Pointing the finger of blame

Donald Trump has become the 45th president of the United States.

I am in a state of shock as I write those words. Even given my poor record as a predictor of elections, I would have thought this was impossible.

In the months leading up to the vote Trump had established himself as the worst candidate for president put forward by a major party in American political history, running by far the worst campaign. The election itself should have been declared a no contest.

Unfortunately, he was running against Hillary Clinton, herself a historically unpopular candidate. Despite her many failings, however, I still thought Clinton would win, with Trump registering only as the last twitch in the death spasms of a certain strand of American conservatism (a point I’ve addressed elsewhere). Clinton had overwhelming systemic advantages in money, the electoral college (yes, this was thought to be to her advantage), and the favour of the media, while he was . . . well, he was Trump.

Her strengths, however, were part of Clinton’s undoing. Her election came to be seen as a near-coronation, the campaign a one-horse race. This suggests something very damaged in American democracy, and voters rebelled against her inevitability, their sense that they had been denied a choice.

Defenders of Clinton made much during the campaign, and no doubt will continue to do so, of how her enemies were ignorant bigots. They were the “deplorables” who hated women and non-white immigrants (specifically Mexicans and Muslims). Trumpism was only the politics of the white working class, a.k.a. losers. No doubt there was some truth to this, but I think the problem with Hillary Clinton was something simpler.

For starters, every election is about change. This has led to the cult of the “outsider” and the non-politician politician. It’s hard to overstate how essential this branding is. Hence Bill Clinton calling his wife “the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my whole life” at the Democratic convention. He had to say that because it was so obvious that Hillary Clinton was a status quo figure. Her own professed desire was for “incremental” change, which may be realistic but is not inspiring rhetoric.

But who could expect anything more from her? She had been in the highest offices of American politics for decades, as much a figure of the establishment as any single person could be. No one could mistake her as representing change, and indeed in her campaign’s final days she appealed repeatedly to the need to continue the legacy of Barack Obama.

The first problem, then, with Hillary Clinton was not that she was a woman but that people were sick of her. They were sick of her twenty years ago, when “Clinton fatigue” was a thing encompassing both her and her husband, and she hadn’t been out of the public eye since!

The second problem with Clinton as a candidate was that she was a political operator. I hesitate to say “politician” because politics, at least of the retail variety, was not really her calling. She would admit on the trail that she wasn’t a “natural” like her husband at campaigning. She could do the job, but she couldn’t run for it. Though courtiers built her up as someone likeable in intimate settings, she had difficulty projecting charm or charisma. One felt a weariness, discomfort, and not least paranoia on her part whenever she had to appear in the public eye. It was enough to make even the rank vulgarity of Trump seem human in comparison. The overriding question I had watching Clinton over the course of the past year is why she was even doing this. By all accounts she experienced her husband’s presidency as something of a nightmare. Was her run for the presidency an attempt at some belated validation? Or, worse, revenge?

In any event, her awkwardness as a candidate does a lot to explain her curious political career. She went from being the wife of the president, which in her case was a position of some power, to being air-lifted into a super-safe seat in the senate (Patrick Moynihan retired to make way for her in New York, a state she had little personal connection to). She would go on to an appointment as secretary of state under Obama and then win a Democratic primary against an eccentric figure who wasn’t even a member of the party (and who the party itself plotted against). She then ran for president against an even more impossible figure, with all of the above-mentioned institutional advantages providing a strong wind at her back.

Some critics referred to this career trajectory as “falling upwards,” but it was really just a combination of good luck and skilful operation of the system. She has always carried with her an air of inevitability and entitlement. None of this made her popular. If people want change, and look to outsiders rather than politicians to effect it, what can one make of the ultimate career politician preparing to take the highest office in the land virtually unopposed? And with Clinton there was always a certain odour attached to the label of politician even beyond the usual dislike. “How did Hillary Clinton end up filthy rich?” ran the main television ad for the Trump campaign (titled “Corruption”). It was a question that stuck, to be answered (in the ad) by charges of the “politics of personal enrichment” and “pay for play.” Her defence was simply that there was no “smoking gun” or hard proof of a quid quo pro or criminality. This was weak. No matter how legitimate the sources of “Clinton cash” there is still, I think, a lot of native feeling that people in public office should not be getting rich off of it. As for why people were paying the Clintons up to half a million dollars to listen to them make a speech . . . it just smelled bad.

In sum, the problem with Hillary was not that she was a woman but that she was hard to like, harder to trust, and someone people were tired of. The charge that people who opposed her only because they were bigots or ignorant was, however, the first (and often last) line of defence of most liberals – and I say this as a liberal myself (or someone a little to the left of that). It was a defence Clinton herself would adopt in her concession speech, taking on the persona of a feminist martyr cruelly crushed against the patriarchy’s glass ceiling while heroically lighting the way for those who would follow in her giant footsteps. The liberal media — that is, the same media that had enabled her at the expense of all common sense and cast her campaign in the language of a battle against misogyny and for human rights — echoed these sentiments. If Democrats make this their preferred narrative for what happened then they will have learned nothing.

The truth is, Bill Clinton would not have fared any better. Clinton, Inc. had, in the years since his leaving office, become the face of liberal oligarchy. This is an over-class – financial, political, business (most prominently tech), and media – that believes very much in individual freedom and human rights, but also in rule by a managerial elite whose attitude toward democracy is paternalistic at best. It’s no coincidence that many of its leading lights are prominent spokespersons for what’s been called “the new philanthropy.” This is a world not of corporations but of benevolent private foundations.

Such philanthropy meant nothing to the American middle class, who neither wanted nor were in line for a hand-out. What use was the Clinton Global Initiative to Americans? Globalization, they had been told, had lifted billions out of poverty all over the world. But so what? What good had it done for homegrown “losers” aside from giving them cheap shit to buy at Wal-Mart? And was that supposed to be enough?

