Our current state

It isn’t just individual politicians but the political class as a whole that become a matter of contention in many parts of Europe. Four years of Eurocrisis have left us with technocracy on the one hand and populism on the other. The two positions seem completely opposed, but in fact they have one attitude in common: the technocrats think there’s only one rational solution to every policy issue, hence there’s no need for debate; the populists believe there is an authentic popular will and that they are the only ones who can discern it, hence there’s no need for debate. Both sides are opposed to the pluralism that comes with party democracy.

Jan-Werner Mueller reviewing Peter Mair’s book, *Ruling the Void:The Hollowing of Western Democracy

The complications of nostalgia

I watched George H.W. Bush’s funeral as it was streamed from the National Cathedral and interpreted it as his family’s determination to highlight the contrast between the 41st President and the current one. (It was pretty successful in those terms, but then the designers of the service were pushing at an open door, as the target of the comparison sat scowling and clearly bored by the proceedings.)

But other observers read more into it. Writing in The Atlantic, for example, Franklin Foer saw the obituaries as carrying

the longing for a time when American politics was ruled by men of “high character” and a sense of “public duty,” the very antithesis of the present partisan era’s coarseness.

What goes unstated, however, is the subtext of that yearning. All the florid remembrances are packed with fondness for a bygone institution known as the Establishment, hardened in the cold of New England boarding schools, acculturated by the late-night rituals of Skull and Bones, sent off to the world with a sense of noblesse oblige. For more than a century, this Establishment resided at the top of the American caste system. Now it is gone, and apparently people wish it weren’t.

When George H. W. Bush passed, so did the last true WASP. In appearance, he embodied what The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley once called “The Presidency by Ralph Lauren.” The evocation of the legendary fashion designer was a sly bit of sociology—the old American aristocracy was already in decline, since its aesthetic had been commodified (by none other than Ralph Lifshitz) and made accessible to all in the democracy of the shopping mall.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douhat interpreted “Bush nostalgia” as

a longing for something America used to have and doesn’t really any more — a ruling class that was widely (not universally, but more widely than today) deemed legitimate, and that inspired various kinds of trust (intergenerational, institutional) conspicuously absent in our society today.

Put simply, Americans miss Bush because we miss the WASPs — because we feel, at some level, that their more meritocratic and diverse and secular successors rule us neither as wisely nor as well.

The WASP establishment was determined largely by bloodlines and connections. Writing in the Washington Post Fareed Zakaria, claims that you had to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant “to ascend to almost any position of power in the United States until the early 1960s” and asks “Surely, there is nothing good to say about a system that was so discriminatory toward everyone else?”

Actually, there is. For all its faults — and it was often horribly bigoted, in some places segregationist and almost always exclusionary — at its best, the old WASP aristocracy did have a sense of modesty, humility and public-spiritedness that seems largely absent in today’s elite. Many of Bush’s greatest moments — his handling of the fall of communism, his decision not to occupy Iraq after the first Gulf War, his acceptance of tax increases to close the deficit — were marked by restraint, an ability to do the right thing despite enormous pressure to pander to public opinion.

But, and here is the problem, it is likely these virtues flowed from the nature of that old elite. The aristocracy was secure in its power and position, so it could afford to think about the country’s fate in broad terms, looking out for the longer term, rising above self-interest — because its own interest was assured. It also knew that its position was somewhat accidental and arbitrary, so its members adhered to certain codes of conduct — modesty, restraint, chivalry, social responsibility.

Lots of problems with all of this, but an obvious one is that it’d be hard to describe the Kennedys as WASPS — not to mention the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts (of Dutch origin), or the Rockefellers (who hail from stout German stock). And if we’re counting Germans, then surely the Trumps qualify? So the term WASP — White Anglo-Saxon Protestants — as “a social group of wealthy and well-connected white Americans, of Protestant and predominantly British ancestry, who trace their ancestry to the American colonial period” is probably more useful as a polemical term of abuse rather than as a precise description of a caste.

Populism is a symptom, not a cause

Insightful column by Kenan Malik:

It’s not populist disaffection that is unreasonable, but the policies and institutions that have created that disaffection. Policies that have driven up inequality and driven down living standards. Institutions that have excluded people from the process of decision-making. There has been much talk of “out of touch” politicians. Little expresses that out-of-touchness more than the fact that for almost a decade politicians have spent more energy worrying about populism than about the policies that have nurtured disaffection.

Yep.

Was the Referendum vote skewed by illegal funding?

This is the question that the British political establishment — of all stripes — has been tip-toeing around. It’s now clear that the Leave campaign broke the laws on campaign spending. The campaign may also have had funding — illegally — from abroad. If the referendum had been a by-election, then there would have been a re-run of the election. But because it’s all about “the will of the people” that option has up to now been treated as the Thing Nobody Talks About.

