Posted in Institutions, Meritocracy, Politics, Professionalism

Jonathan Rauch — The War on Professionalism

This post is an wonderful essay by Jonathan Rauch, The War on Professionalism.  It was published in the current issue of National Affairs.  Here’s a link to the original.

This essay is a celebration of professionalism, in a populist period when to call someone professional seems seems slanderous.  Here’s how he sets the context for his argument:

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

He links professionalism with institutions, another concept now under attack.  An institution is a powerful set of cultural expectations that shape a critical arena of social life, spelling out the rules for how one should act in this arena.  Examples are family, church, military, school, and the professions.  Institutions are places where people are formed, where they learn to become something they previously were not — a mother, a Christian, a soldier, a student, a doctor. 

The American presidency is an institution, which over the years has shaped the people who assumed the role as much as they shaped it.  We recently found out what happens when the incumbent refuses to be formed by the role he assumed.  That’s when we learned how inadequate law alone is in shaping behavior.  A president can follow the law and still violate every expectation we have for how a president should act.  Institutional norms are essential forms of constraint, but they only work if you choose to follow them.  Usually norm violators snap back when someone points out their misbehavior, shaming them into compliance.  But when a president has no shame, this technique doesn’t work.

Rauch makes a useful distinction between professionalism and elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

A key difference is that professionals have been formed by the process of becoming professionals.  The role comes with responsibilities that restrict your actions.  If you fail to carry out these responsibilities, you can be drummed out of the profession.  

Rauch argues — and I agree — that we would be better off with professional politicians than with amateurs.  Professionals in Congress are formed by the institution, inducted into a role where their job is to legislate.  Too often the current rank of politicians see Congress as a place to perform in order to gain attention and promote themselves.  The institution is just a means to an end, not a place, like the nation’s capitol building, to be held in respect.  On January 6 we saw what the  disrespect for institutions can come to.

I hope you find this essay as thought provoking as I do.

The War on Professionalism

 

Jonathan Rauch

On June 17, 2017, President Donald Trump directed the White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Instead, McGahn packed up his belongings and prepared his letter of resignation, telling the White House chief of staff that the president had told him to “do crazy shit.”

Initially, Trump backed off. But about six months later, through the White House staff secretary, he ordered McGahn to create a file memo denying accurate news reports that Trump had demanded Mueller’s firing. McGahn refused to create the false record. Finally in the Oval Office, the president personally pressured McGahn to deny the story. McGahn again refused.

Other events from the headlines tell similar tales: The president falsified a hurricane forecast and pressed the National Weather Service (NWS) to repudiate its own forecasters. Days later, the agency’s inspector general announced an investigation into the event, noting that it “call[ed] into question the NWS’s processes [and] scientific independence.” On another occasion, the president alleged that the FBI had launched an improper investigation of his 2016 campaign. In response, the Justice Department’s inspector general conducted a detailed review and, though it found flaws in the investigation, firmly repudiated the president’s “witch hunt” story. And in August 2019, an intelligence professional reported behavior by the president that appeared bizarre, alarming, and abusive, at no small risk to his own career. Four months later, the president was impeached.

Trump’s presidency can be described in many ways, but one accurate description is as a relentless, continuous war on professionals and professionalism. Trump and his cronies have menaced, circumvented, and denigrated professionals both within and outside of government. The president himself has smeared law-enforcement professionals as treasonous, sidelined scientists in the policy process, called his top military officers “dopes and babies,” excluded the relevant Central Command general from a decision over whether to withdraw troops from Syria, and claimed weather forecasters were out to get him.

But the Trump era could also be described in a more positive light: as demonstrating the determination of professionals to hold their ground under intense pressure from the president and his enablers. In fact, in many of the instances described above, professionals asserted their integrity against the president and in defense of American governing norms — often successfully.

If anything, the Trump era has shown the need to understand and more fully appreciate professionalism — an often taken-for-granted concept in American public life. What is it? How does it relate to elitism? What are the consequences of its erosion? And how might we think about strengthening it?

PROFESSIONALS, INSTITUTIONS, AND INTEGRITY

As a child, I asked my father, a lawyer, what the word “professional” meant. He replied, “it means you do something for a living.” He contrasted it with the term “amateur,” meaning someone who works for pleasure.

My father’s definition has merit. I recall it whenever I tell interns that, to me, professionalism means performing a job to the highest standards, even when I don’t feel like doing it at all. One might think of the doctor who shows up for emergency surgery on Christmas Eve, the journalist who takes care to verify every fact mentioned in a report, or the concert pianist who gives the audience the best he is capable of night after night, even on nights when he would much rather be doing anything else.

That concept of professionalism is a good starting point, but we can dig deeper by drawing on the work of the American Enterprise Institute’s Yuval Levin. In his book A Time to Build, Levin explores the role and meaning of institutions. Institutions, he says, are — or, when they function well, should be — forms, training and shaping people to work together toward a larger goal. The military is a classic example, as are churches and schools. These “structures of social life” provide the durable arrangements that frame our perceptions, mold our character, and delineate our social existence.

When institutions do not or cannot perform those shaping functions, they collapse into something more like platforms — stages upon which individuals perform in order to build audiences and self-advertise. He locates the collapse of trust in institutions — and the resulting public sense of anomie and disconnectedness — in the conversion of many institutions from places where people are formed to places where people perform. Thus a self-promoting real-estate magnate can become a self-promoting reality-TV host and then a self-promoting presidential candidate, hopping from one stage to the next, all while putting on pretty much the same show.

As institutions have drifted away from shaping us and toward displaying us, they have lost both efficacy and legitimacy. And we, in turn, have naturally lost confidence in them. Moreover, Levin argues, institutions have been taken for granted for so long, and yet are neglected so generally, that we have lost even the vocabulary for talking about what they are supposed to be doing. We don’t realize what we are missing, although we acutely feel the void.

Something very much like that has happened with professionalism. A combination of institutional absence, lazy thinking, and populist politics has collapsed the idea of professionalism down to the much flatter notion of elitism.

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

That distinction gestures toward a fuller definition of professionalism, one that implies commitment to personal standards, social norms, and expert knowledge in furtherance of a mission or an institution. That is, professionalism defines a right way of doing things — a notion of best practices — that is grounded in dedication to a mission or an institution rather than personal advancement or partisan loyalty. As Levin says, professionalism “tends to yield a strong internal ethos among practitioners. In uncertain situations, a professional asks himself, ‘What should I do here, given my professional responsibilities?’ And his profession will generally have an answer to that question.”

As Levin notices, institutionalism and professionalism are cousins. Both institutions and professions organize individuals to accomplish missions, they seek to inculcate norms and guide behavior, they assemble and transmit knowledge and best practices across generations, they cultivate reputational capital over long spans of time, and they draw and enforce boundaries between insiders and outsiders.

Almost invariably, the gatekeepers and guardians of professionalism are institutions. Groups like the American Association of University Professors, the American Bar Association, the American Medical Association, and the News Leaders Association promulgate ethical codes, set occupational and educational standards, issue credentials, organize conferences and social events, provide continuing education, confer prizes, and sanction bad actors. When Trump insisted that Don McGahn violate legal ethics, McGahn had his professional standing as an attorney to think about. He might have had in mind the fact that although Bill Clinton survived impeachment, his law license was suspended.

That said, professionalism and institutionalism are not completely congruent. Since many institutions cater to amateurs, professionalism is a narrower category than institutionalism. Families, churches, unions, and volunteer groups may all be examples of institutions, yet each is made up largely of non-professionals, and some institutions — families, for example — are intentionally not professionalized. At the same time, professionalism is also a broader category than institutionalism, since we understand professionalism to be an individual trait as well as an organizational one.

In fact, every professional is a kind of microcosmic institution — an institution personified. You do not need to be a member of a formal profession to display professionalism; we can say of a high-school educated stonemason or carpenter “he’s a true professional” and know exactly what is meant. Whether we praise the professionalism of a concrete pourer, a hairdresser, or a clarinetist, what we mean is that we rely on this person to approach a task according to the accepted standards of the profession and with integrity toward its mission.

Professionalism overlaps with both merit and expertise — after all, one cannot properly call himself a professional without them. But it implies something different from either — namely, a commitment to a correct approach to personal conduct that transcends individuals’ knowledge and character. Professionals are distinguished not just by the knowledge they possess, but by the traditions and practices they represent. With years of inculcation and reinforcement, professionalism becomes not just a choice or even habit, but a matter of personal identity. It teaches us what we mean by the term “integrity.”

PROFESSIONALS AND PREDATORY ELITES

Since professionalism is characterized by boundaries between right and wrong ways of doing things, our professional identities manifest in what we do. However, a professional may also be someone who chooses not to do certain things, such as cutting corners to serve convenience, or self-interest, or partisan loyalty. Indeed, professionals often define integrity in large measure by the conduct they disallow — in themselves and in others. A professional intelligence analyst does not spin his findings politically. A professional journalist does not invent sources. A professional scientist does not monkey with data. A professional accountant does not allow a CEO to cook the books. A professional police officer does not allow a partner to plant evidence. A professional lawyer does not permit a client to break the law.

And they are indignant when they see violations of such standards. After Trump doctored the weather report, senior National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials seemed to back the president. In response, the agency’s acting chief scientist called their reaction “very concerning” and vowed to pursue these “potential violations of our NOAA Administrative Order on Scientific Integrity.” That is how indignant professionals sound. Or they might say someone is trying to “do crazy shit.”

Professionals are thus the first, and often the only, line of defense against predatory elites who seek to abuse or circumvent institutional safeguards. That is why demagogic populism is, among other things, fundamentally a war on professionalism. It is why opportunists and rogue operators are so keen to push professionals aside. It is why devaluing and corrupting professionalism is a profound danger to a democracy.

That is always true, but it is especially true when the president of the United States is someone who batters every norm of professional government. The ethos of such a president is in every way the opposite of professionalism: He makes the rules. Integrity means service to him. As Trump himself put it, “I have Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Such a figure will not only be enraged but also bewildered when a professional says, “you can’t do that.” His retort will be, “try to stop me.” And without the barriers to caprice and corruption that professionals provide, “stopping him” becomes a great deal harder. An important example is from politics, where the assault on professionalism has had baleful results.

THE CASE FOR POLITICAL CAREERISM

In his classic 1962 book The Amateur Democrat, political scientist James Q. Wilson described technocratic reformers’ assault on Democratic Party political machines in three cities. The machines, Wilson noticed, were run by political professionals — committeemen, ward heelers, and the like. But these men were usually drawn from the non-professional classes: They worked their way up through the ranks of the party apparatus; they viewed politics as a trade and tended to be in it for the long term; they sought extrinsic rewards like jobs, pork-barrel spending, and promotions for themselves and their loyalists. As Wilson wrote, their rewards were “power, income, status, or the fun of the game.”

Wilson watched with misgivings as what he called “political amateurs” attacked and ultimately demolished the machines. By “amateurs,” he meant people who usually came from the elite educated classes and whose commitments were ideological and idealistic. They viewed politics as a hobby or a crusade, and they tended to have other day jobs. “An amateur is one who finds politics intrinsically interesting because it expresses a conception of the public interest,” he wrote. “[T]he amateur asserts that principles, rather than interest, ought to be both the end and the motive of political action.” For amateurs, “compromise” is a dirty word; every issue should be settled purely on its merits. Transactional politics — the politics of bargaining and negotiating — is thus inherently distasteful to the political amateur, who views “each battle as a ‘crisis,’…each victory as a triumph and each loss as a defeat for a cause.”

Amateurism plays an important role in politics, of course, but it presents hazards as well. Because amateurs organize their political activities around issues, they will, if necessary, manufacture issues, and even manufacture crises, to build solidarity and advance their cause. Polarization and hyper-partisanship are often in their interest. Whereas professionals tend to stick around year in and year out, amateurs tend to be fitful arrivistes and self-promoters, people like the Democratic presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Marianne Williamson, or Republican candidates Herman Cain and Donald Trump. George Washington Plunkitt, the so-called “sage of Tammany Hall” and a great (and colorful) proponent of transactional politics, famously loathed progressive reformers, referring to them as “mornin’ glories” who “looked lovely in the mornin’ and withered up in a short time,” disappearing and disapproving when the hard work of governing needed to be accomplished.

Plunkitt understood himself and other Tammany hacks not as elites, but as anti-elites. And it was true; the machine was famous for welcoming working-class and lower-class immigrants at the docks, showing them how to participate in politics (and, of course, whom to vote for), and promoting the most loyal and capable up through the hierarchy. As political scholar Amy Bridges has written, “machine politics must be judged a veritable school of politics for working-class and minority voters,” who often fared better in machine-run cities than under the meritocratic regimes of high-minded reformers. In fact, the early-20th-century progressives loathed Tammany precisely because it empowered the unwashed, especially the despised Irish. They proposed reforms that reduced participation and favored the educated, and even tried to disenfranchise working-class voters — with the support of the New York Times, business interests, and Theodore Roosevelt.

A return to the likes of Tammany Hall today would not be possible even if it were desirable. Still, we need to remember what political machines and parties did well in their institutional heyday: They recruited, shaped, tested, and promoted political aspirants, and they assembled the coalitions necessary for governing. They were forms, ensuring that most politicians — even corrupt ones — understood their coalitions, knew something about governing, and had the connections and the loyalty to work well with others. Today, by contrast, the parties are more like platforms, which political aspirants and outside groups exploit for self-promotion.

The consequences of that change have been far reaching. Until about 10 years ago, it was taken for granted in American politics that party professionals would have an important, and often decisive, influence on who reached the party’s ballot for president, Congress, and other leading offices. That influence was exerted initially through party control of nominations and later through what was called the invisible primary, in which party insiders directed endorsements, money, and media coverage toward preferred candidates.

In 2016, by contrast, professionals in the Democratic Party barely managed to prevent a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Democrat from seizing the party’s nomination. Professionals in the Republican Party, meanwhile, stood by helplessly as a man who was not by any meaningful standard a Republican successfully seized the nomination and took over their party. Four years later, Democratic Party professionals were powerless to stop a billionaire dilettante from buying his way onto a debate stage, where he was joined by a celebrity lifestyle guru and a publicity-hungry Silicon Valley entrepreneur — none of whom had experience in governing. Only by the skin of their teeth did party regulars, with an assist from the African American voters of South Carolina, manage to nominate a mainstream Democratic candidate against a socialist insurgent.

The parties, or at least the Democrats, have recently sought to reclaim some influence — by exerting more control over who can appear in presidential debates, for example. But they are up against the fact that, in many circles, “political professional” has become a term of abuse. To most of the public, amateurism is a mark of authenticity, while professionalism is a mark of corruption. That is a hazardous notion. Without professional input, the primary system is easily manipulated by factional, self-promoting, and even sociopathic candidates equipped with personal wealth or celebrity or demagogic skill — or, in Trump’s case, all three.

The point is not that amateurs should stay out of politics and leave it to their betters. Not at all. The point, rather, is that professionals and voters, like air-traffic controllers and airline passengers, have different roles to play, and both roles are essential. Pushing aside party professionals and assuming that increased participation will solve every problem is like coping with airport gridlock by firing the controllers while packing the planes with more people.

The Brookings Institution’s Elaine Kamarck, University of Massachusetts Amherst political scientist Ray La Raja, and I have suggested changes that would re-empower professionals in politics. But leaving these specific ideas to one side, the overarching lesson to remember is that the Constitution was the brainchild of political professionals, and it entrusted most governmental decision-making to political professionals. The democratization of politics since then was for many years a positive development — until it reached the point of turning professionals into spectators relegated to observing their own parties from the sidelines.

