Sunday, December 15, 2019

Tory Tide

“The trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.”
 —Oscar Wilde, on the potential time drain of central planning
Way back in 2013 (that’s six years ago, for those not completely awake) some lazy blogger chanced his arm by bringing up an article in The Economist magazine about political trends among young people in Britain.

“The writer concludes,” wrote this blogger, “by describing how he spoke to young people of varying backgrounds, regions and levels of political engagement and asked if there were any politicians that appealed to them. ‘The reaction was strikingly uniform,’ he writes, ‘silence, then contemplation, then a one-word answer—“Boris”—before a flood of agreement: “Oh yeah, I’d vote for Boris Johnson.” The chaotic, colourful mayor of London, a rare politician who transcends his Tory identity by melding social and economic liberalism, appears to have Britain’s libertarian youth in the bag. The 2020 election beckons.’ ”

Did I mention that was written six years ago? Well, fair play to the staff writer who penned that prescient Economist piece and, especially, to the insightful blogger who highlighted it. (Yes, ’twas I.)

In fairness, it was not a perfect forecast. The election was held in December of 2019, not 2020. More importantly, while Johnson’s brand of classic (as opposed to modern) liberalism was undoubtedly a factor, it was not the main thing about him that propelled his party to one of the most decisive and unanticipated victories in UK politics for quite some time.

What the magazine writer and the blogger could not have anticipated was that the almost-2020 election would be dominated by something called Brexit. In another country under other circumstances, the election could well have been a second referendum on whether Britain should really be leaving the European Union. Because of the quirkiness of the UK political system, the choices felt more like a carnival con man’s shell game than a straightforward binary choice. The two major parties were each internally divided between Remainers and Brexiteers. The one viable and unambiguously pro-Remain party (the Liberal Democrats) should have been positioned to replace one of the major parties, but somehow it was led by a seemingly nice Scottish woman, who not only managed to alienate voters in general but who ended up losing her own seat in Parliament.

If you were a Remainer who couldn’t stomach the Lib Dems, then your logical choice should have been Labour, whose position was to promise a second referendum and thus a chance to reverse the 2016 referendum that kicked off the Brexit process in the first place. Yet Labour’s vote fell way, way below the number of Remain votes three years ago, and in fact, Labour was routed worse than has happened for decades. Had that many people been won over to the Brexit side? Doubtful.

For his part Johnson, upon taking over Conservative Party leadership from the hapless Theresa May in July, was bedeviled by divisions in his own party. That plus successful machinations by other parties meant that his only hope of achieving an orderly Brexit was to win a decisive Tory majority. He succeeded smashingly.

How did he do it? For one thing, he went head-to-head with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in promising to spend shed-loads of government money. More importantly, though, he relentlessly and tirelessly repeated one single, simple message over and over and over: Get Brexit Done.

Unlike Labour, whose leader did his best to avoid talking about Brexit or to even take a personal position on it (he voted to leave the EU in 2016), voters had a clear idea what they were voting for with the Conservatives. The “Get Brexit Done” mantra was inspired in that, while obviously sitting well with Brexit supporters, it also had an appeal for the mass of voters who, after three years, just wanted the whole mess finally ended, one way or another.

There is another major contributing factor to Labour’s disastrous performance—one which Joe Biden was quick to seize upon in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in the States. Since the departure of Ed Miliband as Labour leader four years ago, the party has been permeated and controlled by the far left. Corbyn’s life and career have been devoted to socialism and left-wing causes, including violent insurgents such as the Irish Republican Army. Despite the state of lawlessness and extra-constitutional rule in Venezuela, he has yet to denounce or even criticize Nicolás Maduro’s regime. If he had become prime minister, the country could have looked forward to a wave of high taxes and wholescale nationalizations.

Particularly troubling have been the defections and internal criticism within the party itself having to do with Corbyn’s tolerance for a growing anti-Semite element. The situation got so bad that Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unusual step of publicly speaking out.

We seem to be in an age where political parties strive to cast their opponents as not just wrong on policy but as illegitimate and disqualified from even holding office. We see this approach in the U.S. with the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings and in the Republican response. Dems say it is not safe to leave the president in office for the eleven months until the next election. The GOP suggests that one-party partisan impeachment is a sign that Democrats themselves are anti-democratic.

