Scattered Thoughts on a Tragedy

14 Nov

A Trump Administration
The unthinkable happened. I don’t really know what a Donald Trump administration looks like. Anyone who says they do is full of it. I think the best we can hope for is that he’s more interested in personal adulation than actually governing, outsources decisions to advisers (who aren’t Steven Bannon), and what we get is an ineffective, vanilla Republican administration. It’s hard to know what the worst possible scenario is, but given that Trump will have support from both Houses of Congress and the Supreme Court will lean conservative, it’s hard to think of what he couldn’t do if he tried. I’m not sure I can imagine what it feels like to be an undocumented immigrant, a Muslim, someone without good private health insurance, or so many other categories of people today.


The Electoral College
The first thing that seems obvious to me is the dire need to abolish the Electoral College. Looks like Hillary will end up with hundreds of thousands more popular votes (though obviously the race would’ve looked different if campaigns had been working toward securing the popular rather than Electoral College votes). This is not how democracy is supposed to work. It’s happened twice in the last two decades, and Democrats needs to take it seriously next time they’re in power. But let’s not be silly and treat this somehow as an illegitimate outcome. The Electoral College sucks, but everyone knew and agreed on the rules ahead of time.


Resisting Trump in Washington
I’m torn on how government employees should resist Trump. There are plenty of liberals out there today calling for people of conscience in elected and unelected office to obstruct a Trump administration at every move. I understand the impulse, but that’s not really “going high” is it? Polarization is already at extreme levels, and if the losing side’s response is always to do their best to ensure that governance doesn’t occur, I have little faith in the government’s long-term prospects. We also shouldn’t forget that frustration with Washington’s gridlock is a central reason we ended up with Trump. But perhaps there’s not a way around it. The political system we have encourages obstructionism by the minority in Congress, and there are certainly some things that Trump might do, like attempting to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, that I hope will be resisted by federal employees, even if it is not strictly democratic. Democracy is not always a substitute for a conscience.


Trump’s a Creation of the GOP
If there is anyone today who I hope is having a long, hard look at themselves, it’s current and former Republican elites. When you spend decades spreading coded racism, assailing the notion of facts, pursuing disastrous economic policy, obstructing governance, and opposing the most basic social reforms, it shouldn’t be a surprise that an enthusiastic audience is waiting for a man that abandons the dog whistle.


Hillary and the Left
The Republicans aren’t the only ones to blame. Democrats were up against the worst Presidential nominee of a major party perhaps ever, and still managed to lose. Despite her sky-high name recognition, abundant funds, and large organization, Hillary lost. There were certainly other contributing factors, such as widespread sexism, but simply, she was a shockingly bad candidate, especially unsuited for today’s political climate. Not only did her campaign fail to understand the nature of Trump’s appeal and how to counter it, but her campaign was clueless as to where she was weak. She didn’t visit Wisconsin once during the campaign, and in the days leading up to the election her campaign suggested phone bankers call places like Iowa and Utah, where Hillary lost by 30 points even with Evan McMullin getting 20%.

It would be comforting to think that the problem is limited to Hillary or her campaign, but it’s not. This is a problem with the Democratic party and with the Left in America. Too many people don’t think government it working for them and that elites have their best interests in mind. Proposing incrementalist policies, modest social protections, and proclaiming that “America is already great” is no longer good enough. It doesn’t answer the more fundamental concerns of too many. And therefore, if this election presents one lesson, it is the need to do away with technocratic (neo)liberalism that speaks of small, wonkish reforms and is spoken by those that share little in common with the average voter. Additionally, those leading the Democratic party must avoid the perception that they’re a small, distant, self-interested elite, forever trading jobs and favors with each other. This means no more Clinton Foundation scandals, private email servers, and secret Wall Street speeches. If future Democrats want to avoid another Trump, they need to tell powerful stories about what’s happening in this country, who’s to blame (certain elites, but crucially not minorities), and articulate a bold vision of what the future can bring. The Left in general needs bigger ideas, whether that’s a universal basic income or something else, that address the worries Americans have about their futures.

Why, specifically did Hillary lose this election? Or in other words, what made this election different from 2008 and 2012? Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan were critical, even if Hillary under-performed pretty much across the board. The data is incomplete, but with what we have it seems to be some combination of white voters who voted for Obama switching to Trump, higher turnout among working class whites voting for Trump which represented one of the biggest demographic swings this election, and lower turnout/support for Hillary among minorities. How could she have turned this around? As for minorities, she was never going to get the turnout Obama produced, so basically she needed to do better among whites in the Rust Belt.

