Democracy Dies in Darkness: Spotlight and the Trump Presidency

When it won the Best Picture Oscar a year ago, Spotlight’s message about journalism seemed important. With Trump in the White House, it is essential.

spotlight-2015-directed-by-tom-mccarthy-movie-review

Last year’s Oscar winner

It is hard to feel sorry for a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, was nominated for four others and grossed $90 million. However, a year after Spotlight surprised many by winning the most prestigious Academy Award, it is hard not to think it arrived just a little too early to be truly appreciated.

It tells the story of a team of journalists investigating one of the largest criminal cover-ups in American history. For decades, Catholic priests in Boston abused children. Confronted with this fact, the church hierarchy acted not to protect the victims but the perpetrators. It used its enormous informal influence in the city to keep allegations away from both the criminal justice system and explicit public attention. But Spotlight’s real focus is not on the priests or the church. Rather it is on the city of Boston itself. The film’s contention seems to be that abuse was widespread that most Bostonians knew it was happening. But it was easier to tacitly accept it, than to face the fact that a key ingredient of the social glue holding the city together, was in fact toxic to children. At one point a character opines that: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Even some of the journalists shown acting heroically to uncover the scandal, are shown to have been willing to partake in this silence, until pushed to confront that truth. That push comes, perhaps inevitably, from outsiders. Thus, in a film that is in large part about Catholicism, key narrative roles are played by non-Catholics. There is Mitchell Garbidian, an Armenian-American litigation lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, who specialises in representing victims of clerical sexual abuse, and who keeps trying to raise the alarm about quite how many clients he has. But most compellingly there is Marty Baron.

Though Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars for their performances, the best performance in the film comes from Liev Schreiber as Baron. The real Baron grew up in Florida, the son of immigrants from Israel. He worked at a number of America’s most prestigious newspapers before returning to Florida, to edit the Miami Herald, before moving to Boston in 2001 to do the same job for the Globe.

Spotlight repeatedly underlines the importance of his status as a Jew in a Catholic city. From his trying to learn about the city’s baseball team from a book, to his being handed a Catechism by Archbishop Law, the film’s ‘big bad’. On multiple occasions native Bostonians at the Globe are leaned on by Diocesan officials to convey to Baron that the digging he has instigated is not ‘how things are done round here’. Yet it is precisely because he is not invested in the city and its dominant religious institution, that he understands that something untoward is occurring. It is he, who forces his journalists to investigate the abuse allegations, and to focus on the church rather than individual priests.

The revelations that resulted would force Archbishop Law to resign, provoke institutions well beyond the Catholic Church into taking stronger measures to protect children, and end much of the deference previously showed towards the Church. It would also win Baron and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact and fiction

Writing about seeing himself on the screen, Baron wrote that:

Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.

But he also saw a broader significance in the film’s depiction not of him but of his profession:

Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.”

One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.”

A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers. One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: “You and the Spotlight team . . . have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.”

Cut to the present

Marty Baron is no longer at the Boston Globe. Since 2012 he has edited an even more august publication: the Washington Post. That has made him an important player in the unsettling confrontation between the media and President Trump.

The print publication that Trump appears to have the most animosity towards is the New York Times. However, it is arguably Baron’s journalists who’ve unearthed the most damaging revelations about the new president.

A staff reporter named David Farenthold revealed that despite Trump claiming to be a generous donor to charity, he actually gave hardly anything away. Most of the money possessed by his charitable foundation was donated by other people, and that was frequently used not for charitable purposes but to enrich Trump. For example, to pay out of court settlements arising from the misdemeanours of Trump’s businesses.

Then Farenthold also got hold of the so-called ‘Access Hollywood tape’ in which Trump makes a succession of crass comments about women, including that being famous allowed him to ‘grab them by the pussy’, which was interpreted by many people, including me, as an admission of committing sexual assault.

Most recently, it was Post reporters who revealed that Trump had been warned that his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, had been communicating with Russian diplomats. Something the administration had previously denied.

This has naturally not escaped Trump’s attention. His ire appears to be directed not at Baron but at Jeff Bezos, the Post’s owner and a co-founder of Amazon. Before the election, he complained about “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” the Post was writing and warned that he might take his revenge on Bezos by going after Amazon. At one point saying: “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems” and intimating that he might target Amazon for tax and anti-trust investigations.

Shooting the messenger

At a conference in 2002, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a future US Ambassador to the Vatican would proclaim that: “…if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

You see, the tendency to deride good reporting that you find inconvenient as ‘fake news’ is not new.

