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.

18 March 2019

Everyone's a bigot

Typical American madness in 2019: the other day Chelsea Clinton visited a vigil for victims of the Christchurch massacre to pay her respects and make a show of solidarity with the victims of Islamophobic bigotry. At the vigil, Clinton was confronted by two NYU students, one Jewish and the other Muslim, who accused her of complicity in the massacre.

Here's how the students got there. A few weeks ago, Clinton got involved in the controversy over Rep. Omar of Minnesota's remarks about the "allegiance" of some American politicians toward Israel. Omar was accused of anti-semitism because the charge of "dual loyalty" goes back among anti-semites to before there was a Jewish state. Allegiance, apparently, is a loaded word. The dictionary defines it as loyalty to a group or cause, though it also has a context of subordination that partly explains the outrage. Historically, however, Omar can be compared to Irish-American politicians of a century or more ago who probably accused American politicians and other prominent people of allegiance to Great Britain when those people failed to support the cause of Irish independence. No one would have accused those Irish orators of bigotry, and those who defended Omar are right to question why she was accused of bigotry merely for questioning the congressional consensus on Palestine. The answer, so the NYU students tell us, is that critics of Omar are bigots themselves. It is not merely an exaggeration or a slander to call critics of American support for Israel anti-semites, they say. In particular, when the critic is, like Omar, a Muslim, it is bigoted and specifically Islamophobic to call her an anti-semite. Putting it another way, we've reached the point where calling someone a bigot is itself bigoted, depending on who's accusing and who's accused.

While the students aren't so stupid as to suggest that Clinton's comments, among so many criticizing Omar, had a causal effect on events in Christchurch, they do insist on their prerogative, if not their obligation, to confront anti-Muslim bigotry wherever they find it. Chelsea Clinton was a target of opportunity, but she also shares responsibility, as far as the students are concerned, with "enabling" Islamophobia by criticizing anti-semitism. It was necessary to confront her, they say, because Clinton, like nearly all critics of Omar, has failed to apologize to the congresswoman. In effect, they say that you cannot criticize Omar on the subject of Palestine without being a bigot yourself or contributing to global Islamophobia.

What we have here, basically, is tit-for-tat tactics in the anti-Zionist camp. Having heard ad nauseam that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic, they now claim, for all intents and purposes, that criticism of the Palestinian cause is Islamophobic. What, then, if you don't think that Omar deserved all the criticism she received -- that she was within her rights as an American and member of Congress regardless of the thin skins of Zionists, but that her self-appointed defenders at NYU are idiots? They're women and I'm not, so maybe that explains it. They're Jewish and Muslim and I'm more or less an atheist, so maybe that explains it. It can't just be because one fine day they did something that can be described objectively as really stupid and self-defeating, could it?  Of course not. This is America, where people only disagree with you if they hate you and, accordingly, everyone hates everyone else....

17 March 2019

In defense of 'Islamophobia'

This week a self-described fascist murdered 50 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the aftermath, President Erdogan of Turkey attributed the atrocity to a global Islamophobia that had been allowed to spread unchecked. His implication was that something should be done to check or suppress it. Denunciations of Islamophobia and white nationalism have filled the weekend, naturally enough. Ironically enough, they echo the American protests against the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S. In both cases, bereaved groups claimed that people were being targeted more for who they were than for what they might have done. To a certain extent that's correct, since each case was to a great extent a revenge attack.

The Christchurch shooter apparently claimed revenge for a motive in a manifesto, claiming a right to avenge the victims of Muslim terrorists and criminals in Europe, just as the September 2001 hijackers claimed to avenge the Muslim victims of American foreign policy. By the logic of revenge, if you can call it that, anyone who shares an identity with actual killers and oppressors is liable to revenge, whether they consciously endorse or collaborate in oppression or not. Osama bin Laden theorized that all citizens of a democracy can be held accountable for the democracy's actions. Likewise, the Christchucrh shooter feels entitled to avenge crimes carried out in the name of Islam on anyone who espouses Islam. And just as anti-imperialists in the west insisted on a historic context for the 2001 attacks that included numerous provocations and apparent injustices, so it can be argued that the Christchurch massacre did not occur in a vacuum occupied only by someone's irrational or innate hate.

In neither case, of course, did innocent people deserve what they got, and in each case it should be indisputable that the victims were innocent.  Few Americans wanted to hear about American misdeeds in 2001, but that gave them no right to suppress anti-imperialist or simple anti-American opinion. Likewise, today is no time for a blanket suppression of "Islamophobia," or to confuse it with ethnic bigotry. While some people want Islam or any religion to be treated as a form of identity entitled to the respect of civil society, it and all religions are collections of value judgments and quasi-factual assertions that remain subject to critical appraisal from any thinking person.  At a minimum, civil society should allow people to claim that Islam or any other religion is fundamentally false -- to deny that Muhammad received a revelation from God, or that there is a god. Religions are also subject to criticism in their particulars, though critics should be careful to do more than read scriptures in isolation if they want to understand how religions actually function. The modern resurgence of what might best be called shariaism after 20th century experiments with secularism has complicated matters, since the shariaists have succeeded in convincing much of the non-Muslim world that Islam inherently tends toward political tyranny when in fact the necessity of political government by sharia remains hotly debated by Muslims themselves. Educated people of all viewpoints can take part in that debate, which should not be inhibited by fear of either hurting violent people's feeling or inspiring other violent people to commit mass murder. We don't need to write off the Christchurch shooter as some lone madman in order to affirm that his crimes are his alone. We don't really want anyone saying Muslims should be killed wherever they're found, but we should not equate all criticism of Islam with incitement to murder. If people push too hard or too far against "Islamophobia" they'll probably only generate more of it.

06 March 2019

How exceptional are we?

