Librarian of the Internet. Collector of Stories.
3102 stories

Building a Consensus on Abortion

1 Share

“Anyone who believes that if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem is part of the problem.”

Aaron Haspel

Guns and fetuses. Out of all the issues that have plagued American democracy in the past few centuries, none seem to reach the tenor and intensity of the debate over gun rights and abortion. So much so that it’s fairly common to hear voters admit that it’s just on guns, abortion, or both that their vote was won. But where the debate over guns seems to be more about run-of-the-mill politics—more a matter of trying to strike a balance, compromise, please both sides in some way—the abortion debate seems just down right intractable: concede a little, and you end up conceding everything. Expanding the right for a woman to choose is an expansion of the right to kill innocent fetuses and destroy life; to limit women’s choices and ban abortion effectively imposes a single, overtly religious worldview on millions of people. The arguments are well-worn at this point, and everyone has dug in.

While some have interpreted this stalemate as an opportunity to develop more and more sophisticated arguments (or just rehearse the same tired ones) and continue to assume very simple premises their opponents would never assume themselves, others have tried to hammer out some sort of middle ground. In talking about how we should educate citizens in a democracy, Richard Rorty once wrote that we should:

try to educate the citizenry in the civic virtue of having as few such compelling interests, beliefs, and desires as possible. Try, for example, to get them to change the subject from “When does human life begin?” to “How can some unprincipled and wishy-washy consensus about abortion be hammered out?” Try to get them to be as flexible and wishy-washy as possible, and to value democratic consensus more than they value almost anything else. Try to make them as little inclined to emigrate or secede as possible, by encouraging them to tolerate compromise on matters which they previously thought uncompromisable.1

The modern abortion controversy—which dates back to the 19th century—is still fueled by the question, “When does human life begin?” We tend to think that if only we could find an answer to this question we could settle the issue once and for all, which is why so many begin their answer to the question with “scientists say…”

Are anti-abortion politics driven by misogyny?

My colleague here at Liberal Currents has written an admirable piece in which he tries to show how abortion bans are misogynistic and illiberal, but it is, to my eyes, just another attempt to answer the question, “When does life begin?” Granted, he does shift the question—this has essentially been the pro-choice strategy since Roe—but not as much as it seems. For example, consider this barrage: 

These consequences of criminalized abortion violate the core principles of liberalism. The right to be secure in one’s person and the basic freedom to choose one’s life path are fundamental liberal tenets that are directly infringed by abortion bans. A major historical motivating idea for liberal institutions is to facilitate one’s exercise of one’s own religion—or deepest metaphysical and ethical commitments—as one understands them in a manner consistent with the freedom of others to do likewise. This freedom is steamrolled under the narrow sectarian interpretation of fetal personhood.2

One might simply respond with: “Life begins at conception. Full stop.” I am not trying to be dismissive; rather I am trying to show just how futile it is to try and win the battle at this point with some kind of argumentative knockout. You can call it misogyny but that doesn’t trump life. Liberalism doesn’t trump life. Rights certainly don’t trump life, and every analogy drawn about rights in other cases—self-defense, trespassing, property, etc.—often has one glaring disanalogous aspect to it that the pro-lifer can latch onto with ease. 

This is why I always tell my students that while the pro-choice side might be more nuanced and sophisticated, the pro-life side has one thing going for it that seems to cut through just about every pro-choice argument: simplicity. Even staunch pro-choicers admit that the prospect of drawing a line for fetal personhood somewhere during the 9-month period—for when it’s okay to have an abortion and when it’s not—is bound to be arbitrary. Why heartbeat? Why viability? The difficulty in drawing this line is precisely what gives pro-lifers the upper hand. Why not just draw it at the very beginning?

But if we want the kind of world my colleague paints in his piece—a world where there is less misogyny and wider access to abortion—I think there are better ways to argue for it. From the very beginning, he says he wants to approach the subject from “what conception, fetal development, and fetal termination look like from a materialist’s perspective, even though I believe the case for abortion rights rests most firmly on the bodily autonomy of pregnant persons.” This is the wrong approach. At this point in the debate, refining one’s own position without reference to the other side or their beliefs is all but pointless. More to the point, pro-lifers tend not to be materialists, and don’t in fact think abortion arguments stand or fall on arguments about autonomy.

A tragic vision

In her excellent book Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Shared Values in the Abortion Debate, Bertha Alvarez Manninen seeks to recover what I see as the more tragic element in the abortion issue. The tragedy, however, is not the fact that it’s an argumentative stalemate with no end in sight. On the contrary, the tragedy comes from needing to hold two, apparently disparate ideas together: that abortions should be accessible and that we should still talk about the fetus in terms of life and not as just a meaningless clump of cells. 

While there is little doubt my colleague and philosopher Kate Manne (whom he quotes) would disagree, Manninen says:

Many present-day feminists agree that grappling with the moral value of the fetus and the ambiguities of abortion is not antithetical to pro-choice or feminist advocacy. The challenge, however, is to successfully portray these concerns as widespread within the pro-choice community. The new generation of pro-choice advocates who wish to do more to introduce the fetus back into abortion rights discourse are increasingly removed from the oppression suffered by the generations of women before them.3

On the one hand, my colleague thinks anti-abortion measures are an extension of a very explicit but often unmentioned misogyny in American politics. Manninen, on the other hand, thinks “fetuses are no longer necessarily symbolic of the predestined and entrapped role of women as mothers and homemakers,” and this is “only because generations of women before us struggled to release us from the oppression that they suffered as a result of their biological capacities.”

She goes on:

Some pro-choice advocates do not regard anti-choice [Manninen’s term for pro-life] advocates as genuinely good people who truly believe that fetuses are morally equivalent to infants and are therefore disturbed by their deaths. Rather, some charge anti-choice advocates with sexism, elitism, and authoritarianism, viewing them as religious extremists and perpetuators of a rhetoric of fear and hate. This may describe some anti- choice individuals. … But this does not describe all abortion-rights opponents.

Circumscribing anti-abortion sentiment and laws to an expression of one thing like authoritarianism or misogyny is a mistake.  

One of the take home points of Manninen’s book is that  we need to acknowledge all of the “complexities regarding both fetal life and women who abort.” Jeannie Ludlow, who Manninen quotes in her book, “recommends not approaching the issue by denying the fetus’s status as a potential person that is very close to being regarded as an infant. Instead, she recommends the following response: ‘Yes. It’s a baby and yes, it is killed. I want to talk about all the reasons why so many women choose to have abortions even though they know this, and why it is important that women are allowed to make that choice.’”

So what do we do? Interestingly enough, Manninen puts a good amount of blame on pro-choicers. She recommends that “the pro-choice community … acknowledge the value of fetal life and own up to the reality that abortion does involve the killing of a being that is biologically human and, potentially, a child.” As I mentioned in the beginning though, this seems like a concession that would spell the end of the pro-choice movement. Manninen understands why pro-choicers would be hesitant to say something like this, but, she insists, “we can show proper respect for fetal life, even while acknowledging that the pregnant woman has the final say concerning whether she wishes to use her body to gestate that life.” A she rightly points out, when feminists chose to focus solely on rights and bodily autonomy, they handed the pro-life side a monopoly on one of the most powerful arguments: the moral status of the fetus.

