Posts Tagged ‘us politics’

JS: So, I want to start off by asking you about a phrase that you use in your latest book. You say that we now have a counterinsurgency warfare model of politics. What do you mean by that?

BH: So, what I mean by that is that basically all of the [ways] in which we govern abroad and at home is now funneled through a particular way of thinking about the world. It’s a mentality. It’s a way of thinking about society that triggers particular kinds of strategies and politics that result from that. And the way of thinking about society is this counterinsurgency paradigm of warfare.

So, counterinsurgency started in the 1950s – well, it started long before then, but it kind of crystallized with Western powers in the 1950s and 60s in Algeria, and Indochina before then, and in Vietnam for the Americans. And it was a particular way of thinking about society, the way society is structured into three groups. With, on the one hand, a small active minority who are the insurgents, and a large passive majority who can be swayed one way or the other, and then a small minority of counterinsurgents.

And that way of thinking has become internalized, second hand. Most, I would say, many in America, but certainly our political leaders are looking at the world through that lens when they look at other countries when they look domestically at their own population, and as a result of that it triggers particular kinds of counterinsurgency practices, really. And three practices particularly that I think when you look at what we’re doing both abroad and at home, you see resonances of them everywhere. The first is the idea of getting total information awareness. That’s always been the key linchpin of counterinsurgency theory, is to get total information on the total population.

And that’s what distinguishes it from just getting good intelligence. It’s that you have to get total intelligence on the total population, not just targeted to people who you suspect, but on the total population. So that you can make a distinction between or you can identify that small group of active insurgents. And you need the information on everyone so that you can make that separation, those fine distinctions between someone who is in that active minority or someone who’s just [in the] you know, passive masses. So that’s the first strategy. The second strategy is then that you have to rid of the active minority that you identified, just that small group of individuals, the insurgents, and you do that through any means possible. And then the third strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the masses, basically.

And I think that starting after 9/11. We saw that way of thinking become the dominant way of governing abroad particularly with the war in Iraq, but then more generally with the use of drones outside of war zones et cetera, use of total information through the NSA in the way in which everything was captured about everyone to the most minor detail. And then also trying to pacify the masses in Iraq through kind of some provision of services or just distribution of cash. But then eventually, when this way of thinking comes back to the United States through different forms of pacification of the masses. Particularly right now, I would say through forms of distraction, really.

JS: How does this counterinsurgency warfare model of politics apply in the Trump era?

BH: The Trump Administration is kind of a crystallization, or it seals the deal really on this on this model of governing. But what I want to emphasize though is that it wasn’t unique to Trump. And so, it goes back and it threaded through the Obama Administration and the Bush Administration.

I’ll come back to that in a second. But when you see it today, what you see predominantly is through Trump’s creation of an internal enemy. So, one of the things that drives counterinsurgency ways of thinking is having an internal enemy that, the internal enemy which is that identifiable small class of the active insurgents.

And I think that Trump [has] really rested his entire way of governing us by creating internal enemies out of whole cloth, really, in this case. It started with the Muslims and Muslim Americans and the idea that we needed a Muslim ban.

But when you listened to the rhetoric that surrounded the Muslim ban, it was this rhetoric about, “Muslims are coming into the country. We got to keep them out and even the ones who are here aren’t patriots. They don’t call the police when they have information. We need a registry for them. We need – there was talk about –

JS: Surveillance on mosques.

BH: – Well, exactly, right. All of the surveillance on the mosques and on all of the Muslim businesses, everywhere. And so, all of that was the creation of a dangerous element in this country, which were the Muslim Americans. And we saw it, of course with Mexican Americans, with talking about Mexicans as criminals, as rapists. You saw it just recently with the whole caravan episode, right. I mean, I think that the caravan episode was an effort to create an internal enemy because it was not only identifying and indexing this real group of individuals, but I think it was, through those groups of individuals, it was pointing at all of the undocumented persons who are in this country and who substantiate that threat.

JS: If that philosophy is as you say, what is the purpose then of identifying these people as you say, as sort of the insurgents?

BH: It’s a coherent strategy that not only kind of identifies the danger and then, of course, tries to eliminate the danger, right. But is doing that in part to pacify the masses to win the support of the masses to bring them on Trump’s side. And of course, that was exactly a strategy for the whole week preceding the midterm elections, right? It was to win the hearts and minds of Americans by targeting this dangerous internal enemy that was coming to the border but that also is in the country, is in the country already. It’s these undocumented residents.

So, it’s got these different prongs to it and in part, what’s always been unique about counterinsurgency theory from the 1950s is that it is focused on the population in this interesting way. So, when you read all of the text by the great counterinsurgency commanders — the French, and British, and some Americans, and texts that were written for and by the RAND Corporation on counterinsurgency — one of the central pillars of this way of thinking is that the battle is over the population. It’s over the masses.

