State of the Union

Will the Panopticon Save Us From the Police?

Since the shooting of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer over a week ago, the idea of arming police with personal body cameras to record their on-duty actions has gained fresh currency.

German Lopez at Vox wrote, “If police officers were required to wear body cameras, questions about their conduct — like the ones that have arisen in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting — could be avoided.” Derek Thompson at The Atlantic  noted, “Although military technology has arguably given law enforcement an unreasonable amount of power, there is another piece of technology that could help restrain the militarization of America’s police in the future: a camera.” And Nick Gillespie of Reason insisted that “While there is no simple fix to race relations in any part of American life, there is an obvious way to reduce violent law enforcement confrontations while also building trust in cops: Police should be required to use wearable cameras and record their interactions with citizens.”

The idea is to attach small, portable cameras to police officers’ collars or sunglasses that can then provide objective evidence to be called upon to settle any disputes or complaints about misconduct. The California city of Rialto has been conducting a rigorous and increasingly high-profile police body camera experiment over the past couple years, and has found results to exceed what expectations even their staunchest advocates could likely have had. As the New York Times reported a year ago,

In the first year after the cameras were introduced here in February 2012, the number of complaints filed against officers fell by 88 percent compared with the previous 12 months. Use of force by officers fell by almost 60 percent over the same period.

Officers had been randomly assigned cameras and instructed to turn them on for any encounter with civilians. The Times continued, “Officers used force 25 times, down from 61 over the previous 12 months. And those wearing cameras accounted for 8 of those incidents.” The Rialto police chief William A. Farrar observed, “When you put a camera on a police officer, they tend to behave a little better, follow the rules a little better … And if a citizen knows the officer is wearing a camera, chances are the citizen will behave a little better.”

Yet even setting aside the natural privacy concerns raised by strapping recording devices to every patrol officer circumambulating their city’s streets, it is worth raising a smaller, subtler, but nevertheless potentially significant concern: the increasingly intermediated cop. One only has to glance in the window of a local patrol car to see the sprawling array of screens, keyboards, and communication devices designed to link the officer to all the information they could need. The problem being, of course, that the most important information the common cop needs still can’t be pulled up within his car: the knowledge gained from building relationships with those in the community he patrols.

That relationship-building is a core component of a police officer’s mission, and may be almost entirely divorced from the work he can get done on his car’s mounted notebook computer. It also requires a certain amount of discretion, getting to know a neighborhood’s warts as well as its virtues. The conversations that give an officer an accurate picture of the seedy but not destructive side of his citizens’ lives could very well be more difficult or awkward should the policeman’s sunglasses be rolling film.

Mark Steyn, in addressing the more expressly dangerous and frightening distortion of the police seen in the militarization of the Ferguson PD, gave some interesting and relevant history:

To camouflage oneself in the jungles of suburban America, one should be clothed in Dunkin’ Donuts and Taco Bell packaging. A soldier wears green camo in Vietnam to blend in. A policeman wears green camo in Ferguson to stand out – to let you guys know: We’re here, we’re severe, get used to it.

This is not a small thing. The point about ‘the thin blue line’ is that it’s blue for a reason. As I wrote a couple of months ago:

‘The police’ is a phenomenon of the modern world. It would be wholly alien, for example, to America’s Founders. In the sense we use the term today, it dates back no further than Sir Robert Peel’s founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Because Londoners associated the concept with French-style political policing and state control, they were very resistant to the idea of a domestic soldiery keeping them in line. So Peel dressed his policemen in blue instead of infantry red, and instead of guns they had wooden truncheons.”

So, when the police are dressed like combat troops, it’s not a fashion faux pas, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of who they are.

When the police are moving around dressed as Google Glassholes, might they also be living a misunderstanding? Body cameras may ultimately be necessary to protect us from the police, and the police from themselves. But the Benthamite logic that keeps our present-day peace will be fundamentally different from that governing the polis-protectors of Sir Robert Peel.

