My guesses about the upcoming UK general election

Might look slightly different in a few weeks.

Brian Barder, a retired diplomat who has been Britain’s senior representative in five countries (as Ambassador in Ethiopia, Poland, and Benin, and High Commissioner in the Commonwealth nations of Nigeria and Australia,) maintains a blog on which he has recently been sharing his thoughts about the general election that will be held in the United Kingdom on the seventh of May.  A while ago, he gave his opinion that the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (or SNP, as it is known) were likely to form an agreement after this election under which Labour would conduct a minority government with the SNP lending its support when needed to pass relatively controversial legislation.  In two posts (here and here,) Ambassador Barder* recommended that Labour and the SNP should negotiate the terms of this agreement before the election, ideally in public, so that the electorate would know what it was being offered.

I believe that such public negotiations would be unwise.  At election time, parties ask activists to volunteer a great deal of time, do a lot of hard work, and present themselves to the public at a considerable risk of rejection and abuse, all without monetary compensation.  Their motivation is their belief in their party’s destiny and the opposing parties’ wickedness,  Public negotiations based on the premise that Labour will not win a majority, but will do a deal with one of its fiercest opponents, would demoralize Labour’s activists and energize supporters of the other parties.  Here is the first comment I offered in response to one of Ambassador Barder’s posts on this topic:

Surely if substantive conversations are going on between Labour and SNP, we won’t know about them for many years. No political party would be well-advised to publicly concede, prior to an election, that it does not expect to win a majority and is planning to govern in concert with a party whose chief commitment is deeply at odds with its whole outlook and tradition.

“To empty chair” is indeed an awkward construction.** “To graveyard whistle” has at least the benefit of being intransitive, so it doesn’t drop a direct object thudding onto the end of the phrase. And I do suspect you are engaging in a bit of graveyard-whistling in this post. If Scootland (sic) does vote as overwhelmingly for SNP as now seems likely, and if as a result of that vote SNP becomes a powerbroker at Westminster, the Scottish branches of the other parties will likely go the way of their counterparts in Northern Ireland. A Scotland where politics is a contest between the SNP and two or three Scottish Unionist parties without formal affiliations south of the border may not lead to the breakup of the UK, but it’s hard to see how it doesn’t advance the ghettoization of Scotland in the same way that such a party system has contributed to the ghettoization of Northern Ireland.

Ambassador Barder responded to this as he customarily does, with unfailing promptness and consideration.  He enlarged on his idea that Britain has entered a period of “New Politics,” in which an honest admission that multiparty politics have come to stay is likelier to help a party than to hurt it.

I cannot say that I was convinced by this argument, admirably though Ambassador Barder stated it.  I did raise another concern in this followup comment:

“enough LibDems and some other fence-sitters might be tempted, or bribed, to vote for the status quo to rob Labour of its opportunity to take office.” Difficult as it is to predict first-past-the-post races where the polls show so many parties receiving 5-10% support, I can’t really imagine the LibDems winning enough seats this year to hold the balance of power. They have enough strongholds now that they are unlikely to be wiped out completely, but they look to be headed for disaster.

Be that as it may, my greater concern is not so much with the Westminster parliament beginning this year as with subsequent parliaments in Westminster and Holyrood. If SNP comes close to the level of success the polls are now predicting, it will be very difficult for any ambitious Unionist politician in Scotland to support Scotland’s current party system. A party that represents none but Scottish interests and that can point to a time when the UK government depended on its support for its continued existence will have a credibility that no local branch of an all-UK party will be able to claim. To compete with that kind of appeal, Scots Unionists will have to form their own party, matching the SNP’s independence from London and erasing divisions among the old parties. That would be a new politics, all right, but the experience of Northern Ireland shows that it would likely be a dead end that would leave the UK longing for the old politics.

I must also say that you seem to have made rather a damaging admission when you say that “there isn’t necessarily anything substantive” for Labour and the SNP to discuss. If all the agreement that’s needed is on the sort of points that can be settled with a smile and a nod, then what is the need for these Labour-SNP talks you keep proposing? As for the pig-in-a-poke argument, who doubts that if Labour and SNP combine for a majority of seats they will arrive at just such a confidence and supply arrangement as you propose? And if they don’t combine for a majority, well, who cares what the eventual losers planned to do had they won an election?

Ambassador Barder added his reply to these concerns as a note within the original comment, saying that SNP would not actually have much power were it to enter a confidence and supply arrangement with Labour, since its supporters so hate the Tory Party (also known as the Conservatives) that they could not credibly threaten to throw their support to it.  This made me wonder why SNP would enter an arrangement that did not give them new power.  They are a political party, after all, power is their business.  But I did not want to drag the discussion out, so I left it there.

A few days ago, Ambassador Barder posted his reflections on the televised debate held last week among the leaders of the seven parties contesting multiple seats in Britain.***  Ambassador Barder indicated his overall assessment of the debate with the title “Ten Depressing Things About the Seven-Leader Election Debate Last Night.”  Several of the depressing things had to do with Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s not-very aggressive approach to his Tory counterpart, British premier David Cameron; another had to do with Liberal Democratic Party leader Nicholas Clegg’s focus on deficit reduction.  The non-depressing things were to be found in the fine performances of the three women on stage, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and Plaid Cymru (viz, Welsh nationalist) leader Leanne Wood.****

In the weeks since that earlier post, I’d thought more about the election, and Mr Miliband’s behavior in the debate, like Ms Sturgeon’s and Mr Clegg’s, seemed to be quite reasonable.  In a comment, I began to explain:

I’m beginning to suspect that the likeliest outcome is a grand coalition. I know that all the insiders keep saying that the SNP vote won’t be nearly as high on the night as the polls are suggesting, and they may be right, but there is still likely to be a parliament in which SNP, plus either Labour or the Tories, would have a majority. I can’t imagine Labour doing anything that would help SNP present itself to Scottish voters as a serious force in national politics, and Tory backbenchers are all going to be such in a cold sweat if the UKIP vote swings even a dozen seats from Conservative to Labour that any leader who wanted to make a deal with SNP would be ousted immediately. So that leaves a grand coalition as the only available outcome. Unless, of course, the SNP vote collapses more dramatically than anyone is predicting while UKIP surges more dramatically than anyone is predicting, in which case Labour may squeak in with a narrow majority,

So perhaps what we saw in the Miliband-Cameron exchanges was a phase in what you’ve been calling for, a semi-public discussion between potential coalition partners, and not a debate between opponents at all.

Ambassador Barder’s response to this was rather incredulous.  I quote it in full:

I don’t believe that a ‘grand coalition’ of the Conservatives with Labour is conceivable or desirable. I can’t imagine that Ed Miliband, brought up from infancy in the heart of the Labour party, would consider it for a second: I’m convinced that he would resign as leader without hesitation in the unlikely event that his party colleagues tried to steer him into it. It would split the party in a way that would make the defection of the Gang of Four seem like a minor disagreement among friends. The echoes of Ramsay MacDonald, the great betrayer, would be defeaning. A huge proportion of Labour party members (certainly including me!) would resign from the party in anger and disgust if the Labour leadership were to go into a partnership with the most reactionary, anti-social, inhumane, chauvinist and incompetent Conservative party of our lifetimes. Conflicting attitudes to Europe and to the welfare state alone make any such collaboration unthinkable. I guess that the Conservatives would be equally deeply split. It’s not as if the country faces the kind of existential threat that made an all-party national government essential in 1939-40: we face grave problems but there are clear remedies for most of them readily available — and almost no consensus between the two major parties about what the remedies should be. And, finally, it’s unnecessary. As experience in Scotland and continental Europe has demonstrated, a minority government can function quite satisfactorily in a multi-party parliament provided that it can forge temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times to enable it to win parliamentary support for at least some of its programme.

To which I responded:

The makeup of the next government all depends on what the state of parties is after the election, of course. If, let’s say, Labour win enough seats that they can put together a majority by agreement with either the LDP or SNP or a combination of other small parties, then there will be a chance of a government based on “temporary ad hoc alliances on specific issues at different times.” If, however, it turns out that Labour and the Tories are each separated from an overall majority by fewer seats than SNP hold, that will be impossible.

Granted Labour voters are deeply hostile to the Tories, and would hate a Grand Coalition almost as much in 2015 as they did when Ramsey Macdonald tried it in 1931. But that does not mean that a party split would be on the cards, as it was then, if Ed Miliband were to form such a coalition as a way of keeping SNP on the fringes of UK politics. Labour politicians may share some measure of their supporters’ antipathy to the Tories, but in the SNP they see a direct threat to their own personal ambitions. A Labour-SNP pact would risk putting the SNP in a position of dominance in Scotland in decades to come comparable to that which the Ulster Unionist Party held in Northern Ireland half a century ago, and no Labour politician can fail to see how dramatically that outcome would reduce his or her chances of ever being a senior figure in government. And if no Labour MPs bolt the party, there can be no party split, no matter how unhappy the rank-and-file may be.

