Saturday, May 7, 2022

May 6, 2022
A drift toward authoritarianism
    It’s well established that the decline of the Republican Party is not a recent development, but began many years ago.  A book published in 2018[16] adds to our understanding of politics on the right by demonstrating that anti-democratic demagoguery is not new to this country.
    The authors focused on the dangers of authoritarianism. They listed “Four Key Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior,” which are
    Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game
    Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents
    Toleration or encouragement of violence
    Readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media.[17]  
Later events, such as the assault on the Capitol, certainly have proved them right as to the dangers to responsible democratic government, and their list of factors describes politics on the right.
    Referring to “America’s authoritarian tendency,”[18]  the book discusses the influence of several divisive political figures from the 1930s through the 1960s: Father Coughlin, Huey Long, Joseph McCarthy and George Wallace, and notes that they had large, enthusiastic followings.  It summarizes that history in two ways: “extremist figures have long dotted the landscape of American politics,”[19] and, as to their reception, “Americans have long had an authoritarian streak.”[29]  The former seems clear enough, but I think that the latter may be an exaggeration.  However, the point isn’t important; the tendency of large numbers of Americans to follow irresponsible leaders opens up the potential for an authoritarian takeover, and the attempts by Trump and a wide swath of Republicans to overturn the 2020 election certainly reveals authoritarian impulses; some even spoke of imposing martial law. 
    What prevented an explosion of authoritarian influence in the past?  According to the authors, the “real protection against would-be authoritarians has not been Americans’ firm commitment to democracy but, rather, the gatekeepers — our political parties.”[21]   The advent and career of Donald Trump demonstrate the abandonment of the gatekeeping function by the Republican Party. “Democratic institutions depend crucially on the willingness of governing parties to defend them — even against their own leaders.”[22]  That hardly is the pattern with the current GOP; Trump dislikes the Commission on Presidential Debates, so the Republican National Committee has severed ties with it.[23]
    The authors refer to a pattern and practice of comity, respect and cooperation between Parties which existed in the past but has vanished.  Mitch McConnell’s declaration, shortly after the election of President Biden —  "One-hundred percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration”[24] — is a mild example of the present attitude. 
    What can be done?  The authors suggest coalitions of citizens nominally in different camps but having some common goals, willing to set aside disagreements on other issues.[25]  Such arrangements might succeed in affecting policies, and could foster understanding and open lines of communication that might be more long-lasting.  However, the draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, if it becomes a decision, may make abortion an unbridgeable issue, and may exacerbate the tendency of voters to divide into hostile camps. 
    I return to where I always end up when considering the sad state of our politics and culture: the key to a solution is leadership from conservatives.  There have been numerous shows of principled independence by Republicans, most notably from Rep. Liz Cheney, but there needs to be something approaching a complete break by a significant number or by a few with great influence.  Failing that, we will continue down the same path.  
<br>______________________
<br>17  How Democracies Die, pp. 23-24
<br>18. Id., at 35
<br>19. Id., at 34
<br>20. Id, at 36
<br>21. Id., at 37
<br>22. Id., at 188
<br>23  https://www.npr.org/2022/04/14/1092916451/republicans-say-theyre-quitting-the-biased-commission- on-presidential-debates
<br>24 https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/joe-biden/mcconnell-says-he-s-100-percent-focused-stopping- biden-s- n1266443
<br>25 Id., at 218-20

Monday, March 21, 2022

 

March 20, 2022

Another pandemic

Virtually every day’s news brings a story of gun-related violence, something which would not be tolerated, or even exist, in a rational society.  The muddled opinions of the Supreme Court in Heller and McDonald to the contrary notwithstanding, there is no general right to possess a gun found in the Constitution.  However, the Second Amendment has become an excuse for mass possession of guns (the U.S. has far more guns per capita than any other country) and irresponsible use (TSA reported that more people tried to carry guns onto planes in 2021 than in any previous year).[1]

In addition to the potential for irresponsible and felonious use of guns by citizens, there is a serious problem regarding their use in law enforcement.   It is necessary for police officers to be armed, at least part of the time (although that would be less true if the country weren’t awash in guns).  However, there are so many instances of irresponsible use of firearms by police that it is clear that more careful hiring,  better training, greater accountability, and more rational policies regarding the use of arms are required.  Laws enacted last year in Washington should help to address that issue in this state[2].

There is a third major problem created by our lax gun policies.  Increasingly, people and groups with extreme views are engaging in or threatening political violence.  The fact that they are, or easily can be, armed turns what might be ignorant political chatter into deadly menace.

There is little chance that the number of guns in private hands will be reduced any time soon, but some control measures are possible.  Restricting where guns may be carried is one way to lessen their menace.  The Washington Legislature addressed that issue in a bill passed last year.[3]  The Legislature made additional moves this year.   

