Thursday, March 31, 2016

Doctrinaire and Demagogue

In The Weekly Standard, I turn to the topic of demagoguery and the forces that enable it.
Pundits on both the left and the right accuse Donald Trump of being a demagogue. Whether or not one agrees with that particular diagnosis, it's gratifying to see a variety of voices worrying about the dangers of demagoguery. Self-government demands rationality, realism, and restraint--all virtues that a demagogue slanders as vices. However, defeating demagoguery over the long term will require more than eloquent denunciations of rabble-rousing. To fight demagoguery, we will have to look beyond the demagogues themselves, who are often as much a symptom as a cause of a fevered body politic.
In his 1838 essay collection, The American Democrat, James Fenimore Cooper offered the "demagogue" and the "doctrinaire" as complementary antagonists. For Cooper, the demagogue elevates popular whims over individual rights and the claims of reason. Preying upon popular sentiments in order to benefit himself, the demagogue panders to and manipulates public passions, fears, and anxieties.

The "doctrinaire" might differ from the demagogue but is, in Cooper's opinion, just as injurious. The doctrinaire "affirms a disinterestedness and purity in education and manners, when exposed to the corruption of power, that all experience refutes." Cooper portrayed the doctrinaire as a "theorist of the old school," who "clings to opinions that are purely the issue of arbitrary facts, ages after the facts themselves have ceased to exist." While the demagogue declares that the will of the people is infallible, the doctrinaire clings to a narrow policy vision that fetishizes old solutions to old problems. If the demagogue's vice is a distorted attention to current sentiments, the doctrinaire's is a haughty indifference to them.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Trump's Electoral Peril

One should always be wary about blowing a news cycle out of proportion, and, in this crazy primary season, it can be hard to tell what exactly counts as "winning" a news cycle.  Still, the past week or so has revealed some potential obstacles for the Trump campaign.  Even Ann Coulter has some doubts about the Trump Train's current trajectory.

One of the biggest challenges facing the Trump campaign right now is shifting from an insurgency campaign to a consensus one.  The tactics that might have worked earlier in the campaign--such as rhetorical hand-to-hand combat and a reliance on broad slogans--may reach a point of diminishing returns later on.  Trump's job is now not to distinguish himself in a pack of seventeen candidates.  Instead, it's to unite the party behind him in order to have a good chance in the general election.

Polarizing personal attacks and a lack of policy fluency make that enterprise of unification much harder.  General-election voters will be looking for a candidate who seems to have a presidential temperament, and many Republican voters on the fence about Trump have doubts about his public persona.  If Trump can't get the support of every Republican, his candidacy can survive, but he faces a much bigger problem if a huge portion of GOP voters refuses to support him.

An inability to forge a broad consensus will harm his quest for the GOP nomination--and the presidency--in multiple ways.  If he can't convince many in the party and conservative establishments that he has a reasonable shot at being a successful nominee, he risks collapsing on the second ballot in Cleveland.  Furthermore, if his campaign doesn't organize effectively for delegates in various states, many of the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot will be very hostile to him on later ones.  The only guaranteed way of avoiding that potential collapse would be to win the nomination on the first ballot with over 1237 pledged delegates going into the convention.

However, his path to 1237 probably requires him to achieve a consensus among Republican voters.  To win a majority of delegates, Trump probably has to win by significant margins in many of the outstanding states (few of which are winner-take-all).  If he squeaks by with margins of a couple of points in most of these states, he will have a hard time getting enough delegates to arrive at a majority.  And, without a majority and a party consensus, he could lose in Cleveland.

Even if Trump were somehow able to win the GOP nomination without a consensus across the right, a fractured Republican party could also spell doom for his chances in the general election.  So achieving a consensus would be important for his campaign in both the primary and the general.

The current trend in Wisconsin exemplifies the danger Trump faces.  No poll taken over the past couple weeks has shown him with a significant lead, and Ted Cruz's strength in the state has grown considerably throughout March.  In fact, numerous polls have shown Cruz with a lead.  If Trump can't regain the momentum, Cruz could win the state and get a significant portion of its delegates--delegates Trump will need if he hopes to reach 1237.  Trump might have a strong shot of racking up large delegate numbers in states like New York, but many other states (such as California) seem much more in play.

