In Two New Books, Unhappy Conservatives Ask: What Now?
To hear Max Boot tell it, he feels as forlorn as the despondent, battered elephant on the cover of his new book, “The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I Left the Right.” Boot minutely describes a disillusionment that wasn’t only “painful and prolonged” but “existential.”
Here he is — a lifelong Republican with sterling neoconservative credentials (an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq War and a champion of “American empire”) — explaining why he’s eager for the day when “the G.O.P. as currently constituted is burned to the ground.”
The scorched-earth rhetoric reflects not just a pro-war pedigree but also a profound feeling of betrayal. In the run-up to the November 2016 election, Boot was a vocal Never Trump conservative who couldn’t fathom that a “crudely xenophobic” reality television star would become the standard-bearer of the Grand Old Party, much less president of the United States. Along with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” another new volume by a Republican critic of Trump, Boot’s book attempts to answer a looming question for conservatives unhappy with the current occupant of the White House: What now?
“The Corrosion of Conservatism” does double duty as a mea culpa memoir and a political manifesto, detailing Boot’s “heartbreaking divorce” from the Republican Party after decades of unstinting loyalty. He charts a political trajectory that gave his life social and emotional meaning. As the 6-year-old son of Jewish refuseniks, Boot emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1976; at 13, he was inducted by his father into the world of “learned, worldly, elitist” conservatism with a gift subscription to National Review.
Years later, even amid the peer pressure of “Berzerkeley,” the young Republican persisted. He may have been a white man of some means, but he enjoyed seeing himself as a besieged minority.
He “loved making a bonfire” of Berkeley’s “liberal pieties” in his column in the student newspaper and trolling his peers with a “Bush-Quayle ’88” sticker on his dorm-room door. He swiftly clambered up the echelons of the conservative establishment, editing the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal by the time he was 28 and eventually advising the presidential campaigns of John McCain, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.
Those candidates all lost their bids for the highest office, but it would take Boot a while to get to where he is now — repulsed by the Republican Party’s fealty to President Trump and instructing Americans to “vote against all Republicans.” His surprisingly anguished book is peppered with so many penitential lines (“I am embarrassed and chagrined”) and so much bewildered disappointment in figures like Rubio (“I thought he was a man of principle”) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (“I had viewed him as smart, principled and brave”) that even the most die-hard leftist might be moved to hand Boot a hankie.
Not that he’s a particularly moving stylist; Boot’s clean, starched prose marches forward with all the spontaneity of a military parade (he’s uncommonly fond of words like “pusillanimous” and “japery”). But the stodginess reveals how much soul-searching it must have taken to write this candid, reflective book.
For his entire life, Boot wanted to be a good soldier. Instead he’s now in his late 40s, waking up to the historical brutality of “white identity politics” (“I have had my consciousness raised,” he says) and incredulously wondering: “How could all these eminences that I had worked with, and respected, sell out their professed principles to support a president who could not tell Edmund Burke from Arleigh Burke?”
How indeed? And Arleigh who? The confident name-dropping (of an admiral in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, natch) is quintessential Boot, who describes himself as one of the “sophisticates” of the Republican Party.
There’s something refreshing about an elite conservative owning up to being an elite conservative. The closest that Ben Sasse comes to doing the same in his new book is a cryptic recollection about how, when he and his wife lived in Chicago, they “were fortunate to be able to make ends meet.” (He was working as a management consultant at the time.)
BenSasse (B.A. from Harvard, Ph.D. from Yale) spends a great deal of “Them” honing his down-home credentials (Nascar, TGI Fridays). He emphasizes the importance of civil debate, denouncing Fox News and MSNBC, and laments the extreme partisanship that characterizes public life in the Trump era. But “the dysfunction in D.C.,” he says, stems from something “deeper than economics,” and “deeper and more meaningful” than politics. “What’s wrong with America, then, starts with one uncomfortable word,” he writes. “Loneliness.”
He shores up his argument by referring to scholars of social isolation like Robert Putnam and Eric Klinenberg — though the socially conscious Klinenberg (with his emphasis on the crucial role of publicly funded institutions) might find it hard to recognize the conclusions Sasse has drawn from his work. Community, Sasse says, is fostered by individual acts of charity and fellow-feeling; government does what it needs to do when it gets out of the way. “Citizens in a republic must cultivate humility,” he writes in a section titled “Civics 101.” It’s “the only way to preserve sufficient space for true community and for meaningful, beautiful human relationships.”
This is standard conservative stuff; a little cloying in the delivery, sure, but not shocking. After all, Sasse — who regularly boasts about having one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate — doesn’t have a responsibility to become a Democrat in the Trump era, much less satisfy Boot’s desire for a politician who can “make centrism sexy.” (I had to laugh before I cringed.) Even Sasse’s ability to sentimentalize “rootedness” in little communities in one breath and welcome the “uberization” of existing industries in the other can be chalked up to an old strain of techno-optimism among business-friendly conservatives.
What’s curious, then, is not so much the careful avoidance of politics — politicians are really good at this — but Sasse’s repeated assertions that political solutions are meaningless. “Ultimately, it’s not legislation we’re lacking,” he writes. Public servants like him “simply need to allow the space for communities of different belief and custom to flourish.” It’s a pretty idea, though anyone familiar with how “belief and custom” have long propped up local prejudices (Jim Crow being a glaring example) knows that there’s nothing simple about it.
As he did in his previous book, “The Vanishing American Adult,” Sasse talks a lot about the importance of “meaningful work,” yet he has chosen to be a United States senator, spending five days a week away from his family back in Nebraska in order to do whatever it is he does in Washington — which is what? Apparently vote with Trump close to 90 percent of the time and help his party try to bulldoze health care legislation and tax cuts through Congress, keeping crucial details secret until the last minute — all the while writing a book that solemnly proclaims the necessity of respectful debate and “engaging ideological opponents.”
“Our occupation links us to other people and gives us an identity and a sense of meaning,” Sasse muses, before waxing lyrical about a bedbug exterminator. For all his paeans to other people’s jobs, you might begin to wonder what the senator makes of his own.
On 29 July 2018, about 1,500 people gathered at the historic Padang Kelab Sultan Sulaiman in Kuala Lumpur, rallying to defend the status of ‘Malay Muslim rights’ under the theme of ‘Himpunan Kebangkitan Ummah’ (Ummah Awakening Gathering). The rally was intended to stimulate a siege mentality and anxiety among Malay Muslim, as they are facing multiple ‘threats’ from so-called minorities, ranging from the LBGT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, Chinese-language education groups, Hindu pressure groups, Shia, and ‘liberal Muslims’ as well.
