Crisis or Stasis?


After the cascading weirdness of recent Western history, the results from France’s presidential election were strangely … normal. All the hours that Trump-traumatized commentators spent imagining how Marine Le Pen could get from the low 40s to striking distance turned out to be wasted: Her tumble to just 34 percent, and the cruise-control victory for Emmanuel Macron, was about the outcome you would have expected if there had been no Brexit, no Trumpening, no Syrian refugee crisis and Continental terror wave, no sudden sense of capital-H History awakening from its sleep.

Of course if you prefer anxiety — and some Americans dealing with the James Comey madness may have that preference — you can spin the outcome differently. Le Pen almost doubled her father’s vote share from 2002, Macron was running his own kind of (pretend) outsider’s campaign, the two main French political parties look wrecked, and the neophyte president faces the same array of daunting challenges that had certain dotty pundits considering the case for Le Pen.

But I would still submit that the basic normalcy of the French landslide, the populist challenge’s hard rebuff, is a useful indicator for observers trying to answer the great question of the moment: Is ours really an age of deepening Western crisis — as it has certainly seemed, of late — or beneath all the populist sound and fury, does our society actually remain in a kind of stasis, stagnant but not close to revolution or collapse?

Since the Berlin Wall came down and Francis Fukuyama announced the End of History, “stasis” has had by far the better of the argument. From 1989 onward Western political arguments were conducted within extremely narrow lines, with radicals and reactionaries thoroughly excluded. Liberal democracy lacked plausible ideological challengers, in the West and elsewhere: Neither radical Islam nor Putinism had anything like the appeal of Marxism and fascism in their heyday. The contradictions of capitalism inspired plenty of criticism but little in the way of active resistance. And every time a seemingly world-historical crisis came along — Sept. 11, the Great Recession — it turned out to just circulate the same groups of elites in and out of power.

I don’t need to rehearse all the ways in which the last few years in Western politics have broken with this pattern, how our populist moment has elevated unexpected and extreme-seeming forces from Warsaw to Westminster to Trump’s Washington.

But more important than the political developments, potentially, has been the widening of ideological possibility, the sense on both the younger right and left that ideas from way outside the neoliberal center are up for consideration once again.

So things definitely feel different than just five or 10 years back. The intersectional left is purging campuses, reactionary thought is getting the cover treatment in New York Magazine, the language of the 1930s (“America First!”) is on the lips of politicians, the kids are into socialism and integralism and even once in a while ISIS there’s a whiff of tear-gas in the streets of Berkeley and talk of schism in Catholicism and a strange sort of nationalist international in play in geopolitics.

But how different? This is the hard question, because in Western politics, what sometimes seems like a sea change may still turn out to just be a spasm — more significant than Buchananism or Occupy Wall Street or the last Le Pen breakthrough but ultimately contained and managed and defused.

A glance at the stock market shows that’s how the West’s moneymen are betting, and not without some reason. In Britain Theresa May’s embrace of Brexit has left the far right without a cause and the Corbynite left poised for a devastating defeat. In the United States Donald Trump’s nationalism seems to be collapsing back into zombie Reaganism at home and the usual post-Cold War management of rogue states abroad — the former shadowed by the possibility of impeachment, the latter seasoned by incompetence in various terrifying ways, but neither representing the kind of highly ideological, post-post-Cold War revolution that Trumpism once seemed to promise.

In France, Le Pen’s disappointing performance came after years of attempting to inch toward the liberal center; for all the talk about the republic in the balance, she was running as a secular Gaullist, not a fascist. On Europe’s peripheries, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice has not yet set up a Catholic monarchy, nor Greece’s far-left Syriza a people’s republic. The new illiberalism everywhere has its limits, and may not always be genuinely illiberal at all.

Meanwhile, as someone who reads widely in (and has sympathies with) neoliberalism’s critics, I’m not sure any of the theoretical attempts at a post-liberal politics have yet escaped what you might call the Steve Bannon trap, in which name-dropping figures from the more ideologically exciting past substitutes for actually devising a new blueprint of one’s own.

The alt-right “counterculture” profiled in New York Magazine, for instance, includes a few genuinely radical figures — the much-cited Mencius Moldbug really does want monarchy, of a sort — but often its subjects are just a little more populist or a little more race conscious or a little more intemperate than the normal run of post-Goldwater American conservatives.

Likewise the campus left has added transgenderism to its list of causes and some new words to its vocabulary of enforcement, but otherwise its recent inquisitions feel more like a replay of the 1990s P.C. wars than a 1960s-level convulsion, with the internet amplifying the attention they garner but not necessarily their real scope.

The role of the online realm in this moment is generally ambiguous. It is clearly a place where the extreme and heterodox can find one another, where reaction and radicalism can flourish unpoliced. But there’s a sense in which the internet’s virtual forms of political engagement, its slacktivism and Twitter mobs and meme wars, might also limit online radicalism’s real-world reach, encouraging 1930s playacting and recondite debates that never leave the realm of pixels and nostalgia.