Why didn’t she? It’s too early to say definitively, but pre-election descriptive work suggests a few interconnected explanations. The first is that many Rust Belt whites feel government no longer looks after their interests, and is run by Washington elites with whom they have little in common with. They probably took the “Basket of Deplorables” comment personally as representative of the disdain with which politicians view them, and thus voted for the anti-politician. The second is that these are people who have either seen their economic circumstances decline recently as jobs move overseas or at least live in areas where this is true. They feel the American Dream is slipping away. This isn’t in their imaginations. The working class of developing countries has had the smallest relative gains in the last few decades, and so it shouldn’t be a surprise this group lacked enthusiasm for the candidate most associated with free trade. It’s possible the effect existed across racial lines, as lower turnout among minorities, many of whom are working class, may have been the product of economic dissatisfaction.

Race is of course the elephant the room when it comes to explaining Donald Trump’s support. It unquestionably played a central role in his victory, and is linked the two explanations above. But this isn’t a monocausal story. Many of the crucial voters that delivered the election to Trump probably voted for Obama in 2012 based on county-level data. What seems much more likely to me, is that in addition to a hardcore racist element among Trump supporters, plenty of Trump supporters were willing to vote for a racial answer to social and economic questions when they didn’t see an alternative on the Left.

Beyond what I’ve already mentioned, what can be done to address the specifically racial aspect of Trump’s support? First, there is a desperate need to understand and take seriously the grievances of Trump supporters. This isn’t some hippy-dippy peace and love response; this is cold hard pragmatism. Some Trump voters need to vote for Democratic candidates in the future, and they need to be persuaded to do so. Shaming them for racism isn’t working. Tragically, going forward the barrier to multi-racial coalitions constructed by whites may present a dilemma between focusing on issues relevant to minorities and whites. And if absent minority turnout inspired by someone like Obama, focusing on whites might be the most electorally prudent, at least in the short-term. I honestly don’t know what this would look like, and morally, don’t know how to evaluate such a strategy.


On Quantitative Social Science
There are perhaps reasons to think the backlash against people like Nate Silver is too harsh. They’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty, and are honest that their estimates are probabilistic. Just because Trump wins when he had a projected 30% chance of winning doesn’t make 538 wrong.

However, I think there are a lot of reasons for pessimism. The overwhelming consensus by all major pollsters that Clinton would win, perhaps in a landslide, is fairly galling. The major failure of polls this time was in the Midwest, but it’s not as if pollsters hadn’t been warned. During the primary, Hillary was projected to easily win Michigan, but Bernie pulled off a surprise upset. He also won Wisconsin and Minnesota. Should this have not produced a major update of forecasting models?

It looks even worse when you put the American election in comparative perspective. The phone polls for Brexit suggested it would fail, which turned out to heavily underestimate voter turnout by discontented whites outside of urban centers. Pollsters didn’t learn here either.

The American Presidential Election is the political event in the world for which we have the most data. If even an aggregate of various forecasting models can’t predict with any certainty what’s going to happen in this case, we need to question the approach. It’s not that good forecasting/modeling is impossible. But there’s a serious need to critically evaluate the assumptions present in the data. Reflective of the technocratic approach, all of us spent far too much time checking 538 and not enough trying to understand the nature of Trumpism. I know I did. We need good description before we can even begin to predict outcomes. And sometimes, we’re never going to be able to predict with any certainly. I think most social scientists know this in theory, but too many did not act accordingly. I don’t share the opinion of some that those that got it wrong are irredeemable, but what I do want to plea for is introspection and the recognition of our own ignorance. May it help us see the light.


On Activism
Prior to this election, I was fairly comfortable with my life choices. Academia is what I’ve always enjoyed most and been good at. Especially given my frustration in the policy and activism spheres, it seemed like an obvious choice. I had long imagined that years of academic study would turn me into a better person, a more thoughtful person who could reliably decipher right from wrong and propose realistic solutions to social ills. That once I got to a certain level of education, I’d be able to effectively engage in progressive social change. But a man that repudiates everything I believe in was just elected to the most powerful position in the world. If the analysis of so many others can’t prevent it, how effective can academic analysis be? Will the world be in a place where positive change is achievable by the time I feel I’ve become a sufficiently thoughtful person? Will that day ever come? I am no longer so certain.

