Trump gets if (half) right

Donald Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw all US troops from Syria (and a large number from Afghanistan) has provoked plenty of criticism, not reduced by the enthusiastic support he has received from Vladimir Putin.

Rather than go over the arguments in detail, I’d like to make a point that seems to be missed nearly all the time. Whether acting for good or ill, the history of US involvement in the Middle East has been one of consistent failure at least for the last 40 years. The last real success was the Camp David agreement in 1978, which created the durable illusion that the US is crucial in resolving the Israel-Palestine dispute. The first Gulf War looked like a success at the time, but created both Al Qaeda and the conditions for the disastrous second war. Apart from that there has been nothing but failure: Reagan in Lebanon, 40 years of failure on Israel-Palestine, failed confrontation on Iran, incoherent attempts to influence oil supplies, and, of course, the second Iraq War including the rise of ISIS).

Whatever the motives, Trump’s decision to end military involvement on Syria is in line with Obama’s much criticised policy rule “Don’t do stupid shi*t.” Unfortunately, this move has been combined with increased support for Saudi Arabia and Israel against Iran and the Palestinians, and for an incoherent policy towards Turkey. Still, half-right is better than completely wrong.

The immediate point here is not to allocate blame or praise to Trump, but the importance of avoiding reflexive hawkishly responses of the kind emerging from the Foreign Policy Community. More generally, this event stresses the urgency of the need for a progressive foreign policy based on the presumption that military intervention in foreign disputes is almost always harmful and hardly ever preferable to civil aid. The same is mostly true of military aid, particularly when it is given to dictators who mostly use it to oppress their own people.

Armistice Day

It’s 100 years since the Armistice that brought an end to fighting on the Western Front of the Great War. Ten million soldiers or more were dead, and even more gravely wounded, along with millions of civilians. Most of the empires that had begun the war were destroyed, and even the victors had suffered crippling losses. Far from being a “war to end war”, the Great War was the starting point for many more, as well as bloody and destructive revolutions. These wars continue even today, in the Middle East, carved up in secret treaties between the victors.

For much of the century since then, it seemed that we had learned at least something from this tragedy, and the disasters that followed it. Commemoration of the war focused on the loss and sacrifice of those who served, and were accompanied by a desire that the peace they sought might finally be achieved.

But now that everyone who served in that war has passed away, along with most of those who remember its consequences, the tone has shifted to one of glorification and jingoism, exemplified by the proposal that current and former military personnel should have priority boarding rights in air travel.

In part, this reflects the fact that, for countries like Australia, war no longer has any real impact on most people. As in the 19th century, we have a small professional army fighting in faraway countries and suffering relatively few casualties. Tens of thousands of people may die in these conflicts, but the victims of war impinge on our consciousness only when they seek to come here as refugees, to be turned away or locked up.

In the past, I’ve concluded message like this with the tag “Lest we Forget”. Sadly, everything important has already been forgotten.

Update I haven’t heard Scott Morrison say much that I agree with. But his observation that “War is always a failure of our humanity” was one of the better responses to today’s centenary, and gives me some hope that the lessons of the Great War have not been totally forgotten.

Time to join the generation game? Definitely

A little while ago, I partially recanted my long-standing rejection of the idea that “generations” are a useful way of thinking about such issues as political attitudes. The UK elections showed a very strong age effect, reflecting the way that the politics of nostalgia, represented by Brexit, appeal to the old and appal the young.

The same appears to be true of “Make America Great Again”, at least according to the exit polls. In every racial group, there’s a clear cohort effect, with the younger cohorts favouring the Democrats.

& Exit poll results, by age and race

The Republicans had majority support only among whites over 45.

The age effect would probably be a bit smaller if education and urban/rural location were taken into account, but it’s still striking.

Regarding the political implications I said last time

If current demographic trends continue, and nothing else changes, the political right will be doomed by demography to permanent minority status. That’s possible, but one-party dominance has rarely lasted long in the countries I’m talking about. And, as Stein’s Law has it, if a trend can’t continue, it won’t.

So, a long period of leftwing success would presumably produce a political realignment in which culture war issues are no longer a dividing line. On the other hand, if leftwing governments are elected and fail to deliver on their promises (or worse, implement their promises and fail disastrously) their support among currently young cohorts may be replaced by permanent oppositions.

Of course, this assumes that democratic processes survive long enough for these demographic processes to do their work.

Time to join the generation game?

As regular readers will know, I’ve spent a generation or more [1] deriding what I call the generation game – the idea of dividing the population up into birth cohorts (categories based on year of birth) such as Boomers, X-ers and so on (Millennials weren’t invented when I started) and assigning them various supposed characteristics.  Most of the time, this exercise is little better than astrology. To the extent that there is any semblance to reality it simply reflects the fact that young people are, and always have been, different from old people.

