Democracy’s Paradox

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Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Oil on Canvas, Howard Chandler Christy

After the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 it is reported in the notes of Dr. James McHenry, one of Maryland’s delegates to the Convention, that a lady asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well Doctor what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”  Franklin replied, “A republic, madam…If you can keep it.”

There is somewhat of a paradox in the practice of popular governance.  This afflicts not just pure democracies, but democratic republics like that of the United States.  The paradox is that with increased access to political participation, free speech and access to information in general, the responsibility required of the citizen also increases.

Fundamentally, increased access to information is also increased access to disinformation.  In some areas, experts are outnumbered by charlatans and so disinformation is easier to find if one does not know better or seeks out such disinformation.  Human psychology is prone to seek a comforting untruth at the expense of a discomforting truth. Hence, we have confirmation bias, availability heuristic, belief perseverance, etc.

This isn’t a new story.  Democratizing access to information and political participation has often led to uprisings for right or wrong.  The American Revolution is a great example. Most citizens were not versed in English Law as the learned Founding Fathers were.  They were influenced by local preacher pulpits, and an anti-establishment, anti-elitist attitude toward King George and the British Parliament.  There cannot be a revolution based solely on academic argument. There needs to be a rebellious popular will. It requires hostile emotions more than cool-headed reasoning.

The rub is that although we believe people ought to have a say in how they are governed, this freedom also demands civic responsibility from the governed.  A sad truth is that although people share the same political participation rights and access to information, not all people are equally equipped to express those rights responsibly. We may force disinformation onto people by mistaking the freedom to express ideas, even falsehoods, with the right to have a captive audience to present them to. Hence, some states in the U.S. force teaching the Biblical story of Genesis in biology, geology and astronomy classes. This may lead one to think access ought to be restricted. But, when those rights are restricted, we often get far worse results, at least in history. Hitler, Stalin, McCarthyism, Mao, banned books, etc. How do we maintain a healthy balance?

Perhaps our current situation can be viewed through this lens.  Money and special interests seem to rule politics because they have a more intimate knowledge of how to participate and influence political outcomes.  It is an asymmetry of information and access on their part with the structures of political power. The general public, on the other hand, have increased access to information and disinformation, especially via the internet and social media, but before that with tabloids, radio, etc. This created a popular class ripe for rebellion against the gatekeepers. This is not an entirely unjustified development. There are, however, consequences.

As a result, many voters no longer treat politics as statecraft requiring developed skills, knowledge and experience. Those voters demand that governance becomes an “everyman’s” game. Without any official demand on individual responsibility for one’s opinions—as in that one has a responsibility to hold true, opposed to false, beliefs.

With our current president, we have the most obvious display of would be politicians trying not to lead voters in a direction that challenges or asks more from them, but acquiesces to their currently held beliefs.  The same is true for the far left of the political class. Appeasement, not leadership, is the new game. At least during campaign season.

We have a republic for now…If we can keep it.

Politics Are Local

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In state and local elections it’s been widely reported in voter data that older voters vote more often and reliably than younger voters; that minority groups vote in smaller percentages and less frequently than Caucasian voters; and that Republicans vote more frequently and in higher numbers than Democrats. Why does this happen?

Some explanations may focus on work schedules or conservative principles of civic duty. I want to discuss the differences in ideology or philosophical outlook, and the experiences and perceptions different voting blocs have toward federal versus local government and why that matters for voter turnout in non-federal elections.

First, it seems fair to say that the conservative creed is more suspicious of the federal government than they are of local government. They’re also much more suspicious than more progressive voters. As such conservatives, and hence Republicans, are more active in local government because that is where they believe more governmental legitimacy should reside. Furthermore, they are more vocal about, and resistant to, their property taxes and this is managed at the local level.

Contrast this with some experiences of minority groups. Many do not own property, but they also have a history of more negative experiences with local government, not federal government. The Civil Rights Movement needed to be a federal movement to protect minority groups from discrimination that was often carried out by the will of the local and state governments. It was the federal government who were the good guys. More recently, while local and state governments have made progress toward racial equality, the most intimate interaction many people have with local government tends to be the police. This relationship is still, to put it mildly, strained.

