Noah Millman

Obama and the Limits of Progressive Patriotism

Paul Waldman uses the perfect phrase to describe Obama’s speech last night:

For the last eight years, Obama has been making a case for a progressive patriotism, one based on the idea of “a more perfect union,” that phrase from the preamble to the Constitution that he returns to again and again. It’s the idea that the American story is one of constant improvement and progression toward the realization of the country’s founding ideals. In that story, change isn’t incidental, it’s essential. And it’s a fundamentally different kind of patriotic story from the one conservatives usually tell. It’s why Obama frequently brings up dark periods in our country’s history, like slavery (as the first lady did on Monday) or Jim Crow or McCarthyism — those periods are a critical part of the story, because they remind us what we overcame.

So over these years, Obama has taught Democrats how to clearly and unequivocally celebrate America while remaining true to their progressive values. And in the process, he turned his party into a confident one, after it had cowered in fear for a quarter-century before his arrival. It seems like a long time ago now, but during that time Democrats were constantly afraid — afraid they’d be called unpatriotic, afraid they’d be called weak on crime, afraid they’d be called tax-and-spenders, and afraid that Republicans who always seemed more skilled and more ruthless would whip the stuffing out of them.

They don’t look that way anymore, do they? This may be a party that has suffered defeats at the state level (as the president’s party often does), and is still in the minority in Congress. But Donald Trump’s campaign of white nationalism has made Democrats more sure than ever that the future belongs to them, their broad coalition, and their inclusive vision.

And more than a few Republicans understand it too. On Wednesday evening, Tony Fratto, who served as a spokesperson for George W. Bush, tweeted, “Watching Democrats talk about America the way Republican candidates used to talk about America.” As Obama neared the end of his speech, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Reviewtweeted, “American exceptionalism and greatness, shining city on hill, founding documents, etc. — they’re trying to take all our stuff.”

But it isn’t their stuff alone, not anymore.

What these Republicans are responding to isn’t just that Obama is stealing their rhetoric or their optimistic stance. There’s a real kinship between progressive patriotism and the patriotism of the conservative movement, inasmuch as both assume that what America is about, and what makes her worth fighting for, is ideological in nature. There are real differences between the left-wing progressive and right-wing liberal versions of that ideology, but in either case America is something that mere Americans can only aspire to live up to.

The problem with an ideological definition of American patriotism, though, is that we don’t actually all agree on the ideological content. Progressive patriotism, like movement conservatism’s version of patriotism, turns dissenters into un-Americans.

Worse still, it invites the inversion of the proper relationship between the government and the governed. The promise of democracy is, maximally, that we will learn to reason together towards arrangements that we can all live with, and minimally that the government will be accountable to us for its actions. But if the ideal arrangements are objectively out there, rather than something we reason together towards, then democracy becomes a test of the people — they are the ones held accountable, the ones who fail if they vote the wrong way.

Donald Trump’s appeal is, in part, a visceral reaction to that way of thinking on the part of both the right and the left. He’s a walking reminder that the people are sovereign, and that American patriotism is defined not by a theory of what America stands for but by what actual Americans feel.

Trump’s alienated voters don’t feel what Obama feels. That doesn’t mean they’ve failed him. That means he’s failed them, in the sense that he has failed to speak to them in a language they understand, which is his job.

You know who knew how to speak that language? Bill Clinton. Take a look at his speech from Tuesday night. Ostensibly aimed at Sanders voters, what struck me as most important about it was the way in which it reflected a real understanding of the mentality of those who have moved, over the past twenty years, from Clinton to Trump.

Or just check out what I had to say about that speech in my latest column for The Week:

Here’s how the important part begins:

There are clear, achievable, affordable responses to our challenges. But we won’t get to them if America makes the wrong choice in this election. That’s why you should elect her. And you should elect her because she’ll never quit when the going gets tough. She’ll never quit on you. [Bill Clinton]

As someone who’s argued that loyalty should be the key theme for the Clinton campaign, this brought a smile to my face. But it’s worth noting as well that loyalty is also a cardinal virtue among Appalachian whites. Moreover, suspicions of disloyalty are precisely what have made Barack Obama uniquely unpalatable in this region. Bill Clinton is taking this tack not only because it’s a good one for his wife, and because it connects her personal story to her qualities as a candidate in an effective way, but because it’s a good way to speak to the voters she’s having the most trouble with.

She sent me in this primary to West Virginia where she knew we were going to lose, to look those coal miners in the eye and say I’m down here because Hillary sent me to tell you that if you really think you can get the economy back you had 50 years ago, have at it, vote for whoever you want to. But if she wins, she is coming back for you to take you along on the ride to America’s future. [Bill Clinton]

This may be the most important sentence of the whole peroration, but not because of the content. He’s talking about the primary against Sanders, but the argument works equally well to puncture the magical nonsense claims of the Trump campaign. But what’s really important is how the argument is being made. Bill Clinton is talking to voters in West Virginia. He’s talking to them, not about them. He’s not reducing them to psychology or sociology. He’s giving them agency. What they think matters. What they do matters. And it’s their choiceThey have to decide whether they are going to let themselves be played for sentimental fools or not.

