Image: The ABBA members on Dutch television show TopPop, 1974. Via Wikimedia Commons.

As this article is published, the Swedish group ABBA is taking “virtual” residency at a custom-built, 3,000-capacity venue called the ABBA Arena in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Their multitudes of fans will see “ABBA-tars,” as avatars of Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid Lyngstad perform alongside a live 10-piece band. The event is linked to their album Voyage, which came out last fall.

In the context of this renewed international focus on the four, I decided that the time has come for me to acknowledge that I have long been a devoted ABBA fan. In this essay I provide excerpts from songs that I consider to be among the most important ones recorded in ABBA’s earlier incarnation, in the 1970s and early 1980s. Then I turn to Voyage and what the new songs add to those they wrote in the decade they performed together, when they – and we ABBA fans – were a lot younger. The excerpts, I contend, illustrate that not only the tunes but also many of the lyrics stand the test of time.

It is hard to believe that songs performed and recorded between 1972 and 1982 remain so popular today. Why is it that ABBA’s music is alive when that of other popular groups is forgotten? In my view, it endures because it is different from that of other successful “rock” groups – indeed, it is better compared to the music of great composers and lyricists of the past that is still cherished today.

Readers familiar with my writing, while probably surprised by my straying so far from political science, will see in this effort a reflection of my interest in things Swedish. The ABBA four remained Swedish, not tempted to move to New York, London or Hollywood – despite their commercial success not going down all that well in egalitarian Sweden. Yet, while their Swedish temperament is reflected in many of the themes of their songs, there is nothing in the specific content – no Swedish place names or expressions, let alone Swedish words – to link their music with the land of its creators.

From the start Björn and Benny chose to write songs in the international language, English, taking the risk of getting expressions wrong. They sought to make their listeners, wherever and whoever they were, feel that the words spoke for them. And they succeeded well above their own expectations.

I can think of only one example of their mistakenly assuming that Swedish experience reflected that of their listeners, one especially salient to me given my work on comparative civic literacy. In the last song they recorded together in their original incarnation, “The Day Before You Came” (1982), about how a lover’s imminent arrival brings a change to Agnetha’s mundane life, the references are all to popular (American) culture:

I must have left my house at eight, because I always do
My train, I’m certain, left the station just when it was due
I must have gone to lunch at half past twelve or so …
The usual place, the usual bunch

At five I must have left, there’s no exception to the rule
A matter of routine, I’ve done it ever since I finished school …
I’m sure I had my dinner watching something on TV
There’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see

But one reference is jarring:

I must have read the morning paper going into town
And having gotten through the editorial, no doubt I must have frowned …
The train back home again
Undoubtedly I must have read the evening paper then

For someone living in Sweden during that period as I did, it was evident that their assumption that everyone read newspapers – editorials no less – was accurate as far as Scandinavia was concerned. But it was hardly universal – and certainly not for the land that produced Dallas.

The Deceptive Image of Superficiality

It is understandable that when they burst on the scene, ABBA’s music was dismissed by almost everyone – except their fans. What came through, apart from the rather silly costumes, was the prosaic lyrics that carried the catchy tunes. Moreover, their sudden success met with some resentment among rock music gatekeepers, who dismissed it as superficial, commercial and clichéd. Village Voice critic Robert Christgau once wrote of ABBA, “We have met the enemy and they are them.”

And the image of superficiality remained, even though anyone listening carefully would have realized that ABBA’s songs increasingly contained profound lyrics that complemented highly complex musical arrangements. The respected musician Pete Townshend of The Who was ahead of his time when he shocked the world in 1982 by coming out in Rolling Stone as an ABBA fan. He noted that “ABBA was one of the first big international bands to actually deal with middle-aged problems in their song writing.”

I suspect that the rare beauty of the voices of the two women singers – combined with Agnetha’s haunting appearance – also may have further distracted listeners from paying attention to the complexity of the lyrics and the music. It was thus natural just to get swept up with the beat and the melody.

My initial involvement with ABBA began in Stockholm in organized aerobics (gympa) in public parks in 1985, moving in step with the beat that, for many of the songs, worked perfectly with the rhythmic exercises. Indeed, though I cannot swear to it, if memory serves ABBA music was also used in the less sophisticated aerobics classes in my neighbourhood gym in Montreal in the 1970s and early 1980s, well before I went to Sweden. Humming along with the very catchy tunes and even mouthing the words, one paid little attention to their meaning.

Returning to Sweden in the 1990s (I was teaching in Umea in the north), I found myself starting to pay more attention to the words of the ABBA songs during gympa sessions. But it was only more recently, especially as I exercised on a stationary bicycle, that I started to listen intently to the lyrics, and to the themes that kept on recurring, discovering unexpected complexity and depth.

I couldn’t miss cases of ABBA’s misuse of English words that the critics had seized upon. The most glaring is in one of their lesser earlier songs, “Does Your Mother Know,” in which the lyrics go “You can dance with me, honey, if you think it’s funny,” mixing up “funny” with “fun.” Another such error, the misuse of the definite article, an error I encountered regularly among Swedes, comes in an especially poignant song for someone of my generation. “Our Last Summer” from 1980 was apparently based on Björn Ulvaeus’s memory of a teenage romance in Paris:

Walks along the Seine
Laughing in the rain
I was so happy we had met
It was the age of no regret
Those crazy years, that was the time
Of the flower-power

My guess is that these few errors were pounced on by critics who resented their “undeserved” (sic) success. This was especially the case in their native Sweden where some were not happy with the image of Sweden they presented to the world. In 1982, for example, Professor Gluck and his associates at the Stockholm College of Music attacked the popular tabloid Expressen for “outrageously” awarding the annual prize “to a group that makes a fortune by manipulating our prosperous teenagers those who seriously aim at making music a meaningful art form.”

I do not accept that great music, or other great art, cannot be popular. I would rank Andersson and Ulveaus with the composers of the great operas. On Amazon’s list of the 40 greatest arias, Puccini leads with 11, followed by Verdi and Bizet with four each and Mozart with three. In an endnote, I offer a list of memorable songs from the great days of Broadway musicals and Hollywood films. By my admittedly subjective reckoning, at least 15 of ABBA’s earlier songs and at least one from Voyage would qualify to be on the list.¹

Below I offer excerpts from them. I exclude several of ABBA’s early and still very popular songs in which their then-manager Stig Anderson contributed to the lyrics: “Ring Ring,” “Honey, Honey”, “I Do, I Do, I Do”, “Mamma Mia” and “SOS.” Their most successful, “Dancing Queen” – the only ABBA song to top the charts in the United States – owes much to its appeal to the Gay and Lesbian community.

In all, they recorded 117 songs, of which 25 made it to the top 40 in the U.K. – an extraordinary accomplishment for a group that was together from 1972 to 1982 and broke through only in 1974 when their song “Waterloo” won the Eurovision Song Contest. (It was to take advantage of this exposure that Stig Anderson moved to concentrating on promoting the group, leaving the words and music to Björn and Benny.)

The more I listened to the words, the more I came to appreciate the tinge of sadness and gloom that reflected the lived experience of these two dazzling couples that seemed to have everything. Quite soon the lyrics and the weightier beats begin to reflect the unravelling of both domestic unions.

As Barry Walters suggested, based on an interview with Benny Andersson on U.S. National Public Radio in May 2015, it is here that the effect of growing up in Sweden can be felt:

What Andersson did point out was that his group possessed a rarely acknowledged capacity for the sorrows of artists living within the “melancholy belt” above the 59th latitude, where the sun virtually disappears for two months, and snow falls for nearly half a year. He argued that this despondency runs through Swedish folk, Russian folk, classical composers like Finland’s Jean Sibelius and Norway’s Edvard Grieg, Ingmar Bergman movies, the voice of Swedish-born actress Greta Garbo and, sometimes, the harmonies of Lyngstad and her front-line vocal partner Agnetha Fältskog.

Walters added,

When it comes to pop, ABBA have been for the last several decades far more influential than The Beatles, rule easy listening radio with nuanced, nearly subversive stuff because they seemed so quaint on the surface … These unashamedly heterosexual couples appeal to the LGBTQ community because Gay people particularly respect entertainers who cloak suffering behind carefully constructed artifice because it’s a skill most of us are still forced to learn. ABBA concealed the distress of their ditties with as many deliciously gaudy overdubs. Embedded in some of the brightest whiteness pop has ever known, ABBA invented their own blues, one that hasn’t left the radio. They whispered private anguish in the midst of the party.

Though ABBA stopped recording, Björn and Benny did not stop producing music. There were 13 ABBA albums released by the time of the breakup in 1982, of which four were compilations. This does not include special compilations then and afterward for Germany, the Netherlands, Japan and Australia, and two albums in Spanish, as well as CDs and video albums recorded in the later years. Several of the most successful compilations came after 1992, when ABBA Gold was released. It reached the top of the charts everywhere outside North America, selling more than the previous chart-topper album, Arrival in 1976.

Mixing Bitter and Sweet

I cannot articulate in writing what only listening to the songs makes clear: how complex the harmony is, mixing bitter and sweet, and how the melodies merge with the powerful lyrics. Listening makes plain that the harmony was attainable because of the wide range of the voices of Fältskog, a soprano, and Lyngstad, a mezzo-soprano. Somehow their voices become aligned to create something larger than the sum of their parts, capturing the depth and power of Benny Andersson’s music.

I highlight some of the most representative of Ulvaeus’s lyrics, which speak for themselves in giving expression to the themes noted here. Readers can easily find the full lyrics as well as the sounds themselves on YouTube and elsewhere on the web. In ordering the songs, I identify certain themes and follow then as the treatment goes from lighter to darker. Only by listening can one appreciate the coming together of words and music in the emerging themes.

Even in their early, more superficial, period they drew on historical metaphors, stating with “Waterloo”:

I was defeated, you won the war
Promise to love you forever more
Couldn’t escape if I wanted to
Knowing my fate is to be with you
Finally facing my Waterloo

And in 1976 came their fine ballad “Fernando,” about two freedom fighters recalling the Mexican revolution of 1910. In 1980 “The Piper,” based on the Pied Piper of Hamelin, constituted a move away from the mainstream, with its dark lyrics belied by the apparently happy melody and use of medieval-sounding flute and drums. The next year brought “Cassandra,” about the tragic historical figure from Greek mythology who was not believed as she foretold the fall of Troy:

Down in the street they’re all singing and shouting
Staying alive though the city is dead
Hiding their shame behind hollow laughter
While you are crying alone on your bed

Another recurring theme is bittersweet nostalgia, of which a well-known instance is “Slipping through My Fingers” (1981), about a mother’s missed opportunities to spend time with her daughter before it was too late, sung by Meryl Streep in the 1994 film Mamma Mia. The theme comes through especially in “Our Last Summer” (1980), in which the lines quoted above recalling Ulvaeus’s teenage romance in Paris are followed by:

But underneath we had a fear of flying
Of getting old, a fear of slowly dying…
And now you’re working in a bank
The family man, the football fan
And your name is Harry
How dull it seems
Yet you’re the hero of my dreams

It seems that almost all the songs touch on the precariousness of relationships. The theme of separation first emerges in 1974 with “Hasta Mañana,” one of the dozen or so songs ABBA also recorded in Spanish.