An historical comparison that comes to mind is the aftermath of the February 1974 General Election. After his meeting with Ted Heath, Jeremy Thorpe announced to the press “He offered us nothing.” Well, of course Heath offered Thorpe nothing. Moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite Tory MPs- precisely that faction of his party who formed the core of Heath’s support- tended to represent moderate, pro-Common Market, anti-Powellite constituencies which were the most responsive to Jeremy Thorpe’s Liberal Party, and so those MPs saw in the Liberals an immediate threat to their ability to hold their seats. By approving a deal that would have made the Liberals a serious party of government those MPs would have been signing their own political death warrants. Far better to let Harold Wilson form another government and to oppose that government than to make a bargain that involves the end of one’s own career.

Continuing with the scenario in which SNP could provide a majority to either Labour or the Tories, we can rather safely rule out the idea that one of the major parties might carry on for more than a few months as a minority government with a confidence and supply arrangement with the other. That arrangement would give the official opposition all the power and none of the responsibility in the policy-making process. Assuming neither Labour nor the Tories want to call a second election before the year is out, that means a Grand Coalition.

Again, that is only one possible scenario. I notice that 538 dot com is now***** predicting that the new parliament will be made up of 287 Tories, 271 Labour, 42 SNP, 27 LDP, 17 from the Northern Ireland parties, and 6 others. If that comes true, there would be almost as little prospect of a Labour government sustaining itself by the sort of shifting alliances you describe as there would be if (let’s say) Labour and the Tories tied at 287 with SNP holding 42 seats and a majority for either. Labour would need the SNP and virtually everyone else any time they faced Tory opposition, a situation that could well require the party not only to give up on Scotland but to write off seats wherever the LDP or Plaid Cymru were strong. Even if Ed Miliband’s upbringing had instilled in him a genuinely fanatical hatred of the Tories, he would have to match that hatred with an equal hatred of the Labour Party to try that course.

As for the Tories, under the 538 dot com scenario they too would be stuck with a Grand Coalition. As I mentioned in my first comment, UKIP doesn’t have to win a single seat to scare Tory backbenchers into demanding that their party turn further to the right. They just have to receive, in a handful of constituencies, more votes than separated the Tory candidate from the winning candidate. That will tell Tory backbenchers that if they do not appease UKIP voters they might lose their seats. So a Tory deal with SNP would not only be unpopular in Scotland, it would be a non-starter in the parliamentary Tory party. Likewise a renewed pact with the LDP, even if the LDP had the votes to give the Tories a majority. The only government the Tories could enter, on 538 dot com’s projection, would be a Grand Coalition, as indeed the only government Labour could enter on that projection would be a Grand Coalition.

When so many voters are leaning to minor parties, polls are particularly tricky to evaluate, so it is certainly possible that one of the major parties could emerge with a majority, or that LDP might bounce back and be in a position to give Labour a majority, or that multiple small parties will break through and it will become possible to have the a government by ad hoc, informal agreements. At the moment, however, the likeliest outcome of next month’s general election would seem to be a Grand Coalition. Mr Miliband’s debate performance, the aspects of it that puzzled you, might then be best understood as a stage in the negotiations to set that coalition in place. For that matter, both Ms Sturgeon’s glittering performance in the debate and the peculiar controversy that has sprung up about her since then might be evidence that she too expects such a coalition to emerge, and is taking advantage of the freedom it gives her to attack both Labour and the Tories as the tactical exigencies of the moment may require.

As this comment was already quite unreasonably long, I did not add that Mr Clegg’s focus in the unpromising topic of fiscal rectitude might make quite a bit of sense if he expected his party to be in opposition to a grand coalition in the next parliament.  Before they became a party of government by entering the present ruling coalition with the Tories, the Liberal Democrats tended to be something of a clean government lobby, hectoring whichever party was in power about administrative irregularities and, especially, about cloudy statements from the Treasury.  Perhaps Mr Clegg is preparing the Liberal Democrats for a return to this role.

Ambassador Barder, in his reply to this, expressed admiration for my “ability to marshal such a weight of argument and evidence in support of such an inherently improbable proposition.”  He went on to defend his view that a grand coalition is still overwhelmingly unlikely to be the result of the election, pointing out that the manifestos of SNP, the Greens, and Plaid Cymru are so much closer to what Labour voters want than are the policies of Labour’s own leadership that Labour would be risking a massive revolt if it did not strive to make a deal with them.  He closed with “We shall see!,” a nice way of asking for respite.

My reply started with a pleasantry, to assure Ambassador Barder that I appreciated his time and efforts, and proceeded to another bland remark that I hoped would allow us to part in good spirits:

Thanks very much for your replies. You are not only consistently informative and thought-provoking, but may well be the most courteous blogger on the web.

Certainly, in view of Labour’s history, a grand coalition is an “inherently improbable proposition.” But the very thing that makes politics so fascinating is that yesterday’s inherently improbable proposition can occasionally become today’s sole viable alternative, and tomorrow’s tediously settled reality. Who knows, perhaps the next parliament will feature something even harder to imagine than a Labour-Tory coalition. Indeed, we shall see!

*Brian Barder would more properly be referred to as “Sir Brian,” since he is a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.  Those sorts of titles strike me as impossibly silly, however.  Since he is an extremely polite person, I will not call him simply “Barder.”  So “Ambassador Barder” it is.

**In that same post, Ambassador Barder had complained about this ungainly neologism.

***Leaders of parties contesting seats only in Northern Ireland were not included, nor were leaders whose parties were not likely to keep their deposits in more than one constituency race.

****Nigel Farage of the right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) struck Ambassador Barder as “the most shameless,” an unsurprising assessment given Mr Farage’s low opinion of the institutions to which Ambassador Barder has devoted his life’s work.

*****That’s what 538 was predicting when I wrote that comment.  It’s adjusted the prediction a bit in the hours since.  Now, Labour are down to 270 and SNP are up to 43.

An atypically typical campaign season

Click on the image for source article at PBS dot org.

It looks like the the principal candidates in next year’s election for US president will be Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.  An election between the wife of one former president and the son and brother of two others does make one wonder how the two parties can call themselves “democratic” and “republican” when “restorationist” and “hereditarian” would seem more fitting.

Also, the last time the USA had a Clinton/ Bush presidential contest eccentric billionaire H. Ross Perot ran an independent campaign that attracted many millions of votes.  Maybe this time Mr Perot’s son will throw his hat into the ring.  He has made himself even richer than his father, and seems to be just as peculiar.

Mr Bush faces a large number of challengers for his party’s nomination, while Ms Clinton has so far drawn only token opposition on her side of the ballot.  It occurs to me that it is strange that it isn’t always that way.  Both the Democrats and the Republicans nominate the early favorite virtually every time.  The only two Democrats in recent decades to win the nomination without having been the early favorite were Barack Obama, who was at least a clear second to Ms Clinton in the early stages of the 2008 race, and James “Jimmy” Carter, who in 1976 triumphed over a field that never had a clear front-runner.  And the last Republican to emerge as a true surprise nominee was Wendell Willkie in 1940.

One of the ways to become the early favorite in the Republican contest is to place or show in the previous contest.  Five of the last six Republican nominees- Willard M. Romney, John McCain, Robert Dole, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan- had all finished close behind the eventual nominee in the last open contest before they were themselves bore the party’s standard.  For their part, the Democrats take comparatively little note of losing candidates for their nomination.  The last five Democrats in recent decades to capture their party’s nod after an unsuccessful first try have been Albert Gore, who after his 1988 attempt had served two terms as vice president; George McGovern, whose 1968 bid as a placeholder for the assassinated Robert F. Kennedy really shouldn’t count; Hubert Humphrey, who had been elected vice president in 1964 after his failed bid in 1960; Alfred Smith, who came back from losing the nomination at the 1924 Democratic convention to lead the Democrats into a landslide defeat in 1928; and the only winner in the whole bunch, Thomas Woodrow Wilson, who received a few votes at the 1908 Democratic convention, then won the nomination and the presidency in 1912.

