23 May 2019

Right of Trump?

A few columns ago Thomas L. Friedman expressed a hope that someone would run to Donald Trump's right in the 2020 presidential election. The person who does that, Friedman expects, will be a libertarian. His expectation presumes that a politician's position on the left-right axis is determined by his stance on limited government, the rightmost candidate wanting the least government. Look at libertarians any other way, especially when you consider their overall permissiveness, and it's hard to visualize them to Trump's right. The way Friedman looks at them is peculiarly American, and peculiarly a product of the New Deal and Cold War eras. It defines "right" or "conservative" as a tendency to limit government. In the 21st century, however, the American equation of conservatism with limited government may seem increasingly like a historic aberration, an exceptional reaction to the rise of socialism and Leninism.

Before the 20th century, conservatives were the party of state power exercised on behalf of king, church and army. They were committed to conserving a socio-cultural order, often by all means necessary. Trumpism in the U.S. may represent a revival of this style of conservatism, not by or on behalf of the chimerical 1%, but by a more democratic (or "populist") constituency at least momentarily more interested in conservation than in the 20th century battle cry of freedom. Elements of 20th century conservatism like an aversion to taxes and an idolization of entrepreneurship will persist, but its skepticism toward "big government" may wither as the new conservatives feel the need for protection from various hostile or impersonal forces more urgently.

Libertarianism's historic position is to the left of this sort of conservatism, dating back to an era when commitment to individual liberty, including freedom of enterprise, put one to the left of conservatism in defense of custom. To the extent that 21st century libertarians support free trade and personal liberty on many fronts, they must appear, in the longer view, to the left of Trump or his constituents, many of whom are more culturally conservative than the President. What, then, might be found to Trump's right? Vice-President Pence might give some clues, but in general we might expect someone more systematic and dogmatic than Trump ever will be, or someone less likely than Trump to see politics as a matter of constant back-and-forth, hot-and-cold, carrot-and-stick negotiation. The future leader to Trump's right may not see his priorities as subject to negotiation at all. 

17 May 2019

Anti-Vaxxers: populism in pure form?

Reporting on an anti-vaxx demonstration in Albany this week, a local reporter noted an unusual convergence of left and right in the opposition to public-health measures proposed in the face of a downstate measles outbreak. He wrote that suspicious attitudes toward vaccinations should not surprise us, because of the near-universal vilification of "Big Pharma," even among some conservatives, or at least some Trump supporters. The latter group, and their idol, often complain about how the pharmaceutical industry overcharges or otherwise rips off American consumers, and they, as a group, not counting their idol, are probably more likely than ideological conservatives to agree with the left that greed is a harmful force in national life.  At the same time, anti-vaxxers on the left have suspicions of their own about the state, to the extent that it can be co-opted by the rich and powerful who then, so the assumption goes, exploit the state's compulsory power for their own profit. This convergence of left and right, fringe dwellers though both may be, may make the anti-vaxx movement a textbook example of populism as a force that transcends ideology and partisanship. I don't intend to identify anti-vaxxism as populist to denigrate populism or imply that populists are ignorant, even if such a conclusion could easily be drawn. What actually seems to make the movement paradigmatically populist is the profound mistrust of institutions that motivates it. The ultimate objects of mistrust may vary by individual, but anti-vaxxers in general combine mistrust of corporations, presumed unscrupulous in pursuit of profit, and mistrust of the state as an inherent and persistent threat to individual liberty. Both are institutions with presumed institutional motivations at odds with the true public good. Populists, I suspect, hope for a democracy uncompromised by self-interested institutions, and tend to suspect any institution of self-interest. Ironically, of course, they too often focus their hopes on charismatic "outsiders" whose presumed affinity with "the people" should immunize them from self-interested or institutional motives. Populists seem to be less mistrustful of individuals than of institutions, and if you think about it, we didn't have this same degree of mistrust back when vaccines were identified with heroic individual scientists like Jonas Salk. Of course, that's most likely because today's vaccines are more collective products, or else the research culture discourages anyone from claiming the spotlight as the heroic inventor. Perhaps it would make vaccines easier to take, so to speak, if such heroic figures could be identified and promoted, but forms of skepticism separate from populist impulses probably make that impossible. One can only hope that this form of populist paranoia remains a minority phenomenon, but we should also deny paranoid minorities any veto over public health. Having your shots doesn't make you a slave, nor will it send you to hell. Left and right should be able to agree on that as well.

