An introduction by Henry Milner

A comparative advantage of Inroads is our network of experts with links to Canada based in many countries where important developments are taking place. This network has allowed us to provide ongoing coverage of the emergence of populism and the resulting erosion of the left-right division that has characterized modern democratic politics. Populist leaders rally the people against outsiders. Traditional parties adapt to the new identity politics or fall by the wayside.

Thus, in December 2017, Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the populist Freedom Party, became Vice-Chancellor of Austria as his party entered a coalition with the conservative People’s Party led by Sebastian Kurz, the new Chancellor. And in the nearby German state of Bavaria, the once-mighty Social Democrats, the party of Willy Brandt and Gerhard Schröder, won a dismal 9 per cent in an October 2018 election. Each of the five European countries addressed in this section manifests this development in a different way.

One is Italy, which still manages to surprise us. In the context of a continuing stagnant economy and huge debt load, Italy is now ruled by an unlikely coalition of the populist left and the populist right, which in March 2018 replaced the centre-left government of Matteo Renzi. As Giorgio Malet puts it, Renzi’s economic and political reforms – specifically the 2014 labour market reform passed despite large-scale mobilization of the unions and the constitutional reform rejected in a referendum – “gave false hope to international observers even as they alienated Italian voters.” The new government is composed of the Five Star Movement (FSM) led by Luigi Di Maio and the now nationalist League (formerly Northern League) led by Matteo Salvini.

The politicization of the migration issue has so far benefited the League, which as of this writing leads in polls, its success pushing FSM supporters to oppose open immigration. Russian interference in Italian politics, in the form of stoking anti-EU views, has furthered this process. As Giorgio notes, in preparing its budget for the coming year, this coalition of two parties with irreconcilable fiscal policies will be tempted to engage in a symbolic fight with a common enemy, the European Commission, over the deficit spending cap. The only thing that may hold them back is a fear that investors might not continue to further finance Italy’s massive public debt. Failure to resolve this dilemma, he concludes, could test “the very stability of European institutions.”

Click to read What’s The Matter With Italy? by Giorgio Malet.

While instability in Italy is perhaps only to be expected, Sweden is the country where traditional class politics has been most stable. The September 2018 election was consistent with recent Swedish elections in that it produced a virtual tie between the centre-right and centre-left alliances. But almost 18 per cent voted for the Swedish Democrats (SD), who finished third. SD is a populist-nationalist party whose main message is opposition to immigration. The very difficult process of forming a government is boiling down to one question: with or without SD? While all the parties have promised not to depend on support from SD, the Conservatives and Christian Democrats have said they are willing to meet and talk with the Swedish Democrats, though what that means remains unclear at this moment. Richard Murray and Olof Kleberg report that whether to include or exclude SD has become a matter of public debate, transcending partisan strategies, with pundits and political scientists arguing that the appropriate democratic response to the election outcome is a centre-right government supported by SD.

Unlike in 2014 when the two alliances arrived at an informal working arrangements, Richard and Olof agree that there is little chance a government could survive without at least passive SD support. But they add that what that government would be is not self-evident. An analysis of SD positions in parliamentary votes shows that SD has overall lined up more frequently with the Redgreen alliance on the left, although less so more recently. Once issues regarding immigrants and refugees are excluded, SD positions tend to be more favourable to maintaining welfare-state programs than those of the centre-right alliance. Moreover, the Social Democrats have been moving closer to the SD position on immigration. However, since most SD voters when surveyed identify with the right, SD leaders now state a preference for a government led by the Conservatives. Two of the Conservatives’ alliance partners, the Liberals and Centre, have closed the door on cooperation with SD, leaving matters at an impasse. So as we go to press, two months after the election, there is still no new Swedish government.

Click to read Sweden is Still Waiting for a New Government by Richard Murray and Olof Kleberg.

As we move farther east, we go from populist parties threatening stability to their winning power and instituting “illiberal democracy.” In this context the traditional left-right distinction becomes effectively meaningless. In Hungary, as Zsuzsanna Magyar reports, Victor Orbán has managed to keep his base – which he organized after losing the 2002 election – mobilized. At first, in the rallies of “us versus them,” the “them” were the Hungarian ruling elite with their neoliberal economic and liberal social goals. As Orbán consolidated his base, winning every election since 2010 and in the process changing the electoral system to favour his Fidesz party, the “them” evolved and George Soros became a particular target. In the April 2018 election, with Orbán’s campaign warning that electing the opposition meant uncontrolled immigration, Fidesz won 47 per cent of the popular vote and two thirds of the seats.

Most recently, in September, the European Parliament accepted the Sargentini report, initiating the process in the Lisbon Treaty that could lead to Hungary’s losing its voting rights in the European Council. The report voiced concerns over 12 issues ranging from corruption to the limitation of academic freedoms, curtailing media freedoms and civil rights. Orbán responded that the accusations are false, meant to punish the Hungarian people for defying the EU on immigration. Most visible in the nationwide campaign which he initiated, Zsuzsanna reports, were billboards whose message soon changed from “Stop Brussels” to “Stop Soros,” with a picture of the Hungarian-born American billionaire.

Click to read Hungary’s Viktor Orbán: Populist Message, Machine Methods by Zsuzsanna Magyar.

A parallel process has taken place in Turkey. The parliamentary and presidential elections of June 2018 returned Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as head of state, with the powers of a much-strengthened executive presidency, and with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) allied with the ultranationalist MHP to form a parliamentary majority. As reported by Semih Çakır, support for the Erdoğan government has grown since it first came into power in 2002. The AKP created a partisan base by resorting to increasingly polarizing rhetoric: in a society largely divided between secularists and conservatives, Erdoğan portrayed the secularists as seeking to undermine governments elected by the will of the people. Following the failed coup attempt in July 2016, the government declared a state of emergency and, even though all opposition parties condemned the coup attempt, repeatedly labelled the secularists as coup supporters. This set the stage for Erdoğan to bring constitutional change in the April 2017 referendum.

In the constitutional referendum, Erdoğan persuaded a majority of voters that the failed coup attempt showed that since democracy could still be undermined by the military, it had to be protected by a more powerful executive presidency. The opposition was still reeling from its defeat when Erdoğan called the early election in June 2018, despite Turkey’s still being under the state of emergency, with many journalists still in jail on terrorism-related grounds and the last remaining independent media company having been sold to an AKP loyalist. Under these conditions, Semih concludes, it was far from a fair election, and left the fractured opposition in no position to face Erdoğan’s coalition in local elections to be held in March 2019.

Click to read Turkey’s Election: A Step Toward Electoral Authoritarianism by Semih Çakır.

Finally, we turn to the U.K. where, exceptionally, the party system is stable. Voters break down almost equally between Labour and the Conservatives. Nevertheless, the identity, insider-outsider, dimension is very much present: it manifests itself over Brexit, with the divisions over Europe more within than between the major parties. As Eric Shaw reports, the Conservatives are divided between support for Prime Minister Theresa May’s “Chequers deal” with the EU and the “Canada plus” approach – named after the Canada-EU free trade deal. Complicating the issue is May’s unpopularity, with several senior ministers snapping at her heels. Labour too is divided, but its divisions over the EU no longer coincide with Labour’s left-right cleavage. Most members of the party’s centre-right are pro-EU, often favouring a second referendum, but many are not, either because they are Eurosceptics or because they fear tarnishing Labour’s appeal to working-class Brexit voters in their constituencies.

Eric, who has followed Labour closely for many years, focuses on the party’s left. The Corbynistas, who now control the leadership, are instinctively anti-EU, their views essentially unchanged from the 1970s. Corbyn, his key lieutenant, shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonell, and his highly influential adviser Seamus Milne have long labelled the EU a “capitalist club” that will constrain Labour’s ability to pursue radical policies. Yet, Eric notes, less visible are the views of many younger Corbynistas who dispute this and, like most Labour-affiliated trade unions, worry that Corbyn ignores the wider economic consequences of Brexit.

Click to read Aftershocks of the Brexit Eruption by Eric Shaw.

Trumpism today and tomorrow

Inroads has explored the emergence of populist politicians and movements in a number of European countries (this issue is no exception). They constitute a development we should not underestimate. Yet nowhere is there a populist constitiuency in a longstanding Western democracy as big and isolated from the mainstream as the Trumpites among our neighbours to the south.

This is the third consecutive issue of Inroads in which I offer commentary on American politics, a reflection of my obsession with Trumpism. This time I write in the weeks leading up to the midterm elections (see box). These comments set the stage for a report from Frances Boylston, recounting her impressions when visiting the United States at the end of September.

What we could see from afar in the late summer was that, while Donald Trump was alienating opinion leaders at home and abroad, he seemed to be consolidating his position among Republicans. This meant that Republicans in Congress had either to swallow the Trump line, retire voluntarily or be pushed out by Trump loyalists in primaries.

