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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire and Ashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Persona Non Grata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Why Intellectuals Make Bad Politicians”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Democrats’ Precarious Position

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inoculation and Counterinoculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Good Policies Are Not Enough”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to read Growing Up White by Derek Shearer.

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

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

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

Click to read A Realignment Election? by Eric Montigny.

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

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

— Henry Milner


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Gage Skidmore via Flickr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modern liberal democracy is understood to combine majoritarian decision making, respect for the rights of minorities and freedom of expression. In the context of what is happening today, we need to add another dimension: the capacity to resolve disagreement through appeals to objective facts. This is new. In the lifetime of my boomer generation, we have assumed that while liberal democracies would always contain extremists living in their own realities, these would be kept to a politically ineffective minority and the great majority would accept that “you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”

More concretely, the willingness and ability of most citizens in liberal democracies to make decisions based on objective facts has been an unstated assumption in the academic literature assessing and comparing levels and effects of political knowledge, to which I have contributed for the last two decades. The generally low level of political knowledge detected in this research in the United States – and, typically to a lesser extent, elsewhere – has generally thus been understood as a manifestation of low political interest and attentiveness.

Usually, we found that the many respondents who lacked basic political knowledge were also politically passive. While we were concerned about the negative effect on the quality of democracy of a large and apparently growing proportion of citizens deficient in what I termed “civic literacy,” and the tendency of these citizens to become “political dropouts,” we did not see this as a threat to democracy per se. It was assumed that when circumstances warranted, they would become more attentive, seeking out missing information via mass communications media that could be counted on, as long as freedom of expression and the press was guaranteed, to adequately provide the needed facts.

These assumptions allowed us to treat a wrong answer to a political knowledge question as equivalent to “don’t know.” In other words, we assumed that being misinformed was, for research purposes, no different from being uninformed. Recent developments force us to question these assumptions, something we are just beginning to do. As I have been closely following developments in the contemporary United States, I have concluded that we can no longer count on the large number of politically misinformed Americans to be open to becoming informed.

The academic literature has not yet caught up with these developments, however. I could find only one research paper investigating the distinction between uninformed and misinformed, and it uses European data. Three U.K.-based political scientists, Stijn van Kessel, Javier Sajuria and Steven M. Van Hauwaert, test “to what extent misinformation, i.e. the possession of erroneous political information, stimulates populist party support. Survey data from nine European democracies populist party supporters differ from abstainers and non-populist party supporters in terms of their political information and misinformation, … political misinformation relates positively to support for right-wing populist parties.”1

It’s time to build into our analysis and research the reality that for many Trump supporters, political ignorance is not a matter of being uninformed, but rather of being systematically misinformed. They are ignorant by the standards of our political knowledge tests, but they do not see themselves that way – quite the opposite. This reality requires rethinking the assumptions underlying an entire body of literature, addressing worrisome possibilities only now being perceived. As Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes put it in a 2017 Brookings Institution study:

The literature on voter ignorance is one of the oldest, best established, and most dismaying in all of political science … In recent years, however, a wave of research has shown ignorance and irrationality to be even bigger problems than previously believed … Neither theory nor practice supports the idea that in an environment dominated by extreme partisans and narrow interest groups.2

Recent findings substantiate these concerns. We begin with a 2018 online survey of 2,606 American adults online by Ian Anson of the University of Maryland as to their political knowledge.3 He found that those who performed worse were more likely to overestimate their performance. “When I asked partisans to ‘grade’ political knowledge quizzes filled out by fictional members of the other party, low-skilled respondents gave out scores that reflected party biases much more than actual knowledge.” This was especially the case among Republicans.

