State of the Union

Rousseau’s American Heirs Fight the Final Prejudice

Joseph Bottom’s An Anxious Age has stirred up quite a debate over his thesis that progressivism has recently switched from setting reason and science as first principles toward eradicating prejudicial beliefs as its prime ideological imperative. The left has always had an attraction to both, however. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romanticism has always challenged Rene Descartes’ rationalism, but after the bureaucratization and failures of the rationalized welfare state in recent times, the former’s aesthetic critique has become the more attractive argument for modern progressives.

What both strains of leftism had in common was repulsion against tradition. A typical dictionary defines prejudice as “a preconceived opinion that is not based upon reason or actual experience.” Descartes and the rationalists objected to tradition’s irrationality, and Rousseau and the romantics objected to tradition’s experience. It is curious that both rationalist and emotive progressivism first validated prejudice in the movement’s early eugenicist days. The progress in progressivism was from traditional prejudicial socialization to future reason, or social accord, or hopefully to both. So it is not surprising that prejudice became their common political target.

In the postwar United States, legal segregation in public schools and accommodations was outlawed, and the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 promoted equal treatment and voting. Antidiscrimination regulations were extended to sex and ethnicity. Feminism won the right to vote in 1920, an Equal Pay Act in 1963, no-fault divorce in the 1970s, sexual harassment protection in 1986, and guaranteed free contraception in 2010. With the 2013 Supreme Court decisions, same sex marriages were granted equal federal benefits with traditional marriages and it appeared that the same thinking would also void traditional state marriage laws. The Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 set criminal penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person.

This year’s 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act illuminates the value of shifting to a focus on the elimination of prejudice. Yes, the left itself questions these laws’ success, complaining that racism, sexism, and gender discrimination are still rampant—but that is efficacious for the cause. Certainly, access to voting is now universally available and overt discrimination has decreased, although formal discrimination complaints have actually increased. There is a large African-American middle class. Women lag male average income but, when wages are controlled for time and type of work, they have mostly achieved equality of income. Never-married women actually out-earn single men.

But there is another side to the story. The ratio of black to white income in 1947 before the civil rights laws was 52 percent; this increased to 60 percent in 1969 by the end of legal segregation—but before the mass government antipoverty and affirmative action programs had effect. By 2012 the ratio was only 57 percent, no improvement in 40 years. Worse, black unemployment has been twice as high as that of whites ever since data has been collected. Racial workforce participation rates are equally dramatic. Some of these disparities were offset by government welfare programs, though in absolute numbers whites received more funds.

As Robert Rector has noted the greatest differences are in education and marriage, both of which are important social supports for earned income and employment. Most black urban education is dysfunctional, but marriage makes the biggest difference in poverty levels: the poverty rate for married blacks is only 7 percent compared to 36 percent for unmarried blacks and 22 percent for unmarried whites. Yet, to the left traditional marriage seems part of the problem. Indeed, fighting prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered citizens by traditionalists is at the top of progressivism’s present agenda. Read More…

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Russia’s Blunder Needs a Realist’s Response

Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo  (released)
Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (released)

It is amazing to find the Obama administration, the old George W. Bush foreign-policy hands, and the foreign-policy establishment all generally shocked at Vladimir Putin’s aggressiveness in manipulating Crimea’s breakaway from Ukraine and incorporation into Russia. Putin is restarting the Cold War, they cry. Why would he do such a thing? He is either evil or crazy.

Actually, this should have been anticipated. Who says so? The last Republican secretary of defense—for President Bush and later for Barack Obama—says so, and he said it long before the troops moved in.

