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.

The main theme of this issue is the Canadian election campaign and its results. It turns out that Canada is different from the other countries featured in this and the previous issue: the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Italy, Turkey, Hungary, France and, as always, the United States. In each case, the focus is on the emergence of populist parties, themes and leaders. In Canada, as the reports from the different regions in this issue illustrate, regional differences still predominate. Just as they overshadowed class cleavages in the past, they now seem to inhibit the emergence of populist themes and parties. But this inhibiting effect could only be temporary if regional resentment grows, following the Flemish example described here by Ruth Dassonneville.

In the United States, we will be watching to see if Donald Trump’s populist base remains loyal and can be mobilized in his defence, as the impeachment process further exposes his efforts to pressure Ukraine and perhaps other countries to dig up dirt on his political opponents, ignore congressional subpoenas, refuse to turn over documents, and use his office to enrich his businesses. Trump, as Fareed Zakaria put it in the Washington Post on September 26, is “a particularly egregious example misbehavior fits a global trend.”1 This trend includes British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Viktor Orbán of Hungary. Zakaria adds ominously that, as data compiled by Roberto Stefan Foa and Yascha Mounk show,

Across the globe, enthusiasm for autocrats has grown. Between 1995 and 2014, there were large increases in the share of people who would like to see “a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament and elections,” growing by nearly 10 percentage points in the United States, almost 20 points in Spain and South Korea, and around 25 points in Russia and South Africa …

Add to this the rising reality of tribal politics – the sense that each of us is on a team and that our team is always in the right. Tribalism is the enemy of institutions, norms and the rule of law … Political parties used to act as gatekeepers … forcing their members to adhere to certain rules. But parties are old-fashioned … Politicians can now raise money and gain a following through direct appeals to the public, using social media to exploit the very anger and emotion that parties often used to moderate.The key enabler of American populism has been the Republican Party.

I would add another dimension to this development. The old class-based cleavage that situates people on a left-right axis, still common in academic analysis and poll taking, is largely out of date. A more relevant axis is populist-liberal. The new cleavage sets urban dwellers, who welcome diversity, against people in rural and decaying industrial areas. While experts like political scientists Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, in their recent book about populism titled Cultural Backlash,2 still depict populism in left-versus-right terms, the reality is not so simple. In a study summarized in the Social Europe Newsletter on September 26, Caroline Marie Lancaster cites data from the European Social Survey testing for “traditionalism” (whether women should be allowed to work outside the home and gay and lesbian people should be allowed to “live life as they wish”) and “authoritarianism” (the desire for strong government and belief that laws and rules should be respected), as well as attitudes toward immigration and whether European integration has “gone too far”:

I found three broad types of radical-right voters. The “conservative nativists” comprised about a quarter of my sample … They are older, less educated and more likely to be men. They prefer traditional family structures and strong government and are highly opposed to immigration and European integration. The second class are termed the “sexually-modern nativists.” About a third of radical-right voters fall into this group … These voters are only slightly less nationalist than the conservatives. However, in other regards, they look like leftists: they’re younger, highly educated, more likely to be women, and are not opposed to gender egalitarianism and LGBT rights. A third group falls in between these two extremes, taking more moderate positions …

In 2004, only 12% were sexually-modern. However, in 2016, almost half – 45 per cent – fell into this category. Indeed, there is variation across the ten countries in my study – Austria and Switzerland have more conservative radical right voters, while other countries, like the Netherlands and Sweden, are less conservative – but the general trend remains.3

Her explanation for this trend has to do with opposition to immigration and, to a lesser extent, the European Union:

In the aftermath of the European sovereign-debt crisis of the late 2000s and the Syrian-refugee crisis of the mid-2010s, immigration policy … achieved unprecedented electoral importance. Because the radical right is believed to be the party family most capable of handling these issues, voters flocked to parties like the Alternative for Germany and the Sweden Democrats … No longer can we dismiss the radical right as the party family of angry old men, reacting against a changing society. Now, women and gay men are likely to be found within their ranks, alongside voters who, if not for their immigration attitudes, might be confused for leftists.

This dynamic applies to the U.K. and its cleavage over Brexit – which also does not fall along the traditional left-right, Labour-Tory axis – although not to the United States. When it comes to the Trumpites, who have at least temporarily driven most Never Trumpers out of the Republican Party, the proportion supporting gender egalitarianism and LGBT rights cannot be very high. Here another dimension must be brought into the explanation – knowledge, or rather lack of it. I have explored this dimension in my research comparing Western democracies. Americans turn out to have the largest proportion of adults deficient in basic civic literacy, making them easy prey for the distortions of Trump’s surrogates on Fox News, radio talk shows and social media.

I was in Scotland and England for a few days in September, where I watched the Brexit debate in Parliament with British friends. The apparent failure of the British with their heralded unwritten constitution to “muddle through” when faced with this divisive issue came as something of a shock. As in the United States, facts seem to have little effect: the country is split ideologically. Anecdotes abound. A friend told us of an organized group tour of Sicily in which the one pro-Leave couple was effectively isolated. Similarly, in one local pub, where you used to go in one door and out the other, thus greeting your neighbours on the way in or out, there is now, effectively, a Remain door and a Leave door, and the two groups have nothing to say to each other.

