Against the UK election

Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election in early June heralds yet another misstep on the Labour Party’s laborious path to self-destruction. The Labour Party is in no shape to contest an election – Twenty points behind in the polls it faces a decimation wrought by a government that should be on its knees. An indication of the Party’s crisis: Labour seems likely to provide the crucial votes tomorrow to overturn the Fixed Parliaments Act and so unleash that decimation, aiding the Conservative government’s efforts to evade responsibility for the result of Brexit negotiations and any attempt to hold the Prime Minister to account during those negotiations. Labour’s malaise is now infecting the wider body politic – the snap election represents an existential crisis for the United Kingdom and its political system as a whole. It may be unusual to argue against democratic input, but in the absence of an opposition to represent the half of the country that oppose this Government’s signature policy this election does not represent democracy - it should be opposed at every turn.


The problems that Labour has faced over the last few years have only metabolized under the period of “pre-Brexit” and the Party has offered no clear way of addressing them. Brexit has alienated the Celtic periphery from England at a time when Labour’s route to victory must lie in uniting them. It faces the prospect of fighting the SNP and the Conservatives simultaneously – presenting itself as assiduously pro-Union and anti-Metropolitan in a new environment wherein the constitutional ground has shifted so as to make such a position nonsensical.


Brexit has divided the Blairite center and Corbynite Left on a fundamental constitutional question, in addition to the tactical questions that have bedeviled them. Brexit has split the party between a Northern base that resents attempts to block Brexit and a Southern wing that sees Brexit as national suicide. Corbyn has sought to paper over the conflict, but in an election fought on the only issue that matters – Brexit – Labour cannot evade a clear position. “Exit with honor” is unlikely to galvanize anyone – not least because the Liberal Democrats and Greens are offering a purer cut of anti-Brexit politics to the 48% or more who don’t want to leave the EU.


The line that they are likely to pursue – one suggested by Owen Jones today in The Guardian – that Labour offers a more competent management of Brexit is laughable in the face of a Party so riven that its leader cannot command authority over the parliamentary party in opposition. Corbyn’s strongest appeal was always robust anti-austerity and authenticity, while “managerialism” is antithetical to both his brand and the experience of his leadership.


But Labour’s implosion has wider ramifications. The failure to present a coherent opposition to the Government in this election will mean the failure to offer an alternative vision to the hard Brexit that the United Kingdom is edging towards. With the Conservatives projected to hold a three-figure majority following the campaign, the rump of the Labour Party will offer feeble opposition to a Prime Minister who will declare a mandate. Moreover, Prime Minister May will face a credible opposition on the right of the Conservative party. Substantial victory will both embolden the Government and make it more vulnerable to fears of the Conservative Right. Hounded the imagined menace of UKIP, the Conservatives and their media allies will drag the country into a vortex of Hard Brexit that will shatter the Union – and so the possibility of a governing majority for the Left-of-center or Left within the current parliamentary system. The Right’s dangerous politics of labeling critics as illegitimate and its twin, the retreat of the United Kingdom into a politics of nostalgia, will heighten. The country will become literally and figuratively smaller.


It is rare in the current politics that the Labour Party’s self-interest lines up with effective opposition, but on this issue it does – Labour should vote tomorrow for itself and the country and against the dissolution of fixed parliaments.

Nuclear Weapons as Identity Politics

The revelation that the test of the United Kingdom's nuclear capacity in the summer of 2016 resulted in a missile that veered off course has put pressure on the Conservative government. In obscuring the issues with this test (and indeed the existence of the test itself), the government allowed an uninformed Parliament to pass the 40 Billion GBP renewal of the Trident system. Given the slim public support for renewal at the time - 51% in an Independent poll - this information may have shifted the debate as thus Trident's renewal. But as with many political issues the question of who knew and when is emerging as the crucial point of contention.