By happenstance, after an earlier quick-read of Robert Gates’s Duty, I happened to be re-reading his book closely during the present crisis and came upon the following passage, in which Gates is reflecting back to the Bush administration:

What we did not realize then was that the seeds of future trouble were already sprouting. There were early stirrings of future great power rivalry and friction. In Russia, resentment and bitterness were taking root as a result of economic chaos and corruption that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as well as the incorporation of much of the old Warsaw Pact into NATO by 2000. No Russian was more angered than Vladimir Putin, who would later say that the end of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical event of the twentieth century …

Meanwhile other nations increasingly resented our singular dominance and our growing penchant for telling others how to behave, at home and abroad. The end of the Soviet threat also ended the compelling reasons for many countries to automatically align with the United States or do our bidding for their own protection. Other nations looked for opportunities to inhibit our seeming complete freedom and determination to shape the world as we saw fit. In short, our moment alone in the sun, and the arrogance with which we conducted ourselves in the 1990s and beyond as the sole surviving superpower caused widespread resentment … rekindled and exacerbated by President Bush’s “You are either with us or against us” strategy as we launched the war on terror … The invasion of Iraq … Abu Ghraib … Guantanamo and “enhanced interrogations” all fueled further anti-American feeling.

The average American would be shocked that so much of the world looks at the U.S. in this manner. We are the good guys. We always act with the best motives. We want freedom, democracy, and prosperity for all. We sacrifice for the rest of the world: look at the toll of lives, wounds, and treasure from Afghanistan and Iraq alone. How could the rest of the world be so ungrateful?

It is always helpful to see the world from another point of view. It is clear Putin has a very different one, as he spelled out in detail in his 40-minute March 18 speech announcing that he would accept the result of the Crimean plebiscite to leave Ukraine and rejoin Russia. He started his remarks 1,000 years ago with the baptism of his namesake Vladimir in Crimea and the conversion of Russia to Christianity. Catherine the Great incorporated Crimea into Russia in 1783, before the U.S. Constitution, and it remained Russian for 170 years. Putin spoke of Russians fighting the British and French in the 19th-century Crimean War. He mourned the thousands of Russians who fought the Nazis there, and all the war dead, civilian and military. He criticized the Ukrainian-born Nikita Khrushchev for transferring Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 at his own “personal initiative” and complained Russia should have gotten back the peninsula when the Soviet Union expired in 1991. It was not surprising that 90 percent turned out and 93 percent voted to join Russia. Read More…

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Ukraine and Syria’s Common Path to Resolution

When columnist Peggy Noonan asked, “Whose Side Are We On?” about Ukraine, the answer was obvious. The people in the streets of Kiev were demonstrating for freedom against an authoritarian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who was shooting them down. We Americans were all with the demonstrators for freedom and democracy. We knew it in our hearts.

Yet, Yanukovych had been in power only four years, elected in what had been called “an impressive display of democracy” by outside observers. In the face of the protests, he agreed to European demands for early elections and a more representative cabinet. But the demonstrators refused, forcing the imperious Yanukovych to flee in what seemed like a victory for the people. But was it democratic to overthrow an elected government? Does democracy matter here?

The first parliamentary acts of the new government under speaker and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov were to issue mass murder charges against the outgoing leaders and downgrade Russian from a second official Ukraine language. Governor Mikhail Dobkin of Russian-speaking Kharkiv region called the ski-masked Pravy Sektor demonstrators “fascists” for the violence of their demonstrations and the prejudice shown in their demands. The mayor of eastern Sevastopol resigned under pressure from Russian-speaking Ukrainians and his self-appointed replacement promised to resist the western Ukrainian government. Russia’s Vladimir Putin recalled his ambassador, cut aid, warned against oppressing the Russian-speaking majority of Ukraine’s eastern regions and then, in the guise of protecting his fleet, introduced troops into Russian-language-speaking Ukrainian Crimea.

