US Presidential Discussion on Above the Law

US Presidential Discussion on Above the Law
  • Good morning, Fiona. 

    I hope that it is a good morning in the Midlands. Down South the sun has not yet appeared from behind the rainclouds, but the birds are still singing and Arsenal won 2-0 against Basel last night. But, regardless of the weather, the joys of sports, and indeed the pleasures of summer, for the past few months all has felt rather doom-and-gloom whenever I have seen friends or looked at social media. I don't know whether you have experienced something similar? In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, there seemed to be a fog of despondency that has recently started to lift only to be replaced by despair about the US Presidential election. Even the Daily Mail seems somewhat taken aback by the idea of Donald Trump becoming the most powerful politician in the world. And I am yet to meet a European person who wants him to win, even if many of them do not want Hilary Clinton in the White House.

    How has it come to this? A man with no political experience could potentially lead the United States. Even though it seems unlikely that he will win, it also seems ludicrous that he is in this position at all. The people I know who will vote for him, and sadly it seems many of my American friends either will do so or know others who will, fall into two camps: (1) those who believe his soundbites and (2) those who despise Hilary Clinton. 

    There is so much to discuss, but perhaps we can start with the second factor motivating people to vote Trump, especially given that we do not share the same views about the Secretary of State. What do you make of the binary love/hate positions taken towards Hilary Clinton? She has always been a polarizing figure,  for reasons that cannot be explained away by her gender, intellect, or politics -- three things she shares with Michelle Obama, but that have not undermined the current First Lady's high approval ratings amongst the US public. 

    Of course, the positions of those two women cannot directly be compared given that Clinton has long-made clear her political ambitions. But even before then, she was disliked by many people across US society. And it cannot all be explained away by sexism. While there does seem to be trend towards vilification of some women who rise to the highest levels of political power, from Helen Clark to Theresa May, whereas others like Mary Robinson and Angela Merkel are not given that same treatment.

    Anyway, I have started to ask too many questions and raise too many points in one email. Looking forward to hearing back from you, Prof.



  • Morning Rosa,  

    I am not sure that the weather is much better here in the Midlands than you describe in London, but campus is full again and there is a great buzz around the Law School so I have no cause for complaint!


    I am going to do something potentially very annoying here as a first step and just challenge one of the basic premises of your initial email: that opposition to Hilary Clinton “cannot be explained away by her gender, intellect, or politics” and that she is subject to a level of sexist criticism that “others like Mary Robinson and Angela Merkel” are not. I wonder whether Robinson and Merkel would agree with this latter claim; I must say I certainly don’t. Robinson was derided as a bad mother and ‘unwomanly’ in her ambition during the Irish presidential election (which, thankfully, she won) and Merkel is subjected to most horrendous sexualized and sexist critique on an almost constant basis. But anyway, we can leave that to one side for now, my having noted it it just to say that women in politics simply receive a more sexist and more sexualized form of critique than men do).


    Before I start on why I think much critique of Clinton is largely informed by sexism I want to make clear that I acknowledge that there are reasons disconnected from the fact that she is a woman why people dislike Clinton.   For many, in particular, her position in respect of military intervention in particular is extremely problematic (although I note also that her articulation and implementation of “smart power” while Secretary of State is an extremely important, and for some reason largely unacknowledged, context in which that critique should be framed in my view [good overview]). But even leaving that to one side, I think one has to acknowledge that what we are currently seeing in respect of Hillary Clinton is largely and in most cases a product of both targeted, sexist criticism of her for many years and broader and often implicit bias in how we perceive women politicians.


    Let me start with the first one. I am astonished by how many people I know—good, feminist people—who I hear repeating the claims that Clinton is in bed with Wall Street, corrupt, illiberal (or at least insufficiently progressive), a liar, too ambitious (what does that even mean) and so on in precisely the terms that were crafted by relentless anti-Clinton, sexist rhetoric that started in the 1990s and has continued ever since. Indeed, I am tempted to say that William Safire’s 1996 opinion editorial in the NYT, “Blizzard of Lies” might be one of the most successful and enduring take downs of someone in the public eye ever written (you can read it here). I find it hard to disagree with the analysis here that this is the start of the great ‘Hillary is a Liar’ lie.


    Repeatedly it is now shown that she is in fact one of the most truthful politicians, and certainly remarkably more truthful than her opponent in this race. But in spite of that this myth has been going on for so long that it has almost become accepted as “truth” separated from the context and motivation for its injection into public discourse in the first place. Thus, in my view, the claims of mendacity and somehow intolerable ambition that lie at the heart of that piece and many that have followed it are now often considered to be ‘objective critique’ that is somehow separable from her gender. These claims may not be about the fact that she is a woman per se, but they entered the popular imagination and became anchored therein from deeply sexist beginnings.


