Hair splitting vs fact checking

For all the complaints about Trump seeming impervious to all fact-checking, it doesn’t help very much when fact-checkers at major newspapers of record solemnly announce that Bill Clinton never signed NAFTA on the grounds that George H.W. Bush signed the preliminary agreement and Bill Clinton signed the implementing act of Congress’s vote to ratify it (which he had lobbied heavily for as president). Absurd hair-splitting technicality arguments don’t strengthen fact-checking.


Sept 9, 2015 – Arsenal For Democracy 142

Posted by Bill on behalf of the team.


Topics: Are Blairites and Clintonites right about the center-left? What lessons can be learned from the 1820s and 1830s in US politics? Understanding the Trump bankruptcies better. People: Bill, Nate. Produced: September 6th, 2015.

Episode 142 (51 min):
AFD 142

Discussion Points:

– Corbyn and Sanders: Are centrist Blairites and Clintonites right about the left?
– US history: What lessons can be learned from the 1820s and 1830s in US politics?
– Trump bankruptcies: Not as negative as widely suggested? We compare and contrast.

Related Links

AFD: “The Only Way is Blair”
AFD: “When The Party’s Over: The 1820s in US Politics”
AFD: “Op-Ed | Trump’s Bankruptcies in Perspective”


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iTunes Store Link: “Arsenal for Democracy by Bill Humphrey”

And don’t forget to check out The Digitized Ramblings of an 8-Bit Animal, the video game blog of our announcer, Justin.

The Only Way is Blair?

Questioning a fundamental tenet of the Tony Blair mythos (and the Bill Clinton mythos).


One of the major talking points put forward by Tony Blair allies (and the former Prime Minister himself) in the aftermath of the 2015 election fiasco and again now during the leadership contest with the rise of leftist Jeremy Corbyn has been that Blair’s strain of Labour Party ideology (“New Labour”) was superior to all others because he “won three elections in a row” with it and brought Labour out of its nearly two decades in the opposition wilderness. Blair’s own snide phrasing, which he even dared to utter long before the election loss, was “a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result” implying that a traditional left-wing party can’t win elections (not that Labour ran a particularly or consistently left-wing campaign this year).

Similarly, we sometimes hear roughly the sentiment echoed in the United States with regard to Bill Clinton’s centrist/triangulating Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and the “New Democrats.” Blair explicitly modeled his 1997 election campaign on Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns (and Clinton’s wider political philosophies), so there are always comparisons between the two. At minimum, they both ran on highly personality-oriented campaigns that claimed to be bringing a new direction to politics on the whole, not just to their own parties. Something transcending those “tradition” right and left alignments, supposedly.

Let’s examine these dual contentions, though. Did the Democrats re-take the White House in 1992 because of Clinton’s Democratic Party centrism? Did Labour re-take parliament in 1997 because of Blair’s New Labour approach?

Blairites and Clintonites alike fervently believe that centrism is what won them power. I would contend instead that inevitability did. Eventually, the opposing major party returns to power.

Blair going centrist didn’t “save” Labour from itself. Conservatives held power for 18 years. Prime Minister John Major’s net approval rating across the early 1990s was in -60 to -20 range. The Labour leadership had higher net approval before Blair took over as opposition leader in 1994, and Major’s net approval really fell off a cliff even before Blair’s ascent. I would conclude from that that any reasonably competent politician (left or center) could have led Labour back to power in 1997 after a whopping eighteen (bleak) years of Conservative rule. (True, leadership ratings are not wholly predictive at the ballot box, but they’re indicative of strengths or weaknesses in broad terms.)

By comparison, Democrats panicked after losing the White House only 3 times in a row in merely 12 years (1980, 1984, 1988). In all likelihood, rota fortunae (the ever-rotating wheel of fortune), not DLCism, won the White House back for Democrats in 1992. The relatively centrist Democratic Congressional caucus also kept shrinking before and after Clinton’s ascent to power, eventually leading to the loss of its House majority in 1994 for the first time since the 1950s. It’s a little hard to square that fact with the Clinton hype.