It’s sad to realize how infrequently Democrats in the Obama era have talked this way, particularly to this constituency.

And so I say to you, if you love this country, you’re working hard, you’re paying taxes and you’re obeying the law and you’d like to become a citizen, you should choose immigration reform over somebody that wants to send you back.

If you’re a Muslim and you love America and freedom and you hate terror, stay here and help us win and make a future together. We want you.

If you’re a young African American disillusioned and afraid, we saw in Dallas how great our police officers can be, help us build a future where nobody is afraid to walk outside, including the people that wear blue to protect our future. [Bill Clinton]

The most important word in this section is “if,” and the application of that conditional is instructive. Clinton isn’t saying to native-born American citizens that they should welcome immigrants. He’s saying to undocumented immigrants that if they love America, then they should try to stay. He’s not saying that Christian Americans should avoid prejudice against Muslims. He’s saying to Muslim Americans that if they love America, then they should join the fight against America’s enemies. He’s not saying to white Americans that black lives matter. He’s saying to African Americans that if they are afraid of police violence, then theyshould work to reduce violence generally, both by and against the police.

Implicitly, Clinton is assuming some of the key premises of the archetypal Trump voter. There is such a thing as “America” that can be loved or not, and that the condition of entry to a political coalition is demonstrating that love. The job that the police and the armed forces do is inherently noble, and even those who fear being on the receiving end of state violence can only join the coalition to reduce it if they first acknowledge its essential nobility of purpose. He’s challenging the people who Trump’s voters likely view as the ones making demands to instead become allies of the sorts of folks implicitly assumed to already be in the fight, because we already know they love America.

It’s a vision of broad national unity across a multiracial and multicultural nation. But it is a vision that builds that unity on a core implicit identity of Americanness that must be chosen, even earned. Which, as it happens, is just how lots of white folks back in Bill Clinton’s part of the country tend to view the matter.

My conclusion:

Donald Trump is telling a story about American identity that is exceptionally ill-suited to the country that actually exists, much less the country that is emerging. That story is a corrective, though, to the failed ideological stories told by the past two administrations, one a story that put Christian religiosity at the core of American identity, and another that put progressivism at the core.

If the Democrats are to be able to speak to America as a whole, and have a chance of becoming a true majority party and not just capturing the presidency from time to time, they will need a way of talking about American identity that is neither exclusively ideological nor narrowly ethno-national. Their audience for any such message will have to include the most nationalistically minded among the American tribes.

And the starting point for speaking to anybody is learning to speak their language. Even if your aim is to change it.

We already know that Hillary Clinton won’t inspire progressive believers the way Obama can. We’ll see tonight whether she’s learned a trick or two from her husband.

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Mid-Century Modern

Some of my readers may have noticed that I’m writing less about theater in this space than I had previously. But I haven’t given it up entirely! Indeed, I’ve got a new piece up at The New Republic about a handful of exceptional European productions of classic American plays that came through New York this past season.

The middle of the 20th century was a golden age for the American theater. Tennessee Williams wrote his first masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, in 1944, towards the end of World War II, and A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof both followed in the subsequent decade. Eugene O’Neill wrote his titanic mature works, Long Day’s Journey Into Night and The Iceman Cometh, during World War II, and each was first performed in the first dozen years after the war. And in the same period, Arthur Miller gave the world arguably his greatest works: All My SonsDeath of a SalesmanThe Crucible, and A View From the Bridge.

These plays are the mainstay of the American theatrical canon, the ones that the greatest actors of every generation seek to leave their mark on, and make their own.

But are they still our own?

A series of recent productions that came to New York with great acclaim have implicitly questioned whether we can still see these plays for what they are, or whether they need to be made new to avoid seeming stale. These productions took plays that are deeply rooted in a particular time and place—and that deal, urgently, with the issues of their day—and ripped them up forcefully to re-pot them in fresh soil.

In foreign soil, one might say, as the three productions I’m thinking of in particular were directed by Europeans. This approach, of course, is not unique to European directors. For well over a generation, American directors have been taking Shakespeare’s plays and setting them wherever and whenever they liked—whether in a particular time and place, or an abstract nowhere, or a cosmopolitan everywhere that partakes of whatever bits of history and culture that may lie to hand. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has even famously (or infamously) commissioned translations of Shakespeare into more familiar English. For these classic works, whatever enables the audience to connect to the character and story is fair game.

What’s new is applying that approach to American classics. If these European directors are right, and these plays need a kind of translation to come fully alive, what does that say about our relationship to theater—and our relationship to our own past?

If you’d like to know what I think, check out the whole article there.


Does It Matter If Putin Wants Trump?

The evidence that Vladimir Putin would prefer Donald Trump to win the American Presidential election is, by this point, pretty overwhelming. Whether or not Putin is behind the Wikileaks dump of hacked DNC emails, Russia Today’s coverage should make it clear enough who the Kremlin is behind. But should it matter to American voters?

