State of the Union

David Brat’s Half-Cocked Theological-Economic Fusionism

Michael Tanner recently—but before the shocker primary in suburban Richmond—lamented that the tea party’s influence was waning because it had strayed from its core mission:

Sparked by outrage over the Wall Street bailouts, the original Tea Party was motivated by an opposition to Big Government. The motto of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest and most influential groups, was “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets.” The Tea Party’s core issues were the skyrocketing national debt and opposition to Obamacare.

Social issues were not part of the platform. In fact, Jenny Beth Martin, leader of the Tea Party Patriots told the New York Times, “When people ask about [social issues], we say, ‘Go get involved in other organizations that already deal with social issues very well.’ We have to be diligent and stay on message.”

Tanner is one of an unfortunate many who took the tea party at face value. As I’ve been arguing for years, economic issues, for tea partiers, are inseparable from social ones. It’s the (largely) Protestant version of the seamless garment: capitalism is part of God’s blueprint for human society, just like traditional marriage and heteronormativity. Ironically echoing the atheist Ayn Rand, this worldview values capitalism not merely as an instrumental good, a man’s-estate-reliever, but as a moral imperative.

Research by David E. Campbell and Robert Putnam and long-form reporting by Jill Lepore have lent empirical weight to my intuition that the tea party is a religious movement by proxy. Ed Kilgore put it bluntly: “scratch a ‘fiscal conservative’ and you’ll find a culture-warrior of one sort or another right under the surface.”

Along comes David Brat, professor of economics and slayer of the dragon Rep. Eric Cantor, to bring the argument into sharp relief. The parsing of Brat’s academic writings and theological-economic beliefs has become a cottage industry. The Washington Post called Brat’s primary election an indication of a “rise in the crossroads of religion and economics.”

At first blush, Brat seems to draw from the tradition of thinkers like Wilhelm Roepke, who believed that, to properly function, markets depend on bourgeois virtues. As Brat once put it: “If markets are bad … that means people are bad.” There’s an interesting wrinkle to Brat’s fusionism, however. Where proponents of what can only loosely be called “Christian economics,” such as R.C. Sproul, Jr., tease out capitalist principles from the Bible, Brat teases out a biblical influence on secular economic writing. As Kevin Roose writes:

In one unpublished paper from 2005, “Adam Smith’s God: The End of Economics,” (Word doc here), which I accessed through a Google Scholar search, Brat makes the case that even though Adam Smith (the father of modern economics and author of The Wealth of Nations) is thought of as one of the great figures of the Enlightenment, his “invisible hand” theory should properly be seen in the context of Christian moral philosophy.

“In fact, [Smith’s] system really retains most of the fundamental features of the Judeo-Christian system,” Brat writes. “On paper he places Stoic reason above Christian revelation. But on the other hand, he chooses the Christian God over the Stoic God. And in the end, his choice of virtues and ends take a decidedly Christian turn.”

In a sense, Brat’s brand of Protestant-ethic revivalism completes a circle: now, not only can Christians find Adam Smith in the Bible, they can find the Bible in Adam Smith too!

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Pitchfork Populism Is Coming for Hillary and Jeb

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

If Thomas Jefferson’s benign reflection on Shays’ Rebellion, that uprising of farmers in 1786 and 1787, is not the first thought that comes to mind today for his fellow Virginian Eric Cantor, surely it is understandable.

For the rebellious subjects of the 7th Congressional District just voted to end Cantor’s career as House majority leader.

Many lessons are being read into and taken away from Cantor’s defeat. But that election has also revealed a populist path, both to the Republican nomination in 2016 and perhaps to the presidency.

For what were the elements of Randolph-Macon College professor Dave Brat’s victory and of Cantor’s defeat?

First, the perception that Cantor was willing to do a deal with Barack Obama to provide a partial amnesty to illegal immigrants—while the media provided wall-to-wall coverage of the latest invasion across our southern border—proved devastating.

Talk radio, led by Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin, pounded Cantor on the issue of illegal immigration, the emotive power of which our Beltway elites will never understand.

For like Eurocrats, the leaders of our Beltway parties call to mind the “sophisters” and “calculators” of Edmund Burke’s depiction. Read More…

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Eric Cantor’s Defeat Is Also Netanyahu’s

Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO
Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, GPO

Of course it isn’t yet clear what Eric Cantor’s stunning and decisive defeat at the hands of an unknown challenger with one twentieth the campaign funds means for the direction of the House GOP. On domestic issues, including immigration, Cantor has been a chameleon—an establishment figure, a reformer, a “young gun,” a Tea Party insurgent with legislative tactician skills, a supporter of immigration reform (aka amnesty), and then a professed opponent of the same immigration reform. (I should note there was a time, in the 1990s, when immigration “reform” meant tightening the borders and tinkering with the legal immigration system so it was more skills-based, less based on “your brother’s wife got in a few years ago, so you are now eligible for a visa.”) The only ads I’ve seen from David Brat, the surprising victor, attacked Cantor’s readiness to hang out with big-money immigration boosters (Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) while ignoring the labor market and wage impact large-scale immigration has for voters in his district.

