Noah Millman

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
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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Boris Johnson Would Prefer Not To

So much for the theory that his support for Brexit was a cynical ploy to vault Boris Johnson into the PM’s office:

Addressing reporters in a new conference just moments before the deadline for nominations passed, Mr Johnson said the next Conservative leader would have to unify his party and ensure that Britain stood tall in the world.

“Having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me,” he said.

BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said it was an “astonishing turn of events”.

Mr Gove – who has pitched himself as a candidate that can offer “unity and change” and deliver the Brexit result- had been expected to back Mr Johnson for the leadership.

But he said he had concluded that “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead”.

Justice minister and Leave campaigner Dominic Raab, who switched sides from supporting Mr Johnson to Mr Gove, said the former London mayor’s “cavalier” attitude had scuppered the plan.

Tina Brown’s read of Johnson as a “Gentleman Hack” looks all the better in the light of this latest news. I don’t know whether Johnson’s support in the party simply evaporated when they truly understood his fundamental unseriousness, or whether he simply decided he didn’t want the job if it involved the hard work of either negotiating an exit from the EU or selling British voters on changing their minds and staying in, but it doesn’t really matter. Either way, the dog that caught the car got run over.

I haven’t indulged in facile Trump-Johnson comparisons until now, but I imagine the #NeverTrump-sters will be doing so with relish, as well they should.

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Brexit and the Wailing of the Anglo-American Commentariat

Damon Linker has a corker of a column up today about the hysterical reaction to Britain’s vote to leave the EU:

It’s perfectly reasonable to worry about what will happen after Britain’s historic vote to break up with the European Union. Will Brexit provoke Scotland and Northern Ireland to secede from the United Kingdom, leading to its dissolution? Will it embolden other members of the EU to bolt? And will those secessionist movements empower unsavory characters who end up being seduced by Vladimir Putin and modeling themselves on his form of authoritarian populism? Will the dire short-term economic consequences of Brexit create chaos and recession in the long term, too?

As I said, lots of reasons to worry.

But what we’ve seen from a wide range of writers and analysts in the days since the Brexit vote is not necessarily worry. It is shockFuryDisgustDespair. A faith has been shaken, illusions shattered, pieties punctured. This is what happens when a life-orienting system of belief gets smashed on the rocks of history.

The name of that shattered system of belief? Progressivism.

Why did the Brexit vote deliver such a shock to the progressive belief system?

Whether or not it’s expressed in explicitly theological terms, progressivism holds out a very specific moral vision of the future. It will be a world beyond particular attachments, beyond ethnic or linguistic or racial or religious or national forms of solidarity. In their place will be the only acceptable form of solidarity: humanitarian universalism.

And this means that the progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle’s sense — this particular community in thisplace with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future.

Politics in this expansive sense will come to an end in the imagined progressive future because there will be nothing left to debate. The big questions of politics will already be answered, the big disputes settled once and for all. Everyone will understand that all particular forms of solidarity are morally indefensible (just various forms of racism) and that all strong political stands against humanitarian universalism in the political realm are politically unacceptable (just various forms of fascism).

It would be one thing if progressives understood their universalistic moral and political convictions to constitute one legitimate partisan position among many. But they don’t understand them in this way. They believe not only that their views deserve to prevail in the fullness of time, but also that they are bound to prevail.

It is this faith in the inevitability of progressive triumph that has led so many commentators to respond so intensely to the rise of Donald Trump. I don’t mean reactions that focus on Trump’s personal, temperamental shortcomings. Those are real and worthy of serious concern. I mean reactions that take the form of moral indignation and outrage — as if the very fact that millions of voters have cast ballots for a candidate who strongly opposes immigration and free trade is some kind of moral and theological betrayal, or an offense against capital-H History itself.

The progressive response to the outcome of the Brexit vote is remarkably similar.

I think that’s all pretty much right. But I notice something. All of those links in the “shock – fury – disgust – despair” paragraph are to Anglo-American writers. What do people on the continent – those whom Britain would leave – think of Britain’s announced intention to depart?