    And of course this connects with my second point—about implicit sexism. You note that people don’t seem to dislike Michelle Obama in the ways they do Hillary Clinton. Even if that is true, I wonder whether it would still be the case if Obama decided to run for the Senate or run for the Presidency? What is particularly interesting to me is that when Clinton has power, but is not seeking it, she is incredibly popular. She was a hugely popular Secretary of State, for example; for a time (if I remember correctly) the most popular political figure in the United States. But as soon as she actually does something to seek power (rather than holding or exercising it) her popularity plummets. She is, in other words, “too ambitious”—and how many of us who are successful women in our chosen fields are used to hearing that phrase, or to being called strident or formidable (words rarely if ever connected with men), or told we are intimidating, or reminded to “smile”--?    

    All of this is just classic sexism, and often implicit rather than explicit but not less damaging and problematic for that. Just a few weeks ago The Atlantic ran this piece about how some people think Clinton cant be trusted because she wants to win. Seen in the context where her opponent is apparently attractive to voters because he is, in his words, a winner who wants to “make America great again” etc this is truly extraordinary. Why is it ok for him to want to win but not for her? It’s because women aren’t supposed to want to be winners; we are not supposed to be ambitious or show our ambition. Especially not if, in Trump’s words, we don’t have the “stamina” for it (I wonder what the many former American presidents who had serious illnesses would say to this ridiculous claim, by the way). We might accept and even exercise power if someone benevolently gives it to us (like Obama did to Clinton when he made her Secretary of State), but woe betide we might seek it out.    

    So yes, there are lots of actual policy and political disagreements to talk about re Clinton and reasons why people disagree with, and are wary or cautious of, her. But I don’t think we can really get to those and properly discuss them until and unless we are willing to recognise that she is just not being held to the same standards as others, and in my view that isn’t because she is a Hawk or a Libertarian or even because she is rich. It’s because she’s a woman!  

  • Hi Fiona,

    Regarding my point that it cannot be 'explained away', what I meant is that sexism is not the sole factor for why so many people despise Hilary Clinton. Of course, sexism and sexist criticism play a significant role in how females in power are discussed, critiqued, and portrayed by the media and by individuals. And the trailblazers of this and the previous generation have been subjected to horrific personal attacks alongside a pernicious undercurrent of sexism throughout their careers. But the vilification of Hilary Clinton, Helen Clark and Theresa May stands in contrast to the types of attacks on other female political figures. 

    But moving on to the substantive points that you raise about Clinton. Yes, she is a formidable politician and has been a strong Secretary of State. That does not mean that her policies have won her friends within the hard right or hard left. Indeed, if they had done then she would not be a centrist Democrat. But what of the accusations of nepotism in terms of her receiving that job? Yes, she and her husband were both highly educated and powerful in their own merits when they decided that he would pursue a political career, but why should that decision have opened doors for her to take one of the most powerful jobs in the world when she had not herself risen through the political ranks? Yes, she understood politics as an insider -- but as the wife of the politician and then President. Of course Trump has no political experience whatsoever,  but that fact is separate to the charges of nepotism against Clinton.

    I enjoyed reading the Daily Kos piece to which you provided the hyperlink. The discussion of scandals in that piece, however, fails to acknowledge the scandals where there are serious questions about Clinton's innocence. I still cannot seem to get to the bottom of the Clintons' (plural) role in Haiti after the earthquake, but there seems to be a lot of evidence about corruption and nepotism. Similarly, the email scandal is one that cannot easily be shrugged off or explained away by pointing to vilification owing to sexism and jealousy.

    That is not to say that I disagree with much of what you say, ranging from money to ambition to illness. The way that Hilary Clinton has been treated over the past twenty years has been appalling. Even more so given that so many of the outlets to deploy sexist vilification are the ones who then champion women's rights in countries (mostly Muslim ones) abroad. 

    But perhaps we can have a look at some of the policy reasons why many people do not want to vote for her. Because this election provides voters with a choice of voting for one of two deeply unpopular candidates, or throwing in a protest vote knowing that doing so may enable Donald Trump to become President, or simply voting with their feet and staying out of the voting booths. The hard left, or even left-left, who supported Bernie Sanders have significant misgivings about voting for an establishment figure who does not stand for the policies and politics to which they ascribe. That is no more sexism than the people in the Labour Party and to the left of that political party who have voted in Jeremy Corbyn. We must acknowledge the polarization of politics across Western Europe and North America, with both the right and left wanting politicians who do not occupy the centre ground. Trump feeds into that type of political shift, with his hard right rhetoric (even though no-one knows whether he even has policies to back up his bluster), whereas Hilary Clinton represents the politics of the previous generation. 

    Right, I am off to make a cup of coffee and to deal with some of the emails that have come in while I have been writing to you. 

    All the best



  • Hi Rosa 

    Yes—let’s move on to the questions of nepotism and policy and agree that sexism is an important contextual frame to bear in mind.


