Thursday, July 19, 2018

The problem of rewriting the dictionary - Labour and antisemitism

As an outsider looking in, Labour's repeated problems with antisemitism seem almost surreal. How is it that the party has got itself into this mess? Why is it so reluctant to accept the standard definition of antisemitism? Why is there so much resistance to allowing Jews to determine when they've been discriminated against? Why is a Jewish MP being disciplined for calling out antisemitism in the party?

At first I couldn't understand it. But then the more I thought about it, the more an answer suggested itself. A lot in the Labour Party and on the left more broadly have got themselves into a complete mess because they've gone down a route of limiting the definition of terms such as "racism" and "sexism", to the point that they've predetermined who can and can't experience them, creating problems when this definition conflicts with reality.

I first noticed this many years ago in student politics (where I encountered a number of people who are now Labour MPs - or ex ones - across all sections of the party). It was particularly noticeable that a good number of people in and around the "Liberation Campaigns" (Women's, Black, LGBT, Disabled Students) of the National Union of Students had a pretty firm notion of sexism and/or racism that rejected the idea some people could experience them - "men don't suffer sexism" or "white people don't experience racism". (The use of the terms "homophobia" and "ableism" instead of "sexualityism" and "abilityism" somewhat diminished the issue there.) Instead everything was viewed through the prism of liberation theory, regarding these terms as meaning societal structural oppression and a clear hierarchy of oppressor and oppressed (with detailed tiers for those who experience multiple repression). Aligned to this is the view that only those experiencing repression could say that that is what it is.

But this approach has the effect of a siege mentality with some pretty rigid views on who is contained within the siege. And it also leads to confusion, argument and alienation as genuine concerns about discrimination in the reverse to standard form get brushed aside and potential allies alienated. It also isn't very good at coping with the idea a group of people can be both oppressors and oppressed depending on the context.

To cut to the chase, the Israel/Palestine situation is a complex matter of the kind that doesn't lend itself to easy solutions by shouting slogans. So naturally it attracts those for whom protesting and shouting is the solution to a problem. And whilst Jewish people may be the majority in Israel, they are a minority elsewhere, thus in both positions. Plus a lot of antisemitic rhetoric accuses Jews of having too much power - attacks on bankers, "Jewish world conspiracy" and so on.

Consequently a significant part of the left has wound up defining "racism", and thus "antisemitism" in such a way that just cannot understand a lot of the antisemitic rhetoric flying around. Its whole outlook does not allow Jews to define antisemitism, especially in regards to rhetoric around Israel, because that completely undermines a world view in which everyone is either an oppressor or an oppressed and they've already allocated the former category.

If the left is to overcome its problems here, it has to move beyond such rigid liberation theory and accept a more broader definition of discrimination, racism, sexism and so forth. Otherwise it will continue to cause pain and hurt whilst not actually solving things.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Which US Presidents were denied renomination?

It's looking like Donald Trump will be challenged for the Republican nomination in 2020. (Washington Post: Curtain rises in New Hampshire with president's appearance) Invariably some want to know how many previous presidents have failed to be renominated by their party.

As with many historical questions about US presidential selections this is not simple to answer. Not only has the nomination process changed over the years but also there was historically a lot of smoke and mirrors. In the 19th century there was a widespread belief that one shouldn't seek the presidency but rather be drafted to it. This wasn't quite how some of the candidates approached things behind the scenes but it meant that they didn't always leave the biggest public clues. Sitting presidents were often most subject to this, presenting an image of standing again by popular demand, often only formally declaring their intentions just before a convention vote or even not until an acceptance message.

There was also a belief that presidents shouldn't serve more than two terms, but this doesn't seem to have been adhered to by that many. Between 1837 and 1952 just about every president who completed two terms seems to have considered another, either consecutively or a subsequent comeback. But how far these bids went isn't always clear.

