The Diagnosis Seems Accurate–What About the Prescription?

Over the last year or so, the Guardian has assumed a place alongside the New York Times and the Washington Post as essential reading. In addition to excellent reporting, the publication carries thought-provoking columns--one of which prompts this post.

George Monbiot, the author, reminds us that what we are dealing with in the U.S. is part of a very troubling worldwide phenomenon.

You can blame Jeremy Corbyn for Boris Johnson, and Hillary Clinton for Donald Trump. You can blame the Indian challengers for Narendra Modi, the Brazilian opposition for Jair Bolsonaro, and left and centre parties in Australia, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland and Turkey for similar electoral disasters. Or you could recognise that what we are witnessing is a global phenomenon….

In these nations, people you wouldn’t trust to post a letter for you have been elected to the highest office. There, as widely predicted, they behave like a gang of vandals given the keys to an art gallery, “improving” the great works in their care with spray cans, box cutters and lump hammers. In the midst of global emergencies, they rip down environmental protections and climate agreements, and trash the regulations that constrain capital and defend the poor. They wage war on the institutions that are supposed to restrain their powers while, in some cases, committing extravagant and deliberate outrages against the rule of law. They use impunity as a political weapon, revelling in their ability to survive daily scandals, any one of which would destroy a normal politician.

It’s hard to argue with any of this. Monbiot says we are in an era of “new politics,” one built on “sophisticated cheating and provocative lies,” and that we need to understand just  what it is that we are facing, and devise new strategies to resist it. No argument there. He points to Finland as a country that has resisted this trend. (I would note that Finland is widely recognized as a leader in public education…and I would wager a substantial sum that there’s a connection…)

In Finland, on the day of our general election, Boris Johnson’s antithesis became prime minister: the 34-year-old Sanna Marin, who is strong, humble and collaborative. Finland’s politics, emerging from its peculiar history, cannot be replicated here. But there is one crucial lesson. In 2014, the country started a programme to counter fake news, teaching people how to recognise and confront it. The result is that Finns have been ranked, in a recent study of 35 nations, the people most resistant to post-truth politics.

Monbiot suggests that “progressive parties” hold  Google, Facebook and Twitter to account, and form a “global coalition promoting digital literacy, and pressuring social media platforms to stop promoting falsehoods.”

It’s hard to fault that prescription. His next one is more dubious.

 At the moment, the political model for almost all parties is to drive change from the top down. They write a manifesto, that they hope to turn into government policy, which may then be subject to a narrow and feeble consultation, which then leads to legislation, which then leads to change. I believe the best antidote to demagoguery is the opposite process: radical trust. To the greatest extent possible, parties and governments should trust communities to identify their own needs and make their own decisions.

Monbiot compares his approach to ecological “rewilding.”

Rewilding – allowing dynamic, spontaneous organisation to reassert itself – can result in a sudden flourishing, often in completely unexpected ways, with a great improvement in resilience.

The same applies to politics. Mainstream politics, controlled by party machines, has sought to reduce the phenomenal complexity of human society into a simple, linear model that can be controlled from the centre. The political and economic systems it creates are simultaneously highly unstable and lacking in dynamism; susceptible to collapse, as many northern towns can testify, while unable to regenerate themselves. They become vulnerable to the toxic, invasive forces of ethno-nationalism and supremacism.

He cites examples: participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre in Brazil, the Decide Madrid system in Spain, and the Better Reykjavik program in Iceland, where, he says, local people have “reoccupied the political space that had been captured by party machines and top-down government.”

The results have been extraordinary: a massive re-engagement in politics, particularly among marginalised groups, and dramatic improvements in local life. Participatory politics does not require the blessing of central government, just a confident and far-sighted local authority.

Monbiot is calling for “radical devolution.”

Unfortunately, “devolution” is a lot more complicated than he seems to realize.( I’d hate to be black, gay or Muslim in a “radically devolved” Alabama, Kentucky or even Indiana–states with a noticeable deficit of “confident and far-sighted local authority.”)

It depends upon what you are “devolving”–and who to.


If Wishing Could Make It So

I hope this column from The Guardian isn’t a case of “whistling Dixie” as the old saying goes.

Titled “The Republican Party is about to face the wrath of women,” the writer suggests that the anger I’ve expressed over the GOP’s behavior in the Kavanaugh hearings is both a lot more widespread than many think–and not limited to the behavior of those involved in these hearings.

