Noah Millman

The Marketplace of Ideas in the Age of Plutocracy

My review of Daniel Drezner’s new book, The Ideas Industry, is in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, but it’s readable on-line now. The book is “an account of how the marketplace of ideas, the metaphorical bazaar where academics and think tankers and pundits hawk their intellectual wares to policy makers, has changed over the past generation.”

As he tells it, three large-scale forces have remade the marketplace of ideas. The erosion of trust in prestigious institutions has weakened the position of both academia and the traditional journalistic perches of public intellectuals. The polarization of American politics has segmented that marketplace into distinct and separate niches. Most important, the dramatic growth in economic inequality has made wealthy individuals and corporations into the primary buyers, dominating the market.

It’s this last trend, Drezner says, that accounts for the transformation of a marketplace into an industry. In a marketplace, wares are traded among participants with diverse needs, but an industry produces to meet the specific demands of its customers. Whether it’s the predominance of economics over political science, the transformation of research institutions and the rise of private intelligence operations, or the phenomenon of the superstar intellectual — each of which gets a chapter in Drezner’s book — a common thread is the enormous financial incentives that now exist to cater to the intellectual tastes and prejudices of modern wealth.

Read the whole thing there.

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Can the Left Respond to Right-Wing Populism?

Jeff Spross has an excellent column at The Week this morning about the sinking feeling he has watching Emmanuel Macron, notwithstanding his strong lead at the polls:

After a number of other candidates were scuttled by the first round of the vote, there’s been enormous pressure for the various voting factions in France to unite against Le Pen. But the case for opposing her rests far more on visceral horror at her xenophobic stances than on any substantive alternative vision. When the two candidates sat down for a recent debate, New York Times reporter Rachel Donadio tweeted that “Le Pen is casting herself as a protector of French people worried about work, health care. Macron [is] casting himself as fact-checker-in-chief.”

This whole dynamic should sound eerily familiar to anyone who watched the showdown between Clinton and Trump. Once again, the Western world will try to halt the rising forces of right-wing nationalism with another ambassador of cosmopolitan finance capitalism.

Granted, polling shows Macron with a solid lead for the final round of the election. But it’s hard to escape the sickening feeling that we’re witnessing the “farce” portion of history’s cycle. . . .

What’s most discouraging is the depressingly familiar way Macron treats the forces of global capitalism as some natural disaster we all have to live with. When a Whirlpool factory shut down in his hometown, Macron responded with: “What will I do? I’ll go in a truck and say, ‘With me, it won’t close?’ We know that it’s not true.”

Say what you will about Le Pen, she is at least willing to argue forthrightly for blowing up the whole system and creating something new. “I want to destroy the EU,” she said in a 2014 interview. “The EU is deeply harmful, it is an anti-democratic monster.” She rails against job loss and casts herself as the defender of the working class. In the blue-collar areas of France, where deindustrialization has hit French workers the hardest, Le Pen outpaces Macron by a considerable margin.

It’s both perverse and tragic that Le Pen’s willingness to think big comes coupled with the populist right’s paranoia towards Islam, its zero-sum hostility to immigrants, and its toxic cultural reaction. But it should surprise no one who is a student of human nature and history. More to the point, the Clintons and Obamas and Macrons of the world have worked very hard to present global finance capitalism and the cosmopolitan values of tolerance and multiculturalism as a package deal. Voters are taking them at their word.

Spross’s thin hope is that Macron will prove wily enough to coopt the strongest arguments of the populist left and right:

Despite his pro-European rhetoric, Macron has recommended genuinely ambitious reforms to the eurozone’s monetary and financial structure — ones that really would push back at much of the economic destruction the currency union has wreaked. Recently, he’s even flirted with parts of Le Pen’s playbook, suggesting that threatening to withdraw France from the EU might be necessary to force those changes.

By all accounts, Macron is a slippery politician and a privileged opportunist. But these might not be entirely bad things. If he concludes that his own political glory requires it, he might yet betray his class and throw in with the populists. It does occasionally happen, as America’s own Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated. Should he go that route, Macron would give the justified fury of the Western working class a far more humane outlet.

But to pull off the transformation, Macron will have to abandon the road that Obama, Clinton, Cameron, and the rest have paved for him. I’m not holding my breath.

But why does the liberal center-left keep framing the contest this way in the first place? That’s the subject of my own column at The Week today:

It’s not that the liberal left has no policy response to today’s economic or political challenges. Indeed, as the debate between Macron and Le Pen illustrated well, right-wing populists are the ones who are more comfortable with slogans and postures than with policy prescriptions, and that is reason enough for plenty of voters to be nervous about voting for them.

But something deeper than policy is being contested, over and over again, in Britain, in America, and now in France. What’s being contested is the nature of politics itself. And that’s the debate the liberal left is increasingly losing.

In our common liberal understanding of the roots of politics, the government rules with the consent of the governed. Representative systems of government acknowledge that the people cannot rule directly, both because direct democracy is impractically cumbersome and because they lack the expertise necessary to make informed decisions. But the people’s consent is still essential. And for the people to consent, there has to be a people — a political community that sees itself as a community.

A political community does not have to be defined in ethnic terms. The United States is not — and never has been, not even during the darkest era of official white supremacy. For that matter, France is not — historically, it has stood out among European nations for its relatively large foreign-born population, and has prided itself on a culture that people from all over Europe, and even beyond, might want to adopt it. But for a political community to exist, its members must at least acknowledge its existence. And that implies some sense of its boundaries.

