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.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


In GQ, Jim Nelson makes a case for why President Obama is "one of the greatest presidents of all time."  Nelson certainly does not stint with his praise:
One of the Greatest? you ask, your thumb emoticon poised to turn up or down on me. The guy haters love to hate with their very best hate game? Like 20-Dollar Bill great? Like Mount Rushmore great?
Yep. (We just won’t build Mount Rushmores anymore.) In so many ways, Obama was better than we imagined, better than the body politic deserved, and far, far better than his enemies will ever concede, but the great thing about being great is that the verdict of enemies doesn’t matter.
While this is all very passionate, I'm obviously much more skeptical about this argument.  I'm especially doubtful about the implications of the statement that President Obama has been "better than the body politic deserved."  In thinking about public figures, it's usually best to think about their obligations to the Republic rather than the Republic's need to fawn over them.

Nelson focuses much of his argument on the importance of the president's rhetoric.
He just flew above it all. And, luckily, he took most of us with him. He was the Leader not only of our country but of our mood and disposition, which is harder to rule. At a time when we became more polarized, our discourse pettier and more poisoned, Obama always came across as the Adult in the Room, the one we wanted to be and follow...

Lastly, there’s the arc of history, bound to bend downward. As our unity becomes more frayed, more tenuous, and the ability for any politician to get anything done more unlikely, the job of president will become less LBJ tactical and less FDR big-dealer. The job will largely be to preside. To unify where and however we can. In this way, too, Obama pointed the way forward.
I agree with Nelson about the importance of unity and that some of the unifying bonds of civil society have been frayed.  However, if we're going to complain about a more polarized nation and the poisoning of our national discourse, President Obama has a significant share of blame in this coarsening.

While the president has offered statements in favor of national unity, he has so often worked to divide the nation.  While he criticized those who "like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states," he also has disparaged those who disagree with his agenda as "bitter" people who "cling to guns or religion."

The Obama administration has chosen, in implementing the Affordable Care Act, to do all that it can to polarize the debate about religious liberty.

Rather than seeking consensus on immigration and other issues, President Obama has embraced the divisive and possibly authoritarian principle that, if Congress won't act, the president somehow gains extra-Constitutional authority to promulgate new domestic legislation.

On countless public issues, the Obama White House has worked to inflame polarizing passions even as it then hypocritically denounces polarization.  There is a great task ahead: strengthening civil integration in order to help secure the promise of liberty.  Unfortunately, the Obama administration has all too often failed to live up to that task.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Considering Integration

In the Washington Post this weekend, Lawrence Summers noted some of the tensions experienced by nations across the world.  Summers argues that the post-World War II order has been marked by what he terms a project of global "integration," and the residents of many nations have new doubts about some of this project of integration.

One of the key things Summers notes is "the kind of disintegration that accompanies global integration as local communities suffer when major employers lose out to foreign competitors."  The importance of civil integration has been a favored topic of mine, so I can't resist adding to Summers' point to suggest that this is not simply a matter of economic dislocation.  The transnationalist agenda of identity politics has also attacked a broader sense of civic togetherness, which has profound social and cultural implications as well.

Tellingly, Summers argues that it's time for supporters of globalization to change course: 
Elites can continue on the current path of pursuing integration projects and defending existing integration, hoping to win enough popular support that their efforts are not thwarted. On the evidence of the U.S. presidential campaign and the Brexit debate, this strategy may have run its course.
Summers says that, rather than just continuing along the same path, proponents of global integration need to "shift from international trade agreements to international harmonization agreements," do more to refine international tax law, and attend to the concerns of the middle class.

Whether or not one agrees with Summers' proposals (and I personally think they have their limits), what's perhaps most noteworthy about this column is that it's another piece of evidence to show that even proponents of the current iteration of globalization have begun realize that the status quo is potentially on the verge of breaking down.  If even Larry Summers has doubts...

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Importance of Persuasion

In his distinctive style, Ace notes the importance of rational persuasion in some interesting remarks about my recent piece in The Weekly Standard:
Bauer goes back to James Fennimore Cooper to set up a struggle between two wicked sorts: demagogues, and the doctrinaire type.
I was just talking about this in the podcast. I mentioned that in the nineties, when Perot challenged Clinton on NAFTA, Clinton, at least, arranged for a debate on NAFTA. (Al Gore vs. Ross Perot.)
Give Clinton credit -- he was willing to debate the issue. He attempted to persuade people he was right. He briefed his Wooden Puppet Moron on some talking points and put him on Larry King Live to do this.
Public persuasion -- what an idea.
Where has that idea gone?
Anyone trying much of this on the right, lately?
Chiefly the form of "persuasion" one sees on these issues lately is ever more ghastly and baroque insults directed at the white working class.
The idea seems to be that if this cohort is insulted in even more vicious terms than the liberal ruling class did, they'll finally see the sense of supporting the right-side ruling class.
Ace's whole post is very much worth reading.  He goes on to argue that, on certain issues (especially, from his perspective, the topic of transnationalism), there's a temptation for advocates of the dominant paradigm to defend their position not with carefully argued reasons but instead with a hurricane of shame.

James Fenimore Cooper understood that shame politics has its limits.  It's not pandering to address the real concerns of voters, nor is it statesmanship to respond to public concerns with a self-righteous sneer.  The Founders of this nation and many of its great political figures, such as Abraham Lincoln, found circumspection, rationality, and intellectual diligence to be of more use than proclamations of their own virtue.  They did not rest content with calling worried Americans losers, monsters, and idiots.  Instead, they actually tried to address the desires of the people and channel popular energies in a responsible way.

The rise of Donald Trump points to significant shortcomings in the current ideological chic.  An identity politics allied to elite malfeasance and haughty transnationalism has encouraged a broad economic slowdown, instability in foreign affairs, and increased divisions in the body politic.  The responses of the left to these problems have proven dissatisfying, and the right needs to do more to offer real solutions to these issues.  I think that conservatives can offer such solutions, but running on the same old policies, which were designed to respond to global conditions forty years ago, is unlikely to do the job.

As Ace notes, defeating Donald Trump will not solve those broader problems, so disappointment awaits those who hope that they can return to the halcyon status quo if--somehow, just somehow--they can stop The Donald.  Absent policy reform, the dynamic that has given rise to Trump will continue to persist.  Some of the more interesting analysts of the Trump phenomenon, including the team at the intriguing and pugnacious Journal of American Greatness, have looked beyond Trump the man in order to consider the broader forces that have fueled Trump's rise.  Whether one supports Trump or not, that bigger picture is crucial.

I've been arguing for a while that a potential detente between conservative and populist tendencies is possible.  Such an association might frustrate some transnationalists, nostalgiacists, and lobbyists, but it could also reinvigorate national affairs and strengthen the enterprise of a free republic.  Some on the right, including Laura Ingraham, have been more open to Trump because they think his candidacy could make some reforms more likely to be implemented.  However, supporting Trump and supporting conservative reform are not identical; some of Trump's fiercest critics--such as Ross Douthat, many writers at National Review and The Weekly Standard, and so forth--have been supportive of conservative reform.

When faced with a disruptive force, existing institutions can curl up into themselves or they can adapt to the new circumstances.  In the wake of dis-Trumption, Republicans have to decide whether to double down on the past or to evolve toward the future.  This evolution need not require the surrender of key principles of individual integrity, personal freedom, and limited government, but it would require fresh thinking to confront facts on the ground in light of these principles.  Doctrinaire scorn is a poor substitute for imagination, empathy, and reason.