Hasta mañana ‘til we meet again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
Darling, our love was much too strong to die
We’ll find a way to face a new tomorrow
Hasta mañana, say we’ll meet again
I can’t do without you

It emerges again a year later in the highly successful “S.O.S.” with its memorable chorus:

Where are those happy days?
They seem so hard to find
I try to reach for you
But you have closed your mind
Whatever happened to our love?
I wish I understood
It used to be so nice
It used to be so good
So when you’re near me
Darling, can’t you hear me, S.O.S.
The love you gave me
Nothing else can save me, S.O.S.
When you’re gone
How can I even try to go on?

The precariousness of relationships is the theme of “The Name of the Game” (1977), in which a young, vulnerable person struggles with unfamiliar feelings:

If I trust in you
Would you let me down?
Would you laugh at me
If I said I care for you?
Could you feel the same way too?

A more positive approach to the theme is found in “Take A Chance on Me” (1978), another song that the film Mamma Mia had everyone singing. The bittersweet treatment returns with “Chiquitita,” in which the singer is trying to help a friend through heartbreak; then, with “Lay All Your Love on Me” two years later, other women are perceived as a potential threat.

But the emerging dominant theme was the unravelling of relationships. In 1976 came the poignant “My Love, My Life”:

I’ve watched you look away
Tell me is it really so hard to say? …
Sitting here close to you
Knowing that maybe tonight we’re through

And then in 1977 came “Knowing Me, Knowing You”:

In these old familiar rooms, children would play
Now there’s only emptiness, nothing to say
No more carefree laughter
Silence ever after
Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes
Here is where the story ends, this is goodbye
Knowing me, knowing you
There is nothing we can do
We just have to face it,
This time we’re through

Then comes nostalgia with a hint of bitterness. “One of Us” (1981), recorded after both ABBA’s couples had separated, is a tale of loneliness and empty beds with Agnetha “wishing she had never left at all,” while “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme (a Man after Midnight)” (1979) is sung by the now divorced Agnetha, as is the evocative “The Winner Takes It All” (1980):

I was in your arms
Thinking I belonged there
I figured it made sense
Building me a fence
Building me a home
Thinking I’d be strong there
But I was a fool
Playing by the rules

As their career is coming to an end in 1981, they try to accept their fate with equanimity in “When All Is Said and Done”:

Here’s to us one more toast and then we’ll pay the bill
Deep inside both of us can feel the autumn chill…
When the summer’s over and the dark clouds hide the sun
Neither you nor I’m to blame when all is said and done.

From this perspective, it was only fitting that in 1983, after they had announced their breakup, “Thank You for the Music” came out. The light tone in which they rhetorically ask “Without a song or a dance what are we?” belies the unstated and disheartening answer: nothing.

The 2021 Comeback

The various rerecordings of these songs kept people listening, but no one could have imagined their comeback so many years later to record new songs, released in a new album, Voyage, in the fall of 2021. The reception from the critics was divided, though their return was hardly unnoticed. The Guardian even published two reviews, one negative, one mixed,

As Björn put it in an interview, these songs are the expression of 40 years of experience: several are definitely worth the wait. Agnetha and Anni-Frid still sing beautifully, even if the range of notes they can reach is smaller. All the melodies are catchy. One of the songs, “Don’t Shut Me Down,” in which highly memorable music is combined with very powerful lyrics, clearly belongs in ABBA’s top 20:

A while ago, I heard the sound of children’s laughter
Now it’s quiet, so I guess they left the park
This wooden bench is getting harder by the hour
The sun is going down, it’s getting dark
I realize I’m cold, the rain begins to pour
As I watch the windows on the second floor
The lights are on, it’s time to go
It’s time at last to let him know
I believe it would be fair to say, “You look bewildered”
And you wonder why I’m here today
And so you should, I would
When I left, I felt I’ve had enough
But in the shape and form, I appear now
I have learned to cope, and love and hope is why I am here now

Then comes the strong chorus, though the words are admittedly a bit offputting:

And now you see another me, I’ve been reloaded, yeah
I’m fired up, don’t shut me down
I’m like a dream within a dream that’s been decoded
I’m not the one you knew, I’m now and then combined
And I’m asking you to have an open mind

The Guardian’s initial review by Jude Rogers, “No Thank You for the Music,” has kind things to say only about this song, as well the album’s other headline song “I Still Have Faith in You.”

In my view, there are several additional interesting songs in the album. While not in the top category because the music does not quite make the grade, these songs feature lyrics that are as good as anything ABBA have ever written. I am thinking of “I Could Be That Woman,” in which a woman and her beloved dog watch her estranged lover wake up, and they argue as she admits “Oh God, I’m sorry for the wasted years,” with a glimmer of hope at the end:

You’re not the man you should have been
I let you down somehow
I’m not the woman I could have been
But I can be that woman now

Another is “Keep an Eye on Dan” in which a divorced mother has left her son with his dad for the weekend:

My little boy looks so happy
He throws me his “go mummy” kiss
And he loves his dad
And I loved him too
Maybe I still do
But it’s over
Certain that I’m out of sight
I pull over and turn off the car
And I bang the wheel
I can’t believe that I’ve actually
Held it together this far

In Rolling Stone last November 4, Rob Sheffield concluded that “the first new ABBA album in 40 years was worth the wait … It’s a surprise to have these Swedes back in the game. But it’s a bigger, sweeter surprise that they returned so full of musical vitality.”
In “I Still Have Faith in You,” Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid sing, “How inconceivable it is that we have reached this far.” Perhaps more then they realize, they are speaking for all of us.

Continue reading “Thank You For The Music”

Robert Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020. 480 pages.

By remaining merely pessimistic, not necessarily catastrophist, I have become a relative optimist.
— New York Times columnist Ross Douthat

There is a profound contradiction in this otherwise valuable book. This contradiction is reflected in the cover, in which the cheeriness of WE in bold red is belied by the downward-facing curve. If readers are to be persuaded that America can “come together” as it did in the early 20th century, they would at least expect to find a “how to” section at the end, with insight from current manifestations about how to “do it again.” But it is only in more recent short writing and public lectures that Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett try – unconvincingly, in my view – to have us believe that Americans have good reason to be optimistic about a coming “upswing.”

Going deeper

I am a few years younger than Robert Putnam, and, though not an American, I have spent much time in the United States over the years and continue to follow developments there closely. I have been impressed by Putnam’s work since first encountering his development of the concept of social capital to explain deep and lasting economic differences between northern Italy, with its guilds, clubs and choral societies, and the south, where such social capital – networks and norms of civic engagement on which trust is built – was absent. I attended the ceremony in Uppsala, Sweden, at which he was awarded the Skytte Prize (political science’s “Nobel” prize) in 2007.

The prize was richly deserved. Putnam has been a rarity among social scientists: taking on important issues (rather than just ones to which you can apply state-of-the-art statistical analysis that will get you published in academic journals), painstakingly gathering and applying the fullest relevant data and secondary source material available to address those issues, and writing in clear, nonacademic prose. In addition, while careful to be as objective as he can be, he never loses his perspective as what Americans call a liberal in the best sense of the word.

It was when Putnam, now at Harvard, turned his attention to his own country and began portraying how American life had been steadily unravelling that he became known outside of academic circles. In Bowling Alone (2002), he documented the decline of social capital, for which he used as proxies membership in bowling leagues (he was an avid bowler growing up), Rotary Clubs, churches and other local associations. As the social bonds created by these groups frayed, life satisfaction went down. Declining social capital, he showed, brought rising crime rates and other indicators of deteriorating neighbourhood quality of life. More recently, in Our Kids (2015), he described the new inequality – the precipitous fall in social mobility – in numbers and stories from his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio, and other communities.

For much of his career, his focus has been on exploring what went wrong and why. Bowling Alone made Putnam and social capital household words. In the process, he challenged his compatriots to address what was going on around them. He didn’t always have comprehensive explanations for what he described, something unavoidable if you are prepared to take on hard issues in a changing context. This is especially the case with his latest book, which is also his most ambitious – though it has received only a fraction of the attention that Bowling Alone did. The Upswing is a sweeping analysis of 125 years of American history, highly readable and full of interesting insights. His brief conclusion, however, which he has followed up with shorter recent contributions, has more than a whiff of wishful thinking.

It is understandable that, after having written highly influential books that told Americans to be very concerned, indeed depressed, about the developments taking place in their country, on turning 80 he would be reflecting on his legacy, looking for a perspective on the future of his country that could coat the bleak portrait associated with his work with a silver lining. This presented a real challenge since he could not, as comparativists can and do, look to improvements elsewhere, in developing countries in particular, to compensate for the bleakness of the contemporary picture back home. So if he could not go wider, then he would go deeper than in his earlier work: into the long historical trends – the “arc of history” – of the United States over 125 years.

Writing a book about the United States with Trump in the White House and entitling it The Upswing was, as Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister would say, “courageous.” Still, in the months following publication, Putnam could see Biden’s election (despite Trump and his allies trying to block it) and the Democrats taking over Congress as confirmation that things were getting better. This perspective is harder to maintain as the pandemic enters its third year, with a likely coming congressional victory by Trumpite Republicans. Consider this excerpt from a January 14 column in the New York Times by the moderately conservative and generally not pessimistic David Brooks:

In 2020, the number of miles Americans drove fell 13 percent because of the pandemic, but the number of traffic deaths rose 7 percent … In 2021 motor vehicle deaths were up 18.4 percent even over 2020 … The number of altercations on airplanes has exploded, the murder rate is surging in cities, drug overdoses are increasing, Americans are drinking more, nurses say patients are getting more abusive … Schools have seen an increase in both minor incidents, like students talking in class, and more serious issues, such as fights and gun possession … Drug deaths had risen almost continuously for more than 20 years, but overdoses shot up especially during the pandemic … In October, CNN ran a story titled, “Hate Crime Reports in U.S. Surge to the Highest Level in 12 Years, F.B.I. Says.” … The number of gun purchases has soared …

When I went to college … I never worried that I might say something in class that would get me ostracized. But now the college students I know fear that one errant sentence could lead to social death … This is what it feels like to live in a society that is dissolving from the bottom up as much as from the top down.¹

Yet, dissolving from bottom up is the opposite of what Putnam, in his most recent interventions, suggests. I return to his contention that things are on the verge of getting better after summarizing the argument in The Upswing, which is full of rich material giving flesh to the curve depicted on the cover. It says very little about America today, arguing instead by analogy: the same things that were wrong and made improvement seem hopeless before the first upswing began are once again present now. Readers who are unconvinced by this argument, as I am, will nonetheless learn much from the historical analysis presented in clear, nonacademic form by Putnam and his coauthor, Shaylyn Romney Garrett.

