There are good reasons to be upset about politics and the behaviour of our elected representatives. However, it strikes me that many citizens are over-cynical and whine about politics for unfair reasons.
Ben Rhodes,a speechwriter for Barack Obama and, from 2009 to 2017, a deputy national security adviser, is among the former president’s fiercest defenders. In 2018 he published a White House memoir, titled with characteristic certitude “The World as It Is,” in which he first took up the question that haunts Mr. Obama’s legacy: If he was the wonderful president his admirers say he was, why did the country elect Donald Trump to succeed him? Mr. Rhodes’s answer—I will put it almost as plainly as he does—is that Republicans are racists and thus demonized Mr. Obama as un-American, and the country fell for it.
Mr. Rhodes offers that same interpretation in “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made.” But in this book he expands his brief by portraying Mr. Trump’s election as part of a much wider embrace of nationalist authoritarianism. China’s lurch toward surveillance-state totalitarianism, Hungary’s transition to illiberal democracy, Russia’s reversion to its former status as a global menace—these are all, according to Mr. Rhodes, symptoms of the “virus” that gave us the Trump presidency.
The promise and betrayal of Reconstruction, Lafayette’s revolutions, a day with Virginia Woolf, a poisoner’s reign of terror and more.
Political views aside, the book is not a pleasure to read. Mr. Rhodes often writes in a flurry of ill-defined abstractions. “Our own collective embrace of a blend of capitalism, militarism, and technology that somehow bred identity-based polarization” is a typical phrase. He refers casually to the “poorly regulated global economy,” making me wonder when the global economy was well regulated. The meaning of the words “capitalism is as fungible as Communism” eludes me.
But “After the Fall” is, in its way, instructive. “I’ve written thousands of speeches for Barack Obama,” Mr. Rhodes modestly informs us, and he probably understands the 44th president as well as anyone. The problem is that he has none of Mr. Obama’s warmth and personal appeal but all of his self-importance, hypersensitivity to criticism and penchant for highfalutin platitudes.
Rarely has a writer thought more of himself and with less justification. He interviews Alexei Navalny mainly, it seems, in order to compare himself to the Russian dissident—a man who has been harassed, imprisoned and poisoned for his opposition to Vladimir Putin. Though generously allowing that Mr. Navalny’s sufferings “are far greater than anything I have experienced,” Mr. Rhodes sees in him someone just like himself: “a guy who didn’t expect to be doing what he was doing, who was motivated by anger and yet still energized by the whole experience.” Later he speaks with a pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong who describes for him the ways in which the Chinese Communist Party frightens critics of Beijing into silence. This reminds Mr. Rhodes of “the warnings I got at times to tone down my anti-Trump commentary for fear of appearing hysterical, unserious.”
A man who consistently equates opposition to his views with racism and mendacity isn’t likely to notice weaknesses in his arguments, and Mr. Rhodes doesn’t. He laments the Chinese government’s belligerent online censorship of dissenting political opinions but says nothing, for example, about American social-media platforms erasing reasonable assertions by respected professionals that don’t align with the progressive orthodoxy of the moment.
Mr. Rhodes repeatedly describes conservative and “nationalist” political viewpoints he doesn’t like as “grievance-fueled” and “grievance-based,” but he doesn’t bother to mention the obvious counterclaim—even to reject it—that the American left has cultivated racial, ethnic and sexual grievances for so long that we now have a name for them: identity politics.
Occasionally you wonder if he’s pulling your leg. In a long chapter on the evils of Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister—the left’s current obsession with Hungary, of all places, is on full display here—Mr. Rhodes inveighs against Orbán-linked groups that demonize the progressive Hungarian financier George Soros. Now I am aware that a lot of right-wingers in the U.S. entertain some outlandish theories about Mr. Soros’s influence, although characterizing him, as Mr. Rhodes does, as a disinterested crusader for good government who has “established foundations that give grants to civil society organizations” is a bit much. Mr. Soros is a leftist mega-donor, full-stop. But that’s not the funny part. Four pages later, Mr. Rhodes attributes the Tea Party’s success in the 2010 midterm elections in part to “Charles and David Koch, two billionaires who were among the Republican Party’s largest donors, and their innocuously named organization Americans for Prosperity.” Self-awareness is not the man’s strong point.
