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Slouching Toward Mar-a-Lago

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch [1]

Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us.

It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850-1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic.  He was merely the federal chief executive.  Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore.  With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors.  They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded.  So when Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885) or William Howard Taft (1909-1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines — now known as “presidential libraries”—to the glory of their presidencies.  In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.

Over the course of the past century, all that has changed.  Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarified space as our king-emperor.  The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace.  We have our man in the White House.


Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government.  In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy.  Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.

At the same time, they also took on various extra-constitutional responsibilities.  By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and — last but hardly least — celebrity-in-chief.  In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.

As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint.  On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency [2].” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action.  The War Powers Resolution [3] of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule.  Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919 [4](enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.

In truth, influential American institutions — investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national security apparatus and both major political parties — have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod.  By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.


Furthermore, it’s our president — not some foreign dude — who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe.  For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper.  So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.

Then came the Great Hysteria.  Arriving with a Pearl Harbor-like shock, it erupted on the night of November 8, 2016, just as the news that Hillary Clinton was losing Florida and appeared certain to lose much else besides became apparent.

Suddenly, all the habits and precedents that had contributed to empowering the modern American presidency no longer made sense.  That a single deeply flawed individual along with a handful of unelected associates and family members should be entrusted with determining the fate of the planet suddenly seemed the very definition of madness.

Emotion-laden upheavals producing behavior that is not entirely rational are hardly unknown in the American experience.  Indeed, they recur with some frequency.  The Great Awakenings of the eighteenth [5] and early nineteenth [6] centuries are examples of the phenomenon.  So also are the two Red Scares of the twentieth century, the first [7] in the early 1920s and the second [8], commonly known as “McCarthyism,” coinciding with the onset of the Cold War.

Yet the response to Donald Trump’s election, combining as it has fear, anger, bewilderment, disgust, and something akin to despair, qualifies as an upheaval without precedent.  History itself had seemingly gone off the rails.  The crude Andrew Jackson’s 1828 ousting [9] of an impeccably pedigreed president, John Quincy Adams, was nothing compared to the vulgar Donald Trump’s defeat of an impeccably credentialed graduate of Wellesley and Yale who had served as first lady, United States senator, and secretary of state.  A self-evidently inconceivable outcome — all the smart people agreed on that point — had somehow happened anyway.

A vulgar, bombastic, thrice-married real-estate tycoon and reality TV host as prophet, moral philosopher, style-setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and chief celebrity?  The very idea seemed both absurd and intolerable.

If we have, as innumerable commentators assert, embarked upon the Age of Trump, the defining feature of that age might well be the single-minded determination of those horrified and intent on ensuring its prompt termination. In 2016, TIME magazine chose Trump as its person of the year [10].  In 2017, when it comes to dominating the news, that “person” might turn out to be a group — all those fixated on cleansing the White House of Trump’s defiling presence.

Egged on and abetted in every way by Trump himself, the anti-Trump resistance has made itself the Big Story.  Lies, hate, collusion, conspiracy, fascism:  rarely has the everyday vocabulary of American politics been as ominous and forbidding as over the past six months.  Take resistance rhetoric at face value and you might conclude that Donald Trump is indeed the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse [11], his presence in the presidential saddle eclipsing all other concerns.  Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death will just have to wait.

The unspoken assumption of those most determined to banish him from public life appears to be this: once he’s gone, history will be returned to its intended path, humankind will breathe a collective sigh of relief, and all will be well again.  Yet such an assumption strikes me as remarkably wrongheaded — and not merely because, should Trump prematurely depart from office, Mike Pence will succeed him.  Expectations that Trump’s ouster will restore normalcy ignore the very factors that first handed him the Republican nomination (with a slew of competitors wondering what hit them) and then put him in the Oval Office (with a vastly more seasoned and disciplined, if uninspiring, opponent left to bemoan the injustice of it all).

Not all, but many of Trump’s supporters voted for him for the same reason that people buy lottery tickets: Why not?  In their estimation, they had little to lose.  Their loathing of the status quo is such that they may well stick with Trump even as it becomes increasingly obvious that his promise of salvation — an America made “great again” — is not going to materialize.

Yet those who imagine that Trump’s removal will put things right are likewise deluding themselves.  To persist in thinking that he defines the problem is to commit an error of the first order.  Trump is not cause, but consequence.

For too long, the cult of the presidency has provided an excuse for treating politics as a melodrama staged at four-year intervals and centering on hopes of another Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan appearing as the agent of American deliverance.  Donald Trump’s ascent to the office once inhabited by those worthies should demolish such fantasies once and for all.

How is it that someone like Trump could become president in the first place?  Blame sexism, Fox News, James Comey, Russian meddling, and Hillary’s failure to visit Wisconsin all you want, but a more fundamental explanation is this: the election of 2016 constituted a de facto referendum on the course of recent American history.  That referendum rendered a definitive judgment: the underlying consensus informing U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War has collapsed.  Precepts that members of the policy elite have long treated as self-evident no longer command the backing or assent of the American people. Put simply: it’s the ideas, stupid.

