Daniel Larison

A Sad Tale

During the First World War, France fought on against the German invaders for four long years, despite having more of its soldiers killed than all the American soldiers killed in all the wars in the history of the United States, put together.

But during the Second World War, France collapsed after just six weeks of fighting and surrendered to Nazi Germany. ~Thomas Sowell

One of the more depressing features of the Bush Era has been the declination of Thomas Sowell from a serious public intellectual to whatever he has now become.  Reciting the tale of post-WWI French demoralisation sixty years after the fact and blissful ignorance of the 100,000 dead and 200,000 wounded Frenchmen in 1940 alone, who outnumber American casualty figures for most of our wars, are what remains for someone who once made interesting and worthwhile observations about the world.


No Compromise

Writing on libertarians, my Scene colleague Peter Suderman says:

The signal trait of most (semi-sane) libertarians (myself among them) I’ve met has been contrarianism. It’s a reflexive inability to let prevailing wisdom pass without critical comment. This is why libertarians are generally ineffectual as a political force: consensus is almost impossible when everyone refuses to engage in the sort of compromise and nose-holding that coalition building generally requires. And even if a potential coalition appears, the mere fact of its appearance induces spasms of agitation and yelps of counterintuition.  The tendency toward self-marginalization, I think, is generally not something that can be helped. (Some paleocons, I suspect, are similarly afflicted.)

Why only “some”?  It is my impression that the words compromise and consensus are themselves unwelcome for most paleocons.  They certainly are for me.  If this is the path of self-marginalisation, I am not terribly bothered by it.  Prevailing wisdom usually prevails thanks to a combination of a lack of curiosity, a lack of imagination and a lack of knowledge.  That may help explain why prevailing wisdom tends to be so remarkably misguided.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that critics of the prevailing wisdom are sufficiently curious, imaginative or wise, but I would trust the instincts of most people who want to throw wrenches into the works rather than the people who want to see it operate smoothly and without interruption.


Good Times

Commenting on Patrick Ford’s post, Rod says:

It will be a good day when it becomes possible to criticize the excesses of American consumerism without being pilloried from the Right for being some kind of America-hating lib symp.

A good day, and also a distant one.  Not to dwell too much on old controversies, but I am reminded by this little argument against WALL-E of the endless occasions when critics of Crunchy Cons and Rod would simultaneously mock him and his confreres as socialists and meddlesome, brie-eating snobs and also deny that anything like materialist and consumerist conservatives existed.  There was always this same mix of complete denial and outraged defensiveness, which we see again in these responses to the Disney film.  In the old arguments, his critics kept repeating that Rod had concocted conservative consumerism out of thin air, but how dare he impugn their consumerist way of life!  When he was right, he was intruding on their private lives and telling them what to do, but he was also wrong because supposedly no one on the right was materialistic.  According to the critics, they were more pious and self-disciplined than the Amish, but don’t even think about questioning their consumption habits.  

Now maybe WALL-E is not a good film, or maybe conservative audiences will find something overbearing and obnoxious about its presentation of “the dangers of over consumption, big corporations, and the destruction of the environment,” and it is reasonable to mock the pretensions of a multinational corporation to having a social conscience.  Even so, that conservatives should be concerned about “the dangers of over consumption, big corporations, and the destruction of the environment” and should integrate such concern into their arguments if it is not already there ought to be obvious.  Since when is advocacy of moderation, restraint, conservation and the distribution of wealth and power anything other than a conservative argument?  (I hear someone there laughing in the back.)  That’s the problem–conservatives who advocate such things tend to come off as some mixture of antique and eccentric, while the “mainstream” continues its embarrassing glorification of an unsustainable, undesirable, unhealthy and foolish way of life.  The last laugh will be on them.


Shot Down

Schieffer: You heard what Sen. Lieberman said.  He said that Barack Obama is simply more ready to be President than Barack Obama.

