Noah Millman


My latest column at The Week is all about an analogy (originating with Corey Robin’s essay from back in January) that’s getting some renewed play in the wake of the AHCA fiasco:

Carter was what Robin calls a “disjunctive president,” someone who leads a coalition that was once dominant but is now in the late stages of fragmentation. The disjunctive leader’s aim is to reorient that coalition around the novel challenges of that political moment, and thereby to restore their coalition to primacy. But he’s unable to herd the necessary cats, and is therefore succeeded by a “reconstructive” president, someone who is capable of articulating that response and following through with action, in part because he needs a new coalition more naturally built around that response.

At the time the article was written, there were already potent reasons to find this Trump-Carter analogy plausible, in spite of the wild differences in personality and ideology between the two presidents. Both Carter and Trump ran as outsiders to the established power structure of their parties, and faced fierce resistance from the old guard. Both ran on heterodox programs and scrambled what had been traditional electoral coalitions, and both won very narrowly. The increasing friction between the White House and the GOP congressional leadership further confirms the analogy, as does the planned shift to “easy victories” over taxes. As Robin wrote back in January:

One of the signature promises of the Trump campaign is already turning into a curse.

Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess, but the most likely outcome is that Trump and the GOP will fall back on what Republicans know how to do best: tax cuts and deregulation. At moments of articulation, holding fast to the regime’s orthodoxies can be intoxicating sources of power, as Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush learned. At moments of disjunction, that kind of steadfastness can lead to disaster. [Corey Robin]

But there’s a problem with the analogy: Plenty of observers at the time thought the 2008 election ushered in a “reconstructive” presidency and a new dispensation. Those hopes were bitterly disappointed — beginning with disappointment that the best health-care bill the Democrats could pass was the insurer-friendly Affordable Care Act. And today, the possibilities that Robin articulates depend on a factor that at least in 2008 was present but now — so far, at least — is absent. That is a “reconstructive” figure poised for triumph on the Democratic side.

Well, actually, there’s one obvious possibility:

As Douthat points out, Sanders ran an insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton much as Reagan ran against Gerald Ford in 1976. And Sanders represents a throwback to an earlier form of unapologetic big-government liberalism that had been largely repudiated after the Mondale debacle in 1984, just as Reagan represented a throwback to an earlier form of anti-government conservatism that had been largely repudiated after the Goldwater debacle in 1964.

Other observers have noted Sanders’ ability to speak successfully to Trump voters and their concerns, and asked why the Democrats aren’t embracing a populist politics of their own, redeeming the very promises on which Trump himself will be unable to deliver.

There are a variety of reasons to be skeptical of the analogy — but my focus is on how the progressive response to the AHCA debacle shows that they haven’t actually grasped the nettle of what drove Trump, and what it will take to “reconstruct” politics in the wake of a catastrophic Trump presidency:

In the wake of the AHCA’s failure, there has been an increase in support for a single-payer system, largely in safe Democratic areas. But Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency because he promised a better deal than ObamaCare, and single-payer — even if it’s a good idea — isn’t going to be the banner under which the Democrats can plausibly bring a new coalition to dominance, because ultimately it would be just that: a good idea. The Democrats have never lacked for individual ideas that poll well or have serious policy work behind them. That’s not their most fundamental problem.

Disjunctive presidents have a genuine grasp of some essential aspects of the crisis the nation faced and how it threatened their governing coalition. They ask some of the most important and correct questions in their campaigns, which is why they are able to win, and their only hope of success is in addressing those questions correctly.

Carter paved the way for Reagan when he ran in opposition to school busing and courted the newly awakened white evangelical vote; when he championed deregulation of finance and the airlines; when he appointed Paul Volcker to the Fed; and when he responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Reagan did not win the presidency by saying Goldwater’s libertarian, fiercely anti-communist conservatism was the eternal truth (which, to be fair, is pretty much what he did say when he supported Goldwater in 1964). Rather, he said that in the “present crisis” government was the problem rather than the solution.

The “present crisis” in America, domestically speaking, is not that the ACA is a kludgy solution to distributing health care. Even the alarming rise in American mortality is not due to the persistent limitations and failures of our health-care system. Though the pharmaceutical companies bear more than their share of the blame for the opioid crisis, the deeper roots of the rise in mortality are economic, the collapse in expectations for prosperity in swathes of rural and working-class America.

The populist explanation for that crisis is the devouring of the public weal by special interests — and left- and right-wing populists mostly disagree on which interests to blame. But the promise to restore that ladder to prosperity is what got Trump elected. The Democrats need a champion who can redeem that promise — which there is every reason to expect Trump cannot deliver on.

