Sunday, November 4, 2018

Munk Debates: Is Populism the Way of the Future?

I watched the recent, heavily protested, Munk Debate between good buddies on the right, Steve Bannon and David Frum. The issue they were debating was, "Be it resolved, the future of western politics is populist, not liberal."

Spoiler alert, the results were a draw, in that the audience in general didn't change their opinion on the issue. At the end of the debate, the moderators revealed incorrect results indicating a sweeping win for Bannon, but here's their retraction:

72% of the audience still disagrees with populism regardless Bannon's arguments. Nobody defined populism throughout the evening, but I take it to mean politics that focuses or appeals to the ordinary person as if society is all the same. It's an ideology that pits the common folk against the elites. It's being juxtaposed with liberalism, which generally means politics that focuses on individual liberty and equality. I'm not sure they're as different as is being suggested, but I'll get to that at the end.

from Cas Mudde 

The Toronto Star reported on the protest on Friday. Twelve were arrested (mainly for trespassing and public mischief) and two officers were injured. Protesters interrupted the debate when Bannon first began speaking, but they were given a choice to either be quiet or leave, and things calmed down after that. Protesters took what's now labelled as a "no-platform" position that fights to deny a platform for profoundly bigoted views. There's an excellent thread by Bashir Mohamed on Twitter that explains the rationale, arguing that the belief that preventing the speech of hate groups will in any way harm the marginalized goes against all we've seen in history. The gist of it is here:
"Do you really think slaveowners, Nazis, and the Klan were defeated by a bunch of fucking 'free thinkers' in a debate hall? . . . Canadians allowed the Klan to operate in Canada until 2003 due to complacency. . . . Canadians allowed apartheid supporters a podium because of 'free speech.' Do you think this defeated apartheid? . . . Alberta allowed the Klan to be formally incorporated from the 1930s - 2003. . . . A more local example is from the 80s when U of T students protested the Klan's presence on their campus. They were lead by Gary Yee. How did the Government of Ontario respond? By saying the Klan had a right to 'free speech.' . . . It wasn't the 'free speech' advocates who defeated the Klan. But instead, it was activists like Gary Yee who reduced the power of the Klan through their advocacy. . . . After today, there will be even more columns from our predominately white pundit class. They will argue that the protesters were the ones who gave Bannon power. Instead, history shows us that those very pundits and those who stand in line are the ones who give him power."

We are clearly seeing a rise in supremacy groups, and Janet Reitman reports in today's New York Times Magazine that law enforcement officers don't know how to respond effectively to white nationalism.

She writes,
“The F.B.I. knows how many bank robberies there were last year,” says Michael German, an author of the Brennan Center report and a former F.B.I. agent, “but it doesn’t know how many white supremacists attacked people, how many they injured or killed.” More concerning to German, though, is that law enforcement seems uninterested in policing the violent far right. . . . In at least one instance, the police have in fact coordinated with far-right groups. In 2017, a law-enforcement official stationed at a rally in downtown Portland, Ore., turned to a member of a far-right militia group and asked for his assistance in cuffing a left-wing counterprotester, who had been tackled by a Proud Boy. “This is what public demonstration looks like in an era when white nationalism isn’t on the fringes, but on the inside of the political mainstream,” says Brian Levin, a former New York City police officer who now leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino.

So, why would the Munk Debates invite two similarly minded men to debate on such a non-issue right before an election? Here's one answer:
Why would any Canadian organize a local debate between two factions of the American corporatist right and try to pass it off as a serious policy dialogue between a conservative and a relative liberal, a notion that is preposterous on its face yet seems to be the predominating media narrative. Actually, this is easier to understand if we consider the apparent agenda of the organization behind last night’s event. Press Progress reminded us earlier yesterday that the Munk Debates are bankrolled by the Aurea Foundation, established in 2006 by the late Peter Munk, the Canadian gold-mining billionaire. The Aurea Foundation says on its website it “gives special attention to the investigation of issues related to the political and economic foundations of freedom, the strengthening of the free market system, the protection and enhancement of democratic values, human rights and human dignity, and the role of responsible citizenship.” Whatever that means in practice, former Munk Debate participants include Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair, so obviously the foundation isn’t allergic to war criminals.