Clark: Well, I think Joe has it exactly backwards.

In the midst of all of the to-do about Wesley Clark’s comments, the most entertaining part of the exchange has been lost.  I have to say that I share Ezra Klein’s view of this pseudo-controversy.  More dangerous for the Obama campaign is the announced plan to go touring foreign countries during the summer for reasons I laid out before.

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"Just" Loyalty To A Place On The Map

There is something amusing about the fact that Obama gave his address on patriotism the same day that this argument came out, since whatever truth there is about Obama’s alleged foreign policy “particularism” he reminded everyone today that he is not interested in any other kind of particularism:

That is why, for me, patriotism is always more than just loyalty to a place on a map or a certain kind of people. Instead, it is also loyalty to America’s ideals – ideals for which anyone can sacrifice, or defend, or give their last full measure of devotion [bold mine-DL].

Presumably, by “anyone” he means anyone in or from America, but that might be all together too geographically limited. 

There are two ways universalists set up the distinction between what they think patriotism is and more common definitions that they reject.  The first way is to say, “not that, but rather this,” which is the formulation preferred by George Bush and Joe Lieberman.  As Michael related in his story on Lieberman:

His love of country is “rooted not in arbitrary attachment to our country’s land or its borders, but in a recognition that the values that were present at the creation of America and animate it still—the values of freedom and justice and opportunity—are not just our own national values; they are universal and eternal values, which are right and true not only for us in our own time, but for all people in every time [bold mine-DL].”

As I have already remarked to Michael, the attachment to “values” is far more arbitrary than attachment to “our country’s land or its borders.”  There is something much flimsier and more malleable in attachment to “values” that makes reaffirming that attachment a constant refrain of universalists.  The “arbitary” attachment to one’s land does not usually require so much articulation and constant reinforcement, because it essentially a far more visceral and natural attachment. 

The second way is to say, “not just this, but that.”  That is how Obama has laid things out in his speech.  So his patriotism is similar to James’ civic or constitutional patriotism (except that for James the relevant question is, “Are you a citizen?” and not “What do you believe?”).  This is predictable enough for a politician, but there is something about such propositional patriotism that I find rather too dismissive of the “place on the map” and certain kinds of people.  Of course, the “place on the map” isn’t your home, it isn’t the place itself, but a representation of that place through an act of abstraction and imagination of one’s land as part of this or that polity.  Propositional patriotism is marginally better than the other “values”-driven patriotism, which defines itself by how unlike attachment to the country it is, but it still maintains the fiction that to be attached to the land and to certain ideals is clearly superior. 

Why do American universalists maintain this fiction?  It is to make an Americanist and exceptionalist point–your average, run-of-the-mill patriot in other countries whose patriotism is “just” loyalty to his place and people is somehow espousing a weaker or poorer form of patriotism.  But it seems to me that a patriotism that is too tied up in “ideals,” like the “values”-driven patriotism, is more susceptible to the virus of ideology and exactly the destructive flinging of charges of disloyalty and lack of patriotism based on one’s political views that Obama deplores.   

It also leads one to make rather bizarre arguments such as this:   

I believe it is this loyalty that allows a country teeming with different races and ethnicities, religions and customs, to come together as one. It is the application of these ideals that separate us from Zimbabwe, where the opposition party and their supporters have been silently hunted, tortured or killed; or Burma, where tens of thousands continue to struggle for basic food and shelter in the wake of a monstrous storm because a military junta fears opening up the country to outsiders; or Iraq, where despite the heroic efforts of our military, and the courage of many ordinary Iraqis, even limited cooperation between various factions remains far too elusive.

Pretty clearly, a whole lot of things separate us from Zimbabwe, Burma and Iraq, and the reasons for tyranny or chaos in these places are many.  Besides, it is rather disquieting to think of our patriotism entailing loyalty to certain political ideals, even when we may agree that these ideals are desirable.  We may all find liberty to be a very desirable and worthy ideal, but besides the problem that we know how easily things done in the name of liberty can actually be detrimental to its substance there is also something, well, quite illiberal about making attachment to political propositions the basis or a substantial part of patriotic loyalty. 