Much like Prime Minister Major, of course, President George H.W. Bush was struggling with rather low popularity by 1992. Where the year before his high ratings had deterred every single top-tier Democrat from challenging him (leaving Clinton to emerge startlingly from the third tier), by July 1992 George H.W. Bush had the approval of less than 30% of Americans. Not a ringing endorsement for him, and also not really a function of anything Clinton was doing. I believe a reasonably competent progressive Democrat — anyone who could connect with voters on their top concerns and tap into their frustrations — could have won the White House in 1992.

“Inevitability” is, of course, a loaded word in politics. But I’m speaking in broad, big-picture terms based on historical and structural realities. The odds were very low that, in both the U.S. and the U.K., during the 1990s, the major left-leaning parties (Democrats and Labour respectively) would completely wither away and die out as a major party. Thus, regardless of ideology, they would have remained the only serious voting options for people who had lost patience with the incumbent governments. Eventually, in democratic systems, people always get tired of single party rule and change horses.

That’s why three terms in a row for one party to rule is already relatively unusual, 4 terms is rarer, and 5 almost never happens. At a certain point, how far left/center/right your party runs in a breaking-point election becomes pretty irrelevant in a system dominated by two parties. People get frustrated enough to vote for the opposition party automatically. It doesn’t even take that long, considering just 12 years seems to be a pretty common point for voters to jump ship.

Republicans have learned that fact very well and used it to their advantage to continue winning elections with ever-more conservative platforms. Rather than giving up and moderating, they just wait it out and organize for the next moment of frustration in which to bring extreme candidates into office to enact steadfastly conservative agendas.
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Labour propose tax avoidance crackdown, Tories balk

Despite recent backlash from big business and finance firms and lobbies, Labour are pushing ahead with a leftward shift to crack down on corporate abuses, according to The Financial Times. In addition to charging that Conservatives have “totally failed” to take sufficient action on tax avoidance loopholes generally, Labour wants to target British tax havens:

On Friday [February 6, 2015], Ed Miliband, Labour’s leader, announced plans to put the UK’s offshore financial centres on a tax haven blacklist if they did not comply with a new transparency measures. But the plan was attacked as unworkable by [Chancellor] Osborne, who seized on it as further evidence that the Labour leader was “unfit to be prime minister”.

Grand_Cayman_IslandWell, I don’t know about that, Mr. Osborne, but it seems like trying to do something about the problem of offshore UK/crown tax havens (full story➚) is better than doing nothing. This is, after all, creating a lot of problems for other countries (see previous link), and British governments have repeatedly pledged to the international community to rein them in — and has singularly failed to do so.

It will be interesting to see if Labour are willing to hold fast to their new position on corporate abuses — fully reasonable and sufficiently moderated positions, in my view — until the May elections or if they bend to pressure to be blindly (and fearfully) “pro-business,” as they arguably were in much of the “New Labour” years.

I say “interesting,” because I have a strong suspicion that the outcome of the internal Labour debate — between its working-class/progressive base and its City of London finance types — could prefigure the coming 2016 debates (if we have any) in the U.S. Democratic Party about whether to run on “middle class economics” or in Wall Street’s pocket.

There are certainly a lot of very clear parallels here, given the similarly outsized roles “The City” and Wall Street have taken on in both countries’ economies and politics, along with the controversial transformations of the New Democrats and New Labour led by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair respectively in the 1990s. While it may have worked in the short run, it has caused a great deal of problems for both parties in the longer run.

Moreover, in both countries, the center-left parties find themselves quickly abandoned by their respective financial districts for the conservatives — the natural home of Big Finance — when the winds change. Meanwhile, the under-served natural economic base of Labour and the Democrats drifts angrily, staying home on election day or seeking solace in fringe parties.

There is, of course, one other linkage of interest here. The tax evasion/avoidance problem — combined with various recent banking scandals — have given a new meaning to the phrase “special relationship” between the United States and the United Kingdom, given how often City and Wall Street firms seem to be tangled up in it together.