Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systems

It’s a standard assumption in the West: As a society progresses, it eventually becomes a capitalist, multi-party democracy. Right? Eric X. Li, a Chinese investor and political scientist, begs to differ. In this provocative, boundary-pushing talk, he asks his audience to consider that there’s more than one way to run a succesful modern nation.

 

Why democracy still wins: A critique of Eric X. Li’s “A tale of two political systems”

Earlier this year, economist Yasheng Huang (watch his 2011 TED Talk) sparred with Eric X. Li in the pages of Foreign Affairs on a similar topic to today’s TED Talk. The TED Blog asked Huang to expand on his argument in his ongoing conversation with Li.

Imagine confusing the following two statements from a cancer doctor: 1) “You may die from cancer” and 2) “I want you to die from cancer.” It is not hard to see a rudimentary difference between these two statements. The first statement is a prediction — it is saying that something may happen given certain conditions (in this case death conditional upon having cancer). The second statement is a preference, a desire, or a wish for a world to one’s particular liking.

Who would make such a rudimentary mistake confusing these two types of statements? Many people, including Eric X. Li, in today’s TED Talk. The Marxian meta-narrative drilled into Li’s head — and mine in my childhood and youth in the 1960s and 1970s — is a normative statement. When Marx came up with his ideas about evolution of human societies, there was not a single country in the world that even remotely resembled the communist system he advocated. The communist system Marx had in mind had no private property or of ownership of any kind. Money was also absent in that system. The Marxian version of communism has never come to fruition and, most likely, never will. Marx based his “prediction” on deduction; his successors did so by imposing their wish, enforced by power and violence.

Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systemsEric X. Li: A tale of two political systems

By contrast, the narrative that was apparently fed to Li when he was a “Berkeley hippie” is based on the actual experience of human affairs. We have had hundreds of years of experience with democracy and hundreds of countries/years of democratic transitions and rule. The statement that countries transition to democracy as they get rich is a positive statement — it is a prediction based on data. In the 1960s, roughly 25 percent  of the world was democratic; today the proportion is 63 percent . There are far more instances of dictatorships transitioning to democracies  than the other way around. The rest of the world has clearly expressed a preference for democracy. As Minxin Pei has pointed out, of the 25 countries with a higher GDP per capita than China that are not free or partially free, 21 of them are sustained by natural resources. But these are exceptions that prove the rule — countries become democratic as they get richer. Today not a single country classified as the richest is a single-party authoritarian system. (Singapore is arguably a borderline case.) Whether Li likes it or not, they all seem to end up in the same place.

Are democracies more corrupt? Li thinks so. He cites the Transparency International (TI) index to support his view. The TI data show that China is ranked better than many democracies. Fair enough.

I have always thought that there is a touch of irony with using transparency data to defend a political system built on opacity. Irony aside, let’s keep in mind that TI index itself is a product of a political system that Li so disparages — democracy (German democracy to be exact). This underscores a basic point — we know far more about corruption in democracies than we do about corruption in authoritarian countries because democracies are, by definition, more transparent and they have more transparency data. While I trust comparisons of corruption among democratic countries, to mechanically compare corruption in China with that in democracies, as Li has done so repeatedly, is fundamentally flawed. His methodology confounds two effects — how transparent a country is and how corrupt a country is. I am not saying that democracies are necessarily cleaner than China; I am just saying that Li’s use of TI data is not the basis for drawing conclusions in either direction. The right way to reach a conclusion on this issue is to say that given the same level of transparency (and the same level of many other things, including income), China is — or is not — more corrupt than democracies.

Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth?Yasheng Huang: Does democracy stifle economic growth?

A simple example will suffice to illustrate this idea. In 2010, two Indian entrepreneurs founded a website called I Paid a Bribe. The website invited anonymous postings of instances in which Indian citizens had to pay a bribe. By August 2012 the website has recorded more than 20,000 reports of corruption. Some Chinese entrepreneurs tried to do the same thing: They created I Made a Bribe and 522phone.com. But those websites were promptly shut down by the Chinese government. The right conclusion is not, as the logic of Li would suggest, that China is cleaner than India because it has zero postings of corrupt instances whereas India has some 20,000 posted instances of corruption.

With due respect to the good work at Transparency International, its data are very poor at handling this basic difference between perception of corruption and incidence of corruption. Democracies are more transparent — about its virtues and its vices — than authoritarian systems.  We know far more about Indian corruption in part because the Indian system is more transparent, and it has a noisy chattering class who are not afraid to challenge and criticize the government (and, in a few instances, to stick a video camera into a hotel room recording the transfer of cash to politicians). Also lower-level corruption is more observable than corruption at the top of the political hierarchy. The TI index is better at uncovering the corruption of a Barun the policeman in Chennai than a Bo Xilai the Politburo member from Chongqing. These factors, not corruption per se, are likely to explain most of the discrepancies between China and India in terms of TI rankings.