To summarize, The Upswing sets out “a long arc of increasing solidarity” beginning early in the 20th century, and then increasing individualism beginning in the early 1960s, affecting economic equality, politics, social capital and culture. The authors see the urban riots, assassinations and campus violence, as well as the Vietnam quagmire, as putting an end to that solidarity. This was the beginning of a downswing toward an increasingly zero-sum view of society, with a depletion of social capital in the form of bitter partisanship, deep inequality and isolation, leading eventually to Trumpism.

Here The Upswing builds on Bowling Alone, with a depressing portrait through the second decade of this century. But by showing that this depressing description of America over these past 50 years also applies unexpectedly closely to the America of 1900, the authors arrive at a positive conclusion. It didn’t stay that way back then: early in the century there came an upswing of “mutualism and solidarity,” depicted in numerous charts setting out such indicators as rates of unionization, voter turnout and membership in churches and community clubs. The new ethos was expressed in the emerging communitarianism of the Progressive era, in reformers like Jane Addams and John Dewey and muckraking journalists like Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. In portraying the trajectory of American society since 1900 in their four curves – economic inequality, political partisanship, social capital and cultural narcissism – they see “an unexpected and remarkable synchronicity in trends in four very different spheres.”

Through painstakingly researched and presented data, every gauge turns out to take the form of an inverted U- or V-shaped curve; from very low rates of all of these (let’s simplify by referring to the sum total as social capital) at the turn of the century to a high point around the beginning of the 1960s and then down to levels similar to 1900 as we get into the 21st century. At the high point of the curve, we find the lowest gap between rich and poor, the most favourable health indicators, the highest social spending to help the poor, the lowest political polarization and the strongest feeling that Americans were moving forward together.

Apart from the standard statistical indicators, the authors make use of an innovative measure to track social capital in the form of “cultural narcissism”: the “Ngram” database from Google’s digitalization of millions of books since 1880, which makes it possible to measure the use of particular words and phrases over time. They are thus able to track the rate of usage of terms reflecting “we” compared to “I,” showing the rise of the “selfie culture” emerging in the late 1950s. They use such Ngram data for terms like survival of the fittest, which faded through most of the 20th century “only to win a new lease on life in the twenty-first century.” Usage of association, cooperation and socialism rose steadily for 75 years following 1880 and then declined. The path of the term common man began its decline sooner, in the early 1950s.

In a parallel analysis published since, in the December 2021 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Marten Scheffer and his coauthors report on the rise of fact-free argumentation. Use of sentiment-laden words such as feel and believe declined systematically while the use of words associated with fact-based argumentation such as determine and conclusion rose steadily until the 1980s, when emotion-laden language again surged in both nonfiction and fiction, as well as in New York Times articles.²

Overall Putnam and Garrett paint a convincing portrait of an America that was broadly improving, when children could expect to earn more than their parents, when politics was not purely partisan, when hope of a “Great Society” seemed realizable. This was the time when Putnam – and Joe Biden – were embarking on their careers. I frequently visited the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s when still a teenager.

I came back generally hopeful about the openness to improvement and optimism about future possibilities of my American neighbours (something I later learned was shared by the Swedes and Europeans generally). While Putnam admits that the rosy picture applies especially to Whites, he presents data showing that the real conditions of Blacks were improving significantly even before the Supreme Court ruled against segregated schooling in Brown, mainly as a result of economic conditions that favoured Blacks moving to the industrial north, and that despite the consolidation of the civil rights movement, progress toward equality slowed by the latter 1960s.

Unlike Putnam, I am a boomer, and like many of my generation, I identified with the North American New Left movement in the 1960s. Hence, like many, I look at that decade from a different perspective than he does. What Putnam portrays as the high point of America living up to its goals as the 1960s began was for us, a few years later, a “one-dimensional” society to be rejected. In my commune in Washington, D.C., in the late 1960s, we read Herbert Marcuse and agreed with him that the “advanced industrial society” around us created false needs to tie us into the “system” of production and consumption via the mass media and advertising. We sought to escape a technology-based totalitarian rationality that permeated the culture and public life and to oppose in words and deeds the hyperconsumption, waste and environmental damage it caused. And since the industrial working class – and thus the trade union movement – was now integrated into capitalism, and state socialism in the East failed to inspire us, we looked, with Franz Fanon, to decolonization movements in the developing world as the harbingers of change.

Hence, while I find persuasive the data presented by Putnam and Garrett showing that by the late 1960s the curve had begun to swing downward away from involvement in community associations, I do not see this merely as a reflection of a new self-centredness but rather of our having measured the accomplishments of previous generations against an unattainable standard. I could see this as, writing in 1969, I reflected on my generation’s experience:

The American New Left is … groping, it seems, more than ever. It is learning that its “holy” alliance with the Black Power movement is little more than a treaty to cover dirty linen. It is finding that the people it appeals to in its theory of participatory democracy are being mobilized all right – but against it. It is finding that it is more capable of seizing university buildings than of knowing what to do … after the inevitable restoration of stability.

It is turning, quite understandably, to questions of the whole person – of how to live as a radical person in the society; thus the emphasis of radicalism in the professions, and on the building and maintenance of community; from sensitivity groups to urban co-ops, to rustic communitarian retreats …

The division between … the wheelies and the feelies is far deeper than factional … The wheelies … concentrate on direct action and look upon the entire attempt to build new ways of life as self-indulgence … The feelies … answer that there’s no use trying to bring change and organize others when you’re uptight yourself … In an underground newspaper, a free school, or a commune, the feelies demand that all the structures be simply eliminated … The wheelies say that all this is well and good, but the paper won’t get out.

Putnam’s depiction of the emergence of advanced industrial society in the United States is the other side of Marcuse’s coin. A key case in point is that for Putnam support for trade unions is a positive indicator of social capital. He draws from Gallup polling data to show how popular (after the red scare of the late forties and early fifties) unions became, and how they fell to their lowest level in the 21st century (figure 1). That they are now apparently making a comeback suggests that in this one area, perhaps, Putnam’s optimism may be warranted.

Another positive measure is that in recent years a similar curve shows emerging generations to be especially open to racial and religious intermarriage – as opposed, we should add, to marriage between partners of different partisan political affiliations. Indeed, one of the starkest contrasts between 1960 and 2020 is the attitude toward a Republican marrying into a Democratic family and vice versa.

Putnam’s bet

Though I have only skimmed the surface of, and thus not done justice to, this important book, I turn to the claim in the title that the low point has been reached and that there are signs of an upswing, signs mostly identified elsewhere than in the book itself. For example, Putnam and Garrett cite a journal article written by Putnam’s daughter Lara along with Theda Skocpol and published in February 2018 in the dark early days of Trump in power:

The new upsurge is not centered in the progressive urban enclaves where most national pundits live … About half the country lives in the suburbs, twice the number who live in either fully urban or rural settings. More than half of Americans are also women – and of those, half are in their thirties to sixties. It is in this Middle America, and among these Middle Americans, that political developments since the November 2016 election have moved fastest and farthest … At the current pace, it seems likely that the pop-up leaders and grassroots groups will, by 2019, have repopulated the local layer of the Democratic Party in much of the country … It will look like retired librarians rolling their eyes at the present state of affairs, and then taking charge.

This change will come smoothly and cooperatively in some places and through conflict and displacement in others. The change will move farthest and fastest outside of the metropolitan cores where local Democratic Party patronage structures still persist. Purple suburbs, mid-size cities, big towns in red regions – these are the unexpected epicenters of the quake underway. The cumulative result will be local Democratic Party leadership across much of America that is slightly more progressive and much more female than it was, although not much more socio-economically diverse. Everywhere, the renovated party locals will be passionate about procedural democracy: determined to fight gerrymandering, regulate campaign activities and finance, and expand and guarantee voting rights for all.³

It is impossible to quantify this upsurge. But I am sceptical. So far, the only evidence of its effect on politics was the mobilization of parents seeking to take power over the schools that allowed GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin to be elected Governor of Virginia in 2021 over his Democratic opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe – a mobilization that apparently is spreading.

One aspect of Putnam’s hopes for an upswing lies in technology. In the afterword (written with Jonah C. Hahn) to the 2020 update of Bowling Alone, he declares that he is open to a positive response to the question of whether the internet has reversed the decline of social capital. Social media, which had not yet really emerged when the book was first published in 2002, carry implications for social engagement: they both enable and deform.

In lectures and interviews along with his coauthor in 2021,⁴ he was somewhat more positive, stressing that the internet has greatly increased the possibilities for real-time communications which can merge with actual direct human face-to-face encounters in what he calls an “alloy” between virtual and real, as in a neighbourhood book club. While suggesting that on balance the internet may actually be reversing the decline in social capital, introducing previously unthinkable opportunities for social connection, it can also bring unprecedented levels of alienation and isolation. Putnam and Hahn noted in the afterword to the updated Bowling Alone that “social media seem to foster political disagreement, amplify polarizing content, and suppress constructive discourse.” The internet also contributes to inequality between white collar workers who can work from home and blue collar workers who cannot.

Still, Putnam is hopeful, in part reflecting his experience during the pandemic: “Emerging digital technology like Papa … can hook you up with companions of different ages, arrange for grocery delivery and many other activities we took for granted when we were younger. Along with the necessities of life, Papa brings members and Pals (younger folks who assist older adults) together with a mobile app that makes lasting connections easy.” Putnam, who was at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg was there initiating Facebook, insists that many Facebook friends are real friends and that such networks proved their worth as people like himself were isolated by the pandemic. Hence, in response to a question at one of his lectures, Putnam said that he is willing to give favourable odds that the upswing is on its way. I personally would take that bet.

