The Limits of Whig History


From Anne Applebaum’s article in the Washington Post:

History repeats itself and so do ideas, but never in exactly the same way. Bolshevik thinking in 2017 does not sound exactly the way it sounded in 1917… The current leader of the British Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, also comes out of the old pro-Soviet far left. He has voiced anti-American, anti-NATO, anti-Israel, and even anti-British (and pro-IRA) sentiments for decades — predictable views that no longer sound shocking to a generation that cannot remember who sponsored them in the past. Within his party there is a core of radicals who speak of overthrowing capitalism and bringing back nationalization….

By contrast, the neo-Bolsheviks of the new right or alt-right do not want to conserve or to preserve what exists. They are not Burkeans but radicals who want to overthrow existing institutions. Instead of the false and misleading vision of the future offered by Lenin and Trotsky, they offer a false and misleading vision of the past. They conjure up worlds made up of ethnically or racially pure nations, old-fashioned factories, traditional male-female hierarchies and impenetrable borders…

It’s worth reading.  Ms. Applebaum correctly identifies many of the troubling trends threatening western democracy.

However, it is also a Whig history narrative too kind to today’s status quo.  It paints with too broad a brush, pathologizing as “Bolshevism” any significant critique of the ascendant neoliberal view.  Yes, many of the views denounced are truly awful, but its overly broad brushes excludes ideas – particularly economic ones – whose inclusion may prove necessary.

She chides both leftist and rightists for hewing to a false version of the past – in the case of the left, to a lack of knowledge on socialism’s failures that would have made figures like Corbyn seem like dinosaurs in the 1990s.  On the right she derides the “a false and misleading vision of the past”, with “traditional male-female hierarchies”, “old-fashioned factories”, and “impenetrable borders” being exemplars of illusion.

If other readings of the past are false, the correct reading is the Whig one, which recognizes the inevitable rise of global markets, open borders, and ever-expanding individualism.  In brief, history culminates in the worldview one might find in The Economist.  It rules out any nationalization of industry or stronger borders of the kind common several decades ago.  It cedes enormous determinative powers to the market to shape policy.  It winks at the disconnectedness of what the left calls “the 1%” and the right refers to as “the cosmopolitan elite” (criticism of which Applebaum insinuatingly links with anti-Semitism) from the citizens with whom they share borders.  It severely limits democratic policy choices under the rationale that history demonstrates we have no alternative but to pursue a set of policies broadly in line with New Labour.

Granted, such an “Economist worldview” has much to recommend it.  At its best, it comes as close to supporting a worldview based on scientific policy as we humans are capable of.  It is also a far better bet than radical alternatives peddled by left or right.

However, the limiting historical narrative profoundly ignores the sources of discontent that have bubbled to the surface in the new millennium.  Why, for example, are so many young people drawn to Corbyn in 2017?  It is indeed probable that many of his supporters do not understand the inefficiencies engendered by old Labour that led to their eclipse by the Blairites.  But the suffering caused by 1970’s inefficiencies should not necessarily take on greater policy importance or relevance than the income stagnation and skyrocketing housing prices of the past several decades.  After all, if history has proven nationalization and economic borders unfeasible, surely the past several decades of western middle and working class economic performance has likewise shown neoliberalism’s fruits to be highly mixed.  It doesn’t take a Bolshevik to note that while economic inefficiency is an evil, so is social inequality – and it may be that sometimes a little inefficiency is worth greater equality, especially where the price is political instability.

Applebaum also chides today’s emerging right for its non-Burkean approach.  In many ways, she is correct.   There is virtually nothing of which a Burkean would approve in Trump’s delivery or lack of respect for institutions.  There was likewise a distasteful messianic element in the man’s campaign – and though in this he paled to Obama, Trump’s incarnation has included an unsavoury strongman element.  Ultimately, Trump presents a threat to democratic institutions that any Burkean must acknowledge.