Li likes to point out, again using TI data, that the likes of Indonesia, Argentina and the Philippines are both democracies and notoriously corrupt. He often omits crucial factual details when he is addressing this issue. Yes, these countries are democracies, in 2013, but they were governed by ruthless military dictators for decades long before they transitioned to democracy. It was the autocracy of these countries that bred and fermented corruption. (Remember the 3,000 pairs of shoes of Mrs. Marcos?) Corruption is like cancer, metastatic and entrenched. While it is perfectly legitimate to criticize new democracies for not rooting out corruption in a timely fashion, confusing the difficulties of treating the entrenched corruption with its underlying cause is analogous to saying that a cancer patient got his cancer after he was admitted for chemotherapy.

The world league of the most egregious corruption offenders belongs exclusively to autocrats. The top three ruling looters as of 2004, according to a TI report, are Suharto, Marcos and Mobutu. These three dictators pillaged a combined $50 billion from their impoverished people. Democracies are certainly not immune to corruption, but I think that they have to work a lot harder before they can catch up with these autocrats.

Li has a lot of faith in the Chinese system. He first argues that the system enjoys widespread support among the Chinese population. He cites a Financial Times survey that 93 percent of Chinese young people are optimistic about their future. I have seen these high approval ratings used by Li and others as evidence that the Chinese system is healthy and robust, but I am puzzled why Li should stop at 93 percent. Why not go further, to 100 percent ? In a country without free speech, asking people to directly evaluate performance of leaders is like asking people to take a single-choice exam. The poll numbers for Erich Honecker and Kim Jong-un would put Chinese leaders to shame.

(Let me also offer a cautionary footnote on how and how not to use Chinese survey data. I have done a lot of survey research in China, and I am always humbled by how tricky it is to interpret the survey findings. Apart from the political pressures that tend to channel answers in a particular direction, another problem is that Chinese respondents sometimes view taking a survey as similar to taking an exam. Chinese exams have standard answers, and sometimes Chinese respondents fill out surveys by trying to guess what the “standard” answer is rather than expressing their own views. I would caution against any naïve uses of Chinese survey data.)

Li also touts the adaptability of the Chinese political system. Let me quote:

“Now, most political scientists will tell us that a one-party system is inherently incapable of self-correction. It won’t last long because it cannot adapt. Now here are the facts. In 64 years of running the largest country in the world, the range of the party’s policies has been wider than any other country in recent memory, from radical land collectivization to the Great Leap Forward, then privatization of farmland, then the Cultural Revolution, then Deng Xiaoping’s market reform, then successor Jiang Zemin took the giant political step of opening up party membership to private businesspeople, something unimaginable during Mao’s rule. So the party self-corrects in rather dramatic fashion.”

Now imagine putting forward the following narrative celebrating, say, Russian “adaptability”: Russia, as a country or as a people, is highly adaptable. The range of its “policies has been wider than any other country in recent memory,” from gulags to Stalin’s red terror, then collectivization, then central planning, then glasnost and perestroika, then privatization, then crony capitalism, then the illiberal democracy under Putin, something unimaginable during Lenin’s rule. So the country “self-corrects in rather dramatic fashion.”

Let me be clear and explicit — Li’s reasoning on the adaptability of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is exactly identical to the one I offered on Russia. The only difference is that Li was referring to a political organization — the CCP — and I am referring to a sovereign state.

The TED audience greeted Li’s speech with applause — several times in fact. I doubt that had Li offered this Russian analogy the reception would have been as warm. The reason is simple: The TED audience is intimately familiar with the tumult, violence and astronomical human toll of the Soviet rule. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, quoted the findings by other scholars that the Soviet regime killed 62 million of its own citizens. I guess the word “correction” somewhat understates the magnitude of the transformation from Stalin’s murderous, genocidal regime to the problematic, struggling but nonetheless democratic Russia today.

I do not know what a Berkeley hippie learned from his education, but in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I received my education and where I am a professor by profession, I learned — and teach — every day that words actually have meaning. To me, self-correction implies at least two things. First, a self-correction is, well, a correction by self. Yes, Mao’s policies were “corrected” or even reversed by his successors, as Li pointed out, but in what sense is this “a self-correction?” Mao’s utterly disastrous policies persisted during his waning days even while the chairman lay in a vegetative state and his successor — who came to power through a virtual coup — only dared to modify Mao’s policies after his physical expiration was certain. If this is an instance of self-correction, exactly what is not a self-correction? Almost every single policy change Li identified in his talk was made by the successor to the person who initiated the policy that got corrected. (In quite a few cases, not even by the immediate successor.) This is a bizarre definition of self-correction. Does it constitute a self-correction when the math errors I left uncorrected in my childhood are now being corrected by my children?