If Trump can't start to do more to build bridges within the right, he'll have a hard time seizing the nomination and occupying the Oval Office.  That bridge-building will require more policy sophistication and rhetorical discipline.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Maintaining Good Cheer

As the national conversation grows increasingly contentious, I thought it might be worth noting this passage from the conclusion of Calvin Coolidge's address when he accepted the presidency of the Massachusetts state senate:
We need a broader, firmer, deeper faith in the people; A faith that men desire to do right, that the Commonwealth is founded upon a righteousness which will endure, a reconstructed faith that the final approval of the people is given not to demagogues, slavishly pandering to their selfishness, merchandising with the clamor of the hour, but to statesmen, ministering to their welfare, representing their deep, silent, abiding convictions.
Statutes must appeal to more than material welfare. Wages won’t satisfy, be they never so large. Nor houses; nor lands; nor coupons, though they fall thick as the leaves of autumn.
Man has a spiritual nature. Touch it, and it must respond as the magnet responds to the pole. To that, not to selfishness, let the laws of the Commonwealth appeal. Recognize the immortal worth and dignity of man. Let the laws of Massachusetts proclaim to her humblest citizen, performing the most menial task, the recognition of his manhood, the recognition that all men are peers, the humblest with the most exalted, the recognition that all work is glorified. Such is the path to equality before the law. Such is the foundation of liberty under the law. Such is the sublime revelation of man’s relation to man, Democracy!
Coolidge's remarks here stress the importance of a republic recognizing the dignity of all.  Moreover, he offers here a politics of conviction.  Coolidge argues that politics cannot just be about material welfare; it also involves questions of principle.  Especially in troubled times, it's very much worth keeping an eye on those principles.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Neither Marco Rubio's Career nor the Conservative Reform Project Is Over

In the wake of Marco Rubio’s withdrawal from the GOP presidential race, two myths have arisen. The first is that this is the necessary end of Senator Rubio’s political career. The second is that this is the end of optimism or hopes for conservative reform.

Regarding the first myth: Rubio is a relatively young man with considerable political talent. One setback does not end a career, and nearly every president in recent memory experienced some kind of major political defeat before eventually making it to the Oval Office. So there is every reason to believe that Senator Rubio has a bright future ahead.

If it’s premature to write political obituaries for Marco Rubio, it also jumps the gun to say that the failure of his candidacy spells the end of political reform for conservatives. One of the biggest reasons for Rubio’s defeat in this primary was his decision to champion the Gang of Eight bill in 2013. Contrary to media spin, the Gang of Eight was in many ways a backward-looking bill, one that enshrined long-standing and flawed Beltway policy imperatives. If Rubio had led the battle against the Gang of Eight (or would it have been the Gang of Seven?) in 2013, he would have been in a much stronger position to harness populist energies in 2016. Even after the Gang of Eight debacle, he still could have escaped the box-canyon on immigration by pivoting to specific, pro-worker reforms he would put in place for the immigration system. However, he didn’t and so was always on the defensive on immigration. Marco Rubio might have stumbled in this race not because he embraced policy reform but because he did not embrace reform enough.

There’s an even bigger reason why efforts at conservative reform might be even more important now. Whatever one thinks about Donald Trump’s character and policy positions, he has drawn attention to the fact that many at the core and on the fringes of the GOP coalition have policy priorities at odds with conventional Beltway orthodoxies.

On many of these issues, Republicans and conservatives can address these concerns without sacrificing essential principles. Efforts to improve health-care coverage, reform trade, defend national sovereignty, reinvigorate broad-based economic growth, and create a pro-integration immigration system could be part of that effort of reinvigorating the GOP coalition without surrendering principle. If the #NeverTrump movement is serious about creating an electable alternative, its proponents will need to think even harder about policy reform. The policy positions of 1980 should not be the eternal principles of 2016, and the window-dressing of noting economic concerns while offering policies that are more of the same will likely lead to more of the same electoral result--defeat.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Tea and Crumpets in Florida

In contrast to the hand-to-hand combat in Detroit last week, the GOP debate in Miami was a restrained affair.  Personal insults took a backseat to a discussion of policy specifics.  Here are a few CW-ish points:

Donald Trump presented himself as a more restrained, disciplined figure tonight.  He seemed less defensive and less eager to go toe-to-toe with his opponents.  A telling moment happened in his closing statement, when he suggested that his candidacy was the chance for the GOP to grow by accepting millions of new voters.  Trump is attempting to pivot to the role of party unifier.
Ted Cruz tried to paint himself as the most compelling non-Trump.  He never got into the gutter to fight with Trump but did hammer home policy differences.
Marco Rubio offered a sunnier, less combative side tonight.  Senator Rubio's campaign seems to have decided to end the insult comedy tour and instead present the Florida senator as a Next Gen Reformer.  Rubio also seemed to be making a big play for Florida voters in his remarks throughout the debate.
John Kasich likewise seemed to be angling toward many of his homestate voters in his remarks on the economy, his record, and opportunity.
An interesting policy development could be seen in tonight's debate: all four candidates seemed to raise doubts about the current trade consensus.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Attacking Immigration Reform

If someone is a proponent of "comprehensive immigration reform" that includes a path to citizenship, last night's Democratic debate is probably cause for indigestion.  For those who missed that spectacle, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders edged pretty close to signing on to the agenda of bad-faith open borders in perpetuity: both nearly implied that it was immoral to enforce immigration law at all.