One issue wasn’t talked about, though I wonder if it subliminally registered with some anti-Cantor voters. Cantor in 2010 more or less presented himself as Bibi Netanyahu’s congressman. Newly elevated by the GOP House takeover as the incoming majority leader, he held a private meeting with the Likud leader at the New York Regency. No other Americans were present; Netanyahu was joined by Israel’s ambassador and national security advisor.

It was a tense time in American-Israeli relations: the Obama administration was pushing hard for progress on peace talks and trying to get Israel to stop expanding settlements on the West Bank during the negotiations, an idea vigorously resisted by Israel’s government. During the meeting, Cantor gave Netanyahu assurances that the House would have his back in any showdown with the Obama administration. The Republicans, he told Bibi, “understand the special relationship” and would obstruct American initiatives which made Israel uncomfortable. Ron Kampeas, a veteran and centrist observer of U.S.-Israeli relations, said he could not “remember an opposition leader telling a foreign leader, in a personal meeting, that he would side, as a policy, with that leader against the president.” So Cantor was, in his way, making history.

The ties to Israel made Cantor popular in the GOP caucus. Cantor could raise money more easily than other southern congressmen—from pro-Israel billionaires, for example—and spread it around. Sheldon Adelson poured millions into his PAC. Cantor knew his way around the Regency.

More recently, Cantor has spearheaded House opposition to Obama’s negotiations with Iran, speaking frequently of Iran in terms that echo Netanyahu. His Mideast positions track completely with Likud’s, whether it be aid to the Syrian rebels or aid to Egypt after the Sisi coup. He may be hard to pin down domestic issues, one day a moderate, another a hard rightist, but he is always a hawk—whether it be Ukraine or Syria or Iran, he will be a force pushing the most belligerent policies.

I wonder if this registered in the district in some ways. Pat Lang, of the interesting Sic Semper Tyrannis blog, meditated on Cantor (his congressmen) several years ago, wondering whether this sophisticated Richmond lawyer was a natural fit for a district that trends barbecue. Some have pointed to an ethnic angle, which could well be a factor. But it may be simply that conservative southern Republicans are beginning to get tired of neocons telling them they have to prepare to fight another war. Antiwar Republican Walter Jones won his North Carolina primary earlier this spring, standing strong against a major media assault by Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel. Now, in an election result that stunned political observers more than anything that happened in their lifetime, Cantor goes down before an underfunded Tea Party candidate.

We’ll see what happens with David Brat, but he’s already made history.

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Eric Cantor Rides Tea Party Tiger, Is Devoured

If you look at the arc of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s last three years of service in Congress, it begins, in 2011, with an ambitious insider’s game to undermine the Speaker of the House. Cantor was the tea party whisperer; he was their not-so-secret champion; he was the guy—“Yes, it’s probably an accurate conclusion”—who stood between John Boehner and a “grand bargain” on fiscal policy with the Great Satan.

Unrest within the House Republican conference boiled over in January 2013 with a hapless attempt to oust Boehner from the speakership (including three votes for Cantor). It was at this point, as symbolized by his loud and clearly irritated voice vote for Boehner to retain his position, that Cantor seemed to have recoiled from his game of sabotage. Sure, just days before, Cantor split with Boehner on the vote to avert the so-called fiscal cliff. Yet, from that point until now, Cantor played the role of dutiful deputy. Maybe it was simply another tack: play nice until the next GOP wave, wait for Boehner to step aside, and smoothly ascend to the speakership.

I’d like to think, however, that Cantor was growing tired of the decrepit state of the GOP governing agenda in the wake of a resounding repudiation of Mitt Romney. At a party retreat earlier this year, he recognized the need for the party to appeal beyond the ranks of small-business owners and entrepreneurs and substantively address middle-class anxieties.

In his concession speech tonight, you could hear echoes of the embryonic reform-conservative movement:

What I set out to do, and what the agenda that I have said we’re about, is, we want to create a Virginia and an America that works for everybody. And we need to focus our efforts as conservatives, as Republicans, on putting forth our conservative solutions, so that they can help solve the problems for so many working middle-class families that may not have the opportunity that we have.

