Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Tribalism and Peak Left. By Nicholas M. Gallagher.

Tribalism and Peak Left. By Nicholas M. Gallagher. The American Interest, December 30, 2014.

Politicians benefit from American tribal warfare. By Glenn Harlan Reynolds. USA Today, December 29, 2014.


“Where you stand depends on where you sit” is favorite aphorism of progressive activists. It’s used to imply that “privilege” can blind someone to inconvenient facts, e.g. police aggression against minorities. But based on the events of the last few months, from Ferguson onward, it’s become pretty clear that both left and right-leaning groups suffer from this sort of narrowed vision. Writing in USA Today, Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. Instapundit) points out that tribalism—the desire to identify “your” group and stick with them, no matter what—explains an awful lot of the recent national tensions:
[T]here is much opportunity for political empire-building in tribalism, and if the benefits of stoking tribal fires exceed the costs for political actors, then expect political actors to pour gasoline on even the smallest spark.

That’s pretty much what’s happened in the last few months, and the results haven’t been good. In America, we have both a police culture that is too quick to escalate force, and an aggressive victim culture, embodied by the loathsome Al Sharpton, that seeks to portray every police use of force, at least against members of the wrong racial and ethnic groups, as excessive.

A healthy society would stigmatize, marginalize and shun the tribalizers. Sharpton, who has incited racial violencein the past, would not have a network TV show (even on MSNBC), and would not be treated as a legitimate civil rights spokesman. Police unions, which have a history of interfering with efforts to hold officers accountable for acts that, if they were committed by civilians, would be prosecuted as crimes, would not be given a preferred political position, if they were allowed to exist at all. (Personally, I agree with FDR that public employee unions are essentially a conspiracy against the taxpayers; it’s an even more significant matter when they’re public employees who carry guns.)
Tribalism would seem to explain the “police wars” better than racism: as we have pointed out, the NYPD is roughly 50% minority, a number that closely echoes the figure for the city as a whole, and so for most people, allegations of “New Jim Crow” just don’t wash. But the idea that people reflexively retreat to “their” side during a time of crisis certainly makes sense. And often that side is as much ideological (or job and culture-based, in the case of the NYPD cops who turned their backs on de Blasio) as racial.

Read Reynolds’ whole article; it’s a necessary look at a phenomenon that should disturb us all. Tribalism afflicts everyone, no matter their affiliations and no matter how they reassure themselves that they operate on the basis of fact alone. Indeed, one of the chief causes behind the “Peak Left” moment that Walter Russell Mead addressed recently is leftist intellectuals’ inability to recognize that they, too, are a tribe. For various reasons, the elite progressive world is much more insulated than its right-wing counterpart. In fact, the divide between the left’s view of the world (and consequently its rhetoric) and the way the rest of the country views things seems to be increasing, fueling an unhappy cycle. Recognizing the tribal dynamics at work within its own movement may be the left’s first step toward correcting this—if it’s willing to take it.


Self-serving lawmakers and unions get a boost from aggravating racial tensions.

“What if I told you,” asks a Matrix-themed photo-meme that has been circulating on Facebook, “that you can be against cops murdering citizens and citizens murdering cops at the same time?”

Judging by the past few weeks, this really is a Matrix-level revelation, obvious as it may seem. We have Americans protesting because of police shootings, and we have police turning their backs on New York City’s Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio over lack of support after two police were assassinated by Ismaaiyl Abdullah Brinsley, a gunman from Baltimore who said he was seeking revenge for the choking death of cigarette-tax evader Eric Garner.

And, as blogger Eric Raymond notes, the response has been divided: “Because humans are excessively tribal, it’s difficult now to call for justice against Eric Garner's murderers without being lumped in with the ‘wrong side.’ Nor will Garner’s partisans, on the whole, have any truck with people who aren’t interested in poisonously racializing the circumstances of his death.”

This is a tragedy, but not a surprise. Tribalism is the default state of humanity: The tendency to defend our own tribe even when we think it’s wrong, and to attack other tribes even when they’re right, just because they’re other. Societies that give in to the temptations of tribalism — which are always present — wind up spending a lot of their energy on internal strife, and are prone to disintegrate into spectacular factionalism and infighting, often to the point of self-destruction.

Societies that temper those tribal tendencies, replacing them with the mechanisms of civil society, do much better. But there is much opportunity for political empire-building in tribalism, and if the benefits of stoking tribal fires exceed the costs for political actors, then expect political actors to pour gasoline on even the smallest spark.

That’s pretty much what’s happened in the last few months, and the results haven’t been good. In America, we have both a police culture that is too quick to escalate force, and an aggressive victim culture, embodied by the loathsome Al Sharpton, that seeks to portray every police use of force, at least against members of the wrong racial and ethnic groups, as excessive.

A healthy society would stigmatize, marginalize and shun the tribalizers. Sharpton, who has incited racial violence in the past, would not have a networkTV show (even on MSNBC), and would not be treated as a legitimate civil rights spokesman. Police unions, which have a history of interfering with efforts to hold officers accountable for acts that, if they were committed by civilians, would be prosecuted as crimes, would not be given a preferred political position, if they were allowed to exist at all. (Personally, I agree with FDR that public employee unions are essentially a conspiracy against the taxpayers; it’s an even more significant matter when they’re public employees who carry guns.)

In a healthy civil society, people can deal with others without worrying about tribalism, confident that disputes will be settled by neutral and reasonably fair procedures overseen by neutral and fair people. In a tribalized society, what matters is what tribe you belong to, and who is on top at the moment.

Healthy civil societies are a lot better places to live. They’re richer, safer and more peaceful. But healthy civil societies don’t provide the opportunity for political power grabs, for payoffs and for extortion that tribalized societies do. It’s no wonder that so many political figures favor tribalism. The question is, how long will the rest of us allow them to get away with it?

