Monday, December 12, 2016

The Core of the "Populist" Revolt

There is much talk these days of a great "populist revolt" afoot in the world, exemplified by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump. But I agree almost completely with the analysis in this piece by Quah and Mahbubani: This is not the revolt of the poor and truly disenfranchised, but a revolt of the middle classes, who have lost some of their economic stability but have a lot more left to lose.The data shows that those who voted for Trump were not the most economically marginalized, but those most resentful of having "their" country being "stolen" from them by immigrants, Muslims, Obama, Black Lives Matter, etc. The poor voted overwhelmingly for Clinton.

This is a well-known phenomenon: Authoritarian "law-and-order" regimes thrive mainly on the support of the middle class anxious to preserve its residual status. This may take different forms in different situations, but almost always uses cultural norms as the shared basis of motivation. We see it not only in the West - where race is an important factor - but also in places like Pakistan and India, where religion and ideology dominate. As the authors say, it isn't loss of economic power so much as loss of control that drives this phenomenon. The threat people perceive is not to their wallets but to their "way of life" and "values". When they say, "I want my country back", they aren't asking for more factories; they're asking for an order where "those people" knew their place.

The article also makes another important point. As globalization distributes opportunity and wealth more equally across the world, it necessarily drains away a lot of it from places such as the US and Europe where populations have lived lifestyles that the planet simply can't support as a whole. The US, with 5% of the world's population, could not go on using 25% of the world's resources forever. As this starts to balance out, it triggers an inevitable drain of wealth, economic power, and living standards from the US. And as the pie shrinks, the powerful gobble up a larger fraction of it (because now power matters more), thus creating more inequality within the US and the West in general. Add in the fact that globalization also makes the elite and their wealth more mobile, and you get the obscene economic inequality that Piketty and others talk about. However, while there are many losers in this, the biggest losers are not the white middle-class voters who voted for Trump. Indeed, globalization has also helped them maintain their lifestyle to some degree by providing cheap imported goods, which they can still afford. The real losers are those with no voice who today feel even more marginalized. 

I hope that when liberals and Democrats go out looking to assuage the broken hearts of Trump voters in small-town Ohio and Michigan, they will also keep in mind those who are truly oppressed by the system: forced to hide in the shadows like undocumented immigrants, afraid to practice their faith like hijabi Muslims, shot in the street by police and then blamed for it by society, disenfranchised by having their voting rights taken away through draconian ID laws. It would be good to remember that these people have voted loyally for Democrats for decades, and did so this time. Not one jot of compromise should be made on their issues in an attempt to woo back those fickle voters who decided to seek their fortunes with Trump. Most of these latter stand in opposition to the very things American liberals should support - a humane immigration policy, racial justice, religious pluralism, civil rights, voting rights. Making common cause with them on economics and trade is not important enough to yield to their many bigotries. By all means, reach out to them. Propose solutions to their real problems. But my prediction is that they will not want any part of such an effort, unless there is another crisis like that of 2008. Then they'll again be willing to vote for a black "socialist" who makes sense. Or perhaps even a woman....

Monday, May 30, 2016

Urfi and Abul Fazl - From the Letters of Ghalib

As is well-known, Ghalib considered himself the last word on the Persian language among his contemporaries, and did not regard any Indian-born Persian poet except Amir Khusro to be a master. Even Bedil, whom he started out emulating, was consigned to a lower category by the later part of Ghalib's life. His hero was Ferdowsi, the great 10th/11th century composer of the Shahnameh. Others he regarded highly included the great classical poets Rudaki, Khaqani, Anvari, Rumi, Sa'di, and Hafez, as well as the later poets who came to India from Iran in the Mughal period, including Urfi, Naziri, Saa'ib, Kaleem, et al. In contrast to them, he regarded Indian-born poets such as Faizi, Bedil, Vaaqif, Qateel et al., as imperfect imitators at best and ignoramuses at worst. His posthumous trolling of Qateel and Vaaqif is legendary.
In this excerpt from a letter to Chaudhri Abdul Ghafoor Suroor, written in March or April 1859, Ghalib relates a well-known story that encapsulates his attitude.
Urfi was a Persian poet who came from Shiraz in Iran to Akbar the Great's court, and is regarded as one of the great masters. Abul Fazl was a scholar who is generally considered the leading light among the famous "nine gems" (naoratan) of Akbar's court. Khaqani and Anvari were both classical masters of Persian poetry from the 12th century.
Ghalib writes:
"... once there was an argument between Maulana Urfi (blessings upon him) and Abul Fazl. The Shaykh [Abul Fazl] said to Urfi, "We [Indians] have brought forth limitless scholarship and acquired high perfection in Farsi". Urfi replied, "But what of the fact that we [native Persians] have heard Farsi from the elderly women of our households since infancy?" The Shaykh said, "We have learned Farsi from [the writings of] Anvari and Khaqani, while you have learned it only from old women!" Urfi retorted, "Anvari and Khaqani too learned their Farsi from old women!" "