There may or may not be a place for championing single-payer health care as part of that message. The last thing the Democrats need is to be scared of their own shadow when it comes to big, apparently unlikely initiatives, and under a big umbrella there will be room for dozens if not hundreds of policy ideas, some of which will barely cohere. But the big idea under which all those policies cohere must be a response to that central crisis, that explains why we no longer have a broadly shared prosperity and how to restore it.

When the Democrats have found their “reconstructive” Reagan — whether it’s Sanders or someone who inherits his banner — it’ll be obvious, because he or she will talk as he did, and articulate how in the present crisis their philosophy will be responsive.

Read the whole thing there.

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Will We Always Have Been At War With Obamacare?

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

I’m going to be boarding a plane shortly, and I’ll likely be in the air when the AHCA vote happens. So it’s possible that this post will look pointless in a couple of hours.

But assuming the vote fails, as it currently looks likely to do, we’re about to learn just how Orwellian the GOP electorate is.

A failure of the AHCA isn’t necessarily the end of the road for GOP attempts to reform President Obama’s healthcare reform. They could start again pretty quickly in the Senate, which was unlikely ever to pass the House’s bill in the first place. They could also move on to other business, hope to expand their majority in 2018, and then try again. They could even campaign on a particular vision of reform in 2018, and then claim a mandate if they did expand their majority.

But of course, to do that they’d need to have an intra-party debate about what that policy agenda should be. Which would require somebody — and that somebody is probably President Trump — to stand up and say: the House Freedom Caucus’s vision is wrong, and here’s my alternative, whether that’s Medicaid for all or some as-yet undescribed alternative to both Obamacare and the status-quo ante circa 2008.

It’s possible that’s a fight Trump doesn’t want, because he doesn’t care much about healthcare except as a way of bashing Obama and the Democratic Party. Indeed, it’s possible that much of the Republican party sees the matter in precisely the same way: that there wasn’t anything in particular they objected to about Obamacare (other than the tax hikes to pay for it); they just hated that it was a Democratic initiative. It may be that Paul Ryan and the House Freedom Caucus folks are the only ones who actually want to have this fight on the merits. If that’s the case, then if the bill fails that will be the end of any action on health care, and Obamacare will remain the law of the land.

The question then is: how will the party membership react?

If the reaction is fury and renewed attempts to unseat Republicans deemed insufficiently determined to repeal the ACA, and to expand the ranks of the ultras whose demands made any plausible compromise impossible, then we’ll know that what we’re dealing with is a real ideological conflict. Our political system might have a particularly hard time negotiating it, but a substantial irredentist faction would pose a real challenge to any political system.

If the reaction is a mix of soul-searching and teeth-gnashing, and a concerted attempt to find whatever formula delivers a more durable majority, then we’ll know that at the end of the day the GOP is a normal party after all, one that, when it loses, tries to figure out how to win. It wouldn’t be as encouraging as an open fight about policy and principles, but it would be far more encouraging than continued irredentism.

But I wouldn’t be completely shocked if the whole debate just dropped down the memory hole, and the party leadership acted like repealing Obamacare was never that big a deal — and the rank-and-file mostly went along as the party moved on to whatever they are told was always really the priority. Which would be the most depressing — indeed, alarming — possibility.

The vote’s in half an hour. We’ll find out pretty soon whether my whole premise is fallacious.

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JCC Hate Hoax

Turns out at least some of the reported anti-Semitic threats of the past few weeks were indeed perpetrated by someone seeking to “make others look bad“:

A Jewish Israeli teenager born in the US has been arrested on suspicion of issuing dozens of fake bomb threats against Jewish institutions in North America and elsewhere in recent months, police said on Thursday.

Police said the resident of the southern city of Ashkelon was the subject of a months-long undercover investigation by police’s Lahav 433 cyber unit and the FBI. It said in a statement that the motive behind the bomb threats was unclear. Police said he is 19 years old, but several Israeli media outlets reported him as 18.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the suspect allegedly placed dozens of threatening phone calls to public venues, synagogues and community buildings in the US, New Zealand and Australia. He also placed a threat to Delta Airlines, causing a flight in February 2015 to make an emergency landing.

“He’s the guy who was behind the JCC threats,” Rosenfeld said, referring to the dozens of anonymous threats phoned in to Jewish community centers in the US over the past two months.

The hoax calls were widely regarded as acts of anti-Semitism. The threats led to criticism of President Donald Trump’s administration for not speaking out fast enough. Last month, the White House denounced the threats and rejected “anti-Semitic and hateful threats in the strongest terms.”

