Monday, April 3, 2017

Orbán’s Attack on CEU Prefigures a Hard Turn to Authoritarianism

Following months of escalating rhetoric against CEU, the Hungarian government finally fired its shot across the bow. Last week, populist Fidesz Leader Viktor Orbán introduced legislation to parliament that would effectively expel CEU from Hungary, where the university has been based for the past 26 years.

The new proposed amendments to Hungary’s 2011 law on National Higher Education affect CEU alone among the 28 foreign universities now operating in Hungary. The amendments are so draconian, target CEU so directly, and were introduced so suddenly that they can only be read as an attempt to shut down the university. Any lingering doubts that these actions are politically motivated must be set to rest in light of the government’s own statements. In the days that followed, Orbán himself gave an interview stating that "George Soros's university" is "cheating" and engaging in "unfair competition" with Hungarian universities.

To say this came as a shock is an understatement. I have lived in Hungary and taught at CEU for well over a decade as professor in the International Relations Department. Although an American citizen, I have now lived in Budapest longer than any other city in my life. I have Hungarian permanent residence. I own a flat in the downtown and have numerous Hungarian friends and a Hungarian partner. I am a great fan of this lovely country and its wonderful people and have invited many friends and dozens of colleagues to conferences, workshops and talks at CEU. They return home, seemingly without exception, with fond memories of the place. In short, I consider Hungary my home, and it breaks my heart that I may now have to leave.

The question on all our minds is: Why? What is the government doing? What is its real goal?

It is true that Orbán, once a recipient of a Soros scholarship, has no great love for a university, many of whose faculty, staff and students have at times criticized the government (including myself). But CEU has had good working relations with every post-communist government in Hungary, and few had any inkling that the government might go quite this far.

The first possible explanation is the government’s own stated motive, which is that they merely aim to bring all foreign universities into compliance with Hungarian law. However, if compliance were the concern, the government should have entered into a dialogue with CEU administrators rather than issuing a fait accompli in parliament and rushing it through to a vote. What is more, CEU is already in full compliance with Hungarian laws on higher education, as verified by Hungary’s own Educational Authority. CEU has never once fallen afoul of Hungarian law. The leadership has in fact given the game away by admitting it is going after CEU with these amendments; this is of a piece with the government’s long-running campaign against Soros. Szilard Nemeth, vice-chair of the Fidesz party said in January this year:

"[Soros-backed] organizations must be pushed back with all available tools...I think they must be swept out, and now I believe the international conditions are right for this with the election of a new president [Trump]."

We can thus safely dispense with the notion that the government is not engaging in a politically motivated attack against CEU.

The second possibility is that Orbán is going after CEU, but is not really serious about expelling it from Hungary. Despite the gathering clouds, few in or around the university believed that the government really meant to break its ties with CEU. After all, the contributions CEU has made to Hungary are substantial—ranging from its significant tax receipts to the business revenue generated around CEU’s downtown campus to the deep ties between CEU and other Hungarian academic institutions and civil society. In return, Hungary has been an outstanding home for CEU, with excellent services and infrastructure and an easy and welcoming urban community. Truly, as the rector has said, CEU has been good to Hungary, and Hungary has been good to CEU.

For all these reasons, many believe that the government does not really want to close down CEU, but is instead politicking in the run-up to the 2018 elections, in which the Fidesz leadership faces a mounting challenge from the even further-right Jobbik Party. In this view, the government simply wants to put on a political show with its fight against CEU. The “Soros University” is a perfect target in view of the fact that Soros and all things Soros have become a convenient whipping boy for nationalists and demagogues the world over. CEU is, in this view, collateral damage of ideological outbidding on the part of a party seeking to maintain its political relevance as the ground shifts beneath its feet. If this is right, then the government’s actions are inherently self-limited and can be managed.

However, there is still a third possibility. And this looks to me increasingly likely as the government seeks to ram through the legislation as quickly as possible without any meaningful dialogue with the university: Orbán is making a hard turn toward authoritarianism and wants to clamp down on independent intellectual life.