For almost a century journalists have been reciting variants of the saying that “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” One such variation replaces the word ‘advertising’ with ‘public relations’. And as Mark Harris of Vulture has written because Trump’s interaction with the media has primarily been in the context of the entertainment industry, he’s primed to thinking that journalists should indeed act like publicists:

Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.”

This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access.

The result Harris argues is that real journalism of the kind done by the Boston Globe or the Washington Post looks to him like bad journalism. He complains that it is not only ‘fake’ but also ‘nasty’ and bemoans that it relies on leaks of confidential information. He has also accused the media of representing ‘special interests’ rather than ‘the people’.

Baron has suggested that, in this context:

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Renewed relevance

It is, therefore, regrettable that Spotlight came out last year rather than now. Many of this year’s nominees can be seen as gaining relevancy from Trump presidency. But broadly speaking, they do so with a general message about tolerance of minorities. Spotlight appears inadvertently much more specifically directed at our present moment.

At the time of its Oscar triumph, Spotlight’s message was considered worthy but not controversial. Objecting to the value of investigative journalism would have seemed as silly as attacking helping the unlucky or striving against the odds. Now it is a divisive political issue. The President’s chief strategist has openly questioned the right of the media to investigate his boss and said the media should ‘keep its mouth shut‘.

Spotlight is a great dramatisation of the case for why this must be challenged with the utmost intensity. A tale of journalists breaking a story, based in part on leaks of confidential information,  about the wrong doing of people in power, that must have seemed ‘nasty’ to those powerful people, who disparage it as ‘false’ even though the carefully assembled evidence shows it is true, is something we could really do with seeing on the screen right now.

Baron recently authorised a change in the Post’s masthead. Underneath the paper’s title now sit the words ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.  Spotlight dramatises the truth of that sentiment for its audience. It illustrates that only by having powerful people asked awkward and potentially ‘nasty’ questions, can those with less power be protected from having ‘nasty’ things done to them.

There will always be men like President Trump and Archbishop Law. Let us hope there will remain journalists with the freedom to investigate them.

Why Luddism Protects Democracy

Two pieces of technology allow voters to cast their ballots reliably and securely. They are both hundreds of years old and begin with the letter ‘p’

The story goes that during the space race the Americans spent millions of dollars on pens that would work in zero gravity, whilst the Russians gave their astronauts pencils. This is actually an urban legend: both of the rival superpowers started out using pencils before concluding they were a fire hazard and switching to some form of specially designed pen. But true or not the merit that tale has been on my mind because I’ve been mulling the merits of the humble pencil.

The catalyst for this is Jill Stein. Having shown precious little interest in stopping Donald Trump before the election, the Green Party presidential candidate has raised large amounts of money to petition for recounts that aim to show that he did not in fact win a number of swing states. Which if nothing else prompted one of my favourite tweets of the entire election season:

The basis for Stein’s action seems to be the claim by some tech experts and election lawyers that in a number of swing states Clinton performed worse in counties that used electronic voting than those that stuck with physical ballots.

This notion is lent credence by the fact that during the election campaign someone – probably linked to the Russian intelligence services – was carrying out hacks designed to hurt the Clinton campaign. There is no reason to rule out the possibility they would have continued once polling day itself came around.

While all of this is true, it almost certainly doesn’t indicate fraud. When two journalists at FiveThirtyEight,  and , looked at the gap between Clinton’s vote in counties with different voting methods they found that the disparity was likely the result of demographics rather than manipulation. You would expect the counties that used electronic voting to lean Trump anyway as they were whiter and populated by fewer graduates. In addition, the states in question are all in the midwest and Trump seems to have gained ground across that region and not only in states like that still use paper ballots exclusively. In short, there does not appear to be a mystery for which the manipulation of electronic voting systems might be an explanation.

Whilst it may not have happened this time, the use of electronic voting machines leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud. As this video by the tech journalist Tom Scott illustrates, it is practically impossible to secure such machines.

This is not to say that an election conducted with paper ballots can never be fraudulently swayed. Being involved in British politics gave me direct experience of that. During the first election campaign I ever played a decent sized role in, my side spent a lot of time trying to work out if our Labour opponents were casting fraudulent postal votes. We believed – and the police appeared to agree – this had happened in the previous election. But there was no repeat. In the intervening period, a new law had been introduced requiring voters to include a signature and D.O.B on both their application to vote by post and a form that was posted back along with the ballot. This simple step proved sufficient to mostly end abuse of this voting method. And even at its height postal vote fraud in the UK – to my knowledge – only affected local elections. Even under a system lax enough to draw criticism from international democracy watchdogs, getting hold of enough physical ballot papers to influence a parliamentary election without getting caught proved too difficult for potential fraudsters. Imagine, therefore, how difficult it would be to manipulate an election in American states that have a population in the millions.

