Tag Archives: politics

Trump and the US(S) Titanic (Talk)

Enjoy my talk on March 11th at Okanagan College in Penticton!  Since the mid-20th century observers have been debating the rise, peak and decline of the United States as the world’s leading superpower. In this session, we will go beyond Trumpism to look at the deeper underlying economic, political and social factors that have led up to the current era of US leadership (or lack of), and ask what might be the impact of these changes on the rest of the world, especially Canada. Is the US in decline? What might that ‘look like’ in the years to come? How bad (or good) can it get?


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Borger, J. (2014). Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses | World news | The Guardian. Retrieved March 8, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/apr/29/nuclear-accident-near-misses-report
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Faturechi, R., Rose, M., & Miller, T. C. (2019). Years of Warnings, Then Death and Disaster: How the Navy Failed Its Sailors. ProPublica.
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The Need for Compassionate Law

As 2018 comes to an end and the world looks to an increasingly uncertain future, it is worthwhile to reflect on the importance of compassion in public life.  On the one hand, it seems it should not be necessary to remind ourselves of the need for compassion, while on the other hand, there has never been a time when it is more vital to think about it.

When I speak of compassion I consider it to be similar to the emotion of empathy, which means the ability to identify closely with the feelings of another.  However, empathy is an emotion, while compassion is emotion plus action.  Empathy is personal, individual, and private.  When one experiences empathy, it is not necessarily expressed.  Many of us feel empathy for the plight of refugees, but few of us take any action based on those feelings.  Compassion is both an expression and an action, something that is a unique responsibility of the powerful.  It is the world’s 1% who, due to their elite position, have the most ability to exercise compassion.  Consequently, the world’s 1% (and if you live in a relatively wealthy developed country, you are part of this elite) uniquely bear the moral responsibility to exercise compassion.  The exercise and practice of compassion as an action is much rarer than the feeling of empathy, partly because wealth and inequality suppress the expression of compassion.  As the world becomes wealthier and more unequal, generosity declines.

Even more unusual is the embedding of compassion into the practices of a society, in other words, through its laws and institutions.  Are institutions capable of compassion?  Indeed they must be, because if social structures can be violent and oppressive, then it stands to reason that the opposite must also be possible:  institutions and laws can be written in compassionate ways, with compassionate ends.  It is the public exercise of compassion with which I am most concerned with, because it raises the potential for people to write compassionate institutions and laws.  Compassionate laws are necessary because, as suggested, individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

Compassionate laws make it possible for persons to express and act on their feelings of empathy, because they can see that those feelings are socially elevated.  The Dali Lama talks about something similar in the Education of the Heart. Compassionate law can help to educate and give permission for people to act on their empathy.  To say that law can be compassionate goes beyond a ‘minimalist’ vision of law – that law is only there to level the playing field and justice means equal treatment under the law.   Even if law were able to do this leveling, an element of compassion is also essential to the achievement of equal treatment, since law must be attentive to justice.  In this sense, human rights law is essentially compassionate in its purpose. Based on observation of the current state of law in the US, it is clearly not able to even achieve the minimal goal of equal treatment or fairness.  The gap between law and justice can be reduced with adequate attention to the need for compassionate law.

The kind of compassion I’m thinking about should also be distinguished from altruism, although compassion relies on altruism, they are not identical.  Altruism, which is a kind of selflessness, or non-self interested attitude of generosity and giving, is a vital component of compassion, because altruistic motives reduce the temptation to use demonstrations of compassion for self-promotion.  Compassionate law is one very effective way to express altruism.  Indeed, compassionate law resists self-interested motives by moving altruism from the private to the public sphere and thereby removing the personal motives that might affect compassionate and just outcomes.

The enactment of compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.

