Monday, July 25, 2016

The Just Limits of Competence

One of the subtexts of the populist revolt roiling American politics is the accusation that current governing elites have failed.  Certainly, we have seen a number of failures over the past decade--in foreign affairs, in the regulation of the financial markets, in the realm of national security, and so forth.  The Obama administration even struggled to roll out the website for its signature initiative (the Affordable Care Act).  In dealing with the challenges ahead, we need to take a balanced approach to the role of competence.

Yes, competence does matter in terms of running government.  One needn't be a radical technocrat to believe that it does.  Furthermore, competence can be an ally of limited government and individual liberty.  When the government fails to do that which is in its proper purview, it opens up the door to social and political disruptions that in turn create an opening for big-government pseudo-solutions.  For instance, if the mortgage and financial sectors had been more astutely regulated, the great meltdown of 2008 could have been avoided or at least lessened.  That meltdown paved the way for the stimulus and other bureaucratic overreaches of the Obama administration.

One could make a case that recent years have witnessed the following feedback loop: administrative incompetence leading to the growth of government bureaucracies, which in turn compounds the later bureaucratic failures.  This pattern has been damaging to both the nation as a whole and the enterprise of limited government.

However, competence by itself does not solve all problems.  We live in a flawed human world, so there will be challenges and setbacks no matter how skilled we are.  We can't expect perfection from any government actor--or any human actor at all.  It's because of this lack of perfection that we should be skeptical about assigning over all power to a single entity or to a narrow group of entities.  By diffusing power, we can lessen the likelihood of major crippling mistakes.  Technical competence also cannot simply adjudicate some of the deeper questions of politics (such as the best social organization, the ideals a society should embody, what exactly constitutes the good life, etc.).

Strongmen are no substitute for a responsible and limited republican politics, but, if republican leaders do not act responsibly, they also undermine the broader grounding of limited government.

Friday, July 22, 2016

How Dark?

Donald Trump's convention speech tonight spent a lot of time talking about the challenges facing the United States.  Whether that's good or bad, mentioning dark themes isn't exactly outside the mainstream of American politics.

Here's what Barack Obama had to say about the United States in 2008:
This country is more decent than one where a woman in Ohio, on the brink of retirement, finds herself one illness away from disaster after a lifetime of hard work.
We're a better country than one where a man in Indiana has to pack up the equipment that he's worked on for 20 years and watch as it's shipped off to China, and then chokes up as he explains how he felt like a failure when he went home to tell his family the news.
We are more compassionate than a government that lets veterans sleep on our streets and families slide into poverty that sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes.
Those lines have some pretty dark imagery.  Senator Obama accused the government of doing nothing while New Orleans "drown[ed] before our eyes" and constantly emphasized images of economic decline.

This tone of critique isn't limited to Barack Obama.  Here are some passages from Ronald Reagan's speech at the 1980 convention:
Never before in our history have Americans been called upon to face three grave threats to our very existence, any one of which could destroy us. We face a disintegrating economy, a weakened defense and an energy policy based on the sharing of scarcity.
The major issue of this campaign is the direct political, personal and moral responsibility of Democratic Party leadership--in the White House and in Congress--for this unprecedented calamity which has befallen us. They tell us they have done the most that humanly could be done. They say that the United States has had its day in the sun; that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems; that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities...
We need rebirth of the American tradition of leadership at every level of government and in private life as well. The United States of America is unique in world history because it has a genius for leaders--many leaders--on many levels. But, back in 1976, Mr. Carter said, "Trust me." And a lot of people did. Now, many of those people are out of work. Many have seen their savings eaten away by inflation. Many others on fixed incomes, especially the elderly, have watched helplessly as the cruel tax of inflation wasted away their purchasing power. And, today, a great many who trusted Mr. Carter wonder if we can survive the Carter policies of national defense.
Negativity isn't enough.  Reagan in particular emphasized a hopeful possibility for the United States.  National leaders need to do more than diagnose; they need to offer hope and solutions.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Choosing Defeat

In the era of the New Normal, our politics has tended to focus on distributing pain rather than sharing benefits.  Politicians focus on government redistribution rather than economic revitalization, and the left-wing culture war often seems to be more about bullying dissenters than working to advance the recognition of diverse human dignity.  One of the things that has intensified partisanship in recent years is that there have been so many failures (on foreign policy, on financial regulation, on economic growth, and so forth).  The fact that victory has a hundred fathers means that various factions can claim a hand in success: Republicans and Democrats can come together to share the glory of American economic success, the end of segregation, or the defeat of the Soviet Union.  In recent years, though, our politics has become consumed with foisting the orphan of defeat on the opposing faction.  This all-consuming blame-game distracts us from the work of finding solutions and defending the Republic.