Well, there are scarier things than rule by a liberal oligarchy, as we may find out. I think Hillary Clinton was a much safer choice than Donald Trump. But I think we would be wrong to write off critics of the elite as rednecks or white nativists only expressing the time-honoured anti-intellectualism of American politics. Clinton was unfairly accused during the campaign of being ambitious, which I think was a clear example of a sexist double standard. Anyone running for president has to be ambitious. Ambition can be a good thing. But no elite or oligarchy can be expected to look after anyone’s interest as well as their own. I have never been one to accuse any government of taking a “nanny state” attitude, and I’m no enemy to government regulation, but I look at the liberal oligarchy and I fear its benevolence.

If you’re looking to lay blame this morning, lay it on both parties. The Republican establishment didn’t want any part of Trump, but all the same he is on them. They created the matrix that spawned him and then couldn’t control the forces they thought to cynically exploit. Even more at fault, however, is the Democratic party, which was so out of touch, so enamoured of its own good intentions, it thought it could ride a deeply flawed candidate who many Americans despised into the most powerful office in the land by wrapping her in a feminist mantle. Trump v. Clinton should never have happened. Never. That it did is an indictment of the system.

There has been much hand-wringing recently over the rise of populism in Western democracies. Populism, in these arguments, is equated with xenophobia, racism, authoritarianism, and nationalism. I don’t think it has to be that way. I think there’s a way for a healthy politics to be more populist. Moving forward, both parties are going to have to find it.

Conflict of interest, again

A while back, commenting on a story involving a CBC reporter, I had occasion to say something about conflict of interest. Here is how my post began

Why is the concept of conflict of interest so hard to understand? True, like any misdemeanour that has certain penalties attached to it, there is some room for debate when assessing culpability. But the thing is, we know it when we see it. And it’s precisely because we know it when we see it that we can say when it exists.

I say “exists” because conflict of interest is not a specific action or event. It doesn’t “occur.” One doesn’t have to actually do anything at all. Conflict of interest is a state of being. You are in a position where there is a conflict of interest or you are not.

I couldn’t help but think of this while watching the cotton-candy accrual of controversy surrounding presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state and the State Department’s relation to the family’s Clinton Foundation. The same issue is again front and center. While acknowledging an unseemly “appearance of impropriety,” Clinton’s defenders point to the fact that there has been no finding of criminality (and that through no lack of investigation). Indeed, Clinton herself has said — in her defence! — that “I know there’s a lot of smoke and there’s no fire.”

Again I am wondering why the nature of the problem is so hard to understand, or if Clinton is being deliberately obtuse. The smoke is the smoking gun. Charles Krauthammer’s column (and this is a commentator I rarely find myself in agreement with), puts it this way

The Associated Press found that more than half the private interests who were granted phone or personal contact with secretary Clinton — 85 of 154 — were donors to the foundation. Total contributions? As much as $156 million.

Current Clinton response? There was no quid pro quo.

What a long way we’ve come. This is the very last line of defence. Yes, it’s obvious that access and influence were sold. But no one has demonstrated definitively that the donors received something tangible of value — a pipeline, a permit, a waiver, a favourable regulatory ruling — in exchange.

It’s hard to believe the Clinton folks would be stupid enough to commit something so blatant to writing. Nonetheless, there might be an email allusion to some such conversation. With thousands more emails to come, who knows what lies beneath.

On the face of it, it’s rather odd that a visible quid pro quo is the bright line for malfeasance. Anything short of that — the country is awash with political money that buys access — is deemed acceptable. As Donald Trump says of his own donation-giving days, “when I need something from them . . . I call them, they are there for me.” This is considered routine and unremarkable.

It’s not until a Rolex shows up on your wrist that you get indicted. Or you are found to have dangled a Senate appointment for cash. Then, like former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, you go to jail. (He got 14 years.)

Yet we are hardly bothered by the routine practice of presidents rewarding big donors with cushy ambassadorships, appointments to portentous boards or invitations to state dinners.

The bright line seems to be outright bribery. Anything short of that is considered — not just for the Clintons, for everyone — acceptable corruption.

It’s a sorry standard. And right now it is Hillary Clinton’s saving grace.

As I said in my earlier post, conflict of interest isn’t an act, it’s a position one finds oneself in. And it is all a matter of perception: perceived conflict of interest (by an objective observer) is conflict of interest. To argue over “exact allegations” of improper behaviour is changing the subject. That may sound harsh, but the reason for having such a hard rule is simple: because in most cases proving any wrongdoing is impossible. The accused can simply respond with a blank denial and that’s the end of it. Short of concrete evidence of “outright bribery” anything goes. And outright bribery isn’t the way corruption works, except at the very lowest level.

Look, everyone in a position of power sells access. When you buy access you get something in return, as the worst-presidential-candidate-in-history Donald Trump testifies. I don’t think anyone is under any illusions about how the system works, which means this is just another one of those things that everybody takes for granted but that can never be admitted publicly. The only danger is in assuming that people are too stupid not to know what’s going on.

American election update: No change

In an earlier post I talked a bit about how the current American presidential election cycle may be marking the end of the conservative road.

A point I brought up was that in the U.S., as in Canada, there is “systemic resistance to change” in the political system that is leading to a desire among a significant number of voters to blow it all up. In Canada, for example, if you’re outraged or disgusted by the Senate or the first-past-the-post election system, both of which the Liberals promised to reform (or end), you should be aware by now that absolutely nothing is going to be done about either. Ever. As I said in that earlier post:

The resulting feelings of frustrated impotence just drive greater anger toward party establishments on all points of the political compass. Perhaps aware of the disappointing results from the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party this time around is offering none of either. The very best you can expect is more of the same.

