Category Archives: Populism

White Fear; Black Bodies

s Book review:
Hayes, Chris. 2017. A Colony in A Nation (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.).

The excellent and fastidious Chris Hayes is back with his second book; it’s a doozy full of righteous (patriotic) indignation; telling data and statistics; and is bathed in humane empathy in a surprisingly nuanced way. He tries to emphasize with quite literally everyone – that alone should be commended.

The book, A Colony In A Nation, comes off the heels of a highly divisive presidential election, seen by many as largely about identity issues, immigration, and race. The winning candidate, Donald J. Trump, pounced on and utilized white fear in a way that only dog whistles could previously capture.

Long live the dog whistle;
blue lives matter!;
all lives matter!

Hayes’ thesis is, as he himself puts it, “simple.” We have a divided justice system producing a divided country. One part of the U.S., which Chris dubs the “Nation” has a policing regime fit for the rules based democracy that we purport to be. Another part of our country, dubbed “the Colony,” has a policing regime with remarkable similarities to militarily-occupied colonies. These “two distinct regimes,” have disproportionate results.

Black Americans largely live in the Colony and thus live by the dictates of order over law. This order is administered by low-level bureaucrats and “petty officers.” When order prevails, you get results such as: “black men aged 20 to 34 without a high school degree have an institutionalization rate of about 37 percent.” Homicide rates in the Colony? 20 per 100,000. In the Nation? 2.5 per 100,000. There are even predominantly black neighborhoods, adjacent to white neighborhoods that “have a homicide rate that is 9,000 percent higher.”

Hayes illuminates the difference not only with hard numbers, but also with his on-the-ground experiences, some from his college years and some from his reporting from the past few years in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities.

In one particularly unique passage, Hayes, the host of the award-winning All In w/ Chris Hayes (MSNBC) visited police training headquarters in New Jersey where he participated in a virtual reality simulator. This simulates 85 different scenarios and recruits are assessed based on their actions. One must be quick. Chris draws his weapon in the first scenario; the officer reminds him that that was the incorrect move. “We’re only one scene in, and already the self-righteous liberal pundit has draw his weapon on an unarmed man holding a cinder block,” Hayes rights – channeling that his training officer was “delighted” to instill some humility into the pundit.

Hayes spoke with many everyday folks, black and white, and referenced many scholarly works on criminal justice, policing, and American history; making this book’s potential audience quite wide and it’s content myriad. (Down below, I’ll finish up my thoughts regarding this strategy).

As Hayes unpacks the causes of this Nation/Colony bifurcation, he starts from the top-down and makes his way downward, to me. You. Voters. Citizens. All of us.

How did this happen?

The War on Drugs, beginning with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968 and continuing through to this very day, is a good answer; a good place to start. (It’s not the earliest place to start, of course but it’s definitely relevant.) It was top-down; Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Congress passed laws such as the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 1970, for example. But, Hayes, surmises that the War on Drugs is not the only answer. Hayes claims that “20 percent of the increase in incarceration,” can be legitimately considered occurring due to the precepts of this so-called War on Drugs.

In Ch. V, Hayes details a nice summary of what is known as “broken windows policing.” Beginning in New York City, under multiple mayors, and continued nationally by President Bill Clinton. It’s the idea that a vacant building with a broken window will facilitate and bring forth other crimes.  The idea was that “one could reduce crime by stamping out disorder.” “Stop and frisk,” was implemented; black and brown people were disproportionately stopped, humiliated, and has their constitutional rights violated. (Hayes notes that federal district judge Shira Scheindlin, in 2000, did find the policy constitutional.)

Hayes leaves no stone unturned; it’s quite an impressive feat, he weaves in history and then personal story and then reporting from Baltimore back to law, scholarship, and pointed philosophical musings.

Hayes is his most passionate when he writes about white fear being a “force” that is a “social fact” and “something burned into our individual neural pathways.” But far from coming across as morally superior, Hayes is up-front about his own biases and fear, growing up in the Bronx, a “white straight male.” He talks about getting a pass from police officers, who found weed on him as a twenty-one-year old; at the Republican National Committee conference in 2000 no less. He opens up about his fears; he agrees that that order is nice. Yet he is aware that order usually comes at the cost of violating Constitutional rights of fellow Americans, who belong in the Nation, but who live in and are policed by The Colony. In fact, in the last few pages of the final chapter, he waxes philosophically, shades of Peter Singer regarding the moral sandpit that comes with valuing order over law.

Hayes isn’t careless or ideological when he tackles the War on Drugs. (He does get a bit ideological at other times.) The Crack Years were horrifying and nearly every single crime, violent and non-violent, skyrocketed from the 1970s, into the early 1990s. In fact in 1992, the U.S. “set an all-time violent crime record with 1,932,274 incidents.”  People are driven by fear and fear is hard to assuage. Fear resides in our brain stem, an ancient part of our brain, Hayes reminds the reader.