Mr. Rhodes believes that progressives are an oppressed and threatened population. Many political-class progressives believe this, for reasons I wish I understood. The left’s values prevail in universities, public schools, newsrooms, corporate boardrooms, cultural institutions, government agencies, and lately the U.S. military.
This strange conviction enables the author of a White House memoir to think of himself and his political allies as objects of censorship and persecution. In a chapter titled “Power Doesn’t Give Up Without a Fight”—an Obama tagline—Mr. Rhodes addresses the point directly. “Even after we were ensconced in the White House,” he recalls of 2009, “power never really did give up.” The “wealthy business elite,” the “military and foreign policy establishment,” and “America’s oil-rich allies in the Gulf,” he reflects, “never took to Obama.” And of course Republicans “relentlessly attacked and sought to undermine Obama, even though he came into office determined to work with them.” So, Mr. Rhodes concludes in a dramatic imperative, “don’t tell me Trump isn’t the establishment.” The claim that Donald Trump was part of Washington’s establishment, whatever Mr. Rhodes means by that term, is so stupidly tendentious that I have to assume he doesn’t mean it.
Elsewhere in the book Mr. Rhodes describes what it was like to be a young speechwriter on the 2008 Obama campaign—“the villains in the story,” he recalls, “were . . . the warmongers, torturers, racists, climate deniers, special interests, and amoral wealthy who always tried to stand in the way of progress”—so forgive me if I remain skeptical of his claim that Mr. Obama “came into office determined to work with” the opposition. It’s true that Mr. Obama inspired hostility. But how could he not, when Ben Rhodes was his muse?
Canada has had more than 100 years to modernize elections and campaigns so that women candidates can compete on a level playing field.
What’s taken so long? How is it possible that obstacles dating from the suffrage era continue to pose significant barriers?
Veronica Strong-Boag’s forthcoming biography of the first woman cabinet minister in the British Empire reveals problems that continue to this day. In 1892, Mary Ellen Smith left the dusty coal towns of northern England for Nanaimo, B.C. She arrived as an experienced public reformer, committed to improving the living and working conditions of families like her own – composed of white European miners, their wives and children. Smith became a leader in West Coast campaigns to extend the vote to women and to strengthen minimum wage, public pension and child labour laws.
The sudden death of her husband Ralph, an MLA for Vancouver, led Smith to contest his seat in a provincial byelection. Despite fierce competition, she won in 1918 and in two subsequent races. Smith became not just B.C.’s first female MLA but also a minister without portfolio in the province’s then-Liberal government.
As an immigrant from the U.K. whose first language was English, what were her rewards? Smith was provided no stipend, staff or seat at the cabinet table. She resigned as minister without portfolio less than a year after her appointment, stating she refused to be a superfluous “fifth wheel on the political coach.” In 1928, the B.C. Liberals pushed Smith off the stage entirely, running her in a Tory bastion on Vancouver Island. Smith, as well as the B.C. Liberal Party, lost that election.
During much of Smith’s time in the public spotlight, political leaders and media pundits remarked on little beyond her attractive face, fashionable clothes, feminine speaking style and congenial personality. Smith became a sexualized commodity of the time: B.C. Liberal leader John Oliver announced that he’d kissed the victorious candidate out of “duty” rather than sin. Another B.C. Liberal proposed marriage with a $3,000 monetary incentive. In short, the substantive commitments that had long dominated Smith’s civic involvement were buried in a volley of commentary that highlighted her “comely” good looks and “quiet, gentle voice.”
Mary Ellen Smith stands among the first women in Canada to walk away from parliamentary politics with a deep sense of disappointment. But she was far from the last.