    In re the claim of nepotism in being appointed as Secretary of State, I have to say it rather baffles me. The Secretary is appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate, the same as lots of other senior appointments in the US Executive (and, indeed, the Judiciary for that matter). So, to some extent, there is never any transparency about how or why anyone becomes Secretary of State. Thus, it may be useful to compare her to recent Secretaries of State (leaving out short-term acting Secretaries) starting with John Kerry.


    John Kerry served as a Senator and Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has quite a long Senatorial record, and before that he was Lieutenant Governor in Massachusetts and a lawyer, and he has some military service. Condoleezza Rice is an accomplished academic and had a glittering scholarly career before becoming the National Security Advisor to George W. Bush and then Secretary of State. She had held some roles in the National Security Council of George Bush Snr to whom she was also a special assistant to the President on national security affairs. To the best of my knowledge, she had no experience whatsoever of being elected or serving in politics formally before becoming NSA. Colin Powell was, of course, a four star general and had significant military experience and expertise before he became Secretary of State. While still in the military he had been National Security Advisor. As far as I know he had absolutely no experience of electoral politics when he became Secretary of State. And finally, Madeleine Albright had worked in the office of the National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter (the NSA was her former doctoral supervisor, if I remember correctly), had a very accomplished academic career specializing in international politics, was a party advisor on foreign policy, and had been US Ambassador to the United Nations (appointed by Bill Clinton) before becoming Secretary of State.


    Against all of these examples—all of whom have their faults but against none of whom I have heard allegations of nepotism per se—it seems to me that Clinton stacks up well or, at least, does not have a record so appreciably different as to underpin a sustainable claim of nepotism. She had some experience of diplomacy and international politics from her time as First Lady of course, but in addition to that she is a lawyer and accomplished scholar, a two-term Senator for New York (the only one of these people who had been elected to public office apart from John Kerry, as far as I know) who was on the Armed Services Committee and the Commission for Security and Cooperation in Europe. It is of course right to note that her senatorial career is not as developed as Kerry’s, and she hadn’t held formal positions in presidential administrations (for, I think, obvious reasons), but she was hardly an inexperienced or unqualified candidate compared to her closest comparators.


    All systems where someone is appointed to a major job on the nod of the President are problematic, of course, but she was confirmed by the Senate. So, to be completely honest, I just don’t think the nepotism charges stand up to scrutiny. I can understand where they come from, but they don’t convince me.


    Now, on the other hand, I don’t know much about the Clintons’ involvement in Haiti—I would be really interested to learn more. Can you fill me in?


    As for the emails: yes, that is problematic. Again, it is a practice that had been carried out by other Secretaries of State (although not in quite the same way; there is a great fact check here) and not attracted similar critique. It was, I think, an error of judgement and I was gratified on Monday to hear her say, during the debate, that she made an error and would do things differently now if she were in the same position again. I don’t quite know what else she can now do. I do appreciate that people think it reinforces their view that she is somehow devious or corrupt or otherwise suspect, but the emails that have been released to date don’t seem to show that and neither, I think, did the FBI investigation. It wasn’t for personal gain or corrupt reasons; it was just a poorly made decision. That doesn’t mean it’s not important, but I don’t think it is the enormous, unprecedented, and devastating blow to her candidacy or her character that some seem to be painting it as.


    Much more difficult and, I think, interesting is the broader point you make about what this election (and other elections and political movements around the world at present) say about people’s sense of division and disenfranchisement from the mainstream of politics or The Establishment, so to speak. I think this is a real issue and something we must pay urgent attention too. Far too many people felt left behind, frustrated, left out, neglected and abandoned by politics. They are feeling the sharpest possible edge of globalization, for example (note how Trump polls especially well on trade, even though he has no plan for how to ‘bring jobs home’ people connect with his message that global trade hurts American labourers) and because, I think, of inter-generational political failure they are not always equipped or able to engage in newer forms of economic activity and labour. Whoever wins in November that problem will remain, and so will the kinds of other social problems that are connected to (though neither caused nor explicable by) it such as xenophobia, racism, anti-intellectualism, and post-fact-ism (if that is a term!). What I really want to know from the Clinton campaign is whether she has a plan to really try to address that and that is one place in which, I must say, the Sanders’ candidacy was probably most successful in shifting the Democrat and Clinton platform for this election.


    What do you think? On this latter point, I think the parallels between the US and UK politics at the moment are really quite interesting, and I worry very much that the state of Labour and the near-death of the Lib Dems make it so much more difficult to try to have a productive national political debate and progress on the kinds of things we will need to try to arrest this trend by rebuilding faith in politics (and, in the course of so doing, rebuilding politics).

  • Hi Fiona,

    I am about to do a France24 interview about JASTA, which is a whole other kettle of fish that we should discuss one day given my interest in immunities and your expertise on counter-terrorism. But for now --while my head is somewhat occupied thinking about how US exceptionalism and unilateralism could bring down the house of cards on state and diplomatic relations, thus unravelling decades and centuries of international relations -- I have two quick questions to ask before I respond fully to your email.