Unsurprisingly, the suspect appears to be a troubled individual, who was rejected from IDF service as unfit. I suspect that, as with most hate hoaxes, the crime was likely motivated primarily by a desire for attention and a feeling of larger social significance. No doubt, it will be interpreted — just as the original crime was — as something of vastly greater social significance.

We’ve seen this movie so many times before, you’d think the initial reporting would have foregrounded the possibility of a hoax, while also keeping open the possibility of a new and serious threat. There are real hate crimes out there, and there are also real hate hoaxes out there, and the right way to report on these matters is to report the facts and, where possible, report responsible theories about what might lie behind the facts.

But our media has precious few incentives to behave responsibly. All the incentives line up behind fomenting panic rather than spreading information. This critique applies equally well to right-wing media as to left-wing and the supposedly objective mainstream media; they have different bugaboos but increasingly similar low standards. There is no percentage in being judicious and waiting for the facts to come in before rushing to judgment, and even if one or another outlet does take a cautious and responsible approach, they’ll be drowned out by other outlets eager to maximize the sensational spin. It’s cheaper to do and it’s also more lucrative. The audience wants to be alarmed and outraged. That’s what gets clicks. And people who don’t want that — like myself — increasingly don’t read or watch the news, because we know it has so little value. But this is hardly the best way to remain informed about the world.

I really don’t know what to do about this.

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Revisiting the End of History

Did History return with a vengeance on 9-11? Or was that just history — that is to say: stuff happening? And are the rise of Western leaders like Victor Orban and Donald Trump, and the vote for Brexit, further evidence that History has taken a new turn? Or are they also just stuff happening?

The question is prompted by a piece Paul Sagar has at Aeon that is well worth reading, about how Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” argument has been misunderstood and mis-recalled. As Sagar reminds us, Fukuyama didn’t think the “end of history” meant the end of stuff happening — it just meant that we had arrived at the point where there were no more plausible fundamental political debates:

Fukuyama jettisoned Hegel’s implausible metaphysics, as well as Marx’s idea of ‘dialectical materialism’, as the proposed motor of historical synthesis. In their place, he suggested that the modern scientific method coupled with technological advancement, alongside market capitalism as a form of mass information-processing for the allocation of resources, could explain how humanity had successfully managed to develop – haltingly, but definitely – on an upward course of civilisational progress. The catch, however, was that we had now gone as far as it was possible to go. Liberal democratic capitalism was the final stage of Historical synthesis: no less inherently contradictory form of society was possible. So, while liberal democracy was by no means perfect, it was the best we were going to get. Big-H history was over, and we were now living in post-History. That was what Fukuyama meant by his infamous claim that History had ‘ended’.

To be sure, many critics see Fukuyama’s theory as no more plausible than Hegel’s metaphysics or Marx’s materialism. And his claim that Western liberal democratic capitalism represented the necessary end point of the grand Historical working-out of human existence – such that no society more desirable than the US of the 1990s was possible – strikes many as no more likely than Hegel’s notorious claim that the end of History was the 19th-century Prussian state (which just happened to pay his salary).

But whether Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelianism is plausible is not the most interesting aspect of his thesis. For throughout his analysis, Fukuyama insisted on the centrality of thymos (the Greek for ‘spiritedness’), or recognition, to human psychology: what Thomas Hobbes called pride, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau labelled amour propre. This denotes the need to be liked and respected by other people, and to have that recognition outwardly affirmed – if necessary, extracting it by force. Some human beings, Fukuyama thought, are always going to be inherently competitive and greedy for recognition. Some will therefore always vie to be thought of as the best – and others will resent them for that, and vie back. This has the potential to cause a lot of trouble. Human beings demand respect, and if they don’t feel that they are getting it, they break things – and people – in response.

It was this psychological feature of people, Fukuyama claimed, that guaranteed that although we might have reached the end of History, there was nothing to be triumphalist about. Just because humans could do no better than liberal capitalist democracy – could progress to no form of society that contained fewer inherent conflicts and contradictions – it didn’t mean that the unruly and competitive populations of such societies would sit still and be content with that.

Indeed, even if all people wanted was equal respect and recognition, there would be the potential for conflict, because a rationalist, capitalist, meritocratic order, even if it is properly designed and executed, and doesn’t become corrupted, will give outsized rewards to those deemed deserving by its lights, which will inevitably be understood by those denied those rewards as proof that they are not being granted equal respect at all.