Recently, some thinking on giving and charity has been diverted from these concepts of compassion by a concern with effectiveness.  Rather than asking how can giving be more compassionate, the question becomes: how can giving be most effective?   As one proponent argues: “Instead of doing charity in a way that makes people feel good, effective altruists rely on rigorous, evidence-based analysis to decide how to donate money, where to donate, and which careers are most ethical.” I would argue that this is a diversion.  Effective altruists argue using a utilitarian measure:  what is good for the most number of people must be the best and most effective form of giving.  Using this algorithm, how might one decide between funding one individual’s education and funding a food program for thousands?  Probably many more people can be helped with the food program, but over the course of a lifetime what effect might a highly educated individual have, especially if they were able to achieve a position in which they could institute more compassionate laws?  The effort to reduce giving to an algorithm sacrifices the element of compassion and arguably undermines the goal of achieving more effective giving.  It’s not that effective altruism is wrong, it just kind of misses the point.  What is really changed, even if a larger number of people are helped by a given action?  There is a risk in reinforcing the status quo and ensuring that giving will continue to be necessary far into the future, violating the goal of achieving truly altruistic giving.

Compassionate laws are necessary because individual empathy can fail – it is temporary, personal, individual and private.

The enactment of compassionate law can, over time and with much learning, come closer to achieving lasting and effective results because it builds-in the principle of altruism by removing self-promotion from the equation.  In addition, compassionate law recognizes the innate inequality of human relationships, and works to proactively overcome those inequalities.  The human tendency to self-aggrandizement and acquisitiveness is worsened by inequality.  Inequality erodes people’s ability to be altruistic and even their ability to empathize.  Compassion is needed in a highly unequal world because it is effective, and it is effective because it is authoritative and self-reflexive.  The exercise of compassion invites reflection upon one’s own position and relatively good fortune.  The proponents of effective altruism are right that relying on natural generosity and emotion is insufficient to make for effective giving, but they are wrong to abandon the idea of compassion, which is needed now more than at any other time of history.  This season of giving, consider ways that you might contribute to the establishment of compassionate law, or if this is too ambitious, think about how you can help others express and act on their feelings of empathy, working together with others.  For starters, you might consider sharing this post!


The Deep State or the Degraded State?


Both the Left and the right have adopted the terminology of the Deep State to describe those hidden structures and relationships that permeate a state’s administrative apparatus and represent a set of semi-permanent structures that sit below the political level.  On both sides, the so-called Deep State has come to represent a fundamentally anti-democratic and secretive force operating out of public view and without accountability or transparency.   The argument from the left is that the revolving doors of Wall Street, the military and the bureaucracy have created a club of common interests that works towards favourable policies for the wealthy, including low taxes, de-regulation, militarism and regressive social and economic policies that penalize the poor. For the right, the deep state has become a force for endless bloat, overspending, over-regulation and failed global liberal projects of democratization and cosmopolitanism. In particular, the right has focused on the Obama administration’s expansion of healthcare services as a wedge to entrench even more state bureaucracies.

The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the Deep State.   In political science the term ‘deep state’ as it is presently used  does not have technical or analytical meaning.  However, political scientists sometimes made a distinction between 1. the state administrative apparatus; 2. the government, which changes frequently in response to democratic cycles; and 3. the semi-political institutions that are termed a ‘regime’, which melds the political and bureaucratic elements.  These three elements (the bureaucracy, the government, and the regime) form a larger, and much more permanent organization termed ‘the state’ which encompasses and supersedes all of these components by embodying a single legal entity from which the authority of all of the other parts flows.   The separation of institutional powers among the branches of government, and among the various bureaucracies, is permanently enshrined in the Constitution in order to prevent the abuse of power by any one of these components, all underpinned by the permanence of the rule of law.

The polarized state of politics in the US means that there is a tendency on both sides to overstate the power, significance and uniformity of the deep state.