Rabbit Poses a Question

“Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”  As the long twilight struggle was finally winding down, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, novelist John Updike’s late-twentieth-century Everyman [12], pondered that question. In short order, Rabbit got his answer.  So, too, after only perfunctory consultation, did his fellow citizens.

The passing of the Cold War offered cause for celebration.  On that point all agreed.  Yet, as it turned out, it did not require reflection from the public at large.  Policy elites professed to have matters well in hand.  The dawning era, they believed, summoned Americans not to think anew, but to keep doing precisely what they were accustomed to doing, albeit without fretting further about Communist takeovers or the risks of nuclear Armageddon.  In a world where a “single superpower [13]” was calling the shots, utopia was right around the corner.  All that was needed was for the United States to demonstrate the requisite confidence and resolve.

Three specific propositions made up the elite consensus that coalesced during the initial decade of the post-Cold-War era.  According to the first, the globalization of corporate capitalism held the key to wealth creation on a hitherto unimaginable scale.  According to the second, jettisoning norms derived from Judeo-Christian religious traditions held the key to the further expansion of personal freedom.  According to the third, muscular global leadership exercised by the United States held the key to promoting a stable and humane international order.

Unfettered neoliberalism plus the unencumbered self plus unabashed American assertiveness: these defined the elements of the post-Cold-War consensus that formed during the first half of the 1990s — plus what enthusiasts called the information revolution.  The miracle of that “revolution,” gathering momentum just as the Soviet Union was going down for the count, provided the secret sauce that infused the emerging consensus with a sense of historical inevitability.

The Cold War itself had fostered notable improvements in computational speed and capacity, new modes of communication, and techniques for storing, accessing, and manipulating information.  Yet, however impressive, such developments remained subsidiary to the larger East-West competition.  Only as the Cold War receded did they move from background to forefront.  For true believers, information technology came to serve a quasi-theological function, promising answers to life’s ultimate questions.  Although God might be dead, Americans found in Bill Gates and Steve Jobs nerdy but compelling idols.

More immediately, in the eyes of the policy elite, the information revolution meshed with and reinforced the policy consensus.  For those focused on the political economy, it greased the wheels of globalized capitalism, creating vast new opportunities for trade and investment.  For those looking to shed constraints on personal freedom, information promised empowerment, making identity itself something to choose, discard, or modify.  For members of the national security apparatus, the information revolution seemed certain to endow the United States with seemingly unassailable military capabilities.  That these various enhancements would combine to improve the human condition was taken for granted; that they would, in due course, align everybody — from Afghans to Zimbabweans — with American values and the American way of life seemed more or less inevitable.

The three presidents of the post-Cold-War era — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — put these several propositions to the test.  Politics-as-theater requires us to pretend that our 42nd, 43rd, and 44th presidents differed in fundamental ways.  In practice, however, their similarities greatly outweighed any of those differences.  Taken together, the administrations over which they presided collaborated in pursuing a common agenda, each intent on proving that the post-Cold-War consensus could work in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary.

To be fair, it did work for some. “Globalization” made some people very rich indeed.  In doing so, however, it greatly exacerbated inequality [14], while doing nothing to alleviate the condition of the American working class and underclass.

The emphasis on diversity and multiculturalism improved the status of groups long subjected to discrimination.  Yet these advances have done remarkably little to reduce the alienation and despair pervading a society suffering from epidemics of chronic substance abuse [15]morbid obesity [16]teen suicide [17], and similar afflictions.  Throw in the world’s highest incarceration rate [18], a seemingly endless appetite for porn [19], urban school systems mired [20] in permanent crisis, and mass shootings [21] that occur with metronomic regularity, and what you have is something other than the profile of a healthy society.

As for militarized American global leadership, it has indeed resulted in various bad actors meeting richly deserved fates.  Goodbye, Saddam.  Good riddance, Osama.  Yet it has also embroiled the United States in a series of costly, senseless, unsuccessful, and ultimately counterproductive wars.  As for the vaunted information revolution, its impact has been ambiguous [22] at best, even if those with eyeballs glued to their personal electronic devices can’t tolerate being offline long enough to assess the actual costs of being perpetually connected.

In November 2016, Americans who consider themselves ill served by the post-Cold-War consensus signaled that they had had enough.  Voters not persuaded that neoliberal economic policies, a culture taking its motto [23] from the Outback steakhouse chain, and a national security strategy that employs the U.S. military as a global police force were working to their benefit provided a crucial margin in the election of Donald Trump.