One may think this would make minority voters more likely to turn out for local elections, but I think the opposite may be true. Due to feeling alienated by their local governments they opt not to participate as they won’t feel represented anyway. This leaves the door open for conservatives to participate without equal opposition and therefore elect the officials they want to enact the policies conservatives desire.

Along this line, there is an argument, by Peter Beinart from The Atlantic, that Democrats tend to be more international and cosmopolitan about human rights than many conservatives. Liberals seem more suspicious of the idea of American moral exceptionalism than conservatives. This would help explain why liberals or Democrats feel there are bigger issues involved in federal elections than when discussing an election for a local police chief, mayor, city council, or even state governor.

If Democratic constituencies want to see more change for the good of their communities and lives, they need to get more involved locally. By abstaining they’re ceding the policy agenda to Republican or conservative interests.

Ranked Choice Voting: Pros & Cons

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Ranked choice voting has been in place in mayoral elections in Minneapolis since 1999. It has been implemented in San Francisco and recently in Maine. So what is ranked choice voting? What are its merits or pitfalls?

Ranked choice voting (also called ranked preference voting) is when people vote for more than one candidate on the ballot. They select their first, second, third choice…maybe more depending on the number of candidates or the cutoff for the number of choices. Then, when votes are counted, if there isn’t a majority of votes received by a single candidate (50% +1), then the ranked choice kicks in. The candidate who received the fewest votes is eliminated, and their second choice votes are distributed accordingly to the other candidates. This process continues until a candidate reaches the 50% +1 mark of a clear majority.

There are numerous merits in this process. First, it promotes civility. When it matters that people like you as a second choice, it may damage your appeal if you engage in negative or inflammatory campaign tactics or attacks on your rival candidates. Second, this promotes moderation by the candidates as they do not see as much of an incentive to take extreme positions to win the appeal of a particular base. This is tied to the first reason outlined above. Third, this process removes barriers for more candidates to participate, including third party options, as they may not be a solid first choice, but may be a second choice between a majority of voters of the two main parties. This creates the fourth benefit, an increased participation of candidates and ideas by lowering barriers to run for office. This also increases democratic representation since it is unlikely that a candidate who was solidly opposed by a majority of people would win. Pluralities won’t be enough, a majority is now needed to win. Thus, few voters would be stuck with an elected official who was their last choice.

However, there are some criticisms to consider. Some would say this system encourages a type of “bland compromise” or centrism and discourages bold ideas since they’re politically riskier. That candidates would become less distinctive and behave as a boring homogeneous cohort who rush to the middle of any issue in debate and so not offer anyone any real solutions to problems. Let’s address some of these concerns.

First, if voters become unimpressed with their choices, this system makes it easier for an alternative viewpoint to enter the fray. If the new viewpoint, no matter how bold or daring, is truly appealing to a majority of voters, then that candidate will carry the day.

Second, most citizens are not actively engaged, or even interested, in politics. Voter turnout has been low despite the current adversarial system which is more “exciting” or at least has more conflict. It seems many people are unhappy with the current hostilities and lack of compromise and political grace. Moreover, if people can have more trust in the temperament of candidates and knowledge that the system is now inclined to promote more compromise and less partisanship, they may decide to focus more on their personal lives, work and families. They may decide that it is acceptable for politically moderate technocrats to work out the details and simply let them do their jobs.

In regard to bold new ideas, those will come when needed. When there is a consensus, or at least a plurality, of concern about an issue within the public or the elected officials, candidates will appear to discuss the idea and run for office on platforms to address it. And if we’re worried about the promotion of status quo or lifetime politicians, I would say we already have them. But at least in the new system it would be easier to challenge them and they would be less partisan. In addition, there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a continuation of the status quo as long as a majority of voters believe it is working in their benefit and it doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of others.

Politics may become more boring, but that would indicate stability and incremental progress. Ultimately, isn’t that what most of us really want?