The fact is, the directly ‘democratic’ components of the state are relatively shallow, since the temporary election of a government on top of a large permanent experienced bureaucratic apparatus cannot, of necessity, institute revolutionary changes in the short term which it is allotted.  This transience of the government is by design. Changes are always contingent on the maintenance of popular support., because any program of policies and institutions must be vetted by the people periodically. The permanence of the administration and the transience of government are complementary forces which maintain stability by the periodic checks and balances provided by democratic elections, which provide sufficient flexibility for the state to maintain relevance and responsiveness to the needs and wishes of the people. This is one key way in which a democratic state is distinguished from an authoritarian one, since in an authoritarian state like Pakistan or Turkey (as it is becoming) the Deep State acts wholly independently IMG_20161116_210123of the electoral process and has much greater power as a result.

Clearly, something has gone wrong with this careful balance.  As Eisenhower knew well, the ‘military-industrial complex’ was not made of and by the state, nor did it arise from state action, but was the main threat to the state.  When Eisenhower warned at the conclusion of his term about the creeping power of the ‘military-industrial complex’, he was referring to the entrenchment of relationships among the component parts that had become a semi-permanent structure of interests antithetical to democracy. Similarly, Mike Lofgren refers to the Deep State not as “a secret, conspiratorial cabal” but rather as “hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.” As he says “it is not a tight-knit group, and has no clear objective. Rather, it is a sprawling network, stretching across the government and into the private sector.”  This complex is composed of a loose network of relationships among ruling elites from the commercial, financial, military, scientific and governmental sectors.  In other words, it is both public and private in origin and nature.

So, what is going on? First of all, the transfer of power from one government to the next has fundamentally broken down, not only because of excessive partisanship, but also due to social divisions of interest within the ruling elites, whose ability to maintain a common interest has been compromised.

Second, this set of alliances threatens the state writ large, because it can potentially affect the more permanent institutions without reference to the vetting of the periodic democratic checks of elections.  The problem with these relationships is not that they are secret (they aren’t) nor that they are hostile to social, political and economic progress (because they have been and can be progressive) but because they have failed in their most important function: to create and maintain legitimacy.  Until recently, this admittedly problematic arrangement could be relied upon to organize and underpin (or at least, not obstruct) peaceful and orderly transitions of government that, if not democratic, at least could be said to command the legitimate support of sufficient numbers of the public to maintain the authority of the state itself.

Finally (and you can probably see where I’m going here) the system has been broken by an inability of the ruling elites to agree on the fundamental direction of the state.  The state itself is not broken, nor is the Constitution, nor (yet) is the democratic mechanism for transferring power between regimes.

What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed.

What is broken is the legitimacy of the state, its ability to rally support and meet demands, the most basic functions of statehood.  The problem is not that the Deep State is a monolithic and autonomous shadowy force acting against the democratic will, the biggest problem is that the state is being broken apart into its component parts due to the inability of the ruling elite to maintain legitimacy and enable a peaceful transition of power.

What could once be done in public must now increasingly be done behind closed doors. What could once be said openly must now be cloaked in distraction and lies. What could once be a strategy for election, must now be a strategy of grasping for the broken pieces of the state that have been set adrift and unclaimed.  The real threat is to the state, in its larger, wider meaning as a social, political and legal community of common interests and values.





What Kind of (In)Equality Do We Want?

Photo Credit: Jessica Tam Flickr

When analyzing any phenomena, it helps to have a good idea what we want to achieve. In political science as in life, equality has great significance. Analysts tend to think quite differently from the general public, however, about what constitutes equality and how we should use the term. Let’s consider a thought experiment to sort out the difference between ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equality of condition’.

If we imagine that equality of opportunity and equality of condition are kinds of ideal types at opposite poles, with a spectrum of variations in between, then the picture might look something like this: under ‘equality of condition’ everyone would experience the same life outcomes: equal incomes, equal standards of living, and equal levels of education, health care, and work. How would things differ? Likely inequality would creep in through limited means: for example, some may work longer hours, have more or less education, spend more or less time skiing, etc.

