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.