Month: August 2016
A commenter again objects to the idea that “left” and “right” is a useful categorisation of political ideas.
On the subject of “left” and “right”, there is confusion because I use the terms in two distinct but related senses.
When I talk about the long-term political trends–“leftward drift” and so on, what I am talking about is what is sometimes called “progressivism”. It would be good to define that more satisfactorily, but it is an intellectual-political movement of great age, oriented around a cluster of ideals mostly centred on “equality”. There is no corresponding long-term definition of “right”, there is only occasional opposition to progressivism.
In day to day politics, “left” and “right” have much broader meanings, relating to every area of political controversy. Mostly they have no permanent meaning in relation to ideas about policy, and no meaning in relation to practice of any activity outside of politics. They are, however, an essential feature of any kind of struggle for power. There cannot normally be more than two coalitions seriously engaged in seeking power; if you bring any desire to a power-struggle, it is necessary first to get one or other of the competing coalitions to agree to your desire.
The reason these two very different meanings of “left” get confused is because, given the inevitable division of politics into two factions at any given place and time, we label the faction more in line with “progressivism” as “left” and the other as “right”. In some cases, the choice is rather difficult and ends up being pretty much arbitrary.
So, immigration is a progressive and therefore long-term “left” demand when it is premised on the equality of “natives” and “foreigners”. However, while that is in line with long-term progressive principles, it is actually very new for it to be advanced with significant powerful backing on the basis of those principles. As the commentator rightly observed, going back only a few decades, it was much more a practical issue pushed by businesses in order to advance their own economic interests. Because those businessmen were part of the (short-term) “right” coalition, immigration at that point was more a “right”-wing than “left”-wing demand. It is by no means the only issue falling into that category; for a century the progressive agenda focused on advancing the status of the working class relative to the employing class (because equality is the central progressive value), and so many people define “left” and “right” as permanent ideas relating to the two sides of that economic divide. As the same commentator put it in 2011:
In the world I was brought up in (and you were born into) Right/Left politics was quite simple. At the extreme of the Right there were bosses and millionaires, and the extreme of the Left there were deep-sea fishermen and coalminers…
But during the 70s the world as I knew it changed into something else. The first inkling of descent into (what appeared to me to be) silliness was called “Rock against Racism”. Then there was the Feminist movement, relying on a series of absurd illogicalities and parodying Marxist class dialectics. Together, and with other ingredients, they formed the basis for the time-wasting activities of so many “equal opportunities” employers today.
It is readily observable that that “fishermen and coalminers” model does not hold in the twenty-first century. Indeed, there is massive opposition to Trump from the existing “right” coalition on the grounds that his stated platform is not “right” at all in twentieth-century terms.
The existing right coalition in the United States, however, is still defining itself in opposition to the left coalition on a field of issues which the left coalition sees as essentially done with or for other reasons not currently important. The force of the left coalition is directed in new, but still progressive directions, including open borders, but the right coalition has the habit of not opposing those policy demands. Hence the “Alt-Right”, which is the term for opposition to the new progressive demands of the left coalition, rather than opposition to the old progressive demands of the left coalition.
If the Alt-Right takes over the right coalition, we could conceivably get to a situation where the right coalition is focused on policies of advancing the status of the white working class against the white elite, while the left coalition is focused on advancing the status of immigrants against the white working class. Since both of those are actually progressive values, in terms of long-term advancing of equality, it would be one of those situations where the labelling of the coalitions as left and right could be argued to be backwards.
The summary of my prediction in the original post is that that will not happen. I expect the left coalition to back-pedal on immigration, which it only seized on because the right coalition was failing to oppose it..
Another way of putting my prediction is that over the long term “left” and “right” do usually describe politics well (though they aren’t guaranteed to), and that the current left demand for open borders is an aberration that will be corrected before it is allowed to destroy a coherent progressive left coalition. It is reasonably progressive to say that foreigners should have the same rights as natives, but it is not practical for the more progressive coalition to actually go and do it.
A fuller historical explanation of the “descent into silliness” is needed as a matter of the first importance. Did the cause of further advancement of the proletariat run into diminishing returns? Was it sabotaged by clever rightists? Was the obsession of the left coalition with that one issue over such a long period of time itself the aberration, perhaps caused by the Russian Revolution and the resulting alignment with Marx?