It obviously matters if Trump is actually beholden to Putin for financial reasons, which is an extremely good reason to demand that he rise to the level of financial disclosure that has become standard practice for Presidential candidates. Republicans who raise completely legitimate questions about the Clinton Foundation’s buck-raking can’t really dispute that. It also obviously matters if Trump is a man of such weak character that cheap flattery from a foreign despot would readily sway his administration’s policies.

But does it matter what Russia wants? Should we be outraged if they are trying to influence the American election? Should we be incensed if they stooped to dirty tricks to do it? If so, I’m having a hard time figuring out why.

It should come as a shock to exactly nobody that Russia spies on American political institutions. Nor should anyone paying attention be at all surprised that Putin would resort to dirty and underhanded means to achieve his political objectives – he’s done far worse – and not only in his own back yard. If there’s a scandal about the email hacking, it’s that the DNC was so vulnerable to being hacked.

And it should be even less shocking that Russia would care to influence an American election. We do it all the time – and we use tricks at least as dirty. We’ve even done it in a partisan manner, with Republican and Democratic Presidents backing horses abroad who are more favorable to their partisan agendas. And other countries have done so as well with us. Benjamin Netanyahu has made no secret of his preference for Republican Presidents, nor did Chiang Kai-shek before him. Nor were our European allies’ Democratic preferences in the 2004 Presidential election exactly a secret.

The Wikileaks dump itself is both appalling and banal. It’s appalling because of the outrageous breach of privacy. If a rival American campaign, or a domestic interest, engaged in those kinds of dirty tricks, criminal prosecution would be in order. But it’s banal because what has been revealed (so far) is merely embarrassing, and barely that. As anyone with eyes could have seen beforehand, the DNC was not as neutral as it formally claimed to be. This should be just as shocking as the revelation from the Sony hack that male Hollywood stars are paid more than women, or that behind closed doors executives make racial and other comments that are decidedly not appropriate for public disclosure.

But precisely because this kind of behavior from Russia should be no surprise, there’s no obvious reason why it should prompt a change in policy, or in America’s voters’ preferences.

Trump is running on policies that are more-favorable to Russia’s interests than Hillary Clinton is. He’s also running on policies that are less-favorable to Chinese interests. Either Trump or Clinton could be wrong about one, or the other, or both, or neither. But what really matters is whether those policies would be good for American interests, and whether either of them would be effective at implementing them.

And no: saying “I’ll put America first” doesn’t get you a pass on either question.

UPDATE: Let me be clear about what I’m saying. I don’t think it matters much if Russia wants Trump to be President. I also don’t find it especially shocking that Russia is engaged in espionage, and would resort to dirty tricks to win the election. None of this as such should especially affect our opinion of Russia — or of Trump.

But Trump’s actual ties to Putin, financial or otherwise, do indeed matter — enormously. And Trump’s reaction to the revelations most certainly matters as well. The only appropriate response is to condemn foreign interference. Today, Trump did exactly the opposite. He explicitly cheered on Russia’s hacking, and said he hopes it proves even more fruitful.

Trump will undoubtedly defend himself by saying that we don’t know whether Russia is even behind the hack, that the American people deserve the truth from whatever source, etc. There is absolutely no defense for his comments, or for his attitude. Trump is calling on a foreign power to break American law in order to influence an American election in his favor. If that’s fair game then, to use a phrase Trump likes to use in another context, we don’t have a country.

None of which means Victoria Nuland was right about anything, or that I would expect anything good to come of following her preferred course in handling Russia. But seriously — if you wanted to prove David “Unpatriotic Conservatives” Frum right after all, you could not do better than to continue to support Trump.

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The Presidency Is No Place For An Apprentice


My latest column for The Week is up, and it’s a look back and what we’ve learned about Trump since he clinched the nomination.

Trump, in his acceptance speech, touched not at all on the themes that animate social conservatives. There was no mention of the need to defend traditional religious belief, or the traditional family, or the unborn. There was no invocation of the place of the divine in American life at all. The party platform, on the other hand, is a reactionary document that is obsessed with these very issues, and that has lurched further to the right on them even as the country has moved the other way.

Similarly, the nominee has repeatedly hammered on the theme of wage stagnation, and the need to reverse the decline of manufacturing and the rise of finance in the American economy. But the GOP platform has virtually nothing to say about these issues, and on the convention day ostensibly devoted to putting America back to work, the speakers focused instead on the need to put the Democratic nominee in prison.

Or consider this. After picking Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate, Trump remained uncertain enough about his choice that his agonizing leaked to the press, while in person Trump has been unable to muster even the bare minimum of normal respect for the man he wants to put a heartbeat away from the presidency. But before making the offer to Pence, Trump’s own son reportedly advertised the position (to Ohio Gov. John Kasich) as the most powerful in the history of the vice presidency, with control over both domestic and foreign policy. (The Trump campaign now denies ever offering the VP slot to Kasich.)