Similarly, in 2018, two political scientists at Brigham Young University, Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope, carried out online surveys of almost 1,600 respondents who completed a political knowledge quiz, which asked five questions. Group loyalty, they found, “is the stronger motivator of opinion than are any ideological principles.” Republicans use partisan cues to judge peers’ political knowledge to a greater extent than do Democrats, coinciding with the polarization in the American electorate: “Low-knowledge respondents, strong Republicans, Trump-approving respondents, and self-described conservatives are the most likely to behave like party loyalists by accepting the Trump cue.”4

Richard Fording of the University of Alabama and Sanford Schram of Hunter College in New York reported in 2017 on a study concluding that the Trump campaign exploited a void of facts and reasoning among “low information voters … that made them more vulnerable to relying on emotions about Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, and African-American citizens, as well as their disdain for the first African-American President, Barack Obama, … Trump supporters less in a position to want or be able to question Trump’s … campaign of misstatements, untruths, and lies.”5 They noted that in 2016 preference for Trump among those low in political knowledge was 20 per cent higher than among others, yet nothing similar had been found in 2012 about preferences for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

What we are seeing thus is politically motivated ignorance: the misinformed not only assume that they are informed, but they dismiss anyone challenging their (mis)understanding as being politically motivated and, if anything, become even more convinced of the untruths they believe to be true. Hence Trump’s support has proven effectively unshakable despite revelations of the more than 17,000 false or misleading statements he has uttered in office at the time of this writing, according to fact-checkers (see box 1).

Hence the negative portrayal of Trump in the media has, if anything, bolstered his supporters in their views: the more strongly his statements – however distant from the facts – attack the “elitist liberals” or “the Democrats,” the more fervent their support appears to be. As one supporter told conservative commentator David Brooks, “This is war and he is our leader” – a war against, notably, the “lamestream” news organizations, the “enemies of the American people.”

Politically the priority for Trump is to mobilize his hard-core base, composed primarily of older, white, less educated, more rural males in the “red” states, which are overrepresented in the Senate and Electoral College. He seeks to train their attention away from his own policies and toward opposing an unpatriotic, overeducated, out-of-touch urban elite.

At this writing, this base remains large enough to effectively keep Republican legislators, who fear defeat in the primaries more than in the general election, in line. Hence the solid congressional support for Trump during impeachment, even though, as Alex Carp notes in the January 6 issue of New York magazine, “some of Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress despise him in private.” Carp explains why with a quote from veteran Republican strategist Rick Wilson:

A friend of mine, a member of Congress, went home to a town-hall meeting, and a guy asks him, “Are you going to be with Mr. Trump 100 percent of the time?” And he goes, “Well, look, I support Donald Trump and I want to help him, and we agree on many things. But I represent this district. If there’s something the president wants to do and it’s good for us, we’re absolutely going to do it. If it’s something that’s bad for our district, I’m going to oppose it.” By the time he left the stage, his wife had death threats. His kids had death threats.

Most Republican elites who are appalled by Trump as a person are, it would appear, still more appalled by policies seeking to redistribute wealth. They continue to support him, just as their libertarian views have not impeded them from supporting social-conservative causes opposed to the rise of secularism and seeking to maintain traditional gender relations in order to attract votes to the Republican side.

Seeing the mainstream media as the enemy, the Trumpites look elsewhere for information. As a result, they seldom need to reject information contesting their understanding, since it doesn’t reach them in the first place. Indeed, less and less communication crosses the political divide. Here exceptional American institutions play a key part, beginning with the media environment. The Trumpites get their information from Fox News and other pro-Trump electronic media sources like Breitbart, Sinclair, Trinity Broadcasting Network and Nexstar.

One study analyzing millions of American news stories concluded that, unlike most news outlets that seek to adhere to facts and run corrections of false reports, conservative media are more concerned with confirming their audience’s biases, fearing angry reactions to exposures of falsehoods from core viewers.6 Moreover, as Jane Mayer noted in the New Yorker on March 11, 2019, on Fox News when falsehoods are exposed, core viewers often react angrily, noting that after Fox News anchor Shepard Smith contradicted Trump’s scaremongering about immigrants, viewers lashed out at him on social media.

Beneath the surface, added to the one-sided information Trumpites get from the pro-Trump media, are their links to social media that render them prey to “deep fakes.” Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower about Cambridge Analytica, has explained how this was done in an important new book (reviewed by Arthur Milner elsewhere in this issue).7 Box 2 gives a taste of Wylie’s revelations.