The habitual hand kissing Dr. Rais Yatim cum Grasshopper ex-UMNO Minister
With UMNO Youth chief and former minister Asyraf Wajdi Dusuki, PAS secretary-general Takiyuddin Hassan, Bersatu member and former veteran minister Rais Yatim (pic,above) as well as representatives from NGOs such as ISMA (Malaysian Muslim Solidarity), ABIM (Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement) and GAPENA (Gabungan Persatuan Penulis Nasional) attending, this rally hoped for broader Malay audiences beyond the conventional Islamist-minded groups. Yet as I observed at the rally, the participants were mainly PAS supporters, and some were mobilised by ISMA. There was no mobilisation of the crowd by UMNO, ABIM, and Malay-language groups such as GAPENA.
While using an Islamic-inflected theme, ‘Himpunan Kebangkitan Ummah’, the key issue was not a religious one at the rally but a language one. It was about rejecting the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) government’s proposed recognition of the United Examination Certificate (UEC), a standardised test for the independent Chinese high school sector in Malaysia. Besides the UEC, the rally also made issues of LGBT visibility and their rights, the polemics surrounding controversial Indian Muslim preacher Zakir Naik, as well as the perceived dominant role of the DAP in the PH government.
To some extent, the UEC is to Malaysian Chinese as the Hudud issue is to Malay Muslims. Many Malaysians Chinese support or at least will not object to the UEC’s recognition, but few have gone through such a system. Malaysian Chinese support for independent Chinese high schools is not just about an endorsement of such school curriculums, just as Malay Muslim support of Hudud laws is not always about agreement to enforce Hudud punishments.
In the past, PAS has used the call for stricter implementation of Islamic laws as a weapon to ‘out-Islamise’ UMNO. Today, the contestation in political Islam is much more complicated with UMNO, PAS and Amanah (to a lesser extent, Keadilan, Bersatu dan Islamic NGOs) competing against each other. The recognition of the UEC has been always raised by DAP to attack MCA for not being able to campaign Chinese issues. Hudud and the UEC entail identity politics over who can best represent the interests of ‘Malay Muslims’ and ‘Chinese communities’.
The strong anti-UEC stand taken by PAS has fed the perception that the Islamist party has become increasingly ‘Malay-oriented’, helping pave ways for the party to work more closely with UMNO. Newly-elected UMNO youth chief Asyraf Wajdi supported PAS leader Hadi Awang’s controversial ‘Hudud Bill’ when he was the Deputy Minister in charge of religious affairs during the Najib era. ISMA, one of the key players in the Ummah rally, is like a combination of UMNO and PAS, campaigning for both Malay supremacy and an Islamist agenda at the same time.
A potential alliance of UMNO-PAS-ISMA is in the making, yet it is uncertain whether such cooperation will be further consolidated, as there are different opinions within each of them, as well as the ongoing hostile relations between UMNO and PAS members.
The speakers at the rally spoke on different issues with different tones, and not all of them are outright racists nor narrow Islamists. Bersatu’s Rais Yatim, the veteran former senior Mahathir minister, as well as representatives from ABIM and GAPENA, focused on the UEC. They were not necessarily supporting PAS, UMNO or ISMA, but they joined the rally to express their disagreement on the UEC.
Indeed, the ABIM leader was the most ‘moderate’ speaker at the day – he did not raise any issue to stir Malay Muslim insecurities. He also reaffirmed his support for vernacular primary schools in Mandarin and Tamil, yet he objected to UEC recognition, seeing such recognition as undermining national language policy and the status of the Malay language. IKRAM, another important Islamic organisation, was absent from the rally – it had given its qualified support for UEC recognition, with a list of conditions. Unlike ISMA, both ABIM and IKRAM (Malaysian IKRAM Association) are PH-friendly Muslim NGOs.
The leaders from PAS and its student wing, GAMIS (Gabungan Mahasiswa Islam Se-Malaysia), besides harping on the UEC, also took up other issues related to the LGBT, Shia, and liberal Muslim communities to attack the new coalition’s leadership. For example, Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq was attacked for being ‘hedonist’ and ‘pro-liberal’, while Education Minister Dr. Maszlee Malik was too ‘apologetic’ and “pro-DAP”. The new Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Rawa was criticised for “not defending Zakir Naik” and for having “compromised on LGBT issues”. PAS leaders tried through these criticisms to portray a more ‘Islamic’ image compared with Pakatan’s Muslim leaders.
ISMA leaders set a more exclusionary tone, in speeches such as “if Pakatan Harapan is dominated by DAP, we will bring down PH (Pakatan Harapan), as how we fought the British colonial power”. Such statements indirectly portrayed Malaysian Chinese as “foreigners” who were trying to take power from the “native” Malays. Most of the attention-grabbing placards with slogans such as ‘Pertahan Identiti Negara’ (Defend the Identity of our State), ‘Islam dan Melayu, Identiti Negara’ (Islam and Malay, Identity of our State) and ‘Malaysia Tanah Melayu’ (Malaysia, Malay Land) were prepared and held up at the rally by ISMA members. Some PAS participants felt uneasy with such ultra-exclusionary messages.
Very few Malay Muslims in Malaysia are outright racists or narrow Islamists. But a significant portion of them view Islam as their core identity (whatever this implied). And some worry that the increasing usage of the Chinese language might challenge the status of Malay as the national language.
Similarly, some fear that the LGBT community’s allegedly increased visibility might undermine the role of Islam as Malaysia’s official religion. The more Muslims openly support LGBT rights and the more Malays speak Mandarin, the more some Malay Muslims want to more strictly define what constitutes Malayness and Islamness.
In other words, the increasingly political fragmentation and cultural diversification of Malay Muslims have led some of them to create a sense of ‘Malay unity’ by drawing stricter boundaries between what they perceive as ‘Islamic’ and ‘un-Islamic’ and between who they see as ‘Malay’ and ‘non-Malay’.
The makings of religious, sexual and racial others (for example, liberal Muslims, LGBT and Malaysian Chinese) are central for them to consolidate ‘Malay Muslim identity’, and to create a sense of certainty amidst uncertainties. Hence, it is insufficient to analyse Malay anxiety as only a result of political competition or religious conservatism, without looking into the rapid socio-cultural changes experienced by Malay Muslims.
Instead of addressing various socio-economic issues faced by Malay Muslims, some politically-motivated groups stir up Malay anxiety, creating a perception that they are representing ‘Malay Muslims’ and manipulating public opinions for their political interests. Such patterns are similar to “Aksi Bela Islam” (Defending Islam Action) in Indonesia, using the banner of “defending Islam” to mobilise political support. Such political mobilisations have forced both Malaysian and Indonesian governments to contain them.
