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Dominic Cummings has ‘done’ Brexit. Now he plans to reinvent politics – Financial Times



When Boris Johnson walked through the front door of Number 10 on July 26 2019, the British political system was in a state of Brexit-induced paralysis. But in a small room upstairs, arguably the second most powerful man in Britain was already issuing new instructions to demoralised staffers: “Don’t be shit.”

A dishevelled figure with a soft voice and the appearance of an eccentric scientist, Dominic Cummings explained to his political team — largely inherited from a broken Theresa May — that from now on Number 10 would be run like Nasa, with him at Mission Control. There was one single objective: delivering Brexit.

“It was genuinely jaw-dropping,” says one of those present. At times, in what a staffer said was a 90-minute diatribe, Cummings started waving his pen around so frantically that they feared he would deface the oil painting behind him.

“The overriding sense was we had wasted the last three years,” says another witness. “He said bad performance wouldn’t be tolerated. Then he invited everyone next door for some drinks — it was so different to the old regime. It was genuinely quite inspiring.”

Jason Stein, an adviser who attended the meeting, noted at the time: “Astonishing meeting. He says the last government made a total mess of this and we won’t mess it up again. He says unlike the last government, decisions are going to be rapid and final. It’s absolute Darwinism in there. Titles don’t matter.”

After arriving in Downing Street, Dominic Cummings made it clear to his political team that from now on Number 10 would be run like Nasa, with him at Mission Control © Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Six months later, Cummings is still in Downing Street, presiding over a new political landscape that he has helped shape. The man who directed the 2016 campaign to take Britain out of the EU is chief adviser to Johnson, a prime minister who used the promise “Get Brexit Done” to secure an 80-strong House of Commons majority.

On January 31, Britain will formally leave the EU — although the challenge of agreeing a trade deal with the bloc will be just beginning.

Cummings, who gave Britain Brexit, is leaving the tricky details of delivering it to others. The 48-year-old is moving on to a new agenda, in which he hopes to remake the civil service, put money into Britain’s “left-behind” regions and turn the country into a leading centre for science, putting it at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence, robotics and climate change. This month, he published a blog post that went viral, inviting “weirdos and misfits” to join him at the heart of government.

Those who see him in Number 10 meetings with Johnson detect no deference towards the prime minister. “He sits there, leaning back in his chair — they act as though they are equals,” says one senior government figure. “There’s no doubt about that.”

For now, Johnson embraces Cummings, who is seen by friends as a “Renaissance man” with rare skills spanning campaigning, policy, communications and project delivery. To his enemies he is vicious, unscrupulous and an intellectual showboater who is riding for a fall.

For all his successes in plotting election strategies, the pressure is now on to deliver his highly ambitious agenda. One government insider says: “He’s all-powerful and he’s running the country. But nobody ever dies in a ditch for an adviser. Of course he’s expendable.”

Cummings, who declined to be interviewed for this article but responded to fact-checking queries, tells people he will quit long before he is fired. He likes to give the impression that he is just passing through, moving from one project to the next, and that he could happily walk away at any time and return to his “bunker” at his parents’ farm in County Durham.

Dominic Cummings arriving at No 10 the week after the December 2019 election, which saw Boris Johnson win an 80-strong majority. Despite initial plans to step down, Cummings will now stay on to create his dream Downing Street operation
Dominic Cummings arriving at No 10 the week after the December 2019 election, which saw Boris Johnson win an 80-strong majority. Despite initial plans to step down, Cummings will now stay on to create his dream Downing Street operation © Leon Neal/Getty Images

When he joined the Vote Leave campaign in October 2015, Cummings insisted he would only be the “acting” campaign director, but went on to lead it to victory. Similarly, he predicted in November 2019 that he would soon quit Number 10: “There’s a reasonable chance I won’t be around any more. As you know, I strongly ­dislike Westminster, so I’m reluctant to return,” he told colleagues.

But Cummings did come back after Johnson’s victory in December and immediately announced plans to create his dream Downing Street operation, inhabited by data scientists, policy experts, project managers and people with “odd skills”. Uri Geller, the celebrity spoonbender, has applied.

Even Cummings’ appearance is seen by some as an outward symbol of his avowed contempt for Whitehall tradition. His sartorial standards have deteriorated the closer he has got to the centre of power. Some see it as insolent and disrespectful. Cummings argues, however, that it is simply that he has “always been a scruffy bastard”.

