Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Venezuela Update

In recent months Venezuela has become emblematic of the failures of socialist economics to American and European  media outlets looking for something to contrast with the seeming alienation of young millennials from capitalism. And without a doubt, Venezuela's economy is a disaster area, one that has only become worse since the collapse in oil prices.

Ultimately, however, the problems in Venezuela are as much political as economic. Yes incoherent economic policies have been pursued, but they have also been pursued within a system with no functioning judiciary, no checks or balances, and where political conflict becomes winner-take-all. Hugo Chavez is not responsible for this though he undoubtedly escalated the conflict. The bane of Latin American politics since independence has been the lack of the uniquely English concept of a "loyal opposition" an opposition that is both a viable alternative government, and one whose assumption of power will not signify ruin for those in power. Without such a concept, it is impossible to have free elections or an independent judiciary, since there are only two possible roles for either to play; that of affirming the authority of those in power and that of undermining it.

 Absent such a concept, elections largely exist to ratify and legitimize the authority of existing office-holders rather than to determine the victor between contesting groups. It is axiomatic for opposition groups to refuse to accept their legitimacy as they are not designed to ever allow them to win, much less take office if they somehow do so.  Equally, it is impossible for transitions to happen half-way. As elections are always weighted in favor of those in power, if not outright rigged, they cannot resolve disputes in a way that does result in the destruction of one party. Hence in the cases where cohabitation is forced on rival political forces, the government of national unity in Zimbabwe between 2008 and 2013 for example, the 2013 elections threatened disaster for Mugabe's opponents who controlled the National Assembly unless they could remove him. Their failure to do so resulted in their destruction.

This helps to explain why the victory of the opposition in Venezuela's National Assembly elections last year failed to change much. On the one hand, President Maduro and his allies had no intention of ceding power even if the economic realities compelled them to cede office, and in fact he is now pushing for the dissolution of the National Assembly itself. At the same time, however, the opposition never seriously tried to either work with him, or to improve the economic situation. From the start, they treated their victory the way a besieging army does a seizure of a portion of city wall; not as a position to begin talks, but rather as a base from which to launch a final offensive to finish off their foes. From the start, the first, and only order of business was the removal of Maduro himself, first through impeachment, and when a Supreme Court ruling denied them the needed two thirds majority on a technical ruling, by collecting enough signatures to trigger a recall election. In effect then, the sole policy pursued by the opposition since taking office amidst the collapse of the Venezuelan economy is to collect enough signatures to trigger another election.

It is understandable why many in the opposition MUD might think that the removal of Maduro and the takeover of the Presidency is a prerequisite for any successful economic reform. In the long run it is likely true. Attempting to work with Mugabe almost certainly did not work for the MDC in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, the refusal to even propose reforms with no chance of passing has reinforced the impression that the MUD considers the existence of Maduro and other Chavistas in office, not their specific policies, to be the major cause of Venezuela's troubles.

That is an unwise approach. Not only does it raise unrealistic expectations for when the MUD or its successors do manage to take power, but it also separates political activism from a wider society. The MUD managed to overcome the advantages of office and state control possessed by the Chavistas last year because voters associated a vote for the opposition with a vote for an improvement in their own lives and therefore were willing to overcome doubts about the intentions and policies of an alliance which stretched from Oligarchs to Communists. Now, however, the political contest has been turned into a mere battle for power, one in which Maduro still has all the advantages of state power, but the MUD is merely another political player battling for power and office. On a comparative level that is a loss for the opposition.

That loss may well matter because whether or not the MUD gets its recall, or alternatively Maduro succeeds in recalling the National Assembly, will not depend on the law or the number of signatures, but whether the MUD can mobilize enough popular unrest to compel the government to give in. Popular indifference is not a neutral factor, but rather one that would play into Maduro's hands.

Ultimately the opposition needs an actual program they can present Maduro as obstructing in order to win, The more this appears a petty power struggle, the more likely they are to lose. And they have not been playing their cards well over the last six months.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

American Brexit - Putting the Referendum in American Context

There have been a number of ways of trying to comprehend the vote in Britain to leave the European Union. Some of these have been quite silly, as with the piece comparing it to Texas attempting to secede from the United States. A big part of the problem is that the observers are making the same mistake they did when analyzing the decision of California voters to cast their ballots for Proposition 8 in 2008. Namely, they are paying too much attention to the merits of the policy in question, and not enough to the political dynamics which surround referendums and make them fundamentally different from partisan contests.
First and foremost, they obliterate partisan lines. This is important, because many voters cast their ballots culturally. It has always confused Republicans why African American voters who hold right-leaning views on issues refuse to even consider voting for them, but ultimately it is an issue of trust, the same thing which hurts Democrats with gun owners. Even if they agree on given issues or proposals, they view those making them as inherently hostile, and therefore are unwilling to put them into office. Referendums don't require this, and consequently do something more as well. As most partisan mobilization in modern democracies is based not on support for a given party or policy but on antipathy to the other side, almost all elections have resulted in choices between "lesser evils" with the entire political spectrum colluding in reducing the image of all parties and politicians to unprecedented lows. This works fine for general elections, where it allows parties to turn out their voters, but it tends to backfire in systems where voters either have additional options for protest votes(see the rise of the Far-Right in Europe) or when a referendum is held which places the entire political class on one side.