But it’s worse than that:

[H]uman beings didn’t just exhibit thymos, but also what he termed ‘megalothymia’: a desire not just for respect and proportionate recognition, but a need to disproportionately dominate over others in ostentatious and spectacular ways. Megalothymia was by no means always or necessarily a bad thing: it was what had driven human beings to build cathedrals, achieve great works of art, found empires and political movements, and generally help push the direction of History forwards. But if not channelled to appropriate ends it could quickly turn vicious, finding an outlet in the domination and oppression of others.

What was remarkable about liberal capitalist democracy, Fukuyama thought, was that it had managed to put a lid on the more destructive expressions of megalothymia, encouraging citizens to direct such energies into socially harmless expressions, such as mountaineering or competitive sports. Which might sound like a pleasant conclusion. Except, Fukuyama thought, that a sanguine response failed to see the hidden dangers lurking in the end of History.

The second half of Fukuyama’s title, The Last Man, was a direct reference to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that, although modern society with its emphasis on truth and transparency had ‘killed God’ (the future of Western politics was egalitarian and secular), it had nothing to replace Him with. The vast majority of modern human beings would now be small-minded, stunted, pathetic creatures, possessing no sense of how to achieve greatness, only of how to accrue petty comforts and easy pleasures in a materialistic, self-obsessed world. In other words, if megalothymia went out of human life, so would greatness. Only base mediocrity would remain.

Fukuyama combined Nietzsche’s idea of the last man with his own diagnosis of underlying human psychology. His prognosis was that the outlook for post-History Western society was not good. It was possible that the last men at the end of History might sink down into a brutish contentment with material comforts, rather like dogs lying around in the afternoon sun (this was what Kojève predicted). But they might well go the other way. There was every chance that the last men (and women) would be deeply discontented with their historically unprecedented ease and luxury, because it failed to feed megalothymia. If the last men went this way, they would become bored by what Fukuyama called ‘masterless slavery – the life of rational consumption’. The spread of egalitarian values that went along with secular democratic politics would open up spaces of severe resentment – especially, we might now postulate, among those who had lost their traditional places at the top of social hierarchies, and felt cheated of the recognition that they believed they were owed. (Sound familiar?)

Fukuyama predicted that such restlessness and resentment would eventually need a political outlet – and when it came, it would be explosive. The anti-capitalist Left, however, was a busted flush. Communism was now a known fraud and failure, and post-Historical people driven by megalothymia would have no truck with its egalitarian pretensions, or its nakedly tyrannical realities. Far more threatening to the stability of liberal capitalist societies would be the emergence of demagogic strongmen from the fascistic Right, cynically feeding narrow self-interest and popular discontent, preying on human impulses for mastery and domination that the hollow comforts of consumer capitalism could not hope to appease.

This is where one might be inclined to cue Rod Dreher and say that part of what Christianity is “for” is providing a God that directs megalothymia properly by providing a meaning to action that is grounded somewhere other than a restless self. Except that Nietzsche hated Christianity, which he saw as a religion of slavery, precisely because it inverted natural and obvious value hierarchies, saying that the meek shall inherit the earth and that one should turn the other cheek and so forth. Greatness in Christianity is the greatness of sainthood, which begins with a radical emptying out of self, which might be precisely what those inclined to extreme demands for dominance need, but is hardly going to satisfy what they want. And the history (or is it History?) of the middle ages was mostly the history of sundry warlords grasping for greater dominance, and the best idea the Church had for channeling this kind of behavior into something less locally destructive was to launch the Crusades.

But I’m still curious how, from Fukuyama’s (or Kojève’s) perspective, one is to distinguish history from History. Is political Islam an Idea with a capital “I”? Is the resurgence of nationalism? Or are these atavistic eruptions of discontent against an order that really is the best we can come up with, and that therefore will never really be replaced? If the medieval Christian order featured a lot of on-the-ground disorder, then this is just what life at the end of History looks like: the liberal capitalist order persists because we can’t really imagine an alternative, but persistence doesn’t preclude continuous conflict. On the other hand, perhaps Ibn Khaldun had some useful insights about how history works as well as Hegel.

Ultimately, I don’t think Marx’s emphasis on the material substrate can be so easily cast off. The ructions we’re seeing now in the West cannot be divorced from the demographic expansion of Africa and the Middle East, nor can they be divorced from the economic rise of China and the consequent dramatic drop in the bargaining position of labor in relation to international capital, nor can they be divorced from the impact of the Internet on the distribution of wealth and information. I worry that the next phase of automation will kick these trends into even higher gear, and will finally put the material basis of the liberal capitalist order into fundamental question.

In any event, please do read Sagar’s piece, and read it all the way to the end, because he saves his most amusing revelation for the last paragraph.

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Another — Doubtless Very Different — Book Launch

Last night I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a panel discussion with our own Rod Dreher about his new book, The Benedict Option, hosted by Plough magazine, TAC and First Things.