Plunkitt and Wilson would be sad, though not surprised, to have been proven right. In 1962, Wilson issued this warning about the “amateurization” of politics:

The need to employ issues as incentives and to distinguish one’s party from the opposition along policy lines will mean that political conflict will be intensified, social cleavages will be exaggerated, party leaders will tend to be men skilled in the rhetorical arts, and the party’s ability to produce agreement by trading issue-free resources will be reduced.

The chaotic results of political amateurism were predictable, and predicted. The American political system is designed to combine professional and popular elements; it will not work without both.

THE DECLINE OF THE PROFESSIONAL LEGISLATOR

Another example of the devaluation of professionalism, and of its unhappy consequences, cuts to the heart of our constitutional order: the transformation of the Constitution’s premier institution, the U.S. Congress.

During the mid-1980s, I cut my teeth covering congressional budgeting. I got to know staff directors and economists and analysts at places like the budget committees and the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. From the directors at the top to the junior analysts at the bottom, they considered themselves professionals. And they were all tasked with different versions of the same job: providing the information and expertise to keep Congress within the bounds of reality and the law.

I was especially fascinated and impressed by the professional culture of the House Appropriations Committee. The committee — much more powerful in those days than it is now — was run non-transparently by then-chairman Jamie Whitten of Mississippi, who had been in Congress since before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost as influential was the so-called College of Cardinals — the 12 powerful appropriations subcommittee chairmen (yes, all men). Whitten was famous for knowing and exploiting every nook and cranny of appropriations law, but always quietly, behind the scenes. “Keep quiet while you’re working,” he said in a rare interview he granted me in 1986. “Up here, if you talk about it, you can’t do it. You build up all the opposition.” He bragged of never having held a press conference.

Indispensable to Whitten’s wiles was the committee staff, a clique of secretive professionals who had done the work of appropriating for years, often decades. The appropriators and their staff were not always fair or transparent, but they passed the annual spending bills on time every year, because that was their job. They were expert at knowing what the members and leadership needed, brokering the necessary deals and somehow fitting everything into the budget (give or take a few supplemental appropriations). Though they were more monkish than most in Congress, they typified the professional culture that prevailed on Capitol Hill.

Then a couple of things happened. First, when the Republicans took over the House in 1995, they and their Senate counterparts took an axe to Congress’s professional and support staffs, reducing House staff by a third and Senate staff by 16%. They also abolished Congress’s internal technology think tank. They and their successors in both parties stripped committee-based professionals like Whitten of much of their discretion, shifting power to leaders who imposed decisions from above. Paul Glastris and Haley Sweetland Edwards of the Washington Monthly called it Congress’s “Big Lobotomy.” The result was a reduction of professional capacity and intellectual capital within the legislative branch.

Second, the nature of the job changed. Candidates and voters began to see Congress less as a workshop where lawmakers painstakingly craft and pass laws, and more as a platform on which they can raise their profiles and polish their personal brands. As Levin writes,

To some extent, it is natural to think of professionalism and elitism as two sides of the same coin. After all, many professionals are people with advanced degrees and high incomes who occupy elite positions in society. We imagine professionalism to be about excluding others from certain pursuits or occupations like law and medicine — a seemingly elitist practice. We think of it, too, as synonymous with professional schooling, something not everyone can aspire to.

Still, there is a world of difference between professionals and elites. Elites are influential by dint of who they are and whom they know. They are elite because they have social connections and powerful positions. Professionals, by contrast, are influential by dint of what they know and what they do. Their status is contingent on both their standing and their behavior.

As a result, a whole generation of people within and outside of Congress have no experience of the institution operating as a functional, professional legislative body. They know little about the exacting processes of drafting legislation, building coalitions, amassing political capital, or trading political favors — jobs that the Constitution expects Congress to do, jobs that no other institution of government can do. The predictable result has been to cripple Congress as a legislative entity and, in turn, to distort and disrupt the entire constitutional order.

In our constitutional system, Congress speaks by legislating. It can hold hearings, issue subpoenas, and pass the odd non-binding resolution, but those activities are sideshows. If it fails to pass laws, it is effectively silent. With Congress derelict, power and decision-making flow to the executive, the courts, and the administrative agencies, none of which can match Congress’s legitimacy and representative nature.

A recovery of the system would involve rebuilding the legislative branch’s legislative professionalism — its culture as a place where people view their job as crafting law, where they know how to do their job, and where they aspire to do it well. Much ink has been spilled suggesting how we might accomplish this — by an American Political Science Association task force, by Congress’s own Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, and by the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Kosar in these pages, among others. The harder question is whether Congress itself has the will to re-professionalize in our populist era.

ENDING THE WAR

Harder still, yet perhaps even more crucial, will be rebuilding public respect for professionalism in politics and in government. That would mean, for example, making a term like “career politician” or “bureaucrat” less of a dirty word and making “inexperienced” and “amateur” less synonymous with “authentic” and “uncorrupt.”

The road ahead is long, and the gradient is steep. But the first steps can involve reminding ourselves to think twice before indulging the knee-jerk populism that denigrates professionals as obstacles to democratic politics. It will also help to remember that denuding professionalism is easy, whereas building and sustaining it is difficult.

And it will help to keep in mind that the war on professionalism leads to chaos, corruption, and predation — what White House counsel McGahn so aptly described as “crazy shit,” and what, in recent years, we have seen far too much of.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. This essay is adapted from a lecture delivered at a symposium of the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University, on February 6, 2020.

Posted in Democracy, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Jennifer Senior: 95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

This post is a piece by New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior, which was published on December 21.  Here’s a link to the original.

It builds on the argument that Michael Sandel made in The Tyranny of Merit and nicely illuminates some of the issues I’ve been raising in this blog about the problems of meritocracy, the dysfunctions of credentialism, and the political consequences of both.  Past pieces here on the subject are legion, including this, this, this, this, this, and this.  

What I like in particular about her take on the subject is the way she weaves together issues of power, fairness, respect, and community — all of which are pushed in a perilous direction by the new American meritocracy.  And she brings the analysis together by focusing on the effect of college degrees on governing. 

Consider this, that “95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.”  Does this make us better governed?  Really?

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

I don’t think we needed a study to tell us this, after watching our own government’s dysfunction over the past several decades. 

Then add to this two other facts:  the Democrats have become the party for the college-educated; and most Democrats in congress went to private colleges while most Republicans went to public colleges.  Is educational exclusivity now the brand for the Democratic party?

I hope you find this analysis as interesting as I did.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Credit…Damon Winter/The New York Times

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have MDs, and an identical number in each body (four, twenty-one) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members have a bachelor’s degree, as does every member of the Senate. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.

There’s an argument to be made that we should want our representatives to be a highly lettered lot. Lots of people have made it, as far back as Plato.

The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between good governance and educational attainment that Sandel can discern. In the 1960s, he noted, we got the Vietnam War thanks to “the best and the brightest” — it’s been so long since the publication of David Halberstam’s book that people forget the title was morbidly ironic. In the 1990s and 2000s, the highly credentialed gave us (and here Sandel paused for a deep breath) “stagnant wages, financial deregulation, income inequality, the financial crisis of 2008, a bank bailout that did little to help ordinary people, a decaying infrastructure, and the highest incarceration rate in the world.”

Five years ago, Nicholas Carnes, a political scientist at Duke, tried to measure whether more formal education made political leaders better at their jobs. After conducting a sweeping review of 228 countries between the years 1875 and 2004, he and his colleague Noam Lupu concluded: No. It did not. A college education did not mean less inequality, a greater G.D.P., fewer labor strikes, lower unemployment or less military conflict.

Sandel argues that the technocratic elite’s slow annexation of Congress and European parliaments — which resulted in the rather fateful decisions to outsource jobs and deregulate finance — helped enable the populist revolts now rippling through the West. “It distorted our priorities,” Sandel told me, “and made for a political class that’s too tolerant of crony capitalism and much less attentive to fundamental questions of the dignity of work.”

Both parties are to blame for this. But it was Democrats, Sandel wrote, who seemed especially bullish on the virtues of the meritocracy, arguing that college would be the road to prosperity for the struggling. And it’s a fine idea, well-intentioned, idealistic at its core. But implicit in it is also a punishing notion: If you don’t succeed, you have only yourself to blame. Which President Trump spotted in a trice.

“Unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who spoke constantly of ‘opportunity’” Sandel wrote, “Trump scarcely mentioned the word. Instead, he offered blunt talk of winners and losers.”

Trump was equally blunt after winning the Nevada Republican caucuses in 2016. “I love the poorly educated!” he shouted.

A pair of studies from 2019 also tell the story, in numbers, of the professionalization of the Democratic Party — or what Sandel calls “the valorization of credentialism.” One, from Politico, shows that House and Senate Democrats are much more likely to have gone to private liberal arts colleges than public universities, whereas the reverse is true of their Republican counterparts; another shows that congressional Democrats are far more likely to hire graduates of Ivy League schools.

This class bias made whites without college degrees ripe for Republican recruitment. In both 2016 and 2020, two thirds of them voted for Trump; though the G.O.P. is the minority party in the House, more Republican members than Democrats currently do not have college degrees. All 11 are male. Most of them come from the deindustrialized Midwest and South.

Oh, and in the incoming Congress? Six of the seven new members without four-year college degrees are Republicans.

Of course, far darker forces help explain the lures of the modern G.O.P. You’d have to be blind and deaf not to detect them. For decades, Republicans have appealed both cynically and in earnest — it’s hard to know which is more appalling — to racial and ethnic resentments, if not hatred. There’s a reason that the Black working class isn’t defecting to the Republican Party in droves. (Of the nine Democrats in the House without college degrees, seven, it’s worth noting, are people of color.)

For now, it seems to matter little that Republicans have offered little by way of policy to restore the dignity of work. They’ve tapped into a gusher of resentment, and they seem delighted to channel it, irrespective of where, or if, they got their diplomas. Ted Cruz, quite arguably the Senate’s most insolent snob — he wouldn’t sit in a study group at Harvard Law with anyone who hadn’t graduated from Princeton, Yale or Harvard — was ready to argue on Trump’s behalf to overturn the 2020 election results, should the disgraceful Texas attorney general’s case have reached the Supreme Court.

Which raises a provocative question. Given that Trumpism has found purchase among graduates of Harvard Law, would it make any difference if Congress better reflected the United States and had more members without college degrees? Would it meaningfully alter policy at all?

It would likely depend on where they came from. I keep thinking of what Rep. Al Green, Democrat of Texas, told me. His father was a mechanic’s assistant in the segregated South. The white men he worked for cruelly called him “The Secretary” because he could neither read nor write. “So if my father had been elected? You’d have a different Congress,” Green said. “But if it’d been the people who he served — the mechanics who gave him a pejorative moniker? We’d probably have the Congress we have now.”

It’s hard to say whether more socioeconomic diversity would guarantee differences in policy or efficiency. But it could do something more subtle: Rebuild public trust.

“There are people who look at Congress and see the political class as a closed system,” Carnes told me. “My guess is that if Congress looked more like people do as a whole, the cynical view — Oh, they’re all in their ivory tower, they don’t care about us — would get less oxygen.”

When I spoke to Representative Troy Balderson, a Republican from Ohio, he agreed, adding that if more members of Congress didn’t have four-year college degrees, it would erode some stigma associated with not having one.

“When I talk to high school kids and say, ‘I didn’t finish my degree,’ their faces light up,” he told me. Balderson tried college and loved it, but knew he wasn’t cut out for it. He eventually moved back to his hometown to run his family car dealership. Students tend to find his story emboldening. The mere mention of four-year college sets off panic in many of them; they’ve been stereotyped before they even grow up, out of the game before it even starts. “If you don’t have a college degree,” he explains, “you’re a has-been.” Then they look at him and see larger possibilities. That they can be someone’s voice. “You can become a member of Congress.”

Jennifer Senior has been an Op-Ed columnist since September 2018. She had been a daily book critic for The Times; before that, she spent many years as a staff writer for New York magazine. Her best-selling book, “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood,” has been translated into 12 languages. @JenSeniorNY

Posted in Politics, Populism, Social status, Sociology

Thomas Edsall: The Resentment that Never Sleeps

This post is a piece by Thomas Edsall published in the New York Times last week.  It explores in detail the recent literature about the role that declining social status has played in the rise of right-wing populism in the US and elsewhere.  Here’s a link to the original.

The argument is one that resonates in my own work posted here (see this, this, and this).  People are less concerned about getting ahead than they are about falling behind.  And one of the consequences of the degree-based meritocracy is the way it disparages people who lack the proper credentials, making clear to them that they are losing ground to the new educated elite.  Here is how Cecilia Ridgway puts it:

Status is as significant as money and power. At a macro level, status stabilizes resource and power inequality by transforming it into cultural status beliefs about group differences regarding who is “better” (esteemed and competent).

Those most affected tend to be neither at the top nor the bottom of the social hierarchy but somewhere in the lower middle regions.  Peter Hall says that

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

This is one of the most trenchant analyses of Trumpism that I have yet encountered.  See what you think.

The Resentment That Never Sleeps

Rising anxiety over declining social status tells us a lot about how we got here and where we’re going.

More and more, politics determine which groups are favored and which are denigrated.

Roughly speaking, Trump and the Republican Party have fought to enhance the status of white Christians and white people without college degrees: the white working and middle class. Biden and the Democrats have fought to elevate the standing of previously marginalized groups: women, minorities, the L.G.B.T.Q. community and others.

The ferocity of this politicized status competition can be seen in the anger of white non-college voters over their disparagement by liberal elites, the attempt to flip traditional hierarchies and the emergence of identity politics on both sides of the chasm.

Just over a decade ago, in their paper “Hypotheses on Status Competition,” William C. Wohlforth and David C. Kang, professors of government at Dartmouth and the University of Southern California, wrote that “social status is one of the most important motivators of human behavior” and yet “over the past 35 years, no more than half dozen articles have appeared in top U.S. political science journals building on the proposition that the quest for status will affect patterns of interstate behavior.”

Scholars are now rectifying that omission, with the recognition that in politics, status competition has become increasingly salient, prompting a collection of emotions including envy, jealousy and resentment that have spurred ever more intractable conflicts between left and right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.

Hierarchal ranking, the status classification of different groups — the well-educated and the less-well educated, white people and Black people, the straight and L.G.B.T.Q. communities — has the effect of consolidating and seeming to legitimize existing inequalities in resources and power. Diminished status has become a source of rage on both the left and right, sharpened by divisions over economic security and insecurity, geography and, ultimately, values.

The stakes of status competition are real. Cecilia L. Ridgeway, a professor at Stanford, described the costs and benefits in her 2013 presidential address at the American Sociological Association.

Understanding “the effects of status — inequality based on differences in esteem and respect” is crucial for those seeking to comprehend “the mechanisms behind obdurate, durable patterns of inequality in society,” Ridgeway argued:

Failing to understand the independent force of status processes has limited our ability to explain the persistence of such patterns of inequality in the face of remarkable socioeconomic change.

“As a basis for social inequality, status is a bit different from resources and power. It is based on cultural beliefs rather than directly on material arrangements,” Ridgeway said:

We need to appreciate that status, like resources and power, is a basic source of human motivation that powerfully shapes the struggle for precedence out of which inequality emerges.

Ridgeway elaborated on this argument in an essay, “Why Status Matters for Inequality”:

Status is as significant as money and power. At a macro level, status stabilizes resource and power inequality by transforming it into cultural status beliefs about group differences regarding who is “better” (esteemed and competent).

