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The Head-Spinning Politics of the “Purge” Franchise – POLITICO

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In case you hadn’t heard, “the American dream is dead.” This is, I think, due to an “epidemic of crime.” Or maybe “bad hombres” who insisted they be subjected to “no more bullshit.”

Who said these things? Donald Trump, of course (or at least, in some cases, his bootleg merchandisers). But also a menagerie of forgettable stock characters from the “Purge” horror-thriller cinematic universe. If the exact details are fuzzy, forgive me. In a span of 24 hours over the July Fourth weekend, I watched all five “Purge” films — including “The Forever Purge,” which just opened in theaters — in an attempt to understand why this aggressively off-putting, grotesque franchise has maintained its stranglehold on the American imagination for nearly a decade now.

To do what these films do not, and indulge in a little bit of understatement, it was a disorienting experience.

The “Purge” universe is based on a simple and nihilistic premise: In a dystopian near-future, a democratically-elected American theocracy legalizes any and all crime — including murder — for 12 hours each year, with the starting bell a 7:00 p.m. siren blast on March 21 that announces anarchy until the following morning. The stated purpose is to psychologically “purify” a society wracked by unemployment and rampant crime, allowing Americans to live peacefully among each other for the remainder of the year.

In (this fictional) reality, however, it’s all just a ruse by bloodthirsty oligarchs to sell guns and insurance while culling the ranks of those who can’t afford to hunker down for the night in gilded panic rooms. One part hardcore social Darwinism, one part “Escape From New York” and a sprinkle of “The Handmaid’s Tale” have combined to the tune of nearly $500 million at the worldwide box office.

That’s just a taste of the hazily sketched political philosophy the “Purge” films lay out. Regardless of their thematic ambiguity, there’s an obvious hook: They serve as opportunities for the viewer to “purge” in their own mind over the course of 90-110 minutes, imagining how they might survive in a world of unbidden violence—or what they might be tempted to do if given the chance to act with impunity. The viewer can damn the Purge’s avaricious creators while enjoying the catharsis-by-proxy of the violence they unleash. Even better, the masters of this particular universe are drawn vaguely enough that viewers of all political stripes can imagine them as the foes of their choosing: religious autocrats, a shadowy global cabal of far-right fever dreams, or anything in between.

The political details of the world conjured by franchise creator and screenwriter James DeMonaco—scattershot and contradictory as they are—reveal the driving impulses of the populist id that drives today’s politics. Now nearly a decade after its launch, one could do worse than squinting at the “Purge” franchise to glean an impressionistic, if woefully incomplete, picture of American social erosion.

***

In “The Purge,” the franchise’s 2013 maiden voyage, simplicity is a virtue. Produced on a relatively shoestring budget of $3 million, the film is effectively an old-school haunted house picture focusing on one family’s efforts to make it through Purge Night at home. The civic trappings of the franchise are almost irrelevant here, replaced by a series of straightforward moral quandaries: What do we owe our neighbors? How much risk would you take on to protect them? How far are you willing to go to protect your own family?

Those are the questions the film’s protagonist, a McMansion-dwelling but economically insecure salesman played by Ethan Hawke, faces as he glowers his way through what recalls a lengthy, uber-violent, not-very-sophisticated episode of “The Twilight Zone.” The demons at Hawke’s heavily-fortified door—he happens to peddle security systems meant to keep those who can afford them safe from the Purge—are a roving gang of “American Psycho”-style preppies, who appeal to class solidarity by imploring Hawke to release a homeless man taken in by his compassionate offspring. With its sadistic elite antagonists, the film establishes the series’ crude populism, and although it doesn’t amount to much of a social critique, the final product is probably the most satisfying in the series by virtue of its small-scale, human focus.

In its 2014 sequel, “The Purge: Anarchy,” the camera zooms way out. We’re introduced to the wider sociopolitical context of the Purge, which has created a country where unemployment is below 5 percent and “crime is virtually non-existent, while every year fewer and fewer people live below the poverty line,” as the film’s opening title card helpfully explains. Eventually, via painstaking verbal exposition, the viewer learns that the ruling party (the perfectly vaguely named “New Founding Fathers of America”) is now simply deploying death squads to indiscriminately murder the poor, who apparently have not done an efficient enough job of it themselves come Purge time.