Senate Bill 5078 provides: “No person in this state may manufacture, import, distribute, sell, or offer for sale any large capacity magazine,” defined as “an ammunition feeding device  with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition.”  The bill exempts sales, etc. to US armed forces, the state, law enforcement agencies and out-of-state buyers. It does not ban possession of such magazines.[4]

House Bill 1705, in the usual opaque language, addresses the “ghost gun” issue; it prohibits the manufacture or assembly of an “untraceable firearm” and, after March 10, 2023, and with some exceptions, prohibits “knowingly or recklessly” possessing, transporting, or receiving an untraceable firearm.

Small steps are better than none.

<br>_________________________

<br>1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/18/tsa-gun-seizures-airport-security/?utm_ campaign =wp_politics_am&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_politics&carta-url=https %3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F36582f2%2F62346e523e6ed13ade2c8cbb%2F5b65de00ade4e2779564ed94%2F11%2F59%2F62346e523e6ed13ade2c8cbb

<br>2.  See post of July 6, 2021.

<br>3. Senate Bill 5038, singed by the Governor 5/12/21.  See post of July 8, 2021.

<br>4. Here is commentary by the Washington Attorney General’s office: https://www.atg.wa.gov/news/news-releases/washington-senate-passes-legislation-ban-sale-high-capacity-magazines-historic


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

February 9, 2022
A new low
 
From time to time I’ve wondered how low the Republican Party can go.  There seems to be no bottom, but it certainly took a deep dive last week. 
 
The Republican National Committee (RNC) already had declared its continuing fealty to Trump by boycotting debates sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. Now it has adopted a resolution censuring Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger for their membership on the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
 
The document is entitled “Resolution to Formally Censure Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger and to No Longer Support Them as Members of The Republican Party.”  Included in its recitals is this, which reveals the Party’s detachment from reality: “The Biden Administration and Democrats in Congress have embarked on a systematic effort to replace liberty with socialism . . . .”  Another recital, referring to the House Republican Conference, declares the Party’s substitution of obstruction for policy: “The Conference must design the strategy to stop the radical Biden agenda . . . .”
 
Why must they be censured?  “The Conference must not be sabotaged by Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger[,] who have demonstrated, with actions and words, that they support Democrat efforts to destroy President Trump more than they support winning back a Republican majority in 2022 . . . .”  (Note the slur-by-ignorance reference to the “Democrat” Party).  To the RNC, winning a majority is crucial because it is a Republican “victory in November on which the future of our constitutional republic depends at this critical moment in history . . . .”  Trump Republicans: saviors of the nation.
 
What is wrong with the House January 6 Committee?  According to the Resolution, its “disregard for minority rights, traditional checks and balances, due process, and adherence to other precedent and rules of the U.S. House,” none of which are specified.  There’s more: the Committee’s actions “seem intent on advancing a political agenda to buoy the Democrat bleak prospects in the upcoming midterm elections.”  Of course, attacking the Committee isn’t playing politics.
 
However, the real sin is that “Representatives Cheney and Kinzinger are participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse . . . .”  Thugs who attacked police officers, scaled the walls of the Capitol, broke windows, rampaged through the halls and called for blood were “engaged in legitimate political discourse.”  This is the level to which a proud American political party has sunk. 
 
Based upon that incredible recital, the RNC pompously
RESOLVED, That the Republican National Committee hereby formally censures Representatives Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois and shall immediately cease any and all support of them as members of the Republican Party for their behavior which has been destructive to the institution of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Republican Party and our republic, and is inconsistent with the position of the Conference.
 
That a principled, patriotic stand by two Representatives is “destructive to . . . the Republican Party” rather gives the game away.   
 
The RNC, facing outrage, attempted to walk back its bland description of the rioters, “citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse,” by unconvincingly claiming that it referred only to those who were at thr Capitol peacefully, though nothing in the Resolution suggests that, and the House Committee is not “persecuting” peaceful demonstrators.
 
The Resolution recites that “The primary mission of the Republican Party is to elect Republicans who support the United States Constitution and share our values;” I think we can guess which, in the view of the RNC, comes first.
<br>______________________
<br>1.  https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/04/us/rnc-resolution-censure-cheney-kinziger.html

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

January 26, 2022 

Is Trump fading? What would it mean?

In an interview last year, Mickey Edwards, former national chairman of the American Conservative Union — echoing the observation by Andrew Bacevich in American Conservatism about the state of politics on the right — declared: “The Republican party really no longer stands for any kind of principles, conservative or otherwise.” 

Instead, Edwards said, the Party “seems now to be completely following the lead of one man wherever he goes, which is the definition of a cult. . . . And that includes denying truth, denying fact, denying reality.”  Republicans speaking at CPAC “are living in an alternate reality in which facts don’t matter, the Constitution doesn’t matter.”  Instead, “all that matters is, ‘Trump is for this, we’re for this’.”[1]  That’s the usual, and perhaps correct, or at least partly correct, interpretation of the Trump phenomenon.  It would describe the “Front Row Joes,” people who were such avid Trump fans that they would travel long distances to attend Trump rallies, and camp out in front of the arenas just to be in the front row.[2]

However, there is another possibility: the base has followed Trump not because he has a coherent program or because he is in any real sense a leader, but because he points in the direction they are already inclined to go, and re-enforces their inclination to take that path;  in effect he opens that path for them.  If he were to veer off course or fall behind, he might be abandoned.