But just as I have managed to get some traction with this idea, genuine cohort effects have emerged in politics in many countries. The sharpest case is Britain, where people over 65 voted massively for Brexit in the referendum and the Conservatives in the recent election, while those aged 18-24 went even more sharply the other way. As the map linked here shows, if only 18-24 year olds were voting, based on current polling data, the Conservatives would not have won a single seat. If only those over 65 voted, the Conservatives would win 575 and the combined opposition 54.

This is a massive difference and can’t as far as I can tell be explained by differences in education, ethnic composition and so forth.  It also represents a huge shift on the part of older cohorts, who were part of the electorate that gave Labour three terms not long ago. While there is some tendency for people to become more conservative as they age, it’s normally much more limited than this.

The explanation in simple terms, is Brexit. Most of the time, elections involving competing visions of the future – in the UK case, hard-line neoliberalism vs Third Way Blairism.  In the course of such debates, both sides routinely claim to be on the right side of history, to own the future and so on. By contrast, Brexit represented an appeal to a (partly imaginary) past, against the present and the future. With the exception of a handful of neoliberal ideologues, who saw Brexit as a path to a free-market future, most Leavers were motivated by nostalgia for the glories of the past, and were willing to sacrifice the interests of the young to make a gesture in that direction.

What’s true of Brexit is true, though not to quite the same extent, of the culture war politics that have now become dominant on the political right in much of the English-speaking world. It’s driven in large measure by old men who lost the cultural battles of the 1960s and 1970s, and have never got over the fact.

The result is a situation where the right is appealing directly to members of older age cohorts with the result that younger cohorts are moving left.  The most immediate effect has been to wipe out the support base of centrists of the Blair-Clinton-Keating type, who fail to appeal to either group

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Brexit and the oral culture of journalism

For anyone following the trainwreck of Brexit, Richard North’s is an indispensable source. North was (and, at least in principle, still is) a Leave supporter, proposing a model called Flexcit (roughly, the Norway/EFTA/EEA option), but has long since broken with May, Johnson and the rest of the Brexiteers.

North is scathing about the low level of analysis of just about everyone involved in the debate, the only consistent exceptions being Pete North (not sure if or how they are related) and his former employer Christopher Booker who, despite being on the denialist fringe of the climate debate, seems to make sense on Brexit.

I’ll ask a question about Brexit over the fold, but I mainly wanted to cite this important observation. Attacking a recent report, he writes that the author

proudly announces that his piece “is based on conversations” with certain prestigious persons, rather than to reference to primary sources. This so typifies the “oral culture” approach of what passes for journalism, with not even a passing reference to the Commission’s Notices to Stakeholders.

It is probably this superficial, prestige-driven approach which defines the popular Efta/EEA narrative. The average journalist would have a nose-bleed if they ever had to look at a copy of the EEA Agreement. In-depth “research” means looking up back copies of the Financial Times. As for the politicians, they seem to make it up as they go along.

The point about the oral culture is spot-on, I think. I remember observing long ago that journalists, unlike bloggers, assume that they can ring anyone up about anything and expect an answer. That has a huge influence on the way the media work.

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Say not the struggle naught availeth

With all the grim news from the US Supreme Court today, it’s easy to feel despairing. And there are certainly strong arguments to support a pessimistic view.

On the other hand, we’ve been here before many times before. Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem Say not the struggle naught availeth was written in 1849 the aftermath of the collapse of Chartism, a movement that demanded universal male suffrage, secret ballots and other democratic reforms. Clough himself spent 1848 in Italy during the “Year of Revolutions”, most of which were defeated within a few years. Yet, in the end, the Chartist demands were met*, and then surpassed through the struggle for women’s suffrage. The struggle for democracy in Europe as a whole has ebbed and flowed (it’s ebbing at the moment), but has so far been successful.

Coming to the US situation, even though the right has all the levers of power, they are still losing ground on lots of issues, both in terms of public support and in terms of actual outcomes
* Obamacare has survived, and there’s now rising support for a single-payer system.
* The Republican tax cuts are less popular than ever.
* Equal marriage is firmly established, and talk of a constitutional change to stop it has disappeared.
* Gun control, one of the few issues on which the right had gained popular support in the culture wars, is now back on the agenda
There are lots more examples both economic and cultural, including minimum wages, Confederate monuments, and the decline of for-profit education.


That’s not to say that we are necessarily on the winning side of history. It’s easy, for example, to imagine a scenario where the Republicans offset steadily declining support with steadily increasing voter suppression. And the strength of racist/xenophobic appeals to a formerly dominant group, on the way to becoming a minority, can never be underestimated.

On the other hand, if the existing support of the majority of the public translates into a Congressional (or at least House) majority in November and a progressive Democratic President and Senate in 2020, a right wing majority on the Supreme Court won’t be able to reverse trends like those I mentioned above.

* The only exception being the demand for annual Parliaments.