In an email, Ridgeway made the case that “status is definitely important in contemporary political dynamics here and in Europe,” adding that

Status has always been part of American politics, but right now a variety of social changes have threatened the status of working class and rural whites who used to feel they had a secure, middle status position in American society — not the glitzy top, but respectable, ‘Main Street’ core of America. The reduction of working-class wages and job security, growing demographic diversity, and increasing urbanization of the population have greatly undercut that sense and fueled political reaction.

The political consequences cut across classes.

Peter Hall, a professor of government at Harvard, wrote by email that he and a colleague, Noam Gidron, a professor of political science at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, have found that

across the developed democracies, the lower people feel their social status is, the more inclined they are to vote for anti-establishment parties or candidates on the radical right or radical left.

Those drawn to the left, Hall wrote in an email, come from the top and bottom of the social order:

People who start out near the bottom of the social ladder seem to gravitate toward the radical left, perhaps because its program offers them the most obvious economic redress; and people near the top of the social ladder often also embrace the radical left, perhaps because they share its values.

In contrast, Hall continued,

The people most often drawn to the appeals of right-wing populist politicians, such as Trump, tend to be those who sit several rungs up the socioeconomic ladder in terms of their income or occupation. My conjecture is that it is people in this kind of social position who are most susceptible to what Barbara Ehrenreich called a “fear of falling” — namely, anxiety, in the face of an economic or cultural shock, that they might fall further down the social ladder,” a phenomenon often described as “last place aversion.

Gidron and Hall argue in their 2019 paper “Populism as a Problem of Social Integration” that

Much of the discontent fueling support for radical parties is rooted in feelings of social marginalization — namely, in the sense some people have that they have been pushed to the fringes of their national community and deprived of the roles and respect normally accorded full members of it.

In this context, what Gidron and Hall call “the subjective social status of citizens — defined as their beliefs about where they stand relative to others in society” serves as a tool to measure both levels of anomie in a given country, and the potential of radical politicians to find receptive publics because “the more marginal people feel they are to society, the more likely they are to feel alienated from its political system — providing a reservoir of support for radical parties.”

The populist rhetoric of politicians on both the radical right and left is often aimed directly at status concerns. They frequently adopt the plain-spoken language of the common man, self-consciously repudiating the politically correct or technocratic language of the political elites. Radical politicians on the left evoke the virtues of working people, whereas those on the right emphasize themes of national greatness, which have special appeal for people who rely on claims to national membership for a social status they otherwise lack. The “take back control” and “make America great again” slogans of the Brexit and Trump campaigns were perfectly pitched for such purposes.

Robert Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester in the U.K., argued in an email that three factors have heightened the salience of status concerns.

The first, he wrote, is the vacuum created by “the relative decline of class politics.” The second is the influx of immigrants, “not only because different ‘ways of life’ are perceived as threatening to ‘organically grown’ communities, but also because this threat is associated with the notion that elites are complicit in the dilution of such traditional identities.”

The third factor Ford describes as “an asymmetrical increase in the salience of status concerns due to the political repercussions of educational expansion and generational value change,” especially “because of the progressive monopolization of politics by high-status professionals,” creating a constituency of “cultural losers of modernization” who “found themselves without any mainstream political actors willing to represent and defend their ‘ways of life’ ” — a role Trump sought to fill.

In their book, “Cultural Backlash,” Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, political scientists at Harvard and the University of Michigan, describe the constituencies in play here — the “oldest (interwar) generation, non-college graduates, the working class, white Europeans, the more religious, men, and residents of rural communities” that have moved to the right in part in response to threats to their status:

These groups are most likely to feel that they have become estranged from the silent revolution in social and moral values, left behind by cultural changes that they deeply reject. The interwar generation of non-college educated white men — until recently the politically and socially dominant group in Western cultures — has passed a tipping point at which their hegemonic status, power, and privilege are fading.

The emergence of what political scientists call “affective polarization,” in which partisans incorporate their values, their race, their religion — their belief system — into their identity as a Democrat or Republican, together with more traditional “ideological polarization” based on partisan differences in policy stands, has produced heightened levels of partisan animosity and hatred.

Lilliana Mason, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, describes it this way:

The alignment between partisan and other social identities has generated a rift between Democrats and Republicans that is deeper than any seen in recent American history. Without the crosscutting identities that have traditionally stabilized the American two-party system, partisans in the American electorate are now seeing each other through prejudiced and intolerant eyes.

If polarization has evolved into partisan hatred, status competition serves to calcify the animosity between Democrats and Republicans.

In their July 2020 paper, “Beyond Populism: The Psychology of Status-Seeking and Extreme Political Discontent,” Michael Bang PetersenMathias Osmundsen and Alexander Bor, political scientists at Aarhus University in Denmark, contend there are two basic methods of achieving status: the “prestige” approach requiring notable achievement in a field and “dominance” capitalizing on threats and bullying. “Modern democracies,” they write,

are currently experiencing destabilizing events including the emergence of demagogic leaders, the onset of street riots, circulation of misinformation and extremely hostile political engagements on social media.

They go on:

Building on psychological research on status-seeking, we argue that at the core of extreme political discontent are motivations to achieve status via dominance, i.e., through the use of fear and intimidation. Essentially, extreme political behavior reflects discontent with one’s own personal standing and a desire to actively rectify this through aggression.

This extreme political behavior often coincides with the rise of populism, especially right-wing populism, but Petersen, Osmundsen and Bor contend that the behavior is distinct from populism:

The psychology of dominance is likely to underlie current-day forms of extreme political discontent — and associated activism — for two reasons: First, radical discontent is characterized by verbal or physical aggression, thus directly capitalizing on the competences of people pursuing dominance-based strategies. Second, current-day radical activism seems linked to desires for recognition and feelings of ‘losing out’ in a world marked by, on the one hand, traditional gender and race-based hierarchies, which limit the mobility of minority groups and, on the other hand, globalized competition, which puts a premium on human capital.

Extreme discontent, they continue,

is a phenomenon among individuals for whom prestige-based pathways to status are, at least in their own perception, unlikely to be successful. Despite their political differences, this perception may be the psychological commonality of, on the one hand, race- or gender-based grievance movements and, on the other hand, white lower-middle class right-wing voters.

The authors emphasize that the distinction between populism and status-driven dominance is based on populism’s “orientation toward group conformity and equality,” which stands “in stark contrast to dominance motivations. In contrast to conformity, dominance leads to self-promotion. In contrast to equality, dominance leads to support for steep hierarchies.”

Thomas Kurer, a political scientist at the University of Zurich, contends that status competition is a political tool deployed overwhelmingly by the right. By email, Kurer wrote:

It is almost exclusively political actors from the right and the radical right that actively campaign on the status issue. They emphasize implications of changing status hierarchies that might negatively affect the societal standing of their core constituencies and thereby aim to mobilize voters who fear, but have not yet experienced, societal regression. The observation that campaigning on potential status loss is much more widespread and, apparently, more politically worthwhile than campaigning on status gains and makes a lot of sense in light of the long-established finding in social psychology that citizens care much more about a relative loss compared to same-sized gains.

Kurer argued that it is the threat of lost prestige, rather than the actual loss, that is a key factor in status-based political mobilization:

Looking at the basic socio-demographic profile of a Brexiter or a typical supporter of a right-wing populist party in many advanced democracies suggests that we need to be careful with a simplified narrative of a ‘revolt of the left behind’. A good share of these voters can be found in what we might call the lower middle class, which means they might well have decent jobs and decent salaries — but they fear, often for good reasons, that they are not on the winning side of economic modernization.

Kurer noted that in his own April 2020 study, “The Declining Middle: Occupational Change, Social Status, and the Populist Right,” he found

that it is voters who are and remain in jobs susceptible to automation and digitalization, so called routine jobs, who vote for the radical right and not those who actually lose their routine jobs. The latter are much more likely to abstain from politics altogether.

In a separate study of British voters who supported the leave side of Brexit, “The malaise of the squeezed middle: Challenging the narrative of the ‘left behind’ Brexiter,” by Lorenza Antonucci of the University of Birmingham, Laszlo Horvath of the University of Exeter, Yordan Kutiyski of VU University Amsterdam and André Krouwel of the Vrije University of Amsterdam, found that this segment of the electorate

is associated more with intermediate levels of education than with low or absent education, in particular in the presence of a perceived declining economic position. Secondly, we find that Brexiters hold distinct psychosocial features of malaise due to declining economic conditions, rather than anxiety or anger. Thirdly, our exploratory model finds voting Leave associated with self-identification as middle class, rather than with working class. We also find that intermediate levels of income were not more likely to vote for remain than low-income groups.

In an intriguing analysis of the changing role of status in politics, Herbert Kitschelt, a political scientist at Duke, emailed the following argument. In the recent past, he wrote:

One unique thing about working class movements — particularly when infused with Marxism — is that they could dissociate class from social status by constructing an alternative status hierarchy and social theory: Workers may be poor and deprived of skill, but in world-historic perspective they are designated to be the victorious agents of overcoming capitalism in favor of a more humane social order.

Since then, Kitschelt continued, “the downfall of the working class over the last thirty years is not just a question of its numerical shrinkage, its political disorganization and stagnating wages. It also signifies a loss of status.” The political consequences are evident and can be seen in the aftermath of the defeat of President Trump:

Those who cannot adopt or compete in the dominant status order — closely associated with the acquisition of knowledge and the mastery of complex cultural performances — make opposition to this order a badge of pride and recognition. The proliferation of conspiracy theories is an indicator of this process. People make themselves believe in them, because it induces them into an alternative world of status and rank.

On the left, Kitschelt wrote, the high value accorded to individuality, difference and autonomy creates

a fundamental tension between the demand for egalitarian economic redistribution — and the associated hope for status leveling — and the prerogative awarded to individualist or voluntary group distinction. This is the locus, where identity politics — and the specific form of intersectionality as a mode of signaling multiple facets of distinctiveness — comes in.

In the contest of contemporary politics, status competition serves to exacerbate some of the worst aspects of polarization, Kitschelt wrote:

If polarization is understood as the progressive division of society into clusters of people with political preferences and ways of life that set them further and further apart from each other, status politics is clearly a reinforcement of polarization. This augmentation of social division becomes particularly virulent when it features no longer just a clash between high and low status groups in what is still commonly understood as a unified status order, but if each side produces its own status hierarchies with their own values.

These trends will only worsen as claims of separate “status hierarchies” are buttressed by declining economic opportunities and widespread alienation from the mainstream liberal culture.

Millions of voters, including the core group of Trump supporters — whites without college degrees — face bleak futures, pushed further down the ladder by meritocratic competition that rewards what they don’t have: higher education and high scores on standardized tests. Jockeying for place in a merciless meritocracy feeds into the status wars that are presently poisoning the country, even as exacerbated levels of competition are, theoretically, an indispensable component of contemporary geopolitical and economic reality.

Voters in the bottom half of the income distribution face a level of hypercompetition that has, in turn, served to elevate politicized status anxiety in a world where social and economic mobility has, for many, ground to a halt: 90 percent of the age cohort born in the 1940s looked forward to a better standard of living than their parents’, compared with 50 percent for those born since 1980. Even worse, those in the lower status ranks suffer the most lethal consequences of the current pandemic.

These forces in their totality suggest that Joe Biden faces the toughest challenge of his career in attempting to fulfill his pledge to the electorate: “We can restore the defining American promise, that no matter where you start in life, there’s nothing you can’t achieve. And, in doing so, we can restore the soul of our nation.”

Trump has capitalized on the failures of this American promise. Now we have to hope that Biden can deliver.

Posted in Democracy, Empire, History, Politics

“The Crown” and the Long Tradition of Petitioning the Monarch for Redress of Grievances

In episode 5 of The Crown‘s season 4, a desperate out-of-work painter named Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace, enters the queen’s bedroom, sits on the foot of her bed, and asks her for a cigarette.  “Filthy habit,” she replies. “Yes, I know, I’m trying to quit,” he says.  Then he gets down to business, by asking her to provide relief from his dire economic condition.  The incident is real, occurring on January 9, 1982, during the time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. In light of the bizarre circumstances of the encounter, both parties were remarkably calm. When security officers arrived, the queen asked them to delay arrest until she could shake the intruder’s hand.  

Fagan and the Queen

Watching this I was struck by the way it represented a much broader historical phenomenon:  the longstanding practice of people petitioning the sovereign for the redress of grievances.  In many ways, this practice is an answer to the question of why monarchy was such a durable form of governance over the centuries.  The answer is that, except in absolutist regimes, the king was able to position himself as head of state rather than head of government.  Government was the domain of his ministers, who set policy and passed laws.  The king appointed his ministers but could claim some distance from their policies, able to dispatch them quickly — by dismissal or decapitation — if the policies didn’t work out.  In this way, the king could represent himself as the guardian of the people while the ministers were just the functionaries of government.  And as sovereign, he granted ordinary people the right to petition him when government policies put them in jeopardy.  This gave a remarkable durability of the monarchy, as it was able to evade responsibility for bad outcomes and earn affection from the populace by occasionally redressing their grievances.  It was a very effective good-cop/bad-cop arrangement that has endured right up to the present.  

As constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth appointed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, but she had plausible deniability for being responsible for Thatcher’s draconian policies, which had caused so much economic harm to UK workers like Fagan.  So it made sense for him to approach her directly in seeking relief, as so many had approached monarchs in the past.  In his extreme state — barred access to his children, perpetually out of work, and with no hope in sight — he had nothing to lose by his daring palace break-in.

There is a long history of petitions to the crown.  In 1774, the First Continental Congress of the American colonies sent a petition to George III requesting relief from a set of grievances they put before him.

Most Gracious Sovereign: We, your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of those Colonies who have deputed us to represent them in General Congress, by this our humble Petition, beg leave to lay our Grievances before the Throne.

After laying out these grievances in detail, the Congress closed the petition in a tone of hope and respect:

We therefore most earnestly beseech your Majesty, that your Royal authority and interposition may be used for our relief, and that a gracious Answer may be given to this Petition.

That your Majesty may enjoy every felicity through a long and glorious Reign, over loyal and happy subjects, and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and Dominions till time shall be no more, is, and always will be, our sincere and fervent prayer.

The king, of course, did not respond as they had requested and the ultimate result for the American war of independence.  So petitioning the sovereign has been no guarantee of success, but the sheer possibility of the king’s intervention has kept hope alive.  

Consider another famous petition, whose outcome was both faster and worse.  In January of 1905, a group of 135,000 workingmen presented the following plea to Tsar Nicholas II at his winter palace in St. Petersburg.

Sire,—

We working men of St. Petersburg, our wives and children, and our parents, helpless, aged men and women, have come to you, О Tsar, in quest of justice and protection. We have been beggared, oppressed, over-burdened with excessive toil, treated with contumely. We are not recognized as normal human beings, but are dealt with as slaves who have to bear their bitter lot in silence. Patiently we endured this; but now we are being thrust deeper into the slough of right-lessness and ignorance, are being suffocated by despotism and arbitrary whims, and now, О Tsar, we have no strength left. The awful moment has come when death is better than the prolongation of our unendurable tortures.

After a long list of grievances and demands, the petition closed with the following words:

Those, Sire, constitute our principal needs, which we come to lay before you. Give orders and swear that they shall be fulfilled, and you will render Russia happy and glorious, and will impress your name on our hearts and on the hearts of our children, and our children’s children for all time. But if you withhold the word, if you are not responsive to our petition, we will die here on this square before your palace, for we have nowhere else to go to and no reason to repair elsewhere. For us there are but two roads, one leading to liberty and happiness, the other to the tomb. Point, Sire, to either of them; we will take it, even though it lead to death. Should our lives serve as a holocaust of agonizing Russia, we will not grudge these sacrifices; we gladly offer them up.