Fidesz has in fact been moving in this direction since the 2010 elections brought the party unchecked power with two-thirds majority in a unicameral parliament. Over the years, they have curtailed media freedom, attacked the independence of the courts, altered election laws to make it much harder for the opposition to win, undermined human rights protections, and used clientelism and patronage to gain control over the bureaucratic state. What Orbán has done in Hungary is merely a lighter version of what Vladimir Putin has done in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.

Indeed, one of the steps along the road to autocracy is gaining control over the county’s intellectual life, which means civil society organizations and universities. After the Bolsheviks came to power, Lenin undertook mass arrests and deportations of professors and scientists judged to be political opponents; the old Russian intelligentsia was seen as a rival to his “party of a new type.” Stalin too conducted cultural purges of writers deemed insufficiently patriotic during its war with Nazi Germany. Pol Pot famously murdered intellectuals and city residents in an attempt to create a classless peasant society. Myanmar’s ruling military junta shut down the capital’s universities in 1991 to prevent students from protesting government crackdown of pro-democracy activists.

Today’s motley crew of despots might not be seeking to replicate the killing fields of Cambodia. However, they have found numerous other ways to establish control over universities, which are after all competing hubs of cultural and civic power. During last year’s failed coup attempt, Erdogan effectively fired tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers and university deans--all in the name of rooting out foreign influence and domestic traitors.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin has sought to elevate technical departments over humanities and social sciences, with the ultimate aim of downsizing or merging these departments with others to establish greater control over their academic output. Currently, the government is using the same kind of legalistic techniques used by the Orbán government to shut down the European University of St. Petersburg. The Russian authorities announced that they planned to revoke the university’s license due to building code violations such as the lack of a fitness room and the absence of an information stand against alcoholism. The university has operated in Russia since 1994. The Russian government has also revived Soviet era regulations requiring academics to report their foreign contacts and international travel.

 We are now through the looking glass. An early generation of pro-western democratic leaders, including Viktor Orbán and Vaclav Klaus, have since become  anti-western illiberal elder statesmen.

As a young pro-democracy activist, Orbán used to defend Soros institutions:

“We have been shocked by the recent disgraceful attacks against the Soros Foundation and George Soros himself. By supporting the younger generation, the movement of special colleges he has helped establish a more open and free atmosphere in Hungary. Seeing the difficult situation of higher education, we think that newer generations will also need the unselfish support of the Soros foundation which we hope they will continue to give in the future too.”

FIDESZ, 1992.

What tragic irony if Orbán—the man who helped usher Hungary out of one-party rule in the late 1980s—is the very man who leads it back into darkness. It should be clear to all that the real loser here is not CEU, but the Hungarian people.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Professionalizing the PhD

Hi everyone! I am reposting a 2014 blogpost by Professor Joanna Bryson on the subject of how we as academics can better serve our PhD students. Although she works on artificial intelligence in computer science, her points translate perfectly well to doing PhDs political science (although, at least in our program, well over half of our students end up in some academic or research position).
For more on Joanna's research see here and here (for her blog)
Posted  by 
Doing a  PhD is already a perfectly fine idea.  You can tell this, because people with PhDs make more money on average than without, so contrary to popular rumour there is probably not a significant oversupply of PhDs (at least not in any economic sense), although of course it's always possible that the people who get into PhD programmes would have made more money than average either way.  But a serious economic oversupply would reduce value, and that doesn't seem to be happening.

However, there is no denying that some people suffer a lot of emotional distress in postgraduate degrees and in the pursuit of academic positions.  Personally, I had already worked for over five years in "industry" (as a programmer) before I did my postgraduate degrees, and I continued to get job offers from friends throughout my postgraduate experience, so I could always put the drama of the academic striving for status in perspective, and know that for me it was better than the boredom of a job in finance, or even the malaise of working in entertainment.  For me, being around smart people trying to figure out how the world works is interesting, and worth the time.

