Saturday, December 31, 2016

Neither bad nor good. Just human. Goodbye 2016


There’s a tendency in some of the reviews of 2016 which are finding their way online to praise the year as a great one.  It’s the usual form of contrariness to the oft stated maxim that 2016 has been such a terrible year, and it comes from the right of the political spectrum of course.  Because it has been a good year for “right-wingers”, no doubt about it.

But of course 2016 is neither a terrible nor a great year.  It is a year the memory of which is entirely dependent on the individual living it.  Citizens of Aleppo, or Syria generally (other than its wretched president) haven’t had a great year.  People who have suffered family or close friend bereavements haven’t had a great year.  On the other hand, weddings and births will have continued to bring pleasure to many too.  In a more general sense, citizens of western democracies are likely to have had a better year than the citizens of poor authoritarian countries such as Russia.

The purpose of a brief blog review therefore can’t possibly be to provide some sort of neat summary of the year.  What it can do is see what the year has left us politically, and whether it provides any signs of what is to come.  Which is a bad statement to make of itself since if it has done anything I guess 2016 has at least thrown up the frailty of political punditry, which has mostly been wrong even from those who may have ultimately been delighted at what has happened.

2016 hasn’t quite been the triumph of democracy that some of its enthusiastic backers are now proclaiming.  Yes, the Brexit referendum encouraged lots of people to vote – a good thing – although it provided its victors with a narrow enough margin – a mere 4% of the turn-out – to maintain the divisions that the campaign itself exposed.  In America, the scene of that other great democratic cataclysm, the ‘populist’ victor has turned out to be not quite so popular after all, winning his presidential election with a popular vote that trailed nearly 3 million or so behind the loser.  So democracy isn’t a winner here.

A certain loser could be liberalism.  Liberal nostrums have received a bashing, no doubt about it.  Liberals have been damned as establishmentarian and elitist as the newly resurgent right marauds its way across the landscape.  But even here the rhetoric disguises the reality.  There can be few more elitist people than the billionaire victor of the American presidential election, living in his gold trimmed penthouse in New York.  As if to perpetuate his elitism, his cabinet is packed with more billionaires than any cabinet in American history, his defence policy will be overseen by generals and his foreign policy by the highly elitist – and undeniably well connected – chief executive of an oil company.

In Britain, the apparently non-elitist Leave campaign was spear-headed by public schoolboys (an Old Etonian and an Old Alleynian at the two campaigns’ respective heads) and received the support of the majority of the establishment print media, edited by wealthy mandarins working for putocratic foreign-based owners for the most part.  The populist leader of the right in France, meanwhile, inherited her party from her father.  Elitism is very much in vogue, and it is on the “populist” right as much as anywhere.

Truth took a knocking though.  The Brexit campaigners paraded promises that they forsook on the day after their victory, one of their key campaigners disparaged “experts”, while the American president-elect continues to deal in fantasy even after his victory.  Facts and rational argument took back seats to fiery words, the more outrageous the better.  The reward for the fantasists has been great indeed, with one of the most prominent even gaining a $250,000 book deal from a once reputable publisher.

Internationally, Russia’s leader has played a poor hand with shrewdness, bloody-mindedness and considerable success.  The murderous thug who leads a regime of torture in Syria and has presided over a villainous civil war looks as if he has won through.  The president of Turkey has turned himself into a virtual dictator with little consequence as yet, firming up his odd foreign alliance with that other clever dictator in Russia.  The current president of America, a beacon of liberalism, leaves office with the possibility of his legacy being burned by his successor, while the Chancellor of Germany, who welcomed immigrants to her country so fulsomely, may yet be undone by the next election.

Lost of celebrities have died, but then there are lots more celebrities around.  Celebrity culture took off  around the 1960s, so it may not be surprising that its older personalities are starting to fall away.  Its younger personalities have never been noted for lifestyles that promote longer living either.  2017 is unlikely to see much of a change from that.  Meanwhile, as we mourn celebrities, unsung heroes will also pass away.  Dr Donald Henderson, who eradicated smallpox, died in 2016, receiving a public encomium finally via twitter at the end of the year.

In sum, the year has been messy and provocative.  As such, it stands little different from either its predecessor or, in all likelihood, its successor.  The means of the mess may change, but the broad thrust of flawed humanity making its ever populous way in a world it can’t mould or understand remains similar.

Happy 2017.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The importance of a vanishing class: the party member

Political parties are the heart and soul of our democratic system.  They are the crucial interface between voters and professionals, providing the space for hard-pressed volunteers who may not wish to become professionally involved in politics to nonetheless become active agents in the body politic.  They have also been facing significant decline over many years.  While there has been a slight recovery in the UK since 2013 – especially for Labour and the SNP – the overall figures are depressing. 

The website Democratic Audit estimates that only 1% of the UK population is a member of a political party.  In the 1950s, parties famously calculated their members in the millions.  The Conservatives were dominant with their 3 million or so members, but Labour garnered some 1 million too. 

Labour is now the dominant party with half of their 1950s figure – 515,000 members according to a House of Commons Library briefing.  The Conservative figure is more difficult to get hold of – many of the constituency parties  don’t file complete returns, and the party still runs quite a federalist structure with significant opposition to centralising party membership.  Nevertheless, figures published in 2013 suggest the Conservatives have a mere 149,800 members.  The Lib Dems have some 79,000 members.

Party membership decline is evident across Europe, although it remains most marked in Britain.  The Democratic Party (PD) in Italy has some 500,000 members, while the two behemoths of German politics – the CDU and SPD – have around 477,000 members each.  To that figure the CDU could add those of its ally, the separate, Bavarian only CSU party which has over 146,000 members. 

Why does this matter?  Because the health of the parties is a major indicator of the health of a representative democracy.  Parties provide a key focus of engagement for citizens.  It allows them to meet with their elected representatives, have a role in choosing them, gives them a chance to offer themselves for election at local and national levels and offers a platform to change party policies. 

This is about much more than simply attaching oneself to a single cause, as offered by the pressure groups.  This is about a full and broad involvement in the democratic process.  This is about committing to action and nailing political colours to a mast – any mast. 

Parties are the foundation stones of any representative democratic system, and they depend utterly on members for both financial resources and the all important human resources.  It should come as little surprise that a growing national disengagement with politics has been accompanied by such a decline in party memberships.   Interestingly, as the memberships get smaller, the relative importance of the remaining members gets bigger.

Labour saw a spike in numbers as a result of their leadership troubles, with the Momentum movement organising effectively to get sympathisers to join and confirm Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party.  Party memberships have always tended to be more radical than their outward-facing elected representatives, but as those memberships decline so the impact of a hard-core radical few makes even greater waves across the national party.  For Labour it has been the election of its most left-wing – and polling suggests unelectable – leader ever.  For the Conservatives, it gave euro-scepticism a crucial place in the party’s bloodstream and led to the Brexit referendum. 

