Timothy Snyder, The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2018. 359 pages.

I became aware of historian Timothy Snyder with the release in2010 ofsuffered most from Soviet and Nazi tyranny during the 1930s and 1940s. Snyder followed up with 2015’sBloodlands, an excellent history of the territories thatBlack Earth, an account of the Holocaust that explores the impact of different Nazi occupation governments on German behaviour. These works solidifid Snyder as a fine historian. His most recent effort, The Road to Unfreedom, marks an uncomfortable shift from historian to historian-cum-polemicist, and the transition ultimately disappoints.

Snyder’s book is divided into three big themes. The fist examines the rise of Vladimir Putin and his brand of post-Soviet politics. Snyder introduces the idea around which his book revolves: The “politics of inevitability” versus the “politics of eternity.” The politics of inevitability envisions history as running on rails toward a predestined and obviously positive end point. Post–Cold War American liberal capitalism, post-1945 European integration and the fist half of the USSR’s existence are his examples of the politics of inevitability in action. The politics of eternity is history as the almost timeless struggle of an innocent nation or polity against a series of repeating and never-ceasing forces determined to destroy it. This is a worldview that uses history not as a gauge against which one situates oneself or assesses change, but as a Möbius loop of threats and challenges to overcome. Snyder argues that Putin’s Russia embraces the politics of eternity, building on ideas of an eternally threatening West hatched under Brezhnev in the 1970s and fusing them with the writings of interwar Russian fascist Ivan Ilyin. Putin promotes the notion of an aggressive, decadent and morally corrupt West set on destroying innocent and pure Russia.

The second theme is an extremely detailed account of the Russian war against Ukraine in 2014, informed in part by theories posited earlier in the book. This is impressive. The myriad shreds of news from that period are placed into a coherent and convincing narrative, making one realize the degree to which events in 2014 Ukraine marked the start of a genuine war. It is overlong at times and feels ill-fited with the book’s broader narrative. Surprisingly, Snyder does not reprise a theme from his superb late-2014 lecture about Russia’s geopolitical goals in invading and annexing pieces of Ukraine.1 There he referred to Russian propaganda as “applied post-modernism”: Russia’s use of the West’s embrace of relativism and loss of faith in ultimate truth to bombard populations with competing and often contradictory narratives, engendering confusion and delaying political reactions to Kremlin aggression.

The book’s third theme attempts to explain the rise of Donald Trump to the American presidency, casting him as Moscow’s Manchurian Candidate and as the outcome of America’s failing politics of inevitability. Snyder explores Trump’s business dealings with Russian mobsters and oligarchs beginning in the late 1980s and implies, but never states, that Trump was somehow enticed or induced to become a perhaps unwitting agent of Russian geopolitical efforts directed at the United States. This effort veers toward the conspiratorial and feels forced, an attempt to make history meet the expectations of Snyder’s thesis. You don’t doubt the information Snyder provides, just the slapdash way it is presented and the tangential personal links.

Often, the reader is left feeling that the book is an effort by Snyder to explain his shock at Trump’s victory. Russian bots, trolls and online campaigns did spread false information during the 2016 American campaign, but Snyder suggests that, if not for these efforts, Trump would not have been President, or even the Republican nominee. He barely addresses the fact that for the Russian campaign to have gained traction, it had to build on preexisting sentiments among U.S. voters, and hardly touches on the rise of conspiracy theories across broader Western culture and how this laid the groundwork for successful foreign propaganda.

Snyder’s attempts to explain Trump’s as a bot-driven Trojan horse in the service of Russia is further muddied by other explanations he then offers. He points out that areas hit hardest by the opioid epidemic – “localities where the American dream had died,” and where Trump’s call “for a return to the past, to a time when America was great” had appeal – swung most strongly toward Trump in both the primaries and the general election. These are persuasive and fact-based assertions. Synder then casts the rise of Trump as a consequence of increasing economic and income inequality. These explanations are not invalid, but they lay waste to his broader thesis, and are jarring in the context of the Russian plot that is supposed to explain Trump’s rise.

Snyder fails to address myriad other factors that contributed to the political milieu that created a candidate like Trump, from competing brands of identity politics to the loss of midwestern manufacturing jobs as a result of automation. Any attempt to attribute Trump’s election to a single phenomenon, whatever it may be, is simplistic and is undermined by Snyder’s own more nuanced evidence.

The Road to Unfreedom is disappointing as a book and would have been better presented as a series of articles. The history of Russian thought, the evolution from the optimism of the October Revolution to the defensiveness created by the Second World War, and the inflence of fascist thinkers on Soviet and Putin-era Russian politics and society are fascinating and will be unfamiliar to many readers. As noted, the dissection of Russian behaviour around the 2014 invasion of Ukraine is superb. For those still looking for reasons to be appalled by Donald Trump, the stories here are entertaining if disjointed. Equally, Snyder offers useful observations about developments in Western democracies, democracies that risk entrenching their own brand of unfreedom.

In the context of a specific scandal within a now-defeated Polish government, Snyder observes that “public life cannot be sustained without private life,” and that “by accepting the private lives of public fiures are the same thing as politics, citizens cooperate in the destruction of the public sphere.” These observations have wider application, and can inform our take on, among other things, the rise of “cancel culture” in the West, where citizens, the media and government increasingly blur the lines of public and private life and where irony, humour and divergent behaviour are paved over by an earnest “woke totalitarianism” that punishes alleged blasphemers. This is not a society where you are being watched by Big Brother, but rather by millions of little brothers.

Near the end of the book Snyder says, “To make of American politics an eternity of racial conflct is to allow economic inequality to worsen. To address widening disparities of opportunity, to restore a possibility of social advance and thus a sense of the future, requires seeing Americans as a citizenry rather than as groups in conflct.” A valid observation, though one whose lesson needs to be heard as much by the intersectional left as by Trumpian populists. Perhaps these observations reveal there is not so much a single road to unfreedom, but myriad roads to that terrible destination.

Continue reading “The Russians and Donald Trump”

No one expected the Liberals to repeat their 2015 sweep of all 32 seats in Atlantic Canada, with nearly 59 per cent of the vote. In 2019, the Liberals’ goal was to hold onto what they could. In the raw currency of the Westminster system, i.e. the seat count, the Liberals did well, holding 26 Atlantic seats. The Conservative Party and the NDP reclaimed territory lost in 2015 while the Greens conquered new lands, winning their first seat east of British Colombia. All three achieved their goals, at least partially, with the Tories winning four seats and the NDP and Greens each winning one.1

Atlantic Canada has never been a useful descriptor; it’s as accurate as talking about “Africa.” The seat-by-seat and province-by-province details offer insight into the political fabric of a region even more hyperlocal and fractured than it was in 2015. Topline results suggest Liberal resilience; however, there are reasons for all four main parties both to feel optimism and to take pause.

The Fragile Liberal Fortress

The Liberal popular vote took a hit in all four Atlantic provinces, but they still came out on top in every one, with an impressive seat haul considering their vote share (see tables). In 2015, the Liberals claimed strong support across the region, winning more than 40 per cent in every riding. This time they were not able to maintain this regionwide floor. Anglophone New Brunswick delivered the biggest blow: the three seats won there by the Conservatives were in rural/suburban ridings in the anglophone south where the Liberals lost by at least 20 per cent. In Fredericton, the Liberals lost to the Greens in a three-way battle, with the Liberal incumbent losing 20 per cent of his 2015 share and placing third behind the Conservative candidate. Where the Liberals did hold on they did so by distressingly thin margins. In 2015, they won only one seat by a margin of less than 5 per cent; in 2019 there were six such seats, including two normally bedrock Liberal seats in Cape Breton, where two sitting Progressive Conservative provincial legislators ran for the federal Conservative Party.

A Conservative Toehold, Not a Foothold

The Conservative Party, created in 2003, has struggled in Atlantic Canada, averaging 30 per cent across the region in the five elections between 2004 and 2015. Wiped out in 2015, the Tories saw a mild revival in 2019. In addition to the three seats in anglophone New Brunswick, the Conservatives’ popular vote grew impressively in Newfoundland and Labrador, from 10 to 28 per cent, though they failed to secure any seats.