In Malaysia, some PH leaders are containing its critics by taking a conservative stand, as shown in the government handling of LGBT-related issues. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has selected a conservative cleric as his running-mate for next year’s presidential election, to counter Islamist mobilisation of his opponents. Such containments could prevent the more exclusionary parties from taking political power, yet at the same time might sustain the ‘conservative turn’ and potentially alienate some minority groups.
It has become commonplace to hear cries on the left to deny controversial figures on the right a platform to express their views. Colleges have disinvited speakers such as Condoleezza Rice and Charles Murray. Other campuses were unwilling or unable to allow conservative guests to actually speak, with protests overwhelming the events.
For several years now, scholars have argued that the world is experiencing a “democratic recession.” They have noted that the movement of countries toward democracy has slowed or stopped and even, in some places, reversed. They also note a general hollowing out of democracy in the advanced, industrial world. When we think about this problem, inevitably and rightly we worry about President Trump, his attacks on judges, the free press and his own Justice Department. But there is also a worrying erosion of a core democratic norm taking place on the left.
It has become commonplace to hear cries on the left to deny controversial figures on the right a platform to express their views. Colleges have disinvited speakers such as Condoleezza Rice and Charles Murray. Other campuses were unwilling or unable to allow conservative guests to actually speak, with protests overwhelming the events.
A similar controversy now involves Stephen K. Bannon, who, in recent months, has been making the rounds on the airwaves and in print — including an interview I did with him on CNN. Some have claimed that Bannon, since leaving the administration, is simply unimportant and irrelevant and thus shouldn’t be given a microphone. But if that were the case, surely the media, which after all is a for-profit industry, would notice the lack of public interest and stop inviting him.
The reality is that the people running the Economist, the Financial Times, “60 Minutes,” the New Yorker and many other organizations that have recently sought to feature Bannon know he is an intelligent and influential ideologist, a man who built the largest media platform for the new right, ran Trump’s successful campaign before serving in the White House, and continues to articulate and energize the populism that’s been on the rise throughout the Western world. He might be getting his 15 minutes of fame that will peter out, but, for now, he remains a compelling figure.
The real fear that many on the left have is not that Bannon is dull and uninteresting, but the opposite — that his ideas, some of which can reasonably be described as evoking white nationalism, will prove seductive and persuasive to too many people. Hence his detractors’ solution: Don’t give him a platform, and hope that this will make his ideas go away. But they won’t. In fact, by trying to suppress Bannon and others on the right, liberals are likely making their ideas seem more potent. Did the efforts of communist countries to muzzle capitalist ideas work?
Liberals need to be reminded of the origins of their ideology. In 1859, when governments around the world were still deeply repressive — banning books, censoring commentary and throwing people in jail for their beliefs — John Stuart Mill explained in his seminal work, “On Liberty,” that protection against governments was not enough: “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose . . . its own ideas and practices . . . on those who dissent from them.” This classic defense of free speech, which Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes later called the “freedom for the thought that we hate,” is under pressure in the United States — and from the left.
Bannon says Trump is facing a ‘coup’. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon called the anonymous op-ed in the New York Times “a crisis” for the Trump administration.(Reuters)
We’ve been here before. Half a century ago, students were also shutting down speakers whose views they found deeply offensive. In 1974, William Shockley, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who in many ways was the father of the computer revolution, was invited by Yale University students to defend his abhorrent view that blacks were a genetically inferior race who should be voluntarily sterilized. He was to debate Roy Innis, the African American leader of the Congress of Racial Equality. (The debate was Innis’s idea.) A campus uproar ensued, and the event was canceled. A later, rescheduled debate with another opponent was disrupted.
The difference from today is that Yale recognized that it had failed in not ensuring that Shockley could speak. It commissioned a report on free speech that remains a landmark declaration of the duty of universities to encourage debate and dissent. The report flatly states that a college “cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility or mutual respect. . . . it will never let these values . . . override its central purpose. We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox.”
The report added: “We take a chance, as the First Amendment takes a chance, when we commit ourselves to the idea that the results of free expression are to the general benefit in the long run, however unpleasant they may appear at the time.” It is on this bet for the long run, a bet on freedom — of thought, belief, expression and action — that liberal democracy rests.
The so-called Islam Hadhari in Kuala Terengganu built during the Badawi Era
COMMENT | On Malaysia’s beautiful east coast, PAS is experiencing a sweet honeymoon in Terengganu. On the ground, PAS is similarly receiving the positive energy and goodwill felt in the Klang Valley towards Pakatan Harapan.
In fact, one could even argue that Dr Ahmad Samsuri Mokhtar’s leadership of Terengganu is seen as one of the most dynamic nationally at the state level. With less resistance to its leadership within the civil service, a young professional team and a focus on economic development for the state, PAS’ new government is working to establish itself. Dr Sam, as he is known, is quickly coming out of Abdul Hadi Awang’s shadow, despite being his protégé.
The challenges PAS faces in Terengganu are significant. The state’s oil and gas revenue are on the decline. UMNO seriously depleted the state funds in its mismanagement, leaving little in the coffers. The sharp disparities between the wealthier south and poorer north remain large. Some of the northern areas around Setiu are among the poorest in Malaysia.
There remains a large dependence on government assistance, with a “bantuan” mindset deeply entrenched. There is a large young population in search of jobs, and a deficit of opportunities in the marketplace. Unlike in entrepreneurial Kelantan, more Trengganuites opt to stay in their own state and this reinforces a more insular orientation and conservativism.
These factors converge on three key issues – a need for money, a need for new drivers in the local economy and a need for leadership to move the state toward greater modernity.
What will be crucial to PAS’ success in moving Terengganu forward is whether they learn the lessons associated with GE-14 and avoid their party’s mistakes of the past. The May 2018 election has striking similarities to that of 1999 when PAS won the state in the groundswell of anger against Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his local stand-in, Wan Mokhtar Ahmad, the former Chief Minister in office from 1974 to 1999.
PAS’ 2018 victory in Terengganu was decisive. Not only did they win 22 seats in the 32-seat state assembly, a large majority in the state government, they also secured six of the eight parliamentary seats. There was a swing of 8% overall toward PAS this election, which in the history of Terengganu is one of the largest swings, although not as large as that experienced elsewhere in GE-14.