Once you dispense with physical ballots and record votes only as data, these logistical impediments to fraud fall away. As Scott says:

once you have electronic voting, it can take as much effort to change a million votes as it does one.

But the problem with electronic voting is not only that it makes fraud possible. It also makes it impossible to disprove fraud. You cannot do a recount because there is nothing to recount. The kind of exercise that Bialik and Arthur conducted depends on their being counties and states that don’t use electronic voting in order to compare with the places that do. And even then, the two authors are forced to admit:

It’s possible nonetheless that the election was hacked, in the sense that anything is possible. (And the best hackers are experts in erasing their tracks.) Maybe hackers knew which control variables we’d look at and manipulated the vote in a way that it would look like it was caused by race, education and population driving different voting preferences. Maybe hackers didn’t manipulate the share of votes in individual counties, but rather the turnout, increasing the number of votes in counties likely to favor one candidate or another.

In this context, there is no justification for the use of electronic voting. It may get you results faster but that’s not worth it if the result at the end may have been tampered with. Even if it hasn’t been then the possibility that it might have been is corrosive of trust in the democratic process and a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So please Americans go back to paper and pencils. Not only is that more secure but also more reliable. Maintaining a system based around some of the most common items in the world is easy compared to maintaining machines. If a pencil breaks, you do not need an engineer to fix it. If you run out of them, then someone with no training on their first day at work is quite capable of going to Staples and buying some replacements. And because pencils and paper cost next to nothing they can be replaced as and when needed. By contrast, buying new machines is expensive so many electoral authorities put it off. Do this long enough and you wind up in the situation of Pennsylvania which on November 8th 2016 was still using touch screens:

….from the ’80s made by…companies that don’t exist anymore.

That led to fears that even if the machines weren’t hacked they might simply make errors that resulted in them recording votes incorrectly.

In addition, there’s no need to teach voters how to use pencil and paper, hence there is less chance of ‘a hanging chad‘ style fiasco.

A number of states have wound up with the weird compromise of having voters cast their ballots using machines that then produce a paper copy of the ballot. Which – to borrow a phrase from Scott – makes the voting machine into nothing more than “the world’s most expensive pencil”.

If they wish to speed up the counting process, election authorities could always bring in machines to count ballots. This is less problematic than using them to record results because there remains a physical ballot paper that can be recounted by hand if there’s a question about the machine’s accuracy.

That exception aside Luddism is the best option when it comes to election. The ubiquity of pencils and paper speaks to their versatility. There is no need to invent any special technology to enable people to vote: a perfectly good tool for the job has been around for at least 500 years.

 

You might also be interested in:

I’ve written before about why I think the dangers of voter impersonation are dramatically overstated both in the US and the UK.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/11/2016)

Men’s day comes to parliament with hilarious results, China’s selective refugee policy and some worrying rumours about Dr Who

Men of the Commons leave Men’s Day debate to the women by John Crace (the Guardian)

Conservative Paul Beresford was also keen to stand up for men, though he began by insisting he was a feminist because he had a wife and daughters. “Men tend to find themselves at the very top or the very bottom of the ladder,” he observed, a point rather contradicted by his own mediocrity. “We’re encouraging women to be scientists and company directors, so we must do more to help men be hairdressers and tea ladies,” he went on to say, before adding: “I think of the male suicide rate every time I hold the door open for a lady.” As non sequiturs go, that takes some beating.

The upper Han: who is Chinese? (the Economist)

China’s Han-centred worldview extends to refugees. In a series of conflicts since 2009 between ethnic militias and government forces in Myanmar the Chinese government has consistently done more to help the thousands escaping into China from Kokang in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Han, than it has to aid those leaving Kachin, who are not Han. Non-Chinese seem just as beguiled by the purity of Han China as the government in Beijing. Governments and NGOs never suggest that China take refugees from trouble spots elsewhere in the world. The only large influx China has accepted since 1949 were also Han: some 300,000 Vietnamese fled across the border in 1978-79, fearing persecution for being “Chinese”. China has almost completely closed its doors to any others. Aside from the group from Vietnam, China has only 583 refugees on its books. The country has more billionaires.

Doctor Who Casting Rumors Have Us Scratching Our Heads by Kyle Anderson (Nerdist)

According to The Mirror‘s source:

“BBC management wants a return to the format from the David Tennant era, when you had a dashing male lead and young female companion.

“Merchandising has dropped off sharply in recent years and there is a strong desire to boost the show’s popularity among kids.”