If it were up to him, Putnam would restore some form of national service, rallying youth around “the moral equivalent of war.” In earlier years the draft constituted a kind of “bridging” program that promoted social capital. He admits that young people have been very much against restoring the draft, but he finds hope in recent signs among the young of a decrease in cynicism and increase in idealism: support for environmental causes, Black Lives Matter. I would like to believe that he is right, that he could call on young people the way JFK did when he said “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” and founded the Peace Corps. But that was in 1961 and, as Putnam tells it so well, all things considered, it was a downswing from there.

Trumpism unshaken

As I write in early March, the Ukranians are heroically standing up to the Russian invaders. At the same time I read that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not have invaded Ukraine had President Trump still been in office, a majority of Americans said according to the results of a new poll. The survey released Friday from the Harvard Center for American Political Studies (CAPS)–Harris Poll found that 62% of Americans believed Putin would not have pulled the trigger if Trump were still president.

Unquestionably, Putin’s gambit brought a missing sense of common purpose to the democratic world. Yet it does not seek to have shaken Trumpism in the United States. In the first days of the Russian invasion Donald Trump, at a Conservative Political Action Conference event, told his audience of high-profile Republicans that if Democrats want to fight for democracy abroad, “they should start with the democracy that is under threat right next door, a place called Canada.”

I wonder if today Putnam would still tell his American readers that that the upswing is on its way.

Continue reading “Is the United States Ripe for an Upswing?”

Image: Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In light of current developments, I am compelled to return to my obsession with United States politics. I was taught in first-year political science that, to win power, parties compete for the middle ground, since that is where the voters who can make the difference between winning and losing are found. This forces the major parties to address practical issues rather than just appeal to ideology.

We have seen this play out in Erin O’Toole’s campaign in the recent Canadian election. Or consider Britain: in a long biographical article on Boris Johnson in the July 2021 Atlantic, Tom McTague notes that “on the American political spectrum, Johnson’s policies would fall well to the left of center.” We can see a similar moderating effect over time in most longstanding democracies. Not, however, in the United States, which in the half-century since I was a student has become the glaring exception. The Republican Party has, almost continually, moved away from the centre. And it has not paid the price.

There are institutional factors in the way Americans run elections that help explain this, including overrepresentation in Congress of less urbanized states, the ability of the very rich to skew campaigns, and blatant gerrymandering. Moreover, the pure two-party system, resulting from institutional obstacles to getting third-party candidates on the ballot, ensures that moderate Republicans either fall into line or quit politics.

On the other side is the Democratic Party, which would fit comfortably into the centre of the spectrum in Canada and elsewhere in the democratic world. It won the last election, and yet is facing defeat in Congress in less than a year. This could set the stage for another run at the presidency by someone every expert acknowledges as the worst chief executive in a modern democratic country in modern times. Furthermore, Donald Trump asserts that he could lose the 2024 election only if it is – like the 2020 election – “stolen” from him.

It seems preposterous than more than a fringe could take this seriously. We have recently had close elections in Canada, Germany and other countries without the losers contesting the count. Yet there continue to be regular reports of loyal Trumpites in a score of American states challenging the 2020 numbers. They do not expect to overturn the result, but rather are setting the stage for an orchestrated manipulation of the result in 2024 underpinned by a coordinated effort to replace election officials with Trump loyalists.

How did things get so out of hand that the most basic elements of electoral democracy are disputed not in a far corner where conspiracy theorists congregate, but in the mainstream of political discourse? The prime culprits are the Trumpites’ enablers in politics and the media who, instead of denying and denouncing such claims, are complicit or at best silent. Ambitious Republican politicians like Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Ron DeSantis of Florida, who play to the Trumpite base so as to gain popularity with Republican primary voters, are the most blatant.

This sad state of affairs is well known. What I want to do here is to bring in another dimension. I suggest that a certain tendency among Americans who would not be caught dead among the Trumpites plays into the efforts of Abbott, DeSantis and their ilk. However little it may be true, there is a widespread conservative belief that mainstream “liberal” opinion leaders censor “politically incorrect” content in the media and in institutions of higher learning. In a recent poll, among Independents – the group that was key to Joe Biden’s victory – 71 per cent of those who had heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT) were “very unfavourable” to it.

CRT means different things to different people. In the version that has gained wide currency in the media, it asserts that race is always about inequality and domination. It insists that the world must be seen through its lens, so that efforts to deemphasize the role of race and racism and the failure to recognize that systemic racism determines disparities between groups is itself a manifestation, if unconscious, of racism.

Abbott’s Texas (a very large state that is demographically moving in the direction of the Democrats), followed by at least ten other states, has outlawed the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Though the legislators hardly understand the subtleties of CRT, they object to an interpretation of U.S. history that places at its core the importance of slavery and oppression of Blacks. Texas House Bill 3979 states that no one should be made to feel guilty for their race or sex. It bans teachers from teaching anything that says a race (i.e. Whites) or sex (i.e. men) is inherently racist or oppressive, or that individuals bear responsibility for actions committed in the past.

The law is being applied. In one case, Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District Superintendent Robin Ryan announced in a letter to parents on August 31 that Heritage High School Principal James Whitfield was placed on paid administrative leave following claims that he was teaching critical race theory.

Behind such actions lie the perceived and real feelings of students. A 2019 survey of representative college students carried out by Heterodox Academy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization committed to improving research and education in colleges and universities, asked 1,580 students how they felt in the classroom giving their opinions on politics, race, religion, sexuality, gender and noncontroversial topics. It found that 58.5 per cent of students were somewhat or very reluctant to give their views on at least one of the five controversial topics. White students were especially reluctant to give their views on matters related to race.

It is hard not to draw a parallel with pressure on teachers to avoid topics that could make minority students feel bad. The conservative media love to draw to public attention cases such as that of Peter Boghossian, a philosophy professor who resigned under pressure from Portland State University because, as he put it,

“Faculty and administrators have abdicated the university’s truth-seeking mission and instead drive intolerance of divergent beliefs and opinions. This has created a culture of offense where students are now afraid to speak openly and honestly (and made) intellectual exploration impossible … The more I spoke out about these issues, the more retaliation I faced.”

Universities are supposed to be places where free expression is sheltered, but the pressure to be politically correct is apparently widespread. A main theme of a recent popular Netflix series, The Chair, was cancel culture at an Ivy League college. No one to my knowledge claimed that it unfairly reflected campus attitudes.

In the end, it comes down to whose feelings need to be protected. While cases differ in their specifics, underlying all of them is the need to shelter the vulnerable from uncomfortable facts or controversial statements. The ultimate victim is rational argument, the appeal to reason rather than feelings when it comes to what should be taught.

My concern here is not with the merits of CRT or cancel culture, but rather its effect when it is brought into the political arena. Some voters interviewed during the recent election campaign in Virginia, notably suburban white women whose votes were key to Democrats’ improved performance in purple states carried by Joe Biden, said that they felt national conversations about race and equity were divisive and often cast all White people in a negative light. Others were concerned that their children would come home from school believing that their parents are racist.

We do not know how much these fears contributed to the election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as Governor of Virginia over Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Part of it was simple dissatisfaction with the status quo which, in a pure two-party system, can be expressed only by voting for the opponent. Biden will face exactly the same situation in 2024. Instead of having to defend Trump or their (lack of) policies, Republicans will run against cancel culture as they did in Virginia.

There has long been a tendency, mainly on the American right, to censor “dangerous” ideas. We have see it on the left, in campus protests against controversial speakers. But the protests were not based on what the speakers had to say being hurtful. Now, apparently, both sides want to protect people from hurtful truths.

Except that, at the end of the day, it is not the right that will pay the political price.

Image: Justin Trudeau, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Several elections took place this fall. The least interesting was in Canada, where virtually nothing changed. In their articles, Reg Whitaker and Patrick Webber unearth what little change did take place. In Mad Max and the Election in Which Everyone Lost, Reg examines the significance of the increased support for Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada, which was nevertheless not enough to win the PPC any seats in the House of Commons. And in The East is (Still Mostly) Red, Patrick looks at how the election unfolded in what he describes as Canada’s least unchanged region – the Atlantic provinces.

Meanwhile, we present reports from four countries where recent elections and leadership transitions may be ushering in real political change. The most significant took place in Germany where, with the departure of Angela Merkel, her Christian Democrats lost to the Social Democrats (SPD), who had been almost comatose after the previous election. Reporting on the campaign in An Unexpected Change in Germany, Philipp Harfst notes that early in 2019 the environment had emerged in polls as the most significant issue identified by respondents. This concern was manifested in German participation estimated at 300,000 in the March student strike against global warming. Then, overshadowed by the pandemic for two years, the environment again became the major concern in August 2021, just in time for the election campaign.

In the campaign, as Philipp describes it, not only the Greens but also Olaf Scholz’s SPD campaigned on climate issues, both calling for a historic economic transformation to rapidly attain climate neutrality. As this is being written, negotiations are taking place on forming a “traffic light coalition” among the SPD (red), the Free Democrats (yellow) and the Greens, which would allow Germany to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement.

In Norway, a new government was sworn in in October. Labour’s Jonas Gahr Støre, who replaced Conservative Erna Solberg, has been moving the country in a green direction. However, as John Erik Fossum explains in Norway’s Shift to the Left, he is held back by his coalition partner, the Centre Party (SP), based in the country’s large periphery, which increased its number of seats from 19 to 28 in September’s election. Labour failed to draw into the coalition the Socialist Left Party, whose campaign stressed the need for a green transition as well as measures to reduce socioeconomic inequality. While Labour and SP signed a governing platform declaration which includes a general commitment to cut emissions and promises a just climate policy, it also speaks of developing and not dismantling the petroleum sector.

John Erik concludes that we will have to see what Labour will be able to accomplish in power, since it is caught in a squeeze, seeking to reconcile left-right and centre-periphery concerns.

There was also an election in Japan, which, as expected, left the Liberal Democratic Party in power. Indeed, in what is close to a one-party system, it is what goes on within the LDP that really matters. What was unexpected, as noted by Mark Crawford in Political Change, Japanese Style, was a leadership change. Former Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who took over from Shinzo Abe in September 2020, unexpectedly resigned as the election drew near. Mark sees the choice of the new leader, “establishment” candidate Fumio Kishida, as laying bare the country’s generational and ideological fault lines. Unlike in 2020, party factions did not band together. Opposing Kishida was the “popular maverick” Taro Kono as well as Abe’s choice, Sanae Takaichi. Though Takaichi was by far the most conservative of the four candidates, according to Mark her election as Japan’s first female prime minister would have improved Japan’s image as a laggard in the area of gender equality – only 9 per cent of those elected to the lower house in 2017 were female.