On the one hand, Trump the nominee has staked out highly idiosyncratic territory for his campaign, leading his party in a new direction that thrillshis supporters and terrifies his detractors, even when they believe he is likely to lose. But on the other hand, Trump seems to be doing nothing to actually move the party, institutionally, in the direction he claims to be leading, or even to have an interest in articulating what that direction might be. And he seems exceptionally eager to hand off the job of figuring out what he would actually do to others — others that include very traditional orthodox Republican figures like his running mate.

This might give comfort to those Republicans who strongly oppose Trump’s deviations from party orthodoxy, but who see him as a vehicle, however imperfect, for getting back into power. But it shouldn’t. A Trump presidency is overwhelmingly likely to disappoint enthusiastic and reluctant supporters alike.

Trump appears to be operating on a model of the presidency that looks something like the role he played on The Apprentice. He will be the king, surrounded by courtiers who make proposals of various kinds, some of which get approved. When they don’t work out, he’ll ostentatiously banish them from court. So long as the courtiers are the ones making the suggestions for what to do, they will constrain the possible courses of action. But serving at the pleasure of the king they will have no ability to direct it. And they will be first in line for blame when and if the proposed policy goes wrong.

Scott McConnell, who’s got a much sunnier view of Trump than I have, might nonetheless agree.

Here’s the thing Trump fans need to reckon with that I don’t dwell on at length in the column. Say you feel – as I do – that some of what Trump is running on is important. For example, I have  come around, increasingly, to the view that we need to reassess our approach to trade. What’s Trump’s effect going to be on those causes?

So far, instead of moving the center in his direction, he’s moving his establishment opponents to stake out more extreme claims on the other side. When Clinton’s opponent was Bernie Sanders, she abandoned her previous support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now that she’s facing Donald Trump, she’s chosen Tim Kaine as her running mate, who once said that opponents of free trade agreements have a “loser’s mentality.” The same dynamic is at work on immigration, Trump’s signature issue.

If he loses, the loss will temporarily discredit Trump’s heterodoxy. The challenge for those who support one or another of his views will be to rescue Trumpism from Trump, and to find a Reagan to Trump’s Goldwater – a task I think will be quite difficult since Trump, unlike Goldwater, is not actually building any kind of institutional edifice that will outlast him.

But if Trump wins, the situation could be even worse for those who believe in him, assuming I’m right about his temperamental unfitness for the job. One way it could be worse is if Trump is neutered in policy terms, and his administration is a relatively orthodox Republican one, just exceptionally incompetent. But it could also be worse if Trump tries to achieve some of his objectives.

Take foreign policy. Let’s say Trump means what he says about NATO. He tells the former Warsaw Pact members that America is no longer worried about the Russian threat, and will not commit to their defense if attacked. He tells Turkey that NATO’s new mission is to fight radical Islamist terrorism. And he tells everybody that if they don’t spend more on defense, we’re taking our marbles and going home. Being Trump, he says all of this in the most obnoxious possible way, on national television.

I think it’s safe to assume that none of this will go over well – but perhaps we don’t want it to go over well. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure we don’t want Russian-backed separatists in eastern Estonia declaring their independence, forcing us to choose between confronting Russia militarily or admitting the hollowness of our security guarantee. I’m pretty sure we don’t want Turkey calling Trump’s bluff and proclaiming that it has no place in an anti-Muslim alliance.

The point is that turning a ship as large as American foreign policy takes a while, and needs to be done carefully. Done poorly, it could lead to a rapid collapse of institutions that even if they have outlived their original purpose and need to be rethought, have nonetheless served that purpose exceptionally well, and are the cornerstone of the entire international order.

And the other point is that Trump’s blustery, impetuous approach to these matters is prompting people like me, who should be arguing against the Washington consensus, instead to argue that it’s too risky to break with that consensus, at least in the Trumpian manner.

I think Clinton’s argument from experience is, ultimately, a losing one. She has a lot of experience making bad decisions, and she doesn’t seem to have learned from them – and she seems never to consider the possibility that the consensus may be wrong, because it is based on false or obsolete premises. But Trump’s challenge only seems to be hardening that position, and if he wins, a disastrous Trump Presidency may bring that consensus back with a vengeance.

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Kirchick’s Coup Fantasies

I am reluctant to call attention to a James Kirchick piece, but this one is so outrageous that I really feel obliged to. Ostensibly, the piece is a warning that if Trump gets elected, there might be a military coup in the United States. No, really:

Americans viewing the recent failed coup attempt in Turkey as some exotic foreign news story — the latest, violent yet hardly unusual political development to occur in a region constantly beset by turmoil — should pause to consider that the prospect of similar instability would not be unfathomable in this country if Donald Trump were to win the presidency.

What evidence does he present for such an astonishing claim?

Here’s the list:

  • Trump frequently praises foreign dictators.
  • Paul Manafort prevented a roll-call vote at the convention that might have embarrassed Trump.
  • Language expressing support for Ukrainian democracy was removed from the party platform.
  • Trump has campaigned for our military to take actions that are clearly violations of domestic and international law.

