Who’s to blame for Brexit?

It’s genuinely upsetting to witness the triumph of a Leave campaign fronted by reactionary figures likes Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in last night’s referendum (what occurred yesterday conceivably marks Britain’s sharpest shift to the right since 1979, a fact upsetting enough on its own…). But I’m seeing far too many examples today (admittedly from the predictable sources) of people taking out their anger, fear, and confusion on Leave voters – who keep being caricatured as a feral rabble (“old, angry, white people” – Esquire).
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I understand the impulse to blame “democracy” for the result of the vote, but this isn’t constructive or accurate. People living in the northern and eastern parts of England, who overwhelmingly backed Brexit, have seen their living standards fall, the quality of their political representation decline, and their jobs disappear for the past three decades. Many of them may be misguided in believing a UK independent of the EU will give them a better deal, but they have a right to be angry and it would be hugely surprising if they weren’t.

The British establishment – encompassing the Westminster political class, financial elites, and much of the media – offers these people very little and frequently tries to manage their concerns for its own opportunistic ends rather than actually address or represent their needs (Cameron promising the referendum in an attempt to stave off the threat from UKIP and his own hardliners is evidence of this). It’s these people, not those in Yorkshire or the West Midlands, who deserve the blame for the referendum and the ire of those upset about its final result.

Right wing populism of the kind which carried the Leave side to victory last night flourishes in societies that have become unequal and unfair, where most of the wealth and power is monopolized by small groups of self-replicating elites.

In other words: Brexit is not the product of “too much democracy”. It’s the product of not enough.

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Liberalism without the left

Lately – and probably in no small part due to the US presidential race – I’ve been thinking about the extent to which the robustness of liberalism as a political ideology depends on the forces pressuring it from the left.

Today, when pressed on questions of economic justice, many liberals respond with tired market dogma, redbait, or simply wilt. Some try and conflate a caricatured “political correctness” with “cultural Marxism”, as if class politics are just an organic extension of the cultural politics found today on many campuses (or vise versa).

In the 1960s liberalism was deeply engaged with questions of economic and distributive justice. The patron saint of liberal political theory, John Rawls, wrote a hugely influential book on the subject which even conceded some ground to socialist theories of public ownership (revealingly, Rawls’ second major book – published more than two decades later – virtually abandoned economic issues and instead attempted to reconcile liberal and communitarian identity politics).

The political and economic backdrop for Rawls’ thinking was very different from what exists today: the US (and most liberal democracies) still had relatively powerful labour movements; the civil rights and antiwar movements loomed large; New Deal welfarism had yet to collapse; Keynesianism was still the economic orthodoxy du jour; a good portion of the world was officially committed to communism and Western socialist parties were still present as both a political and ideological force.

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The British general strike, 1926

By the 1990s liberals no longer had to engage with communism, socialism, or social democracy out of necessity and responded to the right instead. The resulting political settlement combined the neoliberal economic theories ascendent since the 1970s with a cultural politics that broke with conservatives in some respects around issues of pluralism and identity, while globalization and the resulting upward redistribution of wealth continued apace. The social bases and institutional structures that had sustained and empowered the left for generations, so brutally and effectively assaulted by the right throughout the 1980s, withered.

In other words, liberalism seems to be at its most robust when it’s been forced to grapple with a strong and mobilized left for an extended period of time: In the absence of one, it sets itself in opposition to the right (a much easier and more comfortable task); when suddenly confronted with one (as it’s starting to be now), it is unprepared and retreats into tired old truisms and cliches.

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Review: #TalkToMe

In late 2014 I wrote an article for Jacobin Magazine called “New Atheism, Old Empire”. While acknowledging the somewhat disparate politics of the leading figures in the New Atheist movement, it attempted to expose the ways in which their thinking and rhetoric has helped to construct and legitimize one of the principle intellectual currents undergirding the War on Terror and its destructive geopolitics.

At the core of this project, and often dwarfing its other thrusts, has been, and continues to be, the demonization and singling out of Muslims in the United States and Europe as an ideological, political, and even demographic threat.