It was a fascinating evening, and all four of Dreher’s co-panelists made cogent points in response to the central thesis of the book, to whit:

  • Ross Douthat takes Dreher’s jeremiad with a grain of salt because it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. On the other hand, he argued that “Dreher is right even if he is wrong” — because he’s swimming against the cultural tide, and why isn’t that always a thing worth seriously considering precisely because we don’t know where the tide is going to take us? Is our country suffering from too much asceticism? Do we have a surplus of monks and nuns? If not, then why not pay attention when someone suggests we need more of them?
  • Michael Wear agreed that all Christians should seek to deepen their knowledge and commitment to living a Jesus-centered life, but this argued for expanding rather than narrowing the scope of Christian political engagement. Christians can’t allow themselves to become another political interest group, even if they see themselves as under threat.
  • Jacqueline Rivers warned against conflating Christianity with Western culture. The West may or may not be in decline — and Christianity may or may not be in decline within the West. But globally, Christianity is growing — and what does it mean for the global Christian communion if American Christianity turns inward?
  • Finally, Randall Gauger spoke out of his experience of joining and living communally within the Bruderhof community. In effect, he said to Dreher: you say you were inspired by our example, but if that is true then you should follow our example and do as we have done. You should not imagine that there is some other message peculiar to our time besides Jesus’s own message which is relevant in all times and all places.

I’m not a Christian, so I came at the debate from the perspective of an outsider. But nonetheless, the most interesting question to me remains what the Benedict Option would do to Christianity — and I don’t think so much in terms of walls as gates.

The thing about intentional communities is that you have to earn your way in, and you can also be driven out. To become a monk, you have to take vows; to stay a member of the monastic community, you have to keep them (or that’s the way it’s supposed to work). The requirements for membership are much more stringent than they have usually been for membership in the Christian fellowship generally.

Which is entirely fine: every Christian community isn’t supposed to be a monastery, nor is every Christian supposed to be a monk. And even if the Bruderhof, for example, do believe that every Christian ought to follow their example, they recognize the Christians who are not doing so as fellow Christians — just Christians who aren’t following Jesus as fully as they ought.

But I’m curious about how this works within Dreher’s framework. Specifically, I’m curious, if mainstream Christian denominations put more emphasis on building and supporting intentional communities of various kinds (and if Dreher isn’t calling for that then I really don’t know what he’s calling for), how does that change the nature of the larger communion?

Dreher has frequently and sometimes testily responded to critics by saying he’s not calling for anybody to head for the hills. But that’s not what I’m asking about. The Lubavitch hasidim are as “in the world” as any strictly observant Jewish group I can think of. They send shlichim to the four corners of the earth to minister to Jews wherever they may be. They are all about outreach, and they try in a host of ways to meet the people they are reaching out to where they are. And they are certainly making sure that they have something to give the world before they give it — they are ferocious about deeply educating their kids, and traditional Judaism is all about imbuing every single action of every day with the sacred. If you wanted to point to a Benedict Option-like group that had unquestionably not withdrawn into itself and fled for the hills, they’d be a perfect candidate.

But they are also a group apart within a people apart, and they believe themselves to be precisely that. And I can assure you, that has a real impact on how other Jews perceive them and relate to them. I’m curious to know whether that is a dynamic the Benedict Option would inculcate within Christianity, and whether Dreher thinks that would be a problem if it did.

If you want to hear the panel discussion, you can do so here.

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The Politics of the AHCA

Damon Linker and I each have columns at The Week today about the politics of the AHCA. Linker sees a great opportunity for the Democrats that he fears they will blow:

If the Democrats can’t transform this monstrosity of a bill into fuel to power them to victories in the 2018 midterms and beyond, then they should just pack it up and go home.

Could they screw it up? You bet they could. This is the party, after all, that just a few months ago lost the presidency to the most unsuitable, unfit, unappealing major-party candidate in American history, and has spent most of the time since then blaming Russia for its own ineptitude.

So yes, the Democrats could blow it. But they shouldn’t. Especially when the path to victory is so clear.

The primary thing they need to do is follow the example of Bernie Sanders. Have you heard about his town hall in rural West Virginia on Monday night? A 70-something socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent won over a crowd of Trump supporters with his earnest, straight talk about health insurance and the struggles faced by voters in coal country. I don’t often agree with Glenn Greenwald, but he was surely right to plug the event with this tweet:

Precisely. Sanders has a message that resonates with large numbers of Democrats — and like Trump, it’s a message with potential appeal among members of the other party as well. This is a moment of realignment, both in the U.S. and Europe. Neoliberal, managerial, centrist globalism is being challenged by populists of the anti-liberal right and left. Right now, the right-wing variant holds power in Washington. If Trump had the guts to combine his populist-nationalist appeals with support for a single-payer health-care system, he just might succeed in realigning both major American parties by scrambling their policy commitments. But despite his occasional words of support for covering “everybody,” Trump shows no sign of actually doing this.