In 2004 and 2008, the Democratic nominee chose one of his rivals as his vice-presidential running mate.  As Messrs Gore and Humphrey showed, election to the vice presidency is a path to front-runner status in the presidential race.  However, the last time before 2004 that a losing candidate for that year’s Democratic nomination was chosen to run for vice president was 1960, when John Kennedy chose Lyndon Johnson, a Texan who led the US Senate.  And the last time before that was 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt chose John “Cactus Jack” Garner, a Texan who led the US House of Representatives.  The dozens of losing candidates for the Democratic nominations before 2004 who controlled neither a chamber of Congress nor Texas’ electoral votes generally emerged from the experience with little to show for it except the disappointment of their supporters and a heavy load of personal debt.

Looking at that record, ambitious Democrats have virtually no incentive to run for president unless they begin at the head of the pack, while ambitious Republicans have a great deal of incentive to run even if they look weak at the beginning of the race.  Granted, beyond a certain age that incentive fades; while there is probably some slim chance that former New York governor George Pataki, for example, might pick up enough momentum to emerge as Mr Bush’s main rival in the closing stages of the nomination race,  the reward for doing that would be a chance of becoming the front-running candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2020 or 2024, when Mr Pataki will be 75 or 79 years old.  It seems unlikely that even a very strong performance in the 2016 primaries would convince the Republicans to rally around such an elderly candidate.  Granted, Messrs Dole and McCain were both in their mid-70s when they were nominated, and as Adlai Stevenson said, “Once a man has been x-rayed for the presidency, he stays radioactive for life.”  So it wouldn’t be surprising if Mr Pataki were to run in earnest.

The Mosley Shuffle

I’ve recently been rereading Robert Skidelsky’s 1975 biography of Oswald Mosley.  Robert Skidelsky* tells a tale the ancient Greeks would have recognized as tragedy in the strictest sense of the term, the story of a man of the rarest gifts brought shockingly low by his own insatiable vanity.  To think that a man as talented and as dashing as Mosley should have welcomed Adolf Hitler as the guest of honor at his wedding and should almost single-handedly have conjured up a significant anti-Semitic movement in England is to realize that a man whose capacities are such that he might have become a very great historical figure may in the end make of himself an absolute jackass.

What brought me back to the story of Mosley was a video that I saw on YouTube several weeks ago.  It is Mosley’s November 1967 appearance on the David Frost Programme.  In Mosley’s time, and indeed until quite recently, the ability to see hecklers off was an essential part of success in British political oratory.  Mosley was apparently quite good at this from the beginning of his political career in the early 1920’s.  After giving over 200 speeches a year throughout the 1930’s, encountering hecklers on the vast majority of those occasions, he was as good at handling hecklers as anyone could be.  It was to Mosley’s advantage, then, that the audience was quite hostile to him (well, what audience wouldn’t have been, by that time?)  It was an even greater advantage that the lead heckler, Solly Kaye, had been a frequent antagonist of Mosley’s in the 1930’s, so that Mosley knew exactly what to expect from him.  After the showdown between Kaye and Mosley in the first half of the program, one rather has the uneasy feeling that Mosley is going to come out a clear winner.  Frost appears to have felt that way, as he resorts to a rather frantic attempt to remind people that the amiable fellow sitting across from him is after all Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists and one of the undoubted villains of the century.

In that interview, embedded below, Mosley executes what I think of as “the Mosley Shuffle.” At the 27 minute mark, Frost asks Mosley whether he thinks Hitler, if he had survived the war, ought to have been tried for and convicted of war crimes.  Mosley says yes, that the killing of defenseless prisoners is a crime under any system of laws and so the murder of massive numbers of Jews in concentration camps should have brought Hitler and his top men into court.  At the 28 minute mark, he throws in a curious aside about that particular mass murder: “while I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed, that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter- because any crime, the killing of any defenseless prisoner, is a crime and everybody must detest it.”  At the 33 minute mark, he acknowledges that 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, then immediately blames Jews collectively for starting World War Two (“They made the greatest mistake they ever made when they produced that war,”) without which the Holocaust would not have been possible.

I call it the Mosley Shuffle because it does seem like a dance.  A step forward (the mass murders of Jews in the Nazi concentration camps were a crime that should have been punished,) a step backward (“I don’t think nearly so many were killed as were supposed to be killed,”) a step to the left (“that doesn’t matter- that doesn’t matter.”)  A step forward (it was 6 million after all,) a step backward (world Jewry was to blame for the war,) a step to the right (all of those Jews would still be alive and included within Mosley’s “Europe a Nation” project if Britain and France had listened to Mosley and taken a pro-German line in the 30’s.)  Considering Mosley’s association with Hitler, it’s difficult not to think of this:

I think I understand why Mosley would perform this unbecoming rhetorical box-step.  He was still trying to revive his political career in 1967; in the previous year’s general election, he and two colleagues from his Union Movement stood for parliament, receiving an average of 3.7% of the vote.  Mosley takes great pains in the last minutes of the program to ensure Frost repeats that figure correctly, then tells Frost that it is almost exactly double what the Nazi Party received in the German elections five years before Hitler came to power.  That prompts Frost to ask if Mosley still expects someday to come to power, and the program ends before Mosley can finish his answer.

Given his background, any revival of Mosley’s political prospects would have had to begin on the far right, with him consolidating their support, then expanding from that base to reach into the mainstream in a time of crisis.  By the late 60’s, many activists on the far right busied themselves with Holocaust denial, so if Mosley were to reemerge as their leader he had to leave some space in his platform for that noxious pastime.  On the other hand, people in general resent insults, and Holocaust denial is an aggressive insult to the intelligence of the average or even the quite substantially below-average voter.   So it must have been difficult to imagine a movement that allowed itself to be widely identified with Holocaust denial could expand beyond the fringes under any circumstances.   Therefore, Mosley could hope to reconnect with the mainstream only if he kept the denialists at arm’s length.

Yesterday I stumbled upon some writings by a spiritual heir of Mosley’s, a man named David Cole.  Mr Cole writes for Taki’s Magazine, an always-lively, rarely lovely far right publication.  Taki’s is quite undiscriminating in one sense; anyone who can write amusingly is likely to be accepted as a contributor, no matter how scandalous his or her background may be.  Mr Cole is a spectacular example of this; in 2013, after 15 years of working in Hollywood making Holocaust-related documentaries and promoting pro-Israel groups under the name “David Stein,” he was dramatically unmasked as a man who spent several years ending in the mid-1990s promoting a theory that the Holocaust ended in 1943, killing 4 million rather than 6 million Jews, none of them in gas chambers at Auschwitz.  Mr Cole gives two reasons for his retirement from the field of Holocaust minimization.  First, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing made him think twice about the sort of people whose support he was attracting.  And second, the Jewish Defense League offered a $25,000 bounty for his assassination.  When “David Stein” was exposed as David Cole, Mr Cole said that he still believed the stuff he’d peddled back in the 90’s.

Mr Cole’s article for Taki’s is a very amusing piece making fun of the media for hailing every re-editing and re-release of Holocaust-related footage as “a never before seen film.”  Mr Cole says that it was precisely this habit that made it possible for “David Stein” to establish himself in Hollywood as a Holocaust documentarian when he cleaned up some public domain footage of the Nuremberg trials and stamped his copyright on the result.  When Mr Cole describes his ability to get in on this racket, one remembers the old joke, “There’s no business like Shoah business…”

On his blog, Counter-Contempt, Mr Cole gives some examples that suggest the kind of thing he put out in the pre-“David Stein” era.  I was particularly intrigued by a post titled “My Unintentionally Negative Impact on Holocaust Revisionism,” he attacks one denialist after another, ridiculing their arguments and slamming their personalities, declaring that only an idiot could doubt that the Nazis murdered 4 million Jews.  Now 6 million, that he won’t accept.  His final paragraph is “Not everything in life has clearly defined, easily identifiable sides. This does. Revisionist or denier. Pick a side.”

The list of “revisionists” Mr Cole presents is “David Irving,** Mark Weber, and your humble author.”  This seems to be a complete census of the breed, at least of its living representatives as Mr Cole recognizes them.  The various “deniers” Mr Cole describes in this piece he summarizes (evidently with no more than simple justice) as “one man totally uninterested in history, another who forms his opinions based on who accepts or turns down his dinner invitations, another who is a self-described delusional psychotic, and finally a man capable of making the most sweeping statement possible while never bothering to read up on one of the most vital episodes of the period.”  Directed to “pick a side” between these alternatives, I feel like the would-be immigrant to the USA who was asked “Do you advocate the overthrow of the US government by violence or by subversion?”  He thought about it for a moment, then answered “By subversion.”

If we can identify the motive behind Mosley’s box-step, what motivates Mr Cole to perform his wild tarantella?  He doesn’t seem to have any master plan that will culminate in the building of a political force, as Mosley did.  Mr Cole seems to be in search of a small-time racket, the equivalent of running a three-card Monte game on a street corner.