Turning to Sweden, a parallel transition is taking place in the ruling Social Democratic Party (SAP). No longer a dominant party like the LDP, the SAP did manage to regain and hold onto power over the last seven years under Stefan Löfven, supported by a thin and precarious parliamentary majority. Sweden won’t be going to the polls until September 2022, but the leadership change should be seen, according to Nick Aylott in Sweden Has a New Leader, But What Does She Stand For, as setting the stage for a hard-fought election in a very divided country with a strong populist party.

The SAP is now led by Magdalena Andersson, who, if confirmed by Parliament as expected, will be the first woman to lead Sweden. Andersson, who as Sweden’s finance minister acquired a reputation as a tough custodian of the nation’s accounts, was supported by Löfven, a classic caretaker who offered stability while undertaking no serious policy initiatives. She was chosen, as is the tradition in the SAP, by a committee which consulted the party’s branches, parliamentarians and affiliated trade unions.

Nick concludes that she was chosen because of who she is and what she has done, not because of her ideas about the future. But he leaves open the question of whether she might revive her party’s interest in policy, assuming she is in power next fall.

Henry Milner’s review of Michael Ignatieff, Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2013) and Tom Flanagan, Persona Non Grata: The Death of Free Speech in the Internet Age (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2014) appeared in Inroads 36 (Winter/Spring 2015).

In my review of books by Michael Ignatieff (PhD history, Harvard) and Tom Flanagan (PhD political science, Duke), I described them as “intellectuals who entered the Canadian political arena, paid the price, and lived to tell the tale.” I sympathized with Ignatieff’s admission that politics took someone tougher and more experienced than he was and that he was clearly unprepared for its underside. Ignatieff acknowledged that the enterprise had been doomed from the outset: as he put it, his campaign as Liberal leader ended up preaching to the converted. He naively took the warm reception from people he addressed to mean that his message was being heard. In fact, the people he needed to reach had stopped listening long before.

I was more critical of Flanagan’s book, not persuaded that his political role should not have affected how he was treated by the media once he returned to academia. I am more impressed by a thoughtful article I recently came upon in which he insightfully addresses the role of academics in politics. Writing in the University of Calgary’s Academic Matters in 2009, he notes that intellectuals who enter politics have an especially hard time accepting that they cannot control the results of their actions:

Fire and Ashes

Some academics may also have political ability and may choose to enter politics; but if they succeed there, it will not be because of, and may in fact be in spite of, their academic achievements. I had to learn all these lessons through practical experience in my own involvement in politics … If you want to control the results of what you do, you can go paint a picture, compose music, or write a poem … You can make permanent contributions to intellectual life. You can prove a mathematical theorem, or discover a new species in the jungle, or edit the papers of a famous poet. The value of your work will remain, even if others build on it.

I put it somewhat differently in my review: “Both Ignatieff and Flanagan are public intellectuals.” The term intellectual “assume(s) a willingness to – indeed an insistence on — uncovering and disseminating the truth however unpopular it might be.” But partisan politics is quite the opposite. Because of this, intellectual politicians like Flanagan, Ignatieff and Ignatieff’s predecessor Stéphane Dion have to deny the calling of their profession in hewing to a partisan line. This, I suggested, made them appear inauthentic and, thus, less effective.

Can we generalize from these cases? What do we know about the backgrounds of those who succeeded and failed at winning and carrying out the job of head of government in Canada and other modern democracies? If our criterion for considering someone an intellectual is being employed in an institution of higher education before entering politics, a quick glance tells us that there have been relatively few such cases overall. While one might expect that putting our knowledge into practice would naturally appeal to those of us trained in the social, political and administrative sciences, that turns out not to be the case.

Of course there are exceptions, but they are hard to find. One exception in Canada brings us back to the 1960s: Lester Pearson had a master’s degree in history and taught at the University of Toronto in the 1920s before entering the civil service and, later, the political arena. At the provincial level, Stuart Smith went from professor of medicine to an unsuccessful career as Ontario Liberal leader. In the United States, we need to go back a century to Woodrow Wilson, a political science professor and president of Princeton University before going into politics. Beyond North America, I found an exception in Helen Clark, who lectured in political science before entering New Zealand politics and becoming Prime Minister (1999–2008).

A European exception, one who qualifies as an intellectual, is the current Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Draghi, who has a PhD in economics from Princeton and had been an effective head of the European Central Bank. In office for less than a year, from all reports he is doing well by Italian standards. Draghi, in power in a country in which party politicians are so discredited and divided that they have no choice but to make way for nonpartisan technocrats, is the exception that proves the rule.

I have not looked at the background of European politicians in any systematic way, but my sense is that Stefan Löfven, who is stepping down as Swedish Social Democratic leader and Prime Minister, is representative of successful democratic politicians under increasingly adverse circumstances. A union negotiator and in no sense an intellectual, Löfven has recently been praised on all sides as someone who managed for almost a decade to effectively steer a very divided country, in which an anti-immigrant populist party has almost 20 per cent support.

The most successful politician in recent years has been German Chancellor Angela Merkel who, though based at an institution of higher learning, has never been accused of being an intellectual. Before entering politics she worked at the physical chemistry faculty of the national Academy of Sciences, a gloomy concrete box on the southeastern outskirts of Berlin surrounded by barbed wire, where she spent her days punching calculations for the decomposition of hydrocarbons into a 20-year-old windup computer from Hewlett-Packard.

In Britain, the most successful recent leader was Tony Blair, who studied law and immediately entered politics. His successor was more of an intellectual: Gordon Brown lectured in politics at Glasgow College of Technology and tutored for the Open University before joining Scottish Television. Elected to Parliament in 1983, he became Prime Minister when Blair resigned in 2007. Brown’s tenure was short-lived, ending when he lost to David Cameron in the 2010 election.

Readers will note that I have left out two high-profile exceptions: Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and father of the current Prime Minister, and former U.S. President Barack Obama. They qualify as intellectuals, but they differ from the others discussed here in that their training was in law – both taught constitutional law before entering politics. This brings them closer to the group most overrepresented among successful politicians: lawyers like Jean Chrétien and Jean Charest.

Persona Non Grata

So why are academic politicians rare and unsuccessful as compared to lawyer politicians? Going in and out of practising law facilitates getting into electoral politics, but then leaves of absence from educational institutions are not hard to come by. The fact that lawyers benefit more from the notoriety of public life explains why there are so many lawyer politicians, but not why they are more successful. What does?

The answer, as I suggested above, lies in authenticity. Lawyers’ profession and training makes them well suited to be politicians; not so for academics. Lawyers naturally and convincingly argue one side of a case, and are capable – when they get a different client – of arguing the other side equally well. No one asks: do they really believe this?

It’s not that intellectuals who become politicians are more honest in their new role than are former lawyers. Eschewing the calling of their former profession, intellectual politicians have no choice but to hew to a partisan line. My point is that they are not as good at this as are lawyers. To simplify, when they enter the political arena lawyers are applying their professional training and experience; intellectuals are doing the opposite. This inauthenticity is what makes them less credible.

Here I want to draw on my own personal experience as – as I term it in the title of my recently published political memoir – Participant Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia.¹ Three chapters tell the story of what I learned from my unique vantage point close to leading Quebec politicians for more than a decade. Two others set out how I later applied the lessons of that experience to a close observation of Swedish and Scandinavian politics.

Like Tom Flanagan, I never sought elected office; unlike him, I never crossed the line to take a paid top executive position in a political party. But I was deeply involved in the Parti Québécois, and I learned much from my Quebec experience about why lawyers make successful politicians and intellectuals do not. Among those I came to know were two natural Quebec politicians, René Lévesque and Lucien Bouchard, and two intellectuals who proved to be relatively unsuccessful politicians (at least as party leaders), Jacques Parizeau and Claude Ryan.

Ryan’s failure as leader of the Quebec Liberal Party compared to the relative success of two lawyer politicians who led the same party, Robert Bourassa and Jean Charest, is suggestive. But I would like to focus on the comparison between Lucien Bouchard and Jacques Parizeau. Bouchard succeeded Parizeau as Premier of Quebec in 1996. Parizeau had served one year and 125 days when he resigned. Bouchard served five years and 38 days before he resigned in 2001.

I was able to observe Parizeau closely when he was an effective minister of finance in Lévesque’s PQ government.² Parizeau was acclaimed as party leader in 1988, replacing Pierre Marc Johnson, who had lost the 1985 election. Johnson had favoured constitutional compromise, like Lévesque, while Parizeau was identified with the “pur et dur” wing of the party. Parizeau improved the PQ’s showing only marginally in 1989, but five years later won a majority of seats. He then lived up to his promise to hold a referendum on Quebec sovereignty early in his term, despite support for sovereignty being at around 40 per cent in the polls.

It soon became clear to the Yes forces that Parizeau was a liability, and Parizeau allowed himself to be replaced as key spokesman by Lucien Bouchard, leader of the Bloc Québécois, who took a much softer line and proved to be very effective. The vote was very close as the Yes side lost by only 55,000 votes, and Parizeau ended his political career that night when he blamed money and the ethnic vote for the defeat. The Yes might have won had Parizeau not told a group of foreign diplomats, as reported by Chantal Hébert in La Presse, that the guarantee of an offer of partnership with the rest of Canada following a Yes vote meant little since Quebecers would be trapped like “lobsters in a pot,” unable to escape the consequences of a vote for independence once it was cast.

After Parizeau resigned, Bouchard took over as leader of the Parti Québécois and became Premier. Bouchard led the PQ into the 1998 provincial election, defeating the new Liberal leader, Jean Charest. But disillusioned with his experience, he chose not to run again, instead returning to practising law as a partner at a prestigious Montreal firm. He was replaced in 2001 by Bernard Landry, another unsuccessful economist politician, who was defeated by Jean Charest’s Liberals two years later.

Of course times are different now, and other factors are involved. But it’s worth noting that current Premier François Legault, who came to politics from business, in facing the pandemic has been able to persuade Quebecers that he placed their interests above his own partisan ones. This is something economists Parizeau and Landry could not do, not because they were necessarily more partisan but because, as intellectuals, they sounded more insincere when associating the positions of their party with the public good.

In ending I want to insist that my claim is a modest one. Other factors beyond authenticity contribute to determining a politician’s fate. Timing and context matter. For example, I worked closely with Pierre Marc Johnson, in every way a natural politician. And while he brought the Parti Québécois back into contention when he succeeded René Lévesque, the party was so divided and discredited by then that he ended up resigning, opening the door to his rival Parizeau after losing the 1985 election.

Finally, as a rule, authenticity is depleted by the exercise of power. Coming from well behind, the new Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau, led his party to a majority of seats in the 2015 election. But he could not do the same in 2019, or again this past September.