And what about for society, is too much money being spent on training academics?  Again, we can look at the numbers.   Countries and regions that invest money from taxpayers, student tuition, and philanthropy into great universities tend to have strong economies. Of course, correlation doesn't prove causation, but here is a simple theory of (and brief paean to) the role of universities in an economy:  they absorb risk.  Universities absorb the risk in new ideas and new people.  Industries (including the creative industries) can then take those people and ideas, pre-vetted, and make money off of them the conventional way.  And it's not all about money.  Entertainment has become an economic staple – we're that rich that we can spend money on things like computer games and movies even during recessions.  And we do, because distracting our minds matters a lot to us.  But academia is more than entertainment.  It's an intellectual exercise and examination of our selves and our world – an examination that people love and dedicate their time and resources to.  Not just academics, all kinds of readers, listeners and viewers do this.

If academia is such a great idea, then why is working in it looking increasingly like working for a drug gang, with long hours and unstable lives?  I was talking to Peter Turchin and some of his collaborators about this last night. Peter is of the opinion that oscillations of decay pervade complex systems like societies (as you will know if you've read his books), and takes the decay of the American academic system in the last 30 years as an example.  But surely those of us who understand social and evolutionary dynamics should be able to get on top of these dynamics, and nudge the system into another phase?

Let's assume we know that academia and universities are a good idea, and that PhDs appear likely to be useful on average to their holders' careers. Starting from here, then what can individual academics, academic departments and universities do to make doing a PhD a better idea?  Some simple ideas:
  1. When we interview prospective PhD students, we can make certain they understand that they only have about a 1 in 20 chance of staying in academia, and that writing their dissertations will probably take longer than their funding will last. We can make sure they understand they are setting aside a bunch of years of their promising lives to explore exciting but therefore high-risk ideas.  We can promise they will almost certainly publish (make permanent contributions to human knowledge) and travel to conferences, and we can take them into our labs and introduce them to the kinds of colleagues they'll get to spend time working with.  We can show them the good and the bad, and say "tell me now, is this really OK with you?"  
  2. We can ask them again every year or so what they are thinking concerning their careers, their living arrangements with their long-term partners and (if they have them) children.  We can try to keep their expectations reasonable.
  3. We can  throughout their time with us keep our eyes out for departments and other career options that  seem like a good idea for each particular student, and make sure they notice and network and keep their eyes out for openings.
  4. We can make sure our students and the rest of our research groups know each others' research and career goals, and that they too keep their eyes out for possibilities.  This is worth their effort –– everyone is benefited by having successful friends and colleagues.
  5. We can view our students (and encourage them to view themselves) as assistant researchers – that's what they should put on their CV.  We can try to make every year count, not being sure which year will be the last or whether a finished dissertation will be the final outcome.
  6. We can encourage our students to make career decisions that work for them.  We can point out the extra prestige, respect, and even pay or venture capital they may get if they finish their PhD.  But we should recognise and allow them to recognise that other things may matter more.
  7. We can support policies that let students complete dissertations while working part time, or even full time.  We should be very honest about the costs and consequences of not completing, and how employment or other changes of culture may alter the odds of this happening.  But we should be flexible.
  8. Wherever possible, we should support completion, even if it requires flexibility.  We should create resources and on-line communities for those trying to complete off campus.
  9. We should resist long-term adjunct positions in our departments.  Letting students get a term or two of teaching experience while covering for sabbatical or paternity leave is not only acceptable but good practice for the few who might consider becoming permanent academics.  But we need to push back and insist on the hiring of assistant professors (UK lecturers) when there is a real long-term need for teaching, even where that need might be fixed-term but longer than a year.
  10. We should take colleagues seriously when they spend time in non-academic positions.  We should review without prejudice articles and conference submissions without academic affiliations.  We should not evaluate job applicants on biased criteria like "publications per year since PhD", but rather look at "publications per year in research institutions, excluding the first year of new lecturing positions since we all know what those are like."
Additional suggestions (including links to people who had these ideas before me, sorry if I missed some) welcome.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Erin Jenne: The Politics of Extreme Distrust: Conspiracy Theor...

Erin Jenne: The Politics of Extreme Distrust: Conspiracy Theor...: One of the curious (others might say alarming) features about the Brexit vote--wherein the majority of UK electorate voted in a referendu...