This is at the heart of “credal” or “propositional” nationalism, and reveals the land-plus-ideals patriotism to be a species of the same, and yet it bizarrely sits side by side with a claim about Americans entering our “fourth century as a nation.”  While it is debatable whether you can refer back that far to only one nation, to speak of a nation that dates back four centuries is to make nonsense out of tying it to a creed or a set of ideals or political propositions, especially when most of the latter had not yet been fully formulated when the first colonies were established.


Reaction Of The Day

The death penalty seems to worry Reihan.

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I don’t think Obama is really “moving to the center” on FISA, NAFTA, guns, or even taxes. He is, to the contrary, being the authentic Obama: cautious, fairly risk-averse, willing to change his mind as facts (and sometimes political currents) warrant. The broad expanse of his policies remain center-left — or left-center. ~Marc Ambinder

Ambinder is right about this, and his post sums up the difficulty a lot of people seem to have in identifying where Obama fits on the spectrum.  Despite his overwhelmingly progressive record on domestic policy, many will mistake his cautious and deliberative style as proof that he is more “centrist” than he is in this area, while others will misread some of his positions during the primary contest as proof that he is actually insufficiently progressive on domestic policy because he ran to the right of Clinton on certain things.  Those who should be reassured by his record are put off by his presentation, and those who like his presentation desperately avoid taking his record seriously.  Foreign policy critics from the right refuse to take his obvious interventionist and “pro-Israel” positions for what they are, while his admirers on the left and right will pretend that he is just saying these things to get elected.  His position on the war in Iraq is the thing that keeps tripping up both groups, because it was a position born as a pander to an antiwar crowd that has since been mythologised into a brave and bold act of defiance.  Two years later, he said he wasn’t sure how he would have voted when he was in the Senate, and then when he was in the Senate he adopted the position of those Senators who had voted for the war but had since come to regret it.  Why this should inspire anything but dread in antiwar voters, I cannot say. 

He still is quite far to the left and is running on the most left-leaning platform since 1972 (I have seen others say 1968), but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he will abandon any position if it poses a political threat to his career.  This is the sort of thing that some of my friends argued made Romney a preferable Republican nominee–there was nothing that he would defend to the bitter end, but was utterly flexible, which would make for a nice change from the Bush years.  Perhaps, but I don’t think that this is what the Obamaites had in mind when they responded to the call for “change.”  

When he flips suddenly on an issue, everyone thinks they have figured out that he is actually just an opportunist, but this doesn’t really take into account that Obama’s aversion to political risk is the “authentic Obama.”  He is being true to himself, so to speak, by changing his positions on major policy questions for maximal advantage, because the purpose of the exercise has always been to advance his career.  There’s nothing new or remarkable in that, and indeed his sudden rise through the political ranks would be truly unbelievable if he had spent his time standing on principle or waging doomed fights out of conviction.  Instead, he has gamed the system masterfully and is on the threshold of supreme power.  The question remains whether there will be anyone he won’t disappoint once he has it.


Bollywood Strikes Back

In response to such mockery, it is only right to offer this performance by Prabhu Deva and the inestimable Kajol from the Tamil film Minsaara Kanavu.  Music is by the great composer A.R. Rahman.

P.S.  Another version of the song from the same movie.


What's The Deal?

Apparently Limbaugh took aim at Ross and Reihan’s book yesterday, mostly complaining about Brooks’ references to their acknowledgement of conservative aspects of the New Deal.  While constitutionally the New Deal was nothing but usurpation and what Garet Garrett called “revolution within the form,” institutionally it built the foundations of the postwar managerial state that conservatives find objectionable in so many other ways and economically it was an unmitigated failure on its own terms, there were some supporters of the New Deal who viewed it as a conservative program and certainly some of its major programs were framed and justified with the language of social conservatism.  It is not clear to me why conservatives should want to associate themselves with such a lousy program, but then that is one of my basic disagreements with Ross and Reihan. 