To set the scene, this is what I think normal politics looks like:
There is a kind of dynamic equilibrium of politics under the Modern Structure. The Cathedral moves left at a controlled pace. It drags the political establishment behind it. The parties and the media drag the backward mass of the people behind them.
To elaborate on that, I believe the pace has been controlled. There has always been a niche for someone to be the most radical, and that is the driving force behind the leftward movement, but there are also a whole bunch of sensible people with power to hold on to, who want to keep the system functioning roughly as well as it is, and who want to avoid triggering outright rebellion from the “backward masses”. The mainstream at any given time is a compromise between maintaining the status quo and claiming the status benefits emitted by the leftward spiral.
This dynamic equilibrium has been in place at least since the late 19th Century. I think it’s fair to say it was interrupted, in a small and narrow way, by the Reagan-era reorienting of economic policy. I wrote about that.
When I wrote the top piece about the dynamic equilibrium, in 2013, I thought the same economic-policy readjustment was happening again. I continued:
The last 15 years, under the Bush and Obama administrations, have seen an increase in the rate of expansion of the economic activity of the Federal Government beyond the previous rate. We can think of the old rate of leftward drift as the equilibrium rate, though of course that’s oversimplifying a complex situation.
That departure from the equilibrium rate of advance produced the Tea Party, by damaging the illusion that flyover country could oppose what was happening simply by supporting the Republican side of the political class.
However, the establishment was able to see off the Tea Party. What appears to be on the cards today, with the Trump movement, is a readjustment on a wider, or at least different, front; the question of the status of white culture and in particular of mass immigration.
This was very unexpected–I saw no hint of it in 2013 when the Tea Party was the focus of right-wing dissent. The apparent explanation for it was the lack of compromise on the cultural side from the left in politics and in institutions. The left traditionally can be patient; if it hits resistance it can sit and wait for its dominance over education and culture to wear that resistance away. That has always worked in the past. But for the last three years there has been no compromise: the cultural demands of the leftist status spiral have been driven through regardless of opposition, even on almost purely symbolic questions like transgender bathrooms or Syrian refugees where there was no practical reason not to show the usual patience and achieve the usual steady progress.
This is the question I asked, then, on Twitter in July 2016:
The cause of Trump, as @FreeNortherner said, is that they boiled the frog too quickly. But what is the cause of that loss of restraint?
Candidates are: social media echo chamber, Republican party weakness, purging of right from old institutions.
Or, I suppose, just random shit happens sometimes. But while possible it’s worth considering structural causes.
I will expand on the three suggestions I made:
By the echo chamber I mean the widely discussed theory that left and right have been socially separating from each other, to the degree that they simply don’t see the same world any more. The mainstream left became oblivious to the scale and intensity of opposition to what they were doing, because they literally didn’t know anyone who thought that way, didn’t read what those people were reading or even take them seriously.
The Republican Party ran very (electorally) weak presidential candidates for two elections running; we saw a very similar extended run in Britain of the Conservative Party being weak, divided, and not having politically effective candidates, during the Blair years. If elections aren’t close, the government naturally feels it can get away with more.
The purging of institutions is a kind of echo of what I wrote about in What happened in the Sixties. If what happened in the sixties was that the left had achieved such dominance in civil service, education and media that they could win every battle, in this decade the dominance reached the stage where they could not only defeat any opposition in those arenas, but they could punish any open dissent to their position. Before the Sixties you could take the right-wing line on a matter, and you might win or might lose. From the Sixties, you would lose. From this decade, you would lose and be fired.
I put forward those three hypotheses, for further evaluation and testing. I still think they’re pretty good. The point is that something must have changed. When I referred back to the question yesterday, there were a lot of suggestions on Twitter along the lines “Leftists are bad”. Well, they are, but that doesn’t explain why after a hundred years of deliberately not triggering a powerful right-wing backlash, they suddenly did it now.
However, yesterday I came across the Slate article by John Dickerson. “Go for the Throat!“
Note the article is from January 2013; the occasion being Obama’s second Inaugural Address. So it was published before my October 2013 “Shutdown” piece where I saw the right-wing reaction to the establishment being on the narrow size-of-government issue.