The Politics of Extreme Distrust: Conspiracy Theories, Brexit, and Trump

One of the curious (others might say alarming) features about the Brexit vote--wherein the majority of UK electorate voted in a referendum to leave the European Union--is how unmoored so many voters in the Leave camp appeared to be from reality, lacking even a basic understanding the ramifications of their vote. Just hours after the results came in, Google Trends revealed that one of the most common search requests in the UK was “what is the EU?"

What received less attention is that nearly half of all Leave voters brought their own pens to vote, believing that the MI5 would otherwise tamper with their votes.

An even more shocking (admittedly fringe) conspiracy circulated by some within the pro-Leave camp is that the murder of pro-Remain Labour MP Jo Cox was a “false flag” operation by “globalists” seeking to achieve a victory for Remain.

In the United States as well, those on the right appear more likely than those on the left to believe in government-directed conspiracies, particularly during periods of a Democratic presidency. According to a 2013 Public Policy Poll (PPP):

Overall, 36% of Americans and 62% of Republicans believe that the Obama Administration is secretly trying to take everyone’s guns away; just 14% of Democrats believe the same. One in four Americans say that President Obama is secretly trying to figure out a way to stay in office beyond 2017 – including almost half of Republicans (44%). And 26% of Americans think that Muslims are covertly implementing Sharia Law in American court systems, while 55% don’t think so and another 19% aren’t sure. There’s a huge partisan breakdown on this one as well – 42% of Republicans fear Sharia Law making its way into America’s courts while just 12% of Democrats agree.

Much of the “unmooring” is due to the political, economic and cultural marginalization of those who long enjoyed the best that industrialized democracies have to offer. Many are “losers” of economic changes wrought by globalization. Others resent the fact that their culture and values are increasingly derided as backward and irrelevant. Overwhelmingly, these groups belong to the shrinking white majority of the United States and elsewhere in the developed world. 

They are the electoral base of Donald Trump—a political neophyte who is by his own reckoning not a politician and who is unapologetically ignorant of the basics of American policy-making and foreign policy. His ignorance bothers neither Trump nor his supporters. In the same way, Sarah Palin’s ignorance of politics and foreign affairs, not to mention the basic features of the American system of government, made her not one whit less qualified for the vice presidency to her supporters during the 2008 campaign.

Conspiracy theories are critical to the fortunes of insurgents like Trump. What Hofstadter called “movements of suspicious discontent” are the fuel that drives the campaigns of reactionary outsiders; they serve as the defensive armour of those on the reactionary fringe. Although conspiracy theories have always enjoyed traction in society (only consider the JFK assassination, the "faked" moon landing, and the 9/11 Truth Movement), they are now widely trafficked in the rightwing blogosphere. What is more, mainstream GOP politicians now openly articulate unhinged beliefs--not accidentally, but purposely, as a means of popular mobilization. (Don't forget Ted Cruz's fear-mongering over Agenda 21, the belief that the UN was angling to take away US sovereignty, among other things to force American citizens to live in energy efficient "hobbit homes").

Ordinarily, science, empiricism, and trust in the mainstream institutions of secular society serve to inoculate against the spread of conspiracy theories. These institutions, however, have taken a beating over the decades, giving greater political power to beliefs on the fringe.

Beyond cyclical dips and peak, the chart shows a long-term secular decline in public faith in the government. Over the last couple decades, one can also see divergence between Republicans and Democrats: who have greater faith in government when a Republican and Democrat, respectively, occupies the White House. This reflects an ever-widening polarization of the political landscape.

At the same time, public trust in mainstream media has dropped decade after decade. This, combined with the proliferation of partisan media in the internet age, is the other source of the problem, as highly motivated partisan individuals seek evidentiary confirmation of their views from similarly partisan sources of information.

The importance of this for the political landscape today cannot be underestimated. Fewer people trust the government than at any time in the past fifty-odd years, particularly on the right. Recent research suggests that conspiracy theories tend to hold sway among those with low trust in government institutions--and, on the right, for those with “high information” (or what passes as information on highly partisan websites).  