But now things are moving. According to [The Independent(https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/vote-leave-referendum-overspending-high-court-brexit-legal-challenge-void-oxford-professor-a8668771.html),

It is “very likely” that the UK voted for Brexit because of illegal overspending by the Vote Leave campaign, according to an Oxford professor’s evidence to the High Court.

An exhaustive analysis of the campaign’s digital strategy concludes it reached “tens of millions of people” in its last crucial days, after its spending limit had been breached – enough to change the outcome.

The evidence will be put to the High Court on Friday, in a landmark case that is poised to rule within weeks whether the referendum result should be declared void because the law was broken.

The research was carried out by Professor Philip Howard, director of the Oxford Internet Institute. “My professional opinion”, he told the High Court, “is that it is very likely that the excessive spending by Vote Leave altered the result of the referendum.”

”A swing of just 634,751 people would have been enough to secure victory for Remain. Given the scale of the online advertising achieved with the excess spending, combined with conservative estimates on voter modelling, I estimate that Vote Leave converted the voting intentions of over 800,000 voters in the final days of the campaign as a result of the overspend.”

That may well be true, but proving it will be impossible, I think. The connection between a voter seeing a message and how s/he votes has been one of the great mysteries of political science for as long as I can remember. So the key question for the court is whether the illegal spending (evidence for which seems solid) is enough to rule that the Referendum result is invalid.

Facebook’s role in anti-Macron disruption

From Buzzfeed:

But what’s happening right now in France isn’t happening in a vacuum. The Yellow Jackets movement — named for the protesters’ brightly colored safety vests — is a beast born almost entirely from Facebook. And it’s only getting more popular. Recent polls indicate the majority of France now supports the protesters. The Yellow Jackets communicate almost entirely on small, decentralized Facebook pages. They coordinate via memes and viral videos. Whatever gets shared the most becomes part of their platform.

Due to the way algorithm changes made earlier this year interacted with the fierce devotion in France to local and regional identity, the country is now facing some of the worst riots in many years — and in Paris, the worst in half a century.

This isn’t the first time real-life violence has followed a viral Facebook storm and it certainly won’t be the last. Much has already been written about the anti-Muslim Facebook riots in Myanmar and Sri Lanka and the WhatsApp lynchings in Brazil and India. Well, the same process is happening in Europe now, on a massive scale. Here’s how Facebook tore France apart.

Interesting. The conventional wisdom used to be that this kind of thing happened only in unsophisticated countries. Experience in the US and UK in 2016 rather undermined that complacent conclusion. And now France… Where’s next?

The really sobering thing about this is that the unrest can (Buzzfeed argues, and I see no reason to disagree with them) be attributed to the way Facebook changed its Newsfeed algorithm as a response to the uproar over its exploitation by political actors in 2016. “These pages weren’t exploding in popularity by coincidence“, it says,

The same month that Nogueira set up his first group, Mark Zuckerberg announced an algorithm change to Facebook’s News Feed that would “prioritize news that is trustworthy, informative, and local.” The updates were meant to combat sensationalism, misinformation, and political polarization by emphasizing local networks over publisher pages.

“In Groups, people often interact around public content,” Adam Mosseri, the head of News Feed at the time, explained in a subsequent blog post. Facebook, by all indication, plans to continue emphasizing local content. It announced plans this month to expand the feature to create local news hubs in 400 test cities. BuzzFeed News has contacted Facebook for comment.

So, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to try to fix one problem. And it then creates another.

Decline and Fall?

I liked this para in an otherwise fairly predictable rant:

It’s the public outrage that should be most worrying to Facebook. Other tech giants have managed to escape the opprobrium directed at Facebook because they have obviously useful services. Amazon delivers things to your house. Google helps you find things online. Apple sells actual objects. Facebook … helps you get into fights? Delivers your old classmates’ political opinions to your brain?

“Decline”, certainly. “Fall”? Doubtful. 2.24B users don’t just melt away.

Brexit and the realities of power

Nice Guardian column by Rafael Behr:

We conspired to hold a referendum on leaving the EU without a serious conversation about what the EU even is, let alone what it does. Then, a year later, we got through a general election campaign with little mention of Europe at all. Another year has passed and, despite the urgency of the article 50 clock running out, politics still manages to distract itself with arguments other than the only one worth having, which is this: given what we now know about Brexit that we didn’t know then, should we still do it?

That is not the question on which May and Corbyn would dwell in a televised debate (regardless of the channel). It isn’t a question that troubles hardline Tory backbenchers running up and down Westminster corridors in pursuit of letters of no confidence in their leader. It isn’t a question that can be answered by publication of the attorney general’s legal advice on the withdrawal agreement, prised piecemeal by opposition parties from the clenched fist of government. That isn’t to say these things are unimportant. It matters if Geoffrey Cox QC advises that the Irish “backstop” is a trapdoor to perpetual regulatory subordination. But it matters only as confirmation of a structural downside to Brexit that we know already – the imbalance of power between a bloc of 27 states and one quitter.