Party memberships can absolutely define politics on the wider stage.  They can also make life difficult for specific representatives.  MPs may represent up to 100,000 people in their constituencies, but their attention can often be dragged towards the few who are members and office holders in their own party.   Labour’s MP for Brighton and Hove, Peter Kyle, faced serious de-stabilisation in September when one of his local members, briefly elected as Vice-Chairman, started agitating against him for not supporting Jeremy Corbyn.  Today, the deputy chairman of Loughborough Conservative Party went on the BBC’s “Sunday politics” to denounce his own MP, Nicky Morgan, for criticising Theresa May.  The two party office holders speak only for themselves, where Morgan and Kyle represent thousands of voters of differing hues, but that hasn’t stopped a brief but strong media focus on those party critics.

There are signs of a resurgence in the importance of party membership.  Labour’s spike – increasing its membership from 270,000 to 515,000 in less than a year thanks to the leadership election – is seen in other parties too.  The Liberal Democrats saw their membership rise significantly after their crushing General Election defeat, as liberal-minded voters sought to engage once again in a liberal fight-back, seen most recently in the success of Sarah Olney – a member of just one year’s standing – being elected as MP to the former Conservative held seat of Richmond Park.  The SNP saw a spike in membership after losing the independence referendum.  It is interestingly Conservative party membership which appears to have been least affected, even though its political bias has probably had the single most important impact on British politics in over 40 years.

As the importance of party members re-asserts itself, so elected representatives become more responsive.  The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley notes that Labour MPs, since the re-election of their bete noir Jeremy Corbyn as leader, have been quietly re-working their constituency parties to ensure the election of supportive office-holders.   The internet supporters of Momentum have been less inclined to go the extra mile in attending local party meetings, and as Rawnsley notes, it is at these unglamorous occasions where real power can be wielded. 

The larger the membership of a party becomes, the more it can reflect the different shades of opinion in the society from which it grows, and the more effective an interface it is between ordinary voters and the professional politicians.  A larger party base, too, increases the range of talents available to parties in selecting their elected representatives, and ultimately their leaders. 

The health of a democracy, after all, plays out in the health of its parties.  

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Fakery and Bullshit - some Trump reading

It won't be dull with President Donald Trump in the White House, with even the transition period providing plenty of comment.  Here's a few reads to keep up to date.

At the UCL Mishcon Lecture last night, Jonathan Freedland of the Guardian gave the liberal tour-de-force warning of the appalling times to come under President Trump.  More on that below, but one article he recommended is the Tony Schwartz one from the New Yorker.  Schwartz ghost-wrote the Trump book "Art of the Deal", and in a fit of buyer's remorse, as Freedland put it, came clean about the real Donald Trump.  The New Yorker piece is here.

Trump has tried to re-awaken the memory of the Republicans' favourite president of recent years, Ronald Reagan, but how good was Reagan really?  An article in Salon suggests Reagan was the most ill-informed president to ever take office, and slept through much of his presidency - read it here.  Some may indeed be wanting Trump to sleep throughout most of his presidency as well - but that would mean leaving the governing side of things to Mike Pence, Stephen Bannon and Reince Priebus, with Mike Flynn steering foreign affairs.  Hardly a recipe for calm.

Salon gave Chris Christie one of their un-coveted "Bullshitter of the Day" awards and it makes entertaining reading here, as Christie tries to persuade everyone he'd rather play out his governor's term than accept the non-existent role coming from the Trump team.

Freedland also mentioned the phenomenon of "fake news", and the Washington Post carried a great expose of it in this piece, as they interviewed two prolific - and definitely not true-believing - manufacturers of news to the gullible right. Perhaps the most eye-opening thing you'll read this week.

Oh, and that Trump victory?  Two million votes behind Clinton, as this Politico report reminds us.  Forget the "Revolution in America"; what about "A broken democracy"?

Finally the Mishcon Lecture itself, as delivered by Jonathan Freedland and attended to in person by a few of SGS's finest and brightest, can actually be accessed in glorious video here.  If you missed it, give it a watch.  Well worth an hour of any Trump sceptic's time.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Live Blog - After 3!

0445  There's no actual winner, but - in the old Nixon phrase - if present trends continue, Donald Trump will be president of the United states tomorrow.  It's not the most elevating of thoughts, but it is democracy.

0406    Has Hillary given up? (

0358  Michigan has been Democratic for 20 years, and tonight The Donald, our Donald, looks to end the reign. Currently ahead by over 40,000 votes, this will be a big win for Trump if he pulls it off. Ever divided, the room is buzzing with debate reminiscent of that between rival sports fans. Thobiyas and Smitho are still supporting Clinton to her last breath (although morale is low), and us deplorables are loving every second. Trump still looks more certain to be the President with every update.

Alex and Ben M

0356  Election night carries on at SGS. Our very own Smitho is in the first stage of grief - denial. Currently staring sadly at the MSNBC news stream, when asked who he thought would win he claimed it was 'too close to call'. Well, the rest of us have managed to call a Trump victory, much to his dismay. As Smitho tries to distract himself with talk of tomorrow's morning routine, the rest of us prepare ourselves for the nights continuous entertainment. Sutton Grammar's Trump campaign has proudly claimed new members over the night*, and we are happy that others have seen the light.

Alex and Ben M

* I think "claiming new members" is something of an over-statement; there's been an acceptance of Trump's probbaly victory, and a belief that he will be so disastrous as to possibly ruin the Republican party beyond repair in four years' time.  Parties find it more difficult to recover from a bad president than just a bad candidate!  GM

0345 Trump looks set to win. If this election has proved anything, it's that politics is the art of the possible. Today, Americans have stood up for what matters to them the most: culture, national identity, and a burning desire to dismantle the political establishment. For too long the American people have been told that their opinion does not matter; that their patriotism is a bad thing; and that their opinions are bigotry. The vote for Trump was not an ideological one, nor a supportive one, it was a big 'f*** you' to the elitist political class. Trump's success has reverted America's changing status from a grand republic to an insular oligarchy. Trump's success is a victory for democracy.

Ben M. and Alex B.

0344  So Ben Muir wants to share this:

0335  Tonight was supposed to be the night when liberal, left-leaning America cast off the chains of aggressive right-wing rhetoric and twitter-based hate campaigning . It was supposed to be the night when US citizens recognised that political experience and hard graft outweighs bare-faced lies and hyperbolic promises. Tonight is in fact the night when anti-establishmentarianism and anarchism paved the way for US voters to vote for the lesser of the two evils, and in turn elect ‘the Donald.’ Goodbye cruel world.


0331  "Politics is the art of the possible" - Mr. Bartlett quoting Machiavelli as a pretty sound insight into the apparent success of the Trump candidacy!


