After the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election, 2017 was feared to be the year when populist forces take over the West. The wave actually subsided. Populism is not on the retreat, but it has lost its aura of inevitability. This post explores the consequences for the European Union.
Terrorism experts are back in the news, with the increasingly bizarre story of Sebastian Gorka. For a brief period in late April, rumors flew that President Trump’s controversial counterterrorism adviser might be leaving his White House role. Gorka had faced calls for his ouster following revelations about his ties to Nazi sympathizers, and broader questions about his credentials—he is distinguished by not only his extremist anti-Islam views, but also his seeming lack of any pertinent training or background. Born to Hungarian parents in the UK, Gorka migrated to Hungary after the fall of Communism, pursuing a career as a defense expert. Yet after being rejected for a Hungarian security clearance, and a failed run for mayor of a small town, he left Hungary to pursue his fate in the U.S., where he found a home in the far-right media sphere of Breitbart News. But Gorka kept his job, and following a suicide bombing in Manchester, England that killed some 22 people, he was back on Fox News commenting on the attack in his capacity as a “counterterrorism expert.” Gorka’s rise tells us a lot about how this area of expertise operates.
A day ahead of the second round of the French Presidential election, polls show far-right populist Marine Le Pen winning nearly 40% of the vote against centrist Emmanuel Macron’s 60%, with an unusually high proportion of voters abstaining. The close race testifies to the success of the rebranding effort by Le Pen’s Front National: in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen faced center-right incumbent Jacques Chirac, the FN was routed 80% to 20% in the second round. Sunday’s election will mark the culmination of Marine Le Pen’s transformation of the marginal, anti-Semitic party that her father founded into a mainstream party advocating national security and sovereignty. Thinking sociologically, the remarkable surge of Le Pen provides a troubling example of pitting one marginalized group against another—a tactic that enables society’s dominant group to consolidate power.
The Central European University, where I have taught in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology since 2011, has been making headlines globally in recent weeks. Founded in 1991 by George Soros to enable the rebirth of critical social sciences in the post-socialist region, it is an English-language and graduate-only university, registered both in Hungary and in the State of New York. Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, decided to engage in a full-tilt assault on the CEU in late March by suddenly presenting a law, and then pushing it through parliament one week later, which makes it impossible for the CEU to continue to function in Hungary.
The CEU story is only one small piece in a larger tale about Hungary’s brutal transition from membership in a multi-ethnic empire to an ethnically homogenous nation-state, its equally brutal transition from a state-run economy to pariah capitalism, and its membership in the European Union, a federation which inadvertently funds Orbán’s crony capitalism while looking the other way.
President Trump’s Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States launched international protests and fervent court battles. It also prompted discussion among sociologists about what the “travel ban” portends and how our scholarship can inform modalities of resistance. Today’s blog post brings three perspectives on the Executive Order, one from each of Atef Said (University of Illinois-Chicago), Fatma Müge Göçek (University of Michigan), and Richard Lachmann (SUNY-Albany).
As sociologists, we have a dual commitment, political and scientific, to debunk the supposed bases of the so-called “Muslim Ban.” Regardless of the ultimate outcome of the litigating of the second executive order, sociologists should oppose any attempt at a racially motivated and exclusively security-based order. Foremost is our political responsibility: it is an indisputable fact that the emergence of ISIS is a highly complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to one or two internal factors, or to a couple of external, economic, or cultural ones. A significant part of the background story of ISIS are the events that have been taking place in Iraq since 2003, and in Syria since 2011. The U.S. was explicitly involved, with “boots on the ground,” in the case of Iraq, and it contributed to sustaining the conditions of internationalization and militarization of the conflict in Syria. In Iraq for example, and in addition to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and atrocities against the Shi’a and the Kurds, along with the regional conditions contributing to the sectarianization of politics in the region (some of which had been in the making since colonial times, and were endured and used and abused in post-colonial states), the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and its sponsorship of a sectarian state in Iraq after the occupation of Iraq, as well as the systemic torture and abuse of the so-called Sunni “insurgents,” are all part of the conditions that gave birth to ISIS. Any historically informed account of ISIS should take these factors into consideration. Any measure that targets ISIS-riddled countries without taking into account that our government has contributed to creating the conditions that gave birth to ISIS, as well as taking into consideration that the populations in these regions have also been victimized by ISIS, is a deficient, prejudiced, assessment.