Now, I have a lot of opinions about this, and most of them are to call this utter hogwash. Want some bullet points? Great!

  • The show hasn’t been on for a full calendar year. You want to wonder why merchandising has dropped? Maybe because there’s no show to get people excited about new adventures and new monsters to turn into toys.
  • I haven’t seen nearly the amount of toys and merchandise surrounding the Capaldi era as I did with the deluge surrounding Matt Smith.
  • Also, Matt Smith’s tenure culminated in the 50th Anniversary, when global interest in the show was at an all time high.
  • Pearl Mackie hasn’t even fucking been on the show yet! How can you already say they she’s not going to connect with kids if all of we’ve seen of her is a two minute teaser?
  • The idea of a “return to the format from the David Tennant-era” is incredibly short-sighted and regressive. If there’s one thing the show doesn’t need, it’s a formula that has become so passe.
  • Whether or not Capaldi (who is 58) will vacate the role following series 10, the one thing the BBC absolutely cannot do is have more of the same regarding casting choices. There badly needs to be a shakeup in terms of who plays the Doctor–i.e., not a white guy–and while the source doesn’t say “white” regarding the dashing Tennant-esque Doctor, it shows a clear desire not to think outside the box one iota. When HASN’T there been a dashing Doctor and a young female companion?

Podcast(s) of the week

There are two this week. Ezra Klein’s interview with Ron Brownstein about the psephology of Trump’s victory is fascinating and definitely worth your time. So is the World in Words on the young Arabs in Dubai who speak English better than what is supposedly their mother tongue.

Video of the week

Tweet of the week

Can American democracy survive a Trump presidency?

The real danger is not Trump but the person who cleans up the mess he leaves behind

History turns backwards

For decades, the Freedom House think tank has tracked which countries are democracies and which aren’t. For a long time it seemed there was mostly good news. It began in Portugal in 1974, when the Portuguese people toppled their military rulers and forged a new democracy. Freedom House duly recorded this switch. And year after year more such switches came. Military dictators in Spain, Chile and South Korea lost power, followed by communists across the Warsaw Pact countries, and then Africa’s anti-colonial hereos turned post-colonial tyrants began to be dispatched.

Democracy marched on until 2006, when something disturbing happened:

…the expansion of freedom and democracy in the world came to a prolonged halt. Since 2006, there has been no net expansion in the number of electoral democracies, which has oscillated between 114 and 119 (about 60 percent of the world’s states).

What initially appeared to be a stagnation now looks like a contraction. Freedom Houses’ most recent report noted that:

…the number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year — 72 — was the largest since the 10-year slide began.

I tell you this to illustrate that we are in a time when democracy is tending to falter. To date this has mostly meant the reversion to authoritarian rule in countries that democratised in the waves that followed the fall of Portugal’s military government. But given the apparent direction of travel, it would be a mistake to feel complacent about more established democracies.

An autocrat at heart

Indeed, it is the most established democracy of all that I am currently most concerned about. That is in large part a result of Donald Trump having a realistic chance of becoming its president. He may be the nominee of a party that traditionally stands for small government conservatism but he is an authoritarian plain and simple. He betrays this predilection with his admiration for autocrats like Vladamir Putin. It is reflected in his evident attraction to violence, be that inciting punch ups at his rallies or suggesting the American military torture captives and executes children. He vilifies the press and advocates using strengthened libel laws to silence them – a classic technique of autocrats who can’t stand to hear about their nakedness. He has a sorry record of corruption that hints at an alarming disregard for the law. He called for his opponent to be jailed and refused to agree to be bound by the election result.  And most alarmingly there is his unmistakably racist rhetoric and willingness to associate with racists and conspiracy theorists. It is thus reasonable to fret as Vox‘s editor Ezra Klein has done that Trump “…is not running to be America’s president so much as its dictator.

If that is his intention, what are his prospects of success? Some are deeply worried. Andrew Sullivan wrote back in May that:

In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event.

And also of:

…the Weimar aspect of our current moment. Just as the English Civil War ended with a dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell, and the French Revolution gave us Napoleon Bonaparte, and the unstable chaos of Russian democracy yielded to Vladimir Putin, and the most recent burst of Egyptian democracy set the conditions for General el-Sisi’s coup, so our paralyzed, emotional hyperdemocracy leads the stumbling, frustrated, angry voter toward the chimerical panacea of Trump.

Their constitution to the rescue?

There is a more sanguine view. Trump may try to behave as an autocrat but the America’s system of government is loaded up with check and balances to prevent that. Politico’s Zachary Karabell reassures us that:

The American presidency is an office of vast powers that are also maddeningly constrained for anyone with dictatorial aspirations. We also know that Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s bears little resemblance to the United States of the 2010s. Before we get too breathless about impending fascism and the end of America as we know it, we need to stop and consider just how hard it might be for a president to bulldoze through the multiple hurdles to unilateral action.