Even so, the New Deal occupies a very small place in Grand New Party, but more to the point there is nothing in Ross and Reihan’s accommodation with the New Deal legacy that is in any significant way different from that of Newt Gingrich c. 1995, most neoconservatives since the 1970s or, for that matter, Rush Limbaugh.  So far as I know, Reagan never seriously entertained the prospect of dismantling the New Deal, and the one moment when he had the chance to let the Social Security system expire he made a point of keeping it afloat with tax increases.  If Limbaugh has been actively calling for the elimination of Social Security or the repeal of the Wagner Act, it has escaped my attention.  Indeed, from what Limbaugh has in his transcript you get the distinct impression that “New Deal” is just a phrase to him that has no particular meaning:

David Brooks is illustrative of what has gotten the party where it is today.  He doesn’t realize the Republicans have been taking the lead on this agenda.  Why did they lose ’06?  It wasn’t corruption.  They were spending like drunken sailors, and they got caught up in the perks of power.  The government is as bloated as it can be.  The Republicans didn’t put the brakes on it whatsoever [bold mine-DL].  The Republicans are doing earmarks just like the Democrats did, and Republican conservative voters — limited government, limited government, smaller government, get it out of our way — is the coin of the realm, and so what Mr. Brooks doesn’t realize is, this is exactly where the Republican Party has been headed for seven or eight years now, and he’s only noticing it now and commenting on it as though it represents our future.  

Now, if the Republican Party has been doing this… They haven’t embraced the New Deal, but they may as well have been funding it, along with the Democrats, and if it was going to be our salvation, then how come everybody thinks we’re going to get shellacked in November? [bold mine-DL]  We’ve been doing what these two guys in their book and what Brooks is promoting in their book. We’ve been doing it for seven years! We’ve been growing government. We’ve been trying to use government to interact with people’s lives, “a powerful and engaged executive,” and we have been trying to say, “We’re not mean, and we’re not cruel, and we love you,” and we’ve been trying to give people as much of what government —

We even created our own entitlement, for crying out loud! The Republicans came up with a new entitlement!  Can you believe it?  The New Deal? We’re close.  We should be in the stratosphere.  The Democrats ought to be able to barely muster 25 to 30% of the vote if these guys are right!  They’re not right. 

Obviously, no one should trust electoral analysis from someone who cannot bring himself to mention the war in Iraq as a factor and who pretends that corruption had no effect on the GOP in 2006.  The dreaded earmark makes its obligatory appearance, of course, and in its way the earmark is representative of the ruin of the GOP, but not in the way that the earmark moralists would have it.  The fixation on the utterly insiderish, minor issue of earmarks as the source of Republican woes represents perfectly just how oblivious and incapable of real self-criticism the Republican Party has become.   

As political commentary, Limbaugh’s argument is not much better, since it’s clear that for Limbaugh the phrase “New Deal” is just code for new entitlements or increased discretionary spending rather than a specific reference to Roosevelt’s domestic politics in the 1930s.  Now I have argued in a recent column that I think the meliorist impulse is at the root of the war in Iraq, and obviously it requires the prior acceptance of meliorist assumptions about the efficacy of government action to embrace the administration’s fantasies about nation-building or exporting democracy to Iraq, so I trust everyone will understand that I am not saying this out of any desire to defend a meliorist program.  I generally think meliorism is unwise, and I regard the entire “compassionate conservative” project as a colossal blunder as a matter of policy.  Serving the interests of working- and middle-class constituencies is highly desirable, but I am not persuaded that right-wing meliorism actually serves those interests, even though it may win votes.  So I think it is extremely difficult to show (besides generic size-of-government questions that hide strong resistance to cutting specific programs) that the electorate punishes parties that create entitlements and expand the size of government.  Or, to be more precise, the electorate does not punish those parties because they have created entitlements and expanded the size of government.  As with the Republicans in 1974 and 1976, the government-expanding party was repudiated in 2006, but this was because of things distinct from domestic policy initiatives.