It's obvious that refusing to enforce immigration law would increase illegal immigration and all the civil disruptions and human-rights abuses that illegal immigration entails.  But, leaving that issue aside, efforts at comprehensive immigration reform are troubled by statements by Sanders and Clinton to the effect that, if they're president, they'll make NOT enforcing immigration law a top priority.

A huge deficit of trust is one of the biggest obstacles to granting citizenship or even legal status to current illegal immigrants.  In 1986, amnesty was exchanged for promises of enforcement.  These promises were not delivered on, and the illegal-immigrant population exploded in the two decades after Reagan's amnesty.  The failures of the 1986 amnesty have again and again mobilized opposition to efforts to "comprehensively" legalize current illegal immigrants.  Even many opponents of the Beltway's version of immigration reform--including Mark Krikorian and Mickey Kaus--are open to the idea of legalization for illegal immigrants, but they stipulate that such a legalization requires a record of immigration enforcement.  If real efforts at enforcement and reforms of the legal-immigration system are put in place, it seems very possible that a compromise on mass legalization could be arrived at.

However, if the Democratic party pledges that immigration law will never be enforced, that compromise becomes much less attainable.  In order to pander to open-borders elements in the progressive coalition, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders may be torpedoing the long-term hopes of a path to citizenship.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016


After Saturday's primaries, many observers began to wonder if Donald Trump's "momentum" had been slowed, but last night's results seemed to suggest that his candidacy still has a lot of force behind it.  One thing seems clear, though: Trump's opponents at many conservative institutions as well as his GOP rivals will continue to hit him hard.

Elizabeth Wilner points to some data that suggests how intense the media combat could be over the next week.  According to advertising data, about 62% of all GOP ad spending between February 29 and March 6 was used on anti-Trump ads.  During that period, there were almost as many anti-Trump ads as there were ads put out by Republican candidates and their SuperPACS during the first week of February.  Advertising dollars haven't necessarily moved the needle that much this primary cycle (just ask Jeb Bush), but the magnitude of that anti-Trump spending is noteworthy--and may have an effect.

Tomorrow's debate could be fierce indeed.  Stumbles on policy answers and responses to personal attacks likely hurt Trump in the last debate, and his rivals are almost guaranteed to renew these attacks.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

On Populist-Conservative Tensions

I've spent a bit of time exploring the possibilities of an alliance between conservatives and populists (the "popucon" synthesis).  However, in the interests of fairness, I thought it worthwhile to survey in The Weekly Standard the possible tensions between conservatism and some iterations of populism:
Conservatism and populism align when they take on a decadent elite. The current populist insurgency has been fueled by years of broken promises, economic stagnation, and identity politics. Conservatives and populists can agree that there needs to be a shake-up of the powerful. However, conservatives must break with populists when populists call not for a thoughtful decentralization of power or a more virtuous elite but instead cry out for an authoritarian white knight, who will deliver the body politic from the messy compromises of civic life. Some of the problems faced by our republic do stem from governing incompetence, but competence alone will not solve the challenges ahead of us. Moreover, calls to set up a strongman utterly vitiate the populist cry to return power to the people.

One of the greatest indictments against our current elite is that it has weaponized identity politics. The culture war against free thought, artistic expression, and intellectual diversity has, alas, all too often been led by many of those who occupy the commanding heights of our culture. Populists are right to attack the tyranny of Marcusian identity politics, and conservatives have every incentive to join them in that battle against cultural alienation. However, populists betray this critique of identity politics when they themselves succumb to tribalism. Bigotry is but one of the weapons used by collectivists to oppress the individual, and conservatives who seek to defend personal liberty and dignity should attack all such displays of malignant tribalism.
Read the rest here.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Detroit's Demolition Derby

Perhaps one of the more noteworthy things to happen last night was the fact that Texas senator Ted Cruz made a more overt play for populist sentiments.  At multiple times in his comments during the debate, Senator Cruz emphasized the challenges faced by working people and argued that his plans would help them.  He specifically argued that tax reform, repealing Obamacare, and rolling back the regulatory Leviathan would ignite growth for everyone.  The economic hollowing out of much of the middle class did not start with the Affordable Care Act, and tax reform is unlikely to be a silver bullet for economic decline.  However, at least Cruz put the idea of helping the average worker front and center.

