The New Yorker‘s George Packer can’t decide what to think about 21st-century America.
On the one hand, Packer likes developments that enhance the lifestyles of the educated upper middle class: “marriage equality, Lipitor, a black President, Google searches, airbags, novelistic TV shows, the opportunity for women to be as singlemindedly driven as their male colleagues, good coffee, safer cities, cleaner air, photographs of the kids on my phone, anti-bullying, Daniel Day Lewis, cheap communications, smoke-free airplanes, wheelchair parking, and I could go on.” On the other hand, he’s sorry that these benefits aren’t more broadly shared. Life is pretty good in brownstone Brooklyn and its spiritual counterparts. But it’s gotten harder and harder in “urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa…”
So how can this be the best of times for gays, sufferers from cardiovascular disease, African American politicians, TV fans, ambitious women, and so on, but among the worst for the urban poor, agricultural workers, and overleveraged homeowners? Packer can’t quite figure it out:
We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together—this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation.
Although his economic generalizations are accurate, Packer’s remark is historically and politically obtuse. Rather than shedding light on the profound divergence in Americans’ fortunes and expectations over the last few decades, it reflects a spiritual crisis of the BoBo elite, which is unwilling even to contemplate the possibility that its commitments to individual autonomy and expressive consumerism are incompatible with the egalitarianism that it pretends to favor.
…and it hasn’t been for years. This is a great account of the ongoing culture wars of Colonial Williamsburg, in Salon of all places:
Colonial Williamsburg, in its subtly transformed 21st-century mode, feels like a covert battleground in America’s culture wars. It’s where an overwhelmingly white and conservative audience meets the post-Howard Zinn cutting edge of history. (How much attention they pay, and how much they like it, is another question altogether.) If your ideas about the place are based on that grade-school trip you took with your grandparents, I can assure you that the effect is pretty different now. Beneath its manicured and bewigged surfaces, Colonial Williamsburg is trying to break free of its stodgy traditions and bring its visitors face to face with the internal conflicts and contradictions of the Revolutionary War era and their ripple effects across politics and society today. …
These startling and even confrontational vignettes – part of a growing and evolving street-theater program called “Revolutionary City,” which explores the social conflict of the Revolutionary era from a variety of perspectives — are not isolated events. Over the last three decades, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, a nonprofit originally envisioned and endowed by John D. Rockefeller in the 1920s, has undergone a gradual but ambitious reinvention, fueled partly by changing cultural and social realities but also by a wealth of new historical research into the Colonial and Revolutionary periods.
This transition has been going on for decades as the research and interpretation staff has slowly been replaced by new historians trained to bring out the stories of those groups left out of the standard story, and the author cites the definitive account of how it happened. In fact, to anyone who’s read Handler and Gable’s 1997 book—the source of the “Republican Disneyland” charge, though a 1975 New York Times article by Dick Schaap was the first to compare the two—Andrew O’Hehir’s account in Salon will be pretty familiar. They were the first to argue that there was some tension between the new face of Colonial Williamsburg and the reasons most people had for making pilgrimages to the middle plantation.
One could take the view that Handler and Gable basically chart the encroachment by the academic left on the history of the American founding, but it’s more complicated than that—early iterations of Colonial Williamsburg really did include some poor history that needed correction. Not just the programming, either. A savvy observer walking down Duke of Gloucester street might realize that the door and cupola of the old colonial capitol building are off-center. This is an invention of those who reconstructed it in the early 20th century, as Pulitzer-winning architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in 1997:
…many social conservative positions are buttressed on faith. But they also believe — and this is important, politically — that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue. And part and parcel of this is the assumption that our society is merely a short-term destination on the way to our heavenly home. This, of course, is in strong contrast to Y.O.L.O. (“you only live once”) worldview.
Here’s the problem: Not only do secular liberals reject this philosophy, but so do other elements of the conservative “three-legged-stool.”…Whereas social conservatives look to the Church for guidance, “classical liberals” (the Free Market, limited government ideology that values individuals) probably trace their fundamental beliefs back to Locke.
