Book Review: How Democracies Die

I picked up this slim volume last year in the midst of political crisis in the UK with an increasingly minority government sacking large numbers of ministers and MPs from its own party ranks, and thereby stymied on the main issue of the day – itself, of course, emblematic of a democracy that had been hijacked. It was, of course, eventually (and inexplicably) released from the pegs on which it was so expertly hanging itself and the rest is now history. Vote in haste; repent at leisure, we might think, not least when confronted with a government of all the talents featuring Matt ‘Telegraph’ Hancock in charge of health and Chris ‘ferries’ Grayling in charge of the, er, Commons Intelligence Committee.

My purchase was to try and come to some form of understanding of the threats to a mature democracy and, perhaps, the myriad links between them. This book – for all its scholarly nature (one-quarter of it is endnotes) – really isn’t the tool for this since, for all the generic nature of the title, the authors’ concern is not democracy in general but democracy in the US: the book’s focus is the US constitution and party system and the checks and balances these offer (or not) against the slide into authoritarianism. Particularly, therefore, the authors – both Harvard professors – are concerned with whether US democracy can survive Donald Trump; the authors are not certain that it can and, indeed, wisely observe that it is vulnerable to the same pathologies that have killed democracy elsewhere. When demagogues are in charge, how could it not be?

Now, ‘The fate of the great United States/ [Might well be] entwined in the fate of us all’ but, not being a particular expert on the US political system, I’m not that well placed to comment on the detail of the authors’ policy prescription given that this is substantially concerned with the US political system. (I do know a man who is, though.)

Given events in the UK, I was, however, attracted by the thought that polarisation is the main problem in the US and that, unless leaders find a way of addressing that issue, ‘democracy will die’ (p. 222). The drivers of polarisation in the US – religious and racial realignment and economic inequality – might be different to those in the UK (although clearly economic inequality needs to be tackled here, too) but we do of course have a highly polarised society in the wake of Brexit. Just how much this continues to affect UK democracy is as yet unknown but, given that Brexit is driving fresh support for the independence movement in Scotland, while the position of Northern Ireland remains uncertain given the government’s apparent lack of scruple over playing fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement, it is likely to do so for some time to come. A government whose response to crisis is to go absent and, otherwise, to give every sign of making it up as it goes along is singularly ill-equipped to undertake the ‘healing’ that a polarised society requires.

Brexit and Trump are, of course, inextricably linked in terms of rationales which explain the respective votes, the connections between Trump and Farage, and the financing of Brexit promoters in the UK and of Donald Trump by the Koch brothers and Robert Mercer. Brexit and Trump are, in both cases, the illegitimate offspring of climate change denialists and, for all that the ‘Russia Report’ does need to be released, the main failing of democracy in respect of Brexit is the extent to which Leave campaigns were funded by foreign interests. Further, there are parallels between the Tea Party in the US and the Brexit Party in the UK – and their implications for hollowed-out party organisation of the Republican Party, detailed by Levitsky and Ziblatt, and of the Conservative Party in Britain.

The main concern for Levitsky and Ziblatt is party organisation and the health and vitality of US political parties and the party political process. The authors do incorporate the issue of right-wing and partisan media and they also look at the impact of non-party campaigns, such as Americans for Tax Freedom and Americans for Prosperity (Koch vehicles, both) – and there are parallels in the UK here, too – but the focus is the potential for the takeover of moribund party organisations by extremists.

But, of course, democracies are more than just about political parties. Democracies also die when people no longer feel that their voices are being heard (and that’s as true where mass, peaceful street protests, from the Iraq War to anti-Brexit in the UK’s recent history, have little discernible impact on the political process) and where people’s democratic participation becomes limited to doing no more than casting a vote in a ballot box every so often. Citizens’ assemblies, currently one of the demands of Extinction Rebellion, have some things to offer here. Levitsky and Ziblatt don’t deal with this particular threat and neither do they include in their analysis the threat posed, in a global world, to nation state democracies by internationally-led campaigns of misinformation whose aim is to distort the political process – back, coincidentally, in the news today – and the pervasive, intrusive power of Facebook (made all the more threatening by its apparently neutral, ‘technical’ face). If democracy is all about ‘government by the people’ – and clearly it quite literally is – then international interests funding the operations of domestic campaigns and providing misinformation and misdirection represents a clear threat to those democracies and, therefore, a clear potential source of democratic death.