The response of the political establishment to this extraordinary repudiation testifies to the extent of its bankruptcy.  The Republican Party still clings to the notion that reducing taxes, cutting government red tape, restricting abortion, curbing immigration, prohibiting flag-burning, and increasing military spending will alleviate all that ails the country.  Meanwhile, to judge by the promises contained in their recently unveiled (and instantly forgotten [24]) program for a “Better Deal,” Democrats believe that raising the minimum wage, capping the cost of prescription drugs, and creating apprenticeship programs for the unemployed will return their party to the good graces of the American electorate.

In both parties embarrassingly small-bore thinking prevails, with Republicans and Democrats equally bereft of fresh ideas.  Each party is led by aging hacks.  Neither has devised an antidote to the crisis in American politics signified by the nomination and election of Donald Trump.

While our emperor tweets, Rome itself fiddles.

Starting Over

I am by temperament a conservative and a traditionalist, wary of revolutionary movements that more often than not end up being hijacked by nefarious plotters more interested in satisfying their own ambitions than in pursuing high ideals.  Yet even I am prepared to admit that the status quo appears increasingly untenable. Incremental change will not suffice.  The challenge of the moment is to embrace radicalism without succumbing to irresponsibility.

The one good thing we can say about the election of Donald Trump — to borrow an image from Thomas Jefferson — is this: it ought to serve as a fire bell in the night.  If Americans have an ounce of sense, the Trump presidency will cure them once and for all of the illusion that from the White House comes redemption.  By now we ought to have had enough of de facto monarchy.

By extension, Americans should come to see as intolerable the meanness, corruption, and partisan dysfunction so much in evidence at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.  We need not wax sentimental over the days when Lyndon Johnson and Everett Dirksen presided over the Senate to conclude that Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer represent something other than progress.  If Congress continues to behave as contemptibly as it has in recent years (and in recent weeks), it will, by default, allow the conditions that have produced Trump and his cronies to prevail.

So it’s time to take another stab at an approach to governance worthy of a democratic republic.  Where to begin?  I submit that Rabbit Angstrom’s question offers a place to start:  What’s the point of being an American?

Authentic progressives and principled conservatives will offer different answers to Rabbit’s query.  My own answer is rooted in an abiding conviction that our problems are less quantitative than qualitative.  Rather than simply more — yet more wealth, more freedom, more attempts at global leadership — the times call for different.  In my view, the point of being an American is to participate in creating a society that strikes a balance between wants and needs, that exists in harmony with nature and the rest of humankind, and that is rooted in an agreed upon conception of the common good.

My own prescription for how to act upon that statement of purpose is unlikely to find favor with most readers of TomDispatch.  But therein lies the basis for an interesting debate, one that is essential to prospects for stemming the accelerating decay of American civic life.

Initiating such a debate, and so bringing into focus core issues, will remain next to impossible, however, without first clearing away the accumulated debris of the post-Cold-War era.  Preliminary steps in that direction, listed in no particular order, ought to include the following:

First, abolish the Electoral College.  Doing so will preclude any further occurrence of the circumstances that twice in recent decades cast doubt on the outcome of national elections and thereby did far more than any foreign interference to undermine the legitimacy of American politics.

Second, rollback gerrymandering.  Doing so will help restore competitive elections and make incumbency more tenuous.

Third, limit the impact of corporate money on elections at all levels, if need be by amending the Constitution.

Fourth, mandate a balanced federal budget, thereby demolishing the pretense that Americans need not choose between guns and butter.

Fifth, implement a program of national service, thereby eliminating the All-Volunteer military and restoring the tradition of the citizen-soldier.  Doing so will help close the gap between the military and society and enrich the prevailing conception of citizenship.  It might even encourage members of Congress to think twice before signing off on wars that the commander-in-chief wants to fight.

Sixth, enact tax policies that will promote greater income equality.

Seventh, increase public funding for public higher education, thereby ensuring that college remains an option for those who are not well-to-do.

Eighth, beyond mere “job” creation, attend to the growing challenges of providing meaningful work — employment that is both rewarding and reasonably remunerative — for those without advanced STEM degrees.

Ninth, end the thumb-twiddling on climate change and start treating it as the first-order national security priority that it is.

Tenth, absent evident progress on the above, create a new party system, breaking the current duopoly in which Republicans and Democrats tacitly collaborate to dictate the policy agenda and restrict the range of policy options deemed permissible.

These are not particularly original proposals and I do not offer them as a panacea.  They may, however, represent preliminary steps toward devising some new paradigm to replace a post-Cold-War consensus that, in promoting transnational corporate greed, mistaking libertinism for liberty, and embracing militarized neo-imperialism as the essence of statecraft, has paved the way for the presidency of Donald Trump.

We can and must do better. But doing so will require that we come up with better and truer ideas to serve as a foundation for American politics.

