On Political Obstinacy

Not gonna!

There’s an arresting moment in Bob Woodward’s book about the first few years of the Trump White House, Fear: Gary Cohn, the President’s Director of the National Economic Council, is briefing Trump about the shape of the American economy. Cohn and his fellow senior advisors have each found themselves spending a lot of their time with Trump on what they consider to be “the basics”. This time, Cohn is trying to explain the way in which the American economy is now heavily based on services:

“Who’s your one retailer in the Trump Tower?” [he asked.]

“Starbucks,” Trump replied. “And a restaurant in the basement. Oh, and two more restaurants in the basement.

“Exactly,” Cohn said. “So your retail space today is services.” [p. 136]

This appeal to Trump’s own personal and financial experience does not bear fruit: the President continues to insist that the people who voted for him in Ohio or Pennsylvania or West Virginia want their manufacturing jobs back, and that it would be a virtue of his administration were it to oblige. From Cohn’s perspective, this is madness: “there were towns 100 years ago that made horse carriages and buggy whips. […] They had to reinvent themselves,” he pleads [p. 137]. Still Trump will not budge. Cohn digs out data that demonstrates the majority of job leavers are found in the manufacturing sector – and that they want to move into services jobs which are perceived to be less arduous. Again, Trump restates his insistence on the need for mining and assembly lines, coal and cars. Cohn breaks:

“Why do you have these views?”

“I just do,” Trump replied. “I’ve had these views for thirty years.” [p. 138]

In this moment, it’s possibe to perceive the centrality in our contemporary politics of a sort of faith. Trump is speaking not just for himself but for many others when he simply shrugs that he has the opinions he has because he has them. The man who rails most vociferously against fake news is, perhaps without knowing, here diagnosing why it is so prevalent and potent: because people want to believe.

The breakdown of consensus is not unique to our era. The developed world’s agreed set of assumptions and rules last collapsed in the late 1970s, and, in the Anglo-American sphere at least, was reconstituted after a period of great conflict in the shape of Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberal trickle-down economics. There is a reason that Thatcher thought her greatest legacy to be Tony Blair: he was evidence that she had created a new political faith through which, just as Eden’s Conservatives accepted the welfare state of the Attlee government, the Labour Party of the 1990s accepted the gospel according to Milton Friedman.

The problem with faith of any kind is that, held too blindly, it can lead to a sort of obstinacy. Faced with the 2008 banking crisis, George Osborne committed whole-scale to neoliberal austerity, in the teeth of ample evidence that such a policy prescription contributed to, rather than helped resolve, the sluggishness of post-crash economies. China chose a huge programme of state investment, and its economy continued to grow; but in Europe the most obvious object lesson in austerity’s self-defeating obstinacy was found in Greece, a country which underwent punitive reforms at the hands of the Troika. All that pain indeed had little effect: according to a recent report from the Centre of Economic Policy Research, “It is [still] hard to avoid the conclusion that any solution to the Greek debt crisis that does not fall on the shoulders of taxpayers several generations removed will require conditional face-value debt relief.”

Greece, of course, exhibited its own form of obstinacy, voting “Oxi”in 2015 to its creditors’ latest set of swingeing conditions. That the Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, ultimately ignored the result of the vote and accepted the Troika’s terms can be seen in at least two ways: as a pragmatic, even honourable, acceptance of a reality that would, if denied, have hurt his countrymen more even than it hurt his own political career; or as a craven capitulation to the anti-democratic cabal of the European Union, which Greece came so close to leaving.

The notion of Grexit, of course, birthed the reality of Brexit, amidst the maesltrom of which Theresa May is straining every sinew to avoid following Tsipras in her approach to plebiscites. In so doing, she can only state and restate, after every set-back and rebuff, her commitment to honouring the referendum, to ending free movement and to finding a deal. Events – such as suffering the worst government defeat ever recorded in the history of the mother of Parliaments – insist she give ground, but, as a matter of disposition more than calculation, she cannot. Most obviously, this cognitive dissonance can be observed in her offer, following her narrow victory in last week’s no confidence motion in the Commons, that she and her government would engage in dialogue with the leaders of the other political parties. Despite this apparently conciliatory form of words, she spent the next week pursuing the same strategy – tinkering with the so-called Irish backstop and winning the support of the European Research Group – that had led her to the point of losing the support of the Commons in the first place.

Jeremy Corbyn, too, demonstrated obstinacy in the same moment. Unlike the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, he refused to meet with the Prime Minister until such as time as she “took No Deal off the table”. He has, perhaps, been vindicated by events – there was no dialogue to be had with the PM, as even Corbyn’s foes within the Labour Party, such as Hilary Benn, now admit. Indeed, and as Nick Clegg will attest, a lack of obstinacy in politics – an over-readiness to engage with one’s political foes – is, however noble or apparently yearned for by the electorate, very far from a virtue. Corbyn owes his position at the apex of the Labour Party to an apparent authenticity borne of never having changed his mind about anything. (The unstoppable force of Brexit, of course, is forcing him to move more than he ever has – though he gives every inch grudgingly.) Stubbornness can be seen from some perspectives simply as consistency. If one believes in one’s principles, why would one compromise on them?

Run, Achilles, run!

That word again, belief. We have moved, in the collapse of the old consensus, from a period of anonymous technocracy to one of passionate intensity. The truth about Brexit, however, is that at some point its purity as a concept must collide with reality. Likewise, erstwhile Remainers – whether appealing for a “People’s Vote” or an extension of Article 50 – at times seem to be raging against the dying of the light. MPs like Caroline Flint, who campaigned with vigour for Remain but now push for a deal at any costs with equal energy, are making a virtue of their flexibility – and in terms of practical politics there is much to commend their position. Where, after all, will faith in our democracy be if Remainers, like Tsipras, get their way?

The problem with meeting your enemy halfway, however, is that they may not move at all … and the mid-point between you and them will consequently move closer and closer to their position. This is how the UK has found itself so close to No Deal: that strategy of May’s, to retain the unity of the world’s oldest political party by assuaging the ERG, works only if Jacob Rees-Mogg is willing also to concede ground. If he is not, then May becomes Achilles to Xeno’s turtle, endlessly seeking to overtake her quarry but only ever getting closer to their position.

In other words, Rees-Mogg’s obstinacy delivers him political dividends. Stubbornness is not without its benefits. There is, however, an absence in the gaps between the political poles at which May, Corbyn and Rees-Mogg sit: a communal space in which the common good is held and can be reached. Obstinacy insists on immovability, and on the mountain moving towards Mohammed. But this assumes politics to be a zero-sum game, in which the purpose is to achieve one’s own ends at any cost; obstinacy is certainly one means of achieving this total victory, but it is in so doing fundamentally selfish. In the defence of our current actors, the two-party system, in both the UK and the US, encourages this kind of exclusivity, and casts the pursuit of compromise as a grubby exercise. The electorate in both countries routinely bemoans the lack of bipartisan action amongst their politicians; but they have also traditionally and simultaneously complained that there is little difference between the two.

They do so less now than formerly, of course – because, on both sides of the Atlantic, parties of whatever stripe are defaulting to obstinacy in order to stay close to, or mask the truth or the weaknesses of, their convictions. This is digging trenches rather than building bridges … and the no man’s land between the two sides is being shelled for all to see.

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