Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Conservatism and the Nation

Rich Lowry’s and Ramesh Ponnuru’s defense of nationalism has many thoughtful points and offers a helpful corrective to certain myths about nationalism. While Lowry and Ponnuru do sketch some of the connections between nationalism and conservatism, I think it’s worth developing a few more points about the alliance between conservatism and the idea of a nation-state.

Support for the nation-state would seem a natural extension of the conservative belief in nurturing the bonds of society. At least in the West, postnationalism has fostered two seemingly contradictory impulses: radical atomism, in which the individual is free to pursue his interests (commercial and otherwise) with little to no concern for others, and radical tribalism, in which the individual’s independent self is dissolved in the mass of an identity group (such as race, gender, or sexual identity).

Neither of these impulses seems congenial for conservatism. From a conservative perspective, they offer bastardized versions of individualism and social belonging. Radical atomization misses the fact that social commitments, rather than limiting the self, often enrich it. Identity-group tribalism, meanwhile, lacks the richness of a more multifaceted social belonging. National fellowship may not be the only way of avoiding these two traps, but it is a compelling one. It affords a way of organizing our immediate social commitments into a broader narrative. Because the nation-state makes no pretensions to universality (it is explicitly not global), it recognizes the diversity of human circumstances. The existence of diverse nation-states can serve as a way of reconciling the belief in certain universal moral principles with a recognition of the limits of human knowledge and action.

In addition to this conservative tradition, the Republican party has since its founding been the party of the nation. As Lowry and Ponnuru note, post-World War II Republicans often championed the defense of American sovereignty, and, more broadly, appeals to national sovereignty serve as a thread connecting Abraham Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt to Ronald Reagan. In fact, one of the strongest connections of Donald Trump to the broader Republican tradition is his unapologetic celebration of American sovereignty. (As the examples of Roosevelt and Reagan demonstrate, though, the defense of sovereignty need not mean radical isolationism. Especially as international commitments may serve U.S. interests, an involvement in international affairs can be an ally to the defense of American interests.)

Moreover, intense anti-nationalism (by which I mean an overwhelming hostility to the idea of the nation-state) seems, in many respects, a dead-end for conservatism as a political force. Conservatives who prioritize a hawkish or assertive foreign policy should recognize the fact that such a foreign policy demands a sense of national cohesion; efforts to dilute the meaning of citizenship will also deplete the ranks of citizen-soldiers and the public appetite for projecting power abroad. Politicians running under the banner of “economic efficiency” will have far less success at the ballot box than will those who specifically advance the claim that their economic policies are good for the nation’s electorate. On many issues (especially free speech), the United States has an expansive view of civil liberties, and efforts to weaken national sovereignty will likely put our enjoyment of those liberties at risk. A conservatism that attempts to eschew national affections will likely fail in the enterprise of winning votes and advancing its policy aims.

Like any passion, national affection can at times be unbalanced or used for unworthy ends. Ethical reasoning and administrative prudence are crucial for conducting politics. Nevertheless, affection for one’s country plays a role, too, and conservatism has long recognized the importance of affections, national and otherwise.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Varieties of Conservative Experience

Matthew Continetti has a revealing piece on the many challenges facing the Trump administration.  One of them is an entrenched bureaucratic class intent on using the tools of the bureaucracy to sabotage and undermine the democratically elected head of the executive branch.  Continetti has some worthwhile thoughts about the political dynamics of this collision.

However, there's one point from his piece that warrants some elaboration (emphasis added):
At issue is the philosophy of nation-state populism that drove his insurgent campaign. It is so at variance with the ideologies of conservatism and liberalism predominant in the capital that Washington is experiencing something like an allergic reaction. Nation-state populism diverges from Beltway conservatism on trade, immigration, entitlements, and infrastructure, and from liberalism on sovereignty, nationalism, identity politics, and political correctness.
 Continetti doesn't explicitly say this, but I think it's worth mentioning that "Beltway conservatism" is not, of course, the only kind of conservatism.  If "Beltway conservatism" means a kind of neo-Kempism, then there certainly would be conflicts between "nation-state populism" and "Beltway conservatism."  The Kempist vision supports expansive trade deals, an increase in immigration flows (and a skepticism about rigorous immigration enforcement), entitlement "reform" (that usually means reducing and/or privatizing federal entitlements), and nurtures a wariness about large infrastructure plans.  Clearly, many of Trump's positions and those of "nation-state populism" more broadly would conflict with a Kempian vision.