0330 The North West is prevailing as a Democratic stronghold. In New York for example 40.8% of the votes cast have been counted and 70.8% are for Clinton. Virginia the close race has also turned out a Democratic victory with 94% of the votes cast showing a democratic majority of 48.1%.

Trump has almost certainly going to win the Republican Midwestern stronghold and of course the George Wallace states too.

The glimmer of hope remains in Colorado 54.4% of the votes show a Democratic majority of 49%. New Mexico show a similar trend but these are states Obama won and not exactly toss up states so can we really celebrate it?   

It is becoming increasingly likely that a Trump presidency will occur. I predict a Bush 2000 victory in terms of the Electoral College votes.


0325  As the clock ticks on, it looks more certain with every second that the next POTUS will be Donald Trump. Currently he is projected 140 votes against Clinton's 104, with predictions stating that roughly 280 votes will go to Mr Trump at the end of the night, 10 more than he needs for the win. If he manages this, Clinton has very little chance of disputing the victory. Minds here at SGS have already shifted to 2020, with some of our liberal colleagues even resigning the Presidency to Trump. The current topic of conversation is Mr Marshall's prediction of a Michelle Obama candidacy in 2020, and the prediction of a landslide victory. Well, you heard it here first. Whether we think that Clinton can still make a comeback or that Trump has already won, most of us are certain of a one term Presidency for either candidate.

Still ever hopeful - Alex and Ben M

0307  So the live blog running from eastern polls closing at 12 midnight (British time) to just after 3am are below.  The next tranche begins here, but this time with the more conventional placing of the most recent updates at the top!

And as we start anew, Trump as president looks less like a fantasy and more like nightmarish reality - but a nightmare that only lasts 4 years and could draw the poison from the Republican destruction of US politics.


Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Live Blog

1158pm Of course as the clock strikes 12 Trump has gained access to his twitter, after repeated bans by his campaign team. What is he complaining about this time? Muslims, Mexicans, The poor? This time however, he has practically admitted defeat with his unsurprising allegation of voting fraud. It seems once again that if things aren't going Trump's way he shall complain again and again.


1202  I wouldn't be so sanguine at the moment, given Trump's apparent strength in New Hampshire according to exit polls.  Still time for a big upset, 2016 style!


1210  The Donald currently polling ahead in New Hampshire, suggesting Trump may yet pull ahead. First time the Republicans will win the state since 2000. Let’s go lads. Kentucky and Indiana are also looking promising, with Rand Paul winning his senatorial seat in Kentucky.

Alex and Ben M

Trump currently behind in Virginia, a vital state for a Trump victory. Hopefully he can pull it out of the bag, but this is worrying for his campaign. Updates to come.

Alex and Ben M

1216  Trump ahead 19 to 3 as of right now, a strong start for a hopeful campaign. Trump also polling ahead in Florida. If he manages to win it, he will create an upset and be set on an easy path to the white house.

Alex and Ben M

1218  Next polls to close are West Virginia, where Trump is currently polling ahead. The Donald is managing to hold on to many red states, and has already managed to flip the blue state of New Hampshire, where Democratic hopefully Bernie Sanders once maintained his stronghold. Trumps campaign must be over the moon right now. Updates about West Virginia and Florida shortly.

Alex and Ben M

1224   Getting a sense of liberal hubris as I read of Trump's strong polling in New Hampshire (an Obama win in 2012) and Virginia (crucial state, Obama's in 2012).  Could we really be in for a Brexit plus plus upset, as Trump promised??


1235  Georgia looking like a landslide victory for Trump, with The Guardian claiming nearly 75% of the vote has gone to Trump.

Alex and Ben M

1235  Toss up state North Carolina has extended its voting deadline, currently still too close to call. 

-Alex and Ben M

1236  Ok, ok, we're getting a little too excited by very small percentage reports in some sates so far.  Take Virginia - North Virginia suburbs, which could be large-scale Clinton wins, not yet in.  Georgia and South Carolina not yet reporting could also equal good news for Clinton.  But still very early, and projections are just that.


1240  Tonight is the night of opportunity.; the night of opportunity for those on the right of the spectrum to disprove the ancient code of pollsters that a high turnout amongst minorities that means a high turnout amongst Clinton voters . Trump is happy. The UK is not. South London waits with baited breath for further information about the swing state up early, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida etc.
Trump is still in this. It is going to be a late one.

Smitho x

1258  Next blue states to close polls are Michigan, Connecticut and Barack Obama's Illinois. Hoping for a red upset along with New Hampshire. #VoteTrump #MakeAmericaGreatAgain

Alex and Ben M

Trump leading in South Carolina by 10% as of right now. If we manage to win Virginia the election may be over for Clinton.

Alex and Ben M

Nearly 80% of the vote is in for Florida, which is looking to be one of the most decisive states of this election year. Clinton is 1% ahead at the moment, but it is still too close to call. This will be an interesting result, and may make or break Trump's campaign.

Alex and Ben M

Neck and neck in Florida, with the Donald under 30 votes ahead of Hillary so far. Tense as ever.

Alex and Ben M

0130  Now as we speak the votes for the crucial swing state Florida are being counted. The attack ads have been far less vicious than say Nevada, perhaps the Koch brothers believe Rubio has Florida secured, but this state is no less partisan.

60.2% of the votes have been determined and Rubio has won 51.5% of them with Murphy trailing behind at 44.9%. The liberal fuelled excitement I felt at an increasingly likely Democratic senate majority is ebbing away. Florida does not have any bearing on other swing states but it is certainly a sad occurrence.  

Let’s hope Nevada goes to the wonderful Mrs Cortez Masto, who could make history as the first Latina woman wo win a Senate seat, perhaps that would be the consolation we need in the face of Rubio’s return.


0136  Over 90% of the vote has been counted in Florida and Trump is still ahead by 1%. We're on the edge of our seats.

Alex and Ben M

0200  At this stage Donald Trump's performance is stronger than most polls would have put it, and the projected share of the electoral college vote between him and Clinton gets ever narrower.  True, there are a lot of races that are currently too close to call, but this is far from the easy win the Clintonites were expecting, if it proves to be a win at all.  Furthermore, the Senate race is not giving Democrats much cause for comfort either; their chances of gaining a small majority - pretty well essential if they want to be able to actually do any governing with a Democratic president - also seem to be receding.


0208  Florida is unfolding to be a see-saw state in the presidential elections. The leader has switched back and forth 3 times in the past 15 minutes. An absolute nail-biter, a potential heart breaker too. 

Let us move on from Florida and look at how the Senate elections are unfolding. Only three states have processed more than 50% of the votes cast. In Indiana 52.6% of the state have voted 53.2 Republican and 41.2% Democratic. In Kentucky 85.6% of the state have voted 57.5% Republican and 42.5% Democrats. It is safe to say that so far nothing is out of the ordinary.