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Time to Bring Back the Truman Democrats. By Joel Kotkin.

Time to Bring Back the Truman Democrats. By Joel Kotkin. The Daily Beast, December 21, 2014. Also at JoelKotkin.com.

Two Cheers for American Exceptionalism. By Joseph Loconte. American Enterprise Institute, March 5, 2010.

Permanently Blue. By Hunter Wallace. Occidental Dissent, September 8, 2010.


Once giants walked this earth, and some of them were Democrats. In sharp contrast to the thin gruel that passes for leadership today, the old party of the people, with all its flaws, shaped much of the modern world, and usually for the better. Think of Franklin Roosevelt or Harry Truman, John Kennedy, or California’s Pat Brown, politicians who believed in American greatness, economic growth, and upward mobility.

For more than 40 years, the Democratic Party has drifted far from this tradition, its policies increasingly a blend of racial and gender politics combined with a fashionable brand of environmental fanaticism. No longer does it constitute a reliable, middle class-based alternative to the corporatist mindset of the Republicans. “Today’s Democrats have no more in common with Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson,” notes author Michael Lind, “than today’s Republicans have in common with Abraham Lincoln or Dwight Eisenhower.”

To regain their relevancy, Democrats need to go back to their evolutionary roots. Their clear priorities: faster economic growth and promoting upward mobility for the middle and working classes. All other issues—racial, feminine, even environmental—need to fit around this central objective. In survey after survey, economic issues such as unemployment, the economy, and the federal budget top the list of concerns while affirmative action, gay rights, and climate change barely register.

From Obama Back to Jackson

Democrats do not need to become Republican lite, as was true among some New Democrats (I was a fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute, the New Democrats think tank). Democrats need to respond aggressively to the crony capitalism practiced by many Republicans, particularly regarding Wall Street. But they can’t do that if all they offer in its place are policies that service instead their own cronies not only in finance, but technology and media as well.

Right now it’s hard to make the case that the Democrats have a strategy to improve the economic prospects of the middle class. The New York Times’s Tom Edsall notes notes that after six years of Obama, voters stubbornly hold unto pessimistic views about the future. Of course, declining or stagnant wage growth started well before this president took office. Nevetheless, Democratic rule has not only failed to halt the trend, but appears to have accelerated it.

Not surprisingly, many middle and working class voters, particularly whites, have deserted the Democrats in increasing numbers. This November, notes Gallup, support for Obama among white college graduates dropped to 41 percent while his support among those without degrees fell to a pathetic 27 percent.

Critically, in 2014 this erosion began to extend to millennials; white millennials, particularly those without BAs (the vast majority), went Republican. This is a generation that, according to the Census, is both somewhat more educated than previous ones but far more likely to live in poverty.

Although likely to reject Republican views on social issues, such as gay marriage, millennials may not become “permanently blue,” as imagined by some boomer progressives. Faced with the consequences of slow, and poorly distributed growth, they are already less likely to see themselves as environmentalists than the national average and particularly the generally better off boomers.

Some progressives suggest that working class voters, particularly whites, can be lured back to the party by expanding the welfare state even further. But such an approach works against the traditional pride in self-sufficiency espoused by many in the American middle class. The old Jacksonians challenged financial power—then the Bank of the United States—but also worked to expand the economy, opening new lands to settlement, and encouraging home ownership and grassroots entrepreneurship.
. . . .

Class Not Race

The growing opposition towards Hillary Clinton’s ascension has one thing right: Democrats should not be seen as the second party of Wall Street. Obama’s recovery and Fed policy have, as Democrats like Elizabeth Warren like to point out, often favored the financial oligarchs, although their support for Democrats makes them far less keen on taking on the Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists, who have also profited under Obama. High valuations—even absurd ones—enrich the insiders who found companies, underwriters, and merger mavens, but those valuations have done precious little for the vast majority of Americans.

Faced with the loss of middle class voters, the administration seems determined to double down on its current coalition. So to whom do they turn to determine their future political direction? Not to a successful elected official from a swing district or a Main Street businessperson but to Google’s Eric Schmidt, an oligopolist of the first order from the party’s new heartland around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Given their cozy ties to Wall Street and oligarchs like Schmidt, the Democrats have failed to push class warfare as an issue, preferring instead to play the racial trump card. They allow issues to be dominated by such flawed emissaries as the detestable Al Sharpton, whose job seems to be the stoking of African-American ire. Similarly, the president’s executive order on undocumented residents follows this approach, by trying to appeal to Latino racial interests.

Yet race politics has limited appeal to whites, and ultimately may not guarantee keeping many minority voters in check. After all, minorities have fared poorly under Obama: a recent Pew study found minority incomes dropped 9 percent between 2010 and 2013, while only 1 percent among whites. Hispanics, notes a recent Pew survey economic issues easily trump immigration. Texas Republicans, for example, got close to half the vote among Latinos in that state, and similar results were found in Kansas. Even in places as blue-leaning as Colorado, Latino support for pro-growth Republicans has been growing. And Asians also showed a shift toward the GOP in the mid-terms.

Embrace Exceptionalism

Historically Democrats, like Republicans, believed in American Exceptionalism. This sometimes spills over into messianic overkill—for example, under Woodrow Wilson and George W. Bush—but overall the ideal of a uniquely American national profile has been embraced by Democrats from Jefferson and Jackson to Roosevelt, Truman and, arguably the last of the breed, Bill Clinton.

President Obama, in contrast, has openly rejected this notion, perhaps reflecting the world view of academics and much of the financial world that sees American Exceptionalism as some sort of patriotic nonsense. In the past the old Democrats saw the country’s broad resources and continental scale as primary sources of national greatness. Early conservationists did not oppose the expansion of industry, mining, or growth as inimical to progressive ideals; instead, they sought to restrain the abuses of the capitalist classes in order to prevent gouging as well as to preserve resources and open space for future generations.