Conservatives should beware falling into the same dynamic.  It's clear that some on the right would like to use a Trump defeat in November as a way of punishing their factional opponents in the GOP.  Some Trump allies seem to place more of an emphasis on rubbing their Republican opponents' noses in the dirt rather than working to unify the party to help Trump win.  However, rather than fighting over who can be the future captain of a losing team, it might instead be better to, well, win.

At the risk of being gauche, one might observe that Hillary Clinton is still not destined to be president.  Her unfavorables remain shockingly high, she stands committed to a failed radical ideology, and the scandals surrounding her are legion.  At the moment, Donald Trump--despite all his campaign's stumbles--remains only a couple points behind her in public polls.  It would border on bizarre for the right to choose a fractious defeat at this point in the summer.

If Donald Trump really wants to sit in the Oval Office, he needs to work to unify the party and prove his fitness for governing.  Part of this means exercising more discipline in public comments and toning down the attacks on intraparty rivals.  But it also demands showing more fluency with policy and conservative thought.  Donald Trump, Jr.'s speech on Tuesday night showed that it is possible to synthesize Trumpian themes with mainstream conservative arguments.  It is up to the nominee of the Republican party to make that case responsibly and to do more to earn the respect of both his party and the nation.

Meanwhile, many elected Republican officials or former elected officials who could themselves make a legitimate run for the presidency have declared both Trump and Clinton unfit for the presidency.  If that's the case, those politicians would seem to have a moral obligation to offer a viable alternative to those candidates.  If Trump and Clinton are both equally bad, there's no risk of being a "spoiler."  If they are both unfit, then surely our country deserves better.  If a plausible third-party candidate has even a slim chance of winning against two supposedly illegitimate options, what excuse is there not to run?  Compared to the conditions that our nation's soldiers are expected to face on behalf of the Republic, mounting a presidential campaign is a laughably light task.  The burdens of Veep aren't exactly those of American Sniper.  And if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not equally bad options, politicians and the average voter have an obligation to deliberate upon who is least bad.

Our nation deserves more than vitriol.  Vindictiveness is a poor substitute for victory, and the fate of the nation is more important than the social status of political partisans.

Against Totalitarianism

Mollie Hemingway has a valuable piece out today suggesting that Republicans might be wise to unify the GOP around the idea of anti-totalitarianism.  There's a long tradition of opposition to totalitarianism within conservatism, from Edmund Burke's critique of the proto-totalitarianism of the French Revolution to conservative opposition to the Soviet Union.

Hemingway notes that the breakdown of civic society opens the door to the totalitarian temptation:
Financially, we’re well off. In other ways, we’re suffering. And we have the drug addiction, suicide rates, and socio-economic strife to prove it. American sociologist Robert Nisbet said totalitarianism is a process of the annihilation of individuality, beginning with the erosion of social relationships. Without ties to family, friends, and community, people look to the government for help and validation. This isolation and alienation allows the state to control us.
“To destroy or diminish the reality of the smaller areas of society, to abolish or restrict the range of cultural alternatives offered individuals by economic endeavor, religion, and kinship, is to destroy in time the roots of the will to resist despotism in its large forms,” he wrote in Quest for Community.
Families break down as a result of a sexual revolution we insist on treating as an unalloyed good, all evidence to the contrary. Bureaucracies tell people how little they can practice their religion outside of their sanctuary walls, or how little control they have over their child’s education, or how little they can determine how to run a family business. Corporations are increasingly tied to a government that bestows favors on those who adopt a rigid set of doctrines set by the state. And our media frequently give the impression there’s only one correct side to an argument, ostracizing or belittling those with different opinions.
Strengthening civil society--rebuilding the bonds of trust, integration, and community--could help ward off that totalitarian threat and help defend liberty.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Contra Decadence

Our nation faces many challenges.