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Hawks Call for Cuts to Israel Military Aid

As Israel ramps up its ground invasion and bombing campaign against Gaza, one might think that the Jewish state’s fiercest defenders here in the United States would be resolutely holding the line against any suggestion of reducing support to the IDF. Instead, Eli Lake reported this morning, many of Israel’s most prominent hawkish supporters are increasingly open to the idea of reducing or eliminating the billions of dollars in military aid that the United States provides Israel every year.

They have not changed their feathers, to be sure, but rather see a phase-out of aid to be in Israel’s best interests as they understand them. Noah Pollak, who runs the Emergency Committee on Israel, said, “The experience of the Obama years has sharpened the perception among pro-Israel Americans that aid can cut against Israel by giving presidents with bad ideas more leverage than they would otherwise have.”

Elliott Abrams, the former George W. Bush deputy national security adviser and “leading pro-Israel writer and policy analyst” told Lake, “My view is over time it would be healthy for the relationship if the aid diminished. Israel should be less dependent on American financial assistance and should become the kind of ally that we have in Australia, Canada or the United Kingdom, an intimate military relationship and alliance, but no military aid.”

A consistent theme in these arguments is a desire for Israel to gain greater independence in recognition of its changed position from decades ago. David Wurmser, a former Cheney aide who helped author the 1996 “Clean Break” memo that also called for terminating U.S. aid, “said the idea at the time was for Israel to graduate from being a ‘tenuous project’ to a ‘real country.’” Naftali Bennett, the right-wing Israeli Minister of the Economy, said last year that “U.S. military aid is roughly 1 percent of Israel’s economy. I think, generally, we need to free ourselves from it. We have to do it responsibly … but our situation today is very different from what it was 20 and 30 years ago.’”

Abrams noted that Israel’s booming economy (its GDP has doubled since 2000) and recent discovery of significant natural gas reserves has led to talk of a sovereign wealth fund for the country to invest its surplus moneys in, “but I do not believe a country that has a sovereign wealth fund can be an aid recipient.”

In many ways, these pro-Israel hawks echo the sentiments of skeptics of U.S. policy towards Israel, including University of Chicago professor John J. Mearsheimer, who wrote in TAC in 2009 that “Both countries would be much better off if the Obama administration treated Israel the way it treats other democracies, such as Britain, France, Germany, and India.” There are obvious limits to that overlap, as Abrams worries that, “Were there a reduction now, it would be attributed to administration hostility to Israel and be seen as a weakening of U.S. support,” and so doesn’t want to see a reduction in aid until a more friendly administration is in place.

But the desire for Israel to take a more independent, self-sufficient place among the nations seems to be shared by hawks and doves alike, and is at the least worth keeping an eye on.

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Labor Union Brings Community Bookstore to Heel

Sex isn’t the only thing that will get New York City’s liberals hot and bothered.

Chris Doelib is an independent bookseller who owns a bookstore in the Morningside Heights neighborhood next to Columbia University. As the New York Times detailed in Sunday’s paper, Doelib self-identifies as “an extremely progressive liberal,” who “hung photographs of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. above the cash registers … threw open his doors to local authors, provided a home for the Queer Book Club and created a weekly story time program for children (in English, Spanish and Mandarin).” Thus to many in the neighborhood, “he is a lanky warrior for the written word, celebrated for creating and sustaining an intellectual haven in the neighborhood for nearly two decades.”

Or he was, rather, until Doelib resisted attempts to unionize his store by firing several employees involved in the effort (saying they were management employees who illicitly voted in the union election).

Within a week, the Times reports,

…[m]ost of Mr. Doeblin’s remaining employees went on strike, picketing his two stores with the help of the union and its giant inflatable rats, and urging neighborhood residents to join in a boycott. The news spread on Twitter, in the local news media and on community email lists. Sales plunged.

The union in question, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, brought giant inflatable rats to their picket lines as they rallied a neighborhood against an independent community book store that had supported so many of its cherished causes over the years. The Times story then contrasts an expected lengthy, drawn-out battle between management and labor with what was in actuality a clean and speedy resolution.

