geopolitically competitive "authoritarian" regime is a threat to the U.S. It may be a threat to American businesses and maybe even entire sectors of the U.S. economy, but Russia's potential to harm the American people depends on a lot of variables and is less than automatic. To some Americans, of course, the power to harm is harm, while the necessity of dealing respectfully with other powers, regardless of their forms or styles of government, remains an insult to those who see themselves as almost the only free people on Earth. Those Americans who aren't as invested in one way or another in global hegemony or dominance of any particular part of the wider world will be less panicked by recent developments. There are plenty of reasons to oppose President Trump, but this story isn't really one of them. Meanwhile, if the Russians really want to take more responsibility for the region, let them face the likely consequences....