Continue reading “Why Intellectuals Make Bad Politicians”

Photo: Colin Lloyd via Unsplash. Edited by Inroads Journal.

When I took first-year political science, back in the 1960s, I learned early on that unlike Canada’s parliamentary system, the American presidential system has no motions of nonconfidence that can force a premature election. So American legislators could, and did, vote their consciences – or more often, their district’s interests – rather than with their party.

As a result, while elsewhere political parties diverged along ideological lines, the United States was exceptional in that its two parties hewed to the centre, with liberal Democrats constrained by the party’s Dixiecrat wing, and conservative Republicans by their party’s moderate Rockefeller-Lindsay-Romney wing.

The south began to change in the 1970s as the Dixiecrats gradually shifted to the Republican Party, replacing that party’s moderates. The heirs of this transformation were Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party and, most recently, the Trumpites. So with the GOP moving to the far right, the United States became exceptional for its polarization instead of for its lack of polarization – in Congress and, increasingly, in the electorate. Ironically, this was happening as the longstanding European democracies were becoming less polarized, with the left shifting toward the centre in response to the disintegration of the Communist bloc.

Today polarization is the American norm, even on matters where it should have no place. Its most dramatic current manifestation is in responses to the pandemic, as displayed in figure 1.

It is in this context that we have seen a resurgence of populism, both as a political phenomenon and as an object of analysis. In its call for papers for its September 2019 meeting, the American Political Science Association noted,

No recent political development has been more striking than the rise to power of populist movements around the globe, whose main unifying trait is their claim to champion “the people” against entrenched selfish “elites.” They include anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, ardently nationalist parties such as Fidesz in Hungary; the Law and Justice Party in Poland; and the Trump Republicans in the United States.

Populists are typically united not by what they are for but by what, or whom, they are against. A study by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell and Mark Littler, based on 10,667 survey responses targeting the Facebook fans of 13 populist parties in Europe in 2011, found that only 20 per cent trusted their national government, only 14 per cent trusted the EU and only 30 per cent trusted the justice system.1

Such distrust means that efforts by mainstream politicians and opinion leaders to challenge populist leaders’ false claims have little effect. Indeed, more often than not, their supporters double down, seeing the attack as proof of the elite’s treachery. Trump’s reversal of Republican orthodoxy in all sorts of areas, from trade to international alliances to the FBI, did not shake his supporters. If Trump is brought to justice, it will likely only confirm the Trumpite view that he was targeted because he dared take on the enemy within.

There is no shortage of American surveys getting at this polarization, on specific issues or on partisans’ view of the outgroup. Thus, when Pew asked Americans about the economy in its April survey of views of Biden’s presidency as it neared the 100-day mark, 74 per cent of Democratic voters said the economy was stronger and only 5 per cent said it was weaker, while 76 per cent of Republicans said the economy was weaker and only 7 per cent said it was stronger. As far as intensity of feeling is concerned, figure 2 shows that 41 per cent of Democrats and 58 per cent of Republican regard supporters of the other party as the enemy.

Interestingly, I could find no similar surveys for other longstanding democracies. Apparently, it is not a question anyone thinks worth asking. In addition, doing so would be more complicated since it would entail incorporating the views of supporters of third parties, which are effectively nonexistent in the United States.

This brings us to another exceptional feature of the American political system. Only in the United States is access to the national legislature and executive limited to two parties – not by law but by the workings of the country’s political institutions. Developments in the United States show that a consequence of a polarized and pure two-party system is that parties are not punished for moving toward the extreme because their more moderate supporters have nowhere else to go except to the “enemy.”

Yet another exceptional feature of the U.S. system exacerbates this extremism. Elsewhere, candidates are chosen by party insiders, with the result that relatively moderate, electable candidates with a reputation for competence can get nominated. The primary system in the United States means that, to get nominated, Republican candidates compete for the support of uncompromising right-wing populists, who constitute a third of the electorate as a whole but a majority of Republican voters.

In contrast to the Republicans, conservative European parties in longstanding democracies have to take a critical distance from the radical populist parties with which they compete for votes and seats. If the British Tories, for example, choose to move toward the extreme right, they know they will lose votes – most likely not to Labour but to the centrist Liberal Democrats. There is no such safety valve in the United States. So, unlike their American cousins, European conservatives generally take a more responsible position on controversial issues like immigration and global warming, and could never support, let alone initiate, efforts to limit access to the ballot box.

On the Democratic side, President Biden has brought in policies reflecting the views of the 60 per cent of Democrats ready to work with their opponents. In doing this, he has sometimes risked offending allies, in particular the teachers’ unions in the public schools, where it is estimated that some three million students have dropped out or failed to engage in remote learning at all (while parents with the resources to do so hire tutors, set up their own education pods and enroll their kids in private schools that have remained open).

The Democrats’ Precarious Position

Given the inequities built into congressional representation, the Democrats realize that they cannot count on traditional Democratic voters alone to remain in control after the midterms in 2022. They are betting on the stimulus bringing on a manufacturing boom, which will allow them to contrast their policies with the GOP’s traditional opposition to public spending.

For their part, the Republicans will play the populist card, attempting to link these programs in the public mind with unpatriotic elites and undeserving minorities while focusing on “cultural” issues – expanding gun rights and restricting LGBTQ and abortion rights. The battle will be for the hearts and minds of blue-collar Latinos drawn to conservative messages on culture and race.

The numbers remain quite stable. Gallup polling for the first three months of 2021 shows a consistent 49 per cent of the public identifying as Democrats or Democratic-leaners, while 40 per cent call themselves Republicans or say they lean toward the GOP. So far, even as GOP voters take the COVID-19 spending package and stimulus money, there is no real sign that these voters are ready to cross over to the enemy.

The Democrats’ 9 per cent lead in voter identification is less impressive than it looks. Biden averaged a similar 9 per cent lead over Trump in the polls for much of the fall of 2020, but in the election his margin was only 5 per cent, which was barely enough to give him a win in the Electoral College. And overall, the Republicans did much better than expected at the state and local level.

Given that midterms traditionally favour the party out of power, the Democrats are by no means guaranteed to hold onto the House. It is unclear who will benefit from the low turnout in midterms. Historically it has favoured Republicans, but now that they are the party of the less educated, who are less likely to turn out, this may no longer be the case. The Senate seems again to be a tossup, especially since in a few purple states with GOP seats opening up as a result of retirements, Trump-endorsed Republican nominees emerging from the primaries may prove too extreme.

And let us not forget that Republican state parties are still claiming that Trump won in 2020 and removing officials who were unwilling to go along. They will be tempted to seize on bogus voter fraud claims and refuse to certify Democratic victories in 2022. And who knows what mischief they will be up to in certifying Electoral College votes in 2024?

The Republican attack will combine fears of inflation and out-of-control deficits with anger at wasted spending of tax money on handouts to undeserving others at home and abroad. Moreover, despite Biden’s efforts to avoid such labels, they will benefit from a backlash to strident demands within the Democratic Party to target systemic racism. The Republican media – Fox News and its competitors further right – are able to target “cancel culture” and “wokeism” effectively since it plays to their base without alienating others. In the 2020 American National Elections Studies’ pre-election survey, 53 per cent agreed that the movement to encourage people to change the way they talked had gone too far and that people were too easily offended.

The Democrats’ poor showing in state legislative races in 2020 gives Republican-controlled legislatures free rein to gerrymander House seats under the new census in many states. The GOP is set to fully control redistricting for about two fifths of all House seats, while Democrats will only do so for one tenth (the remaining seats are in states with divided governments or where redistricting is done by a commission system). Moreover, reapportionment of seats between the states will give GOP-controlled state legislatures new congressional seats to play with, including two in Texas and one in Florida, with the losses coming primarily from blue states including California, Illinois and New York. The result could well be a Republican House after 2022, leading up to the showdown over the presidency in 2024.

Inoculation and Counterinoculation

So, good policies cannot be counted on to suffice. To reduce the chances of a Trumpite return in 2024, energies must be directed at grassroots mobilization via concrete changes, and away from verbal proclamations and denunciations that boost the ratings of Tucker Carlson and other right-wing commentators.

An immediate priority is instituting the interstate compact, which goes into effect among participating states only after these states represent half the Electoral College votes. Under the compact, the participating states award all their electoral votes to the candidate with the largest national popular vote. (The Constitution vests state legislatures with the exclusive power to choose how to allocate their electors. Maine and Nebraska currently award one electoral vote to the winner in each congressional district and their remaining two electoral college votes to the statewide winner.) The Republican establishment will oppose this, but an effective campaign could conceivably win over a sufficient number of red states so that in 2024 the president will effectively be elected through the popular vote. Currently, National Popular Vote legislation has been enacted by states representing 196 electoral votes. If states with an additional 74 electoral votes sign on, it will take effect.

This initiative could be a step toward removing obstacles at the state level to third-party candidates running for Congress. Even though every comparable country has more than two parties and many people are dissatisfied with the parties in the United States, this will be an uphill struggle. American history teaches us that it is far easier to block institutional reform than to carry it out. It might be more realistic to set the target for 2028 and, as in 2020, to rely on more traditional efforts at mobilization, directing energies at the cultural underpinnings of Trumpite populism.

The January 6 insurrectionists were radicalized on the internet and ended up entering the dark world, turning their backs on friends and neighbours. According to the Washington Post,

Of the 193 charged, 89 percent have no apparent affiliation with any known militant organization … Two-thirds are 35 or older, and 40 percent are business owners or hold white-collar jobs … They work as CEOs, shop owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants; only 9 percent are unemployed … Of those arrested for their role in the Capitol riot, more than half came from counties that Biden won.

They got there by being “inoculated.” As one former Trumpite put it, you have internalized the lesson that “as a young straight white Christian man, you are dismissed as evil, an oppressor, an inheritor of white supremacy and colonialism and imperialism – even though you never colonized anybody or been a racist … (so that) when someone … uses any of the other language that they’ve now inoculated you against, you won’t even listen to that person.”

Addressing this requires counterinoculation. In a 2019 study by Kurt Braddock, online panel members were told that they might encounter a message from a “political extremist group” and that messages from this group had been used to “recruit thousands of people to its cause – people just like you.” Those who had been so counterinoculated were substantially more likely to argue against the manifesto and to distrust the extremists behind it. The researchers are working on an online tool to scan social networks for disinformation campaigns and allow for selective counterinoculation.

Such counterinoculation would also need to be a goal of a media literacy curriculum in schools, as well as coordinated grassroots “kitchen gatherings.” At the core of this strategy would be the involvement of individuals who had experienced and overcome the inoculation, as well as family and former close friends of those still inoculated.

