Pragmatism and its discontents

At times in the last few years”, writes Duncan Green in his recent book How Change Happens,  “it has felt like something of a unified field theory of development is emerging”.  As Hegel reminded us, however, the owl of wisdom  flies at dusk. As recently as early 2016 (which is about when he wrote these words) Green’s exuberant enthusiasm was shared by many of us. But a year, we now know, can be an eternity.

How Change Happens  synthesizes a growing body of work that has aimed to move development scholarship and practice away from a pre-occupation with so-called ‘best practice’ solutions. It captures well the  sensibility of the new literature – a paradoxical combination of  the  enthusiasm of a breakthrough and the pragmatism of  seasoned practitioners who have learned the limitations of over-reach, often through bitter experience.  But, as per Hegel,  has our quest for useful insight reached  its destination only to find that a new journey has begun,  a  different and more difficult journey than the one we had planned?

In this review essay, I use the insights of How Change Happens to  explore this question. I unbundle into two broad groups the categories of analysis Green uses to delineate the grand unified theory.  In discussing the first group, I highlight what we got right about the drivers of change; in discussing the second,  what we got wrong. I then suggest possible ways forward.

Dancing with the system

Change, Green suggests, can be understood as shaped by interactions between power, complexity and agency:

  • Power: Green builds on a ‘four powers’ model: ‘power within; power with; power to; and power over’. “A power analysis tells us who holds what power relative to the matter, and what might influence them to change…. Understanding how formal and informal power is distributed, and how that distribution shifts over time are essential tasks for any activist intent on making change happen.” (p.95).
  • Complexity: “In complex systems, change results from the interplay of many diverse and inter-related factors…. Because of the number of relationships and feedback loops, they cannot be reduced to simple chains of cause and effect.”
  • Agency, encompassing grassroots citizen activism, advocacy, and leaders, with “leaders [at all levels] central to any understanding of how change happens….[They] operate at the interface between structure and agency”. (p. 199) 

To link these, Green uses the metaphor of learning to ‘dance with the system’: “Understanding how the state in question evolved, how its decisions are made, how formal and informal power is distributed within it, and how distribution shifts over time – are essential tasks for any activist intent on making change happen.” (p.95).

Insights along the lines of the above have led many of us to adopt a pragmatic approach to policymaking and implementation. In the spirit of working with the grain, of doing development differently, of problem-driven iterative adaptation, of politically smart, locally-led development (I list these buzzwords to signal who I mean in this essay when I speak of “we”), we focused on incremental change — pursuing quite modest gains to address very specific problems, and taking much of the prevailing configuration of power and institutions as given, as constraints on what is achievable. We justified incrementalism along these lines as a way of achieving development gains that were valuable in themselves – and, perhaps, might also be catalysts for a cascade of subsequent opportunities. And then, our pragmatism notwithstanding, we were mugged by reality.

Blind spots

Suddenly and unexpectedly we find ourselves in a different world, the world of Donald Trump  and Brexit, a world with democracy seemingly in retreat in many, many countries, a world where many of the foundational presumptions of the turn to pragmatism can no longer be taken for granted. Blindsided by change we must ask: what did we get wrong in the way we danced with the system? This brings us to Green’s second group of analytical categories – state institutions, political parties, and norms.

To begin with state institutions, “the unsung heroes in the drama of development”, Green suggests, “(are) civil servants who soldier on despite the obstacles, because the stakes are so high – the institution they work within will shape the fates and futures of their peoples. That institution is the state.” (p.79). But the distinctive political, economic and social contexts within which state institutions are  embedded constrain technocratic efforts to improve their performance.  Many of us responded to this messy complexity by embracing the incremental, problem-driven approach described above.  We lulled ourselves into taking a very constricted view of the power (for good and ill) of state institutions.

Political parties were similarly neglected.  As Green notes, “development thinkers pay political parties scant attention, and aid organizations tend to discount their importance. But, however dull…they  are the clutch in the engine of politics, linking citizens to government…[and] carry the potential to achieve changes on an otherwise impossible scale.” (p.113)

India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, in what was for me the most compelling example in a book filled with rich examples, illustrates powerfully the difference that political parties can make.

“India’s landmark 2005 National Rural Employee Guarantee Act (NREGA), which guarantees all citizens 100 days of unskilled employment per year on public works programmes, came about due to a combination of determined citizen activism and the fortunes of the Congress Party”. (p.125) By 2015, the NREGA gave employment to 122 million poor people across India. (p. 126). (Read that last sentence twice!!!) Congress embraced the NREGA in 2004 at a time when, the idea had been developed by civil society, and Congress “needed to rapidly cobble together a programme”…and after “a determined campaign involving a fifty-day march across the country’s poorest districts, sit-in protests, direct contacts with politicians, and public hearings.” If Congress had not won the 2004 elections, “the NREGA might well have joined the ranks of good, but failed, civil society initiatives”. (p.126)

Our engagement with norms, the final analytical category in this group, was even more problematic.  “Empathy is critical” Green notes, “if we are to build a bridge to people who see the world very differently from ourselves….” (p.221). However, “we tend to default to working with ‘people like us’, when alliances with unusual suspects can be more effective”. But focusing on norms isn’t only necessary as a way of being more effective in building progressive coalitions.  As  Green notes (in a moment of prescience, but which reads as something of an aside, out of step with the generally optimistic tone of the book),   “the prospect of norm shifts can provoke a violent backlash”. (p. 61) Indeed, it can.