Since 2000, the United States economy has grown at an annual rate of about 1.8 percent.  Between 1947 and 2000, it annually grew at nearly twice that rate.

Inflation-adjusted median household income peaked in 1999.

The long-term trend of decreasing murder rates may, in some cities, be reversing.

Across the country, civil unrest has at times boiled over into violence.

ISIS and its allies are on the march--in Nice and in Brussels, in San Bernardino and in Orlando.

The geopolitical order is strained. Power vacuums in the Middle East and elsewhere have given havens to terrorists and their friends. Major international bodies--such as the European Union--face increased internal tensions.

No wonder that, according to polls, fewer than one-third of Americans think that the nation is on the right track.  These are serious problems, and it's not fear-mongering to draw attention to them.  In fact, it enables fear and misery to deny their existence.

The American republic has undergone periods of testing before, and it has risen to the occasion.  These present challenges are not insurmountable, but the status quo has failed to face--and has often compounded--them.  In recent years, supposed technocratic wizards have failed again and again.  Those who should seek to conciliate have instead worked to divide.  Those who have a duty to the public have instead built grand palaces of self-indulgence.  The comfortable have congratulated themselves on their tired bromides--and called that back-patting courage.  Those in high office and other positions of power have inflamed the culture war as a way of distracting from their cronyism and incompetence, invoking the "right side of History" to wrap themselves in the robes of imperial luxury.

Many powerful forces have worked to spread distrust, polarization, and anger. We as a nation can instead take the--at times harder but always more rewarding--path of empathy, understanding, and deliberation. We can listen to each other and realize that each and every life has dignity, and that every person matters. We can have a republic of both diversity and comity.

In the face of a reckless technocratic transnationalism, there is a place--and even a need--for a voice for the traditions of responsible self-government. Instead of the facile self-righteousness of the new intolerance, we can instead have a culture of freedom, pluralism, and serious cultural achievement. We can have an economy where prosperity is not the preserve of the few, and where corporate cronyism does not enrich the connected at the expense of the public. We can have a foreign policy that honors American commitments and prudently uses power abroad. We can work to rebuild trust and our communities.

Decadence is all too often a choice or the product of a series of choices, when one person after another shirks the obligations of virtue, imagination, and responsibility.  Americans have a higher birthright and obligation than the cut-rate comforts of the New Normal.  This republic won its independence, survived a crippling civil war, became an industrial colossus, fought back the twin totalitarian evils of the twentieth century (Nazism and Soviet Communism), and, over the centuries, has worked to expand the blessings of liberty and self-governance both inside and outside its borders.  In the face of our troubles, it is time for national leaders to remind our republic of what is best in it and to offer a vision for the future that accords with reality but that also speaks to our nobler aspirations.  Whoever it is, it is time for someone to take that stand. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Making the Window

This New York Times story about an interview with Justice Ginsburg offers a window into how the media sets the stage for political debates:
A second deadlock, in United States v. Texas, left in place a nationwide injunction blocking Mr. Obama’s plan to spare more than four million unauthorized immigrants from deportation and allow them to work. That was unfortunate, Justice Ginsburg said, but it could have been worse.
“Think what would have happened had Justice Scalia remained with us,” she said. Instead of a single sentence announcing the tie, she suggested, a five-justice majority would have issued a precedent-setting decision dealing a lasting setback to Mr. Obama and the immigrants he had tried to protect.
Justice Ginsburg noted that the case was in an early stage and could return to the Supreme Court. “By the time it gets back here, there will be nine justices,” she said.
Rather than framing United States v. Texas as a question of executive power, the Times instead situates the case in a narrative of partisanship (how does this affect President Obama?).  Moreover, it portrays President Obama as a "protector," implicitly adopting the president's narrative of his justification for his executive action.

While viewing things in a partisan manner may come easy to many in the media, the partisan lens is often not the best one.  The debate over President Obama's executive orders touches upon key issues of executive power--a topic much bigger than the short-term political fate of the current president.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Birthday, USA!

On this day of national celebration, I thought it worth posting these words from John Adams to his wife, Abigail on the day of the nation's founding (which he dated as the second of July):
I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. -- I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. -- Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Three Options

Because this election cycle has wrecked so many seeming verities, it seems like a fool's errand to say anything with 100 percent confidence.  But one can say with some confidence that Republicans have three options in the presidential race: win with Donald Trump, win by modifying Trumpism, or lose.  A few thoughts on each option follow.

