Friday, 18 November 2016

Donald Trump: How it happened, why it happened and what Americans must do now.

Noted 'man of the people' Donald Trump in his golden New York penthouse.

There have been hundreds of thinkpieces dedicated to Donald Trump since his shock victory in the presidential election last week. Thousands, possibly. His rise to power and  the role economic anxiety or race or gender or age or class played in it have been teased out and debated. There has been good analysis and there has been bad analysis. But, before I add my voice to the debate, I feel it's worth pointing out again that Donald Trump did not actually win the popular vote. It's easy to forget that a majority of American voters rejected him as president and it is only an archaic and corrupt electoral college system that ensured victory for him. I'm not suggesting that his win is illegitimate - hey, those are the rules (no matter how stupid they are) -  but I feel it is significant given many of the thinkpieces have focused on a growing disillusionment with mainstream politics and globalisation without mentioning that a majority of Americans did not think a right wing demagogue such as Trump was the solution to their problems. 

Even if Trump didn't win though, even if the winner was decided on the basis of the popular vote - y'know, like a normal democracy - wouldn't it still be alarming that sixty million Americans voted for him? Of course. So what was it? Was it economic anxiety, racism or misogyny or a variety of factors that led to his election. Was it the final wail of White America as it struggles to adjust to the changing demographics of country they once ruled with impunity? Was it disillusionment with Washington, the gridlock that had taken hold there and led to some of the most unproductive congresses (in terms of laws passed) in recent memory? Was it a protest against post-industrial America and the depletion of semi-skilled and skilled employment in the manufacturing industry? Was sexism the key factor, with a majority of American men, and many American women, still opposed to the idea of having a woman in the White House (or, at the very least, willing to forgive the misogyny practiced by her opponent)? To tell you the truth I haven't a fucking notion and trawling through the articles and thinkpieces published in the last week hasn't gotten me any closer to the truth. The lack of clairty is understandable - journalists and media commentators are desperately trying to get to grips with a world that, for many years, they pretended didn't exist. My feeling is that it is a variety of factors that made sixty million Americans vote for Trump - with economic anxiety, sexism and racism all playing a part. In fact, the lines can often blur between them. The root cause of economic anxiety for working class and middle class white America is not, and this may shock you, Mexicans or Muslims or illegal immigrants but boy that sure won't stop the far-right from telling you it is. The economic anxiety thesis has upset many people who claim it gives a 'free-pass' to people who voted for Trump. The implication is that we shouldn't show any empathy towards people who were willing to vote for a candidate who espoused such racism and misogyny even if they're experiencing genuine economic anxiety. It is an understandable position to take, particularly if the person who holds that position is a woman or a person of colour. But analysing why certain groups of people voted for Trump is not excusing them or justifying their choice - it's trying to better understand why they decided to vote for him. 

If you truly believe that, as Hillary Clinton claimed, half of Trump supporters are a "basket of deplorables" who are "irredeemable" in their sexism and racism then you don't need to spend much time analysing them. They're irredeemable, they're not worth even trying to persuade otherwise. But is this how we should view upwards of 30 million people? It's difficult for me to envisage what would lead me to want to vote for Trump but I'm not from a rust belt state, I'm not one of the white working class whose material wealth and health has depleted over the last number of decades. The opinion polling on election day might give us a better insight into some of the factors which led to people voting for Trump. This was particularly revealing from the New York Times:
 "The Reuters/Ipsos early exit poll found that 75 percent of respondents agreed “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful.” Only slightly fewer agreed that “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful,” and — perhaps the kicker — 68 percent believed that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”
Does that give us the full picture? No, of course not. But it gives us an insight into the minds of some of the people who voted for Trump. Were they duped into Trump's anti-establishment disguise? Yes, certainly. Were they deluded in believing a billionaire is going to reverse decades of globalisation? Yes, certainly. But given the almost non-existent faith they had in establishment politics, is it any wonder Hillary Clinton did not appeal to many of them? YNo, not at all