Trump’s own offspring have taken this tack. Donald Trump jnr demonstrated that he has inherited his father’s odd way of speaking but not his talent for creating emotionally compelling arguments by suggesting:

For those who say: ‘Oh he’s so dangerous’, there is nothing dangerous about it.

He is going to have the greatest system of checks and balances in place watching him.

Even Sullivan suggests:

…this is not the time to give up on America’s near-unique and stabilizing blend of democracy and elite responsibility. The country has endured far harsher times than the present without succumbing to rank demagoguery; it avoided the fascism that destroyed Europe; it has channeled extraordinary outpourings of democratic energy into constitutional order.

I am not going to deny that the courts and legislature are more powerful in America than more or less anywhere else in the developed world, and that as a result an American president enjoys less freedom of action than say a British Prime Minister.

But this is only partially reassuring. Sullivan correctly identifies the risk that these check and balances might not operate:

Were Trump to win the White House, the defenses against him would be weak. He would likely bring a GOP majority in the House, and Republicans in the Senate would be subjected to almighty popular fury if they stood in his way. The 4-4 stalemate in the Supreme Court would break in Trump’s favor.

Even if these safeguards do operate there are ways around them. For example, if President Trump cannot introduce more powerful libel laws, he could instead instruct his justice department to launch anti-trust investigations into media organisations that displease him. He has already threatened to do as much.

The gridlocked road to Trumpism

At a more fundamental level, I actually fear that America’s systems of checks and balance make its democracy more rather than less vulnerable to a demagogue like Trump.

For starters, it may have contributed to the dissatisfaction that enabled his rise. The political scientist Francis Fukuyama has argued that American democracy is in a state of decay because of a phenomenon he calls ‘vetocracy‘.

The U.S. political system has far more of these checks and balances, or what political scientists call “veto points,” than other contemporary democracies, raising the costs of collective action and in some cases make it impossible altogether. In earlier periods of U.S. history, when one party or another was dominant, this system served to moderate the will of the majority and force it to pay greater attention to minorities than it otherwise might have. But in the more evenly balanced, highly competitive party system that has arisen since the 1980s, it has become a formula for gridlock.

Which is bad, firstly because it leads to weak and ineffective governments:

In parliamentary systems, a great deal of legislation is formulated by the executive branch with heavy technocratic input from the permanent civil service. Ministries are accountable to parliament, and hence ultimately to voters, through the ministers who head them, but this type of hierarchical system can take a longer-term strategic view and produce much more coherent legislation.

Such a system is utterly foreign to the political culture in Washington, where Congress jealously guards its right to legislate — even though the often incoherent product is what helps produce a large, sprawling, and less accountable government. Congress’ multiple committees frequently produce duplicate and overlapping programs or create several agencies with similar purposes. The Pentagon, for example, operates under nearly 500 mandates to report annually to Congress on various issues. These never expire, and executing them consumes huge amounts of time and energy. Congress has created about 50 separate programs for worker retraining and 82 separate projects to improve teacher quality.

It is also produces plenty of opportunities for soft corruption:

The openness and never-ending character of the U.S. budget process gives lobbyists and interest groups multiple points at which to exercise influence. In most European parliamentary systems, it would make no sense for an interest group to lobby an individual member of parliament, since the rules of party discipline would give that legislator little or no influence over the party leadership’s position. In the United States, by contrast, an influential committee chairmanship confers enormous powers to modify legislation and therefore becomes the target of enormous lobbying activity.

When democracy ends

Not only does a presidential system that allows for divided government seem more prone to creating crisis, it seems less able to weather them than do more parliamentary models. In a seminal 1990 paper called the Perils of Presidentalism, Yale professor Juan J. Linz noted that:

the only presidential democracy with a long history of constitutional continuity is the United States . . . [a]side from the United States, only Chile has managed a century and a half of relatively undisturbed constitutional continuity under presidential government — but Chilean democracy broke down in the 1970s.

And by ‘break down’ he means be replaced by a military junta so ambitious in its use of kidnapping, torture and murder that it turned ‘disappear’ into a noun. As in ‘even decades after the fall of the Pinochet regime the final resting places of over a thousand of the disappeared have yet to be found’.