This matters because real historical turning points require both structural crises and usable philosophies, an intersection of events and ideologies — industrialization plus “Das Kapital” plus World War I, for instance — strong enough to dissolve all the habits and fears and status-quo biases that keep a given order going.

I argued last week that Europe seems closer to such a moment than America — the tensions within its version of the liberal order are more profound, the weak points of its system more obvious, its social-cultural decadence somewhat more advanced, the external pressure more severe. Le Pen’s larger-than-expected defeat doesn’t change this reality, nor weaken the case that European elites should learn from their populists lest a future deluge carry them away.

But in neither Europe nor America do post-liberal ideas look anywhere near fully ripe, and in both Europe and America there is a “first as tragedy, then as farce, then as online flamewar” quality to the way they’ve entered into political debates.

Nor do the pressures on the system from social fragmentation and economic stagnation yet look strong enough to overcome the stabilizing effects of the developed world’s great wealth, the risk aversion bred by age and habit, the fearful memories of what the last age of illiberalism wrought.

That’s the case, in brief, for betting on continued stasis, and for interpreting our moment’s perturbations — Trump, Comey and all — as pointing toward a real crisis for the West that still lurks a generation or more ahead.

The New York Times

Resist the Internet

So far, in my ongoing series of columns making the case for implausible ideas, I’ve fixed race relations and solved the problem of a workless working class. So now it’s time to turn to the real threat to the human future: the one in your pocket or on your desk, the one you might be reading this column on right now.

Search your feelings, you know it to be true: You are enslaved to the internet. Definitely if you’re young, increasingly if you’re old, your day-to-day, minute-to-minute existence is dominated by a compulsion to check email and Twitter and Facebook and Instagram with a frequency that bears no relationship to any communicative need.

Used within reasonable limits, of course, these devices also offer us new graces. But we are not using them within reasonable limits. They are the masters; we are not. They are built to addict us, as the social psychologist Adam Alter’s new book “Irresistible” points out — and to madden us, distract us, arouse us and deceive us. We primp and perform for them as for a lover; we surrender our privacy to their demands; we wait on tenterhooks for every “like.” The smartphone is in the saddle, and it rides mankind.

Which is why we need a social and political movement — digital temperance, if you will — to take back some control.

“Temperance?” you might object, with one eye on the latest outrage shared by your co-partisans on social media.

“You mean, like, Prohibition? For something everyone relies on for their daily work and lives, that’s the basis for our economic — hang on, I just need to ‘favorite’ this tweet …”

No, not like Prohibition. Temperance doesn’t have to mean teetotaling; it can simply mean a culture of restraint that tries to keep a specific product in its place.

So a digital temperance movement would start by resisting the wiring of everything, and seek to create more spaces in which internet use is illegal, discouraged or taboo. Toughen laws against cellphone use in cars, keep computers out of college lecture halls, put special “phone boxes” in restaurants where patrons would be expected to deposit their devices, confiscate smartphones being used in museums and libraries and cathedrals, create corporate norms that strongly discourage checking email in a meeting.

Then there are the starker steps. Get computers — all of them — out of elementary schools, where there is no good evidence that they improve learning. Let kids learn from books for years before they’re asked to go online for research; let them play in the real before they’re enveloped by the virtual.

Then keep going. The age of consent should be 16, not 13, for Facebook accounts. Kids under 16 shouldn’t be allowed on gaming networks. High school students shouldn’t bring smartphones to school. Kids under 13 shouldn’t have them at all.

I suspect that versions of these ideas will be embraced within my lifetime by a segment of the upper class and a certain kind of religious family. But the masses will still be addicted, and the technology itself will have evolved to hook and immerse — and alienate and sedate — more completely and efficiently.

But what if we decided that what’s good for the Silicon Valley overlords who send their kids to a low-tech Waldorf school is also good for everyone else? Our devices we shall always have with us, but we can choose the terms. We just have to choose together, to embrace temperance and paternalism both. Only a movement can save you from the tyrant in your pocket.

The New York Times

The Dangers of Hillary Clinton


The Clinton campaign has suggested in broad ways and subtle ones, isn’t just a vote for a Democrat over a Republican: It’s a vote for safety over risk, steady competence over boastful recklessness, psychological stability in the White House over ungovernable passions.

This theme has been a winning one for Hillary, in her debates and in the wider campaign, and for good reason. The perils of a Trump presidency are as distinctive as the candidate himself, and a vote for Trump makes a long list of worst cases — the Western alliance system’s unraveling, a cycle of domestic radicalization, an accidental economic meltdown, a civilian-military crisis — more likely than with any normal administration.