This provides fertile ground for the successful candidacy of  fringe figure such as Trump. According to a recent poll by RAND, the belief that “people like me don't have any say about what the government does” is a better predictor for Trump support than “age, race/ethnicity, employment status, educational attainment, household income, attitudes towards Muslims, attitudes towards illegal immigrants, or attitudes towards Hispanics.”

If we accept that distrust is related to conspiracy theories, it makes sense that Trump supporters were more likely than the supporters of other GOP contenders to believe that global warming isn’t happening, that vaccines cause autism, that Obama “is hiding something,” that the Newtown massacre “was faked,” and that Clinton knew about and “chose not to attack in Benghazi.” 

In fact, the last two elections have given rise to a new mobilizational cleavage in Republican politics—from yesteryear's religious/social issues (think George W. Bush back to Jimmy Carter, who consistently courted key religious groups and leaders) to today's open appeals to white identity politics. Unlike his predecessors, Trump has spent very little time on religious issues--instead focusing on building a wall to block incoming undocumented Mexicans, deporting said undocumented Mexicans, and banning the travel of Muslims seeking to enter to the US. One can already see the effects this in the virulent crowds that turned up at Trump’s campaign appearances. Trump's crowds, and the opposition they attract, are violent and dangerous.

Trump is knowingly courting the fringe vote, touting scores of conspiracy theories of his own. It is also noteworthy that one of Trump’s top campaign advisors--the immensely creepy Roger Stone pictured below—has made multiple lengthy appearances on New World Order Conspiracist Alex Jone’s youtube channel, Infowars.

Alex Jones (along with other right-wing opinion leaders) have played a key role in circulating the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama ordered a hit on Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia so he could appoint a communist to the court, that Michelle Obama is actually a man in disguise (because Barack is secretly a gay man). and that s/he may have murdered Joan Rivers. Among his many other conspiracy theories, Jones contends that the government may be tampering with school juice boxes in order to reduce testosterone in boys in order to "turn them gay." Following a glowing endorsement, Jones scored a lengthy interview with Trump for Infowars via phone.

Beginning with his Birtherism, Trump has effectively tapped into the mindset of an extreme set of ultra-conservative beliefs that have been circulating in the rightwing blogosphere and talk radio for years. He has now firmly planted his flag in conservative crazy town and is inviting all comers. Because that is plainly where the plurality of today's Republican voters are at.

If true, this should be alarming to us all. Faith in mainstream institutions in the United States is at an all-time low among ordinary people, particularly on the right. Together with the new media landscape, marginalized folk--already motivated to seek out explanations for their declining status--will continue to imbibe increasingly extreme conspiracy theories. This cannot end well, even (or especially) if a Democrat (Hillary Clinton, no less!) wins the presidency in November. We can then look forward to another wave of militia movements, hate crimes, record-setting gun sales (with an attendant increase in gun violence)--general insurgent conditions along the lines of what we saw in the 1990s.

These disruptions may be an avoidable feature of large-scale demographic shifts and/or economic transformation that we simply have to get through.  If there is any kind of remedy, though, it surely lies in repairing tattered social welfare programs that gives rise to social anomie in the first place.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Trump Exposes the Hollow Core of the Tea Party Movement

Remember how the Tea Party was going to remake America through the principles of constitutional conservatism? From the famous rant by CNBC Reporter Rick Santelli in 2009 (when he proclaimed on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade that taxpayers should not be forced to bail out irresponsible holders of subprime mortgages) to the anti-tax protests by conservatives in tri-corner hats to the wave of “Teapublicans” elected to Congress in the 2010 midterms on platforms to oppose Obama and the bailouts, a new conservative movement (with Fox News, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh at their back) appeared poised to upset the Washington establishment from the right.

All that seems so, so long ago. In just a few short years, the new freshman Tea Party class became tainted with their own inevitable association with “Washington insiders.”  A surprisingly large proportion of the TeaParty class of 2010 has already been booted or have otherwise retired--18 out of the 84 who won office on the Tea Party wave have already left.