06 May 2019

Fear of freedom?

A strange stalemate prevails in Venezuela, where another coup attempt failed last week, yet its instigator remains a free man and continues to agitate against the country's president. The opposition admits to underestimating military loyalty to the president -- whom the opposition claims is illegitimate due to alleged election improprieties -- and it's probably also fair to say that they underestimated popular support for the ruling party, despite the grim state of the Venezuelan economy. Why might so many people stick to an apparently incompetent leadership with alleged authoritarian tendencies? The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate who became an unsuccessful center-right politician with libertarian tendencies, might blame it on what he calls a "fear of freedom that is a legacy of the primitive world." Vargas Llosa was a leftist who turned right after a disillusionment with Fidel Castro and came to see communism as a threat to civil liberty.  Reviewing a recent collection of his essays, Patrick Iber takes issue with Vargas Llosa's apparent blind faith in the Market and calls for a more sensitive explanation of so-called "left populism" in Latin America. Presumably free of the bigoted elements of "right populism" in Europe and the U.S., "left populism" seems to be defined by a disdain for traditional politics and a dissatisfaction with a formal democracy that often seems to serve only to consolidate inequality. It may as well be synonymous with the sort of "radical democracy" according to which democracy only exists when the people can redistribute wealth and property. Iber's own position is that liberals and libertarians are wrong to believe that formal democracy -- regular contested elections, rotation in office, etc. -- is all citizens are entitled to ask for.

"Confined merely to the field of politics, 'democracy' can lead to undemocratic outcomes in the economy and society that ultimately result in oligarchy," Iber warns, "Likewise the achievement of human freedom is a complex goal -- one that will never be attained through markets alone." In other words, what Vargas Llosa sees as "fear of freedom" is actually an aspiration toward freedom, albeit a kind of freedom libertarianism (if not liberalism) doesn't recognize as such. Iber may mean something like the "realm of freedom" that Karl Marx hoped would replace a "realm of necessity," while libertarians see no contradiction between "freedom" and "necessity." To them, "necessity" is an unquestioned and unquestionable given within which freedom is possible, i.e. the freedom to do what you have to do without interference, while the left traditionally has aspired to securing for everyone the freedom to do what you want. From a libertarian perspective, to seek the overthrow of the realm of necessity, for them the one and only reality, can easily seem like "fear of freedom," especially if the overthrow requires the creation of an overwhelming power with its own new necessities. It must seem like cowardice to some, a refusal to deal with the world as it is when it can't be otherwise. But from the opposite perspective, it is nothing other than a moral demand, a demand for guarantees for life contrary to traditional or bourgeois morality's definitions of when life or other goods are not deserved, according at least in part to rules of necessity. If left populism or radical democracy is a form of moralism, it can provide a kind of spiritual satisfaction that can compensate for material shortcomings. Isn't it possible that however wretched the state of Venezuela's economy, no matter how badly it's been managed by the leftist government, people will remain loyal to the moral idea behind the whole project, happy to be right rather than prosperous -- especially when the government tells them that hostile foreign powers are really to blame (by withholding trade) for the poor state of the country. Theirs wouldn't necessarily be a rational viewpoint, but the other side's opinion isn't necessarily rational either, and some might rather run the country back to the ground than turn it back over to the people they turned against long ago. To persist so stubbornly on principle and in spite of material needs might be the opposite of "fear of freedom," the sort of acte gratuit that defines freedom in a more existential, if not a more pragmatic sense. But if you think you're free, who can question you? Anyone, of course, but you get the idea. As long as people in South America or anywhere else still feel free to demand from the world things libertarians or conservatives consider impossible, the debate over which is the real party of freedom will continue.