That this has become an argument about procedure - who should inform Parliament and/or the Public of the outcome of these tests and when - is hardly surprising given the addiction of the UK's political elites to Trident. Trident was initiated during the Cold War, when the UK believed the most direct threat to its national security was a Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact. Since 1980 a lot has changed. But the consensus in Parliament that the UK needs a nuclear deterrent is not one of them. Despite the narrow lead in public support for Trident's renewal, the measure passed in the House of Commons with a majority of 355 with the Labour Party split down the middle. Corbyn's refusal to support the renewal saw his opposition to the rump of his own party labeled as "unprecedented... reckless, juvenile, narcissistic irresponsibility" by a Labour MP (Jamie Reed, who resigned last month to take a job in the nuclear industry, triggering a by-election in a marginal seat - I guess there is enough narcissistic irresponsibility to go around). Despite evidence that public support for nuclear weapons in the UK is weak, "serious" politicians overwhelming push for their continued existence. Indeed Corbyn's questioning of the UK nuclear deterrent has seen him labeled a danger to national security.

Given that we are no longer fighting the Cold War why is it heretical to question Trident? I would suggest that a recent suggestion that we think of Brexit in terms of identity politics is a useful lens here. The split of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party's lockstep love of the Bomb have echoes of the divisions that we see over Brexit. To be sure, the Conservative Party is more divided over Brexit than Trident, but I'd argue that the latter divide masks a general support for the view that Britain has global clout. (The question for Conservatives is whether the UK leads in Europe or outside it). The unquestioned support for Trident is born of a consensus that the UK is amongst the nations that need to have a nuclear capacity i.e. that the UK has a leadership role in the world. Despite the evidence that the UK is no longer a global power, it remains an article of faith amongst sections of the UK public and the establishment parties that it remains so - or at least that it retains some special claim to be a leader in the community of nations. Trident is the enactment of this belief, and like its twin Brexit, retains the strongest support amongst conservative old men. It is therefore not surprising that Prime Minister May has has tied Brexit to the projection of British naval power and a faux-patriotism of colours.

Under this framework, the failure of Trident to actually work, the oppressive cost of the program, and the lack of an even hypothetical situation in which Trident would be deployed have little bearing on the rabid condemnation of its critics. To question Trident is to question Great Britain. (And it is therefore not surprising that it is the parties of the Celtic fringe that are most critical of Trident - as with Brexit - and most easily dismissed from the debate). To have an open discussion about the future of British nuclear weapons would be to concede of a future in which the UK no longer has them. And to do that would be an admission that the UK is just one nation amongst others. 40 Billion GBP is apparently a price worth paying to avoid that cognitive reckoning. As with Brexit, we as a nation would rather continue an economically draining folly than have a frank discussion about the reality of the UK's place in the world. 

In truth, the debate around Trident is one of real reckless irresponsibility. But the reckless irresponsibility is the refusal to openly and thoroughly discuss the future of Trident and the UK's role in the global order more generally. Instead we continue pursuing a potentially flawed independent nuclear deterrent that let's us believe the UK is a global power. And at a cost of 40 Billion GBP we are losing out in myriad other ways. The tragedy of it is, like Brexit, that in enacting this identity the UK is only hastening its global irrelevance. 


Thoughts on the VP Debate

The VP debate has just ended, marked as it was by Pence's calm but disingenuous refusal to acknowledge Trump’s offensive language or highly heterodox policy positions. Early punditry is awarding Pence a points victory on the basis of his rhetorical style and debating prowess, but foretelling a Kaine success story in the longer (i.e. 24-48 hours) term as media fact checking and endless looping of sound bites work to confirm the narrative the latter’s talking heads have predicted. In short, this debate only served to further underline the futility of these debates as anything other than spectacle.


Nevertheless, Pence’s performance is also being seen as pointing to the GOP’s post-Trump future, sketching a way forward for the party after the 2016 fever dream of proto-fascism. But, if that is the case, then the GOP’s future doesn’t appear very different from the present. In truth Pence represents nothing more than a mirror image of Trump’s angry nativism. Calmer, perhaps more dignified, and certainly less threatening to Washington’s elites, Pence is nonetheless as much a personification of the presumption of white masculine power as Trump is. In rejecting discussion of implicit bias, denying women the capacity to control their own reproductive power, assuming “strength” as the only palatable response to all foreign policy questions, and offering only walls in response to transnational human crises, Pence eschews only Trump’s visible anger. Moreover, just like Trump, Pence sees only rudeness, disrespect, and moral failing in those – like Kaine – who seek to challenge his assumed monopoly of authority. If Pence is the GOP’s future, it marks not the passing of Trumpism but its regularization. 