Here, bringing the above pieces together, is what I think happened: While we were looking elsewhere, made complacent perhaps by our conviction  that we were on the side of the justice towards which the moral universe was bending, we allowed ourselves to be trumped.  We ignored the rising counter-reaction – the pushback of powerful (and monied!) interests, the resentment of those whose relative (though not necessarily absolute) standing was being undercut by a changing world, the growing resistance to a progressive (in our terms) change in norms. Crucially, we lost sight of the dynamics of power – specifically of the power of political parties to mobilize on the basis of ideas and incentives which we easily dismissed as reactionary. In so doing, we ceded the terrain of contestation over the largest political prize of all — control over state institutions – to actors and ideas which  we presumed had been consigned to the dustbin of history.

And then, one bleak morning after another, we awoke to discover that the terrain had shifted radically, that control over state institutions was shifting, and that our hard-won incremental gains risked being washed away by tidal waves of reaction.

What is to be done?

What now? On the surface the task is straightforward: we need to learn from the example of the right. As Green puts it, quoting  Milton Friedman, “only a crisis produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions taken depend on the ideas that are lying around”. As we also learn from the right, to be  transformational  these ideas need to have broad appeal, to be actively incubated within the framework of a large, resurgent political party. (Please, no fringe parties in the name of purity!).

How Change Happens is stimulating and satisfying in the guidance it offers activists as to ‘how’ to pursue their agendas. But (as per the title) it has almost nothing so say about the ‘what’…. (beyond its subtext, which signals clearly that it shares the values and aspirations of ‘people like us’). This focus on the ‘how’ with inattention to the ‘what’ is shared by much of the literature Green synthesizes (my own work included). Indeed, for many of us, it has been a point of principle to redirect attention away from polarized debates about fanciful ends towards pragmatic exploration of means.

But the times require heightened attention to the vision towards which our many localized efforts are directed; we need a new balance between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. The broad contours of a progressive vision are clear: that we give our lives meaning by embracing inclusion, mutual solidarity, and stewardship as organizing principles for a thriving society – thereby honoring the highest values inherited from our past, and acting on behalf of future, as well as current generations.  Easily said, but evidently there is much work to be done to give content to inclusion and stewardship in a way that responds effectively to our brave new world of automation and globalization, and that (as per Green’s admonition vis-à-vis norms) builds bridges to people who see the world very differently from ourselves.

When I speak of a ‘new balance’, I am not suggesting abandoning what we have learned over the past decade about wrestling with the ‘how’ of development.  Overcorrection – an endlessly swinging pendulum of fashionable ideas – has long been a chronic, debilitating disease of development theorizing and practice. As I have explored elsewhere, the embrace of pragmatism was itself a response to  a decade of democratic hubris. That hubris was disastrous. It set the stage for disappointment, as it became evident that grand promises could not be met. Worse, in failing from the first to acknowledge (and communicate effectively) the messy complexity of democratic governance, hubris laid the groundwork for an attack from the right. It allowed the critics of government to successfully depict the challenging realities of democratic governance as ‘proof’ of the futility of pro-active public policies, of efforts to work collectively to build a better world.

It is easy (and seductive) to preach Manichean visions of perfection and evil. If one has no real interest in governing effectively (or perhaps has a hidden interest in undermining and then dismantling prevailing patterns of public governance), then there is no reason to exercise restraint. (Of course, should one then find oneself in power – a la DT; the Republican Party; or the champions of Brexit – then the reality of false promises will become evident, hopefully to be followed by comeuppance and discrediting.) But if the goal genuinely is to leverage collective endeavor and the public sphere as a way to build a better life for all, then the challenge is a more demanding one.

We need to communicate two superficially contradictory ideas at the same time: that embracing a vision of inclusion and stewardship in a thriving society offers a pathway to a fulfilling life – and that the quest to realize that vision will be challenging, fraught with obstacles. In the recent past, we have done neither: we have neglected the ‘what’ in favor of the ‘how. And our work on the ‘how’ has become so pre-occupied with addressing very specific problems that we ceded to ideologues of both the right and the left the terrain of discourse as to how the public sphere works, why, what are reasonable expectations, and it should be engaged.

A way to combine hope and pragmatism in a coherent vision  is to underscore that, however challenging and fraught with obstacles, the quest itself can itself be a source of fulfillment. Doing our part;  not everything, but enough to inspire a sense of possibility, and thereby successfully pass the baton to the next generation. That, as per the wisdom of ancestors, “it is not for us to complete the task, but neither is it for us to desist from it.”

