Saturday, January 01, 2022
China is facing serious challenges on multiple fronts: Great power competition with the United States. Trade disputes. The future of Taiwan. But that doesn’t mean it’s too preoccupied to escalate a battle of another sort on the home front.
The Chinese government, you see, has been fighting what state news outlets have called a “masculinity crisis” for the past few years, with one top official warning that “effeminate” men in popular culture were corrupting “a generation.” The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece decreed that young men need to have “toughness and strength” and censors have blurred out male celebrities’ earrings in television and online appearances.
That campaign has now taken a harsher turn. In recent months, the government has dialed things up into a full-blown culture war against unorthodox masculine expression, policing it in earnest.
In a slur-laden directive, television regulators in September banned “sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics” from appearing on television. Then in late November regulators cracked down on celebrities’ online profiles, their fan groups and advertising, citing “abnormal aesthetics” and threatening to shut down the online accounts of those who failed to fall in line.
The stated goal of this campaign is to ensure that China stays on its path toward so-called “national rejuvenation” — President Xi Jinping’s plan for the country to regain its standing as a great power. The pressure to deliver on that plan is mounting ahead of the next Communist Party congress, likely to be held in 2022.
The party appears to believe that national rejuvenation is only possible if young men work diligently toward its orders and priorities: Mr. Xi has said “a nation is strong if its youth are strong.” By that (flawed) logic, femininity is a sign of weakness that, if unchecked, bodes ill for the nation’s future.
So while the prevalence of “effeminate” males was previously a source of general concern, it is now seen as a roadblock for Mr. Xi to clear. But the campaign, including the newly restrictive and more heavy-handed phase of recent months, is completely misguided and self-defeating. As the restrictions proliferate, they become impossible to enforce without undermining other governance priorities, like economic growth, that are vital components of national rejuvenation. Never mind that the objective of the campaign itself is ludicrous.
The crusade against what the party sees as unorthodox masculinity might be a way for the party to distract from the fact that it is failing to deliver for its people and is unable to address serious economic and social issues — a lack of upward mobility, career opportunities and affordable urban housing in some of the main cities.
But in trying to regulate gender expression as it does governance goals like G.D.P. figures, the party is pushing its control too far. And the masculinity mandates will almost certainly backfire.
The biggest target of this campaign is “little fresh meat,” a term of endearment for massively popular makeup-wearing male entertainers. In a society where discussing politics is largely off limits and traditional media is tightly controlled, popular culture is the rare realm where individualism can thrive. And so the “little fresh meat” phenomenon is about more than fashion and aesthetics; it offers an outlet for Chinese men and women at a time of economic uncertainty and a shifting power dynamic between sexes.
The cultural power of “little fresh meat” stars is indisputable. What the party appears to ignore, though, in blaming them for allegedly corrupting young men is that their fan base is predominantly female and in wealthy metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai.
These women’s embrace of a more fluid form of masculinity is not a phenomenon the party should dismiss. Well-educated and financially independent, these women are bucking gender norms themselves by turning away from matrimony and motherhood and are proving to be resistant to the party’s push to boost marriages and births to offset the effects of an aging population.
As some fans put it, the seemingly gentle manner and mild temper of “little fresh meat” offer a welcome contrast to the chauvinistic attitude they can encounter in Chinese men.
“Having men be tender and thoughtful like women improves them,” one woman going by the name Jiangzi wrote in an online essay explaining her fondness for “little fresh meat.” “In dating and marriage,” she asked, “who likes to be scolded?”
Men in China face a number of social challenges too. The difficulties of finding employment and affording urban living have tended to weigh more heavily on men, who shoulder society’s expectations to earn and provide. Chinese men also vastly outnumber women in the marriage marketplace, thanks to decades of family planning policies. . . . pop culture is a form of escape — and a place where different identities can be explored.
Shaming and blocking these individuals’ preferred means of expression is not a way to motivate them toward “valiant struggle” in the name of national rejuvenation. Rather, it’s a recipe for diving deeper into despair.
The government’s idea of the ideal male reads like an outdated description of 1950s gender norms: Muscular, reliable, career-oriented providers.