The second meaning of self-correction has to do with the circumstances in which the correction occurs, not just the identity of the person making the correction. A 10-year-old can correct her spelling or math error on her own volition, or she could have done so after her teacher registered a few harsh slaps on the back of her left hand. In both situations the identity of the corrector is the same — the 10-year-old student — but the circumstances of the correction are vastly different. One would normally associate the first situation with “self-correction,” the second situation with coercion, duress or, as in this case, violence. In other words, self-correction implies a degree of voluntariness on the part of the person making the correction, not forced or coerced, not out of lack of alternatives other than making the correction. The element of choice is a vital component of the definition of self-correction.

Let me supply a few missing details to those who applauded Li’s characterization of 64 years of China’s one-party system as one of serial self-corrections. Between 1949 and 2012, there have been six top leaders of the CCP. Of these six, two were abruptly and unceremoniously forced out of power (and one of the two was dismissed without any due process even according to CCP’s own procedures). A third leader fell from power and was put under house arrest for 15 years until his death. That is 3 strikes out of 6 who did not exit power on their intended terms. Two of Mao’s anointed successors died on the job, one in a fiery plane crash when he tried to escape to the Soviet Union and the other tortured to death and buried with a fake name. Oh, did I mention that 30 million people were estimated to have died from Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, and probably millions of people died from the violence of the Cultural Revolution? Also, do you know that Mao not only persisted in but accelerated his Great Leap Forward policies after the evidence of the extent of famine became crystal-clear?

Li calls the policy changes after these wrenching tumults “self-corrections.” His reasoning is that an entity called the CCP, but not anybody else, introduced these policy changes. First of all, doesn’t that have something to do with the fact that nobody else was allowed a chance to make those policy changes? Secondly, this fixation on who made the policy changes rather than on the circumstances under which the policy changes were made is surely problematic. Let’s extend Li’s logic a little bit further. Shall we rephrase the

  • American Independence Movement as a self-correction by the British? Or maybe the ceding of the
  • British imperial authority over India as another British self-correcting act? Shall we re-label the
  • Japanese surrender to end the Second World War a self-correction by the Japanese? Yes, there were two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and all of that, but didn’t the representatives of Emperor Hirohito sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender on the battleship of USS Missouri?

To a hammer, everything is a nail. Li sees ills of democracies everywhere — financial crises in Europe and the United States, money politics and corruption. I readily agree that money politics in America is a huge problem and that it is indeed making the system utterly dysfunctional. But let’s be very clear about exactly how and why money politics is dysfunctional. It is dysfunctional precisely because it is fundamentally antithetical to democracy.  Money politics is a perversion of democracy. It undermines and invalidates a canonical pillar of democracy — one person, one vote. To be logically consistent, Li should celebrate money politics because it is moving the United States in the direction of the authoritarian way of politics that he is so enamored of.

This may be a shocking revelation to Li, but US and European democracies did not patent financial crisis. Many authoritarian regimes experienced catastrophic financial and economic crises. Think of Indonesia in 1997 and the multiple junta regimes in Latin America in the 1970s and the 1980s. The only authoritarian regimes that go without suffering an explicit financial crisis are centrally planned economies, such as Romania and East Germany. But this is entirely because they failed to meet a minimum condition for having a financial crisis — having a financial system. The consequences for this defect are well-known — in lieu of sharp cyclical ups and downs, these countries produced long-term economic stagnations. A venture capitalist would not fare well in that system.

Li claims that he has studied the ability of democracies to deliver performance. At least in his talk, the evidence that he has done so is not compelling. There is no evidence that countries pay an economic price for being democratic. (It is also important to note that there is no compelling global evidence that democracies necessarily outperform autocracies in economic growth either. Some do and some do not. The conclusion is case by case.) But in the areas of public services, the evidence is in favor of democracies. Two academics, David Lake and Matthew Baum, show that democracies are superior to authoritarian countries in providing public services, such as health and education. Not just established democracies do a better job; countries that transitioned to democracies experienced an immediate improvement in the provision of these public services, and countries that reverted back to authoritarianism typically suffered a setback.

Li blames low growth in Europe and in the United States on democracy. I can understand why he has this view, because this is a common mistake often made by casual observers — China is growing at 8 or 9 percent and the US is growing at 1 or 2 percent . He is mistaking a mathematical effect of lower growth due to high base with a political effect of democracies suppressing growth. Because democratic countries are typically richer and have much higher per-capita GDP, it is much harder for them to grow at the same rate as poor — and authoritarian — countries with a lower level of per-capita GDP. Let me provide an analogy. A 15-year-old boy is probably more likely to go to see a movie or hang out with his friends on his own than a 10-year-old because he is older and more mature. It is also likely that he will not grow as fast as a 10-year-old because he is nearer to the plateau of human height. It would be foolish to claim, as Li’s logic basically did, that the 15-year-old is growing more slowly because he is going to movies on his own.