A first potential mistake is to assume that this victory was a vote for PAS, rather than a vote against UMNO. Sure, the Islamic party’s grassroots did support the party, but the majority of new votes it received came courtesy of Najib Razak. Trengganuites voted strategically, for the party that was the most likely to defeat UMNO, most organised on the ground and most familiar in the risk-adverse environment.
PAS thus faces the task of giving voters a reason to continue to support it, as anger to Najib and his GST no longer serves as a lightning rod for discontent. Given the continued divisions within UMNO in Terengganu, however, PAS is in a relatively safe position, but its foundation of support remains weak.
Second, and perhaps even more important, in Terengganu, this election was not a “green tsunami”. The state’s vote was not about religion or even religious leadership. Voters were not voting for Hadi Awang, or the 2004 election slogan of “Islam for all”. The waters shaping the state’s political tide were BN blue and if there was a tsunami at all, it was a “greed tsunami” that drove Umno’s excesses at the national and state level.
This lesson is especially important for Terengganu as it is where PAS went wrong after 1999, interpreting its victory as a green light toward religious conservatism and the imposition of a restrictive religious agenda. While most Terengganuites are religiously conservative compared to many of their counterparts elsewhere in Malaysia and religion is an important part of their daily lives (which it is for most Malaysians across faiths), religion is not the main priority of voters. To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s strategist James Carville – it was the economy and to think otherwise would be stupid.
If there was an area where morals did in fact play a role, it is in the area of good governance. Terengganuites – as do most Malaysians – want a government that is not corrupt. There are residual questions involving the allegations on the use of UMNO money by PAS and the ties between the parties, which will not be cleared up with a legal case that will only serve to remind voters of this issue.
The challenge for the new PAS government will be not to return to the past when by 2004 questions were being asked about the distribution of contracts and patronage, and to make sure that the state government remains clean and different from that it kicked out of office. This will involve some clean-up within PAS itself, which will not be easy given differences within the party over contentious issues such as the relationship with Umno and management of money.
To embrace a focus on pragmatic delivery and better governance, PAS has to deal with two obstacles.
The first is within Terengganu PAS itself. This is the state where the traditional internal party struggle between the “professionals” and “ustaz” was perhaps the most acute. While these labels are no longer as relevant as they were in the past to define factions in the party (in part because many professionals are actually ustaz as well), Dr Sam’s team is now seen as the new “Young Turks” pushing for a different path within the party.
There is resistance from many older leaders to this change, especially since many of those being brought into the government and its GLCs are not from Terengganu. For now, Terengganu PAS is not focused on inclusive national governance, but on a path tied to having deliverables in the present rather than in the afterlife. The pull of conservatism within PAS in Terengganu is even stronger than the conservatism in the state itself. The question ahead is whether the older generation of leaders will give way to younger ones. Hadi Awang’s role is important in this regard.
The second obstacle for PAS is to manage the political relationships in New Malaysia. While those in Selangor focus on the UMNO-PAS relationship – it is one of the main issues in the Sungai Kandis by-election where in fact many PAS leaders (although not all) are supporting UMNO – on the East Coast, there is much greater distance between these two parties. In fact, to secure the oil royalty and the much-needed funds noted above, eyes are on Pakatan Harapan and especially the need for PAS to maintain cordial ties with Bersatu and PKR.
Terengganu PAS knows that a relationship with UMNO is no longer advantageous, and in fact would be seen negatively by many of its voters. UMNO now is a political liability and more in need of PAS than vice-versa. The status of the relationship between PAS and other parties is likely to unfold in the months ahead. There are different views and interests that point to greater distance rather than connectively between the two traditional Malay parties. The two obstacles are interconnected as what happens within PAS itself will shape who it allies itself with or whether it opts to go it alone – at least for now.
Developments in Terengganu will have national impact. This is another chance for PAS to show whether it is capable of governing, and Terengganu’s success will be directly tied to whether it can make a political comeback elsewhere. PAS remains an important national political player. Developments in the state will also reveal what its priorities are and shape relationships in New Malaysia.
For now, Terengganu PAS is capitalising on its welcome by voters, but as it moves forward, the lessons it learns and decisions it makes will determine whether Terengganu will make a turn toward a more modern future.
Dr, BRIDGET WELSH is an associate professor of political science at John Cabot University in Rome. She also continues to be a senior associate research fellow at the National Taiwan University’s Center for East Asia Democratic Studies and The Habibie Center, as well as a university fellow of Charles Darwin University. Her latest book (with co-author Greg Lopez) is titled Regime Resilience in Malaysia and Singapore. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.
The best show in town these days is the President Trump Circus. Full of tantrums, tirades and a trashy sort of political reality TV show.
But maybe the worst thing about this is that it’s encouraging others to do the same. Or even worse.
This was the idea behind a recent aticle in Politico magazine about Democrats being encouraged to think dirty because there are ‘no longer any unwritten rules in American politics’.
The trigger for this is Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court of the USA. This nomination comes after Republicans blocked President Obama’s nomination of the Chief US Circuit Judge Merrick Garland for the vacancy that existed in the last six months of Obama’s office. The Republicans then rushed Justice Gorsuch into this position as soon as Trump became President, and now Trump is getting another early pick after the resignation of Justice Kennedy.
Concern amongst Democrats is that the Supreme Court, with a majority of Republican nominees, will now swing towards conservative decisions that will support pro-life (anti-abortion), the gun-rights lobby and, dare we mention it, will refuse to support a subpoena of President Trump or follow through an impeachement process. There’s also the question of whether or not Trump can pardon himself and whether he is above the law.
Trump’s voting base, Christian Evangelicals and the white working classes in the ‘Rust Belt’ are now, no doubt, a-hollerin’ and a-hootin’ their delight.
Although America’s late night talk show hosts are also having their say:
But back to this thing about thinking dirty.
According to the Politico article, Democrats should now fight fire with fire. Amongst the suggestions:
Grant statehood to D.C., break California in seven, with the goal of adding 16 Democrats to the Senate, expand the Supreme Court and the federal courts, packing them with liberal judges, and, grant citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants, creating a host of new Democratic-leaning voters.
This last one is because “Republicans have always feared that immigration would change the character of American society. Democrats should reward them with their very worst nightmare.”
Wow. The Democrats will probably gain control of Congress after the coming mid-term elections. Will they be able to restrain themselves?