0230 Both politics teachers at SGS  have declared Trump as the likely President Elect looking at the results so far. The Donald must be over the moon with his performance in the polls so far, especially in Florida where it was expected that he would be butchered by the Hispanic vote.

-Alex and Ben M

0235  Trump has almost won Florida, it seems pretty certain. To quote our beloved Politics head “It is Trump’s night” quite frankly. We Liberals are sad. Adam and I are easing into a depressive slump. We are questioning our lives. So where can we find solace and hope?

Well Illinois seems to be a certain Trump DEFEAT. But that is not unexpected. Florida was! It is all too early to speculate but Democratic defeat in Florida is truly upsetting and a huge blow.

Will right wing Populism prevail? I wonder how Marine Le Pen is feeling right now?


0250  I think I want Trump to win.  Clinton's victory - especially with a Republican senate - solves nothing and continues the gridlock.  Trump's victory draws the poison and allows the Democrats to regroup for a clean sweep in 2020, especially after what will be the undoubted disasters of a Trump presidency.  Bring on the Trump apocalypse!

(For a more elaborated argument see here).


0256  The Trump Train has stopped at SGS and picked up both of our Political gurus, as well as these two hopefuls. While many of our reasons for backing The Donald differ, we are currently predicting a Trump victory, and we are happy about it.

Alex and  Ben M

0305  I think Mr Marshall is right. Perhaps we liberals should be view a Trump victory as the right path to what The Economist magazine say is crucial in American politics: Republican reform. It may come at an unfortunate consequence that manifests itself in the Supreme Court. The highly commendable and inspiring Ruth Bader Ginsburg wishes to retire but will hold on if there is a Republican president and Justice Kennedy holds the all-important swing vote. Now both, to put this bluntly, may die in a Trump’s presidency and this would give Trump a chance to appoint three Supreme Court Justices (the replacement of Scalia of course). This would be devastating to liberals nationwide considering the list of potential nominees Trump and Co. have released. The potential bright side seems soured.


Tonight's the kind of night where everything may change

We're there.  Finally.  One of the most controversial and divisive presidential elections in American history is drawing to a close, and tomorrow could be the apocalypse, or just business as usual.

Admittedly, everything looks good for Hillary, but predictions in this year of all years are fragile things, to be blasted away by iconoclastic forces.  Who's to say whether or not the utterly devoted Trump supporters don't turn out in such numbers as to give him Florida and the rust belt states?  Maybe Hillary is a far greater turn off than her supporters and admirers would concede.  We could know how far into the lunatic fringe America is heading, or how much she intends to stay in the realm of normality, in about seven hours.

I have made no secret in the last few blog posts of how much I think Trump is a monstrous, appalling abomination of a candidate, or how I think Hillary's poor standing significantly under-sells her formidable strengths as a potential president.  But all of that is naught, especially for this non-American with no vote.  And yet, before the votes start rolling in, there is one final thing to note.

There has been much comment throughout this campaign, notably its latter stages, of how it is a terrible advert for democracy and a turn-off for younger voters.  We should quash this nonsense.  It is what all democratic procedures are.  Messy, reflective of the humans who involve themselves in it, frustrating and sometimes outrageous.  But it is still the way in which humans with free spirits and independent minds can demand changes in the personnel who rule them and challenge the institutions of government and legislature.  It is still the best way of regularly moving power from one leader to the next.  Messy, loud and aggressive as it is, it shines as a beacon when compared with the amoral, brutal authoritarianism of a Vladimir Putin in Russia, or the murderous actions of a President Assad in Syria, or the carefully pre-determined "elections" in the theocracy of Iran.  In too many nations the transfer of power is at the behest of those with the greatest force.  In too many nations the time when leadership changes hands is simply a time to keep your head down and hope you can avoid the fallout.

Democracy isn't meant to be smooth, but it is meant to be liberating, and like it or not this year's election in the US has been no different in that regard from its predecessors.  Long may it continue.

We are going to try and live-blog the election.  The estimable members of the SGS U6th politics set are gathering together to watch the election through the night, and if their wits are up to it they will be sharing some views on this blog.  That's the idea at any rate.  Feel free to check back in every so often to see if its working!

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Observer's Clarion Call for Sanity

The Observer used to be a fine campaigning newspaper, although it has become a little subsumed within its Guardian embrace in recent years.  Nevertheless, its editorial today provides the best, most vigorous response yet not only to the anti-High Court hysteria of last week, but also of the wider threat posed by a constitutionally blind right-wing movement across Europe.

In its dissection of the British constitution and its evolution, the editorial provides AS politics students with a masterly and concise overview.

In its attack on "the lie factories of Fleet Street", it offers a well executed broadside against the lethal exercise of power without responsibility that the mainstream press still has.

In its defence of the role of parliamentary sovereignty, it offers an articulate case for the virtues of that particular system.

In its linkage to the wider world of right-wing political extremism, from Donald Trump to the authoritarian clampdown of Turkey's President Erdogan, it offers a timely warning against the siren voices of the anti-liberals in our own country.

Finally, whether you agree with it or not, it offers a cogent critique of Theresa May's premiership so far - a premiership not yet affirmed by any general election result.

Today's Observer editorial is both a great campaigning piece and a well-articulated argument about our body politic that can be recommended to any reader, and certainly to the AS student in search of further, well-informed, debate.

What did the Brexiters actually want then?

It was a commonplace amongst Brexit campaigners that they wanted a return to the sovereignty of the British parliament.  They wanted British laws judged by British courts.  What they didn’t tell us was that they only wanted that if it agreed with them. 

An independent judiciary and the separation of courts and political partisanship have long been held to be the foundation stones of healthy democratic societies.  So long as courts remain above the fray then political acts can be called to account and subjected to an impartial judgement.  Politicians can too, if the need arises.  We have a strong legal system because it protects us.  We have it because we, the people, deserve that protection against the unbounded ambitions of our political leaders. 

Parliament offers up a different level of protection, but one that is no less crucial to the well-being a state’s citizens.  With proper parliamentary scrutiny, a government – the executive – cannot get away with arbitrary rule or unchecked authority, the key components of dictatorships throughout history.  It is always a dangerous sign when the leaders of an executive in a democratic society start to rail against the very institutions designed to stop their descent into arbitrary and dictatorial rule. 

It was the desire to ensure that such institutions of checking distant authority were local and robust that infused so much of the Brexit leaders’ campaigning.  One of their primary complaints against the European Union was the lack of accountability of its too distant institutions. 