Politicians understand this, and so we have Hillary Clinton — the most establishment, status quo politician one can imagine; someone who has explicitly stated her desire for only “incremental” change — being branded at her convention nomination as “the best darn change-maker I’ve ever met in my whole life” (in the judgment of husband Bill). Meanwhile, the (political) outsider Donald Trump’s economic platform consists of nothing but tried-and-true Republican planks (lower taxes, especially for the rich) that are now rotten with age.

I’m afraid this has been the lesson of the presidential election thus far. Bernie Sanders, who clearly never had any reasonable chance of winning the Democratic nomination (the party was working against him), got to play the part of everyone’s nutty granddad. Though popular among some voters, the media as well as his opponents successfully made him out to be “Crazy Bernie,” a flaky socialist and somewhat comic figure. Donald Trump, meanwhile, was a madman on the other side, a ranting demagogue who has become another object of fun and mockery: a stock comedy figure channeling the resentment of the rubes, the bubbas, the losers, and the flakes in the Tea Party.

The fairness of any of this aside, the larger structural message of all this is clear. In troubling times we need to accept the safety of things as they are. Don’t rock the boat. Any thought of real reform is dangerous. Change is bad. As Christian Lorentzen, watching the Democratic convention for the London Review of Books concludes, “the young and the left will have to trade in their revolution for the prospect of some mildly ameliorative technocratic reforms.” And even that they may not get.

It’s clear that the Republican party feels that Trump is a nightmare they’re just going to have to endure before they can get back to business as usual. The Democrats, meanwhile, should walk to victory with a candidate who represents . . . business as usual. I think that while this will be far from the worst of all possible outcomes, it will still be a disaster. So much of the present system is in need of radical reform, especially with regard to environmental and economic issues. But the meaning and message of this election thus far has been to reinforce the notion that any thought of change is impractical folly. As Margaret Wente writes in the Globe and Mail, “the greatest danger in [Trump’s] defeat would be if both Republicans and Democrats decide they were right all along, and don’t need to change. Because if they don’t, another Trump will come along. And the next one might not be crazy.” To this I would only say that if things don’t change then another Trump will have to come along. We can only hope he or she will be a force for good, but I suspect we’ll be past that point by then. We can effect change or have change happen to us. The latter course is going to be ugly.

The end of the conservative road

Donald Trump speaks during the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee April 10, 2015. REUTERS/Harrison McClary

Liking his chances. (REUTERS – Harrison McClary)

In the lead-up to the 2015 Canadian federal election I offered a few thoughts on what was happening south of the border. At the time, the presidential primaries were just getting started and we were witnessing the unlikely rise of Donald J. Trump as a Republican contender. Now, as the primary process draws to a close and Trump appears to be headed toward becoming the Republican party’s nominee, it might be a good time to expand a bit on what I said.

Here are the relevant parts from that earlier post:

[The] problem with the Republicans may be that a particular historical strand of American conservatism has played itself out. In terms of cultural conservatism it seems as though the “culture wars” are, if not over, at least moving into a new, yet-to-be-determined phase. The right to an abortion is now settled, and the fight over gay marriage mostly is too. Human-driven climate change is a fact accepted by everyone who is not a complete idiot. The idea that the U.S. can build a wall separating itself from Mexico (or Canada), and somehow round up all its illegal immigrants and send them back to their countries of origin is laughable. And yet all of this can be found in the platforms of leading Republican candidates.

When it comes to economic or fiscal conservatism the picture is just as bleak for right-wing politicians. In a nutshell: what advantage do they offer over the center or center-left? Economic inequality has continued to grow unabated under Democratic presidents, and it seems very unlikely that Hillary Clinton will do anything to stop these trends. If you’re a member of the 1%, or 0.1%, or the 0.01%, you have nothing to worry about: the Dems have your back. If you want to say that neoliberalism won the battle for ideas I don’t think that would be far from the mark (leaving aside the question of what such a victory means). And that being so, what is there left to mobilize right-wing voters who are fiscal conservatives?

In short, the conservative movement has found itself left behind on almost every issue. This doesn’t mean they’re doomed to irrelevancy, far from it, but it does mean that either they or the world will need to change course in some dramatic way for them to regain power. And I am inclined to think it’s the world that is more likely to change first.

Where does this leave conservatives? Primarily as an anti-government party. This is a ridiculous position for any national political party to take, but in at least one sense it may have some traction. I sense a growing divide between public (unionized) and private sector workers both in Canada and the U.S. that could make for a coming split between a party of the state and a party of everyone else. If there is a future for the right it may be here.

Perhaps I made a mistake in my wondering over the future of “the right.” The fact is, both Clinton and Trump are right-wing candidates. As I pointed out, neoliberalism has swept the field in the battle of ideas. With Hillary Clinton being supported by figures like Henry Kissinger and Charles Koch, there clearly isn’t a whole lot of room left for Republicans to maneuver. The problem facing the right is that, as I said in my earlier post, they’ve been left behind. As a result, there is a need for both Republicans and the Canadian Conservative Party to reset entirely.

It’s hard to overstate just how badly the core elements in the right’s traditional political platform have been damaged. National security and foreign affairs, for example, have long been considered a Republican strength. But the war in Iraq is now widely seen as having been ill-advised and poorly executed, while the national security state is something that makes a lot of people on the left and the right nervous. In his campaign Trump was not afraid to call the Iraq war a mistake or to point to the fact that George W. Bush did not in fact keep America safe during his time in office. By now about the only thing that Republicans can do to make themselves sound tough is to threaten nuclear war.

The other core issue for the right has been fiscal stewardship and management of the economy. Here again, however, right-wing or neoliberal policies (free trade, lower taxes, less government regulation, etc.) have been a disaster. That these policies have been adopted and endorsed by establishment Democrats does not change this, though such a move to the right has added to the popularity of more progressive figures like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Here is Paul Campos, writing in Salon, with some of the details:

For the last several decades, the Republican party has been selling a simple economic message to its base: what is good for rich people is good for you too.  And, until this election, the base was buying it.  The astonishing rise of Donald Trump is an almost apocalyptic sign that they’re not buying it any more.

