Posts Tagged ‘political philosophy’

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Sitting in the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego County, California looking back on his wasted life is Sirhan Sirhan, the aggrieved pro-Palestinian Jordanian who fifty years ago today fatally shot Bobby Kennedy for his support for selling war planes to Israel.

But what he killed that day was not only the wildly popular primary contender for the Democratic nomination for President, but also the post-war “big government” consensus that had held sway in America since the Depression. With Kennedy effectively died the idea that Government had a legitimate role in enabling social cohesion and attacking evils such as poverty and the racial divide.

After his death, the Democrats turned to Hubert Humphrey as a consensus candidate, but the bumbling Humphrey was never going to be a match for the charismatic and experienced Richard Nixon.

That event began a thirty year or more realignment to the right in American politics, which eventually led to a wider realignment around the democratic world, which affected both future Democratic candidates (such as Carter and Clinton) as well as notable Republicans such as Ronald Reagan. By the end of the process the “post war consensus” around enabling government and Keynsian economics was largely broken, and it is not clear yet whether or not it will ever be revived.

Texan political scientist Walter Dean Burnham’s 1970 book Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics presents a theory of American political development that focuses on the role of party systems that endure for several decades, only to be disrupted by a “critical election”. Such elections not only hand presidential and congressional power to the non-incumbent political party, but they do so in a dramatic way that repudiates the worn-out ideas of the old party and initiates a new era whose leaders govern on a new set of assumptions, ideologies, and public policies. The elections of 1860 and 1932 are perhaps the clearest examples of critical elections, and scholars have disagreed about how well Burnham’s theories still explain American electoral politics. Others contend that 1968 was a realigning election for Republicans holding the presidency from 1969 to 1977 and again from 1981 to 1993.

Some political scientists, such as Mayhew, are skeptical of the realignment theory altogether, saying there are no long-term patterns: “Electoral politics,” he wrote, “is to an important degree just one thing after another … Elections and their underlying causes are not usefully sortable into generation-long spans … It is a Rip Van Winkle view of democracy that voters come awake only once in a generation … It is too slippery, too binary, too apocalyptic, and it has come to be too much of a dead end.”

That is in all probability true. “Realignment” elections are probably the result of long-term trends that then coalesce around an individual or event. In this sense, the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK is unquestionably onesuch, in that it can be seen as not so much an enthusiasm for Thatcher personally (for some time after her election in 1979 she actually languished in the polls and could arguably have been defeated in the 1983 election were it not for the Falklands War) but as an enduring and growing response to militant trade unionism that had disrupted the country during the previous Heath and Callaghan premierships.

In this sense, though, it is interesting to debate what type of America we might now see had Robert Kennedy survived and won the election. Would we have seen a rejuvenated consensus around government intervention, led by Kennedy’s personal charisma, and fervour? Or was Kennedy a “man out of time”, a liberal consensus man who belonged ten or twenty years earlier? It is an enticing discussion.

Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” in response to the dissent brokered by the civil rights movement thoroughly moved large numbers of older, conservative and male whites (most directly) into the Republican camp. Whether or not Kennedy’s personal appeal and rhetorical flourish would have kept them in the Democrat fold is impossible to say. Republican leaders consciously appealed to many white Southerners’ racial grievances in order to gain their support. Whether or not Kennedy could have “sold” a different narrative is hard to say. The Southern Strategy and its effectiveness certainly annoyed black and other minority voters. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologised to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national civil rights organisation, for exploiting racial polarisation to win elections and ignoring the black vote. The very substantial preference for the Democrat ticket currently evidenced by the black population stems in part from this period and there can be little doubt that the election of Donald Trump reresented the most stark division between black and white voters in modern electoral history. Would Kennedy have reduced or prevented that divide? Who knows?

Certainly, many left-leaning leaders at the time felt Kennedy’s loss very keenly and for many Kennedy’s death ended the revival of American liberalism.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 2.31.06 pm“King had prepared us for his death, and after it [MLK’s death] happened, there was no weeping, we immediately started figuring out how we were going to carry on the Poor People’s Campaign,” says former UN Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest aides.

