Burlington Vermont is cold in late November. Huge mounds of recently cleared snow attest to the coming of winter, which in this part of the world, just below the Canadian border and far from the warming influence of the oceans, is long, dark and absolutely freezing.
The shops of Church Street are doing a brisk business in quilted jackets, boots and woolly hats. With its open log fires, law-abiding citizens and reusable coffee mugs, there’s a touch of a little Denmark in North America about this place. That is until you see the row upon row of F-16 fighter jets in the airport terminal.
This is definitely America; but it’s not the America we have come to expect in the era of Trump. Vermont is a tolerant, wealthy, almost Trudeauesque corner of the US. It was the first state to abolish slavery, is home to the hippy ice cream moguls Ben and Jerry, and has returned Bernie Sanders to the Senate for the past two decades.
Last year, Sanders came to the Dalkey Book Festival (of which I am co-curator) and lit up a capacity audience at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre with his lively rhetoric, boundless energy and relentless optimism.
This week I am in Vermont to chair a discussion with him at what could be something of a dry run for his potential bid for the 2020 US presidential election. The Sanders Institute has organised a two-day think-in of liberal Democrats from across the US with a few foreign interlopers thrown in, to tease out the issues upon which a progressive presidential candidate might run.
An array of political thinkers, activists and other household names have gathered to create not just a political party but something more akin to a movement that aims to reposition the Democrats away from the Clinton axis of Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley and in favour of the working, blue-collar Americans that built the Democratic Party in the first place.
Sanders wants to speak to the people who voted for Trump – the Deplorables – as well as those who voted for Hillary Clinton, winning her the popular vote.
Sanders’s people are as much the disenfranchised white swing voters who vouched for Trump, as the traditional social liberals who backed him in Vermont from the start.
He is trying to create a broad coalition against Trump. Endeavouring to do this from the left is much trickier than building something similar from the right; the left’s ability to foster schisms, dissent and divorce is legendary. While movements on the right start out looking for converts, movements on the left start out looking for traitors.
If he wants to succeed, Sanders has to forge an alliance among his own side before looking to persuade others.
The ‘infinite game’
In this regard, it was interesting to listen to the author Simon Sinek, whose Ted Talk is the third most watched. Sinek spoke about how to create an ongoing political movement rather than organisation focused on one event – let’s say a referendum or a general election.
He touched on issues I referred to in this column last week surrounding the constant commercial churn in the economy, which economists call “creative destruction”, whereby companies are constantly outsmarting each other, introducing new innovations and jostling for position. Sinek refers to the relentless churn of business and the economy as the “infinite game”, where there is no end.
The endless game of politics is similar. There is no point where a politician can declare victory, because there is no referee who will blow a whistle and say that the game is over. Even if you win an election, you are on to the next campaign. This is why building a movement of shared values, on top of an election crusade of specific objectives, is critical to changing the political culture of a country.
The difference between the infinite game and the finite game is enormous. The finite game is one where you have rules, time frames and specific attainable goals. This produces winners and deploys the language we hear used all the time in business, economics and politics.
Such a score card is great for soccer or rugby, but does it hold for society? Are there always clear winners? Is there a target that once achieved, we can declare the game is over and we all go home? Not really.
The example of the Vietnam war was invoked to explain the difference between the infinite and the finite mindset. In 1968, the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a mass surprise uprising against the Americans in more than 200 locations, organised for Tet, the Vietnamese new year, traditionally a day of peace.
The North Vietnamese believed that this would swing the stalemate but it didn’t. The Americans fought vigorously, pushing the Viet Cong back at every battle, losing far fewer men and territory, exhausting their enemy. Yet despite winning on the field, eventually the Americans lost the war.
The reason may have been that the Americans had a finite mindset, which had goals like defeating communism in Vietnam, installing a new government, spending as much money as was available and getting out. The Vietnamese in contrast had an infinite mindset which was to fight for their lives; there was no partial victory for them, no pullout, no end.
All there was for the Vietnamese was the infinite game, one that had no referee blowing time, no election result to try to aim for, no independent arbiter of success. They simply had a just cause – the most powerful motive of all.
Building a movement is similar. It goes on and on and on, but to succeed it must have a cause.
Watching Sanders this morning, cajoling his troops, emoting his followers and leading them again, it is clear that what underlies his movement and gives him energy is the cause. The objective to give more and more people access to some of the enormous wealth of this extraordinary country.
