Sunday, May 22, 2016

Minorities, the Politics of Proximity and Seccession

This weekend the New York Times carried a story about the increasing spread of Islamic Fundamentalism in Kosovo. For those of you trapped on the wrong  side of the paywall, it seeks to describe how “Extremist clerics and secretive associations funded by Saudis and others have transformed a once-tolerant Muslim society into a font of extremism.” Similar stories have appeared in recent years regarding Bosnia.

The term, “history is written by the winners” is often used today as a tool of identity politics, especially when pushing the almost gnostic interpretations that are common in fields such as Gender, African American, Chicano, or regional studies. But it could just as well be applied to anyone who did was not listened to at the time. Political positions rarely get second hearings once they have been condemned, and it is even rarer for them to receive such hearings when they have already been condemned as immoral or genocidal.

The narrative of the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s, the topic of my dissertation, is one in which the Bosnian Muslims are clearly the victims, even if the narrative of Serb aggression has occasionally received slightly more ambiguous handling. The Bosnian Muslims, so the interpretation went, were fighting for a democratic, multiethnic Bosnia, in the American mould, where Muslims, who made up 44% of the population, would have equal rights with Serbs, who made up 33%, and Croats, who made up 20%. By contrast, Serbian and Croatian forces, under the control of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb, and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade, sought to parcel out Bosnia between them.


Both at the time, and in virtually all histories since, Croatian and Serbian fears of an Islamic state were dismissed. Bosnian Muslims were secular, and European, Muslims in name only, with no desire to impose Sharia law, or to forge relations with the Islamic world. Then American Ambassador Warren Zimmerman expressed this view his memoirs, as illustrated by the following segment excerpted from my dissertation where he discusses Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic's views.

Zimmerman was aware of Izetbegovic’s religion, noting that “he was a devout Muslim, unlike many Bosnians who chose Muslim nationality when Tito gave them that option.” “But,” Zimmerman continued, “I never saw any signs of extremism or coercion in his manner.” As for Izetbegovic’s work which had seen him jailed, Zimmerman was aware of it, but gave the distinct impression he had not read it very thoroughly. “Contrary to the Satanization to which it has been subjected, it was an abstract appeal for a return to nonationalistic Islamic values; it stoke no fires of the Libyan or Iranian sort. In fact it called for protection of the rights of non-Muslim minorities in countries with non-Muslim majorities.”

As such, claims from the Croatians and Serbs regarding Islamic Fundamentalism tended to be either seen as signs of racial hostility, or  as self-serving pretexts for a land grab. As a result, the actual fears of Serbian and Croatian Bosnians that they would become minorities in a Muslim state, tended to be ignored simply because Western officials rejected the idea that the Bosnians had any desire to create one. President Izetbegovic, in his 1970 “Islamic Declaration” stated that “There can be neither peace nor coexistence between the Islamic religion and non-Islamic social institutions.”[1] And his foreign visit after his election was to Iran. 

Furthermore, the evidence from history is that multiethnic and multinational states tend to be stable in proportion to their isolation. Italians and Germans were able to integrate in the United States, Brazil and Argentina because Italy and Germany remained far away rendering such identities irrelevant in political, economic, or social terms. Yet when minorities are trapped on the wrong sides of borders, the opposite has tended to be true even in Western Europe, where a German community in democratic Italy, located in Tyrol, has remained a distinct political and social group for nearly a century. There is a good reason for this. Italians and Germans in the United States were fish in a wider sea. Any access to Italian or German-language newspapers or media was limited to what they could produce themselves, and access to jobs and other opportunities depended on assimilation. But if one's countrymen lie just over an artificial border, then none of those factors apply. For Tyrol Germans in Italy, Vienna is closer than Rome, and German newspapers and media are regularly available.  The right to educate in German, a concession to minority rights, creates a situation where German-speaking Italian citizens can grow up to find they have greater job opportunities in Austria, Switzerland or Germany than in Italy.

This then was the analogy at stake with Bosnia. With an independent Croatia and Serbia next door and connected by a transportation system built when Yugoslavia was one country, there would be ready access to Serbian and Croatian media, products, and job opportunities, and there would be no reason for Bosnian Serbs or Croats to ever interact with their Muslims neighbors or to form a Bosnian identity. This in turn would have a knock-on effect. The only true group with an interest in a Bosnian national identity would be the Bosnian Muslims, and a secular, multiethnic state is a vague and weak identity even if others are interested; if they are not, it is hard not to see a Muslim one developing, especially when Muslims in Serbia and Croatia would have felt the same pull Bosnian Croats and Serbs did. The end result likely would have been a migration of Croats and Serbs out of Bosnia and Muslims from other parts of the former Yugoslavia into it, with the result that very soon 44% of the population would have become 50%.  And the remaining Bosnian Croats and Serbs would find themselves a minority in a Muslim Yugoslav homeland, and as second-class Croatian and Serbian citizens compared to the actual residents of those nations. 

The bottom line is this; whatever the intentions are behind internationally imposed peace agreements, power-sharing accords, or interventions in ethnic or religious civil wars, the end result will be some sort of self-sorting. No matter how extensive promises to respect minority rights are, the best defense is not to be a minority in the first place. In turn, a plurality or majority that sees minority rights as an acceptable price to maintain control of an "empire", ie. peoples and territories that would otherwise not be part of the nation, will consider even voluntary moves in favor of departure as freeing them from such commitments. Iraq may well be willing to pay the Kurds almost any political price for a share of Kirkuk's oil; it is unlikely the Shiite parties will see why they should continue to protect the rights of Kurds in Baghdad if Kurdistan were to secede and take its oil with it. Hence those proposals that are floated for a tripartite partition of Iraq and a separate Sunni state would almost certainly doom the remaining Sunni population of Baghdad to discrimination and gradual expulsion, and the Shiite rump Iraq to a drift towards Shia theocracy. After all, if the Sunnis are entitled to their own Sunni state, shouldn't the Shia be entitled to the same.

This brings us back to Bosnia and Kosovo. I do not think these were problems with a magical solution that could please everyone short of taking a stronger stand against Slovene efforts to secede in 1989 along with Milosevic's efforts to gut Kosovo's autonomy. But that was ostensibly the American policy and it failed. What can and should be done though is to recognize reality. An independent Bosnia, if it somehow survived as a unitary state, was always going to result in a demotion in status for the Croats and Serbs who made up a majority of the population and that meant it was unlikely to be viable absent coerce force unless the borders were redrawn to create a majority that actually wanted a Bosnian state. And that would have meant a majority Muslim state, that eventually, due to reactive and proactive forces, would have begun to identify with the wider Islamic world after the Iraq war. As for Kosovo, which was 90% Albanian, it was never going to be possible for the Serbs to remain their as anything other than a minority dependent on international protection. Perhaps the rights of the 90% dictated that stability could only be maintained by sacrificing the 10%, but the efforts of international relations scholars, officials, and media figures such as current UN Ambassador Samantha Power to deny that any such balance of harms existed was absurd. Not to mention responsible for a whole lot of the problems in terms of nation building which followed.

While the current situation in Eastern Ukraine makes it impossible to accurately determine the actual balance of opinion in the region, it should also lead Western leaders to question whether a Russian speaking population lying on Russia's borders, and thereby exposed to Russian language media, can ever be assimilated into a Ukrainian national state where they will always be second class citizens. It may well be that the region will be a permanent fifth column for any potentially Pro-Western Ukrainian government. 

All in all, however, nationalism and identity are not dead. Self-examination of what is happening even in the West on University campuses should indicate it, but the last 20 years have shown beyond any doubt that language and religion remain the key organizing principles of politics. And rather than deluding ourselves and pushing absurd non-solutions such as a bi-national state in Israel or made up governments of national unity in Libya or Syria perhaps we would be better off accepting that and working within it.