It is perhaps easiest to comprehend what happened in the UK by method of analogy. Imagine that rather than suffering defeat at the hands of Donald Trump, Jeb Bush instead prevails, but in order to do so is forced to agree to hold a national referendum on expelling all illegal immigrants, banning their children from citizenship, and building a wall along the Mexican border. At the time it seems a safe promise that will never have to be delivered upon. Polls show 2-1 support for comprehensive immigration reform and a major defeat will create a mandate for such reform. As such, Bush and other Republicans could even manage to persuade themselves that the promise could end up promoting immigration reform.
Democrats too are ecstatic. They assume that Republicans will alienate Hispanic voters for a generation, not least because it will by and large being Republican politicians who lead the campaign in favor of the referendum, even if the leadership and President are opposed. They will be even happier as the campaign brings Republican divisions to a new level of bitterness and Paul Ryan and Bush get booed by crowds and resort to calling their critics racist. The Republicans look as if they are tearing themselves apart.
But there are worrying signs. Congress has a 90% negative rating and most voters believe politicians never do anything. The fact that the inability to deport all illegal aliens is often used as an excuse to deport none reinforces the view that this is a referendum on a political class that never keeps its promises and a change to wield power over it. Now voters can directly wield power over the priorities of the politicians, forcing them to do something they do not want to, while asserting their own greater political rights compared with other Americans. Rapidly it becomes an exercise of emotional catharsis rather than a policy declaration.
Even more worrying, free from partisan associations, African American Democrats seem open to using a yes vote to express their view of how the Democratic party treats them. They are not alone. Every major group that feels left out sees an opportunity to get back both are politicians and the impression they care more about other people. That these views are mutually in tension does not matter because the nature of a referendum allows multiple campaigns to be run simultaneously with mutually exclusive arguments, at least on the side in favor. Those opposed to the referendum have no such luxury.
Realizing they could lose, both parties launch a desperate barrage of threats - it will cause violence, throw Mexico in civil war, destroy the economy, and eliminate Nafta - while at the same time unloading on supporters of the referendum as racists who want to put immigrants in box cars like the Nazis did to Jews. The complete dominance of this message in social media as well as on MSNBC, Colbert, etc fool the elite into thinking it works, a delusion which will last until 735 PM when Orange County Florida, a 58% Obama county with a large African American population (and Puerto Rican one) and home to Orlando votes 58-42 for expulsion. The rest of the night us panic and prayers for New York as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Columbus, St. Lewis all come in for expulsion and even Chicago rejects it by a mere 55-45 margin, not enough to carry even Illinois, much less make and national impact.
The nation wakes up to an unenforable law and no president. Jeb is destroyed not just politically but personally. He has a Mexican wife, speaks Spanish at home with his children. A 52-48 vote to expel every illegal immigrant and child under 18 without exception is not something he fan enforce or remain in a party dedicated to do so. But the expulsion side, a weird alliance of leftwing populist and tea Parties can't run the House, much less government. And suddenly voters start to realize that the referendum actually might effect real people rather than caricatures. Even Bush's public destruction is less than fun when one is forced to watch the reaction of his wife and children.
That is what just happened in Britain. The voters rose up not against the EU, but rather the perception that the political consensus was stronger than partisan differences and hence meant their votes in general elections did not count. At least on things like immigration or the EU. They wanted to force a policy on the political elite, not necessarily the specific one in front of them. Sadly it was the only game in town, and as Remain reminded them, the only chance they would get for a generation. They seized it only to wake up the next morning wondering what exactly they had done.

Friday, June 17, 2016

On Demonization, "Elites", and Jo Cox

Two days ago, Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen was murdered at a constituency surgery. Unlike in the United States, where politicians above state legislators are usually unapproachable outside of scripted appearances surrounded by staff, British politicians hold weekly sessions when any member of the public in their constituency can approach them. This greater engagement with the electorate has not prevented a perception that British politics is inherently more "elitist" than the American variant, with both parties accused of being dominated by small cliques of socially homogeneous individuals no representative of the demographics or views of the majority. To an extent, this charge is justified insofar as it relates to the party leaderships, which given the nature of the British system matter more. Private school students are overepresented in the current cabinet, and when one excludes graduates of state grammar schools, individuals who attended state comprehensives make up a minuscule portion of the elite while encompassing more than four fifths of the population.

There are real concerns about inclusion here. But there has been a tendency in British politics to take such concerns and to reduce them into political slogans. Eton College, where I have had the honor of coaching student debating has been a particular victim of this. Eton, which both the Prime Minister David Cameron, and the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has attended has long been a particular target for the left, with "Etonian" used as short-hand for elitist. This has reached absurd levels, whereby the Chancellor George Osborne and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, have both been refereed to as "Etonians" despite never having attended the school. This sort of liberalism with the truth might be amusing if the nature of the charges were not so vicious. A byword for "privileged elitist" in a world where in political discourse "privileged elitist" has taken on the same meaning "Jew" held a century ago - wealthy, parasitical, a financier in service to a globalist financial elite with no loyalty to their country or people - the word is used to suggest that those implementing government policies on health, education, or welfare are not merely wrong but malicious traitors. It has been impossible to attend a left-wing protest over the last few years that has not included signs which at their most mellow carry phrases such as "Go Back to Eton", and at their worst are unmentionable. That the targets of these signs, genuine Etonians, are boys aged 13 to 17, tends to escape those expressing the slogans, much as the idea that Jews were individuals. Ironically, even if someone brings this to the attention of the perpetrators they would likely respond with a defense of the accuracy of the stereotype pointing to the actual prevalence of wealthy teenagers at the school. But just as the existence of Rothschilds did not mean all Jews were bankers, to the line assigns a political responsibility regardless of individuality.