As it tells the story, “something happened as Mr. Doeblin watched his staff protest, as he was peppered with questions while walking to work and as he fielded hundreds of emails and phone calls at his stores.” It wasn’t that he feared for the solvency of his business, or was frightened at the scale of opposition pouring out of the community he had served for so many years. Instead, Doeblin ”started to wonder where he had gone wrong.” After some perfunctory self-examination, he “agreed to rehire the four fired supervisors, provided that they agreed to give up their titles and return to hourly status for now. He gave a severance package to the fifth person he had let go and has agreed to recognize the union.” All this within a day of the giant inflatable rats being deployed outside his store.

As James Poulos articulated in his “Conservative Case for Unions,” ”unions wind up being the only way industrial workers can bargain effectively with the massive corporations that employ them. Unions exist because, without them, the path is opened wide to crony collaboration between big government and big business.” Given the enormous scales at which billion-dollar companies and trillion-dollar governments operate, unions can serve a vital organizing role in connecting wage-labor workers at similarly large scales.

An independent community bookstore staffed largely by Columbia University students, however, is the furthest thing imaginable from the circumstances that legitimate union activity. Here, the hand of organized labor was brought in to signal noncompliance with one of the tenets of contemporary liberal norms, so that the offender might be brought back around. And so he was.

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The Conservatism of New Urbanism

Responding to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry’s contention that the American left is intellectually exhausted, Noah Smith argues that one place liberals are stirring up new, progressive thinking is “the New Urbanists, which include prominent figures such as Richard Florida and a whole host of organizations working behind the scenes to transform American cities.” As Smith explains,

In the decades since World War II, the U.S. has seen relentless suburban sprawl, white flight and concentrations of poverty in inner cities. New Urbanism is looking to change all that, by encouraging walkable neighborhoods, adaptive redevelopment and less reliance on cars. Urban planning may sound like small potatoes, but it probably has more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs.

Urban planning can indeed have more relevance to our daily lives than most federal government programs (though urban planning is influenced by several federal government programs, it must be said). It determines the shape of our communities, and the patterns of our movement. Winston Churchill’s famous line that we shape our buildings, and thereafter they shape us may hold doubly true for our neighborhoods. And that is why New Urbanism is such an important conservative movement.

As Andres Duany, a founder of New Urbanism, explains in his book Suburban Nation, “The traditional neighborhood was the fundamental form of European settlement on this continent through the Second World War, from St. Augustine to Seattle. It continues to be the dominant pattern of habitation outside the United States, as it has been throughout recorded history,” whereas

Suburban sprawl, now the standard North American pattern of growth, ignores historical precedent and human experience. It is an invention, conceived by architects, engineers, and planners, and promoted by developers in the great sweeping aside of the old that occurred after the Second World War. Unlike the traditional neighborhood model, which evolved organically as a response to human needs, suburban sprawl is an idealized artificial system.

No less a conservative icon than Heritage Foundation and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich joined TAC‘s William S. Lind and Duany to present a report, “Conservatives and the New Urbanism,” in which they wrote,

On the face of it, it is hard to see why conservatives should oppose offering traditionally-designed cities, towns and neighborhoods as alternatives to post-war “sprawl” suburbs. As conservatives, we are supposed to prefer traditional designs over modern innovations in most things (and we do). We hope to demonstrate traditional designs for the places we live, work and shop encourage traditional culture and morals. This should not surprise us. Edmund Burke told us more than two hundred years ago that traditional societies are organic wholes. If you (literally) disintegrate a society’s physical setting, as sprawl has done, you tend to disintegrate its culture as well.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of New Urbanists are liberal. It should also be noted and acknowledged that, as Smith says, “Good ideas are good ideas, and identifying them with one team or the other just invites gridlock and polarization — which, as you may have noticed, we have plenty of these days.” But once we set Richard Florida’s “creative class” pablum to the side, it becomes apparent that when it comes to New Urbanism, progressives are designing better than they know.

Update: TAC will have much more coverage of conservatism, New Urbanism, and cities, starting next week, in a project funded by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Stay tuned.

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Can Main Street Poach Talent From Wall Street?

James Fallows of The Atlantic has been touring the United States with his wife, stopping in small and mid-size cities to try and get a picture of what is actually working in American politics. He says they’ve found it in the nation’s mayors, who are exercising a strong hand of leadership to bring the best insights of urban planning and town development to their constituents, and revitalizing even economically stricken towns like former textile stalwart Greenville, South Carolina.