Li is very clear that he dislikes democracy, more than about the reasons why he dislikes democracy. Li rejects democracy on cultural grounds. In his speech, he asserts that democracy is an alien concept for Chinese culture. This view is almost amusing if not for its consequential implications. Last time I checked, venture capital is a foreign concept but that apparently has not stopped Li from practicing and prospering from it. (And I presume “Eric” to be foreign in origin? I may be wrong on this.) Conversely, would Li insist on adhering to every and each precept of Chinese culture and tradition? Would Li object to abolishing the practice of bound feet of Chinese women?

The simple fact is that the Chinese have accepted many foreign concepts and practices already. (Just a reminder: Marxism to the Chinese is as Western as Adam Smith.) It is a perfectly legitimate debate about which foreign ideas and practices China ought to accept, adopt or adapt, but this debate is about which ideas China should adopt, not whether China should adopt any foreign ideas and practices at all.

If the issue is about which ideas or which practices to adopt or reject, then, unlike Li, I do not feel confident enough to know exactly which foreign ideas and practices 1.3 billion Chinese people want to embrace or want to reject. A cultural argument against democracy does not logically lead to making democracy unavailable to the Chinese but to a course of actions for the Chinese people themselves to decide on the merits or the demerits of democracy. Furthermore, if the Chinese themselves reject democracy on their own, isn’t it redundant to expend massive resources to fight and suppress democracy? Aren’t there better ways to spend this money?

So far this debate has not occurred in China, because having this debate in the first place requires some democracy. But it has occurred in other Chinese environments, and the outcome of those debates is that there is nothing fundamentally incompatible between Chinese culture and democracy. Hong Kong, although without an electoral democratic system, has press freedom and rule of law, and there is no evidence that the place has fallen into chaos and anarchy. Taiwan today has a vibrant democracy, and many mainland travelers to Taiwan often marvel that Taiwanese society is not only democratic but also far more adherent to Chinese traditions than mainland China. (I have always felt that those who believe that democracy and Chinese culture are incompatible are closet supporters of Taiwanese independence. They exclude Taiwanese as Chinese.)

Indeed Li himself has accepted quite a few political reforms that are normally considered as “Western.” NGOs are okay and even some press freedom is okay. He also endorses some intra-party democracy. These are all sensible steps toward making the Chinese system more democratic than the Maoist system, and I am all for them. The difference is that I see freedom to vote and multi-party competition as natural and logical extensions of these initial reforms, whereas Li draws a sharp line in the sand between the political reforms that have already occurred and the potential political reforms that some of us have advocated. As much as I tried, I fail to see any differences in principle between these partial reforms and the more complete reforms encompassing democracy.

There is a very curious way Li objects to democracy: He objects to many of the mechanics of democracy. In particular, he has a thing against voting. But the problem is that voting is simply a way to implement the practice of democracy, and even Li endorses some democracy. For example, he favors intra-party democracy. Fine, I do too; but how do you implement intra-party democracy without voting? This is a bit like praising tennis as a sport but condemning the use of a racket to play it.

Li has not provided a coherent and logical argument for his positions on democracy. I suspect, although I do not have any direct evidence, that there is a simple modus operandi — endorsing reforms the CCP has endorsed and opposing reforms that CCP has opposed. This is fine as far as posturing goes but it is not a principled argument of anything.

That said, I believe it is perfectly healthy and indeed essential to have a rigorous debate on democracy — but that debate ought to be based on data, facts, logic and reasoning. By this criterion, Li’s talk does not start that debate.

In this aspect, however, democracy and autocracy are not symmetrical. In a democracy, we can debate and challenge democracy and autocracy alike, as Li did when he put down George W. Bush (which I greatly enjoyed) and as I do here. But those in an autocracy can challenge democracy only. (Brezhnev, upon being informed that there were protesters shouting “Down with Reagan” in front of the White House and that the US government could not do anything to them, reportedly told Reagan, “There are people shouting ‘Down with Reagan’ on Red Square and I am not doing anything to them.”) I have no troubles with people challenging people in power and being skeptical about democracy. In fact, the ability to do so in a democracy is the very strength of democracy, and a vital source of human progress. Copernicus was Copernicus because he overturned, not because he re-created, Ptolemaic astronomy. But by the same criterion, I do have troubles with people who do not see the merit of extending the same freedom they have to those who currently do not have it.