Mr Cole seems to trade on the fact that he is Jewish by ethnicity, as this screen cap from his 1994 appearance on the Phil Donahue show would indicate:

Jewish Holocaust denier seems like a small niche, but I doubt there is much competition to fill it.

The passive-aggressive approach of at once conceding, indeed forcefully arguing, that the Nazis murdered millions of Jews, then making rather less impressive arguments to depress the number of millions significantly below the generally accepted figure, may fit the idea that Mr Cole aspires to be a two-bit operator.  While a highly ambitious figure like Mosley took care not to alienate any of the people he needed to achieve his [evil!] plan, Mr Cole seems to go out of his way to alienate as many people as he can.  He is clearly an intelligent fellow, so presumably this means that his plan does not require the support of any particular person or any particular constituency.  A three-card Monte dealer can get by with any two or three confederates to act as lookout and to lure marks in by pretending to be gamblers winning at the game, but a bigger time scam artist needs particular people and a large number of them.

Perhaps that in turn explains why an intelligent man with Mr Cole’s apparent talent for self-promotion wants to become the equivalent of a three-card Monte dealer.  He wants the independence they have.  At a moment’s notice, the three-card Monte dealer can disappear into the night and set up again in a different location.  That Mr Cole dropped out of sight and reinvented himself under an alias, playing another con game built around the same topic that underpinned his original dodge, sounds like something that a man would do who would rather be highly independent than have a broad scope of action.

*Usually on this blog I refer to living people by courtesy titles or professional honorifics, but I find the British aristocracy so preposterous an anachronism that I cannot bring myself to call Robert Skidelsky “Lord Skidelsky.”  Nor would I refer to Oswald Mosley by his title as “Sir Oswald Mosley, 6th Baronet of Ancoats.”  Since Robert Skidelsky does have that title, though, I don’t think I can call him “Mr Skidelsky” or “Professor Skidelsky.”  That’s why I’m stuck with his full name.

**To the extent that Mr Cole associates with Mr Irving, he is a bit more than just a spiritual heir of Oswald Mosley.  In 1961, as a student at University College London, Mr Irving seconded Oswald Mosley in a public debate about immigration.  So Mr Cole appears to have an acquaintance in common with Mosley.

Weak Russia, Reckless Germany

Valentin Serov’s painting of Alexander Nevsky’s triumphal entry into Pskov after defeating the Livonian knights

From the rate at which great errors are repeated, it doesn’t seem that people have much capacity to learn from history.  Look at Germany and Russia.  You’d think that the defeat of the Livonian knights by Alexander Nevsky in 1242 would have taught the Germans that the wisest policy at moments when Russia is weak is not to throw all caution aside and push eastward as hard as possible.  Yet that is precisely what Germany, in all its political incarnations, has done in the centuries since, every time Russia looks vulnerable.  Always before this has resulted in disaster; I don’t see any reason to doubt that the current push to annex Ukraine to the European Union will result in yet another disaster.

I realize that, since Germany is for various geopolitical reasons bound to dominate Europe, it is to be celebrated that its dominion takes the form of the EU.  Certainly the EU is in every way a vast improvement over its predecessor, the SS.  I don’t fault Europeans for accepting EU membership as the best deal Germany is ever going to give them.  And as an American, I don’t fault the USA’s leaders for realizing that our country’s economic and other interests require close relations with Germany and its satellites and maintaining an alliance with them in the form of NATO.  But I do wish that the other EU states and the USA would use their influence to restrain the Germans before their recklessness in the east again plunges us into a planetary war.

Freedom of thought is always freedom for the thought we hate

Discussion of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo would, I think, benefit from a focus on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1929 dictum that freedom of thought is necessarily “freedom for the thought we hate.”  It’s only when a good many people hate a thought that private violence or state-sanctioned coercion against the people who insist on expressing it is likely to attract support.

Charlie Hebdo has long specialized in airing thoughts that range from the unpleasant to the disgusting.  Not only Muslims, but decent people of any sort are unlikely to read much of any issue of the paper without a sense of revulsion.  To say, as so many have done in these last 48 hours, Je suis Charlie or Nous sommes tous Charlie is rather a bold act, or would be if 99% of those saying it had ever seen an issue of Charlie Hebdo.

I affirm that freedom for the thought we hate, that is to say, the assurance that one will not suffer violence because one has expressed ideas that someone finds obnoxious, is indispensable to a free society, and that without it no other freedom can long survive.  In that sense I would be tempted to join in saying Je suis Charlie. What, then, do we say about Anwar al-Awlaki?  In 2011, President Barack Obama openly ordered the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and justified that killing on the grounds that Mr al-Awlaki had spoken in favor of terrorist attacks against Americans and that terrorists had sought him and his words out for comfort.  No evidence was presented that Mr al-Awlaki had been involved in any terrorist act, and there was no judicial process regarding him whatever.  Mr Obama simply ordered a drone strike, and the killing was done.  The following year, Mr Obama was reelected president.  The most prominent candidate to call for a criminal investigation of the killing of Mr al-Awlaki, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, received 0.03% of the votes cast in that election; Mr Obama’s leading opponent, former Massachusetts governor Willard “Mitt” Romney, enthusiastically supported the president’s deadliest policies, and promised to expand them.

As an American, I would ask my countrymen: If we as a people sincerely believed in protecting the freedom of the thought we hate, where would Mr Obama be today?  How can we say Je suis Charlie if we are not prepared at the same time to say “I am Anwar al-Awlaki”?

If we cannot take that step, then the freedom we actually support is not the freedom of the thought we hate, but the freedom of people of whom we approve to express their contempt for people of whom we disapprove. That is an odd sort of freedom.  Political freedoms as traditionally conceived require the established authorities to renounce parts of their power, to subject themselves to various sorts of accountability, and to recognize that the rights of minorities, even minorities of one, sometimes take precedence over the will of the majority.  The freedom of the approved to scorn the unapproved does none of those things. On the contrary, it gives more power to those authorities who take part in deciding who will and who will not be invited to join the charmed circle of the approved; it prevents the authorities being held to account for anything they might do to those outside that circle; and it elevates the majority to an unchallengable, virtually divine status.  Nothing could be more totally alien to the irreverent spirit that Charlie’s newfound champions claim to cherish than this kind of pseudo-freedom.

Down the political rabbit hole

Cartoon by Joe Mohr

Recently in a comment on Alison Bechdel’s blog, I replied to commenter NLC, who added to a political discussion the observation that not everyone who supports the USA’s Republican Party is equally objectionable.  I agreed, and added:

@NLC: “There are Republicans and there are Republicans.”

That’s very true. I know some Republicans who, however hard I may find it to understand why they vote the way they do, are demonstrably quite all right in all the ways that really matter. I even know some Republicans who do yoga.

Fox News seems to be the separator, young people who are decent watch Fox News and leave the Republican Party, old people who are decent watch Fox News and turn into something like addicts- seriously, that channel is like crack cocaine for them. I suppose that means that in the long run Fox News will kill the Republican Party, but in the meantime it will kill a lot of worthwhile things.

In remarking on Fox News (a.k.a. the Faux News Channel,) I was thinking of some recent posts on a site that is for the most part at an opposite pole politically from Alison Bechdel’s, Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  Mr Dreher is still quite conservative, but no longer identifies as a Republican.  One reason for this seems to be the effect that he has seen right-wing media have on its elderly fans.  In a post titled “Fox Geezer Syndrome,” Mr Dreher quotes at length from several of his commenters who have told stories of aging their aging parents who have made themselves difficult to be around, not because of the opinions which Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them have encouraged them to hold, but because of the belligerence, the obsessiveness, and the overall childishness with which they have begun expressing those opinions since immersing themselves in a constant stream of such material.  Adding to those comments, Mr Dreher writes: 

I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.

The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.

Conservative that he is, Mr Dreher goes on to identify the same dynamic at work among the elderly liberals and lefties who predominate in the comments section of The New York Times.  I’ve certainly seen it at work among acquaintances who regard any criticism of the Obama administration as support for Mr O’s Republican opponents.  Such an attitude seems to be as natural a product of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Blue Team cheerleaders on MSNBC as Fox Geezer Syndrome is of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Red Team cheerleaders on Fox.  

How to succeed in politics

As seen on Tumblr:

From Suspense Comics, 1952

Dim enlightenment

Mold-BUUG!

The internet is to catchy phrases what shag carpet is to unwrapped hard candy.  Put a catchy phrase online, and you’ll be horrified to see what ends up attached to it.