    1. What do you think of the fact that some of the most powerful figures in the US (Secretary of State, Supreme Court judges, etc) are political appointees and therefore in place owing to nepotism (irrespective of their merits, or lack thereof)?

    2. Why do you think that the hard left did not get their candidate, but the hard right did? I did not follow the Democrat Primaries as closely as I ought to have done, but did Hilary Clinton shift her position to be inclusive in a way that the Republican challengers to Donald Trump did not?

    More to follow in an hour or two, but thought I would throw those questions into the mix.

    The sun is now shining in London, which means that it may well make an appearance in your neck of the woods in the not-too-distant future.


  • Hi Rosa

    In haste before I make my way to the train station:

    1. I don't think that the fact that someone is a political appointee necessarily means they are in place because of nepotism, or that merit is not a key consideration, but I do think that it can be problematic. In the case of key positions like members of the Executive there is a difficult set of interests potentially pulling against one another. First, the president will need and want people whose judgement, expertise and experience s/he can trust to serve in key Cabinet and advisory positions. So there is a self-interest on the President's part in considering merit and expertise and experience, and of course as we know well from much research on appointment processes generally (including that of my current and your former colleague Erika Rackley) "merit" is not a neutral or unproblematic term or concept in any case.

    The Senate confirmation process is a check of some kind against nepotism or the appointment of the unqualified, but the fact that it's not an open call (per se) of course means that some people who might be qualified and experienced won't be in the pool. However, the same is true of Cabinet positions in other countries and to the very best of my knowledge once appointed to the Executive in the US one leaves any elected position in Congress or the Senate. Here in the UK nobody really asks the PM how or why she chooses her Cabinet, even though ordinarily most of them will have some mandate as constituency MPs through election to the Commons (though they don't have to me MPs). I don't think this guards against nepotism any more than (i) the practical imperative to have 'the best' people in post for a President (bearing in mind that 'the best' here will also mean people whose judgement s/he can trust and thus people who are known to him/her and/or his/her key teams and party structures), (ii) the political fallout of appointing manifestly unsuitable people to key posts, and (iii) Senate confirmation.

    2. I think there are lots of ways one could approach this question and I have no firm answers to it, but I think there are some things we might bear in mind which could at least hint at some parts of the answer.

    First, in my view basic the positioning of American politics means that a 'hard left' candidate (if we want to use that term) is going to struggle more to be elected in a national contest than a 'hard right' candidate because the middle ground is already to the right. Second, Trump is in many ways not that hard right a hard right candidate. Sure, he has expressed views that are socially conservative and regressive, but in many cases these are fairly new for him. His record doesn't seem to be one of religious conservatism or homophobia or anti-abortion per se, although we have lots of policy suggestions that now point in that direction. (The WaPo has a nice account of this here). Third, some of his rivals were really really hard right (Ted Cruz), others were legacy and establishment and there is a backlash against that in the GOP and has been for some time (Jeb Bush), and others just couldn't seem to get traction in the atmosphere that Trump had created (Rubio).

    In many ways Trump set the context and determined the ground rules for the GOP nomination process, partly through his campaign and partly through the Party not taking him seriously enough early enough, and when we determine the terrain we're more likely to win. Fourthly--and this is a generalisation, so please allow for that--the Democrats have a tendency to take the common good and potential for progress more into account than the GOP as a matter of partisan political behaviour. By this I mean, they seem more likely to go for what is likely to be best (or least bad) for the common good than what is likely to be best (or most power-acquiring) for the Party, even where that requires them the engage in pragmatism.

    Thus, in my view, even if people believed that the Sanders vision was better per se than Clinton's (and many did), I think many recognised that his positions were so far removed from the  US political centre on a number of things, and that he was proposing such a radical recalibration of the political environment on others, that it would be practically impossible to get things done, especially with a very very trenchant GOP (remember, this is a Party that has systematically tried to shut down government because they, quite frankly, hate President Obama). A Clinton candidacy is more likely both to win the Presidency and to help bring home majority-Democrat situation in the Capitol so that the pragmatic thing to do was to support her candidacy over Sanders'.

    So, no firm answers, but some thoughts on relevant matters.

    Off to catch a train and head down to London now. The sun is finally shining here, so I'm hoping for the same further south!


  • Ah, the train journey from your (major) city to the capital, which just about gives enough time to watch an episode of The West Wing. And those related, often homogeneous, weather patterns across our small Island. For all that general elections -- let alone the Brexit vote -- highlight the differences in our society, communities over here largely are concerned with similar things to one another. Floods, the shipping forecast, EU legislation, lack of housing, interest rates, living wages, the NHS, and the tabloid stings against politicians and football managers. 