The GOP establishment has seen all of its candidates not merely beaten, but utterly humiliated, by an aggressively ignorant demagogue, whose rhetoric makes him sound like a cheap knockoff of Benito Mussolini and George Wallace.

Why? A look at the facts of American economic life suggests that the rubes have decided they’re tired of being played for marks, which explains why the GOP establishment’s siren song about the Land of Opportunity is no longer doing the trick.

The basic myth the right wing of The Money Party has sold to Republican voters over the past 40 years (the left wing of the party is called the Democrats) goes like this: the economy boomed in the decades immediately after World War II, and standards of living rose rapidly.  But since then, too much government regulation, too many taxes, and an overly generous welfare system that has made Those People even lazier than they were before have combined to kill the American dream.

That is why ordinary Americans (aka working and middle-class white people) have bank accounts that don’t reflect the rewards they should have received for all their hard work. If not for government meddling we would have a thriving economy, just like the one we enjoyed back in the good old days.

All this is a fantastic lie, as a glance at the actual economic history of America since 1945 illustrates.  (In what follows, all figures have been converted to constant, inflation-adjusted dollars).

America is a vastly wealthier country today than it was forty years ago.  Furthermore, on a per-person basis, the country’s wealth has increased far more over the past four decades than it did in the thirty years immediately after World War II.

Here are the numbers: between 1945 and 1974, per capita GDP in the U.S. grew from $17,490 to $27,837.  That is an impressive improvement, but it pales in comparison to what has happened since: in 2014, per capita GDP was $55,185, i.e., almost exactly double what it was in 1974.  In terms of economic output, the country is twice as rich per person now as it was then.

Where has all this money gone?  The answer ought to shock anyone who cares about either economic opportunity or increasing inequality.  The average household income of the bottom 50% of American households was $25,475 in 1974, and $26,520 in 2014.  In other words, half the population has gotten essentially none of the extra $10 trillion dollars of national wealth that the American economy has generated over the past forty years.

Keep in mind that this group includes fully half of the nation’s middle class, by every standard definition of that category.

Meanwhile, over this same time, the average household income of the top five percent of American households (most of the members of this group would not, of course, consider themselves rich, let alone part of the actual plutocracy) has gone from $187,729 to $332,347.  As for the really rich, the numbers are truly staggering: in constant, inflation-adjusted dollars, the household income of the top 0.01% (roughly, the nation’s 13,000 richest households) increased by about seven-fold, from less than $5 million to more than $30 million per year.

Of course, some of Trump’s appeal is based on his willingness to exploit racism and xenophobia while speaking to the economic anxieties of white middle and working class voters.  But establishment politicians are making a big mistake when they under-estimate the extent to which Trump’s message – crude and bombastic as it is — that Americans were winners but are now losers, resonates with the actual life experience of so many people.

These people are angry about what has happened to them and their communities, and especially angry about the empty promises of a Republican party that is run for the almost exclusive benefit of the rich.  The half of America that gets along on $40,000, or $25,000, or $10,000 per year doesn’t care about cutting capital gains taxes or getting rid of the estate tax (which already exempts the “first” $11 million of a married couple’s wealth), and it isn’t enthusiastic about slashing Social Security and Medicare either.

To the contrary, all these things are the pet projects of the Republican donor class.  For forty years the GOP has managed to manipulate culture war issues and racial and ethnic animosities to hide from its base two facts: the contemporary Republican party exists to protect the economic interests of that class, and those interests don’t actually align with the economic interests of middle- and working-class Americans, even if they happen to be white and culturally conservative.

That it took a shameless foul-mouthed egomaniacal reality TV star to speak this truth in such a way that Republican voters would hear it is a sad comment on the state of our politics and culture.

And here is David Hare, writing in the Guardian, reflecting on what happened in Britain with Thatcher and what came after:

As the years have passed, the contradictions within conservatism have seemed to reach some kind of breaking point at which it is very hard to see how its central tenets can continue to make sense. Admittedly, since the severe recession brought about by the banks, Conservative administrations have found favour with the electorate while Labour has languished. At the election a year ago, Conservatives did somehow scrape together votes from almost 24% of the electorate. But such an outcome has done nothing to shake my basic conviction. In its essential thinking, the Tory project is bust.

The origins of conservatism’s modern incoherence lie with Thatcher. Whatever your view of her influence, she was different from her predecessors in her degree of intellectuality. She was unusually interested in ideas. Groomed by Chicago economists, she believed that Britain, robbed of the easy commercial advantages of its imperial reach, could thenceforth only prosper if it became competitive with China, with Japan, with America and with Germany. For this reason, in 1979, a crackpot theory called monetarism was briefly put into practice and allowed to wreak the havoc that destroyed one fifth of British industry. As soon as this futile theory had been painfully discredited, Conservative minds switched to obsessing on what they really wanted: the promotion and propagation of the so-called free market. If a previous form of patrician conservatism had been about respectability and social structure, this new form was about replacing all notions of public enterprise with a striving doctrine of individualism.

It is painful to point out how completely this grafting of foreign ideas onto the British economy has failed. The financial crash of 2008 dispelled once and for all the ingenious theory of the free market. The only thing, ideologues had argued, that could distort a market was the imposition of unnecessary rules and regulations by a third party, which had no vested interest in the outcome of the transaction and that was therefore a meddling force that robbed markets of their magnificent, near-mystical wisdom. These meddling forces were called governments. The flaw in the theory became apparent as soon as it was proved, once and for all, that irresponsible behaviour in a market did not simply affect the parties involved but could also, thanks to the knock-on effects of modern derivatives, bring whole national economies to their knees. The crappy practices of the banks did not punish only the guilty. Over and over, they punished the innocent far more cruelly. The myth of the free market had turned out to be exactly that: a myth, a Trotsykite fantasy, not real life.