In London, in the nineteen-thirties, the émigré Hungarian intellectual Karl Polanyi was known among his friends as “the apocalyptic chap.” His gloom was understandable. Nearly fifty, he’d had to leave his wife, daughter, and mother behind in Vienna shortly after Austria lurched toward fascism, in 1933. Although he had long edited and contributed to the prestigious Viennese weekly The Austrian Economist, which published such celebrated figures as Friedrich Hayek and Joseph Schumpeter, he had come to discount his career as a thing of “theoretical and practical barrenness,” and blamed himself for failing to diagnose his era’s crucial political conflict. As so often for refugees, money was tight. Despite letters of reference from eminent historians, Polanyi failed to land a professorship or a fellowship, though he did manage to earn thirty-seven pounds co-editing an anti-fascist anthology, which featured essays by W. H. Auden and Reinhold Niebuhr. In his own contribution to the book, he argued that fascism strips democratic politics away from human society so that “only economic life remains,” a skeleton without flesh.
In 1937, he taught in adult-education programs in Kent and Sussex, commuting by bus or train and spending the night at a student’s house if it got too late to return home. The subject was British economic history, which he hadn’t much studied before. As he learned how capitalism had challenged the political system of Great Britain, the first nation in the world to industrialize, he decided that it was no accident that fascism was infecting countries as disparate as Japan, Croatia, and Portugal. Fascism shouldn’t be “ascribed to local causes, national mentalities, or historical backgrounds,” he came to believe. It shouldn’t even be thought of as a political movement. It was, rather, an “ever-given political possibility”—a reflex that could occur in any polity experiencing a certain kind of pain. In Polanyi’s opinion, whenever the profit-making impulse becomes deadlocked with the need to shield people from its harmful side effects, voters are tempted by the “fascist solution”: reconcile profit and security by forfeiting civic freedom. The insight became the keystone of his masterpiece, “The Great Transformation,” which was published in 1944, as the world was coming to terms with the destruction that fascism had wrought.
Today, as in the nineteen-thirties, strongmen are ascendant worldwide, purging civil servants, subverting the judiciary, and bullying the press. In a sweeping, angry new book, “Can Democracy Survive Global Capitalism?” (Norton), the journalist, editor, and Brandeis professor Robert Kuttner (pic above) champions Polanyi as a neglected prophet. Like Polanyi, he believes that free markets can be crueller than citizens will tolerate, inflicting a distress that he thinks is making us newly vulnerable to the fascist solution. In Kuttner’s description, however, today’s political impasse is different from that of the nineteen-thirties. It is being caused not by a stalemate between leftist governments and a reactionary business sector but by leftists in government who have reneged on their principles. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Kuttner contends, America’s Democrats, Britain’s Labour Party, and many of Europe’s social democrats have consistently tacked rightward, relinquishing concern for ordinary workers and embracing the power of markets; they have sided with corporations and investors so many times that, by now, workers no longer feel represented by them. When strongmen arrived promising jobs and a shared sense of purpose, working-class voters were ready for the message.
Born in 1886 in Vienna, Karl Polanyi grew up in Budapest, in an assimilated, highly cultured Jewish family. Polanyi’s father, an engineer who became a railroad contractor, was so conscientious that when his business failed, around 1900, he repaid the shareholders, plunging the family into genteel poverty. Polanyi’s mother founded a women’s college, hosted a salon, and had a somewhat chaotic personality that a daughter-in-law once likened to “a book not yet written.” At home, as Gareth Dale recounts in a thoughtful 2016 biography, the family spoke German, French, and a little Hungarian; Karl also learned English, Latin, and Greek as a child. “I was taught tolerance not only by Goethe,” he later recalled, “but also, with seemingly mutually exclusive accents, by Dostoyevsky and John Stuart Mill.”
After university, Polanyi helped to found Hungary’s Radical Citizens’ Party, which called for land redistribution, free trade, and extended suffrage. But he remained enough of a traditionalist to enlist as a cavalry officer shortly after the First World War broke out. At the front, where, he said, “the Russian winter and the blackish steppe made me feel sick at heart,” he read “Hamlet” obsessively, and wrote letters home asking his family to send volumes of Marx, Flaubert, and Locke. After the war, the Radical Citizens took power, but they fumbled it. In the short-lived Communist government that followed, Polanyi was offered a position in the culture ministry by his friend György Lukács, later a celebrated Marxist literary critic.
When the Communists fell, pogroms broke out, and Polanyi fled to Vienna. “He looked like one who looks back on life, not forward to it,” Ilona Duczynska, who became his wife, remembered. Duczynska was a Communist engineer, ten years younger than he was. She had smuggled tsarist diamonds out of Russia in a tube of toothpaste and once borrowed a pistol to assassinate Hungary’s Prime Minister, though he resigned before she could shoot him. She and Polanyi married in 1923 and soon had a daughter.
Karl Polanyi and Nobel Laureate in Economics Joseph E. Sitglitz
These were the days of so-called Red Vienna, when the city’s socialist government was providing apartments for the working class and opening new libraries and kindergartens. Polanyi held informal seminars on socialist economics at home. He started writing for The Austrian Economist in 1924, and he was promoted to editor-in-chief a few months before the right-wing takeover sent him into exile. Duczynska remained in Vienna, going underground with a militia, but, in 1936, she, too, emigrated, taking a job as a cook in a London boarding house. In 1940, Bennington College offered Polanyi a lectureship, and he left for Vermont, where his family soon joined him and he began to turn his lecture notes into a book. “Not since 1920 did I have a time so rich in study and development,” he wrote.
Polanyi starts “The Great Transformation” by giving capitalism its due. For all but eighteen months of the century prior to the First World War, he writes, a web of international trade and investment kept peace among Europe’s great powers. Money crossed borders easily, thanks to the gold standard, a promise by each nation’s central bank to sell gold at a fixed price in its own currency. This both harmonized trade between countries and stabilized relative currency values. If a nation started to sell more goods than it bought, gold streamed in, expanding the money supply, heating up the economy, and raising prices high enough to discourage foreign buyers—at which point, in a correction so smooth it almost seemed natural, exports sank back down to pre-boom levels. The trouble was that the system could be gratuitously cruel. If a country went into a recession or its currency weakened, the only remedy was to attract foreign money by forcing prices down, cutting government spending, or raising interest rates—which, in effect, meant throwing people out of work. “No private suffering, no restriction of sovereignty, was deemed too great a sacrifice for the recovery of monetary integrity,” Polanyi wrote.
The system was sustainable politically only as long as those whose lives it ruined didn’t have a say. But, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the right to vote spread. In the twenties and thirties, governments began trying to protect citizens’ jobs from shifts in international prices by raising tariffs, so that, in the system’s final years, it hardened national borders instead of opening them, and engendered what Polanyi called a “new crustacean type of nation,” which turned away from international trade, making first one world war, and then another, inevitable.