I bring this up because Jo Cox was murdered in the midst of a political campaign where the ground sowed by both sides of the political spectrum, the left against "economic elitists" - bankers, Etonians, public schoolers generally, and the right against "cultural elitists" - the suggestion that the left looks down and shows contempt to ordinary people, not to mention hopes to replace them through mass immigration - united against the government. Much has been made of how the referendum campaign revealed that the voters trusted no politicians. But the opposite was in fact the case. The electorate responded as it had been taught to to do for more than a decade by believing all of them. Voters accepted that they faced treachery by both "economic" and "cultural" elitists, and unlike in a general election where they had no choice but to chose the lesser evil between the two, in the referendum they had the option to reject both of them. It is true that much support for the Leave side on the Right comes from concerns over immigration which have been fostered by Conservatives for years. But it is equally true that the supporters of Brexit on the Left, 38% of 2015 Labour voters according to one recent poll, are equally motivated by the conviction that the "economic elite" - bankers, economists, business leaders, politicians - are all loyal to a global conspiracy rather than to Britain and that their warnings against Brexit are self-serving. It is no wonder then that having demonized bankers and business leaders for years, Labour MPs have found it impossible to make their supports care about what those figures think in a matter of weeks.

The result has been an effective peasants revolt, with the decision to hold a referendum in the first place the equivalent on David Cameron's part of Louis XVI's decision to summon the Estates General in 1789. Having concluded that the public were merely a tool to be used every five years and then discarded, the attitude of all governments of the last 30 years who take crushing losses in local elections as a given, the government summoned them once more, albeit this time without a clear agenda or script for how they were to behave. And the result was that given a choice to develop an agenda absent control of the politicians, that agenda would be to behead the politicians can hardly be a surprise.

Yes it is true that there are politicians too leading the Leave side. Nigel Farage is hardly a picture of populism as much as he would love to be, and Boris Johnson's embrace appears opportunistic. But the mistake the media has made, as well as the entire political elite itself has been to assume that the Leave campaign ever actually mattered. Everything done regarding the referendum, right down to the requirement that there be an "official" campaign showed both a determination that this referendum look like any other election, with two groups of politicians sniping at one another with the public forced to chose the lesser evil, and the delusion that the campaign could be controlled in that manner. The reality has been different. Leave's real campaign has been a grassroots uprising against the whole process including the campaign. Remain has charged that Boris Johnson's embrace of the leadership of the Leave campaign was opportunistic, and Leave voters have accepted that by separating Johnson's arguments, actions, and foibles from the cause and ignoring the official campaign in favor of their own deep-seated resentments. As a consequence, the campaign has gone off the rails for Remain. Attacks on Leave's political leaders do not work, because most voters assume that Johnson secretly supports Remain anyway, while that very suspicion means that attacks on politicians, all politicians are fatal to Remain which is seen as being the side of both the "cultural" and "economic" elites. Attacks on Remain help Leave, and attacks on Leave have also helped Leave.

Jo Cox died in the midst of this campaign against politicians generally. It does not look like she was a particular victim of one side or the other in the sense that her killer was linked to American Neo-Nazi groups, but the very climate that has developed is one in which anyone who wants to kill a politicians is encouraged in the belief that actually doing so might be popular. Cox herself managed to reinforce the negative stereotypes herself by taking part in the buffoonish "Battle of the Thames" where Remain supporters clashed with boats of Leave ones including fisherman protesting the impact of EU policies on their industry. Already the events, amusing to Remain supporters, had developed into a bloody shirt for Leave, proof that the "elites" viewed the concerns of Leave supporters as a joke, and the whole issue as a humorous exercise worthy of mockery. Had Cox lived, it is likely she would have faced personal political attacks which would have singled her out as a Cambridge-educated politician who took to the seas to mock the working class. The bullets of an assassin cut that Leave line short before it could take off.

Instead Cox is a loving wife, a devoted local MP, and the mother of two now orphaned young children. Her death is viewed as a tragedy by all. As a cause of fear and anger, but also as a cause for guilt by those who had already begun to run attacks targeting her role on the Thames. That guilt is certainly justified, but it also should not be isolated. Cox is not unique, not some sort of young, eager, and honest exception to a rule of self-centered, caricatured contempt and corruption among MPs. Most MPs try to combine a family life and a dedication to public service with their national role. If there are problems with the UK elite, they are almost certainly ones of drift, whereby the political class is too weak rather than too strong, and as a result sheer inertia carries all before it. And the EU, in fairness, has always been the master of inertia par excellence.