But that maintenance of effort was scuppered by Kennedy’s death. “That was when I broke down,” says Young. “I think that the rational liberal democratic socialist view of the world, from Franklin Roosevelt all the way to Lyndon Johnson, was really cut short by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.”

Others disagree. “By the end of the 1960s, the forces that were swelling up against the Great Society, which was an extension of the New Deal of the 1930s, were going to defeat whoever the Democrats put up,” says HW Brands, historian and author. “Americans were disillusioned and angered by the violence of the 1960s, and by the failure of the Democratic governments of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to take Vietnam to a successful conclusion.”

Brands notes how also the Civil Rights movement had largely achieved its legislative aims, and so if either Martin Luther King Jr or Robert Kennedy had lived they would have had to battle the great American conundrum of economic inequality and poverty that has thwarted all others.

“That’s a much tougher nut to deal with going off the last 50 years of American politics,” Mr Brands says. “You can repeal laws against blacks, but can you mandate economic equality? Nobody’s figured out how to do it … for a society that is organised economically along capitalist lines.” It’s a fair point.

 

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Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 1.44.58 pm.pngWhat is certain is that the election of Nixon and the general drift to the right that continues to this day resulted in economic policies – an understanding of the economic framework – that are wildly different to what went before … right up to until, perhaps, the election of an innately interventionist Trump administration, with its talk of directly investing in rustbelt industries, trade wars, and all the rest of it – which election can at least in part be squarely laid at the door of voter dis-satisfaction with the actual out-workings of the very “trickle down” economics that the Republicans for a generation have been enthusiastically promoting.

Yet as the result of the Trump revolution, American economic policy is now a curious (and not necessarily sustainable, or necessarily successful) mixture of lowering taxes and increasing spending, of triumphalist nationalism and “America First”, and an apparent rejection of free tradeism. Aided, no doubt, by Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity in some sections of the population, Trump’s election was above all a reaction to the fact that the new consensus, established after Kennedy’s death and pursued by both Democrats and Republicans, hasn’t really “worked”, either.

So it is at least worth speculating exactly what Sirhan Sirhan destroyed that day, 50 years ago. Jeremi Suri, a history professor and author, has commented: “Kennedy … was the last politician who came from a background of Franklin Roosevelt-influenced social welfare policies who could connect with rural voters,” Mr Suri says. “What ended in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a set of policies of expanding rights, expanding government services and assistance for those in need, and the backlash against that was facilitated by the absence of effective figures like Robert Kennedy.”

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So was Kennedy-ism the last gasp of the liberal consensus, or will we see that consensus revived, at least in part, by a new crop of populist centre-left politicians, in America and around the world, of whom Trump is merely, perhaps, a somewhat confused example?

How do we judge, for example, the huge popularity of a character like Bernie Sanders, a self proclaimed “democratic socialist”, whose economic prescription for America could have been written by any “big Government” thinker from 1926-1966 without anyone finding it in the least unusual or even worthy of much comment?

Was Kennedy’s death merely a pause in left-liberal consensus building, or the end of it?

Time, as always, will tell.

(Some of the quotations in this article previously appeared in a BBC article.)

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Tony Benn

Those who think being “business friendly” (or “Conservative Lite” as I like to call it) is the way forward for the UK Liberal Democrats should keep a close eye on the German Federal Election this weekend.

The Lib-Dems’ long-term European ally the Free Democrats may be effectively wiped out at the election by failing to meet the 5% hurdle to enter Parliament and remain in the governing Coalition.

Essentially the FDP’s support has either drifted to the majority party with whom it has been in Coalition on and off for a generation (the CDU under Angela Merkel) or it has wandered off to a variety of other options on both left and right, according to whichever way members of the party’s somewhat amorphous supporter base lean.

The same fate applied to the Australian Democrats a while back, when they got too close to the then Conservative government and passed a regressive tax package, although leadership wrangling played just as much of a role in their demise.

Back to the future: the day Tony Benn predicted the Lib-Dem’s current crisis to me.