The Party's Only Just Begun: Ideological Parties and Campaign 2016

(This was a solicited, but eventually unpublished piece for a magazine)

The United States is facing perhaps the strangest presidential election in our lifetimes. Both candidates in different ways have defied expectations in their respective party primaries. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton, a proven politician—a former U.S. senator, secretary of state, and first lady—with a competitive run for the Democratic presidential nomination already under her belt faced a challenger from the far left of her party that stretched the primary race all the way to June. On the other hand, we have seen a businessman and television personality with minimal political experience emerge from a crowded field to claim the Republican nomination.


Strikingly, they are the most unpopular standard-bearers for their parties since polls began. Both are larger-than-life personalities and it is tempting to think that we are set up for an anomalous election that will revolve to a great extent around these personalities. In this respect, Donald Trump is certainly the main story of the campaign so far. But it could be that Trump (and to some extent U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.) represents important longer-term trends in U.S. politics that are worth examining in regard to the current election. We discuss some of these in one of my classes, American Politics: Issues and Institutions, and I’d like to share them.


Political Parties and the Constitution

In American Politics we spend a lot of time talking about the Democrats and Republicans. We think about elections in terms of political parties. Which party will win the White House? What does each party represent? Which voters might they be able to attract? It is hard to think about U.S. politics without the Democrats and the Republicans. One student in the class this past spring, Mostafa Youssef, an exchange student from American University in Cairo, noted, “Affiliation with a party has long been part and parcel of any decent attempt to win the race to the White House.”


But this year’s race did prompt students to question this association. Students wondered whether Trump and Sanders would run as independents if they did not gain the respective parties’ nominations. As Youssef put it, “Sanders and Trump have been antithetical to their respective parties' ideas … why not just run as independents from the beginning?”


This question challenges our assumptions about elections insofar as it suggests the possibility of voting without political parties. Why not have independents square off against each other? It might seem far-fetched. But historically it has precedent.


In the class, we always begin with the U.S. Constitution. As the nation’s founding document, it provides the framework for our federal government. It lists the powers of Congress, the roles of the president, and the responsibilities of the Supreme Court. However, the Constitution does not mention those institutions that have come to dominate elections in the United States—political parties.


At the time of the Constitution’s drafting, politics revolved around personalities, with no parties really operating in the United States until the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans began to oppose John Adams’s administration in the 1790s. Since then, parties have become important political institutions, central to our politics today. Although not mentioned in the Constitution, political parties enable the government, as delineated in the Constitution, to operate: they organize candidate selection, run electoral campaigns, coordinate policy, and ensure that the branches of government work together (when they do!).


Is the country polarizing?

As much as the parties help to make the government function, they have come to be regarded as a threat to good governance. This discussion regularly came up in the American Politics class. Isobel Coen ’18 echoed many voters’ concerns that the parties are moving further apart: “We've seen a huge push in both parties to break away from traditional platforms and political ideals of the GOP and DNC [Democratic National Committee].” Coen was talking about “the increasing political polarization” she observes in the United States.


During the semester, we debated this idea of polarization many times; it is invariably the word that comes up when discussing the current state of American politics. The parties are seen to be further apart and more ideologically rigid. As a result people claim “politics isn't working.” The perception that “normal” politics is not working and that the parties are more extreme are offered as explanations for the unexpected rise of Trump and success of Sanders.


At the same time, as one student, Stella Frank ’19, noted, “Many Americans feel the need to maintain their loyalty with their affiliated party despite who the candidate is.” In class we discussed the way in which individuals are increasingly unwilling to countenance voting for the “other” party. Surveys support this view by suggesting that the number of political moderates in the American electorate has decreased over recent decades. Pew Research, in its 2016 “political polarization” update, suggested that while 49 percent of Americans held a mixture of liberal and conservative political views in 1994, only 38 percent did so in 2015. By comparison, in 1994 only 3 percent were identified as consistently liberal and 7 percent as consistently conservative. By 2015 these numbers were 13 percent and 10 percent respectively. This suggests that the political middle is declining and more radical positions are gaining strength.