There are greater lessons here. A political discourse of contempt will inevitably produce  precisely that. And as much as the Right must undergo some soul-searching regarding immigration, especially how hostility to refugees and poorer EU migrants has manifested in economically and culturally self-destructive policies against non-EU migrants, including Americans, Canadians, and Australians which the Leave campaign claims it wants more of, the Left also needs to reflect on why no one cares when they warn their voters that 89% of bankers and CEOs think leaving the EU would be a disaster. Much less why they should listen to the Bank of England.

Because ultimately when you tell voters to listen to no one, they listen to their gut instinct. And when they do that, you end up with the manifestation of the ID of the first thought to pop into the heads of any voters. Namely someone like Donald Trump. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Reflections on Orlando: A Turning Point in LGBT Politics in America?

There is tendency to use any tragedy for political advantage, especially in the midst of elections. To make matters worse, both the country I am currently in(the US), and the one where I am normally resident(the UK) are undergoing fierce electoral campaigns. Nonetheless, when you have a still marginalized(if far less so every year) LGBT community that has been the victim of the deadliest attack in its history, the speed with which politicians rush to use the incident as a political football is horrifying. That is even more the case when a club which is often the center of communal life is the target.

And when I say spinning for political advantage, I am not talking merely about those talking only about Terrorism. The decision to bring gun control into the debate is a blatant effort at political spin by those terrified of the consequences of the alternative narrative regarding terrorism, Islam or immigration. Some may genuinely fear for the safety of members of those communities. Others rather may fear for the safety of their candidates or referendum side. But in either case the implication is clear. The dangers of having an open discussion on some issues are so dangerous that the lives of 50(and it may be 100 by the time this is over) LGBT people do not compare.

This is not to say that gun control is not a discussion worth having. There is a real argument that guns, especially high-powered ones, are too easy for bad people to access. But the availability of guns does not make people bad, or make bad people do bad things. Someone is not walking down the aisles of Wal-Mart when they see a gun and say to themselves "Well, I have no plans Saturday night, why don't I go shoot-up that gay club down the street?". If there is a clear political and religious motive it needs to be discussed. If that motive is not individual, but shared by others, then to the extent we can chose whether or not to allow them to enter the country, Americans, especially LGBT Americans, have a right to participate in that debate regarding whether their lives should be put at risk for abstract feelings of guilt and moral duty.

Even if one rejects those positions, self-interest dictates considering them. Ultimately the importance of these issues is transparent, so much so, that efforts to talk solely about gun control will come off as patronizing and offensive, taking one's audience for fools. Every person who insists that the perpetrators motives were incidental, that his background was incidental, and that the identity of his victims was incidental, is in fact insisting that the events were entirely random, could not have been prevented, and is therefore prepared to throw up their hands and abandon any pretense of preventing such things in the future.

If I have mostly lashed out at the rush to talk about gun control on the left, that is because it has been the most delusionally blatent effort at spin, not least because the right has the media and public doing its work for it. But the Republican party has an opportunity here and a danger. They have a chance to move beyond the fights over Same-Sex Marriage and to respond to this attack on the LGBT community as an attack on Americans. Accepting that Gay men are Americans, even when seeking to hookup at a club, and that the Republican party has a moral duty to protect their interests equal to everyone else would be an extraordinary gesture in context. It would also allow the party to transform the debate and partisan lines on the issue at a moment when its base might allow such a move.

But of course there are also dangers. One is that there remain those in the party who share the sympathies of the Islamic radicals they attack on this issue, even if they would never contemplate the methods. Dan Patrick, Lt. Governor of Texas, very nearly did more to damage the GOP on this issue than anyone since Rick Santorum. Even beyond the need to resolve the future of the party and of social conservatives within it, there is the danger that Republicans will respond almost gleefully to confirmation of their views regarding Islam. Donald Trump, after initially responding wisely in a reserved manner, jumped head first into declaring himself vindicated. That reduces the lives of the victims as much as denying this had to do with anything other than gun laws, and to make matters worse, adds insult to injury given the expressed views of other Republicans regarding LGBT issues.

Ultimately this tragedy is a test of resolve for everyone. And it may well mark a turning point in America, provided those with the opportunity can restrain themselves enough to grasp it. The alternative, where political advantage on gun control or immigration is solely sought means the LGBT community being forgotten. That does not mean neither issue can be discussed. There are good reasons to consider the implications of both issues. But in assessing the impacts, the effects on the LGBT community should not be forgotten.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Violence may not help Trump directly, but it does force everything else off the news

The outbreak of violence at Donald Trump's recent rally in San Jose is neither unprecedented nor unexpected. Heightened tempers have been dogging politics over the last year, while with many Universities out for the summer, there is a large group of politically engaged young people with time on their hands. Its worth noting that the most talked about incident of violence involved young people on both sides. A Trump supporter who appeared to be in his late teens, and a crowd that appeared to mostly be in its 20s at the latest.

It is also worth noting the time of year and location. It is summer, and summer in southern California is hot, very hot. It is not a coincidence that historically violence has a propensity to break out in summer. The concentration of unemployed young people and heat tends to ensure that.

