Some thoughts about the UK byelections, and beyond

by Miriam Ronzoni on June 24, 2022

Two byelections took place in England yesterday, Thursday June 23rd 2021; they were both caused by the two respective Conservative MPs resigning in disgrace – in one case, for a sexual assault conviction; in the other, for watching pornography in the House of Commons. [click to continue…]


Book Note: Erin Pineda, Seeing Like an Activist

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2022

I’ve just finished Erin Pineda’s Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2021), and it is a very welcome addition to the literature on both civil disobedience and the history of the US civil rights movement that anyone interested in either topic should read. Pineda is keen to push back against a particular liberal constitutionalist theory of civil disobedience, associated with Bedau and Rawls that purports to draw on the US civil rights movement but which, according to her, ends up both falsifying the history and provides succour to a narrative about civil rights that is used to discipline subsequent movements (such as Black Lives Matter) as failing to live up to the standards set by the activists of the 1960s. That narrative and theory also supports what we might call a form of soft white supremacy, according to which a nearly-just republic composed largely of white citizens was already in place and the task of civil disobedience was to communicate the anomalous exclusion of black Americans from the polity, so that white citizens, apprised of this injustice and stricken by conscience, would act to rectify things.

This standard liberal narrative around civil disobedience has fidelity to law and an acknowledgement of the basic justice and legitimacy of the established order at its heart. The task of civil disobedients on this view is to act non-coercively and non-violently but to break the law (a bit) only to raise the awareness of citizens considered as fellows who are thought of not as themselves implicated in the injustice but as basically good people who would act if only they knew. The civil disobedient on this view submits willingly, even eagerly, to punishment in order to testify to injustice whilst also accepting the shared framework of law. The tacit framework here is also a nationalist one (or at least a statist one) of shared co-operation among fellows who want to establish a just order on national territory together.
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Some thoughts on the French elections

by Chris Bertram on June 20, 2022

The results of the second round of the French legislative election are, despite some elements of respite, close to a disaster. The key element of that disaster is the advance of the far-right Rassemblement national to a total of 89 seats, by far the most significant representation for the extreme right under the 5th Republic. The position does not look markedly better if we look at vote shares, where the RN (plus other far-right parties such as Reconquête gathered in the first round 22.92%, up from 13.5% for similar parties in the comparable contest five years ago. A brighter sign was that the left-wing alliance NUPES gained 142 seats, though the domination of the NUPES by its figurehead, the left-nationalist Eurosceptic Jean-Luc Mélenchon opens the probabilty that its constituent elements will fragment in all directions quite early on.

That Emmanuel Macron and his right-centrist Ensemble group have not got a majority is hardly a bad thing in itself, but it is likely that far from seeking a compromise with the left (if one were really on offer) he will rely on the support of the right-wing Gaullist Les Républicains party, and so we can expect right-wing austerity coupled with ideological competition with the far right around an anti-immigrant and Islamophobic agenda.
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Sunday photoblogging: steps, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on June 19, 2022



In the penultimate chapter of Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that while the forces of polarization act on both major U.S. political parties, the Democratic party has managed to weather them whereas the Republican party has largely succumbed. That is, Republicans stand out for their growing violation of and downright hostility toward established norms. He multiplies examples to make the case at pp 228-9.

What accounts for the difference? Klein’s answer is that the forces of ideological sorting have made the Democratic party more internally diverse and the Republican party more internally homogenous: “Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on white voters. Democrats are a coalition of liberal whites, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Republicans are overwhelmingly dependent on Christians. Democrats are a coalition of liberal and nonwhite Christians, Jews, Muslims, New Agers, atheists, Buddhists, and so on. On the fixed versus fluid psychological dimensions…Republicans are overwhelmingly the party of fixed voters. But…Democrats are psychologically sorted only among white voters,” while psychological orientation aligns less with party affiliation among voters of color (230-1).

The upshot is that “Democrats need to go broad in order to win over their party and…they need to reach into right-leaning territory to win power. Republicans can afford to go deep” (231). And that means that Republicans can appeal to voters through appeals to group identity, whereas Democrats must use party platform and policy goals to unify a diverse collection of interest groups.

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Monday photoblogging: Llandudno

by Chris Bertram on June 13, 2022


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Some of you are aware of the Center for Ethics and Education which we founded at Madison a few years again to help build philosophy of education as a field. One of our charges was to develop curricular materials which would make it easier for people teaching in education and/or public policy, but who lacked training and confidence in philosophy of education, to engage with philosophical issues in their teaching. We didn’t do much about this at first, partly because we didn’t really know how to, but in the past 3 years we came up with a plan: develop lesson plans around texts that we think people will want to teach (some of which are not actually philosophical texts, but which lend themselves to philosophical discussion), and develop a series of podcasts to accompany those lesson plans. Then we realized that the lesson plan work was bound to take us more time than the podcasts, so we have ploughed ahead with the podcasts, and started retro-fitting lesson plans to them.