Let’s look at France:

France has shown a divided response to the news that the UK has voted to leave the EU, although a vocal majority (online at least) appear to have been pleased.
A survey of newspaper Le Figaro’s readers found on Friday morning that most respondents in France were satisfied with the result of the vote. . . . 68 percent of the more than 10,000 people surveyed were satisfied with the result, compared to 32 percent who weren’t.
And this majority was the most vocal on Twitter on Friday, as many French vented their anger – as well as predictable digs at “Les Anglais” – over the Brexit vote.
The hashtag #BonDebarras – Good Riddance – spoke for itself, but one user sniped: “Les Anglais are beginning to realise that most Europeans are delighted that they are splitting.”
Other snarky tweets recalled that Britain had always had an arm’s-length relationship with the European Union, having opted out of the euro, the visa-free Schengen zone and the Common Agricultural Policy.
“Have they ever really been part of the EU?” one asked.


And Germany?

Merkel said she had “deep regret” over the U.K.’s decision, but the remaining 27 members of the EU should be “willing and able to not draw quick and simple conclusions from the referendum…which would only further divide Europe.”

The chancellor said the countries should “calmly and prudently analyze and evaluate the situation, before making the right decisions together.” . . .

Schäuble and Merkel would apparently like to see a treaty between the EU and the U.K., covering trading rules and other regulations that would “not offer too much leeway to Britain in gaining access to the European Union’s internal market.” Again, the aim here is to avoid creating incentives for other countries to consider following the U.K.’s lead, and leaving the EU.

Handelsblatt also said Merkel and Schäuble want to avoid letting France and Italy use the Brexit pandemonium to push for a greater pooling of liabilities in the Eurozone.

Merkel’s coalition partners, the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), said the U.K.’s vote for Brexit should be seen as a signal for the rest of the EU to press its case for greater integration—precisely what the Brexit voters reacted against. The party said committed Europeans had “failed to clearly point out” that the fears motivating the shift—over immigration, employment and refugees—were “unjustified.” . . .

The SPD said the European institutions should now be reformed to patch up the democratic deficit identified by pro-Brexit voters. “We should use the opportunity to overcome the weaknesses that the great European project still has,” it said, while warning of the rise of the far right.

Reading between the lines, the German center-right and the business establishment are distressed because the UK was a reliable voice against greater fiscal integration, and greater fiscal integration would be expensive for Germany. The French, meanwhile, are saying good riddance for precisely the same reasons.

I see a variety of emotions, including anger and spiteful glee and quite a great deal of worry. But I don’t see sackcloth and ashes. Even the German center-left, who have probably the most idealism about “Europe” of any major European political group (and with whose views I have considerable sympathy) see the merit of some of the British criticisms, specifically related to the “democratic deficit.”

In other words: from many quarters within Europe, what I see is a response that is political. Some of that politics is purely self-interested – treating Europe as merely a business deal. Some of it sees something higher at stake – but is concerned to identify what concrete political moves must be made in order to best achieve that higher end.

It’s from the Anglo-American liberal commentariat, primarily, that I see the wailing, the gnashing of teeth, and the rending of garments. These people do seem to have suffered a blow to their faith. But what is the nature of the blow?

Well, the one thing I can definitely say about Britain leaving the EU is that it will take Britain out of the rooms in which the decisions about the structure of the EU are decided. It will make Britain an observer to, and an outside influencer of, rather than a participant in, European politics. The European project may go forward, or may go backward, or may go forward in a wholly new direction. But it will go forward without Britain.

That, it seems to me, is what makes the loss feel so keen.

There is a very good case to be made that the departure of Britain from the EU would help the cause of making the EU into a successful, more functional entity. I make that case in my own column this morning:

[T]he only way Europe can work is by becoming a deeper union. The euro can only function if Europe has a common fiscal policy. Europe can only wield diplomatic clout commensurate with its demographic and economic bulk if it has a common defense policy. And Britain was always going to remain the largest, strongest foot-dragger to further cessions of national sovereignty.

Now, given America’s failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation, and the painful experience of the American Civil War, you would think we would appreciate the need for unity, and an effective central government. But in fact, we strongly opposed a British exit precisely because of their foot-dragging.