Much of the discussion of the events in San Jose has focused on who was at fault/who the violence will help or hurt/whether this sort of thing is a sign of increasingly polarized politics? Those answers are specifically unknowable, though it is worth observing that both sides will likely get what they wanted from the clashes. Trump supporters will have martyrs, and a reinforcement of the narrative that Trump represents a rebellion against political correctness gone mad which in its final degeneration now amounts to outright thuggery. For Trump critics on the left, it is a confirmation that Trump represents something out of the 1930s. Commentary would not be complete without references to the 1930s. Even political analysts on both sides are apt to see what they want to see. Democrats will see confirmation that Trump is so racially polarizing he cannot win, that demographics will doom him not only to a loss but to a landslide defeat. For Republicans, it moves the ground from the iconoclastic causes Trump has championed, with which far too many are uncomfortable, to the much more familiar ground of law and order.

In the meantime, the bigger political impact is getting lost in the shuffle. What matters is less the fact that this sort of violence can dominate the news as the fact that it can do so whenever it occurs, squeezing out all other stories. Especially when Trump can stir it up on demand merely by heading to a heavily Democratic city. Witness then what is currently off the news. Hillary Clinton's otherwise well-received foreign policy speech has all but vanished from discourse, as, to a lesser degree, have the details of the Trump University case, replaced with a debate over whether Trump is showing sufficient deference to the federal judiciary. Neither may be wins for Trump, but the stories they have supplanted were clear losses.

Trump's great success so far this campaign has been his ability to define the narrative such that any actual qualitative comparison between himself and his opponents is rapidly turned into a much more vague descriptive one. By this, I mean that if a story implies, as the Trump University one, or recent disputes over Veterans donations may, that Trump is corrupt, Trump is very good at then shifting the narrative into one in which it is dreadful that the election is likely to be between two corrupt candidates. Implication being they are equally corrupt. The same approach was used to devastating effect during the primaries, where the outlines of Trump's policies, especially regarding International Affairs, where most people just knew he opposed greater US involvement and opposed the Iraq War, were contrasted favorably with those of his opponents in an isolationist/neoconservative dichotomy. The result was that Marco Rubio was never able to get much if any millage out of his media-proclaimed touch-down regarding Trump's inability to explain the Nuclear Tripod, because the debate never long remained on that level. Trump has so thoroughly managed to frame the election as a choice between evils, that the major difference between them increasingly becomes meta - whether one wants change or the status quo in Washington - or cultural, what a win or loss for him would represent emotionally for voters. On both of those questions Trump is competitive if not stronger than Hillary, which is one reason he has managed to close the polling gap.

Some of that tightening has been blamed on the refusal of Bernie Sanders to withdraw from the election. That is without a doubt true, and it is worth noting that the losing primary candidate always begins polling absurdly well in general election matchups towards the end of the primary process, as Hillary herself showed in 2008. But a wider impact of Sanders has not been to cause his supporters to hold off on supporting Hillary directly, but rather to contribute to reinforcing the Trump narrative that there is little to chose between the candidates except insofar as Clinton represents the status quo and Trump change. In this sense, the media campaign for the last month has been two against one, despite Sanders non-viability, and it is amusing to think of what would be happening had Trump followed through on a decision to debate Sanders. Without a doubt it would have reinforced the other major cause of this media cycle, namely the fact that not only is the Clinton campaign outnumbered two to one currently, but it is also by far the weakest of the three message-wise. Trump is constantly interesting, generating coverage, while Sanders own increasing breakdown, combined with that of his supporters, lends a human interest angle that feeds off the tightening polls. Clinton by contrast, declared the primary campaign over weeks ago, but then, rather than following through and pivoting to the general, with a few exceptions she has done nothing. Instead she has seemed to wait for Sanders to agree with her regarding the state of the race before pivoting to the general, giving him not only a veto on the progress of any Democratic campaign, but also rendering her a bystander in her own election. Trump has a clear opponent in Hillary Clinton, while Sanders, no matter how delusionally, continues to act as if he is determined to win the remaining Democratic primaries. Yet Hillary, having declared the Democratic process over, cannot bring herself to grant Sanders' efforts the legitimization they would receive if she contested the campaign against him, but nevertheless cannot focus on Trump either. As a result, her messaging has been incoherent on a day-to-day basis. Increasingly desperate pleas for Sanders to withdraw mixed with often well-managed attacks on Trump which are never followed up such that they vanish from the news within hours.

The Clinton campaign assumes this phase will end next Tuesday. And it might. But there is a very real prospect that Sanders wins California. It would not make his nomination anymore plausible, but it would make dropping out on the night he sweeps all before him seem out of place, and pressure he do so from party elites offensive. Clinton may not need to win California to win the nomination, but she very much needs it to avoid a much more difficult general election. And in the last few days before the California primary, it is clashes between Trump and Sanders supporters which dominate the discussion.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Minorities, the Politics of Proximity and Seccession

This weekend the New York Times carried a story about the increasing spread of Islamic Fundamentalism in Kosovo. For those of you trapped on the wrong  side of the paywall, it seeks to describe how “Extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudis and others have transformed a once-tolerant Muslim society into a font of extremism.” Similar stories have appeared in recent years regarding Bosnia.

The term, “history is written by the winners” is often used today as a tool of identity politics, especially when pushing the almost gnostic interpretations that are common in fields such as Gender, African American, Chicano, or regional studies. But it could just as well be applied to anyone who did was not listened to at the time. Political positions rarely get second hearings once they have been condemned, and it is even rarer for them to receive such hearings when they have already been condemned as immoral or genocidal.