Nova Scotia was a mixed bag, with the lowest Conservative vote in the four Atlantic provinces and failure to win back long-held seats that were lost in 2015. These included South Shore–St. Margaret’s, Cumberland-Colchester and Central Nova, where a “star” Tory candidate, country music star George Canyon, was beaten by 17 points. Because these seats went Liberal in 1993 and returned to what was then the Progressive Conservative fold in 1997, it was assumed that history would repeat itself in 2019. No Nova Scotia riding can be said to have solid Conservative DNA; the only winner was provincial MLA Chris d’Entremont, who won West Nova. Add this to the strong performance of the PC MLAs who ran in Cape Breton and it seems the Red Tory tinge of the provincial PCs (who ran to the left of the governing Liberals in the 2017 provincial election) persuaded voters to opt for the Conservatives. The relative successs of more progressive Conservatives should be noted by the Conservative brain trust as they prepare for the next election.

The NDP-Green Battle for the Left Intensifies

The national campaign began with a pitched battle between the NDP and the Greens for the title of Canada’s dominant left-wing party. The parties were roughly tied in the polls and mired in a vicious war of words; this was evident in New Brunswick in the weeks before the election was called, with the bizarre public defection of a mother-son team of New Democrats to the Greens.2 By election night, the NDP had won the fight, at least outside of Quebec, though the outcome was murkier in Atlantic Canada. The Greens are now the preferred choice of left-wing voters in parts of the region, especially in PEI, where Green candidates came ahead of those from the NDP in all four seats, and in New Brunswick, where eight of ten ridings preferred the Green candidate to the New Democrat. The Greens attracted new voters and better candidates and ran a stronger ground game across the region, as compared to the NDP which struggled. Even in the short term, New Democrats should be worried.

The NDP remains stronger than the Greens in Newfoundland and Labrador, where Jack Harris reclaimed the St. John’s East seat he lost in 2015. In Nova Scotia the NDP fended off the Greens, though neither party won a seat. The NDP’s vote share was roughly halved in PEI and New Brunswick as compared to 2015, while the Greens more than tripled their support. Those two provinces provided the Greens with their best provincewide vote shares.

The regional strength of the federal NDP vis-à-vis the Greens mirrors the situation of those parties at the provincial level. The federal NDP beat the Greens in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia, provinces where the NDP holds provincial seats and the Greens are still a fringe entity (Nova Scotia) or nonexistent (Newfoundland). In New Brunswick and PEI the Greens hold seats, forming the official opposition in PEI, while the NDP in both provinces could be generously described as moribund. The lessons for the federal NDP and Greens are clear: your provincial counterparts are key to your federal prospects. The Greens built up their provincial organizations in New Brunswick and PEI and are reaping federal rewards. The provincial NDP in the same provinces self-destructed and that suffering now extends to the federal level.

A Region Made Varied

It is increasingly difficult to talk about a uniform Atlantic Canadian political character. This has long been the case; consider the 2008 federal election that saw the Tories closed out in Newfoundland and Labrador but winning a majority of seats in New Brunswick. The Liberal sweep of 2015 camouflaged this larger trend. The Greens are now clearly the third party in PEI and New Brunswick, while the NDP holds that title, tenuously, elsewhere. The Conservatives were pushed to the margins in the region’s urban centres and in francophone regions, which were dominated by the Liberals. The People’s Party was a discredited footnote here, as elsewhere, leaving a political map that shows a series of fluid front lines. For a region often seen as backward, the 2019 election showed Atlantic Canada to be more surprising, and diverse, than many commentators would have predicted.

Continue reading “Liberal Resilience in a Hyperlocal Region”

In the last issue of Inroads I examined the rise of new populist movements in western Europe and North America, suggesting that they share common threads of parochialism and a rejection of postwar liberal ideals, rendering old left-right methods of describing political movements obsolete.1 I offered ideas on how those holding broadly liberal views (pro–free trade, pro-immigration, pro-internationalism) could challenge the populist narrative. One of these was calling for new political alliances: if the old left-right binary has been transcended, it is, by definition, no longer effective. This article seeks to expand on this suggestion and explain how the rise of the regressive left and alternative right (alt-right) movements, which share the parochial populists’ illiberal impulses, intensify the need for a political realignment in defence of classical liberal values.

Most people still slot themselves into categories of centre-left or centre-right, conservative or social democrat, usually on the basis of which political party they are inclined to support. Those occupying that broad centre ground ignore the fact they have more in common with one another than with the extremists who increasingly dominate discourse on the left and right, threatening the very foundation of Western society. Given the increasing intellectual and political pressure these illiberal flanks now exert, new alliances must be developed to defend the legacy of the Enlightenment and classical liberal values.

The idea of realignment is gaining currency. The Economist recently acknowledged the end of left vs. right, saying the new divide is between those who champion “open” and “closed” societies.2 British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has written that the biggest political divide is “liberals against authoritarians.”3 Another Brit, journalist, alternative right interpreter and agent provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, says the real political fault line is between libertarians and authoritarians – interesting given his soft-selling of the alt-right movement. Soviet-born American journalist Cathy Young says she would love to see a “liberal-conservative alliance of reasonable people,” with the emphasis on reasonable.4 Many others who cherish the inheritance of centuries of liberal progress, or at least appreciate the society it has bequeathed us, recognize the need to reorganize our politics. So what does the new divide look like – and what lies on its darker side?

The illiberal threat

Any casual observer of contemporary Western political debate can see the breakdown of the established norms on which democratic societies have operated since 1945. These norms include, but are not restricted to, freedom of speech and expression, open inquiry and debate, the universality of human rights and the dignity of the individual, the primacy of evidence in making arguments and developing policy, a preference for the free movement of trade, capital and people, and internationalism in foreign policy. No party or movement perfectly applied these ideals, but they were broadly shared by Western elites and publics, and efforts were made to promote and even to export them.

The groups undermining these values come from the extreme left and right. On the left the politically correct movement of the 1980s and 1990s, based largely in universities, has evolved into what is often called, by opponents, the regressive left. Central to this movement are authoritarian impulses and tactics, most evident in a dedication to the suppression of free speech and expression, particularly on university campuses.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Reason magazine5 offer comprehensive if depressing catalogues of the regressive left’s activities, citing hundreds of cases of “neo-totalitarianism,” as Cathy Young puts it. The excesses of so-called Social Justice Warriors can appear harmless because they are often ridiculous, like the recent protest against yoga classes at the University of Ottawa, cancelled because they were accused of “cultural appropriation.” This surreal triviality obscures real and dangerous thought policing, dissent silencing and speech banning as listed in FIRE’s annual report on university speech codes. The 2016 report, assessing 440 universities in the United States, found that as of September 2015 only 22 (5 per cent) were free of written policies that threaten free expression. Forty-nine per cent had “severely restrictive … policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.”6 This is a lower percentage than in recent years, but that does not mean campus censorship is in retreat. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote in early 2016, “Unfortunately, this may be only a temporary high-water mark; pressure from students and the federal government makes the resurgence of speech codes almost inevitable.”7

14_greerWhen second-wave feminist icon Germaine Greer is threatened with a ban on speaking at the University of Cardiff because she refuses to accept the existence of transgenderism, it is clear that the children of the political correctness revolution are devouring their parents.8 FIRE’s database of speaker disinvitations (attempts to ban a speaker invited to campus or disruptions so that the speaker cannot be heard) shows a steady climb in this trend. In the five years between 2000 and 2004, there were 22 recorded disinvitations on American campuses, while in the five years between 2012 and 2016 there were 56. There were 18 disinvitations in the first nine months of 2016 alone.9 In the U.K., the “No Platforming” of speakers by the National Union of Students is a parallel example of assault on free speech.

Its intellectual roots lie in postmodernist thinking, with truth and morality regarded as relative, subjective and influenced by dominant historical and political narratives.

While the rise of political correctness informs much of the regressive left’s thinking, its intellectual roots lie in postmodernist thinking, with truth and morality regarded as relative, subjective and influenced by dominant historical and political narratives. This approach to the world, begun as critique of “hegemonic thinking,” has morphed into a hegemony of its own, creating a rootless orthodoxy where anyone citing contradictory thoughts can be dismissed not on the basis of their argument but on their incidental individual characteristics, or as an agent of nefarious forces. Any philosophy based on a rejection of fact was obviously doomed as a positive project but postmodernism did offer a crude political platform: anyone who disagrees with a postmodernist is wrong.