It's common in the U.S. to think of ourselves as an exceptional nation in some way or another. In some cases, it seems, we're so exceptional that the experiences of other nations offer no examples for us to learn from or models to emulate. David Brooks observes that "The Brits and Canadians I know certainly love their single-payer health care systems," but goes on to devote a column to his inability to imagine how Americans could get something similar. "The trick is in the transition," he writes, and so it must have been in Canada or Brit-land or anyplace else that has adopted a single-payer system, which some Americans would translate as "Medicare for All." There had to be resistance and fear in all those countries, but Brooks seems to imply that it was easy everywhere else, while the U.S. is the inevitable exception. He falls back on national stereotypes to excuse his analytic laziness. "Americans are more decentralized, diverse and individualistic than people in the nations with single-payer systems," he writes, "They are more suspicious of government and tend to dislike higher taxes." Elsewhere, you see, tax-collection day is a public holiday with concerts, face-painting and bounce houses. Only Americans hate taxes; only Americans fear centralized authority -- but this is so much bull, just like Brooks' resigned conclusion that "the easiest way to get to a single-payer system would probably be to go back to 1776 and undo that whole American Revolution thing." Who doubts, however, that in any nation that is not a dictatorship where single-payer is proposed, people sincerely reactionary or simply well-financed, doctors and patients actual and potential, cried "socialism!" and warned of the end of individual liberty? Wherever such resistance, rhetorical and institutional, was overcome, there is a model for overcoming resistance in the U.S., if you actually want single-payer. It's easy for someone who probably doesn't want it to abandon hope, but the way that Brooks so complacently abandons hope only leaves the impression, not that Americans are hopelessly exceptional, but that we're exceptionally hopeless.

03 March 2019

The ruling class

At the CPAC conclave this weekend,  the President said: "Socialism is not about the environment, it is not about justice, it is not about virtue. It is about only one thing -- it is called power for the ruling class." While it's unlikely that he came up with that line himself, it most likely reflects his identification of socialism with the rule of Communist parties like those he deals with in North Korea or China, or similarly authoritarian parties in places like Venezuela. Interpreting it more broadly, one wonders whether Donald Trump feels the same way about ruling classes everywhere, regardless of economic systems. It's a very populist thing to say, after all. In effect, he means that ruling classes are out for themselves, interested only in perpetuating their own power. Looking at Leninist or Lenin-inspired regimes that make rule by the vanguard party the precondition of all other goods, this is practically a self-evident truth, though you have to have at least a vestige of liberal aversion to ends justifying means to get worked up about it. Populists everywhere see ruling classes putting their own interests before the public interest, but the range of populist scrutiny varies from place to place, and over time.

From a different but still arguably populist perspective, Donald Trump has been part of the ruling class since before he was President, by virtue of his wealth. From that perspective, Donald Trump is not about making America great again; he is about one thing -- power for Donald Trump. The President himself no doubt sees things differently, and I could believe that he'd sincerely deny belonging to a ruling class. Nevertheless, the Trumps of the world were the targets of the original populist movements in the U.S., and the Trumps or  Kochs of today remain the targets of those who long for a populism of the left. Much has changed since the 1890s heyday of OG populism, most notably the power of the state over the economy, so that it's at least not fantastical to focus on the political class rather than the upper class as the ruling class. It's more fantastical, however, to act as if the upper class isn't still part of the ruling class by virtue of their wealth, their control over jobs, access to politicians, etc. -- all of which is not about freedom or prosperity for all but about the power (and wealth) of the upper class. In short, every movement has its blind spots, and every movement is out for itself -- though not necessarily exclusively or at everyone else's expense. Any ruling class or segment of a ruling class will be an object of suspicion so long as power itself is an object of suspicion in historically liberal societies. But just as power is a necessity, a jealous consciousness of a "ruling class" may be inevitable. Where each person sees the ruling class, and how jealous or fearful you feel toward it, probably depends on each person's ambition, and the sort of power you want to have in the world.

25 February 2019

A new interventionism

Back in 2016, my impression was that Donald Trump appealed to those Republicans or conservatives who had tired of an interventionist U.S. foreign policy. Despite some early acquiescence, Trump had come around to the view that the invasion of Iraq had been a mistake. He appeared to view military intervention for the purpose of regime change or democracy promotion with a healthy skepticism. Now, however, his administration threatens some form of military intervention against the government of Venezuela, still recognized as legitimate by much of the world despite the claim of the nation's opposition leader that President Maduro no longer has any legitimacy.  The situation has remained largely the same since this blog last took note of it, though over the last weekend Maduro's supporters escalated tensions by taking violent action to prevent aid shipments from entering from neighboring but hostile countries like Colombia and Brazil. Secretary of State Pompeo now openly threatens Maduro, while the likes of Senator Rubio hint that Maduro will meet the same fate as Khadafi in Libya. For all that, Venezuela seems no more "evil" than Iraq in 2003, so why should Trump be eager to topple its government.

One reason noted before is that Venezuela is important in the cold war over oil prices that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia continue to wage against Russia and Iran, whose governments support Maduro. Another reason, and possibly the decisive one, should have occurred to me before. Venezuela is the number one source of refugees in the western hemisphere. More than 3,000,000 people have fled Maduro's incompetent yet popular regime in recent years. Bordering countries feel the pressure the most, of course, but the so-called Bolivarian Diaspora is bound to head for the same ultimate destinations as refugees from other places have. It may have occurred to President Trump that if he doesn't want more Venezuelans on his own doorstep, his country and others that feel increasingly taxed by refugees might be obliged to fix problems that dysfunctional nations seem unable to solve on their own. This may or not what Trump is thinking, but it makes more sense than any explanation that focuses on Venezuela as a socialist state. Like many reactionaries, Trump is fond of pointing to Venezuela as proof of the inevitable fate of socialist governments, but that rhetoric is largely for domestic consumption and an antipathy toward socialism doesn't appear to color his dealings with the Marxist governments in North Korea and China. That may prove once again to some observers that any Marxist government had better get its hands on nuclear weapons, but I don't think that Trump has any desire to overthrow the other two states that has been deterred by their nuclear arsenals. It is said, as a criticism of Trump, that he has a sometimes inappropriate respect for strong leaders, and it's clear that he includes both Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un in that category. He most likely doesn't see Nicolas Maduro that way. That doesn't necessarily mean that Trump feels free to bully the Venezuelan, but it may mean that in Trump's eyes Maduro's the sort of socialist who can't be trusted to run his own country without causing problems for others, even if he has no aggressive designs on them. A nascent Trump Doctrine may posit that under such circumstances neighboring nations and the nearest great powers have a responsibility to restore stability not in the name of any ideology but as an end unto itself. Trump and his diplomats may soon have a chance to articulate their position more thoroughly, but I have to wonder whether any explanation will make intervention in Venezuela justifiably different from the other interventions that soured many Americans on a bipartisan diplomatic-military establishment and led some of them to hope that a non-politician would be different.

23 February 2019

A four-party system?