What can be done to ensure that today’s women candidates escape these sordid legacies? First, sustained focus in public debate on policy content rather than personal minutiae would go a long way toward improving our political climate. As they did 100 years ago, contemporary news reports and commentaries that highlight hair, wardrobe and tone of voice trivialize the contributions of half the population by turning political campaigns into old-fashioned beauty pageants. This trend is particularly worrisome in our visually saturated era, when social media emphasis on style and imagery is usurping the somewhat more-substantive orientation of older news outlets.
Second, I encourage candidates and leaders to channel Mary Ellen Smith by calling out the biases they confront. To their credit, a number of diverse women who abandoned federal politics in recent months, including Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and Vancouver Granville MP Jody Wilson-Raybould, did just that. Back in mid-June, Qaqqaq announced she would not run in the next federal election. A member of the NDP caucus since 2019, Qaqqaq said the House of Commons was “a very uneasy place,” where staff did not recognize her status as an MP. Qaqqaq also felt stymied in her attempts to improve housing and prevent suicide in Indigenous and Inuit communities.
A Liberal MP and cabinet minister for one term and then an independent MP since 2019, Wilson-Raybould explained in July that she’d decided not to run again given a “toxic and ineffective Parliament” characterized by “harmful partisanship.”
Instead of quietly exiting the parliamentary arena, both Qaqqaq and Wilson-Raybould spoke publicly about what ails the system. They. along with embattled Green Party Leader Annamie Paul. have identified problems that continue to impede participants who come from traditionally marginalized outsider groups. Paul’s comments this summer suggest that the internal Green Party debate over the Middle East conflict and the defection to the Liberals of Jenica Atwin, a Green MP from New Brunswick, was far from civil. In fact, Paul told reporters that racist and sexist allegations were levelled against her at an emergency meeting of the Green Party’s national council in mid-June.
Not surprisingly, these contemporary trail-blazers include women who are Indigenous (Qaqqaq and Wilson-Raybould) as well as Black and Jewish (Paul). Their entry to Canadian public institutions that were constructed for and by white Christian men has provoked discomfort, hostility and lots in between.
Third, as the citizens whose voices ought to be represented in legislative chambers and in cabinet meetings, we – as members of a diverse Canadian public – need to demand better. It’s our responsibility to hold editors, journalists, bloggers and tweeters to foundational standards that require fair coverage of election campaigns. Emphases on the coiffure, sexual allure or voice of female candidates tend to go hand-in-hand with neglect of their substantive politics. This approach remains as vapid and imbalanced now as it was a century ago.
We also need to insist that parties and legislatures open their doors to change-oriented participants who don’t look like the Fathers of Confederation. If public institutions remain closed to candidates like Qaqqaq, Wilson-Raybould and Paul, those structures are sure to calcify as bloated parking lots full of status quo advocates.
Our job, in short, is to help ensure the experiences of women candidates and parliamentarians in 2021 are measurably better than they were in the era of Mary Ellen Smith.
Data shows that during this pandemic, public trust in elected leaders in Canada has dipped precipitously. Just imagine how much worse those trends will become if we don’t find ways to elect women like Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Annamie Paul – and ensure they are effective and are able to be influential inside the system.
This article is part of the How can we improve the elections process special feature.
There are good reasons to be upset about politics and the behaviour of our elected representatives. However, it strikes me that many citizens are over-cynical and whine about politics for unfair reasons.
Let me be clear, we must be critical of the government and hold politicians to very high standards. This is particularly important in times of crisis where their decisions will heavily impact our standard of living or even our health conditions, as we have seen with COVID-19.
That said, many comments about politicians that I hear are unfair and cheap.
First, politicians are said to constantly break their promises. The good news is that we can actually verify the extent to which they do — and fortunately, several academics do this important work. Overall, the numbers are very clear: most of the time, governments deliver a majority of their pledges.
We also hear a lot that politicians, and especially the prime minister, are strategic and pursue their self-interest. These are two extremely puzzling complaints. Why would it systematically be a bad thing to be strategic? At the end of the day, there are many very good policies that are appealing for a majority of voters (and thus benefiting the government if adopted). Implementing them should not be seen as Machiavellian.
