The amnesia of post-Watergate liberals

There’s a fine essay in The Atlantic by Matt Stoller on how post-Watergate liberals forgot about the menace of corporate power.

For most Americans, the institutions that touch their lives are unreachable. Americans get broadband through Comcast, their internet through Google, their seeds and chemicals through Monsanto. They sell their grain through Cargill and buy everything from books to lawnmowers through Amazon. Open markets are gone, replaced by a handful of corporate giants. Political groups associated with Koch Industries have a larger budget than either political party, and there is no faith in what was once the most democratically responsive part of government: Congress. Steeped in centralized power and mistrust, Americans must now confront Donald Trump, the loudest and most grotesque symbol of authoritarianism in politics today.

“This,” wrote Robert Kagan in The Washington Post, “is how fascism comes to America.” The nation is awash in commentary and fear over the current cultural moment. “America is a breeding ground for tyranny,” wrote Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine. Yet, Trump’s emergence would not be a surprise to someone like Patman, or to most New Dealers. They would note that the real-estate mogul’s authoritarianism is not new in American culture; it is ubiquitous. It is consistent with how the commercial sphere has developed since the 1970s. Americans feel a lack of control: They are at the mercy of distant forces, their livelihoods dependent on the arbitrary whims of power. [Wright] Patman once attacked chain stores as un-American, saying, “We, the American people, want no part of monopolistic dictatorship in … American business.” Having yielded to monopolies in business, the nation must now face the un-American threat to democracy Patman warned they would sow.

Great essay. It chimes with a book I’m reading at the moment — Thomas Frank’s Listen Liberal: or whatever happened to the party of the people? — which is about how the Democrats came to represent certain kinds of elites rather than real people. And which of course is also about why Hillary Clinton is such a depressing candidate for president.

It reminds us also that

[Bill] Clinton stripped antitrust out of the Democratic platform; it was the first time a reference to monopoly power was not in the platform since 1880.

What the Trump ascendancy means

Good summary by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

Is Donald J. Trump really what the whole long age was gradually making for and meaning? That a reality television star and businessman con artist devoid of public office experience and proudly ignorant of public policy, of braggadocious and offensive and unstable character, given to the most bald-faced race-baiting and misogyny and demagoguery, could nonetheless be elected by our fellow citizens president of the United States?

It should be observed that this is not a question that will be answered by the election itself. If Donald J. Trump is not elected president of the United States on November 8, we will owe this not to some triumph of the superior American system or to the eloquent presentation of a progressive alternative but to the fact that this singularly offensive man offended too many voters, especially white, college-educated women. It will not be because he was rendered unelectable by virtue of his lies and race-baiting and immigrant-bashing and demagoguery.

On the contrary. Trump embodies grisly aspects of our politics that are not new but that, on him, are starkly illuminated. What are these? That much of our politics in this increasingly diverse country pivots on the hateful fulcrum of race, of racial fear and xenophobia and antagonism toward the Other, and that this has only grown in power and ugliness since the rise of Barack Obama and his coalition. That in vital matters of gender and sexuality and marriage much of the politics of the presiding culture is furiously rejected by a significant minority of the country as a “politically correct” and immoral imposition. That in the aftermath of a severe economic crisis—and after decades of economic stagnation for most Americans—tens of millions of voters feel so abandoned by the system that they offer their full-throated cheers to a candidate pledging to wholly dismantle it and put “in jail” his opponent. That the electoral system as it has evolved over that time and especially in the wake of such decisions as Citizens United has become starkly, shabbily, and spectacularly corrupt. And finally that entertainment and money in the grossest sense play a far more important part in our politics than any attention to public policy, and that the commercial press, particularly the broadcast press, battens on that reality to an increasingly shameless degree.

Could Theresa May be smarter (and more devious) than we think?

Martin Wolf has a typically insightful column in today’s FT (paywall) in which he argues that the only possible interpretation of Theresa May’s speeches to the Tory conference last week is that the country is on “a timetable to exit not just from the EU, but from the preferential terms of access to Eu markets on which investors, both foreign and domestic, rely. This would be a hard Brexit”.

Furthermore, he continues,

“UK trade negotiators simply could not negotiate offsetting agreements with the rest of the world. This is partly because no such possibility plausibly exists , since the EU takes almost half of the UK’s exports. It is also because the UK will not be deemed a credible negotiating partner until its EU deal is finalised. By March 2019, then, the UK is likely to find itself without preferential access to any markets.”

If you think that this is a prospect too horrendous to contemplate, then join the club. It seems incredible that a rational government could contemplate it either.

So what’s going on?

Discussing this with a colleague over lunch, he suggested an alternative explanation. It’s based on the premise that Theresa May is a rational actor who understands the logical consequences of current government policy. But she also knows that in the current febrile atmosphere, rational argument and policy-making is impossible. The failure of the sky to fall in after the Brexit vote has led to euphoria among Brexiteers and fuelled their hallucinations about the possibilities for a newly-liberated UK. (They remain unmoved by the precipitous fall in the value of the pound, arguing that it gives the UK a trading/export advantage and will eventually be seen as a good thing.)

So (my colleague continues), the thinking behind May’s conference speeches is that she needed to talk up the probability of a ‘hard’ Brexit in order to accelerate the arrival of bad news from all quarters and not just the currency markets. This will accelerate as the months go on, until it will be obvious to a majority of the population that a hard Brexit is not such a good idea after all. (The fanatical Brexiteers, nutters like Liam Fox, are — like Trump supporters — beyond the reach of logic or evidence, but they’re a minority). So, in a year or so, when the full awfulness of Brexit becomes manifestly clear, the way will be open for a cautious, pragmatic PM to say that, regretfully, the government will have to modify its position to safeguard the interests of the United Kingdom.