Nor is he the first dishevelled iconoclast to operate in Number 10: Steve Hilton, who padded barefoot around Downing Street as David Cameron’s “blue-sky thinking” adviser, quit after becoming frustrated at his ability to achieve change.

But Cummings’ style has become increasingly idiosyncratic over the years. His “low-riding”, loose-fitting trousers are usually accompanied by threadbare shirts, often open to the chest and covered in biro marks. Cummings likes to set off this ensemble with a bulldog clip, attached to his shirt.

Freddy Gray, deputy editor of The Spectator and a friend of Cummings and his wife Mary Wakefield, another senior journalist on the magazine, says: “On occasions, Dom has come into the office with two pairs of tracksuit bottoms on and Mary’s looked up and thought that he was one of the homeless people she helps to look after.”

His friends say he is not planning to be in Downing Street in the long term. “He doesn’t dream of some permanent Metternich or Talleyrand continuance in office,” says one. But they also agree that now Cummings is installed, he wants to get big things done quickly. The country is in for an interesting ride.

Cummings was born in Durham, a cathedral city in the north-east of England, in 1971. His father was a construction manager on oil rigs and his mother a special educational needs teacher. Although his upbringing was geographically distant from the gilded world inhabited by the Eton-educated Johnson and David Cameron, Cummings nevertheless attended Durham School, a prestigious fee-paying establishment founded in 1414, and Exeter College, Oxford.

In spite of railing in this month’s unorthodox Downing Street job ad against the “blah blah” spoken by Oxbridge humanities graduates, Cummings himself studied ancient and modern history.

Robin Lane Fox, his tutor in ancient history (and the FT Weekend gardening columnist), says: “He got a very good First in both parts in three years,” adding that Cummings was “a whole class better” at the subject than Boris Johnson, who studied classics at Oxford some years earlier.

Beating a carpet outside Liam Halligan’s flat in Moscow, 1994. While there, Cummings worked on a bond desk and set up an unsuccessful airline
Beating a carpet outside Liam Halligan’s flat in Moscow, 1994. While there, Cummings worked on a bond desk and set up an unsuccessful airline © Courtesy of Liam Halligan

Critics argue that Cummings is a poseur, name-dropping Thucydides and Bismarck — later broadening his repertoire to include physicists and data scientists — to claim intellectual superiority. But Lane Fox disagrees: “Dominic is not a pseud.”

At Oxford, Cummings was also highly influenced by the late Norman Stone, his tutor in modern history and an adviser to Margaret Thatcher, who encouraged him to travel to Moscow in 1994 to witness the new world being created behind the old iron curtain.

Liam Halligan, a Telegraph journalist who was then working as an academic at the London School of Economics and writing columns for The Moscow Times, offered Cummings somewhere to stay.

“A lot of smart young westerners were going to Moscow at the time,” Halligan recalls. “Norman Stone asked if I could help him out. There was a little sofa in the hallway and he slept on that. He was intense, very clever, socially a little bit awkward. He didn’t initially have a job but wanted to see what was going on. Later, he worked on a bond desk. There were lots of investment projects coming and going.”

Cummings helped to set up an airline flying from Samara on the Volga to Vienna, but it was spectacularly unsuccessful. “It once took off forgetting its only passenger,” he once recalled.

Halligan says he could see why people thought that some of the bright young Brits arriving in Moscow were security service “assets”. “The whole atmosphere was like a Graham Greene novel,” he says. Conspiracy theories have been built around Cummings’ time in Russia, a country that 20 years later celebrated Britain’s departure from the EU. “It’s utter bollocks,” says Halligan.

Back in the UK in the late 1990s, Cummings entered the world of rightwing pressure groups, becoming campaign director for Business for Sterling, a group campaigning to stop Britain joining the euro. Again, Stone helped with the introductions. Cummings believed the euro was a doomed project and the EU was a lumbering behemoth, but he has never actually been a member of the Conservative party.

Instead, his instinctive view that politicians are squanderers of public cash and his dislike of big bureaucracies — including the one based in Brussels — were fused in 2004 in the referendum campaign in which he made his name: an often-forgotten vote on Tony Blair’s plan to create a regional assembly in the north-east of England.

Blair wanted to decentralise power to the English regions and saw the north-east as a good place to start. He had reckoned without Cummings, who helped to campaign against the new regional assembly with the aid of a giant inflatable white elephant and the slogan: “Politicians talk, you pay.”