This process of self-definition is increasingly anathema to liberal parties. Ostensibly, the reason is fear of being exclusionary — even racist. To define the political community in any way beyond the purely formal — those who happen to live in a particular territory — is to risk implying a preference for one group over another.

But why should this be so? As an inveterate skeptic of purely ideological reasons why people do things, I look for a sociological one:

The leadership of center-left and liberal parties is increasingly the product of formally meritocratic institutions: universities, government, banks, and other corporations. And their strongest base of support comes from citizens of a similar background, including the professional classes. Success within the world of these institutions often depends on performance metrics as well as formal qualifications and self-promotion — however imperfectly meritocratic they are, there is some basis to their claims to promote the “best” individuals. They do not, however, depend on evidence of political leadership as democracies have traditionally understood it. They do not depend on a deep investment in or ability to speak to a particular political community. And that shows in the way they do speak, whether it’s Hillary Clinton’s self-directed “I’m With Her” campaign slogan or Emmanuel Macron’s statement that there is no such thing as French culture.

These impolitic slips aren’t accidents. People who rose through these systems and these institutions have a vested interest in defining politics in technocratic terms, in suggesting that the purpose of politics is to find the “best” people to make the “best” policy decisions. If that’s what politics is, then community has little to do with political decision-making. Indeed, democracy itself can come to seem more a problem than a solution — if the people can’t bring themselves to make the right decision, then maybe more and more decisions need to be taken out of their hands. The European Union was arguably designed with that very notion consciously in mind.

But “best” is not an objective attribute of either a person or a policy. Just as an organism can only be “fit” in evolutionary terms with respect to its environment, a policy can only be “best” for achieving a particular set of ends for a particular group of people. To convince that particular group of people to trust that you know what is “best,” you first have to assure them that you know they are a particular group of people. Then you have to convince them that you have heard what they are saying: what set of ends most concern them. In other words, you have to treat them as a political community.

The reactionary populist right is rising fundamentally because the old Thatcherite/Reaganite right failed to achieve the most urgent ends for Western electorates, ends related to control: over their economic future, over their personal security, over their common culture. An older iteration of the liberal left would have had little trouble capitalizing on this failure. But it would have had the luxury of presuming the existence of a common culture, and could readily speak that common language.

As that commonality has become fragile and contested, the liberal left is increasingly tempted to operate as if the idea of political community were itself obsolete, and politics is just about choosing the best person to navigate the future. But by implicitly or explicitly dismissing the importance of a political community, the liberal left, far from defining politics in a way that anoints them the obvious and natural leaders of society, are defining themselves in a way that drives the electorate ever further into the arms of their populist foes.

Unfair though it undoubtedly seems to their own political base, today’s liberal left needs to do much more than demonstrate competence or right-thinking to win back popular trust. Contrary to their deepest impulses, they need to demonstrate that they don’t think they’re any better than anybody else.

Read both Spross’s column and my column there.

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Going Over the Top One More Time

ca. 1914-1918, France — A company of Canadian soldiers go “over the top” from a World War I trench. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Let me see if I can summarize what amounts to the official explanation the GOP is giving for why they are pushing this health care bill. (I call it the official explanation because Chris Cillizza credits his analysis entirely to GOP members and staffers he talked to, so this is presumably the message they want to get out.) If I understand correctly, it boils down to this:

  1. We promised that we would do something about health care.
  2. This is something.

Comparisons to the Democratic vote on cap and trade are not at all reasonable. The Democratic leadership actually wanted to pass that bill; the party’s base actually supported it; and I would maintain that passing it in the House when they did was indeed the most likely path to getting it enacted into law. “Most-likely” turned out not to be nearly likely enough — and because of that, the vote wound up hurting the Democrats badly in 2010. That vote was only one of many reasons why the Democratic majority proved to be far less-durable than some thought at the time, a subject that will and should continue to be debated. But while Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s strategy was in retrospect a bad one, it was a strategy aimed at a concrete and desired goal.

That is not at all true of the GOP’s health care bill. By their own repeated admission, the GOP leadership has no actual policy goal of any kind. They promised something. They have to deliver something — even if that something is wildly unpopular, satisfies nobody, and bears almost no relation to what they originally promised.

Ross Douthat has been having fun comparing the GOP leadership to Aguirre in the Werner Herzog film with respect to the leadership’s call to “burn the ships” to prevent defection. But his two most telling tweets are these:

With those tweets in mind, I have an ominous analogy to make.

The Democrats and Republicans have been engaged in brutal trench warfare for coming on a generation now. I have this sinking feeling that in a couple of years that war will be over, not because the Democrats finally win, but because the Republican side collapses into fratricide like the Russian army in 1917. [Whoops! Previously said 1918; my error]

In this analogy, Trump — continuing to pursue the ruinous politics of the discredited prior Republican regime — is bizarrely cast as the GOP’s Kerensky.

And I dread to contemplate what comes next.

