From the category archives:

US Politics

I was reading a book on migration ethics recently – I may write a review later 1 — and it reminded me how a certain picture of the normal liberal state and its place in the world figures in a lot of political philosophy. Although the normative arguments are supposedly independent of historical facts, history is to be found everywhere, but only in a highly selective version that reflects the dominance of the United States within the discipline and the prominence of prosperous white liberals as both the writers of the important texts and as the readers and gatekeepers. 2 Their assumptions about the world and the US place in it shine through and form a "common ground" that is presupposed in much of this writing.3

In this vision, all the world is America 4 — though not one that corresponds to the actual history of the US — and the rest of the world mostly consists of little proto-Americas that will or should get there in the end (thereby echoing Marx’s dictum that the more developed country shows the less developed one a picture of its own future). This imaginary, but also not-imaginary, state is a sort-of cleaned-up and aspirational version of the actual one, cleansed of embarrassing details that are mere contingencies that detract or distract from what US liberals suppose to be its real essence or telos. Crucially, it is also considered as a basically self-contained entity, where all the important relationships are ones among people on the territory.5 It is an association of free and equal persons that has simply arisen on virgin soil. Both the actual United States and other countries fall short of this model, of course, but with time and good will wrinkles and carbuncles will be removed. 6

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The end of hope

by John Quiggin on February 9, 2022

If you want to mark the end of hope for US democracy, last weekend was as good a date as any. Both Trump and the Republican National Committee made unequivocal commitments to supporting the insurrection.

The response, on the Republican side, was much the same as in every previous step along the road to dictatorship. The usual handful of serving politicians, like Romney and Hogan (MD governor) objected, as did sometimes-Trumper Mitch McConnell, but none (not even Cheney and Kinzinger, the targets of the censure) even hinted at changing parties. A rather larger group of retired Repubs signed a statement, again failing to urge rejection of their party. Most current Repubs dodged the issue, claiming not to have read the news for a while. And, a couple of days later, it’s just about forgotten.

The result is that the overthrow of democracy has become, as far as the political culture is concerned, a routine issue of disagreement between the parties. In these circumstances, the par outcome is that the opposition party will do well in the midterm elections, and all the evidence suggests that 2022 won’t be an exception. So, unless effective legislation to prevent election subversion is passed this year, it never will be. It seems highly unlikely that reforms to the Electoral Count Act, if they pass, will be enough.

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The end of American democracy is unimaginable

by John Quiggin on January 30, 2022

I should know, I tried to imagine it.

Every few days, there’s another article pointing out the likelihood that a Democratic win[1] in the 2024 US election will be overturned, and suggesting various ways it might be prevented, none of which seem very likely to work. The best hope would seem to be a crushing Democratic victory in the 2022 midterms, which doesn’t look likely right now[2]

What I haven’t seen is anyone discussing what the US would be like after a successful Trumpist (or other Republican) coup. The closest approaches I’ve seen are “looking backwards” pieces, written from an imagined distant future when democracy or something like it have been restored.

I decided to attempt the task myself and found it very hard going. The resulting piece is over the fold. I tried a few outlets for it, and no one was interested in publishing it. So, I’m putting it out here, with all its faults.

Suggested improvements are welcome, as is serious criticism. Snarks and trolls will be deleted and permanently banned [3].

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Strangelove redux

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2021

We watched Don’t Look Up last night. Obviously satire, obviously really about our inability to act against climate change, but also about the comical inabilty of the United States to play the role it has arrogated to itself. Faced with a threat to the planet, the scientific Cassandras are blown off by a President focused on the short-term political narrative and, when they try to tell the media, relegated behind pop-trivia, goaded by lightweight news anchors, and ridiculed on twitter. When the adminstration does finally wake up to the threat from the meteor, it sabotages its own efforts in order to appease a tech-solutionist multimillionaire donor, who spies a chance to profit, with disastrous results.