Yet Applebaum goes too far in her accusations of “Bolshevism”, by which she broadly means wanting to destroy and create anew rather than conserve.  In part this may be due to the breakneck speed of social change, which often demonizes those who wish to maintain institutions common only twenty years ago.  But if the conservative is denied preservation of meaningful borders or traditional familial relationships, what is left?  Such a stripped down conservativism leaves primarily economic rights, with a sprinkling of peripheral issues like Second Amendment claptrap – or in other words, the increasingly discredited worldview of old guard Republicans.

The crux of the problem is that there are few easy answers to today’s policy problems.  Many of the prescriptions of the left and right are indeed the stuff of fantasy.  But nor is the solution to pretend history ended in 1999, borrowing even from the lexicon of that century to mischaracterize and safely dismiss today’s diverse actors.

Ultimately, the neoliberal worldview may indeed prove the correct one:  ever more connected markets, increasingly invisible borders, and traditional family and community structures swept away by liberated individualism.  The economic inequalities of the past decades may yet, as neoliberals hope, level out one day – if not quite into a utopia rivaling the dictatorship of the proletariat, then at least into a world of modest, sustained, year-by-year middle-class wage growth.

Or it may not.  One way forward economically may lie in the pattern common to capitalism in the past:  adopting some of the notions of its critics while preserving the fundamental structure of the system.  Illustrative in this were Bismarck’s adaptation of elements of the socialist platform or FDR’s New Deal break with austerity and limited government.  I personally wonder whether some greater measure of “economic nationalism” (though free of the taint of Steve Bannon) may again be seen as necessary or fashionable – a trajectory made more likely if China, with its simultaneous emphasis on free trade and very strong economic nationalist tendencies, continues its national rejuvenation.   For someone who deeply subscribes to the Whig reading, however, this may seem an unacceptable step backwards.

Even if that does not happen, it is clear that a Whig history narrative excludes important trends and legitimate challenges.  It limits unnecessarily the options of policy makers and explains away too easily the failures of recent decades.  As a result, it has often missed the popular discontent it must now face.

Violating Democrat Norms for the Cause


As most Canadians are now aware, Canadian Governor General Julie Payette made this controversial statement at a science policy convention on Wednesday:

“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she said….

And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.

Payette is utilizing her office to arbitrate on metaphysical claims.  In dismissing the notion that “life was a divine intervention”, she is arguing God played no role in the creation of life, and if you don’t believe that too, she is amazed at how stupid you are.

Whether or not you believe God played a role in the existence of life, it is highly inappropriate for the Canadian Governor General to use her office to weigh in on the question, much less deride those who believe differently than her.

This is not merely an abstract metaphysical claim that has no bearing on politics.  If the religious viewpoint can be openly derided by the highest office in Canada, it follows the religious people have diminished place in the public square to voice opinions or help inform policy.  If you are a secularist, this may not seem a bad thing to you – but again, it is not the place of the Governor General to be making these decisions and influencing the direction of policy.

Her comments were also completely unnecessary.  It is entirely possible to mouth platitudes on the importance of science – which the ceremonial Governor General should be doing at such events – without making political statements.

However, those who believe in “the cause” feel differently.  Take federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who has been waging a Twitter offensive with tweets and retweets in support of Ms. Payette.  For such folks, the ends justify the means.  In their universe, promotion of a particular worldview takes precedence over functional Canadian institutions.

After all, it’s hard to imagine that the same folks who are lauding Payette now would feel similarly supportive if she had commented, say, “can you believe that there are people who aren’t aware of how science tells us that a fetus has DNA unique from its mother?”

To be clear, such a hypothetical statement would likewise be very inappropriate from the Governor General.  Yet it is almost certain that were she to say that – which at least is a statement of scientific fact – the reaction on all sides would be wildly different.

Canada has managed to avoid many of the challenges that Trump’s inappropriate rhetoric and tweets have posed to democracy.  Trump’s supporters – even though who know better – frequently turn a blind eye because they too believe the statements further the cause.