Vignettes from a Trump Presidency

7 Nov

Election Day is tomorrow. I’m very nervous. According to Nate Silver, Donald Trump has about a 35% chance of becoming President of the United States. It might be difficult to imagine what that means. Trump has been less than precise when it comes to policy details during the campaign. Some proposals might be hard to implement, like imposing a religious test for admittance to the country, but I believe it’s worth taking seriously the effects his presidency could have on the American political system. Some policies would carry on as normal, but it’s not those I want to focus on. Such an approach helps us put in perspective the choice we’re making, which is between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. In these three hypothetical vignettes, I consider what it would mean to choose the latter.


In a nationally-televised address on Tuesday evening, President Trump ordered Immigration and Customs (ICE) Officers to cooperate with the American Patriots during immigration raids. The group, formed earlier this year, is a loose collection of armed civilians, whose leaders say they are dedicated to improving national security through immigration enforcement. Their role in rounding up alleged undocumented immigrants and transporting them to detention centers initially garnered praise from President Trump, but yesterday’s speech marked the first time he had ordered federal employees to work directly with the group.

The timing of the announcement, according to anonymous sources within ICE, is due to the inability of ICE agents to deport undocumented immigrants at the rate promised by President Trump. The Trump administration received sharp rebukes from many domestic and international organizations for the decision, citing allegations that members of the American Patriots were involved in several recent shootings targeting worshipers at mosques and Black Lives Matter protesters. Despite these criticisms and the spiraling cost of deportations, which some estimates peg in the tens of billions of dollars, President Trump has vowed to step up efforts to, in his words, “Make America great again.”


Following a reportedly fiery meeting between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Sino-American Summit that concluded Sunday, President Trump announced yesterday that he plans to ask Congress to impose a 30-day trade embargo on China.

According to anonymous White House sources, Presidents Trump and Xi began arguing over America’s trade deficit. Reportedly, Trump then left the meeting after Xi stated that the American government did not have the leverage internationally to implement higher tariffs without causing major damage to the domestic economy. Several journalists in the White House press corps have since reported that Trump interpreted Xi’s statement as a personal slight.

The announcement has caused stock prices around the world to plummet, amidst major consternation among major investors and international leaders. The European Union immediately issued a statement calling the proposal “reckless,” while the United Nations General Assembly was dominated by leaders abandoning their planned speeches to denounce the plan. Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, whose country maintains close diplomatic and financial ties to China, was particularly stringent in his criticisms, stating even a temporary trade embargo, “would irreparably damage the global economy and America’s international standing.”

In response to critics, President Trump gave an unscheduled press conference this morning. In a speech that lasted over an hour, he revealed that he has ordered thousands of US military personnel to be deployed to bases in South Korea, Okinawa, and the Philippines. The President said he’s confident the show of force will lead to China’s capitulation. Finally, in response to President dos Santos’ speech at the UN, Trump tweeted, “Angola should be careful. I have a lot more bombs than they do.”


In the aftermath of a bombshell Washington Post investigation that found President Donald Trump had been using the Army Corps of Engineers to build and maintain his commercial properties, White House lawyers have brought criminal charges, including espionage, against several Washington Post staff members.

In several statements issued in the last week, the Trump administration denies any improper use of federal employees, while also saying that the President has seen a lot worse in his competitors. Additionally, President Trump gave an interview with Politico this morning in which he was quoted as saying, “I have the right to bring criminal charges against the media for outright lies, everyone knows this. And I can guarantee I won’t go so easy next time.”


The vignettes are merely vague guesses of what a Trump administration could look like, but it’s far from all of the issues that might be affected by his election: voting rights, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, abortion rights, climate change, corporate taxation, student debt, the composition of the Supreme Court, and so many others. American democracy might survive a Trump administration, but it would certainly come out of such an ordeal a shell of its former self.

Life Update: Starting a PhD

24 Aug

Many of you reading this may already know, but I’m starting a PhD in Political Science at Yale this fall. I’ll finish (hopefully) in 5-6 years. I’m writing this post both so that I can look back and see what I thought I wanted to study later on and as an explanation for why I want to start a PhD. For those only interested in the why, and not the minutiae of political science research agendas, you can skip the first two paragraphs.