I well remember chatting for some time to Tony Benn at a Liberal Party conference at Harrogate deep in the last millennium, at which he was addressing a fringe meeting.

Opinions on Benn differ – I considered and still consider him a national treasure, and I read his famous diaries voraciously – in a discursive conversation that especially covered his views on the essential non-independence of elected Governments, which his Wikipedia entry summaries as follows:

By the end of the 1970s, Benn had migrated to the left wing of the Labour Party. He attributed this political shift to his experience as a Cabinet Minister in the 1964–1970 Labour Government.

Four lessons

Benn quoted four lessons:

1) how “the Civil Service can frustrate the policies and decisions of popularly elected governments”;

2) the centralised nature of the Labour Party allowing to the Leader to run “the Party almost as if it were his personal kingdom”;

3) “the power of industrialists and bankers to get their way by use of the crudest form of economic pressure, even blackmail, against a Labour Government”; and

4) the power of the media, which “like the power of the medieveal Church, ensures that events of the day are always presented from the point of the view of those who enjoy economic privilege.

As regards the power of industrialists and bankers, Benn remarked:

“Compared to this, the pressure brought to bear in industrial disputes by the unions is minuscule. This power was revealed even more clearly in 1976 when the IMF secured cuts in our public expenditure.

These [four] lessons led me to the conclusion that the UK is only superficially governed by MPs and the voters who elect them. Parliamentary democracy is, in truth, little more than a means of securing a periodical change in the management team, which is then allowed to preside over a system that remains in essence intact. If the British people were ever to ask themselves what power they truly enjoyed under our political system they would be amazed to discover how little it is, and some new Chartist agitation might be born and might quickly gather momentum.”

That was essentially Benn’s thesis as we talked. He shared a few examples which it would be inappropriate for me to repeat here, as it was a private conversation. I was left profoundly convinced that – even though I disagreed with much of his prescriptions to solve these obvious problems – his analysis of the hidden state-behind-the-state that influenced the public behaviour of governments was totally accurate.

I genuinely don’t think it was his obvious charisma and passion that led me to conclude he was correct, although Benn is undoubtedly a very attractive and convincing individual, especially for a young Parliamentary candidate in his twenties. It was more that the stories he told me simply “rang true”.

As I nursed a pint and Benn enjoyed his perennial mug of strong tea and a pipe – he has been both a lifelong teetotaller and longtime pipe smoker – the conversation moved onto the manner in which essentially left wing parties may nevertheless sometimes be required to enact unpopular social policies, specifically cutting public expenditure as the wider macro-economic situation demanded.

I have never forgotten these words

And Benn said something to me that I have never forgotten, and which I later heard him repeat on various occasions on TV in the coming years, especially as Labour sunk deeper and deeper into the Blairite fog.

I am paraphrasing, but it ran thus:

“We are not the bastards” he said, somewhat whimsically. “The public know we are not the bastards. When we try and act like bastards, we do a poor job of it, and the public know our heart is not really in it. If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for the real ones – the Tories. If we try and pretend to be Tories, they’ll simply kick us out and go get the real thing.”

This weekend, the FDP will pay the ultimate price for deserting their community-focused, small business friendly, “small is beautiful”, environmentally aware, co-operative roots. They will be decimated, and may well end up a footnote to history.

Nice Clegg

The Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg and the right-leaning cabal he has gathered around him – or the Lib Dems led by someone else – should listen and learn, or they will face the same fate – and frankly, what’s more, they will deserve to.

“They don’t want us to pretend to be the bastards.

If they want the bastards, they’ll vote for them.”

Liberal Democrats: you have been warned. Don’t say you weren’t.

UPDATE

"What's the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They've both got 4.9%."  Oh, those crazy whacky Germans.

“What’s the similarity between Becks and the FDP? They’ve both got 4.9%.” Oh, those crazy whacky Germans, eh? How cruel to say they don’t have a sense of humour.

Well, our direst forecasts have proven correct. As has Benn’s essential thesis. Some 2.2 million FDP voters switched directly from the FDP to Merkel’s ruling CDU to deliver her one of the biggest election victories since the war.