Like Li, I do not like the messianic tone some have invoked to support democracy. I support democracy on pragmatic grounds. The single most important benefit of democracy is its ability to tame violence. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker provided these startling statistics: During the 20th century, totalitarian regimes were responsible for 138 million deaths, of which 110 million occurred in communist countries. Authoritarian regimes caused another 28 million deaths. Democracies killed 2 million, mainly in their colonies as well as with food blockades and civilian bombings during the wars. Democracies, as Pinker pointed out, have trouble even bringing themselves to execute serial murderers. Democracies, Pinker argued, have “a tangle of institutional restraints, so a leader can’t just mobilize armies and militias on a whim to fan out over the country and start killing massive numbers of citizens.”

Contrary to what he was apparently told when he was a Berkeley hippie, the idea of democracy is not that it leads to a nirvana but that it can help prevent a living hell. Democracy has many, many problems. This insurance function of democracy — of mitigating against disasters — is often forgotten or taken for granted, but it is the single most important reason why democracy is superior to every other political system so far invented by human beings. Maybe one day there will be a better system than democracy, but the Chinese political system, in Li’s rendition, is not one of them.

China Rejects Universal Values

There is more to China than it’s current prominence in global affairs. In this enlightening talk, Kerry Brown reflects on China’s rise and invites us to question our understanding of the country, its people and its values. How did China transform within a few decades to the global powerhouse it is today and what does a future with China in the steering wheel hold for the rest of the world?

Patience: Universal “Good News” (Richard Rohr)

Humans and history both grow slowly. [1] We expect people to show up at our church doors fully transformed and holy before they can be welcomed in. But metanoeite, or change of consciousness, can only come with time. Patience is the very shape of love. Without it, religion is merely about enforcing laws and requirements. Without an evolutionary worldview, Christianity does not really understand, much less foster, growth or change. Nor does it know how to respect and support where history is heading.

Anything called “Good News” needs to reveal a universal pattern that can be relied upon, not just clannish or tribal patterns that might be true on occasion. This is probably why Christianity’s break with Judaism was inevitable, although never intended by either Jesus or Paul. Both Jesus and Paul were good Jews who thought they were reforming Judaism. By the early second century, Christians were already calling themselves “catholics” or “the universals.” At the front of their consciousness was a belief that God is leading all of history somewhere larger and broader and better for everyone. Christianity cannot be bound by ethnicity or nationality. This puts it in essential conflict with any group that wants to domesticate the message for its own “patriotic” purposes.

Without a universal story line that offers grace and caring for all of creation, Jesus is always kept small and seemingly inept. God’s care must be toward all creatures; otherwise, God ends up not being very caring at all, which makes things like water, trees, animals—and other peoples—seem accidental, trivial, or disposable. But grace is not a late arrival in history, an occasional add-on for a handful of humans. God’s grace and life did not just appear a couple thousand years ago when Jesus came, and his story was told through the Gospels. God’s grace cannot be a random solution doled out to the few and the virtuous—or it would hardly be grace at all! (See Ephesians 2:7-10 if you want the radical meaning of grace summed up in three succinct verses.)

Richard Rohr: Universal Restoration

The shape of creation must somehow mirror and reveal the shape of the Creator. We must have a God at least as big as the universe, or else our view of God becomes irrelevant, constricted, and more harmful than helpful. The Christian image of a torturous hell and God as a petty tyrant has not helped us to know, trust, or love God. God ends up being less loving than most people we know. Those attracted to the common idea of hell operate out of a scarcity model, where there is not enough Divine Love to transform, awaken, and save. The dualistic mind is literally incapable of thinking any notion of infinite grace.

The common view of hell and a quid pro quo God is based not on Scripture but on Dante’s Divine Comedy—great poetry, but not good theology. The word “hell” is not mentioned in the first five books of the Bible. Paul and John never once use the word. Most of the Eastern fathers never believed in a literal hell, nor did many Western mystics.

Eastern fathers such as Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Peter Chrysologus, Maximus the Confessor, and Gregory of Nazianzus taught some form of apocatastasis instead, translated as “universal restoration” (Acts 3:21). Origen writes:

 Gregory of Nyssa’s two arguments for universal salvation as:

a fundamental belief in the impermanence of evil in the face of God’s love and a conviction that God’s plan for humanity is intended to be fulfilled in every single human being. These beliefs are identified with 1 Corinthians 15:28 [“so that God may be all in all”] and Genesis 1:26 [we are made in God’s “image and likeness”] in particular, but are derived from what Gregory sees as the direction of Scripture as a whole. [2]

If we understand God as Trinity—the fountain fullness of outflowing love, relationship itself—there is no theological possibility of any hatred or vengeance in God. Divinity, which is revealed as Love Itself, will always eventually win. God does not lose (see John 6:37-39). We are all saved by mercy. Any notion of an actual “geographic” hell or purgatory is unnecessary and, in my opinion, destructive of the very restorative notion of the whole Gospel.

.. Love and mercy are given undeservedly now, so why would they not be given later too?