Indeed, what the party seeks sounds less like Rambo than assiduous scientists and industrious engineers. When viewed alongside other recently-introduced and draconian cultural policies, it’s clear that what the party wants is productive socialist workers devoted single-mindedly to its own development priorities — not distracted by what the party considers cultural deviance or excess.
So why then is the party demanding those attributes of only half the population? In its quest for economic supremacy, surely the party should not exclude the contributions of women, whom Mao Zedong once dubbed “half the sky.” And it can’t afford to: China’s work force is dwindling at an alarming rate.
The party must be aware of the glaring contradictions between its claims and its practice. Despite insisting that masculinity has to do with inner qualities in editorials and policy documents, it continues to target outer appearances in patrolling its public expression.
[W]hile hollow propaganda may travel far and wide, authoritarian tools have limits. . . . As the party’s draconian rules begin to cancel each other out, they also take their toll on young people, choking off the very vitality that is the true basis of national rejuvenation.
I wanted to take a moment and thank readers for their loyalty - some have followed this blog for many years at this point. Your loyalty and comments - which are always welcomed - mean a great deal to me as this blog approaches it's 15th anniversary in a few months. I wish each of you a happy New Year and wish you good health and happiness. The image above was snapped at our yacht club down the street as 2022 arrived where the husband and I celebrated with close friends.
I hope 2022 is a better year that 2021 and that Covid-19 will ultimately be placed in the rearview mirror and that life will regain more normalcy even if politically, I suspect we are in store for a bumpy ride as Republicans continue to place clinging to power above democracy and the wellbeing of the majority of Americans.
The image of me below is from the 2008 LGBT blogger summit which I stumbled across that took place in Washington, D.C., thanks to Microsoft and Progressive Insurance. Little did I dream back then that this blog would still be ongoing or that I'd remain connected to ther attendees this many years later. Again, Happy New Year's to all.
Friday, December 31, 2021
Thursday, December 30, 2021
For months, the GOP-Fox News axis forecast the bluest of Christmases.
House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy joined 159 House Republicans in a letter to President Biden saying his policies “will certainly ensure that this Christmas will not be merry” because of a “supply chain crisis” and inflation.
Breitbart News trumpeted a Trump campaign adviser’s forecast for “a frankly miserable Christmas … the Biden Blue Christmas.” Newsmax foresaw “Biden’s Blue Christmas: Shortages, Frustration, Economic Malaise.”
And then — a Christmas miracle!
Holiday retail sales were the highest ever, jumping 8.5 percent from last year and nearly 11 percent from pre-pandemic 2019, as “consumers splurged throughout the season,” Mastercard reported Sunday.
Stores were stocked. Package deliveries were overwhelmingly on time. Inflation, though a serious concern, clearly didn’t deter shoppers, and holiday motorists found gas prices 14 cents a gallon lower than in November.
So, did GOP leaders and Fox News acknowledge they fearmongered in error? My closed-caption search might have missed something, but I found only three passing mentions on Fox News of the holiday sales triumph, amid a new round of doomsaying (“it looks like things are about to get a lot worse in the new year”). Republican Twitter guns were similarly silent.
After a year of such deception, . . . . The economy is going gangbusters — historically so. Yet Americans, particularly Republicans, express a gloom not matched by economic reality — or by their own spending behaviors. Polls and consumer-confidence indices show an economic pessimism as grim as when millions lost jobs in the pandemic shutdown. This is, in large part, because disinformation has prevailed. Partisanship long colored economic views, but now Republicans, in addition to occupying a parallel political reality, are expanding an alternate economic universe.
“America’s economy improved more in Joe Biden’s first 12 months than any president during the past 50 years notwithstanding the contrary media narrative contributing to dour public opinion,” Matthew Winkler, former editor in chief of Bloomberg News, wrote last week. Among the gains: The economy expanded an estimated 5.5 percent in 2021 (fourth-quarter growth dramatically outpaced Europe and even China). Unemployment plunged to 4.2 percent. . . . Productivity jumped. Corporate profits are the largest since 1950 and corporate debt the lowest in 30. Consumer credit expanded. Confidence among CEOs is the highest in 20 years. The American Rescue Plan cut child poverty in half.
