Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Lemurian Candidate

Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962). Image via Nitrate Diva.

It's world-famous political scientist David Brooks, here with his hot takes on how the political world is currently working, or failing to work ("Choosing Leaders: Clueless or Crazy", July 5 2016):

These days, if you want to elect a leader, you generally have two choices: a sensible, establishment figure who is completely out of touch, or a populist outsider who is incompetent, crazy or both.
I'm inevitably asking myself how that applies to the 2015 contests in Greece, Nigeria, Israel, UK, Argentina, Canada, Burkina Faso, Spain, or Myanmar,  or this year's elections in Peru, Serbia, the Philippines, and Australia. Which figure in that schema is Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, or Justin Trudeau? Or Muhammadu Buhari? Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski? Isaac Herzog and Ed Miliband might count as sensible, establishment figures who are completely out of touch, but their opponents were the less-than-populist hardly-outsiders Binyamin Netanyahu and David Cameron respectively.

I can see complaints that the new Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte may qualify as populist and crazy, though hardly an outsider or incompetent, given that he served as mayor of Davao City, the country's third most populous city, for 23 of the last 28 years, where he encouraged a literal war on drugs conducted by extrajudicial death squads, and remarkable police brutality against protesters, but also was a strong supporter of LGBTQ rights. Last September he personally showed up at a local bar where a foreign tourist was violating the anti-smoking ordinance and forced the offender to swallow his cigarette butt. As president, he has offered a Trumpian pivot, promising to be "prim and proper... almost, I would become holy." He is in some ways what Trump wishes he was, a truly tough guy, competent and psychopathic at the same time, compelling and deeply appalling.

Other than that, I'm really not seeing it.  The sensible-but-clueless will always be with us, no doubt. That's true of Thought Leaders as well, isn't it?

The British referendum on EU departure happening in the middle of the US presidential campaign has forced Brooks, uncharacteristically, to be aware of two elections at once, so he feels he has some material for making a broad generalization. That is not exactly the case.

Brooks's example of the incompetent populist outsider is Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North since 1983. I'm not sure that's a really useful description. To my mind Corbyn, a far more complex and radical figure than Senator Sanders, is really in something of the position Sanders claims to be in, a politician who has captured the hearts of his party's voters while alienating an establishment that has wandered away from the party's raison d'être over the past 20 years, or maybe 50 years. The Labour Party is very different from the Democrats, as you can see from old Neil Kinnock coming out to denounce Corbyn and bringing his audience to tears with an appeal to Labour's commitment to "the parliamentary route to socialism". That's how the "centrists" over there talk. (The other side is that the younger Labour voters in particular care more about Europe than they do about Jeremy, who doesn't care about Europe very much, and his support from the rank and file is now beginning to slip. But that doesn't make him incompetent, it just makes him in the wrong.)

But Corbyn might well be one of those "edge of inside" figures Brooks was desperately seeking a couple of weeks ago.

Most of the column—11 paragraphs—is devoted to the unfortunate Brexit campaigners Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, classified along with the Trump as both crazed and incompetent, Johnson in particular, and his inadequate preparation for winning in the vote:

He had no post-referendum plan and canceled a meeting with M.P.s 15 minutes before it was due to start, but, according to British newspapers, did manage to spend a day playing cricket with his friend Earl Spencer at Althorp House, Princess Diana’s ancestral estate. The next day he hosted a barbecue at his house in Oxfordshire that was described in The Telegraph as “boozy, shambolic, disorganized and ill-disciplined” — which sounds fun but maybe not for a politician in the middle of a world crisis.
It may sound like fun to Brooks. It occurs to me that he and Johnson were both living in Brussels at the same time in the early 1990s, Johnson making up outrageous lies about the European Commission for the Telegraph while Brooks did whatever it was he did in the Wall Street Journal, I can imagine rich and frivolous Johnson throwing parties prim and boring Brooks did not get invited to, and Brooks pleased with an opportunity to get back at him all these years later. Perhaps that is his major literary aim today.

He does suggest that Hillary Clinton could be neither clueless establishmentarian nor crazed outsider:

many voters seem to be flocking to tough, no-nonsense women who at least seem sensible: Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton and, now, the Conservative Party front-runner, Theresa May.
(Seemingly unaware that Merkel has led her party for 16 years and served as chancellor for 11, and lost her majority in the most recent election, in 2013, forcing her into coalition with the Social Democrats, so that the flocking at the moment is not quite in her direction.)

But that sensible-plus-female combination doesn't seem right to him either; he winds up with one of his shopping-list proposals about what "we" "need".

We probably need a political Pope Francis-type figure, who comes up from the bottom and understands life there, but who can still make the case for an open dynamic world, with free-flowing goods, ideas, capital and people.
With all respect to the Holy Father, his father was an accountant (the family were immigrants, but for political, not economic reasons, from Fascist Italy). Francis learned what he knows about poverty (which is a great deal) as an authority figure, priest and bishop (I imagine he learned it from talking and listening to people, as opposed to getting driven around by the mayor of Pittsburgh). And I don't believe his case for openness would be quite the same as David Cameron's (the Holy See is on record as dubious about Regional Trade Agreements like TPP and TTIP, preferring trade negotiation at a worldwide level on the WTO model as fairer to small and poor countries).

He comes from an Argentina that mostly thrived in the import-substitution protectionist economy under the Peróns and the Kirchners and suffered in the open-market economy of the dictators and Chicago Boys, and he is deeply suspicious of free trade as an end in itself; as he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium,
 Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape. ...
To say nothing of the question what exactly do "we" "need" him for? As president or UK prime minister or both? "We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again..." We already have Pope Francis, knowing the things he knows and making the cases he makes. "We" "probably" "need" to stop writing Leaders' names in our spiral notebooks, festooned with little hearts, dreaming about how inspired we'll feel when they take over, and start thinking about the things we could do ourselves (that idiot Tom Friedman is about a million times more useful to society than you, Brooks, speaking of "making cases", and that's really saying something, because he's not too useful).

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