The unbounded Brexit hysteria about the High Court’s ruling on Article 50 has revealed them to be little more than the populist demagogues we always suspected, rather than the guardians of a uniquely British system of calling power to account.  It is a bizarre reversal.  Their Brexit view takes on a different perspective.  Perhaps their railing against the EU was not about constitutional principle all along, but simply about the fact that they detested its political views. 

And then there is the marvellous, if wholly misleading, invocation of the “people’s will” in the Brexit criticism of the High Court.  The “people” do not act as one, and never have.  In the Brexit referendum the “people” were pretty broadly split.  Just under 17.5 million people did indeed vote to leave, but just over 16 million voted to stay.  That is a difference of less than 4%.  By no reckoning was the vote a sweeping indication of the will of all of the British people.  Nigel Farage, the defining  figure of the campaign, certainly never used to consider such a small majority to be decisive.  He claimed – before the referendum – that if only a 4% majority voted to stay in the EU, then the referendum would have to be re-run.  So the “people” cannot be invoked on the Brexiters’ side without substantial qualification.

Theresa May’s initial virtue as a new Prime Minister – one who has not of course received any mandate as leader from the British electorate – was that she understood the need to act upon the result of a referendum in which she had played only a very lukewarm role.  She was right in that.  But where she has begun to sully her reputation is in her failure to recognise that the democratic authority of the referendum was severely limited.  Limited by its tiny majority, and limited by the fact that it provided only a simple decision – to leave the EU – but left unanswered any questions about how, or even why.  Certainly the referendum provided no guidance on the mechanism of leaving.  This is where parliament correctly reasserts itself.

The UK is still a parliamentary democracy.  The occasional use of referendums doesn’t alter that.  At best, the referendums provide a direction of travel.  They do not suddenly cede a mythical popular authority to a government to do whatever it will, without recourse to parliament.  The dictators of the twentieth century favoured plebiscites as a form of underpinning for their own regimes.  Theresa May and her government are nowhere near that line, but they are favouring a similar methodology for their own purposes.

The response of the Brexit press to the High Court ruling has been rabble-rousing, inaccurate and unappealing.  It has placed the ruling as an attempt to stop Brexit rather than an attempt to restore the sort of parliamentary sovereignty that Brexiters once advocated.  It is one thing for a fickle, commercial and foreign-owned press to be irresponsible and wilfully ignorant.  It is quite another when the government in power seems to go along with it.  The Justice Secretary has revealed herself to be nothing more than a craven political hack, unworthy of the ancient duty and authority of the Lord Chancellor position which is still part of her title.  Mrs. May should be careful not to replicate the tawdry image that her Justice Secretary has acquired.  After all, she has no strong mandate herself.

This election belonged to Trump and his supporters, whoever wins

This has been an extraordinary presidential election.  In its outsize anger, ugliness and insurgent appeal it has beaten every modern presidential election into a grey shadow of virtual irrelevance.  For some presidential historians you have to go back to 1828, the culmination of a four-year long populist campaign by General Andrew Jackson against the Washington establishment led by President John Quincy Adams, to find a similar one.  Even then Jackson did at least have some concrete public achievement behind him. 

The reason it has been so outsize, and so ugly, is of course entirely down to just one of its candidates – Donald J Trump.  Everything one says about this election, one is really saying about Donald Trump himself.  He has dictated the discourse of the campaign.  He has consistently dominated the media coverage.  He is the outlier, the leader of an angry, often ugly movement of alienated citizens who just needed someone to take their irrational hatred onto a higher platform.  Donald Trump is their man.  For all of his differences from his supporters – he is wealthy, well-connected, insulated from problems, benefits from rather than suffers from deals with foreign powers – he has become their messiah.   Hillary may be his nominal opponent, may even be the victor on Tuesday, but he has been by far the crucial figure in this campaign.

There is much that appals about Donald Trump, but the most appalling thing is the utterly fanatical, eyes-closed-shut loyalty of his band of supporters.  Democracy, after all, isn’t just about the leaders.  It is about the people who make them leaders.  Democracy is the only system of governance that puts the people front and centre.  And if the image they project, through the leaders they choose, is an unpleasant one, well that is the whole point of the system.  Media pundits may be trying to find ways of describing the wilful ignorance and strongly held bigotries of Trump supporters in more anodyne terms, but you can’t ignore the fact that he could not possibly have got where he is unless a significant number of ordinary Americans hadn’t bought in to his incendiary, falsehood laden rhetoric.  He has never disguised what he stands for, and the excuse that “we didn’t really know what he was like” will never be one that can be used by Trump supporters.  But then they will never want to use such an excuse, because they will never need to claw back from their support for Trump.  He is why they are with him.  His rhetoric reflects their thoughts.  His attitudes – or at any rate the ones he chooses to project – are their attitudes. 
Isolated, angry, alienated, frozen out from the modern political firmament?  Trump supporters are nothing of the kind.  They are wilful players in a toxic campaign and their views, their positions, are front and centre in this campaign.  It is Hillary Clinton, a woman who has tried to pursue her aims of civic improvement through decades of grinding involvement in the establishment process, who seems to be the alienated, isolated individual at times.

It doesn’t how many emails you destroy if you are a private businessman (Trump has deleted many thousands); it doesn’t matter how many lawsuits you face (Trump has some 75 pending against him covering everything from fraud, political subversion and sexual harassment); it doesn’t matter that you can never willingly tell the truth, that you manufacture evidence and make up issues as you go along.  If you are not a “politician”, not part of the “establishment” then for Trump supporters, that’s fine.  Do anything.  You deserve to. 

Even this weekend, the classic Donald Trump post-truth machine has been both evident and rapturously received and supported and re-tweeted by his followers and acolytes.  When President Obama – a man whose moral authority and dignity seem so far removed from the grubby Trumpian realities as to make him seem altogether elevated on another plane of existence – seeks to calm his own crowd, and defend the right of a protestor to make his pro-Trump stand at one of his rallies, Donald Trump himself manages to tell this as an example of the president “screaming” at a protestor.  Trump says he wants to punch protestors in the face; Obama tells his audience to calm down and allow the right of protest.  But in Donald’s world – endorsed  by his supporters – he is the virtuous one and Obama the unhinged fascist. 

Then when another opponent at a Trump rally holds his anti-Trump sign, the paranoia that engulfs the whole Trump campaign sees him being rushed off the stage, his mad audience shout “gun” and then precipitate a mass pile in on the protestor before he is led away with full military escort.  In Trumpland, this becomes brave Donald’s escape from near assassination.  They were tweeting this nonsense long after it was evident that it was nothing of the sort, because truth is subservient to their image of themselves as brave, isolated freedom fighters, rather than violent, intolerant thugs.

This campaign has been ugly because Trump’s supporters are ugly and they need their candidate to be so too.  This campaign has barely touched the surface of any policy discussions because that involves a rationality that has fled the Trump supporters, because it would mean engaging with the world of truth not the world of make-believe which they have constructed.   This campaign reinvents events because that’s the way they fit into a make-believe narrative.  This campaign has seen unprecedented bigotry towards Hispanics, women and blacks, because that is what Trump supporters want to see.