(An interesting aside: If she stays in power for the next four years, as she has said she intends to, she will pass Margaret Thatcher’s record as the longest serving female leader in modern European electoral history.)

The FDP’s vote collapsed to 4.9%, tantalisingly close to the 5% they needed to ensure survival, and denying it seats in the lower house of the Bundestag, effectively making them and the country’s Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler (ironic, huh? Vice Chancellor … Deputy Prime Minister … geddit?) utterly irrelevant to Germany moving forward.

And by the by, denying Merkel a natural coalition partner despite her electoral triumph; she will now have to laboriously try and stitch together either a “Grand Coalition” with her natural rivals the SDP, or cobble together an arrangement with the Greens.

Both options look problematical. Ironically, Merkel now has both unparalleled authority in her country, and a real chance that she may struggle to govern effectively, which given Germany’s key role in re-shaping the Eurozone is hardly good news both for Europeans and the rest of the world who are hoping that the economies Greece, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Portugal et al are going to continue to avoid collapsing entirely, which would plunge the world back into a credit crisis.

Vince Cable - a burr under Clegg's saddle, but wisely so.

Vince Cable – a burr under Clegg’s saddle, but wisely so.

After four years of bickering and failure to deliver on its tax-cutting pledges German voters overwhelmingly bled to the “real bastards” (exactly as explained above) and for those who couldn’t make that switch there were a variety of more left-wing options to try. What they didn’t do was stay with a party that didn’t seem to know why it exists.

We maintain the Lib Dems need to work much harder on effectively differentiating themselves from their larger Coalition partner or face the same fate.

Buying the Tories’ free market schtick holus bolus is most certainly not the way to do that.

Senior economic spokesman Vince Cable is often criticised by those on the right of the party for his often mournful warnings that the Tories talk at least as much crap as they do good sense about reducing deficits and applying austerity measures to cure the country of its bloated welfare culture.

As Cable has appositely pointed out, Jeremiah might have been a miserable old curmurdgeon, but his famously depressing prophesies were correct.

Er ...

Er …

Meanwhile, Merkel’s continuing onward march gives us an excuse to tell again our very favourite completely politically incorrect joke.

So Angela Merkel turns up in her stretched Mercedes at the border with Greece.

An Immigration Officer wanders over to the car. “Name?”

“Angela Merkel,” says the Chancellor as she passes over her passport.

“Occupation?” asks the officer, as he flips through the pages.

“No, ” smiles Merkel sweetly, “just a holiday this time.”

FOOTNOTE: We were saddened to see that the seemingly indomitable Tony Benn was admitted to hospital this week after feeling unwell. Let us hope he recovers fully and our thoughts are with him and his family. Agree with him or not, his contribution to modern political debate in the UK and beyond has been colossal. We are also reminded of his famous quip in 2001 that he was retiring as an MP “to concentrate on politics”. Maybe Nick Clegg should view the Deputy Prime ministership with similar askance humour sometime soon.

Some time ago – a disgracefully long time ago, actually – I promised to nick some good thoughts sourced from around the internet, and post them here regularly, with my own commentary. The idea is simple: there are cleverer people than me around, but I am clever enough to spot stuff that deserves sharing. So I am sorry I have taken so long to come up with entry #2: my excuse is that I have been very busy posting on all sorts of other important topics.

My “steal” today stretches back into the past, to say something that is still utterly relevant to our world in 2012.”Only the wisest and the stupidest of men never change.” Confucius

A statue of Confucius, located in Hunan, China on the shore of the Dongting.

Confucius was responsible for a lot of good sense; for example, he espoused the well-known principle “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”, an early version of the Golden Rule.

But he was also primarily responsible for instituting and codifying a love of authority that has, viewed from an historical perspective, condemned Chinese society to a limiting, claustrophobic respect for those in charge.

To this day, Confucian respect for those in charge – within a family, at a workplace level, in local government, and nationally – slows China’s development into anything resembling a pluralist society while simultaneously making it possible for the centralised Governmental system to drive their economy with little regard for human rights as the West would recognise them. It also encourages a ruling kleptocracy and lack of innovation.