But before we panic that the center will not hold, I maintain that this state of affairs is not necessarily (a) actually the case or (b) a bad thing in itself. On the first point, it is worth noting that 38 percent of Americans do still remain “mixed” in their political views—so the center is not collapsing but just reducing. To the latter point, it has been suggested that rather than a polarization of the American public, we are actually witnessing a period of correction in terms of party identification. Political scientist Morris Fiorina has argued that individuals’ political views have not radically changed but rather that ideological divisions in the country now hew more closely to the divisions between the major parties. To take one high-profile example, a similar proportion of the American public supported legal abortion under any circumstances in 1975 (23 percent) and in 2009 (21 percent). However, the alignment of those Americans with political party affiliations shifted significantly over the same period. In 1975, 18 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats supported legal abortion under any circumstances. But by 2009, only 12 percent of Republicans held that view, while among Democrats it had risen to 31 percent. This pattern can also be seen for issues like environmental protection, corporate profits, and immigration policy. Members of the public are increasingly likely to align with the “correct” party for their views and to hold views that are consistently liberal or consistently conservative across multiple issues.


The pace of this change has not been uniform across the whole of society. The most politically aware individuals tend to be the ones that are most able to “correctly” locate issues within an ideological framework and to most quickly respond to changes in political leaders’ ideological positions. Given this, as one might expect, the most politically active and aware individuals have been quickest in adopting new issue positions associated with the parties. Which is to say, it has been party activists that have become most ideologically “pure.” As a result, the parties themselves have become increasingly unified and distinct ideologically—perhaps nowhere more so than in Congress.


The Parties in Congress

Political scientists have long observed this trend, and use a score to identify the relative ideological position of members of Congress. A score of 1.0 indicates strong conservatism, while a score of -1.0 indicates strong liberalism. By this measure, the parties in Congress are further apart than they have ever been. Since 1976, the Republican Party in the House of Representatives has moved to the right on this scale (from an average of about 0.2 in 1976 to over 0.6 today). While the Democrats have also moved, it has not been by as much and is largely explained by more conservative Southern Democrats drifting away from the party since the civil rights movement in the 1960s.


At the same time as they are becoming more distinct, the parties in Congress are also becoming more unified. Once upon a time, moderate members of Congress in both parties overlapped in terms of political ideology, but that is becoming increasingly less common. Much of the change represented in the scores above is the result of moderate members of Congress being replaced by more ideological politicians. Pew Research’s political polarization survey notes that the 1973–74 Congress had 240 members of the House of Representatives situated between the most liberal Republican and most conservative Democrat—that is, the overlap between the parties amounted to 240 members, over half of 435 members of the House. By 2011–12, the analysis showed no House member between the most liberal Republican and most conservative Democrat; the parties had become entirely distinct.


Responsible Parties: Congress

Political parties that are separated from each other ideologically is not a very remarkable occurrence outside the United States. For many, if not most, democratic countries, it is to be expected. Parties consist of fairly stable memberships that select candidates and adopt party policies. Once in office, these parties behave in ways that further their party’s agenda by supporting legislation where appropriate and blocking government acts they deem unnecessary or against their interests.


Many have pushed for a similar system in the United States. As far back as 1950, the American Political Science Association called for American political parties to act more like those “responsible” parties abroad by developing very different solutions to the problems of government—thus providing the American people with a true choice in terms of government policy. To the extent that polarization and the separation of the parties in Congress underscore that process, we would expect the advocates of responsible parties to welcome these changes.


However, as I noted, the American federal government was designed in an era before parties. In designing the government of the Constitution, the founding fathers were not motivated by enabling party rule but rather by stopping government overreach. They worried less about the possibility of gridlock in the legislature than about its ability to do too much. To this end, they divided up power between the branches and gave each one distinct powers over the others. They sought to make it difficult to get all the branches moving in the same direction.


Because the parties were not very far apart ideologically during most of the post–World War II era, as indicated by the “overlap” numbers above, they managed  to work around the divisions between branches written into the Constitution. But as the parties’ positions have solidified in recent years, this cooperation has become less prevalent.


Some political scientists, such as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, have argued that the separation of the parties in Congress has made enacting legislation more difficult. This deadlock has seen recent Congresses vie for the title of “Do Nothing” Congress, a reference to Truman’s criticism of 1947-49 Congress. Such low output has affected Congress’s popularity. At the beginning of April 2016, Gallup found Congress had a 17 percent approval rating among Americans (it has rarely reached more than 20 percent in the last 6 years). The same polling firm has found that since 2007—with exception of 2008 and 2012—a majority of Americans have favored a third political party since the major parties "do such a poor job" of representing the American people. Ironically, the more “responsible” our political parties are, the more they seem to offer the United States choices the public would prefer not to accept!