Moreover, it is very difficult to imagine that most of those who run for the job of member of Parliament do it for their self-interest. In terms of financial incentives, many of these people would make much more money in the private sector. They don’t do it for money.
People also do not become politicians in the hope that it will allow them to have more free time. In fact, being a politician is a very time-consuming job, and for many it requires being away from home; just think about the size of the country and how many constituencies are not within a commutable distance from Ottawa.
To borrow an expression from psychologist Ashley Weinberg: the job should come with a government health warning, as it is a mental health hazard. Not only are politicians likely to develop mental health problems, but recent research has also shown that voters penalize politicians who suffer from depression (a mental health disease that affects many Canadians and should be the source of stigma) more than they penalize politicians who suffer from a physical disease such as cancer or high blood pressure.
Many people won’t be thrilled about the current election because they are simply not interested in politics. Political junkies are a minority of people, and this is perfectly fine. However, I find it troubling and unfair that citizens, especially those who do not closely follow politics, are exposed to a ton of negativity about politics and politicians. I hope that this text will reach people who are not interested in politics and thus less likely to be aware of the above considerations. Their vote choice should not be based on cynicism and misleading conceptions of Canadian politics and politicians.
I’m not calling for fewer critical comments. I just hope that they become fairer.
Jean-François Daoust is a professor of politics at the University of Edinburgh.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has $55 million banked for his re-election campaign, a 73 percent approval rating among Republicans, and an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
None of that, though, has stopped a crop of critics — including Allen West, a former Florida congressman with a right-wing following who briefly served as the Texas GOP chairman — from announcing plans to challenge Abbott in next year’s primary.
Their complaint isn’t so much that Abbott is not a conservative. It’s that he’s not the hard-line conservative they believe that Texans crave — particularly when compared with some Republican peers and their hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s not Ron DeSantis, and he’s not Kristi Noem,” one veteran of Texas GOP politics said, referencing the governors of Florida and South Dakota who’ve upped their national profiles by resisting extended lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates and other restrictions to limit the spread of Covid.
Pandemic politics are likely to play out in GOP gubernatorial primaries elsewhere, most notably in Ohio, where Republican Gov. Mike DeWine already has two challengers on his right who disapprove of the cautious approach he took early in the crisis. In Texas, West is one of at least four Republicans who are already campaigning against Abbott. Also in the race are Don Huffines, a businessman and former state senator from the Dallas area who has endorsements from former Trump aide Katrina Pierson and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.; Chad Prather, a conservative comedian and commentator for BlazeTV; and Paul Belew, a criminal defense attorney running with a television-inspired “Better Call Paul” slogan.
Abbott’s allies are unfazed by the early moves against him. The governor won primaries in 2014 and 2018 with more than 90 percent of the vote and comfortably won his first two terms. In a huge state with expensive media markets, he has a cash advantage that even the independently wealthy Huffines, who already has loaned his campaign $5 million, is unlikely to match.
“They don’t have any money, they don’t have any fundraising ability,” said John Wittman, Abbott’s former communications director who now runs a public affairs firm in Austin. “They are all fighting over the same 10 to 12 percent of Republican primary voters.”
Dave Carney, Abbott’s political strategist, said he takes nothing for granted but is “not worried at all” about challenges from the right.
“We’re really focused on the general election,” he added. “The primary is a great opportunity for us to do a dress rehearsal.”
Abbott’s rivals could be a nuisance nevertheless in his bid for a third term. They repeatedly hammer him for business closures and mask mandates during the early months of the pandemic. And they don’t give him credit for being among the first governors to ease off such orders, using strikingly similar rhetoric to dismiss his decisions as an affront to liberty.
Said West: “I mean, you can’t give back something that you really had no right to take.”
Said Huffines: “That would be like thanking a thief for bringing some of your stolen goods back.”