Win with Trump: Despite the current pundit pack mentality, Trump still does have a chance of winning the White House.  After an absolutely terrible month, with attacks coming from the media, Democrats, and even many Republicans, Trump lags 6.8 points behind Hillary Clinton in the RCP average.  In late June 2008, John McCain was about 7 points behind Barack Obama--and McCain had a much more unified GOP behind him.  It's true that McCain lost, but Republicans hadn't given up the presidency in June 2008.  Moreover, polls in many crucial states (including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and Florida) often have a margin-of-error race between Trump and Clinton.  This suggests that, if the Trump campaign takes its game to the next level and the party unifies, there's a chance that Trump could close the gap.

However, that's could.  A number of steps would be required for that to happen.  The Trump campaign would need to show more discipline, improve its fundraising numbers, and do more to reach out to members of institutional conservatism.  More would have to be done to convince voters of Trump's sobriety and good judgement.  Moreover, more members of the conservative and Republican establishments would have to make some peace with Trump.  This doesn't mean that they would have to endorse him.  But it does mean that the rhetoric would have to be taken down a notch.  There could be no crusade to blacklist those who support Trump; such blacklists not only seem to run contrary to the intellectual modesty championed by traditional conservatism but also seem better suited to middle-school cliques than a serious national political party.  Both pro- and anti-Trumpers would have to let bygones be bygones in order to focus on the future.

Win by modifying Trumpism:  Adapting some elements of Trumpism or populism seems perhaps the only way for an anti-Trump coup in Cleveland or an anti-Trump third-party candidacy to lead to anything but electoral disaster in November.  Replacing Donald Trump with some other candidate at the Republican National Convention would seem very likely to split the party.  Whether one likes him or not, Trump did get a commanding plurality in the primary--at about 45 percent only a little less than John McCain received in the 2008 primary.  He might not have gotten to a majority of primary votes (something Barack Obama also failed to do in the 2008 primary), but he did get to a majority of delegates.  The only way this coup could have a chance of not gift-wrapping the election for Hillary Clinton would be for the eventual nominee to acknowledge that Trump's campaign had a point--about the struggles of the working class, the need for reform, and the importance of restored competence in governance.  Echo-chamber myths to the contrary, a conservative could adapt some elements of Trump's campaign without betraying conventional conservatism.  Making concrete pledges to cut guest-worker programs or to oppose TPP, for instance, could win over many of Trump's supporters, and neither commitment is outside the realm of conservative tradition or basic human decency.  Reaching out to Trump's prominent endorsers and assuring them that they have a place at the table would also be part of healing the wounds of a coup.

Similar points apply to a third-party candidacy.  In order to be anything other than a spoiler, a third-party candidate would need to be able to win some traditional lean-Democratic states, such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  Addressing some populist concerns seems a plausible route to making those states competitive.  (Conversely, running on more marginal tax-cuts, more guest workers, and more trade compacts like TPP seems likely to keep a third-party candidate from having a chance in the swing states.)

In order for this strategy to work, anti-Trump forces would have to keep their focus on coalition-building rather than punishing their enemies on the right.  An emphasis in some quarters on mocking Trump and his supporters harmed anti-Trump efforts in the primary season (forthrightly addressing some of his supporters' concerns would have done far more to deflate Trump than another tiresome joke about the size of his hands),* and that emphasis would also hurt anti-Trump efforts in the general.

Lose:  This option would require the least amount of work (though, considering the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, it still does require some effort).  Some on the right might conclude that surrendering to Hillary Clinton might be the best in the long term.

However, Republicans and conservatives who support a Clinton victory should not kid themselves.  Those on the right who endorse Hillary Clinton are endorsing the candidate who has pledged the most obsequious fealty to left-wing ideology of any candidate in living memory.  Whereas George HW Bush trumpeted a "kinder, gentler" version of Reaganite conservatism, Hillary Clinton is running far to the left of Barack Obama in 2008.  She has pledged to expand executive power even further.  In her judicial appointments and staffing of the federal leviathan, Clinton will likely put in place advocates of cultural-politics radicalism.  On judges, it is unclear whether a Republican will end up appointing constitutional conservatives, but it is almost certain that Clinton would appoint left-wing ideologues.  A Supreme Court stacked with radicals could prevent or hamstring both conservative and moderate governance for decades.  Clinton seems likely to follow in Barack Obama's footsteps and try to federalize and polarize countless issues through the strategic deployment of the federal bureaucracy; under a Clinton presidency, expect more measures like the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which would make the federal government the de facto zoning board for all but the wealthiest communities.  In foreign policy, the Obama administration has either embraced, or has proven ineffective at challenging, those forces wreaking havoc with the international system, and it's unclear that Clinton has learned from these debacles. Her "homebrew" server is but a taste of the secrecy and recklessness awaiting us in a Clinton presidency.