So, there's that. I've written from the no-platform perspective before, and I agree that it's important to prevent the spreading of hate speech. It seems clear that allowing it to continue provokes acceptance of shooting unarmed migrants and killing protesters, and it's not unreasonable to fear even worse. But, once it's out there, it's important to listen to in order to call out the slippery debating tactics. This is loosely, but accurately, paraphrased or quoted from the debate, largely abridged because it was very repetitious.

It's not a question of populism, but of whether we'll have populist nationalism or socialism. We have to go back to the inciting incident, [the bank bailout], on December 18th, 2008, in Washington, when Hank Paulson told Bush that we need $1 trillion by 5pm or the U.S. financial system will implode, and we'll have global anarchy. Nobody has brought the U.S. to its knees like that day, and it was the financial and corporate elites. . . . It wasn't a free bail out as pension funds were affected. The little guy bore the burden. 60% of jobs were gone.
Then he insisted that Trump had turned that around - to much audience laughter. This happened a few time. He'd say something that's an outright lie, and the audience would respond as if it's all a joke, and he'd comment, with a flirty grin, "It's a very tough crowd." He's a schmoozy kind of guy.
The party of Davos left a financial wasteland. It's why we have Brexit and Bolsonaro. Trump's economic nationalism doesn't care about your race. [laughter] Economic nationalism cares if you're a citizen. Populist nationalism is working and it's spreading. We're at the beginning of a new political revolution. The only question is if is national or the socialism of Corbyn and Sanders. The party of Davos and the elites have blown to many calls: the rise of China, $7 trillion spent on wars, deregulation that caused financial crises, and we're headed to another one. But the question here is what form of populism will win. . . . 
Why is the nation state so demonized and scorned? The alternative is socialism for the elites and brutal poverty for the poor. 
Bannon's rebuttals to Frum's points were all about soothing the fears of the little guy. We're going to take care of everyone and overthrow the elites. And then he added in lots of bald-faced lies about how much Trump has or is about to improve the economy, get back jobs, fix NAFTA, bring back manufacturing jobs, stop China gains through Mexico, make NATO work, support Muslims, work for the Black working class, etc. Bannon's playing the long game with Trump. "We're just in the top of the first inning. I believe we'll hold the Senate, and it's a dogfight over the House. It's a process. . . . Trump's getting his sea legs. . . . I haven't seen a bad decision from Trump yet." And he insists there's no correlation with Trump and the growing violence in the country: "The violence raised by the left is far worse. . . . Trump is an imperfect instrument, and the deplorables are the finest people."

We hope to accomplish three things here: 1. to speak to those who are undecided. It's important. Bannon's politics offers you nothing. It doesn't care about you. It does not respect you. It is anger and fear that drives people to the polls. 2. to speak to those who see Trump for what it is and resist it. I know the fear many feel, and I stand to reignite your faith and speak to your courage. This is not the first time democrats faced thugs and dictators. They were wrong then, and they're wrong now. We're here to show that we are what our grandparents were, and we can face the challenges. And 3. for those who see Trump and support him anyway because they enjoy destruction. Bannon is burning everything down. We are nearing the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. We understand burning non-metaphorically. You have been winning, but you will lose. And when you lose, your children will be ashamed of you. And the future will not belong to you.  And it starts tonight.   
I'm a conservative who seeks to conserve a liberal heritage. I want a state that doesn't steal, media that doesn't lie, courts that don't lie, and voting that counts every vote. Populism claims to speak for the people, but they begin by dividing people by religion, gender, race. Some of the people are not the people; they are those people. We see Trump doing this again and again. Populism will lose because it's a scam. . . . Liberal democracy is stronger than it looks.  
The failures of a good system are not the reason to turn to an evil one. We have to renew and repair. Bannon and I have one thing in common: we see the stress on middle class incomes. The populist response is to see this as opportunities to exploit and overthrow instead of flaws that need reform and constructive repair and renewal. Our choices are destruction or renewal, freedom or servitude with politics that excludes and oppresses part of the nation. . . . The idea of America first gets progressively less attractive when it leaves behind communities. We're stronger when we work cooperatively. This has been argued for 200 years: domination or potential fruitful cooperation. That's the key question. . . .  The cruel always think the kind are weak. . . . 
Populism is not interested in results. It's an attempt to exploit emotions to gain power. . . . The people can feel when they're respected and will demonstrate on Tuesday who they feel is not protecting them. The future belongs to those who care about it, not who will  immolate it for temporary gain. Populists don't know what to do; they only know who to hate. . . . These parties all have sinister connection to Russia power.
Frum's rebuttals to Bannon were largely a reiteration that we're going to fix the system from within, and a correction on all the Trump "facts," largely connecting corporate elites to the Trump administration, sometimes getting snarky: "If Trump thought blacks would vote for him, they would allow them to vote." When asked why Trump was able to win, he said it's all due to false promises around protecting health insurance. Trump offers no details, but presents a strong commitment to the people, and then nothing happens. "The best defense of Trump, is that the job's just too hard for him."