The political goal of Ross and Reihan’s project, from what I have been able to gather so far, is to create the foundation for an enduring Republican coalition that includes working-class voters essentially as a stable successor to the New Deal coalition.  Besides the fact that I don’t think Ross and Reihan are interested in repudiating the New Deal, which is the sort of thing that Ron Paul supporters such as myself would advocate and would be deemed by most Republicans as “crazy” and “radical,” it does not make a great deal of sense politically to start off a book on a working-class agenda with an attack on programs and laws that working-class voters have traditionally supported.


Coolly Rational

Toby Harnden is a smart politcal correspondent for the Telegraph, but like a lot of observers this week he has a mistaken interpretation of Obama’s response to the death penalty ruling that came down on Thursday:

Obama’s a Mid-western senator rather than a Southern governor so he won’t have the opportunity Clinton had to fly back home to order the execution of a retarded man. But he did have the next best thing this week – the Supreme Court’s 5 to 4 decision that quashed the execution of a Louisiana man who raped his eight-year-old daughter.

Without a blink, Obama aligned himself with the Court’s four conservative justices – John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito – who had voted to uphold the death penalty for child rape. The father of girls aged nine and seven, he seized the opportunity to display populist revulsion and take a hard line against a despicable crime. Not for him the cool rationalism of Dukakis.

However, anyone who listened to Obama’s actual statement on the ruling would have been hard-pressed to find any “populist revulsion” in the man’s voice.  When reading it, there is no trace of “revulsion”:

I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old is a heinous crime, and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances, the death penalty is at least potentially applicable. That does not violate our Constitution.  Had the Supreme Court said, ‘We want to constrain the abilities of states to do this to make sure that it’s done in a careful and appropriate way,’ that would have been one thing. But it basically had a blanket prohibition and I disagree with that decision.

Whoa!  Calm down, Senator!  Obviously, Obama responded calmly and advanced a legal argument that the statute in question does not violate the Eighth Amendment.  As a matter of constitutional law, this seems right.  If his statement now counts as an expression of “populist revulsion,” we are definitely lowering the bar for what constitutes populism.

The nature of Obama’s response is not surprising.  Whatever the merits of a given position, Obama never expresses “populist revulsion” even when he is talking about a popular policy (e.g., ending the war) or even when he is demagoguing against NAFTA.  In his more recent flip on NAFTA, he referred to “overheated” rhetoric he used in the past, but the fact is that Obama never really uses “overheated” rhetoric; it is always pretty mild and tepid.  As many people have observed, Obama remains reserved and calm, and he tries to avoid flashes of anger, which are pretty much a requirement if you want to engage in some “populist revulsion” against elites, judicial or otherwise.  This reserved, calm persona is one of the things about his style that attracted conservative admirers and alienated some of the more, er, opinionated progressives.  If he risks being likened to Dukakis, I think his campaign considers that a risk worth taking if the alternative is being caricatured as a politician filled with anger or ridiculed like Dean after “the scream.”  

It may be that conservative talk radio hosts are blundering when they mocked his response earlier this week, but Obama’s response to the death penalty ruling only confirmed in their minds the similarities with someone like Dukakis.  Indeed, one of the things that most of Obama’s admirers like to stress is precisely his “cool rationalism,” which is not necessarily something that disqualifies Obama in the minds of most intelligent observers, but this was a potentially damaging perception that Bill Clinton managed to avoid.  That was a large part of the political advantage for Clinton’s sympathy shtick: it created, or tried to create, an emotional connection with voters that eluded wonkish and legalistic pols.

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