Saturday, October 21, 2017

Respecting the Dead

As I've written before, one of the many threats to healthy political norms at the moment is the risk that those who oppose Donald Trump will throw over those norms in the name of supposedly protecting them--to destroy the public square in order supposedly to save it.  Jack Goldsmith raised a similar point in this extended piece (the latter of which looks at how the anti-Trump "resistance" could itself be sabotaging norms).  A particularly dangerous strategy has been what I sometimes think of as the falsification of norms: the effort to pretend that current norms are very different from what they are in order to say that President Trump is somehow breaking them.  It's all well and good to argue that certain norms should be changed (that's healthy politics); it's quite another to rewrite history.

Masha Gessen has written some interesting material in the past, but her latest piece in the New Yorker--provocatively titled "John Kelly and the Language of the Military Coup"--might present a distorted perspective about the role of honoring dead soldiers in American culture.  Gessen argues that Kelly's press conference this week, in which he excoriated the politicization of contacting the families of the military dead, somehow offers the logic of a military coup.

Gessen's analysis seems to suggest that there's something totalitarian about public officials expressing great esteem for fallen soldiers:
But, later in the speech, when Kelly described his own distress after hearing the criticism of Trump’s phone call, the general said that he had gone to “walk among the finest men and women on this earth. And you can always find them because they’re in Arlington National Cemetery.” So, by “the best” Americans, Kelly had meant dead Americans—specifically, fallen soldiers.
The number of Americans killed in all the wars this nation has ever fought is indeed equal to roughly one per cent of all Americans alive today. This makes for questionable math and disturbing logic. It is in totalitarian societies, which demand complete mobilization, that dying for one’s country becomes the ultimate badge of honor. Growing up in the Soviet Union, I learned the names of ordinary soldiers who threw their bodies onto enemy tanks, becoming literal cannon fodder. All of us children had to aspire to the feat of martyrdom.
Celebrating fallen soldiers, though, is not exactly specific to the Soviet Union.  For generations, American school children were (and, in some cases, still are) taught about Nathan Hale precisely because of the great composure he showed while being executed by the British as an American spy during the Revolutionary War.  Hale's famous (and perhaps apocryphal) "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" was treated as showing great courage and great patriotism.

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address uses a reverential tone about the dead of the Civil War (emphasis added):
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain
-- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln specifically spoke of both the living and the dead as "consecrating" the ground of Gettysburg.  He said that "the world" will not remember political rhetoric but will remember that martial struggle.  He claimed that these dead made it even more important for the Union to win the Civil War--in order to ensure that they have not died in vain.

Only a few years ago, Barack Obama argued that we could never repay the military dead for all that they have done for the country:
The patriots we memorialize today sacrificed not only all they had but all they would ever know. They gave of themselves until they had nothing more to give. It’s natural, when we lose someone we care about, to ask why it had to be them. Why my son, why my sister, why my friend, why not me?
These are questions that cannot be answered by us. But on this day we remember that it is on our behalf that they gave our lives -- they gave their lives. We remember that it is their courage, their unselfishness, their devotion to duty that has sustained this country through all its trials and will sustain us through all the trials to come. We remember that the blessings we enjoy as Americans came at a dear cost; that our very presence here today, as free people in a free society, bears testimony to their enduring legacy.
Our nation owes a debt to its fallen heroes that we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice, and we must.
In fact, only last year, President Obama said that "Gold Star families" (the families of the military dead) represent "the very best of our country."  It's true that here President Obama was praising the families of the dead rather than the dead themselves, but he drew attention to those families precisely because they were related to someone who had died.

Gessen and others have suggested there's something troubling about Kelly's high praise for military life, but it's important to note that praising the military does not necessarily mean support for rule by the military.  For instance, Douglas MacArthur's final speech at West Point spoke reverentially about the military, but MacArthur also insisted that the military could not decide many of the vital questions of public life.

If folks want to argue that we shouldn't praise dead soldiers--well, it's a free country (in part because of those dead soldiers).  But celebrating the nobility, integrity, and importance of those who fell in the nation's service has been a mainstream, bipartisan tradition.  Just as every government program is not necessarily a step down the road to serfdom, all celebration of the military dead is not a prelude to totalitarian tyranny.

