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Peddling drivel.

datePosted on 12:05, February 10th, 2018 by Pablo

As an admirer of the eloquent written word and nuanced argument, occasional op-ed writer and someone who grew up reading the editorial pages of major newspapers in several countries, I have long seen the editorial pages of newspapers as places where public intellectuals debated in some depth the major issues of the day. Those who appeared on them came from many walks of life and fields of endeavour, with the common denominator being that they were thoughtful exponents of their point of view and grounded in the analytic, philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the subjects that they discussed. Unfortunately, at least in NZ, that is no longer the case (if it ever was).

Over the last decade or so there has been a pernicious two-track trend in NZ media that has not only resulted in the dumbing down of the “news” and public discourse in general, but the substitution of informed and considered debate by shallow opinionating by celebrities and charlatans.

The first trend is the move toward consolidation of media “empires” (in NZ, mostly Australian owned), in which previously autonomous entities in television, radio and print are amalgamated into one parent entity with several platforms. As with all media enterprises, the parent entity seeks profit mainly through advertising (as opposed to subscriptions), including digital advertising promoted by so-called “click bait” and sponsored “news ” (i.e. stories paid by entities seeking brand publicity). In NZ the two big players are Mediaworks and NZME. The former controls TV3, Radiolive and various pop culture radio stations. NZME controls Newstalk ZB, the NZ Herald and various pop culture outlets. It has connections to TV One (at least when it comes to newsreaders), while the Mediaworks TV News platforms appears to episodically share personnel with Prime News. Fairfax Media is also in the mix, holding a portfolio of print and digital vehicles.

Because the NZ media market is small and saturated, the “race to the bottom” logic for getting readers/viewers/listeners in a shrinking print advertising market is akin to the “bums in seats” mentality that pushes academic administrators to demand easing up of marking standards in university courses. Although in the latter instance this creates a syndrome where unqualified people are admitted, passed and receive underserved (and hence meaningless) degrees, in the media realm this means that scandal, gossip, “human interest” and other types of salacious, morbid, tragic and otherwise crude and vulgar material (think of terrorism porn and other prurient non-news) have come to dominate the so-called news cycle. This is accelerated by the presence elf social media and 24 hours global news networks, which makes the push for original content that attracts audiences and therefore advertising revenues increasingly focused on sensational headline grabbing rather than in-depth consideration of complex themes. Among other things, this has led to headlines that trivialise serious matters in favour of witty one-liners, e.g., “kiddie fiddler put in time out.”

In the editorial opinion field what we are increasingly subject to is the often inane and mendacious ruminations of celebrities, “lifestyle’ gurus  or media conglomerate “properties” who are used to cross-pollinate across platforms using their status on one to heighten interest in another. That squeezes out op-ed room for serious people discussing subjects within their fields of expertise. What results is that what should be the most august pages in a newspaper are given over to gossipy nonsense and superficial “analyses” of current events.

Consider what we get these days: two NZME “properties,” a married couple who do back-to-back morning shows on NewstalkZB (and previously worked at TV One), are now filling daily column inches (at least in the digital version) at the Herald with their thoughts on things such as high housing prices  and deporting families (he thinks the former is good because it means that everyone is doing well and the latter is good because to do otherwise is to “send the wrong message”) or relations between school students and displaying breasts in public (she thinks the former are good but the latter bring consequences). Given their ubiquity this “power” couple apparently are renaissance-like in their command of subjects and thus worth the daily attention of the masses, although it is also clear that their views only cover already established news stories and are presented along strictly gender lines–he addresses “serious” issues while she covers topics usually found in women’s rags. The Herald also offers us the received (and sponsored) wisdom of lifestyle bloggers  (“how to have the best sex at 60!”) and buffoons such as the U Auckland business lecturer who poses as a counter-terrorism expert (she of the advice that we search every one’s bags as the enter NZ shopping malls and put concrete bollards in front of mall entrances), gives cutesy pie names to the (often sponsored) by-lines of real scientists (the so-called “Nanogirl,” who now comments on subjects unrelated to her fields of expertise) or allows people with zero practical experience in any given field to pontificate on them as if they did (like the law professor who has transformed himself into a media counter-terrorism and foreign policy “expert”).