29 April 2019

In search of the patriotic center

Most people would assume that patriotism and nationalism are synonymous, but Michael Gerson argues otherwise in his latest diatribe against self-styled nationalist Donald Trump. "The president's defiant nationalism is strangely lacking in basic patriotism," Gerson writes. How can that be? For Gerson, it seems to come down to two failings of Trumpian nationalism. First, Trumpism fails to idealize the exceptional goodness of the U.S. To show this, Gerson cites comments he interprets as proof that Trump sees his own country as little different from other nations. Exhibit A is Trump's "You think our country's so innocent?" comment, made when he was pressed to distance himself from the "killer" Vladimir Putin. Less well known is something the President said when pressed to criticize Turkey for cracking down on dissent: "When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don't think we're a very good messenger." It's unclear what Trump thought Americans were "bad" at at that moment, but clarification wouldn't matter to Gerson, who is just as critical of a left wing that "finds the meaning of America in its defects." Comments like those cited are hardly outrageous regardless of the source, but the offense Gerson takes helps us understand the distinction he draws between patriotism and what he might call mere nationalism. However skeptical the President may be about American exceptionalism or the nation's moral superiority, his attitude clearly doesn't compromise his commitment to defending his country or its interests as he understands them. That commitment falls short for Gerson because Trumpian nationalism is a materialist form of conservatism concerned with enhancing American wealth and military power as ends unto themselves, regardless of what anyone thinks America stands for. Patriotism, for Gerson, is distinct and superior to nationalism because it's a twofold moral commitment, both to the nation itself and to a moral purpose that justifies the nation's claim to exceptional power, if not its very existence. To be a patriot, in other words, is to be loyal to American values above all. In Gerson's own words, "love of country entails a love of decency and human dignity" allegedly absent in Trumpism. There's no semantic basis for the patriot-nationalist distinction, of course, nor any basis apart from recent history's identification of "nationalism" with military aggression and hatred for minorities. Self-conscious nationalists would seem to have every right to challenge the distinction and claim the "patriot" label for themselves, but Gerson has another reason for denying it to Trumpian nationalists.

It's highly debatable whether patriotism must treat national power as a means to a higher end, but Gerson also argues that real patriots should recognize their nation's real enemies, while Trump either fails or refuses to do so. You probably can guess where this is headed. Trumpian nationalists will not dispute that the nation has enemies, but their lists may have at least one significant difference from Gerson's. The columnist recalls that Trump jumped the shark for him when, as President-elect in late 2016, he questioned intelligence reports of Russian meddling in the election campaign. Trump's advisers made the not-irrational point that some of the Russophobe accusers "are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." That remark apparently convinced Gerson that "Trump and his team are willing to sell out the people defending our country for political reasons." Worse, he finds proof in the Mueller Report that "the Trump team anticipated and welcomed the practical assistance of a hostile power" in 2016. In Gerson's mind, Russia isn't necessarily an existential threat, but it is an almost inevitable enemy of both the United States and what he sees as American values. Whoever fails to recognize this is no patriot, as far as Gerson is concerned. As usual, a Russophobic commentator ignores all the ways, especially in the economic realm, in which the Trump administration challenges Russia, because none of that has anything to do with why he thinks we need to challenge Russia.  An American patriot, by Gerson's standard, must defend democratic values and universal human rights against the rising tide of authoritarianism in Russia, Turkey and elsewhere, while a nationalist, presumably, thinks he can maximize American power without concerning himself with ideas or values but actually betrays his country by neglecting them.

2020 is going to be a hard year for Gerson. The moral vacuum he perceives in Trumpism leaves an opportunity for the opposition to claim the mantel of patriotism, but many on the left have reasons of their own to see their country as "bad" or not "so innocent." However sincere or legitimate their criticisms may be, Gerson warns that a successful challenger to Trump will need to affirm that "American ideals are a force for good in history, and that America is a force for good in the world." In other words, there's no place for the anti-imperialist left or domestic politicians preoccupied with mistreatment of minorities on a pragmatic Democratic platform. This isn't good news for many Americans for whom Trump has confirmed the fundamentally flawed nature of the American experiment, not to mention all those eager to vent their anger at the disrespect they feel Trump has shown them. It should be possible to vent that anger yet argue that Trump represents a deviation from a benign American norm, but it seems less possible now than it would have been before Trump was elected. It should also be possible to assert an essential goodness in the American experiment without declaring the sort of crusade against authoritarianism that would thrill Gerson. It might be wise for Democrats to tone down their anger at America, as Gerson advises, but if he wants to topple Trump next year he should be prepared to scale down his demands as well. He could start by acknowledging that one can run against Donald Trump without also running against Vladimir Putin, and not be a traitor to the cause or the country.