That leaves the field wide open for the Democrats to act boldly. And Sanders is showing how to do it: Call the AHCA the social calamity that it is. Talk about how trade deals have enriched some but impoverished many others. Propose bold policies that could make things better, and do so with confidence, daring the Republicans to denounce them. And make the case for all of it in terms of citizenship.

I agree that the bill is a monstrosity — but I’m less convinced that it’s guaranteed to do serious damage to Trump:

[One] possibility is that Trump thinks the game works differently for him than it did for Obama. Obama’s large majority in the Senate in 2008 was built on the back of two successive wave elections, each of which explicitly involved reaching beyond the Democratic core. He had a lot of room to fall. Trump himself certainly altered the shape of the electoral map — but by accelerating polarization, not decreasing it. And his legislative majority in both houses of Congress is thin and dominated by the right.

Because of this, Trump may well think it makes sense to govern as if Democrats just don’t matter. If Democrats overwhelmingly oppose anything he does, that may just convince the voters who elected him that he’s on the right track. Those people losing insurance? Maybe they’re mostly poorer, or non-white, or are happy to avoid paying for insurance that they don’t want. Maybe he’s gambling that for the bulk of his voters, making sure they aren’t paying for insurance for the “undeserving” is precisely the point. Particularly given the shape of the 2018 electoral map, Trump and the GOP may rationally conclude that the more polarized the political environment, the better for them — and the AHCA will certainly be polarizing if it passes. Meanwhile, by 2020 the state of the economy and job growth is what will really matter to voters, or at least an electoral college majority thereof.

Paul Ryan is another story:

The AHCA was announced to furious condemnation by many Tea Party-type Republicans for not completelyeviscerating the ACA, but instead being “ObamaCare light.” Since then, it’s shored up its support on the right in the House, but come under fire from less-doctrinaire Republicans in the Senate without having won back Cruz and Paul. What are the odds that a bill with that kind of opposition can even pass? Maybe not high. It’s possible that this is fine with the Trump administration, and that in fact they would prefer for the bill to fail.

It would normally be strange for a Republican president to want his own party’s majority to suffer a major black eye like that. But this is Ryan’s bill, and Trump has no love for Ryan. Moreover, inasmuch as Bannon is in competition with Ryan-ally and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus for influence over the White House’s agenda, it’s very much in his interest specifically for Ryan to fail. The collapse of the AHCA would be a massive failure — and would likely invite a leadership challenge.

And if it failed quickly, it would be easy for Trump to blame Ryan for getting it wrong, tinker with ObamaCare around the edges (particularly in ways that could be done without even passing legislation), and then when the exchanges don’t collapse claim he fixed them. After all, the same CBO report that said the AHCA would cost 24 million people their insurance said that the much-heralded death spiral isn’t coming all that soon. Trump could yell at a bunch of insurance executives, watch premiums stabilize, and claim victory.

The most exotic possibility is that Trump not only wants the bill to fail and Ryan to take the blame, but that he wouldn’t be too upset to see the Freedom Caucus defanged, opening the door to more creative possibilities. There are certainly people in Trump’s inner circle who see the big problem with ObamaCare as being its support of private insurers, and who would prefer a relatively stingy single-payer plan to either ObamaCare or ObamaCare light. Trump doesn’t have a legislative majority for a reform like that — but maybe after some strategic losses in 2018 he would?

Personally, I think those kinds of hopes are misplaced, and that Trump ultimately just doesn’t care that much about the subject of health care. But it is important to recognize that Trump’s position is far less exposed than Ryan’s is.

This, from my perspective, is the dominant political fact about the Trump presidency. He won by attacking his own party’s leadership. He can’t win again without retaining the support of the Republican base — which means he has to be supportive of any effort to repeal ObamaCare, because the base has demanded that for years. But he will take every opportunity to convince that same base that they should be more loyal to him than to a GOP leadership for which they have already demonstrated mistrust. Which means failures by that leadership can be turned to his advantage. Whereas apart from individual leaders who have their own personal following (as, in their different ways, Cruz and Paul and McCain do), the traditional GOP leadership has a much harder time doing the opposite and triangulating against Trump.