Fairfax is less prolific in its use of “properties” to sell product, but instead have opted to fill newspaper space with lifestyle and other “fluff” content at the expense of hard news coverage and informed editorial opinion.

The pattern of giving TV newsreaders, radio talking heads and assorted media “personalities”  column inches on the newspaper op ed pages has been around for a while but now appears to be the dominant form of commentary. Let us be clear: the media conglomerates want us to believe that the likes of Hoskings and Hawkesby are public intellectuals rather than opinionated mynahs–or does anyone still believe that there is an original thought between them? The only other plausible explanation is that the daily belching of these two and other similar personages across media platforms is an elaborate piss-take on the part of media overlords that have utter contempt for the public’s intelligence.

The trend of consolidating and regurgitating extends to the news. Most of the international news stories on NZ newspapers, TV and radio are obtained from overseas sources, particularly media outlets owned by the Australian based investment funds that control Fairfax, NZME and Mediaworks. There are few international correspondents left in the NZ media scene other than “properties” who share views on multimedia platforms such as the single “news” correspondents assigned by NZME to the US, UK and Australia. Some independent NZ-based foreign news correspondents still appear in print, but there too they are the exception to the rule.

The evening TV news and weekend public affairs shows are still run as journalistic enterprises, but the morning and evening public affairs programs are no longer close to being so. “Human interest” (read: tabloid trash) stories predominate over serious subjects. The Mediaworks platforms are particularly egregious, with the morning program looking like it was pulled out of a Miami Vice discard yard and staffed by two long-time newsreaders joined by a misogynistic barking fool, all wearing pancake makeup that borders on clownish in effect. Its rival on state television has grown softer over the years, to the point that in its latest incarnation it has given up on having its female lead come from a journalistic background and has her male counterparts engaging as much in banter as they are discussing the news of the day. The TV3 evening show features a pretty weathergirl and a slow-witted, unfunny comedian as part of their front-line ensemble, with a rotating cast of B-list celebrities, politicians and attention-seekers engaging in yuk yuk fests interspersed with episodic discussion of real news. Its competitor on TV One has been re-jigged but in recent years has been the domain of–you guessed it–that NZME male radio personality and an amicable NZME female counterpart, something that continues with its new lineup where a male rock radio jock/media prankster has joined a well-known TV mother figure to discuss whatever was in the headlines the previous morning. What is noteworthy is that these shows showcase the editorial opinions of the “properties” on display, leaving little room for and no right of rebuttal to those who have actual knowledge of the subjects in question.

These media “properties” are paid by the parent companies no matter what they do. Non-affiliated people who submit op ed pieces to newspapers are regularly told that there is no pay for their publication (or are made to jump through hoops to secure payment).  That means that the opinion pages  are dominated by salaried media personalities or people who will share their opinions for free. This was not always the case, with payments for opinion pieces being a global industry norm. But in the current media environment “brand” exposure is said to suffice as reward for getting published, something that pushes attention-seekers to the fore while sidelining thoughtful minds interested in contributing to public debate but uninterested in doing so for nothing. The same applies to television and radio–if one is not a “property,” it is virtually impossible to convince stations to pay for informed commentary.

To be sure, the occasional “deep thinker” comes along to share their ideas and opinions in print or audio-visually. Some, like good ole Chris Trotter, still pound their keyboards and pontificate on radio and television for a handful of coin. There is even some young talent coming through. Blogs have begun to substitute the corporate media as sources of intelligent conversation. But people of erudition and depth are increasingly the exception to the rule in the mass media, with the  editorial landscape now populated in its majority by “properties” and other (often self-promoting) personality “opinionators” rather than people who truly know what they are talking about. Rather than a sounding board for an eclectic lineup of informed opinion, editorial pages are now increasingly used as megaphones to broadcast predictably well-known ideological positions with little intellectual grounding in the subjects being discussed.

With over-enrolled journalism schools churning out dozens of graduates yearly, that leaves little entry room and few career options for serious reporters. The rush is on to be telegenic and glib, so the trend looks set to continue.

This is not just an indictment of the mass media and those who run and profit from it. It undermines the ability of an educated population to make informed decisions on matters of public import, or at least have informed input into the critical issues of the day.