17 April 2019

Debating the terms of debate

Daniel O'Connor, a Jewish student who attends college in Virginia after graduating from an Albany school, is understandably sick and tired of being called a Nazi. He belongs to Turning Point USA, which he describes as "one of the fastest growing student organizations in the nation." As a Turning Point member, he gets called a Nazi, from what we can tell from his article in an Albany paper, because he promotes "limited government, personal liberty and the free-market system." O'Connor notes that Turning Point has no set position on "social issues" and welcomes people from all walks of life. Nevertheless, campus leftists call Turning Point a "hate" group. Unsurprisingly, O'Connor blames this on the intellectual laziness of most college students, claiming that "many young people have never been challenged by opposing ideas during their entire education." You can't help but agree that it's incredibly lazy, if also impulsively satisfying to some, to call all right-wingers Nazis, even if you defer to the simplistic mindset that places Nazis and Republican conservatives in the common category of "cruelty." Once someone talks about limited government it should be clear that that person isn't a Nazi in any historically meaningful sense. Labels aside, the problem people like O'Connor face on campuses is the assumption that their position is essentially a cruel one. O'Connor challenges those who disagree with his ideology to "think of a counterargument, defend your position, try to poke holes in mine." There's something naive, if not clueless, in that challenge --  and not because O'Connor's opponents are uninterested in debate.

O'Connor doesn't seem to realize that the debate has become more radical or fundamental than whatever he prepared for. Because more people are talking about socialism lately, he expects a familiar debate about "free thought, individualism and keeping government out of people's way." Those are all means to an end that many on the left have rejected, along with many of the first premises of the usual Cold War debates. Leftists today, I suspect, are less interested in the particulars of socialism or the differences between Marxian or "democratic" socialism than in affirming an absolute, unconditional entitlement to life and dignity. From their standpoint, anything that smacks of the old sink-or-swim ethos or denies that a civilized world owes everyone a living might as well be Nazism, given its apparent indifference to whether people live or die. If O'Connor is any indication, many Republican conservatives haven't caught on to how the terms of debate have changed and so are sincerely caught by surprise by the unprecedented vehemence with which their old talking points are rejected. They can lecture the left on how to debate, but if Republican conservatives really want a meaningful debate they need to put away their Adam Smith and their Edmund Burke and their Ronald Reagan playbook and find fresh answers elsewhere to this more fundamental challenge. The issue, as far as people like O'Connor are concerned, shouldn't be whether socialism or "big government" can ever give people what they want, but whether people are right to want what they want in the first place. Obviously, there's no guarantee that this debate will be more civil than those the O'Connors of our time already have endured, since it still boils down to whether the world owes anyone a living, but at least it would have people talking less about Marx or Lenin or Stalin -- "I won't call you a Stalinist," O'Connor promises -- and more about the desires and fears that really drive people today.

01 April 2019

Is this what authoritarianism looks like?

Over the weekend, Turkey's ruling party lost municipal elections in the country's two main cities, Ankara and Istanbul. These results are widely seen as a popular rebuke to President Erdogan for the poor state of the country's economy. That sounds like politics as usual, except that Americans have been led to believe by many reporters and commentators that this sort of thing shouldn't happen in Turkey. Erdogan is seen as one of the democratically-elected "authoritarian" leaders around the world who use fair means and foul to consolidate their personal power while making elections ever more difficult for opposition parties. According to the "authoritarian" scenario, Erdogan should have rigged things so his party would win these elections, but while some suspicious observers note that his party plans to appeal some of the election results, in theory things never should have reached that point. Likewise, Nicolas Maduro's party should not have lost control of Venezuela's legislature because, as an alleged authoritarian and the heir to Hugo Chavez, he should have rigged the system to guarantee majorities for his party. It doesn't follow from any of this that no political leader ever schemes to corrupt the electoral process for his own benefit, but perhaps we shouldn't assume that such things happen as often as some Americans like to believe.