Indeed, Trump and his supporters almost admit as much. “We’ve tried sane, now let’s try crazy,” is basically his campaign’s working motto. The promise to be a bull in a china shop is part of his demagogue’s appeal. Some of his more eloquent supporters have analogized a vote for Trump to storming the cockpit of a hijacked plane, with the likelihood of a plane crash entirely factored in.

But passing on the plane-crash candidate doesn’t mean ignoring the dangers of his rival.

The dangers of a Hillary Clinton presidency are more familiar than Trump’s authoritarian unknowns, because we live with them in our politics already. They’re the dangers of elite groupthink, of Beltway power worship, of a cult of presidential action in the service of dubious ideals. They’re the dangers of a recklessness and radicalism that doesn’t recognize itself as either, because it’s convinced that if an idea is mainstream and commonplace among the great and good then it cannot possibly be folly.

Almost every crisis that has come upon the West in the last 15 years has its roots in this establishmentarian type of folly. The Iraq War, which liberals prefer to remember as a conflict conjured by a neoconservative cabal, was actually the work of a bipartisan interventionist consensus, pushed hard by George W. Bush but embraced as well by a large slice of center-left opinion that included Tony Blair and more than half of Senate Democrats.

Likewise the financial crisis: Whether you blame financial-services deregulation or happy-go-lucky housing policy (or both), the policies that helped inflate and pop the bubble were embraced by both wings of the political establishment. Likewise with the euro, the European common currency, a terrible idea that only cranks and Little Englanders dared oppose until the Great Recession exposed it as a potentially economy-sinking folly. Likewise with Angela Merkel’s grand and reckless open-borders gesture just last year: She was the heroine of a thousand profiles even as she delivered her continent to polarization and violence.

This record of elite folly — which doesn’t even include lesser case studies like our splendid little war in Libya — is a big part of why the United States has a “let’s try crazy” candidate in this election, and why there are so many Trumpian parties thriving on European soil.

One can look at Trump himself and see too much danger of still-deeper disaster, too much temperamental risk and moral turpitude, to be an acceptable alternative to this blunder-ridden status quo … while also looking at Hillary Clinton and seeing a woman whose record embodies the tendencies that gave rise to Trumpism in the first place.

Indeed what is distinctive about Clinton, more even than Bush or Obama, is how few examples there are of her ever breaking with the elite consensus on matters of statecraft.

She was for the Iraq War when everyone was for it, against the surge when everyone had given up on Iraq, and then an unchastened liberal hawk again in Libya just a few short years later.

She was a Russia dove when the media mocked Mitt Romney for being a Russia hawk; now she’s a Russia hawk along with everyone else in Washington in a moment that might require de-escalation.

New York Times

How Trump Might Win


Like a star-crossed baseball team trying to close out a pennant, Hillary Clinton holds an advantage in the race for president that feels real yet not at all reassuring — for her partisans or for Trump fearers worldwide. She just has to hang on seems like the dominant emotion among her backers, and for that matter among her staff, who handled her ground zero meltdown like a front office desperately trying to minimize the seriousness of a star pitcher’s injury. “Just a bruise … O.K., a muscle pull … we just took him out as a precautionary measure … he’ll make his next start … O.K., fine, he’s on the disabled list.”

Unlike the 1978 Red Sox or the 1951 Dodgers, Clinton is still a good bet to hang on.

But last month, amid the Khan affair, it seemed as if Trump might simply plunge permanently into McGovern-Goldwater territory, leaving the actual election as a mere formality. Instead he has stayed alive, closing back to within a few points in the polling average. His odds are still poor, in the most plausible scenarios he loses — but he still has a path, and here’s what he needs to walk it.

First, Trump wants this to stay a four-way race. In national polling, his ceiling is close to Hillary’s floor — he peaks in the low 40s, she peaks close to 50 percent. This suggests that there are more true #NeverTrump than #NeverHillary voters, and that a section of voters (especially millennials) have rejected him pre-emptively but are still considering non-Clinton options. In which case not only Jill Stein but also probably Gary Johnson are likely to take more votes from Clinton than from Trump.

If they drop — as third party candidates tend to do — toward statistical insignificance, then Trump will need to win over a lot of undecideds who plainly don’t want to vote for him. But this is a weird year, and they may not drop. If Johnson can equal John Anderson in 1980 and Stein can equal Ralph Nader’s fateful 2000 run (and they’re polling at roughly those levels today), then you can imagine a final line like Trump 44, Clinton 43.5, Johnson 7, Stein 3 — the stuff of Democratic nightmares, but for the Trump campaign a still possible dream.

Second, Trump needs to turn out a lot of people (working-class whites, in particular) who rarely or almost never vote. In the primary campaign, Trump didn’t usually outperform his polls, and there was little evidence of “Shy Trumpers” telling pollsters they were for Rubio or Cruz and then pulling the lever for Trump in secret.