In Vienna, Polanyi had heard socialism dismissed as utopian, on the ground that no central authority could efficiently manage millions of different wishes, resources, and capabilities. In “The Great Transformation,” he swivelled this popgun around. What was utopian, he declared, was “the concept of a self-regulating market.” Human life wasn’t as orderly as mathematics, and only a goggle-eyed idealist would think it wise to lash people to a mechanism like the gold standard and then turn the crank. For most of human history, he observed, money and the exchange of goods had been embedded within culture, religion, and politics. The experiment of subordinating a nation to a self-adjusting market hadn’t even been attempted until Britain tried it, in the mid-eighteen-thirties, and that effort had required a great deal of coördination and behind-the-scenes management. “Laissez-faire,” Polanyi earnestly joked, “was planned.”
On the other hand, Polanyi believed that resistance to market forces, which he dubbed “the countermovement,” truly was spontaneous and ad hoc. He pointed to the motley of late-nineteenth-century measures—inspecting food and drink, subsidizing irrigation, regulating coal-mine ventilation, requiring vaccinations, protecting juvenile chimney sweeps, and so on—that were instituted to housebreak capitalism. Because such restraints went against the laws of supply and demand, they were despised by defenders of laissez-faire, who, Polanyi noticed, usually argued “that the incomplete application of its principles was the reason for every and any difficulty laid to its charge.” But what was the alternative? Once the laissez-faire machine started running, it cheerfully annihilated the people and the natural environment that it made use of, unless it was restrained.
Polanyi offered the example of the enclosure movement in sixteenth-century England, when landowners tore down villages and turned common lands into private pastures. The changes brought efficiencies that raised the land’s food yield as well as its value, in the long term improving life for everyone. Enclosure was a good thing, in other words; the numbers said so. In the short term, however, it dispossessed peasants who couldn’t immediately improvise a new living, and it was only because of a countermovement—led in piecemeal fashion by the monarchy, in a long, losing battle with Parliament—that more people didn’t die of exposure and starvation. If you argued that resistance did not compute, you would be right, but the countermovement, though it couldn’t stop progress, shielded people by slowing it down. It made enclosure so gradual that, even three centuries later, the poet John Clare was lamenting its advance in his sonnets.
In the nineteen-thirties, when Polanyi was first formulating his critique, the British economist John Maynard Keynes was likewise arguing that capitalist economies aren’t self-adjusting. The markets for labor, goods, and money, he showed, don’t find equilibriums independently but through interactions with one another that can have unfortunate, counterintuitive side effects. In hard times, economies tend to retrench, just when stimulus is most needed; the richer they get, the less likely they are to invest enough to sustain their wealth. During the Depression, Keynes made the case that governments should deficit-spend their way out of recessions. By the time Polanyi’s book was published, the Keynesian view had become orthodoxy. For the next few decades, the world’s leading economies were tightly managed by their governments. America’s top marginal tax rate stayed at ninety-one per cent until 1964, and anti-usury laws kept a ceiling on interest rates until the late seventies. The memory of the financial chaos of the thirties, and of the fascism that it gave rise to, was still vivid, and the Soviet Union loomed as an alternative, should the Western democracies fail to treat their workers well.
In terms of international monetary systems, too, Keynesianism held sway. In 1944, at the Bretton Woods Conference, Keynes helped to negotiate a way of harmonizing exchange rates that gave national governments enough elbow room to boost their domestic economies when necessary. Only America continued to redeem its currency with gold. Other nations pegged their currencies to the dollar (making it their reserve currency), but they were free to adjust their currencies’ values within limits when the need arose. Countries were allowed, and sometimes even required, to impose capital controls, measures that limited the cross-border flow of investment capital. With investors unable to yank money suddenly from one country to another, governments were free to spur growth with low interest rates and to spend on social programs without fear that inflation-averse capitalists would sell off their nations’ bonds. So weak was the political power of investors that France, Britain, and America let inflation shrink the value of their war debts considerably. In France, the economist Thomas Piketty has quipped, the period amounted to “capitalism without capitalists.”
The result—highly inconvenient for free-market fundamentalists—was prosperity. In the three decades following the Second World War, per-capita output grew faster in Western Europe and North America than ever before or since. There were no significant banking or financial crises. The real income of Europeans rose as much as it had in the previous hundred and fifty years, and American unemployment, which had ranged between fourteen and twenty-five per cent in the thirties, dropped to an average of 4.6 per cent in the fifties. The new wealth was widely shared, too; income inequality plummeted across the developed world. And with the plenty came calm. The economic historian Barry Eichengreen, in his new book, “The Populist Temptation” (Oxford), reports that in twenty advanced nations no populist leader—which he defines as a politician who is “anti-elite, authoritarian, and nativist”—took office during this golden era, and that a far narrower share of votes went to extremist parties than before or after.
“This was the road once taken,” Kuttner writes. “There was no economic need for a different one.” Nevertheless, we strayed—or, rather, in Kuttner’s telling, we were driven off the road after capitalists grabbed the steering wheel away from the Keynesians. The year 1973, in his opinion, marked “the end of the postwar social contract.” Politicians began snipping away restraints on investors and financiers, and the economy returned to spasming and sputtering. Between 1973 and 1992, per-capita income growth in the developed world fell to half of what it had been between 1950 and 1973. Income inequality rebounded. By 2010, the real median earnings of prime-age American workingmen were four per cent lower than they had been in 1970. American women’s earnings rose for a bit longer, as more women made their way into the workforce, but declined after 2000. And, as Polanyi would have predicted, faith in democracy slipped. Kuttner warns that support for right-wing extremists in Western Europe is even higher today than it was in the nineteen-thirties.
But was Keynesianism pushed, or did it stumble? Kuttner’s indignation about its fall from grace is more straightforward than the course of events that led to it. In the years following the Second World War, Europe was swimming with dollars, thanks to the Marshall Plan and American military aid to Europe. Beyond America’s jurisdiction, those dollars slipped free of its capital controls, and in the nineteen-sixties investors began to sling them from country to country as impetuously as in the days before Bretton Woods, punitively dumping the bonds of any government that tried to run an interest rate lower than those of its peers. The cost of the Vietnam War sparked inflation in America, and the dollar’s second life as the world’s reserve currency risked pushing the inflation even higher. When America fell into recession in 1970, the Federal Reserve tried to boost the country out of it by dropping interest rates, and America became a target of opportunity for speculators: capital fled the country, taking gold with it. By May, 1971, the United States was facing its first merchandise trade deficit since 1893, an indication that the high dollar was discouraging foreign buyers. Unwilling to pacify investors by inflicting austerity on voters, President Richard Nixon uncoupled the dollar from gold, ending the Bretton Woods agreement. Then, in October, 1973, Arab nations, upset about America’s solidarity with Israel during the Yom Kippur War, embargoed oil sales to the United States, and the price of crude nearly quadrupled in the space of three months. Food prices skyrocketed, and, as wallets were pinched, the country tumbled into another recession.