Our current constitutional sclerosis could very well deepen under a Clinton presidency.  As in recent years, we could see a Democratic president make more expansive claims for executive power out of frustration with a recalcitrant Republican Congress.  Out of partisanship, the president's Democratic and media allies would provide political cover, Republicans would fume, and constitutional norms would further wither.  (That possibility assumes that the GOP does not go full Reservoir Dogs and utterly obliterate its congressional majorities in November.  In that case, the election of 2016 could be equivalent to the UK parliamentary election of 1945, when the Labour party used the huge majorities it gained to socialize much of the British economy and change the trajectory of British politics for generations.)

All this does not mean that Republicans or conservatives have to vote for Donald Trump.  But it does make clear what Republicans who endorse Hillary Clinton are signing on to.  It might also remind conservatives of the importance of rallying behind some candidate in order to give a non-Leftist viewpoint a real shot at the White House.

*Ted Cruz understood this fact, and that is part of the reason why he came closer than any of Trump's other opponents to victory.

Friday, June 24, 2016


A few scattered thoughts about the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union:

Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of leaving, many flawed decisions by major policymakers paved the way for this result.  Eurocrats upset at this result have mostly themselves to blame.

The pro-Remain side often made simply a negative case, focusing on how bad Leaving would be.  Remain's "Project Fear" warned about economic disaster and moral disgrace if the UK left the EU.  Remainers often attacked proponents of Leave as backward-looking nativists and isolationists.  However, this tactic apparently came up short--which should be a reminder that the politics of shame can reach a point of diminishing returns.

The vote to Leave should not necessarily be seen as a turn toward radical isolationism.  A reckless transnationalism is in many ways the enemy of a productive internationalism.  The UK exiting the EU does create some international instabilities over the short term, but decisions made by many pro-EU forces on migration, trade, and other issues have likely increased instabilities much more.  Some of the decisions made by EU leaders have perhaps increased the chances of the current international system breaking down.

The European Union is not Europe.  Contrary to what many in the media seem to assume, an independent Britain can certainly enter into international negotiations with the rest of Europe.

National self-government has served as a process by which many of our inherent rights have been secured.  By expressing a desire to maintain itself as an independent self-governing nation, the United Kingdom is not exactly running afoul of the broader tradition of political liberties and rights in the Western tradition.  In fact, the desire to dissolve the nation-state into a transnational bureaucracy seems far more out of step with the history of liberty.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Trump Reaches Out to the Radical Middle

Donald Trump's speech yesterday attacking Hillary Clinton and laying out his own vision for the presidency has earned plaudits even from some of those on the right who are usually pretty hostile to The Donald.  Trump kept to the text of the speech and kept the focus on Clinton's weaknesses.

This speech comes at a time when the Trump campaign is in some danger.  The media narrative over the last few weeks--with talk of an undisciplined campaign, sinking poll numbers, and continued Republican attacks on Trump--poses risks for both Trump's hopes of winning in November and perhaps even his chances of seizing the nomination in Cleveland.  Perhaps this speech will change that narrative.

One of the more striking aspects of this speech was Trump's pivot to the radical middle, voters who support entitlements and are skeptical of transnationalist globalism, who support free markets but also want a strong public safety net.  The Republican coalition has relied on these voters for decades, and, as its hold on them has weakened in recent years, its electoral prospects have dimmed.  One possible route for Republican back to an enduring presidential coalition is to fuse some populist concerns (especially on issues such as trade and immigration) with conservatism.  By reconnecting with the "radical middle" and the working class, Republicans could strengthen their hands in numerous states, especially Rustbelt states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.  That's not the only path to get to a governing presidential coalition--but it is one way (and a route that might not demand compromising that many core conservative principles).  Any Republican candidate can use such a strategy, and perhaps Ronald Reagan offered one iteration of that fusion.