This is not to say that Trump’s followers have a clear vision of where they want to go, or even that they all want to go in the same direction. They share an attitude rather than a program: a fear of social change, a mood of grievance over imagined disrespect or oppression, over loss of control or status.  This manifests itself in resentment toward liberals, “elites” and the government, and enhances any tendency to indulge in conspiracy theories.

There are some signs that Trump’s hold on them may be weakening.  He is in an awkward position as to vaccination.  He downplayed the risks of Covid infection, which resonated with the suspicious, anti-government mood of his fans, and with the hyper-libertarian attitude of many of them.  However, he wants credit for developing the vaccines.  Accordingly, he remarked at a recent rally that “we did something that was historic, we saved tens of millions of lives worldwide” and, in answer to a question by Bill O’Reilly, stated that he had received a booster shot. Some in the audience booed.[3]  That is a hint that the biases and fantasies of the base might be stronger than fealty to Trump.

That possibility was reflected in a rant by Alex Jones, reacting to an interview of Trump by Candace Owens.  In the interview, Trump again paraded his triumph in producing the vaccines: “I came up with a vaccine, with three vaccines. All are very, very good. Came up with three of them in less than nine months. It was supposed to take five to 12 years."  Ms. Owens tried to criticize the vaccines, but Trump cut her off.  Perhaps he was merely supporting his boast about producing the vaccines, but what followed is one of the most sensible statements he ever has uttered: “Oh, no, the vaccines worked, but some people aren't taking them. The ones who get very sick and go to the hospital are the ones who don't take their vaccine.  But it’s still their choice, and if you take the vaccine, you're protected. Look, the results of the vaccine are very good, and if you do get it [Covid], it's a very minor form. People aren't dying when they take the vaccine."[4]  His  only nod toward the anti-vaxxers was in the reference to choice.

Sensible comments are not welcome on the right.  Jones exploded in “an emergency Christmas Day warning to President Trump.“  Referring to the interview, he charged: “You are either completely ignorant about the so-called vaccine gene therapy that you helped ram through with Operation Warp Speed or you are one of the most evil men who has ever lived to push this toxic poison on the public and to attack your constituents who they [sic] simply try to save their lives and the lives of others."  He added, in more mangled syntax, “We're about to lay out the basic, incontrovertible facts that you told Candace Owens just a few days ago is nothing but a raft of dirty lies."[5]  It will be interesting to see what he produces, if anything.

Candace Owens has no more regard for good advice than Jones.  She dismissed Trump’s comments by saying that he is too old to know how to find the truth. “He comes from a generation—I’ve seen other people that are older have the exact same perspective, like, they came from a time before TV, before internet, before being able to conduct their independent research.” (We old folks can’t navigate our way to dangerous nonsense so, sadly, rely on science). She thinks “many people are horrified by his remarks.”[6]

Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has repudiated Trump for sounder reasons.  In a tweet, referring to Governor DeSantis, she said: “He was a loyal booster when Trump ran in 2016, but then he learned our president was a liar and con man whose grift was permanent.”  In an interview, she summed up her view: “Trump is done”.[7] 

Although Trump was not a leader in the strict sense, he was both a focal point and a spokesman for the angry and disaffected, His loss of the bully pulpit and his ban from Twitter has made him less visible, less influential and less able to keep the troops in line., even leaving aside his apostasy on vaccines.  A poll of Republican voters often had shown them more committed to Trump than to the Party.  At the end of October, 2020, the percentages were Trump 54%, Party 38%.  In January 2021 that dropped to Trump 46%, Party 46%, and now stands at Trump 36%, Party 56%.[8]  No doubt that reflects in part that he no longer is President but, as the trend of the poll is toward a greater gap, it also may reflect a degree of desertion.  Seemingly inconsistent is another recent poll: “In a hypothetical race of eight potential candidates, Trump leads 57%. DeSantis grabbed 12% in the survey and former Vice President Mike Pence placed at 11%. None of the other candidates reached double digits.”  That might show lasting influence or it might reveal the weakness of Republican leadership and, hence, shortage of alternatives.[9]

There has been mild pushback within the Party.  Trump had planned a contentious, self-justifying press conference for the anniversary of the January 6 invasion of the Capitol but canceled, apparently in part due to negative comment by Republican Senators.[10]

The mysterious “Q” of Qanon fame, reportedly has gone silent. Without Trump and Q to speak for them, many on the distracted right are attacking each other, either out of loss of focus or as rivals for leadership.  Some figures on the right, including Trump, have serious legal problems.[11]   Trump is  feuding with DeSantis, who has become the champion of Covid skeptics. 

