Saturday, January 07, 2012

Nick Cohen observes the march of political folly on both sides of the Atlantic

In December an article in the English-language edition of Der Spiegel surveyed the field of Republican presidential candidates and pronounced them "A Club of Liars, Demagogues and Ignoramuses".
The US Republican race is dominated by ignorance, lies and scandals. [JW: The writer left out bigotry, xenophobia, and dangerous irresponsibility, which have also been abundant.] The current crop of candidates have shown such a basic lack of knowledge that they make George W. Bush look like Einstein. The Grand Old Party is ruining the entire country's reputation. [....]

No campaign can avoid its share of slip-ups, blunders and embarrassments. Yet this time around, it's just not that funny anymore. In fact, it's utterly horrifying. [....] They lie. They cheat. They exaggerate. They bluster. They say one idiotic, ignorant, outrageous thing after another. They've shown such stark lack of knowledge -- political, economic, geographic, historical -- that they make George W. Bush look like Einstein and even cause their fellow Republicans to cringe. [....]

Tough times demand tough and smart minds. But all these dopes have to offer are ramblings that insult the intelligence of all Americans -- no matter if they are Democrats, Republicans or neither of the above. [....]
And so on. It's hard to disagree. Of course, horrified and contemptuous assessments of US politics along these lines by western Europeans are perennial, and are too often colored by knee-jerk anti-Americanism. But one must concede that, this time around, the Republican nomination contest has provided all too much evidence for such conclusions. Just as the man says, this spectacle would be hilarious if it weren't potentially terrifying.

On the other hand, it's also true that smug European denunciations of American society and politics can often be superficial, one-sided, and misleading. And America-bashing can serve as a tempting distraction, helping Europeans to ignore or minimize the absurd, dysfunctional, and dangerous features of their own political scene. I'm not just alluding to obvious buffoons and poisonous demagogues like Berlusconi and Le Pen. Among other things, Europe's whole political economy is now undergoing a complex and dangerous crisis of major proportions, and so far the responses of Europe's political, economic, and policy-making elites have been almost uniformly abysmal.

Two recent pieces by the British democratic-left journalist Nick Cohen, taken together, do a characteristically acute job of capturing this situation and sounding the alarm. The first is a British/American comparison titled "The Good, the Smug and the Blind".
The Economist has a rather good, rather smug and – in the end – entirely self-deluding leader about the predicament of the American right this week.

It is good because the Economist sets out with neatness and style what policies a Republican candidate must sign up to if he or she is to make it through the primaries. [....] The approved list of right-thinking right-wing opinions explains why so many centrist Republicans who might have defeated Obama – Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush – have stayed out of the election. They were not politically correct enough for the fanatics at the grassroots.

How unlike our own dear Tories the tea partiers are, the Economist implies. While the Yanks are demented, the Brits are sensible, practical men and women of moderate temperament who abhor extremism and have no time for wishful thinking. No member of the coalition cabinet or editor on the Economist would sign up for any let alone all of the above.

Yet British conservatives hold extremist views on economics that are as wild as anything you can find on the American right. The Economist will not mention the failings because it shares them too. [....]
Too true. The second piece, based on an "Interview with a Danish Journalist", pointedly juxtaposes the Euroskeptical tendencies in British politics with the blind spots and unreflective wishful thinking of many Continental Europhiles. See below.

--Jeff Weintraub

==============================
The Spectator
January 2, 2002
The Good, the Smug and the Blind
By Nick Cohen

The Economist has a rather good, rather smug and – in the end – entirely self-deluding leader about the predicament of the American right this week.

It is good because the Economist sets out with neatness and style what policies a Republican candidate must sign up to if he or she is to make it through the primaries. The aspiring president must believe not just some but all of the following:
  • That abortion should be illegal in all cases.
  • That gay marriage must be banned even in states that want it.
  • That the 12m illegal immigrants, even those who have lived in America for decades, must all be sent home.
  • That the 46m people who lack health insurance have only themselves to blame.
  • That global warming is a conspiracy.
  • That any form of gun control is unconstitutional.
  • That any form of tax increase must be vetoed, even if the increase is only the cancelling of an expensive and market-distorting perk.
  • That Israel can do no wrong and the 'so-called Palestinians', to use Mr Gingrich’s term, can do no right.
  • That the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and others whose names you do not have to remember should be abolished.
The approved list of right-thinking right-wing opinions explains why so many centrist Republicans who might have defeated Obama – Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush – have stayed out of the election. They were not politically correct enough for the fanatics at the grassroots.

How unlike our own dear Tories the tea partiers are, the Economist implies. While the Yanks are demented, the Brits are sensible, practical men and women of moderate temperament who abhor extremism and have no time for wishful thinking. No member of the coalition cabinet or editor on the Economist would sign up for any let alone all of the above.

Yet British conservatives hold extremist views on economics that are as wild as anything you can find on the American right. The Economist will not mention the failings because it shares them too.

First, the right cannot admit that its policy of imposing austerity during a period of stagnation is – surprise, surprise – pushing Britain and Europe back into recession.

Second, British conservatives in particular cannot admit that the free market in high finance led to disaster, and a bailout that ought to have been so abhorrent to them it forced them to rethink their ideas.

I should add that I write this as an Economist addict, who becomes as fraught as a junkie without a fix if I can’t get hold of a copy on a Friday morning. But something is wrong there. When I began reading it in the late 1990s, Economist journalists predicted the collapse of the dotcom mania with brutal and brilliant clarity. Now they and the wider centre-right with the honourable exception of Vince Cable, don’t see crises in capitalism coming and don’t feel the need to work out why their ideology went wrong, and how their views must adapt if they are to see the world as it is again. It is the great intellectual failure of our time, and not only in conservative journalism.

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The Spectator
January 2, 2002
Interview with a Danish Journalist
By Nick Cohen

He came to talk to me about British Euroscepticism, and I did my best to explain. I said it was far stronger in England than Scotland for nationalist reasons, and that although Labour MPs were, in general, mildly Eurosceptic — Brown would not take us into the Euro, for instance — Euroscepticism was a passion on the Conservative side.

‘I know some of the young MPs who supported Cameron,’ I said. ‘They’re incredibly liberal about gay rights and all the rest of it but on the EU…’

‘They’re not liberal at all…’

I had to explain to him that supporting a Eurozone that is imposing an austerity on Ireland, Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal that offers them no way to grow out of recession was not, in normal language, a ‘liberal’ thing to do. [JW: Well, it's certainly "liberal" in the sense of 19th-century economic liberalism.] If anything Germany’s abhorrence of Keynesian demand boosting measures recalled Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, whose response to the Great Crash of 1929 was to say, ‘liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.’ Only liquidation could ‘purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.’

Needless to add, Hoover and Mellon’s uncompromising economic morality ensured that the Great Crash of 1929 turned into the Great Depression of the 1930s.

My Danish colleague found it strange to think that opposing Angela Merkel’s Depression-era economics and puritan desire to purge southern Europe for its sins did not make one a conservative. Quite the contrary, in fact. But the notion that allegiance to the EU makes one a progressive was embedded in his mind as it remains embedded in the minds of most European liberal-leftists. [....]

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