Perhaps that is exactly what the media and political elites intend.

Do the Greens have a candidate vetting problem?

datePosted on 12:00, January 19th, 2018 by Pablo

12 weeks after the election the Green Party’s 14th ranked candidate in 2017 opts out of politics and joins a morning television program. Shortly after the election it is discovered that one of their new MPs fudged her credentials as a human rights lawyer. Another successful newcomer has a more established social media presence than the business experience she claims to have. The former co-leader was ousted after volunteering (at whose behest is still a mystery) that she committed benefit and electoral fraud when younger.

The first three people replaced seasoned politicians such as Kennedy Graham, who capably handled his MP responsibilities (Mojo Mathers, an eloquent champion of the disabled, just missed out entering parliament at number 9 on the list, having been leapfrogged by neophytes at numbers 7 and 8). Two of the three new candidates mentioned above come from well-to-do Auckland backgrounds (which is a stretch from the traditional Greens grassroots) and share with the third (another Aucklander) a complete lack of political experience other than undergraduate degrees and campaigning for office. The unsuccessful list candidate-turned-TV-bubblehead recently is quoted as saying that her single greatest moment was to be invited onto a TV dancing show rather that being selected as a candidate for a party that she once said she felt “passionate” about.

Let me clear that I am sure that the ACT Party attracts weirdos and self-aggrandized liars in droves, and that even the two major parties and NZ First could well have people with inflated resumes and/or dubious backgrounds on their MP rosters. But I expect more from the Greens because they are supposed to be the truth that speaks to power in parliament and the idealists who hold parliamentary cynics in check as well as keep Labour honest from the Left side of the table. So I am a bit disappointed by how things played out in the run up and aftermath of the election.

Beyond the fact that all the list shake ups in 2017 managed to do is lose the Greens votes when compared to the previous elections (11 percent and 14 seats in 2011, 10.70 percent and 14 seats in 2014 to 6.3 percent and 8 seats in 2017), they also resulted in the Greens being the third-party step-child in the Labour-NZ First led government coalition. The distribution of cabinet seats is evidence of that (no Green minsters in a 20 member Cabinet). The Greens may claim that the 2017 list was the “strongest ever” but if so the strength being measured did not translate into votes or political power. In fact, one can argue that their strength, such at it is, lies in the first six names on the list, with what followed being a mix of opportunistic shoulder tapping for newcomers and insult to steadfast old-timers.

Renovation and rejuvenation are always part of any Party’s reproductive process, but in this instance what resulted was a political still birth.

Given what I outlined in the first paragraph, I think that to some degree this is due to poor candidate vetting and selection processes within the Greens. In 2017 the operative campaign logic appeared to be about style over substance and the seemingly naive belief that everything a candidate claimed to be true about themselves was in fact true. This is dangerous because not only do political opponents have the means to verify candidate claims in a hostile manner (as was seen in the case of the human rights lawyer), but it leaves the Party exposed to ridicule and marginalisation should candidates with doctored or inflated resumes be shown to be inept or incompetent in fulfilling roles assigned to them because of their supposed expertise.

Again, this is of no consequence when we talk about blowhard parties like ACT. Nor do I wish to be mean to the people in question (I simply think they needed to spend more time honing their political skills by working for the party and/or in public policy-related fields). But the Greens worked hard for two decades to be taken seriously on the national stage and it would be a pity if they squander the gains made by allowing unqualified candidates/MPs to champion their cause without proper due diligence having been done on their backgrounds. Because at the rate they are going (losing more than four percentage points compared to the previous two elections), the Greens risk following the path of the Maori Party into political oblivion.

In my final interview in the “Letters from America” series with Mitch Harris at RadioLive, I reflect on the Alabama senatorial election, the plight of Rex Tillerson, the attempts to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election and a few more things. After five months, it is time to go home.

A walking Tui ad?

datePosted on 06:57, October 20th, 2017 by Pablo

The election turned out OK as far as I am concerned. My decision to support Labour after years of supporting the Greens seems to have paid off as they are now leading the new government. The Greens were punished for their shift from red to blue at their core and for bringing in neophytes onto their list, but not too much (although I still have serious reservations about their ideological direction and one of their new MPs). Save for ACT the various useless parties disappeared. And the Nats got what they deserved, which was the boot, even if it took that old dog Winston to apply his toe to their posteriors. As for NZ First, time will only tell if they are the fly in the ointment or the straw that stirs the drink.