Said Prather: “When you play arsonist and firefighter, the hypocrisy bleeds through pretty fast.”
Abbott was careful not to call public health measures he took in April 2020 a “stay-at-home order,” though he subsequently clarified in a video message that he was requiring “all Texans to stay at home except to provide essential services or do essential things like going to the grocery store.” He began reopening, with limitations, in May 2020 only to pause those efforts the next month because of a surge in coronavirus cases. A mask mandate quickly followed and stayed in place until March this year, when Abbott fully reopened the state.
Even so, using the pandemic as a wedge against Abbott, who last month tested positive for Covid, is not a slam-dunk primary message. More than two-thirds of Republican voters approved of his response to the crisis when surveyed in an August poll by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Other critics, particularly Democrats, have argued his pandemic response has been too lax, pointing in particular to his July order barring mask and vaccine mandates in the state despite the highly-contagious delta variant surge.
As of Thursday, confirmed coronavirus cases in Texas were up 11 percent over the last two weeks. Deaths were up 38 percent.
The primary challengers have other grievances.
West, Huffines and Prather all accused Abbott of not doing enough to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, even after the governor pledged to deploy more state police and free up state funds to continue building a border wall.
Huffines wishes Abbott would have called for what he termed as a “full forensic audit” of the 2020 election — a calling card for right-wing candidates eager to please Trump. (The former president won the state of Texas.)
Prather mockingly calls Abbott a “campaign conservative” who is all talk, no action.
“The media gives him a lot of credit because he uses a lot of conservative rhetoric,” Prather said. “But there’s a difference between saying and doing. And, you know, Ron DeSantis does. Kristi Noem does. And Greg Abbott, a politician who lives off his polls, is good at saying.”
Several experienced Texas GOP operatives downplayed these ideological differences.
“Allen West has a history of pandering to the never-happy crowd,” said Chad Wilbanks, a former executive director of the state party who supports Abbott’s re-election. “Then you have … Don Huffines, who’s also pandering to the never-happy crowd.”
“You know, you’re never going to make everybody happy,” he added, in defense of Abbott. “And a leader who tries to make everybody happy is not very successful.”
The presence of several anti-Abbott candidates could split whatever anti-Abbott vote exists. Huffines and Prather see strength in numbers, predicting that a crowded field could keep Abbott below 50 percent in a primary and trigger a one-on-one runoff in which anti-Abbott voters can consolidate around one candidate. (“I’m not doing the wolf pack thing,” West, who dismissed such a strategy, said.)
The problem with that thinking is in the poll numbers. Abbott’s 73 percent job approval rating within his party, as measured by last month’s Texas Politics Project survey, has fallen 8 points over the last year, but it’s still high enough to leave little room for a successful primary challenger.
“They’re presuming that 5 or 10 percent of the electorate that may wish our governor was more conservative,” is a path to victory, said Matt Mackowiak, who chairs the Travis County GOP in Austin and personally supports Abbott. “But that defies third-grade math.”
There’s also the Trump factor. The former president endorsed Abbott in early June, then joined him at the border to raise alarm about immigration. Huffines believes Trump’s endorsement, like others that have gone wrong, including one earlier this year in a special Texas congressional election, is a mistake.
“The president has supported a lot of losers, and this is just going to be another one in that column,” Huffines said. “And it’s sad — for Trump, it’s going to be sad.”
Prather suggested Trump could change his mind “as this thing really heats up.”
That won’t happen, a senior political adviser to Trump said.
“President Trump has always respected Gov. Abbott and maintained a strong relationship. He was always inclined to support his re-election, but it was Abbott’s leadership on securing the border that sealed the deal,” the adviser said. “Trump loves Texas and loves fighters — Abbott is definitely a fighter for Texas.”
As for Democrats, they so far lack a well-known challenger, with former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who lost a close race against Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018 before launching an unsuccessful presidential campaign, a top recruiting target.
“If Abbott were weak,” Mackowiak said, “we’d have a Democratic candidate for governor already.”
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