What brings this to mind is a phrase much discussed in certain quarters recently, “Dark Enlightenment.”   When Curtis Yarvin started blogging under the name “Mencius Moldbug” in 2007, I looked at his site occasionally.  I gave up on him sometime before the average length of posts began to suggest the Russian novel, though you’ll find the name “Acilius” in the comment threads there in the first several months.  I mentioned Mencius Moldbug on this site a couple of times in those days (here and here, in posts that reveal the origins of this site as a continuation of a long conversation among some old friends.)

My interest in Mencius Moldbug stemmed from time I’d spent studying thinkers like Irving Babbitt, intellectual historians who found that ostensibly up-to-date ideas were hopelessly dependent on obsolete theology, while some apparently antiquated doctrines accord surprisingly well with the most thoroughgoing application of the critical spirit.  Mencius Moldbug claimed to have reached similar conclusions, though his windy and unstructured writing, coupled with the vagueness of his references, ultimately made it impossible to determine what, if anything, he had in mind.

I had hoped for a popularized version of the kind of thing Babbitt did, but that may be impossible.  You have to have an editor, and footnotes, and lots of time for redrafting and revision to accomplish a project like that.  As a recent example I’d mention a book I’m still reading, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.  Professor Gregory’s book is obviously not likely to reach a mass audience, anymore than Professor Babbitt’s did, but it will likely give whatever readers it does attract a deeper understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of democracy as an institution and as a fetish than Mr Yarvin could offer writing as a pseudonymous blogger.

Since 2007, I’ve adjusted my expectations for blogs quite a bit.  No longer do I look for a writer who will offer daily doses of the kind of insight Irving Babbitt developed in his magisterial studies;  now I’m content with a pleasant style punched up by occasional flashes of insight. A blogger who usually meets these criteria is Mark Shea.  His “Catholic and Enjoying It!” is usually cheerful, with a steady stream of self-deprecating humor and links to provocative, well-developed pieces by writers whose views are similar to his.  It is impossible not to conclude from regular attention to it that Mr Shea’s heart is in the right place, even if he himself rarely shows any particular flair for sequential reasoning.  Of late, Mr Shea has posted a series of items about the “Dark Enlightenment.”  In these items, I must say that Mr Shea has allowed his emotions free rein, so much so that it is a bit difficult not to laugh at some of his more hyperbolic statements.  At least one of Mr Shea’s readers has laughed hard enough to dupe him into publishing as fact a breathtakingly ridiculous tall tale about an imaginary cult of Dark Enlightenment enthusiasts.  Mr Shea has gallantly admitted that he was fooled, even though he continues to insist that the phrase “Dark Enlightenment” should always and only be understood by reference to the very worst elements that have attached themselves to it.

Some of those who embrace the label are appealing enough that Mr Shea’s attitude must be called, not only intemperate, but wrong-headed.  I would mention hbd* chick, whose response to Mr Shea made me laugh out loud.   Even a few minutes spent on her blog should suffice to disabuse Mr Shea of a notion he asserts persistently and rather obnoxiously, that “Human Biodiversity” is absolutely nothing but a euphemism for racism.  Not that I am convinced that we need the term- why not just call it “Physical Anthropology”?  The newer phrase, like that unwrapped hard candy in the shag carpet, is sure to stick to something disgusting, while an old label like “Physical Anthropology” points us toward an established academic field with generally accepted professional standards.  Be that as it may, hbd* chick is clearly much closer to the canons of Physical Anthropology than to the sort of online bigot-bait Mr Shea supposes users of the term “Human Biodiversity” to be peddling.

I’d also mention Foseti, who has recently started a series of posts reviewing Mencius Moldbug’s output (see here and here.)  His reviews are as punchy and clear as Mencius Moldbug’ originals are meandering and opaque, so I would recommend them as the first stop for someone looking to see what the “Dark Enlightenment” is really all about.  Also, you can turn to Mencius Moldbug’s sidekick Nick Land for a relatively coherent explanation of their shared ideas.  And there are some good links in this article by Nicholas Pell.

A blog post by Rod Dreher, again in response to the hoax for which Mark Shea fell, includes a reader comment that I’ve stewed over a bit:

Most of these “Dark Enlightenment” bloggers (and that’s really all they are) are fantasists and contrarians with a weakness for obscurantist and melodramatic language. However, many of the writers whom they’ve claimed (e.g., [Steve] Sailer) are serious thinkers who are challenging all of the above–all that is unchallengeable in politics, law, art, mainstream/mass journalism and most tragically, academia. If these are discussions that the elites of our society continue to suppress, I do think that we are the verge of a new political movement–one that will hopefully be led by cooler heads.

I would hesitate call Steve Sailer a serious thinker who is challenging the basic presuppositions of the age.  I do think he’s worth reading, and I read him every day, but he always puts forth a great deal more top-of-the-head speculation than careful reasoning.  Which is all right- that’s one of the strengths of the internet, the sort of thinking out loud that used to lead nowhere unless it took place in just the right room when just the right people were listening can now lead to great things even if you are far from any center of innovation.  But that only makes it the more important to to remember that the first stage of the scientific process, as of every other form of knowledge-making, is bullshitting.  The next phases all refine out the bullshit and isolate any particles of non-bullshit that may be among it.  Mr Sailer’s particular brand of bullshit includes lots of aggrieved white guy defensiveness, which attracts racists, but I think there is more to him than that.

Speaking of Rod Dreher and Steve Sailer, I should mention a post Mr Dreher put up a couple of weeks ago about Mr Sailer and my response to it.  Mr Sailer’s writing has so convinced Mr Dreher that evidence of variability in inherited characteristics related to socially desirable behaviors among humans will shake the world-views of people committed to equal rights that he wishes we could forbid such knowledge, as if it were some kind of witchcraft.  I think this fear is grossly overdone.  I wrote:

I read Sailer all the time and I grant you that he has his unattractive sides, but I’m not worried that he’ll relegitimize racist scientism a la Madison Grant. For one thing, he engages deeply enough with the relevant science that a regular reader can see that any sort of utopianism, including racist utopianism, is not something that nature is going to allow to work. Secondly, his own self-aggrandizing B.S. (continually presenting himself and his favored authors as a plucky band of truth-tellers set upon by the unreasoning hordes of the politically correct establishment) wears thin pretty quickly. If anything, several years of reading Sailer on a daily basis have moved me to the left politically.

I’d mention just one more piece, a critique of Mencius Moldbug’s positive ideology that Adam Gurri put up the other day (I’d seen it, but hadn’t really read it until Handle recommended it.)  It leaves me with the same conclusion I keep coming back to, that the goals the “Dark Enlightenment” types are trying to achieve on their blogs are goals that can really be achieved only in conventional academic writing.  That conclusion frustrates me, in part because I do think that these bloggers have some points to make about civic religion in the West that should be discussed among a broader public than is likely to look at scholarly publications and in part because few scholars are willing to tackle to questions that they raise.  But I don’t see any way around it.

Anti-Anti-War

On Counterpunch, Jean Bricmont warns us to “Beware the Anti-Anti-War Left.”  Professor Bricmont explains:

The anti-anti-war left has no influence on American policy, but that doesn’t mean that it has no effect.  Its insidious rhetoric has served to neutralize any peace or anti-war movement.  It has also made it impossible for any European country to take such an independent position as France took under De Gaulle, or even Chirac, or as Sweden did with Olof Palme.  Today such a position would be instantly attacked by the anti-anti-war left, which is echoed by European media, as “support to dictators”, another “Munich”, or “the crime of indifference”.

What the anti-anti-war left has managed to accomplish is to destroy the sovereignty of Europeans in regard to the United States and to eliminate any independent left position concerning war and imperialism. It has also led most of the European left to adopt positions in total contradiction with those of the Latin American left and to consider as adversaries countries such as China and Russia which seek to defend international law, as indeed they should.

When the media announce that a massacre is imminent, we hear at times that action is “urgent” to save the alleged future victims, and time cannot be lost making sure of the facts.  This may be true when a building is on fire in one’s own neighborhood, but such urgency regarding other countries ignores the manipulation of information and just plain error and confusion that dominate foreign news coverage.  Whatever the political crisis abroad, the instant “we must do something” reflex brushes aside serious reflection on the left as to what might be done instead of military intervention.  What sort of independent investigation could be carried out to understand the causes of conflict and potential solutions?  What can be the role of diplomacy?  The prevailing images of immaculate rebels, dear to the left from its romanticizing of past conflicts, especially the Spanish Civil War, blocks reflection.  It blocks realistic assessment of the relationship of forces as well as the causes of armed rebellion in the world today, very different from the 1930s, favorite source of the cherished legends of the Western left.