South Africa’s crisis — calling things by their true name

Locking in to binary narratives of ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ governance can blind us to the depths of a crisis when it arrives. As I argue in  my piece (linked here, and published in The Conversation), there is a continuum between rule-bounded and patronage governance. At the far end of thatcontinuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. These last are the threats that South Africa now confronts. Hopefully the crisis can be seen for what it is — and not obscured by the fact that ‘wolf’ has been cried so often in response to South Africa’s typical (and inevitably messy) pattern of middle-income governance. What is happening now is not typical — once predatory kleptocracy takes hold, a downward economic and political spiral can unfold rapidly.


Seventeen million hostages freed — the moral universe can still bend towards justice!

South Africa's constitutional courtGood news!!! – a big victory today for justice and constitutional democracy (in South Africa).  In recent months, cynical politicians and an opportunistic businessman have tried to hold the seventeen million poorest South Africans (who receive social grants as their sole source of livelihood)  hostage for personal and political gain. This morning South Africa’s Constitutional Court demonstrated that the arc of the moral universe can still, sometimes, bend towards justice.

For at least the past year, Bathabile Dlamini, South Africa’s Minister of Social Development (and, appallingly, head of the ANC Women’s league), protected by president JZ, and Serge Belamant (CEO of publicly quoted company Net1, whose major shareholder is Allan Gray) have tried to manufacture a crisis – seemingly with the aim of forcing extortionist terms on South Africa, and holding the poorest in the country as ransom. (See here  for brilliant journalism which provides the background to this plot ) and here for an especially far-reaching, but informed speculation as to what might have been the sinister goals.)

This morning, justice trumped evil. The Constitutional Court’s ruling  included the following:

  • Net1 (through Cash Paymaster Services) has a constitutional obligation, and is required to continue paying social grants for the next twelve months.
  • Any adjustment to CPS contract (with the purpose solely of adjusting for increased costs) would need to be negotiated directly with National Treasury – whose Minister, Pravin Gordhan and staff have been, along with the court, stalwart heroes as South Africa’s political centre fights to push back against predatory kleptocracy).
  • Over the next twelve months, the Social Development department needs to put in place new arrangements for payment of social grants – and needs to report every quarter to the Constitutional Court on its progress in implementing these arrangements.
  • And, in a delicious example of just desserts, minister Bathabile Dlamini, needs to show the court by 31st March why she should not be held personally liable for costs associated with the lawsuit, filed to protect citizens against this cynical, willful act of political predation.

Repealing resource transparency – a shameful descent into collusion with criminality

President Trump Signs Executive Order In Oval Office Of The White House

In a world where anger increasingly rules, I  prefer to avoid outrage – but the vote to repeal transparency for oil and mining companies is unconscionable. How —  Republican members of the House  and Senate who voted on party lines for this repeal, Rex Tillerson (whose 2010 efforts to lobby against the measure have, now that he has become Secretary of State, seen fruition with this repeal) and, of course DT (who gleefully signed into law this license to collude with criminality) —  how do you sleep at night?

 Here, for those who might be unfamiliar with this area, is the background.

For the past forty plus years, there have been bipartisan efforts within the United States – and a global movement – to build a global regime that constrains corruption. The American Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, passed in 1977, was an early landmark moment in the process. American administrations, Republican and Democratic alike,  have moved to strengthen and universalize its impact by supporting the emergence of global pro-transparency and anti-corruption norms and standards.  Governments, civil society, and many private firms the world over have joined in  the effort. As I explore in the piece, innovations-in-globalized-regulation , though much remains to be done, much has been achieved. And now, in an appalling act of hubris, ignorance, entitlement and impunity, all of this is thrown into reverse. Greed is Trumps. Barbarity rules. Again, all who were complicit in this shameful act: how do you sleep at night?

Again, all who were complicit in this shameful act: how do you sleep at night?


This repeal is a murderous dagger. It announces ‘open season’ for the most venal on our planet to collude with one another to predate on the futures of the most vulnerable, hiding in the shadows as they wreak havoc.


For fragile states, resource abundance can be a curse. Mineral and oil resources attract money and power. With a capable state, the resulting windfalls can be a boon for development. But if states are weak, citizens end up gaining little, if anything. Indeed, as  the world learned about Blood Diamonds  (thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio and many others),  at the limit the result can be conflict, warlordism, state collapse, and death.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative has built a powerful multistakeholder coalition to try and mitigate the risks of resource extraction in fragile states. The Chad-Cameroon pipeline project (about which I have also written, sympathetically) was a bold, controversial effort to reconcile massive oil investments with development gains – one in which Rex Tillerson’s Exxon played a pioneering (and, I would judge, constructive) role.


In May, 2011 Republican Senator Richard Lugar proudly introduced  an amendment to   the Dodd-Frank Act, which supported these efforts by requiring foreign and domestic companies listed on US stock exchanges to disclose their payments to governments for oil, gas and mining. This is the provision that Congress has now voted to repeal — and that, on February 14, 2017, in one of many moments that will live in infamy,  DT gleefully signed.  