Many Republicans reject Trump’s big lie about the election,  A few days ago Senator Mike Rounds of South Dakota, interviewed on ABC, said that, after investigating claims of election fraud, he found “there were none of the irregularities which would have risen to the point where they would have changed the vote outcome in a single state. . . .We simply did not win the election, as Republicans, for the presidency.”  Trump responded in typical fashion: “Is he crazy or just stupid? The numbers are conclusive, and the fraudulent and irregular votes are massive. . . . I will never endorse this jerk again.”  Perhaps Trump expected that his outburst would cause a terrified retraction; not so. Rounds responded:. "I'm disappointed, but not surprised by the former president's reaction," but "the facts remain the same. The former president lost the 2020 election."  Mitt Romney backed him up: “Mike Rounds speaks truth knowing that our Republic depends upon it. Republicans like Govs Hutchinson, Baker & Hogan; Sens McConnell, Thune & Johnson; Bush & Cheney; plus 60+ courts and even the right-leaning Wall Street Journal editorial page agree: Joe Biden won the election.”[12]

To be sure, there are those still in Trump’s thrall.  Senator Lindsey Graham suggested that he might not support Mitch McConnell for leader if he doesn’t bow to Trump: “If you want to be a Republican leader in the House or the Senate, you have to have a working relationship with President Donald Trump, . . . the most consequential Republican since Ronald Reagan.”   That was an interesting choice of words: Trump is “consequential.”  One possible interpretation: “he may be a fool, but we daren’t ignore him.”  Whatever Graham’s meaning, McConnell has to fall in line.  “I’m not going to vote for anybody that can’t have a working relationship with President Trump, to be a team, to come up with an America First agenda . . . .”[13]

Also, the Republican establishment is about to implement a Trump loyalty test.  Trump dislikes the Commission on Presidential Debates.  Therefore the Republican National Committee is considering amending its rules “to demand any contenders for the presidential nomination pledge to skip general-election debates” sponsored by the commission, even though, as an article reporting the change put it, the move “could potentially kill the next presidential nominee’s chance to reach voters.”.[14]

Despite such desperate tactics, the Trump magic may yet fade.  His tendency to attack anyone who doesn’t fawn over him may drive other Republican leaders away.  The faithful might dismiss indictments as mere politics, might overlook business failures and otherwise continue to be blind to his phoniness.  However, the basic fact about Donald Trump is that he always is interested in one thing only: himself.  At some point, that may register and, if it does, some of his followers may be open to more sensible arguments.  The end of his influence could merely cause a transfer of loyalty to another demagogue, or it might be the beginning of a return to political sanity.

>____________________

1.  Report of interview by Erin Burnett of CNN:

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ex-cpac-chair-slams-trump-conference_n_6039f9cac5b617a7e40dcf05

2.  See Michael C. Bender, Frankly, We Did Win This Election (2021).

3. https://www.cnn.com/2021/12/20/politics/donald-trump-booster-shot-boos/index.html

4. https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2021/12/26/alex-jones-slams-donald-trump-for-telling- the-truth-about-the-covid-19-vaccine/?sh=19dd998d2e3b

5.  https://www.alternet.org/2021/12/alex-jones/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9529

6. https://www.thedailybeast.com/candace-owens-claims-trump-defended-covid-vaccine-because-hes-too- old-to-understand-the-internet

7 https://www.alternet.org/2022/01/ann-coulter-tells-the-ny-times-that-trump-is-done-and-they-should- stop-obsessing-over-him/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9663

8. https://www.alternet.org/2022/01/a-buried-poll-result-reveals-a-trend-in-the-gop-that-looks-bad-for- trump/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=9695 and

https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/21182470-220027-survey-1-20-22-release

9. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/donald-trump-2024-election-poll_n_61ef9903e4b00e5113d68db7

10. https://www.politico.com/news/2022/01/04/gop-trump-jan-6-speech-526487

11. https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/01/03/trump-qanon-online-money-war-jan6/? utm_campaign=wp_politics_am&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_politics&carta- url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F35a9459%2F61d2edb59d2fda3f8b7db8e8 %2F5b65de00ade4e2779564ed94%2F16%2F48%2F61d2edb59d2fda3f8b7db8e8

12. https://www.alternet.org/2022/01/republicans-big-lie/?utm_source=&utm_medium=email&utm_ campaign=9638

13. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/01/13/sen-lindsey-graham-says-he-wont-support- mitch-mcconnell-senate-gop-leader-unless-he-has-working-relationship-with-trump/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F35bfa1e%2F61e05f289d2fda14d7eee417%2F5b65de00ade4e2779564ed94%2F39%2F72%2F61e05f289d2fda14d7eee417

14. https://time.com/6139417/republican-national-committee-presidential-debates-2024/