The absence of Lincoln’s famous quote from a book dealing with the crisis in US democracy is curious but, more than that, a book focused on the issue of failing democracies needs to address threats more broadly than the simple failure of party organisation to prevent the rise to power, within the democratic system, of an authoritarian demagogue.

#ReleaseTheRussiaReport

Book Review: The Sellout

I picked up my copy of Paul Sellers‘s latest work four days after it won the Booker Prize. Not only was ‘Winner’ proudly stamped on the front cover, and the author’s bio consequently updated on the inside back; such fresh-minted copies had also made their way as far north as my local bookseller in the City of Perth. That’s quite impressive going by Oneworld, which publishes Sellers in the UK.

Actually published in the US as far back as March 2015, and now marketed in the UK as a ‘lacerating satire’, a quote from Guardian (although, interestingly, the Guardian in question doesn’t appear to be this one), it is certainly satirical on the state of race relations in the US. There is a doubt, however, which is sustained throughout the novel, as to the major target of the satire. Famously, the author has said that he doesn’t know what point is being made in The Sellout – an odd admission, on the face of it, although that might be an entirely legitimate device to allow the reader to approach it in his/her one way, particularly given that this interview was made in launch publicity). Regardless, Sellers is excoriating in his attacks on a variety of targets, from individuals wrapped up in a multitude of petty concerns, to street gangs no longer sure why they’re fighting each other, to intellectuals distanced from what the real issues are, to the failure of senior black figures (Barack Obama, Bill Cosby, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all make (disguised) appearances) to achieve real change for ordinary black men and women. The multiplicity of Sellers’s targets makes for confusion as to the purpose and aims of the novel (this reader spent a lot of – ultimately wasted – time considering that the sellout of the title was, quite simply, POTUS) but through such confusion comes the truth that, actually, we’re all to blame for the current state of things.

A US presidential election won on the basis of a racist discourse and with the use of racist tropes, and a resignation of a mayor for an approving, if thoughtlessly naive, response to a clearly racist comment about the First Lady, on top of the evident need for a Black Lives Matter campaign to be fought, all prove the point that race – the fault line throughout modern US history – continues to be the issue which divides the nation despite the election of a black man as President.

Which, it seems, is Sellers’s main point. Race relations appear to have come a long way since the 1950s and Birth Of A Nation, but the events of the past week in the US, on the one hand, and the credible testimony of Bernie Noel, Adrian Chiles’s friend in the BBC’s #blackandbritish campaign, on the other, not only demonstrate how depressingly far they have yet to go but indeed call into question the notion that they have actually come very far at all.

Carrying humour that is sometimes wearingly sardonic and cynical, but always bitingly sharp, The Sellout is genuine satire in that the novel contains little in the way of characterisation and the plot – such as it is: the narrator (a black man) is brought before the Supreme Court for having reinstituted segregation and for slavery offences – is not only weak but features some mystifying developments. The characters are mere playthings, puppets whose strings are all too visible. The narrator, an urban fruit and veg farmer and surfer, but who appears to do very little of the former, has sufficient clout, apparently on the basis of the quality of his produce, to persuade school authorities to embark on a programme of re-segregation. The reason: a segregated bus caused people travelling on it to become more polite since they realised what their parents had been through. And, apparently, this led to improved school results. (BTW: on the issue of intergenerational relations and the spark for passivity or activity in societies torn apart by racism, it’s worth hearing the ‘born-free’ Gigi LaMayne and the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa.)