    Why am I raising these issues? Because what always strikes me when I am in the US is that the issues out there are so broad that it is very rare for any one issue to speak to many (let alone all) communities. Yes, it is about geographic size. And yes, it is about communities with very little in common with one another. But what it results in is that the Presidential election gets boiled down to soundbites that speak to general issues that it is hoped will be of interest to as many diverse groups of people as possible. Hilary Clinton does not do soundbites anywhere near as well as Donald Trump manages to do. He may have no substance -- as you rightly point out, the whole 'we will start manufacturing again' mantra cannot and will not be actualised -- but he knows how to have popular appeal. And, of course, popular appeal is crucial in the US. How else would a former film star have become President, or a former bodybuilder and 'sort-of'actor become Governor of California? For all that the popular appeal (albeit Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson have never been film, music, or any other kind of 'stars') swayed the Brexit vote, there is little chance of it impacting upon political elections. 

    Perhaps this is a key flaw in federal systems. There are too many local issues that are of no interest across such a broad and varied country, and even the main topics that cut across all areas (the economy, immigration, foreign affairs, etc) have such different perceptions and impacts in different regions. 

    But I digress -- my apologies. I would like to go back to points in your previous emails about the electorate being disillusioned by the establishment, and about the impact that has on political parties. Since the global financial meltdown, we have seen that movement in countries across Europe. Voters have moved towards the hard right in terms of nationalist parties, or towards the hard left either in terms of parties or in terms of individual politicians. You are right, though, that Trump's right-wing-leanings have been a relatively recent discovery. The fact that Rubio could not get traction demonstrates just how far to the right the Republican party (and the US) has shifted in 8 years (I am thinking about John McCain while I type this). I won't get you started on abortion, homophobia, and all the other joyous things within the hard-right -- or at least, I won't do so just yet!

    Point taken about Bernie Sanders being too far to the left to have a hope in hell of winning a Presidential election. That is how I feel about Jeremy Corbyn, and one of the many reasons why I did not vote for him in the past two Labour Party leadership elections. What worries me, though, is that many of Bernie Sanders' supporters will not come out to vote for Hilary Clinton. Just like the Republicans who hate Obama so much that they have blocked government over the past couple of years, so too do those hard left supporters hate Clinton so much that they would prefer Trump to win than to see her as President. This worries me, both at home and overseas. The short-sighted, navel-gazing and self-indulgent approach infuriates me. Protests are one thing, protest votes are downright irresponsible at best.

    No matter what I think of Hilary, let me be very clear about this, the thought of Trump being President fills me with abject terror. How have we come to a point where a man with no political experience whatsoever, a man with no policies to back up his soundbites, a man with no credibility within domestic or international politics, could become leader of the most powerful nation on earth?

    (I am keenly aware that I have not addressed many of the points that you raised, but I am trying to keep my emails shorter than the average undergraduate essay. I hope we do return to some of those points, especially elections vs nominations, meritocracy, and Haiti, later in this exchange.)

    Hope your train is chugging along nicely. 


  • Hi Rosa 

    We are hurtling through the countryside here at great pace and I have been taking the opportunity of very poor telephone and internet reception so far to get some work done and catch up on some reading. But I now have enough reception to both read and respond to your latest email, which I’ll try to do in relatively brief terms!


    I want to especially pick up on your point about Sanders supporters potentially not voting for Clinton. I admit that it is a possibility, but I also think (naively?) that it is less likely than it may at first appear. Certainly, there is a lot of bravado about not voting for Clinton regardless of the cost, but as election day draws near, and as it becomes clear that Trump really is in with a shout, I find it difficult to believe people will really take this position.


    In my view, even people who hate Clinton are likely to recognise that Trump is worse on all of the grounds on which they dislike her. If they think she is dishonest they must concede he is more so; if they think her a Hawk they must concede that he is, frankly, a monumental threat to national and international security who has made it clear that he thinks the use of force is a perpetually available policy choice and does not seem committed to maintaining and deepening key alliances; if they think her corrupt they must realise that he is morally bankrupt and utterly self-interested with a record of (among other things) appalling treatment of contractors and employees; if they think her ambitious they will surely see that he is driven by a lust for power that borders on the maniacal; if they think her email usage suspect they must recognise his complete and utter disregard for any meaningful concept of constitutionally limited power.


    I don’t mean to be overly dramatic here; I truly believe these characterisations of Trump to be accurate and I also believe that people who cared enough about social justice, about tax equity, about growing jobs, about gender equality, about addressing systemic racism etc to row in behind the Sanders campaign (perhaps even to make it into a ‘movement’) cannot in any good conscience vote for Donald Trump. If they do, or if they refuse to turn out, and if Donald Trump becomes President of the United States of America then people will have to bear the responsibility of having helped that to happen. No vote, or a vote for an alternative candidate, is in effect a vote for Trump in this election. The only way to keep him out of office is to vote for Hillary Clinton. Even people who find themselves casting their vote for Clinton with a grimace on their face and a bad taste in their mouth will, I believe (and hope), realise that this is the case and that, all things considered, a Clinton presidency is considerably better for the people of the United States than a Trump administration would be.