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Douthat, Le Pen, Again

Ross Douthat has a follow-up to his piece from Sunday, and it is excellent:

In Europe as in the United States, recent trends in culture and economics have elevated an educated upper class while separating it, geographically and ideologically and in every other way, from a declining and fragmenting working class. In Europe as in the United States, a growing immigrant population serves this upper class while seeming to compete with downscale natives for jobs, housing and social benefits. In Europe as in the United States, the center-left coalition has become a kind of patronage arrangement between the multicultural meritocracy and minority groups both new and old, while the white working class drifts rightward and votes for Brexit, Trump and now Le Pen.

The best piece to read on the French version of this phenomenon comes from Chris Caldwell in City Journal, in which he discusses the work of the French geographer and sociologist Christophe Guilluy, who portrays his nation as increasingly “an ‘American’ society like any other, unequal and multicultural.”

In Guilluy’s account, the tensions between Trumpland and liberal America find their mirror in the tensions between the French republic’s thriving regions and the stagnation and disappointment of “la France périphérique” — a mix of rural areas and cities whose industries have suffered under globalization, and whose inhabitants feel disdained and ignored by the metropoles. And the ethnic tensions that Trump has exploited are mirrored as well, albeit with distinctively French twists — like the role of the vast suburban housing projects, built in the postwar era for a largely native working class and now contested between natives and immigrants. (Caldwell writes: “Guilluy speaks of a ‘battle of the eyes’ fought in the lobbies of apartment buildings across France every day, in which one person or the other — the ethnic Frenchman or the immigrant’s son — will drop his gaze to the floor first.”)

So far, so similar. But as counterintuitive as it may seem — after all, we elected Trump and they have not — in many ways these problems are worse in Europe, part of a systemic crisis that’s more serious than our own.

They’re worse because Europe is stuck with a horribly flawed experiment in political economy, a common currency without a common fiscal policy or a central political authority capable of claiming real legitimacy. The damage that this combination has done to the economies of Southern Europe, in particular, is striking and severe — years of elevated unemployment and stagnation, all of it imposed without democratic accountability by a mostly Northern European caste of bankers and politicians.

They’re worse because Europe has had sub-replacement fertility for much longer than the United States (a trend worsened, there as here, by the Great Recession), which drags on economic growth, increases fiscal burdens, heightens social anomie and makes mass immigration seem more culturally threatening to natives even as it seems more desirable to technocrats.

They’re worse because Europe is a continent of ethno-states without a strong assimilative tradition, and it’s now attempting to integrate an immigrant population that differs from its natives more dramatically — in religion, culture, education, mores — than the immigrant population differs from natives in the United States. And more, part of this immigrant population is tempted by jihadist ideologies that flourish far more easily on European than on American soil, and is linked to neighboring regions whose populations are growing fast enough to promise truly revolutionary migration rates should Europe let them come.

Finally, they’re worse because European governance has a greater democracy deficit than the United States, and because the European ruling class already relies more than its American counterpart on illiberal methods — restrictions on speech that would be the envy of our campus commisars, counterterrorism methods that would make Jeff Sessions blush, even the spread of “voluntary” euthanasia as a solution to age and illness and unhappiness — to maintain the continental peace.

This is a tangle of problems that no single statesman or party, however brilliant, is likely to cut through; they can be only managed, not resolved. But much of elite European politics seems to be organized around the premise that they are really problems only because they might lead to an extremist party taking power. So the important thing is to concentrate every effort on delegitimizing and defeating and excluding critics (be they right wing or, as in many Mediterranean countries, far left) rather than solving the problems that the outsiders often quite accurately identify.

This strategy partially succeeded in Greece, but it failed with Brexit. It should succeed in defeating Le Pen, but it has failed to prevent Poland and Hungary from turning to parties of the populist right.

But even — maybe especially — if it were comprehensively successful, it would still deserve to be discarded, because it represents a dereliction of duty, a refusal to stare actual failure in its face.

Ideally, it would be discarded first by existing parties of the center-right, which would adapt the populist critique and implement an agenda purged of crankishness and bigotry: This seems to be what Theresa May is trying to do in Britain, and I wish her well.

But elsewhere right-of-center parties are either breaking down or simply sticking to the same old playbook, leaving populists as the most viable alternative to the status quo. And the policy alternative that the right-wing populists often offer — hard limits on immigration, new financial support for families, a re-emphasis on national sovereignty, the unwinding of the euro — is in some ways less extreme than the open-borders and onward-to-federalism fantasies still nursed by the elite, and more directly responsive to the elite program’s widespread failure. (It is also considerably more coherent than the right-wing populism of Donald Trump.)

I would place the emphasis in somewhat different places than Douthat does. France has actually done an excellent job historically of assimilating immigrant groups — in part because, historically, it had an extremely strong sense of itself as a culture, such that immigrants actively wanted to assimilate to it. And I am personally skeptical that there is anything distinctly unassimilable about French Islam any more than French Judaism — rather, at this moment in history the house of Islam is going through a collective civilizational nervous breakdown. But I agree strongly with him about the common importance of extremely troubling economic trends, and the distinctive importance of the demographic position of Europe (shrinking as neighboring Africa and the Middle East burgeon) and especially the democratic deficit of European institutions.

But I strongly endorse his point about the failure of the parties of the European center-right to effectively address these questions, and would add only that there is no reason to limit that critique to the center-right. The center-left equally needs to be responsive to the distinctive demands of the moment — and if they are unable to do so, that is equally worthy of vigorous rebuke.