Kirchick goes on to argue that if Trump did issue blatantly illegal orders, his generals might refuse to obey such orders — and Trump might fire them in response. And . . . I supposed we’re to infer that the military would then rise up in outrage at such treatment and oust President Trump, ending American democracy.

Look, there’s a very real case to be made that Trump is a danger to the Republic. He genuinely doesn’t care about political norms, international law, or even the constitution. He’s erratic and impulsive and narcissistic. He might very well issue illegal orders to violate international law — like the last Republican President did, and like the last Republican Presidential nominee advocated doing, only worse. There’s a reason I’m rooting for Hillary Clinton to utterly crush Donald Trump. I think he’d be a truly ruinous chief executive.

But there is essentially zero risk that any faction of the U.S. military will take it into its head to oust Trump from the presidency. Kirchick doesn’t even bother to outline a plausible scenario for such an eventuality. He jumps straight from “Trump is insufficiently opposed to Putin’s Ukrainian stooges” to “Trump will issue orders that will put American security in jeopardy” to “the U.S. military will have no choice but to step in to stop him, even if it means a coup.”

Kirchick isn’t really warning that this might happen. He’s fantasizing. He’s implying that, in his mind, a coup would be justified to eliminate the threat of Donald Trump.

The contrast with the overwhelming resistance by Turkey’s opposition parties to the coup against Erdogan speaks volumes.

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No Respect At All

I’ll have something to say soon enough about the coup in Turkey and other weighty matters, but for now, take the time to enjoy McKay Coppins’s revealing article about how Donald Trump came to run for President.

About 30 minutes into the debate, Kelly asked Trump to respond to a recent BuzzFeed News report about his position on immigration.

“First of all, BuzzFeed?” Trump said, waving an index finger in the air. “They were the ones that said under no circumstances will I run for president — and were they wrong.” My phone lit up with a frenzied flurry of tweets, texts, and emails, each one carrying variations of the same message: This is all your fault.

Trump was referring to a profile I’d written two years earlier in which I chronicled a couple of days spent inside the billionaire’s bubble and confidently concluded that his long-stated presidential aspirations were a sham. He had tweeted about me frequently in the weeks following its publication — often at odd hours, sometimes multiple times a day — denouncing me as a “dishonest slob” and “true garbage with no credibility.”Breitbart published an “EXCLUSIVE” with Trump and his employees claiming I’d boorishly harassed various women during my brief stay at his Palm Beach estate Mar-a-Lago. (“I don’t know how to say it — he was looking at me like I was yummy,” complained one hostess named “Bianka Pop.”) There were a lot of things about Trump’s wrathful, wounded reaction that seemed weird at the time, but in retrospect, the weirdest was that it never really ended; for two years, Trump continued to rant about how I’m a scumbag or a loser or “just another phony guy.”

Trump’s performative character assassination led to plenty of teasing from friends and colleagues about how I had inadvertently goaded Trump into running. But as his campaign gained traction, the tone started to curdle into something more…hostile. Once, after discussing Trump’s latest outrage on cable news, the host grumbled to me, “Won’t it be great when Donald Trump becomes president because you wrote a fucking BuzzFeed article daring him to run? I mean, won’t that be fucking fantastic?” I mentioned to former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett that Trump’s candidacy had me yearning for a new beat. “So, wait a second, you get all of us into this, and now you decide it’s beneath you?” he demanded. “No, you stay ‘til it’s fucking over. The whole thing. You stay here with the rest of us until it’s done.”

It’s not done yet. As Trump completed his conquest of the Republican Party this year, I contemplated my supposed role in the imminent fall of the republic — retracing my steps; poring over old notes, interviews, and biographies; talking to dozens of people. What had most struck me during my two days with Trump was his sad struggle to extract even an ounce of respect from a political establishment that plainly viewed him as a sideshow. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that he’d felt this way for virtually his entire life — face pressed up against the window, longing for an invitation, burning with resentment, plotting his revenge.

I had landed on a long and esteemed list of haters and losers — spanning decades, stretching from Wharton to Wall Street to the Oval Office — who have ridiculed him, rejected him, dismissed him, mocked him, sneered at him, humiliated him — and, now, propelled him all the way to the Republican presidential nomination, with just one hater left standing between him and the nuclear launch codes.

What have we done?

The article is marvelous, but of course it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. The question isn’t what ultimately motivated Trump to run for President, but what motivated a substantial plurality of the Republican party primary electorate to vote for him. Trump may be an exceptionally perfect vessel for the politics of resentment, but if the tide of resentment rises high enough it’ll lift (or, I suppose, fill) whatever vessel is available.

Anyway – read the whole thing. It’s great.