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Populist Explosion

For some reason, I didn't get a chance to read John B. Judis's The Populist Explosion until this month.  Published in the fall of 2016 (between Brexit and Donald Trump's election), The Populist Explosion offers a revealing--and concise--survey of the populist energies coursing through political systems across the world.  The first three chapters focus on populism in the United States, from an overview of populism in history to the 2016 campaign.  Judis identifies both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as manifestations of populism, and he argues that populism can be seen more broadly on both the left and the right.  The second half of the book looks at populism in Europe.  Judis finds that, whereas many right-leaning parties have harnessed populism in Northern Europe, populists in Southern Europe have gravitated more to the political left.

One of the strengths of Judis's book is that it avoids the foam-flecked rhetoric that accompanies many discussions of populism.  He does not make populism the root of all evil.  Instead, he carefully diagnoses some of the causes of populism as well as some of the challenges populists face.  The conclusion of the book is especially worth reading.  There, Judis distinguishes populism from fascism and claims that populists are responding to real political problems (such as the breakdown of economic opportunity).  It's become de rigueur in certain parts of punditworld to find that populism is purely some atavistic force--the barbaric howl of cretins, bigots, and deplorables.  Judis, however, argues that the rise of populism points to substantial issues that need to be addressed.  Much of my own writing on populism takes as a premise the idea that the populist insurgency is a sign of deeper political challenges, so I'm obviously sympathetic to that reading of populism.

We can only address the current political crisis by understanding its roots, and Judis's book offers an instructive exploration of some of those underlying forces.

Friday, September 15, 2017

DACA Negotiations

In NRO yesterday afternoon, I argued that the White House undermines its political position (and that of congressional GOP) if it decides to champion a trade of "border security" for a DACA replacement.  Today, Trump had this to say on Twitter:


Is that a sign the president is going to demand that elements of the RAISE Act be part of any DACA bill?  We'll have to see...

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Some Good News in Latest Census Report

The annual Census report on income, poverty, and health insurance always has interesting data--though sometimes its data are more depressing than inspiring.  The Census report released today (and covering 2016) has some good news.

Perhaps the big takeaway: The inflation-adjusted, median household income has, for the first time, exceeded the median household income of 1999.  In 2016, it was $59,039; in 1999, it was $58,665.  Granted, this is only a 0.6 percent increase (or about 0.004 percent a year), but it is an improvement nevertheless.  Households lower on the income spectrum still remain below their earlier peaks (and higher-income households are well above their earlier peaks), but at least the median is now up.

The poverty rate is also down from 2015 (falling from 13.5 percent to 12.7 percent); the poverty rate is now where it was in 2004.

But it's not all rainbows and sunshine.  The median earnings of full-time male workers actually fell between 2015 and 2016--from $51,859 to $51,640.  That discrepancy could be within the margin of error, but, when adjusted for inflation, the full-time median male earnings have been stagnant for decades; full-time female worker earnings have gone up more substantially over the past forty years (by about $10,000).

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Fixing DACA

In NRO this afternoon, I look at the political dynamics of trying to replace DACA.  If the GOP stays united, it can help advance conservative policies on immigration and strengthen its political hand going into 2018.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Few Words on Mark Lilla

Columbia University professor Mark Lilla's The Once and Future Liberal has been generating a lot of debate.  I'm not giving to give the book a full treatment right now (alas!), but I thought I might make a few points after reading it this week.

Basically, The Once and Future Liberal is written by a man of the left for the left (and for others who want to eavesdrop).  In it, he argues that the political left has become too dependent upon identity politics; this dependence has helped the Republican party gain power.  I don't agree with all of it, but it is an illuminating read.  See these interviews with Lilla by Rod Dreher and David Remnick for more.

One of the things that many of Lilla's critics on the left miss about his book is that Lilla is not calling for the left to ignore questions of discrimination, racism, etc.  Instead, Lilla is calling for the left to rethink the way it approaches these questions.  Rather than pitting identity groups against each other, Lilla argues that the left should instead emphasize a common citizenship.  This common citizenship would mean that, if a person is being mistreated because of his race, this mistreatment should of course be redressed because his rights as a citizen were being violated.  Lilla hopes that the appeal to a common citizenship would be a vehicle for righting social injustices (and he suggests that the civil rights movement of the Sixties was motivated by such a vision).

One of the more interesting themes of Lilla's book is his effort to confront some of the forces that have made our public debates so intolerant and broken in recent years.  Obviously, the intellectual causes of our current political stagnation have been of great interest to me recently, so I enjoyed his comments on those topics (even, again, if I might not necessarily agree with all them).