Postmodernist thinking blended with the exhaust fumes of aging New Left radicalism to produce the regressive left’s toxic rejection of Western culture. Adopting sinister political positions, such as the embrace of Islamism and authoritarian regimes provided they are anti-Western, are part and parcel of this movement. Matt Carr, of the regressive left British “Stop the War” coalition, responded to calls by moderate Labour MP Hilary Benn to militarily intervene against the Islamic State (Daesh) in Syria by saying, “Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades than Cameron’s bombing campaign.”10 Just one example of the warped logic, not to mention moral bankruptcy, the regressive left employs.

Traditional leftist suspicion of American foreign policy, legitimate during the Cold War when Washington supported tyrants like Chile’s Pinochet as long as they were anti-Communist, has degenerated into knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Anything America does is bad; anyone acting against America must be good. This critique, fused with armchair revolutionary anticapitalism, has extended to a knee-jerk anti-Westernism that distorts multiculturalism. Non-Western cultures are exalted while the West is denigrated. A quick Google search reveals dozens of ostensibly “left” defences of female genital mutilation (FGM). It is impossible to imagine the same defence being mounted if FGM was an Appalachian rather than African tradition.

Perhaps subconsciously aware of the weak intellectual foundation on which its ideas are built, the regressive left does not seek to argue for its views but rather to prevent any questioning. Research, inquiries or questions that challenge its assertions are to be not just opposed but suppressed and banished by banning or silencing speakers or by focusing not on the argument but the identity of the problematic speaker.

These movements cannot be dismissed as fringe spectacles, eccentrics inhabiting the musty corners of university humanities departments and internet forums. Given the number of young people who cycle through our university system and the rise of virtue-signalling (defined by The Spectator as “the public expression of an opinion on a given topic primarily for the purpose of displaying one’s moral superiority before a large audience to solicit their approval”11) within the media and broader society, the totalitarian impulses of the regressive left are being felt ever more widely. Commentator and writer Jonathan Chait summed up the reach of this illiberal crusade in early 2015:

Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.12

The generation most imbued with regressive left thinking is increasingly willing to support legal curbs on free speech. A spring 2015 study by Pew Research found that 40 per cent of American millennials, those aged 18 to 34 at the time of the survey, believe “government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.”13 A disturbing segment of the generation currently attending university is supporting censorship. It would be naive to expect this behaviour to change radically after graduation.

In addition to illiberal attitudes toward speech, the regressive left exhibits its illiberal orientation with its embrace of identity politics. Incidental characteristics – race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity – are elevated over the value of the individual and the value of reason and argument. The regressive left sees this intellectual reductionism as enlightened – ironic in that it rejects a central theme of the Enlightenment. As American journalist Robert Tracinski noted in his critique of the regressive left and alt-right, “the central theme of the Western intellectual tradition is about rising above tribalism to arrive at universal values.”14 The regressive left is travelling in the opposite direction.

Making assumptions about an individual and ascribing value or lack thereof on the basis of incidental factors is at the heart of the sexism, racism and other prejudices that Western liberals have worked for generations to rubbish, with much success. The regressive left abandons that heritage and embraces the thinking that leads to such prejudices. Take a specific case: employing racism to ostensibly combat racism. By abandoning the progressive effort to eliminate racism by encouraging colour-blindness, the regressive left has given rise to a new breed of leftist racism. Today the debate is over “racialized” communities that have inherent worth not because their individual members have worth as human beings that should not be undermined by the distractions of skin colour or place of birth but because their race is itself a source of positive identity and pride. With this, the regressive left has given new life, legitimacy and intellectual armour to more traditional racists, reincarnated in the form of the alt-right.

The alt-right: Mirror image of the regressive left

The alt-right is the regressive left’s identity politics in mirror image. Less well established than its left counterpart, it is a nebulous grouping of antimainstream conservatives, internet trolls and white nationalists. Richard Spencer, an American white nationalist who popularized the term in 2010 with the launch of his website,15 is a lead advocate and guru of the movement. His racist nationalism is based on the same intellectual framework as the regressive left’s identity politics, except with whites as the preferred group, with their own incidental collective characteristics placed above the individual. The regressive left’s hierarchy of grievances, which views straight white males as the ultimate enemy, has convinced a number of straight white males that the obvious answer is an identity politics of their own. If the regressive left proposes a society of Darwinian conflict, it is not surprising that this thinking is spreading to others who find group divisions appealing. The regressive left’s identity politics has simply given the alt-right a new set of intellectual tools.

The alt-right’s identity politics is manifested primarily in a need to protect the white race from genetic conquest. As Tracinski notes:

The primary political program of the alt-right is not opposition to immigration, though that is clearly important to them. The main reason they oppose immigration is because letting in brown-skinned people might lead to white people marrying them and producing non-white babies. Their real central demand is an end to miscegenation, the mixing of the races. Analyze everything they say, and it all boils down to that. When they talk about “white genocide,” that’s what they mean: not that people of European descent are going to be stuffed into ovens, but that whites will be wiped out of existence by interbreeding with dark-skinned people.16

14_putinThis idea, that race is what ultimately defines people, explains the alt-right’s geopolitical views. The alt-right champions Russian President Vladimir Putin as a fellow guardian of Western civilization, someone the West ought not oppose. The flaw is equating Western values with race or ethnicity, when the essence of the West’s intellectual contribution is the replacement of the ethnic tribe with universal human values. Putin is an interesting source of unity between the alt-right, which lauds him for his aggressive defence of whites, and the regressive left, which applauds him for his opposition to the West. It is unlikely that Putin is troubled by this contradiction.

The alt-right exploded into popular consciousness during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign with Donald Trump’s hiring of Stephen Bannon as his campaign CEO. Bannon runs Breitbart News, which he has described as “the platform for the Alt-Right.”17 Breitbart is not converted to the alt-right’s white nationalism but soft-sells it in order to appeal to a growing market segment.

With Reagan-Bush conservatism unable to protect its electoral base in the white working class, and with the left’s regular mockery and dismissal of that group’s culture and concerns, the alt-right has a huge potential for growth. The rise of social media and new media – in the form of blogs and internet-only news programs – offers a means to crystalize political thought, building on increased scepticism of experts and traditional opinion leaders. The alt-right’s audience has heard the regressive left’s postmodern message: there are no facts, hierarchies are oppressive and no one in authority is to be trusted. That authority in most Western countries is vested in people more broadly liberal than at any point in history is irrelevant to those on either extreme.

These movements, right and left, are able to organize online, bypassing the traditional filters parties put in place to avoid extremist takeovers. They are embedding themselves in established political parties of the centre-left and centre-right and within the broader political discourse. Jason Willick, writing in The American Interest, sums up the double threat these two forces represent:

The PC left and the alt-right exist symbiotically with one another: Working together to exacerbate tribal loyalties, to undermine the legitimacy of the state as a political unit, to question the idea that Western institutions can really treat groups of people with equal respect – in other words, to draw out and hijack the inherent weaknesses and contradictions in the Enlightenment liberal tradition. It’s unlikely that either movement has the cultural power or breadth of appeal to succeed on its own. But taken together, they make a fearsome foe.18

An increasing segment of Western public life no longer adheres to classical liberal values of free speech, free inquiry, free debate and reason (not to mention the post-1945 ideal of increasing global economic liberalism). Consider the rise of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the U.K. Labour Party, parochial populists throughout western Europe, and conspiratorial worldviews, and the broader demands for censorship, public shaming and thought policing, all assisted by postmodernist thinking that rejects the existence of objective truth and embraces subjective “realities.” The old centre-left and centre-right are being overtaken by foes hostile not just to their policy prescriptions but to the principles that underlay the emergence of their democratic politics in the 18th century. But no compelling arrangement beyond the traditional centre-left and centre-right coalitions has as of yet been conceived.

A new political alignment

The undermining of liberal principles is a mighty challenge that requires a mighty rethink. If those values are to be secured, in politics and broader society, it will depend on those currently engaged in the politics of the old centre-left and centre-right to recognize their common values and their common foes, and to act accordingly.

