Europe

Guest Post: The Universal Spider

Here’s another fascinating essay from the Vacuous Wastrel. You can read the original here.

At the end of my boyhood and at the age of being able to manage a horse, I was brought to Lille before Duke Charles of Burgundy, then called the Count of Charolais, who took me into his service. This was the year 1464.

 A quarter-century after that meeting, Philippes de Commynes was released from imprisonment (he has spent two years in prison, including five months trapped in a small iron cage), and set about catching up on his correspondence. One of his most pressing concerns was responding to a request from an old friend, an archbishop named Angelo Cato, for a contribution toward a history book the latter was hoping to compile, and Commynes appears to have set about dictating a reply as soon as he was free to do so. That reply would take him several years, and was to be divided into six volumes – two further volumes offering an update concerning more recent events would follow in the subsequent years.

Commynes was not, he was at pains to point out, a historian himself. He lacked all of the necessary skills of a historian: he did not speak (at least not with any fluency) Latin; he did not have the literary skill to invent appropriate speeches and episodes to enliven his narrative; his scholarship was far too inadequate to allow him to appropriate finesse historical events into the required classical and Biblical analogies; and his reluctance to lie meant that at times his recollections would fail to give full and dutiful praise to his social betters. He was not a historian – merely a source of information for Cato, who would use it for respectable, literary and historical purposes (and even in that regard, Commynes recommends others who may recall some details more fully). Instead of producing a work of art himself, Commynes laments, “I am merely sending you what immediately comes to my mind.” In place of respectable, scholarly, history, all Commynes can do is describe what happened, and why.

As a result, the Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Commynes as “the first critical and philosophical historian since classical times”; others have called him simply “the first modern writer”. Closer to his own time, Emperor Charles V referred to his manuscript – published after the author’s death and quickly translated into languages across Europe – as “a textbook for princes”.

Although Commynes himself protests that he is providing source material for a biography of King Louis XI of France (and, in the final two volumes, of his successor, Charles VIII), his work soon came to be known by the publishers and scholars as Commynes’ “Memoirs” – understandably, given that the narrative begins before Commynes meets Louis, and continues after the latter’s death. In this edition, the final two books are removed, along with a few digressions, and the scholar responsible believes that they have in this way, as the title indicates, produced a biography – perhaps the first true modern biography – of the monarch known as The Universal Spider. In truth, Commynes’ history is considerably broader than that: a portrait, not of one man, but of an era.

It is an era of immense importance. At least three of the defining events in the last half-millennium of European geopolitics take place in these pages: the rise of a modern, centralised France; the foundation of the Hapsburg empire; and the resolution of the Wars of the Roses. We do not learn much, except implicitly, of the broader social currents of the times; but we are treated to intimate and incisive portraits of the men who shaped the times, not as Great Men, but as terribly flawed men – and above all, the book offers contrasting analyses of two men with whom Commynes was as closely familiar as anyone ever was: Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, and Louis the Prudent, King of France. The fate of Europe rests in the hands of these two men.

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Let’s set the stage. Commynes is a Burgundian – a native of the confused border area between the kingdom of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The Duchy of Burgundy has always been, in law, a vassal of the King of France – but as France has been brought close to ruin, by enemies foreign and domestic, Burgundy has become a de facto independent state, swollen by advantageous marriages to the point where the Dukes now dream of an empire that stretches from sea to sea, from their dominions in the Netherlands through to the possessions of their allies in Provence and Savoy. As our story begins, Burgundy is perhaps the richest and happiest nation in Europe: its rich soils thriving under light-touch taxation, it has been at peace for over three decades under the benign, wise rule of Philip the Good, one of the richest men in the known world. Philip is ailing, but the nation waits eagerly for his successor, the fearless, charismatic Charles, Count of Charolais. Philip was godfather to young Commynes, and when the latter is orphaned as a child, the Duke brings him to court, and places him close to Count Charles.

France, meanwhile, has undergone a far more traumatic succession, only a few years earlier. Charles the Victorious, who, with the aid of Joan of Arc, somehow managed to save the nation from English dominion, and from her own civil wars, quarrelled terribly with his son (who once chased Charles’ mistress through the palace with a drawn sword), exiling the young Dauphin, Louis, first to the Dauphiné, and then from France entirely – the young prince was forced to take refuge in, of all places, Burgundy, a glorified beggar at the ducal court. When Charles died, Louis returned to Paris with an avenging fury, purging and disinheriting all those who had wronged him – most of the nation’s wisest and most experienced statesmen have fled to neighbouring princes, and the mood of the nobility is angry and bitter; the king’s own brother plots against him. The king’s writ struggles to run beyond Paris, as feudal vassals like the Dukes of Burgundy and Brittany, and the Count of Provence, are independent in all but name. In 1465, the year after Commynes comes to Philip’s court, France rises up, the great nobles of the land declaring a ‘War of the Public Weal’, a war of nation against king, for the common good. France is on the verge of a final dissolution, and Burgundy’s triumph will soon, it seems, have no obstacle. At that moment, Charles, the Burgundian heir, rides for Paris at the head of a vast army, his godbrother, Commynes, at his side.

Twenty years later, Burgundy will no longer exist. Its core domains will have been reabsorbed into a resurgent France, along with those of Brittany; while its peripheral territories will have fallen into the hands of the rising Hapsburg dynasty, a geographical anomaly that, Commynes seems to recognise, will set the stage for centuries of war. It’s an astonishing reversal of fate. As Commynes puts it:

It seems to me that at that time [the Duke of Burgundy’s] territories could more truly be called lands of promise than any other domains on earth. They were overflowing with riches and in complete peace – as they never have been since. The standard of living and the clothing of men and women were extravagant; the feasting and banquets were on a more prodigal scale than in any other place I have known of; the bathing parties and other entertainments with women were lavish and lax – if a little on the seamy side. In sum, it then seemed to the subjects of this house that no prince was a match for them – at least that none was capable of oppressing them. And in this world today I know of no princely house so desolate.

This is, at heart, the question that plagues Commynes, the question that he sets out to answer through psychology, through military history, and through philosophy: how could it be that Burgundy could fall so rapidly from such grace?

Commynes’ answer, needless to say, is that God did it. And at first, that might seem like a cop-out, but of course it’s not: Commynes is not insisting upon faith in a Godless world, he’s using the concept of a God within a conceptual system in which God is unavoidable. He is, as it were, only rephrasing the question: if nations fall when they fall from God’s favour, why do nations fall from God’s favour? Commynes’ answer has nothing to do with scripture, and little to do with doctrine: again, Commynes’ God is not a creature locked within a bible, but the animating principle of the entire world. To understand the world is to understand God; and although that might be impossible, that’s not reason not to try.

Commynes never really offers a coherent ideology of fate – that would, after all, be hubris. But he believes in a system in which God helps those who help themselves, yet moderated by a sort of karma. Those who do wrong face justice – in the next life, but also often in this. Evil, foolishness, and violation of the constitutional norms of states and societies are often repaid in the same coin, whether on the land – a prince who breaks his word to others finds his subjects break theirs to him – or in the soul – a prince who plots against his courtiers himself plagued by irrational, paranoid fears of his best advisors.

So while his theories may be lofty and divine, their application is more down to earth, and at the heart of Commynes’ history is a pair of contrasting portraits, psychological and political sketches of the two ‘great men’ who he believes have shaped the fates of their nations, for better or worse: Louis and Charles. One French; one Burgundian. One the paragon of a bygone age; the other the herald of modernity.

Duke Charles the Bold (sometimes translated ‘the Rash’) was, we’re given to believe, almost the perfect mediaeval monarch. He is attractive, strong, and intensely charismatic, the kind of man who can turn a battle by riding through it and exhorting his men one by one. He has an indefatigable energy and, Commynes tells us, an almost supernatural ability to suffer: he asks no more of his men than he is willing and able to undergo himself, and his men know it. He is decisive, and courageous not only physically but politically. His ambitions are sweeping. He can be violent, but he is not unusually cruel for his age, and he is good company for his court.