So in the next few weeks I’ll introduce you to some of the podcasts. Which you can listen to! and share!

This week: in the fall we interviewed Jon Boeckenstedt, who is the VP of Enrollment Management at Oregon State University. He’s well known in the enrollment management community for his excellent blogging (see these two blogs, in which you can lose a lot of time) and his leadership during the early part of the pandemic in convincing colleges to go test optional for admissions purposes. We talked to him about that, and more generally about the job of enrollment management, which is not well understood even on, let alone beyond, the campus. For fear of sounding like a wine waiter, this podcast would be a great accompaniment to Paul Tough’s new(ish) book The Inequality Machine (in which Jon plays a significant role).


Bruce Kent is dead

by Harry on June 9, 2022

Bruce became the GS of CND when it was a tiny operation in a small office in Grays Inn Road in the late 70’s, staffed by him and two very young CP-ers (Sally Davison and Chris Horrie). He had no idea what we about to hit him. Reagan’s victory, and the uptick in the cold war, prompted a huge single issue movement, which Bruce had the skill and vision to weave together and manage. I spent 2 weeks in the summer of 1980 sleeping on a floor and helping in the tiny office, and then 3 months in Fall 1981 working flat out on preparing for a huge demonstration (my main job was getting 25,000 placards made and negotating with a famous band to play on a flatbed truck for us). In my second stretch Finsbury Park was the main office, and it had all the chaos associated with growing pains. Bruce was not in the CP, and thus potentially vulnerable, especially because he was not even a fellow traveller. But he was loved, by all of us. I once asked him how to get to Orpington at a delicate moment, and he was a bit abrupt with me (I asked him because it was in lieu of him that I was going to debate a Tory MP (said Tory MP, by the way, was understandably quite disappointed to be debating a scruffy 18 year old rather than Bruce, but treated me with the utmost respect and grace, and even gave me a ride back to London). The next day he looked for me and told me that I’d caught him at a tense moment, but nothing excused him being ‘sharp’ with me, and it wouldn’t happen again. It was a better lesson for me that if he’d been utterly gracious throughout). The Garuni obit is here. It gets nothing wrong, but there’s still something a bit missing: I don’t think it quite captures the depth of affection and respect in which he was held. We all loved him.

ALso. My students are always very impressed that my first boss was Taylor Swift’s boyfriend’s great uncle, or whatever he was.


Part two of Why We’re Polarized connects the polarizing public, the subject of part one, to our increasingly polarizing political institutions. Klein wants to show that polarization is a feedback loop: “Institutions polarize to appeal to a more polarized public, which further polarizes the public, which forces the institutions to polarize further, and so on” (136-7). Here, I’ll be a bit more comprehensive and summative than I have so far, because it’s helpful to see how the pieces of the story fit together.

Unsurprisingly, the media is the first locus of institutional polarization that Klein discusses. Also unsurprising is his focus on the fragmentation of the industry and the rise of digital media, and on the ways in which audience analytics enable providers to discern “market demand” with growing precision. The result is a media landscape that increasingly plays to partisan divisions: “For political reporting, the principle is: ‘If it outrages, it leads.’ And outrage is deeply connected to identity—we are outraged when members of other groups threaten our group and violate our values” (149). But audience analytics don’t just reveal pre-existing market preferences. Identities are “living, malleable things” that “can be activated or left dormant, strengthened or weakened, created or left in the void” (156). If this is right, then identity-oriented media content will deepen the identities it triggers and the identities it threatens. And in deepening and threatening identity, a fragmented media armed with sophisticated audience analytics will trigger the forces of identity-protective cognition.

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The three-party system in France and Australia

by John Quiggin on June 6, 2022

For a while now I’ve been arguing the political crises in the developed world can be understood as the breakdown of a two (dominant) party system in which power alternated between hard (Thatcher) and soft (Clinton) versions of neoliberalism (or market liberalism), with two sides drawing respectively on the votes of the racist/authoritarian right (Trumpists) and the disaffected left (environmentalists, socialists/social democrats etc) who had nowhere else to go, even if they were entirely unsympathetic to the market-liberal version of capitalism.

As the failures of neoliberalism have become more evident, there’s no longer enough support to maintain two neoliberal parties, so the natural outcome is a three-party system, with Trumpists, neoliberals and a left coalition, all of roughly equal size. In political systems set up for two parties, this creates a lot of instability.