Monday, December 27, 2021

December 21, 2021
The elusive true conservatism
    1. The present situation
    Last year Andrew Bacevich published a book entitled American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition.  It is a collection of essays which seek to describe and to define conservatism as practiced in this country. His thesis is that “in the crisis that has enveloped twenty-first century America — a crisis made starkly manifest by Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president in 2016 — conservative principles deserve a second look. . . .”  Some might say that we “already have more than ample exposure to conservative principles, whether coming directly from Trump’s White House, from megaphone-wielding House and Senate Republicans, or from outlets such as Fox news, AM radio talk radio, and right-wing websites.” However, that is not real conservatism.
    “Donald Trump is not a conservative.  Nor are the leaders of the Republican Party over which Trump presides. Prominent GOP figures such as Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell seem to adhere to no worldview worthy of the name.”  The provocateurs in right-wing media don’t aim to promote conservative values, but to rabble-rouse.  “Indeed, allowing Trump, McConnell, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh, et al, to present themselves as exemplary conservatives testifies to the pervasive corruption of contemporary American political discourse.”[1] More to the point, it reveals the state of politics on the right.
    Bacevich states that, in assembling the collection, he “excluded altogether anyone associated with “what in the last quarter of the twentieth century became known as neoconservatism,” because its adherents “were never genuinely conservative.”[2]  Seemingly in contradiction, American Conservatism includes a contribution by Irving Kristol.  As the editorial preface to Kristol’s essay notes, he was called the “godfather of neoconservatism.”
    2. Origins
    In reaching back as far as 1899 for material, Bacevich  rejects one theory of modern conservatism, that it is, or began, as a reaction to the New Deal.  One of his contributors, Frank S. Meyer, writing in 1965, set forth that argument: “The crystallization in the past dozen years or so of an American conservative movement is a delayed reaction to revolutionary transformation of America that began with the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.”[3]  (It also is one of George Will’s theories in The Conservative Sensibility: “Contemporary conservatism was born in reaction to the New Deal and subsequent excessive enlargement of the state.”)[4]  Bacevich recognizes that reaction, although he doesn’t regard it as a new departure, let alone anything to build upon.  Referring to the New Deal and to the rise of Nazi Germany, he observes: “Broadly speaking, in each case, the analysis and prescriptions offered by leading conservatives proved  at least inadequate where not downright misguided.”[5]  
    He adds: “What little most Americans know about conservatives after World War II does not make for a flattering or reassuring record.”  He mentions Senator McCarthy’s “reckless crusade” as an example.   However, that dismal record was the result of “self-described conservatives violating genuine conservative precepts.”[6]    
    American Conservatism takes  this position as to origins: ”The modern American conservative tradition — roughly dating from the dawn of the twentieth century — emerged as a reaction to modernity itself.”
        . . . Modernity meant machines, speed, and radical change — taboos lifted, bonds loosened, and, according to Max Weber, “the disenchantment of the world.” [The last, presumably, refers to the decline in religious belief].  It induced, and perhaps required, centralization. States acquired power. Bureaucracies thickened. Banks, corporations, rail systems, and industrial enterprises grew to mammoth proportions. War became more destructive. 
            Modernity promised liberation and for many did improve the quality of everyday life. Yet it subjected the individual to immense and only dimly comprehended forces.  In exchange for choice, it demanded conformity. Modernity demolished tradition, or rendered it irrelevant. What remained of the past . . was drained of substantive relevance.[7]
    Perhaps because of this theory of early origins, or perhaps because of the condition of recent conservative thought, of the forty-four essays only four are from this century.
     Whichever starting point is chosen, one might ask why we should  seek to reinstate political principles so  reactive and, in the case of this version, reactive to developments more than a century old.   
    Another attempt to define conservatism, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind: from Burke to Eliot, goes back still further, to the eighteenth century, in finding conservatism’s roots in the writings of Edmund Burke.  However, both Bacevich and Kirk present conservatism as an enduring political position, not merely a reaction, and not the object of an antiquarian study, so let’s look at their attempts to define it.
    3. Principles of conservatism 
    Section headings in American Conservatism provide one list: “The Fundamentals: Tradition, Religion, Morality and the Individual;” ”Liberty and Power: the State and the Free Market;” “The Ties That Bind: the Local and Familiar;” and “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World.” 
    Bacevich offers another list in his Introduction. He acknowledges that “the thinkers featured in these pages frequently disagree with one another,” but “most American conservatives, most of the time, subscribe to a common set or propositions. . .”  They “center on” the following:
        * a commitment to individual liberty, tempered by the conviction that true freedom entails more than simply an absence of restraint;
        * a belief in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and the rule of law;
        * veneration of our cultural inheritance combined with a sense of stewardship for Creation;
        * a reluctance to discard or tamper with traditional social arrangements;
        * respect for the market as the generator of wealth combined with a wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on human values;
