Noah Millman

He Didn’t Say Play On What, But I Still Think It’s a Marvelous Idea!

anna russell bagpipe

So, a few weeks ago I wrote a bit about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s perplexing Play On! project to “translate” Shakespeare’s plays into more modern English. I ended with the hope that I’d have the chance to talk with someone at OSF to get a clearer picture of what they were after.

Well, I’ve now had the chance to speak to the woman in charge of the project. Unfortunately, the picture I got from our conversation is, if anything, more puzzling and muddier than it was before.

As it was explained to me, the project began several years ago with a grant from a long-time supporter of OSF to produce translations and adaptations of 5 plays, with the aim to reach audiences who might be alienated or distanced by the language of Shakespeare, by the way in which, say, a pun you don’t get takes you out of a scene. The donor was motivated by his own experience, and his suspicion that audiences generally shared this experience, and would benefit from a Shakespeare that could be understood more readily. The money included not just commissions for the authors but money for development through workshops and such, and extended beyond literal translation to more wide-ranging adaptation efforts.

The first play undertaken was Timon of Athens, and the text that resulted from the effort so impressed that they decided to go back to the well and ask for more money to do literal translations of the entire canon, while still undertaking other projects like a hip-hop adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona by the Q Brothers. The translations would be literal, never cutting or adding scenes or characters, but updating the language to make it more readily comprehensible to a modern audience. And thus was born Play On!

The project is completely funded by the grant; no money is coming from OSF. Meanwhile, OSF is only getting the right to publish a bound volume of the various translations. They are making no commitment to produce the plays, and will not produce them as part of their plan to complete the Shakespeare canon. And the various playwrights will retain all rights with respect to future productions – they could, if they so desired, put their translations in a drawer and never let anyone produce them at all.

Several times during the conversation I asked questions about the purpose and aim of the project, and the answers were invariably equivocal. Was the intention to produce texts that could be readily performed, or were they more intended as resources for directors and dramaturgs working with the traditional Shakespeare text? Either or both. How are plays like King Lear or Hamlet where there are important textual questions going to be handled – will the playwrights be working off a particular version of the play, and if so which? That’s a good question! In general they’ll work off the Folio text, but yeah, there are important speeches in Hamlet that aren’t in the Folio, so . . . ?

I asked whether they expected the level of opposition they have encountered. Well, in fact there were just as many skeptics within OSF as there were supporters. But – nonetheless they were quite surprised to face the kind of vitriol they have encountered.

I have to say, by the end of the conversation it seemed to me that the whole project must have been donor-driven to an alarming degree. It didn’t sound like this was something that OSF had long wanted to do. But there was a lot of money on offer to do something with translating Shakespeare. Could they possibly just say no? Of course not. But since they didn’t have a very clear notion of why they were doing what they were doing, they were reluctant to make any firm commitments on that score, in terms of planning productions, or making the texts available to community theaters, or – well, anything else besides fulfilling the donor’s explicit requirement that they commission literal translations.

And as such, it’s a real cautionary tale. I was out drinking the other night with a classically-trained actor friend, who had just completed a table reading of Antony and Cleopatra with a bunch of younger classical actors, and he was struck by the casually disparaging attitude they evinced towards OSF. As he noted, only months ago they would have looked on any kind of affiliation with Oregon as an aspirational goal. Now, overnight, it had become a punchline.

That’s not going to last, of course. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival will continue to do great work, and that is what will matter over the long haul. But if they don’t want Play On! to be their New Coke, it behooves them to figure out why they are doing it. And then, if necessary, adjust the terms of the grant and the project to be better aligned with that specific rationale.

Personally, I’d nudge them away from producing “literal translations” of the canon, and towards creating, on the one hand, a publicly-available resource for directors and dramaturgs looking to speed the process of updating the language in particular scenes – which directors do all the time – and, on the other hand, commissioning truly new plays that are adaptations of Shakespeare in the mold of David Ives’s adaptations of Molière – modern verse plays that both draw on and recall the original but are invested with the spirit of the modern playwright.

And, frankly, I’d urge them to look to doing translations that really are necessary, to reach communities for whom there is an inarguable barrier to fully appreciating Shakespeare as traditionally performed. I’m thinking these guys might have some pointed ideas in that regard.