Donald Trump may have given Cruz an opening to run in a more populist direction by his statement that he was "changing" on immigration.  Throughout the campaign, Trump has noted the abuses arising out of guest-worker programs, such as the H-1B.  Many of his top advisors and allies (such as Senator Jeff Sessions) have been very critical of guest-worker programs, and Trump's pledge to roll back such programs has been key for rallying economically restless voters to his side.  At last night's debate, though, Trump started repeating many of the arguments made by proponents of expanding guest-worker programs, talking about a lack of Americans who can do various jobs and so forth.  This rhetorical turn caused even many Trump supporters on Twitter and elsewhere to doubt Trump's seriousness on this issue.

An hour after the debate, Trump's campaign sent out a statement clarifying that he was not going to expand the H-1B and would continue to fight to reform guest-worker programs.  However, that lack of policy clarity during the debate has stoked some worry among Trump supporters.

Last night's debate also showed the importance of Trump speaking with more policy fluency and clarity on other issues, including the budget deficit and the powers of the commander-in-chief.  With four candidates still in the race, the ability to debate policy specifics will become more important,

A key moment in the debate happened near the end, when Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich all pledged to back Trump if he is the nominee.  Many #NeverTrump proponents have argued not just that Trump is unfit to be president or that people are mistaken for supporting him; some have tried to imply that supporting Trump for the presidency is a moral crime worthy of exile from polite society.  However, Senator Cruz, Governor Kasich, and Senator Rubio are now on the record as saying, again, that they will support Trump if he is the nominee.  Thus, it's hard for anyone supporting any of Trump's current rivals to argue that only moral monsters support Trump.  (Of course, they can still make other criticisms of Trump without any fear of logical infelicities.)

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

If Mitt Romney Wants to Reset the Race

Will Mitt Romney's forthcoming speech on the GOP race in 2016 change the fundamental dynamic of the race?  Endorsing a candidate might change the dynamic of the race (depending on the candidate), and declaring himself a candidate in some form would definitely change it.  However, if Governor Romney's speech simply attacks Donald Trump personally, that will likely not change the current dynamic: the Republican and conservative establishments entering DEFCON 1 and using every effort imaginable in order to derail Donald J. Trump.  As Super Tuesday shows, that dynamic might not be enough to stop Trump.

Barring a major endorsement or getting in the race himself, Romney might have the greatest chance of resetting the primary by making a bold call to the non-Trumps to champion policy reform that addresses populist concerns.

An evolving consensus has suggested that, if any of Trump's rivals hope to be able to supplant The Donald and win in November, they would be wise to trumpet policies that will provide opportunity to the aggrieved and forgotten.  (See, for instance, these recent efforts by Dean Clancy and Reihan Salam.)  Common ground can be found between the populist insurgency and many key conservative principles, and, if Republicans hope to win in November, they likely can't afford to alienate middle-American populists.  The fact that Trump has won in states across the country shows how powerful pro-disruption sentiment is.

As a person congenial to the establishment but also someone who ran as an immigration hawk and proponent of trade reform in 2012, Romney has the ability to speak to both camps in the GOP.   The current dynamic seems as though it could rip the Republican party apart.  Governor Romney could radically shift the dynamic of the race by laying down a policy marker and calling for the GOP to target the concerns of those who feel voiceless.  A speech advancing a policy-reform pivot could include something like the following:
We have seen over a decade of stagnating incomes for middle-class Americans, many of whom feel left behind and poorly served by the powerful.  The economic decline of the past eight years has exploded our debt--yes--but it also makes it harder for our nation to fulfill its promises to the elderly and the sick.  Barack Obama's presidency has clearly failed the middle class and the average American.  Too many are shut out of too few jobs.  Too many paychecks have shrunk.  Too many of those with a good work ethic have been shoved to the economic sidelines. It's time for our party to reach out to those who are justifiably upset with all these failures and champion policies that address their concerns.
We need to fight to end Too Big to Fail.  We need to take steps to stop guest workers and illegal immigrants from undermining American workers.  We need to reform trade so that we stop rewarding unfair competition from abroad.  We need to champion health-care reform that, unlike Obamacare, doesn't trap people in higher premiums and fewer choices; Republicans can offer a vision of health-care that defends choice while also ensuring that medical care is available to all Americans.  We need tax reform that helps working families get ahead and save for the future.
I call on all my friends still running for president to address these concerns not just with press releases, talking points, or insults.  Instead, I look forward to seeing a rigorous debate about policy specifics in the weeks ahead.  Americans have a lot to be upset about, and we owe it to them to think seriously about how to solve some very real problems.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Understanding Forces

Without much comment, I'm posting below links to three pieces from the past day or so that cast light on the rise of the current populist insurgency--and explore how politics might look should populism continue to grow.

Laura Ingraham looks at the establishment's stubborn refusal to adapt.

Ben Domenech argues that Donald Trump's campaign is a "beta-test of a cure that the American people are trying out."

Reihan Salam asserts that catering to corporatists opened the door to Trumpism and argues that policy reform will be required in order to respond to popular anxiety.