Conservative intellectuals were in a somewhat similar position. Many never warmed to Trump, and even many of those initially willing to give him a chance have abandoned him. For them, in contrast to Republican politicians, expressing critical views of Trump did not, as a rule, mean putting their careers on the line. What is remarkable is that expressing such views seemed to have little or no effect on those who – they assumed – read, watch and listen to them in forming their opinions.

I have made a habit of watching the CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN Sunday talk shows. Each of these shows allocates about half its time to panels of commentators which, traditionally, are balanced in their composition between conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. As the Trump era proceeded, they increasingly had to abandon this format. The only defenders of Trump they could find, apparently, worked for him in the White House. It has become effectively impossible to find someone with intellectual credibility willing and able to defend Trump and his congressional enablers.

What about Fox News? While I do not know of any respected pro-Trump conservative intellectual who appears on Fox as a commentator, Fox is known for having pro-Trump hosts. Does that mean that the Trumpites have simply been following Fox’s lead? I doubt it; more likely, the relationship is the reverse, comparable to that of Republicans in Congress to the Trumpites. In avoiding criticizing Trump, Fox is playing to its audience, just as Republican legislators are playing to their base.

I suspect that if Fox News actually began to provide something close to fact-based reporting and commentary, the effect would not be to change the views of the Trumpites. Rather, Fox would lose viewers. They would discard Fox just as they have discarded Trump’s conservative critics and the few Republican politicians willing to criticize Trump.

Still, something is happening. On the generic congressional ballot, the Democrats’ advantage, which averaged 7 per cent through 2018, seemed to stabilize at around 9 per cent after Labour Day. More importantly, the proportion of voters identifying as Republican is going down, while the proportion of those calling themselves independents is up significantly. And independents are increasingly likely to say that this time they will vote Democratic. In sum, while Republicans still identify with Trump, there are fewer of them. Republican legislators seeking reelection cannot but be aware of this. But they have no choice: they have to stay on Trump`s slowly sinking ship, given that the only alternative is jumping into the ocean.

Whatever the results of the midterms, the long-term concerns remain: in a gerrymandered two-party system where votes in small – usually red – states count for more, an open invitation remains for demagogues to seek to mobilize Trumpite support not only to take over the Republican Party, but to take power in Washington as well.

— Henry Milner
October 31, 2018

Polarization with the edges blurred

I have just returned from a family visit to Georgia. I was last there two years ago about this time, in the period leading up to the 2016 presidential election.

In 2016, Georgia was an overtly polarized and vocally partisan place. In the election that year 45 per cent voted for Clinton, 50 per cent for Trump. Yard signs proclaiming Make America Great Again and advertising Trump rallies were not uncommon. Clinton signs and bumper stickers were less prominent but still visible. Trump signs were nonexistent in predominantly African American neighbourhoods, but even there Clinton signs were not too common. Was this a reflection of passivity or, as some suggested, of a fear of retribution?

Polarization was everywhere. It seemed that even ostensibly nonpolitical community groups were split along partisan lines. Library boards, churches, small business groups, neighbourhood action groups and the like were dominated by “likeminded” individuals: casual praise of one candidate and insults aimed at his or her opponent were the norm, while those with a contrary view feared being ostracized and were effectively silenced.

This time I travelled through much of the state, though I did not spend any time in Atlanta, an increasingly diverse metropolitan area where the African American community is numerically and politically significant and where the pro-Trump forces have never held sway. In visiting small-town and suburban Georgia this September, I found that polarization is still there. Only this time the edges are blurred by a public façade of apolitical interactions.

The main change is far less public admiration for Trump. Indeed, it is not uncommon for people to express discomfort with his language and insults toward people and especially toward women. Still, when I pressed them, they were not ready to say that they could shift to the Democratic Party. This is a result partly of support for certain policies (anti–gun control, anti-abortion, crackdown on immigration, etc.), but even more of negative partisanship – their loyalty is still tinged with dislike for Clinton and Obama.

A not uncommon expression was, “He is a terrible embarrassment but imagine how terribly corrupt Clinton would have been.” Surprisingly, tax cuts were not seen as something to win them over to Trump. As one Walmart employee put it, “All sorts of talk about tax cuts, but I don’t see anything in my pay cheque. It is still a struggle to pay the bills. Nothing changes for the good.”

Overall there was a real reluctance among the small-town, white Americans I met to talk about Trump. While I didn’t pose questions about local issues there was more interest in the Georgia gubernatorial race, where there were two candidates with dramatically different positions. Republican Brian Kemp promised to sign tough anti-abortion legislation while Stacey Abrams (Georgia’s first African American woman candidate) supported the right to choose. Kemp is a strong proponent of gun rights, while Abrams vowed not to accept any financial support from the NRA. Kemp talked about rounding up “criminal illegals” and “taking them home,” while Abrams favoured “immigrant justice” and support for refugees.

But even with such dramatically opposing views, there seemed to be less polarization around the gubernatorial campaign than I expected. This even though Kemp received Trump’s endorsement and his TV commercials were straight out of the Trump playbook – claiming, among other charges, that Abrams supported pedophiles taking pictures of “your child without your permission.” Yet campaign signs that dot the front yards only had Kemp’s name on a blue background; no “Make America Great Again” slogans or references to Trump. Similarly, Abrams had the same low-key name-only signs. Notably absent also were bumper stickers, which in the 2016 campaign were omnipresent. It is as if people wanted to keep their views close to the chest and avoid engaging with others.

Unlike in 2016, attitudes in the small towns where I stayed seemed to display cross-partisanship – or more accurately nonpartisanship. Even during the widely viewed Kavanaugh/Ford committee hearings, discussions at the local diners and coffee shops seemed to avoid the topic, in favour of safe subjects like gardening, dogs, hunting and shopping. It seemed clear that people were avoiding anything that might alienate others. As a result, there was very little exchange of views or understanding of the views of others – and thus no bridge over the partisan divide.

The polls for governor indicated that the race was very close, with much depending on turnout, which supposedly favoured the Democrats, who have been mobilized to use their vote to oppose Trump. Some claimed that the Kavanaugh saga mobilized Republicans, but his confirmation should further mobilize Democratic voters, especially among the young.

— Frances Boylston

The day after

The results of the election proved to be pretty much what was expected. Turnout for a midterm, at almost 50 per cent, was remarkably high. The House went to the Democrats who won 231 (and still counting at press time) of the 435 seats, while the Republicans strengthened their position in the Senate. Very impressive mobilization efforts to bring voters who never vote in mid-terms to the polls fell just short, notably by Beto O’Rourke against Senator Ted Cruz in Texas and in Georgia where Brian Kemp squeaked through as Governor over Stacey Abrams. But as Carol Anderson of Emory University wrote the next day on The Atlantic website,

“If the Georgia race had taken place in another country – say, the Republic of Georgia – U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy, if for no other reason than Kemp’s dual roles as candidate and election overseer. Of course, there were other reasons. As of this morning, he led by about 75,000 votes; more than 85,000 registrations were canceled through August 1 of this year alone.”

The effect of such efforts to keep minority voters off the lists, as well as blatant gerrymandering of House districts, counters Democrats’ success at getting women to vote (and run and get elected) in the suburbs of big cities. Moreover, Republicans’ domination of rural white America gives them a big advantage in the Senate and, less so, in the Electoral College. 2020 is no sure thing.

Steven Spielberg (producer and director), The Post. United States, 2017

The Post depicts how in 1971 the Washington Post obtained, and chose to publish, a series of articles based on the Pentagon Papers. A couple of years earlier I had lived in Washington, and my own experience links up with the story told in The Post. More than a film review, this is a personal recollection and reflection on that story.

The Pentagon Papers were secret studies ordered by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara that exposed in great detail how the reality of American involvement in Vietnam was very different from the official story. Daniel Ellsberg, a strategic analyst at the RAND Corporation and the Department of Defense, had worked on the preparation of the studies in 1967. Once it all came together, it became clear to him that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable, and he decided that the American public needed to know the truth. A first exposé was published in articles by Neil Sheehan in the New York Times, but the Nixon administration managed to get a court order to force the Times to suspend publication.

The Post begins with the cloak-and-dagger efforts of Ellsberg and his collaborators to get the story out, primarily to the Post. It then goes, in gripping detail, into what happened at the newspaper when the Pentagon Papers landed on its doorstep. The focus is on the efforts of managing editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, to overcome technical and human obstacles to getting the story out.