David Cameron arrived in office aware that a conservatism that was purely economic could not possibly meet the needs of the country, and therefore chose to advance an unlikely system of volunteerism, which he called the “big society”. It was, self-evidently, a palliative, nothing more, the lazy shrug of a faltering conscience, and one that predictably lasted no longer than the life cycle of a mosquito. Alert to a problem, Cameron lacked the fortitude to pursue its solution. Instead, Conservative ministers have fallen back on the more familiar, far more routine strategy of sour rhetoric, petulantly blaming the people for their failure to live up to the promise of their leaders’ policies. Do you have to be my age to remember a time when politicians aimed to lead, rather than to lecture? Is anyone old enough to recall a government whose ostensible mission was to serve us, not to improve us? When did magnanimity cease to be one of those famous British virtues we are ordered to share?

The reason we have been governed so badly is because government has been in the hands of those who least believe in it. Politicians have become little more than go-betweens, their principal function to hand over taxpayers’ assets, always in car boot sales and always at way less than market value. No longer having faith in their own competence, politicians have blithely surrendered the state’s most basic duties. Even the care and detention of prisoners, and thereby the protection of citizens from danger, has been given to contractors, as though the state no longer trusted itself to open a gate, build a wall, or serve a three-course meal. With foreign policy delegated to Washington, and consciences delegated by private contract to callous logistics companies, no wonder the profession of politics in Britain is having a nervous breakdown of its own making.

There is a bleak fatalism at the heart of conservatism, which has been codified into the lie that the market can only do what the market does, and that we must therefore watch powerless. We have seen the untruth of this in the successful interventions governments have recently made on behalf of the rich. Now we long for many more such interventions on behalf of everyone else. Often, in the past 40 years, I refused to contemplate writing plays that might imply that public idealism was dead. From observing the daily lives of those in public service, I know this not to be true. But we lack two things: new ways of channelling such idealism into practical instruments of policy, and a political class that is not disabled by its philosophy from the job of realising them. If we talk seriously about British values, then the noblest and most common of them all used to be the conviction that, with will and enlightenment, historical change could be managed. We did not have to be its victims. Its cruelties could be mitigated. Why, then, is the current attitude that we must surrender to it? I had asked this question at the Oxford Playhouse in 1974 as I walked back down a darkened Beaumont Street to a hotel of draped velvet curtains, power outages and guttering candles. I ask it again today.

“The Tory project is bust.” The Republican myth of the Money Party has been exposed as a “fantastic lie.” You get the picture. It’s the same the world over. Here’s Andrew Coyne in the National Post reflecting on all that has gone wrong, from a conservative Canadian’s perspective:

Across North America, the right is in disarray. It isn’t only at the ballot box that conservatives are in retreat. It is in the broader contest of ideas. On issue after issue, the left has been running the table, whether overturning orthodoxies long considered invincible, like the taboo on deficits, or opening new territory for the expanding state, from pensions to pharmacare to a guaranteed annual income.

Perhaps the most startling advances have come in the social issues. From same-sex marriage to legalized marijuana to assisted suicide, public opinion and legislation seem in a headlong race to see which can undo centuries of custom and precedent the fastest, while across the multiplying fronts in the wars of identity — racial, sexual and the rest — one famous victory follows another.

I do not say this is a good thing or a bad thing. Some of these developments are welcome, some are not. I record it only as a fact. The energy, the impetus, the advantage today is all on the left.

Even what I thought in my election post might be an opportunity for the right, the growing divide between a party of the state and a party of the private sector, is probably a total non-starter politically. In the 1990s a study was done that showed that the number one indicator for someone voting Republican was a job in the private sector. What to do then when that primary source of identity has so signally betrayed its constituency? It is, after all, the private sector that has failed the people the most: through globalization and the gutting of unions wages have been driven down relentlessly, while the biggest winners have been areas like finance and tech, two of the hardest-charging horsemen of economic inequality. Not coincidentally, the Democrats in the U.S. have become the party of the financial sector, with Hillary Clinton presiding at the Senator from Wall Street.

Government still can’t get things done, and certainly doesn’t care a whole lot about the declining incomes of the middle class, but the private sector can’t, or won’t, create decent jobs and cares even less. Indeed, if you’re a member of the 0.1 % you’re content to kill as many jobs as possible and hide your money somewhere offshore where you don’t have to pay taxes. And so enter Trump, who is not so much racist as he is against immigrants (legal or otherwise) “stealing” American jobs. It’s hardly surprising there are a lot of people with him on this.

In brief, core conservative issues have either been largely co-opted (as economic policy) or tossed into the dustbin of history (the social issues of the culture wars). What is left? Nationalism. “Family values.” Small government. This is thin gruel, and in order to separate themselves from the Democrats the Republicans have had to take such issues to an unrealistic and increasingly irrelevant extreme. Nationalism means building walls, banning immigration, and tearing up trade agreements. Family values has something to do with transgender bathrooms. Small government actually plays out as anti-government. Our elected representatives, it seems, are now widely viewed as incapable of behaving responsibly. According to the reporting of Will Hutton every act of what Ted Cruz refers to as the “Washington cartel” is now seen by the Republican base as being  by definition bad. According to his own public comments, ex-prime minister Stephen Harper thought there was no such thing as a good tax. Government, in short, is so despised that it even hates itself!

But who believes a return to the days of small government is possible? We’re well past the point of being able to downsize. There’s no getting rid of entitlement programs now, or any way to shrink the public sector. The comparison to events in Canada is instructive. When Tim Hudak went down in flames to Liberal Kathleen Wynne in the Ontario provincial election in 2014, despite a depressing and well-documented history of Liberal incompetence and mismanagement, it was in large part due to his announcing a desire to prune 100,000 public sector jobs. This was certainly a bold throwing down of the gauntlet, but running against the public sector unions was a losing strategy. What’s more, even if Hudak had won, he would not have been able to make such cuts. Attrition and buyouts would have ended up costing the government more than just maintaining things as they were.