Yesterday's speech invoked some of the themes of the radical middle.  Trump reversed the Hillary-centric #ImWithHer with #ImWithYou.  He argued that the trade and immigration policies promoted by both President Obama and Hillary Clinton will further undermine the American worker.  Trump put economics at the heart of this address.  When many Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the nation, he tried in this speech to identify Clinton with those who have charted national policy in recent years.  (An interesting subtheme of Trump's speech yesterday was his efforts to claim a conservative--or at least Republican--pedigree for some of his policy positions.  For instance, he quoted Abraham Lincoln on trade in order to justify Trump's skepticism of "free trade" deals.)

We'll see if this is just a one-off speech or part of a broader, disciplined strategy to pivot to a sustained pro-worker message.  We'll also see whether this is enough to change the current trajectory of the campaign.

A few other things seem comparatively clearer:  Continued struggles with the working class are a drag on Republican hopes of a national governing coalition.  Reaching out to the working class will require more than self-aggrandizing media feuds or sneers at the struggling as losers who can't cut it. Confronting the real challenges of the day will require less ideological posturing and more empathy, imagination, and daring.

Friday, June 17, 2016

If the Press Covered 9/11 the Way It Has Covered Orlando

A hypothetical fictional montage:*

From the New York Daily News front page 9/12/01:
An image of one of the planes going into the World Trade Center.  Headline: "Thanks American Airline Industry"

From the New York Times Editorial Board 9/13/01:
While the motivations of the 9/11 hijackers remain unclear, one thing is beyond doubt: they were the product of a culture of hate, that peculiar soil of the United States, which xenophobia and violence have watered for centuries.  While some, like former vice-president Al Gore, have tried the face the twenty-first century with cosmopolitan optimism, George W. Bush and his coterie have instead projected a Texan swagger that has alienated international allies and enraged many of those who seek opportunity but are denied this opportunity due to the petty bigotry of American immigration law.  The cultural imperialist chickens of Coca Cola, cries of "freedom," and nationalistic propaganda like Hot Shots! Part Deux have, as it were, come home to roost.
That fact that Mr. Bush quoted from the Psalms in his recent address to the nation reveals a theocratic zeal that both threatens the First Amendment and fuels acts of terror.  The history of the United States is a long tale of those using the name of religion to terrorize, murder, and pillage.  Invoking religious scripture in this context no doubt triggers more violence in the future and feeds into the broader culture of religious intolerance that helped bring the towers down.
For years now, Republicans have waged war on the fabric of American society, thereby creating the breeding ground for terror.  Mr. Bush's controversy-stained election sent the equivalent of a 767 into America's constitutional norms.  The right-wing agenda of tax-cuts for the rich and more subsidies for Big Oil has created an atmosphere of economic inequality, in which terrorists thrive.  The terrorist attack of earlier this week is only an explicit vision of that broader nativist reactionary crusade.
The thousands who died on September 11 were victims of a terrorist attack.  But they also need to be remembered as casualties of a society where hate has deep roots. 

A partial transcript of a September 13 CNN evening interview with John Ashcroft, in which the anchor absolutely grills the Attorney General:
Anchor: Mr. Ashcroft, how can you say you want to prosecute these terrorists?  I mean, how many times have you been to New York City for a reason other than a professional obligation?
JA: I've, uh, I've been there a few times.
Anchor:  A few times.  Nearly three thousand people died in the Twin Towers, and you've only been to NYC a few times?  And now you purport to talk about defending the lives of New Yorkers!?
JA: My job as attorney general is to defend the lives of all Americans.
Anchor: But isn't there a sick irony in the fact that you're here talking about defending all Americans when, as far as I can tell, you've never even worn an I-Love-New-York t-shirt?
JA:  Wha--what?  How do you know that?
Anchor: We had a team of researchers comb through every picture taken of you in the past year.  No t-shirt or sweatshirt or anything.
JA: Well, look, we've been coordinating with local law enforcement to identify...
Anchor: Hey, let's not get off-topic here.  Do you deny not having worn an I-Love-New-York t-shirt?
JA: I don't think I ever owned that kind of shirt, no.
Anchor: So I just kind of find it funny that you're someone who never expressed that much affection for New York and now, with the attacks of September 11, you're suddenly lamenting the loss of human life.  I mean, why should the members of the New York community trust you to defend them?
*Again, this is purely hypothetical fiction.  Neither the New York Daily News nor the New York Times published anything like this after 9/11.  Nor did CNN run any interviews like this.  The fact that these organizations did not run anything like this is kind of the point.  For the record, here is the actual front page of the Daily News on September 12.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Human Rights v. the Culture War