In sharp contrast to their modern “heirs,” both Progressives and New Dealers were builders of dams, roads, and electrical power systems. They embraced the notion of a growing America, whose economy could be expanded for the benefit of the majority.

Is There a Messenger For Dino-Democrats?

Hillary of the many houses, $200,000 speaking gigs, Wall Street linkages, and her aging, wealthy glitterati backers does not exactly appear the ideal messenger for a neo-Jacksonian revival. Rather than the “shot and a beer” Hillary who came back to almost save her 2008 effort, she now reflects gentry views on both economics and climate change in ways that do not significantly diverge from President Obama.

With dissatisfaction with the economic status quo strong among many traditional Democrats, it’s likely populist candidates could emerge. Some imagine Senator Elizabeth Warren as the charismatic leader of a progressive version of the “tea party.” She has been a strong and vocal critic of Wall Street, which is to her credit, but her base lies not in middle class voters but among academia and wealthy Boston suburbs. On environmental issues, she seeks to out-green Hillary, something that might not appeal to voters in Ohio, Indiana, and a host of other key states.

Bernie Sanders, the self-described socialist, represents an emotionally appealing alternative to the endlessly grifting Clintons and the law professor Warren. But Sanders, a representative of the Northeastern vacation state of Vermont, also opposes fossil fuel development. This approach would greatly limit his appeal beyond the Northeast and the west coast. It’s hard to envision him campaigning for votes at Great Lakes factories that depend on coal power, or appealing to construction workers who would love to see the Keystone and other pipelines built.

Right now, former Virginia Senator James Webb may prove the best vehicle for dino-Democratic ideas. A self-conscious inheritor of the Jacksonian tradition, Webb epitomizes the individualist and populist values of his Scotch-Irish forebears. With a strong military background, he also appeals to nationalists who inhabit the South, Appalachia, and the non-coastal parts of the West. Whether his candidacy takes off is still an open question, but the ideas and spirit he embodies could revive a Democratic tradition that, although now submerged, might provide the party with a way out of its current morass.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Big Lie of the Anti-Cop Left Turns Lethal. By Heather Mac Donald.

The Big Lie of the Anti-Cop Left Turns Lethal. By Heather Mac Donald. City Journal, December 22, 2014.

De Blaiso’s Nightmare. By Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush. Politico, December 22, 2014.

De Blasio and Dinkins: When cops and mayors feud. By John Podhoretz. New York Post, December 23, 2014.

The High Cost of Anti-Police Demagoguery. By Thomas Sowell. Real Clear Politics, December 23, 2014.

The Monsters Who Screamed for Dead Cops. By Jacob Siegel. The Daily Beast, December 23, 2013.

NYC protesters chant for dead cops. Video. Carswell Lightnose, December 13, 2014. YouTube.


Mac Donald:

The real story behind the murder of two NYPD officers.

Since last summer, a lie has overtaken significant parts of the country, resulting in growing mass hysteria. That lie holds that the police pose a mortal threat to black Americans—indeed that the police are the greatest threat facing black Americans today. Several subsidiary untruths buttress that central myth: that the criminal-justice system is biased against blacks; that the black underclass doesn’t exist; and that crime rates are comparable between blacks and whites—leaving disproportionate police action in minority neighborhoods unexplained without reference to racism. The poisonous effect of those lies has now manifested itself in the cold-blooded assassination of two NYPD officers.

The highest reaches of American society promulgated these untruths and participated in the mass hysteria. Following a grand jury’s decision not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer for fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in August (Brown had attacked the officer and tried to grab his gun), President Barack Obama announced that blacks were right to believe that the criminal-justice system was often stacked against them. Obama has travelled around the country since then buttressing that message. Eric Holder escalated a long running theme of his tenure as U.S. Attorney General—that the police routinely engaged in racial profiling and needed federal intervention to police properly.

University presidents rushed to show their fealty to the lie. Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust announced that “injustice [toward black lives] still thrives so many years after we hoped we could at last overcome the troubled legacy of race in America. . . . Harvard and . . . the nation have embraced [an] imperative to refuse silence, to reject injustice.” Smith College’s president abjectly flagellated herself for saying that “all lives matter,” instead of the current mantra, “black lives matter.” Her ignorant mistake, she confessed, draws attention away from “institutional violence against Black people.”

The New York Times ratcheted up its already stratospheric level of anti-cop polemics. In an editorial justifying the Ferguson riots, the Times claimed that “the killing of young black men by police is a common feature of African-American life and a source of dread for black parents from coast to coast.” Some facts: Police killings of blacks are an extremely rare feature of black life and are a minute fraction of black homicide deaths. The police could end all killings of civilians tomorrow and it would have no effect on the black homicide risk, which comes overwhelmingly from other blacks. In 2013, there were 6,261 black homicide victims in the U.S.—almost all killed by black civilians—resulting in a death risk in inner cities that is ten times higher for blacks than for whites. None of those killings triggered mass protests; they are deemed normal and beneath notice. The police, by contrast, according to published reports, kill roughly 200 blacks a year, most of them armed and dangerous, out of about 40 million police-civilian contacts a year. Blacks are in fact killed by police at a lower rate than their threat to officers would predict. In 2013, blacks made up 42 percent of all cop killers whose race was known, even though blacks are only 13 percent of the nation’s population. The percentage of black suspects killed by the police nationally is 29 percent lower than the percentage of blacks mortally threatening them.

There is huge unacknowledged support for the police in the inner city: “They’re due respect because they put their lives every day on the line to protect and serve. I hope they don’t back off from policing,” a woman told me on Thursday night, two nights before the assassination, on the street in Staten Island where Eric Garner was killed.