So why is presidential democracy generally so difficult and why has America nonetheless managed it? Well Linz argued:

what is most striking is that in a presidential system, the legislators, especially when they represent cohesive, disciplined parties that offer clear ideological and political alternatives, can also claim democratic legitimacy. This claim is thrown into high relief when a majority of the legislature represents a political option opposed to the one the president represents. Under such circumstances, who has the stronger claim to speak on behalf of the people: the president or the legislative majority that opposes his policies? Since both derive their power from the votes of the people in a free competition among well-defined alternatives, a conflict is always possible and at times may erupt dramatically. There is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate. It is therefore no accident that in some such situations in the past, the armed forces were often tempted to intervene as a mediating power. One might argue that the United States has successfully rendered such conflicts “normal” and thus defused them. To explain how American political institutions and practices have achieved this result would exceed the scope of this essay, but it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties-which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties-has something to do with it

Well Linz’s colleagues got their wish. America’s political parties have become way more polarised. There used to be Republican congressmen who were more liberal than some of their Democrat colleagues and Democrats who were more conservative than some Republicans. Such politicians have now gone extinct. It is unclear if Americans are following or leading their politicians but they are going in that direction too. The proportion of American voters who can be classified as consistently liberal or conservative has doubled in two decades. Research evidence now shows that Americans have stronger prejudices against people of different parties than they do people of different races. Thus the thing that has enabled America’s presidential democracy to endure is gone.

The potential crisis

Polarisation has already taken its toll on the functioning of the American government. To prevent Barack Obama enacting his agenda the Republicans and the conservative movement more generally have deployed every tool of obstruction conceivable: down the line voting against legislation, fillibusters, placing blocks on nominees, refusing to hold a vote on a nomination to the Supreme Court, legal challenges, governors refusing to implement pieces of legislation, government shutdowns and trying to use debt ceiling increases to leverage concessions.

Up to now Democrats have made less extensive use of these techniques than Republicans. That is presumably partly because they are more ideologically invested in the continued functioning of government than small-state conservatives are. But it must also surely be a factor that whilst Republican (primary) voters have come to see compromise as a betrayal, a majority of their Democrat counterparts still tell pollsters that they value it. A Trump presidency would likely negate both of those reasons.

Even assuming the Democrats are in a minority in Congress they can still do plenty to jam up the machinery of the Federal Government. The Republicans have shown them how to do it. And given the antipathy to Trump of many elected Republicans, he might also face resistance from his own party.

The resulting deadlocks might initially take a similar form to that seen during the Obama years, but things would be likely to escalate quickly because Trump is not like Obama.

Sullivan asks us to consider what would happen:

….if Trump’s policies are checked by other branches of government, how might he react? Just look at his response to the rules of the GOP nomination process. He’s not interested in rules. And he barely understands the Constitution. In one revealing moment earlier this year, when asked what he would do if the military refused to obey an illegal order to torture a prisoner, Trump simply insisted that the man would obey: “They won’t refuse. They’re not going to refuse, believe me.”

I do not actually believe that Trump’s demagogic instincts would be enough to allow him to become the authoritarian leader he would like to be. I formed that conclusion reading an excellent long form piece for the Guardian by Christopher de Bellaigue on how Erdogan has bent Turkey to his will. Doing so required a great deal of skill, patience and discipline on his part. A political novice like Trump would almost certainly lack these. His flamboyance may serve him well on the glorified reality show that is an election campaign. However, the fact that he has neither built a proper ground organisation for his presidential campaign, nor yet found a way to avoid rising to every provocation the Clinton campaign devises, indicates he is very unlikely to be able to do the bureaucratic work to turn a democracy of a 200 year vintage into a dictatorship.

But being unable to construct an authoritarian state does not mean he cannot demolish a constitutional one. The real danger of a Trump victory is that he would be the catalyst for the kind of stalemate that Linz pinpoints as being so often fatal for presidential democracies. Trump might not entrench himself as a despot but instead  create the conditions that allow someone else to become one. Much as how in Russia, the crafty Putin followed the shambolic Yeltsin. It is not hard to imagine a situation in which the government is gridlocked or potentially even shutdown, and a President Trump is using his gift for drama to inflame the resulting divisions to the point they turn into social unrest. We can assume that if such instability came to pass it would exact a high economic price too. In such conditions, an American people who are poorer, less secure and less trusting in their institutions might conceivably do what many other people have done in such situations and turn to an authoritarian ruler who offers a modicum of stability – at least in the short term.

It is hard to say where this strongman might come from. Linz’s research highlighted the military as a source. The American armed forces have strong norms against enlisted men intervening in politics. However, a retired figure might find that path easier to walk. Especially as America has been led by former generals before. If you are worried about this possibility then it is disturbing that in an era of declining trust in American institutions, just about the only one gaining trust is the military. However, I suspect the more likely situation is the one represented by Hungary’s Viktor Orban: a previously democratic politician making the shift to being an autocrat.