Of course, the threats posed by Ms. Payette’s comments are a far, far cry from the danger posed by those of the US President. But they are still significant enough that she needs to be called on it.  The precedent of allowing the Governor General to weigh in on political and metaphysical matters must be nipped firmly and squarely in the bud by any Canadian who believes in the institutions of Canadian democracy – even where such statements may align with “the cause.”

A Pew Study and the Inner Ring


How convinced should we be of the righteousness of our views?  To what extent are they the product of sober reason or the result of social factors?  David Brooks’s recent column  , which  reviews Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think, wades into this question.   From Brooks:

It’s when we get to the social world that things really get gnarly. A lot of our thinking is for bonding, not truth-seeking, so most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, “the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approve”….

[Alan Jacobs’ book] makes good use of C. S. Lewis’s concept of the Inner Ring. In every setting — a school, a company or a society — there is an official hierarchy. But there may also be a separate prestige hierarchy, where the cool kids are. They are the Inner Ring.

There are always going to be people who desperately want to get into the Inner Ring and will cut all sorts of intellectual corners to be accepted. As Lewis put it, “The passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

People will, for example, identify and attack what Jacobs calls the Repugnant Cultural Other — the group that is opposed to the Inner Ring, which must be assaulted to establish membership in it…

Now consider this recent Pew Study.  Unsurprisingly the study shows that on key issues the partisan divide between left and right has grown significantly since 1994.

What’s most interesting to me is that, on most issues, left-leaning respondents have undergone a far larger ideological shift since 1994 compared to those on the right.  One striking example of this is found on the question of whether “immigrants strengthen the country with their hard work and talents.”  Whereas 32% of Democrats / Leaning-Democrat respondents agreed in 1994, a massive 84% agree today.  Conversely, for right-leaning voters, that figure has increased much more modestly, up from 30% to 42% over the same period.

To be clear, there is no single explanation for this.  Those on the left could argue convincingly that the data and experiences of the past several decades have demonstrated the correctness of their views on issues like immigration and climate change.  However, opinion-forming borne of socialization and personal longing to be part of some Inner Ring may also partly help explain the remarkable changes.

The theory is this:  right and left-leaning voters alike, by virtue of both being human, are prone to wanting to hold the “correct” opinions for social rather than intellectual reasons.  But what’s different is that on most of these questions the left-leaning answer has since 1994 increasingly become the elite consensus opinion.  These would be the views most commonly expressed in leading academic institutions and in the educated reader’s most influential media, like The New York Times and The Washington Post.  They are also the views most common found in Hollywood and at top-tier tech giants like Google and Facebook.  The internet age, which began around the same time the data began to be gathered, has greatly magnified the power, reach, and allure of these institutions.   Thus not only are there consistent social reinforcement, but also personal temptation and rewards in espousing the views of the right-thinking classes.

If one believes that the Inner Ring phenomenon is possible – the desire to belong to the cool group, to espouse the right opinions – it clearly also exists on the right.  There is after all the testimony of liberal small-town folks living in red states, including the fear of being ostracized for being in the out-group.  Nor is this to say that there isn’t another kind of allure for some in being truth-peddling iconoclasts against dominant orthodoxies.  It’s just that, on balance, the digital age mass-culture and economic allure of Oklahoma, Texas, and Mississippi is dwarfed by that of California, DC, and New York.

But I don’t want to over-egg the pudding.  Again, there are clearly a wide number of influences that form our views beyond social pressures.  In its extreme, it would suggest we are incapable of reasoned opinions and scientific policy, and a relativistic world where there are not sometimes genuinely better views.  It also has the danger of being a “one-size fits all” hypothesis, of being broken down endlessly and tediously to explain too vast a range of behaviours, as Freud’s theories once did.  But an honest appraisal of our own lives and views may suggest for you – as it does for me – there could be real explanatory potential in the Inner Ring hypothesis.