The Tsar chose Door No. 2 and several hundred workers were gunned down in front of the palace, an event remembered in history as Bloody Sunday.

Michael Fagan’s petition didn’t end well either.  Thatcher’s policies remained in effect; he was declared insane by a court and sentenced to a mental hospital.  Released three months later, he spent years in and out of prison.  But he’s also been talking about the incident ever since.  Wouldn’t you?

Constitutional monarchs like Queen Elizabeth continue to enjoy the benefit of being head of state without the responsibility and accountability that comes from being head of government.  Presidents, in governments like the United States, don’t have the luxury of enjoying prestige without power, of being the symbol of the nation while remaining above the fray.  On the other hand, maybe pinning your hopes on someone who can’t deliver for you is a fool’s game.  Maybe we’re better off with a leader who can be held to account.

Posted in Liberal democracy, Philosophy, Politics, Populism

Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism and Its Discontents

This post is an essay by political scientist Francis Fukuyama about the challenges facing liberal democracy today from populisms of the left and right.  The original appeared in the on-line journal, American Purpose, which he helped found.  

A large number of essays have emerged in recent years worrying about the future of liberal democracy, but to my taste most of these take a defensive posture that aims more at shoring up the walls protecting this institution than on analyzing why it is under attack.  I am personally committed to the values of liberal democracy, but I find these defenses more stirring than illuminating.  This is the first discussion I have seen about how liberalism’s problems arise from characteristics of liberalism itself.  

A key tension in liberal democracy is between its two components.  Liberal societies value individual liberty, the rule of law, and the protection of minority rights.  Democratic societies value social equality and majority rule.  There are some liberal societies that are not democracies, such as Hong Kong and Singapore in the late 20th century; and there are democratic societies that are illiberal, such as the ones emerging today in Hungary and India.  The key threat he sees today is the rise of illiberalism in the democracies of Western Europe and in the U.S., coming both from right and left.

Each political vector latches on to one of liberalism’s key weakness.  The right focuses on the individualism of the liberal creed, which treats inherently social human beings as independent self-interested actors.  This leaves a craving for community, religion, nationalism, and cultural identity.  Recent cases in point: Brexit, MAGA, and the rise of evangelicalism.  The left focuses on liberalism’s tolerance for social inequality, which is built into the idea of a state reluctant to interfere in private actions and choices.  This tendency has been exacerbated in the last 50 years by the rise of neoliberalism and its effort to free markets from state control and dismantle the welfare state.

Fukuyama shows that these problems with liberalism are nothing new.  And he also suggests that liberal democracies have the capacity to respond to both sets of concerns within its institutional framework, as it has proven in the past.  Here’s his concluding comment:

Liberalism’s present-day crisis is not new; since its invention in the 17th century, liberalism has been repeatedly challenged by thick communitarians on the right and progressive egalitarians on the left. Liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society. It is also compatible with the social justice aims of progressives: One of its greatest achievements was the creation of modern redistributive welfare states in the late 20th century. Liberalism’s problem is that it works slowly through deliberation and compromise, and never achieves its communal or social justice goals as completely as their advocates would like. But it is hard to see how the discarding of liberal values is going to lead to anything in the long term other than increasing social conflict and ultimately a return to violence as a means of resolving differences.

At 4,500 words, this is a longer piece than most of my postings, but I think you’ll find it’s an easy read.  I’m no philosopher, and I tend to get tied in knots trying to follow philosophical arguments.  But I found that his discussion was something even I could understand.  Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Fukuyama Image

Liberalism and Its Discontents

The challenges from the left and the right.

Francis Fukuyama

05 Oct 2020, 12:15 am

Today, there is a broad consensus that democracy is under attack or in retreat in many parts of the world. It is being contested not just by authoritarian states like China and Russia, but by populists who have been elected in many democracies that seemed secure.

The “democracy” under attack today is a shorthand for liberal democracy, and what is really under greatest threat is the liberal component of this pair. The democracy part refers to the accountability of those who hold political power through mechanisms like free and fair multiparty elections under universal adult franchise. The liberal part, by contrast, refers primarily to a rule of law that constrains the power of government and requires that even the most powerful actors in the system operate under the same general rules as ordinary citizens. Liberal democracies, in other words, have a constitutional system of checks and balances that limits the power of elected leaders.

Democracy itself is being challenged by authoritarian states like Russia and China that manipulate or dispense with free and fair elections. But the more insidious threat arises from populists within existing liberal democracies who are using the legitimacy they gain through their electoral mandates to challenge or undermine liberal institutions. Leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, India’s Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump in the United States have tried to undermine judicial independence by packing courts with political supporters, have openly broken laws, or have sought to delegitimize the press by labeling mainstream media as “enemies of the people.” They have tried to dismantle professional bureaucracies and to turn them into partisan instruments. It is no accident that Orbán puts himself forward as a proponent of “illiberal democracy.”

The contemporary attack on liberalism goes much deeper than the ambitions of a handful of populist politicians, however. They would not be as successful as they have been were they not riding a wave of discontent with some of the underlying characteristics of liberal societies. To understand this, we need to look at the historical origins of liberalism, its evolution over the decades, and its limitations as a governing doctrine.

What Liberalism Was

Classical liberalism can best be understood as an institutional solution to the problem of governing over diversity. Or to put it in slightly different terms, it is a system for peacefully managing diversity in pluralistic societies. It arose in Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries in response to the wars of religion that followed the Protestant Reformation, wars that lasted for 150 years and killed major portions of the populations of continental Europe.

While Europe’s religious wars were driven by economic and social factors, they derived their ferocity from the fact that the warring parties represented different Christian sects that wanted to impose their particular interpretation of religious doctrine on their populations. This was a period in which the adherents of forbidden sects were persecuted—heretics were regularly tortured, hanged, or burned at the stake—and their clergy hunted. The founders of modern liberalism like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke sought to lower the aspirations of politics, not to promote a good life as defined by religion, but rather to preserve life itself, since diverse populations could not agree on what the good life was. This was the distant origin of the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. The most fundamental principle enshrined in liberalism is one of tolerance: You do not have to agree with your fellow citizens about the most important things, but only that each individual should get to decide what those things are without interference from you or from the state. The limits of tolerance are reached only when the principle of tolerance itself is challenged, or when citizens resort to violence to get their way.

Understood in this fashion, liberalism was simply a pragmatic tool for resolving conflicts in diverse societies, one that sought to lower the temperature of politics by taking questions of final ends off the table and moving them into the sphere of private life. This remains one of its most important selling points today: If diverse societies like India or the United States move away from liberal principles and try to base national identity on race, ethnicity, or religion, they are inviting a return to potentially violent conflict. The United States suffered such conflict during its Civil War, and Modi’s India is inviting communal violence by shifting its national identity to one based on Hinduism.

There is however a deeper understanding of liberalism that developed in continental Europe that has been incorporated into modern liberal doctrine. In this view, liberalism is not simply a mechanism for pragmatically avoiding violent conflict, but also a means of protecting fundamental human dignity.

The ground of human dignity has shifted over time. In aristocratic societies, it was an attribute only of warriors who risked their lives in battle. Christianity universalized the concept of dignity based on the possibility of human moral choice: Human beings had a higher moral status than the rest of created nature but lower than that of God because they could choose between right and wrong. Unlike beauty or intelligence or strength, this characteristic was universally shared and made human beings equal in the sight of God. By the time of the Enlightenment, the capacity for choice or individual autonomy was given a secular form by thinkers like Rousseau (“perfectibility”) and Kant (a “good will”), and became the ground for the modern understanding of the fundamental right to dignity written into many 20th-century constitutions. Liberalism recognizes the equal dignity of every human being by granting them rights that protect individual autonomy: rights to speech, to assembly, to belief, and ultimately to participate in self-government.

Liberalism thus protects diversity by deliberately not specifying higher goals of human life. This disqualifies religiously defined communities as liberal. Liberalism also grants equal rights to all people considered full human beings, based on their capacity for individual choice. Liberalism thus tends toward a kind of universalism: Liberals care not just about their rights, but about the rights of others outside their particular communities. Thus the French Revolution carried the Rights of Man across Europe. From the beginning the major arguments among liberals were not over this principle, but rather over who qualified as rights-bearing individuals, with various groups—racial and ethnic minorities, women, foreigners, the propertyless, children, the insane, and criminals—excluded from this magic circle.

A final characteristic of historical liberalism was its association with the right to own property. Property rights and the enforcement of contracts through legal institutions became the foundation for economic growth in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, and other states that were not necessarily democratic but protected property rights. For that reason liberalism is strongly associated with economic growth and modernization. Rights were protected by an independent judiciary that could call on the power of the state for enforcement. Properly understood, rule of law referred both to the application of day-to-day rules that governed interactions between individuals and to the design of political institutions that formally allocated political power through constitutions. The class that was most committed to liberalism historically was the class of property owners, not just agrarian landlords but the myriads of middle-class business owners and entrepreneurs that Karl Marx would label the bourgeoisie.

Liberalism is connected to democracy, but is not the same thing as it. It is possible to have regimes that are liberal but not democratic: Germany in the 19th century and Singapore and Hong Kong in the late 20th century come to mind. It is also possible to have democracies that are not liberal, like the ones Viktor Orbán and Narendra Modi are trying to create that privilege some groups over others. Liberalism is allied to democracy through its protection of individual autonomy, which ultimately implies a right to political choice and to the franchise. But it is not the same as democracy. From the French Revolution on, there were radical proponents of democratic equality who were willing to abandon liberal rule of law altogether and vest power in a dictatorial state that would equalize outcomes. Under the banner of Marxism-Leninism, this became one of the great fault lines of the 20th century. Even in avowedly liberal states, like many in late 19th- and early 20th-century Europe and North America, there were powerful trade union movements and social democratic parties that were more interested in economic redistribution than in the strict protection of property rights.

Liberalism also saw the rise of another competitor besides communism: nationalism. Nationalists rejected liberalism’s universalism and sought to confer rights only on their favored group, defined by culture, language, or ethnicity. As the 19th century progressed, Europe reorganized itself from a dynastic to a national basis, with the unification of Italy and Germany and with growing nationalist agitation within the multiethnic Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. In 1914 this exploded into the Great War, which killed millions of people and laid the kindling for a second global conflagration in 1939.

The defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan in 1945 paved the way for a restoration of liberalism as the democratic world’s governing ideology. Europeans saw the folly of organizing politics around an exclusive and aggressive understanding of nation, and created the European Community and later the European Union to subordinate the old nation-states to a cooperative transnational structure. For its part, the United States played a powerful role in creating a new set of international institutions, including the United Nations (and affiliated Bretton Woods organizations like the World Bank and IMF), GATT and the World Trade Organization, and cooperative regional ventures like NATO and NAFTA.

The largest threat to this order came from the former Soviet Union and its allied communist parties in Eastern Europe and the developing world. But the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, as did the perceived legitimacy of Marxism-Leninism, and many former communist countries sought to incorporate themselves into existing international institutions like the EU and NATO. This post-Cold War world would collectively come to be known as the liberal international order.

But the period from 1950 to the 1970s was the heyday of liberal democracy in the developed world. Liberal rule of law abetted democracy by protecting ordinary people from abuse: The U.S. Supreme Court, for example, was critical in breaking down legal racial segregation through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. And democracy protected the rule of law: When Richard Nixon engaged in illegal wiretapping and use of the CIA, it was a democratically elected Congress that helped drive him from power. Liberal rule of law laid the basis for the strong post-World War II economic growth that then enabled democratically elected legislatures to create redistributive welfare states. Inequality was tolerable in this period because most people could see their material conditions improving. In short, this period saw a largely happy coexistence of liberalism and democracy throughout the developed world.

Discontents

Liberalism has been a broadly successful ideology, and one that is responsible for much of the peace and prosperity of the modern world. But it also has a number of shortcomings, some of which were triggered by external circumstances, and others of which are intrinsic to the doctrine. The first lies in the realm of economics, the second in the realm of culture.

The economic shortcomings have to do with the tendency of economic liberalism to evolve into what has come to be called “neoliberalism.” Neoliberalism is today a pejorative term used to describe a form of economic thought, often associated with the University of Chicago or the Austrian school, and economists like Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, and Gary Becker. They sharply denigrated the role of the state in the economy, and emphasized free markets as spurs to growth and efficient allocators of resources. Many of the analyses and policies recommended by this school were in fact helpful and overdue: Economies were overregulated, state-owned companies inefficient, and governments responsible for the simultaneous high inflation and low growth experienced during the 1970s.

But valid insights about the efficiency of markets evolved into something of a religion, in which state intervention was opposed not based on empirical observation but as a matter of principle. Deregulation produced lower airline ticket prices and shipping costs for trucks, but also laid the ground for the great financial crisis of 2008 when it was applied to the financial sector. Privatization was pushed even in cases of natural monopolies like municipal water or telecom systems, leading to travesties like the privatization of Mexico’s TelMex, where a public monopoly was transformed into a private one. Perhaps most important, the fundamental insight of trade theory, that free trade leads to higher wealth for all parties concerned, neglected the further insight that this was true only in the aggregate, and that many individuals would be hurt by trade liberalization. The period from the 1980s onward saw the negotiation of both global and regional free trade agreements that shifted jobs and investment away from rich democracies to developing countries, increasing within-country inequalities. In the meantime, many countries starved their public sectors of resources and attention, leading to deficiencies in a host of public services from education to health to security.

The result was the world that emerged by the 2010s in which aggregate incomes were higher than ever but inequality within countries had also grown enormously. Many countries around the world saw the emergence of a small class of oligarchs, multibillionaires who could convert their economic resources into political power through lobbyists and purchases of media properties. Globalization enabled them to move their money to safe jurisdictions easily, starving states of tax revenue and making regulation very difficult. Globalization also entailed liberalization of rules concerning migration. Foreign-born populations began to increase in many Western countries, abetted by crises like the Syrian civil war that sent more than a million refugees into Europe. All of this paved the way for the populist reaction that became clearly evident in 2016 with Britain’s Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

The second discontent with liberalism as it evolved over the decades was rooted in its very premises. Liberalism deliberately lowered the horizon of politics: A liberal state will not tell you how to live your life, or what a good life entails; how you pursue happiness is up to you. This produces a vacuum at the core of liberal societies, one that often gets filled by consumerism or pop culture or other random activities that do not necessarily lead to human flourishing. This has been the critique of a group of (mostly) Catholic intellectuals including Patrick Deneen, Sohrab Ahmari, Adrian Vermeule, and others, who feel that liberalism offers “thin gruel” for anyone with deeper moral commitments.

This leads us to a deeper stratum of discontent. Liberal theory, both in its economic and political guises, is built around individuals and their rights, and the political system protects their ability to make these choices autonomously. Indeed, in neoclassical economic theory, social cooperation arises only as a result of rational individuals deciding that it is in their self-interest to work with other individuals. Among conservative intellectuals, Patrick Deneen has gone the furthest by arguing that this whole approach is deeply flawed precisely because it is based on this individualistic premise, and sanctifies individual autonomy above all other goods. Thus for him, the entire American project based as it was on Lockean individualistic principles was misfounded. Human beings for him are not primarily autonomous individuals, but deeply social beings who are defined by their obligations and ties to a range of social structures, from families to kin groups to nations.