Louis, on the other hand, is a coward. He is plagued, as even he acknowledges, by a big mouth and a sour wit, and he is constantly offending people. He is not physically impressive. He overtaxes his people, and appears to have little sense of shame; nobody likes to spend time with him. He can’t really be trusted – his nickname is ‘The Universal Spider’ after all – and he is instinctively a vindictive, occasionally mass-murdering, arsehole.

But Commynes’ at-the-time-controversial thesis is that it is Louis who is the great monarch, and Charles the deluded prince who dooms his people.

Put simply, Louis has two key strategies at all times: avoid any true military contest; and, if in doubt, bribe everyone. He’s a political and military cockroach, constantly retreating, constantly negotiating (with multiple people, in contradictory ways), constantly stalling for time. He reminds me, if you’ll forgive the fantasy/pop-culture reference, of George RR Martin’s Littlefinger: he doesn’t exactly have a plan, as such, but he continually sows chaos, knowing he will eventually, somehow, benefit from it. Every alliance is against him is turned against itself. He follows a terribly Christian theory of politics: if your enemy strikes you on one cheek… thank him, applaud him publically, write the man a great big cheque, and ask him to slap someone else for you.

This is why, partway through the book, Commynes abruptly flees Charles’ military encampment and becomes one of the King’s chief advisors. It’s not just him – everybody does it. The pay is better, and the life much easier.

Ultimately, Louis’ greatest strength is his willingness to appear weak. He may remember slights, but he publically forgives them, and promotes his enemies; he may be opinionated, but he listens to his advisors, and he corrects his mistakes. At times, he even uses his weakness as his trump card, and works to maintain it. He gives advice to his enemies on how to defeat his allies (because he wants his enemies to feel strong, and hence to feel able to wait, rather than weak, and hence desparate to act). At one stage, fearing an explosion among the common soldiers that will destroy an alliance, he intentionally makes himself visibly vulnerable, to shame his allies into de-escalating the situation. It’s behaviour Charles – who at one point humiliates Louis by in effect holding him prisoner – could never endure. Charles is a more traditional, vain prince who cannot abide disgrace – and it’s ultimately that stubbornness that dooms him, and Burgundy, when he first attacks, and then refuses to retreat from the seige of, Neuss, despite being needed urgently elsewhere. It’s what leads to him lying dead in a ditch, his corpse unrecognised. Throughout Commynes’ account, Louis’ prudence, his ruthless exploitation of his own impotence, is contrasted sometimes explicitly but more often between the lines with the vanity and vainglory of the other princes of his age: Louis’ willingness to be weak, whch Commynes suggests is a lesson from his time as a beggar at the Burgundian court, is in effect a form of power. Perhaps the most striking example is when Louis is “forced” to pay “homage” to a number of English lords – he obsequiously sends them regular tribute, via an intermediary who, naturally, needs their signatures to prove to Louis that he hasn’t stolen the money for himself. It’s humiliating for Louis and a clear win for the English, they believe, even if they allow that the transactions can remain secret for the sake of Louis’ dignity… …except that now, if those lords ever give their king advice that’s not in Louis’ best interests, he can reveal (to their king or their public) that they are secretly on the payroll of a foreign power, receiving a regular pension for their services, and he has the carefully-catalogued original receipts to prove it. Only Louis can make being conquered into a form of dominance.

Commynes never exactly gives us a rounded or deep portrait of his king, as we might expect from a modern writer. And yet, through descriptions and through anecdotes, he constructs a striking and understandable image – reading Commynes, we feel as though we know Louis, just as we know Charles. Other characters benefit in this way as well, although many – such as the Count of St Pol – are too historically insignificant for the reader to really invest in. Others are shown briefly, but brilliantly – one of my favourite moments is the only appearance of Emperor Frederick III, who responds to a detailed military-diplomatic proposal with a rambling parable about bear-hunting. It’s a moment that perfectly displays both why Commynes can’t stand the man (he’s over-cautious to the point of inaction, lazy, pretentious and not that bright) – and why he deeply respects him (he’s an old man whose experience has bought him considerable wisdom, and he’s the only ruler secure enough in his position to be able to fob off monarchs with irritating parables without any consequences).

After the two duelling princes, probably the third character in the story is Edward IV, whom Commynes sees only from a distance (it’s disputed whether he may have served as an ambassador to England at some point, but it’s not mentioned here in any case). Edward is a monarch famed for his military prowess and valour, but, unlike Charles, he’s really only in it for the quiet life, prioritising food, women and entertainments. Through overconfidence, he manages to lose his entire kingdom in only 11 days. But this is England, where, as Commynes constantly laments, politics is not very stable or sophisticated – so he’s able to invade England, win two major battles, overthrow and kill the Earl of Warwick, and Henry VI, and the Prince of Wales, and complete a round of mass executions of his enemies, all within the span of another 26 days. Everything hinges on his being welcomed, while still virtually without troops, into the city of London, and Commynes explains the three main reasons why, after some debate, he was given access: his wife had just given birth and, awh, a royal baby, how exciting and cute!; he was deeply in debt to many of the richest merchants in town, who realised that if he didn’t regain the crown he’d never be able to pay them back; and most importantly, he can rely on “the influence of many ladies of rank and rich citizen’s wives”, because after a decade of womanising they were all “very good friends indeed” of his, and they nag their husbands until they let him in. It’s a reputation that gives Louis pause, and one of his priorities in negotiating with the English monarch is ensuring that the man never, ever visit Paris: “He’s a very handsome king,” Louis worries out loud to Commynes. “He’s crazy about women. He could find some clever sweetheart in Paris who would say such nice things to him that she’d make him want to come back…”

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It’s a bizarre conjunction of great affairs of state – seasoned with little philosophical asides – with the intimately personal. It’s not, perhaps, great history by modern standards – broader social developments get only a sentence here or there – but it’s a very entertaining way of writing. It’s half Macchiavelli, half gossip column.

That intimacy, indeed, is sometimes almost shocking in its modernity. Commynes is emphatically not writing a mediaeval hagiography – sure, he he doesn’t go into many details on the sexual side of things, and he glosses over many things that might be of interest to a modern reader. But he depicts his characters as human beings – human beings who he in many cases knew extremely well. This is particularly striking in the later parts of the narrative, when the fortunes of the princes decline in turn. Charles is beset by mental illness after a military defeat, and although Commynes never uses that exact term, there’s little ambiguity in his description – he’s not shy about calling it an illness, and he’s not shy about the fact it’s primarily an illness of the mind. He even hypothesises a little about the appropriate treatment. The doctors and priests of the day favour blood-letting, and making the man bloody well shave properly for a start; Commynes, on the other hand, suggests beginning with humility before God, before moving on to talking therapies, discussing one’s fears and shames openly out loud, not worrying about disgrace, in a safe environment with a trusted friend or advisor (as “it is ineivtable since we are men, that deep griefs stir violent passions”). Sadly, trust is a rare commodity for rulers, which may explain why so many of these princes are at least a little mad…

 

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Charles the Bold, Commynes’ first master

 

[it’s another example, incidentally, of how God is used in this world-view, not as a tool of superstition but as a call to reason. Commynes believes that when a man like Charles loses a campaign, it’s appropriate to ask what went wrong. But he mustn’t become lost in self-recrimination, and religion offers him a way out: instead of asking what is wrong with him, he can ask why God may have failed to favour him on this occasion. It allows reflection and consideration of one’s actions, without self-blame. Throughout the book, we see this mindset in which God is central not because of what he does – Commynes does not believe in a God who actively performs miracles willy-nilly, and does not even particularly stress God’s role as a rule-giver, except indirectly – but because of how human beings act toward Him…]

Similarly, Louis’s quality of life rapidly deteriorates when he suffers a series of debilitating strokes. At one point, Commynes literally has to hold the king as he spasms, and Louis’ speech is at least temporarily so impaired that Commynes has to translate what may be a deathbed confession to a priest who can’t understand what the king is saying. To say that Commynes was close to his subjects is an understatement.