For a list of some books and other media which inspired this post, please see:

https://nofictionbooks.com/partisanship-%26-elections

https://ballotpedia.org/Ranked-choice_voting_(RCV)

https://www.npr.org/2018/11/15/668296045/ranked-choice-voting-delivers-another-victory-to-house-democrats

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/06/11/maine-primary-ranked-choice-voting

https://the1a.org/shows/2018-05-29/how-ranked-choice-voting-could-change-politics

https://www.fairvote.org/minneapolis_voters_give_ranked_choice_voting_high_marks_after_third_rcv_election

https://www.economist.com/united-states/2018/06/14/in-praise-of-ranked-choice-voting




Noncompetitive Elections: Redistricting and Reform

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Here are some alarming facts:

The Center for Voting and Democracy releases predictions for most House races a year prior to each election (titled Monopoly Politics).  In 2000, they had a 99% success rate.

In the 1998 election, 94 districts (22% of the House, then) were so safe for incumbents that the other major party didn’t even present a challenger.  In 2002, only one incumbent House member lost to a non-incumbent challenger.

Keep in mind this was prior to 2010 redistricting and Citizens United v. FEC.  If you wonder why certain House or Senate races draw so much funding or spending, it is because there are so many noncompetitive districts, and Citizens United then makes the spending all the more outrageous.  

If we wonder why politics have become so much more hyper-partisan it is primarily due to the rules we’ve established that govern elections.  The rules for how districts are created, who can vote, who can run, the fact that it is winner take all instead of ranked by preference proportionally, and the rules for how money is involved.  Then, alas, the media just goes with the money wagon…that is TV and most radio media (there are still good periodicals and programs and journalists out there if you bother to look).
If we don’t change the rules that govern how elections operate, I’m afraid we won’t see a decline in hyper-partisanship.

(Source: “Reforming the Republic: Democratic Institutions for the New America”, by Donovan and Bowler)

Liberal and Conservative: Defining Terms in Political Theory

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In his book, Liberalism, Ronald Dworkin takes to the task of defining what a liberal and a conservative are in political theory.  To do this, Dworkin distinguishes between constitutive and derivative positions, constitutive positions being essential to the theory and derivatives being strategies for implementing the constitutive positions.  For example the essential, intrinsic value, of utilitarianism can be happiness, and a derivative principle for achieving happiness could be a romantic relationship, traveling abroad, education, a mansion, etc.

Dworkin distinguishes treatment as equals deserving of concern and respect, and equal treatment in distribution of some resource or opportunity.  For example, if there were two flooded communities, one devastated and the other with minor damage, it would violate treatment as equals deserving concern and respect to give each community the same amount of flood relief, or equal treatment.   On the other hand, to treat people with equal concern and respect may require equal treatment as some argue is the case with voting rights. Both the liberal and conservative are committed constitutively to treatment as equals rather than equal treatment, which can be a derivative, though they are committed in different ways.  To the liberal, treatment as equals means the political establishment should be neutral between competing conceptions of the good life. For a liberal to treat someone with respect is to allow one to lead one’s life according to one’s own conception of the valuable life. In contrast, conservatives believe that people cannot be treated as equals without establishing some conception of what the good life is, because treating a person as equal means treating one as a rational or moral agent would wish to be treated.  The conservative may question whether or not we are demonstrating proper concern for another if we allow one to continue to make decisions which causes them pain or suffering.

Under the liberal theory, a derivative position of representative democracy creates civil rights that are needed to ensure that the personal preferences of the minority are not prohibited by the personal preferences of the majority, as this would create a system of external preferences in which some personal pursuits of the good life are prohibited, and therefore, violate equal concern and respect.  But due to the nature of the criminal justice system in a representative democracy, someone will be deciding guilt or innocence based on their own conception of the good life. Therefore, procedural rights are necessary to protect the innocent from the prejudices of the majority even if this means that the accuracy of the verdict in criminal proceedings is not improved. The liberal may contend a similar scenario exists in hiring practices in which racial prejudice is an external preference which limits the opportunities of members of minority groups.  Affirmative action may be required as a procedural guard against these external preferences even if it does not improve the odds of the most qualified person being accepted.

In contrast, the conservative believes that the political structure must not be neutral regarding a conception of the good life, but must enforce some notion of social morality, or virtuous society in which people are rewarded for virtues like hard work and talent.  In a representative democracy, the conception of the good life is not based on an abstract principle, but reliant upon tradition and majoritian rule, and in the marketplace values like talent and perseverance are rewarded.