t has long been evident that the culture-war paradigm is inherently in tension with the goal of negotiating life in a free republic.  Civic life requires compromise, moral sympathy, and a respect for pluralism--all things that the all-or-nothing culture war declares an anathema.

The aftermath of the Orlando terrorist attack has also revealed that the culture war may undermine more directly human rights in general.  After a terrorist attack, there's something bizarrely disproportionate about news anchors hectoring elected officials about their Twitter feeds rather than asking tough, probing questions about how law enforcement can better identify terrorist threats and how national strategies can make such threats less possible.  We might rationally be worried by the fact that so many in the media and politics--from the New York Times to cable-news voices to major political figures--have spent far more energy excoriating their tribal enemies rather than the forces of terror.  With its random violence, terrorism seeks to nullify all of our rights.  (Of course, terror cannot ultimately undo our inherent rights.)  When the culture war takes priority over serious efforts to fight terror, the enterprise of defending our rights suffers.

We should mourn the victims of Orlando not because of their belonging or lack of belonging to any narrow identity group, but because they are human beings.  The slaughter of innocents is wrong--no matter their race, religion, sexual identity, or political beliefs.  Defending civil society requires the defense of the rights of all members of that society.  The attack upon Pulse was an attack upon the ability of Americans of all kinds to gather peacefully and without fear of violence, just as the attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack upon the ability to speak, write, and think freely.

As Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has suggested, great tragedies should remind us of our common fellowship.  It is an act of moral cowardice and cultural myopia to focus on our petty tribal fixations rather than our deeper duties to our fellow men and women.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A More Fluid Race

Philip Bump of the Washington Post has an interesting story up comparing how polling looked at this time in 2004, 2008, and 2012.  As Bump notes, the candidate leading around this time in national polls ended up winning in the last three elections:
As of Thursday, there were 180 days until the election. Of the 540 days that made up the last 180 days of the past three races, the person who ended up winning led in 79 percent of them. There's some back-and-forth — but the person who wins has led pretty consistently. Clinton's lead in the most recent Real Clear Politics average, 6.4 points, was exceeded by past winners only 6 percent of the time. It's a big lead, in other words.
But, then, past experience suggested that Trump's lead in the primaries would collapse, and we saw what happened there.
Bump rightly underlines the fact that this electoral cycle has had some unexpected twists, a feature that could apply to the general election, too.

By historical standards, it wouldn't be that surprising for the election results to swing further in one direction (either in Trump's favor or Clinton's favor).  Elections prior to 2000 could often show considerable volatility.

According to Gallup polling of the 1988, 1992, and 2000 elections, the candidate who led in May ended up losing the popular vote in November.  In 1988, Dukakis was up by around 16 points over George HW Bush in mid-May; Bush ended up winning by 8 points (for a 24-point shift from May).  George HW Bush led Bill Clinton by about 6 points in early May 1992, and his son had a 5-point lead over Al Gore in May 2000.  (Bush won the presidency in 2000 but lost the popular vote.)

The upshot of this is that there are a lot of possible models for an election--and there's no reason to believe that this race is settled.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

After the Trumpening

Just a few quick thoughts in the aftermath of Donald Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee:

Trump was Romney all along.  I mean this here strictly in terms of their roles in the primary campaign dynamic--not their personae, issue portfolios, or other areas.  Throughout 2011 and 2012, Mitt Romney stood near the top of the primary polls, and the other candidates competed to be the not-Romney.  In the 2016 cycle, Trump basically dominated national polls from the end of the summer onward.  For a long time, pundits liked to compare Trump to the various 2012 candidates who temporarily eclipsed Romney in 2011-2012 only to come hurtling back to earth (Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, etc.).  Instead, Trump had the dominant position of Romney throughout the campaign.