What is wrong with this picture? The most common criticisms of this ‘absolute equality’ are:

It reduces the incentive to succeed, and 2. It distorts the value of things, leading to scarcities and gluts in supply.

Society involves differential treatment.

But these are practical criticisms, not questions of justice.   Would absolute equality actually be ‘just’?  Assuming for the moment that such a system could be workable (and I’m not saying it is) then an argument could be made that it actually creates injustice by failing to differentiate among people with ascribed or inherent differences who deserve differential outcomes.  Those who work harder or are more creative or who are disabled or ill should be treated differently.  Some may deserve preferential access to resources either as a result of their extra effort, their accomplishment or contributions, or by virtue of need.  Tellingly, the right more often argues for differential outcomes based on effort and accomplishment, while ‘need’ tends to take second place. It is sometimes said that such a system would be communistic.  However, under Marx’s vision of communism, the ideal form of equality actually allowed for differential rewards focusing on need rather than accomplishment or contribution. Contrary to popular belief, Marx did not advocate absolute equality of condition. Indeed, nobody has, in all seriousness, ever really proposed that large-scale industrial societies impose absolute equality of condition.  This is because serious thinkers would quickly realize that equality of condition, even in its ideal form, would inevitably raise both practical and fairness questions since there would still need to be some argument for different treatment of some people.  Nobody is average.

Now, what about equality of opportunity? That sounds like something we can all get behind: everybody can try or fail equally well, and those with the greatest accomplishments and talents will rise to the top. This is kind of what Paul Summerville argues when he says:

Equality of opportunity is a virtue when it is twinned with unequal outcomes. It is meaningless without it. What is the point of equality opportunity if success is discouraged by custom, law, or taxation?

But, to respond to this, how can we be sure that everyone actually has an equal opportunity to try, and to win? Inequality all by itself is not evidence of equality of opportunity. What if the winners try to ‘kick the ladder out’ from behind them, blocking the upward advance of others? What if they use their newfound positions to favour their heirs and families and friends rather than allow their loved ones to fail? Perhaps when we see that some are able to climb up to the top from the very bottom of the social ladder without artificial assistance from the state, then we can say that equality of opportunity exists. But how many of these examples are sufficient to prove it? One? One in ten? One in a thousand? The fact is there is no natural or inevitable level of inequality that can tell us when everyone truly has an equal chance. We can point to clues: perhaps when the top 1% is as diverse and representative of the entire society, or when every member of the top group can claim to have climbed out of the gutter, but that seems as unlikely as the ideally equal society discussed above. The question of fairness rises again: even in a society in which opportunities are purely equally distributed, there will be unfairness due to the same factors mentioned above: What about those disadvantaged by illness or age or poor upbringing? What about highly talented or accomplished individuals who don’t manage to make it through no fault of their own? why value some talents more than others?

Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?
Given differences, how can we be sure that equality of opportunity exists?

Again, the argument to treat some people differently in order for equality of opportunity to be realized is present. But, the same question arises: what should be the basis for differential treatment? Here, the differences between the two poles start to disappear: the essential argument is not about equality at all, but about the basis and rationale for differences. Both sides work toward an ideal world that is impractical and unfair, yet both sides argue for ‘differential’ treatment on the basis of different individual characteristics. The right argues that differential treatment should be based on talents or contributions, while the left focuses on compensating for special needs and other (class) disadvantages.

The world we actually live in is of course far more complicated. Equality before the law, which is the dominant discourse of equality in Canada and other Western liberal democracies, is actually a fall-back position avoiding both of the options described above. It doesn’t guarantee equality of opportunity and it doesn’t mitigate inequalities of condition. At most, it provides a measure of our progress toward some compromise on fairness and practicality. It’s not irrelevant, far from it! The legal guarantees of the Voting Rights Act or protections for gay marriage or for equality between religious beliefs do matter, but not for the reasons we think. They matter less because they create equal opportunities, and more because they clarify the legitimate grounds for treating people differently. The fact that people are all, in some way, treated differently by society still needs to be acknowledged by all participants in the equality debate.