When I looked at this in 2016, it seemed that the biggest losers were soft neoliberal parties, typically nominally socialist or social democratic, which had embraced austerity in the wake of the GFC. Prime examples were PASOK (which gave its name to the process of Pasokification), the French socialists under Hollande and the Dutch Labour party. More recently, though, hard neoliberal parties have also been replaced by the Trumpist right (as in France) or simply swallowed by Trumpism, as in the paradigm case of the US Republicans.

Following recent elections in France and Australia, I thought I’d take another look
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Sunday photoblogging: Clevedon

by Chris Bertram on June 5, 2022



Why We’re Polarized Part 2

by Gina Schouten on May 31, 2022

[Two preliminary notes, in response to last week’s comments: First, on Klein’s definition of “polarization”: For Klein, polarization is the process whereby people’s opinions either change, or the distribution of opinions sorts, to cluster around two poles, with fewer people left in the middle. Importantly, this does not entail that either side is more extreme. So: sorting is a subcategory of polarization—both have the consequence of increasing tension between the two ends of the spectrum, “which is what polarization is meant to describe” (32); but polarization is importantly distinct from extremism. Second, on the structure of the book, which I should have emphasized. Institutions like the media are a crucial part of Klein’s explanation for polarization. This discussion plays out in the second part of the book. The first part of the book is about our polarizing political identities, which polarizing institutions interact with. On the whole, Klein wants to show that polarization is a feedback loop: “Institutions polarize to appeal to a more polarized public, which further polarizes the public, which forces the institutions to polarize further, and so on” (136-7). Today’s post finishes up a point I wanted to make about polarizing identities. Next week and the week after, Parts 3 and 4 will move on to the stuff on institutions.]

In last week’s post about Why We’re Polarized, I wrote about Ezra Klein’s case for sorting as a kind of identity convergence. Here’s a summary in his words: “Today, the parties are sharply split across racial, religious, geographic, cultural, and psychological lines. There are many, many powerful identities lurking in that list, and they are fusing together, stacking atop one another, so a conflict or threat that activates one activates all” (136). I concluded by noting that I’m particularly interested in the practical upshots of the geographic aspect of identity convergence. I live in a liberal enclave, and I’ve often wondered what kinds of moral reasons I might have to leave it. I’ve wondered how strong those reasons are relative to the self-interested reasons I have to live wherever I most prefer to live. Remember that Klein compared identity convergence to stacking magnets on top of one another, “so the pull-push force of that stack is multiplied” (47-8). I’m struck by the fact that, in his discussion of practical upshots, he doesn’t raise the possibility that we have some personal obligations to shuffle up our own magnets.
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Sunday photoblogging: Llandudno

by Chris Bertram on May 29, 2022



Why We’re Polarized, Part 1

by Gina Schouten on May 24, 2022

I started reading Why We’re Polarized, by Ezra Klein, back in November. I’d also given a copy to my dad, proposing that we both read it and then talk about it over a beer. I have the good fortune to have a father who disagrees with me about many things, who is kind and curious, and who presumes good will, not only when he’s talking to his daughter but when he’s talking to most people who haven’t given him a pretty good reason to abandon that presumption. He is also so exceedingly gracious that he can be relied upon to read any book given to him as a gift. I really wanted to read this book with my dad, and I knew he’d follow through because he never doesn’t. What could go wrong? Me, of course.

A few chapters in, life got busy and other things more urgently needed reading. So, by the time I picked the book back up a few weeks ago, it had lain open and face down for long enough to have collected an impressive cover of dust. But, flipping back through the pages and revisiting my scribbles in the margins, I quickly remembered how much I’d been enjoying it. Quite apart from the interesting content, the skillfulness of it is thrilling. Klein reviews so much social science research in these chapters and weaves such a compelling argument from the threads of that research that he has no business also having written a book that’s engaging and painless to read. Yet he’s done just that.

The book makes the case that the U.S. political system is now characterized by a vicious feedback loop between polarizing political identities and polarizing political institutions. Over the coming weeks, I’ll write a few posts about things that struck me as I worked my way (back) through the book, and I’ll frame some questions it raised for me. First up is Klein’s origin story about the feedback loop, which involves the sorting of our various identities into camps aligned with newly differentiating political parties.

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Monday photoblogging: Ortygia

by Chris Bertram on May 23, 2022

I’ve been travelling, so wasn’t able to post the customary Sunday photo yesterday. But here’s one that I found I’d discarded a few years back.

Courtyard in Ortygia