The narrative of the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s, the topic of my dissertation, is one in which the Bosnian Muslims are clearly the victims, even if the narrative of Serb aggression has occasionally received slightly more ambiguous handling. The Bosnian Muslims, so the interpretation went, were fighting for a democratic, multiethnic Bosnia, in the American mould, where Muslims, who made up 44% of the population, would have equal rights with Serbs, who made up 33%, and Croats, who made up 20%. By contrast, Serbian and Croatian forces, under the control of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, sought to parcel out Bosnia between them.

Both at the time, and in virtually all histories since, Croatian and Serbian fears of an Islamic state were dismissed. Bosnian Muslims were secular, and European, Muslims in name only, with no desire to impose Sharia law, or to forge relations with the Islamic world. Then American Ambassador Warren Zimmerman expressed this view his memoirs, as illustrated by the following segment excerpted from my dissertation where he discusses Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's views.

Zimmerman was aware of Izetbegovic’s religion, noting that “he was a devout Muslim, unlike many Bosnians who chose Muslim nationality when Tito gave them that option.” “But,” Zimmerman continued, “I never saw any signs of extremism or coercion in his manner.” As for Izetbegovic’s work which had seen him jailed, Zimmerman was aware of it, but gave the distinct impression he had not read it very thoroughly. “Contrary to the Satanization to which it has been subjected, it was an abstract appeal for a return to nonationalistic Islamic values; it stoke no fires of the Libyan or Iranian sort. In fact it called for protection of the rights of non-Muslim minorities in countries with non-Muslim majorities.”

As such, claims from the Croatians and Serbs regarding Islamic Fundamentalism tended to be either seen as signs of racial hostility, or  as self-serving pretexts for a land grab. As a result, the actual fears of Serbian and Croatian Bosnians that they would become minorities in a Muslim state, tended to be ignored simply because Western officials rejected the idea that the Bosnians had any desire to create one. President Izetbegovic, in his 1970 “Islamic Declaration” stated that “There can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and non-Islamic social institutions.”[1] And his foreign visit after his election was to Iran. 

Furthermore, the evidence from history is that multiethnic and multinational states tend to be stable in proportion to their isolation. Italians and Germans were able to integrate in the United States, Brazil and Argentina because Italy and Germany remained far away rendering such identities irrelevant in political, economic, or social terms. Yet when minorities are trapped on the wrong sides of borders, the opposite has tended to be true even in Western Europe, where a German community in democratic Italy, located in Tyrol, has remained a distinct political and social group for nearly a century. There is a good reason for this. Italians and Germans in the United States were fish in a wider sea. Any access to Italian or German-language newspapers or media was limited to what they could produce themselves, and access to jobs and other opportunities depended on assimilation. But if one's countrymen lie just over an artificial border, then none of those factors apply. For Tyrol Germans in Italy, Vienna is closer than Rome, and German newspapers and media are regularly available.  The right to educate in German, a concession to minority rights, creates a situation where German-speaking Italian citizens can grow up to find they have greater job opportunities in Austria, Switzerland or Germany than in Italy.

This then was the analogy at stake with Bosnia. With an independent Croatia and Serbia next door and connected by a transportation system built when Yugoslavia was one country, there would be ready access to Serbian and Croatian media, products, and job opportunities, and there would be no reason for Bosnian Serbs or Croats to ever interact with their Muslims neighbors or to form a Bosnian identity. This in turn would have a knock-on effect. The only true group with an interest in a Bosnian national identity would be the Bosnian Muslims, and a secular, multiethnic state is a vague and weak identity even if others are interested; if they are not, it is hard not to see a Muslim one developing, especially when Muslims in Serbia and Croatia would have felt the same pull Bosnian Croats and Serbs did. The end result likely would have been a migration of Croats and Serbs out of Bosnia and Muslims from other parts of the former Yugoslavia into it, with the result that very soon 44% of the population would have become 50%.  And the remaining Bosnian Croats and Serbs would find themselves a minority in a Muslim Yugoslav homeland, and as second-class Croatian and Serbian citizens compared to the actual residents of those nations. 

The bottom line is this; whatever the intentions are behind internationally imposed peace agreements, power-sharing accords, or interventions in ethnic or religious civil wars, the end result will be some sort of self-sorting. No matter how extensive promises to respect minority rights are, the best defense is not to be a minority in the first place. In turn, a plurality or majority that sees minority rights as an acceptable price to maintain control of an "empire", ie. peoples and territories that would otherwise not be part of the nation, will consider even voluntary moves in favor of departure as freeing them from such commitments. Iraq may well be willing to pay the Kurds almost any political price for a share of Kirkuk's oil; it is unlikely the Shiite parties will see why they should continue to protect the rights of Kurds in Baghdad if Kurdistan were to secede and take its oil with it. Hence those proposals that are floated for a tripartite partition of Iraq and a separate Sunni state would almost certainly doom the remaining Sunni population of Baghdad to discrimination and gradual expulsion, and the Shiite rump Iraq to a drift towards Shia theocracy. After all, if the Sunnis are entitled to their own Sunni state, shouldn't the Shia be entitled to the same.