This is an important insight about the tensions in the conservative coalition. But it requires some elaboration and qualification if it is not to be misunderstood.
First, belief “that a proper and primary role of government is the preservation of virtue” is not distinctively Christian. Rather, it is main theme of the republican political tradition, the main elements of which were articulated by Cicero in and for a pagan society.
Some features of Cicero’s republicanism were adapted for Christian use by Augustine. In modern times, however, they have often been the vehicle for a critique of Christianity as corrosive of the military courage and concern for the common good necessary to a free society. According to Machiavelli and Rousseau, for example, Christianity is politically dangerous precisely because it encourages believers to seek their true home in heaven rather than defending their city on earth. In Europe, this neo-Roman argument rather than liberal individualism was the inspiration for the secularizing politics that emerged from the French Revolution.
Second, the individualism Lewis associates with Locke is historically derived from Christian sources. In fact, the whole point of Locke’s minimal definition of the state as a voluntary association for protection of life and property is that it leaves the individual free to relate himself to God as he sees fit. “Classical liberalism”, in other words, is historically based on Protestant theological arguments about the requirements for salvation rather than concerns about the market as such.
There is no necessary connection, then, between Christian faith and the politics of virtue or between secularism and theories of limited government. Rather than projecting contemporary categories into the past, we should investigate categories and concepts that were actually used in specific settings. The American Founding and early Republic, in particular, can be understood better in light of the Christian republicanism inherited from Calvinism than either conservatism or liberalism. But that is a story for another post.
As an outsider, I’ve been utterly transfixed by the last two papal conclaves (at 36, the only ones I can remember)—the white smoke; the crowd of people, with their diverse faces, in St. Peter’s Square and the Road of Consolation; the sheer theater of waiting for a newly empowered man to emerge from behind a curtain. In its mystery and pomp and historical continuity, the election of a pope is an echo of the ancient that’s utterly absent (by design) in the vulgar rituals of modern democratic politics.
Not being Catholic, I couldn’t identify with the reporting on Vatican intrigue and “frontrunner” cardinals leading up to the conclave. I did not know Bergoglio from Scola from Erdo. Consequently, I found myself wondering, more than anything, which regnal name the eventual pope, whoever he turned out to be, would take for himself. I find this idea of symbolically re-christening oneself, and thus signaling to the world what kind of leader one intends to be, tremendously powerful.
In our own politics, we do this informally and hagiographically. Reagan was Goldwater II. Clinton was JFK II. Or Obama is FDR III. Imagine these men being able and expected to attach such names to themselves, and then to be remembered by them long after they’re dead.
The power of naming to shape or predetermine identity is a well-documented thing. We encounter it almost immediately in the Bible. God gives Adam dominion over the earth and commissions him to name the animals. In his first intervention into human history after the creation, fall, and flood, God assigns a childless elderly couple, Abram and Sarai, with the progenitorship of a special new people. Later, God renames that man’s grandson “Israel.” And much later, he takes the persecutor of Christians Saul of Tarsus and repurposes him as “Paul,” the greatest of all evangelists.
Shakespeare wrote of the power of names, too, as did Freud, who, the Argentine psychiatrist Juan Eduardo Tesone writes, believed that a given name places a child “in a genealogy that partly determines the place the child comes to occupy”:
The princeps function of the family is to give the child a place that generates otherness. It is through the interpellation of his given name that the child begins to recognize himself as a being-separate-from his parents. He answers to his given name long before he can say “I,” an ontological anteriority that confirms him in his own identity and precedes the possibility of his announcing himself with his personal pronoun separated from the “you.”
The characters of a Bruce Springsteen track reflect on the qualities of themselves that they wish they could excise: “Billy got drunk, angry at his wife / He hit her once, he hit her twice / At night he’d like in bed, he couldn’t stand the shame / So he gave it a name.”