[1]              The Islamic Declaration: A Programme for the Islamization of Muslims and Muslim Peoples, Sarejvo, English 1990 Accessed 3 September 2015
                http://profkaminskisreadings.yolasite.com/resources/Alija%20Izetbegovic-%20The%20Islamic-Declaration%20(1990).pdf


 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and the failure to learn anything so far this year


Two major developments have occurred this week in American politics. The first has been the rapid narrowing of margins in general election polls between presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. The second has been the descent of the Democratic primary into bitter and brutal identity politics, albeit along ideological lines. To some degree the two are linked, but I want to deal with the first of these right now because I think there has been a tendency to blame the Democratic primary for the narrowing in the polls, which involves dangerously ignoring the context of what else has been happening over the last few weeks. This narrowing, which began with a PPP poll showing Trump trailing Clinton only by 6, culminated in two polls from Fox News and Rasmussen Reports respectively showing Trump actually leading by 3 and 5 points respectively. The reputation of the latter two pollsters reinforced the skepticism of many Democrats, and regarding Rasmussen those feelings may well be justified. Not only does Rasmussen have a questionable record, but the general election poll explicitly offered respondents the opportunity to express support for “some other candidate”, which may have contributed to only 79% indicating support for Trump and Clinton combined. But the totality of polling, which in recent cycles has been more right than not, almost certainly shows closing. This week we have had general election polls with Clinton leads of 6,6,4,2,-3, and -5, whichproduces an average of 1.33%, probably too low, and a median of a Clinton lead around 3%, which likely is about where the race is. 

For those who are not apt to dismiss these results outright two explanations have become popular. The first is that this tightening is natural, the result of a nomination “bounce” for Trump. I tend to agree with this explanation as far as it goes, though I would point out it is has occurred over a period during which the last two Republican Presidents, and the last two Republican Nominees refused to support Trump, and the sitting speaker of the US house remained neutral. It also occurred after Trump’s “taco bowel” social media eruption, and goes to show something I have long suspected. Namely that Trump’s opponents have consistently misread the efficacy of attacks on his candidacy, especially ones focused on his supposedly unacceptable views. 

Rather than serving to disqualify him as a potential President and to make even diehard Republicans think twice about supporting him, the Clinton campaigns initialsalvos featuring attacks by senior Republicans seems to have only served to reinforce Trump’s outsider credentials by painting an image of Washington elites rallying to Hillary rather than men(and women) of goodwill rallying to save the republic from Trump. In effect, rather than suggesting to voters that Trump is so bad even George W. Bush cannot support him, the actual result has been the reverse, to tie Hillary Clinton to a still unpopular President Bush by implying that the author of the Iraq war and the budget deficit now supports her. Similarly, I also suspected that the general tenor of social media attacks on Trump, which have mostly come in the form of sneering contempt, mockery, and general shock that someone could express or hold such views have mostly backfired on those launching them. Anyone who is apt to consider Trump an unredeemable racist, or to see that as a reason never to support him likely long ago made their choice. At the point at which Trump’s appeal has been framed in the context of “I don’t agree with everything he says, but for the first time in decades someone is actually saying things” suggestions that his words or social media engagement are unacceptably offensive are likely to cross that most dangerous of all political lines; endeavoring to tell voters what they must do rather than trying to persuade them as to what they should. And juxtapositioning violent clashes with left-wing protesters at campaign rallies  is probably the last thing the Clinton campaign should be promoting after the events in Nevada last weekend.

Furthermore, the last two weeks have demonstrated something that should be more disturbing, namely Trump's ability to deflect from negative stories by inserting new ones into the discourse. This ability, much mocked, was utilized during the primary campaign when Trump publicly mused about whether Ted Cruz's father was involved in JFK's assassination. At the time the story was mocked, but its major impact was that it swallowed up every other item that was happening that day. Instead of framing Indiana as the last chance to stop Trump, the media spent the day making jokes about Ted Cruz, and voters entered the polling booths considering Cruz a figure of ridicule. This week we saw an even more impressive variant. Over the weekend, Trump appeared to finally be taking on water over a strange Washington Post story about how he impersonated various fictional "Trump spokesman" in order to talk about himself in third person. Weird, and calling Trump's sanity into question, it was the sort of story that might actually hurt Trump by making voters stop admiring his outspokenness in favor of contemplating the wisdom of placing nuclear weapons into his hands. Coupled with an interview in which his long-time butler called for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to be executed and for Detroit to be nuked, the weekend presented two stories of the sort that would have doomed any Senate candidate in a previous year, and inflicted "47%"-esque damage on a nominee. 

Not so for Trump. By Tuesday no one was discussing either of them. Instead, Trump had managed to draw London's new Muslim mayor Sadiq Khan into a public spat, one that also managed to drag-in British Prime Minister David Cameron. Far more interesting than fake voices or a crazed butler who had by now been moved to an undisclosed location, the media jumped on the new story which dominated coverage until the horse race, and implosion of the Democratic primary could fill in the gap.

This brings us to the Democrats. Beyond blaming a consolidation of Republican support behind Trump, many Democrats have also blamed the divisiveness of the Democratic primary for the close polls. They suggest that Sanders supporters, evincing increasing hostility to Clinton which may have reached violent proportions this past weekend in Nevada, were refusing to support Hillary in the polls. There is almost certainly some truth to this, but I would posit that the interrelationship between the Trump-Clinton and Trump-Sanders races works both ways. Clinton is not only in more trouble against Trump because she is in more trouble against Sanders. She is also in more trouble against Sanders because she is in more trouble against Trump.

Remember how I brought up why I thought the Clinton assaults on Trump which utilized senior members of the Republican old guard? The major pattern during the Republican primaries in every case where a rival attacked Trump was two-fold. Not only did the attacks fail to significantly dent Trump's own numbers; they almost invariably backfired and destroyed the image of the one launching the attacks. Marco Rubio got out just as he was becoming a figure of mockery. Ted Cruz became one. In the case of Clinton's attacks, not only did she fail to damage Trump by highlighting the hostility of a professional political establishment, but she damaged herself by identifying her own campaign with it. It is bad enough Hillary has to defend Obama's record against attacks from the left. In the last two weeks she has implicitly become the chosen candidate of the entire DC elite. Of not just the Bushs, but of Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney, and John McCain as well. 

The effect of this has been to polarize the Democratic race even more on insider and outsider lines. As Clinton presented herself as the defender of existing order(and civilization) against the Trumpian barbarian hordes, so too did she enrage all those on the left who also resented that establishment. And the shift to an insider/outside axis rather than a left/center-left one in the Democratic contest left no middle ground. In an ideological contest, Clinton choosing a left-winger like Elizabeth Warren for VP would be a peace offering. In the new world, the acceptance of such an offer would make Warren a traitor to the cause.

This is no small issue. A willingness by Sanders to continue the campaign to the convention creates an endless set of problems, the first being what Clinton does after the primaries are over. The Sanders campaign has already made clear it will refuse to accept a Clinton declaration of victory, and therefore any move to a general footing would be fraught with danger. Does Clinton appoint a VP? If she does, that VP might well become the focus of resentment from Sanders supporters and constant demonization such that not only do they not provide a bounce, but they become a genuine liability by August.

At the same time, as Democrats have been wise to note, there will be a feedback into general election polling. But that feedback may not vanish with the end of the primaries. The major shift over the last two weeks, one which has been triggered as much by Clinton's own positioning against Trump as by any actions on the part of Trump or Sanders, has been to a narrative of insiders v. outsiders. That is dangerous. After both conventions, Trump, despite apostasies on trade will still the right-wing choice for the overwhelming majority of voters, and Clinton the left-wing one. But it is equally true that no matter what happens, Clinton is going to be the insider candidate for President in November and Trump the outsider. If the final ten weeks of the Democratic contest, along with what aspects of the general election take place concurrently, are spent framing the conflict along such lines, then it is much easier to see voters motivated by hostility towards the political establishment in all forms voting on that basis. And Clinton's own attacks, perhaps driven by Obama advisers who believe it is 2012 and Clinton veterans who think it is 2000, are reinforcing that message.