The same systemic resistance to change can be seen in the federal Liberal promises to reform the Senate and electoral system. Nothing is going to happen. Let’s face it: we are stuck with an unelected, unrepresentative, expensive and totally useless Senate and a first-past-the-post election system, probably forever. This is the very definition of political sclerosis. The resulting feelings of frustrated impotence just drive greater anger toward party establishments on all points of the political compass. Perhaps aware of the disappointing results from the “hope and change” presidency of Barack Obama, the Democratic Party this time around is offering none of either. The very best you can expect is more of the same.

This resistance to change may, paradoxically, be what is needed to effect a transformation. As David Brooks opined in the New York Times, while reflecting on the failures of old-style conservatism (which he identifies with the policies of Ronald Reagan), it may finally be time for a paradigm shift:

This is a wonderful moment to be a conservative. For decades now the Republican Party has been groaning under the Reagan orthodoxy, which was right for the 1980s but has become increasingly obsolete. The Reagan worldview was based on the idea that a rising economic tide would lift all boats. But that’s clearly no longer true.

We’ve gone from Rising Tide America to Coming Apart America. Technological change, globalization and social and family breakdown mean that the benefits of growth, to the extent there is growth, are not widely shared.

Republicans sort of recognize this reality, but they are still imprisoned in the Reaganite model. They ask Reaganite questions, propose Reaganite policies and have Reaganite instincts.

Now along comes Donald Trump, an angel of destruction, to blow it all to smithereens. He represents not only a rejection of the existing Reaganite establishment, but also a rejection of Reaganite foreign policy (he is less globalist) and Reaganite domestic policy (he is friendlier to the state).

Trumpism will not replace Reaganism, though. Trump is prompting what Thomas Kuhn, in his theory of scientific revolutions, called a model crisis.

According to Kuhn, intellectual progress is not steady and gradual. It’s marked by sudden paradigm shifts. There’s a period of normal science when everybody embraces a paradigm that seems to be working. Then there’s a period of model drift: As years go by, anomalies accumulate and the model begins to seem creaky and flawed.

Then there’s a model crisis, when the whole thing collapses. Attempts to patch up the model fail. Everybody is in anguish, but nobody knows what to do.

That’s where the Republican Party is right now. Everybody talks about being so depressed about Trump. But Republicans are passive and psychologically defeated. That’s because their conscious and unconscious mental frameworks have just stopped working. Trump has a monopoly on audacity, while everyone else is immobile.

Well, we certainly seem to have come to the end of something. The myths and lies are being exposed, as is a record of nearly fifty years of failure. I think this is what Trump supporters are responding to in his message, more than the dog-whistle note of racism and xenophobia. Of course Trump can’t do anything, and quite possibly doesn’t want to do anything, to ameliorate the condition of the failing middle class (they are, after all, the “losers” in his simple social vision), but at least he’s calling the system and the establishment to account. As Jim Sleeper observes, his success

upstaged both political establishments’ hypocrisies, without any proof that he would or could actually curb offshore tax evasion and outsourced jobs. What he has done is expose our political system’s illegitimacy and unsustainability as no nominee has done since 1932.

In the end, however, it doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left or the right, as Thomas Frank argues:

Left parties the world over were founded to advance the fortunes of working people. But our left party in America – one of our two monopoly parties – chose long ago to turn its back on these people’s concerns, making itself instead into the tribune of the enlightened professional class, a “creative class” that makes innovative things like derivative securities and smartphone apps. The working people that the party used to care about, Democrats figured, had nowhere else to go, in the famous Clinton-era expression. The party just didn’t need to listen to them any longer.

What Lewandowski and Nussbaum are saying, then, should be obvious to anyone who’s dipped a toe outside the prosperous enclaves on the two coasts. Ill-considered trade deals and generous bank bailouts and guaranteed profits for insurance companies but no recovery for average people, ever – these policies have taken their toll. As Trump says, “we have rebuilt China and yet our country is falling apart. Our infrastructure is falling apart. . . . Our airports are, like, Third World.”

Trump’s words articulate the populist backlash against liberalism that has been building slowly for decades and may very well occupy the White House itself, whereupon the entire world will be required to take seriously its demented ideas.

Yet still we cannot bring ourselves to look the thing in the eyes. We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.

The point being made by all of the observers I’ve been quoting is much the same: we’re witnessing the total failure of what have been sustaining political myths for the past half century. This is what conservative editor R. R. Reno has called the collapse of the middle-class consensus. It is a moment fraught with danger. Society has to have confidence in its governing institutions, has to have some belief in progress. We need hope and change. Without them we have the kind of implosion that conservative parties in Canada and the U.S. have experienced, with truly wretched, demagogic personalities taking their parties down in flames. This has left a path open for nominally centrist, establishment, status quo parties to flow into the vacuum. By this process of political osmosis, however, the collapse of conservatism has also led to a paradoxical lurch to the right.

Why? Because, as Frank points out, the traditional parties of the left know that voters have nowhere else to go and so feel no sense of responsibility to them. There is no alternative, as the saying goes. And so conservatism’s fall has taken the entire system with it. Historically unpopular and seriously flawed figures like Kathleen Wynne and Hillary Clinton could never get elected but for clownish opponents like Tim Hudak and Donald Trump. Government is devolving by degrees of lesser evil.

I am not, politically, a conservative person. But all the same I take no pleasure in witnessing the self-destruction of conservative parties in the West because I don’t see where they can begin to come back except through an increasingly angry and divisive form of politics that will ride a wave of popular resentment. We really are in a terrible mess.

A fearful press

Recent weeks have seen a rash of stories about the long dark night of the news business in Canada, with layoffs announced by Rogers Media and Postmedia as well as the closing of my own hometown daily, the Guelph Mercury, which began publishing in 1867.