Principles of free speech and open debate, although always caveated in their application, were until recently assumptions shared by the vast majority. They were a shared philosophical and political starting point. Alongside support for the universal franchise and belief in an independent judiciary, they were views so universally held that no party or movement in a free society needed to distinguish itself by supporting them.

This is no longer the case. Extreme examples rooted in the right exist in the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary but can also be seen in the rise of right-wing populism in western Europe and in Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the United States Constitution, press freedom and the unwritten norms of democratic discourse. Meanwhile, the regressive left, if not effectively checked, is well placed to significantly influence political thinking and debate. Dressed up in rosy language, its totalitarian demands for censorship too often convince or bully the centre-left’s craven politicians to blindly seek or accept accommodation.

A political realignment must unite those who believe in free speech absolutism, open debate and open inquiry. This means a fierce defence of the First Amendment in the United States and a rolling back of speech codes in other countries, such as laws against “hate speech” and blasphemy in Canada. It means the promotion of aggressive, informed debate in civil society. The new alignment must embrace the centrality of the citizen, rejecting the regressive left’s notion of zero-sum justice: the idea that there is a fixed amount of justice in the universe and that increasing justice for some means limiting it or removing it outright for others. The regressive left is obsessed with retributive redistribution in the redressing of social ills. It is not enough to remove legal discriminations against a group; restitution must be demanded from the supposed oppressor. This matches the attitude toward economics and wealth, which assumes that global wealth is fixed and any economic gain by some must mean economic loss by others. The notion of everyone winning is foreign.

The alt-right and other nationalist movements share this pessimism, seeing a world where the regressive left’s emphasis on racial politics is augmented by the creation of besieged racial enclaves. Their growing appeal is not restricted to the alt-right. In July 2016, Babu Omowale, “national minister of defense” for the People’s New Black Panther Party, called for the eventual creation of a black-only nation out of five southern U.S. states.19 This would destroy the cosmopolitan pleasures of our modern world, where people have unparalleled opportunity to travel, move, work, love and exist without control from governments or other authorities.

A new political alignment must renew the fight to eliminate discrimination against groups based on sex, nationality, race and so on – not as an opportunity to war against other groups but as part of a struggle against the very idea of those group distinctions and in favour of individual freedom rooted in a notion of common humanity. The ideas one holds ought to be the only basis for conflict.

That means setting rules around intellectual debate and accepting that there is a universal truth that can be, if not known, at least pursued. It recognizes the intellectual decline that has accompanied the rise of postmodernism and relativism, the elevation of the subjective over the objective, the tribe over the universal, the muzzle over the debate. An empirical framework lifts up all debate, privileging only reason and logic. This is vital: while there will be differences on issues including taxes, social welfare, even the justice system, if discussion takes place in accord with classical liberal and Enlightenment principles we are likely to see further progress and development, as we saw when these principles were accepted by most Western countries throughout the second half of the 20th century.

The notion of treating people as individuals combats a populist narrative that champions nationalism over internationalism and hostility toward outsiders regardless of their individual merit. The new political alignment unites those who believe values and morals are universal, applying equally to all humans regardless of the culture they live in or the location of their birth. This means openly rejecting cultural relativism and insisting on a secular, liberal approach to public life.

This new political alignment lies along a liberal vs. authoritarian axis. To resurrect a label first posited by the late British centre-left politician Roy Jenkins in the 1970s, what is needed is a radical centre. In terms of economic and foreign policy the new alignment is committed to broadly free markets and open trade (with room for evidence-based debate within these parameters), and internationalism in foreign policy.

The new alignment does not require the shedding of current political labels; there is room for social democrats, liberals, conservatives, libertarians and so forth, provided they believe in these core tenets. The new alignment is not a replacement for policy but the rebuilding of a common foundation on which different policy structures can be built, a clear statement that all ideas must be contained within the principles described above and those that cross those boundaries will be forcefully confronted.

These suggestions will not sit easily with some readers. They demand a forceful calling out of bad actors within one’s own political camp and a warmer embrace of those in other camps who share the same broad ideals. They mean defending those in other political camps when their freedoms are threatened and constantly acknowledging a commonality of principle. Advocacy for this new alignment needs to occur in broader civil society, in conversation, opinion pages, on social media, via think tanks and advocacy groups and through political parties. The mechanics of a new alignment are not settled – first the need for that realignment must gain currency.

Resetting public discourse around classical liberal values requires action on numerous fronts. It requires nurturing robust popular sentiment in support of those values, revulsion toward those who oppose them, and a society where censorious identity politics, the dismissal of the individual, the poison of relativism and the intellectual dead-end of disregard for evidence are relegated to a small minority. This minority may be persistent, but it will be persistently defeated in the open light of reason and debate.

Continue reading “Standing up to Trump, Le Pen and Putin”

Populism is growing across the West. Established political parties are atrophying. Political norms are changing, fast. Traditional parties in Europe and the United States are petrified. The future of the European Union (EU) is in jeopardy. The rise of the nationalist Fidesz in Hungary and the Law and Justice government in Poland have echoes beyond the less established democracies of the former Soviet bloc. The French National Front and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) are now major players. Anti-immigrant populists disrupt the traditionally placid politics of the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and Germany. Ultraleft parties, equally disdainful of the EU and liberal capitalism, are rising as well, most notably Syriza in Greece, but also Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s protectionist nativist insurgency has engaged millions of traditional nonvoters and thrown the Republican Party establishment into a nervous breakdown, while the Democrats’ Bernie Sanders has led a charge that is equally hostile to free trade and international engagement.

Why are these parties and tendencies within parties in the ascendant? Many attribute the populists’ success to platforms and policies, but these movements transcend established concepts of left and right. Popular fatigue with the caution and perceived ineffectiveness of mainstream politics and the air of authenticity exhibited by many populists, who dare to say things excluded from mainstream democratic discourse for many decades, partly explain the phenomenon. Rejecting the pillars of post–Cold War liberalism and globalization, they are united by a politics that is, to varying degrees, parochial.

Who are the parochial populists?

The populist worldview champions “ordinary people” over “elites.” Seen through the populist lens, elites are not defined by income or social standing, as they would be by Marxists or liberals, but by opinions and tastes. To be a member of the elite is to hold and promote views seen as scornful of or hostile to those of ordinary people – ordinary people being whoever controls the agenda of a populist movement or party says they are. Political operatives, the mainstream media, career civil servants, bankers and lobbyists, artists, university professors and liberal arts students are all the enemy to most populists. Ultraleft populists, who are allied with the academic elites, excise the last few categories from their enemies list but are otherwise aligned.

There is nothing new about populism: it has long been used by centre-right and centre-left parties to mobilize voters. In Canada populism drove the farmer rebellions of the Progressive Party in the 1920s; the CCF in the 1930s and later its successor the NDP; the rural Quebec crusade against urban modernity launched by the Créditistes in the 1960s; and Preston Manning’s Reform Party campaign against the Laurentian elite in the 1990s. Given the strength of populism in Canadian politics it is surprising that, so far, Canada has been largely immune from the most recent populist wave.

What is interesting about the new breed of parochial populism is that it explicitly rejects the classical liberalism of the centre-right and centre-left and the basis of the post-1945, and especially post–Cold War, consensus. In the process it has become potentially very dangerous.

That consensus was defined by a series of norms and policy directions – what the Swedes call the asiktskorridor or “opinion corridor.” The walls of this corridor included trust in institutions including governments and trade unions, liberalized trade, the dismantling of protectionism, a positive attitude toward immigration, the transfer of national power to international bodies (the United Nations and trading blocs such as the European Union) and (though unevenly) liberal social views and liberal interventionism in foreign policy. The sum total was a drive toward openness and universality. This consensus became dominant with the questioning of Keynesian economics in the 1970s and the collapse of Soviet Communism in the late 1980s, as the second era of globalization (the first having run from roughly 1870 to 1914) took off. The consensus peaked around the beginning of this century, with its symbolic pinnacle on September 10, 2001.