Meryl Streep in The Post

At the heart of the movie is the dilemma the Pentagon Papers {posed for Post publisher Kay Graham, played by Meryl Streep. Graham had not long before stepped into the shoes of her dead husband Phil and faced intense pressure from her board, itself under pressure from the Nixon administration, not to publish the Papers. The film, and especially Streep’s strong performance, highlight the reality of a woman with little experience having to face men used to exercising power and treating women as less than equal. Moreover, her decision to go ahead was especially courageous since there was fear not only of political repercussions but also, as we learn in the film, that the public share offering then in process, and with it the company’s survival, would potentially be put at risk by publication of the Papers.

The Post is not a masterpiece: Sarah Paulson, as Bradlee’s wife, Tony, seems out of place in the film. Still, in typical Spielberg fashion, this historical drama is not boring even for a moment. In this, it stands in contrast with other 2017 Oscar-nominated films like The Florida Project and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri in which very little happens. Hanks is convincing, but the role is not as demanding as that of lawyer-negotiator James Donovan which he played in Bridge of Spies, perhaps Spielberg’s best historical drama. Since the writers do not go out of their way to help the viewer place the events in context, the fact that I was around when the events actually took place certainly makes it easier to follow this rather fast-moving story. I imagine that this makes me more appreciative of the film and its underlying message than might be the case with younger viewers.

At the end of the film, we are shown the scene on June 30, 1971, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the government had failed to prove harm to national security, and that therefore publication of the Pentagon Papers was protected under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press. Then, in a sort of postscript, there is a brief scene depicting the Watergate break-in that took place a year later in Washington. Missing, however, is what happened afterward to Daniel Ellsberg: he too ultimately managed to avoid the prison sentence that he and everyone else as depicted in the film assumes awaited him when a court in 1973 dismissed all charges because of governmental misconduct and illegal evidence-gathering.

Two specific connections link the events recounted on the screen to my own experience. In 1968 and 1969, as Ellsberg was coming to sympathize with the antiwar movement, I was in Washington, the place the movement called the “belly of the beast.” I had applied to, and been accepted by, the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank that had just adopted a policy of inviting younger movement activists to bring a practical dimension to the too-cerebral efforts of the institute’s fellows. We junior fellows, I was told, could manage on our $50-a-week stipend only by sharing expenses in a commune. So in September 1968 I moved into the commune situated in a rather plush former embassy on 22nd Street, near the vice president’s residence. One could hardly live much closer to the centre of the belly.

In part because of our IPS connection, we were regarded as a leading voice in the local branch of the movement, which we a bit pompously named the Washington Free Community. While I felt fully accepted by my communal colleagues and several remained friends for many years, I never forgot that my being Canadian made me different, since I could not be drafted and sent to Vietnam. One of my confrères worked cleaning hospitals as alternative service; another made it back alive after serving in Vietnam; a sometime resident had been jailed as a draft dodger.

We read the Washington Post every day. It was then, as noted in the movie, effectively a local paper, nowhere in the league of the New York Times. Late that fall a young Post journalist, Carl Bernstein, came to interview us at the 22nd Street commune. His editor – I assume it was Ben Bradlee – found his treatment interesting enough for a long, sympathetic article. Bernstein was at the time too low-level to make it into the group of journalists at the Post whom we meet in the film as they pull together the sprawling pieces of the Pentagon Papers to produce an epic series of front-page stories. But his status changed soon afterward, when he and colleague Bob Woodward became the heroes of Watergate – and of the classic 1976 film All the President’s Men, in which Robert Redford played Woodward and Dustin Hoffman played Bernstein.

The IPS was another link to The Post, or at least to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers. The IPS had been founded in 1963 by Mark Raskin and Dick Barnet, intellectuals from the Kennedy administration, as a think tank where the best and the brightest could speak truth to power. In 1968 A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, written by Raskin and IPS Fellow Arthur Waskow, helped launch the draft resistance movement. Among the resident fellows I got to meet was Gar Alperovitz,1 who recently came to public attention in a feature story by Eric Lichtblau in the New Yorker entitled The Untold Story of the Pentagon Papers Co-Conspirators. It tells of:

“about a dozen clandestine encounters with journalists that Alperovitz orchestrated over the course of a three-week period, when he and a small group of fellow antiwar activists helped Daniel Ellsberg … elude an F.B.I. manhunt and distribute the Pentagon Papers … (Their) identities have stayed secret for forty-six years, despite the intense interest of the Nixon Administration, thousands of articles, books, documentaries, plays, and now a major film.”2

So I am admittedly biased when I suggest that you see the film if you haven’t done so already. Even if recent American political history is not your cup of tea, The Post will help you better appreciate the efforts today of journalists, nowhere more than at the Washington Post, to expose the lies of the current administration. Perhaps the film’s Oscar nomination was in part a reflection of the academy’s admiration of the Post’s efforts to expose the lies of the U.S. administration in 2017 as much as in 1971.

Continue reading “Speaking Truth to Power”

In a notorious January tweet, Donald Trump told us,

I went from VERY successful businessman, to top T.V. Star to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius … and a very stable genius at that!

In this article I offer a better explanation of his success. I put the question rather differently: looking at postwar leaders in comparable Western “old” democracies, only in America does a person so manifestly unfit manage to attain the highest executive office. Why, and why now? In so doing, I seek to answer a question that Americans, who seldom view their country in comparative perspective, don’t ask, while outside observers of the United States simply throw up their hands in incredulity.

In comparing Trump’s success to the unsuccessful efforts of populists in other “old” Western democracies, I am following up what I wrote in the Winter/Spring issue of Inroads about the Trumpites, the more than a third of Americans (constituting roughly 40 per cent of likely voters and 84 per cent of Republicans)1 who support Trump thick or thin. The Trumpites are not Trump’s creation, I noted, but rather a subculture in American politics that he (and Steve Bannon)2 brought to the surface. They constitute the American version of the populists who have emerged as important political forces in a number of European countries.3 Figure 1 shows the proportion of Americans with positive and negative views of Trump. As we can see, the proportion with positive views began to drop after the election, only to stabilize six months later.

In the past few years, the question of whether European liberal democracies will succumb to populism has been answered in the negative. Where they have arisen, populist leaders in the “old” democracies of western Europe, North America and Oceania have, as a rule, been relegated back to the margins of politics. Where they have entered government, as in Austria, they do so as junior partners.4 It is only in countries where democracy is fragile that populists like Viktor Orbán, Jarosław Kaczyński and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have come to power.

And then there is the United States. Long a model consensual old democracy, the United States is now the exception. Riding on a populist wave, a demagogue has ascended to the summit of the “shining city on the hill.” Note that I am not claiming that Trump himself is a populist5 (or a conservative or, indeed, anything else). To give him any kind of ideological label – even “racist” – would be to bestow upon him a consistency and political sophistication he lacks. The only isms that apply to him are opportunism and narcissism, the latter often impeding his effectiveness in the former.

Looking back on the emergence of his candidacy, it becomes clear that without any clearly formed views or knowledge of the relevant issues, he came to realize, as he sought support for the GOP nomination, that there was a constituency for nativist, anti-immigration populism,6 and he made it his cause. And since his election he has thrown enough meat in that direction to keep the support of the Trumpites, his base, and thus indirectly to keep the Republican Party in his corner.

In the process, any remaining illusions about the man have been shattered. Almost daily reports from Washington highlight other examples of his unfitness for office, a portrait fleshed out in Michael Wolff’s best-selling book.7 Any hope that, realizing his ignorance, and with his ego having been salved by winning the most important job in the world and with his party in control of Congress, Trump would seek out, listen to and learn from knowledgeable people proved futile. Trump the President’s false assertions have, if anything, grown in frequency: two thousand in his first year in office, according to the Washington Post’s fact checkers.

As Wolff describes in agonizing detail, Trump assumes that he knows all that he needs to know, listens only to flatterers and impulsively reacts to the last thing he heard on an issue (on Fox News most frequently), oblivious to his previous statements, let alone the facts. But when his lies are exposed in the mainstream media, it simply reinforces the support of his base. As one Trump fan quoted on Meet the Press on February 4 put it, “When they attack Trump, they attack me.” Of those 40 per cent who approve of Trump, 63 per cent believe the media are “an enemy of the people.” Only 16 per cent of people outside that group believe the same thing.8

The Trumping of American political institutions

We hear so much about Trump that we think we know how it all came about. Innumerable journalistic reports provided an explanation combining Trump the celebrity candidate winning the attention of the media, Russian meddling, James Comey’s intervention regarding Clinton emails and weaknesses of the Clinton campaign, all combined with a rejection of politics-as-usual by poorly educated whites fearful of downward mobility. But these are immediate or proximate factors. They do not address the wider question: Given that other countries in the advanced democratic world face similar emerging concerns, why has populism not triumphed there as well?