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Awake and Sing


I somehow managed to miss the original production of the musical, Spring Awakening, based on the Frank Wedekind play of the same name. But I am very glad to have managed to see the revival from Deaf West Theatre, currently on Broadway, an exceptionally moving evening of theater.

I say that in spite of the fact that I think the Wedekind play is more than a little bit  hysterical, and the additional fact that the musical adaptation, to my mind, softens the source material in ways that make it less-interesting. Wedekind’s play is substantially about attempts to repress budding sexuality and the pain and suffering that results – but it is first and foremost the budding sexuality that causes the pain; the problem with repression is that it inevitably fails. Spring will awaken, whether you do a May dance for it or not. And that awakening will be beautiful, but also dangerous – and you can’t escape that danger by building walls against the outside world, because it is growing from the inside. Meanwhile trying to escape leaves you unprepared for both the beauty and the danger.

The musical, though, takes its liberationist cues from its alt-rock musical stylings, and suggests that repression is the primary source of danger – that if the grownups would only listen to their children, and stop trying to control them, all would be well. This is a very teenage perspective, and both rock music and rock musicals have gone there before – with more memorable anthems than here. Weekend’s perspective is rather less sanguine.

The change is easiest to delineate when looking at the character of Melchior and his relationship with Wendla. As in the original Wedekind, Melchior is something of an exception to general repression. He’s an atheist, brought up by a mother who believes in free thought. Alone among the teenagers, he knows the facts of life – and teaches them to his hapless friend, Moritz, to help dispel the enchanted power of the succubi that visit him nightly in his dreams, reducing them to a more tolerable, merely human misery. (The gambit doesn’t work; Moritz is just as tormented after his enlightenment as he was before.) As in the play, all the girls swoon over Melchior’s combination of athleticism, intellect and charisma. And, as in the play, he forms a particular connection with Wendla, a just-pubescent girl who is exceptionally ignorant of the most basic facts of sexuality.

In the scene most faithful to the source material, Wendla, having just learned that a friend of hers is regularly beaten (as well as molested) by her father, asks Melchior to beat her so she knows what it feels like – so she can authentically feel something, anything. And when he doesn’t beat her hard enough, she pushes him to escalate his efforts until he is bludgeoning her furiously and runs off in tears.

But in the play, when Melchior later meets Wendla in a hayloft, he is overcome by desire and rapes her. (Earlier in the play, Melchior admits to being unable to imagine what it’s like to be a woman, a clue to problems to come.) Wendla, knowing nothing about sex, doesn’t even really understand what is happening, and is left disoriented and in shock. By contrast, in the musical, sex in the hayloft is a moment of mutual affection. Wendla doesn’t know what she’s doing, and therefore has no idea of the consequences. (She gets pregnant; her mother arranges an illicit abortion; she dies of the procedure.) But she knows what she wants, and what she wants is Melchior.

This alteration makes it much, much easier for us to like Melchior and hope that at least he will come to a good end. Which is precisely why I don’t trust it. It’s stacking the deck, shifting the story to much more comfortable ground, and thereby draining it of some of its visceral power. Melchior’s actions in the play arouse all our protective impulses toward Wendla – but much of the play has already demonstrated how those protective impulses did not serve these children well when their sexual awakening begins. Far easier to imagine that they don’t need no education, and would just be good if they were allowed to be free.

I’ve gone on a bit too long about this one point, but it’s all to explain why I went in without huge expectations for emotional impact. So why do I say this was an exceptionally moving evening of theater?

Honestly, I have to give all the credit to Deaf West. The only play I’ve ever seen before that substantially revolved around a deaf character played by a deaf actor was Tribes, but this isn’t explicitly a play about deafness. Moreover, it’s a musical. And I have to say, it was a really extraordinary experience just watching how everything played out. How choreographed signing of the songs became a kind of music of movement, a kind of modern dance. The double consciousness of watching a signing actor perform a part while another actor, in the shadows, “translated” from sign to speech. The plain old raw energy of relatively less-studied performers on a Broadway stage, and the additional dimension that their deafness – a visible sign of alienation – gave to the situation of their characters. And how young they all seemed!

Doing this play in this way made it something considerably more than it otherwise might have been. I can’t imagine being moved nearly so much by poor Moritz’s plight if he hadn’t been played with such naive poignancy by Daniel Durant, nor by Wendla’s ignorance if it weren’t signified by such desperate signing by Sandra Mae Frank. Frankly, I can’t see myself liking the music half so much without the wonder of seeing how you sign a rock song.