Do I think this would be the inevitable result of a Trump presidency? No I do not. Maybe Trump would be a better president than this campaign has suggested. Maybe the constitution’s checks and balances would kick in and he would be prevented from doing lasting damage. But there is no guarantee that they would, or if they do that they will work as they are supposed to. Like the white blood cells of someone suffering from an autoimmune disease they may start to destroy the very thing they are supposed to protect.

We should not mistake the longevity of America’s presidential democracy for its immortality. Linz’s research indicates that it is an anomaly sustained by a factor that no longer exists. It would be a mistake to assume its survival and folly to gamble it by making Trump president. Already a:

…quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago.

That could be a disaster not only for the US but the world. For better or worse, for much of the world America personifies democracy. If it turns its back on it, then the post 2006 retreat of democracy could turn into a rout. A man who does not believe in freedom should not under any circumstances become leader of the free world.

 

When saying ‘not all men’ might actually be constructive

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‘Not all men’ is one of those phrases that has become a shorthand for something wider. In this case it is the tendency of discussions of women’s experiences to be derailed by men wating them to be about their response to it:

…the people saying [‘not all men’] aren’t furthering the conversation, they’re sidetracking it. The discussion isn’t about the men who aren’t a problem….Instead of being defensive and distracting from the topic at hand, try staying quiet for a while and actually listening to what the thousands upon thousands of women discussing this are saying.

However, I do feel that with regards to the tape of Donald Trump more or less admitting to sexually assaulting women, it might help to get to the point rather than deflecting from it.

A key part of Trump and his surrogates attempts to justify these comments has been to essentially say ‘he’s a guy. What did you expect?’

Trump himself characterised it as ‘locker room talk‘. One of his sons said it was “what happens when alpha personalities are in the same presence.” And actor Scott Baio said “Ladies out there, this is what guys talk about when you’re not around. So if you’re offended by it, grow up. Okay?”

At which point it becomes a rather salient to note that ‘not all men’ say the kind of things Trump did or do the kind of things he described. The most eloquent itteration of this point came from American football Chris Kluwe, who wrote an open letter to Trump:

I was in an NFL locker room for eight years, the very definition of the macho, alpha male environment you’re so feebly trying to evoke to protect yourself, and not once did anyone approach your breathtaking depths of arrogant imbecility. Oh, sure, we had some dumb guys, and some guys I wouldn’t want to hang out with on any sort of regular basis, but we never had anyone say anything as foul and demeaning as you did on that tape, and, hell, I played a couple years with a guy who later turned out to be a serial rapist. Even he never talked like that.

We are not talking about the difficult stuff here. Clearly heterosexual men are going to notice how attractive or otherwise a woman is. Evolution has hardwired us to do that. And it is hard to stop that awareness subconsciously bleeding through into our decision making. Indeed, it is so hard that there’s a school of thought backed up by strong academic research that rather than trying to avoid it, we should design systems that negate the impact of the resulting prejudices. The archetypal example is having musicians audition behind a screen.

But what Trump is exhibiting isn’t the hard stuff. In the video, he says that he “can’t help” kissing beautiful women he sees but unless he has a psychiatric disorder he in fact can. Doing so requires a conscious decision on his part, as does recounting it later.

In his response to the video, Trump noted that he is not perfect. Well no one is. But plenty of men manage to imperfect without committing sexual assault. It’s not not something being a man compels you to do. Gender is not destiny. Being a man does not compel you to behave that way. The existence of men who don’t proves that. Trump had a choice and he made a terrible one.

Not all men attack women and then brag about it. If you do, that’s your fault and your gender is no excuse.

The best things I’ve read recently (22/08/16)

This week: Marx and Corbyn, Democrats and Tammany Hall, and indecisive movie studios

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones – review by Oliver Bullough (the Guardian)

“Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them. The eventual message is that Marxist ideology and Marx himself were very different things.

I couldn’t help noticing while reading the book, however, some clear parallels between modern leftist politics and the habits of the old man. Thanks to his obsession with minute points of ideological deviation, his determination to cling to leadership positions despite the increasing irrelevance of the groups he led, his conviction that victory was imminent despite near-overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and his repeated estrangement of potential allies for no apparent reason, Marx would surely have felt at home in today’s Labour party.”