Professor Bricmont traces the rise of the Anti-Anti-War Left to the end of the Cold War:

The demonization campaigns prevent peaceful relations between peoples, cultural exchanges between citizens and, indirectly, the flourishing of the very liberal ideas that the advocates of interference claim to be promoting.  Once the anti-anti-war left abandoned any alternative program, it in fact gave up the possibility of having the slightest influence over world affairs.  It does not in reality “help the victims” as it claims. Except for destroying all resistance here to imperialism and war, it does nothing.   The only ones who are really doing anything are in fact the succeeding U.S. administrations. Counting on them to care for the well-being of the world’s peoples is an attitude of total hopelessness. This hopelessness is an aspect of the way most of the Left reacted to the “fall of communism”, by embracing the policies that were the exact opposite of those of the communists, particularly in international affairs, where opposition to imperialism and the defense of national sovereignty have increasingly been demonized as “leftovers from Stalinism”.

Interventionism and European construction are both right-wing policies. One of them is linked to the American drive for world hegemony. The other is the framework supporting neoliberal economic policies and destruction of social protection. Paradoxically, both have been largely justified by “left-wing” ideas : human rights, internationalism, anti-racism and anti-nationalism.  In both cases, a left that lost its way after the fall of the Soviet bloc has grasped at salvation by clinging to a “generous, humanitarian” discourse, which totally lacks any realistic analysis of the relationship of forces in the world. With such a left, the right hardly needs any ideology of its own; it can make do with human rights.

Joan Walsh is in a position to examine the inner workings of the Anti-Anti-War Left.  In a piece for Salon, Ms Walsh looks at what appear to be the first visible signs of Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential nomination.  Discussing a video that media mogul Haim Saban produced in tribute to Ms Clinton, Ms Walsh begins with a quote from David Remnick:

The film was like an international endorsement four years in advance of the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The tone was so reverential that it resembled the sort of film that the Central Committee of the Communist Party might have produced for Leonid Brezhnev’s retirement party if Leonid Brezhnev would only have retired and the Soviets had been in possession of advanced video technology. After it was over there was a separate video from the President.

Comparisons between the Obama administration and the Brezhnev regime strike me as remarkably inapt on one level.  Leonid Brezhnev pursued identifiable goals by rational, if brutal, means in his occupation of Afghanistan; Ms Clinton and her colleagues have approached the Soviets’ level of brutality in that country, though their motivations are entirely confined to the electoral politics of the USA.  Of course, Mr Remnick’s statement has to do with the propaganda these two regimes produced, and there may be some superficial similarities there.  Be that as it may, Ms Walsh writes:

If Clinton is serious about not running, she should keep copies of the video handy to cheer her up in case she ever doubts her legacy or gets bored. (I’d maybe edit out the Henry Kissinger parts, but that’s just me.) But if she’s serious about running, she should burn the video and never watch it again. It’s an artifact of our self-congratulatory global national security and finance elite, and it belongs in a time capsule. If it were shared widely, it could cost her as many votes as it wins her. And trust me: Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are” is not going to wear well over the years to come.

Ms Walsh goes on:

Remnick’s reporting from the Saban Forum underscored the foreign policy challenges of a Clinton candidacy. Although the Obama administration certainly pushed the Middle East peace process harder than Bush officials did, the prospects for peace may be dimmer than ever. Clinton’s warm-up act at the forum was hawkish Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who argued (to little pushback) that “settlements are not an obstacle to peace. The opposite is true.” Clinton followed him, boasting of opposing last week’s symbolic U.N. vote for Palestinian statehood and supplying Israel with the “Iron Dome” weaponry that protects it from Hamas rockets, while asking Israel for “generosity” toward the Palestinians. She was rewarded Monday with the Netanyahu government announcing plans to expand its settlements on Palestinian land.

Even after she leaves as secretary of state, Clinton will continue to face tough questions about U.S. Middle East policy if she runs for president. As well she should. The GOP crusade against Susan Rice is personal and unfair, especially since questions about the State Department’s security situation in Benghazi, the role of the CIA at the consulate, as well as the administration’s ongoing Libya policy, are more appropriately asked of Clinton. And have no fear, they will be, should she run. The 2016 election will at least partly be about whether the Obama administration’s policies have made Americans safer and the world more just. The answer to both questions may turn out to be yes, at least within the confines of reasonable 21stcentury political expectations (I recognize that’s kind of a cop-out qualifier, but the question deserves an article, or a book, or books, or a whole library, of its own). But it’s a debate worth having, and Clinton would be either blessed or cursed with having to defend the Obama side.

Ms Walsh thus takes her place on the Anti-Anti-Anti-War Left. Why not simply call this the Anti-War Left?  Her closing paragraphs make clear that Ms Walsh’s political world is circumscribed by the boundaries set by the Anti-Anti-War Left:

In 2008, I fought hard against the ahistorical, inaccurate notion that the middle-class Clintons, a married couple, could be considered a political “dynasty” à la the Bush family dynasty. Still, I would wince at yet another Clinton-Bush contest. But if it came to that, I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton over Jeb Bush – and so would most of the country.

But it’s a long way from here to there, with a lot of domestic and international landmines that could make Clinton forgo the race or else doom her candidacy if she runs. I write as a Hillary admirer. But I think the fawning of her overclass admirers, as captured on the Saban video, could make her presidency not inevitable but impossible.

“I would, of course, enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton.”  The Anti-Antis need take no notice of Ms Walsh; she will vote for them, she will of course vote for them, she will vote for them enthusiastically, no matter what they do.  Her disagreements with them have no influence even over her own vote.

As in these last twenty years the Left in the USA and Europe has been largely co-opted by advocates of perpetual war for perpetual peace, so the Right has been co-opted by the War Party for sixty years.  It was not always so.  Until the United States entered the Second World War late in 1941, organized opposition to wars had usually expressed itself most effectively in American politics in the form of movements from the Right.  It was the Federalists who led opposition to the War of 1812, the Whigs who led opposition to the Mexican War in the 1840s, conservatives of all stripes who scrambled for decades to prevent the Civil War and tried to broker a compromise peace during it, the arch-conservatives of the Anti-Imperial League who raised the loudest voices against the war with Spain and the annexation of the Philippines at the end of the nineteenth century, and the America First Committee of 1939-1941 that still ranks as the largest antiwar organization in American history.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, an international situation appeared in which it was difficult to imagine any sort of order emerging without a dramatic expansion of American power in the world, and the military establishment built during the war had become so prominent a part of the USA’s economic system that only the bravest politicians could imagine a return to the pre-war America in which military spending was a tiny percentage of Gross Domestic Product and the USA barely had a standing army.  The leaders of the American Right therefore turned away from the anti-interventionist tradition to which they were rightful heirs.  They had not developed a coherent militarist ideology, and had little of value to contribute to the formulation of an activist foreign policy.  What they could and did do was devote themselves to attacking dissenters left and right.  Senator Joseph McCarthy is remembered in a harsh light because of his attacks on left-leaning figures who looked skeptically on Cold War policies; McCarthy’s sometime defender, the late William F. Buckley, Jr, is still lionized for his attacks on right-leaning figures who dared to doubt the same policies.  This Anti-Anti-War Right reached its apotheosis in the Bush-Cheney administration, and its willful deafness to all who questioned its approach.

In a recent piece, economist Bruce Bartlett details how what he saw of the Anti-Anti-War Right in the Bush-Cheney phase led him to question his decades-long allegiance to the conservative movement, and shift markedly to the left.  What most horrified him was the insularity of the Anti-Anti-War Right, its refusal to consider points of view that its leaders had not previously approved or to take notice of publications not on their recommended list:

In 2004 I got to know the journalist Ron Suskind, whose book The Price of Loyalty I had praised in a column. He and I shared an interest in trying to figure out what made Bush tick. Neither of us ever figured it out.

A couple of weeks before the 2004 election, Suskind wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine that quoted some of my comments to him that were highly critical of Bush and the drift of Republican policy. The article is best remembered for his quote from an anonymous White House official dismissing critics like me for being “the reality-based community.”

The day after the article appeared, my boss called to chew me out, saying that Karl Rove had called him personally to complain about it. I promised to be more circumspect in the future.

Interestingly, a couple of days after the Suskind article appeared, I happened to be at a reception for some right-wing organization that many of my think tank friends were also attending. I assumed I would get a lot of grief for my comments in the Suskind article and was surprised when there was none at all.

Finally, I started asking people about it. Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

I was flabbergasted. Until that moment I had not realized how closed the right-wing mind had become. Even assuming that my friends’ view of the Times’ philosophy was correct, which it most certainly was not, why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking? This was my first exposure to what has been called “epistemic closure” among conservatives—living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction.