The rise of global Islamism that launched the attacks of September 11, 2001, provoked the last spasm of post–Cold War internationalism, which came to be seen as responsible for bogging the West down in constant and apparently unwinnable war. Trade liberalization is seen as having hastened the disappearance of stable middle-class jobs that could be secured with a high school diploma. The failure of immigrant communities to integrate into local cultures, an outcome often encouraged by state multiculturalism, has increased the anxieties of those who feel the pressure of competition for low-skilled work. Islamist terror attacks by domestic Muslims only exacerbated concerns around immigration. Political institutions, occupied by wealthy and self-appointed elites who dictate to the masses regardless of popular feeling, appear increasingly distant and beyond influence; the unelected and bureaucratic EU probably stands as the ultimate example.

As table 1 shows, populism creates strange bedfellows. At first glance these political alignments look mismatched. Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump in the same category? The post-Communist Left Party next to the National Front? Assumptions that hold these movements to be in conflict stem from the outdated left-right paradigm that underpinned the liberal consensus. It is no longer useful in describing the way voters behave or think, and it is time to retire it. All these groups share some basic attitudes:

  • protectionism in trade, and a rejection of or deep scepticism of freer trade;
  • foreign policy isolationism and an aversion to liberal interventionism;
  • immigrants not regarded as part of the national community (either excluded or seen as a separate entity);
  • rejection of or at least deep scepticism toward the European Union project;
  • a stronger welfare state, often with benefits based on nativist criteria.

9_Table_2

And as we see in table 2, these parties are on the rise.

Why right-wing populists aren’t right-wing

Many populist parties and movements – including the French National Front, Britain’s UKIP and the Nordic anti-immigrant parties, along with Trump’s presidential bid – are classified as right-wing. This does not describe what these parties actually advocate, and creates the impression of a greater gulf between them and the Syrizas and Jeremy Corbyns of the world than actually exists.

Historic divisions between left and right applied principally to economics, with the right end of the spectrum preferring less state intervention and the left preferring more. Social liberalism and social conservatism were tacked onto that economic spectrum but they are more accurately plotted along a libertarian-authoritarian axis. The trend in the West from the 1960s on saw economic and social policies conflated. That moment has now passed.

Today’s parochial right-populists show little interest in freer markets or economic liberalism, or in any dismantling of statist welfare structures. This populist rejection of economic liberalism is the result of a particular reading of the impact of globalization, which has hastened the deindustrialization of the West and the loss of low-skilled but well-paid manufacturing jobs. That in turn has led to a nostalgia for protectionism and amnesia about the troubles caused by Western attempts at autarky and protectionism during the interwar years.

The time when a low-skilled factory job could support a middle-class lifestyle was a historical anomaly. During that time, the West led the way in the development of a global consumer economy and benefited from the comparative underdevelopment of the rest of the world. Most countries resisted globalization, or formally market-based economics. The Soviet bloc engaged in autarky, China was engulfed by Maoist madness and India practised misguided localism before perpetual poverty and popular pressure convinced its government to liberalize in the early 1990s. Western leftists could have taken solace from the rapid global decrease in poverty: the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day fell from 1.95 billion, or 37 per cent of the global population, in 1990 to 896 million, or 12.7 per cent of the global population, in 2012.1 Sadly, this was not the Western left’s response.

Parochial populism is driven by a fear that open borders, freer trade and general economic openness will lead to openness in other spheres. “Old-stock” inhabitants must be protected. Tariffs are a barrier against the assaults of the world, to be raised in synch with closing the immigration drawbridge.

Most parochial populists support an elaborate welfare state, provided it only serves old-stock inhabitants. David Frum calls them the “parties of incumbent claim,” pining for the welfare state of 1980 serving the citizens of 1980.2 The Danish People’s Party advocates a fully tax-funded health care system; the Sweden Democrats would increase housing subsidies and lower taxes for the elderly; UKIP is a full-throated champion of the National Health Service. Even Donald Trump talks of replacing Obamacare with something better and protecting Medicare (state-covered health care for Americans over 65). The right populist Tea Party was sparked by seniors seeking to protect Medicare against President Obama’s universal health care plan. Today’s so-called “right-wing” populists are not fans of Milton Friedman.

Nor can parochial populist parties and movements be dismissed as traditional social conservatives. Many forcefully defend “liberal” values from a nationalist perspective, arguing the need to safeguard gay rights, women’s equality and other rights and freedoms from an Islamist assault. The curious assumption is that supposedly universal liberal values can be shared only among indigenous residents of liberal nations, a perspective best described as Continental Powellism. (Enoch Powell was a prominent British MP who, in the 1960s, predicted “rivers of blood” in the future if Britain allowed open immigration.) This feature of Western European parochial populists differentiates them from the more traditionally reactionary social conservatism of their Eastern European counterparts such as Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party, especially on matters such as gay rights.

Donald Trump has shown little interest in social conservatism as a political mobilizer, stumbling on the question of abortion and limiting his culture war on behalf of Christians to saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” When it comes to religiosity, a traditional litmus test for American social conservatives, Trump defies conventional wisdom. A January 2016 Pew Research poll about all the major presidential contenders found Trump viewed as the least religious, beating out Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. There were twice as many respondents who saw Trump as “not too / not at all religious” than who saw him as “very/somewhat religious.” As Tucker Carlson points out, many evangelicals have given up on electing one of their own and now want a protector of their faith.

The sea change in American social values over the last 20 years has affected Republicans as well as Democrats. Between 2005 and 2015, support for same-sex marriage among Republicans, according to Pew Research, increased from 19 to 34 per cent. This did not just reflect older voters dying off and younger, more socially liberal voters entering the sample. Attitudes changed within generational blocs as well. Support for same-sex marriage among the “silent generation,” born between 1928 and 1945, jumped from 23 to 39 per cent.3 Other concerns have overtaken traditional social conservatism, a fact the Republican establishment, the media and Democrats have been slow to recognize. As Michael Lind commented in September 2015,

Trump has exposed the deep disagreements on immigration and trade policy between the Republican Party’s donor elite and its white working class base. Until recently Republican conservative politicians ignored the economic nationalism and protectionism of their voters, seeking to placate them on social issues by proposing to outlaw abortion and same-sex marriage. But now that Trump has awakened the slumbering Kraken of European-style national populism in the U.S., Republicans may have trouble changing the subject away from trade protectionism and immigration restriction and back to “God, guns and gays.”4

The end of secular cosmopolitanism

On the surface, “right-wing” and “left-wing” populists have little in common on the subject of immigration. Scratch below the surface and they are united in mutual rejection of cosmopolitanism based on universal liberal values. This rejection manifests as nativist xenophobia within some movements, while in others it takes the form of an asymmetrical view of rights and a relativist approach to values.

Labour’s Corbyn and the German Left Party accept immigration but are hostile to any notion that immigrant communities ought to be subject to the same laws and rights as native-born citizens. This is most evident in their attitude toward political Islam, with varying degrees of acquiescence in the idea of shari‘a coexisting with secular law and bending secular liberal values to accommodate Islamist views, no matter how extreme. Liberal values are suitable only for native-born, non-Muslim citizens, and even then these values and freedoms are to be watered down to appease the loudest imams. Ironically, this stance abandons liberal Muslims confronting extremism, denying them the support of a universal, nonsectarian, liberal community. It also ensures that only xenophobic populists are left to address genuine anxieties associated with Islamic immigration and communities in the West.

Putin’s pals

Hostility to internationalism and the alliances and humanitarian interventionism it sometimes entails is at the heart of parochial populist movements. Donald Trump bemoans American dollars spent stationing American troops in South Korea while expressing scepticism about American military adventures. Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn stand together to question British military power being used for humanitarian purposes, while Corbyn and Trump support their respective countries’ withdrawal from NATO.

The hostility to internationalism of Donald Trump, not to mention Bernie Sanders, is particularly out of place for a presidential front-runner, given American primacy. Trump is no pacifist and is not opposed to using American military force (especially to “kick the shit out of ISIS,” as he eloquently phrases it), but he is doubtful of the value of American military commitments in East Asia and Europe and thoroughly opposed to nation-building and liberal interventionism. His campaign speeches suggest that he welcomes tyrannical regimes provided they do not cause grief to American interests: he has expressed geopolitical laments for the toppling of the Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi regimes. Trump wants a beefed up U.S. military but one that stays home, guarding the Great Wall on the Rio Grande.

