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Posts Tagged ‘government

“History, in general, only informs us what bad government is”*…

 

Government

 

In the early 19th century, less than 1% of the global population could be found in democracies.

In more recent decades, however, the dominoes have fallen ⁠— and today, it’s estimated that 56% of the world population lives in societies that can be considered democratic, at least according to the Polity IV data series highlighted above.

While there are questions regarding a recent decline in freedom around the world, it’s worth considering that democratic governance is still a relatively new tradition within a much broader historical context.

Will the long-term trend of democracy prevail, or are the more recent indications of populism a sign of reversion?…

More (including explanations of the methodology and categories used) at “Visualizing 200 Years of Systems of Government.” (For perspectives on the caution at the end of the quoted passage above, see here and here.)

* Thomas Jefferson’s harsh verdict, The Letters of Thomas Jefferson

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As we organize our thoughts about social organization, we might recall that it was on this date that President Millard Fillmore signed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. One of the most controversial elements of the Compromise of 1850, it heightened Northern fears of a “slave power conspiracy” by required that all escaped slaves, upon capture, be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate. Abolitionists nicknamed it the “Bloodhound Law”, for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

Law-enforcement officials everywhere were required to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on as little as a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership.  In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months’ imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work.

The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. Slave owners needed only to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave.  Since a suspected slave had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations, the law resulted in the kidnapping and conscription of free blacks into slavery. (The film 12 Years a Slave was based on one such abduction– the kidnapping and bondage of Solomon Northrup.)

170px-Slave_kidnap_post_1851_boston

An 1851 poster warned the “colored people of Boston” about policemen acting as slave catchers

source

 

 

Written by LW

September 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them”*…

 

Populists

 

We live in the age of charismatic elected would-be despots. His — it is almost always a “he” — are the politics of fear and rage. It takes a certain sort of personality to be a master of such politics. In the right — that is, the wrong — circumstances, such leaders emerge naturally. That is not surprising after a violent revolution. What is far more so is that such leaders have been emerging in well-established democracies.

We now see elected “strongmen” — actual and would-be — everywhere. Leading examples are Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India, Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Matteo Salvini in Italy and Donald Trump in the US. These leaders differ in degrees of sophistication. The countries in which they operate also differ. Some are economically developed, while others are not. Some are longstanding democracies; others, again, are not.

Yet these men are all characters in a story powerfully told by the independent US watchdog Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2019, published in February, reported a 13th consecutive year of decline in the global health of democracy. This decline occurred in all regions of the world, notably in the democracies that emerged after the cold war. Above all, it occurred in western democracies, with the US — the most influential upholder of democratic values — leading the way…

People want to believe a powerful and charismatic leader is on their side in an unjust world.  The estimable Martin Wolf unpacks the mechanism of “strong man” rule: “The age of the elected despot is here.”

For a different angle on the phenomenon the Wolf unpacks, one that speaks directly to Steven’s Pinker’s quote in the title of this post, see “Dialectics of Enlightenment.”

*”A very different threat to human progress is a political movement that seeks to undermine its Enlightenment foundations.

The second decade of the 21st century has seen the rise of a counter-Enlightenment movement called populism, more accurately, authoritarian populism. Populism calls for the direct sovereignty of a country’s “people” (usually an ethnic group, sometimes a class), embodied in a strong leader who directly channels their authentic virtue and experience.

Authoritarian populism can be seen as a pushback of elements of human nature—tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking—against the Enlightenment institutions that were designed to circumvent them. By focusing on the tribe rather than the individual, it has no place for the protection of minority rights or the promotion of human welfare worldwide. By failing to acknowledge that hard-won knowledge is the key to societal improvement, it denigrates “elites” and “experts” and downplays the marketplace of ideas, including freedom of speech, diversity of opinion, and the fact-checking of self-serving claims. By valorizing a strong leader, populism overlooks the limitations in human nature, and disdains the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.

Populism comes in left-wing and right-wing varieties, which share a folk theory of economics as zero-sum competition: between economic classes in the case of the left, between nations or ethnic groups in the case of the right. Problems are seen not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious elites, minorities, or foreigners. As for progress, forget about it: populism looks backward to an age in which the nation was ethnically homogeneous, orthodox cultural and religious values prevailed, and economies were powered by farming and manufacturing, which produced tangible goods for local consumption and for export.”