At this point, it just becomes clear they're both saying the same thing about how broken the system is. Can it be overthrown by elites that are so clearly part of it, or can it be fixed from within by elites that are so clearly part of it? Those were the options on offer. The people voted with Frum and against racism and laughable lies, which is good to see.

BUT, if you have 90 minutes to spare to watch a video, maybe watch this one instead:

Thomas Frank takes down both sides of this debate. He starts with Bannon's inciting incident: the bank bailout. "This was the turning point, but we missed the turn."

In a nutshell, he says,

The system needs to be fixed, but it won't happen on its own. The bailout happened under Bush, but Obama followed along, continuing Bush's policies unchanged. [The best illustration of this is the last ten minutes of Inside Job.] The Tea Party was a fake protest movement, and Paul Ryan was "down with big business," but then made it worse once in office. Trump's a "blue-collar billionaire." We're stuck in a vicious cycle of raging against elites by electing elites who make it all worse.

The Democrats used to stand for protecting the lower and middle class. But then they started saying there's nothing we can do about technology and globalization. They're more honest about their refusal to change the system. But it's not because they lacked the power to change things; they did it because they wanted to do it that way.

Back in the 70s, Democrats argued over who they were, but agreed on turning away from the New Deal fixation of the working class and embrace the post-industrial economy. They identified with the winners of the new order: the professional class. These were people who used to vote Republican. American liberalism started out as populist, but now it's all about winners, the "wired workers who will inherit the future." They're the creative class, the innovators, and we're encouraged to build zones in cities to lure them to come as if creativity and innovation are the property of a class. They protected the banks because these are their classmates.

This is only possible when the party on the left is not interested in its history of helping the working class. Meritocracy is faith that professionals deserve their rewards. They're all defined by how they did in school. Their solution for inequity is education. Instead of actually actively reducing inequity, they rationalize it. Frank's solutions are identical to Robert Reich's in Inequality for All: change the policies that allow the rich to get richer. It seems so easy, but it's not when the rich are your friends and peers.

According to Frank, who is very pessimistic about it all, this will end only when citizens take back the Democratic party. The most popular position is for them to hold big business accountable, but political consultants tell them not to, and they listen. And everyone in Washington hates Bernie Sanders.

He's concerned that, "The gravity of discontent pulls to the right." When people are upset or afraid, they vote conservatively, and the current Republican party is incompetent. Only two more sleeps.

ETA: Here's another good video of Frank where he explains how right-wing populism is a "freakish historical anomaly" that's only a few decades old. It's full of contradictions in that it "worships the working man while steadily worsening his conditions." The political divide was one the few against the many, but now it's the few against the few: the enlightened technocrats against the resentful billionaires. His solution this time: get the majority together and it will be unstoppable.

ETA: A Guardian series on populism.

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