So Ryan’s taking a huge gamble with the AHCA, and he’s taking that gamble because it actually matters to him as a policy priority. Trump is taking a much more modest one.

That’s the way I see it, anyway.

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The Gazillion Bubble Show

Al Jazeera

Earlier today I was on a segment of Al Jazeera’s talk show, “The Stream,” discussing political polarization, social media’s role in promoting it, and possible ways to combat it.

My view in a nutshell: just as social media has enabled previously isolated people to find kindred spirits, and hence has fostered new communities and a new sense of belonging, it has made it easier to live in an informational bubble in which you only hear from the like-minded. But I don’t think this is anything more than a surface layer on top of something much deeper. We are increasingly polarized because of social, economic and political trends that have developed over 30-50 years, from the ideological sorting of the parties (and the distinct problems that sorting creates for our political institutions, which depend on a certain level of cross-partisan comity to function properly), to the rise of alternative conservative media, to globalization and the consequent deindustrialization of America and rise of a transnational elite, to . . . well, it’s a long list. And it’ll take a lot more than a cute app to counteract all that.

One point I didn’t make forcefully enough on the program is that we are increasingly polarized in the real world, not just on line. It’s not just that conservatives and liberals only talk to the like-minded, or that we’re all spending so much time on line that we don’t encounter people in meatspace anymore. It’s that increasingly we only live near the like-minded, politically-speaking.

David Wassermam at has a very sobering piece on the subject up today, that is well worth a read:

Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992, even though that election featured a wider national spread.1 During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196, or over a third of the nation’s counties.

Sure, it’s people who vote, not counties — and it’s not quite fair to give equal weight to Los Angeles County, California (pop. 10 million, 76 percent Clinton), and Loving County, Texas (pop. 112, 94 percent Trump). But a more equitable way to measure this “big sort” is to track the share of all American voters living in polarized communities over time. And 2016 was off the charts (figuratively speaking; it’s on the chart below):

The electorate’s move toward single-party geographic enclaves has been particularly pronounced at the extremes. Between 1992 and 2016, the share of voters living in extreme landslide counties quintupled from 4 percent to 21 percent.

And remember, this was in a year that, like 1976, scrambled what we think of as the usual party coalitions, with the Democrat doing better than usual in states like Texas and Georgia and the Republican (more significantly) doing better than usual in states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In other words, what on the surface may have looked like an electoral reshuffling was actually a deepening of prior trends turning us into an ideological archipelago of single-party islands.

All of which does not bode well for the future:

In an increasing number of communities like Baldwin County, Alabama, which gave Trump 80 percent of its major-party votes, and San Mateo, California, which gave Clinton 80 percent, an entire generation of youth will grow up without much exposure to alternative political points of view. If you think our political climate is toxic now, think for a moment about how nasty politics could be 20 or 30 years from now.

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The Mob at Middlebury

My latest column at The Week is about the appalling events at Middlebury College:

The violent protests that greeted the conservative political scientist when he tried to speak at Middlebury College last week could be easily dismissed as the latest episode in the by-now tiresome campus speech wars. They shouldn’t be. Murray isn’t just another right-wing gadfly who enjoys provoking left-wing outrage. In a very real sense, if the left thinks he isn’t worth debating, then one has to wonder who they think is.

I probably don’t need to rehash what happened here; if you want to read Murray’s own account of the events, here it is.

It should go without saying that violence is completely unjustified, and that so is protesting a speaker in such a fashion that he is unable to speak. But I spent the bulk of the column arguing specifically for the importance of engaging someone like Murray:

Murray is someone students need to hear from. He may be utterly wrong in his explanations for the phenomena he is studying. He may be thoroughly misguided in his proposed solutions. But he is asking questions that must be asked — and that must be asked in particular of a community of higher education which is a primary vehicle for the stratification he worries about.

Moreover, the concerns Murray is airing should be of particular interest to the left, which historically stands against the concentration of economic and political power, and against domination by a ruling class. If meritocracy and equality of opportunity does not increase social mobility and reduce class stratification, but the opposite, that would seem to be at least as powerful an argument for old-school left-wing solutions, like strong labor unions and the redistribution of wealth, as it is for Murray’s own conservative libertarianism.

But that’s why you have a debate.

Left-wingers should want to hear Murray — and hear what answers can be had from his analysis — more than conservatives should, because he is asking precisely the questions they need to answer. By ruling Murray unworthy of consideration, the radicals who protested him have not just traduced important norms related to free speech and civil respect (which would be bad enough), they have traduced those norms in the name of preserving themselves from having to question the institution they attend and its place in our society. A less-radical agenda than theirs is hard to imagine.