In the article, John Dickerson simply proposes what has since happened as an electoral strategy. By refusing to compromise in any way with right-wing opposition, Obama could force Republican politicians to choose between either accepting utter defeat, and therefore losing all respect with conservatives, or else turning against their own defeated moderates, and allowing themselves to be painted as intransigent extremists. Some would go each way, and the result would be a split and damaged Republican party.
I dropped a few quotes on Twitter, but there’s no sense reading all this and not reading that article. It’s ridiculous to read that article and then ask, “Why did Donald Trump happen?” The whole point of the strategy Dickerson describes is to make something like Trump happen.
There are, however two questions to ask. The first is, “didn’t you consider that in triggering the production of ‘overreaction and charismatic dissenters’ from the GOP, you might get something powerful enough to win, or at least to reshape the political scene to your disadvantage?” The second is “Why is this a good idea in 2013, and not in, say, 1997? What is different?”
I’m interested in any answers to those questions, but first of all I’m interested in John Dickerson‘s answers. I’ve asked him on Twitter, but as yet not received a reply (to be fair, it’s early Monday morning in the US).
Kicking some ideas around as to what the future of US politics looks like, filling in more detail of my previous prediction
The justification for doing this is to test my understanding, not to drive any kind of short-term action
Note I’m not American, so while I know quite a lot, there’s a lot I don’t know, and I don’t know what a lot of it is. (Unknown unknowns).
I’m not predicting the election result. Lets take the possibilities
Let’s say Hillary wins.
Prediction 1. Trump isn’t going anywhere. He’s gone from well-known figure to one of the most famous men in the world, and he isn’t going to mind that at all. He is going to be prominent on US media for the foreseeable future. The media might want to keep him off, but they don’t have that kind of veto power–he could literally set up his own TV station and make money off it. More likely someone will give him a platform. He’s going to be on the news every week for the next decade.
Prediction 2. Hillary is going to be very unpopular. She’s a hopeless politician and isn’t going to be able to evade blame like Obama did. She cannot be reelected in 2020.
Non-Prediction 3. Can the Democrats replace her in 2020 primaries? I understand that generally doesn’t happen with incumbents. Pressure to not stand due to ill-health or something is possible
Non-Prediction 4. Can Trump run again in 2020? Nixon lost & was nominated again, right? Trump on a “I fucking told you, you fucking fools” platform could be in with a good chance. OTOH, the party will blame him for losing, and has a good chance to make that stick over the next 4 years. Also, they will be better-prepared with the machinery to keep him out, having been caught out this time.
Prediction 5. The Republican mainstream will loudly reject Trumpism and all his works and all his empty promises. Maybe for as long as six months. Then they will gradually begin to compete for his supporters. By 2019, border enforcement, some restriction on Islam, and much more hostility to free trade will be much more common in talking points. And of course that is on top of the fact that Ted Cruz is now symbolic of the moderate Republican mainstream, which would be shocking to anyone who had been in a coma since 2014.
Prediction 6. The real world has little to do with all this. There will not be a major collapse in the next 5 years. Details will change, but the big picture will be recognisable. That’s not because the current situation can go on forever, but because forever is a long time, and collapses are rare. Hillary’s policies will look bad, because she’s such an incompetent politician, but things won’t get worse noticeably quicker than they have been doing.
Prediction 7. The president elected in 2020 will be elected on a moderate immigration-restrictionist platform, and will act on it with limited cooperation from the establishment, having some marginal effect but not a revolutionary realignment of politics.
And if Trump wins…?
Prediction 8. President Trump will not be revolutionary. He will not take communists for helicopter rides, gas the Jews, appoint @Nero as press secretary, or pull out of NATO or the UN.
Prediction 9. He will attempt to make significant restrictions on legal immigration by Muslims and illegal immigration across the Mexico border. He will need to fight against the permanent government to do this. The character of that fight is the big open question.
Prediction 10. President Trump will win over the Republican Party. There will be many holdouts but as president he will have enough new allies to defeat them. There may for a time be a “Trump Party” but over time the Anti-Trumpers will be marginalised.