As a film, it owes a lot to Dr Strangelove, with Mark Rylance, playing a kind of composite Jobs/Bezos/Musk/Thiel reprising Peter Sellers’s Werner von Braunish character and Ron Perlman taking on the Slim Pickens role. But it is the politics that interest me here, because the film accurately and savagely destroys the claim made by and for the United States of America to be a kind of universal state, able and entitled to act on behalf of humanity as a whole. A claim that has made at least since the Second World War and which continues to be implicit in the discourse of every centrist columnist at the New York Times, whose “we” is ambiguous between the US national interest and the world in general. It is, for example, in the name of this ambiguous “we” that pro-war shills are currently claiming that the US has the right, and possibly the duty, to attack Iran, whereas the US reserves the right to deny legitimacy to Russian or Chinese attacks on other countries. Team America World Police, as it were.
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Getting it wrong on the future of democracy?

by John Quiggin on December 21, 2021

As I indicated in my previous post about self-driving vehicles, I’m trying to think more about where I’ve gone wrong in my analysis of current issues and trends, hoping to improve. I got some useful comments on that issue, though nothing directly applicable to my bigger predictive failures

The most important such failure has concerned the future of democracy, where my views were characterized by clearly unjustifiable optimism (see here and here). I’ve now shifted to extreme pessimism, but I would love to be convinced I’ve overcorrected, as I have done in the past.
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Thinking the unthinkable

by John Quiggin on October 27, 2021

If the last five years have taught us anything it’s this: the fact that something being unimaginable doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen. So, it’s worth considering the prospect that Donald Trump becomes President after the 2024 election whether by getting enough votes to win the Electoral College under the current rules, or by having a Democratic victory overturned. Trump has made it clear that, in such an event, he would wish to secure at least a third term in office and perhaps a life presidency.

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Freedom from the Market

by Henry on January 26, 2021

Mike Konczal has a new book, Freedom from the Market (Bookshop.org locator, Amazon). I’ve been wanting to write about this book for a while, but first had to wait for it to come out, and then had my working life banjaxed by the madness of the last few weeks. But it is a great book that looks to remake the American debate about freedom and largely succeeds. Full disclosure: Mike is a friend of the ‘see very occasionally but like very strongly’ variety; I also read an early version of the mss and commented on it. [click to continue…]

Luck and fate in politics

by John Quiggin on January 16, 2021

There’s a lot of luck[1] in politics. If a handful of events had gone differently in 2016, we’d probably be discussing President Clinton’s second term right now. If the Brexit referendum had been held a few weeks earlier, Remain would probably have won, and David Cameron might still be PM. A few lucky breaks and Labor would have won the 2019 Australian election. And if things had gone slightly differently in Georgia (with the Repubs falling just short in the first round, then losing both runoffs), the prospects for a Biden Administration would be greatly worse than they are.

The first three of these events were unexpected wins for the Trumpist right. And while nobody much pays attention to Australia, the first two were interpreted by Trumpists as much more than lucky breaks. They fed a whole set of beliefs which built up to an expectation that, no matter how bad things looked, their side was destined (for a lot of Trumpists, divinely ordained) for victory.

It’s not surprising then, that Trump’s supporters expected victory in November, and were willing to believe, without any evidence that their victory had been stolen. But as it became more and more evident that the election results were not going to be overturned, cognitive dissonance started to set in. The options were to accept that, fairly or not, they had lost, or to embrace the apocalyptic vision of QAnon and the far right, manifested in the Capitol last week. From the polling evidence, it looks as if the Republican base split down the middle on this.

Now that the insurrection has failed, and Biden’s inauguration is about to take place, the choice gets even sharper. As those who rejected the election result and tried to overturn it are increasingly ostracised and increasingly forced to recant[2], there’s no middle ground between accepting defeat, at least this time around, and going all the way down the insurrectionist rabbit hole and into rightwing terrorism.

From the politics as usual viewpoint of someone like Mitch McConnell, the advisability of the first course of action is obvious. But to the extent that the energy of the Trumpists was built on faith in inevitable victory, that may be difficult to sustain[3].

As for rightwing terrorism, it’s bound to keep on happening. The history of events like the Beer Hall Putsch shows that clownish initial failure does not guarantee defeat (no inevitability, again). We have to hope that, having been directly and personally threatened by the terrorists, the Democrats won’t shrink from the responses necessary to suppress them and the Republicans won’t be willing to defend them.