The United States only ever wanted Britain to remain in the EU because we always favored a broader Europe over a deeper one. We wanted to make sure a country that saw the world in similar terms to the way we saw it remained inside the European tent. And we opposed a more deeply united Europe that might steer its own course apart from America, particularly if it developed a genuinely independent defense capability outside of NATO.

It has never been obvious that this policy has been in America’s best interest rightly understood. If Europe is to be our ally, then we need that ally to be able to pull its weight. A weak, dysfunctional, and dependent Europe serves nobody’s interests, including America’s. Those who really believe in a functional version of a European Union, as opposed to a fantasy version, must believe that Europe can become, over time, something more like a nation. And if that is what Europe is to be, then an ever-broader union is a mistake, inasmuch as it makes deepening the union ever more difficult and expensive. If Europe must deepen, it must first shrink.

Will France and Germany agree on the compromises necessary to make Europe work? It’s not clear – and never has been – but the Brexit forces the question.

That price may not be worth paying, for either country. If it isn’t, Britain’s impending exit gives these two central states to the European project the opportunity to rethink, and renegotiate, the project itself. A less-ambitious, confederal Europe that stuck to being a common market might well endure better than the current arrangement — and might entice Britain back in.

Meanwhile, if Europeans decide to pay the price for true union, and the gamble pays off, then some in Britain may come to regret having missed out on the opportunity to be present at the creation — or, alternatively, to have prevented it. But Britons should abjure regret. This is not the 19th century. Britain cannot decide the fate of the continent. Nor can it be central to its affairs. In the context of a united Europe, Britain can either be an independent nation and bridge between Europe and America or it can be an important but ultimately peripheral province of a united European state.

By leaving, the British make it possible for Europe to choose its own destiny, and for Britain to choose whether and how to join it.

And that, I think, is what is most distressing to those parts of the commentariat that have been most distressed. Their crisis is not that they see history no longer moving smoothly toward the sunny uplands – when has it ever done so? – but that they see history passing them by, leaving them on the sidelines. Even if Europe ultimately succeeds, it will have done so without their being particular central to its success.

That, of course, was always the case – especially for the American commentariat. But the Brexit puts paid, as firmly as possible, to any lingering illusions of potency.

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Could a Brexit Help Fix Europe?

It’s starting to become a pattern with me: whenever I’ve got to give my take on some current event, I start by quoting Shakespeare. This morning, I’ve got a piece up at The New Republic about tomorrow’s Brexit vote. How do I start?

Britain is a world by itself; and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses.

Cymbeline, Act III Scene 1

On Thursday, if British voters decide to exit the European Union, it is likely that sentiments such as the foregoing will have proven decisive. The line comes from one of the Bard’s late romances, and the character who throws it in the teeth of an imperial Roman emissary is the comic villain of the piece: the crass, braggadocious, dim-witted son of the queen. Cloten is just the sort of scoundrel for whom patriotism is purported to be the last refuge.

You might say it’s a part Nigel Farage, the head of the U.K. Independence Party, was born to play. Certainly, in no small measure, the emotional support for the “Remain” vote stems from the conviction that if Farage and his fans are for leaving, surely leaving must be a terrible idea that only a bigot or a fool could support. In this view, cleaving to Europeanism is not merely the only sensible choice, but the only idealistic one as well.

But in Shakespeare’s play, things are not so simple. The comic villain has a vital role to play in bringing the drama to its happy conclusion. And so, too, may Nigel Farage—not only in Great Britain, but in Europe.

The subsequent argument bears considerable resemblance to Michael Brendan Dougherty’s here: that the EU’s democratic deficit is unlikely to be remedied without a real shock to the system, and a Brexit might be just that shock, the main difference between myself and MBD being that I think the European project still has a great deal of merit.

Anyway, you can read the whole thing there.

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My Take on Orlando

You know what sucks about being a blogger? Whenever anything terrible happens, you’re supposed to have an opinion. And if you don’t have a “take” then you wind up writing something like this:

In the wake of tragedy, we look for explanations.

The most comfortable explanations are those that reinforce our preexisting understanding of who is on the side of good and right in our active debates. Inevitably, people on the other side complain about politicization, but at least it’s channeling the feelings of helplessness into what proponents see as constructive activity. The only ones with real cause to complain are not one’s political opponents, but the victims’ families.