“The force of the American expansion is also inducing overseas companies to invest in the U.S., betting that the growth is still accelerating and will outpace other major economies,” added the Wall Street Journal.
The fly in the ointment is inflation estimated at 5.6 percent for the year — the highest in 40 years — which is suppressing disposable income. This causes real pain for consumers, particularly low-income Americans buying groceries and gas and anybody buying a car. But studies show that, among the lowest earners, wage gains outpaced inflation.
Yet a Gallup poll out last week found that “Americans’ confidence in the economy has dropped to where it was in April 2020, when nationwide shutdowns brought on by the covid-19 pandemic plunged the nation into a recession.”
The reason is clear. As The Post’s Philip Bump explained, Republicans in April 2020 were evenly split on whether the economy was in excellent/good condition or fair/poor. Now, despite dramatic improvements, 91 percent of Republicans say the economy is in fair/poor condition. (The Democratic shift, in the opposite direction, was smaller.)
This happened — surprise! — during Fox News’s hysterical coverage of inflation, gas prices and supply chain problems. . . . In post-truth America, the economy is just another target for fakery.
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Much has been written about White evangelicals’ central role in the fraying of democracy. More attention, however, should be paid to the damage the political movement has inflicted on religion itself.
The demographic — which remains in the throes of White grievance and an apocalyptic vision that postulates America (indeed “Western civilization”) is under attack from socialists, foreigners and secularists — forms the core of the MAGA movement. Many have rejected the sanctity of elections, the principle of inclusion and even objective reality.
The consequences have been dire for American politics. The siege mentality has morphed into an ends-justify-the-means style of politics in which lies, brutal discourse and even violence are applauded as necessary to protect “real America.” Essential features of democracy, such as the peaceful transfer of power, compromise with political opponents and defining America as an idea and not a racial or religious identity, have fallen by the wayside.
[T]he degradation of democracy has intensified in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory. The doctrinal elevation of the “big lie," the increase in violent rhetoric and the effort to rig elections all reflect a heightened desperation by the MAGA crowd. This has driven the GOP to new lows . . . .
While lovers of democracy around the world view these developments in horror, we should not lose track of the damage the MAGA movement has wrought to religious values. Peter Wehner, an evangelical Christian and former adviser to President George W. Bush, explains in a column for the Atlantic how a recent speech from Donald Trump Jr. reflects the inversion of religious faith. “The former president’s son,” Wehner writes, “has a message for the tens of millions of evangelicals who form the energized base of the GOP: the scriptures are essentially a manual for suckers. The teachings of Jesus have ‘gotten us nothing.’ ”
Wehner continues: It’s worse than that, really; the ethic of Jesus has gotten in the way of successfully prosecuting the culture wars against the left.
Understanding this phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining the MAGA crowd’s very unreligious cruelty toward immigrants, its selfish refusal to vaccinate to protect the most vulnerable and its veneration of a vulgar, misogynistic cult leader.
Robert P. Jones, who leads the Public Religion Research Institute, writes that “in the upside-down world white evangelicalism has become, the willingness to act in self-sacrificial ways for the sake of vulnerable others — even amid a global pandemic — has become rare, even antithetical, to an aggressive, rights-asserting white Christian culture.” . . . . . Strikingly, the evidence suggests churches and pastors are the heart of the problem. White evangelicals who attend religious services regularly are twice as likely as less frequent attenders to be vaccine refusers (30% vs. 15%). If ever there were clear evidence of a massive abdication of pastoral responsibility and leadership, this is it.
Jones observes, “there is no hint of awareness that their actions are a mockery of the central biblical injunction to care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the vulnerable among us.”
This refusal to act to protect the vulnerable — particularly because of the low personal costs involved — is raw, callous selfishness. Exhibited by people I love, it is heartbreaking. Expressed by people who claim to be followers of Jesus, it is maddening.”
If these trends continue uninterrupted, we will wind up with a country rooted in neither democratic principles nor religious values.