The various Muslim bans that President Trump keeps coming up with saddens me as a sociologist because I happen to be a Muslim, thankfully not from a banned country (yet), and a naturalized American citizen (but a status that can be revoked). It is especially bitter for me to analyze the Muslim ban at this particular juncture because I am teaching a “Silences in University of Michigan History” course this term to commemorate the university’s bicentennial. In the course, we first discussed the origins of the university, studying how the historical fact that these were once Native American lands was silenced in the official narrative. When President Trump started to try out and fine-tune his Muslim ban, we had just begun to cover the Cold War and McCarthyism, analyzing how the UM administration expelled faculty members for allegedly being or feeling close to communists. I helped my students understand the McCarthy era by discussing how fear was instrumentalized to get the US public to choose security over civic liberties, how ideological ties were defined in an ambiguous and haphazard way to persecute faculty in a literally random manner, and how lost their jobs and their wellbeing, suffering for decades. I then ended up by conjecturing about what could happen to me today as a Muslim faculty member, if and when fear trumps reason to cause harm as it did in American society sixty years ago. It is thus with a very heart that I draw unsettling parallels between the violence that was once produced in the US past through the communist threat, and the possible violence that could be generated today through an imagined Muslim threat…
We can begin any discussion of President Trump’s ban by noting that there has not been a single attack on American soil by anyone from the seven (six in the revised order) banned countries since 2001, and indeed since 1975. So the debate on the Executive Orders is not a dispute over the relative importance of public safety vs. humanitarian concern for refugees and the value of openness to immigrants from diverse backgrounds. Rather, this is a purely political dispute between advocates of reducing the non-white and non-Christian fraction of the US population and those who oppose religious tests for immigration.
Editor’s note: This year’s Gaidar Economic Forum featured a panel on global transformations, with statements by Wolfgang Streeck, Ho-Fung Hung, Mishaal Al-Gergawi, and Monica Prasad. We are pleased to share their written statements in full. You can also watch the panel on You Tube.
Introductory Remarks: A Russian Twist on Davos
New York University Abu Dhabi
The Gaidar Economic Forum in Moscow is a splendid occasion to practice the ethnography of ruling elites. Every January it convenes a crowd of several hundred people including acting and former politicians, central bankers, business journalists, corporate executives, provincial governors, and us, the academic ‘experts’. What makes it different from the bigger event in Davos is, of course, the peculiarity of Russian politics: both the awkward international marginalization of a former superpower and the long-running internal division of Russian elites into liberal modernizers and hardliners. Yet these conventional labels stand for more complex historical genealogies that one might think.
I am going to focus on the U.S., and I will make three arguments: first, that there’s nothing wrong with the American economic system, but the politics are a disaster. Second, the central problem with the politics is that it has turned away from collective investment. And third, and this is my main point, that this turn away from collective investment is fragile, and is not deeply rooted in the society. In other words, the problems are not inevitable.
The progress of capitalism, globally and socially, accompanied as it has been for decades now by increasing debt, rising inequality and declining growth, especially but not exclusively in capitalism’s core countries, has caused a deep crisis of the modern state system, which translates into a crisis of political-economic governability. New problems – political conflicts over interests, values and identities, as well as technocratic puzzles and impossibilities – are appearing almost by the day, without the old ones having been in any way resolved. Cumulative systemic malfunctions subject the social order of capitalism to a syndrome of multimorbidity, where the diseases that have befallen it are all in equally urgent need of treatment but are too many to be treated simultaneously, also because nobody knows exactly how they might hang together. As a result there is now a growing literature on the “end of capitalism”, even in the absence of organized anti-capitalist political forces that could replace capitalism with a new and better order. One concept that has been suggested for what is shaping up as an era of high uncertainty is that of interregnum: a historical period in which much of what had previously been taken for granted and treated like a constant has turned, and is continuing to turn, into variables, without new constants crystallizing as yet.