The Fall of the German Empire

But if the test of Europe’s unity feels like a test for liberal democracy, it’s a mistake to see it only in those terms. It is also a struggle of nations against empire, of the Continent’s smaller countries against German mastery and Northern European interests, in which populist parties are being elected to resist policies the center sought to impose upon the periphery without a vote. And the liberal aspect of the European system wouldn’t be under such strain if the imperial aspect hadn’t been exploited unwisely by leaders in the empire’s German core.

This disastrous imperial dynamic was first manifest in the fiscal policy imposed on Southern Europe in the wake of the Great Recession — a policy that manifestly made more sense for Germany’s economy than for Italy’s or Spain’s or Greece’s, even as it was confidently presented by German bankers as a hardheaded necessity that no merely national government could be permitted to reject.

Then the same dynamic repeated itself on immigration, when Angela Merkel took it upon herself to make migration policy for the Continent, in atonement for Germany’s racist past and in the hopes of revitalizing its aging society. The resistance from other Europeans to her open door to refugees and migrants, the refusal to let the German chancellor and her admirers determine immigration policy, is one reason among many that populists won the Brexit referendum and find themselves on the cusp of power in Italy — and it’s the major reason that populist parties rule today in Budapest and Warsaw.

Chris Hayes: What ‘Law and Order’ Means to Trump

No president since Richard Nixon has embraced the weaponized rhetoric of “law and order” as avidly as Mr. Trump. “When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2016. “I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job properly done. In this race for the White House, I am the law and order candidate.”

Time and again, the president denounces “illegals” and “criminals” and the “American carnage” they wreak on law-abiding Americans. He even advised an audience of police officers to rough up suspects they were arresting.

.. Yet this tough-guy stance disappears when the accused are in the president’s inner circle. In defending Rob Porter, the White House senior aide accused of abuse by both of his ex-wives, the president wondered whatever happened to due process while praising a man accused of giving his wife a black eye. (Mr. Porter denies the abuse.)

..  Where was this concern for due process, they asked, when the president and his supporters chanted “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton, who hadn’t even been formally accused of a crime? Where was his devotion to due process when he called for the Central Park Five to be executed, and then, after their exoneration, still maintained that they were guilty?

.. The president’s boundless benefit of the doubt for the Rob Porters and Roy Moores of the world, combined with off-with-their-heads capriciousness for immigrants accused of even minor crimes, is not a contradiction. It is the expression of a consistent worldview that he campaigned on and has pursued in office.

.. In this view, crime is not defined by a specific offense. Crime is defined by who commits it. If a young black man grabs a white woman by the crotch, he’s a thug and deserves to be roughed up by police officers. But if Donald Trump grabs a white woman by the crotch in a nightclub (as he’s accused of doing, and denies), it’s locker-room high jinks.

This view is also expressed by many of the president’s staff members, supporters and prominent allies. During the same week that the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, repeatedly vouched for Rob Porter’s integrity, Mr. Kelly also mused that hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrants who did not fill out the paperwork for DACA protections had refused to “get off their asses.”

A political movement that rails against “immigrant crime” while defending alleged abusers and child molesters is one that has stopped pretending to have any universalist aspirations.

The president’s moral framework springs from an American tradition of cultivating fear and contempt among its white citizens against immigrants, indigenous people and people of color, who are placed on the other side of “the law.” It’s a practice that has taken on new strength at a time when many white people fear they may be outnumbered, outvoted and out of time.

This is the opposite of what we like to tell ourselves is the traditional American civic creed: one symbolized by a blindfolded Lady Justice who applies the law without fear or favor to whoever may come before her. It is one of Mr. Trump’s most insidious victories that he has given his supporters permission to drop any pretense of insisting that their actions and views should conform to this principle.

If all that matters when it comes to “law and order” is who is a friend and who is an enemy, and if friends are white and enemies are black or Latino or in the wrong party, then the rhetoric around crime and punishment stops being about justice and is merely about power and corruption.

And this is what “law and order” means: the preservation of a certain social order, not the rule of law.

.. The history of the United States is the story of a struggle between the desire to establish certain universal rights and the countervailing desire to preserve a particular social order.

We are now witnessing a president who wholly embraces the latter. America can have that kind of social order, or it can have justice for all. But it can’t have both.

The Anti-Christian Alt-Right

The Perverse Thought of Right-Wing Identity Politics

.. “The Church has become the number one enemy of Western Civilization. Soon the only people left in Christianity will be third-world immigrants and a handful of self-hating whites.”

..Hillary Clinton devoted a speech in Nevada to deploring its influence on the election. “These are race-baiting ideas. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman—all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘alt-right,’” she charged.

.. Clinton could not name a single member of a movement that, she warned, imperiled American democracy

.. The movement exists almost entirely among anonymous users of the Internet. It has no institutions, no money, no political representation, and no traditional media.

.. It enjoys the close attention of the liberal establishment it seeks to discredit and the conservative movement it intends to displace.