As Thomas Hobbes taught us, when warlords are in control, life becomes nasty, brutish and short. Again, for all who voted for this repeal, how do you sleep at night?

Two cheers for the 2017 Governance and the Law World Development Report

wdr-governance-and-law-coverThe 2017 WDR  is a landmark document for the development community. Historically, the point of departure for development practitioners (including those within the World Bank) has been to promulgate technocratic, ‘best practice’ solutions to development challenges. For more than two decades, this ‘best practice’ approach has been put into question by a growing avalanche of research on the political, institutional and governance underpinnings of development. The 2017 WDR does an heroic job of assembling and synthesizing this voluminous research into a compelling statement of why ‘best practices’ fail to address some core constraints, and thus do not achieve their intended results.

Some will doubtless critique the report for its  promiscuous use of jargon. But empathy is called for. The WDR team surely confronted some formidable internal political challenges. It needed to frame its argumentation in a way that spoke directly to economists, who remain intellectually hegemonic within the organization. As important, it needed a framing that was politically acceptable across the range of the extraordinarily diverse constituencies that make up the Executive Directors of the Bank – from the United States, to China, to Russia, to the Nordic countries as well as Latin American, African and other Asian and European constituencies. My sense  is that the document has met this challenge. So a first loud cheer to the WDR for successfully, and hopefully irreversibly, consolidating the centrality of politics and institutions in the development discourse.

Turning to my second cheer, the 2017 WDR powerfully makes the case that an ongoing capacity to adapt, both politically and economically, is crucial for sustainable development – and thus that high priority should be given to the continuing cultivation of adaptive policies and institutions. In making this point, the WDR embraces the insistence of Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson in their widely read book, Why Nations Fail, on the centrality of ‘inclusive institutions’ for development success. And, in coming down  from the  Olympian heights of Acemoglu & Robinson’s very-long-run historical analysis, it moves the discourse further. It uses its terminological innovations to direct attention towards the following varieties of entry points:

  • ‘Contestability, preferences, and incentives’ – as key drivers of the possibility of change. (Note: ‘preferences’ is the way economists like to talk about ideas; and ‘incentives’ incorporates the role of institutions in shaping the rules of the game).
  • ‘Exclusion, capture and clientelism’ – as ways in which asymmetries of power can become locked-in, blocking the capacity to adapt.
  • ‘Power sharing, resource redistribution, sanctions and deterrence (agreement-enforcement), and dispute resolution institutions’ as entry points for fostering and sustaining agreements among contending parties. And:
  • ‘Elite bargaining, citizen engagement and international influences’ as key drivers of change.

Especially crucial is the high analytic priority that the WDR  gives to ‘exclusion, capture and clientelism’.  This focuses attention on a potentially tragic dynamic at the heart of development. Development success consolidates economic and political power among a subset of economic and political elites. This gives them both the incentive and the wherewithal to resist challenges from other aspirant elites . The result can be a political economy trap.

Policies that foster political and economic competition  support sustained dynamism.  But these very policies threaten incumbents all-too-human desire to enjoy unchallenged their only recently-acquired affluence and power. The result can be a reversal of  the very policies that are key for sustaining success.   In country after country (including more than a few  ‘Northern’ countries…..) we are witnessing one or another variant of this kind of  counter-reaction.

By putting  the necessity for development of a continuing capacity to adapt —  and the short, medium- and long-run drivers of how this capacity evolves — the 2017 WDR   invites development practitioners to focus on the tension between capture and continuing dynamism. Hence my second cheer. But — and this is why I withhold a third cheer — the document falls short of addressing the crucial question: given the risk of capture, what is to be done?

Addressing the question of what is to be done requires development practitioners to confront difficult dilemmas, and make uncomfortable choices. All too often, practitioners prefer to sweep these dilemmas under the carpet. But  in at least two areas real gains are being made in confronting and finding ways forward vis-a-vis these difficult governance-related development challenges — and the WDR would have been stronger if it had engaged with these areas more explicitly.  T

First, development practitioners across the range of sectors (education, health, environment, infrastructure, social protection and myriad other areas…..) work in contexts where governance is weak, and political constraints are profound. A great deal of work has been undertaken in recent decades (under the rubrics of ‘thinking and working politically’, ‘working with the grain’, ‘doing development differently’ and ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’) as to how it might be possible to achieve some development gains in difficult governance environments – taking a short-to-medium-term perspective, and without necessarily transforming the broader governance environment. The WDR gives very little time to this class of governance intervention – ones which take the pre-existing governance environment as given, and seek ways of nonetheless achieving some development gains. It would be a development tragedy if the document were to be interpreted as arguing against governance-related initiatives that have real prospects of improving peoples’ lives, even if they don’t add to the capacity to adapt.