As Aaron Rupar reported on March 3,

According to data compiled by CrowdTangle, the most total interactions on Facebook came on a Fox News article about a federal judge granting a request from a right-wing group named Judicial Watch to make Clinton sit for a sworn deposition about her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

In fact, as this is written early Tuesday afternoon, stories from right-wing sources about Clinton’s emails represent three of the top 10 and five of the 20 top-performing news stories on Facebook over the past 24 hours …

What you won’t find in Facebook’s top 20 news stories, however, is Super Tuesday coverage, anything published by a left-of-center outlet, or anything that’s critical of President Donald Trump or his administration …

What explains the predominance of right-wing outlets on Facebook? According to Judd Legum, who reports extensively on Facebook in his Popular Information newsletter …

“Facebook is optimized for Trump supporters … It rewards engagement, which mostly reflects an emotional reaction to things. Support for Trump is largely emotional, not factual. So pro-Trump content does very very well.” …

Legum has detailed how Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire spreads its content around Facebook with help from “a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purport to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.”8

As a result, conservatives’ voices are the loudest on Facebook. According to an investigation put together last year by David Uberti for Vice, the Fox News Facebook page had a higher engagement rate (the average number of engagements per post per follower) than that of any other major news organization over the same period, and some five times that of the New York Times.

Along with the uninformed and the misinformed, we thus have, among the latter, the disinformed – a word that should exist if it doesn’t yet. According to McKay Coppins in a recent article in the Atlantic,

In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view – one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting … The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history … The wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.

In the academic literature, three concepts have emerged seeking to make sense of the Trumpite phenomenon. The most common is populism, which is in fact not an “ism,” since it has no programmatic content beyond seeking to keep outsiders out of the country and identifying with the interests of the native-born and against elites siding with outsiders against “the people.” There has been a significant recent increase in interest among academics in the spread of populism. Below is an excerpt from the call for papers to the September 2019 American Political Science Association meeting, a call which drew scores of papers, something inconceivable at earlier similar meetings:

No recent political development has been more striking than the rise to power of self-identified populist movements around the globe, whose main unifying trait is their claim to champion “the people” against entrenched selfish “elites.” These movements display differences that have sparked debates over which, if any, should be called “populist”; how they compare with past “populisms”; and what “populism” is. The current partisans, often labeled populist, have more often been on the right than the left, including anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, ardently nationalist parties such as Fidesz in Hungary; the Law and Justice Party in Poland; and the Trump Republicans in the United States.

While in most democratic countries populists have formed new parties, in the context of the rigid U.S. two-party system, they instead moved to take over the Republican Party, mobilizing enough registered Republicans to deny renomination to insufficiently loyal legislators.

The term populist does not fully capture this intensity of feeling and one-sided perception of reality. An alternative that has been suggested is tribalism. This is a form of emotional identification that transcends ideology, which the Trumpites have manifested in casually jettisoning Republican orthodoxy on trade, entitlements, international alliances, the FBI and other matters. The attitude of dedicated followers of sports teams, for whom all calls by the referee not favouring their team are evidence of bias, is often described as tribal. In such cases, tribalism is usually – though not always – harmless. Tribalism in politics, however, is not harmless. In a 2019 article, Jonathan Rauch analyzed the changing nature of American partisanship:

What we fear, we tend also to hate … Partisans are not so much rallying for a cause or party they believe in as banding together to fight a collective enemy — psychologically and politically a very different kind of proposition … Fans of opposing political parties perceive different facts and take different policy views depending on which party lines up on which side. Presenting people with facts that challenge an identity- or group-defining opinion does not work … Both academic research and real-world politics over the past few years suggest that a purely political or ideological account of polarization is incomplete. We are up against a kind of tribalism here that is deeper and tougher than we had imagined.9

Another relevant concept is that of cult. Congressman Joe Walsh was quoted by Guardian reporter David Smith at the Iowa caucuses on February 2:

My party is a cult. I’m a conservative Republican; Fox News won’t have me on. Conservative media will ignore me because they’re a cult with Trump. The Republican parties in each state: they are a cult for Trump … Every time I’m out there talking primarily to Republican voters, because that’s what I’m trying to do, there are a lot of Republicans that get angry at me and we get threats every day and it can get ugly.