Such grassroots efforts will be limited in scale. But we need to remember that only a small number of well-targeted votes could determine whether Trumpism will again be able to inflict its poison.

For more on the current political climate of the American right, check out Weimar in Washington by Reg Whitaker.

Continue reading “Good Policies Are Not Enough”

Photo: Todd-Trapani/Unsplash. Edited by Inroads.

I early on developed an acute interest in American politics, which led me to spend 1968–69 living in Washington, D.C., in a commune linked to a New Left think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies. It was an intense year. There were antiwar protests and rallies, teach-ins and many meetings. I was brought into contact with student and antiwar movement leaders, several of whom stayed with us when in D.C. A young Washington Post journalist, Carl Bernstein – later of Watergate fame – found us interesting enough for a long positive article.

My experience in the movement, seeing how much courage and commitment it took to challenge the powers-that-be from inside “the belly of the beast,” made me especially sympathetic to the American left. Over the years, I increasingly came to see the darker side of the United States: a people too easily susceptible to purveyors of “fake news.”

Sadly, I have lost touch with almost all of my confrères and consœurs from those heady days. One exception is Derek Shearer, who was much involved in local politics in “the People’s Republic of Santa Monica,” California, and who invited me to visit Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he taught. Our acquaintance was renewed when I was based in Stockholm, researching Nordic social democracy, and he was President Clinton’s Ambassador to Finland.

Conversations with Derek – such as a recent one about the characterization of Tom Hayden, with whom he had worked in Santa Monica, in Aaron Sorkin’s Trial of the Chicago 7 – continue to provide insight into American politics. Derek will bring us up to date with his reflections on current developments in an article in the Summer/Fall 2021 issue of Inroads.

Here he focuses on the racial dimension of American life, going back to his earliest experiences. I was acutely aware of this dimension when I lived in Washington. Just going ten blocks east from our comfortable setting in the city’s northwest, one entered an entirely different world. But I came to know it essentially as an outside observer. Not so for Derek, who begins this insightful article as follows: “Growing up in the United States after World War II, one could not escape the effects of systemic racism – no matter how liberal and well-intentioned a White person might be.”

Click to read Growing Up White by Derek Shearer.

Electorates are fickle. They punish politicians who make tough decisions, and when change is in the air they reward inexperienced parties that have no track record. In the recent Quebec election, this is what happened both on the centre-right (Liberals vs Coalition Avenir Québec) and the centre-left (Parti Québécois vs Québec Solidaire). On the centre-left, a key moment came when PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, who was the most articulate participant in the debates, attacked QS spokesperson Manon Massé for her party’s unrealistic program. This attack on a party assumed to be nowhere near power seemed unfair and, in combination with Massé’s exceeding the (low) expectations in her debate performance, resulted in QS taking enough votes to give the PQ fewer seats than in any election since 1973.

On the centre-right, the CAQ was expected to win, but no polling firms anticipated a CAQ majority. It turned out that, with sovereignty off the table, francophones who were tired of the Liberals had an alternative in the CAQ, while many non-francophones stayed home rather than, as before, voting Liberal to stop the separatists. This even though the CAQ, which was largely absent in English-speaking Quebec, was frequently mischaracterized in the English media as antiminority because of its secularist position on religious symbols worn by public servants in authority.

In his article, Eric Montigny suggests that the implications could be long-lasting and the October 1 vote could prove to be what political scientists term a realignment election, with new forces emerging and old ones fading. This will surely be the case if the CAQ respects the commitment it made, together with the PQ and QS, to bring in an electoral system based on the mixed-compensatory Scottish model.

Click to read A Realignment Election? by Eric Montigny.

The election analysis is accompanied in this section by two important discussions by highly informed observers of major issues facing Quebec and beyond. Ruth Rose follows up her article in the Summer/Fall 2018 issue, setting out the advantages and disadvantages of the “basic income for individuals with severe employment limitations program” adopted unanimously by the Quebec National Assembly this past May, comparing it to recent such legislation in Ontario and elsewhere. And Geoffrey Kelley, who was Quebec minister responsible for Indigenous affairs in the Liberal government defeated in October, lays out the challenges facing the new government in its relations with the First Nations of Quebec and the Inuit of Nunavik.

Click to read Guaranteed minimum incomes: Are they the answer to poverty? by Ruth Rose and Indigenous Policy in Quebec by Geoffrey Kelly.

— Henry Milner

 

Photo: Red Square, Moscow. By Vicente Villamón, via Flickr.

Gordon Corera, Russians Among Us: Sleeper Cells, Ghost Stories and the Hunt for Putin’s Spies. New York: William Morrow, 2020. 444 pages.

This book tells the story of a ring of deep-cover Russian agents in North America – the sleeper cells, or illegals – uncovered by the FBI and expelled in 2011. It is the story of young Russians selected and rigorously trained to take up lives as middle-class Americans (and Canadians) – but it is also far more. Indeed, it offers real insight into the man who runs Russia. To understand Vladimir Putin and Russia’s meddling in elections in the United States and elsewhere, one needs to begin at the time the Soviet Union was teetering, and Putin was a KGB agent based in East Germany. Gordon Corera, the BBC’s security editor, who has reported on intelligence agencies for two decades, suggests that the United States and United Kingdom have failed for too long to appreciate that Putin’s understanding of the world has been that of an intelligence officer in a polarized world. Hence, to understand Putin and his associates, you must understand the KGB and its domestic successor agency, the FSB.

Going back to the 1990s, Corera recounts how the new leadership of the KGB appointed by Boris Yeltsin apparently decided to end its sophisticated surveillance of Westerners in what had been the Soviet Bloc. In response MI6, Britain’s international spy organization, stopped monitoring the London branch of the SVR, the former “First Directorate” of Russian foreign intelligence. This, he argues, was shortsighted. Beneath the changes, the Soviet intelligence infrastructure remained, to be reinstituted by Putin who

believed in the cult of the spy and understood its power among the public. The new leader breathed life into his own decaying spy services, turbocharging them with more resources and a renewed sense of purpose. Just as he would build a cult of personality around himself, so he built one around his spies. They would once again become heroes and the source of pride – and that particularly applied to illegals.

At the core of the book is the story, based on interviews and other first-hand information, of the 11 illegals. It begins with their recruitment and the efforts invested in preparing them for their task. Especially interesting to readers of Inroads is the detailed narrative, evidently based on long discussions with the author, of Andrez Bezrukov, born in 1960, and Elena Vavilova, born in 1962, a couple who had met as students at Tomsk State University where they were recruited. They were given their new identities as Donald Heathfield and Ann Foley (the names of two deceased Canadians) and were trained for four years before arriving in Canada in 1987, working first in Montreal and then moving to Toronto three years later.

The plan was to send them to the United States at the appropriate time. In the meantime, two sons were born, and from Toronto they watched mystified as the old Soviet Union was replaced by the new Russia. But despite a period of some uncertainty, there was no question of ending their mission. In 1999 they moved to Massachusetts where Donald had been accepted into Harvard’s Kennedy School, considered a ticket into a world of leaders in business and government. He soon took a position in high tech business in Cambridge, all the while carrying out his basic function, that of a “talent spotter” identifying possible recruits who would spy for Russia. In fact, we find out, almost from the start their true identity was known to the CIA, but Heathfield and Foley were not arrested. Instead the FBI placed them under surveillance. It was only in 2011 that they were two of the exposed Russian spies traded for four jailed Russians who had spied for the West in the famous swap on the tarmac of Vienna airport.

This swap came at the culmination of almost a decade of observation of the illegals by the FBI. We learn of this in Corero’s recounting of the role of Alexander Poteyev, one of 60 spies in New York based at the UN. During the Yeltsin period, the FBI recruited Poteyev as a counterspy. After returning to Moscow, Poteyev joined the senior ranks of “Directorate S,” the secret unit inside the KGB which ran the operation, in 2000. He was thus in a position to learn the identities of the illegals, and it was he who exposed Heathfield and Foley along with the others. Poteyev’s appointment thus turned out to be “a godsend.” Now the United States “had its window into the illegals program.” It was only a decade later, when Poteyev realized that the FSB was closing in on him, that the window was closed and the spies exchanged.

Corera describes how what to do with the illegals was placed before President Obama and his top aides. They had only a brief window once Poteyev was pulled out of Russia before Putin would realize that the illegals had been exposed. In the meeting the heads of the FBI and CIA, supported notably by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sought to immediately arrest the spies and expel the diplomats who had facilitated their efforts. They did not believe that the new Russian President, Dimitri Medvedev, about to arrive in the United States to sign a new START nuclear treaty, was any different from then Prime Minister Putin. But Obama, Vice President Biden and key advisers disagreed. The resolution was that the spies would be quietly arrested but, rather than tried, they would be swapped. The arrests took place on June 27, 2011, just after Medvedev left. To be swapped, the illegals were required to first plead guilty before a New York court, which they did 10 days later. Putin, Corera reports, was furious and “drew a lesson he would not forget. Medvedev had been played. Russia had been humiliated.”

According to Corera, the Obama Administration treated the whole incident as a throwback initiated because of “some old-fashioned Russian spying, and it was time to put the whole thing behind them.” From his description of this decision and what came afterward, it is clear that he sympathizes with the dismay expressed by the American intelligence officers. Misjudging Putin, he concludes, would have consequences.

At the time of the swap, Heathfield and Foley’s two sons were on what they thought would only be a short visit to a foreign country, Russia, apparently still unaware that this was the native land of their parents. Knowing no one and not understanding the language, they found it hard to become Russians (Alex, born four years after Timothy, chose to go to court to try to regain his Canadian status, and in 2018, at age 23, he succeeded).

It was not hard, however, for their parents to go back to being Russians. Donald Heathfield, now again Andrez Bezrukov, was soon hired as assistant to the president of the energy giant Rosneft and as a lecturer at the Moscow Institute of International Relations. When asked by students what his previous life was like, he told them to watch The Americans, the television series about an illegal family like theirs. Corera quotes from an interview with Elena Vavilova: “The producers captured well the atmosphere of the eighties … the illegals’ human side with believable emotions and problems,” though the violence, she believed, was added “to keep the attention of viewers.” Andrez and Elena did not regret their decision, except that “nobody asked my kids whether they wanted to live like that. Or the consequences of being the sons of spies.”

In the swap on the tarmac of Vienna airport, among the four exchanged Russians who had spied for the West and been caught and jailed in Russia was military intelligence (GRU) officer Sergei Skripal, who had been recruited when operating out of the Russian mission in Madrid. Years later, in 2018, Skripal and his daughter Yulia, then living peacefully in Salisbury in the U.K., were poisoned by GRU agents. These well-known events are recounted in a later chapter and needn’t be retold here, but it is useful to cite Corera’s answer to the question he poses – “why was Skripal targeted?” – since it goes well beyond this particular case.