While Congress has never been that popular as an institution, such high dissatisfaction might open the door to candidates like Trump who promise to make “deals in Congress” and to tackle the “establishment.” Analysis of Trump supporters has suggested a strong “anti-elite” sentiment that would correspond with a frustration with congressional inaction and a willingness to seek representatives outside of the party hierarchies.  


Political Parties at the Polls

Along with more ideological parties and their separation in Congress, a third development in American parties has set the stage for Trump. In the 1970s the spread of primaries—direct elections for party nominees—as vehicles for selecting presidential candidates set the stage for the current mode of presidential contests. The emergence of the modern primary system seems to empower voters at the expense of party leaders. The romantic narrative claims that instead of candidates being selected in smoke-filled backrooms, the primaries put nominating power in the hands of the people. However, scholars of American politics are suspicious of this narrative. Examining the ways in which presidential candidates are selected, the scholars associated with “the party decides” thesis argue that party leaders still hold considerable sway. Through the need for endorsements and interest-group support, the field of potential candidates is winnowed down before voters even get a chance to express their views.


Trump’s success in capturing the GOP nomination seems to undermine that claim. In a field rich with established Republican stalwarts, the outsider surged through to claim the nomination. Moreover, the GOP leadership fought tooth and nail for months to find a way to stop Trump from winning, only to gradually fall in line. Trump never led in terms of endorsements while the race was competitive and did not receive any endorsements at all before the Iowa caucus.


Perhaps the power of party leadership has ebbed in recent elections. In 2008 Barack Obama entered Iowa with only 10 percent of the party’s endorsements up until that point but went on to win the nomination. In 2004 John Kerry also became the Democratic party’s nominee despite being weakly placed in terms of pre-Iowa endorsements. What Obama and Trump—and Sanders—have in common is an ability to mobilize the grassroots of a party through a message that appeals to its activists’ ideological commitments. Strikingly, both Trump and Sanders have run not just against Congress but also against their own party. They have effectively run for the party nomination by running against the party leadership. It may still be the case that the primary system has not handed power over nominations to the people, but increasingly the system seems to be handing power to the parties—at the expense of the parties’ leadership. With political parties growing more ideological and the Constitution increasingly unable to accommodate them, members looking to more extreme candidates to voice their frustrations.


Beyond Trump

Making predictions is something that political scientists try to avoid. After all, as Harold Wilson is alleged to have said, “A week is a long time in politics.” But Trump might not be an anomaly but rather a foreshadowing of a type of presidential candidate that will become more common in the future.


As the parties “sort” themselves into greater ideological cohesion and activists assert more control over the nomination process, we are likely to see more candidates whose primary appeal is to an activist base rather than a party elite or general electorate. These modern “responsible” parties are mobilizing around issues might appear obscure or unpopular to a general audience but in fact will work to capture the support of a majority of their party. The U.S. Constitution provides veto points and a system of separated powers that make opposition to legislation easy while requiring cooperation for successful governance.  These tendencies – ideological parties and a constitution that falters in periods of rigid opposition – mean frustration with political leaders in both parties is likely to increase. 

Thoughts on Labour


  1. Even though I supported him and his positions, Corbyn has not been an effective leader. The treatment of him in the press and by the PLP may have hampered his leadership, but after a year he should be in stronger position than he is against a government overseeing spending cuts and riven by splits over Brexit and its fallout.
  2. Nevertheless the problems of Labour and the British Left do not hinge on Corbyn’s position.
  3. Winning might not be everything, but being able to influence policy is. Labour are currently unlikely to win power and are not influencing policy.
  4. To remove the Conservatives from office one of three things is required: (a) Labour win extensively in Scotland; (b) First-Past-The-Post is replaced with a form of PR; (c) A political force comprised of a broad coalition of conservatism’s opponents emerges.
  5. Neither candidate in the Labour leadership election has adequately sketched out a path to these outcomes.
  6. In part this is because Labour is institutionally unable to respond to the issues its faces. As a party it cannot accept electoral reform that would reduce the size of the PLP. It cannot acknowledge the medium term loss of Scotland as a given due to the (until recently) institutional importance of Scotland to the Party. It cannot imagine a broad coalition as it is emotionally tied to the idea that it alone carries the progressive touch in the UK.
  7. That significant parts of the party regard a huge increase in membership as a threat exemplifies this. While the incorporation of such a surge in membership would undoubtedly be difficult and take time, only a sclerotic institution is unable to conceive of the potential of a vastly increased membership.
  8. Corbyn, no less than Smith, is representative of Labour’s thinking in this regard. The former hopes that he can lead an insurgency within the Party to overcome the power of the PLP. The latter hopes to channel the insurgency to the advantage of the PLP. Neither is willing to concede the necessary reconstruction of the Labour Party as a precursor to a broader progressive left.
  9. As such, the outcome of this leadership election will not solve Labour’s problems but intensify them. It represents a lost opportunity for real reform.