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January 6

by Henry on January 8, 2021

Elizabeth Saunders and I have a piece in the Washington Post. Behind a paywall, but the nub of the argument below the fold. [click to continue…]

Election Day in the US

by Harry on November 3, 2020

In 2016 I was blithely confident that Clinton would win right up till about the last 3 or 4 days. It wasn’t exactly because I believed the polls: I just couldn’t really believe that swing voters would vote for someone as manifestly nasty and ill-suited to office as Trump. Previous Presidents during my time in the States were not manifestly nasty, and whereas I assume that Nixon was, he was also obviously capable of doing the job, and anyway those were different times. I understood perfectly well, because Nate Silver kept insisting on it, that statistically there was a non-trivial chance that Trump would win. But I didn’t believe that enough of my new compatriots were either reckless or vicious enough to make him President.

Then, in the final few days, I became uneasy. (I think this unease informs the post that I made on election eve, which I thought was lighthearted and optimistic, but which my daughter interpreted as a prediction that Trump would win). Sure, there was the intervention by a major government agency attempting to influence the outcome. But what made me feel worse were i) noticing that my Republican, but previously never-Trumpish, relatives seemed to have become Stepford Wives/Husbands and ii) observing the complete lack of energy that students on campus seemed to have around the election. On the day itself, from the moment I walked to my office, I just felt dread.

Last week a 22-year-old told me that her best friend has thanked her to making her vote in 2016. Her friend had still not voted by 30 minutes before the polls closed, and K told her she had to go, that it would only take a minute, and that an election isn’t over till its over. Her friend says that, given that Trump won Wisconsin, she would never have forgiven herself if she hadn’t voted against him in her first election.

This time around? Well the previously never-Trumpish relatives are still in Stepford. And while I spend most of most working days on campus, its a very lonely place — I never see colleagues, and the students are sparse. Even so the early polling stations that were up over the past couple of weeks were full of students voting whenever I passed (often at not-at-all peak times). I predict that on my campus the student vote will be very high indeed. My instagram feed is packed with students and former students urging their friends and family to vote, telling them exactly how to do it, and for whom to vote. Even the young Sanders enthusiasts whose friends were anxious that they would not vote for Biden have fallen into line. Whereas in 2016 Nate Silver was constantly emphasizing how likely a Trump win was despite the polls and his own model’s projection; in the last few weeks he has constantly been emphasizing how unlikely a Trump win is despite the polls and his own model’s projection.

I hope you all have a plan. Good luck, everyone.

The Supreme Court and Normcore

by Henry on September 19, 2020

After Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, we are going to see more debate over the norms on judicial nominations and whether they should be observed. The so-called “McConnell rule” – that the Senate should block Supreme Court nominations in the last year of their term to allow the people their say – is giving way to an equally fanciful McConnell exception stipulating that the rule only applies when Senate and President belong to different parties. So the question then emerges of how the Democrats should respond, if McConnell and Trump manage to get a Supreme Court nomination through, perhaps in the Senate’s lame duck session. Should they accept this or should they push back, perhaps through adding another two seats to the Court, something which is allowed under the Constitution, but that pushes back against long standing norms? [click to continue…]

Choose your own 538 adventure

by John Quiggin on September 6, 2020

Like lots of others, I’m anxiously watching forecasts of the US election outcome. But it’s hard to figure out what’s going on, with Biden way ahead in the polls, behind in the betting markets and rated a 70 per cent chance by the model at 538.com. Inspired by this post from Andrew Gelman, who is working on the Economist model (Biden currently a bit over 80 per cent), and an informative tweet from Nate Silver, I’ve managed to improve my own understanding a bit. At least I think so.

Silver’s tweet confirms that the Electoral College system gives Trump a significant advantage relative to an election by popular vote. He syas
Chance of a Biden Electoral college win if he wins the popular vote by X points:

0-1 points: just 6%!
1-2 points: 22%
2-3 points: 46%
3-4 points: 74%
4-5 points: 89%
5-6 points: 98%
6-7 points: 99%

With that information, it’s easy enough to fit a normal distribution to the margin, and get an estimate probability of winning. By fiddling with the numbers, it’s easy to replicate the 538 probability estimate and also to get a probability distribution looking fairly similar to those displayed on te site. My best estimate is N(5,4), that is, the mean value for the margin is 5 points and the standard deviation is 4. The mean value is consistent with the description of the state level estimates on the 538 site, which (very roughly speaking) take the existing polls (which currently have Biden ahead by 7.4 nationally) and then give Trump 1 point for an incumbency advantage (reducing the margin by 2 points).