The very watchable, intense debate in the British House of Commons was ultimately frustrating. The Leavers didn’t bother trying to defend Leave on its merits; they repeated endlessly that it is a matter of democracy – the people have spoken. Nor would they talk concretely about what would happen without a deal. Boris Johnson evoked nonexistent negotiations in Brussels, arguing that only the prospect of an imminent no-deal Brexit would cause the EU to budge. A game of chicken with very high stakes.

The evolution of the British Conservatives parallels that of their American cousins. The Tories are no longer the party of Disraeli and Churchill: like the GOP, the Conservative Party is becoming a populist party, with the moderates – several of whom were leading, longstanding figures in the party, who publicly opposed Boris Johnson and supported the motion to ask the EU for more time – being forced out. In contrast, in the United States anti-Trump Republican legislators are, with very few exceptions, so far keeping their dissent private, held in line by the risk of being denied renomination in a primary.

Since my return to Canada, Johnson has put a little water in his wine and concocted a slightly modified version of Theresa May’s three-times-rejected Brexit deal. The EU has endorsed this new deal, and Johnson presented it to Parliament with expectation of quick passage. Parliament insisted on slowing down the process to enable review. At the time of writing (October 31), Parliament has voted in favour of the deal in principle, but intends to examine it clause by clause, forcing Johnson to obtain a further extension from Brussels on the U.K. leaving the EU. MPs may well amend the deal by, for example, stipulating that the U.K. remain in the EU customs union or attaching the requirement of ratification by a second referendum. Johnson and the hard Brexiteers want neither of these amendments.

The calling of an early election for December 12 has opened up a new chapter in the neverending Brexit melodrama. The struggle over Brexit, like most of the other struggles engendered by the rise of populism, remains resistant to easy resolution.

Continue reading “Can The British Muddle Through?”

As a Canadian I shouldn’t be much concerned about the internal affairs of an American political party, the Democrats, as they go about nominating their candidate for president. But I am, and others like me should be too. The reason is that the nominee will, almost certainly, be taking on Donald Trump. From where I stand, writing in early May 2019, the best choice would be Joe Biden.

I am not a Joe Biden fan per se. Among the 20+ who are campaigning for the job, I am sure I could find a dozen whom I might prefer as the Democratic nominee over him. Were this an ordinary contest, were the Republican candidate William Weld, or John Kasich, or even Mitt Romney, I would urge Americans to look carefully at the programs of all the Democratic candidates, especially Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker.

But this no ordinary election. There is only one overriding issue for the United States and, indeed, for the democratic world, and that is getting Donald Trump out of office. The consequences of giving him another four years are simply too horrible to contemplate. It amounts to removing a cancer so as to restore the body to health. Admittedly, as is often the case, the cancer goes deeper than the visible lump that is Trump; there will be Trumpites after Trump in the American body politic. Nevertheless, leaving it in place is too risky an option.

In this context, the fundamental theme of the Democratic presidential campaign must be to restore normality. Biden put it eloquently in announcing his candidacy on April 25: “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation … History will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”

Biden is wrong in the sense that Trump is a symptom as much as an aberration. But it is nevertheless this message that will find the most resonance in the key, largely white-working-class, states that got Trump over the top last time. Biden, with all his flaws, indeed because of them, constitutes the best expression of this message.

There are younger candidates – Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke come to mind – whose messages run along the same lines. But they do not incarnate this normality in who they are, as Biden does. Indeed, many of the other candidates have articulated useful policy proposals that will emerge in the primary debates. One thinks of Bernie Sanders here, but Sanders represents the greatest risk. His record makes him anything but a return to normality, reminiscent – in only this sense – of Trump.

If Democrats insist on choosing a candidate from a different generation, they will have no shortage to choose from. And someone may emerge in the process, especially if Biden runs a poor campaign. Still, it is riskier, since Biden’s long public record means that with all their resources, the Republicans won’t be able to paint him as other than he is. Can we be sure of the same about the other candidates?

As David Brooks of the New York Times, who has covered Biden for years, put it, “He came from a principled family, and he and his wife have nurtured a principled family.” The contrast with Trump could not be more apparent. Moreover, any attempt to draw attention to his faults, typical of a male of an earlier generation, will only draw attention to the same faults, magnified 10 times, in Trump.

Hence, from my perspective, the best outcome in 2020 would be four years of Joe Biden working with a Democratic Congress to explore and, where appropriate, to apply the best ideas emerging from the campaign. I only hope Democratic activists will show the needed patience to accept such a scenario.

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

An introduction by Henry Milner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trumpism today and tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Henry Milner
October 31, 2018

Polarization with the edges blurred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Frances Boylston

The day after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meryl Streep in The Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Speaking Truth to Power”

In a notorious January tweet, Donald Trump told us,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trumping of American political institutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Polarization and party discipline

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

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

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

More Trumps down the road?

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

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

Continue reading “Only In America”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Profiting from the system

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Beyond Quebec stereotypes”