It’s true that the book is closer to a series of anecdotes than to an academic historical analysis, although there are elements of the latter: Commynes does lay out a fairly detailed chronology of the wars and the diplomacy, and does his best to explain events in geopolitical, psychological and theological-philosophical terms. But it’s the anecdotes that stand out, combining a clear and personal touch with a lacing of dry, observational humour. It’s suprising just how modern Commynes feels in style, if not always in beliefs, and many moments continue to resonate with modern readers, either because of how things have changed (Commynes’ frequent exasperation toward the barbarian English and the way their leaders never fail to be equipped with a suspiciously convenient prophecy) or because of how they haven’t (Commynes’ old-man complaints about self-important minor celebrities these days constantly telling you to “speak to my people!”…). And while there are moments of tragedy, there are also a suprising number of moments of pure farce. At one point, for example, Louis is hosting a messenger from one of the Duke’s vassals, who is thinking of coming over to Louis; Louis, pretending joviality, baits the man into doing insulting impressions of the Duke, pretending to be a little deaf so that the man does his impressions as loudly as possibly; but, in the time-honoured traditions of Frence farce, what the messenger doesn’t realise is that Commynes is crouched alongside the Burgundian ambassador, hiding behind a suspiciously large screen in one corner of the room. The ambassador is outraged on the Duke’s behalf, and Louis succeeds in sowing even more disquiet between the Duke and his vassal.

[other monarchs would have seen the vassal as an ally, helped him, and used him against the Duke. But Louis knows you can’t trust a traitor. Instead, by weakening the vassal still further by betraying him to the Duke, he forces the vassal to come to him in a more fearful, and hence dependent, state, while distracting the Duke, and pretending friendship with him. In Louis’ world, you help your enemies and you hurt your friends…]

[Of course, sometimes Louis sees the right time to strike directly. He summons one enemy/friend to court, for example, by pleading for his help in a difficult time, saying that he could really do with having “a good head” around to advise him at a time like this. He then, having dictated the letter, observes to his henchmen by way of explanation: “I do not mean us to have his body – only his head. The body can stay where it is…“]

The greatest virtue of this books, however, and of Commynes as an author, isn’t just his access, or even his deadpan wit (which is always interesting, and amusing, but too dry to really be lovable). Instead, it’s his wonderful honesty. Now, apparently in the 20th century it was fashionable, particularly among offended Belgians, to paint Commynes as a serial liar, fundamentally dishonest in every word – but while that seems hard to believe to me (or to the editor of this translation), it doesn’t really matter in terms of the book’s value as a narrative, rather than as a historical source. Because either Commynes is truthful, or else he’s the most gifted liar in literary history, and in either case it’s the impression of honesty that is so powerful in reading these memoirs. Commynes has his own opinions, but he is scrupulously even-handed in discussing even his personal enemies. His goal throughout – perhaps reflecting the origin of this project as source material rather than a published text – is not to definitively paint history, but to understand it, and that requires him to see both sides of every dispute, and recognise the virtues as well as the vices of every participant. The result is a far more complete and sympathetic portrait of his life and times than we might expect… and a more accurate depiction of the conflicting thoughts common in his age.

Because if the book is interesting as a specific history, and as a guide to statesmanship, it’s most fascinating as a window into a bygone age – a window refreshingly devoid of the usual stained glass. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this comes close to being absolutely required reading for any fan of fauxdiaeval fantasy or historical fiction, and should certainly be obligatory for anyone wanting to write a story set in a similar culture.

Most strikingly, Commynes provides a very different picture of twilight of the middle ages not because of differences in how he sees the ruling systems, but because of the context of those systems. Put bluntly: this is not a little world of feudal clockwork; this is a vast, largely empty world in which a tiny number of feudal overlords play their games amid a vast ocean of people who, most of the time, don’t care in the slightest. Yes, by modern standards all these rulers are brutal dictators. But what Commynes shows us, and which is essential to understanding that brutality, is the naked weakness of a mediaeval prince, and the near-total impotence of all their structures of power. Charles, after all, yearns to construct an empire, but even this great leader of a great nation cannot accomplish it; Louis’ driving ambition is to modernise and harmonise the French legal code and bring a universal rule of law to the whole nation, but even this intelligent and ruthless man cannot accomplish it. These are men beating their heads against unbreakable walls, while at the same time holding on for dear life.

Surprisingly, it is the people who are at the heart of Commynes’ perception of politics. He is not a great fan of the ordinary people trying to rule themselves – he rolls his eyes at the predictable brutality and naivity of the endless revolutionary committees of the Low Countries – but he believes unshakeably that power comes only through the consent of the people. He sings the praises of the Parliament of England and its democratic powers – while he has no time for commoners making decisions, he does see them as a valuable veto force standing in the way of tyranny and foolish monarchs. But for him, the question is not whether the people should have power – that is an absurd question, because it suggests that there is any way to remove power from the people – but how it can be better organised. The power of the people is omnipresent throughout this narrative. It’s the power that lynches dozens of nobles every day whenever anger breaks out in a Belgian town (the nobles may be bastards, but they’re mostly legal bastards, whereas the commoners send for the hangman the moment they’re in charge); it’s the power that slaughters every English straggler and leaves their bodies in ditches, regardless of what peace treaties may be made between monarchs, and the power that sends commandos creeping through the streets of Peronne, happily willing to murder both King and Duke in their beds. It’s the power that coalesces a bunch of Swiss peasant farmers into what will become the most feared military force of the age; it’s the power of the common soldiers, who in the end decide not only how to fight, but whether to fight, whatever their generals might want. When the Pazzi family decide to launch a coup d’etat in Milan, it’s the power that determines, in a matter of minutes, which family will have its entire membership swinging from the church rafters by the end of the day, and which family will be in power. Above all, it’s the power of cities to control their own walls.

Because again, this is a huge world, and these are very small kings. In all these wars, very few armies are ever larger than the militia that could be mustered by a medium-sized town: a city like Amiens or Liege is a major challenge even for a monarch to subdue, and a city like Paris or London is effectively impregnable – the size of army necessary to either beseige or storm such a city simply is not achievable in this era. The fate of kingdoms rests, therefore, on the whim of common townsfolk. It’s the people of London who choose to accept Edward IV – then almost without resources – as their king, and in so doing doom the Earl of Warwick; just as it’s the people of Paris who decline to yield to the Duke of Burgundy and his allies, and in so doing leave Louis as their king and France as a viable nation.

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Louis the Universal Spider, Commynes’ second master

As for those princes – well, it’s not long into the book that we’re thrown into the Battle of Conflans, and we see its absurd chaos, its contingency, its nonsense. Commynes tells us quite explicitly; monarchs and generals may form up their strategies, but there is no monarch on earth who can direct a battle according to his plan. A general does not so much direct his army, as ride it. So too, a monarch sits in his saddle upon the roiling chaos of his nation, prodding here, whipping there, offering carrots in one direction or another, but by and large able to do no more than desparately keep his seat, or else fall and be unceremoniously trampled.

These men are half statesmen, half petty mafiosi. It’s very easy for simplistic accounts to see them as only one and not the other – all politicians, or all robber barons. But Commynes shows us how they can be both at the same time. “In all of them were good and evil” he warns us, speaking of the great princes of his day, “for they were human beings.” 