This social understanding of human nature was a truism taken for granted by most thinkers prior to the Western Enlightenment. It is also one that is one supported by a great deal of recent research in the life sciences that shows that human beings are hard-wired to be social creatures: Many of our most salient faculties are ones that lead us to cooperate with one another in groups of various sizes and types. This cooperation does not arise necessarily from rational calculation; it is supported by emotional faculties like pride, guilt, shame, and anger that reinforce social bonds. The success of human beings over the millennia that has allowed our species to completely dominate its natural habitat has to do with this aptitude for following norms that induce social cooperation.

By contrast, the kind of individualism celebrated in liberal economic and political theory is a contingent development that emerged in Western societies over the centuries. Its history is long and complicated, but it originated in the inheritance rules set down by the Catholic Church in early medieval times which undermined the extended kinship networks that had characterized Germanic tribal societies. Individualism was further validated by its functionality in promoting market capitalism: Markets worked more efficiently if individuals were not constrained by obligations to kin and other social networks. But this kind of individualism has always been at odds with the social proclivities of human beings. It also does not come naturally to people in certain other non-Western societies like India or the Arab world, where kin, caste, or ethnic ties are still facts of life.

The implication of these observations for contemporary liberal societies is straightforward. Members of such societies want opportunities to bond with one another in a host of ways: as citizens of a nation, members of an ethnic or racial group, residents of a region, or adherents to a particular set of religious beliefs. Membership in such groups gives their lives meaning and texture in a way that mere citizenship in a liberal democracy does not.

Many of the critics of liberalism on the right feel that it has undervalued the nation and traditional national identity: Thus Viktor Orbán has asserted that Hungarian national identity is based on Hungarian ethnicity and on maintenance of traditional Hungarian values and cultural practices. New nationalists like Yoram Hazony celebrate nationhood and national culture as the rallying cry for community, and they bemoan liberalism’s dissolving effect on religious commitment, yearning for a thicker sense of community and shared values, underpinned by virtues in service of that community.

There are parallel discontents on the left. Juridical equality before the law does not mean that people will be treated equally in practice. Racism, sexism, and anti-gay bias all persist in liberal societies, and those injustices have become identities around which people could mobilize. The Western world has seen the emergence of a series of social movements since the 1960s, beginning with the civil rights movement in the United States, and movements promoting the rights of women, indigenous peoples, the disabled, the LGBT community, and the like. The more progress that has been made toward eradicating social injustices, the more intolerable the remaining injustices seem, and thus the moral imperative to mobilizing to correct them. The complaint of the left is different in substance but similar in structure to that of the right: Liberal society does not do enough to root out deep-seated racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination, so politics must go beyond liberalism. And, as on the right, progressives want the deeper bonding and personal satisfaction of associating—in this case, with people who have suffered from similar indignities.

This instinct for bonding and the thinness of shared moral life in liberal societies has shifted global politics on both the right and the left toward a politics of identity and away from the liberal world order of the late 20th century. Liberal values like tolerance and individual freedom are prized most intensely when they are denied: People who live in brutal dictatorships want the simple freedom to speak, associate, and worship as they choose. But over time life in a liberal society comes to be taken for granted and its sense of shared community seems thin. Thus in the United States, arguments between right and left increasingly revolve around identity, and particularly racial identity issues, rather than around economic ideology and questions about the appropriate role of the state in the economy.

There is another significant issue that liberalism fails to grapple adequately with, which concerns the boundaries of citizenship and rights. The premises of liberal doctrine tend toward universalism: Liberals worry about human rights, and not just the rights of Englishmen, or white Americans, or some other restricted class of people. But rights are protected and enforced by states which have limited territorial jurisdiction, and the question of who qualifies as a citizen with voting rights becomes a highly contested one. Some advocates of migrant rights assert a universal human right to migrate, but this is a political nonstarter in virtually every contemporary liberal democracy. At the present moment, the issue of the boundaries of political communities is settled by some combination of historical precedent and political contestation, rather than being based on any clear liberal principle.

Conclusion

Vladimir Putin told the Financial Times that liberalism has become an “obsolete” doctrine. While it may be under attack from many quarters today, it is in fact more necessary than ever.

It is more necessary because it is fundamentally a means of governing over diversity, and the world is more diverse than it ever has been. Democracy disconnected from liberalism will not protect diversity, because majorities will use their power to repress minorities. Liberalism was born in the mid-17th century as a means of resolving religious conflicts, and it was reborn again after 1945 to solve conflicts between nationalisms. Any illiberal effort to build a social order around thick ties defined by race, ethnicity, or religion will exclude important members of the community, and down the road will lead to conflict. Russia itself retains liberal characteristics: Russian citizenship and nationality is not defined by either Russian ethnicity or the Orthodox religion; the Russian Federation’s millions of Muslim inhabitants enjoy equal juridical rights. In situations of de facto diversity, attempts to impose a single way of life on an entire population is a formula for dictatorship.

The only other way to organize a diverse society is through formal power-sharing arrangements among different identity groups that give only a nod toward shared nationality. This is the way that Lebanon, Iraq, Bosnia, and other countries in the Middle East and the Balkans are governed. This type of consociationalism leads to very poor governance and long-term instability, and works poorly in societies where identity groups are not geographically based. This is not a path down which any contemporary liberal democracy should want to tread.

That being said, the kinds of economic and social policies that liberal societies should pursue is today a wide-open question. The evolution of liberalism into neoliberalism after the 1980s greatly reduced the policy space available to centrist political leaders, and permitted the growth of huge inequalities that have been fueling populisms of the right and the left. Classical liberalism is perfectly compatible with a strong state that seeks social protections for populations left behind by globalization, even as it protects basic property rights and a market economy. Liberalism is necessarily connected to democracy, and liberal economic policies need to be tempered by considerations of democratic equality and the need for political stability.

I suspect that most religious conservatives critical of liberalism today in the United States and other developed countries do not fool themselves into thinking that they can turn the clock back to a period when their social views were mainstream. Their complaint is a different one: that contemporary liberals are ready to tolerate any set of views, from radical Islam to Satanism, other than those of religious conservatives, and that they find their own freedom constrained.

This complaint is a serious one: Many progressives on the left have shown themselves willing to abandon liberal values in pursuit of social justice objectives. There has been a sustained intellectual attack on liberal principles over the past three decades coming out of academic pursuits like gender studies, critical race theory, postcolonial studies, and queer theory, that deny the universalistic premises underlying modern liberalism. The challenge is not simply one of intolerance of other views or “cancel culture” in the academy or the arts. Rather, the challenge is to basic principles that all human beings were born equal in a fundamental sense, or that a liberal society should strive to be color-blind. These different theories tend to argue that the lived experiences of specific and ever-narrower identity groups are incommensurate, and that what divides them is more powerful than what unites them as citizens. For some in the tradition of Michel Foucault, foundational approaches to cognition coming out of liberal modernity like the scientific method or evidence-based research are simply constructs meant to bolster the hidden power of racial and economic elites.

The issue here is thus not whether progressive illiberalism exists, but rather how great a long-term danger it represents. In countries from India and Hungary to the United States, nationalist conservatives have actually taken power and have sought to use the power of the state to dismantle liberal institutions and impose their own views on society as a whole. That danger is a clear and present one.

Progressive anti-liberals, by contrast, have not succeeded in seizing the commanding heights of political power in any developed country. Religious conservatives are still free to worship in any way they see fit, and indeed are organized in the United States as a powerful political bloc that can sway elections. Progressives exercise power in different and more nuanced ways, primarily through their dominance of cultural institutions like the mainstream media, the arts, and large parts of academia. The power of the state has been enlisted behind their agenda on such matters as striking down via the courts conservative restrictions on abortion and gay marriage and in the shaping of public school curricula. An open question for the future is whether cultural dominance today will ultimately lead to political dominance in the future, and thus a more thoroughgoing rollback of liberal rights by progressives.

Liberalism’s present-day crisis is not new; since its invention in the 17th century, liberalism has been repeatedly challenged by thick communitarians on the right and progressive egalitarians on the left. Liberalism properly understood is perfectly compatible with communitarian impulses and has been the basis for the flourishing of deep and diverse forms of civil society. It is also compatible with the social justice aims of progressives: One of its greatest achievements was the creation of modern redistributive welfare states in the late 20th century. Liberalism’s problem is that it works slowly through deliberation and compromise, and never achieves its communal or social justice goals as completely as their advocates would like. But it is hard to see how the discarding of liberal values is going to lead to anything in the long term other than increasing social conflict and ultimately a return to violence as a means of resolving differences.

Francis Fukuyama, chairman of the editorial board of American Purpose, directs the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University.

Posted in History, Meritocracy, Politics, Populism

Graeme Wood — The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

This post is a piece by Graeme Wood from the December Atlantic.  Here’s a link to the original.  

It’s a profile of Peter Turchin, a population ecologist who decided to turn his skills in mathematical modeling toward big history — looking for patterns across long expanses of time that help explain the rise and fall of civilizations.  His prognosis for our own is not very promising.  He sees rising prospects for civil unrest.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari.

I’m a fan of megahistories, by people like Diamond and Harari and historians like Walter Scheidel and Ian Morris, whom I’ve discussed here.  I’m particularly intrigued by his analysis of the overproduction of elites, which resonates with the critiques of meritocracy that I’ve explored in this blog (e.g., here, here, and here.)

Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

When you’re reading the following passage, I dare you not to think about Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

See what you think about his take on things.

Turchin Illustration

The Next Decade Could Be Even Worse

A historian believes he has discovered iron laws that predict the rise and fall of societies. He has bad news.

Graeme Wood

Peter Turchin, one of the world’s experts on pine beetles and possibly also on human beings, met me reluctantly this summer on the campus of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where he teaches. Like many people during the pandemic, he preferred to limit his human contact. He also doubted whether human contact would have much value anyway, when his mathematical models could already tell me everything I needed to know.

But he had to leave his office sometime. (“One way you know I am Russian is that I cannot think sitting down,” he told me. “I have to go for a walk.”) Neither of us had seen much of anyone since the pandemic had closed the country several months before. The campus was quiet. “A week ago, it was even more like a neutron bomb hit,” Turchin said. Animals were timidly reclaiming the campus, he said: squirrels, woodchucks, deer, even an occasional red-tailed hawk. During our walk, groundskeepers and a few kids on skateboards were the only other representatives of the human population in sight.

The year 2020 has been kind to Turchin, for many of the same reasons it has been hell for the rest of us. Cities on fire, elected leaders endorsing violence, homicides surging—­­to a normal American, these are apocalyptic signs. To Turchin, they indicate that his models, which incorporate thousands of years of data about human history, are working. (“Not all of human history,” he corrected me once. “Just the last 10,000 years.”) He has been warning for a decade that a few key social and political trends portend an “age of discord,” civil unrest and carnage worse than most Americans have experienced. In 2010, he predicted that the unrest would get serious around 2020, and that it wouldn’t let up until those social and political trends reversed. Havoc at the level of the late 1960s and early ’70s is the best-case scenario; all-out civil war is the worst.

The fundamental problems, he says, are a dark triad of social maladies: a bloated elite class, with too few elite jobs to go around; declining living standards among the general population; and a government that can’t cover its financial positions. His models, which track these factors in other societies across history, are too complicated to explain in a nontechnical publication. But they’ve succeeded in impressing writers for nontechnical publications, and have won him comparisons to other authors of “megahistories,” such as Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat had once found Turchin’s historical model­ing unpersuasive, but 2020 made him a believer: “At this point,” Douthat recently admitted on a podcast, “I feel like you have to pay a little more attention to him.”

Diamond and Harari aimed to describe the history of humanity. Turchin looks into a distant, science-fiction future for peers. In War and Peace and War (2006), his most accessible book, he likens himself to Hari Seldon, the “maverick mathematician” of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, who can foretell the rise and fall of empires. In those 10,000 years’ worth of data, Turchin believes he has found iron laws that dictate the fates of human societies.

The fate of our own society, he says, is not going to be pretty, at least in the near term. “It’s too late,” he told me as we passed Mirror Lake, which UConn’s website describes as a favorite place for students to “read, relax, or ride on the wooden swing.” The problems are deep and structural—not the type that the tedious process of demo­cratic change can fix in time to forestall mayhem. Turchin likens America to a huge ship headed directly for an iceberg: “If you have a discussion among the crew about which way to turn, you will not turn in time, and you hit the iceberg directly.” The past 10 years or so have been discussion. That sickening crunch you now hear—steel twisting, rivets popping—­­is the sound of the ship hitting the iceberg.

“We are almost guaranteed” five hellish years, Turchin predicts, and likely a decade or more. The problem, he says, is that there are too many people like me. “You are ruling class,” he said, with no more rancor than if he had informed me that I had brown hair, or a slightly newer iPhone than his. Of the three factors driving social violence, Turchin stresses most heavily “elite overproduction”—­the tendency of a society’s ruling classes to grow faster than the number of positions for their members to fill. One way for a ruling class to grow is biologically—think of Saudi Arabia, where princes and princesses are born faster than royal roles can be created for them. In the United States, elites over­produce themselves through economic and educational upward mobility: More and more people get rich, and more and more get educated. Neither of these sounds bad on its own. Don’t we want everyone to be rich and educated? The problems begin when money and Harvard degrees become like royal titles in Saudi Arabia. If lots of people have them, but only some have real power, the ones who don’t have power eventually turn on the ones who do.

In the United States, Turchin told me, you can see more and more aspirants fighting for a single job at, say, a prestigious law firm, or in an influential government sinecure, or (here it got personal) at a national magazine. Perhaps seeing the holes in my T-shirt, Turchin noted that a person can be part of an ideological elite rather than an economic one. (He doesn’t view himself as a member of either. A professor reaches at most a few hundred students, he told me. “You reach hundreds of thousands.”) Elite jobs do not multiply as fast as elites do. There are still only 100 Senate seats, but more people than ever have enough money or degrees to think they should be running the country. “You have a situation now where there are many more elites fighting for the same position, and some portion of them will convert to counter-elites,” Turchin said.

Donald Trump, for example, may appear elite (rich father, Wharton degree, gilded commodes), but Trumpism is a counter-elite movement. His government is packed with credentialed nobodies who were shut out of previous administrations, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes because the Groton-­Yale establishment simply didn’t have any vacancies. Trump’s former adviser and chief strategist Steve Bannon, Turchin said, is a “paradigmatic example” of a counter-elite. He grew up working-class, went to Harvard Business School, and got rich as an investment banker and by owning a small stake in the syndication rights to Seinfeld. None of that translated to political power until he allied himself with the common people. “He was a counter-elite who used Trump to break through, to put the white working males back in charge,” Turchin said.

Elite overproduction creates counter-elites, and counter-elites look for allies among the commoners. If commoners’ living standards slip—not relative to the elites, but relative to what they had before—they accept the overtures of the counter-elites and start oiling the axles of their tumbrels. Commoners’ lives grow worse, and the few who try to pull themselves onto the elite lifeboat are pushed back into the water by those already aboard. The final trigger of impending collapse, Turchin says, tends to be state insolvency. At some point rising in­security becomes expensive. The elites have to pacify unhappy citizens with handouts and freebies—and when these run out, they have to police dissent and oppress people. Eventually the state exhausts all short-term solutions, and what was heretofore a coherent civilization disintegrates.

Turchin’s prognostications would be easier to dismiss as barstool theorizing if the disintegration were not happening now, roughly as the Seer of Storrs foretold 10 years ago. If the next 10 years are as seismic as he says they will be, his insights will have to be accounted for by historians and social scientists—assuming, of course, that there are still universities left to employ such people.