In her book, Manninen presents case after case of women who hesitate to call themselves pro-choice because “pro-choice advocates have largely neglected to take seriously the value of fetal life,” and those women felt as though the movement didn’t accurately represent their feelings on the matter. In my own life, I find this to be the case as well. My own wife, while pro-choice, demurs at calling herself pro-choice. “It’s more complicated than that.” This is also what I hear most often from students who sometimes default to pro-life simply because of the crude “clump of cells” talk that comes from the pro-choice side. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, the pro-choice side has become just as dogmatic, just as inflexible and alienating as those they condemn. There is, at this time, no room in the pro-choice movement for people who think fetal life has value, and this is precisely what Manninen hopes to correct. As one woman from Manninen’s book recounts:

I desperately wanted a feminist article, pamphlet, speech, anything that would let me have both the abortion and my own ambivalence. . . . I wanted to deal with the moral balance sheet of abortion, not to have to deny that one existed for me. Instead people kept telling me I was misguided, brainwashed by the patriarchy. They patiently explained that the fetus was just a bunch of cells.

To be sure, it’s unclear just how many women fall into this camp; but it’s similarly unclear how many in the pro-choice movement simply fall in line due to the choice between the lesser of two evils. It’s simply prudent for the pro-choice movement to operate under the impression that there are people who believe that abortion access ought to be accessible and that abortions aren’t just the removal of a meaningless and morally irrelevant clump of cells.

Supporting life

So what are these so-called “shared values” Manninen talks about? First things first: pro-lifers and pro-choicers will, for the foreseeable future at least, disagree about the moral status of the fetus, that is, whether or not the human fetus is akin in moral status to a human infant. Similarly, pro-lifers and pro-choicers will probably continue to 

disagree on the primacy the role of motherhood ought to take in the lives of women. Whereas many pro-choice advocates view motherhood as an important and worthwhile life path for women, they do not believe that it trumps all other life paths. Anti-choice advocates, on the other hand, seem to maintain that upon pregnancy all women should embrace motherhood, even at expense of other desires and goals.

“Despite this difference,” Manninen says, “women on both sides value motherhood as a role of extreme importance and responsibility that ought not to be taken lightly,” and so both sides can agree that, ideally, a woman should keep an infant and raise it well. “Therefore, a common goal should be to help build a society that is conducive to assisting women with unintended pregnancies to keep and raise their infants if this is what they choose to do. For anti choice advocates, the motivation for engaging in such work seems clear: it may result in a decrease in abortion rates, which presumably is their primary goal.” If Manninen’s point here is unclear it’s because one of the supporting arguments throughout the book is that one of the primary reasons women choose to have abortions is because they feel they are not financially ready for the task. In other words, the system in place does not offer the kind of support needed to help potential mothers be actual mothers.

If you want fewer abortions, Manninen gently prods the pro-lifer, perhaps we should build institutions that alleviate one of the main reasons women have abortions in the first place. Perhaps then, pro-life advocates insisting on making laws forcing women carry to term won’t seem to combine paternalism with indifference, offering nothing yet lecturing women to “be more responsible next time.” Instead, their concerns will seem more like an honest expression of care for the fetus and their future life. In other words, put your money where your mouth is. “Resources such as high-quality, low-cost or free child care may go a long way to saving the lives of fetuses, disabled and not, who might otherwise have been aborted because their mothers were concerned about being able to provide for their care and welfare.” 

Manninen’s book is filled from cover to cover with real issues and stories of real women with real emotions, and that is precisely the turn in the abortion debate we need. We need more human connection. People need to familiarize themselves with the actual stories, the actual feelings, of women who had abortions, women who thought about it but didn’t, and everything in between. The abortion issue isn’t a simple, abstract equation just waiting for the right combination of words to form on a page. Unfortunately, tragically, it’s more complicated than that.

“Only connect,” E.M Forster said. That, ultimately, is the story of Manninen’s book. Perhaps it will add a bit of life to the abortion debate.

1. Richard Rorty, “A Defense of Minimalist Liberalism.”

2. Paul Crider, “The Mysogyny of Anti-Abortion Politics.”

3. Bertha Alvarez Manninen, Pro-Life, Pro-Choice: Shared Values in the Abortion Debate

Featured image is My body my choice sign at a Stop Abortion Bans Rally in St Paul, Minnesota by Lorie Shaull

Read the whole story
20 hours ago
New York, NY
Share this story

The Illiberalism of Regime Change as Foreign Policy

1 Share

If ever rival countries were to be united by a truly common enemy, infectious disease should be that threat. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the global economy and has killed tens of thousands of people worldwide; containing and treating it is truly a global priority. However, even in this context, efforts at international cooperation have been stymied by mistrust. For example, the United States has offered millions in medical aid to the Islamic Republic of Iran; Iran, however, has rejected this offer, insisting instead that the United States lift sanctions against it.

Why would the Iranian leadership reject aid when the country is clearly in crisis?  Simply put, they must assume that every decision the United States makes has a clear goal and is part of a grand strategy. And the United States has made clear that its ultimate goal for Iran is the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. Therefore, Iranian leadership must assume that even this apparently humanitarian gesture is in fact part of a larger strategy of weakening and destroying their regime. While it is easy to blame the Iranian authorities for placing their political interests above the wellbeing of their people, this is a predictable response, and this deep and counter-productive mistrust is an inevitable result of the United States’ consistent foreign policy strategy of prioritizing regime change above all other goals. 

Regime change in American history

Since the Cold War, the United States has frequently designated ‘regime change’ as the ultimate goal of resolving foreign policy challenges. While replacing foreign governments with those assumed to be friendlier to US interests is an old tool in US foreign policy, the modern practice picked up considerable steam under president Eisenhower. The overthrow of both Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala and Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran marked a substantial turning point in US foreign policy, from a containment strategy towards one of ‘rolling back’ Communism wherever possible. The bi-polar nature of the Cold War world contributed to these decisions—it was uncommon for foreign leaders to defect from their side in the Cold War, and coaxing them to do so was often expensive. The relative ease with which Arbenz and Mossadegh were toppled, and the apparent loyalty of their successors to defending US geopolitical and business interests, encouraged further efforts. In the short term, toppling a less desirable regime seemed to be both easier and more certain than attempting to win them over with development money or other expensive favors. 