For many years I have said that "conservative Christians" would be the ones to hasten Christianity's fall in America. Now, we are witnessing this in real time.
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.”
So began Toni Morrison’s 1995 address to Howard University, entitled Racism and Fascism, which delineated 10 step-by-step procedures to carry a society from first to last.
Morrison’s interest was not in fascist demagogues or fascist regimes. It was rather in “forces interested in fascist solutions to national problems”. The procedures she described were methods to normalize such solutions, to “construct an internal enemy”, isolate, demonize and criminalize it and sympathizers to its ideology and their allies, and, using the media, provide the illusion of power and influence to one’s supporters.
Morrison saw, in the history of US racism, fascist practices – ones that could enable a fascist social and political movement in the United States.
The contemporary American fascist movement is led by oligarchical interests for whom the public good is an impediment, such as those in the hydrocarbon business, as well as a social, political, and religious movement with roots in the Confederacy. As in all fascist movements, these forces have found a popular leader unconstrained by the rules of democracy, this time in the figure of Donald Trump.
My father, raised in Berlin under the Nazis, saw in European fascism a course that any country could take. He knew that US democracy was not exceptional in its capacity to resist the forces that shattered his family and devastated his youth. My mother, a court stenographer in US criminal courts for 44 years, saw in the anti-Black racism of the American legal system parallels to the vicious antisemitism she experienced in her youth in Poland, attitudes which enabled eastern European complicity with fascism. And my grandmother, Ilse Stanley, wrote a memoir, published in 1957, of her experiences in 1930s Berlin . . . . It is a memoir of the normalization years of German fascism, well before world war and genocide. In it, she recounts experiences with Nazi officers who assured her that in nazism’s vilification of Jews, they certainly did not mean her.
Often, those who employ fascist tactics do so cynically – they do not really believe the enemies they target are so malign, or so powerful, as their rhetoric suggests. Nevertheless, there comes a tipping point, where rhetoric becomes policy. Donald Trump and the party that is now in thrall to him have long been exploiting fascist propaganda. They are now inscribing it into fascist policy.
Fascist propaganda takes place in the US in already fertile ground – decades of racial strife has led to the United States having by far the highest incarceration rate in the world. A police militarized to address the wounds of racial inequities by violence, and a recent history of unsuccessful imperial wars have made us susceptible to a narrative of national humiliation by enemies both internal and external. . . . . there is a long history of business elites backing racism and fascism out of self-interest, to divide the working class and thereby destroy the labor movement.
The novel development is that a ruthless would-be autocrat has marshalled these fascist forces and shaped them into a cult, with him as its leader. We are now well into the repercussions of this latter process – where fascist lies, for example, the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen, have begun to restructure institutions, notably electoral infrastructure and law. As this process unfolds, slowly and deliberately, the media’s normalization of these processes evokes Morrison’s tenth and final step: “Maintain, at all costs, silence.”
To understand contemporary US fascism, it is useful to consider parallels to 20th century history, both where they succeed and where they fail.
Hitler was a genocidal antisemite. Though fascism involves disregard for human life, not all fascists are genocidal. Even Nazi Germany turned to genocide only relatively late in the regime’s rule. And not all fascists are antisemitic. There were Italian Jewish fascists. Referring to the successful assimilation of Jews into all phases of Weimar era German life, my father warned me, “if they had chosen someone else, some of us would have been among the very best Nazis.”
Despite its radical start, the Nazi party dramatically increased its popularity over many years in part by strategically masking its explicit antisemitic agenda to attract moderate voters, who could convince themselves that the racism at the core of Nazi ideology was something the party had outgrown. It represented itself as the antidote to communism, using a history of political violence in the Weimar Republic, including street clashes between communists and the far right, to warn of a threat of violent communist revolution. It attracted support from business elites by promising to smash labor unions.
The Nazis recognized that the language of family, faith, morality and homeland could be used to justify especially brutal violence against an enemy represented as being opposed to all these things. The central message of Nazi politics was to demonize a set of constructed enemies, an unholy alliance of communists and Jews, and ultimately to justify their criminalization.