This brings us back to Bosnia and Kosovo. I do not think these were problems with a magical solution that could please everyone short of taking a stronger stand against Slovene efforts to secede in 1989 along with Milosevic's efforts to gut Kosovo's autonomy. But that was ostensibly the American policy and it failed. What can and should be done though is to recognize reality. An independent Bosnia, if it somehow survived as a unitary state, was always going to result in a demotion in status for the Croats and Serbs who made up a majority of the population and that meant it was unlikely to be viable absent coerce force unless the borders were redrawn to create a majority that actually wanted a Bosnian state. And that would have meant a majority Muslim state, that eventually, due to reactive and proactive forces, would have begun to identify with the wider Islamic world after the Iraq war. As for Kosovo, which was 90% Albanian, it was never going to be possible for the Serbs to remain their as anything other than a minority dependent on international protection. Perhaps the rights of the 90% dictated that stability could only be maintained by sacrificing the 10%, but the efforts of international relations scholars, officials, and media figures such as current UN Ambassador Samantha Power to deny that any such balance of harms existed was absurd. Not to mention responsible for a whole lot of the problems in terms of nation building which followed.

While the current situation in Eastern Ukraine makes it impossible to accurately determine the actual balance of opinion in the region, it should also lead Western leaders to question whether a Russian speaking population lying on Russia's borders, and thereby exposed to Russian language media, can ever be assimilated into a Ukrainian national state where they will always be second class citizens. It may well be that the region will be a permanent fifth column for any potentially Pro-Western Ukrainian government. 

All in all, however, nationalism and identity are not dead. Self-examination of what is happening even in the West on University campuses should indicate it, but the last 20 years have shown beyond any doubt that language and religion remain the key organizing principles of politics. And rather than deluding ourselves and pushing absurd non-solutions such as a bi-national state in Israel or made up governments of national unity in Libya or Syria perhaps we would be better off accepting that and working within it.

[1]              The Islamic Declaration: A Programme for the Islamization of Muslims and Muslim Peoples, Sarejvo, English 1990 Accessed 3 September 2015


Friday, May 20, 2016

Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and the failure to learn anything so far this year

Two major developments have occurred this week in American politics. The first has been the rapid narrowing of margins in general election polls between presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The second has been the descent of the Democratic primary into bitter and brutal identity politics, albeit along ideological lines. To some degree the two are linked, but I want to deal with the first of these right now because I think there has been a tendency to blame the Democratic primary for the narrowing in the polls, which involves dangerously ignoring the context of what else has been happening over the last few weeks. This narrowing, which began with a PPP poll showing Trump trailing Clinton only by 6, culminated in two polls from Fox News and Rasmussen Reports respectively showing Trump actually leading by 3 and 5 points respectively. The reputation of the latter two pollsters reinforced the skepticism of many Democrats, and regarding Rasmussen those feelings may well be justified. Not only does Rasmussen have a questionable record, but the general election poll explicitly offered respondents the opportunity to express support for “some other candidate”, which may have contributed to only 79% indicating support for Trump and Clinton combined. But the totality of polling, which in recent cycles has been more right than not, almost certainly shows closing. This week we have had general election polls with Clinton leads of 6,6,4,2,-3, and -5, whichproduces an average of 1.33%, probably too low, and a median of a Clinton lead around 3%, which likely is about where the race is. 

For those who are not apt to dismiss these results outright two explanations have become popular. The first is that this tightening is natural, the result of a nomination “bounce” for Trump. I tend to agree with this explanation as far as it goes, though I would point out it is has occurred over a period during which the last two Republican Presidents, and the last two Republican Nominees refused to support Trump, and the sitting speaker of the US house remained neutral. It also occurred after Trump’s “taco bowel” social media eruption, and goes to show something I have long suspected. Namely that Trump’s opponents have consistently misread the efficacy of attacks on his candidacy, especially ones focused on his supposedly unacceptable views. 

Rather than serving to disqualify him as a potential President and to make even diehard Republicans think twice about supporting him, the Clinton campaigns initialsalvos featuring attacks by senior Republicans seems to have only served to reinforce Trump’s outsider credentials by painting an image of Washington elites rallying to Hillary rather than men(and women) of goodwill rallying to save the republic from Trump. In effect, rather than suggesting to voters that Trump is so bad even George W. Bush cannot support him, the actual result has been the reverse, to tie Hillary Clinton to a still unpopular President Bush by implying that the author of the Iraq war and the budget deficit now supports her. Similarly, I also suspected that the general tenor of social media attacks on Trump, which have mostly come in the form of sneering contempt, mockery, and general shock that someone could express or hold such views have mostly backfired on those launching them. Anyone who is apt to consider Trump an unredeemable racist, or to see that as a reason never to support him likely long ago made their choice. At the point at which Trump’s appeal has been framed in the context of “I don’t agree with everything he says, but for the first time in decades someone is actually saying things” suggestions that his words or social media engagement are unacceptably offensive are likely to cross that most dangerous of all political lines; endeavoring to tell voters what they must do rather than trying to persuade them as to what they should. And juxtapositioning violent clashes with left-wing protesters at campaign rallies  is probably the last thing the Clinton campaign should be promoting after the events in Nevada last weekend.