Ukraine is closely divided between primarily Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers, as demonstrated in each of its razor-thin, passionate elections. The great majority of the demonstrators were from the Western-oriented Ukraine-speaking areas. Were the Ukrainian people as a whole or just its westerners the ones to support? It is true that the old Soviets coercively settled Russians in the eastern regions specifically to weaken the westerners, but they are there now and provide pretext for Putin if not support. A civil war would be a disaster for all, even Putin, whose own Russians could turn on him. While we are for Ukraine, Russia is the only nation state other than the U.S. that has sufficient power to cause a nuclear holocaust. Experts all agree the U.S. cannot do much militarily, and minor moves like U.S. sanctions often irritate without results. It is in everyone’s interest to calm things down even if our hearts are inflamed.

Our hearts speak in Syria, too. The U.S. government, the media, and probably most Americans consider themselves on the side of the Sunni majority rebels against the brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite/Shiite led coalition of minorities. He is not democratic, and liberty is rare, so the choice seems simple. But the effective rebel military units are radical Islamists. The moderates the U.S. is supporting are mostly in exile or ineffective, so much so that the U.S. supported replacing Free Syrian Army leader Gen. Salim Idriss with Abdul-Illah al-Bashir, an Assad defector. While top Washington Post foreign correspondent David Ignatius was still celebrating the replacement, the moderate military commanders of all five battle areas in Syria and nine other military leaders called Idriss’ replacement a “coup” and were breaking ties with the U.S. backed Supreme Military Council.

Meanwhile, the two top Sunni Islamic rebel groups—the Nusra Front (designated as al-Qaeda’s official group) and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (the previous official al-Qaeda)—were fighting each other; ISIS leader Abu Khalid al-Suri was killed the next day. At the same time, Saudi Arabia announced a new Syria policy leader, Mohammed bin Nayef, an aggressive supporter sending of more arms to fellow Sunni fighters on the scene now planning to send them antiaircraft and other heavy weapons. Read More…

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Protecting the Constitution from Executive Order

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

President Barack Obama has made it absolutely clear that he will rule by Executive Order for the remainder of his term. Republicans and independents have decried this as an unconstitutional power grab, a usurpation of authority granted by the Constitution to Congress, while Democrats are mostly too embarrassed to defend what they so strongly opposed under George W. Bush and Richard Nixon.

A conservative response should begin by observing that the U.S. Constitution is not as legally neat as the protesters suggest. While most folks focus on the uplifting sentiments of the Bill of Rights to liberty and property, the essential Constitution is all about power and how it is divided. The progressive myth of a legalistic constitution of rights is just that, a fable to cover its own view of political power. The Bill of Rights was not even part of the original document. The fundamental Constitution is outlined in its Articles, dividing power between legislative, executive, judicial, state and amendment institutions. But the boundaries between them are anything but clear.

Abraham Lincoln suspended judicial habeas corpus and controlled speech during the civil war without legal support from Congress and actual opposition from the Supreme Court. The succeeding Reconstruction Congress impeached the president for merely attempting to replace his own cabinet and when unable to convict him made his veto a nullity by strict party rule, rigged voter lists in the South, and effectively unicameralizing the Senate and House under a joint committee of Republican leaders. Andrew Jackson directly refused to implement a Supreme Court decision supporting Cherokee property rights, distaining the court to enforce its ruling if it could because he would not.

Isn’t the Supreme Court supposed to have the last word on these matters? In challenging President Bush’s attempt to replace regional U.S. Attorneys against Congressional opposition in 2006, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman said such differences between the executive and legislature must be umpired by the courts. He and his classmates were taught in law school that “the Constitution was what the Court said it was.” Bush replied he would not allow his Attorney General to enforce a judicial contempt order even if the court issued one and that was that. More recently, President Obama announced he would not enforce federal anti-drug laws against states with marijuana legalization laws and refused to deport certain illegal immigrants. Back in 1988, Congress passed a Civil Rights Restoration Act specifically nullifying the Grove City Court decision and in 1991 passed a civil rights bill overruling five Supreme Court decisions by name.