Turchin was born in 1957 in Obninsk, Russia, a city built by the Soviet state as a kind of nerd heaven, where scientists could collaborate and live together. His father, Valen­tin, was a physicist and political dissident, and his mother, Tatiana, had trained as a geologist. They moved to Moscow when he was 7 and in 1978 fled to New York as political refugees. There they quickly found a community that spoke the household language, which was science. Valen­tin taught at the City University of New York, and Peter studied biology at NYU and earned a zoology doctorate from Duke.

Turchin wrote a dissertation on the Mexican bean beetle, a cute, ladybug­like pest that feasts on legumes in areas between the United States and Guatemala. When Turchin began his research, in the early 1980s, ecology was evolving in a way that some fields already had. The old way to study bugs was to collect them and describe them: count their legs, measure their bellies, and pin them to pieces of particle­board for future reference. (Go to the Natural History Museum in London, and in the old storerooms you can still see the shelves of bell jars and cases of specimens.) In the ’70s, the Australian physicist Robert May had turned his attention to ecology and helped transform it into a mathematical science whose tools included supercomputers along with butterfly nets and bottle traps. Yet in the early days of his career, Turchin told me, “the majority of ecologists were still quite math-phobic.”

Turchin did, in fact, do fieldwork, but he contributed to ecology primarily by collecting and using data to model the dynamics of populations—for example, determining why a pine-beetle population might take over a forest, or why that same population might decline. (He also worked on moths, voles, and lemmings.)

In the late ’90s, disaster struck: Turchin realized that he knew everything he ever wanted to know about beetles. He compares himself to Thomasina Coverly, the girl genius in the Tom Stoppard play Arcadia, who obsessed about the life cycles of grouse and other creatures around her Derbyshire country house. Stoppard’s character had the disadvantage of living a century and a half before the development of chaos theory. “She gave up because it was just too complicated,” Turchin said. “I gave up because I solved the problem.”

Turchin published one final monograph, Complex Population Dynamics: A Theoretical / Empirical Synthesis (2003), then broke the news to his UConn colleagues that he would be saying a permanent sayonara to the field, although he would continue to draw a salary as a tenured professor in their department. (He no longer gets raises, but he told me he was already “at a comfortable level, and, you know, you don’t need so much money.”) “Usually a midlife crisis means you divorce your old wife and marry a graduate student,” Turchin said. “I divorced an old science and married a new one.”

One of his last papers appeared in the journal Oikos. “Does population ecology have general laws?” Turchin asked. Most ecologists said no: Populations have their own dynamics, and each situation is different. Pine beetles reproduce, run amok, and ravage a forest for pine-beetle reasons, but that does not mean mosquito or tick populations will rise and fall according to the same rhythms. Turchin suggested that “there are several very general law-like propositions” that could be applied to ecology. After its long adolescence of collecting and cataloging, ecology had enough data to describe these universal laws—and to stop pretending that every species had its own idiosyncrasies. “Ecologists know these laws and should call them laws,” he said. Turchin proposed, for example, that populations of organisms grow or decline exponentially, not linearly. This is why if you buy two guinea pigs, you will soon have not just a few more guinea pigs but a home—and then a neighborhood—full of the damn things (as long as you keep feeding them). This law is simple enough to be understood by a high-school math student, and it describes the fortunes of everything from ticks to starlings to camels. The laws Turchin applied to ecology—and his insistence on calling them laws—­generated respectful controversy at the time. Now they are cited in textbooks.

Having left ecology, Turchin began similar research that attempted to formulate general laws for a different animal species: human beings. He’d long had a hobby­ist’s interest in history. But he also had a predator’s instinct to survey the savanna of human knowledge and pounce on the weakest prey. “All sciences go through this transition to mathematization,” Turchin told me. “When I had my midlife crisis, I was looking for a subject where I could help with this transition to a mathematized science. There was only one left, and that was history.”

Historians read books, letters, and other texts. Occasionally, if they are archaeologically inclined, they dig up potsherds and coins. But to Turchin, relying solely on these methods was the equivalent of studying bugs by pinning them to particleboard and counting their antennae. If the historians weren’t going to usher in a mathematical revolution themselves, he would storm their departments and do it for them.

“There is a longstanding debate among scientists and philosophers as to whether history has general laws,” he and a co-author wrote in Secular Cycles (2009). “A basic premise of our study is that historical societies can be studied with the same methods physicists and biologists used to study natural systems.” Turchin founded a journal, Cliodynamics, dedicated to “the search for general principles explaining the functioning and dynamics of historical societies.” (The term is his coinage; Clio is the muse of history.) He had already announced the discipline’s arrival in an article in Nature, where he likened historians reluctant to build general principles to his colleagues in biology “who care most for the private life of warblers.” “Let history continue to focus on the particular,” he wrote. Cliodynamics would be a new science. While historians dusted bell jars in the basement of the university, Turchin and his followers would be upstairs, answering the big questions.

To seed the journal’s research, Turchin masterminded a digital archive of historical and archaeological data. The coding of its records requires finesse, he told me, because (for example) the method of determining the size of the elite-aspirant class of medieval France might differ from the measure of the same class in the present-day United States. (For medieval France, a proxy is the membership in its noble class, which became glutted with second and third sons who had no castles or manors to rule over. One American proxy, Turchin says, is the number of lawyers.) But once the data are entered, after vetting by Turchin and specialists in the historical period under review, they offer quick and powerful suggestions about historical phenomena.

Historians of religion have long pondered the relationship between the rise of complex civilization and the belief in gods—especially “moralizing gods,” the kind who scold you for sinning. Last year, Turchin and a dozen co-authors mined the database (“records from 414 societies that span the past 10,000 years from 30 regions around the world, using 51 measures of social complexity and 4 measures of supernatural enforcement of morality”) to answer the question conclusively. They found that complex societies are more likely to have moralizing gods, but the gods tend to start their scolding after the societies get complex, not before. As the database expands, it will attempt to remove more questions from the realm of humanistic speculation and sock them away in a drawer marked answered.

One of Turchin’s most unwelcome conclusions is that complex societies arise through war. The effect of war is to reward communities that organize themselves to fight and survive, and it tends to wipe out ones that are simple and small-scale. “No one wants to accept that we live in the societies we do”—rich, complex ones with universities and museums and philosophy and art—“because of an ugly thing like war,” he said. But the data are clear: Darwinian processes select for complex socie­ties because they kill off simpler ones. The notion that democracy finds its strength in its essential goodness and moral improvement over its rival systems is likewise fanciful. Instead, democratic societies flourish because they have a memory of being nearly obliterated by an external enemy. They avoided extinction only through collective action, and the memory of that collective action makes democratic politics easier to conduct in the present, Turchin said. “There is a very close correlation between adopting democratic institutions and having to fight a war for survival.”

Also unwelcome: the conclusion that civil unrest might soon be upon us, and might reach the point of shattering the country. In 2012, Turchin published an analysis of political violence in the United States, again starting with a database. He classified 1,590 incidents—riots, lynchings, any political event that killed at least one person—from 1780 to 2010. Some periods were placid and others bloody, with peaks of brutality in 1870, 1920, and 1970, a 50-year cycle. Turchin excludes the ultimate violent incident, the Civil War, as a “sui generis event.” The exclusion may seem suspicious, but to a statistician, “trimming outliers” is standard practice. Historians and journalists, by contrast, tend to focus on outliers—­because they are interesting—and sometimes miss grander trends.

Certain aspects of this cyclical view require relearning portions of American history, with special attention paid to the numbers of elites. The industrialization of the North, starting in the mid-19th century, Turchin says, made huge numbers of people rich. The elite herd was culled during the Civil War, which killed off or impoverished the southern slaveholding class, and during Reconstruction, when America experienced a wave of assassinations of Republican politicians. (The most famous of these was the assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, by a lawyer who had demanded but not received a political appointment.) It wasn’t until the Progressive reforms of the 1920s, and later the New Deal, that elite overproduction actually slowed, at least for a time.

This oscillation between violence and peace, with elite over­production as the first horseman of the recurring American apocalypse, inspired Turchin’s 2020 prediction. In 2010, when Nature surveyed scientists about their predictions for the coming decade, most took the survey as an invitation to self-promote and rhapsodize, dreamily, about coming advances in their fields. Turchin retorted with his prophecy of doom and said that nothing short of fundamental change would stop another violent turn.

Turchin’s prescriptions are, as a whole, vague and unclassifiable. Some sound like ideas that might have come from Senator Elizabeth Warren—tax the elites until there are fewer of them—while others, such as a call to reduce immigration to keep wages high for American workers, resemble Trumpian protectionism. Other policies are simply heretical. He opposes credential-­oriented higher education, for example, which he says is a way of mass-producing elites without also mass-­producing elite jobs for them to occupy. Architects of such polices, he told me, are “creating surplus elites, and some become counter-elites.” A smarter approach would be to keep the elite numbers small, and the real wages of the general population on a constant rise.

How to do that? Turchin says he doesn’t really know, and it isn’t his job to know. “I don’t really think in terms of specific policy,” he told me. “We need to stop the runaway process of elite overproduction, but I don’t know what will work to do that, and nobody else does. Do you increase taxation? Raise the minimum wage? Universal basic income?” He conceded that each of these possibilities would have unpredictable effects. He recalled a story he’d heard back when he was still an ecologist: The Forest Service had once implemented a plan to reduce the population of bark beetles with pesticide—only to find that the pesticide killed off the beetles’ predators even more effectively than it killed the beetles. The intervention resulted in more beetles than before. The lesson, he said, was to practice “adaptive management,” changing and modulating your approach as you go.

Eventually, Turchin hopes, our understanding of historical dynamics will mature to the point that no government will make policy without reflecting on whether it is hurtling toward a mathematically pre­ordained disaster. He says he could imagine an Asimovian agency that keeps tabs on leading indicators and advises accordingly. It would be like the Federal Reserve, but instead of monitoring inflation and controlling monetary supply, it would be tasked with averting total civilizational collapse.

Historians have not, as a whole, accepted Turchin’s terms of surrender graciously. Since at least the 19th century, the discipline has embraced the idea that history is irreducibly complex, and by now most historians believe that the diversity of human activity will foil any attempt to come up with general laws, especially predictive ones. (As Jo Guldi, a historian at Southern Methodist University, put it to me, “Some historians regard Turchin the way astronomers regard Nostradamus.”) Instead, each historical event must be lovingly described, and its idiosyncrasies understood to be limited in relevance to other events. The idea that one thing causes another, and that the causal pattern can tell you about sequences of events in another place or century, is foreign territory.

One might even say that what defines history as a humanistic enterprise is the belief that it is not governed by scientific laws—that the working parts of human societies are not like billiard balls, which, if arranged at certain angles and struck with a certain amount of force, will invariably crack just so and roll toward a corner pocket of war, or a side pocket of peace. Turchin counters that he has heard claims of irreducible complexity before, and that steady application of the scientific method has succeeded in managing that complexity. Consider, he says, the concept of temperature—­something so obviously quantifiable now that we laugh at the idea that it’s too vague to measure. “Back before people knew what temperature was, the best thing you could do is to say you’re hot or cold,” Turchin told me. The concept depended on many factors: wind, humidity, ordinary human differences in perception. Now we have thermometers. Turchin wants to invent a thermometer for human societies that will measure when they are likely to boil over into war.

One social scientist who can speak to Turchin in his own mathematical argot is Dingxin Zhao, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago who is—incredibly—­also a former mathematical ecologist. (He earned a doctorate modeling carrot-weevil population dynamics before earning a second doctorate in Chinese political sociology.) “I came from a natural-science background,” Zhao told me, “and in a way I am sympathetic to Turchin. If you come to social science from natural sciences, you have a powerful way of looking at the world. But you may also make big mistakes.”

Zhao said that human beings are just much more complicated than bugs. “Biological species don’t strategize in a very flexible way,” he told me. After millennia of evolutionary R&D, a woodpecker will come up with ingenious ways to stick its beak into a tree in search of food. It might even have social characteristics—an alpha woodpecker might strong-wing beta woodpeckers into giving it first dibs on the tastiest termites. But humans are much wilier social creatures, Zhao said. A woodpecker will eat a termite, but it “will not explain that he is doing so because it is his divine right.” Humans pull ideological power moves like this all the time, Zhao said, and to understand “the decisions of a Donald Trump, or a Xi Jinping,” a natural scientist has to incorporate the myriad complexities of human strategy, emotion, and belief. “I made that change,” Zhao told me, “and Peter Turchin has not.”

Turchin is nonetheless filling a historiographical niche left empty by academic historians with allergies not just to science but to a wide-angle view of the past. He places himself in a Russian tradition prone to thinking sweeping, Tolstoyan thoughts about the path of history. By comparison, American historians mostly look like micro-historians. Few would dare to write a history of the United States, let alone one of human civilization. Turchin’s approach is also Russian, or post-Soviet, in its rejection of the Marxist theory of historical progress that had been the official ideology of the Soviet state. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, so too did the requirement that historical writing acknowledge international communism as the condition toward which the arc of history was bending. Turchin dropped ideology altogether, he says: Rather than bending toward progress, the arc in his view bends all the way back on itself, in a never-­ending loop of boom and bust. This puts him at odds with American historians, many of whom harbor an unspoken faith that liberal democracy is the end state of all history.

Writing history in this sweeping, cyclical way is easier if you are trained outside the field. “If you look at who is doing these megahistories, more often than not, it’s not actual historians,” Walter Scheidel, an actual historian at Stanford, told me. (Scheidel, whose books span millennia, takes Turchin’s work seriously and has even co-written a paper with him.) Instead they come from scientific fields where these taboos do not dominate. The genre’s most famous book, Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), beheld 13,000 years of human history in a single volume. Its author, Jared Diamond, spent the first half of his career as one of the world’s foremost experts on the physiology of the gall­bladder. Steven Pinker, a cognitive psychologist who studies how children acquire parts of speech, has written a megahistory about the decline of violence across thousands of years, and about human flourishing since the Enlightenment. Most historians I asked about these men—and for some reason megahistory is nearly always a male pursuit—used terms like laughingstock and patently tendentious to describe them.

Pinker retorts that historians are resentful of the attention “disciplinary carpet­baggers” like himself have received for applying scientific methods to the humanities and coming up with conclusions that had eluded the old methods. He is skeptical of Turchin’s claims about historical cycles, but he believes in data-driven historical inquiry. “Given the noisiness of human behavior and the prevalence of cognitive biases, it’s easy to delude oneself about a historical period or trend by picking whichever event suits one’s narrative,” he says. The only answer is to use large data sets. Pinker thanks traditional historians for their work collating these data sets; he told me in an email that they “deserve extraordinary admiration for their original research (‘brushing the mouse shit off moldy court records in the basement of town halls,’ as one historian put it to me).” He calls not for surrender but for a truce. “There’s no reason that traditional history and data science can’t merge into a cooperative enterprise,” Pinker wrote. “Knowing stuff is hard; we need to use every available tool.”

Guldi, the Southern Methodist University professor, is one scholar who has embraced tools previously scorned by historians. She is a pioneer of data-driven history that considers timescales beyond a human lifetime. Her primary technique is the mining of texts—for example, sifting through the millions and millions of words captured in parliamentary debate in order to understand the history of land use in the final century of the British empire. Guldi may seem a potential recruit to cliodynamics, but her approach to data sets is grounded in the traditional methods of the humanities. She counts the frequency of words, rather than trying to find ways to compare big, fuzzy categories among civilizations. Turchin’s conclusions are only as good as his databases, she told me, and any database that tries to code something as complex as who constitutes a society’s elites—then tries to make like-to-like comparisons across millennia and oceans—will meet with skepticism from traditional historians, who deny that the subject to which they have devoted their lives can be expressed in Excel format. Turchin’s data are also limited to big-­picture characteristics observed over 10,000 years, or about 200 lifetimes. By scientific standards, a sample size of 200 is small, even if it is all humanity has.