How parties pick their candidates has also evolved. Initially candidates were selected by the Congressional (parliamentary) parties. This system broke down around the 1820s and by the 1840s all the significant parties had adopted the model of a national convention voting on prospective candidates. Delegate selection was initially by state party leaders though in the early 20th century a populist revolt introduced various forms of direct voter involvement through primaries and caucuses in some states. However political leaders managed to nullify some of the effects by limiting the number of delegates selected and/or by running local figures as "favourite sons" in the primaries, with the prospective candidates often not formally announcing until later and treating the primaries as a means of testing the water rather than a formal contest. This system broke down in 1968 with the mess of the Democrat nomination that year, leading to an opening up of the primaries and it is now extremely rare for the convention itself to have any role in selecting the nominee beyond stamping the primary winner.

With all these caveats, here are the various presidents that one way or another wanted renomination but did not obtain it:

John Tyler. Elected Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1840, Tyler was the first to succeed in office. He rapidly proved a disappointment to Whig leaders, vetoing much of their plans. Effectively expelled from the party in late 1841, he governed pretty much as an independent and thus was never under consideration for the Whig nomination in 1844. He instead formed a briefly lived "Democratic-Republican Party" (reusing the name of Thomas Jefferson's old party) which nominated him for the presidency though his efforts were more focused on getting the Democrats to adopt a policy of annexing Texas rather than on re-election. When the Democrats nominated Polk and delivered the assurances Tyler dropped out of the race.

Millard Fillmore. Elected Vice President on the Whig ticket in 1848, Fillmore succeeded in office in 1850 and used the influence of the White House to secure the Compromise of 1850 to settle issues between the free and slave states. However this left the Whigs bitterly divided. At the 1852 convention Fillmore was proposed but lost in the succession of ballots to Winfield Scott. Later in 1856 Fillmore would run as the nominee of both the Know Nothing Party and what remained of the Whigs.

Franklin Pierce. Elected President in 1852, Pierce is the clearest case on this list. Proposed for the nomination at the 1856 Democrat convention he lost in the balloting.

Andrew Johnson. Elected Vice President on the "National Union" ticket in 1864, which combined Republicans with War Democrats, Johnson succeeded as President the following year. A Democrat by background, Johnson fell out with the Republican leaders in Congress and the National Union umbrella dropped away. In 1868 Johnson was proposed for the Democrat nomination but did not have enough support in the ballots at a lengthy convention.

Ulysses S. Grant. Elected President in 1868 and 1872, Grant contemplated a third term but in 1875 the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution in favour of the two-term limit. Facing such political opposition he dropped his hopes for 1876, but later in 1880 he sought another term but did not succeed at the longest ever Republican convention.

Chester Arthur. Elected Vice President in 1880, he succeeded in office the following year. He contemplated running for a full term in his own right in 1884, but suffering from illness and with the Republican factions lining up behind other candidates he ultimately declined to make a serious effort but did not formally drop out of the running as he felt it would raise too many questions about his administration and health.

Grover Cleveland. Now this is the one that is probably the most unclear. Elected President in 1884 and defeated in 1888, in 1892 he became the only former President to return to the office. In the run-up to the 1896 election he did not make his intentions clear one way or the other and so was a possible contender going into the Democrat convention. However the policy debate at the start of the convention repudiated Cleveland's administration on the central economic question of the day (gold s silver) and so any attempt to secure the nomination for Cleveland would have been a waste of time. He was not proposed at the convention, with his home state delegation of New York abstaining on the initial ballot along with New Jersey. A group of "Gold Democrats" did make try to make a third party nomination of Cleveland but he refused it. Later in 1904 the pro gold Democrats recaptured control of the party but Cleveland turned down requests to stand again.

Woodrow Wilson. Elected President in 1912 and 1916, he suffered a stroke in late 1919 that limited his attempts to get the US to ratify the Treaty of Versailles and join the League of Nations. Despite this he held out hopes of being renominated in 1920 but this seems to have been the delusions of an isolated man surrounded by people who wouldn't point out the realities to him. He had further hopes of a comeback in 1924 but died at the start of the year.

Harry Truman. Elected Vice President in 1944, he succeeded in office the following year and won a full term in 1948, he was given an exemption from the formalisation of the two term limit in the Twenty-Second Amendment. By the time of the New Hampshire primary he had not yet found an anointed successor or announced if he would restand, but assented to his name being put on the ballot paper. Defeat in the primary led to his announcing he would not be seeking a further term.