The way he was talking, you’d be mad to rule out another presidential bid in 2020. The United States will be far the richer if he does throw his hat in the ring again.
Over the past few days, I’ve been haunted by Conor McGregor’s face. He is sitting on the mat after his defeat in Las Vegas, dazed. He is looking into the distance, apparently trying to take it all in. Obviously he is exhausted, having been almost strangled a few seconds earlier. The bravado is gone. He is humbled.
But for me there is something else in his eyes: the realisation that everything has changed. Conor is a clever man and he understands the enormity of the defeat. It is not just a sporting defeat, it is much greater.read more
At this time of year my inbox fills up with emails urging me to attend something called a “budget breakfast” on the morning after the budget. Such events are normally held in the plush offices of well-respected accountancy firms. These chrome and glass financial citadels on the river are testimony to the enormous fees paid by the wealthy to advisers in order to avoid tax.
The tax avoidance industry is one of the staples of the professional classes. And the annual nature of the budget ensures that these fees are fool-proof recurring annuities.read more
Is Brexit the new normal? By this I don’t mean simply the act of leaving the EU, but more the quixotic political cocktail of nostalgia, anti-immigration and the impulse to seal off borders from cosmopolitan influences in favour of nativist urges?
All over Europe, from the Swedish Democrats and True Finns in the north to the Northern League in Italy in the south, from the Brexiteers in the west to Orban’s Hungary in the east, the forces of populism are evident and they are not going away.read more
It’s time to talk about England and consider what has happened to the English political centre. The political creature that Leo Varadkar is negotiating with this weekend is completely different from anything in living memory.
We are dealing with an extremely unstable political entity, where the centre has been abandoned to the radicals on either side.
Not too long ago, Tony Blair won three straight elections from the deep centre. Given the fact that the DUP now holds the balance of power, it is important to remember that Blair won his elections with huge 120-plus seat majorities. Blair represented a broad wing of the Labour Party that could be described as its social democratic centre.read more
Let’s talk about urban dereliction. Walk around Dublin, Cork or Limerick and dereliction is everywhere. Close to The Irish Times offices large swathes of Dublin’s south inner city are run down, in need of repair, unoccupied and derelict. And while many buildings may look occupied on the ground floor, once you lift your gaze more often than not the third and fourth floors are falling down.
The same is the case for Cork from where I’m writing today. Walking the length of this lovely city west to east you see something similar all the way from the Mardyke to Custom House Quay, upper floors appear grossly under-utilised and, in the main, vacant. They are certainly not homes or apartments.read more
This week the influential magazine the Economist suggested that Dublin’s house prices are 25 per cent overvalued relative to long-term income. The Economist was one of the early sirens last time out, warning loudly about the Irish property market in 2003, so it has good form.
More worryingly, in the list of 22 cities, although Dublin was not the most overvalued capital city, it is the one that has experienced most rapid house price growth since 2012.
In the past seven years Dublin prices have increased 72.9 per cent, compared with 63 per cent for Berlin, 54 per cent for Sydney, 56 per cent for Auckland and 60 per cent for Vancouver. Although cities such as London and Paris are significantly overvalued, the British capital has seen falls in the past year, while Paris has always been expensive and has seen prices rise only 6 per cent in the whole of the past seven years.read more
When thinking about the past there is a tendency to remember the big events, the political crises, the economic moments and the newsworthy stories. This approach only tells us so much about the country and tends to offer blurry snapshots of the big-shots. What about the ordinary citizen? This is where survey data is so revealing. The attitudes garnered in survey data are the creed of the country and this value system represents the suite of beliefs that we professed openly.
In 1981, just after the papal visit and just ahead of the 1983 abortion referendum, the European Values Study conducted a wide-ranging survey of Ireland, interviewing thousands of people. The results expose an extraordinarily conservative country, with deep-rooted animosity to people outside the mainstream, a level of moral and sexual conformity that is quite startling, but also a country whose political stability was not taken for granted.read more
Twenty years ago this week Russia devalued, defaulted and suffered a catastrophic bank run. The chaos opened the door for Vladimir Putin, who emerged from the financial bedlam to drag Russia back from the brink. In mid-August 1998, people in Moscow could not...read more
David has been writing for almost 20 years and there are plenty of articles covering some of the most turbulent times in the world economy.
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