Of course, these politicized explanations are not mutually exclusive, and eventually someone like Jeffrey Goldberg comes along and points this out.

Tragedy doesn’t have a single moral. It can be about many things. This is also true — and if it leads to a bit of mutual respect by the competing sides in the war to own the narrative that emerges from a tragedy like the one in Orlando, Florida, then it’s also a good thing. Maybe we’ll get more sensible gun laws and more resources for mental illness and a better system for monitoring jihadi groups.

But would any of those actions, even if worthy, have prevented this particular massacre? An explanation isn’t the same as a diagnosis. And even a diagnosis doesn’t imply a cure.

Read the whole thing at The Week.

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Trump v. Curiel

Pat Buchanan comes to the defense of Trump for impugning Judge Curiel’s impartiality:

He attacked the independence of the judiciary, we are told.

But Presidents Jefferson and Jackson attacked the Supreme Court, and FDR, fed up with New Deal programs being struck down, tried to “pack the court” by raising the number of justices to 15 if necessary.

Abraham Lincoln leveled “that eminent tribunal” in his first inaugural, and once considered arresting Chief Justice Roger Taney.

The conservative movement was propelled by attacks on the Warren Court. In the ’50s and ’60s, “Impeach Earl Warren!” was plastered on billboards and bumper stickers all across God’s country.

The judiciary is independent, but that does not mean that federal judges are exempt from the same robust criticism as presidents or members of Congress.

Obama himself attacked the Citizens United decision in a State of the Union address, with the justices sitting right in front of him.

But Trump’s real hanging offense was that he brought up the judge’s ancestry, as the son of Mexican immigrants, implying that he was something of a judicial version of Univision’s Jorge Ramos.

Apparently, it is now not only politically incorrect, but, in Newt Gingrich’s term, “inexcusable,” to bring up the religious, racial or ethnic background of a judge, or suggest this might influence his actions on the bench.

But these things matter.

Does Newt think that when LBJ appointed Thurgood Marshall, ex-head of the NAACP, to the Supreme Court, he did not think Marshall would bring his unique experience as a black man and civil rights leader to the bench?

Surely, that was among the reasons Marshall was appointed.

There is an obvious difference between saying “your view of the law is shaped by your background” and saying “you cannot be impartial in this case because you are biased against me personally.” The former is a commonplace – and is, indeed, part of the argument for diversity (including ideological diversity) on the highest courts in particular, where part of the job is deciding what the law is, and not merely adjudicating the facts and applying clear precedent.

The latter is a seriously defamatory accusation. And leveling that accusation on no better evidence than a disagreement about politics amounts to the assertion that justice is impossible in a society, like ours, where such disagreements obtain.

I have a hard time believing that Buchanan doesn’t understand the distinction.

Meanwhile, if you want to know my view of why Trump is making such a fuss about Curiel, that’s the topic of my latest column at The Week:

Trump is ranting about Curiel’s bias not because doing so is part of any kind of rational political strategy, but because he is going to lose the case. And if he loses, it must be somebody else’s fault. He’s not just talking about himself instead of something that actually matters to voters. He’s talking to himself, telling himself a story of how big a winner he is, no matter how often he loses. And he’s doing it in front of the entire country.

In a very basic sense, this is the emotional connection that Trump forged from the beginning of his campaign. Trump sees himself as a winner whose occasional setbacks are the result of other people’s unfairness or incompetence. He has connected with a slice of the voting public that sees America’s problems in similar terms: the fault of corrupt, incompetent, and disloyal elites. But successful political leaders — whether they operate within established norms or, like Trump, gleefully flout them — use that emotional connection for something larger. It’s the ground on which they build loyalty to a political program and organization.

Trump isn’t building anything. Indeed, he hasn’t built anything in a good long time; for decades, he’s been a marketer whose only product is his own mystique. And so it is with his political campaign. The purpose of the emotional connection he has forged is entirely personal: to reaffirm his own greatness, his own winningness. “I’ve always won and I’m going to continue to win. And that’s the way it is,” he told supporters on the Monday conference call. The conversation keeps coming back to him because that’s where he wants it to go. Because that’s all his campaign has ever been about.