This is a very subtle point regarding the issue of what comprises "correct" language. Is it the natural, idiomatic speech of native speakers, or what scholars of the language deem to be "correct"? In Urdu, which, for all its populist origin, has been an elitist language for centuries, the tension is especially interesting. In part, it can be appreciated as a contrast between "words" (lughaat) and the "idiom" (mahaavara). Words are the province of the scholar, who can get into etymology, usage, grammatical contexts, etc., but idiom is something created by speakers in real-time, given validity more by communicative value than the following of strict rules. Serious students of language, like Ghalib, have always recognized this, and regarded what he called "roz-marra-e ahl-e zabaan" (the everyday speech of native speakers) as an important criterion. This is also what Mir Taqi Mir had in mind when he said that the purest Urdu was spoken on the steps of the Jami' Masjid (in Delhi). In this context, it is clearly important to determine exactly whose "everyday speech" is to be considered "proper" (faseeh), and whose is to be regarded as impure. In the case of Urdu, this question has always been bound up in the issues of social class and region, with native speakers from Delhi, Lucknow, and areas around them claiming a unilateral privilege. One curious subtext of this is the value placed on the speech of women in "respectable", i.e. socially high-status, households. The argument might be that, since these women seldom ventured outside their homes, their language was "polluted" the least by the vernacular of "the market" (baazaar). In that sense, their idiom came to be seen as the purest. When Ameer Minai (my great-grandfather) began work on his monumental Urdu dictionary, Ameer-ul-Lughaat (which was destined to remain unfinished), one of the things he most attended to was the speech of women. It is said that he once overheard a passing woman use an unusual idiomatic expression, and followed after her to confirm what she had said and what she meant.
Formally, in Urdu poetry, the criterion of validity for a word or expression has been usage by recognized masters such as Mir, Sauda, Zauq, Daagh, et al. Ironically, purists sometimes regard Ghalib as being too fond of linguistic innovation to be considered an appropriate validator (sanad)! That tradition has now largely vanished, with Daagh and Ameer perhaps the last poets to be regarded universally as appropriate references. Among later poets, only Seemab Akbarabadi acquired an approximately similar status. We now take a much more appropriately modern view of language as a living, ever-evolving entity. But what Ghalib implied in quoting Urfi was, in its own way, recognizing the same thing!

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Promise and Peril of Bernie Sanders

 I had originally intended to write a long article on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon unfolding before our eyes in the US elections, but an absolutely brilliant piece by Jamelle Bouie in Slate says almost everything I wanted to say. It is an absolute must read! for anyone interested in the near-future of American politics.

Sanders supporters should not be put off by the headline, "There is No Bernie Sanders Movement". The article is much more about what the Sanders movement can be than about what it is not. As Bouie notes, the most significant fact about the movement is the disproportionate youth of its supporters. As such, it has the potential to go from an insurgency against the Democratic establishment to becoming the future of the Democratic Party. I think that young Democratic leaders with ambition are realizing that, which explains why some of them have chosen to come out in support of Sanders. However, Sanders is less a savior than a harbinger - more John than Jesus. If the potential of his movement is to be realized fully, it will be at the hands of others - perhaps an Elizabeth Warren or Cory Booker - who will put in the blood, toil, sweat and tears to take it from vision to reality. And, above all, it will require a institutionalization of the ideals into something at once more mundane and more durable - an establishment. In this, it can follow the example of the conservative movement of the 1960s, which led ultimately to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a conservative vise-grip on American politics for a quarter century. To achieve similar success on the liberal side, the Sanders movement will need to go from attacking the Democratic establishment to becoming the Democratic establishment. As Bouie points out, the American political system today provides only one vehicle for achieving truly effective change: the two political parties. The best way to achieve the ideals that Sanders espouses is to make them the ideals of the Democratic Party - but this will, at some point, require the flame throwers of today to become the illuminators of tomorrow.