Since the 1950s, regime change has been pursued by presidents of both parties. It remains popular despite it’s now obvious long term shortcomings, in part because it is dramatic and allows presidents to project an image of uncompromising strength. Far easier to sell the public on standing firm against evil than on the finer points of a more nuanced diplomacy. But this stance makes negotiation and reconciliation difficult. Finally, regime change, due to the current state of war powers and intelligence oversight in the US, can often be pursued by the executive largely on its own, and can be completed within a single presidential term. By contrast, a hostile Senate can throw up many difficulties to negotiated solutions, and, as Obama’s Iran deal demonstrates, true rapprochement requires many years and can be easily reversed by a president’s successor.  

While it is easy to see why presidents from a variety of political perspectives find regime change to be a tempting strategy to pursue, making regime change the goal of US foreign policy has decreased the ability of the United States to pursue goals by other, more liberal means. This is because regime change is fundamentally at odds with a liberal view of international relations, which views rule-based regimes and the use of negotiation and positive-sum arrangements as the key to overcoming the instability of an anarchic global system. By taking the tools of liberal foreign policy off the table, the United States has also limited its abilities to meet it substantive foreign policy goals beyond mere regime change.

Liberal international relations

Liberal theory of international relations emerged largely as an alternative to Realist theory. Realists insisted that states exist in an essentially anarchic structure. Because every state was in constant danger, all were constrained to continue accumulating the power necessary to defend themselves from potential enemies, regardless of ideological preferences or norms of behavior. Since power is the main currency in a realist model, realist thinking tends to be zero sum—the power one state gains reduces the relative power of others, as each state increases its own security at the expense of its neighbors. 

Liberalism, on the other hand, argues that many areas of international interaction are not zero sum. This is partially due to Liberalism’s acknowledgement of non-state actors, like consumers, corporations, and other communities. Two states can interact in terms of trade, criminal justice, the environment, and other areas in ways that benefit their citizens and thus benefit both states,  so that the gain of one is not necessarily the loss of another. Indeed, by negotiating solutions to terrorism, arms control, and the like, states may increase their own security, even, without threatening their neighbors. These interactions, however, require the proper context to occur. Most liberal theorists have agreed that international organizations, what Bruce Russett and John O’Neal call a “thick web of international institutions” and strong rules and norms of behavior they promote, make cooperation more effective and reduce the chance of violent confrontation. 

A useful illustration of how this works is the famous ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ game, in which two players independently choose to cooperate with one another or betray one another. The best outcome is cooperation, but the worst for a single player is to attempt to cooperate when their partner chooses betrayal. Two players randomly playing the game will rarely cooperate with one another, because in a single game trusting one’s partner will lead, more often to not, to betrayal and an enormous loss. 

However, when playing with the same partner over multiple rounds, with the possibility of discussing terms and negotiating, the two players should be able to reach the cooperation equilibrium and improve their overall outcomes. This is the idea behind many international bodies founded after the second world war—by providing a forum for negotiation and discussion, the United Nations and its many constituent bodies aimed to promote greater cooperation between countries. The economic system was also organized, with emphasis placed on liberal international economic institutions to promote the positive sum benefits of trade and economic cooperation. The hope was that this cooperation would lead to stronger economic and other positive sum ties, such that the gains to be realized from abiding by international norms would be a stronger incentive than any potential gains from breaking them. When the international institutions in such an order reward countries that play by these rules, a ‘virtuous cycle’ develops that brings states into closer cooperation. The immense rewards that come from these interactions, especially the economic rewards from more open trade that is only possible in an environment of relative mutual trust, further raise the cost of military action that could interrupt these virtuous cycles. 

To understand why regime change as a goal makes this vision impossible, it is important to remember who the real players are in these ‘games’. While realists frequently treat states as the primary players in international relations, this is a bit of an oversimplification. In many cases, decision-making is not for the security or interest of the state as a whole, but rather the regime that is in charge of the state. With a little reflection, this is quite natural—very few leaders are so altruistic as to sacrifice their own position for the good of the state as a whole, especially in contexts where losing power may lead to prosecution, exile, or death. An American president may or may not sacrifice popularity and thus power for the good of the country, safe in the knowledge that he’ll retire comfortably in the aftermath, and likely be rehabilitated into society after the dust settles. But few leaders would risk the fate of Hussein or Ghaddafi in hopes that their country would benefit in the aftermath. 

Thus, it should go without saying that there is no possibility of a positive sum negotiation between two parties if the goal of one is the destruction of the other. And given the intelligence capabilities of most major powers, regime change as an institutional goal will always be discovered, or at least suspected, by the regimes in question as long as the intelligence and defense apparatus in the US considers it an acceptable goal. 

This precludes the accomplishment of many US goals by making good faith negotiation virtually impossible. For example, the restriction of weapons of mass destruction through negotiation cannot be accomplished if the opposing regimes suspect that the real US goal is regime change. Frequently, in fact, weapons of mass destruction, including both chemical and nuclear weapons, are pursued not to defend against a proximate external threat but to fight off internal threats to the regime or to dissuade aggressive regime change attempts from outside. Thus, regimes that feel in danger of regime change policies are unlikely to negotiate away their last line of defense. No doubt many take note of the experience of Iraq and Libya. 

Regime change in recent history

In 2002 and 2003, the United States took an interest, ostensibly, in returning UN inspectors to Iraq to ensure that weapons of mass destruction were no longer being produced by that regime. After those inspections by Hans Blix found little evidence that the Hussein regime had or was developing weapons that posed a threat to the rest of the world, the United States ramped up its demands and ultimately proceeded with an invasion. It is clear now, however, that the infamous ‘WMD’ controversy over weapons inspections was merely a means to an end. From the 1990s, key commentators organized in the group Project for a New American Century—including several who would be included in the Bush administration—were arguing that the only acceptable approach to Iraq was regime change, going so far as arguing that even Clinton’s bellicose approach to containing Hussein was insufficient. This group wrote to Clinton that “The only acceptable strategy is one that eliminates the possibility that Iraq will be able to use or threaten to use weapons of mass destruction… In the long term, it means removing Saddam Hussein and his regime from power”. And when signatories on the group’s declaration of principles, including Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney entered the Bush administration, it seems they kept that commitment. Declassified documents, including minutes from a meeting between Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks in 2001, show that goal of changing the Iraqi regime was set early on in the planning process, and a dispute over inspections was merely one of several potential justifications that were considered; before the Hussein regime had made any response to those demands, plans were drawn up to use a potential dispute over inspections to invade the country, with the removal of the regime a goal from day one. 

Following the invasion of Iraq, Libya, another state that had in the past been targeted for regime change, agreed to dramatically reduce its weapons program in 2003. The Bush administration claimed that this was a result of its aggressive policy in Iraq, and it seems plausible that this was a contributing factor at very least. Nonetheless, in 2011 Libyan leader Muamar Ghaddafi was deposed and killed by an internal rebellion backed by NATO bombing. 

Given this backdrop, it is hard to imagine how negotiation with the Iranian or North Korean regime can be successful. By setting regime change as a goal in the past, and seeming to continue to do so currently, the United States has limited its other diplomatic options. So long as other regimes believe, with justification, that US proximate goals like nuclear nonproliferation are in the service of a larger goal of regime change, their only rational response is to ensure that no progress is made in negotiation. Rapprochement is impossible, and the development of interdependence or a ‘virtuous cycle’ is completely precluded. 