Clinton is almost certainly not behind right now. She remains the favorite for both the general election and the Democratic nomination. But if the last two weeks are anything to go by, she may have a much tougher road in November than anyone has suspected, and Democratic dreams of a landslide are likely to appear delusional. Democrats appear not to have learned a single thing from the Republican contest and are just as determined as the Rubio, Walker, and Jeb Bush teams to fight the last election rather than the 2016 one. And they appear remarkably tone-deaf regarding messaging, and how important elites actually are.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Even if Britain Votes to Stay in the EU, Cameron will be the Loser of the Referendum

In one of his more profound moments, Enoch Powell observed that all political careers end in failure. While not necessarily true of the United States, where term limits may very well have saved several Presidents from catastrophic third terms(Reagan, Clinton), it is definitely the case in British politics. Prime Ministers rarely leave when they are popular. The type of individual who would not enjoy the role rarely enters politics in the first place, and even more rarely excels at it, and without even a ceremonial presidency to which one can retire, leaders tend to depart when they are pushed. As for senior ministers, to paraphrase Douglas McArthur, they do not die but fade away, with cabinet and shadow cabinet posts of ever decreasing importance mirroring their earlier rise.

I bring this up, because it has enormous bearing on leadership contests, such as the one currently ongoing within the Conservative party which everyone insists is not actually taking place. Almost since the beginning of his tenure, David Cameron made his preference for Chancellor George Osborne as his successor clear, and if there was any ambiguity, it was obliterated over the last few months. This has been a mixed blessing for Osborne. While there are many advantages of the favor of a Prime Minister, preference to one’s supporters in cabinet reshuffles, a chilling effect on open opposition, the dynamics described by Powell tend to make those advantages hard to realize in practice. A Prime Minister’s chosen successor, for good or ill, tends to be associated with the success or failure of their tenure, since it is assumed a decision to back them is a decision to continue the current order. Hence if a Prime Minister or leader is popular, it is likely that their successor will be as well.

The problem of course is that Prime Ministers rarely retire before they are forced, and hence leadership contests almost invariably occur in circumstances in which the existing order is unpopular, and when the sentiment for change is, if not overwhelming, very strong. Furthermore, it encourages those who wish to also succeed to take up a position of almost open hostility to the present leadership. Cameron has been Osborne’s shield, but by taking up that role, he has also made himself into a human one.

One has to look no further than to the venom with which the EU referendum has been fought within the conservative party. Undoubtedly there are strong feelings within the party, and equally undoubtedly, there would be a strong grassroots sentiment to leave. But it is hard to imagine that the dual would have become anywhere near as brutal between Boris Johnson and the Prime Minister if the referendum had not also become a proxy battle for the succession. As such, it is worth examining how the dynamics of the referendum debate developed the way they did.

Of course, the first major development was the way in which the referendum campaign, ostensibly designed to take the European issue out of the Tory leadership battle, became part of it. That was ensured the moment one or more of the potential contenders broke ranks and took a position adverse to that of the Prime Minister, and by implication, the rest of the field. It is within that context that one must view the anger with which Number 10 viewed the decision first of Michael Gove and then Boris Johnson to break ranks and back leaving the EU. The accusations of betrayal are likely aimed less at the substance of the position the two of them have adopted, than of the consequences of them adopting it. The moment they did so, they not only gained the ability to attack the Prime Minister without explicitly breaking party discipline, but they also provided cover for other dissidents to do so. As such, the referendum was typical of many of David Cameron's internal maneuvers. Intricate, potentially well-conceived, but fatally dependent on his opponents obligingly falling into an obvious trap. Absent such a willingness to behave as intended, the policy was always prone to backfire if senior figures merely refused to behave as intended.

While certainly self-seeking, and potentially damaging to the party, the decision to come for Brexit was an obvious choice for Johnson, and makes the surprise evinced at his position somewhat curious. Not only is the majority sentiment within the Conservative party against the EU, but Johnson, by publicly embracing that cause,  not only succeeded in identifying himself with it, but in forcing Cameron, and by implication Osborne, to identify himself even more closely with the remain effort. For all the discussion of how “gaffe-prone” Johnson’s campaigning has been, what has been missed is that whatever damage Johnson may or may not have inflicted on himself, it is dwarfed by the damage Cameron has suffered by becoming not just the spokesman of the remain side, but the attack dog. When Cameron attacks the arguments of those supporting Brexit, he is not attacking Johnson, but a majority of the party. In fact, the dynamics have been arranged such that any time Cameron attacks Johnson he is attacking grassroots Conservatives, while any time Johnson attacks Juncker, Merkel, the EU, or migrants, he is implicitly attacking Cameron without the need of doing so explicitly. By no means is this limited only to Johnson. It has allowed other Tories the same opportunity. This extended even to those discontented with issues apart from EU membership in particular, provided they used the referendum as a cover.

To make matters worse for the Prime Minister, the increasing association of Cameron with the Remain campaign has allowed Tory Brexiters to revive a charge from earlier in the year when the party was considering consolidating constituency associations, namely that Number 10 is using governmental resources to campaign for Osborne. At the time the charge referred to a move that would dis-empower local constituencies, a game of insider baseball of interest to few outside of the party. Now the charges relate to the perceived politicization of the Bank of England, of the BBC and ITV, and of the use of Obama as a campaign tool.  Obama’s intervention was always going to be two-sided; on the one hand his message would be powerful, but at the same time the fact that it would be uttered out loud was sure to cause resentment. Now, however, Obama has implicitly taken a side in an internal Tory power struggle, which seems even less appropriate. That Johnson, rather than Cameron, provoked that intervention with his own criticism of the American President is beside the point. By making himself the issue rather than the referendum, and forcing Obama to take Cameron’s side against his personally, Johnson dragged him in, and at the same time enabled Cameron to be accused of doing so. Without a doubt, Johnson took a beating over 48 hours for his remarks regarding the President's Kenyan ancestry. But in return, the impression was reinforced ten-fold that the Prime Minister was using the resources of his office and the government for the Remain side. In fact, the idea that Cameron has somehow broken his word and that the referendum is somehow a "sham" is increasingly an article of faith on the right.

Even as close polls have not dispelled a general impression that Leave cannot possibly win, there has been a sense within the media that if Leave is not winning, Cameron is politically losing the campaign. This has prompted comparisons with the Scottish Referendum on Independence, where the Labour party won the battle, but at the cost of destroying themselves. That is an imperfect comparison. Labour was already on a downward trend in Scotland due to the SNP’s move to the left. The referendum accelerated that by consolidating pro-independence support for the SNP, but did not explain why Labour could barely get 20% when the Union had received 55%. The main problem for Labour was not that they were on the unpopular side, but that as independence support came to correlate with income, they were on the wrong side of the issue from the rest of their voters.
Cameron has found himself in a similar position. While there is a substantial base of support for remain, and at the elite level, that support probably extends to a majority of Tory donors in the City of London, most of those voters who passionately support remaining in the EU not only are not Tories, but would never consider voting for the party. At the same time, he suffers from the fact that Johnson is not the only figure to have cleverly played the issue. Corbyn too has showed a level of political sublety, perhaps unintentional, that defies stereotypes of ideological extremism and political incompetence. Cameron cannot earn credit from millennial left-wingers for his opposition to Brexit, even as he shoulders the blame that Corbyn has managed to shrug off by implying his public opposition to Brexit hides private sympathies. At the same, Cameron, not Corbyn is the face of the Remain campaign, meaning the hostility of the 40%, 45%, or 50% who will vote that way is focused on him.

It also means there may not be a lot of light at the end of the tunnel. Cameron, it is rumored, hopes that a major Remain victory to the tune of 60%-40% would vindicate him within his party and kill the issue for a generation. Leaving aside whether that margin seems hopelessly optimistic at this point, there are in reality only two scenarios. One in which Cameron is rejected by a majority of the country and will struggle to carry on as leader with that lack of confidence, and one in which Cameron is rejected by an overwhelming majority of his party’s supporters and potential supporters. In the former, Cameron would find it almost impossible to carry on without the confidence of the country. In the latter, Cameron will nevertheless find it difficult to carry on as Tory leader without the confidence of its membership. The idea that he would have legitimacy to impose a successor on the party would be farcical.