The situation in West Asia may seem hopeless. Syria is in a civil war that has turned the country into a global breeding ground for extremism. Iraq continues to struggle under sectarian and secessionist tensions, weak governance and high levels of corruption. A resolution to the conflict in Yemen remains elusive with a looming humanitarian crisis. Bahrain’s internal tensions are far from resolved. Lebanon may have finally been able to agree on a president, but it’s unclear what its path for normalisation is. There is an overarching theme in the region, the resolution of which would have far-reaching consequences. While all of these countries’ challenges have genuine domestic roots, the so-called Sunni-Shia crisis continues to accentuate it. The resolution of that crisis would go a long way towards peace in West Asia – at least its Arab parts. Here’s what the road to that peace between Iran and the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, looks like.
Johns Hopkins University
Anti-Globalism is on the rise. The US has just elected a new president running on an anti-globalization platform, promising to withdraw the US from major multilateral trade deals, force US companies to move their manufacturing operations overseas back home, and raise high tariffs against foreign imports. All of a sudden, the US, which has been a world leader pushing for globalization over the last three decades, is on the way to becoming the champion of de-globalization. What might this mean for China?
In 2000, Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick for Attorney General, argued before the Senate that disability rights in education “created a complex system of federal regulations and laws that have created lawsuit after lawsuit, special treatment for certain children, and that are a big factor in accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”
This is a longstanding view of Sessions, who in the late 1990s and early 2000s focused his efforts in educational policy around school safety and discipline while also proposing an amendment striking activities related to hate crimes from national training and education programs. With so-called “Ed-Flex,” Sessions and other Republicans in 1999 argued that arrogance on the part of the federal government acting as a “super school board” – thinking they know better than local communities about how to educate their children – only creates headaches.
To many critics, an Attorney General Sessions signals an era of rollbacks in civil rights and disability rights policy. Distressingly, his is not an anomalous viewpoint.
Lichtenberg-Kolleg, University of Goettingen
We live in an age of increasing nationalism. From Brexit’s “Take back control” to Trump’s “Make America great again,” and from Modi’s “Make in India” initiative to Erdogan’s “Strong Turkey,” leaders who play the “nationalism card” are building popular support. Various polls show more people on the far right of the political spectrum, yet in the midst of such intensified nationalist fervor, nations stand as internally divided as ever. How is this possible? How is it that nations can be so divided if nationalism is on the rise? How are we to interpret intensifying national divisions in the face of intensifying nationalism? In order to explain this paradoxical situation, we argue that many of today’s nations are experiencing what we call “emotional disintegration,” which is brought about by two interrelated and overlapping mechanisms: social and political polarization. While states are staying intact and nationalism as an ideology is getting stronger, nations, as living entities, are getting more polarized and split. This process eventually leads to the dissolution of nations even if they are territorially intact. Turkey presents a stark example.
This is the second part of an interview with Michael Kennedy conducted by Labinot Kunushevci as part of the series of conversations with sociologists for the forthcoming volume Communication as Perspective: Interviews with Contemporary Sociologists.
We thank Labinot Kunushevci for permission to share this excerpt.
“We are at risk of seeing more dimensions of knowledge lose their status as a public good, and rather become more and more a source of power and privilege.”
What follows is an excerpt from an interview with Michael Kennedy conducted by Labinot Kunushevci, graduate student in sociology – University of Prishtina (1/13/2016). Conducted as part of a series of conversations for a volume entitled Communication as Perspective: Interviews with Contemporary Sociologists, in prep, ed. Labinot Kunushevci. Other interviewees include Anthony Giddens, George Ritzer, Patricia Hill Collins, Liah Greenfeld, Hayriye Erbaş, Jasminka Lažnjak, Raewyn Connell, Chua Beng Huat, Barry Wellman, Margaret Abraham, and John Holloway.