The next two blog posts will address the sources of present-day inequality in globalization, and the basis for differential treatment and its centrality to equality.

The Place of Intrinsic Value in Environmental Politics

The news this year on the climate front continued to be alarming, especially the record low extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic.  The anthropocentric case for doing more to combat climate change seems self-evident.  A changing climate is very likely to be less hospitable to human needs than a stable one.  Arguments solely from self-interest therefore appear fairly quickly in the discussion of what to do.

But what of arguments not based on self-interest?  What place is there in the environmental discussion for a non-self-serving ethic, based on the idea that the natural world has intrinsic value, independent of human needs or human culture?  In fact, these ideas have been elaborated since the early days of the Does nature have its own intrinsic value?movement by Arne Naess and many others.  The notion of intrinsic value has seen its most prominent political expression in the discourses around parks and protected areas.  Groups like the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society continue to be  influential in establishing that ecological integrity should be a guiding principle of parks governance.  Protected areas symbolize many things, but one of the impetuses for protection is the awareness and recognition of a natural world with its own logic, its own measures, and its own ethical integrity, independent of the human.

Arguments that go beyond human self-interest, however, have not made a huge impact in the climate debate.  One problem is that an ecocentric ethic has been too closely associated with wilderness preservation.  Wilderness preservation is a legitimate basis for political action, however, wildernesses today are too physically remote, too closely managed, and too narrowly defined to be a solid basis for elaborating a larger argument about intrinsic value.  Biodiversity holds more promise, since natural biodiversity can be understood to operate from non-human principles.

Searching for intrinsic value.But what if the biosphere changes radically in response to climate change, what then becomes of an ethic of static preservation and intrinsic value?

In fact, I would argue that the best way and most effective way to integrate an ethic of intrinsic value in political decision making is to use an expansive and embedded approach. Such an approach would first of all recognize that intrinsic value and use value are not mutually exclusive ideas, and that something can be valued both for its usefulness to humans, and for itself.  Aristotle used the example of eyesight.  We value our eyesight both for its usefulness (we can see things and interact with the world more effectively with sight) and for its intrinsic value (we can appreciate sunsets and see the faces of loved ones).   The key test is not whether it would benefit humans to protect it, but would we miss it if it were suddenly taken away?  We can all imagine the sense of loss we would feel if our eyesight were suddenly removed, and we can all imagine the sense of loss as species disappear from the tree of life and the biosphere becomes irrevocably changed and even degraded.

This is a basis for building political action because of its universality.   Cultures may not agree on the value of any individual species but they can agree on the big picture of loss.  Practically speaking, the notion of intrinsic value for Canadians can be easily compared to the language of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Just as rights require entrenchment and defence by government and ordinary citizens, so, too, does nature.

Let’s not be afraid of the language of intrinsic value.  It is already all around us in political discourse.  Arguing that nature should be protected for its own sake makes a more robust position in favour of protection possible.  For example, it puts the onus on oil pipeline companies and developers to prove the worth of their activities, rather than on nature to prove its worth in human terms.

Entanglement: The Enmeshment of the Economy and the Government

In quantum physics, there is the idea that a single particle can have an effect on a different particle many light years away.  Einstein called this ‘spooky action at a distance’.  In today’chicken_or_egg_400_clr_10064s globalized world, economic activity shows similar ‘spooky’ characteristics, indeed, it is virtually a truism to say that what happens in one industry or segment of an economy will inevitably affect others at great distances.   What is often overlooked in ideological debates between the right and the left, however, is the entanglement of the free market economy with the activities of government.  They are separate, just like particles separated by great distances, but they are so closely entangled. Action in one sphere will unavoidably affect the other. arrow_halves_join_400_clr_9621