But given names are not taken names. Before his election to the papacy, “Jorge” was unknown to 99.99 percent of the world. He was a blank slate. Now the world knows, and will remember, this man as “Francis” and associate with him the ethos of a revered historical figure.
A neat trick!
On a much smaller scale than the See of Peter, I think of the example of John Mellor, a son of postwar British privilege who, having rejected his roots, became a singer and took to calling himself “Woody,” after Woody Guthrie. Eventually, he renamed himself Joe Strummer—a nod to his ordinary Joe-ness and his penchant for strumming all six strings of the guitar, rather than the “fiddly bits” favored by arena-rock soloists. The arc of Strummer’s life is captured beautifully in Julien Temple’s documentary “The Future is Unwritten”. Owing at least in part to the power of his self-chosen name, I think it might be said that Strummer invented his true identity. (You can’t easily imagine a “Woody Mellor” as the frontman of the Clash, can you?)
Jorge Mario Bergoglio got to do something like that yesterday, and on a world-historical stage.
In the current issue of National Review, Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru rebut Sam Tanenhaus’s description of the GOP as the party of Calhoun. They accuse of Tanenhaus of assigning guilt by association, and very loose association at that. According to Tanenhaus, Calhoun was “the Ur-theorist of a burgeoning but outnumbered conservative movement…” Goldberg and Ponnuru observe that there’s little evidence for this:
in George Nash’s universally respected book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Calhoun’s name appears twice…Calhoun is absent from the memoirs of the supposedly “Calhounist” William Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review. He is mostly absent from the writings of James Burnham, although Burnham does reject Calhoun’s idea of a plural executive in a brief discussion in Congress and the American Tradition. There’s no mention of Calhoun in Tanenhaus’s own biography of Whittaker Chambers. Perhaps more telling, there’s no mention of Calhoun in his more recent book The Death of Conservatism…And Calhoun’s infrequent appearances in Buckley’s writings betray no adulation.
Further, Goldberg and Ponnuru ask, of what was Calhoun guilty? Yes, Calhoun described slavery as a “positive good”, a landmark in the development of the ideology of white supremacy that dominated Southern thought for decades. But he has also been recognized from his own time until quite recently as one of the most brilliant expositors of the counter-majoritarian strand of the American political tradition. It is inconvenient when important historical figures hold reprehensible views. But we impoverish ourselves if we therefore refuse to learn from them.
Goldberg and Ponnuru are right about Calhoun’s direct influence and intellectual importance. (Additional considerations from Peter Berkowitz can be found here.) But they set the historical record straight without engaging Tanenhaus’s main argument.
Tanenhaus isn’t really arguing that the conservative movement was based on racism, although the article often reads that way. As Scott Galupo pointed out several weeks ago, it’s that some Republicans’ recent interest in electoral college rigging, gerrymandering, voter ID requirements that may keep people away from the polls, and procedural and legal obstruction of policies favored by a popular president echoes Calhoun’s counter-majoritarian politics.
It’s true that Republicans have taken a counter-majoritarian turn since the end of the Bush Administration. There’s nothing shocking about that: Democrats have used some of the same tactics when they’ve been in the minority. The more important question is: What’s wrong with counter-majoritarianism? After all, the Constitution contains extensive curbs on the power of the majority.
Identifying the problem with counter-majoritarianism requires some analytic distinctions. Counter-majoritarianism is not a single position, but group of tendencies with different sources and implications. Two of these tendencies are common in the American political tradition. The third is unusual—and problematic.
The most familiar form of counter-majoritarianism is the counter-majoritarianism of individual liberty. I mean the idea that there are some freedoms that the government cannot infringe, no matter how popular those infringements may be. This idea is at the core of the natural rights section of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a motive for the addition of the Bill of Rights to the Constitution.
Today, both right and left prize individual liberty counter-majoritarianism, although they apply it in different ways. The challenge to Obamacare was based on this brand of counter-majoritarianism. But so was the petitioner’s argument in Roe v. Wade.