Cinemautopsy: What Went Wrong With ‘Fantastic Four’? by Matt Singer (Screen Crush)

“History seems to have repeated itself this summer. Just 10 days ago Warner Bros. released Suicide Squad, another heavily hyped and very expensive comic-book adaptation with a massive identity crisis. Like Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad feels like two totally different movies sutured together. Some scenes are grim and cynical; others are colorful and jokey. Combined, the two movies suggest the beginnings of an alarming Hollywood trend: Studios greenlighting challenging takes on material, getting cold feet during production, then trying to backtrack to something formulaic and familiar after it’s too late to start from scratch.

With so much money on the line, it makes sense that executives would want to protect their investment (and, by extension, their own jobs). But I’m baffled why they don’t just play it safe in the first place. How do you start with a weird, serious Fantastic Four and wind up with the Thing punching Doctor Doom into a giant sky laser? I reached out to Jeremy Slater, one of the three credited screenwriters of the film, who offered a few insights into early versions of the script, and the thinking behind these massive tentpoles.”

Democrats Should Bring Back Political Machines by Kevin Baker (the New Republic)

“Politics, like any war, is best conducted by professionals. But liberals and the left continue to place their hopes in “outsiders” and “insurgents,” amateurs who rail against the system without the means to reform it. The Green Party, for example, has embarked on yet another presidential campaign to nowhere; as its presumptive nominee, Jill Stein, recently boasted to The Village Voice, “I’m a physician, not a politician.”

Stein seemed to consider this a point of pride. [Tammany Hall boss] George Washington Plunkitt would have set her straight. “Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business,” he observed. “You’ve got to be trained up to it or you’re sure to fail.”

Face it Sanders fans: your guy is on the mat

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I spent much of the early stages of the Democratic Primary blogging about how Sanders was a much less formidable opponent for Hilary Clinton than much of the media coverage suggested. I confidently predicted that he had basically no chance of winning the nomination and would be lucky to win anywhere other than than small states in New England with lots of white liberals.

As it turned out he has got lucky. He’s now bested Clinton in 9 states, the majority of them outside New England. Equally importantly, he’s expanded his base to include the low-income white voters who were resolute Clinton supporters in 2008. I clearly underestimated him and I think for that reason I stopped writing posts dismissing his chances.

But the time to begin again has arrived. I do this as a service to my Sanders supporting friends.* Every good result he achieves seems to send them rushing to Facebook to announce that this showed the momentum was with Sanders and that the only reason the media…sorry the corporate media…couldn’t see that his victory was a realistic prospect was their willful blindness. Are they really saying that he’s doomed when he’s winning Maine by a 30% margin or triumphing in big swing states like Michigan?

To which I reply: indeed I am. Far from the gaining momentum, he’s fallen behind and is running out of ground over which to make up the distance.

He may have won 9 states but Clinton has won 19. And while he has won in big states and won by big margins, he’s never won by a big margin in a big state. Clinton has done so repeatedly. Clinton’s lead amongst Texan delegates is almost three times larger than the total number of delegates from Maine. That means Clinton is currently is not only ahead, she’s ahead by a lot – like 300 delegates worth.

And because a chunk of states have voted already, things are actually worse for Sanders than you many would assume. He not only needs to start winning more delegates than Clinton, he needs win enough to erase the delegate lead she’s amassed in the states that have already voted. Vox’s Andrew Prokop sized up the mountain he has to climb thus:

Here’s how rough the math is for Sanders going forward: to win a majority in pledged delegates, he needs to win 58 percent of those remaining.

That might not sound so bad. But because all the Democratic contests allot their delegates proportionally, it’s actually punishingly difficult.

It means Sanders has to beat Clinton by around 58 percent to 42 percent pretty muchconstantly. And that’s just incredibly implausible given what’s happened so far, and especially given what’s happened tonight.

Even unexpected wins for Sanders in big states like California, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey — already unlikely — wouldn’t be enough. Sanders has to win those states by enormous margins.

And there are still a great deal of delegates left in states and territories with large nonwhite populations — states with demographics similar to those that have favored Clinton so far. These include Maryland, Arizona, New Mexico, and even Puerto Rico (which Clinton won in a blowout in 2008).

Which is not to say it’s impossible. Stranger things have happened. Like say Donald Trump being the Republican frontrunner. And even if Sanders doesn’t win, he will have palpably altered the terms of the debate within the Democratic Party. And given that his young supporters are likely to be voting for a long time to come, they may well reshape the party in his image.

But back here in the present, Sanders is  clearly not beating Clinton, nor is he gaining on her, his chances are fading fast.

I underestimated the man but I wasn’t wrong about him. Part of the reason I was so sure in my initial assessment was that I had a huge margin of error. Sanders could substantially outperform my expectations and still lose. That’s what we are seeing come to pass.

 

*What you don’t believe me? You dreadful cynic!