Andrew J. Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular [25], is the author of America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History [26]now out in paperbackHis next book will be an interpretive history of the United States from the end of the Cold War to the election of Donald Trump. This article originally appeared at TomDispatch [1]

43 Comments (Open | Close)

43 Comments To "Slouching Toward Mar-a-Lago"

#1 Comment By number before 2 On August 8, 2017 @ 11:33 pm

On modest proposals 1 and two. Is there any Constitutional or Federal requirement that that a state’s congressional delegation be divided into districts? How about voting from a party list where a voter is given the number of votes as there are seats in Congress. If your state has 24 seats say, the major party will request you vote all 24 votes for the say, 16 candidates they have on their slate. The Libertarians or Greens will direct their voters to put all 24 on their one candidate.
Keep the electoral college, but vote for the electors the same way. The party with the most votes will 2 extra electors in the state they win, but no state will be a winner take all.
This should also promote item 10.

Item 8. Sounds good, but it is simply looking at the industrial 40s through 70s with rose colored glasses. The basic industries UNIONIZED basic industries, were yes, reasonably remunerative. Many of us did those jobs as summer work. You try to find meaning and reward in shoveling out a steel mill grease pit or loading cases of milk on a truck. These jobs were miserable and mind-numbing. At the same time, businesses are crying out in our area (Northwest Illinois) for people. It is sort of a center for food manufacturing (yes, that is the word they use). Beef jerky, house brand dairy products, etc. They held a job fair recently looking for some 300 new employees. Less than 200 applicants showed up.
If you move up a notch or two on the IQ ladder, the local JCs out here are pretty good and provide a lot of useful voc tech courses. Combine this with good craft unions and you have a shot at meaning, reward, and dough. My son completed a welding course at the local JC. He took a test run by the local welders/pipefitters/plumbers union, passed, and was hired a month after graduating the JC. He is now a 3rd year apprentice making $28/hr with fantastic health insurance. He takes about 300 hrs/yr training done by the union and required by his employer. This is such a win/win situation for everyone. The union members get decent, steady wages and the employers get trained, vetted employees they do not have to train at their expense to see them take their skills elsewhere.

#2 Comment By TheCollectiveGasp On August 9, 2017 @ 12:05 am

I want that

#3 Comment By Morzer On August 9, 2017 @ 1:29 am

How can the disintegrating US system possibly reform itself in the ways suggested by Mr. Bacevich? Partisans of the two old and far from grand parties will resist, hoping to magically win all the marbles and find a competent president under the Christmas tree – and the rest of the populace are too busy, too disillusioned or simply too ignorant to make a difference.

#4 Comment By Nicolas On August 9, 2017 @ 2:08 am

An exceptionally good essay.

#5 Comment By RockMeAmadeus On August 9, 2017 @ 2:59 am

Lovely suggestions…never gonna happen within the current political system.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On August 9, 2017 @ 3:43 am

Mandatory military service will give me the opportunity to go to jail for my country.

You’ll notice the draft didn’t stop any wars. It just generated massive protests that didn’t sway the elites from their foreign imperial madness, until the Watergate scandal temporarily crippled an emperor. I don’t even think most of the protesters were against war for ethical reasons, just that it interfered with their personal plans if they had to fight it. I don’t even object to them refusing out of cowardice, that’s a more honest attitude than the MacNamaras had and the rest of the deceivers. I respect Mr. Bacevich, but I don’t think his prescriptions have a chance in heck in a morally fractured nation full of materialistic narcissists whose thinking is no longer reality-based.

#7 Comment By Furbo On August 9, 2017 @ 4:35 am

I believe that ending the Electoral College would move the country to a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario where we are all ruled by the NE and West Coasts. I would suggest that we abolish the 17th amendment.

#8 Comment By Tate On August 9, 2017 @ 9:12 am

I find the reasoning behind suggestion #1 to be rather ironic. If the goal were to undermine the legitimacy of elections, this might be good advice. That is, if you want middle America to feel as though coastal elites get to decide who POTUS is and thereby undermine the legitimacy of the Union, go right ahead.

#2 and #3 are mostly window-dressing, and also ironic for someone who just wrote that incremental change won’t do. They don’t deal with the real problem: too much power concentrated in D.C. Do you really have any faith that more competitive elections will really change things?

The Founders didn’t have mandated military service. Conscription in the U.S. didn’t become a thing until the War Between the States. Why expand the military’s reach even further?

Why is income inequality always the bogeyman? Why not instead focus on polices that increase economic growth? Economic growth is why we’re able to communicate right now instead of toiling in the dirt. There was much less inequality when people mostly were farmers; is that a preferable situation?

There is a good case to be made that higher education has become a public bad; it is mostly wasteful signaling rather than increases in productive skills ( [27]).

#8,9, and 10 are so vague that it’s hard to evaluate them.

#9 Comment By Johann On August 9, 2017 @ 9:15 am

Abolish the electoral college? NO. The electoral college is to protect the hinterlands from one size fits all laws and regulations. Nation-wide laws that may make sense in NYC or Los Angeles may not make sense in North Dakota.