As such, our own opinions need honest and ongoing review.  This means not so much Maoist self-criticism exercises as facilitating an awareness of the emotional or social reasons why we think the way we do, together with an honest appraisal of the limits of our knowledge.  “The only thing I know is that I know nothing” may or may not be true, but at least there’s some damn fine company in thinking so.

Giving Columbus the Confederate Treatment


Americans ritually observed another front in the culture wars this week on Columbus Day / Indigenous Peoples’ Day.  An increasing number of cities and states are abandoning the man once revered by most Americans for “sailing the ocean blue” in 1492,  the names of whose three ships children were patriotically required to memorize.   Like all conflicts over historical memory, this one is driven by present-day power struggles, the rhetoric and narrative of which frequently obscures reasoned analysis.  This August in Baltimore,  “the purported first-ever monument to the explorer, erected in 1792, was attacked with a sledgehammer.”     At its root, the Columbus Day controversy poses the question of how America can build a historical narrative that satisfies most Americans.

In the traditionalist view, one purpose behind Columbus Day is the celebration of the chain of events that led to the establishment of the country and to our prosperous democracy, for which we can in many ways be thankful.  It is part of the story of America.  Is it as significant in the American consciousness as Independence Day or as linked to the founding myths as Thanksgiving?  Clearly not, but it has had resonance throughout American history.

Per the Washington Post:

The first reported Columbus Day celebration was held in New York in October 1792 to mark the tricentennial of his voyage. That same year, a French diplomat in Baltimore erected a 44-foot stucco obelisk creating what some historians believe was the first Columbus memorial in the Americas, if not the world.

His grip on the public imagination grew after Washington Irving penned a biography of Columbus in 1828.  And an increasing number of Catholic immigrants latched onto his story as an apt symbol of their own arrival. Near the time of the Columbus quadricentennial in 1892, the Columbian Exhibition at the World’s Fair in Chicago was a sensation. Memorials began going up around the country, including a huge fountain sculpture in front of Washington’s Union Station.

Cynics may observe that Columbus Day has also been a vehicle for the Italian-American community to celebrate its culture and promote its Americanness.  To draw upon a scholarly source, the characters in the Sopranos certainly thought so.   His “discovery” is also based on myth – that he proved the earth was round, not flat, is one such piece of nonsense.  But the figure of Columbus obviously had important and positive historical resonance with mainstream American society as well.  Why?  Because his “discovery” set in motion the chain of events that made the USA possible, from the pilgrims until the present.

For supporters of Indigenous Day, conversely, the issue is a morally simple one.   Not only were the actions of the man himself questionable even by the standards of his own day, but his “discovery” enabled the genocide and centuries of displacement and cultural degradation that followed.  The indigenous victims of the expansion still feel the effects of centuries of displacement and genocide to this day, a fact which few observers of the average indigenous quality of life could deny.

Is this view the correct one?  It is a very strong argument.  One thing that is certain is that by attempting to extirpate Columbus Day from the calendar by substituting it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, traditionalists can understandably view it as an implicit attack on the legitimacy of the American tradition.  At the very least, it is at least a change in historical focus.

This change in emphasis is part of a broader overall shift.   Traditionalist Americans may resent a history that casts their ancestors as aggressors and other people as victims – even though that narrative often has truth to it.   It is a newer narrative that frequently casts older America myths and traditions not as things to be celebrated, but rather reviled.

Another way to adjudicate this question is in the parallel recent issue of statutes honouring the Confederacy, which are now coming down throughout the USA.   This parallel is useful because, while the two issues are part of the same broad question of historical narrative and have many of the same players on both sides, they are still different enough that the response to one does not necessitate the same feelings about the other.  The core animating issue of the Confederacy was its desire to keep other human beings as slaves – that which was positive about it was at best a certain kind of aristocratic gentility, which was in any case highly romanticized and built upon the scarred backs of chattel slaves.  Confederate statutes, erected decades after the Civil War, more obviously represent something odious with few redeeming features, and their removal is warranted.