His ascent really is rather unprecedented.  It's become common to mock pundits who underestimated Trump's chances in the primary, but, in reality, their skepticism is pretty understandable.  Since its founding, the GOP has nominated only one person with no previous experience in public office (either in elected office, civil office, or high military position).  And that one person was Wendell Willke, the Democrat-turned-Republican businessman who ran a dark-horse campaign to be the GOP nominee in 1940.*  Other than Willkie, every Republican nominee since 1856 had prior experience in public office.  Precedent suggested, then, that Trump would not be the nominee.  But that precedent has been broken.

Trump's victory does not mean the end of conflict in the Republican/conservative coalition.  Trump's success in the primary has fueled debates about party loyalty, the identity of conservatism, the identity of the GOP, and how to face up to the policy and political challenges of the 21st century.  I'm hopeful that we can address some of those challenges as a nation and that conservatism in particular can contribute to that search for solutions.  But it will be important to place our emphasis on light--not heat.  In part because things are so up in the air right now, intellectual charity, imagination, and courage will be especially helpful.

*A lot could be said about the parallels and contrasts between Trump's and Willkie's candidacies.  But that's a story for another day.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Adapting to the Present

Over the past few days, some insightful pieces about the 2016 race have come out, and I thought it worth pointing out a couple that reflect on the need for the GOP to adapt to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Pete Spiliakos argues that Texas senator Ted Cruz often needs to do more to break out of the political cocoon:
Cruz talks in the coded language of political junkies. He talks about religious liberty and partial-birth abortion, but large swaths of his hearers have no idea what he is talking about. This leads to a bifurcation of public opinion about Cruz. Political obsessives like the people reading this post could tell you Cruz’s opinion on just about anything. The regular person couldn’t tell you anything, because Cruz might as well be speaking a foreign language in his prepared speeches and in his paid media.
In a memo for the Lone Star Committee, Rich Danker doesn't say exactly that, but he does offer an extensive discussion of why Donald Trump has been able to best the Cruz campaign (and all his Republican rivals) throughout the primary season so far.

Danker notes that Trump did not bow before some of the standard idols of process.  Unlike many of his opponents, Trump did not subscribe to any "lane" theory of politics.  Rather than trying to win in a lane, Trump tried to win the primary.  Also, Trump has made himself very available to the media, which helped him achieve media saturation; other candidates tried to limit their access to the media, but that hurt their abilities to get a message out.  According to Danker, within the GOP and in the broader media, Trump was willing to try to play everywhere, and that paid electoral dividends.

One of the most interesting parts of Danker's memo comes near the end:
Cruz certainly grasped something about conservatism in GOP presidential politics in that Reagan ran as a conservative across all three major policy zones – economics, social issues, and foreign policy – and Republicans ever since have resisted emulating that example. But Reagan made his conservatism seem utterly relevant to the world he was campaigning in. He understood presidential elections are situational, not ideological. Therefore the candidate who wins the primary and the general elections is usually the one who best applies their ideological outlook to the issues of the day. Donald Trump loses to Ted Cruz on a conservative scorecard, but he did a better job on selling his conservative positions as the cures to today's public evils.
Whatever one thinks about the particular diagnoses of Danker and Spiliakos vis-a-vis the Cruz campaign, they both touch on a broader issue about the importance of not confusing electoral politics with debates about ideological purity.

If Republicans hope to cobble together a national governing coalition, they will need to focus less on posturing about who is the most "conservative" candidate and more about how to adapt the principles of conservatism to contemporary, real-world problems.  Ronald Reagan might have run as a conservative candidate, but his campaign did not rest content with the message of I'm conservative so vote for me.  Instead, he argued that his vision of conservatism could respond to the problems of Americans of all political stripes.

The GOP has struggled to establish an enduring presidential majority in recent years for a number of reasons, but electoral difficulties with the middle and working classes have surely played a role.  One thing that would help would be to end the thralldom to nostalgia and the limited comforts of reciting old victories.  It's very possible for enduring conservative principles to be applied to the problems of the present and help advance the public good.  But that will demand a willingness to challenge stale orthodoxies.  It will also require leaving behind ideological posturing and instead embracing intellectual seriousness and a responsiveness to the demands of the present.

Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and others rose to the challenges of the present in their times.  That's what statesmen do.  And now is certainly a time for statesmen and, of course, stateswomen.