Above when I mentioned the top-down side of the creation and propagation of the Colony, I referred to the bottom-up side, too. In the last chapter, Hayes references work from law professor James Whitman who concludes: “it is the strong anti-aristocratic strain in the American legal tradition that has made our punishment system so remorseless and harsh.” I agree with this analysis; I also agree that it’s madness that we elect prosecutors.  Perhaps the most democratic part of our system is our criminal justice system. This doesn’t shine a positive light on the American psyche or on direct democracy frankly.

Here is where I began to add up the cons of the book. Educated readers know most, if not all, of what he chose to write about. I must say that I find this book wanting. There are many paths that Hayes could have explored more, but he leaves them after promising introductions. He mentions Racecraft….doesn’t explore it. He begins to paint a picture relating what he calls the Colony to how the British treated the colonists here during the revolutionary days…then he never brings it up again. He begins to explore police training….and leaves it after a page or two. (I wouldn’t begin to write a book on criminal justice; this is extremely hard to do and the book is quite good and ranging.)

Chirs makes the reader fill in a bunch of details themselves. I simultaneously like this and dislike it.

Solutions? He doesn’t investigate any concrete solutions…at all.  I know Hayes has ideas; I’m a big admirer of his previous work. In interviews, for example, he talks about needing radical desegregation as a political and societal project that, if continued to be unmet, should be openly considered a moral failure. Now THAT is what I hoped he was going to explore.

I would be remiss to say that Hayes didn’t fill out his thesis – he did; I suppose I’m just expressing that I wanted the book to be different than what it was.

This book turns out to be about two-thirds journalistic reporting and one-third memoir. I’m not sure if Hayes would classify it as such, but it is how it reads nevertheless. Overall, I enjoyed reading it. The book is well-written – if sporadic- and needing a bit more of a focus.

I do recommend it if only for the last chapter alone.

 

Trumpism is Global

In a previous blog post, I laid down some thoughts regarding the phenomenon of Trump and how I feel like you can look at it through the lens of identity politics. Well, today I was reading an excellent interview by Foreign Affairs with the French ambassador Gérard Araud and he expressed a similar understanding regarding Europe when he was asked about the far-right party in France known as Front National:

It’s the same thing as Trump. Of course, Trump has his personal genius, but it’s basically the same crisis. The lower middle class feels frightened by globalization, frightened for the future of its children, frightened for its moral and social values. They have the impression that the elite are cut off from them. So they want to try something new. So it’s the Front National in France, or the extreme right in the Netherlands, or Mr. Trump. It’s the same solution: building walls, closing borders. And it’s the same scapegoat: the immigrant. It’s sad.”

Identity politics needs a scapegoat; an Other. As countries become more and more unequal as the share of income gains and wealth goes to a smaller and smaller slither of people you will see un-channeled rage that, demagogues like Trump, exploit for their own good to the continued detriment of almost everyone.

Trump and Identity Politics

I argue that you can explain Trump’s rise through the lens of white identity politics, for one. It’s not what he is saying or even the individual himself; it’s that his base – white suburban disaffected ‘victims’ of globalization who are struggling – see themselves in him. It is projection against what they see as an elite harvard-educated political class who is waaaay too literate for their own good and who says things with nuance that they don’t understand. They want someone who is an outsider (like them) who isn’t P.C. (like them) and who thinks in black and white categories of good and evil; of up and down; of right and wrong (like they do.)

Imagine if you are a former factory worker employed during a time of rising incomes; pensions; good health care; and seeming security. Now imagine that this in fact was reality for millions upon millions of workers. Starting in the 1980s and continuing through the present day, tens of thousands of factories have been closed. In fact, over 42,000 factories have been closed JUST since 2001. Look at Trump through the lends of globalization.

If you are a laid off employee who is being pushed further and further down the income and skills ladder, who do you blame?
Everyone.
Everything.

The political class (Yep; and they would be correct here).
Corporations and their need for maximizing profits (Yep).
Minorities and immigrants (Yep; well, ‘yep’ as in many Americans do blame these fellow under-served people; they would be wrong here however and are blaming the symptom and not the cause).

[Now there is truth to the claim that corporations are benefiting from illegal and even legal immigration by capitalizing on unskilled and/or people without franchise or much legal reprieve; this does hurt working class Americans of all color; however, the fault of this goes to the government.]

The perceived and real impacts of globalization are at work here. Basically anyone with ANY government experience at all is considered an “insider” to Trump’ supporters. Any candidate with prestigious degrees from schools they have only tangentially heard of? Too qualified and self-interested and disconnected from the needs of the working class and the shrinking middle class. This is why occasionally war hungry conservatives do in fact accept anti-war arguments. Why? Because it doesn’t matter what the person says; what matters is the answer to the internal question people are asking themselves: is this person like me? Do I see myself in this person? If the answer is yes, then we are open to their opinion even if it is not one we are, theoretically, likely to support. If we consider them the Other; then it doesn’t matter what they say.

Politics are identity politics. I am of the mind that identity politics of all types are disastrous for any future left movement because, to generalize, they are built on a foundation of separateness and focus heavily on the individual. But I can unpack that later. [I want to write a short book on that actually.]