Can Cameron recover?. Perhaps. Politics is always short-term. And Cameron has been written off before. When UKIP was topping 20% in opinion polls back in 2013, the media was filled with rumblings of an internal challenge, while in the runup to the Scottish referendum, his political obituary was being prepared. In both cases Cameron confounded critics. One reason is that ultimately ousting the leader of a party in office is hard. But an important reason for that was the lack of an obvious successor. Osborne, as Cameron's confident and protege, could never have taken part in a challenge, or have been a plausible successor to those who would. Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, was outside the cabinet. Precisely because he could not run for office, Johnson's supporters had every incentive to block a challenge that if successful might have led to the election of someone who was eligible to serve as leader such as Theresa May. Hence divisions among the major party players undermined every challenge as no one had a common interest.

One of the things that has complicated the 2016 climate is that those circumstances are no longer the case. Johnson is now an MP, while he along with May and any other potential challengers to Osborne have an incentive to cooperate to at least prevent Cameron from being able to tilt the scales in favor of the Chancellor. Furthermore, the wider environment is more favorable. Despite some strong polling numbers, UKIP peaked in 2015 with a single seat and is no longer on the march while Labour appears crippled. As such there is both an opportunity, and reason to believe it will be of short length.

The very prospect of a Cameron recovery will create a motivation for his foes, and Osborne's rivals to strike while the iron is hot rather than to give him 18 months to potentially recover. Hence why it is likely Cameron will face serious efforts to bring forward the leadership election this summer, when he is likely to be perceived as most vulnerable. A wise would be to schedule a departure date in advance, perhaps for 2018. Ideally that should have been done before the referendum date was set so as to de-politicize it, but at least setting it would make coup plots harder to justify, not least by forcing his opponents into the open. 

More Thoughts on Education, the Changing Millennial Job Market, and the GOP

I outlined in a previous post why I thought the US economy is undergoing a transformation right now that has particularly impacted millennials. Or more accurately, the transformation that has been going on for quite some time has finally reached a critical mass that it has caused the American higher education system, always something of a bubble, to pop, rendering an educational and economic model a generation of young Americans invested savings that many did not have, worthless.
Two major trends have dominated economic change since the 1980s. 

The first is the decrease in demand for labor as automatization and productivity increases have rendered excess manpower superfluous. In fact, virtually all of the GDP growth in the developed world over the last 25 years has been from increases in productivity. Much of the focus in this respect has been on the disappearance of blue collar jobs in the manufacturing sector, but the reality is that this process has been occurring at all levels. Programming jobs have been either outsourced or eliminated just as manufacturing ones have been, and computerization has eliminated a vast swath of clerical positions in the legal sector. The effects at the higher end of the economic ladder, however, have been obscured by the boom in information technology which has created so many new companies and jobs, that the shrinkage of manpower needs at each individual employer has been more than counteracted. That is, until recently.

What happened over the 1990s then was that faced with the decline of the blue-collar sector, Western nations, but especially the United States invested in education, hoping to build a white collar work-force. This manifested in a large increase in the portion of the population going to university, which in the United States was met with costs. This in turn distorted the market by flooding it with graduates, many who had to start work at inflated wages in order to make ends meet. That might have worked fine had expansion been exponential, and functionally it did work well during short periods, 1997-2000, 2004-2007, when bubbles created that impression. But when those bubbles popped, as in 2009, new graduates not just found themselves without jobs, but competing with let-off workers who had greater experience.

The solution to this problem should have been to reduce supply. But the US educational system has long since been detached from any sort of relationship with the wider job market. An entire branch of higher education, “Liberal Arts Colleges”, prided themselves on that distinction, though less loudly in recent years. The market that higher education served was not prospective employers for their students, but rather prospective students. To cut supply, would have meant admitting their product was less valuable. Hence when the economy got worse, the initial reaction was to increase the focus on degrees.

There is no better illustration of this than the process which overtook the legal sector. During the 2000s, Law promised humanities students the ability to make six figure salaries in the same way their compatriots who went into banking could. As a consequences, millions chose to enter law school not so much because they wanted to be lawyers, but because Law School allowed them to excel in what they were used to, namely getting good grades in an academic environment, with the promise of a job at the end. When the financial crisis hit, rather than being discouraged by a poor job market and reduced resources from paying inflated fees for JDs, the number of applicants actually increased as many saw it as a way to “wait out” the recession. Even had the legal sector recovered to pre-crash levels this would have produced a glut in the market, and difficulty securing employment for graduates outside either top institutions or the top of their respective classes. But in fact it never quite did, with the downsizing of mega-firms in many cases being permanent.

Quite logically, Law Schools adjusted their intake to respond to demand for Law School places, not to actual demand for lawyers, and therefore ignored these trends. The result, when the increase of JDs triggered by a lack of opportunities elsewhere after 2008 hit, was to cause a market glut, a collapse in employment, and an implosion of the sector. At a time when the 35th ranked school has an 18% employment rate compared to Harvard’s 90%, but costs the exact same $40,000 a year, clearly the market is not functioning properly.

To an extent, the crash that occurred in terms of Law School applications after 2013 was the market functioning correctly. There was no need for the number of JDs being produced, and arguably, the sub 20% employment rates their graduates were achieving was evidence there was no need for Law Schools outside the top 14 or so except on a regional basis. But that was cold comfort to those who had invested in it.

At the time this was seen as a lesson about the Law School sector, and given the difficulty of securing academic jobs, one about the postgraduate sector as a whole. But if anyone had bothered to think for a moment, they would have noticed that the exact same factors also applied to undergraduate education, especially in the “Humanities” which is heavily oversupplied given the shrinking number of entry level spots. But it is one thing to forgo Law School because you do not get into Georgetown. It is another to forgo University because you failed to get into Tufts. Mentally, when high school students applied to 20+ schools, it is because they intended to go to one of them. The idea that seven or eight of them were likely not worth the tuition would place them in the position of coming up with alternatives.

What is now happening is that the crash which hit the Law School market several years ago is now hitting colleges and universities as a whole. The 50th ranked Liberal Arts school charges the exact same $50,000 a year that the #1 ranked does, and in practice given scholarships, less than Harvard does. Yet in terms of employability, the market has shifted such that degrees below the top tier no longer have much influence on hiring. Increasingly hiring happens in two distinct ways,. The first is through graduate recruitment, and the key prerequisite to even getting on the internship programs which lead to top employers like McKinsey or Goldman is being at a top educational institution. For those who do not have that advantage, they are likely going to find themselves forced to work either an unpaid internship, or if they are very lucky, an entry level position which is only nominally BA-level, and would not have been two decades ago. At that point further advancement is solely down to their performance in that role, rendering their academic credentials irrelevant within months of graduation.

To tell someone they spent four years of their life on a degree that is irrelevant may be frustrating. But many if not most spent upwards of $200,000 on such degrees. A majority are in debt. It goes without saying why they would feel that they have not gotten their money’s worth, or even why they would feel defrauded. Because in practice they have. Just as Law Schools massively inflated in the median earnings of graduates, many colleges are only now beginning to offer career services which provide a realistic image of the challenges of employment.

That is unfortunate, because not only are those graduates starting out behind, but they are also increasingly working against the clock. The above narrative, while representing the experience of a majority of a generation, has largely been ignored by the media in favor of the small glamorous elite that has made millions if not billions off the start-up economy. The increasing focus on Silicon Valley and NYC, has meant that the narrative for the millennial generation is one of a generation in a hurry. Recruitment reflects that. Most firm recruitment is done on campus such that many companies do not seriously run non-mid-career hiring at all for entry level roles. Internships at many firms are in fact often closed to graduates altogether. If you didn’t use your sophomore or junior year well, your ability to ever catch up basically will come down to networking and nepotism, since the merit-based recruitment processes are increasingly not an option any longer.