The answer to this question has two dimensions. The first lies in well-known recent developments that have gone furthest in the United States. These include the rise in income inequality and class stratification, as portrayed in detail by Thomas Piketty and his colleagues. Related to this is a parallel decline in civic engagement, a development I link to diminishing civic literacy.9

These developments, as noted, are not unique to the United States, but they have progressed (sic) further there. The most important related development is the fragmentation of sources of information in the form of the cocooning Cass Sunstein continues to warn us of10 – of Americans living in echo chambers that filter out unwelcome political viewpoints. The stability of the Trumpite Third reflects the fact that while some conservative commentators have soured on Trump, their views typically do not find their way to Fox News, let alone Breitbart and the various right-wing and alt-right talk radio hosts and bloggers.

Economic inequality finds its way into politics through election spending amounts and limitations. There is now far more private money available for election spending in the United States, especially on television advertising, than there is elsewhere, or than there was in the United States before the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The Trumpites, who are less educated and live in less diverse communities, are especially susceptible to the exaggerated negative advertising invoking fears of opposing candidates that colours the various screens Americans watch during campaigns.

But this is only the most visible part of the American institutional iceberg as it has evolved, making it uniquely vulnerable to placing and maintaining an unfit person appealing to populist sentiments in the highest office in the land. The institutional explanation for the triumph of Trumpism takes the form of a series of layers, of which the influence of private money is the first. Some are well known in and of themselves, but it is how they interweave that constitutes the missing key dimension to our understanding.

When institutions are brought up in this context, we hear about the constitutional separation of power and federalism, under which the U.S. Congress, judiciary and state governments act as checks on the power of the chief executive. And, indeed, one shudders at the thought of Trump as chief executive of a unitary country with no separation of powers. But there is another side to this. Much of the separation of powers lies in conventions that have not really been tested under circumstances when one party controls the presidency, the Congress and the majority of the states, and names the majority of the top judges.

We can see this with a second institutional aspect that makes the United States exceptional and contributes to the success of Trumpism/populism. Given the distribution of supporters of the two parties into red states and blue states, the Republicans have a distinct advantage in presidential elections, since the electoral college system favours the smaller states. Even the least populous states are guaranteed three votes, giving them more weight than their population warrants (see figure 2). In close elections this can make the difference, allowing the candidate who has fewer votes (2.9 million fewer in the case of Trump) to nonetheless win.

Then there is the advantage Republicans have in Congress (see table 1). In the Senate, overrepresentation is due to there being two senators from each state, big or small. In the House of Representatives, where the number of voters in each district is the same, overrepresentation is achieved through gerrymandering.

Under American federalism, unlike elsewhere, House of Representatives district boundaries are set at the state level. In the last 25 years a concerted effort by Republicans has enabled GOP state legislators to consolidate their power in more conservative states by carving out state electoral boundaries in their favour, while doing the same with the districts of the representatives sent to Washington. In North Carolina, the electoral map (see figure 3), now before the courts, allowed Republicans to win 10 of the 13 congressional seats though the two parties were close to equal in the popular vote.

The combination of gerrymandering and access to money explains the extraordinary lack of turnover in Congress, where incumbents have more to fear from being defeated in their own party primaries than in elections. Primaries, also unique to the United States, contribute by inviting outsiders with resources to invest them inside the existing parties. Their main effect has been to strengthen polarization by favouring the chances of candidates appealing to ideologically based activists rather than, as is the case elsewhere, party stalwarts.

Less well known about primaries is that – combined with another unique institution, the states’ responsibility for setting the rules of eligibility for elections at all levels – they result in the rigid two-party system, also unique to the United States. This is because many states make it difficult to get on the ballot, so that it becomes prohibitively expensive in money and resources for a third party to mount a national campaign. Given the alternative of seeking nomination via primaries in one of the two parties, the choice becomes obvious.

These are the most visible layers of the institutional iceberg. Beneath them are the role of powerful lobbies with lots of cash and the presidential system itself. In the other old democracies, all of which, with the partial exception of France,11 are closer to British- or Canadian-style parliamentary democracies, there are far fewer obstacles to third party formation. Because of this, there is a real possibility of minority or coalition government, even in the relatively few countries that do not have proportional representation. Where there is proportional representation, under which ruling parties must make a win-win deal (not a Trumpian zero-sum one) with other parties, the chief executive will necessarily be a consensual leader.

Moreover, since nominations are limited to party members, aspiring leaders typically have first to climb party ranks and thus gain some political experience. It is hard to imagine a Trump in any other old democracy making it to the top of a party that could win an election, and unimaginable that he could stay in power. In a parliamentary system, unlike in the United States, the ceremonial head of state is separate from the executive head of government. Hence, as we have frequently seen, a party can replace its leader, even when he or she is the head of government, without causing the kind of national trauma that occurs with efforts to impeach a U.S. president.

Polarization and party discipline

Before the arrival of Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and the Tea Party, the American system normally operated on a relatively consensual basis: moderate Democrats and Republicans constituted a legislative majority able to work reasonably well with the president, effectively excluding the possibility that a Barry Goldwater on the right or a George McGovern on the left would get elected. Now, in the post-Communist era, while left and right in the other old democracies have moved closer to the centre, the opposite has been happening in the United States, especially on the right.

Figure 4 shows how the degree of polarization changed between 1994 and 2016. Using ten questions that have been posed continually since 1994, the Pew Research Center has traced the share of Americans with ideologically consistent (liberal or conservative) values and found that these have become more strongly associated with partisanship.12 As we can see, the proportion of Americans holding consistently conservative or liberal positions has increased significantly and the distance between the median position of Republicans on the reader’s right and Democrats on the left has widened considerably.

In the context of the pure two-party system, ideological polarization has in recent years been combined with another relatively new wrinkle: party discipline in congressional voting. This is surprising given what we were taught in political science 101: unlike in parliamentary systems, there is no question of loss of “confidence” in the United States, and the party in power can remain in office even if it loses the support of the majority in the legislature. However, legislative rules now make it difficult for the parties to cooperate, even if there is a possible majority for doing so, since all decisions can be initiated only by a majority of the majority party. Add this to the ideological polarization described above, and Congress today displays a rigid party discipline unknown in earlier days.

More Trumps down the road?

Despite all the advantages American political institutions currently give to the Republican Party and its presidential nominee, there is good reason to believe that the party will lose control in one or both houses of Congress this year, and that Trump will not continue beyond 2020. Indeed, given current attitudes, there is a reasonable chance that the next president will be more in the mould of Obama than Trump. One reason for this is that the millennials have far less confidence in Trump than all other age groups (see figure 5).

What lies further down the road? The millennials may see things differently as they age. And the Trumpites will not go away, and will not readily release their hold on the Republican Party. Hence there is good reason to expect that one day another unfit populist demagogue will ride America’s exceptional political institutions all the way to the summit of what was once democracy’s shining city on the hill.

Continue reading “Only In America”

Akos Verboczy, Rhapsody in Quebec: On the Path of an Immigrant Child.
Translated by Casey Roberts. Montreal: Baraka Books, 2017. 243 pages.

Nicolas Zorn, J’ai profité du système; des centres jeunesse à l’Université: Parcours d’un enfant du modèle québécois. Montreal: Éditions Somme toute, 2017. 240 pages.

These are two recent books written by French-speaking (I read the Verboczy book in a very good English translation that has just come out), sophisticated Montrealers. Neither is a great work of literature or social science but each, in its own way, contributes to our knowledge of an insufficiently known and discussed dimension of Quebec society, and serves to counter certain stereotypes. I know both authors slightly, having participated in events in which they were involved in recent years, including ones they helped organize.1

Both write from their own experience but generalize from it to contemporary Quebec. In the process they explode two widely held myths about Quebec. These might be stated as follows:

  • Anglophone immigrants are outsiders in the majority community, especially in nationalist circles. It is in the anglophone minority, reflecting a Canada that is open to them and to the diversity of their society, that they are most welcome.
  • The Quebec public sector is a drain on taxpayer money; the services it provides are inefficient and ineffective, and serve the interests of the providers more than those receiving the services.
The post–Bill 101 generation

Verboczy attacks the first myth on the basis of his experience. While he is of a very different generation, in certain ways his experience reflects my own. He was born in 1975 and came to Montreal at the age of 11 (I came at the age of four in 1951). We are both of eastern European (Hungarian and Polish) Jewish background (he is half Jewish, on his mother’s side), and grew up in the Côte-des-Neiges district on the other side (northwest) of Mount Royal from the city centre. Côte-des-Neiges, where I still live, is now even more of a multicultural bastion, with more than 100 languages spoken.

The most important difference between us is that he arrived with his mother after Bill 101 was enacted, so he entered the French-language school system despite his mother’s integrating into a largely English-speaking Neo-Québécois community. In contrast, as I was growing up in the 1950s, the school system and wider community relationships were such that it would never have occurred to my parents that any language other than English was to be my langue maternelle. (Indeed, before coming here they were unaware that French was spoken in their new home.)