When it comes to how the new government will be organized, I am very curious to see who will be appointed Minister of Defense. Ron Mark is a likely candidate, and I have no problem with him in that role in spite of his otherwise reactionary views (apologies if the list of Ministers is out and someone else is the new MoD). With the exception of Phil Goff he will be the most informed person to assume that portfolio in the last 18 years, which is good because the NZDF have some major decisions to make when it comes to upgrading and configuring the force.  There are issues of equipment purchases, recruitment and retention, foreign alliance commitments and the overall thrust of NZDF operations that need immediate addressing. He has been critical of the lack of strategic vision on the part of NZDF and MoD leaders, so my hope is that he will push for an overhaul in the strategic thinking underpinning NZDF operations that goes beyond the periodic exercises known as Defense White Papers. And he will have to address the problem of drug abuse within the NZDF, which has been kept largely under wraps but which is large enough to run the real risk of jeopardizing operational security and/or getting someone killed.

However, when it comes to intelligence matters and the general subject of security, I have concerns about the ability of the new government to impose its will on the intelligence community and Police as well as avoid so-called “bureaucratic capture:” the situation where the lack of experience in a subject field by new overseers or managers allows career bureaucrats to shape the former’s views of the subject in ways that serve the entrenched interests of the latter. I do not see anyone in the top tiers of Labour, the Greens or NZFirst who display particular fluency in matters of intelligence and security, and when it comes to direct political oversight of the NZ intelligence community, the lack of expertise is dire.

Or let me put it in this way:

From watermelons to algae.

datePosted on 07:26, September 6th, 2017 by Pablo

For the first time since 2002 I will not be giving my party vote to the Green Party. Nor will I give my electorate vote (in Helensville) to its candidate. The rush to privilege personality over substance, to put pretty young (mostly female) faces high on the party list in spite of remarkable lack of qualifications by most of those so anointed (the exception amongst the high placed newcomers being Golriz Ghahraman, who I have respect for even though she also has little practical political experience), coupled with the abandonment of any class oriented (particularly brown working class) policy focus in favor of winning over the millennial metrosexual hipster vote, has diminished the Greens in my eyes. They all seem nice enough as individuals, but being congenial does not suffice to staff an effective political vehicle.

My disenchantment with the Greens occurred before Metiria Turei pulled the short-sighted stunt about her past record of welfare (and voting) fraud, which if clever as a politically opportunistic tactic, was incredibly foolish in light of the inevitable reaction from her opponents and the corporate media. In doing so she may have raised awareness of the plight of those needing public benefit support, but she also set back the cause of welfare reform by opening herself and every other struggling parent to charges of being prone to fraud and abuse of taxpayer-funded benefits. As an experienced politician she should have known better.

With the current line up the Greens have finished the move from Red to Blue at their core and in so doing have diminished their electoral appeal in my estimation. I recognize that I am not part of their targeted demographic and am in fact more of the demographic from which the expelled Kennedy Graham and David Clendon come from, but if the Greens wanted to expand their voter base one would have thought that they would maintain their appeal to traditional “watermelon” voters while actively recruiting the blue-green millennial vote. Instead, they appear to have decided to abandon a traditionally loyal (but shrinking due to age) group of voters in pursuit of another potentially larger but less committed one. In fact, it as if the party list selection is aimed at young urbanites under the age of 35 who prefer image and style over experience and substance. Besides being an insult to the intellect of younger voters, the stratagem also appears to have backfired, at least if recent polls are to be believed.

So goodbye to Greens it is for me. But what to do next? The Right side of the electoral ledger (including Winston First) is a non-starter, the Opportunities Party is a vanity project (albeit with the random ponderable idea), the Maori Party is, well, narrowly focused, and entities like the Internet and Mana parties are full of unsavory critters or marginal types that are best shunned rather than encouraged (I say this in spite of my affection for the likes of John Minto and Sue Bradford, but they cannot carry the can of representation all by themselves). So the options for a disgruntled Green voter are limited…

….To not voting or voting for Labour. I have thought about not voting but that would be the first time I did so in my entire adult life. Plus, the political scientist that I live with takes a very dim view of people shirking their civic responsibilities in a democracy, so I have maintaining domestic harmony to consider. Given the damage another National government can do, it therefore would be irresponsible for me to not contribute to their ouster.