A good summation of Lilla's enterprise comes near the end, where he lists some priorities for reforming our politics: "the priority of institutional over movement politics; the priority of democratic persuasion over aimless self-expression; and the priority of citizenship over group and personal identity."  Lilla argues that those on the left need to think harder about how to win over concrete political institutions (instead of nurturing amorphous movements), how to persuade Americans rather than endlessly shame them, and how to stress the virtues of a common citizenship.

Lilla's diagnosis points to broader issues, too. We've suffered a diminished appreciation for both political and civic institutions, and strengthening a diverse range of institutions could help counter political hysteria.  We've also experienced a crisis of persuasion, with ideological slogans and identity-politics primal screams replacing reasoned debate.  As I've written elsewhere, the right has had its own problems with undervaluing political persuasion, as the 2016 campaign made clear.

In recent years, we've seen thinkers on both the left and the right become aware of a loss of civic solidarity.  A bigger project of mine right now is thinking about the conditions of civic solidarity and their implication for a free society.  Lilla's work represents one effort on the left to think through what has weakened that solidarity and what it would take to restore it.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Stars and Stripes during Trial

It's fitting that July 4 should take place after the anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3).  The American union was forged through a war and has been maintained through many trials.

Currently, many American institutions are in a state of crisis.  Failure has compounded failure, the mighty nurse their petty grievances while ignoring the real suffering of those around them, and blame-casting usurps the seats of good faith and judicious deliberation.  It's easy to be dispirited in this environment, just as it was easy to be dispirited in Valley Forge or the killing fields of Gettysburg.

But our republic still has great strengths--in its founding principles, in its inherited traditions, and in the hearts of its people.  In adversity, we should forget neither those strengths nor our deeper ethical duties.  Fireworks can still glow on victories and on a renewed republic.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Against Civic Division

In National Review, I dig into the implications of Bret Stephens's satirical proposal to deport poor Americans.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Comey Questions

This New York Times story raises a host of questions.

The first, and likely most important, is did President Trump ask James Comey to stop the Flynn investigation?  If he did and if he fired Comey because Comey would not stop that investigation (two huge--absolutely HUGE--ifs), this situation rises above a political spat to being a Constitutional issue.  Of course, these are only ifs right now--not established facts.

But there are other questions, too.

If the president's request occurred and constitutes obstruction of justice (again, if), why did Director Comey not resign and announce this request when it was made?  Speaking purely hypothetically, if the president committed an impeachable offense, a government official would have an obligation to do all he could to ensure that this offense was known so that Congress could proceed with impeachment.

Have other government officials, including in the Obama administration, committed acts of obstruction of justice that Director Comey knows about but did not act on or announce to the world?  What else could be revealed by reading Comey's private memos?

What is the journalistic justification for the New York Times publishing a story about a non-classified report that it has not seen?  According to the story, sources only read portions of the memo over the phone.  If mainstream newspapers want to distinguish themselves from tabloids, they will need to think hard about sourcing policies.

As many have suggested, the first step to answering some of these questions is for Congress to subpoena the Comey memos.  That will help us distinguish facts from innuendo from lies.  In a time when institutional trust is under assault, the rigorous attention to facts grows even more important.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Groping Toward Fusion

The  current draft of the omnibus spending bill to keep the government open includes a provision that would expand the number of H-2B visas; these guest-worker visas target jobs that do not require a college degree.

For the project of making the GOP a party of broad-based opportunity, expanding guest-worker visas seems like a counterproductive effort.  Guest-worker programs make a mockery of the market and of civic belonging.  In an age of stagnating wages for many working-class Americans, increasing the number of guest workers is a confusing strategy.  Moreover, guest-worker expansion risks splitting the GOP by further aggravating populists, who already have complaints about other elements of the omnibus.

Unlike other elements of the omnibus bill, however, Democrats were not going to shut down the government to expand the H-2B program.  In fact, the top Republican and top Democrat in the Senate Judiciary Committee (Chuck Grassley and Dianne Feinstein, respectively) both slammed the inclusion of the H-2B expansion in the omnibus.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Imperfect Comparisons

Looking at (some of the very real) disruption in the retail sector has cause some in punditia to try to draw parallels between the evolution of the retail sector and changes in manufacturing over the past thirty years.  This New York Times story on the decline of malls exemplifies that trend.  This trend has caused some on the left to wonder whether identity politics explains why so much press attention has been given to manufacturing while the supposed decline of retail has been more ignored.  However, there might be a more quotidian reason why retail employment has gotten less attention than manufacturing: retail employment has grown over the past 15 years while manufacturing has shrunk. 