It was about sending a message … to those within Russia … Your former colleagues would come looking for you … even after close to a decade, when you thought you were living a quiet life, they would hunt you down and try to kill you and not care about hurting those you loved as they did it.

Corera suggests that Skripal was targeted in part because the British were seen as weak. That weakness was revealed in an earlier, similar case recounted here, that of Alexander Litvinenko, who had been recruited by MI6 and poisoned in 2006 by radioactive material Russian agents had placed in his tea, “leaving tiny particles scattered across London … The British state did its best for years to block an inquiry, an inquiry that was launched only years later and whose chair, Robert Owen, reported 10 years after the murder that it had been carried out by the FSB and probably approved by President Putin.” Another case in point is that of the attempted murder of exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky: the British state turned his assassin over to be deported to Russia where he (was) disappeared.

Corera stresses that to understand Putin’s attitude, one needs to understand his basic conviction, strengthened by certain events like the revelations of Edward Snowden, that Russia is a fortress besieged by the West, and everything is legitimate in fighting back: “Because the West was trying to undermine his grip, he believed it had become … vital to keep the West off-balance and divide it.”

He is especially critical of the attitudes of his compatriots. At the time of the swap, in 2011, British Prime Minister David Cameron was visiting Russia to drum up business and invite Putin to come to the U.K. the following year. And still today, Corera notes bitterly, wealthy Russians continue to buy British soccer teams and mansions in Knightsbridge and Belgravia. They pay handsomely for the services of London professionals and their companies are listed on the London stock exchange. They open art galleries in Mayfair, attracting the attentions of diplomats and celebrities and all sorts of interesting people for spies among them to report on. Huge mansions “lie dark and dormant. No one is living there. In these places, but also in its heart, London has become a ghost town.”

The last chapter of Russians Among Us tells of cyberspies who replace and complement flesh-and-blood ones, building up “a massive machinery of disinformation.” The new illegals pretending to be U.S. grassroots activists need not physically exist; they can be “ghosts” controlled by someone at a computer in Moscow, like the spy who penetrated the Democratic National Committee computer system during the 2016 election campaign. The objective was to undermine the credibility of the DNC process that chose Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, and all was set to do so with the election results should Clinton have won. In March 2016, Clinton campaign chair John Podesta was contacted, supposedly by Google, to change his password, inadvertently giving GRU hackers access to 50,000 emails. By late August more than 100 real Americans had been contacted by fake U.S. persons to organize rallies.

But some traditions continue. I end with excerpts from Corera’s two closing paragraphs:

On the evening of June 28, 2017, Putin went to Yasenevo for a special gala to celebrate ninety-five years of illegals. Standing at a podium in the main auditorium, he paid tribute to Directorate S as a “legendary unit” and gave a roll call of its heroes … who had displayed valor and courage while fulfilling special missions in life-threatening circumstances … “They were needed more than ever.” Putin ended with a call to arms for those in front of him and for “the agents who are now serving abroad”. “I wish you good health, good luck, and new victories for the greater good of Russia.”

Make no mistake, somewhere – living in suburbia, picking up their children from parties, smiling at the neighbours as they water the hydrangeas – illegals are still out there. “We don’t consider ourselves heroes,” Elena Vavilova said looking back, nearly a decade after she had been swapped in Vienna. “We just honestly did our duty.” Her husband also plays down his role. “I am an average undercover agent. Hopefully not the worst, definitely not the very best. You have never heard about the best ones. And never will.”

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

In late October, when I wrote the first draft of this editorial, the polls showed Joe Biden leading Donald Trump by 10 per cent. In that draft, I asked whether this result could lead the Republican Party to eschew Trumpism and return to an earlier, more consensual form of politics if invited to do so by the new President. I concluded that the Democrats could not expect this and should instead make reforming political institutions their priority.

The goal would be to undo the damage caused by the unabashed gerrymandering the Republicans had been doing. Since the 1980s, when the time came for the decennial reapportionment of districts based on population shifts revealed in the census, Republican state legislatures have been especially eager to carve out boundaries to favour their candidates. Typically, central city district boundaries were drawn to include the largest possible number of Democratic (often largely minority) voters and place the rest of the urban population in districts extending into the Republican hinterland, resulting in a false “red” majority in the House of Representatives as well as state legislatures. And with each state, large or small, having two senators, no gerrymandering is needed to ensure that small deindustrializing states are massively overrepresented in the Senate (as well as, to a lesser extent, in the Electoral College), their “red” voters persuaded that immigrants and minorities responsible for their plight run the Democratic Party.

In light of the election results, some rethinking is required. The Biden-Harris ticket’s popular vote margin was four percentage points – much lower than the eight-point margin the final polls predicted, primarily because of especially high turnout among Republicans. Thus Trump was defeated, but Trumpism was not marginalized, and Republicans did significantly better than expected at the congressional and state levels. My guess is that the main explanation for this lies in the GOP door-to-door and mass-rally “stop socialism” campaign, a level of campaigning the Democrats responsibly eschewed because of the pandemic.

What matters most of all, of course is that Trump, to the relief of the civilized world, is on his way out. For all his huffing and puffing, he cannot reverse his defeat in the courts, though most of his supporters will continue to believe his unfounded assertions that the election was stolen. Such an erosion of confidence in the legitimacy of the election process is dangerous in a democracy, at the core of which is losers accepting the results of an election.

Overall, despite concerns, the election went smoothly: American democratic institutions proved resilient. Joe Biden will be inaugurated as President, of a deeply divided country, in January. Still uncertain, as I write this, is what Trump will do in his remaining weeks in office. Once his groundless challenges are rejected, he will lose congressional support if he continues to obstruct the transition. His priority at that point will be to seek pardons and other unsavory deals to keep out of jail and stave off bankruptcy.

From the perspective of those of us focused on the United States from abroad, what matters is that in the most powerful country in the world, corrupt ideologues are giving way to competent professionals taking charge of U.S. foreign and environmental policy. Had Trump been reelected, the few remaining civil servants who could rein him in would have been replaced by ignorant hacks. As Ron Susskind wrote in the New York Times on October 30,

That guy you saw in the debate … bullying, ridiculing, manic, boasting, fabricating, relentlessly interrupting and talking over his opponent. That’s really him … He was all but un-briefable. He couldn’t seem to take in complex information about policy choices … in Oval Office meetings …. He’d switch subjects, go on crazy tangents, abuse and humiliate people, cut them off midsentence … In the middle of a briefing, turn away and … phone … Fox television hosts like Sean Hannity or Lou Dobbs … would instantly become the key voice in the debate … Senior officials … during briefings … would ask Trump friends, members of Congress, assorted notables — to call Mr. Trump not letting on who had put them up to it.

Out of office, will he remain in the political spotlight? Trump’s deciding to be a poor loser, going on TV to mouth outrageous lies about the voting process, weakened him before the court of public opinion and among the inner circles of the Republican Party, if not among the Trumpites. Had he accepted defeat gracefully, he would have been left in a stronger position to shape the future of his party and face his creditors as well as prosecutors, judges and juries. Whatever happens, he will be spending the rest of his life bemoaning how all this could have been avoided if others (not him, ever) had not made the mistakes that lost him the shield of the presidency, including (completely without foundation) conspiring to delay annoucement of the discovery of a vaccine against COVID-19.

But he and his admirers will be around to keep Republicans from acting responsibly. Given the unexpectedly close election results, there will be no second-guessing about their defeat or public repudiation of Trump. Instead they will focus on winning the 2022 midterms. In the interval, they will have to decide to what extent they will try to undermine Biden the way they undermined Obama under Mitch McConnell’s leadership. Much will depend on the outcome of the two Senate runoffs in Georgia, a state unexpectedly, but very narrowly, won by Biden. To have a chance of winning both, rather than fighting on local issues, the Democrats will effectively have to ask voters not to let McConnell once again thwart the agenda of the President they elected.

If that strategy proves successful, and as Trump gradually becomes further discredited with each revelation about his financial shenanigans and criminal activity, a door to some across-the-aisle congressional cooperation could open. Could, say, Susan Collins, who won her Senate seat in Maine while Biden won the state by an even greater margin, threaten to jump ship? I do not rule out such a scenario, but overall I remain pessimistic. Republicans know that, under American institutions, continued polarization assures their return to power down the road.

Among Democrats, soul-searching over the disappointing result is inevitable, but hopefully will not degenerate into a futile blame game between moderates and progressives. The incoming Biden Administration will have its hands full undoing the Trumpian damage at home and abroad, playing a constructive role in addressing climate change, migration, and antidemocratic developments around the world. Biden must be given the space to seek bipartisan support for such efforts, even if they lead nowhere.

So what should the forces mobilized by the Democratic Party against Trump do now? The immediate task is to win the Senate – if not in the Georgia runoffs then in the 2022 midterms. Priority should be placed on efforts to get enough states to inhibit gerrymandering and establish nonpartisan redistricting commissions. More states should adopt the rule that their Electoral College votes will go to the winner of the national popular vote. A second priority is to reduce the impact of money in politics by capping campaign contributions and spending, and by requiring campaigns to publicly disclose the amounts as well the identity of the people or entities that finance political advertising.

Should there be sufficient support for such efforts, the Democrats’ campaign should seek a mandate in 2024 for more sweeping institutional changes that would make it harder for a Trumpian minority to return to power. Such changes would give Republicans an incentive to turn their focus away from angry voters in small red states toward more moderate suburban voters in purple states.

Part of this process would entail making it possible for more candidates from third parties to get elected by eliminating the obstacles to their even getting on the ballot. As it stands, an outsider entering U.S. electoral politics, confronted by such obstacles, effectively has no choice but to enter the primary of a major party, usually the dominant one in the district. The pure two-party system is thus reinforced. This was less of a problem when there was room in the parties for a wide spectrum of views, but now, especially with a Republican Party that demands ideological purity and loyalty to the chief, it is pernicious. If these obstacles were removed, it would make it possible for Never Trump Republicans to win traditionally Republican suburban districts.

Unless and until the American party system becomes more open, the danger will persist. The content of populist demagogy in the United States is like that in old democracies elsewhere, but only in the United States has it come to dominate a major mainstream political party capable of winning a (false) majority. Until the institutions that facilitate this are changed, the way will remain open for an equally dangerous demagogue – one with fewer personality flaws than Trump – to usher in the next populist wave.