He recently got a response from a small-city Midwestern mayor currently on military duty in Afghanistan, who told him that “There has been lots of good buzz and coverage lately about cities and mayors, but a story still waiting to be told is the quality of people coming to work for them.” The young mayor went on to postulate that “The kind of people who might have gone to NASA in the 1960s, Wall Street in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the late 1990s are now, I think, more likely than ever to work in municipal government,” because it is increasingly becoming a place where people of talent and industry can get things done:

In recruiting talented professionals, we have been able to punch above the weight of a small city like ours, drawing people with international careers in architecture, government, consulting, and engineering to work for five-figure salaries in a small Midwestern city willing to try new things.

Is this a side-effect of federal dysfunction, that public-minded young professionals are far less attracted to the Hill as a place to make their mark and now look to the local level instead? Or something to do with the economy? I don’t know, but I think there is something to this untold story of the kinds of people newly drawn to local civic work.

I’d like to see some hard numbers before jumping all the way on the small city optimism bandwagon, but as Fallows remarks, “We have not yet been to his city, but what he says resembles what we have heard elsewhere,” where many of the people they encountered were driven by “the chance to make a difference, and be part of a success” (emphasis original).

I wonder, too, how much the utopian shine of Silicon Valley’s start-up culture might start to wear thin on practically minded people of talent, and how far Wall Street’s quantitative gymnastics might fall from the sort of meaningful work that can drive late nights for a purpose past the paycheck. Town renewal can be every bit as intellectually stimulating as credit-default swaps and big firm lawyering, with bookcases of accumulated zoning codes in need of a dramatic revamp customized to the needs of each place. That’s not even to mention the tremendous creativity and human capital needed to cultivate established interests while courting new businesses with, as Fallows puts it, “a conception of the town—people think we’re hicks, but we know we’ve developed something great—that depends on a series of specific achievements.”

So even if small cities and large towns can’t end up poaching quantitative whiz-kids from Wall Street, or steal blistering coders from Palo Alto, they may actually be able to do one better: attract great town managers.

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Hobby Lobby Has Won, But Have We?

Hobby Lobby has won. The big box craft store’s lawsuit challenging the contraceptive mandate regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in its implementation of Obamacare had become seen as high-stakes test case determining the future balance between the religious liberty of conservative Christians and the mandates of sexual modernity. When the case was first heard back in March, Patrick Deneen weighed in here at TAC with a decidedly unorthodox argument. To Deneen, Christians relying on a big box retailer to represent them against a secular leviathan signaled “the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the ‘utopia’ of our modern economic disembedding”:

The dominant narrative—religious liberty against state-mandated contraception—altogether ignores the economic nature of the case, and the deeper connections between the economy in which Hobby Lobby successfully and eagerly engages and a society that embraces contraception, abortion, sterilization, and, altogether, infertility. Largely ignored is the fact Hobby Lobby is a significant player in a global economy that has separated markets from morality. Even as it is a Christian-themed brand, it operates in a decisively “secular” economic world. …

Hobby Lobby—like every chain store of its kind—participates in an economy that is no longer “religious” or even “moral.” That is, it participates in an economy that arose based on the rejection of the subordination of markets embedded within, and subject to, social and moral structures. This “Great Transformation” was detailed and described with great acuity by Karl Polanyi in his masterful 1944 book of that title. … As he succinctly described this “transformation,” previous economic arrangements in which markets were “embedded” within moral and social structures, practices, and customs were replaced by ones in which markets were liberated from those contexts, and shorn of controlling moral and religious norms and ends. …

How delicious he would doubtless find the irony of a “religious corporation” seeking to push back against the State’s understanding of humans as radically autonomous, individuated, biologically sterile, and even hostile to their offspring. For that “religious corporation” operates in an economic system in which it has been wholly disembedded from a pervasive moral and religious context. Its “religion” is no less individuated and “disembedded” than the conception of the self being advanced by the State. …

I hope Hobby Lobby wins its case. But we should not deceive ourselves for a minute that what we are seeing is the contestation between a religious corporation and a secular State. We are seeing, rather, the culminating absurdity of what Polanyi called the “utopia” of our modern economic disembedding—the absurdity of a chain store representing the voice of religion in the defense of life amid an economy and polity that values turning people and nature into things. Our entire economy is an education in how to be “pro-choice.” What it most certainly is not in any way, shape or form, is about helping us to understand our true condition as embedded human beings.