And I think the concluding section of his piece is especially worth the attention of self-styled guardians of the liberal center:

It may be that Le Pen is still too much like her father, or too much like the anti-Islam monomaniac Geert Wilders or the bumptious Nigel Farage or even Trump himself, to be entrusted with the leadership of an important Western power. And if you read some of the stinging responses to my column — for a relatively kind example, I recommend Yascha Mounk’s piece for Slate — you will find this case eloquently made.

But I still think it’s generally made in a way that doesn’t quite reckon with the scale of Europe’s problems, and the wider political environment in which parties like the National Front exist.

I completely agree, for instance, with Mounk’s critique of Le Pen’s secularism-on-steroids approach to public religiosity, which would try to suppress Islamic identity (and Jewish identity) in various ways, from bans on head scarves to rules against kosher and halal slaughter. I think that France would be much better served by a combination of reduced immigration and the kind of accommodations to its Muslim citizens that the Catholic French philosopher Pierre Manent has proposed, in which secularism gives ground to religious pluralism even as it firmly demands certain forms of assimilation.

I also agree with Mounk that their authoritarian inclinations and ugly historical roots are good reasons to fear what far-right parties might do with real power.

But from my perspective — as, yes, a religious conservative, and therefore someone already far outside the official European mainstream — the evils of right-populism are not some wild outlier in an otherwise harmonious and liberal Europe. They are instead dangers to be weighed against the myriad evils of the status quo.

To pluck some examples: It was not the populist right but the Social Democrats that recently banned halal and kosher butchering in Denmark, on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion.” It is not horrible fascists but high-minded progressives who are offering euthanasia to depressives and alcoholics and pressing religious institutions to go along. It is not nativism but Islamism that is driving Jews to flee from France.

Above all, perhaps — it is not right-wing authoritarians but the great and good of Brussels and Berlin who have shown consistent contempt for the popular will, for democratic self-government and for the interests of weaker countries in their union.

During an earlier spasm of European populism, the rebellion over the terms that Eurocrats imposed upon a supine and bankrupt Greece, I wrote a column called “Sympathy for the Radical Left,” in which I talked about how it was understandable that Greeks had cast ballots for the radical-front party Syriza — since that seemed like the only plausible way to assert their sovereignty and resist the misgovernment of the Continent’s elite.

The logic of that column is the same basic logic that leads me to at least entertain the case for Le Pen. The European Union has systemic problems that its existing leadership cannot or will not solve. Rebellion in such a context may not be wise; it will always risk worse evils. But it is understandable, and at some point it might become desirable as well.

It should be manifest that France — and America — desperately need an authentically liberal souverainiste and solidariste political persuasion to combat the forces of populism and nationalism on their own terrain. Instead, the center-left seems increasingly to believe that such a persuasion is a contradiction in terms. How badly will they have to lose before they change their minds?

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McCarthy on Le Pen

Marine Le Pen (Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com)

TAC editor-at large Daniel McCarthy warns nationalists and right-wing populists to stay away from Le Pen:

Ross Douthat and Noah Millman are right: Marine Le Pen stands for several policies that France should take seriously. But that’s why nationalists on the French right should do everything in their power to make sure she loses in a landslide in the presidential run-off on May 7. For as long as Le Pen and the National Front are the faces of right-wing populism in France, controlling immigration and opposing the EU — both worthy goals — will be lost causes.

Douthat ignited controversy over the weekend with a column whose headline asked, “Is there a case for Le Pen?” (Here at The Week, Millman asked a similar question: “Why not Le Pen?“) Yet the case Douthat made was arguably less for her — still less her party — than for a French right that’s up to the task of confronting globalization. And Douthat was quite wrong about one thing, at least: the notion that Le Pen is ready to govern. For all her attempts to reform her image, as well the National Front’s, she is still every inch a Le Pen, and the National Front is the ethnically chauvinist, basically anti-Dreyfusard party it always was.

True, National Front’s immigration policy has softened over the years, beginning even before Marine Le Pen took over. The National Front no longer calls for the repatriation of legal immigrants, for example. But it’s hard to believe Le Pen will be an effective force for encouraging Muslims to assimilate when there are still those in her party who don’t think the Jews of France have ever been French enough.

Stepping down as the National Front’s leader, temporarily, as she heads into the second round of the presidential election is not going to fool anyone into believing that Le Pen stands above party. It may, perhaps, ease ever so slightly the consciences of those on the right — or even anti-globalist left — who told themselves they’d never vote for the National Front. Yet the move is most significant for illustrating just how profoundly toxic and unelectable the National Front remains. Its name is poison to the populist causes it purports to champion. And so is Le Pen’s, ultimately. With or without the party label, she’s not headed to the Élysée Palace.

Contrast McCarthy’s case for Trump in October of 2016:

The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, responding to the list [of pro-Trump intellectuals], correctly characterised the view of many of the signatories that ‘Trump is correct on particular issues (immigration, foreign policy, the importance of the nation-state) where the bipartisan consensus is often wrong, and his candidacy is a chance to vote against an elite worldview that desperately needs to be chastened and rebuked.’ But Douthat insists that however valid some of those concerns may be, the Donald is temperamentally unsuited to the White House. ‘Trump’s zest for self-sabotage, his wild swings, his inability to delegate or take advice, are not mere flaws; they are defining characteristics.’