        * a deep suspicion of utopian promises, rooted in an appreciation of the recalcitrance of history and humankind’s recurring susceptibility to hubris.[8]  
    Whether most conservatives subscribe to that list seems to me to be doubtful.  The first part of the third item is certainly a core conservative attitude, but where are the conservatives who display a “stewardship for Creation,” i.e., a concern about climate change?  The fifth declares that conservatives believe in the market, which certainly is true, but where is their “wariness of the market’s corrosive impact on human values?”  The inherent tendency of the market to ignore such impacts calls into question whether it should be considered a core conservative principle.
    Although that list refers only to “the market,” the usual reference, as reflected in one of the section headings, is to the “free market,” emphasizing absence of regulation. (The index to American Conservatism has no entries for “market” or “the market,” and none for”regulation,” but many for “free market,” reflecting the typical conservative formulation).  I think we can agree that, in general, a market system works well — that is an empirical conclusion, not a political principle — but only if properly regulated. 
    American Conservatism includes a 1982 essay by Russell Kirk, which offers this definition of conservatism:
            First, co nservatives generally believe that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. . .
            Second, conservatives uphold the principle of social continuity. . . . Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. . . .  Burke’s reminder of the social necessity for prudent change is in the minds of conservatives. But necessary change, they argue, ought to be gradual . .
            Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. . . that is, of things established by immemorial usage . . . . There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity — including rights in property, often. Similarly, morals are prescriptive in great part. . . . In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for “the great, mysterious incorporation of the human race” has acquired habits, customs and conventions of remote origin which are woven into the fabric of our social being . . .
            Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principles of prudence. . . . Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. . . .
            Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. . . .
            Sixth, . .  To aim for utopia is to end in disaster . . . All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just and free society in which some evils, maladjustments and suffering continue to lurk. .  . .[9]
    It seems odd that Kirk’s formula is included in this collection.  True, American Conservatism is designed to describe a long tradition but also, presumably, is designed to persuade us that conservative thought is useful and constructive today.  As Bacevich puts it, “My firm conviction is this: to understand how the United States arrived at its present confused and divided straits — and perhaps even to begin navigating back to less troubled waters — the American conservative tradition offers insights worth considering. I invite readers of this volume to consider that proposition.”[10]
    Kirk’s list of characteristics was a serious attempt to define conservatism, and some of it deserves attention, but its sanction of prejudice under item Third, its defense of “orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality” under item Fifth, and even its casual attitude toward “evils, maladjustments and suffering” in item Sixth make it suspect as support for contemporary conservatism.
      Kirk reiterated his defense of social classes in The Conservative Mind. There he set forth another six-part list, one described as the “six canons of conservative thought.”  The third is: “Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes as against the notion of a ‘classless society’. . . . If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. ”  To conservatives, “equality of condition. . . means servitude and boredom.”[11]
    Contrast Kirk’s defense of orders and classes with this passage from an essay by Herbert Hoover:  the American form of individualism requires that “we keep the social solution free from frozen strata of classes.”[12]
    4. Inherent problems with the proposed definitions
    Kirk’s comments seem to reveal what many of us suspect about “conservatism” as often practiced, that it is a defense of privilege, influence and wealth.  “Liberty” or “freedom” appear over and over again in American Conservatism, and can be a excuses for that defense.  One of the essays notes the risk: Liberty “should always be associated with progress, never with stagnation and the mere maintenance of the social and economic status quo, It will be a bad day for any country when the idea of liberty can be plausibly represented as a screen for wealth and special privilege.”[13]
    American Conservatism presents a variety of views.  As noted, and as Bacevich concedes, they  sometimes are inconsistent with one another.  In a history of conservatism, that would pose no problem, but in argument in favor of adopting conservative policies, it seems self-defeating. Some of the opinions are in  direct opposition to one another.  For example the collection includes an essay by Murray Rothbard which is  a libertarian  attack on the state,[14] but William Buckley dismissively refers to “Dr. Rothbard and his merry anarchists” and “their fanatical antistatism.”[15]      
     Milton Friedman’s essay presents an idyllic view of the free market: “coordination through the markets is a system of voluntary co-operation in which all parties to the bargain gain.”[16] By contrast, Wendell Berry, discussing political “centers” and “peripheries,” says this: “above all, now, as a sort of center of centers, is the global ‘free market’ economy of the great corporations, the periphery of which is everywhere, and for its periphery this center expresses no concern and acknowledges no responsibility.”[17]  Here is Irving Kristol, commenting on the views of Friedrich von Hayak: “I conclude, despite Professor Hayak’s ingenious analysis, that men cannot accept the historical accidents of the marketplace — seen merely as accidents — as the basis for an enduring and legitimate entitlement to power, privilege and property.”[18]