Even with their relative decline in recent years, the states are not without redress either, as the marijuana legalization laws demonstrate. States have created constitutional amendments, laws, and attorneys general suits to circumvent national laws and opinions on marriage, abortion, racial preferences, gun restrictions, the Real ID Act, Obamacare (by more than half the states), and many others. Indeed, many federal laws and court decisions are administered by state bureaucracies that differ in their interpretation and enforcement greatly, as Alabama and Massachusetts in fact do. Amendments to the Constitution have been passed on many critical subjects over the years and on several occasions the mere threat has changed federal policy.

Taxes would seem one area where the legislature must predominate. No taxation without local representation was the principle complaint justifying the American war for independence. Today the effective imposition of taxes by creative executive regulatory interpretation—such as the recent increase in fuel emission standards—is the rule rather than the exception. Judges have required state legislatures to increase taxes to upgrade schools for minorities or to redress other presumed shortcomings for all kinds of special interest purposes. A St. Louis federal court in effect ran the local school for decades. Since the Supreme Court has ruled that the Obamacare penalties were taxes, exemptions and changed regulatory requirements are in effect taxes passed by the health and treasury secretaries alone.

President Obama is by no means the first to govern by Executive Order. Read More…

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The Wall Street Journal’s Mythical Mideast Moderates

The media has missed the real story in former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty. While coverage stresses his criticisms of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and the White House staff, his main target is the Pentagon, about which he writes, “no one knew what anyone else was doing.” The Pentagon’s byzantine administration ignored many of Gates’s commands and largely defeated or delayed his proposals. This is a common concern amongst those serving in top government positions, but the Pentagon is the most stubbornly labyrinthine.

Concerning the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions, Gates writes, “We entered both countries oblivious to how little we knew.” He generally concludes we should be more cautious in getting involved anywhere in the world and that we should plan our exit from the very beginning. Duty imparts much good sense. When NPR asked for his reaction to the media’s handling of his book, Gates’s greatest regret was that quipped sound bites from ideological partisans had displaced discussion of its deeper issues. Foreign policy should be serious business.

Unlike much of the media, the Wall Street Journal is indeed interested in such a debate, and argues that today’s greatest foreign-policy peril is an American “retreat” from “Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond.” Its editors criticize President Obama and “Rand Paul Republicans” for wanting to “avoid the world’s conflicts with good intentions and strategic retreat.” Indeed, most Americans “want to forget about” the U.S.’s strategic obligations, despite threats from Sunni extremists igniting car bombs in Lebanon and capturing cities in Iraq, Shi’ite Hezbollah moving anti-ship missiles into Lebanon to threaten Israel, and Shi’ite Iran advancing toward nuclear arms.

“The dangers are that the violence in Lebanon devolves into another civil war or that Hezbollah provokes Israel into a response like the 2006 war,” while Syria’s civil war spreads to Iraq and the entire Middle East. Much of the blame, the editors concede, goes to “the heavy-handed sectarian rule of Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,” but they believe major responsibility rests with U.S. refusal to help the “moderate Syrian opposition,” and Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq without leaving sufficient forces to act “as a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s revival and Iran’s regional domination.”

The editors represent an important voice in the debate and deserve a serious reply. First, withdrawal from Iraq was not a partisan decision. George W. Bush set the troop removal schedule, and neither his administration nor Obama’s could successfully negotiate for a residual force against the wishes of Iraq’s new leaders (whom both administrations spent American lives and money to place in power). More importantly, in the thousand-year war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, who are we retreating from? Even moderates on both sides of Islam view their opposites as heretics. The U.S. began by supporting Shi’ites in Iraq against a Sunni regime, but in Syria supported Sunni rebels against a Shi’ite/Alawite ruler. Whose side are we on? Read More…

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How the Right and Left Are Revising “Tough on Crime”

America has 5 percent of the world’s population but one-fourth of its prisoners. Nearly one-third of Americans are under correctional facilities’ control at a yearly cost of $60 billion. Imprisonment has grown 400 percent over the past twenty years, the great majority for non-violent crimes. And two-thirds of criminals are back in jail for similar crimes three years after they are released. Our current correctional policy is a national shame and it simply does not work.