Yet 200 lifetimes is at least more ambitious than the average historical purview of only one. And the reward for that ambition—­­in addition to the bragging rights for having potentially explained everything that has ever happened to human beings—includes something every writer wants: an audience. Thinking small rarely gets you quoted in The New York Times. Turchin has not yet attracted the mass audiences of a Diamond, Pinker, or Harari. But he has lured connoisseurs of political catastrophe, journalists and pundits looking for big answers to pressing questions, and true believers in the power of science to conquer uncertainty and improve the world. He has certainly outsold most beetle experts.

If he is right, it is hard to see how history will avoid assimilating his insights—if it can avoid being abolished by them. Privately, some historians have told me they consider the tools he uses powerful, if a little crude. Clio­dynamics is now on a long list of methods that arrived on the scene promising to revolutionize history. Many were fads, but some survived that stage to take their rightful place in an expanding historiographical tool kit. Turchin’s methods have already shown their power. Cliodynamics offers scientific hypotheses, and human history will give us more and more opportunities to check its predictions—­revealing whether Peter Turchin is a Hari Seldon or a mere Nostradamus. For my own sake, there are few thinkers whom I am more eager to see proved wrong.

This article appears in the December 2020 print edition with the headline “The Historian Who Sees the Future.” It was first published online on November 12, 2020.

GRAEME WOOD is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters With the Islamic State.

Posted in Culture, Meritocracy, Politics, Wokeness

Harris — The Key to Trump’s Appeal

This post is a transcription of a piece by Sam Harris, published in his podcast Making Sense on the day before the election.  It’s the most stunning analysis I have seen about the key to Trump’s appeal. 

I’ve seen some good things about the way he has tapped into the resentments of middle and working class Americans, who feel left behind by the coastal meritocracy.  See my post about Arlie Hochschild’s wonderful book, Strangers in Their Own Land and my post on Michael Sandel’s book, Tyranny of Merit.  So on these issues, I can see how he would look attractive compared to a meritocrat like Hillary Clinton.  But that still doesn’t explain how people could put up with someone whose character is so obviously appalling.

What Harris does here is show that his appalling character is in fact central to his appeal.  For people who feel disrespected by the meritocracy, it’s attractive to have a leader who is himself so unrespectable.  He’s one person who will not and cannot look down on you, because he’s as low as it goes.  Here’s the core of Harris’s argument:

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. 

Compare this to the sanctimony that is coming from the other side of the culture wars, where the woke are wagging their fingers at the deplorables and denouncing them as irretrievably racist, sexist, and colonialist.  People who are the target of a lot of “bad dog” sermons from the cultural left may find it comforting to have a bad dog president who aspires to be nothing more. 

I hope you find this analysis as enlightening as I do.

Trump

The Key to Trump’s Appeal

Sam Harris

Welcome to the Making Sense podcast. This is Sam Harris. Okay. Well, it is the day before the presidential election. And I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to understand this, but you be the judge as to whether this should have been at all hard to understand. As all of you know, I’ve been struggling for years to understand how it is possible that nearly half of American society admires or at least supports Donald Trump.

I’ve spoken with Trump voters in search of illumination, but illumination never came. For instance, I had Scott Adams on my podcast to explain this to me. And he described Trump as a master persuader, perhaps the best he’s ever seen. But the problem for me is that I find Trump to be among the least persuasive people I have ever come across. Whenever I see him speak, I see an obvious con man and ignoramus. In fact, Trump seems to be so unaware of how people like me judge a person’s credibility that his efforts to appear credible, such as they are, always make him look ridiculous and even deranged. So the claim that he’s a brilliant persuader makes about as much sense to me as a claim that he’s a model of physical fitness would, right? In my world, the claim can be disproven at a glance. And yet one thing is undeniable, right? Half the country views him very differently.

Now, until a few minutes ago, I had more or less reconciled myself to never understanding this. But I believe at this late hour on the very eve of the 2020 election, I have discovered a significant part of Trump’s appeal. In particular, I think I finally understand how he is supported because of his flaws, rather than in spite of them. That really is the key. How are all the things I find despicable in him not merely things that people are willing to overlook, but reasons in and of themselves why people support him? That’s what I didn’t understand until this moment.

Now, I have repeatedly described the man’s flaws on this podcast. To my eye, he lacks nearly every virtue for which we have a word:  wisdom, curiosity, compassion, generosity, discipline, courage. Whatever your list, he’s got none of these things, but his supporters know that. And he’s a paragon of greed and narcissism and pettiness and malice, real malice. This is a man who wears his hatreds on his sleeve and he will suddenly revile people who he claimed to admire only yesterday. While he demands loyalty from everyone around him, really above all else, he is an amazingly disloyal person.

All of this is right on the surface, so his appeal has been a total mystery to me, but I believe I have now solved that mystery. Again, I don’t know why it took me so long, because many of these thoughts have been in my head since the beginning. And I’ve certainly heard people describe some parts of this picture, but the whole image just fell into place. It’s like one of those magic eye illustrations where you’re staring at a random dot stereogram forever, and then finally the embedded 3D image just pops out. And this picture of Trump’s appeal is really best understood in comparison with the messaging of its opponents on the left. That’s how you can see it in stereo. That’s how the image finally pops out, so taking the Trump half of this picture.

One thing that Trump never communicates and cannot possibly communicate is a sense of his moral superiority. The man is totally without sanctimony. Even when his every utterance is purposed towards self-aggrandizement, even when he appears to be denigrating his supporters, even when he’s calling himself a genius, he is never actually communicating that he is better than you, more enlightened, more decent, because he’s not, and everyone knows it. The man is just a bundle of sin and gore and he never pretends to be anything more.

Perhaps more importantly, he never even aspires to be anything more. And because of this, because he has never really judging you, he can’t possibly judge you. He offers a truly safe space for human frailty and hypocrisy and self-doubt. He offers what no priest can credibly offer, a total expiation of shame. His personal shamelessness is a kind of spiritual balm. Trump is fat Jesus. He’s grab them by the pussy Jesus. He’s I’ll eat nothing but cheeseburgers if I want to Jesus. He’s I want to punch them in the face Jesus. He’s go back to your shithole countries Jesus. He’s no apologies Jesus.

And now consider the other half of this image. What are we getting from the left? We’re getting exactly the opposite message, pure sanctimony, pure judgment. You are not good enough. You’re guilty not only for your own sins, but for the sins of your fathers. The crimes of slavery and colonialism are on your head. And if you’re a cis white heterosexual male, which we know is the absolute core of Trump’s support, you’re a racist, homophobic, transphobic, Islamophobic, sexist barbarian. Tear down those statues and bend the fucking knee. It’s the juxtaposition of those two messages that is so powerful.

Now, I’m sure many of you have understood this before me, but for whatever reason, this image just became crystal clear. Needless to say, everything I’ve said about Trump previously still stands for me. I consider him to be terrifyingly unfit for office, and I consider most of his personal flaws to be public dangers. I think because of who he is as a person, he has harmed our politics and diminished our standing in the world to a degree that might take decades to repair. I sincerely hope we rid ourselves of him tomorrow, but I believe I now understand the half of the country that disagrees with me a little better than I did yesterday. And this makes me less confused and judgmental, less of an asshole probably, which is always progress.

Posted in Capitalism, Higher Education, Meritocracy, Politics

Sandel: The Tyranny of Merit

This post is a reflection on Michael Sandel’s new book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?  He’s a philosopher at Harvard and this is his analysis of the dangers posed by the American meritocracy.  The issue is one I’ve been exploring here for the last two years in a variety of posts (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

I find Sandel’s analysis compelling, both in the ways it resonates with other takes on the subject and also in his distinctive contributions to the discussion.  My only complaint is that the whole discussion could have been carried out more effectively in a single magazine article.  The book tends to be repetitive, and it also gets into the weeds on some philosophical issues that blur its focus and undercut its impact.  Here I present what I think are the key points.  I hope you find it useful.

Sandel Cover

Both the good news and the bad news about meritocracy is its promise of opportunity for all based on individual merit rather than the luck of birth.  It’s hard to hate a principle that frees us from the tyranny of inheritance. 

The meritocratic ideal places great weight on the notion of personal responsibility. Holding people responsible for what they do is a good thing, up to a point. It respects their capacity to think and act for themselves, as moral agents and as citizens. But it is one thing to hold people responsible for acting morally; it is something else to assume that we are, each of us, wholly responsible for our lot in life.

The problem is that simply calling the new model of status attainment “achievement” rather than “ascription” doesn’t mean that your ability to get ahead is truly free of circumstances beyond your control.  

But the rhetoric of rising now rings hollow. In today’s economy, it is not easy to rise. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults. Of those born in the bottom fifth of the income scale, only about one in twenty will make it to the top fifth; most will not even rise to the middle class. It is easier to rise from poverty in Canada or Germany, Denmark, and other European countries than it is in the United States.

The meritocratic faith argues that the social structure of inequality provides a powerful incentive for individuals to work hard to get ahead in order to escape from a bad situation and move on to something better.  The more inequality, such as in the US, the more incentive to move up.  The reality, however, is quite different.

But today, the countries with the highest mobility tend to be those with the greatest equality. The ability to rise, it seems, depends less on the spur of poverty than on access to education, health care, and other resources that equip people to succeed in the world of work.

Sandel goes on to point out additional problems with meritocracy beyond the difficulties in trying to get ahead all on your own: 1) demoralizing the losers in the race; 2) denigrating those without a college degree; and 3) turning politics into the realm of the expert rather than the citizen.

The tyranny of merit arises from more than the rhetoric of rising. It consists in a cluster of attitudes and circumstances that, taken together, have made meritocracy toxic. First, under conditions of rampant inequality and stalled mobility, reiterating the message that we are responsible for our fate and deserve what we get erodes solidarity and demoralizes those left behind by globalization. Second, insisting that a college degree is the primary route to a respectable job and a decent life creates a credentialist prejudice that undermines the dignity of work and demeans those who have not been to college; and third, insisting that social and political problems are best solved by highly educated, value-neutral experts is a technocratic conceit that corrupts democracy and disempowers ordinary citizens.

Consider the first point. Meritocracy fosters triumphalism for the winners and despair for the losers.  It you succeed or fail, you alone get the credit or the blame.  This was not the case in the bad old days of aristocrats and peasants.

If, in a feudal society, you were born into serfdom, your life would be hard, but you would not be burdened by the thought that you were responsible for your subordinate position. Nor would you labor under the belief that the landlord for whom you toiled had achieved his position by being more capable and resourceful than you. You would know he was not more deserving than you, only luckier.

If, by contrast, you found yourself on the bottom rung of a meritocratic society, it would be difficult to resist the thought that your disadvantage was at least partly your own doing, a reflection of your failure to display sufficient talent and ambition to get ahead. A society that enables people to rise, and that celebrates rising, pronounces a harsh verdict on those who fail to do so.

This triumphalist aspect of meritocracy is a kind of providentialism without God, at least without a God who intervenes in human affairs. The successful make it on their own, but their success attests to their virtue. This way of thinking heightens the moral stakes of economic competition. It sanctifies the winners and denigrates the losers.

One key issue that makes meritocracy potentially toxic is its assumption that we deserve the talents that earn us such great rewards.

There are two reasons to question this assumption. First, my having this or that talent is not my doing but a matter of good luck, and I do not merit or deserve the benefits (or burdens) that derive from luck. Meritocrats acknowledge that I do not deserve the benefits that arise from being born into a wealthy family. So why should other forms of luck—such as having a particular talent—be any different? 

Second, that I live in a society that prizes the talents I happen to have is also not something for which I can claim credit. This too is a matter of good fortune. LeBron James makes tens of millions of dollars playing basketball, a hugely popular game. Beyond being blessed with prodigious athletic gifts, LeBron is lucky to live in a society that values and rewards them. It is not his doing that he lives today, when people love the game at which he excels, rather than in Renaissance Florence, when fresco painters, not basketball players, were in high demand.

The same can be said of those who excel in pursuits our society values less highly. The world champion arm wrestler may be as good at arm wrestling as LeBron is at basketball. It is not his fault that, except for a few pub patrons, no one is willing to pay to watch him pin an opponent’s arm to the table.

He then moves on to the second point, about the central role of college in determining who’s got merit. 

Should colleges and universities take on the role of sorting people based on talent to determine who gets ahead in life?

There are at least two reasons to doubt that they should. The first concerns the invidious judgments such sorting implies for those who get sorted out, and the damaging consequences for a shared civic life. The second concerns the injury the meritocratic struggle inflicts on those who get sorted in and the risk that the sorting mission becomes so all-consuming that it diverts colleges and universities from their educational mission. In short, turning higher education into a hyper-competitive sorting contest is unhealthy for democracy and education alike.

The difficulty of predicting which talents are most socially beneficial is particularly true for the complex array of skills that people pick up in college.  Which ones matter most for determining a person’s ability to make an important contribution to society and which don’t?  How do we know if an elite college provides more of those skills than an open-access college?  This matters because a graduate from the former gets a much higher reward than one from the latter.  Pretending that a prestigious college degree is the best way to measure future performance is particularly difficult to sustain because success and degree are conflated.  Graduates of top colleges get the best jobs and thus seem to have the greatest impact, whereas non-grads never get the chance to show what they can do.

Another sports analogy helps to make this point.

Consider how difficult it is to assess even more narrowly defined talents and skills. Nolan Ryan, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball, holds the all-time record for most strikeouts and was elected on the first ballot to baseball’s Hall of Fame. When he was eighteen years old, he was not signed until the twelfth round of the baseball draft; teams chose 294 other, seemingly more promising players before he was chosen. Tom Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football, was the 199th draft pick. If even so circumscribed a talent as the ability to throw a baseball or a football is hard to predict with much certainty, it is folly to think that the ability to have a broad and significant impact on society, or on some future field of endeavor, can be predicted well enough to justify fine-grained rankings of promising high school seniors.

And then there’s the third point, the damage that meritocracy does to democratic politics.  One element of of this is that it turns politics into an arena for credentialed experts, consigning ordinary citizens to the back seat.  How many political leaders today are without a college degree?  Vanishingly few.  Another is that meritocracy not only bars non-grads from power but they also bars them from social respect.  

Grievances arising from disrespect are at the heart of the populist movement that has swept across Europe and the US.  Sandel calls this a “politics of humiliation.”

The politics of humiliation differs in this respect from the politics of injustice. Protest against injustice looks outward; it complains that the system is rigged, that the winners have cheated or manipulated their way to the top. Protest against humiliation is psychologically more freighted. It combines resentment of the winners with nagging self-doubt: perhaps the rich are rich because they are more deserving than the poor; maybe the losers are complicit in their misfortune after all.

This feature of the politics of humiliation makes it more combustible than other political sentiments. It is a potent ingredient in the volatile brew of anger and resentment that fuels populist protest.

Sandel draws on a wonderful book by Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land, in which she interviews Trump supporters in Louisiana.

Hochschild offered this sympathetic account of the predicament confronting her beleaguered working-class hosts:

You are a stranger in your own land. You do not recognize yourself in how others see you. It is a struggle to feel seen and honored. And to feel honored you have to feel—and feel seen as—moving forward. But through no fault of your own, and in ways that are hidden, you are slipping backward.

Once consequence of this for those left behind is a rise in “deaths of despair.”