Similarly, in a column on January 10 in the Los Angeles Times, Virginia Heffernan concluded that “the Trump cult will define American politics for decades to come, even after its dear leader is gone.” She cited “Steven Hassan, an expert in cults and an ex-Moonie published ‘The Cult of Trump’ … When polled, far too many Republicans come across as lost to paranoia and factually unmoored talking points, just the way Hassan was lost to Sun Myung Moon a ‘radical personal change.’” Heffernan added,

Journalists Luke O’Neil and Edwin Lyngar, as well as Jen Senko in “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” have compiled stories of Americans who have gone over. O’Neil summarized the transformation this way: “A loved one … sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person.”

To sum up, there is something new and disquieting taking place in modern Western democratic societies, especially the United States. To what extent this is reminiscent of Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930s, I will leave to historians. But having watched Republican legislators succumb to threats from the Trumpite cult, one needs to be concerned. It is fair to expect that were Trump to be reelected, he would use every bit of his power to wreak vengeance on his opponents, unleashing his supporters to report insufficiently loyal government employees and attack his critics in the media – hopefully only online.

As of this writing, the effective nomination of Joe Biden and the economic effects of the coronavirus have reduced the chances of Trump winning the presidency and Republicans controlling Congress. Yet this will be an election like no other. Trump knows that it is only the presidency that is keeping him from bankruptcy – his hotels no longer propped up by courtiers – and probably jail.

Yet nothing is certain. How, if one is used to waging a campaign against another party, does one wage a campaign against a cult?

The best prospect is that Trump will lose the election decisively and leave the scene without shouting too loud about having been cheated and thus giving rise to violent reactions among the Trumpites. But even so, given the skewed American political institutions and polarized media, the Trumpian world will remain after he is gone.

But the longer term is cloudier. While in the current medical emergency the populist attack on expertise has lost some of its appeal even in the United States, the Trumpite base isn’t going anywhere. In power, Democrats will be saddled with a huge national and international economic challenge, with levels of debt higher than anyone can remember. And they will have to make hard choices in the face of inevitable hardships. Unless the emerging generation has learned its lessons, we can expect that, probably sooner rather than later, the next wave of Trumpites will sweep our neighbours to the south.

Continue reading “Politically Motivated Ignorance and the Cult of Trump”

Last October, Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government introduced its promised electoral reform legislation, Bill 39, and in February the National Assembly’s Commission on Institutions held public hearings on the bill. In its brief, the Mouvement Démocratie Nouvelle (MDN), the pro-reform lobby that has long campaigned for electoral reform, complimented the government for living up to its commitment. However, it expressed disappointment with some important aspects of the proposed law.

Bill 39 sets out a version of a mixed compensatory electoral system for Quebec, based on the regional version used in Scotland, known as mixed-member proportional or MMP. In a mixed compensatory system, the territory is divided into electoral regions, each comprising a certain number of electoral districts. Consider a region which currently has 10 seats: under a mixed compensatory system there would be six districts and four compensatory seats. Each voter casts two votes: one for a party and one for a district candidate. If a given party wins 30 per cent of the party votes in the region, it is entitled to a total of three seats. If its candidate came first in two of the district seats, the person at the top of its regional list would be allocated one of the four compensatory seats.

The same proportional principle would apply to all parties – in practice there are complications in the allocation of seats that are resolved through what is called the d’Hondt method after the 19th-century Belgian mathematician who described it. Other things being equal, a party would need roughly 7.5 per cent of the vote to be allocated a list seat. Moreover, an element of disproportionality is built in. For example, party “A” could win all six districts with 50 per cent of the regional party vote – an infrequent but by no means unheard of eventuality. In that case, party “A” would be overrepresented by one seat, and one too few list seats would be left to fully compensate the other parties.