And so, I sincerely hope this is itself an awakening, and not the last Deaf West production that will come east. I mean, I can only imagine what they’d do with West Side Story.

Spring Awakening runs at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on Broadway through January 24th, 2016.

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Debate Recap

I saw about a third of the debate. It was enough. Jeb Bush is not going to make it to New Hampshire. He could be out well before then. Almost by definition, the candidate most helped by Bush’s continued implosion is Marco Rubio. So Ross Douthat should be feeling pretty good about his book tonight.

Everything else, I suspect, is second-order stuff.

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A Four-Man Race

Christopher Halloran /; Andrew Cline /
Christopher Halloran /; Andrew Cline /

The GOP nomination contest is starting to settle in to a four-man contest, each of the four having a legitimate argument to being the most-plausible nominee. The four candidates being:

  • Donald Trump. He’s the leader in most polls nationally and in most early states, and has been for an extended period of time. He’s seen by most Republicans as the toughest candidate with the strongest leadership qualities. He’s not a factional candidate, drawing support from across the ideological spectrum within the GOP. And he’s fully capable both of self-financing a primary campaign and of raising a respectable amount of money if needed both from small donors and from his business associates. On the other hand, he’s a political neophyte who appears to know and care next to nothing about policy. He delights in offending people. He’s loathed by essentially the entire professional leadership of the GOP, and has high negatives generally with Republicans for someone in such a strong polling position.
  • Ben Carson. He’s either first or second in nearly all recent polls both nationally and in every early primary or caucus, and his poll position has been rising. He’s raised an impressive amount of money – more than any other candidate has raised in direct campaign funds (he has essentially no support from super-PACs). He’s got the highest favorable ratings of any candidate in the race, and the more Republicans hear about him the more they seem to like him. On the other hand, not only is he a political neophyte who appears to know and care next to nothing about policy, he often sounds like a true crank – or worse. He’s also got essentially no elite support from either party professionals or major donors, and he’s something of a factional candidate, drawing his strongest support from very conservative and evangelical voters. And while he’s rising rapidly in the polls, his supporters are relatively weakly attached, compared to some other candidates’ voters, particularly Trump and Cruz.
  • Marco Rubio. He’s polling third in recent national polls and in most early states. He’s raised a very respectable amount of money both directly for his campaign and from super-PACs (placing fourth in the former and third in the latter). He is acceptably orthodox and can readily win the approval of both professional Republican elites and major donors. He has clearly won the media primary – his coverage is vastly more flattering than the other “normal” Republican candidates like Christie or Kasich, to say nothing of the hapless Jeb Bush. He’s the only establishment-friendly candidate with any kind of positive momentum. And he hasn’t yet made any serious mistakes. On the other hand, he has not had any notable successes, either as a legislator (he has basically no record of accomplishment) or as a campaigner (he’s a Republican Obama who has never given a notable speech or taken a notable stand). The argument for a Rubio candidacy is basically that he’ll be the last acceptable man standing.
  • Ted Cruz. He’s polling fourth or fifth nationally, third or fourth in Iowa, and fourth on average in South Carolina. He’s been an exceptionally impressive fundraiser, placing second in both the direct money race and the super-PAC race. He has run an exceptionally disciplined campaign and has, like Rubio, made no notable mistakes. And he is the best-positioned candidate to win the support of either Trump or Carson supporters should either of those candidates lose momentum, both because of his strong evangelical support and his strong opposition to the GOP establishment. On the other hand, he is positively loathed by that establishment. More important, while he’s not really a factional candidate, he’s more than just an outsider running against Washington – his entire brand is that he is an extremist. And he’s an extremist neophyte with no record of accomplishment.

I no longer consider Jeb Bush as one of the top-tier candidates. His direct fundraising for his campaign has been dismal. He’s been dropping in the polls for months, to the point where he’s now basically fighting with Carly Fiorina for fifth place. He’s got no message. He’s a terrible campaigner. The media mocks him. Conservatives don’t trust him. Nobody is excited about him – not even him. And his last name is Bush. I’m clearly surprised that it’s come to this, since I thought he really had the pole position right from the start. He came into this campaign in a stronger position than John McCain did in 2008 or John Kerry did in 2004, and has performed vastly worse. It’s getting harder and harder to see how he recovers to win this thing.