Thomas L. Friedman divides the nation into four major political faction, each of which might field a presidential candidate in the 2020 general election. Both Democrats and Republicans are effectively split, he claims, the former between neoliberals and socialists, the latter between the familiar limited-government types and less-principled Trumpism reactionaries. I'll spare you the clumsy labels Friedman actually applies, except to note that his center-left and center-right are both committed to "growing the pie" while the socialists are more concerned with redividing the pie and the Trumpites simply want to hoard it. This analysis seems sketchy to me. Looking at the right, Friedman seems to downplay the Trumpites' commitment to economic growth, most likely because he can't imagine economic growth without free trade and free movement of peoples and capital. He may be closer to the mark when he perceives a mass abandonment of the limited-government principles that have defined the GOP for the last century or so in favor of security on several levels, though he may be off the mark if he means to imply that the two Republican factions are equal in strength.

Looking at the left, Friedman's assessment may be too conservative. Arguably there are at least three major factions within the familiar Democratic coalition. You need only recall Senator Sanders' notorious failure in 2016 to connect with many of the party's core constituencies to dismiss the idea of a united "socialist" front.  Class consciousness may be the ultimate form of intersectionality to some people, but to others classism as espoused by an old white guy sounds like a denial of that important principle. It may be possible to divide the old Democracy into four parts instead of two: neoliberal (Clintonian), neoliberal-multicultural (Obamite), socialist (Sandersite) and intersectional-socialist (Ocasio-Cortez etc.). These are more likely to be enduring divisions in the absence of an Obama-style unifying figure, while it's not hard to imagine limited-government Republicans eventually marginalized into a disproportionately articulate fringe movement as more emotionally conservative Americans look to a powerful, sympathetic state for protection against waves of globalization.

All of this might make for more interesting times politically if electoral politics didn't still operate according to the capitalistic principles that allow someone like Sanders, ironically enough,to threaten to price his competitors out of the market. If Americans' changing alignments force a change in those rules, things could get really interesting.

17 February 2019

The Untamed Amazon

Democrats in New York are divided over the meaning of Amazon's decision not to build offices in the Empire State. Executive Democrats -- Governor Cuomo and Mayor Di Blasio -- are angry at progressive legislators for wanting to renege on a deal that would have gifted Amazon with subsidies and tax breaks. They argue that the jobs Amazon would have created would have more than made up for the taxes Amazon wouldn't pay. The offending legislators seem to feel that an example needed to be made, and that a behemoth like Amazon has no business demanding tax breaks and subsidies. The truth, of course, is that seeking such breaks, thereby increasing profits, is the essence of business. Whether companies like Amazon have a fair claim to such treatment is an urgent question for debate, but the debate should be held at the right level. So long as states are permitted to compete for jobs by outdoing each other in sweetheart deals, there's no point in any one state taking a moralistic stance that can only prove self-defeating. Since the states are sovereign over their own taxes, the best that might be hoped for would be an interstate pact not to offer such abject incentives to corporations, but in the current political climate taxophibic Republican majorities in some states are unlikely to enter into any such pact. One needn't be a Marxist to conclude that the ultimate problem is the inordinate power a capitalist political culture, not to mention a federal political order, gives to corporations. But how do you convince people who resent the deals dealt to the likes of Amazon to do something about it if doing something means taking away some of the theoretical freedom we all seem to value so much? It would seem that the subsidies slavishly offered the great corporations is part of the price of freedom, albeit a less honorable part than others you hear about.

11 February 2019

'A vital piece of progressive organizational infrastructure' -- or not

In 2018 the Working Families Party of New York targeted members of the Independent Democratic Conference for destruction. The IDC was a group of Democratic state senators who rejected their party's legislative leadership and formed a coalition with the Republicans, giving the latter leadership of the Senate. The IDC had disbanded by primary season, but eight of its members remained in the upper house. The WFP endorsed primary challengers to all of them, and took credit when six of them lost. As a result, some Democrats now apparently feel that the WFP has grown too powerful, or so a coalition of liberal lobby groups are warning. They hope to preempt an attempt to end the practice of fusion voting, which allows candidates to receive endorsements from multiple parties and appear on multiple lines in the general election ballot.

Fusion voting allows small parties like the WFP to have some leverage when trying to steer the two major parties in more ideological directions. By endorsing Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Working Families gets enough votes to maintain its line on the state ballot. That allows them to threaten to run truly independent candidates if the Democratic establishment fails to meet their demands. Practice doesn't always live up to theory -- in the gubernatorial election before last, Andrew Cuomo called the WFP's bluff and got them to endorse him meekly without any extreme concessions -- but the risk of getting primaried has only grown greater for incumbents of both major parties since then. Without fusion voting, Working Families could still run someone to take progressive votes from a Democratic candidate, but the WFP's allies clearly fear that the first time they did so they'd lose their ballot line.

The party's supporters claim that it has "helped  Democrats win tough general election races up and down the ballot," but proof of that may be hard to come by.  Working Families is self-evidently less an independent party than a pressure group within the Democratic party. It can't be a decisive force in Democratic primaries, after all, if its base didn't consist of registered Democrats. That fact makes the WFP a charade rather than "a vital piece of Progressive organizational infrastructure in New York and the nation," as its friends claim. It's anyone's right to demand more progressive (or more conservative, or more radical, etc.) candidates, but it isn't necessarily anyone's right to  exploit another party's popularity in order to threaten it.  I can understand that politicians outside the establishment want shortcuts to influence and power; the WFP favors fusion voting for the same reason Donald Trump runs as a Republican. But if the entrenched power of the two major parties -- sadly a cultural as well as a political fact -- remains the real problem, schemes like fusion voting don't get to the heart of it. They're cosmetic only, offering only a facade of progress when more radical reform may be necessary. If the American political system makes more radical change impossible, insisting that you can't do away with the major parties' electoral advantages until you beat them in an election, maybe fusion voting and the ballot access it allows are understandable. Just the same, don't expect people to cry for you should you be forced, after boasting of your strength, to stand on your own two feet and prove how strong you really are.

06 February 2019

Democracy vs.Truth?