Whatever the merits of Brexit, it offers the opportunity for a new regime of economic regulation removed from the overarching goals of the European Union. This, together with the electoral incentives created by the decline of the Liberal Democrats and the rise of the SNP, creates something of a productive crisis for British political life. It will be a shame if Labour squanders that opening through engagement in a protracted squabble over control of the parliamentary party.

Losing This Election

There has been much approval of the Khans’ speech at the Democratic convention and an equal — if not greater — amount of criticism has been directed at Trump’s response to it.

The criticism of Trump’s response has been as justified as his own response was ignorant, cruel, and inadequate. Writers have been quick to both guffaw at Trump’s understanding of sacrifice and rail against his lack of respect for the sacrifice of dead soldier’s family. The Khans have been held aloft as ideal Americans and the pocket Constitution has flown up the Amazon best sellers’ list. Nevertheless this event contains a worrying foreshadowing of the election that we will see fought until November.

The Democratic Party’s decision to respond to Trump’s manifestly unconstitutional and racist demands that Muslims be banned from the United States, required to inform on co-religionists, and that countries identified as having a history of terrorism, through an appeal to the “real” sacrifice of up-standing “Patriotic American Muslims” concedes much of Trump’s rhetoric and reifies the Good Muslim-Bad Muslim framework of recent American discourse.

In the midst of Trump’s racism and bigotry, he has made opposition to “the failed policy of nation building and regime change” an important position for his campaign. If it is possible to draw a redeeming feature from a campaign saturated in soft fascism, this would be it. Reviewing a decade and a half of contemporary American military intervention in the Middle East, Trump duly notes that it has done nothing to make America safer or the region more stable. It has also resulted in deaths of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals and contributed to the greatest refugee crisis in the region in generations. Opposition to these policies animated Democratic opposition to George W. Bush’s Republican Administration and sustained a healthy, if more muted, skepticism of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.

However, the sacrifice of Army Capt. Humayun Khan took place within the framework of such nation building and regime change. In using this moment of sacrifice as a mechanism for undermining Trump’s Islamophobia, the Democratic party is reversing a steady trend towards regarding the Iraq War as an abject failure of foreign policy that came at immense human cost. Instead Iraqis offered as a theater within which Muslim’s proved themselves to be as American as any other citizen. Raised to become an example of the best of America — the proof of the so-called melting pot — Iraq (and by extension the policies that led to it) become a glorious moment to celebrate. Of course the reality could not be more opposed; A path that led to Abu Ghraib is depicted instead as leading to the defeat of Donald Trump and fascism.

As a counter to Trump’s barely-coded discounting of Muslims as unAmerican, the invocation of Khan’s sacrifice seeks recode Muslims as American by defining American in terms of a willingness to participate in such nation building projects. Khan is shown to be as American as any other participant in the Military-Industrial Complex and its foreign adventures. There is no room here to be a good American by opposing the identify of foreign policy with the deployment of the U.S. Military or the creeping militarization of domestic policy. At the same time the praise for Capt. Khan subtly reaffirms the notion that there are loyal American Muslims willing to participant in the broadly defined “War on Terror” and suspect Muslims whose sympathies are questionable. Subsequent discussion of the responsibilities of American Muslims to “cooperate” in the policing of their own communities only adds to this tendency. If anything the discourse emergent from the Khans’ speech and its reception reaffirms the view that it is only possible to be an American in good standing and hold dissenting views if one is white.