However, there are plenty of conservative governing records that the vision of a "nation-state populism" would be in some accord with.  Ronald Reagan didn't privatize entitlements--he increased taxes to pay for them.  While Reagan talked about "free trade," he also imposed import quotas on Japanese automobiles.  And Reagan has been the Republican president most clearly associated with movement conservatism.  Looking back to other Republicans who also implemented conservative policies (even if they weren't ideologues) makes this lineage even richer.  Eisenhower, a man of conservative moderation, built a federal highway system and launched a massive deportation effort.  Many movement conservatives revere Calvin Coolidge, but Coolidge celebrated tariffs and defended a limited, pro-assimiliationist immigration policy.

All these things suggest that there are elements within the broader conservative tradition that could very much be in accord with the aims of "nation-state populism."  However, in order to realize that political harmony, some in the Beltway will have to surrender the belief that a certain narrow brand of conservatism has a monopoly on conservatism or good governance.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Filibuster Follies

At NRO today, I argue why it is not in the Democrats' best interest to sustain a filibuster against Trump Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch.
From a strategic viewpoint, Senate Democrats have every incentive to let the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees live another day. Mitch McConnell knows that there will be a political cost for going nuclear on the Supreme Court filibuster, and he does not seem very eager to pay it. Nor does there seem to be that great of an appetite for working around the Senate filibuster for Supreme Court nominees. Nearly every signal that Republican Senate leadership has sent indicates that the party would very much like to approve Gorsuch — and any other Trump Supreme Court nominee — through the regular order of the Senate. This situation gives Senate Democrats some small measure of power: As long as the filibuster persists, their expectations become a variable that has to be factored into the calculus of any Supreme Court nomination. That variable may or may not have that much weight — but it will have some weight.
You can read the rest here.

Bill Kristol has a piece up in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard that underlines the way that a Democratic refusal to accept any Trump Supreme Court nominee could end up backfiring on the party.  While the Senate GOP may be willing to compromise on some nominees, they will not stand by and allow Democrats to block every Republican nominee to the highest court in the land.

This might be dismissed as concern trolling, but it shouldn’t be: Americans of all stripes have an interest in preserving the minority’s voice in the affairs of the Senate, and the filibuster is one of the key mechanisms for the minority. (And, for what little it’s worth, I have argued for the benefits of the filibuster when both Republicans and Democrats held the majority.) The filibustering of Supreme Court nominees is a relatively new innovation, so removing this filibuster might not be as radical a departure from Senate tradition as ending the legislative filibuster. But this removal could contribute to a long-term erosion of norms for protecting the power of the minority. Ironically, the time when partisan tensions are so high is also the time when compromise-encouraging institutions are so important.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

"Core Values"

In his last press conference, Barack Obama said that he would enter political debates only when "our core values may be at stake."  In the aftermath of President Trump's new executive orders, the former president is now wading back into public debates.

However, it should not be surprising to see Barack Obama trying to inject himself in political debates, nor for him is "core values" a particularly limiting principle.  After all, in 2006, he had the following to say about Samuel Alito: "I think Judge Alito, in fact, is somebody who is contrary to core American values, not just liberal values, you know." If a mainstream conservative like Justice Alito is "contrary to core American values," you can rest assured that Barack Obama would be declaring almost any Republican president eventually an enemy of "our core values."


I'll leave the in-depth analysis of President Trump's executive order on refugee policy to more competent legal minds than my own.  But a few general points:

Many of the most prominent attacks on this order have been overly broad (by ignoring the historical history of refugee policy, making claims that the United States has no right to limit refugees, and so forth).  While it has whipped up partisan enthusiasm, this excessive rhetoric has hurt the argument against the president's actions.  If the choice becomes framed as the Trump EO v. open borders, the executive order would probably come out on top in a public opinion poll.

We need to attend to the real (not the sentimentalized) history of immigration law and refugee policy in order to see where the Trump EO breaks from standing norms and where it falls within them.  Falsifying history is a dangerous political tactic.

If federal appointees can declare themselves willing to nullify duly passed laws and regulations at whim, we have not a democratic republic but anarchy.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Defending the Conventions of Politics

On Twitter, Diodotos (whose feed often includes some provocative thoughts) had some points about what it takes to defend the conventions of republican life.  I thought it worth reproducing a few of them below.

I think he here hits on an important theme: political life requires an acceptance of incompleteness and a willingness to engage in conversation.  A healthy republic debates an acceptance of some kind of political heterogeneity and openness for disagreement.