    The last section of the book offers another example of inconsistency, presenting opposing views on United States involvement in foreign affairs.  The editorial prefaces to the essays describe Theodore Roosevelt as “an unapologetic imperialist,” label Charles Beard’s position as “anti-interventionist,” describe James Burnham as a “stalwart Cold Warrior,” and note William Pfaff’s “skepticism toward our nation’s enthusiasm for foreign entanglements.”  The age of the selections there is especially striking; of eight essays, only one is later than 1982, only two after 1957.
    An earlier book by Bacevich provides further inconsistency on this topic. The last section of American Conservatism is captioned “The Exceptional Nation: America and the World,” but his earlier work, The Limits of Power, is subtitled The End of American Exceptionalism.  Do we then take the section heading in the current book merely to describe an earlier era? The age of most of the essays might suggest that, but again: what becomes of the intent to persuade us that conservatism has any present application?  
    Also, one of the contributors to the last section is Ronald Reagan.  In The Limits of Power, Bacevich describes him as a faux-conservative.  That comment is in the context of Reagan’s domestic views, but there follows an extended criticism of his views on foreign affairs, culminating in this: “In Washington, confidence that a high-quality military establishment, dexterously employed, could enable the United States, always with high-minded intentions, to organize the world to its liking had essentially become a self-evident truth. In this malignant expectation — not in any of the conservative ideals for which he is retrospectively venerated — lies the essence of the Reagan legacy.”[19]  
    5. Another way of looking at conservatism
    Difficulty in defining conservatism and inconsistency of policy positions supports the conclusion that it ought not to be regarded as a political platform but rather as a general way of looking at public issues.  Rather than a program with specific aims, it would be more usefully regarded as an attitude toward values, standards, traditions, social structures, continuity and the pace of change. 
    Bacevich more or less acknowledges this, one page before his list of conservative propositions: “Conservatism is more akin to an ethos or a disposition than to a fixed ideology.”[20]  Even Kirk did so: “conservatism is not an ideology, but instead a mode of looking at human nature and society.”[21]  However, Frank S. Meyer took the opposite view: “This essay is concerned with conservatism as a social and political movement — not as a cast of mind or a temperamental inclination.”[22]
    An extreme form of conservatism as an attitude is William F. Buckley’s motto for his publication, The National Review, that it “stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”  However, Bacevich notes that the actual aim of the magazine was “not to stop history, but to nudge it in a positive direction. Much the same can be said about conservatism itself.”[23]  That, and not a dubious list of policies to be imposed on society, should be its contribution.
    A realistic conservatism necessarily involves the acceptance of change.  Kirk acknowledged that: “Burke . . . knew that change in society is natural, inevitable, and beneficial . . .”  The statesman’s duty “is to reconcile innovation and prescriptive truth, to lead the waters of novelty into the canals of custom.”[24]  More simply, he refers to Burke’s principle that “the able statesman is one who combines with a disposition to preserve an ability to reform.”[25]   This too militates against a list of political aims  such as limited government.
    Criticizing conservative thought does not lead to an acceptance of liberalism or progressivism, as currently practiced.  The present political situation in this country overwhelmingly is the fault of those on the right, but our general state of decadence and confusion is the result of attitudes across the spectrum. As to the right, the replacement of its anarchic behavior by genuinely conservative principles and attitudes certainly would be a step forward.
<br>_______________________
<br>1. <i>American Conservatism</i>, Introduction, p. xiv
<br>2. Introduction, p. xx
<br>3. “The Recrudescent American Conservatism” in <i>American Conservatism</i> p. 31
<br>4. <i>The Conservative Sensibility</i>, p.296
<br>5. Introduction, p. xv
<br>6. Introduction, p. xvii-xviii
<br>7. Introduction, p. xiii. The first paragraph offers a somewhat puzzling list.  Was expanded rail a bad thing?  Did opposition to large corporations become a core conservative principle?
<br>8. Introduction, p. xviii-xix
<br>9. “Conservatism Defined,” from <i>The Portable Conservative Reader</i>, (1982), in <i>American Conservatism</i>, pp. 9-11
<br>10. Introduction, p. xxi
<br>11. <i>The Conservative Mind</i>, Seventh Edition (1985). pp. 8-9. His comments on orders and classes, differences in material condition, many sorts of inequality, and the lurking of evils, maladjustments and suffering, taken from his book <i>The Politics of Prudence</i> (1993), are set forth again at https://kirkcenter.org/ conservatism/ten-conservative-principles/.
<br>12. “American Individualism” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 78
<br>13. William Henry Chambering, “The Choice Before Civilization,” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p.117
<br>14. “From <i>For a New Liberty</i>, in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p 397
<br>15. “Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p 18
<br>16. “Capitalism and Freedom” in <i>American Conservatism</i> pp.369-82
<br>17. “Local Knowledge in the Age of Information” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p.481
<br>18. ” When Virtue Loses All Her Loveliness’: Some Reflections on Capitalism and ‘the Free Society’ “ in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 390
<br>19. <i>The Limits of Power</i> (2008), pp. 36. 43
<br>20. Introduction, p. xviii
<br>21. <i>The Conservative Mind</i>, p. 490
<br>22. “The Recrudescent American Conservatism” in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 28
<br>23. Introduction, p. xvii
<br>24. <i>The Conservative Mind</i>, p. 130
<br>25. “Conservatism Defined: in <i>American Conservatism</i>, p. 7