In Quebec, the proposal endorsed in principle by all the opposition parties, including the CAQ before it won the 2018 election, included keeping the number of members of the National Assembly (MNAs) constant at 125, creating 80 district seats (more or less based on the boundaries of the federal constituencies in Quebec) and 45 compensatory regional ones. Unlike in Scotland, the regions would differ in number of MNAs to reflect the dispersion of the population. It was accepted as inevitable that because the far-flung regions would have few seats to use for compensatory purposes, overall proportionality would be reduced. This left one issue unresolved: by keeping the total number at 125, the extra seats needed to make compensation possible in the least populated regions would result in an even larger average number of voters per MNA in the more densely populated regions, especially Montreal.

Originally, the CAQ did not intend to require approval of the proposal in a referendum, but it changed its mind and has planned a referendum to coincide with the 2022 Quebec election – in good part because many of its MNAs wanted to be certain that the reform would not be implemented in time for that election. While this was disappointing, given that in referendum campaigns in other provinces opponents raised exaggerated fears that led to the reform being rejected, supporters of a mixed compensatory system tacitly agreed to this concession as the price of getting any change through the CAQ caucus.

More disappointing were Bill 39’s two major amendments to the original concept. The first and craftiest is what is being called a prime au vainqueur – a bonus for the party that comes in first in each region. This is done by using only half of the district seats won in the calculation of compensation, and thus reducing the proportionality of the outcome. While this is rather complicated to explain (and thus to defend), we can illustrate it using the previous example. The CAQ formula would have party “A”’s six district seats treated as if they were only three. In applying the d’Hondt formula, its 50 per cent would then entitle it to one of the four list seats, giving it 70 per cent of the seats, and leaving only three seats, or 30 per cent, for the remaining parties that shared the other 50 per cent of the vote.

A second and equally important change was the decision to set the threshold of overall popular support needed by a party to benefit from the compensatory seats at 10 per cent, rather than the standard for proportional systems of 2 to 5 per cent. Since no country except Turkey, hardly a model of democracy, uses such a high threshold, we have good reason to expect the government to concede on this measure. Apparently, not having found any support for its prime aux vainqueur, it may drop this provision as well.

As a longtime student of proportional systems and advocate of electoral reform, I presented my own brief. In it I argued for elimination of the rule that would allow a candidate to run only in a district or on a party list, but not both. Apart from the advantage of recruiting stronger candidates, I referred to experience in Germany in particular where legislators elected from a list typically saw their role as being available to people in the districts in which they (unsuccessfully) ran. This made it possible for German voters who supported a party other than that of the candidate who won in their district to contact the office of a member from their preferred party for information or assistance.

To respond to fears raised of proportional systems leading to governmental instability, the MDN brief showed this is not the case where systems like the mixed compensatory one proposed are used. The brief also suggested that the reform include the provision used in Germany known as the constructive vote of no confidence, which requires efforts to bring down the government to take the form of a vote of confidence in an alternative one.

It remains to be seen what will happen with the proposed amendments. The Liberals, at this writing, remain opposed to the reform as such. In the last election, as several times in the past, the Liberals received too few votes in francophone regions to win more than a handful of seats there and wasted many votes in the anglophone and allophone districts in and around Montreal. It may be that the new Liberal leader, Dominique Anglade (see Eric Montigny’s article on page 97 in this issue), a child of Haitian immigrants who is especially sensitive to this ghettoization of her party in multicultural Montreal, is open to discussion on this issue.

Conversely, the CAQ found itself in power without any representation in the anglophone and allophone districts. Not only did they waste the votes they were able to win there, but they had no incentive to invest scarce resources in appealing to this electorate.

Adopting the mixed compensatory system would lessen this territory-based divide. The differences between Quebec’s communities are real; the last thing we need is an electoral system that exacerbates them. Yet the pandemic has put electoral reform, like much else, on hold. The MDN is redoubling efforts to make sure that the government’s inaugural address at the start of the fall session of the National Assembly will confirm its commitment to passing Bill 39.