Read the whole thing there.

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Is Demography Electoral Destiny?

Kevin Drum has a rather strange post up about California and Proposition 187. He argues as follows:

Here’s what California has looked like in presidential elections over the past 35 years:

Unless I made a mistake somewhere, Prop 187 had precisely zero effect. As the non-white population of California rose, the Democratic share of the presidential vote rose in almost perfect tandem. After 1994, it continued growing at the same rate as ever.

This is just the presidential vote, and maybe things are different in other contests. But I’d be interested to see someone take a more detailed look at this. The real lesson here seems to be that Donald Trump’s racist blatherings are likely to have no effect at all on the Republican Party. Non-whites don’t like Republicans, and will go on not liking them.

Bottom line: Extra doses of racism probably don’t hurt Republicans. Minority voters already know the score, so they don’t care much. Until the Republican Party actively goes after the racism in its ranks and actively tries to appeal to non-white voters, it doesn’t matter much what else they do.

I say this is a strange post because Drum is a liberal Democrat, and this is more of a Steve Sailer-ish point to make. Indeed, if Drum is correct, then not only was Prop 187 not the cause of Republican decline in California, but serious immigration restriction remains absolutely essential to saving the GOP nationally. Which it may be! But it’s funny to hear Drum implicitly making that case.

But it’s also strange because, atypically for Drum, he doesn’t look at comparative data. So let’s look at some. Here’s Texas:



It looks like perhaps there was nothing inevitable about what Drum observes about California politics. The non-white (including Hispanic) share of Texas’s population grew at a somewhat slower rate than did California’s, but not a dramatically slower rate. But the partisan balance has shifted almost not at all since 1980, bouncing between 35% and 45% Democratic, with the remainder going to the Republicans (except in 1992 and 1996 when iconoclastic Texas native Ross Perot nabbed a chunk of the vote as well).

That doesn’t mean that Proposition 187 made the difference in the trajectories of the two states. I’m inclined to believe that a wide variety of factors are relevant in assessing the different political trajectories of the country’s two most populous states. But all Drum can conclude from his graph of California is that Proposition 187 did nothing to keep California Republican in the face of a monotonically increasing non-white percentage of the population, while something else has worked for the GOP in Texas in the face of a similar demographic tide.

If you look under the hood, what I suspect you’d see is that non-Hispanic white voters in Texas vote overwhelmingly Republican, and that they have trended more Republican over time, while non-Hispanic white voters in California are far more divided between the parties. As a secondary factor, I’d expect you’d see more Hispanic Republicans in Texas than in California. Teasing out cause and effect for both factors is tough, but the “bottom line” is probably just that Texas is a much more conservative state, across the board, than California is. And it was a much more conservative state in 1980 as well. It’s just that the partisan implications of that difference have shifted, such that California, once a Republican state (it voted Republican in every election from 1952 through 1988, except for the 1964 Johnson landslide), has become solidly Democratic at the Federal (and, frankly, state) level, while Texas, once a swing state (it went for the winner in every election from 1948 through 1980 except for the squeaker in 1968) has become solidly Republican (also, at both the state and Federal levels).

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that Texas was Trump’s worst large primary state. He got 26.7% of the vote there, versus 45.7% in Marco Rubio’s Florida and 35.6% in John Kasich’s Ohio (not to mention winning pluralities in Michigan, Illinois, Georgia and North Carolina, and majorities in New York and Pennsylvania, just to round out the top 10 states by population). Whatever is working for the GOP in demographically-changing Texas seems to be limiting the appeal of Trumpism.

But the story is different in other states undergoing rapid demographic change – particularly Florida, where, as noted, Trump earned 45.7% of the vote in a vigorously contested multi-candidate primary where one of his opponents was a native son. If you want a state to watch for the medium-term impact of Trump’s campaign, this is the one. Florida has been a swing state for the past 40 years, voting for the winner in every election since 1976 except for 1992, and voting by fairly close margins in every election in this century. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white proportion of the population has dropped by about 20 points, from roughly 75% to roughly 55%, since 1980.