Hence I am left with Labour. But therein lies the rub: Labour has stolen a page out of the Greens book and gone with a so-called youth movement in its candidate selection, including of its leadership. It too is all about a campaign based on sunshine, smiley faces and chocolates in every box. In terms of practicable politics, both Labour and the Greens campaign like debutantes at their first school ball–all hope and illusion, seemingly unaware of the practical (and often dark) realities of what happens when they come to that sort of party.

The good news is that electoral campaigns are nothing more than political icing. The cake in politics is found in the policy platform that a party has underlying it. It is where new ideas find their way into policy proposals and moves to change laws, statutes and regulations. And that is where I feel comfortable voting for Labour this year. Because, beyond the long-overdue commitment to fully legalise abortion, Labour’s policy playbook has many good ideas well worth considering. Most importantly, unlike the Greens their core policy proposals are both doable and targeted at more than their electoral base. Unlike the diminished appeal of the political equivalent of blue algae surface blooming in a stagnating electoral pond of its own making, Labour appears, for the first time in years and in spite of its campaign strategy plagiarism of the Greens, to actually have commonweal alternatives to offer that are more than the usual “National lite” policies of the last decade.

So my party vote this year goes to Labour. Perhaps I will return to the Green fold in years to come, but not now. I am undecided about the electorate vote other than to state that I would rather run rusty metal slivers under my fingernails than vote for the Green or National candidates. Perhaps the Legalize Cannabis Aotearoa crowd will run a candidate in Helensville, in which case I can vote for someone who at least admits to being high rather than someone who is riding on a cloud of flattery and sycophancy that is more divorced from the realities of practicing politics than anyone in the thrall of reefer madness.

After weeks of crisis and scandal, Donald Trump was cut a break by Hurricane Harvey. Several million people’s pain provided him with some temporary relief from the DC presure cooker, if not a small measure of political gain by heading out to inspect (from afar, as it turns out) the damage wrought in South Texas by the mega-storm. He got to look presidential while still being his self-centered self, since he spent his time in Texas talking not about people suffering but about how great the relief effort was and how historic the recovery would be–the best ever!

Hurricane Harvey provided him with a convenient deflection from last week. What with his continuing support for Confederate iconography, his rant at the Phoenix rally that he was asked not to hold and his pardoning of the racist cop Joe Arpaio, he needed a break from critical media coverage. But even his response to the storm could not cloud the fact that last week he revealed what appears to be his strategy for the 2018 US midterm congressional elections, where all of the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate are up for grabs.

Trump has clearly been advised to double down on his 33 percent core base of “law and order,” “traditional values”” supporters. His consiglieri believe that his full-thoroated appeal to this base will force the GOP congressional caucus up for re-election to think twice before opposing him on matters of domestic security and “values.” That includes those in his party who oppose funding his Wall and/or the more draconian aspects of his anti-immigration platform, to say nothing of a myriad of cultural topics like the military transgender ban and removal of Confederate symbols from public places. His strategy is to force the GOP congressional caucus to support his agenda fully or risk his openly courting primary opponents who will. He has already spoken favorably of primary opponents to several GOP Representatives and Senators, including in Arizona where Arpaio is rumored to be considering a possible congressional run. He has the support of powerful financial benefactors like the infamous Koch brothers, who are willing to fund primary advertising campaigns against Republican incumbents who do not toe the Trump line. The idea is to put the fear of that Trump base into the Republican caucus, especially in those Red states where his support remains strong and where Republican political control is unchallenged.

The goal is to publicly squeeze GOP critics as hard as possible on “values” and security in order to get them to cave to and support his policy demands. It is harsh but effective, especially in those dyed in the wool Red states–IF his calculus that just a 33% core support concentrated in a handful of Red states is enough to force the GOP congressional caucus to acquiesce to his demands and IF further scandals and crisies do not continue to erode his political capital to the point that he becomes expendable. If he is right, then congressional Republicans will go with him. If he is wrong–and next week can and will bring another scandal and the hurricane will eventually move off the national headlines–then his courting of racists and bigots and flouting the conventions of presidential behavior might come back to bite him.