Trump’s popularity and his isolationism are not unrelated. In 1964 Gallup recorded only 20 per cent of Americans who agreed with the statement that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.” During the Cold War period, isolationism peaked at 43 per cent in 1976, in the aftermath of Vietnam and at the height of détente with the Soviet Union. In 2013, Pew Research found that a post-1945 record of 52 per cent of Americans believed that the United States should mind its own business.5 Trump and Bernie Sanders both speak to this fatigue with global leadership among American voters.

A common feature of these movements is their readiness to apologize for and seek warm relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime. Britain’s Farage and Corbyn claim that NATO provoked Russia’s intervention in Ukraine by “encroaching” on Russia’s sphere of influence. Farage goes further, praising Putin as a co-combatant in the fight against Islamism. Donald Trump has embraced Putin’s praise and expresses appreciation for Putin’s military adventure in Syria. The German Left Party sent election observers to watch the entirely illegitimate 2014 Crimean referendum, in effect endorsing Russian annexation. During the same year France’s National Front accepted a Kremlin-backed loan worth €9.4 million.

These movements often admire strong men, and Putin shares with them a contempt for the West. In receiving and reciprocating this praise, Putin puts the parochial populists to work furthering his primary foreign policy goal of splintering the EU, as the historian Timothy Snyder pointed out in 2014.6

Putin’s anti-EU thrust does not stem from the concerns about bureaucratization or antidemocratic impulses in the European Commission that motivate his populist allies (and many liberal and libertarian critiques of the EU). Rather, it is based on old-style Westphalian foreign policy that seeks to enhance Russia’s relative power. Parochial populists are Russia’s “useful idiots” of the early 21st century. In Putin, they have found the father figure they were looking for, a role model for both the self-styled left and right.

How can liberals respond?

A comprehensive cosmopolitan, internationalist and liberal response to the challenges identified is well beyond the scope of this article. I offer a few suggestions.

We must stop being afraid of offending others. Part of the new populists’ appeal is stylistic: a pose that says they are not held back by the niceties of political correctness on the one hand or traditional behaviour on the other. Politics is about ideas, and ideas should never be expected to hold universal appeal. This implies a didactic politics, with no genuine liberal assuming that any position will be universally accepted.

For instance, the merits of free trade must once again be argued, on the basis of facts, rather than accepted as obvious. That also means accepting the downsides to free trade and explaining how they can be addressed. The endless slog of defending liberal values, of influencing public opinion, will have to be embarked on as a conscious project. Liberals will be insurgents, challenging not the left or right but conclusions that stem from dogma, not evidence. The crowds in the streets and votes in the ballot box supporting today’s parochial populists tell us that the liberal assumptions those parties are trashing are clearly not settled facts. Contrary points of views can no longer be dismissed as unworthy of attention simply because they don’t make sense to us.

In addressing the concerns raised by the parochial populists, sometimes it’s not just a question of defending anew an established belief under ill-informed attack. Sometimes the parochial populists are right, as when they talk about a disconnected elite that generally, and often openly, holds the broad mass of the public in contempt. There must be an effort to understand – and mitigate – the anxieties that motivate populism’s supporters. This will not always be successful, nor will populist solutions match broad liberal values in some cases, but the effort must be made. Instead of dismissing these voters with lazy caricatures, there must at least be an effort to understand where they are coming from,.

Cosmopolitan liberals must acknowledge their failures and adjust their policies, specifically in the areas of immigration and trade. This ought to be done in part defensively, to ensure the survival of liberal cosmopolitanism against the risk of populist revolt. But it also needs to be done to enhance cosmopolitan liberal values, by acknowledging where these values may have been injured in the pursuit of certain liberal-inspired goals.

State-directed multiculturalism – as opposed to “multiculturalism as lived experience” as British writer Kennan Mallick puts it – must be acknowledged as a failure, at least in Western Europe. Rather than nurture a heterogeneous but still coherent society, it has created a patchwork of detached and often hostile communities. It is particularly dangerous for the maintenance of liberal societies when ghettoized communities fall prey to radical Islam, only feeding the parochial populist narrative. If the combination of liberal social values and heterogeneity achieved through the free movements of people is to be saved, then liberals must regain confidence in the superiority of their ideals.

Recognizing and promoting the superiority of liberalism will require promoting a shared culture of secularism, individualism, personal freedom and pluralist values: a civic religion that makes it clear that Western societies have certain bedrock values that are not open to modification. Any promotion of a shared culture must be along liberal and secular lines, not narrow religious or ethnic ones, which is often what the populists – not to mention the Islamists – demand. Integration and assimilation have to be rehabilitated as positive, though limited, goals in defence of free speech, gender equality, gay rights and other liberal ideals, particularly in relation to new arrivals to the West. Such a stance will also provide refuge and example for moderate liberal Muslims, both in the West and in Muslim-majority countries desperate for modernization. The West can hardly assist those challenging Islamism in their own societies if we do not have the stomach to confront it here at home.

On trade, there must be an honest acceptance that the promises of the 1990s have not been realized on all fronts. The hope was to bring China and other emerging economies led by dubious regimes to the table via trade and start these societies on the path toward liberalization and democracy through the strength of the West’s example. China today is on the verge of becoming the world’s largest economy and is, if anything, more repressive than it was in the 1990s. Open trade with China has enriched an emerging totalitarian superpower, with clear strategic interests that challenge democracy and Western interests in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It should be difficult for liberal free traders to defend a system that builds up the economies of countries that reject the tenets of classical liberalism.

How can this be addressed without retreating to mercantilism or protectionism? A system of conditional free trade, a “democratic preference,” could operate among states that meet a minimal standard of democratic principles. The only tariff would be a tariff on totalitarianism. This would not diminish the appeal of protectionism to many populists, but it would address anxiety about free trade, protect globalized trade and include questions of democratic principles in discussion of trade and national interests.

When confronting parochial populism in the specific case of Western Europe, cosmopolitan liberals must insist on democratic reform of the European Union: an EU not governed by and committed to classical liberal principles is not fit for purpose. Liberals must counter the populists’ nationalist critique of the EU with a strong democratic critique, and a plan for making it real.

Finally, the West needs new political alliances within itself. The old binary of left and right is now inoperable. Parochial populists defy it in their own policies and alliances. Nigel Farage and George Galloway embraced onstage at the launch of the Leave campaign in Britain’s 2016 referendum on EU membership. (George Galloway is a prominent UK politician associated with advocacy on behalf of immigrant communities.) The Syriza government in Greece selected the right-populist, anti-EU Independent Greeks as its coalition partner. The parochial populists know who their allies are, and a politics that confronts populism using a framework that populism itself discredits is of no use.

Globally, the fight for liberal, cosmopolitan values against not just domestic parochial populism but also the regressive left, Putinism, the Chinese Communist Party and Islamism necessitates new coalitions. Today’s broad centre-left and centre-right should acknowledge their shared appreciation for basic liberal values, despite differences about specifics, and abandon or reconcile divisions that distract from the real battles. There is a political reconfiguration taking place that recognizes that the real divide is between broadly libertarian and authoritarian values. Realizing this will provide the intellectual springboard from which parochial populists, and other antiliberal forces from Islamists to Putinesque nationalists and censor-happy campus activists, can be confronted and defeated. Continue reading “The politics of the raised drawbridge”

With Canada’s New Democratic Party looking for answers following the disastrous October 19 election result, there will be many who will look to the UK and the British Labour Party’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for ideas on how to revive the party. They should not.

Thirty years ago, then–Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock evicted the sectarian militants of the hard left who had tried to rip the party apart. At his party’s annual meeting in 1985 he said,

Implausible promises don’t win victories. I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs … The people will not, cannot, abide posturing. They cannot respect the gesture-generals or the tendency-tacticians … They might try to blame others – workers, trade unions, some other leadership, the people of the city – for not showing sufficient revolutionary consciousness, always somebody else, and then they claim a rampant victory. Whose victory? Not victory for the people, not victory for them … They are not to be found amongst the leaders and some of the enthusiasts; they are to be found amongst the people whose jobs are destroyed, whose services are crushed, whose living standards are pushed down to deeper depths of insecurity and misery.

That speech led to the expulsion of various Trotskyists, the beginning of Labour’s move to become the New Labour of Tony Blair, an unparalleled three consecutive majority election victories, and eventual defeat under Gordon Brown at the 2010 election. The legacy of the New Labour project was debated from 2010 to 2015 as Brown’s successor, Ed Miliband, tried to reach out to the disenfranchised old left of the party while maintaining New Labour’s electability and organization. The hard left was not part of the argument until, following the May 2015 election, it came back to life with a vengeance and the Labour Party elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader.