To quote what, in my opinion, are the central paragraphs of the piece:

"All the enthusiasm is there; it just needs to be cultivated and channeled into something durable. But that requires a sacrifice, of sorts. For as much as Sanders and his most vocal supporters identify themselves as outside the party system, the only way a real Sanders movement can make change is to take an active role within that system. Voting is too imprecise to send a message or make a statement, and withholding a vote does nothing to persuade or build influence. (Who in the Democratic Party solicits Ralph Nader for advice and aid?) Sanders supporters who want to move the Democratic Party to the ideological left need to become Sanders Democrats, political actors who participate in the system as it exists. To win a lasting victory—to define the ideological terms of Democratic Party politics—the people inspired by Sanders need to do more than beat the establishment; they need to become it.

"Liberals and leftists will have to work with an eye toward the long-term, operating from the ground up to make ideological liberals a key power-broker in the party. If the Bernie Sanders effort shows anything, it’s that the odds are in their favor. The youngest, most active Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts, and technology has advanced to the point where they can organize and raise money without relying on established power centers. Even if Bernie Sanders is just the inheritor of friendly demographic and technological trends, his success suggests a real opportunity for the liberals and leftists who back his campaign. They have the chance, if they want it, to channel their energy into a move to make the Democratic Party theirs, in the same way that conservatives—until the rise of Donald Trump, at least—took hold of the Republican Party."

However, as with all great opportunities, this one too is fraught with risk. We are currently watching the conservative movement of Ronald Reagan eating itself alive. Ideologies have a long history of such cannibalism in their inexorable search for ever greater purity. Indeed all systems based on a rigid, uncompromising set of principles - be they political, religious, judicial, or any other - have the seeds of their doom within themselves, as the predetermined, though often unknown, logical conclusions of their abstract principles encounter the ever-changing realities of a complex, all-too-material world. Populist movements are especially prone to this problem because they offer less possibility of top-down discipline. The Tea Party is a good example of this peril, and it would be naive to think that similar mindlessness cannot take hold on the Left. The main challenge for the new, assertive liberalism will thus be to keep its own demons in check, and to remain open to the pragmatic compromise that is the essential genius of American democracy. This will require great wisdom on the part of leaders, and great understanding on the part of the rank-and-file. It is far from clear whether the sheer connectivity and speed of a globalized world leaves enough time or space for either.

As a liberal, I look forward to being a "Sanders Democrat" during a Clinton presidency, but first there has to be a Clinton presidency and not one headed by a conservative reactionary such as Trump or Cruz. The task of political transformation is long and arduous. It will take years to accomplish, but it is critical that these be years of steady progress rather than years of futility. Therefore: Clinton 2016!

As a dispassionate observer of politics, I fear that reality will be somewhat less rosy. The Democratic Party is, in fact, a coalition of interests held together by the fear of conservative ascendancy. As I have written before, once - and if - the Republican Party collapses, the Democratic Party too will find it hard to hold together. To some degree, that is already apparent in this election, though it may take another few cycles to play out. The fact that Sanders is an outsider in the Democratic Party, and has, so far, done little to strengthen the institution makes it at least possible that it will ultimately be more a destructive than a constructive force for the Party. A significant segment of Sanders supporters - at least those with the loudest presence in social media - appears to be open to destroying the liberal coalition in order to save it.

In the end, the United States may well end up with a three-party configuration: A populist/nativist right-wing party, a moderate/business-friendly center party, and a populist/progressive left-wing party. Or perhaps the natural dynamics of a presidential (as opposed to parliamentary) system will force a reorganization into a new two-party configuration, each with a somewhat different cast of uneasy bedfellows. To a significant degree, all this will depend on how the new demographic cookie being baked in the global oven crumbles over the coming years. And also on how hot that oven gets in the age of climate change and global jihad.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Liberal Bias, etc.

 This piece by Michael Shermer was posted on Facebook by a friend, and made me think.