The depiction of women is also of interest (among many other topics). Commynes is writing in an extremely male-dominated world, and most of the women of the story go entirely without mention (there’s no way to tell, for example, that Commynes himself is married, and you’d have to read very carefully to notice that either the Duke or the King were married). Commynes essentially takes it as read that it’s men’s role to dominate, politically and socially, just as that’s also the role of the upper classes. And yet there is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Commynes doesn’t have to insist that men are superior, or argue that women shouldn’t have power – because in his culture, those questions don’t even arise. God has simply willed that men have power – there’s not need anyone inventing notions like male superiority to explain why that may be. Which means that when individual women do have power, Commynes has no grounds to object. He may depict Marie of Burgundy as naïve – after all, she inherited one of the greatest empires of Europe when she was still a teenager – but he doesn’t fail to respect her goodness, her popularity, and the beginnings of a sharp intellect. He is almost fearful, yet respectful – and depicts Louis as almost fearful – of the intelligence and ruthlessness of the Duchess of Savoy. The autonomy of women seems greater than one might expect here: not only can women veto arranged marriages at least some of the time, they can even insist upon love-marriages, even when strongly against the interests of the families and nations. Louis, for instance, is forced to accept the marriages of the Duchess’s two daughters, which strengthen his enemies, when the Duchess points out that the women are in favour of the matches, and that they’re not just political ploys. Similarly, even at a time when Marie is tantamount to held hostage by commoners, they are unable to pressure her into marrying their preferred candidate (Commynes wryly notes that it was seeing him and getting to know him that probably doomed his suit with her…). There are also surprisingly hints at a chivalry out of keeping with the general violence of the world: during a war, when soldiers are being murdered on the streets, Louis has his secret messages conveyed by a young woman, on the grounds that a woman alone can travel freely without harrassment, where a man would be at risk of attack by brigands. [Commynes, interestingly, does not make clear that it’s actually a woman who ends up imprisoning him in a tiny cage for six months…]

In short, where these memoirs excel is in vividly, intimately and fair-handedly depicting this late-mediaeval world and its characters, and in doing so with wit and insight.

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Where they fall down, however, is in the sheer complexity of the events under discussion. It’s here that Commynes does indeed fail to be a true historian: what we are given is not so much a narrative as a whole mass of information, in mostly (but not always) chronological order. Take any few pages, and the sequence of events appears clear, because Commynes writes clearly; but as the pages mount up, so does the sheer assembly of places, dates, titles and, every few sentences, shocking betrayals. [Betrayals that sometimes fail to betray anyone, because the betrayal is betrayed before it can betray anyone…*] It’s not unclear, it’s just… a lot. It’s very dense, and that’s why it too me a surprisingly long time to read through the book, because after ten pages or so of the count of this and the bastard of that and trying to remember which one is Corday and which ones is Cordres, I just needed a change of scenery. Of course, that’s partly my fault, for not being in the righ frame of mind – as I say, Commynes does try to make these confusing events understandable, and I’m sure if I were in an academic mood I’d have no trouble with it, but as light entertainment reading I found it was making my head hurt.

[It doesn’t help that Commynes adopts mediaeval naming practices, which is to say he usually called people by their titles. This means that the same person can be known by two different names in one sentence (at one point he notes something along the lines that a person has been of service to the Count of Charolais, and was rewarded by the Duke of Burgundy – the latter being the same person as the former, but several years later), while the same name can refer to multiple different persons (as the name is inherited when its holder dies). When you have people like the King’s brother, who wears about six different titles in six years, this can get confusing…]

Some help, to be fair, is provided by the translator/editor, Paul Murray Kendall, who remains largely on the sidelines but who does chip in with the occasional explanatory footnote. Those coming to the text for academic reasons may be frustrated at how little commentary is provided, but for the casual reader I think it’s about the right amount – enough to let us understand what’s going on, but little enough that the narrative still feels like the work of the original author. Further background information on the author and his time period are provided in a forward, which could perhaps be more detailed in places but does probably as much as is strictly required. As regards the translation itself, it’s pretty good – there are moments when it seems to veer too far into modern colloquialism, or else too far into stilted archaism, but this will be a problem with any translation of a historical text that attempts to retain something of its character while still fully conveying its original meaning. By and large, I think the tone is successful – it has a clarity and straightforwardness that suit the style of the author, without appearing to try too hard to be contemporary. One small irritation is the way Kendall edits out some of Commynes’ tangents, replacing them with brief summaries – this is either done too much, or else it’s done too little. I can understand why an editor would want to trim the fat here and there, as Commynes does ramble on a little at times; but Kendall includes so much of the original text that it’s a little head-scratching why he’s bothered to edit out the handful of extra pages that he’s excised, while leaving other things in – I think I’d have been happier either with a more ruthlessly focused text, or else the whole thing in all its glory. But as we do only lose a handful of passages, this is honestly a very minor quibble.

[Another such quibble: not only as the translator stuck on the striking but non-original title, “The Universal Spider: The Life of Louis XI” to Commyne’s text, but the SAME translator has also written his OWN biography of Louis XI, using the exact SAME title. This is understandable – “The Universal Spider” has to be one of history’s coolest soubriquets, and it’s understandable the writer didn’t want to waste it on just one book title – but also probably a bit of a pain for people trying to find this specific edition (which is, incidentally, the old Folio Society edition).]

*this is a book in which a vassal can attempt to murder his liege and their entire family with a cannonade, and the next page we can be told with a straight face that “never was any man more loyal to another than [vassal] was to [liege]”. Oh, and while he’s trying to murder his liege’s family with cannons, the vassal also sends out two flasks of wine, because the liege’s daughter is giving birth, and it seems the decent thing to do to ease her labour a little. I mean, obviously he’s not going to not murder her or anything, but it would be unchivalrous not to give a woman wine when she’s in labour…

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Marie the Rich, the tragic Duchess of Burgundy

In conclusion, in writing a text entirely for his age, without the pretenses of history (indeed, several times Commynes declines to describe some well-known event, because “you”, being people of the same era as him, will no doubt know just as much as he does…), Commynes has inadvertantly written something both invaluable as a historical document, and at the same time timeless. It’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the time period or its culture, not only for its intimate, first-hand account, but also for its combination of unvarnished honesty and wry irony; it is also remarkable as a study in political leadership, and one that has had a great deal of influence throughout the centuries. It’s dense with action and a little prone to tangents, and casual readers probably shouldn’t expect to skim through it all in an afternoon unless they have excellent heads for details, but fundamentally it’s an entertaining and understandable account, translated attractively. I thoroughly recommend reading it.

And if that’s my conclusion, what conclusion did Philippe de Commyne reach, half a millennium ago? In the end, this student of statescraft is left extolling the virtues… of the quiet life.   By the end of the book, Louis is dead, his life crippled by paranoia – a king, Commynes says, who had so often condemned his enemies to dungeon cells is left, in his castle reinforced with iron towers, with no more freedom than a single courtyard, across which he is too frightened to walk to mass. Charles is dead, his lust for glory and military fame ending anonymously in the dirt – his mind and his courage stripped from him, and his body at the last left naked and unmarked in a common field. Marie is beautiful, witty, and phenomenally wealthy, held virtually hostage by her people, and dead of a tragic accident. Edward IV is dead; and his sons are dead, killed (Commynes believes) by his brother, and his brother is dead on the field at Bosworth. Charles, Duke of Berry, is dead, as is Francis, Duke of Brittany, and Frederick III will soon follow. Commynes, from being the closest friend and advisor to the king, is cast into an iron cage. France is set for a new round of wars, and Burgundy, Commynes’ homeland, has been destroyed and subjugated. So why, in the end, wonders Commynes, should anyone bother with ambition? Nobody can more fully subjugate a man than by his own fears; to be fearless is to treat others well, and that requires having as little to do with great affairs of state as possible. And so I’ll end where our author ends, and give Philippe the final words…

“Thus you have seen so many great men dying within a few years of one another, men who laboured so hard to increase their power and attain glory, but who experienced such sufferings and toils, and thus shortened their lives – and perchance their souls could be the worse for it…

…But to speak plainly, as a man who has no learning, save for some little experience he has gained, would it not be better for them and all other princes, and for men of medium station who have lived under these great ones and will continue to live under those now reigning, to choose the middle way in these matters? That is, to burden themselves with fewer cares, to work themselves less hard, to undertake fewer enterprises – and to have greater fear of offending God and persecuting their people and their neighbours by cruel means… …and, instead, enjoy ease and honourable pleasures? Their lives would be the longer for it, illnesses would come later, and their deaths would be the more regretted by a greater number of people, and looked forward to by fewer, and they would have less reason to fear death.