In the case of Hopwood v. Texas, the affirmative action component of the admission policy of University of Texas School of Law is at issue.  The plaintiffs are white and filed suit against the school for discrimination in their admission policy. The Appellant Court agreed with the plaintiffs that the admission policy violated the Constitution because it granted an advantage to preferred minority students (blacks and Mexicans) to non-preferred minorities and whites in admission.  It did this by setting lower standards of admission for the preferred minorities than for non-preferred minorities and whites.

The liberal and the conservative should both agree with the decision in this case.  The conservative will argue that having a racial preference in admission policy will not properly reward individuals for their hard work and talent.  Although the conservative will recognize that consideration to a person’s background and any adversity one may have overcome is a testament to one’s hard work and talent, using a race as a proxy for such an assessment is a representative fallacy because it assumes that people of the same skin color all have the same life experiences and that this is indicative of their abilities.  But if the conservative values majority rule, then whatever the majority decides is the preferred policy is okay. Though, this conflicts with the notion of merit-based rewards in which people need to be treated individually and more variables need to be considered than race in assessing a person’s life experiences and perspective. The liberal will argue that race is a valid consideration because there are external preferences based on race that influence admissions.  In order to prevent discrimination against what have historically been disfavored minorities, affirmative action to ensure a certain number or percentage of selected minorities are admitted is appropriate because it provides diversity and enables minorities to attain a status closer to the status enjoyed by whites. Ironically, this compelling interest in diversity seems it is more easily argued as a conservative position in promoting a virtuous society (a diverse society is a good society).  Furthermore, a liberal seeks to defend the individual, as an individual, against the majoritian notions of the good life supported by the conservative. To do this, the liberal believes in the narrow tailoring of a statute in order to pass constitutional muster. A statute that emphasizes race fails to treat the individual with equal concern and respect. A rich black person with well educated parents comes from a different circumstance than a poor white person with poorly educated parents. To grant the black person an additional advantage based on his race seems grossly unjust.  

To treat people based on race is to deny individuality and treat them as a homogenous group.  Race can be a factor but only one of many. This means an individual assessment is needed in all cases.  This defeats the applicability of a broad policy granting advantages to one race over another. The liberal has more invested in keeping the focus on the individual than does the conservative because the conservative can rely on tradition and majoritian rule.  The liberal seeks to remedy these external preferences but the liberal cannot do so by creating another external preference that prefers the opposite group of people or beliefs.

The Limits of Moore’s Law: Technological Exponential Growth Is Not Inevitable

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For futurists, like Ray Kurzweil, the belief that technological development will inevitably continue on an exponentially upward growth model is, to put it mildly, overly optimistic.  Although, throughout recorded history to this point, one can trace this development and accept Moore’s Law in general, thus far, this will not continue exponentially. The growth will level out. The two biggest reasons are physical and political.

First, for increasing technological advances to occur requires access to resources and raw materials.  We must have enough minerals, metals, etc., to build these new machines and to distribute them and do so affordably.  Scarcity of resources raises the price and promotes increased conflict and competition for them. Yet, the principle of diminishing marginal returns says that as a inputs into a product or service increase beyond a certain point, the output will diminish. It is the concept of low-hanging fruit. At some point, innovative breakthroughs become more difficult, expensive and less fruitful.

Second, as scarcity and diminishing marginal returns come to the fore, political disagreement over distribution and allocation of these resources and technologies become more pronounced.  Population increase exacerbates this as well. In this foreseeable future, at least, these two objections seem to hold.

What would be required to overcome these objections?  One option would be general global cooperation, but also accepted limitations on individual freedom.  I hope for this but, what usually happens with human nature, is that we fight over dwindling opportunities rather than unite and cooperate.  A second option is access to new raw materials outside of Earth. This would require commercial/industrial access to the Moon or nearby asteroids.  For this to be viable, we need investments and breakthroughs in the technology and affordability of space travel. Hence, we’re stuck in a little bit of a loop with option two.  

When times are good is when we should be investing in the technologies of tomorrow and further exploration.  It is more politically palatable as opposed to during times of struggle and conflict. When there are other more immediate or visible concerns present, people may feel that financing N.A.S.A. and other ventures is a needless luxury.  People have the tendency to hunker down and double down when faced with stress and challenges (this is related to the “sunk costs”, “cognitive dissonance” and “belief perseverance” and myriad other fallacies and biases). They are less open to new unknown risk (“loss aversion”, “familiarity bias”, etc.). They choose a worse familiar option over a potentially beneficial but unknown one. If we wish to address problems which require large investments in technological innovation when we’re not at war, then we need to act before it is too late.