In fact, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (both elected to the Senate on a broad wave of Tea Party discontent) have been faced with the conundrum of how to deliver to their constituents while maintaining near impossible standards of ideological purity. The two freshman senators took different routes. Rubio tried to deliver on the goods. In the process, however, he compromised his ideological bona fides (and his chances at the White House, according to many Tea Party supporters) with his effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform as a member of the famed ‘Gang of Eight.’ Cruz, on the other hand, sacrificed his constituent interests on the altar of ideological consistency, making a name for himself by helping to shut down the government in 2013 in an effort to defund Obamacare.  Although earning the contempt of nearly all of his colleagues in the Senate, Cruz set himself up nicely for a presidential run with the support of a very pissed off conservative base.

Today, the Tea Party struggles to remain relevant in Trump’s America. For years, the movement has been in decline. From a high of 52 percent in late 2010, the popularity of the Tea Party among Republicans alone has dropped to 38 percent in 2014-15. Today, only 17 percent of Americans identify with them overall, although they remain a sizeable (and mobilized) group in the GOP.

Enter Trump. From the time he descended on that elevator to announce his candidacy in June 2015 to the present, Trump has not only divided (and thus neutered) the evangelical voting bloc in the primary, but he also reveals the hollow core of the Tea Party movement.

The majority of Tea Party supporters today support Trump, many positions of whom run almost directly counter to fiscal conservativism. A Feb. 25 poll by Quinnipiac University found that Trump had the support of more than half of Republicans who identified as Tea Party supporters. Cruz had 28 percent among that group. Rubio, who was carried into the Senate in 2010 with Tea Party support, was backed by just 13 percent.

Trump represents an odd choice for those who identify as libertarians.

The Tea (“Taxed Enough Already”) Party had been founded on the principles of lower taxes, reducing the size of government, reduced regulations, and challenging the constitutionality of entitlement programs. Below are the 10 points of the 2010 Contract from America. Penned by a Tea Party activist, these are widely taken to be articles of faith of the Tea Party as a whole, having been culled from thousands of ideas solicited from the rank and file. 

  1. Identify constitutionality of every new law:
  2. Reject emissions trading:
  3. Demand a balanced federal budget:
  4. Simplify the tax system:
  5. Audit federal government agencies for constitutionality:
  6. Limit annual growth in federal spending:
  7. Repeal the health care legislation passed on March 23, 2010:
  8. Pass an 'All-of-the-Above' Energy Policy:
  9. Reduce Earmarks:
  10. Reduce Taxes:
The Koch brothers and their well-heeled associates played a key role in curating the list, and their hand can be seen at every turn--points 2 and 8 are about deregulating energy production and sales; points 1, 3, 5, 6, and 9 are about limiting the federal government, and no. 4 and 10 are about reduced taxation. These are the long-held policy priorities of the two billionaire oil tycoons. In fact, in his 1980 presidential run, Charles Koch railed against taxes and vowed to tear the government out "by the root."

However libertarian positions are not nearly so beloved by the Tea Party base, and Trump has since blown apart the fragile policy alliance.

To Tea Party supporters and other traditional GOP voters, Trump has made a diametrically opposite pitch. His biggest selling point in the election cycle has been his much-derided “big beautiful wall,” which would be erected on the southern border with Mexico to keep “illegals” out. He also supports deporting the 11 million-odd undocumented residents in the US, enacting protectionist policies to support American businesses, preventing the offshoring of American jobs, using torture against "our enemies," using the threat of nuclear weapons in negotiating with hostile powers, and "taking out" ISIS and their families through a massive bombing campaign. As for the constitution (much revered by Tea Party supporters), Trump appears to regard it as little more than inconsequential regulations standing in the way of his policy agenda--whether it be eliminating birthright citizenship (actually in the constitution itself!) or achieving policy change through executive orders (thus circumventing Congress). Trump is anti-free trade, anti-free borders, and favors a strong and intrusive executive leader, much like Vladimir Putin, whose virtues he has in the past extolled.  Apparently, the feeling is mutual

How could self-described fiscal conservative free traders (as Tea Party supporters claim to be) throw their enthusiastic support behind a populist nationalist who supports generous use (or threat) of trade barriers, a giant physical wall on the southern border and a ban (however temporary) on Muslims traveling to the United States?