The sequel does some things effectively. By turning its focus to the people who can’t afford to enter Ethan Hawke’s bunker, it confronts the viewer more directly with the pitch-black implications of the series’ premise, up to and including a disturbing scene of threatened sexual violence. But in what becomes a recurring theme for the franchise, that strength is also the film’s weakness. Bogged down by dull action, bizarre pacing and the ham-fisted introduction of a Black resistance group for whom the term “caricature” would be generous, “The Purge: Anarchy” introduces a raft of provocative, upsetting ideas and proceeds to do less than the bare minimum with them.

That trend largely continues in the series’ third installment, “The Purge: Election Year.” As one might surmise from the title, the film tackles electoral politics head-on. Its plot follows an idealistic, crusading politician who seeks the presidency on a single-issue platform of abolishing the Purge. Although it’s cinematically more successful than its predecessor—benefiting from tighter action sequences as DeMonaco is clearly more comfortable with the larger budget—it still lacks real thematic punch or focus. Its protagonist, portrayed by “Lost” star Elizabeth Mitchell, invokes Lincoln in a debate speech against her opponent; one of the film’s scrappy rebels faux-cynically proclaims “She’s full of it too, nothing will actually change.”

By the time the film was released in mid-2016, critics were salivating for parallels between its bleak universe and the Manichean, id political landscape that year’s real-world election had shaped. They were hard to come by. Ironically, perhaps more than any other film in the franchise, “Election Year” dodges the explicitly topical in favor of the closest thing to a throughline that exists between the five films: its vague, stick-it-to-‘em populism. When its captured antagonist implores the film’s heroes to murder him in cold blood, he repeats a common refrain from “Anarchy,” smugly reassuring them that it’s “their right as an American.” Who across the political spectrum wouldn’t like to stick it to their entitled opponents? (Here, it’s ultimately a moral victory, although action cult hero Frank Grillo does get in a solid below-the-belt shot and Arnold-style one-liner.)

The next entry, the 2018 prequel “The First Purge,” benefits from a shakeup. In its origin story of both the Purge itself and the dystopia that birthed it, we see glimpses of the political dynamics DeMonaco surmises could drive Americans to such depravity—a housing crisis, an epidemic of opioid use, widespread and uncontrollable protests. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a “You Are Here” sticker (and in case the setting wasn’t immediate enough for you, there’s a brief cameo from CNN’s Van Jones interviewing the Purge’s in-universe creator).

Despite its head-on embrace of the imagined political conditions under which such an event could take place, “The First Purge” is the most entertaining film in the series by virtue of a street-level narrative focus that recalls the series’ origins. It also benefits from easily the most charismatic “Purge” lead in Y’lan Noel (of HBO’s “Insecure”), a laconic Staten Island drug kingpin who intends to lay low as the new government uses his borough as the Purge’s experimental testing ground.

Of course, he does not succeed, and the film follows him and a largely Black cast of Staten Islanders as they attempt to escape the Purge night’s violence. Of all the “Purge” films, “The First Purge” most directly acknowledges the ugly reality that many Americans would no doubt use such an opportunity to vent their racial animus in horrific and violent ways. An indelible, disturbing image of Noel choking the life from a white stormtrooper in a Sambo mask hits far harder than similar agitprop from across the series. The filmmakers clearly grasp, for the first time, that without nailing the “humanity” part of “inhumanity,” depicting it is ultimately just an exercise in morbid juvenilia.

Which brings us to “The Forever Purge.” Like its predecessors, the newest “Purge” flick gleefully prods at raw wounds in the American psyche, depicting societal tensions as the basis for grisly violence. And it does so while providing an allegory more explicit than any film in the series thus far. In a town on the northern side of the U.S.-Mexico border, racist paramilitary groups keep the annual violence going past its legally-sanctioned window in an attempt to rid American society of non-whites. A Hallmark-handsome family of white ranchers with a pregnant matriarch and their Mexican migrant colleagues then must make a treacherous border crossing to Mexico to escape the violence, in a predictable inversion of the typical North American refugee narrative.