But among all the posturers, none was so preening as New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. In advance of a trip to Washington for a White House summit on policing, he told the press that a “scourge” of killings by police is “based not just on decades, but centuries of racism.” De Blasio embroidered on that theme several days later, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict an officer for homicide in Garner’s death. (The 350-pound asthmatic Garner had resisted arrest for the crime of selling loose cigarettes; officers brought him to the ground, provoking a fatal heart attack.) “People are saying: ‘Black lives matter,’” de Blasio announced after the grand jury concluded. “It should be self-evident, but our history requires us to say ‘black lives matter.’ It was not years of racism that brought us to this day, or decades of racism, but centuries of racism.” De Blasio added that he worries “every night” about the “dangers [his biracial son Dante] may face” from “officers who are paid to protect him.”

The mayor’s irresponsible rhetoric was a violation of his role as the city’s leader and as its main exponent of the law. If he really believes that his son faces a significant risk from the police, he is ignorant of the realities of crime and policing in the city he was elected to lead. There is no New York City institution more dedicated to the proposition that “black lives matter” than the New York Police Department; thousands of black men are alive today who would have been killed years ago had data-driven policing not brought down the homicide levels of the early 1990s. The Garner death was a tragic aberration in a record of unparalleled restraint. The NYPD fatally shot eight individuals last year, six of them black, all posing a risk to the police, compared with scores of blacks killed by black civilians. But facts do not matter when crusading to bring justice to a city beset by “centuries of racism.”

New York police officers were rightly outraged at de Blasio’s calumny. The head of the officers union, Patrick Lynch, circulated a form allowing officers to request that the mayor not attend their funeral if they were killed in the line of duty—an understandable reaction to de Blasio’s insult. De Blasio responded primly on The View: “It’s divisive. It’s inappropriate,” he said. The city’s elites, from Cardinal Timothy Dolan on down, reprimanded the union. The New York Police Commissioner called the union letter “a step too far.”

Meanwhile, protests and riots against the police were gathering force across the country, all of them steeped in anti-cop vitriol and the ubiquitous lie that “black lives” don’t “matter.” “What do we want? Dead cops,” chanted participants in a New York anti-cop protest. Two public defenders from the Bronx participated in a rap video extolling cop killings. Few people in positions of authority objected to this dangerous hatred. The desire to show allegiance with allegedly oppressed blacks was too great. The thrill of righteousness was palpable among the media as it lovingly chronicled every protest and on the part of politicians and thought leaders who expressed solidarity with the cause. At another march across New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, a group of people tried to throw trash cans onto the heads of officers on the level below them; police attempts to arrest the assailants were fought off by other marchers.

The elite’s desperation to participate in what they hopefully viewed as their own modern-day civil rights crusade was patent in the sanctification of Michael Brown, the would-be cop killer. He was turned into a civil rights martyr. His violence toward Wilson, and the convenience store owner he had strong-armed, was wiped from the record. Protesters across the country chanted “hands up, don’t shoot” at anti-cop rallies, allegedly Brown’s final words before Wilson shot him. Never mind that the source of that alleged final utterance, Brown’s companion Dorian Johnson, was a proven liar. There is no reason to believe his claim regarding Brown’s final words.

Protesters’ willingness to overlook anti-cop homicidal intent surfaced again in St. Louis in November. A teen criminal who had shot at the police was killed by an officer in self-defense; he, too, joined the roster of heroic black victims of police racism. This sanctification of would-be black cop-killers would prove prophetic. The elites were playing with fire. It’s profoundly irresponsible to stoke hatred of the police, especially when the fuel used for doing so is a set of lies. Hatred of the police among blacks stems in part from police brutality during this country’s shameful era of Jim Crow-laws and widespread discrimination. But it is na├»ve not to recognize that criminal members of the black underclass despise the police because law enforcement interferes with their way of life. The elites are oblivious both to the extent of lawlessness in the black inner city and to its effect on attitudes toward the cops. Any expression of contempt for the police, in their view, must be a sincere expression of a wrong.

Cop-killer Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who assassinated NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on Saturday, exemplified everything the elites have refused to recognize: he was a gun-toting criminal who was an eager consumer of the current frenzy of cop hatred. (Not that he paid close enough attention to the actual details of alleged cop malfeasance to spell Eric Garner’s name correctly.) His homicidal postings on Instagram—“I’m Putting Wings on Pigs Today. They Take 1 of Ours . . . . .Let’s Take 2 of Theirs”—were indistinguishable from the hatred bouncing around the Internet and the protests and that few bothered to condemn. That vitriol continues after the assassination. Social media is filled with gloating at the officers’ deaths and praise for Brinsley: “That nigga that shot the cops is a legend,” reads a typical message. A student leader and a representative of the African and Afro-American studies department at Brandeis University tweeted that she has “no sympathy for the NYPD officers who were murdered today.”

The only good that can come out of this wrenching attack on civilization would be the delegitimation of the lie-based protest movement. Whether that will happen is uncertain. The New York Times has denounced as “inflammatory” the statement from the head of the officer’s union that there is “blood on the hands that starts on the steps of City Hall”—this from a paper that promotes the idea that police officers routinely kill blacks. The elites’ investment in black victimology is probably too great to hope for an injection of truth into the dangerously counterfactual discourse about race, crime, and policing.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Living Large in the Shrinking Liberal Cocoon. By Walter Russell Mead.

Winter on the Left: Living Large in a Shrinking Cocoon. By Walter Russell Mead. The American Interest, December 21, 2014.


Never have liberal ideas been so firmly entrenched within America’s core elite institutions. Never have those institutions been so weak and uninfluential.