A second form of counter-majoritarianism is based on the observation that the majority does not always recognize its own interest. It therefore suggests that the will of the people should sometimes be resisted and occasionally ignored, in deference to the judgment of those who know better what’s good for them. The original design of the Senate can be seen as counter-majoritarian in this sense. So can the authority of modern bureaucracies with independent regulatory authority.
In the late 18th century, Edmund Burke and John Adams argued that elected representatives should practice elitist counter-majoritarianism by acting against the wishes of their constituents when required to do so by superior wisdom. But that idea has mostly disappeared from modern electoral politics.
A third form of counter-majoritarianism focuses on structural minorities: long-standing groups or interests whose small numbers mean they will consistently lose under majoritarian decision procedures. Structural minorities have particular reason to fear oppression or persecution. Structural counter-majoritarianism aims to protect them by giving them effective veto power over laws or policies favored by a numerical majority.
This principle, too, has deep roots in American political thought. As we learn in Federalist 10, it’s one reason for the complicated division of powers that characterizes the Constitution.
In “No,” the new satire about the ad campaigns waged by both sides in the 1988 vote that led Augusto Pinochet to step down, the anti-Pinochet side faces a much more difficult task than expected. They thought their task was to convince the people that Pinochet was a dictator with blood on his hands. It turned out that people basically agreed with them on that part. They had the much tougher task of convincing people that it mattered. The elections will be rigged, the past is a foreign country, why bother?
“No” is immensely fun to watch, despite the grim subject matter. It looks just glorious: the filmmakers decided to make the whole movie look like we’re watching it on VHS, with fuzz on the images and moments of blurry color separation. This is an obvious “medium is the message” form-follows-function thing, but it also just looks really good. It makes the world of the movie cheaply-colored, like memories of the bad old days. It heightens our awareness of how any attempt to honor history inevitably warps it—and it also reminds us of how bright and poppy and cheesy and glam the pop culture of the 1980s really was. All those bouncy one-hit wonders about nuclear war.
“No” also gives us an unexpected hero to root for. Gael Garcia Bernal, as adman Rene Saavedra, is quite easy on the eyes. His storyline, in which he tries to reconcile with his dissident ex (the mother of his child), is an effective and poignant counterbalance to the movie’s overall optimism-always-wins arc.
The story of “No” is basically this: the Chilean constitution requires Pinochet to hold what amounts to a vote of no confidence, and if he loses, he’ll hold open elections. Each side (“yes” for more Pinochet/no elections, “no” for elections) will get a brief segment of advertising time each night. The No side leans on Saavedra to mastermind their campaign. He replaces their ads, which are heavy tributes to the tortured and the disappeared, with happy, funny scenes of jazzercise and mimes. He doesn’t want folk music, he doesn’t want sad solo dancing, he wants a jingle. Read More…
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza argues for a realistic appreciation of the limits of presidential power:
Lyndon Johnson’s celebrated legislative achievements were in reality only a function of the congressional election results—not his powers of persuasion. In 1965 and 1966, after the enormous Democratic gains of the 1964 election, Johnson was a towering figure who passed sweeping legislation. In 1967 and 1968, after he lost forty-eight Democrats in the House, he was a midget.
There are a couple wrinkles to that: 1) Many of those Democrats were southern conservatives who really did need to be wrangled and arm-twisted. In the case of the era’s landmark civil rights legislation, Johnson needed the help of liberal Republicans. 2.) LBJ’s “midget” status was a consequence of the unfolding disaster in Vietnam. The lesson, perhaps, is that presidents are not utterly powerless over congressional or partisan arithmetic; their actions, as well as luck, can affect that arithmetic. Read More…
“Love of one is a barbarism; for it is exercised at the expense of all others. The love of God, too.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Woolly Mammoth is a D.C. theater company known for edgy playwrights and subject matter—Mike Daisey vs. Apple, the JonBenet Ramsey case, things like that. In its current production, Danai Gurira’s The Convert (playing through March 10), Woolly takes on an even more daring topic: conflicted, but real, Christian faith. It’s a terrific, intense, and genuinely provocative show which earns every minute of its three-hour running length.