While its politics are stated more clearly than any other film in the series, the allegory isn’t nearly clever enough to overcome the same two-dimensional characters and formulaic action that have historically depressed the franchise’s Rotten Tomatoes score. The audience is now apparently catching up to the critics, with the film opening to the series’ lowest box office even as movie theaters wake from their pandemic slumber. The film is, simply, not very good, an inert border-crossing thriller onto which the franchise’s stale trappings are welded.

It ends, however, on an odd but revealing note: an audio collage of news broadcasts reporting that across the country, people are banding together to fight back against the racist militias that have overwhelmed the … racist theocracy. (I know.) It seems like an uncharacteristically hopeful note to end on for such a bleak series, but to close “Purge” watchers, it should make perfect sense: Against all odds, the films have a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature. Time and again, it’s established that most people are, in fact, not interested in murder, rape, arson and the like, and that the depraved violence depicted is perpetrated by mostly either psychotic outliers or a government dissatisfied with its charges’ lack of bloodlust.

That confidence in human nature reveals the fundamental flaw at the heart of the “Purge” series, and why its politics seem so head-spinningly inconsistent. The films are abrasive, button-pushing, and purposely confrontational in a way that plays on the viewers’ own insecurities and fears about the state of America’s social contract. Their subliminal reassurance of the viewer, however, defangs them in the absence of any meaningful critique. The series fails to either confront the viewer directly enough to reach any kind of real insight about the world, or provide the quality of dumb-fun pulp entertainment that would make us not care.

To take “The Purge” franchise as emblematic of our times, then, might be done better by examining its style rather than its content: Angsty, fearful, lacking clarity but willing to point an omni-directional and accusatory finger at a moment’s notice. Judging by last weekend’s aforementioned box office, the past few years of American life have somewhat exhausted our appetite for such fare. The series’ creators, however, surely appreciate that fate on some level. To quote one of the universe’s various hulking brutes, who shouts the phrase unbidden like a mantra, it’s “survival of the fucking fittest.”

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Politics Briefing: Trudeau, Kenney clash on appointment of Alberta senator – The Globe and Mail

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Hello,

This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Ian Bailey. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter signup page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.

Add senate appointments to the current points of conflict between the federal and Alberta governments.

On Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office was defending the announcement, this week, that a senator from Alberta is being appointed despite elections this fall to give voters in the province a say on prospects.

“We introduced and are committed to an independent Senate appointment process which is designed to move towards a less partisan and more independent Senate,” the PMO said in a statement, responding to the criticism from Alberta.

The PMO added that, since 2016, the selection process for senators has been open to all Canadians with candidate submissions reviewed by the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, which provides recommendations to the Prime Minister.

Canada’s new Governor-General Mary Simon, this week, appointed five new senators on advice from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Three are from Quebec, one from Saskatchewan, and one from Alberta. Details of the appointments are here.

Mr. Trudeau’s team was reacting Friday to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney accusing the Prime Minister of showing “contempt for democracy in Alberta” by engineering the appointment of Karen Sorensen, who has been the mayor of Banff, as the province’s new senator.

“Sadly, the Prime Minister’s decision to snub his nose at Alberta’s democratic tradition is part of a pattern of flippantly disregarding our province’s demands for a fair deal in the Canadian federation and the desire of Albertans for democratic accountability,” Mr. Kenney said in a statement.

Mr. Kenney noted that, earlier this month, he told Mr. Trudeau at a meeting in Calgary to hold off filling two Senate vacancies, and await the outcome of a vote as part of municipal elections on Oct 18. The Legislative Assembly of Alberta has also passed a motion urging the Prime Minister to not appoint the senators until after the elections.

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole took note of the Senate dispute. “Once again the Prime Minister shows his lack of respect for the West. Albertans deserve better,” Mr. O’Toole said in a tweet.

Mr. Kenney noted that Alberta has had four Senate elections in the past, and five nominees went on to be appointed.

Columnist’s Comment Kelly Cryderman of the Globe and Mail’s Alberta Bureau: “Senate elections might be a head-scratcher in many other parts of the country but they have been part of Alberta’s political landscape since 1989. Designed to send a signal to Ottawa about provincial autonomy, western alienation, and the need for Senate reform, they have no official status and are seen as illegitimate by critics. Mr. Kenney is continuing in a line of conservative premiers who have asked (all they can do is ask) Ottawa to respect the outcome of the Senate elections. However, with Alberta voters preoccupied by the pandemic, economic concerns – or just the summer – the Premier’s beating of the drum on this issue has failed to garner any major public interest to now.”