The economic anxiety and the frustration with with which millions of Americans have with the political establishment might be the primary factor but it is certainly not the only factor which led to Trump's election. To deny that sexism and racism played their part in his victory would be criminal. It is no coincidence that the Ku Klux Klan and various neo-nazi groups, as well as noted misogynists such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Roosh, pledged their support for Trump. Trump's policies, including his proposed ban on Muslims, the wall he wants to build to keep Mexicans out and his pledge to punish women who have abortions, were heinously misogynistic and xenophobic. Many people voted for Trump precisely because of those policies while others, we assume, were shamefully willing to overlook these policies to fight back at the establishment. So where do we draw the line? Is there any difference between people supporting racist and sexist platforms and somebody who is willing to overlook the racist and sexist platforms presented by a candidate they support? 

It's a difficult one to ponder and it is revealing of the difficulty the left now has in adjusting to a post-Trump and post-Brexit world. The left's response to Trump's victory has been both tepid and inspired. The protests which sprung up in response to Trump taking the White House were both inspired and required. Careful posturing and incremental nudging will not stop Trump and his band of merry fascists from running amok in areas like healthcare, immigration and taxes. But their is confusion over how to win back the supporters the left has lost over the years. The absolute most dangerous thing that the left can do right now is start pandering to the racial prejudices Trump has aroused as a result of his campaign. There can be no compromise on immigration policies that will destroy the lives of millions of people or xenophobic policies that will specifically target Muslims. In the run up to the 2015 election, the Labour Party in Britain, under the stewardship of Ed Miliband, began to pander to right wing fears on immigration with their infamous "controls on immigration" souvenir mug. It didn't work. Labour were still battered at the election. As George Monbiot later put it, "Why vote for the echo when you could vote for the shout?"

That's why frankly laughable suggestions that the Democrats in America should 'work with Trump' and 'unite a disunited nation' are so dangerous given what Trump wants to do. Many have gone a step further in pledging their (apparently reluctant) support to Trump by saying "If he succeeds, America succeeds". But this is an obvious fallacy. If Trump's presidency is a success, if he achieves in ushering in some or most of the incendiary policies he advocated for during the campaign, millions of Americans will suffer. Trump's presidency has to be an abject failure. He has to be the most inept president ever. In his first week he's appointed a white supremacist as his chief strategist and has made a climate change denier, Myron Ebell, the head of his EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) transition team. His aims are clear. The kind of world he envisages is one in which the wealthiest will disproportionately benefit. He must fail and he must be thwarted at every step. 

To stop what he advocates the left must enter into four years of almost total protest. The left is locked out of congress, locked out of the supreme court and locked out of the presidency. The Democratic Party is making uncertain noises about what kind of direction it will go over the next four years - on the one hand, grassroots stalwarts such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want the party to tack to the left while on the other hand, the party's natural centrism may mean it will continue to keep plodding along as a party with policies primarily tailored for an urban elite. Similar to the task of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour in Britain, the left must walk a fine line in America over the next ew years. They need to open a dialogue with disaffected white working class and middle class voters who voted for Trump due to disillusionment with the current political and economic system but they must do so in a way which does not legitimize Trump's xenophobic rhetoric. Such a move would be morally repugnant and might alienate African-American and Hispanic voters. It must also build a defensive bulwark against some of the dangerous policies Trump proposes. Given that Trump and the republicans control the congress and the presidency, the left's role may well be damage-limitation but so be it. Whether the Democratic Party is part of the solution or part of the problem remains to be seen but, like a soldier preparing for a siege, the left must dig its feet in and prepare for four years of resistance.


Monday, 7 November 2016

To stop Trump, American leftists should "tightly hold their noses" and vote for Hillary.