In Boris Johnson’s case, he did not have to invent an opposition that was virtually disqualified from governing. Could one or other of the American parties next year find itself in a similar situation?

Friday, November 8, 2019

Going to Extremes

In my last post (discussing the situation in Chile) I once again violated a resolution I keep making and then breaking. I broke my promise to stop using the political labels of “left” and “right.”

The problem is that these labels—along with “liberal” and “conservative”—are just too handy not to use. After all, everyone else uses them, and people generally understand what you mean by them. The older I get, though, the more I wonder whether these labels actually have any real meaning or whether they are merely banners to cluster around—like national flags or the names of sports teams.

Do these labels actually inform our understanding of the day’s politics or do they simply impose a mental filter that keeps us from perceiving the true reality?

A brief recap. The left/right political paradigm goes back more than two centuries. It comes from legislative seating arrangements in the time of the French Revolution. Members of the aristocracy sat in the honored position to the Speaker’s right. Commoners sat to his left. It is worth noting that in those days commoners in the legislature were not peasants or laborers but the rising capitalist class, that is, the bourgeoisie. This is also the roots of our concepts of conservatives and liberals. The former strove to conserve the institutions of monarchy and the established church, while the latter worked to liberate the people from the power of those institutions. That is somewhat at odds with our modern concept of the two words. Nowadays in America a conservative is more likely to be trying to restrain the power of government, while the liberal would be in favor of increasing it.

Of course, individual people’s political opinions do not all fall neatly into two broad categories. There is a huge array of beliefs and positions on issues of the day. For convenience, people place individual philosophies on a broad spectrum, in an echo of 18th-century France, running from left to right. Movements like communism, socialism, centrism, libertarianism, and fascism are placed along a row like colors of a rainbow to help us understand how one might relate to the others. Movements at the extreme ends tend to be authoritarian in character, while those in the center are considered more democratic.

What is interesting, though, is the affinity that those near the center tend to feel for their more authoritarian fellows on their half of the spectrum. Republicans will accept—if not exactly advertise or celebrate—any votes they can get, even if they come from the far right. Democrats, likewise, will not refute votes from hard-core Marxists if it gets their candidates across the electoral line. Why do things work this way? Why is there not more cooperation among those in the middle, even if they belong to different parties? For that matter, why do believers in authoritarianism not cooperate with others who, like them, want the government to exert more control?

The second question is easier to answer. If authoritarians want the government to have more power, it is not simply as a matter of principle, They want the power specifically for themselves or for people who think like they do. That is why you do not see communists and fascists making alliances of convenience.

Actually, that is not exactly true, is it? Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did exactly that with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, although it did not work out well for either of them. In fact, what strikes me about German history between the two world wars is the proliferation of radical movements. They all meant to rescue the country from its post-war state, and they all had authoritarian tendencies. Adolf Hitler’s movement went through several name changes, but they all had the word socialist in the title, including the Nazi party of which the full name was National Socialist German Workers Party. Historians put the Nazis on the right end of the political spectrum, but one wonders why. Because Hitler was virulently anti-communist? Yet that enmity looks to me more like a vicious rivalry among radical autocrats than like movements separated by a vast philosophical gulf.

By placing the Nazis on the extreme right of the political spectrum, though, it makes it easier for Democrats to compare Republican presidents they do not like to Hitler and Republicans in general to fascists. Hitler and Stalin may have ended up as bitter enemies, but did they not have a fair amount in common—at least in terms of disdain for democratic norms? Of course, linking politicians of the present to extremists of the past is not exclusively a Democratic tactic. Republicans unhappy with Democrats’ handling of the current impeachment inquiry, for example, have been quick to compare the closed hearings to Soviet show trials.

What interests me is why politicians in the broad center have a certain amount of tolerance for the extremes on their side of the spectrum. Is it all down to political expediency because it is the only way to get to a majority? Does that lead them to hear only what they want to hear from the fringes? Extremists have a habit of extolling the virtues of democracy in their rhetoric, yet both the hard left and the hard right would be similarly repressive—although in different ways—if they ever came to power.