At Yale, I plan to specialize in comparative politics with a second sub-field likely in political theory. Broadly, I am interested in issues of violence, governance, and state-building. More specifically, I’m interested in non-state governance, wartime politics, and civilian agency in conflict. I’m hoping that studying state-building and non-state governance together can create insight both on how historical cases of the phenomenon are interpreted and use those lessons to interpret contemporary cases. Civilians have largely been left out of studies of intrastate violence, and while there are some notable recent exceptions, I think there is still work to be done on their role in influencing broader conflict systems. I am also still interested to a degree in the study of mass atrocities, but hope to more rigorously connect that research agenda to related ones, such as civil wars. I hope that my work on these issues relates back to more fundamental questions of (how violence interacts with) power, organization, and identity/ideology. Additionally, I’m somewhat interested in leftist strategy and the role of intellectuals/ideas in shaping social change, but that will probably remain a side interest.

In terms of regional specialization, I have always been more attached to themes than a region, but if I had to choose one it would be sub-Saharan Africa (obviously some countries more than others). I’m starting to learn French in order to make research there more feasible. Methodologically, I see myself more as a social scientist interested in the questions studied by political scientist rather than solely a political scientist, so I hope to draw inspiration from a range of disciplines. I plan on primarily using qualitative methods such as ethnography and historical research in my own work, but still need to learn more about others.

Especially for those reading this that may not be interested in devoting at least five years of their lives to obtaining a doctorate, the major question is probably “why?”. I’ve been interested in political issues for as long as I can remember, and once I got to Swarthmore, I realized that there were broadly three avenues through which I could pursue my interests: activism, policy, and academia. I’m choosing the third because, to quote Vaclev Havel, I want to “live in truth.” In his essay “The Power of the Powerless”, Havel reflects on life after communism, arguing its primary power comes not through brute force, but through fear, censorship, and labyrinthine institutions that gradually ensure acquiescence. However, “living in truth” by refusing to follow the system’s diktats, upends the status quo and empowers the previously-dominated.

Fortunately, I have never lived in such a society, but I see Havel’s point as having broader implications about how people come to understand what social arrangements are just, and how those ends can be achieved. Outside of academia, I have found the institutional and social pressures to think in certain ways, some of which seem unjust, baffling, depressing, and very, very hard to deal with. I still strongly believe that plenty of people do amazing and necessary work in the activism and policy worlds, but professionally, I am not cut out for such a life. Academia is no panacea to these problems, but the time granted for intellectual inquiry and the norms of research and discussion offer greater possibilities to live in truth. Furthermore, if my time at Swarthmore taught me one thing, it is that positive social change is very difficult to achieve, and good intentions often result in negative outcomes. Well-crafted, well-communicated research can help ameliorate this problem. This belief, coupled with the realization that I have long admired and aspired to intellectualism more than other personal traits, has led me to Yale, and hopefully beyond.

Why the Greens Aren’t the Answer

2 Aug

There’s been a lot of conversation recently around the merits of voting for a third party candidate, and while I firmly believe that voting for Hillary Clinton is necessary to stop the unprecedented disaster that would a Trump presidency, I do not believe that even in the long-term, the Green Party represents a viable opportunity for the Left.

I voted for Jill Stein in 2012, but I was voting in Michigan, where Romney had a close to 0% chance of winning. I will again not be voting in a swing-state, but I will be voting for Hillary Clinton. In 2012, I believed that absent the threat that not voting for a Democrat could elect a Republican, it was important to strengthen the Green Party so that over time it could provide a left counterweight to the moderate Democrats. However, I now find it highly improbable the Green Party will ever be that force for three main reasons.

First, the current electoral rules make it very hard for a third party to ever become prominent. The Democrats and GOP have very little incentive to change them, even if they become unpopular, because right now those two are the only game in town.

Second, the Green Party isn’t even the most likely third party to become prominent. It’s probably not even the second or third. Right now, either branch of the Republican party (classic, somewhat elite conservatives on one side, Trumpistas on the other), Libertarians, and maybe some mix of those three would probably have more appeal than the Greens. The biggest problem with imagining the Greens as a vanguard of the Left is that it is impossibly optimistic to believe that there’s a large number who actually support leftist ideals but aren’t speaking up due to a lack of current options. This hypothesis has been posited for decades, and it’s always been wrong. Even despite the relative strength of leftist social movements right now, there’s little support for the Green Party.