    Now, that said, the one thing we know about elections is to expect the unexpected. It is difficult if not impossible to really predict how people will vote in this or any other election, and what might swing things one way or another closer to November 8th. I suppose my sense is that we can but hope…

  • Hi Fiona,

    I hope that you have arrived safely into London, and that you have planned a lovely evening in our delightful capital city.

    Perhaps you are assuming too much of the voters in this election. On the one hand, Trump has a core base that really believe him to be the answers to all of their prayers. On the other hand, it seems that many voters care less about the negative repercussions of their votes than they do about exercising an individual right to protest. I think that very many of those on the left who hate Clinton would rather express that in their vote than worry about the consequences of doing so. We can look to Brexit, or we can look to the general election when the Lib Dems became coalition partners, to see how this generation places their own navel-gazing above the collective good. It may be an unrepresentative sample, but despite many of my US friends despise Trump, a sizeable minority are not willing to vote for Clinton in order to avoid having him become President. 

    I will pose the same question to you that I did to Eric Heinze recently: Can we really continue to defend one-man-one-vote democracy when we see its results? (Perhaps we need to bring in Ruth Houghton on this particular question...)

    But if we might step back for a moment... You mentioned that merit is not always the best option. Would you mind expanding on that a little further (purely for the sake of my ignorant-curiosity?

    All the best


  • Hi Rosa,

    In brief as dinner time fast approaches, but on merit I just want to be clear that I don't think I said it isn't always the best option, but just that it is "not a neutral or unproblematic term or concept in any case". Erika Rackley writes on this in the context of judicial appointments and diversity, and I'm not sure I can do much better to express it than she does in Women, Judging and the Judiciary:

    "…there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the notion of appointment on merit as a strategy for choosing judges. Rather, the problem is how we have gone about interpreting, identifying and assessing merit….There is no need [] to abandon appointment on merit, or to see its redefinition. Rather, we need to tackle the distorting effects of its mis-interpretation and mis-identification head on, to ensure that we make efforts to look for merit wherever and however it is found….It may be (and has been) argued that this asks too much of merit….Not only are conceptions of merit likely to be distorted by prejudice and bias, but merit and concept of ‘good’ judging are inherently subjective so that all understandings of merit are not just threatened by but are in fact derived from our own, individual, priorities, preferences and prejudices”

    I don’t want to oversimplify Prof. Rackley's argument (which is a nuanced one made out at length in the book), but I think this extract captures its essence. “Merit” sounds objective, but merit is what we decide to look for and where we decide to see it. So someone might claim that Clinton wasn’t appointment to Secretary of State on merit because she didn’t have formal experience as an elected or even appointed political office holder, refusing (or failing) to recognise the value of her actual experience maybe because it is said to be derived from her marriage to the President, or maybe because it wasn’t a formally constituted role, or what have you (this is a simplistic example but hopefully captures the essence of the claim).


    As to the question of whether we should abandon the ‘one person one vote’ approach to democracy, I would say absolutely not. The first reason is that I can think of nothing that is feasible likely to be better at producing the same intended outputs of this form of democracy. The second is because that is only one element of democracy; there are various important further elements such as parliamentary design and so on that we can and should make work better before we even contemplate touching the right to vote (and on this in the US Jonathan Rauch had this interesting, if somewhat simplistic, piece in The Atlantic this summer). The third reason is that law and constitutionalism can also mitigate the sharpest parts of majoritarian democracy (at least in an ideal state).


    So I would prefer to be attentive to all elements of democracy (and there are many more than these) than to contemplate un-doing ‘one person one vote’.


    It's almost dinner time here and I am unlikely to return to email for a while, maybe until tomorrow morning, but I look forward to returning to this either later or in the morning.


  • Dinner and a night away from the laptop sounds good, Fiona. Happy to pick this up again tomorrow morning -- I will email at whatever ungodly hour I wake and return to the laptop.

  • Good morning, Fiona. I hope that you slept well.

    I do not think that you were being overly dramatic about Donald Trump. The thought of him being in such a powerful position fills many of us with dread. But the scary thing is that when the media expose his lies, his moral bankruptcy, his financial mismanagement, and more, many within the American public simply do not believe it. Perhaps no-one within either party thought that he would get this far, and so it was too little too late in terms of exposing his awful traits and awful policies. 

    Perhaps we can talk about some of those policies. For me, the worst are his claims that he will build a wall between the US and Mexico (and then send a bill to Mexico to pay for the construction), that he will deport all Muslims, that he will further reduce access to abortions and to reproductive health, and that he will pull out yet more oil and gas in the US (presumably at least partly through fracking).  Then again, he changes his policies frequently, and even those that are on his official website mostly are so vague that it is near-impossible to understand how they will be implemented. 