Second, and related, there can be a difficult trade-off between governance-related initiatives that yield development gains in the short-to-medium run, but risk creating problems of adaptability over the longer-term. Here are two of many possible examples :

  • In Mozambique, in the aftermath of civil war, should the country have moved rapidly to capitalize on prospects for investment in large-scale mega-projects, thereby cementing elite commitments to stability, but also locking-in rent-based elite bargains, (which is what they did) — or should it have attempted the painstaking and uncertain work of trying to build institutions capable of supporting broad-based growth, and in the interim leaving the political settlement vulnerable to reversal?
  • In Indonesia (in the chaotic aftermath of President Soeharto’s exit) and in Afghanistan (in the immediate aftermath of the international military intervention which overthrew the Taliban) should governments and donors have co-operated on moving finance rapidly to poor citizens through community-driven development initiatives with special-purpose institutional arrangements (which they did), even though these might risk adding to the complexity of later efforts at systematic institutional development?

Mozambique went ahead with its mega-projects, and Indonesia and Afghanistan with their CDD initiatives. These decisions strike me as sensible, though they arguably are inconsistent with the logic of ‘adaptability’ above all.

To underscore: in highlighting these dilemmas, my intent is not to diminish the value of the WDR. Rather it is to point to a key added set of questions that matter for operationalization. In addressing dilemmas along these lines, it is crucial not to become trapped in ‘either/or’ thinking. If we are to make progress with the messy, complex challenges that emerge once we think about development through a governance lens, we need to be especially vigilant to ensure not to throw out babies with bathwater.

Hope in the Dark? In Search of Ways Forward

night-skyWhen power shifts and the presumptions which have underpinned our way of engaging the world no longer hold, what then? For the past quarter century, many of us engaged in policy analysis and implementation have worked in the spirit of ‘possibilism’ – seeking entry points for change that, though initially small, have the potential to set in motion far-reaching, positive consequences. But more than we perhaps had realized, our work has presupposed that the center broadly holds.

We have presumed that there is a reasonably stable ‘outer’ concentric circle within which experimentation plays out, facilitating an evolution-like process — momentum for initiatives that add value, and dead-ends for bad ideas.  But with the election of Donald Trump (henceforth DT) in the USA (and similar elsewhere, though in this piece I will write principally from a US perspective) we find ourselves in a world where the stability of the outer circle, the container, has itself been put into question. How, now, are we to engage?

In an earlier effort to explore possible pathways of development for messy democracies, I distinguished between long-run vision, medium-run strategy, and short run process. The vision as to what comprises the core elements of a flourishing democracy remains intact. However,  when confronting a risk of reversal of the magnitude which is possible under a DT presidency, strategy and tactics need to shift profoundly. But how?

Checks and balances institutions, for societies endowed with them, comprise the first, and crucial, line of defense against the erosion of freedom and democracy. In the US context, one of my responses to DTs victories has been to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League.   Looking beyond America, South Africa’s experience over the past eighteen months (on which I will write separately) offers a hopeful (though still unfolding) example of how a combination of courts, activism and elections can contain predatory political leadership. However, playing defense  is not enough.

The air is filled with talk of resistance, of the necessity of not normalizing  a DT administration. The urgency of the moment is clear, and I do not want to lessen it. So what follows might perhaps usefully be viewed as a complement rather than an alternative to this sense of urgency.  How can we act in ways that not only respond to the short-term imperatives, but also help incubate a platform for a reinvigorated politics and society?  Here (adapting some with the grain approaches for the current moment) are some  potential entry points.

First, cultivate alliances. Checks and balances institutions are a first line of defense, but ultimately the sustainability of democracy rests on a broad societal consensus in favor of democracy and the rule-of-law. This consensus has been America’s ‘civil religion’, one reason why it is so startling that so many voted for DT. But it is wildly premature to conclude that a short-term expression of discontent reflects a broader abandonment of America’s core principles. Defense of democracy requires a coalition that reaches across the traditional left-right ideological spectrum. Thus, rather than responding in kind to anger and polarization, opposition to DT needs to capture the higher ground of America’s political center.

Second, embrace a democracy-friendly discourse —  one which, as per Albert Hirschman, “moves beyond extreme, intransigent postures, with the hope that participants engage in meaningful discussion, ready to modify initially held opinions in the light of other arguments and new information”. DT’s discourse has, of course, been the exact opposite – an embrace of whatever might help to arouse supporters, with zero regard for its truth value.  But the breakdown in discourse goes beyond DT.

Openness to evidence comprises the bedrock foundation, the necessary condition, for civilization to thrive; yet we find ourselves in a world where the arbiters of the truth value of claims are losing their legitimacy. This can be explained, in our era of rapid change, by the power of cognitive dissonance to override inconvenient evidence.  But explaining is not enough. We urgently need to rebuild mutual confidence, a consensus across society as to the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of fact-based discourse – else (if it is not already too late) all will be lost.