The most splendid examples of humanity give us to realise what an insignificant thing is a man, and how miserable and brief this life is. Neither the great nor the small, as soon as they are dead, are anything; and everyone holds the corpse in horror and loathing, while the soul, on the instant, must be judged. And already sentence has been passed upon it, according to the works and merits of the body.” 

 

 

 

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Was that joke on us?

In last year’s Republican primaries, there were two somewhat charming, sometimes ferocious Northerners, both running in ways that were neither conventionally “establishment” (like Bush, Rubio, and Kasich) nor conventionally “anti-establishment” (like Cruz, Carson, Fiorina, or Perry).

Both of these candidates were fat—though one had once been skinny, while the other had once been humungous. One was your common politician type, willing to make a deal with the devil in order to rise to power. The other was the devil; who, as usual, did not adequately reward the deal.

Okay, I think you see where I’m going with this. One was named Donald Trump and the other Chris Christie. Trump ended up getting 24.3 percent of the votes in the Iowa Caucus, and 45 percent of the primary votes nationally; Christie just 1.8 and 0.2 percent.

Christie ended up becoming Trump’s attack dog, famously helping to take down Marco Rubio in a primary debate just before dropping out of the race to endorse Trump. Christie was not picked as Trump’s VP in return for this, as many had expected him to be, nor was he even offered a high-ranking cabinet position. Trump, as we know, opted to stack his cabinet with businessmen, far-right types, Reince Priebus, and family instead.

Now, why did Christie do poorly in the primary? There are several possible reasons, but one theory, at least, has to be that he was taken down by the media. He was the (big) butt of many, many fat jokes, and even more Bridge-gate jokes. This seems like history now, but in 2013 and 2014— just when Christie’s future had otherwise looked so promising because of his weight loss, re-election, and love of Bruce—it was constant.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not so squeamish as to be against fat jokes of political figures. And I am not so naive to doubt Christie having been highly corrupt in Bridgegate. As his strong support of Trump has since displayed, Christie’s ambition has few limits.

The question is whether the media’s negative coverage of Christie was proportionate to his crime. I don’t have any data to say whether it was or was not, but, from my own recollection, I would guess that it was highly disproportionate. This is not surprising, really, since any event involving New York City — which Bridgegate did, of course — is likely to be covered more than it deserves to be. Moreover, the media tends to be at least somewhat left-leaning, and inhabited by skinny people, and so is perhaps not so disposed to be sympathetic to fat Conservatives like Christie.

Finally, the Republicans themselves did not rush to Christie’s defence in the wake of Bridgegate, at least not to the extent they typically do to their own (and, indeed, as they have since come to Trump’s, whose crimes—at least against morality, if not also against the law—are far worse). This may have been because both the Conservative establishment and Tea Party saw Christie as a possible threat in 2016. They were afraid of the wrong Northeasterner. But then, why should they have been worried about Trump, who at the time was still just a crazy celebrity making Youtube videos about how his people were trying to locate Barack Obama’s birth certificate?

Many people would say I am underrating Christie’s crime (and, maybe, overrating his political charisma). They may be right, of course. Obviously we don’t know what Christie’s odds against Trump would have been had there never been a Bridgegate, or if comedians did not find fat jokes amusing.

Is there a lesson here? I don’t know that either. (But I am sorry for asking so many rhetorical questions). If there is, it may go something like this: if you work in the media, and see a fat corrupt man get taken down, think twice about piling on. That fat corrupt man might be the only one capable of obstructing the bridge the devil must cross on his road into Washington D.C.

 

 

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The Father, the Son, and the Holy Mackinaw-what-a-comeback-for-the-Liberals!

trudeau

Let’s talk, very quickly, about Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Justin Trudeau, and the resurrection  the Liberal Party in Canada underwent during the country’s most recent election, 20 months ago.

Before Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister at the end of 2015, the Liberals controlled only 34 of the 308 seats in Parliament. They had become the third party for the first time in their history. They had not won a majority of seats in Quebec for nine consecutive elections–not since Pierre Elliott Trudeau won big in Quebec in 1980.

Today, on the other hand, the Liberals have the largest majority in parliament that any party has won since the election of 1984 (the same year that Pierre left office), and they control a majority of Quebec’s seats to boot.

If you look at the electoral map from Justin Trudeau’s first victory in 2015, and the map of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s final victory in 1980, you will see that the similarities between the two elections may or may not stand out more than their differences.

Canada_2015_

canada 1980 election

In both elections there was a clear East-West divide. The Liberals fared far better to the east of the Ontario-Manitoba border than they did to its west, regardless of which Trudeau was on the ticket. Both won flat-out majorities in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland, and both won a significant majority of seats throughout the country as a whole.

Justin Trudeau, however, fared far better than his father in the Maritime provinces (he swept all 32 ridings, whereas his father lost in Nova Scotia), worse in Quebec (he won 51 percent of Quebec’s seats; Pierre won 99 percent), and better in Ontario (66% vs 55%), Manitoba (50% vs 14%), Saskatchewan (8% vs 0), Alberta (12% vs 0), and British Columbia (40% vs 0). Further north, Justin swept the Territories’ three ridings; his father lost all three.

Two other important differences between 2015 and 1980 were the price of fossil fuels and the strength of the North American economy. In 1980 the price of oil was over 100$ per barrel when adjusted for inflation; during Justin Trudeau’s victory in 2015 oil was only at 40$ a barrel, having dropped by 60$ in the fifteen months leading up to election day. And while the economy of the United States was in relatively decent health in 2015, in 1980 it was still in the midst of “stagflation“, with negative GDP growth and an unemployment rate around 6-7%.

Canada oil and gas production

Source: RBC, predictions from March 2015

With decent US economic growth decent and oil prices falling substantially, Ontario and British Columbia appear to have grown the most among provincial economies in 2015; Alberta’s and Newfoundland’s may barely have grown at all.

can-us 50 land:water

For more about the graph above, see Ontario: the Borderland Economy

 

 

 

 

 

I’ll close here by showing a graph I made which I think is interesting, but which probably (definitely) should be taken with a very large grain of salt. The graph shows a relationship between four variables: the price of crude oil (in West Texas Intermediate prices, adjusted for inflation); the employment rate in the United States (which we are using as a proxy for American economic health in general); the success of Conservative parties* and the NDP in Canadian federal elections; and the success of the Liberals and Bloc Quebecois in elections. The basic idea is that because western Canada benefits from expensive oil whereas eastern Canada depends more on a strong American economy, and because Conservatives and the NDP are generally more associated with western Canada whereas the Liberals and Bloc are associated with the eastern half of Canada, there should, maybebe some links between these variables:

Canada Politics Graph

Conservative parties include the Progressive Conservative, Canadian Alliance, Reform, or, since 2003, the Conservative Party. The Bloc Quebecois, meanwhile, was founded in 1991

This graph covers the same time period, from Pierre Trudeau’s final election in 1980 to Justin Trudeau’s first election in 2015. It shows that in the elections immediately following Pierre’s departure and immediately preceding Justin’s arrival – namely, in the elections of 1984 and 2011 – the Conservatives and/or NDP did extremely well relative to the Liberals and/or Bloc Quebecois. In 2011 Harper won his only majority government and the NDP become the official opposition for the first time ever, while in 1984 Pierre Trudeau resigned prior to the election and Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives won by the largest margin in Canadian history.

Every year shown on the graph above corresponds with a Canadian federal election, with the exception of 1998. 1998, however, was the year in which oil prices fell to their lowest point in nearly a century, even as the American economy was not in a recession, as it usually is when oil prices fall. With US employment high and oil prices low, the blue line on the graph above is far higher than in any other year. In the subsequent election, in 2000, Jean Chretien would go on to win a large majority for the Liberals, and the BQ a majority of ridings in Quebec. 2000 was the last time that any party won a majority government until 2011, and the last time the Liberals won a majority until 2015.

For more on this subject, check out Trudeau Walks A Tightrope, published on MacroGeo earlier this week.