These are frustrating times for the American left. Legislative power has slipped from its hands; the states are more Republican than at just about any time in living memory, and as President Obama nears the end of his term, it seems far more likely than otherwise that, Republican or Democrat, his successor will stand well to the right of the incumbent. As I noted in the first essay in the series, the foreign policy disasters and the financial crash of the George W. Bush administration opened a path to the White House for the most liberal President in history and gave Democrats overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the House back in 2008. Jubilant liberals believed that a new era had dawned, and when they weren’t comparing Obama to Lincoln, they were calling him the “Democratic Reagan” who would reset politics for the left just as Reagan once did for the right.

Six years later, the dream is looking shopworn. President Obama is deeply unpopular, the Democratic majorities are gone with the wind, and poll after poll after poll demonstrates that Obamacare, the Democrats’ signature legislative accomplishment in the Age of Obama, is more of an albatross around the party’s neck than a star in its crown.

Some of this could change. The slow but persistent improvement in economic conditions has finally begun to register with voters; consumer confidence is up and, if the economy continues to improve through 2016, President Obama’s poll numbers should strengthen. The racial polarization that so tragically spiked in the last three months could gradually fade away. And the concatenation of foreign policy and security disasters from the Libyan anarchy to the series of Syria and Iraq fiascoes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine could look less frightening and less like an implosion of America’s world position in two year’s time. The lame duck could still swagger off the stage in the end.

But right now that doesn’t look probable, even to liberals. Eric Alterman, one of the left’s most articulate advocates, summarizes the situation with his customary frankness in the Nation:
The Obama presidency has been a devil’s bargain for Democrats. Despite the considerable policy accomplishments to its credit, the administration’s political impact has been virtually catastrophic. Since Obama’s victory in 2008, Democrats are down seventy seats in the House and fifteen in the Senate, giving an increasingly reactionary Republican Party the power to stymie most if not all of the Democrats’ agenda. But this actually understates the damage. Democrats are now the minority in over two-thirds of the nation’s partisan state legislative chambers, their worst showing in history. In twenty-three of these, Republicans will control the governor’s office, too. (The corresponding number for Democrats is just seven.)
Alterman cites two core reasons for the disaster. On the one hand, Democrats haven’t recognized that many of the policies they like on “good government” grounds are political poison. In particular, Obamacare and the immigration amnesty are alienating voters:
The Affordable Care Act and the executive order expanding the rights of undocumented immigrants were certainly the right thing to do from the perspective of Democratic values, but both are politically poisonous at present. Obamacare undermines a key Democratic constituency badly in need of help: labor unions. The immigration order fires up anti-immigrant passion among working-class voters while benefiting an ethnic group—Latinos—whose voter-participation levels remain anemic, even allowing for the restrictive election laws passed by Republicans.
Beyond that, Alterman argues, the Democrats’ turn to social rather than economic issues (gentry liberalism vs. populism) hasn’t been helpful. Focusing on “immigration, reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, gun control, etc.” at a time when real wages are stagnant or declining for most Americans is a recipe for political failure.

But this analysis, cogent as it is, raises another question: why were liberals so feckless in power? Why did they blow the historic opportunity that the Bush implosion gave them?

What liberals are struggling to come to grips with today is the enormous gap between the dominant ideas and discourse in the liberal worlds of journalism, the foundations, and the academy on the one hand, and the wider realities of American life on the other. Within the magic circle, liberal ideas have never been more firmly entrenched and less contested. Increasingly, liberals live in a world in which certain ideas are becoming ever more axiomatic and unquestioned even if, outside the walls, those same ideas often seem outlandish.

Modern American liberalism does its best to suppress dissent and critique (except from the left) at the institutions and milieus that it controls. Dissent is not only misguided; it is morally wrong. Bad thoughts create bad actions, and so the heretics must be silenced or expelled. “Hurtful” speech is not allowed, and so the eccentricities of conventional liberal piety pile up into ever more improbable, ever more unsustainable forms.

To openly support “torture”, for example, is close to unthinkable in the academy or in the world of serious journalism. For a university professor or a New Yorker writer to say that torture is acceptable under any circumstances is to court marginalization. A great many liberals don’t know anybody who openly supports torture, and a great many liberals are convinced that the concept of torture is so heinous that simply to name and document incidents will lead an aroused public to rally against the practice—and against the political party that allowed it.

Thus a group of journalists, human rights activists, and others relentlessly pursued allegations of CIA use of torture, not only as an important moral duty but also as an effective political strategy. It flopped. As we’ve seen, the revelations about CIA methods left most Americans still telling pollsters that they favor torture when national security is in question. “Torture” may be unthinkable to well meaning academics and human rights activists, but the argument hasn’t been won—hasn’t really even been engaged—among the broader public. The left silenced and banished critics; it didn’t convert or refute them. The net result of the liberal campaign to “hold the CIA accountable” wasn’t to discredit the Bush administration; the campaign simply undercut claims by liberals that the left can safely be entrusted with security policy. A group of liberal journalists and politicos worked very hard to make Dick Cheney’s day.

Similarly, the liberal hothouses that so many university campuses are today encourage students to adopt approaches to real life problems that, to say the least, are counterproductive. Take, for example, the recent attempts by law students at Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia to have their exams postponed due to the stress they suffered as a result of the Ferguson controversy. “This is more than a personal emergency. This is a national emergency,” said the anguished Harvardians asking for an extension. Said the fragile and delicate souls from Georgetown,“We, students of color, cannot breathe…. We charge you to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter.”

One thinks of the school beneath the sea in Alice in Wonderland, where students were taught “reeling, writhing, and fainting in coils.”