Democracy allows the people to come centre stage.  It is no good simply moving the unpleasantness of this campaign onto the shoulders of one man, since he represents the active desires and beliefs of his supporters.  Donald Trump is successful not because of his own innate brilliance, but because of his native cunning in understanding and encapsulating the vision of his supporters.  This is really the only way to understand how such a man can have come so close to the White House – may even be its resident for four years.  If this democracy looks ugly today, it isn’t because just one man has made it so.  It is because democracy is simply doing its job – reflecting the will of the people.  Tuesday will show us just how many people.  

Monday, October 17, 2016

Trump's "rigging" claim would have more validity if made by Democrats

Part of Donald Trump's slash and burn electoral strategy is to claim that the election is rigged.  The only way to prove, in Trumpland, that it isn't rigged is for him to win.  Trump's claims of rigging are ludicrous, but they are taken seriously by the nearly 40% of voters who are firmly in his column.

Politico notes that the Trump strategy could have serious repercussions for American democracy after the election, especially if Republican leaders keep the same silence on the result that they've been keeping about the campaign itself.  Trump cites media coverage as his main "evidence", but let's just consider for a moment the other case - that the election is rigged against Hillary Clinton.

If you were Hillary, and you had the same political nihilism as Trump, you could cite the following:

1.  The consistent hacking of Democrat emails by Wikileaks and possible (though only alleged) Russian agencies.  Wikileaks has emerged firmly in the Trump camp, and hasn't undertaken any leaks against Trump and his associates at all.  The leaks, no matter how innocuous or explainable, consistently hurt Hillary.

2.  The mainstream media insistence on "equivalence" between Hillary and Trump.  Trump is arguably the worst candidate in American history, lies consistently, has failed to pay income tax or declare his tax returns, is a four-time bankrupt, has sexually assaulted women, uses dangerous rhetoric against minority groups, has run businesses that have destroyed the livelihoods of small workers, cosies up to one of America's biggest foreign foes.  Hillary's record doesn't even begin to touch all of this, yet is portrayed in the media as being somehow equivalent.  This campaign is indeed destroying American democracy, but the destructive impetus comes from one side only.

3.  The Republicans have history in rigged elections, as witness the "Gore v Bush" 2000 one.  Al Gore won the popular vote, and a predominantly Republican appointed Supreme Court decided in favour of the Republican nominee in the highly disputed Florida count.  The Democratic nominee, Gore, conceded as soon as the decision was made.

4.  Election machinery in each state is in the hands of state governance.  31 states have Republican governors, only 18 have Democratic governors.  It was a Republican governor's administration in Florida in 2000 which determined the Republican outcome of that state's vote.

5.  Mainstream media may lean towards Clinton (but see point 2 above), but much other media leans heavily towards Trump, including Talk Radio and the still much watched Fox News, who present Trump's outlandish and palpably false claims uncritically.

6.  The Trump campaign is the culmination of more than two decades of well-funded, committed and consistent denigration of the Clintons by Republican right-wingers.  From the millions poured in by Richard Mellon Scaife to things such as the Arkansas Project in the 90s, through the special prosecution of Bill Clinton by Republican activist judge Kenneth Starr, to the present day, the Clintons in particular have been the target of unrelenting abuse.  There is a whole Republican industry dedicated simply to destroying the Clintons and reversing their and President Obama's liberal agenda.  Nothing similar exists on the Democratic side.

7.  The last boundary changes for the House of Representatives saw one of the most audacious gerrymanders in modern representative politics (detailed in a book by Salon's David Daley).  While the Senate could change hands, there is virtually no possibility of the House doing so - it will stay Republican.

Donald Trump is the Republican Party's Frankenstein, and his claims of election rigging would have more resonance if they were spouted by a Democrat.  At the moment, though, Democrats still believe in the American system and refuse to denigrate it.  When media outlets talk of a "dirty election" and how it threaten American democracy, it's worth remembering that their false attempts at equivalence hide the fact that only one party, and its atrocious nominee, are engaged in that work.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The 2nd Round Draw

A few quick takeaways from tonight's Trump v Clinton debate.

1.  Hillary Clinton is not great at being able to take down a great hulking target standing right next to her.  Perhaps she's wary because of the various scandals attached to her own person, but such scandals are in no way equivalent to the host of issues suggesting Trump is unfit for high office.

2. Trump really has no use for his vice-presidential running mate.  Rarely has a No 2 been so publicly humiliated as Mike Pence was tonight when Trump dismissed his views with the words "He and I haven't spoken and I disagree".  If Pence had any dignity left he would leave the ticket.  He hasn't and he won't.

3.  Trump could have been a nightclub bouncer; his body language was tense and uneasy throughout and he wouldn't sit down, preferring to loom ominously over the set.

4.  Trump got off lightly over the video of his sexist comments - or virtual endorsement of sexual harassment - and shoudn't have done.

5.  Trump wants to put in place criminal proceedings against his opponent if he wins, with the intention of seeing her jailed.  He would do well in an authoritarian banana republic.

6.  Hillary is far more comfortable talking policy than debating, and it showed.  She allowed Trump to lead the debate several times.  She's not an instinctive politician in the way her husband or Obama are.

7.  This debate will have changed few minds, but it may well have entrenched their respective supporters behind the two candidates.

8.  Trump is awful.  He is grotesque, lies congenitally, has few ideas about the policies he name-checks, is brutalistic and should never have been a contender.  But you get the democracy you vote for.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Is it better for the Democrats if Hillary loses?

I doubt there are many Democrats who would want to entertain the thought of Donald Trump winning on November 8th.  That's traditional, long-time registered Democrat voters rather than the more recent, brash, Sanders insurgency supporting youth who so nearly upset the convention.  And yet there may be a case - which some hard-core Sandersites have long endorsed - for suggesting that a Trump win would be the better option for the long-term future of liberalism in America.

If Hillary Clinton wins the presidency then her very tenure will reinvigorate the Republicans in Congress, united in their bid to frustrate her at every turn.  It will likely give Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, an even higher profile and a leading role in not only refurbishing the Republican image - something he is desperate to do - but also in running for the presidency in four years time.  A Clinton presidency will also leave the substantial army of Trump supporters wholly unsatisfied, and ready to back either Trump or similarly iconoclastic right-wingers next time round, when they can point to four more years of "Democrat misrule" and establishment alienation.

A Clinton presidency might even engender a constitutional crisis.  While Trump said he would support Clinton as president if she won the election on November 8th., he has made enough noises previously to suggest that he and his supporters consider the whole electoral system rigged against them, and would use that as justification to dispute another Democratic victory.  Edward Foley on Politico has shown how such a challenge might work given the partisan nature of America's state operated electoral decision machines.