The main targets of the regime’s concentration camps were, initially, communists and socialists. The Nazi regime urged vigilante violence against its other targets, such as Jews, separating themselves from this violence by obscuring the role of agents of the state. During this time, it was possible for many non-Jewish Germans to deceive themselves about the brutal nature of the regime, to tell themselves that its harsh means were necessary to protect the German nation from the insidious threat of communism.
Violent militias occupied an ambiguous role between state and non-state actors. The SS began as violent Nazi supporters, before becoming an independent arm of the government.
In the US, the training of police as “warriors”, together with the unofficial replacement of the American flag by the thin blue line flag, augur poorly about the democratic commitments of this institution.
For a far-right party to become viable in a democracy, it must present a face it can defend as moderate, and cultivate an ambiguous relationship to the extreme views and statements of its most explicit members. It must maintain a pretense of the rule of law, characteristically by projecting its own violations of it on to its opponents.
In the case of the takeover of the mainstream rightwing party by a far-right anti-democratic movement, the pretense must be stronger. The movement must contend with members of that party who are faithful to procedural elements of democracy, such as the principle of one voter one vote, or that the loser of a fair election give up power – in the United States today, figures such as Adam Kinzinger and Elizabeth Cheney. A fascist social and political party faces pressure both to mask its connection to and to cultivate violent racist supporters, as well as its inherently anti-democratic agenda.
In the face of the attack on the US capital on 6 January, even the most resolute skeptic must admit that Republican politicians have been at least attempting to cultivate a mass of violent vigilantes to support their causes. Kyle Rittenhouse is becoming a hero to Republicans after showing up in Kenosha, WI as an armed vigilante citizen, and killing two men. Perhaps there are not enough potential Kyle Rittenhouses in the US to justify fear of massive armed vigilante militias enforcing a 2024 election result demanded by Donald Trump. But denying that Trump’s party is trying to create such a movement is, at this point, deliberate deception.
The Nazis instigated and exacerbated violence in the streets, then demonized their opponents as enemies of the German people who must be dealt with harshly. Trump’s rise followed Black protest, at times violent, of police brutality in Ferguson and Baltimore. More recently, the murder of George Floyd and a historic protest movement in the US in the late spring has given fuel to fascist misrepresentation.
In its most recent iteration, in the form of the reaction against Black Lives Matter protesters and the demonization of antifa and student activists, a fascist social and political movement has been avidly stoking the flames for mass rightwing political violence, by justifying it against these supposed internal enemies.
Rachel Kleinfeld, in an October 2021 article, documents the rise of the legitimation of political violence in the US. According to the article, the “bedrock idea uniting right-wing communities who condone violence is that white Christian men in the United States are under cultural and demographic threat and require defending – and that it is the Republican Party and Donald Trump, in particular, who will safeguard their way of life.”
This kind of justification of political violence is classically fascist – a dominant group threatened by the prospect of gender, racial and religious equality turning to a leader who promises a violent response.
We are now in fascism’s legal phase. According to the International Center for Not for Profit Law, 45 states have considered 230 bills criminalizing protest, with the threat of violent leftist and Black rebellion being used to justify them. That this is happening at the same time that multiple electoral bills enabling a Republican state legislature majority to overturn their state’s election have been enacted suggests that the true aim of bills criminalizing protest is to have a response in place to expected protests against the stealing of a future election (as a reminder of fascism’s historical connection to big business, some of these laws criminalize protest near gas and oil lines).
The Nazis used Judeo-Bolshevism as their constructed enemy. The fascist movement in the Republican party has turned to critical race theory instead. . . . a classic fascist strategy to stoke fury and resentment. Using the bogeyman of critical race theory, 29 states have introduced bills to restrict teaching about racism and sexism in schools, and 13 states have enacted such bans.
As James Whitman shows in his 2017 book, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law, the Jim Crow era in the United States influenced Nazi law. In 2021, legislators in 19 states passed laws making access to the ballot more difficult, some with specific (and clearly intentional) disparate impact on minority communities (as in Texas). By obscuring in our education system facts about this [Jim Crow] era, one can mask the reemergence of legislation that borrows from its strategies.