I've largely spent the last few months thanking to Christ I'm not American. We know their elections are corrupted by moneyed vested interests and shamefully reduced to nothing more than sham popularity contests at the best of times but the one that's (thankfully) almost at an end is the worst yet. In fact, it's made the other ones seem like relics of a calmer, more serene era. Remember when the biggest scandal from 2012 was Mitt Romney answering a question on gender pay inequality by referring to his "binders full of women"? As Bunk from The Wire might say, "it makes me sick how far we done fell".

The main reason I've been thanking my lucky stars I was not born on the other side of the Atlantic these past few weeks, however, is the simple reason I don't have to grapple with my conscience in making a decision over who to vote for. My hypothetical choice is not Trump or Clinton, however - as I would rather whip myself to death with a burning rope than vote for that racist, misogynist, toupeed, idiotic megalomaniac the Republicans have shamefully decided to nominate for president - but whether to vote for Clinton or vote for a candidate who better reflects my political and economic views but has not a snowball's chance of winning. I would imagine this is a conundrum contorting the minds of thousands of American leftists ready to cast their ballot tomorrow. Many more are possibly staying at home, having understandably long since given up on seeking change within the confines of the American electoral system. A deluded minority, whose numbers have been exaggerated in recent weeks by centrists and Hillary supporters still smarting from Bernie Sanders' forceful challenge during the primary campaign, are possibly voting for Trump in the patently false belief that his victory would "shake up the system" and perhaps expose the material iniquities inherent in modern American politics. As the outcome of the Brexit vote has shown, when a minority of British leftists advocated for a left wing Brexit (or Lexit as they called it) in order to challenge the British and European elites, giving in to right-wing populism only strengthens it. 

You can probably tell by the title I have decided that, with a heavy heart, I would vote for Hillary Clinton in the hypothetical scenario that I was able to vote in the US Presidential Election. I understand the disillusionment and despondency which is leading to reluctance among many leftists to vote for Clinton. Disregarding the fact that she is the 'establishment' candidate, there is a whole raft of problems relating to some of her previous policy choices and personal indiscretions. Her enthusiasm for welfare reform during the presidency of her husband Bill (which gutted support for poor American families and resulted in the number of families with children in poverty receiving cash assistance from the US government declining from 68% in 1996 to 36% by 2013), her support for the Iraq War and other American foreign policy misadventures, her questionable links with Middle Eastern governments with a litany of human rights abuses, her links with Wall Street and the millions of dollars she has received in speeches given to banks such as Goldman Sachs, CitiBank and JP Morgan are all good reasons to doubt her progressive credentials. She talks progressive but acts (and one would imagine would govern) as a centrist. Her claim in one of the emails leaked by Wikileaks that politicians should have a "public and a private position" on policy issues was revealing in how nakedly cynical she can be. While many conservative corners of the internet have acted as one large, hysterical symposium on Clinton controversies, reporting on every single indiscretion, from the real to the imagined, as if they all pointed to an incorrigibly corrupt and uniquely rotten candidate while simultaneously ignoring or excusing the indiscretions of Trump, there are genuine reasons to find many facets of Clinton's political career extremely problematic. While many of her supporters have begun to disregard any criticism of her as simply borne out of misogyny or conservative delusion, there are legitimate causes for concern. Simply put, if Hillary was a candidate in Ireland or anywhere else in Europe, I would not be voting for her.