And yet Trump has succeeded not just in one field but in many — in property, in television and now in politics, by winning the Republican nomination against well-funded rivals who had the support of the establishment right. Barack Obama won the White House in 2008 by promising ‘hope and change’. Trump — so temperamentally unlike every other recent Republican and Democratic nominee — promises to be a much greater force for change. Already he has changed the Republican party and the conservative movement, re-opening essential questions of foreign policy, immigration and the needs of the American workforce.

This is why I support him and why I signed on to ‘Scholars and Writers for America’. If President Trump does keep out of wars like the one the last Republican president started in Iraq, if he limits immigration and helps restore the US labour force to prosperity, he will have done what no other Republican or Democrat could do. On the other hand, should he live down to the worst expectations — getting into wars like Iraq to, as he puts it, ‘seize the oil’, or inflaming racial tensions at home — I have no doubt that he would be even more effectively opposed in his folly than George W. Bush was. The anti-war and civil-libertarian left, which has been conspicuously silent in the Obama years, would roar back to life.

The opposite would be true with President Hillary Clinton: in advancing globalist economics and pushing a foreign policy of interventionism and nation-building, she would have the support of many Republicans in Congress — and of Acela conservatives in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post. She will reduce the left to sycophancy and make accomplices of the right’s ‘wets’. (Or ‘squishes’, as we call them here.) Whether Trump succeeds or fails as a president, he will force American politics to make a choice between globalism and the nation. With Clinton there will be no choice, only more of the same disastrous policies we have seen under both of the last two presidents. With Clinton, there is neither hope nor change.

McCarthy’s case against Le Pen amounts to: she and her party are unfit to govern; if she loses narrowly, then her party will become the dominant force of right-wing opposition, which will discredit her important ideas. Better for her to lose badly, and thereby give the other, more-worthy right-wing parties an opportunity to pick up the torch.

His case for Trump is that his important ideas need to be vindicated by the strongest possible showing; if he wins the system will be forced to reckon with those ideas, whereas his opponent will vindicate the status quo once and for all; his fitness to govern remains to be determined; and if he proves unfit the system will check him.

It’s possible that the stark contrast in assessments boils down to an appreciation of the differences between the French and American systems, or to a belief that Trump pretended to harbor an ethnic animus that was insincere, while Le Pen is trying to soften a more deeply-held set of biases.

But it sounds to me like the big difference from McCarthy’s perspective is that Trump captured a major American political party with diverse roots, while a strong Le Pen would potentially bring a host of new voters into the FN’s camp. In other words, McCarthy believed that Trump would change the GOP in ways that he wanted the GOP changed, and that the GOP would change Trump in the way that he wanted Trump changed, while he believes that Le Pen and any voters she brings in will fail to change the FN in any material way, while the FN may capture the loyalty of enough voters on the right to change them without managing to ever constitute a majority. And I’m not sure why he thinks that. I’m even less sure why he didn’t consider the possibility that a failed Trump presidency would radically discredit his distinctive ideas in the same way that association with Le Pen would.

My bottom line remains where it was: I opposed Trump from the beginning because he was Trump, but I recognized from the beginning that he was making a distinctive argument that needed to be addressed, on his terms, by either his primary opponents or by Clinton, or he might well win. It wasn’t and he did, and here we are. I don’t want to see the FN win either; once again, I want the mainstream candidate to wake up and recognize the distinctive argument that needs to be addressed, and to address it. But I’m more sanguine about Le Pen in the Élysée than I was with prospect of Trump in the White House, partly because of what I see as their differences in character and partly because France is not America.

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The Unspeakable Horror of the Literary Life: Internet Edition

Michael Brendan Dougherty has a truly wonderful final column up at The Week, one that makes me especially regretful that he’ll be moving on.

Try to pinpoint the last time you took a purposeless walk through the late spring breeze, when there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysteriously sympathy of existence itself. Was it 2007? Or as far back as 1997? Does just asking the question make you feel ill?

Do you lie awake in bed more often these days, unable to sleep, scrolling through Facebook or Twitter on your phone, trying to ignore signs of stress? Perhaps a faint taste of acid in your mouth? Do you have a gnawing fear that dark alliances are forming among your countrymen and conspiring against you, and everyone you like and (for good measure) everyone like you? Does it make you want to spend more money, or write yourself more reminders to do “self-care?” Maybe you suspect that if anyone else cares about your self it is only to notice that deep down you’re just as much of a hateful loser as they are?

Well, me too. Sometimes. Like the mental-health professional worth paying, I can tell you that what you’re feeling isn’t your fault. But unlike them, I think what you’re feeling might be my fault.

You see, I’m paid to write about politics and culture on the internet.

In a very perceptive essay, Will Rahn argued that everybody in America thinks they are losing. Liberals look out on the world and see the Democrats defeated and driven to the edge of politics. Conservatives look out on the world and see a Republican Party that can win elections but can’t change the culture. “No matter where we stand ideologically, everyone in the mainstream gets the sense that we’ve somehow already lost, that some past battle has already decided the long war’s outcome in our opponents’ favor,” Rahn writes.

There are any number of reasons why people feel this way, historical and political. But one of the main reasons they feel like this is because of the internet, particularly social media’s effect on the way news is created and delivered to you. And how all of this has warped the experience of those who have lived through these social changes. It isn’t just about politics either, but almost every dimension of human experience. Do you love architecture? Someone just built a monstrosity next to a building you loved. Click here. Do you adore products by Apple? Well, they’re screwing them up. Click here. Did you just feel that unnamable, almost unmentionable surge of gratitude for all the people you’ve known in life and all the kindnesses their presence brought to you? Click here and see that most of them have contemptibly dumb opinions about everything.