Furthermore, the last two weeks have demonstrated something that should be more disturbing, namely Trump's ability to deflect from negative stories by inserting new ones into the discourse. This ability, much mocked, was utilized during the primary campaign when Trump publicly mused about whether Ted Cruz's father was involved in JFK's assassination. At the time the story was mocked, but its major impact was that it swallowed up every other item that was happening that day. Instead of framing Indiana as the last chance to stop Trump, the media spent the day making jokes about Ted Cruz, and voters entered the polling booths considering Cruz a figure of ridicule. This week we saw an even more impressive variant. Over the weekend, Trump appeared to finally be taking on water over a strange Washington Post story about how he impersonated various fictional "Trump spokesman" in order to talk about himself in third person. Weird, and calling Trump's sanity into question, it was the sort of story that might actually hurt Trump by making voters stop admiring his outspokenness in favor of contemplating the wisdom of placing nuclear weapons into his hands. Coupled with an interview in which his long-time butler called for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to be executed and for Detroit to be nuked, the weekend presented two stories of the sort that would have doomed any Senate candidate in a previous year, and inflicted "47%"-esque damage on a nominee. 

Not so for Trump. By Tuesday no one was discussing either of them. Instead, Trump had managed to draw London's new Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan into a public spat, one that also managed to drag-in British Prime Minister David Cameron. Far more interesting than fake voices or a crazed butler who had by now been moved to an undisclosed location, the media jumped on the new story which dominated coverage until the horse race, and implosion of the Democratic primary could fill in the gap.

This brings us to the Democrats. Beyond blaming a consolidation of Republican support behind Trump, many Democrats have also blamed the divisiveness of the Democratic primary for the close polls. They suggest that Sanders supporters, evincing increasing hostility to Clinton which may have reached violent proportions this past weekend in Nevada, were refusing to support Hillary in the polls. There is almost certainly some truth to this, but I would posit that the interrelationship between the Trump-Clinton and Trump-Sanders races works both ways. Clinton is not only in more trouble against Trump because she is in more trouble against Sanders. She is also in more trouble against Sanders because she is in more trouble against Trump.

Remember how I brought up why I thought the Clinton assaults on Trump which utilized senior members of the Republican old guard? The major pattern during the Republican primaries in every case where a rival attacked Trump was two-fold. Not only did the attacks fail to significantly dent Trump's own numbers; they almost invariably backfired and destroyed the image of the one launching the attacks. Marco Rubio got out just as he was becoming a figure of mockery. Ted Cruz became one. In the case of Clinton's attacks, not only did she fail to damage Trump by highlighting the hostility of a professional political establishment, but she damaged herself by identifying her own campaign with it. It is bad enough Hillary has to defend Obama's record against attacks from the left. In the last two weeks she has implicitly become the chosen candidate of the entire DC elite. Of not just the Bushs, but of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and John McCain as well. 

The effect of this has been to polarize the Democratic race even more on insider and outsider lines. As Clinton presented herself as the defender of existing order(and civilization) against the Trumpian barbarian hordes, so too did she enrage all those on the left who also resented that establishment. And the shift to an insider/outside axis rather than a left/center-left one in the Democratic contest left no middle ground. In an ideological contest, Clinton choosing a left-winger like Elizabeth Warren for VP would be a peace offering. In the new world, the acceptance of such an offer would make Warren a traitor to the cause.

This is no small issue. A willingness by Sanders to continue the campaign to the convention creates an endless set of problems, the first being what Clinton does after the primaries are over. The Sanders campaign has already made clear it will refuse to accept a Clinton declaration of victory, and therefore any move to a general footing would be fraught with danger. Does Clinton appoint a VP? If she does, that VP might well become the focus of resentment from Sanders supporters and constant demonization such that not only do they not provide a bounce, but they become a genuine liability by August.

At the same time, as Democrats have been wise to note, there will be a feedback into general election polling. But that feedback may not vanish with the end of the primaries. The major shift over the last two weeks, one which has been triggered as much by Clinton's own positioning against Trump as by any actions on the part of Trump or Sanders, has been to a narrative of insiders v. outsiders. That is dangerous. After both conventions, Trump, despite apostasies on trade will still the right-wing choice for the overwhelming majority of voters, and Clinton the left-wing one. But it is equally true that no matter what happens, Clinton is going to be the insider candidate for President in November and Trump the outsider. If the final ten weeks of the Democratic contest, along with what aspects of the general election take place concurrently, are spent framing the conflict along such lines, then it is much easier to see voters motivated by hostility towards the political establishment in all forms voting on that basis. And Clinton's own attacks, perhaps driven by Obama advisers who believe it is 2012 and Clinton veterans who think it is 2000, are reinforcing that message.

Clinton is almost certainly not behind right now. She remains the favorite for both the general election and the Democratic nomination. But if the last two weeks are anything to go by, she may have a much tougher road in November than anyone has suspected, and Democratic dreams of a landslide are likely to appear delusional. Democrats appear not to have learned a single thing from the Republican contest and are just as determined as the Rubio, Walker, and Jeb Bush teams to fight the last election rather than the 2016 one. And they appear remarkably tone-deaf regarding messaging, and how important elites actually are.

About Me

London, United Kingdom
Degrees in History, Politics and Iranian Studies. Wrote in the past for