A new book by University of Pennsylvania professor Sophia Rosenfeld, Democracy and Truth, describes what reviewer David A. Bell describes as an "epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding." The fault line divides citizens into categories we can define roughly as technocrats and -- sigh -- populists over the issue of, in Bell's paraphrase, "Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth?" On one side are arrogant elitists, would-be Platonic guardians and well-meaning experts whose expertise threatens to harden into privilege. On the other we find the advocates of "common sense," including Thomas Paine himself, who distrust abstract concepts and suspect expertise of obfuscation. Bell caricatures this view as, at worst, "a suspicion of and contempt for expertise in general, a dismissal of complexity and abstraction," but the description rings false. My suspicion is that few people are consistently one thing or the other on "epistemological" questions. The "populist" who is skeptical about man-made climate change in defiance of scientific expertise, for instance, might at the same time appeal to expertise on economic questions, believing businessmen the uniquely qualified experts. If right-wingers are inconsistent, leftists are most likely equally so, especially when they weigh the demography of expertise in their judgments. While Bell especially seems convinced that the left is more committed to truth than the right -- he applauds Rosenfeld's absolution of leftist postmodernism from blame for today's "post-truth" environment -- the real issue here is less how to detect lies but the implications of facts in political debates.

Not all political questions are decided by facts. Political decisions are often value judgments made on the assumption that the "common good," for instance, is neither an objective fact nor a revealed truth but whatever a consensus decides it is. In liberal democracies ideas of the common good are shaped by desires as well as necessities. Inevitably such ideas resist appeals for change determined by necessity if they come at too great a cost according to some hedonic calculus that prioritizes freedom above other goods. Political judgments in democracies are often moral judgments that have relatively little to do with facts. The real debate over global warming, for instance, isn't "Is it happening?" but "What are we going to do about it?" While some people will try to reject undesirable options by denying the circumstances that force the issue, their opposition is founded more on moral or ideological objections to certain options (i.e. "more government control") than on an absolute denial of the circumstances. If that example seems to betray bias on my part, other examples can be cited in which the right or the populists claim to have facts on their side, e.g. border security, while the left takes the stance of denial. The main point here is that stigmatizing or suppressing liars alone won't automatically convert all citizens into rational actors when democracy doesn't  require them to be.

If citizens in a democracy claim a right to an opinion on anything that affects them some inevitably will vote on the basis of neither fact nor ideological principle, but on the basis of "I don't like it." In the western world, we insist on an absolute right to "not like it" in spite of everything. Social media has exacerbated this only to the extent that it has created new areas where that right can be asserted and enforced against all comers. That such dislike doesn't have to justify itself with fact or reason is a problem predating our modern troubles, and neither the  "enhanced rules and regulations for communication" advocated by Rosenfeld nor Bell's proposal to "restrain the economic power of the companies that profit most directly from populist attacks on epistemological authority" promises to get to the heart of that problem. At a certain stage of democracy, perhaps nothing can.

05 February 2019

The Gray Area

The angry English prophet of muddling through life, John Gray, has published another book. Seven Types of Atheism, as described by Christopher Beha in the February 21 New York Review of Books, covers not only the "New Atheists" Gray has often criticized but also secular humanists, scientific rationalists, progressive ideologues (Marxist or otherwise), misotheists (who hate the idea and character of the Abrahamic god), materialists and skeptics. The last two categories are the most acceptable to Gray because they reject idealism and the overly-optimistic redemption narrative of Christian culture. They do not seek the elimination of religion from society, while those who do, Gray has argued before, simply substitute a secular or scientist myth of permanent progress for the Christian original and thus are no better. Indeed, Gray often argues that the New Atheists are worse, not only misunderstanding the true purpose of myth but failing to comprehend the importance of myth to coping with objectively futile existence. In place of religious or secular crusades Gray recommends a contemplative life, aspiring to an "inner freedom" indifferent to forms of government and other causes of worry or anger.

Beha clearly isn't happy with the political implications of what he calls Gray's quietism. He acknowledges that Gray allows for ameliorative political action, but observes that "motivating even these narrow but necessary acts often requires a grand vision of the possibilities for permanent change." People need to believe that positive change is irreversible, but Gray doesn't allow for that. He doesn't  quite endorse the old cyclical view of history, but he rejects the "whiggish" notion of inevitable progress. Gray's error -- if not Beha's-- , so it seems from this second-hand glance, is his assumption that modern political ideology  assumes that progress must be permanent. Since Macchiavelli's time, depending on who you read, political thinkers have been all too conscious of the cyclical nature of history but have tried to beat the system. Centuries of small-r republican theory have been dedicated to contriving a political order to prevent the sort of decadence the ancients believed to be inevitable. Marxist-Leninists have been similarly preoccupied with the danger of backsliding, arguably to an irrational degree in their zeal to root out counterrevolutionaries, capitalist-roaders etc. Their concerns are not really analogous to the scriptual monotheists' obsession with heresy. Modern liberalism of the sort identified with the Democratic party is perhaps more millenarian in this sense in its faith that a bureaucratic welfare state can become a perpetual-motion machine permitting all of us to be whatever we want to be without consequences. Political thinking in general has been more realistic in acknowledging a need for active participation by citizens in holding back decadence and corruption. I'm not ready to concede that this is merely some variant of evangelical zeal, as Gray may believe, simply because it works from the assumption that nothing we do is irreversible. If liberals like Beha acknowledged as much, they might have less reason to worry about what pessimists like Gray think.

25 January 2019

The Venezuela gambit

President Trump does not love authoritarian rulers unconditionally. To prove this, he has endorsed the attempted ouster of President Maduro of Venezuela by that nation's opposition leader by recognizing Juan Guaido as its new leader. Guaido is head of the Venezuelan legislature and claims the authority to depose Maduro under the nation's constitution, but Noah Feldman at Bloomberg News finds little genuine constitutional basis for his action. Nor does Guaido have much if any influence over the Venezuelan ministry, which after a generation of Bolivarian rule seems firmly loyal to Maduro's party. Guaido either hopes that Maduro can be driven out by "people power," which seems unlikely given the president's conviction that he represents the masses outside the capital, or else he expects military intervention by the U.S. or the nearby countries that have also recognized the opposition as the government. I doubt strongly that any of them thinks that removing Maduro is worth a war, and an American war to remove him would seem to go against all of Donald Trump's foreign-policy principles. If Trump goes further than mere recognition, in defiance of warnings from Russia, it is most likely because he sees it in America's economic interest for a friendly regime to control Venezuela's large oil resources. Oil probably has a lot to do with Russia giving a damn about Venezuela, or at least more than any urgent affinity with another "authoritarian" government, and the current disagreement over Venezuela tells us more about the actual state of U.S.-Russia relations under Trump than any Democratic party conspiracy theory.