The response to the article from New Atheist Twitter (and sometimes the still more sinister alt right) was breathtaking in its sheer vitriol and, once again, almost singularly obsessed with the supposed “threat” posed by our neighbours of Muslim faith.

Striking in many of these responses was their uniformity: the anti-Islamic troll brigade, a permanent feature of social media these days, delights in quoting bits of scripture out of context and treating them literally. Even on the occasions when actual Muslims intervene to disrupt the arguments of Sam Harris acolytes and other ideologues, the same arsenal of quotes is simply drawn from again and again. In other words, it matters less to this subset of the atheist community what practicing Muslims actually think about their own faith and its teachings than what they’re convinced it means and need it to mean to sustain their chosen worldview.

Having been caught in enough of these arguments I’m convinced there’s more at work here than basic intransigence. Political disputes on social media have become infamously stubborn, ugly, and often more liturgical than anything else. But the nastiness hurled at Muslims on social media every day (a reflection of increasingly sinister developments in Europe and the United States) carries with it a deep prejudice that goes beyond the usual boundaries of most toxic online discourse.

The favoured New Atheist tactic of quoting Islamic scripture is a perfect example of this prejudice in action. In the probably hundreds of exchanges about Islam I had following the publication of “New Atheism, Old Empire”, I rarely got the sense that my interlocutors knew any Muslims or had any real knowledge of Islam in practice (and nor did they care to). Their Islam was an abstraction, and their Muslims were caricatures drawn from the pages of Sam Harris books, the screeds of neocon writers like Mark Steyn, shameless propagandists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and anti-Islamic talking heads like Bill Maher.

One thing the experience taught me is that you can’t effectively combat deep prejudice with pure facts. To a person who hates an entire religious identity – whether they be an armchair New Atheist, a right wing public intellectual, or a European politician who opposes immigration from majority Muslim countries – it doesn’t seem to particularly matter what Muslims actually do or what they believe. The first maneuver in othering a group of people is essentializing them: straining them of any pluralism or heterogeneity. In the face of this a lone fact dissolves instantly, like a sugar cube dropped into a boiling cup of tea.

So what can be done?

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One of the contacts I made thanks to “New Atheism, Old Empire” was Qasim Rashid.  In his new book Talk To Me: Changing the Narrative on Race, Religion, & Education, Rashid provides us with something of answer to the question posed above.

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Talk to Me is a collection of stories from people of different backgrounds, voices, and faiths. Its implicit premise is a simple and incredibly potent one: that meaningful and human communication carries with it a unique power that can undermine parochial prejudices and hatreds far better than any raw fact ever could. Stories are lived experience as narrative. They force readers to empathize with their subjects and build relationships with them.

As Rashid writes in his introduction:

Meaningful conversations are not about words—they’re about action. They push us out of our comfort zones and traverse new waters and landscapes. They oblige us to learn about those different than us from those different than us. And when these conversations are conducted effectively, the results are revolutionary.

The stories themselves are a pleasure to read, though too numerous to recount. My personal favourite comes very early in the book when Rashid himself recounts a childhood memory of a new boy arriving at his school in Chicago (in a scene that brings all the social dynamics of the playground flooding back from the depths of memory…): Joseph, like all the other kids in the school in almost every respect, finds himself immediately ostracized when his classmates learn that, as a Jew, he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Having just arrived in a new city, Joseph’s anxiety is immediately compounded by loneliness and exclusion from his school community.

Encouraged by his father, Rashid befriended Joseph the next day:

“Want to play together at recess today?”. 

Joseph opened his mouth, as if shocked I’d asked the question. He closed it without speaking, then nodded and smiled.

“My name is Qasim Rashid. Q-a-s-i-m. There’s no u after the q.”

“That’s a strange way of spelling. I like it,” he said. “I’m Joseph.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll see you in class, OK?” 

Joseph nodded again and we parted ways.

This short and simple tale of childhood friendship across cultural differences sums up so much of what is great about Talk To Me. Joseph had very little, apart from his cultural background, different than other children – he played the same games and probably spent much of his time doing the things most young kids do. But it took very little for his immediate exclusion.