If you want to topple a democracy, you take over the courts. Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton in 2016 by almost 3m votes, and yet has appointed one-third of supreme court, three youthful far-right judges who will be spending decades there. The Roberts court has for more than a decade consistently enabled an attack on democracy, by hollowing out the Voting Rights Act over time, unleashing unlimited corporate money into elections, and allowing clearly partisan gerrymanders of elections. There is every reason to believe that the court will allow even the semblance of democracy to crumble, as long as laws are passed by gerrymandered Republican statehouses that make anti-democratic practices, including stealing elections, legal.
Donald Trump has shown others what is possible. But the fascist movement he now leads preceded him, and will outlive him. As Toni Morrison warned, it feeds off ideologies with deep roots in American history. It would be a grave error to think it cannot ultimately win.
Be very afraid for the future.
Monday, December 27, 2021
Back in 2010, when Liz Cheney launched a McCarthyite witch hunt against the “Al Qaeda Seven,” she was met with a barrage of criticism from appalled members of her own party. . . . Cheney’s attacks were outrageous, and prominent Republicans said so. Terror suspects’ lawyers should not automatically be “identified with their former clients and regarded as a fifth column,” wrote former Bush Attorney General Michael Mukasey. Cheney’s rhetoric was “unjust” and “destructive,” read a letter signed by Ken Starr and other influential conservative attorneys.
It was perhaps not surprising that Cheney—a vocal Iraq war supporter and an apologist for the torture policies championed by her father—would seek to undermine bedrock Democratic institutions like the rule of law and the right to a fair trial. But it was nonetheless fortunate that powerful GOP voices were willing to speak out against her.
These days, Cheney is the one speaking out about threats to democracy—and she seems far more isolated in her party than her own critics were a decade ago.
Like most GOP officeholders, the Wyoming congresswoman’s initial reaction to the 2020 election wasn’t exactly a profile in courage. Cheney, who at the time was the third-ranking House Republican and had once been an ardent Donald Trump supporter, spent weeks declining to directly acknowledge that Joe Biden won. But on November 20, she came close, stating that if Trump was unable to prove his allegations of election fraud in court, he should “fulfill his oath” by “respecting the sanctity of our electoral process.”
It’s easy to dismiss this carefully worded statement as tepid and mealy-mouthed, an attempt to win plaudits from establishment types without actually saying the obvious: that Trump lost. But it mattered. Cautious as it was, it represented one of the earliest breaks by a powerful Republican—a member of the party’s leadership, no less—with Trump’s Big Lie. Trump certainly saw it that way; he lashed out at her on Twitter. That rift would only grow, setting Cheney on a year-long path in which she would repeatedly choose to fulfill her own oath to the Constitution, quite possibly at the cost of her political career.
Not long after that initial break, Cheney became the only member of the House GOP leadership to refuse to sign an amicus brief in support of the ridiculous lawsuit filed by Texas’ pro-Trump attorney general asking the Supreme Court to overturn the election in a handful of swing states. . . . . Cheney privately lobbied her colleagues to reject Trump’s demands that they endorse the brief. And as the weeks went on and January 6 approached, Cheney continued to sound alarm bells.
She also drafted a lengthy memo warning that efforts to challenge the Electoral College vote in Congress would “set an exceptionally dangerous precedent” that would be “directly at odds with the Constitution’s clear text.”
Fast forward to mid January, and Cheney was one of just 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the insurrection. “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” she said in a statement explaining her decision. “The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
Cheney still did not stop. After Senate Republicans blocked efforts to create a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 attack, Cheney was one of just two Republicans to vote to establish a House select committee to probe the insurrection. Days later, she defied House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and accepted a seat on that committee.
Cheney, who has since become the vice chairwoman of the panel, redoubled her efforts this fall. She voted to hold former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in criminal contempt for defying committee subpoenas, reading into the record chilling messages Meadows received from people trapped in the Capitol on January 6, begging for Trump to call off the mob. “These text messages leave no doubt: The White House knew exactly what was happening here at the Capitol,” she explained.