Conversely, presenting Columbus as an icon of genocide, whose memory must likewise be cleansed and purged from the public square, is a more difficult moral judgement. If his discoveries made possible the evil that came after, they also made possible a great good:   setting the process in motion that culminated in the democracy enjoyed today by hundreds of millions.   None of that, however, detracts from the fact that Indigenous Peoples have excellent cause to protest celebration of the man.

For the time being, while I celebrate the empowerment and celebration of indigenous peoples, I am uneasy about seeing Columbus’ memory increasingly displaced from the public square or as a target of iconoclast ire.  While recognizing the grave historical injustices that occurred and whose effects are still ongoing to this day, I do not subscribe to the broader “aggressors and victims” narrative of American or western history.  It is too simplistic, too divisive, and too antithetical to a healthy national identity.

It is disconcerting that there is no obvious resolution to this question.  Of course, historical myths needn’t be logical or even wholly true, so future myths and holidays that more easily include and satisfy most Americans may still be possible.  That is made more difficult when such questions are not adjudicated by dialogue and discussion, but rather by hammers, ideologues, outrage police, and Nazi thugs with tiki-torches.

The Second Amendment is an Unhealthy Relic


Full disclosure:  I am Canadian.  That cultural barrier may mean I will never “get” the fixation of some of my American friends and neighbours on the Second Amendment and its right to bear arms.  To me, the Second Amendment is an outdated feature of the early democratic experiment, a relic that has long outlived its usefulness, and the “right” of gun ownership a positive threat to communal safety.

In the US, however, firearms are part of the conception of fundamental democratic rights as understood by many Americans, evidenced by the Second Amendment.  Just last summer, Trump appeared to encourage political violence if Hilary Clinton were to toughen gun laws.   Evidence also shows that fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than in the 1990s. What is going on?

The first place to look is at the Second Amendment itself.  One very common defense of the Second Amendment focuses on the right to bear arms as necessary to maintain the existence of a democratic state, and without which, the government would devolve into tyranny or perhaps be overwhelmed by foreign invasion.  For the Founding Fathers worried about the longevity of the republican experiment and drawing on the experiences of the Revolutionary War, the concern may have been warranted.

In the event, this does not appear to be supported by the evidence.  One might ask if there has ever been occasion in the past two centuries to think “but for guns…”  In other words, are there concrete examples where, but for the existence of an armed citizenry, the US would have devolved into tyranny?  The existence and proper function of democratic institutions lies not in ownership of firearms, but in the prevalence and acceptance of these norms by its citizens.  This does not require an armed citizenry to flourish.  In America, the crucial foundations for this tradition were borne from the centuries of English democratic evolution and confirmed by President Washington’s personal humility and commitment to democracy.

Across the pond, continental Europe and the UK enjoy their own democratic traditions and robust freedoms without such laws.   Even Switzerland, famous among European nations for widespread possession of firearms among its citizen army, does not allow most of those militia members to carry bullets at home.

Given the overwhelming might a modern government could deploy against its own citizens with drones, fighter jets, tanks and weapons of mass destruction, the calculus of our current age is also radically different from that of the Founding Fathers.  In the early republic, Washington’s generation would have envisioned Napoleonic set-battles or Revolutionary guerilla warfare which featured far greater parity between sides.  The asymmetry between a repressive government and citizenry is now orders of magnitudes higher.  Fantasies of resistance to that dystopian government may presuppose the empirically dubious causal link between arms and democracy, but even if they did not, the small advantage to be gained in that unlikely hypothetical are outweighed obscenely against the costs paid every day in reality.

Yet these arguments hold little water with supporters of gun rights.  Take again these statistics provided by CNN illustrating that far fewer Americans today support strict gun laws than was the case in 1990.  Between 1999 and 2013, the biggest justification for gun ownership, “protection”, increased from 26% of gun owners to 48%.  Yet the evidence shows there is actually less gun violence today than in the 1990s.  