In any event, the Russians seem to be in the right so far if Feldman is right about Guaido's flimsy basis for his actions. Maduro has given every indication of being an idiot, but many have grown tired of the whining over "rigged" elections whenever someone like him wins anywhere. I have no reason to doubt that many still idolize him, wisely or not, while blaming the U.S. and others for the country's economic misfortunes. If Guaido has real evidence of election fraud or voter suppression that'll be another story, but otherwise it's not for others to judge if voters in one country keep electing idiots who run their economies into the ground. You know what they say about people in glass houses, after all....

23 January 2019

Globalization without globalists?

When I woke up a few days ago the radio was reporting from  Davos on the opening of the annual World Economic Forum, one of the conclave of evil in the minds of conspiracy theorists and anti-elitists in general. In the absence of several distracted western leaders, including President Trump, the theme this year was, so the radio put it, "globalization without globalism." A distinction was thus drawn between an ongoing and irreversible historical phenomenon and an ideology promoting it with alleged indifference to local consequences. The word from Davos was that the next phase of globalization would not or should not be a "top-down" process advanced by technocrats, but would or should be shaped and guided by grassroots input. I wonder how much this distinction owes to the distinction drawn by the President between the nationalist or patriot, on his side, and the globalist who is more concerned with how the "globe" in general is doing than in how globalization affects his own country. Advocates of globalization have often justified the process by promising that the opening of markets everywhere would lift billions of people out of poverty, or at least improve their standard of living significantly. That it would raise their own standard of living seemed more certain, but does that invalidate the argument or make it irrelevant as we enter a more contentious stage of the process?  Globalists might be vindicated in the long run, but politics increasingly driven by social media has no patience for that. Humanity should aspire to globalization at all levels, economic, political and cultural, but globalism should have a "liberal" corollary of the sort that capitalism has acquired in the developed world, ameliorating the consequences of change and encouraging adaptation by the many at the expense of the few who benefit the most. That would be preferable to the protectionist gamesmanship that disrupts globalization with questionable consequences. It might be preferable, also, to have a democratic movement that was both grass-roots and global, through which the voice of an actual global citizenry could emerge, but I wouldn't expect to hear much about that at Davos. The problem now isn't  necessarily that there's too much globalism; it may be that we simply lack the right kind.

20 January 2019

The populist problem persists

In the January 28 Nation historian Steven Hahn takes a try at addressing the populist problem in an article reviewing another batch of books on the subject. From Hahn's progressive perspective, the problem is that "populism," a term that ought to have progressive connotations (isn't it "people-ism," after all?) but is increasingly identified with xenophobia and other forms of bigotry. Hahn and other writers hope to find in the essence of populism something that can be detached from petty hatreds and directed at the only "elite" worth opposing, the capitalist class.

Hahn at least seems to recognize that this won't be an easy task because populism, as he understands it, is founded on a longing for community. He finds a conservative writer, Patrick J. Deneen more helpful on this score than some more hysterical liberal writers. Deneen is specifically a critic of liberalism -- his book is Why Liberalism Failed -- and Hahn is also a critic of a liberalism that has gone too far in the direction of individualism. Hahn appears to agree with Deneen that individualism has had the paradoxical consequence of amplifying state power and bureacratic dominion at the expense of community solidarity as individuals appeal above their communities for protection of a variety of rights, economic, sexual and otherwise.  Hahn departs from Deneen, however, in cautioning against the excesses of traditional communitarianism: "insularity, demands for conformity, hostility to outsiders, entrenched hierarchies organized around gender and race, and the infliction of so-called rough justice."

Hahn hopes to discover, if not help create, a populism that occupies a middle ground between the hyper-individualist  liberalism that exacerbates inequality and the old-school intolerant communitarianism that liberalism rebelled against. He never mentions socialism at all but it's clear that the populism he wants will be socialistic in its politics, creating stronger bonds of community through greater democracy, but liberal in its respect for personal diversity. The word for that might be "utopian" rather than "populist," especially if Hahn expects his ideal populists to affirm universalist values and extend their vision if equality worldwide. Populism, it seems, is always going to fall short of universalism. It always seems to exalt an "our own" that by definition is something different from humanity as a whole, and it tends to see any liberal, socialist or other movement of global scope as a betrayal. You hear populism, or a sort of populism, when someone accuses someone else of caring more for some outside that for "our own." The absence of that is simply egalitarianism and should be called that rather than "populism." I still understand why the word appeals to the left and why leftists want to claim it for themselves, but if it's still true that "vox populi vox dei," then populism will always be the voice of a jealous god.

19 January 2019


Democrats had their hopes up yesterday when a reporter claimed that Michael Cohen had told investigators that President Trump had told him to lie on a specific question. The special prosecutor himself has since disputed the BuzzFeed story, but as long as he hasn't specifically and absolutely refuted it many will  keep hoping that Trump's smoking gun has at last been found. I can't help wondering why they still bother. Donald Trump will not be removed from office unless Republican senators are willing to risk political suicide to make the more ideologically reliable Mike Pence President. Think what you will of the GOP, but they can't be that stupid. Voting to convict an impeached Trump would only guarantee the emergence of a populist-right party that might finally end the Republicans' 160-year reign as the official opposition to the Democratic party. The Democrats should understand thus as well -- but understanding it, why would they bother pushing for Trump's impeachment if they know he won't be convicted or removed? Is theirs simply a long game of tit-for-tat, to avenge President Clinton? That's really the most it can be, for if they hope that impeachment somehow will discredit Donald Trump and demoralize his movement, let them recall how much impeachment discredited Bill Clinton. If anything, the sort of toothless impeachment most likely to happen will only reinforce Trump's image as a persecuted man. Seeing Donald Trump as the Republican Clinton, however ironically, may put post-Cold War American politics in a more revealing light.

16 January 2019

'The deceitful dream of a golden age'

John Jay spent Federalist papers 3-5 explaining the need for American unity in the face of potential foreign aggression. In the sixth paper Alexander Hamilton returned to warn that disunity would make war among the smaller confederacies more likely. In making his argument he addressed a naive idealism still encountered in the 21st century. Opponents of the strong federal government advocated by the Framers claimed to see no reason why a number of smaller nation's, if it came to that, could not live in harmonious proximity. Their argument seems to have been that of the modern neoconservatives or neoliberals: republics dedicated to commerce rather than militarism have no reason to fight each other. Hamilton answers that "A man must be far gone in Utopian speculations" to believe that. "To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious," he writes.