Scott Galupo responded to distinguish his position as “a counterweight to the despair of both moral traditionalists like Deneen and Dreher and market purists-slash-declinists like Kevin Williamson.” On the Hobby Lobby case in particular, he invoked Yuval Levin and Garry Wills to contrast the Obama administration’s drive from a more appropriately modest accommodation:

Here, Levin calls to mind Garry Wills’s distinction between the progressive-liberal “order of justice” and the “order of convenience.” To sum up a complex essay, Wills believed it should not be the aim of the state to dispense “raw justice” (Chesterton’s phrase), but rather to facilitate convenience (in the John Calhoun sense of the word—to “convene” or “concur” or bring about social peace). …

A proper order of convenience would be able to accommodate Hobby Lobby’s religious objections. On this matter and others, the Obama administration seeks an order of justice. I hope, in this case, that it loses.

Micah Mattix demurred from definitively judging Hobby Lobby’s particular moral merits, but criticized Deneen’s sweeping judgment against modern markets: Read More…

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Americans Aren’t Politically Polarized—They’re Sorted

College Republicans by Tobyotter | CC3

Two weeks ago, the Pew Research Center released a sprawling report on the relative politics of Americans, spawning a cottage industry of interpretative articles and posts sorting out just what “Political Polarization in the American Public” says about political polarization in the American public. The problem is, well, it doesn’t say much about it at all. As Stanford political scientist Morris Fiorina expertly explains at the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage, Pew didn’t measure polarization, that is to say, political extremes. Rather, they measured ideological consistency, according to a 10-question scale of their own construction:

Items in the Ideological Consistency Scale

Pew constructed a scale whereby respondents were scored -1 for a “liberal” response, and +1 for a conservative response, then all the scores were added up to obtain the political consistency scale. A perfectly consistent conservative would score a 10, a perfectly consistent liberal, a -10. Thus, as Fiorina notes, “people in the middle of the Pew distributions are not necessarily centrists.” A “middle” score of 0 would be obtained by a mix of answers, none of which have their intensity or extremity measured, and so would indicate heterodoxy, not moderation. I suspect few TAC readers (or writers), for instance, would score perfect 10′s.

To see what this means in practice, look at the following graphic, frequently reproduced in the coverage of the Pew Report:

Understandably, many see the separation between the two sides, and assume that Americans are moving further apart on issues. What the graphic actually shows, however, is that Americans are becoming more ideologically consistent with their co-partisans. Republicans are becoming more consistently Republican, and Democrats more consistently Democratic. As Fiorina describes,

Prior to the 1980s the Republican Party had a significant liberal wing and the Democrats a significant conservative wing. … Today partisanship, ideology and issue positions go together in a way they did not in the mid-20th century. Issues and ideology used to cross-cut the partisan distribution, now they reinforce it. … The net result is parties that are much more internally homogeneous than was the case a generation ago.

While some may breathe a brief sigh of relief that Americans, on average, generally occupy the same middle ground as they did a generation ago, these sorting changes may in fact be much more politically pernicious than mere extremism. As Noah Millman has discussed periodically, the decline of the pro-life Democrat and the pro-choice Republican has not necessarily been beneficial for either political cause. Instead, it binds the fortunes of abortion policy to nearly every other political issue, so that abortion policy is dependent on the political state of economics, or foreign policy debates. And with less heterogeneity within the parties, there is less reason for politicians to try to cross party lines in the first place: there’s no one waiting for them on the other side.

As the report notes, most Americans are not very ideologically consistent, and heterogeneity is still widespread. But because of the partisan sorting of the past decades, Fiorina says, “The unsorted and inconsistent middle still exists, but it has no home in either party.”