Verboczy, like other Hungarians I have met, is a chauvinist when it comes to the culture of his nation of origin. He sees it as simply natural to take pride in one’s national culture and thus eminently reasonable for immigrants to be expected to open themselves to Quebec culture – as he has done, becoming a supporter of Quebec sovereignty. He has little sympathy for multiculturalism, which he sees as laced with political correctness. His experience has taught him, as he puts it, that if Quebecers will be Quebecers, everyone will benefit.

The first part of the book is about growing up as in immigrant and Quebecer in Quebec in the last decade of the 20th century. It makes for entertaining reading, without really exploring the political dimensions of the integration process. The second part is more political. It tells in particular of his stint working for Diane de Courcy, Minister of Immigration in Pauline Marois’s short-lived Parti Québécois government. And several of the incidents remind me of the time, when, as an Anglo supporter of the PQ, I tried to promote dialogue between anglophones and the Lévesque government.

He finds himself in the middle, trying to bring Quebec nationalists to a better understanding of the reality of the Neo-Québécois (sympathy goes only so far without understanding). At the same time, he has the harder job of trying to bring the Neo-Québécois to a better understanding of, if not sympathy with, Quebec nationalism. He argues from personal experience that the obstacle in the latter case is the leadership role that Anglo elites play in much of the Neo-Québécois community.

The second section is also composed of vignettes, based mainly on his experiences as political attaché to the PQ’s Minister of Immigration. In this section he is no longer concerned with his own integration, which he treats as a fait accompli. His experience, especially as chair of the Intercultural Committee of Montreal’s main school board where he was an elected commissioner for nine years, gave him an important vantage point from which to observe the process in which, he believes, his post–Bill 101 generation of Neo-Québécois has learned to integrate into the majority culture. In so doing, they have been transforming that culture, so that as he puts it in the last line of this readable book, we can “finally stop asking ‘where are you from,’ and instead ask ‘where are we heading.’”

Profiting from the system

Zorn’s story is a different one, though there is a Montreal multicultural reality here too, since his father was a unilingual American married to a French Canadian. He was born in 1984 in a middle-class family in Ville LaSalle, in the southwestern part of Montreal Island. His francophone identity was confirmed when he lost his father in a car accident at the age of eight. But the tragedy also led him to rebel against the society in which he found himself. This book tells the story of the stages of his life during the next decade as a juvenile delinquent, of how he was treated by – and ultimately “profited” from – “the system.” As the story continues, it evolves into a wider defence of the sometimes-maligned Quebec welfare state, especially the Directeur de la Protection de la Jeunesse (DPJ), the agency mandated to look after the welfare of young people in trouble.

The DPJ seldom gets the appreciation it deserves, he argues. Indeed, it is only when it fails that it gets public attention. And fail, on occasion, it must. (I know of a case where a complaint by the child of a coworker, which turned out to be false, made the life of the accused miserable for over a year and ultimately forced him to seek employment elsewhere.) Zorn’s book is a useful reminder that the DPJ’s insistence on placing the child’s welfare above all, which in his case amounted to a decade of efforts to bring him back into the community and mainstream educational institutions, can and does have beneficial effects. He helpfully assembles statistics on the various interventions (of more than 80,000 potential cases reported to it, the DPJ intervenes in 20,000-plus cases annually.) His main claim is that, more than elsewhere in North America, the process in Quebec focuses on the real needs of the child, investing sufficient resources to follow him or her (usually him) through the years.

The final section of his book goes on to argue that the overall effect of the Quebec welfare state has been positive, stressing the lower levels of inequality attained in Quebec compared to elsewhere in North America. This section is based on his work with the Institut du Nouveau Monde (INM), where he organized a Strategic Rendez-Vous on social inequalities, bringing together experts and activists seeking to identify the values ​​and priorities of citizens’ action on social inequalities, and propose solutions. Over a two-year period, the INM released a number of accessible publications, organized dozens of activities and consulted 5,000 citizens from all over Quebec. Zorn assembled the results, combining citizen attitudes and scientific knowledge on social inequalities in Quebec.

Zorn is now expanding his research in a PhD program at the Université de Montréal and will no doubt put it to good use for his community in the future.

Continue reading “Beyond Quebec stereotypes”

In the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Inroads, we took a wide-ranging look at populist movements in Europe. Except for Ronald Beiner’s investigation into the role of White House – now former – chief strategist Stephen Bannon and Gareth Morley’s analysis of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, we did not include the United States. Trump’s personality and the complex shifting allegiances in the White House, not to mention the U.S. constitutional division of power and rigid two-party system, make it hazardous to compare the place of populism in American politics with European movements.

However, developments since the issue came out in June make it clear that we cannot ignore the emergence of the particularly American brand of populism that Trump has aroused. Indeed, all the attention paid to Trump’s unique combination of bullying and lies leads to the mistaken impression that what are now commonly being called the Trumpites are his creation. One useful reminder from the Alabama Republican primary in September that rejected Trump’s “establishment” candidate in favour of the extremist Roy Moore is that the Trumpites are not Trump’s creation but rather a subculture in American politics that Trump brings to the surface.

The Trumpites constitute around a third of American voters, and more than three quarters of current Republican voters. Their support for Trump is little related to his policies, such as they are. Those who voted for him instrumentally because he promised them industrial jobs – especially in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that gave him the election – have drifted away. There are very few if indeed any Trump Democrats. Simply put, the Trumpites are not for anything; they are against: against people unlike themselves. They are practically all white, and the great majority have no college degree. Impervious to the relevant facts, they respond to a simple appeal: defeat those elitist un-American liberals who trample on everything patriotic because they want to turn the United States over to people not like themselves.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks describes it, there are two equally sized groups in the larger Republican constituency. Half are conservatives like himself, favouring openness to trade and diversity and small government. The other half are white racialists – their Republican Party is the white party. Trump draws in this latter group in coded and uncoded public statements: about fine people among white supremacists, the patriotic Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, those unpatriotic (black) professional football players, the biased Mexican judge, the ingrates in Puerto Rico …

In Europe, there is a comparable populist constiuency, but it is far smaller. In part this is a reflection of multiparty institutions. The populist vote, outside of this hard core, fluctuates depending on the issues of the day, since unlike the Trumpites, these potential populist voters are generally not excluded from the wider, mainstream political discussion. In European countries, moreover, with their more proportional electoral systems, in most cases mainstream parties cooperate to effectively exclude the populists from power.

The opposite is the case in the United States. The Trumpite third is overrepresented. It is concentrated in the red “flyover” states, which compared to the blue coastal states are generally low in population. We saw the effect of this in the electoral college vote in 2016 which gave Trump the presidency. Blue California’s 55 electoral votes amount to 1 per 713,636 population, while red Wyoming’s three electoral votes amount to 1 per 195,167 population. Both – like all other states – have two senators. Moreover, the red states are typically gerrymandered by Republican state legislatures to maximize Republican representation in the House, bolstered by various restrictions that make it harder for students and minorities to vote.

Republicans are thus in power in Washington, and, for the most part, the Trumpites control the Republican Party. A key asset for the party is Trump’s willingness to lend his name to a barrage of party appeals, such as an email in September that urged donors to help “drain the swamp.” Another message from Trump urged supporters to fight back against a “weak and self-serving political class.” This divisive message has proven very effective in filling the party’s coffers and thus strengthening Trump’s position.

Whatever their private thoughts, few elected Republicans are prepared to challenge Trump and his surrogates for fear of being denied renomination by Trump, who can communicate directly with his followers through the Twittersphere. While the elected Republicans pay attention to what journalists and intellectuals have to say on the issues in, at least, the conservative media, not so the Trumpites. On August 5 the Economist reported that about 15 per cent of Republicans surveyed preferred “Trump truths” over two leading conservative publications, the Weekly Standard and the National Review. And while 23 per cent said they trusted the Fox television news network more than Trump truths, 54 per cent preferred Trump over Fox. Moreover, the survey revealed that “Republicans now loathe mainstream media outlets so much that many say they would stoop to unconstitutional means to silence them.”

Politically, the Trumpites pose a problem for the GOP by bringing a group that the Republicans have been cultivating behind the scenes since Richard Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy” into public focus. To keep a sufficient number of its libertarian and religious conservative supporters under the GOP umbrella, the party has to keep Trumpites out of the limelight. This has proven impossible with Trump around.