But pollsters can never be certain about the composition of the electorate, and a November election throws up fewer obstacles to the casual voter than a primary campaign. (No caucusing, no party-registration requirements, everybody knows when Election Day is, etc.) Past celebrity candidates like Jesse Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger probably benefited from disaffected, usually apolitical voters’ coming out for them, and there’s no reason to assume it couldn’t happen to some extent for Trump.

Here it’s noteworthy that the best poll for Trump in this cycle, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times daily tracking poll, includes a larger sample of people who didn’t cast a ballot in 2012 but plan to vote in 2016 — and Trump is cleaning up with them. He’s not cleaning up in the poll as a whole, but he does often lead it, and when he does, his leads are in roughly the same territory as the four-way scenario just sketched above: Trump 44, Clinton 43; Trump 45, Clinton 42 …

Which points to the third key to a Trump victory: He needs Clinton’s potential support to be depressed, which means he needs outside events to raise constant doubts about her leadership, and beyond that about the entire political establishment that she embodies. Earlier this year I called Trump’s ideal event a “gray swan,” as opposed to a black one — meaning that he wants a constant drippage of stuff that makes both Clinton and the larger elite seem clueless, feckless or corrupt, but not the kind of huge crisis that would change the basic shape of the campaign or make him seem like an untenable risk.

The weeks before the Republican convention were filled with gray swans — terror attacks in Europe, cop killings here at home, the F.B.I. director James Comey’s rebuke of the Democratic nominee — and not surprisingly they were weeks when Trump sometimes led the polls (by, again, 44-43 or 43-42).

There have been fewer such events since, but Clinton’s hidden-then-acknowledged pneumonia is a perfect example of what Trump needs. It’s not a black swan, not a devastating illness that would force the Democrats to turn to the more electable Joe Biden. Instead, it just feeds into two of Trump’s narratives: alpha-male power versus actual physical weakness (people with pneumonia are even more low-energy than Jeb Bush, after all), and bold outsider truth telling versus reflexive elite cover-up.

Now let me turn the screw a little further. The American Electoral College is an unusual system, and Trump is an unusual candidate. He’s likely to underperform among normal Republicans in many red states, where the white working class is already very Republican, by losing white suburban professionals who voted for John McCain and Mitt Romney. But he might overperform in Rust Belt states where the white working class is still a residually liberal swing vote, and where there are a lot of disaffected independents who sat out 2012.

The New York Times

Opinion: The Myth of Cosmopolitanism

A Union Jack flag flutters next to European Union flags ahead of a visit from Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, January 29, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Now that populist rebellions are taking Britain out of the European Union and the Republican Party out of contention for the presidency, perhaps we should speak no more of left and right, liberals and conservatives. From now on the great political battles will be fought between nationalists and internationalists, nativists and globalists. From now on the loyalties that matter will be narrowly tribal — Make America Great Again, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England — or multicultural and cosmopolitan.

Well, maybe. But describing the division this way has one great flaw. It gives the elite side of the debate (the side that does most of the describing) too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan.

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

They have their own distinctive worldview (basically liberal Christianity without Christ), their own common educational experience, their own shared values and assumptions (social psychologists call these WEIRD — for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and of course their own outgroups (evangelicals, Little Englanders) to fear, pity and despise. And like any tribal cohort they seek comfort and familiarity: From London to Paris to New York, each Western “global city” (like each “global university”) is increasingly interchangeable, so that wherever the citizen of the world travels he already feels at home.

Indeed elite tribalism is actively encouraged by the technologies of globalization, the ease of travel and communication. Distance and separation force encounter and immersion, which is why the age of empire made cosmopolitans as well as chauvinists — sometimes out of the same people. (There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)

It is still possible to disappear into someone else’s culture, to leave the global-citizen bubble behind. But in my experience the people who do are exceptional or eccentric or natural outsiders to begin with — like a young writer I knew who had traveled Africa and Asia more or less on foot for years, not for a book but just because, or the daughter of evangelical missionaries who grew up in South Asia and lived in Washington, D.C., as a way station before moving her own family to the Middle East. They are not the people who ascend to power, who become the insiders against whom populists revolt.

In my own case — to speak as an insider for a moment — my cosmopolitanism probably peaked when I was about 11 years old, when I was simultaneously attending tongues-speaking Pentecostalist worship services, playing Little League in a working-class neighborhood, eating alongside aging hippies in macrobiotic restaurants on weekends, all the while attending a liberal Episcopalian parochial school. (It’s a long story.)

Whereas once I began attending a global university, living in global cities, working and traveling and socializing with my fellow global citizens, my experience of genuine cultural difference became far more superficial.

Not that there’s necessarily anything wrong with this. Human beings seek community, and permanent openness is hard to sustain.

But it’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.

They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly

hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

(The New York Times)