The internet doesn’t coddle you in a comforting information bubble. It imprisons you in an information cell and closes the walls in on you by a few microns every day. It works with your friends and the major media on the outside to make a study of your worst suspicions about the world and the society you live in. Then it finds the living embodiments of these fears and turns them into your cell mates. And good heavens it is efficient.

So what can one do?

I’d recommend the Luddite solution. But I probably can’t convince anyone to smash their screens for good. Not even myself. Individual acts of rebellion might be cathartic but not useful. We probably can’t change the way the world feels to us now. The night sky that seemed to transmit nothing to us but sympathy back in 1997 is now conveying this ugly, boring, contemptible “content” to your device at this very moment. It is hiding all of that anxiety beneath just enough funny videos of people being injured, or pictures of someone’s baby or cat, or pleasant time lapses of cooking that you keep coming back to it. If you gave up your device, your friends would still approach you with theirs.

“Did you see this?” they ask. “Do I want to?” you respond with an expectant smile. But internally your mind repeats it with a sigh. “No, really, do I want to?”

Everyone participates in the culture, even if they don’t want to participate. In his book, Beyond Consolation, the Irish writer John Waters spoke about the omnipresence of this culture:

Any attempt to make visible the culture is partly doomed to failure, because it moves and shifts all the time, being governed by the desires and prejudices and terrors of all its members and what they want each other and the world in general to believe about them. I give my tithe to the culture every living moment, feeding into it what I want it to know about me, what I would like it to relate about me, but also much that I do not intend to betray. I blush, an involuntary function, and the culture understands this far more than anything I have said. And the same is true of everyone else, in their relationships with the culture, so the result is something we cannot even begin to describe but at best can acquire an intuitive sense of. [Beyond Consolation]

I pay my tithes, too. If this is a culture of disconnection, anxiety, and flashes of blinding hatred, I must have fed into it somehow. Maybe more so, because I try to describe it and tame it with my words. I don’t know how to get us through it, that feeling of losing and precarity that stalks us on the internet.

But I can grant you permission to stop consuming “content” wherever possible. Just resist its pull. Stop reading my column if you must. After all, this is how you got Trump. Thanks Obama. Over and out.

I have absolutely no intention of stopping reading him — but I do hope he continues in this wonderfully self-reflective vein as he transitions to a new job producing content for a magazine with far more formal ideological and partisan commitments.

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Steve Sailer’s Moment

I’ve been reading Steve Sailer for something like 15 years now, and have had some personal correspondence with him. I think I can say that I have always wished him well. I can certainly say that I hope he’s enjoying his moment, which has definitely arrived.

My feeling about Sailer was always that he was poorly served by his own fan base, as well as by an outsider status that he seems both to glory in and to resent. As the New York Magazine profile I linked to above notes, Sailer has always been read surreptitiously by many more mainstream figures on the right, and so his influence can be tracked, but he himself has had some difficulty capitalizing on that influence precisely because of his unwillingness to frame his arguments for a broader audience that doesn’t share his obsessions and that is likely to be mortified by his prejudices.

Over time, though, I’ve come around to a different perspective on the matter, perhaps closer to Sailer’s own. Sailer probably can’t be anybody than himself, just as none of us can be anyone but ourselves, and part of what makes him distinctively interesting as a commentator is precisely his refusal to do other than to call it as he sees it. As with so many of us, his virtues are conjoined with his faults at the heart, such that severing them would lead to both of their demise. Meanwhile, you don’t have to agree with him to read him; indeed, if you don’t agree with him he’s about as good a whetstone on which to sharpen your own opinions as you will find. And that is also useful — useful enough to be thankful that not everybody has the inclination or the capacity to write for an imagined audience of everyone.

The fact is that I don’t know his fan base — I know the people who comment on his blog, and blog commenters are notoriously unrepresentative of overall readership. And the further fact is that everybody who writes has biases and prejudices. If Sailer’s are more socially unacceptable, and also more obvious, that should make it easier to read him, not harder, because it is easier to discount for them, something that is perhaps more difficult to do with a more circumspect writer.

Meanwhile, now that his moment has arrived, I am curious to see how Sailer takes on his own persuasion, whether he is able to think about the failures of Trump in as brutal a way as he’s thought about the failures of conventional political thinking, and whether he has any thoughts on how a world of competing identitarians can be avoided — any thoughts that apply to his own political camp, and not only to the opposition. That New York Magazine profile ends with the following:

Sailer’s influence is impossible to understand without recognizing how far what he refers to as the conventional wisdom has drifted from the common sense of a large part of the country, creating a demand for people who are indifferent to the castigation that normally deters the airing of sometimes wrong, sometimes merely inconvenient ideas. “In 2017, I’m the voice of reason and moderation,” Sailer told us, in reference to the open ethnonationalists to his right and cosmopolitan liberals to his left. That isn’t true — Sailer is a perceptive thinker, but his views on race, for which he will inevitably be best-known, still represent the more resentful end of white opinion. Yet if current trends toward partisan and racial polarization continue unabated, Sailerism may indeed come to represent a kind of uneasy center, flanked by identitarian leftism on one side and raw white nationalism on the other. This is a future we should try to avoid.