The crisis in journalism has been a slow train wreck coming. If you’ve been inside a newsroom at any time in the past fifteen years you’ve been able to smell the despair and rock-bottom morale following on endless rounds of buyouts and layoffs. It’s also no secret what’s behind it all. People want all the news they want, and only the news they want, when they want it, and they want it for free. The Internet has been happy to oblige, even though “free” doesn’t mean that it comes with no strings attached. A decent overview of what’s been happening is provided by Brian Gorman’s Crash to Paywall: Canadian Newspapers and the Great Disruption.

Being a confirmed cyberpessimist, I’m not thrilled by these developments. In order to understand what it all means, and where we’re headed, I think it’s worth considering why it’s happening. What trends are driving these changes?

With that question in mind, I want to quote from Marty Baron, former editor of The Boston Globe and currently editor of the Washington Post, when he recently spoke to Neil Macdonald of the CBC:

“The greatest danger to a vigorous press today,” [Baron tells Macdonald], “comes from ourselves.

“The press is routinely belittled, badgered, harassed, disparaged, demonized, and subjected to acts of intimidation from all corners — including boycotts, threats of cancellations (or defunding, in the case of public broadcasting) …

“Our independence — simply posing legitimate questions — is seen as an obstacle to what our critics consider a righteous moral, ideological, political, or business agenda.

“In this environment, too many news organizations are holding back, out of fear — fear that we will be saddled with an uncomfortable political label, fear that we will be accused of bias, fear that we will be portrayed as negative, fear that we will lose customers, fear that advertisers will run from us, fear that we will be assailed as anti-this or anti-that, fear that we will offend someone, anyone.

“Fear, in short, that our weakened financial condition will be made weaker because we did something strong and right, because we simply told the truth and told it straight.”

To this Macdonald adds the following:

Any reporter who has, for example, ever been based in the Middle East, or has tried to bring some sensible context to a domestic audience whipped into fear about terror, terror, terror, has often seen the mettle of his or her managers tested to the limit.

When Baron’s Washington Post, along with The Guardian, revealed U.S. government lying and law-breaking, courtesy of whistleblower Edward Snowden, public outrage was mostly directed against the newspapers and Snowden himself.

This culture of fearfulness and timidity is depressing. I mentioned in a previous post the decision that had been made by major media outlets to close online commenting on any news story with a whiff of controversy about it (which is to say, mainly those involving a criminal trial or, as Macdonald notes, Middle East politics). Why? I guess fear of liability plays some part. But if Big Media can’t protect themselves from libel chill, who can? It seems as though those nasty trolls have ruined it for everyone. They’re so negative.

But in shutting down commenting we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and reinforced the idea that criticism is to be shunned. As I noted above, on the Internet we only want the news we want. We don’t want to have any of our prejudices or preconceived notions questioned, or have to face a range of different opinions. Carried by these currents, the media, even the news media, turn into nothing but propaganda and advertising.

This past week there was a local example of how this works. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s local chapter said that because Waterloo Region Record columnist Luisa D’Amato allegedly pushes “anti-teacher rhetoric” in her columns for the paper they were calling on their membership to boycott the paper as well as to boycott the Newspaper in Education (NIE) program for the 2016-2017 school year, or to encourage school administrators not to renew the program. The NIE program uses newspapers in class to teach reading, writing, spelling and critical thinking.

No critical thinking allowed! No whistleblowers! No snark! Newspapers as a “safe space”! No news but the news we want to read! This is the not-so-brave world the Internet has brought us, the world of no “dislike” icons and no commenting on stories where opinions may upset anyone. While we’re at it, we might also ban negative book reviews (this is a pet peeve issue of mine). Only for “negative” we might read “critical,” as it comes to the same thing. But, as Baron says, the media is paralyzed with “the fear that [they] will be portrayed as negative.”

Hell, we can also get strict about not allowing heckling in parliament. Wouldn’t government work so much better if everybody just agreed to get along? And during political campaigns, let’s make sure none of the candidates “go negative”! Town halls and debates should be a safe space too!

And people are surprised at the popularity of figures like Donald Trump?

It’s embarrassing that we’ve come to this. The classic defence of freedom of speech is that it is a political right, involving the free flow and expression of ideas in a democracy. It was a right that was essential to the spirit of the Enlightenment, that spirit that asked us to question everything: every authority, every traditional belief, every party line. Instead the press are afraid that they will be “assailed as anti-this or anti-that,” afraid “that we will offend someone, anyone.”

Being an active, engaged citizen means you have to be anti-something, otherwise you’re not really for anything. The press is supposed to always be on the offensive. And the kinds of speech I’m talking about here are precisely the kind — that is, political — that need to be encouraged more. I’m not invoking “freedom of expression” to defend gangbang videos. But the ineluctable current of digital media seems to be toward hive-mind consensus and automatically liking things, a rot that has now spread throughout our political discourse at the highest level. At this rate, when the last newspaper shuts its doors will there be anyone left who cares?

Comments closed

This past week saw the opening of the case against Jian Ghomeshi on multiple counts of sexual assault, and it did not go well for the Crown. In the eyes of many that would be to put it mildly, as the defence used private emails from the first two complainants to raise concerns about their reliability and credibility as witnesses. In doing so, important questions also arose over the prosecution and defence of such cases in general.

This morning I was looking forward to going online and reading discussion of what happened, as well as commentary on its broader meaning. When I say “discussion” what I’m mainly referring to is not news coverage so much as public discussion in the comment threads that typically follow news articles on the Internet. I don’t comment myself on these, but I do like to see what other people are thinking and to take note of any trends and divisions taking shape in the public mind.

I was disappointed. In recent months, public commenting on news stories has become an endangered activity. In 2015 both Sun Media and the Toronto Star disallowed commenting on their websites. Other news sites will allow commenting on some stories but disable comments on anything smelling of controversy (that is, the stories that usually attract the most comments). As a general rule, criminal cases or anything involving Israel stand at the top of the list of taboo subjects.