Hillary Clinton was an artificial political construct. She was “made” Senator from New York even though prior to that she never lived in New York. That New Yorkers voted for her says a lot about their independent thinking. They have none. They vote how their political masters tell them.

#10 Comment By Tidewater Virginian On August 9, 2017 @ 9:43 am

I have some suggestions that most would probably consider radical, but are necessary for a restoration of traditional ways.

One suggestion is to restore true federalism. With the Constitution strictly interpreted, the power of D.C. is very much reduced. The states may regain their rightful places This would also require the states to grow backbone again.

Also, we are too large. Representative government in a country our size? That’s a joke. Only at the state level can any normal people actually have influence. We should be three, four, or five smaller federal republics. True community liberty would flourish again in a small federal republic made up of just a few states, with a weak federal government. These United States are, in fact, divisible.

A restoration of an agrarian system, with most people growing and raising much of their own food. And others employed in some industry related to agriculture. Only an agrarian economy (not “agri-business”) provides stability. Most people would (and did) have enough. The overall wealth is just lower, and fewer people have luxuries (but they are called luxuries for a reason).

A reduction of our regular military to a small core component, and a restoration of and reliance on, state militias.

And, most important, a revival of orthodox Christianity.

I am wary about increasing public funding for higher education. In its current radical leftist condition, it is not worthy of any increase. The culture that most higher education institutions are fostering is cancer.

#11 Comment By Mel Profit On August 9, 2017 @ 11:15 am

Good piece, although the concluding recommendations are neither original (which the author admits) nor “radical”. What should a conservative do when conservatism is no longer up to the task? That is left unclear.

#12 Comment By Ken T On August 9, 2017 @ 11:20 am

Why is income inequality always the bogeyman? Why not instead focus on polices that increase economic growth?

Because, as you evidently haven’t noticed, “economic growth” has already been taking place at a record pace for the last 3 decades. The reason you haven’t noticed is that unless you are in the top 1%, you haven’t been able to see any of it, and certainly haven’t received any benefit from it. That’s what “income inequality” is all about. The kind of economic growth that improved everyone’s lives no longer exists, and is exactly what needs to be restored – by dealing with “income inequality”.

#13 Comment By Ken T On August 9, 2017 @ 11:28 am

Nation-wide laws that may make sense in NYC or Los Angeles may not make sense in North Dakota.

But it is equally true that nation-wide laws that may make sense in North Dakota may not make sense in NYC or LA.

Neither of which points have anything to do with the EC. The question that does apply is – does it make sense for a resident of North Dakota to have 3 times the voting power of a resident of California?

#14 Comment By Anne On August 9, 2017 @ 11:35 am

Many good ideas here for making America functional again, but your premise is shaky at best. Trump barely won the handful of key states that gave him his Electoral College victory, while his opponent, Loser Hillary, won 3 million more votes from the American people overall. That makes Trump President, but hardly the representative of any meaningful historical moment, much less the embodiment of America itself (!). He may be a symptom of something, but that’s about it.

#15 Comment By Ken On August 9, 2017 @ 11:36 am

A wise article. Trump is a symptom, not a cure. And there will be no going back to the way things used to be. Yes, we need to think through as fundamental a question as “what is being an American for?” I remember reading a commentator in a French paper after 9/11 who said that there was a sense of relief in the US that “we have a new enemy at last” to replace the fallen Soviet Union. Could we define ourselves without an enemy and put the GWOT behind us (even as we continue to deal with Islamist terror)? Could we restore a sense of political community such that nobody has to ask whether the rest of the country cares about them, as many Trump voters in the Rust Belt and beyond clearly do? Can we go behind hyper-partisainship? Can we learn to be a democracy of compromises again instead of each side trying to win and then push a maximalist version of its own priorities? Time will tell. This kind of reassessment will take a long time. If Trump’s election fosters it, maybe we will someday conclude that it was a necessary evil.

#16 Comment By Ken T On August 9, 2017 @ 11:39 am

Continuing my previous thought:

Let me put the question another way. A person who lives in North Dakota picks up and moves to California. (Maybe he’s moving for a job, maybe he’s moving to be with family, maybe he’s just tired of the weather in ND.) Is it right that he now loses 2/3 of his voting power? Remember, I’m not talking about comparing a “salt of the Earth midwesterner” to an “effete coastal liberal” – I’m talking about the same person losing 2/3 of his voting right just because he moved to another place within this same country. Is that right?

#17 Comment By Michael N Moore On August 9, 2017 @ 12:55 pm

US post-Cold War behavior proved Lenin was right in “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism”. It has become clear that our history is the march of conquest of the Northeast ruling class seeking to dominate markets and raw materials. All of this is covered with a veneer of self righteousness from the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to regime change.