So why does the US seem like a less safe place for gun owners? Perhaps it owes something to the familial and societal breakdown suffered by many lower-income Americans.  For an American victim of decades of wage stagnation, and who is also no longer able to depend on the same degree of familial or church support as in previous generations, the world may indeed appear much less safe.  The post 9/11 and post-Columbine world, with its spectacular acts of random mass violence, may also play a role.

Another key place to look is in the statements of the NRA itself.  This recent NRA advertisement presents a world where firearms are the bulwark against the onslaught of the liberal hordes.  This advertisement suggests the need to bear arms is indeed borne from political fear.

Such conceptions appear little more than paranoid delusions and disgusting right-wing fantasies, the indulgers of which warrant Hillary Clinton’s infamous epithet “deplorables”.  They are also highly alarming indicators of societal breakdown, fueled in no small measure by lurid imaginations and NRA propaganda.  They are part and parcel with Trump’s veiled threat against Clinton.

Yet, like all effective propaganda, they contain a kernel of truth.  In this instance, albeit in hideously disfigured form,  there is legitimate concern over progressive ideological domination in certain cultural arenas.  This is hardly only the concern of the violent extremists that this ad is designed to appeal to.  But for the NRA and its supporters, this concern manifests in fetid, overblown fantasies of a hostile regime where armed protection is the answer.

Another reason why there may be less support for stricter gun laws is the notion that, even were the most draconian prohibitions on gun ownership in place, criminals would still obtain firearms, putting law-abiding citizens at a disadvantage.  There are good reasons for questioning whether this would actually be true – but conjecture aside, this view is undeniably pessimistic.  It presupposes the inefficacy of laws and police on a significant enough scale that citizens must arm themselves to be safe.

Regardless, Americans are for better or worse stuck with the Second Amendment, though long gone are the days of Washington and front-loading muskets.  Though there remains much to admire about the United States, I cannot help but be relieved a constitutional right to bear arms does not exist in my country.  And while US gun violence is down, the perceived need to bear arms is increasing, an increase which may be explained by fears of a hostile, collapsing world where laws can no longer protect citizens.  The existence of the Second Amendment makes possible this unhealthy reaction.  Far from promoting the stability of the democratic experiment as Washington’s generation intended, the outdated Second Amendment may be driving it in the opposite direction.

Constitutional Monarchy: Symbol of Ideological Tolerance


How does a constitutional monarchy justify itself within the framework of a twenty-first century democratic state?   With the British Queen now 91 years old, expect this question to be re-emerge in the not-too-distant future.  For many observers, there can no longer be a justification.  The contradictions are too great between our system, with its claims of equality for all, versus a ruling family in power by accident of birth.  Thomas Paine’s Common Sense brilliantly laid bare the absurdities of monarchical claims and privilege, and the broad trajectory of western civilization has been anti-monarchical ever sense.

In recent years, certain corners of the internet have witnessed the peculiar and imaginative musing of neo-reactionary Jacobites.  Fantasies of absolute monarchy or of dynasty last in power 330 years ago may make for escapist musings for eccentrics.  But what about for the vast majority of us who, for all democracy’s faults, believe in Churchill’s dictum that it is the worst system except for all the others?  Is it possible for democrats today to logically believe in a constitutional monarchy?  For Americans, the re-imposition of a monarchy, constitutional or otherwise, would be absurd and unwanted.  But for citizens of the Commonwealth like myself, not only is it possible for democrats to support constitutional monarchy, but it also carries with it a particular virtue our society desperately needs:  ideological tolerance.

In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom wrote:

“There is [in our democratic society] a general agreement about the most fundamental political principles, and therefore doubts about them have no status. In aristocracies there was also the party of the people, but in democracy there is no aristocratic party. This means that there is no protection for the opponents of the governing principles as well as no respectability for them.”