.. “Everything we have seen over the past year suggests that the alt-right will be around for the foreseeable future.”

.. The alt-right purports to defend the identity and interests of white people, who it believes are the compliant victims of a century-long swindle by liberal morality. Its goals are not conventionally conservative.

It does not so much question as mock standard conservative positions on free trade, abortion, and foreign policy, regarding them as principles that currently abet white dispossession.

.. Its creed, in the words of Richard Spencer, is “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.”

.. the alt-right represents something more nefarious, and frankly more interesting, than white identity politics.

.. The alt-right is anti-Christian.

.. Its leading thinkers flaunt their rejection of Christianity and their desire to convert believers away from it.

.. Greg Johnson, an influential theorist with a doctorate in philosophy from Catholic University of America, argues that “Christianity is one of the main causes of white decline” and a “necessary condition of white racial suicide.”

.. it argues that Christian teachings have become socially and morally poisonous to the West.

.. Its intellectual birth is marked by the 1918 publication of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.

.. While the movement is often accused of advocating racial supremacy, its appeal is more often to cultural difference. A generation tired of multicultural pieties

.. A cultural relativist, Spengler rejects as a “ridiculous distortion” any view that privileges European thought or history.

.. “Each culture possesses its own standards, the validity of which begins and ends with it.

.. Spengler therefore sees the world as divided into fundamentally different cultures, whose identities he interprets in morphological terms. Cultures are like plants

.. They live through a determined cycle of birth, growth, maturity, and death. During its lifespan, a culture gives expression to the animating “form”

.. Spengler had no scholarly expertise in non-Western cultures (his advanced studies were in mathematics), and Decline of the West is frequently nonsense as both history and sociology. But its interpretations of cultural artifacts and their hidden symbolic meanings are often brilliant and have enchanted readers for a century.

.. All cultures are unique, but some are more unique than others. “We men of the Western culture are an exception,” Spengler claims. At the heart of his book is an interpretation of the culture he namedFaustian,” a term widely used in the intellectual circles of the alt-right.

.. a single idea permeates the arts and sciences of the West. Its distinctive mark is an intense striving for “infinity.”

.. our culture has uniquely sought to see all things in relation to the highest or most distant horizons, which, in turn, it seeks to surpass and extend.

  • The vaults of medieval cathedrals, the
  • discovery of perspective in painting, the
  • exploration of the New World, the
  • development of orchestral music, the
  • invention of the telescope and
  • calculus

—in Spengler’s story, all express the Faustian drive toward transcendence.

.. He argues that there is no Christianity without Western civilization. He arrives at this conclusion by claiming the West begins not with ancient Greece or Rome, but with the high Middle Ages and the birth of scholasticism, Gothic architecture, and polyphony.

.. Its cultural achievements are not testimonies to faith in God. They are the monuments of Faustian man’s attempt—in speculation, stone, glass, and sound—to propel himself into infinity. Of this aspiration, Spengler maintains, “the Gospels know nothing.”

..  In the minds and hands of Europeans, Christianity became a religion that affirmed the unceasing expansion of human freedom, power, and knowledge.

.. There is no biblical god for Faustian man, but there is high Christian culture, which is a tribute to his identity.

.. To a young man lacking a strong identity he says, “This heroic culture is your inheritance, and yours alone. You stand in a line of men who have attained the highest excellences and freely endured the hardest challenges.

.. Albert the Great, Cortés, Newton, Goethe, the Wright brothers all carry this daring spirit, and so do you.”

.. in his 1933 book Hour of Decision, he foresaw the rise of democratic “Caesars” and growing racial animosity. Who will give birth to the next great culture? Not Europeans

.. Spengler predicted the future would belong to the race that had preserved its “strength” in face of the rising “colored menace.”

  • If Spengler is the alt-right’s cultural critic,
  • Julius Evola is its political mystic.
    • Umberto Eco mockingly called him “the magician,” and the
    • future Pope Paul VI condemned his writings in a Vatican newspaper
    • Evola is the most right-wing thinker possible in the modern world. There is nobody to his right, nor can there be. His influence on the alt-right is detectable in one of its most controversial features: its rejection of human equality.
    • “We don’t belong to the liberal family,” writes popular blogger Hunter Wallace. “Nothing is less self-evident to us than the notion that all men are created equal.” Here is the movement’s clearest dispute with conventional conservatism
    • The alt-right denies that constitutional democracy is worthy of principled veneration. For Evola, its popular acceptance is a sign we are living in a spiritual dark age.

The basic problem with modernity is “desacralization,” the collapse of spiritual meaning in daily life. Work, family, and citizenship are no longer saturated with spiritual importance, but are understood in functionally secular terms.