Add that to Cantor’s gestures toward some kind of constructive movement toward immigration reform, and we’ve got a sad and stunning moment in our politics: a conservative leader who ended, limply, where he should have begun. He rode the tea party tiger and discovered, too late, that he and his party might have profited from more bull sessions with Yuval Levin.

That’s a pity.

I know nothing of Prof. Dave Brat. But I know he is a political novice and, as he’s cheered tonight by the likes of Ann Coulter and Laura Ingraham, I can’t help but suspect he will be yet another useless crank in a still-troubled caucus.

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Rand Paul and Ted Cruz: The Breakup That Wasn’t

The recent war of words over foreign policy between senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz—both potential 2016 nominees—has many on the right bemoaning the rift between the two. But it’s no shock to those of us who’ve paid attention over the past two years. “What breakup?” we wondered. “When were these two ever similar candidates?”

As recently as last month, conservatives were making the two seem almost interchangeable. On his radio show, Glenn Beck mused that if he had to choose a GOP nominee right now it would be Cruz or Paul. Sean Hannity, his guest, agreed.

Perhaps “anti-establishment” is an accurate way to describe both Cruz and Paul. But foreign policy was something that no observer could ignore for as long as most did. Cruz claims to be somewhere between John McCain-hawkishness and the “other end” of the spectrum, which he describes as Senator Paul. Putting aside whether it is accurate to imply Paul’s foreign policy is on an extreme end, is Cruz himself “in the middle”? How quickly we have forgotten Cruz’s nigh maniacal fits over Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Was there a fiercer hawk in the room? McCain, as a matter of fact, was more subdued on the matter.

As for Cruz’s opposition to intervention in Syria, it was most likely adopted for the same reasons many interventionist-minded rank-and-file Republicans were suddenly sounding like Ron Paul himself: because Obama was for it, which meant they were against it. Lest there be any doubt, Cruz told The Weekly Standard this week that “he would have been open to aiding Syrian rebels if the administration had been able to identify nonjihadists among their ranks.”

How about Cruz’s #StandWithRand on Senator Paul’s anti-drones filibuster? No true, self-respecting hawk would worry about drones, so essential to today’s interventionist adventures. Yes, Cruz did stand with Paul—but the Texas senator attended, at best, due to an overall interest in civil liberties; at worst, to snag the spotlight.

In other words, Cruz has shown no actual noninterventionist leanings. Contrast that with his consistency on Iran or his recent statements on America’s role in the world. If foreign policy is a major issue for a voter—and for many it is and unquestionably should be—there can be no “Eh, I could go with either Paul or Cruz.” They were never together, thus there was never a breakup.

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Bill Kristol’s Tea Party Constitution

Jonathan Chait amusingly shoots at the fish in the barrel that is Bill Kristol’s recent column urging Republicans to “get off the sidelines” and prevent another rout in 2016.

Of Kristol’s evocation of the “original Constitution”—and, by implication, modern liberalism’s trashing of it—Chait writes, “The ‘original Constitution’? The one that permitted slavery? Does Kristol want to do away away with the 11th through 27th amendments to the Constitution? I’m sure he does not. But if Kristol obviously does not mean what he actually wrote, what does he mean?”

We all know the drill by now: the “original,” pre-Progressive era Constitution was not designed for the expansive power to regulate interstate commerce that Congress now enjoys; for “transfer payments” or the redistribution of wealth; or, generally speaking, for any interference between the consensual acts of individuals in the marketplace.

I return to it from time to time, because it’s such a perfect distillation of the kind of jurisprudence that infuses the tea party and liberty movements, and Kristol’s musing furnishes me another excuse: Ken Cuccinelli’s legal brief against Obamacare’s individual mandate in the Texas Review of Law & Politics.

In it, Cuccinelli answers Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous Lochner dissent that “a constitution is not intended to embody a particular economic theory … The Fourteenth Amendment does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s social statics.” (Hence Chait, lazily switching between upper- and lower-case “c”: “The Constitution is not a vague set of ideals; it’s a clear set of rules. That’s the whole point of a Constitution.”)

Cuccinelli says Holmes was arguing with a straw man. Of course it’s nonsense to claim the Constitution or the 14th Amendment embody Social Statics. But could Holmes plausibly deny that it embodies John Locke? “This would have been regarded as puzzling at best and at worst demonstrably false.” So there, fine: Forget Herbert Spencer. We can appeal to Locke (and Blackstone, and Hooker) and basically arrive at the same libertarian defense of economic rights. Sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas: so use your own as not to injure another’s property.