The impact of this change is bad enough on those younger millennials who are forced to work quickly and proactively. But the political impact comes from those who fail to do so, or fail in doing so. To arrive at graduation without a job offer at 22 tends to leave a choice of returning home and looking for either entry level temp work, unpaid internships, or graduate study, or alternatively moving to a major city and securing an apartment with no promise of employment or income and seeking the same. In practice, the latter is open to those whose parents can subsidize, creating a situation in which the recruitment processes for employers have developed in a way that forces parents to pay the transaction costs.

Politically, it creates a generation who not only are unhappy with where they are, but have no realistic reason to believe things will ever improve. What has historically prevented class politics from defining American parties is the belief of an unusually large portion of the population that while they are not wealthy today, they will be in the future. One of the major reasons why “Socialism” is appealing to the current generation is that they are the first generation who not only believe they have been left behind, but that they have no ways to catch up. It is the latter, more than the former, which is politically dangerous.

Sanders captured some of this frustration and anger. He did so not least because Obama, always seemingly comfortable with celebrities, identified himself too strongly with the social elite. His administration made use of celebrities, tech stars, and the children of the rich. Ronan Farrow was their youth ambassador. But the reaction against that is not inherently left-wing. Or it does not have to be. It is anti-elite, and to the extent big banks and firms represent that elite it is anti-corporate. But it is anti-Goldman as much because Goldman runs exactly the sort of hiring system that screws millennials as because they have read Marx or Engels.

There is therefore something more Jacobin than Marxist about that movement. It has enemies and it wants their heads on spikes. It wants their heads on spikes because the world is unfair. That matches up with left-wing sentiment, but is also the line being used far more effectively by the far right in Europe. And the far right can always outbid the left in terms of offering to help them particularly.
That said, the far right has a harder path in the United States, not least because America is a two-party system, and a highly polarized one at that. And within that two party system, the center-right party is so closely linked with the economic interests of older Americans, and with an almost social Darwinist message about makers and takers that it is very hard to be taken seriously even when a candidate tries to make the case. Trump is an unusually bad candidate to try and do so in any case for millennials for whom he comes off as a figure of ridicule. It would be easy to say Trump’s message with a better candidate might have potential, but Trump is the only person who could have sold his message in the Republican primary this year. It remains to be seen if it is adopted by the party as a whole going forward. Sanders too is an imperfect messenger. The nature of the Republican contest has obscured the extent to which he too is not a particularly plausible president. In both cases though, the party orthodoxy has been given an expiration notice. Which party follows that message in 2020 will likely determine the future of American politics.


If so, then politics may become interesting. In the meantime, however, there is little about the shining city on the hill elitism of the Obama/Clinton message, or the current GOP economic one which seems to even acknowledge these problems exist or even are problems, much less to fix them. And there is no reason to think a Clinton Presidency would be anything other than an interregnum.

Do I think Trump can win? Maybe.

Now that Donald Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee for President, the question British acquaintances tend to ask me is whether or not he can win the general election in November. The short and somewhat snarky answer is of course. There is nothing in the laws of physics, or in the American election system which means Donald J Trump cannot be sworn in as President on January 20th, 2017. In practice however, the intended questions is not so much whether he theoretically can win, but whether such an eventuality is particularly likely. And the answer to that is a lot more complicated.

There are two schools of thought regarding American elections. The first, which focuses on “fundamentals” such as the rate of economic growth, which party has held the White House for the proceeding eight years, whether the nation is at war, etc tends to reject the importance of individual candidates in favor of the belief that ultimately voters pass judgement on those in office. Ironically, the orthodox political science version of this model is most favorable to Trump’s chances. It rejects the idea that somehow he is such a uniquely bad candidate that he cannot be elected, or at least asserts that by the time November rolls around any of those personal defects will be relevant. But traditional political science also assumed that Trump had no shot in the Republican primaries. Strike one against this version of the “Fundamentals”.

As for the other outlook, it tends to view campaigns as a dynamic process, won by control of “narrative”. Most often held by campaign professionals, this interpretation tends to view the candidate who is best able to define themselves, their opponent, and the nature of the election as most likely to win. A candidate’s biography can help with this process. Eisenhower’s stature in 1952 helped sell his message that 1952 was a time for a return to “normalcy” after 20 years of Democratic rule, just as John F Kennedy’s youth helped sell the argument that it was time for a change after eight years of Eisenhower’s stasis. Biography can also hurt; Mitt Romney’s record at Bain and wealth almost certainly helped the Obama campaign team sell a message that 2012 was not so much about policy as about class identity. 2016 has been a year of competing messages. There is definitely frustration with Barack Obama, but that neither manifested in a desire to return to traditional Republican governance as represented by Jeb Bush, or to a more radical conservatism in the form of Ted Cruz. Nor has Hillary Clinton’s efforts to sell the election as a chance to elect a female President penetrated the public consciousness, at least when paired with the promise of a third Obama term. Between the two of them, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have a made strong case that the narrative should be one of a loss of confidence in elites and orthodoxy, but Sanders has failed to sell the idea that it is his version of that which is desired, and it is a stretch to think his support would be transferable to Trump.

Personally, I am of two minds regarding Trump’s chances, but I also reject both models. Namely, I think that the narrative for this year is one of a loss of faith in the political and social system in America, but I also feel the fundamentals of the electorate, not in terms of the economy, but rather in terms of economics, make Trump a hard sell.

The demographic and electoral arguments are the simplest. The former at its most basic is that Trump, while representing a reaction amongst white voters, is too much of a white candidate who has alienated far too many other groups to win. While many African Americans and Hispanics may share some  of the frustrations he has highlighted, the hostility his words and perhaps more importantly, his supporters have shown to minority groups mean he will struggle to win much support. To a lesser extent this argument is extended to women due to his seemingly misogynistic comments and behavior. I am skeptical of the latter claim to an extent, since in a lot of ways, when people discuss “women” they tend to mean, “women who hold positions that feminists think they should” on social issues such as pay differences and abortion. If one is inclined to buy the conservative cultural view anyway as a women, one is unlikely to be offended by attacks on liberal women. That said, I can concede Trump may have trouble with high information voters, and among those the greatest trouble with female ones.

These troubles contribute to his second problem. In order to win the Presidency, Donald Trump has to win a majority of the electoral college, which Mitt Romney lost by 332-206. To start with, Trump must at the very least hold the Romney states, of which North Carolina was the closest with a Romney margin of just 2%, and which has a growing non-white population and where Trump has shown polling weaknesses. After that he must topple enough states to get to 270. The problem is many of the GOP targets from 2012 and 2008 are problematic. Florida, which Obama won by about 50% votes and less than 1%, has historically been close due to a Republican-leaning Hispanic population, and Trump has been polling dreadfully there, often trailing by high single digits or more. Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico also have large Hispanic populations, while Virginia, with the DC exurbs, is probably one of the most establishment-oriented states in the country. Trump should be weaker in all of those states than a generic Republican.

On the face of it, Trump therefore needs to rely on putting into play Democratic-leaning states elsewhere. The obvious move is to try to appeal to the Midwest on trade. Iowa has been a wasteland for Democrats since 2012, with the party having a dreadful year in 2014, and beyond that, Ohio is the obvious target. But gaining Ohio and Iowa while holding North Carolina only gets Trump to 230.  Assuming Trump loses Florida, he needs Pennsylvania, which Romney lost by 5, Wisconsin, which Romney lost by 7, Minnesota, which Romney also lost by 7 and Michigan, which Romney lost by 10. Pennsylvania may be the most plausible of those. It trended Republican in 2012, with Romney cutting Obama’s 2008 margin in half. It has a substantial base of conservative, protectionist democrats. Trump, though, would need not to underperform in the Philly suburbs. Florida could fill in for two of these, but it would seem that Ohio and Pennsylvania are vital for Trump to have a shot.
So in terms of examining demographics and the electoral map, a Trump win looks implausible. But before we become too invested in that model, it is worth considering the alternative. The 2004 electoral map looked fairly dire for Democrats, prompting many books to come out with titles such as “Right Nation” predicting Republican dominance long into the future. The US political system tends to be very good at accommodating the public’s desire for change. One reason the electoral college has not been replaced is that historically it has generally been pretty good at not getting in the way of popular preference. In fact, with the exception of 2000 when there was a difference of half a percentage point in the popular vote, 1888, when Democratic suppression of the black vote in the South distorted the national totals, and 1824 when four candidates ran, it has always done so. The fact that Republicans swept the statewide races in almost every swing state in 2014 – Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, and nearly knocked off a seemingly “safe” Democratic incumbent in Mark Warner of Virginia indicates Republicans can win with the right electorate.