Fortunately for us all, liberalism didn’t use to be such a pallid and shrinking thing. People like Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King were, thank goodness, made of sterner stuff than the frail flowers of the contemporary Ivy League. The people who actually helped black people in American history down through the centuries faced more injustice, brutality, and casual public racism than our delicately and tenderly raised hothouse elites could imagine in their wildest dreams. Serious people understand that the existence of injustice is a reason to get tougher and work harder, not a reason to whine to the dean about your emotional turmoil. Truth, Douglass, Marshall, King, and tens of thousands of others knew that the people who want to change the world need to be tougher, smarter, harder working, and stronger than the people who don’t care. This may not be fair, but having emotional meltdowns over it won’t help you or anybody else.

Are these shrinking violets and sensitive souls really preparing for careers in the law? If you are a lawyer and a grand jury returns an unjust indictment against your client, are you going to come down with a disabling attack of the vapors that keeps you from concentrating on your legal work as you struggle with the unfairness of it all? If so, the legal profession is not for you. You need another and less challenging profession, perhaps involving the preparation of fair trade herbal teas for elderly Quakers in a quiet suburb somewhere.

But liberals today face more problems than cocooning. They face the problem that, even as the ideas in liberal institutions become ever more elaborate, intricate, and unsuited to the actual political world, liberal institutions are losing more of their power to shape public opinion and national debate. Forty years ago, the key liberal institutions were both less distanced from the rest of American society and significantly more able to drive the national agenda. The essentially likeminded, mainstream liberals who wrote and produced the major network news shows more or less controlled the outlets from which a majority of Americans got the news. There was no Drudge Report or Fox News in those days, much less an army of pesky fact checkers on the internet. When liberal media types decided that something was news, it was news.

If the Sandy Hook massacre had taken place in 1975, it’s likely that the liberal take on gun violence would not have been challenged. But these days, an army of bloggers and a counter-establishment of policy wonks in right leaning think tanks are ready to respond to extreme events like Sandy Hook. After the 2014 midterm, Gabby Gifford’s old congressional seat will be filled by a pro-gun rights Republican, and polls show support for “gun rights” at historic highs. Liberal strategies don’t work anymore in part because liberal institutions are losing their power.

Meanwhile, many liberals are in a tough emotional spot. They live in liberal cocoons, read cocooning news sources, and work in professions and milieus where liberal ideas are as prevalent and as uncontroversial as oxygen. They are certain that these ideas are necessary, important and just—and they can’t imagine that people have solid reasons for disagreeing with them. Yet these ideas are much less well accepted outside the bubble—and the bubbles seem to be shrinking. After the horrors of the George W. Bush administration, liberals believed that the nightmare of conservative governance had vanished, never to return. Aided by the immigration amnesty, an irresistible army of minority voters would enshrine liberal ideas into law and give Democrats a permanent lock on the machinery of an ever more powerful state.

That no longer looks likely; we can all look forward to eloquent laments, wringing of hands, impassioned statements of faith as the realization sinks in. There will be reeling, there will be writhing, and there will be fainting in coils. In the end, we can hope that liberalism will purge itself of the excesses and indulgences that come from life in the cocoon. The country needs a forward looking and level headed left; right now what we have is a mess.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Coming Hobbesian World. By Liam Denning.

The Coming Hobbesian World. By Liam Denning. Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2014. Review of The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder. By Peter Zeihan. New York: Twelve, 2014. 371 pp. Also here.


The North American shale energy boom raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for the U.S. to continue to protect everyone’s trade.

Peter Zeihan begins “The Accidental Superpower” by declaring that he has “always loved maps.” From this unremarkable claim springs a lively, readable thesis on how the success or failure of nations may rest on the very ground beneath their feet. Rather than focusing on charismatic leaders or lofty ideals, Mr. Zeihan stresses the more prosaic forces that shape world events: topography, soil quality, access to water. Water especially, he says, sorts winners from the rest. It can be a highway, a barrier, a larder and a battery. Rivers make it cheap to transport goods and people, enabling the efficient mixing of ideas and markets. The capital that might otherwise be spent on, say, building a road may be used for other purposes.

It happens that the United States—the “superpower” of Mr. Zeihan’s title—is blessed with 12 major navigable rivers, including the Mississippi. Much else flows from this happy accident. A less pressing need for grand, land-based infrastructure projects, for example, may lessen the need for centralized coordination, encouraging small government.

Other great powers, or former ones, have enjoyed one or two geographical advantages—think of Egypt’s mighty Nile or Britain’s status as an island nation, from which its great naval tradition comes. But no nation combines America’s easy navigability, abundant cropland and a moat the size of two oceans. The geographical underpinning of America’s global role makes it likely that U.S. supremacy will endure for some time to come. Just don’t expect it to be easy, Mr. Zeihan says, at least not for the next couple of decades.

The bulk of “The Accidental Superpower” peers into the future as Mr. Zeihan, a former analyst at the geopolitical security firm Stratfor, tries to imagine where the world, and particularly America, is headed. Conjecture is de rigueur in the geopolitics genre—sometimes to its peril. Take “The Next 100 Years” by George Friedman, Mr. Zeihan’s former boss at Stratfor. Mr. Friedman’s 2009 book got some things right, notably a renewed standoff between the West and Russia. Eventually, though, it veered into Tom Clancy territory by imagining orbiting “Battle Stars” and a midcentury Thanksgiving Day sneak attack starting a world war.

“The Accidental Superpower” does its fair share of futurology. There is a Russian collapse, a Swedish-Polish alliance and even a secession crisis—in Canada, of all places, where the residents of Alberta (not Quebec) are restless. Most fascinating of all is the notion that, while armchair generals have their binoculars trained on the Middle East, the most pressing threat to U.S. homeland security could be a spillover of Mexico’s drug war.

Even if you don’t buy the specifics of these scenarios, they don’t lapse into a geopolitical version of science fiction. Their overarching theme is that we are moving into an ever more chaotic world—an idea that may sound familiar. (Think of two much-discussed articles from the 1990s: Robert Kaplan ’s “The Coming Anarchy” and Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?”) Mr. Zeihan’s prediction, though, derives from a startling proposition: that the U.S., during the Cold War, “turned geopolitics off,” if only temporarily.