County Durham manufacturer John Elliot, who chaired the campaign, says that when they met every morning to plan the day’s events, Cummings was highly important. “He was not the most talkative but he was probably the most influential.” He adds: “He was quite single-minded. He wanted to keep things simple. He kept on message.” The “No” side won 78:22.

In March 2001, as campaign director of Business for Sterling, which lobbied to stop Britain joining the euro. Cummings later campaigned successfully against a north-east regional assembly, before going to work for the Conservative MP Michael Gove in 2007
In March 2001, as campaign director of Business for Sterling, which lobbied to stop Britain joining the euro. Cummings later campaigned successfully against a north-east regional assembly, before going to work for the Conservative MP Michael Gove in 2007 © David Levenson/Getty Images

Some 12 years later, Cummings deployed the same simple messages, visual stunts and a focus on “waste” in the 2016 Brexit referendum. But first, he retreated to the three-room outhouse at his parents’ farm near Durham. One visitor says: “It’s what you’d expect — quite ramshackle, packed with books.”

He disappeared from the scene for over two years, reading history and developing his growing passion for science, which he believed held the key to understanding and solving public policy problems.

He also immersed himself in the art of campaigning. Elliott says Blair’s polling guru, the late Philip Gould, and Bill Clinton’s adviser James Carville, an abrasive Washington outsider from Louisiana, are among his heroes. Carville mastered the three-word campaign slogan “The economy, stupid.” Cummings later came up with “Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done.”

In 2007, Cummings caught the eye of Michael Gove, a fast-rising Tory shadow minister, who made him his special adviser for seven years and brought him into David Cameron’s new coalition government to overhaul England’s education system and take on what Gove liked to call “the blob” — the teaching establishment, which he blamed for accepting low standards.

By now, Cummings had started writing down his thoughts, expounding in sprawling online tracts how a more rigorous education system could help to solve the country’s ills. “We need what Murray Gell Mann, the discoverer of the quark, calls ‘an Odyssean education’ that integrates knowledge from maths and science, the humanities and social sciences, and training in effective action,” he wrote in 2014.

In 2011, Cummings married Mary Wakefield, having met at a mutual friend’s party. “He was already friends with my brother Jack,” Wakefield says. “Anyone who’s friends with Jack is OK by me.” They have one son, Alexander Cedd, known by family as “Ceddy” and named after the Northumbrian saint. Friends say Cummings is a doting father.

Wakefield’s father owns Chillingham castle in Northumberland but friends say the couple, who own a house in Islington, do not enjoy a lavish lifestyle. “Typically English — asset rich, cash poor,” says one. “Mary has to earn a living.”

With his wife Mary Wakefield, waiting to hear the newly elected Johnson speak. Following a Brexit drama on TV, Wakefield is now widely seen ‘as the sweet one’: ‘She hates that,’ says a friend of the couple. ‘If either of them is Machiavellian, it’s her’
With his wife Mary Wakefield, waiting to hear the newly elected Johnson speak. Following a Brexit drama on TV, Wakefield is now widely seen ‘as the sweet one’: ‘She hates that,’ says a friend of the couple. ‘If either of them is Machiavellian, it’s her’ © James Veysey/Shutterstock

Cummings, who has long railed against officials earning six-figure salaries, earns just under £100,000, less than other senior Number 10 staff.

The couple’s relationship was depicted in a Channel 4 film on the Brexit referendum, in which Cummings is sympathetically played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a Remainer who spent an increasingly bibulous evening with the couple, noting Cummings’ mannerisms. “Because of the film, people see Mary as the sweet one,” says Freddy Gray. “She hates that. If either of them is Machiavellian, it’s her.”

Cameron initially blocked Cummings from entering government on the grounds he was too confrontational. Gray says Cummings’ parents had excitedly texted their son when they saw television pictures of him entering Number 10 on the first day of the new government, only to be told he wasn’t wanted.

“I think that cemented his and Mary’s deep dislike of Dave and the gang. I remember thinking the day after the referendum, ‘Well, that’s what happens if you f**k with Mary and Dom.’”

Cameron later relented and allowed Cummings to join Gove, but he came to regret it. David Laws, a former Liberal Democrat minister who worked with Cummings at the education department, witnessed the abrasive style that he would eventually take into Downing Street.

“He can be unnecessarily rude, hectoring and create a climate of fear, which isn’t generally conducive to good government,” Laws says. “I think he’s genuinely interested in serious policy issues rather than ‘spin’, but whether he engages at a level where he actually delivers is another matter.”