The news media confront an urgent, immediate challenge – and the article linked here from the Brookings institution offers an intriguing road map for how it can be addressed. There also are more personal challenges, especially for those of us who work with policy, evidence and ideas.  I have taken pride (an interesting word….) in being open to persuasion when the data are inconsistent with my preferences – but  this often isn’t obvious to others. The reasons surely have as much to do with me as those with whom I engage. Nurturing a democracy-friendly discourse will require work at many levels.

Third, focus on the consequences for inclusion and equity of the coming tsunami of policy initiatives from the DT administration. DT’s success is a (perverse) consequence of the accelerating dualism of American society – major gains at the top, stagnation for everyone else. In his campaign, DT promised to make things ‘great again’ for the struggling (predominantly white) middle. But the reality is likely to be the opposite. Here are a few  examples:

[Added January 1, 2017:  Climate change also offers a compelling immediate focal point for activism, as detailed in the comment/discussion below.]

Proposals such as these will provoke a powerful reaction. Sustained, systematic and widely communicated documentation of their likely consequences has the potential to reinvigorate an inclusive, democracy-friendly discourse on policy choices and their consequences. The Scholars Strategy Network offers a powerful platform for this kind of work, as illustrated by its Director, Theda Skocpol’s, recent piece in the New York Times on health care reform. The think tank New America offers a further, intriguing model for bridging the gap between analysis and civic discourse. Sustained work along these lines can both renew confidence in the value of evidence-based analysis and, as important, lay the foundation for development of a new generation of inclusive responses to the dauntingly difficult structural economic realities of the early 21st century.

Fourth, cultivate islands of effectiveness. Developmental forces continue to be present throughout society – within civil society, at state and local level, within public bureaucracies. As I explored in depth in my earlier work, in politically contested environments developmental actors can achieve valuable victories by focusing on specific initiatives, acting collectively, and building coalitions capable of fending off destructive, predatory influences. Not all space has closed. In a generally dispiriting time, showing what is possible continues to matter — both as antidote to despair and as inspiration, pointing the way towards a more hopeful future.

To some, the entry points I have highlighted above might seem inadequate to the moment. But it seems to me crucial that we look beyond a politics that offers nothing beyond deepening polarization. German politics in the interwar Weimar years of 1918-1933 provides a cautionary tale. As a white South African inspired by the fall of apartheid, as a Jew who has refused to be defined by history and the stereotypes of others, as a parent with two American children, I continue to believe that the life worth living is one fueled by our hopes and dreams, not our nightmares. The dream that all humans are created equal, with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The dream of equal dignity. The American dream. The human dream.



Holding the center — foundational principles vs policy conflict

we-the-peopleAn election has been won and lost; a constitutional order remains intact.

We live in a world where words have become weightless, where lives feel adrift. The energy of  disaffection has been mobilized. Promises of restoration of greatness  have won the day.  Those promises, many of us feel certain, are false promises.

Policy actions with which we will profoundly disagree will follow. Sometimes, we will disagree with their underlying values. At other times, we will disagree with their proponents’  expectations as to what will be the consequences of their actions. For both reasons, we can expect what is to come to be painful.

However, so long as the constitutional order remains intact, the people will speak again in 2018 and 2020. The fact that actions have consequences – and thus that the consequences of the actions that follow from yesterday’s election will become evident – can be our refuge.  These, it seems to me,  are thus the tasks ahead:

  • To give renewed weight to words.
  • To clarify and communicate our understandings of the consequences that will follow from actions.
  • To clarify and communicate alternative courses of action; and, above all:
  • To protect the constitutional order that will allow the process of democratic renewal to continue, namely that:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…” (United States Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776)

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America…..” (United States Constitution,  preamble, 1787)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”. (United States Constitution, First Amendment  1789)

“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition……If men were angels, no government would be necessary….In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions….. Contriving the interior structure of the government as that its several constituent parts may, by their mutual relations, be the means of keeping each other in their proper places” ( James Madison, Federalist Paper number 51, 1788).

And I am adding for the record the text of a post I did on FB three days after the election:

What now? Here are three themes that are beginning to crystallize for me.

First, and most crucial, is to protect (and revitalize) our constitutional democracy. We have looked (and are looking) at what lies beyond the cliff — but we need not succumb to a downward spiral. For all of the parallels, the USA in 2016 & 2017 is NOT Weimar Germany in 1932/33. We need to act in ways that do not bring that nightmare any closer. (More on this soon.)
Second, “the dog caught the car” — and it is the dog’s problem as to what to do next. Two dogs actually: not only Trump, but the Republican party of ‘no’. Life — decisions and their consequences — have just become real for them. This process will be interesting to watch.