The Convert is set in 1890s Rhodesia. Its all-black cast includes Christians and animists and in-betweeners, compromisers and rebels and scammers. It begins when a rural girl, Jekesai, flees an arranged marriage. She takes refuge at the home of the local missionary (a sincere but worldly man, who aims to break the color line by being ordained to the Catholic priesthood) and converts to Christianity in a rush of need, high emotion, and garbled prayers.
Over time Jekesai—renamed Esther—becomes the missionary’s favored protégée. She knows the Bible backwards and forwards, and her faith is deep and vivid. The Convert is a play capable of using its head and its heart at once: We’re shown Jekesai/Esther’s mixed motives. We come to understand that her faith, like that of virtually all new or relatively-untested Christians, is faith in many things at once—in her own abilities, in her “Master” the missionary; and, I think, in a certain sense that the world’s injustice has limits. But she also has genuine, fiercely strong faith in Christ.
The first parts of the three-act play explore the heartbreaking choices and compromises Jekesai/Esther makes or refuses to make. She breaks from her family because she’s told that she must: they’re pagans. She takes the missionary seriously—maybe more seriously than he takes himself, as it turns out—when he says that he had to choose a new father for himself after his conversion. But she allows him to counsel her to compromise the Gospel when it comes to racism. He warns her that she can’t correct whites when they make mistakes about Scripture, and although she tries to argue that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, (importantly) male nor female… in the end she gives in. Read More…
Sam Tanenhaus has an important article in the New Republic on movement conservatism’s entanglement with the ideological underpinnings of slavery. This is hardly a secret. Liberals have read coded racism into “states’ rights” rhetoric for decades. But Tanenhaus is making a subtler point. Conservatives are not closet racists; rather, as evidenced by their talk of nullification and their flirtation with electoral college rigging, they have internalized the sectionalist dogma of Sen. John Calhoun in such a way that seals their demographic fate. Conservative Republicans risk becoming a “lost cause” party that’s designed to “resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority,” Tanenhaus writes.
Like I said, I think it’s an important article. Conservatives should read, and grapple with, it. Still, it seems to me that Tanhenhaus’s characterization of Calhoun as a “crank” (if a brilliant one) is reductive. Postwar conservative popularizers like Russell Kirk included him in their pantheon with appropriate reflection. Kirk, in The Conservative Mind, was well aware of the difficulty of reconciling the institutional defense of slavery with an ethical conservatism:
[B]y 1824, John Randolph demonstrated that the problem of slavery was linked inescapably with loose or strict construction of the Constitution, state powers, and internal improvements. From the latter year onward, therefore, the slavery controversy confuses and blurs any analysis of political principle in the South: the historian can hardly discern where, for instance, real love for state sovereignty leaves off and interested pleading for slave-property commences.
In the end, Kirk conceded, Southern conservatism failed. “No political philosophy has had a briefer span of triumph,” he wrote. Moreover, its adherents “never apprehended much more” of Calhoun and Randolph’s doctrines “than their apology for slavery.” After the Civil War, agrarian conservatism survived in the South—but as an unlovely echo of the real thing. As “instinct unlit by principle.”
To the extent that Tanenhaus hears this echo, this instinctual rage, from today’s party of “old white guys,” he’s right to recoil from it. Yet as Kirk insisted, there’s more to Calhoun than that. The poet-historian Peter Viereck, whom Tanenhaus approvingly cites as a pre-movement dispositional conservative, also refused to completely disavow Calhoun. He located in Calhoun the same well-founded fear of unchecked majoritarianism found in the Adamses (with due allowance for the fact that John Q. was a bitter opponent of Calhoun’s), Madison, Coleridge, Santayana, Irving Babbitt, and Niebuhr.