As the Trumpites come to constitute the hard core that support Trump no matter what, they will get more and more outraged by what they see as conspiracies by his – and their – opponents. Democrats become subjects of vicious online abuse and threats of physical violence – and moderate Republicans who dare to criticize Trump even more so. The long-term implications of the polarization Trump fosters could be dire indeed. As evidence of illegality and collusion mounts, a third of Americans, comprising a majority in many red states, will interpret attempts to impeach him or even clip his wings as proof that un-American elites are taking their country away from them, the real Americans, and will react accordingly.

Beyond defeating Trump and his acolytes at the polls, unwinding this polarization is the real challenge. Fifty years ago, political scientists comparing democracies found that in the United States politics was consensual – “I did not vote for him, but I am sure he will do a good job” – while ideologically divided Europeans were willing to accept the legitimacy of the opposing party in power only because the alternative was a return to war. Today the opposite is the case. The system, the Trumpites know, is rigged against them, and they will not go quietly.

Is the liberal democratic political world as we have known it being transformed – for the worse – right before our eyes? If so, we are not talking about the kinds of transitory changes we are accustomed to, but rather what the French call tendances lourdes. In this section we pose that question squarely. We are not the first to do so, clearly, but we bring to it both a Canadian perspective and on-the-spot reports from analysts in the places where the challenge is playing out.

We have approached the question before. In two articles in recent issues, Patrick Webber suggested that the left-right framework in which we have understood democratic politics is no longer appropriate. That framework was defended in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue by Gad Horowitz.1 But is it in fact meaningful in today’s context? Events since then strongly suggest that Webber has it right.

Marine Le Pen

Take the recent French presidential election results. While Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the second round was never in doubt, Marine Le Pen was still able to win 34 per cent of the vote. And a third of French voters stayed home or cast blank or invalid ballots. We can be sure that in mid-June Le Pen’s National Front will win far more than the two National Assembly seats it has now. Moreover, the polarization is not in any way the standard left-right one on social and economic issues, on most of which Le Pen was, if anything, to the left of Macron.

The left-right framework was set out in a number of landmark articles and books from the 1960s onward, including Horowitz’s 1966 essay “Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation.”2 Swedish sociologist Walter Korpi termed it “the democratic class struggle,” while for his Danish colleague Gøsta Esping-Andersen that struggle was one of “politics against markets.”3 This idea, that the basic dynamic of democratic politics is a dispute over the use of the state within liberal democratic institutions, has served as the basic framework for understanding, and participating in, politics in the last two generations.

Emmanuel Macron

Of course, during these past 50 years, even in the democratic heartland of western Europe, North America and Australasia, not all political parties and movements have fit within the framework. Extremist parties of left and right have arisen, at times challenging liberal democratic institutions, But as a rule, these were kept to the fringe: for more than half a century the main actors in our political systems – a mainstream composed of two main parties or blocs of parties – have had a shared understanding. Within the constraints of constitutional democracy, the left seeks to use government to win a greater share of resources for those who are disadvantaged, while the right seeks to reduce constraints that hinder those with such resources from using them as they see fit. Each presumes that its favoured policy mix will produce sufficient durable economic growth to allow for improved conditions for everyone including those at the bottom, not only domestically but also beyond through foreign aid and immigration.

This is the model that was held out, if not always applied, as decolonization and democratization were advancing in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Most dramatically, it was the objective aspired to by the peoples of the former Soviet empire and, it seemed for a time, of the former Soviet Union itself. Until about ten years ago, when the economic crisis hit, the continued advancement of this liberal democratic model was never seriously in doubt.

The economic crisis brought to the surface cracks that had been forming in the key pillar propping up the model: the prospect that there would be sufficient economic growth so that some of its benefits could trickle, if not flow, downward. Recently, the work of Thomas Piketty and his colleagues has drawn our attention to the fact that upward mobility was declining and inequality had been increasing for a decade. This was the inevitable result of industrial jobs being supplanted by technology or moved to countries where labour costs are low. It is an “elite” with appropriate technological skills and knowledge and access to capital, both financial and social, that has prospered. Those who have combined the two in developing internet-based enterprises have made it to the top in record time and numbers.

Vladimir Putin

At the same time, the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union shifted the world’s major geopolitical fault line to the Arab-Muslim world in parts of Asia and Africa. Conflicts there, combined with the growing presence of internet-based communications, have brought terrorism and uncontrolled migration to the Western democracies. The resulting cleavages have led to the rise of populist parties in Europe. During this process, Russia under Vladimir Putin effectively abandoned whatever aspirations it had of becoming a liberal democracy. The rise of populist parties serves the interests of the Putin regime, which has used highly sophisticated cyber techniques to promote them and undermine mainstream parties.

The articles on Europe that follow, along with related analyses of events in the United States and Turkey, examine this complex set of developments. Inroads readers will be familiar with the manifestation of these phenomena in the rise of Donald Trump. While it is foolhardy to attribute any consistent set of ideas to Trump, there is no question that his appeal fits into what we think of as populism, aimed at those who feel left out of a world of geographical and cyberspace mobility that appears to have passed them by.

This is the constituency that populists address when they claim to speak in the name of, and directly to, the people. Those who oppose them, in politics, the media or universities, are “enemies of the people.” And the people, more often than not, turn out to be old-stock nationals. A specific example of this tack is the ongong attack by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on the Central European University and its founder, George Soros, a severe critic of the populists.4 The very real sentiment of being left out is thus exaggerated and distorted by populist politicians and their facilitators in the “alternate” media. Donald Trump’s disdainful attitude toward facts parallels developments in Putin’s Russia, for which Trump has shown a very un-American, and especially un-Republican, admiration.

Russian cyberwarfare clearly helped elect Trump, and he still appears unconcerned about Russian meddling not only in his own election but also in elections in eastern and western Europe, where it presents a more insidious threat to liberal democracy. Indeed, Trump has been generally welcoming of populist movements everywhere as reflecting his own “America First” stance. As described by Ronald Beiner in this issue, Steve Bannon, at least until recently the most influential of Trump’s advisers, expounds a more consistent version of this kind of populist nationalism: emphasis on the nation, on the direct relationship between the charismatic leader and the people and on security and public order, along with hostility to immigration and distrust of supranational and intermediate institutions.

It is noteworthy that the first foreign politician Trump met with after winning the election in November was Nigel Farage of the populist United Kingdom Independence Party. And a day after his inauguration, addressing right-wing populists meeting in Koblenz, Germany, Marine Le Pen heralded Trump’s victory. “In 2016, the Anglo-Saxon world woke up,” she said, promising that Europe was soon to follow. To what extent, the articles in this section ask, has Le Pen been proven right?

A related phenomenon is the emergence or consolidation of authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, Turkey, Egypt and parts of eastern Europe. Perhaps the most significant authoritarian challenge to liberal democracy today is taking place in Turkey. In a very important contribution to our understanding of this phenomenon, the distinguished Turkish political analyst Ilter Turan explains developments leading up to the April 16 referendum in that country. Overall, according to the Economist (Magazine) Intelligence Unit’s 2016 Democracy Index,

The average global score fell to 5.52 from 5.55 in 2015 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Some 72 countries experienced a decline in their total score compared with 2015, almost twice as many as the countries which recorded an improvement (38). The other 57 countries stagnated, with their scores remaining unchanged compared with 2015 … In the 2016 Democracy Index five regions, compared with three in 2015, experienced a regression – Eastern Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and Western Europe – as signified by a decline in their regional average score. Eastern Europe recorded by far the biggest decline (from 5.55 to 5.43). Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only 4.5% reside in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.”

The flaw in American democracy is Americans’ declining trust in their government and elected officials. Drawing on data from Waves 3 through 6 of the World Values Surveys (1995–2014), Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk focus on “four important types of measures that are clear indicators of regime legitimacy as opposed to government legitimacy: citizens’ express support for the system as a whole; the degree to which they support key institutions of liberal democracy, such as civil rights; their willingness to advance their political causes within the existing political system; and their openness to authoritarian alternatives such as military rule.”5 They conclude,

Citizens … in North America and Western Europe have not only grown more critical of their political leaders. Rather, they have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives … In 2011, 24 percent of U.S. millennials (then in their late teens or early twenties) considered democracy to be a “bad” or “very bad” way of running the country.