.. materialism “kills every possibility

.. Spengler’s fundamental flaw was that he “lacked any understanding of metaphysics and transcendence,” which led him to conclude that human cultures are irreducibly different.

.. Evola believed more or less the exact opposite, arguing that there are timeless and universal principles that have provided the foundation for every true civilization. He referred to these perennial truths as “Tradition,” and he traced the disorders of modernity to our loss of contact with it.

.. No, the world had been slouching into spiritual poverty ever since the eighth century b.c., when the world of Tradition began to disappear.

.. Revolt Against the Modern Worldclaimed that these primordial societies—whose existence can be accessed only by way of myth and legend, not critical scholarship—all operated on the same principles.

.. In a traditional culture, every aspect of human life, every social activity, role, and caste, was dedicated to the service of an otherworldly order; indeed, they were ritual pathways into it. “According to Tradition,” Evola imagines, “every authority is fraudulent, every law unjust and barbarous, every institution is vain and ephemeral unless . . . they are derived from above.”

.. His key claim is that traditional societies were hierarchically ordered under an absolute ruler, who embodied the sacral order itself.

..  Men Among the Ruins, he argued that political conservatism is intrinsically impossible in a democratic age. True political order can never come from below; it must always be imposed from above.

.. only a transformative leader could elevate humanity out of its degraded state. Such a leader could not appeal to the masses—this was the mistake of the vulgar fascisms of Mussolini and Hitler—but must inspire submission through lofty contempt for democratic norms and popular tastes.

“The presence of superior individuals bestows on a multitude . . . a meaning and a justification they previously lacked,” Evola wrote. “It is the inferior who needs the superior, and not the other way around.”

Evola was less clear about what this sacred authority looked like than what stood in the way of its realization.

.. The problem is that Catholicism forbids the sacred state. And a state without absolute spiritual unity is no state at all.

.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s

.. however, no return is necessary if we simply move beyond Christianity altogether. Evola did not believe in a personal deity, but his criticisms of Christianity were political rather than theological. With Benoist, the alt-right becomes explicitly and confessionally anti-Christian.

.. took its inspiration from the failed “conservative revolution” of Weimar Germany.

Carl Schmitt, Ernst Jünger, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, and Spengler were its chief figures

.. Most of its members, including Spengler, took sides against the Nazi regime, but they also sought a path for the West beyond the twin evils of American democracy and Soviet communism. Benoist comes from this anti-liberal tradition

.. Benoist is the leading theorist of the European New Right, an intellectual movement that began in France in the late 1960s

.. attempt to envision a post-Christian future for people of European descent.

.. his 1981 work On Being a Pagan

.. Paganism’s central claim is simple: that the world is holy and eternal. “Far from desacralizing the world,” Benoist tells us, paganism “sacralizes it in the literal sense of the word, since it regards the world as sacred.”

Paganism is also a humanism. It recognizes man, the highest expression of nature, as the sole measure of the divine.

.. God does not therefore create men; men make gods, which “exist” as ideal models that their creators strive to equal.

.. Benoist’s case against Christianity is that it forbids the expression of this “Faustian” vitality.

.. It does so by placing the ultimate source of truth outside of humanity, in an otherworldly realm to which we must be subservient.

.. He accuses Christianity of crippling our most noble impulses. Christianity makes us strangers in our own skin, conning us into distrusting our strongest intuitions. We naturally respect beauty, health, and power, Benoist observes, but Christianity teaches us to revere the deformed, sick, and weak instead.

.. Benoist’s theology is in the service of a political warning, and it is this, more than his Nietzschean posturing, that attracts the alt-right.

.. Christianity is unable to protect European peoples and their cultures.

.. Christianity is not our religion.

..  Benoist means that Christianity renders Western culture morally lethargic and culturally defenseless.

.. its universalism poisons our attachments to particular loyalties and ties.

.. “If all men are brothers,” Benoist claims, “then no one can truly be a brother.”

.. Politics depends on the recognition of both outsiders and enemies, yet the Christian Church sees all people as potential members, indeed potential saints.

.. Christianity imparted to our culture an ethics that has mutated into what the alt-right calls “pathological altruism.”

.. Its self-distrust, concern for victims, and fear of excluding outsiders—such values swindle Western peoples out of a preferential love for their own.

.. Christianity today is the enemy of the West and the race that created it

.. we ought to see ourselves through the eyes of our pagan critics

.. They distort many truths, through both malice and ignorance, and lead young men into espousing views and defending authors they scarcely understand.

.. “Christianity provides an identity that is above or before racial and ethnic identity,” Richard Spencer complains.

.. invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds.

.. identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging.

.. we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation

.. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow.

.. A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance.

.. “The inheritance we receive from Christ,” the late pope argued, “orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures toward an eternal home land.”

.. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones

..  Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement.

.. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.

.. The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict.

.. . For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals.

We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified.

Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.