The overall death rate for white men and women in middle age (ages 45–54) has not changed much over the past two decades. But mortality varies greatly by education. Since the 1990s, death rates for college graduates declined by 40 percent. For those without a college degree, they rose by 25 percent. Here then is another advantage of the well-credentialed. If you have a bachelor’s degree, your risk of dying in middle age is only one quarter of the risk facing those without a college diploma. 

Deaths of despair account for much of this difference. People with less education have long been at greater risk than those with college degrees of dying from alcohol, drugs, or suicide. But the diploma divide in death has become increasingly stark. By 2017, men without a bachelor’s degree were three times more likely than college graduates to die deaths of despair.

Sandel offers two relatively reforms that might help mitigate the tyranny of meritocracy.  One focuses on elite college admissions.  

Of the 40,000-plus applicants, winnow out those who are unlikely to flourish at Harvard or Stanford, those who are not qualified to perform well and to contribute to the education of their fellow students. This would leave the admissions committee with, say, 30,000 qualified contenders, or 25,000, or 20,000. Rather than engage in the exceedingly difficult and uncertain task of trying to predict who among them are the most surpassingly meritorious, choose the entering class by lottery. In other words, toss the folders of the qualified applicants down the stairs, pick up 2,000 of them, and leave it at that.

This helps get around two problems:  the difficulty in trying to predict merit; and the outsize rewards of a winner-take-all admissions system.  But good luck trying to get this put in place over the howls of outrage from upper-middle-class parents, who have learned how to game the system to their advantage.  Consider this one small example of the reaction when an elite Alexandria high school proposed random admission from a pool of the most qualified.

Another reform is more radical and even harder to imagine putting into practice.  It begins with reconsideration of what we mean by the “common good.”

The contrast between consumer and producer identities points to two different ways of understanding the common good. One approach, familiar among economic policy makers, defines the common good as the sum of everyone’s preferences and interests. According to this account, we achieve the common good by maximizing consumer welfare, typically by maximizing economic growth. If the common good is simply a matter of satisfying consumer preferences, then market wages are a good measure of who has contributed what. Those who make the most money have presumably made the most valuable contribution to the common good, by producing the goods and services that consumers want.

A second approach rejects this consumerist notion of the common good in favor of what might be called a civic conception. According to the civic ideal, the common good is not simply about adding up preferences or maximizing consumer welfare. It is about reflecting critically on our preferences—ideally, elevating and improving them—so that we can live worthwhile and flourishing lives. This cannot be achieved through economic activity alone. It requires deliberating with our fellow citizens about how to bring about a just and good society, one that cultivates civic virtue and enables us to reason together about the purposes worthy of our political community.

If we can carry out this deliberation — a big if indeed — then we can proceed to implement a system for shifting the basis for individual compensation from what the market is willing to pay to what we collectively feel is most valuable to society.  

Thinking about pay, most would agree that what people make for this or that job often overstates or understates the true social value of the work they do. Only an ardent libertarian would insist that the wealthy casino magnate’s contribution to society is a thousand times more valuable than that of a pediatrician. The pandemic of 2020 prompted many to reflect, at least fleetingly, on the importance of the work performed by grocery store clerks, delivery workers, home care providers, and other essential but modestly paid workers. In a market society, however, it is hard to resist the tendency to confuse the money we make with the value of our contribution to the common good.

To implement a system based on public benefit rather than marketability would require completely revamping our structure of determining salaries and taxes. 

The idea is that the government would provide a supplementary payment for each hour worked by a low-wage employee, based on a target hourly-wage rate. The wage subsidy is, in a way, the opposite of a payroll tax. Rather than deduct a certain amount of each worker’s earnings, the government would contribute a certain amount, in hopes of enabling low-income workers to make a decent living even if they lack the skills to command a substantial market wage.

Generally speaking, this would mean shifting the tax burden from work to consumption and speculation. A radical way of doing so would be to lower or even eliminate payroll taxes and to raise revenue instead by taxing consumption, wealth, and financial transactions. A modest step in this direction would be to reduce the payroll tax (which makes work expensive for employers and employees alike) and make up the lost revenue with a financial transactions tax on high-frequency trading, which contributes little to the real economy.

This is how Sandel ends his book:

The meritocratic conviction that people deserve whatever riches the market bestows on their talents makes solidarity an almost impossible project. For why do the successful owe anything to the less-advantaged members of society? The answer to this question depends on recognizing that, for all our striving, we are not self-made and self-sufficient; finding ourselves in a society that prizes our talents is our good fortune, not our due. A lively sense of the contingency of our lot can inspire a certain humility: “There, but for the grace of God, or the accident of birth, or the mystery of fate, go I.” Such humility is the beginning of the way back from the harsh ethic of success that drives us apart. It points beyond the tyranny of merit toward a less rancorous, more generous public life.

Posted in Meritocracy, Politics

Sandel: Disdain for the Less Educated Is the Last Acceptable Prejudice

This post is an op-ed by Michael Sandel, drawing on his new book, The Tyranny of MeritIt was originally published in the New York Times on September 2, 2020.  Here’s a link to the original.

He’s talking about a critical problem that arises from the American meritocracy. What it’s supposed to do is allocate positions according to individual merit instead of birth.  But the default approach is to measure merit by the amount of education you acquire (AA, BA, MA, MD, etc.) and, within each degree level, by the prestige (read: exclusivity) of the college you attended.  Not only does this make for a situation where small differences in merit (college rank, for example) yield large differences in reward.  It also constructs a value system that grants inflated esteem to the work done by the highly educated and denigrates the work done by the less educated.  As a result, Sandel points out, we find ourselves in a cultural setting where disdain for the less educated is a perfectly acceptable form of prejudice.  This has poisoned our politics, fueling populist anger and dysfunctional government.

This critique of the meritocracy resonates with a number of pieces I have post on this subject:  here, here, here, here, and here.

It’s having a corrosive effect on American life — and hurting the Democratic Party.

By 

Joe Biden has a secret weapon in his bid for the presidency: He is the first Democratic nominee in 36 years without a degree from an Ivy League university.

This is a potential strength. One of the sources of Donald Trump’s political appeal has been his ability to tap into resentment against meritocratic elites. By the time of Mr. Trump’s election, the Democratic Party had become a party of technocratic liberalism more congenial to the professional classes than to the blue-collar and middle-class voters who once constituted its base. In 2016, two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Mr. Trump, while Hillary Clinton won more than 70 percent of voters with advanced degrees.

Being untainted by the Ivy League credentials of his predecessors may enable Mr. Biden to connect more readily with the blue-collar workers the Democratic Party has struggled to attract in recent years. More important, this aspect of his candidacy should prompt us to reconsider the meritocratic political project that has come to define contemporary liberalism.

At the heart of this project are two ideas: First, in a global, technological age, higher education is the key to upward mobility, material success and social esteem. Second, if everyone has an equal chance to rise, those who land on top deserve the rewards their talents bring.

This way of thinking is so familiar that it seems to define the American dream. But it has come to dominate our politics only in recent decades. And despite its inspiring promise of success based on merit, it has a dark side.

Building a politics around the idea that a college degree is a precondition for dignified work and social esteem has a corrosive effect on democratic life. It devalues the contributions of those without a diploma, fuels prejudice against less-educated members of society, effectively excludes most working people from elective government and provokes political backlash.

Here is the basic argument of mainstream political opinion, especially among Democrats, that dominated in the decades leading up to Mr. Trump and the populist revolt he came to represent: A global economy that outsources jobs to low-wage countries has somehow come upon us and is here to stay. The central political question is not to how to change it but how to adapt to it, to alleviate its devastating effect on the wages and job prospects of workers outside the charmed circle of elite professionals.

The answer: Improve the educational credentials of workers so that they, too, can “compete and win in the global economy.” Thus, the way to contend with inequality is to encourage upward mobility through higher education.

The rhetoric of rising through educational achievement has echoed across the political spectrum — from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush to Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton. But the politicians espousing it have missed the insult implicit in the meritocratic society they are offering: If you did not go to college, and if you are not flourishing in the new economy, your failure must be your own fault.

Posted in Culture, History, Politics, Populism, Sociology

Colin Woodard: Maps that Show the Historical Roots of Current US Political Faultlines

This post is a commentary on Colin Woodard’s book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.  

Woodard argues that the United States is not a single national culture but  a collection of national cultures, each with its own geographic base.  The core insight for this analytical approach comes from “Wilbur Zelinsky of Pennsylvania State University [who] formulated [a] theory in 1973, which he called the Doctrine of First Effective Settlement. ‘Whenever an empty territory undergoes settlement, or an earlier population is dislodged by invaders, the specific characteristics of the first group able to effect a viable, self-perpetuating society are of crucial significance for the later social and cultural geography of the area, no matter how tiny the initial band of settlers may have been,’ Zelinsky wrote. ‘Thus, in terms of lasting impact, the activities of a few hundred, or even a few score, initial colonizers can mean much more for the cultural geography of a place than the contributions of tens of thousands of new immigrants a few generations later.’”

I’m suspicious of theories that smack of cultural immutability and cultural determinism, but Woodard’s account is more sophisticated than that.  His is a story of the power of founders in a new institutional setting, who lay out the foundational norms for a society that lacks any cultural history of its own or which expelled the preexisting cultural group (in the U.S. case, Native Americans).  So part of the story is about the acculturation of newcomers into an existing worldview.  But another part is the highly selective nature of immigration, since new arrivals often seek out places to settle that are culturally compatible.  They may target a particular destination because its cultural characteristics, creating a pipeline of like-minded immigrants; or they choose to move on to another territory if the first port of entry is not to their taste.  Once established, these cultures often expanded westward as the country developed, extending the size and geographical scope of each nation.

Why does he insist on calling them nations?  At first this bothered me a bit, but then I realized he was using the term “nation” in Benedict Anderson’s sense as “imagined communities.”  Tidewater and Yankeedom are not nation states; they are cultural components of the American state.  But they do act as nations for their citizens.  Each of these nations is a community of shared values and worldviews that binds people together who have never met and often live far away.  The magic of the nation is that it creates a community of common sense and purpose that extends well beyond the reach of normal social interaction.  If you’re Yankee to the core, you can land in a strange town in Yankeedom and feel at home.  These are my people.  I belong here.

He argues that these national groupings continue to have a significant impact of the cultural geography of the US, shaping people’s values, styles of social organization, views of religion and government, and ultimately how they vote.  The kicker is the alignment between the spatial distribution of these cultures and the current voting patterns.  He lays out this argument succinctly in a 2018 op-ed he wrote for the New York Times.  I recommend reading it.

The whole analysis is neatly summarized in the two maps he deployed in that op-ed, which I have reproduced below.

The Map of America’s 11 Nations

11 Nations Map

This first map shows the geographic boundaries of the various cultural groupings in the U.S.  It all started on the east coast with the founding cultural binary that shaped the formation of the country in the late 18th century — New England Yankees and Tidewater planters.  He argues that they are direct descendants of the two factions in the English civil war of the mid 17th century, with the Yankees as the Calvinist Roundheads, who (especially after being routed by the restoration in England) sought to establish a new theocratic society in the northeast founded on strong government, and the Anglican Cavaliers, who sought to reproduce the decentralized English aristocratic ideal on Virginia plantations.  In between was the Dutch entrepot of New York, focused on commerce and multiculturalism (think “Hamilton”), and the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania, founded on equality and suspicion of government.  The US constitution was an effort to balance all of these cultural priorities within a single federal system.

Then came two other groups that didn’t fit well into any of these four cultural enclaves.  The immigrants to the Deep South originated in the slave societies of British West Indies, bringing with them a rigid caste structure and a particularly harsh version of chattel slavery.  Immigrants to Greater Appalachia came from the Scots-Irish clan cultures in Northern Ireland and the Scottish borderlands, with a strong commitment to individual liberty, resentment of government, and a taste for violence.

Tidewater and Yankeedom dominated the presidency and federal government for the country’s first 40 years.  But in 1828 the US elected its first president from rapidly expanding Appalachia, Andrew Jackson.  And by then the massive westward expansion of the Deep South, along with the extraordinary wealth and power that accrued from its cotton-producing slave economy, created the dynamics leading to the Civil War.  This pitted the four nations of the northeast against Tidewater and Deep South, with Appalachia split between the two, resentful of both Yankee piety and Southern condescension.  The multiracial and multicultural nations of French New Orleans and the Mexican southwest (El Norte) were hostile to the Deep South and resented its efforts to expand its dominion westward.

The other two major cultural groupings emerged in the mid 19th century.  The thin strip along the west coast consisted of Yankees in the cities and Appalachians in the back country, combining the utopianism of the former with the radical individualism of the latter.  The Far West is the one grouping that is based not on cultural geography but physical geography.  A vast arid area unsuited to farming, it became the domain of the only two entities powerful enough to control it — large corporations (railroad and mining), which exploited it, and the federal government, which owned most of the land and provided armed protection from Indians.

So let’s jump ahead and look at the consequences of this cultural landscape for our current political divisions.  Examine the electoral map for the 2016 presidential race, which shows the vote in Woodard’s 11 nations.

The 2016 Electoral Map

2016 Vote Map

Usually you see voting maps with results by state.  Here instead we see voting results by county, which allows for a more fine-tuned analysis.  Woodard assigns each county to one of the 11 “nations” and then shows the red or blue vote margin for each cultural grouping.

It’s striking to see how well the nations match the vote.  The strongest vote for Clinton came from the Left Coast, El Norte, and New Netherland, with substantial support from Yankeedom, Tidewater, and Spanish Caribbean.  Midlands was only marginally supportive of the Democrat.  Meanwhile the Deep South and Far West were modestly pro-Trump (about as much as Yankeedom was pro-Clinton), but the true kicker was Appalachia, which voted overwhelmingly for Trump (along with New France in southern Louisiana).

Appalachia forms the heart of Trump’s electoral base of support.  It’s an area that resents intellectual, cultural, and political elites; that turns away from mainstream religious denominations in favor of evangelical sects; and that lags behing behind in the 21st century information economy.  As a result, this is the heartland of populism.  It’s no wonder that the portrait on the wall in Trump’s Oval portrays Andrew Jackson.

Now one more map, this time showing were in the country people have been social distancing and where they haven’t, as measure by how much they were traveling away from home (using cell phone data).  It comes from a piece Woodard recently published in Washington Monthly.

Social Distancing Map

Once again, the patterns correspond nicely to the 11 nations.  Here’s how Woodard summarizes the data:

Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherland, and the Left Coast show dramatic decreases in movement – 70 to 100 percent in most counties, whether urban or rural, rich, or poor.

Across much of Greater Appalachia, the Deep South and the Far West, by contrast, travel fell by only 15 to 50 percent. This was true even in much of Kentucky, the interior counties of Washington and Oregon, where Democratic governors had imposed a statewide shelter-in-place order.

Not surprisingly, most of the states where governors imposed stay-at-home orders by March 27 are located in or dominated by one or a combination of the communitarian nations. This includes states whose governors are Republicans: Ohio, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts.

Most of the laggard governors lead states dominated by individualistic nations. In the Deep South and Greater Appalachia you find Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who allowed spring breakers to party on the beaches. There’s Brian Kemp of Georgia who left matters in the hands of local officials for much of the month and then, on April 2, claimed to have just learned the virus can be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals. You have Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who on April 7 denied mayors the power to impose local lockdowns. And then there’s Mississippi’s Tate Reeves, who resisted action because “I don’t like government telling private business what they can and cannot do.”

Nothing like a pandemic to show what your civic values are.  Is it all about us or all about me?