For now, let’s table this aspect of the debate. Readers know I’d rather live under Chait’s Constitution than Cuccinelli’s. My point here is this: Bill Kristol is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad ambassador for the Tea Party Constitution!

A constitution whose notion of executive power is expansive enough to satisfy the likes of Bill Kristol and John Yoo should have no trouble accommodating social insurance programs or public assistance for the needy.

I’m sorry: you don’t get to have your kickass policy suite of torture, democratism, intergalactic swamp-draining, World War XXIV, and “We’re all Everybody-ians now,” and also complain about food stamps or federal insurance exchanges.

Tea Party and liberty movement conservatives have every right to argue for an originalist interpretation of individual economic rights.

Bill Kristol does not.

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Is the Tea Party’s Dream an Illusion?

“There is no education in the second kick of a mule,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

With some such thought in mind, Speaker John Boehner strode to the floor of the House to offer a “clean” debt ceiling bill and relied on Nancy Pelosi’s Democrats to pass it. They did. ”Surrender” and “betrayal,” are among the epithets coming the Speaker’s way.

Yet Boehner was holding a losing hand. Had he added a GOP wish-list bill to the debt ceiling, Harry Reid’s Senate would have rejected it. President Obama would have denounced it as putting at risk the full faith and credit of the United States. Big Media would have piled on. The markets would have been rattled. The Dow would have begun to swoon. Corporate America, cash cow of the Republican Party, would have begun to howl. A clamor to pass a clean debt ceiling bill or risk a new recession would have arisen. And the House Republicans would have caved, as they finally had to cave on the budget bill last fall.

Rather than play Lord Raglan and lead his cavalry in another Charge of the Light Brigade, Boehner chose to withdraw to fight another day on another field. Yet, the Tea Party has a right to feel cheated. When does the Republican Party, put in power by the Tea Party, plan to honor its commitment to halt the growth of the Federal monolith and bring the budget back into balance? Is there is any hope things will be different, should the Tea Party help produce a GOP Senate in 2014? If the Tea Party is in some despair, is it not understandable? For while there are countless proposals and plans to cut back on federal spending, from Simpson-Bowles on, it is impossible today to see in either party the political will to do the surgery. Read More…

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The Paranoid Style in Liberal Politics

As a shrewd cultural critic, Alan Wolfe is always worth reading. Recently though, he made an unfortunate diversion into the realm of necromancy, raising the shades of  unwanted and unneeded dead theories. In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolfe discussed how far Richard Hofstadter’s theory of the Paranoid Style could be applied to contemporary US politics. It would be sad if Wolfe’s imprimatur inspired any revival of a fatally flawed, but long influential, theory.

Richard Hofstadter was a Columbia University historian, whose best-known books were Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) and The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1965). The title essay in this latter book originally appeared in Harper’s at the time of the 1964 election. A classic JFK liberal, he used his historical skills to analyze what he saw as the political menaces of his day. He described the beliefs and rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and what he termed the radical Right with about as much balance and intuitive sympathy as an al-Qaeda spokesman expounding US policy in the Middle East. Hofstadter located contemporary Right-wing views in a deep-rooted and ugly tradition of hatred, xenophobia, Nativism, and racism, traceable to colonial times. (He always spoke of the Right: conservatism might in theory be acceptable, but America, in his view, had no “true” conservatives).

Hofstadter saw no point in trying to comprehend Rightism as a system of rational political beliefs. Rather, it was based on paranoid fantasies—delusions of persecution, visions of conspiracy, and messianic dreams of absolute victory in a future that would vindicate all present excesses. Only the word “paranoia” “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” All these views, ultimately, were grounded in irrational fears, of projections of the troubled self. Drawing on the faddish therapeutic creeds of the time, Hofstadter presented Rightism as a pathological disorder. “Paranoia,” in his usage, was not just a rhetorical label, but a certifiable personality disorder.

For Hofstadter, America’s political choice in 1964 could be summarized readily: we are liberal; you are mentally ill. Read More…

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“Strange Bedfellows” Are Rolling Back NSA Surveillance

Commentators short on descriptive idioms often deploy the phrase “strange bedfellows” whenever cross-ideological coalitions arise out of mutual concern for civil liberties. Saturday’s “Stop Watching Us” rally in Washington, D.C., endorsed as it was by organizations both left and right, represented the latest such occasion.

Fresh off a leading role in forcing the partial government shutdown, “Tea Party” group FreedomWorks shared billing with (among many others) the ACLU, the Council on American Islamic Relations, and the “Anonymous” hacktivist collective. One MSNBC reporter deemed rally-goers a “strange political hodgepodge,” portraying their heterogeneity as a bizarre phenomenon that never would have materialized but for the uniquely broad-based outrage spurred by Edward Snowden’s disclosures of the National Security Agency’s mass unchecked surveillance on American citizens.