Looking at the Economist model (which doesn’t necessarily agree with 538 on the exact distribution of the Electoral College advantage) it fits pretty well with N(6,3)
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On an objection to the idea of “white privilege”

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2020

The term “white privilege” has been getting a lot of play and a lot of pushback recently, for example, from Kenan Malik in this piece and there are some parallels in the writing of people like Adolph Reed who want to stress class-based solidarity over race. Often it isn’t clear what the basic objection from “class” leftists to the concept of “white privilege” is. Sometimes the objection seems to be a factual one: that no such thing exists or that insofar as there is something, then it is completely captured by claims about racism, so that the term “white privilege” is redundant. Alternatively, the objection is occasionally strategic or pragmatic: the fight for social justice requires an alliance that crosses racial and other identity boundaries and terms like “white privilege” sow division and make that struggle more difficult. These objections are, though, logically independent of one another: “white privilege” could be real, but invoking it could be damaging to the struggle; or it could be pragmatically useful for justice even if somewhat nebulous and explanatorily empty.

One particular type of argument is to deny that some white people enjoy privilege on the basis of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular. The claim is then that it is nonsensical to think of these white people as enjoying “white privilege”, or, indeed, any kind of privilege at all. But whatever the truth turns out to be about the explanatory usefulness of “white privilege”, I think these outcome-oriented assessments, sometimes based on slicing and dicing within racial or ethnic groups in ways that create artificial entities out of assemblages of demographic characteristics (white+rural+poor, for example), don’t ground a valid objection because they misconstrue what the privilege claim is about.
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Below, a review essay on Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s most recent book, “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality.” The essay tries to highlight and explain the political science arguments behind the book, and the kinds of political science research that would be needed to properly build out the agenda that the book implies. [click to continue…]

The Republican phase transition

by John Quiggin on July 20, 2020

I’ve been reading the latest (excellent as usual) book from Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality . The opening paras read

This is not a book about Donald Trump. Instead it is about an immense shift that preceded Trump’s rise, has profoundly shaped his political party and its priorities, and poses a threat to our democracy that is certain to outlast his presidency. That shift is the rise of plutocracy – government of, by, and for the rich

This passage reflects the conflict between two propositions that I (and lots of others, I think) have been grappling with
(1) The rise of Donald Trump represents a radical transformation of the Republican party and American conservatism
(2) Everything Trump has done is a continuation of long-established Republican policy and practices.

Here at CT, Corey has argued for a long time that (2) is correct, and that conservatives or, more properly, reactionaries have always been about preserving hierarchy and power. I find Corey’s argument convincing, but not enough to persuade me that (1) is wrong. Hacker and Pierson also broadly endorse (2). But much of their book is a comparison of the trajectory of the Republican Party with that of the German nationalists in the dying days of the Weimar Republic. The fact that such a comparison, until recently regarded as an automatic disqualification from serious argument (Godwin’s law) now seems entirely plausible, suggests that something really has changed.

In trying to find a way to understand this, I was struck by the idea that the concept of a phase transition (such as from liquid to gas, or dissolved solid to crystal) in physics and chemistry might be a useful metaphor. I didn’t get past high-school in science, so I may well use the metaphor inaccurately – I’m sure commenters will feel free to set me straight.

To develop the metaphor, think of the Eisenhower-era Republican party as a complicated mixture of many dissolved ingredients, in which the dominant element was the business establishment, and the Trump era party, as described by Hacker and Pierson as a crystallised mass of plutocratic economics, racism and all-round craziness. The development over the 60 years between the two has consisted of keeping the mixture simmering, while adding more and more appeals to racial animus and magical thinking (supply-side economics, climate denial, the Iraq war and so on). In this process various elements of the original mix have boiled off or precipitated out and discarded as dregs. Stretching the metaphor a bit, I’m thinking of boiling off as the process by which various groups (Blacks and Northeastern liberal Republicans in C20, liberaltarians more recently) have left the Republican coalition in response to its racism and know-nothingism. The dregs that have precipitated out are ideas that were supposed to be important to Republicans (free trade, scientific truth, classical liberalism, moral character and so on) that turned out not to matter at all.

Trump’s arrival is the catalyst seed crystal that produces the phase change. The final product of the reaction emerges in its crystallised form, and the remaining elements of the mixture are discarded.