That leads into the question of narrative. If the demographics indicate that it is unlikely a majority of voters will favor Trump, and the electoral map that it is unlikely Trump can win if a majority of voters do not favor him, the evidence from history is that if a majority do favor him, he will find a way of winning.

Narrative-wise, Trump has defied the conventional wisdom of what 2016 was supposed to be about. It was originally supposed to be about the Republican party deciding between moderation in the form of Jeb Bush, and Tea Party infused reform in Scott Walker. Then it was supposed to be about the rise of Marco Rubio. What it ended up being about was Donald Trump showing all of them up for how little they differed from each other, or offered on the issues voters cared about.

One-by-one Republicans engaged Trump only to be destroyed. Jeb was emasculated. Rubio tried to mock Trump’s hands, a cry that has been taking up by left-wing anti-Trump forces today, and found himself crushed at home. Ted Cruz was for all practical purposes turned into the Zodiac Killer, the son of the man who helped murder JFK.

It is easy to read the Republican primary process either as evidence of the insanity of GOP primary voters, or of the superficiality of American politics, but that is to miss the point. The irony of the Republican primary process is that throughout it was Donald Trump who brought up actual issues – trade, foreign policy, the Iraq War, immigration – and his challengers, who rather than engaging with Trump’s positions, responded with personal attacks and mockery. This is not to excuse Trump’s language, or positions, but the fact is that until Trump, no Republican other than Ron Paul tried to have a serious discussion about the Iraq war, and none has seriously questioned orthodoxy on trade or taxes. Nor, ironically enough, has any tried to unpack what would be involved in fighting ISIS in Syria or deporting illegal immigrants. Hence it was easy for Rubio or Walker to recite talking points about standing against Assad/Iran/Russia in Syria while also confronting Erdogan in Turkey, and sending troops to fight ISIS without needing to reconcile their positions. Marco Rubio may or may not have lost because he was dubbed Little Marco. What is clear is he lost when he failed to defend his policy positions when Trump caused them to implode, and instead insulted Trump’s endowment.
I bring up this narrative because as much as liberals have enjoyed claiming that the Democratic party’s largely unwatched debates between Sanders and Clinton have been about “substance” the main narrative of the Democratic primary in recent weeks has been math. Before that, it was about emotional appeals to the injustice of society from Sanders, without any concrete plans for implementation combined with random attacks on elites. And there is every sign the general election campaign against Trump from Clinton, or for that matter Democratic leaning media outlets will be similar.

So far, the major attacks launched on Trump have included mocking him for tweeting an image of the candidate eating a taco, mocking his previous family name, reviving Marco Rubio’s charges about his endowment, and making general charges of racism or misogyny. Even Elizabeth Warren, supposedly the new intellectual light of the Democratic Party, has allowed herself to become embroiled in a fight which is almost entirely insult based. In fact, it is now as much about the 2012 issue of whether she fabricated her Native American ancestry than anything else other than chest beating threats, with discussions about inequality or the power of banks, the things she was so well known for, nowhere in site.

It is true that the Clinton campaign opened with a video showing senior Republicans refusing to back Trump. But even that line went off-message, coming off in context as simply showing the DC elite uniting against Trump. And the announcement that the Bush’s would not support him was overshadowed by the Taco controversy. Furthermore, the success Trump has managed in making the attacks international, especially regarding Sadiq Khan, the new mayor of London, make Trump appear in the right in the local context even if one feels his policies, which are not being attacked or challenged, are wrong.

As for his policies, attacks have mostly focused on suggesting not that they are wrong, or that the concerns they raise are not real, but rather why they are stupid, and anyone who supports Trump is a moron. If there is one thing voters hate, it is being told they must do something as opposed to they should do it. Social media demands that individuals either oppose Trump or be cutoff are more likely to mobilize support for him, turning the election into an act of rebellion, rather than produce the desired outcome.

The irony is that there is a slam dunk attack that the Clinton campaign should be utilizing. Forget his policy ideas. Does anyone actually feel comfortable with Donald Trump in control of nuclear weapons? Whenever I am tempted to vote for him, as I often am when exposed to social media attacks of the patronizing sort, what gives me pause is the nuclear question. There is enough reason for even those who agree with Trump to have reservations about his integrity and sanity.
Liberals, and I specify them rather than Clinton because her campaign does not have total agency here, seem to prefer to win the campaign as a referendum on policy and demographics rather than Trump’s fitness for office, even if it means they win by a lesser margin. They want to see his views repudiated, not for him to lose because he is a bad messenger. While understandable, it is a strategy that will ensure a base of support for Trump because even those who do not want Trump as President also do not want to be part of a “vindication” of liberal policies, especially in a year where on cultural issues the Democratic party is further to left than any party in American history.


My personal guess is that in the end, Trump will lose. But all indications are that on the way, he will win the campaign, such that it is. He will win the day-to-day media battle and the debates, and end up losing because he is Donald Trump, not because of his views. And that means that in the end the election will be the start not the end of this story.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Rotten Three Legs of the Stool: Donald Trump Didn't Destroy American Conservatism, It Was Already Rotten to the Core




Almost no one expected Donald Trump to be the Republican nominee for President in 2016, and I would be lying if I tried to claim such foresight. I did, however, successfully highlight the intellectual and political bankruptcy of the "Conservative Movement" as it stood in 2015, something that has been apparent to me for the better part of a decade. Where I erred was in who would profit from its implosion and how quickly it would come. In fact, while I was skeptical from the start of the ability of Jeb Bush or Scott Walker to win the nomination on the basis of a rehash of either the Romney or Bush playbooks, I presumed that the beneficiaries of the almost certain implosion of the establishment would be those waiting in the wings, Marco Rubio, who offered all things to all Republicans in a young, Hispanic guise, and Ted Cruz, the smartest of the prospective candidates, if generally hated within political circles. At a core level, as late as last fall, I presumed that Donald Trump, even as he acted as the executioner of Republican orthodoxy, would fail to benefit from his regicide. This was based not only on my skepticism of his ability to "go the distance" but also on global political history. Assassins rarely inherit the crown, something that can be testified to by candidates as diverse as Eugene McCarthy(who took down LBJ in 1968), Michael Heseltine(who eliminated Margaret Thatcher in 1990), and Howard Dean(who took down a host of Democrats in 2004 along with the Clinton-establishment).

What did I get wrong? Well for one thing I underestimated Donald Trump, and his ability to make his campaign the greatest show on earth. Just as importantly, I failed to foresee the extent to which he would personify what was ultimately an ideological challenge in his own personal garb to such a degree that moderate Republican voters in the north east voted for Trump over John Kasich despite the latter arguably better appealing to their views. They cared more about ending "Sunbelt" and "Neoconserative" domination of the Republican party than what replaced it, and Trump was the only figure strong enough to succeed in that task. 

Equally importantly, I overestimated Trump's foes. Marco Rubio, as a fresh-faced Senator who had almost fallen upwards into presidential consideration after three two-year terms in the Florida House, was always going to be vulnerable to becoming the vehicle for the hopes of others. By 2012 he was already being talked up by the leading think tankers and opinion-makers of the party in Washington, and there were signs he had little ability to assimilate or control this outpouring of support. When I was in the Senate in 2012, I learned that of his 43 staffers, 19 were carry-ons from his predecessor, George LeMieux, who in turn was an interim appointee of Rubio's 2010 opponent, then-governor Charlie Crist. The idea that he did not have thousands of CVs of prospective staffers wanting to work for the next President was inconceivable to me. Elizabeth Warren received nearly 6000 inquiries in the weeks following her election to the Senate. It testified to a lack urgency or interest in hiring.