Should Trump actually win, a whole new scenario emerges (I know, I know....a contender for statements of the blinding obvious).  Given Trump's maverick approach to politics, and the division he has already inflicted on the Republican party, the Democrats can look forward to four years of ever increasing Republican turmoil as House and Senate Republicans try and deal with an unpredictable, and essentially non-party, president.  Four years of President Trump also provides even his hardest core supporters with the irrefutable evidence of not just how damaging such a presidency might be, but more importantly show them just how little he is able to change.  When no wall goes up - or at best a small symbolic one - and immigration doesn't cease; when terrorist attacks continue; when Trump's pally approach with a politically superior Vladimir Putin fails to bring gains to America and merely makes her look like an international patsy; when Trump's economic decision making fails to match the promise he has given of work for all those disenchanted, unemployed voters; when race relations hit a nadir and riots envelop the cities on a scale not seen since the 60s; when the economy tanks under the weight of an illiterate economic stategy; when all this and more happens do we really think the Trump brand will retain its potency in the re-election battle of 2020?

In such circumstances, the Democrats could nominate a new, fresh face, reinvigorate their liberal appeal, shore up their popular support across a variety of groups - the young, the black, the female, the Hispanic - and storm to victory not just in the race for the White House but also in the House and the Senate, probably for a generation at least.

The only question is - would four years of Trump be an acceptable price to pay for such future largesse?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Hillary wins the debate, but not necessarily the people

Plenty of keyboards have already been called into action to provide quick analyses of last night's stormer of a presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.  To give just a flavour of some of the more prescient online commentary, this is the Washington Post take from Dana Milbank; Howard Kurtz gives a pretty balanced view from the right of the spectrum on Fox News; while the liberal viewpoint is most articulately expressed by Michelle Goldberg on Slate.  Politico meanwhile remains a forcing house of regular and detailed commentaries.

The commentariat consensus is that Hillary won - and unequivocally so.  Even Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani admitted as much in a tweet he sent.  But Giuliani's tweet also offers - unusually - a proper cautionary note for the Clintonites.  She may win the debate and the plaudits of political insiders, as well as those voters who are more politically switched on than their peers.  Whether the debate will have translated that into an appeal to those who are largely alienated by politics is another matter, and Trump's one decent gambit last night was to keep identifying Clinton with the "failed" political establishment.

We already know that the hard-core Trump supporters will never be convinced by anything other than what Clinton characterised as a "Trump reality" that bears little relation to facts.  What Clinton needed to do was to try and win back some of that support which she appeared to have after the Democratic convention but which has dissipated over the course of the summer.

Certainly Mrs. Clinton exceeded expectations in the debate, while Trump probably came in under his.  All the more remarkable given that expectations for Clinton were already high - she was seen as a capable and professional debater who masters her brief exceptionally well - and those for Trump were correspondingly low - he was seen as a man of bluster and bluff with little regard for the facts.

It turned out to be Clinton who scored the more aggressive hits, on Trump's income tax returns, his "stiffing" of ordinary workers who worked for his companies, or his racism over the Obama Birther affair.  She maintained poise, looked relaxed, went in for the kill with appropriate but not over the top aggression.  She arguably didn't press one or two issues enough.  She could have pressed further on his tax returns, or seized upon his implicit admission that he hadn't paid federal tax in years.  She could have pressed on his pursuit of Obama's birth well after the president made his birth certificate public.  She could have been specific in calling him out as an early supporter of the Iraq war.  But these are quibbles.  The debate went well for her.  The only issue is whether it will have been enough to bring voters back into the fold.

For Trump, the issue is a little different.  He has defied all expectations and all campaigning conventions to get where he is today - that is, within a whisker of winning the White House.  No-one expects him to be articulate, no-one even really expects him to understand and ally himself with facts or, more broadly, the truth.  None of his nearly 40% of hard-core supporters are going to move away from him simply because his blustery one-liners didn't work in a debate, or because he was called out on various contortions of reality, or even because he is a giant narcissist who only talked about himself.  So emotionally based is his appeal that it is impervious to facts and events.   I thought one of his most astute points was when he noted that Clinton had spent hundreds of millions of pounds on television adverts attacking him, while he had spent nothing, and yet they were still level-pegging in the polls.

Trump is the anti-candidate, and to succeed he just needs to continue to exist.  The real issue for America in November is whether enough American voters - especially those in the so-called swing states - are nihilistic, alienated and angry enough to tell reality to go hang and put Trump in the White House.  We already know he can't get there because he is better qualified, or more astute, or has a better understanding of politics, or is a more eloquent and articulate speaker.  He is none of these things and Clinton beats him handily on each one.  Her unpopularity remains mysterious in many ways for a woman who has genuinely dedicated herself to a lifetime of public service, and who has come up from relatively humble origins.  But she is now the single most lethal personification of the politics of old, of the establishment, and if enough people are alienated from all of that, then she can't win them over.

This is an election between primal instinct and rational thought, and rational thought has an uphill battle.  That is why it may not matter that Hillary Clinton won the debate.  Donald Trump isn't campaigning that way, and his support base isn't interested.  So if you haven't yet seen it yet do watch it and enjoy - it was a great and rumbustuous debate (although the audience should have been allowed to make more noise!).  But for all the viewership - the highest for any presidential debate - it may not have mattered much.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

The Trump campaign is beyond all reason and is taking America with it

Donald Trump has reached a position of such demagogic lying that no truth will be able to bring him and his campaign back to the realms of sanity.  And the alarming fact is that his supporters will stay with him all the way.

In any rational political campaign Trump should have been finished when he slandered a judge on the grounds of his ethnicity.  The case awaiting that judge's ruling - over the failure of Trump University to adhere to its published prospectus - should also have rebounded firmly against Trump.  This man who parades himself as the saviour of white American working class citizens wilfully conned many of them out of hard earned savings with the false promise of riches through his "university" set-up.  And yet he went on to seize the Republican nomination and runs Hillary close enough in polls to suggest he may well win in November.

Trump's racism and bizarre political headline - to build a wall along the Mexico border - should also have holed him beneath the waterline as a dangerously divisive populist and a spewer of fantasy politics.  It has done no such thing.

Trump's aggressive misogyny towards a Fox News reporter early in the primary campaign should have ruined him irreparably, but he continued to push forward against an anaemic and spineless group of "opponents".

Then came Trump's call on Russia to hack into Hillary's emails.  His willingness to engage the support of a hostile foreign power, and essentially underwrite their own malign interference in America's election campaign, should have made him a pariah, and yet his continued vocal support for one of the world's most corrupt and power-hungry despots, Vladimir Putin, somehow makes good waves for him amongst his legion of supporters.