"The genius of republics (say they) is pacific; the spirit of commerce has a tendency to soften the manners of men, and to extinguish those innumerable tumors which have so often kindled into wars. Commercial republics like ours, will never be disposed to waste themselves in ruinous contentions with each other. They will be governed by mutual interest and will cultivate a spirit of mutual amity and concord. [But] if this be their true interest, have they in fact pursued it? Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found that momentary passions, and immediate interests, have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy,utility or justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter?..."

Arguably, Hamilton paints himself into a corner with this line of argument. If human nature makes men warlike regardless of systems of government, what will keep a strong federal union from pursuing the same old aggressive course? All he can promise is that a strong federal government will somehow check the aggressive impulses of its constituent states toward each other by "extinguishing that secret jealousy which disposes all states to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their neighbors." How that will happen Hamilton isn't yet ready to describe. What's  interesting here nevertheless is the fact that Alexander Hamilton,  founding father of American capitalism, doesn't buy into the mythology capitalists made up for themselves, according to which homo economicus is God's innocent creature, his commerce by definition benign as the foundation (so capitalists would mythologize further) of that spontaneous order that is the best of all possible orders. Hamilton, and to an extent Madison as well, presumes something like an innate depravity in man requiring a governmental check that seems absent on both the modern right, which presumes the innocence of commerce, corrupted only by politics, and the left, which presumes the poor simply too good to get rich, but otherwise unimpeachable in their wants. From a modern or postmodern vantage Hamilton may seem misanthropic, but modern politics probably could stand a stronger dose of his realism.

14 January 2019

In search of American Fascism

In the December 2018 Journal of American History Princeton University scholar Joseph Fronczak observes that recent writing on the emergence of modern American conservatism rarely looks further back than the start of the Cold War in the 1940s. Fronczak wants to go back a decade or more and reconsider the extent to which fascism influenced American conservatives. He believes this question can be asked again in light of European scholarship that has repackaged fascism as "practice" rather than ideology. In other words, some scholars today contend that "fascist tactics" rather than any theory of the state advanced by Mussolini, Hitler or others are the essence of fascism. It's easier to find "fascist tactics" than fascist ideology in 1930s America if only, as Fronczak explains, because mass media offered images of fascism on display or in action that inspired diverse groups around the world. The most obvious examples are the different-colored "shirt" movements that emulated Italy's black shirts and Germany's brown shirts. Fronczak, however, focuses on a specific fascist influence on conflicts between capital and labor. In the past, employers hired private detective agencies like the Pinkertons to disrupt strikes, but under the influence of fascist examples in Europe, so Fronczak contends, American capitalists preferred to recruit grass-root vigilante organizations to go after unions and their allies or facilitators in the Communist movement. Some of the men who developed and promoted this strategy turned up later in Cold War conservatism, and in a final flourish Fronczak has one of his subjects singing the praises of one of the Koch dynasty in the 1960s.

Hostility to organized labor seems to be an irreducible element in fascism, however you define it, even among a working-class rank and file. As you'd expect, Fronczak makes much of capital's divide-and-conquer tactics. Anti-union or anti-communist vigilantism seems to have been driven by anti-semitism, provoked by the perceivedly disproportionate Jewish element in communist organizations, and plain old racism, in reaction to union efforts to unite all races against capital as the common enemy. But there seems to be more to the cultural aspect of this proto or crypto-fascism than that, as Fronczak points out. Guided by a hostile contemporary observer, Reinhold Niebuhr, he notes that the communistic tinge of Depression-era union organizing alarmed the vigilante constituency because of its challenge to property rights. Niebuhr saw the anti-union reaction as self-consciously "petty bourgeois" rather than "working class," defined by their commitment to an individualism ultimately validated by property ownership and thus obviously threatened by Marxism. Leaving the concept of individualism out of it, since that doesn't exactly gel with any degree of fascism, it's probably worth mentioning that a belief that property ownership is always within reach through hard work seems like a defining characteristic of any culture hostile to "collectivism" or class-based politics, while proletarian pessimism on that score may be a precondition for mass Marxism. Whether that antipathy to communism alone makes anyone a potential fascist remains unclear, especially since fascism, seen either as idea or practice, is little concerned with the private lives of individuals. What makes those vigilante bands fascistic in Fronczak's analysis is their willingness to band together and, implicitly above all, to accept leadership.

If we're looking for American fascism in some larval state, we should listen for an echo of a Frenchman cited by Fronczak who accepts the "fascist" label if that means "wanting to be commanded firmly by men deserving of leadership." Some people claim to hear that in the Trump movement today, but I'm not sure if many Americans are that desperate to be commanded firmly by anybody yet. Let's make a possibly important distinction, however. You don't expect to hear someone say, "I need a leader," though when you do it usually means that person is ripe for a cult guru rather than a dictator. Other people might never say "I need a leader" in those exact words, but if they say "we need a leader" in a way that implies that you need a leader, both individually and collectively, that might be the beginning of something for scholars to study.

11 January 2019

What the President could have said

The impasse over President Trump's demand for a wall along the Mexican border has brought the U.S. to the brink of a national emergency. The President refuses to fund the government until Congress appropriates money for his wall, while the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives refuses, as is its prerogative, to fund the wall. The debate has focused on whether a wall can be effective or whether it's really necessary, but the real sticking point, despite whatever Democratic leaders say, is that as far as their primary base is concerned, Trump's proposal is a "racist wall" and an affront to their idea of America. Trump can try to cite support for stronger border barriers on the part of past Democrats, but their motives are presumed to be different and definitely less sinister than his. He could have done something to change the narrative during his recent national address, simply by citing the number of Mexicans or Central Americans who've entered the country legally during his presidency to refute the inference that a wall means that Hispanics aren't welcome. He didn't, however, maybe because that's not what his supporters want to hear but mainly because he sees the wall as a national security issue and prefers to justify it with crime statistics that inevitably have been challenged. Such arguments annoy those who see talk of drugs, rape, etc. as a smear on all who want to cross over, but national security doesn't work on the "innocent until proven guilty" principle. Emphasizing our continuing openness to legal immigration may not have won over those who think that any limits are based on bigotry, but it might have swayed those who remain uncertain about what the wall means.