Third, some tasks as I see them for us as progressives/Democrats:
(i) Engage the Republicans through democratic processes (from policy discourses to mobilization of lawful protest, as needed, on the specific policy choices they propose to make). There is some ‘wait and see’ needed here — though one area which may require urgent action is in choices of officials linked to environment/climate change etc;
(ii) Revitalize progressive/Democratic activism from the bottom-up — state and local elections are a good place to start. There is a need for a new generation of activists (and public officials). There are elections coming in 2018 — a time when the consequences of the dog having caught the car will be evident to voters. A sweeping progressive victory is not impossible.
(iii) Create new loci for face-to-face conversation, at all levels of society, across seemingly intractably polarized divisions. (This has been central to peacebuilding around the world; we need it here, too.)
(iv) Look closely at the content of the progressive agenda. What is missing? What is not responsive to the transformed world we live in — both in terms of content, and our conceptions of how goals are achieved.
This last has been (and continues to be) where my work is focused, though I think that, in the immediate period (i) – (iii) matter at least as much.

A letter to my sons, students and others in the millennial generation….

millenialsDear sons, SAIS students (present and former), nephews and nieces, daughters-in-law, and all of your friends, and others of the millennial generation who enjoy the right to vote in next Tuesday’s American election,

Over the years, I have come to appreciate deeply the way your generation blends idealism with pragmatism as to how things actually are. From the first, your world has been  incomparably more open and multicultural than it was  for those of us of the sixties, baby boom generation. For you, the insight has come naturally that the way  to thrive within diversity  is, not to deny difference and disagreement, but to hold conflict within a larger container of co-operation.

Startlingly, old forces of divisiveness, forces many of us had believed had long receded into  the past,  are again running rampant. They threaten a downward spiral of disaster which would destroy  the world of inclusion around which you are building your lives.

Perhaps you’re not filled with enthusiasm with the prospect of embracing Hillary Clinton as the champion of (y)our future. But that’s the way things are — and as someone of her generation, I don’t doubt her deep commitment to an open, inclusive world. Catherine Rampell, one of the best of a new generation of columnists, captures nicely your dilemma in the column linked here. How, she asks, can one,inspire millennials to vote when our primary political vessel represents not volatility and upheaval, but boring stability?

“Not rocking the boat, but keeping it from crashing into an iceberg? ‘Steady as she goes’ is hardly a compelling campaign slogan for any age group. But it is an especially poor fit for the insurrectionist, get-out-the-vote rhetoric usually used to woo young people to the polls…… The great danger right now is that millennials won’t vote at all. We will express our political frustrations with the system not by trying to upend it — as so many get-out-the-vote efforts of eras past urged us to do — but by abstaining altogether……. Analyses of Brexit votes, showed that those who had to live longest with the decision — i.e., young people — were most likely to vote “Remain.” And yet youths also had the lowest voter turnout rates of any demographic. So “Remain” lost…..A vote for keeping it together may [not feel] cathartic. But it’s better than not voting at all…” (and then waking up the next morning to discover that forces of rage and prejudice had risen, vampire-like to take over the American government…….).

But perhaps catharsis is the way it worked for the sixties generation, but not for you. My sense is that you see better than we did  that a sober-minded commitment to holding the center is precisely what is needed as the platform for everything else. Regardless, the implication is the same: Please VOTE – and, using all the many tools of communication which you have available, please do everything in your power to get as many of your generation as you can to do the same.

With no illusions — but  continued, determined hope,


Illusions of normality incubate deepening disasters…..

hitler-hindenburgAs the US presidential election has unfolded, I have been startled at how many right-of-center voters (including much of the Republican establishment) have settled into a ‘politics as usual’ comfort zone, backing their side (DTs and all) over their longstanding nemesis, Hillary Clinton. In the spirit of George Santayana (‘those who cannot remember history are condemned to repeat it’) here are a few extracts from three classic books on early 1930s Germany.  I begin with some contemporaneous observations (written by 25 year old Sebastian Haffner in 1939:

“At first the revolution only gave the impression of being a ‘historical event’ like any other: a matter for the press that might just possibly have some effect on the public mood. There was no revolution on January 30, 1933, just a change of government….. The general opinion was that it was not the Nazis who had won, but the bourgeois parties of the right, who had ‘captured’ the Nazis and held all the key positions in the government……. At the time, while I experienced the sequence of events it was not possible to gauge their significance. I felt, intensely, the choking, nauseous character of it all, but I was unable to grasp its constituent parts and place them in an overall order. Each attempt was frustrated and veiled by those endless useless discussions in which we attempted again and again to fit the events into an obsolete, unsuitable scheme of political ideas…….  How infinitely stupid the attempts at justification, how hopelessly superficial the constructions with which the intellect tried to cover up the proper feeling of dread and disgust. How stale all the isms we brought up. I shudder to think of it. …. Daily life went on as before, though it had now definitely become ghostly and unreal, and was daily mocked by the events that served as its background….” – Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler: A memoir (pp. 104; 136-7)

And here is a more scholarly description of some aspects of the process from Richard Evans: “Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic. Many of them, too, particularly in rural areas, small towns, small workshops, culturally conservative families, older age groups, or the middle-class nationalist political milieu, may have been registering their alienation from the cultural and political modernity for which the Republic stood……. While conventional politicians delivered lectures, or spoke in a style that was orotund and pompous, flat and dull…..Hitler gained much of his oratorical success by telling his audiences what they wanted to hear. He used simple, straightforward language that ordinary people could understand, short sentences, powerful emotive slogans…..[General] Schleicher now [January 1933] saw a Hitler Chancellorship as a welcome solution: ‘If Hitler wants to establish a dictatorship in the Reich’, he said confidently, ‘then the army will be the dictatorship within the dictatorship’…” Richard Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich, pp. 265; 171