By 2014, Cameron was tiring of the fact that his flagship education reforms — which sought to toughen up exams and curriculums — had become “toxic” with voters, partly thanks to Cummings waging war with the teaching profession.

Cummings jumped first in 2014 — Cameron later labelled him a “career psychopath” — and returned to his bunker, while Gove was shuffled out of the department.

Two years later, Cummings would return as the prime minister’s nemesis, working with Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to deliver Brexit in the 2016 referendum, campaigning on EU “waste” and ruthlessly exploiting fears about immigration with a false claim that Turkey was about to join the EU and that millions of Turks would soon be heading for Dover.

“What he is brilliant at doing is creating a kind of guerrilla warfare against the establishment,” says Craig Oliver, who helped to run the Remain campaign. “He found the weak spots and probed them relentlessly. He understood how to get into the psychology of discontent and leverage and used that against the establishment. Can he maintain that in government?”

Dominic Cummings barely knew Boris Johnson when the two linked up in the 2016 referendum campaign but the adviser was immediately impressed: “He thought people were wrong not to take Boris seriously — he thought he had an extra gear,” says one friend.

Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Vote Leave, says they went on to forge a formidable and close partnership, which has been carried into Downing Street. “They admire each other’s strengths,” Elliott says. “Boris is funny, witty, charismatic, intelligent and brings the television cameras out. Dom is massively bright, can bring a team together and drive things.”

With Johnson setting off for Westminster on September 3 2019 for a key Brexit debate, which culminated in a defeat for the government. The PM retaliated by expelling the 21 Conservative ‘rebel’ MPs from the Tory party
With Johnson setting off for Westminster on September 3 2019 for a key Brexit debate, which culminated in a defeat for the government. The PM retaliated by expelling the 21 Conservative ‘rebel’ MPs from the Tory party © Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images

Cummings, who had spent the previous 20 years dreaming about what he might do if he found himself running Number 10, moved to a completely new level when he walked in there with the new prime minister.

Nominally Johnson’s “assistant”, in reality he acts as his chief adviser and chief enforcer. He hires and fires staff and set the tone of the new government, focusing on delivering Brexit and the three things he says people actually care about: the NHS, tackling crime and ending austerity. But his arrival in Number 10 also highlighted some paradoxes.

Wakefield says that her husband is “extremely kind” but some see Cummings as ruthless and vindictive in securing his objectives. He summarily sacked a young Treasury adviser, Sonia Khan, for alleged disloyalty and had her marched off the premises by armed police.

“He ruined a young woman’s life,” says one Tory insider. In his most recent blog post, Cummings fulminated against “the horror of human resources”.

On the other hand, Cummings’ urgency and drive have inspired loyalty among many colleagues. Sir Mark Sedwill, cabinet secretary and Britain’s top civil servant, has put off a plan to become Britain’s ambassador to Washington to help deliver Cummings’ civil service reforms. “They have a good relationship,” says one Downing Street insider.

A Tory official adds: “Dom is genuinely open about things. He’s keen to hear criticism. But he’ll also tell you that if you don’t like it, ‘F**k off — there’s the door.’”

Cummings is often seen as a revolutionary who wants to kick down bastions of the establishment — he has loudly criticised the civil service, the Supreme Court, parliamentary “lobby” journalists and the BBC — yet he retains a remarkable conviction that the state can be a force for good. Provided it is run on his terms.

Downing Street has magnified what one government insider calls “the Cummings myth” but also put a spotlight on his shortcomings. David Laws says: “He’s very, very good at defining himself against things like the north-east assembly, the EU, Nick Clegg [the former Lib Dem leader] or David Cameron. Now he has to show he can deliver not just bloody good campaigns but something positive.”

His strategy of closing down parliament last October to try to force through a no-deal Brexit was blocked by the Supreme Court and could have been disastrous for Johnson, had the Lib Dems and Scottish National party not obliged the prime minister by agreeing to a snap election.

“He’s not a soothsayer,” says one government insider. “He spent ages telling us that we would be toast if we didn’t deliver Brexit on October 31. In fact, he was completely wrong: the ‘Get Brexit Done’ message won us the election. If he had delivered Brexit, the election would have been totally different.”

Meanwhile, Cummings recently lost a battle with the Treasury when he proposed that chancellor Sajid Javid should embark on a massive pre-election spree of tax cuts and spending. Javid said it would be folly to engage in a spending race with Labour and was ultimately backed by Johnson.