This applies to other US goals, as well. Negotiations involving human rights and democracy in Latin America, for example, cannot be effective as long as our negotiating partners believe human rights and democracy are merely tools for achieving the overarching goal of regime change. John Bolton’s prioritizing the removal of Nicolas Maduro over humanitarian stabilization or democratic elections in Venezuela made all three goals unachievable. It is entirely possible, even likely, that fair elections would lead to the end of the dictatorship, as was seen in 1988 in Chile or 1989 in Poland. Importantly though, in both cases the election was placed ahead of the demand for regime change—and in each case the overconfident ruling regime lost the election convincingly enough that regime change became inevitable. By contrast, the US and its allies have repeatedly required that sitting heads of state relinquish power before elections take place, and often have rejected the possibility of those heads of state from running again. This insistence has diminished the potential for negotiated transitions to democracy, stopping and even reversing the advance of democracy that had been occurring since those late 1980’s transitions. 

Does this mean that there are no cases in which the US should participate in regime change?  Not necessarily. There may be cases where a legitimate foreign policy goal—protection of human rights, defense of an ally, or some other aim—will necessitate the removal of an enemy regime. However, these circumstances should be limited. As Libya’s sudden disarmament in 2003 showed, most regimes that fear removal will be willing to make substantially sacrifices in negotiation with the United States in order to preserve their position—so long as they believe the United States can actually be satisfied with these proximate goals and is not merely using them as an excuse to implement regime change. 

At this point, of course, it will be difficult for any foreign power to believe that the United States is not pursuing regime change, given the efforts made in that direction in the last 20 years. Nonetheless, if the US intends to contribute to a liberal world order, the first step must be to cease targeting regime change as a primary goal, both in rhetoric and in internal planning. As US actions make this position more believable to other countries, their interaction with the US will grow more productive and the US will find that positive-sum negotiations for accomplishing its other goals becomes much easier. Only if there is some basis for trust between the US and other states can the goals of liberal foreign policy be achieved—real cooperation in the context of international institutions, negotiating to achieve positive sum benefits and expanding political democracy and liberal human rights. 

Featured image is Falling of Lenin in Khmelnytskyi Park

Read the whole story
2 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

The Ordinary Made Revolutionary: The Life and Deaths of Mohamed Bouazizi

1 Share

Few remember that the Arab Spring began with the public self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, in desperate defiance of a government that had ground him under its boot. In his home country, he is remembered fondly as the original spark that led to  replacing a tyrant with democracy, or bitterly as one who “achieved nothing” in the end. As Hernando de Soto put it, “To some he’s a generic symbol of the resistance to injustice; to others an archetype of the fight against autocracy.” He added, “It is hard to imagine that the real Mohamed Bouazizi would have recognized himself in any of these incarnations.” On  the day that would have been his 36th birthday, we would do well to remember that Mohamed Bouazizi was, above all, an ordinary man. I do not mean to say his life is in some way representative of the life of the average Tunisian. His fruit stand, the main source of income for his entire family, earned him $73 a week, or $292 a month—less than four percent of Tunisian median household income, for a household almost twice as large as the national average. Bouazizi was a poor man, providing for a poor family.

Nor do I mean to suggest, by his ordinariness, that he was entirely pure of or indifferent to politics. In 2010, his cousin Ali Bouazizi was active in the political opposition to the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and Mohamed participated in a protest with him six months before his public suicide. Ali, along with another member of Mohamed’s extended family, was quite possibly the determining factor which allowed Mohamed to make history, when he filmed his cousin’s self-immolation and uploaded it to a political Facebook group.

By all accounts, Ali was the political one. While Ali’s influence may make us doubt de Soto’s appraisal that Mohamed was “an apolitical family man,” the statement is at least half right. Mohamed Bouazizi did not wake up each day hoping to end tyranny in Tunisia or usher in a democratic revolution. He was far too busy working tirelessly to provide for his mother and five siblings, something which, at 26, had consumed most of his waking life for at least 14 years. De Soto explains:

“Bouazizi’s talent was for buying and selling. Each evening he picked up fruit and vegetables from the wholesale market to sell from his street-side cart at a spot facing the office of the district administration. His dream was to buy an Isuzu pickup truck to get his supplies directly from the farmers. He was known in his neighborhood for his shrewd practicality. He was trusted by his peers: His colleagues in the wholesale fruit market sometimes hired him to do their accounts.”

Out of necessity, Bouazizi worked many odd jobs over the years, including as a driver on the set of the 2007 miniseries Pompeii. We may call him scrappy, or an entrepreneur, but it was an entrepreneurship of necessity, the kind that the poor must engage in just to tread water, to keep from sinking deeper into the quicksand. Living “in a society where small-scale business-people were treated with contempt,” he certainly was not doing it for the prestige or to make a Tunisian “30 under 30” list.

Bouazizi was ordinary, in short, because he worked day in and day out to provide for his family. He did not perform revolutionary acts, but acts of commerce and labor. The comment made last year by a middle-aged merchant could likely stand in for dozens of others: “I knew Mohamed since he was a child, he used to play with my children, and I was deeply saddened by his death.” Mohamed Bouazizi was known by many; by the family he provided for and a sizable extended family network, by his neighbors and his fellow vendors. His virtues were ordinary virtues: his diligence in his work, his faithfulness to his family, his courage in refusing to pay bribes. Though respect for the dead and his rise to symbolic status left few willing to speak of them, his vices were likely ordinary as well. Nothing like the grand vices of the gangster-tyrants sent packing, and then to their graves, in the wake of his suicide.

Suicide, too, is an ordinary act, though a tragic one. Even the manner of Bouazizi’s suicide, so shocking to an American, is not so extraordinary in Tunisia. Though a Muslim nation where any suicide is a serious sin, there were “many cases” of self-immolation perpetrated as “an act of public protest” prior to Bouazizi. One of them, Abdesslem Trimech, was another street vendor and self-immolated a mere nine months earlier. To all appearances both men were driven to their terrible choice by similar circumstances—but here we must tread carefully. For in neither case do we have, in their own words, the reason for their choice to consign themselves to a violent, public death.

Whatever their reasons, Bouazizi and Trimech had a great deal in common, but what Bouazizi had (and Trimech lacked) was a spectator with a camera and connections to the political opposition. His image went viral and began a series of mass protests which ended the 23-year reign of President Ben Ali within one month. The public, the media, the elites of the new system, and international spectators have all projected various meanings onto Bouazizi’s death. I shall endeavor to do so as little as possible, sticking to the facts of the matter as closely as I can.