Identity politics--or identitarianism--instead calls for political rigidity.  One has allegiance to a political tribe and surrenders individual judgment to the collective.  By locking us into rigid identity groups, identity politics threatens the openness and conversation that is one of the cornerstones of healthy political life.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture

Over at NRO this morning, I argue that, in discussing President Trump, we need to continue to pay attention to the context in which he rose to power:
Popular narratives to the contrary, Trump’s election is less a cause of our current crisis than a sign of it. In the months ahead, then, we need to attend to the conditions that have led to such a radical disruption in our politics. Normally, radical outsiders don’t win the presidency. In looking for a president, the American people usually balance a taste for novelty with a respect for experience. So it’s telling indeed that Trump is the first person elected to the presidency without any prior experience in elected office or other government service. Only when the mandarins of consensus have proven both so parochial and so inept could such an outsider have smashed his way into the White House. A series of institutional failures led to President Trump’s ascendancy. We have been treated to the spectacle of an elite that has promised too much and so often failed so spectacularly. Our public rhetoric has been frozen by nostalgia and an elite reliance on what Josh Barro has called “no-choice politics” to enforce a narrow consensus on immigration, trade, and other issues. Trump’s campaign was powered by denunciations of various debacles over the past decade, whether in foreign affairs, the economy, or national security.
You can read the rest here.

I think that there's an especially grave risk in working to overthrow existing political norms in order to "resist" President Trump.  The politics of paranoia and excommunication from polite society can be a dangerous enterprise.

Along similar lines, Ross Douthat warns the press about the danger of sacrificing ethical standards in reporting on President Trump, and Mickey Kaus takes a probing look at "1934ism."

Friday, January 20, 2017

Inauguration Day

I'll have some reflections forthcoming on the inauguration and the circumstances around it.  For today, here's a transcript of President Donald Trump's inaugural address.

The Hamiltonian might smile at the pageantry of the presidential inauguration; the Puritan might scowl (at least a bit).

Thursday, January 19, 2017

President Obama

I've had my disagreements with President Obama, and I believe that in many ways he has failed to live up to his potential as a leader.  Yet, despite it all, he nevertheless has been the president for the life of this blog so far.  The presidency is a noble office, one with great responsibilities.  No doubt the duties of the office have weighed on him.  And there have been moments of grace in his administration, too.

In this time of great tumult, we should nevertheless try to recognize the importance of major constitutional offices and to wish the best for those who hold them.

Parade Controversies

This afternoon, reports surfaced that members of the Trump transition team had inquired about using tanks and missiles as part of tomorrow's inaugural parade.  This immediately caused a media furor, with many pundits suggesting that the use of such heavy military gear in an inaugural parade is somehow outside American norms.

But it isn't.  Past inaugural parades featured both tanks and missiles.

For instance, here's FDR's inaugural parade in 1941, featuring a line of tanks.

Eisenhower had tanks in his inaugural parades in both 1953 and 1957.  His 1957 inaugural parade also featured a giant missile.

JFK also had missiles and tanks in his inaugural parade.

Military iconography has a long-standing tradition in American inaugural parades.  The fact that some disagree with that norm doesn't mean that the norm doesn't exist.  There's a difference between arguing about what current norms should be and arguing that someone is outside existing norms.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Choices, Choices

In The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty reflects on the sudden escalation of concern many policy-makers have had about Russia in recent months.  I don't necessarily agree with all of Dougherty's claims, but he hits on a telling point here:
The problem is, America's NATO war guarantee is wrapped up in a larger ideological status quo across the West. Trade liberalization, political liberalization, increased migration, sexual and cultural liberation from Christian traditionalism, the further political integration of the E.U., and the expansion of the Western alliance to the borders of Russia are all wrapped together in the minds of policymakers. And so, every reversal for any part of that project is seen by the guardians of the policy consensus as a demoralizing reversal for the Western alliance and, consequently, a gain for revisionist Putinism.
The international institutions that have been left to us have evolved from a certain set of geopolitical circumstances and partake of certain policy presumptions.  It seems (to me at least) that many of these institutions have done considerable good, but the question before us isn't whether they've done good in the past but how to preserve and revise these institutions so that they can do good in the future.

That's one of the major reasons why ideological nostalgia has been so toxic for the enterprise of looking forward for both foreign and domestic policy.  This nostalgia has made many current leaders resistant to--and perhaps even ignorant of--the fact that we no longer live in 1989.  For instance, for years, public skepticism about the European Union has been simmering throughout Europe.  And yet policymakers nevertheless plunged ahead with an integration that became less and less tenable as time went on.  And now many of these policymakers are now shocked, shocked that some voters might be having second thoughts about the "European" project.  Taking a more moderate approach to integration (especially in terms of immigration and currency.) and responding more to immigration could have helped solidify the EU.  Instead, a reckless integration threatens breaking it apart.