The bottom line of his midterm election strategy, particuarly in Red states, is the upping of the ante on any GOP congressperson who dares to critique him by publicly calling for their removal in the primaries. He is going to rest his case on their support or lack thereof of traditional values (read: white supremacy, but as an Anglo-Saxon Protestant national cultural theme rather than as a Klan or Nazi meme) and domestic security (the Wall, dealing to illegal “alien” criminals, Muslim terrorists in the midst, support for law enforcement, etc.). Just like the possibility that the pardoning of the criminal Sherriff Arpaio was a trial run for is pardoning of conspirators caught up in the various Russia investigation, the tactic might work, or it might not. All depends on how Republicans in Congress react.

This is part of what can be called a bifurcated or two-pronged strategy that has begun to emerge in the White House over the last few weeks. On foreign policy, the shift is towards a neo-realist approach led by the retired and active duty generals who comprise his national security team and who appear to be reading from the same book (if not same page) as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The thrust is to bring some measure of rationality and predictability to US foreign policy decision-making guided by more narrowly construed notions of national interest, regardless of what the president says in unscripted moments.

On the domestic front the ghost of Steve Bannon still haunts the halls of the West Wing while his presence at Brietbart News serves as an external buttress reinforcing the Trump domestic agenda against any attempt at moderation of its national populist principles. The plan to double down on the core base of Trump’s support with appeals to law and order and ‘traditional values” is straight out of his national populist playbook. So is the economic nationalism displayed by Trump’s ongoing fulminations about NAFTA, which for him is much less about the movement of goods across borders and much more about who is making and moving them. Most importantly, the hard turn against GOP critics in the run up to the 2018 elections is quintescently Bannon in its scorched earth approach to opponents, including those from within the GOP: destroy them and sully their legacies in order to create a new movement that eschews compromise in the pursuit of Trumpian “principles.”

In sum, Trump started out this week better than he did last week, thanks to a natural disaster at least in part influenced by the climate change/global warming effects that he says are a bogus Chinese invention. One immediate effect is that petrol prices rose a full ten percent in two days thanks to the shutting down of the Texas oil refineries in advance of the storm and their continuing closure due to its effects. This market response has reinforced Trump’s calls for more gas and oil exploration in national parks and wilderness reserves, more pipelines from Canada, and more fracking in places where shale oil is believed to be present. For him, the answer to the negative impact of climate change is to again, without any hint of irony, double down on his core support for the fossil fuel industry.

Trump’s emerging midterm election strategy is a make or break proposition for both him and the GOP. Either he wins or he loses, because he is forcing the GOP to be with him full stop or be treated as the enemy. Given the uncertainties about the Russia investigations, tensions with North Korea, the daily dose of twitinsanity emanating from his phone and the spectre of more scandals and crises to come, the situation, as Gramsci once noted, “becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic ‘men of destiny.”

Who these forces and men are, as well as the real possibility of violent solutions, remains a matter of conjecture. But there is one thing that is certain in the US today: the crisis is real and Trump’s response to it, as evident in his midterm election strategy, could well bring it to a head.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Key exits right (on time).

datePosted on 16:17, December 5th, 2016 by Pablo

So, John Key decided to resign rather than lead his government into an election for a fourth term. Some amongst the opposition are gloating and speculating about the reason why. As someone who did not appreciate the US Right gloating over Drumpf’s election, I would simply say to my Lefty friends that there is such a thing as decorum, and that the best thing to do now is to be gracious and plan for a hard run at winning the 2017 election.