If we could all get collective amnesia and forget about the well-entrenched left/right political-spectrum concept, I wonder if it would become clearer to moderates of both parties that their interests lie with each other rather than the more extreme elements upon whom they sometimes rely for votes. As it is, though, Democratic voters currently appear to be leaning in a more socialist direction. Moderate Republicans, on the other hand, have worried for more than three years about the direction President Trump is taking their party.

Will the so-called center somehow prevail in spite of all this? Or do politicians, perceiving the country as having an appetite for radical change, doing their best to foster an impression of providing it? In doing so, though, do they risk power ultimately landing with either the nationalist right or the socialist left? And we have seen plenty of examples in history of where that leads.

If it should happen, we can blame (at least in part) that concept of the left/right political spectrum that has been pounded into our brains for the past two centuries.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

October Rising

In the late 1970s I spent a year living and studying in Chile. Ever since, I have followed news from that country with great interest, and to this day, I maintain contact with some of the people I knew there.

You might think that this would mean I have some insight into the country’s current turmoil, yet I am totally perplexed and not certain exactly what to think about it. I guess this should not be surprising. After all, I was born and have lived most of my life in the United States, and yet current events in that country are completely baffling to me. The funny thing is that I know many people who have never lived in U.S. who are absolutely much more certain about what is going on there than I am. Go figure.

Chile's then-unused La Moneda presidential palace in 1977
Here are some things that I do know about Chile. (Conveniently, I have lately been revisiting many of my old memories, as the novel I am currently writing has a couple of chapters set in Santiago in the early 1980s.) Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, throughout its history Chile has mostly been a stable country with a truly democratic political system. There have been, however, periods where this was not true. Between 1927 and 1931 General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo headed an authoritarian government. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and led a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990.

My own personal first-hand experience with the country was during the early years of the Pinochet regime. Even though it was a dictatorship and there was a suspension of many civil liberties, I did get a clear sense of the divisions in Chilean society. Supporters of the government, that is to say, conservatives were quite vocal about their views. Alternative views were, not surprisingly, less forthcoming, but non-supporters of the regime were more than willing to share their opinions once I gained their confidence. What was striking were the completely disparate accounts of what life had been like a mere couple of years earlier under Allende’s government. It was difficult to believe that people were all actually talking about the same country. What was consistently clear, though, was that there was much turmoil. In the early 1970s the middle classes were out in the streets and banging their pots on their apartment balconies in protest of the left-wing government. Under Pinochet, of course, there were no protests, and a military night-time curfew ensured no one was out late at night.

What do we know about the current series of protests? We know they began as a student-led protest against an increase in fares of the Santiago subway system and that they then exploded into violence that included looting, vandalism, arson, and fatalities. One million people turned out which works out to about one out of every seven Santiago residents. As a result, conservative President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and then initiated a government shake-up.

The city center of Santiago in 1977
Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes the irony that this has happened at a time when Chile’s economic statistics are very positive. The official poverty rate has recently declined to under 9 percent, down from 68 percent in 1990. Furthermore, public transportation is heavily subsidized, and student fares were not actually affected by the recent increase. As a way of explanation, she cites a heavy leftist influence in Chilean schools to explain the young’s readiness to take to the streets. She also points to Cuban and Venezuelan influences.

Is it a paradox that instability should strike Chile when it is doing better economically than its neighbors? No. There was strong growth in the post-Pinochet 1990s, but in this century the middle class has seen its fortunes slip with rising prices and stagnant wages. Also, Piñera (who last year succeeded Socialist Michelle Bachelet as president) is one of the wealthiest people in the country and so makes a convenient target for student protestors. Objective commentary on the ground there suggests that the people’s grievances are real and justified while at the same time being exploited by the hard political left. Some also talk about intellectual and political laziness of millennials fed by materialism born of the years of economic prosperity.

Where will all of this lead? I for one do not have a clue. The political hard right had its way with an authoritarian hand for the better of two decades in the last century.

Is the hard left now gearing up for its turn?