And so I went looking in vain for some indication of what ordinary people were thinking about the Ghomeshi case. There were a few op-ed pieces in the Star but, as noted, you can’t comment on the Star website. There were also a couple of op-eds in the Globe and Mail, but the comments were closed on both of them, as well as on any story relating to the trial. Christine Blatchford’s reportage on the trial at the National Post, as well as any other story about the proceedings at the Post, have their comments disabled. The CBC’s Ghomeshi coverage does not allow commenting. Even across the pond the British Guardian did not allow any comments on its Ghomeshi story. As far as the mainstream media is concerned, Thou Shalt Not publicly express an opinion on these matters that has not been studiously vetted and approved.

I can see some of where this is coming from. These sources don’t want to be liable for everything said on their websites, though I’m unsure of just how liable they would be. A story like the Ghomeshi case might be expected to bring out the worst in troll behaviour, and board moderators might be expected to put in some overtime overseeing heated discussions.

But that said, I think this is a terrible loss. Open discussion of important, controversial current events was one of the great things the Internet brought to news coverage. Sure there are some bad apples, but I’ve found lots of informed, intelligent, provocative discussion in news threads, just as I find a lot of anonymous Amazon product reviews quite helpful. On occasion I’ve even seen the authors of op-eds forced to backtrack when shown to be wrong by anonymous posters with silly avatars and made-up names. Meanwhile, discussion of topics like foreign policy and criminal law, however heated, speak to the essence of the rationale behind the preservation of free speech: promoting greater engagement with politics and civil society.

What is the alternative? Only allowing acceptable, mainstream opinions to be expressed publicly? Are the rest of us just to be satisfied with commenting on celebrities (as long as we don’t say anything too negative) and arguing over who’s going to win the SuperBowl? Is criticism to be neutered, leaving us only with Facebook’s thumbs-up “like” icon (with no “dislike” available)? Are comment threads just a tool for driving up website traffic and selling stuff? I often hear complaints about how trashy, tabloid infotainment, click bait, and listicles dominate Internet “news,” but if that’s all that the public are allowed to engage with, while “hard news” remains in a roped-off V.I.P. reserve, who can blame us?

It’s a depressing trend that I can’t see any end to. Which leads me to ask: Did the trolls win?

Federal election 2015: After

Well, in my post a week earlier I said my predictions almost always turn out wrong, so I wasn’t surprised, or terribly disappointed, by the election results. For the record, I predicted a Conservative minority. In the final week the polls indicated a strong Liberal swing to the vote and this turned out to be an accurate reading. Overall, I thought the Conservatives ran a dreadful campaign, while the other parties just waited for the tide to come in. In the event, I didn’t vote Liberal myself, but I’m glad to see the end of Stephen Harper.

I’m sure more will be added to the already large literature about Harper in the years to come. I’m still not sure why someone who was by most accounts aware of his deep personal unpopularity insisted on re-branding the federal Conservative party as the “Harper government” (and the “Harper party” in the words of the Globe and Mail this morning). In the words of John Ibbotson, “No prime minister in history and no political party have been loathed as intensely as Stephen Harper and the Conservative party.” But the two didn’t have to go together.

It’s one thing to want to rule as an autocrat, as a “party of one” in the phrase of Michael Harris, but to be so in-your-face about it is another. Perhaps it was all part of Harper’s divisive game plan, to pander to his base while repelling everyone else. If so, it was a strategy that backfired. As I said in my earlier post, Harper’s base politics can only work given certain conditions, like a divided opposition in a first-past-the-post system. He enjoyed that for his entire tenure, but the Anybody But Harper vote undid him this time (as well as undoing the fortunes of the NDP). This leaves the federal Conservative party vulnerable. As Jeffrey Simpson commented just a few days before the election:

Conservatives have their voters – their core – and that’s it. Their core isn’t large enough to win again. . . . When Rob Ford and his brother Doug are organizing a late rally for the party in Toronto, and the federal party thinks this is just fine, the message is clear: The party is down to its hard core.

It didn’t have to be this way. Canada is, in many ways, a conservative (small “c”) country. But the party’s leadership has been hijacked in the twenty-first century by angry freaks. Stephen Harper like Tim Hudak in Ontario, or even Rob Ford in Toronto could have been a more successful, effective political leader if he’d just been moderately reasonable. But being reasonable isn’t what any of these guys signed on for. They preferred to play ideologues and idiots (or actually were ideologues and idiots). Not one of them could be considered, and this is an important quality for a politician, normal. As I also indicated in my earlier post, the same thing can be said of the current Republican field in the United States. The right has spent years pandering to its base. That base now holds it hostage.

As far as the election around here went, the Liberal candidate won handily. One thing that surprises me, looking back on the last two elections, is the end of canvassing. In the last provincial election the only party that sent people door-to-door was the Green party (and that wasn’t the candidate himself but a volunteer from out of town). This year none of the candidates, or representatives from their party, came through my neighbourhood to knock on doors. None! And I only received two telephone calls in the lead up to the election. Do candidates no longer have the resources to do this kind of thing? What else are they doing with their time?

Moving forward, I’m not confident that the Liberals will provide much in the way of new ideas or leadership. One hopes for competence at best. Still, I’m interested in how a couple of issues that came up during the campaign will be handled. First, the Liberals declared that they were against the first-past-the-post election system. Now that they have a majority, will they backtrack on that? Second, the Liberals have also said that they want to “reform” the Senate (I’m all on board). This will be harder to effect, but I think would be a popular move. That said, I don’t expect any meaningful changes to be made to the current system.

I guess another way of saying this is that while Justin Trudeau’s governing style will likely be much different from Harper’s, I question how far apart he will be on substance. This isn’t being cynical, but is more just a reflection on modern politics, where it is very hard to effect real change. This is a problem, because in at least some ways this country should be looking to change direction. In ways that count, I don’t think it will.