Although Cummings advises Johnson across all aspects of government, those inside Number 10 say it is important to strip away the “myth” and recognise that in some areas he is much less influential than others. Since his run-in with Javid, Cummings has taken a lower profile on the economy, while the former chief of the Vote Leave campaign is increasingly letting others sort out the details after Britain formally leaves the EU on January 31.

A complex post-Brexit trade deal with the EU is being run by Johnson’s Europe adviser David Frost. When Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, visited Number 10 this month, Cummings did not ask to attend. “There were six places at the table but he didn’t want to come,” says one person briefed on the meeting.

Cummings recognises there is a danger of spreading himself too thin and failing to deliver. His new focus reflects the passions developed in his bunker: putting science at the heart of government and ensuring that the government machine delivers what the politicians promise.

His inspiration is the US government’s Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic bomb, and — as he put it in his blog — “the way in which George Mueller turned the failing Nasa bureaucracy into an organisation that could put man on the moon”.

He wants to set up a civilian version of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (formerly known as Arpa), pursuing “high-risk, high-return projects that markets won’t fund — ie failure is normal”. His WhatsApp profile says: “Get Brexit done, then Arpa”.

But Cummings risks making enemies by denouncing some officials as work-shy, knocking off at 4pm and leaving their minister to take the flak for their mistakes. Oliver notes: “The danger for Dominic is there are an awful lot of civil servants and not many people in Number 10.”

Cummings recognises that his abrasive and relentless style has a time limit. He suffers from a much-discussed mystery ailment that causes pain in his abdominal area, and often has to stand in meetings, grimacing with pain. He says he will have a long-delayed medical operation after January 31, and tells colleagues that he will then find out if “Mary and the PM agree on a job for me”.

Everyone in Number 10 assumes he will carry on. In his ad inviting “wild cards” to work in Downing Street and improve the advice given to Johnson, he suggested he might stay for a year and then quit: “We want to improve performance and make me much less important — and within a year largely redundant.”

Matthew Elliott believes Cummings can change the country and that he is doing it with the best of intentions: “He’s not a partisan person. He’s there to represent people who live outside London and people living in the north-east, where he comes from. That’s quite a pure motive.”

But Steve Bannon’s defenestration from Trump’s White House is a reminder of the danger that advisers face, especially when they become public figures in their own right. Cummings could hardly complain; this month he told potential applicants to join his team in Number 10: “I’ll bin you within weeks if you don’t fit.”

Jonathan Powell, Blair’s former chief of staff, wishes Cummings well in his efforts to overhaul the state but fears that he is on course for a spectacular crash. “On the basis of my experience, the sensible thing for an unelected official in Number 10 to do is keep a low profile,” he says.

“I give him 12 months max. If you try to be in the papers every day your political life expectancy is short — and like Rasputin, you end up on the bottom of the River Neva in chains.”

George Parker is the FT’s political editor.

Additional reporting by Chris Tighe in Newcastle

Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to Culture Call, the FT’s transatlantic culture podcast, which interviews people shifting culture in London and New York. Subscribe at, Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Commentary: Religion and politics? It’s good to talk – San Antonio Express-News



Most of us grew up being told to avoid talking about politics and religion with those with whom we disagree, especially loved ones and family members. While, no doubt, there are cases where this adage still holds in 2020, as a totalizing principle applicable to everyone, it no longer makes sense and arguably perpetuates obstacles to needed change.

Perhaps instead we should learn how to conduct civil and less inflammatory conversations on difficult and controversial topics. Otherwise transcending the polarization paralyzing the nation and inhibiting genuine democratic deliberation will never occur — something no one really desires.

Call me naive, but as a teacher and scholar of rhetoric for more than 40 years, I believe productive dialogue, though difficult, is possible. The challenge is how to engage in civil discourse. I hope members of my academic discipline (which includes public, interpersonal and organizational communication) will conduct research about how to do this, then teach what they learn to students and the public.

Maybe I am guilty of being overly optimistic; however, finding common ground, the hallmark of communication dating back to the writings of ancient Greek rhetoricians, is possible and a key part of meeting the challenge. A colleague and friend suggested that finding common ground requires that we approach discussion as having “positions” rather than “sides,” that we talk about “we” and “our,” not “us” and “them,” and that we avoid associating vitriol with disagreement.

For example, while we may not share truths about President Donald Trump’s performance and whether he should be re-elected, certainly there are other matters about which we do agree and share values. Using those sources of common ground affords the potential to create reflection, cognitive dissonance and compromise — whether we are Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives.