The day that Mohamed Bouazizi made his public suicide attempt by one of the most painful methods a human being can choose to die, he faced troubles which are unfortunately all too ordinary among the street vendors in the small town of Sidi Bouzid and other towns like it. Whether or not he was operating illegally is difficult to say; even the New York Times admitted “no one seems to know.” The bureaucracy regulating such matters was as opaque as it was byzantine—to formally file as a sole proprietor, which did not even offer much in the way of guarantees, would have taken “55 administrative steps totaling 142 days and fees amounting to some $3,233.” Even then it’s unclear if it would have been possible to obtain a license to sell where he sold or if it was necessary to do so.

Local inspectors and especially local police take advantage of regulatory barriers and uncertainty by levying “fees” of their own. December 17, 2010 was the last of many days that Mohamed Bouazizi endured theft, physical abuse, and humiliation at the hands of municipal police. Every account of that fateful day makes a special point to mention that the police officer who slapped him across the face in front of a crowd of spectators was a woman—strongly implying, but leaving unsaid, that this added an extra dimension of humiliation for a Tunisian man. At any rate, they seized a large amount of his fruit—which he had purchased on credit—and his $255 electronic scale, leaving him $200 in debt and without the means to make himself whole again. He attempted to appeal to local authorities and then to see the governor but was refused a meeting by each in turn. It was right there, outside the governorate building, that he poured paint thinner over himself and set himself on fire.

Whatever his reasons, however he understood this act, the Tunisian public chose to make it revolutionary. Today, Tunisia is the place the Arab Spring began and the only Arab Spring nation to have successfully set up and kept its democracy. This regime is far from perfect, or guaranteed longevity, but it is a far cry from the dire situations faced by those nations who joined Tunisia in mass protest in 2011. Yet this triumph, while important, is in many ways irrelevant to the problems faced by Mohamed Bouazizi and still faced by the street vendors and poor of Tunisia today. The clash of democracy and tyranny is a grand battle, and even the corruption that the new regime has sought to fight is largely grand corruption: large scale misappropriation of taxpayer funds and other misdeeds of that nature and scale.

But the corruption and tyranny that Mohamed Bouazizi had to live with every day was petty—that is to say, ordinary. And it was, by and large, municipal, not national. It wasn’t until 2018 that Tunisia had elections at the municipal level. Even the otherwise optimistic Carnegie Foundation, while touting the great opportunity that local self-government will provide Tunisians, is relatively pessimistic it will reduce petty corruption.

I do not want to say that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was about burdensome local bureaucracy and abusive local officials. Nor do I wish to diminish the tremendous moral triumph of the masses of Tunisians who participated in a genuinely successful democratic revolution. What I want to suggest is that tremendous moral triumphs, especially at the level of a whole nation, often leave the ordinary, local life largely as it was before. And it was the ordinary, local corruptions and abuses which permeated Mohamed Bouazizi’s lived experience and on the day of his ultimately fatal choice. 

To establish democracy is an accomplishment, and to keep it is truly revolutionary. But revolutionary fervor all too often steamrolls the ordinary. Mohamed Bouazizi was only 26 when he gave in to despair and inflicted upon himself the most painful way one can choose to die. Had he lived, he might have married and had a family, or he might not have. He might have bought that truck he dreamed of, or not. We will never know, and so we should not forget the ordinary life he did lead, and the ordinary struggles which ultimately proved too much.

Featured Image is a sign for Place Mohamed Bouazizi in Paris

Read the whole story
10 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

The Icon of St. Sofia, Chapter 3

1 Share
An excerpt: When it was reported to Simon that Ivan had set a watch, he nodded, but his ministers witnessed a twitch in his eyebrow, that they rose a bit in evidence of some minor alarm. He called for Pyotr, the chief minister, the man overseeing the guard. “Pyotr, my son,” Simon said, “The tsar […]

Download audio:
Read the whole story
13 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

The Necessary Logic of American Politics: Ezra Klein’s Why We’re Polarized

1 Share

Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 came as a shock to most political analysts, and spurred numerous analyses looking to explain the outcome. One insightful explanation comes from Ezra Klein’s book Why We’re Polarized. Klein sees the election as a culmination of our social psychology mixing with a media landscape designed to outrage, in a political system that incentivizes Republicans to become more extreme. We are hard-wired to protect our identities from external threats, and contemporary political parties have become strong proxies for the groups to which we belong. The media and politicians tap into our psychology that makes us react more strongly to threats and antagonism than to positivity. And the American political system was designed centuries ago to represent geography more than popularity in a way that makes Republican electoral success tied more to extreme stances than winning over swing voters. All of this, according to Klein, leads to “a legitimacy crisis that could threaten the very foundation of our political system.” The book’s claim that political parties now stand in for identities, in a way that leads to more polarization than was common in the 20th century, is convincing. However, Klein leaves important social factors unanalyzed, and there is reason to believe he is presenting current trends as more inevitable than they in fact are.

Listeners of Ezra Klein’s podcast will have noticed his focus has shifted away from technocratic policy discussions and towards broader philosophical questions. He has become more interested in talking about veganism or identity politics than the latest NBER paper on healthcare policy. Why We’re Polarized hits somewhere in the middle, using social science research to explain the circumstances that made America so polarized and led to a Donald Trump Presidency.

Klein’s narrative centers on the issue of identities, and the way shifting identities have impacted the current political climate. He draws on both social science and the history of partisanship in the United States to explain the current situation. Historically, a key part of his argument is that the current situation represents a break from mid-20th century norms.

History and social psychology

Most identities used to be weak predictors of one’s political party preference: In 1952, other than southerners and Protestants , no demographic had “more than a 10-percentage point difference in the percentage of its members represented within each party.” Moreover, ideology wasn’t much of a common thread within parties: In 1976, only 54% of Americans thought the Republican Party of Gerald Ford was more conservative than the Democratic Party of Jimmy Carter. When Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, opinions on abortion were essentially split within each party. Polls showed opposition to the Vietnam War was similar between the parties as well.

With parties not firmly defining policy preferences, voters oscillated between elections and split the ticket within races. Between 1972 and 1984, the average difference between how a state voted in one Presidential election and the next was 7.7 percentage points. But as the parties became firmer in the policies they supported, this number became 1.9 between 2000 and 2012. The correlation between parties of a district’s House representation and Presidential candidate went from 0.52 in 1972 to 0.97 in 2018.

In a chapter titled “Your Brain on Groups,” Klein dives into social psychology and political science research suggesting the key to understanding this shift is the way intergroup opposition shapes group decision making. Evidence suggests that our emotions are more heightened during moments of opposition rather than support. Even in the absence of objective differences,  experiments show that people will establish arbitrary distinctions among themselves, quickly defining an “us” and “them” that impacts their treatments of each other. Opposition to the “other” is so strong in experiments that subjects “preferred to give their group less so long as it meant the gap between what they got and what the out-group got was bigger.”