TODAY’S HEADLINES

PROBLEMS IN AFGHAN AID EFFORT – Afghans trying to come to Canada through the government’s new resettlement program have been frustrated by a difficult application process, which is creating serious challenges for those urgently trying to escape the Taliban.

PROF. DEFENDS CHINA HUMAN-RIGHTS RECORD – A professor at one of Canada’s major universities has written a column for a state-run newspaper in China in which she defends Beijing’s record on ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs and argues Canadians are being thoughtless and self-righteous in accusing the Chinese government of genocide in Xinjiang.

NEW CONSULTATIONS ON CURBING ONLINE HATE – The federal government has launched a new consultation that it says will lead to combatting online hate shared on social media sites – a move that has prompted advocates to say real change isn’t coming fast enough.

EX-SAUDI SPY RAISES COURT CONCERNS – A former Saudi spy chief living in exile in Toronto is asking a Canadian court to throw out an embezzlement lawsuit against him, arguing not only are the allegations unfounded but that the evidence on which they rely was gleaned from human-rights abuses and, likely, torture.

PANDEMIC-AID PROGRAM EXTENDED – Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland says the government is extending pandemic aid programs by an extra month beyond the previously planned end date. The decision means that wage and rent subsidies for businesses, and income support for workers out of a job or who need to take time off to care for family or stay home sick, will last until Oct. 23. Story here.

PAYETTE ORDER-OF-CANADA APPOINTMENT UNDER REVIEW – The Advisory Council for the Order of Canada, is thinking of terminating former governor-general Julie Payette’s appointment to the Order of Canada, CBC reports. Story here.

PRIME MINISTER’S DAY

Private meetings in Ottawa.

LEADERS

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet – No schedule provided by Mr. Blanchet’s office.

Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole makes an announcement in Fredericton.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul – No schedule provided by Ms. Paul’s office.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh holds a media availability in Penticton, B.C., and visits the Regional District Emergency Operations Centre.

OPINION

The Editorial Board of The Globe and Mail on how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just put the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on the tab of Canadians: It also should be noted that a $5.2-billion handout to a province with a population of 520,000 is massive on a per capita basis. In Ontario, its equivalent would be $148-billion; in Alberta, $44-billion. None of this makes any sense, except as an election handout designed to secure Newfoundland’s seven seats in the House of Commons, six currently held by Liberals. Other than that, it’s madness. It would be one thing for Ottawa to step in and help a struggling, sparsely populated province that has a crushing debt burden of $47.3-billion and real financial problems. It’s another altogether to subsidize its citizens’ electricity bills out of the blue. Is that really the help Newfoundland needs?”

John Ibbitson (The Globe and Mail) on playing politics with the Governor-General’s constitutional role: ”When Jagmeet Singh sent a letter to Mary Simon urging her to refuse any request from Justin Trudeau to call an election, the NDP Leader knew perfectly well she would have no choice but to grant the Prime Minister’s request. But such grandstanding is nothing new. It seems to be an unspoken role of the Governor-General to serve as a foil for opportunistic politicians who know that many Canadians don’t really understand what the Queen’s representative can or cannot do.”

Gary Mason (The Globe and Mail) on why It’s time to get tough with vaccine resisters: “I am tired of this gentle persuasion business. People who refuse to get vaccinated are endangering lives. They are stalling a complete return to normal. Why is it that governments have no qualms about mandating mask wearing, but won’t mandate people get the jab? We continue to pander to a group who, in many cases, are simply too lazy to sign up to get a shot. Or, they continue to embrace crackpot conspiracy theories and misinformation being spread on social media. We patiently hope that they will wake up and see the light one day, meantime their recalcitrance affects the rest of us.”