Third, from the research on political party affiliation (as I understand it; I’m not an Americanist), Americans identify with parties based mostly on identity rather than policies. As in people vote for Democrats because they’ve always felt like Democrats. Because the rational voter, who votes on a consistent set of principles is mostly a myth, it’s impossible to convince voters to abandon the Democratic Party for a little-known third party that claims to have better policies. Therefore, I think a leftist candidate in the Democratic primaries, backed up by strong social movement support that wins the presidential election, is the upper bound of leftist potential in my lifetime. The revolution isn’t coming.

I am deeply concerned about Hillary’s policies, particularly her foreign policy, but voting for her is necessary to prevent Trump from winning. The decision is even clearer when it becomes obvious the Green Party cannot and will not become a major force to the Democrats’ left.

On Terrorism

24 Jul

When compared to other forms of unnatural death for people living in North American and European democracies, terrorism barely registers. You may have heard these stats before, but allow me to repeat some. Domestic violence kills 500 times more people each year than terrorism. Americans are more than 1,000 times more likely to die in a car accident than a terrorist attack. Ditto non-terroristic forms of gun violence. There are about 5,000 drug and alcohol-related deaths for every one American killed by terrorism. Americans are even slightly more likely to be killed by falling furniture (yes furniture!) than terrorism. However, I don’t remember the last congressional hearing on unstable dressers.

Instead, the United States has spent about $4,000,000,000,000 on the War on Terror, or $16,000 for every American. And this is all for a threat, that since 2002, has never killed more than 35 Americans in a year. Even in France, which has faced more terror fatalities than any other Western democracy in the last 12 months, only 1 in 300,000 people died due to terrorism. Something so insignificant is not only believed to be the biggest threat to the United States (in December 2015, 40% believed it was the most pressing issue for the US government to address, and another 21% said it was the second most pressing), but it is driving the foreign policy of the most powerful country on earth and many of its allies.

How to stop the lunacy? We need a broader cultural shift in how we think and talk about terrorism. Terrorism needs to be understood as something that does not fundamentally threaten our society, our democracy, or way of life, or even our lives. We need to get to the point where when a terrorist attack happens, we say, “that’s terrible,” just as we might with any other tragedy, and move on with our day.

(An aside: My argument only applies to North American and European democracies. In many other parts of the world, “terrorist” groups also have the ability to hold territory and the potential to topple governments. The threat presented by these groups, both in terms of political turmoil and loss of human life, is very different, and it is important to not confuse the two. Additionally, in the North American and European contexts, I’m writing about jihadist terrorism, rather than terrorism committed by far-right groups. The latter is more prevalent, but is rarely considered a major threat.)

We can still mourn. But even in mourning, we must be careful, for there are risks, both internal and external. Internally, mourning the victims of terrorism, especially when attempting to mourn equally for those killed in Paris and Baghdad, can prove to be overwhelming. Sadly, people are killed by political violence all around the world all the time, and mourning each death individually can leave us overly fearful that the same fate might befall us. Externally, there is the danger that our emotions can overwhelm prudent responses to terror. Too often, it is felt that the only way to mourn victims properly is to stress that only monsters could have taken their lives. Perhaps this provides some immediate comfort, but in the long-term, it is deeply dangerous. It leads to the stereotyping of entire ethnic, religious, and national groups as violent, and prompts policy responses that overlook the political context in which violence occurs and prescribes overwhelming force as the only possible solution. Donald Trump and his fellow fear-mongers are major beneficiaries of this impulse.

Despite these dangers, mourning can play a positive role. Beyond the potential emotional benefits, it can also serve as an opportunity to learn about why violence occurs in different parts of the world, and hopefully what can be done to prevent more.

Taking a step back, it is important to consider how terrorism came to dominate political discourse. At the most basic level, terrorism is scary because terrorism is the killing of random people for political reasons. It seems there are three psychological biases at play here. First is the fear of randomness. Because it’s impossible to predict exactly where and when terrorism will happen and who it will target, it’s hard not to think, when reading about Western victims of terror attacks, “it could be me.” Even if statistically, the chances are infinitesimal, terrorism is hard to rationalize. Second is the fear of violent ideologies. In popular discourse, terrorists are seen as ruthless, driven entirely by the will to kill others not like themselves. Additionally, terrorists are frequently imagined as working together as part of a wider, coherent conspiracy, and that their supposed ideologies are simply the product of their upbringing. This in turn spawns the assumption that entire identity groups hold pro-terrorist ideologies. Third is the fear of people unlike themselves, which amplifies the fear of violent ideologies. Most Americans have a poor understanding of Islam and know few Muslims, and so claims that America is at war with an entire religion can appear credible.