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Tech Can’t Escape Geography After All

Are conservatives doomed to forever miss out on the booming innovations of the tech sector? That’s the question Alexis Madrigal asks at The Atlantic in response to an admittedly startling survey result from Pew that only 4 percent of consistent conservatives (by their counting) would ideally like to live in the city, compared to 46 percent of consistent liberals. The Pew report is very interesting in its own right, and I hope to engage it at length next week, but Madrigal’s projection of a “new digital divide” between urban, tech-savvy liberals and rural, disconnected conservatives merits consideration on its own, for how simply it explodes one of Silicon Valley’s favorite myths about itself.

The networks comprising the World Wide Web have frequently been ascribed the power to “destroy geography” by connecting people and knowledge from across the world in a democratic marketplace of ideas. Enthusiasts of online education gush about the potential of Massively Open Online Courses to put a master teacher in every living room across the country, so that a Montanan farmer’s boy can learn artificial intelligence from the same Stanford professor as a student sitting in Palo Alto. Telecommuting enthusiasts see the potential of working from home to connect skilled workers with employers across the country without any painful dislocations. The democratic meritocracy of the tech industry, it is said, will allow good ideas to bubble to the top wherever they may originate. Why, then, are the biggest tech companies all coming out of a handful of major cities?

And as Madrigal notes, “It’s not just that the latest round of hot companies are deciding to headquarter in cities like New York and San Francisco; it’s also that many of these companies make sense, for the most part, only in urban environments.” Uber, the ride-sharing app recently valued at around $18 billion, relies on dense concentrations of people that can be served taxi replacements at sufficient volume to keep its drivers engaged and available. It also relies on people not already having their own car with them, a particular feature of cities. Madrigal also notes that one of the seemingly science fiction technologies most likely to become a reality, self-driving cars, “require detailed, expensive, and regularly updated maps to operate. For that reason, those vehicles will almost certainly deploy in cities first, and maybe only in places where enough people drive to make the investment in mapping the area worth it.” It is unlikely that any near-term future will see charismatic Baptist preachers in the rural South urging their parishioners to “let Google take the wheel.”

As George Packer noted in the New Yorker last year, and Ellen Cush explored expertly in “The Bacon-Wrapped Economy,” the tech industry is great at solving the problems of 23-year-olds in San Francisco, because it is largely composed of 23-year-olds in San Francisco. While there are genuine breakthroughs occurring in distributed finance in developing economies brought about by the advent of cell phones in rural villages, most of the tech industry is not concerned with getting Togolese farmers the best price for their yams, or making small towns more livable. Read More…

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Live Blog and Open Thread: The New Internationalism

Note: The conference is now over. Check back again soon for a full video. In the meantime, you can access the segments that have aired on C-SPAN here.

This morning, The American Conservative, in conjunction with The American Prospect and the Institute for Security and Conflict Studies at George Washington University, is convening many of the best foreign policy minds to sketch out a new foreign policy consensus, one fit to the challenges of the post-9/11, post-Afghanistan and Iraq wars world. For those unable to join the discussion in person at George Washington University, please join us on this thread, which I will updating throughout the conference. As the conference unfolds in the stream embedded above, please also join us in the comments below. For those on Twitter, please use the hashtag #newconsensus to participate in the conversation there.


8:30am Introduction: Charles L. Glaser, George Washington University Institute for Security and Conflict Studies and Daniel McCarthy, The American Conservative

8:45am Threats and Responses: How the U.S. can maintain stability in the long term without war.

  • Daniel Drezner, Washington Post and Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
  • William S. Lind, The American Conservative
  • Matthew Duss, Center for American Progress and The American Prospect
  • Daniel Larison, The American Conservative

9:45am The Case for Restraint: Barry R. Posen, MIT Security Studies Program, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy.

10:45am Break

11:15am National Security State Overreach and Reform: Reclaiming civil liberties in the aftermath of the War on Terror.

  • Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
  • Marcy Wheeler, Emptywheel
  • Adam Serwer,
  • Samuel Goldman, The American Conservative and George Washington University

12:15pm Political Realities: Prospects for realism and reform in the Republican and Democratic parties.