Robyn Urback (The Globe and Mail) on why the feds talking about abortion suggests an election must be imminent: “Just as white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel signals to the world that the announcement of a new Pope is forthcoming, so too does the word “abortion,” uttered from Liberal lips, tell Canadians that an election will soon be called. Unfortunately for the incumbent Liberal government, the current leader of the Official Opposition doesn’t turtle into his suit when asked about uncomfortable social issues like his predecessor did, nor does he – like the predecessor before that – tout a résumé that includes defunding abortions abroad. Indeed, until Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole provides more ammunition for the Liberals to warn about Canada’s potential descent into Gilead, the party will have to resort to old favourites to remind women of their feminist bona fides ahead of an election.”

Konrad Yakabuski (The Globe and Mail) on the many mistakes that have been made around the development of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project: “ Mr. Trudeau did not say which “mistakes” he was referring to. Perhaps that was because there are too many of them to enumerate during a short pre-electoral pit stop in Newfoundland, where the Liberals hold all but one of the province’s seven seats. Or perhaps because it would have raised questions about whether his government is only putting a Band-Aid solution on a systemic problem.”

Send along your political questions and we will look at getting answers to run in this newsletter. It’s not possible to answer each one personally. Questions and answers will be edited for length and clarity.

Got a news tip that you’d like us to look into? E-mail us at tips@globeandmail.com. Need to share documents securely? Reach out via SecureDrop

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Swim star's maskless display at the Olympics isn't about vaccine politics — it's about bad manners – The Globe and Mail

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Michael Andrew, of United States, concentrates prior to the men’s 200-metre individual medley final at the Tokyo Olympics on Friday.

The Associated Press

Among the small, manageable irritations of an Olympics during a pandemic, the most onerous is the mask.

As an Ontarian, you’ve worn one for more than a year now. But you likely haven’t worn a mask like this – for 10, 12, 14 hours in a row. Even outdoors with no one else around and the real-feel temperature cresting 40 C, our hosts expect the mask stays on.

The upside? For the first time since Grade 9, I have acne. Clearly, middle age was just a stage. Now I am going backward in time, like Dr. Who.

The downside? Near the end of the day, I feel like John Hurt in Alien. All I can think about is getting this thing off my face.

But not our country, so not our rules. Aside from a few unconscientious objectors in the press box and the occasional screaming coach caught on TV, everyone has been pretty good about that.

Then there’s Michael Andrew.

Andrew is a U.S. swimming star who’s got it all covered here except the “star” part of the equation. He began this Games as the poster boy for vaccine hesitancy.

Based on Team USA’s own figures, about 100 American competitors in Tokyo (roughly one in six) are unvaccinated. Only Andrew seemed anxious to talk about it.

“Going to the Games not only unvaccinated, but as an American, I’m representing my country in multiple ways and the freedoms we have to make a decision like that,” Andrew said in one of many, many interviews.

COVID-19 precautions at Olympics merely a ‘theatre of safety’ during Sunday’s swimming events

No one seems bothered that COVID-19 has arrived at the Tokyo Olympics

Yes, he’s a real Franklin D. Roosevelt. American and unvaccinated. However, not a survivor of polio, presumably because a few someones in the Andrew family got vaccinated. Oh, the humanity.

Andrew has what passes for a tolerable amount of intellectualism in American popular culture – speaks in full sentences, nice smile, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. He’d make a great guest on a very special COVID edition of The Dr. Oz Show.

Andrew refuses to wear a mask as he speaks to the press.

USA TODAY SPORTS/Reuters

People overlooked Andrew’s political posturing because a) he didn’t make it obviously political and b) he wasn’t breaking any rules.

Japan made no demands about Olympic visitors being vaccinated, probably for fear that the Japanese electorate might notice that everyone in the developed world is vaxxed but them.

Having been given some rope, Andrew started tugging at it on Friday.

After they’re done, the swimmers zig-zag through a media maze stretched over two rooms, stopping for reporters who want to talk. Some come through masked and stay that way. A few start off masked and remove them when they are speaking. Some don’t wear a mask and just blow through.

On Friday, Andrew showed up without a mask anywhere in sight, then made himself comfortable while he held court. That is not usual.

Andrew had just placed fifth in the 200-metre individual medley. Some thought he might break the world record here. Earlier this week, he blew a medal chance at the 200-m breaststroke, his signature swim. So much like the Land of Unimpeded Freedoms he hails from, things are not trending upward in AndrewWorld.

Maybe this explains his what-are-you-gonna-do-tell-my-mom? attitude toward the rules when they were pointed out to him.