Bloom correctly observed that democratic ideals tend to lead us toward a certain degree of intellectual conformity.  There cannot be any respectable person that does not hold with them.  I myself am a firm believer in democracy and in its demonstrable merits relative to other systems, but I also recognize much truth in Bloom’s claim.  In the modern world, all regimes carry with them particular ideologies, enforced with varying degrees of rigidity in schools, media and popular culture.  Democracies are no different in this respect, though both the type and severity of their enforcement are far more benign and relaxed than in other regime types.

Nevertheless, democracy’s fundamental premise of “equality” has seen a slow but relentless expansion, particularly in recent decades, in pursuit of a certain type of “equality”, frequently informed by neo-Marxists, which is held to be a good preferable to all others.   In education, for example, equality has come in practice to mean the elimination of most of the canon – once taught to top students – in favour of works conformist mandarins deem as “accessible” or “relevant” to all.  Even our history appears at times to contain little of value, except where it may be mined for fodder in the fight for “equality.”

To be clear, our society should unquestionably implement measures to level the playing field, with the most obvious being free and universal public education.  There can also be no tolerance for the cancer of racism, an irrational prejudice that would deny equality and dignity for arbitrary reasons.  But it is reasonable to observe that many projects aimed at “equality” may be sacrificing treasures for magic beans, or to put it more neutrally, may not be achieving what they set out to do.  It is also reasonable to wonder whether democratic regimes may be pushing us further and further down a particular ideological path.  This is still not quite Soviet Lysenkoism, but still worth considering.

This is where constitutional monarchy affords some ideological breathing space.  Instead of insisting that the entire state conform to utopian visions of equality, the constitutional monarchist broadly acknowledges the superiority of democracy as a mechanism to govern the polis and loves the freedom that it brings, but still allows for some areas of non-conformity within even the symbols and institutions of the state.  It is a counterweight, however small, to plutocracy, technocracy, and utopian radicalism.  It is certainly more human than any of these things.

Constitutional monarchy is a frank acknowledgement of human nature, which is not wholly rational.  It is admittedly inherently Burkean, knowing that it is the product of centuries of democratic evolution and that there is no guarantee that whatever replaced it would be better.  It acknowledges some space for tradition in a world that is being rapidly changed (in many respects for the better) by technology and global integration.  It admires the stability constitutional monarchy has afforded the UK vis-à-vis almost every other land on earth.   It loves democracy and its institutions, but is suspicious of demands for ideological purity.  And so, I personally have little faith that, if the monarchy were tomorrow abolished in my country of Canada, its replacement would change our society for the better.

Does constitutional monarchy still bring with it questions of unearned privilege, of snotty-nosed Etonians looking down on the plebs from a world of unearned privilege?  Yes, even in 2017 it does, and this is perhaps the least palatable side of the institution.  But at least this unpleasant characteristic is frank and widely understood, comes with obligations, and is not hidden beneath a hypocritical veneer of classlessness as may increasingly be the case in the USA.

Naturally it would be absurd to desire the imposition of constitutional monarchies in states which are now republics.  This would be reaction, an absurd imposition opposed to the national character of most republics, and would only mean the weakening of democracy.  Nor would an expansion of royal power in constitutional monarchies be remotely desirable.  However, for citizens of the Commonwealth states, supporting the existing democratic monarchies as a bulwark against the excesses of our regimes is the moderate position.   When the inevitable question of republicanism arises after the current British queen passes, Commonwealth citizens should be aware of the tolerant, patchwork character of what they now have, and look upon demands for monarchy’s abolition with a healthy skepticism of why and what that might mean.

Many Roads Led to Trump, but Look to the Swing States

Rust Belt Economic Decline

On the night of November 9, 2016, a new political quiz emerged.  It’s both revealing and simple, consisting of a single question:  “why did Trump win?”  Common responses include racism, economic anxiety, misogyny, progressive overreach, the prevalence of self-contained “bubbles” on the left and right, and Russian interference.   Whatever your preferred answer is, it tells a lot about what you think is today’s most significant social issue.