#18 Comment By JonF On August 9, 2017 @ 1:31 pm

It’s also true that the presidency was conditioned to become such a charismatic office by the fact that in the early years of the republic (really, all the way through Andrew Jackson) we had some uncommonly talented men in the office, even though a succession of non-entities and some outright doofuses followed Jackson all the way down to the first Roosevelt (Lincoln being the singular exception of course).

Some of the prescriptions are good ideas, but the balanced budget one is not, at least if you intend it to be written into the Constitution (as opposed to formal PayGo rules in Congress). The last time we tried to write a specific policy outcome into the Constitution we got Prohibition, a less than sterling success to be sure. There are various reasons the federal government may need to go over budget (just as businesses and individuals occasionally must do so) and we should not hamstring ourselves by pretending it can be otherwise. Again, some manner of PayGo rules enacted by statute are OK but a constitutional mandate is not.

As for national service, the military does not want and also does not need and cannot use every last American youth– and an all-volunteer army is very much part of our national tradition. So a national service program, while it could include the military as a option, would necessarily involve lots of civilian positions instead.

#19 Comment By JonF On August 9, 2017 @ 1:37 pm

Re: I believe that ending the Electoral College would move the country to a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario where we are all ruled by the NE and West Coasts. I would suggest that we abolish the 17th amendment.

Huh? Why? There are lots and lots of people in “flyover country”. Texas, Florida, Illinois. Michigan and Ohio are pretty populous states too. Nearly all our elections have featured a popular vote winner who also wins the electoral college. And without the electoral college every last vote would have the exact same weight. How is that unfair?
As for removing the 17th amendment, unless you banned direct election of senators, states would be free to institute it (many already did so when the 17th was approved). What you are really proposing is that we go back to letting super rich guys bribe their way into a Senate seat– quoth Senator Clark, “Hey, I never bribed a legislator who wasn’t for sale!” Thank you but no.

#20 Comment By Jon S On August 9, 2017 @ 2:38 pm

From Tidewater Virginian,

I agree with each of your suggestions, but wanted to make a comment on this:

“One suggestion is to restore true federalism. With the Constitution strictly interpreted, the power of D.C. is very much reduced. The states may regain their rightful places This would also require the states to grow backbone again.”

I would take it a step further: Let each state produce its own currency and use the Federal Reserve Note as a trade currency between the states. And let each state have its own central bank.

Federalism is subverted because the federal government can print its own currency and force the states to “toe the line” to get at that money. Change the currency system and that dynamic changes. You want radical. I’ll give you radical!

Section 1 of the 14th amendment should also be repealed. It is a wonderful sentiment, but in the end, it has been abused by federal judges to assert federal control over more local sensibilities.

#21 Comment By c matt On August 9, 2017 @ 2:59 pm

First, abolish the Electoral College.

Bad idea. It actually served its purpose this time around. It kept the nation from having a President effectively elected by LA and NYC.

Why does “income inequality” have to mean redistribution of wealth through taxation? Why not reduce costs of entry into/operation of business, such as the environmental, labor, and who knows what other regulations that require an army of in-house bureaucrats, thus keeping smaller businesses unable to compete with the oligarchs?

#22 Comment By c matt On August 9, 2017 @ 3:07 pm

Neither of which points have anything to do with the EC.

It has everything to do with the EC. The problem is that the EC made sense in a federal scheme that respects states’ rights. The question, then, is whether we want a system that respects those rights, or just chuck it all and let Brussels on the Potomac dictate everything (which is where we are now practically). I would prefer to chuck the federal government. Let LA, LA; let NYC, NYC, and let Bug Tussel, Bug Tussel.

#23 Comment By Johann On August 9, 2017 @ 3:20 pm

“But it is equally true that nation-wide laws that may make sense in North Dakota may not make sense in NYC or LA.”

True, but the majority of people in ND realize that laws that may make sense in ND may not make sense in NYC or LA. Not so with the arrogant left in the big cities. They “know” what’s best for all, especially for us deplorables.

It may help if you just think of the EC as affirmative action for us unwashed hinterland minorities, ideologically speaking.

#24 Comment By JonF On August 9, 2017 @ 4:19 pm

rE: Section 1 of the 14th amendment should also be repealed. It is a wonderful sentiment, but in the end, it has been abused by federal judges to assert federal control over more local sensibilities.

Huh? No, it establishes a simple and purely objective test for citizenship. What’s wrong with that? Do you want your citizenship to exist only at the whim of the ruling class or the bureaucracy?

#25 Comment By Will Harrington On August 9, 2017 @ 4:38 pm

Hey! I like the electoral college. Without it, we might just as well poll the big cities on the East and West coast and go home. It is there precisely to prevent pure democracy from degenerating into the tyranny of the masses and their has to be a mechanism to prevent that. Better by far to prevent the Presidency from being so important that questions of legitimacy even matter. I think you lost track of the opening premise. If the President is simply a chief executive and not the emperor, then no one will much care whether the popular vote matches the Electoral Colleges vote. The President simply won’t be able to do a lot of damage no matter which side he’s on.