My growing alienation from the right created problems for me and my employer. I was read the riot act and told to lay off Bush because my criticism was threatening contributions from right-wing millionaires in Dallas, many of whom were close personal friends of his. I decided to stick to writing columns on topics where I didn’t have to take issue with Republican policies and to channel my concerns into a book.

I naïvely thought that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm. I also thought that once past the election, conservatives would turn on Bush to ensure that the 2008 Republican nomination would go to someone who would not make his mistakes.

As I wrote the book, however, my utter disdain for Bush grew, as I recalled forgotten screw-ups and researched topics that hadn’t crossed my radar screen. I grew to totally despise the man for his stupidity, cockiness, arrogance, ignorance, and general cluelessness. I also lost any respect for conservatives who continued to glorify Bush as the second coming of Ronald Reagan and as a man they would gladly follow to the gates of hell. This was either gross, willful ignorance or total insanity, I thought.

My book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, was published in February 2006. I had been summarily fired by the think tank I worked for back in October 2005. Although the book was then only in manuscript, my boss falsely claimed that it was already costing the organization contributions. He never detailed, nor has anyone, any factual or analytical error in the book.

Among the interesting reactions to my book is that I was banned from Fox News. My publicist was told that orders had come down from on high that it was to receive no publicity whatsoever, not even attacks. Whoever gave that order was smart; attacks from the right would have sold books. Being ignored was poison for sales.

Some would argue that this “epistemic closure” takes more spectacular forms on the Anti-Anti-War Right than on the Anti-Anti-War Left.  Even if that is so, it is likely because the Anti-Anti-War Left is newer.  The Anti-Anti-War Left will likely continue to evolve in the same fashion as long as it continues to win elections.

In a recent Guardian column, Glenn Greenwald mentions left-of-center media figures who have, since last month’s election, been making remarks that mirror Mr Bartlett’s post-2004 assumption “that a conservative critique of Bush when he was unable to run for reelection would be welcomed on the right since it would do no electoral harm.”  The reaction his former colleagues on the Right gave Mr Bartlett’s book showed him that such an assumption was “naive.”  Mr Greenwald analyzes the excuses which Democratic-leaning media gave for whitewashing the Obama administration up to Election Day and concludes that the same excuses will apply equally well for all time to come:

Hendrik Hertzberg proclaims that they will now be even “more respectful” of Obama than they have been. Short of formally beatifying him, or perhaps transferring all their worldly possessions to him, is that even physically possible? Is there a reverence ritual that has been left unperformed, swooning praise left to be lavished upon him, heinous acts by him that have not yet been acquiesced to if not affirmatively sanctioned in the name of keeping him empowered? That media progressives will try to find ways to be even “more respectful” to the president is nothing short of scary.

As for the vow that media progressives will now criticize Obama more and hold him more accountable, permit me to say that I simply do not believe this will happen. This is not because I think those who are taking this vow are being dishonest – they may very well have convinced themselves that they mean it – but because the rationalization they have explicitly adopted and vigorously advocated precludes any change in behavior.

Over the past four years, they have justified their supine, obsequious posture toward the nation’s most powerful political official by appealing to the imperatives of electoral politics: namely, it’s vital to support rather than undermine Obama so as to not help Republicans win elections. Why won’t that same mindset operate now to suppress criticisms of the Democratic leader?

It’s true that Obama himself will no longer run in an election. But any minute now, we’re going to be hearing that the 2014 midterm elections are right around the corner and are of Crucial Significance. Using their reasoning, won’t it be the case that those who devote their efforts to criticizing Obama and “holding accountable” the Democrats will be effectively helping the Republicans win that election? Won’t Obama critics stand accused of trying to keep the Speaker’s gavel in the hands of the Tea Party rather than returning it to Nancy Pelosi, or of trying to hand Senate control over to Mitch McConnell (or, soon enough, of trying to give the White House to Marco Rubio instead of Hillary Clinton)?

Once one decides in the name of electoral expediency to abdicate their primary duty as a citizen and especially as a journalist – namely, to hold accountable those who wield the greatest political power – then this becomes a permanent abdication. That’s because US politics is essentially one permanent, never-ending election. The 2012 votes were barely counted before the political media began chattering about 2016, and MSNBC is already – as one of its prime time hosts put it – “gearing up” for the 2014 midterm.

I’ve described before how the permanent election cycle is the most potent weapon for keeping the citizenry (and media) distracted by reality-TV-show-type trivialities and horse-race excitement in lieu of focus on what the government is actually doing. But the other significant benefit of having all political disputes viewed through a partisan electoral prism is that it keeps partisans focused only on the evils of the other party and steadfastly loyal to their own. The desire to influence election outcomes in favor of one’s own party subsumes any sense that political officials from one’s own party should be checked in how they exercise their power.

Can the USA break its cycle of ever-more warlike politics?  I would say that the cycle will be broken, and rather soon, but probably not by the electoral  process.  The USA is running short of funds and short of allies; its recent military campaigns have ended disastrously, most obviously in Iraq where thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of American dollars have turned the country into a satellite of Iran.  Eventually a foreign policy so idiotically mismanaged will have to exhaust the ability of the country that perpetrates it to project its power in the world.  Perhaps the prediction William Graham Sumner made in his 1899 speech “The Conquest of the United States by Spain” will be fulfilled in this century:

We have beaten Spain in a military conflict, but we are submitting to be conquered by her on the field of ideas and policies. Expansionism and imperialism are nothing but the old philosophies of national prosperity which have brought Spain to where she now is. Those philosophies appeal to national vanity and national cupidity. They are seductive, especially upon the first view and the most superficial judgment, and therefore it cannot be denied that they are very strong for popular effect. They are delusions, and they will lead us to ruin unless we are hardheaded enough to resist them…

The perpetuity of self-government depends on the sound political sense of the people, and sound political sense is a matter of habit and practice. We can give it up and we can take instead pomp and glory. That is what Spain did. She had as much self-government as any country in Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The union of the smaller states into one big one gave an impulse to her national feeling and national development. The discovery of America put into her hands the control of immense territories. National pride and ambition were stimulated. Then came the struggle with France for world-dominion, which resulted in absolute monarchy and bankruptcy for Spain. She lost self-government and saw her resources spent on interests which were foreign to her, but she could talk about an empire on which the sun never set and boast of her colonies, her gold-mines, her fleets and armies and debts. She had glory and pride, mixed, of course, with defeat and disaster, such as must be experienced by any nation on that course of policy; and she grew weaker in her industry and commerce and poorer in the status of the population all the time. She has never been able to recover real self-government yet. If we Americans believe in self-government, why do we let it slip away from us? Why do we barter it away for military glory as Spain did?

Like Sumner, I consider myself a patriotic American.  At the conclusion of Sumner’s speech, he harks back to the political ideals of the founders of the United States:

No adventurous policies of conquest or ambition, such as, in the belief of our fathers, kings and nobles had forced, for their own advantage, on European states, would ever be undertaken by a free democratic republic. Therefore the citizen here would never be forced to leave his family or to give his sons to shed blood for glory and to leave widows and orphans in misery for nothing. Justice and law were to reign in the midst of simplicity, and a government which had little to do was to offer little field for ambition. In a society where industry, frugality, and prudence were honored, it was believed that the vices of wealth would never flourish.

We know that these beliefs, hopes, and intentions have been only partially fulfilled. We know that, as time has gone on and we have grown numerous and rich, some of these things have proved impossible ideals, incompatible with a large and flourishing society, but it is by virtue of this conception of a commonwealth that the United States has stood for something unique and grand in the history of mankind and that its people have been happy. It is by virtue of these ideals that we have been “isolated,” isolated in a position which the other nations of the earth have observed in silent envy; and yet there are people who are boasting of their patriotism, because they say that we have taken our place now amongst the nations of the earth by virtue of this war. My patriotism is of the kind which is outraged by the notion that the United States never was a great nation until in a petty three months’ campaign it knocked to pieces a poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state like Spain. To hold such an opinion as that is to abandon all American standards, to put shame and scorn on all that our ancestors tried to build up here, and to go over to the standards of which Spain is a representative.

As a patriot, I do not wish to see my country reduced to a “poor, decrepit, bankrupt old state.”  I would much prefer to see an aroused citizenry, indignant at the crimes which, committed in its name, defile its honor in the eyes of the world, rise up and put a stop to those crimes.  It would be worth a thousand Fourth of July celebrations to see Mr Obama and his living predecessors in the office of US president tried, convicted, and punished for the myriad atrocities they have ordered, beneath which the proud boasts of our Constitution lie buried.  But I have little hope that such will happen.  The Anti-Antis, left and right, will likely retain their monopoly on political power in the USA until the regime collapses under the weight of their misgovernment.  What follows will be shabbier, meaner, and less menacing to the world at large; but the promise that this country made to its citizens and to all those who believed in its founding ideals in the days when there was real debate here will never be kept.   Perhaps, after our decline is complete, the USA will reemerge as a socially progressive liberal democracy, as Spain has done.  Considering what Spain went through on the path to its present condition, that prospect offers the patriotic American cold comfort indeed.