Most moderates would agree that “all of the above probably played some role, to greater or lesser degrees.”  This is correct and should be the foundation for further analysis, but it’s also a bit of a bland truism.  It bears passing mention here as, sadly, it is not always a widely-held notion among ideologues.  This is demonstrated by the shrill and polemical character of many explanatory pieces, like this ludicrously self-assured piece by Mr. Monomania, Ta-Nehisi Coates.  So the correct follow-up is:  okay, all the above factors may have played some role, but is there one that’s weightier than the others?  I admit I’m most partial to economic anxiety.  Here’s why and what it says about folks like me.

Unlike the agitprop of Mr. Coates, I admit my explanation has its weaknesses .   The most glaring is that people with an income of $50,000 were more  likely to vote for Clinton.    There isn’t any way to entirely explain this fact away.  It clearly does suggest that the relationship between having a low income at the time of the election and voting for Trump is at best muddied.

However, there is also much more to the data than just that point.  As was observed elsewhere, Trump’s victory hinged on a very small number of votes.  According to this analysis in the Washington Post, the “election was effectively decided by 107,000 people” in the states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.  These three states also voted very decisively for Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 .    The decisive swing-state of Ohio, which likewise voted Obama in 2008 and 2012, went Trump in 2016.  Given that the traditionally Republican states voted along party-lines as always (90% of Republicans voted Trump), the kingmakers were in fact the voters in these swing-areas.

What do these states have in common?  Are they particular hotbeds of racist activity in ways they were not in 2008 and 2012?  That strains credulity.  Ockham’s razor tells us the simplest answer based on these states’ commonality:  that the Rust Belt has been hit especially hard by globalization and the loss of manufacturing jobs.  Trump’s message of bringing back manufacturing jobs, though likely a con and a fantasy, had particular resonance with these voters as evidenced by this key switch in allegiance in 2016.  Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden certainly thought that this issue was of prime importance and blamed the Democrats defeat on it. 

Other factors are also worth considering to explain Clinton’s support among those earning less than $50,000.  Clinton voters were also much younger, including for the 18-29 demographic (55-37) and the 30-44 group (50-42).  This is significant as younger people are more likely to have a lower income, but still enjoy prospects for future income growth.

None of this is to say that other factors didn’t play a role.  White identity politics assuredly motivated some Americans to support the man whom Pat Buchanan called “the Great White Hope”  and the message of voting Trump to prevent the appointment of progressive Supreme Court justices was also a common refrain during the campaign.  However, based on where the election was actually decided, these explanations ultimately lack the explanatory power of Bill Clinton’s 1992 observation “it’s the economy, stupid.”  After all, not only did these same swing states vote Obama in 2008 and 2012, but Trump also captured more Latino voters than Romney did in 2012.

What does it say about you if you believe that economics was the key factor behind Trump’s election?  It may mean that you think that it is economic inequality that is giving rise to our most serious challenges.  It probably means that you’re critical of Republican’s simultaneous worship of big business and offshoring on the one hand, while offering little of substance to those left behind.  It could potentially mean that you’re likewise critical of the Democrats’ neglect of economic concerns relative to the weight progressive causes receive.   Finally, there’s a good chance you feel both parties are adrift.

Trump’s exploitation of the economic issue was the key that allowed him to overthrow the Republican Party establishment (which did not appear to be giving the issue much importance) and then capture the Rust Belt swing votes necessary to defeat Clinton.  But sadly, Trump’s voters have been taken in by a conman driven by ego whose economic playbook seems to be the cribbed notes of a tired, Regan-era ideology.   Whether out of his desire to be accepted by the wealthiest elite or out of some other concern, he has also filled his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alum, a prime bête noir during his campaign and the very symbol of offshoring, shareholder value, and plutocratic disinterest in the working person.

The reality, of course, is that the complex nature of technological change and the global economy make promises of restoring the manufacturing prosperity of 1964 a wistful fantasy.  Though many have pinned their economic hopes on him, Rust Belt voters may have a while to wait before “the greatest jobs president that God ever created” delivers.