I also don’t think Carly Fiorina is a serious contender. She failed to capitalize in any important way on the rave reviews she earned for her two debate performances. She’s another orthodox Republican, but without the resources of any of the top four contenders, and she’s an outsider without the distinctive appeal of Trump or Carson, and without a record of achievement outside of politics that she can actually run on. As for the remaining contenders, none of them have anything going for them at this point – not popular support, not elite support, not money. The only ones with somewhat distinctive message and positioning are Rand Paul and John Kasich, and their distinctive positions – relative dovishness for Paul and relatively moderate views on budgetary and economic questions for Kasich – are precisely what make them least-attractive to both elites and the grassroots this season.

We’ll see whether tonight’s debate shifts the ground at all. I don’t expect it to. I think Daniel Larison is probably right that the most-likely points of conflict are going to be attacks on Rubio for not lowering the top tax rate enough, attacks on Trump for not supporting the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and attacks on Congress for agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. The first might hurt Rubio, but to whose benefit? It’s unlikely to be Bush’s. Possibly Fiorina’s. The second will likely only help Trump. And the last is pitched right over the plate for Ted Cruz. Kasich will probably make a hail-Mary appeal for economic moderation, and Paul may possibly make a similar appeal for libertarian ideological consistency, but I wouldn’t expect either strategy to move the needle materially for either candidate. Bush might attack Rubio for his inexperience, and tout his own record as governor, in an effort to wound the candidate most-likely to inherit his support if he continues to fall. But that will likely either backfire and help Rubio or will hurt both of them.

So if the ground shifts, I’d expect it to shift modestly in Cruz’s direction if anywhere. He won’t attack Trump on trade, and he’s in the best position to benefit from attacks on Congress for raising the debt ceiling, or from any other events that wound either Trump or Carson. So the top four will still be those above, with the rest of the field running out of time to change the game.

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Stand and Deliver

Damon Linker defends the history lecture:

A more powerful and compelling defense of the humanities lecture course would have to proceed differently — into terrain that professors of history, philosophy, and literature often find exceedingly uncomfortable these days. Such a defense would require that they confidently assert that professors in the humanities possess knowledge, that this knowledge is valuable, and that the most effective way of conveying it to unknowledgeable students is to explain it to them in a lecture format.

There are many reasons why professors in the humanities are disinclined to mount this kind of self-defense. For one thing, the knowledge they offer seems so much less universally verifiable and socially useful than the knowledge produced in the STEM fields. Then there’s postmodern skepticism, which convinces many humanities professors that all claims to knowledge are thinly veiled assertions of power and efforts at exclusion and marginalization. (Who would want to be found guilty of that?) Finally, there are the democratic sensibilities that Worthen herself highlights in talking about our discomfort with the way that lecturing implies a hierarchy elevating the professor over her students.

All of these trends combine to make us uncomfortable with a professor pronouncing authoritatively from a lecturn — and increasingly at ease with group work in which no one sets himself up as an authority, no one presumes to pronounce definitively on truth and falsehood, and no one lays down a metanarrative and forces the students to master it. Small groups of three or four young adults simply working it out for themselves seems so much more in keeping with our moral convictions.

The democratic approach to education might comport with our egalitarian sensibilities, but it’s pedagogically foolish.

Why do students of history need teachers who will stand at the front of a classroom and lecture? Because history is hard. It presupposes the knowledge of thousands of facts (names, dates, events) and how they fit together into an enormously complicated, multi-dimensional causal sequence. Until the students absorb those facts and grasp that causal sequence, “group work” and other forms of interactive learning are premature.

That’s why lecture-based courses that do the introductory work of explaining the past must come first — and why such courses are typically followed by smaller, more advanced seminars that foster conversation and debate and raise questions of historiography (competing and conflicting interpretive traditions about the past). By that point, students have learned enough — they know enough — to begin participating more actively in their own education.

But not before.

I’m not sure you really need to wait to work in groups until after you’ve finished listening to lectures – I think many students benefit from group work from very young ages. But I agree wholeheartedly with the defense of the lecture as such, and would alter Linker’s emphasis only slightly, as follows.