I conclude:

At some point in an article like this, the writer typically says that they abjure Murray’s abhorrent views but stand firmly for his right to air them, or that by engaging in violent and disruptive protest you merely turn him into a martyr and thereby enhance his stature rather than silencing him. And if I were writing about an odious troll like Milo Yiannopoulos, and I bothered to write an article about him at all, I might say something like that.

But I’m not going to say that about Charles Murray. He deserves to be debated not only because free speech belongs to everyone, but because he is asking absolutely vital questions. And any left worth its salt would jump at every chance to demonstrate that they have better answers.

Read the whole thing there.

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Russia: My Take So Far

Not that my opinion really matters, since I’m no more informed than anybody else who reads the news, but if I were placing bets here’s where I’d place them.

  • I’d bet that Russia was indeed behind the hacks that they are accused of perpetrating, and that the hacks were intended to find damaging dirt on Clinton or her associates. The purpose was not primarily to alter the result of the election but to weaken the expected victor, someone Putin saw as hostile to Russia generally and to him personally. They had the means, they had the motive. There’s some evidence they did it. And there’s really very little reason for them to have been assiduous about hiding that evidence — indeed, if the goal was to damage Clinton rather than elect Trump, it’s not obvious that they wouldn’t have wanted everybody to know what they were capable of doing.
  • It’s clear that the Trump campaign was eager to talk to the Russians about their hopes for a better working relationship with Russia. I would assume, therefore, that in their discussions ideas about removing sanctions, recognizing Russian claims to Crimea, or similar matters were floated. It would be weird if they weren’t.
  • I would not be surprised if the knowledge that Trump promised to be a more friendly administration had some bearing on Russian decision making about how to use any damaging information they obtained. So even if the timing of one or another action suggests communication, it doesn’t necessarily suggest collusion.
  • Indeed, I would be surprised to learn that there was any outright collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to break American laws. Among other things, it’s just a weird idea for a conspiracy, with limited upside and huge potential downside.
  • On the other hand, I assume, based on a wide array of circumstantial evidence, that Trump personally has a number of extremely shady business associations with a Russian flavor to them. Because of this, I would be surprised if the Russian government did not have some degree of financial leverage over Trump, and I would be surprised if they did not have damaging information that he would prefer to keep hidden. Which is why I have long felt that the thorough investigation of Trump’s finances is a far more urgent matter than finding out who met the Russian ambassador when.

I also encourage people genuinely interested in the story to follow Josh Marshall’s ongoing writing about it. He’s doing actual research, not just quoting anonymous leakers, and he’s not flying off the handle. On the contrary, he recently laid out an outline of what the innocent explanation of what we know so far would look like. And it’s pretty convincing, with the caveat that there is undoubtedly more that we don’t know. My own suspicion is that the “more” that we don’t know is mostly about dirty money rather than anything directly related to interference in the election.

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Saving Russia Policy From Trump

My latest column in The Week calls on realists and others in the foreign policy community who favor a less-confrontational policy towards Russia to lead the charge in calling for a congressional investigation into possible Russian interference in the Presidential campaign and the even more speculative possibility of collusion by the Trump campaign:

The Trump administration might not want such an investigation, though, for reasons having nothing to do with the substance of any discussions with Russian officials. Investigations inevitably metastasize, and draw attention away from an administration’s substantive agenda. In today’s hyper-partisan climate, it’s even more likely that a GOP-led investigation that came up empty would simply be dismissed as part of a coverup.

Individual members of Congress, meanwhile, might support or oppose an investigation for reasons that have nothing to do with the substance of the issue. Opponents of rapprochement with Russia, for example, would have every reason to want to make continued pursuit of such a policy politically toxic.

Which is precisely why it is supporters of such a policy who should be taking the lead in calling for such an investigation.

The Trump administration could stonewall its way through this ongoing scandal, counting on rank partisanship to carry it through the worst. If there were genuinely no crimes committed, such a strategy might even succeed when and if Congress changes hands, and in the meantime the GOP have two years to pass their legislative agenda.

But until the air is clear, American policy towards Russia is badly tainted. Every move this administration makes is being interpreted through the lens of the most outlandish suppositions. In such a climate, the rational thing for the administration to do is abandon any plans for substantive improvement of relations. The Russian government is reportedly already operating on the assumption that Trump will not prove as friendly as hoped, both because of his own personal deficiencies and because of the widening impact of the scandal.

A congressional investigation could well prove a millstone around the administration’s neck, and provide ample opportunity for Democratic grandstanding. But it’s also the only way to rescue American foreign policy towards Russia from a widening gyre of increasingly fantastical speculation and innuendo.

Read the whole thing there.

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