In reality, support for groups like ISIS is pretty small, and even out of those that support the group, few are willing to carry out violence. Additionally, many of the motives for individuals to carry out terrorism are non-political, such as wanting to become someone in life or wanting to fit into a group of friends. Many pundits will lump yesterday’s Munich shooting in with other jihadist attacks simply because the attacker had Iranian citizenship, but initial information suggests jihadist ideology played no role in the attack.

The current responses to terrorism are failing, and will always fail. The fear has led us to imagine terrorism as primarily a problem of terrorists: there is a finite number of terrorists, and if they are killed, terrorism will cease. But terrorism exists in a broader social and political context, and violence used to kill terrorists will almost always prompt others to feel that their culture is under attack. It is important to acknowledge that many terrorists are responding to grievances such as unemployment, social isolation, and unequal international relations, and to remember that addressing these can help reduce tensions. But we must also remember that terrorism will always exist in some limited form. Even if all the injustices of the world were all ironed away, some people would still feel that their freedoms and privileges were being impinged on, and that violence is the only solution.

This conclusion may be unsettling, but acknowledging both that terrorism will exist and that it is fundamentally not very threatening is crucial. Because terrorism itself is not profoundly dangerous; government responses to terrorism are. States can wield far more violence than terrorist groups, and state violence can lead to wars that kill thousands of Westerners and hundreds of thousands of non-Westerners. Counter-terrorist policies can take away our freedoms and cause us to turn on entire identity groups. No terrorist group in North America or Western Europe could alone dream of such a success.

Brexit, Expertise, and Finding Meaning in Political Life

10 Jul

On both sides of the Atlantic, openly xenophobic and anti-establishment movements are gaining momentum. Brexit and Trump, two movements that would have been impossible to imagine even two years ago, are proudly ignoring facts, stoking racism, and at least in the case of Brexit, winning. Why?

I believe the Brexit vote and Trump’s rise are not mere blips, and instead underscore two central problems in modern Western democracies. The first is the failure of expertise, specifically that of elites, to convince the public of its worth and veracity. The second is the failure of liberal political movements (Democratic Party in the US, pro-EU Labour/Conservatives in the UK) to provide an attractive version of the future that people can latch onto.

Some writers have asked whether we’re living in “post-factual democracies” and focused on how information is distributed, especially with the increased use of social media. While there are certainly some interesting effects of social media, like the political clustering it produces, the issue is much less with how information is distributed than with how it is interpreted. For Brexit’s claim that money sent to the EU would be given to the National Health Service or Trump’s claim that Mexicans are rapists to be believed, people have to be so distrusting of the current political system that they’re willing to set aside all the facts and norms associated with it. Yes it might not be true, but the system is much less trustworthy.

It is not that we’re living in a dystopian present, and that there was a recent past where people could easily separate truth from lies. But what has changed qualitatively it seems, is that people are losing faith that liberal political movements and governments will produce the political outcomes they aspire to. While it would be comforting to adopt a Marxist critique, and attribute the relative unpopularity of pluralism solely to austerity and liberals’ reticence to bank hard left, thus fully embracing social democracy, it would neglect the ideological component. Over the last two and a half decades, intellectuals and politicians are failing to shape a vision of politics that provides meaning to the individual.

I’m not sure this failing is particular to the current crop of leaders and thinkers, and is partially the result of popular expectations in the current historical moment. The fall of the Soviet Union represented the vanishing of an obvious, existential threat to Western democracies, providing leaders with few excuses for economic and social stasis. Simply, it is difficult to assure people that the world can only get better, that all the major struggles have been overcome, when it seems the next generation might be worse off.

In the absence of rapid material progress for the upwardly mobile, politics also needs a powerful ideological component; something people can find meaning in, something people can identify with. Technocratic, incrementalist politics, so common among today’s liberal political parties, does not deliver this. Part of the problem is that the institutions representing the international order that liberalism aspires to evoke little sentimentality. Few people feel personally involved in attempts by the UN or World Bank to solve the world’s problems through multilateral diplomacy and development. Not only in international organizations, but also in national governments, there is a growing economic and cultural gap between those that make decisions and those that are supposed to benefit from them. This encourages suspicion of these institutions and those within them. Hillary’s historic unpopularity is a testament to this dynamic.