The reason is that Tea Party base was never really on board with the corporate or corporate-backed funders of the movement such as Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, Heritage Action, and FreedomWorks. Researchers have discovered, in fact, that the Tea Party movement has not been so much animated by fiscal conservativism, but rather by reactionary reactionary movement by the white majority who see themselves falling behind, and by strong elements of social conservatism and right-wing authoritarianism. It turns out that many Tea Party supporters (like many in the current Republican base) actually prefer a strong authoritarian leader who promises to return them (disproportionately white, male, older) to a time when they were on top, when they didn’t have to think about—let alone share power with—women, minorities or non-Christians. A time when their beliefs about the correct social order matched that of reality.

Simply put, the Tea Party base never really took its proclaimed principles to heart. Journalist Matt Taibbi conducted research the movement and observed that Tea Partiers were anti-tax and anti-entitlement, except when it came to their own entitlements. He concludes:

“the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them.”

What are they motivated by? Tribalism, pure and simple:

“The core of the Tea Party was little more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ("radical leftists" is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do — and, it would seem, no matter what their own leaders like Rand Paul [and lately, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz] do.”

In the end, the Trump insurgency is probably just one more step in the gradual collapse of the GOP coalition. However, it is also possible that it heralds something more serious and much more dangerous. That we may be in the midst of a fascist moment is a possibility raised by a number of commentators. Noam Chomsky spoke of just such a danger decades ago

“The marginalization of the population and its separation from institutions could potentially lead to a mass base for a fascist movement. We’ve been extremely lucky in the United States that we’ve never really had a charismatic leader who was capable or organizing people around power and its use. There were people who came close, but most of them couldn’t make it... In a depoliticized society with few mechanisms for people to express their fears and needs and to participate constructively in managing the affairs of life, someone could come along who was interested not in personal gain, but in power. That could be very dangerous.”


Monday, February 29, 2016

It’s the Economy, Stupid!—2016 Redux

Journalists and analysts are shocked, shocked that the GOP voting base has apparently thrown their support behind a rabble-rousing troll hate-spewing twitter troll with a Queens accent who speaks with a fourth grade vocabulary.  Many also appear flummoxed that Democrats have bestowed so much of their support to an elderly Socialist Jew from Brooklyn who wants, like Jesus (another Socialist Jew), to throw the moneychangers out of the temple.

The sense of outrage and dismay is palpable in nearly every political talk show and across news networks from Fox News to MSNBC. Even President Barack Obama admitted that he was surprised by their popularity, but felt that the race would ultimately give way to more "serious" candidates.

Election analysts have proven rather flat-footed this election cycle. David Karol, co-author of The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform (which argues that in the U.S. parties play a crucial role in winnowing election choices) acknowledged in an interview that “Donald Trump is really a unique candidate. It just has to be said: He doesn’t fit a lot of…paradigms and models. In some ways every election is different.”  According to Political Scientist Larry Sabato, however, “If Trump is nominated, then everything we think we know about presidential nominations is wrong.”

Nate Silver, statistical Wunderkind who has predicted numerous US elections with scary accuracy, gave Trump only a 5 percent chance of winning the nomination as late as December. He too declared Trump not a serious candidate and has only recently conceded that he might have underestimated Trump's chances of winning the GOP nomination. 

What everyone can agree on is that this is the year of the “outsider.” The reasons given for Trump's rise in particular have ranged from differing amounts of free media coverage (Trump has by far the most) to an irresponsible media that privileges ratings over its traditional watchdog function to failure of establishment to take on Trump to no one actually taking Trump seriously as a viable candidate.

The actual supporters of "outsider" candidates, meanwhile, are widely derided in the media. Sanders supporters are unrealistic and "becoming a problem." Trump supporters suffer significantly more contempt for supporting a candidate who is poorly qualified for the job and unlikely to represent their interests. These voters are "living in a childlike fantasy land"and may also be idiots and racists.  