Continental Europe is the main scene of the populist insurgency. In his comparative analysis of European developments, John Erik Fossum shows how populists like Marine Le Pen are able to target the European Union. Even in Sweden, as reported in the Winter/Spring 2017 issue of Inroads, the still strong anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats were at one point in 2016 tied in the polls with the two major parties.6 In this section, we report on elections this year in a number of key European countries where populists, often Russian-supported, have emerged as key players.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently told a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing that Ukraine was hit during its 2004 and 2014 election campaigns. Malware was used to infect the servers at Ukraine’s central election commission. Hungary, the Baltic states and the former Soviet republic of Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008, have also been targets of political subversion by the Kremlin. Putin’s intelligence agencies are now directing their subterfuge at Germany and France. The immediate targets of Russian cybermeddling are Emmanuel Macron and think tanks associated with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The result has been a relentless series of cyberattacks originating in Moscow, in all probability directed by Russian military intelligence.7

Pro-Russia candidates won presidential elections in 2016 in Bulgaria and Moldova, and the former Soviet empire remains the primary target of Russian meddling. The essay by Filip Kostelka and Eva Krejčová provides an overview of the methods through which, more than 25 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Kremlin is rebuilding its political clout. But as we have seen, it doesn’t end there. As Andrew Higgins wrote in the New York Times on December 4, Putin “has been adept at making his own luck, deploying Orthodox priests, Russian-funded news media outlets like RT, spies and computer hackers to ride and help create the wave of populist anger now battering the foundations of the post-1945 European order.” A European Council on Foreign Relations (EFCR) study termed 45 parties insurgent, of which 30 “expressed agreement with at least some recent Russian positions.” The study noted that “these views on Russia policy do not fall naturally along the lines of left and right.” A subsequent EFCR commentary elaborated:

A majority of the 45 insurgent parties identified by EFCR were favourably inclined towards Russia and sympathised with Russian positions. The most pro-Russian of these parties (of a significant size) on the far right are: the AfD , FPÖ , Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, France’s Front National, Italy’s Northern League, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (VB). On the far left, the most pro-Russian parties are Cyprus’s AKEL, Germany’s Die Linke, the Czech Republic’s KSCM, Podemos in Spain, and Syriza . The Italian Five Star Movement and the Human Shield Party in Croatia also belong to the pro-Russian camp.8

There are reports of American money finding its way to some of these movements. As reported by Paul Lucardie in this issue, the David Horowitz Freedom Centre (founded to battle “the radical left and its Islamist allies”) donated over €100,000 to Geert Wilders’s PVV (Freedom Party) in the Netherlands. In his article, Lucardie notes that though the PVV did not do quite as well as had been expected in that country’s election, the overall result was more complex. Nationalist parties, seeking to protect national identity and sovereignty, restrict immigration and strengthen national defence and security, did well, but so did cosmopolitan (antinationalist) parties concerned with climate change, solidarity with refugees, diversity, privacy and civil liberties. The losers were parties that either defended the status quo or took an ambiguous middle-of-the-road position on these issues.

Something similar is happening in France. It was the pro-Europe independent Emmanuel Macron who emerged to face Marine Le Pen in the second round rather than the major party candidates. Nevertheless, as John Richards reports, the combined strength of Le Pen and far-left populist Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round raised concerns that will not go away despite Macron’s second-round victory.

In Germany, where the election will take place in the fall, the populist AfD will not be an important factor compared to elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, the AfD has done well recently in a number of key Land elections and, as reported by Philipp Harfst, is apparently being helped by a campaign orchestrated or at least tolerated by Russian authorities. Harfst expects a dirty campaign, with fake news from a variety of sources including the Russian media.

It can be said that, among Western countries, the populist story begins in Italy. Giorgio Malet writes about two major anti-elite uprisings, in 1994 and 2013. These two electoral earthquakes resulted from deep and widespread popular dissatisfaction with the political system and mainstream political actors and transformed Italian politics. Italy has witnessed the rise of Forza Italia, the party of the tycoon Silvio Berlusconi, the Northern League and, most recently, the Five Star Movement led by the former comedian Beppe Grillo, the choice of a quarter of Italian voters in 2013.

As the articles that follow describe and try to explain, somewhere between 15 per cent (Germany) and 40 per cent (France) of voters in these countries have so abandoned the idea that democratic politics will lead to progress that they are prepared to cast their votes for someone who rejects the whole trajectory of democratic development they have experienced.9 Whether these local populists’ attack focuses on the EU, immigration or trade, the appeal is the same: it finds its audience not in the expanding cities but in those outside of them, near or far, who feel, or are told to feel, abandoned. Given that the pressures that underlie mass migration are not likely to recede soon, and the cybernation of the world even less so, this state of affairs will be with us in the years to come.

Continue reading “The populist insurgency and its Russian friends”

Is it useful to compare Canada and Sweden’s policies, as set out in these next two articles, when it comes to taking in refugees? Yes and no. Both countries are relatively rich and open to outsiders. Both have programs in place to integrate newcomers. And both – especially Canada – are relatively sparsely populated. Yet there are crucial differences.

Sweden’s open border policy, as described in the article by Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin, resulted in the arrival between 2013 and 2016 of approximately 320,000 asylum seekers – more per capita than any other Western country – including 35,000 unaccompanied minors in 2015 alone, the vast majority of them young males. This for a country of 9.5 million. By contrast Canada, a country of 35 million, had brought in some 33,000 Syrian refugees as of June 2016.1

Sweden has also been per capita one of the biggest exporters of jihadists in Europe – during this period more than 300 people left Sweden to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. While it is too early to know if the two are related, reports on the situation of young Muslims in Sweden raise this worrisome possibility.2

In Canada the number of jihadists leaving for the Middle East is negligible. But Sweden is far closer to the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. In her contribution, Julia Smith suggests that Canada’s longstanding efforts at integration in the context of its multiculturalism policies are the explanation of the relative absence of would-be terrorists. But if that is the explanation, then Sweden, which has a wide range of services to assist newcomers to integrate, should have produced far fewer jihadists. Clearly, as Smith recognizes, distance from the terror centres from which refugees flee has enabled Canada to be selective and keep numbers within bounds.

There can be no doubt that Canada is turning out to be effective at integrating a still modest number of asylum seekers. This is best reflected in the fact that there is nothing like the backlash we have seen in much of Europe, and even the United States, which has taken in far fewer refugees than Canada.

The Swedish case is more complex. In the context of rising European anti-refugee sentiments, even in a traditionally welcoming country like neighbouring Denmark, Sweden stands out as especially generous. But Sweden overreached.

In the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Inroads, Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin told readers that in Sweden asylum policy was not to be publicly questioned since as “a matter of humanity versus inhumanity” any move to less generous policies toward refugees would be understood as playing into anti-immigrant views and thus legitimizing the populist, nationalist Sweden Democrats. Yet they predicted that while Sweden would continue to have generous refugee policies, the underlying challenge of combining these policies with a strong welfare system would only grow more intense.

For two years numbers continued to rise, placing increased stress on welcoming institutions and generating increasing resistance at the grass roots. Yet nothing changed in policy, or even the willingness of elites to consider reducing the flow. Then almost suddenly, in November 2015, everything changed. In this follow-up contribution, Öhberg and Naurin tell us about this change, how and why it happened, and what it means for the future of Sweden as a “humanitarian superpower.”

Continue reading “Immigration: A tale of two countries revisited”

In this section we publish two articles that are on the same theme, yet could not be more different. The subject is the relevance of the left-right distinction for understanding and positioning oneself in the political world.

Patrick Webber argues that the traditional centre-left versus centre-right distinction is no longer the main cleavage in democratic countries. He notes that social democrats and conservatives share a liberal understanding of the political world, one challenged on each side in not dissimilar ways by the “alt-right” and “regressive left.” To meet the challenge from their respective extremes, the moderate left and right must first face up to this reality and combine efforts. In essence, Webber is endorsing the German approach, which calls on grand coalitions to ensure that it never again relives the experience of the thirties, when the democratic left and right fought each other, rather than taking on the Nazis, until it was too late. He could also point to Sweden, currently being ruled by a de facto grand coalition to ensure that the illiberal Sweden Democrats do not enter government (see the article by Patrik Öhberg and Elin Naurin in this issue).

In his contribution, Gad Horowitz, from a wide historical perspective, argues that there is something fundamental that continues to separate Canadian social democracy from the mainstream: the vision of a cooperative commonwealth. While he admits that this current is not as important as he found it to be in the 1960s, when he wrote his classic essay “Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation,” Horowitz refuses to accept that it has been extinguished in pragmatic NDP policy pronouncements – or that it should be.

While he does not spell it out in terms applicable to contemporary political debates, Horowitz clearly has something in mind that transcends the illiberal political correctness on the left that Webber objects to. In a sense, these thoughtful, clearly written articles, whose authors have little to say to each other, reflect the state of political debate on the centre-left. The latest version of the two solitudes?

Michael Booth tears down the Scandinavians – but doesn’t really mean it

Michael Booth, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia. London: Jonathan Cape, 2014. 416 pages.

Michael Booth’s wide-ranging and often amusing exploration of the Nordic world was spurred on by yet another survey describing his wife’s fellow Danes as the happiest people on earth. Not having encountered so many happy Danes, he decided that this was something he had to try to explain, to get a handle on their Scandinavian psyche. Dedicating a section to each of the five Nordic countries, he has much to say about Denmark, his adopted home, but his favourite target is Sweden. Like many people in his adopted country, he is at his most biting when it comes to laying bare the underside of its neighbour, the supposedly most perfect nation on earth.