“For me, it’s pretty hard to breathe in after kind of sacrificing my body in the water,” he told reporters. “So I feel like my health is a little more tied to being able to breathe than protecting what’s coming out of my mouth.”

The key words here are “feel like.” If “feel like” is an acceptable basis for non-compliance with the rules, then we’re going to have to take murder off the books. Because I feel like doing that every once in a while.

Japan and Tokyo both hit historic highs for daily COVID-19 infections on Friday, almost precisely smack in the middle of the Games’ 16-day run. It’s not a great look. Andrew’s contribution to the Olympics’ Japanese community outreach is whining about his sacrifices.

Andrew isn’t an ugly American. That trope is a relic of a better time for the red, white and blue. Things aren’t going well enough in the U.S. for its citizens to overconfidently float around the globe any more.

The new cliché is the resentful American. As U.S. influence wanes, the resentful American is increasingly ill at ease in the wider world. He doesn’t like leaving home.

When forced to do so, he no longer thinks of it as an opportunity to spread the gospel of democracy and the Constitution. Instead, he brings America along with him.

Regardless of where he happens to be, it’s still the sort of place you can straight-facedly equate non-vaccination with actual essential freedoms, and sincerely believe people will nod along as if you are a regular Thomas Aquinas.

No country has a monopoly on common sense. But God bless them, certain Americans do have a tendency to corner the market on its opposite.

This isn’t about Andrew’s vaccine politics (though he confuses principle with self-interest, a particularly American misreading of moral philosophy common at both ends of their right-left spectrum).

This is about bad manners. It’s about coming to someone else’s country and lecturing them about how you feel like doing things.

One of the many sadnesses about the past two years is how our meta-family has grown distant from one another. The era of unhindered travel – of waking up on a Friday and, savings account permitting, deciding to fly to Stockholm or Hong Kong or Sydney on a Sunday – may be over. We may be entering a new period of inward-looking parochialism.

This Olympics was a reminder that it is still possible to go to new places, see new people and experience new things. It’s not as easy, fun or “free” as it once was. But if a few, small courtesies are maintained, it will be possible. Unless you are a jerk about it.

The Olympics doesn’t need to have a broader conversation about the pandemic as it applies to individual freedoms. This Olympics is turning into nothing but broader conversations about all sorts of things.

What it needs is fewer jerks.

Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.

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Examining the role of cross-Strait relations in Taiwan’s politics – Brookings Institution

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Lev Nachman recently returned to the United States after living in Taipei for more than two years, where he was a Fulbright scholar and studied social movements and political parties in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Nachman who also previously lived in Taiwan, is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In a conversation with Brookings Senior Fellow and Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies Ryan Hass, Nachman provides insights on the relationship between Taiwanese identity and support for Taiwan independence, factors that motivate Taiwan voters, and prospects for Taiwan’s 2024 presidential election.

RYAN HASS:
You have studied Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement and Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement. What do the results of these two social movements tell us about the political direction of developments in Hong Kong and Taiwan? And how — if at all — do you see developments in Hong Kong influencing political trends in Taiwan going forward?

LEV NACHMAN:
In 2014, both the Sunflower and Umbrella movements mobilized over fears of systemic changes that would give the PRC [People’s Republic of China] dangerous amounts of agency over their political systems. Both had lasting impacts on each other’s political systems. Both were important antecedents to Hong Kong’s 2019 anti-extradition protests. The most obvious impact Hong Kong activism had on Taiwan recently was during Taiwan’s 2020 presidential election. [President] Tsai Ing-wen made the Hong Kong protests a central frame of reference for her reelection campaign, and every political party (even the KMT [Kuomintang]) at least offered rhetorical support for the Hong Kong protesters.

With the introduction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, Hong Kongers look to Taiwan as their ideal choice for a new home, which has created a new domestic political issue in Taiwan about how to address the large number of Hong Kongers looking to permanently emigrate to Taiwan. Ultimately, Hong Kong is a “canary in the coal mine” for Taiwanese people. The worse Hong Kong’s system becomes, the more it will push Taiwanese from the PRC.

RYAN HASS:
Taiwan will hold a series of referenda this year. Why have referenda become such a popular governance mechanism in Taiwan? What social forces do you anticipate will influence the outcome of these referenda?