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RBG Earns Her Vaunted Notoriety

Dan Drezner on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appallingly inappropriate comments on the election:

[B]ecause Ginsburg believes in speaking plainly, then let us return the favor: This was a remarkably stupid and egregious comment for a sitting Supreme Court justice to make on the record. Say what you will about Justices Antonin Scalia, who died in February, or Clarence Thomas, but they never weighed in on presidential politics quite like this. The closest example I can find is that in January 2004, during an election year, Scalia went on a hunting trip with Vice President Dick Cheney. That action alone got legal ethicists into a lather.

What Ginsburg did was way worse, though. Indeed, I can find no modern instance of a Supreme Court justice being so explicit about an election — and for good reason. As the Chicago Tribune noted in an editorial:

To say her public comments are unusual is like saying dancing cows are scarce. Supreme Court justices don’t — at least until now — take public stands on presidential or other elections. One reason is that they are barred from doing so by the federal code of judicial conduct, which states that as a general rule, judges shall not “publicly endorse or publicly oppose another candidate for public office.” They also aren’t allowed to make speeches on behalf of political organizations or give money to candidates. …

Nowhere is that impartiality more important than in the highest court in the land, which has the final word on a host of grave questions. For justices to descend into partisan election campaigns would undermine public faith in their willingness to assess each case strictly on its legal merits. It would also encourage justices to let their political biases affect, if not determine, their decisions.

Indeed. As my Post colleague and Volokh Conspiracy contributor Jonathan Adler writes, “For the record, I share many of her concerns about Trump, and will not support him for President under any circumstances, but these comments seem quite inappropriate for a sitting member of the federal judiciary.”

As I noted earlier this year, trust in the Supreme Court was bound to take a hit after the death of Scalia and the partisan deadlock over filling his seat. But if eroding trust was a slow-burning political fire, Ginsburg just poured gasoline on it. There are certain privileges that one sacrifices to be a sitting member of the federal judiciary and making explicitly partisan comments about presidential elections is one of those privileges.

I cannot see any possible defense of what Ginsburg did, given that she violated Canon 5 of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges. Supreme Court Justices are not strictly bound by that code, but they nonetheless act as exemplars for the rest of the judiciary, and this canon seems pretty important. She should repair the damage and apologize for her remarks as soon as possible. Otherwise, she bears almost as much responsibility as Trump for the slow-motion crisis in American democracy.

I concur completely. The best defense of Ginsburg’s behavior is that she is getting old and forgot herself, which is not exactly a good defense of the capacities of a sitting Justice. More likely, since she still seems pretty sharp to me, Ginsburg has been drawn into the orbit of those who think Trump’s success so far is already adequate evidence of the failure of democracy, and calls for an extraordinary response. But it’s still bizarre that she could think that her comments would be in any way helpful in that endeavor.

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Self-Evidence versus the Will to Believe

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence famously proclaims. What are those truths, so self-evident that they don’t need any justification?

[T]hat all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These are, likely, the most famous words ever written by an American, and are the words we most justly celebrated yesterday on Independence Day. They have been often been described as “the American creed,” and have been held up as the proper basis for interpreting the constitution and even for conducting foreign policy. But it’s worth noting that, without them, the Declaration would make, if anything, more sense.


When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. . . .

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

And, from there, to a list of said Facts.

One people is oppressed by another, suffering a long chain of abuses. Eventually, the abuses can no longer be tolerated. They constitute a tyranny, and they oblige the oppressed people to throw off the tyrant’s yoke.

That’s not a new story – nor is it a story that requires a new political theory to justify rebellion. The Dutch Revolt required no such theory. Neither did Tyrone’s Rebellion. Why, then, did America’s founders find it necessary to introduce such a theory into the document justifying our own rebellion against the crown?

It’s hard to believe that this philosophical language was introduced to win the support of the France’s absolute monarchy. The philosophes might have applauded, but Louis XVI would surely have preferred to back a rebellion that cast no particular doubt on the legitimacy of hereditary monarchy to one that did. It is even harder to believe that the language was intended to justify a revolution in the domestic arrangements of the colonies. The Declaration was a document intended to be something that the colonies – from slaveholding South Carolina to loyally-inclined Pennsylvania – could assent to unanimously. An alarmingly revolutionary doctrine would surely be the last thing the Congress would have wished to include.

Was it revolutionary, though, to American ears? Quite likely not. In fact, the most stirring portion of the Declaration, the words that have had profound implications for American and world history, may have been so much boilerplate. Americans from Virginia to Vermont, with long experience with self-government, casually assumed Lockean premises about where government legitimately derived and what was its legitimate purpose. Including these words in the document justifying American independence may not have established an American creed so much as they reiterated the largely unexamined premises that many Americans already assumed.

I say this not to disparage these noble sentiments in any way. It happens often enough that what we say most casually reveals most profoundly who we are, and the history of the Declaration attests quite adequately to its lasting and continually-evolving power.

Rather, I make this point by way of normalizing what is usually thought of an American exception, in the hopes of articulating a humbler version of that much-contested exceptionalism.