Americans are quick to decide when foreign leaders have overstayed their welcomes, even when those leaders' constituents appear to disagree. It grows more difficult for Americans to imagine leaders retaining popularity for so long that they can continue to win elections, in the face of varying degrees of opposition, beyond the point when we think a withdrawal from public life is appropriate. We take our phenomenon of "fatigue" with presidents and their parties after two terms to be the global democratic norm when there is no reason to believe that other nations are or should be as polarized ideologically as the U.S. is. When nations and electorates deviate from our model, our tendency is to assume that their leaders are pulling a fast one on the people with an eye toward doing away with elections altogether, or rendering the franchise no more than a rubber stamp. No doubt many Americans felt that way about Franklin Roosevelt, since his four election victories are the main reason the Constitution was amended to limit presidents to two terms. Objectively, however, it's hard to think of FDR as an authoritarian unless you're a limited-government laissez-faire fanatic. Still, the constitution was amended to give the two-term tradition he broke the force of law, and it was done without much controversy because Americans, more or less reasonably, dislike the idea of an indispensable leader. Liberalism presumes that any number of people can rise to any occasion, and that's really how it should be in a democratic republic. But it doesn't follow from that presumption that someone who thinks himself uniquely qualified to lead indefinitely, or as long as the voters want him, is an inevitable tyrant. In any event, we can't understand the persistent if controversial popularity of so-called authoritarians, or the actual vulnerability of their positions, without a better understanding of their countries. Our temptation is to reduce the political issues in countries like Turkey to whether the strong man is as great as he thinks he is, when voters in most places from Venezuela to Iran have material as well as (or "instead of") dogmatic reasons for voting as they do. We might better measure the potential for any sort of authoritarianism in any country by paying more attention to its voters than to its politicians, but that might be too much work for people who want to blame politicians for every problem at home or around the world.

27 March 2019

'Free inquiry is an essential feature of our nation's democracy'

The above was written in the name of President Trump in the text of his controversial executive order regarding First Amendment protection on college campuses. Somewhat less than half of the text is devoted to federal guarantees of "free inquiry" on campuses; more is dedicated to mandating a system that allows applicants for admission and their families to judge colleges on the basis of graduate earnings and loan repayment rates. The news, however, was that Trump presumably wanted to force alt-right speakers into campuses across the land, using the threat of federal sanctions to make academia safe for his presumed rhetorical champions.

The overall language of the order is inevitably vague, and it reads more like a set of recommendations than a set of commands. Whether it can get to the heart of the matter, as far as most conservatives most likely are concerned, is unclear. The problem lately is the threat of antifa types disrupting talks, sometimes violently, by those they designate as fascists and/or bigots. To solve this, the order would need to make school administrations responsible for the actions of students in a way that may not be fair. It would seem to require schools to take all steps to protect controversial speakers, yet in a way, as consistency requires, that would not compromise the First Amendment rights of those who want to express their disapproval of political provocateurs. To guarantee the provocateurs' safety, will demonstrators need to be relegated to the dreaded "free speech zones?" Should violence break out, how exactly are schools to treat the violent to satisfy the Trump administration? All of this will have to be worked out by the relevant federal departments, but so long as it's all done evenhandedly there should be no cause for alarm in the executive order. It's worded with appropriate vagueness to implicitly guarantee safe space on campuses for the entire range of political opinion, and in any event that sort of safe space is needed more urgently than some that have been erected lately. I could go on about how people should be willing to hear their beliefs challenged, but it would really be irrelevant, since nothing in the order compels students to hear speakers they find abhorrent.

If anything, Trump and his writers could be clearer on the really relevant point, which is that ideology neither licenses anyone to physically attack anyone else, nor makes anyone liable to physical attack. The federal government is under no obligation to respect, and in fact has a duty to dispute the pretense that so-called fascists have no right to a platform in our society. I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the argument that not every question of political philosophy needs to be rehashed perpetually, but the liberal tradition under which we live allows no one to claim authoritatively that any question is so firmly settled that further debate can only be harmful. That's probably still a good thing given the common tendency to confuse genuine free inquiry with the allegedly settled questions of fascism, marxism, racism etc.  While we still live in a sociocultural environment in which nearly everyone identifies disagreement with his point of view with "hate," free inquiry probably needs stricter safeguards regulating those institutions that normally should foster it than is normally necessary. These might be exploited cynically by right-wing provocateurs who feel deprived of the platform to which they feel entitled, but as long as the language of the order doesn't favor them explicitly or exclusively that same cynical option is open to everyone from fascists to Stalinists, from the hardcore Christian right to NAMBLA. If one campus is to be sullied, supposedly, by speakers who don't represent the majority of students or faculty, the only real remedy may be to sully them all.