Saturday, November 6, 2021

 

<b>November 5, 2021</b> 

<u>A misguided defense of the filibuster</u>

I’ve been hoping that prominent Republicans would come forward, denounce Trumpism and McConnell-style obstructionism.  Mitt Romney’s recent opinion piece,[1] devoted to defending the filibuster, is a disappointment, especially as it tends to support the latter practice.  He recites a familiar but erroneous story that the filibuster was somehow part of Senate rules from the beginning, but bases his defense primarily on an argument that its effect is to require bipartisan support for legislation.  There is merit in his claim that the best legislation is that which commands support by both parties, although he overstates the case: “Anytime [sic] legislation is crafted and sponsored exclusively by one party, it is obviously an unserious partisan effort aimed at messaging and energizing that party’s base.”  To the contrary, Democrats are, ineptly but seriously, advocating important legislation for the good of the country.

The Senator points out that Democrats have defended the filibuster when it served their purposes, and might regret abandoning it now.  “There is a reasonable chance that Republicans could win both houses of Congress in the next election cycle and, further, that Donald Trump could be elected president once again in 2024. Have Democrats thought through what it would mean for them for Trump to be entirely unrestrained, with the Democratic minority having no power whatsoever? If Democrats eliminate the filibuster now, they — and the country — may soon regret it very much.”  That observation seems to be an admission that Republicans can’t be trusted with power.

Four other considerations are missing from his analysis.  First, the filibuster once required a Senator to be serious enough in his opposition to a bill to be willing to speak at length; now the phantom filibuster is invoked virtually by saying the word, creating a situation in which much legislation requires sixty votes to pass.  The Senate was not so designed.  The second issue is that the filibuster is overused, used almost routinely: “There have been more than 2,000 filibusters since 1917; about half have been in just the last 12 years.”[2]  This so impedes the work of the Senate that “161 exceptions to the filibuster’s supermajority requirement have been created between 1969 and 2014, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Molly Reynolds.”[3]

The third problem is the unprincipled use of the filibuster by the Republicans, not in search of negotiation or compromise, or in pursuit of principle, but simply to obstruct. An apt description of the minority leader makes the point:  “Of course, this is the same Mitch McConnell who said of Mr. Biden, ‘100 percent of our focus is on stopping this new administration.’ . . . And the same Mr. McConnell who said that he would not confirm a Biden nominee to the Supreme Court if Republicans recaptured the Senate in 2022.”[4]     

Finally, requiring a supermajority in the Senate exacerbates its undemocratic structure.  Each State  has two Senators regardless of population.  The GOP’s ability to win senatorial elections in small states gives it numbers in the Senate far out of proportion to the number of people it represents.  As one study put it, referring to the recent election, “[T]he Senate will be split 50-50, but the Democratic half will represent 41,549,808 more people than the Republican half.”[5]  Another source estimates the current discrepancy at between “nearly 40 million" and 42 million.[6]  This means that legislation can be blocked not only by a minority of Senators but by Senators representing an even smaller minority of the people.

Senator Romney is a good man and is not a blind follower of the GOP agenda, but his essay tends to give that agenda aid and comfort.

<b>____________

<b>1.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/10/31/mitt-romney-filibuster-senate-democratic- institution/

<b>2. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/filibuster-explained

<b>3. Ibid.

<b>4. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/06/opinion/senate-mcconnell-democrats.html

<b>5. https://www.vox.com/2020/11/6/21550979/senate-malapportionment-20-million-democrats- republicans-supreme-court

<b>6. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/mar/12/us-senate-system-white-conservative-minority

Sunday, October 10, 2021

<b>October 10, 2021</b>

<u>Irrationality rampant</u>

Will Rogers captured the enduring character of our politicians on the left: “I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.”  There may be more potent prescriptions for failure and defeat than disarray and internal squabbling, but those will suffice.  The Democrats have those traits in abundance and, irrational as it would be, if they don’t get their act together, the voters may decide to put the party that hates government in charge of it next year.  Another of Rogers’ quips applies today: “Democrats never agree on anything, that's why they're Democrats. If they agreed with each other, they would be Republicans.”  Voters may prefer unified action, regardless of direction, to dithering accompanied by pompous declarations of high principle.  The return to sanity, responsibility and constructive policies promised by Biden’s election is in danger.

Democrats’ squabbling reveals a lack of clear thinking, but they are a model of intellect compared to the right.  There are many examples of truly idiotic statements by Republican leaders and hangers-on  However, much of the blather is tactical, designed to stir up the base.  Many theories have been advanced to explain how so many people could believe, or at least swallow, the nonsense and patent lies that pass for Republican policy.  None of the various analyses of the behavior of the base, for example reference to authoritarian personalities, seems to me to fully explain it.  However, whatever the mechanism, there is a  striking, and frightening, resemblance to the behavior of followers of dictators, notably Mussolini and Hitler.

I’ve discounted comparisons of the American right to fascism because it seemed to me that the term was being used too loosely.  However, a recent book[1] offers this brief description of politics in Germany and Italy, and the rise of dictators, which applies all too well:  “Out of the crucible of these years,” the early 1920s, “came the cult of victimhood that turned emotions like resentment and humiliation into positive elements of party platforms.”  In this mind set, Germany lost the war not because it was defeated on the battlefield but because it was “stabbed in the back” by leftist elements at home; the Versailles Treaty cheated Italy out of territory it was entitled to for its minimal efforts in the war.  Similarly, white Americans are being displaced, the government has been taken over by liberals who despise ordinary, hardworking people, other countries are stealing our jobs, and Trump lost the election because of massive fraud.  The politics of victimhood redux. 

I’m back to where I always seem to end up.  With a populace as resentful, foolish and gullible as ours, we can be saved only by leadership, and some of it must come from conservatives.

<br>___________________

<br>1. Ruth Ben-Ghiat, <i>Strongmen, Mussolini to the Present</i>, pp. 21-22
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day