If the Declaration is understood as promulgating a revolutionary creed, upon which this nation was founded and united, then what is to become of those un-American souls whose adherence to every tenet of this creed is less than enthusiastic? What of those Americans who question whether an absolute liberty of arms is a matter of natural God-given right, or those who doubt that our equal creation implies that each of us must hold all people of equal capacity for all endeavors? What of those Americans who deny that the Creator has anything to do with rights in the first place? A creedal nation may not deal kindly with heretics.

But, if we are not a creedal nation, then what unites us? After all, we come from every country on earth, of all races and religions, speaking different languages. Some came as conquerors or settlers; some came as immigrants to an established society; some came in chains. And some, of course, were already here. If out of so many we have become one, must it not be because we all assent to the self evidence of these propositions, and pledge our allegiance to a society and government founded to reflect and advance them?

Perhaps. Or perhaps our unity depends on something less strenuous. The alternative, I would argue, is to regard the Declaration descriptively rather than prescriptively. What is self-evident, after all, is the opposite of what must be willed into belief. If these truths were self-evident to the Founding Fathers, that’s because they dovetailed naturally with their own experience of self-government, and of settling a land that was theirs before they were the land’s. And, pragmatically, they were and are the minimal common ground that a diverse people can agree when they don’t agree on other truths. Inasmuch as we share their experience, we will share that experience of their self-evidence. And inasmuch as we wish to remain in communion with our own past, we will look for ways to understand those truths that are self-evident to us, even if they aren’t precisely the ways that they would have been true to Adams or Jefferson. But that’s a way of relating to these stirring words grounded in history, not one that plucks them out of context and engraves them on tablets of stone.

Because America, the land where we like to believe that you can always repeat the past, does have a history after all. We believe the things we do because of our particular experience, not because nothing else could possibly be true. If we are exceptional, it’s because our experience has been exceptional. Therefore, the fact that our history contains its fair share of crimes and follies does not belie our belief that we have something special, but rather validates it by grounding that belief in reality rather than myth. And what unites us is, quite simply, joining ourselves to that history, saying that whatever we do, as public citizens, will necessarily be understood in terms of what was done by those who came before us. There is plenty we can do, as a nation, that is unworthy. But in a literal sense, there is nothing we can do that is un-American.

We can love our country because the story we are telling together is a fascinating and distinctive one in the history of humanity – we really can’t know the next chapter, much less how it will all turn out. Or we can love it simply because it is ours. We do not need to will ourselves to believe more than anyone can truly know in order to love more than anyone honestly can.

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A Class Is Not the Same As a Tribe

Photo: R-photos / shutterstock

I want to give one cheer for Ross Douthat’s latest column, about the emerging shape of politics in the West as a contest between a nativist populace and cosmopolitan elites—or, rather, a globalized elite that is no less parochial than the populace, albeit differently so:

Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.

The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”

This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.

This is undoubtedly correct. But it’s worth pointing out that this globalist tribe is not, contra Douthat, a tribe “like any other,” any more than, say, the pan-European medieval Catholic clergy was truly comparable to, say, the tribe of Yorkshiremen. Meritocracy is a highly problematic ideology, but it’s not selecting for nothing. The winners in the contest for membership in a global elite are, in fact, an elite. They aren’t just a tribe—they’re a class.

Which is why Douthat’s peroration leaves me cold:

[I]t’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.

They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”

They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.

They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.

Indeed—but it was ever thus. What elite has ever not seen itself as rightfully placed at the top of the social pyramid? What tribe has ever not called its members “the human beings” while calling everyone else “barbarian?” Insufficient introspection and self-criticism on the part of our elites may well be a problem, but if so it’s a perennial problem of the human condition, and of elites especially, rather than uniquely of the elite of our moment. Douthat, ironically, sounds here a bit like the social justice warriors who he would otherwise deride. He’s calling for our multicultural masters to check their privilege.

If the new ruling class faces insufficient opposition, maybe one reason is the decay of the institutions that once would have provided representation to the classes left behind by globalization. In the absence of such organs capable of playing the give-and-take of normal democratic politics to win their half a loaf, populism assumes a demagogic and even apocalyptic form—or degenerates into a series of scams preying on the fears and anxieties of those they claim to represent for financial gain or political power.

Our populist moment shows ample evidence of both deformations of populism. The answer can’t be either a globalist elite that is “woke” to the plight of the white working class, nor a surrender to the charms of the knaves and charlatans currently bidding for power with that class’s backing. As ever, the only response capable of bearing fruit is to organize.

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The Consent of the Governed


I’ve got a new column up at The Week about a topic that has me increasingly frustrated, and I’m not sure the column adequately expresses my frustration. The subject is whether American politics is broken because it has become too democratic.

A couple of months ago, Andrew Sullivan argued the case in his usual hysterical style, with inevitably frequent reference to Plato; I responded to him here. Now Jonathan Rauch makes the subtler argument that well-intentioned reforms aimed at greater accountability and transparency have made the dirty work of sausage-making impossible, and that this largely explains American politics’ manifest dysfunction. And I’m sorry: I just don’t buy Rauch’s soberly centrist lament any more than Sullivan’s hysterical screed.