Mr. Zeihan is referring to the 1944 Bretton Woods settlement. By establishing a monetary and trading system underpinned by U.S. military and economic might, the settlement effectively bribed Western Europe’s tribes to set aside their blood feuds and band together to help hold off the Soviet Union. In return, the allies got access to the American market—the only functioning one amid the ruins of 1945—as well as the protection of the only global navy still afloat and, what’s more, a nuclear umbrella.

Mr. Zeihan says that the Bretton Woods settlement is now unraveling—largely because it is no longer essential to the country that underwrote it. Protecting everyone’s trade by means of the U.S. Navy made sense when it strengthened allies in the face of a Cold War adversary and guarded tankers feeding America’s growing appetite for foreign oil. Now the North American shale energy boom—not to mention the recent financial crisis—raises the question of whether it is worthwhile for the U.S. to bear such burdens to the same extent.

The obvious rejoinder to this skepticism is that the U.S. can’t simply lift itself off a planet with terrorist networks and nuclear weapons. But Mr. Zeihan’s point isn’t that America is about to isolate itself; it is rather that America may see the logic of retrenching, and retrenchment will destabilize a world built on U.S. commitments. Risk-free shipping lanes, for instance, are critical to major exporters such as China and Germany. Without American power, the fate of globalized supply chains is called into question. Signs of disruption can be seen in China’s push to directly control mines and oil fields overseas and in widespread doubts about whether an American president would send troops to defend NATO allies in the Baltic states. The assumptions underlying the postwar order have loosened already.

Mr. Zeihan’s grim conclusion: The world may be headed toward a “Hobbesian period” of rivalry over resources lasting 15 years or so. Economic pressures will be intensified in many regions by aging populations that make demands on overburdened, unreplenished economies. The U.S. doesn’t escape entirely, in Mr. Zeihan’s telling, but it does better in relative terms—aided by its geographical advantages and also, for instance, by its ability to assimilate immigrants.

Only in the conclusion to “The Accidental Superpower” does the author overreach, declaring that “the world is indeed going to hell, but the Americans are going to sit this one out.” After his having done such a good job of explaining the nature of U.S. power and the threats to global order, the triumphalist tone of the final pages is jarring. Still, anyone seeking a cogent, and provocative, take on where the world is heading should start here. Even if you don’t fall in love with maps, you’ll never look at them the same way again.

Putin’s Rules of Attraction. By Joseph S. Nye.

Putin’s Rules of Attraction. By Joseph S. Nye. Project Syndicate, December 12, 2014.


CAMBRIDGE – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s covert aggression in Ukraine continues – and so do Western sanctions against his country. But the economy is not all that is under threat; Russia’s soft power is dwindling, with potentially devastating results.

A country can compel others to advance its interests in three main ways: through coercion, payment, or attraction. Putin has tried coercion – and been met with increasingly tough sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin’s main European interlocutor, has been expressing her frustration with Russian policy toward Ukraine in increasingly harsh terms. Whatever short-term gains Putin’s actions in Ukraine provide will be more than offset in the long term, as Russia loses access to the Western technology it needs to modernize its industry and extend energy exploration into frontier Arctic regions.

With Russia’s economy faltering, Putin is finding it increasingly difficult to employ the second tool of power: payment. Not even oil and gas, Russia’s most valuable resources, can save the economy, as Putin’s recent agreement to supply gas to China for 30 years at knockdown prices demonstrates.

This leaves attraction – a more potent source of power than one might expect. China, for example, has been attempting to use soft power to cultivate a less threatening image – one that it hopes will undermine, and even discourage, the coalitions that have been emerging to counterbalance its rising economic and military might.

A country’s soft power rests on three main resources: an appealing culture, political values that it reliably upholds, and foreign policy that is imbued with moral authority. The challenge lies in combining these resources with hard-power assets like economic and military power so that they reinforce one another.

The United States failed to strike this balance with respect to its 2003 invasion of Iraq. While America’s military power was sufficient to defeat Saddam Hussein’s forces quickly, it did so at the expense of its attractiveness in many countries. Likewise, though establishing a Confucius Institute in Manila to teach Filipino people about Chinese culture may help to cultivate China’s soft power, its impact will be severely constrained if China is simultaneously using its hard power to bully the Philippines in the territorial dispute over the Scarborough Shoal.

The problem for Russia is that it already has very little soft power with which to work. Indeed, as the political analyst Sergei Karaganov noted in 2009, Russia’s lack of soft power is precisely what is driving it to behave aggressively – such as in its war with Georgia the previous year.

To be sure, Russia has historically enjoyed considerable soft power, with its culture having made major contributions to art, music, and literature. Moreover, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union was attractive to many Western Europeans, owing largely to its leadership in the fight against fascism.

But the Soviets squandered these soft-power gains by invading Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. By 1989, they had little soft power left. The Berlin Wall did not collapse under a barrage of NATO artillery, but under the impact of hammers and bulldozers wielded by people who had changed their minds about Soviet ideology.

Putin is now making the same mistake as his Soviet forebears. Despite his 2013 declaration that Russia should be focusing on the “literate use” of soft power, he failed to capitalize on the soft-power boost afforded to Russia by hosting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

Instead, even as the Games were proceeding, Putin launched a semi-covert military intervention in Ukraine, which, together with his talk of Russian nationalism, has induced severe anxiety, particularly among ex-Soviet countries. This has undermined Putin’s own stated objective of establishing a Russia-led Eurasian Union to compete with the European Union.

With few foreigners watching Russian films, and only one Russian university ranked in the global top 100, Russia has few options for regaining its appeal. So Putin has turned to propaganda.