I agree with all of that — but I believe Sailer could yet play an important role in making that center less uneasy. The center holds, after all, when it sees holding as more important than its other commitments.

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Why Not Le Pen?

Ross Douthat has been getting hell for his articulation of the case for Le Pen, so I thought it worth pointing out that he anticipated in that very articulation the most important objection of his various critics:

In the case of Marine Le Pen . . . the main risk is her party. To elevate her to the presidency is to empower the National Front, an organization that despite years of renovation and attempted purges — extending to Le Pen’s own father, Jean-Marie — still includes figures like her successor (briefly; he just resigned) as its leader, who appears to have done the “I’m just asking questions” thing about the gas chambers.

Parties matter, their histories and undercurrents matter, and the Front’s Vichy taint is a good reason to prefer a world where a Le Pen never occupies the Élysée Palace.

It seems to me that the right way to read his piece — which I encourage you to read in full — is as saying: if this is the only strong argument you have against voting Le Pen, then perhaps that is not enough. Le Pen is making an argument about the future, and you can’t permanently win that argument by pointing to the crimes of the past.

Douthat is more willing than I am to say that Le Pen is right about crucial planks of her platform — like a halt to immigration and an end to the Euro. But we agree to a considerable extent that at least she is asking the right questions, and that those who would defeat her — whether this time or next — need to answer those same questions to truly earn their victory.

Which is the main theme of my latest column in The Week:

It is not reasonable to exile the “national question” from politics entirely — and even if it were reasonable, it is not actually possible to do so. The cordon sanitaire has long since failed; the question now is not how to cure nationalism but how to manage it as an ongoing condition. What Le Pen has done to “modernize” her party may be insufficient, but surely part of the burden is on the mainstream parties to make the case for that insufficiency.

The FN’s course is unquestionably risky. But the risks of the status quo have been abundantly in evidence over the past decade, and what is to be done about them? Does anyone, at this late date, really believe that the EU is working? Either it is a failed experiment that needs to be abandoned, or European institutions need to be substantially rethought to make a common currency area work better for the people and not just for the interests of capital. Neither can possibly happen until a major, core country forces the question. What country better than France to force that reckoning?

The same can be said about NATO. Donald Trump argued repeatedly during his campaign that the alliance was obsolete (though he has now reversed himself on this as on so much else), but America could never plausibly reform it because we naturally want it to remain a force-multiplier for American policy rather than a true instrument of collective security. It will take a major European state to force a substantive change. Again, who better than France, which always historically charted an independent course?

Moreover, on neither front is the world going to change overnight were Le Pen to win the presidency. Rather, negotiations would commence for new arrangements. Those negotiations might go well or poorly — but it is a mistake to view any one election in apocalyptic terms.

Finally, it is true that a Le Pen victory would likely be welcomed in Moscow and in Washington, and would be a terrible blow to those who see themselves as the liberal vanguard. But there are other threats to liberal democracy than populist nationalism, and the technocratic order that Macron runs to vindicate may well be one of them. Brussels rules not so much with the consent of the governed as with the conviction that it alone is capable of properly balancing the continent’s manifold interests — which is precisely what ordinary democratic politics is supposed to be for. Is it so unthinkable to prioritize the latter threat over the threat of populism?

And consider the contrasts between Le Pen and her fellow populist-nationalists alongside their similarities. Le Pen is not Donald Trump. She’s not a lazy, narcissistic, ignorant con artist. She’s been at this for years and she knows her stuff. Nor is she Putin, or Erdogan, or even Viktor Orban of Hungary. She’s not running to lead a fragile, young, shallow democracy. She’s not out to restore a lost imperial glory, nor has she advanced a program for colonizing the state and turning it into an instrument of her party. Of the major exemplars of populist nationalism, she may well be the best of the bunch.

I am not a populist-nationalist. I am far too liberal to be a nationalist and far too conservative to be a populist. Nor do I believe that the advocates of populist-nationalism actually have solutions to the profound economic and demographic transformations that are powering their rise across the globe. But I do believe that populism plays an important part in the ecosystem of democracy. And if that banner is going to advance, I might just rather it be carried by someone who cares about our common liberal heritage than by someone hostile or indifferent to them.

Read the whole thing there.

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Trump and the Thucydides Trap

Speaking of Zen takes, check out my latest column at The Week, which is about how Trump’s sloth and incompetence could wind up saving us from war with China:

Students of international affairs who take the long view have for some time been worried about the trajectory of U.S.-China relations. While in theory a cooperative relationship would be most beneficial to both parties, in practice dominant powers and rising challengers rarely are able to work out a fruitful accommodation. Instead, most often the two stumble into a conflict that devastates both countries’ interests.

Graham Allison calls the underlying theorydetailed in his new book — the Thucydides Trap. So long as both powers rationally assume that the dominant power aims to maintain its supremacy, even accommodative policies will be interpreted as a way to get the rising power to settle for less than it might achieve by revisionist agitations. So if the dominant power is accommodative, the rising power will take advantage, provoking a reversal by the dominant power and a confrontation. But if the dominant power is confrontational and tries to encircle the rising power, it will provoke the rising power to break out — and in the meantime the dominant power will exhaust its resources more quickly than the rising power does, accelerating the power transition.