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Canada Needs A Red-Green Party

redgreen2

Watching the candidates for leader of the Conservative Party debate in Halifax last week was interesting. Thirteen out of the fourteen leaders in the debate argued against the implementation of any cap-and-trade systems or carbon taxes, on the basis that the Conservative Party should remain against tax increases in general.

Quebec MP Steven Blaney said: “they say you can put the lipstick on a pig and it’s still a pig, well you can add Green to tax and it’s still a tax. So no, there is no need to have such a tax in Canada…we’re all conservative after all.”

Brad Trost said: “taxes must go down. Taxes do not need to go up on anything, particularly not on heating and driving and lighting our homes”.

Andrew Saxton said his first act as Prime Minister would be to “axe the tax”. He did also say that he would try to work with Trump toward a “harmonized” North American solution to climate change. Of course, that may be trickier than he suggests, given that Trump often claims to be a climate change denier and is not known for pursuing harmonies of any kind.

When Michael Chong, the sole dissenter on the issue, pointed out that it might be more desirable to adopt a revenue-neutral carbon tax model similar to the one that exists in British Columbia, calling carbon taxes “the most conservative way, the cheapest way, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”, he was challenged by several of his fellow candidates.

Rick Peterson, for example, told Chong that the BC carbon tax is not truly revenue-neutral, because it disproportionately hurts residents in towns like Dawson Creek, who lack the alternative means of transport like “SkyTrains and bike lanes” that Vancouverites have access to. Yet this was an unsatisfying rebuttle even if one does accept Peterson’s premise that small towns should drive Canada’s tax policies, since other types of taxes could still be reduced in order to fully compensate small towns for any new carbon taxes they have to pay.

Kevin O’Leary, meanwhile, argued that carbon taxes are not needed because Canada’s forests mean that it is already a net carbon sink for the world. In other words, that because we as Canadians are blessed with forests that we did not build, we have the right to emit lots of greenhouse gasses from power plants and cars we did build.

O’Leary also argued that we should not have carbon taxation because Canada only contributes a small portion to global emissions. This same argument was also mentioned by a number of the other Conservative candidates in the debate, none seeming to be aware of the existence of straws or of camels’ backs. Yet not a single candidate seemed to think it relevant enough to point out the fact that, on a per capita basis, Canada has the highest emissions of any significant economy in the world, apart from Saudi Arabia, the United States, or Australia. (Canada emits an estimated 1.5-2 times more carbon dioxide per person than is emitted in the European Union or Japan, 2.5 times more than China, and 9 times more than India).

The debate drove home a certain point about Canadian politics: there is no way of voting for a party or party leader who is Conservative on issues like government spending but at the same time Green on issues concerning the environment. While left-wing voters are given at least one, and arguably three, Green parties to vote for —most obviously the Green Party, but also arguably the Liberals or the NDP, and certainly the Leap Manifesto faction within the NDP — right-wing voters are presented with no such option.

A Red-Green voter — a voter who loves the outdoors as much as he or she hates tax increases or having to debate young social activists; the type of voter that a character like Red Green would himself probably approve of — has nobody to vote for in today’s system.

(This assumes that Red is the colour of the Right as in America, rather than the Left as in Europe. I know, I know, Canada tends to use the European colour code, but I’m willing to look past that for a moment because I really want this reference to the Red Green show to hold up…)

This is a real shame, and not only because left-wing parties may not win enough MPs to enact Green policies on their own. It is also a shame because it might, at least in certain circumstances, be the case that right-wing policies would actually serve the cause of environmentalism more usefully than left-wing ones do.

Most economists, for example, would be in support of a conservative proposal to use carbon taxes to reduce other taxes such as sales taxes, capital gains taxes, or corporate taxes, rather than use carbon taxes to grow the overall size of government budgets as some left-wing leaders might be more inclined to do.

Trudeau’s plan, in contrast, which is to allow cap-and-trade rather than carbon taxes in provinces like Ontario and Quebec, and also to allow the provinces to decide on their own whether or not their systems will be revenue-neutral, most economists are less thrilled about.

Ontario’s cap-and-trade plan, for example, will not be revenue neutral, for a number of reasons including that Ontario is going to spend some of the revenues on projects like wind farms rather than give the money back to the population of Ontario in the form of tax rebates.

An even more pressing environmental issue than carbon taxes is animal welfare. It is, sadly, the case that the food industry in Canada tortures or mistreats tens of millions of mammals and birds each year, and that poor treatment of animals can be dangerous to humans as well because of the overuse of antibiotics and risk of poor farm conditions allowing dieases like Avian bird flu to spread. The environmentalist Left, however, which cares about this issue dearly, is not large enough to have yet made animal welfare a government priority. And some of the solutions that many on the Left champion, namely vegetarianism, veganism, local farms, and small-scale farms, may not be the most practical courses of action, even if they are the most laudable ones.

A more conservative approach, such as mandating that large-scale industrial farms adopt humane methods — the “large pastoral” approach championed by Canadian writer Sonia Faruqi in her excellent and hilarious book, Project Animal Farm — may prove to be more successful in providing a more effective model for animal welfare than would the promotion of small or local farms. Yet among the modern Conservative Party, the issue of animal welfare is generally not even viewed as urgent or worthy of discussion. If only there was some sort of barbaric cultural practices hotline we could call to report the Conservative Party for such a cruel negligence…

An environmental issue that the Left has been particularly negligent on, meanwhile, but which the absence of a Red-Green movement means that the Right has not at all stepped in to fix the Left’s mistake, is the marijuana industry. Because the Left has long seen smoking weed as being cool and weed prohibition as a bad policy — and, by the way, they are correct on both those points — it has for the most part turned a blind eye to the vast environmental destruction that marijuana production often causes. This destruction is actually needless in most cases: it stems from the desire among consumers for weed that is both cheap and blemish-free, rather than for coarser “shwag”, even though the former is of only slightly higher quality. (Read Stanford professor Martin Lewis’s article on the topic to get a fuller picture of this key issue).

With legalization impending, this issue should be addressed in government. But instead what we have mainly gotten from leaders like Trudeau is tough talk on the need to keep THC away from the developing brains of young adults. The truth, though, is that it would be far easier to prevent needless environmental destruction than it would be to stop students from taking drugs.

There is, finally, the issue of local pollution and quality of life. It seems odd that the party that claims to best represent salt-of-the-earth Canadians puts relatively little priority on maintaining landscapes that these same Canadians might otherwise be able to enjoy themselves. It would, again, seem only sensible that Conservatives should prefer taxing things like air pollution, noise pollution, and visual pollution, rather than taxing sales or middle-class income. That way at least Canada’s GDP can grow, even if its oil sands or suburban sprawl grows too.

The argument you frequently hear Conservatives imply, that the economy and environment are at odds with one another because eco-taxes would imperil economic growth, misses the point entirely. The status quo —the Harper majority government status quo — is one of medium-high taxes in general, which limits economic growth, and intensive resource extraction and suburban sprawl, which harm the environment. A Red-Green movement would ideally serve market-lovers as well as nature-lovers. Today’s Conservatives, in some respects, often do neither.

Who will lead this new movement? I hereby nominate Robert Herjavec, the self-made business mogul and surfer with Trudeauesque hair, who sits to O’Leary’s right in the Tank/Den. (If nothing else, a sharkfight between Herjavec and O’Leary could raise Canada’s profile south of the border). While a Red-Green Party might have little chance of electoral success at first, the creation of such a party by a prominent Canadian could help to chip the Conservative Party towards the Green. It’s time to step up and serve your country Robert!

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Presidential Beginnings and Regionalism in America

Hillary Clinton would not just have been the first female president. She would also have been the first modern Democratic candidate born in a northern state to have become president. The past four Democrats who have won presidential contests (or five, if you count Al Gore’s ambiguous election result) were not from the North.