In part I don’t buy it because the case feels cherry-picked to me:

For one thing, American government genuinely improved after many of the reforms Rauch cites. No Ted Cruz emerged as the result of the direct election of senators. The increased importance of presidential primaries did not neuter party leaders — indeed, earlier this season most political commentators dismissed Donald Trump’s chances by citing The Party Decides. Congress operated with no more than typical inefficiency after the post-Watergate reforms. As for the rise of the congressional free agent, the Gingrich reforms were specifically intended to increase party discipline — and to concentrate that disciplinary power in the hands of the speaker and whip, as opposed to the previously-powerful committee chairs. And, indeed, congressional Republicans have proven far more disciplined than, say, the Democrats were in the 1980s, when the Republicans regularly peeled off conservative Southern Democrats to pass the Reagan administration program.

Outside groups like super PACs are troublesome for politicians because they are formally forbidden from coordinating with campaigns. They are even more troublesome for the parties with whom they compete. But is there any structural reason why they should be especially ideologically extreme or resistant to compromise? If there is, Rauch doesn’t articulate one. The parties themselves were a response to the need for a new organizational scheme that reflected the divergent interests within the new nation; the rise of political patronage machines, similarly, were a way of reflecting the interests of voters who saw themselves inadequately represented. Why couldn’t extra-party pressure groups work similarly, and compromise just as well as parties themselves did?

I can suspect how Rauch would respond to each of these contentions. For example, he might argue that the defections of Southern democrats in the 1980s proved his point about the possibility of compromise when there was pork available to grease the wheels, and that  Gingrich’s concentration of power in the hands of the speaker ultimately empowered radical factions who could threaten to withhold support. But these counter-arguments actually prove my point about cherry-picking: they amount to saying that party discipline is good except when it’s bad.

But the main reason I reject the premise is more fundamental:

[W]hether well-intentioned government reforms have unintentionally made governance harder, they are not the cause of the insanity that has gripped American politics. Rather, that insanity is driven by a crisis of legitimacy in one of our major political parties. For a variety of reasons, the Republican Party has completely lost the confidence of the Republican electorate. In response to that loss, the GOP has tried to maintain loyalty on the basis of appeals to identity and ideology, appeals whose effectiveness have steadily declined, until we have now reached the point of open revolt.

Rauch calls for a restoration of mediating norms and institutions as a solution to a surfeit of transparency and accountability. Give party leaders the tools to make deals, and deals will be made once more. Call it the good government case for the dirty business of sausage making. The problem, ironically, is that the prescription suffers from the same defects of good government reforms generally, of elevating process over the conflicts of interests that the process must manage to achieve any kind of result.

Authority, in any political system, rests on the consent of the governed; democracy just provides the most effective means for the political class to determine whether the governed continue to consent. So long as the GOP’s voters lack confidence that the party is responsive to their interests, attempts to insulate the political class from direct accountability will only inspire greater ructions and revolts. Inasmuch as its donor class is indifferent or actively hostile to any such effort — and plenty of evidence points to the fact that this is the case — we should expect those disturbances, and their chaotic impact on America’s political system, to continue for some time to come.

I feel awkward arguing against these critics of too much democracy because I don’t particularly believe in the ideology of democracy. That is to say, I don’t believe the people have a will in the first place, much less that the government is obliged to follow its dictates.

What I believe is that, as I say in my column, authority rests on the consent of the governed – and it does so in every system, in monarchies, autocracies and one-party dictatorships as well as in democracies. That consent can be tacit or active; it can be achieved by means of open debate or demagogic persuasion or through education in a set of traditions and norms that the citizenry doesn’t even think to question. But as a practical matter, authority depends not on force but on consent. Once it resorts to force, authority is revealed as tyrannical.

Democracy is, from this perspective, best viewed as a mechanism for the processing of information. It’s a feedback mechanism that allows for changes of policies and/or personnel in response to a decline in popular consent. It’s the best means we know of to communicate whether the people consent to be governed.

Rauch – and Sullivan, for that matter – may be right that a less-transparent, less-accountable system might actually achieve a more stable level of popular consent. But that’s the metric that matters, not whether it would achieve better policies or a more efficient operation of government. There is no particular reason to believe that, at any given moment, the people will be content merely with what is best for them. They have to believe that the government is in the best position to know what is best, and that it has the proper authority to act on that knowledge. They are unlikely to believe that if, in response to their manifest discontent, the government basically says that they are fools or knaves who should actively be ignored.

The reason you listen to the people is not that the people are necessarily right or know what is best, nor because your political theory requires you to be a mere conduit for what the people command, but because the best way to convince the people that you are listening to them is to listen to them. And until they are convinced you are listening to them, they won’t listen to you. And if they don’t listen to you, then you have no authority.

That’s my view of why American politics has gone insane: the Republican Party no longer has any authority over the bulk of its voters, while the Democratic Party is viewed as an illegitimate authority by those same voters. One or the other party – or a new one – needs to win the trust of that bloc of voters, and then either win power, or lose and accept the loss with grace.

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