Howzat for a conspiracy theory, eh?

Shakespeare saw it coming

Fabulous opinion piece by Stephen Greenblatt about Shakespeare’s Richard III, a character marked by “a weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude”.

“Richard III,” which proved to be one of Shakespeare’s first great hits, explores how this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne. As the play conceives it, Richard’s villainy was readily apparent to everyone. There was no secret about his fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.

His success in obtaining the crown depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him. The play locates these responses in particular characters — Lady Anne, Lord Hastings, the Earl of Buckingham and so forth — but it also manages to suggest that these characters sketch a whole country’s collective failure. Taken together, they itemize a nation of enablers.

Remind you of anyone?

So this is how it ends

Good evaluation by the Economist of the second presidential debate:

SO THIS is how it was to end: a septuagenarian con-man flanked by four victims of sexual assault, real or alleged, trying to intimidate his opponent by dredging up old accusations against her husband, Bill Clinton. That pre-debate Facebook Live broadcast by Donald Trump, which combined farce, dystopia and reality-TV in three tawdry minutes, presaged the tone of the encounter that followed. As it turned out, his second confrontation with Hillary Clinton, at a town-hall style event in St Louis, did not signal the end of Mr Trump’s presidential bid. It may not lead to the headlong disintegration of the Republican Party, another outcome predicted in advance. Instead a hairline crack may have opened in the American republic itself.

Great piece, worth reading in full. It concludes that the debate wasn’t the cataclysmic event for the Trump campaign — but only because he was playing to his core supporters, who would probably vote for him even if he’d shot Clinton live on stage. But it shows the kind of damage that the last 30 years have inflicted on the American polity. And it’s more than a ‘hairline crack’.

ALSO. Great column by George F. Will. Ends thus:

Today, however, Trump should stay atop the ticket, for four reasons. First, he will give the nation the pleasure of seeing him join the one cohort, of the many cohorts he disdains, that he most despises — “losers.” Second, by continuing to campaign in the spirit of St. Louis, he can remind the nation of the useful axiom that there is no such thing as rock bottom. Third, by persevering through Nov. 8 he can simplify the GOP’s quadrennial exercise of writing its post-campaign autopsy, which this year can be published Nov. 9 in one sentence: “Perhaps it is imprudent to nominate a venomous charlatan.” Fourth, Trump is the GOP’s chemotherapy, a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience.

Larry Summers is on the road to Damascus

Writing in today’s FT (paywall), Larry Summers reports on last week’s IMF summit in Washington. It’s a sombre column.

“The pervasive concern”, he writes,

was that traditional ideas and leaders were losing their grip and the global economy was entering into unexplored and dangerous territory.

IMF growth forecasts issued before the meeting were “again revised downwards”. (Note the ‘again’.).

“While recession does not impending in any large region”, he continues,

growth is expected at rates dangerously close to stall speed. Worse is the realisation that the central banks have little fuel left in their tanks.


Containing [recessions] generally requires 5 percentage points of rate cutting. Nowhere in the industrial world do central banks have anything like this kind of room even making allowance for the effects of unconventional policies like quantitative easing. Market expectations suggest that it is unlikely they will gain room for years to come.

The problem is that:

After seven years of economic over-optimism there is a growing awareness that challenges are not so much a legacy of the financial crisis as of deep structural changes in the global economy.

Which of course is one of the factors which led to the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump. Interesting therefore to hear a leader of the global elite coming round to the same conclusion.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Just because it’s ‘trending’ doesn’t mean it’s true

This morning’s Observer column:

On 27 September, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced up to one another in the first of the televised presidential debates. Most observers concluded that Clinton had come off best. She was better prepared, they thought, and towards the end Trump seemed rattled and rambling.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop the Trump campaign team from using the phrase “Trump Won” in ads even before the debate ended. Aha, you say, that’s American politics for you: you get what you pay for. And in these circumstances, every candidate says that she or he has won anyway, no matter what happened in the debate.

But then something interesting happened. The hashtag #TrumpWon went viral on Twitter and in a few hours had reached the top of the global trending list. Trump was on to it like a shot. “The #1 trend on Twitter right now,” he tweeted, “is #TrumpWon – thank you!”

Read on

Why those “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” turned out to be rather important

Tim Montgomerie, writing in today’s Times (behind a paywall) says that

many people have learnt it can be dangerous to laugh at the party that won four million votes at the last general election. Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. The European Union he leads would be managing one less existential crisis if Mr Farage’s popularity hadn’t frightened David Cameron into holding the Brexit referendum. And Mr Cameron would still be in No 10 if the people he once dismissed as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” hadn’t overturned British politics.

Which is true. But he fails to mention the underlying problem, namely the first-past-the-post electoral system which meant that four million voters get precisely one MP in Parliament. So the people who were enraged by a political system that seemed impervious to their concerns couldn’t register their disaffection through the normal electoral system. But they could in a referendum — and they did.

In the end, the only way to make the UK a modern functioning democracy is to change the voting system so that the distribution of MPs matches the distribution of votes. Theresa May has no plans to do that. Nor, it seems, has the Labour Party, such as it is.