Lyndon Johnson. Elected Vice President in 1960, he succeeded in office in 1963 and won a full term the following year. Under the terms of the Twenty-Second Amendment he was eligible to be elected again in 1968. Like Truman he assented to his name going forward to early primaries but announced he would not seek the nomination after adverse results.

As can be seen from this list, other than Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce it's not easy to say for sure which sitting presidents actively sought renomination but were denied it. Several abandoned plans before formal votes, others treated the primaries as testing the water rather a formal campaign, some had delusions of their essentialness more than anything else, others had already broken with their party, one was making only a token effort. Exactly what does and doesn't count (and even Fillmore's inclusion is arguable given that he was a Vice President who succeeded) makes this list one to debate endlessly over.

The debacle of the Democrats' 1968 nomination has led to the process being opened up with a much more public process and so it's no longer possible for someone to be as ambiguous as Truman or Johnson were about whether they were seeking nomination (in 1964 Johnson only formally decided close to the convention, after the handful of primaries were won either by him or by loyal "favourite sons" collecting delegates). Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and the elder George Bush all faced serious challenges in the primaries. All defeated them but went on to lose their re-election bids and these are the only sitting presidents defeated in the general election in nearly ninety years.

However before anyone rushes to plan a party for Trump's defeat, bear in mind that he has already broken a lot political wisdom so a serious challenge in the primaries may not spell doom for his hopes.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Can an established party truly vanish?

Today Ukip are holding an extraordinary general meeting to decide whether or not to remove their leader Henry Bolton from office. It comes at a time when Ukip is struggling on all fronts, with defections, election set backs, funders deserting, infighting and more, leading to many to wonder whether the party will soon disappear.

But just how easy is it for a party to truly vanish? Many parties have a brief period in the spotlight and manage to linger on for years afterwards, despite major losses. For example many would think Veritas was just a flash in the pan vehicle of Robert Kilroy-Silk for his actions back in 2005. In fact Veritas existed for another decade before merging into the English Democrats (and no, I don't know what happened to Veritas in the rest of the UK, if there was anything by then). It shows how for as long as there are still people around maintaining the registration, a party can just keep on going.

But what of the more significant parties that have actually won seats in elections? Well since 1997 the following parties have won seats at at least one out of Westminster, Stormont, Cardiff Bay, Holyrood or Brussels but since dissolved:
Spot a common theme? With one exception, each of these parties was largely built around a single figure, in four cases a past or present parliamentarian/assembly member. Blaenau Gwent People's Voice did outlive Peter Law for several years but ultimately these were personalist vehicles that hinged on a single figure. When that figure either died or was defeated or sought to join a bigger party, their vehicle soon gave up.

The exception in the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, although even then the party was heavily identified with co-founder Monica McWilliams. However it did manage to develop beyond the one member personalist vehicle that others usually began as, but ultimately folded.

Now Ukip may have been heavily dominated by Nigel Farage, but it was created before him, has had many other representatives over the years and has a clear brand. In normal circumstances there is absolutely reason why it wouldn't continue to exist and contest elections with just a handful of people still going. Around the world this isn't unusual - for instance in the United States the Prohibition Party is still going (and still receiving money from a trust fund established during its heyday) long after its banner issue has ceased to be of any relevance. So expecting a party to disappear altogether may be premature and Ukip do still have some significant broadcast entitlements (helped by the media using a formula that's based on two election cycles) that will keep the group in the public eye.

However there is a major threat to its existence and it has little to do with Henry Bolton (although how the leader handles it may be a factor in how members decide today). The party has been found liable for some of the costs in a libel case (see BBC News: Jane Collins defamation case: UKIP delayed case for more details) and may prove financially unviable. If the party cannot pay then it could be forcibly liquidated. The case could shed light on exactly what and who constitute a political party and are thus liable for its debts. The party's intellectual property and registration might well become assets seized and auctioned off. Could someone buy up "Ukip" to carry on or will the case destroy the party for good?

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