The same thing in many ways was true of the Rubio campaign. Rubio was happy to accept the endorsements of hordes of intellectuals and policy specialists, taking on-board defectors like the Hoover Institute's Lanhee Chen who had headed up Policy for Romney in 2012 and then Scott Walker in 2015 when the Wisconsin dropped out. Rubio had the support of virtually the entire young guard of "Reformcons" who advocated moving the party in a direction on economic issues that would appeal to its increasingly blue collar electorate rather than to a tiny donor elite, urging it to become the party of "Sam's Club." But none of this nominal policy strength ever made it into the candidate's messaging which was almost a caricature of generic GOP orthodoxy circa 2015. I made my thoughts on this clear after Rubio's pre-Iowa debate performence which was almost universally lauded in the media, but which I thought was an abyss of content or substance. In the end, that prefigured disaster not just in the New Hampshire debate, but later in the campaign, when after South Carolina Rubio became the effective heir of George W. Bush. Even after the New Hampshire debacle, Rubio doubled down on substance-less talking points during debates(which did not stop the media from continuing to declare each performence a triumph for the Florida senator) as well as on an ill-advised attempt to hit Trump for deviating from GOP orthodoxy on foreign policy. Both were acts of madness, and based on any past experience of the Republican nomination process, both also should have easily worked.

What happened to Rubio after South Carolina illustrated a truism of the 2016 campaign. Normally in Republican politics early victories are decisive. They provide the groundwork for the party elite to come together, triggering a wave of endorsements from elected officials. More important than those, which Nate Silver and the 538 team invested enormous value in this year was the support of Talk Radio and conservative media. Political endorsements are only worth a news cycle. Talk Radio however, is a constant presence with many listeners spending two hours or more a day listening while commuting to work. That they listen while all too often stuck in traffic jams or otherwise provoked to anger in many cases feeds into a willingness to emotionally engage with the exhortations of many hosts. As such, Talk Radio plays a key role in identifying enemies outside and traitors withing. Its decisive influence has not been to chose a candidate - support for Scott Walker proved of little value in 2015, but to enforce a call to tribal unity once such a choice has been made. Hence once a candidate wins the decisive race, as McCain did in Florida or Romney in Ohio(or Florida again over Newt Gingrich), the continued presence of other candidates becomes a liability to the party in the general election, and a 24/7 lobbying campaign is conducted over the air-waves to drive them out.

From the start, conservative media did not fulfill its role as it was meant to. Part of this was due to the appeal of Trump to segments of its audience, but Trump actively made a number of moves which threw potential media foes off-guard. His feud with Fox News over Megyn Kelly, something that was treated as a liability and then as the cause of his loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa actually worked to his benefit by forcing Fox News to bend over backwards in order to not be perceived as running an anti-Trump campaign lest his supporters be alienated. Furthermore, it compromised any support that could be provided to his foes ahead of time. To talk about media conspiracies while facing negative coverage appears a sign of weakness; to preemptively warn against such moves means that any hostility will be interpreted as vindication. The only time where the Talk Radio machine worked was in the lead-up to the Wisconsin primary, where it effectively engineered Cruz's spectacular victory over Trump. But there was nowhere to go from there, not least because Cruz could not exploit it.

Cruz struggled to exploit it because elite support was as much of a liability as an asset this year. Endorsements created the impression not just that a conspiracy was afoot to block Trump, which would only have been damaging with Trump supporters, but also in effect emasculated their beneficiaries by making them appear to be the pawns and puppets of the party elite. The effectiveness of Trump's attacks on Little Marco lay not in the juvenile nature of Marco Rubio's personal attacks, but in the eagerness with which elements of the Republican and Conservative media embraced them. A willingness to go toe to toe with Trump in abstract may have been an asset for Rubio. Becoming the darling of the party and media which embraced those attacks and declared them successful even before votes were cast turned them into a figure of mockery. Media praise even undermined Rubio's image itself. Constant predictions and declarations of "momentum" for Rubio after almost every debate, combined with the candidate's own tendency to give victory speeches following distant second or even third place finishes as occurred in New Hampshire turned Rubio into a figure of fun and ridicule. Anytime he lost a contest, or appeared poised to do so, jokes would be made about when Rubio would give his "victory speech." Rather than aiding him, media and elite support destroyed him, turning him into "Little Marco" indeed.

The same fate befell Cruz after Wisconsin, an ironic fate given how steadfastly the media denied him any credit and sought to drive him out of the race in favor of Rubio prior to the latter's loss in Florida. His victory in Iowa was downplayed, his angry exchange at the South Carolina debate in which Rubio mocked him for not speaking Spanish only to have Cruz respond in the language was proclaimed a decisive victory for the Florida Senator, and when Rubio, with the support of the state's governor along with virtually the entire politically elite edged Cruz out by less than two tenths of a percentage point for second, was urged to drop-out in favor of Rubio. The same message was repeated when Rubio pulled off a similarly narrow second place finish in Nevada, again with the support of almost the entire state apparatus.

Pragmatically, the hostility to Cruz may have made sense. On paper, Rubio could have united the party and beaten Trump. By contrast, Cruz was for both ideological and personal reasons believed to have a hard ceiling, a view that arguably was vindicated later. But Rubio never performed as well as he should have on paper, and rather than trying to fix the problems the party establishment preferred to blame those who pointed them out. Chris Christie for devastating Rubio at the New Hampshire Debate, Cruz for sucking up air time in South Carolina and Nevada despite limited evidence of overlap between their supporters, a view that was vindicated when Rubio dropped out and his support generally went to hitherto asterisk John Kasich rather than Cruz.

It is ironic then that Cruz was as much undone by the establishment embrace following Rubio's withdrawal as by the hostility shown by the same groups prior to that moment. Cruz increasingly became a figurehead for a plot to deny Republican voters their choice, a suggestion lent credence by Cruz's need to campaign not for the nomination itself but rather for a contested convention. Ironically, these impressions were reinforced by Cruz's success in placing his own supporters in delegate spots allocated to Trump, a move which ironically would have blocked any effort to nominate an establishment "White Knight" such as Paul Ryan, but which nevertheless condemned him as an insider. The final indignity was when Cruz was pilloried in his final week for doing what the media had urged him to in regards to Rubio throughout February and March, namely for forming a pact with his remaining non-Trump opponent John Kasich. 

Cruz is not a sympathetic actor on a personal, ideological or political level. He almost certainly would have lost the general election badly, perhaps as badly as Trump will. By all accounts he has also done much to earn the personal antipathy which seems to be felt against him by almost everyone he has ever interacted with. Nonetheless, his treatment this year was hypocritical, nonsensical, and illustrated many of the key reasons why Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee.

Yet not all of those reasons can be ascribed to the strategic failings of his foes. Nor to Trump's personal charisma, though to ignore Trump's remarkable ability to remain likable while engaging in the most absurd gutter attacks is something Democrats would be well advised to avoid. Rather Trump rode an ideological perfect storm. It has become a tradition among Washington Republicans when faced with policy questions to invoke Ronald Reagan reference the "three-legged-stool" of conservatism, involving Social, Economic and Foriegn Policy views, but all three have become rotted in recent years. Social issues have been a major source of public strife, not least because they pit the interests of the party elite - the donors, staffers, and in many cases elected officials themselves - against a largely voiceless grassroots constituency. This has especially been the case regarding Gay Rights issues, where the party has increasingly made up for an all-but-official abandonment of orthodoxy with a strident move to the right on abortion rights such that increasingly Republicans run for office no longer favor exemptions for rape or incest. But the other two legs have been equally undermined. Foriegn Policy orthodoxy has since  2003 meant a commitment to defending the wisdom of what looks increasingly like a mistaken invasion of Iraq. Rather than reaching a middle ground, for instance suggesting that the decision to invade Iraq was a mistake with the benefit of hindsight, but was perhaps justifiable at the time, neoconservatives have over-valued their importance to the Republican party and pushed their luck. Mistaking DC prominence with political appeal, they have not only demanded absolute adherence to orthodoxy on Iraq, but insisted on punishing heretics. Going even farther, they have demanded a maximally confrontational policy against all major foreign powers - Russia, Iran, ISIS, China - even in cases where such policies are incoherent such as Syria. The result, has been to cripple any candidates who try to meet their standards. Jeb Bush was famously demolished by Donald Trump on both Iraq and Syria, but it is worth noting that Marco Rubio's foreign policy answers, ability to recite a glossary entry for Triad notwithstanding, were equally incoherent, especially regarding what he expected to happen with regards to Syria and Iran.  