Nevertheless, Sellers’s rapier prose and his ability to leave few lodestones in the black emancipation movement untouched (clearly, to start with: school segregation; Rosa Parks) leaves us wondering what we need to do next to deliver a society that is truly post-racial. The complacency of our own selves – Sellers’s ultimate and most meaningful target: specifically in the novel, the black community but, ultimately, absolutely all of us – surely continues to be our most dangerous enemy.

In the context of the direction of contemporary politics in a post-Obama, pre-Trump US and a pre-Brexit UK, The Sellout is a worthy, if flawed, winner of the Booker Prize which, in asking us to confront that complacency, will have done exactly the job an international Prize ought to achieve if it elevates its 2016 flagbearer to a much wider readership.

Expressions of the democratic will and ‘taking back control’

Like most of the rest of the world, I woke up to the news that Trump had taken the White House in the US presidential elections with a sense of shock. It is self-evidently true that the full effect of this is, as with Brexit, yet to be perceived, but a couple of points arise in the immediate aftermath:

1. at the time of writing (almost one week after the election) we have results from 99.5% of voting districts (follow the link to ‘Results in full’) and, as a result, two states – Michigan and New Hampshire – are yet to declare. The ‘result’ is not in doubt (see also below) – but what are they waiting for? With a turnout of 57%, it’s not as though polling stations were overwhelmed by an unpredicted and unprecedented rush of voters…

2. With some results yet to come, it looks obvious that Clinton will have secured more votes than Trump – currently, some 670,000 more. On this poll of even registered voters, of just shy of 128m people, this is not a small margin – it amounts to some 0.5% of all votes cast and Trump will have won the White House, in a more or less two-horse race, with 47.3% of voters. Leaving aside several issues – including: the low turnout (Trump has the expressed support of only fractionally more than one-quarter of the US electorate who are registered to vote (Clinton, indeed, got only fractionally more)); the percentage of Democrat voters who stayed at home (the level of Democrat support is some 8.5m votes down on President Obama’s 2008 result, while the Republican vote is only around some 400,000 higher); and the role of ‘third’ candidates (who have attracted much more support than they did in 2004, 2008 and 2012 – again, see the BBC graphic) – this is a unique expression of democracy. It is clear that this is not an unprecedented result, and that the US electoral college system (well-explained by my friend Roger Darlington here) has a lot to answer for, while the vagaries of the the US voting system (specifically, turnout and the number of people who are unregistered as voters) were well explored by the great Gil Scott-Heron back in 1981 (whose analysis is well worth repeating this week) – but ‘the National Popular Vote’ – is, in these circumstances, a singularly mis-named phenomenon.

3. It is for the losers to complain about the results of elections and the anti-democratic nature of the rules but, despite the lack of a popular mandate for his populist revolution, Trump has wasted no time in appointing some unsavoury characters to his kitchen cabinet – acting, perhaps, as if he had indeed won a landslide. To those who thought that the realities of office might make Trump act differently, it seems pretty clear that he won’t be. It might be an expression of liberal angst, but it seems evident that what the US needs is healing, not a further jump rightwards. Furthermore, electoral justification for this is scant but, more than that, in the case of the US presidential elections, it is particularly clear that this is actually not what US people, collectively, voted for last week.

Here the comparison to Brexit Britain is, aside of the ridiculously self-aggrandising Nigel Farage, pretty strong; as indeed is the association between the ‘2-3m illegal immigrants‘ in the US now to be deported and the assumption that UK voters wanting out of the EU want restrictions on the free movement of people. We might well wonder precisely from where this association between populism and a policy response which entrenches a fear of ‘the other’ comes from, but it is clear that the political scene in the post-election US and the post-Brexit UK has several features in common.

Those of us who didn’t vote for either Trump or Brexit  – on both sides of the channel – might be able to learn from each other (and also work together) in terms of developing and articulating a response to this assumption of power by absolutist, right-wing hegemonists.