Viereck wrote in 1956:
Contrast Napoleon’s dictatorship, based on universal suffrage, with the traditional Bourbon monarchy, which ruled not by popular referendum but by historical prescriptive right. Neither side of that contrast was even remotely desirable from freedom’s viewpoint; but the monarchical alternative was at least the less absolute and less statist of the two, since concrete traditions do more to check a bad Bourbon king than abstract Rights of Man and universal suffrage do to check a bad Bonapartist dictator.
Democracy is housebroken, is tolerant, humane, civil-libertarian, only after being filtered, traditionalized, constitutionalized through indirect representation.
In the end, it took more than protest and agitation to completely overturn the institution that Calhoun defended. It required elite antidemocratic force—in the form of the Supreme Court and the 101st Airborne Division. The complicated truth is that the “minority-interest” theory that Tanenhaus rejects can be employed to safeguard the institutions of racism as well as the individual liberties of racial minorities.
After several months of reflection, I’m becoming convinced that they are. I don’t claim any private information or special insight. Here, for what they’re worth, are my reasons:
Republican voters are almost exclusively white. And whites, although still a considerable majority, are a shrinking portion of the population. What’s more, Republicans do best among older whites. These voters are, almost by definition, closer to dying out. It’s possible that younger whites will become more Republican as they age: although Obama won a majority of whites under 30 in 2008, he lost that group in 2012. But there’s some evidence that young people of all ethnicities are more socially libertarian and open to big government than their parents.
How can Republicans deal with this forbidding situation? One answer, which has the advantage of inertia, is to do nothing. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Rather than nothing, Republicans in the House and Senate propose to do exactly what they’ve done in the past. At the moment, that means reviving the Balanced Budget Amendment. As Scott Galupo observes, this is lousy politics as well as bad policy. About 20 percent of Americans name the budget deficit among their main concerns. For the most part, however, they’re already Republicans.
Another strategy is to combine cosmetic outreach to ethnic minorities with concessions on issues that the party establishment considers unimportant, particularly immigration. Marco Rubio appears to be betting his career on this maneuver. That may be wishful thinking. It will take a lot more than quasi-amnesty to win Hispanic votes after years of frankly nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric. And the establishment of a path to citizenship for illegal aliens would both infuriate the base and, over time, dilute its power.
Moreover, Asian Americans, who seem like promising targets for the Republican message, are turned off by Republicans’ assertive Christianity. Parading around converts like Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley will not be helpful. On the other hand, endorsing gay marriage, say, will drive social conservatives out of the party.
That leaves what might be called the Calhoun option. More popular at the local level than with the national party, at least publicly, this strategy involves legal changes that would limit the influence of the coming majority, which is younger and less white. Some of these measures have been justified by concerns about widespread electoral fraud that are mostly sincere but have no empirical basis. Others are explicitly political. For example, it’s a feature, not a bug, that plans to split states’ electoral votes by congressional district give rural votes greater weight than urban ones (and we know who lives in cities).
As critics of these plans have admitted, there’s nothing new about such efforts: counter-majoritarianism has been a fixture of American politics since the constitutional convention. Even so, they’re unlikely to succeed in the long run. As Tocqueville observed, it’s almost impossible for American institutions to stand against the principle of majority rule.
Contra Karl Rove, however, there are no permanent majorities. The appearance of an unusually talented politician, persistently sluggish economic growth, or an unexpected event such as a major terrorist attack, could lead even more whites to vote Republican in the future. That might be enough to win presidential elections within the next decade or two. And the party will continue to thrive in many states, where residential polarization and gerrymandering give it a built-in advantage.
But it’s tough to see how Republicans can remain a national force so long as their their support is limited to a shrinking cohort. On this point, centrist historians and Pat Buchanan agree. David Brooks, ever the optimist, recently suggested the foundation of a “second G.O.P.” based in the coastal cities, as if two parties with limited, mutually hostile constituencies would fare better than one. They shoot elephants, don’t they?