  • John B. Judis, The New Republic
  • Michael Cohen, Century Foundation
  • Christopher A. Preble, Cato Institute
  • Robert W. Merry, The National Interest

1:15pm Closing remarks: Maisie Allison, The American Conservative

The conversation will continue in the coming weeks thanks to our partners at Bloggingheads. Join us!

8:39: Charles Glazer opens the conference, noting that this conference “could not have come at a better time.”

8:44: TAC editor Daniel McCarthy takes the stage, declares this “a moment of profound reorientation in our country,” on the political and policy level. The past weeks have seen the foreign policy establishment hold conferences echoing their same consensus. This conference forges a new consensus that is wiser, more realistic, and better suited to the challenges of the day. Read More…

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Reform Conservatism Needs Place

It is once again a summer of conservative reform. Just as last year’s swells of heat and humidity were accompanied by a public discussion outlining the case for a “reform conservatism” by Ross Douthat, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and others, so 2014’s retreat of spring has been marked by the release of “Room to Grow,” a 120-page prospective agenda designed to drag contemporary American conservatism out of 1981’s death grip and give it marching orders fit to the challenges of the present day. Yuval Levin’s introduction calls the effort “a conservative governing vision” that articulates how conservatives can embrace policy solutions deriving from their understanding of how society best operates: decentralized and interdependent, not atomized and anonymous. The, by one count 22, policy proposals contained within “Room to Grow” address health care policy and the tax code, education reform and work-life balance, financial/regulatory reforms and family-friendly federal policies.

As responses rolled in, Levin clarified what he saw as a persistent liberal misperception of “Room to Grow” and its associated project, as the GOP’s answer to Clintonian DLC centrism:

From my point of view (and I can speak only for myself of course), the key point to understand about what people are calling “reform conservatism” is that it is an effort to move the Republican party to the right. And in particular, it is an effort to move from arguing about how much we should be willing to spend on the liberal welfare state to arguing about how to replace it with a conservative approach to government that advances our vision of a free society. 

It is not in this sense a response to the Tea Party movement (and of course it predates that movement by some years) but rather a response to the fat and happy, big-business-oriented, go along to get along, aimless centrism of too much of the Republican party over the past decade, which has been perfectly happy to argue about the cost (if that!) of our government, rather than about its purpose and structure, provided its own friends got a piece of the action. [emphasis added]

Levin’s introduction to “Room to Grow” described the aims and purposes of such a pushing of the GOP to the right:

The premise of conservatism has always been, on the contrary, that what matters most about society happens in the space between the individual and the state—the space occupied by families, communities, civic and religious institutions, and the private economy—and that creating, sustaining, and protecting that space and helping all Americans take part in what happens there are among the foremost purposes of government.

That space between the potentially atomized individual and the looming Leviathan state is what prevents either from coming to dominate the social texture, and so hollow out the rich, interweaving webs of relationships that bind a society together. Yet “Room to Grow” rarely takes up the institutions of civil society as a central topic in and of themselves. The family is certainly given ample attention, with W. Bradford Wilcox, Carrie Lukas, and Robert Stein all articulating elements of an agenda to help encourage marriage and family formation and growth. Many of the other policy discussions would surely help support non-commercial civil society institutions, and involve topics very worthy in their own right, such as breaking up the biggest banks and encouraging employment. Indeed, one gets the sense that a great deal of attention has been paid to the vulnerability and uncertainty faced by so many middle- and working-class families, who often feel that they are barely hanging on.

That economic and social isolation is not the product of macroeconomic factors alone, however. The same liberation technocracy that, often out of the best of intentions, undermined the family with the unintended marriage penalties baked into the American welfare state ravaged the neighborhoods and communities that families were once able to rely upon when the hard times came (as they did much more often in previous generations). The progressive spirit came down upon the cities, bulldozing communities weak in the measurables of the moment, but strong in social solidarity and common support. It subsidized interstate systems and street grids that were placed in the hands of planners and engineers who would work with singular purpose to maximize car flow, without a thought given to community cohesion. The postwar explosion in building was dominated by a misunderstanding of human life manifested in suburban sprawl-friendly federal policy and local zoning codes alike. Their legacy has been a country largely built for a prosperous people seeking to purchase entertainment within the privacy of their own homes and backyards, not in town commons or on front porches. Read More…

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