At this juncture, a new economic monster appeared: stagflation, a chimera of inflation, recession, and unemployment. Keynesian economists, who didn’t think that high unemployment and inflation could coëxist, were at a loss for how to handle it. The predicament provided an opening for their critics, most notably Milton Friedman, who argued that incessant government stimulation of the economy risked promoting not only inflation but the expectation of inflation, which could then spiral out of control. Friedman declared Keynesianism discredited and demanded that the government refrain from tampering with the economy, other than to manage the money supply.
In 1974, Alan Greenspan, President Gerald Ford’s economic adviser and an acolyte of Ayn Rand, likewise urged resisting political pressure to help the economy grow. “Inflation is our domestic public enemy No. 1,” Ford declared, and the Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Five years later, when a revolution in Iran set off a second spike in oil prices, a new round of inflation, and yet another recession, President Jimmy Carter’s Federal Reserve chair, Paul Volcker, raised interest rates again and again, to as high as twenty per cent. By 1982, America’s G.D.P. was shrinking 2.2 per cent a year, and unemployment was higher than it had been since the Great Depression. The nation had gone back to stabilizing its currency the old-fashioned way—by throwing people out of work—and utopian faith in self-regulating free markets had made a comeback. Kuttner thinks that this was a terrible mistake, arguing that the inflation of the seventies was limited to particular sectors of the economy such as food and oil. That sounds a little like special pleading. It’s not clear how Ford and Carter could have resisted the pressure they were under to find a new policy solution once it was clear that the old one wasn’t working.
In time, Keynesians adapted their models—one adjustment took into account Friedman’s discovery of the dangers posed by the expectation of inflation—and the resulting synthesis, New Keynesianism, is now canonical. Both the Bush and the Obama Administrations adopted Keynesian policies in response to the financial crisis of 2008. But when stagflation flummoxed the Keynesians it cost them their near-monopoly on political advice-giving, and laissez-faire was rereleased into the political sphere. In January, 1974, the United States removed constraints on sending capital abroad. A 1978 Supreme Court decision overturned most state laws against usury. By the early twenty-first century, Kuttner charges, every New Deal regulation on finance was either “repealed or weakened by non-enforcement.” Starting in the eighties, developing nations found free-market doctrine written into their loan agreements: bankers refused to extend credit unless the nations promised to lift capital controls, balance their budgets, limit taxes and social spending, and aim to sell more goods abroad—an uncanny replica of the austerity terms enforced under the gold standard. The set of policies became known as the Washington Consensus. The idea was pain in the short term for the sake of progress in the long term, but a 2011 meta-analysis was unable to find statistically significant evidence that the trade-off is worth it. Even if it is worth it, Polanyi would have recommended tempering the short-term pain. From 2010, when austerity measures were first imposed on Greece, to 2016, its G.D.P. declined 35.6 per cent, according to the World Bank. A federally appointed panel is now pushing for a similar approach in Puerto Rico.
There is no shortage of villains in Kuttner’s narrative: financial deregulation; supply-side tax cuts; the decline of trade unions; the Democratic Party, which, by zigging left on identity politics and zagging right on economics, left conservative white working-class voters amenable to Donald Trump. Perhaps the most vexed issue Kuttner discusses, however, is trade policy—whether American workers should be protected against cheap foreign goods and labor.
The contours of the problem call to mind Polanyi’s account of enclosures in early-modern England. Half an hour with a supply-and-demand graph shows that free trade is better for every nation, developed or developing, no matter how much an individual businessperson might wish for a special tariff to protect her line of work. In a 2012 survey, eighty-five per cent of economists agreed that, in the long run, the boons of free trade “are much larger than any effects on employment.” But although free trade benefits a country over all, it almost always benefits some citizens more than—and even at the expense of—others. The proportion of low-skilled labor in America is smaller than in most countries that trade with America; economic theory therefore predicts that international trade will, on aggregate, make low-skilled workers in the United States worse off. The U.S. government has, since 1962, compensated workers laid off because of free trade, but the benefit has never been adequate; only four people were certified to receive it during its first decade. In a 2016 paper, “The China Shock,” the economists David H. Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon H. Hanson wrote that, for every additional hundred dollars of Chinese goods imported to an area, a manufacturing worker is likely to lose fifty-five dollars of income, while gaining only six dollars in government help.
In a laissez-faire utopia, dislodged workers would relocate or take jobs in other industries, but workers hurt by rivalry with China are doing neither. Maybe they don’t have the resources to move; maybe the flood of Chinese-made goods is so extensive that there are no unaffected manufacturing sectors for them to switch into. The authors of “The China Shock” calculate that, between 1999 and 2011, trade with China destroyed between two million and 2.4 million American jobs; Kuttner quotes even higher estimates. NAFTA, meanwhile, lowered the wage growth of American high-school dropouts in affected industries by sixteen percentage points. In “Why Liberalism Failed” (Yale), the political scientist Patrick J. Deneen denounces the assumption that “increased purchasing power of cheap goods will compensate for the absence of economic security.”
Kuttner follows Polanyi in attacking free-market claims of mathematic purity. “Literally no nation has industrialized by relying on free markets,” he writes. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton recommended that America encourage new branches of manufacturing by taxing imports and subsidizing domestic production. Even Britain, the world’s first great champion of free trade, started off protectionist. Kuttner believes that America stopped supporting its manufacturing sector partly because it got into the habit, during the Cold War, of rewarding foreign allies with access to American consumers, and eventually decided that exports of financial services, rather than of manufactured goods, would be the country’s future. Toward the end of the century, as American manufacturers saw the writing on the wall, they shifted production abroad.
Kuttner doesn’t give a full hearing to the usual reply by defenders of laissez-faire, which is that a transition from goods to services is inevitable in a maturing economy—that the efficiency of American manufacturing means that it would likely be shedding workers no matter what the government did. Even Eichengreen, a critic of globalization, notes, in “The Populist Temptation,” that, if you graph the share of the German workforce employed in manufacturing from 1970 to 2012, you see a steady, grim decline very similar to that of its American counterpart, despite the fact that Germany has long spent heavily on apprenticeship and vocational training. The industrial revolution created widely shared wealth almost magically at its dawn: when an unemployed farmworker took a job in a factory, his power to make things multiplied, along with his earning power, without his having to learn much. But, as factories grew more efficient, fewer workers were needed to run them. One study has attributed eighty-seven per cent of lost manufacturing jobs to improved productivity.