Some students – particularly those who don’t readily grasp the material – are greatly aided by having a framework within which to situate themselves, and that’s precisely what a narrative provides. But the strongest, most independent-minded students may well chafe against the restraints of such a framework. And the thing is, pushing against that framework is exactly what is going to make their own intelligence more powerful and effective.

I forget who it was – Helen Vendler, possibly – who questioned the Columbia University core curriculum’s notion of what makes books “great” by noting that, while you could build a canon out of Virgil, Dante, Milton and Tolstoy, you could also build a very different canon out of Ovid, Boccaccio, Cervantes and Joyce. Without even getting to once-trendy debates about the identity politics of the canon, you can have a robust debate about what kinds of books qua books belong in such a list, and what putting a book on such a list does to the book itself. But you can’t have that debate without first making precisely such a list.

Similarly, I learned about modern art from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and the art history book they put out which amounted to a text. MoMA was notorious, then, for imposing an extremely strong narrative on the history of modern art, one that emphasized purity and a drive toward abstraction. It’s a narrative that was born as Abstract Expressionism rose to prominence, and it reflected that movement’s own values. And it’s a narrative that made it hard to explain why exactly an artist like Klee or O’Keefe was important. But you couldn’t have had that argument without having a strong narrative to argue against.

All of which is not so much an argument for conservatism as it is for taking a stand. Yes, there is a multiplicity of defensible, workable narratives, for history, philosophy, etc. But I am giving the lecture, and I see things this way. And part of the way I am going to teach you how to come to your own perspective is by making you deal with mine. Yes, this means your perspective will be shaped by mine, either by acceptance or by resistance or by a creative reinterpretation that winds up subsuming my own perspective into something new that you can call your own. But how else can you learn?

And now, I’m going to take off my Harold Bloom mask and get back to writing that screenplay.


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Quebec Unveiled

Those of you with fewer Canadian stage actors in your Facebook feed may not have been quite as aware as I have been of the volatile state of politics in Canada. For some time, it has been clear that a majority of Canadians wanted to repudiate Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, but could not decide who to vote for, instead. It looked, for a while, like the New Democratic Party, roughly Canada’s version of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, might build on their dramatic gains in 2011 and form the next government. Instead, yesterday Justin Trudeau and the Liberals surged not only to victory but to an outright majority. Those interested in more details, including results for specific ridings, can find all the data they might want at the CBC.

The Liberal resurgence in Atlantic Canada was expected, as were gains in the West and in Ontario, though obviously if the election had been held in late summer those gains would have been less-dramatic. If there was a decisive development in this election, it is the utter collapse of the NDP in Quebec, where not long ago the Liberals had been comprehensively rejected, and where the NDP had captured the overwhelming majority of ridings in 2011.

And the turning point in Quebec appears to have been NDP leader Tom Mulcair’s defense of Muslim women wearing the niqab (a full, face-covering veil) while taking the oath of citizenship. Harper was attempting to use the question as a wedge issue, not just between immigrants and “old stock” Canadians but between different groups of immigrants (Hindu and East Asian immigrants showed signs of being receptive to the pitch). But while the issue clearly damaged Mulcair badly, and may have led to gains for both the Conservatives and the Bloc in Quebec, the primary effect was to induce secular Quebecois to take a second look at the other alternative to the Conservatives.

These voters – liberal, secular, and anxious about the more reactionary forms of Islam – are a relatively poorly-anchored electoral bloc in those Western countries where Islam has become a political issue. In some cases – as with the rise of the late Pym Fortuyn – they may be dislodged from their “traditional” political alignment. In this case, they ricocheted back into a more traditional alignment and away from a new party that got on the “wrong” side of this issue. But regardless, it’s worth noting just how politically potent the question of traditional Islam can be when there are multiple, plausible alternatives to vote for. I don’t suspect that is going to cease being the case any time soon.

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Donald Trump, Necessary Truth-Teller

I have officially moved from the camp of “why not?” to the camp of “Forza!” when it comes to Donald Trump, and all it took was saying that 9-11 was somebody’s fault.

Jeb Bush has come in for plenty of ridicule, including here at TAC, for his defense of his brother’s record in “keeping us safe” – but it is worth recalling that essentially nobody has gotten any traction in the past 14 years with the attack that the 9-11 attacks were a failure of the Bush Administration. Indeed, not only has there been no criticism from within the Republican Party for that failure, there has been virtually no criticism from the Democratic Party. Criticism has been limited to the loons of the 9-11 Truther “movement.”