But in this quotation, Confucius offers us a balancing thought we should all dwell on.

Rigidity of opinion is a common failing worldwide. And at its most extreme, it morphs into the horrors of civil war, inter-national conflict, racism, homophobia, colonial exploitation and many more nasties.

As I have grown older, I realise more and more that those things that I once saw as lay down misère* are rarely as certain as I once thought. As John Lennon once wisely said, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.” This is not an argument for some wishy-washy relativism, where nothing is certain, and excuses can be made for any opinion in the search for unity. No, it is merely a belated recognition, in my case, that there are not only two sides to most stories, but often many more than two.

Sadly, when rigid thinking is exhibited in politicians, it is often applauded. Politicians who evidence little or no doubt in their public prognostications are often called “strong” or “effective leaders”. They present with such certainty that we are often happy to delegate to them any need to think critically, while we busy ourselves with “getting on with life”. The problem, of course, arises when the “conviction politician” implements his or her convictions, and we all discover – too late, usually – that their much-lauded convictions were actually sheer nonsense.

The only substitute for this pattern of behaviour, which societies of all types and all eras repeat endlessly, is to consciously up our own level of interest. To read between the lines, and behind the front page, to educate ourselves, to criticise constructively and to demand answers to reasonable questions.

Some years ago, I called into Melbourne talk-back radio station 3AW, to the then Australian Prime Minister, arch-conservative John Howard. The second Iraq invasion was about to get underway, and I called him to point out that a leaked report from his own Chiefs of the Australian Defence Force had said that an inevitable result of any such invasion would be very high civilian casualties.

Howard brushed off my comment grumpily, simply saying “Well, that’s not my point of view.” I started to protest, seeking to point out that the advice came from his own advisers, and surely it was a relevant factor in his decision-making. The right-wing radio host sniffily cut me off, muttering “The Prime Minister has answered your question.”

To date, Iraqi civilian casualties of the war and the chaos that ensued thereafter are in excess of half a million people.

Half a million entirely innocent, civilian casualties. Men, women, and children. Young, and old. And still counting. Howard’s biography, written years later, virtually ignores the issue.

I am not so foolish as to think that if Howard had listened to me then that benighted war and those casualties could have been avoided.

But I do believe that if Howard, Blair, Cheney, Bush et al had not been so insanely gung ho – indeed, had they heeded Cheney’s own opinion from a decade earlier that a full-blown invasion of  Iraq would be a quagmire from which we would not know how to extract ourselves, and which would provoke a military and social cataclysm – then better planning might have been in place to deal with the immediate post-invasion chaos.

Around the world, millions of ordinary people feared exactly what eventuated. Their “folk wisdom” was better than the faux wisdom of the political leaders, relying, as they were, on tainted advice and their own self-confidence. If they had not been so damned obsessed with their own “convictions”, they might have been a deal more pragmatic, and many lives might not have been needlessly sacrificed – not to mention the Allied troops that have died or been horribly injured.

So perhaps, as Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

And why does such modesty in thinking matter?

Because simply put, as George Santayana noted, in his Reason in Common Sense, The Life of Reason, Vol.1, wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

For example, the way things are going, an attack on Syria or Iran (or both) are both live policy options for the West. Faced with such a nightmare scenario, the regimes in Damascus and Teheran become ever more brutal and belligerant. Their obduracy is met with yet more sabre rattling.

And so it goes, and so it goes.When will we ever learn?


*Misere
or misère (French for “destitution”; equivalent terms in other languages include bettel, contrabola, devole, null, pobre) is a bid in various card games, and the player who bids misere undertakes to win no tricks or as few as possible. This does not allow sufficient variety to constitute a game in its own right, but it is the basis of such trick-avoidance games as Hearts.

A Misere bid usually indicates an extremely poor hand, hence the name. An Open or Lay Down Misere is a bid where the player is so sure of losing every trick that they undertake to do so with their cards placed face-up on the table. Consequently, ‘Lay Down Misere’ is Australian gambling slang for a “dead cert”; a predicted easy victory.