Florida right now is about where California was in 1994. If, after this election, Florida trends increasingly Democratic, will that validate the thesis of Proposition 187’s critics? Or will it vindicate the immigration restrictionists? How would one know who is right – at least with regard to the politics?


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Trumpism Beyond Trump

I’ve been meditating on Frank Rich’s excellent piece comparing the Trump and Reagan campaigns (with side-forays into the Goldwater campaign) ever since I read it. It’s a must-read for anyone coming at the Trump phenomenon from where I do.

Just to reiterate where that is: I think Trump would make, at best, a terrible President, and could be the kind of President who does serious, lasting damage to our political institutions. I won’t vote for him. I don’t dislike Hillary Clinton nearly as much as Alan Jacobs does, but I’m reluctant to vote for her for a number of reasons. Nonetheless, I’ll be rooting for her to win, and to win by a large margin.

But I think the Trump phenomenon is an important one, and that he is exploiting genuinely important issues. Our trade, immigration and industrial policies should aim to promote the long-term competitiveness of the American workforce – not to maximize the profits generated by American intellectual property or American finance. Our foreign policy should aim at promoting peace between states, cooperating with other powers to address common problems and threats, and husbanding American strength to deter potential rivals from challenging our vital interests – not to maximally extend the scope of American hegemony.

I don’t believe Trump actually cares a tinker’s dam about any of the above, even though they are all issues he has brought to the fore in his campaign. Inasmuch as he cares about anything that he’s running on, it’s the right of Donald Trump to say whatever the heck he wants in whatever way he wants. I vigorously defend that right – and am appalled when his often crass, incoherent, insensitive, even disgusting speech, and those who want to hear it, are met with this kind of violence. And if the Trump campaign forces some kind of reckoning with the illiberalism of his opponents, that would be one real service he’s done the Republic.

But I still want him to go down in flames. What I don’t want is for the real issues he has highlighted to go down with him.

Which is why I’ve been meditating on the Frank Rich column. When Barry Goldwater went down to ignominious defeat in 1964, in the short term it meant a setback for his cause. But even in the medium term, to say nothing of the long term, it meant the opposite. It’s hard to imagine a partisan of Goldwaterism looking back and saying: it would have been better if Goldwater hadn’t been nominated in 1964.

But notwithstanding the comparisons Rich makes between Trump, Goldwater and Reagan in terms of how they defeated the GOP establishments of their respective eras – and notwithstanding the ways in which they could be compared as people (Goldwater certainly said a few outrageous, even scary things in his day, and Reagan was rightly accused of being willfully ignorant of policy detail, not to mention presiding over a host of scandals some of which did real damage to our political institutions) – nonetheless, there are two key differences between Trump on the one hand and both Reagan and Goldwater on the other, that make me wonder whether a defeat for Trump could have a Goldwaterish silver lining.

First, both Reagan and Goldwater were widely reputed to be personally decent people, and both were respected for their fidelity to their beliefs even by those who vigorously opposed those beliefs. Their convictions did not, in either case, prohibit compromise, and both evolved over time in ways that the most rabid ideologues often refuse to acknowledge. But they were nonetheless rightly perceived as conviction candidates. Nobody can say that with a straight face about Donald Trump.

Second, and relatedly, both Reagan and Goldwater were the leaders of organized political factions seeking to dominate their political party. Howsoever they may have challenged the preexisting political hierarchy, they were engaged in normal politics. This, again, is not true of Donald Trump, who is a pure cult-of-personality candidate who has built nothing and will build nothing. (Which is a major reason why I expect him, if elected, to jettison every heterodoxy that actually costs anything in favor of the worst version of crony-capitalist Republicanism.)

For both reasons, I really do wonder whether, in the aftermath of a massive loss, there will be any way for what was worth assimilating from the Trump phenomenon to survive.

Or, perhaps a better question is: how could someone who really did care about one or another of Trump’s “issues” ensure that his defeat doesn’t lead to their utter repudiation, but instead to something more productive?

That’s the question I’m chewing on as I root for Hillary Clinton – who bears more than a little resemblance to Lyndon Johnson in both her temperament and her ambition (and, for that matter, her foreign policy) – to crush Donald Trump.

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