The story is doubtless a simple and familiar one, but its message resonates well beyond the context of its setting. Cultural and religious differences can produce huge schisms and relations of exclusion (with minority groups almost invariably carrying the burden of corrosive hatred and political persecution, as Muslims in many parts of Europe and the United States do today). But the sharing of lived experiences, through relationships and stories, can be a powerful antidote.

Talk To Me is proof and, with any luck, will receive the wide readership it deserves – particularly from younger generations.

I only hope the right people are listening.

 

 

 

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Some 1 AM thoughts on the Sanders campaign and the Democratic primaries

Tonight Bernie Sanders’ campaign won convincingly in Oregon and split the delegates with Hillary Clinton in Kentucky. The various people calling for him to drop out are not only misreading the state of things but are, deliberately or not, failing to recognize what’s animated his campaign from the beginning: the inescapable truth that all meaningful social change requires democratic struggle against the existing order.
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If the political epistemology currently being advocated by many liberals had been followed throughout the 20th century, there’d be no welfare state, no equal marriage, no gender equality laws, no desegregation, and no labour movement. The fact is, not one of these things was achieved by elite pundits bleating about delegate math or publishing wonkish tirades to disguise their contempt for working people.
 
That America’s liberal establishment – encompassing the Democratic Party leadership, much of Wall Street, and a good chunk of the national media – is working so hard to defeat Sanders is no surprise. But it goes further than that, because they aren’t willing to stop until they’ve successfully delegitimized his entire project and branded his millions of supporters a feral minority. At the same time, they demand acquiescence from Sanders supporters. This is what the ever growing body of meta-narratives is really about: the DNC leadership knows that many of its would-be voters want a party that pursues social and economic justice, so they can’t come out and confront Sanders head on – instead, they try to sow doubt about the “realism” of his proposals, attack the rectitude of his supporters, and draw absurd comparisons to Donald Trump. 
Such is their skepticism about economic justice and social equality that they appear determined to bulldoze forward with Clinton’s increasingly shaky campaign and risk losing to Donald Trump rather than winning with Bernie Sanders.
 
I grew up watching American liberals run from their own shadows, and concede arguments before they’d even begun. The Sanders campaign is an amazing thing to see, and I look forward to watching its momentum continue to build in the weeks ahead – the “delegate math” be damned.
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The hermeneutics of wonkery

I spend much of my professional life reading through policy papers from various think tanks and have reached one overriding conclusion: more than anything else, it’s how things are measured and represented that ultimately determines how we think about them.

Across the political spectrum, papers that analyze issues like poverty and climate change in exquisite detail contain virtually all of their substance in their initial premises – not in their subsequent analyses.

For example, if you’re studying poverty it matters more what you understand “poverty” to be in the first place than it does what the empirical details are. How do you measure and represent it? Against what ultimate standards do you set your data against? How you answer these questions will define the contours of your conclusions more than anything else.

Yet in today’s world, most mainstream policy thinking obscures this – understanding itself to be essentially technical in character. This is the TED Talk Syndrome at work: the idea that virtually every social ailment can be understood like a puzzle, all the necessary pieces already being available and simply in need of rearranging. Governments, corporations, and think tanks alike tend to approach problems in this way, with the assumption that change can be created within the parameters already in existence.

The trouble with this formulation is pretty straightforward: most actual problems aren’t the result of badly configured material so much as the lack of a substantively alternative framework or the absence of necessary material to begin with. You can’t defeat climate change unless you fundamentally shift the way resources are consumed and extracted. You can’t simply engineer poverty away, but you can make sure people have more money by redistributing wealth.

And this is the real rub, because you have to agree that those are the objectives in the first place and carefully define what you mean by them.

The lesson here? For all the contemporary fetishization of “evidence-based policymaking” no level of empirical wizardry or technocratic brilliance can escape the fact that how we make policy ultimately depends on our basic assumptions about how people behave and how they should live with one another.

There are no technical solutions to political problems.

 

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A modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons

Canada’s new government is making good on its promise to create an independent, non-partisan Senate and I couldn’t be happier.