#26 Comment By Will Harrington On August 9, 2017 @ 4:57 pm


According to our founders, it does make sense for a resident of ND to have three times the voting power as a resident of NY, well almost. That power was amplified when the number of Representatives to the house was limited and there is a constitutional minimum number of representatives that a state is due.
The take home, though, is that the founders did not consider a pure democracy to be a good thing, and history bears them out. There are no limits on a pure democracy and our founders were all about limiting what government can do to you. Now, for your hypothetical NYer. Is it fair that the New Yorker can find find a variety of financial opportunity within walking distance while someone from a rural state might have to leave home and family behind just to find a job that pays a living wage? Do you really begrudge that person a more valuable vote? Maybe having a less valuable vote is simply the price you pay for living in or near a major city with access to all the opportunity and variety that entails.

#27 Comment By Jon S On August 9, 2017 @ 5:32 pm


Specifically this: ” No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States;”

Here is something most folks don’t know. The 2nd amendment was purely limited to the federal government creating gun ownership laws prior to the civil war. States often had significant gun ownership regulations.

When I was a kid in Florida, the State required you to have a license for a handgun. And shotguns and rifles were limited to the ability to fire 3 rounds without reloading.

The 14th amendment meant now that the states could not abridge constitutional rights that were originally only intended to restrain the federal government, not the states.

So if a federal judge says that porn is a first amendment issue or abortion is a 9th amendment issue, then it automatically overrides any state statutes limiting those rights.

Note that I used examples here to offend both ends of the political spectrum. The 14th amendment was intended to insure that slavery could never be reinstituted, but the language had a far wider effect than maybe originally intended.

#28 Comment By Cynthia McLean On August 9, 2017 @ 5:46 pm

Too much Me, Myself and I and not enough Common Good. Excellent essay grounded in history, many thanks.

#29 Comment By FiveString On August 9, 2017 @ 7:10 pm

“those who imagine that Trump’s removal will put things right are likewise deluding themselves.”

I’ve read this bizarre statement before here in TAC. I’m not aware of one single person on the internet or anywhere else who believes that dumping Trump would do anything more than put a mostly-sane person in the WH. I made the same argument about HRC: a bad president would be far better than an ignorant, immature, incompetent, and unstable one. And HRC would have been handicapped by the GOP congress.

#30 Comment By spite On August 9, 2017 @ 8:26 pm

“The Republican Party still clings to the notion that reducing taxes, cutting government red tape, restricting abortion, curbing immigration, prohibiting flag-burning, and increasing military spending will alleviate all that ails the country”

This is where this author clearly does not get it, the Republican party is very much for endless immigration, the reason Trump so easily beat the others in the nomination race is because he was the only one against immigration.

#31 Comment By andy On August 10, 2017 @ 12:56 am

Good solid stuff, lots to chew on, thanks!

#32 Comment By Tyro On August 10, 2017 @ 8:28 am

, mandate a balanced federal budget,

There’s no rational justification for this, and in fact would be extremely harmful. However, it’s exactly the sort of qualitative, feel-good idea, selling a simple answer to a complex problem, that got Trump elected in the first place.

#33 Comment By Tyro On August 10, 2017 @ 8:37 am

I believe that ending the Electoral College would move the country to a ‘Hunger Games’ scenario where we are all ruled by the NE and West Coasts.

This was what the founders thought, but they turned out to be wrong. State governments, whose legislates and governors are elected on a one-man-one-vote basis, and countries like France, which have popular election of their executive, still manage to be dominated by rural interests. Similarly, parliamentary democracies, which depend entirely on proportional representation, also have political cultures tilted in favor of rural interests. I’d argue that democracies naturally favor rural interests, and that our system of the senate and the electoral college simply exacerbate it.

#34 Comment By Tyro On August 10, 2017 @ 8:49 am

Bacevich makes the common mistake of blaming our maladies on the Cold War, and a lot of commenters argue that if all we did is let the states take care of everything, all would be well.

This is very, very wrong and ignores the reality of how we got here. The reason the federal government has a lot of power over the states is because states were borderline incompetent at governing themselves. To this day, and much moreso in earlier eras, it is very cheap and easy for corporate and moneyed interests to capture control of the state legislatures. We are at the point where groups like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce literally write legislation for states to pass, and the states go along with it.

Furthermore, states have consistently targeted residents to “pick on” and starve them of resources and access to the ballot box in order that politicians can shore up their power base.

For those who think repealing the 17th amendment would solve this, the problems I outlined would be made even worse: every state legislature election would be an election for US senate by proxy, and voters would, quite rationally, ignore local interests to ensure their preferred senate candidates got elected. And then senate elections would be more easily and cheaply captured by special interests because state legislators are so cheap to pay off.