The alternative to Clinton, however, is much, much worse. While one of the supposed reasons many people are voting against Clinton is that she is the 'establishment' candidate and that 'nothing will change' if she's elected (and I believe there is credence to these claims), what Trump offers is a scary lurch into the unknown. The personal scandals which have blighted his campaign - from his characterising of Mexicans as "drug traffickers and rapists" to his insulting of a disabled journalist at one of his rallies to the leaked video of him boasting about sexually assaulting women - should already disqualify him from anyone's consideration. But his policy platforms, if you could even call them that, are so insidiously racist, dangerous and tilted in favour of the wealthy that if even a fraction of them were to come to fruition it would wreak havoc upon millions of people. He wants to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans, he wants to ban Muslims from entering the United States for an indefinite period of time, he wants to defund Planned Parenthood and clamp down on abortion rights and he wants a build a stupid wall which he stupidly and erroneously claims Mexico will pay for. His attitude towards man-made climate change, the single biggest threat to our species today, is uniquely dangerous. He is a climate changer denier who wants to take American out of the Paris Agreement, a legally binding agreement that mandates every country who signs up to reducing carbon emissions and ensuring the Earth's temperature does not rise by more than 2 degrees Celsius, and once infamously said climate change was a myth invented by the Chinese to hurt US manufacturing. If you care about climate change, if you care about income inequality and if you care about a woman's right to choose, Donald Trump should terrify you.

Stopping Donald Trump should be the greatest motivation for American leftists heading into this election. While I would usually be a fervent advocate for voting third party given America's torrid and corrupted two party system, I feel this time is different. Ironically, I don't think any third party candidates since Ralph Nader in 2000 have gotten as much attention during an election cycle as Jill Stein and Gary Johnson have this year. Johnson, given his right wing credentials, is someone who leftists should not even entertain voting for, but Stein presents a conundrum as she's someone who has a much more appealing stance on things like student debt and climate change than Clinton and her attitude to Wall Street could not be any different to Hillary's too. There are many problems I have with her campaign though, from her cosying up to Putin to the lack of economic coherence in her plans on student debt, but the main reason I would not vote for her is that she doesn't have a chance of winning. In such a crucial election, where any number of votes could nudge Trump over the line, I feel it is crucial we ensure that he is not elected. This is a difficult thing to admit and it may invoke the ire of many leftists who see this sort of outlook as a capitulation to right wing political orthodoxy, but I think that stopping Trump is actually more important than voting for the candidate with whom you share the most in common with. If American leftists do, however, find it too unconscionable to vote for Clinton and decide to vote for Stein or another left wing candidate instead, I would totally understand. Parades of liberals have been lining up to excoriate anyone who is even considering voting third party in the last few weeks, with the same smug and self-satisfied tone as greeted many potential Leave voters during the Brexit vote in the UK. We all know how that went but I would urge American leftist to bite their tongue or, as Yanis Varoufakis put it recently on Question time, "hold your nose tightly" and vote for Hillary. 

But we shouldn't stop there. This has been largely ignored by the press, but Clinton is campaigning on the most outwardly left-wing platform a presidential candidate for one of the two big parties has ever ran. Now in fairness, that's not saying much given the weakness of the left historically in America, but there are some glimmers of light there. She wants to increase the federal minimum wage, introduce legislation to help poor families send their kids to college, introduce paid parental leave, oppose free trade agreements unless they have suitable protections for workers and embark on a massive federal infrastructure programme. As I already mentioned, Hillary has always been more moderate than progressive but she was pushed to the left by Bernie Sanders' primary campaign which was one of the few redeeming qualities of this election. His platform, which challenged Wall Street, challenged income inequality and challenged the prevailing economic orthodoxy, emboldened millions of particularly young Americans and that energy should be retained to ensure that Clinton stays the course and does not bow to corporate pressure, as she has so many times in the past. As well as that American leftists should agitate for real, substantive change independent of mainstream politics and should continue to campaign fervently for worker's rights, for women's rights and against all forms of racism. Hillary Clinton's presidency is not the means to an end but it is certainly better than the alternative. Clinton might represent a continuation of Obama, whose foreign and domestic policies have justifiably disappointed many leftists, and not much might change but it is surely better than the hateful world a Trump presidency would bring. 

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The government's decision to put abortion to the citizens' assembly exposes (once again) the folly of 'new politics'.