As things stand now, the Democrats may well want Trump to declare an emergency, since that would play into the "authoritrian" narrative without really putting anyone in danger. They definitely don't want to be seen giving in so soon after reclaiming power in the lower house. But just as Speaker Pelosi told Trump last fall that elections have consequences, so the consequences of the 2016 election remain in effect. Trump's veto power is unassailable and he's unlikely to be shamed into abandoning a defining item on his agenda. Compromise may be unpalatable but it seems inescapable. A wall may seem offensive to many but Trump's election is a mandate for it. We may as well indulge him in it until he's out of office. Then if the electorate is so inclined, you can tear down that wall.

09 January 2019

'A strong sense of the value and blessings of union'

After writing the first in the Federalist series Alexander Hamilton turned things over to John Jay, who wrote the next four papers. In No. 2 Jay tries to flip the script on those antifederalists who claimed that the more perfect union envisioned by the Framers was a dangerous innovation. The Framers' desire for a strong union was nothing new, Jay claimed. Instead, the opposition to the new Constitution represented a "new doctrine" that sought "safety and happiness" in "a division of the States into distinct confederacies or sovereignties." It was different from the "strong sense of the value and blessings of union [that] induced the people, at a very early period, to institute a federal government to preserve and perpetuate it." While antifederalists argued that the Articles of Federation were perfectly adequate for that original purpose, but didn't satisfy certain ambitious men, Jay argues that the Articles were a sincere but "greatly deficient and inadequate" attempt, under oppressive wartime conditions, to do what the Constitution would now accomplish. "Publius" rejects a false dichotomy between union and liberty. "Still continuing no less attached to union than enamored of liberty, [federalists] observed the danger which immediately threatened the former and more remotely the latter." They now were convinced that "ample security for both could only be found in a national government more wisely framed."

Jay acknowledges that there had always been resistance to centralized government and suggests that some who supported stronger measures during the Revolution have only now turned against the idea for reasons the author doesn't discuss. In general, resistance can be traced to "the dictates of personal interest," "a mistaken estimate of consequences" or "the undue influence of ancient attachments." Against those tendencies, Jay claims that political union is the natural and desirable consequence of the rise of "one united people" on a continent ideal for commerce. Jay is no multiculturalist on this evidence, nor does he buy the idea that different social or economic arrangements make different cultures.  For the most part, however, he's arguing with a straw man here, since I'm not aware of many antifederalists advocating the breakup of the United States. Some did believe, however, that differences among the states or regions of the country had to be respected and defended in a way that implicitly limited central (not to mention popular) power. At this point Jay isn't ready to acknowledge such concerns, but he does remind his readers that the Constitution isn't being forced down anyone's throat. "The plan is only recommended, not imposed," he writes, and time remains for "that sedate and candid consideration which the magnitude and importance of the subject demand." Further reading will show to what extent "Publius" himself was shaped by such consideration.

07 January 2019

The Cyrus

Has a week gone by since the 2016 election without some columnist asking why evangelical Christian voters support the sleazy vulgarian Donald Trump? Michael Gerson's is only the latest example, and he isn't even up to date. That is, he seems unaware of the Cyrus the Great meme advanced by evangelicals themselves, according to which the President is a modern counterpart to the Persian king who liberated the Hebrews from their Babylonian captivity. In gratitude, scripture proclaims  that Cyrus, though an infidel, was annointed by God to do His work. Just last week a New York Times op-ed writer commented on the Cyrus meme, which was spread by The Trump Prophecy, an electioneering 2018 documentary recounting how, in 2011, a fireman read the relevant chapter of Isaiah in an inspired feat of bibliomancy. Since it was the 45th chapter, it was assumed to refer to the 45th President, Barack Obama's successor. The op-ed writer goes too far, I think, in inferring authoritarian tendencies among Trumpish evangelicals when the truth is probably simpler and closer to what Gerson perceives. Trump is a modern-day Cyrus not because evangelicals want a king but because "He is the enemy of their enemies [and] is willing to use the hard-ball tactics of the secular world to defend their sacred interests." This disappoints Gerson, who sees it as akin to hiring Goliath as your protector when God himself preferred a  polar opposite in David. Trumpish evangelicals espouse the wrong kind of Christianity as far as Gerson, apparently a social-gospel man, is concerned. They follow the "partial and hypocritical Christianity" condemned by Frederick Douglass rather than the "pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity" practiced by Douglass and Gerson. The adjectives are debatable. The real difference, as I suspect is often the case with self-proclaimed Christian patriots in allegedly Christian nations, is that such people really see themselves as Israelites rather than Christians. Interpret that as you please.

A crazy rich Asian?

At least 25 people so far have declared their candidacies for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, according to the Albany Times Union. One of them is the entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who made a campaign appearance in Latham on January 6. Yang has been running a nonprofit called Venture For America since selling a test-prep company to the industry leader back in 2009. His main issue is addressing the consequences of automation for American workers. Convinced that technological unemployment drove many Americans to Trumpism and worried that more sectors of the economy are subject to the same trend, Yang offers a partial solution in the form of guaranteed income. He's not the first to propose that, and he presumably doesn't expect people to live on the monthly $1,000 he proposes as a "Freedom Dividend." What Yang seems to really depend on is the support of Asian-American Democrats should he make it to the March 2020 Democratic primary. I'm not sure if Asians in general are as likely to vote for ethnic pride as he hopes, especially when offered someone with no political experience at a time when Democrats still hold that against the current President. In any event, Yang is realistic enough to realize that Iowa is an earlier and arguably higher hurdle for him. He's already made several visits to the home of the famous caucus and calculates that he'll need 40,000 votes there, or more than 20% of the expected turnout, to get real attention from the national media. Unfortunately, each journey to Iowa and each appearance before potential donors is most likely nothing more than an ego trip for Yang, and he, unlike some people, lacks the celebrity to make his ego of interest to the common voter. We may be in an age now when it's just as damning not to have ever been a TV star as it might be never to have held elected office. Celebrity Apprentice might have been the perfect platform for such a candidate as this.