The fetishization of state government is much like conservative fetishization of free markets. If we look at what’s in front of us, we know they are dysfunctional and produce many bad results, but the conservative response is always, “remove any fetters, and the problems will fix themselves!” It’s magical thinking.

#35 Comment By connecticut farmer On August 10, 2017 @ 9:16 am

Good article. As to the proposals:

1.) Disagree. The word “guarantee” appears only once in the Constitution: Article Four/Section 5 “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a REPUBLICAN (emphasis mine) Form of Government.” The Electoral College should remain in place. It was put there for a reason–to give everyone (especially denizens of sparsely populated states) at least a fighting chance for their voice to be heard. As such, it is a reminder that ours is a republic and not a “democracy.”

2.) Gerrymandering is old hat and has always been a problem–and “Baker vs. Carr” made it even worse. Too much to ask that it be eliminated. Agree, though it should be rolled back as much as possible.

3.) Totally agree–so long as the operative word remains “limit”.

4.) Spot-on! But it may require amending the Constitution to mandate balancing the budget (I can hear the whining already).

5.)Agree, though there may be Constitutional issues here. Am ok with it so long as the loopholes don’t open up i.e. the “student deferment” (a loophole which Yours Truly took full advantage of during ‘Nam).

6.) Agreed. But remember that the devil is in the details.

7.) What does “public funding” mean? An earmarked tax?

8.) A sweeping generality. What does “meaningful work” mean? What does the word “reasonably” mean within the phrase “reasonably remunerative?”

9.) Good idea, if only to resolve the controversy over globing warming (human affairs may only one of several causes). Contrary to pop opinion the jury remains sequestered on this point.

10.) Spot-on! A new party system is long, long overdo. As the most recent debacle has shown, the current system is archaic and in shambles.

#36 Comment By JohnC On August 10, 2017 @ 10:06 am

Excellent article. Have read it a few times. May not agree 100% with every conclusion, but agree with most of it and really appreciate the thought and study that went into crafting this essay. Regards.

#37 Comment By c matt On August 10, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

And HRC would have been handicapped by the GOP congress.

Hahahahahahaha. That same GOP Congress that, true to its campaign promises over the past 4 years, just repealed Obamacare?

#38 Comment By c matt On August 10, 2017 @ 12:26 pm

We are at the point where groups like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce literally write legislation for states to pass, and the states go along with it.


As for the population disparity, that is already factored into the electoral college system since more populous states get more electors, so no real vote dilution.

#39 Comment By John Blade Wiederspan On August 10, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

Andrew should be President. Unfortunately, one can file this list of reasonable suggestions along with the Simpson-Boles Report, Cato Institute Studies of Corporate/Government Collusion, anything from the Concord Coalition, etc. etc. Left, Right, Center; everyone is invested in the way things are and will fight like hell to prevent anything from changing. Schumpeter said democracy+capitalism=socialism. The only arguments now are how will government improve business, society, culture, living standards, world peace, family stability, etc. Nobody d)ares discuss what is the proper role of government is. Nobody wants to say there is a problem the government either can’t (or shouldn’t) do anything about.

#40 Comment By WAB On August 10, 2017 @ 2:35 pm

Unfortunately, I agree on the first, “abolish the Electoral College”. We were formed as a Republic and the Electoral College was intended to be the circuit-breaker that prevented the Presidency from falling into the hands of:

“… any man who is not in an eminent degree endowed with the requisite qualifications.”

It has failed miserably. It seems to me it is not possible to reform the process of selecting electors to avoid bestowing membership on partisan hacks whose first loyalty is to ideology, Party and candidate rather than the Republic. Such an selection process would end up as corrupt, poisonous and contentious as our current system of election and inevitably promote those with “… Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity.”.

#41 Comment By sglover On August 10, 2017 @ 2:42 pm

Tyro says:

This is very, very wrong and ignores the reality of how we got here. The reason the federal government has a lot of power over the states is because states were borderline incompetent at governing themselves. To this day, and much moreso in earlier eras, it is very cheap and easy for corporate and moneyed interests to capture control of the state legislatures. We are at the point where groups like ALEC and the Chamber of Commerce literally write legislation for states to pass, and the states go along with it.

Informed, astute, spot-on. Consequently, totally contrary to the project that TAC seems to be pursuing more and more, and the kind of readership that it’s attracting.

Still, it’s always gratifying to see sanity breaking out here ever now an again. Thanks!

#42 Comment By John On August 10, 2017 @ 10:28 pm


#43 Comment By Wayne Harrison On August 12, 2017 @ 4:21 pm

A balanced budget amendment is foolhardy. The budget is dependent on stabilizing the economy. Read economics stabilizing policy 101.