Just yesterday, Prime Minister Trudeau announced his first seven appointees to the Upper Chamber: a veritable smorgasbord of the best and the brightest recommended, no less, by a non-partisan committee that chooses prospective Senators based on merit rather than party affiliation. What a novel concept!

According to the Ministry of Democratic Reform candidates for Senate appointments must meet several criteria, including:

  • Demonstrated a record of achievement and leadership in community service or professional expertise.
  • Proven record of “outstanding” ethics and integrity.
  • Bring perspective that Senate is an independent, non-partisan institution.
  • Understand the Senate’s role in Canada’s constitutional framework.

What’s more: in theory any Canadian can apply to be a Senator, meaning that ordinary citizens will finally have a chamber that represents them (at last!).

And so, finally, the Senate – that repository for party bagmen and patronage going back to the days of Sir John A. – will become a place where intelligent Canadians meet to discuss the issues of the day in an evidence-based environment, free of partisanship and vituperative tribal bickering.

Like a healing, postpartisan balm applied to the deep wounds that have crippled our nation, the new Senate clearly demonstrates Prime Minister Trudeau’s commitment to Real Change; to focusing on the things which unite, rather than divide.

Unfortunately, his work isn’t done. Because, nestled only a short hallway’s walk away from the now harmonious Red Chamber, is a place where the foul reign of partisanship and division continues unencumbered.

That’s why I’d like Prime Minister Trudeau to consider a modest proposal: Abolish the House of Commons.

Tune in any day of the week to the proceedings and what do you see? Argument, disagreement, and debate – to name just three of the ailments. Sometimes the Speaker must remind Honourable Members not to clap for too long. Sometimes there is partisanship. Sometimes voices are even raised.

The physical design of the place alone is nauseating: Two sets of benches counterposed to one another in antagonistic contrast, with government on one side and opposition on the other. Does anyone seriously believe this helps create sober discussion amongst adults? Do the shareholders at a company sit like this at the annual general meeting? Would you model your seating at Christmas dinner on the Lower House? Ummm, I think not.

As for the ever-petulant members who occupy the chamber, what even needs to be said? Unlike the Senate, they are not chosen on merit by a committee independent of partisanship and their seating arrangements are dictated by colour. In 2016. ‘Nuff. Said.

The answer seems clear: the House of Commons – an anachronism from the age of partisan bickering – should be immediately dissolved. It’s time public policy was made solely by grownups accountable to no constituencies except their own consciences.

Because it’s 2016.

 

 

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Notes on movement conservatism and MNC 2016

The largest annual gathering of the Canadian conservative movement has come to a close and, for the second time in three years, I had the pleasure of joining in.

Here are a few thoughts hastily written as I ride the train back to Toronto.

State of the movement

This year’s conference was the first to take place in a political context without the Conservative Party in government.

While delegates certainly didn’t give off an aura of defeat or surrender, attendance appeared to be much smaller than the last time I visited (in 2014). If their recent electoral defeat has wrought any particular change among Canadian conservatives, it’s something besides an ideological one: Participants at all of the panels and sessions I attended seemed to have full confidence in the rectitude of their ideas and philosophy and, with only a few exceptions, intra ideological debate was visibly less than at the last incarnation of the conference I attended.

Instead, the conservative movement appears preoccupied with aesthetic and logistical issues. Over and over again during panels and their accompanying Q and As I heard variations of the following: “How do we communicate better?”, “How can we articulate a conservative message to people who don’t identify as conservatives?”, “How do we relate better to young people/journalists?”. There was an overwhelming sense that the Conservative Party fought the election on the basis of more or less the correct ideas, but failed to communicate them adequately.

Though the ghost of Stephen Harper – who remains the first and only leader of the united Conservative Party – looms over the movement, both his legacy and the challenges that follow from his defeat were repeatedly discussed in cloaked and evasive terms. His name was very rarely mentioned (often substituted for “our government”).

While no one ascribed blame to Harper for it, there appeared to be an overriding sense that the true motivations and aspirations of conservatism had been buried; that the party had overwhelmed the movement, become insular, and excluded potential members and activists.