A Question for Politicians About Job Creation & Innovation

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Dear Politician,

I would like you to consider this question on a larger scale of time, perhaps 25+ years.

We know that politically Americans are becoming more polarized for multiple reasons.  Gerrymandering and technological innovation (social media, etc.) are two.

I believe that the concern for “good” jobs, that pay a livable wage, is one of the few things that unites most all Americans.  Yet, despite the rhetoric of bringing back the jobs of yesterday, we all know that technological progress is almost inevitable.  The manufacturing base of America was enlivened by WWII and Bretton Woods, Lend/Lease with the British, the Marshall Plan, etc.  But then other countries caught up and even took the lead in many regards.  For example, the implicit bargain of globalization and NAFTA, CAFTA, etc., is that developing countries would take over the old, labor-intensive, low-tech and low education, jobs of the past and that America would produce the advanced manufacturing products like iPhones, solar panels, etc.  But China is now the world leader in solar panel manufacturing and they assemble the iPhone.

Moreover, as technology progresses, some economists have begun talking about “productive inefficiencies” whereby companies, or systems, are deliberately inefficient for the sole purpose of employing humans to do the work and earn a living.

Given that, likely, ongoing development, what do you think is in store for us as a country, both economically and politically, as the battle between technology and education versus jobs continues?  How do you propose to promote innovation but create opportunities for work?

An Irony of Social Conservatism

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There is an irony at the ideological heart of social conservatism.  Many social conservatives are uncomfortable with lifestyle choices that differ from their own.  That is pretty much what makes them social conservatives.  The great irony is that in order for these social conservatives to freely express their views, and even try to petition government to change its laws and policies in their favor, they need a government which is liberal, as in legally neutral, about the lifestyle choices of its citizens.  If social conservatives lived in another country which was socially conservative in a different way (say it forced its people to observe certain religious or moral codes with which our American social conservatives disagreed) they would be out of luck.  It is the great virtue of social liberalism that the government seeks to be tolerant of many different lifestyle choices, and even give those who seek to undermine this virtue the political right to express their opinions.  If social conservatives really think they’re the marginalized ones in society, they should be especially grateful they live in a society that observes social liberalism.

[I seek to distinguish social conservatism from economic conservatism as libertarians are socially liberal but economically conservative–that is economically “conservative” in the contemporary vernacular, but actually classically liberal.  In the above I use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” in the academic sense (liberals are pro freedom and government neutrality or non-interference, as argued by Ronald Dworkin—though there is a healthy discussion philosophically between positive and negative liberty).  Also, any use of “ideological” isn’t meant as a term of derision, but as, “a set of beliefs about the proper order of society and how it can be achieved.”  (Erikson and Tedin 2003, p. 64, cited in Jost, Federico, and Napier 2009, p. 309).]

For more on positive and negative liberty and conservatism and libertarianism, see “Liberty: Positive and Negative (Cato Unbound)”, by David Schmidtz, et al. here: https://nofictionbooks.com/political-theory

The Politics of a News Story

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A popular critique of current media, one which I shared, was the editorial natures of broadcasts and reporting (an editorial being an analysis and opinion piece).  People say they want unbiased factual reporting.  Just the events and relevant details without injections of opinion, analysis or speculation.  We, people, can arrive at our own judgments given the facts.  There are at least two problems with this position.  

One, is that determining what is relevant to report, and the words and organization of how to report it, involve judgments on the part of the reporter or editor.  But, let’s assume that the reporter and editor are aware of this and so use the most general and universal language to describe an event.  For example, “He said” rather than “He sneered”.  In essence, the reporter avoids adjectives and singularly descriptive verbs that necessarily invoke an emotional response.

The second problem, is that by trying to be as “objective” or “impartial” as possible, the reporter leaves out many relevant details and descriptions that a fair-minded reader would need in order to make a judgment on the rightness or wrongness of the behaviors of the subjects involved in the story.  By being non-descriptive, the reporter leaves these value judgments open to the reader.  Isn’t this a good thing?  Well, no.  Without relevant details to base value judgments on, the reader either resorts to their partisan affiliation to judge guilt and innocence based on the identity of the parties involved; or the person who values bland, boring compromise believes justice must reside equidistant between the partisan views; or the cynic abstains and withdraws from participating at all.