I don't often agree with Michael McDowell. In fact, finding myself in agreement with the former leader of the PDs makes me sort of uncomfortable. But Michael and I are peas in the proverbial pod this week. In his weekly column with the Sunday Business Post on Sunday last, McDowell took so-called 'new politics' to task; "The Oireachtas, our national parliament, is on "standby" mode", he writes, "Ministers and their departments have lost their appetite to legislate or reform. They prefer to farm out the legislative function the the citizens' forum and to farm out the Dáil's function of political accountability to inquiries." While I disagreed with much of the rest of what McDowell said, especially his assertion that a new centrist party to keep Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on their toes is what is needed to clear the "political logjam", that is a quite succinct description of the paralysis currently afflicting Irish politics. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the government's handling of the issue of abortion and the decision to refer the decision on whether to hold a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment to a Citizens' Assembly.

Abortion is a tricky one for Enda Kenny and Fine Gael. It's just over three years since they shipped four TDs when they pushed through the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act in the wake of the Savita Halappanaver tragedy. They could take the hit back then - and no doubt many in the party were more than happy to see the back of Lucinda Creighton - but it did rock them. They simply can't take the same risk now. Not only might they have to face the prospect of rebellion from certain sections of the backbenches, they have nine independents propping them up and, while Katherine Zappone, Finian McGrath and Shane Ross are all in favour of repealing the eighth amendment, it's a trifle more difficult to envisage Denis Naughten or Michael Lowry siding with the government on that one. Enda's hubris has him in full survival mode and Fine Gael need to retain the support of all the independents to keep the show on the road. 

But pressure is rising. The Repeal campaign has gathered a head of steam in the last 12 months and the March for Choice held at the end of September attracted in excess of 20,000 people. In addition, we know that poll after poll after poll after poll shows that a clear majority of Irish people are in favour of liberalising our abortion laws. It gets a bit murkier when you try to tease through the details as it seems to be the case that, while Irish people favour repeal the eighth amendment, full legalisation of abortion (which, for the record, is what I support) does not receive the support of the majority of Irish people. Ok, so it's complicated. Of course it is. But what is undeniably clear from the opinion poll results, from the marches, from the rallies and from discussing the issue with people online and in person, is that there is a clear demand for a referendum. The only thing stopping one is Fine Gael's intransigence resulting from Kenny's survival instincts. This means that Ireland's abortion ban, which the UN have described as "cruel, inhuman and degrading" will continue indefinitely; 12 women a day will be exported to England to undergo their termination and countless more poorer and working class women will resort to more dangerous methods.

The human impact of the shelving of this issue has been well documented both on social media and in print in the last week but the impact this will have on the citizens' assembly, a genuinely original political concept we introduced five years ago, has been naturally less studied. While the great tragedy of the government putting repealing the eighth amendment on the long finger is what it will do to thousands of Irish women over the next few years, it also may put paid to the Citizens' Assembly becoming a viable institution for our democracy. In fact, the government's misuse of the Citizens' Assembly is representative of a much deeper malaise in Irish politcs which remains steadfastly opposed to meaningful reform.
But before we look into why that is the case, let's take a brief look at the history of our Citizens' Assembly. In 2011, in the aftermath of the historic general election which routed Fianna Fáil and ushered in a "democratic revolution", the new Fine Gael and Labour coalition government, emboldened by their massive majority and public appetite for political reform, announced in their Programme For Government plans to set up a Constitutional Convention in order to "consider comprehensive constitutional reform" and ensure our constitution "meets the challenges of the 21st century". The convention would be a citizens' assembly comprised of 100 people - 66 members of the public selected randomly, 33 politicians and one independent chairman - and they would meet over a series of weekends to discuss a number of constitutional issues nominated by the government. The issues they were to discuss ranged from legalising same-sex marriage to reviewing the Dáil electoral system to reducing the term of the president to five years. After presentations by academics about the topic at hand, attendees would debate and discuss the issue and would then vote on what recommendations they would make. So, for example, 79 convention attendees voted to recommend changing the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, with 18 against and three abstaining. The recommendations are then passed to the government who pledged to respond accordingly with four months. 