When a worker leaves a factory, her power to create wealth stops being multiplied. The only way to increase it again is through education—by teaching her to become a sommelier, say, or an anesthesiologist. But efficiency gains are notoriously harder to come by in service industries than in manufacturing ones. There are only so many leashes a dog walker can hold at one time. As a result, if an economy deindustrializes without securing a stable manufacturing core, its productivity may erode. The dynamic has caused stagnation in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, and there are signs of a comparable weakening of America’s earning power.
Meanwhile, in the factories that remain, machines have grown more complex; the few workers they employ need to be better educated, further widening the gap between educated and uneducated workers. Kuttner dismisses this labor-skills explanation for job loss as an “alibi” with “an insulting subtext”: “If your economic life has gone to hell, it’s your fault.” This is intemperate but, in Kuttner’s defense, he has been warning American politicians to protect manufacturing jobs since 1991, and has been enlisting Polanyi in the cause for at least as long. Moreover, he has a point: to talk about productivity-induced job loss when challenged to explain trade-induced job loss is to change the subject. Economists estimate that advances in automation explain only thirty to forty per cent of the premium that a college degree now adds to wages. And though Eichengreen is right about manufacturing’s declining share of the German workforce, it still stood at twenty per cent in 2012, which is roughly where the American share stood three decades earlier, and the German decline has been less steep. Somehow, Germany’s concern for its manufacturing workforce made a difference.
In any case, if one’s concern is populism, it may not matter whether jobs have been lost to trade competition or to automation. In areas where more industrial robots have been introduced, one analysis shows, voters were more likely to choose Trump in 2016. According to another analysis, if competition with Chinese imports had been somehow halved, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would likely have chosen Hillary Clinton that year. Economic explanations like these have been challenged. In April, the political scientist Diana C. Mutz published a paper finding that Trump voters were no more likely than Clinton ones to have suffered a personal financial setback; she concluded that Trump’s victory was more likely caused by white anxiety about loss of status and social dominance. But it’s not surprising that Trump voters weren’t basing their decisions on their personal circumstances, because voters almost never do. And Mutz’s own results showed that the factors most likely to lead to a Trump vote included pessimism about the economy and preferring Trump’s position on China to Clinton’s. It may not be possible to untangle economic anxiety and a more tribal mind-set.
Casting about for a Polanyi-style countermovement to temper the ruthlessness of laissez-faire, Kuttner doesn’t rule out tariffs. They’re economically inefficient, but so are unions, and, for a follower of Polanyi, efficiency isn’t the only consideration. A decision about a nation’s economic life, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik writes, in “Straight Talk on Trade” (Princeton), “may entail trading off competing social objectives—such as stability versus innovation—or making distributional choices”; that is, deciding who gains at whose expense. Such a decision should therefore be made by elected politicians rather than by economists. America imposed export quotas on Japan in the seventies and eighties, to the alarm of headline writers at the time: “Protectionist Threat,” the Times warned. But Rodrik, looking back, judges the measures to have been reasonable ad-hoc defenses—“necessary responses to the distributional and adjustment challenges posed by the emergence of new trade relationships.”
Trump’s chief trade negotiator served on the Reagan team that administered quotas against Japan. A similar approach today, however, seems unlikely to work on China, whose economy is much more messily enmeshed with America’s. You probably can’t name as many Chinese brands as Japanese ones, even though you probably buy more Chinese-made products, because they are sold to Americans by American companies. American workers may wish they had been shielded from the effects of trade with China, but American businesses, by and large, don’t. Perhaps that’s why Trump has escalated from a tariff on steel and aluminum to erratic threats of a trade war. To achieve his campaign goal of bringing manufacturing jobs home from China, he will have to not only impose tariffs but also convince multinationals that the tariffs will stay in place beyond the end of his Administration. Only then will executives calculate that they can’t just wait it out—that they have no choice but to incur the enormous costs and capital losses of abandoning investments in China and making new ones here. It’s hard to imagine such a scheme working, unless Trump establishes a political command over the private sector not seen in America since the forties. That can’t be ruled out, given the state of affairs in Russia, China, Hungary, and Turkey, but it seems more likely that Trump’s bluster will merely motivate businesses to be deferential to him, in pursuit of favorable treatment.
“Basically there are two solutions,” Polanyi wrote in 1935. “The extension of the democratic principle from politics to economics, or the abolition of the democratic ‘political sphere’ altogether.” In other words, socialism or fascism. The choice may not be so stark, however. During America’s golden age of full employment, the economy came, in structural terms, as close as it ever has to socialism, but it remained capitalist at its core, despite the government’s restraining hand. The result was that workers shared directly in the country’s growing wealth, whereas today proposals for fostering greater financial equality hinge on taxing winners in order to fund programs that compensate losers. Such redistributive measures, Kuttner observes, are only “second bests.” They don’t do much for social cohesion: winners resent the loss of earnings; losers, the loss of dignity.
Can we return to an equality in workers’ primary incomes rather than to one brought about by secondary redistribution? In a recent essay for the journal Democracy, the Roosevelt Institute fellow Jennifer Harris recommends reimagining international trade as an engine for this rather than as an obstacle to it. When negotiating trade deals, for instance, governments could make going to bat for multinationals conditional on their agreeing to, say, pay their workers a higher fraction of what they pay executives.
Failing that, we’d be better off with redistributive programs that are universal—parental leave, national health care—rather than targeted. Benefits available to everyone help people without making them feel like charity cases. Kuttner reports great things from Scandinavia, where governments support workers directly—through wage subsidies, retraining sabbaticals, and temporary public jobs—rather than by constraining employers’ power to fire people. “We won’t protect jobs,” Sweden’s labor minister recently told the Times. “But we will protect workers.” Income inequality in Scandinavia is lower than here, and a larger proportion of citizens work. Maybe a government can insure higher pay for its workers by treating them as if they were, in and of themselves, valuable. True, Denmark’s spending on its labor policies has at times risen to as high as 4.5 per cent of its G.D.P., more than the share America spends on defense, and studies show that diverse countries such as ours find it harder to muster social altruism than more racially and culturally homogenous ones do. Nonetheless, programs like Social Security and Medicare, instituted when a communitarian ethic was still strong in American politics, remain popular. Why not try for more? It might make sense even if the numbers don’t add up. ♦