Let’s be honest. John Key is a formidable politician. When it comes to the Opposition, he came, he saw, he kicked a** and took names, then quit while he was on top. His timing is impeccable. He never lost an election and his party never lost a general election while he was leader. He saw off Helen Clark, then dispensed with Phil Goff, David Shearer, David Cunliff and Andrew Little. In fact, at times it seemed like he was just slapping the Opposition Leader around like a cat plays with mice. Nothing burst his matey aura and kiwi-style “aw shucks,” charisma–not inappropriate touching of women, not his his radio lechery and vulgarity, not his ineptitude when it coms to responding to natural and man-made disasters, not influence peddling by his cabinet, not his going to watch high school baseball games in the US instead of attending the funerals of NZ soldiers killed in action in an (some would say futile) Afghan conflict that he sent them to, not selling off state assets, not negotiating trade agreements against the popular will. The guy is the ultimate Teflon John.

For that reason his resignation is a huge gift to the Opposition, as National would have won easily had he stuck around. Now the issue is whether this was a long-planned move, in which case National will have a succession strategy in place, or whether it was a sudden move forced by something like a serious illness in the family. If it is the latter, then the Nats have no strategy in place and the knives will come out amongst the various factions vying for the leadership. Just think of it: Collins versus Bennet versus Joyce versus English versus Bridges versus Coleman versus Brownlee versus assorted lesser lights and hangers-on. It will be epic, but Labour needs to just let them fight it out while it develops a sound policy platform for all Kiwis (capital gains tax, infrastructure development, immigration policy, etc.).

If this is a planned move and a succession strategy and electoral agenda is already in place, then Labour and its potential allies are behind the eight ball. Whoever is chosen as next National Party Leader will want to make a positive policy impact in an election year, and with National controlling the purse strings while in government until then, it is clear that it will use the advantages of incumbency to the fullest. It is therefore imperative that Labour and other opposition parties anticipate and develop a counter-proposal to whatever is going to be offered. That is a big task.

Gloating about Key’s departure just shows a lack of class, just like going hysterical about Michael Wood’s win in the Mt. Roskill by-election is reading waaaay too much into it. The general election next year is still for National to lose, and quite frankly from what I have seen of Labour recently, it is not as if it is positioning itself as a fresh alternative with a raft of innovative policy ideas. That is why it is time to get cracking on the latter.

Not so sure what the Greens intend to do, but if the announcement of their new candidate in Auckland is any indication, they are regressing rather than progressing. Time to re-assess my party vote.

It is said that the Mana and Maori parties are in talks to merge. Cue Tui ad here.

Winston First is already bleating about sinister reasons behind the PM’s departure. I say who the **** cares? He will be gone by the time the s**t hits the fan if it in fact does, so the best course is to offer viable prescriptions for a better future rather than assign blame. But then again, that is what Winston does.

I do not much like the Mr. Key or his government. His “attack the messenger” tactics of smearing decent and honest people grates on me because among his targets are people I know, including friends of mine. His politics are retrograde and money changers are about profits rather than average people, so his was a government destined to reward the upper crust rather than the plebes. But I know a good politician when I see one, and John Key was a very, very good politician.

So lets thank him, however forcedly, for his service, recognise his domination of the political landscape while in office and concentrate on making sure that his would be heirs never get close to Level 9 of the Beehive.

PS: Key says that there is no scandal and that everyone’s health is fine. So his decision to suddenly leave was deliberate and yet done as a surprise. He has, in effect, shafted his own caucus. Some think that doing so before Xmas leaves Labour in disarray. I would argue that Labour is no worse for the timing of his announcement and instead has more time to get its election campaign platform together. For whatever reason, it is National that was the target of Key’s move. Either the lure of a lucrative Blair-type post-politics career was to too much to resist, or perhaps he just got sick and tired of his National fellow travellers.

It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

datePosted on 17:13, November 24th, 2016 by Pablo

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

What a bummer.

datePosted on 13:02, November 13th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, THAT sucked. Myself and a zillion other pundits got the US election wrong. In fact, pretty much everyone with a Ph.D. in Political Science got it wrong as well as most veteran political journalists. The reasons are many but the moral of the story is that so-called experts armed with reams of data still cannot accurately predict the mood of an electorate that may lie to pollsters or remain undecided until election day. “Experts” like empirical data and believe in reasoned voting choices when studying well established liberal democracies, so are ill-equipped to comprehend seemingly irrational voting behaviour based on raw emotion, visceral reaction and religious belief in the false promises of demagogues. The anecdotal evidence was there from Trump’s rallies and the bluebonnet fields of Trump/Pence signs on suburban lawns. But those of us with advanced degrees and years of studying politics ignored it in favour of quasi-scientific methodologies that provided a numbers crunch to our opinions. We saw what we wanted to see rather than what was.