The importance of attention to present-day realities has implications beyond the EU, of course.  In defending international institutions, policymakers need to think of the world not as it was or as they would like it to be but as it is.

We can have either a robust international order or ideological nostalgia--but not both.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Repeal and What?

In my NRO piece earlier this week, I warned about the political dangers of Republicans repealing the Affordable Care Act (well, actually only repealing the provisions of the ACA they can repeal without a filibuster-proof majority) without following up with a replacement relatively soon.

There have been a couple updates today on the fate of the repeal-and-delay strategy.  At his press conference today, Donald Trump argued that replacing the ACA should follow very soon after the repeal of the measure.  Meanwhile, some GOP senators who had been pushing for an amendment to delay a vote on health-care repeal have now said that they're going to drop this amendment.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Resisting Ideological Nostalgia

In NRO today, I argue that the GOP should learn from the last time a political party took full control of the federal government.  In 2009-10, Democrats made certain choices that set the stage for a multi-cycle liquidation of the part.  In order to avoid that fate, the GOP will need to respond to the demands of the moment and resist ideological nostalgia.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Hacking the Vote

In reporting the hacking of the email messages of prominent Democrats during the 2016 election, the press has by and large settled on a rather intriguing shorthand: "election hacking."  (See examples here, here, and here.)  Because of its vagueness, this shorthand risks conflating the hacking of emails in order to influence the election in some way (which there is some evidence of) and the hacking of the election results themselves (which there is no evidence of).  "Email hacking" or "DNC hacking" or "Podesta hacking" or "hacking of Democrats" would seem more precise but also less likely to inspire paranoia in the American public.  "Election hacking" may offer a kind of argumentative figleaf for those who want to delegitimize the election results without openly saying that some nefarious entity actually went in and hacked the vote totals to swing the election to Donald Trump.

That's not to say that some folks won't try to argue that the election results themselves were hacked.  In the latest issue of the New York Review of Books, a publication I enjoy, Michael Tomasky argues that we will never really know whether a foreign entity (in his case, Russia) hacked the election:
But if their reports are accurate, what this amounts to at the very least is that Russia tried to influence the outcome of the election in Trump's favor. Whether it managed to determine the outcome by meddling directly in the actual voting is something we don't know and will likely never know.  To arrive at such a conclusion would require a thorough forensic investigation of vote tabulations in at least the three states where Trump's margin over Clinton was less than one percent--Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin--and other steps; but this is not going to happen.
A belief that Russia hacked the actual election results has some popularity on the left (according to one poll, 52 percent of Democrats believed that it did), but there is absolutely no evidence that any such vote hacking did take place.  U.S. officials have affirmed the accuracy of the voting results, and state recounts have uncovered no evidence of vote hacking.

While it might assuage Democratic feelings to keep alive the evidence-free narrative that Russia hacked the election results, it's damaging to our body politic in general.  If that election was hacked and if we can keep alive that hypothesis without any concrete evidence, why not say the same thing about other elections?  How do we know that any elected official actually won his or her office?  If Russia can hack the election results without any obvious evidence, how do we know that other entities also have not hacked this election or other elections?  Electoral paranoia destroys the public trust that our republic is built upon.

Moreover, if it were true that Russia hacked the election results (again, there's no evidence for this), that perhaps is the biggest indictment of the Obama administration imaginable: on its watch, its policies allowed a foreign entity to destroy the democratic process.  Thus, it would be hard simultaneously to support the notion that Russia hacked the election and to hold the belief that President Obama was anything other than the worst president since James Buchanan, maybe ever.  The left can have Barack Obama as a noble president or the proposition that Russia hacked the election results--but it can't have both.

We have more than enough real challenges at the moment.  We don't need paranoia to invent more.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Fear Itself

In March 1933, Franklin Roosevelt spoke to his country at a time of great crisis:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
In many respects, we seem in a moment of some crisis today.  Extended economic stagnation, proliferating debacles abroad, and cratering trust in public institutions are some of the signs of this crisis.  Roosevelt reminded his countrymen that the crisis of his time was as much one of sentiment as it was of exterior forces.

A similar point applies to our own time: Many of the challenges we face are internal--not external.  And even many of the external challenges (in foreign affairs, for instance, or international terrorism) will depend upon our internal constitution.  A fractious and divided nation will unable to confront many of the real exterior threats facing the United States.

