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Alarmism gets a bad press. When I was based in India, the prospect that Narendra Modi could one day lead the nation, let alone the independence of its institutions, is considered absurdly far-fetched. The relatively moderate Hindu nationalist, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was prime minister, and he was succeeded by the almost holy Manmohan Singh of the Congress party in 2004. After the massacres in Gujarat in 2002 where Modi presided as prime minister (and no doubt assisted treated), and his election collapse in the subsequent state elections, I had a darker prediction of the significance of the bloody demonstration effect. My more Panglossian Indian friends would dismiss my predictions of a Hindu-Rashtra in the near future as unnecessarily alarmist. “You need to have more confidence in India,” was a common refrain.
I do not mention it to emphasize my prediction record. I got a lot of things wrong (immodesty forbids me to share it with you). My point is that it is not a strategy to stick your head in the sand. The opposition congress party of India was unprepared for the Modi period and still broke. Seven years after Modi became prime minister, India has definitely changed its character. Repeating the mantra of ‘faith’ in your national character is also not a productive tactical attitude. Even today, after four years of Donald Trump, American friends tell me they have the confidence that it can never happen here. I urge any like-minded Swampiers to limit such feelings to your spiritual and religious lives. Politics is a literal activity. It works best when you see what’s in front of you.
This leads to the paradox of alarmism. My colleague Martin Wolf added his voice this week that of Bob Kagan to warn that American liberal democracy is possible entering his last days. You do not have to agree with Martin’s preconceptions to accept that this is entirely acceptable. The more we reject such warnings, the greater the chance that they will come true. The best response to a reason-based alarm is to take it seriously and do something about it. Unfortunately, most of us are programmed by our national (ist) education programs – and the trumpet of patriotic rituals – to believe that our countries have unchanging personalities, almost always benign. Every nation does that. But the three I know best, the UK, India and the US, are worse than most (I have not forgotten you France or China).
In fact, national cultures are constantly changing. I was raised to believe that the British were emotionally restrained. The fabulous tight upper lip made way for a vibrating bottom when Diana, Princess of Wales, died. I was also raised to think that British politics is usually not logical, unlike the more theoretical continental Europeans. Brexit killed it. Nations are changing all the time. I once came across the diary of an early Victorian traveler in the princely states of Germany. He complained endlessly about German laziness and punctuality. It is clear that the creation of the Bismarckian state performed miracles over the civic habits of the culture. In the same way, who would have believed it in 1945 if they had been told that Germany would be the most economically powerful and pacifist state of Europe? The prospect would be dismissed as an oxymoron.
America has also changed radically in some respects. There are two developments that stand out to me. The first is that the US is no longer an envy-free culture, as the stereotype used to be. Every Briton my age, and probably younger, will moan because he is reminded of the old cliché that when a Briton sees someone in a Rolls-Royce, they think, ‘Look at the bastard.’ When an American does this, they say, “One day I will be it.” It is no longer cartoonishly accurate. The level of social antagonism in the US – both class and race, but also with uncertainty – is considerably more intense than when I first lived here in the late 1990s. The second is the strength of cynicism towards public institutions. American patriotism used to include admiration for its institutions. Now it just as often means antagonism towards them. This is a breathtaking change that cannot be easily reversed.
I could stay with others; how much harder is it to start a business than it used to be; the tan of the “can-do” spirit; the rise of the culture of grievances; and the decline in physical mobility – the impulse to put in and move thousands of miles is so much rarer. America has also undergone positive changes, which I will reserve for another note in the near future. My goal here is to encourage Swampians to suggest that Trump, or worse, be re-elected in 2024 and the dark consequences that result from it. It should not be that difficult. Anyone who kills the ghost is ignorant in its ultimate sense. Be very scared. Then act.
Rana, am I exaggerating my alarm (or is it Martin)? How does one draw a line between credible alarm and useless panic? I know it can be thin sometimes.
Me column this week addresses another topic that deserves controlled alarm – global warming. More specifically, it addresses the radically mixed signals that Joe Biden is sending out about his plans to tackle climate change – by making opec for Opec to boost its oil production while pushing for major investments in renewable energy. Rare prospect for a carbon tax.
Swamps that want to test their knowledge of the U.S. tax system, and Biden’s planned legislative changes (a very topical issue), must take it excellent FT quiz, who taught me things I did not know. I expected to get at least nine out of ten, but I could only write up 7.5.
Finally, that of my colleague Danny Leigh review of the upcoming James Bond movie, No time to die -which is Daniel Craig’s last-rose to our most read piece, which was unexpected. It was also nice to see a comment section dominated by good humor and wit. Those of us who write about politics should occasionally be reminded that trolling and snoring are not always the norm.
Rana Foroohar responds
Ed, I’m definitely worried about all the things Martin and Kagan raise (and I think it’s likely that Trump will be the Republican nominee unless something changes dramatically). But I also think we in the media elite tend to exaggerate alarmism.
There is certainly a lot to worry about – at the moment, economics is my biggest urge to normalize monetary policy (left – wingers’ infatuation with low rates is the subject of my own Monday column), but it’s hard to do. amid supply chain disruptions and a rise in energy prices (not to mention progressive efforts to get rid of Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell).
But there is also good news. I’m not quite sure if I’m buying what you’re saying because it’s harder to start a business – new business creation nationally increased from almost 20% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2020, and the boom has increased continued until 2021. Digitization makes it much cheaper to become an entrepreneur, although digital businesses also tend to require fewer workers.
I do think that in the swamp we are making ourselves more negative. Being in the whirlpool of high-speed media probably doesn’t help either. You and I definitely fit into the group of liberal, activist types who have the most extreme view of the other side. YouGov poll.
Now that the journey is back, I hope to spend more time away from the Acela corridor, aiming to see what the rest of the country really thinks. Any spongy ideas on where to visit, I’m all ears.
And now a word from our Swampians. . .
In response to ‘Are men at risk?‘
‘The danger for all children is the lack of time for parenting in the current world. Time is far more important than money. And I think boys need a lot more time as parents than girls because they are less sociable. And it is the lack of sociability that makes them so fragile and vulnerable. ”- Helen Holdsworth, Cambridge, England
‘Girls are getting better at just about everything, especially in education, because they learn early on to take responsibility for homework, babysitting, etc. They are expected to perform better, and they mostly do. Meanwhile, boys can play and if they perform, ‘boys will be boys’. They lack discipline and take responsibility. It’s no wonder they come out the way they do. It is not about machines traditionally taking over male positions. It’s about boys baby. ” – Barbara Rockefeller, Richmond, Virginia
In response to ‘US vs China – Part Two ‘:
‘Please allow one Swampian to respond to another Swampian’s thoughtful challenge of Alfredo Rodriguez. As your correspondent says, China is indeed engaged in a very complex experiment. He suggests that it is difficult to define. Let me try. Politics, and therefore political economy, is a big risk management. For China, risk is merely seen as a risk to the existence of the Communist Party. In Western democracies, risk management has been largely over-delegated by governments to capital markets, under the supervision of competent financial regulators. These democracies are beginning to realize that markets and prices in their current form can not only achieve the goals that society wants to achieve. The Chinese are simply better at understanding the tension and possibly reducing it. Biden would never ask Larry Fink to donate $ 500 million to the Treasury. But maybe he should. ” – Mike Clark, Oxfordshire, England
Get up to date on the previous swamp notes FT.com.