That in turn might yield productive outcomes on many important political issues demanding immediate attention and expedient action on problems that aren’t an all-or-nothing referendum on the current White House occupant. Creating safe schools, making health care available to more people, adopting measures to help address the economic and health suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and improving the environment are a few examples where common ground can be found.

To suggest this is impossible is tantamount to claiming that all of us are inherently dogmatic, never changing our opinions on personal and public issues — something that totally defies our experience. Research in rhetoric, for instance, offers the concept of “self-risk.” This suggests that when individuals genuinely argue with one another, they enter the exchange admitting the possibility that their worldviews will change as a result.

In essence, “self-risk” is the opposite of dogma; it documents a willingness to argue and be constructively responsive rather than just repeating our view over and over. Research shows “self-risk” is more than an academic platitude; as I am claiming here, it is principle developed precisely because it not only can be invoked but frequently is. I challenge readers to suggest they never “self-risk.”

So perhaps each of us should reconsider the adage about avoiding conversations about politics and religion with those who disagree with us.

Richard Cherwitz is the Ernest A. Sharpe Centennial professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin.

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Did Donald Trump destroy political prognostication forever? – CNN



These questions seemed particularly relevant in our current moment, as virtually every political pundit is in the business of making predictions about who will win the presidency on November 3. Some of these predictions are based purely on the numbers — figures are placed into a model and a result is spit out — while others are based on a blend of numbers and, for lack of a better word, gut instinct.
So, who’s right? Or is there even a right in all of this?
I asked those questions — and a few more — of Christopher Beha, the author of “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” and also the editor of Harper’s magazine. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
CIllizza: The novel’s main character — Sam Waxworth — is a numbers guy who made his name by predicting every state right in the 2008 election. The obvious comparison is Nate Silver. Was Nate (or anyone else) in your mind when writing the character of Sam?
Beha: I started thinking about this book in the early years of Obama’s first term, more or less in the same period when the book itself is set. Most traditional pundits thought the 2008 election would be a nail-biter, but a few data-driven outsider types (Nate Silver most prominent among them) predicted a near-landslide for Obama, which is what happened.
If Obama himself appeared to represent something entirely new — not just because of his race, but because he was the first post-Boomer president, seemingly untouched by the Boomer-era culture wars that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in different ways represented; because he seemed pragmatic, technocratic, non-ideological; because he had not “waited his turn” and seemed less beholden to the traditional political power structures — these “data journalists” were the media equivalent of this newness. They quickly established themselves in the mainstream, despite predictable grumbling from the old guard. I found this generational tension interesting, and it was one of the elements that led me to create a character (very loosely) based on Silver. I was also interested in the limits of the kind of quantitative thinking that this new guard represented.
Here it’s worth mentioning in fairness to Silver — whom I don’t know at all — that he is generally very thoughtful about the way he uses data, and that he actually talks quite a bit about the limits of quantification. But there are many people in the “quant” camp who do not share this humility, and more extreme characters are naturally more interesting for a novelist.
So I would say that I borrowed some broad facts from Silver’s biography — Waxworth is from the Midwest; he went from baseball modeling to political modeling; he rose to fame after correctly predicting the outcome of the 2008 election — but that I borrowed Waxworth’s mindset from some of Silver’s less thoughtful brethren (whom I won’t name here).
Cillizza: A novel at least partly about electoral predictions, polls and modeling — and their limits. How much was this book influenced by 2016? And what does it say about 2020 — whether intentionally or not?
Beha: As I said, I started thinking about the book shortly after the data journalists rose to fame in 2008. I began actually writing it soon after the 2012 election, another win for the quant crowd. I was most of the way through it by 2016, when all of the prognosticators fell flat on their faces. All of a sudden, the world of the book seemed very far away, and the novel became almost a work of historical fiction. I tried not to let the post-2016 viewpoint seep into my Obama-era setting, but the fact of Trump’s election certainly changed some things.
We talk a lot about all the ways in which Trump represents something completely new and unprecedented, but he also represents a throwback to the pre-Obama era. He is of the same generation as Clinton and Bush, and he has stoked the culture war flames that were a signature feature of those earlier presidencies. We are all acutely aware of how naïve the “post-racial” dream of Obama’s election really was, but one could say the same about the dream of a post-ideological — technocratic, data-driven, pragmatic — America that Obama’s election also seemed to promise.
Trump destroyed whatever was left of that dream, and so it’s sadly appropriate that his victory also destroyed the credibility of many data-driven journalists who rose to prominence during the Obama years. After 2016, the book became, in part, about a moment when a particular dream of a rationally ordered society seemed within reach and about why that moment was bound to disappoint. I’m not sure what any of this has to tell us about 2020, except that even if Trump loses it won’t do away with the psychological undercurrents — particularly, our strange desire for chaos and disorder — that helped make Trump possible.