So in the year ahead, we need to be vigorous in addressing those internal challenges honestly, fairly, and imaginatively.  Decadence can take many forms.  We face a governing caste that all too often confuses self-righteousness with virtue and cant with learning.  A vulgarized political and cultural discourse inhibits our ability to draw measured distinctions.  The withering of civil society threatens the maintenance of the norms upon which republican governance depends.  In part due to our elites' emphasis on no-choice politics, our public debates remain frozen in tired antagonisms.  The recourse of the powerful to shame politics risks empowering shamelessness, which itself can be troubling; courtesy and empathy--the quest to mediate difference--often prove crucial for defending the architecture of a free society.  As can be seen in the wake of November's election results, tantrum politics might amuse political partisans, but it usually only worsens our broader civic fever.  Indulgence in a paranoia fed by cryptic inference can be hardly afforded now, when we need a rejuvenation of civic faith.

These challenges are vast.  They cannot be traced to one man or women.  They cannot be settled by a single election.  They cannot be solved by one political actor.

Dealing with them will require virtue and judgment in our daily lives.  Thankfully, virtue can take many forms, too.  It can be witnessed at a volunteer at a charity soup kitchen, in a person seeing the best in another, in a parent teaching a child, in the good works and good words of countless religious organizations, and in a person sitting down and grappling with with the intricacies of Plato or Aquinas.  We can advance the restoration we so desperately need by rebuking partisan blindness, by cultivating a sober love of liberty, and by recognizing our own fallenness and what our nobler hopes depend upon.

The American people have inherited a great thing in the Republic.  The challenges that we face can be addressed.  We are not fated to decline and disunion--not yet, at least.  In 2017 and beyond, we need to put away the childish things of despair and vanity and instead take on our duties to our fellow man and to our own higher callings.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Apples and Oranges

A common bit of punditry over the past month has been to compare Donald Trump's margin of victory to that of congressional Republicans.  This type of analysis, however, might be a kind of apples-to-oranges comparison, as the dynamics of congressional races, especially House ones, differ substantially from the dynamic of the presidential race.

One of the key differences between those two kinds of races is the power of incumbency.  Outside of wave elections or significant personal misconduct, congressional incumbents are notoriously difficult to dislodge.  In 2016, about 97 percent of House incumbents on the general-election ballot won reelection.  In the wave year of 2010, the House reelection rate slipped down--to a mere 85 percent.  House incumbents can often blow out their challengers with higher name recognition, overflowing campaign coffers, and a seasoned political team.  This leads to a situation where, in a presidential election year, House incumbents often do better than their presidential counterparts in a district.  When a political party has a majority in the House, that advantage is compounded, leading to a situation where the majority party in the House gets more votes than its presidential standard-bearer.

It's hard to compare House and presidential electoral performance over an extended period of time because, in recent decades, House elections have become much more tied to presidential politics.  Ticket-splitting still lives, but it is much diminished from the middle of the 20th century.  That caveat aside, over the last twenty years, the majority party in the House usually performs better than its presidential nominee.

In the chart below, I give the raw popular-vote percentage followed by the margin in parentheses:
House Republicans: 48.2 (0)
Bob Dole: 40.7 (-8.5)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +8.5
House Republicans: 47.6 (+0.5)
George W. Bush: 47.9 (-0.5)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +1
House Republicans: 49.4 (+2.6)
George W. Bush: 50.7 (+2.4)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +0.2
House Democrats: 53.2 (+10.6)
Barack Obama: 52.9 (+7.2)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +3.4
House Republicans: 47.6 (-1.2)
Mitt Romney: 47.2 (-3.9)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +2.7
House Republicans: 49.1 (+1.1)
Donald Trump: 46 (-2.1)
Difference between margin of majority party and that of nominee: +3.2
Now, if one wanted to be truly rigorous about this whole comparison, one would have to take some further numbers into account: the size of the House majority heading into the general election (the bigger the majority, the bigger the compounding advantage of incumbency), the number of vacant and non-contested House seats, and the rate of House-race nationalization.

Nevertheless, the back-of-the-envelope chart above suggests that, relative to House Republicans, Donald Trump performed better than Barack Obama did relative to House Democrats in 2008.  Democrats had a smaller majority heading into 2008 than Republicans did heading into 2016, which suggests that House Republicans in 2016 had a greater incumbency advantage than House Democrats did in 2008.  If you're looking for evidence that Trump was radically weaker than a generic Republican candidate, the overall House vote might not provide it.

As with Senate elections, House elections have a baked-in power of incumbency, which is one of the reasons why trying to compare the performance of incumbent members of Congress to presidential candidates is a tricky enterprise.