 

Why didn’t Mitt Romney know he was going to lose?

For a week now, articles, columns, blog posts, and wisecracks have been appearing in their thousands about the fact that former Massachusetts governor Willard M. “Mitt” Romney seems to have been surprised that he lost the presidential election.  The foremost of these publications so far is Conor Friedersdorf’s post on the Atlantic‘s website, “How Conservative Media Lost to the MSM and Failed the Rank and File.”  Also of note are blog posts by Josh Marshall and Claire Potter, a column by Maureen Dowd, and an article on Slate by John Dickerson.

The most quoted section of Mr Friedersdorf’s piece is probably this:

It is easy to close oneself off inside a conservative echo chamber. And right-leaning outlets like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s show are far more intellectually closed than CNN or public radio. If you’re a rank-and-file conservative, you’re probably ready to acknowledge that ideologically friendly media didn’t accurately inform you about Election 2012. Some pundits engaged in wishful thinking; others feigned confidence in hopes that it would be a self-fulfilling prophecy; still others decided it was smart to keep telling right-leaning audiences what they wanted to hear.

But guess what?

You haven’t just been misinformed about the horse race. Since the very beginning of the election cycle, conservative media has been failing you. With a few exceptions, they haven’t tried to rigorously tell you the truth, or even to bring you intellectually honest opinion. What they’ve done instead helps to explain why the right failed to triumph in a very winnable election.

Why do you keep putting up with it?

Conservatives were at a disadvantage because Romney supporters like Jennifer Rubin and Hugh Hewitt saw it as their duty to spin constantly for their favored candidate rather than being frank about his strengths and weaknesses. What conservative Washington Post readers got, when they traded in Dave Weigel for Rubin, was a lot more hackery and a lot less informed about the presidential election.

Conservatives were at an information disadvantage because so many right-leaning outlets wasted time on stories the rest of America dismissed as nonsense. WorldNetDaily brought you birtherism. Forbes brought you Kenyan anti-colonialism. National Review obsessed about an imaginary rejection of American exceptionalism, misrepresenting an Obama quote in the process, and Andy McCarthy was interviewed widely about his theory that Obama, aka the Drone Warrior in Chief, allied himself with our Islamist enemies in a “Grand Jihad” against America. Seriously?

Mr Dickerson makes the case that Mr Romney himself was among those deluded by right-wing media into the belief that he was likely to win the election by a comfortable margin:

Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modeling was flawed and everyone moved on. Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”

Professor Potter draws harsh conclusions from Mr Romney’s apparent belief in his chances:

Peculiarly, since the race was consistently described as tight for most of the month prior to election day, and Obama had been gaining ground in all the states he needed to win, Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president. According to the HuffPo, Romney was “shellshocked” that he was not winning on Tuesday night, having genuinely believed that voter suppression would work all the major media polls were wrong. Paul Ryan and both wives were also stunned. According to CBS, “Their emotion was visible on their faces when they walked on stage after Romney finished his [concession speech], which Romney had hastily composed, knowing he had to say something….They all were thrust on that stage without understanding what had just happened.”

Let’s underline this: Romney had no concession speech, despite available data demonstrating that he could lose the election. None of the four adults who had planned to run the United States government, and lead the rest of what we used to call the “Free World,” seem to have understood that this outcome was possible. “On the eve of the election,” Daniel Lippman writes,” a number of polling aggregators, including HuffPost‘s Pollster and New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight, showed Obama with a huge statistical advantage over Romney.” And yet, despite the fact that Nate Silver, the boy genius of FiveThirtyEight, is almost never wrong, Romney chose to believe that these polls were just partisan attempts to persuade his supporters to stay home.

This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.

Ms Dowd echoes this point:

Until now, Republicans and Fox News have excelled at conjuring alternate realities. But this time, they made the mistake of believing their fake world actually existed. As Fox’s Megyn Kelly said to Karl Rove on election night, when he argued against calling Ohio for Obama: “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”

Much of this growing literature seems to be driven by the desire of those who supported the reelection of President Barack Obama to gloat over Mr Romney’s defeat and to make hostile remarks about his party.  Mr Dickerson’s Slate colleague Katherine Goldstein has appealed for a limit to this gloating, but her piece has attracted far fewer readers than his, and there is no end in sight.  Conservatives had raised similar points, speaking from of course different motivations, shorty before the election.  For example, on Election Day Michael Brendan Dougherty provided a list of five points to make in trying to explain Mr Romney’s defeat to Republicans who get their news from Fox and Rush Limbaugh, starting with “Lots of Republican voters died” between 2008 and 2012, and growing more trenchant as it goes.  Political scientists have been wary of entering the fray; political science blog The Monkey Cage has only featured one post that could be construed as part of the discussion, and that was structured as a conventional media-criticism piece, not a jeer of “Hey everybody, look at the dumbass!”

Turning back for a moment, Professor Potter’s remarks struck me as somewhat oversimplified.  So I replied to them.  I wrote:

I agree with most of what you say, but I do want to register one demurrer.   “Mitt was entirely unprepared for the possibility that he was not going to be president… This is the outcome of lying: you have no real compass for when other
people are telling the truth and you need to pay attention to it.”  I often think of George McGovern’s response when he was asked when he realized he was going to lose the 1972 presidential election.  He said the first time the thought entered his head that President Nixon might possibly beat him was about 10 PM on election night.  Granted, Nate Silver wasn’t around then, but there were quite a few polls, and they all turned out to be right.  What kept the senator from taking those polls seriously wasn’t that he was addicted to lies; he was a remarkably honest man, in fact.  Nor did he surround himself with sycophants.

So why did it not enter Senator McGovern’s mind that he could lose, when it was clear to most observers that he was on his way to the short end of an enormous landslide?  I don’t think it really is such a mystery.  If you’re goal is to win a major party’s presidential nomination, it helps to be the sort of person who never for a moment considers the possibility that s/he might fail in anything s/he sets out to do.  Donors who write big checks, activists who give up their free time to volunteer on campaigns, journalists who bet their next promotions on the campaigns they are assigned to cover, and other major players in the political system all want to attach themselves to the eventual winner.  If you’re given to self-doubt and you’re opponent is certain that s/he will win, you are at a disadvantage in the contest to attract the attention of those players.  Besides, major campaigns make extremely heavy demands on the time, energy, and finances of candidates.  If one candidate is doing a realistic cost-benefit analysis while another is proceeding from the never questioned assumption that s/he will win, the first candidate is less likely to meet those demands.

What about Mr Romney?  I would point out, first, that he has enjoyed considerable success throughout his life.  It’s true that he has only won one of the four elections in which he offered himself as a candidate, and that by a narrow margin, but in his years as a businessman he reaped huge profits no matter what he did.  Moreover, as the son of George Romney and a descendant of Parley Pratt, Mr Romney grew up as a sort of crown prince of Mormonism.  All his life he has been surrounded by people who expected great things of him.  It would be very strange indeed if someone coming from that background and going through a career in which hundreds of millions of dollars devolved upon him were not to believe himself to be a man of destiny.

In other words, I agree that Mr Romney’s privileged background and the overall intellectual climate of his party are probably factors in his placid self-assurance.  However, a highly competitive system like those which have produced major-party nominees for US president will select for candidates who exhibit that precisely that quality, and it is hardly a surprise when a nominee is so deeply shaped by it that s/he cannot see defeat coming even when all indications point to it.

I’d also like to add one point to the comment I posted on Professor Potter’s site.  Every candidate who represents a political party is expected to help that party raise money, build organization, and get its voters to the polls.  Even a nominee who is universally regarded as a sure loser will therefore, if s/he is living up to the terms of his or her covenant with the party, campaign until the moment the last ballot is cast.  Few people are interested in giving money, volunteering, or voting for a candidate who says that s/he is unlikely to win.  Imagine your telephone ringing, and a voice on the other end greeting you with: “Hello, I’m Peter Politician, and I’d like to ask you to devote your resources and efforts to my doomed campaign.  As you know, I have no chance of winning this election.  Can I count on your active support?  It will cost you a great deal of inconvenience, and buy you nothing but a share of my inevitable, humiliating defeat.”  I doubt you’d respond very favorably.  Right up to the moment when the candidate delivers his or her concession speech, s/he is telling potential donors, volunteers, and voters that s/he expects to win.  That’s a lot easier to do if you actually believe what you’re saying.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 119 other followers