This is counting Obama as a non-Northern politician, which may not be entirely unfair: Hawaii is the southernmost state in the US, Obama was raised by his Kansas-born mother and grandparents, and African-American society in Illinois remains recently rooted in the South. Obama himself has a bit of a southern accent that he is able to turn on or off as required. (Hillary Clinton had one too back in the early 1990’s, when she was still living in the governor’s mansion in Arkansas). Indeed, you have to go back all the way to John F Kennedy in order to break this pattern—but not to Truman before him, a Missouri-born Democrat.

In contrast, on the Republican side all the recent presidents who have won elections (in other words, all the recent Republican presidents apart from Gerald Ford, who inherited Nixon’s presidency post-impeachment) have had close ties to either California or Texas. The Bush family, though originally aristocrats hailing from New England, adopted Texas as their home, with Bush Sr. representing it in Congress for four years and Bush Jr. later serving as its governor for five years. Eisenhower too was from Texas. Reagan on the other hand was a Hollywood actor turned governor of California, while Nixon was born and raised in California and represented it in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

Trump’s victory in a sense breaks this pattern (at least, if you ignore the fact that the new Celebrity Apprentice is being filmed in California). Trump will be the first New York-born Republican president since Teddy Roosevelt, and the first New York-born president of either party since Franklin Roosevelt. Trump is also the only Republican president to have ever lost the Texas primary (he got just 27 percent of the vote there; Ted Cruz got 44 percent) and was the first Republican presidential nominee to have lost the Texas primary since Ford lost it to Reagan in 1976, in an election Ford later lost to Jimmy Carter.

These patterns are telling. Most of the post-election discussions thus far have been devoted to the ethnic, rural-urban, class, age, or gender divisions that helped Trump to defeat Hillary Clinton, but this is partly a result of the fact that two of America’s other political macro-divisions — the North-South divide and the California-Texas divide — appear so obvious and are so normalized that they have been dwelt upon very little by comparison.

The North-South divide is partially obscured by the fact that there are large numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters living in most states in the South. Thus, Clinton fared worse in heartland states like Idaho, Utah, and the Dakotas than she did in southeastern states like Alabama, Georgia, or the Carolinas, even as her worst showing of all was among white Southern voters. More than 70 percent of white voters in Texas and in most of the Southeast (apart from Florida) did not vote for Clinton—a stupefying level of political unanimity for such a large region and demographic group. Nationally, by comparison, even an estimated 28 percent of white voters without a college degree voted for Clinton. Even white voters in the coal-producing states of Wyoming and West Virginia were not enticed to vote for Trump in such large proportions as Southern ones were.

Note: this is a map of poll-based projections from just before the election; it does not show the actual results of the election. I couldn’t find a map that does show the results of the election based solely on white voters

 

Trump, meanwhile, received an estimated 49 percent of white college graduates, 23 percent of non-white college graduates, and even 29 percent of Hispanic-Americans, yet in California got just 33 percent of the overall vote, less than in any other state apart from Hawaii or Vermont. In Massachusetts Trump got just 33.5 percent. In New York he got 37 percent, the first time a president failed to win his own home state since Lincoln lost Kentucky in 1864.

Still, as with that 1864 election, race proved far more divisive even than intense regionalism; Trump only won 8 percent of African-American votes. By contrast, Trump received at least 29 percent of the overall vote in every state. Only in Trump’s future home of Washington D.C. was he blown-out, getting just 4 percent of the overall vote there.

Compared to the bitter North-South divide, which dates back to America’s early years, the California-Texas divide is extremely new and emotionally far less encumbered by historical(-racial) divisions. California and Texas have not voted in unison only since 1988. They have voted in unison in 5 of the past 13 elections — twice for Reagan (a Californian), twice for the Nixon (a Californian), and once for George H W Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president prior to the election. Indeed, Texas and California also voted in unison seven out of ten times between 1952 and 1988, and fourteen out of nineteen times between 1916 and 1988. During this span California voted for the Republicans nine out of ten times, while Texas voted for the Democrats four out of ten times.

Today, however, it is already becoming difficult to believe that this ever used to occur. The growing division between California and Texas has perhaps more than anything else defined modern American politics. California and Texas are the most populous states in the country, accounting for 17 percent of the electoral college votes in the election. The next most populous state, the swing-state of Florida, has just 52 percent the population size of California and 74 percent that of Texas. Illinois, the most populous state in the Midwest and the fifth most populous state in the country, has just 33 percent the population size of California and 47 percent that of Texas. Had Texas voted for the Democrats in this past election, Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college by a score of 270 to 268. Had Trump fared better in California, he would not have lost the popular vote.

(The division between California and Texas might also be preventing both from pursuing their shared interest of achieving structural reform in the Senate. While Democrats are outraged that Trump and George W Bush both won the presidency even after losing the popular vote, what is arguably much more troubling is that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming still receive as many votes in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas. Given the difficulty of amending the structure of the Senate, such reform would require at a minimum the cooperation of Congressional representatives from Texas and California).

Past presidents also used to transcend the more deeply entrenched North-South divide on occasion. Bill Clinton did it to a certain extent when he won in states like Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Reagan did it when he swept the Northeast twice, as to a lesser extent did George H W Bush. And Carter did it when he swept the entire Southeast, even as he failed to win any of the 16 states in the lower 48 west of Texas or Minnesota.

Carter.png

Carter defeats Ford in 1976; in that election the divide was east-west, not north-south

If such occurrences are impossible nowadays, we might see more elections in the future that are not too dissimilar from the recent one, with the Democrats no longer running a Southern candidate, the Republicans no longer running one from California or Texas, and both of the parties instead focusing their efforts squarely upon the Midwest, Florida, and a few other smaller states like Arizona. Perhaps, though, these divisions will not persist. Maybe a Northern Democrat will have a shot at winning states in the South next time—instead of just some Yankee showman like Trump.

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Electoral College Blues

Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama

In the recent presidential election Donald Trump received the support of 45 percent of voters who have college diplomas, 37 percent of voters who have graduate degrees, and 35 percent of college-age voters. Trump won the presidency in spite of these relatively low numbers, however, because he is set to receive 57 percent of the votes within the electoral college.

Democratic voters are not at all happy about this. Many are now calling for the abolition of the electoral college, or at least, wishing that it was not so incredibly difficult to abolish. They are unhappy that both Donald Trump and George W Bush were able to reach the White House even after losing the popular vote.

I am sympathetic to this view, and if it were up to me I would agree to replace the electoral college with another type of voting system — though what system exactly would be best I am not certain about. That said, I would like to point out a few things to the Democratic supporters who have been discussing this issue of late, if only because I have yet to hear anyone mention them:

1) Obama lost the popular vote in the Democratic primary of 2008. He received roughly 0.7 percent fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received in that race, but won because he got 53 percent of the delegate count. This was not as large a margin as Trump’s 2 percent popular vote loss to Clinton, but it was greater than Bush’s 0.5 percent loss to Gore.

Granted, a primary is obviously not as important as general election, and involves many fewer voters.There is also the complicating factor of the several states which caucus rather than vote directly in primaries, as well as the fact that Obama was not on the ballot in Michigan. This has led some to claim that Obama would have beaten Clinton in a popular vote if there had been a fairer and more direct primary system.

All the same, it does perhaps speak a bit poorly of some of the Democratic supporters, who did not make such a fuss when Obama came to power after appearing to have lost a key popular vote. They do not even mention Obama’s popular vote loss now, even as they complain frequently about Trump’s and Bush’s.

(Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, did well in the 2008 primary in part by winning in the Rust Belt states and Florida, states which have now propelled Trump to electoral college success. Trump’s victory was the second time Clinton has won a key popular vote and still lost an election)

2) It is not at all clear that the unfairness of the electoral college is deserving of the huge amount of attention it has been receiving of late, when the unfairness of the voting system in the Senate is in certain respects enormously greater than that of the electoral college, yet by comparison tends to receive almost no attention in the national media.

Senators, of course, are not as important as presidents, but still, anyone complaining about the presidential voting system should probably also be complaining about the fact that tiny states like Rhode Island and Wyoming receive as much representation in the Senate as do giants like California and Texas.