The victory of Corbyn, a 32-year veteran of the backbenches with more than 500 votes against his own party on his record, was not some accident but a symptom of a party engaged in an exuberant detachment from reality. On September 11, 49.6 per cent of the party’s fully paid-up members voted for Jeremy Corbyn on the first ballot of the leadership race. Corbyn’s victory is often attributed to the “affiliated supporters” who signed up for only £3, many from trade unions or extreme left groupings, not to mention a few mischievous Tories. While supporters propelled Corbyn’s first-ballot victory to nearly 60 per cent, the point remains that Labour’s rank-and-file, as a whole, preferred Corbyn’s message to any other on offer.

Hard left versus Third Way

Originally, I intended to lay out a blueprint for the future policy direction of the Labour Party in the aftermath of its crushing loss. Had the party selected Liz Kendall as its new leader, as I hoped, those ideas could have been implemented. They would have been acceptable to a Labour Party led by Yvette Cooper or, to a lesser extent, Andy Burnham, the other two leadership candidates. The party’s selection of Corbyn, whose politics is a mix of old-style statism, hand-wringing isolationism informed by apologetics for Vladimir Putin and jihadists, and total lack of interest in the devolution of political power, means my policy prescriptions now only serve as points of contrast, intersections between the real world of people’s needs, to use Kinnock’s words, and the destructive 1980s nostalgia kick Corbyn has embarked upon.

What is Corbyn rejecting? It is useful to elaborate on the broad differences in thinking between the hard-left dogma of Corbyn and the centre-left philosophy of New Labour and the Third Way. The old left represented by Corbyn is steadfastly committed to nationalized industries, a neutralist foreign policy and a consequently neutered military, a preference for autarky over trade, a distrust of British membership in Europe and a “the state knows best” philosophy of handling social matters.

Third Way, radical centrist Labour politics embraces the market as the most effective means of generating wealth and is instead concerned with ensuring that workers are treated fairly within such a system and that the benefits of the market are as widespread and accessible as possible. A heavy emphasis is placed on education and skills training, along with entrepreneurship and innovation. Third Way philosophy also seeks to focus on the outcome of social programs and the delivery of social goods, rather than fetishizing the means through which those programs are delivered. Therefore, if nonstate or hybrid private-state methods of providing social goods are found to be more practical, they ought to be embraced. Finally, Third Way thinking embraces globalization and cosmopolitanism, seeing the larger world as an opportunity rather than a threat, and is robustly involved in international affairs, including a universalist approach to human rights, with the military ready to intervene to enforce those rights.

Detractors often assert that radical centrist, Third Way–inspired policies are inherent concessions to the right, watered down for reasons of political expediency. It is easy to see the flaw in this argument. First, some of the central tenets of Third Way thought, like a forceful defence of an interventionist foreign policy backed by military action if necessary and a liberal attitude toward immigration, are hardly recipes to achieve immediate popularity in contemporary Britain. Tony Blair, for better or worse still the most articulate promoter of radical centrism, pointed out that political expediency was not his motivation for rejecting Corbyn’s program. At a July 2015 speech to the Labour pressure group Progress he said, “So let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.” Outdated socialist ideas are bad ideas, and while they lack popular appeal, the fact they don’t work is the reason to reject them. Third Way thinking is attentive to shifting popular moods, but only so that those moods can be harnessed to further the development and implementation of policies.

For all their talk of principle, in contrast to what they present as the spin-centred rootlessness of Blair’s New Labour and the incoherent populism of Ed Miliband, the Corbynites often refer to the supposed popularity of their positions to make or at least buttress them. The leadership campaign featured Corbyn constantly repeating that Labour lost the May election because it ran on a platform of “austerity-lite,” that it did not offer a radical break from the Cameron-Clegg coalition and thus failed to inspire the electorate. A quick Google search will find numerous far-left bloggers and pundits arguing that voters rejected Labour because it was too similar to the Tories, that Britons craved a truly socialist alternative and, finding Labour wanting, bolted for the Greens or Scottish National Party (SNP), or else didn’t vote. This ignores the reasons why Labour voters in Scotland switched to the SNP and ignores the even more important fact that more 2010 Labour voters switched to the Tories than to the Greens and SNP combined.1 Here, for example, is Owen Jones, boy wonder of the outdated British left, in June 2015:

will be able to draw from the findings of Britain’s leading pollster, John Curtice … These findings dispute that Labour lost for being too leftwing, and underline that Labour lost Scotland partly for being too rightwing. Corbyn could also draw on the conclusion of Peter Kellner, the YouGov pollster, that however Ed Miliband allowed himself to be portrayed, his policies were less radical than those of Tony Blair in 1997. He could nail why Labour lost … the lack of any coherent alternative. If Labour MPs deny the party and the country a genuine debate, it will reflect disastrously on them.2

Corbyn and his tribe rely on claims that their policies are popular as much as claims that they are correct. Hardly an appeal to principle or, if you look at data on the British electorate, hardly an appeal to reality.

The need for sound fiscal stewardship

The Corbyn line about Labour losing because it ran as an “austerity-lite” party is contradicted by the party’s own research and analysis. The “Independent Inquiry into Why Labour Lost” revealed that voters rejected the party because they did not regard it as a safe pair of fiscal hands. Far from dismissing the party as promoting “austerity lite,” as the Corbynites would assert, voters shunned Labour because it was viewed as, in Labour MP Jon Cruddas’s words, “anti-austerity lite,” as not taking the deficit seriously. In the Inquiry’s polling, 58 per cent of voters agreed that living within our means and cutting the deficit is a top priority, compared to just 16 per cent who disagreed. Even among Labour voters, 32 per cent agreed with this sentiment, compared to 34 per cent who disagreed. As Cruddas bluntly summed it up, “The Tories won because voters believed they will cut the deficit, even though a majority understand that the economic system is unfair. The Tories’ message on the deficit was clear, Labour’s was not. The Tories are trusted to manage the country’s finances, Labour is not.”

That the need for sound fiscal stewardship is not established progressive code is a depressing reality that centre-left Canadians are all too familiar with. Corbyn’s lack of interest in balanced budgets is not only deadly to Labour’s electoral chances but also inherently anti-progressive. Reflecting on Labour’s election defeat, the party’s shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, nicely summed up a progressive rationale for fiscal discipline: “It is not ‘Tory lite’ to argue that, in the long term, it would be better not to continue with a situation where we spend more every year paying debt interest to City speculators and investors who hold government debt than we spend on housing, transport or education.”

The need for sound finances to ensure that public funds are available to be spent on social programs instead of debt servicing raises another area in which Corbyn’s political ideas lack popular appeal: the basic question of what ought to be the purview of the state.

Corbyn’s prescriptions for Britain envision a series of renationalizations of services and an affinity for state-run behemoths. Corbyn’s support for renationalizing Britain’s railway network, which he has given the ominously Soviet-sounding title of “People’s Railway,” enjoys popular appeal.3 But this should not be misunderstood as broad popular support for a more statist approach to the economy and delivery of social goods, or at least a return to the statism of the 1970s.

The Blue Labour movement that gained traction after Labour’s loss in 2010 addresses the statist overreach of past Labour governments and accordingly reimagines social democracy in a manner that acknowledges these shortcomings. For instance, Blue Labour questions the legacy left by the Attlee government of the 1940s, and perpetuated in the Wilson-Callaghan era of the 1960s and 1970s, of a large centralized state that sought to deliver public goods. As Blue Labour advocate Lord Glasman put it in 2011, “1945 was a wonderful achievement of solidarity. But the sting in the tail of 1945 was that it broke all the mutual solidarity – the ways we took care of each other – and handed them over to the state.” Blue Labour seeks to redress this problem by granting greater power to communities to deliver and administer public goods and social welfare, so that communities can take greater responsibility for their own challenges, minimizing the reach and power of a Leviathan welfare state in people’s lives.