Some in the Beltway media are scratching their heads over the degree of populism and anger in the electorate. People should be more content. After all, consumer sentiment is at a multi-year high, unemployment at a multi-year low (at 4.5 percent), and people have made boatloads of money in one of the longest bull markets in American history.

What these analysts and pundits miss—and what both Sanders and Trump get on a visceral level—is that, for a large swath of voters, the economy (and their living standards) really are not fine. The middle and lower classes have had stagnating wages for several decades. Particularly since 2000, their productively has continued to increase linearly, while wages and median family income have not kept up.

It may be objected that wealth inequality and stagnating wages are a multi-decade, structural problem, and therefore cannot explain the voter revolt of 2016. But in fact, the problems—though long-festering—may have even gotten worse since the Great Recession of 2008 when Obama was first elected. Voters on the happy side of the economic divide have largely recovered from the recession, having gained back their stock losses and then some. On top of this, they generally have job security, excellent employer-provided benefits (including good health insurance), and the like. For them, a Rubio or Clinton victory offers what they want--basically, the status quo.

For voters on the wrong side of the economic divide, however, most of their wealth has been in home equity, not stocks. And millions of Americans lost their houses after the crash, or have mortgages that are now unaffordable or underwater. Many others are in a situation where buying a home is not an option but rents are sky-high, while their income and wealth never really recovered from the losses of 2008.

The above chart shows that the percentage of people suffering significant ongoing economic hardship is both substantial and has not really declined since the Global Recession. Meanwhile, all but the wealthiest Americans have experienced wage stagnation.

Reporting on a 2014 survey by Pew Trust, Clayton Browne said, “One of the most troubling findings in the new Pew survey is that the rate of Americans falling behind financially remains stuck at 56%. This statistic hit an all time-low of 57% during the financial crisis of 2008, and refuses to budge upwards despite all of the economic “good news” over the last six years.” 

These two charts show that a large chunk of the public is still in the same or worse economic position as in 2008-9, and they also believe that America is going on the wrong track--an excellent proxy for voter dissatisfaction with the institutional status quo.

This dissatisifaction extends to the presidential race. 

On the left, Clinton has staked out a moderate position, promising to build on the achievements of the Obama administration. Speaking to supporters in Alabama, the New York senator offered, "Although I'm not running for my husband's third term or Obama's third term…. I will proudly carry forward the record of Democratic achievement." According to one of Clinton's surrogates, "Hillary is a pragmatic progressive--she's not an advocate...She quietly pulls people together and gets things done. Even though that's not in vogue right now, i think that' what voters will want in the end." 

On the right, current establishment favorite, Senator Marco Rubio, stands for mainline GOP party positions, including building up the military while slashing all other government spending to 2008 levels, promoting rights of unborn fetuses, repealing Obamacare and offering tax credits for people to buy private insurance, opposing climate change legislation, and opposing net neutrality.  It is worth noting that there are not many programmatic differences between Rubio and those remaining in the GOP field

The outsider/insider divide maps onto class differences. Rubio enjoys the backing of people who have college degrees and are wealthy, while "outsider" Donald Trump does best with poorly educated and working class voters. On the Democratic side, Clinton enjoy the support of older and wealthier voters. Exit polls conducted in the New Hampshire primary indicated that Sanders won every demographic group except voters who made over 200,000 dollars a year, who went for Clinton.   A CNBC poll even had her winning a hypothetical match-up against Jeb Bush among millionaire voters

Whatever you may think about Trump and Sanders (who are polar opposites politically and in nearly every other way), they appeal to disaffected Americans on both ends of the political spectrum. The very promise of revolutionary change (no matter how apparently ill-conceived) is becoming ever more attractive to the growing percentage of Americans who find themselves shut out of the American Dream.

Many Americans do not understand these sentiments, in part because they are not living it--the economic status quo is serving them quite well. However, this year the winds of change are stirring, as many Americans no longer willing to buy what the establishment is selling.