And here is an extract from Ian Kershaw: “Hitler was, in fact, in no position to act as an outright dictator when he cam to office on 30 January, 1933. As long as [President] Hindenburg lived, there was a potential rival source of loyalty — not least for the army…… ” [BL: Then, as I summarized in an earlier post, came the burning of the Reichstag……and Hindenburg’s death in mid-1934]….. “…By summer 1934, when Hitler combined the headship of state with the leadership of government, his power had effectively shed formal constraints on its usage…. Conventional forms of government were increasingly exposed to the arbitrary inroads of personalized power. It was a recipe for disaster….” Ian Kershaw, Hitler: A biography.

Eighteen months after life had seemed normal,  disaster was well underway……

James Comey, the Reichstag burning, and the Donald Trump big lie

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany / Mono Print

Burning of the Reichstag 1933. Germany / Mono Print

Is FBI Director James Comey’s October 29th memo to Congress about Clinton emails the Trump campaign’s ‘burning the Reichstag’ moment? The sinister undertones of the  campaign have been evident from day one, with Trump’s notorious statement in his announcement speech that “when Mexico sends its people…..they’re sending people that have lots of problems….They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists”.  Parallels between the Trump campaign and the ‘big lie’ road to power of the Nazis in the 1930s might seem overheated, yet they have been drawn repeatedly by observers who generally are known for their sobriety. (I link below to a sampling of excellent analyses along these lines.)

Time is running short and, if things go badly   James Comey’s  weekend memo could well, viewed through the lens of history, be seen as a 2016 presidential campaign echo of Nazi Germany’s Reichstag burning.

The burning of the German Reichstag (‘parliament’) on February 27, 1933 was a crucial step in the Nazi seizure of power. As of late 1932, it seemed that the popularity of the Nazis may have peaked. They  won 37.4 percent of the vote (13.7 million votes and 230 Reichstag seats) in elections of July 1932. Political crisis followed immediately, and in a repeat election in November 1932  the number of Nazi votes fell to 11.7 million (and 196 seats). Though Hitler nonetheless was appointed Reich Chancellor in 1933, many among the German elites were complacent. “Within two months”, vice chancellor Franz Von Papen told a conservative acquaintance, “we will have pushed Hitler so far into a corner that he’ll squeak”.

We can’t know whether or not Comey intended to give the Trump campaign a propaganda gift by sending to Congress a memo laced with innuendo about Hillary Clinton but wholly devoid of content. But we do know that the memo has fanned the flames of overheated rhetoric, and given new momentum to Trump’s deplorable campaign.

There’s no certainty either on the details of the ‘Reichstag fire’ plot. The Nazis (with no evidence) blamed the communists for starting the fire. The communists (and some contemporary historians) have suggested that the fire was a plot by the Nazis. The usual explanation is that it was the work of a troubled, young Dutch anarchist construction worker, Marinus van der Lubbe.

Regardless of actor and intent, there is no ambiguity about the consequences of the Reichstag fire. Here is how they are described by the historian Richard Evans in his book The Coming of the Third Reich: Rudolf Diels, the (non-Nazi) head of the Prussian political police, summoned to report to the group of leading Nazis encountered a scene of frightening hysteria…. Hitler shouted as if he wanted to burst: ‘There will be no more mercy now; anyone who stands in our way will be butchered. The German people won’t have any understanding for leniency…. These subhumans don’t suspect at all how much the people is on our side…. The psychologically correct moment for the confrontation has now arrived….’. A new decree was drafted, suspending several sections of the Weimar constitution, particularly those governing freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly… The Nazi seizure of power could begin in earnest.” In an election in March 1933, the month after the Reichstag burning, the Nazis and their Nationalist allies won 52 percent of the votes.

Yes, if  (god forbid….) Trump were to win there are many steps from electoral triumph to the emasculation of the American constitution. Many checks and balances stand in the way of a  ‘Reichstag fire’ moment of a kind which destroys citizen rights. Hopefully, we won’t find out what such a journey could look like. So in that sense this post is a cautionary tale in the sense of  George Santayana’s aphorism that  those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. [Finally, as promised, you’ll find below links to  some powerful recent articles which draw the analogy between the Trumpians and the Nazi rise to power:

Rowan Williams (the Archbishop of Canterbury), A nervous breakdown in the body politic

Andrew Sullivan (former editor of The New Republic America has never been so ripe for tyranny

Michiko Kakutani (book review editor of the New York Times In ‘Hitler’ an ascent from dunderhead to demagogue

Eric Weitz, Professor of History, City College of New York Weimar Germany and Donald Trump