The successful marshaling of a favorable media response to the Khans’ speech suggests that the Democratic party intends to deploy this line of attack on Trump through to November. It might prove effective in defeating Trump’s presidential campaign, but it will come at an expensive price. It will crush the only strand of coherent critique offered by the Trump campaign. It will revise the history of the Iraq War in ways that render its real lessons futile. It will offer Clintonian foreign intervention as a force for good at home as well as abroad. It will revive the view that the military is a progressive institution. It will reify the Islamophobia of the past decades and present the expectations of loyalty and self-policing which were perhaps in retreat as newly legitimate. It will restore a definition of ideal citizenship that rests on service in the institutions of the military and on participation in wars against terrorism. It may defeat Trump, but it will be at the cost of legitimizing a more insidious form of the very politics that many opponents of Trump believe that they fighting against. Trump may very lose while Trumpism wins.

Mohammed Emwazi

The news that Mohammed Emwazi (or "Jihadi John") has been in all likelihood executed by the United States in drone strike in Raqqa has received much coverage today. I'm not going to reflect here on justice of such a strike, the normative issues raised by the use of drones, or the question of the legality of such targeted assassination. I'm also certainly not going to defend Emwazi or ISIS in any way. But what struck me about the announcement was the degree to which Mohammed Emwazi was dehumanized by Pentagon and the apparent acceptability of joking about this execution. The Guardian reports Pentagon Spokesperson Steve Warren as describing Emwazi as a "human animal," before jokingly referring to Emwazi's driver (who also died and whose relationship - if any - to the murders for which David Cameron described Emwazi as "barbaric" is unreported) as "his worst best friend."

If justifiable, the death of four individuals as the result of a rocket strike seems to me to be a event that we should regret the necessity of. The levity with which Pentagon has imparted this news rests on an ability to dehumanize the victims of this strike. That act of dehumanization can only feed into the cycle of violence that has characterized US-UK engagements with the Middle East in the last decade and a half. Whatever the justifications for and consequences of killing Emwazi, the strengthening of a discourse in which our enemies are thought of as less than human is unlikely to contribute to, in Warren's word's, "making the world a better place."

UK Constitutional Politics

Update: Evel passed in the Commons 312 to 270

Two events this week saw the creaking UK constitutional settlement become a subject of discussion. The first was the threat by Lady Meacher to make use of a so-called "fatal motion" in the House of Lords to derail the Conservative government's attempt to reform the system of tax credits. Ultimately the motion came to nothing - in part due to the Government's threat of renewed Lords reform in response to such an action.

The second occurs today as the UK Government attempts to pass the measure dubbed "English Votes for English Laws" (Evel). This legislation seeks to give the Speaker of the House of Commons the ability to categorize proposed legislation as "English" and thus subject to the votes of only English MPs. Offered by Cameron in response to the SNP's success in the general election, it represents a legislative response to the West Lothian question. At the time of writing it looks like the Government will win the vote.

The two moments highlight two aspects of recent UK constitutional politics. Both moments highlight a failure to address constitutional reform in anything approaching a system manner. In the first moment the Government mobilized the threat of Lords reform to head off attempts by that body to stop implementation of a policy lacking even a plurality of support (even for Conservative voters only 60% support the policy in the abstract according to a recent ComRes poll - table 17/2). This begs the question of what exactly the Lords is for, if not to attempt to force revision of unpopular policies. "A-Ha!" the textbooks say, "The Lords' lack of democratic legitimacy that makes it unable to block finance bills such as this one - why should an unelected body block the democratic will of the Commons?" But this argument makes the threat of reform - which would presumably seek a more democratic body - as a response to inference with finance bills somewhat incoherent. It also raises the interesting possibility that the "democratic" thing to do in this situation would be for the Lords to vote for the fatal motion and force the Government to embark on Lords reform. 

If that seems a very haphazard way to undertake constitutional reform, consider the other moment from this week. The Government's plans for Evel seem to be wholly designed to appease those disgruntled by Scotland's flirtation with independence. Such a view is given support by the announcement of the policy in immediate response to the referendum result. This points to the other common theme in these two moments - the use of constitutional reform (or rather the threat of it) as a tool of partisan politics. In both instances discussion of reform has served to further shore up the ruling party's electoral coalition. This is certainly not a tendency of the Conservatives alone - under Blair Labour embarked on ad hoc constitutional reform, partially purging the Lords of hereditary peers, offering regional assemblies to areas of electoral strength, avoiding resolution of the West Lothian question. 