There are, of course, other targets. In his generally lightly mocking tone, he tells us of such things as the Finns’ addiction to antipsychotic drugs, the Danes’ addiction to hyggelig or “cosy times,” the Norwegians’ antisocial isolationism, and the Finns’ sisu or machismo. He also finds space to recount the sad tale of the Icelanders’ suicidal corporate spending spree. Some of the time he seems to be asking us to treat his put-downs as part of a comedy routine, but at other times he implies that he is getting at some fundamental truth. Overall, he portrays Scandinavians as uncool nerds.

The fundamental problem with this book is the all too frequent lack of context. When describing a particular propensity, the language is unrestrained by any effort to determine how the non-Scandinavian world – for example the author’s own United Kingdom – fares in comparison. As journalist-observer, eschewing any claim to social science expertise, he sees no need to compare. Hence there are few facts and figures to back up his contentions, the sources for which are typically quotes from a book or author. And sometimes, if need be, a different book or author that takes the opposite position. This can make for good reading but leaves the nonexpert reader unsure as to what is credible and what is not.

Compared to the sections on Denmark and Sweden, Booth has relatively little to say about the other three, so I’ll start with those.

Iceland: From my short visits to Iceland, it was clear that it is the least Scandinavian of the five. It is typically placed in that category because its language has roots in the Old Norse spoken by the Vikings (though incomprehensible to the Danes, Norwegians and Swedes), and because it was a Danish colony in the past. Booth includes it, I suspect, to allow him to write of its huge banking crisis and throw in a few tales about beliefs in elves. In the end, he reveals its un-Scandinavian character. His explanation for Iceland’s failure to restrain its banks from building up huge debts is the inevitable nepotism of a very small country, which doesn’t really tell us very much about Scandinavia as a whole. In the remaining chapters we see that, at least in certain costumes, one size fits all – but not Iceland.

Finland: Here second-guessing Booth turns out to be unnecessary, since he shares my admiration for Finland, where I lived for four months and have returned frequently. It is the most resilient of the four Nordics, ravaged by invasions and civil wars and kept under the thumb of the Russian and then Soviet empires. When the Soviet Union disintegrated, Finland was able to overcome its dependence on Soviet markets, developing high-tech products based on its world-class system of education and research. It faces challenges today now that Nokia is no longer big enough to prop up the economy, but there is every reason to expect the resilience of its people to shine through again.

Norway: Booth has apparently spent some time here, a country I know fairly well. The chapter is not inaccurate, but somewhat mean-spirited nonetheless. After telling us about the Norwegians’ peculiar practically universal custom of wearing the national colours in traditional costumes and flying their flag on May 17, their national day, Booth turns to an event that still traumatizes them: the murder of 77 Norwegians, many of them youths who would have been the leaders of the future, by a right-wing fanatic who hated foreigners, Anders Breivik. This provides a springboard to what he sees as their ambivalent feelings toward foreigners who are doing the jobs that now-rich native Norwegians refuse. He goes on to write at length about how much oil riches have changed the Norwegians, at the same time admitting that it has changed them less than would be the case for any other country in their situation. Similarly, while critical of the national oil company, Statoil, he is forced to acknowledge that any other company administering so much oil wealth would do much worse.

He writes of a boat trip along the coast to the far north, pointing out that the importance of the coastal cities diminishes the prominence of Oslo, compared to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. For him, this is a matter of choice by Norwegians to invest heavily in their northernmost cities, noting how you see nothing like this when you cross to the south into northern Sweden. However, he fails to mention the fundamental factor underlying the difference: being on the coast, Norwegian northern cities have Gulf Stream–warmed milder winter weather compared to Oslo, let alone to the cities on the Swedish or Finnish side of the mountainous border.

The chapter peters out with a bunch of stale jokes told by other Nordics about the Norwegians’ antisocial nature, something belied by the many popular, trendy pubs of Oslo and Bergen.

Denmark: Given that Denmark is where Booth lives with his family, we need to take his analysis with only a slight grain of salt. He tries to resolve what he sees as the basic contradiction. The Danes do not have the best welfare state, they are not as rich as the Norwegians or Swedes, they do not have their neighbours’ imposing mountains and valleys in their flat and often grey countryside, and they smoke a lot and have high cancer rates. Yet despite all this, they are the happiest. Trying out various explanations, Booth suggests that perhaps they are not really quite so happy, but rather something in their makeup makes them feel the need to say they are. But he isn’t sure.

There is, I think, a rather simple explanation. The Danes have, if not the best, still a well-functioning welfare state, providing them with an enviable level of security and prosperity. But as simultaneously Scandinavians and continental Europeans, they have fewer inhibitions about enjoying the pleasures of life. They are more like the French when it comes to alcohol consumption, less burdened by the legacy of the binge drinking that was pervasive during their Nordic neighbours’ long and dark winters. Booth has loads of witty anecdotes about a country he knows well. If anything, he lets the Danes off the hook too easily. While he pays much attention to examples of ethnocentrism in the others, he does so less for the Danes, even though the Danes are now the most restrictive of the four when it comes to letting outsiders live in their country and the most prone to vote for anti-immigration parties.

Sweden: While he gives Denmark the benefit of the doubt, the same is not true when, in the last part of the book, he diagnoses the imperfections of Sweden, a country in which I have spent many months. His analysis betrays some of the resentment of his Danish neighbours that their upstart Swedish cousins get so much international attention, a resentment summed up for me by a colleague from Copenhagen pointing to the channel separating Denmark from Sweden and noting, “For us Danes, Asia begins here.”

When Booth crosses the bridge from Copenhagen to Malmö in Sweden, he is entering “the central piece of our Nordic puzzle, the hub, the crux, the Rosetta stone.” The truth, Booth somewhat accurately suggests, is somewhere between the Danes’ view of Swedes as prissy, pedantic and humourless and the left-leaning media’s characterization of them as a paragon of all that a country should be. But he dwells on the negative: the Swedes are breathtakingly rude, and even their good qualities are actually bad – they are too punctual, too consensus-oriented. They are good listeners only because they have nothing to say. And unlike the Danes, the Swedes are too politically correct when it comes to confronting the problems of integrating the many refugees they are admitting.1

Then Booth gets to the crux of his critique. Practising a form of “benign totalitarianism,” a (typically Social Democratic) Swedish government, in cooperation with docile unions and collaborative industrialists, tries to regulate everything for a Swedish population content to be regulated: “the most diligent of worker bees, happy to toil for the good of the hive.” Much is made of historical faults: sterilization of women, guilt over benefiting from Sweden’s neutrality by trading with Nazi Germany. These are seamlessly linked to a craven willingness to depend on services and subsidies from the state, a bad deal, he says, compared to depending on relatives or spouses (or, I would add, private charity). By the end of the chapter he presents – sort of – the other side from a couple of Swedish interlocutors, but he remains sceptical.

He decries the state’s (past) treatment of families, the state knowing better than mothers what is good for their children. But soon afterwards he comes around to say that if he were a woman, he could think of no better place to live. Pages then mock the entirely powerless Swedish royalty – strange coming from a Brit, but then the British never claimed to be egalitarians. The final Swedish chapter tells us that overall, despite this, Sweden is actually doing all right. But even this is presented negatively: he cites a couple of Swedish pessimists to the effect that current Sweden has lost its way, no longer holding on to those old certainties – certainties that he so viciously mocked just a chapter before.

The book ends with an epilogue which asks the reader not to overreact. In effect, he really didn’t mean much of this; he was just playing devil’s advocate. It is only because Scandinavians have succeeded that they need to be torn down. Perhaps that was the point: to remind Scandinavians of their imperfections. Shouldn’t he have warned the non-Scandinavian reader at the outset?

Finally, by seeking out opinions about generalities, you risk missing specific problems and potential threats. And there are problems. Ironically, in his epilogue, which is an almost unapologetic tribute to the “still enviably rich, peaceful, and progressive” Scandinavians, Booth tells us of an education system that not only is free but also has the best standard in the world. If only it were so.

With the exception of Finland, deteriorating standards in education are a serious problem in Scandinavia. This past spring, an OECD report concluded that Sweden has failed to improve its school system despite a series of reforms in recent years, noting a decline in the OECD’s PISA survey over the past decade to significantly below average. School discipline has worsened, with students more likely to arrive late for school than in any other OECD country. And, despite relatively high job satisfaction, only 5 per cent of lower secondary teachers believe that teaching is a valued profession in society.

Now here’s where things are not even nearly perfect. But it’s more fun to write of benign totalitarianism. Continue reading “Almost perfect people or uncool nerds?”