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Cillizza: The book feels like a running argument between what can be empirically known (in politics, baseball, life) and what, well, can’t. And which matters more. Where do you think media coverage of this election falls on that continuum?
Beha: On the most fundamental level, the future by definition can’t be empirically known, because it doesn’t yet exist. (These days we are more aware of this than ever: if you’d asked a thousand pundits and futurists in August 2019 what August 2020 would look like, not a single one would have said we’d be coming off a double-digit drop in GDP and that we’d all be wearing masks.) In that sense, the results of an election that hasn’t happened yet is by definition unknowable. It’s natural for us to want to know the results now, since the outcome is important to us. And it’s natural for the media to cover certain events by putting them in relation to this unknowable future, particularly now that the election is actually quite soon. Something like Biden’s VP pick can only really be understood in terms of how it relates to his election chances — how it relates to those chances is what the pick is “about.”
But it is not only when the election is a few months away that the media puts things in this context. I remember reading something in early 2017, soon after Trump’s inauguration, about how the polling on some decision of his affected the Republicans’ midterm chances. There seemed to me only two possible answers to that question — either “it doesn’t” or “we can’t possibly know.” In any case, the impulse to pose the question in the first place struck me as pathological. All these outlets had just completely whiffed on 2016, and yet they could not break themselves of the habit of talking in pseudo-empirical terms about completely unknowable things.
Cillizza: You’ve created a Twitter look-alike in the book: Teeser. Why — and what role (positive, negative, neutral, something else) does social media (and Twitter in particular) play in both the book and our modern politics? [Beha himself is not on Twitter].
Beha: There are various ways in which the world of the book is just slightly askew from the real world. For example, the major New York newspaper where one character works is the Herald, rather than the Times. These things allow me to place fictional characters within otherwise non-fictional contexts. The creation of Teeser serves a similar role. Twitter was not quite ubiquitous in 2009, and I did not want to be held to the standards of documentary truth for what is, after all, a novel.
As far as your second question, I’m on the side of those who think that social media’s influence on politics, journalism, culture, society, and just about everything else has been almost completely pernicious. There are some exceptions, but the net accounting has to be negative. Donald Trump is paradigmatic public figure of the social-media era. I think that about sums the situation up.
Cillizza: Finish this sentence: “If Sam Waxworth was handicapping the 2020 election, he would give Biden a _______% chance of winning.” Now, explain.
Beha: Oh, I don’t know, let’s say 73.2.
It’s worth noting here that even this way of putting it — not “I predict that Joe Biden will win,” but “I calculate that Joe Biden has a 73.2% chance of winning ” — has been bequeathed to us by the data journalists, who have taught us that predictions have to be probabilistic rather than deterministic.
In some ways, this is an obvious improvement over the alternative, since it acknowledges the fact that we can’t really know today what will happen four months from how. But it also introduces the false sense of precision that comes from numbers. If I say, “Joe Biden is going to win” or even “Joe Biden is probably going to win,” it’s obvious that I’m just making a more or less educated guess. If I say, “there’s a 73.2% chance that Biden will win” this suddenly seems much more empirical, but at the end of the day, it’s still just my best guess. And the nice thing about probabilistic predictions, from the pundits’ standpoint, is that you’re never wrong — either outcome is given some chance.
One of the things that the data journalists promised to add to the punditry mix was some sense of accountability. That sort of went out the window after 2016.

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State of democracy in Africa: changing leaders doesn’t change politics – The Conversation Africa



For the last few years the African political landscape has been dominated by high profile changes of leaders and governments. In Angola (2017), Ethiopia (2018), South Africa (2018), Sudan (2019) and Zimbabwe (2018), leadership change promised to bring about not only a new man at the top, but also a new political and economic direction.

But do changes of leaders and governments generate more democratic and responsive governments? The Bertelsmann Transformation Index Africa Report 2020 (BTI), A Changing of the Guards or A Change of Systems?, suggests that we should be cautious about the prospects for rapid political improvements.