As the Trump Administration comes into being and defines its priorities, one of the less interesting things to watch will be its actions on NAFTA.
Why less? At first glance, this might seem a fascinating and important question—given that earlier this year Donald Trump called the North American Free Trade Agreement the “worst trade deal ever,” and promised to pull the U.S. out unless Mexico and Canada agreed to renegotiate it. The prosaic reality however is that Trump won’t touch NAFTA, except maybe in the most superficial of ways.
In the wake of the Republican electoral victory an autopsy of the Democratic Party has ensued, and neoliberal economic policies have recurrently factored into these discussion. Several individuals, including Naomi Klein and Bernie Sanders, have noted that the Democratic Party requires a more substantive economic message than what Hillary Clinton offered to voters. In particular, Klein has castigated the Democratic Party for its embrace of neoliberal economic policies and pointed out that it must relinquish this relationship lest it continue to lose elections.
What is more, some have understood Trump’s victory as signifying the death of neoliberalism in the U.S. Cornel West, for instance, has argued that “the age of Obama was the last gasp of neoliberalism.” With the election of Trump, he says, “neoliberalism in the United States ended with a neofascist bang … [as his] lethal fusion of economic insecurity and cultural scapegoating brought neoliberalism to its knees.”
Trump might have condemned trade liberalization, but his administration is – on all other accounts – ready to implement an intensive, neoliberal agenda.
When the new Congress meets in January, unified Republican control suggests that a shift toward the use of block grants is likely to take place. Under Paul Ryan, the House has proposed consolidating federal funding for both healthcare and social assistance into two block grants. Conservatives see this as fostering fiscally responsible innovation. Liberals see it as part of a nefarious plot to gut programs for the poor.
While American pundits and policymakers often discuss the historical shift to block grants during welfare reform, they rarely bring in comparative analysis to this debate. This is a mistake. Canada offers a fuller picture of the promises and pitfalls of block grants. In contrast to the U.S., where block grants make up a mere 1.5% of the federal budget, they account for about 25% of the federal budget in Canada – a country many hold up as a model for U.S. social policy. Moreover, the majority of these blocks grants are for the same functions Ryan has proposed – healthcare and social assistance. This leaves us with a puzzle: Why do block grants seem to work so well in Canada but not here?
It took Democrats decades to lose the Rust Belt. Reclaiming it won’t be easy.
Given that Trump’s won overwhelming support from white, blue-collar voters, his sweep of the Rust Belt may appear inevitable, but it is historically unprecedented—a subject with which I’m familiar as I have recently written a book about politics in two Rust Belt Iowa cities.
Trump’s unexpected election victory has been explained by many commentators as a combination of bigotry and economic despair. While this picture has more than a little truth, it ignores some of the most salient factors: First, Trump got slightly fewer votes than Romney did in 2012, so there was not an upwelling of previously unengaged citizens. Second, Hillary Clinton got 6 million fewer votes than Obama did in 2012 and 10 million fewer than Obama received in 2008, pointing to a loss of enthusiasm among Democrats. Third, Trump’s voters earn more than the median income; they are the sort of Americans who vote in most elections.
The real questions are these: why didn’t Obama’s achievements bring his voters back to the polls for Hillary Clinton? Why are relatively well-off Americans so angry as to vote for a man who freely deploys racist invective and offers completely incoherent policy proposals? What did Trump’s voters think they were getting from him? And what did potential Democratic voters find so lacking in Hillary’s presidency that they chose not to vote?
November 11, 2016
Three sensibilities of solidarity sweep America, but we need a fourth.
Solidarity as Electoral Democracy is apparent in the graciousness of Secretary Clinton’s concession speech, President Obama’s report on his conversation with President-Elect Trump, and in the peaceful transfer of power. It’s heard in calls to give Trump a chance to become presidential, with the difference between his tweets last night and this morning to evidence that he might honor his pledge to be President of all Americans.
So you want to influence the outcome of the election?