– Jeremy Scahill interviews Bernard Harcourt, “THE COUNTERINSURGENCY PARADIGM: HOW U.S. POLITICS HAVE BECOME PARAMILITARIZED.” The Intercept, November 25, 2018.

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“In the six months since the election of Donald Trump, American liberals have managed to regroup, assembling themselves into a self-styled “Resistance” and attempting to reassert control over a world they no longer recognize. But something happened out there in the desert. There is something off about them now. On every level, our most prominent technocrats have entered the new year like uncanny valley copies of themselves, stuttering and miming their old habits, with each take trying to remember what their lives felt like before the accident. They can’t quite get the message right. For months, serious journalists studied The Origins of Totalitarianism like a divination manual, wondering when Trump would pass his enabling act. First, the president was a fascist, until he failed to consolidate power. Then he was an authoritarian, until he showed no interest in micro- or macro-management. Then he merely had authoritarian tendencies, or something, and at any rate was probably a Kremlin agent.

The situation is no better on television. Rachel Maddow, once the charming spokesperson of a kinder world, crazily unveils tax returns she found in Al Capone’s vault. Keith Olbermann — never charming but at least self-confident — now squats on the floor in promotional photos, swaddled in an American flag. The newer stars of the left — the Louise Mensches and Eric Garlands — are using game theory to outwit invisible Soviet assassins. Elected Democrats are paralyzed. They repeat, over and over, that none of this is normal, commit themselves to the fight, and then roll over, confirming the president’s appointments, praising the beauty of a missile strike, or begging the FBI to save them. Hillary Clinton emerges from the woods to blame Jim Comey, the DNC, and the Russians for her loss, and the day before the United States withdraws from the Paris Climate Agreement, she tweets a covfefe joke.

On television, in journals, in the halls of Congress, none of the old methods by which American liberals enforced their claim to superior expertise are working anymore. For all their “resistance,” the greatest impediment to Donald Trump remains his own stupidity. Despite every evil and crime of his administration, the most ambitious Democratic victory on the horizon is making Mike Pence president. Our liberals are right: none of this is normal. This isn’t how it used to be. Everywhere, our best and brightest blink. Are they still in the desert? Is all this an hallucination, a bad dream?

So far, critics of contemporary liberalism have attributed all of this disorder to the shock of our recent election. It’s just the ordinary chaos, they insist, that follows an unexpected loss. But something deeper is amiss. Something was lost in the confusion after they crashed into November, and nothing, not even future victories, will bring it back. This breakdown has been a long time coming. These last few months have only made it more obvious, and more complete. What happened?


The most significant development in the past 30 years of liberal self-conception was the replacement of politics understood as an ideological conflict with politics understood as a struggle against idiots unwilling to recognize liberalism’s monopoly on empirical reason. The trouble with liberalism’s enemies was no longer that they were evil, although they might be that too. The problem, reinforced by Daily Kos essays in your Facebook feed and retweeted Daily Show clips, was that liberalism’s enemies were factually wrong about the world. Just take a look at this chart …

This shift was a necessary accommodation to the fact that, beginning with Bill Clinton, the slim ideological differences that existed between the Democrats and the GOP were replaced with differences of style. Clinton’s “Third Way” promised to be every bit the dupe-servant of war and profit its rivals were, but to do it with the measured confidence of an expert. The New Democrats would destroy the labor movement, but sigh about it. They would frown while they voted to authorize the next war. They would make only the concessions necessary to bolster the flailing engine of finance capital, but they would do it with the latest research in the world. The point, as Jonathan Chait made clear in his 2005 manifesto for this new liberalism, “Fact Finders,” was not the moral content of any particular policy, but the fact that liberals in the 21st century were open to evidence, whereas conservatives were not. “The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism,” he wrote, “ultimately lies […] in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition.” It is not a coincidence that Chait’s essay quickly devolves into a defense of welfare reform.

Liberalism remained slightly kinder than pure reaction — not quite so racist, not so terribly brutal to the poor — but even these commitments were subsumed by the ideology of pure competence. Bigotry wasn’t evil, it was just stupid, an impediment to growth. Health care reform and the welfare state were not moral necessities, they were the best means of keeping workers healthy and productive. The notion that knowledge asymmetries lay at the root of all political conflict was quickly transmuted into the basis of policy itself. If liberals became masters of the world due to their superior respect for facts, then education — not redistribution — was the only hope for the dispossessed. If liberals believed in climate change because scientists told them they should, then the trouble was not the metastatic excesses of capital but the failure of reactionaries to bow to empirical consensus.