Blue Labour’s thinking on a redesigned welfare state chimes with a growing libertarianism among young Britons. The British Social Attitudes survey has shown that the newest generation of voters, those born after 1979, are not just more classically liberal than older cohorts of voters at present, but are more classically liberal than these older cohorts of voters were when they were the same age. More than any other age group of British voters, “Generation Y” believes in low taxes, limited welfare and personal responsibility. Over two thirds of those born before 1939 consider the welfare state “one of Britain’s proudest achievements,” compared to less than one third of those born after 1979 who feel the same. In other words, Corbyn’s state-run answer to every social need and problem does not resonate with the bulk of new voters.

Missing the devolution boat

Blue Labour also concerns itself with the next big idea which Labour could promote (though it is unlikely to do so under Corbyn), and which speaks to a growing desire among British voters: a more devolved, decentralized Britain. This includes both promoting greater local control for cities and remaking Britain as a federal state.

Enhancing the political and decision-making power of local communities, including taxing and spending powers (Westminster currently raises 95 per cent of British taxes) does have proponents within the Labour Party, most notably MP Tristram Hunt and former party leadership candidate Liz Kendall. However, the Corbyn campaign did not address this issue or greater devolution in any noticeable way.

A February 2015 Survation poll found that English and Welsh voters support the formation of an English Parliament by a margin of more than two to one. Meanwhile, 61 per cent of English voters feel that too much of England is run from London, versus only 14 per cent who don’t believe this. The desire for greater devolution and local power also explains Labour’s collapse in Scotland between the 2010 and 2015 elections far better than the oft-repeated claim that Scotland fled Labour for the Scottish National Party because Labour wasn’t sufficiently “left-wing.”

The polling data gathered on the eve of the general election suggest that a more left-wing Labour Party would not have brought more Scots on board. When asked by Survation in December 2014 if a Labour Party committed to renationalization of entities such as railways and utilities would make one more or less likely to vote Labour in the upcoming election, only 33 per cent of Scots stated that they would be more likely to vote Labour. This compares to 48 per cent for whom it would make no difference, while 10 per cent said it would make them less likely to vote Labour. The same poll found that only 26 per cent of Scots believed that taxes levied by the Holyrood government in Edinburgh should be raised to fund better public services, compared to 41 per cent who thought the tax-to-spending ratio was about right and 13 per cent who believed that both taxes and spending ought to be reduced. So the Corbynite assertion that Scottish voters are of a leftist hue so red that Labour could not accommodate them seems a doubtful premise for Labour’s losses to the SNP.

What the polling data do suggest, however, is that the SNP surge in Scotland, and Labour’s concurrent losses, were due to the desire for greater powers that the Corbyn camp is oblivious to. According to Panelbase, Scots want full fiscal autonomy by a margin of 53 per cent in favour to 33 per cent opposed, while a margin of 51 per cent to 29 per cent favour a Scottish Parliament with control overs all areas of government policy except defence and foreign affairs.

Trust in the pan-UK parties to deliver on their promises of increased devolution for Scotland was nonexistent as the election approached. In February 2015, a YouGov poll found that 39 per cent of Scots believed that the unionist parties would likely deliver on these promises, compared to 54 per cent who thought they were unlikely to. When asked during the campaign which party would be most effective at securing increased powers for the Scottish Parliament, 69 per cent of Scots opted for the SNP, compared to a mere 14 per cent for Labour.

According to Panelbase, by a margin of three to one, Scots believed that an SNP balance of power would force the British government to deliver more powers to Scotland. And an SNP balance of power was the most preferred election outcome among Scots. In February 2015, 35 per cent of Scottish voters preferred a Labour-SNP coalition while 10 per cent preferred a Conservative-SNP coalition. This combined 45 per cent whose preference was to see the SNP as a junior partner in a coalition was notably larger than those who preferred a Labour majority (19 per cent), a Conservative majority (12 per cent) or the continuation of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition (7 per cent).

The verdict of public opinion

Corbyn is ambiguous on British membership in the European Union and overtly hostile to British membership in NATO, promoting a Britain that would retreat from concern beyond the cliffs of Dover. In this regard he is far more similar to Nigel Farage, leader of the right-wing populist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), than either would care to admit. Both envision a fortress Britain – though in Corbyn’s case the fortress would be disarmed – and they interpret world events in a similar manner. Both Corbyn and Farage regard NATO as the cause of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, and advocate a cold realpolitik that would see the fragile democracy there and in the Baltic states sacrificed to placate the Russian autocrat. This extends to Corbyn and Farage’s willingness to see human rights tragedies proliferate on the grounds that foreign interventions make things worse or are inappropriate for Western powers, who must pay for their legacy of colonialism by turning their backs on the slaughter and oppression of Syrians, Ukrainians, Zimbabweans and so on. By upholding such views, Corbyn betrays one of the finest legacies of the left, the notion of a common humanity and the universality of human dignity, and the commitment to internationalism that springs from that.

The clearest indication that Jeremy Corbyn is blind to the broad swath of British public opinion can be found in the polls conducted since he became Labour leader. What these indicate is that beyond the din of his admirers’ cheers, the country as a whole does not welcome or trust his policies.

A YouGov poll conducted soon after Corbyn became Labour leader asked respondents to what degree they trusted Corbyn on a series of policy fronts. It is worth noting that Corbyn’s victory came after a lot of media buzz around his ideas and previous stances and statements, so respondents were not answering questions about a blank slate. The only area where voters expressed overall trust for Corbyn was in handling the National Health Service, where he earned a modest net positive 6 per cent. This is not surprising given that the NHS is the most cherished legacy of past Labour governments among the British public. However, the warm feelings stop there.

On government spending and cuts Corbyn scored negative 19 per cent, taxes negative 20 per cent, Britain’s relations with the EU negative 23 per cent, immigration negative 24 per cent, economic management negative 27 per cent, terrorism negative 27 per cent, and defence negative 34 per cent. One of Corbyn’s most cherished policies, scrapping Britain’s Trident nuclear weapons, lacks appeal even among Labour supporters. A Survation poll conducted on the eve of the September 2015 Labour Party conference found that 55 per cent of Britons believed Trident should be retained versus only 18 per cent who wanted to see it scrapped. Among Labour supporters the score was hardly better: 54 per cent in favour of Trident compared to 22 per cent against.

Overall, a Labour Party ruled by the Corbynites is even less electable than the party of Ed Miliband. An ORB Research poll conducted in the week after Corbyn won the leadership revealed that not one single demographic group, be it based on gender, age, social grade, employment sector or region, was more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as leader. Only among those who already cast their vote for Labour in their disastrous showing in May 2015, and those who voted for “Other” parties (presumably the Greens in the main), did a net positive of voters say they would be more likely to vote Labour. Only 36 per cent of SNP voters in May 2015 said they were more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as leader, compared to 64 per cent who said they would not be more likely, further countering the claim that the SNP surge was due to a lack of socialist adherence on Labour’s part. Those who would not be more likely to vote Labour with Corbyn as leader won out by a margin of three to one among Liberal Democrat voters and four to one among UKIP voters.

Polling numbers aside, my opposition to Corbyn’s policies is based on their inherent lack of merit. His economic prescriptions – a fascination with command economy statism that distrusts independent innovation and regards the market as inherently flawed, as opposed to a great wealth generator that needs to be democratized and humanized – were outdated even before he won his parliamentary seat in 1983. His view of the means as an end in itself and the actual functionality of state-run enterprises as irrelevant in their promotion represents the worst of the old left. Corbyn’s faith in an all-controlling, all-knowing state is also evident in his woeful lack of interest in the next big area that centre-left thinking is exploring and needs to respond to, which is the devolution and localization of political power. Corbyn is not for power to the people so much as power on the people.

Too often it is assumed that hard left positions represent pure idealism, with no hint of calculation or electoral consideration. These concerns actually factor greatly in the assertions of the Corbynites. To every call for a return to or adoption of pure socialism, there is appended the cry that a return to power can only be built upon such a move. The Corbyn Labour Party is not a new type of politics; it’s simply a very old type, done very poorly. The Corbynites would be slightly less obnoxious if they were to drop the pretence of an argument between rootless and shifty Third Way advocates and principled socialists, and instead debate policies on their own merit. At the very least, the Corbyn victory, much like Syriza’s triumph in Greece, will serve as an example of what happens when the illiberal far left’s ideas are put into practice. Continue reading “Power on the people”