There is no point in trying to do a post-mortem on what happened. Plenty of others are doing so. I did find it interesting that Trump received less votes than Romney and McCain in the 2012 and 2008 elections, respectively, and that 6 million less people voted this year than in 2012 and 10 million less than in 2008. In fact, nearly 47 percent of the electorate did not vote, giving Clinton (as the majority vote getter) and Trump around 25.7-25.5 percent of the popular vote overall. The bottom line is that the absent voters, presumably those who would have voted Democratic but could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, decided the outcome by staying home.

As for those who decry the Electoral College because this is the second time in 16 years that a Democrat wins the general vote but loses the presidential election in the Electoral College: tough luck. Hillary played the Electoral College game, focusing on so-called battleground states and apparently neglecting those states considered solid Democrat such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Since the base of that presumed solidity was the rust belt white working class that Trump targeted preferentially, that was clearly a mistake (both Michigan and Wisconsin went to Trump).

Much has been made about the class angle to the election but I also think that we should not forget Trump’s idealogical appeal–the xenophobic scapegoating, the racism, the bigotry, the misogyny posing as anti-PC righteousness. Perhaps not all of his supporters are closet Klansman, but it is clear that to many in the white working and middle classes that aspect of Trump’s ideological appeal resonated strongly. The intersection of class and exclusionary ideological appeal was found in grievance and fear, and that grievance and fear transcended employment concerns. Make of it what you will.

The vaunted female and Latino vote against Trump never materialised. In fact, the defensive voting surge that I repeatedly predicted would happen never did. Instead, it seems that people just stayed at home thinking that, given the polls, others would do the job for them. Even so, had those under the age of 35 been the only voters, Hillary would have won walking away. So the future holds some promise when it comes to progressive change, but for the meantime things could get worse and, if acts of hatred and protests are anything to go by, that has already started.

For those who think that Bernie Sanders would have done better against Trump, I say think again. That is because primary campaigns are run in parallel while looking at each other. Had Bernie emerged as the Democratic nominee Trump would not have won the Republican nomination. The GOP would have made a negative issue of Sander’s “outsider” status and marginalised the outsider on its side. Money would have poured into backing a more establishment figure who could take Sanders to task for his “socialism” and his vague and unrealistic policy prescriptions. Sanders would find it hard to counter the false accusations about his supposed communist leanings because the Democratic establishment would not have backed him as strongly as it did Clinton. He may also have failed to transfer the energy of his primary supporters into sustainable support from swing voters on the campaign trail as many undecided and independent voters would react fearfully to the dark accusations of what his ideological orientation would bring for the US.

Whatever the case, this is all idle speculation. We got the matchup that we got and for most of us Hillary was a safe bet even if we had to hold our noses when voting for her (and again, I flatly reject the notion that she somehow is “worse” or more corrupt than any other contemporary politician. If people believe that they need to look at who funds the Bush Foundation and the campaign coffers of Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell).

My hopes now hinge on two things: 1) that once in office Trump will find his freedom of action circumscribed by the practical, legal, institutional and political realities surrounding him. This will force him to abandon or renege on many of his more outrageous campaign promises, which in turn will disappoint many of those who have vested their hopes in him but will mitigate against some of the more onerous consequences of what he could have done; and 2) that his lack of political experience and commitment to Republican principles and policies (remember that he only switched from Democrat to Republican in 2010) will lead to a serious clash with the GOP congressional leadership. That could hurt the GOP in the 2018 elections where all of the House and a third of the Senate will be up for (re) election as well as his re-election bid two years later.

Be that as it may, these are dark times for people such as myself. The Right may gloat and think that they now rule supreme (and we have had a couple of such folk appear here on KP), but I have a feeling that Trump’s victory is a crest of a wave or the last stand of the American Right. Neither demographics or policy orientation appear to favour the GOP and alt-Right over the long-term, so perhaps this is their last moment to shine.

I sure hope so.

Meanwhile, I thnnk I will have a cup of tea and a lie down.