Take, for example, the encroaching effects of the ‘fiscal cliff’.  An increase in taxes coupled with spending cuts, could potentially cause a drop of as much as 1% of GDP growth in the US.  The resulting reduction in economic activity would then impact government revenues, cutting into revenues just as measures to reduce the deficit kick in.  This makes these measures, therefore, essentially self-defeating.  Even a more measured response to deficit reduction that allows for some spending increase could potentially trigger inflation, since it will unavoidably give the impression that the government will just keep printing money to pay its debt. Inflation could also reduce economic activity and jeopardize growth, although it seems unlikely in the short term, by undermining investor confidence and leading to capital flight.  The result, as with the fiscal cliff, is the same: a hit to government revenues and a self-defeating policy.

The first step to breaking the cycle is to recognize that the favoured solutions of both the right and the left are both inappropriate in the present context.  Reducing taxes to stimulate the economy without accompanying measures to induce spending and investment just doesn’t work, there is no evidence of it ever having worked, and it does severe damage to the government’s ability to raise revenue.  At the same time, government spending does not have the growth-inducing impact as in the past because thuncle_sam_holding_money_pc_400_clr_1727e implied willingness to spend and borrow undermines investor confidence.

The solution lies in the awareness that government is both an economic actor and an economic hedge.  Contrary to the arguments on the right, government cannot just ‘get out of the way’ and let the market grow.  For one thing, it might grow somewhere else.  For another thing, markets need government to backstop their activities and stop them from imploding on themselves.  The sooner that people stop thinking of governments as part of the problem, and realize that free markets require governments to make decisions for the common good, the better off both the economy and the government will be.  Governments and markets are not the same thing, their purposes are different and their instruments are different, but they are irrevocably enmeshed together. 

A Leaner, Meaner Politics in the US: What About Canada?

In his book The Age of Austerity: How Scarcity will Remake American Politics Thomas Byrne Edsall argues that shrinking public and private resources will make politics leaner, meaner and less civil.  It’s not just that right and left disagree on how to distribute resources, it is a fundamental rift in the understanding of the purpose of the state itself.   It’s also not just a fight over ideas:  it is a battle for survival.  The supporters of the right, to pearth_tighten_belt_800_clr_7668araphrase Edsall, are ageing, embattled, middle to upper class whites living in decimated and depopulated suburbs who are increasingly bitter about the direction of the redistributive state.  In the past, the right’s call to arms was a kind of negative freedom (‘Don’t Tread on Me’) which fought to preserve the individual’s ability to choose their own forms of happiness unimpeded by state regulations.  The premise of this, we know now, was the expectation that everyone could gain from a growing pie.  No more.  Programs for which supporters of the right are the primary recipients (including Medicare and social security) are considered sacrosanct.  Programs from which others benefit (read black, immigrants, poor or public sector workers) like Medicaid, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or income supports, are untenable ‘entitlements’.  On the left, there is a counter-move to protect the public sphere from erosion while simultaneously trying to remain coherent in the face of a fiscal crisis and an unrelenting personal attack on Obama during an election year.  The left is increasingly turning to middle class minorities, immigrant and young voters who are far less steady in their support and are on the whole less well-established and more vulnerable both economically and politically.