However, the most dangerous type of identity politics is white identity politics. Why? Because white Americans had an investment in this system that, for a long time, worked for them. People who never had wealth or prosperity can sometimes not have that impetus of hope to fight for change. They don’t see a world that works for them because it largely never has. People who had a middle class life but now see it slipping away? Oh, man. These people are dangerous and angry and look for demagogues that border on fascism. They know what its like to have abundant leisure; income and wealth; and self-actualization.

This phenomenon is not going away anytime soon because it is a product of worsening economic inequality. Political Scientist Inglehart, in the recently released Jan/Feb 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs makes this point while discussing the lack of support for redistribution:

Globalization and deindustrialization undermined the strength of unions. And the information revolution helped establish a winner-take-all economy. Together these eroded the political base for redistributive policies.” [Link]

What will the Trump of 2020 or 2024 look like if whoever wins the 2016 election doesn’t address worsening inequality?

This Time It’s Different

I noted in an earlier blog post that it’s quite evident to me that what is being called the French 9/11 will be a major geopolitical event that will shape how the next 10 years will play out. Here’s 3 possibilities of how these attacks in Paris could impact politics in the United States.

Fear Mongering is Back
Just kidding, it never went away. Fear, as a political and social and cultural phenomenon has always been a guiding light in American politics. However, we now have a newer half-generation of Americans who basically have not experience a terrorist attack conducted by an armed-group with long-term goals and plans. I streamed Morning Joe this morning, on MSNBC, and maaaaaannn….it’s like 9/11 never happened and good ‘ol American amnesia came back and everyone forgot just how we got to this place in the first place. Joe Scarborough was being all manic about Obama not calling Muslim terrorists….muslims. Obama, not long ago, said: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.” Whether you agree with this or not, if you don’t understand why Obama would say this then you don’t understand realpolitk, or even, domestic politics. It’s a tactic Joe; he’s not saying those words to you and to the media; this does not mean the Obama Administration does not understand the current situation. It does. President George W. Bush had similar remarks saying we are at war against evil, not Islam and not Muslims. Nonetheless, pundits are freaking out and telling everyone that we are in a Clash of Civilizations. This is not a clash of civilizations; this is a war where ISIS is targeting countries that are currently engaged in military attacks That’s kind of a big difference. This is not to say that ISIS isn’t engaged in what they think is a clash of civilizations; they, for all intents and purposes, do think that is what’s going on. It’s not.

This Changes the 2016 U.S. Pres Race; & It Helps Republican Chances
No really; look out for Mitt Romney getting into the race and winning the GOP nomination if he does get in. Regardless, foreign policy will now be a focus in 2016 in a way that wasn’t quite anticipated. In times when Americans are scared, they vote Republican. Americans think that Republicans tackle national security issues better; moreover, this is classic political psychology. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist, has written about this and studied this extensively:

“People vote Republican because Republicans offer “moral clarity”—a simple vision of good and evil that activates deep seated fears in much of the electorate. Democrats, in contrast, appeal to reason with their long-winded explorations of policy options for a complex world.”

Whether its fear or a more ostensibly sanguine notion of clarity and group think, if we aren’t careful, we will let this brutalize us and make us more xenophobic and jingoistic. To reiterate, an America reminded of 9/11 and potential terrorist attacks is one that easily gives up rights. Due diligence is heeded; we must not buy into demagoguery when we need actual leadership and an actual strategy. This brings me to my final point.

Finally, this could actually push Obama to reiterate our strategy in the Middle East and regarding our position in the world, more generally.
Political scientist Ian Bremmer in his recent book Superpower: Three Choices For America’s Role in the World (2015) argues that the U.S. needs to choose a strategy and he lays out three distinct options. First, what Bremmer calls Independent America is one where we should nation build but that building should be done here; this isn’t isolationist so much as it’s a reaction to real foreign policy failure and real economic needs here at home. The second choice, Moneyball America, is basically the idea of crafting a strategy that is closer to what international affairs experts call Realism; a realist should ask: what is the alternative to the status-quo? Finally, the third possible strategy is titled Indispensable America. The anarchic world order needs a hegemonic force to help maintain the rule of law and the spread of democratic values and systems. You can’t choose all three; Bremmer wrote this book for the next president and urges them to choose a strategy and to stick with it.

Obama, today at the G-20 event in Antalya, Turkey, sounds like Obama of ‘ol. Obama articulated what amounts to a Realist understanding and a realist strategy with shades of idealism: we still must not work with Assad, argues Obama. The attacks of Paris could force the next presidential candidates to construct a strategy that deals with the reality of ISIS and the reality of the Middle East. Governments often govern from crisis to crisis; this tragic event could help focus the upcoming debates in a way that definitely is overdue: who are we?

What role will America take in this battle against ISIS? Will the U.S.A. accept refugees and migrants from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia? Is America going to abandon the Middle East and “pivot” to China? All of these questions, and so many more, are important are are surely going to be asked, in some capacity at least, now after Paris.