I think one problem is that, for the entire history of humankind, the default approach to thought, expression and behavior has been fundamentally conservative. Not only our language - all language - but our sense of self is grounded in "value", which is normative and, therefore, conservative. The liberal enterprise is, in a sense, a struggle against this orientation, and has not been able to find an appropriate alternative mode for expression and self-orientation. It's like being stuck in a body of the wrong gender. The poor postmodernists have tried to struggle with this dilemma, and the results are before us. The tragic thing, though, is that, in fact, this same mindset that seems to be so fundamentally at odds with human nature is much more conducive to innovation, scientific investigation and creativity. It is not coincidental that a liberal outlook and scientific progress have occurred concurrently over recent centuries. And the fact that the vast majority of scientists are liberal isn't something that anyone can reverse. It is the result of a self-selection process amplified of necessity by positive feedback through many channels.

I think the jury is still out on whether this experiment - which has been ongoing in a small way for thousands of years or more, but has only picked up steam in the last few hundred - can, in fact, lead to the necessary transition in the mode of "being human", or if the imperatives that got us through millions of years of evolution will reassert themselves and the liberal efflorescence will be seen just as a brief period of madness where some humans thought they could overcome "the natural order" If that comes to pass, I'm sure the scientists will be killed before the lawyers....

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What Donald Trump is doing to the Republican Party …. and may yet do to the Democrats

Conventional wisdom among the US chattering classes and political elite started out with the certainty that Donald Trump’s candidacy for president was, literally, a fool’s errand – that it was simply a goofy rich guy running for something he had no hope of attaining. Now things are more complicated. Many are resigned to a Trump nomination, though horrified and perplexed by it. Others are still hanging on in the land of denial, hoping for a Rubio revival. Magic is in the air. Fantastic scenarios are being spun whereby the Inconvenient Trump will disappear on nomination day to be replaced at the altar by a more acceptable bridegroom – perhaps even Sir Mitt Romney of the Order of 47 Percent or Bonnie Prince Paul Ryan. However, among the political pundit classes, beaten down by a higher than customary level of being wrong – usually 80 percent of the time – there is also an admirably intellectual search for answers to the Aeternal Question: What is wrong with Reality? How, they ask, is it possible for a megalomaniacal 70 year old businessman from New York with three marriages and four bankruptcies to be leading the Party of Lincoln and winning in the Land of Jefferson Davis? Why is this Pied Piper successful, and what is he doing to the Republican Party?

The latest to ask such questions is Daniel Drezner in the Washington Post, who has come up with an elaborate theory, using a rather irrelevant baseball analogy to blame the debacle on analysis by political scientists. Basically, his argument is that political scientists have developed detailed theories of why candidates succeed or fail, and the Republican leaders have internalized these theories so well that they were lulled into a false sense of security until now, when it is already too late. As Drezner argues:

When Trump announced that he was running last summer, his lack of establishment support and high unfavorables made it extremely easy to very smart people to confidently assert that he had almost no chance at securing the GOP nomination. …..

“So why has it been proved wrong? My hypothesis is that GOP decision-makers also read the same analyses and concluded that they did not need to do anything to stop Trump. Sure, his poll numbers stayed robust even after he kept saying racist and insulting things, but there were good auxiliary hypotheses to explain why that was the case. They kept reading analysis after analysis in 2015 about how Donald Trump had little chance of winning the GOP nomination. They read smart take after smart take telling them that Trump didn’t have a chance. Even as the media covered Trump, even as late as the South Carolina debate, pundits were also talking about how his latest transgressive comment would doom his chances.

“So GOP party leaders didn’t take any action. Except that the reason smart analysts believed Trump had no chance was because they thought GOP leaders would eventually take action.
As theories go, this is fairly clever, but I have a simpler theory that has the added advantage of being correct. Donald Trump is winning the Republican nomination because he is calling the bluff of the Republican establishment.

For more than three decades, the Republican Party has been turning a large part of their electorate into a population of zombies who respond reliably to specific dog whistles, conspiracy theories and false memes come every election season. These triggers play on religious zeal, nationalism, suspicion of government power, fear of anarchy, economic insecurity, social anxieties, xenophobia, residual racism, and a host of other powerful emotions that exist in all societies. The so-called Republican elites have learned to exploit these emotions with finesse to win elections while, in fact, serving the interests of their paymasters in lofty mansions and corporate boardrooms. This project, implemented through so-called conservative “think” tanks, talk radio and Fox News with financial support from a few choice billionaires, has been wildly successful. It has allowed the Republican Party to hold the White House for most of the last thirty six years, and to claw their way back to power in Congress after a long exile.