This is where nationalism, and other forms of identity politics of the dominant, come in. Unlike technocratic liberalism, nationalism provides its disciples with an identity and a mission. “Make America Great Again” is compelling, because it serves both as a call to action and a vision for the future. And especially in an era when it seems pluralist politics can’t deliver the goods for all, nationalist movements like Trump pledge to restore a supposedly marginalized group to its imagined previous prosperity, implicitly at the expense of outsiders. Not only does nationalism become attractive as a antidote to failed liberalism, but anti-politicians, who deride the norms of political life and even basic decency, like Farage, Trump, and (Boris) Johnson, appear “authentic”, untainted by the failure of political institutions.

The need for meaning in politics is well-articulated by Shadi Hamid here, speaking about Islam and political life in the Middle East:

As political scientists, when we try to understand why someone joins an Islamist party, we tend to think of it as, ‘Is this person interested in power or community or belonging?’ But sometimes it’s even simpler than that. It [can be] about a desire for eternal salvation. It’s about a desire to enter paradise…There’s a desire for a politics of substantive meaning. At the end of the day, people want more than economic tinkering. I think classical liberalism makes a lot of sense intellectually. But it doesn’t necessarily fill the gap that many people in Europe and the U.S. seem to have in their own lives…

Hamid isn’t the only one to make such an argument. In Modernity’s Wager, Adam Seligman posits the need to reincorporate the sacred (i.e. religion) into Western societies to prevent extremism from flourishing outside mainstream political life. Now Seligman was writing in the early-2000’s, immediately in the aftermath of 9/11, when religious extremism seemed to some a potentially catastrophic threat to Western liberalism. Fifteen years later, it’s clear that’s not the case. But Seligman isn’t wrong about the need for meaning in politics, but it is not clear to me that that meaning has to be organized religion, especially as religious adherence declines rapidly in Western democracies.

In the last half-decade, several leftist movements have sought to challenge liberal technocratic hegemony. There’s Sanders in the US, Corbyn in the UK, PODEMOS in Spain, and Syriza in Greece. They have all adopted an anti-elitist, anti-capitalist approach to politics, leading many to describe them as “populists”. I am, however, deeply skeptical the term has any meaning (Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is relevant here; it’s on my bookshelf but I haven’t read it yet).

Most basically, what all four do understand is the need to make ordinary people feel that they have an active role to play in politics. They have largely done so by painting a picture of the majority of society engaging in a struggle for survival against a small, wealthy elite. While this may or may not be the right story to tell, liberal political parties need to incorporate similar approaches. It is certainly important to recognize that “left populists” are not perfect, and sometimes promote impractical strategies. However, do liberal elites really have any other choice if they want to to fend off racist, xenophobic, and nationalist elements? The liberal order is not as strong as it once was.

For liberal/left intellectuals, the success of politicians in both creating a form of politics invested with meaning and delivering goods and services is of tantamount importance. Academics aren’t always looked at as beacons of knowledge in today’s society, especially on the right, and it doesn’t help when the politics that many academics espouse are unpopular. However, there’s still intellectual work to be done. As John Sonbanmatsu argues in The Postmodern Prince, the left needs a new way to view the world following the fall of communism. Postmodernist theory remains obtuse and terribly impractical, while technocratic liberalism isn’t cutting it either. Intellectuals need to do a better job of sketching what the future might look like and how to realistically get there if there is to be a renewal in trust of the academy’s expertise.

Coming to Terms with Refugee Policy

9 Jun

The world is in the midst of the largest refugee crisis since WWII, but instead of dealing with it properly, rich Western countries are doing shit like this: “…the EU is planning to provide training, equipment, and detention camps to the government of Sudan, which is led by a wanted war criminal, so that they can prevent human beings from crossing the border out of Sudan in the direction of Europe.”

But it’s not just Sudan. The US, Canada, and the EU are increasingly warming to proposals that involve paying off developing countries to “host” refugees in a bid to prevent them reaching their shores. Kenya, for example, has taken note of this trend and threatened to close Dabaab refugee camp, the world’s largest, unless Western donors cough up some more funding. While it’s true Western countries have failed to adequately fund the maintenance of the camp, Kenya is no innocent victim. It has cited Dabaab as a safe haven for al-Shabaab in order to justify closing the camp, despite lacking any evidence to support this assertion. Much of the extra funding will be pilfered by Kenyan politicians (many of whom aren’t exactly angels) and the security forces, who, wouldn’t you know it, are working with al-Shabaab to smuggle charcoal.