Many of us have been glued to election coverage, wondering and worrying about who will be our next President. The news features pundits and journalists speculating endlessly about the key “moments” of the campaign: who “won” or “lost” a debate, the effect of Clinton’s comments about the “basket of deplorables,” or how many potential Trump voters might be turned off by his Access Hollywood bus “hot mic” bragging about sexually assaulting women.
But despite what the horse race coverage of the election might lead you to believe, after the conventions there’s rarely a strong relationship between what happens in the back-and-forth of a general election campaign and the ultimate outcome of an election[i].
In both Brazil and South Africa a pall of crisis hangs over domestic politics. In Brazil, the recent impeachment of elected president Dilma Rouseff for questionable cause triggered allegations of a parliamentary “coup”. In South Africa, persistent accusations of “state capture” go straight to President Jacob Zuma and his suspicious relationship with a group of elites doing business with state-owned enterprises. Two recent nation-wide municipal elections (South Africa: August 3; Brazil: October 2) tell us a lot about not only where both countries might be heading in the future, but also how we arrived at the current conjuncture.
There’s no denying that this election is unusual, but does it have the makings of a re-alignment—shifts in the demographic groups that disproportionately support each party? Donald Trump appears to have staked his electoral prospects on this possibility. Although many of Trump’s policies favor affluent Americans, he has focused his strategy on the Rust Belt, rails against corrupt elites, and even self-identifies as a blue-collar worker. Hillary Clinton promises tax hikes for the 1%, but also courts affluent voters with billionaire endorsements. One might therefore wonder if the relationship between Americans’ earnings and their political preferences is changing. Are Republicans winning over the poor? Are Democrats winning the rich? The answer may surprise you.
Recent revelations that presidential candidate Donald Trump may have been able to avoid paying income taxes for two decades has piqued the public’s interest in taxes. Critics have accused Trump, who is no stranger to controversy and doesn’t hide his aversion to paying taxes, of engaging in strategic tax avoidance. While there is still much more we need to know in order to judge these accusations (the leaked tax returns were only partial and covered one year but Trump seemed to admit extensively using tax write-offs during the second debate), fiscal sociology offers at least a partial defense of Trump’s tax return based on what we know at this point. Criticisms of shady practices hinge on two concepts unknown to most of the public before the story broke: income averaging and net operating losses. In order to understand why the real story isn’t about taxes, we need to understand how these two practices work. Continue reading “In Defense of Billion Dollar Tax Write-Offs”
Republicans opposed almost every policy initiative of the Obama Administration, forcing President Obama to rely on close to unanimous support from Congressional Democrats in his first two years, and since then on using his executive powers to advance his agenda. Journalists have shown that the Republicans’ Senate majority has confirmed fewer Obama judicial nominees in 2015-16 than Democrats did for President Bush in 2007-08. Technical fixes to the Affordable Care Act, of the sort Congresses routinely enacted for legislation, major and minor, passed during previous administrations, Republican and Democratic, have been blocked, creating confusion and hardship for those who depend on Obamacare for their insurance. Why such steadfast Republican opposition? Continue reading “Was Republican Opposition to Obama Racism? The Coming Natural Experiment”
Among the most viral images of the summer was a beach scene on the French Riviera. In the photo, an unknown woman sits on the sand, surrounded by bikini-clad fellow sunbathers. At least four armed municipal policemen stand over her, watching as she removes a turquoise tunic. This incident and its aftermath marked the culmination of “Burkini-Gate”, which began on July 26th, when the mayor of Cannes instituted the nation’s first burkini ban and quickly grew to encompass nearly thirty French towns. It ended, for the time being, one month later, when the Council of State, the nation’s highest administrative court, overturned a Villeneuve-Loubet ordinance banning the burkini and set the stage for a reversal of the policy elsewhere.
In part 1 of this essay, we discussed the varieties of policy work and sociology shaping previous debates about how comparative, historical and ethnographic sociology can engage policy work, as well as how that debate looks different in transition culture. In this part, we return to those debates to mark another layer of difference, but also to consider how it might be transformed by focusing our sociology and policy work on justice. Continue reading “Policy and Sociology in Context (Part 2)”