This week alone Trump has endured - and will survive - his ill-judged criticism of a mother who lost her son in an heroic action against the very Islamic terrorism that Trump claims to defy.  Trump - the man who profited from buildings while others sacrificed their lives in war - is immune to any of the normal standards of decency that might apply in a political fight, and certainly to the higher standards that apply in everyday life.  He calls Hilary Clinton the "devil" (and means it), encourages chants of "lock her up", and spits out venom every time he speaks or tweets.  He now claims that the election will be rigged against him.  He is, to all intents and purposes, a malign man who is completely out of control.

And yet he could be president.  His supporters have remained tight and his party - with a few individual exceptions - refuse to disassociate themselves from him.  We have come to expect men of the calibre of House Republican Speaker Paul Ryan to avert their gaze from Trump on an almost daily basis and keep supporting him.  Ryan long ago lost his backbone in this struggle, and stands condemned as Trump's fellow traveller no matter how awkward he may occasionally seem to be.

But the real sign of alarm for America is how Trump's campaign has infected and is destroying a land once hailed for its openness and freedom.  His attack on a Muslim military mother for staying silent during a convention appearance should have breached the last wall. It almost looked as if it had with Republicans like John McCain and Jeb Bush rounding on him.  But they are mavericks or has-beens and out of the loop.  It's the Trump supporters who bear attention, and they have rallied around him.

Take this story of another military mother who dared to ask an adverse question of Trump's vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence.  As soon as she even suggested that Trump had dis-respected the military, the Trump supporters at the meeting booed her, harassed her and tried to drown her out.  Afterwards, it was she - not Mike Pence, the vice-presidential candidate serving as an empty vessel for Trump's extremities - who received criticism from the crowd members.

Think on that.  Think on the spectacle of an America so utterly subverted that a manipulative, congenitally deceitful businessman whose career has been spent exploiting others, should be seen as somehow more honourable and moral than a mother seeking to defend respect for military heroes.

It is only as that sinks in that you realise the enormity of what is happening in America.  It is a democracy, and it changes not just because of one man but because ordinary people change it.  Trump has already won the votes of over 13 million Republicans.  Despite everything he has said, despite his career history, his refusal to be honest with his tax returns, his frequent and scatter-gun abuse and his friendliness towards America's foreign enemies, this man retains the support of a huge swathe of American voters.  Whether he wins or loses in November - and he has a high chance of winning - America has already changed.  He hasn't changed it.  But he has channeled the hate, bigotry and division of so many Americans that the fabled shining city on a hill really is no more. 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Obama's poetry called into action one last time

Barack Obama came to public attention through the power of his oratory, and then won the presidency on the back of its soaring, uplifting, optimistic cadences.  He called it into action again, after eight years as the nation's preacher in chief where his ability to persuade a nation and articulate its public and hidden feelings has often been stretched to the limit but rarely found wanting.  His speech to the Democratic Convention wasn't just about supporting the woman he wants to be his successor, or damning, with his customary crisp, light yet lethally wielded authority, her opponent.  It was also about ensuring the longevity of his own legacy.  It was about whether the presidency stays in the hands of someone with intellectual rigour, passion and nuance, or whether it passes to the vulgarian instincts of a self-regarding demagogue.

It was a tremendous speech, a reminder of what it's like to be governed in poetry.  And in defending the character of Hillary Clinton, a woman who has been active in front-line politics for over thirty years, he also called in support the impressive verbal artillery of one of his illustrious Republican predecessors.  Teddy Roosevelt was the man who first referred to the presidency as the "bully pulpit", and he was no mean user of it.  He had no time for the critics who sniped from the sidelines, preferring the endeavours of the person who clambered into the arena to do something, and while yes, this embraces both good and bad, it is nonetheless an invocation to do more than simply carp.  The passage that President Obama referred to is here:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Roosevelt was addressing the issue of "Citizenship in a Republic", speaking at the time to an audience at the Sorbonne in Paris.  As our own democracies and republics face ever greater threats, and as our political class comes under more cynicism and pressure the time is certainly here for more people to actually get into the arena, for there they will not just act for the ideals they hold but perhaps also understand that there is no easy path to any political goal, no matter how virtuous.  That compromise and shortcoming and erring is part of the process.

Obama called many ideas and people into action in his speech, including the very founding fathers who declared their independence at Philadelphia in 1776.  His speech - worth watching in its entirety - was a reminder not just of how far the republic has come, but also of how easily it might fall back into the mendacious hands of an arrogant authoritarian.  It was a terrific call to arms. 

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Trump's disastrous convention doesn't matter

This year's Republican convention has been a mess.  A delightfully anarchistic mess for those of us who do not wish him well, but a mess nonetheless.  Although he is unchallenged as the Republican nominee, he still faced a floor challenge to his candidacy.  In previous conventions - and you have to go back to 1976 for this - you at least had to have another candidate to rally round, but not this time.

Donald's wife gave a speech that had significant elements plagiarised from Michelle Obama's 2008 convention speech, which gave us the excellent spectacle of hardened Trumpites loudly applauding the sentiments of the current First Lady.

The principal speakers at the convention have all shown clear signs of madness.  Rudy Giuliani, once a respected New York mayor, tried to be Donald Trump on acid.  Chris Christie, once a governor who briefly looked as if he could reach across partisan divides, played his role as chief witch-hunter (prosecuting chief witch Hillary Clinton) to a perfection that would have been admired in Salem back in the day.

Only Ted Cruz - Ted Cruz!! - has emerged with any credit from this nonsense, and he did so by adding to the fiasco.  Unlike Marco Rubio - who prostrated himself on video before the Donald - Cruz used his convention speaking slot to basically stab Trump in the front.  He clearly loved doing it.  I think Cruz is in many respects a repulsive politician, probably in league with the sulphur burners, but he did this bit very well.

Yet despite it all, it probably doesn't matter.  The Telegraph's Tim Stanley makes a good case for suggesting that the conservative Cruz has fatally holed the Trump candidacy, but I'm not so sure.  Trump has succeeded on the back of a lamentable campaign that would have sunk anyone else.  But that is rather the point of Trump.  The media classes and the liberals and all those who hate him have rejoiced in a hopeless, divided convention.

Trump's supporters won't have heard any of that.  All they want to see and hear is their man telling them that all the ills of the world, all of their own poverty and economic dislocation, is down to dastardly forces and people who can be evicted from American society.  He'll tell them that again and they'll lap it up.  He won't lose any of that support on the basis of a lamentable convention week.  

Liberal democracy is in crisis at the moment because it turns out that it has failed to gain the support of significant numbers of left-behind voters.  In America, Trump has those people.  If it turns out there are actually more of them than there are of the many different groups Trump offends, then he's on course for the White House.  His convention plays no role in that calculation.