    Clinton's policies, on the other hand, are pretty standard, and it is clear the directions in which she wants to move in relation to key areas. But of course, coverage of policies is not sexy enough for soundbite TV. It was striking that I heard less about the candidates' policies when I was in North America earlier this month than when I have been home in the UK. Yet there was back-to-back coverage of the elections, as though nothing else was going on in the world. It is remarkable that even after the debate on Monday most of the discussions have been about personalities not policies. 

    I know this is moving away from discussions yesterday, but that is what happens when I sleep on things! What are your thoughts on the meat of what they are both offering? From your perspective and expertise on security and on constitutionalism, how do the candidates' policies shape up?

    Hope it is a good one there


  • Hi Rosa,

    My response is unlikely to be much of a surprise to you, but in my view Trump's policies (inasmuch as he has any) are really concerning for both security and constitutionalism. 

    In terms of security, his approach is really somewhat outrageous. Not only are his tone and language utterly undiplomatic, but it does not seem clear that he understands why this is problematic. His approach to international security seems, to me, to be simply an embrace of bullying, with all of the ignorance, lack of reflexivity, and self-delusion of power, importance and untouchability that are the hallmarks of so many bullies. As for his actual plans, well...who knows? He won't tell us how he intends to approach countering the threat from ISIS, for example, in case they get tipped off... He doesn't seem to understand why keeping other countries secure is good for the US' security. He doesn't have any regard for the importance of neighbourly security in an era of mass cross-border movement (but no worries, eh, because of The Wall etc). I mean, frankly I could go on forever. His policies and approaches are, for someone with any even minor grasp of security, disastrous in terms of "national security". This is without even beginning to think much about protecting people's personal security on an everyday basis within the United States: he wants to empower police more, doesn't seem to have much understanding of the security implications (for all) of structural racism in policing, and appears to express no discomfort whatsoever with increased militarisation of domestic policing. And he, quite frankly, has neither understanding of nor respect for the Constitution as far as I can see. 

    I don't mean to be apocalyptic here, but there simply isn't any other way, I think, to read Trumps's approach to security and constitutionalism. 

    I am not sure, on the other hand, that Clinton's policies are really quite that standard per se. She is being very strong on restricting access to fire arms (although her reliance on watch lists as a basis for doing so is not without its problems), seems committed to progressive constitutionalism, and has a programme for reform and progress on justice and equality issues that in my view is more comprehensive and more progressive than I think one often sees in politics anywhere not to mention in the USA. (All policies are here). In terms of national security, her approach is in some ways more of the same (perhaps to be expected as she was part of developing and implementing the Obama approach). Again her policies are here. I am not comfortable with all of it (and especially find targeted killing problematic), but I am interested in her concentration on capacity building, societal cohesion, and resource building. From what I can tell, she sees the need to ensure effective resourcing before/instead of thinking about creating more and greater powers per se. I am firmly of the view that gaps in security often arise because of a lack of resourcing rather than a lack of powers, so my reading of her approach as supporting this is a positive one. When it comes to diplomacy and inter-state engagement I have no doubt whatsoever of the superiority of her skills and approach to those of Trump.

    What about their respective approaches to the UN, to multilateralism, and to pacific resolution--all issues on which you know more than me. What do you make of them?

  • Hi Fiona,

    That is really helpful and interesting analysis in terms of security and constitutionalism. Sadly, I feel as despairing and afraid about Trump's approach to multilateralism and conflict resolution as you seem to about his approach to security and constitutional issues.

    I will start with NATO. Not only has Trump not articulated what the change in nature will be in terms of the US relationship with NATO (or at least he has articulated many vague things without backing any of them up with policy recommendations), he also seems to misunderstand the history and purpose of that organisation. Yes, it was set up to 'keep the Russians out and the Germans down', as said by Lord Ismay, NATO's first secretary general. But we live in a very different, and in many ways far more nuanced, world than the one in which that organisation was created. Donald Trump, however, seems to think that we are still just out of World War II and at the beginning of the Cold War. 

    His remarks about NATO demonstrate how little he understands about multilateralism generally. Yes, the US contributes more than smaller countries, but that makes sense when thinking about the nature of international organisations. Those institutions greater power to larger, more dominant states than to smaller ones, and they in return require contributions that are proportionate to a country's size and reach, whether politically, geographically, economically, etc. Perhaps that it is a little too Marxist for Mr Trump to comprehend ('from each according to what he can give...'). However, what he fails to realise is that NATO advances US core interests in the international arena, and his beligerent approach to the organisation demonstrates his lack of understanding about how and why the US remains such a powerful player.

    Moving to the United Nations, if Trump thinks that the US contributes too much to NATO then we might as well say goodbye to the UN. The US is the largest donor to that organisation, even though it does sometimes withhold contributions unless or until the UN does its bidding. Regardless of whether the UN functions to the best of its ability (it does not) or whether it needs reform (it does), we the global community need the UN to continue. Despite the many horrors that have occurred since WWII, the UN has prevented another World War, has advanced the protection of human rights immeasurably, and has been central to development activities across the world. I fear that Trump as President will topple that particular house of cards, not for ideological reasons but simply to appease a core group of hard-right fanatics who think that America (or any country) can survive on its own without a global community.