George W Bush and Trump, after all, only lost their respective popular votes by approximately 0.5—2 percent, whereas California and Texas have nearly 40 and 28 million inhabitants, respectively, yet receive the same amount of representation in the Senate as do each of the six American states which have fewer than one million inhabitants, or the 14 states which have fewer than two million inhabitants, or the 20 states with fewer than three million inhabitants.

3) It is not clear that the Democrats would actually benefit from getting rid of the electoral college. While most Democrat supporters who want to get rid of the electoral college would like to do so because they feel it is unfair, rather than because they feel it hurts Democrats, some do want to change the system mainly because they feel it has been hurt their side during the Bush and Trump elections.

What is interesting here is that the Democrats have spent much of the past decade telling themselves that they are well-placed to win future electoral colleges because they have a “coalition of the ascendant” — notably, that they may be set to benefit from having young Spanish-speaking, black, and white-liberal populations continue to grow quickly within  swing states like Florida, Colorado, Virginia, or possibly even Georgia. Trump’s electoral college victory does not change this trend. What is more, Trump’s popular vote loss to Clinton may not prevent the Republicans from winning future popular votes by receiving high support from white voters.

Indeed, this recent election might, counter-intuitivitely, indicate that Republicans could be able to win the popular vote in the future because of white voters being willing to switch from Democrat to Republican, or because of Democrat voters staying home on election day. If, as hopefully will not happen, electoral politics continue to become more divided along racial lines, then it is not inconceivable that white Americans would remain a predominant voting bloc even if they eventually no longer account for a majority of the electorate.

Of course, it is probable that for the foreseeable future Republicans will continue to fare better in the electoral college than in the popular vote, a result of the fact that most Democrat voters tend to live within Northeastern or Pacific coastal cities, outside of typical swing states. Still, any Democrats who hope to somehow get rid of the electoral college in order to benefit their own party should, maybe, be a bit careful in making this a Christmas wish.

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North America

In Politics, the Triple Crown is Even More Elusive

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Last year, the horse American Pharaoh became the first since 1978 to achieve the Triple Crown, winning in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having a single political party win all three branches in Washington, however — controlling the White House and Congress and having a majority of Supreme Court justices nominated by a president of your party — is even rarer. The Democrats last achieved it in 1969. The Republicans managed it for four and a half years under George W. Bush, but before then had not done it since 1931.

With the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year, however, both parties now have a shot at the political Triple Crown in the upcoming election. The Democrats can achieve it if they can somehow retake Congress, the Republicans if they can somehow retake the White House. Both Clinton and Trump therefore have a chance at making history this year. One of them could soon become a political stud, while the other (hopefully Trump) could be sent off to the glue-factory.

Democrats and Republicans

The last time the Democrats controlled both the White House and Congress (but, not the Supreme Court) was during a two-year span from 2009 until 2011, at the start of Obama’s first term. Before then, the Democrats had not controlled both branches of government at the same time since 1992-1994, and before that not since 1976-1980. They did not manage to control Congress at all between 1995 and 2007, and in 2007 and 2008 only controlled it narrowly with the help of left-leaning Independent senators Bernie Sanders and Joe Lieberman.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have controlled both houses of Congress since 2015, and did so also from 2003 until 2007 and from 1995 until 2001. (The 2001 streak ended half a year after George W. Bush was elected when, in May of 2001, sitting Senator Jim Jeffords left the Republican party to become a Democrat-leaning Independent). Before then, however, the Republicans had not controlled both houses of Congress simultaneously since 1953-1955, during the first two years of the presidency of Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

For a long time, the Republicans’ bane was the House of Representatives. For forty years, between 1955 and 1995, the Republicans failed to win the House even once. Yet they have reached the promised land since: they have won the House in nine of the past eleven elections, and today control the largest House majority they have had since 1928. Winning big in the House in the election of 2010, the first election following “the Great Recession, was particularly nice for the Republicans, as in 2011 the US had its once-a-decade redrawing of congressional district boundaries. The Republicans were therefore able to redraw four times as many districts as the Democrats were. Taking the House back is by far the main hurdle the Democrats will have to winning the political Triple Crown.

In contrast to the House of Representatives, the Senate and White House have not been kind to the Republicans of late. They have lost the Senate in four out of the past five elections and the White House in four of the past six presidential elections (or four of five, if you count the Bush-Gore-Nader election in 2000 as a wash). That they have staved off a Democrat Triple Crown during this period is only because they have enjoyed Republican-appointed majorities in the Supreme Court for decades. Their Supreme Court dominance has been legacy of having controlled the White House for 20 out of 24 years between 1969 and 1992, under Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Bush. By the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency, only one of nine justices had been appointed by a Democrat president.

This huge Supreme Court majority was in part a lucky break, however. It was a result of Democrat Jimmy Carter (president from 1977-1981) having been one of just four presidents in US history, and the only one since the 1860s, not to get to appoint any Supreme Court judges. Clinton only appointed two in eight years, meanwhile, whereas Bush Sr. and Reagan together appointed five in twelve years and Nixon and Ford together appointed four in eight years. According to some Democrat supporters, this Court majority was not only unlucky but also, eventually, unjust, since it was the majority-Republican Court ruled that Bush defeated Gore in Florida during the 2000 election, which in turn resulted in Bush getting to appoint another two justices to the Court during his two terms in office.

Odds For 2016 

According to Nate Silver’s data journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Trump has roughly a 13 or 26 percent chance at beating Clinton (depending on whether you use their “polls-only” or “polls-plus” forecast). While FiveThirtyEight has not released their predictions for Congress yet, they have also explained why they see the Senate race as possibly being a very close one this year. They have said as well that for the Democrats to retake the House will require at least a Clinton landslide victory (defining landslide as a double-digit popular vote margin, which has not happened since Reagan, Nixon, or, for the Democrats, Lyndon Johnson) — and they have the odds of such a Clinton landslide at 35 percent or lower.

Historical Circumstances

It is clear that, in modern times, it usually takes fairly special circumstances to bring about a situation in which one party controls the Congress and White House at the same time. The Democrats did it for two years after the 2008 election because of excitement over Obama, disappointment with George W Bush (and Sarah Palin), the financial crisis in late 2007, and frustration with the Iraq War. The Republicans did it for a few years under Bush Jr. — during which time they also had a Supreme Court majority — but they only achieved this through the narrowest of victories over Al Gore in the 2000 election, and they may also have been bolstered by 9-11, which occured just over eight months into Bush’s presidency.

The Democrats, similarly, did it for the first few years of Clinton’s presidency, in the wake of the 1991 recession and Desert Storm, and with the help of Clinton’s political skills and a unique ticket headed by two Southern Democrats (Clinton from Arkansas, Gore from Washington D.C. and Tennessee). Republicans Reagan, Bush Sr., Ford, and Nixon never managed to have their party run Congress, but another Southern Democrat, Jimmy Carter, did so during all four of his years in office, which he came into in the election following Watergate and the end of the American Vietnam War. It probably also helped that, unlike Clinton’s – and even Obama’s – mostly feigned religiosity, Carter was in actuality a devout Christian.

Before that, though, one party controlling multiple branches of the government used to happen quite frequently. The Democrats dominated Washington D.C. during the eras around WW1, the Depression, WW2, and most of the post-WW2 generation, while the Republicans dominated the post-Civil War generation and the “Roaring ‘20s”, then took office again following Democratic president Truman’s waging of the Korean War and Democratic president Johnson’s massive troop surge into Vietnam. In the twentieth century, the Democrats had the political Triple Crown from 1939-1952 and from 1962-1969, while the Republicans had it from 1921-1931. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency was particularly impactful, not only because of the Depression and War but also because he had personally appointed eight of the nine judges on the Supreme Court by the time he left office.

That is all in the past though. For the 2016 election, going by the odds of FiveThirtyEight and by other predictions that have been made, there is perhaps a 10-20 percent chance the Democrats will win their first Triple Crown since 1969, and also a 10-20 percent chance that the Republicans will get their first Triple Crown since 2006. Clinton or Trump, then, could end up becoming the next American Pharaoh.

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