While there were understandable mutterings regarding the limited scope of the convention and the fact that it could only make recommendations to the government who would then decide whether to act on them or ignore them, there was excitement and optimism among academics that this might herald a new form of 'deliberative democracy'. In the end, the convention convened on nine occasions and two of the convention's recommendations - legalising same sex marriage and reducing the age of eligibility for president to 21 - were put to a referendum. The passing of the same-sex marriage legislation was an undeniable victory for the convention with Elkink et al claiming that it was "the first time in Irish history that a referendum was called as a result of aprocess of deliberation involving ordinary citizen, indeed it is also one ofthe first times in the world that a deliberative process has resulted in areferendum and certainly the first to have succeeded." 

When analysed in its entirety, however, the merits of the convention and its capacity to continue to invoke real change were dubious to say the least. The same-sex marriage recommendation was a politically palatable reform which had the overwhelming backing of at least one of the government parties (and most of the other). On other issues the record is not as impressive. David Farrell, an academic who had been one of the most foremost voices in favour of the convention when it began, disappointingly asserted that of the 40 recommendations made by the convention across the nine reports, the government only responded to 15 of them and this, he claims, represents a “most charitable reading of governmental reaction”. Even when the government did respond it did not necessarily mean that the conventions' recommendations were adequately addressed. In its first report, for example, the convention recommended that the voting age should be reduced to 16. Then Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan responded to the recommendation in the Dáil and announced "The Government therefore commits to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 ona proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16." No such referendum was forthcoming however with an Irish Times report in 2014 reporting that there was "considerable opposition" among senior figures in the government. 

This was always the fear with the Constitutional Convention and with the now rebranded Citizens' Assembly. The government need only take note and respond to the recommendations of the assembly- and as we have seen they don't even do that - rather than actually put them to a referendum. As Silvia Suteu noted, in the aftermath of the conventions, "Such government discretion aligns with scholarly observations that political elites will adopt mechanisms such as citizen assemblies on serious matters, but will “make sure that change does not come too easily, and that they can, if necessary, block an unpalatable reform." If the convention comes up with something the government finds uncomfortable they can - to the best of their abilities - simply ignore it. Would the government ignore a recommendation on repealing the eighth amendment from the citizens' assembly if it felt calling a referendum would weaken their grip on power? Who knows.

In any case, given the last government's behaviour it's easy to see why the public would be cynical about citizens' assemblies but the shunting of the abortion issue over the to the assembly gives them another reason. This government has set a precedent - from now on if the ruling parties of the day wish to dodge an issue for fear of alienating core voters or upsetting backbenchers they have an escape route. Rather than tackle it head on in the legislative chamber or simply go to the people with a referendum they can kick the can very much down the road. The citizens' assembly and deliberative democracy could have a part to play in Irish politics. They could be used to refine and improve the constitution and improve how we conduct our democracy. They could tackle questions regarding local government, electoral systems and issues relating to democratic structures. They should not be used as a device for upholding fragile governments because that devalues them. 

Should we be surprised about all this? No, of course not. There's a reason the term 'new politics' is used almost exclusively in jest - nobody actually believes anything substantive has changed in how our major parties conduct themselves. They're simply adapting to new, uncomfortable surroundings. The misuse of the citizens' assembly is but one example of this. The confidence and supply arrangement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has not ushered in a new era of conciliatory and cooperative politics but is a desperate attempt to uphold the old political party hierarchy. Initiatives such as citizens' assemblies are supposed to represent a shift in political discourse and decision-making, better incorporating the views of the citizen. But they don't. They're window dressing and a convenient outlet for pretending to care about reform and dodging uncomfortable decisions. Real political change will not come from the established parties; the behaviour of Fine Gael with regards to the abortion issue simply serves to highlight this.