Last year, Putin reorganized the RIA Novosti news agency, firing 40% of its staff, including its relatively independent management. The agency’s new leader, Dmitry Kiselyov, announced in November the creation of “Sputnik,” a government-funded network of news hubs in 34 countries, with 1,000 staff members producing radio, social media, and news-wire content in local languages.

But one of the paradoxes of soft power is that propaganda is often counterproductive, owing to its lack of credibility. During the Cold War, open cultural exchanges – such as the Salzburg Seminar, which enabled young people to engage with one another – demonstrated that contact among populations is far more meaningful.

Today, much of America’s soft power is produced not by the government, but by civil society – including universities, foundations, and pop culture. Indeed, America’s uncensored civil society, and its willingness to criticize its political leaders, enables the country to preserve soft power even when other countries disagree with its government’s actions.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the BBC retains its credibility because it can bite the government hand that feeds it. Yet Putin remains bent on curtailing the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society.

Putin may understand that hard and soft power reinforce each other, but he remains seemingly incapable of applying that understanding to policy. As a result, Russia’s capacity to attract others, if not to coerce and pay them, will continue to decline.

Immigration and the New Class Divide. By Ian Buruma.

Immigration and the New Class Divide. By Ian Buruma. Project Syndicate, December 9, 2014.


SINGAPORE – The British shadow minister for Europe, Pat McFadden, recently warned members of his Labour Party that they should try to make the most of the global economy and not treat immigration like a disease. As he put it, “You can feed on people’s grievances or you can give people a chance. And I think our policies should be around giving people a chance.”

In a world increasingly dominated by grievances – against immigrants, bankers, Muslims, “liberal elites,” “Eurocrats,” cosmopolitans, or anything else that seems vaguely alien – such wise words are rare. Leaders worldwide should take note.

In the United States, Republicans – backed by their Tea Party activists – are threatening to close the government down just because President Barack Obama has offered undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the US for many years a chance to gain citizenship. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) wants to introduce a five-year ban on immigration for permanent settlement. Russia’s deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, once released a video promising to “clean the rubbish” – meaning migrant workers, mostly from former Soviet republics – “away from Moscow.”

Even the once famously tolerant Dutch and Danes are increasingly voting for parties that fulminate against the scourge of immigration. Always keen to assert the freedom to insult Muslims, the Dutch Freedom Party wants to ban all mosques. And the tiny and much-harassed opposition parties in Singapore – a country where almost everyone is descended from immigrants – are gaining traction by appealing to popular gripes about immigrants (mostly from India and China) who are supposedly taking jobs from “natives.”

What can American Tea Party enthusiasts, Russian chauvinists, fearful Dutch and Danes, and Singaporean leftists possibly have in common that is driving this anti-immigrant sentiment?

Retaining one’s job in a tightening economy is undoubtedly a serious concern. But the livelihoods of most of the middle-aged rural white Americans who support the Tea Party are hardly threatened by poor Mexican migrants. UKIP is popular in some parts of England where immigrants are rarely seen. And many of the Dutch Freedom Party’s voters live nowhere near a mosque.

Anti-immigrant sentiment cuts across the old left-right divide. One thing Tea Party or UKIP supporters share with working-class voters who genuinely fear losing their jobs to low-paid foreigners is anxiety about being left behind in a world of easy mobility, supranational organizations, and global networking.

On the right, support for conservative parties is split between business interests that benefit from immigration or supranational institutions, and groups that feel threatened by them. That is why the British Tories are so afraid of UKIP. Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader, is less concerned with economic growth than with pursuing his extreme conception of national independence.

On the left, opinion is split between those who oppose racism and intolerance above all and those who want to protect employment and preserve “solidarity” for what is left of the native-born working class.

It would be a mistake to dismiss anxiety about immigration as mere bigotry or apprehension about the globalized economy as simply reactionary. National, religious, and cultural identities (for lack of a better word) are being transformed, though less by immigration than by the development of globalized capitalism.

In the new global economy, there are clear winners and losers. Educated men and women who can communicate effectively in varied international contexts are benefiting. People who lack the needed education or experience – and there are many of them – are struggling.

In other words, the new class divisions run less between the rich and the poor than between educated metropolitan elites and less sophisticated, less flexible, and, in every sense, less connected provincials. It is irrelevant that the provincials’ political leaders (and their backers) are sometimes wealthier than the resented metropolitan elites. They still feel looked down upon. And so they share the bitterness of those who feel alienated in a world they find bewildering and hateful.

Populist rabble-rousers like to stir up such resentments by ranting about foreigners who work for a pittance or not at all. But it is the relative success of ethnic minorities and immigrants that is more upsetting to indigenous populations.

This explains the popular hostility toward Obama. Americans know that, before too long, whites will be just another minority, and people of color will increasingly be in positions of power. At this point, all Tea Partiers and others like them can do is declare, “We want our country back!”

Of course, this is an impossible demand. Short of unleashing massive and bloody ethnic cleansing – Bosnia, on a continental scale – Americans and others have no choice but to get used to living in increasingly diverse societies.

Likewise, economic globalization cannot be undone. But regulation can and should be improved. After all, some things are still worth protecting. There are good reasons not to leave culture, education, lifestyles, or jobs completely exposed to the creative destruction of market forces.

McFadden has pinpointed the central solution to globalization’s challenges: giving people “the tools to reap the benefits” of the globalized world, thereby making the “connected world work better for people.” The problem is that this call is more likely to appeal to the highly educated, already privileged classes than to those who feel disenfranchised in today’s global economy.

This is a serious problem for political parties on the left, which increasingly seem to be speaking for the metropolitan elites, while provincial populists are pushing traditional conservatives further to the right by fishing in the dark waters of popular resentment.