05 January 2019

The making of an American idol

A profile of TV producer Mark Burnett in the January 7 New Yorker understandably focuses on the production of The Apprentice, the "reality" show that reinvigorated Donald Trump's celebrity a decade or so ago. The contents-page blurb credits Burnett with "rehabilitating" Trump's image at a time when the developer was in relative disrepute. Patrick Radden Keefe shows some of the editorial manipulation that helped make that happen. He explains that, contrary to what I'd heard, Trump himself did decide who got "fired" after each episode, but often had "little grasp of who had performed well" and who hadn't. It thus fell on the producers to vindicate Trump's sometimes-whimsical choices by "scouring hundreds of hours of footage to emphasize the few moments when the exemplary candidate might have slipped up." This practice of "editing in reverse" strikes me as a more "authoritarian" practice than anything Trump's team has done in the White House, though one Apprentice staffer notes with inevitable snark that "they're doing the same thing" there now. If so, it is less effective now, if only because news is a less controlled environment, and not just one producer. Back then, Trump himself was amazed at the results. He told Esquire that people who had seen him as an "ogre" now liked him, while his publicist told a biographer that "people on the street embraced him" -- literally?-- and "there was none of the old mocking." The show had succeeded in making Trump appear authoritative and decisive, thanks to the magic of editing, with all the consequences we sed today.

03 January 2019

'A torrent of angry and malignant passions will be let loose'

Part of my reading program for the new year is another go at the Federalist Papers. I've started them before but never forced my way all the way through the series. It's been a while since I tried,so the prophetic tone of the very first paper, written by Alexander Hamilton, came as something of a shock. The series, with contributions by Hamilton,Madison and John Jay, advocated ratification of the 1787 Constitution in New York State. After conceding that there were men of good will and "upright intentions" on both sides of the impending debate, Hamilton pretty much predicted the course of American politics at its worst to the present day.

"To judge from the conduct of the opposite parties,we shall be led to conclude that they will mutually hope to evince the justness of their opinions, and to increase the number of their converts by the loudness of their reclamation and by the bitterness of their invectives," he wrote, "An enlightened zeal for the energy and efficiency of government will be stigmatized as the offspring of a temper fond of despotic power and hostile to the principles of liberty. An over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people, which is more commonly the fault of the head  than of the heart, will be represented as mere pretense and artifice, the stale bait for popularity at the expense of public good. It will be forgotten ... that jealousy is the usual concomitant of violent love, and that the noble enthusiasm of liberty is too apt to be infected with a spirit of narrow and illiberal distrust."

But while Hamilton concedes some good intentions to the faction opposed to the stronger government mandated by the Constitution, he warns that "it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty," while "a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people [at the expense of effective government] than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter."

That last bit may ring true for those today who see the greatest threat to democracy in those proclaiming their loyalty to limited government. It reminds me a little of the neocon drive for world domination to prevent the rise of tyrants, but others may draw different associations. Hamilton claims that republics often have fallen victim to men "who have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people," but leaves unclear whether he thinks such men sincere in their "obsequious" zeal or not. If jealousy of rights leads to suppressing the rights of others, what would that say about the preoccupation with rights among Americans in general? Perhaps Hamilton and his collaborators will clarify things a little later....

02 January 2019

What is liberalism?

One day after making my resolution to study political philosophy more closely, I found the latest New York Review of Books in my mailbox with David A. Bell's essay, "The Many Lives of Liberalism." Bell reviews three recent scholarly volumes that attempt to reconstruct the history of liberalism informed by a new consciousness of its fragility at a time when, as the reviewer claims, demagogues on the right and left argue that liberalism is "too fragile" or "too weak" to protect ordinary people from disruptive forces operating on a global scale. Anxieties over illiberal populism have been added to recent progressive skepticism toward liberalism's usefulness toward egalitarian ends. The authors under review tend to draw distinctions between a still-useful liberal tradition rooted in continental Europe and a purported "liberal tradition" that proves to be a Cold War construct privileging Anglo-American concerns with property rights and laissez faire principles. Continental liberalism has its flaws, particularly an elitist sense of entitlement to instruct the masses, but thanks to the French Revolution it's more firmly committed to equality, at least when it comes to political participation, as a primary goal.

On another front, a "preservationist" tradition premised on inalienable human rights butts constantly against the Hobbesian view that political citizenship requires a surrender of "natural rights," if not unconditional and perpetual submission to authority. Bell himself seems most pleased with Dan Edelstein's project, which describes a consistent assertion of transnational human rights dating back to the Middle Ages, including the French Physiocratic thinkers who so greatly influenced Jefferson. The egalitarian implications of all this are limited by an equally consistent commitment to property rights, but Bell's own ideal allows for a balance of imperatives, combining economic liberty with a strong safety net. These books leave him satisfied that "the liberal ideal has a much richer, deeper, more varied past than [readers] might imagine from accounts that stress only the supposed Anglo-American path to 'classical' liberalism." His account leaves me wondering what liberals, classical or continental, think about why political societies exist and how that informs their range of beliefs in what individuals should expect from political life or should expect to do as citizens. Beyond a presumed agreement that leaders shouldn't abuse power and should be called out without consequences when  they do, it's hard -- forgivably so in this case -- to understand whether liberalism says anything coherent about the obligations upon individuals inherent in citizenship. That's why I think it important to go back to the question of why individuals call political entities into being and whether liberalism as we or others know it has anything actually to do with that fundamental decision.

01 January 2019


I haven't written much lately. That's partly because I don't want to be just another blogger posting "DAE Trump is dumb" or something to that effect, but it's also because I've come to think that each day's provocations too easily distract us from deeper flaws in our political culture. Both the stupidities of Trumpism and the hysteria among the opposition point to potential critical failures in American political thinking as a whole. In what I have written I've touched glancingly on some of these flaws, including the ad hominem element of liberalism in both its conservative and progressive forms and liberalism's degeneration into pathologically individualist and impotently hedonist forms. What I haven't done is say much about how democratic republican politics should or at least can work. To do that would require more grounding in political philosophy, and for a while I've felt the need for a refresher course. My plan for 2019, then, is to reacquaint myself with some key texts and consider others for the first time, with an eye on how past insights might clarify today's confusion and, more importantly, what it really means to be a citizen as well as -- if not rather than -- an individual. In an era of anxiety over creeping authoritarianism, we need to think harder about how much leadership we can stand and how much we should accept, and about finding the right balance between skepticism and faith in leaders -- or, if you prefer, the balance between skepticism and faith in politics itself. I make no guarantees going in, but I promise to do what I can this year to make this project worth your time and mine.