All the familiar themes were present – “Personal responsibility”, related emphases on security and order; the entrepreneurial narrative and its accompanying condemnations of the state as an economic oppressor, etc. – but they emerged in a less guarded fashion than they might have during a meeting of the now deceased Harper cabinet.

Having said this, the conference’s preoccupation with the cosmetics of conservatism (rather than the ideology or philosophy of conservatism) seems to me a symptom of confusion and atrophy rather than renewal.

The path to the conservative utopia does not run through more effective use of Facebook or Twitter, or a more effective application of modern campaign techniques. An interest in value-neutral political technology may be necessary for the success of any ideological project. But, when it starts to override intellectual and spiritual introspection and debate, the movement clearly has a problem.

The view from stage left

As a left wing observer at the conference, it was a real treat to listen to my ideological opposites reflecting on their politics and the state of their movement. The right’s frustration with the status quo and its desire to produce transformative change are qualities I admire, at least in the abstract. The maintenance and nourishment of a movement takes considerable labour, as does the pursuit of ideas which run contrary to apolitical wasteland of late capitalism.

But neither my admiration or agreement survive beyond this abstract terrain. The conservative movement’s historical sense is anemic and its political-economic analysis even worse.

Its continued sense of victimization and marginalization is unwarranted, given that we’re currently living in the world the new right of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s created: conservatism may need to retain this psychological outlook to remain viable, but it lacks historical perspective and fails to take into account the near-ubiquitous triumph of neoliberalism as the ideological spirit of the times.

Movement conservatism also misinterprets and misunderstands its political opponents. “The left” and “liberalism” are repeatedly conflated (sometimes under the nonspecific umbrella term “progressive”). There seems virtually zero awareness of the difference between liberalism and social democracy, let alone anything to the left of the latter. The bogeymen du jour are messieur Trudeau and madame Wynne (Tony Clement referred to Ontario under the Liberals as “the People’s Republic of…”), who are taken to be great champions of “activist Big Government” that seek to “tax and spend” (both mortal insults in conservative circles).

Again, a little perspective here might be warranted. The Wynne administration, which certainly postured around the motif of “activist government” during the 2014 provincial election, just commenced the privatization of Hydro One, having spent its last several mandates repeatedly slashing the corporate tax rate. It may pursue social initiatives like sex ed that offend the sensibilities of the social conservative fringe, but its claims to even lean slightly to the left are shoddy at best.

Ditto for Canada’s new prime minister. His proposition, outside of a deceptively shallow emphasis on “tone”, is essentially to restore some of the programs cut under the previous Conservative government. There is nothing remotely radical about his tax plan, which has already cut taxes for most of the richest 10% of earners (it raised them slightly for the very richest, with a net loss in revenue for the federal government) and does nothing to reverse the repeated cuts to corporate taxes which took place under Stephen Harper (during the campaign, Trudeau even derided the NDP plan to raise the CIT as anti-business). His program for deficit spending is nowhere near the one undertaken by the Conservatives themselves in scale and is quite explicitly branded as an economically-necessary one-off rather than an attempt to increase structural program spending. Finally, his social policy embraces the neoliberal mould of means-testing. During the campaign, Trudeau attacked proposals to create new universal social programs and committed to addressing Canada’s childcare challenges using the same underlying logic as the Conservatives (only with more generous benefits and with the means-testing performed in advance rather than retroactively through the tax system).

That the political centre represented by the Liberals now exists on this terrain is something the right should celebrate as a sign of its ongoing victory. In caricaturing mainstream liberals like Trudeau and Wynne as harbingers of a renewed offensive by “activist government”, movement conservatives are shadow boxing with a chimera of their own creation.

As for the problems with the ideological outlook I observed this weekend, where do we even begin?

Despite retaining the classical conservative emphases on tradition and institutions of social cohesion (the family, nationalism, etc.), the conservative movement born of the 70s new right is overwhelmingly guided by a romantic obsession with the capitalist marketplace. In many important respects, it views this as the single most crucial foundation for both individual and social life – an essentially neutral sphere in which individuals can pursue their personally-crafted life goals without external interference.