“We cannot be satisfied with incomplete answers or half-truths, and we cannot surrender to President Trump’s efforts to hide what happened,” she added. “We will get to the objective truth to ensure that January 6 never happens again.”
Cheney’s insistence on pursuing that truth in the face of Trump’s lies will probably put an end to her time in Congress. The courage she has displayed over the last 13 months certainly doesn’t undo the damage she has caused around the world throughout her career; no amount of never-Trumpism can paper over the disastrous legacies of the Bush foreign policy chorus. It doesn’t have to. Cheney is not a life-long hero. But she is a hero of 2021.
Sunday, December 26, 2021
I recently found myself in a conversation with a libertarian journalist who was visiting Vienna. “Should we be surprised that Austria decided to lock down the unvaccinated and that the government is pushing for mandatory vaccination?” he bellowed at me. “Was it not the Austrians and the Germans who were first to lock down their minorities in the 1930s?” It’s the kind of mind-blowing exaggeration that is so typical these days of vaccine skeptics and the anti-lockdown right.
Traditionally, it was the parties of the far right, some of them with roots in the Nazi past, that were accused of fascist tendencies. Now they are the accusers. I’ve even heard some vaccine skeptics and anti-lockdown activists call for a Nuremberg trial for anyone who advocates mandatory vaccination.
Will these attempts to impugn the overweening state and accuse mainstream politicians of medical fascism work? Maybe. A recent survey by the European Council on Foreign Relations indicates that although most West Europeans support the restrictive policies their governments have put in place to fight the coronavirus, many also have mixed feelings. . . . . Populists are eager to weaponize this.
For the moment, they are failing. Recent elections in Germany, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria indicate that voters are less ready to follow populist leaders than they were just a few years ago. A YouGov-Cambridge Globalism study found in November that populist beliefs had “broadly declined” in 10 European countries over the past three years but that at the same time, conspiratorial beliefs are on the rise.
The populist right has in recent months undergone an identity shift. It used to be that these parties claimed, with their positions on immigration and cultural change, to speak for “the people,” a silent majority. That doesn’t work anymore. Austria’s Freedom Party, for example, has adopted a hard-line anti-vaccination stance. But holding this position means that it can no longer claim to be the champion of the majority; most Austrians have chosen to get vaccinated. At least in Western Europe, the vaccinated are the majority.
Populist parties now claim to speak on behalf of a persecuted minority of nonconformists and are repositioning themselves as champions of liberty and individual rights. This may sound familiar to many Americans: They are the same positions held by the American right, even when it is in power. It’s now clear that the coronavirus crisis has contributed to the internationalization of the populist right.
This gambit to define “freedom” as heroic resistance to the interventionist state will likely falter in Europe’s aging societies, where many worry about the virus. But by opposing pandemic restrictions, these political players will have a better chance of attracting support from members of younger generations who are more likely than their parents to blame their loss of freedom on government policies than on the spread of a deadly virus.
What does this mean for mainstream politics? In the short term, the situation looks good: The parties of the center have benefited by meeting the majority of people’s expectations for precaution and protection. But by endorsing what increasingly seem like never-ending lockdowns and mandatory vaccination, European governments risk misreading a changing public sentiment.
In this context, the Omicron variant presents a major political risk. It requires a decisive response to prevent severe strains on health care systems, but at the same time, by adopting policies of maximum precaution that were the right approach at the beginning of the pandemic but are more questionable today, governments risk falling into a trap of their own making. The big state is back in a big way — but trust in the big state is not.
Europe’s mainstream political parties are now wagering their legitimacy on their ability to beat back the pandemic. It’s a dangerous gamble. Asking people to get vaccinated is good public policy, but it does not guarantee that no one will be infected or that nobody will die. Governments can reduce the risks, but they cannot eliminate them. The paradox is that the higher the percentage of vaccinated people in a society, the less likely it will be to support lockdowns and other restrictive policies.
The arrival of Omicron makes it clear that the pandemic is not yet over. But many people are already living as if the postpandemic world had arrived. In a moment like this, setting reasonable expectations is probably the best anti-populist policy any government can adopt. We cannot hope to defeat the pandemic; we will have to learn to live with it.