So Trump is performing an essential service – vital for the health of our democracy – in using his perch as Republican front-runner to point out the obvious: that George W. Bush was president on September 11, 2001, and that this means the attacks of that day are part of his record.

This service is essential not primarily because we still need to talk about the specific operational or policy failures of the early Bush Administration – a great deal has changed about the way the government is organized since 9-11, so at this point it’s more important to look at that structure as it is than as it was. And, although it is vital that we have a more serious debate about the overall orientation of our foreign policy and how it may contribute to feeding the fires we keep trying to put out, I don’t expect Donald Trump to provide that.

No – the service Trump is providing is in simply reminding America that facts are stubborn things. The striking thing about Jeb Bush’s defense of his brother is not that it’s false but that it is utterly divorced from reality. That his brother “kept us safe” is simply stated as a fact – not a conclusion derived from an analysis of facts, but a primary fact itself. And, since it’s absurd to use one fact to refute another fact, Jeb can honestly say that it’s ridiculous for Trump to say that the fact of 9-11 raises some little problems with the narrative that says George W. Bush “kept us safe.” And can honestly believe that saying it’s ridiculous is some kind of refutation.

Americans of all ideological persuasions have gotten alarmingly good at that kind of Orwellian “thinking.” So while I still don’t want him to be President, I will affirm that if Trump makes even a little crack in that psychological wall, he’ll have done a great service to his country.


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Fretting About the Thucydides Trap

The last of my five foreign policy questions for the candidates that I posed prior to the Democratic debate was about the Thucydides Trap, a coinage of Graham Allison’s to describe the way rising powers and established hegemon’s frequently stumble into catastrophic war that benefits neither:

More than 2,400 years ago, the Athenian historian Thucydides offered a powerful insight: “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable.” Others identified an array of contributing causes of the Peloponnesian War. But Thucydides went to the heart of the matter, focusing on the inexorable, structural stress caused by a rapid shift in the balance of power between two rivals. Note that Thucydides identified two key drivers of this dynamic: the rising power’s growing entitlement, sense of its importance, and demand for greater say and sway, on the one hand, and the fear, insecurity, and determination to defend the status quo this engenders in the established power, on the other.

In the case about which he wrote in the fifth century B.C., Athens had emerged over a half century as a steeple of civilization, yielding advances in philosophy, history, drama, architecture, democracy, and naval prowess. This shocked Sparta, which for a century had been the leading land power on the Peloponnese peninsula. As Thucydides saw it, Athens’s position was understandable. As its clout grew, so too did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices, its sensitivity to instances of disrespect, and its insistence that previous arrangements be revised to reflect new realities of power. It was also natural, Thucydides explained, that Sparta interpreted the Athenian posture as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system it had established—and within which Athens had flourished.

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Is This What a Faction Looks Like?

I’m trying to reconcile David Brooks’s and Damon Linker’s view of the contemporary Republican Party as an angry faction incapable of governing with these two charts:





It sure looks to me like the Republican Party is governing much of the country. And that’s before adding two more charts, of a virtually impregnable hold on the House of Representatives, and a surprisingly durable hold on the Senate. To the first approximation, Republicans control everything – except the White House. And they have gone from strength to strength even as their confrontational tactics have escalated and escalated. If they don’t nominate another member of the Bush family – and it increasingly looks like they won’t – I’d give the GOP a better than even shot at winning the one major office they currently lack. Far from being an angry faction unwilling to play the game of politics, the GOP has been practically running the table. So why change course? Where’s the mystery?

Now, the GOP may be governing badly. I certainly think they are. In a generation America may look back and say: what on earth were we thinking, putting these people in charge? But we, the people, are the ones who put them in charge. Don’t we need to understand why before we can address the problem we the people have created?

Brooks asks, “have we ever seen bumbling on this scale, people at once so cynical and so naïve, so willfully ignorant in using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good?” But isn’t the real question: have we ever seen a nation so eager to reward people so cynical and so naïve? A nation so uninterested in whether their representatives and governors are using levers of power to produce some tangible if incremental good?

It does, indeed, feel like somebody is bad at democracy, and bad at conversation. I’m just not sure that somebody is the House Freedom Caucus, nor even the GOP primary electorate.