In this sense, by adhering to a method of journalism which refuses to offer value judgments, the reporter is leaving the gates open to partisan conflict and preconceived notions of justice.  While this may promote factual accuracy, it doesn’t promote justice, which is what citizens are generally and genuinely concerned with.  In this sense, such journalism fails to promote moral truth (which is a disputed concept) and as such frustrates readers as well.  It is not that the public needs to accept the moral judgment of the reporter as absolute, but they need morally relevant details which the reporter juxtaposes against countervailing positions.

In sum, this type of journalism, in the opinion of professor Paul H. Weaver, thwarts the type of opinion, “…which attempts to understand the world of events from a comprehensive rather than partial viewpoint, which is committed to intellectual honesty rather than to simplistic preconception…In the nation as a whole, then, this [type of reporting] encouraged needless conflict (among the various parties) and mindless consensus (among the groups of partisans), and to this extent it [is] an instrument of political drift rather than public mastery of events.”

Source: “The Politics of a News Story”, Paul H. Weaver  (Mass Media and Modern Democracy, edited by Harry M. Clor.  Rand McNally Public Affairs Series, 1974)
Listed here: https://nofictionbooks.com/journalism-%26-media

Does the One-Party System Give China a Strategic Advantage?

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More people, it seems, are willing to sacrifice political participation in exchange for perceived economic opportunity.  Increasingly, those in younger generations, emerging market economies and fledgling States, find China’s approach to governance preferable, or at least an acceptable alternative to, that of the United States.  Something that worries some foreign policy experts is that China’s one-party system gives it an advantage for crafting a long-term strategy for global dominance.

For one, without public elections the CCP avoids the encumbrance of short-term election cycles.  In the U.S. there are federal elections every two years.  This perpetual election cycle means there is a need for continual campaigning and fundraising.  Congressional expert David Mayhew argues that the primary motivation of members of Congress is reelection and that this goal influences how they behave and make public policy.  In contrast, without the distraction of short-term election cycles, and the adversarial nature of a two-party system, China’s CCP can unite around long-term Party or national goals.  The CCP also has the advantage of changing the rules when it wants absent the obstacles of checks and balances from an opposition party.  Hence, Xi Jinping is no longer bound to a two term limit as president.

In the U.S., Mayhew as argues, when Congressional and Presidential power is controlled by opposing parties, it results in more effective governance because it restrains partisan overreach.  But some of the benefit derived from bipartisan compromise in the U.S. may be attributable to media coverage from a free press and the fact that there are two parties, somewhat by design, in the U.S. system.  If one party pushes too hard for its own agenda or consolidation of power, there is a retaliation marshalled by opposition forces, so compromise is often required to make progress.  The tension and slow change produced by this structural conservatism was considered a virtue by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.  But in 2018, with the challenges of globalization and the immediacy of the news cycle and social media, this laborious approach to government action often seems unresponsive to voters who want progress in the next few months or years, not in the next few decades or generations.  

In China it’s different.  The CCP controls the media and silences dissent.  Its citizens aren’t permitted to question the Party too publicly or they may face impediments to their commercial ventures or even imprisonment.  Moreover, the public is indoctrinated with a whitewashed version of the history of China and the CCP.  The National Museum of China flanks the eastern side of Tiananmen Square in Beijing but there is no mention of the protests of June 1989.  Further, the Museum presents the U.S. as a covert backer of Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in the Second World War rather than as an ally responsible for Japan’s defeat.  Since Tiananmen Square there hasn’t been a significant grassroots movement to bring democracy to China.  The Party has purged more moderate voices from its ranks and the hardliners have fortified their power.  With internal dissent absent, the Party can focus on a united vision for China’s future. 

The levers of power are so entrenched within the CCP, and the public memory so distorted, that the probability of consequential internal reform in China is miniscule.  Reform, a patient dream the U.S. held onto for decades, is a specter.  The best hope is to contain China’s influence with coordinated action from an international coalition of opposition. 

For further reading: https://nofictionbooks.com/china