The result was an American political movement whose center was a moral void. When John Kerry spoke out against the death penalty, his opposition was based in flawed application — the punishment just wasn’t smart. When he criticized Bush’s handling of the War in Iraq, his position was similar: he would continue the war but be more strategic about it. When Kerry lost, American liberals opined that there were just too many rubes out there. They would have voted better — smarter — if only they had had the right data visualizations in front of them. When Barack Obama won, and then passed the Heritage Foundation’s health care policy while carrying out a drone war responsible for the incineration of children in half a dozen sovereign nations, he did it while remaining the smartest guy in the room. That was what mattered. At the dawn of the 21st century, we stood on the doorstep of a permanent managerial world order. The wonks just needed to finish explaining it to the rest of us.”

– Emmett Rensin, “The Blathering Superego at the End of History,” LA Review of Books. June 18, 2017.

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La Patrie, November 9, 1932. Front page, announcing the election of Roosevelt and the collapse of Hoover’s Republican Party. 

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“A lone female mayor was one thing, but at a time when women’s leadership roles were constrained to the family or perhaps a local charity group, why did so many citizens vote for women to take the reins of their towns?

Many women initially achieved the mayoralty because the preceding mayor stepped down and the city needed to appoint a replacement. When the mayor of Magnetic Spring, Ohio resigned, the secretary of the town Commerce Club thought that the novelty of a woman mayor might generate publicity and visitors for the town’s struggling health resort. Council members decided on 80-year-old Mary McFadden, “the oldest woman in town capable of acting as mayor.” McFadden promptly announced her policy agenda: strict enforcement of Prohibition laws, enforcement of the curfew law, and “war on male vamps.”

When they did run in elections, women candidates had to walk a fine line of seeking political office while not being perceived as overly ambitious. Instead, women had to reframe their candidacy as decidedly unradical, and instead as a natural extension of women’s role in the home. Women had experience cleaning, budgeting, and looking out for the family, and they argued that these skills could be easily transferred to running a town—an idea they referred to as “municipal housekeeping.” This argument contained a moral bent, as women candidates suggested their natural purity, piety, and temperance were exactly what a town in the throes of vice and corruption needed.

The media actively promoted the idea of women as a wholesome political alternative. “It’s Housecleaning Time in Politics When the Fair Ones Take Over Command,” announced the Chicago Daily Tribune. Women’s publications conducted interviews with female candidates that focused heavily on their housekeeping skills and ability to furnish a home, assuring women readers that these women shared their values of traditional femininity even as they pursued leadership roles.

“We simply tried to work together,“ said Mayor Grace Miller, of Jackson, Wyoming, "We put into practice the same thrifty principles we exercise in our homes. We wanted a clean, well-kept progressive town in which to raise our families. What is good government but a breathing place for good citizenship?”

This delicate political calculus led many women to take a more passive role in campaigning. Ella Jacobson became mayor of Waterloo, Nebraska when voters wrote in her name on the ballot—she defeated her own husband. Stena Scorup of Salinas, Utah, defeated her brother. “I did nothing to bring about success for my race for the mayoralty,” Scorup declared. “I even campaigned for my brother.” Yet not every woman subscribed to the passive approach. Mayme Ousley, who served a remarkable four terms as mayor of St. James, Missouri was a ferocious canvasser. Before her 1921 election, Ousley spent six weeks going door to door asking women for their votes; she catalyzed a record voter turnout.

In at least two cases, women didn’t just become mayors—they took over entire town councils. Grace Miller became mayor of Jackson, Wyoming in 1920, alongside four of her female friends and colleagues who each won a seat on the council. The media declared Jackson the site of a “petticoat government,” and Mayor Miller and the council proceeded to appoint women to nearly every local administrative position: town clerk, health officer, and even town marshal.

Pearl Williams, the 22-year-old marshal of Jackson, Wyoming, became a minor media phenomenon in her own right. The local newspaper called Williams “the world’s champion wild man tamer,” and raved, “Pearl, be it known, is the little lady who, as town marshal at Jackson, Wyo., for the past year has been subduing bad men with smiles.” Williams eventually resigned, declaring that the women’s administration had done such an effective job in cleaning up the town that there was not enough crime to demand a marshal.

The Wyoming town’s petticoat government was reported in the national media as an example of a distinct frontier woman identity—tough, independent, and with a greater flexibility between public and private spheres. Wyoming had been the first state to grant women’s suffrage and would become the first to appoint a woman governor; “They do unusual things out in Wyoming,” reported a Chicago newspaper. Indeed, the vast majority of early women mayors came from Midwestern and Western states, with none from the Northeast.”

– Brianna Nofil, “In the 1920s, the Now-Forgotten Flood of ‘Girl Mayors’ Became the Face of Feminism,Atlas Obscura. July 6, 2016.

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