The rally’s marquee speaker was Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), and though a tad tentative in presentation, he detailed with vigor the quickening movement in Congress to restore Americans’ civil liberties. This summer, an amendment Amash co-authored with Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to defund the massive NSA phone record collection program nearly passed the House, much to the shock of the intelligence community and conventional wisdom. “When the vote came down, it was close. It scared people,” he said. “It scared the establishment in both parties.” The crowd exulted. Amash later told me he regarded anti-surveillance activism as an “important” step toward lasting transpartisan cooperation, and reported that the USA FREEDOM Act—legislation to curtail the NSA’s powers—would pass today if brought to the House floor. These developments were buoyed by grassroots activism, Amash emphasized.

Perhaps the burgeoning coalition of technologists, traditional conservatives, stalwart liberals, and myriad others receives scorn precisely because it is starting to get results.

In the run-up to the rally, journalist Tom Watson wrote a widely-circulated essay at Salon positing that the operational involvement of the Libertarian Party and kindred organizations “infected” the event irreparably, and the left should therefore withdraw its support. Progressives and libertarians might occasionally find common cause on narrow issues, this argument went, but establishing anything like a formal alliance is indefensible given the standard libertarian positions against abortion rights, social welfare programs, and so forth.

No office-holding Democrat addressed the crowd, but Dennis Kucinich, the former representative from Ohio and eager forger of counter-intuitive alliances, preceded Amash with a rousing speech. Afterwards, I confronted him with Watson’s challenge: ought the robust presence of libertarian groups, some expressly affiliated with the GOP, taint the rally and its message in the eyes of progressives? Kucinich was unmoved. “The Constitution belongs to everyone, whatever their political party, whatever their ideology,” he said. “Everyone deserves the protection of the first and fourth amendments. I said it today—we’re not here as partisans. We’re here as Americans.”

The modern Democratic Party itself is a diffuse coalition of interest groups and factions bound together by little beyond raw political expediency. Why is it defensible for “progressives” of Watson’s ilk to work within a party structure dominated by pro-military intervention corporatists—yet working with libertarians is considered a nonstarter?

Throughout U.S. history, nascent populist-oriented coalitions have always been cobbled together messily, and the left-libertarian anti-surveillance lobby is of course no exception. “Part of what we’re trying to do is set out a new model,” said rally organizer JJ Emru when asked to react to Waston’s line of thinking. “To say, if we overcome some of our differences, we can definitely achieve this.”

If nothing else, efforts like Stop Watching Us have the effect of scrambling party allegiances and creating room for unorthodox coalition-building that can challenge the status quo. In the world of Washington commentary, bipartisan cooperation is lauded as healthy and serious, if it involves “compromises” to expand the national security state or cut spending on entitlements. An alliance featuring the likes of Amash and Kucinich is little more than a fleeting convergence of “strange bedfellows.”

With today’s formal introduction of the USA FREEDOM Act by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Patriot Act author Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.), the convergence appears to be more than fleeting. Beyond just reining in the NSA, these “strange bedfellows” are redefining what it means to work across the aisle.

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How the Tea Party Becomes a Force for Big Government

There are three kinds of victories that Ted Cruz and his Tea Party admirers might have won in the government shutdown. The first is a victory in policy—defunding or delaying Obamacare or else securing significant cuts to government.

The second is a victory in the court of public opinion—coming out of this with the electoral prospects for small-government conservatives enhanced.

The third, a victory that might be salvaged from the wreck of the other two, is psychological—a strengthening of the Tea Party’s own willingness to fight and win another day.

Take an objective look at the score.

The shutdown did not extract policy concessions from Obama. The Affordable Care Act is funded and in effect. Instead of shrinking government, the shutdown grew it, directly costing taxpayers $3.1 million. “Although furloughed workers will get their back pay, taxpayers won’t see the products,” ABC News notes. Whatever projects the furloughed workers were undertaking are still being pursued, of course, only now the workers have had a paid vacation, albeit one that most of them would rather not have had.

Not only did the shutdown not get the policy results its supporters wanted, but Cruz’s tactic itself wasted millions of dollars of other people’s money. In public opinion, meanwhile, the shutdown plunged Republicans to record-low approval ratings. That won’t cost someone like Cruz his seat, but it also won’t make other politicians more eager to support his positions in the future.

That leaves the question of psychology. There lies the biggest defeat of all because Cruz’s actions turned the Tea Party against its own small-government ideals. Read More…

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