Jerry Seinfeld was noting this phenomenon when he observed  that sports fans have deep emotional attachments to what boils down to the color of the clothes their team wears. The players change teams, the teams change cities, and the most consistent thing is the uniform. Klein draws parallels between sports fanaticism and political partisanship – deep emotional attachments to our tribe winning, rather than diligent commitment to democratic discourse. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith remarked on the strong human desire to share in the sentiments of our peers but, notably, we care much more about our friends sharing feelings about our dislikes than our likes. Unsurprisingly, the easiest common ground to find with coworkers is complaining about a boss, or with friends is to gossip about a familiar person. This was brought to bear in the 2016 campaign – Trump’s campaign was much clearer about his opposition to The Swamp than what he stood for.

These dynamics are more or less hardwired into our social interaction. But we’ve become increasingly polarized as these in-group/out-group dynamics have reached a fever pitch in the political realm as various identities have become more aligned with one another into what Klein calls ‘mega-identities’. Our personal identities are a mix of characteristics like where we grew up, our gender, whether we eat meat, our religion, our musical tastes, or whether we own guns. Increasingly, these individual identities coincide more often than they do not. The people who are likely to do yoga in their free time are also likely to live in big cities, drive a Prius, watch MSNBC, and consider themselves non-religious.

Because of this, it is easier for individuals to perceive the political party they support as embodying their values, preferences, and in-groups. ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’ become simplified labels for an entire identity.  These can be seen geographically and politically – Democrats today represent 78% of districts that have a Whole Foods, and Republicans represent 73% of districts that have a Cracker Barrel.

Klein notes that politics is no longer just an opinion on how to govern, it has become “a means of self-expression and group identity.” With all of our identities now so closely mapping onto a political party, it’s easy to see why any chance of that party losing feels like a threat to our entire personal identity, as if our way of life is under attack. He remarks that “elections feel like they decide whether our country belongs to us and whether we belong in it.”

Klein discusses a mid-20th century aberration in American politics that had much less party polarization. This period was defined by the clear us-versus-them political conflict of the Cold War. Americans then had a common enemy that they do not have today. The September 11th attacks provided national unity briefly, but those effects have petered out. With no common enemy abroad, are we left with no choice but to turn on each other? Polarization may be, as Tyler Cowen recently put to Klein, “the opiate of the masses.” While this does not discount Klein’s analysis, it does suggest our contemporary polarization is not inevitable. If a new enemy emerges, could we break out of our domestic polarization?

Klein is correct that the parties have become more of a proxy for our collective identities, but there are reasons to think this part of Klein’s story is oversimplified. Our lives are fundamentally different in ways that excite the sensibilities he mentions, though they are absent from his analysis. America has undergone rapid secularization in the span of a generation. This removed the community, support system, and shared purpose that religion gave people while leaving a void currently unfilled.

In 2004, the modal American male reported having zero close confidants, compared to three in 1985. The increase of “deaths of despair” coincides with evidence that something is missing from American life. As we have lost previous sources of community, people have found appeal in a cheap, easy alternative: Tribalism. Our strong sensibilities to find common enemies aren’t merely because of an overlapping political mega-identity. There’s a good chance they’re being amplified because we’re lonely. A deeper investigation of this issue would likely improve our understanding of this polarization.

Regardless of its etiology, the problem is not that polarization is inherently bad. People disagreeing is healthy in a democracy. The problem is that the American system is poorly designed to account for this new norm in a way that poses a severe threat to the system’s legitimacy. Politically liberal voters are congregating heavily in urban metropolitan areas. By 2040, 70% of the population is estimated to live in 15 states but be represented by only 30 Senators. One paper estimates that, because of the electoral college, a Democratic Presidential candidate narrowly winning the popular vote could lose the Presidency 65% of the time. 

Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for President by winning the most votes from primary voters, a small slice of Republican voters overall. Outside of certain tax cuts and nominating federal judges with conservative legal philosophies, it’s difficult even now to find policies Trump shares with the Republican Party of 2012. But he excited an increasingly white and older  base of voters who felt demographic change was threatening their way of life. He said they didn’t have to apologize for being uncomfortable with gender-neutral bathrooms, campus “political correctness,” or having to press 1 for English on the phone.

Once Trump became the nominee, the mega-identity Klein establishes kicks into gear. Team Red has their candidate. Voters say they may not like how he tweets, how he treats women, or calls people names. But opposition to Hillary is much stronger – the person who called half of us deplorables and probably drinks Fair Trade lattes. Trump’s the alpha guy who doesn’t look down at gun ownership or Christian values. How is his strong support within the Republican Party today consistent with his policies that are in stark contrast to Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney in 2012? The explanation, according to Klein, is that “conservatism isn’t, for most people, an ideology. It’s a group identity.” He adds that while policy expertise is not very common, “all of us are experts in our own identities.”

This in turn calls into question the sustainability of the current order. Democrats have won the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 Presidential elections, yet it is they who somehow are struggling to find a winning political recipe. In 2018, Democrats received more than 10 million more votes in Senate elections but still lost two seats. As the popular will becomes less represented by elected officials, the legitimacy of the system becomes harder to defend.

Trump’s tenure in office has also shown the strength of these identities, and the threat they pose to constitutional governance.  The recent impeachment hearings demonstrate that no matter what a President does it’s nearly impossible to get enough Senators on board for removal. Despite having a term with constant scandals, Trump’s approval rating has stayed in a narrow band for more than three years. Even with all his offensive campaign rhetoric, Trump received essentially the same share of female and Hispanic voters as Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008. No matter what, his base will support him, and his critics will oppose him.

An overdetermined conclusion

There’s an inevitability underlying Klein’s analysis, that we’re on an alarming path leading to catastrophe absent significant reforms. Klein emphasizes that he is looking at the systemic level rather than just bad actors. Get rid of Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell and the system is still there. Our social psychology still remains the same, liberal voters in urban metropolitan areas will still have the same preferences, and the Senate will still have two representatives from each state regardless of their respective populations.

Klein also asserts that the Republican party is on a path to become more extreme in a way that Democrats are not. Republicans can win the White House or Congress through this geographic setup by appealing to a smaller and relatively homogenous base. The party has since 2004 shifted its effort away from persuading undecided “swing” voters and towards motivating its base. Indeed, research shows that the party voting behavior of self-described independent voters is easier to predict than the partisans of the mid-20th century. This means the party pulls more to the right, which is further away from the median American voter.

Meanwhile, according to Klein, Democrats have to appeal to a large and diverse coalition in a way Republicans do not. They have to win over organized labor, big city business interests, religious minorities, and Silicon Valley yuppies. This causes them to moderate and even provide some appeal to those right of center in order to have a shot at governing. Despite the media focus on very progressive Representatives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Ilhan Omar, the Democratic pickups in the 2018 election were from moderates in red districts.

But just as these forces came together perfectly for Donald Trump to become President, it’s possible that some of them are variables rather than constants. Our social psychology that makes us defensive of our tribes need not be directed at each other, nor does our desire for belonging need to be so motivated by antagonistic forces. Republicans have found electoral success since 2016 at the Federal level with an extreme demagogue at the helm, but the success of moderate Republicans at the state level shows the party is not necessarily going to continue on the extreme path Klein predicts.