LEV NACHMAN:
Referendums and recalls have become a popular political tool in Taiwan, but not necessarily in the most productive way. It started in 2017 when Taiwan pushed changes to laws that were championed by “pan-green” parties, including both the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and New Power Party. Their goal was to create a mechanism that would allow for civil society to push politicians to pass more progressively pro-Taiwan policy. The act significantly lowered the necessary signatures needed to put an issue to vote via a referendum.

But ironically, those who have taken advantage of such rule changes have been largely opposition “pan-blue” forces such as the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, who use referendums to attack or disrupt the DPP’s agenda. The specifics of the referendums this year are particularly complicated and are fraught with the DPP and KMT switching stances. For example, ractopamine meat imports and building an energy pipeline on an algal reef are both opposed by the KMT and supported by the DPP. But 10 years ago, the DPP was against the same policies and the KMT was for them. The ractopamine vote is particularly fraught because allowing the import of ractopamine-treated pork was considered necessary for Taiwan to begin bilateral trade talks with the United States, so if it passes, it will be a bad look for future trade talks.

RYAN HASS:
What does public opinion survey data actually tell us about Taiwan’s preferences on managing cross-Strait relations and on evolving views of Taiwanese identity?

LEV NACHMAN:
There is reliable polling data that demonstrate the number of Taiwanese identifying as exclusively Taiwanese, not Chinese, is rising, while the number of people identifying as exclusively Chinese, not Taiwanese, remains at a negligible number. But this does not translate into the number of Taiwanese voters supporting immediate independence increasing at the same rate.

One longitudinal study at National Chengchi University shows that the vast majority of Taiwanese support some version of the status quo, not immediate independence. “Status quo” like independence or unification is of course a spectrum — for example, one can be status quo and independence later, or status quo and unification later. This at the very least tells us that Taiwanese voters are far more pragmatic than we typically assume in light of an increasing number of “Taiwanese only” identifiers. Taiwanese live in a context in which any immediate independence path will likely lead to deadly conflict with the PRC, so it is unlikely that a push for formal independence will happen any time soon — precisely because Taiwanese voters value living in a conflict-free status quo.

RYAN HASS:
Looking ahead to presidential elections in 2024, what issues do you predict will drive the political debate? Do you have any expectations of which politicians might be best positioned to speak to the moment?

LEV NACHMAN:
We know from extensive political science research that the dominant political factor in every Taiwanese election is the China factor. All other issues are secondary or filtered through the China factor lens. It’s no secret the two front runners in the DPP are current Vice President William Lai and Taoyuan Mayor Cheng Wen-tsan. From the KMT, Hou You-yi is in a strong position as the New Taipei mayor, but given the KMT’s current internal strife over its next party chair, we are still a year off of knowing who their real frontrunner will be. We also have the unknown variables of Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je and businessman Terry Gou, who may run again in 2024.

RYAN HASS:
Richard Bush and Maggie Lewis have each written and spoken of the need for Taiwan to nurture and strengthen its vitality, including by forging political consensus to address internal challenges like job creation, energy, etc. How optimistic are you that Taiwan’s leaders will be able to overcome partisan divisions to address these internal challenges?

LEV NACHMAN:
This remains the biggest challenge for a contested state like Taiwan whose political spectrum is defined by its relationship with China — how to mobilize voters and politicians to take action on critical political issues that may not win them votes or matter during election times. It is difficult to convince the KMT and DPP to work together (as it is with most two-party dominant political systems) but increasingly so on contemporary social issues that have little to do with the PRC.

One recent example is the treatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers during the COVID-19 spike, who were banned from leaving their factory dorms. Some DPP politicians spoke out against such treatment, but ultimately little was done to fix any of the repressive rules governing Southeast Asian migrant workers. There is little incentive to do so — only politicians who recognize the moral obligation to improve the livelihoods of Taiwan’s growing workforce will push for policy changes.

Until China becomes less important for Taiwan’s domestic politics, which unfortunately will not happen any time soon, I struggle to see voters calling for major social reform on these kinds of issues.

This does not mean Taiwanese do not care about social reform. But, when it comes to national elections, voters vote on China, not domestic performance.

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