The New York Times piece on the decline of retail referenced the job losses in the "general merchandise" subsector.  However, looking at specific subsectors obscures the fact that retail jobs have been overall growing.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more people work in retail jobs than ever before in American history.  Nearly 14.5 million worked in retail in 2010, but almost 16 million work in retail now. About 400,000 more Americans work in retail now than worked in it in 2008, the last peak of employment in that sector.   Department stores might be declining, but employment in "health and personal care" stores is booming, as is employment at "nonstore retailers," which have added over 100,000 jobs since 2010.  While there has been a slight correction in retail employment after the holiday season (not exactly unusual), there is little evidence of a sustained decline in retail employment.  The retail market may be restructuring, and that restructuring may lead to dislocations and economic difficulties (things policy-makers should take seriously).  The phenomenon of zombie malls could exact social costs as well as provide opportunities for innovation.  And it is certainly possible that, in the future, ecommerce will destroy the retail sector.  (I'm not making any projections about the future here.)  But over the past fifteen years, retail employment has done relatively well in terms of job numbers.

Manufacturing tells a very different story.  There are over 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs now than there were in 2000.  While manufacturing employment has grown somewhat since the Great Recession, there are close to 2 million fewer manufacturing jobs than in 2007.  Inflation-adjusted manufacturing production in 2016 was only a little above the production level of 2008.

Whether one believes that decline in manufacturing employment to be a positive or negative development, it seems clear that there has been a decline--unlike in the retail sector.  If manufacturers had added jobs over the past 15 years, I doubt that the loss of manufacturing jobs would be getting that many headlines.  Retail may indeed be headed for difficulties in the years to come, and changes in the field could cause some dislocations.  But, over the past 15 years, the employment patterns of manufacturing and retail have diverged.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Changing Contours of Young Adulthood

A recent report from the U.S. Census about changes in living patterns among young adults from 1975 to 2016 has some interesting findings.  It reports the delayed forming of families.  In 1975, 57 percent of adults 18 to 34 were living with a spouse; that number dropped to 27 percent in 2016.  Meanwhile, the percentage living with their parents climbed from 26 percent to 31 percent.

Part of this change might be because of increased college attendance and changes in sexual mores, but part of it might also be because of increased economic pressures.  In 1975, only 25 percent of men between 25 and 34 were making under $30,000 a year (in 2015 dollars); by 2016, 41 percent of men were making less than that.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Populist Triangulation

At NRO today, I outline one possible way forward for the Trump White House: populist triangulation.  This strategy would target areas where the interests of populists and conservatives (including perhaps some Democrats) overlap.  An infrastructure program, reforms of guest-worker policies, and changes to the health-care marketplace could all be opportunities for this mode of triangulation.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Dog That Didn't Bark--Or Did It?

In a special election in Kansas's Fourth Congressional District, Republican Ron Estes won by about 8 points the seat formerly held by CIA Director Mike Pompeo.  This is a solidly Republican seat, so a GOP victory would be expected.  Pompeo won it by about 30 points in 2016, and Donald Trump crushed Hillary Clinton in that district.  Is this relatively narrow 8-point victory margin a warning siren for the GOP nationally?  Maybe--but only maybe.

Overinterpreting special-election results is a bit of a DC parlor game, and we should be wary about reading too much into them.  Estes still won handily, and his Democratic opponent, James Thompson was a Republican until 2016.  Congressional elections are in part shaped by candidate quality and local circumstances, and Kansas's Republican governor Sam Brownback struggles with a low approval rating.  Moreover, a special election tends to be dominated by more motivated voters, and, with Democrats locked out of power in Congress, they certainly are more motivated.  So a slightly narrower GOP victory margin might be expected.

That said, certain national factors do suggest that the GOP could be facing some electoral headwinds going into the 2018 midterms.  The party of the incumbent president usually loses seats during midterm elections.  The approval rating of the congressional GOP could be higher, as could President Trump's rating.

None of those broader forces mean that Republicans will necessarily lose Congress next year.  But they do suggest the risks of policy deadlock on Capitol Hill.  Republicans would be wise to think of areas where they can pass popular reforms that live up to the campaign promises of the president and the Republican party overall.