Supporters of the UK Constitution make much of the piecemeal approach to reform that has characterized British constitutional history. This seems in many instances to be making virtue of (undesirable) necessity - Lords reform hasn't made much headway since it was initiated in 1911. However, in the current era this piecemeal approach is working neither to curtain partisan reform nor to ensure best practice. As commentators have noted, the Lords is the second largest assembly in the world and it is growing in size - and it remains resolutely unelected. Evel stands to empower the Speaker on the Commons in a significant new way but without an examination of how the Speaker is selected.

Piecemeal is not working for the UK at the moment. The constitution is a hot mess, and faith in the political class is at an all time low. What is needed is careful, expansive thought about democratization of the institutions of representation. What we are getting is short-sighted, partisan, and knee-jerk proposals. The question of the Lords and the West Lothian question are not necessarily separate - could the UK not follow the German or US model in arranging the upper chamber on regional lines? Might the Lords be replaced by an English Assembly to correspond with those in Wales and Scotland? Do the regions of England need a mechanism of representation that counters the dominance of London? Addressing these questions might require careful thought, but isn't that exactly what we need at the moment?



Credit Scores, Wealth, and Race in the United States

Sarah Ludwig has a piece in the Guardian today discussing the manner in which credit scores operate to perpetuate racial inequalities in the United States. Although much decried in the comments section, this is an important and insightful article. Credit scores operate as a gatekeeper to all sorts of resources - loans, but also employment and housing - and as such can effectively distribute these resources throughout society in different ways. If structurally determined then they present a serious theatre within which to combat inequality.

However one point that could be further emphasized by Ludwig is the manner in which credit scores determine interest rates on loan repayments. A lower score leads to higher payments (in theory to compensate the higher risk taken on by the lender). This means that groups for whom credit scores are systematically lower will pay more in interest - i.e. that borrowing costs more for those groups. The racial history of the United States has resulted in a situation in which Black household wealth averages 5% of that of White households, and in which redlining was legally sanctioned until 1968 (and which continued in effect after that). As Coates' The Case for Reparations documents the expropriation of Black wealth in the United States has been multi-dimensional and systematic. Credit scores can be numerical representations of inter-generational discrimination and exploitation. Insofar as interest rates vary between borrowers, credit scores allow the costs of a credit system to be disproportionately borne by minorities.

Credit scores that make it harder and, when possible, more expensive for minorities to access societal resources are a serious concern for social justice.

Ben Carson and the Nazis

Ben Carson has come in for criticism for suggesting that without gun control in Nazi Germany the Jewish minority could have successfully resisted the Holocaust. To say the least, Carson's analysis requires many qualifications and a hefty dose of context. The media is framing this a "gaff" - a verbal slip from an unexperienced candidate. But the reality is that Carson is not deviating that far from right-wing orthodoxies. Within this ecosystem it has long been accepted that Switzerland escaped Nazi occupation due to its armed citizenry. Much of the research to support that view comes from Stephen Halbrook, and the NRA has promoted this research

The reality is though that the United States sees about 30,000 deaths a year from guns. That's the equivalent of three Srebrenica massacres a year. Rather than playing hypotheticals with historical moments, the United States should try and deal with the massacre taking place every year due to its gun culture.

Corbyn and the UK Media

Glenn Greenwald twitted a story earlier today from ITV concerning Jeremy Corbyn's apparent dodging of an invitation from the Privy Council. Greenwald criticizes the willingness of ITV to give anonymity to a source that accuses Corbyn of not being grown up. On this point Greenwald certainly has a point - and it should be contextualized within the broader point that journalists seem all to willing to grant anonymity to establishment figures on both sides of the Atlantic.

But there is a second observation that I'd like to make - namely that Corbyn is doing a terrific job in highlighting the degree to which British journalism is deferent to the establishment. Some individual journalists undoubtedly buck the trend, but to the extent that it is a coherent institution British journalism has shown an incredible willingness to accept - and propagate - critiques of Corbyn that rest on establishment shibboleths. Be it an unwillingness to sing the nation anthem, criticism of nuclear weapons, or talking about NATO, Corbyn has the British media foaming over issues held sacred by the establishment, but for which public support is mixed. On Trident, NATO, and even the monarchy, the public is not in lockstep with the establishment. But you would hardly know this from the media coverage.