Klein clearly spells out how this environment of strict partisanship cripples the accountability mechanism of democracy. But it’s unclear whether his framework necessarily will lead to a more extreme Republican Party and a more moderate Democratic Party. As this is written, Bernie Sanders is the frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Whatever else one may say about Sanders, neither his supporters nor his detractors would call him moderate. If the Democrats’ coalition is as diverse and moderating as Klein suggests, how did Sanders become the favorite for the nomination? Could Trump opposition mobilize enough people to support a self-described democratic socialist in the general election? Or will the Democratic voting bloc assert more independence than Republicans of 2016?

The book also fails to fully explain what we are to make of the fact that four of the five most popular governors in America are Republicans in blue states. To Klein, it shows that a different brand of Republicanism canwin. But if moderate Republicans can not only win in blue states but also be popular while governing, how does this square with his beliefs that: 1) political brands have become incredibly nationalized; 2) Republicans have to become more extreme to win; 3) people see any hint of the opposing party as a threat to their identities? The approval ratings of these governors give striking evidence against the inevitability of Republican extremism.

As far as improving the system and dampening the impacts of political polarization, Klein admits he’s writing more to describe than to prescribe. His suggestions range from abolishing the electoral college, granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico, ranked-choice voting, and ending gerrymandering. He also encourages people to be more involved in local and state politics – the place where individual citizens can actually make a difference.

Klein’s story of how strong our identities are tied to our political behavior is a convincing lens through which to view American politics. And yet his recollection of American political history is a good reminder that not everything is fixed in place. The policy bundles that each party represents, the nature of bipartisanship, or the conventional wisdom about what it takes to win an election can all adjust as the country changes. Why We’re Polarized is effective at explaining how we’ve become split in such strongly emotional ways, but it’s less convincing about how inevitable this reality is to go on. Time will tell whether the seeds he describes will give way to the legitimacy crisis he predicts.

Featured image is The Third Term Panic, by Thomas Nast

Read the whole story
35 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story

A Fraught and Narrow Corridor for Liberty

1 Share

In The Narrow Corridor, with impressive historical breadth, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (hereafter A&R) develop and apply a conceptual framework to explain the emergence, sustenance, and, all too often, disappearance, of liberty. It is a serious, important and wide-ranging scholarly effort. Narrative histories provide the empirical grist for A&R’s theories. The accounts of emancipation are inspiring. The accounts of the gradual (and then sudden) destruction of liberty are terrifying. With these histories in mind, the “narrow corridor” argues for a  simple but flexible model of elite-society conflicts to understand a range of political outcomes and dynamics, from the state of nature, to state formation, to growing state capacity, to emancipation, to despotism, to state failure. It is, for the most part, a persuasive and practical framework. However, at times A&R’s central model proves too coarse for the fine-grained history they describe. In particular, their framework would be more compelling with a greater focus on the role of factional conflict within society as an enduring threat to liberty and constitutional governance. 

How to shackle a leviathan 

In A&R’s theory the emergence of liberty depends on a delicate balance of power between the state and society. States that have too much power over society are tyrannical (the Despotic Leviathan). Societies that are unwilling or unable to cede authority to centralized states remain subject to more localized tyrannies through patriarchies, clans and repressive norms (the Absent Leviathan). In contrast, liberty emerges when societies allow a state to form through some centralized authority (or elites allow state power to become more decentralized and constrained) and remain vigilant and organized in order to pressure the state to remain within its bounds (the Shackled Leviathan). This Shackled Leviathan creates liberty’s “narrow corridor”—a corridor that is extraordinarily difficult to enter and almost as difficult to remain inside.

The Shackled Leviathan should sound familiar to students of political and constitutional theory. Popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the separation of powers, and enumerated rights (in particular freedom of speech and association) are all elements of a Shackled Leviathan. But A&R argue—quite rightly—that these are merely characteristics, almost tautological, of the Shackled Leviathan, they do not help us understand why or how Leviathan remains shackled. In their theory, Leviathan remains shackled when norms (like a proclivity to protest government abuses) and facilitating institutional mechanisms (like representative legislatures) encourage citizens and non-state groups to hold states accountable for adhering to the scope and scale of public authorities codified in constitution and in law. 

While the emergence of liberty and accountable government initiates profound changes in the state and society, it is not a terminus, but rather continues a push and pull dynamic between state and society. A&R call this dynamic the Red Queen effect, a metaphor they return to repeatedly. The Red Queen refers to the character in Through the Looking Glass that explains to Alice that she needs to keep running faster and faster in order to stay in one place. According to this key implication of their theory, in order to sustain liberty society must continually become more active and vigilant in monitoring and engaging with the state while the state must become proportionately more capable to meet rising expectations. In a virtuous version of this cycle, society is demanding and vocal, which holds the state accountable and drives it to improve its capabilities. As state capabilities increase elites become more willing to expand participation of previously marginalized groups in society. However, if state power expands more rapidly than society’s capacity or inclination to hold it accountable, the state will become more dominated by elites and more despotic. If state capacity falls short of society’s demands, a different vicious cycle can begin in which citizens are willing to grant less power and fewer resources to the state, which ultimately undermines the ability of the state to carry out its responsibilities or improve its capacity. Society’s skepticism of state power has a self-fulfilling effect that reduces state capacity and thereby confirms society’s initial skepticism. In the extreme, the state loses legitimacy and can no longer effectively provide critical services, including public safety and dispute resolution.

To stay in the corridor, in A&R’s view, the state must become larger and more capable. And to keep up society must develop new and better mechanisms to monitor state activities and push back against corruption and abuse of power.

A house divided 

At times the Red Queen metaphor becomes rather strained. The Red Queen effect getting “out of control” is offered as an explanation for nearly every form of state-society dysfunction. This gets to the incompleteness of A&R’s conceptual framework. That is, it is right to view liberal polities as fragile but incomplete to imagine that the conflict which jeopardizes liberty is always between an expanding, monolithic state and an aggressive, monolithic society. On the contrary, the explanatory power of A&R’s theory would be meaningfully enriched with the inclusion of factional conflict over finite state power. To be clear, A&R recognize that society is not homogeneous and discuss instances where cleavages within society helped force nations out of the narrow corridor (Weimar Germany, Allende’s Chile) or where cleavages in society were overcome when nations entered the corridor (Mandela’s South Africa). Social science is about developing models of complex phenomena, and all good models are abstractions that by necessity and intentionally focus on a narrower set of conditions to explain a narrower set of outcomes. The building blocks that A&R have developed are a historically grounded and analytically useful foundation. It should be productive to explore the implications of conflict between societal factions as an extension of the model offered in The Narrow Corridor.