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Five Foreign Policy Questions For the Democratic Candidates

jdwfoto /

Meanwhile: I deeply hope, but do not expect, the Democratic debate in Las Vegas to spend a lot of time on foreign policy. I hope it will because foreign policy matters enormously, and Hillary Clinton has views that are significantly out of step with her party – and these should be debated. I also hope so because, from a domestic policy perspective, it matters very little which Democrat wins the White House, assuming they win. Yes, the personal priorities and personal capabilities of the candidates matter – and it also matters how big a win they deliver. But it’s not like Hillary Clinton wouldn’t welcome a political dynamic that is more-favorable to organized labor just as Bernie Sanders would, and Sanders would have to deal with a Republican opposition just as Clinton would. The Democratic debate on domestic policy is overwhelmingly about whether now is the time to push the Overton window and, if so, on which issues and how far.

I don’t expect a serious debate on foreign policy because (a) the topic is depressing; (b) it’s not what energizes Democratic voters; (c) only two of the candidates on stage (Clinton and Webb) have strong foreign policy views, and one of them (Clinton) probably sees little political advantage in emphasizing them; and (d) the press is largely ill-prepared to engage on the subject in a productive way.

But: a guy can dream can’t he? So here are my five questions for the Democratic candidates:

1. My first question is the same one I would have asked the Republican candidates. To whit: There have been reports of late that intelligence analysts believe their pessimistic assessments of the fight against the Islamic State are being distorted before being presented to the President and cabinet officials so as to make it look like the President’s policies are working better than they actually are. Similar allegations were made during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and during the Vietnam War before that. How will you, as President, assure yourself that you are getting accurate and not rosy-scenario assessments from those responsible for executing your policies? And how will the uncertainty that you are, in fact, getting good information affect your decision making process when it comes to war and peace?

2. Since the Wilson Administration, Democratic foreign policy thinking has been anchored by the ideal of a world governed by laws, norms and institutions aimed at mitigating and reducing conflict. Both the League of Nations and the United Nations were founded on the idea that collective security is best-achieved when nations with conflicting interests accept constraints on their freedom of action, and see a mutual interest in upholding the norms and rules that impose those constraints which is greater than the opportunities to be seized by flouting them. Do you still believe in that ideal, and in the institutions that embody it? If so, how should the United States demonstrate its own fidelity to those constraints on its freedom of action? And if we do not do so, on what basis do you see other states accepting constraints on their freedom of action?

3. The United States has been at least tacitly, and arguably actively, supportive of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Do you view that war as legal and legitimate? Do you view it as wise? If so, can you draw any clear distinction between Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen and Russia’s actions in Syria or Ukraine? On the other hand, if you do not see it as legitimate or wise, how do you think the United States should properly respond when an ally undertakes such an illegal and unwise adventure?

4. The United States has been engaged militarily almost continuously since the end of the Cold War, and with a much greater tempo of operations since 9-11. Can you describe a set of circumstances that would allow the United States to materially reduce its involvement in active military operations around the globe for an extended period of time? Can you describe such a set of circumstances that does not depend on political decisions in other countries over which we have no control – that is to say, can you describe a set of purely military objectives that could be achieved that would allow the United States to significantly reduce its involvement in active military operations for the foreseeable future thereafter? If not, should we assume that you believe that the current military posture of the United States is something we should regard as normal?

5. Are you familiar with the Thucydides Trap? It’s the trap that dominant, hegemonic powers find themselves caught in as they confront a rising power. Maintaining hegemony while a subordinate power gets stronger and stronger is both increasingly expensive (a drain that contributes to the subordinate power’s rise) and generates increasing resentment on the part of the rising power. But failing to maintain hegemony projects weakness, and invites challenge. Thus both aggressive and conciliatory policies may invite conflict with the rising power, with potentially catastrophic consequences. Britain failed to escape the trap when confronted with a rising Germany prior to World War I. The United States failed to escape the trap when confronted with a rising Japan prior to World War II. Do you see a risk of a Thucydides Trap in America’s relations with China today? If so, how do you believe we can keep ourselves from falling into the trap? And, given the potentially catastrophic consequences of failure to avoid falling into the trap, shouldn’t our approach to all our other foreign policy problems really be driven by the overriding goal of avoiding that outcome, even at the expense of other interests?

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