So how can war be avoided?

Allison’s prescription is for robust communication along with a willingness on the part of the dominant power to think big in terms of how the international order will have to change to accommodate the rising power. Rather than try to prevent or limit the power transition, the dominant power has to facilitate it, get the rising power to understand that this is in fact the policy, and thereby forge a cooperative path through the transition that gives both powers an appropriate role to their new relative power position. I’ve argued in this space before that Korea would be a perfect place to try to achieve those twin goals.

The Obama administration’s much-touted but never-completed “pivot” to Asia could be understood as an effort to preserve America’s position within the context of partnership with China — or as an effort to contain China and maintain American supremacy. Strengthened alliances with countries like Australia and Vietnam were intended to discourage China from adventurism in its near-abroad, while the Trans-Pacific Partnership was designed to counter Chinese economic leadership in the region. On the other hand, the TPP did not explicitly exclude China, and it is plausible to think that its ultimate purpose was more to keep America in than to keep China out. Obama clearly saw a value in working with the Chinese rather than merely against them, but he also recognized that China intended to challenge America’s interests in the western Pacific and aimed to counter it.

We’ll never know whether the Obama strategy would have been a way out of the Thucydides Trap, or whether it would have led us right into it. We’ll never know because President Trump has trashed the strategy entirely, pulling out of the TPP, musing about abandoning the one-China policy, threatening unilateral action in Korea, and calling for tariffs on Chinese manufacturers. His initial policy mix looked like it was premised on the assumption that war was inevitable, so we might as well make it happen on our terms.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the battlefield: The Chinese realized we were bluffing.

Our military options in Korea aren’t really viable, and Trump has proved that he knows they aren’t by his eagerness to get the Chinese to handle the problem — eagerness so overwhelming it has already led him to abandon a core campaign theme, confronting the Chinese on trade. Trump has already reaffirmed the one-China policy. And he has not only gratuitously insulted keyallies, but demonstrated tactical incompetence in his communications about the mission of the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson. Watching Trump, America’s Asian allies surely are questioning our reliability and basic competence, while the Chinese surely are far less worried that America will be able to restrain their rise even if we desire to do so.

Normally, this would provoke the rising power to be more confrontational. But if the Chinese really understand Trump, they’ll see that they could get far more by picking his pocket than by mugging him. Trump is transparently eager for a deal — almost any deal. The Chinese could probably ask for the moon and the stars — or control of the South China Sea — in exchange for minor promises — to let their currency rise a bit (which has already happened), to build a few manufacturing plants in Ohio, to get North Korea to restrain itself for a few months. Why wouldn’t the Chinese try to get what they want at the table rather than taking the risk of a confrontation?

Of course, normally a political leader would pay a gruesome price for cutting a terrible deal with a key rival. If Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had rolled over for the Chinese, the Republican Party would go ballistic. But Donald Trump’s brand is all about making America great again. His most vocal liberal critics, meanwhile, are more concerned that he’s going to stumble into World War III than that he is going to be insufficiently firm in defending America’s interests. While, as with Syria, they may support any military actions he does take, they are unlikely to provoke him into backing up his blustery threats with actual shows of force.

Paradoxically, Trump could achieve by sloth and incompetence what is very difficult for dominant powers to accept: a transition out of that dominant position.

Read the whole thing there.

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France Votes

There’s a Zen kids’ book I remember reading to my son, that recounts the tale of an older man assessing his fortunes through a series of events. When he has apparently good fortune, his neighbors congratulate him — but he cautions them to wait and see. When he has apparently bad fortune, his neighbors commiserate with him — but he again tells them to wait and see.

For example, when he fortuitously acquires a horse, his neighbors cheer — until the horse throws his son, breaking the young man’s arm. Then the neighbors sigh — until an officer comes through mustering men for the army, and skips over the young man because of his broken arm. The older man understood not only that the wheel of fortune is always turning, but that sometimes apparently good turns lead to bad ones, and vice versa.

That is the spirit in which I suggest reading the results of the first round of the French election.

Those who favor a more nationalist direction for France — an end to the EU as we know it and an end to multiculturalism and mass-immigration — should surely turn out for Le Pen, while those who would march towards the same future France has pursued for the past quarter century should surely turn out for Macron. But with neither candidate earning even a quarter of the national vote in the first round, it is very hard to believe that either perspective commands anything close to a majority. More than half the nation, faced with this stark contrast of visions, concluded: this is not the right contrast to draw. Whoever wins the next round will merely have convinced the nation that the other candidate is more wrong, not that he or she is right.

The fundamental problems that are driving populist revolt may be ameliorated or exacerbated by particular institutional arrangements, like the EU, but they are not caused by them, as evidenced by the fact that populism and nationalism are on the march across the globe and not just in Europe. India does not have a supra-national entity suppressing the will of the people, nor does Israel; the United States is the dominant global hegemon while Russia is recovering from a massive collapse in power and prestige — but all are governed by at least nominally populist-nationalist coalitions. The tide is broader and deeper than any one electoral contest.

I have serious doubts that the populist-nationalist parties actually have useful solutions to the underlying economic and social problems that have powered their rise. I have even more serious doubts that the centrist managerial liberals have any solutions at all. If I’m right on both counts, then Ross Douthat probably has the right perspective on what the election means for France:

Mais après lui . . . ?

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