But the construction of this exquisite system with precise buttons that can be pushed to specific ends has not gone unnoticed. One of those who has apparently noticed with great perceptiveness is one Donald J. Trump, who is not a billionaire because he is a fool. With a deep understanding of the zombification of the Republican electorate, and with the financial resources and the ambition to act on this knowledge, Donald Trump has gone about the business of systematically pressing every button that the Republican Party had built so carefully into their system – except that, in signature Trump style, he has pressed each one ten times as hard as the delicate hands of any Republican political consultant would ever have dared to do. Where a Karl Rove or Lee Atwater might have run a subtly racial campaign commercial or pushed a little xenophobia, Trump has promised high walls, carpet bombings and full-blown torture. He is offering far-right voters trained on little pieces of candy a whole chocolate factory, and they’re eating it up. The Republican elites have been disarmed because Trump is using their own arms to steal their electorate. And the reason they can’t do much about it is not that they haven’t recognized their predicament, but that they recognize it all too well. Their problem is that, to stop Trump, they have to disown the very “ideas” on which they have built their own electoral successes. At best, all they can say is that their wall would be a bit lower, the carpet of their bombing a bit smaller, and their torture limited to waterboarding. That’s a lousy argument to be stuck with!

In recent years, after two humiliations at the hands of Barack Obama, some Republican leaders had begun to understand that the scorched earth approach that had begun with Nixon’s Southern Strategy and culminated in the know-nothing frenzy of the Tea Party was a long-term loser. In a country with rapidly changing demographics and an increasingly liberal populace, a fresh start was needed. Poor Jeb Bush, bless his heart, tried half-heartedly to suggest this by equating immigration with “an act of love”. Then Donald Trump slapped him a few times hard across the face, and that was that. What Trump has unleashed is the monster created by the Republican Party for its own purposes. As always, when the monster gets free, it goes for the nearest prey first – and therein lies a lesson for Democrats.

Barring some bizarre turn of events, Donald Trump will get the Republican nomination for President. Given his dismal favorability ratings, Democrats are quite confident that they can beat him with a good candidate like Hillary Clinton – and that calculation is likely to be correct. Other Republican candidates such as Kasich or Rubio would, in fact, pose a greater challenge to the Democrats in November. However, Donald Trump has already shown himself to be a master of mass psychology and an astute reader of political opportunities. It is na├»ve to think that he will approach the general election with exactly the same narrative he is deploying now. What is more likely is that he will reshape it to perform the same kind of jiu-jitsu on Democrats that he has been using against the Republican establishment. While the Democrats have not exploited negative emotions nearly as much as the Republicans – liberals never can – they too have built an electoral machine based on resentments, identity politics and more than a few false pretenses. Donald Trump is fully capable of exploiting these just as he has exploited the triggers on the Right. It is hard to say exactly what he will do, but betting against the possibility is not a wise move, as Jeb Bush and his superPAC can testify.

And for those who think that Trump will never be able to get away with switching to contradictory positions after getting the nomination, there is a lesson in how he has navigated the Republican primaries. He has made a habit of following up almost every extreme statement he makes with a half-retraction – and occasionally outright reversal – in short order. And he has paid no price for it. This too has perplexed the pundits, but it should not. Trump is not running on policy; he is running on persona. In the primaries, he has become the personification of the Tea Party’s dreams – the very hero they had been waiting for, and heroes are seldom doubted by their worshippers. After all, every deity that humans have ever worshipped has had one attribute in common with all others: Capriciousness. Today, Donald Trump strides across the landscape of the Right like a god who is not bound by trifling things such as consistency or accountability. What terrain he will haunt tomorrow is anyone’s guess. 

It is still more likely than not that Donald Trump will falter at some point in his quest for the White House. Hillary Clinton is still more likely to beat him than not in the general election. And there is a distinct possibility that a brokered Republican convention will lead to a third-party run by Trump if the party tries to install another nominee. This too will likely result in a Democratic victory. But the Democrats would do well not to take anything for granted, and begin looking for ways in which they can take down Trump, the Idea.