Reviewing developments in 44 countries from 2017 to the start of 2019, the report finds that leadership change results in an initial wave of optimism. But ongoing political challenges and constraints mean that it is often a case of “the more things change the more they stay the same”.

Political change occurs gradually in the vast majority of African countries.

More continuity than change

From 2015 to 2019, the general pattern has been for the continent’s more authoritarian states – such as Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea and Rwanda – to make little progress towards democracy. In some cases countries became incrementally more repressive.

At the same time, many of the continent’s more democratic states – including Botswana, Ghana, Mauritius, Senegal and South Africa – have remained “consolidating” or “defective” democracies. Very few of these dropped out of these categories to become “authoritarian” regimes.

A number of countries have seen more significant changes. But in most cases this did not fundamentally change the character of the political system. For example, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya and Tanzania moved further away from lasting political and economic transformation. Meanwhile Angola, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe initially made progress towards it, but these gains were limited – and only lasted for a short period in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

As this brief summary suggests, at a continental level the trajectories of different states have by and large cancelled each other out. Positive trends in some cases were wiped out by negative trends in others.

Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole has thus seen no significant changes to the overall level of democracy, economic management and governance. For example, the index shows that between 2018 and 2020, the overall level of democracy declined by just 0.09, a small shift on a 1-10 scale. This suggests continuity not change.

Leadership changes often disappoint

In almost all cases, positive trends were recorded in countries where leadership change generated hope for political renewal and economic reform. This includes Angola, after President José Eduardo dos Santos stepped down in 2017, and Ethiopia, following the rise to power of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. It also includes Zimbabwe, where the transfer of power from Robert Mugabe to Emmerson Mnangagwa was accompanied by promises that the Zanu-PF government would show greater respect for democratic norms and values in future.

Sierra Leone also recorded a significant improvement in performance following the victory of opposition candidate Julius Maada Bio in the presidential election of 2018. Nigeria has continued to make modest but significant gains in economic management since Muhammadu Buhari replaced Goodluck Jonathan as president in 2015.

The significance of leadership change in all of these processes is an important reminder of the extent to which power has been personalised. But it is important to note that events since the end of the period under review in 2019 have cast doubt on the significance of these transitions.

Most notably, continued and in some cases increasing human rights abuses in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zimbabwe suggest that we have seen “a changing of the guards” but not a change of political systems.

Nowhere is this more true than Zimbabwe, where the last few weeks have witnessed a brutal government crackdown. Not only have journalists been arrested on flimsy charges, but the rule of law has been manipulated to keep them in jail. Following this sustained attack on democracy, it is now clear that the Mnangagwa government is no more committed to human rights and civil liberties than its predecessor was.

There is no one ‘Africa’

So what does the future hold? I often get asked what direction Africa is heading in. My answer is always the same: where democracy is concerned, there is no one “Africa”. The Bertelsmann Transformation Index report shows how true this is.

In addition to the well-known differences between leading lights like Botswana and entrenched laggards like Rwanda, there is also a profound regional variation that is less well recognised and understood.

From relatively similar starting points in the early 1990s, there has been a sharp divergence between West and Southern Africa – which have remained comparatively more open and democratic – and Central and Eastern Africa, which remained more closed and authoritarian. There is also some evidence that the average quality of democracy continued to decline in Eastern and Central Africa in the past few years. Because it continues to increase in West Africa, we have seen greater divergence between the two sets of regions.

Figure 1. Average Democracy scores for African regions, BTI 2006-2020*

These variations reflect the historical process through which governments came to power, the kinds of states over which they govern, and the disposition and influence of regional organisations. In particular, East Africa features a number of countries ruled by former rebel armies (Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda). Here political control is underpinned by coercion and a longstanding suspicion of opposition.

This is also a challenge in some Central African states. Here the added complication of long-running conflicts and political instability (Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo) has undermined government performance in many ways.

A number of former military leaders have also governed West African states, including Ghana, Nigeria and Togo. But the proportion has been lower and some countries, such as Senegal, have a long tradition of plural politics and civilian leadership. In a similar vein, Southern Africa features a number of liberation movements. But in a number of cases these developed out of broad-based movements that valued political participation and civil liberties. Partly as a result, former military or rebel leaders have had a less damaging impact on the prospects for democracy in Southern and West Africa.

It is important not to exaggerate these regional differences. There is great variation within them as well as between them. But, this caveat notwithstanding, we should not expect to see any convergence around a common African democratic experience in the next few years. If anything, the gap between the continent’s most democratic and authoritarian regions is likely to become even wider.

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