If there are imperfections, it is assumed these are the products of meddling or rigging by the state rather than defects inherent by design. There is virtually no problem – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social anomie – for which the movement conservative does not have a market solution (accompanied by a diagnosis which places blame on an overly activist state). That the market is a structure of power like any other – with intrinsic hierarchies and imbalances that only harden over time and render the ethical goal of meritocracy an impossible one – is simply not accounted for or acknowledged. It is conceived of as a natural equilibrium: as politically and axiologically neutral as evolutionary biology or the force of gravity – not a human construction that is the product of specific historical and economic circumstances, and certainly not an amalgam of institutions that should be subject to democratic change, adjustment, or wholesale replacement when signs of failure appear.

The very notion that there might be valuable moral principles outside of individual economic calculus that should govern our political, economic, and social lives is pure anathema.

Party and movement: Looking ahead

Among the most interesting features of the conference were two related panels showcasing prospective candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party. Here are a few thoughts on each of them:

Michael Chong: Chong’s speech was heavy on personal narrative and short on ideology. As many conservatives like to do, he emphasized his family’s own struggle against adversity (as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid 20th century). Also invoking family experience, Chong spoke of Canadian heroism in the Pacific during the Second World War (his dad was in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion) as a jumping off point to a familiar and Harperesque story about the need for decisiveness in a dangerous world. Not without a certain rhetorical appeal, but overly polished and personal for a politician regarded to have intellectual substance.

Kevin O’Leary: Whether O’Leary’s musings about running for the CPC leadership represent empty posturing, performance art, or genuine testing of the waters I do not know. His abrasive, bloviating speech was big on pro-business and energy (that is, oil) rhetoric of the kind favoured by the crowed and was well-received enough, but mostly hard to take seriously.

Maxime Bernier: By far the best of the five speeches, Bernier’s was heavy on ideology as well as rhetorical flourish. His attack on government subsidies to corporations got raucous applause and, in the subsequent Q and A, he answered Preston Manning’s policy questions with notable specificity. When Bernier runs, his apparently insurgent candidacy will be interesting to watch.

Tony Clement: Clement’s Instagram follower count probably dwarfs the crowd that heard his speech. Though he chose not to fixate on his personal story as some other candidates did, it was hard to extract a thesis from his remarks. A call for the privatization of the CBC and some mild criticism of the way the party conducted the 2015 election were the only real highlights of the speech.

Lisa Raitt: The only woman to speak (Kellie Leitch had been scheduled but cancelled last minute) Raitt focused on her youth on Cape Breton Island and, like Chong, her family’s various struggles. Beyond a few notes of traditional Toryism, it is unclear what exactly her campaign will be.

In the Q and A that followed each speech, Preston Manning asked each candidate the same question about how to make conservatism appeal to youth. Revealingly, each gave a variation of the same answer: The key to attracting the next generation is for conservatism to be more obviously and outwardly conservative: In his answer, for example, Tony Clement suggested that young people, like conservatives, are “lovers of freedom”.

This apparently banal comment may reveal more than initially meets the eye.

It occurs to me that each and every one of the prospective candidates for the leadership of the CPC came politically of age at around the same time in the 1980s or early 1990s, i.e. during the ascendency of movement conservatism. Then, its calls for “self-sufficiency”, “personal responsibility”, and “individual liberty” over and against the state had an emotional and spiritual resonance that often transcended lines of gender, race, and class. But the lived experience of today’s young people is quite different from those who consider themselves children of the Reagan revolution.

In an economic context characterized by precarious work, low wages, poor financial security, and the widespread exploitation of young labour by employers (who are often from a different generation) across the workforce, solutions that emphasize personal grist and the imperative of an improved work ethic are unlikely to be well-received.

Looking south, it is quite the opposite: Young people appear drawn in much greater measure to Bernie Sanders’ message, and its various attacks on oppressive economic structures, than to movement conservatism’s pickled ethos of “individual liberty” or its various ideological stepchildren (including the Clintonite variant).

Movement conservatism may have dominated the past three decades. But everything I’ve observed this weekend suggests the possibility that something very different may come to dominate the near future.

 

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