These kinds of politics reveal rifts that have historically deep-soil_money_canada_pc_800_clr_2385eated roots but which linger below the surface until austerity and crisis reveal them.  What rifts lie below the surface of Canadian society that have been eroding the social consensus gradually and unrelentingly?  Could Canada go down a similar route?  Recent battles paint a picture of the possibilities.  With vitriolic flourishes the Harper government and environmentalists are fighting an increasingly pitched battle over oil resources.   The push for a pipeline to expand foreign markets for oil, whether through a Northern route or Keystone, has as its root a long-standing fear that overproduction of oil will drive the price down and shrink profits.  This is a real fear, since the flattening of oil prices will make the billions of dollars already invested uneconomic, and capital will flee.  On the one hand, it seems more like an embarrassment of riches than a problem of austerity: oil consumption is maintaining a steady stiff pace overseas and is set to grow, along with its negative climate impacts.  On the other hand, it has all of the set piece features of a zero-sum fight over a shrinking resource.  As anti-fossil fuel efforts grow, and as more bitumen-type oil production facilities are being developed in Latin America and more unconventional oil is prospected in the Arctic and other areas, the chances of oil revenues becoming restricted in the future is higher and higher.  If this happens, look for politics here to follow a similar path to those in the US, with the centre of the storm being the role of shattered_dollar_coin_800_clr_8730the state as a (re)distributor of resources.  With potentially shrinking state revenues due to tax reductions and few other signs of growth outside the resource sector, the temptation to retrench at the expense of the poor, immigrants, the disabled and other marginalized groups may well be irresistible.  On the other hand, another fight between regions in true Canadian fashion may be brewing.  I want to end on a positive note here.  Everything I’ve learned in teaching young people about politics in the last 15 years has taught me that if anything, youth are more accepting, welcoming, compromising and diverse than ever.  I can only hope that these qualities will enable the cultivation of a middle ground in the future in Canada that seems increasingly elusive in the divisive and paralyzing politics down south in the US.  If we are to believe Edsall, however, austerity could bring out the worst in all of us.

An American Game of Thrones

As a graduate student, my academic advisor once told me that despite its hype, the American Revolution did not so much create a new system of government as replace one king with another.  The President has king-like symbolic power over the nation’s direction.  For this reason, and because of the diminished stature of the US in the world context, the US ‘throne’ is now a shrinking resource which will see fights the likes of no other in US history.  The polar opposite visions of the country will shrink the middle ground and with it the scope for any real action to be taken.  As the real power to influence events wanes, the symbolic power of the Presidency takes on ever more vitality.  Just look at the way that the President is personally blamed or celebrated (depending on the jobs numbers) for economic turns of events over which they have virtually no control.  Electing a new ‘monarch’ has all of the trappings of a winner-take-all fight in which, to paraphrase Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones fame, ‘you win or you die’.  In this battle, the rules of engagement are murky.   The US ‘throne’ is now a

Ultimately, the game of thrones, whether in American politics or in the popular HBO series to which I have become hopelessly addicted, is about leadership.   The abiding moral paradox is that to earn the throne one must be ruthlessly focused on its attainment, but to keep it requires wiser, more subtle finessing and the ability to keep that ruthlessness in check when necessary.  This is the central distinction that Machiavelli made 500 years ago, encapsulated in the term ‘prudence’.   Warriors like Robert Baratheon (or George W. Bush)  fail as leaders because they lack the necessary diplomatic skill to inspire and activate their symbolic power.   Masters of finesse like Barack Obama (read Ned Stark) must constantly balance their leadership with the necessary hard edge needed to deter challengers, both domestic and abroad.  Such leaders do not necessarily relish or celebrate the violence they must commit.  But, taking the moral high ground can be hazardous to their health.

And what of the Lannisters (er, Mitt Romneys) of the world?  Wealth doesn’t automatically bring wisdom or the prudence necessary to rule.  The wealthy often prefer to manipulate things from the background rather than step forward to and take the power commensurate with their wealth.  In fact, the corruption that wealth brings erodes the necessary respect for power that is a requirement of prudence (Joffrey the false heir apparent, is a clear result of this corruption).  Romney, like Tywin, must constantly keep the ‘lower’ urges of his ‘clan’ from damaging his image.    Ned Stark

In this new age of symbolic power, appearance matters far more than reality, because to focus otherwise risks revealing the appalling truth: the President has little actual power to affect the economy, world affairs, or domestic governance.   The real decisions made in boardrooms, central bank meetings, and war rooms will go ahead with little reference to political affairs.  Collaboration will occur increasingly in secret, while the public sphere will be characterized by unending conflict.  To twist an old adage, in order to get anything done, it must not be seen to be done.