Identification with and membership in ethnic, regional, cultural, religious, economic, and other communities is a natural and vital aspect of human society. Nevertheless, these memberships and identities, when overriding and exclusive, can pose challenges for democracy and liberty. This consequence of factionalism has been the subject of some concern in the history of political philosophy. James Madison characterized the “mischiefs of faction” as “some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” These factional identities create existential risks for liberty, according to Madison, because the causes are “sown in the nature of man” and have “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” Madison’s view likely relied upon a longer tradition that found expression in Adam Smith and David Hume. Smith bluntly stated that “[of] all the corrupters of moral sentiments…faction and fanaticism have always been by far the greatest.” Hume similarly believed that “the influence of faction is directly contrary to that of laws. Factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation, who ought to give mutual assistance and protection to each other.” In essence, if factional affinities are viewed as in conflict with national, civic obligations then those affinities could undermine the rule of law and other key benefits of the narrow corridor. Moreover, intense factional rivalries reduce the inclination to compromise with other factions and challenge the belief that these factions are legitimate beneficiaries of public services and private liberties.

In contrast to A&R’s Red Queen effect, in which state and society are in the race, contests between factions of society that seek to co-opt state power are perhaps equally consequential, and occur while state capacity remains static or even declines. These well known interest group dynamics can be relatively benign, for example shifting modest quantities of state resources to narrow interest groups or shaping legislative agendas to factional preferences. A&R also describe in a number of historical episodes, such as Weimar Germany, how these factional dynamics can become more pernicious, greatly undermining state capacity to fairly adjudicate disputes across factional boundaries or to provide public services to certain factions. When factional identities override shared civic and constitutional norms this dynamic can set off a vicious cycle, not unlike A&R’s “out of control” Red Queen, where a weakened state loses legitimacy among factions out of power, which then refuse to recognize the authority of the state or invest resources in holding the state accountable. 

In the extreme, factional identities become so dominant that the idea of adhering to constitutional rules that would require sharing power with other factions becomes anathema. A&R argue that competition between an elite-dominated state and society can be viewed as zero sum, dramatically reducing the perceived gains from cooperation. However, the use of “elites” and “the state” often interchangeably in The Narrow Corridor can obscure important changes in the nature of the state once it enters the corridor and thereby becomes less dominated by elites. Moreover, once society has more direct influence over state functions, societal factions need not struggle merely with elites for power.

Instead, for the nations crashing out of the narrow corridor that A&R describe, societal factions began to engage in zero sum competition over what they viewed as worryingly finite economic and state resources. Society’s capacity to hold the state accountable, prevent elites from taking over state functions, and shackle the Leviathan, depends on its ability to work together. Among intense factional identities, society’s ultimate interest in holding the state accountable becomes secondary to more proximate factional conflicts. A&R focus on threats to elite economic interest as driving zero sum state-society conflicts. Factors that heighten divisions within society—and engender a sense of zero sum competition across factions—are likely to be more varied, including economic scarcity, threats to cultural hegemony, and insecurity. Elite framing can also influence the nature and degree of the threats that individuals and factions perceive.

Coalitions for liberty

Factional conflict is not guaranteed to escalate nor are factional identities destined to undermine constitutional norms. An individual’s factional identity is not unitary and unchanging—at any time, they may hold many different and overlapping factional attachments which vary in salience and intensity depending on context, and can shift over time. A&R’s discussion of the role of broad coalitions—across entrenched and distinct factions—in entering or staying in the narrow corridor provides much useful insight into bridging factional divides. These broad coalitions have a number of key elements. They reach across traditional factional cleavages, including parties from both the right and left, different religious or ethnic groups, and they encompass both labor and business interests. Successful coalition formation hinges on recognizing the need for  compromise and following through on commitments. These compromises then produce tangible gains for all parties, which sustain the coalition. The experience of Sweden’s Social Democrats is used by A&R to illustrate the breadth of coalition membership—including business, farmers, and trade unions—and the types of policies that hold coalitions together. In general, they argue that coalitions are held together by policy compromises that promote a fair distribution of resources across coalition partners while enhancing the capacity of society to monitor state activities. In the Swedish case the essential components of the bargain were universal social benefits, centralized wage setting, and the formal involvement of trade unions in monitoring the implementation of the compromise. A&R also emphasize that broad coalitions protect against more extreme policies like nationalization and expropriation that would undermine core incentives for economic activity and force the collapse of the coalition. 

In addition to achieving the legitimate aims of coalition partners, effective compromises have the ancillary effect of sustaining liberty and constitutional norms. Gains achieved through such compromises reinforce the legitimacy and perceived effectiveness of the constitutional system, which, in a virtuous cycle, encourages further productive compromise and cooperation. To be clear, there are hard limits on just and acceptable compromise. Coalitions that exist for the preservation of liberty cannot be sustained by trading away fundamental liberties nor can they include factions deeply hostile to liberty for the imagined purpose of civilizing or tempering their illiberal aims.

A&R recognize the contemporary challenges posed by autocratic movements, polarization, and mistrust of institutions. Polarization is the enemy of broad coalitions. When polarization is acute, factions fear conceding to any of the preferences of opposing factions, or fear that competing factions will abuse any shared public authority. Like the precarious balance between state and society that A&R emphasize, these coalitions can also be fragile. A&R once again rely on the experience of the Social Democrats in Sweden to understand how one might effectively respond to coalition fragility driven by contemporary polarization. They highlight the role of coalition breadth, comprehensive economic responses, and political reforms to increase capacity of individuals and coalition members to monitor the state, while recognizing that “the Swedish success…should not be read as a recommendation that other countries blindly emulate and copy the details.” Two months after Narrow Corridor was published, the Swedish consensus looked even more fragile. Other policy prescriptions offered in response to these challenges, such as campaign finance reform and civil service reform, feel overly precise and less well grounded in theory or historical experience. It is as yet far from well understood what might make these coalitions sufficiently resilient, or whether (or how) they will weather the current global surge in populist, nationalist, and authoritarian sentiments. Without a deeper understanding of relations among factions, the narrow corridor and the Red Queen cannot tell us much more about what causes some coalitions to disintegrate while others might adapt and endure. 

Scholarship at the intersection of pluralism and liberalism has wrestled with these questions. For example, Richard Bellamy argues that factions should not view compromise as a kind of Hayekian market where other factions are merely constraints on the set of feasible choices, but rather should view the desires and aspirations of other factions as legitimate. Bellamy contends that this change in perspective should produce more broadly acceptable and stable compromises. Such compromises would be conducive to the broad coalitions that A&R emphasize. Nevertheless, these cooperative efforts face substantial hurdles. Over time, individuals may become less sympathetic to liberty and constitutional norms, while factions may become less interested in holding the state accountable and more interested in securing public benefits that accrue only to faction members. Even where A&R’s prescriptions for these ailments are not as compelling as their theoretical foundations, they have created a language and framework to the benefit of future efforts to take on these challenges. Their work also points toward productive avenues for finding solutions, in particular toward norms, policies and institutional mechanisms that can secure gains and liberties shared across broad political coalitions. 

Featured image

Read the whole story
37 days ago
New York, NY
Share this story
Next Page of Stories