Finally, on economic issues, the party has stuck increasingly to an almost religious interpretation of trickle down economics in which any tax cut of any form or type will always increase revenue and budget deficits, incentives or evasion do not matter in the least, even as the party itself has become more blue-collar. Makers and Takers could get some mileage when it was racialized implicitly as in 2012, but when offered a criticism of free trade or tax cuts from within the party, orthodox candidates such as Rubio who had relied on tribal loyalty to fend off such challenges from Democrats found themselves speechless. The fundamental fact is that however effective Paul Ryan's ode to the idea that young Americans should enjoy prospects other than moving back in with their parents where fading Obama posters still adorn their childhood bedrooms may have been rhetorically, the Republican party did not offer the least reason to believe it would be a better option for any of those young people on policy grounds. The only selling point in 2012 in effect was competence, which required three assumptions - first that Obama's failures were due to incompetence so that better management would solve them, second that Mitt Romney would be a competent President despite a mediocre campaign, and thirdly that even if this "competence" produced a more prosperous economy, the median young American would be in a position to benefit from it. The latter was the killer. The American job market has increasingly begun to imitate that of the UK in that the decisive years of one's career, all but determining future economic cast, are now those between 22 and 24. A failure to secure a job in the financial or consulting sector during that critical period makes it highly unlikely one will ever be able to secure entry given that one will be competing with new annual intakes each succeeding year. In fact, given the increased importance of internships to securing offers in the first place, it is arguable that the decisive years are now even earlier, starting from the second year of university at the latest. As I highlighted almost three years ago, an economic system that increasingly tells individuals at age 26, much less 23 that they have most likely already failed to enter the economic elite and never will be part of it is not a demographic that can ever be sold on supply-side economics, much less a dichotomy between makers and takers.

Donald Trump challenged the party on all three legs of the stool, and on all of them except perhaps social issues where one could potentially say he fought to a draw, he emerged victorious. He did so not because he was eloquent, but because the intellectual justifications for the other legs had deteriorated to the point where no one could defend them. Nor was this a sudden development. For the past decade many Republicans have had reservations about Iraq, remaining silent due to party loyalty. It is hardly shocking how eagerly Fox News began attacking Hillary Clinton for having voted to invade Iraq on the night of the Indiana primary. With Trump's victory, Republicans no longer need to pretend the invasion was a good idea. It is equally clear why those voters chose Trump over Kasich and remained loyal. Voting for Trump was not so much about electing him, but as about liberating themselves and the party from Iraq. A victory for Trump meant freedom for Republicans to say what they really thought.

The implications going forward then should be obvious. Whatever Trump's personal appeal, and what happens to him in November, what has been demonstrated is how little appeal his foes or ideological orthodoxy has on the American right. Whether the party takes that lesson will be interesting to see, but I suspect going forward support for Iraq will at the very least be the exception rather than the rule.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The United States and the EU Referendum



Obama's intervention in the UK referendum campaign dominated headline coverage this weekend, both on the symbolic level(Boris Johnson's comments tying Obama's position on the EU to his part Kenyan ancestry) and on a substantive one(his warnings that the UK would not be moved to the front of a line for a free-trade deal with the US). The result was to lead Nigel Farage to proclaim the past week the single worst in the history of the Leave campaign. That conclusion was quickly embraced by a media that has never understood Leave supporters and therefore concludes every event or development will harm their cause. That was evident in the coverage by the BBC, which heavily played up Obama's remarks and less committal ones emerging from Hillary Clinton, and completely ignored statements from Republicans Ted Cruz and Donald Trump which contradicted the position laid out by Obama, namely that the US should not involve itself in the referendum, and that moreover the US should always seek to be supportive of the UK.

To grant coverage to the latter would have done two things. The first, always hard for many outside observers, would be to acknowledge the possibility that a Republican might be President in 2016. The other would be to recognize that the United States is not monolithic. But just as the UK media speaks for the UK educational and cultural elite, which with the exception of a few politicians is monolithic on the referendum, so too is Obama speaking for a set of professionals, mostly democrats, who see the major US priority being in encouraging economic development as an underpinning of stability. Rejecting the importance of issues of ethnicity, religion, or nationality in terms of conflict, they see every conflict and problem as deriving from a lack of economic opportunity, and it is easy to see why to them the case for Britain to leave the EU is inconceivable. It would impose macroeconomic costs on the EU, the UK, and the United States, all for the purpose of remedying concerns they reject the legitimacy of.

It is worth noting that there is an element of truth to the Leave criticism of Obama's remarks. While virtually the entire United States political spectrum supports NAFTA, it is highly unlikely NAFTA ever would have been approved if it involved free movement between the United States and Mexico. And such a clause was excluded from NAFTA for good reason. But someone like Obama, who favors amnesty for those who have come to America illegally in any case, probably would oppose such a proposal on the basis of politics rather than principle.

However true that may be, it is far from the most relevant complaint the Leave campaign is justified in making, which is that Obama's trip revealed something obvious. Whatever the merits of leaving the EU are in abstract, the actual ability to successfully do so ultimately depends on the attitude of the United States, which contrary to the BBC coverage is not necessarily pro-Remain, but is necessarily determined by the identity of an American administration. Regardless of whether Obama is anti-British or not, the fact is that the Republican social and foreign policy elite is vastly more anglophile than their Democratic counterparts, a view shared by their base. More importantly, Republicans are fiercely anti-EU, suspicious of the loyalty of mainland Europeans in any case due to experiences in the Cold War as well as over Iraq and more recently Israel, and it would be impossible politically for any Republican Administration to take a position in favor of Britain remaining in the EU.

Hence the importance of the referendum being held in 2016 rather than 2017, when there might well be a Republican Administration which would make "America's Position" very different from what it is today. Much as few efforts have evidently been made by the Cabinet for the eventuality of a Brexit, every effort was made to hold the referendum in circumstances in which a Brexit would be as  difficult and painful as possible right down to an American President who was known for a fact to be opposed and willing to say so.  That in turn, has left the Brexit campaign forced to either align itself with the Republicans who are unpopular in Britain, or to attack Obama personally who is.

Lest one be too quick to praise the cleverness of Cameron and Osborne, it is worth noting that a consensus in favor a Brexit being a bad idea right now, is a dangerous eventuality. For one thing, the more that Brexit looks like a protest against the EU and political establishment instead of a viable policy option, the more likely it is that protest voters will support it safe in the knowledge it will not happen. Furthermore, there is anger among Brexit supporters that they have been tricked and treated with contempt, not least because both are true. Finally, by casting a cloud over the fairness of the referendum it also creates doubts about the finality. It seems doubtful to me that many will take this as the final word on the topic, no matter how much politicians will rush to proclaim it to be such. In many ways, the result is therefore already imitating the course of the Scottish referendum campaign in which a victory for the status quo is one solely on the basis of casting doubt on the timing and circumstances of change rather than on the merits of the change itself. Making a case that a vote to Leave while Obama remains President would see Britain fail to get as favorable treatment as voting to Leave under a Republican is to state the obvious. But it is far from an argument in favor of EU membership. And it is a continuation of an almost entirely negative Remain campaign.

About Me

London, United Kingdom
Degrees in History, Politics and Iranian Studies. Wrote in the past for http://Fivethirtyeight.com. https://twitter.com/DanielBerman2