As one can see in the Kenya example, this stance on refugees has the unwelcome distinction of being both evil and stupid. By this I mean that not only are attempts to keep refugees out morally (and legally) unjustifiable, but they are counterproductive in terms of achieving other long-term foreign and domestic policy goals. To be more specific, here’s why attempts to keep refugees out by paying off poorer countries to host them are evil and stupid.

EVIL
– 
Those fleeing war are forced to stay in inadequate camps rather than being integrated into societies, which is their legal right. The suffering this causes for refugees is hard to understate.
– Tiny, poor countries like Lebanon end up hosting huge numbers of refugees in proportion to their population, putting a huge strain on physical space and natural resources.
– Paying off governments like Sudan’s to repress refugees will almost certainly also result in violence against citizens of those countries. Not only do donated funds and weapons give these governments the ability to further violently suppress internal problems and challenges, but their repressive actions gain credibility with donor nations.

STUPID
– Paying off governments like Kenya and Sudan further entrenches corruption and rewards predatory governments. In the long-term, this is likely to produce various forms of political violence, prompting costly Western diplomatic or military interventions.
– Building the metaphorical wall higher will make those that can get around it even more powerful. Human smuggling will become more lucrative as smugglers are able to demand more money to get refugees past the barriers set up to prevent them reaching the West. Beyond thwarting efforts to end human trafficking, much of this money will flow to rebel groups, some of which will seek to launch attacks against Western countries.
– Turning away refugees is great propaganda for jihadists and other anti-Western militant groups. These groups can present themselves as defenders of persecuted groups who are under attack by a violent and heartless West.
– Finally, it’s the economy stupid. As birthrates in Western countries decline, younger workers are needed to support social safety nets that are increasingly caring for elderly citizens. Refugees can be these workers, and despite conservative rhetoric about how they suck up government benefits, taking into account their potential for economy productivity negates the economic losses (it should also be noted that the number of refugees that would be admitted per citizen to Western countries would be nowhere close to Lebanon’s rate).

Refugee policy is, as many people who know me are aware, a very personal issue for me. My grandparents were refugees, Jews born in Germany who were forced to flee the Nazis for England. My grandmother’s family managed to avoid the worst of it by leaving in 1936, while my grandfather spent a few months in Buchenwald concentration camp before a fake visa (in other words, he was undocumented) convinced guards to release him. The rest of his family didn’t survive. For me, what’s most depressing is that the debates today (whether refugees are a Trojan Horse for ISIS, whether refugees want to sponge off government benefits without working, etc.) are not new. In Germany, Jews were assumed to be Bolshevik agents, while the English government thought Jewish refugees might be German spies. Consequently, my grandmother’s family had to turn in their radios, due to fears they might be communicating with the enemy.

Knowing what we know about the history of the Holocaust makes these suspicious seem ridiculous, but I fear too many are incapable of seeing how history will also harshly judge mistrust of refugees today, whether they are fleeing gang violence in El Salvador or Russian warplanes in Aleppo. And therefore it is the lack of change that I am most afraid of. To be an activist, advocate, or even a socially-conscious social scientist requires believing that positive change is possible, but when that hope seems remote, it throws any affiliation with those three identities into doubt. And despite the rise of “human rights” rhetoric in the last twenty years, the concurrent emergence of the national security state and far-right popular politics may mean stances toward refugees are even worse than they were 80 years ago.

In Al Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern, John Gray writes, “Western societies are governed by the belief that modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign. As societies become more modern, so they become more alike. At the same time they become better. Being modern means realizing our values – the values of the Enlightenment, as we like to think of them.” Excluding those fleeing war from integration in Western society belies this vision, highlighting the vast contradiction in Enlightenment values. On one side is human rights and the social contract, which together seek to limit and order state violence. On the other is nationalism, in all its ugly manifestations, that clearly delineates who is us and who is them, and justifies the exclusion, exploitation, or eradication of others in the name of progress. Everything from refugees to foreign wars to neoliberalism make it hard for me to understand the belief in the primacy of modern Western thought and society (how to separate out the emancipatory from the oppressive?), because those maladies are as much a part of Enlightenment intellectual heritage as our greatest achievements. Turning away refugees makes it hard to be proud of our society, and hard to find hope.