    But when it comes to multliateralism, the US does adopt an exceptionalist and unilateralist approach that it would never accept from other countries. Our colleague Bharat Malkani has an interesting theory about the US being a country that only recently went through the process of decolonisation, which he uses to explains its approach to the death penalty, to minorities, and to multllateralism and the international arena. At times like this, when I see how Trump's messages resonate with many voters, I think that Bharat is absolutely spot on. 

    In terms of pacific resolution, I think it is fair to say that Trump has shown that he is wholly unable to do -- let along resolve -- anything in a peaceful way. 

    Doom and gloom? Perhaps. But it seems pretty clear that a Trump presidency, with him surrounded by advisers who have only slightly more substantive knowledge than he does, will be a disaster for the international community. You know more about the domestic issues than I do -- how disastrous would a Trump presidency be for the US national community?

    What do you think will happen going forward? Do you think that the gladiatorial debate nights and campaign trails will help to encourage people to vote for Clinton, or dissuade them from voting for Trump? 


  • Hi Rosa

    Well, this is all taking a decided turn for the gloomy really, isn't it? Perhaps that was to be expected...

    As for the debates, is hard to tell. Ordinarily these presidential debates are important parts of the election pageantry in the US but don't really tend to change people's minds very much. However, I imagine there are a few things in this election cycle that might give them a little more weight.

    The first is the potential impact on undecided voters. I don't think anyone who has already decided to support Trump or Clinton is going to have their minds changed. Trump supporters already know he is a vaguely coherent bully with little grasp of policy detail but capable of landing some big hits, albeit rarely and sometimes seemingly by accident; Clinton supporters already know she is a wonkish and controlled speaker who stays poised and is occasionally, but infrequently, blisteringly sharp and hilariously funny. So the focus has to be on the undecideds, and indications are that there are enough of them to swing things this time round.

    Politico has a really interesting and useful overview of 'The Undecideds' here. They have found that they are more likely to be young than older, and are often disillusioned and struggling to connect with either candidate. Many, although not all, on the left of them were Sanders supporters. As I have already said, I think this category is likely to come out in the end and vote for Clinton, even if it is through gritted teeth, and if anything the debates might reinforce that, particularly if Trump continues to perform in the erratic and unimpressive way he did in the first debate. 

    The undecided Republican-leaning voters are trickier to predict. On the one hand, many ordinary, decent Republicans find the Trump candidacy frankly devastating and an affront in lots of ways to what they think constitutes core Republican values. On the other hand, there is such a long and deeply-entrenched hatred of Hillary Clinton among the GOP membership that it is difficult to contemplate voting for her. So in the end, if they come out, I suspect this field of voters will vote Clinton for the White House and Republican in congressional and state elections. Or they won't come out at all, and that is a problem for Clinton too. 

    So in debates Clinton actually has a tricky line to tread, in my view. She needs to reassure the Sanders supporters who are being tempted by third party candidates that she is progressive, and that she takes seriously the desire on their part for more equitable and less 'capitalist' economic and fiscal policy. At the same time, she has to try to reassure these anti-Trump Clinton-hating Republicans that she is not going to usher in some socialist dystopia (as they would have it, while actual socialists scoff at the prospect)! So the debates are tricky for her, but if she can somehow manage to navigate these waters, they might bring a bounce. 

    Meanwhile, Trump has very little to lose by just continuing to be oafish about things--people expect nothing less. If he manages to seem vaguely coherent and/or policy fluent then he gets a bounce because the bar is so low. So, on Tuesday morning people were saying that he had a strong first half hour. Strong, we can all surely concede, only by the shatteringly low standards his campaign has set! If Clinton had performed precisely the same way as Trump people would have said she had a complete meltdown and she'd be out of the race!

    This really isn't getting any cheerier is it...?


    P.S. the FiveThirtyEight analysis after the debate suggests Clinton gets the win and a bounce.

  • Oh, Fiona, the more that we email the gloomier I feel about the whole 'walking-off-a-bridge-with-eyes-closed' car crash that is looming if Trump gains power through this election.

    Just tidying up my emails and getting ready for the weekend. I think we have covered more ground about the elections in these emails than I have done in countless face-to-face conversations over recent months. There is little doubt that we will both be up all night watching the results on 8th November, and I hope we will continue these discussions by email or Twitter on that night. 

    For now, fingers and toes are crossed that the polls start to swing in Clinton's direction. The remainder of my day will be spent keeping a close eye on the UN Human Rights Council, where the erosion of international human rights law has picked up significant pace over the past 12 months. From one area of doom-and-gloom to another, but thus is the life that we have chosen in our respective fields of research and expertise!

    Thank you for the informative and intelligent discussion, for the very interesting links to articles, and for being willing to engage on some tricky and delicate issues.

    All the very best from a rather sunny London.