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

Consider also:

“Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.”

– Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism”, New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995)

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As we think for ourselves, we might recall that it was on this date in 1945 that Joseph Goebbels died.  One of Adolf Hitler’s closest and most devoted associates, Goebbels was a student of the shaping of public opinion; he served as Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945.  He was  a gifted public speaker, who was particularly adept at using the relatively new media of radio and film for propaganda purposes, emphasizing antisemitism, attacks on the Christian churches, and (after the start of World War II) the boosting of public morale.

Hitler committed suicide in his bunker on April 30, 1945. In accordance with his will, Goebbels succeeded him as Chancellor of Germany, serving one day in this post.  The following day, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide, after poisoning their six children with cyanide.

220px-Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1968-101-20A,_Joseph_Goebbels source

 

Written by LW

May 1, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves”*…

 

When you think about politics these days, it’s hard to avoid focusing on Donald Trump’s remarkable rise to power and his even more remarkable presidency. It’s even harder to avoid thinking about the scandals swirling around him day to day. It’s not that I don’t think these are important. But they are not the subject of today’s talk.  In this talk, I want to look at the big picture. In this picture, Trump is merely a symptom. He is a symptom of a serious problem with our political and constitutional system.

Because Trump’s method is to provoke outrage and fluster his opponents, many people have wondered whether we are currently in some sort of constitutional crisis.  We are not. Rather, we are in a period of constitutional rot

Yale Law professor Jack Balkin on the importance of not missing the forest for the trees: “Trumping the Constitution.”

[image above, sourced here]

* “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”   – Thomas Jefferson

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As we batten down the hatches, we might recall that it was on this date in 1788 that the eleven states voted to adopt the new U.S. Constitution, and it was formally ratified; it went into effect on March 4 of the following year.  The two remaining states ratified by 1790.

Page one of the original copy of the Constitution

source

 

Written by LW

June 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Fortune’s expensive smile is earned”*…

 

“Hinkley [the nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset, UK] is set to be the most expensive object on Earth… best guesses say Hinkley could pass £24bn ($35bn),” said the environmental charity Greenpeace last month as it launched a petition against the project.

This figure includes an estimate for paying interest on borrowed money, but the financing arrangements for Hinkley C are so opaque that it is impossible to calculate exactly what the final cost will be.

Even if you stick with the expense of construction alone, though, the price is still high – the main contractor, EDF, puts it at £18bn ($26bn).

For that sum you could build a small forest of Burj Khalifas – the world’s tallest building, in Dubai, cost a piffling £1bn ($1.5bn). You could also knock up more than 70 miles of particle accelerator. The 17-mile-long Large Hadron Collider, built under the border between France and Switzerland to unlock the secrets of the universe, cost a mere £4bn ($5.8bn).

The most expensive bridge ever constructed is the eastern replacement span of the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco, designed to withstand the strongest earthquake seismologists would expect within the next 1,500 years. That cost about £4.5bn ($6.5bn)…

More jaw-dropping comparisons (and an explanation of the cost) at “What is the most expensive object on Earth?”  Even more background at “Should the UK pull plug on Hinkley Point nuclear power station?” (from whence, the photo above).

* Emily Dickinson

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As we duck and cover, we might send birthday greetings that glow in the dark to David Allan Bromley; he was born on this date in 1926.  A winner of the National Medal of Science, Bromley is considered the “father of modern heavy ion science.”  He had a distinguished career in academia (retiring as the first Sterling Professor of Science at Yale) and in government (first at Atomic Energy of Canada, then as Science Advisor to two U.S. presidents).  Among his many achievements, he is probably best remembered as the founder and first head of Yale’s A.W. Wright Nuclear Structure Laboratory, which has produced more experimental nuclear physicists than any other facility.

 source

 

Death AND Taxes…

See the full infographic (of which the above is just an excerpt), and larger, here.

As we reconsider Nicorette, we might wish the cheeriest of birthdays to Bob Keeshan, who was born on this date in 1927.  While he is, of course, best remembered as Captain Kangaroo, his place in television history was assured by an earlier role:  he was the original “Clarabell the Clown” on Howdy Doody.  Keeshan retired from Captain Kangaroo after a heart attack in the early Eighties; he died in 2004.

The Captain

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