Even the dimmest and most misogynist of Republican operatives must realize, by this point, that the supreme court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and the handling of the sexual assault allegations against him will hurt their chances, especially with women voters, in the upcoming midterm elections.

What they don’t seem to realize, though, is that huge numbers of women aren’t just mad – they’re organized and mobilized politically in a way we’ve never quite seen before. The key story of the midterms is the large number of progressive women – and to a lesser extent, progressive men – who have been taking on the crucial, unglamorous work that swings elections: registering voters, canvassing door-to-door, preparing to get people to the polls. The disdain for women that the Republicans have shown by continuing to rally behind Kavanaugh is only energizing them further.

The author cites some impressive evidence for those assertions. Beginning with the millions of Americans who joined the Women’s Marches following Trump’s election, the author describes a “multi-issue, women-led upsurge of political engagement on an unprecedented scale.”

Nearly 25,000 protests have taken place since Trump’s inauguration, involving somewhere between 14 and 21 million Americans. These figures greatly exceed levels of protest participation at any prior time in US history, even the height of the Vietnam war. And no matter the issue or focus of the demonstrations, women have consistently been the majority of those taking to the streets. (Emphasis added.)

Protests, without more, change nothing. So it is both impressive and gratifying to see the level of grass-roots activism that has accompanied those marches. Women, especially, have built what the author calls “a powerful electoral ground game.”

Substantial mobilizing for the midterms is being done through the vast array of local grassroots groups that formed after Trump took office, including the 5,000 groups affiliated with Indivisible. Like the resistance to Trump more generally, these groups are typically women-led and have already played a key role in a series of progressive electoral upsets, including Doug Jones’s Senate victory in Alabama last December to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s highly publicized primary win this past June. Their autonomy from the Democratic party gives much of their work an under-the-radar quality that can obscure their impact.

Theda Skocpol is an eminent political scientist who has investigated the resistance–the anti-Trump phenomenon that is reflected in the 5,000 groups cited in the Guardian column.

Skocpol, the longtime government and sociology professor at Harvard University, has been making research trips to eight counties that went for Donald Trump in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin, as well as communities across all of Pennsylvania. In suburban America, even in uber-conservative counties, Skocpol began to notice action groups popping up in response to Trump. And she began to notice who was doing the organizing, here in the heart of what the national media have taken to calling Trump Country: women. Specifically older, college-educated white women: “retired teachers, librarians, health care people, some businesswomen,” as Skocpol put it.

Exit polling tells us that 52 percent of white female voters went for Trump in 2016 (something I still can’t get my head around….)

Skocpol acknowledges this, but her research suggests that the political behaviors of these white women have shifted radically in the wake of the election. They are calling on Congress, knocking on doors on behalf of state and local candidates, and in some cases, running for office themselves. “Sociologically, what we are witnessing is an inflection point — a shift in long-standing trends — concentrated in one large demographic group, as college-educated women have ramped up their political participation en masse,” she wrote in a recent essay co-authored with Lara Putnam.

Skocpol’s observations certainly mesh with the enormous upsurge in women’s political activity that I’ve seen in Indiana. But the proof of the pudding–to use another old-fashioned saying–will come when the votes get counted.

I’m not hoping for a wave–I’m hoping for a tsunami. And I’m alternately terrified by the thought that we might not get either one.

Interesting Observation

My granddaughter Sarah currently lives in Wales; she is attending the University of Wales and will graduate this summer. She reads the Guardian, and this morning sent me the following text message.

“Taken from the comment and debate section of the Guardian this morning: ‘what you need to say and do to be credible in the Republican Party essentially deprives you of credibility outside it. The Republicans recognize this, but like an obese glutton at an all-you-can-eat buffet, they just can’t seem to help themselves.'”

The comment was in response to an article on “The American Right, Stuck in a Hyperbolic World,” and I think it captured the current dynamic perfectly. Right now, for example, it looks quite likely that the House GOP will shut down government, despite Democrats’ willingness to meet their demands halfway. (The Republicans want 60 billion in cuts; Democrats are offering 30 billion.) They seem absolutely oblivious to the damage indiscriminate cuts will do to the still-fragile recovery–and equally oblivious to the political damage their posturing is inflicting.

As the commenter noted, they just can’t help themselves.