Both Edwin Meese and Eric Holder, the attorneys general for presidents as different as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, have criticized this status quo. So have uber-liberal E.J. Dionne Jr. and New Right founder Richard Viguerie. The American Civil Liberties Union and Right on Crime agree. Holder’s plea to limit sentencing for non-violent offenders can be questioned coming from one who is otherwise criminalizing new civil procedures and is blunt that his motivation comes primarily from the “shameful” fact that black male perpetrators receive longer sentences than whites. Likewise, while calling for bipartisan agreement, Dionne also emphasized the need for gun control and ending “stop and frisk” laws, a sure means to derail agreement. Caution is called for but the fact that both left and right have expressed doubts is significant.

Even Dionne concedes the crisis began in the 1960s when an “anything goes” leftist counterculture romanticized illegal behavior as glorious acts of self-fulfillment and independence, all beamed to the public by a sympathetic media and popular culture. A liberal Supreme Court responded with decisions expanding criminal rights, limiting confinement and the death penalty, and restricting police response. Crime exploded with murder and willful manslaughter doubling from 5.1 per 100,000 population in 1960 to 10.2 by 1980. The people responded by demanding a narrowing of rights and tougher penalties. The politicians complied.

The right became identified with “tough on crime” even though the leading voice of this frustration was President Richard Nixon who was anything but conservative in most of what he did, overseeing large increases in welfare spending, environmental regulation, racial preferences, and even wage and price controls. More principled conservatives supported Nixon’s program out of outrage that the Supreme Court had acted so arbitrarily by overriding Congress, the Executive, and the states without the least consideration of public opinion. As the right gained politically for supporting tougher policing and punishment, the more pragmatic left led by then Senator Joe Biden claimed equal toughness on crime by applying the death penalty and longer sentencing to many less violent matters. Tough-on-crime turned bipartisan.

Conservatives began having second thoughts as laws exploded to criminalize vast new areas of social life. Today there are 4,000 federal laws elaborated by 300,000 national regulations with thousands more at the state and local levels. Even lawyers do not know the law outside their own narrow field. Most of the additions were for nonviolent offenses, now representing 90 percent of federal prisoners. Violent crimes such as murder, assault, robbery, rape, and battery are widely acknowledged as the most serious, with the guilty being rightly placed where they cannot hurt society again. But imprisonment for non-violent crime is another matter—especially considering that a 2009 Associated Press study found that 60,000 inmates were sexually assaulted that year. Read More…

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The Shutdown and Sequestration: A Means and an End

Did the Republicans get their butt kicked by shutting down the government and delaying the debt increase last month? On substance, Republicans in fact won, although there is a lurking danger in the budget settlement that could snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

The real issue for the Democrats has always been the sequester. As the Washington Post’s Zachary Goldfarb noted “Democrats hate the sequester because it’s basically the opposite of their vision of domestic investment” where the government experts know best how to allocate society’s resources. At the beginning of the year, President Barack Obama, Senate Leader Harry Reid, and House minority boss Nancy Pelosi all set reversing the sequester spending cuts as Democrats’ top priority. Reid was especially incensed and even blamed the president and himself for being “too lenient” in being suckered into the deal in 2011 and this time won a pledge from Obama to keep the White House out of the negotiations.

With Obama president for three more years and the Senate still under Democratic control, Reid held the whip hand. What could conventional Republicans do? With the president refusing to bargain at all, what would have happened if the Tea Party backbenchers in the Senate and House had not gone ahead with the shutdown and debt threats? The whole focus of this year’s debate would have been on overturning the sequester and how the evil Republicans were punishing the poor by refusing to do so, reprising the winning theme used successfully against Mitt Romney. The compliant mainstream media would have happily picked up their favorite theme for their favorite politicians and made the Republicans look just as bad as they actually did on the shutdown. The polls would have ended exactly the same, only the spending cuts would be gone. Read More…

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